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Commons Chamber

Volume 497: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2009

House of Commons

Tuesday 20 October 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Leeds City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now considered.

Object.

Bill to be considered on Tuesday 27 October.

Reading Borough Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now considered.

Object.

Bill to be considered on Tuesday 27 October.

City of Westminster Bill [Lords]

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords Message [12 October] as relates to the City of Westminster Bill [Lords] be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Iran's Nuclear Programme

1. What his latest assessment is of developments in Iran’s nuclear programme; and if he will make a statement. (293902)

Iran’s nuclear programme is the leading threat to the non-proliferation regime. The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report says that Iran has still not suspended its enrichment or heavy-water-related activities and has failed to engage with the IAEA on the possible military dimensions. The revelations about a secret site near Qom show Iran’s disregard for its obligations to the IAEA and the United Nations Security Council, and increase our concerns about its intentions. The Geneva meeting on 1 October with the E3 plus 3 was a start to the essential process of engagement; there now needs to be intensive and serious follow-up.

Does my right hon. Friend share the frustration of many ordinary people in Iran—they have shared this with me by e-mail—with the regime’s complete refusal to engage with the international community on this issue? The regime is led by someone who not only denies the holocaust, but denies his own people a democratic outcome. Will my right hon. Friend consider what unilateral steps the United Kingdom could take to increase the pressure on Iran to engage more positively?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the Iranian people, some 50 or 60 per cent. of whom are under the age of 30. They represent a country of great civilisation and education, and they have internet access, to pick up on her point. The requirements on the regime can best be understood by realising that there will never be a better time for Iran to engage with the international community in the search for what Iran proclaims to be its only aim: civilian nuclear power.

The United Kingdom is proud to be at the heart of the international drive to establish normal relations between Iran and the international community over the nuclear file. However, I am sure my right hon. Friend will have seen the important announcement by the Treasury in respect of a financial sanction for one of the banks that has been closely involved in proliferation-related activities. That represents the sort of step that she is suggesting.

With Austria’s leading energy company investing heavily in Iranian offshore and onshore oil, and with Germany being a big exporter to Iran, will the Secretary of State tell the House what pressure he is applying to our European partners to comply with sanctions in order to try to change the regime peacefully?

I do not have to tell the hon. Gentleman just about the pressure on other European countries; I can point him to the fact that the European Union—all 27 countries of it—has tougher sanctions than are required by the United Nations, which indicates how seriously Europe takes the issue.

May I welcome the leading role that Britain is taking in Europe on this issue? What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with other partners in Europe about their taking further steps and bringing further economic sanctions to bear?

At this moment, we are engaged in a critical phase of engagement with Iran. The President of the United States has said that he wants to reassess the situation at the end of the year, and he will do so with the international community. My hon. Friend is right to say that the dual track must be a dual track, in that engagement takes place, but increased pressure can be brought to bear, as appropriate. At the E3 plus 3 meeting that I chaired in New York in September, there was agreement that we must pursue the dual track with equal emphasis on both elements.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the missing link in international efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution has, unfortunately, been the continuing reluctance of Arab states to be prepared to put public pressure on Iran, despite their oft-repeated—in private—serious reservations about Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Does he agree that if the Arab states were to put public pressure on Iran, that would make it much more likely that Russia and China would co-operate in the Security Council, and much less likely that the United States or Israel would be tempted towards military intervention?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. It is fair to say that the thinking that he outlines explains the emphasis that we have put on the relationship between the E3 plus 3 and the Gulf Co-operation Council and other Arab states. A very important meeting took place in New York between the E3 plus 3 and the Arab states, led by the GCC. The sort of international unanimity that he refers to is very important. People often talk, rightly, about the fears in Israel of the Iranian nuclear programme, but he will know, as will the whole House, that those fears are matched throughout the Arab world, which recognises the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the middle east of all places.

Will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that Iran is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and that that should be welcomed as a sign of at least an ability to negotiate? Will he also recognise that now is the time to push for a nuclear-free middle east, which will of course require the disarmament of all nuclear states in the region, including Israel, as a way of bringing about long-term peace and security?

My hon. Friend will know that we have voted consistently for the aspiration of a nuclear-free middle east as part of a drive for nuclear disarmament around the world. However, I think that it is important to bear in mind that although it is right to acknowledge that Iran is a signatory to the NPT—and that is welcome—signing is only the first step. Obeying the treaty’s injunctions and following its requirements should go with that signature. I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in sending a united message from this House that Iran has the hand of engagement outstretched towards it and that it will be treated as a normal country, not least in respect of civilian nuclear power, but that it must behave as a normal country would in its relations with the IAEA and the rest of the international community.

Like the Foreign Secretary, we hope that the talks in Vienna today under the aegis of the IAEA are successful. Does he agree that we ought to be concerned at the indications from the Iranian state broadcast and others in recent days that the offer to send material abroad for enrichment might not actually be delivered? Does he agree that it is important that the Group of Six make it very clear to Iran during these talks that any agreement has to involve Iran’s existing stockpiles being taken abroad in return for nuclear fuel rods being supplied for scientific research, as well as immediate access for international inspectors to the facility at Qom?

There is quite a lot of detail in this. The Tehran research reactor proposal is an important proposal, which would involve the export for development of the low-enriched uranium that Iran has established. It is a very important proposal. The best thing for me to say is that it is good that Iran has said that in principle it is interested in that proposal, but it needs to turn that in-principle interest into an agreement that gets that low-enriched uranium out of the country to be properly fabricated and developed. If that happens, we can be absolutely clear—as Iran will be showing us not just by word but by deed—that it is interested only in peaceful civilian purposes for its nuclear programme. This is an important issue and I look forward to continuing to discuss it with the House.

Tibet

We regard Tibet as part of China, albeit as an autonomous region. Our interest is in long-term stability, which can be achieved through respect for human rights and greater autonomy for Tibetans. We believe that substantive dialogue between the Chinese authorities and representatives of the Dalai Lama is the best way to achieve this.

May I first call the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, where I record a recent visit to Tibet? During that visit I became increasingly convinced that the Government’s change in stance on the status of Tibet was quite correct. Tibet needs to be an integral part of the greater People’s Republic of China, albeit an entirely autonomous region. Does not the Minister agree with me about two things? First, that the change of stance should have been announced to the House in an oral statement rather than sneaked out in a written statement, which meant that no one could ask any questions about it. Secondly, I do not believe that much use was made of the leverage that could have been achieved by the UK Government’s change in stance to press the Chinese Government on human rights issues, both in Tibet and across the greater People’s Republic. Does he—

In terms of leverage, the fact that I was the first Minister to be invited by the Chinese Government to visit Tibet recently and that the all-party group, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, was also allowed and encouraged to visit Tibet demonstrates that that shift in policy has enabled us to exercise significant influence over the Chinese Government. Let us be clear about the issues. It is extremely important—we have made this clear to China—that although we recognise the economic and social progress that is evident in Tibet, there are still major concerns about human rights. The Chinese Government should begin immediate negotiations with the representatives of the Dalai Lama and encourage visits from other politicians, and from journalists and opinion formers around the world, to demonstrate a greater level of openness. There must also be no equivocation on religious freedom, which is enshrined in the constitution of China in relation to Tibet.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s visit to Tibet to get an understanding of and a feel for what is happening there. Does he recognise that we will not solve the problem merely by having MPs and Ministers visiting the country? What needs to be dealt with is the intolerance shown towards the Tibetan people and the lack of freedom. What pressure can he put on the Chinese Government, as well as speaking to the Dalai Lama?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. Subsequent to my visit, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I raised the issue of human rights violations with Dai Bigguo, the state councillor from China, and I have also had a lengthy meeting with the very able ambassador to China. Various issues need to be addressed: we must make sure that ethnic Tibetans benefit from the economic growth undoubtedly now taking place in Tibet, and that their language and culture are protected. In addition, we must ensure that ethnic Tibetans have access to fair justice and that there is genuine religious freedom, particularly in the monasteries.

In 1904, Colonel Younghusband took British troops into Tibet. In 1947, those troops left and we recognised the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination. Why do this Government not allow them that self-determination? Why are we not putting more pressure on the Chinese Government to recognise that right? At present, we are exerting less pressure in that regard than we did in 1947.

When the hon. Gentleman asks why Britain does not allow the Tibetans freedom, he is clearly living in the past. The other important point is that the Dalai Lama himself does not demand independence for Tibet: what he demands is genuine autonomy and religious freedom, which has long been the policy of the rest of the international community. There is no doubt that, as a consequence of the policy change that we made last year, we now have greater leverage to influence China’s policies in relation to Tibet.

NATO

3. How much his Department has spent on (a) hosting and (b) supporting the involvement of young British people in NATO activities in the last 12 months. (293904)

In the last 12 months we have spent £22,000 in support of the Atlantic Council UK. This covers activities from 2008 to 2010. The council undertakes activities to raise NATO’s profile and, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, recently set up a youth chapter. From November, it will begin a schools programme to further raise awareness of NATO’s activities.

Does the Minister agree that it is worth investing money in educating young people about NATO’s historical role during the cold war, when it ensured that the free world remained free? It is a great organisation that has done so much for our freedom and liberty. Will he raise this matter with his counterparts in other countries to ensure that they are also investing in young people’s education about NATO? Will he meet a British delegation from NATO’s youth chapter—

Order. I have said this many times, but I shall say it once more: Members should ask one question, not two—and certainly not three.

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about NATO’s central role in our national security, and in the relationship between the EU and the US. Of course we expect all NATO members to make their fair contribution when it comes to engaging young people and raising awareness among them. Finally, of course I would be willing to meet a youth delegation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that educating young people about NATO’s future role is absolutely vital? What can he do to ensure that the future generation completely understands the threat that faces us, and what NATO can effectively do to defend us?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is very important that we do not fall for the myth that will be familiar to all hon. Members from their constituency responsibilities—that young people are somehow not interested in politics or international affairs. All hon. Members who visit local schools and colleges know that young people are incredibly interested in the issues that affect the world. The problem is that we have to demonstrate to them the relevance to their everyday lives of what goes on in this House and in conventional politics. Central to that is our future security and the role of NATO.

Freedom of Expression

We work to safeguard the international framework that protects and promotes the right to freedom of expression and to support positive change on the ground. We raise individual cases where freedom of expression has been threatened, and we challenge countries to change practices that curtail the exercise of these rights.

