Tuesday 16 December 2008
[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]
BBC World Service
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Blizzard.]
I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship.
I am delighted to have secured a debate on the BBC World Service. There has not been a general debate on the subject since I was elected to the House in 2005. During that time, however, there have been two half-hour debates on related topics, both initiated by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). I shall return to those in a moment.
I had considered entitling today’s debate “The Future of the BBC World Service”, but I want also to reflect a little on its past. My first contact with the World Service came when I was at university. The man who taught me Czech at Cambridge was the late Karel Brusak, who frequently broadcast on the Czech service. At various times, he dominated the Czech language service. He worked as a news commentator; he wrote original radio plays and adaptations, and a satirical review about communist Czechoslovakia; and he reviewed books, films, theatre and the latest achievements of science and technology. In every sense, he was a genuine all rounder. I lived in Prague for a summer during communist times, and the Czech service was invaluable in allowing me to keep up with the outside world. Indeed, it was a rather strange experience being able to listen to one’s own teacher on the radio almost every day.
My interest in the matter comes not only from my personal past but also from a general interest in broadcasting, mainly as a constituency issue. I also have an interest in cultural diplomacy, or what is sometimes called soft power, and a strong interest in all things connected with central and eastern Europe and Russia.
I mentioned earlier the two half-hour debates on related topics initiated by the hon. Gentleman. One was last year; it was a half-hour Westminster Hall debate on the BBC world news service. The other was a debate on the ending of the Thai service by the BBC World Service in March 2006. My brother works as a journalist in Bangkok, and he can certainly attest to the importance and utility of the Thai service to the people of Thailand.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what has happened in Thailand since then reinforces the case that it was a mistake to close that service? It was the most marginal of all closure decisions. Would the hon. Gentleman encourage the BBC World Service to consider the matter again in the light of events and to consider restoring the Thai service, as it once was in the past?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I hope that the BBC will consider it as a matter of urgency before the infrastructure, especially the human resources, withers away, as must inevitably have happened, at least in part, over the past two and a half years. The axing of that service was definitely a mistake.
The World Service is at a turning point. On 25 November its director, Nigel Chapman, announced his departure. It is an important position. According to a written parliamentary answer, it commanded an annual salary of £228,000 in 2005. Will the Minister reassure us that the advertising of the position will be open, and that the process will include external applicants?
Now is a turning point for the service in other ways. The Arabic television service has begun, we understand that the Persian TV service is about to start, and the existing Russian service has come under fire—at least in the press here. I shall focus mainly on the Russian service, but I shall also reflect on what the BBC World Service has decided are its other main priorities—the Arabic and Farsi TV services.
I said that I wanted to speak about the past of the World Service. One point that I wish to return to is the retrenchment scene in 2005, and the cutting of 10 language services, including Czech, to which I have already referred, and Thai, as well as seven other eastern European languages. As I said, the Thai closure was a mistake, but I and most others supported—perhaps with regret—some of the other closures. It no longer seemed reasonable to have a Czech service in 2005, some 15 years after the end of the cold war. The same went for the Polish service. There was definitely an argument to be made for moving those resources to other languages.
I turn to something that I said at the time. We need a memorial of some sort to those who served on the World Service over those 50 years. There was a great number of unsung heroes, including my former teacher Karel Brusak. Brusak died in 2004 from natural causes, after many years on the Czech service. Others were not so lucky, none more notoriously so than Georgi Markov, who was murdered by the Bulgarian secret service as a result of his broadcasts on the World Service.
In 2005, I tabled early-day motion 956, in which I called for a memorial to those who have served on the World Service. It attracted 78 signatures. It noted the closure of the eastern European language services, and then further noted that
“these radio stations have been in operation since September 1939, and acted for 50 years during the Second World War and the Cold War as a beacon of hope, liberty and democracy to the nations of Central and Eastern Europe under totalitarian control; and urges the BBC to consult relevant organisations with a view to building an appropriate physical memorial to those who worked on these broadcasts, perhaps including a statue of Georgi Markov, who was assassinated in London on 11th September 1978, by the Bulgarian secret police due to his broadcasts on the World Service.”
The motion did not seek to dictate what the memorial should be. I know that placing a statue in central London is not nearly as straightforward as we would all like to think. Instead, I left it to the BBC and the Foreign Office to determine what action might be taken, having seen the considerable amount of interest among Members of all parties for something to be done. It is extremely regrettable that no action was taken by the BBC and that no consultation was launched.
I wish to examine in depth what is happening with the Russia service. Similar things are happening. The Russian service is being cut, essentially to fund Arabic and Persian television stations.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it was not so much a financial decision to cut the Russian service but that the BBC has taken a political view, as it does not want to upset the Russian establishment? That is lamentable, given the present misunderstandings between Russia and the UK.
The hon. Gentleman is partly right in that, but I shall examine some of the political background in a moment.
In hindsight, the Russian service had an inauspicious start. It started in October 1942, but broadcast for only seven months before the Soviet Union pressured us to take it off air. Even in those short seven months, the broadcasts were personally vetted by the Soviet ambassador to London, Ivan Maisky, and the news bulletins were read by the TASS London correspondents. The service was restarted in 1946; it then started to make a huge contribution to encouraging freedom and democracy in the Soviet Union. It would be ironic if the service were to return to the days of Government vetting and control by Russia.
As we know, the situation with regard to democracy and human rights is bad in Russia at the moment. That is not the subject of today’s debate, but there is something of a consensus across the parties about the dire situation there, especially about Anglo-Russian relations. However, it is worth pointing out that the media situation in Russia is especially bad.
The litmus test for a healthy democracy is freedom of the media and of the press. On that test, I am sorry to say that Russia fails comprehensively. Since 2000, we have seen a steady erosion of the media’s freedom, particularly in television and radio broadcasts, which are the main source of information for most Russians. Those journalists courageous enough to stand out against the regime have been subjected to personal intimidation, harassment, violence against their persons and their homes, jailing, and in some cases even straight murder. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya is perhaps the most prominent example. She was working on what is commonly regarded as Russia’s main, and some say only, independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, which has recently stopped reporting anything about the Russian secret services and is under great pressure more generally. The BBC Russian service should be seen in that context: the lack of press freedom in Russia.
The stated aims for the government of the BBC represent grand ambitions for its Russian service. In response to a written parliamentary question, on 26 November, the Foreign Secretary told my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague):
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office supported the recent changes that will assist BBC Russia in its mission to be the most trusted and influential international news provider in Russia”.—[Official Report, 26 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 1788W.]
I have had extensive meetings with Nigel Chapman, the outgoing director, who listened politely to my concerns and kept me updated on changes to the Russian service. Nevertheless, I think that Mr. Chapman’s views were driven by what most of us would recognise as being purely the concerns of a commercial radio station: listener numbers and penetration. I often got the feeling that he was ignoring the wider mission statement and the political and cultural importance of the service.
The Russian service is in a very sorry state. Although it is third in budgetary terms, after Arabic and Persian, the number of listeners has declined very rapidly, and in my view the quality of the programming has been in decline, and its overall impact has been greatly lessened, especially since the previous round of changes to the service in early 2006.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the decline in listener numbers has anything to do with the Russian authorities taking away from the BBC World Service agreements on frequency modulation transmission? How would he characterise the decline and who is responsible for it?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which I am afraid I think is only partly true. The decline is due in part to the action on the FM transmitters and also in part to a change in the content of programming, which I shall come on to in a moment.
In October, Mr. Chapman announced another round of cuts to the service, all of which are misguided. They were branded as a “refocusing” and included a greater focus on peak-time audiences, more news and fewer cultural programmes, strengthening the online service at the expense of radio and cuts in London staffing in favour of Moscow.
I have seven main criticisms of the current service, most of which have increased since the October changes. First, the BBC Russian service is managed by people without a comprehensive knowledge of Russia. That was the case with the outgoing director and the regional head, and somewhat the case with the head of the Russian service, at least before she took up her position. As I understand it, none of those three office holders speaks fluent Russian, including the head of the Russian service, who I am told had to attend language classes after taking up the position. Inevitably that has increased the reliance on those immediately below and around them, who happen generally to be former Soviet-era journalists. For whatever reasons, they seem consistently afraid of broadcasting anything that might offend the Kremlin. Furthermore, the position of head of the Russian service was not advertised externally. British experts on Russia, of whom I know a few, of varying political persuasions, had offered their help and advice to the Russian service in the years following Putin’s rise to power and the deterioration of British-Russian relations. However those offers were dismissed.
Secondly, the Russian service attributes its decreasing popularity to the unwillingness of the Russian authorities to allow the BBC to broadcast on FM. When the local partnerships were set up in 2006, many people warned that they were an operational hostage to fortune, and that the overall joint venture with Russian state broadcasting through its Radio Bolshoi network would compromise editorial independence. Indeed, the Foreign Affairs Committee, one of whose members is here today, voiced its concerns in November 2007:
“However, we also conclude that partnerships with state broadcasters could be seen to undermine the BBC’s independence. While recognising the difficulties of the current Russian media scene for the BBC, we recommend that the World Service pursue an independent FM broadcasting licence and that it seek to improve and expand its medium wave transmissions, in order to reduce the Service’s dependence on FM broadcasting through Russian partners”.
That forecast turned out to be very accurate. The Russian Government’s intervention to stop the local FM partners broadcasting the BBC’s output is reprehensible and regrettable. However, Soviet or Russian regimes before Putin—those of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and so on—had been even more hostile to the BBC, but the service still got through, and the Russian population in those times held the BBC in great respect. It was the most popular voice among the foreign stations.
For me at least, and many others, the fall in popularity of the Russian service can be at least partly explained by a shift in the BBC editorial standards on the service. In the past the Russian service understood its mission as
“providing alternative information and analysis”.
However, today it feels it necessary to ensure the constant presence of the “Kremlin point of view”. Normally, in journalism, we would laud that desire to put forward all points of view. However, that is difficult in Russia, because whenever Russian officialdom refuses to comment, which is a very common and acknowledged experience, the alternative point of view—the opinion of the westerners, the opposition, critics, political prisoners and so on—cannot be broadcast either. Those are the things that in the past made Russians tune in to the BBC Russian service. It is stated that broadcasting such reports without the Russian official point of view, which I am afraid is ubiquitous in Russia because of the total state control of television, would be a
“breach of the BBC editorial guidelines”.
That would be akin to having not broadcast “The Gulag Archipelago” in the 1970s and 1980s, because there was nobody from the Soviet penal system available to present the other view. That is fundamentally misguided.
Thirdly, there has been a misguided move away from cultural programming, even though the BBC Russian service has been famous for its cultural and literary programmes. By closing features and making its most experienced and educated staff redundant, the Russian service loses all that and dramatically lowers the cultural and linguistic standards of its broadcasts. By metamorphosing into a news-only service, it loses some of its cutting edge. I shall deal with the FM partnerships in greater detail in a moment, but ironically the FM partners particularly liked the excellent cultural features, which are now the victim of the “news only” dogma that appeared to affect the whole of the World Service under Nigel Chapman. With a news-only service, it is difficult to examine even political issues in depth. For example, how can it explain the complicated situation in Abkhazia without the use of a longer, feature programme?
My fourth criticism is about the move from radio to the internet, which sounds like a technological step forward. However, that is not necessarily the case. In Russia, the internet is less accessible and more vulnerable than radio. We need to recognise that despite appearances, in Moscow at least, internet penetration in Russia remains low. Indeed, according to official Russian statistics, only 20 per cent. of the population have used the internet in the past year. Among them, very few have broadband access, and yet the BBC Russian website features a lot of video streaming and audio clips, which look impressive to a UK audience, but which are of more doubtful utility in the country of the target audience. Added to that is the ongoing speculation that the Russian authorities are seeking to adopt a Chinese-style firewall, which would have the potential to render the whole internet project obsolete. As with the FM decision, with this internet decision the BBC is putting all its eggs in one basket.
My fifth criticism is about the rise in the number of live discussions on the revamped Russian service. They sound great in theory, but effectively they discriminate against a large number of people who might appear on the Russian language service, because to take part in a live discussion, it is necessary to be fluent in Russian. That means that inevitably the BBC fails in one of its missions: to have a broad base of people appearing on its programmes to reflect a wider variety of points of view.
Sixthly, the Russian service generally avoids sensitive issues—for example, the refusal to publish Politkovskaya’s book on the site—which is especially true of any references to the security services, but it is virtually impossible to cover Russia properly without any discussion of them. Incidentally, among the Russian online articles published since 2001 are just two interviews with the late Russian journalist. Surely, she should have been interviewed more often given her importance to events in Russia. When she came here for the last time, in July 2006, the Russian service current affairs programme interviewed her, but did not broadcast it. Moreover, the Russian service provided feeble coverage of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. “Panorama” did a far better job in exposing what went on.
My seventh and final criticism is the refocus on peak times. That sounds fine in theory. We all love our broadcasters to focus on the times when we are most likely to be listening. However, such a time is less obvious in a country of 11 time zones. In a letter to me, Nigel Chapman talked of peak morning and evening drive-time audiences. However, there are three time zones in European Russia, with populations of 99 million, 65 million and 24 million respectively. Therefore, they need a comprehensive 24-hour service to cover Russia properly. That is one of the reasons for the larger number of repeats, but Nigel Chapman extolled the changes by saying that they would cut the number of repeats. None the less, repeats are essential on the BBC Russia service.
Doubtless, the Minister will argue that such issues are operational matters for the World Service, but he must recognise that a flourishing Russian service is a very important tool of foreign policy, and that we need to make better use of our cultural diplomacy assets. The BBC acquired from the Foreign Office powers over languages and broadcasting hours relatively recently—I think that it was in the late 1990s. The Government must take action if those powers are now not being used responsibly and, if necessary, take them back. We have also seen cuts in the number of monitors of Russian broadcasts. In Caversham, the number has been halved in the last two years and is down to 15 people.
On the Russian service, therefore, we need to explore all the options and to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket with just an internet service, as we previously did with the FM service. We could start exploring partnerships with other foreign broadcasters, such as one of the French companies or Deutsche Welle. The Minister for Europe recently confirmed to me in a parliamentary answer that no discussion of that nature had taken place, either on a governmental level or between broadcasters.
For FM, we need to explore the possibility of broadcasting from just outside Russia, from places such as Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine and the southern Caucasus. We also need to get the three medium-wave transmitters upgraded. We were told that that would happen, so I would welcome a progress report from the Minister on the upgrading of those three transmitters. We also need urgently to examine the potential for satellite radio broadcast. Therefore, there is a lot more that we could be doing. At the moment, we are in a dangerously exposed situation with our reliance on the internet.
I promised to turn briefly to Arabic and Persian TV. I cannot pretend that I have any real expertise on the matter, but I have a few comments to make. Arabic TV started in March 2008. It was the World Service’s first vernacular TV service. It is still too early to tell whether the service is working well, but it has been a long-standing BBC ambition. However, it is worth saying that the 2005 Green Paper, which sparked all the changes that we have seen in the World Service in the past three years, stated that the challenges of an Arabic TV service are “enormous”. It went on to say:
“However, any new grant-in-aid funded operation will find it hard to compete for audiences against local competitors, and other established global broadcast operators”—
presumably meaning al-Jazeera and others.
It is recorded in the Green Paper that the BBC asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to fund the Arabic language TV service, but received a negative answer. I am not sure whether the FCO shared the confidence of the previous World Service management in the service’s viability. I very much support such a service in principle, and although it is too early to tell whether it is working, I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about its first nine months of operation.
We need to recognise that TV throws up a whole set of issues that are separate from radio. Most of the differences are obvious, but some are less so. One of the most important differences is that while it has been proven that it is perfectly feasible to operate a radio service in exile—as most of such services were in eastern Europe and Russia for 50 years—it is much harder to envisage operating a TV service without having access to scenes, backdrop, native speakers and news in the home country in question. Let me give an example. God forbid, but if there was another Iranian earthquake, it is hard to see how one could operate an effective TV station aimed at Iran without having access to the scene of that particular news story. For practical purposes, one needs easy access to the country for a television service and, almost certainly, a large presence in the country. It also means that one needs employees who can travel freely into and around that country and who will not have their visas refused at short notice. Like myself, many hon. Members have been refused a visa to Iran at short notice. I dare say that that is something that might afflict the BBC Persian service. For the Arabic-speaking world, it is less of a problem given the wide variety of choice of destination countries available. The Farsi service faces more of a problem because it is the native tongue of only Iran and parts of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. To make a successful service, one needs to have employees who speak Farsi and can travel freely.
I have concerns about the existing Persian radio service. A Farsi-speaking listener wrote to me. I am not able to test out this hypothesis personally, but I wanted to make the Minister aware of it. The listener said:
“Over a long time we have noticed that the BBC Persian service behaves and sounds like the official radio of the Islamic republic of Iran. For example the expressions they use are exactly the same as the expressions used by the official voice of the Iranian government, calling Israel ‘the occupied country’ or glorifying Ahmadi Nejad and prior to that Khatami etc. There are examples of this in their website.
Also in terms of their recruitment, (BBC Persian) are recruiting only from Iran and refuse to recruit British-Iranian applicants. The application states that applicants have to be able to go to Iran any time they want to. This means they have to have an Iranian passport (otherwise they have to get a visa, and this could be refused them).”
The listener goes on:
“Thus if they have a dual nationality and go to Iran and the Iranian government arrest them, the British embassy can not take any action because they entered Iran with the Iranian passport. So it means the BBC put people’s life in danger by sending them in with an Iranian passport. As you know it is easier for them to sack people who are not British. Just cancel the work permit!”
That letter raises a number of issues that the Minister needs to address. They include easy access to Iran by the staff from the Persian service, and matters relating to visas.
I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the Persian radio service. I am sorry to hear that his visa to Iran was cancelled at short notice. Mine was not, and I was in the country just a year ago. A number of ordinary Iranians whom we spoke to thanked the BBC World Service for its language broadcasting and news. It helped them to understand what was going on outside the country, and when they listened to the English-language service broadcast into Iran, it helped them with their English language as well. Will the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that that is extremely important, and contradicts, to some extent, what he has just said?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is correct in what he says. I was quoting from one correspondent who wrote to me. I said that I was not in a position independently to verify what they said. None the less, a number of issues have been raised both from what actually happened and from the theoretical situation that would pertain more particularly to a Persian-language television station.
The TV station was slated to start this autumn. In July, Nigel Chapman said that £15 million would be invested in it. I should like an update from the Minister on what efforts are being made to ensure editorial independence.
Let me return to the point where I started. My former Czech teacher Karel Brusak broadcast for decades on the Czech service, both under Nazi and then Soviet domination, and all without visiting the country. That was both possible and logical. However, it would be hard to imagine that if it had been a TV, rather than a radio service.
