House of Commons
Thursday 31 January 2008
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Low-Energy Light Bulbs
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is responsible for approving facilities for the disposal of electrical equipment, including low-energy light bulbs. No assessment has been made.
I thank the Minister for that answer. In my council area, half the waste centres have no collection point for bulbs, retailers do not take them and the council advice is to stick them in the bin. Is that not the real picture nationwide? Can the Minister enlighten us further?
I can certainly enlighten the hon. Gentleman. That is not the picture with which I am familiar. I took the trouble to inquire about local facilities for his constituents. I understand that Merseyside waste disposal authority has 14 designated collection points, five of which have separate collections, and that Sefton has two collection points, of which one, at Sefton Meadows, is separate. I rang Sefton Meadows, and the staff there performed well; they were able to answer my question about how to dispose of a low-energy light bulb properly.
More information needs to be given to the public. That is the duty of local authorities, all of which have sites where such light bulbs can be taken, and of retailers, who have a responsibility when selling them to say where they can be disposed of. A few retailers will take them back.
A constituent has raised an issue with me about his four-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, who suffers from eczema. She suffers great discomfort under standard low-energy bulbs—he cites as examples those in Boots and Mothercare— but when she is under standard fluorescent lighting or near household low-energy bulbs, she does not suffer. Can my hon. Friend throw any light on that problem for my constituents?
That certainly must be a serious problem for a child with eczema. Since the phase-out of domestic high-energy light bulbs was announced and has become better known, we have received anecdotal evidence that some people with certain skin conditions may be affected by low-energy bulbs. Working with the Department of Health, we are looking seriously at the matter. I have agreed a meeting with Lupus UK, and if others wish to join us at that meeting, I would be pleased to see them. There is a difference between domestic lighting and some other forms of fluorescent lighting still used in shops and offices. Domestic lighting has improved so much that we anticipate that the problem will be overcome.
Is the Minister aware that if one accidentally breaks a low-energy light bulb, the dust inside is mercury? Inhaling mercury can be very dangerous. In the Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned additional funds being made available to encourage people to make their homes energy-efficient. Will that budget extend to clear guidance and better packaging to ensure that such bulbs are not broken, and clear instructions about what to do if they are?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that issue has been mentioned a lot in the press, and we need to make it clear what the problem is. Low-energy bulbs contain about 5 mg of mercury now, compared with 100 mg when they first came out. The amount is constantly being reduced, and low-mercury bulbs are now available. If a bulb should be broken—although the chances of one breaking are extremely low, lower than for the old-fashioned incandescent bulbs—
If it were to be dropped it might not break, but if it did, the amount of mercury in a new bulb is perhaps enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. However, mercury is dangerous and care must therefore be taken. The simple thing to do is what any sensible person would do with a dangerous chemical: open the window, leave the room for 10 to 15 minutes and then sweep up the broken bulb, seal it in a bag and dispose of it in the way that I described. However, people should not be nervous of the bulbs; no mercury escapes when they are in use.
As my hon. Friend knows, there are always discussions between Departments and the Treasury on a range of issues. Any announcement on taxation is in the gift of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Minister will know that disposal of chewing gum disfigures our city centres, gets on wheelchair users’ wheelchairs, in the hair of children and so on. On the basis that the polluter should pay, will my hon. Friend ask the manufacturers to come to the Department to have a serious discussion with him about how we can undo some of that pollution? If they do not come up with some answers—there are biodegradable alternatives—will he consider making representations to the Treasury?
My hon. Friend and I recently had an Adjournment debate about the matter in Westminster Hall. The manufacturers are investing in research and development to provide a biodegradable product that is also non-sticky. Clearly, it is essential for the manufacturers that it tastes good and that it sells. That is obviously a commercial issue for them. The Department, along with a number of partners, meets the industry, and at future meetings I will discuss with manufacturers the point made by my hon. Friend. On taxation, I refer him to my earlier reply.
Will the Minister admit that this farce has been running for at least a quarter century? Is it not time to recognise that the civilised world has lost the battle against chewing gum, and that where people can spit chewing gum out, they will? In addition to the good work of the chewing gum action group, would it not be better to concentrate on encouraging research into technology that can clean up the mess more quickly and more cheaply than is now possible?
There has been a series of schemes throughout the country whereby councils have tried to educate the local community. Oxford council saw the biggest reduction in the amount of litter from chewing gum. It is the case that we need to increase the clean-up capability, and councils are doing their level best, and it costs a fortune. Also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, a biodegradable non-sticky gum should be developed. He is right. The problem of chewing gum plagues every shopping precinct up and down the land. Councils are doing their best, but the key thing—if the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) does not mind my saying that—in the message to members of the public is, “Don’t spit it out. Put it in the flipping bin.”
May I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to take the route suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)? Chewing gum is a plague on all our communities, whether they be big or small, and a disproportionate cost is paid by society—not only by local authorities using council tax to clean up the mess, but by the people affected when it sticks to their clothing or is walked into their homes. I would not advocate going down the Singapore route by banning chewing gum completely, but every piece of chewing gum sold in this country should be biodegradable and non-sticky.
There are two manufacturers, with whom we are working closely. They are looking to develop a product that will be tasty and will sell. Let us hope that in future the type of chewing gum that now disfigures our pavements becomes a thing of the past. That requires a great deal of work. I know that the manufacturers are undertaking that and I am sure they have heard the voices from colleagues in the House today, which reflect wider public opinion.
Let us not let Wrigley’s wriggle out of this one. [Interruption.] Well, it is as bad as the joke from the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) about light bulbs. The industry probably makes hundreds of millions of pounds from chewing gum and it should be investing much of that in research and development to produce biodegradable chewing gum. While we are waiting for that to happen, will the Minister have a word with the Home Office about enforcement, so that far more of those who spit chewing gum out on to the streets—a disgusting habit—face fines?
Improving energy efficiency in the poorest households is very important in tackling fuel poverty. Our latest annual progress report sets out the action that we are taking across Government, including through the Warm Front programme and the energy efficiency commitment.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I know that he thinks climate change is as important as I do. In that respect, the Warm Front and Warm Deal schemes, both introduced by the Labour party, have provided financial support and help for efficiency improvements in well over 1 million households in this country.
However, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the calls from the Government-sponsored Fuel Poverty Advisory Group for an extra £500 million to improve the Warm Front scheme? Will he ensure that the knock-on effect will get to the people on the Warm Deal programme in Scotland, and will not go into the Scottish Executive budget to be hidden away, as happened in respect of disabled children?
Funding for the Warm Deal programme is a matter for the Scottish Executive. As for funding in England targeted at those on low incomes, if we take together the investment that we will make in Warm Front and what will come from the new carbon emissions reduction target—which is double the energy efficiency commitment, or EEC—we will, over the next three years, invest £2.3 billion in dealing with the problem raised by my hon. Friend. That is an increase of £680 million compared with the previous spending review period.
The Secretary of State may be aware of many Members’ concern that the prices quoted for schemes under the grants administered by the Energy Action Grants Agency, or EAGA, are far higher than those that a local contractor would deliver for the same scheme. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of that issue and its impact on the overall budgets to deliver the objectives?
I am aware of those concerns. The scheme is audited and assessed to make sure that we get value for money. Having looked at some of the cases in a bit of detail, I think that we have to consider whether we are comparing like with like. Under the Warm Front programme, there is a follow-up service and so on, which may not apply in the case of local contractors bidding to do similar work. It is important that we compare like with like, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to ensure that we get every penny of value from the money we put in.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Warm Front programme is available only to pensioners and disabled people; many other people in poverty do not have access to Warm Front grants. The grants are available for central heating boilers only when they have failed; they are not available to replace old and inefficient boilers. Surely it is in the best interests of poorer people, the economy as a whole and tackling climate change that inefficient boilers in all the homes of those on the lowest incomes should be available for grant aid.
My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the need to improve the energy efficiency of home heating. In addition to the Warm Front scheme and the help that it provides, we are increasing, through the carbon emissions reduction target, the requirement on energy companies to encourage and support home owners to improve their energy efficiency.
The issue raises a fundamental point about what more we can do to ensure that energy efficiency and therefore carbon emissions from domestic households improve. Although from 2016 we will deal with new houses through the zero-carbon homes policy, we have an existing stock of about 25 million or 26 million homes for which a lot more could be done. The launch of the green homes service in April this year will provide a lot more advice for householders on the steps that they can take.
People are not worried only about the value for money of EAGA’s contracts: is the Secretary of State aware that the agency has been charging low-income households up to £800 to access the Government grants? Having paid that money last autumn, some low-income households have been told that they will not get their new heating until later this year, after the winter. Is the Secretary of State aware of that, and if so, what is he doing about it?
When the hon. Gentleman says that people are being charged to access the grant, is he referring to the fact that the grant is available up to a certain amount and that any work that is then required above and beyond that has to be contributed to by the household? If so, we have always known that that is the case, because the grant provides support up to a certain level. If he is talking about something else and has particular cases in mind, will he bring them to my attention so that I can look at them?
May I turn my right hon. Friend’s attention to electrical efficiency within the domestic scene and, again, to low-energy light bulbs, which the Government wish to introduce? Has he had any discussions with the Society of Light and Lighting about the power factor of low-energy light bulbs, which has to be at a level of 0.9 in order to make them effective? Any power factor in excess of that level—some bulbs on sale now have a factor of three times that—means that the bulb is burning power at three times the rating at which it is sold. For example, if it is 10 W, it will burn power at the rate of 30 to 40 W and is therefore not a low-energy light bulb at all. Will my right hon. Friend discuss those issues with the society?
The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who just answered the question about low-energy light bulbs, is in contact with that organisation, and I have no doubt that she will pursue the point that my hon. Friend has raised.
The Government believe that prices are for the market to determine and do not get involved, provided that competition rules are respected. As the hon. Gentleman is probably aware, the Competition Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into the groceries market as a whole.
Figures show that while the average farm-gate price for a litre of milk is 18p, it costs 21p to produce it, and it is then sold for 60p in the supermarket. What is the Minister going to do to give a fair deal to farmers, who are being held to ransom by the big supermarkets?
I am grateful for that question. Gate prices have increased considerably. That is partly to do with changing markets, with China and India increasingly wanting dairy products. We had the interim report from the commission in October, and we expect a report in the first half of this year. Some of the issues that it will consider include tightening up the code, perhaps to include some of the other supermarkets. It is vital that we have transparency from farmer to producer to supermarket so that we can answer these questions, which people have been concerned about for a long time.
The wages and conditions of workers have an impact on the farm to retail prices in our supermarkets. Is my hon. Friend aware of Unite’s campaign to highlight the plight of migrant workers supplying food to major supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer? Does he agree that the terms and conditions of those migrant workers should not be exploited in order to produce cheap food for the supermarkets?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. He has a proud track record in introducing the Bill that became the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. The authority is prosecuting where migrant and mobile workers are being exploited. We have the legislation and a series of safeguards, but if hon. Members are aware of any cases, they should bring them to the authority’s attention. I have met its representatives, who have prosecuted where they have found such cases and will continue to do so.
But does the Minister accept that the low prices in the livestock sector recently were not the fault of the supermarkets, which actually behaved very responsibly, but of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which provoked the foot and mouth crisis that caused such a problem? Interestingly, in comparison with Scotland, where farmers have been compensated for collateral damage, English farmers have been left to shoulder the entire responsibility for losses on their own.
We know that prices for livestock have fallen. That is partly to do with the considerable increase in the price of feed, and the prices have not worked their way through the system. We are aware of that, but the situation is not DEFRA’s fault, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Feed prices have gone up across the world; all member states are concerned about those increases, and they are impacting on livestock farmers.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but is he surprised, as I am, at how few suppliers have chosen to give evidence to the Competition Commission inquiry? Does he have a theory as to why so few have given evidence, and how might he encourage them to give evidence to that important inquiry?
My noble Friend Lord Rooker has submitted evidence to the Competition Commission. He was concerned about the power of supermarkets to force prices down, about the viability of wholesale distribution and its effect on independent stores, and about the effectiveness of the code of practice. We have put forward those points for the Competition Commission to consider. It is at liberty to conduct the inquiry as it sees fit, and I am sure that it has heard my hon. Friend’s comments.
The Minister is entirely right to want to keep the Government out of this matter. I can think of no bog in which one would descend more rapidly than that of trying to get price controls between farmers and supermarkets. Will he beware of sweeping generalisations, such as statements about how much it costs a farmer to produce a litre of milk? Given the huge variety in the prices the farmers receive, depending on their circumstances, would he note that dedicated supply chains are being put together by supermarkets, which will integrate the chain much more effectively? Will the Government confine themselves to encouraging all sides of the supply industry to co-operate more closely so that it can deliver what the consumer wants at a price the producer can afford, and so that supermarkets can make a reasonable return?
There is a law in other countries to ban retailers from selling products at a price below the cost to them. That issue has been raised most recently in this House in relation to cheap alcohol, but it applies equally to direct farm produce such as milk. Will my hon. Friend at least consider such a change to the law on prices to prevent predatory pricing practices?
Consumers visiting their local shop or supermarket who wish to shop ethically, on environmental or animal welfare grounds, or simply because they want to back British farmers, will want to buy British. Is the Minister aware that it is currently entirely permissible for animal carcases to be imported into this country, processed and then packaged as British. Does he agree that that is an outrageous deception, and will he take steps to ensure that the only meat that can be packaged and presented in this country as British comes from British animals?
