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House of Commons Hansard
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Westminster Hall
25 March 2009
Volume 490

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 25 March 2009

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Ashraf (Geneva Convention)

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

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I am pleased to raise this debate about the residents of Ashraf City and the obligations of the United Kingdom, and other members of the so-called coalition, to them in terms of their protected person status under the Geneva convention. I am proud, for the purposes of the debate this morning, to wear the symbol of Ashraf City in solidarity with these people, who are brave patriots of Iran and are looking forward to the day when their country will be rid of a cruel totalitarian regime that not only persecutes their people within Iran, but is acknowledged by United Kingdom Ministers, along with many others, as the arch-exporter of terrorism around the world and, particularly, as destabilising the region of the middle east. That is the backdrop.

I acknowledge the helpful response that I received, as did those of us in the parliamentary campaign that represents the whole political spectrum at Westminster, and which has hon. Members drawn from every party and every persuasion. We acknowledge the endeavours of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and, because it is relevant to show a reason why we have to raise this debate, the noble Lord Malloch-Brown. My reading of the comments and reactions of those Ministers is that they have some sympathy with and concern about the issues involved and, I suspect, anxiety about the future of the people at Camp Ashraf, which is situated some 80 km north of Baghdad.

I name those Ministers because they show where the United Kingdom Government have not shown great coherence of policy and utterances. I separate those three members of the Government from my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, who, in their respective roles as Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Home Office Minister, have sent mixed, ambiguous messages to the regime in Tehran, both in relation to the people at Camp Ashraf and in respect of the wider campaign and movement of people in exile trying to overcome the cruel regime in Iran.

Some of the mixed messages have been given in relation to what the United Kingdom says and does concerning the people of Camp Ashraf. Everyone in the parliamentary campaign Committee recognises that we have to deal with the world as it is, rather than how we would like it to be, so we always understand the need for engagement with the cruel regime in Tehran; but we do not accept the need to appease it. In our view, regarding the people in exile and those in Ashraf City, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform have not understood that.

Why do we raise the question of the people in Ashraf today? These people have, for two decades, had this camp in Iraq, which is now called Ashraf City. They are Iranians who have stood firm for two decades in defiance, close by the territory governed by the cruel regime in Tehran. Of course, they have been a source of considerable irritation to that totalitarian regime. It is a matter of fact that they were given harbourage there during the time of Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq, but they have always been at pains to distinguish between the accommodation that they were granted by Iraq and the fact that they did not support the Saddam regime.

Just before the invasion of Iraq, my noble Friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale gave the United Kingdom Government the co-ordinates of the Ashraf camp in order that it would not be shelled or attacked by coalition forces. Those of us in the parliamentary Committee have to say with some regret that we are bewildered about what happened to that information supplied by Lord Corbett, because the people in Ashraf suffered and endured attacks by the coalition forces. We wonder whether those co-ordinates were transmitted to our UK coalition commanders. That is history, but it is raised as a relevant issue this morning, because in my view it heightens the obligation of the UK Government now to get it right.

All hon. Members welcome the handing back to the people of Iraq the sovereignty of their country. However, the view of the parliamentary Committee is that that change—particularly handing over the green zones in Baghdad just at the turn of the year—does not absolve the United States, the United Kingdom or other coalition partners of their humanitarian obligations to the people of Ashraf and their obligations under the Geneva convention, because these people have protected person status.

At the challenge of the UK Government the people of Ashraf demilitarised: their weapons were put beyond use. That was a noble gesture. It is a product of a carrot-and-stick policy, but since 2002 they have demonstrably and unchallengeably been disarmed. I deliberately use the word “unchallengeably” because this matter was tested in the UK courts. We in the parliamentary Committee—this is in the Register of Members’ Interests—were proud to pursue in the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission in London, which has the status of the High Court, an appeal against the attitude of the Home Secretary in relation to the supporters of the people of Camp Ashraf City: what is known as the PMOI, or the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran. In that court, Lord Justice Ognall accepted that these people had been disarmed since 2002-03, although the British Government tried to imply otherwise.

For your information, Mr. Benton, this matter was tested by the highest standards of the United Kingdom courts. At one point, we members of the parliamentary campaign Committee were excluded from the court and special advocates looked at the secret information, but still the Court found that there had been demilitarisation and the standing-down of weapons. The case went to appeal with the Lord Chief Justice presiding, who said that the attitude of the British Government was perverse. I am told that this is a pretty high comment, coming from the Lord Chief Justice.

It is important that the House understand that the judgment of the British Government was found to be flawed. These people in Ashraf, and their supporters, have stood down from what could be described as military activity in a way similar to what Sinn Fein-IRA have done in Ireland.

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Does the hon. Gentleman not also find it ironic that although one benefit of the Iraq war is that the people of Iraq have been released from one of the most hideous regimes, under the tyrant Saddam Hussein, one consequence of that—what now could occur—is that a group of people in Camp Ashraf could be taken from a new, democratic country and put into Iran, which is another hideous regime? If that happens, their safety is at risk and some of them could well be executed, because the current Iranian regime has form in that regard, having executed 120,000 people. If those 3,500 people are put into Iran they could find themselves dead.

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To say the least, it is highly probable that they would be executed and/or suffer appalling persecution. It is important to remember that the Foreign Office, which is very much an hereditary Foreign Office, consists of people similar to those who made the judgment in 1945 to return the Cossacks and Tartars back to Joe Stalin, and we know the consequences of that. That is what hon. Members want to avoid for the people of Ashraf. We fear that they will become the Cossacks of our generation, unless the United States and the United Kingdom make it abundantly clear, primarily to the Iraqi Government but also to Iran, that those people should stay where they are and enjoy the protection of the coalition forces for reasons to which I have referred: our overriding humanitarian obligations and our duty to protect them, as well as our jealous protection of the Geneva convention.

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The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Iraqi Government have said that they will remove the 3,500 people from the camp without force, perhaps to other countries. Does he know which other countries would take them, and whether the Ashraf people are prepared to talk or whether they want to stay?

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The question is academic, because no country is lining up to offer immigration to the Ashraf people, although it is fair to say that they do not want to move. An immediate issue is the determination of the Iranian regime to have them back in its claws. I shall return to that to explain why.

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, on 28 February, former President Rafsanjani of Iran visited Iraq and met the Iraqi President to make the Iranian’s Government’s position abundantly clear on the return of the Ashraf people to Iran. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, the Iranian Government certainly have form. A few months ago, Iranian relatives of Ashraf residents attempted to leave Tehran to visit their relatives, and many are still languishing in Evin prison in Tehran, simply for attempting to visit their relatives.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reaffirming the Iranian regime’s form. People who wanted to visit their loved ones are being persecuted for trying to do so.

The hon. Gentleman referred to 28 February, which is an important date, because as well as the former Iranian leaders’ utterances and the visitation to which he referred, the Iranian supreme leader, Khamenei, said:

“The occupying military forces”—

American and United Kingdom forces—

“must leave Iraq as soon as possible”—

no doubt he was waving his finger—

“since every day that their departure is delayed, it will be to the detriment of people of Iraq.”

That is quite menacing. He told the Iraqi President:

“The mutual agreement regarding the expulsion of the Monafeqin”—

the term used by the regime to describe the PMOI—

“from Iraq must be implemented and we are waiting for it.”

Clearly, there is enormous pressure on the Ashraf residents, who feel beleaguered and surrounded, and other hon. Members and I will amplify how threatened they feel and the reasons for that. The backdrop is that the Iranian regime feels increasingly wobbly, which I welcome, and that has been reflected in recent provincial elections in Iran. Khamenei and Rafsanjani are putting pressure on the Iraq Government. Another name that I want to introduce is Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who is the Iraqi national security adviser—many of his utterances have a similar ring to those of Joseph Goebbels—and he said on 8 March:

“It is legitimate for Iran to have such a position”—

that is, to demand that the Ashraf residents are handed over—

“We therefore adopted a clear and precise policy of expelling this terrorist organisation out of Iraq and rapidly return Ashraf residents to Iran”.

He continued:

“These individuals have been brainwashed and we must free them from this poison. This process will be painful in the beginning but there are no other alternatives than to resort to this painful measure.”

That has the ring of the early 1940s.

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Does the hon. Gentleman accept that President Talabani has said:

“The Monafeqin are criminals who have committed countless crimes against the people of Iraq too and the Iraqi government is determined to expel them and it will carry this out”?

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Absolutely. The anxiety of my colleagues in the campaign is that the utterances by Iranian leaders are having an impact on the fragile and split Government in Baghdad. The national security adviser, al-Rubaie, goes on to say that the people of Ashraf

“do not enjoy the…humanitarian status of refugees. They do not have the right to political asylum. I can clearly state that they have no right to stay in Iraq”.

As recently as 11 March, he issued a strongly worded, 10-point directive that was addressed in menacing terms to the citizens of Ashraf. It stated that there is an absolute prohibition on entry of any material except water, food and medicine; that the building at the entrance of Ashraf will be forcibly occupied and the residents expelled; that any Ashraf resident may be arrested; that any Ashraf resident wearing uniform will be prosecuted; that there will be an immediate prohibition on any new construction or changes to the buildings, including those that make Ashraf City civilised, such as squares, boulevards, statues and so on; and that all buildings that are erected can and will be demolished. That menacing persecution diminishes the status and pride of the people who live in exile.

Al-Rubaie went on to say that the number of Iraqis who visit Camp Ashraf will be reduced. There is considerable support for Ashraf City among Iraqi citizens, but the Baghdad Government want to discourage that. Finally, an intelligence officer—someone who is close to the Prime Minister of Iraq—will control the gate of Ashraf. The citizens of Ashraf must allow Iraqi forces to inspect and control vehicles and supplies coming into Ashraf, and the Iraq flag must be hoisted on all watchtowers and in the middle of the camp. Al-Rubaie calls it Camp Ashraf; I call it Ashraf City. Those inspections by Iraqi soldiers take place around the clock.

On 13 March, Iraqi forces attempted forcibly to evacuate some buildings in Ashraf City that were occupied by women citizens in a women’s dormitory. That was painful, traumatic and menacing, and it took place for reasons that we cannot understand. We believe that there was no legitimate excuse, but that Iraqi forces wanted to assert their right to move in and to demonstrate their power.

Similar incidents have occurred during the past few weeks, and thank goodness for the presence of the United States military. I do not mean to trivialise the situation, but they came over the hill like the seventh cavalry in the nick of time to be adjudicators in the dispute to prevent what could have been a very dangerous situation, which could have been inflamed and escalated out of all proportion.

When the United States military are not around, however, the Iraqi forces—at the bidding, in my view, of the Iran Government—take advantage of that. I am referring to the tactics of moving in and aggravating the people of Ashraf. That needs to stop, and it can be stopped if the United States makes it clear to both the Iraq Government and Iran that it will not tolerate it and if the United Kingdom Government also say, “We’re standing by this. We will support the United States. We, too, believe that we have obligations to these people, both on general humanitarian considerations and in relation to the Geneva conventions.”

Another canard that is put around is that, somehow, the people in Ashraf City are being held and maintained or contained in the city against their will. That is totally untrue; it is a ludicrous claim. We all acknowledge that, in a population of 3,500 to 4,000 people, there will inevitably be people—one is not bothered by this—who, for a variety of reasons, want to get out of the situation. After all, you and I know, Mr. Benton, that people leave holy orders, even though they were committed at some stage for the long haul—for life. We all wanted to get into politics, but some of us are now beginning to consider our exit strategy. We do not do things for ever. Many of the people in Ashraf City have been there for two decades, so it is hardly surprising that there is a trickle of people who wish to leave—and leave they can. About 250 people have left, over quite a long period, but the vast majority want to stay where they are, and those who wish to leave can leave.

Hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross have interviewed people in Ashraf City to reassure themselves that there is no compulsion on people to stay. It is nonsense to say otherwise, but that is sometimes spun by the Iranian regime and now by the Iraq Government, and what I fear from time to time is that the United Kingdom spokespersons pick up on that nonsense and repeat it, again giving succour and encouragement to the propaganda regime of Iran.

Many other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, and I shall be pleased to hear their views. I have said that I acknowledge the spirit in which the United States military have kept an eye on the people of Ashraf. Through this debate and through the United Kingdom Government, we want to urge them to continue to do so, but we in the parliamentary campaign think that it is time that the United Kingdom Government went and had a look themselves. I do not know what modalities exist for that, but we are saying in this debate that we are quite certain about the persecution. We are quite certain about the jeopardy that the people are in. We are quite certain that they are not there for any reason other than their desire to be patriots and stand firm against the regime. They do not want to leave. However, we are inviting the British Government to test that themselves.

It is time that there was a mission or a visit made at official level. That in itself would also send a powerful signal to the Government in Baghdad and, through them, back to Tehran. For reasons of wider foreign policy, it is time that we were sending more robust signals of our aggravation about the stance internationally of the Tehran regime. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), because he looks as though he is poised to intervene.

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I am merely listening intently.

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I see; then I shall conclude, because I think that I have painted a pretty good canvas to show what the position is. We look to the British Government to respond. I hope that we can send this morning a signal from the United Kingdom House of Commons to people both in Ashraf City and around the world in exile who are looking for the day when the persecution will be lifted and they can restore parliamentary democracy and secular government to a very important, proud and historic country, which has a wonderful record of contributing to civilisation. That is what we wish to see returned, and we acknowledge this morning the great contribution that is being made to that task and the great bravery that is being shown by the people of Ashraf City.

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I start by offering hearty congratulations to my friend the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has been a doughty fighter for this cause for many years and who, since I have been a Member of this place, has been at the forefront of this battle. His efforts deserve congratulations and need to be recognised.

Let me read out one of the most chilling statements that I have heard in recent history:

“The people of Ashraf have become brainwashed and we must act to cleanse them. This will be painful in the beginning but we have no other alternative.”

One might think that those words could easily have come from some of the dictators who created such havoc in the 20th century. One might think that they could not possibly have been uttered in the new century. The truth is that they were uttered only a few weeks ago by Dr. al-Rubaie, the national security adviser to the Iraqi Government. Many would argue that we face a real problem in dealing with the Iraqi Government in that respect. It is often said by others—I have no evidence myself—that that gentleman is on the payroll of the mullahs. I cannot give a guarantee that that is the case, but those chilling words suggest that it may well be, and we need to take great heed of people who speak in that way.

We also need to recognise what Camp Ashraf is. The hon. Gentleman explained that it is made up of about 4,000 people. Incidentally, that is 1,500 more than we rescued in the Falklands from the grip of Argentinian dictatorship. There are about 2,500 indigenous people in the Falklands and 4,000 in Ashraf. As my good friend rightly said, those in Ashraf were members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran. They would argue that they were freedom fighters in that troubled country—a country that has been troubled for the past 50 years or so. You, Mr. Benton, will no doubt remember Mr. Mossadeq and the problems in the early 1950s. We are talking about a country that has faced troubles and tribulations for a long time, but they are nothing like the tribulations that it faces now: the treatment that is being meted out to women in Iran; the treatment that is being meted out to homosexuals in Iran; and the treatment that is being meted out to members of the Baha’i faith in Iran now. The same also applies to members of trade unions and students.

Iran’s record on human rights stands exposed. In a world where the concept of human rights has been much maligned in many nations, that nation stands out, and we need to take note of that when considering the problem of the plight of the people in Ashraf. My good friend reminded us that they are protected under the Geneva convention; they were granted protected persons status in 2004. They are also protected under international humanitarian law and the principle of non-refoulement. I am not being clever when I use that phrase; indeed, I did not know what it was, so I looked it up and found that it is the internationally recognised principle under which no refugee should be forcibly removed from a secure and safe haven. That, equally, needs to be taken into account.

On the basis of that protected person status, American forces have been protecting Ashraf since 2004, and we need to pay tribute to them for that. The Americans are a freedom-loving nation and they have shown that in practical terms as the protectors of the protected persons in Camp Ashraf.

Responsibility for that protection was handed over to the Iraqi regime at the end of December 2008. Initially, we were encouraged because we heard fine words from the Iraqis about understanding their responsibilities. Since then, however, the situation has deteriorated rather frighteningly. Lorries carrying supplies to the camp have been prevented from entering. As we have heard, a building, which mostly comprised a women’s dormitory, has been cordoned off. People have been threatened, and there are even reports of beatings.

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Is my hon. Friend as mystified as I am that although this country has contributed billions to an operation to release the people of Iraq from a hideous regime, we have no influence over the new democratic regime in seeking to bring about proper, humane living conditions for one group of people? Why do we have no influence when we have spent all this money releasing the people of Iraq?

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I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but we would not be here today if we did not think that the Government were prepared to bring some influence to bear. That is the very reason why we are debating the issue. I have every faith that the Minister, who we all know to be a good and fine man, will give us some words of hope in that respect when he speaks.

Members of the civilian population have been beaten. Those are not my words or the words of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, but the words of an Iraqi official, who made that admission in a statement to Reuters. The truth is that we cannot remain silent. We have a responsibility to protect the people of Ashraf under the principle adopted by the 2005 UN world summit. We should urge President Talabani and Prime Minister al-Maliki to respect the rights of Ashraf residents. They properly said that they would do that, but they have failed to do so in real terms since they became responsible for that protected group. They should vow to uphold that judicial protection, and I seek an assurance from the Minister that we will push as hard as we can to ensure that such a vow is given by the Iraqi Government, whom we spent so much money freeing from a dictator of some repugnance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said. I also ask the Minister to pressure the Iraqi Government to give a firm guarantee that they will take such actions, given that they accepted responsibility in the first place.

We should demand that the order that Mr. al-Rubaie issued in respect of Ashraf, which prevents basic commodities from reaching the camp’s residents, is revoked immediately for humanitarian reasons. I would also suggest that a man who makes the kind of chilling statement that I quoted in my opening remarks should never be in the position of advising Iraqis on national security if the west has any influence at all on the many millions of pounds that it has spent in their country.

We should ask the Iraqi Government to ensure that foreign journalists and international parliamentary delegations are allowed into Ashraf, because they are being hampered and stopped. If ever we need to be fearful, it is when a nation prevents journalists from entering an area and parliamentary delegations from truly understanding what is happening there. That must tell us all that frightening things are happening to a group of people to whom we have guaranteed protected person status.

