Wednesday 23 May 2007
[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]
Iran (External Involvement)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. O’Hara, and I thank you for indulging this subject. The Minister and I have debated a similar subject in the past, and I hope that he does not think that we are simply revisiting old ground. The majority of what we will discuss will be new, and I hope that he will be able to answer some pretty pointed questions.
Everyone is familiar with the problem that we face with Iran, particularly her aspirations for nuclear power, nuclear weapons and a nuclear programme generally. I do not intend to dwell upon UN resolution 1747, on uranium enrichment, or to talk in any great detail about the eye-catching events of the past few weeks, such as the debacle in the waterway off the Shatt al-Arab, and whether Prince Harry should serve in Iraq and perhaps expose himself to the threat from Iranian weapons.
I shall concentrate on the issue of the day: the fact that on a minute-to-minute basis, we are losing soldiers, primarily, and other members of our security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan because of weaponry that is being imported, I believe, over the Iranian border, and because of expertise that is being taught to insurgents in several different theatres and being used to lethal effect against our men and women.
Recently, we rightly rejoiced at the release of 15 ratings and Royal Marines, but I remind the Minister that within days of their release, a number of soldiers were eviscerated by explosively formed projectiles in and around Basra. That is the real face of Iranian aggression: those weapons are killing our men daily. We have an opportunity, with the change of Prime Minister, to confront Iran, to gain from her explanations for that behaviour and to put in place a series of measures that might get her to climb down and, I hope, save the lives of our servicemen.
It has been difficult to prove conclusively that that sort of weaponry has been used, but I have one or two pieces of evidence that show me, beyond any doubt, that Iranian weaponry is being used in those theatres. First, in September 2006, United States’ forces discovered a cache of explosives, all of which were labelled as being from Iranian factories and ordnance production centres. For several years—more than 48 months—factory grade explosively formed projectiles have been used against our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In February 2007, US forces proved conclusively—to their satisfaction, at least—that Shi’ite militias were being trained in the use of those weapons. Last month, more than 40 explosively formed projectiles were used in Maysan province against a patrol of the Queen’s Royal Lancers. They said that it was like being in the middle of Guy Fawkes night when the weapons went off. We believe that it took the enemy more than 24 hours to establish that kit. The fact that we had only two fatalities was remarkable and merciful in the circumstances.
Similarly, at the end of last month, six Canadians were killed in action in Afghanistan. They were inside a vehicle with reactive armour that was none the less pierced by that kind of weaponry. I do not want to be too technical, but armour-piercing weapons of Soviet design and Iranian production, such as the RPG-29, have now pierced at least two of our Challenger main battle tanks. A number of weapons found in a cache near to Baghdad in January were traced to Iran.
As the papers reported yesterday, UK commanders in Afghanistan claim that Iranian Strela missiles are being used against our air transport there, and I have it on good authority that medium-range rockets are being used in Helmand every night of a pattern that characteristically come from Iran. A former regimental colleague of mine described to me, in an e-mail from Helmand, that we are in the middle of an undeclared war against Iranian-backed militias and Iranian-backed Taliban in Helmand province.
The numbers of casualties are stark. April was one of the bloodiest months for British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the seven weeks leading up to the US army’s surge in Iraq, there were 29 fatalities. In the seven weeks after the start of the surge, there have been 53 fatalities. As I have already mentioned, armoured fighting vehicles in Afghanistan are regularly being penetrated.
The International Journal of Epidemiology has produced some frightening and stark figures. It says that it would previously have expected 128 improvised explosive device fatalities in a 105-day period in Iraq. With the troop surge, it expected that number to rise to about 146, but the reality is that 188 allied servicemen and women have been killed by those devices since the beginning of the US surge in Iraq. There is no doubt that there has been a serious spike in enemy activity and a concerted effort to use weaponry with a sophistication and determination with which we are becoming horribly familiar.
It is worth considering Iran’s foreign operations. We have already discussed Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is common knowledge that Iran supports Palestinian militant groups. We are familiar with the sayings of President Ahmadinejad and with Mr. Khamenei’s description of Israel as a “cancerous tumour”. We are also familiar with the operations of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and, of course, Hezbollah. There is little doubt that they are all supported by Iran.
The vile regime in Iran has no regard for its innocent citizens, who want no part in what is going on, and it continues to meddle in other countries’ affairs and to threaten the very existence of other countries. Does my hon. Friend agree that the time has come when measures must be taken to show that the rest of the world cannot and will not put up with those actions?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; as usual, he makes a very good and articulate point. He underlines the fact that when we talk about this vile regime, as he described it, we must remember that it does not represent the majority of people in Iran—far from it. It is wrong to view Iran as one power block that is united in its efforts to destroy democracy and to impose its values on the world.
I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on Iran’s tolerance or otherwise of an al-Qaeda presence in its country. I am sure that he is aware that for the past several years, a Shura of al-Qaeda, including one of bin Laden’s sons, has been present inside Tehran. The Iranian regime will claim that those people are under close supervision—perhaps, indeed, in prison—and some will say that they are under house arrest. Others will say that they are free to come and go as they wish.
Clearly, the correlation of an alliance between al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime is an extraordinary one; the same applies to the Taliban. None the less, I would be interested to hear why, at the Senate foreign relations committee, the Under-Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, accused Iran of breaching security resolutions 1267 and 1373, which demand that information on al-Qaeda be shared across international boundaries. What does the Minister have to say on that?
At a symposium yesterday, Mr. Claude Moniquet, a director of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre in Brussels, made an extraordinarily chilling claim, which the Minister has probably seen in this morning’s papers. He suggested that in the event of attacks on Iran and on her nuclear facilities in particular, it was highly likely that Iranian agents—he may describe them as he wishes—would attack European and British nuclear facilities inside this country. That rumour has been heard for some time—it is certainly not the first time that it has reached my ears—but for it to be stated so publicly is worrying. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister agrees or disagrees with it.
In July 2006, I asked the Foreign Secretary how likely it was that this country’s streets would, or could, be visited by Iranian terrorism. She replied:
“As the hon. Gentleman says, there are indeed concerns about the scale and nature of terrorism in this country, and about whether some of that is inspired or funded in any way by forces in and around Iran.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 518.]
I was surprised to receive that reply, because I had expected something much blander. I shall press the Minister to explain what he believes the threat to this country is from Iranian terrorists.
As I have explained, we now have the opportunity, provided by a new Prime Minister, of a clean sweep through which foreign policy can be redesigned to a greater or lesser extent. I implore the Minister to ask the Government to cease the inconsistency that we have had to endure for the past couple of years. I have no doubt that the Prime Minister is fully aware of the dangers that we face. He has said that
“there are elements…of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq”.
Yet when the previous Foreign Secretary was asked about the possibility of any form of military action to confront what Iran is doing, he said something extraordinary:
“but in the real world in which we are living…we are trying to resolve this issue, I do not see that there is a place for military action.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 1282.]
He expands on that, and this is something with which the Minister is familiar.
Nobody in their right mind can expect a full-scale military intervention against Iran—of course not. But what do we do about this? Do we say to Iran, “Carry on hitting us. Carry on killing our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, because any sort of military action is clearly unacceptable according to Britain’s Foreign Secretary”? We are involved today in military confrontation with Iran whether we like it or not. I cite the officer from my regiment who said that we are in an undeclared war with that country. Shying away from this and eroding the words of our Prime Minister is dangerous. It also sends very mixed messages to a dangerous regime.
I have made this point to the Minister already, but I repeat that I simply could not understand Ministry of Defence and Government policy on issues such as boarding and not boarding foreign ships after the debacle off the Shatt al-Arab that took place about a month ago. If we are there under the terms of a United Nations resolution and we are told to board ships, we should continue to board them; we should not suspend operations and, when the dust has settled—that is a bad analogy at sea—decide that we will continue to board them. Such an approach sends out the wrong messages.
Irrespective of whether the decision on whether Prince Harry should serve in Iraq was right or wrong, by golly, it gave a tremendous public relations victory to our enemies. [Interruption.]
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. The messages that this country sent out were extraordinary. We sent the extremely powerful message that at the end of a dirty, lethal and extremely unpopular campaign, a member of the royal family was willing to risk his neck alongside the humblest private soldier or trooper from his regiment. The fact that that was then rescinded and that we went public on the decision-making process was a disgrace, and I find it extremely difficult to understand how, yet again, we fell into a well-organised and sophisticated public relations ambush. I hope that that answer proves helpful.
Why do we send delegations to Iran? Why do we treat Iran as if she is a friendly nation? We are content to stand up to nations such as Belarus; we do not send delegations there or receive its delegations. To underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), why do we continue to be ambivalent with Iran about her human rights records? Why do we tolerate the way in which gender issues are handled inside Iran?
How can we begin to understand some of the EU’s statements about the MEK or People’s Mujaheddin of Iran—a point recently made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)? However one regards that organisation, we must deal with it even-handedly. The EU3 stated in November 2004 that if Iran were to comply with the demands of the EU and pull back from its apparent development of nuclear weapons,
“we would continue to regard the MEK”
—that is, the PMOI—
“as a terrorist organisation.”
What is the PMOI? Is it a terrorist organisation or not? Can it be used as a pawn on this particular board? Do we treat the people involved as human beings? Why do we proscribe that organisation, whereas Hizb ut-Tahrir continues to be non-proscribed more than 18 months after the Prime Minister said that he would proscribe it? There is a terrible inconsistency, and I hope that the Minister will make it clear how he and the Government intend to deal with it.
May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that the US Administration are also split on the question of the MEK? The State Department is in favour of proscribing it, whereas the Defence Department is in favour of lifting the sanction against it. Does this situation not need to be sorted out urgently?
As usual, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree with what he says, and that was exactly the point that I was making about consistency. If we allow our enemies to see that the superpower in the west is taking one approach and we are taking another, and we allow the shameful and disgraceful statement that we have heard from the EU to gain popular appeal, what sort of message does that send? I ask the Minister to be clear with me about how we intend to deal with PMOI/MEK in the near future. It is a proscribed organisation, but do the Government intend that to be the case in the future?
Following our debate in this Chamber on 25 April, the Minister wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), who presided, in reply to some of the questions that I had raised. The question that was not addressed in that letter relates to the point that the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) is making. It concerned the offer by the EU, with which the United Kingdom was complicit, that the PMOI would continue to be proscribed if there was compliance on the nuclear issue. In his letter, the Minister failed to respond to that point, so I hope that he will do so later this morning. Alternatively, if he writes to you, Mr. O’Hara, I hope that the position of the Foreign Office will be revealed, because on the issue that the hon. Member for Newark has just raised, the Minister fails to respond.
I do not normally intervene, but I must put something on the record. The letter that I sent via the Chair of that debate was to all hon. Members who were present. I wanted to ensure that they all got it. It responded to the points that I had been unable to answer because of time constraints. The issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), was answered in the debate. He did not like the answer that I gave, but it is in Hansard. I also intervened on him on this very subject, because he was again making untrue and unfounded allegations about my connection to this organisation.
I should say to the hon. Member for Thurrock that the debate in which he, the Minister and I took part was indeed very limited by time. I make no bones about the fact that I have taken up the hon. Gentleman’s point so that we can get a proper answer. I do not know where I stand on this issue. I have not yet decided, so I want the Government to guide me and to give precise directions on where they are going, particularly vis-à-vis the United States Government, so that Iranian opposition groups can have it clearly in their minds where their future lies. We must have an answer to that point, and I am grateful to the Minister for intervening.
Earlier in his speech, my hon. Friend said that many millions of ordinary, decent people in Iran are oppressed by a terrible regime, and he is absolutely right. Does he agree that the policy of appeasement—that is what it is—in Iran has failed? It has failed to control the development of nuclear weapons and failed to assist the people who want freedom and democracy in their country. Does he also agree that it is perhaps time to recognise that the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran and the National Council of Resistance of Iran are not part of the problem, as Her Majesty’s Government seem to believe, but part of the solution, and that if they were given the chance to play their part we might have a peaceful solution in Iran, rather than what lies ahead?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, and I agree with him entirely. That is precisely the point that I am trying to make. I need some guidelines from the Government on where we are going with Mujaheddin-e-Khalq and PMOI. I believe that we have the possibility of pulling a peaceful solution from the current morass, but let us not forget that whatever threats we see daily over the hill, our soldiers, sailors and airmen are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by Iranian weapons and Iranian evil.
What are the solutions? This will sound deeply counter-intuitive, but one reason why our troops are so exposed, particularly in Iraq, is because there are so few of them. The game is up, and there is no doubt that we intend to withdraw substantially in the near future. I guess that the Americans are thinking along similar lines, but they have taken a pragmatic military decision, which may or may not work: that if they are to withdraw in good order, they must do so from a position of strength. The situation is dangerous, and our enemies intend to make the summer even more dangerous, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we continue to run down the number of troops, fewer of them will have to cover larger areas in increasingly contained forms of transport: helicopters, armoured vehicles and so on. That means that they will be more vulnerable.
I shall not go through the technical arguments again, but if even our heaviest armoured fighting vehicles are vulnerable to weapons, that can only mean that fewer troops will result in proportionately higher casualties. I know that that is counter-intuitive, but would the Minister please assure me that in the dying days—a distasteful comment—of the Iraq campaign we will have enough troops left there to protect those who are trying to withdraw? I shall be extremely interested to hear his argument.
Can the Minister also make it clear how we intend to continue with the sanctions regime? Nineteen months after Iran was referred to the Security Council and 10 months after the Security Council decided that Iran’s nuclear programme
“is a threat to international peace and security”,
United Nations sanctions have not imposed much of a penalty on Iran. Similarly, the Security Council’s resolutions are very limited. There are few concrete restrictions. They call for vigilance and restraint, but make no demands on Iran for which it can be held to account.
The United States’ actions must be followed by the European Union and properly supported. In a moment, I shall go through one or two of the actions that we could impose. Above and beyond everything else, we must act as a sovereign nation to encourage dialogue between the United States and Iran. However, without Iranian compliance, we should be looking to impose much stronger United Nations penalties on Iran if she will not co-operate. When the UN meets to consider its next resolution on Iran in the last week of May and early June, the Security Council should either impose or raise the prospect of a number of different measures, such as a travel ban on individuals involved in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme; a formal ban on the training of Iranians in nuclear disciplines; the designation of Bank Saderat Iran, which is said to be used by Iran to transfer money to terrorist groups; and adding leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls Iran’s ballistic missile programme and is thought to orchestrate violence in Iraq, to the travel ban and assets freeze list. I could go on, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) will add to that list.
I have spoken for long enough, Mr. O’Hara, but while we are mesmerised by such eye-catching events as we have seen over the past two or three weeks and while we agonise over the potential development of nuclear weapons in Iran, our servicemen are being eviscerated by weaponry that comes from Iran to both Iraq and Afghanistan. We cannot allow that to continue. It is an undeclared act of war. Unless we seize this opportunity to harden Government policy, to propose concerted, orchestrated and coherent actions across the alliance, I suggest that the next few months will be bloody, hot and lethal for our troops who are trying to serve this country with all their courage.
I welcome this debate because during a half-hour debate in this Chamber on 25 April there were, as has been demonstrated, some unanswered questions, certainly from my perspective. I hope to explore those today, but I want to thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on securing this longer debate because it allows us to examine more forensically the position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Her Majesty’s Government’s inconsistent approach to our bilateral relations with Iran.
The Minister is somewhat testy and irritable, and obviously thinks I am unfair or unreasonable in my criticisms, but that is against the backdrop of Her Majesty’s Government saying different things at ministerial level, and not being consistent in demonstrating their distaste for Iran’s human rights record and the hon. Gentleman’s central charge this morning that weaponry and ordnance are coming from Iran with the knowledge and acquiescence of the regime, which is obviously working against our interests both in Iraq and Afghanistan and putting our service personnel in peril.
That is broadly the charge and, as the hon. Gentleman effectively said, we are acquiescing, through our silence and inaction, in outrages outside Iran but emanating from there, and human rights violations in Iran to which we have an entirely different response from that to other regimes in other parts of the world that perpetrate the same actions.
Belarus is a pretty awful regime, but it does not export terror. Yet we do not entertain officials from Belarus and our relations are in deep freeze. As far as I am aware, we do not welcome to the United Kingdom formal delegations from the Belarus Parliament, although individuals may come, which is correct and appropriate. Yet we welcome parliamentary delegations from the Majlis and we send delegations there, which is absurd. Was there a recent visit by members of the Majlis with the acceptance and approval of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? If so, it was done sneakily, and that does not make it legitimate.
Why do I say that Her Majesty’s Government are sending inconsistent signals? If we look at what the Prime Minister has said as recently as 9 May in the House, we can see why. He said:
“What is happening in Iraq is essentially that al-Qaeda on the one hand and elements of the Iranian regime on the other are backing terrorism”.
It is the Prime Minister who said that
“elements of the Iranian regime…are backing terrorism”.—[Official Report, 9 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 154.]
I did not say that; the Prime Minister said it. Yet, we have the kind of response that we had on 25 April, and which I believe we are likely to get today, implying that we must go softly on the Iranian regime. If the Minister says, “The hon. Member for Thurrock is wrong. We are not going soft with the Iranian regime,” why do we continue to allow exports that have dual use?
Following our Westminster Hall debate, the Minister wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on 18 May and referred to the EU agreed “Common Position” relating to
“restrictions on the supply of arms to Iran as set out in Resolution 1747”.
The Minister went on to state that it
“covers all items on an agreed Military List”,
but he then wrote that that
“does not include dual use chemicals such as zirconium silicate, which will continue to be”
available under export licences. I cannot understand why we do that. It seems to me to be bonkers to allow the export to that regime of things that are demonstrably of value in the development of nuclear energy or weapons. Zirconium silicate can contribute to many parts of the process. I use zirconium silicate only to indicate and illustrate our silliness.
The list of people who are not allowed—frankly, not made welcome—in the UK and the EU is not really effective. As I indicated, we host so-called parliamentarians—they are anointed by the regime rather than popularly elected—here in London. That sends a confused signal. On the one hand, the Prime Minister talks frankly and candidly, and I believe correctly, but in another part of the Government, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes, in my view, a completely different approach and, if I may say so, seriously misreads the gravity of the situation.
To buttress my case and that of the hon. Member for Newark, I noticed that a Lieutenant Colonel Simon Browne, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, told The Sunday Telegraph:
“I’m sure there is outside influence here and it is from Iran. It is clear the insurgents are getting supplied from somewhere. I would believe it comes from Iran, or at least comes from Iranian sources”.
He was talking about the weapons that were putting his troops in peril in Iraq.
Reference has also been made to the fact that in a previous debate I put forward the proposition that the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran should not be proscribed. Perhaps I have approached the matter in the wrong way. May I use this occasion to ask Her Majesty’s Government to say what more the PMOI can do, or what they would like it to do, to demonstrate beyond doubt that it is not involved in terrorism in the United Kingdom, the European Union or anywhere? What more can or should the PMOI do?
The Government have moved the goalposts. They know that the PMOI is not a terrorist organisation, but they are frightened of the consequences of taking it off a proscribed list because of our bilateral relations with Iran. That is the truth. It is not sufficient for the Minister to scoff or dismiss what I am saying. It would be fair both to the PMOI and to Parliament if the Minister or another member of the Government—either this morning or on a piece of paper—were to list the PMOI’s deficiencies and failings in demonstrating its good will and that it is terrorist-free.