There is a European Union ruling that makes what the hon. Gentleman suggests impossible, but increasingly we see packaging that promotes local produce. The situation is changing, and people are looking to see where food is grown, where it is reared and, more specifically, which of the different counties of our country it comes from. When I was in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency last year, I went to the food hall, which was full of businesses from his community providing fantastic produce, which all came from Cumbria. On talking to those businesses, I heard that they were finding access to markets. The Competition Commission has not found any impediment preventing local producers from accessing markets. The message from this House to the consumer must be, “Be discerning. Buy local and buy British.”
I am sure that the Minister is aware that there is a double rip-off in that not only the farmers but the consumers—the families who buy the milk—are being ripped off by the supermarkets. What can we do to stop that double rip-off? Farm-gate prices are not fair and families pay too much.
In response to several hon. Members, I referred to the undesirability of the Government getting involved in price controls. We are not going to do that. However, the Competition Commission is thoroughly examining the matter and a range of issues to do with the relationship between farmers and supermarkets. We expect its report to be published in the early part of this year. If it makes recommendations to the Government, we will, of course, consider them and follow them up.
During 2007, all species of cetaceans in UK waters underwent an assessment of their favourable conservation status under article 17 of the habitats directive. We plan to publish the findings soon. The latest EU-funded studies of cetacean populations show that levels have remained steady in UK waters over the past decade.
Although I am grateful for that reply, the Under-Secretary will be aware of the growing concern about the health of cetacean populations, especially on the Cornish and south-west coast, and particularly that of the inshore bottle-nosed dolphin population, which the Cornwall Wildlife Trust recently estimated to have fallen to seven. What contribution is the Department making to understanding better the health and the cause of the decline of those stocks?
We spent around £1.6 million between 2000 and 2005 on research on cetaceans and especially on by-catch. We are expecting research from the sea mammal unit at St. Andrews university to provide information about the effectiveness of attaching pingers to fishing vessels. We expect the results of that research by April, and we will consider it and look to working in partnership with the fishing industry to ascertain whether pingers can be introduced effectively.
I know that the hon. Gentleman feels passionately about the issue, as do many hon. Members. We are investing, and we want to ensure that we keep by-catches and all fatalities of these beautiful creatures to an absolute minimum. I will ensure that he is updated as we receive the results of the research and move forward on dealing with the matter.
Dolphins are beautiful, intelligent and wonderful creatures. Why should they be threatened by DEFRA’s systemic incompetence? Bottle-nosed dolphins in the Moray firth are threatened by oil spill and seismic testing. Pingers on gill nets either do not work or are not being used. Pair trawling drowns and smashes more dolphins than any other method of fishing and it is carried out only 6 nautical miles from our coast by French boats with historical rights. There is further rumour of a delay to the marine Bill.
DEFRA’s record on whales is even worse. It issued its much publicised recruiting document to 57 countries, 42 of which were already members of the International Whaling Commission. That is why the Department had to do it again this year. Surely that is incompetence. Is it not the case that everyone wants to save dolphins and whales except the Government?
We banned pair trawling in the western channel. We do not have the ability to ban French vessels—[Interruption.] In case the hon. Gentleman does not know, we are in the common fisheries policy, to which the Conservative Government signed up. We presented our argument in Europe and we took unilateral action to ban pair trawling—that constitutes taking an effective measure. We argued our case and we were unable to persuade others, but we are taking action ourselves.
The sea mammal research unit at St. Andrews has advised us that there is no danger to bottle-nosed dolphins in the Moray firth from ship-to-ship oil transfer. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that I should have been here. I say that we must accept the advice of one of the most revered institutions in this country. If we are given contrary advice, we will, of course, act on it.
I regret the partisan position that the hon. Gentleman takes on whaling. When I met the Japanese deputy ambassador, I said that all hon. Members were united in their condemnation of Japan on whaling. Yet the hon. Gentleman tries to take a partisan position. He is isolated. I told the deputy ambassador that Conservative and Liberal Members shared our concern. Our record is one of the best in the world.
Food Security (Climate Change)
DEFRA’S 2006 assessment of food security highlighted climate change as one of the many factors that may affect the UK’s food supply. What matters to the safeguarding of our food supply is a strong farming industry, energy security, access to food from a variety of sources, a strong food chain and infrastructure, and having the capacity and contingency planning to deal with specific risks.
My right hon. Friend makes at least part of the point that, historically, the UK has often simply equated food security with market mechanisms. We know, however, that those market mechanisms are under pressure, partly because of the growth in demand from countries such as India and China and the growth in demand for biofuels. Climate change could, of course, destroy the whole supply chain. In that context, is my right hon. Friend confident that we have the forward planning to provide sufficient agricultural land and the necessary diverse and adaptable skills in the agricultural population to ensure that we can guarantee food security in the future?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point about the impact of the changing climate on the farming industry. First, on our capacity as a world to feed ourselves, the Food and Agriculture Organisation has said that world food production is still rising more quickly than the global population. There will, however, be between 9 billion and 9.5 billion of us on this planet by 2050, compared with 6.2 billion now.
Secondly, although the UK’s self-sufficiency has declined a bit in recent years, it is still higher than it was in the 1930s, before the second world war, and higher than it was after the second world war.
Thirdly, a change in climate might mean that some crops that are currently grown will be more difficult to grow, but it could also open up new possibilities. One of the practical steps that we are taking is to fund research at the Agriculture Development Advisory Service and at Warwick into the potential impact of more extreme weather events on the farming community. The truth is that this is an issue for all of us to think about. We need to try to anticipate what might be coming, so that the farming industry will be able to respond.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the UK livestock industry makes a huge contribution to not only the quality but the security of the food supply in this country? It is also true that cattle are a major generator of methane gas. Is it not important, however, to keep this matter in balance, and to say to anyone who criticises the farming industry that the value of the livestock industry far outweighs any contribution that it might make to climate change?
I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that I agree with him, with one proviso. The livestock industry does all the things that he has described, as well as contributing to our landscape, as has been said. We are strong supporters of the industry and we want it to thrive. Like all parts of the economy, however, it is going to have to make a contribution to the fight against climate change. I am glad to be able to say that emissions of methane have declined, largely as a result of reducing livestock numbers, but that will remain an issue because all parts of the economy, including farming, are going to have to make a contribution. That is why I welcome the work that the Farming Futures Project is doing, and the response of the National Farmers Union and others in acknowledging that climate change is an issue for farming, just as it is for the rest of us.
I have received various representations on the former chief scientific adviser’s views on whether badger culling should form part of the bovine TB control strategy. Those have come in the form of questions from hon. Members and a lot of correspondence from concerned organisations and members of the public.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the findings of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, which were developed over such a long period and at such considerable expense, should not be cast aside in favour of the views of an individual scientist, backed by hon. Members whose solution to animal welfare issues is “If in doubt, kill something”?
I say to my hon. Friend and the House that, as we know, this is an exceptionally difficult issue. If it were not exceptionally difficult, we would have found a way of resolving it already. Secondly, I met Sir John Bourn just before Christmas and I am in the process of having a series of meetings with all those who have an interest in this matter, as I told the House I would.
The advice in the ISG report is very clear. The conclusion was that the group did not think that culling could meaningfully contribute to the control of TB. We have all seen what the former chief scientific adviser had to say about that. For me, the issues on which I have to make a decision—and I will—are these: what does the science say; what is the practicality of any course of action; and, I have to say, what is the public acceptability of any course of action. The truth is that the person who holds my office must weigh those three issues in the balance in trying to help the industry and the livestock sector, which is finding it very difficult to deal with. I do not for one second deny the problems faced by the industry. It is a tough issue; I will reach a decision, but in doing that I am going to listen to all the views expressed.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the Independent Scientific Group put great store by cattle testing and the use of the gamma interferon test. He will also be aware that there is considerable concern in farming circles that that test is now showing a much higher incidence of bovine TB in comparison with the skin test. What steps will he take to resolve that position, particularly taking into account the effect that a higher incidence of the disease could have on his Department’s budget?
We are using both those approaches. The right hon. Gentleman, who is expert in these matters, is correct in saying that the gamma interferon test produces more positive results. My view is that we should use all the scientific tools at our disposal to try to identify the nature of the problem. I think I am right in saying that there are a couple of potential court cases relating to use of the gamma interferon test, which will be a matter for the courts to resolve. Both tests demonstrate that there is a problem and we have to deal with it. The question is finding the solution that is going to work. A number of different proposals have been made and I look forward with great interest to what the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which the right hon. Gentleman so ably chairs, has to say when it produces its report.
I am sure that the Minister recognises the sense of utter despair and anger in the south-west among farmers who over the past 10 years have seen delay after delay at the same time as the slaughter of tens of thousands of their animals. At that rate of progress, we are soon going to see more badgers in the south-west than farm animals. When are the Government going to take some positive decision?
As I said in answer to the earlier question, I am going to reach a decision, but as I told the House I am in the process of meeting all the organisations, which have very strong views on this subject. I absolutely recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point about the difficulties that those farmers face, but, with respect, we have to find a solution that is in line with what the science tells us. We have had a 10-year study and we have seen what the report said and the view expressed in it—I do have regard to the science. We have to find a solution that is practical and we also have to weigh the factor of public acceptability in reaching the decision. People have very strong views on both sides of the argument. It is not easy, which is one of the reasons why it has taken so long to come to a decision, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will do so.
The issue of the use of gamma interferon goes further than the Secretary of State suggests. The gamma interferon test has a sensitivity of about 97 per cent., yet we have found that in some herds up to 28 times the number of cattle are reacting to it as to the skin test. His officials are flatly refusing farmers the opportunity of re-testing and insisting on culling all those animals. That is the reason for the court hearings to which he referred.
Why will the Secretary of State not instruct his officials to allow a re-test, on the understanding that everybody accepts the outcome? All the evidence is that those results are statistically invalid. He should speak to experts: they are all saying that we could not get such a difference in sensitivity between the two tests. Something is wrong somewhere, and putting farmers to the expense of going to court—risking the Secretary of State’s money on extra compensatory costs, as well as defending the case—is helping nobody at all.
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I do not quite agree with the analysis that he has put forward. I repeat what I said a moment ago: we should use all the means that we have to try to achieve identification. I understand the strength of feeling in some cases about the impact of this, but if we have an additional test that gives us information about the incidence of bovine TB, it is pretty hard—looking at it from the other point of view—to say that we will not use it. Those tests have different sensitivities, but the question is whether it is right to use both. My view is that it is, but if the matter goes to the courts, they will decide whether the approach that we are taking is reasonable.
We are improving protection from river and sea flooding and coastal erosion, and are on course to achieving protection for more than 180,000 households since 2003.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s answer. He will realise, or perhaps I can inform him, that at Fazeley the flooding bank was raised back to design level after flooding. At Elford, a new pump was put in to replace the defunct one after flooding. We await the Tame valley study, as part of the Greater Humber strategy, to see how many other weak points we have. Will he give us an assurance that there will be no redundancies or staff lay-offs and no reduction in the Environment Agency until that work is completed? Will he write to me with a date when we can expect the Tame valley study to be complete?
I will happily write to my hon. Friend about the River Tame study, because it will look at whether the design levels—for the Tamworth and the Fazeley defences—are still appropriate, and if not what possible solutions can be undertaken. On the resources available to the Environment Agency to work on flood defences, as he will know, the budget has doubled in the past 10 years from £300 million to £600 million a year, and it will increase further. That means that the agency will have more money to spend on more flood defence works.
The Department’s responsibility is to help to enable us all to live within our environmental means. May I take this opportunity to report to the House the fact that Adair Turner has been appointed chair of the new Committee on Climate Change? As the House will know, the committee will play a vital role in helping us to move to a low-carbon economy, and I look forward to working with Lord Turner and the other members of the committee in helping to make that happen.
For Environment Agency purposes, my constituency of Tewkesbury falls within the midlands. I was rather disturbed to see that the Government’s flood defence grant in aid to the Environment Agency for the midlands is being reduced from £51.4 million last year to £45.5 million this year, and to £40 million next year. Can the Secretary of State give an explanation for that? The midlands is a large area, and he has been kind enough to visit Tewkesbury to see the devastation there, so can he guarantee that our flood defences will not suffer because of that budget change?
I know how much the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have been affected. Although the flooding in Tewkesbury was mercifully not as bad as it was last summer, we were all waiting with bated breath to see what happened.
The main point about investment in flood defence and regional figures is that the figures may go up or down from year to year depending on the nature of the projects being funded. When a big capital investment project in a region in one year is finished and the money has been spent, the figure in the following year may not be as large. The trend line is clear, however. It is not possible to increase the budget, as we have, from £300 million to £600 million over a decade, and to be committed to increasing it to £800 million by 2010-11, without the trend line rising. There will be such ebbs and flows, but the overall trend is up, which means—as I said a moment ago—that we will be able to fund the additional flood defence works that we all want.
The catchment flood management plan for the Trent has identified a low-to-medium risk of flooding in the lower River Dove catchment area, which includes Hatton, Scropton and Egginton. In response to that, the planners will think about what flood risk management measures will be possible over the next three years. They will deliver a plan for the lower Dove area specifically, to establish first what is technically possible and secondly what is best in economic terms, while recognising that ultimately the Environment Agency must prioritise the increasing amounts of money that we are providing in order to deliver the maximum possible protection.