In conclusion, I broadly support the new TV services, but I have some doubts about how far editorial independence can and will be maintained. We need to be watching them very closely indeed. Returning to my major theme, the Russian service is in desperate need of urgent attention. I have made various suggestions on how it might be fixed, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response in due course.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble, and most apposite, as I shall explain.
First, I should like to tell the Minister that I will be neither questioning the competence of BBC journalists under parliamentary privilege in my brief remarks, nor recommending that the BBC seek the advice of my hon. Friends and I on any of its appointments, now or in future. I will not comment on countries that I have not visited, or opposition journalists whom I have not met. When I met the Iranian opposition, including the students at Tehran university who threw Ahmadinejad off the campus, the trade unionists who have had an ongoing dispute against the Iranian regime—not least Tehran bus drivers—and independent journalists, they stressed above all that they welcomed any shift in the direction of BBC resources to providing an enhanced service in that country and the region. I congratulate the BBC World Service on the moves that it has made in that regard.
The reason why it is apposite that you are chairing the debate, Mrs. Humble, is, of course, that Blackpool exemplifies the real output that the world wants to hear from the BBC. In 1953, via a grainy radio production, we heard the Matthews cup final, when Sir Stanley Matthews and Mortensen bedazzled Bolton Wanderers. The world listened, through the BBC, to the first real major sporting event broadcast on the radio. Everyone I speak to about the BBC World Service likes the fact that it provides access across the world to commentary on English football—I appreciate that there are finer arts in some people’s perspectives—which is by far this country’s most successful export over the past five years. The BBC’s expansion of the service to allow the business and culture of English football to spread to every remote region of the world is testament to the fortitude of the BBC and is an appropriate priority.
Therefore, I have a proposal to make to the BBC through the Minister. In 2012, we will have the London Olympics. When we last had the Olympics, in 1948, radio was in its infancy, and the BBC could not carry the games in great depth. As the plurality of London helped us to win the Olympics, and given the range of visitors who will be coming, I would like the BBC World Service to broadcast across Britain during the games in a range of languages, which would not only provide a service to tourists but reinforce the pivotal role of the BBC and the World Service in British society, and put it at the heart of our cultural celebrations for the Olympiad. I hope that that message gets to the BBC, and I shall write to it if it does not. The Government ought to give the BBC World Service the opportunity to broadcast across the country during the Olympics so that visitors—wherever they come from and whatever language they use—can hear exactly what is happening to their athletes in the games. That would be a magnificent broadcasting contribution to the cultural olympiad.
For personal reasons, I shall be making only a brief contribution to the debate. I promised some people that I would contribute, and I intend to keep that promise. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) for his masterly presentation of his concern about the state of the World Service in general, and the Russian service in particular. He has an extremely long track record of interest in the matter, as we heard, and I do not pretend for one moment to be able to match the depth and detail of his knowledge.
I wish to contribute to the consideration of the underlying philosophy that I believe has motivated the World Service in the past. That philosophy ought to motivate the service in future but, as my hon. Friend indicated, it may be in danger of being lost in a more modern, commercial environment. If our relationship with Russia had remained as positive as it was at the end of the cold war, that would be understandable. However, that cold war confrontation shows signs of slowly creeping back, and no one regrets that more than those who were involved, as I was professionally, in anti-Soviet-propaganda activities. It seems to me that the BBC World Service has been behind the curve on that, and that it is running frantically to keep up with a previous development, namely the growth of the threat of what I call un-Islamic extremism. It is so busy doing that that it does so at the cost of the effort that it should continue to make in Russia, particularly in view of the fact that the future of Russian society is, if it is not already once again set on a downward path, on the cusp of being sent in the wrong direction, by the people in charge of that great country.
I was particularly alarmed by what my hon. Friend said about the attitude of the senior officials to whom he spoke on the question of objectivity and impartiality. The strength of the BBC’s broadcast to foreign countries, whether to foreign countries with which we are at war, as was the case from 1939 to 1945, or, more subtly, countries with which we are in confrontation, as was the case for half a century during the cold war, is that it tries to be objective, even in trying circumstances. That objectivity should be objectivity with a mission to promote the values of western democratic civilisation. It should not necessarily convert those in what I unashamedly call target countries, but it should give heart to people in oppressed or un-free countries who inherently believe in ideals of liberalism, freedom and democracy, but who need external reinforcement to encourage them to hold fast to and develop their ideals, so that they do not give in to the incessant, narrow-minded propaganda that they receive domestically.
There has been a worrying trend in the BBC more generally to move away from what used to be called the concept of due impartiality. It was not absolute impartiality—impartiality between the arsonist and the fire brigade—but due impartiality between the mainstreams of opinion that are represented across the spectrum of politics in a democratic society. In recent times, even domestically, the BBC has at times moved towards saying, “Well, perhaps we ought to give more air time to fascists and communists because it’s only fair for them to be able to balance their views against those of constitutional democrats, even though they are not democratic.” I reject that opinion, and I am concerned that we are now importing it to an external body, when the whole purpose of the BBC’s broadcasts to foreign countries should be to promote the values of a free, democratic and liberal society.
How do we know when we have crossed the line? We have crossed the line when the editorial policy of a service that broadcasts to a foreign country is shaped by former senior officials in the propaganda network of that country. I am not an expert on the Russian service and am less of a specialist on these matters than I was during the cold war. However, I have been informed that a former deputy editor of Izvestia, who was a specialist correspondent in Iraq, and that a former senior functionary at Radio Kiev—an English language Soviet propaganda station of the cold war—are deeply involved in advising senior people in the Russian service and the World Service on editorial policy. I have no reason to doubt that information, given its specificity. If it is true, clearly the service has lost its way.
It is not often that historians of Russia of the distinction of Antony Beevor, Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag Montefiore, literary figures of the distinction of Doris Lessing and D. M. Thomas and a playwright of the distinction of Tom Stoppard—whose devotion to the cause of freedom in central and eastern Europe is beyond question—join a recent British ambassador to Moscow and a former British ambassador to the USA to write to The Times. The letter, published on 7 November this year, deplores the cuts and trends implemented by the BBC in the Russian service. It states:
“At a time when in Russia misunderstanding and mistrust of Britain has reached a height unprecedented since the end of the USSR this deliberate reduction in the role of the Russian service seems a perverse concession to those authorities in Russia who have been doing their best to curtail the activities of all British cultural institutions (the BBC and the British Council in particular).”
Like my hon. Friend, I am troubled by the idea that journalists and analysts of an external service of the BBC should be moved to the target country. I make no excuse for calling it that because the targeting is not adversarial, but gives people the option and the benefit of understanding how western, liberal, free societies operate and gives an insight into our values and culture. To move broadcasters to countries where in the past broadcasting dissenting views has cost broadcasters their lives is insane. It is a recipe for intimidation and self-censorship.
In conclusion, there must be a review of the policy of the World Service by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Preferably that would be public, but otherwise I would like an undertaking from the Minister that there will be such a review internally. There should be particular reference to the future of the Russian service, a restatement of the strategic role of such services and an assessment of the relative effort to be made in respect of each country, and it should be underlined that the philosophy of due impartiality does not mean impartiality between liberal democracy and the enemies of liberal democracy. There should also be investigations into the co-opting of former employees of Russia’s media into the Russian service and into the naive and irresponsible decision to move independent broadcasters to the target countries.
I am a Member of Parliament for a multicultural west London constituency. A number of my constituents work at the BBC and some in the World Service, and most have a direct interest in it.
Kofi Annan called the BBC World Service the best gift to the world from London. Some of us worry that that gift is under the threat of diminution by the policies of the BBC management. The outgoing director of the World Service, Nigel Chapman, said that he wanted to outsource at least 50 per cent. of World Service programming to the respective countries. That sounds like any other outsourcing, but it threatens the quality, standards and objectivity of the broadcast service. The World Service is an independent international broadcaster and is famous for the refrain, “This is London calling.” Without the geographical distance, it ceases to be independent.
Members of the National Union of Journalists and the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union from the south Asia region of the World Service are campaigning to save three language services that are under threat from plans to offshore their jobs and the output. The BBC Hindi, Urdu and Nepali services will be seriously undermined if those plans go ahead. Staff have resisted the plans for over a year and through negotiations have sought an agreement that preserves the fundamental World Service principles: quality, integrity and, above all else, independence. Those talks are ongoing but seem likely to stall this week as management want to forge ahead with its plans without agreement.
Under management proposals, editorial control will be ceded from the UK in favour of localised output in Nepal, India and Pakistan. Questions have been raised over the BBC’s ability to retain editorial independence. Staff discovered a deal struck with the Pakistan regulatory body to give authorities in Islamabad the power to hear bulletins prior to broadcast. Although the management claim that no such arrangement exists, it is important that nothing be done that jeopardises the BBC’s editorial independence. Those allegations warrant further investigation and there should be an independent Foreign Office investigation.
The reputation of the World Service has been built over decades. Millions of listeners rely upon the World Service because they trust it to be an independent voice. Localising editorial control in countries such as Pakistan and Nepal will bring unacceptable pressures to staff in those territories. While we believe that all BBC staff will fight to maintain its independence, it is in the strong interests of the BBC to ensure that its staff can act free from external influence. That is difficult enough even in this country with the constant political pressure. The threats are more direct from foreign Governments in some areas of the globe.
The BBC has set up private companies in India, Pakistan and Nepal that pave the way for localised commercial businesses. Such businesses will have to comply with local commercial law and will not be governed from the UK, as they are now. The NUJ and BECTU have been asking for details of those companies and their planned and present activities. Management have thus far failed to give any meaningful information or assurances. If the BBC offshores not only output but editorial control to overseas territories, that too will have to comply with local media regulation. The fear is that the freedom of the press is variable in such territories, and that that will impact on World Service output.
Staff who have served the BBC and the country well for decades are anxious that their professionalism and independence is under threat. If we do not act now and if the Government do not take a serious interest in this matter, we will live to regret it in future years. There must be a review of the policy of localising editorial control and an end to the dismantling of the World Service in certain parts of the globe, which we have seen over recent years. The Thai service is just one example of where we have lived to regret the withdrawal of a service in a key part of the world. It must be asserted that editorial control over World Service output will be retained in the UK and there must be an end to outsourcing in this way. Any job losses in the UK need to be negotiated to ensure that at least there is no compulsory redundancy or loss of editorial integrity and that BBC management goes forward with the wholehearted support of employees and the confidence of the wider community.
I welcome this debate introduced by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). After the debates of my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) in recent months and years, it is important to keep debating what the World Service is doing and why it exists, and monitoring its progress. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reading a quote from the recent Foreign Affairs Committee report in which I took part. I agreed wholeheartedly with what we wrote at the time, and he is absolutely right that a lot of it has come to pass. We were concerned at the time.
As Members may know, the Foreign Affairs Committee has an oversight role for the World Service, which comes under the auspices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and we therefore take a great interest in it. We were concerned that the hon. Gentleman would raise the issue of the Russian service, an issue that has been raised with me on recent visits to Moscow, where I am a regular visitor, as I know he is.
I wanted to understand the rationale. I, too, have spoken to Nigel Chapman, the outgoing director. I received responses to the concerns, and I will quote a couple of them. First:
“The BBC will continue its strong commitment to the BBC Russian Service and to its role as a trusted, influential and editorially independent news provider.”
Secondly, because I too was concerned about this:
“Far from dropping analytical and cultural programming, as has been claimed, the BBC Russian Service is strengthening the provision of journalism about politics and culture, and giving it space within high-profile programmes seven days a week…We are also increasing the current affairs reporting of British cultural and social affairs.”
I am not a Russian speaker, so it is difficult for me to monitor what is going on. I can find out only on my visits to Russia, which are reasonably frequent.
We should not underestimate the problem of not having an FM partner. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to it and to ways of getting around it, and I hope that the World Service will look into them, but if the Russian authorities and Russian FM partners have withdrawn co-operation, that makes it a lot more difficult, as he acknowledged. I hope that the World Service will continue to explore the suggested alternatives.
We should not underestimate the potential of internet broadcasting. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, saturation of broadband and internet access is low, but there are quite a number of internet cafés in major population centres that have good access. That would not allow as much penetration as is wanted throughout the whole of Russia, but it would allow broadcasting in certain population centres where people have access to the internet. That is part of the whole picture. I would not underestimate the importance of using the internet, although, as has been pointed out, of course we should not put all our eggs in one basket.
Shortwave still exists but is a dying medium, and medium-wave broadcasting is not listened to nearly as much as FM. Only if we strengthen FM through other collaborations, perhaps outside Russia, will we again increase listening figures for the World Service. However, I am glad to hear from the World Service itself that it is still committed to Russia. It is important that we take up the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to ensure that we do not give up our editorial integrity. We must maintain that integrity from this country and ensure that it is not sent offshore, as he pointed out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made a good point. I support totally his proposal regarding the Olympic games. It would be good for the World Service to enhance its output considerably during the course of the games.
I shall touch briefly on an issue that the hon. Gentleman talked about and on which I intervened: the Arabic TV service and the forthcoming Persian language TV service. I had my reservations when the idea of a Arabic service was mooted, and I had a number of discussions with Nigel Chapman and his colleagues at the World Service to express my concerns and hear their responses. As we all remember, al-Jazeera comprises people who used to work for the previous BBC Arabic TV service. After that was closed down, they moved to al-Jazeera, which has been hugely successful in the Arab world and outside it.
It is important that the values of democracy, openness and freedom of speech that we espouse and take for granted here in the west, and which we practise so well in Britain through the BBC, should be broadcast. Despite my initial reservations, I wish the Arabic TV service well. I hope that it becomes a genuine competitor of al-Jazeera to provide much-needed diversity in the Arab world.
When I first came across the World Service’s Persian language broadcasts—that was a few years ago, when I joined the Foreign Affairs Committee—Baqer Moin, an award-winning journalist, worked there, although he has since left. People might remember him, as he won many awards for his work. He did a lot to promote the Persian language radio service as a precursor to the Persian television service.
To expand slightly on my brief intervention earlier, we spent a week in Iran. From travelling outside Tehran and talking quite freely to a number of people in the two centres that we visited, Tehran and Isfahan, it was clear that the BBC World Service is not just an important source of alternative news to that supplied by the state-controlled media in that country. For a news-hungry and inquisitive population who want to know what is happening outside their country in the rest of the world, BBC English language broadcasts are an important resource for learning and understanding English in Iran. There is a huge hunger to speak English, learn English and watch English movies—not just American ones but British ones as well—and a huge respect for the World Service. Indeed, when one of my colleagues and I were looking around the stalls in a bazaar in Isfahan, a young man, perhaps 20 years old, came out and started talking to us in very good if slightly broken and heavily accented English. I asked him, “Where did you learn that English?” He said, “I listen to the BBC World Service.”
I leave the Minister with this thought: we often underestimate the importance of the World Service to many countries. I will not repeat what was said about the Thai service. In hindsight, it is regrettable that it closed, and I hope that that will be a lesson. However, the BBC World Service is trying to adapt to difficult times, often in difficult circumstances—we know how difficult it is in Russia at the moment—to maintain the broadcasts and services that populations find so essential, as has been repeated many times in this Chamber. Long may it continue. We must adapt. I hope that the World Service will listen carefully to this debate, and that the Minister will respond appropriately.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate and on the detail that he used in questioning the Minister and the BBC World Service. He made some serious allegations. Other Members made important points. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a significant contribution about the localisation of editorial control, which I hope will receive an answer from the Minister in due course.
I have one concern with some of the remarks made. As a relative newcomer to the issue, I have had two meetings with Nigel Chapman. The issue that I wanted to focus on with him was how independent the BBC World Service was of the British Government. Clearly, there are financing streams, and money comes from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget, but as we insist on the BBC’s independence in this country, I would be concerned if the World Service were a mere pawn of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. None of the hon. Members who have spoken today has suggested that that is the case. However, it is important that the BBC World Service be independent from the British Government of the day.
When I was pressing Nigel Chapman on that point, I tried to see how responsive the BBC World Service could be in its budgets and in its services to political trends in the world and different foreign policy challenges. The BBC World Service talked of the new services in Arab countries and talked of BBC Persian, and clearly they are very welcome developments. Arguably, however, they have taken quite a while to feed through from some of the foreign policy challenges that are facing the world. Inevitably, therefore, the BBC World Service is slightly delayed in its reactions, which is probably correct, to ensure that the trends are real and genuine and that it is not having to shift major programmes and major schedules around because one major event has happened. So, in discussing foreign policy and relating that to the vital role that the BBC World Service performs, we need to bear in mind how immediately responsive we think that the BBC World Service should be.
That is particularly apposite to the issue that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham has focused on, namely the BBC Russian service. That is because for quite some time it looked, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) quite rightly reminded us, as if the trends were going in the right direction. It is arguable how recently those trends have been reversed. Clearly, however, last summer we saw the biggest reversal, with the crisis in South Ossetia. What I am trying to say is that we should not expect the BBC to react to that development immediately. It needs to consider it in its long-term planning, and that is appropriate.
Despite all of the cuts, for which there need to be answers and justifications—I absolutely accept that point—let us remind ourselves that the BBC Russian service remains the second biggest language service within the BBC World Service. That is as it should be, but it is important to have a balance in this debate and remind ourselves that, after all these changes, the BBC Russian service is still one of the BBC’s premier language services.
I accept that hon. Members were concerned about the future and also about changes that are happening now that might affect the quality of the BBC World Service in due course. However, when I have looked for evidence of how well the BBC World Service is carrying out its tasks, the evidence suggests that it is doing incredibly well. Survey evidence shows that audiences across the world have very positive feelings towards the BBC World Service. It has a global reputation that remains unaffected.
When one looks at some of the key markets that the BBC World Service works in, the BBC briefing that I have—I confess to colleagues that I am reading from a BBC briefing, but that does not mean that it is not impartial and well-sourced—shows that, in seven key markets in the world, the BBC scored highest among international broadcasters for trust and objectivity. That is a fact. Therefore, we should show some degree of caution before we completely downplay the quality of the BBC World Service.
I was particularly concerned by at least one remark made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham, when he was talking about the professional journalists within the BBC Russian service. He was making a point, which was fair, that the current leaders of the service are not all fluent Russian speakers, that they have not had their language skills improved and therefore that they were more reliant on what he described as Soviet-era journalists. The impression that he was giving was that somehow those journalists were not as professional and independent as other journalists. Perhaps he was not intending to give that impression, but certainly those of us who were listening to him got that impression. I regret that, because he had no evidence for making that particular accusation.
