Tuesday 3 March 2009
[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Blizzard .)
I am pleased that we are debating UK relations with Latin America today. I shall divide my speech into three parts. I shall discuss Latin America in general, then talk quite a lot about Bolivia, and in conclusion make some general remarks. Looking at the number of hon. Members here, I think that we can all do the arithmetic and agree the timing so that everyone can contribute.
This is a time of high excitement throughout Latin America. The continent is going though incredible changes at a very fast pace. There is in the air a sense of optimism and, in many countries, of liberation from past oppressions. I have been involved in debates about Latin America ever since I first entered the House in 1983. During that period, there have been terrible times in Latin America, but there have also been times of great hope. I think that now is one of the optimistic times.
One thinks back to the period of dictatorships in the 1980s in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru and one remembers the vast human rights abuses that have happened throughout the continent at various times. Now one sees, not necessarily liberation for everybody, but optimism on a grand scale, particularly for people who have been systematically discriminated against—namely, the non-Spanish-speaking minorities in a number of countries, and the people who suffered under the various dictatorships. It is pleasing to see that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is up and running and is effective. I hope that, if required, we will be able to give recognition, help and support to that institution, because it is important to have it.
Britain has always had a huge relationship with Latin America, not only through trade and investment. Indeed, the Bolivarian wars of independence started in Britain, when Simon Bolivar and de Miranda sat together near Warren street and plotted the liberation of much of the continent from the then Spanish empire. British commercial involvement was huge throughout the whole continent. I therefore find it rather sad to have to say—I hope that the Minister can give me some good news on this—that there seems to be a problem, in that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been systematically downgrading our diplomatic representation throughout the continent and closing quite a lot of embassies.
The Department for International Development has followed suit by leaping to the headline figures that show that most Latin American countries are deemed, in the Department’s terms, to be middle-income countries, which means that the requirement for British overseas aid is limited. We therefore have fewer DFID offices in Latin America than in any other part of the world. Although we still have a substantial programme throughout Latin America, my suspicion is that once the office is closed and representation is taken away, two things happen: first, the accountability of the programme starts to diminish; secondly, the programme is cut altogether. We should be aware of that process. I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort and good news on that point.
The United States has traditionally had enormous influence over Latin America. That stems from the Monroe doctrine, which arose after most of the countries in Latin America had gained independence. Essentially, the US sees Latin America as its own backyard, and its intervention throughout the region has seldom been a benign affair. One thinks of the numerous incidents of US military involvement and engagement in Latin America and of the promotion of coups, such as those in Chile and Guatemala.
Trade with the US has always been dominant throughout Latin America, but things are changing fast. Two schools of thought are running throughout Latin America: there are those who want to have direct trade links and treaties with the US, such as those signed by Peru, Columbia and Mexico; but there is also the community of Andean nations debate, which is dominated by Bolivia and Venezuela, which most strongly promote the idea. I hope that the Minister can give us some positive news and that she will encourage the EU to engage directly with the community of Andean nations and negotiate with them, as well as having the bilateral agreements that are currently being made with individual countries.
Huge change is happening throughout Latin America. Essentially, a political debate is going on about the economic and cultural independence of Latin America, and whether its development, growth and future depend entirely on relations with the USA, or whether it will take a much more independent route in the future. For example, a few years ago, Argentina had a massive economic problem: it had huge debts and its economy had collapsed. Now, internally, Argentina has turned itself around; it is much more economically stable and standards of living are rising. Although there are still political tensions within Argentina, it is very much part of the development process throughout Latin America. Likewise, the huge changes that have recently taken place in Venezuela—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will talk about them this morning—show that there are different paths to development and out of poverty. Those paths do not necessarily rely solely on the traditional development of trade patterns; they also relate to the idea of a stronger internal market, a stronger indigenous economy and the ability to break free from the cycle of debt, depression and poverty.
As I mentioned at the start of my speech, behind all that lies the fault line throughout Latin America. The independence movement of the 19th century brought about independence essentially for the settler classes and the colonials who dominated the continent at that time. We now have the growth of non-Spanish-speaking communities, the development of indigenous people and their rights, and demands that their human rights be recognised and dealt with.
Traditionally, Latin American people have migrated in large numbers—mainly to the USA, but to Spain and other parts of Europe as well—to seek salvation, to find work and to send money home. On a recent visit, many people mentioned to me their anger at the way in which the European Union is treating Latin American migrant workers. Some time ago, many hon. Members here today were present in the Inter-Parliamentary Union room when the all-party group on Latin America invited all the ambassadors from Latin America to come and talk to us about their concerns. They were unanimous in their condemnation of the EU ruling that threatens the deportation of large numbers of Latin American people who work in Europe, often as unskilled workers such as office cleaners and in similar jobs. We should think again about that policy. Deporting those people is cruel and inhumane to them, damaging to their economies back home, and damaging to relations between Britain, Europe and Latin America.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Latin American immigrants and migrants to this country from other parts of the European Union make a real contribution to this nation and its economy, but is he saying that he is at odds with his Government’s position and the introduction of the new points-based migration system? Does he agree with the system or not?
We are dealing with two issues here. One is the position of migrant workers in Europe. I personally strongly support the “Strangers into Citizens” campaign as the right way forward, because it recognises that people have been here a long time and that they seek to work and to contribute to our economy and society. That path makes for a more cohesive society. I do have a number of concerns about the points-based immigration system, not least its effect on poorer countries throughout the world. Such a system often sucks out the most skilled and able people when they are most desperately needed in those societies. We must look at that aspect.
I stress that this is a debate not about immigration but about our relations with Latin America. However, since the hon. Member who wishes to intervene represents the area where I grew up and learned many of my political skills, such as they are, I cannot resist the temptation to give way to him again.
And Adams’ grammar school is an excellent grammar school—and partly fee-paying, just for those people on the left of the hon. Gentleman’s party to note.
I am a little confused. A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman appeared to argue against the Government’s position of resettling people in and asking people to return to Latin America. In a second point, however, he contradicted himself by saying that migration to Europe sucked out the best brains from Latin America. Which is it? He seems to be confused.
I made two separate points in response to a very gentle intervention from the hon. Gentleman, who is trying to divert this debate from its true purpose. I do not intend to be diverted. That is the sort of tactic they use in Adams’ grammar school’s debating society, so I am not prepared to go any further down that road. I have made my views clear, but, if he doubts them, he can read Hansard tomorrow.
I was privileged recently to be the leader of an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Bolivia. We spent one week there and met a large number of political representatives of all hues. We had an important meeting with the Vice-President of the country, met a number of popular organisations in El Alto, the very poor area just north of La Paz, and went to Santa Cruz to meet those who, for all intents and purposes, are the leading opposition forces. The IPU organised the visit, and I hope that representatives of the Bolivian parliamentary system—probably after the elections later this year—will be able to undertake a reciprocal visit to this country.
The purpose of our visit was to build relations at parliamentary level. The delegation consisted of, from the Commons, my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and myself, accompanied by Kenneth Courtenay, the general-secretary of the IPU, and the House of Lords members of the delegation, Baroness Gibson and Lord Kilclooney.
My hon. Friend may be aware that in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Latin American country profiles, Bolivia is restricted to about 10 or a dozen words, in contrast with other countries that are the subjects of detailed analyses. Does he believe that Bolivia’s relatively weak economic status means that, as a priority for the FCO, it is correspondingly low and vanishingly small? Does he regret that?
The British Government. I have just had a very useful conversation with our esteemed Minister, who deals with these matters, and I am sure that she will not mind me repeating it. She is to meet the delegation that went to Bolivia, and we will apprise her of all the details of our visit. Indeed, I have offered her 60 pages of my hand-written notes on it.
Sadly, the Minister declined to receive them. Even though they are written in English, I am sure that they are just as incomprehensible as if they were written in any other language, but I am confident that, at the end of the meeting, she will appreciate the importance of Bolivia as a developing country in Latin America and of according a higher status to British representation there. I look forward to doing that.
I have yet more good news for the Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that the delegation’s visit, which, as far as I am concerned, was extremely successful, was significantly enhanced by the more-or-less constant presence of both our ambassador to Bolivia, Mr. Nigel Baker, and the Bolivian ambassador to Britain, Señora Beatríz Souviron? Is it not true that the British ambassador’s profile was significantly enhanced by his participation as an international facilitator during the national meetings on the new constitution between the Bolivian Government and the regional prefects?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As he says, we were accompanied throughout the visit by the ambassador, Nigel Baker, on behalf of the British embassy, and by Beatríz Souviron, the Bolivian ambassador to the UK, which meant that we had very good advice from them both before and after all the meetings that we held. The visit was also considered to be important because—I believe that this is correct—the British parliamentary delegation was the first national parliamentary delegation to go to Bolivia from any European country for a very long time. There has been an EU delegation, but none from any national Parliament. As a result, we were very well received. The Bolivians felt that the visit was an important recognition of the democratic changes and process in their country. We were able to discuss how we can support and assist that political and democratic change, and I was most impressed by the people whom we met.
There are two images of Bolivia which are fundamentally wrong. If one reads most of the press, one assumes that Evo Morales is some kind of stooge of President Chavez of Venezuela and that Bolivia is tantamount to a Venezuelan colony. That is absolute nonsense—there is no such feeling. There is a feeling of mutual support and solidarity, as there is between many other Latin American countries, but that is now how the relationship is presented in the press. Secondly, although enormous and fundamental political debates are ongoing in Bolivia, it is not true to say that the democratic or parliamentary systems have broken down—quite the opposite. We witnessed pretty robust discussions between the various political groups, but surely the important point is that they were having those debates.
Another fundamental point is that President Morales became the President of Bolivia as a result of popular social movements, including the campaign against water privatisation in Cochabamba and the cocoa growers’ campaign, of which he was an intrinsic part and effectively the leader. He was also helped by the strength of the miners’ unions in several places, particularly Potosi, and the strength of the popular movements representing one of the poorest places in Bolivia, El Alto, a large barrio on the Altiplano above Le Paz. Morales became President as a result of those campaigns and popular movements and, in many ways, he represents the hopes and aspirations of the very poorest people in Bolivia.
Furthermore, Morales was the first non-Spanish speaking, indigenous leader to be elected to the presidency on a popular vote, the highest popular vote ever received by a presidential candidate in Bolivia; and it was the first time that somebody had won in the first round of an election. That is very significant, indeed, and we should pay due respect to it. At a reception organised by the British embassy, somebody who, as far as I can gather, is not necessarily a supporter of Evo Morales or the political process that he represents told me, “Forever, Bolivia will be judged before and after the election of Evo.” His election has been that fundamental to the change in attitudes in Latin America.
The new constitution pursued by the Bolivian Government is being developed through a constituent assembly chaired by a redoubtable lady, Silvia Lazarte, who addressed a meeting in the House when she visited late last year. The constitution is designed to protect indigenous rights, land rights and linguistic rights, to provide education, health, opportunities and hope, and to protect human rights in Bolivian society. This has been met with huge opposition, particularly from the wealthier provinces, mainly led by Santa Cruz, which are opposed to it and to the land reform elements in particular. It went to a national referendum and was approved by just over 61 per cent. on a national vote. The vote in La Paz was considerably more than 61 per cent. and in Santa Cruz and the other opposition provinces, for want of a better word, the result was more or less the mirror reverse of the national result, with around 40 per cent. support for it and about 60 per cent. opposed. Nevertheless, it has been approved.
During the first three days of our visit we were gasping our way around La Paz because we rather unwisely went straight into activities and meetings without taking sensible advice to spend a day acclimatising ourselves to living at 4,000 m. So we got through it, shall we say. We had meetings with the Government, the Vice-President and the Foreign Minister and were able to discuss Bolivia’s relations with neighbours and with Europe.
Bolivia’s relations with its neighbours are obviously important. It has a small population and is a poor country that relies particularly on exports of hydrocarbons and minerals for its survival. Therefore, relations with Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru are important. Unfortunately, Bolivia’s history has been one of wars and loss of territory to Paraguay, Brazil, Peru and Chile. There is a continuing problem with the competing claims over the northern part of Chile and how those are going to be resolved. It is not for us to decide how that situation will be resolved: that has to be done bilaterally within Latin America. It is creditable that there has been a series of meetings and quite a good relationship developing between the Bolivian and Chilean Governments. One just has to support that process and hope that something good comes out of it. Bolivia requires good relations to export its crops and goods.
On the democratic developments in Bolivia, we met representatives of all the political parties and had an interesting meeting with the public defender or ombudsman, who is effectively a kind of human rights commissioner. The person we met was impressive. The reports that she had produced on investigations were objective and interesting, particularly the one on the killings in Pando, where a number of people died in a conflict between a group of campesinos and representatives of the prefect. One can say with confidence that there is a strength in the democratic process there and in the inquisitive process through the public defender’s office, for example.
We went to Santa Cruz where we met the prefect, who is strongly opposed to the general trend of Bolivian politics and would not count himself a great friend of Evo Morales, to put it mildly. He complains loudly about the land reform and we were slightly puzzled by that, because it seemed fairly modest to us, in that there is still an enormous land area allowed to be owned under the new constitution and a huge imbalance in land ownership. We urged him strongly to undertake a series of meetings with President Morales and join in the national debate and consensus, because although a constitution has been passed into law, a lot of subsequent legislation is needed before the elections can be held in December. The logjam that exists between the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies is not helpful. We urged him to take part in debates and in that discussion. Indeed, we presented him with two whisky glasses, suggesting that he drink from one himself and keep the other for President Morales when he visits, so that they can have a little chat together. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington complimented him on the high quality of the British suit that he was wearing during the discussion.
The other aspect of Bolivia’s future is its mineral resources and hydrocarbons. Bolivia has been pillaged by Spain and by international companies that have taken the silver and tin and paid, effectively, low prices to the Bolivian people. The Bolivian Government have taken into public ownership all mineral resources, particularly hydrocarbons. There was an interesting debate about how Bolivia now goes forward, both in respect of exploration for new reserves of gas in particular, and the exploitation of those reserves.
We spent a day visiting the BG Bolivia gas field near Villa Montes, in the south, looking at the process used to extract the gas from the ground—drying it and cleaning it—after which most of it is exported to Argentina and Brazil. We also had a discussion with a representative of the state hydrocarbons company. Essentially, at the moment the hydrocarbons are in state hands. The companies operating in Bolivia extract, cleanse and export the gas. The process is monitored by the state company, and the extracting company—in this case, BG Bolivia, but there are others, such as Repsol—is paid accordingly. There seemed to be a fairly good practical relationship, although the issue of the funding of future exploration has not been satisfactorily resolved as yet. We hope that it is resolved in the near future.
For me, going to Bolivia was exciting. Seeing what was happening, including feeling the sense of hope and optimism of many of the poorest people—particularly, meeting the indigenous groups that have traditionally suffered the most appalling discrimination, including lack of access to education and the political system—was exciting and made me optimistic.
As my hon. Friend has noted, President Evo Morales is the first indigenous president of Bolivia, in a society in which, in living memory, indigenous people were second-class citizens who were not allowed into certain parts of La Paz and not even allowed to meet a person of European origin and look them in the eye. Do not all the left-of-centre Latin American Governments—those led by Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula in Brazil and Chavez in Venezuela—represent groups and ethnicities that have hitherto been marginalised in Latin American society? Is it not important that Her Majesty’s Government look at these Governments not just through purely ideological eyes, but through those of the marginalised ethnic groups and indigenous people whom they represent and put ourselves on the right side of history in supporting the progressive change that they represent?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I first went to Latin America at the age of 19. I remember going to remote towns and villages in Bolivia where nobody spoke one word of Spanish, and they did not feel safe in going—and did not even feel the need to go—much beyond those communities. As far as they were concerned they were surviving and a Spanish-speaking elite ran the politics and dominated the whole country. Things have changed and they are never going to change back. A fundamental, exciting change has happened. The change is not just linguistic: it is cultural, iconic and religious and permeates all the way through society. All of us are going to begin to understand a lot more about the culture of Latin America that has been suppressed for a long time and is now bubbling up to the surface and coming out into the open. That is exciting.
The way that we deal with the change is important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough said in his intervention, there was a serious attempt at derailing the Government of Bolivia last year and there was a series of stand-offs. A number of things happened. The European Union ambassadors, particularly our ambassador, got involved in trying to promote political dialogue, which helped stabilise the situation, and every one of the neighbouring countries, bar none, took part in an important meeting in Santiago and declared their support for the unity of Bolivia and opposed the idea of any secession of the wealthiest parts in the south and east of the country. The ambassador and others have played a valuable role in that process. I think that I am right in saying that all the members of the delegation concurred on those points.
On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that there is still a tension between the national Government and the regions? To some extent, I compare that with the tension 10 or 15 years ago between the different regions of our country. That tension needs to be resolved through dialogue and talking, and that is what we—as a neutral nation, as it were—should be promoting in Bolivia.
I agree that the only way to resolve the issues is to accept the need for justice, dialogue and democratic and accountable government. I did not detect any hostility to that concept by most of the politicians whom we met, but I detected a group of people in some parts of Bolivia who are extremely wealthy and powerful and who believe that they need not pay taxes and that revenue should not be used to deal with the appalling poverty that the people on the Altiplano typically suffer. More than half the population survive on less than $2 a day, and living in Bolivia is not cheap.
On the tension between different groups in Bolivian society, more dialogue is certainly necessary, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) said. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) agree that particular groups should not believe that they have the tacit support of the United States?
US strategy towards Latin America has changed for several reasons. Its economic problems, its obsession with the middle east, and the war in Iraq have taken its attention away from Latin America. The new President and his Administration have not made a high priority of relations with Latin America. This is a period when Latin America can consolidate itself as an entity following the eternal dispute with the United States.
Does the hon. Gentleman think it right, while the British Prime Minister is in Washington talking to world leaders about avoiding protectionism, to call for protectionism in Latin America when almost all Latin Americans, whether in Bolivia or Venezuela, want free trade—albeit fair free trade—to improve their life chances?
I do not remember calling at any time for protectionism in Latin America. I was talking about investment to ensure that hydrocarbon and other mineral resources are properly developed and that anti-poverty programmes strengthen the internal market and internal buying power of people in Bolivia, and about the development of intra-Latin American trade, rather than Latin America’s tradition of exporting raw materials to other parts of the world. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that a considerable body of opinion throughout Latin America is trying to develop the Latin American economy and internal trade. Bolivia’s trade pattern is increasingly with Brazil and Argentina rather than with other parts of the world.
Not at all. I am merely trying to be helpful. Every export that might be prevented could have an impact on British imports. Brazil is our biggest trading partner in Latin America, and any hint of trimming exports or imports would have an impact on both Brazilians and the United Kingdom.
I do not know whether I am missing something here, but I have said nothing of the sort. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman’s point is. There is terrible poverty in Bolivia and in most Latin American countries. The whole political imperative and process of an anti-poverty strategy is to liberate people from the oppression and depression arising from poverty and from lack of opportunity, education and health care. We should be pleased to witness that, and to support it.