Is it not the case that the PMOI and its associated organisations have never participated in any terrorist activity in or against the interests of the United Kingdom? Is it not a fact that the PMOI and its adherents in Iraq are providing succour, at great risk to themselves, to the allied forces in Iraq, and providing both the Americans and the British with intelligence that is being used by our forces in the cause for which we are present? Is it not shameful that the Government should lead the call in Europe for the maintenance of the proscription of the PMOI?
I subscribe to those views. It is also interesting that the American commanders of the coalition forces that have jurisdiction over the part of Iraq in which PMOI members have been disarmed, Camp Ashraf or Ashraf city, have given the organisation consistently, on paper, a clean bill of health. We are talking about the United States of America, whose commanders are in Iraq. They have indicated clearly that the PMOI members in Ashraf city are not acting as terrorists. They are allowed bank accounts. One is bewildered as to why Her Majesty’s Government maintain the proscription. I say that I am bewildered, but the only logical conclusion is that which I and the hon. Gentleman have come to: they do so to placate the Iranian regime. That is wrong and shameful.
In the letter sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North, the Minister more or less says that I have misread the situation and the PMOI has been on a terrorist list for much longer than our negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue have been going on. That is true, but I believe that it buttresses my view. The PMOI has demonstrably been disarmed since 2001, but nobody, including the Government, has produced one instance of a breach of the disarmament. The Government are frightened to alter the existing arrangements, because they have a fear of offending Iran.
In his letter to my hon. Friend, the Minister did not address the fact that the EU has subsequently said that it will continue to proscribe the PMOI if the UK collaborates. We will see that tomorrow in the Official Report because the hon. Member for Newark read out the offer. The Minister needs to deal with that issue, which I raised on 25 April, and which the hon. Member for Newark raised this morning, rather than the history of the matter.
The other issue that needs to be raised this morning is the fact that the PMOI has used the European Court of First Instance to secure some remedy. The Court challenged the European Union and, implicitly, the United Kingdom, to produce evidence of terrorism, but it has failed to do so. Neither Parliament, nor the European Court of First Instance have seen any evidence. The matter is becoming increasingly embarrassing and unfair, and it compounds the mixed signals that we are sending to Iran.
Many Members want to contribute to the debate, so I shall conclude by saying that I hope that the Minister recognises that he cannot be selective. When he sends a letter to you, Mr. O’Hara, or to your fellow Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North, he must answer all the points raised in a debate, not just some of them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on securing this timely debate. It is extraordinary that the issue of Iran, its role in Iraq and the causes of that role have been so underreported.
For the record, after I first visited Iraq as shadow Secretary of State for Defence, shortly after the invasion in 2003, one of the key issues that I raised with the then Secretary of State for Defence, both on and off the record, was the role that Iran was already evidently playing in Iraqi politics and in the violence in that country. The Government and the coalition as a whole have been asleep at the switch on the issue. They have completely failed to confront the problem, which has resulted in the loss of perhaps many more lives than we should have lost.
The external involvement of Iran cannot be separated from its internal politics. I beg for a much deeper, more three-dimensional understanding of that amazing country, Iran. It was an extremely powerful and influential country, with its own empire. It has many diverse and proud traditions, and there is no reason why its strand of Islam should not be peacefully expressed, but Iran has suffered historic decline over the past 200 years.
I am afraid that the western powers have played a shameful role in the decline and humiliation of Iran over the past century, not least through some duplicitous treaty-making by our country and the overthrow of the flowering of democracy in Iran in the early years of the cold war. It was the western powers that installed the corrupt regime of the Shah of Iran, which led directly to the Iranian revolution, which has led directly to the situation that we face today. Not only that, but when the Shah was overthrown, we tacitly supported Saddam, in the containment of what we regarded then as a hostile power.
I am afraid that our record is deeply inconsistent and nothing to be proud of. We may find excuses for it, but we must recognise our failings in our engagement with Iran. It is hardly surprising that an irresponsible leadership in Iran can capitalise on the deep suspicions that many Iranian people feel about the role of the United States and the United Kingdom in their decline and misfortunes. Finally on that point, what interest does Iran have in stabilising Iraq, when it is in Iran’s national interest, as the Iranians perceive it, to keep the United Kingdom and the United States in particular bogged down, instead of targeting this other member of the axis of evil? I believe that the Iranian regime is indeed part of an axis of evil, but that is the regime, not the people.
That relates to my second point, which is that we must understand the nature of Iran. As my hon. Friend pointed out, we are not dealing with the equivalent of Nazi Germany or with the monocultural police state that we overthrew in Iraq. We are dealing with a very much more diverse and relatively liberal society, where many strands of opinion are capable of being expressed and where there is even a semblance or pretence of democracy and elections. There are dissident movements operating in Iran with which we should be actively engaged, although I shall not revisit the PMOI/MEK issue, which is a subject for a whole debate. Our inconsistency in dealing with those questions underlines the immaturity of our policy and discussion.
Ahmadinejad is not just a deranged madman in charge of a whole country; he is part of a machinery. The religious leaders in Iran may not even have intended him to win his election, but it is important to see him as part of a machinery, rather than a rogue leader operating on his own. To underline that point, look at the sophistication with which the Iranian regime plays the international media and the way in which the British hostages were paraded in front of the cameras and encouraged to thank their captor for his munificence. Look at the timing of that operation, which skilfully removed from the public agenda the issue of UN sanctions, which should have preoccupied us over that period. That operation paralysed the international campaign of sanctions, stole a victory in the United Nations from the west and gave an unparalleled propaganda victory to Ahmadinejad and his regime at such a crucial moment.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, Prince Harry’s deployment has unfortunately turned into another such debacle. I fail to understand why Ministers did not realise that the deployment of a member of the royal family was fundamentally a political issue. How they could ever have understood it to be merely a military decision beats me. The episode demonstrates that the Government have no understanding of the complexity and breadth of the campaign that they have to fight against Ahmadinejad’s regime. That campaign has to be fought on every front. We are not just fighting a diplomatic battle, a counter-insurgency battle or a military battle in Iraq and Afghanistan; we are fighting a propaganda war. We are fighting for the hearts and minds of the Arab street, but at every turn we deliver Ahmadinejad and his regime the propaganda victory that he needs to be seen as the champion of the Islamic world against the perfidy of the western powers.
To underline that point, we need to acknowledge the failure of current diplomatic efforts. There was a period when the EU3 was given its head by the Americans to take the soft power approach towards Iran, as opposed to having the United States holding the big stick. However, neither the soft power approach nor the big stick can possibly work separately. The idea that the European powers could be Mr. Nice Guy or do a good cop, bad cop routine against a country as sophisticated as Iran was always moonshine. We must have a seamless policy with the US and the EU, involving all the other senior powers in the United Nations. We have been moving towards that, but my goodness it has been slow, because we are not treating the issue as the top international issue that it should be seen as. Even the outcome in Iraq is now of secondary importance to the outcomes that we face in Iran.
To conclude, Iran is the test case. If weapons proliferation succeeds in Iran, there will be a domino effect throughout the entire middle east. Every Gulf state will say, “Well, I will need one, too.” Already we know that Israel has nuclear weapons. The Gulf states are prepared to tolerate that, but they will not be prepared to tolerate a rogue regime in Iran possessing nuclear weapons, while they remain defenceless. Furthermore, if we cannot confront this terrorism-exporting regime as forcefully as we did Iraq, we are inviting Hezbollah to become active in Europe and the west, in the same way that al-Qaeda is already.
My hon. Friend referred to the possible identity of interests between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. We have already seen how incredibly effective and sophisticated Hezbollah has been in Lebanon. It is not widely known, but Hezbollah used unmanned aerial vehicles in its war against Israeli forces in Lebanon. We are dealing not with unsophisticated, ill-educated people but with serious forces.
To succeed in our diplomacy in Iran, not least in order to deal with the externalities, we must change the emphasis of our rhetoric. First, we must elevate the issue in our domestic politics and in European and American politics, so that people begin to understand its urgency. Secondly, we must emphasise our good intentions toward the people of Iran. We must talk about the shameful human rights record of the Iranian regime—I do not have time to elaborate on it now, but it is a subject that will connect with the vast majority of Iranians. As Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher raised the issue of the Soviet Union’s human rights record in the 1980s to undermine support for that regime, we must do the same with regard to Iran. It will legitimise our campaign to contain Iran’s terrorist activities and encourage Iran to expose its weapons development programmes.
There is no doubt that Iran seeks to obtain a weapons programme, but I emphasise again that a change of rhetoric might be helpful. We should acknowledge that if Iran wants an enrichment programme, albeit at utterly ludicrous expense to itself—if it really wants a domestic power generation programme with uranium enrichment on its own soil—we do not object in principle so long as it complies with the non-proliferation treaty to which it remains a signatory and accepts the comprehensive verification and surveillance necessary. It is demonstrably necessary, as the regime has clearly lied and lied and concealed and concealed what it is doing.
I commend to the Government the statement made earlier this week by my right hon. Friends the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary. They laid out a seriously thought out, comprehensive approach that the Government should be willing to adopt. I find it distressing that the Minister has sat through this debate without taking a single note; I fear that he will read out a text prepared for him by his officials. I hope that he will engage with the points raised, and that he will press his colleagues in Government to hold a full day’s debate on Iran. We have held full-day debates on Iraq, and it is time that we had one on Iran. Otherwise, we cannot demonstrate that our Government are treating the matter seriously enough.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on initiating this debate. It is hugely important. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) was absolutely right to say how important the issue is and that it needs to be elevated. I do not think that a more important external issue faces this country, for four reasons.
The first is the Iranian nuclear programme. It is important, as was mentioned, because of the likelihood that it will result in much wider proliferation throughout the middle east. Also, given the nature of the Iranian regime, it is just possible that Iran will use its nuclear weapons. We cannot necessarily dismiss all the talk about wiping Israel off the map, for example, as mere rhetoric.
The second reason why Iran is so important is related; it has to do with the wider impact in the middle east. Again, I do not think that Iran’s importance in the events in Lebanon last summer should be underestimated, as it frequently is. Hezbollah is largely a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian regime. My hon. Friend made the point that the capture of British sailors in Shatt al-Arab was a distraction. The same point could be made about the events in Lebanon—they could be seen as a distraction from what the Iranian regime is up to with its nuclear programme.
The third reason why Iran, this debate and the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark are so important is the question of what is happening to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. My hon. Friend eloquently described the case and how significant the threat is. It is surely outrageous, and this House should acknowledge it more often, that another Government are essentially killing our troops. That basic fact seems so astonishing that it should be causing outrage. It should be causing regular debates in this House and marches in the streets, yet we generally let it go as one of those things—“It’s all a bit of a mess,” “Lots of people say we shouldn’t be out there anyway” and “It’s all our fault.” We rather dismiss it, and that is utterly wrong. It is a major issue.
The fourth important point, which was also made by my hon. Friend, deals with the threat in the United Kingdom. In considering external theatres, we tend to concentrate on the middle east, but the Iranian regime has been responsible for the murder of some 80 people in Buenos Aires, and the capability for terrorist action in the UK cannot be dismissed.
Why is the matter not debated more or discussed as much as it might be? Two reasons spring to mind. The first is perhaps that it is so big and so difficult that it is easier to ignore than address. Secondly—I speak as someone who initiated one of these debates 16 months ago—it is easier to identify problems than solutions, although my hon. Friend the Member for Newark and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) raised a number of important points.
In the time available, I do not have an opportunity to expand on that, but I have two points to make. The policy of engagement by the EU3, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex, failed. It gave the Iranian regime time to develop its nuclear programme. This is a slightly personal point, but whatever the qualities of the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—and they are considerable—he is closely associated with that policy of engagement. At the moment it is, if not likely, a distinct possibility that he might return to the Foreign Office as Foreign Secretary. On this issue, that would be the wrong signal to send the Iranian regime. I think that it would be a mistake, and I hope that the Chancellor, if he reads the report of this debate, will bear that in mind.
To reiterate points made earlier, I cannot understand the Government’s policy on the PMOI. There may be something about the PMOI that I do not know, but the evidence that I have seen suggests that it is not and has not been for many years a terrorist organisation. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made clear, it has never undertaken any activity that has damaged the UK or the west. The only explanation that I can see for why the Government are reluctant to de-proscribe the PMOI seems to be that it would upset the Iranian regime—the hon. Member for Thurrock made that point earlier. That is simply not good enough. It is not an acceptable reason, and if the Government cannot come up with a better one, it is time that they de-proscribed the PMOI.
We face an enormous threat. What we have presented to the Iranian regime time and time again has been weakness, whether it be in the policy of engagement, in dancing to the Iranian regime’s tune as far as anti-regime movements are concerned or in military action in the middle east. I do not think that the whole Shattal-Arab affair was the finest hour for this country, by any means. It is time for us to send some firm signals to the Iranian regime. Others have given concrete examples of what should be done. I hope the Minister is listening, as it is about time that the Government took action.
I thank the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) for securing the debate, especially in the context of the upcoming US-Iranian talks about Iraq later this month. His views have been interesting and enlightening, particularly in the light of his personal experience with and contribution to our armed forces.
Iran’s conduct in the wider middle east has alarmed many countries, and rightly so. Just yesterday, an article in The Guardian reported that US officials believe that Iran is secretly forging ties with al-Qaeda elements and the Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces, with the endgame of further pressure on the US Congress to vote for withdrawal from Iraq. Although that report might or might not be true, it shows the level of fear that Iran’s recent actions in the middle east have engendered.
I do not for one moment play down the destabilising effect that Iran might be having on the fragile situation in Iraq, but some of the rhetoric used in the debate is unhelpful. Calling any negotiation with Iran appeasement is, I think, particularly divisive. Not only is it untrue, but it seems deliberately to play on the historical context of that word in the UK. Dialogue does not mean appeasement, and it would be wrong to caricature it in that way. It is clear that the evidence seems to point towards Iran’s encouraging the movement of both men and arms into Iraq and financing and training Iraqi insurgents. Iran is also known to have significant links to Shi’a groups in Afghanistan as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the west bank. Iran’s actions and its encouragement of insurgents and terrorists show that it is failing to use its significant influence in that arena to help to stabilise the region.
Any actions that endanger British lives are, of course, of the utmost concern. It is entirely right that any such action should be criticised by the international community in the strongest possible language and be met with a firm response from the UK Government. Endangering the lives of British servicemen and women should always have the gravest consequences.
Military action or the threat of military action is not the answer to the problem, however. The use of military force is not only unlikely to be successful, but would give succour and support to the hardliners in Iran and help to marginalise those internal forces—they do exist—that are sympathetic to the west. Furthermore, it would create chaos in the region. We would almost certainly see retaliation from groups supportive of Iran, and the escalation of violence in Iraq and the west bank, which would place UK and allied troops in even greater danger. East-west relations would crumble and the chance for peace in the region would disintegrate with them.
Whatever the provocation, military action against Iran would be counter-productive and could leave the UK and USA without the support of the UN and the wider international community.
I absolutely take the hon. Gentleman’s point and follow the direction from which his rhetoric comes. Does he not agree, however, that we have gone beyond that point? It is easy to talk about no military confrontation, but the fact remains that we are already in daily military confrontation with Iran, albeit at a low level. How does he square that with his earlier comments?
If the hon. Gentleman hears the rest of my argument, he will realise that I do not accept the current situation or that there is nothing much to be done about it. Clearly, there is a need for more urgent action, but as I have said before in this place, I do not believe that military intervention will help in any way, shape or form. It would also leave our country in questionable territory when it came to international law. I hope to develop the point, if he will bear with me.
The UK and the United States cannot afford to damage further their international reputations by acting without support from such sources. As I have said in past debates on Iran in this Chamber, such action would be irresponsible. Will the Minister reaffirm that our Government have ruled out that option and that they will place the greatest possible pressure on the United States to ensure that it is off the table?
To develop a foreign policy for the middle east that has a chance of success, we must accept certain facts. Iran is undoubtedly a major regional power; its influence over the area has spread so far that it has become almost impossible to envisage a resolution in Iraq, Afghanistan and the middle east without Iranian involvement. The west’s policy of Iranian containment has failed, as the actions of the past years show. We need to re-think our strategy towards Iran, to encourage it to use its influence for peace in the middle east and to ensure that it fully understands that ever tougher diplomatic sanctions and isolation will follow if it fails to engage constructively.
America’s meeting with Iran later this month on Iraq indicates that it has accepted Iran’s influence in the region, but there is a danger that those talks will not go far enough. Comprehensive talks need to take place that deal not only with Iraq, but with the wider political, social and economic issues that divide east and west. It would not be the first time that the west has taken such action; the US adopted similar policies with both China and Russia, as we know.
Iran is at a critical turning point. Presidential and parliamentary polls will be held next year and, as we know from media reports, President Ahmadinejad’s term of office has been cut short by the Iranian legislature. Importantly, we have also seen from Iranian politicians and religious leaders published comments that were critical of the President’s combative relationship with the west, and which acknowledged that his approach was harmful to the Iranian national interest. The current Iranian Government therefore do not speak for all Iran; there are voices that we need to encourage. The next few years will be a critical juncture in Iranian internal politics. The UK Government need to do all they can to encourage those groups that see the value and the sense of a positive relationship with the west. Does the Minister agree that dialogue and a new relationship with the west would help the pragmatists in Iran to tip the balance of power in their favour and sideline the radicals? We need to play the long game.
The UK has a critical role to play. The UK Government are in a position to influence the US and encourage it to engage positively with Iran. In return, Iran has influence in the region that the US lacks in many cases. If the US and Iran were to engage in open and frank dialogue, not only could negotiations on Iran’s negative involvement in Iraq continue more successfully, but, in the longer term, Iran could be encouraged to use its influence to stabilise the region. Both sides need to come to the realisation that the only viable option left to them is that of dialogue, without the irresponsible quasi-religious rhetoric that is so often employed by both parties, which serves only to create mutual hostility.
I am impatient to know how and at what stage the hon. Gentleman intends to demonstrate some criticism of the Iranian regime. I assume that he speaks for the Liberal party on the issue. We have listened to him for four or five minutes and he dismissed the charge of appeasement. What has he got in his armoury to demonstrate some disgust at the human rights outrages and gender discrimination in politics? What will he do—bang on the door with a wet sponge?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. He is well aware from the comments that my colleagues and I have made on previous occasions that the Liberal Democrats bow to no man in condemning the human rights abuses and the horrific regime in Iran. I am simply trying to make the point in the limited time available that there are forces within Iran that ought to be encouraged and that see the value of a positive relationship with the west. I was on my final point, but I am more than happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman on the matter on a future occasion.
For the US and Iran to work together in the region, they will both need to be willing to compromise, recognise each other’s concerns and limit their expectations accordingly. They will also need to come to the negotiating table without any pre requisites and in the knowledge that negotiation is in the national interests of all parties.
Thank you very much, Mr. O’Hara, for the opportunity to reply on behalf of my party. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on introducing the debate with his central theme—that Iranian weaponry is helping to kill and injure British service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan now, as shown by the quotation from a serving lieutenant-colonel that we are in an undeclared war with Iran.