I draw the House’s attention to the fact that I am a patron of Article 19, which campaigns for the rights of journalists abroad. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fact that this week the Government have tabled amendments in the House of Lords to the Coroners and Justice Bill to get rid of the laws of sedition and criminal defamation in this country? Will he urge his colleagues to promote the fact that we have done this as a way of delivering similar freedoms to journalists in other countries?

It goes against the grain to congratulate a Liberal Democrat. None the less, I am more than happy to do so because I know the hon. Gentleman has played a very important role, along with Article 19, with which we try to work closely, to get rid of the obsolete offences of sedition and criminal libel, not least because other countries have sometimes pointed to those offences in the UK and said that that is a reason why they should be able to continue with laws that deliberately hinder the freedom of expression and the freedom of opinion, which we believe is an essential human right.

Will my hon. Friend make representations to the Government of Morocco about free expression in that country? I was contacted at the weekend by a constituent whose brother is one of seven human rights activists who were detained last week by the Moroccan authorities. I understand that they have been threatened with life imprisonment or even the death penalty. Will my hon. Friend make efforts to intervene in this case and ensure that freedom of expression exists in that country as well?

I am more than happy to look into the individual case if my hon. Friend is able to pass on the information to me regarding the situation in Morocco. The right to express oneself, a free press and free media are essential. Around the world, one of the most important things that we have contributed to that is the BBC World Service.

Palestine

5. What discussions he has had with his Egyptian counterparts on progress towards a Palestinian reconciliation agreement. (293906)

I spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, last Friday. As I understand it, despite Fatah agreeing to Egypt’s proposals, Hamas has not. The Foreign Minister told me that the original deadline and further repeated deadlines for reaching agreement among the Palestinian factions will not be met. I told the Foreign Minister that we continued to favour any reconciliation which supported peace negotiations and enhanced efforts to improve governance, security and the economy in the Palestinian territories.

I understand that difficult negotiations are continuing to try to bring about Palestinian unity, which will be crucial. Will my right hon. Friend give his assurance that that unity will be based on the renunciation of violence as the first step to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, as part of a two-state solution with Israel?

My hon. Friend takes a detailed interest in these issues and I know that his commitment to a two-state solution is profound. He is right that negotiations need to take place on the basis of the renunciation of violence. There is no path to a Palestinian state through violence, and it is precisely the sort of accord and determination to renounce violence that is recognised by the majority of the Palestinian people and needs to be recognised by all their leaders.

Unlike the Egyptians, who turned up to vote in the UN Human Rights Council meeting last week on the Goldstone report on the recent conflict in Gaza, is it not deeply disappointing to find that our own representatives stayed away? This seems to have put us in the same voting camp as Angola, Kyrgyzstan and Madagascar, three of the world’s worst dictatorships. What message was the Foreign Office trying to send to the community by staying away from that important vote last week?

The Government do not stay away from the question at all. As the hon. Gentleman should know, the Prime Minister was working closely with President Sarkozy of France, which I do not think even the Conservative party would describe as a dictatorship, on three key issues: first, an independent inquiry into the allegations at the heart of the Goldstone report; secondly, greater humanitarian aid into Gaza; and thirdly, a restart of the peace process. The vote was called in the middle of the discussions between the Prime Minister, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Netanyahu. I think it is right that the United Kingdom takes every opportunity to drive forward on those three key issues, the aims of which have previously been supported by the Opposition.

Now that the United Nations Human Rights Commission has decided that Israel and Hamas have committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity, and with Israel continuing to flout President Obama’s injunction to stop building in settlements, what action are we going to take to stop these blatant violations of international law?

It is absolutely right that we stick to the position that we have held since the publication of the Goldstone report—that, on the one hand, it did not do enough to recognise Israel’s right to self-defence but, on the other, it did raise serious issues that democratic Governments should address through the sort of full and independent inquiry that is important. Democratic Governments are held to higher standards than terrorist organisations, and such Administrations need to live up to them. That is why it is in Israel’s interest, never mind the international community’s interest, that there be a proper independent inquiry. That is precisely what the Prime Minister was working for last Friday, and we will continue to work for it.

When the UN Human Rights Council voted to endorse the Goldstone report on the conflict in Gaza, the text of the motion made no reference at all to Hamas, despite the fact that it was heavily criticised in the report itself. Given that the motion was so clearly unbalanced, therefore, does the Secretary of State agree that the Government should have voted against it, as the United States did, rather than not even registering a formal abstention but simply not voting at all? We interrupt meetings here all the time to vote. Why could they not have done that?

For the record, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has not understood what actually happened at the launch of the Goldstone report. The resolution setting up the report was, indeed, deeply unbalanced, and it did not refer to Hamas. That is why we welcomed the fact that Judge Goldstone immediately said that his inquiry would be into Hamas’s alleged violations of international law, as well as Israel’s, and he was right to do so. The hon. Gentleman will know that, frankly, asking Hamas to set up an independent inquiry is whistling in the wind, but it is right none the less that we say to a democratic Government such as Israel, whom we do respect, that their interests are best served by the sort of independent, full and transparent inquiry that has distinguished Israeli public life in the past.

China

There is scope for much more productive EU-China co-operation on the whole range of global economic and security issues. We believe that entry into force of the Lisbon treaty, with its new external structures, is the ideal opportunity to put that relationship on a much more productive course.

Will my hon. Friend tell me how existing co-operation and the European Union’s current stance can be used to ensure that we get a fair and effective Copenhagen climate change treaty that involves China?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. She is absolutely right: if we are to get a proper agreement in Copenhagen, we must ensure that the Chinese contribution to that discussion is very much in line with the EU. That is why we very much welcome the further meeting that will take place in Nanjing in a few weeks’ time, in November, just before the Copenhagen summit. We support summit plans for a high-profile EU-China partnership on climate change and, indeed, for the near-zero emissions coal initiative. It is absolutely vital that the EU and China work together, and it is much easier for us to achieve that if we co-operate with other countries in Europe, rather than distance ourselves from the mainstream.

Is the Minister aware of China’s treatment of refugees from North Korea, and of China’s refusal to admit an investigation or access by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees? Does that not rule out any further co-operation so long as China, as a member of the UN Security Council, refuses to abide by human rights obligations that it has signed up to?

Of course, there are always human rights issues that we will want to take up with the Chinese authorities, and we do so very regularly. I think that that is one of the issues that we have specifically taken up, but that does not mean that we do not continue to engage with China. Indeed, I would argue that in recent years, we, as the European Union, have not been able to engage as effectively with China as we might, but that does not preclude us from raising in the most robust of terms human rights issues in every regard, whether in relation to Falun Gong, the issue that the right hon. Gentleman just raised or, for that matter, the death penalty.

Afghanistan

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the co-ordination of policy with other EU member states on developments in Afghanistan affecting UK national security. (293908)

I regularly discuss developments affecting UK national security with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, including the outcome of his recent and important visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have pushed consistently with European Union partners for greater and more coherent EU action in both countries, including the adoption of a new strategy to strengthen EU action in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a second EU-Pakistan summit in the first half of 2010.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Will he confirm that he will be working closely with his European partners over the next few weeks to ensure that the next round of voting in the Afghan presidential elections is both free and fair, so that those wishing to rebuild Afghanistan and make it more secure have the benefit of working with a credible Government there?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point that I will touch on in the introduction to topical questions. There are important developments in Afghanistan today that will affect all of us. The commitment to a second round on behalf of both candidates is important, but equally important are the statesmanlike statements made today, which hold out important prospects for the future credibility of an Afghan Government—that must be at the heart of any hon. Member’s concern about the future of that country. The Afghan people need a credible Government and so does the international community as a partner for all our efforts.

Further to the previous question, the Foreign Secretary will be fully aware that soldiers can buy one time and space, but what we need in Afghanistan is a political solution. Given that the electoral complaints commission said that about a third of President Karzai’s votes in the presidential elections were fraudulent, will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that any poll run-off will be legitimate and fair and have the confidence of the Afghan people?

The whole House should recognise that the work of the electoral complaints commission has been of the highest order, the highest integrity, and, as we can now see, the highest level of forcefulness. There has been no willingness on its part to be pushed off the central principles to which it has adhered. There has clearly been attempted fraud on a large scale. The vital thing is that all the arrangements, security as well as administrative, are followed through for the second round, or in preparation for the second round, not least to give proper credit and recognition to those brave Afghans who were determined to vote despite the intimidation and threats that they faced.

Will my right hon. Friend once again restate the fact that because the conflict in Afghanistan is so inextricably linked with the military activity in Pakistan, it is absolutely vital for Britain’s own security that we maintain our commitment to seeing a peace process develop, which means a continuation of our military presence in Afghanistan?

Yes, but to pick up my hon. Friend’s point and that of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), ultimately there must be a political settlement in Afghanistan: a political settlement for the people of that country; a political offer to the insurgency to live within the constitution and to come in and share political power or face the military consequences; and a political settlement with Afghanistan’s neighbours, because their tendency to try to see Afghanistan, or parts of it, as a client state rather than a neutral state is completely undermining that country’s ability to run its own affairs.

Perhaps anticipating what the Foreign Secretary intends to say in topical questions, may I, on behalf of the Opposition, join in the welcome for the announcement by President Karzai that he accepts the need for a second round, which in the absence of a national unity Government in Afghanistan must be the best way forward? Building on earlier questions, will the Foreign Secretary expand on what the Government can do and what representations they will make to try to ensure that these elections are run on a far better basis than those on 20 August, with an increase in the number of Afghan and international election observers and a reform of the electoral procedures that were abused last time? Will he assure the House that action can be taken on those matters?

It is important to say that real efforts will be made to live up to the standards that the right hon. Gentleman has tried to sketch out. Frankly, it would be glib and slightly other-worldly for me to stand here and give a blanket yes to his questions, which, although serious, go the heart of very deep security problems that face Afghanistan. However, it is the case that in the first Afghan-led elections significant numbers of people voted despite huge attempts at intimidation. It is also the case that the establishment of the electoral complaints commission held true to the principle that fraudulent votes would not be counted, with consequences that were probably not expected by many people in terms of the overall result. The final score, if it comes in at about 48 per cent. to 31 per cent., represents a degree of competition in the electoral process that is significant and speaks to the work that will be critical in the next few weeks, which is the election of a credible Afghan Government who can be a legitimate expression of the will of the Afghan people, with a programme representing a significant majority of opinion. That is the hope for all of us.

