House of Commons
Thursday 2 April 2009
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
We are committed to ensuring more sustainable fisheries by tackling the important issue of reducing discards. The UK fisheries departments are therefore funding a range of work on discards in collaboration with the fishing industry. Ultimately, however, the solution to the problem will be found at European level, and the UK will play a leading role in agreeing an overarching EU policy on the issue later this year.
When I go down to Worthing beach to see the last vestiges of the Worthing fishing fleet, and to buy my fresh cod and have it freshly filleted in front of me, I am all too often told, “We haven’t got any, but you should have seen all the ones that we had to throw away.” Is it not time that we got rid of the obscenity that is fish discarding, and piloted a scheme that at least allows fishermen to land some of their by-catch and be rewarded for part of it? We should incentivise fishermen with more environmentally friendly policies, and get a fair deal for Britain’s fishermen, fish-eaters and fish.
I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman supports the Government’s commitment to tackling the issue of discards. Undoubtedly, as I have maintained, it has always been the people who fill up their trolleys in the supermarkets and fishermen themselves who most hate the idea of discards. We have some innovative ways to tackle discards, including real-time closures, the conservation credit scheme, avoidance of spawning grounds and the high grading ban, of which I am sure he is aware. We will continue to work in the European Union to make sure that we have overarching policies to tackle the issue.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the increasing anger in the fishing industry on both sides of the border about the way in which the effort control measures agreed at the December Fisheries Council operate in practice. In the Scottish fishing fleet, there are real fears for the viability of the industry. He will also be aware of the innovative and imaginative approach that the industry in Scotland has taken to the sustainability of the fleet. Is he taking the case to Europe, and what does he expect to achieve?
I applaud my hon. Friend for the way in which he has represented, and continues to represent, the issues relating to ensuring a viable fishing industry in his constituency and elsewhere. He is right to say that his local fishermen have led the way, through the conservation credits scheme, and by coming up with some of the most innovative ways to avoid discards and to tackle the issue of the sustainable, viable use of the seas. We continue to have dialogue on the issue with Joe Borg, the European Commissioner. We knew that it was a tough ask of our fishermen to get the balance right for the year ahead, but my hon. Friend and I, and the rest of the House, agree that we have to achieve a sustainable fishery not only for the 12 months ahead, but for the next 10 years and for the long term.
I hope that the Minister will, as invited, visit my constituency and talk to the fishing industry. When he does, he will recognise that, by value, west Cornwall is the most important fishing area in the country within his domain. When he talks to the industry, will he reassure it that the under-10 m fleet will be permitted to have the under-10 m regulations kept under review, particularly with regard to the impact that they have on the unintended by-catch of fish?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for writing to me on the issue, and for representing the interests of the fishing community in Cadgwith and in other places along the shoreline in his area. There are two clear priorities for me this year as regards the fishing industry. The first is to make sure that the commitments that we made in the European Union in the December negotiations are met, and that we work with the industry to meet them. The second is the under-10 m fleet, which is so important to our coast. I encourage the fishermen from Cadgwith, the hon. Gentleman and others to engage with the industry-led advisory panel that we are setting up, because we want to ensure that the under-10 m fleet not only perseveres and holds on along the coast line, but has a viable future. It is vital that fishermen engage with us and talk about the wide remit of how we put them on course for a sustainable, long-term future.
When looking at innovative ways of conserving fish stocks, I hope that the Minister will look closely at what has been done in Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands, which have used an alternative way of conserving fish. In the meantime, I know that he has a visit to my constituency pencilled into his diary. Will he look at the whiting quota? My guys on the east coast have already caught their whiting quota, and they will continue to discard whiting if additional quota is not released for them to use this year.
I am looking forward to visiting the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in the near future. He is certainly right that one of the challenges that we face in how we organise fisheries policy in the EU is getting the balance right, so that we can fish throughout the year. We are in danger of exhausting stocks in the spring, but we also want our fishermen to fish in the autumn and winter. There are difficult choices to make, not only about whiting but about cod and other fish. We always continue to keep the matter under review. Together with the Marine and Fisheries Agency and our scientists, we continue to look at how things are going month by month. However, we cannot escape the fact—no Government can—that we have difficult issues of sustainability on our seas. As I have said, we want to make sure that we are fishing not just this year, but in the next 10, 20 and 100 years and more.
There are no reliable estimates on the number of honey bees in the UK, although there is consensus that the numbers have declined since the arrival of varroa in the early 1990s. No assessment has been made of the effect of that decline on pollination. I recently announced additional funding of £4.3 million for bee health, and that includes £2 million for research.
The Secretary of State will be well aware that the economic benefit that agriculture derives from the bee population represents more than £100 million a year. There is widespread concern, not only in agriculture but in suburbs such as Croydon. He has committed funds to the issue, but will he set out more detail? May we have a strategy and a timetable? May we have something that will give confidence to beekeepers? In short, can he get his Department buzzing with activity?
The Department has already published its strategy for bee health, and we are doing a number of practical things. The additional funding that I have announced will allow more research to be undertaken. We are bringing together all those who fund research into bees and the diseases that affect them—varroa, foulbrood and nosema. I have also been talking to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, because one of the things that we need to do is encourage new treatments to come on to the market. One of the practical things that the VMD has done to make that happen is to reduce the fee that it would normally charge those who apply for authorisation for medicines; it recognises the need to search for all the treatments and try to get them on to the market as quickly as possible.
The third part of the funding that I have announced will allow more inspections. National Bee Unit inspectors are warmly welcomed by beekeepers when they visit, and they provide an important source of information that can feed back into our plan for dealing with this important problem.
Last Saturday, I attended the Welsh beekeepers’ convention at the Royal Welsh showground in Llanelwedd, where I met Karl Showler, a well known and well respected beekeeper from my constituency. I was told that more hives have survived and come through the winter in a good state than previously, so there is an element of optimism. However, if we are to deal with varroa in the long term, we will need a bee-breeding programme to encourage resistance to the disease. What is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs doing to encourage a bee-breeding programme?
I am glad to hear about the meeting that the hon. Gentleman attended. One of the problems faced by bee populations is the weather, which has been pretty bad in the past two years. When there is bad weather and the spring comes, there is an impact. The purpose of the funders’ forum is to identify where there may be gaps in the research programme and make sure that the funding from the extra resources that we are putting in, and the other work being done on bee health, is applied to the important priorities, so that the problem is dealt with. The whole House recognises the importance of bees to our economy and to wildlife.
Another crucial pollinator is the butterfly, as I am sure the Secretary of State accepts. Butterflies have been declining for 20 years; six species have become extinct and 54 are in massive decline. Butterfly World is an enormous project in St. Albans. Will the Minister visit it and consider giving a similar amount of investment to ensuring the future of butterflies? If he could flutter up to us, we would be delighted to see him.
That is a tempting invitation. The hon. Lady has raised an extremely important point. We are putting a huge amount of money into trying to support biodiversity in our countryside. For example, agri-environment schemes, which have just celebrated their 21st anniversary, are all about supporting farmers in providing the kind of habitats in which a range of wildlife, including butterflies, can prosper.
The Government’s response to Sir Michael Pitt’s review in December 2008 set out what recommendations had already been implemented and what further steps were required. The Government will report on implementation every six months, beginning in June this year.
One of the key recommendations of the Pitt review was the establishment of a Cabinet Committee to oversee flood prevention plans and strategies, yet we learned last month that the Committee has never even met. Thousands of my constituents were driven from their homes in 2007; many of them are traumatised every time they hear the sound of heavy rain. All they ask is that their Government do everything possible to ensure that such a catastrophe is less likely to happen again. Will the Minister confirm whether that Committee has met and, if not, when it will do so? Why are the Government not acting with greater urgency, and when will they take a grip of this issue?
We have taken a grip of the issue; and the Cabinet Committee will meet when it needs to. The question is whether we are getting on and doing what is required. I want to update the House: since the floods of 2007, we have completed 55 flood defence schemes that have protected 37,147 homes, which shows a Government who are getting on with it in order to protect people. I also inform the House that yesterday the flood forecasting centre, which was one of the recommendations of Michael Pitt’s report, started operation, bringing together the Met Office and the Environment Agency. We are on track to publish the draft floods and water Bill in the spring. We have signed the first six contracts for surface water management plans with Hull, Gloucestershire, Leeds, Warrington, Richmond upon Thames and West Berkshire. We have had 100 applications for the household flood protection grant scheme. We have agreed three demonstration projects that will look at how land management might be able to help us to manage flood risk. That record shows the Government taking the matter seriously, getting on, and making things happen.
Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the Environment Agency in my constituency, which, following the floods of 2005, has done a magnificent job of building flood defences? Three quarters of the city is now protected, and it was done on time and on budget. However, coming back to the Pitt report, the really important thing is protecting public utilities—the electricity supply, the fresh water supply and the waste water supply. Is that work being done?
The short answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes. A programme of work is under way. As I previously reported to the House, one example of that is the purchase by the national grid of moveable defences that can be taken to particular parts of the network that might be at risk. The flood forecasting centre is all about giving better warnings and greater accuracy about where there will be a problem, so that people are forewarned, prepared and can respond.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about the Environment Agency. I know that his constituents suffered grievously in the terrible floods. It is right and proper that, as well as recognising that we need to do more, the House wants to say thank you to the agency’s staff, because the 55 flood defence schemes and 37,000 homes that have been protected since the summer of 2007 are down to their hard work.
The question is about how many of the Pitt report’s recommendations have been implemented, so I hope that the Secretary of State will not be coy and will tell us. Following the question by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), will he also confirm that the programme of work that the Environment Agency has agreed with the water companies to protect the critical infrastructure from flooding this spring—before the publication of the Bill—will not be thwarted by any outside body?
I do not know what outside body the hon. Lady is referring to. I take very seriously the responsibility to ensure that critical infrastructure is properly protected, as do the water companies and the Environment Agency.
As for progress on the implementation of Pitt’s recommendations, the hon. Lady will see what we published in December, and she will see the first progress report when it is published in June. [Interruption.] I am happy to write to her with further details, if that is what she wants. I have just provided an update on a range of things that have happened since I last reported to the House, and we will carry on implementing Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. As she will be only too well aware, he himself has expressed satisfaction at the progress that we are making.
Have all the householders affected by the 2007 flooding been able since then to get adequate insurance for their properties? Eight years ago, when some 200 households were affected by flooding in Keighley, people had real problems in getting renewed insurance. Because of the good work of the Environment Agency, that has all been put right, and they now have insurance.
I am glad to hear from my hon. Friend that that is the case. The circumstances of individual householders will depend on the case and the approach that insurance companies take, but the single most important thing that we did to ensure the continued availability of insurance was to renew the statement of principles with the Association of British Insurers representing the insurance industry. The deal is the continued provision of insurance in return for the increased investment that the Government are putting into flood defence. That is the single most important step that we can take, and that increased investment has allowed me to report that we have completed 55 new schemes since the summer of 2007.
How many of the recommendations implemented will relieve the threat of flooding to farmland? Given that the 2007 floods saw 42,000 hectares of farmland flooded and therefore unusable for a significant period of time, and that demand for food across the world will double in the next 20 years, does the Secretary of State agree that we cannot allow productive agricultural land to be squandered in that way again?
Nobody wants to see productive agricultural land squandered, but in the end there has to be a system of prioritisation. This point has been the subject of debate, and indeed, I was expecting the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) to raise the matter, because we have discussed it. We need a scheme of prioritisation that balances the value of the assets that we seek to protect, the density or sparsity of population, the value of the agricultural land and the number of homes that can be protected. One can cut the prioritisation system a lot of different ways, but the most important thing that we can do to protect more property and, where possible, agricultural land is to increase investment, which is what we are doing.
I face the difficulty that the previous question almost got to the point that I want to make; let me press the Secretary of State. An important part of our consideration of the flooding of agricultural land is the hydraulic survey of the Humber basin, the Trent and the Tame, which will shortly be available. What is the Secretary of State doing to work with authorities that do not suffer flooding in their areas, but that must make preparations to absorb water before it goes down the river basin, flooding property and families further down the river? That is important; when will we get the details, and when will the Secretary of State give us the priorities for the work that needs to be done for future flooding areas?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the way in which we look at the problem. The whole purpose of the catchment flood management plans is to do precisely what he asks, which is to look at a catchment, see where water will come from and where it might flow, and understand what the consequences might be for flooding, so that we can bring everything together and take the right decisions on that basis. A number of plans are being developed involving the East Riding and the Humber, which I know is the subject of some controversy—the Environment Agency has said that it will consult further on the area represented by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness. But we have to look at the matter on a catchment area basis, so that we can work out where the water will go, how we can manage it and how we can protect as many homes as possible.
It is a curse of our modern times that while Sir Michael Pitt can warn us about the severe risk of dangerous, life-threatening flooding, the Government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, can also warn us about severe, dangerous, life-threatening droughts. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in trying to meet both those serious challenges, our reservoirs, our inland waterways and the terrific asset of our network of canals might be part of the solution for the future?
My hon. Friend is right. One of the tasks that we all face is preparing for a future in which, in some places and at some times, there is too much water and, in other places at other times, there is not enough. The warning of Professor Beddington is extremely timely, and it makes the point that in adapting to the changing climate, which is with us whatever happens while we try to avoid making the problem worse—that is why the meeting at Copenhagen at the end of this year is so important—we must use all means at our disposal to ensure that we conserve and use water as effectively as possible. We have taken it for granted for too long; we have to protect and conserve it much better in future.
Surface Water Charges
I am pleased to report that United Utilities, about which most of the complaints on this issue have arisen, has in light of representations received taken steps to resolve the problem of disproportionate increases for faith buildings, community amateur sports clubs, scout associations and so on, by reverting to charges based on 2007-08 for those customers—that is, back to rateable value.
I am sort of reassured. I have the honour of being joint chairman of the all-party Scout Association group, and the information that the Scouts have given me is a little different from what the Minister has said. They and other charities have clearly made the point that surface water charges in such difficult economic times have damaging effects on voluntary organisations. They have also brought it to my attention that Ofwat has refused to meet the water companies. They are worried that, next year, when the moratorium is lifted, the charges will be crippling because they will be treated the same as multinational companies.
I should declare an interest as the former president of the West Glamorgan Scout Association. We are not out of the woods yet—[Interruption.] I am sorry; that was not a deliberate pun. The principle of surface water charging, whereby a proportionate element is charged to everyone for discharging water is right; otherwise we would have cross-subsidies and would have to get into the question of which organisations should be exempt. Four companies have introduced surface water charging, which, by and large, has been well received because they dealt with it sensitively. Lessons have been learned and the regulator has been fully involved, but we need to keep a close eye on the matter. The regulatory principles and the need to deal sensitively with all community associations are clear. I will personally ensure that that happens and so will the regulator. I encourage any hon. Member of any party who is currently experiencing problems to take the matter first to the water companies, and by all means to bring it to me as well.
May I suggest that my hon. Friend gets out of the ivory tower of London? He needs to come to the north-west and learn what is happening to the churches, sports grounds and voluntary groups, which will close and cease to exist. No impact study has been done on the effect of surface water charges—no one is telling us how many churches and sports buildings will close and how many scout groups will cease. The bottom line is that United Utilities needs to be told to back off and not introduce the charge. If need be, we should introduce legislation to stop it—the sooner the better. Let us protect the people we represent.
I understand my hon. Friend’s passion about the matter, but let me reiterate: United Utilities has agreed not to put a moratorium on this year’s prices, but to revert to 2007-08 pre-surface water drainage charges. It will take 12 months to assess the way forward with the regulator. I have met the company chief executive and the regulator. We have also been in communication with churches, scout associations, sports clubs, our colleagues in Whitehall and fellow Members of Parliament. I welcome the pressure that has been brought to bear and the representations that have been made. As I have said, we are not out of the woods: we need to ensure that the 12 months produces an appropriate review, so that all the groups that have been mentioned are not hit disproportionately. I will keep my eye on the matter, as I am sure my hon. Friend will, too.
Last week, I asked the Leader of the House to arrange a debate—a topical debate or even a debate in Westminster Hall—in Government time on the matter. She suggested that I question the Minister today, and I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to do that. The charge is unacceptable. The House has never agreed or introduced a proposal for such a charge for the disposal of surface water. The charge adversely affects many organisations—charitable, sporting and others. United Utilities in the north-west has announced a moratorium, but surely the Minister appreciates that that is only a delay. When will he say that the charge should be stopped and not introduced on any future occasion? That is justice; will he do it?