The debate has been short but useful, and parliamentary colleagues have either kept to my hon. Friend’s theme or gone off at tangents. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) spoke passionately about his belief that the British Government need to recognise or not, one way or the other, the role of the PMOI and highlight the lack of any real civil liberties in Iran.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) spoke eloquently about the fact that we frequently address the Iranian problem in a completely unsophisticated way. We should recognise that Iran is a large regional power and that we need to use a wide range of diplomatic as well as economic and military levers if we are to have any hope of persuading Iran not to go down the path that it is currently on. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) identified a series of issues connected with Iran, not least its threat to the wider region.
In the limited time available to me, I wish first to ask what we know about Iran, addressing the central question that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark put. I shall give three short quotations. The first is from John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, on 11 January 2007. His view, and that of the United States Government, was that
“Iran regards its ability to conduct terrorist operations abroad as a key element of its national security strategy: it considers this capability as helping to safeguard the regime by deterring U.S. or Israeli attacks, distracting and weakening Israel, enhancing Iran’s regional influence through intimidation, and helping to drive the U.S. from the region.”
The Foreign Secretary, at Foreign Office questions on 20 March, said:
“We have long-standing concerns about Iran’s support for terrorism. We assess that Iran continues to fund and arm extremist groups engaged in violence in Iraq. It remains a leading supplier of military and financial assistance to Lebanese Hezbollah, and it funds and retains close links to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 663.]
Finally, the Prime Minister, in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee on 8 February 2005—two years ago—said that Iran
“certainly does sponsor terrorism, there’s no doubt about that at all.”
That is clearly the view of the United States and British Governments. That is fine, but the question must surely then be what we are going to do about it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark asked—it may be unfair that the question is being asked of a Foreign Office Minister, as it should be put to a Defence Minister—what has the Ministry of Defence done about force protection in Iraq and Afghanistan? By that I mean how does it stop indirect Iranian attacks upon not just British but Iraqi and Afghan troops, which are the troops of the legitimate Governments? My second point should also be made to an MOD Minister. Under successive Governments, we have failed to put enough money into protecting our military personnel and their vehicles against the munitions that come in, as other countries, both America and Israel, have done.
But what do we not know? That is the Rumsfeld question. We are never absolutely sure who in Iran is directing policy at any given stage. My own conclusion is that we are dealing with a regime rather like the French revolutionary regime in the early 1790s—a complex series of coalitions of one kind or another. It sometimes suits them that we in the west, and for that matter their own neighbours, are never 100 per cent. sure how to deal with them.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said in their presentation yesterday, we need to up our game in dealing with Iran. I do not believe that it is an either/or; it is perfectly legitimate for us to have discussions and conversations with regimes that we do not like. Ultimately, if they are a threat to international security and our security, we can end all diplomatic relations, which can lead to all kinds of other things. We have not reached that stage yet, but we need to up our game through a combination of incentives and penalties. The Iranians play hard-ball international politics, and I agree with my hon. Friends who have said that, in information policy, the United States of America and ourselves, who are supposed to have such a sophisticated approach, have all too often been caught on the back foot.
We should also bear in mind that the Iranian regime has not liked being placed in the international dock. It never believed that its nuclear programme would get as far as the Security Council position that has been taken in the past few months. The Iranian Government are capable of making the most horrendous mistakes. After all, the Russians have bent over backwards to help the Iranians at every possible opportunity. Usually, the Iranians have been stupid enough to spurn the Russians, so the Russians have finally fallen in behind the United Nations. We now need to link the attitude of the Iranians to their nuclear programme with their sponsorship of terrorism. The Government must not only make it clear to them that we are taking the matter very seriously and intend to publicise every possible detail of their links with terrorism, but work even harder to persuade our allies, particularly in the European Union, that the issue is of outstanding importance.
There is no quick fix and no final military solution, but I disagree with the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear, we can never take the military option off the table in international diplomacy, because it is something that can ultimately be done through the United Nations. We should not remove that option, and the Iranians should be made well aware that, if they continue to defy the international community and a series of sanctions and UN resolutions are gone through, the international community might ultimately decide to institute a series of military options. That might not happen, but we should not say that we will take the option off the table. No sovereign country will ever say, in dealing with another country, that there is not a military option if it feels that there is a threat. That is not to say that we advocate it, but we must make it clear to the Iranians that a range of diplomatic and military tools are available and that they are in the dock and we are not.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newark for introducing the debate, and, as always, I look forward with pleasure to the Minister’s response. I am happy that he is still in his place during this sensitive time of regime change. Like the Roman empire, we have an emperor of the east and an emperor of the west, and the Minister may or may not survive. Perhaps the Department for Work and Pensions will beckon in a month’s time. I look forward to hearing his reply.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O’Hara. We had a debate on 25 April—my birthday, so there was at least one thing to cheer me that day—when much of the ground was covered, but today’s debate has been more extensive and Members have been better able to make their points. I welcome this debate.
I want to put on the record the apologies of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who would have taken this debate if his return from discussions in Pakistan and Afghanistan had not been delayed. As I always do with debates, whether on this or other issues, I shall carefully read Hansard tomorrow, and if there is a need to give further explanation or to take up a point that I do not deal with or do not deal with as adequately as I should, I shall write to all Members in attendance through you, Mr. O’Hara, and place a copy of the letter in the Library.
I thank the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) for the way in which he introduced the debate. I know that he has a great interest in the subject—it is not something that he dips in and out of—and although we may not agree on some issues or use the same language, I fully accept where he is coming from and the genuineness of his case.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the hon. Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), and my good friend—if I may say that—the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who is the Conservative spokesman. I am not sure what will happen in six weeks’ time, other than that there will still be a Labour Government and a Labour Prime Minister. As to my going to the Department for Work and Pensions, I have been there and done that. However, one never knows one’s luck in politics. All people know is that they never know how long they will be a Minister. It is the only profession in Britain in which one does not have to be qualified to get a job. All they have to do is be on the same side as the Prime Minister on the day of the reshuffle, so who knows? We will have to wait and see.
Hon. Members may be aware from the previous debate, from parliamentary questions and from comments by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary, that the Government constantly review their overall bilateral policy towards Iran in the light of the recent detention of Royal Navy personnel, the continued concerns that the international community has over the behaviour of the Iranian regime and the comments of hon. Members on each occasion, whatever the language used. In the end, we come to the same conclusion: there is a need for dialogue and for finding ways to continue the dialogue bilaterally and multilaterally, and for taking the international community with us at each stage of that dialogue. It was dialogue and the support of the international community that led to the personnel whom Iran had illegally seized being given back, with no deal and no apology from us. That happened because the international community stood four-square with us in the dialogue that took place. That is the way forward.
The hon. Member for Cheadle was right on that issue. I have heard him speak in other debates—he takes part in most debates on human rights issues. I am not known always to defend Liberal Democrats, but, in making his case this morning, he did not excuse the Iranians. He made an important intellectual point: there must be dialogue in the region’s forums. He did not put that case in support of me as the Minister but took a common-sense approach. As he said, with international relations as complex and difficult as they are, there are no easy answers, but if we are to get the right answers, we will do it only through persistent bilateral dialogue with the regime itself and with those around it, and through multilateral dialogue.
Two things underpin our policy: first, our commitment to engagement, through diplomacy and dialogue, in encouraging Iran to play a constructive role on the international stage; and secondly, our work with international partners to maintain a strong line against unacceptable Iranian behaviour, including its support for terrorism and violence in the region. Those elements are important and complementary.
Engagement is not the same as appeasement. We will continue to put pressure on Iran to modify its behaviour. Colleagues who use the word “appeasement” are wrong to do so. We must co-operate on the matter, both internally in the United Kingdom and bilaterally and multilaterally with the international community. We must continue to put pressure on Iran to modify its behaviour, and we must continue to work with international partners to ensure that we send a clear and consistent message about the costs to Iran of its continuing poor behaviour.
A couple of days ago, the Leader of the Opposition called for the Government to take robust action on Iran because of its nuclear ambitions. Indeed, in his speech, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) exactly described our policy of a twin-track approach that holds out the possibility of greater engagement but also includes co-ordinated international pressure to encourage Iran to modify its behaviour, and international action if it does not. That is precisely the description of what we continue to do. I welcome the fact that the Leader of the Opposition made such a speech.
Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary argued the case for incrementally increasing the pressure on Iran and giving it a clear choice between complying with the international community and facing further consequences. We would like Iran to play a positive role in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, and it could take that path if it chose to do so. That path would lead to Iran’s greater engagement with the international community, which would benefit its people.
Instead, Iran is doing its best to reduce security, prevent reconciliation and undermine democracy not just in Iraq, but throughout the whole region. Many countries in the middle east already feel threatened by its increasingly malign role in Iraq, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories. The hon. Member for Newark set that out in detail in his introduction, and I agreed with what he said. Continuation of such behaviour will lead only to increased isolation for the regime and greater economic difficulty for the Iranian people.
Iran is arming, funding and training extremists who are undermining security and stability in Iraq. That is totally unacceptable in all circumstances. There is evidence to show that armed groups in the south are using sophisticated weaponry and technology of Iranian origin, including in attacks on British servicemen in and around Basra. Iran is backing some of the groups that are conducting those attacks. We condemn such interference. There can be no justification, under any circumstances, for any country to encourage violence against our forces in Iraq, as they are there under a UN mandate. I cannot underline that any more than the hon. Gentleman did in his introduction to the debate. There are no circumstances whatsoever in which Iran should carry out such activities.
Furthermore, in addition to causing casualties among the multinational force and international security forces, Iranian support fuels sectarian violence in Iraq, which undermines attempts by the Iraqis and the international community to build the stable, representative and democratic Iraq that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want.
Support for sectarian violence in Iraq is also against the interests of the Iranian people. After all, Iran has more to gain than most from the establishment of a stable, secure Iraq and a stable, secure region. It is vital that Iraq’s neighbours support the Iraqi Government in their efforts to improve security and the economy, and to promote reconciliation. Prime Minister Maliki has made it clear that the Iranian region must stop its support for terrorists and armed groups.
We are committed to supporting the Government of Iraq, and we will continue to take steps to tackle anyone who undermines or attacks the legitimate Iraqi authorities. Furthermore, we are working to build the capacity of Iraqi authorities to tackle such groups themselves. I repeat that Iran could choose to play an important and constructive role in Iraq, but, instead, it chooses to carry on supporting terrorism and destabilising the region.
I shall write to hon. Members in detail. I will keep hon. Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock informed about the matter that he raised. There is a court case pending. As soon as that is concluded, I shall write in detail about the issue. I shall ensure that, in the next day or two, hon. Members get a full reply to their questions and the general points that have been raised today. I apologise once again that I am unable to give the time necessary to cover each separate point, but I hope that what I have said provides clarity on what our relationship should be with Iran and on why Iran should desist from supporting terrorism in the region, particularly in Iraq.
Farming (East Sussex)
I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a matter of considerable interest to my constituents. Although I represent a south-east constituency, it is quite a rural area and the farming community is important not just to employment—in fact employment in farming has actually decreased, as it has across the country—but for other reasons that I am sure the Minister will be pleased to endorse. For example, farming makes an important contribution to the rural environment and to the landscape. What would the landscape in Lewes and elsewhere be like if there were no farmers to maintain it? That is often taken for granted by those of us not directly involved in farming; nevertheless, it is an important factor that should be considered. It should also be emphasised that farmers provide the glue for the rural area and economy. In recent years there has been a decline in the number of people involved in farming and consequently a reduction in the attention given by the Government to farming—the Ministry of Agriculture was, of course, abolished.
Farming is important and I will ask the Minister some questions that I hope he can answer. I welcome him to the debate and congratulate him on the way in which he has settled into his role as Minister for Climate Change and the Environment. We have had three successively good Environment Ministers and my only regret is that the role does not have more influence in Government. I hope that he might be able to correct that while he is in office.
The first issue that I wish to raise is food security, which might seem a rather old-fashioned subject. The Government have emphasised the need to make the farming community more economically viable. I agree with that and with many of the related issues that the Government have pursued. However, we should have a concept of what percentage of food we want to be able to grow ourselves in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time. An energy White Paper is being published today that, among other issues, will rightly consider energy self-sufficiency. Food self-sufficiency is not being addressed in the same way, but it is an important issue. I made that point the last time that I initiated a debate on farming in my constituency. I said then that
“my view is that, in this uncertain world, we do not know where we will be in 20, let alone in 50, years' time. It would therefore be prudent for us to be more self-sufficient in food and energy than we currently are, in order to ensure that we are able to cope with potentially unstable geopolitical situations in the longer term.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 9 March 2005; Vol. 431, c. 501WH.]
That is still my view.
I had a detailed response to many issues raised in that debate from the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), but he did not address that particular point. What is the Government’s view on self-sufficiency in agriculture and how it can benefit the country in 20 years’ time? What is the overall plan? Is there a target? I suppose that there is not, but what is the general view on that issue? [Interruption.] Well, such matters affect my East Sussex constituents in the same way as they affect the rest of the country. I hope that the Minister will accept the issues that I am raising, as farmers in my constituency have asked me to draw them to his attention.
Bovine tuberculosis is a national issue that particularly affects my constituency. The Minister will be aware of the serious concern in the farming community about incidents of bovine TB. There are hot spots in my constituency and herds are going down in the Cuckmere and Ouse valleys, which is a serious matter indeed in an area where livestock farming is predominant. The Government were edging towards taking some form of definitive action, but they appear to have moved back from that. In the meantime, the number of herds—and of badgers—affected by TB is rising and the rural economy is suffering. The situation cannot be allowed to drift for much longer; the Government need a clear policy to tackle the disease.
For nine or 10 years, I was the Liberal Democrats’ animal welfare spokesman. Bovine TB is indeed an animal welfare issue. TB is not a pleasant disease for cattle, badgers or, indeed, humans and it is irresponsible to allow it to continue to spread without trying to take action to deal with it. Does the Minister agree with the National Farmers Union that it is necessary for steps to be taken in relation to wildlife control to remove badgers from particular areas? If he does not, are the Government considering a possible vaccination against TB? If not, what is the strategy for dealing with this most insidious disease, which, as I say, is an animal welfare matter? It is also an economic issue for farmers, and in some parts of my constituency there is a sense of despair at apparent Government drift on this most important issue.
I mentioned self-sufficiency and as the Minister will know, there is a strong movement across the country, including in Lewes, to support local farmers and to ensure that wherever possible, local produce is bought. That is of course an environmental aim as well as an economic matter. A farmers market has been set up in Lewes, which has been successful. Transition Town Lewes has also been created, the aim of which is to promote local produce and to ensure that communities are as self-sufficient as possible. I would be surprised if the Government did not support that. Part of such developments is to ensure that a fair balance operates in the market between the producer and supplier. The Minister will know that there are strong concerns among the farming community and others about the imbalance between the supermarkets and the farmers who supply produce. That is a big issue.
An answer to a written question that I received on 6 June 2005 said that the price paid to farmers for a litre of milk was 25p in 1996 and that it dropped to 18.46p in 2004. Over the same period, the price of milk in supermarkets has remained roughly the same, at 63p to 64p. Although the price paid to farmers has dropped, supermarket profits have increased, which is an unsatisfactory situation. The Minister will know that the supermarkets make gigantic profits. Tesco will make about £150,000 profit during the half hour in which we are speaking, yet most farmers live on less than that throughout the whole year. Tesco has launched an initiative to increase the prices paid to farmers in a selective way, and the Office of Fair Trading is also considering the matter, which is not before time. However, it would be useful if the Minister said something about that subject, and particularly about what he is doing to promote local markets. We do not want an environmentally wasteful arrangement whereby food is produced somewhere, taken miles away to a depot by the supermarkets, a big mark-up is then added and the food is then sent back to where it came from. We need a better way of organising ourselves, and the Government have a role in promoting that.
On self-sufficiency, the Minister needs to recognise that there is a shortage of abattoirs in some areas, including in my constituency. That means that animals are transported further, which is bad for animal welfare and bad for farmers because of the cost of doing so. It is also bad for the environment because of emissions from lorry movements. We have lost many local abattoirs and it is important to reinstate some of them. I would welcome the Minister’s saying something about that matter and whether the Government have a strategy on abattoirs.
Bluetongue is also of concern to farmers in my constituency. The Minister may have seen South East Farmer magazine, which has focused on that issue. The May 2007 edition has the headline:
“Disease could strike this month”.
The magazine states that bluetongue is already found across the channel and “with a fair wind” could cross to Kent and East Sussex.
During the past 10 years there has been a succession of major body blows to the livestock industry, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot and mouth disease. Other health issues have also affected the economic viability of farming; I hope that bluetongue will not be the next problem. What assessment has the Minister made of the threat of bluetongue to farmers in my constituency and more widely? What plans are in place to prevent bluetongue, if that is possible, or to deal with it if it does occur? What will be the arrangements for—I hope that it does not come to this—livestock restrictions, culling or compensation if bluetongue does arrive?
I am conscious that I am asking the Minister lots of questions, and if he has to write to me subsequently, I will understand. However, it is important that my questions be answered for the benefit of those in my constituency who have asked me to pursue them with him today.
Another issue that concerns local farmers is environmental stewardship. Again, I welcome the direction of travel of the Minister and his colleagues—toward payments for environmental outputs—which I have supported strongly for many years. Indeed, we need further reform of the common agricultural policy to incentivise such actions. However, the Minister will be aware that East Sussex and my constituency in particular contain a large chunk of the south downs and, therefore, a large environmentally sensitive area. As ESA agreements come to the end of their term, there is no guarantee that the farmland will make it into the higher-level scheme replacing it, which means that good environmental work could be lost for ever.
Marginal livestock production is unlikely to survive when ESA or countryside stewardship schemes come to an end. Natural England, with its limited budget, will not be in a position to pick up the whole funding gap, which means that farmers will consider alternative cropping for that land. That could mean that some of the good work done to maintain the landscape to which I referred at the beginning of my contribution could be lost, which would be completely counter-productive and against the wishes of the local population. That would be a shame, given the good work that has been done with the ESA scheme.
What is the Minister doing to ensure that sufficient funds are available for environmental stewardship? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimates that there is a 20 per cent. shortfall in England in the budget to deliver agri-environmental objectives. It says that the higher-level scheme is particularly affected by that shortfall. Does the Minister agree and if so, what is he doing about it?
As I said, livestock is important to my constituency. The Minister will be aware that farming is subject to regulation, as indeed is every other industry in the country. However, the livestock sector is particularly affected by the Government’s proposals for animal disease cost-sharing and for funding the cattle traceability system, and by the compliance costs that are likely to follow the anticipated review of legislation on nitrogen-vulnerable zones in July. There is also the lack of fallen stock collection in the region. It is easy to see why livestock numbers are falling locally.
The Minister might like to know that in 1996 there were 383 dairy herds in Sussex, but that 10 years later, we are down to just 149—a 61 per cent. reduction. That is a pretty catastrophic reduction, and there is no suggestion that we have hit rock bottom. There will be further losses, undoubtedly partly owing to the added costs and regulations affecting the livestock industry in particular. Although I am sure that each of those burdens will have been assessed individually before being introduced, have the Government assessed the overall impact and collective consequence of imposing those burdens on a single industry at roughly the same time?
