Wednesday 28 October 2009
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Death Penalty (Global Abolition)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Watts.)
It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. It is also a particular pleasure and something of a novelty—perhaps it is even the first time—that I have obtained an Adjournment debate on a topic on which I can speak almost entirely positively about Government policy.
The Minister is very kind, but I shall resist the temptation.
It is a matter of some pride for me, as a British national, when I travel to different parts of the world, to be part of a country that has not used the death penalty for the past 40 years and whose policy today is to oppose its use wherever it happens in the world. That is a significant policy, and I commend the Government for their adherence to it and, as I have learned in recent years, promotion of it. I appreciate the assistance of embassy and consular staff in different parts of the world who are, as I have seen, active in promoting Government policy. Earlier in the year, I travelled to Seoul, where the embassy had organised a seminar or conference encouraging local politicians to abolish the death penalty, or at least to maintain the moratorium. The assistance that I received from staff there and in Tokyo, and most recently in Washington DC and from the consul general in Atlanta, was first rate and not to be faulted.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. Will he mark, in his speech, the passing a few days ago of Ludovic Kennedy, whose 1961 book, “10 Rillington Place”, about the hanging of the backward, illiterate Timothy Evans for the murders that John Christie had committed, led ultimately, at least in part, to the 1965 abolition? Ludovic Kennedy played a major part in that, did he not?
Yes, the late Ludovic Kennedy did indeed play a leading role in the case for abolition. I was fortunate as a teenager to meet him a couple of times. I was trying to persuade him to stand for rector of the university of Glasgow. He had sufficient judgment not to rely on my campaigning skills and he politely declined the invitation, but he was a truly inspirational character. He took the view—I know because I heard him speak on the matter many times—that, in the terms that Amnesty International uses, the use of capital punishment is the ultimate denial of a human right. He was motivated ultimately by justice. Even after the abolition of capital punishment in this country, he maintained an active interest in the issue. He also maintained an interest in campaigning on other miscarriages of justice, especially in this country. I was most intimately familiar with his involvement with the Paddy Meehan case in Scotland, but he also took an active interest in the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six.
All those cases serve to remind us how right we are to have maintained our opposition to capital punishment in this country as an instrument of domestic policy. A thread running through the use of capital punishment, wherever it happens in the world, is the fact that criminal justice systems are fallible. They are run by people for people, and people can make mistakes, as happened recently in the state of Texas in the case of Todd Willingham. It is now accepted that an innocent man was executed.
Once we have accepted in this country that our system has got things wrong, as happened with the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, we can at least turn the key in the door and let those who have been wrongly imprisoned walk free. That cannot happen to Todd Willingham in Texas, where even now the government are not prepared to allow further ventilation of the issues. That is the one argument that those in favour of the death penalty can never refute: the opportunity for mistakes, and the finality of that. Whether one takes my view that it is morally wrong for the state to take a life, or a more pragmatic one, the case against the use of the death penalty is substantial and unanswerable.
I remind hon. Members of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests about various campaign visits that I have made on this subject. I am also a member of Amnesty International and a patron of an organisation called Amicus—a charity operating in this country to provide legal representation for people facing the death penalty in America. I want to mention my appreciation of the efforts of the campaigning and legal organisation Reprieve, with which I have also worked closely.
There are three headings on which I want to speak this morning. First, I want to mention a couple of specific current cases involving United Kingdom nationals. Then I will touch briefly on the question of countries where the death penalty is used for juveniles. Finally, I shall deal with a few bilateral issues—in particular, matters affecting our relations with Belarus, Japan and the United States of America.
Perhaps the most pressing—and indeed most publicly commented on—of the cases involving UK nationals at the moment is that of Akmal Shaikh. The Government are engaged in his case and some hon. Members may be aware that he is awaiting execution in China. He is a 53-year-old British man from London. His appeal before the Urumqi high court was denied in August, although I am told that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not informed of that until earlier this month. His sentence is now to be reviewed by the People’s Supreme Court, and if that is not successful, he will be executed.
The concerns that I and many others have about Akmal Shaikh’s case include his apparent mental health difficulties. He has always maintained that he went to China to start a career as a pop star. He met a group of men in Poland who persuaded him to travel with them to China via Tajikistan. Upon arrival in the airport there, he was told that he would have to travel to China alone, as there was only one seat left on the flight. His companion gave him a bag to take with him and said that he would be on the next flight. He was then arrested with 4 kilograms of heroin at Urumqi airport. He told the officials that the suitcase did not belong to him and that he did not know anything about the drugs. We are told that no intimation of the death sentence was given to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until some months after it had been passed. That is indicative of the extreme secrecy that shrouds the use of the death penalty in that country.
Reprieve is actively engaged in Akmal Shaikh’s case and has sought permission for Dr. Peter Schaapveld—a clinical psychologist—to visit him and make a proper assessment. To date, Dr. Schaapveld has not been allowed access to see Akmal Shaikh, but there is already substantial evidence in the public domain that he suffers from significant mental health issues. I am told that, on the last appeal hearing on 26 May, he insisted on reading a long, rambling and often incoherent statement to the court, notwithstanding advice to the contrary from his legal representatives. Embassy staff at that hearing were not allowed to take notes, and Dr. Schaapveld was of course denied access to his patient. I am told that the Foreign Office produced a number of the e-mails that Akmal sent to the embassy in Poland while living there. It perhaps gives a flavour of the man’s state of mind that they were written in a 72-point font, and they were described to me as being rambling and incoherent.
I have some questions for the Minister on Akmal Shaikh’s case. For the benefit of hon. Members and those outside who are watching the case with interest, will the Minister outline how the Government plan to intervene in the People’s Supreme Court? We know that it now automatically reviews every death sentence. However, we do not know the timings, so there is clearly an element of urgency about the representations that the Government should be making.
The Minister’s Department was asked to file an amicus curiae brief with the People’s Supreme Court outlining its opposition to the death penalty and, in particular, addressing the question of mental health. I am told that the Foreign Office replied that it would prefer to write to the court, rather than enter a formal amicus curiae brief. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s explanation, not least because China has been known to use amicus curiae briefs when its nationals have been involved in legal proceedings in other parts of the world. It is difficult to see what objection there could have been to that more formal route being followed.
The other case to which I shall refer briefly is that of Naheem Hussain and Rehan Zaman—two British nationals facing execution in Pakistan. The background to their case is that they were subject to a significant degree of torture following their arrest. The history of the case is fairly well in the public domain. Early consular intervention could have made a significant difference. It is a matter of regret that early intervention was not as vigorous as it might have been. If the Pakistani authorities failed to make a meaningful investigation or to take other steps to rectify the situation in a reasonable time, what will the Government do to preserve their position? Will they consider instigating legal proceedings against the Pakistan Government pursuant to the UN convention against torture?
A number of issues relating to consular involvement have been raised with me, but I do not feel able to explore them today. However, I should be grateful if the Minister were to indicate a willingness to engage with me and other members of the all-party group on the death penalty and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), who is representing Hussein and Zaman and who has been vigorously involved in their case from the start.
On the question of juveniles being the subject of capital punishment, I have been campaigning with Amnesty International, most recently in the case of Delara Darabi. So far in 2009, six juvenile offenders have been executed, four of them in Iran and two in Saudi Arabia. Last year, Iran executed eight juveniles. It is clearly prohibited under international law, as stated in article 6.5 of the international covenant on civil and political rights and the convention on the rights of the child. Iran is a party to both treaties, Saudi Arabia to the latter only. Neither country should be executing children under the age of 18.
Will the Minister continue to urge the Iranian and Saudi Arabian authorities to uphold their international obligations, calling an immediate moratorium on the execution of juvenile offenders as a step towards the ultimate abolition of the death penalty in those two countries? Will the Government continue to make representations to the relevant authorities whenever a juvenile is scheduled for execution there?
The position of Belarus should concern the Government on a bilateral basis. It is the last country in Europe to continue to use the death penalty. We do not know much about the country’s use of the penalty, but I understand that four people were executed there in 2008. Belarus is one of those countries—Japan is another—where condemned prisoners are given no warning that they are about to be executed; they are usually executed within minutes of being told that their appeal for clemency has been rejected. Their families are generally told days or weeks after the execution that it has been carried out.
In June, the Parliamentary Assembly to the Council of Europe voted to restore special guest status to the Belarusian Parliament, but under certain conditions. One was that it should instigate a moratorium on the death penalty. Notwithstanding that, two people there have been sentenced to death this year. Their appeals have been turned down by the Supreme Court and the prisoners are now appealing for clemency. On 12 October, the UN Human Rights Council called on the Belarusian Government not to execute Vasily Yuzepchuk until it had also considered the appeal of Andrei Zhuk.
Will the Government continue to call for the moratorium required under the Parliamentary Assembly’s resolution No. 1671 of 23 June, which deals with the status of the Belarusian Parliament? Will the Government press the Belarusian Government to uphold their obligations as a party to the international covenant on civil and political rights and to respect the decisions and recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council? Will they continue to press for clemency in the other two cases to which I have referred?
Japan is now one of the top 10 killing states in the world. Having been in Japan earlier this year, I formed the impression that the country is sensitive to its standing in the world. It is a global trading nation, and people understand that it does Japan no good to be in a position that puts them in the company of nations such as Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe.
One of the most egregious cases is that of Hakamada Iwao, who was sentenced to death in 1968 and has been on death row ever since. He has been in solitary confinement for 29 years, and is exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. He confessed under duress, but withdrew his confession at his trial. Could not the Minister urge the Japanese ambassador at the very least to offer the man a pardon or a retrial?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was about to say. I, too, have been engaged in that case. When I was in Japan, I was privileged to meet a number of those campaigning in support of him. I also met his sister and one of the three trial judges that presided at Hakamada’s trial. In my experience as a lawyer and politician, Hakamada’s case is unique. In addition to all the compelling evidence to which the hon. Gentleman referred, one of the three judges who presided over the trial has now said that he was never persuaded that Hakamada was, in fact, guilty. If that is not what we in this country would regard as a reasonable doubt, I do not know what is. If our commitment to international standards of procedure in criminal justice means anything at all, the Minister should take on board the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. Hakamada has been in detention for 43 years, 29 of which were spent in solitary confinement. As a consequence, there are, unsurprisingly, substantial concerns about the mental health of Hakamada Iwao. To execute a man in such circumstances falls well below the standards of basic decency and humanity that we are entitled to expect of those countries that, along with us, are part of the international community of nations.
The one bright spot in relation to Japan is the recent change of Government. I understand that the new Justice Minister is an abolitionist, so we may have got to a position in which there is a de facto moratorium in Japan. That remains to be seen, but I hope that the Government here will take the opportunity to push the case for a moratorium in Japan, because the standard of care for those on death row in that country is probably among the worst in the world. When one considers some of the other countries involved in such a practice—China, North Korea and others—it is quite a damning indictment.
Finally, I should like to bring to the Minister’s attention the position of the United States of America. The USA is one of the largest users of the death penalty in the worldwide community. It is one of those countries that is most frequently cited as the reason why countries such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, China and others feel that what they are doing cannot be that bad because they are only doing what the United States does. It frustrates me that there is real opportunity for the United States to give a positive lead, which would make a tremendous difference to its standing in the world community, but it refuses to do so.
I visited the United States last month. Along with members of Amnesty International, I visited Troy Anthony Davis, who is on death row in the state of Georgia. I could probably talk for 90 minutes about the experience of being on death row, which is a truly awful phenomenon. Anybody who thinks that death penalties are justifiable or in some way workable should experience it for themselves. The consulate in Atlanta was exceptionally helpful in its dealings with us. It was able to facilitate our visit to Mr. Davis on death row. Although this is not a case that involves a British national, it is one that should cause us concern.
There are substantial issues involving the apparent innocence of Troy Davis. Seven of the nine witnesses who gave evidence against him have subsequently revised or recanted that evidence, which brings me back to my earlier point about the fallibility of criminal justice systems. Had Troy Davis been prepared to roll over and let the system take its course, he would have been killed by now. He told me how, one day, he came within two hours of his execution. At one stage, he was taken into the room and made to stand no more than 2 feet away from the gurney to which he would, later that day, be strapped for the lethal injection to be administered.
Such an experience is a very chilling illustration of just why it is wrong to use the death penalty, and why it is right for our Government to speak against it wherever they see it. We should continue to promote the view that the British Government and the British people do not want to be associated with such a barbaric practice.
May I add to the comments made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and say what a pleasure it is, Mr. Benton, to serve under your wise leadership today?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland on bringing such an extraordinary combination of skills, abilities and personal qualities to this debate and to his parliamentary work. He is a lawyer, and a man of forensic intelligence and great humanity. The work that he undertook in the case of Samantha Orobator at very short notice might have saved—did save, in my opinion—the young woman’s life. If any of us can look back on our parliamentary careers and say as much as that, we will have reason to be proud.
I should also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who has visited one of my constituents in Bangkok. As a Foreign Office Minister, he has been assiduous in visiting, assisting and advising, and prompting action throughout the world.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned something that goes to the very heart of our debate: if a miscarriage of justice occurs, a person can be released from prison—they may be broken, but they are free—but if a person is executed, there is no release or redemption. He mentioned the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. It is perhaps appropriate to remember that one of the Birmingham Six, Giuseppe Conlon, died in prison. He was not executed, but because he died in prison, there was no release for him. No one can say whether or not he would otherwise have died at that point, but I think that the facts suggest one interpretation.
The case of Timothy Evans of Rillington place was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who rightly commemorated the life and work of Ludovic Kennedy, who was a man of extraordinary qualities. I found Kennedy slightly difficult to come to terms with because his passion for shooting animals appeared to be somewhat at odds with the humanity that he expressed, but we must allow Liberals their foibles. Timothy Evans was hanged for murders that were certainly committed by John Reginald Christie. Those of us who were brought up in west London remember the pub, the Kensington Park Hotel, which was at the end of the road that I lived on. I recall the dark shadow that that case cast over us in west London.
When we consider issues such as the death penalty, we come at them from various directions. There may be a consensus in most of Europe, outside Belarus, that the death penalty is a mediaeval barbarism, anti-Christian and something that goes against the principle of redemption, and that it is something that belongs to a dim and distant past and that should rightly be consigned to that bloody past. However, that is the ideological and sometimes theological argument; there is also a criminological argument. We all know that the murder statistics in executing Texas are higher than those in non-executing New York, and there is very little evidence to suggest that the death penalty is a deterrent. Many people have tried to use the deterrent effect as justification, but Amnesty International has completely refuted that theory.
In the summer of 1959, when I was 11 years old, a man called Gunter Podola was arrested very close to where my parents and I lived. He was one of the many people swept up in the detritus of war. He had been a member of the Hitler youth, and his father had been a barber who had fought and died with the German army on the Russian front. He emigrated to Canada, where he became a petty criminal and was promptly deported from Montreal to what was then West Germany. Those who say that border controls are lax today should note that Podola was then able to fly from Düsseldorf to London Heathrow with no problem at all. He went to west Kensington and started a career of petty crime and blackmail. He was arrested in Onslow square in west London, having shot Detective Sergeant Purdy. When we talk about the death penalty, we should never forget the victims, but I do not think that putting someone to death benefits the victim in any way, and it certainly does not bring them back to life.
Podola’s case was heard over a few months during the late summer and early autumn of 1959. As an 11-year-old boy living in London at that time, I knew that the clock was ticking. Even though Podola had not appealed against his sentence, the Home Secretary called the case in, set up a medical tribunal to examine Gunter Podola’s state of mind, and decided that he was fit to be hanged by the neck until he was dead. Although Mr. Podola claimed that someone else was his double and was acting in this strange way, the Home Secretary decided that he should hang, and hanged he was at Wandsworth prison. What I recall most vividly was the utterly dehumanising feeling that so many of my colleagues experienced.
Let us be honest: some people find a sort of vicarious thrill in the death penalty. Some people are death-penalty junkies and actually find something exciting about it. When I went to Mountjoy prison, I was one of the last people to visit what was called the “hang house”, where not only Kevin Barry but 27 other people were put to death. I found it extraordinary that there were death tourists. There are people who have a fascination with executions, but I think that that says more about their own sad, sick and sorry souls than it does about the issue and principle that we are discussing.
Podola was a man whom I had never met and with whom I had nothing in common. He was a petty thief, a drifter and what we in those days called a “displaced person”. However, his being put to death went against everything that I was brought up to believe in—that all people are capable of, and carry within them the seed, germ and hope of redemption. How could the execution possibly be justified? Seeing that case made me realise how utterly dehumanising putting a citizen to death is. A state or society that kills its own is somehow less humane, less decent and—I make no apologies for saying this—less Christian. I am sorry if that offends some people, but that is an issue, and such issues mean a lot to me.
Why are we having this debate? If it is now accepted that the death penalty is of the past, should we not simply say that we are pleased with the actions that the Government and all parties in the House are taking? We can congratulate the Minister on the work that he has undertaken personally—I repeat that the Minister has been extraordinarily assiduous in this matter—but the death penalty has not gone away. The death penalty, that dark shadow, is creeping up on us from other parts of the world. Virtually all countries of the English-speaking Caribbean have refused to agree to a moratorium on the death penalty. We know the situation in St. Kitts and Nevis and in Trinidad. Those people are close to us in many ways. The death penalty—judicial murder, execution; call it what you will—has not gone away; it is here. Amnesty International has produced figures stating that 2,390 people were put to death in 25 countries around the world. That was over how many decades? None; it was over one year. In 2008, more than 2,000 people were put to death. We also know that children are put to death.
As part of a country that I still hope can call itself civilised—I think that we are a civilised country as part of a civilised European Community—can we be silent while children are put to death? In Iran, children are swung off the end of cranes with wire around their necks. How utterly obscene is that? I do not say that there is a good or a bad death. Some poets may say that there is such a thing as a good death, but what is as vicious, vile and dehumanising as those deaths of juveniles? And what is the crime? In some cases, someone is killed in public for being gay. To paraphrase the former Prime Minister, that is a scar on the earth, not just on one region.
We have come a long way. It is salutary to remember that when the London underground system was opened in the 1860s, the first ever excursion train on the old Metropolitan line took passengers to a public execution—tickets were sold. That was in the 1860s, which is not that long ago. People queued up and took the family, including the children, for a day out to see a human being—one of God’s creations; a living, breathing person—hanged. Therefore, we cannot be complacent about this in any way. We cannot stand back and say that civilisation has marched on, because the problem still exists throughout the world.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire mentioned the Hakamada case in Japan, which has thrown up all sorts of horrors. There is something called daiyo kangoku, which is a system of substitute prisons. Someone is arrested in Japan and they are held in a non-prison prison, where they have to sit in the same position for a long period of time and are subject to sleep deprivation.
In many ways, Japan is an admirable country. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland quite rightly said that it is conscious of its public image. However, how can it possibly allow that image to be projected around the world? Do the Japanese people want to be seen as a country that has shadow prisons, sleep deprivation and psychological torture of that nature? I cannot believe that to be the case. Therefore, an occasion such as this, which provides the opportunity to ventilate such cases, is welcome. Again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing the debate, but on his extraordinary energy in travelling the world and working in an area that some of his constituents—and some of mine—will be completely unable to understand as a subject of such passion and importance. What he has done might not make him massively popular in his constituency, but the fact that he has chosen to do it is much to his credit. I offer him my admiration and respect.