According to information published by the National Audit Office this week, the estimated cost to all of us, as taxpayers, of cleaning up Britain’s existing nuclear waste has risen by 18 per cent. over the past two years, to a staggering £73 billion. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the body responsible for decommissioning, which has had no chairman since the middle of last year and which last week lost a senior director, is fit for purpose? Does he not agree that whatever the low-carbon merits of nuclear—and goodness me, we need low-carbon technologies: the carbon figures announced by the Department today are depressing—going ahead with nuclear new build without having sorted out the toxic legacy of the past would be irresponsible?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about the decommissioning authority. It has a very important task, and I have confidence in the work that it is doing. As for nuclear, the choice is very plain. A number of people’s views on nuclear have changed because of the threat of climate change. The one thing that is absolutely clear about it is that it is a low-carbon technology, producing—I speak from memory—7 g to 22 g of carbon per kWh. Gas produces about 380 g per kWh, and coal about 755 g. There really is no contest. Waste is an issue, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we must deal with the legacy of waste from our existing nuclear programme anyway. It will be added to if new nuclear power stations are built in line with the policy that the Government have set out.
Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I was going to change the subject to Natural England, which was established less than 18 months ago to be
“a powerful new champion of nature”.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Department is seeking cuts of more than 15 per cent. in its core budget? That will create huge problems for partner organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wildlife International and the Wildlife Trust. Those bodies have no idea what key projects they will still be able to work on after the end of March. How will this shambolic situation help the Government to fulfil their commitment to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2010? How confident is the Secretary of State that that promise will be kept?
This week I met the chair and chief executive of Natural England to review the organisation’s performance since its establishment. As I told them, I think they have done a pretty darn good job. There has, for example, been real progress in getting sites of special scientific interest into the right condition, which is one of the targets that we set. I applaud the work done by Natural England, which has proved itself to be a powerful advocate of the cause of biodiversity and the natural environment.
On funding, we will make announcements about the budget in due course. The budget is tight because, although there is growth, a lot of that will go on increased investment in flood defences, so difficult decisions will have to be taken. When I have taken them, I will announce them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not least for the advertisement for the “act on CO2 calculator”, which is available in Portcullis House until 5 o’clock today for Members to test their carbon footprints.
As for making such material available, on the internet it is accessible to everybody. Therefore, constituents in Scotland will have had the opportunity to access it, and all Members could publicise it. Also, there is press advertising, which is of course seen in the devolved Administration areas. We have spoken to our colleagues in the devolved Administrations. This material is extremely important, as more than 40 per cent. of our emissions are down to our individual actions, and we have suggested that it may be made available for public engagement in the devolved areas. If the devolved Administrations are willing to contribute to, and participate in, these schemes, we would be delighted to co-operate with them and make our expertise available.
The hon. Gentleman will have seen the speech that the Prime Minister made in November. The target of at least 60 per cent. was set in the light of royal commission advice, but the Prime Minister has acknowledged, as we all do, that the science is evolving—we read the reports—and that is why he said that it is now felt that the reduction might need to be increased to 80 per cent. That is also why we will ask the Committee on Climate Change, as one of its first tasks under its new chair, to advise on what the 2050 figure should be. On a point that relates to several issues to do with the Climate Change Bill, having established this important, authoritative and influential body, we should let it do its job and give us the advice, so that the Government can then take the final decision on what to do.
My right hon. Friend raises a good point. The RSA is a valuable body in this respect and it is involved in work on personal carbon trading allowances. The Department is keen to receive the results of the RSA’s work, and we are pioneering work to see whether there is cost-benefit in having personal carbon trading allowances and whether there would be public acceptability. This is all in its early stages, but in addition we are providing £8.5 million-worth of grants to local communities, and 83 community projects have been established, which are very much in line with what the RSA and the Co-operative party have advocated: that we should enable communities to take action to reduce emissions at community level.
I wish the team every success in the match on Sunday. All Members of the House want to ensure that the increased investment in flood and flood defence is used as effectively as possible to provide the best protection possible. That puts a responsibility on those spending the money to use it as wisely and effectively as possible, so that protection is provided in recognition of the rising risk. The hon. Gentleman touches on a good example.
I am grateful for that question, and the right hon. Gentleman is right to raise it. On the one hand our constituents write to us saying that more street lights are needed in a particular area because they are concerned about antisocial behaviour and so on, but on the other hand, as he points out, we want to see clear skies. Thus, this is about the getting the balance right. If we can reduce the amount of light pollution, that will be good not only for astronomers but in terms of climate change.
I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman’s mother will be one of the recipients of the badge. May I say that all of us, as Members of the House, have a part to play in ensuring that the information gets out? Here is a little advert: 08459 33 55 77 is the phone number people should call to get an application form—they can also get one from the website. I absolutely take the point that he raises, because I want to get the badge to all the surviving members of the women’s Land Army, who did so much for the country. They fought in the fields and in the forests to ensure that we were capable of winning the war. We owe them a big debt of gratitude, and the badge will be a sign of a grateful nation.
I can gladly tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have placed an order for 22.5 million such doses—indeed, we were the first of the northern European countries to place an order. We are working closely with the industry. I met the industry representatives last week to talk about preparations for the vaccination programme. Obviously, we are keen to get that going as soon as the vaccine is delivered by the company with which we have contracted, because, as he will know only too well, this is the way out of the problems that the industry is facing because of bluetongue’s arrival.
Order. Before we come to business questions and the subsequent motion relating to the fourth report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, I should inform the House that, on the broader subject of Members’ allowances, in anticipation of the decision of the House on 24 January to refer that matter to the Members Estimate Committee, and as Chairman of that Committee, on 22 January I summoned a meeting for Monday 4 February.
Business of the House
The provisional business for the week commencing 4 February will be:
Monday 4 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Tuesday 5 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to human rights, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [3rd Allotted Day]—Any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to human rights. Followed by motion to approve a local government restructuring order relating to Wiltshire.
Wednesday 6 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to the Single Market. Followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [4th Allotted Day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to the single market.
Thursday 7 February—Topical debate. Subject to be announced, followed by motions relating to European scrutiny reform.
The provisional business for the week commencing 18 February will include:
Monday 18 February—Remaining stages of the Health and Social Care Bill.
Tuesday 19 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to foreign, security and defence policy. Followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [5th allotted day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to foreign, security and defence policy. Followed by motion to approve a local government restructuring order relating to Shropshire.
Wednesday 20 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to international development. Followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [6th allotted day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to international development.
Thursday 21 February—Topical debate: subject to be announced. Followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument on control orders. Followed by motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order 2008 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2008.
Friday 22 February—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for February will be:
Thursday 7 February—A debate on the report from the Transport Committee on novice drivers.
Thursday 21 February—A debate on the report from the Health Committee on the electronic patient record.
Thursday 28 February—A debate on the report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on refuse collection.
Today, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the next Budget will be on 12 March.
On behalf of the whole House, I wish to extend my warmest congratulations to Jill Pay on her appointment as the new Serjeant at Arms. Our men in tights are now to be led by a woman in tights.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I join her in welcoming the new Serjeant at Arms and congratulating her on her appointment.
For the past five years, the long-term public finance report has been published in November or December. With February upon us, the 2007 report has still not been published. Given that it is expected to show that for the first time total public sector pension liabilities are more than £1 trillion, will the Leader of the House tell us why this report has been delayed and when it will be published?
On Tuesday, we learned that more than 10,000 nurses and midwives left the NHS last year to work abroad. The Royal College of Nursing warns that we face a staffing crisis. May I suggest NHS staffing for a future topical debate?
Last week, the Prime Minister said that he was accompanied on his trip to China and India by
“British business men and women”—[Official Report, 23 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 1491.]
But no business women went on that trip. May we have a statement explaining why the clunking fist did not take any business women with him?
May we have a debate, in Government time, on the Defence Committee’s latest annual report? It criticised the Ministry of Defence for failing to give our servicemen and women proper breaks between operational duties in Iraq and Afghanistan and warned that as a result growing numbers of people are leaving our armed forces. So we have a lack of training, inadequate housing and a part-time Defence Secretary. When will the Government honour the military covenant and treat our troops with the respect they deserve?
Ten years after the Government made a manifesto promise to get rid of mixed-sex wards, the Health Minister, Lord Darzi, has admitted that that aspiration cannot be met. Will the Secretary of State for Health make a statement to the House on the failure of that key Government policy?
Last year, the Justice Minister claimed that community punishments were a tough and demanding alternative to prison. A new report from the National Audit Office found that offenders are getting away with failing to turn up for community punishments if they oversleep or if they produce their own sick note. It is a complete farce, so may we have a debate on the Government’s community punishment scheme?
This week, the Minister for Schools and Learners ordered local councils not to close village schools, but just last month the Government issued guidance to councils ordering them to shut schools with empty desks. Will the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families make a statement to clarify the Government’s policy on village schools?
Last January, the Prime Minister launched a campaign to highlight Britishness. We now know that at the same time he decided to remove the image of Britannia from the 50p piece. It will be the first time in 300 years that Britannia has not featured on any British coin. Will the Prime Minister make a statement on how removing a historic British symbol fits into his Britishness campaign?
Those are all examples of a Government who start by saying one thing and end up doing another. Does that not show that we have a country that is drifting under a Government who lack direction and a Prime Minister who simply cannot get a grip?
The right hon. Lady mentioned pension liabilities, but failed to make a point about pension fund assets. The most important issue for pension funds is the strength of the economy. That is why sustained low inflation, low interest rates and growth in the economy are the most important issues for pensions in the future.
I take it that the right hon. Lady has made a representation for a topical debate on midwives and NHS staffing. She will know that the issue was debated in Westminster Hall yesterday, and she will bear it in mind that, because of increasing investment in the health service and the increasing recruitment of midwives, more midwives are going into training than ever before. Those measures are part of our determination to increase the quality of maternity services.
The right hon. Lady mentioned business men and women. She is right, of course, that we need to do everything we can to encourage more women in commerce. Further work is coming out of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to support women. If we compare our economy with the American economy, we see that our competitiveness gap is accounted for by the fact that we have fewer women who start and run their own businesses. We must make progress on that, but I find it a bit much that the shadow Leader of the House—one of only 17 Tory women Members of Parliament who have never done anything to champion women’s rights—should try to tell us what to do, when we have championed women’s rights over the years.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the Defence Committee. Training is not inadequate. The housing provided for our armed forces certainly needs to be improved, and we have made progress in that respect against the background of the spending cuts made by the previous Administration.
The question of mixed-sex wards is always a matter of concern. The shadow Leader of the House will know that the amount of single-sex accommodation provided has increased, which has ensured that all patients have access to single-sex toilet and bathroom facilities.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the NAO report on community sentences. The Government welcome the report’s findings, which show that there has been more enforcement when people breach community sentences, and that more community sentences and drug and alcohol rehabilitation courses are being completed than previously. All that is to be welcomed, and I congratulate probation services on their important work in ensuring that strict community sentences are properly enforced. People who serve such sentences are much less likely to reoffend than those who go to prison.
The right hon. Lady asked about primary schools in rural areas, and she also mentioned secondary schools. She will know—
She did not say anything about secondary schools.
In that case, I shall respond to her question about primary schools in rural areas. She will know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners wrote to remind local authorities of the importance of not closing such schools. She might also remember that rural primary schools were closing at the rate of 30 a year when the previous Conservative Government were in power. Under this Government, however, and under the guidance that my hon. Friend has reminded educational authorities about, they have been closing at an average of only seven a year.
Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition referred to abolishing the stop and search account form. In the area for which I am Member of Parliament, my constituents and I are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than is the case elsewhere, and the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal worries me greatly. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the only way to get more police on the beat is by investing more money in the Metropolitan police, not less?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We need to make sure that the police have the power to stop and search so that people on the streets of London and our other towns and cities can be kept safe. However, we must also make absolutely certain that we have the right accountability so that we can be sure that the police act fairly, as both we and they intend. She is right to remind the House that the police are able to carry out their work because of the extra investment that has been made to increase their numbers and pay. Those who would prefer the Metropolitan police budget to be cut, as the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) does, would put all of that at risk.
First, may I, on behalf of my party, join in the warm welcome that has been extended to Mrs. Pay on her deserved appointment as the new Serjeant at Arms?
I welcome the Leader of the House’s announcement that there will be separate debates next Monday on the police and local government settlements, and that there will also be separate debates, next Tuesday and a fortnight later, on the local government settlements for Wiltshire and Shropshire. Will she confirm that each of the proposed structural changes in the counties of Cornwall, Northumberland and Durham will be the subject of separate debates? I gather that the relevant orders will be considered upstairs in Committee, but I hope that we can have a full debate on each.
This week, the House has been debating the Lisbon treaty and the European Union (Amendment) Bill, and more debates will take place in the next few weeks. Whatever view we take on those subjects, we have learned from experience that the House does not have a proper procedure for dealing with and scrutinising treaties. Will the Leader of the House undertake to talk to colleagues and come back as soon as possible with some proposals for a better mechanism for looking at any treaties that the Government are considering entering into? By definition, it is too late by the time a treaty is signed to do anything about it and, as a result, the House’s only option is to take it or leave it.