The other issue that has been completely missing from this discussion is budgets. These services cost money and it is almost as if colleagues were thinking that there were no financial constraints whatsoever. We know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has got the money that it puts towards the BBC World Service on a tight leash. There is a 3 per cent. annual savings target, which amounts to £23 million in efficiency savings that must be found in the next three years. That is quite a high proportion of the budget for the BBC World Service. Those savings either have to come from somewhere or colleagues must say that they want to see that budget increased.
Ultimately, it is a question of priorities. Things are changing across our world. We are seeing the very important rise of China, which the BBC has been responding to. We have seen the issues in the Arab world and in Iran, which colleagues have quite rightly focused on. So the BBC World Service, like other organisations, must choose its priorities.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham talked about some of the detail of the technology involved in producing the BBC World Service. However, he was relatively dismissive of the move towards the internet. As I understood it, his argument was, first, that few Russians have access to the internet and those that do have lower quality internet access than we are used to in Britain and, secondly, that there was a danger that the Russian authorities could copy the Chinese authorities with respect to constructing firewalls, thus reducing the impact of the internet.
I must say that I am surprised by both of those arguments. The use of the internet is rapidly rising in countries such as Russia, and there is quite some evidence for that growth. First of all, the internet is the future technology, so the BBC is right to reprioritise resources towards it. Secondly, the idea that the Russians will be able to copy what the Chinese do is quite farcical. I had a very interesting trip to Beijing this summer and I talked to some of the Chinese so-called communists about the way that they are managing not just the media but many aspects of change in China. I must say that their ruthless efficiency, discipline and control are in absolute marked contrast to what one sees in Russia today. I really do not think that the concerns that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham expressed are valid. What was also interesting in the readings and discussions that we had in relation to that visit to Beijing was how the firewall itself is not as effective as the Chinese authorities would like it to be.
The other issue that I feel has not been raised enough in this debate is the challenges that the BBC World Service faces on the ground, including the intimidation that it receives from Governments and the technological challenges, all within restrained budgets. When we debate the BBC World Service, of course we are right to hold it to account and to urge it to meet the highest possible standards of journalism and objectivity—“objectivity with a mission”, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East put it—but we also must understand the dilemmas that it faces. We should be praising some of the journalists and managers of the BBC World Service who operate fantastically well in such difficult circumstances.
My final point links a little bit to this issue of the challenges on the ground but it also relates to a foreign policy issue that I wanted to place before the Minister, given this opportunity, and I hope that it will have an echo in the BBC World Service. That issue is the crisis that is about to erupt in Ukraine. This story has not been covered well in the British media and it has not been voiced very well in this Parliament, but there are increasing concerns that Ukraine is facing a political, social and economic meltdown, which could happen at any time in the next few months, with massive implications for the security of energy supply and indeed for the stability of the region. I have been receiving quite a lot of messages from Ukrainians who believe that even their own Government are not aware of what a knife-edge Ukraine is currently on. I wondered whether the Foreign Office is doing anything about that issue and making representations, both within the EU and elsewhere, and whether the BBC World Service, in its Russian service, is reflecting that issue in its broadcasts.
I believe that it is right in a debate such as this to challenge the BBC World Service, but it is also right that we balance our questions with our wholehearted support for the excellent work that it does.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing the debate and on the questions that he put to the Minister, about which he feels strongly.
Like the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and all other hon. Members who have spoken, I think that most people regard the BBC World Service as a national treasure. It deserves ringing compliments on the services that it offers, especially given the difficult circumstances in which its members work and the financial constraints that apply, of which we are all aware. That should be placed on the record.
Equally, however, as my hon. Friend has said, a number of questions need to be asked. Some of those questions have come out of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report, and some come as a result of feelings that Members genuinely hold. They are meant not as carping criticism, but as a way of expressing our deep concerns about some managerial aspects of the World Service. We recognise that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a role in this issue, although I do not believe that it is trying to control the BBC World Service, even indirectly, through its budget. However, I pick up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made: it might be time for the Foreign Office to review budgetary and managerial aspects of the World Service, as well as the service’s relationship with the FCO and other Departments. This is not about setting up a patsy; such a review would probably do both the World Service and the FCO a lot of good, and I hope that some positive things would come of it.
I have referred to the World Service as a national treasure, and perhaps it could employ another national treasure who has recently been sacked by another part of the BBC—Mr. Ed Stourton. He is a serious and heavyweight commentator who actually allows people to get a word in edgeways when he interviews them—I see the Minister is nodding—and he is no patsy. In terms of adding a heavyweight to the World Service, I put in a plea for Ed Stourton.
I shall not repeat all the points that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham and other colleagues, as the time available is limited and I know that the Minister wants to reply fully. Instead, I shall pick up on two or three important points. First, there must be a better way for the BBC World Service and the Foreign Office to project likely major shifts in where they will want to place their resources. It is easy to say, in retrospect, that wrong decisions were made a decade ago about cutting back on the Russia service, but we need to consider that closely.
Secondly, I should like to address the important issues that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton rightly raised about performance, budgets and proposed budgetary squeeze. Obviously, the overall FCO budget is being affected by the sharp fall in the value of the pound, and that has reduced the purchasing power of local budgets from many overseas posts. Will the Minister tell us what impact appreciation has had on the operations of the World Service and the British Council?
On cuts, the service closed 10 of its language services on radio in 2006 to release a further £10 million of funds for reinvestment. We understand the difficult budgetary pressures facing all arms of Government, but will the Minister commit to providing transparency and openness about those matters, including through regular reporting to Parliament? Are further cuts in World Service operations likely as we go through a period of major recession? I am not making a party political point—most people realise that we are going to go through a recession. Given the major squeezes in Government Departments, has the Minister done any thinking, within his Department, about the level of cuts?
My final point, which my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have raised, is about recognising that the World Service operates in a radically different world to that of 20-odd years ago. Power has shifted quite dramatically, largely from the base of the United States, Europe and the old Soviet Union to the rest of the world, and that brings major challenges. The World Service and the old Voice of America used to be literally the only voices speaking to large parts of what we now call the developing world. All Members have expressed major concern about pressures being brought to bear, either from within the World Service or by countries that work with it, to constrain the kind of news that is put out, let alone about the physical intimidation of journalists who wish to broadcast for or work with the service. That is not an issue only for the World Service; it is also for the FCO to address. I know that the Minister and other colleagues are only too well aware of the direct intimidation of previous British ambassadors and FCO staff, not only in Russia, but in other parts of the world. How does the Foreign Office see that issue developing?
It will be a sad day throughout the world if the feeling grows that the service, despite its high ratings, is having to editorially moderate what it says, or if it gives the impression that certain people will not be allowed to broadcast on it. Let us remember that the BBC World Service was a voice of democracy and liberty to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, including not only former members who lived in the Soviet Union, but the millions who were occupied under the Nazis and under the imperial Japanese in the far east. That was not academic, but was of fundamental importance, and we should cherish that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing the debate. He spoke with passion and conviction, but, as will be clear when I comment on some of his points, I do not share all of his views. Nevertheless, his conviction, interest and detailed knowledge of this subject are clear.
Like every hon. Member present, I share the view that the World Service is an enormous cultural, political and diplomatic asset to this country, and is of immense value. It is important to clarify how the service operates vis-à-vis Government. It is rightly editorially, operationally and managerially independent, and I caution against the argument that the Government should have a more hands-on role in managing it, as that would not be in any of our interests. Nevertheless, there is a relationship, and strategic plans are agreed between the World Service and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We discuss where and how the service operates, and then rightly leave it to get on with putting its strategic plans into action.
The service has recently come up with a renewed strategy based on four key decisions, the first of which is that it will increase its Arabic television output from 12 to 24 hours a day. Secondly, it is to launch a Persian TV service, and, thirdly, it is to close its Romanian service. Fourthly, it has decided to restructure its Spanish and Russian language services, including with new investment. I shall address each of those important proposals in turn and explain why the Foreign Office supports them.
First, Arabic television and the move to 24-hour broadcasting is strongly supported not only by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and by the relevant House of Lords Committee. Outside English, Arabic has historically been one of the BBC World Service’s highest-priority language services, and it remains so. The middle east and the Arabic-speaking world remains at the forefront of our diplomatic objectives and priorities, and it will do so for a long time. Therefore, the change to 24-hour broadcasting was important and, in order to achieve it, the World Service secured from the Treasury additional funding for the move—a decision that we very much welcomed.
Secondly, Iran and Afghanistan are two further top priorities for the Foreign Office. Our analysis has shown significant demand in those two countries for a television service focusing on news, information and broader programming. Again, additional funding was forthcoming during the comprehensive spending review—a decision that we very much welcomed.
I shall now discuss the restructuring of the Russian language service, an area in which I take issue with some of the things that the hon. Gentleman said. Russia rightly remains the World Service’s second-largest language service in terms of budget and hours broadcast, and it is an important market for the World Service. Similarly, and rightly, Russia is for political, economic, social and cultural reasons a key priority for the Foreign Office, and I want to make it clear up front that neither the World Service nor the Foreign Office has ever had any intention of reducing the impact of the World Service’s Russian language service. In fact, the opposite is true. The intention has always been to increase the impact of the language service in Russia by ensuring that the service is relevant to its audiences and reaches them by the most effective means possible. The World Service rightly evaluated the Russian language service’s performance and, bluntly, thought that it could do better. We agreed with that assessment. Radio broadcasts were not meeting their full potential, and not enough was being made of the increasing online market. For example, during the recent Georgia crisis, online use increased from 1.3 million unique users to 3 million, and that included the accessing of a high number of video streams. It demonstrated that there is already an online market in Russia, and I believe that it will expand over time. So, the World Service rose to the challenge in the right way, and several changes have been made.
The Minister paints a very rosy picture and talks about new investment in the Russian service, but will he explain why the Russian service’s listenership has totally collapsed? According to the information that Nigel Chapman gave to me in July, I can report that it is down to 600,000. By way of comparison, in Nigeria, a country with a similar population size, there are about 25 million listeners. Will the Minister offer an explanation as to why listenership has totally collapsed in Russia?
I am not sure that those figures are wholly accurate, so I shall correspond with the hon. Gentleman afterwards. However, there are a number of factors, and the position of the Russian authorities vis-à-vis the World Service will influence World Service listenership in Russia.
The key changes were an extension of high-quality news and current affairs at key times of the day; increased cultural output in extended editions of the World Service's peak-time flagship programmes; an increase in the current affairs reporting of British cultural and social affairs; and, crucially, greater investment in the BBC’s Russian service. All those measures represent moves in the right direction.
Moving on from that, I should like to respond to a number of points that were made during the debate. I began by saying that I respect the hon. Gentleman’s motivation, although I am concerned that several of his points imply far greater hands-on political control of the BBC World Service by the Government. I think that that would be wrong and, frankly, I believe that it would be deeply unhealthy for politicians to decide directly the editorial content of programmes throughout the world.
Let me make some other comments.
Some of the other comments from the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham cause me concern. He mentioned the BBC Persian service and quoted a letter from—I believe—a constituent, who said that the service sounded like Iranian state radio. I must say that anyone who has seen BBC journalists in many different parts of the world will attest to their integrity, independence and robust challenging of authority.
Let me begin by clearing up the first point. I did not in any way suggest that the Government intervene in editorial comment; it was more that they might intervene to secure the ability to broadcast, to help with infrastructure and to extend the BBC Russian service.
On the second point, the e-mail that I received was a way of illustrating the problems that one will have with the television service as opposed to the radio service if one is not able to gain access to the country. I was not in any way suggesting that the e-mail represented the sole view about the BBC Russian service[Official Report, 12 January 2009, Vol. 486, c. 2MC.].
We certainly take a keen interest in securing access for the BBC World Service, but I cannot quite see the purpose of a Member quoting in this Chamber a constituent who says that the BBC World Service is akin to Iranian state television, unless it is to suggest that there is a degree of truth in it. It is a view that I wholly reject.
The hon. Gentleman also said—I am paraphrasing—that, effectively, the BBC is holding its fire for fear of offending the Russian authorities, but I find no evidence for that statement whatever. It is not borne out by the evidence. He asked me several other detailed questions, including whether the advertising process for the director of the World Service will be open, and open to external candidates. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that, on both points, they will. He also suggested that there ought to a memorial to those who have served the World Service. I have not dealt with that issue, and it is not my direct responsibility in the Foreign Office, but I shall talk to colleagues, because it is an interesting suggestion and, if it finds support, we will put it forward to the BBC.
May I also clear up the financial issue? Part of the claim put forward was that the changes to the 24-hour Arabic service and the launch of Persian television were leading to reductions in the Russian service. That is most emphatically not true. Additional funds were brought forward through the CSR for those two initiatives, and the Russian service will remain the second-largest service in terms of broadcast news and budget spent.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about the Persian service staff’s ease of access to Iran, and there have been problems in that regard. The Persian television service will face difficulties collating internal Iranian footage. Therefore it will use, first, Reuters and AFP pooled footage, secondly, footage from the mainstream BBC, such as from its “News at Ten” programme, and thirdly, video blogs from journalists and viewers. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) also put forward an interesting proposal, which I shall refer to the BBC.
I would describe the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis)—I do not believe that he will take offence at this—as an ideologue.
The hon. Gentleman nods. He put forward the view that the BBC’s purpose is objectivity, with a mission to promote British values, and I must say that one British value that I subscribe to is a free and independent media, whereby the state broadcasting corporation is able to challenge, to scrutinise and to say uncomfortable things that do not necessarily suit the views of the Government of the day or the prevailing ethos. Therefore, I would not be comfortable going down the road that he suggested.
I do not believe that the purpose suggested by the hon. Gentleman is the purpose of the BBC. Its purpose is to put forward a variety of views, and the most effective way of challenging those views with which we fundamentally disagree is to scrutinise and oppose them through a free and independent media.
Finally, I respect the conviction of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in representing his constituents, and the BBC is working, and will work, with staff to achieve its objectives. As a part of that process, their interests very much need to be taken into account.
We have had an interesting debate, and several Members have referred to the fact that such debates about the role of the World Service and how it operates ought to take place regularly. That is a view with which I very much concur.
Christians in Iraq
It is a great privilege to open what I believe will be a very important debate. I have tried to secure it in the ballot for some months, and I am delighted to have done so.
Why is this subject so important? It is important because we are talking about a massive humanitarian disaster and the fate of the Christian population in Iraq. It is one of the oldest Christian populations in the world, having been settled there for 2,000 years, and is descended in great measure from the ancient Assyrians, who had been there for thousands of years. It is an historic, settled population. Just five years ago there were 1.2 million Christians in Iraq, and now there are only 600,000 left. There has been a massive flight of Christians from Iraq and it is reckoned that although the Christian population is as low as 4 per cent., perhaps as many as 30 per cent. of the Iraqi refugees in Syria are Christians.
The terrible humanitarian disaster is continuing even as we speak. Even since September 2008, at least 14 Christians have been killed in Mosul and at least 2,000 Christian families have fled the city since 2003. It is not just about people leaving the country—at least 700 Christians have been murdered. The situation is very serious indeed.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this long-awaited and long-delayed debate. Does he agree that the half of Christians who have left Iraq have done so because of persecution, the abuse of human rights and so on? Yet when they apply for asylum in countries such as our own, they are far too often classified as economic migrants. They would love to go back to the jobs that they had and the businesses that they ran. Does he agree that something needs to happen in the upper echelons of our own Government so that people are classified correctly when they apply for asylum in this country from the awful conditions that they have had to endure in Iraq?
Of course I agree with that. I was about to say that I have some personal experience of visiting Iraq and talking to such people. They are often targeted because they are perceived as having wealth, although they are not particularly wealthy. They want to go on living in Iraq, because they have businesses there and want to get on with their lives. They are not economic migrants, because they do not want to leave Iraq. From talking to them, I have no doubt that they are genuine refugees.
I visited Iraq in September as a guest of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which is the main party representing Christians in Iraq with about 80 per cent. of their vote. I had an opportunity to visit northern Iraq; I think that I was probably one of the first British MPs to go around the villages of the Nineveh plain, just north of Mosul, and up into northern Kurdistan to visit villages close to the Turkish border. I had many packed meetings in villages in the Nineveh plains and in the mountains south of the border. I think that I am one of the few British MPs to have penetrated into that part of Iraq, so I have a story to tell.
I do not normally give such guarantees, and conditions are not normally placed on Members when they intervene.
The hon. Gentleman said that he was perhaps the first British MP to go to those areas. I went to Iraq just after the war and was there as it was being declared. I met members of the Christian community and their political and church leaders, so I, too, have had discussions with people in Iraq. I have seen what the Kurdistan Regional Government have been doing to discriminate positively in favour of the Christian communities and to try to help them. We all know that more can be done, but let us at least acknowledge that the British Government have a duty to try to make the situation better out there and to support the KRG in their positive efforts to help people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is the purpose of the debate—we are sitting here in the presence of a British Minister, and there is no doubt that we have a responsibility in the matter. I shall not go over all the arguments about whether it was right to invade Iraq. Everybody knows my views, and we shall now look to the future. The British and American Governments have a responsibility, because there is no doubt that the position of Christians in Iraq has got immeasurably worse since the invasion in 2003.
I add straight away that I am no apologist for Saddam Hussein. I have talked to many Christians who were persecuted by him or conscripted into the terrible war with Iran. I went to their villages, and as the hon. Gentleman said that he has visited northern Kurdistan, he may well have visited them himself. I saw villages that had been bombed, and I say to him that I am not pro-Kurd or anti-Kurd. The Kurds suffered terribly under Saddam and fought side by side with the Christians. They were displaced and fled into Turkey. However, I have also talked to many Christians who are still suffering in Kurdistan, and I shall turn to that point later.
My hon. Friend knows well that I supported the invasion of Iraq, which was done in order to bring about democracy. Does he not agree that democracy carries with it an absolute requirement of the protection of minority rights? It ought to carry with it the protection of the Christians, but it has been greatly abused. That seriously undermines a case that was made about the war. The authorities have an obligation to do more than just provide $900,000 to help Christian families.
That is right, and we bear a responsibility. The Christians are a very small part of the total population of Iraq, and there is absolutely no danger to the Sunni, Kurd or Shi’a populations of Iraq. The Christians have a large stake in the political process, but at the moment the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which gets 80 per cent. of their vote, has only one MP to represent them because of a bit of fiddling around with the voting system. That is a worrying denial of democracy, and we have a responsibility.