Field teaching and getting children out into rural areas are important issues in my constituency and elsewhere. The Minister will be aware that each year, more than 60,000 children enjoy out-of-classroom learning on RSPB nature reserves through its “living classrooms” scheme. It is important that we have a connection between those who live in towns, and practices that operate in the countryside. My constituency is a semi-rural area, and I find it shocking on visiting some of its schools that some children appear to be uncertain about the connection, if any, between a piece of meat on a tray in a supermarket wrapped in polythene, and where it comes from. We need a greater connection, through the education system, between those who live in urban areas and what happens in the countryside. That reinforces my earlier point about the need for localism and for communities to be as self-sufficient as possible. It is all one and the same thing. I very much hope that the Minister has something positive to say about that.
Finally, I thank you, Mr. O’Hara, for giving me the opportunity to make those points. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. As I said, if he cannot answer all my questions in detail—I hope that he will have a good go—I hope that he will write to me with the answers.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this debate. He raises some important issues about the challenging period that farmers have been through, and if I do not have time to cover all of them, I shall write to him, as he suggested.
UK farming contributed £5.6 billion to our economy in 2006. It uses 75 per cent. of the country’s land area, and employs more than half a million people. One of the Government’s major tasks is to help this vital industry operate as efficiently as possible, and our strategy reflects our key economic, social and environmental goals. Our economic goals are to support farmers in building a profitable, innovative and competitive industry that meets consumers’ needs; to develop strong connections between farmers and their markets; to reform further the CAP; to strengthen links in the food chain; and to increase efficiency and competitiveness.
Social goals are focused on working to support farming’s wider contribution to the long-term sustainability of rural economies and communities, and to public health. Then there is the crucial environmental dimension of seeing farming fulfil its unique role in the countryside, and of making a net positive contribution to the environment, while also meeting high environmental and animal health and welfare standards. Farming is on the front line of the environmental challenges that we face, including climate change. The net environmental cost of agriculture is around £400 million a year. Yet nothing can be more fundamental to the long-term success of farm businesses than the sustainable management of the land and the resources on which they depend.
There are big opportunities and big challenges here, and the industry, with our support, needs to think hard about its future direction, about diversifying and innovating, and about making money from a wide variety of new products, notably in the environmental field as it farms energy, water and carbon, as well as food. However, it also needs to think hard about diversifying within traditional sectors and using new technology to best effect.
Market drivers are also changing. Customers are much more interested in sustainable consumption and production. The market in local, seasonal and organic produce is set to grow, and there is a chance to show that modern innovative farming is really delivering for the environment and animal welfare.
We also need to see climate change as an opportunity, not just a threat. If UK farming prepares now for this future, it can get ahead. The UK can become a leader in green farming and in developing solutions to reduce the use of natural resources and to reduce pollution. For example, anaerobic digestion has significant potential as a renewable energy and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We will publish today the UK biomass strategy along with the energy White Paper, which will explain how we propose to work with stakeholders to facilitate the uptake of anaerobic digestion. That is an important way forward and will provide new opportunities for farmers in East Sussex and the rest of the country.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of food security. I can reassure him that the Government take that issue very seriously. In December 2006, we published a wide-ranging study of food security, which concluded that the UK, being a rich, open economy, has a very robust and diverse food supply. We want British consumption of British food to come from the skills, innovation, investment, branding and quality assurance of the farming industry, rather than from a policy that aims simply to maximise the level of self-sufficiency. Clearly, as I have said, British consumers are increasingly interested in local, seasonal produce, and we hope to see that pattern continue.
At the end of March, we announced a new £3.9 billion budget for the 2007-13 England rural development programme. Most of that funding will be allocated to agri-environment and other land management schemes to help farmers to manage the land more sustainably and to deliver important environmental outcomes on biodiversity, landscape and access, water quality and climate change.
In 2007-08, there will be a further health check on the common agricultural policy. The European Commission has already said that it will make proposals aimed at a further shift in emphasis from direct farm payments to rural development with more compulsory modulation. The Government will encourage the Commission to be ambitious—to provide more freedom to farm, less bureaucracy and less market distortion. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.
Concerns have been raised about the potential impact of CAP reform on tenant farmers. The Government are committed to maintaining a prosperous tenanted farming sector, and it is important that tenant farmers can take full advantage of the opportunities of CAP reform. The latest research is encouraging, in that 70 per cent. of tenant farmers surveyed are already diversifying. One of the great strengths of farming in the United Kingdom has been the ability and willingness to diversify in recent years. Diversification can make good business sense for many farmers, potentially increasing their incomes and providing stability for their farm businesses. In fact, 50 per cent. of farm businesses have diversified activities. In many cases, diversified income now accounts for one quarter or more of the total farm income.
We want to make the diversification process as easy as possible for farmers by tackling the barriers that stand in its way. The Government’s barriers to diversification working group recently reported to Ministers. Planning issues and business skills are identified as key barriers for farmers who want to diversify. We are examining closely the recommendations made to us.
The aim is to create an environment in which our food and farming industries can flourish, and there are real areas of growth potential, in particular for non-food crops. Those can form the basis of renewable energy and fuels, and the feedstock for an increasing range of industrial materials that can make a positive contribution to sustainable development and deliver benefits for the rural economy, the environment, scientific innovation and industrial competitiveness. There are win-win-wins all around.
The Government are supporting that embryo industry with a package of measures to plant energy crops, develop supply lines and create end-use markets, but to reap the full benefits, farmers and industry will need to work together, and there are encouraging signs that more and more people are doing so. That is just one example of a range of work that is being done to deliver a more customer-focused, competitive and sustainable farming and food industry.
Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs provided approximately £12 million to support industry-led initiatives, such as those involving English Farming and Food Partnerships, the Food Chain Centre, the Red Meat Industry Forum and the Cereals Industry Forum, which aim to improve the efficiency of the food chain and to contribute to the spread of best practice. Food from Britain is working hard to implement the Government’s regional food strategy, which is aimed at helping to establish a flourishing quality regional food sector in England and to encourage more applications under the EU protected food name scheme.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the dairy industry. The ongoing work of the dairy supply chain forum is another great example of what can be achieved. As we all know, the milk industry has experienced a particularly challenging period. The shape and structure of the forum has been revised to help it to focus on real priorities for the industry. It now has separate taskforces to work on sustainable consumption and production issues, and CAP reform. The forum is an important vehicle for the dairy industry and crucial players such as the supermarkets to come together and discuss collaborative approaches to challenges.
The hon. Gentleman referred to supermarket power, and I understand the concerns in the farming industry about the concentration of the buying power of supermarkets and about the effectiveness of the code of practice. Competition matters are, as he knows, the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Office of Fair Trading. I am sure that he is also aware that, at the request of the OFT, the Competition Commission is carrying out an extensive investigation of the groceries market. I encourage people with views on that subject to make them known to the Competition Commission, but it would be wrong of me to speculate on any of its potential findings.
The hon. Gentleman did not refer to the single farm payment, but let me say something about it, because it has been a hugely controversial issue.
I will endeavour to say a little about that. I might write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail.
The single farm payment is clearly an area in which further improvements are needed. As is well known, there have been big problems with the implementation of the single payment scheme, which has clearly had a major impact on farmers and the wider farming industry. A great deal of work is being done to improve performance, and I think it right to put on the record the fact that we are working on that very hard indeed. We are working to improve the timing and accuracy of payments, and the results are starting to come through, but more needs to be done. There are challenges, but there is also determination to ensure that we deliver a stable and reliable payment system for the future.
Of course, we face many other complex challenges, including the need to improve access to affordable housing for people who live and work in rural areas. That is a particular issue in East Sussex, given the high property prices there. The recent publication of a new planning policy statement on housing is a big step forward on that important issue, encouraging local authorities and regional planning bodies to take greater account of affordability pressures and the need to sustain village life by promoting and providing additional housing that is sensitive to the area and its environment. I hope that that goal will be boosted by initiatives such as the fresh start scheme. That is about bringing new entrants into farming, identifying new business opportunities for potential young farmers and giving rural communities a boost. The Sussex fresh start academy and the East Sussex young farmers club are vigorously supporting that approach.
Clearly, there is a strong business dimension to the better regulation agenda, which is an issue that many people feel passionately about. Regulation should be effective, transparent, proportionate and cost-effective, and we should try to use alternatives to regulation wherever possible.
The hon. Gentleman referred to animal disease and, in particular, bovine TB and the possibility of the introduction of bluetongue into the United Kingdom. I am particularly concerned about the latter. As a result of climate change, we are potentially likely to see new diseases in the UK, and we need to take into account the issue that has been raised. On the specifics of bluetongue and where we are in terms of preparedness, it is probably best that I write to the hon. Gentleman to set out some of the detail.
As for bovine TB, it is localised in its effects, but its level overall remains unacceptably high, imposing significant costs on the dairy and beef food supply chains, with real consequences for individual farmers and their families. Despite a 15 per cent. increase in testing in 2006, the overall numbers are down, which is positive, but it is not clear at the moment whether that is a cyclical development or there is something more behind it. However, we do know that more than 93 per cent. of British herds were officially bovine TB-free at the end of 2006.
That does raise, however, issues about vaccination. The Government have invested £10.5 million in the past seven years in vaccine development and associated research, and progress has been made. I understand that candidate vaccines have started to be tested in naturally infected cattle and badgers, and novel vaccine delivery systems are being developed. The hon. Gentleman mentioned badger culling. As he will be aware, that has not been ruled in or out, and there is no current timetable for a decision. The Government believe that it is important to make the right decision, not a quick decision.
There are big challenges and shared challenges. The Government have a role and responsibilities, and farming has a role and responsibilities. To make the system work as a whole, we need to bring those together. I welcome the enthusiasm, engagement and co-operation that I increasingly see and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issues that he did. I agree to write to him about the comments that he made to which I have not been able to provide answers.
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.
Coal Health Claims
I am pleased to have secured the debate, which is our third or fourth in Westminster Hall on coal health claims. I am proud of what Labour Governments have done to bring in those claims. The Prime Minister said today that more than £3 billion has already been paid out. I was astonished to find that there has been a £10 million increase in what has been paid out in my constituency since our last debate on this issue. Some £33 million has been paid out in North Durham to date. We should be proud of Labour for that record.
We cannot be proud, however, of the way in which solicitors, claims handlers and, sadly, some trade unions, have raided victims’ compensation. There has been a feeding frenzy as they have taken money for their own greed. As I have said before in this Chamber, if those events had taken place in the leafy suburbs of Surrey or in middle-class England, it would be a national scandal and would be in the headlines of every newspaper. I was pleased that the report of my noble Friend Lord Lofthouse got some national publicity when it was finally published a few weeks ago. We should congratulate him on highlighting the unscrupulous way in which certain solicitors firms have raided and plundered victims’ compensation.
I shall focus on two issues today, the first of which is the deductions that are still being taken even though this issue has been well publicised in this Chamber and elsewhere. The second issue is the poor standard of service that some solicitors are giving to miners and their families.
I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), on pressing hard for the introduction of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is a move in the right direction. For the first time, there is independent control over the regulation of solicitors. I also congratulate the Legal Complaints Service on finally getting its act together and responding to the complaints that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and I have made in large quantities. It is dealing with those cases very effectively and with some gusto.
The good work of those two organisations is marred, however, by the culture of denial in the senior echelons of the Law Society. I had the privilege, or honour, of meeting Fiona Woolf, the chief executive of the Law Society, at the launch of the SRA a few months ago, and I must say that her attitude told me everything that is wrong with the Law Society. There is a culture of denial and a belief that this issue does not affect the society. It thinks that its members have done nothing wrong, but that culture of denial needs to end.
We are seeing some signs of that culture ending. Peter Williamson, the chair of the SRA, gave an encouraging response to Lord Lofthouse’s report last week, when he said that he was ashamed that solicitors whose costs were being met by the Government were doing such things. There are moves to clean up the legal profession’s act in this regard, but there is a long way to go. We must insist today that the Law Society and individual solicitors pay back the money that they deducted from people’s compensation.
The scam—I have called it a scam before, because that is what it is: deluding people and taking payments from their compensation—could not have gone on without collusion between solicitors, claims handlers and some trade unions. I shall use as an example a firm that I have mentioned before: Thompsons Solicitors. I had a lot of dealings with Thompsons in my former life as a trade union official, and I greatly admire the work that it has done for asbestos victims and on behalf of trade unions, but its relationship with the Durham area National Union of Mineworkers does not cover it in a great deal of glory.
Durham NUM and Thompsons operate a system whereby 7.5 per cent. of people’s compensation is taken by Thompsons and passed on to Durham NUM, even though all their fees are paid by the Government. Durham NUM has reluctantly realised that the system is unsustainable and now says that it will be voluntary in future.
The federated structure of the NUM still exists, and I am still a fully paid-up member of the Northumberland area NUM, which operated a system of purely voluntary contributions from day one. That system was very successful, and those contributions were used to continue the very good work that it does in fairly remote communities and to maintain a service that is greatly appreciated by many people.
My hon. Friend pre-empts what I was going to say next. By way of contrast, I was about to compliment the Northumberland area NUM. It has been very good at ensuring that miners and their families get access to justice, but without taking a fixed fee. Instead, it asks for a voluntary donation, which is very defendable. Comparisons between those systems lead us to ask why Durham NUM has continued to deduct 7.5 per cent.
The amount that has been paid to the legal profession is obscene, as is the agreed sum of £1,800 per lawyer per case. The Department of Trade and Industry should have done much more to challenge those sums. Payments of £1,800 were also made in cases that were fast-tracked. I know that they went to court, but does my hon. Friend not agree that the DTI should have challenged those payments in instances where the recipients were doing nothing for that money? Is not that an obscenity?
I agree, but I do not want to pre-empt what the Minister is going to say. Those payments were challenged in a court case last week, in which the court ruled that £100 million has to be paid back to the DTI.
I have asked the Durham area NUM, even though it refuses to meet me, to write to every claimant it has worked with to say that the contribution system is now voluntary and that if people wish to have their money back, they can. Thompsons agrees with me on that point, but is reluctant to write to everyone concerned. We had tortuous meetings earlier this year, in which the NUM produced a long-winded two-page letter that would be difficult for anyone to understand. What is needed is for a simple letter to be sent to people telling them that they can have their money back if that is what they want. It could be as simple as that.
It is mind-boggling that the certification officer’s accounts for Durham NUM show that it has 15,000 members, of whom 5,000 are women. The vast majority of those people are not full but associate members. I tried to find out what rights they get as associate members, and the quick answer is none. They pay a £20 fee to access the so-called legal services of Thompsons Solicitors through the Durham area NUM. I have asked what rights they get to decide the structure of the regional NUM, and they do not get any. They have no voting rights. If one of them forgets to pay the £20, they get an interestingly worded letter from Mr. Hopper and Mr. Guy at Durham NUM saying that if they do not continue to pay their legal case will be withdrawn. First, that is wrong. Secondly, it questions the nature of the relationship involving Thompsons.
Does Thompsons, or the Durham area NUM, represent the best interest of the client? My constituent, Mrs. Clark, challenged the NUM by asking whether she could have back the £60 that she had paid. She wrote and then rang the NUM only to be told, “We haven’t got any notification of your letter. Anyway, why are you complaining?” We are talking not about a membership fee, but about an access fee that one would pay to a claims handler to get the case put forward.
Great claims are made in Durham that the deducted money is being used for the promotion of other health claims, the protection of the mining community and in supporting welfare work. I question that, because I do not see much evidence for it on the ground in Durham. I thought that I would see what the Durham NUM does. What I shall now say is happening to the money would amaze many of the people who have paid the 7.5 per cent. My information is not made up; it comes from the Durham area NUM’s accounts, lodged with the certification officer for the past two years.
The president, Mr. David Guy, and the general secretary, Dave Hopper, are paid £6,034 by the Durham area NUM. In addition, they receive £16,000 in car and other benefits. One then notices a figure in the accounts of £120,000, which is transferred to something called the north-east area NUM. That body’s accounts for last year show that two of its employees are, lo and behold, Mr. Hopper and Mr. Guy. Mr. Guy is paid £51,000 and also receives £5,000 a year in pension benefits, while Mr. Hopper is paid £50,000 a year and a further £5,700 in pension benefits.
Unless one traces the Durham area NUM’s accounts to the north-east area NUM, one cannot discover where the money is going. It clearly pays two individuals very well. I have asked for the north-east area NUM’s accounts for this year, but I am told that the body has now been delisted as a registered trade union, so it does not have to produce accounts. Why is that? The interesting point that lifts a veil is that the north-east area NUM has just 30 members. I am also told that not only are Mr. Guy and Mr. Hopper employed; the new Mrs. Guy is too, although one cannot see that in the accounts.
I am told that all this activity is going on, and that is what the money is being paid for. However, I thought that I had better check to see what is being said in the returns to the certification officer. I have the details here. All trade unions have to put in these returns. They contain a number of self-explanatory headings that have monetary figures next to them.
The return for the representation of employment-related issues was nil. The figure for representation of non-employment-related issues—that obviously relates to welfare, disease cases and so on—was nil. The return for communications was nil. The figure for advisory services—giving advice to people—was nil. The figure for dispute benefits was nil. The other cash payments were nil. The figure for education and training services was nil. The negotiator discounts totalled nil. The salary costs were nil. Interestingly, the figure for other benefits or grants—that is specific—was nil. The figure for death benefits was £1,280. That is all the activity that was being paid for. Given that two individuals are earning a hell of a lot of money, what is the union doing? By its own admission, the answer seems to be very little.
I must enlighten my hon. Friend a little. I know those two gentleman and the organisation well. I do not represent a constituency in the north-east of England, but I know about their activities, as do many hon. Members who are present. I have no financial connection with the organisation, but I must tell him that he is not blind and he is well aware of what the NUM does in the north-east of England. It is heavily involved in welfare activities, in representation activities and in the communities in the north-east. He cannot hide away from that fact. I hope that he is not intimating that the NUM in the Nottinghamshire area is in any way involved in these issues. It is a separate organisation, and is not involved in the ways that he has described.
Not at all. I am raising a specific issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) referred to the Northumberland area, and its returns show what it does. I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) that that is not the case in this example.
This 7.5 per cent. has been taken off people’s compensation. Many people feel that they have to pay it and they still think that they are legally obliged to do so. It generates £5.5 million for the Durham area NUM, which sits in its bank accounts. It was news to me when I found out that the accounts show that £680,000 is in an offshore bank account. What is a trade union doing with an offshore bank account that has more than £500,000 sitting in it?
If the organisation was doing the welfare work to which my hon. Friend refers, I would have no problem, but it is not. I shall cite an example. It paid out just over £1,000 on death benefits last year. I understand that its death benefit is now a £20 to £30 payout. I understand that Durham Mechanics, a less wealthy organisation, pays out more than £600 in that regard, and I know that other areas do too. So we need to ask what has happened to the money.
The clear solution would be if Thompsons was to write to every person who has had their 7.5 per cent. deducted to ask whether they know whether they were legally obliged to pay it. If people want the money back, it should be paid back. In all of the cases that I have put forward so far, the money is being paid back, and unless that is done, this situation will continue.