A few weeks ago, the Leader of the House kindly said that she would consider the suggestion that, as well as the Welsh day debate in March, which is now well established, and the debate on women's issues, which is well established and coincides approximately with international women's day, we have a debate on the role of the Commonwealth and Commonwealth priorities to coincide with Commonwealth day in March. I should be grateful if she confirmed, before the House breaks for half-term, that that will be possible. I am sure that it would be welcomed, not least given events in places such as Kenya.
Yesterday, the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons was published. It contained a horrifying statistic—a 40 per cent. increase in suicides in prisons—and criticised much of current policy. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would greatly support an early debate on the report to help the Government to get the policy right, rather than set out on a policy and then be told by an inspector that it is not doing what it should do.
Two days ago, a report by an assiduous and esteemed national newspaper journalist stated that there will soon be a White Paper on proposed changes to Law Officers’ functions and the inter-relationship of Law Officers and the Director of Public Prosecutions. That is a highly controversial and important matter, not least as evidenced by the previous Attorney-General agreeing to the discontinuance of proceedings against BAE. Will the Leader of the House undertake that we will have an early opportunity to debate that and that there will not be further leaks of what the White Paper might say before it is published?
The way in which the House deals with the important issue of local government restructuring orders takes account of the approach taken by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are taking on the Floor of the House next week and the week after the House returns from the recess two issues in relation to two counties.
On the procedure for dealing with treaties, we have a Bill that enacts a treaty and we have sought with the latest Bill to give as much time as possible to deal—[Hon. Members: “Not enough.”] Hon. Members say, “Not enough”, but we have afforded the Committee stage of that Bill more days of debate than were afforded to the Nice treaty, the Amsterdam treaty and the European—[Interruption.]
We have afforded this House more days of debate in Committee on that Bill than were afforded the Nice treaty, the Amsterdam treaty and the Single European Act put together. We have given many days of debate on that.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Welsh day and international women's day and asked about Commonwealth day. I shall consider whether that matter should be the subject of a topical debate.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the worrying issue of suicide in prisons. I recognise that that concern is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I notice that there are, on motions for the Adjournment of the House, debates next Monday on an inspectorate of prisons report and next Thursday on suicide prevention strategies. The House seeks to debate that matter regularly.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the functions of the Law Officers. He will remember that, in his statement on the governance of Britain, the Prime Minister undertook to consider reform of the Law Officers' functions. There has been a discussion and consultation, and when proposals are made on that important issue they will be brought before the House.
The Leader of the House will be aware that there have been many debates on the Post Office in recent times, but I am particularly concerned about the recent Post Office consultation on the closures. I would like a debate on that, or at least I would like her to pass my concerns on to the relevant Minister. I received a letter from Richard Lynds, who is the network development manager for the Post Office. When I tried to contact him about the changes, I was given a call centre. No one knew who he was. When I contacted the chairman's office, I found that he had gone on holiday during the consultation period. It is not good enough. The nearest post office to Nether Kellet, one of the post offices in my constituency, is two miles away. It is on a road where there is no footpath. Pensioners could not even walk to it. They would have to change buses to get there. This is really unacceptable.
I shall raise my hon. Friend’s account of the unsatisfactory way in which the consultation has operated in respect of a post office in her constituency with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. We must ensure that, if at any stage a Government Department or agency engages in consultation, it is genuine consultation; otherwise it is worse than simply taking the decision itself. The last thing people want is to be told that they are being consulted and then not be consulted at all.
At the heart of the problems that we have experienced this week, which must not continue from now on, is the Government's savage guillotine of the Committee stage of the European treaty Bill. We have had only four hours of debate on the Committee stage to date. It is guillotined so savagely that the borders, visas, asylum and immigration parts of the home affairs provisions that the Government graciously gave to the House were not debated.
I was most certainly there. The Leader of the House, in whose name this atrocious motion was tabled, has bound the ability of the Speaker to protect the interests of the House in discussing something of constitutional importance, which is necessarily debated on the Floor of the House in detail. That has been denied to the House. It is traducing parliamentary democracy. It is even worse than the day when the Government deemed a Bill to have been considered when it had not been.
We have sought to provide adequate debating time for the House. The hon. Gentleman will know, of course, that the Bill enacts the treaty. We wanted to ensure that the house has an opportunity to debate not only the clauses of the Bill and the amendments that have been selected by Mr. Speaker but the substance of the treaty that the Bill brings into force. That is why we have proposed that there should be an opportunity to debate the substance of the treaty at the same time as discussing amendments to the individual clauses.
As for the guillotine, I would say only that the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986 was guillotined on 1 July 1986. The motion was proposed by a Leader of the House whom many of us think was a great Leader of the House: John Biffen. I know that the hon. Gentleman is consistent in these matters, so I imagine that he opposed that as well.
I see that the hon. Gentleman did so.
We must ensure that we have enough time to scrutinise not only the clauses and the amendments but the treaty that the clauses bring into effect.
I did not fully respond to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). He stated that the difficulty is that by the time a treaty that has been negotiated and committed to by the Government comes before the House, it is on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
That is a difficulty facing all Governments and legislatures, but he proposes that we consider whether there might be a different way to do things, as did the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) yesterday in the Modernisation Committee.
May I take my friend to early-day motion 826, which is on the Order Paper in my name?
[That this House notes with grave concern the plight of scores of people who have received multiple penalty notices couched in the most threatening terms from Effective Car Park Management (ECPM) for allegedly parking without authorisation on private land at the Lomeshaye Business Village in Pendle owned by Bizspace; notes that ECPM is registered at Companies House as MJB Car Park Management but that neither company is registered with the umbrella trade association for the parking enforcement industry, the British Parking Association; acknowledges that only members of the British Parking Association can request and receive data electronically from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA); is astonished to learn that the DVLA has been supplying Matthew Brough, the owner of ECPM, with personal data from the DVLA database on the grounds that the company’s request is made by paper and not electronically and calls on the Government to close this loophole without delay; further believes that Bizspace should terminate its contract with Matthew Brough forthwith; and considers that Brough’s business practices are wholly unacceptable and that he is a cheat and a fraudster and that the debt collectors mentioned in the parking tickets have no rights of entry or rights to seize goods and that anyone with a ticket who believes they have been entrapped by Brough should refuse to pay and insist on the matter going before the courts.]
Does my friend share my astonishment that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is giving out personal details from its database to shady operators and crooks such as Matthew Brough from Effective Car Park Management, who is stinging and fleecing my constituents by clamping their cars and trying to extort huge sums of money from people who unwittingly park on private land? It is a serious matter; I expect a serious reply.
My hon. Friend raises two important issues. The first is bogus clamping, which is being looked into by the Department for Transport, as is the regulatory regime by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. We all want traffic to move freely—we do not want random parking in breach of the law clogging up the roads—but we also do not want cowboys ripping people off by clamping their cars, sometimes leaving them very vulnerable and isolated as a result of not being able to drive away. He also raises the question of the use of data, which will come within the purview of the data review set up by the Cabinet Office.
In compensation for the breach of his solemn promise to grant the British people a referendum on the treaty incorporating the substance of the European constitution, the Prime Minister made a further promise that this House would be able in Committee to consider that treaty line by line. Will the Leader of the House confirm that under the present timetable, no Committee consideration will be given to items in the treaty relating to immigration, asylum and border controls? Not a single amendment and not a single line of the treaty relating to those matters will be considered in Committee by this House. Is it her intention thereby to breach that promise by the Prime Minister as well? The one—
If I could just finish, we had six hours of debate on how the House would handle the Bill—six hours of debate in which all Members had an opportunity to raise questions on the procedure for dealing with the Bill, followed by a vote. It has been decided how the Bill should be scrutinised by the House, and we are following through on that procedure.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that there is a great deal of concern about the Law Lords’ decision on 17 October regarding pleural plaques. They have deemed that pleural plaques, which are caused by exposure to asbestos, are not compensatable. She will also have seen the two early-day motions, 812 and 815, which stand in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) respectively, and which ask for remedy.
[That this House recognises the anguish that has been caused by the failure of the House of Lords to overturn the Court of Appeal decision that prevents sufferers of pleural plaques from claiming compensation on the grounds of negligence; notes that there are thousands of sufferers in former industrial heartlands such as the North East who have been left without the compensation they deserve; and calls on the Government to take urgent action to ensure those suffering from pleural plaques receive justice.]
[That this House calls on the Government to explore every avenue possible to reverse the recent decision of the Law Lords which has denied compensation to the victims of asbestosis pleural plaques.]
Will she consider a debate, perhaps a topical debate, on pleural plaques, and will she convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice that the issue needs to be remedied in this place?
My hon. Friend will know that much has been done on the question of those who suffer horrible and debilitating respiratory disease as a result of work that they have undertaken, and those who have lost their lives as a result of contracting such diseases, because he has raised the issues in the House and caused progress to be made on just compensation. As for his further question, the Prime Minister is considering it with Ministers. If further proposals are made, they will no doubt be brought to the House.
Might we have an urgent debate or statement on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which is the subject of a number of reports today? There has been one from Oxfam, and one in The Times concerning the possibility of military training. I draw the Leader of the House’s attention particularly to the front page of The Independent today, which highlights the case of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, a journalism student who is apparently facing the death penalty, after having had very little by way of a fair trial and being denied independent legal representation, for the crime of downloading and distributing a report on the oppression of women. Surely, given our current involvement in that country, the Government must have a view on the situation. Surely we will not just sit back and allow that monstrous act to take place without doing anything about it.
There is concern at all times about the situation in Afghanistan; indeed, the issue was raised yesterday during Prime Minister’s questions. The Government are determined to stand up for human rights, including freedom of speech, in all countries, and are of course concerned about the matter.
My right hon. and learned Friend will know that there are many children in care establishments throughout Great Britain. We have a serious shortage of foster parents, and many children remain in care establishments until the age of 16, when they are deemed adults who can be independent. It is a serious situation. They are our tomorrows—children who will define Great Britain. The issue is important enough for the Government to have a debate on it. They must have a view about how the situation can be repaired.
There is concern in Government that we should do more for those children who are most dependent on the state and who often appear to be most failed by it, namely children taken into care. She will know of the strategy for children in care, which started in the Department for Education and Skills, and of the work being taken forward in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I will draw her comments to the attention of my right hon. Friends.
A short question on the European Union (Amendment) Bill: does the imagination of the Leader of the House stretch so far as to say that what has taken place to date amounts to detailed, line-by-line consideration of the contents of the Bill and the treaty? Yes or no will do as an answer.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on Network Rail and the delay in running trains from the Ebbw valley to Newport? When the line eventually opens, trains will run to Cardiff but not Newport. Network Rail says that it is because major investment in signalling is needed, yet my constituents Mrs. Ruth Gray and Mr. Ted Beacham and my local paper, the South Wales Argus, say that freight trains are running on the line, and indeed that trains used for driver training in the Ebbw valley all come out of Newport. A debate would at least give us the opportunity to find out what is really going on.
The Leader of the House has announced motions for debate next Thursday relating to European scrutiny reform. Is she aware that this morning, the Liaison Committee discussed those proposals and registered deep anxiety about aspects of them? Will she now respect the Liaison Committee’s request that next Thursday those motions be not moved?
The question of European scrutiny by the House is a matter for the whole House, rather than for Government policy. We know that we have to improve the way that the House scrutinises European legislation. We undertook to see whether we could come up with a better process of scrutiny to bring back to the House to debate and to decide upon. We need to do that as soon as we can because the old rules under which we have been operating run out three months after the time when we decided to review them, so we face some time constraints. Above all, we want to reach agreement across the House on the matter. I shall therefore consider how to respond to the points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised on behalf of the Liaison Committee. We want to get something that everyone agrees is an improvement on the way that we currently scrutinise European business.
Would it be possible to have an early debate on the explicable reluctance of senior schools to display and distribute information and advice on the avoidance of forced marriages to their students? Last summer, the Department for Education and Skills sent round some good guidelines on the subject, which seem to have been ignored.
I will bring the issue to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Perhaps Ofsted can shed some light on the matter. We need to be sure that all children in every school get the highest quality teaching, education and information.
May we please have a statement on the intended programming of the Report stage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill? Given that criticism was expressed in some quarters about the limited scope for parliamentary scrutiny of the sexual orientation regulations and of the new offence of incitement to homophobic hate crime, both of which Government measures I enthusiastically supported, may I suggest to the Leader of the House that it is in the Government’s interest, in Parliament’s interest and, above all, in the public interest that when the Report stage of the Bill takes place, she should err on the side of generosity in ensuring that all points of view on the controversial features of the Bill are comprehensively aired?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that has been drawn to my attention by a number of Members in all parts of the House. We have all been impressed by the way that the House of Lords has dealt with the Bill and discussed it in an informed and responsible way. I intend to ensure that we have sufficient time for a serious and good debate on that important measure in this House.
Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the failures of the Tory-controlled South East England regional assembly to address major transport problems in east Kent, in particular its failure to designate Dover as a regional transport hub, and the failure to dual the last few miles of the A2, which is the road to the busiest ferry port in the world?
Successive Leaders of the House have promised me and the House that there would be a further debate on the tragic situation in Zimbabwe. Elections are due in that country shortly. This is absolutely the right time that the House should express its views on that tragedy. Will the Leader of the House accept a request from me to have even a short debate—a topical debate—on the subject next week or as soon as there is time for it?
May we have a debate in Government time about the behaviour of Britain’s six leading energy companies, which at a time of making record profits are increasing prices by eight, nine and even 10 times the rate of inflation? We are capping public sector workers’ pay in the fight against inflation. It is time we capped those price increases as well.