The underbelly of Latin America is poverty and oppression, and the human rights abuse that comes from that. Individual human rights—the right to vote, the right to free expression, the right to free organisation, the right to religious freedom—are obviously important and are enshrined in the universal declaration, but people have a right to be able to live where they are, free from poverty. For many, the only way out of poverty is to escape, and ones sees poor migrants leaving Guatemala, travelling through Mexico to try to get into the USA to survive, but being brutally oppressed at various points. The death rate among migrants is very high. There is a “fourth world” of migrant peoples, and we would do well to recognise that the way to prevent that is to encourage the economic development and anti-poverty programmes that are so important and exciting throughout much of Latin America.
I hope that the Minister will say that the Government take seriously our relations with Latin America, and that they are prepared, if necessary, to upgrade our diplomatic representation, and prepared to encourage DFID to become far more involved in Latin America.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman has concentrated on Bolivia, but he has not said much about his old friend, President Chavez of Venezuela. Does he think that seizing assets by nationalisation, whether in Venezuela or Bolivia, will encourage investment in delivering mineral resources, which in turn benefit the people through trade and exports?
Time does not permit my hon. Friend to expand on the glories and triumphs of President Chavez in Venezuela—[Interruption.] Others among us will do that. Our delegation to Bolivia was greatly aided by my hon. Friend’s expert leadership and his fluent Spanish.
I thank my hon. Friend for that kind intervention. I am tempted to speak at great length about Venezuela and other places, but I will not, save to say that any country has the right to take into public ownership resources, industries and services. That is what a sovereign nation can do. This country has done that. We have just taken several banks into public ownership. Even Conservative Members, including the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), could not bring themselves to vote against bringing banks into public ownership—[Interruption.] I was there, and I observed what was going on.
I am being extremely careful, but I am sure of my facts.
President Chavez in Venezuela is taking some industries and services into public ownership—I understand that he is minded to take rice processing into public ownership—because he believes that his Government are being held hostage by the administration of those companies and the denial of food supplies. Some of us witnessed the same process against the Popular Unity Government in Chile in the 1970s. Governments have the right to do that.
We had discussions with Bolivia about its nationalisation programme, and about its wish to ensure, by agreement, open negotiation and public contract, exploitation and exploration of mineral resources. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Any country can do that if it wishes, and we must respect the sovereignty of any nation that wishes to take its own path to economic development.
These are exciting times in Latin America, and poverty can be conquered. For the first time, many people can see a pathway out of poverty. I hope that we will respect and support that process, and the cultural liberation that is taking place throughout Latin America, with an even-handed approach that ensures decent, fair and reasonable trade, and that we support the independence of every country in bringing that about. Opportunities exist for British companies in railway development, construction, high technology, machinery and tools, and so on. There are huge development programmes in Mexico and elsewhere in which we could and perhaps should be involved. There is nothing wrong with that, because that is reasonable and fair trade, but above all we must respect the integrity of the nations concerned, and their choice of pathway out of poverty.
I shall try to keep my remarks to 20 minutes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on initiating the debate, which is timely, and I thank him for his generosity in giving way so often. I also pay tribute to Baroness Gibson, Anne Gibson, in the other place, who chairs the all-party group on Latin America and does an excellent job in that role.
The hon. Gentleman, in his concluding remarks, mentioned the word “exploitation” and of course none of us in the House, whatever our political views, would want to see the exploitation of a single person in Latin America, but even if there has been exploitation by some Governments and some states in Latin America, that should not be replaced by exploitation involving the private sector. We need an end to exploitation from whatever quarter.
That leads me to renationalisation. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is right to say that renationalisation of assets is not only illegal in most cases; it also sends a negative message with regard to future investment. It creates a negative investment climate that international observers, with many places to shop around, might decide to avoid and which would put off would-be investors. The hon. Member for Islington, North himself said that in relation to his trip to Bolivia. There is a big unanswered question in relation to future exploration. It is okay to renationalise assets, but what do people do once they have them? That applies to many countries, not only in Latin America but across the world, once they have taken back state assets. One might even argue that it even applies in this country more recently. What do people do once they have such assets, and how is future investment encouraged?
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) seemed to think that the whole nationalisation debate was about a virility symbol and whether sovereign countries have the right to take those assets. Of course they have that right. The question is whether it is wise to deploy it. If the private sector sees assets being taken with no money being paid for them, that affects not only the minerals sector, which is directly affected, but the whole economy, because other countries will not want to invest in those economies and therefore the standard of living of those peoples suffers as a result.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, as he always does. The other relevant point is that there is a direct impact on constituents in Islington, Shropshire and everywhere else represented here, because there are pension investments in those countries and for every industry that is nationalised, there is a direct impact on pension funds in the City of London as well. It is a very worrying step that President Chavez has taken deciding to move into food production and food supply and, as we have heard, to renationalise rice production in his country.
That leads me to land reform which, of course, is needed in Latin America—I accept that. Redistribution of land is needed, but it must be both legal and fair. A sensible period of consultation is needed with the people whose land will perhaps be taken back to the state. A right of appeal is also needed. So often in Latin America we have not seen that. We have seen just the heavy hand of the state moving in and the state saying, “We’re taking land back from you.” There is no consultation or compensation. It is illegal most of the time and it certainly is not fair. Again, that sends the wrong message about Latin America as a continent. Unfortunately, there is a negative halo from certain countries in Latin America, which impacts on the whole continent when other countries are wanting to do the right thing, even with land redistribution and—dare I say it?—renationalisation.
The same applies to free trade. Some countries want global free trade. Some want regional free trade and, indeed, free trade with north America. If those countries, which have elected Governments, want to have a free trade agreement with north America, they should be entitled to do so. They should not have to deal with meddling, either political or through other, more sinister means, by countries that take a different ideological view, as that is unsettling and destabilising for the region. If countries such as Colombia and Peru want to trade with north America, they should be entitled to do so. That is not to suggest that they do not want to trade internally, within the borders of Latin America. I believe that they want to do that as well, but if they want to do both, they should be able to do so without having political machinations set upon them by neighbouring nations or others on the continent.
That is why it is important, as we have heard today—I hope that the Minister will note this—that there is cross-party consensus on real concerns about UK diplomatic representation in Latin America. It was a backward step for the Paraguay embassy to close. Paraguay is a huge country; Argentina is large as well, and to try to run operations in both countries from Buenos Aires is very difficult. If I were, for example, a Paraguayan Transport Minister wanting to construct three new bridges and there were a French embassy and a Germany embassy but no British embassy and a trade counsellor in those embassies, who would I be more likely to call and want to nip round to see to talk about that investment project? From a political, diplomatic and trade point of view, the United Kingdom is losing out for every diplomatic mission that it closes around the world, including in Latin America.
It was rather sad that when the Serious Organised Crime Agency took over from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, it took a different view of the role of drug liaison officers working with Governments in Latin America. I hope that the Minister will speak to her counterparts in the Home Office to ask this question: given that Latin America is still one of the major providers of drugs that end up on our streets and impact on all our communities, and given that there has been a change since SOCA replaced HMRC on this important issue, are we confident that the current level of drug liaison officer support for our embassies and for Governments in Latin America is adequate? I am conscious of time, but I want to touch on two more issues. What would be helpful to you, Mr. Amess? You saw how many people rose to their feet wishing to speak.
To be helpful, Mr. Amess, I shall speak for just three more minutes, first on animal conservation and secondly on human rights. I hope that the Brazilian Government will consider illegal logging. We have seen the demise of the giant otter, squirrel monkeys and macaws. There is also the issue of the illegal shipping of mahogany. According to Nature Conservancy, only 7 per cent. of Brazil’s Atlantic forest remains. Excessive commercial ranching causes deforestation. I am very concerned about illegal logging in Peru, which I visited a couple of years ago. I am especially concerned about the Tahuamanu rain forest. I hope that hon. Members will join me in supporting the WWF campaign to save the declining turtle populations in Colombia, Guyana, Ecuador and Peru. In Chile, the kodkod, one of Latin America’s smallest wild cats, has become endangered, as its habitat is being destroyed.
I hope that the Government will consider the pet trade in this country. I introduced two Bills on the issue in this Parliament, but they were rejected by the Government. One was on the sale of endangered animals on the internet. Endangered animals from the countries that we are discussing are still being sold on the internet in this country and being homed and housed in this country, which is wrong. The Government also rejected my Bill on the sale of primates as pets. Some 3,000 primates are being kept as pets in this country. Many of them were sourced from Latin America. Latin American countries, along with the UK Government, need to do far more if they care about their environment and habitats. Eco-tourism may be a motivation: why should people come to the diminished rain forests—albeit that some of them are saved—if there is no wildlife to see there?
Human rights are improving in some countries, for example, Colombia. I welcome the decline in the number of homicides and kidnappings in Colombia and in the homicides of union leaders. More needs to be done and each killing is unacceptable, but I want to put on the record my recognition of the efforts of the Government of President Uribe. Cuba has not been mentioned. One could argue that it is not really part of Latin America, but it is for the sake of the work of Amnesty International and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I hope that the Foreign Office will look urgently into the case of Church leader Pastor Robert Rodriguez—previously the national president of the Interdenominational Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors and Ministers in Cuba—whose trial was due to be held in the past 72 hours. I believe that the charges against him are trumped up and that there should be a fair trial. If Raul Castro is serious about changing Cuba, one of the best things that he can do is allow freedom of speech and freedom of religion and set an example by allowing a fair trial for this pastor, who is seriously ill in prison. All that Pastor Rodriguez does is preach the gospel, serve the poor and help his community.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has few peers in Parliament in terms of his commitment to the people of Latin America.
What is so interesting about Latin America is that it was the first continent to have neo-liberalism imposed on it, beginning with the coup in Chile on 11 September 1973. It is heartening that the mass of people on whom the neo-liberal experiment has been tried have rejected it, and we can draw some lessons from that as we face the current economic crisis. I will avoid the temptation to praise the 50 years of the Cuban revolution and to be slightly critical of our policy in Colombia, because—surprise, surprise—I want to deal mainly with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Venezuela is a pretty inoffensive country; indeed, the only two facts that I knew about it before I became involved were that it quite often won the Miss World competition and that it never qualified for the World cup. However, I have now dug a bit deeper, and it was a question to our former Prime Minister that got me really interested in Venezuela.
As I said, Venezuela is a pretty inoffensive country. We have never been at war with it; in fact, Venezuelans feel historical connections with Britain because of our support for them in the war of independence and because Bolivar lived in London for a time. However, if I were a Venezuelan—certainly a supporter of the majority—I would be slightly uneasy about the British Government’s stance towards Venezuela in the past few years.
Let me begin with former Prime Minister Blair’s reply to my question. He said:
“It is rather important that the Government of Venezuela realise that if they want to be respected members of the international community, they should abide by the rules of the international community.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 873.]
There was no substantiation of those comments, which were not well received in Venezuela. In addition, a Foreign Office Minister was—how can I put this diplomatically?—ambivalent about the coup in Venezuela. I will push it no further than that. We then have the dodgy statistics. Another previous Foreign Office Minister—the Minister’s predecessor—used a series of statistics from something called Transparency International in Venezuela to substantiate claims of corruption there. Unfortunately, some of the personnel who staffed Transparency International in Venezuela took part in the coup against Chavez. The organisation is hardly independent, and I urge Ministers to stop using such dodgy statistics.
It is important to address some of the misinformation that the international and British media have perpetuated about Chavez and the process of change in Venezuela. It is worth knowing that there were no halcyon days of neo-liberalism, when private companies were rampant across Latin America. Venezuela tried the neo-liberal model, but it led to deep inequality and poverty, despite the country’s vast potential wealth. I have checked the figures, and more than 50 per cent. of the population lived in poverty, with 20 per cent. in extreme poverty. One in five children suffered from malnutrition. In 1995—before Chavez—the figures peaked, with 75 per cent. of the population living in poverty. The experiment with neo-liberalism and free-market capitalism was not a success, which explains the victory of Chavez in the late 1990s.
My hon. Friend quoted the previous Prime Minister’s reply to his question, but he has raised questions about the weakness of neo-liberalism much more recently with the current Prime Minister. When he did so, was he disappointed by the barracking and chanting from members of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, who are clearly unreconstructed disciples of neo-liberalism and just keeping their heads down for the moment?
I will not respond to that.
There are some other things that I need to put on the record. For ordinary Venezuelans, progress under Chavez has been quite impressive. More than 2.5 million people have been lifted out of poverty. Even though oil prices were high at the time, the former Governments did not attack poverty in any way whatever.
Thanks to the Barrio Adentro service, millions of Venezuelans who did not have access to any kind of health service now have access to doctors for the first time in their lives. As a result—this is just one statistic—there has been a massive decrease in infant mortality. Another important point—hon. Members who went to Bolivia will realise the importance of this—is that 6 million Venezuelans have been given access to clean water since Chavez came to power. Educational programmes have also drawn millions of people into schools and universities, which did not happen before.
I am pleased to say that the minimum wage in Venezuela is the highest in Latin America, at about $370. An additional 900,000 Venezuelans are now entitled to a pension and to social security benefits, which are set at the same level as the minimum wage. One of the big battles that Chavez faces is with media. The international and domestic media are incredibly hostile to him, but I want to deal with the British press, because that is what we are more concerned with. Mark Twain said that if
“you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed”,
and that is certainly the case with the British press. In the lead-up to the recent Venezuelan elections, an editorial in The Guardian claimed that Venezuela had an “authoritarian government”. The Independent falsely claimed that Chavez
“is threatening to jail a popular opposition leader”.
The Daily Telegraph explained support for Chavez by claiming—this is a really good one—that
“thousands of poverty stricken ‘supporters’ have allegedly been bribed with alcohol and cash”.
The Times quoted Chavez’s ex-partner, Marisabel Rodriguez—a candidate for the Opposition—as saying:
“If he is not a dictator, at least he seems it”,
which is a really penetrating analysis.
Worse, however, is the role of what we would class as the liberal press. The Guardian has spent money keeping correspondent Rory Carroll in Caracas. He had a full-page article extolling the virtues of Chavez’s ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez, but she finished up with 1.7 per cent. of the vote in the election. The statement that the British press is unbalanced can therefore be substantiated.
On international trade, the Government can and should improve our relations with Venezuela. Countries such as France, Spain and Portugal have certainly taken the opportunity to sign deals with Venezuela. I am conscious of the time and of the need for the Minister to reply. What I am really asking for is a cool, dispassionate acknowledgment of the great social progress that has been made in Venezuela, which is substantiated by some of the facts that I have given. I ask the Minister to make sure that we do not engage in, or succumb to, the kind of misinformation that we have experienced over the past few years. Instead, we should build a constructive and open dialogue with the people of Venezuela and their leader, Hugo Chavez.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. One and a half hours seems a short time in which to cover thoroughly the many issues affecting a huge continent, but it is good that in this short debate we have been able to raise many aspects of the things that affect the continent and the UK’s relations with it.
The debate is particularly important because in foreign policy terms it is often easy to overlook a region such as Latin America when the daily news headlines are about the latest crisis between Israel and Palestine and the middle east, continuing threats concerning Iran and its potential nuclear capability, geopolitical changes involving Russia and China, and our military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often Latin America is not at the top of the agenda, which is why it is important that Parliament should find the time to discuss the issues. I was, like other hon. Members, particularly intrigued to hear from the hon. Member for Islington, North because of his more than a quarter of a century of interest in the issue, and the fact that he has great knowledge and expertise, having made many visits to Latin America. It was fascinating as well to hear about the recent parliamentary delegation to Bolivia. I feel that when one has visited a place there is additional authenticity when one talks about it, so it has been particularly interesting to hear those views.
Why should Latin America matter to the UK? We have heard a host of reasons, such as climate change and the environment. Apparently more than 20 per cent. of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rain forest, which is sometimes described as the lungs of the earth. Deforestation is a big and pressing issue and it accounts for a large percentage of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. It will grow in importance in the coming years. Indeed, Latin America’s global influence is growing. Brazil, in particular, looks as if it will become a regional superpower. That will lead, no doubt, to discussions in other international bodies. There is already, and has been for years, much discussion about Security Council representation at the UN, and which countries should be entitled to permanent seats. The UK will have to be involved in the relevant negotiations. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) highlighted the political consequences of closing UK missions in Latin American countries, given that the area will grow in global importance.
Other reasons why Latin America matters to us are the drugs trade—most of the cocaine that ends up in the streets of Britain comes from Latin America—and poverty and human rights: problems which, even though they are on the other side of the world and not on our doorstep, should concern all parliamentarians.
Would the hon. Lady include in her reference to human rights the position of women in Latin America, and specifically in Guatemala? I secured a debate on that some time ago, and have asked questions about it more recently. Women in Guatemala are subject to horrific levels of domestic and street violence, rape and murder, and more needs to be done by countries such as ours to promote human rights, particularly for indigenous women, and to help them get access to the Guatemalan system of justice. The position of women there is bleak and dire.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is interesting to hear what he says about Guatemala, which I confess is a country I do not know a huge amount about. It is unfortunate that often in countries where human rights abuses are rife, women suffer the brunt of them. It is certainly important that our Government should do all they can to encourage the promotion of human rights in Guatemala and other countries.
I want to go into more detail about climate change and deforestation. It is staggering to think that nearly 50 per cent. of Latin America—45.9 per cent, to be exact—is forest. That is a higher proportion than occurs in any other region of the world, and, as I mentioned, 20 to 25 per cent. of global carbon emissions come from deforestation there. One might think that avoiding deforestation should be a quick win. It would not require a massive change in technology. However, it is proving very difficult.
I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, which is conducting an inquiry on deforestation. We recently visited the Congo basin in Cameroon, which is of course on a different continent from the one we are discussing, but gives rise to similar issues. It is difficult for the world community to get the right balance between managing to avoid deforestation while maintaining the rights of local indigenous people who live in the forest. We are not yet anywhere near a robust payment system for the avoidance of deforestation. Brazil announced plans a couple of months ago to reduce deforestation by 70 per cent. in the next 10 years, but that target is not necessarily as high as is needed. Greenpeace Brazil has been critical of it in relation to the level of change that is needed. Indeed, although deforestation had been decreasing in the four previous years, last year it was on the rise again.
Biofuels present another environmental issue. There can be advantages to them in reducing deforestation—Brazil produces a huge amount of sugar cane ethanol, which can be a quite good, sustainable biofuel—but when land, and particularly forests, are cleared to grow biofuel crops any environmental benefit is lost. That is why the Environmental Audit Committee, in a report on the issue, called for the Government to halt the rush towards increasing biofuel targets in Europe. The sustainability guarantees were not in place.
The hon. Lady may know that one of the problems is that the growth in maize-based ethanol has forced up the price of maize, and thus tortillas, which are the only sustainable form of food for many poor people, particularly in central America. Essentially, those people are starving to feed American gas guzzlers.
Indeed; the hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The UN special rapporteur on the right to food called the growth in biofuels “a crime against humanity”, which is pretty strong and stark language but certainly highlights the scale of the problem. There are many unintended consequences from the production of biofuels, although it may be pursued with good intentions. We need sustainability guarantees, and fortunately there have been recent moves by the Government to establish those.
The cocaine trade in the UK is estimated to be worth about £6.6 billion. Much of that comes from Latin America and in particular Colombia. There are British Government efforts to reduce drug trafficking, of course. I had the advantage last summer, while I was in Cuba, of meeting some Navy officials from our ship Wave Ruler, which is one of the British vessels that patrol in the Latin America region. As well as providing assistance when hurricanes strike, it has a counter-narcotics remit. Those officials were engaged in an interesting conference with Jamaican colleagues about successful strategies.
I note that some good work is happening, but I hope that the Government will recognise that we must fight a continuing battle. While we tackle demand on the streets in the UK we must also tackle the supply side from Latin America. I am sure many hon. Members will have seen the information campaign “Frank” on the television, and it is certainly welcome. However, as well as highlighting the social and health problems of cocaine use, it is important to get across the message about the darker side of funding the trade, such as terrorism, kidnapping and violence.
Hon. Members made some interesting contributions about economic development in Latin America—particularly about improved quality of life in Venezuela, such as better water supply, and a narrowing of the equality gap. However, there is still huge inequality in Latin America. In Brazil the richest 10 per cent. earn 44.8 per cent. of the income, and the poorest 10 per cent. earn just 0.9 per cent. There is a huge equality gap. Many Latin American countries are seen as being in the middle income tier, but that masks the huge poverty that exists there. There is thus still a role for the Department for International Development, and the Minister has a background in that Department to bring to her consideration of the issue.
Finally, on the issue of human rights, the hon. Members for Islington, North and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made an important point: we may or may not agree with the ideological standpoint of Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales; none the less, their very election, as members of the indigenous population of their countries, is a great step forward. There are still many human rights challenges in Latin America, and in the context of the support that we give to the Colombian military, in particular, I should like the Government to do more. A recent report by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs found that there was widespread and systematic killing of civilians. If we are supporting the training of the Colombian military—if that is what is going on—it needs to be rethought, because there seems not to be an appropriate guarantee that those human rights are being protected. That is one area where we clearly have a little leverage when calling for an improvement in human rights there.
I visited Cuba last year. Given the change of Administration in the United States, I hope that there is cause for optimism in Cuba. I was there before Obama had been elected, but I found a huge amount of optimism in the country. The Cuban people want good relations with the rest of the world. I believe that the internet could be a great leveller in Cuba, because although the country has tried to segregate Cuban and non-Cuban—whether through finance, with a different currency, or through where people are allowed to go—ultimately they cannot keep the Cuban population away from the outside world. The Cubans will eventually find out what they have been missing. It has been predicted for a long time that change will come.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. He has long championed the cause of Parliament taking a greater interest than we tend to do in the affairs of this region. I share his regret that we rarely have the opportunity to debate a part of the world whose economy, and whose importance in environmental matters and in efforts to alleviate the impact of climate change, will be of increasing importance as the century progresses.
I enjoyed the other speeches made this morning, particularly that of the hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon). Indeed, I was waiting for the cry, “La luta continua”, at the end of his speech. I was left with the clear impression that, metaphorically at least, he has a copy of the Athena poster of Che Guevara still blu-tacked to his bedroom wall, and that even now he is probably searching to identify who within the current Labour party leadership is the new Chavez, Ortega or perhaps Eva Peron, and thus able to take over the leadership of his party and take it in a direction that would be more to his taste.
I do not have time to dwell on more than a few of the important matters that define relations between the United Kingdom and the various countries of Latin America, but may I begin by expressing agreement with the hon. Member for Islington, North and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) about the reduction in British representation in that part of the world? I have long argued that Britain should give a higher priority to our relations with the countries of the middle east, but the overall economy of Latin America compared with that of middle eastern countries shows that Latin America is the emerging giant of the 21st century. However, we have no posts in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay or Surinam; in other countries—for example, in Uruguay—there is still British representation, but it has been cut to a minimal level. That does not go unnoticed by the Governments or the industrial and commercial leaders of those countries. As a result, we are missing out on opportunities for trade and for increased co-operation in action against narcotics, climate change and conservation measures, which were alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin.
We also have wonderful historic ties with that part of the world. When one dips into the history of Latin America, one can find the graves of British soldiers on every battlefield of the wars of liberation. To this day, there are strong ties of affection and friendship between our country and every part of Latin America. For example, although our political relationship with Venezuela has been difficult in recent years, I was delighted to read that Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar youth orchestra of Venezuela will be taking up a temporary residency on the south bank later this year. That will be a truly exciting cultural event for London and the United Kingdom. I hope that, in a small way, that will help improve mutual understanding and achieve better relations between the two countries. In the context of bilateral relations, on behalf of my party I welcome the forthcoming state visit by the President of Mexico. I hope that that visit and the attendance of the leaders of Argentina and Brazil at the forthcoming G20 summit in London will provide an opportunity to strengthen those relationships.
I turn to the prospects for improved trade between the European Union and the countries of Latin America. Three sets of negotiations are in progress at the moment. One is between the EU and Mercosur, another is with the countries of central America, and the third is with the Andean community. The Mercosur negotiations have been on ice since 2004. There are signs that Argentina is moving towards a compromise over some of the outstanding Doha-round issues. Does the Minister believe that there is a prospect of putting new life into the EU-Mercosur negotiations? Will she say whether the Falkland Islands’ economic ties to the continent of south America are likely to be a continuing problem in the negotiations?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as he has so little time. Does he not agree that the EU-south American ministerial meeting in May this year in Prague will be an ideal opportunity to make progress on that front? Will he press the Minister to say what progress can be made, particularly in the Doha round, which will benefit disproportionately some of the poorer countries of south America?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point, and I hope that if the Minister does not have time to reply in detail she will write to Members.
I turn to the negotiations with central America and the Andean countries. Lady Ashton, the trade commissioner in Brussels, has said that she hopes for a successful conclusion to both sets of talks this year. Do the Government consider that to be an attainable timetable? In the context of the two sets of negotiations, how are the Government addressing the concerns expressed by some of the African, Caribbean and Pacific counties, particularly Guyana, about the impact of a wider free trade agreement between Europe and the Latin American nations on the protected access enjoyed by the countries of the Caribbean, particularly for their bananas, sugar and rum? Exports from those small, vulnerable Caribbean economies are of enormous importance to the Commonwealth nations, and the Minister needs to make it clear where the Government stand.
Narcotics are still a huge problem. There is no doubt that smugglers and traffickers are extremely well organised and are willing to use ruthless violence to defend their interests, and their tentacles spread across the Atlantic. Indeed, reports in today’s press suggest that yesterday’s assassination of the President of Guinea-Bissau may be linked to the narcotics trade between south America and west Africa. We know that the Government are putting a lot of work into assisting the Colombian authorities to combat drug trafficking.
Will the Minister say whether the Government and the Serious Organised Crime Agency are making efforts to reach out to the Government of Venezuela; and, if so, what response they have had from the Venezuelan authorities? A report in The Daily Telegraph in June last year cited senior British drug officials as saying that more than half of all cocaine reaching the United Kingdom came via Venezuela, which was often used as a transit point before the drugs went on to west Africa and then Europe. Is that the Government’s assessment of how that trade is carried on, and if so, what representations are they making to President Chavez about action that surely is in the interests of both our countries?
Finally, I urge the Government to continue to take the issue of human rights seriously; to urge serious reform upon Cuba; to stick to their guns when standing up to electoral malpractice, as in Nicaragua; to congratulate and work with countries that challenge the culture of impunity, as Argentina has begun to do in recent years, and to speak robustly to friendly countries, such as Colombia, which has been struggling to exist as a democratic nation against an utterly ruthless, well-organised and drug-financed terrorist group. Having said that, however, it is undoubtedly true that real issues remain around the persecution of trades unionists and human rights defenders in that country. Sometimes, the promises and good will expressed by the Colombian Government are not translated into practical effect in improved human rights at grass-roots level. I hope that the Minister will continue to give those issues a high priority in the formulation of Government policy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing today’s debate, which provides hon. Members with a welcome opportunity to discuss the UK’s relationship with Latin American countries and the importance of the region as a whole. In the short time available to me, I shall concentrate on some of the main headlines, but I am more than happy to write to, or meet, hon. Members to discuss the matters raised.
A strong Latin America is in everyone’s interests—both the millions who live there and the people of Britain. The Government regard our relationship with the region as important, not least because of its contribution, which we want to see as a positive one, to the many global challenges that we share, and which we have heard about today, such as sustainable development, climate change, international crime, including the supply of drugs, respect for human rights and poverty and inequality. We are working closely with the region as we tackle those shared challenges. The visit by the Inter-Parliamentary Union to Bolivia unearthed some of the excellent work being done. For example, 35 royal, ministerial, senior official and parliamentary visits have been made to and from the region since the start of 2008. That is evidence of the interest that we take in the region.
My hon. Friend raised some questions about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s strategy paper, “Latin America 2020”, which sought to demonstrate why Latin America matters to the UK and the world. The issues that it discussed remain relevant. However, since the strategy was issued, we have developed a whole new approach, which provides greater clarity on our global role and how we follow through our strategic priorities. Many of those priorities are relevant to Latin America: for example, the prevention and resolution of conflict; the promotion of a low-carbon, high-growth global economy; the development of effective international institutions; and building respect for good governance and human rights, for which hon. Members rightly asked. Our essential goals apply across the Latin American region and help to support the British economy, British nationals abroad and managed migration for Britain.
Of the 20 generally recognised Latin American countries, the UK runs a balance-of-trade deficit with 11. Does the Minister agree that the scope for greater trade with south America is huge? What extra efforts can the Government make in that respect?
I would certainly agree. My visit to Brazil showed me those great opportunities to which hon. Members have referred. All our posts in the region have very clear business plans. Cross-Whitehall mechanisms exist, especially for our Brazil and Mexico strategies, but we can do more, and UK Trade & Investment plays a big role in that.
We are very engaged with Bolivia, and I am pleased that the delegation got so much out of its visit. I look forward to meeting its members to discuss in more detail their views and perhaps how we can move forward. We are fully supportive of the democratically elected Bolivian Government, but as hon. Members saw, fundamental political differences remain between factions in Bolivia, which poses many challenges. It is important for the country’s future that their Government and Opposition continue to be in dialogue, and I am glad that the referendum was carried out well and peacefully. I thank hon. Friends for their generous comments about the role played by our ambassador in the process of national dialogue; he remains available if asked to act as an international facilitator. My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) raised the issue of Venezuela; as he knows, we value our relations with that country.
Before we leave the subject of Bolivia, will the Minister pass on to Home Office Ministers the concern that we heard in all quarters in Bolivia about the introduction of a visa regime for that country? There is a feeling that not enough consultation has been carried out, and there is great unhappiness.
I am happy to draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of the Home Office, but there was considerable discussion of the visa waiver test. On Venezuela, many discussions were held on how we can ensure that countries fulfil their obligations and that we are satisfied that the right level of visa security is applied. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet could apprise her of all that.
I want to emphasise, as I have done before, how much we welcome President Chavez’s emphasis on policies to help the poorest and most vulnerable people. We engage with the Administration on the many social justice initiatives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet will be aware. We have also tackled drug trafficking and corruption; have promoted and protected British business; and we look after Britons in need of consular access. We work very closely, and will continue to do so, with the Venezuelan authorities. He also asked about information and misinformation. I shall continue to draw information from a broad range of sources, including non-governmental organisations and hon. Members.
I would like to address a few key points about Foreign Office post closures. Posts in the region have indeed been closed—Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Paraguay—but there have been no closures since 2005. Those closures followed the publication of the December 2003 White Paper, when the FCO needed to undertake a review of our overseas network, as I am sure that hon. Members realise, to ensure that we used our resources to best effect. I was interested in Opposition Members’ comments on post closures, and I am sure that they will want to clarify whether they will pursue that spending commitment, should they ever be in a position to do so.
We have appointed British consuls in each of countries where posts were closed to ensure continued consular cover. I do not feel that we suffer compared with EU missions; we have only a slightly smaller number than comparable countries. Perhaps I can clarify for the benefit of the hon. Member for Panama City—the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown)—that we still have an embassy there. We continue to use new and flexible ways of providing the necessary services to develop regional networks, and at the core of that work is our aim to ensure that our relationships with the region remain close and productive. Tackling poverty and inequality is crucial to the work of the Department for International Development. Our DFID Latin American spend has increased, and the new approach has been widely welcomed by the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Oxfam and other NGOs.
This has been a useful debate. I have been unable to refer to many issues, but I am glad to reassure all hon. Members that we regard our relationship with Latin America as crucial and developing, and I look forward to working with them in pursuing our objectives.
Primary School Places (London)
Before we begin the next debate on primary school places in London, let me say that, because this is specifically a local debate, the wind-ups will begin at 12.15 rather than at 12 o’clock to allow as many hon. Members as possible to participate.
I am extremely grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting this debate, which is the first in this House to draw attention to the massive worry of parents across the capital: where, or even whether, their four-year-olds will get a school place in their first term of primary education. It is no exaggeration to say that primary education in London faces a crisis—if it is not already in one—with a huge increase in the number of young children needing primary school places that simply do not yet exist.
London Councils has given me new figures for this debate. It surveyed all London boroughs on this subject during October and November last year. Its figures show that over the next six years, if we do not act now, we could see nearly 12,000 five-year-olds without a primary school place and more than 15,000 children being educated in temporary classrooms. Given that it is illegal for a local authority not to provide a school place for a child, that is extremely serious. Yet I am told that already at least one London borough has a significant number of five-year-olds who have been without a reception class place since September 2008. If that is true, it is a scandal. However, the figures from London Councils show that that could be the tip of the iceberg. Worse still, I have evidence that since London Councils did its own data research at the end of last year, the true situation may be even worse. Boroughs such as Kingston, Hounslow and Merton have told me that their current predictions have increased substantially even since last autumn. The numbers seem truly massive.
If we are to avoid 12,000 or more five-year-olds not having a primary school place, we have to adopt one of the following options: build new, permanent classrooms as soon as possible; expand some schools and build new ones; or rely on temporary classrooms into the foreseeable future. Another option would be to allow infant class sizes to rise above 30, in breach of the current law, thereby breaking a key Labour election pledge from 1997. Clearly, only the first option of permanent solutions is acceptable. Our children deserve no less, and their parents, rightly, will demand no less.
In the debate, I will seek to show that there is a massive shortage of primary school places across London, beginning with the problems that my own constituents face. Then I will suggest why such a situation has arisen and why the Minister’s answer today is likely to be out of date and completely inaccurate. Finally, I will set out a range of things that I should like the Minister to do after this debate, including, above all, pledging to support financially any London borough that can show that it has a genuine problem.
I first learned of the problem from parents in my own constituency in the royal borough of Kingston. I will dwell on their experience for a while because I believe that it is instructive for the rest of London. I remember an advice surgery last year when I was faced with a large delegation of parents wanting my help to press the council. I was particularly surprised because the parents were worried about primary school places, which had never happened before during my time as an MP. Previously, any problems with school places had always concerned secondary schooling. I agreed to take up their fight. I met council officers and councillors. I wrote letters, asked lots of parliamentary questions, met larger groups of parents and lobbied the council again. Eventually, thanks to some fantastic efforts by schools, governors, council officers and councillors, seven temporary classrooms were provided with seven “bulge” classes. Almost all parents received an offer of a school place at one of their three preferred schools. Although there was a satisfactory outcome, it was not without delay, great anxiety and worry for all the parents concerned.
During that period, the council carefully examined the whole process. It considered how the forecasts of reception class demand were made. In Kingston’s case, as with most other London boroughs, it used figures provided by the Greater London authority. Then it reviewed the timetable for the application process for parents, and other issues such as whether this was a blip or a trend in demand, and what the implications for secondary school places might be in due course. Changes that parents had suggested were made in Kingston. For example, the timetable for applications was brought forward.
I turn now to the position in November 2008. From September, Kingston predicted that there would be 150 more five-year-olds than it had permanent places for, so it proposed five new temporary classrooms—five extra bulge classes—to accommodate them. Parents were being engaged earlier in the process; however, that was producing concerns from them much earlier, too. Some parents felt that the five extra bulge classes were not at the right schools. Others felt that an extra five classes would not be enough—a view that I tended to share and which turned out to be the case.
Last Friday, Kingston council announced five additional bulge classes—a further five temporary classrooms—bringing the total up to 10 for the 300 additional five-year-olds it is now thought that we need to educate from September 2009. I am glad to say that such classes are largely at the schools that concerned parents had wanted, and that I had pressed the council for. I am told that a very high percentage of parents will get offers of places at one of their three preferred schools. None the less, a lot of work still needs to be done and many parents remain worried, with plenty of questions. Unlike last year, when quick decisions had to be made in April, May and June, the key decisions this year appear to have been reached by the end of February.
It is clear that we cannot go on like this. Kingston council has assured me that it will look for permanent solutions this year, taking into account its new, much higher predictions of demand. That requires its having a statutory consultation on increasing the number of permanent places at existing schools and running competitions for the two new primary schools it predicts Kingston will need. There will be a total of 13 new forms of entry by 2012—a massive 25 per cent. rise in capacity.
Kingston wants to run the statutory consultation this year, so that it can start to build new permanent classrooms as soon as possible to avoid temporary classrooms for many more years. I should like it to run the consultation this year, because there are real options on sites in central Surbiton, in which demand for extra places is more acute, and because the taxpayer can benefit from the lower prices for land and material produced by the recession.
However, I have discovered a problem that will affect every London borough grappling with the issue, and I need the Minister to address it today. If she cannot do so in her speech, I hope that she will follow it up in writing soon. It relates to her Department’s guidance on the School Organisation Unit website on how a local authority should carry out such a statutory consultation for increasing permanent school places. Paragraph 70 of guidance says:
“Proposals should not be approved conditionally upon funding being made available.”
My reading of that paragraph and others in the guidance is that the council will need certainty regarding the funding of new buildings before it can even start any statutory consultation. Will the Minister confirm that position, because although councils such as Kingston can undertake informal consultations on school expansion plans, they cannot start statutory consultations unless and until they have satisfied themselves that the funding for those extra permanent places is secured.
I have encountered the story that my hon. Friend describes in Brent. We need an extra six forms of entry to deal with the increased capacity. We currently have 44 children without a primary school place. As for funding, is it not also true that the primary capital programme is not targeted at increasing capacity, but at improving school buildings? Therefore, it will never deal with the problem that he describes.
My hon. Friend is right, and I am disturbed to hear about what is clearly a challenging situation for the local authority in Brent. It will need some support from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. She is also right that many local authorities are having to use modernisation funds. They are supposed to be used for developing and improving information and communication technology in existing schools, but they are being used to provide new places. That is not what the Government intended and not what the money was for, but local authorities are given no choice because they do not have the cash.
We need clarity from the Government on statutory consultation. Funding needs to be in place before the statutory consultation can take place, but given the size and urgency of London’s problems, Ministers need to act very quickly—action within the next two months might just be fast enough. If councils are to stand any chance of getting new permanent classes and schools ready for September 2010 or September 2011, they need ministerial decisions on financial support rapidly. Without those, councils can at best consult only on small-scale, partial and inadequate plans that they might just be able to afford from their own finances. Will the Minister address that problem in relation to all London boroughs?
My information for this debate essentially comes from London Councils and other published data on birth rates. It suggests that many London boroughs are in the same pickle. London Councils tells me that 25 out of the 33 boroughs are facing capacity and capital funding problems at primary level—17 outer-London boroughs and 8 inner boroughs have reported problems. Already, at least 12 London boroughs are using large numbers of temporary classrooms. Enfield and Merton have predicted that more than 3,000 reception-aged children will be taught in temporary classrooms between now and 2014. Kingston estimates that it needs 13 new permanent forms of entry by 2014, but the range of new permanent classes required, according to London Councils data, is from seven to 19 new forms of entry.
Of course, the costs will be huge. Let us look at the capital costs alone. Barking and Dagenham says that its shortfall in capital investment between now and 2014 is more than £86 million. London Councils estimates the figure for all London boroughs at £740 million. We should remember that I have some evidence that London Councils’s figures are out of date already, and that they underestimate the actual funding shortfall. In essence, we should be in no doubt that we are talking about a lot of children, and a requirement for a massive increase in capacity at a high capital cost.
I am sure that the Minister’s brief will say the following: first, that surplus places in some boroughs can easily take care of the problem; secondly, that data supplied to the Government show that the problem is not nearly as serious as I am suggesting; and thirdly, that the issue cannot be a surprise to councils because the number of four-year-olds now was known about when they were born. She might ask why there is a fuss all of a sudden. Not least because I want to be helpful to the Minister, and because I want to bring out the underlying causes of London’s massive problem, I will deal with those entirely predictable Government defences in turn.
London has relatively fewer surplus places. In outer London, the average of surplus places in January 2007 was only 8.8 per cent. of the primary capacity and it is certain to be lower by now. The Minister will be well aware of the work by the Audit Commission and others suggesting that surplus capacity of 10 per cent. or less is about right, enabling some choice and flexibility in the system while achieving value for money. For Kingston, the January 2007 figure on surplus places—certainly an overestimate—was 6.1 per cent, whereas in Sutton, it was as low as 4.3 per cent. and it is probably lower still now. In other words, surplus places in many London boroughs cannot solve the problem, especially because those surplus places data refer to all year groups in a school. They are therefore useless when it comes to tackling the problems affecting one year group. Please, Minister, let us not say that surplus places are the way out of the problem.
I have looked at the Government data that the Minister might use to dismiss my argument, and I have talked to civil servants. I must tell her that the data are largely out of date. Essentially, the Department is using figures for 2007 supplemented by some for 2008, but there have been major and sudden changes. Also, my analysis is that there are clearly various misunderstandings between councils and the Department about which figures are required for the predictions. Rather than denying that there is a problem, it is time that everyone involved recognised the problems with the data and did something about them. Will the Minister ask her officials urgently to set up a new formal process for collecting, from all London boroughs, up-to-date data on all aspects of the matter and for cleaning that data? Will she guarantee that, in the next two months, she will require her Department to work urgently with London Councils and individual boroughs to refresh all the data?
On the final argument that the Minister is likely to use, I recognise that it is hardly intuitive that the problem of four-year-olds should be such a surprise, but having considered the matter, I am beginning to understand why it was so unexpected. The facts are as follows. For some considerable time, by and large, councils have been pretty good at predicting primary school place demand. Kingston’s predictions, made using the GLA model and data, had been accurate for nearly a decade. However, in 2008 and this year, the long-standing model broke down. I think it broke down because of a powerful combination of several effects that cumulatively led to a radical change.
First, there has been a huge rise in birth rates. Since 2001-02, London’s birth rate has been much faster than England’s, at 20.5 per cent. compared with only 16.8 per cent. Some boroughs have seen far higher rises, with Barking and Dagenham at 40 per cent., Greenwich 36 per cent., Hounslow 29 per cent. and Sutton 28 per cent. Although the birth rates have been known, the sheer size of them has, I believe, helped to distort previously reliable forecasting models.
We should also consider the effect of the private education sector, which is important. The sector is significantly more important in London’s primary education sector than elsewhere in England. The Audit Commission and others have argued that parents are deserting the private sector for the state sector because of the recession. That may be true in some cases, but I do not think that it explains the present problem, not least because most private schools are full. My theory is that while the number of London’s infants has been rocketing, the number of places in London’s independent schools sector has not grown as rapidly, thus the state sector is being asked to provide places for a higher proportion of a larger cohort of children.
In Kingston, up until 2006, 79 of every 100 five-year-olds would end up requiring a state primary school place. Two years later, that figure reached 89 out of every 100 five-year-olds. That rise in the so-called retention rate was not predicted and perhaps it could not have been predicted. However, if Kingston’s experience were repeated across London, it could explain to a large extent the unexpected nature of the problem. Will the Minister ask her officials to write to every independent primary school or prep school in and around Greater London to seek data on their numbers and how they have changed? In my view, we will need to take much greater notice of the independent sector’s dynamics if we are to improve forecasts.
We could theorise about other changes which, if true, would have been difficult to predict, such as the impact of the housing and jobs markets on internal migration in England. Demographic data from the GLA last month suggest that there was a record low outflow of people from London to the rest of the UK last year, but a record high inflow from the rest of the UK to London. The report concludes:
“The general decline in the numbers of people moving between regions and particularly those leaving London is an indication of the impact of the present financial downturn. While people coming to London tend to be young singles who rent, those who leave tend to be families who are owner occupiers.”
In other words, that theory suggests that the unexpected increase in demand for primary school places in London is due to a change in migration patterns, with more children born in London needing a primary school place in London.
The Minister may say that any effect of the recession might not be sustained when the upturn comes and that the demand for primary school places might therefore go away, but I do not think so. There are plenty of other competing, complementary and equally plausible theories beyond the recession that explain the changes in family moves within and from London. The first theory is a positive one that she should welcome: as London’s education has improved, more parents think that they will stay in London for the primary education phase rather than move for the sake of the state primaries in cities and towns elsewhere in England. Then there is the theory that factors such as housing stock, crime levels and general environment have improved to influence patterns of movement and keep families in London. Those are only theories, and I could suggest others, but I think that the point is made: many factors are likely to be behind the dramatic figures; some are predictable, but many will be with us for the foreseeable future.
I hope that I have persuaded the Minister that she needs to consider the problem seriously, whatever her brief says. I especially hope that she will consider Kingston’s case, of course, although I acknowledge that quite a few boroughs have more severe problems than the royal borough. I am surprised not to see any Labour London Members present, not least because I contacted them specifically to invite and urge them to participate in this debate, as some of their boroughs are more seriously affected than Kingston. It is a shame that they are not here.
What about the solutions? To start with the capital side and money for investment, undoubtedly my favoured solution is urgent extra capital grant. Where Ministers become convinced of the need, quick solutions are necessary and capital grant is the quickest way to deliver. Coupled with a commitment to extra capital in the next spending review round, it would really help. The Department will no doubt say that there is no money, but if Ministers want a quick, pump-priming boost in demand to tackle the recession—one that will not suck in imports, will use unemployed resources, will provide good value for money for taxpayers and will leave a legacy worth having—a primary school building programme is the answer.
As it is the one preferred by the Department, the Minister’s preferred funding route will undoubtedly not be the capital grant but the basic need route, which involves supported borrowing, in which the Government support the revenue cost of the borrowing needed to fund the capital investment. The problem with that route is that that theoretical support is already out there—it is often provided—but it is rolled up with a council’s revenue grant. The majority of London authorities are unable to use that support because their increases in revenue grant are so low that they are called floor authorities and they cannot access it. Places such as Kingston are receiving real-terms cuts in their revenue grant, so any theoretical allocations for supported borrowing are eaten up in the cost of providing basic, legally required services. Supported borrowing is just not helping.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one difficulty, which I hope the Minister will discuss, is that some 24 of the 33 London boroughs are floor authorities, as he puts it? Passporting so much education expenditure in that way creates a problem throughout London for local authorities of all political colours.
I am happy to confirm that. The matter goes across parties. Despite my comments about Labour colleagues being absent, I want to make the campaign a cross-party one. The people about whom we should be concerned are the children and parents involved. Whatever party runs any particular borough, we need the cash—we need the investment. I hope that all parties will get behind the campaign.
What can local authorities do? Most, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), are looking at an option—one that will be unnecessary if Ministers step in—of diverting cash meant for school modernisation projects into school expansion projects. That will still fall far short of the cash needed in areas such as Kingston and is anyway deeply undesirable, but boroughs might have no choice. I would therefore like the Minister to consider basic need safety valve funding—a wonderful title for a scheme that is supposed to help councils where unexpected changes occur during the three years of the spending review. The problem is that the Department allocates all the safety net money for the whole three years of the spending review period at the beginning of the period, which rather undermines the scheme’s raison d’être. Could that be changed?
Finally, there is the revenue side of the matter. Longer-term revenue needs will sort themselves out, because eventually the cash will follow the child and there will be no problem. In the short term, however, two annoying aspects of the current finance regime prevent councils from getting the support that they need when they need it. The first is the inadequacy of the revenue safety net known as the exceptional circumstances grant, which is designed
“to help those authorities who experience significant pressures on their Schools Budgets from increases in overall pupil numbers”.
The problem is that it is difficult for councils to obtain that funding, because the criteria apply across the whole school population and not just to the reception class population. Even next September’s predicted increase of 300 extra children in Kingston is far short of the 500 that we would need to qualify for the grant. I ask the Minister to consider that problem.
The second is the crazy rule whereby additional pupils starting reception classes in September 2009 do not count for funding purposes until April 2010. That means that for seven months, the local education system receives not a penny towards the costs. Kingston’s 10 additional classes for 2009-10 will cost more than £480,000. Because we will receive no help from Government during those seven months, that money will have to be top-sliced off the budgets of all other schools, meaning that other children will lose out.
It should not be like this. When banks get bail-outs while schools get temporary classrooms and no revenue support, parents understandably get angry. Families in Kingston and across London are not asking for the earth. They want a place in a quality local primary school. They do not want to return to the large class sizes that we witnessed under the Conservative Government, when class sizes in Kingston were some of the largest in the country; nor do they want demountable temporary classrooms to become part of the longer-term fabric of our schools. We will be spared those fates only if Ministers are prepared to think afresh, ask their civil servants to reconsider the numbers, acknowledge the problem and find the funding.
I shall make a note of that for future reference, Mr. Amess.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing this important and timely debate. Today is a significant day in the lives of many parents and children who are waiting for the letter to drop through their letterbox or the e-mail to hit their inbox, telling them whether their child has got the school of their preference. Many of us can appreciate the anxiety that parents feel at any stage in their children’s journey through education when they find that their child does not have a school place. It causes huge stress, anxiety and disruption to the whole family. I draw on personal experience, as I am waiting for one such letter to arrive today. I hope not to be cast into the limbo described by my hon. Friend and faced by many of our constituents with children of primary school age. Nevertheless, we know that those problems are at large in our high school system.
I have three key points to make. They are all unapologetically Sutton points, but they speak to the wider points made by my hon. Friend. The first is that Sutton experienced London’s third largest increase in births between 2005-06 and 2006-07. At just 2 per cent., Sutton has one of the lowest levels of surplus capacity in its primary schools, with surplus places in the upper years of schools rather than the lower years, and with no surplus places in reception classes. The past projections of birth rate figures supplied by the Greater London authority were critical to its application to the Department for its basic need capital funding. Because it used and relied on those figures, as required by the Department, the Department gave the London borough of Sutton an extremely low allocation that will be insufficient to enable the local authority to respond to the much changed circumstances of which we are now aware.
My hon. Friend was right to describe the situation as a crisis. The prospect of one’s child having no school place causes anxiety and stress, and the resulting loss of education and all that comes with it has a huge impact on the child. Past GLA projections showed that Sutton would have had sufficient primary school places for the next 15 years. However, the data that were available in March 2008, on which Sutton based its primary capital bid to the Department, showed only a modest increase in the birth rate that would have led to a short-term, one-year peak in 2011-12, during which there would have been 70 children without places in reception classes. I think it is unacceptable for even one child to be placed in that unwelcome and unacceptable situation, so 70 is far too many; none the less, that was the basis of the bid. Since then, however, things have changed beyond all recognition.
The key to understanding what is happening is how the transfer rate, or retention rate as my hon. Friend described it—the ratio of the number of children going into reception classes in Sutton schools to the number of births in the borough five years previously—has changed. The changes in the number of children who go to school outside Sutton and the number of children from outside Sutton who are coming into Sutton’s schools have had an impact on that rate. My hon. Friend has mentioned that families are moving far less now and are making different choices about private education—there is clear evidence of that in my constituency. That change, too, has an impact on the transfer, or retention, rate.
Last September, for the first time in many years, every reception place in my borough was filled, so things have clearly changed. That change has been driven by the transfer rate rising from an average of 86.3 per cent., over the past five years, to 90 per cent. now. It has also been driven by the 8.6 per cent. increase in the birth rate between 2005-06 and 2006-07. With birth rates on the increase in Kingston, Merton and Croydon, and to some extent in Surrey, there are fewer opportunities for children to go to schools outside the borough of Sutton than there once might have been. As my hon. Friend has said, the pressures arising from the credit crunch mean that fewer families are moving home and that many are reconsidering whether independent education is an option.
The bottom line is that many hundreds of children will be in limbo in the next few years, without the offer of a primary school place. Whether the transfer rate remains at 90 per cent. or falls back to 85 per cent., according to the figures that my local education authority officers have worked out, there will be a shortfall of between 147 and 271 places by 2011-12, rising to between 209 and 337 in 2012-13. The deficit in places is huge and growing and a variety of approaches will be needed to close the gap. I hope that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s questions on how those options will be paid for.
Using spare capacity is part of the solution. Analysis so far has identified just two schools in the borough with available rooms that are not used directly for educational purposes, which could be released for classrooms. That would cost £1 million. Another option is to add accommodation to schools. It might be possible to add as much as one form of entry at about seven primary schools, which would cost £9.4 million. Taken together, those options of using spare capacity and adding accommodation would still provide only 209 places. If the worst were to happen, although the figures do not suggest that it will, and there were higher demand—for 337 additional places—more schools would have to be expanded and a new, two-form entry school would have to be built.
The cost of dealing with the problem therefore ranges between £10.4 million and £22.2 million. Some of that money is needed now, not in a few years’ time, so the formal bid processes cannot be followed. If they are followed, the necessary school places will not be available for children when they need them in 18 months’ time. That is why we need the Minister to give us answers today, or at least as soon as possible, about how the Department will respond to the extraordinary need that is emerging, so that resources can be released as a matter of urgency and so that planning and work can be done with as little disruption as possible to the education of the children already in those schools. That is why my local authority needs to know now whether it will be able to secure £4.8 million to upgrade two schools and to provide two one-form entry expansions in existing schools.
I hope that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s many significant and detailed questions, and I request that she meet me, my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and the officers from Sutton borough who have been dealing with these problems and grappling with what needs to be done to provide a decent education for children in my borough. I hope that she will meet us to discuss in detail what can be done and when, because we can be certain that if something is not done, we will have hundreds of children not going to school in the London borough of Sutton—in Worcester Park, Cheam and Belmont. Instead, they will be standing outside the school gates, looking in, unable to join their friends or to get the education that they deserve. I have outlined the need and made my plea. I hope that the Minister will meet that need.
I have a few brief points to make about the situation in Brent. First, however, let me congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing the debate, which is very timely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) has said. This issue has been bothering many MPs and councillors, as well as the many parents who face huge difficulties as they look for school places for their children for September.
The situation in Brent is challenging. Between 2006 and 2007, its schools faced a 9 per cent. increase in the number of applications for reception class places. Reception class numbers fluctuated between 3,000 pupils in 2006 and 3,265 in 2007, and the council had immense difficulty in meeting that need. It applied to the Government for emergency funding, which was refused, and it did its best to meet the need by installing temporary buildings and making use of bulge classes in a similar way to the council described by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton. However, those solutions are not permanent, and can be used only for a couple of years. In addition, large numbers of children have still been left without a permanent school place. Some Government funding was provided for temporary buildings for two forms of entry at the relatively new ARK academy, and one new form of entry was provided by rebuilding Wembley primary school, but that was done locally, using money from the council, and not through any extra Government funding.
Even with those additions, the council needs three more forms of entry on a permanent basis. It hopes to use some of the early years element of the primary capital programme to provide extra capacity by expanding one primary school. However, as I mentioned in my intervention, the problem with that funding scheme is that it is strongly focused on underperforming schools, on improving performance and on providing buildings for underperforming schools, rather than on dealing with capacity problems. Many old primary schools in Brent are in urgent and desperate need of modernisation. We have had cases of roofs falling in, and of the council not having extra funding immediately available to tackle that problem, so there is an urgent need to modernise some buildings. In addition, we are facing a dramatic increase in the number of children applying to primary schools in Brent. As with Building Schools for the Future for secondary schools, that funding scheme is not focused on tackling capacity needs.
As I have mentioned, 44 children in Brent are without a school place. Not all of them have been waiting since the start of term, as we have a highly transient population and people move in and out of the borough during the school year, but there are often long waits for children to get a place when they move into the borough. Currently, 16 children are without a reception class place, and the situation does not improve for secondary schools, as 74 children are waiting for a secondary school place. Brent urgently needs extra capital investment in schools, and it simply cannot wait.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton said parents did not want huts and temporary classrooms, but even temporary classrooms would be a step forward for Brent in the immediate future, with a promise of long-term funding so that they can rebuild the primary schools that are needed. I implore the Minister to look at the situation in Brent and other London boroughs. We cannot have a situation in which so many children lack school places as the level of deprivation in Brent makes the environment challenging enough, so I hope that the Minister will make that a priority.
I apologise for being a little late in arriving for the debate, Mr. Amess. No disrespect was intended to you in the Chair or to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who has, as other Members have said, rightly introduced an important debate that goes to the heart of thinking throughout the capital. It is an acute problem, as is well known, in his royal borough. The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea has almost exactly the same problem, but it applies across much of London.