I hear the calls for nationalisation, although I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) has suggested that. I repeat that things have moved on in the past few weeks, but we are not fully out of the woods. Events have moved on in that the moratorium has reverted to pre-surface water drainage charges in the United Utilities area. Four companies have introduced the model of charging that we are discussing. In three areas, it has been done proportionately, sensitively and in a customer-facing way. There is a way forward under the regulatory regime.
The call for legislation is interesting, and I assume that it covers exceptions. If we consider exceptions, I think that we all agree on scout associations, churches and community amateur sports clubs, but would we agree on, for example, consular buildings, fish farms, public houses—perhaps we would—and petrol filling stations, which had exemptions under the previous method of charging? Is that fair and proportionate? There is a way forward and we are getting there. I tell the hon. Gentleman to keep the pressure on, and we will get there.
Is my hon. Friend aware that since the Conservatives privatised the water companies, for those who are in the Yorkshire region, as I am, it is impossible to have a dialogue with Kelder or Yorkshire Water on that or almost any other issue, because the major shareholder in private equity is the Singaporean Government, who are more conscious about surface water in Singapore than they are about surface water in England? Is that not the sad state that we are in, thanks to the privatisation that those people over there on the Conservative Benches introduced?
We are always keen to see any companies out there engaging properly with all hon. Members and their constituents. However, let me reiterate the guidance from the Secretary of State in 2003: “surface water drainage charges” for non-household customers
“should be set in a way that is sensitive to the actual use of the service by different premises. Premises with large grounds, such as burial grounds, schools, hospitals,”
and so on
“may have a large proportion of their land not draining to a public sewer. Companies should be prepared to set their charges...accordingly,”
and the phasing in of such charges should be considered. I hope—indeed, I can see this now—that lessons are being learned by certain companies. However, we will keep the pressure on and the dialogue going, because we are as concerned as everybody else that the charges are imposed in a proportionate, fair and sensitive way.
DEFRA has received representations on draft water resource management plans for all the English water companies, following consultation last year. These plans set out how the water companies plan to meet demand for water from 2010 to 2035 and to avoid shortages.
Given the Environment Agency’s call this week for water meters in every home to protect against future shortages and the evidence given to our Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs inquiry into Ofwat’s price review by Citizens Advice that it dealt with 28 per cent. more water debt cases last year than two years ago, does the Secretary of State agree that defining “water poverty” and standardising the charges made by companies on consumers’ sewerage and water bills are essential reforms if we are to protect ourselves against future water shortages without penalising poorer households?
That is precisely why we set up the review that Anna Walker is undertaking to look at charging. On average, water metering applies in a third of cases, but from memory the percentage ranges from 68 per cent. in Tendring Hundred down to 10 per cent. in Portsmouth. The Government have made it clear that by 2030 we will need near universal metering in those areas of the country where water is in short supply. The direction in which we are travelling is pretty clear. The change has affected the relative position of those who pay through metered charges, as opposed to those who use the other system. That is precisely why Anna Walker is looking at ways in which we can ensure fairer charging, while at the same time ensuring that we conserve water.
In a week when the Environment Agency has warned that climate change and a rising population will increase pressure on water supplies and when households have once again seen above-inflation rises in water bills, has the time not come for a new regulatory approach, so that water companies, and not just their customers, are incentivised to conserve and value water? Will the Secretary of State confirm that although the draft floods and water Bill is expected shortly, the Government are planning to drop measures to reform the water industry from that Bill?
As I said a moment ago, the draft floods and water Bill will be published in the not too distant future. Clearly, future legislation depends on the legislative programme; the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the process by which those decisions are taken. It is important that we ensure that the water companies have the right incentives, and part of the purpose of the water resource management plans is to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of water. A range of things can be done in that regard, including encouraging the more efficient use of water in people’s homes. In some cases, it might be necessary to improve the supply, particularly in the parts of the country where there is a problem with that.
We have one of the wettest countries in the world, we have just had some of the wettest few years on record and we have just been talking about flooding, so does it not beggar belief that there are still problems in some parts of the country that result in water rationing? Should not the regulatory authorities—particularly Ofwat—be doing a lot more, not least to ensure that leakage is reduced? That is still a major problem, and my constituents cannot understand why they have to watch water flowing away down the road and why it takes days, or even months, to sort out the problem and renew the pipes. What communications is my right hon. Friend having with Ofwat to ensure that it improves the reduction in leakages?
Ofwat takes that responsibility extremely seriously, and my hon. Friend will be aware that a lot of progress has been made to reduce leakages. However, when water companies have to make a choice about where they make further investment, they need to weigh up the cost of yet further leakage reduction work against other measures that might help to secure and improve the supply. That is the balance that they have to strike, and which Ofwat must consider, but there is no doubt that, in the years ahead, we will have to do more to ensure that we protect and preserve the water that we have.
Yes, I am satisfied that Ofwat takes that responsibility extremely seriously. Indeed, the water companies will attest to the vigour with which Ofwat performs its duties. In the end, a balance must be struck between the price that consumers pay for water and the investment necessary to address the problems that hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised in this important discussion this morning. I think that Ofwat is doing a good job.
DEFRA’s responsibility is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House that, from yesterday, only timber from independently verified legal and sustainable sources, or from a licensed forest law enforcement, governance and trade partner, will be used on the Government estate. I have also launched a consultation on how to toughen the proposed European legislation on tackling illegal logging. We believe that there should be an EU-wide prohibition on placing illegally produced timber on the market. I am sure that the House will also want to welcome the establishment of the South Downs national park.
The Secretary of State said earlier that no one wanted to squander productive farmland. Why, then, is his Department pushing for compulsory set-aside? Is it because its only public service agreement deals with environmental matters? Is that why food and people never get a look-in at his Department when it comes to the policy crunch?
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I fundamentally disagree with what he has just said. It is not the case that food and people do not get a look-in. The problem in relation to set-aside is that it was introduced as a production control measure, it brought environmental benefits, and it now needs to be updated. Going back to the question about butterflies raised by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), we need to examine how we can continue to derive those environmental benefits from the way in which the land is managed. As I said to the National Farmers Union conference, I do not have an ideological view on how we do that. I welcome the fact that the NFU and others are now looking at a voluntary scheme, and we are now consulting on that. I would encourage everyone to respond to the consultation.
We discussed a number of the questions that we have been debating this morning, but the single most important outcome of the meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme Ministers in Nairobi was our agreement to negotiate a deal on tackling mercury. The problem of mercury pollution is felt in many parts of the world. Indeed, I learned at first hand that traces of mercury are now being recorded by the monitoring equipment in Antarctica. This is why we need organisations such as UNEP: if we come together as a world, we can negotiate agreements to deal with environmental problems.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that I share the concern that he and many right hon. and hon. Members have expressed. He will also know that, as a result of our efforts, we have already made some progress on easing the impact of those regulations. I am glad to say that at the last Agriculture Council eight countries spoke up, including the UK, to express concern, whereas previously we were part of a smaller group, so the message is spreading. The visit that Commission officials paid to the UK was important, because the Agriculture Commissioner said at the recent Council meeting that he intended to consider what further steps might be taken to ease the impact of implementation. We are putting a number of suggestions to the Commission, so I hope that we can make further progress, because it is very important that we do.
My right hon. Friend is proposing six trial areas for wildlife vaccination against bovine tuberculosis. It would be useful to know what criteria will be applied to those trials and when they will be published. Will my right hon. Friend take from me a commendation that in this regard, we are basing what we are doing on sound science—unlike some of the other proposals currently doing the rounds?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. Clearly, we are looking to run the six demonstration projects in the areas with the highest incidence of bovine TB, a terrible disease that is having an awful effect. The fact that we have an injectable vaccine, which we hope will be available from next summer, provides us with some means to try and deal with the problem. On a visit to the Veterinary Laboratories Agency last week, I met the team working on developing the vaccine: those people are very committed and very expert. I welcome the positive response of the farming community to this announcement, because, all being well next year, we will have some means of dealing with the problem of infection in wildlife.
DEFRA now claims that the target to halt biodiversity loss by next year was never realistically achievable. In that case, why did Ministers agree to it? The concern now is that the Government will do what they always do when they miss their own targets—make an excuse and change them. Three hundred and eighty-six of the Government’s sub-targets for biodiversity—that is nine out of 10—have been missed, so can the Secretary of State explain that dismal performance?
The setting of what was a very ambitious target was welcomed by very many bodies, including green non-governmental organisations, which recognised that although it was ambitious, it was the right thing to strive for. We now need to focus on the resetting of a target that is both ambitious and realistic, which is to be welcomed. In terms of biodiversity, we are taking relevant steps in all our six priorities. About 88 per cent. of sites of special scientific interest are in favourable or recovering conditions; the agri-environment schemes that I know are close to all our hearts are making good progress; we have introduced the Marine and Coastal Access Bill; and we have funded new international work of more than £8 million on the Darwin initiative. We are thus making good progress, but we know that there is more to do.
To return to the Environment Agency’s statement on water metering, does my right hon. Friend agree that the public’s understanding of the need for water conservation is a long way behind their understanding of the need for energy conservation? Is there more work that the Government need to do on that? Secondly—
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is much more to do to ensure that companies and the public at large recognise the value of water. Everybody refers to it as a public asset that literally falls from the skies, but it has a value, and its value is relevant to some of our big objectives, including how we deal with climate change. We are all looking forward to the results of Anna Walker’s review, which looks into issues of affordability, metering, tariffs and so forth. I think that it will help to guide proper evidence-based decision making. My hon. Friend thus raises a vital point.
Pursuant to the question of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), the announcement on the inoculation of badgers was silent about what would happen if diseased badgers—diseased with bovine TB—were found. What does the Secretary of State plan to do to ensure that those diseased animals are removed from wildlife?
Many people have raised that point, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for pursuing it. However, it is not as easy as some people say to establish which badgers have TB and which do not. There is no reliable in-field test to answer that question, which is why the injectable demonstration project is so important. Every badger that is caught can be inoculated, and that will, over time, reduce the burden of the disease on those badgers. The animal welfare legislation makes clear what people should and should not do if any animal is obviously in a very distressed state.
I think the House should welcome the fact that we have such high animal welfare standards. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes that view. We have, for example, the freedom food assurance scheme—sponsored by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—which goes beyond the legal requirements, and we have seen a rising demand for free-range eggs in recent years.
The World Trade Organisation’s rules do not allow for discrimination on the basis of the system of production. I think that the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s very important question is that we should ensure that the public have more information about the way in which the food is produced, so that they can support higher welfare standards through their choice of what to buy.
I should be extremely happy to have such a meeting. In fact, when I leave the House today I shall go to a round-table meeting that I have convened to discuss the question of skills and the future of agriculture and horticulture, and I shall raise the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion there.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the support that we are providing through the upland entry level scheme which will replace the hill farm allowance. We published the proposals recently after a good deal of consultation. I am grateful to all who contributed to that consultation. I am also grateful for the warm welcome that the announcement received, because it is a demonstration of the Government’s commitment to look after the land and the people who work on it.
The Solicitor-General was asked—
Rape (Victim Support)
Local authorities identified by the “Map of Gaps” report as having no services for women victims of violence have received letters from the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission seeking their responses, and I am in the course of writing to local Members of Parliament to ask them to take an interest in the issue. Although most authorities are providing local services, the Government contributed an extra £1.1 million last year, and have committed an extra £1.6 million this year, to ensure that those services are funded. I welcome the publication of an updated Crown Prosecution Service policy for the prosecution of those who commit rape.
Is it not striking that 30 per cent. of English local authorities provide no service whatsoever, whereas in Wales and Scotland there is 100 per cent. coverage? What more can my hon. and learned Friend do to enforce the requirement for every local authority in England to provide an appropriate service and to do so quickly?
My hon. Friend has put his finger on the point—and the Conservative Member who shouted something about money has missed the point entirely. Under their local area agreements, local authorities are sent funds which most of them spend appropriately on delivering services, although some, lamentably, do not. The commission has written to authorities precisely because it wishes to establish whether there has been a breach of the duty imposed on local authorities to render gender equality to their public. If it finds that such breaches have occurred, legal action can and, I imagine, will be taken.
“The Map of Gaps” shows that there has been reasonable progress in Wales in the criminal justice and statutory system, but many women victims still feel unable to go to the police. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a case for providing more voluntary sector services, and particularly women-only services, which women find it easier to go to?
I agree completely. Women-only services are key in situations where someone is feeling vulnerable and asserts that they have been attacked by a man; women find it more reassuring if they are sure that a woman will attend to them when they go for help. One slightly suspects that some of the defects that seem to be apparent in “The Map of Gaps” may arise because, although some of the services are in place, they are not solely for women so women are not using them or they are not adequate for women’s needs. I strongly agree that it is key at this vulnerable time that women can be sure that they will be able to talk to women only.
Everyone in the country and the House will agree that rape is an abhorrent and disgusting crime, and that those who are found guilty of it should be named and shamed and serve their punishment, but is it really fair for a person who is found not guilty to have had their name dragged through the press while the trial takes place? Should there not be a more level playing field for those who are found innocent of this crime?
If the hon. Gentleman is advocating that there should be anonymity for all defendants in all criminal cases until conviction, that is a principle that would have to be considered by Parliament, but it has turned its face against that and believes that all defendants should be named. There is nothing special about rape cases, because allegations of murder or paedophilia, for instance, are very damaging to the individual concerned as well. Unfortunately, if we were to do what the hon. Gentleman proposes, the inference would definitely be that there is some special reason to protect male defendants in rape cases against women, and the inference would be that there are more false complaints in rape cases than in any other cases, which simply is not true. Therefore, I am afraid that I am completely against what the hon. Gentleman proposes.
No distinction is to be drawn in terms of delivery of services between victims of trafficking who have been raped and other people who have been raped, as they are, of course, all entitled to call on the support services. The hon. Gentleman is, perhaps, right about the availability of accommodation in London, but I believe that there are agreements in place between the POPPY project, which is the main supplier of accommodation, and some other women’s groups to make sure that some accommodation and support is available outside London as well. That emerged as part of Operation Pentameter 2, with which the hon. Gentleman is familiar.
My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that until May 2007 the funding for women’s aid groups and other groups providing support for women in Scotland was ring-fenced. The loss of that protection means that funding has been cut to those organisations. Does she agree that we should look into that because there should be core funding of those essential services?
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who asked the first question, referred to the better spread of services in Scotland, which was possible because they were funded centrally until the date my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) mentioned. The view is that these essentially local services should be provided locally, and I believe the Scottish Government now share that opinion. The funding is not sufficient, however, and I can assure my hon. Friend that work is going on within the Government Equalities Office and my own Department to try to work out a sustainable funding plan for those services.
Serious Fraud Office
The SFO retains a share of funds recovered under the proceeds of crime legislation through the asset recovery incentivisation scheme. Following the Balfour Beatty judgment in October, £2.25 million was recovered and the SFO is due to receive about £1 million of that, which will be used to continue to fund its operations.
The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 was introduced by the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who now says that the legislation was
“intended to bankrupt those who made enormous amounts of money out of Criminal Behaviour.”
How well does my hon. and learned Friend feel that that ambition has been realised, and what level of assets is being left for victims of crime to seek compensation via the civil recovery route?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The SFO has had the powers to do civil recovery only since last April, and it has had to go through an accreditation process to facilitate that. Once again, however, he has put his finger on the point: compensation to victims takes priority over assets recovery, and in cases pursued by the SFO, almost always the real intention is to get the money back into the hands it is being defrauded from. I have no doubt that more can be done, however, to make effective use of the Proceeds of Crime Act, and I know that efforts are being made in the SFO in particular to ensure that that does follow.
But is it not the case that for every crime committed, all of society suffers? In particular, there is the huge cost of feeding, housing and guarding criminals. Will the Solicitor-General consider extending or perhaps reviewing existing legislation to ensure that wealthier criminals actually pay for their time when they are in prison?
What steps is the Solicitor-General taking to address the serious deficiencies shown up in the SFO by the recent—I say recent, but it was nearly a year ago now—de Grazia report, and will she respond to the letter I sent to her about this more than six weeks ago?
The hon. Gentleman really ought to look back at the answer I gave him the last couple of times he raised this issue. The de Grazia report was a considerable time ago now and, as he knows, Richard Alderman has come in and made significant management changes that we are confident will take the matter forward. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks what they are, but I have told him a million times. He always asks me the same question: he asks, “Aren’t these changes a sign of deterioration?”, and I say, “No, they are a sign of an improved management structure.” He is most welcome to talk to Richard Alderman himself.
The Attorney-General is not carrying out investigations. The Law Officers have an independent constitutional role as guardians of the rule of law and of the public interest. We will ensure that any further such cases of possible criminal wrongdoing that are sent to us receive careful consideration and are referred for police investigation if that is appropriate.