Funnily enough, Christians in Iraq are persecuted because they are quite wrongly considered the agents of the west. They are simply ordinary business people who want to get on with their own way of life in a settled, secure environment. They are a very small part of the population and no threat to anybody. It was emotional and moving to go into the ancient villages in the Nineveh plains and visit ancient monasteries that have been there for the best part of 2,000 years. I saw the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Nahum and read what he wrote thousands of years ago:
“Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them.”
How extraordinary that those words are still true today and that those people are being scattered and persecuted.
When I went to the Nineveh plains, what struck me was that there was a sense of security in those ancient, entirely Christian villages. I met many displaced people who had come up from Basra and Baghdad to settle in the Nineveh plains, and I heard some absolutely heart-rending stories. I met a young girl who had lost her parents and her sister—they were murdered. I met a widow who had lost her husband and was now caring for a disabled son. Her husband was murdered in what can only be described as an anti-Christian pogrom. A quiet, cool and collected lady was sitting there listening to the appalling stories, and she finally came and told us her story. Her husband was a deacon. On the way back from church, he was killed—he was blown up by a bomb—and then her daughter disappeared. At that stage, she broke down and burst into tears, and we could not carry on the interview. We subsequently heard that she had never seen her daughter again. Imagine the anguish of that lady: she lost her husband, who was killed in a roadside bomb, and then her 18-year-old daughter, who disappeared and was probably murdered.
Those are just three of the many terrible stories told by ordinary people who have no interest, and have never shown an interest, in politics. They just wanted to get on with their lives in the suburbs of Baghdad but have had to flee to what they consider to be a kind of safe haven in the Nineveh plains.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this worthwhile debate. He has outlined some horrific stories, and he will be aware of the case of Asya Ahmad Muhammad, who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment at the age of 14 after fatally stabbing her uncle while trying to defend her family, who were being attacked for converting to Christianity. Would he agree that the doctrine of treating non-Muslims as “dimmys”—that is the terminology that is used—or second-class citizens is unacceptable? Does he believe that there is a duty on the Government to apply more pressure, not just on Iraq but on other Islamic countries, to end that stance in respect of their own citizens?
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman makes that important intervention. In a conversation with an Orthodox priest, I asked, perhaps rather naively, what would happen if somebody converted from Islam and joined his congregation. I had just attended an extraordinary, moving service at his church. The whole village turned up. These churches are entirely bare: there are no icons or ornaments. The priest gives a simple service in Aramaic, which was the language of Jesus Christ. These people are the last speakers of Aramaic.
As I said, when we were having coffee with the priest after the service, I asked, rather naively, “What would happen if somebody from the local Muslim community wished to join your church?” He said, “They could join my church today, but tomorrow they would be dead.” There was no doubt about that—it was no exaggeration. One simply cannot evangelise in Iraq or, indeed, in most Muslim countries, and if people seek to convert, they will be killed.
On the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, the people who have suffered like that are genuine religious refugees. There is no way in which they could possibly be considered economic migrants. We have a duty of care to them, but our greatest duty of care is not to try to pick up the pieces when they flee, as is happening. That ancient community is fleeing to New Zealand, Greece, Australia, America and this country. Our duty is surely to help them to stay in their own country, which is what they want to do.
It was soul destroying to go around the villages and talk to the old men and women who, generation after generation, had ploughed and tilled the land. They wanted to stay—they had no choice but to stay—but the young people all wanted to go to America. How tragic that is. I know from my own experience, because my wife is of Russian extraction, that once someone leaves their country, they lose their roots and language. The Aramaic language would be lost for ever. This is not just a humanitarian disaster but a cultural disaster of massive proportions.
There is one thing that we can do. As I said, I had conversations with people in the mountains. I just say to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that I have nothing against Kurds. They have suffered terribly, and they, too, are under huge economic pressure, but Kurdistan is, in effect, an independent state. One never sees the Iraqi army or the Americans there. The area is run by the peshmerga and is, in effect, an independent state.
There is ample evidence—I can provide the Foreign Office with all the evidence that it needs—that at least 58 villages with a Christian population have been partially or wholly expropriated by Kurds. That happens in a subtle way. It does not happen as it did under Saddam, who used bombing. It is not as cruel as that. There are no chemical attacks or anything like that—nobody is suggesting that.
I myself saw what happens. I was with an old man in a village in an area with a dominant Kurdish population, and some kids from the next village came along. They were starting to take bits of the vineyard, and he tried to shoo them away. He told me that when he had done that a couple of months earlier, he had been beaten up.
Expropriation happens gradually. Then the case goes to court, the court agrees—“Yes, you have the title deeds to the field, and your family has been tilling it for generations”—and makes a judgment, but nothing happens. There is a process in Kurdistan of villages gradually losing a field here, a house there, yet the people have no effective representation in the Government.
There is one place in Iraq where Christians could have some kind of safe haven: the Nineveh plains. They are not the majority of the population there, but they are the single largest ethnic group. They are happy to live there with the Arabs and Yazidis. I must admit that I had never heard of the Yazidis before I went to Iraq. Again, they are a small religious ethnic group in Iraq, and we want to try to keep them there as well and to protect them.
In the Nineveh plains, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which, as I said, has 80 per cent. of the Christian vote, is campaigning for a 19th province. There are already 18 provinces in Iraq. The Christians are not interested in breaking up Iraq, or in their province seceding. They just want one province where they can work with the local Arabs and Yazidis and have some real say in the governance of the area. That would give them a sense of security and of belonging to their own country.
As I said, I spoke to many refugees. Where did they go? They either left the country altogether, or, if they wanted to stay in the country, they went to the entirely Christian villages in the Nineveh plains. They may not stay there. They may stay for a time and then, as things ease—I am sure the Minister will reassure us that things are getting better in Baghdad—they may return to Baghdad or Basra. I very much hope that when the Minister replies to this debate, he will at least keep an open mind on the creation of a 19th province around the Nineveh plains. He may say that there is divided counsel, that it is difficult to get the Baghdad Government to agree, that we do not want to ghettoise the Christians—there are always 101 reasons for not doing something—but surely we should listen to the voices of the Christian people and their democratically elected representatives. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) spoke about democracy—that is what they want. They want a 19th province. We should at least make a start on it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that all the discussions about constitutional change and all his proposals, with which I entirely agree, will be completely undermined unless within the Parliament itself there is a guarantee in respect of seats for minorities? Does he agree that the very fact that there is a proposal to abolish the minority seats has, in effect, opened the door to the oppression to which he rightly referred?
Yes, I agree with that entirely. I believe that we and the Americans still have considerable influence in Iraq, and that we cannot turn our back on the problem. I spoke about a 19th province, but there are also wider issues to do with Baghdad and Basra and minority representation in the Iraqi Parliament. We have to use all the political pressure that we can muster to try to ensure that the minorities of Iraq are protected.
One further point about the 19th province is that it is only 4,500 sq km with a population of only hundreds of thousands, compared with Kurdistan which is 60,000 sq km with a population of 3.5 million Kurds. We are discussing a modest proposal, and its only point is to give a sense of security to the remaining Christian population in Iraq.
I apologise for not being here at the start of my hon. Friend’s debate, but I was speaking in a Statutory Instrument Committee.
My hon. Friend said that things are getting better in Baghdad. I apologise if he has already mentioned this, but he and I had the privilege of hearing Canon Andrew White speak in Parliament last week when he said that 93 members of his congregation at St. George’s, Baghdad, have been killed this year. What is the most effective action that the UK and US Governments can take with the Iraqi authorities to persuade them to crack down on abuse against Christians and other minorities in Iraq?
We must make it clear, with the Americans, that such abuse is simply not acceptable. I am glad that my hon. Friend intervened, because I want to end by speaking about Canon Andrew White. A number of us heard his moving talk last week in the Speaker’s apartments. He is a man of enormous courage who has stuck it out in Baghdad all these years. As my hon. Friend said, we heard that no less than 93 of his congregation have been murdered in the past year—the past year—but his church is still growing. We—the Foreign Office and the Americans—must make it clear to the Iraqi Government that we expect the minority populations of Iraq to be protected in Basra and Baghdad.
Canon White lived through appalling violence, and when someone asked him what kept his congregation going, he said that it was love between the members of his congregation. What an extraordinary, Christian response in a dramatically horrible and difficult situation. He may say that, but it may not be enough for the Government, who must do more, and must act. That is why this debate is so important.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his strong stance on this issue, which is fundamental to our appreciation of where Iraq now stands after the war. I think I am right in saying that he was against the war, but some of us who were in favour of it—I do not resile from my views at that time—have been dismayed at the way in which certain events have developed since. We were told afterwards by the then Prime Minister, President Bush and so on that the war was a step towards democracy in Iraq, and an enormous number of people turned out for democratic elections, but as so often in countries with a Muslim attitude to constitutional matters, we are sometimes, but not always, bound to ask ourselves what such democracy amounts to.
There are lessons to be learned in our own country about some of the things that are said about our affairs and our constitutional arrangements. Above all—I am speaking in the mother of Parliaments—we have an obligation to stand strongly by the protection of minorities. If our democracy is to be taken as a beacon for the rest of the world, and if we are contributing to constitutional change in countries where we have an interest and some influence—the United States has a similar obligation—it is essential that we stand by the principles that we would apply in this country. It is with the deepest concern that I have watched what is happening to the Christian minority, and all minorities in Iraq. We must be clear about that. We cannot have a standard for democracy and insist on principle, but then say that it applies only to specific people and not to others. It is precisely because of the harrowing details of what has happened to Christians that I focus on that, which is what this debate is about, but without prejudice to my concern for other people. I go further and say that if it was a Christian country and we were exercising the sort of discrimination that has taken place historically—for example, during the French wars of religion, and so on—we would be bound to take a similar view today: that we have progressed and that modern democracy, which we now claim for its virtues of stable societies throughout the world, must be demonstrated by determination to maintain the standards that we expect to protect minorities, including Christians.
The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. Does he agree that an unfortunate by-product of the problems in Iraq and our debate today is that tolerance of Christians and other minorities in Iraq has been perceived as a perverse insistence on western values? Instead of demanding democracy in Iraq, it seems that some people are determined to supplant it by ensuring that it is perceived as being an imposition of western values, when it is far from that.
The hon. Gentleman raises an exceptionally important point because it is no good our saying that here in Westminster we represent certain democratic values if we do not understand what goes with those democratic values. They are universal, and they have brought peace and stability. One of the greatest problems that the world has faced has been lack of tolerance for and oppression against minorities. We must acknowledge that over the centuries we have been involved in some of those oppressions, but by no means does that carry with it anything other than our determination, by virtue of long-standing experience and the development of our democratic institutions, to ensure that those democratic values are in force where we have the opportunity to exert influence. It is no good having universal declarations of human rights, which we witnessed being celebrated the other day, or insisting on human rights generally, whether the European convention on human rights or whatever, if we are not prepared to observe what we are, by omission, not doing when we have the opportunity to exert influence and thereby to protect minorities in Iraq, and particularly the Christian minority.
As my hon. Friend said, it is estimated that in October 12,000 Christians fled Mosul and that, in a two-week period in October, 14 Christians were killed in that city. Although it is said that the authorities ordered more checkpoints in the Christian neighbourhoods, we have to bear it in mind that there are as many as 35,000 of the Iraqi security forces, combined with police personnel, in Mosul city alone. One is bound to ask, when there are that number of people available, why no effective protection appears to have been given to these people.
It is also said that nobody is quite sure what has motivated the attacks. In that context, I have to say that the very fact that such attacks have taken place, and that sufficient steps were not taken to ensure that those people—those Christians—were protected, suggests, as far as I can see, although I do not know enough to know precisely, that not enough was being done and that people were standing by while some of this went on. I hope that I am wrong about that.
As I said in an earlier intervention on my hon. Friend, the Iraqi President’s pledge of nearly $900,000 to help Christian families who have fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul because of killings and threats does not do very much.
One of the problems, as I saw, is that the writ for the Baghdad Government does not seem to apply in northern Iraq. It was only when I was in the Nineveh plains that I saw that many of the checkpoints were held not by Christians, who seem to have no weaponry at all, or have very little, and not by the Iraqi army—I never saw any of the Iraqi army—but by the peshmerga and the Kurds. In fact, the Iraqi Prime Minister has said publicly that he suspects that Kurdish militias were involved in some of the killings in Mosul. I do not know whether that is right, but clearly there is a state of chaos in Mosul and no proper control. The Christians there feel that they are utterly unprotected, which is why they are fleeing Mosul and going to their own villages in the Nineveh plains.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s helpful intervention. If some of this is attributed to the attitudes of certain Kurdish people, they should remember that they are a minority in relation to Turkey, for example, which could easily raise the question of double standards being applied. Those hon. Members who have taken a great interest in what has been going on in Turkey will know about the rights and obligations on the Turkish people and the Turkish Government and how that gets tied up with the subject of their application to the European Union. However, the reality is that the situation regarding the Kurdish people and their connections in northern Iraq cannot be conducted on the basis of double standards.
When I read that the President of Iraq has said that the money that I have already mentioned would help to safeguard the
“rights and freedoms of Christians”,
I see a recognition of my point, which is that the Iraqi Government are only prepared to put a small amount of money in, in comparison with the nature of the problem. However, what is really needed are parliamentary, constitutional and democratic guarantees. That is the way forward. It is no good throwing money—not even the limited amount that is being provided—if there is no acknowledgement of the need to recognise that the problem is much deeper and that there is an absolute obligation, in the light of the invasion and the subsequent behaviour of the coalition, to insist on constitutional guarantees.
There is talk of withdrawal. General Petraeus has said that the situation in Iraq is fragile. We know that, but we also know that there are still opportunities to ensure that the constitutional arrangements work properly and it is clear, from what we have heard, that those are not working properly in relation to the Christian people, whom I believe must be protected.
From a purely cultural point of view, it is true that, as my hon. Friend mentioned, in Nineveh the people speak Aramaic, which is the language of Christ. For the record, many people regard that as important. I am glad that my hon. Friend drew attention to that.
The Christians have been given the most terrible time in Nineveh. I am told that their numbers throughout the country are down from 800,000 in 2003 to 250,000 today. Of course, we remember the dreadful murder of the archbishop of the ancient Chaldean church, who was abducted in Mosul and murdered. In October, as I have mentioned already, 10,000 Christians got away. But the fact is that they should not have to get away; they should be able to remain. I endorse my hon. Friend’s suggestion that there should be a 19th province to protect the Christians, although that should not be thought of as a ghetto—I hope that we do not hear the Minister use that word, because that would be quite offensive—but as a safe haven. That is the difference. If we look across Europe, at the issues relating to Kosovo and Ossetia, for example, the protection of minorities is a fundamental problem with a universal character. It also applies in Africa, for instance. The arguments for ensuring that there is a safe haven, as part of a constitutional arrangement in a new province, are and remain important.
I mentioned earlier that the Iraqi Parliament’s abolition of a guaranteed quota of seats for minorities in the past month or two—I understand that that looks set to be amended—sparked protests by Christians. However, that was no reason whatsoever for the killings that ensued. This is a parliamentary, a constitutional and a democratic issue. I hope that the Minister, on behalf of the Government, and that we Members of Parliament, too, will make it crystal clear that pressure will be exerted to ensure constitutional protection for the Christians, together with all others, because the protection of minorities is implicit and essential.
By way of conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent initiative in securing this debate. I look forward with interest, but also with some concern, to what the Minister has to say. If he has no clear policy to guarantee that we will exert all the necessary pressure, what is the point in universal declarations of human rights, what is the point in having a Westminster democracy and what is the point of our calling ourselves the mother of Parliaments? Are we to engage in double standards or will we ensure that the Christian minority in Iraq, in common with all minorities who are persecuted, is protected under the constitutional arrangements of our democratic system? If we do nothing, those people will die. If we do not provide guarantees—I look to the Government to ensure this—I think that our Government would stand condemned for not having done what is open to them while we are still in Iraq.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs. Humble. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) not just on securing this debate, but on the way that he has championed this cause for some time. I defer to his first-hand experience of many of the issues that we have been talking about. I will not say much that will differ from what he and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) have said, in terms of tone and the direction that they are going with the case that is being made.
There is a strong case for self-determination and a self-governing province—a 19th province—in the Nineveh plains. That is key to supporting the survival of Iraq’s Christian community. This is about survival, rather than separatism.
It is important to acknowledge, although not exclusively, the work of the Assyrian Democratic Movement. It has already been said that the Assyrian Democratic Movement has consistently, in several elections, gained the support of more than 80 per cent. of the Iraqi Christian community, so as a voice of the Christian people of Iraq, it should be listened to by the Foreign Office. I hope that the Foreign Office will recognise that and enter into regular dialogue with the movement, especially at this time when, as we have heard, the very existence of Iraq’s Christian community is under such threat.
Article 125 of the Iraqi constitution states:
“This Constitution shall guarantee the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents, and this shall be regulated by law.”
The Assyrian Chaldeans and the other nationalities living in the Nineveh plain should have their administrative rights fully recognised, as guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution, by the granting of the self-governing province in the Nineveh plain as has been requested. Another key part of the administrative rights of the Assyrian people will be the right to participate in providing security in the Nineveh plain in the relevant districts.
In the report of his visit to northern Iraq in March and April 2008, the Dutch Member of Parliament, Joel Voordewind, wrote:
“Until now, the Iraqi government has not been able to provide the necessary security for the Assyrian Christians living in the Nineveh Plains. Therefore in this area the Assyrian Christians would like to see more possibilities to protect themselves against the violence. In 2005 and 2006 two attempts by the Assyrians to organise a protective police force by themselves on the Nineveh Plains were frustrated”.
The Assyrian international news agency recently published an article entitled “Kurdish Militia, Iraqi Police Terrorizing Assyrians in North Iraq”. It reported that attacks against Assyrian Christian civilians residing in the Nineveh plain had recently escalated—as we have heard—and, in some cases, at the hands of the local Iraqi police as well as paramilitary security guards. The article went on to state:
“Local Assyrians, Shabaks, and Yezidis have formally submitted the names of 800 local police to join the Iraqi Police force”—
not to be a separate militia—
“in order to provide local police and security for the Nineveh Plain. The request has been formally granted and approved by the Iraqi government in Baghdad. However, the…Lieutenant Governor…has repeatedly blocked implementation of the proposal.”
The police have not only failed to provide adequate security in the Nineveh plain for the local inhabitants; they have on occasion themselves directly threatened the security of the Assyrian Chaldeans and other local residents there. The Assyrian Democratic Movement believes that local administration and policing by residents of the Nineveh plain is the only way to reverse an intolerably precarious situation, and I support that view.