My hon. Friend will know, as the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, that there is a concern about increasing energy costs on the back of increasing fuel prices. The regulator is required to look at that. As my hon. Friend knows, we have dramatically increased the winter fuel payments and we are moving forward on the matter of insulation. We want to ensure that despite the increasing price of oil and gas, people can afford to keep their homes warm.
The Treasury yesterday published a consultation document on financial stability and protecting depositors. It contains a large number of suggestions for consultation, including proposals that would mean a swingeing reduction in transparency by the Bank of England in the case of its offering support to another failing bank. Notwithstanding the merits or demerits of that case, the consultation was issued without an oral statement and there has been no opportunity yet to probe the Chancellor or the Government about their thinking on that matter. Will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor to make an oral statement on the new consultation in good time before the end of the consultation period in three months, so that those in the House and outside can take on board the Government’s thinking when finalising their submissions to the report?
No doubt the hon. Gentleman can contribute to the consultation along the lines that he set out in his comments, and no doubt they will be considered.
On the subject of the economy, we usually hear a great deal of doom and gloom from the Opposition. I take the opportunity to welcome the 800 new jobs in Nissan in the north-east, and congratulate all those in the Nissan team who were involved in bringing those jobs to the north-east.
Two weeks ago I visited Stockport academy to see the progress of the new £27 million building. I was struck by the enthusiasm of the students for their new school, which has had an impact on attendance and behaviour. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make time for a debate so that I can persuade the Minister for Schools and Learners to include more Stockport schools in the Government’s successful Building Schools for the Future programme?
I congratulate the Stockport academy and the schools in Stockport on whose behalf my hon. Friend speaks. Perhaps she will have an opportunity to put those points to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families at oral questions next Monday.
Standards and Privileges
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House—
(i) approves the Fourth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 280);
(ii) endorses the recommendations in paragraphs 33, 34 and 36; and
(iii) accordingly suspends Mr Derek Conway from the service of the House for a period of ten sitting days.—[Ms Harman.]
It is always highly regrettable when the House has to debate a motion of this kind. The matter has come to the House after a full process of investigation and consideration by a recognised due process. The Committee on Standards and Privileges, following the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, published on Monday its fourth report of this Session, entitled “Conduct of Mr. Derek Conway”.
The Government have arranged this debate at the earliest practicable time. The debate will consider the case in the context of the standards of conduct that are set out by the House and that the public who elect us expect us all to uphold. The matters before us have been investigated by the Commissioner and then considered by the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I thank the former commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, for his work and commitment to this, his last inquiry. I also thank the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and all hon. Members who served on that Committee for their work on behalf of the House. It is very important work.
The Committee has concluded that there has been a failure to meet the standards expected and the Committee regarded the conduct as
“a serious breach of the rules”.
The motion before the House today approves the report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, endorses the recommendations of the Committee and proposes suspension for 10 days. I ask the House to support the motion.
My Committee’s report, which forms the basis for this debate, was published at 11 o’clock on Monday. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), the subject of the report, came to the House that afternoon to make his personal statement. He said that he accepted our criticisms in full and unreservedly apologised. That prompt admission, which I welcome, will hopefully enable the House to agree to the three-paragraph motion on the Order Paper.
This report on the hon. Gentleman’s conduct has evoked considerable interest and comment both inside and outside the House. Some of the comment has related to the fact that the hon. Gentleman had previously employed his elder son as a research assistant. The complaint from Mr. Barnbrook related to the employment of the hon. Gentleman’s younger son, and the commissioner’s investigation focused solely on that. Complaints have now been made to the commissioner about the employment of his elder son; under our rules, those complaints fall to the commissioner to consider.
In the past few days, my Committee has been accused of being both a kangaroo court and a gentleman’s club. In my view, both accusations are wide of the mark. At the heart of our system for dealing with complaints such as this one is the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards—an independent officer, appointed by the House, who investigates specific complaints about Members’ conduct. Before submitting a report to the Committee, the commissioner shares the factual sections of that report with the Member who is the subject of the complaint and makes any mutually agreed factual corrections. Having received the commissioner’s report, the Committee shares it in its entirety, including the commissioner’s conclusions, with the Member concerned, and invites his or her observations—written, oral or both. It does so before it enters into any consideration of the commissioner’s report. Before the Committee reaches its conclusions, any evidence that the Member gives is carefully weighed alongside the commissioner’s report and any other evidence.
Having chaired the Committee since 2001, I can testify to the fact that the Committee approaches the task of judging colleagues conscientiously and in an entirely non-partisan way. We strive to be fair to the House, which has asked us to enforce its rules, and we strive to be fair to the Member before us and to the public interest. In this case, as in all the others that I have brought to the House, our recommendations were unanimous. All 10 members of the Committee took part in the proceedings, and I am grateful to them for the way in which they handled this case.
As the record shows, the Committee has made tough recommendations to the House when, as in this case, they are justified. To those who say that the punishments that the House imposes on those who break its rules are disproportionately light, I would only add that, as this case and others before it have demonstrated, the reputational consequences of our reports can be fatal. I therefore reject any suggestion that the Committee is either a kangaroo court or a gentleman’s club. Our procedures are fair and transparent, and our judgments can have serious and far-reaching consequences for those who have breached the rules. Both the commissioner and the Committee approached this case just as they would any other. The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged the courtesy with which the commissioner treated him and has acknowledged that the Committee offered him every opportunity to explain his position.
As the Leader of the House said, this was the last case reported on by the previous commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, and I thank him once again for his characteristically thorough examination of this matter and clear recommendations to the Committee. His report speaks for itself.
At the heart of this case was whether Freddie Conway was appropriately remunerated for the tasks that he was required to perform, and whether the work was actually carried out. The commissioner concluded that Freddie’s rate of pay was unjustifiably high given his qualifications and experience, and that, on the balance of probabilities, he did not need consistently to work his full contracted hours to complete his work. The commissioner also found that bonus payments had been made in excess of the permitted levels. My Committee endorsed those conclusions. Given some of the press comment, however, I should stress that neither the commissioner nor the Committee asserts that Freddie Conway did no work for his father.
A difficulty for the commissioner and my Committee in this case has been the virtually complete absence of evidence of the work that Freddie Conway actually performed, not least when he was at university in Newcastle. The Committee made it clear that it was not for the hon. Gentleman to establish his innocence, but frankly we were astonished that after three years and a substantial amount of expenditure, there was no independent evidence of Freddie’s output—nor, apparently, could anyone outside the family be found who had seen him working. As the Committee commented on a case in 2004:
“It is…Members’ responsibility to ensure that, if requested, they can properly justify any use of voted money, in the same way as any other recipient.”
The hon. Gentleman has admitted that he failed to keep adequate records, and has apologised for his failure to do so. It is also common ground that bonus payments were made that exceeded the authorised ceiling.
What was the hon. Gentleman’s defence to the commissioner’s conclusions about the level of his son’s salary? In essence, he consistently maintained that, as his son’s salary was within the Department of Resources’ approved scale, he was entitled to set it at his discretion. The Committee rejected that argument. The salary scale, at the time of the original appointment, ranged from £12,184 to £29,353. Given the extent of that range, the Committee did not believe, as a matter of principle, that Members’ discretion could be regarded as completely unfettered. A judgment is clearly called for.
The question that we had to address was whether the hon. Gentleman had exercised his judgment sufficiently unreasonably for the payments to constitute improper use of the staffing allowance. The Committee concluded that it did. Freddie Conway was just 19, had just left school following his A-levels and had no experience. Department of Finance and Administration guidance would have suggested a salary at, or close to, the recommended London entry point of £16,614 full-time. Yet Freddie’s father, by his own admission, took no account of that, and paid him the full-time equivalent of £25,970. The Committee took the view that that was an improper use of the allowance.
Taking all this together, the Committee has made three recommendations that it is asking the House to approve today. The first is that the hon. Gentleman reimburse the House for the sums overpaid to his son by way of bonus. That is the recommendation in paragraph 33 of the report. The second, set out in paragraph 34, is that the hon. Gentleman reimburse the House £6,000 in recognition of the over-generous salary paid to his son. The Committee considered that, whatever other action the House took, some recompense for the sum improperly paid out would be appropriate. For the reasons set out in paragraph 34 of the report, it proposes a payment of £6,000 by the hon. Gentleman in recognition of that. Finally, in recognition of the overall seriousness of this case, the Committee recommends that the hon. Gentleman be suspended from the service of the House for 10 sitting days.
There are two other matters on which I wish to touch briefly before I conclude. The first is the speculation that the Committee or the House should refer this matter to the police for investigation. As the House will know, Members of Parliament enjoy no general immunity from the criminal law; anyone can refer a matter to the police for investigation at any time, if they have evidence to suggest that a criminal offence has been committed. Both the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and my Committee consider, if necessary after taking legal advice, whether there is sufficient evidence to justify our doing so in any particular case in the light of all the relevant facts. On the other hand, there is no reason, as I am sure the House will agree, for either the Committee or the commissioner to adopt automatically a presumption that a Member who is the subject of a complaint may have committed a criminal offence. The Committee was satisfied on all the evidence before it that reporting to the House, rather than referral to the police, was the right way forward in this case.
The second matter is whether Members should continue to be permitted to employ relatives, or others with whom they have other than an arm’s length relationship. At this point, I say to the House—and, indeed, to all the newspapers who have been ringing up since Monday—that I employ a member of my family, who is remunerated out of my parliamentary allowance. That is a debate for another day, along with a debate about what steps the House needs to take to address the reputational damage that this case has done.
In the meantime, I just say to the House that Members’ use of allowances is a perennially sensitive issue and that allegations of real or perceived misuse are damaging. This is money that our constituents have paid for through their taxes. It is important that Members can demonstrate robustly, if challenged, that their use of allowances is above reproach, particularly where they have a relationship with the employee that might suggest an element of personal benefit. We should set ourselves similar requirements to those that we would expect of others responsible for the expenditure of public money, as a predecessor Committee suggested in 2003. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup has paid the price for overlooking that principle. I commend the motion to the House.
I should like to support the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges in respect of the motion and to draw some general points from his report, as he did. I do so knowing that while we may individually be held in very high esteem by our constituents, collectively that is not so; it is difficult to think how much lower our collective reputation might sink among voters generally.
There are at least four lessons to draw from this report. The first concerns the punishment. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said that other events had come into play and that it was difficult to think of a more severe punishment, but the Committee has been more severe on other Members in other reports, and those Members go around this place as happy as Larry. One of the lessons that I hope that the Committee will think about, not as regards specific cases but generally as regards its policy, is whether our series of punishments is adequate. If this example of what I would see as embezzlement had occurred on this scale in, say, the Refreshment Department, we would expect the person involved to leave the employment of this establishment on the day it was discovered. I believe that we should treat ourselves in a similar manner to how other people employed by this House would be treated.
Secondly, I want to make a plea about the employment of family members. I do so as somebody with no immediate family and so with no vested interest. The circumstances of Members of Parliament and those whom they employ are unique. We work on at least two sites over peculiar hours. I hope that there will be no rush by Members of this House to change the arrangements whereby family members can be employed if they are employed properly. It is proper for us to be clear about expenditure, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said, and it is not improper for us to agree that if family members are employed we can at least present to the Fees Office evidence that they have the qualifications for those jobs. However, given the arguments that I have heard, I would be against changing the rules about Members employing members of their families.
The third lesson concerns audit. I am amazed that the only case that has been put up against audit is based on the sovereignty of Parliament. Our constituents must give a hollow laugh at that when they witness how we have conceded our powers to check—not defeat, but check—the Executive and how we have allowed powers to go willy-nilly from this place to Brussels. There is no comparison between that movement of sovereignty out of this Chamber and the wish that our expenses should be properly audited. It is proper that as events change we should be prepared to consider the case put to us that our expenses should be properly audited.
My last point is about the balance between our salaries and expenses. I have been in the House for long enough to know Members who were here under the Wilson Government. At that time there was wage restraint for the population as a whole, which was applied to us. Members reported to me that the then Chief Whip went round the Tea Room saying to people, “You can vote for the wage restriction on your pay because we’re adjusting allowances—you get the message, don’t you?” The balance between our allowances and our salary is out of kilter. I do not think that our allowances are improper given the job that we are expected to do, but when we ask an outside body to look at our pay, we should be mindful of the fact that although we are overpaid in the eyes of many of our constituents, given their wages, we are certainly not overpaid compared with the responsibilities that we hold and the pay of people with comparable responsibilities elsewhere.
To sum up, first, I question whether the punishment in such cases is adequate. Secondly, I make a plea for the employment of family members. If we did not abide by that, how would we treat partners differently? Would we have some sort of co-habitation rules—and if so, who would we ask to enforce them? The situation would become absurd. I hope that we will consider carefully how we shall audit our expenses. Behind all this—the tension that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire alluded to—is the extraordinary position that we now find ourselves in whereby our allowances are considerably greater than our basic pay.
As the Leader of the House made clear, this matter comes before us following the investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards and Privileges Committee. I join her in thanking the former parliamentary commissioner for his work. I also thank the members of the Committee for their work, which they carry out diligently on behalf of this House and in the best interests of this House.