If we are faced with a world in which the death penalty is coming back, why are people talking about it? I would say that putting a human being to death is the ultimate admission of failure in society, in the judiciary and in the whole jurisprudential system. If society’s problems cannot be solved through civilised methods, the solution is to kill the problem. However, that is not the solution and does not solve the problem. It simply sets a standard of retribution. We all know the oft-quoted “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” from the Bible. However, if we read on, it ends up with a world where no one has any eyes or any teeth. The idea of God-ordained judicial retribution was nonsense then, and is nonsense now. It must be exposed widely throughout the world.
Without question, we live in a world of increased violence. That is partly because there are more of us, we live closer together and we are more acquisitive. There are many reasons for that increase in violence, and many ways of addressing it. One idea that we should immediately park and decide not to progress with is the suggestion that killing fellow humans somehow stops other crimes from being committed and somehow makes society a better place. It does not; it makes for a sadder, sicker society.
The work of Amnesty International is exemplary. I am a proud member of Amnesty International, although I am not sure whether I have to declare that—it is certainly not a pecuniary interest because I pay it money and it has never paid me anything. I hope that this debate will establish a few things: first, that judicial murder does take place, is taking place and could take place in countries that we thought had turned their backs on it; and secondly, that Amnesty International has by far the best track record of any organisation working in this area, and nobody challenges the evidence that it produces. Many countries are so terrified by the appearance of some innocent young lawyer or activist from Amnesty International that they will turn them away at the airport, call the riot police or move people from prison to prison rather than have that person turn up, let alone the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland—they probably close down the entire airport system when he arrives. [Interruption.] Well, I know that they have tried it. Amnesty’s work is important, and it must continue to be publicised and ventilated. The case of Samantha Orobator, to which I referred earlier—it occurred only at the beginning of this summer—is another example of action being taken quickly and a life being saved.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has done the House a great service. At the risk of sounding too florid, I think that he has done humanity a great service, not just in his work day by day, but by putting down a marker today to say that whatever we in this country and on the continent of Europe are—for all our faults, warts and all—we are still a people who do not slaughter our own judicially. We do not take someone in the cold morning of Wandsworth prison and put them to death while crowds gather outside. We are not a country that allows the sick, vicarious thrill of judicial murder to permeate our social life—let us put that down as a marker today. Let us resolve collectively, as this Government have done and, I hope, all parties in the House will continue to do, that we in this country will continue to make the strongest possible case against this appalling crime that does not solve crimes, but creates further ones—this inhumanity that is the death sentence.
I endorse everything that the previous two hon. Members have said, and I will not seek to repeat it, as they said it extremely well. I wanted to take part in this debate for two reasons. First, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) recently asked me to take on the task of chairing the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. Also, I am and have been for some time one of the vice-chairs of the all-party group on China.
China alone is responsible for almost three quarters of the world’s executions. Amnesty International’s last report indicated that China carried out nearly 2,000 executions in 2008, although the figure is believed to be much higher, as statistics on death sentences and executions remain state secrets.
I turn the House’s attention to process. I have three points to make about China that are well echoed in a recently published book by Martin Jacques entitled “When China Rules the World”. The first point is that we are all going to have to get used to dealing with a country and a power that is growing exponentially. Martin Jacques makes it clear in his book:
“According to projections by Goldman Sachs…the three largest economies in the world by 2050 will be China, followed by a closely matched America and India some way behind, and then Brazil, Mexico, Russia and Indonesia. Only two European countries feature in the top ten, namely the UK and Germany in ninth and tenth place respectively. Of the present G7, only four appear in the top ten.”
In other words, according to present projections, by 2050, China as a global power will be well ahead of the United States, India, Brazil, Mexico and indeed much of the European Union. That says to me that we are going to have to recognise that we must manage many issues at a much more European level. We cannot presume that each member state within the European Union can take them on its own.
For a long time, the UK Government have been managing a UK-China human rights dialogue. I commend Ministers and officials for their work on that, but as any Minister who has taken part in it will acknowledge, it has taken on a slightly ritualistic dimension. Ministers give our line to take and then the Chinese give their line to take, and one wonders to what extent the Chinese officials are actually entering into the dialogue.
That brings me to my second point. Although China is theoretically a politically communist state, it is actually based on Confucian principles. Confucianism is essentially a set of precepts of what is right and wrong and prescriptions for appropriate forms of behaviour. The Chinese have a strong sense of what they think is right and wrong, which is reflected in their criminal justice system. It is not just about engaging China at a political level; it is about engaging Chinese society on what it believes to be right and wrong.
The third point about China that Martin Jacques makes—I think that we could all make it—is that China sees human rights very much in terms of the collective rather than the individual. What is important is for the state to ensure that people do not starve and have sufficient food and employment. Therefore, the rights of an individual are subordinate to the rights of the community. I certainly find—I do not know whether other hon. Members do—that when one engages in dialogue with the Chinese ambassador in London or with Chinese politicians, one almost has to start by finding a political vocabulary with which to examine such concepts, because their understanding of human rights is different from ours. One must find a common dialogue.
China practises judicial execution on far more people than any other country. If we are going to tackle the issue—I think that we would all endorse what the Minister said recently on world day against the death penalty:
“we continue to call for an end to the use of capital punishment around the world”—
we will have to tackle it with China. However, we will also have to recognise that China is beginning to feel itself to be much more influential in the world, so we will have to act at the European Union level.
That creates an issue for the House. All too often, when things happen at a European level, it effectively means that they are taken over by Ministers, whether in the Council of Ministers or acting collectively, by the Commission or by our colleagues in the European Parliament. The danger with that is that we as Members of the UK Parliament, if we are not careful, will be marginalised on human rights issues, whether they relate to capital punishment or something else. We will have to start working out how we can work much more constructively with colleagues in other national Assemblies and Parliaments in Europe to bring collective pressure on countries whose human rights records are not all that they might be, from Colombia to Zimbabwe to North Korea or wherever. It will require collective action.
The complexities of negotiating, influencing and hoping to change policy in China demonstrate the need for us to work more constructively together. I suspect that if all of us try to do it individually, we will find it difficult to bring about real and lasting change on this particular issue in China. To be candid, if one cannot bring about change in China, which is far and away the largest perpetrator of judicial executions, it will be much more difficult to bring about change elsewhere. If we can start to effect change in China, it will hopefully be possible to effect change elsewhere. I hope that the Foreign Office and Members of Parliament can give some thought to how more can be done at a European level while still actively engaging Members of this House.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I will keep my remarks brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate.
I will begin with the areas on which I presume there is unanimity in the House and further afield. We have heard of appalling instances of juveniles being put to death in various nation states. There have been various early-day motions and campaigns on that issue. I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Gentleman on that issue. There are appalling statistics on the number of juveniles and individuals with learning difficulties who have been subjected to legal systems that result in capital punishment. It is obvious to us in the west that such things should not happen. I am totally and utterly in agreement with that aspect of the global abolition argument. That is paramount.
Setting that aside, there comes a time when we have to say what we think. I am not convinced by the case for total and utter abolition of the death penalty in all cases and for all people, however ruthless and repeated their crimes. Over the years, I have followed with interest those who argue that, even if a small number of people were spared who were guilty of vicious crimes such as repeated murder, total abolition would be worth it because many others would be spared who did not deserve such a fate.
The problem with that argument is that not much research has been done on the small number of serial killers who treat the prospect of redemption with utter contempt. There is still the prospect that one or two killers internationally, after being detained in jail, could commit another crime against an innocent person on release. Unfortunately, not as much research has been done to protect innocent people from the brutality and viciousness of the small number of serial killers.
I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) on the need for a society to be able to call itself civilised in the way in which it treats those who are guilty of serious crimes. I believe that a society that calls itself civilised must take account of the infinitesimal number of people who, despite all that the legal system offers in terms of appeal, the chance to reform their ways and to make amends for their actions, decline or defy our best endeavours. There must be some form of radical response by a civilised society to protect the innocent.
Serial killers generally suffer from a psychiatric disorder. In my experience, such people are never allowed back on to the streets, even after they have gone through the criminal justice system. Surely even such people should be subject to the same protection as everybody else. That relates to my earlier point about mistakes being made.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of view on the mental capacity of a number of serial killers. However, if a person with such a criminal record is not released, but escapes from detention and commits another violent crime that results in the death of another innocent person, is that not the result of the lenient treatment of a serial offender?
The more I listen to the debate, the less convinced I am of the case for a total and utter abolition in all conceivable circumstances. I am not convinced that it is the correct way to ensure that society is a safer place. I emphasise the caveats that I have given about juveniles and so forth. In nation states such as Japan and the United States, there have been many indefensible cases of people being on death row and ultimately paying the last possible penalty. With those caveats, I am simply not convinced of the case for the total abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances.
I will keep to the time that you have set, Mr. Benton. I add my appreciation for the work and leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on this issue.
Within 18 months of being elected to this place, I dealt with the family of a constituent who faced the death penalty in Pakistan. I pay tribute to colleagues from all parties who have been vocal on this issue. However, only a few of us have dealt with a constituency case of this nature. I have always been a vocal opponent of the death penalty, but it is something else to sit with the family of somebody who faces the death penalty and to look into the eyes of people who face the prospect of a state deciding to use its might, authority and legal system to kill in cold blood. Mirza Tahir Hussain was a dual citizen, so Pakistan would have been killing one of its citizens as well as ours. It was a strange case because he had not been in this country for 18 years by the time he was finally released.
I again pay tribute to Amnesty International, Reprieve and Fair Trials Abroad for their support in that case. I also thank the Prince of Wales for his support and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the work that it did behind the scenes. However long or short my political career, I will always remember the moment when I met my new constituent, Mirza Tahir Hussain, for the first time at Heathrow airport after his release, when justice was done. He was not guilty, yet he languished for 18 years with the death penalty hanging over his head.
I could not possibly mention that case without mentioning the heroic contribution of his brother, Amjad Hussain. Since then, he has not disappeared into the shadows, but taken up the case of the global moratorium. He campaigns on Muslim nations in particular. My question for the Minister is therefore whether he can update us on discussions with Pakistan and other Muslim nations. There has been a change of Government in Pakistan and there is an opportunity to move this issue forward.
Finally, I must disagree profoundly with the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell). I have seen the effect of the death penalty on an individual and a family. It brutalises society and dehumanises the justice system. In the case of Northern Ireland, even if we had had the death penalty—understandable as it may be for the people who have suffered the horrific crimes carried out there to want it—would it really have taken the Good Friday peace process forward, which I think we all agree has been a good thing?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that we must have real justice and clear life without parole for the worst offenders—there is no question about that and we must make that clear—but how many innocent people would have to die if we had a so-called perfect system where we could kill the worst offenders? It just does not make sense. It is simply wrong for any state to kill its citizens in cold blood in the name of justice. I hope that Amnesty’s continued campaign is a great success.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on getting the debate on to the agenda and on the way in which he opened it. He is hugely knowledgeable on the subject and has a strong record of campaigning on the issue around the world. I know that partly because he is my colleague and we have discussed these issues, and partly because, like him, I am a member of Amnesty International. When Amnesty’s magazine comes through the letter box every few months, although I often find it difficult to read because of the horrors within, from time to time, there is a piece about his work on these important issues.
I reiterate and add my voice to my hon. Friend’s congratulation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Government on their work on the issue. As he mentioned, it is rare for most of us to be in agreement in this House, but I think this is one of those matters on which the vast majority of hon. Members come to the same conclusion. It is good to know that our Government take forward these issues on the international stage.
This is a timely debate because it comes so soon after the world day against the death penalty. Sadly, it is also timely because, last Tuesday, we had the news about the three Tibetans executed in Lhasa. News of such executions punctuate our news media regularly. In some ways, it can be said that we are making progress on the international campaign to achieve global abolition. Although there are worrying trends in some states, in 2008, 106 countries voted in favour of a worldwide moratorium on executions and 46 voted against in the UN General Assembly. That was clearly progress on what happened in 2007, when 104 voted in favour, with 54 against. We should take some comfort and inspiration from that.
Although global abolition must remain our ultimate goal, in the meantime, we should do all we can to seek a reduction in the number of executions that happen in countries around the world. That is partly why the work of the many organisations campaigning against the death penalty is so important, particularly those that take up cases to stop individual executions. Even reducing the number of executions by one in an individual country has a huge value, and I pay tribute to the work that is done. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) set out well the impact that such work can have on an individual basis. I congratulate him, his constituent, his constituent’s family and all who were involved in that successful case, which happily ultimately had a good outcome.
I disagree with the argument of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) that the death penalty is an appropriate action for the state in some cases. I have found no evidence in the research that the death penalty acts as a deterrent and makes us safer. In fact, countries that have the death penalty, such as the United States, have incredibly high homicide rates and a correlation can often be seen in relation to that. In any case, the worst serial killers and murderers do not commit such crimes rationally and often do not think through the consequences.
I accept that there are some serial killers and horrific cases in relation to which there is very little or no possibility of redemption, but I put it to the hon. Gentleman that it does not follow that the only solution is the death penalty. True lifetime imprisonment could also keep society safe and, indeed, in various cases in the UK—for example, that of Ian Brady—that was ultimately the decision made.
We have incredibly high security in the places in which these people are held, and that is not something that happens. A tiny minority of cases would fall under the category that the hon. Gentleman is outlining but, given the extreme security we have, we are effectively talking hypothetically about that scenario.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) has described a scenario, but he has not given us any actual examples of notorious serial killers who have either been released and killed other people, or escaped. He is giving us Hollywood fantasy scripts; he has given us no concrete examples.
I concur with the hon. Gentleman. I am certainly confident that, in those tiny minority of cases, the state has secure institutions available to ensure that the public are kept safe, without resorting to state-sponsored murder or compromising our humanity in that way.
Some countries carry out a huge number of executions, and 93 per cent. of all known executions last year took place in just five countries: USA, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In an eloquent contribution, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned the situation in China. I agree with him on the importance of working collectively through organisations such as the EU, so that we can have greater influence on the issue. Where there is agreement across the EU, by speaking together we can often have a stronger and louder voice.
As I mentioned, the case of the Tibetans who were executed is of great concern. I welcome the visit of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), to Tibet last month. I hope that he will have spoken to Chinese officials about those Tibetans and others who have been executed—indeed, some people are still facing execution. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland raised the case of Mr. Akmal Shaikh. I echo his concerns and I hope that the Government are doing absolutely everything they can to raise the issue at the highest levels within China.
Despite the place of the US on the global stage and the fact that it argues for human rights in many circumstances, those efforts are entirely undermined by having the death penalty. Some 52 people have been executed in the US since this time last year. I would like to raise the horrific recent case of Romell Broom, who is a man from Ohio who spent two hours waiting to die as technicians looked for a suitable vein through which to administer a lethal injection. He helped them to try to find the vein and in the end the execution could not happen and he was taken away. We need only consider such cases to find a clear reason why the death penalty should be abolished in its entirety.
Of course, there is also always the prospect of executing an innocent person. In America, there was a recent report about the case of Cameron Tod Willingham, who was put to death in 2004 for apparently murdering his three daughters in a house fire. At the time, it was said to be arson, but a recent report published in August by nine investigators has shown that the prosecution of the case was fatally flawed. We can see that such events and innocent cases still happen in all such countries. As mentioned, if the US stopped the death penalty, it would act as a beacon for other countries to stop hiding behind the excuse that because the US does it, they can too.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) made a powerful speech about Iranian executions for homosexuality. Since 1979, more than 4,000 people were killed just for being gay. Although we have generally had a fairly consensual debate, I shall introduce a small note of discord by saying to the Minister that the UK Government need to consider again their policy of deporting gay Iranians despite the fact that they risk imprisonment and potential execution at home. There may not be a good or bad death, but in Iran the methods of execution are particularly harsh and death by stoning still takes place.
In summary, there are myriad reasons why the death penalty is wrong: there is the moral case, the human rights case and the absolutely unanswerable case that mistakes will be made. People are human and mistakes happen in our criminal justice system. Therefore, the state will murder innocent people if there is a death penalty.
The UK Government must be a passionate advocate of ending the death penalty around the world. I appreciate that in many ways we are preaching to the converted because the Minister is in agreement and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a strong record on this issue. However, I hope that today’s excellent debate will act as further encouragement to the Minister by reinforcing that the FCO’s work on raising this issue with Governments around the world is important.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate and on the fluent and learned way in which he introduced the subject. I was also impressed by the passion with which the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) spoke.
I had better declare my credentials. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), I have voted for the abolition of capital punishment in this country. I have also, like him, argued that case in front of Conservative party meetings and even Conservative party selection committees when that was not the most fashionable or popular cause to adopt. However, I was glad that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) spoke, because it is important when we debate capital punishment that we do not give the impression of having got together into a political class that is dismissive of what is still a majority view among the British public. The most recent opinion research that I have seen shows that a majority of the public—fewer than 50 per cent., but still a majority—favour the restoration of the death penalty in this country. That should put us on our guard when we debate how to engage with other sovereign nations that have decided, for reasons of their own, to retain the death penalty.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said when he talked about China, there is little to be gained from the ceremonial recitation of opposing lines if no real discussion, engagement or persuasion takes place. I suggest that the Government should focus on three specific ways of seeking to influence countries that retain the death penalty. The first way is to persuade them to reduce the range of offences that are subject to the capital penalty. As others have said, it is obscene that countries such as Iran still have the death penalty for apostasy and for consensual sexual intercourse between adults.
Secondly, I hope that the Government will focus strongly on securing due process where it is absent. It is plainly wrong for capital trials to be held when the accused person is unable to understand the charges against them, or for such trials to be held in secret or without independent observers. Hon. Members have discussed the execution of juveniles in Iran and elsewhere. One might talk about the barbarism of methods of execution such as stoning that are still used in some countries. An important theme to pursue in discussions with China is that it should live up to its declared policy of having all capital cases reviewed by the Supreme Court, but it is far from clear whether that was done in the case that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned that involved the three Tibetans.
Thirdly, I hope that the Government will focus on the argument that Governments who retain the death penalty should have regard to mitigating circumstances, particularly to the concept of mental illness being a mitigating factor. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland talked about the Akmal Shaikh case, which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised directly with State Councillor Dai Bingguo at their recent meeting. Let me also mention Japan. As recently as 2008, the Japanese executed a man who had been receiving psychiatric treatment in custody for more than a decade. I hope that the Government will pursue those themes both bilaterally and through international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Council. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I am grateful to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton.
It is ironic that we are having this debate in Westminster Hall, which was for many centuries the place where state trials were held. I believe that the first execution ordered from just outside this Chamber was in 1295, when Thomas de Turberville was sent off to be executed, oddly for spying against the French—I do not know why we were concerned about that. Ten years later, William Wallace was executed, as I am sure our Scottish colleagues would be more than keen to point out. Charles I was executed following his trial in Westminster Hall, and after that, Oliver Cromwell’s head stood on a pike outside this building for some 35 years. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) would remind us, Thomas More’s trial took place just outside this Chamber, as did Cardinal Fisher’s and Edmund Campion’s. All of them were executed, as were many others.