If people wish to give their money—the 7.5 per cent.—to Durham NUM, that is up to them, but many of these people do not know about this. It is all very well Mr. Guy and Mr. Hopper condemning me for being an attacker of the trade union movement, but I am not—I want rights for my individual constituents—and if they have nothing to hide, why do they not write to people? Every time that I raise the issue, more constituents say to me, “I want to claim my 7.5 per cent. back.” That will doubtless happen when this debate appears in the local press. This matter needs to be cleared up.
The other issue that I should like to raise is the relationship between solicitors and claims handlers. I want to raise the case of Watson Burton solicitors in Newcastle. It purports to be a major commercial law firm, but it clearly could not resist getting involved in miners compensation. It had a relationship with an organisation called P and R Associates of Sunderland, which is another one of those claims-handling companies that does nothing for clients apart from getting them to fill in a form and then passing it over to the likes of Watson Burton. That firm has deducted £325,000 from miners compensation victims.
On 27 February 2006, a complaint went to the adjudication panel of the Law Society, which found that the named partners in Watson Burton had breached solicitors’ practice regulations. One might expect that some action would have been taken, but was a fine imposed on Watson Burton? No. Were the partners struck off? No. Were they suspended from practice? No. There was merely a reprimand, which Watson Burton was able to trumpet in its press releases as being the lowest form of reprimand that the Law Society put forward.
I have still not received an answer from Watson Burton about its relationship with P and R Associates. Did it buy these cases? Its defence and argument is that it was legally obliged to pass the money over because people had signed a legal contract, but did it advise clients that they did not need to pay the money? No, it did not; it just passed the money over anyway. We are talking about a firm that has taken £325,000 of victims’ money. I understand that one senior partner earned £850,000 last year, so I would challenge the firm to pay back the money, because the clients were clearly being ill advised; they were not being advised that they did not need to pay the money to P and R Associates. That goes to the nub of a lot of relationships, and such disgraceful activity could not have happened without collusion between solicitors, claims handlers and others.
I first became involved through a case concerning a firm in Newcastle called Mark Gilbert Morse, which would unscrupulously charge 25 per cent. in the early days, but I am told by the Law Society that it no longer does so and has paid the money back. I want to highlight an issue about the service that clients receive. A constituent of mine—I shall call her Mrs. X because I do not want to name her—went to Mark Gilbert Morse via a claims handler whose advert was stuck on her door. She was a miner’s widow and last year Capita offered Watson Burton £42,000 to settle her claim. Mark Gilbert Morse did not even inform her that that offer had been made but rejected it saying that it could get a higher offer. However, lo and behold, when Capita made another offer six months later, it was considerably less than the £42,000. I complained to the Law Society, and it shamed Mark Gilbert Morse into paying the original figure of £42,000. However, I am worried about how many other cases are being handled by firms, such as Mark Gilbert Morse, that are giving a poor or substandard service.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the lessons that we can learn, because there are likely to be similar claims for damages to industrial workers? The mechanism for meeting such claims is wholly inadequate and subject to exactly the sort of problems that he has outlined. How can we avoid the problems happening again? My hon. Friend may want to reflect on the pneumoconiosis scheme that the Government introduced and which bypassed all that.
There is one short answer: keep the solicitors out of it. If there is to be a scheme for beat knee sufferers, we do not want another feeding frenzy for lawyers. We need a clear scheme that is simple for people to understand and does not need representation.
I have said before that many of the people who come to see me with such complaints have never dealt with solicitors. They are elderly and sometimes without a high degree of literacy. They are in awe of solicitors and believe everything that they say. The Law Society should check those firms to see whether the advice that they give is correct.
The level of claims is revealing. I pay credit to Thompsons who do a good job in ensuring that the claims that it takes on are worked through properly. However, the average figure that Thompsons obtains compared with those obtained by some other firms raises the question: why does one firm obtain more than others? Are the claims different? They cannot be, and often they are very similar. The issue is that firms, such as Mark Gilbert Morse, raise thousands of claims and deal with them like a sausage machine, as they come along. In some cases, I doubt whether a solicitor ever goes near them.
Perhaps one reason why Thompsons has better results is that they work closely with the NUM and people such as David Guy and David Hopper who have a hands-on relationship in the villages that they come from. They put the work in and get witnesses to come forward, so better cases are put to the Department of Trade and Industry and the courts. That is why they win more money.
I wish that were the case, but why is it that firms in North Durham, such as Mark Gilbert Morse, and the claims handlers have so many cases if they do such a good job? They were not doing a good job in those areas. My parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) suggests that, somehow, they were out there actively doing such work, but they were not. In North Durham, for example, claims handling companies, Mark Gilbert Morse and others have a large number of claims from people who have gone not through the union but to claims handling companies. The worst thing about that—it gives me no pleasure to say this—is that there is clear collusion between former NUM officials and unscrupulous claims handlers, such as Industrial Disease Compensation Ltd.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. The misclassification of vibration white finger claims into groups 1, 2 and 3 is an example of the differential quality of solicitors. A huge number were incorrectly placed in group 3 by Government contractors and only a certain number of solicitors pursued them. Many people accepted as gospel that their claims had been rejected and that they should forget about them. It was only pressure, partly from Members of Parliament but also from well-informed solicitors, that led to many rejected claims being looked at again.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Some solicitors give correct advice and press claims, and I have no problem in saying that Thompson do that, but I am sorry that they are dragged into the matter by an agreement that they should not have had in Durham. There was collusion, and I do not blame individuals for being confused.
A working men’s club in my constituency has a long tradition of being associated with the NUM, and I found out that IDC Ltd. was holding a surgery there. I asked the club secretary why he had let IDC Ltd. in, and he said that a certain individual, who used to be a trade union official, had said that it was okay, again giving the impression that such organisations have some legitimacy with the trade union movement. Some of those people should, frankly, hold their heads in shame for their relationships with some claims handling companies.
I give no credit to collusion between ex-trade unionists and a filing company, but that has always been the case with ex-trade unionists who move across the floor to management.
My hon. Friend refers to Thompsons and solicitors in England. There is also an issue in Scotland, and Thompsons is picking up hundreds of cases because English solicitors made themselves available to try to make a cheap trick, but did not realise that Scots law was different from English law, and just left people high and dry. Thompsons and the NUM in Scotland—I should emphasise that the NUM is a federal union—is picking up those cases.
I make no bones about it. The NUM has a federal structure, and it amazes me that Thompsons and others have allowed a relationship that is not correct to develop in Durham. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) mentioned the situation in Northumberland, which I commend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian is correct, and that comes back to the Law Society. Under the Legal Services Bill, there must be an onus on the Law Society not to try to educate—that is too patronising—but to ensure that solicitors tell claimants if they may not be the best firm to deal with a case and that another, more specialist firm would be better.
My hon. Friend raises a legitimate point. There was a feeding frenzy and people wanted to get in, so small high street firms of solicitors with no expertise in industrial disease work became involved, and gave bad advice. That is why we should tell people to go to a solicitor by all means, but that they should make sure that they go to someone who knows what they are talking about.
My hon. Friend has paid tribute to Thompsons and is also critical of them. Can we move on to other solicitors who had their hands in the till, or their snouts in the trough, such as Beresfords of Doncaster, who have earned hundreds of millions of pounds from such cases?
I agree, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw will add more names. I could read a long list of shame, and it saddens me that Thompsons is associated with that list of shame. They should try to sort that out.
Many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. Unless the Law Society instructs its members to pay back the money that they have deducted themselves and kept or passed on to a third party, whether a trade union or claims handling company, the matter will not go away. Today, I am challenging the Law Society to instruct every solicitor to pay the money back. It is no good saying, “We are waiting for people to come forward and complain,” because most people do not know whether they have a complaint. In most cases, people have signed a bit of paper with a claims handling company, which they think is a legal obligation. In some cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw knows, people have been threatened when they have not paid.
Although I agree 100 per cent. with my hon. Friend’s comments about many firms of solicitors, does he agree that there are also decent firms of solicitors that have acted honestly, pursued claims diligently and recovered a lot of money for their clients? One such firm is Browell Smith and Company. Northumberland miners use that company and have had some great success with it.
I know Browell Smith and Company well from when I was northern region legal officer of the GMB, and I commend it. As I have said to Durham NUM and to Thompsons, what people do with the compensation they receive is up to them. If people want to give it to the NUM, fine. It is entirely up to them if they want to give a portion to a cats home, but people should not be given the impression that they have to give a certain percentage to an organisation.
Will my hon. Friend accept the distinction between claims handlers and the NUM? He has criticised the NUM in Durham. The claims handlers take all the money that they get for the company’s profit, but the NUM in Durham is one of four regional branches that put by £1.2 million to try to lodge a claim on knee litigation. The regional branches are Scotland, Derbyshire, Durham—or the north-east NUM, I am not sure what it is called—and south Wales.
My hon. Friend’s loyalty to ex-colleagues is admirable, but what he said is not the case. [Interruption.] Well, let us just take beat knee, or miners’ knee. Until I raised the issue, there was no situation in which Durham NUM would have contributed money, and it still has not put any money in. I am sorry, but the Durham NUM is not different from claims handling firms. The union is acting as a claims handler, and two individuals are quite clearly doing well out of it. Indeed, Mr. Guy’s wife is now also employed by the organisation. It has acted exactly like a claims handler. If the money were genuinely going back into communities and people had a choice about it, I would have no problem; however, that has not been the case. I say to my hon. Friend that I accept long friendships and loyalties, but I ask him to look at the facts and not to be blinded by his past loyalties.
A challenge has to be made. Every single law firm that has deducted money from people’s compensation and kept it themselves should pay it back, and if they have deducted the money for a third party, whether a trade union or claims handler, they should also pay it back now. Otherwise, I will not give up on the matter, as I am sure other hon. Members present will not.
I will keep my remarks brief because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on his tenacity in pursuing the case. He has not come to it lately; he has been working hard on it for months if not years, for which I pay tribute to him. I shall say something that will probably not endear me to the Chamber: I was a solicitor for 20 years. After that, I reformed, and became a barrister, which is probably even worse. I do not know where that puts me exactly.
In the few minutes that I have to speak, I wish to refer to knee injuries, as the hon. Members for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and for North Durham did. It is common knowledge that many miners suffer from cartilage damage, osteoarthritis and other complaints. Those are serious injuries, which often result in surgery or the need for surgery such as knee replacements and so on. They are crippling injuries, which onset at a relatively young age. Sufferers often have to have second knee replacements, which is frequently impossible because of the general health of miners. In my way of thinking, compensation is absolutely vital.
As far as I am concerned, what the hon. Member for North Durham said about solicitors is absolutely right. Some of the behaviour that he described is in breach of practice rules, and I cannot for the life of me understand why those solicitors are not brought to book. The hon. Gentleman, and others in the Chamber, will pursue the matter until they are, and he is right to do so.
On the question of compensation, I hope that the Government have learned from the lengthy and expensive legal battle fought over miners with chest illnesses. The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers is pursuing knee injury cases, and it had hoped that such cases would not have to go to the High Court. Some time ago, it seemed that the Government were in favour of avoiding a long trial and that they were committed to mediation, an approach with which all of us would agree. Echoing the hon. Gentleman, we should keep the solicitors out, which is fair enough. On 30 April, at a county court hearing in Leeds, the barrister leading for the Government, Robert Jay QC, said:
“Realistically, these cases will go to the High Court.”
It seems that the last thing that will happen now is that the lawyers will be kept out of it. Worse still, even with the Woolf reforms, we are looking at a two or three-year wait—perhaps even longer with a class action—before any decision is reached.
In February, Bleddyn Hancock of NACODS wrote to the Minister to ask whether he would meet the claimants to see whether a scheme could be devised to avoid the expense and delay of a court action. The Minister replied that there was not enough evidence to convince him to do so. However, there was sufficient evidence to convince a judge to allow trial on the issues, which is absolutely right. I have tabled parliamentary questions asking the Minister to reconsider meeting NACODS and miners’ representatives to see whether we can come to a fair and reasonable arrangement.
I realise that there is not an endless amount of money. I realise also that in any legal case, there must be due deference to the question of liability; that is common sense. However, for the Minister to say that to date,
“liability has not been established,”—[Official Report, 14 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 480W.]
to quote him again, is I am afraid representative of something like a denial culture. I hope that we can all get around the table and talk about the issues without recourse to costly and time-consuming litigation.
I have written to the Secretary of State for Wales asking if he will consider contributing his efforts, because as late as November last year, he said about the miners:
“It became a personal crusade for me, I knew that so many sick miners had suffered so grievously. This is why it has been so important for me to work continuously, and I will work for all former miners and widows wherever they live and this Government will honour our debt to the men who sacrificed their health to deliver prosperity for the rest of us.”
Hear, hear. The case under discussion is one to which we should apply that rationale.
The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said last week that one of the highlights of the Prime Minister’s tenure was the introduction of compensation. Fine; I agree with that point. However, let us not forget that compensation came about after a lengthy court process, which I hope we can avoid this time around. It can be done. The money would not—in my respectful submission—amount to a king’s ransom, and there is the money that could be utilised for that purpose.
There will have to be proper medical reports and liability will have to be considered, but please, let us not drag the process out for two, three, four or five years, because even though we may reach the High Court and eventually find that there is liability, in the meantime, some people may be crippled, or even worse, they may pass away. In the best possible way, I ask the Minister to look at the issue urgently to see whether we can avoid a debacle.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate, which is important for my constituents and many others who have worked in the pits and suffered great illnesses as a consequence. I join others in recognising the Government’s proud record in developing a compensation scheme that has paid millions of pounds to miners and their families. If anything demonstrates the Government’s commitment to those who gave their health, and in some cases their lives, to build the coal industry and this country’s prosperity, it is that compensation scheme.
However, no amount of compensation will restore the health of a miner or bring back a loved one who has died. My staff and I have helped more than 500 constituents with claims, and more than £49 million has been paid out in Islwyn to those suffering chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or vibration white finger. However, it is not only the money that is important, but securing justice and putting right a wrong.
I knew a miner called Bob James, whom I could visit only in the afternoons. He told me not to come round in the mornings, because he was on oxygen and had difficulty getting off his bed. One of the Minister’s predecessors, Helen Liddell, visited Bob with me; indeed, he charmed her, and they got on very well. When Bob finally got his compensation, he said, “You know, Don, when the grandchildren come now and say, ‘Granch, lend us a tenner,’ I’ll say no—I can give them one. When my own children were growing up, I didn’t have two ha’pennies to rub together. Now, my health has gone, and the money is no good to me. My pleasure in life is giving it to my children and grandchildren.” He added, “I did get justice in the end, didn’t I? They did recognise what I had gone through.”
Of course, too many miners never live to see justice. I work closely with an ex-miner by the name of Nat Thomas, who helps miners and their widows make compensation claims. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister met him when he met the NUM in Cardiff recently; indeed, he would not have been able to get away from Nat terribly easily. Only last week, however, Nat wrote to me about another chap whom we had been helping, but who had died without receiving compensation.
My own father worked underground for 42 years. He developed a brain tumour, but, thank God, he lived for several more years. However, the last two years of his life were hell and he was suffering—gasping for breath and having to manage on gulps of oxygen from an oxygen cylinder. He worked for 42 years at Blaenserchan colliery, and when the National Coal Board finished him on health grounds, it wrote to him thanking him for his services. It gave him a pension of £1 a week, but told him that that would go down to six shillings and eightpence if he got another job.
For me, the campaign to compensate miners is not over, and it will not be over until we agree a compensation scheme for surface workers. As is the case with many colleagues, my pride in the Government’s commitment to the miners knows no bounds, but it is tinged with sadness. I share with them a sense of disappointment and frustration at the fact that the Government seem intent on diminishing their outstanding record on delivering justice to miners by refusing to recognise the legitimate claims of surface workers. There are men who worked on the surface, at the screens or at the coal preparation plants whose disabilities are as great as those of any miner who worked underground, and those surface workers suffer just as much.
My disappointment is all the greater given that we are having to debate this issue today. Had the Department of Trade and Industry followed through on a minute that it laid before Parliament on 10 July 2000, when it agreed to accept liability and to compensate surface workers, we would not be debating this issue today. Paragraph five of that minute clearly says:
“The DTI proposes to accept that British Coal did not fully meet its responsibilities towards certain categories of workers in dusty jobs on the surface.”
Paragraph six states:
“In accepting liability”—
those are key words—
“the DTI would propose to miners’ solicitors that compensation for surface dust exposure be handled within the current agreement for underground exposure.”
Unless anyone disagrees, I would say that that makes it clear—it is set out in plain English—that the Government accepted liability at that time for the illnesses caused by some surface jobs. Sadly, it seems that we were all mistaken, and not a penny has been paid out in compensation in nearly seven years.
In a parliamentary question on 8 January, I asked the Minister what proposals had been put to claimants’ solicitors regarding compensation for surface workers. I was told that the claimants group was
“in favour of further joint studies and the House was informed in March 2001. As a result of these further studies and developments over the next four years, the Department’s position is now that ‘it cannot scheme compensation’ to surface only workers.”
“It cannot scheme compensation” to surface workers—what a wonderful phrase. I wonder who sat up burning the midnight oil thinking up that answer.
On the same day, I also asked on what date Ministers were informed that medical advice had been sought about compensation for miners exposed to surface dust. I was told:
“Ministers were informed on 5 June 2000 that medical advice was being sought on compensation for miners for exposure to surface dust.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 297W, 298W.]
That was one month before the DTI put the minute to Parliament accepting liability and agreeing to compensate surface workers.
In an Adjournment debate on 7 February 2006, my hon. Friend said that further studies, which had come about following negotiations,
“confirmed the Department’s view that incidence of COPD disability was…very small.”
I have to tell him that that felt like a slap in the face to all the surface workers and families whose hopes had been raised when the Department’s minute was laid before Parliament. The DTI raised hopes of compensation, but immediately dashed them. Does the DTI’s view now mean that the medical advice that it sought and brought forward was flawed in some way? I do not know. Such behaviour is not good enough for those living with respiratory diseases that have been caused by surface dust from their time in the mining industry.
Whatever grounds the DTI has for rejecting claims, one simple fact remains: dust—that killer dust—did not distinguish between a miner working underground and one working on the surface. Are we to tell the families of men who have become used to the sight of oxygen bottles in their living rooms that the dust that their fathers and grandfathers inhaled on the surface did not have the same terrible effect as the dust inhaled by men underground?
In that debate on 7 February, my hon. Friend said:
“The clear way forward is for those who feel that they have a good case to receive compensation is to put claims on the usual common law basis.”
Is my hon. Friend seriously asking surface workers, some of whom are in their 70s or 80s, and some of whom are extremely ill, to put their homes and life savings at risk to hire a lawyer to go to court and challenge a Government whom they have helped to put in power not once but three times over the past 10 years? Asking claimants to take part in expensive and lengthy litigation will benefit only the lawyers, not benefit the taxpayer or the claimant.
Last year my hon. Friend said that he did not believe that
“the cost should be borne by the…taxpayer.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 7 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 222-24WH.]