I thank the Solicitor-General for that answer, but I have to ask her, why not? At the end of last week, senior sources in MI5 and MI6 admitted that there were some 15 other cases similar to the Binyam Mohamed case, and at least one—the Rangzieb Ahmed case—has gone to trial and completion. There was an admission in court by MI5 that it had co-operated with the Pakistani authorities at a time when Mr. Ahmed had had his fingernails removed by those authorities. Can the Solicitor-General therefore tell us why not, because in these circumstances, it seems to me that justice should be done in all cases, not just in one?
I am not sure what the right hon. Gentleman is asking me “Why not?” about. If he is asking me why the Attorney-General is not carrying out investigations, it is because they are done by the police; she has no separate cohort of investigating officials. The role that the court gave to her was of securing the public interest. The rule of law by the United Kingdom has been set in motion by reference of the issues in this matter to the Attorney-General, so she will, in all cases received by us from any other Government Departments, carefully consider them by a proper process and decide whether the police should investigate. Any investigation will follow from the police in the normal way, and of course it is perfectly open to anyone to go to the police and request an investigation, as well.
Does my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General—and, I hope, the Attorney-General—accept that these are the gravest allegations: that people have been tortured with the knowledge and compliance of security officers? Is it not also absolutely essential that the investigation by the police—the Metropolitan police, in one case—should be carried out as quickly as possible? There is a suspicion that this is being delayed endlessly, which is unacceptable.
I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that these are grave allegations indeed. May I ask the Solicitor-General about another aspect of this? It is possible, under the Intelligence Services Act 1994, for Ministers to authorise Crown servants to commit illegal acts abroad. Can she assure the House that no such authorisations have been issued in these 15 cases?
I know of no 15 cases, although I have seen speculation about numbers in the press— I comment not at all about any number of any kind. I have no knowledge of any such order being made; as I say, there are no 15 cases of which I am aware. I agree wholeheartedly that torture is wholly unacceptable. These cases—if they come forward and if there are more—will be looked at with the utmost care, with a view to ensuring that any possible criminality will be investigated by the police.
Crown Prosecution Service
The Solicitor-General has been very helpful to me, and to my constituents, in the case of a major fraud, but one of the problems with fraud is that of repeat, relatively minor frauds. My constituent, Parmanjeet Sandhu, has been a victim of a woman whom she knows as Suzanne Halim. This perpetrator also goes under the name of Soad Al Majeed and has many other aliases, but is not being prosecuted because the Crown Prosecution Service does not believe that it can secure a conviction. One of the phenomena about fraudsters is that they are very good at covering their tracks, so will the Solicitor-General talk to the CPS about whether there are better ways to protect our constituents against repeat fraudsters?
My hon. Friend is a fierce defender of her constituents’ rights, and she has come to me with an earlier case. I am grateful to her for saying that I have been helpful—I hope that I can be as helpful on this matter. The calibre of the police investigation is what matters, but it is always open to the police to look again at a case if additional information emerges. In this case, it sounded to me as though she may have additional information in which the police might be interested. As she says, I believe rightly, the case is not going to be prosecuted as things stand, so I urge her to make the appropriate contacts.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the number of people who are prosecuted at around the age of criminal responsibility, and I can tell him only who has been prosecuted in the youth court over the years about which he inquires. The CPS prosecuted just over 118,000 young offenders in 2006, 134,000 in 2007 and 119,000 in 2008—those are approximate numbers, but I can give him the chapter and verse if he wants that.
The CPS guidance of 2007 was updated in 2009 to instruct police and the prosecutors to refer to the UK Human Trafficking Centre regarding the identification of trafficked children. However, the guidance is not being consistently implemented, and children found in cannabis factories are being prosecuted and sent to prison—a number of cases are outstanding in the courts. Will the Solicitor-General meet a number of the non-governmental organisations that are concerned about this and wish to discuss the fact that the CPS is not following its own guidelines?
We do meet the third sector; the inter-ministerial group that looks into trafficking on an ongoing basis itself has a stakeholder group, which is comprised of the very people to whom the hon. Gentleman is referring. I am very willing to meet anyone further about the matter, but he must bear in mind the fact that that guidance is in place and is observed. It is by no means the case that all Vietnamese young people—this is who he is talking about—who are found in cannabis factories are trafficked, so there may always be decisions taken to prosecute such people because those decisions are compatible with the evidence that these are not trafficked people; indeed, they are not necessarily as young as they at first sight appear. Of course I shall meet anyone whom he wishes me to meet, if he is worried about this.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 20 April is as follows:
Monday 20 April—A general debate on defence procurement.
Tuesday 21 April—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Industry and Exports (Financial Support) Bill, followed by: the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.
Wednesday 22 April—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.
Thursday 23 April—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 24 April—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 27 April will include:
Monday 27 April—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Tuesday 28 April—Conclusion of the Budget debate.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 23 and 30 April will be:
Thursday 23 April—A debate on the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on overseas territories.
Thursday 30 April—A debate on DEFRA’s Darwin initiative.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. However, I and others are concerned that Government business appears to be in a rather chaotic state. The equality Bill and the child poverty Bill were in the Queen’s Speech, but have not been published. The draft floods and water Bill that was promised has not been published either. We were also promised a statement by now on the heritage protection Bill, because the Government have dropped it, but we have heard nothing. The selection of names to sit on the Autism Bill Committee has not been taken forward. Can the right hon. and learned Lady please explain what on earth is going on in all those areas?
We are pleased that the Chancellor is to give a statement to the House on the G20 this afternoon. We called for that and we are glad that the Government will come to the House before we rise for the recess. Many will conclude that the conduct of some of the demonstrators created a poor image for Britain, so perhaps we might all take the opportunity to appreciate, in contrast, the authority and dignity of Her Majesty the Queen at moments such as this. She is a unique asset for Britain—for which we should be proud and grateful.
May I seek the views of the Leader of the House on motion 23 on today’s Order Paper and ask her to add her name to it so that it can be debated and voted on? We all appreciate that the House should not interfere in the judicial process, but in this case there is confusion and even anger in the House about the ground rules that should govern the applicability of privilege when a Member is so directly involved. It is for the House to address matters of privilege, and we have the Committee on Standards and Privileges to advise us. The impression is being given that we have decided not to address the matter, but would rather leave it hanging. That is not the case. It is the right hon. and learned Lady’s refusal to endorse this motion that is preventing us from debating it and referring it to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Will she now allow this motion to go forward so that the Committee can study the whole issue without her blocking it any longer?
Yesterday, Sir Andrew Foster published a damning review of the catalogue of failure in Ministers’ management of further education colleges. The Secretary of State said yesterday in a written statement that he would give a further statement after the recess. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that this will be an oral statement, and can she further promise another debate on this crisis that the Government have created?
Once again, may I ask for a further debate on Regional Select Committees? The whole set-up is becoming ever more farcical as each week goes by. The North East Committee is in disarray, the South West Committee was barely quorate, and the West Midlands Committee—scheduled to take place in Birmingham, appropriately at the old Custard Factory—was cancelled because members were not prepared to turn up. When will she be prepared to admit that this whole innovation is an embarrassing mistake?
Given the growing anger at Lord Myners’s apparently inaccurate witness to the Select Committee on the Treasury, hon. Members will want to see him questioned further until we get the full truth. May we also have a statement even from the Prime Minister himself about the conduct of and his confidence in that increasingly tarnished Minister?
Furthermore, may we have a statement from the right hon. and learned Lady on her equality Bill? It would appear that Lord Mandelson now wants to block it and is in a somewhat unequal struggle with her, the supposed equalities Minister.
Despite her difficulties with Lord Mandelson, the right hon. and learned Lady has many supporters elsewhere. May I refer her to an article that appeared this week in The Daily Telegraph, which made this claim:
“On current form, she is doing a first-class job”?
Unfortunately, it was an article that referred to her as a Conservative plant, designed to insinuate her way into the top tiers of the Labour party, “destroying” it “from within”. May I therefore offer her my personal congratulations, and also wish her a very happy Easter? I hope that she can be my Easter bunny and not a hot cross bun.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the child poverty Bill and the equality Bill. Both will be coming forward. Not only I, as Minister for Women and Equality, but the whole Government are committed to fairness and equality. That is why we put the equality Bill in our manifesto. That is why it was in the draft legislative programme and why it will be brought forward—[Interruption.] Opposition Members call out, “Who’s against it?” That is very good news; it is great if we can have the support of the whole House for that important measure.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the important work of the G20 summit. As he said, there will be a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer at 5 o’clock. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the demonstrations, and I want to place on record the fact that the overwhelming majority of the demonstrations were peaceful protests, with people exercising their legitimate right to demonstrate in the streets. I pay tribute to the police for their work, which included dealing with the very small minority who sought to disrupt the summit and the peaceful protest.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the motion on the Order Paper on privilege. I do not want to delay the House for too long on that point, but the reason I will not support the motion or bring it to the House is that it is for the police to investigate criminal matters or alleged criminal matters, and it is for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide what evidence it is necessary to bring before the court to secure a conviction, if there is going to be a prosecution. It is for the court to decide what is admissible in evidence. It is not for any Committee of this House to decide what is or is not admissible in evidence. If there is a question of the privilege of the House and the House wants to assert its privilege in court, it can do so via the office of the Attorney-General acting as amicus curiae.
There is a difference of view between the shadow Leader of the House and me on this point. I have sought the Attorney-General’s advice and she confirms my view of the legal situation. I know that the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee has also asked for the Attorney-General’s advice, and on that basis no doubt that advice will be made plain. As Leader of the House, my concern is to ensure that we do not impinge on a criminal investigation, that Members of Parliament are not above the law and that we protect our privilege, but do so appropriately.
The hon. Gentleman asked about further education colleges. I want to thank Sir Andrew Foster for the report that he has helpfully produced. He talks about the excellent programme of capital investment in FE colleges that has transformed more than half the estates of those colleges, with benefits for countless students, staff and entire communities. He says that the programme has helped the skills in our economy and added to our global competitiveness, but concludes that it has been mismanaged. The Government are considering his important and helpful report, and we will be updating the House about it.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) talked about the South West Regional Committee. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is in his place, and he will attest that there was rigorous examination by—
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud may sit on the Labour Benches but he is a fierce champion of his constituents and the region and there was proper cross-examination of the evidence put forward by the RDA. Opposition Members know that the Regional Select Committees have been set up as part of a pilot programme. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton asks whether they should be scrapped and re-examined, and we have agreed that they should be kept under review. The pilot will last for one Parliament only but the evidence from the sitting of the South West Regional Committee suggests that it is doing a very good job. I urge hon. Members to join the Committees’ work.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Lord Myners. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Lord Myners helped to save that bank when it was falling off the edge of a cliff, in stark contrast to those who had been running it. In addition, Lord Myners takes no pay, which is also in stark contrast to those who had been running that bank. He is doing important work on behalf of the Government.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the membership of the Committee considering the Autism Bill. That private Member’s Bill is on course to have its first sitting on 29 April.
The Leader of the House will be aware of the growing problem of film piracy and intellectual property theft in the entertainment industry, which is one of the country’s most important employers and earners of foreign currency. In 2007, film piracy alone cost the UK film and television industry a staggering £486 million—money that could have been put to better use funding British talent and financing the next “Slumdog Millionaire” or “In Bruges”. Will my right hon. and learned Friend therefore consider holding a debate on the issue of piracy in the creative industries and its effect on our economy?
I know that my right hon. Friend has a longstanding commitment to the arts and that he has a fine record as a Minister with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. He knows the importance of the film industry to this country. Perhaps he can bring that to the attention of Ministers on the Monday when the House returns.
I, too, welcome the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to make a statement this afternoon—although, had the House been sitting tomorrow, it would have been better to get a report then from the Prime Minister.
It is likely that one of the clear conclusions of the G20 summit will be that there should be a global crackdown on tax evasion, so can we have a debate in this House on that subject? We should look in particular at the position of the British overseas territories such as the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Crown dependencies. We should also look at the position of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and how it treats what it describes as “high-risk corporates”. That term basically means that the bigger and richer a firm is, the less HMRC will chase it for tax, and that cannot be right.
The Home Office gave a solemn undertaking to the High Court that a statement would be made to the House before 24 April about the Gurkhas’ right of domicile. We have not yet had that statement. The Budget statement is on 22 April, so will the Leader of the House tell us categorically when the Home Secretary will come to the House to make that statement?
I wholeheartedly welcome the speedy response to the suggestion by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) that the party leaders come together to talk about MPs’ expenses. The suggestion was taken up by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), and indeed the Prime Minister. Not only do those talks need to take place urgently, but they need urgently to be reported to the House, so that other Members have an opportunity to express a view. I think we all agree that something needs to be done as a matter of urgency—we cannot go on like this. It is unacceptable both for us and for the world outside.
While we are talking about remuneration in the public sector, may we shortly have a debate about what seems to be the rapidly escalating cost of appointments to non-departmental public bodies—the quangos? It seems to me that the amount of money being given to people who serve on those bodies is going completely over the top. The leader of the Infrastructure Planning Commission is the latest: £184,000 a year for a part-time, non-executive job. That is vastly more than the Prime Minister is paid. May we have a debate on that matter?
Last week, I drew attention to the shenanigans in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill Committee, where as a result of an incompetent Whip, feckless Labour Members and a hapless Minister, the Government lost votes, so after business questions the Whips threw all their toys out of the pram and decided that the Committee would sit all night—for 17 hours—and complete the Bill, leaving a day free. That is the politics of the kindergarten; it is not a way of seriously considering legislation, so can the Leader of the House give me an assurance that when the Bill returns to the House on Report we will have enough time for sensible, reasoned consideration of its measures, and that she will not attempt to guillotine it so that we again have rushed legislation that has to be amended in another place?
The hon. Gentleman asked about tax evasion. No doubt he can raise that with the Chancellor of the Exchequer this afternoon when my right hon. Friend makes his statement on the G20 summit. Tackling offshore tax havens has been very much at the centre of discussion at the G20 today. The Government are working internationally to make sure that we clamp down on tax havens, but we also work every year in the Budget and through the Finance Bill to make sure that we plug tax loopholes. As I announced earlier, there will be a debate on Thursday 23 April on overseas territories, when no doubt such issues could be considered.
I will look into the question of pursuing progress on the response to the Gurkhas that the hon. Gentleman asked for. I will write to him about that, and perhaps when the House returns I will take the opportunity to tell the House if there is something substantive.
On the question about the allowances we receive so that we can do our work as Members of the House, I refer the hon. Gentleman to what the Prime Minister said yesterday. I will not actually read out the words, but it was clearly set out that the Prime Minister was happy to have a meeting with other party leaders, that he thought action needed to be taken, that all parties could agree that the Committee on Standards in Public Life could do a good job looking at the issues and that he had asked it to speed up its review so that it could be completed as quickly as possible. That is the course of action and approach that should be taken; we should work across the parties and with the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned remuneration, both pay and bonuses, of people on non-departmental public bodies. We agree that we have to keep a careful eye on not only the pay but the bonuses of chief executives and top managers of NDPBs. This is public money, and we do not want people feeling that there has been a race to the top, following the excesses in the finance industry, that has affected pay and remuneration levels in the public sector. I agree with the sentiments that lie behind the question and reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government and all Departments and Ministers are looking at it. He will know that we seek to take action in the finance sector, not only internationally through international agreements on remuneration to tackle risk taking and excess, but also with work through the Financial Services Authority to make clamp-downs on remuneration part of its work on corporate governance.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which we regard as a very important measure. It will guarantee education up to the age of 18, and apprenticeships in the future for all those who are suitably qualified. That is very important indeed. The Bill contains more than 200 clauses and insufficient progress was being made in Committee. Extra time was made available for scrutiny, with many extra hours for Committee sittings, and after those extra hours progress was indeed made.
School league tables have just been published and yet again we see wide dispersion of performance between schools and a fairly wide dispersion between schools with similar social composition. I am absolutely convinced that the crucial factor for success in schools is teaching methods and classroom regimes, yet we still seem reluctant to address them directly. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make space for a debate on teaching methods, to make sure that all our children have the best possible advantages when in school?
The skill level of children is a question not just of fulfilling their individual potential, but of the future prospects of the economy. No doubt, education will come up in the Budget debate and perhaps my hon. Friend and other Members on both sides of the House will be able to raise those issues then.
On 3 March, secondary schools in Hertfordshire were notified by the Learning and Skills Council of their sixth-form funding settlements. On 30 March, they received another letter saying that their funding settlement was to be cut by £2.1 million, or on average £40,000 per school. May we have a statement about that from a Minister so that we can understand what is going on?