I endorse the recommendations made by the Standards and Privileges Committee and support the motion tabled by the Leader of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) described in some detail the Committee’s recommendations and said a little about its investigations. It did indeed find that the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) had “misused the Staffing Allowance” and
“also seemed to be oblivious to the broader reputational risks to the House of any perception of personal benefit to his family.”
All Members of this House should remember that in using public funds we have a duty to ensure that we use those funds properly and within the rules set. The Committee’s report also makes it clear how important it is for Members to recognise the impact of the behaviour of an individual Member on the reputation not only of MPs or politicians generally but on the reputation of this House. As the Committee said:
“Members’ use of allowances is a perennially sensitive issue, and allegations of real or perceived misuse risk damage to the reputation of the House as an institution, as well as to the personal reputation of individual Members.”
Our behaviour, how we conduct ourselves, and how we use public money do not matter only for us as individuals or for political parties; they matter because they affect the views that people have of this institution. It behoves all of us to remember that in all that we do, we carry not just our own reputations but the reputation of this House. I support the motion.
It is a difficult matter for a Committee to pass judgment on a fellow Member, even more so in cases where the Member belongs to the same political party as oneself. The Committee has carried out its work with the usual integrity that we expect, and we are grateful for its report. I have no criticism whatsoever of the manner in which it set about its work.
This case understandably gives rise to concerns about how our expenses are claimed. Perhaps some hon. Members will feel that the criticism being voiced in the press is without any reason or justification, and that the media misunderstand all about our expenses. We are not crooks; we are honest, and when someone makes claims unfairly and breaks the rules, we see what happens. Indeed, we would not want to go through what the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) rightly went through on Monday. Whether there should be a more severe punishment, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, is a matter of opinion.
The process is lacking at the moment, in that there is insufficient transparency. Yes, money is claimed for perfectly legitimate reasons; I have no doubts about that. But that is not the view of the public. It may be that there is a lack of understanding on the part of the public about what expenses are for. I have said previously that I do not pay expenses to my secretary; I pay her a salary, and I do the same for my assistant in the constituency office. Nevertheless, the question arises whether there is a better way of ensuring that the public can to some extent be satisfied that the money that can be claimed, which is a very large sum—more than £144,000 excluding travel expenses—is spent in the manner that we would expect of other organisations. We expect those bodies to have the transparency and control that we, perhaps, do not.
We are constantly preaching to other organisations about how important it is for proper controls to be in place where public money is concerned—but that practice seems to be lacking on our own part. The situation is even more annoying, because we are honest. We claim money that we believe to be absolutely essential for the carrying out of our parliamentary duties. I do not know whether everyone does, but I welcome the fact that each year the amount claimed is published—a state of affairs that arises from the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It would be appalling if we did otherwise.
However, questions have been raised. For example, the Senior Salaries Review Body has suggested that the National Audit Office should take a random sample of a number of claims. I know that that idea is being looked into, but why should that not happen? What possible criticism could we have of that idea if we are claiming money properly and legitimately according to the rules, as we say we are? Why should the NAO not be involved? I do not understand why there should be any reluctance on our part about that.
I do not employ any of my relatives, but I see no reason why there should be a ban on a partner or a relative being employed, as long as everything is above board—as, in the unfortunate case we are discussing at the moment, it was not. I am against such a ban, but would it not be right, without going to extremes, to say that any partner or relative employed should be listed in the Register of Members’ Interests? If the arrangement is above board, it is nothing to be ashamed about. If X employs his or her partner, it would be revealed in the register. I do not see why that should be a problem.
I shall conclude on this note. I do not altogether agree with the assertion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that our reputation is at rock bottom. That could have been said for centuries. Much of the criticism of our work is wrong and misplaced. However, it is in our own interest and for the good of our reputation that the manner in which we claim public money be shown to be transparent and justified, and the necessary controls be in place. I am not satisfied that they currently are, and I hope that this case means that changes and reforms that help the reputation of the House of Commons will take place.
As the Leader of the House said, these are always difficult moments for us as a House. That is right, and we should be careful in our response to such matters.
I support the motion tabled in the name of the Leader of the House, and I will invite my colleagues to do the same. I join her and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in thanking and paying tribute to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee, who do a very difficult job exceptionally well, with discretion, courtesy and the proper propriety. That is important.
You will remember, Mr. Speaker, that last week we debated the Senior Salaries Review Body report. Apart from colleagues who served on the Standards and Privileges Committee, none of us had knowledge at that point of what was to be published this week. That demonstrates the proper way in which such matters should be handled. The work was done by the Committee, it was published when the Committee was ready, and only then did it receive publicity. I too give thanks to the previous commissioner for his work, and I welcome his successor. Such jobs are very important, and the procedure works well. There is no criticism of the procedure involved, and if it errs on the side of caution, that is right. It should always presume people to be innocent unless the evidence proves otherwise.
In your earlier statement, Mr. Speaker, you reminded us that you had already considered the decisions we took last Thursday. At that time, we put forward three specific matters for a group of colleagues chaired by you to reflect upon, one of which was alluded to by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).
We asked for further consideration to be given to a lower limit on Members’ unreceipted expenditure; there was all-party agreement on that. The SSRB proposed that the limit should be £50, and my colleagues and I support that. We urge the Members Estimate Committee and the advisory panel on Members’ allowances to agree to that change as soon as possible; I hope that it will be agreed by 1 April so that it can come into force at the beginning of the next financial year.
The second matter—this was the one referred to by the hon. Member for Walsall, North—was the SSRB recommendation that the National Audit Office should have the power to audit a selection of Members all the time. In other words, there should be spot checks; any of us would be aware that we might be audited at any time. I support that, and so do my colleagues. I hope that the House authorities can bring back that recommendation for agreement in this House, so that it takes effect from 1 April. Such a move would allow spot checks every year on a random cross-section of colleagues in the House.
Thirdly, we asked the authorities to consider recognising partners who are sole beneficiaries as having the same rights for pension purposes as spouses and civil partners. In other words, people who are recognised as partners should have recognised status.
Arising from that, I would like to make two points about families. There seems to be a perfectly legitimate case for allowing colleagues who are married or have recognised partners to work with their partners. I speak as someone who is not in that position, so I am not speaking from self-interest. The job that someone does, working with a person to serve their constituents, can often best be done in a similar way to how things operate in a small business, for example.
However, if there is to be continuing acceptance of family members working for colleagues, there is not a strong case for more than one member of the family doing that, or for their being paid more than the going rate for the job, as recommended in the rules we set ourselves—within the parameters referred to by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, such as competence, age and experience. We clearly cannot make current or past arrangements suddenly illegal if people have made a commitment through a contract to a member of their family. Provided that they follow the rules properly, that situation must be allowed to continue. For the future, however, there seems be a case for allowing only one family member to be employed, and at the right rate for the job.
Confidentiality for the people whom we employ concerns many hon. Members. Until the previous Parliament, my friend Nigel Jones—now Lord Jones of Cheltenham—sat on the Liberal Democrat Benches in the House of Commons. He suffered a terrible injury and witnessed the death in his constituency office of a person whom he employed, and who was working at the time on constituency matters. I know of other colleagues and their staff who are currently under threat from members of the public, and who are being supported by the police. Indeed, in the past the Leader of the House has been in that position, as have I.
We must therefore be careful about separating the proper accountability of Members of Parliament for public money and the way in which it is spent—for example, by declaring that we use our £90,000 to pay the wages of two, three or four members of staff—from putting the names of all those people in the public domain and identifying them as working for us. Doing the latter would mean that their addresses and their families could also be in the public domain. Members’ staff are not in the same position as others who are paid from the public purse, because they are especially exposed. I have been in my surgery with people working for me, some paid and some volunteering, who have been put in difficult positions, with angry, aggressive and unstable constituents. Many colleagues from all parties have been in the same position.
I support the Committee’s careful and considered findings and I believe that the recommendations are right. We all have a duty to ensure that we spend every penny of public money properly. I hope that we can agree to the audit proposals and the lower maximum expense allowance without receipts soon, and that we will be careful when we determine whom we employ, and consider the implications.
For all such people other than a spouse or registered partner, we should, in 2008, apply full proper employment practice. We should give people of all backgrounds equal opportunities to work for us. If we do not, we shall be reinforcing the traditional white male-dominated society that pertains here, because there are more white men than other colleagues in this place. I hope that modern employment law will work, and that people whom the taxpayer and Members of Parliament employ will be recruited openly. I also hope that they will be employed in a way that employment law will ensure is entirely justified in future.
I believe that the first part of the speech of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will meet with more cross-party agreement than the latter part.
I want to make three points. First, when I became a Member of Parliament, I tried to follow the advice of always applying the local newspaper test, which is: am I doing something that I would not want to read in my local newspaper? If the answer is yes, I should either admit to it or not do it. That does not mean that one cannot do unpopular or unwise things, but at least they should not be done secretly.
Secondly, I believe that if Ministers’ names and private offices are published in directories and people know who our children are when they are at school or college, we should not be too prissy about including the names of those who work for us on letterheads. If they work with us and engage with the outside world, they should not hide their names. I therefore do not go along with the final remarks of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey.
Thirdly, the view of some outside that we should not employ members of our families or household is wrong. When I first stood for election in 1974, it was against a Labour Member of Parliament who was over 60 and had moved in with his competent secretary as her spouse. The idea that she would have to find some other Member of Parliament for whom to work because they had got together and lived in the same place is absurd.
The report and the commissioner’s findings were based on the balance of probability. The Committee should have applied that standard eight years ago. I am glad that it has now adopted it and that leaks, which are often distorting and issued for partisan or personal reasons, of conclusions of Committee reports no longer occur.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House—
(i) approves the Fourth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 280);
(ii) endorses the recommendations in paragraphs 33, 34 and 36; and
(iii) accordingly suspends Mr Derek Conway from the service of the House for a period of ten sitting days.
Holocaust Memorial Day
I beg to move, That this House has considered the matter of Holocaust memorial day.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) for suggesting this important and timely debate. His long-standing commitment to countering racism and intolerance is well known to those of us who have known him for many years. I am also grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for allowing the subject to be chosen today.
The Government’s commitment to promoting the aims and objectives of Holocaust memorial day is shared by hon. Members of all parties, and I commend that. Today’s debate is a valuable opportunity to demonstrate our strong and enduring commitment to holocaust remembrance. The lessons of the holocaust continue to be relevant to British society.
I am sure that the Minister agrees that the events held in the House—I went to two—and those in our constituencies, which are becoming more frequent, are valuable, have growing support and are increasingly effective in communicating the message about learning the lessons of what was done in the past, which we hope, pray and work to ensure will not happen in future.
I entirely agree, and I will shortly speak about not only national and international events, but the increase in local events, which is largely due to the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. It does an excellent job.
The holocaust is one of the most tragic events in human history. Its lessons are of universal relevance and have implications for us all. People of all faiths, cultures and races were victims of the Nazis. I strongly believe that the holocaust must have a permanent place in our collective memory. It is essential that we continue to hear the voices of survivors not only for now but for the benefit of future generations.
I have had the great privilege of sharing platforms with several holocaust survivors. Sadly, their numbers are dwindling; age is catching up with all of them. The Minister is right to say that their voices must continue to be heard. What might the Government be able to do in future when no one is left who has first-hand experience of the horror of the second world war?
The hon. Gentleman is right. In the past decade, it was therefore especially important to make the holocaust part of the curriculum at key stage 3. I hope that that work with the Department for Children, Schools and Families will make a difference in the longer term. The lessons that are passed down and the stories that are told at events such as the one in Liverpool at the weekend are also vital.
The Under-Secretary talks about lessons being learned. Does he accept that events in the world show that lessons have not been learned? The raison d’être of Holocaust memorial day is learning lessons about genocide, yet actions are taking place throughout the world, such as in Burma, against ethnic groups. Does he believe that the international community, including this country and the United Nations, should lead the world in tackling the repression and genocide that continue to happen?
The purpose of Holocaust memorial day is to learn and embed those lessons to make a difference for the future. As the hon. Gentleman says, we should learn the lessons for the future from man’s inhumanity to man.
With that in mind, the UK joined the Swedish and United States Governments in 1998 in establishing the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. In January 2000, 44 Governments from around the world attended the Stockholm international forum on holocaust education, remembrance and research. All those present signed the Stockholm declaration. The principles agreed that day have since been adapted to form the statement of commitment that underpins our own Holocaust memorial day commemoration.
This is probably an appropriate time for me to pay tribute to the work done by our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to ensure that Holocaust memorial day happened and to make the long-term commitment to it. He not only helped to bring in the commemoration, but made a commitment to ensure that it would last into the future.
Will my hon. Friend pay a resounding tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust? It takes young people from our schools on a year-by-year basis to Auschwitz and Birkenau, so that they can see the tyranny of evil that was perpetrated by the Nazi regime. The trust is a tremendous organisation that works assiduously to ensure that the young people in our communities know and do not forget.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Many of us in the House will have had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz with children from our local schools. I know that such visits have made a huge difference to the children around the country who have had the opportunity to see at first hand what happened in such places. The work of the trust is incredibly important, which is why we are backing it to the tune of about £1.5 million.
The date for this important commemoration, 27 January, was chosen because it is the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a powerful symbol of the horrors of the holocaust. We promote the UK Holocaust memorial day at international and national levels and increasingly, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, at local level.