Does that mean that the DTI would prefer to spend millions on legal costs in the courts? Compensating the surface workers would cost far less than the millions of pounds that the lawyers will end up being paid. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I know that the National Audit Office is investigating the compensation scheme. I look forward to the occasion when the Committee assembles, and the permanent secretary at the DTI comes before us to justify, on value-for-money grounds, wasting money on lawyers, rather than introducing a scheme that could compensate miners.
The number of former surface workers who are affected is very small—it is 3,000 or perhaps 5,000. In a report on coal health compensation, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry said:
“We hope that a solution can be found which allows ex-surface workers to be admitted to the COPD scheme. While we recognise that the DTI’s current position may be legally watertight, it does not seem to us to be just.”
Of course it is not just, and nor is it defensible. Here we are three years on, and nothing has changed.
The Committee asked whether there was a solution, and there is a simple one: let the surface workers go through the medical assessment procedure test. If they do, the number of claims will be significantly reduced. Those who fail the test would have no claim; those shown to qualify for compensation should be compensated.
I know that my hon. Friend is an honourable and decent man and a good Minister. I say to him, “Ignore the siren voices behind you at the DTI, which are urging you to take these matters to court.” The best thing that he can do to those who say such things to him would be to arrange an exchange of jobs for them and send them down the pit for a year or two. I guarantee that they would give him different advice after that.
Delivering justice for surface workers is the right thing to do. In a month or so, we will have a new Prime Minister, and perhaps my hon. Friend will have a new job. While he still has this one, however, I hope that we can award him the accolade of being the Minister who finally delivered justice for miners, and surface workers in particular.
When he comes to reply to the debate, in all humility I urge him to tear up the notes that his officials have given him, to speak from the heart and to give the miners the justice that they deserve.
I have a few quick questions for the Minister. First, some of the earlier discussions rather missed the point in dealing with the question of knees and who should pay for the litigation. The absurdity, aside from the issue of moneys being paid to the NUM and others, is that there should be any suggestion of miners funding future litigation out of their industrial injury compensation, when the solicitors have made £500 million—a sum which is going up. Thompsons is meant to be the great trade union solicitor. The firm has made more than £100 million—it looks likely to go up to £200 million—out of the scheme that we are discussing alone, so why does not Thompsons pay the Scottish NUM’s money, and more? Indeed, I wonder, on the basis of a rough calculation, why it does not donate £5 million to the Scottish NUM. That would be a pro rata kind of sum from its vast profits. This is the fundamental issue. We should not tie ourselves in knots about how the funding is handled.
We could go through the other solicitors, such as Rayleys, with more than £50 million, and Graysons, with more than £25 million, or Beresfords, whom I suspect will be more reluctant than others to fund anything, with more than £200 million. Those people have done rather well, and, frankly, will do rather well again if a knee litigation case is won. It is a supreme irony that they refuse to fund something from which they will benefit, and that they make up excuses to suggest that elderly miners and widows should fund it. That is the true scandal and the scale of the disgrace of the legal profession—including those who purport to be on the side of the labour movement. Let them put their money where their mouth is.
I have only one point to make to the Minister about surface workers. He is clawing back £100 million from the solicitors, thanks to the fast-track money from the court action that he has won. That is a significant sum, and a tiny proportion of it would sort out the surface workers issue, which, as he knows, is not going away. One of my constituents has, through me, put the Minister on notice, and we have offered mediation, which has unfortunately been rejected. However, my surface worker constituents will have their day in court to argue their case, one way or another, even if we must do it case by case—even if we lose every one. The case, and the justice, is indeed more important than the money, although to someone seriously ill with a chest disease the money is important as well. There is no avoiding the issue.
I have a question about industrial deafness. Why were 11,000 cases given to a claims handler, Vendside, without solicitors, in the knowledge that there were no consumer rights and that for that reason, the individuals concerned could not use the Law Society regulations, which are not voluntary but statutory, to obtain their files and see whether their cases had been properly dealt with? No challenge can be made in the Vendside deafness cases, or in the vibration white finger and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease cases that went only through UDM/Vendside and not through solicitors, because those concerned cannot even see the files. The Minister is legally entitled to give access to those files as the defendant employer. Will he allow access for those individuals who want to see whether, among other things, the medical reports were properly analysed, the services claim was dealt with properly and the group three issue was properly dealt with?
That seems to me to be a basic consumer right for that group of claimants, and the absurd decision to allow a claims handler to enter into its own agreement and to take cases separately from solicitors has led to a loss of consumer rights. The Minister could be very helpful by giving further details about his officials’ meetings and dinners at the Rubens hotel and elsewhere, during the past eight years, with representatives of UDM/Vendside. Were minutes taken at those dinners? If not, why did officials go to such dinners and not produce minutes? If there were minutes, can they be produced for Members of the House to see?
The issues of probate that come before all solicitors are vexed and complex, and almost by definition more and more issues are beginning to emerge out of that complexity. Will the Minister issue a clear and coherent advice note on probate, both for solicitors and, more crucially, for Members of the House and our constituents, to enable understanding of the principles of and issues behind probate? It is an aggravating factor, causing splits in families in my area, and, I suspect, elsewhere, because of disputes about who owns the minuscule amounts of money from a deceased miner’s claim.
Will the Minister investigate the scale of speculative claims? They are claims for deceased miners, whereby a claim is put in, but, strangely, no one seems to own it. I shall cite one that the Minister could examine specifically. It is the case of a John Mann, from Nottinghamshire. I was contacted by Avalon solicitors, who rang me up about my claim, which they then treated as my deceased father’s claim. Neither I nor my father has a claim. We did not work in the industry. The firm was happy to tell me what had happened. There was a claim owing, which it had put in, and it was trying to find the family. The family had not put in a claim; the solicitors had done it, and they were seeking the family—and obviously would be getting significant costs for it if they could find the family. This is a wide area of activity that needs investigating, and which is possibly beyond the remit of the Department of Trade and Industry. However, will the Minister specifically study the case that came from the firm of Avalon, of John Mann of Nottinghamshire, to examine in detail whether it was a speculative claim?
My final question to the Minister is about double charging and has been raised before. I shall give one example, concerning Union and General Services and Frank Allen Pennington of Doncaster. About £3,000 is deducted per case. Many of the relevant cases are outside my area—in fact, the vast majority are. I am certain that there are people who do not realise that £3,000 has been wrongly deducted in their case. Will the Minister ensure, in the case of those claims handlers, that everyone concerned is written to as a matter of urgency explaining the consumer rights that they have through the Law Society, so that those vital sums—large amounts of money—can be put back in the pockets of the people who deserve them?
I am conscious of the time, Mr. O’Hara, and will try to keep my contribution to a minimum. It goes without saying what a difference is being made by compensation money to the lives of miners and their families in my constituency, which has the highest number of individual claims; there is talk now of compensation for former miners there being well over £100 million.
There are two issues that I want to raise, which have not yet been covered. I raised the first in my Adjournment debate in February 2004 and in the consequential Adjournment debate in the House in September 2004. I think that my early-day motion 666, tabled on 22 February 2004, puts my point in perspective:
“That this House notes with sadness that solicitors dealing with Miners Compensation Scheme cases for chronic bronchitis and emphysema are currently receiving an average fee of £2,143 per case whilst at the same time almost half the former miners so far compensated have received final settlements of less than that amount, and that over 3,100 former miners have received less than £200; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to undertake an urgent review to consider implementing a minimum compensation payment to former miners suffering from CBE of £1,500.”
At that time we had a large number of claims. In fact 21,500 former miners had then already accepted full and final settlements of less than £1,000. Indeed, 9,500 miners accepted less than £500 and 3,400 accepted £200, at the same time as solicitors were claiming an average of £2,140. Since then, substantially more miners have settled for less than £500. In fact, between 2004 and 2006, another 17,500 miners have settled for less than £500.
In response to my Adjournment debate of September 2004, the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), said that the claimants’ solicitors were trying to set up a scheme to pay a minimum of £500 back to their clients. I am pleased to say that the scheme got off the ground in February 2007. It is a bit disappointing that it has taken so long for that to happen, but I am pleased that the scheme is now up and running. The obvious question to which I would like the Minister to respond is this. We have already talked about the global figures for the fees that the solicitors have received—which, incidentally, amount to nearly £1 billion—but, given that 20,000-odd miners have already accepted less than £500, does the Minister agree that we should consider paying out for them, too, now that the scheme is off the ground?
The other issue that I want to raise briefly—I promised Mrs. Riley from Grimethorpe that I would raise it with the Minister—is compensation for former canteen workers and cleaners under the Equal Pay Act 1970. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that some 2,500 former canteen workers and cleaners have still not received compensation, because they unfortunately did not get their claims in on time under that Act. That was very much the fault of certain union officials at certain pits. I wonder whether the Minister can offer any advice that I can pass on to Mrs. Riley, because the issue is one of social justice and fairness. The situation is that some canteen workers and cleaners have received up to £20,000 in compensation, while other canteen workers and cleaners, who put in exactly the same amount of time working at the other pit, have not received anything.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara. It is useful to have these debates regularly, because they give us a chance to be updated on the progress of the scheme. Indeed, I found the regular meetings that we used to have with the Minister helpful in that regard, too. I am not sure whether they take place now—perhaps I have been left off the invitation list or otherwise been unable to attend.
It is good to reflect on a scheme that has brought compensation to people who worked in terrible conditions and suffered as a result, and on whose backs the nation thrived for many years. It is a great shame and a pity when I see former miners in my constituency who have had difficulties establishing their claims and who have not been paid becoming more ill and more dependent on their wives and families, yet still not receiving the benefit of compensation. Many of them tell me that they would be satisfied to know that even if they died before receiving compensation, at least their widows would receive it. They could then be confident that their widows would have no difficulties after their days.
The scheme has basically worked reasonably well. A great amount of compensation—well, the right amount—has gone out to communities that have been devastated by illness. However, there have been difficulties, some of which have been mentioned today. I commend the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on pursuing the issue. As far as I am concerned, the legal profession has been well rewarded for the work it has done in connection with the scheme. To then take extra money out of the compensation was entirely wrong. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has campaigned on the issue as well.
I might be corrected by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) if I am wrong about this, but we do not seem to have had so many of those complaints in south Wales, although complaints about the efficiency with which the solicitors have dealt with claims have certainly been quite common. Indeed, I had a case where just threatening the solicitors with a complaint to the Law Society led them to pay compensation immediately, because they had bungled the application so much. I am sure that the contributions that the hon. Member for North Durham and other hon. Members have made today will bring some recompense to those former miners who have had their compensation reduced.
There are a number of miners suffering from diseases other than COPD or vibration white finger whose cases have been raised today. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) raised the case of those with osteoarthritis in the knee. I am sure that we would all like to work together to ensure that progress is made on that issue.
The other outstanding issue concerns the cases of the surface workers, which the right hon. Gentleman has been prominent in pursuing. There are cases in my constituency of surface workers who have undoubtedly suffered as a result of their working conditions. I met the Minister recently and he suggested that I write to some of the legal firms that have been involved in pursuing such claims, to see whether they could use the money that they have received—obviously the sums have been quite substantial—to pursue the cases of surface workers through the courts. It would be better if we could come up with a scheme for what would not be a huge number of claimants. If the £100 million that is to be returned to the DTI as a result of payments to legal firms on the fast-track scheme could be used for that, that would be very helpful indeed.
The other group of mineworkers that has not been mentioned, but which certainly causes me considerable anxiety and work, is workers in small mines. Such cases are difficult to sort out, because it is sometimes difficult to track down the exact employment history of some of those former miners, because it can go back over a very long period. Even if those miners have good memories, it can be very difficult indeed to establish evidence to substantiate their claims. If a miner has finished work early in a small mine, compensation for loss of wages and loss of pension can also be a difficulty. However, we should introduce a system to make some payment as soon as possible and thereby bring some consolation to that class of workers, even if it is difficult to work out the exact balance of compensation between those in small mines and those who worked for British Coal. I know that the situation is very difficult indeed. The Minister advised me to write to some of the insurers for the small mines, such as AGF. I have done that and hope to meet its representatives.
This has been a worthwhile debate. We look forward to the Minister coming forward with some solutions, tearing up his advice—he is being handed another piece at this very moment—as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, and bringing some happiness to those miners and their families who have suffered so sorely with such injuries.
I begin by expressing our support for those miners still seeking compensation and congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this important debate. I also acknowledge the local expertise that many hon. Members have shown this afternoon and welcome their input.
In disclosing any interests that I may have as a solicitor—albeit not one who practises in the personal injury or litigation sectors—I feel that the situation, involving relatively small numbers of solicitors, has left a black mark against the standing of the legal profession. As Peter Williamson of the Solicitors Regulation Authority on 25 April said:
“The row over solicitors making deductions from the compensation to sick miners has seriously damaged the reputation of the profession”,
and thus public confidence in both the profession and the legal system itself. He has urged the partners of 515 firms that dealt with miners’ compensation to return to all clients any additional charges that they made in those cases. That was a key point made by the hon. Member for North Durham, and I should be interested to know which firms have refused that plea. Perhaps the Minister could advise us of the position.
One sad aspect of the situation is undoubtedly the length of time that it has taken for individual miners to receive compensation for the harm that they suffered. It has, after all, been some 10 years since the High Court found British Coal negligent in respect of miners suffering from vibration white finger. As has been mentioned, some 225,000 claimants given money for chronic chest conditions were paid less than £2,000—less than the scheme allows in legal fees for each claim handled—and 13,000 received less than £200. In fact, two thirds of claimants have received less than it cost the Government to handle their claim. By contrast, more than £800 million of public money has been paid in legal costs to the 30 highest earning solicitors’ firms involved in registering and settling claims.
The Government, and specifically the Department of Trade and Industry, have spent too much time debating claimants’ legal costs and not enough time examining their failings in controlling their own legal costs. According to an estimate in The Lawyer, the DTI’s legal costs are expected to reach £2.4 billion once the compensation scheme ends, over £1 billion more than has been paid out to claimants’ solicitors.
Finally, there is the issue of clawbacks against solicitors, claims handlers and trade unions. We are glad to hear that some money may yet be clawed back. The SRA has gained refunds of £2.5 million from some of the law firms involved, and the Government have stated that they will reclaim almost £100 million in legal costs. I should be grateful if the Minister clarified how much has been reclaimed from solicitors so far, how much has yet to come and how much will be written off. Of those totals, how much will be allocated to those miners or miners’ families who lost out because their compensation was reduced by so-called administrative deductions?
What can we learn for the future? We are all keen to learn from the mistakes made and see that compensation schemes for miners and their families are completed successfully. We are also eager to ensure that future complaints handling schemes, particularly those relating to personal injury claims, are handled more fairly and without excessive charges or pressure being brought to bear on claimants.
The Trade and Industry Committee in its 14th report concluded:
“We feel that better and more direct regulation would have curbed the worst behaviour exhibited by such companies in respect of the coal health compensation schemes.”
In light of that statement, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), said:
“When we produce our legislation…colleagues will be keen to ensure that it contains the principles and language that provides that professional conduct.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 22 March 2005; Vol. 432, c. 237WH.]
The Minister promised in a written ministerial statement on 15 December 2005 to follow up with the Law Society the extent to which claimants would be made fully aware in future that they were free to use solicitors who do not make deductions. I hope that he will confirm that those discussions have resulted in specific Law Society recommendations and let us know what they are. Judging from the comments of the hon. Member for North Durham, the Government have clearly failed in that regard.
The conduct of a few solicitors has negatively impacted on the legal profession’s reputation, but the smell of inefficiency, waste and mismanagement permeates much further than to a handful of solicitors. It goes to the top—to the DTI and its Ministers, who must now account for their mismanagement. Other parties must be reviewed as well—one union has pocketed millions through just one firm of solicitors, another has been subject to a Serious Fraud Office investigation and new revelations about union activities were made earlier today.
The Conservatives agree that there should be firm regulation, but we think that it should apply to everybody involved in the business of claims management and to unions, not just to lawyers, and that it should include accountability to the regulators. At the start of this debate, I sat back, somewhat bemused, as Labour Members debated among themselves solicitors’ practices versus Durham NUM practices versus Northumberland NUM practices, and then the north-eastern NUM practices versus DTI oversight. Frankly, rats in a barrel come to mind, falling over each other in what the hon. Member for North Durham called a feeding frenzy. Very few come out of this cleanly. The Legal Services Bill will come before the House shortly, and we hope that it will address the concerns raised by hon. Members about the regulation of the legal profession in the future.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for all the faults pointed out this afternoon, had it been left to his Government, no miner would have been paid any compensation whatever? It was an absolute disgrace—not just the Conservative party’s position on the closure of the industry, but how it treated sick miners.
Considering the nature of this debate, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman does himself much credit in making an overtly political point.
Having heard today’s evidence, we need to reconsider the position of unions acting as claims handlers. As for the DTI, the National Audit Office will report in late summer on the planning, implementation and run-down of the two schemes. I do not wish to pre-empt the NAO’s findings, but we shall review them carefully once they are published. A huge amount of public money is being spent, and the Conservative party remains to be convinced that it is being spent appropriately.
This has been an important debate. With the exception of the last contribution, it has been based on a great deal of experience of the coal mining industry and a great deal of knowledge. It has been informative, not least for the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who raised some important issues deserving further investigation.
I am trying to make a point first. Let me come to the end of my first paragraph, as it were—not one written for me, but one of my own.
It has been a passionate debate at times—rightly so, given the debt of gratitude, as many describe it, that we owe to the mining community and the terrible, debilitating health effects suffered by so many coal miners. I do understand that, but I also wish to put it on the record that I pay tribute to my officials, who do a remarkably good job. They have presided over a scheme that has already paid out some £3.5 billion and made a big economic impact on communities. Throughout a number of recent meetings—I shall make sure that the invitation list is revised; I apologise if there has been a problem—there has been a good relationship between my officials and Members of Parliament.
I had better not give way now, as there are a number of points that I want to answer. If I do not answer them all—I suspect that I shall not have time—I will, of course, write to colleagues in the normal way.
Before I deal with the particular issue of double charging, I shall use this opportunity to put something on the record. Reference has been made to the High Court’s decision in April that a coal miners’ law firm should pay back about £99 million in legal costs to the Government. That sum is the difference between the tariff for claims for which medical examinations are being performed, which was applied pending resolution of our appeal, and the level set by the judge for handling respiratory disease fast-track cases.
Of that £99 million in cost savings, £74 million has been paid to solicitors and is to be recovered. The remaining £25 million is an anticipated amount that would have been paid on settlement of the outstanding fast-track claims. It has taken a long time to achieve, but it is a significant step in ensuring that solicitors’ costs are fair and relevant to work necessarily undertaken. Administrative arrangements for recovery have commenced, and a further discussion in court in July will resolve outstanding matters.
To return to the issues raised today, it is important that we continue our endeavours to ensure that claimants receive their full compensation as paid by my Department. I am confident that all Members will wish to join me in utterly condemning what can only be described as the shameful behaviour—we have heard about it already today—of that minority of solicitors involved in the delivery of the schemes. Solicitors who have made those deductions think that they are untouchable; indeed, many have an outstanding arrogance. Are they greedy? Yes. Are they untouchable? No. That is the view not only of Members of our Houses of Parliament. Peter Williamson, who has already been quoted, has said:
“Solicitors are supposed to put their clients’ interests first, and that is a fundamental, professional principle.”