Sir Thomas More. I am still an Anglican, even though the blandishments of the Bishop of Rome are tempting to others who do not want women bishops. I, however, am very happy to have women bishops.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate. Given the history of Westminster Hall, perhaps we should have an annual debate in the hall itself on the death penalty around the world. I intend to write to the Speaker and to the Leader of the House to suggest that we should do so on the day that is set aside by many organisations such as Amnesty International—of which, I, too, am a member—so that we can showcase our work on this issue. The Government are passionately against the death penalty around the world. Indeed, I think that view is shared by most political parties, if not all.
My arguments against the death penalty are very simple. First, all too often, sentences are wrong. We have heard about such cases today, and tribute has been paid to Ludovic Kennedy. We have heard about people in British cases who were sentenced to death and executed, whom we now know could not possibly have committed the crimes for which they were sentenced. That has happened even in this country, which has a robust judicial system, but the numbers are much higher in countries in which many people do not have access to a fair trial and due process.
Secondly, the death penalty undervalues life. I am a Christian. I know that not all Members of the House are, but I believe that God gave us life so that we should respect it, not so that we should take it away. There is absolutely no evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. As several hon. Members have already pointed out, states in the United States of America that have the death penalty often have a higher murder rate than states that do not. The same is often true of countries around the world. The Bible is quite clear. “Vengeance is mine” does not mean mine as a Minister, the state or humanity; it means that vengeance is God’s, and we should not use the justice system to perpetrate vengeance.
I also believe that human rights are a seamless garment. I am sorry to keep using all this biblical language. We cannot say that we will stand up for women’s rights in Iran, but that we will not stand against the death penalty. We cannot say that it is wrong for people in Britain to be murdered for their sexuality, but that it is not wrong for people in Iran to be executed for their sexuality. It is particularly poignant that in the past couple of weeks, a man—Ian Baynham—was murdered about 300 yards up the road in Trafalgar square for being gay and that only last weekend a police community support officer was attacked in Liverpool because of his sexuality.
Both I and this Government believe that human rights are a seamless garment, and we will always take up these issues, wherever they apply, in every country in the world. That is a passionate campaign for us politically, because 2,390 people were executed in 25 countries in 2008—a shocking figure, even if it was in only 25 countries—and 8,864 people were sentenced to death in 52 states. As we have heard today in several hon. Members’ passionate speeches, the whole process of being on death row and waiting for a sentence that might or might not be executed and of people being taken to the moment of execution and then taken back is barbaric.
When women are stoned to death in places in Iran, the pit is dug deep enough that they cannot raise their arms to protect themselves so their deaths will be swifter, but the pit is dug relatively shallow for men so that they will try to protect themselves and the execution will take longer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North said, in Iran people can be strung up to the back of a lorry that suddenly moves away, and that takes place in main squares with everyone watching, cheering and jeering. One could talk about the methods of execution used in the United States of America, as sometimes it is impossible to find a suitable vein and the execution cannot proceed. Whatever type of execution one looks at, the whole process of being on death row is inhumane and every bit as wrong as the death penalty itself.
We fight politically on that issue around the world, but we will also take up representation wherever we possibly can, case by case, and I pay tribute to the consular staff who work in our embassies around the world, because they are absolutely unstinting in that work. Of course, we must always be intelligent, clever, sage and wise in the precise way that we deploy our diplomatic activity on behalf of an individual, as steaming in with the British diplomatic cavalry will not necessarily achieve our objectives in particular cases. Those consular staff work hard and deal with many complex cases, from child abduction to British people being sentenced to death, so I pay tribute to them.
In many parts of the world, simply ensuring that there is a decent prison in which people can serve their sentences is another part of the diplomatic effort that we have to engage in. I was in Peru three weeks ago but unfortunately was unable to visit Callao prison, which I had wanted to do because of the horrific experiences many British people have had there. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North referred to my visit to Thailand and Laos earlier this year to see Samantha Orobator. I am absolutely delighted that we were able to bring her back to serve her sentence in a British prison. I am passionately concerned about another British prisoner in Laos—John Watson—and desperate to ensure that he, too, is able to serve his sentence in this country, because the conditions in Thai and Laos prisons do not allow for a justice that we would want to be proud of.
We use three main vehicles, the first of which is the European Union. As the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, it is absolutely vital that we deploy our EU membership to greater effect. I would argue that that is one of the reasons why we need the Lisbon treaty. I hate to enter into difficult territory today, because that is an argument not with the hon. Gentleman but with his party leader, but I will say that we need the EU to be far more effective on a diplomatic and political level around the world. By bringing the roles of the higher representatives together into one figure who would report to the Council and Commission, we could be more effective in that area, particularly in relation to Belarus. Our work to try to persuade Belarus to move towards a moratorium and abandon the death penalty can be done most effectively both bilaterally and through the EU, and that is what we will strive to do.
The second vehicle is the UN. I was delighted that the 2007 resolution was passed and that the 2008 resolution was passed with a bigger majority and included a call for a moratorium. To those who have referred to the US, the matter is still a stain on the American reputation on human rights around the world. I wholly agree with Bill Richardson, the Governor of New Mexico, who said that there is absolutely no reason why the US should be behind the rest of the world on that, as he has abolished the death penalty in his state, and we will continue to make that point. Those in Washington are in absolutely no doubt about the British position on that, not least because the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland went there to tell them so. I was delighted that our embassy was able to facilitate his meetings. He has paid tribute to the support he received from many embassies around the world, and I pay tribute to the sustained campaign that he has run.
In response to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)—I was about to call him my hon. Friend, because I think of him as an honourable, friendly person, although he sits on the opposite side of the Chamber. We have the Buckinghamshire mafia here today.
Oh, I am sorry—Thames valley.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to focus our efforts in the three ways to which he referred. I do not differ with him to any degree in that regard. We also must focus on specific countries, and some of them have been mentioned, such as China, Japan, the US and Belarus. There has been scant mention of Caribbean countries, but obviously, we have a particular relationship with the Caribbean, where there are both overseas territories and Commonwealth countries. It is still a problem for us that there are countries that retain the death penalty even though they may not use it. We would prefer them to move to a situation where there was no death penalty.
The first person to hold the post that I now hold was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was a playwright among other things, but also Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. He said:
“The surest way to fail is not to determine to succeed.”
We in the Foreign Office are absolutely determined to succeed in the campaign to bring an end to the death penalty everywhere in the world.
I will allude as quickly as I can to the specific comments that have been made. We have raised the case of Akmal Shaikh at the highest level. On 14 October a letter from the Prime Minister was presented to the Chinese authorities. The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) and Peter Mandelson have all raised that issue directly. In particular, we have raised the issue of Akmal Shaikh’s mental health. In fact, the Prime Minister raised the issue again with the Chinese authorities on 19 October. There was an EU démarche last year, and we hope that there will be another one in the very near future.
On the suggestion of an amicus curiae brief, strong legal advice has confirmed that there is no such provision in Chinese law, despite the fact that the Chinese have used it in other countries. However, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is absolutely right that we need to find other means by which we could make effective representations directly to the People’s Supreme Court in China.
With regard to Naheem Hussain and Rehan Zaman, I am more than happy to have a meeting and hope that we will be able to put that together as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman referred to the delay at the beginning of that case. There was a complexity that related to how we used to work in those days, in August 2004. At first we did not believe that they wanted us to make representations on their behalf, and we certainly did not have clear instructions from them in the first meeting. Then their lawyer said that they did not want us to act on their behalf. We have changed the way we work, so we would now almost certainly take that as the final statement. We will certainly raise the allegations of torture, because we are always opposed to torture in all cases—full stop.
Several hon. Members mentioned the execution of juveniles in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and there have been six such executions this year. Iran is a signatory to the UN convention on the rights of the child, so there is absolutely no reason why it should not follow its own treaty obligations. There have been 45 juvenile executions in Saudi Arabia since 1990, and we will work as hard as we can to ensure that there are no more.
I have already referred to Belarus in general, and we will continue to call for a moratorium on the death penalty. Spain does not have representation in Belarus, so during the Spanish presidency of the EU, we will take on that responsibility and ensure that it is one of our top four priorities in the first six months of next year. That relates to the two cases the hon. Gentleman raised—those of Andrei Zhuk and Vasily Yuzepchuk.
Several hon. Members mentioned Japan, and exactly the same issues apply. We constantly take up those issues, including the case of Mr. Hakamada. We believe that that is an extraordinary case in which the mental health of that gentleman has never been taken properly into consideration.
I have referred briefly to the issues in the US, which we try to raise regularly. We believe that the treatment of Troy Davis was unusually cruel. We note that 41 people have been executed this year in the US, 18 of them in Texas. I think that it will be difficult for me to win an argument with the politicians in Texas on that point; but none the less, we will continue to keep up the pressure.
The hon. Member for Banbury said that China sometimes sees issues—
Wareham Railway Station
I am grateful to have secured this debate. The proposed closure of the Wareham station pedestrian level crossing was devastating news for my constituents. The situation is complex, so I shall aim to describe it for the Minister as simply as I possibly can.
Wareham is an attractive small market town in my constituency. The 2001 census figures showed that its population was around 5,600. Sandford to the east, with a population of 2,000, is strongly linked to the town, and obviously the population levels will be higher now.
The town is fortunate in being on the main London to Weymouth line, but, as a consequence, it has a barrier that could split the town in two. The closure would have a disastrous impact on the vitality of the town, the business community, social activities and the whole wider community, so I am pleased to be able to raise the issue directly with the Minister today. There are several players in the decision making that is taking place: Network Rail, the Office of Rail Regulation, Dorset county council, and, I would think, South West Trains, although I have not yet been able to track down its involvement. The people who are affected fall into two categories—my constituents and rail users—which, of course, overlap. Clearly, safety is paramount—I would not argue anything else—but I am not convinced that the full interests of my constituents and public transport users are being taken into account when looking for a solution, which is why I hope that the Minister is in a position to give an overview of the situation.
I believe that the crossing dates back to 1847, since when there has been a road and pedestrian route crossing the railway. There is a footbridge over the railway that reminds me of the old film, “The Railway Children”—it clearly is not compliant with any disability legislation.
The station has two platforms. The London train to Weymouth comes in on the station side, where there is a considerable amount of car parking, which facilitates park-and-train, and taxis are available. Currently, tickets are sold only on this side. Trains to Poole, Bournemouth, Southampton and London depart from the platform to the east. There is access to bus services to Poole and Swanage on that side, but no car parking.
An agreement dated 1 December 1978 was made between the British Railways Board and Dorset county council for the building of a road bridge over the railway. In the lease, clause 3 states that the
“closure and stopping up of the public highway”
over the railway was authorised by the Wareham Bypass Scheme (Side Roads) Order 1973, and that the board was entitled to abolish the road crossing on completion of the bridge, provided that the existing footways were retained. Therefore, the crossing that I am talking about today was retained. It was subject to a lease dated 17 November 1975, which terminated on 24 June 1980. The lease states:
“on this date the Board shall either renew the lease or negotiate with the Council the provision of alternative facilities for pedestrians”.
Clause 24 of the lease states:
“the Council shall in the future provide a pedestrian footbridge over the railway but the date on which the footbridge is provided shall be entirely at the discretion of the Council in agreement with the Board”.
That raises an interesting point: does the council have a legal obligation to provide a decent footbridge close to the existing pedestrian crossing?
A further agreement between the board and the council was made on 25 March 1988 which, in effect, permitted the use of the original crossing for 25 years. There is a pedestrian sign by the crossing pointing to the town centre half a mile away.
The lease goes on to state that the council shall have an option to enter into a new agreement for a further period of 25 years, with such option to be exercised within three months of the expiry of the agreement. Terms and conditions were to be agreed between the board and the council. A further passage states that any dispute between the board and the council about the agreement shall be referred to and determined by an arbitrator. Given the way things are going, I am beginning to feel that an arbitrator of some description might be needed.
The lease specifically states:
“the Board will permit the general public on foot with perambulators and cycles as may be necessary at all times of day or night to use the new crossing”.
The only exceptions refer to the passage of trains and for engineering works. Many residents are saying that there must surely be an established right of way over the railway. However, does a permissive use by agreement create a public right of way? I understand that the consent of the Secretary of State is required, in accordance with section 41 of the Road and Rail Traffic Act 1933. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that point for my constituents.
May I advise the hon. Lady that there was a communication with the Dorset county council chief executive this year, which outlined that the 25-year legal agreement to which she refers with British Railways, as it then was, also led to the extinguishing of all public rights over the crossing in 1980?
I thank the Minister for that, because it provides clarity in the ongoing debate among residents.
Clause 11 of the lease is particularly relevant to the current situation. It states:
“if at any time the Board are required as a result of any change in the law or any direction or requirement of the Railway Inspectorate of the Department of Transport to alter or modify the controls or any part of the new crossing the Council shall pay the Board such charges incurred by the Board in complying with such changes in the law direction or requirement”.
The county council is thus potentially facing a big bill, and perhaps that is why we find ourselves in this crisis situation today. There has been no clear planning by the council over the past few years, during which time the problems have been identified.
The Wareham road bridge was built over the railway in the 1980s, and a decision was taken not to provide a footway because the former level crossing was available for pedestrians. It gave an easier route to town and was segregated from the main road. It is easy to be clever with hindsight, but it seems absolutely incredible, looking back, that part of the main road network made no provision whatsoever for cyclists.
Problems seem to have surfaced around 2004, and from 2006 there has been pressure to take action to resolve the matter. There have been three campaigns at the crossing, where leaflets were handed out, and there has been press coverage.
Network Rail tells me that, over the years, it has worked with the council to try to address safety issues. It has undertaken work looking at alternatives to the crossing, including options such as an underpass, lifts and ramped bridges, and it has offered to undertake the work to implement a solution. However, it has told me that, thus far,
“we have been unable to agree a solution with Dorset County Council”.
I feel that it is because a big bill is looming that hard negotiations are taking place.
Network Rail has also independently installed a CCTV camera at the crossing, and there are voice announcements as well as a red light that warns users to stand clear of the crossing when it is in use. Misuse at the crossing received national media coverage after Network Rail released CCTV footage showing a young mother with her baby running across the crossing and ignoring the red light. Network Rail says that there have been 25 incidents at the crossing in the past 12 months when the driver has had to apply brakes, and that there are more than 80 recorded misuses at the crossing over the past four years. It says that that is more than three times the number of incidents at any other crossing in the south-west area and that it represents one of the worst records in the country. I do not believe that my constituents are particularly disregarding of regulations and laws, so this is a strange situation.
The matter has been brought to a head by the Office of Rail Regulation, with the threat of what is known as an improvement notice being issued to both the council and Network Rail. It requires steps to be taken to remove risk at a crossing that is considered to be dangerous, as we have heard. The latest news is that the crossing could be closed at the beginning of December.
Local residents need a presentation from Network Rail to be convinced of the level of abuse. Network Rail has been invited to a public meeting tomorrow night and I can only hope that it turns up, because it really will help to facilitate the discussion. Just imagine how the vast majority are feeling at the prospect of this important route to and from the town being closed. Why should they be punished for the actions of a few? What exactly constitutes a near miss? Network Rail has a duty to my constituents, so I really look forward to its presence at that meeting.
Right now, very short term, short term and long-term decisions have to be made. In the very short term, since 16 September, the crossing has been policed up to 7.30 pm at the latest—so not for 24 hours. I have tried to get figures of any misuse witnessed, but unfortunately there does not appear to be a comprehensive report. The initial cost of policing was £1,400 per week, but there has been a shift to a slightly cheaper private security firm. Originally, the county council used this mechanism to buy time to get alternative measures in place and proposed a follow-up short-term solution to provide transport for all those who are mobility impaired and cannot use the adjacent footbridge. Cyclists would presumably be required to use the road footbridge, which does not even have a footway between the road and crash barriers.
My constituents were singularly unconvinced that a bus service to take prams, mobility scooters and people who had a proved disability to the other side of the railway line would be practical. They were right; already there is a change of plan for the very short term. The reason for this change of mind is that the detailed work to identify a public transport solution is proving unlikely to provide a sufficiently robust solution for the public. Also, the cost would be more than £100,000 per year, compared with £65,000 for the security presence.
I hear that the debate has moved on and that just policing is not acceptable to Network Rail. I am particularly concerned about whether any alternative will clearly be compatible with disability discrimination legislation, because there is a real issue that there should be access at all reasonable times over the railway line for disabled people.
The idea was that these short-term arrangements would last until Dorset county council secured funding for its long-term preferred solution of building a footpath-cycleway alongside the A351 Wareham bypass. My constituents’ first preference is for electronically locked gates, but that is being dismissed on cost grounds over time from the county council and on safety grounds, I think, from Network Rail. I want to be assured that a full risk assessment has been undertaken. There is a busy vehicular and pedestrian crossing at Wool, which is electronically controlled, and an incredibly busy pedestrian crossing in Poole High Street, which is also electronically controlled. There is always the chance of somebody scaling the gates or rushing through, but surely there must be greater risks at those two points. I am looking for a proportionate response.
There is a lease issue, because Network Rail has to renew it in 2013. The original lease says that Dorset county council has the option to extend, but I understand that there would be a monitoring issue in respect of electronic gates when signal boxes change in 2012. Dorset county council tells me that Network Rail proposes charging it £100,000 per year for monitoring. However, there are only two trains an hour, so perhaps there is some bargaining to be done.
My constituents need to know in some detail why electronic gates are not being considered. The ORR letter to the chief executive of Dorset county council dated 1 September states that safety could be improved by the provision of supervised locking barriers or gates linked to the signalling system, although there was a preference for a bridge. It appears that the revenue cost of the additional supervision is the main obstacle to this proposal, which would have the full support of local residents.
Clearly, the type of gates used at Elsenham, where there was a double fatality in 2005, is not suitable. I suggest that we need a gate that is mechanically locked so that it cannot be forced open, with a safe refuge on the rail side for those who are crossing at the time the gates are locked. An additional gate could be provided immediately adjacent to the track that could be opened only to exit to a safe waiting area. I am sure that the monitoring arrangements could be discussed further. Surely it is possible to find a safe solution if there is a will to meet what constituents want.
If my constituents were convinced that locking gates were not a safe option, there would be other options to consider: a disability-compliant bridge at the station, and the county council’s proposal to put in a pavement and a cycleway alongside the road crossing. Residents need to be consulted, but Dorset county council is just saying that the latter is the best option. The fact that only in the 1980s was a road crossing constructed without pedestrian or cycling facilities shows how important it is to get the decision right. I have been informed that Network Rail offered to procure a new modular footbridge at Wareham for Dorset county council, but that was turned down. I am calling for openness, consultation and respect for my constituents’ views. My constituents are certainly not responsible for the lack of preparation by Dorset county council before this crisis came upon everybody.
I have outlined some big issues today that involve compliance with disability discrimination legislation for elderly and disabled pedestrians and users of mobility scooters, and provision for mums with pushchairs, for people accessing and leaving the town centre, and for rail users. The existing footbridge is a nightmare. When I had a bad injury two years ago, I could not have used the bridge. I still cannot manage it with a suitcase. People with heart and lung conditions cannot cope with the bridge. People coming in from London have to cross the railway to catch a bus to Swanage. This will deter people who are not young and mobile from using public transport. The heavy pedestrian use of the crossing now reflects the fact that people are walking into town, which is great, so where are the other policy objectives to be considered: walking, cycling and public transport?