On another matter regarding Afghanistan, the Prime Minister announced last week 500 additional troops for Afghanistan but set out burden sharing across the coalition as one of the conditions for that. Can the Foreign Secretary enlighten us further about that condition? If the United States is the only substantial extra contributor alongside the United Kingdom, will he consider that condition to have been fulfilled?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that one of the commitments that President Obama has made is that not just that the first McChrystal report but that the second should be discussed deeply to ensure that there is full alliance engagement with the request in question. We will engage fully with the process, in respect of not just the American uplift and the discussions about it but the commitments of other countries on, first, the number of troops, secondly, on what those troops do and where they do it and, thirdly, on the civil engagement that President Obama and the Prime Minister have stressed at every stage is a critical part of the effort. We will consider that in the round and then come to our conclusions.

Sri Lanka

8. What recent discussions he has had with Sri Lankan Government Ministers on the situation of Tamil communities in the north and east of that country. (293909)

10. What his most recent assessment is of the political situation in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. (293911)

I met Foreign Minister Bogollagama on 25 September and urged him to ensure that the Government of Sri Lanka return all 250,000 internally displaced persons to their homes as quickly as possible. The imminent monsoon makes that more urgent, alongside the need for improved facilities for, and access to, camps. I pressed for progress on the protection of minority communities and on reconciliation, which will be vital if the end of the conflict is to be translated into a meaningful and lasting peace.

I also made clear my concerns about the protection of human rights. The European Commission registered those concerns yesterday in its pre-report on GSP plus—general system of preferences—trade preferences. I assure the House that our position on GSP plus is clear: Sri Lanka must respect its international human rights obligations if it is to continue to benefit from GSP plus.

I am grateful for the Foreign Secretary’s answer and for the Government’s efforts on this subject. Given the importance that he has placed on human rights being upheld by the Government of Sri Lanka, can he assure the House that he will make it clear up to and during the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference that it would be unacceptable for the next conference to be held in Sri Lanka?

We will continue to use all avenues to make clear the importance of human rights in Sri Lanka and every other part of the Commonwealth.

We are all extremely concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka, and obviously a political solution is vital for all the people of that country. However, Sri Lanka is to start its process of political reform and reconciliation only after the 2010 election, so the Government there say. If minority communities are not to be disfranchised, the process must begin before the election. What more can the Government do to encourage that?

I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka on the day the civil war ended and said that this was the best opportunity for Sri Lanka to build an inclusive political settlement. There is no need to wait—the time is now. Outreach to the minority communities now, in advance of the election, will be critical to shaping how they engage with a future Sri Lankan Government.

The Foreign Secretary will know that it has been impossible for independent journalists to gain access to the detention camps. Will he press the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that there is free and unfettered access, so that the reports that we are hearing of wilful gang rapes by the Sri Lankan army of women abducted from those camps, and of the taking out of young men, can be brought to an end once and for all?

Yes, access to the camps, not just for journalists but for human rights organisations, is a fundamental part of the building of a peaceful and inclusive Sri Lankan political system.

Now that the EU has concluded that Sri Lanka is in breach of its human rights obligations under its trade agreement with the EU, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the UK will push for and support the suspension of the GSP plus trade benefits that Sri Lanka currently enjoys, and argue for that across the EU?

I must have disappointed the hon. Gentleman terribly when I answered that question in my original answer. I am sorry that he was not able to change his question after that.

I repeat that the European Commission has produced what is called a pre-report on GSP plus, and that our position is absolutely clear: Sri Lanka must respect its international human rights obligations to continue to benefit from GSP plus. The hon. Gentleman will know that when the Commission finally publishes its report, as opposed to its pre-report, there will be a maximum of two months before a final decision is taken. We will play a full part in ensuring respect for that principle.

With respect to the Foreign Secretary, he did not actually answer my question in his first remarks, and he failed to do so in that response. Are the UK Government going to push for the GSP plus trade benefits to be suspended in relation to Sri Lanka—yes or no?

I think, “Oh yes he did” is the answer that came both from the Opposition and some of the people sitting next to the hon. Gentleman. I think it is important that he recognises that on this issue, he can safely agree with what the Government are saying. A pre-report has been published. Our position on the human rights aspect is that there are 27 international agreements that countries wishing to benefit from GSP plus need to adhere to, including on critical issues to do with children’s rights, torture and so on. They must be adhered to for GSP plus to continue.

In the last few weeks of the conflict in Sri Lanka, Members on both sides of the House were horrified at the civilian casualties, which were the result both of action by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—use of children and the use of women as cover—and of indiscriminate fire by Sri Lankan Government forces. Have the Government been able to get any answer from the Sri Lankan Government on whether they intend to investigate allegations made against their forces? What pressure is the international community applying regarding war crimes?

I hope the hon. Gentleman saw the statement by Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, and President Rajapaksa following their meeting in Colombo—if he did not, I will certainly send it to him. The statement made clear the need for an accountability mechanism. It is certainly our determination in meetings with the UN Secretary-General and in meetings with the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that it is followed up. The hon. Gentleman referred to the international community. There is no better basis for the follow-up of allegations of war crimes than the agreement that the Sri Lankan President had with the UN Secretary-General.

Arab Peace Initiative

9. What recent discussions his Department has had with the Palestinian Authority on the Arab peace initiative; and if he will make a statement. (293910)

I visited the Palestinian territories in August, and met Ministers and the President’s chief of staff. The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, most recently on 12 October. All our discussions include the need for urgent progress towards a comprehensive peace in the middle east, with a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians underpinned by a broader peace between Israel and the entire Arab world.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. He may be aware that on 9 October, in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, King Abdullah of Jordan said:

“We have no alternative but to pursue a negotiated settlement that will meet Israel’s security needs and ensure it has normal relations in the region, and fulfils the Palestinians’ right to freedom and statehood.”

Given that the Israeli Government have not yet formulated a response to the Arab peace initiative, what more can Britain do to encourage them to support that initiative, which I think, frankly, gives an unprecedented opportunity for 57 nations to have normal relations with Israel in the context of a wider settlement?

What can I say, Mr. Speaker? My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I believe genuinely that this is the last best chance for peace in the middle east for a generation. We should give our full support to the initiative led by President Obama, particularly with the appointment of Senator Mitchell. This is now the time in the middle east for responsible and visionary leadership. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State laid out recently, the basis of the agreement is clear: a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state; resolving the issues of final borders, based on ’67 including issues of settlements and Jerusalem; justice for Palestinian refugees; and not simply recognition of Israel by the Arab world, but normalisation in relations towards Israel by the Arab world.

Will the Minister assure the House that the Foreign Office will encourage all Arab Governments of the continuing relevance and importance of the Arab peace initiative, and to back it not only with hard diplomacy, but with soft diplomacy aimed at the Israeli population?

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. It is important not only that we see justice for the Palestinians in terms of the Palestinian state, but that we give assurances to the Israeli people that their security will be protected should a two-state agreement be reached. That is why it is so important that the Arab world sends very clear and strong messages to terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah that they are obstacles to peace, and that they are not furthering the cause of a Palestinian state.

Turkey and Armenia

11. What assessment he has made of the implications for Government policy in the region of the conclusion of protocols on (a) development of relations and (b) establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia. (293912)

The Government welcome the signing of protocols between Armenia and Turkey. That is important not only for those countries, but for peace in the wider region.

What further steps can the Government take to encourage both Turkey and Armenia to ratify and implement these protocols, because the benefits will be immense for the region? We need to ensure that momentum in this process is maintained.

My hon. Friend is right: we need to ensure that ratification is proceeded with by the Parliaments, and two months after that it will be possible to open the border. That is such a significant change from the position that we were in only a few years ago that all Members will wholeheartedly welcome it. We remain committed to Turkey eventually being able to accede to the European Union, but it is impossible to have any leverage arguing that with German and French colleagues unless one sits down in the European Parliament with them, not with people who still refuse to apologise for the Latvian SS.

Refugee Camps (Chad)

12. What reports he has received on the security of female refugees from Darfur living in refugee camps in eastern Chad; and if he will make a statement. (293913)

We are understandably concerned by reports from the United Nations and non-governmental organisations highlighting the dangers that Darfuri women face in and around refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Amnesty’s report “No Place for Us Here” documents the worsening plight of the refugees who have fled since 2003 to eastern Chad where rape and other attacks are being committed against many women and girls with egregious impunity inside and outside the camps. Will my hon. Friend urgently raise this fundamental failure to protect innocent victims of the Darfur crisis with the Chadian ambassador and at United Nations level, because this shocking criminal violence must be stopped and the perpetrators indicted?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has not only agreed to be my assistant on this occasion, but has agreed to accede to my hon. Friend’s request to write to the UN about this incredibly important issue and raise the concerns of the British Government.

How do the Government intend to integrate UN resolution 1888 on women, peace and security into the existing framework of the national action plan on resolution 1325?

That is entirely consistent with the policies that the Government have promoted on this issue over a very long time, so the UK will be providing leadership on this.

Topical Questions

This afternoon, President Karzai has announced that in the light of the findings of the electoral complaints commission, he will embrace a second round run-off of the presidential elections in Afghanistan. We welcome that. Both he and Dr. Abdullah have been statesmanlike in accepting the prolonged electoral process and have secured support from across the country. Both have a major responsibility to ensure that the next stages are a credit to Afghanistan. The independent election commission is expected to make an announcement this afternoon on the details of the first round result, once it has collated the orders of the electoral complaints commission to exclude flawed ballots and include some quarantined ballots. The Afghan people and candidates have shown patience and resilience throughout this process and the UK will continue to support them as they bring it to a conclusion.

I also wish to place on record the thanks of the whole House not just to the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Kai Eide, for the unstinting work that he has done on this election, but to Senator John Kerry for his work over the past few days. I spoke to him on Saturday and Sunday, and he has made a signal contribution to the resolution of the process.

I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend has said. I wish him and our colleagues well in reaching a successful conclusion with a run-off.

Does my right hon. Friend have any comment to make about the complaint by the chief rabbi of Poland about the recent election of Michal Kaminski to the leadership of the Conservative group, given his neo-Nazi links? Does my right hon. Friend think that that was an appropriate election, supported as it was by the leaders of the Opposition in this country?

Order. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that in topical questions both the question and the answer must be brief. I do not want to cut people off, but I will if it is necessary to make progress.