We should urge the US Government to resume protection, on the finer premise that they are the only force in the area that is not susceptible to Iranian pressure, because there is no doubt that the Iranians are pressurising the Iraqis. The victims in the first instance could be the 4,000 people who have been granted protected person status, but whom we have failed to protect. If that happens—if the fear that I have comes to fruition—I would begin to fear for the well-being of my children and grandchildren, because such a development will impact on all our freedoms. It is in that sense that I ask the Minister to reply.

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It gives me great pleasure to make a small contribution to this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on successfully bringing the issue to our notice.

I am a member of the Council of Europe, and if we stand for anything in what we do, it is human rights. The more I learn about what is going on in Iran and about the conditions in which people are living in Ashraf, the more it makes my blood boil. We all have a duty to ensure that changes are made.

Let me pay tribute to Lord Russell-Johnston, who, sadly, died last year. He played an important role in promoting the rights of all those who believe in democracy throughout the world, but particularly in Iran. He would have been delighted to know that his campaign has been so successful, albeit, sadly, after his death. It has been a long battle to get the PMOI removed from the terrorist list, and I am delighted that that has eventually happened. I also pay tribute to my predecessor in Ribble Valley, David—now Lord—Waddington, who was instrumental in the campaign to bring that about. More than anything, however, I congratulate the ordinary democracy-loving people of Iran, who have waged a longer campaign to bring peaceful democracy to Iran, and we wish them well in their battle.

Much has been said about the rights under the Geneva convention and other treaties that we have signed of those who live in Ashraf. Irrespective of what we have signed up to, however, it is human decency more than anything else that should make us ensure that we do right by those people. One has only to look at the current regime in Iran to know what is likely to happen should the 3,500 people who live in Ashraf be moved there. The hon. Gentleman said that they could go to a third country, but there is no list of third countries waiting to take 3,500 people. Furthermore, if they were to go to another country—let us say that we opened the doors to 3,500 people—that would be to remove them from the region they love and where their relatives live. We would not do that to prisoners. When we put people in prison we ascertain where their relatives live so that they do not have far to travel. Putting those people into a third country would bring another huge problem. The best thing, surely, is to give the people who have lived in that place for many years—no doubt children have been born there, and all they know will be Ashraf—the support that we have given to the rest of Iraq and its people, so that they can live a decent life in the present period.

I refer to the present period because I have great hopes that the democratic desire of the vast majority of decent Iranian people will eventually win through, and that there will be a new, democratic Government in Iran, totally different from the current Government, who seem to enjoy executing people. I mentioned the figure of 120,000—I know that the Minister knows all this—but it is not just that so many people have been executed; it is that the manner in which it has been done, and the reasons for it, are appalling. One has only to do a Google search to see the most graphic pictures of people who have been publicly executed in Iran, some of them for the hideous crime of being gay. Yesterday in the House of Commons we pushed through legislation to ensure that people cannot even make jokes about people being gay, but in Iran people will be executed and tortured for it.

I was on a delegation at an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference and we spoke with some Iranian MPs. They were not a nice group of people; they were not my favourites among the groups I met that week. When I raised the subject of the execution of two young lads accused of being gay, one of whom I understand was under 18, the response was, “If they do those sorts of things in private no one will really know about it, but if it becomes public they will be tortured.” I intervened and said, “Tortured! Yes, you may torture them first; then you execute them.” The photographs are there for anyone to see. The issue first came to my notice when I read about it in a Sunday magazine. The piece said that the two young lads looked as if they were going off for a walk in the park, because they were dressed in casual clothes, but they were not—they were going to their execution.

The regime is one in which women are second-class citizens and stoning is still allowed; stoning takes place!

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree about the public façade adopted by the Iranian regime; the Iranian Parliament last year passed a penal code outlawing stonings, but the Government are incapable of enforcing their own rules. Does he agree that when we think of Ashraf City we think of a fully fledged community? He talked about children there who have never known anything different. It is a community of 4,000 sq km, and the prospect of juveniles going back to Iran to face such punishments as he has described for daring to challenge the regime is frightening.

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Part of the problem, of course, is getting our minds around the idea of how society in Iran functions. We know that women who are inappropriately dressed in the street will be beaten, and put into cars and driven off. We have seen footage of that on the BBC. When we tried to show the Iranian MPs that they dismissed it and were not interested. Camp Ashraf is a community. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) mentioned the Falkland Islands. We are talking about a population in excess of that of the islands, and we should recognise that community, which has lived there for some time.

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I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman’s intriguing tale of meeting Iranian MPs and his remarks highlighting the mistreatment of women, and wonder whether there were any women MPs in the delegation he met.

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There was a token one; I use the word “token” because the IPU encourages delegations to bring women to conferences, because we want more women to be elected and to take positions of responsibility. I am afraid that there was just one, token, woman in the Iranian delegation. Our delegation was led by a woman, and I was very pleased by that difference.

If people going to visit friends and relatives in Ashraf are persecuted in Tehran, as has happened, my great fear is about what the consequences will be if the 3,500 people in question are taken to Iran. There are all sorts of reasons for wanting good relationships with Iran—for example, Iraq is its neighbour in the region—and we can understand that. I suspect we can even understand the possibility of secret negotiations involving our Government, the American Government and Iran; all sorts of deals are done behind closed doors. Indeed, Obama has already made a number of public proclamations about wanting a friendlier relationship with Iran. We want that; we would prefer dialogue to a stand-off and Iran’s continued progress towards making nuclear weapons. What a fearful prospect it would be if Iran could make and deliver them; we know that it has the capability to do that.

I want the Minister to acknowledge that he recognises the current situation and knows that the regime is, to use an understatement, unpleasant, and that if the people of Camp Ashraf are taken from there to Iran the likely consequences will be torture and execution. We cannot allow that to happen.

I finish as I started, by paying tribute to the many democracy-loving Iranians throughout the world who pray for the day when the regime that currently occupies their country will be removed and a proper full democracy will be implemented there, to everyone’s benefit. I pay tribute to them because we, as politicians, sometimes take a stand on difficult issues, but in the main we do not fear for our lives from a regime in our own country. When they speak out publicly about wanting change in their country they risk their lives. Many have paid the ultimate price, and those who live abroad who want democratic change still risk their lives and cannot return to the country of their birth or their parents’ birth, which they love. Some day, we hope, they will be able to do so, and be greeted by a truly democratic peace-loving Government.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on securing the debate; as ever, he put his case forcefully and with passion and gave an excellent introduction. Various hon. Members have outlined the problems of residents of Camp Ashraf, who numbered nearly 4,000 in 2003 and, after several hundred voluntary repatriations, number in the region of 3,500 individuals now. Last year in May and July, the danger of living in Camp Ashraf was seen when there were missile attacks, which were thought to come from the Iranian side. There were disruptions to the water supply, again, which made living conditions in the camp difficult. We have heard from hon. Members today that people living in Iran trying to visit Ashraf to see relatives—something that we would take for granted in this country—have been arrested and held and are suffering goodness knows what treatment in Tehran.

The hon. Gentleman gave a long list of the threats and dangers of persecution that the individuals from the camp will face if they are sent back to Iran. It is almost two months since 23 January, when the Iraqi Government said that Camp Ashraf should be closed within two months. It is clearly an urgent and pressing matter, which is why today’s debate is timely.

There has been some debate in the House; indeed, I read with interest the Hansard report of a debate on Iran a few weeks ago about the de-proscription of the PMOI. It seemed that there were heated views on both sides about the matter. However, the Court of Appeal has ruled that there is neither classified nor unclassified evidence showing the PMOI to have had any terrorist activity or intent, at least since 2001. The matter has been discussed also in the High Court, so whatever some Members may think about the rights and wrongs of the issue, we must accept the court ruling that it is not a terrorist organisation.

I think that the view is shared across the House that we want to see a pluralist Iran, with no persecution of the opposition and a thriving democracy. We are some way from that, but I caution against the automatic assumption that because the PMOI is not a terrorist organisation it is therefore the ideal champion of democracy. It is possible to believe that the PMOI is not a terrorist organisation, yet to retain our concerns about it.

Some who have left Camp Ashraf have voluntarily reported

“brainwashing, forced indoctrination and rough treatment by the PMOI of those who wanted to leave the camp.”

Some have challenged that, saying that claims of brainwashing were spin by the Iranian authorities, but that quote comes from a House of Commons Library briefing note. Like other hon. Members, I have huge respect for the integrity of the Library staff; I would not expect them to succumb to Iranian spin. That note identifies the fact that there are genuine concerns about some of the procedures in Ashraf. We should not necessarily view the PMOI with rose-tinted spectacles.

That said, today’s debate is about human rights. Regardless of their political views or beliefs, all human beings deserve their basic human rights. The individuals in Camp Ashraf are protected under the Geneva convention. They were not participants in the Iraq war; in many ways, there were caught in the crossfire. In July 2004, they were declared by the United States as being protected persons, which means that they should not be transferred to a country where they would face persecution for their political opinions.

The Geneva convention applies for one year after military operations have closed, and they have not yet closed; there are still trips within Iraq, so the military are still there in force. As a result, the US is legally responsible for the protection of those individuals, but after seeking assurances they passed that responsibility to Iraq. However, any country that has been involved in the sorry state of affairs that we have seen in Iraq must be concerned about, and bear a level of responsibility for, the protection of those individuals.

There is obvious concern that the Iraqi Government are facing pressure from Iran to return the individuals being held at Camp Ashraf. Although co-operation between the new Iraqi Government and the Iranian state might be thought to be positive for regional stability, it should not come at the expense of human rights. Recent US moves to improve relationships with Iran—particularly and sensibly starting with the question of Afghanistan, where there is a clear area of mutual interest between the two countries—is most welcome. However, it should not drown legitimate concerns about the upholding of international law regarding the rights of those in Camp Ashraf.

Amnesty International has said that there is a grave risk of torture if those people are forced to return to Iran. Indeed, in August 2008 the Iraqi Justice Minister said:

“If it were not for the presence of coalition forces at Ashraf, you would have seen the people of Iraq attacking and destroying Ashraf.”

That does not bode well for the safety of those people in Iraq. That is why I am surprised that, so far, the Government have accepted US and Iraqi assurances on the safety of those people if they were expelled to Iran. I struggle to see how their safety can be guaranteed. As I said, the missile attacks on Ashraf in May and July 2008 are believed to have come from Iran. If Iran is prepared to launch attacks on another country, why should it not be expected to persecute those people, were they to be in Iran?

The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) told us about the wide range of groups already suffering a great degree of persecution in Iran, including the Baha’i, the Christians and other religious minorities—and, indeed, other groups such as students. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) outlined perfectly the plight of young gay men in Iran, and the horror of the torture and executions that go on there. Perhaps even worse was the relaxed attitude that the hon. Gentleman found among Iranian MPs to those shocking facts.

In that context, how can the Government be confident that if Camp Ashraf is closed and the individuals are returned to Iran, they will ever be safe? Both here and in the other place, the Government have insisted that it is not the UK’s responsibility but the responsibility of the US. We have often been a mediator between the US and Iran, and we have also waxed lyrical about our special relationship with the US. I therefore suggest that it is worth using that special relationship to influence the US to take the matter seriously.

When the US decided to invade Iraq, we did not say that it was the responsibility of the US and stand back. In fact, we were shoulder to shoulder with America. If we did so then, why should we not stand shoulder to shoulder when dealing with the present problem? It is undoubtedly a thorny issue with no easy answer, but that does not mean that we can get rid of our responsibility for the outcome. A potential humanitarian catastrophe is waiting to happen, and that should concern us all, both as UK citizens and as citizens of the world.

Questions were asked on this matter on 2 March in the other place. Speaking for the Government, Lord Malloch-Brown did not give a view on whether Camp Ashraf should be closed and what should happen to the individuals there. Indeed, he seemed to say that he was satisfied that the Iraqi authorities were making sufficient efforts to protect those people. In light of the chilling remarks of the Iraqi security adviser, how on earth can the Government have the confidence to make such statements? I hope that the Minister will clearly outline what steps the Government are taking and what concrete steps they will take to ensure that “protected person” status under the Geneva convention has meaning for the 3,500 people in Ashraf.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on securing this debate. He has long developed a reputation in the House as a doughty champion of neglected causes, of which this is one. I pay tribute to his tenacity in demanding answers from whichever Ministers of whichever party have happened to be in office at the time.

The first thing that we need to do this morning is to work out the respective responsibilities of the British, American and Iraqi Governments. Crucially, are the inhabitants of Camp Ashraf protected persons under the fourth Geneva convention? My reading of the convention—I am no lawyer—is that they are protected persons and that they fall within the categories described therein. If so, they are entitled to humane treatment for as long as they live there. Without breaching the convention, they may not be transferred to another country under any circumstances if they have reason to fear persecution on account of their political opinions or their religious beliefs.

I should be grateful if the Minister were to say what is the Government’s legal opinion of the status of the residents of Camp Ashraf? Are they protected persons under the Geneva convention? What has the Government’s legal advice been on which country, or countries, now have legal responsibility for ensuring that the convention’s provisions are properly observed? In the case of occupied territories, the convention provides that the responsibility should remain with the occupying power, or powers, for a year after the general close of military operations, and partially, thereafter, if the occupying power continues to exercise the functions of government.

I confess to no legal expertise, but that language suggests that the prime responsibility now lies with the Iraqi Government, following the transfer of sovereignty and the successful negotiation of status of forces agreements between the various coalition powers and the elected Government in Baghdad. The Iraqi Government, therefore, should be primarily responsible for ensuring that they comply with humanitarian law. Arguably, however, some enduring, residual United States legal responsibility remains, but I should have thought—but again I would welcome the Government’s expert analysis—that the United Kingdom has more of a moral, than a legal, responsibility. What is happening at Ashraf, and what options are available to us and the other countries involved? My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) spoke about the threatening language used by at least one spokesman for the Iraqi Government and about restrictions on normal supplies to those living in Ashraf.

It is very important that we focus this debate on Iraq’s and other Governments’ humanitarian and legal obligations, rather than be distracted by what we think about the PMOI and the political situation in Iran. I am happy to concur with all the hon. Members who have spoken in this debate about the Iranian regime’s barbaric human rights record. Members have had the opportunity to make those criticisms in many other debates, but if we are to understand why some senior members of the elected Iraqi Government are hostile towards the PMOI, we need to remind ourselves that the latter previously allied itself with Saddam Hussein, fought alongside his forces in the Iran-Iraq war and accepted guns, artillery and armoured vehicles from the Ba’athist regime. Those weapons were put out of use only when the United States’ forces reached Ashraf, after the intervention in 2003.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South quoted President Talabani, who was very critical of the PMOI. The Kurds say that the PMOI assisted the Saddam Hussein regime in its repression of the Kurdish people of northern Iraq, especially immediately after the 1990 Gulf war. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) alluded to this point. We must take seriously some of the criticisms made of how the PMOI has treated some of its own members. We need not only go the Library to find that out. Human Rights Watch, which we tend to treat with great respect when it speaks about international human rights issues, has published some very severe criticisms of the PMOI.

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I listened to what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said about the Library note—I shall take a look at it—but now the hon. Gentleman has mentioned it, too. The accusation that people cannot leave Ashraf is a canard—I use that word against not them but the Iranian regime. In the past eight weeks, the International Committee of the Red Cross went to Ashraf and investigated the claim, but found only evidence proving that people can, and do, leave. Lord Avebury, Lord Corbett and I challenged Human Rights Watch to come up with the evidence, but it ignored our individual letters. It has been acutely embarrassed by its repetition of this accusation and has never shown any evidence to prove the Iranian regime’s accusation that people cannot leave Ashraf.

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I listen with respect to the hon. Gentleman. It has been some months since I read the published criticism from Human Rights Watch, but my memory is that, shortly after it published it, it was subjected to published criticisms from various quarters and that it then responded and stood by its original allegations. However, it would be wrong to go too far into the details of that debate.

What can be done now? We must acknowledge that about 200 or 300 people—estimates vary—have returned to Iran under the auspices of the ICRC. I think that Lord Malloch-Brown said in the Lords that the British Government had no evidence that those people had been mistreated. Some members of the PMOI—I think that the Government said that they would tend to be fairly low-level members—might be able to return to Iran. As far as the others are concerned, the British Government should be saying that the Iraqi and United States Administrations should accept, and discharge fully, their obligations under international law.

I hope that the Minister can confirm that our Government continue to make direct and active representations to the Iraqi and US Governments on this human rights obligation. Above all, we must stand by Amnesty International’s recommendation that, before a final decision to remove someone from Ashraf, an independent, individual assessment should be made of the risk of serious violations of that individual’s human rights and that, under no circumstances, should somebody be removed to another country if they have reason to fear that their human rights will be abused.

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I am pleased to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), whom I congratulate on securing this debate. He and a number of his colleagues have pursued this issue with passion and conviction, and I genuinely congratulate them on doing so. I am aware that several hon. Members and noble Lords have expressed considerable, regular and diligent interest in Camp Ashraf and its residents. On at least two occasions over the past six months I have met delegations of Members to discuss the matter and to listen to their concerns.

In considering the situation in Camp Ashraf, we should not forget the considerable progress that Iraq has made as a result of the improving security situation, to which my hon. Friend referred. It has transformed the situation out of all recognition from that which existed even 15 to 18 months ago, and national reconciliation is today a far brighter prospect than it has been for a number of years. I gave media interviews on the day of the recent local elections in Iraq, and I telephoned our ambassador, who described to me the feelings and emotions on the streets of Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere. He spoke of the almost festive atmosphere in the country as Iraqis rightly went about asserting their democratic rights.

I visited Iraq last year, and it struck me that the country was slowly, but evidently, getting back on its feet. I should like to take the opportunity to congratulate Prime Minister al-Maliki and the people of Iraq on their progress towards achieving a more stable country in which people go about their daily lives in safety.

The Iraqi-led Operation Charge of the Knights in Basra in March 2008 did a great deal to improve the security situation. In downtown Basra, where people were once terrified to leave their homes for fear of being attacked or caught up in an explosion, the streets are bustling once more, with children on their way to and from school and local Basrawis back at work. That trend is positive and the Iraqi Government firmly believe that all Iraqis deserve to live free from the threat of violence or intimidation.

As a result of improvements to security, coalition troops have handed back responsibility for security to the Iraqis. That is an important point that underlies this debate. We have fully supported that process because we have increasing confidence in the ability of the Iraqi security forces to maintain that security, while respecting the rights of the people.