The longer route proposed by Dorset county council will mean that older people, and many others, will just get into their cars to go into town, perhaps going to Poole rather than Wareham. The county council route has the advantage of contributing to the strategic cycle network, but that is not my constituents’ concern. The proposal by DCC will probably add an extra 300 metres on to the walk into the town centre. It is estimated that the county council’s proposed solution will cost £2 million, although no money for that is currently allocated to any budget, and it is anticipated that it will take at least 30 months to construct. Forward planning and consultation does not seem to have been the name of the game.
Wareham is a vibrant town with many restaurants, pubs and individual shops. Recently Sainsbury’s joined the Co-op in the town centre which is, of course, suffering from the recession. My constituents from the far side of the railway bridge walk and cycle into town now for many activities. A recent survey showed that more than 1,200 people used the crossing on just one day. My constituents’ quality of life must be a consideration. I should like to ask the Minister whether, if this dispute carries on, there is any way in which he could intervene.
Finally, I should like to read some comments of a resident who does not use a car:
“I have lived here for 23 years…and have therefore used the crossing a few thousand times…I will point out some of the consequences of closing the crossing. Without level passage across the railway it will be either impossible for many to cross or far more dangerous than the status quo. I am 76 and visually impaired, go at least once a week from Northmoor into Wareham, riding gently or pushing as safety demands, mainly to fill the pannier-bags with food-shopping. I could neither heave the bicycle up the steps of the footbridge nor easily and safely lower it on the other side. The alternative would be either to ride or push it round by the main road, exactly the kind of route I do not now use on SAFETY grounds. Other elderly people have powered buggies, for which these alternatives are equally (or more) impractical.
Then ‘early-birds’ tell me that school-children using the route include many on bicycles, more able physically to cope with the bridge but chattering groups are likely to trigger falls on the descent, potentially serious. As for the thought of Northmoor kids weaving their way through rush-hour traffic on the A351, even the most bone-headed official should manage to see that it will end in tragedy and ‘this must never happen again’. Yet do we want all these children to be conveyed in cars or buses, rather than get healthy exercise between home and school?
Finally, there are all the good people who are neither children nor pensioners, but just as deserving of a safe, direct and convenient route between the two parts of Wareham, on foot or bicycle, in buggy or with pushchair. We are all human beings with needs, and a huge majority of us use the present crossing responsibly.”
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing this debate on the pedestrian level crossing at Wareham, Dorset. She asked me for an overview, and she has provided a good one. I will try to address as many of the issues as possible in the time that she has left me.
This is an issue on which my Department has received significant correspondence from local residents recently, so I welcome this opportunity to update the hon. Lady on behalf of her constituents, particularly as I understand that a town meeting is being held in Wareham tomorrow to discuss the issue. The matter has arisen as a result of recent activity to consider the future of Wareham level crossing following increasing safety concerns.
The Government treat railway safety seriously, and an important aspect is safety at level crossings. Railways are one of the safest forms of transport and continue to improve. Changes to rail safety within the past 10 years —for example, the introduction of train protection systems, new rolling stock and better management of the infrastructure—have resulted in the UK having a rail safety record comparable to other western European countries. Previous primary rail safety risks, such as signals passed at danger, have fallen significantly owing to such mitigation measures to the point that, according to figures compiled by the Rail Safety and Standards Board, level crossings now represent the largest category of catastrophic risk to train passengers. Fourteen motorists and pedestrians died at level crossings last year, and I am sure that we are all aware of the tragic triple fatality at Halkirk level crossing only last month.
The day-to-day running of the railways and their safety is a matter for rail operators and the Office of Rail Regulation, as the independent rail safety regulator. My Department shares their concern about the risks at level crossings, but are mindful, as the hon. Lady outlined, of the impact that their closure may have on local communities. The conflicting needs for safety and access at level crossings are one reason why my Department, in partnership with the ORR, asked the Law Commission to undertake a wide-ranging review of level crossing issues. The review is under way, and my officials have forwarded details of the case at Wareham to the Law Commission as an example of the conflicting pressures that occur in practice at level crossings.
Analysis of incidents shows that 96 per cent. of the risk at level crossings is due to accidental or deliberate misuse by pedestrians and road users. Considerable time and money is being spent by the rail industry to understand why that is so, and to improve facilities, equipment and education—for example, Network Rail’s “Don’t Run the Risk” advertising campaign to raise safety awareness. I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that the incident to which she referred is one of the examples in the campaign’s material.
The crossing at Wareham has red and green warning lights to show when it is safe to cross. In addition, Network Rail has put in place measures such as audible warning messages and CCTV. The latter captured the image that has had much coverage in the media of a young woman with a pushchair using the crossing when it was clearly not safe to do so. However, despite those efforts, problems and incidents persist, including regular near misses at Wareham. I understand that 25 incidents have occurred at the crossing when the train driver has had to apply the brakes, and more than 80 misuses at the crossing have been recorded over the past four years. That is more than three times the number of incidents at any other crossing in the south-west and is one of the worst records in the country.
I understand that British Transport police have agreed to maintain a temporary presence at the site, for which I am grateful, but clearly that is not sustainable. Against the background of persistent abuse, both Network Rail and the ORR have raised concerns regarding the ongoing safety of users of the Wareham pedestrian level crossing, highlighted by risk modelling, which suggests that the risk of a fatality is very high. It is clearly imperative that action is taken to improve safety at Wareham. No one wants a tragic accident, such as that in a similar situation at Elsenham in 2005.
In dispensing its legal duties as the independent rail safety regulator, the ORR is considering formal enforcement action in the form of improvement notices requiring better protection and safety at the crossing. For historic reasons at Wareham, those improvement notices will be directed at both Dorset county council and Network Rail. The ORR believes that improved safety at the crossing could take a number of forms, including the provision of suitable barriers or gates, but it believes that the provision of ramps to the existing footbridge and closure of the crossing would represent the most effective risk control and efficient use of public funds over the long term. The decision on which option to pursue is ultimately for Dorset county council in conjunction with Network Rail.
I am told that Dorset county council has sought advice from Network Rail on the cost and feasibility of installing barriers at the site, but that future signalling changes in the area complicate monitoring by staff, and discussions are ongoing on that point. I can only encourage Network Rail to examine fully the option of barriers. I understand that ORR would be willing to consider supervised magnetic gate locks, as fitted at Elsenham, but would have reservations about automatic locking of gates with an emergency release, which could be subject to abuse and might lack a means of checking that they close and lock for each train.
Dorset county council has also been investigating both short and long-term opportunities to secure safety and accessibility at the crossing. I understand that possible closure of the crossing has indeed been proposed for early December and that Dorset county council considered that on the basis of alternative robust accessible arrangements being in place. It investigated a public transport solution in the event of closure—putting on buses to connect the crossing to the town—but now believes that that is not a feasible alternative. Any infrastructure solutions that meet all requirements, such as accessible foot and cycle routes, are by their very nature a longer-term option. Network Rail is considering plans to make it easier for cyclists to use the adjacent footbridge.
I understand that the council is continuing to discuss options with Network Rail, including whether temporary measures such as an official presence at the crossing would help to tackle the safety risk in the interim, while longer-term, more permanent solutions are investigated. Any decisions arising from those discussions will have to satisfy the safety requirements of the ORR.
Apart from the obvious safety issues, I understand that the railway divides large residential areas from Wareham town centre and that the crossing is a key link between them. Although alternative pedestrian access is provided, I am advised that it is unsuitable for older people, people with restricted mobility, wheelchairs and scooters, people with small children, those with heavy baggage and cyclists, as the hon. Lady said.
Representations made to me by local residents have suggested that closure of the crossing without adequate provision for those groups would effectively divide the town and isolate communities—something that we would be keen to avoid. I am confident that the safety issues at the Wareham crossing are being handled appropriately by the ORR. When making the final decision, Dorset county council and Network Rail must consider, as well as safety, the impact of any closure on local communities, including accessibility requirements of the groups to which I referred. When considering that, I am sure that the council will be mindful of its obligations under equality legislation.
Safety concerns are of great importance, but the severance of communities and reducing accessibility to key transport routes are no less so. On that basis, I encourage Dorset county council, in conjunction with Network Rail, to ensure that all appropriate options, in both the short and longer term, are considered for the future of the crossing and that the safety, accessibility and community needs of Wareham are appropriately provided for. I hope that tomorrow’s town meeting, to which I understand key stakeholders have been invited—I hope that they will attend—successfully contributes to the ongoing debate on the future of the Wareham crossing.
Sri Lanka (IDP Camps)
[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]
Just over a year ago, hon. Members on both sides of the House, many of whom are here again this afternoon, spoke in a debate in this Chamber on the grave humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. At that time, the Government of Sri Lanka were pursuing a brutal military campaign, in which thousands of innocent civilians lost their lives, tens of thousands were injured and hundreds of thousands were displaced and left without access to shelter, sanitation, water, food or medical facilities. The conduct of that war—the use of heavy artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers and white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas—was brutal, inhumane and almost certainly illegal, so all of us took some comfort in the cessation of hostilities, but although the guns may be silent in Sri Lanka for the first time in 26 years, the price of peace could not be higher.
Nearly 300,000 civilians are being detained in camps in the north-east of Sri Lanka. The Government of Sri Lanka call them “welfare camps” and in the controlled images that they release to the international media, we see benevolent Ministers dispensing supplies to grateful, smiling Tamil families. The reality, though, is camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed soldiers, where latrine pits overflow and children fight for water, where emaciated pensioners lie in cramped tents and where thousands of young men disappear without trace. If the Government of Sri Lanka had even one ounce of regard for the welfare of the civilians held, they would be released without any further delay.
My hon. Friend the Minister saw for himself just how grim the conditions are, and I commend him for visiting Sri Lanka just a few weeks ago, yet since March 2008 the Government of Sri Lanka have confined virtually everyone displaced by the conflict to detention camps.
I thank the right hon. Lady very much for outlining these circumstances. Will she comment on the fact that the Sri Lankan Government frequently use the argument about land mines and use the need for demining as their reason for not releasing people from the camps? Surely that is an area where the international community could ensure that there was no question but that demining capacity was provided rapidly.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point, and I will say a few words about the issue of mines.
The numbers in the camps swelled as the conflict intensified this year and more and more civilians were forced to flee their homes. By the time that formal hostilities drew to a close in April, some 300,000 civilians, including 50,000 children, were being held in 41 camps across four districts, but the end of the war did not mean liberty for the camps’ inhabitants. Even though the Government readily declared that the war was over, they are still not ready to let people leave, so for the civilians kept in the camps, the peace dividends that the Government of Sri Lanka promised in their victory declarations have failed to materialise.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on obtaining the debate, which is on a very important subject. I have Tamil constituents who are still seeking information about loved ones in that country and about where they are today. Does she agree that we now need publication of the names of everyone who is being detained in the camps and that those people should get the legal access and support that they ought to have, so that they can challenge the Government’s decision to keep them in detention?
I absolutely agree. In fact, not to publish the names of exactly who is in the camps is against all the human rights legislation and international commitments that Sri Lanka has.
For hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians, six months on from the end of the conflict, life in the camps is worse than ever. Quite how bad life is in the camps is difficult to establish. We know that it is bad. We know that there are severe water shortages. We know that whole families are forced to share 20 litres for a couple of days, that there is not enough water to drink and that civilians who have struggled out of battle zones are now forced to bathe in the water alongside the buffaloes.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that, if the Sri Lankan Government are so confident that everything in the camps is going as well as they suggest, they should allow the international media in so that they can see for themselves whether what the Sri Lankan Government are saying is true?
We all agree with that point, and throughout the duration of the conflict we made the same point. At no time over recent years have the international media been able to gain access to the areas where Tamil people predominantly lived or to what was happening in the conflict, and now the same is true of the camps.
There is not enough food. We know that not just from the haunting images of malnourished children and pitifully thin old men and women that recall camps of an earlier age, but from reports from local hospitals. Their records show us that since May alone, more than 1,000 civilians have died from malnutrition-related complications. We know that sanitation facilities are primitive. Elderly women are forced to crouch over latrine pits, and families share stinking, overflowing toilets. We know that health facilities are under-resourced, overstretched and totally incapable of meeting the needs of the people detained in the camps, so people die of treatable diseases and women are forced to give birth under the trees and in front of strangers.
Therefore, we know that the conditions in the camps are bad and getting worse. Indeed, the Secretary-General of the United Nations—a man not known for hyperbole—said:
“I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scene I have seen.”
That echoes what I have been told by my constituents whose friends and families are trapped in the camps. Just yesterday, I spoke to a woman whose sister and three nephews are, she believes, being held in the camps. She could not tell me for sure because she has not heard from them since last January, when Government forces took control of the village where they lived. Since then, there has been nothing—not a single phone call or letter. There has been no information whatever. Her voice broke as she described her sister and her nephews, the youngest of whom she has never met. A man from my constituency told me about his five-year-old niece and 18-month-old nephew, who recently left a camp. I am talking about a little girl who had to help to dig her father’s grave with her bare hands, because her family had to flee before they had time to bury him properly, and a little boy who spent his second summer fighting the malaria that he caught in the Government camp.
Therefore, we know that things are bad, but we cannot know exactly how bad because, as we have already said, the Government of Sri Lanka will not let independent monitors or aid agencies into the camps. This Minister is therefore part of a select group of people who have been granted permission to visit the camps—so select, in fact, that even the International Committee of the Red Cross, for instance, has not been allowed in since July. Nor are the Opposition parties. On Monday, I and other hon. Members met Professor Jayawardena, a Member of the Sri Lankan Parliament. He told me that members of Opposition parties in Sri Lanka have been denied permission to visit the camps. He is not a Tamil. He does not have a large Tamil electorate. He is deeply concerned about human rights.
The right hon. Lady mentions constituents both here and in Sri Lanka, but it can sometimes help to give the view of Sinhalese constituents. Although it is a challenging question, it is worth asking. An e-mail criticising what I said at the rally last weekend, stated:
“All you care about is the nearly 50,000 Tamil votes in Croydon.”
The right hon. Lady gives a stark picture of the situation in Sri Lanka. Will she take this opportunity to say that we do care and to explain what our motivation is?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We need to stress time and again that it is about human rights. When the human rights of one are threatened, the human rights of all are threatened. It is right that we should raise our voices on behalf of those whose human rights are being ridden over roughshod. That is so whether they are Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim or whatever. The point is well made. Indeed, Professor Jayawardena, in saying that he is not a Tamil and does not have a large Tamil electorate, is pointing out that this is about the human rights of Sri Lankan people who are Tamils.
The humanitarian situation has worsened, and ever more people are having to rely upon international agencies and NGOs for the most basic of needs. The Sri Lankan Government are denying them that lifeline. They are denying people food, medical treatment and sleeping mats. The Government of Sri Lanka tell us that certain agencies are allowed in—but only the agencies that they choose and only on the terms that they dictate. In addition to their vital humanitarian functions, those agencies are indeed the eyes of the world. The Sri Lankan Government have deliberately prevented outside scrutiny of the camps, leaving camp residents vulnerable to abuse. Reports from the camps of abductions, disappearances, extra-judicial killings and intimidation continue.
Even more worrying than conditions in the camps that we know of are those in the camps that we do not—the secret camps, whose existence the Sri Lankan Government refuse to confirm, whose conditions are impossible to monitor and whose detainees are held incommunicado and without access to family members or legal advice. We know that the danger of serious human rights violations increases substantially when detainees are held in locations that are not publicly known, and where proper legal procedures and safeguards are not in place. Even a cursory glance at the history books shows that.
Amnesty International believes that there could be as many as 10 unofficial and unacknowledged detention sites in the country, although the number could of course be much higher; we simply do not know. However, we know that the camps are illegal and a crime against humanity. Let us be in no doubt on that point: civilians have an unambiguous and unqualified right to free movement, and a right to liberty now and not when the Sri Lankan Government get around to it.
The reasons that the Sri Lankan Government give for such detention are simply a smokescreen—an excuse for the collective punishment of the Tamil people. The Government say that they need to screen the Tamils to ensure that none of them are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Why is it that six months on from that screening process only 5,000 civilians have been released? Why are the Government continuing to incarcerate pregnant women, small children and the elderly?
The Sri Lankan Government say that it is unsafe for the Tamils to leave because many of the areas they came from are mined, as we heard from the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer). That is simply not true; not all the areas were mined, and many of those detained in the camps could stay with friends or relatives far from any mined areas. Those who genuinely have nowhere to go could choose to stay in the camps, but that choice would be theirs. The Government of Sri Lanka must give the Tamil people their freedom—and they must give it to them now.
Time after time, the Government of Sri Lanka have promised to release civilians, but their promises come to nothing. In May, President Rajapaksa said that 80 per cent. of civilians held at the camps would be released within 180 days. Six months on, and about 5,000 civilians have been released. The Government of Sri Lanka tried to inflate the figure by transferring people to other camps and classifying them as having been released. However, the reality is clear: only a tiny fraction of those detained in the camps have been released.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way, and I apologise for not being here at the start of her speech. It was due to commitments that I had with an all-party group.
The right hon. Lady is speaking about the Sri Lankan Government honouring their commitments. Will she say how important it is that they do not simply shift their goals from 180 days to the end of the year, with only 100,000 being resettled by the end of the year? There needs to be a firm commitment not only to their own version of resettlement; they need to make a commitment that people will be able to go back to their homes as soon as possible.
I agree. I was about to make that point. Indeed, this month the Minister for Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services cut the estimate in half, saying that the Government plan to release only 100,000 by Christmas.
The Government of Sri Lanka say that they are doing their best, but their best is not nearly good enough. I say that enough is enough—enough of the Sri Lankan Government’s evasions and half-truths; enough of their inaction and obfuscation; and enough of the suffering of the Tamil people. The longer they are detained in those inhuman prisons, the more difficult it will be to achieve what every Sri Lankan—Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim alike—wants: a lasting peace in Sri Lanka.
Each extra day that the Tamil people are forced to live in those camps will serve further to alienate the Tamil community and exacerbate divisions; it will create bitterness at a time when reconciliation is more important than ever. As frustration grows and tensions rise, conflict is already beginning to break out in the camps. Report after report over the past few weeks has detailed the escalating conflict between the inhabitants of the camps and the military guards. As the camps grow ever more crowded, and as the monsoon season arrives, the conditions will worsen and the habitants will become ever more desperate.
If the monsoon brings water pouring into the tents, it will be an entirely man-made disaster. It was the Government of Sri Lanka who built the camps on flood-prone areas. It was the Government of Sri Lanka who rounded up hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children and imprisoned them in camps designed to be only a temporary shelter, and built to hold only half the number of people that currently live there. Lest we forget, it is the Government of Sri Lanka who refuse to let them leave.
However, if the fault lies with the Sri Lankan Government, so too does the solution. They have it within their power to release the civilians and begin a process of reconciliation that will build a peaceful and just Sri Lanka. It is the responsibility of the British Government to do all that they can to encourage that process, so I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I can tell him that the Tamil community know that our Government have led and are leading international efforts to secure a just and lasting solution in Sri Lanka. I welcome the fact that the Government did not support Sri Lanka’s application for a $2.6 billion loan from the IMF. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to give us a little more detail about the nature of those efforts, particularly about the work of our officials in Brussels, who are currently considering Sri Lanka’s access to the EU market.