The future of this country depends on wholehearted engagement in the European Union, making Britain’s case and ensuring that we are part of a mainstream majority. This Government are proud to be alongside 27 Governments and 26 opposition parties in saying that now is the time to put the Lisbon treaty into practice and to ensure that it benefits all the citizens of Europe. It is a great pity that the Conservative party is stuck in the past.

On that, it is a great pity that the Labour party broke an election promise that it made to the people of this country at the last election. However, I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will join me in welcoming today’s visit to Sarajevo by Carl Bildt and the US deputy Secretary of State. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, given the situation in Bosnia and what has happened in that country over the past 15 to 20 years, it would be premature to close the Office of the High Representative or to withdraw the EUFOR presence, and that the time might be coming when the carrot of EU accession for Bosnia and Herzegovina has to be accompanied by the stick of sanctions on those who would undermine its political progress?

The House should know that the real pity is that three times the right hon. Gentleman has refused to debate Europe with me on the BBC and Channel 4, because he knows that his arguments are completely threadbare. We stand ready to take questions about Europe—of which there are none—and to hold debates about Europe, which he refuses to have.

In respect of Bosnia, I spoke to Minister Bildt on Sunday about this important issue, and I agree that today’s meeting is important. The European orientation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a very important part of the package being worked on. However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also agree—I think that this is his position—that we must ensure proper conditionality in any switch from the OHR to the EU special representative.

Order. I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but I must say to Ministers that the abridged version, rather than the “War and Peace” version, will suffice. I call Judy Mallaber.

T2. Last week, I visited Bangladesh, which will be critically affected by climate change. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we weaken our political affiliations in Europe and with other countries by fringe activities such as joining fringe groups, we will be in a weaker position when trying to deal with issues such as getting agreements on climate change and other issues critical to UK interests? (293927)

Order. I ask the Minister to hold his horses for a moment. Mr. Simpson, you are very senior and experienced Member of this House. Chuntering away and bellowing from a sedentary position is not in order. You can behave so much better when you try.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to be able to deliver on some key issues for Britain, one of which is an agreement in Copenhagen later this year. It is impossible for us to do that without a stronger EU and our playing a stronger role within the EU. There are no fringe benefits to being on the fringe.

T5. From the Liberal Democrat Benches, may I encourage Ministers to be as positive as that answer about the post-Lisbon future? I ask that, in the interests of a Copenhagen deal that works and an economic future for Europe that delivers jobs, we work positively with all the other 26 countries and do not work on the margins, which will put us on the margins for the decades ahead. (293930)

I fear that I might have done a disservice to the Liberal Democrats and their allies around Europe. All 27 Governments around Europe, 26 opposition parties and all the Liberal parties in Europe are saying that now is time to put the constitutional arguments, and now the reform treaty arguments, behind us and to work for a stronger Europe. It is a great pity that only one party—this Conservative party—in the whole of Europe wants to fight the battles of the past. From now until election day, it will have to answer whether it is ready to live with the Lisbon treaty or determined to fight it on its own.

T3. It is now four years since the Iraqi Government took control of the assets of the Iraqi trade union movement. In the past week, they have seized even more control of the levers of power in the unions. Will the Secretary of State meet me and Iraqi trade unions to see whether we can find a way forward to give these people real support in a situation that should not be happening? (293928)

We believe in not only the rights of trade unions in this country, but in the rights of trade unions in Iraq. At the heart of the Iraqi constitution is the right to organise in a free trade union, and I would certainly enter into discussions with my hon. Friend about how we make this a reality. When I visit Iraq at some stage over the next few months, I shall raise the point directly with the Iraqi Government.

T6. What impact does Pakistan’s deep involvement in the Afghanistan conflict have on the prospect for a resolution of the long-running India-Pakistan dispute over the future of Kashmir? (293931)

The key to re-establishing the composite dialogue, which was so important in trying to establish better relations between India and Pakistan, is action in Pakistan on those associated with the Mumbai bombings. There is a real hunger in the Indian Government and among the Indian population to see real action from their Pakistani neighbours on that critical issue. However, the foundation of confidence needs to be proper prosecution and, if found guilty, sentencing of those who were associated—or allegedly associated—with the Mumbai murders.

T7. May I inform my right hon. Friend that many of my constituents are extremely concerned about the events taking place in Pakistan right now? This is a struggle that the Pakistani Government must win. What support are the Government offering Pakistan, both through what its troops are doing and on internally displaced people? (293932)

I am glad that my hon. Friend, who follows these issues carefully, gives me the chance to reflect with the House on the vital work being done in Pakistan. The Pakistani Government have long been urged to recognise that the multiple insurgencies that they face are a threat not just to them, but to overall regional peace and security. The armed efforts now being taken up by the Pakistani army in six of the districts in South Waziristan threaten a large number of refugees, but also offer the prospect that, for the first time, there will be a proper Pakistani Government security presence in those districts. It is of the utmost importance that we continue not only to offer political and humanitarian support, which is an essential part of our work with the internally displaced persons who will inevitably come with the conflict, but to engage with all Pakistani opinion on this vital issue.

T8. The Government are right to expend diplomatic efforts in trying to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability, but does the Foreign Secretary understand and accept that one of the issues that the Iranians rightly raise is the Israeli nuclear capability? What is his policy on that and will he encourage Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? (293933)

Yes, and I answered exactly the same question when my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) asked it at the beginning of questions today.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the appropriate response of the Israeli Government to the Arab peace offer would have been an unequivocal commitment to an immediate settlement freeze, as all the settlements are illegal under international law. What can be done to ensure that they do this now?

I agree with my hon. Friend. President Obama has made it clear that the trigger for comprehensive negotiations that will lead to a two-state solution are, first, the freezing of illegal Israeli settlements, which has long been the British position, and, secondly, a positive gesture towards the state of Israel from the Arab world. We believe that there is no time to waste in responding positively to President Obama’s initiative.

T9. Last year we provided £339 million in overseas development assistance to India. We even provided £97 million to China, but Afghanistan on the other hand received only £178 million. The brave men and women of our armed forces are fighting to defeat the Taliban. Should we not be providing more aid to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population? (293934)

We are providing more aid: Afghanistan is going to become the second largest recipient of British aid this year. It is also worth pointing out that, to put it mildly, Afghanistan is a much smaller country than China or India. By definition, the aid that we give to a country of 20 million people will be much less than our aid to some other countries. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Afghanistan will become the second largest aid recipient this year.

One small cause for optimism in the middle east is the security improvements on the west bank, which have been brought about by the Palestinian Authority finally getting a grip on security there and the Israelis responding by opening road blocks. Will the Foreign Secretary continue to provide full support and backing to General Dayton and his largely British team, who have done so much to bring about that improved state of affairs?

Yes, I have worked closely with General Dayton, who has done an important job, with support from his British No. 2. The commitment to improving Palestinian security was to be found in phase one of the road map, and the Israeli commitment was meant to be to freeze the settlements alongside that. The fact that the Palestinian Authority are determined to follow through on their commitment to improving Palestinian security is right, and it is also reaping dividends in the form of the economic benefits that can be seen by anyone who goes to Ramallah or anywhere else in the west bank.

I am mindful of the earlier exchanges about Sri Lanka and the work being done by the Government. Is it not therefore high time that we had a cast-iron programme from the Sri Lankan Government for the disbanding of those awful camps and the repatriation of the Tamil people?

Will my right hon. Friend tell me whether he thinks that the pressures on freedom of expression elsewhere in the world have an impact on our own freedoms of expression and our safety in the UK?

Freedom of expression, wherever it may be in the world, is a vital subject that we try to raise in many countries. Part of our diplomatic effort in Colombia, Russia, China and many parts of Africa involves trying to ensure that the freedoms that we rejoice in here in this country can be shared by people in other parts of the world.

Zimbabwe has fallen off the Foreign Office radar, yet the tragedy and the crisis there continue. What initiatives are the Government taking to try to bring some form of African democracy to that wonderful country?

I am glad to have the opportunity to assure the hon. Gentleman that Zimbabwe certainly has not fallen off our agenda. There is intensive work going on, not least through our contacts with the new South African Government, to ensure that the crisis that he has rightly described is not forgotten. He will also be aware of our continuing humanitarian work. The vital need, however, is to support the global political agreement and the transition that it promises to a proper election that will recognise the real winner of that election. He will have seen that members of a European Union delegation went to Harare and delivered a simple message without fear or favour to President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai. The message was that they would support the Zimbabwean people in delivering and administering that global political agreement, but that it must lead to an effective election to resolve the country’s future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any massacre, big or small, by whomever, of Jews during world war two was a crime against humanity? To whitewash such a massacre and to try to make it relative is intolerable, unacceptable politics, and those who associate with those politicians shame this House and our nation.

My right hon. Friend has done fantastic work with colleagues across every party on anti-Semitism and the need to combat it. There is no room for hair-splitting when it comes to the massacre of 300 or 400 people in a Polish village in 1941, and I would have thought that every single Member of this House would be able to condemn that atrocity without any hesitation.

T10. In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), the Foreign Secretary implied that our grand abstention was part of a cunning plan involving President Sarkozy. What was the plan? (293935)

The plan was very simple, and I would not describe it as cunning. I would describe it as principled and clear. It is to ensure that there is an independent inquiry into the allegations at the heart of the Goldstone report, that humanitarian aid gets into Gaza and that there is a restart of peace talks on the basis of President Obama’s UN General Assembly speech. That is something that the hon. Gentleman should be supporting, not mocking.

Transfer of Prisoners

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor if he will make a statement on the report from the chief inspector of prisons documenting the concerted movement of prisoners between Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons in order to avoid inspection.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for this question. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, Dame Anne Owers, has today published two inspection reports concerning Her Majesty’s prisons at Pentonville and Wandsworth. The inspections took place in May and June this year. The background to the chief inspector’s findings is contained in a written ministerial statement that I made to the House this morning. An investigation report was received by the senior management of the National Offender Management Service on 2 October. The report found that 11 prisoners had been subject to temporary transfers between Wandsworth and Pentonville, and that those transfers had been arranged in a deliberate attempt to undermine the inspection process of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons. Several of these prisoners were known to be vulnerable, and two harmed themselves during this process.

Following the receipt of the investigation reports, disciplinary charges under the Prison Service code of conduct were laid on 13 October against a number of individuals. Proceedings are currently under way. The House will understand that such disciplinary proceedings are not a matter in which Ministers can or should be involved.