Iraq’s Christian community is a significant force for religious moderation in the country. Iraqi Christians and moderate Muslims are natural allies to oppose the rise of extremism in Iraq. Furthermore, one major argument for Iraq to have a secular rather than an Islamic Government is the Christian presence in the country; Christians are still the largest religious minority in Iraq. Supporting a self-governing 19th province in the Nineveh plain will not only greatly improve the security of Iraq’s Christians, but enhance the security of other religious minorities in Iraq, such as the Yezidis. Actively supporting a religiously pluralistic society in Iraq is surely the best counter to any calls for the establishment of a clerical or Islamic republic in that country.
It is very much in Britain’s and Iraq’s interest to strengthen the forces of religious moderation and pluralism in Iraq, which should surely include aiding Iraq’s Christian community to remain in their country by actively supporting the establishment of the self-governing province that the Assyrian Democratic Movement has consistently called for.
The British Government should also strongly urge the Kurdistan Democratic party to ensure the swift and complete return of all the Christian-owned land and houses that have been partially or completely taken from at least 58 Christian villages. The loss of such land and houses puts even more pressure on Iraq’s Christians to leave the country. The Foreign Office urgently needs to be more robust and proactive on the self-governing province and the return of misappropriated Christian-owned land and houses. Simply maintaining the status quo will be no help to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians, for it is the status quo that has already cost Iraq’s Christian community more than half its members, as we have heard.
I want to express my strong support for the call on the Foreign Office to urge the Government of Iraq to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the alleged involvement of members of the establishment, shall we say, in the recent assassinations of Christians in Mosul and fully to publicise the investigation’s findings.
One of the stated reasons for the British Government’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was to bring democracy to that country, yet many of the Assyrian Chaldeans in northern Iraq have yet to enjoy the free exercise of their basic democratic right to vote, due to repeated interference with the electoral process. For example, during the January 2005 national elections in Iraq, up to 100,000 Assyrian Chaldeans were prevented from voting in northern Iraq by the blocking of the delivery of ballot boxes and papers to their areas.
The US State Department’s 2005 human rights country report for Iraq stated:
“In the January elections, many of the mostly non-Muslim residents on the Ninewah Plain were unable to vote. Some polling places did not open, ballot boxes were not delivered, and incidents of voter fraud and intimidation occurred. These problems resulted from administrative breakdowns on voting day and the refusal of…security forces to allow ballot boxes to pass to predominantly Christian villages.”
What measures are the British Government taking to help to ensure that there is no repeat of such activity in Iraqi elections, such as the national elections in 2009?
The mass displacement of Christians from Mosul in September and October 2008 came soon after an Iraqi parliamentary vote to drop a provision in the new provincial election law—article 50—that protected the rights of minorities by guaranteeing their representation on provincial councils. Article 50 should surely be reinstated in the new provincial election law. With Iraq’s Christian minority experiencing escalating violence, they need safeguards such as article 50 more than ever in order to help to protect their rights.
I am keen to see the British Government provide humanitarian aid to the numerous displaced families in northern Iraq and to the Christian community in that region, including those in the Nineveh plain. Such aid should not be channelled through existing authorities or the regional government, but should be given through reliable non-governmental organisations with a proven track record of helping Assyrian Chaldeans in that region. That will help to ensure that any British Government aid to those people is used to benefit the community.
Scandalously, the plight of Christians in Iraq has grabbed precious few headlines, yet it is perhaps the greatest continuing outrage resulting from the war in Iraq. As Christians in this country prepare to celebrate Christmas in peace and security, Christians in Iraq do so amid dispossession, persecution and fear. With that in mind, I call on the Minister to give the matter his urgent attention.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on securing the debate, which is sadly necessary. He eloquently outlined the tragic events affecting the Christian population in Iraq that have unfolded in the past few years. His personal experience of seeing the situation on the ground has greatly enhanced this morning’s debate.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) rightly reminded us that all minorities need protection. Other minorities in Iraq are suffering a similar plight. Indeed, this issue has sadly become a hallmark of conflicts in other areas around the world. Although this debate focuses on Iraq, it is important to remember that there are many countries where persecution on the basis of one’s religion continues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) outlined the plight of Christians living in the Nineveh plains. It was particularly useful to bring up the 2005 electoral problems—the fraud, ballot box rigging and intimidation that went on. It is abundantly clear that it is no way to build a democracy when certain sections of the population are prevented from having their voices heard.
As we have heard, there are 1 million Christians in the Iraqi population, but up to half of them have already fled, either elsewhere in Iraq or to neighbouring countries, such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It is a small but significant part of the population.
The violence that we have seen has escalated in recent years. In 2005, the Catholic Archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and then released. In 2006, the Orthodox priest Boulos Iskander was kidnapped; a ransom was demanded and paid, yet he was beheaded, and his arms and legs chopped off. In 2007, priest Ragheed Ganni and three of his companions were shot dead in his church. At the start of this year, bombs went off simultaneously in Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad.
Throughout this year, the story seems to have become more and more bleak. The Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was killed in March. There was more in October; the numbers are difficult to verify, but more than a dozen Christians were killed and thousands of Christians fled Mosul in the wake of the attacks.
I have an interesting example of that. The Assyrian Democratic Movement was asked to provide bodyguards for the Archbishop of Mosul, who was murdered. Only three or four bodyguards were provided. That is no use. I was told that if one goes to Mosul with three or four bodyguards, they will murder the bodyguards and then murder you. Andrew White, who was mentioned earlier, has 30 bodyguards. That is the terrible situation that people now face in Mosul.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I hope that the Minister will let us know whether the response of the Iraqi Government was adequate. We hear that they sent 1,000 troops to Mosul, but in the wake of such endemic violence that seems to be a rather small number. Does the Minister believe that that will be sufficient to restore order and security?
The situation is clearly grave, and it could be argued that it has become worse since the invasion in 2003. The hon. Member for Gainsborough said that he is not an apologist for Saddam, and I echo his comments. The previous oppressive regime might have restricted some of the violence that we now see coming to the fore, and the horrors of that regime have been well documented. However, it is worrying that when talking about the persecution of Christians in 2006 Rowan Williams should say that
“The situation has got worse since Saddam fell.”
That is a damning indictment of our invasion of Iraq and what has happened since. The situation for that group of individuals, who want to practise their religion, has got worse.
Hon. Members in the Chamber today will have differing views on Iraq. I initially opposed the war. Indeed, I marched against it in Glasgow, alongside tens of thousands of others. However, in some ways, worse than the initial decision to go to war was the complete lack of planning and focus, by the Americans as well as our Government, to ensure security after the war. The rule of law and the rebuilding of the country was essential, but we seemed entirely unprepared to ensure it. Democracy cannot flourish without the basic rule of law and security, but that is exactly what we see for the minorities in Iraq.
Whatever our views on the war, we are obviously united in our condemnation of the violence and persecution in Iraq. Freedom of religion and belief has to be one of the most basic human rights. I try to put myself in the shoes of some Christians in Iraq. The country had an incredibly oppressive regime, torture and horrors being its hallmarks. Many families had already suffered dreadfully. Then we had the war in 2003, which obviously caused what is termed collateral damage—religion aside, we know that tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis were killed as a result. Many families have seen a family member or members killed. Many have become homeless because they had to flee. It must be one of the lowest and most difficult times that they have had to face. At such times, people have only their faith to help them get through. When the opportunity to seek solace in the Christian faith is denied, it is a grave and desperate situation.
I hope that the hon. Lady is not saying that, somehow or other, these problems are the consequence of the invasion of Iraq. After all, the Kurds were being dreadfully and tragically oppressed by Saddam Hussein—and so on. The hope is that we can elevate the debate to the question of whether we have proper democratic constitutional guarantees rather than dwelling on the question of whether it was right to invade Iraq.
[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have indeed moved on from whether it was right to invade. However, I would say that wherever there is conflict—this applies also to Afghanistan, where my party supported invasion—it is vital that the rule of law and security should be guaranteed. Nothing else can be built without those basics. We found it to be true in Afghanistan, and we are finding it to be true also in Iraq. Some of the tensions were certainly to be found under the surface, and some even came out into the open under the previous regime. When there is a breakdown in the rule of law, things get worse and become entirely out of hand. That is what we see in Iraq.
I turn to the role of the UK Government. What is it that we should be doing? The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is no longer in his place, spoke of asylum seekers—an important point, because the Government can have a direct impact.
I read yesterday in a Birmingham newspaper of a 76-year-old, Niala Melki, and her daughter, Salma Haddad. They have been living in the UK for the last five years. They fled Iraq when the conflict started. Sadly, Salma’s father died before they came here, and being on their own the two women found protection difficult, given that they were both of the Christian faith. They came to the UK and have lived here for five years, but their latest appeal to stay has just been turned down. If the Government accept what is happening to Christians in Iraq, I wonder what their rationale is for saying that it is safe to deport people back to such a country, especially when they are at risk of being tortured or killed for their religion.
It is interesting to look at the figures for the period 2003-07. For example, Sweden has taken 25,000 refugees from Iraq. For the same period, the UK has taken in 260, and a further 2,680 have been given leave to remain. If we cannot improve security and guarantee the safety of Christians and other minorities in Iraq, we should not deny the clearly genuine case being made by those who seek asylum here. I wonder whether the Minister believes that it is safe at the moment to deport Christians to Iraq.
I turn to what the Government can do in Iraq. It is vital that we use our influence and lobbying power. The change in the law brought about by article 50 in October has been mentioned; it was about guaranteeing political representation for minorities. Surely the Government should be playing a role, and lobbying for it to be reinstated. Given what we have seen happening to minority communities, it is more important than ever that they have representation within the democratic structure.
I echo the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and ask the Government to do everything in their power to ensure that the upcoming elections are as free and fair as possible. We do not want to see a repeat of the intimidation and electoral fraud that happened in 2005. I hope that the Minister will consider the idea raised today by several hon. Members of creating a special province; it may be one way to provide the security and protection needed by the Christians and other minorities in Iraq.
I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion, as I want to ensure that the Minister has enough time—especially as the Government have plenty of questions to answer. The appalling attacks that we have seen in Iraq amount to persecution of the gravest kind. I have nothing but admiration for the courage of those Christians in Iraq, who continue to worship and follow their faith despite the risk of death. However, it is unacceptable for that to continue, so their protection is essential. The Government must look both at how they can influence the Iraqi Government’s response and how they assess the claims of Christians fleeing Iraq and seeking refuge on our shores.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on securing this debate on an issue that, as he said, he has been campaigning on for some time. It is appropriate that we should be debating the appalling persecution of Iraq’s Christian minority as we approach the festival of Christmas. However Members voted in the original decision to intervene in Iraq, in 2003, everyone ought to feel a sense of anger and shame at the fact that, as Government sources indicate the imminent withdrawal of British troops from that country, part of the coalition’s legacy will sadly be the desperate plight of Christian and other minorities. I hope very much that when the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary meet the Iraqi leaders they will press home the importance that Members on both sides of the House place on the treatment of minorities in a country on behalf of which a large number of British lives have been given in the past five years.
As my hon. Friend said, Christians constitute a small proportion of the Iraqi population. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, however, about two fifths of refugees from Iraq are Christian. As several hon. Members said, although today’s debate has focused mostly on the situation in the northern governorate, we must not forget what has happened to Christians in Basra and Baghdad, of which the testimony of that immensely brave man, Canon Andrew White, reminded us.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was the first to point out, we are right, too, to remember that the persecution in Iraq is directed not only at Christians, but other religious minorities—the Yazidis have been mentioned. Furthermore, my understanding is that more than 90 per cent. of the small Mandaean community has been driven out of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the gravity of what is happening. I can understand the Government’s temptation—I am not pointing a finger or making a great party political point—to take the easy line: to say that things are getting better and that the forthcoming withdrawal of British troops will set the seal on our achievement. For example, the Government have been reluctant to describe what has been happening in Iraq as ethnic cleansing. Yet the characteristics of what has been described in this debate are eerily reminiscent of what happened in Bosnia and Kosovo on our own continent.
Some important points have emerged from this debate, both for the British Government and the Governments in Baghdad and the Kurdish region. I shall deal first with the British Government’s position. I understand that later today the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom will publish a detailed report on the state of religious minorities in Iraq. That document is not yet public, but in a press release—I saw it this morning—from the commission, which is a statutory body, it described the situation of Iraq’s Christian communities as “dire”.
When setting foreign policy objectives and judging asylum cases, the Government risk relying on out-of-date information for their assessment of what is happening in Iraq. The Government are relying on two main sources of information: an August report by the Central Office of Information and an operational guidance note for the UK Border Agency from October. According to the footnotes, however, those two assessments refer back to studies of, and visits to, Iraq carried out at least 12 months earlier. For example, they refer to UNHCR guidelines on the treatment of Iraqi asylum seekers published as long ago as August 2007, which will have relied on information collated earlier, and on a Finnish Government report from October and November 2007.
Ensuring that the information to hand is up to date is particularly important when dealing with the situation in the northern governorate, because all the information from the media, the UNHCR, and the anecdotal evidence given to Members by those from the Iraqi Christian community suggests that the situation in the north has worsened dramatically this year. I question whether the verdict of the 2007 Finnish report, on which this Government’s publications have relied, that the Kurdish regional autonomous area is a “safe haven” for Christians can still be relied on. I noted too that the case law cited in the operational guidance note from the Home Office refers to cases involving the north of Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
When assessing asylum claims and deciding British foreign policy, we must take account of the most recent—and worrying—developments. On our relations with the Iraqi Government, the British Government need to urge several things: first, the need for the Baghdad Government to conduct, so far as they are able, a thorough and transparent investigation into what has happened. I urge that they bring in international agencies—United Nations agencies, perhaps—to ensure that that task is carried out impartially.
I was pleased to see that the Iraqi Parliament, in November, reinserted article 50 into the draft legislation on provincial elections. That article, which will guarantee the rights of minorities, to some extent, had been struck out earlier in the legislative process. I hope that that principle of representation for Iraq’s minorities is respected properly.
What do the Government think of the proposal for a separate province centred around the Nineveh plain? As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough pointed out, it would not give Christians a majority, but it would give Christians, Shabaks and Yazidis acting together a majority and governance of a local police force. Arguably, the persecution of Christians has been made possible partly because they lack a militia to protect their interests, unlike Sunnis and Shi’as. I do not know, sitting in London, whether the creation of such a province would work and be politically acceptable in Baghdad, given that it would require a change to legislation or, even, the Iraqi constitution. I can understand why Iraqi politicians feel sensitive about foreign Governments coming in and publicly telling them how to organise the internal administration of their own country. I hope that the British Government will give their attention to the issue and discuss it with their Iraqi counterparts.
If one had to sum up the political challenge of addressing the persecution it would be to ensure that the guarantees and the admirable fine language contained in the United Nations resolutions and the Iraqi constitution are translated into reality on the ground for families living in all parts of Iraq.
There are important questions for the Kurdish regional authorities. Repeated allegations have been made—they have been mentioned during the debate—that Kurdish authorities and militias have been actively involved in acts of persecution against Christians in the northern governorates around Kirkuk and Mosul. Prime Minister Maliki himself was reported in Gulf News as saying that Kurdish militias were involved. I am interested to know whether the British Government share that reported assessment. There are allegations that the Kurdistan Democratic Party has been consistently implicated in persecution. Does the British Government have any evidence that that is the case?
Our involvement in the protection of the Kurdish autonomous region goes back a long time before 2003. I hope that that will enable British Ministers and officials to raise very frankly with their Kurdish regional counterparts the concerns that have been voiced during this debate. It is important that we see a change in the northern governorates ahead of the delayed provincial elections in that part of Iraq. Such elections will not take place at the same time as the elections in the central and southern governorates.
There seems to be a contest between Kurdish and Sunni Arab interests for control over disputed areas in northern Iraq, and it is the Christians and the other minorities who are caught in the middle. It is right that the international community should give voice to those who are powerless. When those elections are called, we must ensure that there is adequate international scrutiny and supervision so that the failures in providing completely free and fair elections, which were alluded to earlier in this debate, are not repeated.
The United Kingdom will inevitably continue to carry a sense of responsibility for what happens in Iraq, even after the last of our soldiers have left. I hope that the Government accept that responsibility and will act on it.
It is a pleasure to be sitting under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. May I start by genuinely congratulating the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on securing this debate? He clearly has real passion and conviction for the issue. I know that he has taken an extraordinary degree of interest in it and has visited the country himself and has looked at the issues at first hand. That was very clear from his remarks. At this time of year, when major faiths are engaging in both reflection and celebration, this subject has particular relevance, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue and his concerns here.
I know that many hon. Members from all parties and noble Lords in another place have also strived to bring this issue into sharper focus, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), Lord Alton of Liverpool and Baroness Cox whom I met last month to discuss the issue. I also welcome the links between churches in the UK and Iraq that have helped to highlight this issue.
We have had a constructive and informative debate this morning, with hon. Members expressing their deeply held convictions and concerns. I echo the concern for Iraq’s diverse communities, which have all suffered in Iraq over the past five years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and under his vicious regime before that.
It is difficult to separate this issue from the broader picture in Iraq which, as a result of improving security and progress towards reconciliation, is a far brighter one than we have seen for several years—certainly brighter than it was a year ago. Before I get on to the specific subject of Iraqi Christians, I should like to say a little about that progress. A month or so ago, I made my first visit to Iraq since taking on this ministerial post. My strong sense is that Iraq is a country which is steadily getting back on its feet. The progress that has been made since 2003 has given the Iraqi Government the chance to extend their focus from security issues to the wider range of social and economic issues and to allow them to rebuild a prosperous country offering the Iraqi people greater access to well functioning public services, such as hospitals, schools and social services.
Improvements to security have enabled coalition troops to hand back responsibility for security to the Iraqis. Attacks are down 85 per cent. compared with 2006. The Iraqi-led Operation Charge of the Knights in Basra in March 2008 has done a great deal to improve the security situation there. That trend is positive, but I acknowledge that there is still a long way to go, as last Thursday’s appalling suicide bombing on the outskirts of Kirkuk reminds us.
The Government firmly believe that all Iraqis deserve to live free from the threat of violence or intimidation. Ultimately, the key to securing that will be in achieving national reconciliation, and in building the capacity of Iraqi institutions to enforce the rule of law, and fulfil the commitments set out in Iraq’s historic constitution of 2005.
In my response to the comments of the hon. Member for Gainsborough, I will try to outline the action that the Government and our international partners are taking and, more importantly, the action that Iraq is taking to protect its citizens. Fundamentally, that is the route to securing the situation for Christians and others within Iraq. Minority communities in Iraq, including Assyrian Christians, Yezidis, Mandaean Sabeans and Shabaks, have undoubtedly suffered a great deal, and many hon. Members have commented on that this morning. The concern is real and needs to be addressed.