While Sri Lanka so brazenly abuses the rights of its citizens, it is inconceivable that the EU should renew GSP plus—the generalised system of preferences. It is surely time for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Commonwealth and removed from the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group when it next meets in November.
As always, I appreciate the right hon. Lady’s efforts and the fact that she is specific about some of the solutions. Will she join me in asking Ministers to be really clear over the next few days, before the Commonwealth conference next month, that the British will not support Sri Lanka as a host country for the conference to be held in two years’ time? We should make that clear in advance, saying that it would be unacceptable to many of our Commonwealth colleagues. We cannot set human rights standards and invite people to promote them when some in our own backyard clearly have a bad record.
I am sure that the Minister heard what the hon. Gentleman said, but I agree that it is completely incompatible to hold a Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka given all that has been said, and the situation that exists.
We need to send a clear message to the Government of Sri Lanka that the continued detention of Tamil civilians will have serious consequences for Sri Lanka’s relationship with the international community. However, we must have a united front. The whole House must speak with one voice in its condemnation of the treatment of Tamil civilians and in its appeal for their immediate release. The number of Members present this afternoon demonstrates the level of concern felt on both sides of the House, which is why so many of us were disappointed by the comments that were made last week in the House by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), when he appeared to support the Government of Sri Lanka’s application for preferential access to our markets.
I will, but just let me finish my point.
On that precise point, I hope that we can be clear. The EU extends preferential access to its markets to developing countries under a number of very clear conditions. Beneficiary countries must comply with 27 international agreements on human rights issues. Sri Lanka does not meet those conditions and is, therefore, not eligible for GSP plus. I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to clarify the position of the Conservative party on that matter.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this debate. She and her colleagues must be very careful about calling for the Sri Lankan Government to be punished by the ending of trade preferences with Europe, because she will have to explain how the Sri Lankan Government will be able to afford to rebuild the infrastructure to enable the Tamils to return. If they cannot afford it because they are bankrupt, she is punishing both the Government and those who have been hurt by the dispute, and she must be able to explain that.
I regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity to state his party’s support for ending GSP plus status to Sri Lanka and to condemn its human rights record. I can explain why I call for the preferential status to end. There is a line to be drawn, and that line stands when human rights are being trashed and people are losing their lives. People are subject to abductions, rape, torture, extra-judicial killings and the most appalling living circumstances. They are in camps that are surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. That is where I draw that line.
The hon. Gentleman is concerned that the Government of Sri Lanka should be able to afford to restructure and resettle Tamil communities. However, they are able to do that because the solution lies in their hands. They can stop the abuse of human rights and then they will not be subject to calls for the ending of GSP plus and for other sanctions to be taken. The solution lies with the Government of Sri Lanka, and not with them having preferential access to our markets when their human rights record is appalling.
It is exactly as my right hon. Friend is saying. When everything else fails—exhortations, appeals to humanity and international representations—there is nothing left for us but economic sanctions. The Sri Lankan Government seem to think that they can act with impunity, so let us send them a message: “Release the people from the camps, end the human rights abuses and we will assist in the rebuilding of the country.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that over the past few weeks, we have seen an increasing number of abusive phone calls and e-mails precisely because of the report on GSP plus? For the first time in more than six months, the Sri Lankan Government are on the run on this one, thus providing real leverage to achieve progress for the people in the camps in Sri Lanka.
I absolutely agree with the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I should like to pay tribute to both of them for their commitment on this issue over a long period of time. I am sure that the Minister and everyone else have heard what they have had to say.
I am sorry that the right hon. Lady is trying to play politics in the way that she is. All parties condemn all the human rights abuses; it is a question of how we achieve our ends. I say to her again, if the Sri Lankan Government’s economy is completely bankrupt, how will the country be able to afford to rebuild the infrastructure? She must explain that if she is going to accuse us of asking such questions of her Government. How will the Sri Lankan Government be able to afford the infrastructure?
I will always give way on such issues, but the hon. Gentleman has not added anything to what he first said, and that speaks volumes about his position. Others in his party do not take his position, but he speaks from the Front Bench, and it is most regrettable that he is not able to join all of us, across the parties, in saying, “GSP plus should be withdrawn because of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.” He heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington had to say about how we would seek to respond should the Government of Sri Lanka do something about the camps and the situation in which the Tamils find themselves.
My right hon. Friend makes an exceptionally compelling case. Does she not think that if one compares the amount of military money that the Government of Sri Lanka have spent on fighting this war over the past few years with the peace dividend that they promised would come from fighting that war, there is, by their own rubric, enough money to deal with the dispersal and the rehabilitation of the people in those camps?
The right hon. Lady is right to say that GSP plus is very important. No one is arguing that Sri Lanka should be treated differently in that regard. There are rules for compliance and rules for preference. If a country does not meet the rules, they do not deserve the scheme. It is not our particular local position; it is an international one. Sri Lanka has just had a big loan from the International Monetary Fund, which Britain voted against. It is not as if it does not have access to other resources. It can comply with the rules by opening up to journalists and independent agencies so they can see that human rights are being complied with.
That is absolutely right. As the Conservative Front-Bench position is something that many of us would find very difficult to support, perhaps we should all—and I hope all—disassociate ourselves from those such as Lord Naseby in the other place and Geoffrey Van Orden in the European Parliament who have, over a number of years, sought to defend the indefensible and given succour to precisely those forces that all of us here oppose. Either we believe in human rights or we do not. There can be no halfway house on human rights. Either we all have them, because we are all equally human, or none of us has them.
The situation in Sri Lanka is dire. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians are being unlawfully detained in internally displaced persons camps. Those camps are besieged by flooding, outbreaks of contagious diseases, and inadequate supplies of food, shelter and sanitation. People are desperate to leave, and there is an urgent humanitarian need to ensure that they are allowed to do so.
There is also a broader political reason why the freedom of the Tamil people and a just and peaceful Sri Lanka are inextricably linked. The Sri Lankan Government appear to believe that if they can physically contain the Tamil people, they will put an end to the conflict in Sri Lanka. However, the only long-term solution to conflict in Sri Lanka will be a political one that is achieved by inclusive political negotiations. The Sri Lankan Government cannot keep the Tamil people imprisoned for ever, and neither can they ignore those people’s legitimate aspirations. The longer the Tamil people are denied their freedom, and the worse the conditions in which they are forced to exist become, the more difficult it will be to achieve any lasting peace. The Government of Sri Lanka must accept that and give the Tamil people their freedom now.
Order. Many hon. Members have asked to participate in this debate. We will start the Front-Bench speeches at 3.30 pm. I would like to call as many hon. Members as possible, so I ask each speaker to be sensitive to the needs of others, and I will work with you.
Let me start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) on securing the debate. I will not repeat anything that has already been said, as I would like to talk about this subject from a personal perspective, before making some suggestions.
Last Thursday, together with three other hon. Members, one of whom is in the Chamber, I visited Auschwitz concentration camp. We saw what man’s inhumanity to man can do, and where things can end. That most emotional trip affected and upset me greatly. I am still thinking about what we saw last week, partly because my own grandparents came from that area, and I might not have been born had the Nazi regime had its way.
In 2009, the position is simple: these camps should not exist; they should not be there. I remember—as I am sure anyone who knows their history will know—that the Nazi regime put up Theresienstadt as a model. They said, “This is where we will let the media in and this is what we will allow people to see. We will create the façade that people are happy, being resettled and getting what they want.” We know what a myth and a lie that was, and how many millions of men, women and children lost their lives.
I have been criticised by the Sri Lankan high commission for making that comparison, and I am pretty certain that I will be criticised again after I have finished speaking today. However, I do not know what is going on in the camps. My constituents do not know what is happening to their relatives, because no one is allowed in to see. They are allowed to see only a sanitised version of what is going on. Therefore, if I am making certain comparisons that are not true, I challenge the Sri Lankan Government to allow people in to see.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his long-standing campaign on behalf of the Tamil community and on the importance of respect for human rights. A cross-party campaign has existed for some years both inside and outside the House, and I pay tribute to Rachel Joyce, Andy Charalambous and others. The Foreign Secretary said that this was a war without witness, but the danger now is that any peace will also be without witness. There is an urgent need not only for the International Red Cross to maintain its presence, but for proper United Nations monitoring and freedoms, not least for the press.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments—I agree totally. We must let people from the International Red Cross and from third sector and humanitarian organisations in to see what is happening. Most importantly, let us not talk about 100,000 people, let us not say Christmas or next year, and let us not use excuses that there might be mines. I am sure that if the Sri Lankan Government asked the international community, everyone would help to clear those mines, should they be there. Therefore, the camps should be closed down now, this second, however many there are.
I cannot remember how many debates we have had in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber on this subject, but it strikes me that the Sri Lankan Government could not care less what we say. I do not think that they are listening to anything we say—they do not give a damn. I think that they will pay lip service which, forgive me, is irrespective of whatever the Government might say and whatever the political persuasion of that Government is. The Sri Lankan Government have their own agenda. Without any question, they have arrested people on suspicion of being in the LTTE who are in fact children and pregnant women—it is absolutely outrageous. If Sri Lanka will not stop its behaviour, the only way forward is its suspension from the Commonwealth with immediate effect. As I have said, I believe that the camps should be closed.
I have taken on board your comment about many Members wishing to speak, Dr. McCrea, so I will finish quickly. If we do not protect innocent Tamil people, we should hang our heads in shame because we are not doing what we were elected to do. I say that from the position of not having a vast Tamil community in my constituency that could affect the election one way or another. I am speaking as one human being, about a group of other human beings. Lest we forget what happened; it can happen again.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Dr. McCrea; I can think of no hon. Member who is more fitting: you have lived through a situation in Northern Ireland, and many people have gone from there and spoken at various stages with the Sri Lankan Government. They have tried to use the benefits of knowledge accrued in Northern Ireland to help with the peace settlement in Sri Lanka.
I remember the day when President Rajapaksa came to Northern Ireland as the new President of Sri Lanka, to try to learn from that peace process. What an absolute betrayal of everything that the people in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the politicians at the time tried to teach him about the way to achieve peace. What we have seen over the past few years has been abhorrent to the international community.
I will respect your injunction about time, Dr. McCrea, but I want to make a couple of brief points. My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) has eloquently said what most of us in the Chamber believe. I pay tribute to her for her speech, for securing the debate and for her long-standing commitment to fighting the injustice perpetrated by the Sri Lankan Government.
The other day, I was with a delegation of Chinese parliamentarians. Ostensibly, I was speaking to them in a meeting about climate change. However, the most important dialogue that we had was about the Chinese role in supporting and funding the Sri Lankan Government, their part in funding the military hardware that was used to secure the defeat of the LTTE and the way that they have propped up Rajapaksa’s regime. We need to see increasing pressure from our Government on China and on those in the region who support the Sri Lankan Government.
My second point was touched on by my right hon. Friend and is that when the fighting stops, it is even more important to have political dialogue that is genuine and can sustain the transition through to peace. We clearly do not have the preconditions or circumstances for that at the moment, and as my right hon. Friend said, even if people were doing their best, it would not be good enough. Sadly, nobody in the international community thinks that they are doing their best.
The Sri Lankan Government therefore have to give an indication that they are prepared to embark on a political process. All hon. Members present suspect that they will move towards a process of elections within the next few weeks. In those elections, they will emphasise the need for a strong mandate and they will no doubt use their defeat of the LTTE and the resulting popularity—as they see it—to rally people to vote for them. They will then try to secure a strong mandate and say that they will use it to try to give devolution to various parts of the country, but how can anybody believe them, when that is what has been fought over for so long?
This debate is about one thing and one thing only: the right of the Tamil people to live equally on the island—the right to self-determination and to secure a homeland called Tamil Eelam. I speak as a Scotsman who is proud to represent a constituency in London and who is proud to be, first and foremost, British. However, I am also proud of my Scottish national identity, and I recognise that such a right obtains for a Tamil in Sri Lanka as much it does for a Scotsman in England. Unless the Sri Lankan Government understand the Tamils’ genuine aspiration to self-determination and a national homeland, there is absolutely no prospect of a transition from the bloody awful war that we witnessed, through the detention camps and on to a peaceful political solution.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) on securing the debate. I consider myself a bit of a veteran of Westminster Hall debates, and I see a few others, such as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). What is significant about this debate, however, is that 22 Members of Parliament are, or have been, present, and that reflects the importance that Parliament gives to this subject.
I have been working closely on this issue with my Tamil community for a number of months, not because I am pro-Tamil or anti-Sinhalese, but because I am pro-human rights, and the human rights of the Tamil community are being grossly infringed and are under a sustained onslaught in Sri Lanka. The Tamils do not have access to life’s simple pleasures, and I am struck by the contrast between the conditions that we have been debating and the event that I have just come from in my constituency—I was just able to get here in time to take part in the debate. Representatives of a number of different religious communities were celebrating the 20th anniversary of Holy Trinity’s luncheon club. Our communities have such rights, but the same rights are being denied to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.
My local Tamil community has made a number of simple, straightforward requests to the Sri Lankan Government, and I want briefly to list them to show how reasonable they are. No one, including the Sri Lankan Government—or their more responsible members— could suggest that these requests are unreasonable.
The first request is that the Sri Lankan Government free the people who have been illegally detained and let them go to their homes. The second is that they allow back to their homes the many thousands of people who were forced out of residential areas that were turned into high-security zones and who are now held in camps in other parts of the island. The third request, which other Members have mentioned, is that the Government publish the details of all those detained as suspects and treat them according to appropriate international standards.
The fourth request, which other hon. Members have also mentioned, is that the Sri Lankan Government allow free media access to the camps, so that we can corroborate, or otherwise, what the Government are saying about conditions in those camps. The fifth request is that the Government allow legal representation and access by the International Committee of the Red Cross to those who are detained as suspected members of the LTTE or their alleged supporters. The sixth request, which I support entirely as a long-standing member of Amnesty International, is that if the Government believe that people are guilty of something, they should press charges against them and bring them before an internationally recognised court, so that their cases can be heard.
The seventh request is that the Sri Lankan Government work towards a political solution. We in this Chamber know very well that such situations are resolved only through a political solution that allows different communities to live together in peace and dignity. The eighth request is that the Sri Lankan Government investigate human rights violations, and the ninth and final request is that they investigate war crimes. On those last two points, it is important that we show balance. If an investigation into human rights violations and war crimes is carried out, as it should be, it will clearly need to look at allegations on both sides of the conflict. It should not focus exclusively on what has happened on the Sri Lankan side, but should also focus on what happened on the Tamil Tigers’ side.
I have one slight disagreement with the right hon. Member for Enfield, North. My Tamil community does not endorse the UK Government’s actions as wholly as she has done, and it feels that the Government could press harder. I understand the sensitivities that are involved, given the UK’s past involvement in Sri Lanka, but my Tamil community certainly feels that the Government could take more action. Many Members have outlined what action could be taken in relation to the Commonwealth, GSP plus and so on. We hope that such action will be taken and that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the Government are pushing at all the vulnerable points to secure an outcome that helps the Tamils and brings longer-term peace and stability to Sri Lanka as a whole.
I am not taken in by what the Sri Lankan high commission has said. I, too, had meetings with its representatives earlier this year in which I was told that 80 per cent. of people would be freed—I think that I was told that that would happen by the end of the year. Clearly, that is not going to happen. There has been no explanation of why the Sri Lankan Government are making such slow progress towards releasing people from the camps, and I query whether they are likely to honour any commitment unless the international community takes overwhelming, co-ordinated action to exert as much pressure on them as possible, using any avenue available.
On that point, I will complete my remarks. I hope that we will hear a very strong statement from the Minister, so that we can all go back to our communities and reassure people that the UK Government are taking every possible action to resolve this matter.
We all agree that it is wrong to keep people encased in barbed wire and to take away their freedom of movement, and we all agree that it is wrong not to give access to journalists—that is the easy stuff. The political issue is what we do about that. We can stand here all day making speeches and feeling better about ourselves, but where, in the end, is the political clout that will make a difference? That is the question that separates the Labour party from the Conservative party, because Labour Members believe that we must use any leverage that we can to promote what we want to happen.
In 2008, EU imports from Sri Lanka under GSP plus totalled €1.24 billion. GSP plus saved Sri Lanka €78 million in import duties. If we are not prepared to use that as leverage to get people released, we are simply posing, we are simply pretending and we are simply playing at tackling these issues because we think that that will put us in a good political light.
We have been here before. We were here on South Africa. We were here over apartheid. Was it warm words and the hand of friendship that released Nelson Mandela and tore down that regime? No, it was individual Governments and people making their views known and spending their money in the way that they thought most appropriate that effected the change in that regime.
There is no support in warm speeches and warm words—the only support that we can give is in real action. The removal of GSP plus gives us huge leverage to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to do what they should be doing.
I shall be brief. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I agree with everything that she said. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) on securing time for this important debate.
We are currently reminded daily, by the proceedings in the Hague, of the inhumanities and terrible occurrences in the Balkans. In the meantime, the international community seems to be standing by while similar things go on in Sri Lanka. It causes despair in anyone with any regard for human rights. I do not know whether I have a single Tamil constituent. However, I have several Tamil friends and am a friend of anyone whose human rights are degraded in the terrible manner that is causing the suffering in Sri Lanka. We know of the camps and that there is apparently a process under way to weed out the Tamil Tigers. No one knows how it works. The Red Cross is not allowed to go there. Still, after months of the process, there have been few, if any, releases. We now know that the Government will allow some day passes, in a limited area, in Mannar. Surely, someone who can be given a pass can be out for the rest of his life, not just a day.
Awful things are transparently happening, and we in the international community are expected to swallow that nonsense. We know about arbitrary detention, and I shall not deal with that. We also know about the inability to trace relatives and the lack of protective mechanisms in the camps. The whole scenario, and the fact that it is allowed to happen in a Commonwealth country, is a disgrace. The situation in the camps is getting worse by the day, and we should bear in mind the onset of the monsoon period. The lack of access to proper medical care grieves me as well.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) said about the horrible acts under the Nazi regime. Events in Sri Lanka are not quite on the same level, but they are fast getting there, and the international community should say enough is enough. It should be baring its teeth to that evil Government who are acting in a way that is totally incompatible with anyone’s notion of human rights. It is high time that we used every possible diplomatic avenue that is open to us. I agree that, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) wisely said, GSP plus should be the first thing to go. Let us go for that without delay. In the meantime, let us urgently suspend the Sri Lankan Government from the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is meant to be one of the nations that observe standards. The things that are happening are not the standards of the Commonwealth.
I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the debate, Dr. McCrea; I was tied up on constituency matters. If the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) had any Tamil constituents, they would have been in touch. They are the most communicative community that this country has, and that is what is brilliant about them. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) for what she has done and does, and for obtaining today’s debate, which has provoked a flurry of briefings and advice, not least from the Sri Lankan high commission, which has once again furnished us with its version of the current situation and facts pertaining in Sri Lanka.