Through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we work closely with our European and international partners to promote holocaust education and research. My Department, the Department for Communities and Local Government, provides £500,000 of annual core funding for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. This supports not only the holding of an annual national commemoration, but many of the local community activities. Five hundred local events have been held, and 23,000 people have already lit the virtual candle on the trust’s website. Many hundreds of us, if not more, were in Hope street in Liverpool to light a candle on Sunday as well. The importance of actively engaging young people has already been pointed out, and as I have said, the Government provide £1.5 million of annual funding for the Holocaust Educational Trust to support the participation of two pupils from every school and college in visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I want to touch on last Sunday’s national commemoration in Liverpool, which I had the privilege to attend, and which rightly included the experiences of those who had suffered persecution more recently, in the conflicts in Rwanda, Darfur and the former Yugoslavia. In addition to the national commemoration, the Liverpool organisers also succeeded in running an important series of events during the preceding fortnight. Those activities were hosted by local communities originating from as far afield as Chad, the Czech Republic, Darfur, Kosovo and Rwanda. I am sure that I have the backing of the whole House in commending Liverpool—the European city of culture—and, indeed, all the other cities and towns across the UK for their commitment to actively engaging their local communities and schools in marking this year’s Holocaust memorial day. That is what Holocaust memorial day is, and should be, all about.
In Liverpool, on Sunday, I had the privilege of sitting next to a gentleman whom I had never met before. His name was Martin Stern, and he had an extraordinary story to tell. He was born in the Netherlands in 1938. His father was a Jewish architect, whom his non-Jewish mother had married despite the Nazi Nuremberg laws. During the Nazi occupation of Holland, his father had hidden with the Dutch resistance. His father was captured, however, and sent first to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald, where he was killed. By this time, Martin was about five years old. He had a younger sister, but after she was born, his mother died from a hospital infection.
Martin Stern was taken in by a young Dutch couple, but they were soon arrested because Martin and his sister had been born of a Jewish parent. As a result, he was sent to the transit camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands and, later, with his one-year-old sister, to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. He and his sister—a five-year-old and a one-year-old—were among the 150 children at the camp. I learned from Martin at the weekend that about 15,000 children entered concentration camps during the second world war. He is one of about 100 who survived that experience.
Martin Stern and his younger sister were protected by a young woman in the concentration camp. She became like a mother to them, although when they were released, she was not allowed to look after them. He was reunited with her in the 1980s, and saw her before she passed away.
The time that I spent talking to Martin before the commemoration provided me with the beginning of an understanding of what it must have been like to have experienced the horrors of the holocaust. Despite having had that experience, Martin had the resolve to make a new life in this country, and to become an eminent doctor here. His story, and those of others like him, must never be forgotten.
I thank the Minister for giving way. May I point out to him that my constituency is Warley? The old constituency of Warley, West was merged. He has spoken movingly of the testimony of survivors, but many of them are now passing away. Will he pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, and tell us what the Government can do to ensure that those testimonies are captured and kept so that future generations can understand the horrors of the holocaust?
My right hon. Friend makes an exceedingly good point. I join him in paying tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust, as well as to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. They are doing a great deal of work in collecting information and stories. The day itself provided a great opportunity, and those of us who were in Liverpool learned a great deal from some of those personal testimonies. There must be opportunities for young people to visit not only Auschwitz but places such as Srebrenica, as some have as part of these trips, and to see the historical context and the stories associated with it. I hope that such visits will provide lasting memories that can be passed down the generations, because we must never forget the lessons of man’s inhumanity to man.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) on the part that he has played in ensuring that this topical debate could take place today. I should also like to say that the Minister’s opening speech struck exactly the right note. Parts of it—the ending, in particular—were extremely moving.
I have a personal interest in this debate, in a way, in that my family background is Jewish, although it is not the religion that I, in a flawed and faltering way, try to practise. I was not in Liverpool on Sunday, but my colleague, Baroness Warsi, the shadow Minister for Community Cohesion, was, as was my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who I see in his place; he was representing the leader of the Conservative party. I have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau and I have read some of the standard works on the holocaust. Although my family did not lose any of its members during the holocaust, I remember my father telling me when I was a child that his father bought a gun in the early part of the war—they were easier to get hold of then than they are now—with the intention of shooting the entire family if the Germans landed. I reflect that if things had been different, I might not be here today, although that consideration is not unique to me, as it applies to other hon. Members.
Reflecting on the holocaust, it is hard to comprehend—I am sure that hon. Members will share this view—the sheer scale of what happened. It was the worst act of state terrorism that has ever taken place in western Europe. It is also hard to grasp that this act took place in Europe. Those of us who are Europeans—all of us present today are Europeans—find it extremely difficult to grasp that this happened in our continent, which we like to think of as one of the centres of civilisation. It is the continent of Goethe, Mozart and Kant.
I am also very moved by what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. Is it not precisely because of the point he makes that we must encourage organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust to continue their work? It was only when I went to Auschwitz that I started to comprehend the industrial nature of what happened. The young people I was with were silent for virtually the whole trip home, as they sought to comprehend what they had seen. That is exactly why we must encourage the Government to support the Holocaust Educational Trust.
The hon. Lady makes an absolutely key point. She is now the third Member in the debate to highlight some of the difficulties of educating young people who are growing up today about what happened in Europe on such a vast scale 50 and more years ago. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) made the same point earlier. He and the hon. Lady are absolutely right.
If I understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, he said that it is difficult to comprehend how these events could have happened in Europe. He was not speaking about this particular period, but would he accept that sustained anti-Semitism has been dominant in Europe for centuries and that it would have been virtually impossible for the Nazis to do what they did if the Jews had not been attacked and persecuted over such a long period? Although Jews have perhaps had more security in this country than in most others since the 17th century, we need to remember that this country was the first in Europe to expel Jews. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the proclamation was made in July 1290, and the actual expulsion was in November—it was much the same as the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My point was that, as Europeans, we need to remember our common history and understand the roots of what happened. It is significant than in the 50 and more years since the war, the Churches—I am thinking particularly of the Roman Catholic Church—have changed key parts of their teaching and message to repudiate some of the inheritance of anti-Semitism that was present in that and other similar institutions. The hon. Gentleman is taking me where I want to go, as I now want to talk about the future as well as the past and to explain why this debate is so topical.
The Minister was quite right to intimate that the Jews were not the only victims of the holocaust; there were other groups such as Gypsies and, indeed, gay people. Crimes against humanity have taken place recently and are taking place elsewhere—in Rwanda, Darfur and Kosovo, for example. I understand from what the Minister said that those crimes were alluded to in the event in Liverpool on Sunday, which is obviously right and proper. Coming back to the present, however, it is a sober fact that anti-Semitism still, sadly, exists in Europe, perhaps particularly in eastern Europe and, indeed, in the UK.
In addition to commending the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, I would like to commend that of the Community Security Trust—the Minister will be familiar with it—and the all-party group on anti-Semitism. I see in their places the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and others associated with that group.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to add to the list of organisations that do such marvellous work in this area the Anne Frank Educational Trust, which has a touring exhibition throughout Britain, which has been going for many years? It draws everyone’s attention, including that of schools and communities across the country, to the horrors of the holocaust.
I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust. It has already been mentioned that two people from each constituency are invited to go on a trip to Auschwitz each year. What has not been mentioned is that MPs are also invited, and I would hope that every Member would encourage as many other Members as possible to participate in that trip. I was fortunate enough to go in October last year with more than 200 Scottish school pupils. It was a most memorable trip, and I would like to pay particular tribute to Rebecca Clark of Lawside academy in Dundee who recorded everyone’s views about it for the academy’s radio programme. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more hon. Members should participate in these trips?
Yes, and in saying so I am half making a commitment to go myself. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point.
When I was growing up, it was recognised that the main political source of anti-Semitism in the UK was neo-Nazi groups, but the picture today is slightly different. The neo-Nazi groups are still there, but there are others who express extreme views and who believe, for example, that Jews are the enemy of Islam. That is a subject of some interest to me as the Conservative MP with the largest number of Muslim constituents. I always find that view puzzling. My constituents are often keen to point out to me that Jews and Christians are “Ahl al-Kitab”—people of the book—who are recognised in Islam as fellow believers in one God. The extremist views that I referred to are certainly not those of mainstream Muslims.
On that particular point, is the hon. Gentleman aware that a malicious rumour has been circulating that holocaust teaching is not permitted and is being reduced in certain schools with large numbers of Muslim pupils? Speaking as a Member who represents a constituency with many such schools, may I absolutely reassure him that that is not the case? Indeed, schools in my constituency have participated in the Holocaust Educational Trust activities and I have sometimes joined them. There is a strong emphasis on holocaust teaching, which crosses all the faith communities. I would like to see all-party condemnation of that rumour.
I am sure that the hon. Lady is right. I was going to ask the Minister about that. According to my research, a document produced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families referred to one teacher in a school in northern England who had allegedly backed off from teaching the holocaust because of the reaction that, rightly or wrongly, they thought they would get from Muslim pupils. Perhaps the Minister can clear that up later.
While discussing Holocaust memorial day, I wanted to make passing reference to the Muslim Council of Britain, of which both the Government and, for the Conservatives, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones have in some respects been critical. The MCB this year decided to attend Holocaust memorial day, having boycotted it for many years. It is right to give credit where it is due—it has finally decided to attend.
In relation to keeping Holocaust memorial day alive, I want to press the Minister a little on anti-Semitism in Britain today in universities and schools. It is a sobering thought that the Government are paying capital costs for school security in, I believe, 12 local authority areas. That is a reminder that the terrible legacy of anti-Semitism, demonstrated in the holocaust, is not, I am afraid, entirely gone.
I want to ask the Minister three questions. First, the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government have a hate crime taskforce, which is reviewing evidence of campus anti-Semitism. Has that taskforce had an opportunity to report? If not, when will it do so? Secondly, there is a long-standing difficulty about British citizens, or at least people living in Britain, contributing to USA-based anti-Semitic websites. I understand that a prosecution may be due. If the Minister can give any news on that, I think the House would be grateful.
Thirdly, the Government are committed to recording different hate crimes. In a Westminster Hall debate—initiated, I think, by the all-party group—a Minister gave that commitment, but apparently only one in 10 recent anti-Semitic hate crimes has led to prosecution. That is a low proportion. Will the Minister comment on what the Government can do to raise the success rate?
In closing, I looked to the account of what happened in Liverpool and found what seemed to be an apposite quote from Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, which marries up the points about past and future that many hon. Members have made today:
“We can’t change the past. But each of us, by challenging prejudice and intolerance, can change the future.”
That is an entirely appropriate thought with which to end my contribution to this topical debate on Holocaust memorial day.
Order. This might be the appropriate point at which to remind Back-Bench Members that there is no time limit on their speeches, but I suspect that, unless they confine themselves to reasonably concise remarks, I shall not be able to call every Member. I hope that there will be a degree of co-operation across the House.
We have only one hour for this debate. Those on the Front Benches have been very generous in taking interventions. I will not take interventions, simply so that I can sit down as soon as I can. Please wave a yellow or a red card at me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I go over more than four or five minutes.
This is an important debate and I am glad that the Government have found time for it. Like other Members, I have visited Auschwitz. I was there on the 60th anniversary of the liberation, but I have taken my children on private visits to Poland—to Madjenek—to try to explain to them exactly what the holocaust was. It was unique; it was not another genocide, another extermination. History is littered with those. As the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) said, we face them today, perhaps in Darfur. What is being unleashed in Kenya might also be going in that horrible direction. We hope not.
The holocaust was four years of calmly organised, purposeful integration of transport, science, engineering and construction work to put millions of Jews, Sinti and Gypsies to death. We are now finding that the death toll may be higher. I want to report to the House the remarkable work of Father Desbois, a Paris-based priest who has spent the past two or three years touring sites in Ukraine that are not recorded, discovering graves containing the remains of Jews put to death by SS and Wehrmacht Einsatzgruppen after the invasion of Ukraine.
The holocaust figures may have to be increased a little, which is why we have to say to ourselves that there is no comparison between the holocaust and other horrible moments of European, or indeed world, history—expulsions, ethnic cleansing, population transfers, massacres at the end of the Ottoman empire and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians leaving their homes in the wars of 1947 and 1948.
Nor can we class the holocaust as just a matter of history. As hon. Members have said, the holocaust was rooted in an ideology—not in hate, race or religious hate, much as those were part of it, but in an ideology called anti-Semitism. It has been said that anti-Semitism is a light sleeper. As chairman of the all-party commission of inquiry into anti-Semitism in this country, let me report to the House the fact that this is a light sleeper that is reawakening. Anti-Semitism is one of the ideological driving forces for violence, hate and terror around the world. It is international and coherent; it involves theoreticians and practitioners; its involves men of huge violence while at its soft end it involves a joke around the dinner table, or perhaps a brick hurled through a synagogue window.
We have to place on record some apostles of contemporary anti-Semitism as the best way of giving witness to our concern about and horror at what happened in the holocaust. Take, for example, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who says:
“An Israeli woman is not like women in our societies, because she is a soldier.”
He goes on:
“I consider this type of martyrdom operation”—
blowing up Jews in Israel—
“as an evidence of God’s justice.”
All this was said on the BBC, not hidden away on obscure websites. He also said:
“Allah Almighty is just; through his infinite wisdom he has given the weak a weapon the strong do not have and that is their ability to turn their bodies into bombs as Palestinians do”.
This man is an open advocate of Jew killing and of holocaust activities as they have been modernised in contemporary world history.