My noble Friend Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract and Members of this House must be applauded for their determination to ensure that justice is done in respect of solicitors who double charge. The Department pays solicitors’ costs in full, some might argue quite generously, for advising and processing their clients’ vibration white finger and respiratory claims under the schemes. In our view, there is no need for such deductions by solicitors. We expected that the fees paid for successful claims would cover those that are ultimately unsuccessful.
I met Lord Lofthouse on 17 April, shortly before he published his recent report. At that meeting, I explained the actions that we have taken in the past five years in response to some solicitors who have charged miners in addition to the fees received by the Government, or who have deducted referral fees for trade unions or for claims farmers from coal miners’ compensation. Since then I have met the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who is responsible for legal services, on 17 May to discuss the matter in some detail at the meeting of coalfield MPs. That meeting was helpful. There was much common ground between us. We were at one in acknowledging that the new Legal Complaints Service and the Solicitors Regulation Authority board have made good progress in seeking to tackle the issues. They have recovered £2.5 million so far, but much more needs to be done.
To address further the ongoing concerns, today I can announce two initiatives that we will take forward over the coming weeks. First, my hon. Friend and I will send a joint letter to all solicitors involved in handling claims under the schemes to remind them of their obligations to repay deductions, whether they be success fees for themselves or payments on behalf of a union or claims farmer. That will follow up a previous exercise undertaken by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), when he was responsible for the schemes.
Secondly, my Department, in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice, is working with the Legal Complaints Service and the legal services ombudsman to help claimants better to understand their rights and the mechanism for investigating service complaints. I welcome the commitments that the Legal Complaints Service made in its recently launched service improvement agenda. To build on that, we will take forward a pilot exercise in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron).
No, I shall not. I mean no discourtesy, but I have to reply to the debate.
We will take forward our proposals carefully, in order not to panic elderly claimants who, in the main, will probably not have been affected by the issues raised. We will want carefully to assess the impact of the pilot before judging the merits of a wider roll-out. I hope that colleagues have already received my Department’s May 2007 edition of the “Compensation for Miners” newsletter, which contains helpful advice. I am sure that many Members will want to make use of the information in their own constituencies, to ensure that the full benefit of the compensation schemes goes to those for whom we intend it.
I shall now turn to other issues that have been raised, of which there is a large number. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham started an important debate on his concerns about the Durham NUM. We all listened carefully to his speech—offshore bank account and all. As he knows, the union certification officer has powers to investigate the affairs of a trade union in certain circumstances. The officer has powers to appoint an inspector to investigate the financial affairs of a union, for example, but only in restricted circumstances and if there is evidence to suggest financial irregularities. I am sure that the officer might be approached about the matter that my hon. Friend raised.
We have rehearsed the important issue of knee injuries a number of times. Liability is not yet proven in respect of such injuries, and it is only right that the Government should follow the appropriate legal requirements to establish it. The DTI is taking the issue seriously and is doing everything that it can to follow the directions of the court in managing the issue. I am happy to provide colleagues with further details about that. We have discussed a number of times—rightly so—those who worked on the surface of mines. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) spoke with a great deal of passion about them, and I listened to what he has said. The court has issued an order with which the Department will comply and with which solicitors should be encouraged to comply to ensure that the position on such cases is advanced, as I want it to be. It is important that colleagues support the terms of the order to ensure that matters progress. Essentially, we need to ensure that we have a number of test cases in court. The financial onus to fund the cases should be on the solicitors who have done so well out of the scheme, and perhaps on some trade union branches. We will then see what the court says, reflect on the outcome of the cases, and try to take the matter forward as sensitively as possible. That is where we now stand.
There are many great champions of miners, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is certainly one. He referred to access to Vendside files. On receipt of a file access request from a compensation claimant, the Department would decide whether to disclose it, taking account of its legal obligations. My hon. Friend and I have corresponded about that and I am happy to talk to him again. He also raised an important point about probate; we recognise that probate is a key challenge for the settlement of many claims in the scheme. Advice on such matters is clearly a matter for the claimant’s solicitor, but I shall consider my hon. Friend’s request and offer further advice to him in writing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) talked about the minimum payment scheme. I know that solicitors have implemented their own version of such a scheme, which he acknowledges. I note what he said about payments that have already been made; I can see the merits of his suggestion and my officials will ensure that it is brought to the attention of the co-ordinating group of solicitors at the most suitable opportunity.
I do not have time to go into detail on the issue of small mines, but in most cases, small mines claimants should be able to move from interim payment to full and final settlement. I take a good deal of interest in that issue, and I may write to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) about it.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) referred to an article in The Lawyer. I am advised that it was wrong about what we have spent on our legal fees, and we are seeking a correction.
I have only a few seconds left. On the implications for the future of the scheme, we set up an inquiry into the scheme under Mr. Boys Smith, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read. It made some important points, and said that if we have such a compensation scheme again, it will be sensible not to pursue it through an individual, legal, court-based process, because of the sheer cost involved. As a former social security Minister, I understand the implications of that, should we have such a scheme again.
I failed to mention only canteen workers. That is not quite my province, but I can understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough raised the issue. I shall do my best to advise him in writing. It has been an important debate, Mr. O’Hara, and we are grateful for your chairmanship.
Household Water Charges
I requested the debate because I think that it is wrong that many thousands of people, especially pensioners but also many residents of tower blocks and one-bedroom flats, are paying over the odds for their water in my constituency and across the country. That scandalous situation has been drawn to my attention by pensioners in housing association accommodation in Lucas place and Remy place in Iffley village, Oxford, and by residents of one of our tower blocks. In both cases, constituents felt that they had had poor service from Thames Water, and that—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I was saying that the constituents who drew to my attention the position on household water charges felt that they had received poor service from Thames Water, and that advice given to them was inaccurate and incomplete.
One of the residents whose case I took up applied for a meter in May 2005 and was refused in July 2005. It was not until I took up her case in March this year that she was put on the average household charge. Her own telephone calls to Thames Water did not result in her being given clear or accurate information. Now she is on the average household charge, which saves her a bit in comparison with the water rates, but she is still paying over the odds, because the average household charge operated by Thames Water is the average of all non-business metered users and does not reflect the lower consumption that is typical of someone in her circumstances.
My review of my constituent’s case and many others points to several things that need to be done. First, much clearer, more consistent rules on the operation of the water charging regime are required throughout the country; secondly, clear advice should be given to residents on the options that are open to them; and thirdly, for those who cannot have meters fitted, there is a need to have a charging regime as of right that takes account of their household type.
People who cannot have a water meter installed, whether because it is technically not possible or because their landlord will not agree to it, are eligible to choose to go on an average household charge. In most cases, that will save them money on their water charges compared with standard water rates. The savings can amount to a pound or two a week or, in some cases, more. The problem is that they have to apply for a water meter first, and then Thames Water tells them that they cannot have one but that they can go on to the average household charge.
The average household charge is badly publicised, so many people do not know about it. Water companies and landlords should be obliged to advise customers and tenants of their rights. People should be put on the household charge automatically if they cannot have a meter but would be better off not paying standard water rates. Hundreds, if not thousands, of residents in Oxford are losing out, and there must be hundreds of thousands losing out across the country.
The water regulator has responsibilities as well. I looked on the internet for the Ofwat briefing sheet on Thames Water charges—I have a copy with me that I will gladly leave with the Minister afterwards. There is no reference in it whatsoever to people going on to the average household charging scheme if they cannot get a meter.
As the experience of my constituent illustrated, the situation is especially unfair to Thames valley water customers who are pensioners. Even if they get on to the average household charge, no account is taken of household size, so they still pay over the odds. The residents of Lucas place and Remy place in Iffley village whom I mentioned earlier do not have their own washing machines, for example, but they still pay the same average household charge as much larger families in bigger properties.
It is not just pensioners who lose out. A letter was written to The Guardian “money” page last year by someone living in a one-bedroom flat in London. Their water bill, which was based on rateable values, came to £246.68 for the year. They asked for a water meter to be installed and were told that that was not possible. They were put on the average household charge of £244.78—a grand saving of £1.90 a year. However, as they pointed out, the Thames Water website said at the time that the metered charge for a one-bedroom flat would be only £148 for low consumption or £175 on average, so the complainant reasonably felt that they were being done out of at least £70 and possibly £107 a year. When challenged by The Guardian adviser, Thames Water said that any change would be too bureaucratic and costly to administer. Some other water companies, for example Anglian Water, do adjust the charge according to the type of property. If some companies can do it, why cannot Thames Water?
The water regulator Ofwat approved the charging policies for the water companies, so it too has let down pensioners and people in small flats. To be fair to Thames Water, it obviously realised that its position was unsustainable and in an e-mail sent to me after I called this debate, it told me that it will introduce a tiered system of average household charges from 1 April next year. If that fairly addresses the situation of pensioners and others in small properties, it is to be welcomed. However, for many customers of Thames Water, the system will be qualified by the knowledge that it is an admission that they have been overcharged for years. The new charging regime must be approved by Ofwat, but given that it approved the previous manifestly unfair regime, it will need to make an extra effort to show that it is insisting on a fair system for low-consumption customers who cannot get meters.
Section 142 of the Water Industry Act 1991, a copy of which the Library has provided—I am sure that the Minister keeps a copy close by him at all times—states that, under the terms of their licences, water companies must ensure that
“in fixing or agreeing charges…no undue preference is shown to, and that there is no undue discrimination against, any class of customers or potential customers”.
I am not qualified to say whether the practices of Thames Water and the other four companies that operate a fixed assessed charge at the average metered level have breached the letter of the law, but they have infringed its spirit. Pensioners in shared blocks are the class of customers who have systematically lost out. Ofwat information note 20 explains the duty that section 142 of the 1991 Act refers to in these terms:
“Any charging method should be fair. The Director has a duty to protect the interests of customers by ensuring that there is no undue discrimination or preference in a company’s water and sewerage charges. This means that a customer’s bill should, as far as practicable, reflect the costs which that customer imposes on the water and sewerage systems for a supply of clean water, disposal of dirty water and draining surface water from the property and the highways”.
That makes it surprising to me that Ofwat has accepted the undifferentiated average household charge for as long as it has.
First, I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to provide an assurance that he will personally look into these matters and use every power at his disposal to obtain a clearer, fairer and more consistent system of entitlement for those who cannot have water meters, so that pensioners do not pay over the odds. Secondly, I urge him to find a means, and to legislate for one if there is none to hand, for water customers to have the right to get accurate information on the charging options open to them, with redress where that does not happen. Thirdly, I should like him to discuss with his colleagues who have responsibility for housing what obligation there is on landlords to inform their tenants of their rights in respect of water charges. After all, this is quite a complicated issue and someone only has to say the words unmetered average household water charge and most people’s eyes will glaze over.
Lots of pensioners, tower block residents and one-bedroom flat tenants have been overcharged by hundreds of pounds for their water consumption over many years-money that many people on modest incomes can ill afford. Unlike other utilities, water is a local monopoly, so people cannot go somewhere else for their water, which places more of a duty on the Government and the House to ensure that unfair charging practices are ended and justice is done.
On an entirely different matter, I could not complete a speech today without wishing Liverpool every success in the football this evening.
As always, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) makes a powerful and eloquent case, and I congratulate him on securing a debate on this issue. We all have to pay for our water and sewerage services, and I agree that it is important we have a fair system for doing so. Assessed or averaged charges are a small but significant part of the wider issue of water charging policy, and I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight what the Government are doing in that respect.
I will briefly set out the background to why the assessed charge exists—some of that background was outlined very well by my right hon. Friend. About two thirds of properties in England and Wales are unmetered and a third are metered. That figure is growing at around 2 per cent. a year, mainly through customer choice. The Government believe that metering is a fair way to charge for water, and it is the norm in most of Europe. Since 2000, all domestic customers have had the option of paying their water and sewerage bills according to the volume that they use. Thus the majority of households can have a meter fitted at no cost to themselves. Many customers would pay significantly lower bills if their property was metered, especially small and single-person households, which include many pensioners. It is important that customers know that the option is available to them, and companies should regularly publicise it.
During the parliamentary passage of the Water Industry Act 1999, we were at great pains to ensure that tenants and owner-occupiers could take advantage of the right to a meter. If a tenant is responsible for paying the charges, they are the consumer and have the right to a meter. Under the 1999 Act, tenancy agreements cannot block the right to a meter.
There is a separate issue of who the consumer is and who pays the bill, and my right hon. Friend raised that. Clearly, if someone is not paying the bill, they do not have the right to pay it in a particular way. Where the landlord is responsible for paying the bill and they recover their costs from the tenant, perhaps as part of a service charge, the landlord is the consumer. The landlord has the relationship with the water company and is the party who can apply to have a meter fitted. That can apply to various tenancies, including sheltered accommodation. I hope that has clarified who pays and who has the right to have a meter fitted.
However, as my right hon. Friend clearly said, in some homes, the cost of installing a meter would be unreasonable and it would be unpracticable to fit one. Ofwat is the economic regulator of the water industry and defines what it believes to be an unreasonable cost to be met by customers. Meters are generally installed at the boundary of a property. However, where companies need to split supply pipes between properties, excessive costs can arise—for example, in homes with shared water supply pipes or in flats. Therefore, in many cities, including Oxford, a number of households are currently unable to have meters fitted.
I hope that the number of households affected will come down as new technological solutions are developed; but in the meantime, we believe that customers who are affected and who have asked to change should not have to stay on their current unmeasured charge. The assessed charge was developed for those customers. Under current legislation, it is only those customers who are eligible, and the assessed charge is very much a fall-back option. None the less, as my right hon. Friend has clearly said, there are issues to be addressed and I recognise that.
Companies must state what their assessed charge is in their charges scheme, which is a public document available directly from companies or on websites. As my right hon. Friend said, those schemes are approved by Ofwat every year. Companies must charge their customers according to their charging schemes. The Secretary of State can give guidance on matters that Ofwat should take into account in approving charging schemes.
In 2000, we issued guidance stating that different companies may put forward different proposals for charges in specific circumstances, depending on local views, priorities and concerns. The guidance gave examples of charges that could work, that are in line with the average measured charge for a company or that bear as much relation as possible to the volume of water that a customer is likely to use. However, it is for individual customers and Ofwat to decide how they set those charges. I am aware that the types of assessed charges differ from water company to water company.
In my contribution, I questioned the variability to which the Minister is referring, because I think that there is a case for consistency, especially where pensioners are concerned. However, does not that variability make clear publicity all the more important? Residents have a right to redress and to know what they are entitled to. Often the experience of my constituents and others is that they do not get clear and accurate information when they use water company helplines, and they are therefore losing out.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that there is an issue about consumers having the information to be able to make choices. In this case, I concur that more ought to be done. Certainly, I expect Ofwat to ensure that charges are fair, and as has been outlined, its policy is that, in setting assessed charges, companies should use a reasonable estimate of the quantity of water that a type of customer is likely to use.
Ofwat used to believe that an assessed charge could be set according to the average metered charge. However, that is no longer deemed acceptable because Ofwat believes—rightly, in my view—that customers who want a meter but are unable to have one fitted will generally have a lower consumption than the average metered household.
In 2006-07, five companies set their assessed charges equal to the average metered bill. Ofwat asked those companies to review their charges, and I am pleased to say that all five companies are addressing the issue. In Thames Water’s case, the assessed water charge has been based on the average metered household bill. However, this year, it has been held at the same level as last year, while the average metered bill has increased to £254. I should add also that average unmetered bills remain highest, having increased by £14 to £281.
I understand that, from 1 April 2008, Thames Water will introduce a tiered system of average household charges, which was referred to by my right hon. Friend. We all hope that that will address the issues that he raised in his speech. It should give the company increased flexibility, and allow it to reflect more accurately in its charges the average consumption of different types of household. I accept that, of course, anomalies exist in this system—there will be winners and losers—and we need to look at ways to minimise the impact of that, particularly on vulnerable customers.
Once again, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this important subject; I agree that it is worthy of further discussion. I want to reflect on the questions that he raised in his contribution and, certainly, I would be happy to raise his points directly with the economic regulator when next I meet Ofwat in June. I agree that it would be beneficial to make the public—particularly, vulnerable pensioner households—more aware of the potential benefits of an assessed charge if they are unable to have a meter fitted.
I am grateful for the Minister’s commitment to raise those matters with the regulator. I stress that, as well as pensioners—of course, they are a key priority—a lot of people in tower blocks and single-bedroomed flats do not necessarily follow such matters as closely as he does. Will he raise specifically with the regulator the question of how we get information, across the board, to those who might benefit? Obviously, in many cases, if the tiering of the unmetered charge is done properly, the gain from getting on it as of next April will be even greater. It is important that people have access to that.
There is a case for more publicity in general about the benefits of metering, particularly for a lot of single-person households, including flats, and for households where individual meters cannot be fitted. There is a case also for publicising the assessed charges regime. I am very happy to look into that, to see what more can be done to ensure that better information is out there, so that pensioner and other lower-user households can benefit.
In general, I believe that metering is the fairest way of paying for water, because customers pay only for what they use. We are looking to accelerate the rate of metering in areas of serious water stress if there is a clear resource case for doing so. We consulted recently on a proposal to do just that. In the meantime, however, two thirds of households still have an unmeasured basis of charging. In 1997-98, we reviewed methods of water charging and tariffs, which resulted in the Water Industry Act 1999, which provided, for the first time, protection against disconnection and the free meter option, but I repeat that we can do more to publicise that option.
We remain open to new ideas on charging methods and tariffs, particularly to help vulnerable households and those who struggle to pay their bills, as well as to discourage profligate and excessive use. A project is under way looking at the scope for redistributing among customers a company’s burden through tariffs and charges. We are working with water companies to develop a model that will look at the distributional effect of tariffs—in particular, at the winners and losers who would be created among households. The model is looking at the effects of a wide range of measured and unmeasured tariffs.
We have set up a working group that will look at the results of that work and advise on how lower income groups might be affected by any change to the current charging system. The members include representatives from the Treasury, Ofwat, the Consumer Council for Water and water companies themselves. The group is considering how tariffs might distribute the total burden of a company’s charges in ways that might address affordability and promote water saving. Both are important objectives for the Government, and we hope that that work will provide ways forward.
The Government appreciate the importance of a fair, cost-reflective and transparent charging system; that is one of the issues that will feature in the new Government water strategy, which we intend to publish later this year. It is now five years since our last review of water policy, “Directing the Flow”, was published. We are as committed to its action points today as we were then, and the new strategy will ensure that those commitments are met in a way that helps us to mitigate and adapt to dangerous climate change, and to protect and enhance our natural asset base.
Our previous assumptions about an old wet Britain need to change; “predict and provide” will no longer be enough. We are moving to a new dry Britain, where we need to be smarter and more flexible about our water use. Our preconceptions and policies need to change. The new national water strategy will offer the space for that change, setting a long-term vision for 2030 and onwards. It will provide the water industry, Ofwat and the other water regulators with a timely, high-level steer on the Government’s water priorities, as they embark on the next periodic review of water company price limits.