I shall be very brief, so that others get to speak. I was first elected to the House in June 1983. In July 1983, there were riots in which many Tamil people ended up in refugee camps. There was terrible bloodshed and an outbreak of the fighting that has, essentially, gone on ever since. One could read in this Chamber now the debate that took place in the House in July 1983, and, sadly, it would not sound out of place; it would sound much the same as what hon. Members have been saying this afternoon. I have watched the situation and worked with many people from Sri Lanka over many years, and I have constantly been appalled at the level of violence, the amount of displacement and the killings. Huge efforts were made, particularly by the Norwegian Government, to bring about a long-term sustainable peace. Unfortunately, those efforts were not successful. Many others have tried to bring about such a peace, without success.
Not so long ago, we all witnessed on global television the final acts, when the Sri Lankan military moved in on the Tamil positions: brutality and killings, a huge number of deaths, the displacement of large numbers of people and the destruction of their homes. Then followed the triumphalism of the Sri Lankan army and the declarations of a national victory. That is not a good sign for reconciliation or a harmonious island of Sri Lanka in the future. The presence of large numbers of people in the refugee camps is frankly horrific. They are not in refugee camps; they are in prison camps. That is what those places are in reality. They cannot leave or be communicated with unless they have permission, and the sense of displacement and anger in the Tamil community around the world is palpable. It must be addressed.
So what do we do? Sri Lanka is a member of the Commonwealth and a trading partner. It seems to carry on getting tourists and all the trade that it wants. I recognise that sanctions cause people hardship, but if that is the only instrument that is left to bring recognition of and reasonableness towards the Tamil people, it is a policy that we must pursue. I therefore have no hesitation in supporting that approach. In the humiliation of the Tamil people in the camps, their poverty and displacement and all the privations that they now suffer lie the seeds of tomorrow’s conflict, and the one after. All that will be created by the present policy is another version of the LTTE. It is utterly counter-productive, apart from being illegal in human rights law. I have also been looking at the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. It is regrettable that the United Nations Human Rights Council could not see that when it voted at the special meeting on this subject in September.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. It is not a question of being anti-Sri Lanka. It is a question of being pro-human rights, pro-peace, pro-justice and ensuring that the Tamil people have their place, their rights, their language and their identity. That is what brings harmony. Denial of that identity brings tomorrow’s death and conflict.
The debate is coming towards its end and it is difficult not to repeat some of what has been said, but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), I have been involved in issues to do with Sri Lanka since I was first elected in 1992 and I cannot remember in all that time a worse year than this for what has happened there: the fighting at the beginning of the year, and having people coming to see me whose families, friends and relatives were trapped in Wanni, and who did not know what was happening to them. Many still do not know what is happening to them. The point has been made already that we do not have, but should have, information about who is in the camps.
I want to emphasise a point about conditions in the camps, which has been mentioned, but perhaps was not stressed as much as it should have been, and that is what will happen very shortly when the monsoon arrives. We are rapidly heading for a humanitarian disaster in the camps. If the monsoon rains arrive and there is flooding in the camps, so that latrines are flooded, there will be disease and people will die in significant numbers. There is a disaster on the horizon if the camps are left in their present condition, with the number of people currently in them.
There has already been discussion in this debate about what the Tamil people ask for, and the response of the Sri Lankan Government. No Government who claim to be democratically elected, a member of the Commonwealth and the United Nations, and to be signed up to international conventions should be able to ignore international opinion, as the Sri Lankan Government have been doing. It is not anything new. Over the years people have been arrested or have disappeared and there have been emergency regulations to allow detention without trial. Those things, we know, have gone on for years. That is what astonishes me about the reaction from the Conservative Front Bench this afternoon and the suggestion that we should not use pressures such as GSP plus. If we are not prepared to use such tactics—
The hon. Gentleman will have his opportunity to speak in a moment; I want to conclude. If we do not use what pressures we can with the Government of Sri Lanka—not allowing preferential trade, stopping arms sales and all the sorts of thing that we have used with other regimes—we will not see the political progress that every one of us wants. Only with that political progress will we reach a solution.
Thank you, Dr. McCrea. I shall choose two points from the speech that I was going to make. Incidentally, many of them have been covered in the excellent introduction. My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) set the tone, and it is fair to say that it is a tone of anger. We are angry about what is going on and that it has taken so long even to get where we are.
I will make two points before I sit down in the minute that I have. Even ignoring the terrible problems in Sri Lanka—the poverty, the fact that women are not free in any sense, the sex attacks on children and so on—it is a country that is supposed to be conducting an election in 2010. I put it to the Opposition spokesman as well as my hon. Friend the Minister that we must beware of those elections and ensure that they are free, fair and transparent. Nothing else will be acceptable to the international community.
It has been an excellent debate, with contributions from all parties. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), who opened with a powerful speech containing moving examples of detainees’ life in the camps. I will not go through each of the contributions, but some have been excellent.
I will, however, pick out the contribution of the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), who mentioned Auschwitz. Like him, I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau this summer. The visit made me particularly aware that one key problem was that people at the time did not have a full grasp of exactly what was happening. The Government of the day made propaganda films giving a generous view of what was going on in the camps, but an example of what was happening in one camp was in no way a summary of what was happening in all the other camps. I know that the Minister was in Sri Lanka recently with the BBC, but whatever he saw, it is vital that what happens in every single camp is exposed. If there were nothing to hide, journalists and politicians from all parties out there, including the Opposition, would get into every camp.
More recently, I went to visit the camps in Darfur at Nyala. At that time, the Sudanese Government were also saying that there was absolutely nothing to worry about in certain camps, but when individuals saw the facts on the ground, it was easy to see that there was. Women were being abused in the camps, torture was being carried out by—
I apologise for arriving late; I had another engagement that I could not get out of. I met with Tamils from my constituency and the west midlands with my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) a week or so ago. The state of the camps—flooded now, let alone when the monsoon comes—was absolutely shocking. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is appalling that Sri Lanka, once one of the most respected members of the international community, is keeping 260,000 people in what are effectively Government-run internment camps?
I certainly agree. We have all, no doubt, had an update from the Sri Lankan high commission, but on one hand we have its response, and on the other—I admit to an interest as a fully paid-up member and supporter of Amnesty International—we have a completely different point of view. We also have first-hand evidence of exactly what has happened from people with family and friends detained out there.
When the Minister sums up, will he address the questions raised by many people, including at Amnesty? The camps remain overcrowded and lacking in basic sanitation facilities, with water cascading through tents and sewage overflowing. Will he give us a report of what he saw and what can be done to ensure, as we hope, that people will be released in the immediate future, and that they have access to basic facilities and humanitarian rights until that time?
There have been reports that the military are blocking release attempts by the civilian Administration, as well as reports of torture. Has the Minister had any evidence of that, and what pressure can his Government apply to end it? There have also been reports of releases from the camps that were in fact transfers to other, unnamed camps where displaced people have been subject to re-screening by local authorities. Will he enlighten us about what he believes to be the numbers in the camps, how many camps there are and exactly where those people are who have been allegedly released? Have they just been transferred?
With the monsoon season approaching, we are at a critical time. It is right that we are having this debate to ask what more can be done to avoid a humanitarian disaster following the political upheaval. This debate is not about the justification for the Sri Lankan Government’s action against the Tamil forces, or the future political settlements that will be essential for a long-term restructuring of the country. Of more immediate concern is the fate of those 250,000-plus refugees still detained in Government-run internment camps.
It has now been almost five months since the war’s end. It is unacceptable that so many people are still essentially prisoners of war when the war is supposed to be over. Even now, the Government continue to restrict access for aid organisations and impose strict limits on what work they can do in the camps. Journalists are not allowed into many camps, with only the rarest of exceptions. Anyone looking at the official Government photographs of the camps could be forgiven for thinking that living conditions were of the highest standard.
I notice that the Sri Lankan high commissioner’s statement said that the President had written a letter to the Tamils calling this
“an important time”
in their lives, when they were
“on the threshold of a new beginning in life.”
At Auschwitz and Birkenau, people walked into the gas chambers with a letter promising them a hopeful future. I hope that what is happening in the camps does not mirror what happened in Poland. We must have immediate, open and free access for politicians and journalists in order to know that that is not the case.
Based on other reporting and inside information from the camps, a picture emerges of chronic overcrowding, fraying tents and latrines not up to the task. During late September, visiting UN Under-Secretary-General Lynn Pascoe expressed strong concern about how few of the displaced had been able to return home and the fact that the rest are detained against their will. Despite their internationally recognised right to leave the camps, they are not simply displaced; they are detained.
I know that the Minister was recently allowed access to the camps, and I look forward to his assessment of both the humanitarian conditions in the camps and the political likelihood of resettlement being allowed in line with the agreed time scale, which already seems to be slipping. President Rajapaksa has reiterated his plans to resettle 70 to 80 per cent. by the end of the year, but I think that we can all agree that that looks highly unlikely given the slow progress to date.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said that it was important that we also discuss what sanctions and leverage we have. Again to use my constituent as a proxy to argue the Sinhalese case:
“Hasn’t the British Government learnt we don’t care about you? We have wealthy and powerful friends all over the world.”
What leverage does the hon. Gentleman think we as a nation have over the Sri Lankan Government?
I think that we have economic leverage. The GSP plus has already been mentioned as one lever that can be pulled. I think that we can press at every level to ensure that both economic sanctions and pressure can be used in all international bodies, so that people get their human rights. It is not just an argument about what might be happening to individual constituents. As has been mentioned, there are constituencies, such as mine, with very few Tamils. It is a question of international human rights.
I am sure that other hon. Members would agree with the statement of the Minister with responsibility for Africa, Asia and the UN last month that there would be no more aid for displacement camps apart from emergency funding. However, with the monsoon season fast approaching, it looks as though many civilians will face the rains in the camps. Will the Minister comment on the tents provided by the UN, which are not up to standard, unlike those provided by the Chinese Government? Tents that will withstand the rains are needed.
I will draw my remarks to a close because I want the Minister to have ample time to deal with my questions and those of other hon. Members. Although we may be able to appreciate the Sri Lankan Government’s desire to identify former Tamil Tigers, who may stay in the camps, we must make it clear to them that detaining thousands of innocent people is not an acceptable way to achieve any security goal. The Sri Lankan Government may have inflicted defeat on the Tamil Tigers, but Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic country and the Tamil population must be part of its future. The danger is that the treatment of Tamils in the camps will undermine the prospect of a long-term peaceful settlement in a country where peace has been sadly lacking.
I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea, and I welcome the Minister to our debate. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) for securing this important and timely debate.
The events in Sri Lanka since its Government launched the final stages of their major assault have been truly appalling, as all who witnessed them would testify. It is a war marked by the ferocity of its violence and by its propaganda. I join Stephen Rapp, the US ambassador at large for war crimes issues, in calling for all humanitarian abuses by both sides to be fully and independently investigated as part of the reconciliation process. It is clear from today’s debate that any investigation into the deaths and disappearances of internally displaced persons inside the camps must be full, open, transparent and internationally monitored.
There has been intense interest in this subject in the House. A look at Hansard reveals that there was a topical debate on 5 February, an Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on 24 March, a debate in the Chamber on 20 April and a Conservative Opposition day debate on 14 May. I can think of few conflicts in which we have had no military involvement that have prompted so much impassioned and constructive debate in the House.
Tragically, the end of hostilities has not resulted in the end of suffering. On 27 August, to mark 100 days after the end of the fighting, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, declared:
“We have repeatedly urged the Sri Lankan government to take all possible measures to prevent further suffering by allowing UN and relief organisations full and unrestricted access to provide shelter, food, water, medicine, and to oversee the screening process. With the onset of the monsoon season, it is vital that conditions in the camps are improved as soon as possible.”
That is absolutely right. We have heard appalling reports of the conditions in the camps. The shortage of water, the lack of proper tents, the lack of food and the random disappearances have been mentioned today. I agree that we need a transparent register of all those who are in the camps and unrestricted access for journalists and Opposition parties. That would go a long way towards ensuring that what is happening is transparent.
Last week, we heard from the Minister that he has had access to the camps. He has first-hand knowledge of them. A press release from the Sri Lankan Government this week stated that there were still 205,179 people in the camps. It is still a serious situation, given the situation in the camps. Will he explain what discussions he has had with the Sri Lankan Government on ending the situation?
Last Thursday, the Minister said that the Department for International Development
“would no longer be funding aid for closed camps and that our aid would be directed towards facilitating movement from the camps.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 895.]
We applaud that, but how will it be carried out? What help does he expect to give to displaced people who return home? Given the Sri Lankan Government’s commitment to return 80 per cent. of those who are detained in the camps to their places of origin by the end of the year, that approach seems sensible. However, is it plausible? Obviously the camps should provide all the essentials of life, but steps to make them more permanent would make the goal of returning people home more difficult.
There are two clear obstacles to the return of the IDPs. The first is demining, which has been mentioned. As we have seen elsewhere in the world, demining is time-consuming and dangerous. I have discussed the matter with the Sri Lankan high commission and the difficulty of knowing where the mines are is an obstacle to the IDPs returning home. It is essential that they return to a safe and secure environment. Will the Minister go into more detail about his understanding of the timetable for demining? If it cannot be completed to a satisfactory level by the end of the year, how can 80 per cent. of the IDPs be expected to return home?
The second and equally important factor, which has not been mentioned in this debate, is the condition of the housing and infrastructure to which the IDPs will return. The scale and intensity of the fighting caused great devastation. Perhaps the Minister can shed some light on these issues. What percentage of houses are fit for habitation? What medical facilities remain? I raised with him in Question Time the hospital at Vavuniya that was bombed. What damage has been caused to water and sanitation facilities? I fully share the desire of the IDPs to return to their homes and that is fully endorsed by the diaspora in this country. However, we must be certain that they do not return to areas that lack the fundamentals of life.
I did not say that we should not use European Community trade as a lever, as some Labour Members are claiming in order to play politics. Of course we should use it as a lever. However, if the Government are going to support the European Union in ending trade preferences, they must explain how they will use that with the Sri Lankan Government to achieve the ends that we all want—to see the IDPs return. They must also explain how the cost of the infrastructure building will be met. It is no good Labour Members criticising me when they cannot show where the will and the means are by which this can be done.
No, I have given way enough on this issue.
What assessment has the Minister made of the capacity of the Sri Lankan Government to afford the necessary rebuilding? If there is a shortfall, will he explain how the British Government will assist in overcoming the funding gap? Furthermore, what assessment has he made of the potential need for his Department to intervene to provide assistance when the rations and grants that the Sri Lankan Government are promising run out?
There is a huge will in this country to assist. Do the British Government support the idea of my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) of an internationally managed development fund to channel assistance to Tamil areas? Does the Minister agree that, through that mechanism, the Tamil diaspora around the world could offer constructive support and contribute financially to the rebuilding of their country?
What discussions has the Minister had on voter registration within and outside the camps to ensure that next year’s general election and potential presidential election are free and fair and involve all sectors of society equally? That is vital to the reconciliation process. The suggestion of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) was sensible. As so often happens in such debates about violations of human rights around the world—which are often attended by none of the Labour Members who are present—there is complete agreement about what we want to see in these countries. One of the best ways to help human rights is to have a properly democratic society.
The final issue I would like to raise is the return of Muslims and other displaced people, which has not been mentioned today, although it touches on the remarks made by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling). What discussions has the Minister had with the Sri Lankan Government about that issue? Some of the Muslim communities in the camps in Puttalam have been there for several decades. That is a serious issue that the Sri Lankan Government must address.
We have said a great deal about that already. The issue is clear. It is up to the hon. Gentleman’s Government to explain in negotiations with the European Union what leverage they are going to adopt if they support the measures. It is up to the Government to do that; we, the Opposition, are merely asking questions.
The ending of hostilities has created the opportunity to improve the lives of all those innocent Sri Lankans caught up in the civil strife. While the appalling conditions continue in these camps, bitterness and division will remain. Unless a lasting reconciliation process takes place, the only result will be the return of further suffering and increased violence.
I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) about how appropriate it is that you are in the Chair, Dr. McCrea, for this debate. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) for securing the debate, which is not only timely but incredibly well attended. I also thank colleagues from all parties for their excellent contributions and for showing the passion and deep commitment that they have to human rights and the plight of the people who are in the IDP camps.
I should like to make a few remarks that have been informed by observations made during my visit earlier this month. I will try to address as many of the questions that were put to me as I can, but given the large quantity of questions that came in a flurry from the Opposition spokesman, it may take me more than just 10 minutes to reply to them all. I will reply in writing to those points I do not deal with today.
I went to see the camps at Manik Farm and then had meetings in Colombo with Government Ministers, UN agencies, the Red Cross and non-governmental organisations. During my visit, I made it absolutely clear that the United Kingdom’s priority is to secure freedom of movement for the civilians who are currently detained in the camps. I accept that that is not something that the United Kingdom alone can achieve, which is why it is so important for all donors, Governments and UN agencies to have concerted and co-ordinated advocacy with the Government of Sri Lanka. It is also important that all parties send a clear message. I do not think we have heard a clear message from all hon. Members today, and I regret that deeply.
If the Government of Sri Lanka granted freedom of movement, frankly, the humanitarian implications of the forthcoming monsoon could easily be avoided. My right hon. Friend gave a good description of the experiences of people in those camps. I can tell her that that is nothing compared with what will happen when the monsoons hit, because the locations of those camps are totally inappropriate for withstanding heavy rain—it is as simple as that.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that at least 70 per cent. of the civilians could find accommodation easily with host families. That is a clear indication of the potential for freeing up people from the camps. Notwithstanding the recent progress on returns, which I warmly welcome—I am genuinely grateful for the work that has been done—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) asked what the numbers were that we could talk about. The latest figures, which are from 24 October, show that 35,822 people have been transferred to their home areas, principally in Jaffna, and that 16,490 vulnerable people have been released to institutions or host families but were unable to return to their homes. That is a total of some 52,300 people. In addition, about 3,000 people have been transferred to new closed camps. Those figures show the scale of the transfers that have taken place so far.
The Government of Sri Lanka have recently announced that 60,000 IDPs will be released in the next month. So, on top of the 30,000 who have been released since my previous visit, there is the potential for the Government to meet their 80 per cent. release within their 180-day framework. However, it is important to recognise that, even if those 60,000 are released on time, it will still leave 170,000 civilians detained in the camps. It has been more than five months since the conflict ended, which is more than enough time to screen the majority of people in those camps. Frankly, the entire population does not have to be screened before the first people are released. The freedom of movement for those who have been screened and shown not to have close links to the LTTE could have happened some time ago. That has been demonstrated by the speed of the returns that have been taking place over the past couple of weeks.
Much has been made in the debate about whether mining prevents the speedy return of people to their homes. I went to one of the minefields in the Mannar area, where the mines action group project to clear the mines, which is funded by the Department for International Development, is taking place. Mines are a real threat—we should not underestimate the scale of the mining operations—but the work that those people do and the speed at which land can be cleared gives us the confidence that there is the scope and the capacity for people to come out of those camps and go back to their towns and villages.
Last week, I announced that a further grant of £500,000 will be given to a specialist demining organisation called the HALO Trust, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), for mine mapping and heavy mines clearance in the Mullaitivu area. Again, that will enable a speedy return for people from the camps.