The prisons and probation ombudsman and Her Majesty’s coroner are conducting separate investigations into the self-inflicted death of another prisoner transferred to Pentonville, following a court appearance, in the week before the Wandsworth inspection. The prisoner was held at Pentonville during the inspection, before being returned to Wandsworth. During the course of the investigations, information emerged to suggest that a third prison, HMP Brixton, temporarily transferred prisoners out during its inspection. A further investigation is now being completed and we are awaiting a formal report.

There are obviously questions as to whether these practices are more widespread across the prison estate. I have therefore asked Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons to work with the Ministry of Justice’s director of analytical services to investigate whether the temporary transfer of prisoners prior to inspections has occurred in other prisons.

The transfer of prisoners like this, in a deliberate attempt to undermine the inspectorate process of HM’s chief inspector of prisons, was a disgraceful matter in both its intent and its execution. The individuals involved neglected one of their primary duties—to treat those in custody with decency and respect—and made serious errors of judgment, which are neither justifiable nor excusable. But for these transfers, these two prisons were

“en route to get good inspection reports”,

as Dame Anne Owers, the chief inspector, commented this morning. She added that

“inspection has nothing to do with performance targets”.

Independent inspections and Prison Service performance standards, along with substantial investment, have led to a transformation in the nature of prison regimes over the past 12 years. Her Majesty’s chief inspector has acknowledged that prisons today are more decent, more constructive and considerably more secure, which is yet another reason why these incidents are all the more inexcusable and regrettable. I will, of course, keep the House informed of further developments.

The report by the chief inspector of prisons and the answer just given to my question today show that prisoners have been transferred from Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons with the collusion of senior staff and the deliberate intention of avoiding independent inspection without any regard for those prisoners’ well-being. Dame Anne Owers concludes that this was

“irresponsible, pointless and potentially dangerous”.

She is clearly right, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State agrees.

Those responsible face a disciplinary process. That, too, is right. We will await the outcome and I certainly do not wish to prejudice such proceedings today. However, if the Prison Service takes responsibility for its mistakes, will the Justice Secretary take responsibility for the failings in the prison system that are bringing this state of affairs about? The truth is that this type of incident, while totally inexcusable, is an almost inevitable result of this Government’s serial mismanagement of our prisons.

Prison overcrowding is at record levels. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that in May, at the time of the inspections, Wandsworth prison was holding 50 per cent. more prisoners than its certified capacity—just seven away from its absolute emergency breaking point? Is it fair to limit responsibility to prison staff when the Government have recklessly ignored all the warnings over a period of six years that predicted this crisis of capacity in our prisons today, which was bound to impact on how individual prisoners are managed?

The Justice Secretary seems to believe that targets can make up for this most basic failure to provide enough places for all the prisoners. Both Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons are subject to 44 different top-down targets, including one for the amount of water drunk and another for energy efficiency. In the first quarter of this year, as the Secretary of State said, Wandsworth prison was evaluated as “good”, yet at the same time we have these serious failings.

Does the Justice Secretary accept that we are witnessing the stark reality of the warping effect in the real world of excessive Whitehall targets set by this Government? Does he accept that prison officers would not go to such extraordinary lengths to dupe inspectors if the Government lived up to their responsibilities, and created the conditions in which they can work properly?

Then there are the specific findings of the chief inspector: the deliberate moving of vulnerable prisoners prone to self-harm which definitely led some of them to injure themselves, and the fact that two of the five prisoners from Wandsworth tried to kill themselves when told that they would be moved. One tied a ligature around his own neck and cut himself. He was forced from his cell in his underwear.

Does the Justice Secretary recognise that those appalling and utterly avoidable examples of mistreatment are the consequences of a prison estate that is bursting at the seams? Will he undertake to come to the House and make an oral statement once we have the ombudsman’s findings on the tragic suicide of Christopher Wardally? Will he take some responsibility?

These are not isolated examples. As a result of the conditions in our prisons, incidents of self-harm rose by 10 per cent. last year. What hope can we have of reducing reoffending rates to protect the public when increasing numbers of prisoners are so desperate that they will harm themselves? [Interruption.] Did the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) wish to intervene?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman takes this matter so seriously, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Justice Secretary accept that the Government’s usual tactic of trying to characterise the transfers and the problems as being isolated incidents simply does not wash from what we know happened at Brixton? Will he give the House an undertaking to publish, in a written statement, a list of all prisoner transfers made within a week before inspections were due in all prisons in the last six months? That will at least give us some measure of transparency, given that there must be fears that this may in fact be a widespread practice. Although the Secretary of State has known about the matter for some time—since July—Wandsworth remains as crowded as it was back in May.

This is a Government who are on their last legs. They are exhausted, and they are bereft of solutions to problems that are entirely of their own making.

Let me respond to the series of questions asked by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

I have always taken responsibility for the prison system, and any other matter falling within my wide responsibilities as a Minister, in every Department in which I have been involved. However, there is no evidence so far—none whatsoever—that these totally unacceptable and inexcusable transfers have anything to do with the setting and maintenance of targets, or with overcrowding in prisons.

I accept, and volunteered in my statement—indeed, it was I who proposed it in the first place—that, given the evidence here, and the evidence that we have that something may have happened in Brixton, and we know no more than that, there are bound to be questions about whether the practice was widespread. That is why I have set up an independent investigation in which the chief inspector of prisons’ staff will be involved alongside my staff, who, I may say, are separate from the staff of the National Offender Management Service. However, both the director general of the Prison Service—who is as appalled about this as anyone—and the chief inspector of prisons themselves said today words to the effect that they doubt that the practice is widespread, and so far there is no evidence that it is. I promise the House, of course, that any evidence that emerges from the analysis that we are conducting will be made available to the House, and that, if there is any evidence, it will be followed up rigorously.

As for the number of prisoners in Wandsworth prison on the day of their inspections, two measures are applied, certified normal accommodation and operational capacity. No local prison in the country has ever been at its certified normal accommodation level. All work, and have under successive Governments, to their operational capacity. Wandsworth was just under it, and Pentonville was 84 under it.

On the hyperbole about targets, after years of absolute chaos in the prisons under the previous Administration—for example, escapes were running at more per week than happened last in a single year—it was they who established targets: eight key performance indicators and eight targets. There are now 13 targets for prisons, including on such matters as escapes, drugs, reoffending, staff sickness and ethnic minority staff. I would like the hon. and learned Gentleman to tell us which of them he suggests we should not meet.

As for overcrowding—

Order. May I gently say to the Secretary of State that if he could offer us a brief distillation of his views, that would be appreciated?

Order. So far, the exchanges between the Front Benches have simply taken too long. If that happens again, I will cut them off, as we must get Back Benchers in.

As for the timing, I was informed of this on 30 July. I issued a public statement immediately, and I also wrote to the hon. and learned Gentleman on 2 September.

What appears to have happened is, indeed, disgraceful, and it is particularly disturbing that the members of staff involved were of such high rank and of such previous high reputation. However, does the Secretary of State not feel some twinge of guilt about what happened? He says there is no connection between this and overcrowding, but the connection is as follows: because of overcrowding, every day there are massive transfers from prison to prison within the prison system, and presumably that is where the idea arose of hiding these problems behind transfers. The second thing he should feel some responsibility for is the fact that the prisons are full of inmates who suffer from mental illnesses—serious mental illnesses in many cases. There is a far higher proportion of people with mental illnesses among the prisoner population than among the population at large. We have been given to believe that some of the inmates concerned in this case were suffering from mental illness. Will the Secretary of State confirm that?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the overcrowding of the prisons and the fact that they are full of mentally ill prisoners is in the end the responsibility of the Government, who have encouraged both the greater use of prison and the increasing of prison sentences in a vain attempt to win a punitive war of attrition with the main Opposition party? Does he not see that this incident is a cause for soul searching not only in the Prison Service, but at the highest level of politics?

These are local prisons, and there is always a substantial movement in and out of any local prison. Local prisons, especially those in London, are very difficult to manage and I pay tribute to the staff. That has always been the case, but we have engaged in a massive building programme and so far—touch wood—we have kept prisoners out of police cells for at least the last year. Should the main Opposition party wish to trade stories about the state of our prisons, I can say that on any measure they are now in infinitely better state than they were under the previous Administration.

On the hon. Gentleman’s key point about mental illness, I accept that there are far too many prisoners in prison who ought to be in hospital because of their mental health problems. That is why we set up the Bradley review, the findings of which we are now seeking to implement.

Pursuing the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), ought it not to be a much clearer objective of the prison system that prisoners are assigned to, and kept in, institutions with regimes that have the capacity to reduce their likelihood of reoffending? Does the Secretary of State recognise that a lot of the time that is not happening, which is why such disgraceful transfers might not have been so obvious?

We do, indeed, seek to transfer prisoners whose sentences are of reasonable length to fulfil the major part of their sentence in institutions that might help to reduce their reoffending. I also say to the right hon. Gentleman that reoffending rates have significantly improved, not least as a result of some of the targets we have set. The problem in some of these cases is that these were prisoners who had to go to court. That is the purpose of a local prison. Such prisoners cannot be held miles away from the court they are attending.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that by indulging in these transfers the senior management have not only betrayed the prisoners and the trust we have put in them to treat prisoners properly and fairly, but have also completely eclipsed the hard work of prison officers who, in fact, have been improving conditions in the two prisons concerned?

May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), in whose constituency Pentonville prison lies? I know of her great concern about the prison and her great commitment to the work of the staff. On her overall point, I entirely agree with her; one of the tragedies of what has happened is that, as Dame Anne Owers has said, all the good work and the improvement in progress, which was specified in the reports and which the Opposition failed to acknowledge, has been eclipsed by this terrible series of incidents.

May I say to the Secretary of State that the real concern is that the practice is very widespread? Will the inquiry look into that? Will it also examine the role of the medical staff who have been involved? Will he alert the independent monitoring boards of each prison to address this particular question?

On the issue of whether the practice is widespread, that is obviously a question for all of us—it was the first question that I asked. That is why I have set up this detailed investigation, which will look, first, at the transfer records for each prison that has had an announced inspection to check whether any prisoners were shipped out and shipped back again—that will be the key indicator. If any such prisoners are found, further investigations will be carried out. I also accept what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says about medical staff.

We do not yet know whether these transfers contributed to a prisoner killing himself, but would the Lord Chancellor agree to report to this House, following the report of the prisons ombudsman and the coroner’s report, on whether that was the case in this instance and on the number of prisoners up and down the country who are killing themselves while they are in our prisons?