In developing the strategy, we are working closely with key stakeholders, including Ofwat. The strategy will set out a coherent and forward-looking policy framework to underpin our commitments on water availability and quality, thus ensuring that water policy can deliver the required outcomes in the short and long term.
I have no doubt that many lessons will be learned from the ongoing work on charges and charging policy. My right hon. Friend raised specific points about unmeasured charging; I accept fully that we need to get that right. It appears to me that there is room for improvement, certainly in the level of information that can be provided to households to give them the choice of whether to opt for the assessed charge. In addition, we can do more to publicise the advantages to certain customers of moving to a meter and the right to have a meter installed for free.
I assure my right hon. Friend that I am actively engaged in this issue. I shall continue to work closely with stakeholders, and I certainly intend to raise the issue with the economic regulator, Ofwat, when we next meet, which is next month.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject today. Cycling debates are becoming a bit of a habit in this Chamber. Only two weeks ago, the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) led an excellent debate on rail-bike integration. Although I do not plan to focus on that issue today, I lend my support to the campaign on it run by the Cyclists Touring Club, which is the UK cyclists organisation. It wants better standards for rail-cycle integration, including access to and within stations, parking, hire and storage facilities where appropriate, cycle carriage facilities on trains, better customer-focused reservation and ticketing systems, and better information and publicity. We need a commitment on those issues for the forthcoming rail franchise negotiations. I hope that the Minister will consider the CTC’s campaign, because it would mean a significant step forward in rail-bike integration.
I am an occasional cyclist. Before I entered the House, I regularly chose to cycle in and out of Edinburgh to work. I tried various methods, sometimes going on the cycle paths and sometimes trying the main road, and often I would beat my fellow travellers who were going by car. I do have a word of warning, however. Often, those trips were not for the faint-hearted—in fact, a ride on the Oblivion rollercoaster at Alton Towers would be less scary than some of the journeys that I made into Edinburgh.
I recognise that, over the years, there have been improvements in the provision of facilities throughout the country. The national network of paths is a good development. However, some developments have been no more than tokenistic. Let us take, for instance, the local towns roundabout where I live. Lines painted down the side of the road, with no parking restrictions for those lanes, are less than useless, unless someone is particularly good at weaving in and out of the cars. However, a statutory duty on local authorities to have a cycling strategy would not be tokenistic. Perhaps such a duty could be included in the draft Local Transport Bill, which was published yesterday. It could require local authorities to acknowledge the role of cycling in delivering not only transport benefits, but benefits for the environment, health and tourism. Councils should also incorporate cycling in highway planning and design.
Yesterday, I received a picture from a constituent from the local town of Inverkeithing. It shows the new traffic island that has been built on the main road. For a bus to get past that traffic island, it has to go well into the cycle lane, which is extremely dangerous for cycle users on that busy road.
I am also grateful to the Warrington cycle campaign, which has a particularly entertaining website. It has a crazy cycle facility of the month, and there is a variety of examples, which I encourage hon. Members to have a look at. They include the 5 m-long cycle path in Manchester. In Greenwich, pedestrians are advised to look left where cyclists are coming from the right. In Lincoln, those members of the cycling community who are of the tree-hugging variety are encouraged to sweep round the side of a tree that is plonk in the middle of a cycle lane. Another example is the lane in Gateshead that is even narrower than the smallest possible tricycle that my three-year-old son would ride. There are many more examples and again I urge hon. Members to have a look at that entertaining website.
Local cycling strategies should include road safety policies that support, rather than undermine, efforts to increase use of bikes. Too many authorities think that cycling is dangerous and should be kept out of the way. Cycling strategies should also set standards for cycle parking, access, showers and other facilities in new housing developments. The strategies should be all encompassing; they should be holistic. They should encourage schools, health services, businesses and others to encourage cycling. I hope that the Minister will consider that for the Local Transport Bill.
I will briefly mention representations that I have received from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which is concerned about the increasing integration of pavements and cycle lanes, which is often dangerous for people with sensory impairment. I hope that the Minister will enter a dialogue with that association and others to explore possible solutions to that problem.
When I visited Dunfermline cycling club last year, I heard a number of comments about measures that could be taken to support cycling. Maintenance cropped up several times. The members of that club were fed up with overgrown vegetation, rubbish and debris on cycle paths, as well as the recurrent issue of potholes at roadsides and on cycle paths, which can often cause a puncture and pose a danger to the cyclist.
Is not another important consideration, particularly when we suffer very long dry spells, drains in cycle lanes? There is insufficient space and quite often drains have fallen because of the dry weather. That can pose a great danger to cyclists, particularly when some of the lanes are very tokenistic and are probably not much wider than the drains themselves.
This is a very important issue. I receive many representations on it from constituents and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. In the meetings that he has had with cyclists, has he taken up, and is he coming to in his speech, the question of the new version of “The Highway Code” and the concern that rules 61 and 63 in it could, if passed, enable a driver who hit a cyclist to claim contributory negligence if that cyclist had not been using a cycle lane or other designated pathway? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that further consultation of cyclists is essential before those and other parts of the code could be adopted?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. Indeed, he has great foresight: I am coming to that issue later in my contribution. It has wound up a number of cyclists, who are extremely concerned about the shift in “The Highway Code” in favour of motorists and against cyclists. We need to resolve that issue.
I do not want to heap too much responsibility on my hon. Friend to deal with further issues in his comments, but research that was released only a month ago by Transport for London shows that cyclists who jump lights are safer than those who abide by the law, and as a regular cyclist in London as well as in Cornwall, I can confirm from my own experience—without giving too much away—that following the law can put one in much more danger. When my hon. Friend addresses the issue, could he bear that in mind, because research seems to be confirming that following the law makes cyclists less safe?
Of course, I would not encourage cyclists to break the law, but my hon. Friend makes a very important point. People have to be extremely streetwise when using their bike and have to have a certain form of aggression when they are cycling in order to ensure that they are not pushed off the road. Yesterday, I saw a cyclist running right through the middle of a red light when there was no need at all to run through the red light. That gives cyclists a bad name, but I recognise that abiding by all the laws makes it extremely difficult.
Ian Condie, a member of Dunfermline cycling club, made the point to me that we need to ensure that there are alternatives in place that work. He said:
“In 5 successive weeks, I suffered no less than 6 punctures due to broken glass, bits of wire, and thorns. If these paths were swept periodically, this wouldn’t be a problem. For this reason, most of the cycling club members avoid the cycle path unless they are on a mountain bike, even though they’d much rather get off the main road.”
The issues that stirred up the greatest emotion at my meeting with the cycling club were the relationship between cyclists and the motor vehicle, and the highway code.
Many of my constituents are also concerned about “The Highway Code”. The Minister has informed me that the word “possible” was used instead of the word “practicable” in rule 61 of the draft code because it is clearer. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the word “practicable” has a completely different meaning from the word “possible”, and that it is not a particularly complex word to have in the code?
I do not think that the main point of the debate is whether the word “possible” or “practicable” is used in the code. The problem is about cycle lanes and facilities being included. The guidance used to be about routes, which are signed roads for cyclists that may or may not have facilities on them. We need to focus on the fact that cyclists are now being encouraged—almost forced—to use those facilities when they may not be appropriate. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that the wording is extremely important and that we must get it right.
Hon. Members will remember the deaths of Thomas Harland, who was only 14 when he died, Maurice Broadbent, Dave Horrocks and Wayne Wilkes. They were all members of Rhyl cycling club and were out for a Sunday morning ride in January 2006 when they were killed. The tragedy of their deaths stirs powerful emotions within the cycling community, and cyclists are extremely sensitive about the attitudes of some irresponsible road users towards their leisure activity. They bitterly resent reckless drivers who kill and maim but often receive only a small fine in court.
In that case, the court determined that the driver’s bald tyres were not a contributory factor and that the ice on the roads was the reason for the accident. As a result, the driver received only a £180 fine. I realise that the changes in the Road Safety Act 2006 moved us in the right direction, but there are still concerns that people who are convicted of careless driving when a death is involved can receive up to five years in prison, whereas dangerous drivers who do not cause death can receive only up to two years. We are addressing and penalising the outcome of behaviour rather than the behaviour itself, and I am keen that we should address the behaviour.
Cyclist deaths were up 10 per cent. in 2005 to 148—those are the most recent available statistics—compared with 134 in 2004 and 114 the previous year. Cycling was the only mode of transport in which an increase in deaths was recorded in 2005. That is why cyclists are so infuriated by the proposed changes to “The Highway Code”. They fear that the changes will do nothing to change the attitudes of reckless drivers.
The main point of contention concerns the wording in the consultation draft of the new version of “The Highway Code” that was published last year. The advice regarding cyclists was changed from saying that they should use cycle routes “when practicable” to saying that they should use
“cycle routes where practicable and cycle facilities…where they are provided”.
After much protest the wording was changed to “wherever possible” in the version that was laid before Parliament on 28 March, but cyclists are still extremely concerned for the reasons that I have given. They protested in their thousands to Members of this House and to the Government, and they want further changes.
The issue is not about the wording “wherever possible”, but about the fact that cycle facilities have been included, even though they might not always be the safest route for cyclists. The new code must make it clear that the use of cycle facilities such as cycle tracks is discretionary. Governmental guidance in “Cyclecraft” and in the national standards for cycle training advises cyclists that it is often safer to use the road. The Department for Transport highway engineering guidance, the “Manual for Streets”, states that cycle tracks
“can be more hazardous to cyclists than the equivalent on-road route.”
Hon. Members need only refer to the Warrington cycle campaign’s website to see how unsafe some of those facilities are.
The new wording could lead to drivers using “The Highway Code” to make claims of contributory negligence against cyclists whom they have hit if the cyclist had chosen not to use a nearby facility. The effects of the proposed changes could be significant for cyclists. Under criminal law, they could be more at risk of arrest and conviction for offences such as inconsiderate cycling. Hon. Members might know that last year Daniel Cadden was charged with inconsiderate cycling for using the road instead of crossing three lanes of fast-moving traffic to use a cycle track. His conviction was overturned in a retrial, but the revised wording could lead to more cyclists being charged and even convicted in similar circumstances.
The proposed changes could also make it easier for drivers to avoid civil law compensation payouts to cyclists whom they have injured if a cycle facility of whatever kind or quality was nearby but was not used. In such cases, it will not matter how culpable the driver was or how serious or permanent the injuries that they have caused; their insurers will be merciless in using the new wording to claim contributory negligence, as the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said. The situation is different in the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, France and Germany, where motorists who injure cyclists must pay compensation unless the driver shows that the injured person did something illegal.
I am pleased to learn that there has been a constructive dialogue between the CTC and the Minister’s officials and that new draft wording is being considered. I hope that a successful conclusion can be reached in time for the next edition of “The Highway Code”, and I seek the Minister’s assurance that the wording that is eventually adopted will not be based on the assumption that it is normally safer to use cycle facilities, because that assumption is contrary to all the evidence; indeed, the opposite is true in many situations. Not making that assumption will give cyclists the necessary discretion to make reasonable decisions not to use such facilities where appropriate.
I would appreciate the Minister’s thoughts on this very important subject. This is not just about a few words; it is about our attitudes to road safety and particularly towards those who cycle.
I am delighted to respond to the debate and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) for securing it. I shall start by responding to some of his comments and to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern).
The hon. Gentleman said that the proposed changes to “The Highway Code” will shift the balance in favour of motorists and away from cyclists, but nothing could be further from the truth. We must remember that what we say and what we are interpreted as saying in this House carries a lot of weight. It is bordering on irresponsible to claim that the proposed changes are doing something as dramatic and as damaging as that when it is clear, as I shall set out later on, that that is not the case.
The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) came close to justifying cyclists running red lights.
Let me be clear: the fact that the Transport for London research implies that what I said is the case raises certain questions. The Government and local authorities need to look carefully at road design, because they are putting cyclists’ lives in danger, particularly those cyclists who follow the law scrupulously. It is those who follow the regulations on the road who find themselves in the greater danger. Surely, the Minister must share my concerns about the conclusions in the research.
I certainly share concerns about danger to any road users, including cyclists, but I do not agree that the research suggested that it would be safer for cyclists to go through a red light on any occasion. Good practice is that cyclists should wait behind lorries, not on their inside left.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. Before I continue, I want to make it clear that the Government can justify their position as being in favour of cyclists’ greater use of the road network, but cyclists must be responsible.
I must remind colleagues that cycling on the pavement is also an offence under section 72 of the Highways Act 1835, as amended by section 85(1) of the Local Government Act 1888. The police will enforce the offence as appropriate, either by way of prosecutions or by the use of fixed penalty notices. Similarly, local police forces have the discretion to enforce in respect of the too-common practice of cyclists going through red lights, where they deem that approach appropriate.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East and other Members have expressed concern about the proposed changes to “The Highway Code”. However, for the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife to claim, as he did, that the draft highway code forces cyclists to use cycling facilities is patently untrue. I shall discuss that later.
The benefits of cycling are well known, but they are perhaps worth repeating all the same. It not only benefits the cyclist in the form of improved health and cost saving; it has positive implications for the community in the form of reduced congestion and reduced pollution. To that end, we set up Cycling England in 2005, which has a remit to work with local authorities and others with an interest in cycling, to encourage more people to get on their bikes.
A broad range of key organisations is represented on the board of Cycling England, including Sustrans, the Cyclists Touring Club, to which reference has been made, and British Cycling. The board also includes experts in health and sustainable transport, as well as representatives from local authorities. It has developed a programme of work to make the most of its initial annual budget of £5 million, in order to deliver its aim of
“more people cycling more safely, more often”.
That aim will find unanimous support in this Chamber.
The recently published “Manual for Streets” approaches local planning with a focus on community, safety and the environment. With that in mind, it places pedestrians and cyclists at the top of the user hierarchy to ensure that their needs are considered. In addition, the Department issues a number of local transport notes and traffic advisory leaflets, and some time ago it published “Cycle-Friendly Infrastructure”, which we are in the process of updating. All of those offer local authorities advice on how best to cater for cyclists.
Before I come on to “The Highway Code”, may I offer some words of agreement with the concerns of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife about the maintenance and design of cycle facilities in local areas? He will accept that I do not have a remit over such matters and nor does this House. Local authorities are responsible for the design and maintenance of particular facilities. I am sure that he and his local authority are working to ensure that the decisions on design and maintenance are taken where they ought to be taken: at local level.
We also provide information on safety in “The Highway Code”. I should clarify that the purpose of the code is to give sound advice and guidance to all road users on safe use of the roads, as well as to explain where the law applies. The code is intended as general guidance only, and cannot provide road users with detailed instructions or cover every eventuality. More detailed guidance can be found elsewhere—for example, through the driving test and supporting materials for car drivers, and through Bikeability for cyclists.
May I take this opportunity to emphasise that the advice on using cycle facilities in both the current and the proposed revised version of “The Highway Code” is not a legal requirement? It places no compulsion on cyclists to use cycle facilities, and it remains their decision whether or not to follow this advice. The distinction between legal requirements and advisory rules is made clear in the introduction to the code.
We consulted on proposed changes last year, and the version that has now been laid before Parliament includes many revisions following the consultation process. More than 40 changes relating to cycling were made to the draft, in response to representations made by cyclists and cycle groups. These include removing the words “where they are provided” from the rule on cycle facilities. I acknowledge that cycling organisations, particularly the CTC, still have concerns about some of the proposed wording in the code. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said, we have been discussing these concerns with them. I am confident that those discussions will result in a form of words that is acceptable to all sides.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned bike and rail integration, which was the subject of a debate in this Chamber on 8 May. We continue to encourage all train operating companies to provide facilities at stations to promote more bike and rail journeys. Apart from anything else, such an approach makes good business sense. According to the Countryside Agency’s bike and rail good practice guide, which is a joint publication with the Department for Transport, cycling to a station can increase its catchment area by 15 times. That assessment is based on a journey time of 10 minutes.
In addition, we are also encouraging train operating companies to work with local highways authorities to promote easier and safer access to stations. Some highways authorities are also assisting with cycle parking at stations. This is an important point, because increasing the number of cyclists who are able to cycle to the station can increase passenger numbers and revenue for the train operating companies, and help local authorities to reduce local traffic congestion.
The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that I have signed a large number of letters to parliamentary colleagues, including him, on the subject of bikes on trains. I might have even signed one to you, Mr. O’Hara. I have signed so many that I cannot remember them individually. I believe that I have signed letters to about 646 colleagues.
We continue to encourage train operating companies to carry bikes on trains where possible. Having said that, it is important to recognise that during peak hours, when capacity is under pressure, there might be circumstances—I suspect that this is inevitable—when it is in the interests of the majority of passengers not to permit non-folding cycles on trains. I accept that that message will not be palatable to certain cycling organisations and to individual cyclists, but it would be understood by anyone who has stood cheek by jowl on a busy commuter service into London Victoria.
Will the Minister consider the CTC’s proposal of having differential fare rates to encourage cycle users to use trains outside peak times and making them pay a premium if they have to use one during a peak time? That might discourage them from doing so. Would that not be a possible consideration?
I am loth to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but it is entirely up to train operating companies to set their unregulated fares at a commercial level in order for them to exploit their own commercial market. If they wish to offer reduced fares for a particular group, that is up to them as far as unregulated fares are concerned. However, should we offer wealthier cyclists the advantage of taking their bikes on to a train where there is standing room only? We might be talking about carriages in which the number of passengers really is in excess of capacity. We would be allowing such people to take their cycles on to trains because they happen to earn more than someone along the road who cannot take their bike on the train at that particular time. If that is Liberal Democrat policy, I am delighted, but I suspect that it is probably not.
Absolutely not. It is up to train operating companies to decide on a commercial basis what differential fares they want, but as the Minister with responsibility for railways I am certainly not going to instruct them to introduce a set of fares to accommodate people with bikes. If I did, a wide range of other people with particular interests and requirements would look for the same sort of reductions in fares. To make a special case for cyclists would simply not be politically acceptable and not acceptable to the vast majority of train users of commuter networks.
Before the Minister concludes, will he tell me whether it would be safe to advise my constituents who cycle that he is moving towards drafting “The Highway Code” in such a way that there would not be an increased liability on them if they were not using cycle lanes?
The hon. Gentleman may inform his constituents that the Department is confident that in the very near future we will arrive at a form of words that is less unacceptable to cycling interests than the current draft. However, we will not move from the principle that “The Highway Code” will continue to be advisory to cyclists on this matter, and that where it contains legal information, it will clearly specify that it is legal advice and a legal requirement. This unexpectedly controversial passage in “The Highway Code” is clearly advisory.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said that there had been a prosecution. He knows—he said so himself—that it was overturned, so the principle that this is advice and not a statutory measure was upheld in court. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene again? As it is his debate, I am happy to give way if he wishes.
I have little time left, so I shall try to make some progress. The train operating companies are best placed to know where and when pressure on services exists and they must be free to impose accordingly. However, I very much hope that any such restrictions will be carefully considered and kept to a minimum.
Last year, we gave Cycling England a remit to investigate what else we can do to investigate bike and rail journeys, and I look forward to seeing its report later this year. Part of the CTC campaign is to encourage me to include a section on cycling in our 30-year strategy for the railways. I confirm that such a passage will be included.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Five o’clock.