Much has been said about the generalised system of preferences plus argument—much of the debate and many of the exchanges have centred around that issue. May I just put on the record what GSP plus is all about, because I think that there is a bit of a misunderstanding about the consequences of the European Union not carrying on with the process that it has embarked upon with GSP plus? The scheme incentivises and assists vulnerable economies to achieve standards in sustainable development, human rights, labour standards and good governance. Countries apply to join the scheme—it is not forced on them—and in doing so, they commit to implementing 27 UN conventions in the areas that I have just mentioned.
We treat all countries in the GSP plus scheme objectively. The integrity of the scheme demands that that takes place. Failure to maintain the integrity of the scheme has an impact not only on Sri Lanka, but on the other 14 countries that benefit from the scheme, whose people benefit from improved human rights. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), I think that he has just made the wrong call on this one. So the Opposition Front Bencher needs to go away and look again at the consequences of what he was suggesting would happen if the GSP plus scheme is not seen through and the integrity of the scheme is not maintained—not just for Sri Lanka, but for the 14 other countries, as I have mentioned.
I want to make a bit more progress. I have only a couple of minutes, but I will try to get through my points are quickly as I can.
It is clear that the monsoon has the potential to wreak huge damage the sanitation systems in the camps that are, at best, described as fragile. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West spoke about the tents. Yes, they are in poor condition, because they have been up for six months under the burning sun and are rotting away under ultraviolet light. That is the consequence of having camps that have been there for far too long.
We have heard a number of exchanges today about the situation in the camps and the need to get people speedily removed from them. The key is that people should have the choice, which is why the freedom of movement from the camps is so important. If conditions are not right in the towns and villages from where people came, the choice can be exercised by the people themselves, if they so wish.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
This is a little like playing Manchester United—you get a couple of extra minutes when you play them.
I remind hon. Members that humanitarian funding is provided by DFID to neutral and impartial agencies and that none of its funding goes directly to the Sri Lankan Government themselves. The hon. Member for Cotswold asked what DFID was doing to facilitate movement out of the camps, and I remind him of my announcement last week of two grants: one to the International Organisation for Migration to assist with the safe and dignified transport of people from the camps in Vavuniya to their areas of origin and the other to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to provide three bushels of rice seeds to every one of 8,800 returning families in the west Vanni region, providing them with the wherewithal to look after themselves for at least one year. That is the right direction of our aid. I repeat what I said when I was in Sri Lanka: we will not give further humanitarian aid, barring extraordinary circumstances, to the closed camps once the monsoon season is over. It is important that that is recognised as the UK’s position, and I hope that the international community will join us in agreeing that that is the direction in which to move forward.
The hon. Gentleman raised a couple of other issues. I say to him that being in government means making judgment calls and being clear where we stand on the fundamental issues, such as humanitarian needs and human rights. Preparing for government also makes demands on any Opposition to spell out exactly where they stand on those fundamental human rights. On the evidence of last week, repeated in today’s debate, I say to the hon. Gentleman with all respect that the Conservative party has failed to measure up to that duty.
It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your watchful eye, Dr. McCrea. It is in the nature of Westminster Hall debates that Members take on the role of parliamentary Oliver Twists in pleading with Minsters, “Please Sir—or Madam on some occasions—can I have some more?” I regret that I do not intend to depart from that noble tradition, but I appreciate how tall an order it is in the present economic climate.
West Yorkshire has a population of 2.1 million, making it the third largest metropolitan area in England outside London. Leeds and Bradford are significant centres in their own right, and my constituency of Pudsey is positioned midway between the two. There are more than 100,000 daily commuting trips to Leeds city centre. Although the recession has led to a reduction in traffic flows, forecasts of housing and employment growth indicate that congestion will continue to worsen. Those dynamics intimately affect the communities in my constituency: they have an adverse impact on the environment, road safety and labour market accessibility for my constituents and will continue to do so unless substantial investment is made in alternatives.
Everyone has to accept that there have been substantial, real-terms increases in transport funding in the Yorkshire and Humber region under this Government, which is to be applauded. However, it remains an inescapable fact, which I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will not attempt to contradict, that the region has missed out when compared to others. For example, the latest Treasury figures show that total transport spend per head in Yorkshire and Humber is £239, compared to £826 in London. Of course, London is the nation’s capital and can be considered a special case, but Yorkshire and Humber fares less well than all other regions. For example, the north-west and the west midlands received per head £309 and £269 respectively.
It hardly requires a crystal ball to anticipate that transport will not remain unscathed in difficult future public spending decisions, but on the basis of the historical funding deficit highlighted by the Treasury figures which I have just quoted, I submit that there is a powerful argument that Yorkshire and Humber should not be further disadvantaged in comparison to other regions.
Many of my previous debates on transport, and there have been many, have focused to a great extent on bus services, so I will start by referring to them. Bus patronage across West Yorkshire is broadly stable at the moment, but the growth in concessionary travel as a result of the Government’s very welcome free English concessionary travel scheme masks a decline in fare-paying passengers. The largest bus company in Leeds, First, has reduced mileage by around 5 per cent. in 2009, which is a significant figure. The company has blamed that reduction on the recession, but the local integrated transport authority, Metro, believes that two fare increases of 8 per cent. in January and July 2008 have also had a significant adverse effect on demand.
As one of those Members who have campaigned for years with a handful of colleagues, I very much welcomed the Local Transport Act 2008, which at long last provided practical powers for local authorities to introduce bus quality contracts and protect passengers from the worst excesses of the deregulated bus system. I have said it before, will say it again and will repeat it for ever: deregulation has totally failed my constituents, just as it has failed the constituents of many other Members. Services have been chopped and changed almost at will, and where they do exist, they are often missing or late. Many of the communities in my constituency have lost their services or key transport links altogether as routes have been whittled down to a profitable core.
There is increasing concern about the large taxpayer subsidy that is paid to the bus industry for running tendered services, which I understand has increased by about £1 billion over the past five years. There is little evidence in West Yorkshire, and certainly not in my area, that we are getting true value for money, because so many of the contracts had only one tender.
Metro, like many ITAs, I suspect, will be considering whether to develop bus quality contracts as a response to the current lack of integration, and continual above-inflation fare rises and reduction in service levels. It has to be said that one of the great risks of embarking on protracted and detailed work to introduce such contracts is the stated intention of the Conservative party, often articulated by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), to repeal the relevant provisions of the 2008 Act. It amazes me that the Conservatives continue to believe that deregulation has worked, because that view is not shared by anyone who depends on bus services in my constituency or, I suspect, the rest of the country.
Rail services play a vital role in supporting the social, environmental and economic interests of major cities such as Leeds. Over the past decade or so, Leeds and the three lines through my constituency have seen the highest rate of growth in rail commuting anywhere in the country. Unfortunately, inadequate investment in additional rail carriages has led to severe overcrowding problems on commuter services, examples of which are reported to me regularly by constituents.
As I said earlier, all is not doom and gloom, but, unfortunately, we are working from a low starting point. In my constituency, we have seen investment in new rolling stock on the Wharfedale line, where excellent 333-class rolling stock replaced 40-year-old, slam-door cast-offs from the south-eastern commuter belt. As a regular passenger, I used to marvel at the decrepit windows that were held in place by what appeared to be a type of Polyfilla. We have seen additional capacity recently on the Harrogate and Caldervale lines and, less recently, the £250 million upgrade of Leeds station and the refurbishment of all three stations in my constituency: New Pudsey, Horsforth and Guiseley. Following the Hatfield disaster, there was also substantial investment in maintenance and safety measures, which are largely invisible to passengers but essential to their safety and the service.
Metro continues development work on the Leeds rail growth package, which includes the introduction of two new rail stations at Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall Forge, the former of which will definitely serve my constituents when and if it is built. I understand that the business case for the £23 million scheme has recently been re-endorsed by the region and is due to be submitted to my right hon. Friend and his colleagues at the Department for Transport shortly. I hope that he can give me some commitment or indication that they will give it a fair wind, and that the stations will be ready to open by 2012.
All I have just described is in stark contrast to the Tory legacy, under which the first act of the original franchisee was to shed 70 or 80 drivers in order to stay within its bid. The result, of course, was the chaos of constantly cancelled services, loss of passenger confidence and patronage, and a shortage of drivers, all of which took several years and later franchisees to redress.
Rail use in West Yorkshire has, however, recovered from that crisis and has increased by 54 per cent. over the past 10 years. Peak patronage into Leeds has doubled in the past 10 years, and between 7.30 and 9 am, more than 90 per cent. of trains have standing passengers, with some trains carrying up to 200 per cent. of seated capacity. A 2008 survey found that the 17.13 Leeds to Knaresborough service, which runs on the Harrogate line through my constituency, had around 270 passengers travelling on a three-car train with only 157 seats—it often has 110 standing passengers. The train operates at around 120 per cent. of total capacity, that being DFT capacity, which also includes some standing passengers. The DFT franchise capacity for the train is 222, which includes provision for 65 people standing, so the train already exceeds that by 50 standing passengers.
There are particular concerns about overcrowding in the morning peak hour between 8 and 9 am on several routes, on which trains consistently operate at more than 90 per cent. capacity. As my right hon. Friend will know, when trains operate at more than 70 per cent. of DFT capacity, passengers have to stand to be carried on them. Harrogate line trains from Harrogate and Knaresborough through Horsforth in my constituency operate at 96 per cent. capacity on average.
My right hon. Friend will know that the current Northern Rail franchise was awarded on a no-growth basis, despite the substantial increase in passenger numbers to which I have referred. Fortunately, Metro, Northern Rail and Yorkshire Forward have worked together to secure 37 extra carriages. That is welcome, as it represents an increase of one third for the lines served, but passenger numbers have doubled, and that puts it into context. That is why overcrowding is so acute, and why a sustained increase in carriages is essential.
The 2007 rail White Paper and the high-level output specification for the railways recognised the problem in Leeds and set out proposals for investing in additional carriages. Subsequent plans, which were welcome, proposed 182 extra carriages for Northern Rail services, including some new-build diesel and electric trains. Unfortunately, following the DFT’s embargo on ordering new-build diesel trains, Northern will now have to make do with substantially fewer carriages than was originally promised, and all of them, I regret, will be older-type carriages handed down from elsewhere on the network.
The Wharfedale rail users group has highlighted the concerns of passengers, but those concerns are shared across all the lines that run through my constituency. In a thoughtful submission to the Yorkshire and Humber route utilisation strategy, WRUG called for a mix of additional, retimed and longer peak-hour trains for Leeds to reduce overcrowding, for more early morning trains at weekends, for improved frequency of trains on Sundays and for simple improvements to signalling on the line to improve flexibility and reliability.
Unfortunately, the only improvement that was accepted—this is welcome—was the lengthening of four peak-hour trains in each direction by the addition of two coaches to increase them to six coaches, but none of the other improvements was accepted. Of course, that one is to be welcomed, and it is far better than what we inherited from the previous Government, but, as WRUG rightly says, if growth continues at even half the current level, the trains will be as crowded as ever within just a few years.
To run longer trains, the platforms between Guiseley and Ben Rhydding must be lengthened. Network Rail says that that will not happen until 2012-13. That will obviously not tackle today’s overcrowding, so there is a much greater sense of urgency about what is needed.
There is also clear disappointment that the line will receive second-hand trains that do not meet modern access requirements for older people or people with disabilities. The trains will have limited space, with tip-up seats for pushchairs and bicycles, and no advanced information systems or air conditioning, which are currently enjoyed on most of the rolling stock on the Wharfedale line. While any additional carriages will be welcome, it is vital that the DFT commits more firmly to a second phase of rolling stock for Northern that includes high-quality and, dare I say it, preferably new rolling stock for the region.
I want to say a few words about Leeds Bradford airport, to which transport links are extremely poor. A recent planning application to improve and expand the terminal was opposed by many of my constituents. I stress that they are not nimbys—they accept the airport as a fact of life and moved into their houses knowing full well of its existence—but they genuinely feared that the application was a precursor to future unsustainable growth.
When the council recently privatised the airport—it was controlled by five West Yorkshire authorities—and gave up total control over its development, I anticipated that we would quickly have a debate of that kind. It is ironic that, having let the genie out of the bottle, the council is now trying to make a virtue of putting it back in. The surrounding communities—my constituents—have been badly let down by the council’s having earmarked little or none of its £60 million share of the proceeds from the privatisation for any measures to mitigate the impact of the airport’s operation.
The new terminal would allow the airport to cater for 5 million passengers a year. Although that level of patronage and more is projected in the airport’s master plan, such growth has enormous implications for local environmental issues, including air quality, transport and road safety, as well as the broader challenge of climate change. Without a major modal shift, which will require support from the Government, the impact on local communities is likely to be substantial, since the surrounding highway network cannot absorb even present traffic levels, let alone the projected ones.
Although the airport’s financial contribution to bus services is to be welcomed, that is unlikely to be sufficient to address the access problems. Setting aside land for a potential tram-train link is also welcome, but unless there is a much clearer commitment at an earlier stage from stakeholders such as the airport owners, the council and Metro—supported, I hope, by the Minister’s Department—to make such a link happen, it will continue to be aspirational and will not be introduced to meet the challenges that I have mentioned.
Leeds is the largest city in the UK without a rapid transit system. The Minister will be relieved because I do not intend to mention the history of Supertram, but in the wake of the Supertram bid, Metro and Leeds city council are continuing to work in partnership to develop a high-quality rapid transit system for Leeds, known as new generation transport, which is effectively a trolleybus system. The NGT project is seeking to provide a high-quality transport system that will help to support the growth of Leeds’ economy and improve the local environment by helping to tackle congestion. I hope that Leeds will, at long last, get its fair share of major infrastructure investment.
Although neither the Supertram nor the new trolleybus system bid that has been submitted would directly serve my constituency and its communities in the first instance, each would have major social, environmental and economic benefits and could eventually provide options for links through Pudsey and west Leeds to both Leeds and Bradford.
Following the submission of the major scheme business case, it is hoped that the DFT will provide a decision on whether the project will, by the end of this year, be given programme entry—perhaps the Minister can provide a bit more information on that—which I understand is the first stage in the Government’s approvals process. The Minister’s view on that would be appreciated.
We also need the Government to support the delivery of the city region transport strategy and give a long-term funding commitment that reverses the historic underfunding that I have mentioned. The city region has just published its refreshed 20-year city region transport strategy in line with the Government’s new approach to strategic transport planning beyond 2012, incorporating the Eddington and Stern recommendations regarding the economics of transport and climate change. The strategy focuses on the current and future demands on the transport network in the city region, with particular focus on jobs and housing growth and the transition to a lower-carbon economy, which I regard as vital. The strategy defines spatial priorities and transport interventions to deliver sustainable economic growth.
I cannot apologise for being somewhat parochial in looking through the plan, because elements of it are particularly relevant to my constituency: improved rail services between Leeds and Bradford; expanded park and ride facilities in the New Pudsey area; comprehensive bus priority for the A647; new rapid transit corridors between Leeds and Bradford; possible tram-train options to the airport; the A65 quality bus corridor; and new rail stations at Kirkstall Forge and Apperley Bridge.
Westminster Hall, and Westminster as a whole, is obviously a place for special pleading. As Members of Parliament, we all want the best for our constituents and our constituencies, but I am pleading not just for Pudsey, Leeds and West Yorkshire, but for the whole region, because our social, environmental, and economic interests are so closely interconnected and have not, under the previous or current Government, been properly addressed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on securing this Adjournment debate. He began his excellent speech by comparing himself to a parliamentarian Oliver Twist, and although my knowledge of Dickens is not very good, I know that he is different in a number of ways. First, he keeps coming back for more—again and again—in that I think this is the fourth debate on transport in Pudsey that he has secured in the last four and a half years. Secondly, he actually gets more when he asks for it. His track record over the past few years—I will mention aspects of it during the course of my short speech—shows what an effective parliamentarian and Member of Parliament he has been.
My hon. Friend was right to say that the context of his contribution was choice. The choices are between making the investment that we have put in place over the recent period—yes, of course there should be more—and making savage cuts today, which is what other parties wishing to form a Government seek to do.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend on being an advocate for not just Pudsey, but the region as well. I hope that those who read his speech will see that he has been arguing not simply for his own back yard, but for other parts of the region, which will benefit from investment. Indeed, the country has benefited from the investment that has been secured for his region.
I agree that good transport facilities are a vital factor in the drive for more sustainable communities. My hon. Friend is right to say that transport contributes to a wide range of policy agendas, including achieving stronger and safer communities, improving the health of children and young people, promoting equality and social inclusion, improving and looking after the environment, and facilitating economic growth. When transport fails, those aspirations are put at risk, which is why he is right to keep coming back for more.
What is the importance of transport in local communities? The local transport planning process is bringing about a step change in the way in which local authorities plan strategically for transport in their areas. Each local transport plan is a vital part of the work that local authorities undertake with their stakeholders to strengthen their place-shaping role and the delivery of services to their communities. Local authorities are ultimately accountable to their communities, rather than to the Department for Transport, both for the quality of their transport strategies and for ensuring effective delivery.
This Government have shown, and will continue to show, their commitment to investment in sustainable transport in Yorkshire and Humber. My hon. Friend was fair in making that point in his speech.
The regional capital allocation for local road and transport schemes this year alone is £254 million. My hon. Friend will remember that representations were made to the Government last year to make immediate cuts to try to ensure that the deficit did not grow, but we chose not to do so. Direct DFT spending, in addition to the £254 million on road and rail in the Yorkshire and Humber region, was £636 million in 2007-08, and it has doubled in the six years from 2001-02. My hon. Friend will recall that another political party wanted us to share the proceeds of growth instead of investing in Yorkshire and Humber. I am sure that his constituents will appreciate the choice that we made.
Future planning for investment in transport must recognise the realities of building a low-carbon economy and supporting sustainable transport solutions. My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned funding for the Yorkshire and Humber region. In no period in recent times has more money been invested in that region than in the recent period. Substantial investment is going into the region, including the £771 million of funding over three years that was announced in November 2007 to invest in highway maintenance and small schemes, such as public transport projects and town centre improvements, and £47 million has been transferred within the regional funding allocation to integrated transport and maintenance for the current financial year. He is right to say that that will have an implication for residents in Leeds and West Yorkshire, and we know that bus patronage has risen. Metro’s partnership investment in free city bus services for Leeds and Wakefield, and more latterly Bradford and Huddersfield, has been extremely popular and well received. The A65 quality bus corridor has received £21 million for the Kirkstall road in Leeds to speed up journey times, which will lead to even more people using buses.
I am pleased that Metro and Leeds city council are building a brand new town centre bus station at a cost of £3 million to provide new, high-quality and fully accessible facilities. It is more than just a place to catch a bus. It will enhance the town centre, make it more attractive, and provide other benefits for the community, such as 24-hour monitored CCTV and real-time departure information.
My hon. Friend referred to new generation transport. I saw in today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph coverage of the fact that his region will put in the application to which he referred. He is right to say that we are working with Leeds and Metro to develop a high-quality bus rapid transit network for the city, involving complementary measures such as park and ride. A trolleybus has emerged as the preferred option and will be known as NGT—new generation transport. It will run mostly on the old Supertram alignments, and £250 million of funding has been set aside in the regional funding allocation for Yorkshire and Humber. My hon. Friend asked us to consider the matter swiftly when the business case has been received, and I have undertaken to do so to allow the decision to be made as soon as possible. He is right to plead for his community and to make his argument.