On the specific issue, the reports of the prisons and probation ombudsman are normally published. The publication of this report is a matter for the ombudsman, not for me, however, I fully understand the concern of the House to see the report. An inquest will also take place, probably after that. It is entirely appropriate that that should take place before any announcement is made to the House, but I will, of course, keep the House properly informed. Any suicide in prison is deeply to be regretted, but I just say to the House that the number for last year, 60, is lower—the figure fluctuates considerably—than it has been since 1997.

If there is to be further investigation into any other possible occurrences of transfers related to the inspections, how will such transfers be identified and separated from the more routine transfers that take place when prisoners are making court appearances, which so often lead to their curtailing any education or training courses in which they are involved?

I am quite clear that those who are doing the investigation will, from their knowledge, be able to spot why a transfer took place. If a transfer took place from Wandsworth, Pentonville, Brixton or any other prison to a court—this happens every day—it is perfectly obvious why the person was transferred. On the other hand, if there was a transfer to a court and then a transfer to a different prison, and the original prison was being subject to inspection, that would trigger a warning light. This process of investigation will give a very good indication of whether, prima facie, this practice has been going on. I must say that the director general of the Prison Service, Phil Wheatley, and his senior staff, as well as the chief inspector and I, are totally and utterly committed to checking and checking again as to whether this practice has been going on at any other prison. As Mr. Wheatley said this morning, he has been a prison governor and in his experience, he has never come across such practice, but we may have to live and learn.

I spoke to the governor of HMP Wellingborough this morning. He was aghast at the practice and confirmed that it had never happened in Wellingborough. Will the Lord Chancellor explain to me why the inspections are announced in advance and why the inspectors do not just turn up?

Some inspections are announced in advance and a great many are done unannounced. This is a matter for the chief inspector of prisons. I understand that her view is that having announced inspections provides an opportunity for the prison to ensure that it is in good order and to meet objectives previously set. She does not inspect to targets—she has made that clear—but she inspects to key indicators of what she describes as a “healthy” prison. At the same time, the inspectorate does use—I believe that it uses these more than formal, announced inspections—unannounced inspections. How the chief inspector does it is entirely a matter for her, but I think that the whole House will wish to place on record its thanks to her; it was in an announced inspection that this situation emerged.

The other point that I would simply make to all those Members who have asked whether such activity is more widespread than the current examples is that the information about these transfers emerged through complaints that prisoners made to their lawyers. Prisoners are fully entitled to write to their lawyers, to the ombudsman, to HM inspectorate of prisons and to Members of this House confidentially and without that information or those letters being seen by the prison staff. We can rest assured, given the publicity that has been given to this matter, that if further prisoners feel that they have been subject to such unacceptable transfers we will know one way or another.

Royal Mail

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to repeat a statement made by my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills about the decision of the Communication Workers Union to take national industrial action later this week.

No one is in doubt about the damage that such industrial action will cause, but those who advocate strike action have not been clear about why it is threatened. The dispute at the Royal Mail is about modernisation, which has been the subject of localised strikes, particularly in London, for many months. We know from the Hooper review on postal services about the company’s need to change and reform in the face of a postal market that is being transformed as people switch to text, e-mail and direct debit, and as the growing area of mail, which is parcels, offers a variety of alternative operators from which to choose.

Royal Mail has to respond to the fact that 10 million fewer letters are posted each day than were posted three years ago, and that total mail volumes have fallen by a further 8 per cent. in the first half of this year. In other words, if it stands still, the company faces terminal decline. Following a national strike two years ago, the union—the CWU—and management reached a national agreement on pay and modernisation. The agreement set a framework of four phases for bringing essential change to Royal Mail. The first three have been introduced throughout the country but are being resisted in some places, which I will come to shortly. The changes have involved the introduction of more walk-sorting machines and new working practices including expecting employees to do the full number of hours that they are paid to work.

Phase four, the next phase of modernisation, is yet to be agreed in substance rather than outline and will be about a new framework for improving industrial relations. That will include introducing walk-sequencing machines to sort the postal delivery round and developing new business opportunities along with a new system for rewarding employees.

In the majority of Royal Mail’s workplaces, phases one to three of the national agreement have been implemented without any local industrial action being mounted. Outdated working practices have been replaced and efficiency is being improved, but in other parts of the country—most notably in London—there has been repeated non-co-operation and industrial action to frustrate the agreement’s implementation. It is claimed by union representatives that in London the management are unilaterally imposing change that goes beyond the 2007 agreement’s first three phases. Management contest that, pointing out that all that London is being asked to accept is what everyone else in the country is delivering under the first three phases. It is those local disputes that have now escalated into the threatened national strike.

I very much regret what is happening and, to put it candidly, we think that it is totally self-defeating for our postal services and for those who work in them. Taking industrial action will not resolve the dispute; it will serve only to drive more customers away from Royal Mail. In the delivery of parcels—where there would otherwise be a prospect of growth—Royal Mail’s reputation for reliability could be irrevocably damaged and in the delivery of letters such action will lead to a further twist in the downward spiral of mail volumes. Business will be quick to recognise that, while one can picket a delivery office to stop the service or refuse to deliver letters, one cannot picket the ever present internet.

Royal Mail’s small business customers will look on with anger and exasperation. Just as there are signs of the economy recovering and the prospects for their businesses improving, strikes now will set them back and put their businesses in jeopardy. Royal Mail’s finances will be plunged into the red. Last year, out of a £6.7 billion mail business turnover, the company made less than 1 per cent profit. One thing that the company cannot afford is strikes and industrial action.

Change in a big organisation is never easy, but for the Royal Mail it is unavoidable. Let me make it clear that, contrary to what some may say, the dispute is not about pensions. The trustees are engaged in their periodic assessment of the pensions deficit and, lest there be any doubt, let me make it clear that the Government’s policy on the pensions deficit will not be dictated by strike action. The Government were prepared to take on the pensions deficit as part of a package of modernising measures set out in the Postal Services Bill. Sadly, however, the CWU did not support those proposals.

When it comes to financing, the Government and the taxpayer have not held back. We have made available £1.2 billion to finance a modernisation and investment programme, and that remains on the table.

We are, of course, in frequent contact with both management and the union. They have continued talking today, and we strongly welcome that. Our message to them has been clear: put your customers first; strikes are not the way to resolve differences or safeguard the future of our postal services.

The Royal Mail needs management and unions to have a relentless focus on turning it into an efficient, modern postal company, protecting as many jobs as possible and providing customers with the services that they need. Both sides should put behind them, once and for all, the endless cycle of disputes. We will, of course, continue to encourage a settlement, but we cannot impose good industrial relations on the company, or disinvent the internet. An independent third party may well be needed to help the two sides resolve their differences. ACAS is engaged, but we have to be realistic: it will be far easier for ACAS to play an effective role if the threat of a national strike is lifted.

The Government are ensuring that vital services to the public, especially those who are most vulnerable, are maintained. If necessary, the Department for Work and Pensions will implement plans to ensure that the small minority of pensioners and others on benefits who still receive their cheques in the post will be able to pick them up from their nearest post office. If the disruption is prolonged, the Department of Health and NHS trusts will make alternative arrangements to transport appointment notifications, blood samples and test results.

We urge both sides to make every effort to avoid damaging industrial action and to resolve this dispute. That is what is in the interests of the Royal Mail, its employees and its customers. I commend this statement to the House.

First, I join the Minister in hoping that management and trade unions find some way of resolving the dispute and avoiding a totally suicidal strike. They should return to the previously agreed programme of modernisation as quickly as possible, in the interests of both the customers and staff of Royal Mail.

Does the Minister agree that we should welcome the management’s announcement that, if necessary, they will recruit temporary staff to maintain the service to customers? Many small businesses would be threatened by a continued dispute, and of course the possibility of disruption to the Christmas mail looms before us. I hope that he will welcome the management’s decision in that regard.

The Minister’s statement was factually accurate, but surely he does not think that he can wave away the Government’s involvement in this matter. Is it not plain that it was the Government’s weakness in conceding on their policy of part-privatising Royal Mail that almost immediately encouraged the Communication Workers Union to believe that it could move to reopen the two-year-old deal on modernisation and contemplate strike action? There seems to be a clear relationship between the two.

I welcome the continued commitment to the recommendations of the Hooper report, which we share, and the three key proposals which have to go together if they are to proceed at all. I hope the Minister can reassure me that that resolution to the existing policy will be maintained in the face of the undoubted pressures that he will come under if a strike goes on. After the cave-in on the Bill, can he reassure me that his weak Prime Minister will not next induce him to start taking apart the Hooper recommendations and making concessions to those who are challenging the modernisation programme?

As the Minister said in his statement—this is a stark remark—if the company stands still, it faces terminal decline. Is it acceptable in the face of such a dramatic remark for the Minister to admit that the Government have no policy, are proceeding with no Bill, and are capable of doing nothing as the service looks likely to face a risk of terminal decline? Does he agree that if things continue in this way—I do not blame him personally; I am sure it is the Prime Minister and the majority of the Cabinet who are responsible for this frozen impasse—he will leave to the next Government after the election in May whatever wreckage remains of an extremely important public service and the mail system of this country? He seemed powerless to do anything about it.

Finally, would it be fair to regard the issue, as I regard it, as a symbol of the Government’s continuing inability to modernise and reform our great public services? Do not the facts as set out in the Minister’s statement show that on that front this dying Government are weak, impotent, powerless and, like most members of the public, a horrified spectator of events as they unfold in the Royal Mail, over which they no longer have any control and for which they can no longer take any responsibility?

There is, of course, nothing new about the Royal Mail hiring temporary staff at this time of year. It does that every year. This year it is hiring more because of the situation that it faces.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about Government involvement. The Government have put up £1.2 billion to finance the modernisation that is at the heart of the dispute. Far from that being delayed or held back by the dispute, we want to see it proceed because that is in the interests of the Royal Mail and its workers. What we cannot do is impose on the company the productive industrial relations that are needed for that to happen. In the end, ACAS involvement or not, that must be down to management and unions working through the issues that are needed to take modernisation forward.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about the Postal Services Bill. I note his party’s position, as set out in the Financial Times this morning. We said that we would not proceed with the Bill at this time owing to market conditions, and that is precisely what his party set out as its position in the Financial Times this morning. It too would want to test the market before proceeding with the Bill. I note his position on that, as set out this morning.

I am grateful to the Minister for the courtesy of an advance copy of his statement.