In Iraq, the complex internal conflict has meant that communities have suffered for a variety of reasons. Since 2003, extremist and often al-Qaeda affiliated groups have continually tried to undermine the efforts of ordinary Iraqis to go about their lives. They have used appalling acts of violence, threats of violence, and used perverted misinterpretations of the Koran to justify their actions. We should remember that according to Islam, Christians and Jews are known as Ahl al-kitab, or people of the book, and should be treated with tolerance and protected in society. That is a message that needs to go out very clearly.
As Iraqi security forces continue to develop and Awakening movements turn their backs on the insurgency, the space for such groups to operate in is running out. I do not want to overstate that, but progress is being made. However, we are still seeing minority communities intimidated for economic reasons. Foreign Office officials met the Latin-rite Archbishop of Baghdad, Jean Sleiman, in November, and he explained that Christian families in Baghdad had received demands, as “infidels”, to leave their homes, which was enormously concerning. In most cases, it was not religiously motivated persecution, but opportunistic criminals taking advantage of families’ fear to steal their homes and property. That does not make the situation any better, but it is an explanation of what is happening. Iraq’s developing police and security services are increasingly enforcing the rule of law, and our training missions—there has been a lot of comment and many questions about our role—will continue their support.
Iraq’s communities have suffered for political reasons too, and have been caught up as others fight for control over Iraq’s disputed territories, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough said. Ultimately, open and fair resolution of such issues by Iraq’s leaders will be key. I spoke to Stefan Di Mistura in Baghdad a month or so ago, and I welcome the important role that his UN mission in Iraq has played. We and others eagerly await his report, which we expect early in the new year.
On the action that the Government of Iraq taking to protect their minority communities, including Christians, first, there is continuing commitment to developing the Iraqi security forces to enforce the rule of law. Violence throughout Iraq is now at a four-and-a-half-year low. The Government of Iraq have also signalled their commitment to developing a culture in which respect for human rights is embedded in institutions. In November, the Council of Representatives passed legislation to establish a national human rights commission, for which we expressed strong support through lobbying.
A number of hon. Members commented on events in Mosul. The Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights reported that 13 Christians in the Mosul area were killed from 31 August to 12 October, and that 2,423 families were displaced from the city—20 per cent. because of direct threats, and 80 per cent. because of fear of attack. Those are fundamentally terrible statistics, but the Government of Iraq took strong and immediate action, condemning the violence in the strongest terms, dispatching additional forces to secure security in the city, and establishing a high-level investigatory committee to look into the violence. In the meantime, the swift action taken by the Government of Iraq to address the security situation in Mosul has allowed increasing numbers of Iraqis to return to their homes, as we hear in reports from UNHCR. Although this cannot compensate for the trauma that families have been through, the Government have also offered grants of $851 for Christian families to help them as they return.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough said that the British Government and this country have considerable influence in Iraq, which is true. As he said, we rightly expect the rights of minorities to be upheld, and for the Government of Iraq to take action in that regard. However, it needs to recognised and understood that that is not a simple matter of our saying it and the Government of Iraq doing it. We are dealing with a developing country and a developing democracy. As we go forward, there is a range of issues to deal with, including the status for forces agreements, election laws and the relationship between the regions and Baghdad, as hon. Members have said. We are dealing with a democratic country and Government, and we must take account of that.
The Minister is making a lot of sense. Has he had any discussions with the Kurdish Regional Government about the positive discrimination that they employed so that Christian communities could overcome the prejudice under which they live in northern Iraq? Although the Minister will admit, as we all would, that the KRG have much further to go, will he congratulate them on the fact that they have at least begun the journey?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and it is important that we recognise that process. That was one of the things that I discussed with the KRG when I visited Irbil a month or so ago, and it will continue to be a feature of our discussions.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) called for constitutional guarantees, but part of the problem is that there are already such guarantees in the constitution, article 41 of which sets out a commitment to freedom of religion for followers of all religions and sects, ensuring that they are free to practise their religious faith and their rights. The challenge is ensuring that that constitution’s writ runs large. That is a challenge to the Iraqi Government, and we will press them on it and support them.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and another hon. Member said something with which I take issue. I do not want to go over the reasons why we went to war, but the hon. Gentleman said that a fundamental reason why we invaded Iraq was installing democracy. That was not the case. The invasion was about non-compliance with resolution 1441, so whether or not he agreed with our position, the invasion of Iraq was not about installing democracy.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough and others asked whether there should be a 19th province. That will be a matter for the Iraqi Government and their people, but I think that there are significant concerns about how it can be achieved, given that there is an enormous intermingling of communities and people of different faiths within the same area. Additionally, it is not clear to me that there is a consistency of view within Christian communities in Iraq—there are a variety of views, for and against. Many of the local groups with which we meet, including Archbishop Sleiman of Baghdad, are actually against a 19th province, believing that it is not sustainable and that it is against the values of reconciliation, which have to be part of the overall solution in Iraq.
Does the Minister agree that if there is a problem enforcing constitutional guarantees—this is my main concern in this context—it is essential to offer protection by allowing Christians in Iraq to come into this country? Will he tell me how many Christians have sought asylum in this country and been refused entry compared with the number of Muslims and Kurds who have applied and got in?
We rightly judge each asylum claim on its merits, but there is a procedure outside the immigration rules for those who have been displaced within a region to come and settle within this country. We have increased our numbers for the coming year to 750—that is an international figure—500 of whom will be people from Iraq. To take issue with something that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who leads for the Liberal Democrats, said, a majority of nations do not commit to that approach, and our figures compare favourably with Sweden.
I was also asked about the allegations and counter-allegations about events in the border areas between the KRG and the rest of Iraq. I was planning to meet the KRG Minister for Extra Regional Affairs last month and I hoped very much to discuss the issue but, unfortunately, his trip to the UK was cancelled. I shall nevertheless endeavour to discuss it with him at the earliest opportunity.
On the measures and steps that we are taking to support the electoral process, we are supporting the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Iraqi electoral commission to co-ordinate things. We pressed for a system of election observers, and there is now a process by which they will go into Iraq, which we support.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire asked whether 1,000 troops was enough for Mosul. Those troops were dispatched to Mosul as an initial effort to restabilise security. At the time, Iraqi security forces were focused on major security operations elsewhere but, since then, security has improved, as has been reflected in the reports that we have received of families returning to their houses.
Hon. Members are right to express their profound concerns on this issue. Progress is being made, and I welcome the fact that Christians are able to return to their homes, but there is much more to do. We will focus on that in our discussions and dialogue with the Government of Iraq. We understand our responsibilities, but the fundamental solution over the long term must be for that Government of Iraq to ensure that the writ of their constitution is carried forward in respect of Christians in the country.
National Parks in England
It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this subject and in particular to talk about my local national park.
This short debate could not be more topical. About an hour ago, the elders of Exmoor national park began a public meeting at their headquarters in Dulverton, just outside my constituency. They summoned the locals—I use that word deliberately—to hear a momentous decision. I suspect it was like a deferential scene from a Thomas Hardy novel with the toffs in charge and the madding crowd just waiting for the word from the room. Perhaps there was a waft of white smoke—I do not know.
The elders of Exmoor have generously changed their minds and turned one of their own ridiculous policies upside down in the face of enormous and immense public anger. A panel has been set up to sort out the situation with the property in question for the long term, as the Minister and I have discussed. I hope that that will benefit not only local people, but the wider population. It is lunchtime and I suspect that the whole moor will be talking about this matter. There is no such thing as a secret on Exmoor. I suspect that the elders are working up quite an appetite. They should be ordering large helpings of that rare local delicacy known as humble pie.
The park authority that—to put it crudely—governs Exmoor is reversing a decision to demolish an ordinary-looking bungalow and the barn that sits next door to it. This homestead, commonly known as Blackpitts, has become the recruiting and rallying ground for the park’s opponents. The decision to try to buy the house to knock it down turned not just a few, but hundreds, of ordinary and decent Exmoor folk into revolutionaries. They call themselves Exmoor Uprising. A few weeks ago, I presented a petition to the House containing just over 2,000 names. That is over 50 per cent. of the population of my side of the moor. Only 1 per cent. of those people came from outside that area. That indicates the strength of feeling among local people.
Why on earth should people sign up to defend a bungalow? Blackpitts is not special and I do not think that it ever has been. It was built a few decades ago as an ordinary working farmer’s cottage. Interestingly, the tin-clad barn is the last surviving herding house for shepherds from the great reclamation of Exmoor in the early 19th century. That little bit of history is thrown in at no extra cost. There is no mains water or electricity. The bungalow is pretty basic and not very pretty, but so what? It remains a genuine example of how life has always been on that beautiful but often bleak landscape. Without saying anything, Blackpitts tells us a truth: it is no picnic for farmers, it never was and it never will be.
I am embarrassed to say that the elders of Exmoor national park take a loftier view. They are not, by and large, ruddy-faced folk who get their hands dirty. I will quote from the park authority’s document with the great title, the official “Exmoor Landscape Character Assessment”. They want to preserve the
“Open Moorland and a strong sense of tranquility”.
It states that there are some areas
“where the only view is one of Moorland expanse; stretching out as far as the eye can see. These areas are the most remote—some of the few remaining places on Exmoor where a sense of wildness and solitude can truly be experienced.”
That, in a nutshell, was the problem with Blackpitts bungalow. It did not look wild enough. It was too much like a real house and it spoiled the solitude. Whoever wrote the “Exmoor Landscape Character Assessment” was more concerned with solitude than with somewhere for local people to live.
When Blackpitts bungalow finally came on the market, Exmoor national park dipped its hands into our pockets as taxpayers and signed a cheque for £235,000. It claimed that the bungalow was bought to stop creeping urbanisation. That is a bit hard to swallow given that Blackpitts is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest house is about five miles away. The authority was also on a promise from a charitable trust of £100,000 in its bank account if the bungalow was knocked down. Unfortunately, that was seen as a bribe by local people and was described as such in the West Somerset Free Press. I believe that the timing was bad, rather than anything untoward having taken place.
In the politically correct spirit of open government, the authority issued a consultation document suggesting all sorts of things that might be done with the place. However, it was pretty obvious that it wanted to flatten the property to re-wild the moor. On 2 September this year, by the narrowest margin, the elders got their way and won. The six Secretary of State-appointed members who have no knowledge of the moor and no background on the moor swung the decision.
Ever since then, re-wilding has become very popular on Exmoor because Exmoor itself has gone wild. The Revolting Exmoor Peasant Party was formed to save Blackpitts. The members chose a provocative name and I do not blame them. The name has now been changed to Exmoor Uprising. Their anger came from the heart. They felt that they were being treated like ignorant peasants by a remote park authority that cared only about a picture-book Exmoor and not about its people. They felt ignored and resentful. They live on the moor, they understand it and they love it. They also know it is not, and can never be, a museum. Part of the appeal of Exmoor is that some of the areas are rough. If the authority ever forgets that fact, it is in danger of presiding over a sterile, lifeless heritage site.
Exmoor Uprising had a point and it still has. Today that was proven. The national park authority has rightly done a massive U-turn and agreed to rent out and ultimately sell Blackpitts and not demolish it. That is for the benefit of local people. Surely the most important thing that any Government would want a national park authority to do is to represent and not resent the people within its borders.
I would like to say, “Hip, hip”, but I am afraid that it is too early to say “hooray!” There is a fundamental problem with the make-up of all national park authorities—even the best of them. Exmoor is not the worst, but it is certainly not the best. Not a single member of any national park is elected. The Government appoint people; half a dozen in the case of Exmoor. Some of them are well-meaning, but they include people from Oxford, Bristol, Swindon, Warwickshire, Exminster and Torquay. Presumably they enjoy the long car journeys to attend meetings. There is no accountability, no local interest and little or no local understanding. The democratic and geographical disadvantages of this system ought to be obvious.
National parks are responsible for planning decisions within their boundaries. That point causes problems because disgruntled locals cannot get their own back at the ballot box as there is nobody to vote for or kick out. Perhaps that matters less with big national parks. The bigger the park, the greater the chance that a few genuine locals will be picked to run things. Exmoor is a tiddler with a small population. Our authority is overwhelmed with bodies from everywhere except the moor that it is supposed to represent.
That simple fact is another cause of bitter discontent. Exmoor folk do not like being told what they can do by those whom they consider outsiders—I suspect that that is the norm throughout the national parks—and boy, does the national park tell people what to do, or rather what not to do. One reason why the population there is so small is that it is almost impossible to build new houses. The high-minded souls at the park’s planning department have developed an enviable reputation as a team that says no all the time, except to saving Cutcombe market on Exmoor, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), as a spokesman on agriculture, will be aware. It is right to save the market, but to do so, private housing must be built, breaking policies and smashing ideals to pay lip service to the rest of Exmoor. That cannot be right.
However, that is only following the high-minded ideals of the authority, which is chaired by a Liberal Democrat county councillor from far-away Crewkerne, on the other side of Somerset, who answers to the name of John Dyke. He is an ex-MAFF man, as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs used to be known. It has been suggested to me by unhappy moorlanders that a firm finger in that particular Dyke would not come amiss. Given that only about half the work force lives in the park, it makes one wonder what intent and aspirations the authority has to help the people of the park.
The problem is that Exmoor national park has what Rumpole of the Bailey would call considerable form. Memories are long in that part of England. Few will forget the park’s ill-conceived plan for a £2 million visitor centre. The authority wanted to stick it—I am not joking—in a massive bunker on the high coast road between Porlock and Lynton, a place way out of the reach of tourists where buses can hardly go due to the steepness of the hills. I am glad to say that common sense prevailed again because of the people of Exmoor, although not for long.
I must also bring attention to the situation of the kookaburras. Exmoor national park discovered that one of my constituents had a pair of those antipodean pets. Kookaburras, it was decided firmly, were not indigenous to Exmoor, so they were ordered to go. Again, common sense prevailed. The park saw sense and said, “No, we can let them stay.”
Another example is much more dangerous. A mire reclamation project has been undertaken recently to block a load of the mires—not far from Blackpitts, funnily enough—in order to turn them back into bog land, encouraging wildlife to increase and allowing people to see the bog as it should be, and possibly to sink in it. The problem is that locals remember why the mires were put there. They were put there after the Lynton disaster in the ’50s, when Lynton was swept away into Lynmouth. Those mires are now being blocked up. I do not ask the Minister to reply straight away on that, as more research is needed.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who is making a powerful speech in defence of his constituents. If I understood him correctly, he is saying that if the bogs are allowed to develop, there will be a risk of landslip. We saw in Boscastle the terrible tragedy that that can cause. Is he saying that that is likely to happen? If so, what sort of risk assessment has been done or ought to be done?
My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently on that situation many times in the House. We have discussed at great length how moors and uplands should be run. I thank him for his support. He is absolutely right. I know that he is concerned that the Environment Agency and bodies such as the national park should take seriously their responsibilities in that area. Boscastle is the most recent example of such a disaster; thank God nobody was killed.
The plan could unfortunately be the making of a new problem. Blocking the mires and holding back water was what caused things to go wrong in the first place in the ’50s. The water built up behind dams and came as a rush, and the whole centre of Lynmouth, which lies in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), went. I would like the Government to consider that carefully. I am happy to be proved wrong, but I would be frightened to be proved right. It should be considered.
In one sense, I sympathise with the authority, which has not been at it long. Exmoor was declared a national park about 55 years ago, but day-to-day control was handed to the authority only in 1997. However, it has yet to develop the courage and common sense to break free and think outside its own box. It seems shackled by the remit to preserve the pretty bits of Exmoor, but will not help the people of Exmoor. The trouble is that there is so much more to a vibrant economy than imposing rigid planning controls and revamping wildlife at any cost.
The truth about Exmoor is that it desperately needs tourism. It is our biggest industry by miles. Exmoor national park has failed dismally to understand how the wheels of local commerce turn. No industry can thrive without people to work in it, and local people have been victims of the authority’s well-meaning but misguided, almost godlike green evangelism. There are too few affordable homes and no real policy to build any at a sufficient rate. I am told that 450 people need homes, but that by the time a home is built for the 450th person, they will be dead. It is not working. There are also far too many busybody Exmoor interferences in legitimate plans for the mainstream tourist industry. It is so much easier to say no.
Exmoor national park authority costs taxpayers a little more than £4 million a year. Most of that money comes from central Government. A trickle filters through from the county council and district councils, but all that cash starts here in Whitehall and depends on the Minister’s Department. For that reason, I ask him to take a long, hard look at how his money—our money—is being spent.
It would not be unreasonable for the Government to consider withdrawing some of the national park boundaries in Exmoor. The two biggest places are Dulverton and Porlock. Will the Minister consider dropping those two outside the national park for a time? That would allow a democratically elected planning authority to consider social housing requirements, and would mean that the planning issues that matter to people could be discussed on a much broader front through an accountable body, West Somerset district council, which is under no overall political control.
Exmoor national park is treated with great suspicion by many, and that suspicion is slowly but surely turning into open contempt. Will the Minister give the people of Exmoor the will to survive, live and work on the moor without having to look over their shoulder at every stage of their life for a Big Brother that will say no because that is the easier way to do it and how the national park has conditioned itself to work?
I am pleased to respond to this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing this important debate. It could not be more timely, as he said. He began by mentioning the novels of Thomas Hardy. At some point, we will probably exchange notes. My favourite is “The Return of the Native”, but this Chamber, far from the madding crowd, is an appropriate place to put concerns and issues on record, as well as some good news.
The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the fact that national parks across the country, whether in Exmoor or elsewhere, are living, working environments. That is absolutely right, and although national parks’ core principles include balancing the natural environment with working people, the focus should always be on the people who live and work there as well.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about economic importance. To turn away from Exmoor for a moment, a study commissioned by my Department in 2006 considered the economic impact of national parks in Yorkshire and Humber. It concluded that national parks make a significant economic contribution, with visitor spending of more than £400 million within the parks and a further £260 million elsewhere in the region. Fascinatingly, more than half the parks’ businesses felt that national park designation had a positive impact. We have no reason to assume that it would be different elsewhere. [Interruption.] Indeed. That situation is certainly true of national parks abroad.
I would like to make a couple of introductory remarks before I turn to the grit of this debate. I know that the hon. Gentleman shares with us the view that national parks play a key role in the delivery of the Government’s objectives, not least on issues such as landscape protection, climate change, recreation and public health. It is important that the park authorities, through their engagement with local authorities, regional development agencies and the Government office network, also do their bit to contribute to the local economy.
The report by the Campaign for National Parks in 2006, which I know the hon. Gentleman is aware of, found that the economic benefits that we have talked about came not just from the parks’ environmental quality but also from the parks’ designation, which attracts visitors and also businesses, helping those businesses to prosper. Next year, of course, we will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the enabling legislation, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.
In passing, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for the national parks is set to increase to £47.6 million next year, which is part of a rise of more than 70 per cent. in funding since 2001. The hon. Gentleman made the comment that we need to ensure that that money is being well utilised, and so on; he is absolutely right to do so. What also may be of interest to him is that the amount of grant aid paid to Exmoor national park authority will increase in 2009-10 to £3.96 million.
I will now turn to the grit of this debate, which is the very timely issue of Blackpitts. I certainly pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way that he has quite assiduously represented his constituents. In his own contribution, he paid tribute not to his own role but to that of the Exmoor “revolutionaries”, and that was right and proper. Their voice has been heard today by what he described as the “elders”, a subject that I will come to in a moment. I met with many of the “uplanders” from Exmoor quite recently at an event on the terrace here and it was very good to discuss with them a range of issues that affected them. I also have to say that I was impressed by their commitment to the place that they live and work in. As someone who is from upland valleys myself, what I always find in those areas is that there is a real attachment to the community and the place, which is a little bit like the Thomas Hardy-esque world that the hon. Gentleman referred to, except that it has moved on. It is a living, working environment and it is not all bleak and dire, much as I love walking on the higher hills of such valleys. We want to see those areas being dynamic and lively places.
I will now turn to the specific issue of Blackpitts.
I thank the Minister. I am really pleased that he has just announced that the increase for grant funding to Exmoor will go up to the level that he mentioned. That good news will be gratefully received on Exmoor and I thank the Government and the Minister for it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. It is certainly important that that increase in funding be well used.
As I said, I will turn to the issue of Blackpitts. As the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned, the national park authority acted within its powers in acquiring the property. It then looked at five different options and rightly decided to explore further those options, including the provision of alternative housing and demolition. The results of that further work were reported to the authority this morning and, in the light of that further work and the change in the economic climate, the authority has decided to adopt the option of retaining the building and offering it out to a tenant.
I will not comment any further on that decision except to say that, perhaps in response to “people power”, the “elders” whom the hon. Gentleman referred to have listened and responded in a good way. If I was the hon. Gentleman, I would be tempted to stand here and say, “We told you so”, but he is being far more gracious than that. Nevertheless, I think that many of his constituents and those who petitioned this place will certainly reflect that they were right all along. The decision is certainly an indication that, albeit with due people pressure being applied, the right result for local people can be delivered.
I will turn to the related matter of the accountability of a national park authority. I will begin by addressing the issue of direct elections, which is of interest to the hon. Gentleman. DEFRA has consulted on the principle of including some directly elected members on national park authorities and on the Broads authority. Anyone was free to submit views and a lot of views were submitted on this issue of including directly elected members. The consultation closed on 28 November. We are now evaluating the responses that we received—about 200 in total—and we expect to announce a decision on that issue some time in the new year. Undertaking that consultation does not imply that the Government are either for or against direct elections. It was simply the case that we thought—I think that the hon. Gentleman also reflected this view in his comments today—that it was timely to reassess whether or not our existing system remains the best approach. I am sure that we will return to that issue in the new year.
Another issue that the hon. Gentleman raised was affordable housing. Certainly the Government share the aspiration that everyone should have the opportunity of a decent home at a price that they can afford, in a place that they want to live and work in, and that goes for rural areas too. Affordable housing is an issue that we have at the top of our political agenda. The Prime Minister made a clear statement:
“Putting affordable housing within the reach of not just the few but the many is vital both to meeting individual aspirations and to securing a better future for our country”.—[Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1449.]
The hon. Gentleman will know that the causes and experience of a lack of affordable housing are similar in both urban and rural areas, but the solutions for rural communities must be tailored to take account of such factors as protection of landscape and the natural environment, and what are often higher unit costs of development, through reduced opportunities for economies of scale in rural areas, which is different from the situation in urban environments or on a large brownfield site. Furthermore, there must be building design in rural areas that complements the environmental qualities of the countryside, because we would not want to sacrifice what we feel is good about the rural areas that we live in.
I do not disagree with any of that. The problem is quite simple, that the pressure on local schools, shops, pubs and services in Exmoor is now acute because the population is getting older and older, local people cannot afford to buy and there is no chance of local houses being built. I think that the Exmoor national park authority built 15 houses last year; it will never be able to build enough houses to deal with this problem. Unless the Government can give some form of push on this issue, I do not see any other way of getting round the problem.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes on behalf of his constituents. However, it would not be for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to intervene directly in this matter. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that we must ensure that there is an adequate quantity of affordable housing, in rural areas generally and within national parks particularly, whether that housing is rented or for purchase. Somehow or other, we must work through the planning mechanisms to ensure that that housing is available, because people want to live and work in the communities where they have been brought up and where they see their future. However, there is no doubt that it is more difficult to provide that affordable housing in an environment that is of particular environmental value. None the less, those issues must be worked through and it is right that they are worked through within the national park authority plan and that representations are made in order to deliver that plan.
I want to return to the issue of local democracy. It may be helpful if I just spell out a little bit how the members of the national park authorities are currently appointed. They are drawn from three separate sources to give an appropriate mix of expertise and interest. The largest group of members is the councillors who are appointed by county, district or unitary authorities. The smallest group is the councillors or the chairmen of parish meetings, who are chosen by those parish councils with land in the park. The third group consists of those members chosen by the Secretary of State, in line with the principles of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. In making those choices, we try to complement the range of knowledge, skills and expertise that already exists, which is provided by councillor members.
In many cases, the members chosen by the Secretary of State will not have a local connection. They are primarily chosen to broaden the mix of members and not simply to replicate local knowledge or other knowledge that already exists within the membership. In the case of Exmoor, the membership consists of 12 county or district members, four members from parish councils and six Secretary of State appointees.
I want to turn briefly to the mires project. If necessary and appropriate, I will happily write on that subject to the hon. Gentleman. However, it might be worth saying that we currently believe that the rewetting of the bog helps to smooth out the flow of water; in other words, it makes floods less likely. I know that South West Water is involved in the project. However, as I say, I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with some detail on that issue.
Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation
I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to discuss biofuels again, and I am pleased that you are in the Chair, Mr. Martlew, given your knowledge and expertise in this area. You will know that there have been substantive debates on biofuels in Westminster Hall and the House in recent years, as biofuels have an important role to play in reducing carbon emissions from transport. That role was reinforced at the European summit last week, when the renewables energy directive was agreed. In broad terms, it is clear that biofuels are the only tool available at the moment with which to reduce carbon emissions. In the longer term, electric cars will come on to the market, and even further into the future, hydrogen cells will play an important role, but, at the moment, biofuels are the real cutting tool.
In the past 18 months, there has been much discussion about whether the use of biofuels is sustainable and whether they affect food production and its cost. That debate is important, but this afternoon I shall focus on the small area of the renewable transport fuel obligation 2007 and something in it that is clearly a drafting error. The biofuels industry has described the drafting error as “catastrophic” to the industry, and I shall give some examples of its consequences shortly.
The background to this issue is familiar and straightforward. The amount of biofuels required under the RTFO is a percentage of the “relevant hydrocarbon oil”. Targets under the 2007 order are 2.5 per cent. for this financial year, 3.7 per cent. for the next financial year and 5 per cent. for the year 2010-11. Unfortunately—this is the crunch point—petrol and diesel are not counted as relevant if they were already blended with biodiesel when they passed the duty point. The problem arose when it became clear, in the autumn, that almost all diesel that was produced in the UK had an element of biodiesel in it and was consequently excluded. The effect has been profound. Diesel makes up just more than half of the UK market, so the amount of biofuel that is required under the obligation has been halved. As a result, the effects, in relation to carbon emissions, are halved.
Until the mistake came to light, the Department for Transport thought that biofuels were included whether they were blended or not. That is what the Government told Parliament when the order was passed in October 2007, and that is what the Renewable Fuels Agency told the industry, non-governmental organisations and the wider public. It is not clear what triggered rethinking, but on 21 October the RFA wrote to all obligated suppliers to say that there were problems.
The DFT and the RFA held a stakeholder meeting on 28 October, at which officials said they were determined to rectify the problem. Some of the people who attended the meeting have told me that they left with the assumption that the issue would be rectified in this financial year. In effect, it was business as usual. On 13 November, however, the Government issued a written ministerial statement saying that the mistake would be corrected not this year but for the year 2009-10. Will the Minister put on the record why it is not possible to correct the error in this financial year? There has been a good deal of debate on that and I understand that precedents are being quoted. We are told that there should be no retrospective legislation, but in fairness to the industry, it faces a retrospective change in the policy framework well into the current year.
It would also help if the Minister told us whether there has been any discussion with members of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments or its staff. There is still a view that if it were possible to correct the mistake in this financial year, that would be the best way forward. The consequences of the drafting error are straightforward: this year’s targets have already been met and oil companies do not need to supply another litre of biofuel before April 2009. There is now a glut of renewable transport fuel certificates. They were trading at 6p a litre, but the market has collapsed and there is no value in them. Obligated suppliers can enhance their position by blending small amounts of biofuels into fossil fuels to avoid difficulties next year, because 25 per cent. of the certificates obligation can be transferred into the next financial year.
Let me comment on the problems that have affected the industry. A small company that was established in May 2008 has told me that its plant has produced no biofuels since September 2008. It says that the problem is a
“lack of demand for our biodiesel”,
“obligated companies are no longer potential buyers due to the error in the wording of the legislation”.
Pessimistically, the company says that
“unless the outlook improves, we expect to be out of business at the turn of the new year.”
Unfortunately, it is not alone. Another company has written to me saying that the drafting error in the RTFO has effectively stopped demand for biofuels in its tracks. Sales have dropped from 500,000 litres to 6,000 litres a month.
What is more, the policy framework could change further. Following concerns about sustainability, the Government have asked Professor Gallagher to look into the issue. He has brought forward proposals, on which the Government are consulting, that would effectively further reduce targets for next year from 3.75 per cent. to 3 per cent., and would delay our hitting the 5 per cent. target, so that it would be hit in 2013-14 instead of in 2010, as planned.
It is absolutely clear that for investment to take place, the industry must know the rules. It will sometimes complain about the rules, but it cannot live with a changing policy framework, the possibility of the Gallagher review changing targets and—more importantly for today’s debate—the retrospective halving of the target for the current year, which is causing problems for many countries.
There will be no investment if the situation is not addressed. We have talked about companies closing in the new year. Paradoxically, that is against the background of the Government, our European partners and others arguing that biofuels have a strong role to play into the future. So, there are real problems now, but there are also long-term prospects. However, there will be no investment until companies that want to invest are clear that the policy framework will be secure into the long-term.
What needs to be done? I shall make three or four suggestions to the Minister. First, the demand from industry is clearly to try to rectify the mistake in the current financial year. I accept that there are difficulties with doing that, but, in fairness, the Minister must say on the record in Parliament today why it cannot be achieved. There is another solution, however. As I have said, the Government are consulting on the Gallagher proposals to reduce the target from 3.75 per cent. to 3 per cent. next year. Incidentally, that consultation closes tomorrow, and the Government must make early decisions about the targets that they expect in the next financial year. I hope that an announcement will be made as quickly as possible. Companies may be able to hang on if they know what the situation will be on 1 April 2009. I hope that the Government will respond to that hope for an early announcement.
Secondly, given the history of difficulties during the current year, there is a strong case for saying that the original target of 3.75 per cent. next year should remain in place. It would be unfair, unwise and not beneficial to investment in the industry if the target were reduced next year, so I should be keen to hear the Government’s view on that point. More particularly, industry itself would be keen to hear it, because, at last week’s European summit, the renewable energy directive was agreed, and it is clear that we should be looking for a 10 per cent. target by 2020. Given the European context, it would be unwise to reduce the target now.
There is another, third, practical thing that the Government can do. We are now an interventionist Government; we are not afraid of intervening in the market. We have intervened in a big way with the banks, and there is talk of intervention in the energy market, but, at the moment, there are renewable energy certificates hanging around the market and they have no market value whatever. The Government have made a mistake, and one way of rectifying it would be to buy up those currently worthless certificates.
A few days ago, in a very well reported speech, the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change talked about a more interventionist role for the Government in the energy field. He believed that the market, by itself, would not deliver, and that—this is the essential point—there needed to be a strong policy framework for investment. Let me remind the Minister what the Secretary of State said in his speech. He said that we need a strategic energy policy that is
“stable, predictable and attractive to the private sector.”
That is what the Government tried to achieve through the RTFO, and it would have brought new investment, reduced carbon emissions and taken us forward to meet our European targets, but, because the drafting mistake occurred, the amount of biofuels that must be produced to meet the obligation this year has been halved. The consequence of the overall process will be the halving of our carbon emissions, and it is clear to me that we need to make real reductions in carbon emissions, and that biofuels are a way of combating the real and significant problem of carbon emissions from the transport sector.
What the industry asks for is quite simple; it is what the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was arguing for: a secure and stable policy framework that attracts private investment to the industry. I hope that the Minister before us will recognise that there have been problems, that mistakes have been made and that there is a need to rectify the issue. I hope also that he will come forward as soon as possible with a new policy framework that will attract new investment into a new industry that will help us to enhance the environment and stabilise our carbon emissions.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding this afternoon, Mr. Martlew, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on securing this debate. Biofuels have an important role to play in the development of a renewable energy industry in the United Kingdom, and they also have the potential to help us in our efforts to tackle climate change. Our cars and other forms of transport are the third largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK, and biofuels are a major way to help us reduce our road transport emissions. In fact, the recent Gallagher review estimated that, by 2020,
“biofuels have the potential to deliver annual global greenhouse gas savings of approximately 338 to 371 million tonnes of carbon dioxide”.
That is why the UK has been a pioneer in obligating our fuel suppliers to provide a certain percentage of their transport fuel from renewable sources. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) advised Parliament in July, when she was Secretary of State for Transport, we must proceed with caution if we are to ensure the development of a truly sustainable biofuels industry.
We created our biofuels targets to help tackle climate change and promote sustainable development. Yet, over time, more and more questions have been asked about the indirect impact of biofuels on world food prices, on deforestation and on overall greenhouse gas emissions. That is why in February, my right hon. Friend asked Professor Ed Gallagher, the chair of the Renewable Fuels Agency, to whom my hon. Friend referred, to examine the latest available evidence on the indirect effects of biofuels. The Gallagher review concluded that biofuels can play a role in tackling climate change, and that
“there is a future for a sustainable biofuels industry”.
But the review also concluded that there is a risk that the uncontrolled expansion and use of biofuels could lead to unsustainable changes in land use, such as the destruction of rainforest to make way for the production of crops.
The Gallagher report recommended that the introduction of biofuels be slowed until policies were put in place to direct biofuel production on to marginal or idle land, and their effectiveness had been demonstrated. More specifically, the report recommended that, in the UK, the rate of increase in the RTFO should be slowed to 0.5 per cent. per annum, so that the RTFO reached 5 per cent. in 2013-14, rather than in 2010-11, as originally planned.
The Government agreed with the findings of the Gallagher review, and, as my hon. Friend said, we are consulting on our proposal to slow down the increase in the RTFO, as recommended. However, as we have heard today, we are all aware that we also need to recognise the impact of a slow-down on investment and longer-term targets under European Union directives. That is why we are also seeking views on those issues during the consultation, which is due to close tomorrow, 17 December.
On 13 November, again as my hon. Friend said, the Government published an addendum to the consultation, proposing an additional amendment to rectify a discrepancy that was identified in the original 2007 order. Today, my hon. Friend has raised a number of concerns about the problem. The difficulty only recently came to light as a result of work being carried out on the eligibility of new renewable fuels. We are treating the issue very seriously, as he knows, and we have explored all the options available to us to rectify the issue. However, the Government have concluded that, owing to the constraints of the primary legal powers, we will not be able to amend the order retrospectively to change the definition for this obligation year.
That means that we must ensure that legislation is in place to rectify the problem and to deal effectively with the discrepancy from the start of the next obligation year in April 2009. I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government alone decided to proceed in that manner, and that it was not a result of pressure from the oil companies or any other parties, as some have suggested. Failing to deal with the discrepancy by April would mean that it continued for another year.
Although my hon. Friend has outlined some of the outcomes that he believes may be possible, the future impact of what is happening is still unknown. It is possible that some UK oil companies will decide to meet their obligations according to the principles intended in the original legislation. The extent of any shortfall will not be known until after the end of this obligation year.
I am unable to pre-empt responses to the consultation, but I have listened to the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised. The Department has encouraged stakeholders to respond to the consultation on time so that their concerns can be taken into account as we develop our response. I hope that I have addressed the other issues that he raised, and that my explanations offer him some reassurance even if they are not fully satisfactory to him.
Secondary Schools (Colchester)
I bring fraternal greetings from Colchester: the town’s Labour party is unanimously opposed to proposals by Tory-controlled Essex county council to shut the Alderman Blaxill school at Shrub End and Thomas Lord Audley college at Monkwick. Colchester Liberal Democrats are also opposed to the closures, and even Colchester’s Tory councillors disagree with what the county Tories, who are based 25 miles away at Chelmsford, are proposing. There is not a single person from any political party in Colchester who agrees with Essex county council. Even the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), from whose constituency a minority of pupils attend secondary schools in the town, has publicly distanced himself from his Tory chums at county hall by putting forward his own proposal.
Last week, at a meeting of Colchester borough council, there was not a single speaker or a single vote in favour of any of the three options put forward by Essex county council for the reorganisation of secondary schools in the town. Instead, the borough council voted in favour of an alternative proposal known as option 4, which would merge Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley with Stanway school to form a single school—I have suggested the name “Roman River school”—operating from the three sites under whatever legal definition is required by the Government to enable that to happen.
The arrangement may sound familiar to the Minister because, in essence, it is already in existence and has been for just under a year. It has already been shown that it works very successfully, thanks to the inspirational leadership of Mr. Jonathan Tippett. The arrangement will be familiar to the Minister because it has been drawn to his attention, and that of the Secretary of State, more than once in recent months on the Floor of the House and in correspondence from me.
The Minister will also recall the Adjournment debate that I secured on 22 October last year about the future of Alderman Blaxill school and the then threat to close it, which the community successfully saw off. Another reason that the Minister knows about option 4 is the meeting at the House of Commons on 20 May this year with representatives of the local community. I am grateful to him for agreeing during departmental questions last month to have a further meeting with a delegation from Colchester to discuss option 4.
The Minister need not be alarmed: this is not clause IV. Option 4, a copy of which I have with me, is a joint response on behalf of the governing bodies of Stanway and Thomas Lord Audley schools, and the interim executive board of Alderman Blaxill school. It is entitled, “Raising achievement through the transformation of secondary schooling in Colchester”. The summary states:
“We believe the best way forward for secondary education in the South quadrant (of Colchester) is through continuing and developing the current federated arrangements covering three schools, since this has been shown to work.”
The Minister can be assured that option 4 would deliver the academic achievement sought by the Government, as measured by the 30 per cent. minimum examination success formula. It would also remove surplus places for as long as the drop in numbers required it, but would retain the opportunity for the extra places, including some 2,000 in the catchment areas of Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill, which will be needed in due course as the huge increase in new housing in Colchester takes place.
The option 4 proposals—the people’s choice—state with confidence:
“On current performance the attainment level of the new school in 2009 would be around 53 per cent A to C.”
Further confidence in a better, brighter future for youngsters in south Colchester is shown in this statement in the joint response:
“In the short term (12 months) the expectation is that Thomas Lord Audley will be ‘Good’; Alderman Blaxill will move out of special measures; and Stanway will become ‘Outstanding’.”
Option 4 thus ticks all the Government’s boxes. It would raise attainment and remove surplus places. It would also keep secondary education provision—a constantly improving education provision—in the communities of Shrub End and Monkwick, which is what the local communities seek and what Colchester borough council has stated is its preferred option. It is a winning formula.
It would also be considerably cheaper—a better-value-for-money option—than the proposal put forward by Essex county council, and it would certainly be better financially for the families involved. Contrary to negative comments from Tory county councillors, option 4 is consistent with the provisions of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and other education Acts.
The Minister will recall that our meeting in May came just 24 hours after the Secretary of State announced on the Floor of the House that proposals for an academy in south Colchester to replace Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill would not go ahead. The Secretary of State said:
“Essex county council has explained that its preferred approach is to build on the existing partnership with Stanway school and to pursue a trust. We will support the council in its decision”.—[Official Report, 19 May 2008; Vol. 476, c. 3.]
Essex county council has clearly broken the promise that it gave to the Secretary of State, and which he in good faith passed on to the House. I do not blame him; I blame the Tories who run Essex county council for breaking their promise.
The Minister will further recall that his officials were present at a meeting with a delegation from Alderman Blaxill school and the community. It was an exceptionally good meeting. In response to a question from the Minister about how long it would take to formalise the existing arrangement between the three schools, one official stated that it could take less than three months, given good will by all involved. We left the meeting in a mood of extreme optimism, and looked forward to the new academic year commencing with the formal establishment, using the necessary legal terminology—hard federation, soft federation or any other grouping of words that the Department required—of Alderman Blaxill, Thomas Lord Audley and Stanway school operating as one school on three sites.
However, there was not good will all round. Essex county council—perhaps more accurately, its leader, Lord Hanningfield—had other ideas. Instead, a proposal that is even worse than the one that had been rejected was drawn up: not the closure of two schools and the creation of an academy on the Thomas Lord Audley site at Monkwick, but the closure of both schools and the distribution of children from those two areas of Colchester to other schools in the town, leaving the whole of southern Colchester as a secondary school desert.
The hon. Member for North Essex has indicated that he would like to intervene on me. This may be an appropriate juncture, as I believe that this is the issue on which he wishes to come in.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for so generously giving a little time in his debate so that I may comment. I am a promoter of option 5, which is, I accept, a late arrival in the debate; nevertheless, it may prove to be the most viable option. I am able to place on the record today for the first time that Mr. Jonathan Tippett, whom the hon. Gentleman prays in aid, has said to me, in terms, that the most crucial issue is to maintain education in the south of the town, and that if option 4—which I fear will not attract the investment to Colchester that we all want—is not possible, he would contemplate option 5 as a compromise solution. That option is for a military academy school somewhere in the south of the town that would have the ability especially to serve the Army families of the garrison as well as other children.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his proposal. My only regret is that it is one that was rejected by Essex county council in May. The hon. Gentleman included the military component, which is new, but the principle of shutting two schools and creating an academy in south Colchester was positively rejected in May. I would also observe that whereas children from military families constitute between one fifth and one quarter of the pupils at Alderman Blaxill, they would be only about 10 per cent. in a single academy in south Colchester. However, I am grateful for his intervention.
To follow on from that, at the beginning of 2008, Essex education authority stated that there was a need for a 1,200-place secondary institution in south Colchester and produced what it said was evidence to support that position. How can the authority now argue, only a few months later, that there is no need for a secondary school in the whole of the south of the town?
Let me return to what was said at the meeting when the official advised the Minister that the arrangement for the three schools to operate legally need take only three months to bring about. I am sure the Minister will agree that his official would not have given such advice if it were not correct. However, Essex county council now tells us that option 4 is not legal. I cannot believe that the Minister would have been ill advised. Therefore I suggest that it is Essex county council that is being less than correct with its dismissal of option 4 on the ground that it is not legal. I am sure that, given good will all round, the correct legal status can be achieved so that what the community has put forward—a Colchester solution for Colchester’s schools, backed by Colchester borough council—can be implemented without further delay.
The longer the uncertainty continues, the more parents—not surprisingly—are voting with their feet. That is why numbers at TLA and Alderman Blaxill are depressed. It is not an attractive prospect for parents to send their children, at year 7, to a school that the education authority wants to shut. It is amazing that so many parents still have faith in the face of such an onslaught by people from county hall who are not democratically answerable to the people of Colchester. If the threat of closure is lifted, parents will have the confidence to send their children to those schools. Only five or six years ago, every year 7 place at both those schools was filled and fewer than 10 year 7 places were available across Colchester. I know that because parents were beating a path to my advice bureau, as parental choice was non-existent.
Colchester is the fastest-growing town in Essex and one of the fastest growing in the country. To shut two secondary schools and remove 1,700 places from the system is sheer folly, shows a total disregard for forward planning and, in the meantime, robs two communities of their local secondary school. It will not be too many years before someone has to pick up the pieces of such ill-conceived proposals, should the closures go ahead. In the meantime, the remaining five secondary schools, excluding the two selective schools and the Roman Catholic secondary school, which have been given protected status, will be forced to expand, perhaps to 2,000 or more pupils.
According to Essex county council, there are currently 10,365 secondary school places in Colchester and, in 10 years’ time, the maximum number of places required will be 10,275, which would be a virtual standstill in numbers despite the fact that the population is growing by 1,000 people a year, meaning that there will be 10,000 more people by 2018. Does the county council seriously believe that none of the massive new housing developments, with the accompanying big increase in population, will result in more children of secondary school age? The town’s already congested road system will become even more clogged as children are driven or bussed across town. The school buses will not be free and hard-pressed working families will have to find money to pay the fares, whereas at the moment many children can walk or cycle safely to school.
Whatever happened to the Government’s promises in respect of Every Child Matters? What about “safe routes to schools” and the clarion calls about “sustainable communities”? Essex county council’s proposals are contrary to all those Government policies. However, option 4 is fully in accord with Government policies. Colchester borough council has produced a detailed sustainability appraisal of secondary school options in Colchester, which looked at the three options advanced by Essex county council and option 4; its seven-page report ends with the following recommendation:
“It is recommended that Option 4 is supported. Under this option accessibility will not be reduced and the schools and their ancillary facilities will continue to serve the existing communities. Greenfield land will continue to be protected.”
Sadly, Colchester borough council, with a population of 175,400 and growing—one of the largest shire districts in England—is not responsible for education. Instead, it is rural-dominated Tory backwoodsmen from elsewhere in Essex, without any democratic accountability to the people of Colchester, who are in charge of education. Do they care? They are not listening, that is for sure. If Colchester was a unitary authority—it is big enough to be one—the town would not be facing this serious attack on secondary school provision in the south of the area, with the domino effects that that will have on the other five secondary schools.
Essex county council’s public consultation is one thing, but I am concerned about the private briefings in which Lord Hanningfield and colleagues are engaged. There is a lack of consistency about what is being said in the public domain and what is being said behind closed doors. I have visited all the secondary schools in recent weeks. I have advised all the heads that, whatever they have been told at private briefings, they should follow up and insist upon written guarantees of what they were told. I also visited county hall, where, using a Freedom of Information Act request, I inspected the files relating to both the current public consultation and the earlier consultation, involving the original proposal for an academy on the TLA site. All the files relating to submissions to that public consultation had been removed. Thus there is no way of knowing what was said by whom and what notice, if any, the county council took of representations.
Many believe that the current public consultation is little more than a box-ticking exercise and that Essex county council will proceed with option 1 regardless. What faith can people have in the democratic process when they are treated in such a contemptible way? I attended and spoke at all four public meetings organised by the county council. Attendances totalled around 1,500. There was no enthusiasm for what the county is offering, but massive support for option 4.
I obviously welcome the promise of capital investment in schools in my constituency, but I am not in favour of wasteful expenditure just because the Government have, we have been told, made money available. Is it true, as claimed by Essex Conservatives, that Colchester will lose £100 million of capital investment if an application is not made to the Government by March 2009? So far, the county council has not been able to say how it has arrived at the conveniently rounded figure of £100 million, from which sources this money will come, and what timetable will apply in relation to carrying out the Building Schools for the Future programme in Colchester.
There seems to be unanimous agreement that Sir Charles Lucas arts college needs a complete new building because its current campus is well past its sell-by date. There are mixed views as to whether an academy or a replacement secondary school is the best way forward in that regard, but there is unanimity that the site should continue to serve the existing communities from St. Andrew’s and St. Anne’s wards. The heads of Gilberd and Philip Morant schools have told me that they do not want their pupil numbers increased, as would be inevitable if TLA and Alderman Blaxill shut. Gilberd already has expansion plans for when 3,000 new homes—I repeat, 3,000 new homes—are built in north Colchester. Philip Morant will top 2,000 pupils if Alderman Blaxill shuts. That site could only accommodate such numbers if adjoining open space were developed, but the borough council would oppose that scenario. There is no room for expansion at Stanway school. St. Helena is also on a site where possible expansion is virtually nil and the head’s wish to build a new St. Helena school on nearby open space would be vigorously opposed.
Mr. Tippett has, in little more than a year, already transformed Thomas Lord Audley college to the point where last year’s exam results were the best in its history. The Minister knows this, because I sent him the full page article from the Colchester Gazette only last month. The fortunes of Alderman Blaxill school are also improving, as Mr. Tippett approaches the end of his first year in charge. He took over as executive head in January 2008 and has transformed the place in every respect.
I invite the Minister to come to Colchester and see for himself. I also urge him, please, to impress upon Essex county council that it should uphold the promise that it gave the Secretary of State in May and adopt option 4 as the best way forward and access the necessary funds from the Government to implement improvements to the fabric of Colchester’s secondary schools.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this debate. As he said, it is the second debate that we have had on related subjects in the past year or two. That, alongside the regularity with which he manages to appear towards the top of the Order Paper in oral questions and is thereby able to ask about similar matters, means that the organisation of secondary school provision in Colchester is never far from the forefront of my mind.
This debate has given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to air his opinion. Clearly, he has thought the matter through and has been campaigning hard with his constituents. He has advocated strongly for what he describes as option 4, which is not currently being consulted on by Essex county council, as he said. Similarly, option 5, mentioned by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), is not being consulted on. However, I am sure that Essex county council will be listening carefully to what has been said in the debate by both hon. Gentlemen. For reasons that I will explain later, I am somewhat more constrained in commenting on those options than the hon. Gentlemen might like.
This debate gives me the opportunity to congratulate Jonathan Tippett on the work that he does at Stanway school and the assistance that he has given to Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley school in improving their results. I will comment further on that.
In respect of the option that the hon. Member for North Essex described, in the limited time available to him during his intervention, I am not against the notion of involving the garrison in any kind of governance arrangement, if that is what it is interested in doing. Many young people benefit from the aspiration towards, involvement in and discipline of the armed forces. Clearly, there is a strong tradition in the Colchester community, in respect of the relationship with the garrison, that may be positively linked to through some kind of partnership with school provision in the town.
Our ambition is to make every school a good school so that every child, in every area, receives the highest possible standard of education, regardless of their background or circumstances. We are working hard to reshape the educational landscape to achieve that vision. The Building Schools for the Future programme, which the hon. Member for Colchester mentioned, has seen the biggest investment in school buildings in 50 years. Our national challenge programme is tackling underperformance in schools facing challenging circumstances, and new school governance models, such as academies and trusts, are providing real solutions and an opportunity for schools to benefit from leadership and strategic direction from those best placed in the community to provide it.
We now have a good track record of intervening when schools are performing below the required standard, and of turning that performance around, because we have the tools to do that. Although we can set a strategic direction for our schools, and learn lessons from progress, no two areas are exactly the same, and that is the merit of listening to debates such as this and the expertise of local representatives in Parliament. Every area and every school face a different combination of challenges, and need a different combination of solutions. As our communities and the priorities of learners and their families continue to change in the fast-paced 21st-century environment, we must be able to adapt, to challenge the solutions that we have in place, and to come up with alternatives.
School organisation is a local issue, and that is to some extent a constraint on my commenting too much, particularly as we are in the middle of Essex county council’s consultation. It is right that school organisation is a local issue. Local government is best placed to determine local need and to find solutions to local problems. It would not be right for us to impose solutions on communities from the centre.
I am aware of that, because during recent oral questions to my Department the hon. Gentleman said that Colchester borough council is opposed to Essex’s plans, but I shall not be drawn further into that.
Local education authorities have a duty to ensure that there are sufficient places for pupils, and that high-quality education is provided cost-effectively throughout the area. Those who make the decisions must have regard to statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State when considering proposals. The guidance details a range of factors, including the impact on standards, diversity of provision and parental choice, demand for places, location and transport, and cost-effectiveness. Our society and communities are changing all the time, so local provision must be reviewed. We must be honest and objective about existing services, and challenge ourselves on whether they are continuing to do the best for the children and families who use them. For example, a surplus of places is clearly not a good use of resources, so we expect local authorities to come up with solutions to tackle that challenge, and to direct resources to raising standards. All factors must be considered in the round, and decisions should be based on what will bring the most benefit to the highest number of pupils.
In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the 2007 figures show a surplus of 530 places for the three schools combined, which are the subject of option 1 in the consultation. The current proposal, following consultation, is that two successful schools in the Colchester area—Philip Morant and Stanway schools—should be expanded, and that there should be a new academy. The council believes that that would be sufficient to cater for demand, to help to drive up standards throughout the area, and to make better use of local resources. The decision is a local one. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 clearly sets out that school organisation decisions are local and that Ministers should not intervene. The consultation is ongoing, and people are still responding. It has canvassed the views of all secondary schools in Colchester, as well as parents and other residents who would be affected by the proposed changes.
I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the consultation. It will be for the local authority—Essex county council—to consider the responses when that process is complete, and to decide how best to proceed, bearing in mind the representations from the hon. Gentleman for option 4, and those from the hon. Member for North Essex for option 5. I urge the hon. Member for Colchester to keep in mind the importance of raising standards for all pupils in Colchester. Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools and Sir Charles Lucas arts college are three of the lowest-performing schools in the country, and 15 months ago all three were in special measures. A particularly significant challenge for Colchester was that, when only 50 schools fell into that category nationally, Colchester had a relatively high concentration. Many people have worked hard to turn that situation around, not least the staff and pupils at those schools.
Although we will not have validated exam results until the new year, self-reported GCSE results from the summer show improvement in all three schools. I pay tribute to the staff and pupils for that achievement, but those schools are still not where we want them to be in terms of what they are achieving for their pupils. Although two schools have now improved and have been lifted out of special measures, Alderman Blaxill school remains in that category. All three continue to need extra support, and receive that support from my Department through the national challenge. Essex county council decided that they should remain within the national challenge programme, because they are in continued danger of not reaching or of dropping below the 2011 floor target of gaining 30 per cent. five A* to C at GCSE, including English and maths. Under the national challenge, for this academic year, £66,500 of support has been allocated to Thomas Lord Audley school, £75,500 to Alderman Blaxill school, and £91,000 to Sir Charles Lucas arts college. That funding will focus primarily on improving standards in English and maths, and raising the quality of teaching. It will also focus on improving attitudes to learning, exclusion rates, and the quality of leadership at middle management level.
The hon. Gentleman is aware that plans for school reorganisation in Colchester are still under consultation. In addition to the closures being considered, the council is considering turning Sir Charles Lucas arts college into an academy, and again that is a matter for local decision. I am encouraged that the council is considering a range of solutions to the problems facing Colchester, and academies are a viable option. I ask the hon. Gentleman to take a pragmatic view of that.
He says that he has, and we are grateful for that.
The recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that academies are making excellent progress, and going a long way towards tackling the difficult problems facing some of our communities and schools. The report said that sponsors contribute significantly to school improvement, and that leadership and governance in academies is good. According to the National Audit Office, GCSE performance is improving faster in academies than in other schools, and they are on course to deliver real value for money. Of the 24 academies so far inspected by Ofsted, 96 per cent. have been graded with good or outstanding leadership.
Academies are making a real difference, and the national challenge programme is providing a floor target, substantial funding, and a real opportunity to raise standards in some of our most challenging areas. Given that track record, and the opportunities presented by the national challenge, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will view academies with an open mind, and support them if they are right for pupils, parents and the community.
The only problem with the Minister’s last observation is that the option of an academy in south Colchester was rejected in the spring because the public did not want it. It is difficult now to advocate an academy when the education authority dismissed it and gave the Secretary of State a categorical assurance that it would proceed with the three-sites, one-school option. That promise was given to the Secretary of State, and he gave it in good faith to the House, but it has been broken.
Expansion of Stanway school would be difficult because the surplus playing field was sold off to pay for the new school, so there is no room for expansion there. It would also be difficult to expand Philip Morant school because the only way would be to build on land that is preserved as public open space. Those two schools cannot physically accommodate pupils if the other two schools shut.
The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to comment on school organisation while it is subject to consultation, but I shall resist that. I am simply suggesting that an open mind is helpful when considering academies. The proposal for the arts college is for an academy, and regardless of how matters are resolved in respect of Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools, if Sir Charles Lucas arts college becomes an academy, I hope that he will not oppose that if he thought that it was right for pupils in his community.
Our ambition is to build a world-class education system so that every child can make the most of their potential and go as far as their talents will take them. If we are serious about building better schools that serve the needs of 21st-century learners and communities, we must be prepared to make some tough decisions when they are called for.
I wish both hon. Gentlemen and you, Mr. Martlew, as well as pupils, families and teachers in Colchester, every success for the future and a very happy Christmas.
Question put and agreed to.