I would have been able to give the hon. Gentleman a more substantive answer if he had let me know, even five minutes beforehand, that he was going to raise that question. I would then have been able to give him the information he requires. I am not fully across all the detail, so I cannot confirm whether that is our understanding of the situation. I shall bring the matter to the attention of my colleagues in the Department concerned.
Does my Friend have any sense of when the Postal Services Bill is to come here from the Lords? May we have an early debate on the very important report from the Business and Enterprise Committee on the Postal Services Bill, which is hugely controversial on the Labour Benches?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Lords set their own timetable, so it would not be proper for me to say when they will be finished with their considerations or when the Bill will come to the House. When it does, it will no doubt have full scrutiny and full debate.
May I reiterate the calls for a debate on the Learning and Skills Council building programme—or lack of one? In Hemel Hempstead, the head of West Herts college has told me that her programme, which is part of the town centre redevelopment, is under threat. The teaching of young people is under threat because of the chaos in the funding programme. We cannot just dismiss that; we must have a debate and thrash out what the hell has gone on that is undermining the building programme in the sector.
We acknowledge that there has been mismanagement, and it is disappointing for all those who have been affected by it—indeed, the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council has resigned. However, if the policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party was pursued—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but from my point of view those complaining about the further education colleges in their constituencies do not have a shred of credibility when their policy is to cut the programme by £600 million. I am concerned about West Herts college and I would not dream of subjecting it to the equivalent of £600 million-worth of cuts.
May we have a debate on the importance of the tourist industry to the UK economy? Visit Wales suggests that the contribution from Wales alone is in the region of £3 billion. At a time when small businesses need a stimulus, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we should be taking advantage of the relatively low pound to encourage visitors to come to the area? As a further stimulus, may I invite her, as Leader of the House, Members from all parts of the House and you, Mr. Speaker, to visit the jewel in the crown of the UK industry, the Isle of Anglesey, in the not-too-distant future?
In recent days, European Commission officials have been briefed by Scottish fishing leaders about the impact of the reduction in effort days at sea on this year’s fishing, particularly as it affects my constituents in Berwickshire. Given the seriousness of the situation, there is now an issue about the financial sustainability of the industry, quite apart from the issue of the sustainability of fish stocks. Will the Leader of the House make urgent provision for a debate on the Floor of the House about this year’s fishing arrangements, so that we can bring our concerns to the attention of the Minister concerned?
I think that what the hon. Gentleman is talking about comes within the purview of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; am I right? There were Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions earlier this morning, so I think—[Interruption.] I am sorry; he had two issues to raise. I will raise the point with the Ministers concerned.
Did the Leader of the House receive a copy of the report from Parliament First, an all-party group, many of the members of which are in the Chamber? The report suggests that there is a better way of running our business in this House. We could have a business committee, to which Members from all parties would be elected. The House could create commissions of inquiry—for example, to look into the causes of war—and there should be a petitions committee, so that people in this country have a channel through which they can bring legislation before the House. Will she meet a delegation from Parliament First to discuss those issues, and the next issue in which it is interested, which is the election of members of Select Committees by Members of Parliament?
I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend and those involved with Parliament First. He will know that the Procedure Committee is doing ongoing work on petitions. On people being able to bring legislation before the House, he will know that we have opened up the legislative programme process, so that people can see our intentions. That offers people the opportunity to add their proposals before we get to the Queen’s Speech. We will be carrying out that process again this year. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and the other hon. Members involved with Parliament First.
In the Leader of the House’s reply to the shadow Leader of the House on the question of privilege, she indicated that the Attorney-General’s view implied that there should be some action in the courts. Does the Leader of the House understand that the question of what constitutes privilege is a matter for the courts, but the question of whether a matter is privileged is for the Committee on Standards and Privileges? In those circumstances, will she make certain either that the Attorney-General’s opinion is placed in the Library—the Attorney-General is adviser to the House of Commons and the House of Lords on these matters—or that the Attorney-General comes to the House and explains exactly what her reasoning is?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good suggestion that the Attorney-General’s advice be placed in the Library. She is, as he says, adviser not just to the Government, but to the House. As the Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges has asked for that advice, it is advice to the House. That affords us the opportunity to place it in the Library, so that all Members can see it. I think that that is a good idea.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the reports of the discussions yesterday between the United States of America and Russia about their nuclear arsenals. She will also be aware that the review conference on the non-proliferation treaty is due to take place next year. Does she agree that we need to move the issue higher up the political agenda over the next year, and will she say when we might get a debate on nuclear disarmament in Government time?
My hon. Friend, who has a long history of campaigning on these issues, brings an important matter to the attention of the House. Often, it is possible to lose sight of the progress that has been made in working towards non-proliferation. I will definitely take up her suggestion and consider how we can bring the matter before the House.
As the right hon. and learned Lady is the Leader of the whole House, will she recognise that there is support throughout the House for Members from the regions to meet once or twice a year as a Grand Committee to examine issues and to hold people to account, but that there is no such consensus on the Regional Select Committees? Will she not therefore move away from the current situation, in which we see the ludicrous spectacle of two or three Labour MPs purporting to be a Select Committee acting on behalf of the whole House, when they are no such thing?
There would be more Members from the regions, and not just two or three Labour MPs, on the Regional Select Committees if Members from Opposition parties decided to go along to those Committees and ask questions of regional development agencies and other agencies that are important in the regions. That is a matter for them. Opposition Members cannot complain that there are too few Members on a Committee if they themselves do not turn up to it. I am sorry, but that is not a justified complaint. As far as Grand Committees are concerned, discussions are under way in respect of the different regions, and where the Committees would hold their first meeting. No doubt that information will be forthcoming.
My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned the equality Bill, and I congratulate her on all the work that she has done in that field. Yesterday, young people from a number of voluntary groups came up from Wales to lobby Welsh MPs to extend the scope of the Bill to the under-18s, drawing to our attention groups that are particularly discriminated against, such as young fathers, young carers, and black and minority ethnic young people. What opportunity will there be to discuss those issues?
Perhaps I could have a meeting with my hon. Friend, and any other hon. Members who would want to attend, about protecting young people. I know that she is a great supporter of the programme to eliminate child poverty and improve child health. There are many other initiatives across government to improve the situation of children and young people. I thank her for her support for the Bill. She will see many of the measures that she has championed over the years in the Bill when it is published.
On 2 March, the Learning and Skills Council notified my council, the London Borough of Sutton, that it would receive sixth-form funding of £19,161,103 for the coming academic year. Just yesterday, the LSC issued a revised figure of £18,226,694—a 5 per cent. reduction in the allocation for sixth-form education in my borough. May we have a statement or a debate, when we get back, so that we can explore how the cut can be reversed, and how the Government square it with their commitment to three-year budgets, which avoid such shocks? At the very least, will the Leader of the House let her ministerial colleagues know about the problem?
I will draw the points made to the attention of my ministerial colleagues, but I think that they are scrutinising the issue in considerable detail, so I hope that they will already be aware of the matter. Despite there having been major investment, which has produced 600 projects that have gone ahead in more than 300 colleges, and which has made a massive difference, we make no bones about the fact that there has been mismanagement. That obviously needs to be looked at.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that one of the outcomes of the G20 is a crackdown on tax havens. However, is she also aware that the Swiss are now saying that they might change their law to bring in a British trusts system? Using that system is one of the best ways of hiding money and its source from the Inland Revenue. May we have an early debate on the secrecy of the British trusts system? Furthermore, can we change the rules of the House so that all right hon. and hon. Members have to declare any beneficiary trust from which they get money, or any trust that they may have set up?
My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that, behind the global credit crisis, lies the problem of a lack of transparency, which meant that financial things were bought and sold without those who were buying and selling them knowing what it was all based on. Lack of transparency and secrecy have led to this global problem, which Treasury Ministers, working with colleagues internationally, are determined to sort out. There will be a further statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer at 5 o’clock.
I fully support the Leader of the House’s statement that there should be cross-party discussions on Members’ pay, allowances and expenses. Will that also include details that she gave in a ministerial statement on the parliamentary pension? The Government are recommending that there should be a 1.9 per cent. increase in Members’ contributions to the pension fund. That will equate to an additional £60 a month out of Members’ pay. Bearing in mind that, as of the first day of this month, we have been given a salary increase of 2.33 per cent., which equates to £68 a month, is this not a most unfortunate situation? We should bear it in mind that the deficit on the pension fund is not due to Members, although it is a little bit due to longevity. It is mainly due to the fact that the Treasury, as the employer, has had a contribution holiday for 14 years.
In January, the House agreed by resolution that we would keep a cap on the Exchequer contribution. Like other people in this country, Members are living longer, so the Government Actuary’s Department expects an imbalance between the contributions being paid and the amount that needs to be paid out. We all agree that we must protect the Exchequer from having to take the strain of that and having to increase its contribution to our pension fund. Therefore we have either to reduce Members’ benefits or increase Members’ contributions.
The Government Actuary’s Department report has been published by way of written ministerial statement and is available to colleagues this week. We will have a debate in the House on the matter, and there can be a resolution and a statutory instrument. We are determined that—and it is important that—we all stick with the principle that we do not allow the Exchequer contribution to rise. There are a number of ways in which we can protect the Exchequer contribution from rising and obviously we will consult hon. Members on whether they think the best course of action is to increase the contributions, or, for example, to delay the retirement age at which the pension is available. We are concerned to listen to what hon. Members say on how we should address the issue, and I am happy to discuss their proposals before we bring our proposals to the House for debate. We have to be absolutely clear: at this time, it would be quite wrong to put more money from the Exchequer into our pension fund. I do not think that we should do that.
As my right hon. and learned Friend is aware, manufacturing is on its knees at the moment, and it needs real support. Employees are either losing their jobs or are unable to claim working tax credits because they are not putting in enough hours. Will she consider holding a debate on my early-day motion 1182?
[That this House calls on the Government to introduce subsidies to employers moving workers to short-time hours or making temporary lay-offs as a result of the economic difficulties caused by the recession; believes that such support would enable employers to avoid immediate redundancies and retain essential staff and skills, preventing unnecessary job losses; further believes that if linked to training, it would also enable longer-term workforce investment; further believes that such a measure is a quick and effective way to target support to struggling employers and providing financial support to employees during these difficult times; notes that similar subsidy packages have already been introduced in Wales, which has been welcomed by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, as well as in Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy; welcomes the support of business organisations and trades unions; and calls on the Government to work with business representatives and trades unions to introduce a targeted subsidy package to support the sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, that are in greatest need.]
Seventy-three Members have already signed it. It supports the short-time working subsidy that we need to bring in to protect and help manufacturing jobs in this country. It would make for a good debate, whether a topical debate or any other that she believes suitable.
The Leader of the House is well aware that the nuclear industry is incredibly important in my area. However, we have hit a problem with the building of the nuclear academy within Bridgwater college—which, I am glad to say, is a superb further education college. The problem is that the funding from the Government is being cut. We desperately need engineers and safety technicians for the future and unless we start building the hub-and-spoke system now, the necessary people will not be in place for the start of the civil nuclear building programme. It will take three to four years to train those people, and EDF wants to get its first application in by next year to start the building programme. May we please have a debate on the nuclear issue and especially on the training of the future graduates and others who will run the stations?
The Government are committed to the future of the nuclear industry in this country as part of a balanced and self-sufficient energy policy. We have increased the budget—about £200 million, for example—on projects such as the nuclear development college at Workington. We are putting in a great deal of investment, and we will continue to do so.
If the Government have already agreed that there will be a debate on Members’ pensions, does it not follow that there ought to be a debate on Members’ allowances? Given the importance of the meeting between the party leaders and of the early report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, would there not be an advantage in having a debate on allowances without there being a requirement to have a vote at that point? In that way, we could build consensus on the basic principles.
We have had many hours of debate in the House on the basic principles of Members’ allowances, both at the beginning of this year and, on occasions, last summer. We have to consider the balance of issues that need to be discussed in the House—the global financial situation, climate change and education for people in this country. We have committed to a debate on pensions because we need a statutory instrument to cap the Exchequer contribution to our pensions, so we will have that debate. However, we had a free-ranging, in-principle debate about Members’ allowances in January. No doubt we will return to the issue once the party leaders have met and once we have the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I am sorry, but I cannot agree with my hon. Friend that we need a general talk about the issue now. I do not think that it should be a priority for debate in the House now.
Last month, 23 new trains were expected on the Thameslink line. In the event, only one appeared—and it had to be sent back. As the Department for Transport was responsible for the contract, may we have an urgent statement from that Department about why the train manufacturer Bombardier’s long-standing problems, which have a national impact, have been allowed to go on for so long?
North Sea Helicopter Crash
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the helicopter crash that occurred 14 miles off the coast of Crimond, Aberdeenshire, north-east of Peterhead just before 14.00 yesterday. A Eurocopter Super Puma, operated by Bond Helicopters on a charter for BP, crashed in the North sea approximately 14 miles off Rattray Head, which is 38 miles north-east of Aberdeen. The helicopter was returning from BP’s Miller oil field platform, 35 miles north-east of Aberdeen. On board were a flight crew of two pilots and 14 passengers. All were wearing survival suits.
The Aberdeen coastguard was informed of a ditched helicopter at just before 14.00, and two life rafts were spotted in the water. Two helicopters from the RAF bases at Lossiemouth and Boulmer were scrambled to the scene alongside a Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from RAF Kinloss. RNLI lifeboats from Peterhead and Fraserburgh were launched to join the search. Eleven other vessels also responded to the mayday signal from the coastguard, and one vessel was on scene within minutes of the alert. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has been co-ordinating the extensive search and rescue operation.
Tragically, the bodies of eight people from the helicopter have been recovered and are now with the Grampian police to undergo identification procedures, and the remaining eight are currently unaccounted for. Search operations by dedicated rescue units were suspended at around 23:00 last night to rest crews and for refuelling, although other vessels in the vicinity continued to search the area. Dedicated units resumed their recovery efforts at first light this morning. Those who have died or are missing have not yet been named, while police work to contact their relatives. BP has set up an emergency contact line for concerned relatives, friends and colleagues.
Members on both sides of the House will rightly wish to express our collective sympathy and our individual prayers for those who have lost friends and family in the crash. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, this was a tragic day in the North sea. We all stand today in solidarity and mourning. This tragedy reminds us that despite the North sea’s remarkable improvements in safety, it can be one of the harshest environments on earth. Every day, brave men and women work there to bring us the oil and gas our country needs.
I would like to praise the work of the MCA, the Royal Air Force, the RNLI and other vessels who responded so quickly to the distress call; and of the Grampian police, who are co-ordinating the investigation into the crash. They have all worked together to respond with well-prepared contingency plans in very difficult circumstances. I have also spoken to Scotland’s First Minister, who is making a statement in the Scottish Parliament today.
The air accidents investigation branch is conducting a full investigation into the circumstances of the event, and a team of 14 air accidents investigation branch staff have been deployed to Aberdeen, including experts in helicopter operations, engineering, flight recorder replay and data analysis. The work to identify the causes of the accident began this morning, but what appears clear is that there was a catastrophic impact as the helicopter crashed into the sea.
Hon. Members will be aware that there was another accident on 18 February 2009 involving a Eurocopter EC225 LP Super Puma manufactured in 2008. It occurred when the helicopter was approaching an offshore platform to land, descending at night with fog and low cloud in the vicinity. The aircraft landed heavily on the surface of the sea. Thankfully, in that case there was no loss of life. The initial investigation by the air accidents investigation branch has revealed no evidence of pre-impact malfunction of any major mechanical components in that incident.
Yesterday’s crash involved a Eurocopter AS332L2 Super Puma manufactured in 2004. It occurred when the helicopter was in cruising flight, in daylight with benign weather conditions, when the crew broadcast a short mayday call without identifying the nature of the emergency. The helicopter was seen to descend rapidly to the surface of the sea. Consequently, given the evidence to date, there are no indications of any causal links relating the two events.
I know that the House will understand that the air accidents investigation branch report on yesterday’s tragedy will take some time to prepare. Once complete, the report will be presented to the Secretary of State for Transport. However, as the inquiry progresses, factual information will be released and any safety action recommended as appropriate. We will consider the findings of the investigation carefully and take the necessary action to protect safety levels in the North sea.
I apologise to the House for not being present for the start of the Secretary of State’s statement, and thank him for an advance copy. I also thank him for coming to the House to make the statement, although sadly in relation to such a tragic loss of life. I, and Members on both sides of the House, echo his sentiments and thoughts for the families and friends of all those who have lost their lives, and for all those who continue to work on the North sea.
The whole nation will share the Secretary of State’s gratitude to the personnel of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the RNLI, the Royal Air Force and the commercial and marine organisations that have given their help to the search and rescue effort. The crew of the Caledonian Victory support ship performed a particularly heroic duty in being first on the scene. The failure to locate any survivors must have been very traumatic for all those involved.
This incident reinforces to all of us just how dangerous and uncompromising a working environment the North sea is. When we make use of the oil or gas that it produces, or indeed the revenues that it generates, we must always be grateful to the dedicated people who work there. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that the health and safety of those workers must always be our priority. May I therefore ask him what he expects the timetable to be for investigating the aircraft wreckage and establishing the cause of the crash? Will he give his personal undertaking to work with colleagues across the UK Government to do everything possible to expedite a preliminary report from the air accidents investigation branch and the Civil Aviation Authority into what caused the catastrophic failure that resulted in such a loss of life?
Does the Secretary of State agree with me about the importance of not substituting speculation for a technical inquiry and of distinguishing the cause of individual incidents? Does he agree that in the light of three major incidents—two in Scotland and one in Canada—within a relatively short period, a wider review of practices in relation to the use of helicopters in oil and gas exploration may be necessary fully to restore the confidence of those who have to use them?
Is the Secretary of State aware of an issue that has been raised in the media about the decision of BP to remove beacons from individual lifejackets following a previous incident? Will he ensure that that is fully investigated so that it can be fully demonstrated whether this decision played any part in the time scale in locating those on board after the crash?
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to discuss with colleagues in the Department for Transport the Conservative proposal to review the MCA staff’s terms and conditions in relation to other emergency services? This sort of incident demonstrates the legitimacy of their claim to be part of our emergency services.
Finally, will the Secretary of State confirm that he will work as closely as possible with the First Minister and the Scottish Government on all aspects of the aftermath of this incident that fall within the devolved responsibilities?
Those who are so tragically affected by these events will welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments of solidarity, support, sympathy and prayer. That is rightly reflected across the entire House. He asked a number of specific questions, to which I will briefly respond in turn. I am happy to talk to him on any occasion about the matters that he raised.
The rescuers were on the scene within 12 minutes, and it is my understanding that when they arrived there were two life rafts there, both overturned, and the rescuers sought to see whether there was any sign of life on or near those life rafts. Tragically, there was not; they were both overturned with no sign of life.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the removal of personal beacons, without going into all the details—of course, this is for the inquiry to look into—I understand that as a consequence of the findings after the previous incident, it was decided to remove the individual wristwatch beacons because of the important way in which the different beacons on life rafts, aircraft and individuals co-ordinate with one another. These beacons do not work when submerged in water, so those wearing them could not have been more easily tracked. In this instance, the issue of beacons has not been as significant as it may have been in other incidents or tragedies, because there was a very early sighting of the incident from close nearby, and so there was no need for a wide-ranging search, as there was an immediate pinpoint search.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, I agree about the need for facts rather than speculation, and it is important to reflect on the tragedy in Canada, which involved a different type of aircraft—a Sikorsky. It is important for us not to conflate all these incidents; it is for inquiries and the experts in the field to reflect on these matters. Yesterday’s tragedy involved an earlier version of the Puma than the one involved in the incident seven weeks ago, so there is no causal link between those three incidents at this moment—as I said, the aircraft involved was a different one altogether.
On the time line, I agree that it is important to make progress as quickly as possible on the inquiry into what happened, which is why 14 staff are on the scene today, carrying out that work. We will release information, if necessary, as the inquiry is undertaken so that we do not wait until the end of the inquiry to take any necessary urgent action. We will act urgently, if necessary and whenever necessary, as part of this inquiry. It is important that we maintain confidence in the North sea and that the brave men and women boarding aircraft this very day have confidence that the authorities, the Government, the industry and everyone involved is doing everything possible to learn immediate and early lessons from this terrible human tragedy.
May I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement today, and may I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with his expressions of condolence and sympathy to the families of the deceased? This is not just a collective tragedy, but a tragedy for 16 individual families, and we must never allow ourselves to forget that.
For almost 40 years, the offshore oil and gas industry has been at the heart of commercial and industrial life in Scotland, especially in the north-east of Scotland, around Aberdeenshire. Many communities have been transformed by its impact, but, sadly, many have also been touched by tragedy over the years. This is not the first such incident that we have known, and it is appropriate that we remember today previous incidents, such as Brent Spar, Cormorant Alpha and the Chinook helicopter crash, which is still remembered in Shetland in my constituency. We in this place often comment on the great rewards of the oil industry: yesterday is a tragic reminder of the risks that are also associated with it.
We are fortunate, if I may say so, in having a vast body of experience in the air accidents investigation branch, which is widely recognised not just in this country, but throughout the world. I am told that Bond has grounded its Super Pumas today. It is, however, important that we have the earliest possible practical decision from the Civil Aviation Authority whether that grounding should be of a more general application. The Super Puma has a good safety record in the industry, but with two incidents having taken place in such close compass, it is important that an early move should be made to ensure that those working in the industry can have every possible confidence in its continued suitability. Can the Secretary of State assure me that there will be the fullest and most open communication possible between workers in the industry, through the companies that employ them and the unions that represent them, and the various agencies charged with the investigation of this tragedy?
May I associate myself and my party colleagues with the appropriate expressions of thanks that the Secretary of State has made to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the RNLI, the RAF and the officers of Grampian police, who have executed an immensely valuable and professional service? The House might reflect, however, that the coastguards praised for their skill and professionalism today are the same coastguards who had a pay settlement imposed on them last year in order to avoid their lower grades falling below the level of the minimum wage. The contribution of coastguards and the other emergency services should not be forgotten on occasions such as these.
There will be an ongoing investigation that will involve agencies reporting to the Governments here and in Edinburgh. Whatever differences may exist between this Government and the Office of the First Minister in Scotland, there is surely nothing to be gained by anything other than the fullest co-operation between them.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman rightly and appropriately added his poignant words of sympathy and support to the families and his recognition of those most closely involved who, at this moment, continue to work in the North sea. It is tragic to reflect on the fact that what began as a search and rescue operation seems, with each passing moment, more like a recovery operation. Of course, it is for those on the scene to make that decision.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the speed with which an inquiry can be undertaken. It is important to reflect that once the voice and data recorders are brought to the surface, it is estimated that it will take about 24 hours—if they are in good condition—to translate and analyse all the information held there. That will be an important first indicator of what went so tragically wrong.
On the points the hon. Gentleman made about open communications, it is right for the UK Government and the Scottish Government to co-operate very closely, which is why I spoke to the First Minister yesterday evening, and again today. I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change as well. Such co-operation is essential at this tragic time, and it is important to talk to others, which is why we keep in close contact with the trade unions and the chaplain to the North sea oil and gas industry, who is providing important spiritual leadership to all those affected. I offer to keep the hon. Gentleman, too, up to date with any details as the investigation is carried out.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and I add my condolences to the families and relatives of those who have lost their lives. I now know that eight of the dead come from the city of Aberdeen, part of which I am proud to represent. My grateful thanks are also due to the rescue services that attend these incidents, often at great risk to their members. We have a lot of experience of the risks and deaths that accompany the benefits of being the European energy capital—far too much experience.
This is the second largest death toll in a helicopter tragedy in the North sea. Over the 41 years of the industry there have been 191 deaths of passengers and crew across the European oil and gas industry in the North sea, and of those 125 were in the UK sector. By world standards, taking into account the hostile regime of the North sea and the number of miles flown each year, that is not a bad record, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is still far too many deaths? We will learn and apply the lessons when all of the facts are known, but for the time being, we should grieve with the families.
My hon. Friend speaks with great emotion about the fact that a large number of those who have lost their lives are from his great city, and it may be helpful to let the House know, without naming any of the individuals, that the indications are that eight of those on board were from Aberdeenshire, four were from elsewhere in Scotland, three were from England and Wales and one was from outside the United Kingdom. He is correct to say that we have to maintain the highest possible safety standards in the North sea, today and every day in the future. This is another tragedy, and it is a tragedy too many. As we look ahead to the future of the oil and gas industry in the North sea, when the search for new fields will take us into areas of increasingly inhospitable terrain, it is important to reflect on the fact that the safety challenge will become even more acute as the industry continues to change. I know that my hon. Friend and his colleagues of all parties in Aberdeenshire will play an important role in trying to maintain that strong record of safety and in ensuring that the inquiry is full and reaches firm conclusions that mean that safety is of paramount importance in the industry.
Thousands of my constituents work in the offshore oil and gas industry and I am sure that many will be shocked and dismayed by the tragedy this morning. BP’s North sea headquarters and Bond’s operations are based in my constituency and I have spoken to both companies this morning. The House will understand that they are deeply shocked at what has happened.
I have also spoken to Grampian police, who are co-ordinating the rescue and the recovery. It is important the people understand that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are waiting to come home from offshore or go back again, and will face that journey with considerable apprehension in the circumstances, as will their families.
We know that 10 of the missing or killed were from KCA Deutag Drilling, one from PSN and two from Bond. It is important to extend our sympathy to the companies and their associates because I know that they will all be in deep shock.
Given the position that people face, I hope that the Secretary of State understands that we need the earliest possible reassurance, and to know how, on a fine day, a helicopter only minutes from Aberdeen airport had such a catastrophic failure that there was an impact that no one appears to have survived. We understand the professionalism of the AAIB. I am sure that it appreciates that we must get to the bottom of the incident as soon as possible and reassure people. Everybody depends on the workhorse of the North sea, but the House must understand that people will not feel comfortable flying in helicopters today or for the next few days until they know.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, based on his many years of interest in and championing of the North sea oil and gas industry. He rightly spoke to people at the scene this morning. I spoke to Dave King, chief inspector of the air accidents investigation branch, earlier today. We discussed in some detail the need for quick action at the scene, but also the need to ensure that it is the right action. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that hundreds of men and women are waiting to travel to oil platforms or to come home from them. I think that 1.6 million people in the oil and gas industry travel on aircraft over the North sea every year. There are families today who have lost someone very near and dear to them—I cannot comprehend their loss. I grew up with the North sea oil and gas industry in my family because my father worked on the rigs for many years, but I have no sense of the scale of the loss that those people are going through. However, I have some understanding of the scale of the uncertainty that others now feel. It is important that we do all we can to maintain the confidence of all those in the wider North sea oil and gas community.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement and apologise for not having been in my place to hear the beginning. I have had the advantage of reading a paper copy in the past few minutes.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to mark in the House the significance of yesterday’s events. It is an awful tragedy. Mere words are never adequate in such circumstances to express what people feel, but they are all that we have, and I know that my constituents in Kilmarnock and Loudoun would want to be associated with the words of condolence that have been expressed in the House and beyond.
Hardly anybody in Scotland does not know, or know of, someone who has worked in the North sea. There will not be a family in Scotland who is not touched by the terrible events that unfolded yesterday. Consequently, there will be significant anxiety throughout Scotland—I know that from the calls that I have fielded in the west of Scotland from some of my constituents overnight and this morning—for those, to whom we have already referred, who face the journeys and take the risks daily.
I know from the recent past the risks of regular helicopter flight, and its security in difficult circumstances. Will my right hon. Friend expand on the words in his statement about the industry’s safety record, with reference to the statistics that have already been mentioned on the comparative safety of such travel in the North sea? What steps are being taken immediately to reassure people who are anxious about friends or relatives who will have to travel that that risky business—it will continue to be risky—is as safe as possible while the exhaustive investigations take place?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. For many years, he has championed the cause and the case of the North sea oil and gas industry. He is right about the anxiety that is felt in many households throughout Scotland. It is also important to reflect again that some of those on board the aircraft are from other parts of the United Kingdom. I know that my right hon. Friend shares the sense that the tragedy is felt in the four nations of the United Kingdom, but, of course, most acutely in Aberdeenshire.
Remarkable improvements in safety have taken place in the North sea oil and gas industry in recent decades. That is the view of the Government and the industry, but also—perhaps most important—of the trade unions involved in the industry, which have taken the opportunity today to acknowledge the genuine improvements in recent years. However, whatever the lessons that emerge from the inquiry, we will have to act—that is why it is important that the inquiry take place as quickly as it is. We are working with business, the industry, trade unions and others to continue to reassure people and families that everything that can be done is being done to maintain unprecedented levels of general safety in the North sea. Despite that, we have witnessed a dreadful tragedy in the past 24 hours.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving the House the opportunity to express our sympathy and condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the tragedy, and to offer reassurance to the wider community, which, as he understands, will be greatly concerned about families and friends who travel offshore.
I want to reinforce the importance of producing any interim findings as speedily as possible and ensuring that the AAIB has all the resources it needs, especially those for investigating under the water to recover vital evidence of exactly what happened, so that early reassurance can be given and lessons can be learned quickly.
I know that the hon. Gentleman rightly takes a keen and close interest in the industry and in safety. I remember being in the north-east of Scotland with him as we sought to travel to one of the oil platforms some years ago. I know how closely he follows such matters.
Resources will not be a problem. We will put at the disposal of the investigators whatever resources they require to ensure that they get to the truth as quickly as possible.
On interim recommendations, as information comes to light as part of the inquiry, we will respond and act if necessary. It is important to make that clear. We need to understand fully what caused this drastic human tragedy and respond by ensuring that the highest possible safety levels are restored in the North sea.
I thank the Secretary of State for the statement and associate myself with the condolences expressed. Our hearts go out to all those who are directly affected.
My right hon. Friend knows that some calls have been made today to ground the specific model involved in the incident until it is clear exactly what went wrong. He has confirmed that a different model was involved in the incident six weeks ago. I understand that the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which represents many offshore workers, is among those making the calls. What consideration has been given to those requests, given the severity of yesterday’s incident?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I spoke to trade unions about the matter earlier today. Of course, the model is different from the aircraft involved in the incident on 18 February and entirely different from that in the tragedy in Canada. However, if the voice and data recorders are recovered and the information gathered from them means that we have to take quicker action, that will be a matter for the relevant authorities. However, based on their record and how they carry out inquiries, I am certain that if information comes to light from the recovery of the voice or data recorders that shows that more prompt action is necessary, it will be taken. However, at the moment, that is not a conclusion that we wish to leap to. We want our response to be based on the facts, and early conclusions to be based on recovering all the data that we can.
May I add my sympathy and condolences to those who have been affected by this most tragic accident? We are fortunate in this country with the quality of investigation into such incidents. The air accidents investigation branch has an outstanding reputation. I appreciate that the matter will be one for the Crown Office in due course, but may I take it that the Secretary of State will not close his mind to the possibility that a fatal accident inquiry may be required to deal with wider issues that go beyond the immediate remit of the AAIB?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important point. It is too soon to close our minds to any course of action, but that matter is of course for the Crown Office, rather than for me at the Dispatch Box today. He rightly raises the wider point about the remarkable expertise that exists in our air accidents investigation branch and in David King and the team that he has assembled. I have genuine confidence that they will work tirelessly over the next few hours—and if necessary, through the night—to get to a conclusion about just what happened. What is remarkable at this early stage is the horrific, catastrophic way in which the incident happened, with no early warning—there was a brief mayday from onboard the aircraft—and with no early indication of exactly what caused it. Because of the way the incident occurred, it is essential that we come to some conclusions as quickly as possible.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on coming to the House with his statement and on the way he has conducted himself at the Dispatch Box with openness and honesty. He is clearly as affected by what has happened as we all are—and, no doubt, as the whole of Scotland and the rest of the UK are. Reference has been made to the role of the trade unions. There is expertise in the trade union movement on health and safety issues, so I wonder whether he has given any consideration to finding a seat at the table of the investigation for a trade union representative.
My hon. Friend rightly has good and close relations with trade unions in Scotland and across the UK. I spoke to Jake Molloy of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee earlier today. It is important that we continue to keep trade unions involved. However, it is not for me to announce today how we do that. We have the right procedures in place for an investigation, but it is essential that we involve trade unions and workers directly in sharing the early conclusions and in learning the long-term lessons from the dreadful human tragedy that has taken place.
I thank the Secretary of State for ensuring that we in the Scottish National party also had an advance copy of the statement. It is greatly appreciated. It is with great sadness that those in all parts of the House have today spoken of the loss of the Bond Super Puma helicopter. When the First Minister was in Aberdeen with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice last night, he described what happened as one of the worst helicopter accidents in the North sea in terms of fatalities. Our prayers, condolences and thoughts go out to those affected and to their families. Today a book of condolence has been opened at the Kirk of St. Nicholas in Aberdeen.