As the Minister made clear, Royal Mail is no longer the essential business tool that it once was. The combination of electronic communications, growth in parcel delivery services and competition for business mail means that Royal Mail has a future only if it becomes competitive in that new environment. The present dispute will not assist that goal. It may, indeed, hasten the demise of Royal Mail by precipitating a flight to other suppliers.

Does the Minister agree that many larger businesses have already announced plans to place contracts with alternative suppliers, but that others which are less able to do so are particularly vulnerable, and that this dispute will have a disproportionate effect on them? I refer, in particular, to small businesses, some of our most vulnerable citizens and people in rural areas, all of whom have the least alternative choice. Does the Minister agree that a prolonged dispute poses a clear and present danger to the universal service obligation? What steps will the Government take to ensure its survival?

The Minister has assured us that benefits payments by the Department for Work and Pensions will, for those in receipt, be available at post offices. Will he give similar assurances regarding winter fuel payments, which are coming up shortly? What about the volume of mail that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs sends out on tax credits, and its other correspondence? Will the Minister confirm that the Government plan to seek alternative suppliers in the private sector for their own postal business? What assessment has been made of the impact of that decision on Royal Mail’s future?

Part of the reason why we are in this situation is the stalled legislation. The Minister well knows that I would not have begun it, but he must now accept that having started and then stopped is worse than not having started in the first place.

I shall try to go through the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. He is absolutely right that the world has changed and people have communications alternatives. That stark fact should concentrate everyone’s minds as they stand on the threshold of the dispute. It is why, indeed, a strike would be so tragic for our postal service and those who work in it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the switch from mail, and, as I said in my statement, there is already a highly developed market in parcels. High street retail chains already, sadly, carry adverts saying, “Fed up with postal strikes? We don’t use the Royal Mail”, and I fear that we will simply see more of that if the strike goes ahead.

Some 50 companies account for some 40 per cent. of the mail that is posted by letter every day. If a major shift is made by those companies, away from mail to paperless billing and greater incentives for direct debit payment, it could do permanent damage to Royal Mail’s prospects. Again, my fear is that industrial action would only make such a shift more likely.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the delivery of pensions and benefits. Those sent through the post are now a fairly small minority; most are paid either directly into bank accounts or through the Post Office card account. As I said, for the minority who still receive benefits through the post, the Department for Work and Pensions will make arrangements to try to ensure that people do not lose out on the money to which they are entitled.

As a former postal services Minister, I must say that we have been 12 years in coming to this point, and it is really important that a Sir George Bain-type figure is appointed to negotiate a settlement—negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Why? Because front-line staff and customers in every one of our constituencies deserve better. If people give up the skill, knowledge and commitment to negotiate, they will be as much use as a chocolate fireguard at defending their members’ interests or the company’s long-term interests. I ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that the management and the union get around the table to resolve the issue to ensure that the company and its front-line staff have a future, and that its customers can get on with their business.

My right hon. Friend makes his point very effectively. On third party involvement, ACAS is engaged, but I believe that it would be far better able to carry out the very effective role that it often can carry out if the threat of industrial action were lifted. ACAS stands ready to give assistance in the dispute, and, if the management and union believe that that would be effective, the service is available.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: in the end, whatever the involvement of a third party, it will be down to the management and the union to work out for Royal Mail a future that gets away from the pattern, seen not just once but consistently, of localised disputes, time and time again, over changes that would be normal practice in other parts of industry.

Order. About 20 Members are seeking to catch my eye. There is important business to follow in the form of the Second Reading debate, so once again I am looking for single, short supplementary questions and brief replies.

Does not the Minister see that the uncertain note that the Government have sounded about the future of the Postal Services Bill must have contributed to the decision of the Communication Workers Union to threaten industrial action? Can he therefore clarify the future of that Bill, which is still languishing under remaining orders on the Order Paper? That would also have the benefit of clarifying the limbo into which Postcomm and Ofcom have been thrown by the delay to the Bill.

During discussions on the Hooper package we were told time and again that there was no need for some of the reforms suggested in it because everyone was up for change. Yet since the Government said that we would not proceed with the Bill at this stage, we have seen not change but a return to the destructive pattern of industrial disputes over change and modernisation in the postal service. There was an opportunity for those who disagreed with the Hooper package to show that change could be delivered, but that opportunity has not been taken up; in fact, the very opposite has happened.

On regulation, we will encourage a closer working together of Postcomm and Ofcom, because the postal service must be seen in the light of the wider communications market. To go back to the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), there are alternatives, and we are all using them every day.

If Royal Mail’s case is so strong, why is it not prepared to go to arbitration? Why is it saying that it will consider it only if the union calls off the strike? That is silly playground posturing. It should get to arbitration, and arbitration should be binding on both sides. This is causing misery for businesses and people up and down the country, and the Government are washing their hands of it. Get in and sort this out!

It is absolutely not the case that the Government are washing their hands of this dispute. We remain in regular contact with the union and the management. Ministers have met union representatives twice in recent weeks, and we are also in regular contact with the management. As I said, ACAS is engaged and stands ready to help, but of course it is easier for it to play a constructive role if the threat of industrial action is lifted.

Does the Minister have any idea how many postal workers, particularly in London, have second jobs? It is the threat that they might have to work a full shift for which they are paid that is adding to the militancy. [Interruption.]

It is certainly true that one of the changes agreed in the 2007 agreement is that, instead of the previous practice, which was known as job and finish and sometimes meant people going home a couple of hours before the end of the hours for which they were paid, postal workers would work the hours for which they were paid, which might also mean being more flexible about how they went about their job during that period.

The Minister, in his disappointingly one-sided statement, talked about the need for productive industrial relations. How can there possibly be productive industrial relations with a management who sabotaged the fourth phase of the agreement and who he knows, in his heart of hearts, have no commitment to keeping the service in the public sector and want to privatise it so that they can put money in their own pockets?

Discussions about phase four of the agreement are continuing. That is absolutely essential, because in many ways phase four is more important than phases one to three. Phase four is about the large-scale introduction of walk-sequencing machines that will sort the round by post and, if that change is introduced successfully, place Royal Mail on a par with some of the more modernised postal services elsewhere in Europe.

Even without yet having had the impact of strike action we have had the alarming news in Scotland that one of the major public sector contracts—the Procurement Scotland contract, which deals with mail to the NHS, colleges and most councils in Scotland—is going to be given to a private sector operator. What can the Minister do to ensure that the haemorrhaging of business from private businesses, to which he referred, does not spread to the public sector?

Competition exists in the postal service, and it will not go away and cannot be wished away. I want a Royal Mail that is fit to win in that market, rather than one that simply wishes competition to go away. The most fundamental challenge to Royal Mail is not competition from other mail companies but competition from other communications technologies. That must lie at the heart of the response to the threatened dispute.

Everyone listening to the statement will have greeted it with dismay and anger. As long as the Royal Mail is in public ownership, what is done is done in the Government’s name. We are talking not about the Premiership but about a precious public institution, so will the Minister instruct Adam Crozier to go to ACAS and get a negotiated solution?

The dismay and anger will be on the part of the public, who cannot understand why a strike should proceed. I have seen a number of interviews about the dispute with spokespeople in recent days, and although various grievances have been outlined, no clear reason has been given why the country, the economy and the public should be facing a national postal strike this week. ACAS is ready to play a role, but it will be far better able to do so if the threat of industrial action is lifted.

Concern is growing that the Secretary of State is deliberately antagonising the union to commit suicide, to pave the way for full privatisation on the basis that privatising a third of the business is almost impossible to achieve. Will the Minister explain why that concern is not justified?

We have been clear throughout that we will keep Royal Mail in the public sector, and there is no hidden agenda to privatise it. We made that clear throughout the debates on the Hooper report.

Further to that point, I am glad to note what the Minister says about the Government’s intentions, but is he aware that there is an underlying fear among postal workers that the long-term objective of management is to privatise and casualise the industry? Can he say anything to allay the fears of the work force on that point?

The best way to allay the fears of the work force is to have a secure agreement about the modernisation of Royal Mail that is implemented. Whether or not third parties are involved, that is what must come out of this. The tragedy is that we could achieve that without a national dispute and the damage that it causes.

The Minister is, I know, aware that the closure of the Crewe mail centre would result in significant job losses that could equate in the current climate to an increase in local jobseeker’s allowance claimants of 25 per cent. Does he agree that, for the sake of local employment in a recession, it is important that we separate the original review of the mail centre network from the current dispute?

I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should put the issue of mail centres on ice. We have pretty much the same number of centres around the country as we had before the internet was invented. I do not know whether he heard what I said in my statement about the fall in mail volumes, but of course that will mean changes to mail centres. I appreciate the effect that that can have in an area if it loses its mail centre, but I have to disagree with him because it would be wrong for the Government to instruct Royal Mail that it had to keep the same number of mail centres for ever and a day when it is trying to introduce change throughout the rest of the company.

I declare an interest: as somebody who was a CWU member for 21 years, I am perhaps not as unbiased as some.

The Post Office and Royal Mail management have been known for years as not being able to get on with their work force, yet we have done nothing about it. We saw on television last Sunday a document come into the public domain that was intended to inflame the situation. Now they are talking about increasing the number of part-time workers, inflaming it even more. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is time that they sat down, took away such inflammatory ideas and reached a proper negotiated settlement? If ACAS has to be part of that, let us help ACAS rather than use the strike as an excuse.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there has been a history of poor industrial relations in Royal Mail. Not only did we have a national strike two years ago and various local disputes in between, leading up to the current situation, but poor industrial relations have been a constant feature of the attempt to introduce change in the company.

My hon. Friend referred to a story that was in the media over the weekend. Let me read out Royal Mail’s statement on the story:

“The contents of the e-mail sent to us by Newsnight do not reflect Royal Mail’s policy, strategy or position in relation to the current dispute with the CWU…No member of the board or the senior management team at Royal Mail has seen, or is aware of any such presentation…For the avoidance of any doubt Royal Mail has never had any strategy to derecognise the CWU and nor would we seek to do so.”

Will the Minister give an undertaking that any mail that moves to the private sector during the dispute will return 100 per cent. and immediately to Royal Mail at the end of the dispute? Will the Government get off their butt and actually get in touch with Adam Crozier and the management?

Order. May I just gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced Member, that one question means one question?