The hyper-mobility and diversity of the capital’s population has become ever more prominent, although perhaps that has always been the case. The Minister represents part of the busy city of Portsmouth, and her Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove), represents Swindon—both towns in which I suspect there has been much demographic change in the relatively limited time in which they have been Members of Parliament. The demographic change I have seen in central London and across the capital has gathered enormous pace over the past decade, and that is one of the key facts in the debate, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton rightly said in his opening comments. The predictive forecasting model, on which we have all relied, has to a large extent broken down. Demand for school places depends not only on the birth rate, but on migration, and aspects of the birth rate are linked to migration. In certain communities, particularly Muslim communities, there is a tradition of a much higher birth rate, which has had a significant impact on the issue.
The hon. Gentleman was right to point out that private education is most prevalent in London, which means that the articulate middle class voices that would normally be upstanding in addressing the issue have been quieter than would otherwise be the case, but perhaps that will begin to change, given the economic downturn and stagnant property market. Many parents with young children who might have considered moving out to the country once their children were beyond primary school age or once a second or third child had been born will not be able to do so for some time.
All those factors play an important role in a problem that is quickly catching up with us. It is easy for Opposition Members to criticise the Government for their predictive figures. Without such a high level of mobility, it would be easier to know what the birth rates are in any vicinity, so the number of primary school places that will be needed in four or five years’ time could be predicted. I am not simply saying that the Department is at fault in this issue, because there are new concerns about the effect that the level of mobility and diversity in our population is having on the provision of school places, particularly in the capital. I reiterate the hope expressed by the three previous speakers that the Government will give considerable thought to that problem.
I hope that you will allow me to say a little bit about local issues in my constituency, Mr. Amess, because the issue has come to the fore in the past few weeks. Indeed, I was contemplating asking for a Westminster Hall debate on a similar issue. I was contacted three weeks ago by Farah Baig of Marylebone Mums, who wished to highlight the group’s concern about the provision of state education at primary school level. In her letter to me, she stated that, unfortunately, very little credit was given to the fact that people were long-standing residents of Marylebone and that it was not uncommon for people new to the area to be offered a place before someone who had been a resident for 20 years. On seeking clarification from Westminster city council’s school admissions team, she was advised that that was correct procedure and that, despite being state-funded, it was proper for faith schools in particular to have selection criteria.
The problem in my constituency is that choice is limited, and is often confined to faith-based schools. A significant proportion of parents take their children out of the state sector, and I fear that they often represent that articulate voice that could make a real difference. By the time they have decided to send their children to fee-paying schools from a young age, there is little incentive for them to make the difference that they otherwise might. Westminster has some fantastic local state schools at primary school level, but I am afraid that they are exclusively faith–based schools, either Church of England or Roman Catholic. However, their results are in the very top grade, even at the national level.
Part of the problem is the assumption that those who live in my city-centre constituency are wealthy enough to send their children to private schools if they do not qualify for one of those excellent state faith-based schools. Indeed, Carl Upsall, a leading member of the Marylebone Association, told me:
“Either you pay for private schools or you fall at the feet of the church.”
I suspect that that sentiment applies to many parts of London and beyond the capital’s borders. With the worsening economic situation, people are increasingly keen to see a good state school in their area. I hope that that means that some of those parents might have more of an incentive to make the state system work for them in future, but inevitably that will take time. When it comes to the education of any child of school age, time is one thing that parents do not have on their side. They want a good school now, not the promise of excellence four or five years down the line, by which time their child’s education may have been detrimentally affected.
Parents are increasingly turning to home schooling because of their concerns about the provision of primary and secondary education in central London. That issue was raised with me only last week by two constituents, and I hope to raise it in a future Westminster Hall debate. Two concerned mothers, Mrs. Helen White and Mrs. Tina Robbins, both decided to educate their children at home, because they were worried about the quality of education in the state sector, particularly with regard to the restrictive curriculum and the culture of levelling down, rather than encouraging excellence. We have an obsessive approach to equality in the educational establishment, and there is an increasing view, perhaps understandably, given the furore over the baby P case and others, that educating children at home is an issue not only for education departments, but for social services. There is more of a disincentive to go down the route of home education, yet some of our most dedicated parents are deciding to educate their children in that way, which in many ways should be welcomed in relation to choice and diversity. The only downside is that it is often a reflection of parents’ despair about the quality of education offered by the state.
Would the hon. Gentleman like to caveat that comment by accepting that, although children can be educated at home excellently, there are concerns about whether that is monitored in the way it should be, as some children are not getting a good education at home at all?
That is a legitimate issue for people on both sides of the argument. The issue has to focus on educational needs, rather than just on social and equality needs. An issue that was, funnily enough, raised by the two parents to whom I spoke the other day is that, rather than simply excluding difficult children, it is in fact quite convenient for a local education authority to say to parents, “Why don’t you, notionally, home-educate them?” I accept that an increasing number of children in that category probably get a less than adequate education at home. None the less, I support the idea of diversity and choice. One only wishes that it were a positive choice, rather than one made for negative reasons.
In my constituency, there have been calls to revisit the debate on building new primary, secondary and nursery schools south of the Marylebone road to cater for the large number of young families who have moved into that area. Indeed, it is a strategy of Westminster city council to encourage more families not only to live, but to stay in the centre of the city. I think that all London Members feel that parts of their constituency would definitely benefit from a residential population that was active in the local community and engaged with it. Whether it is Kingston town centre or bits of my constituency, such as Soho or Covent Garden, allowing parts of our constituencies to exist simply for the commercial sector has a detrimental knock-on effect for the community at large.
Many parents in my constituency are keen to have a non-denominational secondary school and nursery. There is a particular concern about provision for boys. As someone who has a 14-month-old son, I have an eye and firm ear to these matters. I welcome the work that the Government have done and I have met the erstwhile schools Minister, Lord Adonis, to discuss the refreshed Pimlico academy. It is early days, but one hopes that the academy will prove to be a great success in the months and years ahead.
Finally, I shall mention the work of the education department at Westminster city council. The excellent local councillor and cabinet member Sarah Richardson has told me that there is no reason to build a new secondary school, because parents have wide access to a great choice of 10 schools, which provide education irrespective of faith in the city of Westminster as a whole. That does not just relate to my constituency, but that of my Labour neighbour, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). Just north of my constituency, the brand new King Solomon academy will eventually cater for children from nursery through to sixth form. It is fair to say that many of our local authorities are wise to these facts and are working hard. However, given that the issues of hyper-mobility and hyper-diversity have become profound ones in our capital city, local authorities need some assistance from central Government.
Thank you, Mr. Amess, for allowing me to speak at such length on this subject. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on what is an important matter now, and will, I fear, be an important matter for all London Members of Parliament in the years ahead.
I would like to start by apologising for being late. I was detained on a shadow ministerial engagement looking at Waterloo station and whether Network Rail can bring the platforms back into usage earlier than it has currently suggested it will. I suspect that matter might strike a chord with other hon. Members in this room.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on calling this debate. I share his surprise that others are not here, if they were forewarned. I am afraid that I only heard about the debate last night, but this issue is undoubtedly cross-London and cross-party. The matter was first raised seriously in my constituency surgeries in June last year and, indeed, at a number of open meetings that I held in the autumn. We have had a consistent problem.
The issue has had a major impact on Wimbledon, which was recognised by London Councils. It said:
“Merton has a particularly bad problem both in the number of children…and in the projected shortfall in capital funding.”
The bulk of the problem in Merton lies in the Wimbledon end of the constituency because there has been increasing demand for extra places to the north of the Worple road. Last year, across the whole borough, I think that we had fewer than 15 spare places in our schools, yet there will be an 8 per cent. rise in numbers between 2008 and 2012. Immediately this year, there is already a demand for three extra forms of entry and the council estimates that there will be a requirement for 12 extra forms of entry by 2012. The problem is quite acute in Merton.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton talked accurately about why there has been surprise about the number of extra places required and why that might have been. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) was right to say that the matter is not the Government’s fault. There has clearly been some element of miscalculation by the Local Government Association, which provides the figures. There is also the issue of retention and people simply staying where they have been moved to or in the boroughs where they are, rather than migrating out of London. Other hon. Members have discussed that. Clearly, the impact of immigration over the past few years on many of our constituencies should not be underestimated. As my hon. Friend said, there has been huge demographic change.
[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]
That has led us to where we are. In addition, we are now seeing the impact of the recession, with people potentially staying longer in their houses. Indeed, there is also the potential outflow from the independent sector. The dynamics of the situation in my constituency are slightly different from those in other constituencies. The bulk of people move to the independent sector after enjoying the excellent state primary education. That is a reflection of why the state sector has always been relatively full in the borough of Merton—even though there is the expectation that because it is a middle-class area, there might be a number of surplus places.
Merton, and Wimbledon in particular, have been faced with an immediate requirement for three extra forms of entry. As I said, based on current estimates—a number of other hon. Members have discussed whether we take those estimates to be accurate—there is an expectation that we will have to have 12 extra forms of entry. My discussions with our excellent members for education, Councillors Debbie Shears and Krystal Miller, indicate that their concern is that 12 extra forms of entry will be on the low side, rather than being an overestimate. That remains a real concern.
The problem for councils on the ground is not just ensuring that the demand for extra spaces is spread evenly across our borough or, indeed, our constituencies. In Wimbledon, the demand for extra places is arising in areas where for all sorts of reasons there has already been huge pressure on first choices for primary schools. That is happening either because those catchment areas are traditionally regarded as middle class and more independent, and therefore fewer primary school places have been provided, or because the previous Labour administration sold off school sites and, therefore, there is simply not the potential to expand some of those sites in those areas. Such stress factors have resulted in real parental concern about how far children will have to travel, which has particularly been evidenced in relation to the expansion of Wimbledon Chase school.
In addition, where there is space in schools that already have two forms of entry, going up to three forms of entry will give rise to the prospect that relatively young children will be in a school that might have 700 to 800 children—although I accept that children will still be in a class size of 30. I accept that the evidence on the overall size of a school is equivocal; none the less, there is real parental concern about that. The right balance for councils in relation to what they are, in a number of cases, asking the Minister for is to say, “Yes, we absolutely accept that the influx and increase in the number of places cannot be laid at your door, but the Government could do a number of things.”
A number of parents have raised with me the point that they have consistently heard from the Government that there will be money available for infrastructure projects as a means of fiscal stimulus. We all understand that those moneys are accessed through different pots, schemes and allocations, but, as another contributor has said today, many London boroughs are floor authorities. Merton is, too, so if we compare the situation with last September’s inflation figure, we are suffering a cut in revenue funding in real terms. My local authority has made representations to the Department, but there has been a request for flexibility in terms of accessing the available pots. For instance, everybody welcomes the primary capital programme, but some of it will not be available for immediate purposes. Equally, other capital pots of money in departmental control would—if there were some flexibility, particularly on this problem—remove some of the real pressures on local councils.
All London Members present have, I am sure, experienced broadly the same problems: we have heard real parental concern about the size of schools and whether their standard of education will be affected by the increase in numbers. Ofsted-rated “excellent” schools are expanding, and I am all in favour of that, but such excellence will continue to pertain only if there is revenue funding to support it and the capital funding to allow us to make the transition, so that the environment in which the children learn is excellent, too.
The Government can indicate today that they are prepared to consider a flexible approach to capital requests from local authorities, and I hope that the Minister will address those concerns in her remarks.
I apologise for being late, Mr. Pope. I had to attend a meeting with utilities, local residents and traders, which I think has averted a roadworks disaster. I hope that you will forgive me for having gone to that and missed the early part of the debate. I also thank the Minister, who met me and representatives of Richmond upon Thames borough council a couple of weeks ago, because, for the Richmond part of my constituency, the problem is acute.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) will have laid out the challenge that faces the royal borough of Kingston, and north Kingston, the part of that borough in my constituency, has three of this year’s bulge primary classes and is in desperate need of help. The only long-term solution is a new primary school, and to make places available for children we must consult on that permanent solution this spring—ahead of the summer school holidays, so critical is the problem with the number of children. My hon. Friend will have presented the picture in Kingston, so Members will understand just what a crisis we face there. We have the children—there is no question but that they are there, unexpected though they would have been two years ago—and they must have schools and provision made for them. That cannot be done, however, without significant intervention by the Government.
I shall address the Richmond problem but leave significant time for the winding-up speeches, which will be so important. In some ways, Richmond was ahead of the game in terms of recognising the explosion in the number of children who would require school places. The borough has a very powerful reputation for primary education. If we exclude the City of London and the Isles of Scilly, each of which have only one primary school, Richmond is the highest performing borough in terms of primary school results. Although we regard some schools as weaker than others, we can fairly say that no school does not fall into the “good” category.
The schools are very popular with local residents, but we started to see the change in the live birth rate at least two years ago and, as a consequence, went to the Department. It attempted to give us support, so Richmond was one of only two councils to receive safety valve money. We needed £50 million to expand seven schools, but the safety valve money, while very welcome, was only £8.9 million. Since then, the problem has been exacerbated as we, like other boroughs, have experienced a significant shift as parents who intended to put their children into the independent sector decide that they can get outstanding provision in the state sector, and that, at a time of economic pressure, it makes sense to do so. The council has, therefore, just invested £12.25 million in expanding six schools to make provision for entry this year, but it has run out of resources that can be diverted to provide a similar number of new places in future years.
Richmond and Kingston are both small, floor boroughs that receive very little of their local government funding through the grant process. They are not considered to be disadvantaged boroughs, and they are not inner-city boroughs, either, even though both take a significant number of children from the inner city for various reasons, including the boroughs’ contours. In those circumstances, there are not many other parts of the budget from which to pull in money: there are neither funds for various other academic purposes, nor pots of money that can be attached and redirected to provide the resource to cope with a delightful but challenging flood of children who require primary school places. I therefore hope that the Minister will recognise that, even though the Government are mid-cycle in their funding programmes, south-west London’s boroughs face a real emergency.
Much of today’s discussion has been about primary school places for the typical child, but there is a significant special needs component, too. Richmond and Kingston have become magnets for families with children with special needs. It is a compliment to the boroughs, but it has a significant impact on many resources, and in Richmond there is a major move to repatriate to the borough the capacity to provide places for many more special needs children, particularly those at the far end—the complex end—of the spectrum. The difficulty is exacerbated by the rapidly increasing demand for school places. Those children need our particular attention and care. The provision of funding to enable significant expansion in complex special needs services at primary level and all the way through the education process is an urgent factor that must be brought to the Government’s attention.
It is important that we have a response from the Minister, so I shall sit down. However, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton on securing this important debate in the House.
I shall also try to keep my remarks to five minutes or so to give the Minister time to respond. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing the debate, and other hon. Friends and Members on their participation. I hope that if the Minister leaves today’s debate with anything, it will be with the recognition that this is a cross-party matter. In spite of the absence of Labour Members, the problem affects many of their local authorities, so I hope that she will approach today’s debate in that vein.
Members have sensibly set out the main causes of the problem. First, people have migrated to London and there has been an accompanying rise in birth rates. Secondly, there have been changes to London’s housing stock. People who would have moved out of the borough when their children got older are now not doing so because of the state of the property market and perhaps because of improvements in education provision. That has certainly happened in my local authority area. Thirdly, the economic downturn means that parents who would have educated their children in the private sector either cannot afford to do so now, or are worried that they may not be able to afford it in the future. Those are the main drivers.
I hope that the Minister does not say that local authorities should have predicted all that. The Government did not predict what was going to happen in relation to migration or in terms of an economic downturn, so it is difficult to see how local authorities should have been able to predict 12 months ago that that sort of thing was going to happen. It is unexpected and exceptional and I think that the Minister needs to acknowledge that when she responds.
There is clearly a significant problem. London Councils has set out what it considers to be the financial implications. Its figures show a shortfall of £260 million in the current spending review period associated with the additional capital funding that is required and a shortfall of £480 million over the next spending review period from 2011 to 2014. Substantial sums are needed to address the problem.
Hon. Members have carefully set out the impact in their local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) said, the key is how the transfer rate changes and that rate depends on lots of factors, including parents moving in and out of the borough and so on. If there is a 90 per cent. transfer rate—in other words, 90 per cent. of the children born in the borough continue in primary schools when they reach five—some £22 million would be required and if the transfer rate is lower, perhaps nearer the transfer rate of 85 per cent. that used to apply, £10 million would be required. Whether the problem is seen at London level or at local authority level, we are talking about substantial sums.
Other boroughs have drawn up figures. Lambeth, for example, has identified a £16 million shortfall in what it needs to provide places, and we have heard about Richmond. There are similar problems outside London, for example, in Kent. So the Minister needs to respond to a London issue and a wider-than-London issue.
In terms of solutions, we and, I am sure, the Minister have received briefings from London Councils that set out how it thinks the matter should be dealt with in terms of additional emergency capital grants. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton made that point in his concluding remarks.
I hope that we will receive a considered, positive response from the Minister, because otherwise we are into Alice in Wonderland politics, with the banks having literally hundreds of billions of pounds invested in them to bail them out of a disaster that they created themselves through their greed and incompetence, for which they are rewarded with pensions 30 times a teacher’s salary, yet schools being starved of funding despite a real need for investment in our primary schools to create new school places and investment that will create jobs and provide a long-lasting legacy for our children. I am sure that the Minister does not want that to happen—I am that she is not in the business of Alice in Wonderland politics—and that she will, therefore, come forward with a concrete response and agree to meet my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton and I to talk about our local issues. I also hope that she will do so, on a wider London basis, with other hon. Members who have been affected by this problem.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing this debate and on his accurate analysis of the process of building new school capacity, which is Kafkaesque in its bureaucratic complexity and contradictions. That is something that the Conservative party policy would sweep away as we sought to implement a Swedish approach to bringing in new education providers.
In this country, the school admissions process and securing a place at either a primary or a secondary school for a child has become a fraught, highly stressful annual moment for parents. With one in three primary schools judged by Ofsted to be no better than satisfactory, it is clear why school admissions is such a sensitive issue: it is trying to squeeze a pint into a half-pint pot.
Last week I visited King Solomon academy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) mentioned. It has an excellent primary school and is one of the schools rated by Ofsted as outstanding. However, the problem in Kingston and Surbiton seems to be one of poor forecasting rather than the quality of the primary schools. Plans were not put in place to raise capacity when the demographics were relatively clear that new capacity was needed, notwithstanding the recent trends arising from the recession.
I will not give way because of the time.
In January 2007, there were 678 surplus places in primary schools in Kingston, which is some 6 per cent. of capacity. That reflected a demographic trend that showed the number of five-year-olds in Kingston falling from 1,500 in 2003 to about 1,450 by January 2008, in line with national demographic trends. However, projections also made it clear that by January 2009, in relation to the September 2008 intake, the number of five-year-olds nationally would rise from 530,000 to 552,000 and then to 569,000 in 2010, with further increases in each of the following years. In Kingston, it was projected that primary places would need to rise from 10,400 in 2008 to 10,584 in 2009 and 10,809 by 2010, with further rises in 2011 and 2012. Despite these projections, last year there was a shortage, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, of about 200 primary school places for rising fives in the borough, which resulted in the emergency bulge classes, or Portakabins as they are more colloquially known. This year a shortage of 300 places is forecast.
Kingston council has said that the number of primary school applications exceeded all expectations and called the increase unprecedented, but local parents, including Vicky Grinnell-Wright, for example, have said that the council’s poor planning was due to negligence. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton blames the inaccuracy of forecasts and high birth rates since 2002, the independent sector not expanding in line with the higher birth rate and the effect of jobs and the housing market on the extent of internal migration to and from London. He also accurately described the problem of funding. My hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster and for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) both pointed out that there are 23 floor boroughs in London.
Parents in the borough are obviously hugely concerned. Nothing matters more to parents of young children than the choice of primary school. All parents want a good local primary school within a short distance that has a safe, happy atmosphere, that has a real focus on early reading using synthetic phonics and that will enable children to gain a genuine grasp of the rules of arithmetic.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling us about the issues in Kingston, but he is completely wrong. Many boroughs across the capital are experiencing the same problems. I have talked to a lot of parents and when I speak with them they begin to understand the difficulties that Kingston has faced—and no doubt parents in other boroughs do, too. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think again and join with Liberal Democrats and others to press the Government for support, rather than making inaccurate statements.
Parents in Kingston are concerned and they blame the council. Of course, they take into account all the other factors, but parents’ concerns have also been raised by Helen Whately, who has been campaigning with the parents that the hon. Gentleman mentions to raise the profile of the problem and to put pressure on Kingston council to fix the immediate crisis and put in place plans for long-term solutions.
The hon. Gentleman is right: it is unacceptable that parents are facing the stress of not having a primary school place for their child. I hope that the Minister will assure parents in Kingston and Surbiton, and those in the rest of London, that these problems can be remedied in the near term.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing this debate on an important subject, and I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have spoken.
We have made it our ambition to provide a world-class education for every child and every child should have access to the opportunities and benefits that that brings. That means two things: making sure that every school is a good school, so that parents have real choice when deciding where to send their child, and ensuring that those opportunities are open to children from as early on as possible in their education. We all know that primary education is a really important stage in a child’s life; it is their first experience of full-time education and a place where they get a good grounding in the basics, start to develop independent thinking and develop those skills that prepare them for secondary education.
Local authorities have a duty to secure sufficient provision for children in their area. They are responsible for planning school places, and ensuring that enough places are available to meet local need. That is right, because local authorities know best the specific challenges and circumstances facing their areas and are best placed to deploy local resources in line with those specific needs. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill will strengthen that further. Pending that legislation, local authorities will become the single point of accountability for all children's services provision from nought to 19 so that we can focus on children and their families.
It is crucial that local authorities make a full assessment of the future demand for school places in their areas. My Department relies on those forecasts when allocating capital funding to cover extra places for future growth in pupil numbers, so it is essential that those projections are as accurate as possible. Local authorities prepare their own pupil forecasts, based on local circumstances and taking account of births, new housing, population migration and other factors. There should be no unexpected demand for reception places because of a rise in birth rate—many hon. Members brought that up—because the information is available from the health authority. Local authorities also use other factors and other methods to predict mobility. As was said, some local authorities are better than others at using the information at their disposal.
We are reviewing emerging pupil number trends to inform the next spending review, so work on accuracy is ongoing. We are also working with London Councils, which is also considering the matter— that work, too, is ongoing—so that we can offer advice and guidance to local authorities to help them to put those forecasts together.
Funding is fixed for three years at the beginning of the spending review period. That was done in response to requests from local authorities, which value being able to plan their capital expenditure with certainty. Resources in the current spending round have been allocated, and we do not hold back funds for later distribution on the basis that forecasts of the number of primary school pupils may be inaccurate.
I agree that local authorities value having a three-year view of funding, but does the Minister acknowledge that they become angry about difficulties arising from migration, for example, when a large number of people come into a local authority area, but the funding does not kick in for a number of years after they have arrived?
A balance must be struck between certainty in planning and being able to react to unforeseen contingencies, or perhaps contingencies that could have been foreseen, albeit not necessarily the migration the hon. Gentleman mentions.
In Kingston in 2007, pupil projections suggested an additional increase of about 500 pupils by 2012. Those figures provided the basis for the basic need funding to enable the authority to provide for growth in pupil numbers. The authority did not revise its projections in 2008. Virtually all inner-London authorities and four of the outer-London authorities have revised their forecasts of the growth in the number of pupils downwards since basic need funding was calculated for the current spending review period, so there should be no shortfall of funds in those authorities, although I accept that they are probably not the authorities that hon. Members here represent. We will monitor closely those who have projected a shortfall.
Local authorities may also have access to other local resources that can be used to create extra places. It is for local authorities to make those judgments about where their resources are best deployed, taking into account the different needs and pressures that they face. We have already agreed funding for schools for the next three years, based on pupil projections by local authorities, but I understand that London Councils is looking into whether those projections were sufficiently accurate. Many hon. Members have said this morning that they believe that they were not accurate. We are waiting for information from the January 2009 school census, and when we have those data and the information from London Councils, I undertake to consider them seriously. I am sure that they will help to inform future decisions about school funding.
We are reviewing emerging pupil number trends to inform the next spending review period from 2011-12 onwards to take account of the rise in child population and any changes due to the economic downturn. We will also consider other factors that hon. Members have mentioned today. We will cover whether it is still appropriate, depending on the accuracy of the forecasts, to allocate all basic need funding at the start of a new comprehensive spending review period.
We are working with the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services on pupil place planning in London. Discussions are ongoing, and we are awaiting data to show where the shortage of places is. When we have all that information, I will be happy to meet hon. Members who are particularly affected because of changes in population.
I am grateful for the Minister’s undertaking on previous data and her willingness to meet hon. Members. I shall certainly take her up on that kind offer. May I press her on the need for the data review to happen urgently and for the Department to consider changing the funding arrangements, not just in the next spending review, but in the current review, because the need is now and the need is urgent?
When I have the data in front of me, I will consider it, but I will wait until I have had the information from London Councils and the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services because I want to see exactly where the problems are.
Based on January 2008 capacity data, many London authorities, including those that underestimated pupil numbers, seem to have sufficient spare places at local authority level to meet current demand.
I am talking about surplus places in schools as a whole, but we must take into account the fact that surplus places may not be in schools that parents want to send their children to.
We have an annual allocation of capital investment under the primary capital programme, in which there is a range of criteria that local authorities use when identifying schools for investment. As the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) said, one is to have regard to school performance and to surplus places. They are also expected to identify priority for investment on the basis of responding to demographic pressure, so there is flexibility in the primary capital programme.
Funding for 2009-10 and 2010-11 has been confirmed for 13 London authorities, including both Kingston and Richmond. For a further 91 local authorities, 2009-10 funding has been confirmed, but future funding will be dependent on confirmation by the end of the month that problems identified will be resolved. Brent, Sutton, Westminster and Merton all come into that category, so I hope that hon. Members will press their local authorities to ensure that that information is with us and that we can resolve the issues by the end of March 2009 so that we can bring forward that funding. London authorities have reported collectively that they are planning to start projects at nearly 400 schools over the period 2008-11.
On the number of pupils moving from the independent to the maintained sector, the number attending independent primary schools has increased by more than 1,400 in Greater London over the past three years, and by more than 1,300 in inner London over the same period.
Every child should benefit from a first-class education in a good local school. That is one of our highest priorities and reaches throughout the system from national Government to local government to each individual school. Local authorities must use every resource at their disposal to ensure that every child benefits from those opportunities. We will continue to examine the data on current and projected numbers, and work with local authorities to manage that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope—from the Back Benches this time. I am bringing to Westminster Hall today a debate on incineration in Gloucestershire and specifically at the edge of the city of Gloucester, adjacent to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew).
In, even. It is right on the border between our constituencies. In 2005, in the run-up to the county council elections, the Conservative party in Gloucestershire produced its manifesto. It said:
“We will: Oppose incinerators. Conservatives have already worked to stop incinerators being built in Gloucestershire and we will continue to do so.”
I am afraid that that is a lie. There is no other way of putting it, because the Conservatives have gone back on that promise to the people of Gloucestershire. It will be interesting to see what happens when they go back to the people of Gloucestershire in the county council elections in June of this year and try to square their promise with what they are doing now.
Conservatives have made a number of promises in recent times. One was not to build houses in suburban areas on the edge of the city of Gloucester. My hon. Friend and I fought a vociferous campaign that resulted in a planning application in relation to the Hunts Grove area of his constituency being called in, but it was pushed heavily by a councillor by the name of Stan Waddington, whom my hon. Friend knows well—he is a councillor on his patch—and unfortunately permission was obtained. That means that in the very location where the Tories now propose to build a 10-storey incinerator capable of burning 175,000 tonnes of waste a year, thousands and thousands of new homes will be built; they will be built directly in its shadow. The area of Quedgeley, Grange and Tuffley, which is in my constituency, will be directly adjacent to it as well.
It came as a bolt from the blue to us that the Tories were planning that, not least because a few days before their decision to purchase the Javelin Park site in Quedgeley for £7.4 million, they told me and the chairman of our local football club that there was no capital money available at all to help the local football club to return to Gloucester after losing its ground in the floods of two years ago. Then we found out, without any consultation at all, despite the fact that my hon. Friend and I had held a public meeting just a few weeks previously, that they were working to purchase that land and had been working on a big private finance initiative deal with my right hon. Friend the Minister’s Department to try to obtain funding for the incinerator.
I would like to put it to the Minister that the county council is clear that, in its view, that is not its responsibility; it is all the fault of her Department and the Government. I am sure that she will have some things to say about that in relation to local decision making. I would also like to put to her the question whether PFI moneys would have been available for other schemes if a bid had come to the Department that did not involve a large-scale incinerator capable of burning 175,000 tonnes of waste.
When sites and locations were considered, three of the sites were in or around my constituency. Two were in or around Quedgeley in the south of my constituency; another was in Hempsted. The whole idea and principle of putting such a facility, which burns 175,000 tonnes of waste, in proximity to such an urban area comes as a real surprise to me, but perhaps it should not, because overwhelmingly Gloucestershire county council is run by a small elite—a cohort that lives in the Cotswolds. Those people would never, ever countenance any development like this in their part of the county. In fact, they have gone out of their way to select a Tory prospective parliamentary candidate for my constituency, the city of Gloucester, who hails from the Cotswolds as well, who has been entirely compliant with them on these plans and who will not criticise them at all. Unfortunately, the illness of not asking any questions about this, which has been passed on to other members of the Tory party, has infected local councillors in Quedgeley and other parts of my constituency as well. They refuse to raise their heads above the parapet and say what they think, but at the same time they do not take on the Cotswold cavalry that is running Gloucestershire county council.
Why do I think that such a facility would be bad for my constituency, my constituents and Gloucestershire? First, it would need to burn waste 24/7; once one of these machines is started, it has to keep going. That is ultimately bad for the local carbon footprint. We calculate that by 2020 there will be about 100,000 tonnes of residual waste each year, so we would have to find another 75,000 tonnes of waste to keep the machine burning. That would involve importing waste, regionalising waste. The Tory party claims to be anti-regionalisation, but when it comes to rubbish, it wants to regionalise it and dump it on the doorstep of my constituency, bringing it in from Bristol, Birmingham and who knows how much further afield.
There are real local infrastructure problems as well. Junction 12 of the M5, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, just is not kitted out for this kind of waste to be driven in daily. The people of Bishop’s Cleeve, in the Tewkesbury constituency, are already up in arms and demonstrating because the resultant waste material will almost certainly end up in Bishop’s Cleeve. We think that this is a bad solution.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue, which affects one of our neighbouring counties and our hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Will he add to the issues that need to be raised the question of the safety or otherwise of incinerator bottom ash? I have asked a number of questions about that and it appears that the Environment Agency is now changing its previous statements that all incinerator bottom ash is classified as non-hazardous; those statements seem no longer to be applicable. It also appears that the H14 ecotoxicity testing described in its waste manual is now a requirement. Would it not help if my right hon. Friend the Minister clarified whether that is now required and whether the results of such testing should be made public in regional registers, so that people can judge for themselves the hazardous nature of the material to which they might be exposed?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend; I am sure that the Minister will tackle that point. He makes the point that many Gloucestershire residents—it is not just the city of Gloucester or Stroud residents—are concerned about the issue, not least, as I said, residents of Bishop’s Cleeve, who were demonstrating as recently as last week.
One argument that the council is using, other than blaming the Government for its local decisions, is to say, “Well, what is the alternative?” If people ask around and study things, they find alternatives. There are alternatives out there. We work closely with Gloucestershire’s Friends of the Earth network. We have also been listening to what local residents have had to say. There are a number of things that Gloucestershire county council can do, rather than rushing to build this 10-storey beast that will burn 175,000 tonnes a year.
First, the six authorities in Gloucestershire could start working together coherently. In my part of the world, 36 per cent. of waste is currently recycled. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, the figure is 50-something per cent. However, if the six authorities worked together, there would not be, for example, an ability to collect and recycle green waste in my constituency but not in the constituency next door. There would not be an ability to recycle bottles with their tops on in Stroud, but not in Gloucester. Nor would it be the case that food waste could be collected in some parts of the county but not others. Quite simply, the authorities do not work together, so a single coherent strategy would help and no doubt boost recycling levels.
What levels of recycling should we be aiming for? The Netherlands is already at 65 per cent. The figure is 58 per cent. for Germany and 59 per cent. for Austria, but we do not have to go that far afield to find good examples of high levels of recycling. St. Arvans, in Monmouthshire, is a zero-waste project promoting waste separation and the kerbside collection of paper, glass, cans, foil, textiles—I will run out of fingers—plastics, Tetra Pak, cartons, green waste and food waste. Some 73 per cent. of waste is diverted from landfill in that part of Monmouthshire, and there is a 95 per cent. participation rate. Surely, instead of looking to lower levels of recycling in Gloucestershire and saying, “Well, we have this machine. We’ll just keep chugging along, widening our carbon footprint and bringing in waste from further afield to keep things ticking over,” we should look at the issue more imaginatively and work more closely with Gloucestershire Friends of the Earth.
For many reasons, the incinerator could be something of an eco-disaster. Kent county council’s environment spokesperson, Keith Ferrin, recently said that the council’s decision to build an incinerator was “stupid” with hindsight, adding:
“The people who thought they were being very clever and economical with people’s money ten years ago have produced a situation where the reverse is true, as KCC is now committed to a contract we can’t get out of.”
In Gloucestershire’s case, it would be a 25-year contract, so we would be committed to a programme that we could not get out of for 25 years and which ruled out any emerging technologies or local flexibility. Councillor Ferrin continued:
“What seemed a very wise decision a very long time ago is a very stupid one today…At the time, people were saying nationally that this was the only way ahead. But if you make a prediction for 10 years’ time, the only thing you can be certain of is that it will be the wrong decision.”
I would like our local authority to be more aware of some of the new, emerging technologies. Just this week, I was handed an article from The Birmingham Post, which talks about some of the new technologies that are coming on stream in Birmingham:
“Regular disposable nappies which take hundreds of years to rot on the nation’s landfill sites could soon be recycled at a new £12 million Birmingham-based facility—the first of its kind in the UK…they plan to turn up to 36,000 tonnes of Pampers, Huggies and adult incontinence products a year into plastic cladding and roof tiles.”
Surely, that must be the way forward. The article continues:
“Meanwhile, methane from the production process can be sold to the National Grid and turned into energy and anything left used for compost.”
We have been told a lot of half-truths in Gloucestershire. We have also been told some outright lies, and I read earlier from the Conservative council’s manifesto. Unfortunately, I sense a fear among local politicians, who will not speak up on the issue and who are keeping their heads down. It is time for them to speak up for the thousands of people in my constituency who fear for the quality of their lives and who fear what is happening to house prices because of a decision that will be made after the 2009 local elections, but which is hanging over their heads in the interim. People are also fed up with the council turning areas of my constituency such as Quedgeley into a dumping ground for all the county’s problems.
I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister whether the council could have bid for something other than an incinerator with PFI funding. I suspect that it could. We should take on board what Friends of the Earth is saying locally and increase the level of recycling to 80 per cent. by 2020 by having greater kerbside separation of waste and small local residual waste management facilities that match the scale, form and size of their surroundings to make them acceptable to local communities—facilities that handle between 5,000 and 35,000 tonnes per annum. If we do, we will achieve more flexible, local solutions, and there will be greater ownership of facilities by communities. Similarly, there will be more investment in composting and more anaerobic digestion. That has to be the way forward.
Finally, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should look at the way in which we audit our local authorities? Should we start looking at the pledges that they make in county council elections and at whether they fulfil those pledges? I repeat the words of the Tory party in 2005:
“We will: Oppose incinerators. Conservatives have already worked to stop incinerators being built in Gloucestershire and we will continue to do so.”
That is actually a worthless pledge.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) for giving me a few minutes, and I shall be brief so that my right hon. Friend the Minister has sufficient time to respond.
I want to make four quick points, beginning with an issue that I approach with some sadness. Stonehouse town council, which I know rather well, because I am still a member after 22 years, invited Councillor Stan Waddington, whom my hon. Friend mentioned, to a meeting on 22 December to explain the county’s policy on waste. We specifically asked him whether the county council had an option on the Javelin Park site, to which his answer was that it did not. By 31 December, the county council had bought the site. Never let it be said that the local authority in Gloucestershire cannot get things done quickly, because it negotiated the purchase of the site in nine days over Christmas. I only wish that local government was that effective in every other area and could deliver Government policies from time to time. Councillor Waddington should explain what he said to the town council and what was really going on.
My second question is directed to my right hon. Friend the Minister. Why did the site-specific designation become key to the way in which the PFI was delivered? Was that initiated by Gloucestershire, which was always looking to find a site, without saying what would go on it, or by officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who felt that it was appropriate to have a site before the PFI could be agreed and delivered? Without looking to the future, that is fairly obvious.
My third point relates to the waste inquiry to which I gave evidence. Misleading evidence about what came out of that inquiry has been widespread and disproportionate. The inquiry did not provide the basis for an argument in favour of incineration; it set out the collapse of the case that the seven authorities in Gloucestershire tried to put to it. Those authorities were fighting like ferrets in a sack after the first day, and I should know because I was there. That says something about the ineffectiveness of local government in Gloucestershire. Furthermore, when the inspector published his report, he suggested three sites, including Javelin Park, could be part of the answer if we were looking for a mechanical and biological treatment centre. However, he did not see such a centre as the answer to Gloucestershire’s waste problems, although that has been said.
Sadly, we have already seen the results of what has been going on. An interesting experiment has been going on in the Stanleys wards in my constituency, which has been composting food waste. The district council, which is Conservative run, has just announced that it intends to stop that experiment—it is certainly not introducing it across the district. That is entirely down to the fact that it is prejudging what will happen to that waste—that it will be taken to an incinerator and burned. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, that is the very negation of the way in which we should collect and dispose of waste.
Lastly—I shall be very careful what I say—the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at the issue of waste, as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows. Mary Newton from Gloucestershire Friends of the Earth, who has helped us greatly, has submitted a paper, which I advise everybody to read. It is fair to say, without going into details, that the days of incineration have largely gone. There are better alternatives, and different ways to do things, and I hope that that approach is what the Select Committee will propose; I cannot pre-empt its final report. An old technology is being foisted on some people in Gloucestershire, for all the wrong reasons. I hope that my right hon. Friend can help us, and get some sense put back into the county of Gloucestershire, because it is sadly lacking at the moment.
I am delighted to be here this afternoon, Mr. Pope, debating this subject, in which I know you take great interest. I look forward to visiting the wonderful constituency that you have the honour to represent, to see the Chic Sheds project, which is one I recommend to all Members of the House, for its maximisation of resource use.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) has provided an opportunity today to debate an important subject. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) has asked several questions about people’s concerns about regeneration. In particular, he has explored concerns about bottom ash. I cannot give him a detailed response to the question that he asked this afternoon, but I can offer to write to him with further details. I assure him that we need to find answers to some of the concerns in the public’s mind about the kind of technology in question, if we are to make progress in meeting the tough targets we have set ourselves—and, indeed, that the European Commission has set—for landfill reduction.
The Gloucestershire private finance initiative scheme is an instance in which the Government have made funding available through PFI credits. However, the choice of technology and the location are a local decision. Decisions on how to manage waste and meet targets are a matter for each authority, and rightly so. The Government do not generally have a preference for one energy-from-waste technology over another, with the exception of anaerobic digestion for treating food waste, and it is important that plans for all waste facilities should emerge from local waste strategies, so that all options for reuse, recycling and composting can be explored first. The technology choice needs to reflect local circumstances, which will vary, and it is the responsibility of local authorities to decide on the most appropriate solutions for their areas.
The Government are fully committed to managing waste in the most sustainable way, by preventing waste, and by recycling or composting as much of the unavoidable waste as possible. However, the country needs residual waste treatment infrastructure as well. There will always be some residual waste, even after the significant increases that we all want in waste prevention, reuse and recycling. Our preference is to manage that waste as far up the waste hierarchy as possible, with energy from waste ranking higher than landfill, which is the end of the line. Reducing our reliance on landfill is an essential part of the drive to tackle climate change. A combination of all the activities I have mentioned is essential to ensure that we meet our obligations under the EU landfill directive.
Generating renewable energy from residual waste has energy and carbon benefits, through avoiding greenhouse gas emissions from landfill and with energy from the biodegradable fraction of waste displacing fossil fuel-based power generation. Our aim is to maximise the generation of renewable energy recovered from unavoidable residual waste, as demonstrated in a range of measures in the Energy Act 2008 and set out in our forthcoming renewable energy strategy. All PFI projects, however, need to highlight their continued ambitions for waste minimisation and recycling, such as Gloucestershire’s aim of reaching 60 per cent. recycling by 2020.
That is another statistic that keeps getting regurgitated locally, in a way that is unfair, I think, to Government, because the local authority implies that the Government want only 60 per cent. as a target. There is nothing to prevent the local authority, if it chooses, from adopting a higher recycling level than 60 per cent. Is that not the case?
My hon. Friend is right; as I have said, the development of the local waste strategy is a matter for local authorities. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that other European countries manage high recycling rates alongside incineration, of the order of 40 to 50 per cent. However, my hon. Friend is right; there would be nothing to put a cap on that ambition, other than making sure that the strategies were coherent and the infrastructure was in place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester asked what other technologies Gloucestershire county council might have examined, to determine what technology to adopt. There are other technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, which I have already mentioned. Gasification is another; that is combined heat and power. Mechanical biological treatment is another. Those are generally smaller installations, but are none the less viable alternatives. Even then, however, we look for flexibility in the final contract, so that ambitions such as Gloucestershire’s are not capped by any new facility supported by PFI credits.
On the issue of Gloucestershire county council’s waste proposals, the authority submitted an application to DEFRA for PFI credits to deliver new waste management infrastructure. Support for the project was provisionally approved by the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), in August 2008. I was pleased to visit Stroud in October with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). We met farmers, but we also took the opportunity to look at the Javelin Park site. It is important to know that the project was considered by the Treasury-led cross-departmental project review group, which has provisionally approved it subject to certain conditions: those are the acquisition of a suitable site and making the project subject to PRG second-stage review during the later stages of procurement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud asked whether the project was predicated on procurement of the site. The remit we give local authorities is that any authority bidding for PFI credits in such circumstances must offer a site to the market. It is the authority’s decision which site to put to the market. However, may I clarify something? As part of the application process, all authorities must submit a plan based on a theoretical model that uses real figures and facts to demonstrate that the project is robust enough to proceed. That does not mean that the technology for the waste PFI project has been decided, but the plan is used to guide the procurement process, for the purpose of finding partners for a PFI project.
From what my right hon. Friend tells me, the authority is going through a process at the moment, but there would be nothing to stop it, or indeed another county council led by another political party—my own or any other—saying, “That is the path we were going along, but we have now changed our mind and will look at other alternatives.” They could, technically, put a stop to the whole incinerator plan, could they not?
That would obviously be entirely for a county council to decide. Gloucestershire county council could change direction, whatever political control it was under. I hesitate to take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion that we might want to hold political parties to account for what they say. I should love to do that, representing a Liverpool constituency. The Liberal Democrats, more than any party in the House, should give closer scrutiny to what they claim locally and what they deliver. However, I shall resist the temptation to go down that route.
To ensure fair competition and maximise value for money, the Government require an authority wishing to secure PFI credits for a waste project to be able to offer a suitable site to the market. However, Gloucestershire county council opted to purchase the Javelin Park site. That does not mean that the site for the waste PFI project has been decided. It could be built at Javelin Park or elsewhere, and it could be one of a number of different types of plant.
I am glad to have the opportunity to initiate this short debate on Britain’s relations with Nepal. I have no pecuniary interests to declare; however, I chair the all-party group on Nepal.
Just over a week ago, I returned from leading the first British Inter-Parliamentary Union group delegation to Nepal for 13 years. It is a happy reflection of the way in which the British IPU and our Parliament are regarded in Nepal that the group was received at the highest level. We had meetings with the President, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly and the heads of the army and the police among others. That visit made a refreshing contrast to my experience when I last led a delegation to Nepal, which was sponsored by the Foreign Office in March 2006. The former king, King Gyanendra, refused to see the British parliamentary delegation, choosing instead to receive the special envoy of President Fidel Castro.
The British IPU group’s delegation was well timed, because it came at a critical moment in Nepal’s constitutional and democratic development. Nepal is a young multi-party democracy, which has effectively been in existence for some 20 years, following the wise and far-sighted decision of the late king, King Birendra, to end the panchayat system and to usher in a new democratic constitution. Sadly, even over those 20 years, there has been a considerable threat to Nepal’s multi-party democracy from the Maoist insurgency, which began in 1995 and continued for more than a decade, accompanied by some extreme and totally revolting brutality. It was threatened, too, when King Gyanendra suspended the Nepalese Parliament for more than four years. It was recognised to be not only a personal tragedy for the Nepalese royal family but a democratic and political disaster for Nepal that King Birendra should have been a subject of the mass family murder committed by Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001.
The challenges facing Nepal are substantial. The United States took many years to write its constitution, yet Nepal and its Constituent Assembly find themselves with barely more than a year before the agreed deadline of May 2010 to produce a written constitution and secure its approval. That Assembly has a considerable lack—an understandable lack, I stress—of experience and expertise in multi-party democratic politics. When we were in Kathmandu, we saw the impressive Centre for Constitutional Dialogue, which is part-funded by the Department for International Development. It is a valuable learning and resource centre for the Members of the Constituent Assembly. However, a great many members are effectively entering democratic politics for the first time. In addition, the Constituent Assembly has a multiplicity of parties. Some are narrowly based on geographical and ethnic factors. Beyond the Constituent Assembly, there are still some 20,000 former Maoist insurgents in cantonments. Although they have laid down their arms as agreed, they still retain the keys to the containers in which the arms are held under UN supervision.
Britain is Nepal’s longest-standing friend—a friendship goes back for nearly 200 years. Happily, Britain continues to be regarded with high esteem in Nepal. Any number of references were made in our meetings to the British Parliament being the mother of Parliaments and a source of valued advice on democracy and due parliamentary process. I wish to make a number of specific suggestions as to how the Government may be able to assist Nepal in its present challenging position.
First, I judge that the single most difficult and intractable issue that the Nepalese constitution makers face is managing to combine the preservation of the unity and integrity of Nepal with the aspiration of ethnic minorities, particularly the Madhesis in the south, for a greater measure of autonomy. That is the Nepalese devolution question. Our country has a substantial reservoir of expertise on that matter, with the devolution arrangements made for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister to consider what help we can give Nepal at this critical time. I ask specifically whether the Foreign Office will consider sponsoring an outward visit to Nepal by experts in devolution or funding an inward visit for key members of the Constituent Assembly, who wish to be better informed about the possibility of establishing a viable structure of devolution in their country.
Secondly, something that appears no less intractable but which is, I think, capable of solution is the implementation of the commitment by the Maoist leader during the insurgency that the Maoist militants would somehow be incorporated into the Nepalese army. It transpired in discussions that that proposition has never been put individually to the 20,000 or so Maoist insurgents in the cantonments. In my judgment, when it comes to individuals making a choice, and if they are asked whether they wish to join the regular army, to serve in uniform and be subject to military discipline and the rigours of the military life, the majority are probably unwilling to go down that route. However, they wish to stay on the Government payroll, as they are at the moment. Alternatively, they might be attracted to training possibilities that would give them a marketable skill and enable them to conduct successful business in the private sector.
On the latter point, may I put the following proposition to the Minister? When I was the Armed Forces Minister, I made a number of visits to Nepal and saw at first hand the extremely successful work done by the Brigade of Gurkhas in Nepal in preparing Gurkha officers and soldiers for civilian resettlement. They had in place a series of training programmes, which came to an end a few years ago, when Gurkha resettlement was transferred to the UK. However, those skills and that expertise must remain in Nepal and with the Brigade of Gurkhas. Will the Minister therefore explore whether, drawing on those retraining facilities, the Brigade of Gurkhas could be of assistance in enabling at least some of the former Maoist insurgents to receive good-quality training for civilian life and so be able to pursue worthwhile occupations as civilians?
I come to some of the more technical aspects of the constitution, such as the electoral procedures for achieving free and fair elections and the need to establish properly conducted parliamentary procedures. Again, this country has a huge range of expertise to offer on those matters. It is said frequently that this country has no written constitution, which is technically correct, but we do have in writing a huge body of statute and procedural law laid down, for example, in the Standing Orders of both Houses, which is effectively part and parcel of the written form of our constitution. Again, will the Foreign Office consider sponsoring an outward or inward visit for those in the Constituent Assembly who want to ensure that, on electoral arrangements for achieving free and fair elections and proper parliamentary procedures, the constitution benefits from our knowledge and expertise, if they so wish?
I come to the issue of enshrining in the constitution the fundamental requirements of human rights, especially those of women, children and those, such as the Dalits, with low or effectively nil caste status in Nepal, as well as other key rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of the media. In Pokhara, we held two very valuable meetings with women’s groups on women’s rights, which, I am glad to say, were of an entirely cross-party nature, in Nepalese terms. We also had a valuable meeting in Kathmandu with Freedom Forum, a leading Nepalese non-governmental organisation, on the freedom of the media. We also have much expertise to offer on human rights and freedom of expression. I suggest to the Minister that the Government consider proposing to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), as Chairman of the all-party human rights group, that she lead a Foreign and Commonwealth Office-sponsored delegation to Nepal to focus on the human rights dimensions of its constitution.
A further critical issue is international development aid. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world with one of the worst incidences of child mortality. Development aid is crucial. We saw the value of the programmes run by the Department for International Development and, at the Baglung district hospital, how DFID funding is helping to improve maternity care and the quality of health care for children. In the high hills beyond Pokhara, we also saw what the DFID project for community forestry user groups, which is funded through its livelihoods and forestry programme, was doing to improve the quality of forestry, environmental protection and income streams to women and disadvantaged groups in the poor hill communities. I am glad to say—this is to the credit of the Government—that the UK is the largest single bilateral foreign aid donor to Nepal, and I hope that the Minister will assure us that that position will be maintained and, if possible, aid increased.
Unusually, for such visits, we achieved one significant change in policy. When the Maoist leader, Prachanda—now Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal—was engaged in the Maoist insurgency, he made a firm commitment that he would end the recruitment of Gurkhas to the British Army. During our meeting, I put it to him that he should consider abandoning that commitment and resume recruitment. I am glad to tell the Chamber that he said that he would do so. Following our meeting, his office put out a press statement to that effect. I am sure that the Minister, and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, will do everything possible to ensure that that commitment is adhered to.
Nepal is at a crossroads: the Constituent Assembly is in existence and has a blank sheet of paper in front of it for the compiling of the written constitution. That represents considerable progress since my last visit to Nepal in March 2006, when the Parliament building was behind shutters and the Assembly had not sat for four years. That was followed by the successful elections last year, for which Parliament contributed a British observer team led by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). Over the next year or so, Nepal will either succeed in writing and securing approval for its written, multi-party, democratic constitution, or relapse into deadlock, factional infighting and a possible resumption of the insurgency. Its two huge neighbours to the north and south—China and India—are watching attentively, with consequences unknown should instability rage again in Nepal. This is Nepal’s hour of need, when it most urgently needs its friends, especially it longest-standing friend. I hope that the British Government will not be found wanting.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) for securing the debate and for inviting me to make a very brief contribution. It was an honour to visit Nepal in his company a couple of weeks ago, and I am grateful to the Inter-Parliamentary Union for facilitating and organising the trip.
In the long history of Nepal, it is no exaggeration to say that the next 12 months will be critical. This most ancient of countries has the astonishing opportunity to become one of the most modern and youngest countries in the world. There are key ways in which the UK Government can assist the process. For example, it can help with the writing of the constitution. The question of how Nepal will be federalised as a nation is at the heart of the biggest challenge that it faces. We offered some assurances from our own experience of devolution, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that even more can be offered. With my experience as Minister of State in the Scotland Office and the Northern Ireland Office, I thought that he was going to offer me up as a special envoy to Nepal, which might find favour in some quarters in Government. None the less, we must help in whatever way we can.
Integrating the People’s Liberation Army into the Nepalese army is critical as well. Some 20,000 trained guerrillas are being kept as a bargaining chip should the negotiations not go as some quarters would like. That cannot be a force for stability, and we should offer whatever help and support we can.
Finally, the most important thing is for DFID to continue what it is already doing. We are the largest donor to Nepal, and we are making a real difference. We are demonstrating to the people of Nepal that stability, peace and democratic government can deliver material benefits, and that is what will ensure long-term stability in Nepal. A new country assistance plan is due, and the signals are that it is very promising. We will continue to support Nepal, which is the most important thing that we can do to help the country at this time.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing this debate. Let me start by setting out its context. As he said, Nepal is now at a watershed moment in its history. The Nepalese people, through their Constituent Assembly, have the opportunity to build a lasting peace and a democratic society, based on the rule of law, which serves their aspiration to live in a normal and stable society. As a close friend of Nepal, it is important that the UK provide all the support and encouragement that it can to the Nepalese people at this crucial time. Therefore, I thank the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for visiting Nepal as representatives of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. From what I have heard, the visit was both constructive and helpful.
The UK and Nepal have enjoyed close relations since the first British resident was posted to Kathmandu in 1816. The British remained the only foreign diplomatic presence in the capital for well over a century. As the right hon. Gentleman said, we are viewed as firm friends and as a respected source of impartial advice and support.
Let me now turn to a few areas in which we have helped the Nepalese Government and their people. Both the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) referred to development aid. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia and the 14th poorest in the world. The UK is the largest bilateral donor to Nepal, contributing £55 million in 2007-08. As long as this Government, with their massively increased aid programme, remain in power, such donations will continue as a priority. That support is aimed at helping Nepal achieve the millennium development goals, as well as supporting the ongoing peace process.
As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, foreign direct investment in sectors such as hydropower, industry and tourism has the potential to create new jobs and lift many more people out of poverty. The key to jump-starting that will be a more stable business environment in Nepal, which, above all, requires a visible improvement in public security. That must remain the top priority in the coming years, and we will do all that we can to help achieve that. On their visit, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend saw that the British Council is also an active and engaged player, helping to develop international engagement and educational opportunities in Nepal.
Let me turn to the broader peace process in Nepal, which rightly attracts a lot of international concern, and which we monitor extremely closely though our embassy in Kathmandu. That peace process has made impressive progress since the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement in November 2006. Nepal held its first democratic elections in nine years in April 2008. The UK played a leading role in galvanising, funding and co-ordinating international support for those elections. We also played a significant role in supporting the international observation of those elections, including providing two Members from this House and two from the other place.
The Constituent Assembly that was elected to write Nepal’s new constitution is the most representative legislative body in the country’s history. Unfortunately, since its first meeting last May, at which it abolished the monarchy and declared Nepal a federal democratic republic, progress has been slow. Nevertheless, we will do all that we can to support the work of the Assembly in drafting a new constitution and we urge it to take this work forward in 2009.
A Maoist-led coalition Government were eventually formed last August. Unfortunately the consensus between the main parties that allowed the elections to take place has subsequently and regrettably weakened. We are doing all that we can to encourage the parties to work together in a co-operative way to bring Nepal’s peace process to a conclusion and to agree the new constitution. A consensus needs to develop among political parties and between parties and society on their future vision for the country, and we will do all that we can to support that process.
The integration issue is also critical. The future of more than 19,000 Maoist ex-combatants and of the Nepal army remains one of the crucial elements in the ongoing peace process. It is clear to all observers, including those in Nepal, that the current limbo is not sustainable and that the cantonments that house the former rebels cannot persist for ever. As a first step, those whom the UN disqualified as legitimate combatants, including some 3,000 minors, should be discharged without further delay. Although it is for the Nepalese to decide how to take the process forward, it still falls to us to help if the Nepalese Government so wish. For example, the UK Government stand ready to offer technical support and guidance if it is needed by the Nepalese Government. We are also doing what we can to assist the Nepalese with security sector reform, which is another crucial area. We have already done some work on managing the civil oversight of the Nepalese army by helping to strengthen the Ministry of Defence. We are willing to take that forward under the new Government.
Let me try to respond to some of the specific questions that have been raised. The right hon. Gentleman asked what help we can give to support—for want of a better phrase—the devolutionary process within Nepal. That is a matter for the Nepalese Government, but we are ready to offer support if that is requested. In the meantime, we are supporting ongoing work to gather public opinion on the future constitution, and we stand ready to provide technical assistance if it is needed.
The right hon. Gentleman also raised the question of Gurkha resettlements. That is a matter for the Ministry of Defence. None the less, it is an interesting suggestion. Following this debate, I shall write to my counterpart in the MOD, raising that issue. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of inward and outward visits in order to help build democracy in Nepal. As I said earlier, we are ready to offer technical expertise if that is requested by the Constituent Assembly and by the Government.
The right hon. Gentleman also raised the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), in her capacity as Chairman of the all-party human rights group, might visit Nepal. That is something to which I shall give consideration. If he is agreeable, I shall write back to him when I have reached a decision. Therefore, constructive progress is being made. We are ready to do all that we can to support that process.
Finally, let me address the crucial issue of human rights. It is rightly an issue that attracts a lot of interest from parliamentary colleagues. We regularly raise human rights concerns at all levels and co-ordinate with other international and domestic partners to put across the message that protecting human rights is the cornerstone to ensuring that peace is both sustainable and based on democratic values. We welcome the establishment of the National Human Rights Council. The NHRC’s unique constitutional responsibility to protect and promote the rights of Nepalese people makes it an essential part of a strong national human rights protection system. We encourage the NHRC to continue to work closely with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and to draw on the expertise available within Kathmandu to develop its own capacity. The signing on 20 February of guidelines on co-operation between the two organisations should provide the basis for future co-operation.
In conclusion, there is a long-standing relationship between this country and Nepal. It has served us well in a variety of ways. We have contributed to the development of Nepal. At this critical juncture, we will continue to do all that we can to support the development of that important country.
The late Samuel Huntington elaborated the theory of the three waves of democratisation, the latest of which was the events of 1989, which resulted in swift democratisation in east and central Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union. The wave affected not only the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe area, but Africa, Asia and Latin America. Regrettably, some countries have regressed, but others have become more democratic.
Clearly, time forbids any discussion in any detail of democratisation, elections, human rights, and good government. The Economist’s intelligence unit report divides Governments into full democracies—we are 23rd out of 27—flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. Many countries claim to be democratic, but Andrew Wilson entitled his recent book on the former Soviet Union, “Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World”.
We want democracy to be promoted and sustained. Whatever one’s definition of consolidated or full democracy, or whatever people think are the components of democracy, elections that meet international standards are integral to the process. Without elections, there is no real democracy—although I admit that there can be authoritarianism with elections—and there cannot be proper elections unless they are properly observed. One can pay great tribute to international organisations such as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the United Nations, which does much less in election observations having subcontracted its role, the European Union, the Organisation of American States, the African Union and some great non-governmental organisations on all continents. Those organisations, be they international or regional, or NGOs, contribute enormously to the process of democratisation.
Unfortunately, democratisation and election observation have been suffering as a result of two major threats. Russia, which as the Minister well knows does not have free and fair elections—I prefer to say that it does not meet international obligations—has embarked on a concerted attack on ODIHR. It wishes either to downgrade ODIHR or for it to have standards more like those of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which means spurious standards or no standards at all. That has been debilitating for ODIHR, which is constantly fighting off Russia and its many allies. In meetings of the OSCE, in ministerial and ambassadorial meetings in Vienna, and in any forum in which the Russians can do so, they try to embarrass ODIHR and its election observations. I headed an election observation mission to Russia. It was a flawed election, but the Russians moralise about how elections should properly be conducted.
That process culminated in the events of a year or so ago, when the Russians made it impossible for ODIHR to observe their presidential elections—in essence they told ODIHR that they did not want the organisation to be present. ODIHR said:
“The Russian Federation has created limitations that are not conducive to undertaking election observation in accordance with our mandate.”
By inviting ODIHR to the elections late, the Russians unilaterally deconstructed the organisation’s methodology, which is the best in the world. Its method is to be present two and a half months before the elections—it does not simply look at elections on the day. ODIHR also leaves people behind to look at the immediate post-election environment. Those things were was not possible.
Unfortunately, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly thought that that gave it an opportunity to shine, and the Council of Europe followed suit. Their joint report shows clearly why election observations by such parliamentary assemblies are shallow and why observations should not be carried out in such a way. They need ODIHR.
Looking at the situation from outside, I can see that it is not quite as bad as it was. Although the relationship between Russia and ODIHR is less bad, there is a second villain: the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, or, more specifically, its secretary-general, Spencer Oliver, and his staff, who were loyally picked without competition, and a number of senior Members of Parliaments of a number of countries. It is more debilitating to be attacked by a fellow OSCE institution. We expect the Russians to be obstreperous, but we should not expect it from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
I obtained a document from ODIHR, which was in essence sent by Spencer Oliver, which states:
“The Parliamentary Assembly, which has played the leading role in election monitoring since”
being told by the Swedish Foreign Minister that it is in charge of election observation,
“should clearly be placed in charge of OSCE election observations. ODIHR can and should, as foreseen in the”
“Cooperation Agreement, play a subordinate and supportive role.”
Since that time, the Parliamentary Assembly has been truly obstreperous—I have compiled a list of what it has been doing. I observed the parliamentary elections in Georgia last year and saw exactly what its observers were doing from close by. It clearly wants to supplant ODIHR as the principal organisation and reduce it to a supportive role, and it is colluding with the Russians to achieve that objective.
It is difficult enough to observe the elections, because the Governments who are being observed do not want to be observed. Their acts of fraud are becoming increasingly sophisticated, so observers have to be on the ball and they need a good methodology, as ODIHR has. ODIHR needs to work closely with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, but it cannot. There is an important role for the European Parliament and its election observation work, and for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. As I said, people need to be on the ground two and a half months before the elections. It is difficult to observe elections of perhaps 200, 250 or 300 people, but it is almost impossible when people have to watch their backs and fronts for people who are trying to destroy or marginalise them. Those are two of the major difficulties facing ODIHR: the Russians and their allies, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
I hope that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly recognises that the 1997 co-operation agreement and the authorisation on how to observe elections given by the Foreign Ministers are the basis on which it has invented a role for itself. Doing so in the face of the written evidence is fanciful and reflects a delusional approach to election observation. I hope that the Government and other democratic OSCE Governments will seriously stand up to the debilitation of ODIHR, which is a wonderful organisation.
Thirdly and controversially, the Foreign and Commonwealth has cropped up as a potential villain. I listed a number of organisations and countries that are undermining election observation, so one may ask why on earth I am adding the FCO to the list when it has been at the forefront of promoting democracy and elections that meet international standards, not only in OSCE states, but almost everywhere else. The FCO’s personnel and the people whom it appoints are of very high quality. I have observed people such as Audrey Glover, the former head of ODIHR, and Julian Peel Yates, who have headed elected observation missions; Brits who have been deputies to the heads of election observation missions; and long-term and short-term observers funded by the Foreign Office. Over the years, we have provided 10 per cent. of all the observers requested by ODIHR following a needs assessment mission. They are skilled, trained, experienced personnel—policy analysts, ex-Members of Parliament, academics—who are incredibly well qualified and have attended training sessions organised by Electoral Reform International Services.
So why criticise the Foreign Office? From a number of sources abroad, I gather that plans are afoot, and that the Treasury, obviously, is leading the charge. The declining value of the pound and increased UN peacekeeping commitments are having a knock-on effect on the FCO’s commitment to democratisation, human rights, good governance, elections and election observation. It is truly astonishing that the FCO has been put in such a situation, which is not its natural role. I have heard that the 10 per cent. quota could well be abandoned and that secondees could be withdrawn. I leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) to expand on that, as he is far more knowledgeable about it than I am.
All that is being done behind closed doors. Who has been consulted? Have Members of Parliament or the OSCE assembly been consulted? I think not. It is a back-room job and the consequences could be disastrous. As I have said, the bureaucratic leadership of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly can be coped with eventually, but the Foreign Office inspired by the Treasury is a different kettle of fish. All the good work done could be dismantled, and the vacuum could well be filled by those great democracies Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and certainly Russia, because the numbers are increasing. I am sure that my hon. Friend will elaborate on that, as well.
I am informed that the cuts will bite in the next financial year, which begins three weeks from now, although I hope that the monitoring of forthcoming elections in Macedonia, Moldova and Montenegro will be secure. After that, we are out of the business. We can be certain that others with the necessary financial resources, such as the Russians, will fill in. What will happen to those going through difficult Treasury-led reassessments? I could name a number of countries in a parlous state that might well say, “Well, if the Brits have pulled out, why can’t we?” That would be desperate, and it must be avoided. Otherwise, we will move from being at the top of the premiership of contributors to democratisation around the world to the old Beazer Homes league, or to Sunday league football in Walsall. The Foreign Office and the UK are ill-fitted to drop down the league quite so quickly.
I urge the Minister to be open with us and to tell us the sources of the current crisis; perhaps I have got it wrong. What could the consequences be? What are the Foreign Office’s options? What consultation has been held with the OSCE and, especially, with ODIHR and with Members of Parliament? What is the cost of sending observers to strange parts for the FCO? The people who go are trained by Electoral Reform International Services and other organisations. Off they go, those skilled people. They do not stay in four-star hotels, they do not receive a large per diem and they do not travel in style. They are genuine people trying hard to serve their country and democratisation.
Will the FCO or the Government find the money to fill the vacuum? I do not mean just until the end of the financial year. I do not want to irritate the Department for International Development, but it is strongly into peacekeeping and democracy building; it even funds election observations, and its budget is larger than the FCO’s. Its major role is developmental and elections are an essential component of the development process. However, my concern is that we are not just dealing with a cost-cutting exercise vis-à-vis the OSCE. What will happen to EU election observation, UN democracy-building and the Commonwealth? Perhaps those will be spared. I suspect that some will not.
I conclude with three very good quotes:
“I am unapologetic about a mission to help democracy spread through the world”.
“Most democracies that fail do so during the first few electoral cycles… Democracy needs to be nursed through its early years”.
“As a world leader in aid, we can ensure that aid supports democracy and good governance”.
Those are not my words; they were uttered by the Foreign Secretary last year. His Department has now threatened to cut much more of its budget. If that happens, it will be detrimental—indeed, despicable. I have been informed by people from all over the OSCE region who cannot believe that it is happening. I know that in the current economic crisis, everyone is hurting, but the annual cost of sending observers to the OSCE is almost peanuts. In any economic downturn, it is fledgling democracies that need support, because they are the most vulnerable. We do not want a reversion to the old order in countries in eastern and central Europe.
Even consolidated democracies are not immune to pressure at the current time. I estimate that present annual budget spending by the FCO on election observation in the OSCE is not much more than £1 million. Are we risking our hard-built reputation for that? Surely not.
I shall be brief, as I know that the Minister has a lot to say. I endorse a considerable amount of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said. The British Government’s commitment to the OSCE over the years has been absolute. Britain has been one of the major contributors to the OSCE, both in its founding days and more recently, although there has been a reduction in the number of UK-financed secondees to the OSCE family in recent years. From some 113 people seconded directly to the OSCE in 2004, we are down to 14 this year, plus a few more in other areas.
That is regrettable. If this country is not at the forefront of saying that the OSCE must be made to work, we might find that others took that view. Some 67 per cent. of the OSCE’s international staff are secondees. It relies on countries such as Britain to provide high-quality people to make it work. My right hon. Friend made a point about election monitoring and the importance of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which he rightly calls the jewel in the OSCE crown. It would be a tragedy if our Government withdrew their commitment to filling 10 per cent. of placements in ODIHR.
It would be equally regrettable, however, if we were to divert other secondees. Two posts filled by UK nationals illustrate that problem. At present, Stephen Young is the head of the military monitoring operation in Georgia. After the events of last year, no Foreign Office Minister is going to stand up and say that that operation does not matter. Having a high-quality UK staffer filling that post is vital to our national interest. I could mention many other people, but one such is Henry Bolton, the senior border issues adviser at the OSCE’s conflict prevention centre. His work touches on the situation in Afghanistan, where we have vital national strategic interests. It would be crazy to lose those secondees.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about election monitoring: we need to keep the secondees there. My plea to the Minister is not to let the election monitoring secondees disappear or accommodate that by getting rid of secondees to the OSCE more generally, as that would be foolish for Britain’s national interest.
I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on securing what is a genuinely important debate. The promotion of democracy continues to be a high priority for the Government and, as is clear, a topic of utmost interest to Members on both sides of the House. That is not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is fundamentally in our interests, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) has pointed out.
Democracy allows competing interests and grievances to be channelled through politics rather than through violence, and it remains the best investment in prosperity and stability. It is also the best insurance policy that we have against famine and war. Spreading human rights and democratic accountability is integral to what we do, whether in the functioning of international organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the United Nations and the European Union, in our work for peace in the middle east, or in our consular work around the world. Such work includes support for prisoners facing execution, for the victims of forced marriage and regarding children who have been taken abroad illegally by a parent.
According to global polling by Gallup, eight out of 10 people want to live in a democracy. That figure is closer to nine out of 10 in Africa. When a country such as Afghanistan, which has not had an election for 30 years, can inspire 8 million people—70 per cent. of the electorate—to vote, and when countries such as Indonesia and Turkey are finding their own way of marrying democracy and Islam, it is right and necessary to assert the universality of democratic values. That is especially necessary when we consider that, in some parts of the world, the march towards democracy has slowed, or has even gone into reverse, and that the marriage of economic and political freedom has been questioned. We have heard as much talk of democratic recession as of democratic growth.
My right hon. Friend raised a number of concerns about Russia, where there has been a shrinking of democratic space, including restrictions on civil society and the ability to protest. Certainly, the situation in the north Caucasus remains fragile and vulnerable to human rights violations. We raise our concerns with the Russians regularly, and our most recent bilateral human rights consultation was in January. We are particularly concerned about the lack of media freedom in Russia, as a strong, independent media is essential to fostering and protecting democratic freedoms there, as elsewhere. It is a reality that journalists have been subject to pressure from the authorities and that many practise self-censorship of their work, which is of genuine concern. Russia must be clear that its membership of the OSCE carries a wide range of responsibilities and obligations, and we will continue to make that point to our Russian counterparts.
We recognise that human rights and democracy are a work in progress, whoever we are and in whatever country we are, including this country. However, we have a role to play in promoting democratic values, and we devote substantial resources to that, as the annual human rights report by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office shows. For example, we have completed a project with the Department for International Development to develop the capacity of political parties in Zambia to understand their responsibilities and obligations in the electoral process. That project has helped to raise the confidence of the public and of political parties in the credibility of that important election process. We also support election monitoring across the world through the OSCE, the European Union and other international organisations. By monitoring elections, we discourage fraud and voter intimidation, and we fundamentally increase voter confidence. Election observation can be a key tool in conflict prevention and in post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation.
The promotion of democracy is not just about elections, important though they are. It is also about the work that we do to give a voice to civil society, to secure freedom of expression and to enable people to demand change. It is about building the rule of law, about the accountability of the judiciary, the military and the police, and about the capability of political parties. That is why we strongly support the work of the OSCE and its Office for Human Rights and Democratic Institutions. Since the early 1990s, that organisation has carried out a wide range of vital work in support of human rights and democratisation in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, at the centre of which are its election observation activities. I share my right hon. Friend’s high regard for that organisation, and I certainly appreciate the key role that he and other hon. Members have played. We regard ODIHR as the foremost authority in this field, and we have taken on board its advice in the past. Following the recommendations of OSCE observers at our general election in 2005, we amended UK electoral law to allow election observers to be present in polling stations.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that ODIHR and its election observation activities have come under attack from Russia and her allies in recent years. Efforts have been made to limit the scope of ODIHR’s activities and the size of its monitoring teams, thus limiting its effectiveness, which is a cause for concern. We were very concerned that Russia effectively barred ODIHR from monitoring its last set of parliamentary and presidential elections, and we and our EU partners have made that point very clear. We are committed to working with like-minded OSCE partners to resist any further attempts to dilute ODIHR’s activities, and we are aware of the differences of opinion between ODIHR and the Secretariat of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly over the leadership of election observation missions. Clearly there is scope for both parliamentarians and ODIHR to play a role, but our view is that neither side should lead the other. That is made clear in the 1997 agreement between the Parliamentary Assembly and ODIHR, and in the 2006 ministerial decision on election observation. We have repeatedly urged both sides to work in partnership and to maintain the reputation for objective, thorough and professional election observation that they have established.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns about the influence of the Parliamentary Assembly’s Secretariat on OSCE election observation. It is not in our interests for the effectiveness of OSCE election observation to be undermined. On the contrary, we support any measure that is geared towards strengthening its effectiveness. Ultimately, however, this is an issue for the Parliamentary Assembly to resolve internally. OSCE-participating states do not have the power to intervene in Parliamentary Assembly matters. On my right hon. Friend’s concerns about the UK’s contribution towards OSCE election monitoring, I should like to reassure him that we will send UK observers to the forthcoming elections in Macedonia, Montenegro and Moldova. It remains our intention to continue sending observers to future election observation missions, and we are exploring ways of doing so.
On our secondees to the OSCE, it has become clear that the UK’s share of the costs of international peacekeeping operations will be higher in 2009-10 than in previous years. That is caused principally by two factors, one of which is new peacekeeping activity, which reflects a positive trend. One example is the move in the UN mission in Darfur towards a full-strength operation. The second factor is exchange rate changes. We are billed by the UN and EU in US dollars and in euros, which has clearly had an impact on our costs.
At a time when demand for UN peacekeepers is increasing—the number of UN-deployed troops has increased fivefold in the past eight years—we have to meet our obligations and commitments to the UN and other international organisations. The Government are therefore reviewing the range of their conflict-prevention, peacekeeping and stabilisation activities as part of an annual exercise to make decisions about activity in the coming year. The increasing cost of international peacekeeping means that we need to prioritise carefully the money that we spend on other UK programmes, including secondments for international election observation. We are working to ensure that our conflict-related activity is rigorously prioritised in light of changing demands and the requirement that we meet our share of the common costs of international peacekeeping activity. Those decisions will have an impact on the amount of money available to support election observation beyond 31 March.
That is what my written speech says. I am not the Minister with direct responsibility for this area, but I am taken by, and conscious of, the arguments that have been put forward this afternoon. The amount spent on our election observation mission is about £600,000, and I think that we need to consider this area carefully. We are all affected by the impact of international economic affairs, fluctuations in the exchange rate and the increase in peacekeeping operations, but I take the point that our self-interest and international standing are both fundamentally affected by our contribution to international election observation. I have received a strong message from today’s debate, which I shall take to the FCO and discuss with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who is responsible for these matters. I hope that we can find a way forward that will address the concerns that have been raised today.
Question put and agreed to.