Yesterday, when most of us were watching the G20 summit in London, the news of the helicopter crash came through, which to many of us was a source of great angst. As has been said in all parts of the House, many of us will know people who work in the North sea. In my weekly travels, I seldom travel to or from the Hebrides without somebody who is going to or from the North sea travelling with me. People come from all over the country and from Europe, as the sad news from Grampian police confirms.
We are reminded of the great efforts of the emergency and rescue services in responding quickly and, as always, professionally, but this time sadly to no avail. The helicopter went down near the supply boat Normand Aurora. Almost immediately, other vessels were steaming to the location, as well as two Royal National Lifeboats Institution boats, from Fraserburgh and Peterhead, two helicopters and a Nimrod.
Super Pumas are the workhorses of personnel movement in the North sea and they have a good safety record, but now there are many concerns about them. A thorough inquiry is of course needed and interim recommendations would be welcomed, especially by those who travel. I wonder whether the Secretary of State could give us any idea of when early recommendations might appear, for the peace of mind of all our constituents who travel in the North sea.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about how quickly we can come to any interim recommendations. I cannot announce that today because, as we have discussed, an element of the rescue operation is still ongoing, as is a large component of the recovery operation. Some vehicles will be being used to get close to the remains of the helicopter and to continue the search for the bodies of those who are still missing. As I mentioned earlier, if the voice and data recorders are in good enough condition, we anticipate that it will take perhaps one day to decipher, as far as we can, what happened inside the cockpit and the aircraft more generally before it came to a catastrophic end. As I have said, there was a brief mayday from onboard. Once all that work is concluded, we will be in a better position to understand the time line.
Finally, it is important to record the fact that the chaplain and those who lead the community in prayer have opened a book of condolence in the oil chapel in Union street in Aberdeen for local people to sign. For those of us who have faith, those who have lost their lives and their families were in our prayers last evening, and they will be in our prayers today as well.
I thank the Secretary of State for the way in which he has made today’s very sad statement and for his full explanation. When the banner came across the screen on Sky News last night saying that the helicopter had gone down, I reflected that, being a parent of an RAF helicopter pilot, I would know that my son was safe if a similar banner went up, because the families are notified before the story goes on the news. That banner must have caused thousands of families across the nation great concern. I wonder whether anything can be done to ensure that in future the next of kin are told before the news becomes fully available in the media.
That is an important point. No one in the media should take what I am about to say as a criticism, but the hon. Gentleman’s point reflects the nature of modern communications, with text messaging and access to the internet. The wonder that is modern communication also causes the difficulty that, as it were, uncertainties are communicated to others. I was contacted by friends last evening about their loved ones who are working in the North sea. However, it is important to say again that we are making no announcement about the names of those who are dead or missing until their next of kin have been notified.
I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the Secretary of State for sharing with us so fully such information as he has. Can he tell us whether his preliminary talks with the recovery services, as well as focusing on their hope to regain the data buoys, and the voice recorder in particular, have indicated whether there is any prospect of recovering any substantial part of the crashed helicopter? That would be of crucial significance in establishing what went wrong.
The hon. Gentleman is right. What happened last evening and this morning was that parts of the debris of the craft were recovered and, more importantly, the bodies of those who have been confirmed dead were recovered. Work is ongoing at this very moment to discover the precise locations of the different parts of the aircraft and the eight who are still missing. The technology involved in the North sea industry is so remarkable that we can have a degree of confidence that we will quickly be able to track the precise location of the remaining parts of the helicopter, as well as great and continuing hope and determination to track and find the remains of the eight who are still missing.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Blizzard.)
I should like to pass on the condolences of the people of Telford to the people who have been involved in the terrible disaster in the North sea. Our thoughts are very much with them today.
I should also like to say something about a personal friend of mine who, sadly, was killed in Afghanistan in December—Royal Marine Damian Davies. My thoughts are still with his family. He was a friend of mine, and I have not yet had a chance to raise this matter in a general debate. I want to pay tribute to all those in our armed services who are serving us so proudly around the world.
The House needs to hear about three issues before the Easter Adjournment, the first of which is the need to establish a post bank across the United Kingdom. We have an opportunity to set up a new banking model for the people of this country, based on the post office network. I want us to build up a trusted financial institution that is not based on shareholder value or on a target-driven bonus culture for management. We need to take the opportunity of the current financial crisis radically to redesign the banking system. I am sure that the Chancellor will want to say more about that in his statement this afternoon. At present, the top four commercial banks hold 76 per cent. of all current accounts in the UK, and surveys suggest that since the commercial banks have been bailed out and supported by the Government, consumer confidence in the private banking sector has reached an all-time low. It is clear that we need to rebuild confidence in the banking sector—that is partly what the G20 summit is about—but I think that we can do more by setting up a post bank.
Post offices would act as banks, providing a current account, a cheque book, a cash card and possibly a credit card, under the auspices of a new agency called post bank. In other European countries, such as France, Italy and Germany, it has proved to be profitable, equitable and popular. The scheme would strengthen the post office network by building up its business so that local economies—the drivers of prosperity—were enabled to grow through locally based services. Post offices would provide banking services, good quality local advice and financial help.
I believe that there is support for this proposal across the House. It is an idea whose time has come. There are 3 million people in this country without bank accounts, and a post bank model would help to make banking services available throughout the UK. It would be a trustworthy brand on which people could rely. The Government would initially need to finance the set-up of the post bank as a social enterprise until it became self-funding; any profits would be reinvested into the bank’s own operations, and moneys could be provided for community-based projects.
In the Telford area, we could get the Fairshare credit union to work with the post bank to offer low-cost loans through the post office network. We could partner such financial organisations with the post bank, and the credit union would immediately have a new set of outlets through which it could operate. Importantly, the post bank model would ensure that post office business was protected and that the sustainability of our remaining post offices was underpinned. The Government have put an enormous amount of money into sustaining the network, and they now need to put new business into it.
This proposal would enable us to protect our remaining post offices in Telford and across the country. It is a practical step that is backed by the trade unions, the Federation of Small Businesses, public research bodies and the National Pensioners Convention. As of yesterday, early-day motion 1082 carried 139 signatures, including my own—I am proud to have signed it. The post bank is a great idea, and I think that the Government need to move quickly on it. I would certainly be in the queue to open an account myself, if we could get the project off the ground. I do not know whether that means that I have to declare an interest—perhaps it does. I would certainly be in that queue.
The second issue that I want the House to think about before we go into the Easter recess is the need to create and support vibrant local shopping centres. There are a number of borough towns in my constituency that need regeneration and support in these difficult times, one of which is Madeley, and I am glad to say—although some people will be shocked by this—that Tesco is doing a great job there. It is building a new store in the high street and redesigning the high street, along with other private sector partners. We have encouraged Tesco to put in a local store and to provide new shops. Ironically, we are going back to the pre-new town high street pattern in Madeley. We built a new centre—a concrete structure—that proved to be unpopular and, after 30-odd years, we are demolishing it and putting back the old high street. I very much welcome that, and I welcome the role that Tesco is playing in that scheme.
Other local centres across Telford that need help include Dawley. It has suffered significantly from its close proximity to Telford shopping centre. We need to improve the street scene there, and we need to bring in more shops and residential units. In my view, the council should be looking at relocating some of its back-room staff to Dawley as part of the Paddock Mound development process. At the moment, the Dawley regeneration plans envisage the creation of a large amount of residential space in the Paddock Mound area, with some of the cash involved being invested to cross-subsidise the high street. We all know that the residential market is slow at the moment, and my worry is that that plan will delay the regeneration of Dawley. However, the council could step in and consider locating its back-room staff in that proposed residential area, which would bring cross-subsidy investment into the high street.
Another town in my community that needs investment is Oakengates. I am extremely concerned about the lack of commitment to Oakengates from the local authority. We need to save the old Walker Tech building—a stunning building in the town—as well as tackling the poor environment and the dangerous parking problems in Oxford street and Market street. So far, the council has offered peanuts to the people of Oakengates, and they deserve better.
A general theme that needs to be pursued across Telford is the introduction of street drinking bans. One thing that really deters people from going into local centres is the sight of groups of people—of all ages, it must be said—drinking alcohol at all times of the day. It puts people off and is particularly intimidating for older people who want to use the local facilities. Street drinking bans send out a clear message to the public that they should not consume alcohol in local centres as it creates an antisocial environment. Again, we need to move quickly. The council is going to consult on bringing in a street drinking ban in Dawley, after the major exercise that I carried out in which I received more than 1,000 responses from local residents. It is important that the council moves quickly, and that the ban in Dawley is seen as a pilot for other areas in Telford, such as Oakengates and Madeley, as well as local centres such as Brookside, Sutton Hill and Woodside, which could also benefit from having designated areas in their local centres where street drinking was banned.
Alongside the regeneration of those local centres, we also need to transform Telford town centre. I am extremely concerned about recent developments relating to the town centre. It was created to serve the new town and it has expanded over the years in a rather haphazard way, with new shopping arcades and other facilities being added on in a fairly piecemeal fashion. What is needed now is an overarching strategy to create a new, vibrant centre offering retail, entertainment and new housing. The strategy needs to involve all the partners in the town centre and to be led by the council, which is the strategic player.
Unfortunately, it seems that the council and the owners of the shopping centre, Hark Apollo, are not communicating. This has been made worse by the decision of the council effectively to rewrite the strategy for the centre by selling its civic offices to Asda, thereby drawing an anchor retailer out of the main shopping centre. I welcome the fact that Asda is committed to Telford, as it brings jobs to the area and retains jobs within it. However, the move by the council to lure it from the shopping centre is a serious concern. Hark Apollo has made it clear that this is a major threat to its shopping centre and that there has been a major breakdown of communication between it and the council.
I want to see a comprehensive redevelopment of the town centre with design continuity right across the scheme. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get this right and the council should be co-ordinating the process, not creating a climate of crisis and recrimination. This project is vital for the regeneration of the borough and I will do anything I can to bring the parties together to talk. We should not be in this potentially disastrous position in any case. My message to the council is, “Get your act together. I will work with you and help you.” My message to Hark Apollo is also fairly blunt: “You need to review your parking charges, as this is one of the reasons Asda is considering moving out of the town centre”. I want the partners to come together; I believe in a strong partnership between the public and private sector. I believe that if we all work together, we can get this right and transform the centre of Telford.
The final issue I want to address is the review of health services in Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin. I have to say that I am sick and tired of continual reviews of our local health services. We seem to have the same discussions year in, year out—and it must be costing a fortune. In the seven years I have been an MP—[Interruption.] Eight years, but in all those years, we seem to have been having the same conversation about health services in our county. It is not necessarily to do with the Darzi review or the latest trend in Government policy; we just seem to have a constant debate going on among health services managers about the structure of services.
The clinical leaders forum in our area is leading the current review process and it has come up with proposals relating to acute hospital services. In simple terms, local health bosses seem to want to do two things. First, they want to keep children’s assessment units at both the Princess Royal hospital in Telford and Wrekin and the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, but they want to put in-patient children’s services on one site. That, they say, is the safest option. They also want to develop a children’s care service at home.
Secondly, the bosses want to retain A and E service on both sites, but with one dealing with the most seriously injured and ill—those involved in multiple trauma road accidents, for example. Level 1 A and E would be provided as it is now at regional centres; level 2 A and E would be on one of the sites in either Telford or Shrewsbury; and level 3 A and E would be on the other site. At present, no decision has been made about which site should have which services. The clinical leaders forum has produced a long list of four clinical options for sustainable acute services. More work is being done now as part of the consultation process. The concept of a new hospital has now emerged, located between Telford and Shrewsbury, so that it could provide all the acute services to the county.
I have to say that this process has now become an over-complicated shambles. The public have no faith in the process and the recent interventions by the National Clinical Advisory Team have made the situation worse. Health bosses should go right back, in my view, to the drawing board—or perhaps they should take the drawing board away and leave us all alone. We should be designing health services for the people of Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin—not, I add, for mid-Wales, with apologies to colleagues from mid-Wales—and it is about time health managers got out from behind their desks in Shrewsbury and took a long look at the health needs of my constituents in Telford. A&E services in our county are often stretched to capacity at the moment between the two hospitals and many people still have to wait a long time to be seen.
The history of hospital services in Shropshire includes a long struggle to get the status of Telford new town recognised as it grew from the 1960s onwards. Telford is the largest population centre in the county and it is a growing town. By 2026, at least 26,500 new homes will have been built in the borough of Telford and Wrekin, and the current planning review suggests that figure could expand to more than 30,000. Telford could easily grow to become a town of more than 200,000 people in the next two decades, and we need hospital services to reflect that.
We have high levels of deprivation—worse than anywhere else in the county—and other social indicators show very clearly that hospital services need to be focused on Telford. Anyone can see the logic of structuring services around Telford. Services should not be based on how the county looked 50 years ago or even 10 years ago; they should be based on how it looks now and how it is going to look. On that note, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I wish you a happy Easter?
I thank the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) for expressing sympathy for the victims of the helicopter tragedy and for his support for the post bank—a timely idea taking forward many of our concerns about the Post Office, and an issue to which I shall return.
We finally debated the economy in Government time on Tuesday. In that debate, I raised issues connected with the oil and gas industry. Later today, we are having a statement about the G20, which will obviously be about the global impact of the world economy and any global action that can be taken to restore confidence in the economic situation. During the statement, we will have a chance to discover what has come from that G20 meeting. Although the crisis is global and there are definitely global aspects to the economic crisis we face, there is no doubt that there are also local and national aspects to it. The Government had a role in getting us into the crisis and they will have a role in how we come out of it.
On the banking system, we need to learn lessons and understand why the Canadian banks have not gone through the same crisis as UK banks. We must ensure that Government action restores the UK banking system. There is real frustration among the majority of constituents of the majority of Members that so much taxpayers’ money is being poured in at the top, without them necessarily seeing any outcome at the bottom. If we speak to local businesses trying to secure the cash flow they need from the banks to keep going, we find that they are very frustrated. They are frustrated that the announcement of so many Government schemes is not necessarily followed by delivery and they are frustrated in terms of communication in that the banks do not seem to be aware of what schemes are available to assist in supporting business. We need to see a real measure of impact from all this intervention so that banks finally get liquidity flowing in the economy again. If small businesses are unable to borrow, they cannot keep the business turning over to get them through the slump and out the other side.
One victim of the response that has had to be made to the crisis is people with savings, particularly pensioners who have been hit hard. To get cash flow going, interest rates have been slashed to near zero. That provides more liquidity for people with mortgages and other borrowings and reduces the burden on business, which is to be welcomed, but it also has a negative impact on savings and particularly on pensioners who rely on them.
One action the Government could take—and take quickly—to restore a sense of justice on this issue would be to look at the assumed income pensioners and others on benefits could make from their savings. To assume that they can get 10 per cent. on their savings when the Bank has cut the rate to 0.5 per cent. is simply not natural justice and it flies in the face of reality. In the long run, while we want people to spend where they can in the economy, we also need to keep a savings culture in the long term. If we are to penalise people for putting money aside for their old age by assuming that absurd returns can be achieved, we are going to damage that savings culture in the future.
Another aspect of restoring confidence would be to embrace the post bank proposal quickly and efficiently and to roll it out. Many pensioners and people with small savings want real confidence that there is a traditional banking model available where people lend money to the banks, the money accumulates and real savings follow. People do not want fancy financial models that put at risk both savers and borrowers. The post bank could be a great way of restoring confidence in basic banking, and could provide new outlets for the Post Office. As the hon. Member for Telford pointed out, considerable effort has been put into saving, or at least reducing the damage to, the post office network, and the Government have invested a great deal. Now is the time to bring in new business to give vibrancy to, and take advantage of, the network that has been saved, to avoid further closures and to ensure a viable future for the service. Working with credit unions strikes me as a important way of building on something that already exists in communities.
The Government could take another step to restore savers’ confidence, and confidence in the financial system. They could respond to the continuing concerns of the ombudsman about the handling of the Equitable Life sufferers—the victims of the Equitable Life debacle. When there is maladministration, or a failure of administration, if we do not demonstrate that something will be done about it, people will not feel confident about the regulation of the financial system in the future. A stronger response from the Government, and a recognition of the ombudsman’s frustration over the handling of Equitable Life, would restore an element of confidence.
Responding to the economic crisis involves a role for the Treasury and the approaching Budget, but other Departments should be highly aware of the dangers of excessive regulation, and of regulation being introduced too quickly at a time when people are finding it most difficult to adapt. When I was a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry in the last Parliament, the point was made in evidence from the Federation of Small Businesses that while each regulation often stands up and makes sense, a wall of regulations all arriving at once places a great burden on business in requiring it to adapt and evolve. That applies during the good times, but when businesses are struggling to make ends meet and to cope with a real financial crisis, having to implement any extra bureaucracy or regulation that could be avoided imposes an unnecessary burden at a time when the other means of restarting the economy may not be working particularly well.
Earlier today, during questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we heard about the European Union’s proposals for sheep-tagging and the burden that that will place on many hill farmers. The Secretary of State spoke of a move to ease the impact. I think we need to know exactly how he expects that impact to be eased. When there are a large number of sheep on the hills, identifying them individually will involve extra bureaucracy, and having to work out, when a tag is lost from a sheep, which number was on it in order to replace it will mean an awful lot of extra work for a farming community that is also struggling with the financial crisis.
Another issue raised at question time was that of our high animal welfare standards. I want to reinforce what the Secretary of State said about sound and efficient labelling. Perhaps the Secretary of State could also reinforce what he said by ensuring that such a system can be delivered, so that consumers who have put pressure on us, as parliamentarians, to operate the highest animal welfare standards can support that pressure by buying products that meet them. There is no point in putting pressure on us to achieve high animal welfare standards, and then buying products from other countries that do not meet those standards and are therefore able to undercut products that do.
Another regulation is causing concern about the economy in my constituency. I must declare my interest in the oil and gas industry, as a Shell shareholder and a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the British offshore oil and gas industry. The group recently made a visit to a conference in Stavanger which was supported by oil and gas industry companies. I am concerned about the emissions trading phase III regulations, and the European Union’s proposal for 100 per cent. of electricity generation emissions trading permits to be auctioned.
Much of the power on the offshore oil and gas platforms is generated on those platforms. The aim of the emissions trading regulations is to encourage less use of carbon by promoting alternative sources of electricity, but the offshore platforms are not connected to the grid, and cannot simply switch to a renewable source. Buying the permits at auction will impose an extra cost on the industry, which means that, at a time when the industry is already facing difficulties, older platforms in particular may be tipped into being no longer profitable, and start to be decommissioned earlier than was originally intended.
If those platforms are decommissioned early, nearby finds will no longer be exploitable. If we decommission early in the United Kingdom we will produce less oil and gas, but that will not affect the level of consumption; it will merely mean that we import more. The carbon leakage regulations provide a strong case for the Department of Energy and Climate Change to make to the European Union. It should say that we need to take advantage of the rules of the EU system, and that because of the carbon leakage, the North sea needs to be protected from the full impact of the 100 per cent. auction.
Another bureaucratic nightmare for many constituents is the minefield of the IR35 regulations. Many people work in the north-east of Scotland work as contractors, and already feel the real heat of the economic crisis. It is unlikely that they would suffer a pay cut upfront if they were employed, but because they are contractors, it is easy to reduce their fee levels by changing the terms of their contracts. The additional bureaucracy generated by all the work involved in trying to comply with IR35 could be eased if the Treasury thought again about its impact.
I wish to reinforce my support for the case for an early inquiry into the circumstances of the Iraq war, our involvement in it, and the decisions that led to it. Such an inquiry must be wide ranging to enable all the lessons to be learnt, and it should be arranged on an urgent basis so that we learn the lessons as soon as possible in order to apply them to any future conflicts. It must consider the role of Parliament, the role of scrutiny of Parliament, and the way in which Parliament questions Government. It is clear that Parliament had an opportunity to prevent that war, but did not judge the information provided by Government in a way that would have allowed it to question the decision that was put before it, and to avoid the tragedy of becoming so heavily involved in Iraq in such a bad way.
I pay tribute to the troops who have served in Iraq. They have performed the duty that Parliament asked them to perform. However, it is important for those lessons to be learnt. One of the tragedies of our having allowed the United States to distract us into becoming involved in Iraq was the fact that we took our eye off the ball of Afghanistan. That has made our present task in Afghanistan far more difficult, because the job was not seen through at the time. Having supported the intervention in Afghanistan, I hope that in our negotiations with the United States, the US will recognise the burden that we have already borne there and the importance of its troop surge in helping our hard-working armed forces—who are taking such a high risk—to deliver a better life for the people of Afghanistan, and to protect our security here at home by trying to see through a job that was not seen through properly at the time because of the distraction of Iraq.
Finally, as the Easter recess approaches, let me take this opportunity to thank all the staff of the House who make it possible for us to serve in this place, and to wish everyone a happy Easter.
I want to draw attention to a proposal whose implementation would have a significant effect on my constituency: the Co-operative Group’s proposal to build an eco-town known as Pennbury. Although the town would be built just outside the boundaries of my own constituency, in the constituencies of Harborough and Rutland and Melton, the impact on my constituency and the people in it would be considerable, and I am anxious to record the strength of feeling among those local people before the recess.
At the beginning of my remarks, I should declare some interests. I have been a member of the Midlands Co-operative Society, with a £20 share, for some decades and a member of the Co-operative party for some 40 years, and my constituency Labour party, of which I am a member, has recently received a £200 donation from the Co-operative party. Members will be able to tell from those declarations that I am very sympathetic to the principles of the Co-operative movement.
I am also very sympathetic indeed to the concept of environmentally sustainable housing. During my 17 years as leader of the city council in Leicester, it was awarded the accolade of being Britain’s first “environment city”, and it was one of 12 communities worldwide that was invited to the Rio summit to give examples of communities that were seeking to grow in a sustainable way. I also have a long commitment to the provision of adequate affordable housing. I was a member of the then controlling Labour group in the city council in Leicester at a time when we were very proud to be building some 1,000 council houses every year.
Therefore, nobody can doubt the fundamental attitudes with which I approached the Co-operative society’s proposals to build this eco-town. I am also not unsympathetic to its desire to develop a part of its extensive landholdings to the south of Leicester for housing. When I was leader of the city council, we had a number of discussions with it about what were then its proposals for an area called Stretton Magna, not far from the Pennbury development of today, and when the Co-op came forward with this new proposal, I hoped I would be able to support it.
In the almost two years since the publication of the Government prospectus for eco-towns, I have had a number of meetings with representatives of the Co-op. I have also met city and county councillors and officers, and I have looked carefully at the Co-op’s publications and at the analysis of the proposals undertaken by the city and county councils in Leicester and Leicestershire. I have looked particularly carefully at the work undertaken by Halcrow, which has conducted a strategic assessment of the proposals that was published last December.
My initial sympathy for the proposals and the proposers has changed to alarm about the potential impact on my constituency and the city of Leicester more generally, and from that alarm to a general conclusion that were Pennbury to be developed, its impact on Leicester—and Leicester, South as a part of Leicester—would be devastating. During this period, I have been particularly disappointed that, rather than engaging with the concerns that I and others have expressed, the Co-op has chosen to dismiss our questions and to rubbish the many criticisms that Halcrow made of what it described as the Co-op’s “questionable assumptions”.
The Co-op’s latest glossy publication is full of inspirational pictures and fine words. That is typical of its responses to the criticisms, and I will draw on it to illustrate some of my points. In it, the Co-op dismisses its opponents as
“a small minority of people who opposed the eco-town proposal from the outset”,
and it accuses them, and by implication me, of wishing to “stifle debate”. It may well be the case that some have opposed the principle, but that is certainly not true of me, nor of many others who have tried to get proper answers to reasonable questions.
Let me refer to one particularly distinguished critic: John Dean, the former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute and the distinguished city planning officer in Leicester in the 1970s and ’80s, who served for a total of, I think, some 21 years in that capacity. He did much to shape the conservation and appreciation of the city’s built heritage and to prepare the ground for its current regeneration. Mr. Dean said of the proposals for Pennbury:
“The location of the proposal derives from the landownership of the scheme promoters and not from any rational planning process which has considered and debated alternatives.”
He has produced a detailed critique of the proposals. Much as the Co-op might like to dismiss such distinguished criticism, John Dean and many others, such as me, who have been increasingly concerned about the proposals are certainly not guilty of nimbyism.
I have four broad and interlinked concerns: first, the development on this site will draw regeneration investment from the city of Leicester; secondly, the transport generated by it will have a totally unacceptable impact on the A6 corridor through my constituency and the A563 to the M1 motorway, and the suburban rat-runs through the constituency will be dreadful; thirdly, the tram, which has so seduced the city council, is a mirage, and many other aspects of the transportation proposals are unrealistic or unworkable; and, fourthly, the employment proposals and projections put forward by the Co-op are vague and unrealistic.
I wish to say a little more about transportation in particular. The Co-op claims that
“the effect of the eco-town on the transport network would be minimal”.
If it has carried out studies to come to that conclusion, they are certainly not ones that have convinced the experts, Halcrow, which expressed its conviction that the transport infrastructure cannot be delivered. However, we do not need an expert to tell us that the Co-op’s assertion that the impact of 15,000 new homes “would be minimal” is plainly ludicrous.
What the Co-op has tried to do in developing its proposals is pretend that it will be possible to persuade residents of this eco-town to reduce car ownership to one car for every two households. That may be highly desirable, but it does not reflect the real world of the 21st century. Equally ludicrous is its planning assumption that it will be possible to provide appropriate employment in the eco-town to match the employment needs of 60 per cent. of the residents. As Halcrow points out, that is more that twice the so-called containment level of the neighbouring mature areas of Oadby and Wigston. Even on the Co-op’s figures—which, as I have said, are hopelessly unrealistic—the location of the park-and-ride terminus at Leicester race course is in completely the wrong place and unworkable. The prospect of squeezing more cars and a dedicated public transport corridor—whether bendy buses or a tram—down the already heavily congested A6 London road, which is one of the most attractive routes into the city, with little more than some bus lay-bys and a more sophisticated traffic light system is totally incredible to ponder, and the strain on the ring road to the south of the city towards the M1 has scarcely been considered by the Co-op in any of its propaganda. Indeed, much of its propaganda is totally unreadable, with plans that are largely meaningless to the layperson for whom they are intended.
With regard to the regeneration of the city, the Co-op has made two completely contradictory assertions. On the one hand, it claims that the eco-town will not draw regeneration investment from the urban core of the city—which, of course, it clearly will—and on the other hand it asserts that it is better to develop on its green fields because, in its own words,
“brownfield sites are expensive to develop”.
Frankly, it cannot have it both ways. Particularly astonishingly, the Co-op claims that
“brownfield development has also failed to deliver affordable housing”.
I could take Co-op representatives throughout my constituency and across the city of Leicester and show them many examples over many decades of brownfield sites that have been successfully developed for either Housing Association or local authority properties.
In conclusion, the fundamental problem with the site is that, because of its proximity to Leicester—and to Oadby and Wigston, in the constituency of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), whom I was pleased to see in the Chamber today— Pennbury can never be a free-standing development with its own identity. Because of the infrastructure problems, it is totally inappropriate as a sustainable urban extension.
Concern about the devastating effects of this proposal cross the political divide. They have of course been expressed by Members in this Chamber—by, for example, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan)—and, indeed, by members of all parties in the county council. Although members of the city council were, for reasons that are well understood locally, keen to give initial support to the proposal, they, too, gave it subject to conditions on housing, transport and regeneration, all of which it is now clear the Co-op will not be able to meet.
As the consultation period draws to an end, I want to take this opportunity before the Easter recess to urge the Government to kill off this misguided and extremely damaging proposal at this stage, rather than allowing it to proceed and to die, as I hope it eventually will, when it is subject to scrutiny and consideration in the regional and local planning processes.
I wish my many friends in the Co-operative movement well. I admire their determination to make good use of their assets and I have no doubt of their genuine environmental aspirations. However, on this occasion they have the wrong proposal on the wrong site, and I must defend the interests of my constituents and the city of Leicester from this potentially devastating proposal.
I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to raise a number of very important local issues. I had hoped to deal with one of them at business questions but unfortunately I was not called, so I will deal with it briefly now. It is about a rapidly improving school, Highdown, in my constituency, which was informed on Monday by the Learning and Skills Council about a cut to its sixth-form funding. This is happening to schools and colleges right across the country. The LSC is also refusing to fund all the places that Highdown needs to satisfy local student demand—on top of the fact that its new sixth-form centre building project has recently been put on hold. The new cut is causing a £200,000 budget deficit that will have very serious implications for the school. The head teacher told me that he could be forced to make teaching staff cuts, which in turn could halt the immense progress that the school has been making in recent years.
There will be other schools in my constituency suffering similar cuts, about which there was no consultation or, indeed, warning. So much for the Government’s promise of stability for schools through three-year funding mechanisms. The funding cut has been made at the last possible moment in the financial year and is obviously a desperate attempt to claw back money. What we do not know is what caused it. It is a particularly sneaky and underhand way of doing things, and the Secretary of State should be forced to come to this House as soon as possible to explain why he has done it.
I turn to phone masts, the behaviour of Vodafone and the incompetence of my local council’s planning department. Vodafone had submitted an application for a 10 m high mast at the junction of Westdene crescent and Woodcote way. It was turned down because it was completely inappropriate to the local area—in fact, it would be an eyesore. Another application was submitted, which the local council also turned down. However, Reading borough council’s planning department failed to notify Vodafone within 56 days, as it is required to do. The council says that it wrote to Vodafone on the 55th day, but the letter arrived on the 57th day. The result, I am told, is that Vodafone, on a technicality, has the right to go ahead. The council has failed its residents in this matter and should rightly be taken to task for its abject incompetence. It has let local residents down in a quite shameful way. I hope that the matter will be pursued via the local government ombudsman, but also that the council will do everything it possibly can to make amends.
However, Vodafone is also acting in a manner that I would not expect of a company that values the notion of corporate social responsibility. Whether it got the decision on the 56th or 57th day, it knew the planning application had been turned down before it went ahead; it should have accepted this, or at least acted in good faith to negotiate another site. I have to say to Vodafone that I will not deal with a company that treats my constituents in this way. It has not acted in good faith with the local people. Whatever the problems with Reading borough council, it should not be used to ride roughshod over local concerns. I have tried to engage Vodafone in a dialogue, and I urge the company again today to engage positively with me and with local people to try to get a solution that is acceptable to all parties. I am willing to help, because I believe that mobile communications are an extremely important part of modern life in this country and an important industry to the UK as a whole. It is essential that companies protect their reputations. I advise Vodafone to act without delay.
I turn now to the extremely serious issue of irresponsible lending. Although I appreciate that many families have been affected by the recession, I would like to concentrate my thoughts on one of my constituents, Mr. Trevor Howard. Owing to a catalogue of events outside his personal control and to the Financial Services Authority’s negligence, he is no ordinary victim of the credit crunch. In the times of profligate lending before the credit crunch hit, loans sometimes felt as easy to obtain as a bar of chocolate from a shop. People could more or less walk into a bank and choose the mortgage they wanted, of pretty much any shape or size.
During this period, Mr Howard’s former wife, Julie, fraudulently obtained hundreds of thousands of pounds via a plethora of loans, re-mortgages, store cards and credit cards. The level of deception she employed is shocking, but the incompetence of the lenders involved is equally so. We are talking about sums such as a £150,000 re-mortgage brokered by Best Advice mortgages—we can see the irony in that name—and funded by Kensington; another re-mortgage totalling £37,000 with the now collapsed Bradford & Bingley; loans in excess of £100,000 with Firstplus; and a number of other loans and credit cards. Thames Valley police have cautioned his wife, because the Crown Prosecution Service will not prosecute in a criminal court.
Mr. Howard has won a civil case against his ex-wife, but on this occasion attention needs to be drawn away from her fraud and toward the negligence of the lenders involved. None of the fraud would have been possible without the lax procedures employed by the lenders. HSBC, for example, agreed to a £13,000 loan that Mrs. Howard had applied for under her and her husband’s name. The bank manager signed his approval to the agreement the day before—the day before—the form was signed by the applicants. Not only this: Mr. Howard’s signature was forged, as has been verified by a handwriting expert.
On another occasion, Best Advice mortgages agreed to a £150,000 re-mortgage in both Mr. and Mrs. Howard’s name. It is claimed that the application was face to face; however, the truth is very different. Mr. Howard was at work, as a builder, on the day the application was made and has a large number of witnesses who have verified the fact. Mrs. Howard later admitted that the application was submitted by post. Subsequent inquiries to the lender showed that the form was incomplete, and Mr Howard’s date of birth was incorrect and his signature was once again forged. Witness signatures were forged, to the extent that three out of the four signatures on the mortgage deed were forgeries.
An Experian report revealed that Mr Howard’s date of birth was incorrect against a number of accounts, all of whose existence he was not aware of until he split from his now ex-wife. She ran the couple’s finances and employed an unimaginable level of deception to hide all the debt racked up in Mr Howard’s name—all without his knowledge or consent.
Mr. Howard has written to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, to the UK’s fraud prevention service and to the Prime Minister. Since taking up his case, I have written to the financial services ombudsman, the Justice Secretary and the Independent Police Complaints Commission regarding the failure to investigate the lenders. All attempts to get action to be taken against the mortgage lenders have fallen on deaf ears and they have simply been wriggling and passing the buck to each other. I am particularly dismayed at the attitude of the Financial Services Authority—the supposed regulator of financial services.
This case involves irresponsible lending in the extreme; money was fraudulently obtained by Mr. Howard’s ex-wife simply because the lenders did not carry out reasonable, significant or responsible checks. Like many builders, Mr. Howard was made redundant at the end of last year. Obviously, that was partly due to the economic climate, but the time that he had to take off work to fight his civil case, which he won, also played a significant part in his becoming unemployed. Mr. Howard’s home is being repossessed, so due to his wife’s fraudulent activities and the incompetence of the lenders he has been left unemployed and he will probably soon be without a home.
Serious questions need to be asked about the regulatory system and the way in which lending takes place in the UK. Applications made by post are obviously open to identity fraud, so why are lenders not making sufficient checks on those applications? For example, why did the lenders not carry out proper and thorough signature checks in this case? Mr. Howard’s date of birth was entered incorrectly by his ex-wife on application forms so that his credit history would not come up in checks by lenders. That hid all the previous lending and made it appear that he had a very good credit history. Why did the lenders not properly verify the identity of the applicants? The date of birth details on the forms and identify documents were not properly checked or corroborated at any stage? Credit cards were delivered through the post to an address other than the family home. Mr. Howard’s ex-wife had changed the delivery address without his knowledge or consent. How was that allowed to happen? Why do lenders not follow their European counterparts by requiring credit cards to be collected from them as a way of verifying the borrower’s identity?
When investigating, the police struggled to obtain documents from these lenders. Why is there no way to force lenders to provide the required information to the police? The sad reality is that Mr. Howard will probably never get justice for what has happened to him. The FSA has refused to investigate the lenders and the lenders themselves have failed to investigate internally. Perhaps the Minister could give Mr. Howard some hope and undertake to push for an inquiry into how this situation was allowed to happen. I am not sure that the answer is more regulation; it is about better regulation and the enforcement of existing regulation. The Government are culpable for failing to ensure that the FSA was on top of the financial regulation of this industry. Unfortunately, Mr. Howard is yet another example and victim of this Government’s economic failure.
Order. I mean no prejudice against those hon. Members who have spoken and who did so within their time limit, but it is apparent that it would perhaps be more to the advantage of hon. Members if I withdrew the time limit on speeches. That will perhaps give a slightly more relaxed opportunity to those hon. Members who have been patient enough to wait for the debate. I call Mr. Allen.
As Parliament and MPs are being kicked around by Government and the media at the moment, it is probably worth reminding ourselves of a time in the not-too-distant past when Parliament did get off its knees, did speak for people and did seek to hold the Government to account. The two largest rebellions ever within a governing party occurred six years ago but, despite them, Parliament decided to support President Bush’s war in Iraq. The last of our troops are coming home now, so it is a good time to ask the following question: what is the profit from our victory?
Some 179 of the troops’ comrades have died, as have 4,259 members of the US military and an estimated 99,500 Iraqi civilians; an extraordinary and irreplaceable diversion of focus and resources away from the real threat, al-Qaeda, has taken place—imagine what we could have done in Afghanistan to the nest of al-Qaeda had we deployed all those resources where terrorism was clearly a threat. A new home for terrorism has been created. I take second place to nobody in condemning the tyranny of Saddam Hussein—the only thing that can be said for him is that, as a result of his butchery and tyranny, his own people were so much in fear that they were not susceptible to the splinter groups of al-Qaeda and to terrorism. Even in the depths of fantasy peddled by some of the people around President Bush, there was never a proven or sustainable link to al-Qaeda. The 100,000 or so people killed in Iraq had families, and the dysfunction that has been created is the perfect breeding ground for generations of terrorists, who can take flight around the globe and make all of our lives more difficult.
We also lost the moral high ground as a civilisation. Whether it was because of what happened in Abu Ghraib or anywhere else, our right to speak, in any sense, as superior to any other culture disintegrated very rapidly—the right was forfeited. We also smashed the precious Arab-west coalition that had been developed in the previous Iraqi war, and the United Nations—perhaps our best hope for the future—was irrevocably weakened. It can no longer summon up armies or nations to rid people of tyrannies, wherever those may be.
That is the legacy and we all have to live with it. It must be said that not a single weapon of mass destruction—the pretext of going into Iraq—was ever found there. That is history, but it is useful to learn some lessons from history. I, like a majority of the people in the Chamber today who were also here at that time, opposed the war and organised, in this place, against it. After the decision was made, I kept my counsel and ensured that our young troops, many of whom are from my constituency—I have met them in Basra and elsewhere—were not undermined.
As we approach the sixth anniversary, I feel that some of the story can be told. Much of it reflects the grossly unbalanced relationship that exists in this place between Parliament and the Government, and there are a number of lessons that I would like the House and all Members to learn from that period. Before I touch on that, it is worth recalling that the first vote on the issue in this House, which took place on Wednesday 26 February 2003, was on the motion that the case for war was “unproven”, and 122 Labour MPs voted to oppose going to war. Had the Conservative MPs voted for the amendment, war would have been defeated by 109 votes. I am not making a partisan case. The Conservative Members who voted for the amendment did so with great courage and resilience, and those who did not voted in the way that they did because they felt, openly and honestly, that that was the best way to go.
The second such vote took place on 18 March 2003, on the amendment that the case for war had “not yet been established”, and the majority of the non-payroll vote on the Labour side—139 Labour Members—voted to oppose going to war. Sometimes my friends in the Liberal Democrats inadvertently make it appear that only they opposed the war at the time. A significant number of Liberal Members voted with us on that amendment, but it was not as large as 139—the number of Labour MPs that voted to oppose going to war. Some 219 Members, from all parties, voted against going to war and another 29 deliberately abstained. Had the Opposition voted for the amendment, it would have been carried by 109 votes and Bush would have gone to war on his own.
There is a question as to whether Mr. Bush would have gone to war on his own or whether by supporting him we conferred legitimacy on his actions. One of the most frightening conversations I have had was with an academic in the US, during a Select Committee visit, who said, “I had a lot of qualms about the war, but when I saw Tony Blair was backing it, I decided it was all right for us to go to war.”
Tempting as the hon. Gentleman’s offer is, I shall not go over the old ground and reopen wounds within or across parties: I am trying to tease out some of the lessons for the future. I remember that he was in the Lobbies with us on those key occasions.
Had the Opposition not voted against, but abstained, we would have needed just 20 more colleagues to have blocked the war—so near, but so far away. Despite all the pressure, the hysteria, the whipping and the meetings with Cabinet Ministers and even the Prime Minister, the threats that the Prime Minister would resign and the accusations that people were siding with Saddam Hussein or were being unpatriotic, it is remarkable that those who opposed going to war not only maintained their opposition, but strengthened their position by the time of the second vote. That is a tribute to all those in all parties, of many different views, who felt so strongly that then was not the time to go to war.
I want to take the House on a brief stroll down parliamentary memory lane to recall the first rebel Parliament since the Long Parliament of 1640. The Long Parliament managed to fight the English civil war and execute the King. Its successor was not so dramatic, but it forced the Executive to convene the real Parliament to debate the slide into war against Iraq. In doing so, it opened up issues that are still pertinent to the House in general, and the possibility of a serious debate on the war in Iraq that would not pick over the bones of who was right or wrong, but would ensure that we learn the lessons and decide where the balance of authority should lie between Parliament and the Executive—something that we still need to resolve. When Parliament can check and scrutinise the Executive, we will have truly learned those lessons. The question is not when the Government will allow Parliament to scrutinise the Government. It is surely a complete contradiction in terms that the very body that will be scrutinised is the body that allows that scrutiny to take place. It defies human nature to want such exposure. There has to be a separation so that Parliament can do its job properly and question any Government’s decision at any time to go to war, and monitor the subsequent conduct of that war.
Through the summer recess of 2002, pressure was building up. The then Prime Minister was scuttling over to Camp David regularly, and it looked very much as though the United States would attack Iraq, and that Britain would be involved by virtue of the “special relationship” between Tony Blair and President Bush. They gave a press conference on 3 September 2002. Tony Blair said that if the situation developed in Iraq then the
“fullest possible debate will take place, not just in the country but obviously in Parliament and elsewhere”.
The term “elsewhere” was unfortunately characteristic: Parliament had no higher status in the prime ministerial mind than the media, the pub, the opinion polls or the focus groups. As events would prove, Parliament was not genuinely and openly involved in the process. Instead, Members had to fight to stake a claim to represent legitimately the opinions that they were hearing in their constituencies. That right was not gifted to us by Parliament, nor was it ours as of right. It had to be fought for, as indeed have almost all extensions of our rights.
Parliament had no rights either to recall itself or to debate war powers, and the Government gave no sign that they intended to recall Parliament before 15 October even though it was clear that they were likely to take this country to war. Many hon. Members at the time thought that that would be far too late and the die would be cast. On 3 and 4 September, I wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to consider recalling Parliament, and I know that dozens of other colleagues did the same—we agreed that this would be a good thing to do—but Tony Blair has never revealed how many MPs requested a recall.
We believed that a recall of Parliament would strengthen British policy and diplomacy; would strengthen the Prime Minister’s negotiating capability with the US President; and would help to explain the issues to the country, which was deeply divided and anxious about the possibility of war. Above all, recalling the forum of the nation would allow the ventilation of the views that had been expressed to us in July, August and September. That should always be our primary role, but it cannot be our role if we cannot meet to express those views.
Apart from writing to the Prime Minister, there is nothing else that an MP can do to get Parliament recalled. The Standing Order on the recall of Parliament—Standing Order No. 13—says that once the House is adjourned, a recall can be achieved only by representations
“to the Speaker by Her Majesty’s Ministers that the public interest requires that the House should meet”.
The Prime Minister has monopoly power over the recall of Parliament: the very person Parliament is meant to scrutinise is the only person who can authorise that scrutiny.
Since then, I have placed on the Order Paper every day a modest change to the right of this House to recall itself—to enable Mr. Speaker, without a request from Ministers, to think carefully about whether, on rare occasions, the House should be recalled. Regardless of people’s views about whether we should have gone to war at that time and about the timetable set by the President, all parliamentarians would surely have wanted the Speaker to make the decision about recall.
In spite of growing pressure from MPs, the Prime Minister was not willing to recall Parliament. Several of us therefore began to contemplate the idea of a rebel, unofficial Parliament—an alternative assembly of MPs. If Parliament was to be vetoed, perhaps MPs could take the initiative and convene themselves, meeting as an assembly of MPs outside of Executive control. Imagine that. Although it would clearly be second best to a real Parliament, the assembly could debate Iraq under strict parliamentary rules and put constituents’ views on the record. Having spoken to a number of colleagues in all parties, I wrote to every Member of the House and asked three questions: first, would they support Parliament’s being recalled to discuss the Iraq issue; secondly, if Parliament was not officially recalled, would they consider attending a gathering elsewhere of MPs operating under strict parliamentary rules to discuss the Iraq issue; and, thirdly, would they support a change in the Standing Orders to enable the Speaker to recall Parliament without the qualification that it should be at the request of Ministers if the Speaker were satisfied that the public interest did so require? The response was overwhelming. No fewer than 85 per cent. of Back Benchers agreed the need for an official recall, 65 per cent. agreed to come to an unofficial recall and 86 per cent. agreed that the Standing Orders should be changed, although, by agreement with my party’s Whips, I did not release those figures to the media. It was clear that the demand was there for an alternative Parliament.
On 5 September, I invited the former Speaker, Lord Weatherill, to resume his role for one day in the alternative Parliament. I also asked the then Serjeant at Arms if it was possible to hire the Chamber of this House. On 7 September, Lord Weatherill accepted the invitation to chair the alternative Parliament, which gave an immense boost to its standing. I looked for a team of Deputy Speakers and retired Clerks to support him.
We also began to think about procedures. An alternative Parliament did not need to be bound by obsolete and inefficient traditions. We planned to try out innovations, including a microphone for every Member, working sensible hours and a strict limit of 10 minutes on all speeches, with no privileges for Front Benchers or Privy Counsellors. Our Speaker would let the House sit until MPs had spoken. For once, a late-night sitting would be justifiable. We wanted to allow MPs who could not be on hand at the alternative Parliament to hand in their speech for the record, as is done in the US Congress.
We planned a live webcast of the alternative Parliament on the internet so that any elector could e-mail their views as they watched the debate. We even thought of a new logo—a raised portcullis, representing letting people into their Parliament rather than shutting them out. On Monday 9 September, a Back-Bench steering group of one MP from each party was created to oversee those arrangements.
The following day we had a classic Catch-22 response from the Serjeant at Arms: he could not allow the Chamber to be used until the House agreed, but the House would not reconvene until 15 October. We looked for an alternative venue in Westminster and settled on Church House—a chamber used when Parliament was bombed in the second world war. To many MPs, that circular 600-seat chamber was actually better designed than the Commons Chamber. I was told that it would cost £6,000 for a day and fortunately my wallet was spared by offers of financial support from the BBC, the Daily Mirror, the Rowntree trust and several individuals. We settled on the date of Thursday 19 September for the first Parliament to recall itself.
Invitations, as many colleagues will recall, were sent to every MP and it became clear on 10 September that there would be overwhelming attendance—we had gained a critical mass of Members of Parliament who were willing to attend to put their very different points of view at that gathering. We were also gathering massive coverage in the media, and the clincher was a call from the BBC to ask whether it could cover the debate from gavel to gavel, from morning until it finished. I, along with my colleagues who were involved at that point, readily agreed to that request.
On Wednesday 11 September—the anniversary of 9/11 —No. 10 capitulated. Robin Cook called me to concede that the official Parliament would be recalled, and so there would be no need for an alternative Parliament. Characteristically, No. 10 briefed the media before it briefed the steering group of MPs, but we were none the less delighted to have made the Executive recall Parliament, even though they were opposed to doing so.
The alternative Parliament secured for Parliament the right to debate the Government’s conduct of policy towards Iraq. That would not have happened for a further month had we not taken those steps. History will judge whether Parliament made the best use of that opportunity and whether it did enough to probe the military, political, legal and moral case for the Iraq war, or to expose the half-truths and outright falsehoods that accompanied it, as well as the lack of preparation for the aftermath—the absolutely criminal lack of preparation for victory, which meant that military victory was obtained but the peace was lost and frittered away.
Perhaps the subject of how the votes were organised and how the opinions fell is one for another day. However, many colleagues felt that that was the first e-mail rebellion in the House of Commons. The virtual organisation that was set up to support colleagues from all parties worked very well. The names of the colleagues who were involved and who stood out on that occasion are evident for all to see in the Division lists, which are still available.
Six years later, we still have unfinished business from the alternative Parliament, from those votes and from the decisions that were taken at that point. The recall of Parliament is still in the gift of the Executive. I still hope that all Front Benchers will seek to persuade their parties to commit to changing that. In spite of promises, Parliament still has no rights to approve war-making and the conduct of wars. The Prime Minister can still send our forces to war in the name of the Crown, as though he were Henry V at Agincourt. As we discovered in the run-up to the war, Parliament still receives no independent legal advice on the legality of war and still depends on the good will of the Law Officers even to see a brief outline of their opinion, let alone to debate it. This House needs its own legal capacity so that Members can refer to a Law Officer of their own to be sure of their legal standing when they make decisions that could come before the International Criminal Court and, in the most extreme cases, could result in charges when laws have been passed illegally because of the votes of Members. We need that capacity and we do not have it. Parliament still has no means of examining the quality and reliability of intelligence information if it is used to justify the resort to war.
Although those issues remain unresolved, hon. Members should look back at those votes and at the genuine opinions that were expressed in all parts of the House, and should take heart from the fact that this Parliament can get off its knees and express a view on behalf of the people out there. Members of Parliament do not have to be whipping boys of the media for the sins of one or two of our colleagues. We can have our rights, we can exercise our responsibilities and we can hold Governments to account. Even though—amazingly—it is now six years since those exciting and in many ways tragic days of 2003, I hope that Members of all parties, including those who will or do form Governments, will learn some of those lessons and implement some of the changes to make this House, once again, worthy of the name of the Parliament of the British people.