The Government of Iraq have signalled their commitment to developing both the culture and the institutions required to embed within Government, the security agencies and society as a whole a fundamental respect for human rights. This debate has provided an opportunity for hon. Members to express their concerns, and for me to clarify the Government’s understanding of the complex legal position of the residents of Camp Ashraf.

Before I address those points directly, let me say that I very much share hon. Members’ concerns about the situation facing the ordinary people of Iran. There is a palpable lack of democracy there. On the nuclear issue, there is a complete unwillingness to respond to the legitimate concerns of the international community and to deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency. There is a lack of respect for human rights, whether it be for Christians or Baha’is. Iran is one of the largest users of the death penalty anywhere in the world. Of particular concern is the continued execution of minors under the age of 18 despite a recent Iraqi ruling that such a practice should not take place. I find it staggering that a draft mandatory death penalty for the so-called crime of apostasy is before the Majlis. If anything underlines the degree of concern about human rights in Iran, that is very much it.

Notwithstanding all of that, it is right that we say to the Government of Iran and their people that we want a legitimate relationship, and that we want the regime to engage with the international community. I welcome the recent decision of the US Administration to make that very clear. I hope that we will see a response to that.

Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friends, have raised a number of questions to which I will try to respond. Before I do so, it may be useful for me to outline, in brief, the history of the camp to date. The People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran—or Mujaheddin-e-Khalq—was founded in Iran in 1965 with the broad aim of replacing the Shah and the political situation in which he dominated.

In its first years, the MEK’s main focus was on organisational and ideological work, but in the early 1970s, it carried out violent attacks against the interests of the Shah, his Government and their western allies. After the February 1979 revolution, the MEK continued to condone violence. In the course of 1980 and 1981, the MEK’s relationship with the authorities became increasingly hostile and again violent.

Having fled to Paris in 1981, the exiled MEK moved to Iraq and Camp Ashraf in June 1986. The Iraqi regime under Saddam provided land for bases and helped equip the MEK’s armed force in Iraq—the National Liberation Army. MEK forces fought on the Iraqi side during the Iran-Iraq war. They claimed responsibility for a series of attacks during the 1990s and a spate of attacks in the early part of 2001 against numerous Iranian targets, both in Iran and around the world. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the MEK turned over its arms to US forces in Camp Ashraf.

The legal position was a key issue for the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). As I understand it, the US Government’s position is that members of the MEK in Camp Ashraf are to be treated as protected persons for the purposes of the fourth Geneva convention. The UK position has been that as the fourth Geneva convention ceased to apply in Iraq after 28 June 2004, the designation of “protected persons” under that particular convention could no longer be applicable as 28 June 2004 signified the end of the occupation. However, that does not mean that the residents in the camp are entitled to no protection under Iraqi or international law.

Our view is that we stopped being the occupiers under the Geneva convention after 28 June 2004. Our obligations as occupiers continued for one year only after the occupation. I mention that because the hon. Gentleman raised that point directly with me. The year starts after 28 June 2004.

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Our permanent membership of the UN Security Council has an impact on our responsibilities for upholding international humanitarian law. Therefore, are there not responsibilities in that respect?

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I will come on to how we are trying to carry out our responsibilities notwithstanding the fact that we are now dealing with a sovereign state and a democratic country that has its own rights and responsibilities. Inevitably, in those circumstances, our relationship will be different from the one in which we are the occupier.

It has always been clear that, with the expiry at the end of 2008 of the UN Security Council resolution mandate for the coalition forces in Iraq, responsibility for the security and administration of the camp and its residents would have to pass from the US to the Government of Iraq. That transfer was carried out in phases and was completed on 1 January 2009. At that time, we understand that some 3,000 members of the MEK were present at the camp. Throughout its discussions with the Government of Iraq on the modalities of the transfer, the US rightly sought assurances that the Camp Ashraf residents would continue to be treated humanely, that their fundamental human rights would be maintained, and that they would be treated in accordance with the constitution of Iraq, in accordance with Iraqi law, and in accordance with Iraq’s international obligations. Such assurances were readily provided by the Iraqi authorities to the satisfaction of the US authorities.

Moreover, the Iraqi authorities agreed to allow access to the camp by appropriate international organisations to assist the camp residents in securing a safe future. In that regard, we are comforted in the knowledge that the International Committee of the Red Cross continues to visit the camp on a regular basis. It follows developments closely and we very much welcome its involvement.

In parallel, the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights regularly visits the camp and has given assurances to a representative body of the residents. Plans were made to conduct a survey, through interviews with residents of the camp, in an effort to establish whether they wished to be voluntarily repatriated to Iran, or to seek residency in a third country. That survey would also enable the Ministry of Human Rights to verify the details of those currently residing in the camp.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock contacted my office last week concerning recent developments at the camp. I was able to inform him, through our Iraq group at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that we understood that the MEK had seized back a building that had been designated for the purpose of those interviews. We are unclear as to their motives for taking that action. We are also aware that the Iraqi security forces had taken measures to restrict visitors into the camp out of concern that they would not be permitted by the MEK to leave.

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The Minister is trespassing on the question of visitors. In the past few weeks, two UK citizens wanted to visit loved ones. One of them, Mr. Tabrizi, who is known to us in the parliamentary campaign committee, was turned away. There was no question of him not being able to come out again. He wanted to see his loved ones and relatives and he was prevented from doing so. That is the pattern. When the Minister goes back to the Foreign Office, I should be grateful if he could look into the matter. It reinforces my point that there should be an official visit from the United Kingdom to Camp Ashraf to check out the issues of property being taken back, the census and visits to loved ones, and whether people can leave, which are the things that I want tested.

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If my hon. Friend provides the details to my office, I will ensure that I look into that specific case. I will come to his suggestion. As he and I have discussed, I am minded to do something about it.

Notwithstanding the action, we believe that residents remain free to meet family members and other visitors outside the camp. The Red Cross is rightly monitoring such visits, and we are told that UN officials have also visited the camp as recently as 19 March this year. All of that is welcome. However, the British embassy in Baghdad is pursuing the possibility of a visit by a consular official to Camp Ashraf to confirm whether any of its residents are entitled to UK consular assistance. Importantly, that will also allow us to remind the Iraqi Government further of their earlier assurances regarding Camp Ashraf residents and of the amount of interest in the issue within the United Kingdom.

I am not aware of the statement by Dr. al-Rubaie. Nevertheless, I can say that the Iraqi Government have repeatedly maintained assurances to respect the human rights of Camp Ashraf residents. We shall certainly remind them of that obligation as we pursue the consular visit.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned de-proscription. There have been two court cases: the UK court case in respect of de-proscription of the MEK and the decision in the European Court of First Instance. In both cases, this Government—rightly, in my view, whatever opinion we might have of the MEK—sought to uphold the rule of law; certainly in the European Union case, we were instrumental in ensuring that.

However, I agree with the hon. Lady that upholding de-proscription is not the same as saying that the MEK best represents the interests and views of the Iranian people. We certainly have reservations about the MEK’s assertion that it represents a democratic opposition in exile. We see no evidence of popular support for the MEK in Iran, partly because of its responsibility for terrorist attacks resulting in the deaths of many Iranian citizens and partly because it fought alongside Iraqi forces against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war.

Nevertheless—this is the important point that cuts to the heart of the concerns expressed—the Government of Iraq have stated that no residents of Camp Ashraf will be forcibly transferred to a country where they have reason to fear persecution based on their political opinions or religious beliefs, or where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be tortured. We are satisfied that the Iraqi Government are working with international organisations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to ensure a humanitarian solution that will allow camp residents either to return home or to be resettled, if they choose, in third countries. We will do everything in our power, consistent with the recognition that Iraq is now a sovereign democratic state, to encourage that process.

I congratulate hon. Members on raising these legitimate concerns. I hope that my responses have given some reassurance.

Sitting suspended.

Hajj Pilgrims (UK Tour Operators)

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I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of particular importance to many Muslims in my constituency. I extend a warm welcome to my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), who has been asked by the Government to respond to the debate.

The Hajj is a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world. Making the pilgrimage—the Hajj—is the fifth pillar of Islam, and an obligation rests on all Muslims to carry out that pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, providing that they are fit enough to do so and can afford to. For Muslims, the Hajj is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people. It takes place over a four-day period in late November or December, depending on the Islamic calendar.

Every year, more than 150,000 British Muslim pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia as part of the 1.7 million Muslims who go there from all over the world. The Hajj pilgrimage is greatly looked forward to in the Muslim world and should be a time of enjoyment and self-fulfilment. However, for some British Muslims, the experience turns into an expensive disaster due to the activities of rogue travel operators, who either fraudulently take money from clients and disappear, or promise a five-star package pilgrimage that turns out to be nothing of the kind. Sadly, many of the people who have been ripped off by rogue travel agencies come from my constituency.

For example, in November 2008, one of my constituents handed over a cheque for £4,500 to the owner of Qibla travel. The cheque was cashed and my constituent, who was paying for his mother and father to go on the Hajj, was told that they would fly out on a specific flight. Just before they were due to leave, they were told that the owner of Qibla travel had disappeared with the money and passports, which he said he needed in order to get the visa put in them. No flight existed and no visa applications were made. Although that incident has been the subject of a police investigation—I am pleased to say that the passports have been returned—it is not an isolated incident. Another example is that of a company that was paid £10,000 by a family to make arrangements for them to go on the Hajj pilgrimage. Again, the flights and bookings never materialised.

The Foreign Office has set up a special unit to deal with British pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj festival, which is greatly appreciated by the Muslim community. It has worked with organisations such as the Association of British Hujjaj (Pilgrims) UK, whose general secretary, Khalid Pervez, operates from offices in my constituency. Advice is offered to would-be pilgrims by the Foreign Office, by the association and by officers from Birmingham city council’s trading standards department, who have been particularly helpful in giving advice to pilgrims and in trying to assist victims of rogue travel operators.

The problem, however, is that many people who go on the Hajj pilgrimage feel more comfortable dealing with travel agencies run by members of their own community, whom they believe, as Muslims, will understand more clearly what the pilgrimage is about and what is required. The average cost of a pilgrimage is £2,500 per person, so there is a strong inclination to look for the cheapest deal on offer.

The Package Travel Regulations 1992 oblige any operator who offers a package tour combined with air travel to have an air traffic organiser’s licence—ATOL. That provides some protection so that passengers whose travel agent goes into liquidation or defaults on its obligations can be refunded or flown home. The Association of British Travel Agents—ABTA—is a trade organisation. Although it offers a degree of protection for customers and travel agents that are members of ABTA should they go bust, there is no obligation on travel agents to be a member of that organisation.

Many of the clients who seek to go on the Hajj pilgrimage are not aware of the Package Travel Regulations and do not know the rules and regulations regarding air traffic organiser’s licences. They are unaware of the status of ABTA. Furthermore, if the accommodation that is allegedly being booked is separate from a scheduled flight, there is ambiguity as to whether the flight and separate accommodation are covered by ATOL. The loophole allows rogue travel operators not only to default in terms of promised scheduled flights, but also to give inflated promises about the quality of the accommodation that will be provided during the stay in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrims are in a position to complain only once they return to the United Kingdom, but by then, the rogue travel operator has often ceased trading or disappeared.

A feeling exists within the Muslim community that, although the Foreign Office is trying to be helpful in looking after the interests of Hajj pilgrims and liaising with the Saudi Arabian Government to ensure that British Muslims are properly treated while in that county, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has a “soft” approach to the problem.

The Association of British Hujjaj (Pilgrims) UK has made clear its belief that all travel agents should be members of ABTA and should be required to provide a bond to that organisation to be used as compensation for travellers who are given inferior accommodation or arrangements to those promised when the booking was made. It is aware that a large number of small tour operators in Birmingham—and in other parts of the country, such as Watford—might have difficulty in meeting the stringent requirements laid down by ABTA. However, it believes that if such stringent regulations result in a number of small tour operators going out of business, it will be a price worth paying to ensure that some of the most blatant abuses that pilgrims have suffered are no longer tolerated. If such abuses do happen, compensation could be paid and the operator can be deregistered by ABTA, which, in effect, would mean that it was forced out of business. Although the voluntary approach of encouraging tour operators and travel agents to become members of ABTA has resulted in more Hajj tour operators registering, there are still many who have not done so. Rogue elements who intend to deceive trusting clients will obviously not seek to register.

Through the consumer affairs Minister, the Government have made it clear that they want to help pilgrims avoid booking with rogue travel agents. They have said that pilgrims should book with

“a member of ABTA or other recognised trade organisation.”

However, the rip-off continues and for some, a once-in-a-lifetime experience is turned into a huge, expensive disappointment. The DBERR website claims that it leads the better regulation agenda; I contend that this area needs better regulation. The Muslim community in this country would strongly welcome a Government commitment to considering what further regulation and legislation could be enacted to address the problem of unscrupulous travel agents.

Some people might say that individual would-be pilgrims should take responsibility for whom they booked with, and that further regulation would be another step towards a nanny state, but I would remind them that the Government commendably introduced a scheme in response to widespread concern within the Muslim community about rogue immigration advisers who were misleading people about immigration matters and ripping them off. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 forced anyone who was taking money for giving immigration advice to be registered with the newly created Immigration Services Commission. Section 91 of the Act made it a criminal offence, punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment, to provide immigration advice or services in contravention of the scheme. The Government were then able to recognise that the growing Muslim population in the UK was vulnerable to being ripped off by rogue immigration advisers, and took welcome steps to address that problem, so why can this Government not recognise the vulnerability of the Muslim community to rogue travel agents, and take steps to strengthen the regulations and laws?

The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), who should have replied to the debate, has more pressing affairs of state to attend to today. However, this short debate will be enhanced by his absence, because his most intelligent, charming and delightful replacement, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, knows this issue well, as she, too, has a sizeable Muslim community in her constituency. I therefore hope that she will take this unusual opportunity to liberate herself of the departmental brief that she has been given and to speak from the heart about the problems being caused in her Muslim community by rogue travel agents. I hope that she will agree with—or perhaps be persuaded or even enticed by—me and the Association of British Hujjaj (Pilgrims) UK regarding how this problem should be addressed. If she consigned the departmental position to the waste bin, abandoned her brief and bravely spoke out, she would rightly earn the thanks and continued support of the Muslim community in Watford and the rest of the country.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate and on taking this opportunity to raise awareness in the House about problems within this sector. As he has said, I know about the issue from my constituency work. I know that he has raised concerns about the matter in the past and that he fights hard for his constituents—not only his Muslim constituents, as in this case, but across the board.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to outline the action that the Government have taken in the two years since they learned of the problems being experienced by Hajj pilgrims. The Government take this matter very seriously, and we have been saddened to learn of the suffering and inconvenience experienced by Hajj pilgrims at the hands of rogue tour operators in the UK. My hon. Friend has mentioned one incident concerning Qibla travel, which is, as he has said, under police investigation—and rightly so. We hope that there will be a good outcome for most of his constituents who have suffered in that case.

The problem is particularly pernicious given that the Hajj and Umrah are a religious obligation on Muslims, for many of whom those journeys are the trip of a lifetime and cost a considerable amount of money. In the past two years, my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs and his officials have been working with colleagues from other Departments and the trading standards service with a view to encouraging better practice in the Hajj travel industry. Importantly, they have also been raising pilgrims’ awareness about what they should expect of package organisers, about their rights of redress under the law and about who to complain to if things go wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath is right to express concern that until now the Muslim community has not generally been aware of its rights or about where to go to express concerns.

The Government’s view is that problems in the sector are not due to a lack of regulation, as Hajj trip organisers are as liable to regulation as any other package organiser and Hajj pilgrims have exactly the same rights as anyone else going on a package trip. In many cases, people who have used organisers’ services have not understood the true extent of their rights. Under package travel regulations, tour operators must ensure that all descriptions on brochures and internet sites are accurate, that the customer is given information about passports, visas and health and security issues, that the customer is informed in good time about significant changes to the trip, such as changes to flight details or itineraries, and that the customer receives a written copy of the terms of the contract for the trip. The operator must also be able to show that it has in place measures for the protection of consumer payments. In these cases, protection would be in the form of an air travel organiser’s licence, which ensures that customer pre-payments are protected and that customers can be repatriated if the tour operator suffers financial collapse. Local authority trading standards departments have day-to-day enforcement responsibilities for the regulations, and the ATOL system is run by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Enforcement activity is generally driven by consumer complaints. Previously, it seemed that only a few of the Hajj pilgrims who had suffered at the hands of rogue operators were informing the relevant authorities. I would be interested to hear how many cases were brought to my hon. Friend longer ago and whether people believed that they simply had to put up with what had happened and thought that there was nowhere for them to go. Clearly, many people now know to go their Member of Parliament or to trading standards. It was clear, previously, that the key to improving the situation lay with raising consumers’ awareness about their rights and about what to do when things go wrong.

For two years in a row, my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs has written to hon. Members asking them to contact their local mosques and Muslim community groups. He has also issued a number of press releases, which have received good coverage in Muslim national and regional press. Trading standards departments have also issued warnings to the public about the risk from rogue tour operators. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has also produced two well-received information leaflets—one for pilgrims thinking of booking a Hajj or Umrah trip, and one for Hajj travel organisers. If my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath would like access to more such leaflets to provide his constituents with information, officials from the Department will assist with that.

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I am grateful for that offer, but I am not short of leaflets. Will my hon. Friend clarify something for me? If a travel agent books a scheduled flight for a customer who wants to go to Hajj and books the accommodation separately, is it covered by ATOL regulations?

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If a travel agent books a package that includes a scheduled flight, it must be an ATOL member. In that instance, therefore, the consumer—the constituent perhaps in my hon. Friend’s case—would be covered by the protections offered by ATOL.

As my hon. Friend has said, the Hajj period is slightly flexible and tends to be around the end of the year. Officials from DBERR and the Civil Aviation Authority attended several regional events organised by pilgrim groups to talk about pilgrims’ rights and protection. The cross-Government group recently met with the two main groups representing UK Hajj pilgrims—the Association of British Hujjaj and the Council of British Hajis—to take their views on Government action this year. Both those organisations do valuable work to help pilgrims to enjoy fulfilling and safe trips. The Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs will shortly be writing to all UK mosques and other Muslim organisations to continue to raise awareness of the law both for pilgrims and the smaller Hajj travel organisers. We will also look at the best ways of raising awareness in the weeks preceding Hajj.

Trading standards departments have also been involved in raising awareness, and Birmingham trading standards has been particularly active in issuing press releases and talking to local pilgrims’ groups and operators. There are signs that the overall message is getting through. The numerous complaints received last year by Luton trading standards after the collapse of Go4 Hajj seem to indicate that our work to publicise the issue has had some impact on members of the Muslim community.

As well as raising the awareness of pilgrims, the Government have begun to engage with the Hajj travel industry. There are many good operators, but there is clearly an element that is disorganised and unprofessional. This is not an easy business to be in. There are many unpredictable elements to the relatively complicated arrangements for Hajj in Saudi, but that does not explain the fact that, in many cases, pilgrims are simply misled about the nature, quality and facilities of the trip that they have bought—usually for several thousands of pounds. Last year the Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs, hosted a summit for Hajj travel organisers. That was held to deliver our message about their responsibilities and to hear their views on how they believe the sector can improve its reputation and achieve greater consumer confidence.

Since that event, the Civil Aviation Authority has reported that it has received an increasing number of applications for air travel organisers’ licences from Hajj trip organisers. Many licences have now been granted, which extends the financial protection of pilgrims travelling to Hajj. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath asked whether the travel operators should be members of the Association of British Travel Agents. There is no legal requirement for them to be a member of a trade association, which is essentially what ABTA is. However, they should be members of ABTA, and membership is encouraged by the industry. In essence, the bonding that ABTA provides would not necessarily improve the quality of service or compensate for the poor services that are perhaps provided by some travel operators. However, as I have stated, membership of ATOL would give some financial protection where scheduled flights are part of an overall package.

As I mentioned, Birmingham trading standards has been actively engaged in discussions with local travel operators and, last week, Tower Hamlets trading standards invited local operators to an awareness-raising seminar. There is a greater awareness, and trading standards are taking up the issue and promoting it within communities. This year, we are pressing ahead with engagement with the industry and hope to explore the possibility of achieving a degree of effective self-regulation. We hope that the responsible tour operators can help to banish the poor image and the poor operators from the sector by setting out for pilgrims their commitment to proper behaviour and standards.

Over the past year, we have also forged links with the Saudi embassy in relation to the issue. The embassy is responsible for issuing entry visas to UK Hajj pilgrims. Visas are only available via certain Saudi approved Hajj tour operators and travel agents. The Saudi embassy has agreed to ensure that the list contains only ATOL registered companies in the future. I hope, again, that my hon. Friend sees that as a significant step forward in providing some protection to his constituents, as well as to my constituents and others throughout the country.

I hope that I have shown that the Government take the issue seriously. We appreciate that some UK pilgrims continued to be subject to unacceptable behaviour at the Hajj last year and that that is a continued cause for concern. There is no quick answer to that, but we have seen some signs of progress. In initiating the debate, my hon. Friend has yet again put the issue on the agenda and ensured that, where it is relevant, there is an opportunity for trading standards across the country to promote the importance of protection for Hajj pilgrims. He has also ensured that the issue of an improvement in the service and quality of the tour operators has been raised.

I am sure that all the parties concerned are hopeful that the various initiatives in which we are involved will help us to reach the point where the Hajj becomes a memorable and, as far as possible, trouble-free occasion for all. That is certainly something that my hon. Friend would like for his constituents, and I can assure him that it is something that I would like for mine—in fact, the Government wish to ensure that that is the case for all those who wish to take part in that important event within the Muslim calendar.

Sitting suspended.

Building Colleges for the Future

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rose—

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rose

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For some reason this debate seems to be of great interest to many people.

My object in this debate is to be constructive. If the object were to slate the Government, castigate the Learning and Skills Council or embarrass the Minister, it would, frankly, be like shooting fish in a barrel, because the facts are extraordinarily stark: at 79 colleges, fully costed projects with planning permission are now stuck; only eight have been given the go-ahead, and 71 are in limbo; a further 65 colleges await the results of deliberations; £5.7 billion has been promised but only £2.3 billion is actually available; and there are enormous costs because of delays. According to the BBC, the situation is costing colleges across the country £151 million, and there are some classic examples of what are, frankly, awful problems.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) has drawn to my attention to the situation at Barnsley college, where builders have just left the site. The college is almost in a state of insolvency, and is severely exposed financially and in every other way. It is a visible example of a failing system.

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The hon. Gentleman is well aware of Blackpool’s regeneration plans, so he will also be aware that when Blackpool did not get the resort casino that it wanted, it looked to regeneration in other ways. The relocation of the college site is key to Blackpool’s regeneration. Does he agree that plans such as that one, which are strategically important, should be at the top of the LSC’s priorities?

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I do agree, and I cite the example of my own college, where £2 million has already been invested by the college with a full application in principle. It is in a terrible situation because it does not know whether to go ahead with what it planned to do, or to restore existing and wholly inadequate buildings.

However, the object of the debate is not to lay blame. That is far too easy a task. The object is to analyse where we are now and to hear how the problems will be solved, particularly the latter. I hope that the Minister will use all his time to do the latter. We do not want to hear him read out the achievements of the scheme, thereby taking precious minutes away from explaining what will be done to get us out of this pickle. Therefore, to save him a bit of time, I shall read out some of the achievements of the scheme.

A lot of money—£2.9 billion—has been promised. According to the press release from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, a work force of approximately 10,000 has been employed on college sites in 2008 and 2009, and one in 20 of the work force are apprentices. Much good and worthy stuff has been achieved.

I am sad to say that with all the talk about apprentices—the press release came out on a propitious day—in the industrial press, when the 10,000 construction jobs were mentioned, there was an announcement that contractors on the projects were ordered to cut prices or lose jobs.

So that is where we are. We are in a desperate situation, and we need to concentrate on solutions. A review is not a solution. The Labour party seems to have a succession of grandees lined up for occasions such as this, rather like cabs at a taxi rank. They are scheduled to appear when things go wrong and to conduct a review, but that would be wholly inappropriate in this case, such is the seriousness of the situation. It would be like an AA man going to someone who had broken down on the motorway and giving them a book on the history of motoring. That is not what is required.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on picking such an important topic for this debate. Before he moves on, as he rightly will, to the solutions to the problem, will he acknowledge that the figures so far published by the LSC and the Government actually understate the scale of the crisis? They exclude colleges such as Yeovil college in my constituency, which has been liaising with the LSC about a scheme for a long time. It has not yet reached the stage where it is captured in the Government’s statistics, but a great deal of public money has been invested in the consultants who are necessary before application in principle and in detail can be submitted.

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I agree with and endorse what my hon. Friend says. However, he said that I would move on to the solutions. Oh that we had solutions. They are not at all apparent or obvious at present.

What we do not want is Ministers expressing sympathy or joining in to dish out blame. That has happened so far in public and private discussions on the matter. After all, the LSC is a Government quango. It does not spend billions without the Government’s knowing, monitoring or checking what is going on—at least one hopes not. The board members are not sent off like little lads with pocket money to spend a few billion here and there. Someone—possibly not the Minister, who may not be to blame—watched this mess evolve. They clocked the agreements in principle, they watched the progress through the various stages of the various schemes, they saw what sums were being committed—that is apparent from the freedom of information requests made by Conservative Front-Bench Members—they knew all along what was in the kitty, they knew what was promised, and, presumably, they had some numeracy skills. The Minister cannot simply say, “Me, too. I, too, deplore the situation”, because if he does not have something to answer for, his Department does.

I acknowledge that some enthusiastic salesmen have been involved in the scheme. That was certainly true across the piece and in many parts of the country. There is evidence that people have talked up schemes. They said to schools, “You don’t want to do this, you want to do more. You don’t want simply to restore that building. You want to knock it down and build a completely new one.” They raised hopes and ambitions, and encouraged demolition and rebuild rather than restoration and repair, rather like sub-prime mortgage brokers talking someone into borrowing more than they actually need.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that the experiences of my local college, Cornwall college, are probably matched in other areas of the country? It has several sites but only a relatively small number were desperately in need of improvement. However, it was encouraged by the LSC fully to review its entire site. It was not asked to prioritise. It was asked what its blue-skies thinking would be, and the result was a much more expensive bid.

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I agree with my hon. Friend. There has been a great deal of blue-skies thinking. In my constituency, King George V college was persuaded to do more than it initially thought that it wanted to do—in fact, more than some of the staff and pupils wanted it to do. It was told that money was available and that it would be a better deal and a better long-term project.

Whatever happened, there is an audit trail that leads directly to the Department as well as to the LSC.

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The Government must have seen this coming. They must have seen the problems developing, because exactly the same experience that we just heard of in Cornwall happened in Chesterfield. In autumn 2007, the college applied in principle for improvement and a £37 million partial rebuild. In 2008, the local area director from the LSC said to the principal, “You are not being ambitious enough. You will fall behind West Nottinghamshire college, which is going for a complete rebuild”—although the complete rebuild at West Nottinghamshire, which was due to start on Monday, has been stopped. The LSC encouraged Chesterfield college to go for a £107 million complete rebuild. It now has no idea whether anything at all will happen, and West Nottinghamshire college has already spent £7.5 million on building work that was due to start on Monday, but which has not started at all.

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That situation is entirely replicated at KGV college in my constituency. It thought that work would start in February, but now it does not know whether it will start at all.

The Department cannot simply blame or dump on the LSC. We do not need to be told, as we were the other day in oral questions, that this incompetent quango—the LSC—will soon be replaced by a less obviously incompetent quango, the one to come. I genuinely would like to know who is actually on the LSC. Members can replicate this process for themselves: if they go to the LSC website to try to find out who, apart from the chief executive, belongs to it—the list of members and so on—they will find it extraordinarily difficult to drill into the website to get any names. I have a horrible suspicion that some of the same people may well appear on the successor body that is still to come.

Colleges do not need this. They do not need the Department to walk away from the problem, and they do not need a review as such. They need concrete and definite answers. They need to know whether the builders are ready, and when they can start. If not now, when? If that is uncertain, when will they know? It is a fair question. If a project has been agreed but is now deemed unaffordable, because some schemes were the result of blue-skies thinking and are probably not affordable, should the colleges resubmit them tailored to their needs? If so, what are the headline figures to which they will need to work, and what is the time scale? The time scale is very important. If a project has been agreed simply in principle, what chance does it have of being done? If completion is in doubt, should the college consider re-design or re-submission? None of those questions is answered in any shape or form for the colleges.

If an appreciable expense has been incurred—the figure of £150 million across the country has been put forward—and the project has been aborted, are any costs recoverable, likely to be reimbursed by the Department or legally pursuable through the courts? Colleges need real-time answers to real-time questions, and they need them quickly; they do not need reviews.

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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the clock is ticking for many colleges? Guildford college in my constituency has spent millions on the planning process, has planning permission and widespread local support and offers a wide range of vocational courses. However, its planning permission will expire in three years’ time, so we do not need a review; we need quick answers for the colleges that have invested such large sums of money.

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We can be legitimately sceptical about the amount of building work that has taken place, particularly if we read the Government’s press release, which uses “estimated” all the time. Members will know that many places are on the cusp of building, and in Barnsley building has started and been stopped.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on calling this very important debate. May I add Oxford and Cherwell Valley college and Ruskin college in my constituency to the list of those that want positive news as quickly as possible? To do the constructive things that he talked about—when he eventually got round to his constructive points—will it not be necessary to raise the overall ceiling on capital allocation? The Conservatives are clearly not going to support that, but it would be entirely consistent with the contra-cyclical measures that are needed to increase public expenditure and combat the recession. It would be especially valuable, given the training and improvement in skills that those colleges provide, and the history of under-investment in what has been for far too long the Cinderella area of education.

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The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, the intellectual coherence of which is in no doubt whatever.

I want to make the basic point, however, that, on building sites throughout the land, one might wait for cement, for subcontractors or for the weather to improve, but only in modern Britain does one need to wait for Sir Andrew Foster to complete his review before one goes any further. If we do wait a year or so, the situation will not be uncomplicated, because some plans will be subsumed under Building Schools for the Future, and the financial arrangements may be different. They may be private finance initiative arrangements, rather than the current capital approval arrangements, and another tale is attached to that.

I have had a foretaste of the process, because a few years ago a similar thing happened with another quango, the North West Development Agency, which had boldly gone down the route of agreeing things in principle, getting other people to produce matched funding and handing out schemes with largesse. Then, when somebody totted up how much money was in the kitty, the result was similar to that with the LSC. The agency went into a bunker, did not answer queries and simply did not know what had happened. It was a dreadful funk that took some time to sort out, and I genuinely struggle to believe that democratically elected bodies, transparent as they are, could do worse. The Minister is democratically elected, so perhaps he can tell us.

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rose

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Order. Before I call the next speaker, I must note that quite a number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak. I have no control over time but will do my very best, so I propose to commence the winding-up speeches at half-past 3. I ask Members to be as brief as possible.

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Thank you, Mr. Benton. I promise to speak for seven or eight minutes.

I thank the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) for his initiative in securing this timely debate, which I approach from two angles: first, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which received a positive report from the National Audit Office on the Building Colleges for the Future programme—and, I have to say, an even more upbeat account of its prospects from civil servants at a hearing in mid-November, which made the moratorium on new schemes announced just a few weeks later all the more surprising; and secondly, and more importantly, as a local MP with two campuses of Lambeth college in my constituency and, now, a major question mark over the future of the proposed new technology centre in Brixton.

The National Audit Office is quite right to be positive about the Building Colleges for the Future programme. So far, it has been one of the great success stories of this Labour Government. In 1997, there was no capital budget at all for further education colleges. Between 1997-98 and 2006-07, more than £2 billion was invested in modernising further education facilities, and a further £2.3 billion will be invested in capital projects in the sector in the current spending round up to 2010. In other words, by the end of the period, almost 700 projects in 330 colleges will have been funded by the programme. That is a remarkable achievement.

In Lambeth in my constituency, we have also been beneficiaries, with the excellent Clapham sixth-form centre, costing £21 million, on target and due for completion in May. However, the second phase of the college’s property strategy was the state-of-the-art technology centre at the heart of Brixton. The new centre—a marvellous design, by the way—would have housed world-class construction, engineering, electronics, media and computer-aided design facilities, and would have replaced the current provision that is housed in poor premises in Vauxhall and cannot cope with the demand for the employment skills that the college offers. The centre has been designed to meet a wide range of needs in the Government’s 14-to-19 and adult skills strategies.

Lambeth college has developed the centre in consultation with the local authority, the relevant sector skills councils, and major construction and engineering employers. It would have offered a large vocational skills training centre at the heart of Lambeth, in curriculum areas that are crucial to the regeneration of the local and regional economy; it would have directly addressed Lambeth’s disproportionate number of residents with no qualifications and its large number of those who are not in education, employment or training; it would have enabled stronger partnerships to develop with local secondary schools to increase delivery of engineering diplomas; and it would have encouraged growth in non-LSC-funded student numbers, because it would have provided a modern, high-quality and centrally located facility, attractive to employers, sector skills councils, higher education institutions and fee-paying students. That in turn would have helped the college’s bottom line and enabled it to focus even more resources on the front line.

As a result of January’s announcement of the LSC capital review, it appears that that wonderful and transformational opportunity at the centre of one of London’s poorest boroughs is now at risk. All design work on the new centre has been suspended and the professional team working on the project will have to be disbanded. Without the new centre, training in those subjects will be delivered at the Vauxhall and Brixton Hill sites, which are not fit for purpose; they are in poor condition and in urgent need of modernisation. So, in any circumstances, money will have to be spent sooner or later, and one asks, where is the economy in that?

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Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

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I shall, but I will not give way very often, because I am conscious that a large number of colleagues wish to speak, so I intend to be as brief as possible.

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The construction work itself could be part of the stimulus to the economy at a time of recession, and, on the country’s ability to repay the bill, surely the very investment that the right hon. Gentleman describes in his area would be one of the best ways of doing that. Pound for pound, it would be far more effective than investment in the university sector. In my case, locally, North Devon college has spent more than £6 million and had hoped to get £75 million from the LSC, which was to be part of a wider package—the £200 million redevelopment of Barnstaple. Without that, I fear for the economy now and for our ability to pay back all the money and sort things out in the long run.

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The hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent case and, although I do not wish to engage in invidious comparisons between educational sectors, echoes the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). I am delighted to observe—as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will in due course—that substantial sums have been brought forward in the further education college building programme to contribute towards combating our current economic difficulties and to generate exactly those apprenticeships and jobs of which the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) spoke. I am grateful for his intervention.

A more immediate financial issue faces Lambeth college. In its preparatory work at the Brixton technology centre, the college has spent a total of £1.8 million on consultants’ fees, on the feasibility study and on detailed design proposals for the application in principle for funding that was to be submitted to the Learning and Skills Council in January for a planning application to be submitted at the end of March. However, the college has received only £200,000 from the LSC, with the remaining £1.6 million funded from college reserves. If the project does not go ahead, the college faces the prospect of having to write off £1.6 million in aborted fees, which it can ill afford to do. There is another reason why the college can ill afford this loss. The Clapham sixth form has cost it £21 million, of which only £5 million has been paid for by the LSC. The balance has been funded by a long-term loan that is costing the college £900,000 a year to service.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, the LSC has required all colleges undertaking phased property strategies to make their entire financial contribution in the first phase, on the promise that subsequent phases of capital works will be funded fully by the LSC, with the servicing of the loans then being funded by efficiency savings generated by the modernisation of the whole estate. However, the current suspension of funding for Lambeth college means that it has only been able to implement a part of its property strategy, but is having to service a loan that assumes full implementation of the strategy. In other words, the college’s reserves have been utilised in developing the Brixton scheme on a promise that significant capital funds would be available. I emphasise that that has been done with the active encouragement of LSC officers. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister in all earnestness that if no funds become available, the college will have no means to modernise its remaining estate and will have to make budget cuts to pay for serving the loan, which will mean reducing the educational service that the college provides to the residents of one of London’s poorest boroughs.