A few years back, Mr. Abd al-Rahman al-Sudayyis, imam at the al-Haram mosque in Mecca, said:
“Read history and you will understand that the Jews of yesterday are the evil fathers of the Jews of today…the scum of the human race ‘whom Allah turned into apes and pigs’”.
In March 2003, a more senior state figure, President Bashar al-Assad, said:
“Even if the peace process succeeds, it is impossible that Israel should be a legitimate state”.
Returning home, Mr. David Irving, talking late last year to The Guardian, said that the Jews were responsible for what happened to them in the second world war and that the “Jewish problem” was responsible for nearly all the wars of the past 100 years:
“The Jews are the architects of their own misfortune”,
At about the same time, Muhammad Cherif Abbas, Algeria’s Minister of War Veterans, said of President Nicolas Sarkozy:
“You know the origins of the French president and those who put him into power. Do you know that the Israelis printed a stamp with Nicolas Sarkozy on it during the election campaign?...Why has Bernard Kouchner…”—
the French Foreign Minister, who is a non-believing Jew—
“decided to cross the floor? It’s the result of a movement that reflects the views of the real architects of Sarkozy’s arrival in power—the Jewish lobby.”
There we have it again—references to the “Jewish lobby”, the cabal. The Saudi Government are publishing translations of the protocols of the elders of Zion and circulating them as contemporary historical material.
My final remarks—I shall sit down soon, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and thank you for that glance—relate to material published by Policy Exchange in a report produced by Professor Denis MacEoin of Newcastle university at the end of last year. The information in question is in circulation in the King Fahad school in west London. It says that the Jews are responsible for trying to
“immerse nations in vice and the spread of fornication.”
It also says that the Jews are
“spreading immoral pornographic literature…Cheating, bribing, stealing and conning.”
It goes on to say:
“The Jews are a people who were moulded with treachery and backstabbing throughout the centuries and they do not keep their word nor honour their promise.”
Finally, let me quote Nick Griffin of the British National party, who is currently obsessed with Polish workers. A few years ago it was Asian workers, but the man has always been obsessed with Jews. He wrote a book called “Who Are The Mindbenders?”, which lists Jews who work in the media and do not use their real names. Mr. Griffin denounced the former Labour Member of Parliament for York, Alex Lyon, as
“this bloody Jew... whose only claim to fame is that two of his parents died in the Holocaust.”
In a book published in 1988, Mr. Griffin wrote:
“the Jews… shifted the alleged sites of the mass gassings from the no-longer believable German camps such as Dachau and Belsen to the sites in Communist Poland such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.”
I put those quotes on the record so that people who read the debate can understand that what we are dealing with is not history. What we are dealing with is not what happened in the past; it is alive, awake and organising. It involves British citizens. It involves many people from different countries and different faiths. We must combat anti-Semitism today with the dedication with which we so singularly failed to combat anti-Semitism and Nazism before 1939.
Although I am not Jewish, my family’s history was changed for ever by the momentous and destructive events that engulfed the continent of Europe 65 years ago. The imperative for my parents to flee Estonia under threat of persecution and probable death is the reason I am here. The United Kingdom’s generosity and compassion at the time saved my family, and for that I, like so many others, am for ever in this country’s debt.
It is my family’s history, and my strong sense of association with humanity as a common community, that made me agree to agree to work with the Holocaust Educational Trust to promote the issues that Holocaust memorial day exists to commemorate. I pay particular tribute to Karen Pollock, head of the trust, who—ceaselessly, courageously and with extraordinary poise and elegance—has raised its effectiveness to the level that we see today. We all owe her a great debt of gratitude.
I want to say a little about the Lessons from Auschwitz project, which enables sixth-form students to make one-day visits to the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. It gives them a unique insight into the catastrophe that can result when anti-Semitism and other prejudice spiral out of control. Most participants return not just with a deeper understanding of the past, but with a real sense of mission to ensure that such events are never allowed to happen again.
Last year the Government provided £1.5 million to support that flagship project. It was hard fought for, but the HET is immeasurably grateful for the Government’s generous contribution, which has enabled it to expand the project dramatically and take it nationwide. The aim is to make it available to sixth-formers at every secondary school and further education college in the United Kingdom. I hope that this year representatives of all six secondary schools in my constituency will be able to act as ambassadors, and will report their findings to their schools.
One of the primary aims of the visits is to enhance participants’ sense of civic responsibility and encourage them to be active in standing up to all forms of racism and discrimination, not just anti-Semitism. It is mandatory for them to share their experiences and disseminate the lessons that they have learned in their schools and communities on their return. Many of the students who went last year chose to make it a Holocaust memorial day commemorative event, and as a result there has been a considerable increase in the number of young people participating on the day.
All Members of Parliament are invited to join students from their constituencies on the visits and become involved in their follow-up activities, and I encourage all Members to take advantage of that opportunity. Their involvement helps to inspire young people to become more politically aware and active, as well as underlining the importance of lessons that we, as parliamentarians, are duty bound to promote.
I took part in a memorial event at the Soviet war memorial in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, just over the bridge. One of the benefits of such events is that people come from all sorts of backgrounds. We saw not only diplomats from the Russian and other former Soviet embassies, but holocaust survivors and young people of, probably, 30 nationalities. They were able to meet and to realise that we are all part of the same human race, with the same rights and the same dignity.
My hon. Friend is right. Such events serve to remind us that the holocaust is not the only example of mass murder committed by the human race since 1945. Millions have died in circumstances comparable to what happened during world war two.
Auschwitz is a lesson in what went wrong in the past because human beings allowed it to occur. We should remember that those things went wrong in a highly educated, civilised, first-world country, which was not so different from the United Kingdom before it descended into the barbarism that is commemorated on Holocaust memorial day. Although we should recognise that other events have taken place around the world, the holocaust in Germany stands ignominiously as the worst of them all. I hope that all of us, including our colleagues who are not present today, will agree that the only thing that we really must regard as intolerable is intolerance itself. That, in my judgment, is the strongest insurance: the best way in which to make certain that human history’s darkest hour is never repeated.
I welcome the debate. I shall try to be brief, as others wish to speak.
Earlier in the Session I tabled early-day motion 648 to commemorate Holocaust memorial day. I thank all 169 Members in all parts of the House who showed their support by signing it.
This year’s Holocaust memorial day theme was “Imagine, remember, reflect and react”. On Sunday I attended a local memorial service in Brigg, organised by Brigg town council. The council has an annual ceremony and a permanent memorial in the Angel courtyard, in the council buildings in the market place. This year’s event was led by our first-class mayor Mike Doherty and his wife Pat, and was organised by our excellent town clerk, Jeanette Woollard. The ceremony was short, moving and effective, involving people of all ages and different religions. It was an honour and a privilege to participate in it. Along with the mayor and eight schoolchildren, I placed 10 stones around the permanent memorial to commemorate the 10 million people who died at the hands of the Nazis.
Keeping the memory alive is important, hence the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust, which is 20 years old this year. They have championed holocaust education in schools, and it has been on the curriculum since 1991. It has been claimed that it will be diminished or removed from the curriculum, and I have seen—as, I am sure, have many Members—some of the e-mails that were sent as part of a campaign to prevent any such move. Their purpose seemed to be to send an anti-Muslim message, attacking Muslims for being somehow responsible.
Those e-mails, which served as a chilling reminder of how quickly prejudice can spread, ended up in America, in a world so insular that people thought “UK” stood for “University of Kentucky”. Representatives of the university had to issue a press statement making it clear that it was nothing to do with them. Indeed, as far as I can see it was nothing to do with anything at all, but it would be good if the Minister reiterated that holocaust education will remain on the curriculum.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned the Lessons from Auschwitz project and the £1.5 million grant that the Government provided last year, which has allowed the project to expand so that all schools can participate. I hope the Minister will also confirm that such funding will continue.
Just over a year ago, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the morning, we visited Auschwitz, which was bizarre as it looked like a film set. It is a former barracks, and it was quite smart and well built, and I could imagine a film being made there. It was the afternoon visit to Birkenau that really hit home. Birkenau is on a different scale and it is purpose-built: it is enormous and it is designed to kill efficiently—to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. It is a chilling experience, and I believe that the memory of Birkenau will live with anybody who visits it.
I remember standing on the platform by the railway track, where there is a large photograph of literally thousands of Jewish people going through the infamous separation, with a doctor holding his arm out to direct those who have to go the way that leads straight to death. There is a large shed in the background of the photograph, and after a few moments visitors realise that that shed is still there and that they are standing in exactly the place where those events happened.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking very movingly about his visit, and it is important that people see this terrible place. It is also important to hear from people who actually experienced the holocaust—the survivors. As those survivors are growing older and increasingly frail, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to keep alive their testimony through DVDs and other recordings and that every effort should be made to circulate such recordings to future generations?
I entirely agree. In fact, the Holocaust Educational Trust made a DVD on such recollections and won a BAFTA for it. That is another of its great achievements, and I am sure it will help in future holocaust education.
It takes hours to tour all of Birkenau, and we finished with a memorial service around the ruins of one of the crematoriums. Afterwards, it was dark and we walked along what is probably the most infamous railway track in the world. It is impossible not to be affected. On the coach journey back to the airport, I spoke to some young people, and what they said was revealing. They had done holocaust education at school—in fact, they had done extra holocaust education as they had attended a seminar prior to the visit—but nothing had hit home as much as the visit itself. That is why I hope that the Government will ensure that that is funded in future.
Some people ask me, “Why the holocaust? There have been many other atrocities, both before and since.” Indeed, there have, but the holocaust was so awful and so huge. Two out of three European Jews, and millions from other minority groups, were killed. It happened during a conflict we were involved in, it happened in countries not far away and, in historical terms, it happened not long ago.
I believe that if we are not vigilant it could happen again. That is why we all must follow the theme of this year’s Holocaust memorial day: imagine, remember, reflect, react. If we do, the chances of there being another holocaust will be greatly diminished and the world will be a better place.
I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate. My grandmother was killed at Auschwitz. I was partly brought up by an aunt who survived it, after having actually been in a gas chamber more than once, and I have an uncle, happily still alive, who survived two other concentration camps. So the holocaust has had a direct and terrible effect on my family.
I have, of course, visited Auschwitz. One of the most chilling exhibits—of the many, many chilling exhibits—is the map that was prepared for the 1943 Wannsee conference. It depicts the countries of Europe, and beside each country is the number of Jews whom the Nazis expected to take and kill. The map includes England, and there is a number attached to it.
I am glad that this debate is being held because, as all Members have said, we must never forget, and I echo the tributes that have been paid to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for their excellent work. We must also never forget that Jews were not the only group who were devastated by this unprecedented and unique horror.
I do not propose to attempt to describe the horrors that occurred on our continent just over 60 years ago; they are well documented. I want to make a different point. The holocaust saw the deepest degradation of the human spirit that we have ever witnessed, but it also gave rise to some outstanding acts of heroism both by Jews, such as those that occurred in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and by non-Jews. Many of those acts have been researched and recognised by the Yad Vashem UK Foundation, which also does much to keep memories of the holocaust alive, and I would like to cite just one example.
On the eve of the German occupation of Warsaw, the director of the Warsaw zoo was a man called Dr. Zabinski. The Germans appointed him superintendent of the city’s public parks as well. Availing himself of the opportunity to visit the Warsaw ghetto, ostensibly to inspect the state of the flora within the ghetto walls, Dr. Zabinski maintained contact with pre-war Jewish colleagues and friends and helped them escape to, and find shelter on, the so-called “Aryan” side of the city. Many cages in the zoo had been emptied of animals during the September 1939 air assault on Warsaw, and Dr. Zabinski decided to use them as hiding places for fleeing Jews. Over the course of three years, hundreds of Jews found temporary shelter in those abandoned animal cells, located on the western bank of the River Vistula, until they were able to relocate to permanent places of refuge elsewhere. In addition, close to a dozen Jews were sheltered in Dr. Zabinski’s two-storey private home in the zoo’s grounds. In this extraordinarily dangerous undertaking, he was assisted by his wife, Antonina, a recognised author, and their young son, Ryszard, who nourished, and looked after the needs of, the many distraught Jews in their care.
At first, Dr. Zabinski paid from his own funds to subsidise the maintenance costs, and later money was received through the Jewish Committee. He was an active member of the Polish underground army, and he took part in the Warsaw uprising of August and September 1944. When it was suppressed, he was taken as a prisoner to Germany, but his wife continued his work, looking after the needs of some of the Jews left behind in the ruins of the city.
I believe that that is a truly extraordinary story, and it illustrates, as do so many other stories, that while the holocaust saw the human spirit sink to depths of degradation previously unplumbed, it also saw the human spirit soar to extraordinary heights of heroism and self-sacrifice.
Perhaps—this point might be a little more controversial—there is a lesson here for us Members. We are legislators. We make laws that seek to frame, to regulate and to modify the conduct of our fellow citizens, but the extremes of human conduct—for bad and for good—that we saw during the holocaust, and that we continue to see on a smaller scale today, are in many ways beyond our reach, and the ability we have to influence them by passing laws is limited.
I am nearing the end of the period during which I have had the enormous privilege of serving in this House, and as I reflect on the lessons we legislators in particular can learn from the events of six decades ago I believe that a sense of humility should come very high on the list. It is not an easy lesson to learn—I certainly cannot claim to be one of its best pupils—but we should all do our best to take it to heart.