An important point that I want to deal with before I run out of time concerns the deregulation of buses. Let me make it clear that privatising the buses in the mid-1980s created serious adverse consequences. We want people to use buses at similar levels as back then, but it has taken us some time to achieve that. The Local Transport Act 2008 has given local authorities the necessary tools to deliver better and more integrated transport services. Under the Act, local authorities have greater local freedom and choice, with increased flexibility and powers, so that they can deliver a tailored transport system that is better suited to local needs. It gives local authorities the right mix of powers to improve the quality of local bus services, ranging from voluntary partnership schemes to quality partnership schemes through to quality contract schemes—the London-style model of bus contracts.
We have seen that bus services can work well where there are good relations between bus operators and local authorities, and each is prepared to invest—the local authority in effective bus priority, traffic management and other infrastructure, and operators in offering more attractive services that the public want to use. If partnerships do not work, another tool is needed in local authorities’ armoury.
My hon. Friend has made representations about, and commented on the need for, additional tools in local authorities’ armoury, and I am pleased to say that the Government have consulted on draft regulations. That consultation closed on 7 October, and the responses are being considered. I hear his argument that we must respond quickly, and I expect to be able to finalise the regulations and guidance by the end of the year. Authorities such as his, which want control and another tool in their toolkit, will have that.
My hon. Friend also mentioned rail and High Speed 2. He will be aware that some parties that want to form a Government want a high-speed line from London to just Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds—and that is it. We see the benefits for regions such as his from High Speed 2 going to other parts of the country. His Regional Minister has been a powerful advocate for that, and he will be pleased to know that that Minister met my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Adonis and Sir David Rowlands, the chair of HS2, to make those representations as robustly as possible.
During his excellent speech, my hon. Friend also referred to Leeds-Bradford international airport. He was right to say that the new owners face challenges, but they have ambitious plans for growth, and that will provide local people with a greater choice of travel opportunities.
It has been difficult to respond in 10 minutes to all the excellent points that my hon. Friend made. If I have not covered any of those points, I shall write to him, but I hope that he accepts that the Government have an ambitious agenda for improving transport in not only Pudsey, but West Yorkshire and the wider Yorkshire and Humber region. We have invested in transport and will continue to do so. We will, with regional and local partners, tackle congestion, provide high-quality public transport and improve access to jobs and choice. My hon. Friend is right to continue to exert pressure on the Government, and I hope that his constituents will see some of the benefits and fruits of his lobbying, with even more investment in Pudsey and his region.
Dartford River Crossing
I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight the continuing delays and hold-ups experienced by many of my constituents when trying to use the Dartford river crossing. The Minister will be aware that I have been highlighting the issue for some time, and the frustrations of regular users of the crossing have not diminished during that time. Indeed, various motoring organisations have reported that congestion has increased following the introduction of the increased tolls 12 months ago.
Anyone who uses the Queen Elizabeth II bridge on a Friday night heading into Kent will confirm the miles and miles of queues, with pollution and lost income arising from the hold-ups. It is not only my constituents, or indeed the constituents whom I hope to represent after the next general election in Old Bexley and Sidcup, who recognise the issue. The Department for Transport acknowledges that there is a serious problem. Its press release of 20 April 2009 noted that the route incorporating the Dartford river crossing
“is one of the routes with the highest levels of delays nationally and this level of service is experienced by around 40 to 45 per cent. of Crossing users.”
According to the Department, nearly half of all motorists experience delays at the crossing, and the cost is significant at around £40 million a year.
What is the cause? One might think that the worsening delays are caused by increasing traffic, but that is wrong. In the year ended March 2009, just over 51.5 million vehicles used the crossing, which was around 1.5 million fewer than the previous year, with an average of 141,500 movements a day—the lowest for a decade. If increased vehicle movements are not the problem, what is the cause? The answer is simple—the tolls, and the toll plaza arrangement.
Ministers have argued consistently—the Minister may do so this afternoon—that the purpose of the crossing tolls is to manage congestion. The reality is that they have been maximising congestion. The Department for Transport commissioned a study by consultants, Parsons Brinckerhoff, which was released earlier this year. They investigated the causes of the delays, and noted that the toll plaza lay-out was the primary constraint on vehicles using the crossing. It is right and proper that longer-term capacity across the Thames is examined—I shall come to that—but in the light of decreasing vehicle numbers using the Dartford crossing and increasing delays, the most pressing need is to examine options to maximise efficient use of the crossing.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. He will understand that there is real anger and concern in my constituency about the recent developments with tolling at the Dartford crossing, which he highlighted. Does he agree that residents believe that the Government have let them down by not dealing robustly and consistently with the matter earlier?
My hon. Friend has championed the cause several times, and I appreciate how strongly he feels about it. There are relevant factors for his constituents, including, for example, unavailability of the discount scheme to Bexley residents. I will come to that, as well as to the general issues of delays and congestion. We do not want the tunnels to become a glorified underground car park, or the bridge to become an aerial sightseeing spot for hours on end. Sadly, that has become the reality for motorists, as the Department for Transport’s studies show. That is why I welcome the current “better use” review of the crossing.
In a letter to me dated 25 September 2009, the Minister confirmed that the Department was considering two options as part of that review. The first scenario would maintain the two toll plazas, but seek to increase the use of newer technology and new plaza lay-outs. The second option could see the removal of the southbound charges with the installation of a larger northbound plaza through a redesigned lay-out, located in such a way that issues of weaving on the approach to the northbound tunnels could be addressed.
As the Minister is probably aware, I am rather sceptical about the requirement for charges at all. Therefore, the potential for at least the charges across the bridge into Kent being lifted is certainly welcome. I look forward to hearing more from him on that issue.
However, we are told that the better use review and, indeed, the wider review will take approximately 18 months to conclude. Can the Minister confirm when he expects the review to report to him? If it recommends that the southbound toll charges can be withdrawn safely—I appreciate the need to focus on safety issues and the fact that any changes should not add to problems or cause increased dangers to motorists—when can hard-pressed motorists expect any changes to the arrangements to be implemented?
Given the clear recognition by the Department of the congestion and delays, I urge the Minister to speed up the review, so that we can take some positive steps to speed up the traffic generally. If there is a way of decoupling the better use review from the wider aspects of the review of capacity more generally, I urge him to take that option. I appreciate that there may be arguments about the interconnectivity between the two, but as he will recognise, the clear indication from his own Department is that the problems that motorists are experiencing require that the issue of short-term capacity and better use of the existing crossing be expedited, so that motorists can see that there is some prospect of improvement taking place in the near term.
Let me move on to the wider review. Will the Minister provide an update on work on the lower Thames crossing capacity study? The initial report was released in January, setting out a number of potential options, some of which had significant environmental sensitivities attached to them. There has been no new information released since the initial capacity study, or detail as to whether the options explored comprise a potential bridge, a tunnel or both. Will the Minister explain what the milestones are in taking that programme forward and when he expects to present more detailed options for consultation? A number of stakeholders, including local residents and other groups, are keen to understand how the process is intended to move forward and how they can become involved in it as it progresses.
In looking to the future, we come to the issue of the Government’s most recent announcement about the Dartford crossing. In the past few weeks, we have had the news that the Government plan to sell off the crossing to raise about £3 billion in total, as part of the wider package of potential asset sales that they have said they are considering. It is clear that some value or price range has been put on the crossing to reach the headline figure of £3 billion. I appreciate that the Minister may feel constrained in sharing the Treasury’s valuation with us this afternoon, but he can share the assumptions made in estimating that indicative amount.
What level of charges has been assumed? How many vehicle movements have been allowed for? What assumptions have been made on investment in new technology for administering the tolls? Over what period was the income stream from the tolls allowed for? Most particularly, does the valuation take account of the outcome of the better use review? Clearly, if toll charges into Kent were scrapped, that would have an impact on the financial modelling. I am concerned about whether the Department has determined the outcome of the review in advance, even before the report has landed on Ministers’ desks. The Minister needs to give a clear and unequivocal answer this afternoon that any proposed sale will not fetter the implementation of the recommendations of the better use study as and when it reports.
In addition, what assurances can the Minister give that, if the crossing were sold off, charges would not be ramped up by a private sector owner, as part of a deal with the Treasury to maximise the capital value, but only through the exploitation of motorists for years to come? Then there is the issue of the level of charges. The crossing generates about £50 million of income for the Department for Transport each year. The Government took away the ring-fenced investment in local transport projects. That was about 12 months ago. Therefore, there is absolutely no guarantee that any of the moneys raised by the tolls will be spent on transport infrastructure in the vicinity of the bridge.
It is quite unusual, in a congestion management concept, that the money is not reinvested in public transport or other mechanisms that would see people using different routes in order to reduce congestion. In London, the congestion charge is used to fund bus services and other means of public transport in order to reduce reliance on the car. It is interesting to note that that does not apply to the Dartford river crossing. The historical justification was that the money would pay for the cost of the bridge—the cost of the building and of maintenance. That no longer applies, so there are continued questions about what the justification is if it is not congestion management, for the reasons that I have highlighted. The Government need to consider the whole issue of the charges that are being applied. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is not present at this debate, but he has raised the legality of the charges overall. It would be interesting to hear whether the Minister has any views on the rationale and justification for retaining the charges.
What the Government have done, though, is to create a scheme for residents living in the areas of Thurrock and Dartford councils to receive discounts for using the crossing. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister how successful that has been. What has the take-up been? How many residents have sought to apply for one of the permits?
Equally, it would be interesting to hear the latest information on take-up of the DART-Tag. Previously, the DART-Tag had a facility whereby there were dedicated lanes, but with the introduction of the new toll charges, the dedicated lanes were scrapped, so what might have been seen as one benefit of having the DART-Tag—being able to speed through the toll plaza—was removed, albeit registering for a DART-Tag gives people certain benefits in the form of discounts. However, it would be interesting to drill down on the local discount scheme. How many people have registered? How much money have residents in those areas saved by registering for the discounts since the scheme was introduced?
More generally, there is the basic issue of the scheme’s fairness. This is a relevant issue for people living in the vicinity of the crossing. Someone can be living nearly 13 miles away from the bridge in Thurrock and receive the benefit of the discount scheme, yet if someone is a resident of Wennington village in Havering, which is in my constituency, or of Crayford in Bexley—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett)—and therefore lives much closer, the discount scheme simply does not apply. That appears to residents of my constituency and, I am sure, of my hon. Friend’s constituency as perverse and unfair.
It would be possible to operate a scheme based on post codes within a certain geographical area around the crossing. That could be administered. I appreciate that there is a need to consider something that is practical and does not create a new burdensome bureaucracy, but at least that approach would be more equitable and logical. It would certainly be fairer. Therefore, will the Minister commit at least to a review of the discount arrangements, based on the experience that he will have received information about in the past 12 months, so that those basic issues of fairness can be addressed?
Anyone who uses the Dartford crossing regularly will appreciate the sheer frustration of being stuck in miles and miles of jams. The Department for Transport needs to get on with its review of the need for additional road capacity across the Thames and, in particular, better use of the existing crossing. The current tolling arrangements appear—motoring organisations suggest this as well—to be adding to the delays and congestion, and motorists certainly should not be seen as a soft target.
I therefore trust that the Minister will assure us that his Department is committed to measures that will help to beat the queues, such as scrapping the tolls into Kent. I trust also that he will help drivers who are driven to distraction by delays and that he will help businesses to keep on moving in these times of continuing recession. The crossing and those who use it should not be seen merely as a cash cow for the Treasury.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) on securing this debate. The Dartford crossing is a heavily used piece of the strategic road network, with about 150,000 vehicles using it every day. The crossing brings huge benefits to users. After the construction of the M25, the crossing became a key part of the strategic road network, and the Government decided to promote the construction of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. A concession was let for the building of the bridge, which opened in October 1991. Under the concession, tolls were charged to pay for building costs.
The substantial growth of traffic that we saw in the 1990s had two effects. First, it increased the revenue collected—thus the bridge would be paid for sooner than might have been expected. Secondly, and more significantly, it raised concerns about what might happen if the tolls were removed. A study in 2001 indicated that, without a charge, traffic would increase by 17 per cent. Against that background, we replaced the tolls with a charge. The hon. Gentleman spoke of increased delays, but the response to recent parliamentary questions shows that delays of more than 15 minutes have remained relatively stable over the past year or so.
The Transport Act 2000 requires that revenues from charging schemes are invested in transport. Revenues come directly to the Department for Transport, not the Treasury, and add to what is available for investment in transport projects across the country. That includes projects of direct benefit to users of the crossing, such as enhancements to the trunk road network on either side of it.
Given the prospect of increasing traffic, we were keen to target the charge better. In our 2006 consultation, we proposed removing all charges between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am, when traffic is lightest, and to increase the charge for cars to £1.50. We also proposed allowing those opting to pay using an electronic DART-Tag to continue to cross for the old £1 cash rate. Electronic payment has two advantages: it is more convenient, and it saves time at the barriers. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the figures that I have seen suggest that, since the introduction of the revised charging rate, the take-up of the DART-Tag is increasing monthly.
As a result of the 2006 consultation, a substantial number of representations were made in favour of discounts for local residents. We agreed to work up a local resident discount scheme, so that the people most affected would be included. The changes were introduced in November 2008. Some 20,000 local residents accounts can be added to the generality of DART-Tag accounts, which number 87,000.
I shall now address some of the arguments most often raised about the Dartford crossing. The one that I hear most often—to an extent, the hon. Gentleman repeated it—is that the barriers cause the congestion and that, if we were to take them away, the queues would disappear. The evidence suggests that the real problem is the volume of traffic and that, even if the toll plazas were removed, there would still be queues. The crossing was designed to handle up to 135,000 vehicle movements each day, but it is not uncommon for there to be 160,000 vehicle movements.
The crossing is a bottleneck. Not only is traffic coming from the M25, but traffic going northbound from Kent and south-east London joins the M25 traffic, and there are some busy local junctions. The tunnels are a particular problem, and the barriers fulfil an important traffic management function. Not to have them could have significant safety implications. Removing the charge and taking the barriers away altogether is not the answer. It would be irresponsible, and would have a negative impact on people’s safety.
I recognise what the Minister says about toll charging being a means of controlling traffic going into the two tunnels and about the road lay-out, the weaving of traffic and the safety implications that may exist in such circumstances. His arguments are predicated on the increased traffic of the 2001 study to which he referred, yet experience over the past 10 years shows that traffic has declined. The average is now at its lowest for 10 years. Will he reflect on his comments in the light of reducing traffic, particularly—sadly so given the recession—given that we are likely to see a further reduction? The question of tolls is less relevant in relation to the bridge, as I am sure that he will agree.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about the overall quantum of traffic. In evidence to the Transport Committee recently, we set out our view of the trends: we accept that there has been some decline as a result of the economic downturn, but anticipate that we will return to continued growth.
Another argument that we often hear is that people have no choice about the journeys that they make and that the charge therefore makes no difference. The evidence does not bear that out. Since removing the night time charges, we have noticed that some journeys are being made earlier. We also noticed higher traffic levels when local retail centres were running promotions. That implies that there is some discretion about the journeys that people make. The real problem is too much demand and not enough capacity.
In recognition of the increasing growth in demand, the then Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) announced that the Department for Transport would embark on a study to consider the long-term capacity issues at the crossing and to look at possible options for addressing rising demand. In April 2009, the Department published its initial analysis of current and possible future capacity constraints at the crossing, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. That analysis brought together the most recent information on the current performance of the crossing. It also provided forecasts of its future performance. That gives us the best evidence base for assessing what needs to be done.
The Government are clear about the fact that we need to address both the short and medium-term issues faced by our national transport networks. We must plan for the transport network that we want for the future. Based on findings and conclusions of that analysis, we announced in April that further work should be undertaken to investigate what can be done in the short to medium term to improve the service provided by the existing crossing. We recognise that options for improvements in the short term may be limited by physical constraints at the existing crossing. However, we consider that more could be done to improve users’ crossing experience.
As for making better use of the crossing, our recent study recommended further work on two possible scenarios. It recognised that each had the potential to generate some benefits by increasing throughput, while avoiding an impact on safety. The first scenario would maintain the two toll plazas but would seek to increase their efficiency by using newer technology and new plaza layo-uts. The second scenario proposed the removal of the southbound charges and the installation of a larger northbound plaza in a redesigned lay-out, located in such a way that the weaving of traffic on the approach to the northbound tunnels could be addressed.
The initial study also considered major infrastructure options that would provide additional capacity, and it produced a high-level assessment of their impact. The three options for a new crossing identified in the study are at the site of the existing crossing, between the Swanscombe peninsula and the A1089, and from the east of Tilbury to the east of Gravesend and the M20. We intend to consider the merits of the better-use options, as well as the options identified for the provision of possible additional crossing capacity. There are some clear synergies in the work involved, particularly in the assessment of benefits and impacts.
The hon. Gentleman has urged the Government to ensure that the consideration and implementation of a one-way tolling regime should be completed as soon as possible and should not depend on the timing of any consideration of the case for additional crossing capacity. It is not possible to divorce those two pieces of work as suggested—indeed, he made some of my argument for me, particularly on the possible sale of the bridge—given the linkages between them and the need to derive the most suitable combination of options. We need to understand the implications of one-way tolling, but we expect work to consider making better use of the crossing to take between 12 and 18 months. We therefore expect the review to be finalised in mid to late 2010. If there are opportunities to implement measures safely, we will of course do so, but we will need to understand the potential costs and benefits of any proposals.
Finally, to be clear about the potential sale of the crossing, it was announced in the 2009 Budget that further work to assess future capacity requirements for the Dartford crossing would be undertaken with a view to bringing forward proposals to realise value by the Budget of 2010.
On 12 October, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s plans for the sale of assets over the next period. Included in the list of assets to be sold was the Dartford crossing. The Department is currently considering the various commercialisation options for the existing crossing and funding for any additional capacity in the future. The options are being considered alongside the initial analysis of the further capacity options, and the exact nature of any concession sale will be influenced by the outcome of that study.
The options currently being considered include letting a long-term concession to operate and maintain the current crossing, letting a concession for the period prior to new capacity being constructed, letting a concession with the option to add new capacity as required and letting a concession incorporating the design, build, finance and operations of a new crossing. Any option will need to support the crossing’s long-term capability as part of the strategic road network.
In a parliamentary answer to the hon. Gentleman, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), said:
“No estimate of the saleable value of the Dartford River Crossing has been made. Any such valuation would depend on the nature of any commercial agreements for a sale, including, but not exclusively, the length of those arrangements, the level of future charges and forecast future traffic volumes. The assumptions made around those issues are the same as those which would be made for normal business planning purposes.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 1444W.]
Given the monopolistic nature of the Dartford crossing, the charging regime under any concession will need to be set within a contractual framework to protect users. As a result, charges will be set at a level that is appropriate for both users and any potential concession owner, and that will be consistent with economic efficiency and the Government’s policy objectives for managing congestion.
The Department plans to provide initial views from its analysis of capacity options in early 2010 and the timing of the necessary further steps needed to reach final conclusions on the provision of additional capacity.
Question put and agreed to.