I have listened carefully to the words of the Secretary of State and I believe that he intends to minimise the financial losses suffered by the colleges. I expect Lambeth college to receive the most sympathetic treatment possible. But the sensible decision would be to let the Brixton scheme go forward, and I shall tell the House why—because it is a London scheme. The National Audit Office report shows clearly that progress in renewing the further education colleges’ estate has been significantly slower in the London region than elsewhere in England. Only 32 per cent. of the infrastructure was renewed by 2008, in comparison with 50 per cent. nationwide, but that is not—emphatically not—because management in the London colleges has been slow or inadequate in any way. I probed that point repeatedly with officials when they came before the Public Accounts Committee on 17 November 2008 and was repeatedly told that the complexities of the London urban environment slowed the process down. Indeed, the NAO survey shows that the average length of time it takes nationally for a project approved in principle to be approved in detail is eight and a half months, but the average time for projects in London is 16.5 months, which is twice as long.

I leave this thought with my hon. Friend: beware of chopping off schemes because they are late in the programme, because I strongly suspect that that will have a disproportionate impact on London, where the need is great. The need is certainly great in Brixton and we would like our new technology centre.

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It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill). He makes a powerful case for London. He is fortunate to have had some investment in his college from the LSC; many hon. Members are still awaiting the first tranche. I place on the record that 28 hon. Members are in Westminster Hall this afternoon—an almost record attendance displaying the strength of feeling about this subject.

I want to make two brief points. The first is generic. This episode demonstrates an abject failure in one of the core responsibilities of Government. Government is about determining priorities, getting the resources for those priorities and ensuring that they are effectively applied. All over the country, our constituents want better hospitals, schools, roads and railways, but we do not spend money working up schemes unless there is some prospect of funding them. This fiasco has revealed a heroic waste of money by encouraging schemes to be worked up for which the funding is not and never was available. Many will be abandoned and others will have to be redesigned.

That is made worse by two factors. This Government have told us that with the introduction of three-year capital programmes there will now be greater certainty about them, which was not there before. They have also told us that they are bringing forward capital programmes, for counter-cyclical reasons, from year three of the current public expenditure survey round to year one. The Homes and Communities Agency is bringing forward money from year three to year one for precisely that reason. Yet here the opposite is happening, with capital spending at best deferred and at worst cancelled. This is financial incompetence for which, at the end of the day, Ministers must take responsibility.

My second point is specific to my constituency, although features will be replicated elsewhere. Two years ago, Cricklade college in Andover merged with Sparsholt college. At the time of the merger, I got a letter from the LSC saying:

“Current thinking is that there will be a required investment of up to £30m in Andover and £20 million in Winchester”.

It went on to say that these figures were indicative at that stage but ended:

“I would wish to reiterate the LSC’s commitment to ensuring an appropriate level of investment is forthcoming to support the ambitions of the merged college.”

The scheme is now at £100 million, reflecting the substantial encouragement given by the LSC to build for the 21st century, with the LSC constantly urging the college to raise its sights. At one visit, an LSC officer told the college that he hoped it would knock down the main administrative building because it looked dreadful. That was not in the plan and it remains not in the plan.

The college submitted its application in principle last November, expecting approval in February or March. It has got planning consent for the project from Test Valley borough council. The scheme is an integral part of the regeneration of the centre of Andover and it plans to cater for the large number of NEETs in a growing town. Then, along with 143 other colleges, we were told at the beginning of the month that the deal is off. There is considerable anger in the town about how this has been handled.

There is now a revenue problem—picking up on what the right hon. Member for Streatham said—superimposed on the capital problem. Now the scheme is not going ahead, the auditors will not allow the college to capitalise the consultancy costs, totalling some £2 million. This means that the college will now turn in a deficit for the current year, which might allow the banks to allege breach of covenant and give them an opportunity to review the terms of any loan and fees for renegotiation.

I want two things from the Minister: first, a statement on the consultancy fees and some comfort—either reimbursement or an assurance that the fees can be capitalised because there will be a scheme; and secondly, an indication of what on earth happens next. My college would be happy to negotiate around a lower figure and to phase the scheme in over a longer period. What we cannot have is an indefinite stand-off.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this incredibly important debate. I begin on a positive note, as a Member from Barnsley, and congratulate the Government on their programme so far and for the many improvements that have been made to college estates throughout the country, including in Doncaster college, which serves my constituency. I mention in particular the new Hub building in the centre of Doncaster, near the North bridge, which is providing an excellent learning environment for students.

Although I do not want to make too much of a political point, under the Tories the capital allocation of funding for colleges stood at not one penny piece. I am sure that all Conservative Members feel suitably ashamed about that. Money has been and is being well spent on the college estate throughout the country, and it is making a difference. Indeed, last week, the LSC published research showing the positive effects of huge increases in capital expenditure on colleges’ performance. It found that, for every additional £1 million spent, a college attracts an average additional 111 learners, and a typical £10 million project improves a college’s success rate by nearly 1 percentage point, as it encourages more learners to complete their qualifications.

My main problem is Barnsley college, but before I refer specifically to its problems, I shall set the scene of Barnsley’s overall educational position. There is no doubt that it suffers from a legacy of under-achievement throughout its school estate with low staying-on rates and so on. That is a legacy of its past industries—the staple one was mining—and I could speak about that for more than half an hour, but I will not do so.

The problem has been recognised by Barnsley’s local businesses, schools and the local education authority—so much so that it led to the Remaking Learning in Barnsley project, which started a few years ago around the turn of the millennium. That led to the council closing all 14 secondary schools in the borough, apart from the grammar school in Penistone, and replacing them with nine advanced learning centres, which will provide an extended secondary school environment, not just for ordinary schoolchildren, but for adult learners. It is the biggest Building Schools for the Future programme in the country, with a capital value of more than £250 million. Yorkshire Forward has provided £20 million, and Barnsley council is dipping its hand in its pocket to the tune of £70 million, which shows how important the project is to Barnsley’s future.

It is difficult for an area such as Barnsley to regenerate itself, as I am sure you know, Mr. Benton, from your Merseyside experience. We are on the edge of two city regions—Leeds and Sheffield. In the current economic downturn, the number of claimants for jobseeker’s allowance in the past 12 months has risen by 85 per cent. in Barnsley, but by 61 per cent. throughout Yorkshire and Humber. The rise in Barnsley has been the greatest in Yorkshire and Humber. The town knows that it must adapt and develop to create new industries and a broader skills base throughout the borough, and that is exactly what Remaking Learning in Barnsley is all about. Barnsley college’s proposals are part and parcel of the borough’s vision and integral to the town’s future well-being.

I turn to Barnsley council, which has been in the media spotlight over the past few weeks. Barnsley college is the main provider of further education there, with 7,000 full-time students, including 800 A-level students who progress to universities throughout the country, 3,000 vocational students who progress to university or employment, 600 apprentices and 400 14 to 16-year-old learners. It provides opportunities and life chances to young people, adults and businesses. It also includes Train to Gain learners, work-based learning, tailor-made training and is an essential focus to help local people and businesses to gain skills employment and to prosper in the current climate. It is important to set the scene, so that the Minister has an idea of the impact that the current impasse will have if it is not resolved.

Barnsley college is a good case study, which is why the media have highlighted it. The college’s new build project was originally approved by the LSC in July 2007, 18 months ago, when the LSC expected the college to obtain planning permission, to design a first-class new building, to create temporary accommodation for staff and students and to demolish the existing main college building. Demolition is in progress, and the main college building will be totally demolished in the next few days. We are at the end of phase 1 and are about to start phase 2 of a three-phase scheme.

Detailed approval was scheduled for December 2008, but the LSC cancelled the meeting at the last moment and rescheduled it for January 2009. It never took place. The college has spent £12 million on the project, plus £1 million of funding from the LSC. That £12 million includes a £10 million bank loan, with the full knowledge and approval of the LSC. Barnsley college has completed what was required and expected by the LSC on time and on budget. We now expect the LSC to find the £50 million required for the new building on the main site. The alternative is for Barnsley college to be left as a building site, with redundancies for building contractors. Building was rescheduled to start in May 2009.

Barnsley college is successful and financially stable, but the current situation could put it at risk and make it technically insolvent. The Government have a legal duty to provide further education in Barnsley. The Foster inquiry is considering only how we got into this mess, not how to get out of it, and the fact that Mark Haysom has resigned this week provides a good indication of where the inquiry will points the finger.

The 7,000 students in Barnsley want to know how we will get out of the mess and resolve the problem, which is the main point that I and, I am sure, other hon. Members want the Minister to focus on. It is obvious that he cannot resolve it by trying to micro-manage his in-house budget. He will need outside assistance, and the only possible source is the Treasury. I want to know what discussions the Minister is having with Treasury Ministers and with the Association of Colleges. I am sure that he is aware that several colleges are considering the legal implications of the programmes being suspended, and I would like him to concentrate on that also.

In conclusion, the £55 million project is designed to contribute significantly to Remaking Learning in Barnsley. Barnsley college wants to improve students’ academic and vocational qualifications throughout the borough. In particular, we want to close the skills gap for the benefit of local businesses and inward investors. In short, Barnsley council wants to provide its people with the 21st century education and training facilities that it deserves. That is what the town deserves, and what we aim to deliver. The ball is in the Minister’s court.

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It is a pleasure to have a few minutes—I shall try to make it a few minutes—to talk about the state of capital funding for further education colleges.

Three colleges serve my constituency: Bishop Burton college in my constituency, East Riding college, which is predominantly in Beverley and Bridlington in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), and Hull college. Two of those colleges—East Riding and Hull colleges—have been affected by this fiasco. We have heard powerful speeches today showing the real effect on marginal communities and the most vulnerable people in those communities from the Government’s failure to deliver their promised programme.

Unfortunately, Hull often finds itself at the bottom of the national league table for educational performance up to GCSE, but Hull college is outstanding, and it was told to be ambitious, to think big and to have 21st century buildings fit for 21st-century learners. The LSC told it to be more ambitious. Was that an aberration? Was the LSC on autopilot? Did the chief executive have a fit of ambition with no link to the Department? It is incredible. The colleges in my area and I hope that the Minister today will put to rest where that ambitions programme came from.

Was the LSC responsible? Is that why the chief executive has gone? Or were things driven by the Department? Did it want that message sent out all over the country? Are the Department and the Minister—whether personally or in his capacity as a Minister—responsible for what now seem to be the false promises that were made to so many communities around the country?

Notwithstanding Labour Members’ understandable words of congratulation to the Government on their investment in FE over the years and the comparisons with the Tory years, the sad truth in this time of recession is that, for all the billions that have been spent, the number of young people who are NEETs—not in education, employment or training—is the same as when Labour came to power. Those 16, 17 and 18-year-olds are effectively washed up and do not see education and employment as offering them anything.

How much more important is it, therefore, to ensure that every penny that is spent on providing hope and opportunity to people in such a parlous situation actually reaches them. It is nothing short of a national scandal that a £10 million loan was made in Barnsley and that £1.6 million was spent in Streatham on consultants’ fees that might ultimately go completely to waste. It will not be enough to blame the LSC, which is the largest quango that this Labour Government have ever set up and which they are now seeking to abolish and to replace with not one body, but what, on closer inspection, looks more like three. That is the Government’s idea of streamlining. It is not enough to blame that quango—what we need from the Minister today is an honest statement of the Department’s role.

I turn now to East Riding college, which is perhaps more fortunate than some in many ways. This summer, it will have had support in principle for its funding for two years. As a result of the sale of its current site and moneys that it has raised independently, it is seeking funding of just £15 million for a completely new college in the centre of Beverley. That will take the college from the leafy suburbs—I live at the entrance to the current college, so I know from personal experience that it is narrow, dangerous and unsuitable—to the centre of Beverley. The new site will be close to the railway station and to where the new park-and-ride will be. It will also be close to the Swinemoor estate, which has many of its own issues and looks to the FE college to provide hope and promise. The project will cost £23 million or £24 million, and the LSC will be expected to fund just £15 million of that.

The college provides an increasingly good standard of education. At its last Ofsted inspection, it was graded good and it was improving in all areas. It hopes that it will be graded outstanding when it is next reviewed. It will serve isolated rural communities—the east riding is the largest single unitary authority area in the country—and cover the area all the way to the coast, marginal communities in many of the coastal towns and villages and the area to the west of Beverley. It offers opportunities to people who have not done so well at school, and it will give people a real chance to get into work and pay taxes. As other hon. Members have said, this will be an excellent investment by the Exchequer.

I hope that the Minister will tell us today who is ultimately responsible for the current fiasco and what he will do to ensure that the millions of pounds that should have been spent on front-line education do not go up in smoke. Obviously, I would also be interested to hear about the prospects for East Riding college and its move to the centre of Beverley. That move is the first phase in the regeneration of a large derelict area, which is an eyesore in the centre of Beverley. The project will not only regenerate the town, but provide hope for those with least in the surrounding community.

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I shall take only a few minutes because a great number of hon. Members still want to speak.

It has been very sad listening to hon. Members talk about all the different colleges that are affected by the funding crisis. It is also interesting to see how broad the spectrum of their experiences is in this matter. Some of the colleges that face difficulties are clearly in the building process, others have detailed plans worked up and still others, such as Cornwall college in my constituency and the college in the constituency of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), have submitted an application and are still to find out whether it has been agreed in principle—they are also caught in this logjam, albeit that they are slightly further down the line.

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Blackpool and The Fylde college is awaiting a major relocation and rebuild decision. Blackpool sixth-form college has had money and phases, but it is just as disappointed because it had been confidently expecting the builders to be on site for the next phase to complete the project. There may be different types of problem, but they all lead to the same disappointment.

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The hon. Lady is exactly right. What has struck me from listening to other hon. Members is how important all these projects are to the regeneration of their local areas. It is worth emphasising that we are talking not just about the regeneration of inner-city areas; regeneration is also critical to more rural areas and market towns. Although Cornwall college has nine sites across Cornwall, one of the key sites is in Pool in my constituency. There is a massive urban regeneration scheme there, and a huge amount of resources are being poured in. There is a danger that if the college’s project does not go ahead, it will remain a black hole in the middle of a regenerated area. The area has huge deprivation, and unemployment has gone up by nearly 80 per cent. in the past year. There are huge issues to be tackled, and the college will be critical in developing skills and providing people with support, but all that is being threatened, and the people who have been asked to develop programmes are being given false hopes.

The bulge that we are seeing reminds me of a symptom more common in the defence procurement budget, because the commitments that have been made go beyond what can actually be delivered, which is disappointing. I wonder about the motivation for that. Has the LSC encouraged this or has the Department encouraged the LSC to tell colleges to be ambitious—not to prioritise the sites that they felt were most in need of development, but to look at entirely redoing their estates strategy.

I have a few questions to which I hope the Minister will respond. I would appreciate a clear indication of exactly how many colleges are affected and exactly how much public money has been invested in developing proposals. Cornwall college has spent £500,000 so far on developing its proposals, and hon. Members have mentioned other, larger sums. What scale are we talking about? How much money has been spent by colleges that are still awaiting approval in principle? How much has been spent by those that have received such approval? How much has been spent by those that have now been told to put all their building work on hold?

Along with the principal of Cornwall college, I would also appreciate some detail on exactly how the renewed criteria will be reviewed and on what basis they will be formed. Cornwall college’s proposal is further down the line and still awaiting approval in principle, and the college is concerned that there will be a cut-off, with only those projects at more advanced stages being considered. As I said, this regeneration programme is critical, so I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the impact of any improvements on the wider regeneration of an area will be taken into consideration, regardless of how far the application and the development of the proposals have gone. I very much hope that the Minister will look at the context.

There has been incredibly close co-operation between different agencies at a local level in developing the site. Cornwall college has worked closely with the urban regeneration company and other bodies, but it is concerned that there will be no equivalent co-operation at a departmental level and that it will be affected by that. Again, I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that will not be the case and that the wider issues will be taken into account.

Finally, billions of pounds of investment are tied up in the proposals. All hon. Members have spoken about the impact that improvements will have on young people and about the longer-term support that they will provide to the economy in these difficult times. It seems to me that it would have been wiser if the Government had committed their billions to supporting the programme and ensuring that it could be delivered in all the areas where it is needed so desperately, rather than spending them on a £12.5 billion VAT cut that will have made little difference to the people who would get most benefit from the college development programme.

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I shall speak briefly, to enable as many hon. Members as possible to contribute. I came into the debate with a heavy heart to defend the case of Havering sixth form college and was surprised when my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) showed me a paper from the House of Commons Library that lists it as unaffected. If that is the case, I know that the college principal will be even more delighted than I will be, but I am not very optimistic.

Havering sixth form college is in a far worse state now than it was before the scheme in question was suggested, because, with the encouragement of the LSC, it has embarked on a major capital project and has already incurred costs to the tune of £6 million, in planning and the design process, professional fees and enabling works. The enabling works had to be done to gain access to the LSC funding, which has now been withdrawn. Those works involved the demolition of a sports hall and three classrooms, so the teaching and learning facilities in the college are now worse than they were.

The Minister has kindly offered to have a meeting with me and the principal of the college, and I am very grateful. May I tempt him a little further in his generosity—to come to Havering sixth form college and see the site? I know that his heart will soften, because if something is not done to help the college it will have to waste even more money on reversing the enabling works to enable the college to function. I place myself at his mercy.

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A consortium in my constituency has been established to put forward a Thetford college bid under the 16-19 capital fund. The decision to establish a new post-16 facility in Thetford was strategic and based on genuine need. Will the Minister confirm whether the current problems relating to Building Colleges for the Future are likely directly to affect the 16-19 capital fund?

The town of Thetford has many historic problems, such as social exclusion, deprivation and unemployment. Three years ago, in 2006, we thought we saw the light at the end of the tunnel when Breckland council secured growth point status for the town. That was a serious commitment to the prospects of Thetford at that time. An integral part of the initiative was raising the outcomes for the town and broadening the learning pathway, which is relevant to the debate, and improving student support through the post-16 facility—the college. The proposal for a Thetford college was offered as new hope to the town as part of the new achievement.

However, the initiative hit a stumbling block as a result of the funding problems associated with the Building Colleges for the Future programme. The consortium is scheduled to place a bid at the end of the year, but the most important point that I have to make is that the ground work in preparation for the bid has been started, and money has been committed. Does the Minister agree that those who bid for future funding need clarification about where they stand? When will some sort of certainty be provided? A new Thetford college would increase learning provision in the town and encourage school leavers to take further training. Does the Minister accept that the ability of Thetford to continue with its progress would be scuppered if plans for a Thetford college were to be put on the back-burner?

The town, which has an historic manufacturing base, is short of skills; 16 to 19-year-olds who live there desperately need access to training, including vocational training. Will the Minister assure my constituents that Thetford’s progress will not be undermined as a result of the funding shambles?

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing the debate. My constituency has been hit hard by the funding freeze. In Basingstoke there is an excellent further education college, Basingstoke college of technology, and a sixth-form college called Queen Mary’s college. Both need significant investment if we are to make sure that they can deliver what the Government want from Basingstoke, which is that it should be a diamond for growth and provide the economic prosperity and growth in the south-east that we so badly need during the recession.

Ten weeks ago the Prime Minister said:

“An economic slowdown must not be an excuse to slow down the pace of investment and reform to strengthen our country for the future”.

I am sure that students, parents, staff and employers in Basingstoke want reassurances from the Minister that they will not be let down.

BCOT has a much-needed plan to replace its outdated 1960s buildings with a modern facility that is right for the job, to teach and train employees for the future and to achieve the ambitions that the Government have for us. Indeed, it was the South East England Development Agency that highlighted the fact that access to further and higher education in Basingstoke needed to be improved if we were to achieve the high targets that the Government have set for my constituency. The investment that is made must be focused on those areas that will generate the best social and economic returns. I think that Basingstoke has a strong case to make in that regard.

Will the Minister confirm today that the information given at the capital summit in Westminster on Monday, which representatives of his Department attended, is correct, and that colleges such as BCOT, which have an application in principle on their projects ready for submission but have not yet submitted it, will also be included in the review and prioritisation process? When will decisions be made on that process, and what criteria will be used? I am sure that everyone will want such detail. How will the available money be rationed to be put behind the projects that need to be completed?

BCOT has already spent £1 million on fees to get to the stage it is at. It has been working closely with the LSC in the firm knowledge that building further education capacity in Basingstoke was the Government’s strategic priority. It is vital that we should hear today what support will be provided, particularly given the rising number of NEETs in my constituency. In the words of the principal of BCOT, Judith Armstrong, the project is not a “nice to do”, but is a necessary project that must be undertaken.

Queen Mary’s college is part way through a significant redevelopment of its site and is just entering the next phase. I understand from a letter from the LSC that that is now under review. Again, that is deeply unsettling and a matter of deep concern for everyone involved. The Minister needs to suggest today when we are likely to get a resolution of that. A short delay in the implementation of those plans for BCOT and QMC would be manageable, but a failure to proceed at all would be, in the words of the leader of the council,

“damaging to the area’s economic prospects”,

not to mention the prospects of its young people. The situation is a matter of great concern for my constituents and I hope that the Minister can assure us that there will be a speedy resolution, that he will tell us what criteria will be used to assess which projects can go ahead, and that he will make it clear who, if costs are involved in the delay, will cover those costs.

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Thank you for calling me, Mr. Benton; I thought that we had three minutes to go for further speakers. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing a debate that is important not only for his constituency—and King George V college in Southport, which he mentioned—but for many others. Many hon. Members have come to the debate, and I am sure that there are others whose colleges’ capital programmes are in jeopardy who would like to have been here, too.

We have heard about problems at Yeovil college and in Chesterfield; we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy about problems in Cornwall. We have also heard about Barnsley, from the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis). When we were in the Library doing our homework for the debate, he showed me a clipping from the Yorkshire Post with a picture of a mainly demolished Barnsley college awaiting regeneration next door—a scene from downtown Beirut rather than 21st-century Britain.

We are having the debate, of course, against the background of a deep recession. We heard at Prime Minister’s Question Time today the usual list of all the things that the Government are doing in their various Departments. However, in a recession surely the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills should be putting more into skills. This is a time when more people will have constantly to reskill to cope with changing economic circumstances. It is the further education sector that will have to rise to the challenge and enable adults to reskill, so that they can find their place again when there is eventually an upturn in the economy.

In addition, the very least that we would expect from a competent Department is to maintain control of its own budget—a budget of just over £2.3 billion, which it often trumpets throughout the country to show the scale of its investment. Indeed, in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s pre-Budget statement in November, he was encouraging colleges to draw down on the budget at an early opportunity. He talked about acceleration of the Government’s capital programme. Well, now what do we have? The schemes of 144 colleges have been held up, and many others do not know whether they will ever enter into the scheme in the first place. That is not so much an acceleration of the capital programme as a slamming on of the brakes.

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Among all these powerful statements, I should like to bring my hon. Friend’s attention to what is possibly the worst example of all, which is in my constituency and the Cotswold constituency. The National Star college is halfway through a £15 million transformation of its main campus, which caters entirely for those with complex physical disabilities. Does my hon. Friend agree that putting such a project on hold lets down the college, other potential donors, the existing investment and some of the most extraordinary young people in the country?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He may not know this, but I have visited National Star college, which is just outside his seat, and seen the remarkable work that the tutors there do with adults with profound learning difficulties. If that college is in difficulty, that would indeed be tragic for the life outcomes of those people.

The Association of Colleges has done an excellent analysis of the situation by ringing round its membership and has discovered that, at one end of the scale, 30 colleges have spent up to £250,000 on the feasibility stage, and at the other end of the scale—colleges that are awaiting final approval—18 have spent more than £5 million already on their schemes. Those costs have all been incurred as a necessary part of the Learning and Skills Council capital expenditure approval processes. The costs would normally be capitalised, but now they may have to be written off. The Association of Colleges has calculated that up to £300 million of expenditure may be at risk of a write-off if the schemes do not proceed.

Even if the schemes do proceed, there will clearly be delay, and delay itself is also fraught with risk. All the schemes do not depend just on LSC capital contributions. They also depend on matched funding, usually from sales of land, or contributions from other agencies. We all know that land sales are falling by the day, and many other agencies, such as regional development agencies, also have pressure on their budgets. The schemes depend on tender prices already agreed. Those prices may be renegotiated, or the building contractors themselves may go bust as a result of the delay and a new tender process may have to be entered into. Of course, loans are relevant, too, and the banks may want to renegotiate their loans.

What has been the Government’s response to this fiasco? They have swung from denial—initially they were hiding behind the LSC and the setting up of a review—to a breathtaking display of self-congratulation. As recently as last week, on the website of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, there was a remarkable press release on this issue. The title was “College building programme has created 10,000 jobs”. It stated:

“This is part of the Government’s overall strategy to provide real help now for families…by cutting taxes, helping homeowners…and bringing forward £3 billion of capital projects.”

It went on to make spurious claims about how the college building programme adds a percentage or two to exam pass rates.

I hope that the Government will not hide behind the resignation of Mark Haysom—the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council—to which the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough referred. If anything, the finger should be pointed at the Government. Can the Minister confirm whether Mr. Haysom resigned or was pushed, and whether the terms of his reported £100,000 pay-off, plus, presumably, protection of pension rights, was agreed by his Department, so that we do not get into another Royal Bank of Scotland situation?

I have a number of other questions for the Minister, some of which have been raised already. How much funding will be available to be allocated in each of the financial years 2009-10 and 2010-11 so that colleges can plan ahead with certainty? Will he publish a definitive list of the 79 colleges that have obtained approval in principle and the 65 colleges awaiting approval in principle, which was referred to by the Secretary of State on 4 March? Is the Minister or the Secretary of State having urgent discussions with the Chancellor? The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough said that the Treasury had a role to play in this respect. Will there be discussions on relaxing the borrowing rules? Colleges can borrow only 40 per cent. of their turnover. Is the Minister being supported in those discussions by the Department for Children, Schools and Families? Some £660 million of the budget is under its control, rather than his. Sixth-form colleges will shortly be transferred to that Department. Will the Building Schools for the Future budget still be guaranteed for those colleges, or will that be the next scheme in jeopardy?

These colleges have a clear role to play in the delivery of the education revolution that will take place in the next few years. Diplomas will be rolled out. The Government have ambitious programmes for more apprentices. Last year, we passed a Bill to increase the leaving age for education and training to 17 and then 18. All those laudable objectives could be put in jeopardy if the further education programme is held up. Ironically, Sir Andrew Foster has done a review of this sector before. Back in 2006, he said that further education in England was the unloved middle child of the English education system. It is up to the Government to prove that that is not the case.

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I am pleased that we are having this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing it to raise the subject of the college capital funding programme. I was very concerned to hear about the problems that his local college has been experiencing and the money that has already been committed from its own resources.

We have had a good debate, with the same issues raised on both sides of the Chamber. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and my hon. Friends the Members for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser), for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made powerful cases for their local colleges and highlighted the problems that they are suffering because of the fiasco that we are enduring. There has been without doubt a catalogue of failings and problems throughout the country, caused by incompetence. The Minister must take some of the blame for that.

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The LSC began to cast doubt on the programme’s continued viability only in December 2008. However, in a letter to the Isle of Wight college principal, Debbie Lavin, dated 16 January 2009, the LSC chief executive, Mark Haysom, claimed that

“there is no freeze on the capital funding programme”.

It was only in the following month, after Debbie Lavin had insisted on the LSC sending her a letter, that the LSC stated that the college should

“Cease working on the project with immediate effect”.

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I note my hon. Friend’s comment. He raises a very serious issue and we look to the Minister to respond. I hope that he will do so, because there are serious questions that need real answers, not just fluster and bluster. Ultimately, the Government are responsible for the situation that we are in today.

I am a passionate supporter of the FE sector and I know the good work that is done throughout the country in so many colleges. FE colleges have the potential to change communities and lives for the better. They give real help to individuals. We all want to support colleges and reinvigorate the sector, as many hon. Members said.

Britain’s ability to come out of recession will depend on the strength of its skills base. Unemployment is rising quickly, so it is incumbent on the Government to provide people who have lost their jobs with opportunities to learn new skills or retrain during this difficult time. With skilled workers, businesses are better able to adapt to changing market conditions and to innovate to identify new opportunities. Similarly, skilled individuals are better able to cope with economic turbulence.

We heard that further education colleges play a vital role at the heart of their local communities, not only as providers of education but as providers of opportunity. They are in touch with the needs and demands of local people, local businesses and the regional economy in a way that funding quangos, Departments and some Ministers are not. The success story of the FE sector becomes ever more vital in light of our present economic problems.

We all hoped that the Building Colleges for the Future programme would be effective and that it would reinvigorate the sector with new facilities and new opportunities. Colleges were encouraged by the Learning and Skills Council to make innovative and substantial plans. The LSC even wanted colleges to be more ambitious than they had originally planned or wanted. Presumably, that was on the instructions of the Government. Some colleges were fortunate in getting their capital funding before the Government freeze was implemented.

Ministers are quick to remind us of the investment that has been made. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) highlighted that fact. Of course we welcome the investment, but we need the problem of the capital freeze to be resolved, as it is critical to the sector.

The Government’s handling of the further education capital programme has been nothing short of chaotic. In December 2008, the LSC decided to freeze the approval process for three months, a decision that was made suddenly and without public announcement. Nineteen colleges were due to receive approval, yet Ministers claim that as part of the Prime Minister’s fiscal stimulus, some of the college building budget was brought forward from 2009-10. The Prime Minister said in January:

“An economic slowdown must not be an excuse to slow down the pace of investment and reform to strengthen our country for the future…we have also taken action involving some tough decisions that will also benefit every region and nation of the UK to bring forward our capital spending programmes”.

The LSC has a £694 million capital budget for 2008-09. The budget was due to rise to £819 million in 2009-10, following the Government’s decision to bring forward public sector capital expenditure. Some of that money was to be spent in the current year. The three-month freeze means that many capital grant payments will be delayed until the next financial year, yet the Government still claim that there is no freeze.

In January, the chief executive of the LSC said:

“There is no freeze on the programme.”

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills repeated that claim in the House, saying:

“There is no freeze in that spending programme.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2009; Vol. 440, c. 487.]

Many colleges, with the support of the LSC, had therefore already started their building works, expecting the final funding bids to be rubber stamped at the December meeting and beyond.

Following that, on 4 March the Government announced that while eight of the programmes would be approved, they would not be funding the 144 projects in the earlier stages of the approval process. However, as we heard, many of those colleges have already started their building programmes, with the encouragement of the Government. The freeze will result in higher costs for institutions, in some cases running into millions of pounds.

Who is affected by the latest freeze? Seventy-nine colleges are waiting for approval in detail, the final stage of the approval process. To be considered for approval in detail, colleges must have already secured planning permission and put together a full project brief. Those colleges will have incurred considerable costs to reach that stage, and, as we have heard, some have begun demolishing old buildings. Sixty-five colleges are waiting for approval in principle. Those colleges will already have assembled a project team and put money towards preparing the bid. For example, I understand that Worthing college has spent £1.7 million getting to this stage, which is money from its own reserves.

A survey by the Association of Colleges found that 168 colleges have already spent £215 million. I understand that some were led to believe that the money had been ring-fenced for them. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough told us of another example, that of Barnsley college, which I understand has been half demolished. It is unacceptable that colleges should be left in that situation. It is not acceptable for the Government to say that it does not matter because it does matter to the people and communities involved. I understand that there may be job losses, and they will affect not only the colleges but the construction industry—the architects and engineers involved—and the ancillary staff connected with the projects. The problem will also affect future students. Some fear that projects that are being put on hold may never be implemented.

Ministers must come clean on the scale of the problem. The colleges affected will not be able to improve their facilities at a time when it is desperately needed. What will the Government do about it? I have a series of questions for the Minister. I know that time is short, so I shall not spend too long on them.

Concerns about the affordability of the capital programme were expressed for the first time at the September capital board meeting and at the main board meeting in December. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was represented at that December meeting, so when did Ministers first discover the scale of the crisis?

One of my regional papers, Kent on Sunday, our free Sunday newspaper, last week had the front-page headline “Colleges facing funding freeze”. The article highlighted the plight of colleges in Kent. It said that North West Kent college had already demolished some of its buildings, and that Thanet college had spent £4 million of its own money preparing to rebuild.

At least £198 million may have to be written off if colleges’ capital projects do not get LSC backing. The LSC is anticipating legal challenges over the effects of the freeze. Given that colleges were encouraged to apply for capital projects, what will the Government do to compensate those colleges that, through no fault of their own, find themselves financially exposed because of the mismanagement of the capital programme? Rather than spending £100,000 redesigning the DIUS website, perhaps the Minister should have put that money towards costs incurred by colleges as a result of the Government’s incompetence.

The principal of Barnsley college, Colin Booth, said that delaying works to his college may well end up bankrupting it. What will the Government do to prevent colleges from going bust? With Barnsley college in mind, what will the Government do to support projects that have already started construction?

The failure of some projects will have much bigger implications. For example, the College of West Anglia’s redevelopment is part of a massive regeneration project in King’s Lynn. Planning permission has been obtained, and funding from several authorities is in place. The college itself is a crucial part of the project. What will the Government do about situations like that?

Owing to glaring communication failures, much of what we know about the crisis has come to light through surveys of colleges and freedom of information requests. Will the Minister commit the Government to providing periodic statements to the House that include all the relevant figures and progress updates?

The chief executive of the LSC, Mark Haysom, has resigned, taking full responsibility for the programme’s failure. Essentially, Ministers have been passing the buck. Mr. Haysom said:

“I don't need to wait for that report to be published before making my decision because it will, I’m sure, confirm what I now know—that there have been failures in the way that the LSC has managed the programme.”

Does this sudden outbreak of accountability mean that Ministers will follow Mr. Haysom’s lead? They have failed. What responsibility will they take?

It is of paramount importance that the Minister sets out as soon as possible how much funding will be available for the postponed capital projects for which funding has been promised by the LSC in order to ensure that colleges can plan effectively and mitigate the financial effects of continued delays. The LSC also needs to confirm the timetable and criteria for the prioritisation of the projects.

The LSC’s communication with colleges over the past four months has been extremely poor. The minutes for the LSC national council meeting in December, when the initial decision to postpone all capital projects was taken, were issued only as a result of a freedom of information request. That is disgraceful. We are still awaiting publication of the minutes from the meetings of October 2008 and March 2009.

The Government have let down so many colleges and learners. The Minister ought to be ashamed. He should find the courage to apologise and say what he is going to do.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing the debate. As has been noted, it is unusually well attended, as this serious matter is of great concern to many Members. I am acutely aware of that fact. In the small time that I have available, I shall take interventions from those hon. Members who have not yet managed to speak.

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I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this debate on a very serious matter. Taking up the theme of his introduction, will the Minister tell his right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills that we need a much fuller debate? This short period is totally insufficient to do justice to the seriousness of the matter. In my own case—

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Order. I think that the point has been made, if it was merely to ask the Minister for a more extended debate. To be fair, there is little enough time for the Minister to respond to every point made.

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I shall take my hon. Friend’s point back to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department and to business managers.

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On a point of order, Mr. Benton. The Minister knows of the seriousness of the situation at West Nottinghamshire college, which has already spent £7.5 million at the direction of the LSC—

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Order. I am sorry, but that is not a point of order.

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I have talked to the principal of West Nottinghamshire college, and I understand that the situation there is difficult, as it is in many parts of the country. Clearly, too many right hon. and hon. Members have made points about individual colleges for me to cover them all now. However, I have tried to write to all those hon. Members whose constituencies were thought to be affected, inviting them and their college principals to meet me to discuss the matters in detail. Some Members will not, however, have received such a letter, because the LSC could not tell us—this has been part of the whole problem—the scale of the problem and which colleges were affected until a few days before the written statement made on 4 March by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. We have only had that information for the past three weeks.

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I join everyone in congratulating the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on raising this important issue. To the litany of concerns, may I add Leeds, where the LSC encouraged colleges to merge? Three colleges opted in, on the explicit understanding that major capital resources would be made available to meet the infrastructure requirements. In fact, two colleges that did not join that merger think that they might be penalised. Can the Minister understand the dismay and despondency now that the capital funding tap has been turned off?

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I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and I share his dismay. However, it is not appropriate, practical or feasible for me to go into the details now of any of the colleges in Members’ constituencies. If they want to meet me and to bring their college principals to have a more detailed discussion, I am happy to extend that invitation.

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With regard to the communication that many of us have not received, will the Minister agree to a specific date by asking his officials to contact us, including myself, so that I can get a date in the diary soon to discuss the problems in my constituency, bearing in mind that he will not necessarily cover it in his remarks today?

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I wrote to Members this week setting out the situation, but I shall write again to those hon. Members whose constituencies we believe to be affected, making it clear that, as has always been the case, anybody who wants to discuss their own situation will be welcome. The problems with the programme are well known. Many right hon. and hon. Members spoke with passion and feeling about the difficulties in their constituencies, and I have repeatedly said that I understand their frustrations as local representatives. I also understand the frustrations and fears of college principals and governors. I was in Leicester this morning talking to hundreds of college governors and clerks; understandably, feelings were strong.

I was specifically asked not to do so, but, before entering into further details, I shall, in five short sentences, put a few fundamental points on the record. It is important that all right hon. and hon. Members, especially Opposition Members, understand that, in 1997, this budget was nil. Since then, 700 renovation schemes have been carried out in 330 colleges, and only 42 colleges in the country have yet to receive any investment.

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The Minister is doing what I asked him not to do: to read out a litany of what has happened so far and to say that he shares our pain. We are all grateful for that, but fundamentally, colleges need a timetable to get us out of this mess. Can he give any information about when the issue will be resolved? What dates have we?

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The hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks that we need to work out an answer to the problem. I agree with that, but now is not the time or place to do so, and nor are we the people to do it. I cannot give him an easy answer; I do not have a ready-made, off-the-shelf solution; I cannot give him a simple time line. However, I can repeat what we have said before: the LSC has a new chief executive who understands clearly that his first priority is to deal with the troubles, especially the worst and most urgent of them, affecting those 144 colleges. I also take the point made by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that the problem is not even limited to those 144 colleges, because many others that have not applied for approval in principle will have invested considerable management time, resources and sums of money, and they could have borrowed money to do so. The first responsibility of the LSC’s new leadership will be to address those colleges’ needs.

When, in the next week or two, Sir Andrew Foster’s report is received, the LSC’s new leadership, working with the Department, the Association of Colleges and the sector more broadly, will introduce proposals to deal with the problems. We will deal with individual problems according to their urgency and seriousness.

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I accept everything that my hon. Friend the Minister says. However, many principals feel insulted. I, and they, accept and are grateful for everything that has been done already, as underlined in constant press releases, but many principals feel that they have been treated with disrespect. My hon. Friend is not a disrespectful person, but to constantly go over what we have done already is not enough. They want practical answers to very definite questions. I thank him for what he has done for my constituency and its colleges, but they want definite answers. If we do not understand that, we risk losing what good will—

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Order. That intervention is too lengthy.

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I understand that colleges need clarity and certainty and that people feel vulnerable and frightened. We are clear that the first responsibility of the LSC’s new leadership is to give them that clarity and certainty. I cannot do that this afternoon. The LSC understands that it must do it immediately and urgently. If my hon. Friend says that college principals feel insulted—

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Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Asbestos (Schools)

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate and those who have assisted me in preparing it. I would especially like to thank Michael Lees, for his work campaigning on asbestos in schools over many years; the editor of the Daily Mirror and its reporters, especially Mark Ellis, for exposing issues involving asbestos generally and asbestos in schools in particular; the Manchester Evening News and the Rochdale Observer for their freedom of information work on the number of schools with asbestos in Greater Manchester and Rochdale; and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers union, especially its general secretary Mary Bousted—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

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I hope that we do not get another interruption.

I should like to finish expressing my thanks to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers union and its general secretary, Mary Bousted, for the information and support that they have provided for the debate. I thank the all-party asbestos sub-group, chaired by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham)—I am delighted that he is here with us today—and Jason Addy of the Save Spodden Valley action group in my constituency of Rochdale. All errors of fact are my own.

Asbestos has no respect for status, position or job occupation. There are no safe limits; one fibre can be enough to cause asbestosis or mesothelioma. We know that the numbers of people dying of asbestos-related diseases are steadily rising each year. Currently, approximately 3,000 people die each year, with the peak expected over the next 10 to 20 years. Asbestos-related diseases have a long provenance. Typically, it can take 30 to 60 years before an exposure leads to a person developing the disease. That leads to difficulties in apportioning responsibility and problems in getting compensation. Many hon. Members have campaigned for better support for the victims of asbestos, including those who have worked in schools.

Asbestos is present in a large number of our schools that were built or modified between the 1940s and 1985, when its use was banned. It was mainly used as thermal insulation in boilers, in insulation boards used for fire protection, for acoustic purposes on ceilings, ducts, partitions and service shafts, and on steelwork for fire protection purposes.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he believe that one way forward would be for a national audit to be carried out either by the Health and Safety Executive or by local authorities together with schools? Once it has been identified where the asbestos is, a record could be published and related to training governors in each school on how to manage asbestos.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He has a long history of campaigning—rightly, in my view—on asbestos-related diseases. I intend to cover that later in my remarks.

A recent freedom of information survey conducted by the Manchester Evening News showed that 903 out of 1,043 schools in greater Manchester contained asbestos. Last Wednesday, the BBC revealed that 1,499 of 1,606 schools in Kent, Sussex and Surrey contain asbestos. It also determined that systems for asbestos management are ineffective and that staff and pupils are at risk. The HSE has subsequently issued improvement notices. An earlier ITN report revealed that a school in Brent had failed to implement adequate asbestos management systems and had put staff and pupils at risk. In recent months, the HSE has issued 18 improvement notices to schools and local authorities for failing to identify asbestos, failing to implement a reasonable plan of action, or failing to manage risk.

Let me declare my interest in this subject. Prior to my election in 2005, I worked for 28 years as a secondary school teacher, spending 15 years as a deputy head, and for five of those years I was responsible for the maintenance of the school’s buildings. I shall return to that point. Teaching and the possible exposure of children to asbestos have been classed as low-risk, unlike other occupations such as plumbing or shipbuilding. Nevertheless, that low risk comes either with a long exposure time, or, for young children, exposure at a particularly vulnerable time. Statistics from the Department for Children, Schools and Families show that at least 178 teachers have died of mesothelioma or asbestos-related diseases since 1980.

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The HSE has said that that number represents what one might expect in the population as a whole, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it has missed entirely the point that one would expect a much lower number of teachers to be affected than people in occupations in which there is high exposure to asbestos, such as shipbuilding or construction? The call by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone for a national audit is therefore all the more vivid.

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The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Indeed, statistics show that teachers are at a higher than average risk. The teachers union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, knows of at least 400 people who have contracted asbestos-related diseases. This issue is a ticking time bomb. There has been little to no research into the long-term effect of low-level exposure to asbestos. It is clear to me that the current system of local management by local authorities is not working. That is why I support the proposal of Professor John Edwards for a national centre for asbestos research at Sheffield university. This issue would be an important area for research.

The form of asbestos that has been used in UK schools is also important. Much of it is amosite and some is crocidolite. Amosite is estimated to be 100 times more likely to cause mesothelioma than chrysotile, whereas crocidolite is even more dangerous, being 500 times more likely to cause mesothelioma. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) recently told me about a constituent of hers who worked in Dorset schools as a support teacher for the deaf for 28 years, who now has mesothelioma and has only months to live.

The proportional mortality ratio is a statistical method of comparing the incidence of deaths between occupations. Where there is no exposure to asbestos, a male would have a PMR of about six and a female would have a PMR of 36. However, between 1980 and 2000, the PMR for male school teachers was almost 10 times greater, at 57, and for females it was almost three times greater, at 100. The PMR for female teachers was twice that of female nurses, but there are similar numbers of nurses to teachers. Can the Minister explain why their death rate should have been twice as great?

Since 1985, UK policy has been to deny that this was a national issue, and to put responsibility on to local authorities and the HSE. The Minister for Schools and Learners, the right hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), recently gave the same reply that Schools Ministers have given for the past 20 years when he said:

“Detailed information about the incidence of asbestos in schools is not collected centrally. Local authorities are responsible for school buildings under their management.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2008; Vol. 478, c. 1412W.]

It is also clear from freedom of information requests that I have submitted to local authorities across the country that in many cases they are not meeting their obligations. That cannot continue. The majority of councils do not employ full-time individuals to monitor the safety of asbestos in public buildings, so it is not surprising that there is increasing evidence of asbestos incidents in schools being caused by the failure of asbestos management. It is unsatisfactory that the facts about asbestos and its management in schools have to be revealed by newspapers, television programmes and individual FOI requests. The Government, Parliament and the Department have a clear responsibility to take a lead and to develop clear policies for asbestos monitoring, management and removal.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I should say that my parents were both secondary school teachers, although they are now retired. My father was a drama teacher for 30-odd years, so he used to scramble around the ceiling of a school that was built during the period that my hon. Friend has mentioned to put up lights and things for school productions. I am sure that many of his colleagues across the country will also have been affected, or will have been at risk of being affected, perhaps unknowingly. My hon. Friend is concentrating on the information aspect; does he think that the problem is a lack of awareness, despite the efforts of journalists and hon. Members, about what is there?

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No, the problem is not a lack of awareness; it is the lack of clear systems and policies to do something about this issue. In both the USA and Eire, clear policies have been adopted with a clear strategy, including a centrally conducted review of asbestos in all schools. In Eire, once national data were available, national plans were produced to remove asbestos, even, the Dail Eireann report states,

“if this would not normally be considered necessary”.

More than 25 years ago, in the USA the federal Government carried out a national audit of asbestos in their schools, and the risks to teachers and children were assessed. Stringent federal regulations on asbestos specifically for schools were introduced, and resources proportionate to the risks were allocated, so that schools could manage their asbestos. In comparison, successive Governments in Great Britain have refused the requests of MPs and unions to carry out an audit or risk assessment, with the consequence that they do not know the scale of the problem and are therefore unable to allocate proportionate resources to the policy of asbestos management.

In my last five years of working in a school, I was responsible for building maintenance. We had an asbestos register, and if any work was carried out by contractors, I made sure that they were aware of it. However, despite the issues, I received no training or support to tell me what my responsibilities were as a deputy head. It is clear that governors and senior staff need support, as it is usually the head teacher who is charged if there are any failures in asbestos management.

The Northern Ireland Office has carried out a full audit of all schools in the Province and has allocated resources to remove asbestos. We need the same policy in England and Wales. We need to develop a policy that undertakes a national audit to give us an idea of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools.

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The hon. Gentleman has mentioned asbestos type and spoke earlier about blue and brown asbestoses, which were banned in 1985, as well as white asbestos. We have to be aware that, before white asbestos was banned, Leicester university did a study that showed it was just as carcinogenic and that there was no safe working limit with white asbestos. Does he agree?

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who knows a lot more on the topic than I can ever hope to. As I said, there is no safe limit for dealing with asbestos.

First, I suggest that we start the national audit with 100 schools that have been selected to provide a cross-section, followed by a full survey of all schools within a defined period—for example, five years. The Department should make additional resources available to any school that agrees to the survey and is shown to need remedial work. That work should be carried out by independent asbestos consultants, rather than local authority officers, many of whom are not qualified to carry out the sort of inspection that is needed.

Secondly, for the occupants of schools with asbestos, an assessment of risk needs to be undertaken by what I hope will be the newly established national centre for asbestos research, with particular emphasis on the risks to children. Thirdly, the campaign—carried out by the HSE in the past—to improve asbestos management in schools needs to be reinstated. Fourthly, a policy of the complete removal of all asbestos when schools are refurbished should be adopted—either under the Building Schools for the Future programme or the primary capital programme. Finally, a taskforce of teachers, governors, local authorities and the Department should be set up to look at the training and support provided to governors and head teachers in discharging their responsibilities for asbestos management in schools. Those are challenging targets, but they are vital for the future health and well-being of our young people.

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I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) on securing the debate. I know that he is passionate about the subject and, as he explained, he has had first-hand experience of tackling it during his time as a head teacher. I am particularly pleased to respond because my constituency of Portsmouth is one of the hot spots for mesothelioma. It has the fifth highest prevalence in the country, so many of my constituents are familiar with the disease.

As has been said, this is a particularly important subject in schools because the health and welfare of the staff and pupils working and learning in our schools is obviously paramount. They should be able to go to school with the confidence that the buildings in which they are working are safe and fit for purpose. Record capital investment in our school buildings is sweeping away the legacy of outdated buildings and is refurbishing local landscapes with school buildings that are fit for 21st-century learning. As has been mentioned, the Building Schools for the Future programme aims to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England that needs it, and the primary capital programme is providing the same regeneration in primary schools. More than 1,200 schools have now been rebuilt or refurbished. However, there are remaining schools that still contain asbestos.

We take the HSE’s expert advice, which is that it is safer to leave undisturbed or undamaged asbestos in place and carefully manage it, but that, where asbestos has become exposed, it should be removed. By law, schools must have robust processes in place to monitor asbestos carefully. It is the responsibility of both the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the HSE to monitor those processes. Responsibility for complying with the legislation lies with the duty holder which, in the case of maintained schools, will usually be the local authority. Those responsible for maintenance and repair in schools—or in any other non-domestic building—also have a legal duty to manage the risks arising from asbestos. That person—the duty holder—needs to take steps to identify whether asbestos is present in buildings and to assess its condition and record that information. They also need to assess and manage the risk to ensure that people are not exposed to asbestos fibres.

HSE guidance on asbestos surveys is currently being revised and is due to be published this summer. That has involved widespread consultation with internal and external partners, including local authorities. There will be two different types of survey: management surveys and refurbishment or demolition surveys. Management surveys will often involve minor intrusive work and some disturbance. The purpose is to locate, as far as is reasonably practicable, the presence and extent of any suspected asbestos-containing materials—ACMs—in the building that could be damaged or disturbed during normal occupancy, including in relation to foreseeable maintenance and installation.

Refurbishment or demolition surveys are necessary prior to any refurbishment or demolition work being carried out. The intention is to locate all ACMs, so that they can be removed before that work takes place. As such, those types of surveys will be much more intrusive and destructive compared with the management surveys. Provided a full management survey has been undertaken, the duty holder only needs to undertake a refurbishment survey of the specific area to be refurbished—for example, a classroom. The results of asbestos surveys should be recorded and an asbestos register is often kept on site, as well as centrally at the local authority office. A log book is usually kept with the asbestos register on the school site for contractors to sign to prove that they have seen the asbestos register before they start maintenance or repair work that might disturb it. A survey may identify ACMs that require urgent work to repair, encapsulate or remove them.

As I said, the HSE advice is clear that it is safer to leave asbestos in place where it has been undisturbed and undamaged, rather than try to remove it. I am, of course, aware of the cases of mesothelioma among teachers. In fact, a few weeks ago, on mesothelioma action day, I shared a platform with a teacher from Poole—I do not know whether it was the same one referred to by the hon. Gentleman—who, sadly, had only months to live. We also need to be aware that asbestos poses more of a risk to those working with it on repairs and maintenance in general than to the staff and children within a school.

However, for both teachers and maintenance staff, we must have robust processes in place to control asbestos. We have produced clear guidance for schools and local authorities to help them to identify and manage the risks posed by asbestos. Asbestos surveys should be part of the regular condition surveys carried out at school premises as part of asset management plans. Asbestos surveys must be rigorous enough to identify damaged material that could contain asbestos, and further action, such as intrusive surveys and the repair or removal of any asbestos containing materials, should be taken as necessary.

It might be that not all local authorities are taking their responsibilities under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 as seriously as they should—the hon. Gentleman’s survey, which was conducted under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, certainly indicates that. I emphasise to him that it is not an option for local authorities and school employers not to comply. Cases of non-compliance are followed up by the HSE and that results in improvement notices or even prosecution. In September last year, we wrote to local authorities and schools about asbestos in system buildings and reminded them of their legal obligations and the actions that should have been taken to assess and control asbestos.

We followed that up at the beginning of this year with an electronic survey of local authorities and dioceses. The survey asked all local authorities to confirm what actions they have taken or are planning to take regarding asbestos management in their system buildings. That was a joint survey, carried out by ourselves and the HSE. We will be jointly scrutinising the results once it is completed and considering whether further steps are needed to ensure that local authorities and schools fulfil their legal duties. Failings identified by the survey will be followed up by the HSE and we are happy to consider the results of the hon. Gentleman’s survey alongside that work, if he wishes to make that information available to us.

The hon. Gentleman cited international examples of asbestos management in schools. We considered the complete removal of asbestos in all schools, as is the case in America, but looking at the evidence, it was decided that complete removal caused serious danger to workers and building occupants, and that it was therefore best to leave asbestos in place if it is not deteriorating. In Northern Ireland, asbestos remains in place, but it is strictly managed by the education and library boards. If the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 are followed and if periodic checks and surveys are carried out on the state of asbestos, it can be safely managed and the risks can be minimised.

The hon. Gentleman also argued for a national register of asbestos surveys. Although it is essential for duty holders to maintain surveys at a local level, I am concerned that a national register of schools would duplicate the work already undertaken by local duty holders—in most cases that is the local authority. A national register of schools is not currently necessary because we have the existing processes. However, it is fair to say that we will keep that under review.

The hon. Gentleman made a further point about training. Head teachers and governors need to be aware of their responsibilities under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 when commissioning building or maintenance work. That not only applies to renovation projects, but to smaller scale modifications, such as installing interactive whiteboards and computer cabling.

The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of including training for head teachers in the national professional qualification for headship is a good one. Training already includes a module on estate management, and we will undertake to work with the National College for School Leadership to see whether we can further embed the management of asbestos and wider health and safety issues into the training. It would also be appropriate to look at the content of the diploma course for school business managers, which is also run by the NCSL.

Reaching local authority staff is also a priority, and I welcome the recent publication by the Federation of Property Societies, “Compliance Monitoring in Council Premises”, which includes detailed guidance for local authority and school staff on the implementation and control of asbestos and other health and safety legislation.

All secondary schools in Rochdale are now involved in the Building Schools for the Future programme, and are in the procurement stage with a view to signing contracts at the end of the year. Under BSF, the responsibilities and liabilities for dealing with asbestos are set out in the standard contractual documents produced by Partnerships for Schools. They currently require local authorities to provide a type 2 asbestos survey to bidders. Local authorities have to confirm that one is available when they submit their outline business case to PFS for approval, and include one as part of the documentation provided to bidders at tender stage. The bidders then normally take a type 3 asbestos survey. Once a local education partnership is set up, local authorities are again required to provide a type 2 survey, or could arrange for the LEP to procure one. Again, that will inform the process for a type 3 survey.

Major refurbishments undertaken under BSF would normally include the removal of all asbestos, and any deteriorating material would normally be identified by a type 2 survey and removed. The documents will be updated to reflect new HSE guidance for the surveys that I described.

Nothing is more important than the health and safety of children and the teachers who work in our schools. We are committed to doing what is necessary to ensure that asbestos in schools is managed safely, and we will be looking closely at the results of the survey that we have undertaken, which is due to close at the end of this month. We will continue to communicate with head teachers, governors and local authority staff. As I said, parents must have confidence in the safety of the school to which they send their children, teachers and school staff should feel safe at work, and pupils should feel safe and secure in their learning environment.

Sitting suspended.

Livestock Industry (Climate Change)

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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Benton, for this debate, which is about an issue that has been of long-standing interest to me. Until recently, I was part of the small minority who were aware of it. It was always mentioned in the context of the debate around vegetarianism, as an add-on to the main arguments about the ethical case for giving up meat, the health benefits and so on.

I should probably get this out of the way straight away and say that I am a vegetarian. Actually, I have been a vegan since 1992 and a vegetarian since 1981, but I hope that I can convince people that I am not calling for this issue to be treated with the seriousness that it deserves because of my ethical concerns about vegetarianism. I am not trying to use this debate as a Trojan horse to push that case. I genuinely think, from an environmental point of view and also a development point of view, that we need to look at the impact of increasing meat and dairy consumption around the globe and the consequent growth of the livestock industry.

As I said, this was very much a marginal issue, but it is now crossing over and becoming mainstream. One of the key points in that process was when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation published its report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow” in 2006. It looked at a range of issues, including the impact of the livestock industry on land use, soil, water, biodiversity depletion and climate change. The report’s conclusion was stark:

“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

The basic fact is that the livestock industry uses huge amounts of water, grain, energy and land. On the UN figures, it is responsible for 18 per cent. of total global greenhouse gas emissions. That is more than the emissions from all the world’s planes, trains and cars put together.

I should say at this point that this speech will almost unavoidably be full of statistics, which I appreciate makes for dull listening, but it is important to get some of the facts and figures on the record. There are many different statistics floating around, and it has been difficult to come up with the definitive ones. For example, on the livestock industry’s contribution to global greenhouses gases, the Government use the figure of 14 per cent. I shall use my figures and hope that we do not get into too much to-ing and fro-ing.

The first factor that I want to identify is the sheer amount of grain or soya crops that it takes to produce feed for animals. It takes 8 kg of grain to produce l kg of beef; 4 kg to produce the equivalent amount of pigmeat; and 2 kg for the same weight of chicken. That pushes up food prices throughout the world. Raj Patel wrote in his excellent book “Stuffed and Starved”:

“The amount of grains fed to US livestock would be enough to feed 840 million people on a plant-based diet. The number of food-insecure people in the world in 2006 was, incidentally, 854 million”.

But to return to climate change, my second point follows on from animal feed: the livestock industry also uses an absolutely huge amount of water. It takes 100 times as much water to produce 1 kg of beef as it does to grow 1 kg of vegetables. That is a particular factor in countries where water is a scarce resource.

The third factor is the amount of fossil fuel energy that the industry uses. It takes 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of plant protein; four times as much to produce 1 calorie of chicken protein; 17 times as much to produce 1 calorie of pork protein; 50 times as much for 1 calorie of lamb protein; and 54 times as much for 1 calorie of beef protein. Basically, it takes almost 120 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of beef.

The fourth and possibly most important impact is the amount of land use. It takes almost 21 sq m of land to produce 1 kg of beef, if we factor in animal feed, compared with 0.3 sq m to produce 1 kg of vegetables. Currently, about one third of all arable land in the world is used to produce animal feed crops, and that means deforestation, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. Large swathes of forest are being cleared to provide land to grow soya and grain to feed to cattle.

In the climate change debate, we are all familiar with concerns about biofuels and deforestation, but deforestation for new pasture lands and to create arable land on which to grow animal feed is responsible for about one third of livestock emissions globally. About 100 million tonnes of crops are being diverted to create biofuels this year, but 760 million tonnes are being used to feed animals, so I hope that that puts the issue in some context.

According to Friends of the Earth, which is to be congratulated on its “Food Chain” campaign that examines the environmental footprint of the food that we eat, more than 3,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest were cleared between August 2007 and August 2008. On that trend, cattle and soya production will destroy 40 per cent. of the Amazon in the next 40 years.

A short while ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Father Edilberto Sena, who has been on a crusade since 2001 to stop the world’s largest private company, the trans-national grain trader Cargill, from using the vast new port that it has built on the Amazon river to export its soya from Brazil to northern Europe, to supply the intensive meat and dairy industries of Britain, Holland and France. He told MPs about the destruction being wreaked in Brazil and particularly his local community by that growing trade. Almost 80 per cent. of UK soybeans are imported from Brazil, so there is a strong link between meat and dairy consumption in this country and the deforestation of the Amazon.

The fifth impact is emissions. As I have already mentioned, the livestock industry contributes 18 per cent. of global greenhouse gas emissions, including 9 per cent. of global CO2 emissions, 37 per cent. of methane emissions and 65 per cent. of nitrous oxide emissions.

This is where we reach a fairly delicate subject, which I shall try to treat as delicately as possible. Methane is released by what is politely termed natural livestock emissions—slightly less politely, flatulence, belching and manure produced mainly by cattle. It has about 25 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide, and 1 g of methane produced by a cow’s natural emissions therefore warms the planet 20 times as much as 1 g of CO2 from a car engine.

Livestock is also responsible for most of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions, and that is related to fertiliser and muck spreading. Although nitrous oxide represents only a tiny proportion of global greenhouse gases, being about 1,000th of the world’s CO2 emissions, it has a much more powerful effect. It has one of the longest lifetimes of any greenhouse gas, lasting up to 150 years, and it has about 300 times the warming potential of CO2. There are also other concerns about the environmental impact of the billions of tonnes of waste—unrelated to climate change—that those animals produce. The waste leaches into the water supply and emits 30 million tonnes of ammonia each year, and that translates into 68 per cent. of the emissions that cause acid rain. Pesticides are also an issue.

Those are the concerns, and the issue must be set in the context of the huge increase in the consumption of meat and dairy products over recent years, which has been caused by rising living standards in the developing world and the adoption of western diets, particularly in countries such as India and China. The United Nations report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options” states that in 2003, on average, India consumed 5 kg of meat per person, the UK consumed 83 kg and the United States 123 kg. However, developing nations are increasing their meat consumption rapidly. In India, it has gone up from 5 kg per person in 2003 to 28 kg in 2007, and in the UK, in the developed world, we eat 50 per cent. more meat than we did in the 1960s. Meat production globally quadrupled between 1961 and 2001, and it is expected to double again by 2050.

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The hon. Lady makes a very cogent case on some very important issues. Does she accept that the most significant part of farming’s carbon footprint is transport and food miles? Will she acknowledge, among the statistics to which she refers, that over the past 10 years the proportion of meat consumed in the UK that was produced in the UK has gone down by 12 percentage points, from 75 per cent. to 63 per cent? She refers to the fact that much of the rainforest has been destroyed to create pasture land, so that livestock can be reared over there and exported here, so will she not accept that a strong British livestock sector is a powerful way of combating climate change, because it ensures that we reduce the amount of miles involved in getting food from the field to the plate?

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I deliberately have not entered into the food-miles debate, because it is not possible to do so in the time available, but there is another debate to be had about food miles, and I support the idea that, wherever possible, people should buy food that is grown locally. It is complete madness that we import New Zealand lamb, for example, when we can get such meat much closer to home.

On the solutions, I am sure that the Minister will be relieved to hear that I am not suggesting that we must go vegetarian or vegan to save the planet. However, Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, researchers from the university of Chicago, said that becoming a vegetarian does more to fight climate change than switching from a gas-guzzler to a hybrid car. The head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also said:

“If all families would just have one meatless day a week, this would have the same beneficial effect on greenhouse gas emission as taking almost one million cars off the roads for an entire year.”

It would also be equivalent to replacing 1 billion light bulbs with energy saving bulbs.

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving us the opportunity to hear her arguments and debate the issues. She has concentrated on meat eating, perhaps understandably, and referred to dairy only a few times, but some issues may be there. She has framed the debate about livestock in general, so I should be interested to hear whether she has anything further to say about dairy. In some parts of the developing world, dairy is a stronger part of the diet than meat, because of price. Following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), I wonder whether the hon. Lady agrees that the debate is not so much about what we eat but where it comes from. On biodiversity in the UK, the livestock sector is keenly involved in maintaining the historic landscape that we all enjoy.

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I have already addressed the point about food miles and the fact that local food is better. I recognise that farming makes a contribution towards biodiversity and protecting the environment in the smaller sense of the word in the UK, rather than in the climate change sense. Although dairy products are to an extent a feature of the diet in developing countries, in Asia and particularly in China, they are not, but they are increasingly becoming a significant part of the diet. So all the points that I have made about animal feed and so on relate to the dairy industry and the growth on that front as well as to the meat industry.

The choice is either to reduce consumption or to try to find ways to tackle the emissions produced by the livestock industry. That is similar to the question in the aviation debate: should people be asked to reduce the number of flights that they take or should technological advances within aviation be considered? The best solution would be a combination of both. But I expect that the Minister will probably focus on the technological advances and how we can reduce the emissions that are created, so I shall make a brief comment on that point.

I draw the Minister’s attention to a report from Farming Futures, which is supported by the farming industry, including the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association. That report suggests that the way forward is to make changes to cows’ diets to prevent them producing so much methane, to have anaerobic digestion plants to deal with waste and by optimising fertiliser efficiency to reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

A methane tax was considered in New Zealand, and it was hoped that that would raise $5 million and that the money would be spent on funding research into ways to reduce emissions from livestock. However, that proposal was opposed by farmers and was replaced by a general carbon tax. Researchers in Australia reckoned that reducing emissions from animals by between 20 and 50 per cent. would result in cows producing more milk, because every time a cow releases a natural emission it loses energy. It is bizarre that people do such things for a living and I am not sure how it would be measured, but that example proves that the research is out there and that there are ways of doing that.

Oxfam has put forward a contraction and convergence plan on meat eating, which is similar to the idea of contraction and convergence in respect of broader climate change. The basic premise of that plan is that there should be a sustainable level of meat eating, which would involve those under the limit coming up to it and those above the limit coming down. Oxfam says that to preserve the situation as it is to prevent an increase in emissions but not to reduce them overall, the level would be about 33 kg per person.

Compassion in World Farming has also been campaigning on this issue and has talked about the need to factor it into any international discussions on climate change. Friends of the Earth, as part of their “Food Chain” campaign, has come up with some fairly radical suggestions. It has said that Government should stop subsidising intensive livestock farming and instead invest in research into local feed production, and it is talking about public sector procurement and saying that environmentally damaging food should not be purchased for schools, hospitals, care homes and so on. It also mentions changing global investment policy at the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and talks about other forms of bilateral finance and ensuring that the issue is addressed in international climate talks.

The key thing is making sure that people are aware. It comes back to the food miles debate. There has been a lot of discussion about how easy it would be to mark the environmental footprint of food. That is difficult, because we are all familiar with the argument that to import something from Africa may result in longer air or freight miles, but that if similar produce were grown in Holland, for example, where artificial lighting, heating and so on have to be used, the environmental footprint could be higher although the number of food miles would be lower. It would be difficult to attach some imprint on to food that gave a clear idea of its environmental footprint, but it is important that we are aware of that and factor it into our discussions.

This is not about finding a back-door way to promote vegetarianism or veganism but about climate change. I had hoped that another hon. Member would call for this debate, which is why, since “Livestock’s Long Shadow” was published a couple of years ago, I have been sitting on it hoping that they would do so, but none has, which is why I am here. John Harris, who writes for The Guardian and is a long-term vegetarian, said in an excellent piece last year:

“right now, this is actually more about human lives than those of animals”.

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First and foremost, may I say how delighted I am to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Benton? Not only is it always a pleasure to see you in the Chair; it is a pleasure to be reassured about the robust state of your health. It is good to see you here.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this debate in the momentary and wonderful lull in the terrible noise from that person across the road. I put it on the record that I regret that I could not properly follow the debate on asbestos led by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), because of the intrusive nature of the noise. I hope that the House authorities look again at seeing what could be done, particularly in respect of debates in this Chamber because we are much closer to it. People have the right to protest, but we should be able to carry on our business properly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East rightly said at the outset that she was a vegan but that that was not the primary reason for calling this debate. It is an important debate in its own right. She has put on the record that she is a vegan, and I respect her views on food, but I have to say that I am not. I suspect that my mum was probably introducing me to meat as a food even before I can remember: she probably fed me home-made shepherd’s pie as she was weaning me. All I can say is that I have stuck with it.

Traditionally, here in the UK meat is an important source of protein, iron, calcium, zinc and other vitamins and minerals. I have a lot of sympathy with those who say that there is no such thing as bad food, that it is the diet that we get wrong and that we need a balanced diet and must exercise greater portion control. Delia Smith was arguing for that just the other day and I think that she is right.

My hon. Friend quoted an American who said that, in order to help deal with climate change, it would be better to become vegetarian or vegan than to change from a high-performance car to a hybrid car. I had better get it on the record and say that I am not going to do that either, I am afraid. Having blotted my copybook quite seriously from the outset—

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I should like to put on the record that I drive a Smart car.

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Now we have got that clear.

My hon. Friend has raised a pertinent, important and challenging subject not just for the agricultural sector. Climate change is a challenging issue across the British economy, particularly at a time when the economy is under such pressure from other reasons—the global pressures on our economy—that we now know about all too well. We must not be pushed off this important agenda. It is important that we continue to focus on the factors that impact on climate change.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Food Futures report. Another study has estimated that across the European Union, total food consumption and production—not just livestock and meat production—accounts for between 20 and 30 per cent. of our climate change impacts. Our national inventory of greenhouse gas emissions tells us that the whole agriculture sector contributed about 7 per cent. of our total greenhouse gas emissions in 2006. About half that 7 per cent. comes from the livestock sector. Worldwide, as my hon. Friend quoted, livestock accounts for around 18 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions.

Farming has a unique place in our country’s way of life. We often say that farmers are the guardians of the countryside. They are part of our national identity. Perhaps most importantly, they help to feed us. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) was right to say that the more local food we eat, the better in terms of air miles. Occasionally, however, there are instances such as the recent change in the availability of carrots, when we had to import carrots because of poor weather. I shall say in a moment that farmers are on the front line and are the first to be affected by climate change. A balance must be struck to ensure that growth and production are sustainable not only in tackling climate change, but in the circumstances facing all sectors of British business, particularly farming, which is my Government responsibility. Farming is on the front line and is the first to feel the effects.

Climate change is one of the most important challenges facing us. The Climate Change Act 2008 commits us to an 80 per cent. reduction in all greenhouse gases by 2050. That is a challenging target, but all sectors of the economy, including the livestock sectors, must play a part in helping to meet the target. Some progress has been made, and between 1990 and 2006 emissions from the livestock sector declined by 18 per cent. due to a decline in emissions from enteric fermentation, agricultural waste disposal and agricultural soils. There is a risk that reducing direct emissions from agriculture could reduce UK production, with a resulting increase in food imports, thereby simply exporting our emissions and perhaps even increasing them. We are aware of that risk, and we want to ensure that UK agriculture improves its environmental impact without becoming less productive. We must assess the full impact of any measures to reduce emissions, to ensure that we do not simply export the problem and that action to reduce greenhouse gases does not conflict with other environmental goals.

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Does the Minister accept that most land used for livestock farming at the moment is unusable for other farming purposes, such as crops, and that much farm land, particularly in the uplands, is vital to carbon sequestration and fighting climate change from that angle? Furthermore, with £10.2 billion of food being wasted in the UK every year, does she accept that now is the time for serious investment in anaerobic digestion, as the hon. Member for Bristol, East said, to help farmers tackle climate change?

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I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is scary to be in such close agreement with him, but I am. I also agree with his point about anaerobic digestion, and I shall come to that in a moment if I have time.

Emissions from the livestock sector have declined by 18 per cent. and are projected to continue to fall to 32 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010, which is real and significant progress, but after 2010 they are projected to rise again, so there is urgent need for action, and that is true of all sectors of the economy. In taking forward solutions to these issues, the Government must work in close partnership with the industry. DEFRA is already working collaboratively with the dairy supply chain through the road map process to reduce the environmental impact of milk production and consumption in the UK. The road map includes some important action for the entire supply chain, including challenging targets on the reduction of greenhouse gas balance from dairy farms, as well as setting targets to reduce water usage and to improve waste disposal.

The meat industry is working on a similar road map for meat production. Helping all sectors of the economy to address climate change is a key priority for the Government. We fully recognise the challenges associated with tackling greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector as part of maintaining a sustainable and viable industry. Our agriculture and climate change work stream under the Farming Futures programmes—my hon. Friend will know about them—aims to address the challenges associated with tackling greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector and agriculture as a whole.

We continue to work directly with the sector to ensure that farmers are fully aware of the effects of climate change, and are well equipped to change their practices to reduce emissions and make their businesses more resilient to the impact of climate change. We are doing that through our rural climate change forum, our high-level stakeholder group, which provides valuable advice on policy, research and communications for climate change and land management. All the major stakeholders in the farming, forestry and land management sectors are represented on that group.

We understand how important it is for farmers to have easily accessible information on climate change, and we have funded the Farming Futures communications project since 2006 to provide farmers with practical advice on the impact of climate change and on how to take action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The project has produced a series of fact sheets and case studies, including some on reducing emissions from the livestock sector. In addition, a series of regional workshops for farmers has been held.

We are mindful that our 80 per cent. emissions reduction target is ambitious, and the unique nature of the agricultural sector makes it even more challenging for it fully to play its part. The Committee on Climate Change has recently identified the technical abatement potential for the agriculture, forestry and land management sectors, and we are working with the Committee, the rural climate change forum and other stakeholders to develop the policy framework that we will need to have in place to ensure that those identified savings are realised.

It is important to note that some measures to tackle climate change in this sector provide real benefits not just for climate change, but for other environmental objectives, such as biodiversity and water, soil and air quality. Anaerobic digestion is a subject that we could spend all day discussing. It is a good example of win-win technology, and we are driving it forward. It could help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the use of manures, slurries and other organic matter, such as food waste. Some innovative ideas are emerging on how to turn food waste from supermarkets to good use—

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).