There is no question of our not being in touch with those involved in the dispute. As I said, we have been in regular touch with people on both sides of it. On the question of lost business, the fear for Royal Mail is that people have alternatives. If the company’s service is constantly threatened by strike action, the likelihood is that people will use alternatives. I believe that that is tragic for Royal Mail, for our postal service and for the good men and women who work in it.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that everyone should do what they can to cool this down. If that is the case, why does he think that the management of Royal Mail have told workers today that if they attend the picket line on their day off, they will be deducted a day’s pay? Is that the way to promote good industrial relations?

I am not aware of the announcement to which my hon. Friend refers. I agree that cool heads are probably required in this situation, because if the strike goes ahead, it will not be in the interests of Royal Mail or those who work in it.

Will the right hon. Gentleman take every opportunity to impress upon trade union leaders that in view of the changes in technology and information communication their only future lies in accepting fundamental and continuing change, and that being so, they do not enjoy public support?

The frustration of the situation is that everyone says that they are up for change in the face of the technological revolution to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers, but when it comes down to it, attempts to implement change are constantly frustrated by disputes. It is absolutely true that Royal Mail and its workers must get beyond that pattern if we are to have a prosperous postal service in future and to maintain the universal service that, as a social glue, is so important to the whole country.

Is the Minister aware that it takes two sides to cause a dispute? Is he aware that the ballot result was 70 per cent. in favour? That is democracy, and it is set against employers who have inflamed the situation by deciding to recruit 30,000 agency workers. I know which side I am on. I am on the side of those who deliver the mail.

My understanding is that the 30,000 people recruited are not agency workers, but that they are directly hired, as Royal Mail hires every year. My hon. Friend is absolutely right—I have huge respect for him—that it will take two sides to negotiate a proper solution.

Talks are taking place today—I said this in my statement—and we welcome that. We hope even at this late stage that a settlement is possible without the damaging industrial action that has been threatened. My message to both sides is this: keep talking, keep focusing on the public, keep focusing on the small businesses that depend on Royal Mail and try to avoid the strike action threatened for later this week.

I was disappointed by how little the Minister had to say about the protection of the everyday consumer. With that in mind, does he rule out this Government removing the last vestiges of the monopoly that Royal Mail has enjoyed, to the detriment of so many of the consumers who have relied on that service?

Royal Mail does not have a monopoly, and that is the point that I am making. It operates in a competitive environment, and if a strike goes ahead, those who can use alternatives will be more likely to do so. That will be damaging for Royal Mail and it will also damage those who work for it. That is why a strike would be self-defeating, and we should do all that we can to avoid it.

Is the Minister aware that in Islington an agreement was reached under which there would be cuts in staff numbers and changes in working practices to pave the way for more machinery—but that the difficulty was that national management walked in and tore that agreement up? That is why the workers there are on strike.

The allegation in London by the union is that management have gone beyond the agreement reached in 2007. Management contests that and says that all that London is being expected to implement are the changes that have already been accepted and implemented throughout the country. It is precisely that point about which the two sides are meeting as we speak, to talk it through and try to avoid industrial action later this week.

Earlier, the Minister skilfully dodged one of the questions asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). Will he make it clear whether he thinks that the 30,000 temporary staff being hired by Royal Mail are a good thing or a bad thing?

The Minister must know that parts of the statement that he has made today, and the one that has been made in the House of Lords, will be contested by the union. How does he think that that is helpful in this situation, and can Ministers not move beyond providing questionable commentary in the House and get the union and the company into the same room at the same time, with the Government?

As I said, we have remained in constant touch with both sides and we have urged them to focus on the public—the people who depend on Royal Mail—and avoid strike action. Of course we stand ready to help in any way we can, but we cannot impose good industrial relations on a company that has a history of going on strike whenever an attempt is made to implement change.

Morale among postal workers is at a very low ebb; that is why there was such a strong vote in favour of strike action by people who know that a strike would be disastrous. In that context, is it not right and proper for us to insist on mediation that brings union and management into the same room, to work and work until there are some common grounds for agreement? They will not do that on their own, because there is no trust between the management and the union.

There has been a history of third party involvement in Royal Mail. Some years ago, Lord Sawyer carried out an inquiry into industrial relations in the Royal Mail, and George Bain and others have also examined the company in the past. There has been no shortage of third party involvement. ACAS stands ready to play a role if both parties think that that would be helpful. I am sure that ACAS would be able to play a productive role, but that would have a far better chance of working if the threat of industrial action were lifted.

Is it not fair to say that businesses are being put at risk if the strike continues? Families of postal workers are also losing income in this desperate situation. Has not the time come for the Minister, who is the custodian of the shares in Royal Mail, to use his influence and shareholder power to ensure that the two parties sit round the table with ACAS and do not come out until this has been resolved amicably?

They are round the table. There has been nothing lacking in the volume of meetings between Royal Mail management and the unions. I have heard talk of 70 to 80 meetings. ACAS is ready to assist and, as I have said on more than one occasion today, it would be easier for ACAS to play a productive role if the threat of industrial action were lifted.

It is not clear to me, from what the Minister has said, whether Royal Mail is prepared to go to ACAS. We know that the trade unions are prepared to do so. The situation is pretty serious. I have been involved in a few disputes in my time, and it is not easy for anybody to go on strike as a result of intransigent management. Small businesses and the families of those involved are suffering because of what is happening. There have been a lot of uncertainties—for 12 years, somebody said—and the Minister should now intervene directly.

I believe that Royal Mail is prepared to involve ACAS in the dispute, but obviously it feels that that would have more chance of success if the threat of industrial action was lifted.

Marine Accident Investigation Branch (Reports)

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to oblige shipping companies, port operators and other bodies to comply with recommendations made in reports of the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents and of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch; and for connected purposes.

On 19 December 2007, the Greenock-based tug, the Flying Phantom, sank in thick fog in the River Clyde with the loss of three of her crew. The dead men were Eric Blackely, aged 57, from Gourock; Robert Cameron, aged 65, from Houston in Renfrewshire; and the skipper, Stephen Humphreys, from Greenock, who was just 33 years old. There was one survivor: Brian Aitchison, from the borders.

In the aftermath, an investigation was carried out by the marine accident investigation branch. The investigation was thorough and exhaustive, and finally reported in September 2008, some nine months after the accident. The report runs to 55 pages and contains key safety-related recommendations addressed to all the protagonists: Svitzer Marine Ltd, which owned the tug and employed the crew; the port operator, Clydeport; the British Tugowners Association; and Lloyds Register. Yet, despite the fact that the MAIB is a statutory body, created by the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, and reports directly to the Secretary of State for Transport, its recommendations have no force of law. They are not legally binding and can be ignored with impunity.

That exposes a fundamental flaw in the structure of the MAIB. My Bill would make its recommendations legally binding, within a proper framework for implementation and appeal. To understand the need for the Bill, hon. Members need to consider how the MAIB has been constituted. Its website states:

“As far as the MAIB is concerned, the sole objective of investigating an accident is to determine its circumstances…with the aim of improving the safety of life at sea and the avoidance of accidents in the future. It is not the purpose to apportion liability, nor, except so far as is necessary to achieve the fundamental purpose, to apportion blame. We do not enforce laws or carry out prosecutions.”

That is all well and good, but it raises a question: if, after an exhaustive inquiry, the MAIB makes recommendations that it believes will improve the safety of life at sea and help to avoid accidents in the future, and if such recommendations are then ignored, what is the point of it? I raised that point in a meeting with the Minister then responsible for transport and his officials. I ventured to suggest that MAIB recommendations could be ignored with impunity. “That’s not the case,” said an official. I was told that if a company or an organisation does not comply, 12 months later the MAIB can put a note on its website to that effect. That is not good enough. It should not be left to the discretion of companies or organisations whether or not to comply with key safety recommendations made by the very body whose job it is to determine the cause of accidents and to prevent them in future.

In the case of the Flying Phantom, there is an ongoing dispute about whether the recommendations have in fact been complied with, especially on the critical issue of assessing the risks caused by fog. Clydeport says that it has complied and that the issue of fog warning systems has been addressed. The trade union Unite, led by its Scottish regional secretary John Quigley, which represents the crew, says that Clydeport has not complied. More importantly for me, the widows of the men who died continue to believe that the river is not as safe as it could be, and that other families might have to face the terrible ordeal that they and their families have gone through.

The issue is far too important to be left to that “He says/she says” approach. Recommendations have been made and should be enforced or properly appealed against. The grey area that we currently occupy serves no one at all, least of all the companies and organisations involved. I do not want my Bill or this speech to be seen as an exercise in bashing Clydeport. It is an extremely important company in my constituency and I seek to enjoy good relations with it. I also know that the harbourmaster, Captain Ron Bailey, is a decent and conscientious man who is dedicated to the safety of those who sail the waters of the Clyde.

I understand that Clydeport has reservations about the way in which the MAIB went about the investigation, and it is quite entitled to have and to express those reservations. However, the dubiety about how recommendations have been implemented—or about whether they have been implemented at all—leaves us all in the worst of all possible worlds. That is why calls have been made for a further judicial inquiry. However, the facts of the case have already been established. Such an inquiry would be likely to replicate the findings of the MAIB, at considerable public expense. However, in the absence of a satisfactory outcome, no wonder such calls have been made: at least the recommendations of a judicial inquiry would have to be complied with.

I fully understand that there are complex legal issues at stake and a fear that if companies thought that liabilities would flow from an MAIB report, they would not co-operate as fully as they do now, but that is just too bad. The current situation is absurd and should be changed by means of a simple amendment to the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

Two years ago, just one week before Christmas, three families lost their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. For those families, the festive season has taken on a tragic quality. It is impossible to meet the widows of those men—Mrs. Helen Humphreys, Mrs. Linda Cameron and Mrs. Eileen Blackely—and not be impressed by the great dignity and composure with which they have endured their terrible ordeal. They are not after untold riches in compensation. They are not looking for heads to roll. They know that nothing can bring their husbands back to them. All that they have asked me to do is ensure that recommendations in MAIB reports are implemented, so that other families are not put through the appalling misery that they continue to suffer. For their sake, and in memory of the men who died, that is what we should do.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That David Cairns, Jim Sheridan, Mr. Alan Reid, John Robertson, Miss Anne Begg, Mr. Russell Brown, Mr. Brian H. Donohoe, Mr. Ian Davidson, Mark Lazarowicz, Mr. Frank Doran and Ms Katy Clark present the Bill.

David Cairns accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Thursday 22 October and to be printed (Bill 151).

Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill