Wednesday 24 March 2010
[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]
Presbyterian Mutual Society
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Helen Jones.)
This is the last time that I shall chair a Westminster Hall sitting in my House of Commons career. I say to the hon. Gentlemen and hon. Lady from Northern Ireland that it is not inappropriate that I should be chairing a debate relating to the province of Ulster and Northern Ireland. I call Rev. Dr. William McCrea to address the Chamber.
Sir Nicholas, I count it an honour to sit under your chairmanship today. I thank you for the courtesy you have shown to my hon. Friends over the years. I wish you well in your retirement and thank you for your superb chairmanship and leadership. Thank you for calling me to open what I trust will be a profitable debate on a subject that touches the hearts of many of my constituents.
I welcome the opportunity to open this timely debate on an issue that needs to be resolved to the satisfaction of all of the people involved. I ought to start by painting a backcloth to what is an injurious situation that affects the lives of many ordinary people and their families. The Presbyterian mutual society is an industrial and provident society with about 10,000 members. Its aims are
“to promote thrift among its members by the accumulation of their savings; to use and manage such savings for the mutual benefit of members; to create a source of credit for the benefit of its members at a fair and reasonable rate of interest; to procure or provide legal, accountancy, consultancy or secretarial services and advice to members towards assisting them in the establishment, improvement or expansion of their business or financial affairs and generally to undertake all or anything expedient for the accomplishing or incident or conducive to or consequential upon the attainment of all or any of the objects including the acquisition of property and any rights or interest therein.”
Membership of the society was obtained by the purchase of shares. The maximum shareholding was £20,000. Members who wanted to place more money with the society could do so by making loans to it. A dividend was paid on shares and those who made loans received interest. The society grew rapidly, with its assets rising by more than 12 times from £24 million in 2002 to £309 million in 2008. It made significant advances for buy-to-let properties, and development and agricultural land.
It is clear from the rules of the PMS that it was intended to be a thrift institution, as it aimed
“to promote thrift among its members by the accumulation of their savings”.
That the PMS was accepted for registration with that rule indicates that it was acknowledged by the authorities to be a thrift institution. PMS savers who put in their money as shares had every reason to believe that they were in the same position as those in credit unions, who likewise deposit their money in the form of shares and are none the less recognised by Government as savers.
PMS members are certainly not shareholders in the ordinary sense of the term. The shares did not derive their value from being traded and were withdrawable at any time at their original value. The value of the shareholding did not determine the voting power of the member; all were equal. As the recent court case indicated, shareholders could turn themselves into creditors at the stroke of a pen by applying to withdraw their shares. As the Treasury Committee report of February put it,
“it is understandable that PMS members considered them as analogous to deposits in a building society”.
In the light of that, I cannot understand how the Treasury can justify regarding the members as akin to equity-style shareholders.
Like so many things in life, all went well until circumstances outside the control of the PMS took centre stage. As a result of the collapse of the Icelandic banks, the Government effectively guaranteed all deposits in conventional banks. Although that had a stabilising effect on the wider financial system, it prompted many PMS members to move their money from the society. In the first three weeks of October 2008, the PMS responded to many members’ requests for withdrawals, which reduced the balance of the PMS current account from £25 million to just £4 million.
On 25 October 2008, the board met and decided that no further payments should be made to members until it had been professionally advised on the liquidity of the society. By the time of a subsequent meeting on 6 November, a further £50 million worth of requests had been made and three members had announced their intention to commence legal proceedings for the recovery of their investments. Faced with that problem, the priority of the board became asset protection and it was resolved to place the society into administration to achieve that.
Legislation was passed quickly in Northern Ireland by my colleague Arlene Foster, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland. That news was welcomed at the time because it protected the assets of the society and prevented a fire sale that would have resulted in many small savers not getting back any of their invested money.
On the Iceland situation, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, whatever the technical legal position, which we will hear from the Government Front Bench, it is ironic that Government action to help savers in Icelandic banks helped to precipitate the problems in the PMS and caused its members to suffer? Although the Government may make a technical argument for not treating PMS members and Icelandic savers equally, they are real people who depend on their savings. Does he agree that whoever forms the next Government should treat those Irish savers and savers in the Icelandic banks equally?
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. It is correct that, whatever technical point the Minister may come up with to get out of doing what should be done, it will not rest easy with people in Northern Ireland. Should there be a Government of a different complexion after the election, I hope that they will consider the matter seriously and prove themselves faithful to the people of Northern Ireland.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He mentioned that the Presbyterian mutual society was allowed to go into administration as a result of action taken by Arlene Foster, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland. As the then Minister of Finance, I was part of a meeting between devolved Ministers and the PMS. Is not the swiftness with which action was taken in the Northern Ireland Assembly an illustration of the benefits of devolution to Northern Ireland, which allows local politicians to respond with flexibility, imagination and rapidity to crises that arise in the affairs of the people of Northern Ireland?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. I will touch on some of his points as my speech develops.
There is little merit in apportioning blame for the PMS’s difficulties. Last month, on 18 February, the Treasury Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall), published a report entitled, “The failure of the Presbyterian Mutual Society”. Although I welcome the fact that the report highlighted the fact that many people are still suffering, I feel that it entered the territory of who was to blame for the crisis, without finding any solutions. The questions posed when the Chair spoke at Stormont might have added to the debate and, indeed, such finger pointing might have momentarily given a grain of comfort to those who are hurting most. However, the report was disappointing, because it contributed nothing in terms of the real positive solutions that are necessary. That is exactly what I want this debate to touch on today: the positive solutions.
During this morning’s debate, I will not be distracted by a blame-game attitude. I will strain every muscle to focus every effort on seeking a quick and genuine resolution to the issue. We must all vigorously pursue such a resolution, so that we can alleviate the distress and hardship that are genuinely being experienced by these savers, many of whom have been caught in the valley of despair. Many ordinary PMS savers are asking how we have got into this situation, and it can be rightly acknowledged that many factors were at play, including the downturn in the property market and the instability of the UK’s established financial institutions.
Again, I stress that we need to find a solution for those people who have been affected by the difficulties, rather than simply blaming those at fault. I have no doubt whatsoever that the matter of who is to blame will be a challenge for another day, but it is not something to be considered now. We must recognise the impact that the crisis is having on thousands of savers who lodged money in the PMS. We, as politicians in Northern Ireland, have received hundreds of letters from distressed savers who cannot afford to pay the fees of old peoples’ homes, their children’s university tuition fees or the tax bills incurred by selling off property and lodging money in the society until they purchased their new home.
It is, of course, delightful and regrettable that this will be the last time I will serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that in North Down I, too, have many Presbyterian savers with the PMS. I am a Presbyterian, but I am not a saver with the PMS. My constituents, like his constituents, were looking forward to a positive outcome from the Prime Minister’s working group that was set up on 17 July 2009. A Treasury report states that the group was set up with the expectation that it would
“report back to the Prime Minister in the autumn.”
To my knowledge, no such report has appeared. My constituents and the savers in Presbyterian churches not just up and down North Down but throughout Northern Ireland are greatly disappointed with the attitude of the Prime Minister and the Government, who I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree have a moral obligation to support PMS savers. Will he perhaps enlighten hon. Members as to why no report was forthcoming last autumn?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We will have to wait for the later part of the debate to find out why the report has not been forthcoming. However, I want to develop that matter a little further and I will touch on it again in my remarks.
Many of the people I have been speaking about put their life savings into the PMS because they were assured that the society was safe and honest. They were also assured that it would help the furtherance of God’s work and, of course, that they would get a return on their money. Comforting expressions of concern and sympathy will not suffice in dealing with this crisis; we must actively engage with the Government to reach a solution that will allow pensioners, families and ordinary citizens to have access to their hard-earned money. The crisis is impacting not only on families, but on many Presbyterian Church congregations throughout Northern Ireland, who had money saved to build new church halls and so on. The Presbyterian Church plays a vital role in civic society by organising after-school clubs, old age pensioner groups, youth groups and so on. Many of those groups must now endure financial hardship.
Only yesterday, the administrator of the PMS announced that people who have more than £20,000 in the society will get a payout of 12p for every pound they had in the PMS. That is the first payout since the PMS went into administration in November 2008, and although it will provide a crumb of comfort for those who have more than £20,000 in the society, it will do absolutely nothing to comfort those who have less than £20,000. Many of those people are hurting most.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. He is touching on a critical point. Although all the savers are obviously hurting because of what has happened over the past 17 months, many senior citizens had up to £20,000 in the PMS. They are totally dependent on that money for the remainder of their lives and many were going to use the relatively small sums of money that they had for their funeral costs. We need to try to assist those people as well as the others.
I wholeheartedly agree and thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have major concerns that yesterday’s announcement will only put many of the smaller savers into deeper despair. Unfortunately, in February this year, the High Court in Belfast made a ruling that investors with less than £20,000 could not be considered creditors of the PMS and therefore could not share the £20 million of income that the society has generated since it went into administration. We need Government action to resolve the issue, so that all who placed money in the PMS—both small and large savers—can get their money back.
I am not suggesting that nothing has been happening to take the issue forward. I know that the First and Deputy First Ministers have had meetings with the Prime Minister and Treasury officials on several occasions. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), the Minister for Finance and Personnel in the devolved Administration, and Mrs. Arlene Foster, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, have been actively engaged in these negotiations. I pay special tribute to them for that. However, the bottom line is that my constituents are still without their much needed money—indeed, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) showed how much that money is needed and how people are hurting.
Some people have been credited with talking a good talk on the issue, and have gleefully pointed the finger at others while stating that others have all the responsibility to resolve the matter. However, we all carry a responsibility to use our best efforts to bring about a solution. The Moderator—and, indeed, the past Moderator—of the Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland can confirm that I, as the Chief Whip of the Democratic Unionist party, have hosted with my right hon. and hon. Friends a number of meetings to discuss the in-depth issues that are pressing their congregational members. Indeed, I have made a further request with the Prime Minister’s office for a meeting with the moderator.
In June 2009, the Government set up a ministerial working group to deal with the issue. The group comprised the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Minister for Finance and Personnel, the Northern Ireland Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland. Much work has been done and continues to be done behind the scenes to find a satisfactory resolution to the matter for those who have lost money through the PMS. However, it is vital—indeed, imperative—that the Government here in Westminster, together with the local Administration in Northern Ireland, redouble those efforts and work to find a resolution to the problem.
Savers with the PMS have waited too long; they need assistance from the Government on the matter. We have already seen our Government help to protect the interests of those who have money saved in the Icelandic banks. Is it too much to ask for the Government to help savers who have money saved in Northern Ireland? The PMS is not simply a Northern Ireland issue any more than Dunfermline was simply a Scottish issue. Only a UK solution is fair and equitable.
One might well ask what the rationale was for what is believed to be the Treasury view that the Northern Ireland Executive and the Presbyterian Church should contribute to a hardship fund. That is only necessary because the Government have failed to treat PMS members like other savers in other failed financial institutions. Why were the Scottish Executive not required to contribute to the rescue of the failed institutions within their jurisdiction? I am sure that the Treasury is aware that the only resources available to the Presbyterian Church are those contributed every Sunday by the people in the pews. Is it not wholly unfair that the community that has been directly hit by the failures of the PMS should be required to pay in part for the rescue?
The PMS was a completely autonomous institution over which the Church had no control, and its failure was a local manifestation of a general failure of the UK financial sector. Do the Government realise the huge sense of injustice and unfairness that the handling of the PMS issue has generated? We are talking about thrifty, decent and hard-working people who had every reason to believe that they were ordinary savers. They believe that they have been singled out for discriminatory treatment by the Government, who have shown little regard for the dire consequences of what they have failed to do. My constituents genuinely feel that the Government have not seriously addressed the arguments put forward in support of their case by the PMS lobby group.
The reality of the situation is that for eight months after the PMS collapsed, London displayed a lack of interest. Although I appreciate that the ministerial working group and supporting officials have been working closely with the administrator to seek a commercial resolution to the winding-up of the PMS and are considering other alternatives to assist PMS savers before reporting to the Prime Minister when they conclude their deliberations, the savers are the only ones in the UK who have been denied access to their savings during the most severe period of the recession.
In the Minister’s opinion, is the idea of facilitating a commercial solution still a viable and practical option that is being followed seriously? I have been asked whether a commercial solution for the PMS would be facilitated if, as was done in some other cases, the riskiest assets were removed for separate, bad bank-style treatment. Did the Treasury consider such a move and feature it in any discussion with the financial sector? If not, is that not another example of the lack of innovative thinking in tackling the matter, compared with the resourcefulness and urgency shown in the rescue of other failed financial institutions?
It is also fair to say that as recently as 3 March the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that a commercial solution was the best solution. What role has the Treasury, which is the lead Department for the financial sector, played in seeking to interest a bank in absorbing the PMS assets and liabilities? How many meetings did the Treasury have with the financial sector on the PMS and what kind of support did it offer? Perhaps the answers to those questions would give concrete evidence of the significant action taken by the Treasury and the Westminster Government.
Perhaps I should also touch on the question of culpability. Reference is sometimes made to the culpability of the PMS for the misfortune of its members, but the same could be said of other failed institutions and the culpability of their boards, managements, advisers and auditors. The crucial point that I want to make in response is that none of the savers in any of those institutions was allowed to suffer as a result. The Government’s declared aim throughout was to protect the innocent victims of the economic and financial crisis. Surely their treatment of the PMS savers must stand out in sharp contrast as the exception. Indeed, the Government go even further and find the PMS savers themselves culpable for not appreciating, as the Government continue to assert, that they were not savers at all, but investors. I resolutely challenge that contention.
I appreciate that many other Members want to speak in this important debate, but before concluding I will ask the Economic Secretary a further question. Does he subscribe to the view expressed by a Treasury official to a visiting delegation that a major reason for the PMS not being treated in the same way as other failed financial institutions was that, unlike them, it posed no systemic risk to the economy? In other words, the others were too big to be allowed to fail, whereas 10,000 savers in Northern Ireland are expendable. Does he not agree that that is a shameful and deeply offensive comment that fully justifies the suspicion that the Government never intended to include PMS savers within their boast that
“no saver has lost money as a result of the economic and financial crisis”?
We all believe that we must do something, but time is running out. Possibilities seem to be getting limited, but one possibility that is not acceptable to my constituents and, I believe, those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, is for those honourable people to be left stranded. Reams have been written on the subject and column inches thick with suggestions have been recorded by the wise and the good, but a resolution is still not a reality. I hope that in the debate we will get cross-party support on the matter. I urge Members to encourage the Government to redouble their efforts to find a solution to that urgent and important matter. I tell the Minister to be innovative and bold, to take the lead and to make his name for the good people of Northern Ireland.
It is always a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas, but today is touched with sadness. This is the last occasion on which you will preside, with your keen interest and intense sympathy, over our deliberations on matters affecting people in Northern Ireland. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim—[Interruption.] That was a map-reading error. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) on securing this timely debate on a hugely important matter.
The hon. Gentleman said that people do not want blame games in relation to this matter, and the Presbyterian mutual society savers I have talked with—both constituents and others—do not want claim games either. People are concerned that there is some partisan tripping going on in relation to things that emphasise the role of Ministers of particular parties in certain ways. I remind him and other right hon. and hon. Members that when the crisis happened, the Minister rightly and alertly moved to legislate. That was supported by all parties and by the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the Assembly, which I happened to chair at the time.
The Committee took a keen and active interest and engaged with officials and the administrator in ways that did not cut across what the Minister and her colleagues were doing and did not distract in any way or compromise the role of Ministers in their engagements with the Treasury and others. That must be remembered as an important matter of context.
Reference was made to the Treasury Committee report published last month, which was a welcome intervention in the matter. I hope that we Northern Ireland Members will not waste time today, in front of the Economic Secretary, disagreeing with and quibbling about aspects of that report. The report tried to inject urgency into the situation and show a real and keen sympathy. It was particularly helpful in cutting through the fog of obfuscation coming from the Treasury and others in London on the status and circumstances of the PMS savers.
In particular, the report effectively refuted the nonsense that the savers should be treated as investors rather than bona fide savers and as shareholders with regard to the equity, as though commercial and tradable shares had been involved; they were simply withdrawable shares that the savers thought were the form of their savings engagement, on a mutual basis. That is what they always understood them to be, no matter how others have sought to characterise them.
The Treasury Committee had to look at the background of what had happened, with regard to the performance and conduct of the society and the regulatory environment in which it all took place.Were there issues and lessons there?
One reason why the Treasury Committee had to look into the background was that it has done exactly that in respect of every other banking or financial institution failure. If we are going to say that the Treasury and others should not treat the PMS any differently from any of the other institutions that have collapsed or got into difficulty, we cannot ask the Treasury Committee to treat the PMS and its circumstances any differently from how it has treated any other institution. For other institutions, it has drawn attention to mistakes, misjudgments and misdeeds on the part of the institutions. It has also drawn attention to some of the regulatory failures, assumptions, oversights and gaps—the kind of twilight zones that have given rise to the difficulties that were caused, which people are still locked into. It was right and proper that the Treasury Committee should do that.
I regret the fact that people in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment were perhaps a bit oversensitive to some of the observations. Indeed, I could have taken issue with aspects of the Treasury Committee’s report, which rightly and understandably questioned why no one in the Assembly knew that this problem was about to come up. Why did the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, which I chaired, not realise or anticipate that there might be a problem? I could say, “That is misplaced. It is undue criticism, and an unfair question to ask of us. How could we know, in the circumstances?”, but the issue here is not civil servants, Northern Ireland politicians or Ministers of whatever party in Northern Ireland. The issue is the need and plight of the PMS savers, and we have to roll with the punches when questions are asked about the political and regulatory systems.
The hon. Member for South Antrim rightly highlighted the circumstances of PMS savers, and when we consider logic, circumstances and emotions, we can see that two statements made this morning—in response to the announcement of 12p in the pound being given to people who had more than £20,000 committed to the PMS—are true: one, there is at last some welcome comfort for some savers; and, two, it is too little, too late.
We need to ensure that things move forward from here. The ministerial working group was established last year on the back of an intervention during Northern Ireland Question Time by the Chair of the Treasury Committee, who called on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to convene a meeting of Treasury Ministers, devolved Ministers and Northern Ireland Office Ministers. That initiative then became the ministerial working group. Savers are waiting for outcomes and results. They feel that what they have had from all of us who are involved in this has been a lot of finger-pointing and hand-wringing. They want answers—not insults to their intelligence and motives, or mischaracterisations of them as speculative investors.
I have constituents who are members of the PMS; some of them had their life savings or life-start funds for their families committed to the society. Not all of them are actually Presbyterian, even though it is a condition of membership. One constituent is a woman who received significant but hard-won compensation for serious brain injuries resulting from a road traffic accident. Her solicitor, who helped her for many years in that fight, said, “I know a good place for that money.” So, as well as £20,000 in withdrawable shares, more than £900,000 awarded by the court to look after her for life was committed to the PMS in trust through the solicitor. She is in a dire situation, as are many others. She has cause to resent the insinuations made by some people that those who have more than £20,000 invested are fat cats who do not really deserve sympathy as smaller savers with less than £20,000 do. She does deserve sympathy.
I have another constituent who has significant money involved—well over £600,000—in a charitable trust in his family’s name. The trust does good work in my constituency and the constituencies of other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), and in Africa. There are many good causes and worthy circumstances that need to be borne in mind and considered, and the Treasury needs to show more sympathy and urgency in that regard.
We need from the Treasury a firm indication that it gets what is wrong. It is no good its pretending that we can afford to allow the PMS savers to linger in their plight because they are not systemically significant. It is no good its saying, “There are serious questions for the PMS itself; some of what it was doing was illegal.” If some of what it was doing was illegal, it was not down only to the DETI in Northern Ireland to spot that. The illegalities were in the areas of interest and oversight that were the business of the Financial Services Authority. What was that institution doing during that period about sectors in which it should have had an interest?
As the hon. Member for South Antrim said, we need to look at everyone else who has faced difficulties because of pressures on their institutions. It needs to be borne in mind that in those cases there were institutional mistakes and misjudgments, and regulatory oversights and failures, but in none of them did the savers themselves end up having to pay the price or carry the can. PMS savers in Northern Ireland are uniquely put in that position, and the indifference that has been shown by the Treasury borders on injustice.
It is an honour today, as it always has been, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. We have always appreciated the extensive interest that you have taken in the affairs of Northern Ireland, and you will be greatly missed by this House, not least for the authority and command that you have exercised. The House is to lose one of its star performers. We very much appreciate the role that you have played and your interest in the affairs of our Province.
I have no direct interest to declare, as I am neither a Presbyterian nor a saver, anywhere, but I should at least declare my membership of the Prime Minister’s ministerial working group. The working group was not set up as the result of any call made in the House of Commons. I was present at the meeting when the group was put together; I was present when its terms were agreed; and I was present when the statement was agreed on its being set up in direct response to a request made by the Deputy First Minister and myself. The Prime Minister readily made that response because he accepted that there was a “moral obligation”—that was the term that he used—on the Government to assist the savers of the Presbyterian mutual society. He did not use the term “savers”—that has always been my term. He prefers “investors”, but we have already heard the challenges to the use of that term.
Like others, I do not want to involve myself in a blame game, nor do I want to make claims about how we might move forward. It is clear to me that the problems faced by the PMS arise directly from the fact that the Treasury restricted the guarantees if offered to financial institutions to those that were authorised by the Financial Services Authority. There is a special set of circumstances in relation to the PMS which I believe should have been taken into account. The society should have been covered by that umbrella, but it was not, which led to a run on the liquid assets of the PMS as soon as it was discovered that guarantees were available in other banks. People started to move money across and pressure came on the PMS, with the consequences about which we are all aware.
I have constituents who are facing real hardship as a result of their circumstances, just as my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) outlined. I have a constituent who is in precisely the circumstances outlined by the hon. Member for Foyle: they were seriously injured in a car accident and received a compensation payment, which was placed in the PMS, but they cannot get access to the funds for their care and are having to rely on family members to provide them with help, enabling them to mark time until the moment when the problem is resolved.
There are four ways forward. One of them, which in my view should not be entertained, would be to allow events to take their course and allow someone to go to the courts and force the administrator to have the fire sale that my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim spoke of. That would be the worst set of circumstances. I suspect that that course of action would lead to most, if not all, of those who have lent money receiving their funds back, but all those who have less than £20,000 probably not getting anything back. That would lead to considerable hardship on the part of those who need the funds most of all.
The next option is to set up a hardship fund, which would allow the previous option to play out, but ensure that help was available to those in the greatest difficulty. That would have limited appeal. It might take away some of the pain, but it would take a very long time for the administrator to work through his end of the problem, it would probably be several years before the fire sale took place, and it would take considerable time for the hardship fund to be put in place.
The next option is for assistance to be given for an orderly run-down of the affairs of the mutual society. All of us recognise that the administrator has indicated that we are not dealing with a society that is holding on to toxic assets. The fact that it was said that, recently, lenders were given 12 pence in the pound because funds of more than £20 million were available to the administrator to disburse indicates that funds are coming in to the mutual society. Its assets are solid and strong. It is the problem with the property market that gives the greatest difficulty to the administrator. Given time for the property market to recover, I believe, on the basis of what the administrator has indicated, that it will be possible for the administrator to be able to recover the funds not only of the lenders, but of those who would be described as shareholders—those with less than £20,000 saved.
That option should be seriously considered, but only if there is no commercial option available—that is, no banking option. That is much the best option open to the society. All of us recognise that, the longer we go without someone stepping forward and indicating that they are prepared to take over responsibility for the society, the more likely it is that we will have to consider other alternatives. I understand that a commercial interest is still looking at the society’s affairs and carrying out due diligence, so there is a strong possibility that something may come from that.
The Deputy First Minister and I have been considering this matter for a long time with our colleagues, including the Finance Minister and the DETI Minister. I say to the hon. Member for Foyle that those people happen to be members of my party, but their portfolios and their ministerial responsibilities bring them together with the Deputy First Minister, who, in spite of the fact that he can, like myself, say that he is neither a Presbyterian nor a saver in the PMS, has shown an interest and has attempted at all times to be helpful in this matter. We are agreed on a proposition that we have put to the Treasury. It would be a fall-back position—an option to be picked up if it is not possible to move ahead with a commercial proposition. It would require the support of the Executive and the Assembly, and changes to Assembly legislation would be required to bring it about.
The real problem is timing. The more I speak to savers with the PMS, the more I realise that this affair cannot go on until the next Government are in place. It has to be brought to a head and dealt with now. This Administration have the detailed knowledge of the issues involved. On behalf of all those who have been involved with the ministerial working group, I want to put on the record our appreciation of the work done by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who has at all times been helpful and has been prepared to extend himself to see if a solution can be found. I trust that, working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive, we can within days, and certainly within a few weeks, allow some hope to be expressed tangibly to those who have funds locked in the PMS.
All of us know about the difficulties being experienced by people in our constituencies, including those whose money is in the PMS for the purposes of funeral expenses. I cannot overstate the extent to which the thought that their funds will not be available in such circumstances causes anxiety and concern to elderly people who are without other means. Businesses have funds locked in the PMS, as do churches, whose building programmes have ground to a standstill because funds cannot be realised as a result of the present difficulties.
I urge the Minister to look favourably on the solutions and to assist in whatever way he can any commercial interest that is still sitting there, so that this matter can quickly be resolved.
To me, it is not a solution if it does not resolve that issue as well. Those of us in the ministerial working group are of the view that the lenders could probably have their funds returned to them through a fire sale, but those with less than £20,000 saved with the PMS would be harmed and left outside. It is a solution that helps to resolve the matter, or at least removes the greatest element of pain for people in that category. I urge the Minister to use all his influence and ability to try to get a commercial outcome; but, in the absence of that, to give the Treasury support that would be necessary for the Administration’s option, should that be required.
As well as congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) on securing this debate, I join others in congratulating you, Sir Nicholas, on your esteemed career in this House, not only as a friend of Northern Ireland, but—dare I say it?—as a loyal friend to Northern Ireland. You were a great help to me when I was a young—[Interruption.] I thought that that would raise a reaction—first-time MP. I thank you for your help and guidance over the past five years, and I wish you and your wife well for the future.
The Presbyterian mutual society is an issue that has hung like a dark cloud over our Province for far too long. My constituency has been steeped in Presbyterianism for many hundreds of years. Indeed, the current Moderator, who is with us for this debate, lives there. I pay tribute to him for his tireless efforts in trying to resolve the problem for his congregations. I also pay tribute to his predecessor.
The prolonged crisis of the Presbyterian mutual society has many complex and technical aspects, but above all we must never forget the severe impact on ordinary, decent people. Suddenly, in October 2008, as a result of a dramatic run on its resources, caused by the Government’s decision to guarantee deposits in conventional banks, the PMS collapsed and savers were plunged into a nightmare. Not surprisingly, they were consumed by panic and despair. If words could solve the problem, it would have been sorted a long time ago. We have had numerous debates and questions in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the matter was debated again as recently as Tuesday last week, but words are not enough; we need action. My party has worked tirelessly to try to achieve a satisfactory outcome.
When the news broke, we took immediate action to try to create some stability, and to allow room for a solution to be found. Following an approach by the directors of the PMS, my party colleague, Arlene Foster, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, made an order under insolvency legislation to give the society the option of going into administration. That prevented an immediate sale of the assets belonging to the society and provided an opportunity for an administrator to manage its affairs with a view to safeguarding its assets and funds, and preserving the interests of its members.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has worked tirelessly, as have the First Minister, who is with us today, and the Minister of Finance, to bring the crisis to a satisfactory conclusion. The PMS working group was set up as a result of pressure from my party and it continues to work for a resolution. With my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), I sit on the Assembly’s Select Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and the matter is regularly raised. I also sit on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs at Westminster, with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), and again the matter is raised regularly, because we know the difficulties that many savers are going through. We continue to lobby hard on behalf of investors.
I was disappointed by the recent court ruling, which indicated that savers who had deposited £20,000 or less could not be classed as creditors and therefore would not be entitled to a share of any of the £20 million income generated by the PMS since it went into administration. I, for one, certainly see considerable merit in the idea of a bank-based rescue plan, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister says about that commercial route.
Last month’s report from the House of Commons Select Committee on the Treasury has not helped. Instead of suggesting a solution, it seemed more concerned to pass the buck by blaming Stormont, particularly the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We want a resolution.
Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to clarify a point? When his party—I am pleased to say—reached agreement at Hillsborough on 5 February, there was speculation and unfair criticism that a side deal had been negotiated by his party. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to take this opportunity to clarify that that was not the case.
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Lady, but that is a separate issue. The issue that was dealt with at the Hillsborough talks was policing and justice. The PMS was a totally separate issue, but I understand the hon. Lady’s concern, because her constituency, like mine, is steeped in Presbyterianism. We all want a resolution.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we should never apologise for that. Every opportunity should be used to try to achieve a resolution.
We must all play a full part in the search for a resolution, but the ultimate responsibility to help rests with Her Majesty’s Government. I cannot state more strongly that the people who invested in the PMS need help, and they need it now.
I declare an interest as a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Banbridge Road Presbyterian church congregation, but I am not a saver in the PMS. Right hon. and hon. Members have shared the problems encountered by their constituents, and their hardships. Recently, the Minister for Social Development in Northern Ireland indicated that PMS savers who do not have access to their savings and apply for social security benefits, including tax and pension credits, would not have their savings taken into account when determining their entitlement to such benefits or tax credits until such time as the PMS matter is resolved.
When the Minister responds, will he be cognisant of the difficulties that some PMS savers face in relation to tax liabilities? I have a constituent who owes tax—capital gains tax I believe—which was to be paid from the savings that they hold with the Presbyterian mutual society. They have not had access to their savings for over a year, and I am aware of other people who owe income tax, capital gains tax and, in some cases, inheritance tax, who were planning to use their savings to pay off those liabilities. I ask the Minister and the Treasury to make Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs aware of the difficulties faced by PMS savers, and to ask for special arrangements to be put in place in circumstances where savers are unable to access their savings. In advance of a solution being found, leniency should be shown and flexibility demonstrated to allow those savers more time to pay their tax liabilities, without facing significant penalties that would only add to their distress and financial difficulties at a difficult time. I ask the Minister to take account of that issue.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas. It is always a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, and it is always a pleasure as well. I want to pay tribute to the humanity and kindness that you have shown to many hon. Members, and to your constant good humour. I have never known you to have a bad day or look remotely miserable; perhaps the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) could advise me differently, but I have certainly not experienced it in the House. I also congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), who introduced this important debate. Hon. Members have spoken from their personal and local experience, and I do not want to trespass on that, other than to make a few brief and general remarks.
This is a sorry state of affairs. The 10,000 members of the Presbyterian mutual society have become victims of that society. Obviously, one contributing factor to that was poor lending behaviour and unauthorised activities, which was all part of the age of profligacy, and we must acknowledge the poor decision making by executives of the PMS. However, many people who have suffered from such decision making have been bailed out, including bankers themselves. Members of the PMS are particularly unfortunate because the PMS is not a bank. It is not covered by the Financial Services Authority and therefore there has been no bail-out. There is not yet any satisfactory regulatory structure for mutual societies, although an excellent private Member’s Bill, which I played some part in, is going through the Commons and will deal with that problem to some extent, although only in a retrospective way.
As with Equitable Life, there is an issue of regulatory failure. As the Treasury Committee stated, no reasonable person, and none of the members of the society, could have supposed that such errant behaviour would have been allowed. There is a feeling, which seems to be manifest in what hon. Members have said, that all the organisations that ought to have worked on behalf of members of the PMS have to some extent let them down or washed their hands of the issue. The FSA does not think that it was its responsibility to have done otherwise, and the Treasury Committee points the finger at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland. It does, however, recognise that although that Department might have had the knowledge to act, it had no legal power. Furthermore, even the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment could not have anticipated the effect that Government guarantees to other banks would have had on the PMS, and that view has been stated by the directors of the PMS.
To members of the PMS—the sufferers in this case—it can seem that blame is a pass-the-parcel kind of affair. The PMS is faced with £20 million of assets, when the original assets were £300 million, and the organisation is in administration. Members of the PMS seem sadly caught by the semantics of the situation. They are unprotected because they are classified as investors rather than savers, and they stand at the back of the queue because, according to the courts, they are lenders and not creditors. I am sure that that is no comfort to them whatsoever as their situation is pretty grim. There are no interim payments in prospect, and they are not first in the queue for claims. There is no date for when administration must finish, and no clear idea of how it will finish—it could go on for years.
Those people are a sad casualty, but normally that would be mitigated a little by the fact that in all investment there is a hazard and a fair risk. However, the Treasury Committee made clear its view that there was no rational reason why members of the PMS should have suspected that the organisation would get into such a plight, and there was no obvious in way in which they could have found out about it. There was a general presumption that, since the society was backed by the Presbyterian Church, the most prudential ethics would have applied.
To cut to the quick, the hon. Member for South Antrim talked about this being the time for real positive solutions. There seem to be four possible solutions. One is to rely on existing procedures such as administration and the courts in order to work a way out. However, on objective examination, it seems that the levers are simply not there to resolve the situation in a timely and effective way. Another solution that has been alluded to would be to wait for another company to step in, or for something to turn up—a kind of Mr. Micawber solution. The retrospective solution is obviously to ensure that such things never happen again, and I think that we will do that, although that is retrospective. The fourth solution, which appears to be the burden of the debate, is to call on the Government to be “innovative”—that was the word used by the hon. Gentleman—and to take some ad hoc Executive action to ameliorate the situation of the principal sufferers in these sad events.
I join right hon. and hon. Members in saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship in the last debate in Westminster Hall over which you will preside, Sir Nicholas. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) suggested that you have an almost permanently sunny disposition, but I remember an occasion—the final sitting of the Finance Bill 2008 Committee—when that was tested to the extreme—[Laughter.] Your laughter now is a good sign that we did not push you too far on that occasion. It is an honour to take part in the debate today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) on securing the debate. This is an important matter and it is not only hon. Members from Northern Ireland who have received correspondence about it. In my role as part of the Conservative Treasury team I have received a number of letters from people in Northern Ireland who are savers with the Presbyterian mutual society. They have expressed concerns about their financial plight and are looking for a solution.
One of the points that came across strongly in all contributions made this morning is that we cannot forget the personal circumstances of those who have put money into the Presbyterian mutual society and are suffering as a consequence. Although there are legal distinctions between those who put in less than £20,000 and those who put in more, everyone is suffering hardship as a consequence of what has happened. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) gave an example, and the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made a similar point about people who have locked up significant sums of money for their long-term needs and are suffering as a consequence.
The distinction about whether someone is a shareholder, a saver or a creditor reminds us of the importance of ensuring that people are aware of their rights in the event of a financial problem. We saw that in the financial crisis more generally, and we must ensure that people are aware of the limits and guarantees of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. When people invest or save with organisations, they should be aware of their rights. It is the duty of those who run such organisations to ensure that their customers, members and shareholders know what their rights are in the event of a financial crisis and can take decisions about the appropriate amount of exposure to a particular entity.
As the hon. Member for Foyle said, the Treasury Committee has published its report on the Presbyterian mutual society. It raises important issues about the regulatory structure and the need to make progress in resolving the crisis facing members of the Presbyterian mutual society. It is helpful that we have present two members of the ministerial working group: the right hon. Member for Belfast, East and, of course, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. I had hoped that we might get more of an insight into the workings of that group. The right hon. Gentleman set out four options for resolution. I hope that the Minister will go further and set out more clearly the Government’s position.
The right hon. Gentleman was right to stress the urgency of resolving the issue. It is important to resolve it before the general election. People have been waiting quite some time for a proper outcome. I hope that the Minister will make some positive remarks on what the solution might be, because in the absence of that, there will be a hiatus before a new Government are formed and are able to consider the matter. However, I am sure that if the present Government do not resolve it, the Government formed after the election will deal with it as a matter of urgency to bring about some resolution.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking an intervention. Picking up on his last comment, let us suppose that, unfortunately, resolution is not achieved this side of the general election. I hope that it is resolved, and the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has given us some hope this morning that it will be, but in the event that it is not, will the hon. Gentleman explain how often he has discussed the PMS with the Leader of the Opposition and what exactly the Conservative party would do if it was returned after the general election as the Government? What would it give the PMS savers in Northern Ireland? What is its express commitment to them?
Our commitment on the PMS is the same as our commitment on Equitable Life: if the problem is not resolved by the time of the next election, we would want to resolve it quickly. That is our obligation to the people who save with the PMS. I think that we all want to see a quick resolution to the problem. It has been hanging around too long. I hope that people will not have to wait until a new Government are formed.
Will the hon. Gentleman go further and give us a clear assurance? The Prime Minister says that there is a moral obligation to find a solution, but can we have a clear expectation that the resolution will guard the rights of those savers with savings of less than £20,000 as well as those with more than £20,000?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I said earlier that I am very conscious that those people with savings of less than £20,000 are suffering hardship as a consequence of the problem. A solution needs to involve very careful thought given to how the rights of the two groups are balanced. The pay-out that has been made already—12p in the pound—benefits those with greater savings but, as the hon. Member for Foyle pointed out, we cannot just think that those with greater savings are fat cats. A balance needs to be struck in any deal.
One concern that people rightly have is the time that it has taken to get to the present point. Last July, the Treasury announced that there would be a working group of Ministers involving the Northern Ireland Executive, the Treasury and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. At the time of the statement, on 17 July 2009, the working group was scheduled to report back to the Prime Minister in the autumn, but no report was published. When I checked yesterday whether anything had been published, I found that, still, nothing had been published. Here we are, eight months since the announcement, still waiting for a resolution to the problem.
The Treasury Committee was right to point out that problem. A logjam has been created. The administrator has apparently been waiting for the group to report, but the Minister of Finance and Personnel in the Northern Ireland Executive, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), said that while the administrator was
“seeking that resolution with other financial institutions, the report cannot be completed”.
There appears to be a logjam, with the administrator waiting for the ministerial working group to report, and the ministerial working group waiting for the administrator to sort out what is happening. That has created a significant delay. We need to make progress.
The Treasury Committee was quite robust in its criticism. Knowing the work of the Committee well, I thought that the language it used was a mark of its unhappiness with the slow progress. In paragraph 62 of its report, it stated:
“We consider it unacceptable and farcical that both the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive appear to have suggested some responsibility for solutions but have failed to act.”
It pointed out that the people losing from that were the members of the Presbyterian mutual society.
That is the point on which I shall conclude: people are waiting for a response. It is right for the Government to take responsibility for resolving the issue and to doing so before the general election, but let me reiterate what I said earlier. I am sure that, if the present Government do not solve the problem but leave it for their successors to deal with, their successors, whoever they are, will deal with the problem with greater urgency and expedition.
It has always been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas, and it is a particular honour to be present for your valedictory performance as Chair of our proceedings.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) on securing this important debate and I am very grateful for the contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. It is clear that we all share a deep concern about the very difficult circumstances in which many members of the Presbyterian mutual society still find themselves. I reiterate that the Government remain greatly sympathetic about the serious financial difficulties faced by many PMS members. Personally, I want to do all that I can in my remaining time in the House of Commons to ensure that we bring matters to an acceptable conclusion.
As many hon. Members have said, it is right that we should not get into the blame game; instead, we should focus on solutions. However, it is worth taking a few moments to remind hon. Members of the factual background to the situation of the PMS, as it sheds light on some of the difficulties encountered by both the Northern Ireland Executive and ourselves in charting a way forward, and it explains some of the delay and frustration that many people who have put money into the PMS have experienced. Again, I assure PMS members that we are doing all we can to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to come up with an agreed way forward.
The PMS is an industrial and provident society, set up in 1982 to operate for the benefit of its members and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies (Northern Ireland) Act 1969. The legislative framework for Northern Ireland industrial and provident societies is a devolved matter, falling to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment of the Northern Ireland Executive. The PMS is therefore registered with DETI, although DETI’s role does not include or require any regulatory oversight.
The PMS, like other industrial and provident societies in Northern Ireland, is not a deposit-taking institution. IPSs are not normally regulated by the Financial Services Authority or covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. The legal situation is that investments in the PMS were in the form of withdrawable share capital—that is, those investments of up to £20,000, which I recognise are a particular concern of the hon. Member for South Antrim—and interest-bearing loans to the society. That relates to those investments of more than £20,000. The legislation imposes a £20,000 limit on the withdrawable share capital that an IPS may issue to any member, and an IPS with withdrawable share capital may not carry on banking business.
The PMS holds the same status as other IPSs in Northern Ireland and the majority of IPSs in Great Britain—they are not authorised to conduct financial services business. IPSs in Great Britain and Northern Ireland are required to apply to the Financial Services Authority for authorisation should they wish to carry out regulated activity. IPSs issuing withdrawable share capital up to the £20,000 statutory limit are exempt from the authorisation requirement for deposit-taking under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. IPSs that engage in mortgage lending, as the PMS did, require FSA authorisation.
As hon. Members will be aware, an FSA investigation into how the society was run concluded that the PMS
“was conducting regulated activities without the necessary authorisation or exemption.”
Reports by the administrator of the PMS to DETI make it clear that the manner in which the society was run, and the actions of certain directors, were highly questionable. FSA guidelines are very clear—that it is for a society to establish whether its activities are such that the law requires it to be regulated, and for a society to notify the FSA if it does need to be regulated. Responsibility clearly lay with the PMS to seek the appropriate authorisation.
The circumstances of PMS members are different from those of depositors in other collapsed financial institutions in at least two respects. First, it is important to remember that the PMS was acting illegally. Secondly, financial institutions supported by the Government, such as the Dunfermline building society, were appropriately regulated and authorised by the FSA and paid a levy to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. Government support to depositors in institutions such as Dunfermline and Icesave was clearly about banks and other deposit-taking institutions that were regulated by the FSA or European economic area equivalents and which contributed to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme or European national deposit guarantee schemes.
Several hon. Members suggested that Government action to support banks and building societies that got into difficulties created the problems with the run on the PMS, but I do not find that argument compelling. Other IPSs in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom did not find particular difficulties; rather, the PMS’s business model and members’ ensuing lack of confidence in it led to the collapse. That is not to say, however, that this is not a serious situation, and we need to do something about it.
As the recent Treasury Committee report observed, PMS members should have been informed that the society was unregulated, that they were ineligible to access the Financial Services Compensation Scheme and that risks were associated with investments in commercial property. Many PMS members feel that they were savers, rather than investors, and that issue has been explored in the debate. I repeat that I want to see an acceptable solution achieved during this Parliament, and I will do what I can to bring that about.
As has been mentioned, the Prime Minister set up the PMS ministerial working group, which demonstrates the Government’s commitment to addressing the issue and to working with the Northern Ireland Executive to identify what might be done to assist investors in the PMS. I do not need to go into the working group’s terms of reference in detail, but I do want to address some of the issues that have been raised.
First, I recognise that it has taken longer than expected for the group to produce a report on a solution to give to the Prime Minister, but the matter has proved particularly complex. Notwithstanding the best endeavours of the Northern Ireland Executive and Treasury officials, efforts to find a solution have taken some time to come to fruition, and I will say more about that in a moment.
I do not think that the number of meetings should be seen as a reflection of progress. I have met the Moderator and representatives of the PMS and I have had discussions with officials. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the working group is chaired by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I sit on the group, and other members include the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Northern Ireland Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson).
As the First Minister said in his helpful contribution to the debate, and as he has said on other occasions, a range of options are under consideration. One is a commercial solution, which would see another financial institution involved in the PMS’s portfolio of assets and liabilities. While I recognise that that is the preferred solution for people in Northern Ireland, the fact that a commercial organisation has not so far come forward leads me to conclude that this option is starting to look more unlikely, although it is still being discussed. Clearly, as hon. Members will understand, discussions with commercial institutions must remain confidential.
The Northern Ireland Executive have taken the lead in exploring the possible options, commercial and otherwise, and it is right for them to do so, because the legislation governing IPSs in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. We need properly to take into account all the issues when working with the Northern Ireland Executive, to see whether we can come up with a solution.
The right hon. Member for Belfast, East mentioned the other options that need to be considered, and there have been discussions about a Northern Ireland solution. A hardship fund for the hardest hit is also being actively looked at. We have reached a stage where, within a short period, the working group can, I hope, produce a report to go to the Prime Minister. There is a basis on which a solution can be found.
On a commercial solution, and going back to the circumstances of the collapse, does the Minister recognise that there is evidence of predatory moves by some of the banks in Northern Ireland, which told people, “Move your money out of the PMS because it’s not covered by guarantee and give it to us”? People are rightly questioning why some of those banks cannot come forward now, not least when some of them have been covered by intervention by the British or Irish Governments.
I do not want to get into the detail in responding to that point. We have had a helpful debate and we have said that, rather than getting involved in a blame game, we want to find a solution that works for those who put money into the PMS, particularly those savers—whether they are savers or investors is a point that we can debate—who put in less than £20,000. We need to continue to focus on what that solution may be.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) mentioned people with tax liabilities who may have most of their money in the PMS, where they cannot access it. As in the case of any taxpayer in temporary financial difficulties, I would expect HMRC to be sympathetic, and it will be up to individuals to contact the tax authorities to explain their difficulties. As I say, HMRC should treat such cases sympathetically.
To conclude, there is a basis for a solution that we and the Northern Ireland Executive can take forward. I hope to be able to play my part as a member of the working group by ensuring that we bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion, and I can assure hon. Members that I want to do so with all possible urgency.
I am sure that everyone in the House will be grateful to the Minister for that sensitive and factual response, and, if I may say so, for the expectation of hope that the matter can be resolved. I congratulate all the hon. Members who took part. The next debate concerns the splendid constituency of Tunbridge Wells.
Rail Services (West Kent)
I am delighted, Sir Nicholas, that you share my love of my constituency.
I should declare an interest, in that I am a regular and frequent user of the Hastings line, between Tunbridge Wells and London, and I want to bring the attention of the House to its performance. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting the debate, because it gives me the chance to ask the Minister the question that is on the lips of many travellers from my constituency: what on earth has gone wrong with the performance of Southeastern trains in recent months? A service and company that were in the past reliable and well run have in recent months undergone such a collapse in performance as to add to the stress of my constituents and subject them to daily delays and uncertainty. I want to get to the bottom of that.
My constituents have gone through three phases with Southeastern in recent months, which could be called the good, the ugly and the bad. To start positively, with the good, six months ago we were looking forward to what we hoped would be a new era for travel from Tunbridge Wells and High Brooms to London. Through the construction of a new turnback facility over the summer at Tunbridge Wells, we had the prospect of a new timetable, which would allow trains at quarter-hourly intervals throughout the day, and five new peak-time services. That came on the back of a 10 per cent. increase in rail fares the previous January, so we thought that it was overdue. Nevertheless, it would be a significant improvement in services.
It would be fair to mention that we have had some improvements to the facilities in the stations. As a result of a debate that I obtained a year ago, the Minister’s predecessor kindly put pressure on Southeastern to reverse—which it did—a cut in the capacity of the trains. It had reduced the capacity from 10 carriages to eight, but thanks to that intervention it reverted to the full 10. We have had improvements to the condition of the stations—an overhaul of all the stations in my constituency—including the installation of a long overdue new passenger lift in Tunbridge Wells and a much better look and feel to the station. Even the station clock, which was out of action for many years, is now restored and in full working order.
The Minister will understand that we looked forward to the new timetable in December with a degree of hope and confidence. However, the ugly phase began. The first warning signs were when the new timetable was introduced and much of the new rolling stock turned out to be inferior. It was inner-suburban stock, which was much more crowded and less comfortable than the higher-quality rolling stock that was previously available. In a crowded journey of an hour and more for stations to the south of my constituency, that is a material change in the comfort of the journey.
The big collapse in service, however, came with the bad weather in December. Of course, everyone accepts that severe weather will have consequences for the rail network generally and the service operators in particular. However, it exposed some real failings in the management of Southeastern’s response to the events, however severe. First, information was affected. When the snow hit, High Brooms and Tunbridge Wells were, from the point of view of Southeastern, cut off. The information conveyed to my constituents was completely inadequate. People turned up at the station and were told over the public address system to go home and inspect the website for information about when the next trains might be available. They went home and found no more useful information on the website than was available in the station; their journeys were wasted.
A service was continuing from Tonbridge, further up the line, and the natural response would therefore be to put on a bus service to connect Tunbridge Wells and High Brooms with it. However, that service was much delayed in starting, and was then completely inadequate. I pay tribute to the bus drivers of Arriva, the local bus company. However, despite the fact that the regular buses were able to operate, the number of buses put on by Southeastern was completely inadequate to my constituents’ needs.
I remember turning the corner to approach the station, to try to come to the House at the time in question, and finding a queue snaking out of the station, over the bridge, round the corner and up a road called Mount Pleasant. A vastly greater number of people than could be accommodated were waiting to board those very infrequent buses. Surely it should have been possible to mount a response that would have provided enough capacity?
When, eventually, some trains were got moving again on the line, we had a limited skeleton service—a shuttle service—between Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms and Tonbridge. However, it went once an hour. I said earlier that we are now used to four trains an hour at peak times, and in fact throughout the day, from Tunbridge Wells and High Brooms to Tonbridge; the consequences of attempting to pack the passengers of four trains into a single train can be imagined.
The result was chaos, confusion and misery. I understand from conversations that the reason for what happened is that the Hastings line south of Tonbridge was considered to be a branch line and was not given the same priority as the line to Tonbridge. However, the Minister will know, having done his research, as I am sure he has, that there are probably just as many commuters in Tunbridge Wells as in Tonbridge, and the line should not be classified in that way. I hope that that will not happen again.
To move on from what can be seen as a very ugly phase of transport in my constituency, we at least hoped that when the weather improved services would improve with it. Instead, although we may have come through the worst, we are still in what everyone would consider a bad phase, with continuing problems. I can do no better than to quote some of the e-mails that I have received from my constituents. I have received them in recent days, during the improved weather, not at the height of the bad winter weather. A constituent wrote at the end of February to describe the effect on his wife, who commutes to London, saying that
“the delays and breakdowns continue even during ‘normal’ winter weather and she rarely receives any explanation…The season ticket from Tunbridge Wells is in excess of £3,000 and every year it costs more; for this she receives a poorer and poorer service and yet has more and more additional stress”.
“Sir, I see my wife come home from work in tears some nights due to frustration at the treatment she receives on this so called service. We barely enjoy our evenings together because she has to get earlier and earlier trains in the morning when she needs to be assured to arrive for meetings on time in London because the timetable cannot be trusted.”
Another constituent writes that he needs to
“take the 8.18 service from Tunbridge Wells”
“This is the earliest possible train that I can take as I have to take my children to nursery in the morning which only opens at 8 am. The 8.18 train is consistently late arriving at Cannon Street; in fact by my estimation…I believe that it has arrived on time at Cannon Street…twice this year…Clearly this is a huge issue as it means that I am late for work nearly everyday.”
I could mention some of the knock-on effects of the recent chaos. Another constituent wrote just this week to say that
“people have started to use Southern’s”—
the neighbouring franchise’s—
“service from Eridge to London Bridge which costs £2,268 per annum compared to Southeastern’s £3,352 from Tunbridge Wells. It’s more reliable, there are more seats and it is much less stressful.”
That constituent and his partner
“have considered moving to Crowborough as a result.”
I might add, Sir Nicholas, that from your earlier remarks it seems that you are aware that the station at Eridge is 5 miles further from London than Tunbridge Wells. The situation is ridiculous.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Is he aware that my constituents in west Kent have been sending me similar communications? Is he also aware that those of my constituents who use the Maidstone East line have in addition suffered the axing, from last December, of all services to crucial London stations, particularly Cannon Street, Charing Cross and London Bridge? Is he further aware that, as a consequence, several of my constituents have been forced to move home, incurring enormous costs as a result? Does he not agree that that is a reflection of the profound stupidity and social irresponsibility of the Government entering into the integrated Kent franchise agreement, which enabled Southeastern to axe those services?
My right hon. Friend is right to describe the strength of feeling of his constituents about those services. His constituents know how assiduous he is in holding those responsible to account. I am delighted that he has come to support us today.
When I asked Southeastern about the performance of the Hastings line after the recent cold weather, I was surprised to be told:
“We do not make this data public, as our obligations for performance are across mainline and metro services rather than on individual lines.”
That strikes me as a worrying argument. The concern of those of my constituents who use the Hastings line is the Hastings line. It matters not that the service of the new High Speed 1 line might be performing well, as they do not use it. They are galled enough at having to pay for the service, let alone to realise that the possibility of compensation for poor performance is excluded because of an averaging out across the whole region. People use a particular service. It is almost as if someone bought a TV that broke down, but when they asked for a refund from the store they were told that one was not available because the washing machines were working. It is a ridiculous way of proceeding.
I am fortunate in my constituency in having an excellent local rail travellers group. It has investigated the performance of the Hastings line. It estimates that in the first three weeks of February at least eight trains were cancelled, 33 trains were delayed due to asset failure and 115 trains were disrupted because of absent train crews and other operational reasons. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there is a particular problem on that line.
Many of my constituents are well aware of some of the causes. One constituent e-mailed me, saying:
“Main recurring problem (on the evening service I catch it happens at least 3 days every week) is that conductor gets stuck on a late incoming train and as a result the train which he is next supposed to be the conductor on is delayed waiting for him to come in—essentially the problem is that there is virtually no ‘turnaround’ time for conductors on some services; the train crew know that and tell passengers that they are trying to get Southeastern management to do something about it—so far with no joy.”
The diagnosis—knowing what contributes to the problems—is well understood and should be addressed.
We have little time for this debate. I would like to say more about some of the other concerns that affect my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend. I could speak of the calamitous withdrawal of the service from Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells to Gatwick airport. At a time when we want to take cars off the roads, reducing a direct connection from one of the counties that supplies most passengers to Gatwick seems to fly in the face of environmental and transport logic. I could talk about the great anxiety of passengers who use stations south of Tunbridge Wells about proposed changes to the route into Cannon Street. I could mention this year’s 10 per cent. increase in parking charges; at a time when inflation has been negative, it seems to be a way of exacting more and more money for less and less of a service.
With your permission, Sir Nicholas, I wish to make three requests of the Minister. I am grateful for his attendance here today. I hope that he will respond to these requests towards the beginning of his speech, so that we have the chance to button them down. The first is on data. During the short period before Parliament rises, will the Minister ensure that I am given the performance data to date for the Hastings line between Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms, Tonbridge and London? Those data exist. We know that Southeastern has the data, but I believe that they should be made public so that everyone knows about that line’s performance.
The second request is this. If the data show that the performance of the line has been below the threshold where discounts on season tickets are usually triggered, will the Minister consider requiring, as an exceptional measure, the relevant compensation to be paid to passengers on that line for the disruption that they have suffered, recognising that they have suffered it on that line and that other lines are not relevant?
Thirdly, I understand that there are negotiations with Network Rail for Southeastern to be compensated for some of the winter’s disruption. It seems to be a matter of natural justice that some of that compensation should go to the passengers who bore the brunt of the disruption. Will the Minister assure the House that he will put pressure on those companies to ensure that my constituents are compensated from whatever Southeastern receives?
I make a final plea to the Minister. Will he summon Southeastern’s senior management, and ask them to explain why my constituents, and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and of colleagues to the south of our constituencies, have had to endure such appalling service from a company that we were used to thinking of as one of the better and more progressive train operating companies? I can put it no better than a constituent of mine, who sent me a copy of his letter to Southeastern. He wrote:
“We currently have to use you to get to work. Wouldn’t it be nice if we wanted to use you to get to work?”
May I say what a pleasure it is, Sir Nicholas, to serve under your chairmanship? I congratulate the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on securing this debate on rail services in west Kent.
The timetable change in December 2009 was the biggest change for 50 years in Kent. Indeed, no train stayed in its existing slot. For west Kent, it included the additional five peak trains mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, one of which is the fast train from High Brooms to London. West Kent also saw the implementation of an enhanced service between Tunbridge Wells and London, which gives the hon. Gentleman’s constituents four trains an hour, operating at a 15-minute frequency all day. The changes also included the extension of the Medway Valley line from Paddock Wood, which will improve connectivity and create new journey opportunities.
I am pleased to be able to draw attention to these facts, because some people were not convinced that the new integrated Kent franchise would give passengers any benefit. Clearly, that is not the case, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents are some of those who are benefiting from those changes.
Southeastern has also invested in automatic ticket gates at Tunbridge Wells. That has improved access and security at the station, and ensures that everyone who travels pays their fair share. I cannot say that I am immediately aware of the rolling stock changes referred to by the hon. Gentleman, but I shall investigate and write to him about those concerns.
I realise that since December, performance has deteriorated to below the standard that Southeastern customers now expect. The two main reasons behind that are unreliable infrastructure and adverse weather. However, before I say more on the performance problems since last December, it is important to put Southeastern performance in context.
The Southeastern franchise is committed to run more than 20,000 more trains a year on time by the end of the franchise. Indeed, since the start of the franchise, performance has improved. Immediately before the start of the December timetable, 4.2 per cent. more trains arrived at their destination within five minutes of the advertised time, having called at all stations en route. That is more than 10 per cent. better than in the days of the Connex franchise, which indicates that some progress is being made.
It may appear unusual to start a debate on the performance of rail services in Kent by talking about the history of such services. I am not saying that there have not been problems with performance, but the evidence does not suggest that they are systemic. What is clear is that since December, performance has fallen below the standards that are expected from Southeastern. None the less, actions are in hand to recover the situation.
The lines in west Kent are electrified by the third rail system. It has been established that the third rail system struggles to cope with heavy snowfall and prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures. During the recent bad weather—the most extreme for some 30 years—we had both and, as a result, performance suffered, but west Kent was not unusual in that regard. The lines in west Kent were particularly badly affected as the weight of the snowfall was, at times, very localised. The geographical lay-out is very challenging for the rail industry, as it is built in deep cuttings and the line has some very steep gradients. That meant that on many occasions during the adverse weather problems it was not possible to deliver a train service.
I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the accuracy of customer information during times of disruption, and I can advise him that there is a rail industry review of customer information, focusing, in particular, on the consistency of the service during the winter period. It will look at ways in which customers can have better and more consistent information available to them through all the channels—whether that be the individual giving advice on the station platform, the web channels or the information displays on the platforms.
As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt remember, rail services in Kent suffered from adverse weather in February 2009. Following that, Southeastern advised my Department that it was reviewing its response and that it was going to work with Network Rail to see what improvements could be delivered.
One improvement was to implement the key route strategy, which explains some of the shuttle services that the hon. Gentleman described. Network Rail gives priority to the most important routes and every effort is made to keep those routes open. Southeastern also aims to operate services in such a way that as many people as possible, given the prevalent weather conditions, are able to travel. More people were actually moved during the last period of adverse weather in 2010 than in February 2009, despite the fact that the weather was worse. Although lessons were learned following the weather in February 2009, the challenges this time round were more severe.
As I have said, the geography of much of the railway in west Kent meant that it was not always possible to offer a service, and when services did run they were often heavily delayed. However, Southeastern has advised me that, together with Network Rail, it is now considering what improvements can be delivered to ensure that more services run during adverse weather.
No, not at this point. I am quite sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s objectives, but let me draw his attention to the fact that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) frequently tells the Government not to interfere and micro-manage train operating company regulation so much. I therefore fear that his Front-Bench colleagues would take a different view from me, but I am sympathetic to his objectives.
I am grateful for the Minister’s sympathy, and I hope that he will translate it into action. Can he think of any reason why members of the public should not be given the right to see the data on the performance of their train line that we all accept exist?
I do not know whether there are commercial sensitivities around the data, but I will try to action my sympathies into something concrete for the hon. Gentleman to look at.
As I was saying, Network Rail, Southeastern and South West Trains are considering how to improve the robustness of the third rail electrification system during adverse weather conditions. That could include solutions such as third rail heating. On both reviews, it is too early to know what noticeable improvements will be delivered, but we anticipate significant improvements in robustness. The industry is tackling the challenge head on and seeking to ensure that the services that are offered to rail users in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are improved.
The railways are complex, and affordable solutions will come about only following proper consideration. Our performance monitoring shows that in the autumn, traditionally a time of poor performance, there was a step change in improvement in the delays caused by leaves on the line. This year, delays were 18,000 minutes less than in the corresponding period last year. That should give us some confidence that the rail industry can and will deliver improvements in performance during periods of adverse weather.
It is regrettable that since December, the infrastructure has not been performing as reliably as it had been. Southeastern has advised me that it has reviewed the causes with Network Rail, as one would expect following a period of poor performance. A series of unanticipated infrastructure failures has surprised all the partners, but through a series of action plans, each particular mode of failure is being addressed.
The infrastructure lay-out poses a number of challenges to delivering high levels of performance. First, the trains from west Kent travel via London Bridge. As demand for rail services to and from Kent has grown, the number of trains that travel through this area is much greater than was ever envisaged when the lay-out was designed in the 1970s. It is expected that the £5.5 billion Thameslink programme will improve the lay-out in the London area and provide solutions for many of these issues.
Secondly, the Tonbridge to Hastings line has four single line sections, which means that delays escalate much quicker than on sections of line where there are two or more tracks, and that can spread across the whole network. When the line was electrified in 1986, work was carried out to a lower specification as an economy measure, which has led to several operational constraints and complexities. Although there may be technological solutions to some of those issues, the business case is not readily identified.
There is no evidence to support the argument that performance has deteriorated solely because of the implementation of the new timetable. As I said earlier, the main causes have been poor weather conditions and unreliable infrastructure. However, since December, 200 more trains are operating on the network. Although that is welcome in normal operating conditions, it can mean that when incidents occur on the network, delays spread quicker than before.
The rail industry has to ensure that incidents that cause delay are kept to an absolute minimum. Over the years, it has established robust procedures to manage the delivery of performance. I am confident that such structures will ensure that the high levels of performance planned for this franchise will be delivered. From Monday 7 March to Friday 19 March, the provisional public performance measure for Southeastern was 91.6 per cent. I appreciate that that is for the franchise as a whole and not for the particular route with which the hon. Gentleman is concerned. None the less, I suggest that such a measure provides signs that performance is recovering.
Not today, no, but we have discussed that already.
In conclusion, although I regret the performance that passengers in west Kent have experienced over the winter months, problems have been identified and solutions developed. I believe that we can look forward to performance improvements being delivered from now until the end of the franchise.
[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]
Today’s debate gives us an opportunity to discuss the Africa all-party group’s latest report, “Land in Zimbabwe: Past Mistakes, Future Prospects”. I begin by declaring an interest: the Royal African Society seconds a member of its staff, Alex O’Donoghue, to work three days a week for the all-party group, and I sponsor her parliamentary pass.
I thank colleagues from all parties and from both Houses of Parliament who have contributed to the report. I also thank Alex O’Donoghue for her work in collecting the evidence and setting up our oral evidence sessions. Finally, I thank the Secretary of State for International Development for considering our report and its conclusions, and for responding, on behalf of his Department and the Foreign Office, to those conclusions.
Our all-party group chose to investigate this subject because it is a pivotal and emotive issue in Zimbabwe. The violence from farm invasions has destroyed the livelihoods of 200,000 farm workers and halved the commercial agricultural output of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s current land reform policy is a barrier to both the county’s economic recovery and its longer-term development.
We also decided to address this subject because of our concern that UK policy is misunderstood in Africa. Many Africans, particularly those from southern Africa, believe that the UK promised to fund land reform in Zimbabwe as part of the deal made 30 years ago at the Lancaster house talks, which brought to an end the illegal unilateral declaration of independence by the white settler regime in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, many in Africa believe that we oppose farm invasions in Zimbabwe principally because it is white farmers whose land is being expropriated, and many believe that we support the European Union’s restrictive measures—often referred to as sanctions—because we have political differences with the President of Zimbabwe.
I do not believe that any of those views are right or true. For example, the EU’s restrictive measures ban arm sales to Zimbabwe because of the human rights violations that the armed forces in that country have committed against civilians. Those measures also freeze the assets of 203 individual members of ZANU-PF, which until recently was the sole ruling party in Zimbabwe, and of 40 parastatal companies. Those assets abroad have been frozen because of the real fear that Government or state property from Zimbabwe was being taken out of the country and used for personal benefit, rather than for the benefit of Zimbabwe’s people.
I must say, however, that sometimes the comments made by Members of this House about land invasions in Zimbabwe reinforce the belief that our concern is based principally on kith and kin. I do not believe that that is the case. Addressing that concern was one of the reasons why the all-party group decided to write our report.
The hon. Gentleman has quite rightly outlined the facts and gave the statistics about land invasions, saying that something like 220,000 farm workers have been robbed of their jobs, their accommodation and a good quality of life. Does that statistic indicate that those of us who have stood up and opposed the farm invasions are seeking merely to support our kith and kin? We are concerned about Zimbabweans and the prosperity and future of their country. Is that not the position of the overwhelming majority of Members of this House who have taken an interest in Zimbabwe and land reform there?
I believe that that is the case and I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman, who has been vocal on this issue for as long as I have been a Member of Parliament, stating that as clearly and as forcefully as he just has.
The all-party group wanted to do two things in our report: to set the record straight and to look forwards, not backwards—to try to develop ideas about the types of policies that would provide the basis for a new and better relationship between our country and Zimbabwe. The report set out three broad objectives: first, to establish what was actually agreed at Lancaster house; secondly, to document what development assistance has been provided by the UK to Zimbabwe, for land reform specifically and more generally; and thirdly, to examine what future land reform policies would re-establish a productive agriculture sector in Zimbabwe, which would support rural livelihoods and offer job opportunities once again for the many farm workers who have lost their jobs through the farm invasions.
We sought and obtained evidence from the widest possible range of people. They included representatives of the UK Government, and we are grateful to the Secretary of State for International Development for providing a detailed draft of written evidence. Through the Zimbabwean ambassador in London, we received evidence from ZANU-PF. We also received evidence from various participants at the Lancaster house talks, including members of the ZANU and ZAPU teams who were legal advisers to their respective party presidents, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. Furthermore, we received evidence from Lord Carrington, who gave oral evidence in a very sharp way. He remembered a huge amount of detail and it was important to capture that detail to understand what actually happened in those discussions at Lancaster house. In addition, we sought and obtained evidence from academics, both in the UK and Zimbabwe; from Chester Crocker, the US Assistant Secretary of State who had special responsibility for Africa at the time of the Lancaster house talks, and from others.
In all the evidence that we obtained, we found no evidence that Britain had betrayed promises on land reform made at Lancaster house. In fact, the most interesting evidence of all came from ZANU-PF. The Zimbabwean embassy in London did not claim that there was a secret deal that the UK would provide funds to pay for land reform. It is true that both Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo sought commitments on land reform at Lancaster house—land reform was a very important issue for those who had been involved in the liberation struggle—but the UK had to broker a deal between Ian Smith and his regime’s military on the one hand and the liberation movements on the other hand, and there was no agreement on land.
At one stage in the talks, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo threatened to walk out of Lancaster house, but a great deal of pressure was put on them by the Presidents of the front-line states, particularly Zambia and Mozambique, which were used by the Zimbabwean liberation movement fighters for their training camps and supply lines. Pressure from those neighbouring countries was put on the Zimbabwean liberation movements to agree a deal so that the war might end. The leaders of those movements were urged to compromise, and they did.
There is nothing in the Lancaster house agreement promising to pay for land reform, and nothing in our conversations with the principal western Ministers involved at the time—Lord Carrington and Chester Crocker—suggested that there was any secret deal to do so. Nevertheless, Britain made aid available for land reform on a “willing seller, willing buyer” basis, and by 1986, 71,000 families had been resettled on land formerly owned by commercial farmers. The Economist described it at the time as
“one of the most successful aid schemes in Africa”.
However, by 1985, the scheme had slowed down, and in the 1990s it stopped altogether.
In 1997, Robert Mugabe was losing support within his party, ZANU-PF, and came under pressure from war veterans for pensions. He capitulated to those demands, seeking support from a constituency within his party, but his capitulation did not end the demands. The veterans came back with more demands, including demands for land, and in 2000 Robert Mugabe instituted a fast-track land reform process. From that time onwards, Zimbabwe’s relationship with the UK, the European Union and the United States deteriorated.
As a result of fast-track land reform, Zimbabwe’s agricultural output has fallen by 60 per cent. and the economy more generally has gone into freefall, with mounting inflation. I came back from Zimbabwe recently with a note for either 50 million or 50 billion Zimbabwean dollars—I cannot remember which. I should have looked at it again this weekend. At the end of the inflation spiral, prices were doubling every 24 hours.
I should declare an interest, as my nephew is a Zimbabwean who has been evicted from farmland.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the change in process that led to the collapse in productive capacity. One of the biggest underlying problems is that, because the process does not give legal title to the new owners and the transfer has no proper legal underpinning, the new owners have no means of investing in the farms. We therefore need to bring back legal stability and a proper legal process to land ownership in countries such as Zimbabwe, to enable investment for the future so that productive capacity can be restored.
The only thing with which I disagree is the use of “we”. It is not for us but for the Government of Zimbabwe to bring that back. However, I know the hon. Gentleman well, and I am sure that that was a slip of the tongue.
One matter that we examined in some detail in our report was Zimbabwe’s dual land ownership law. Roughly 70 per cent. of land was originally commercially farmed, with a system of title, which brought with it the sort of benefit that the hon. Gentleman describes. Owners can use the equity in the land title to borrow for the purchase of inputs such as seeds and fertilisers and to pay for irrigation; when good legal title is lost, such benefits disappear. However, on the remaining 30 per cent. of the land—the so-called communal lands used largely by African farmers—an individual farmer does not have legal title and is therefore unable to gain the credit necessary to raise farm productivity. I would like a system of title to be established for land across Zimbabwe as a whole, but that of course is a matter for the Zimbabweans, not us.
I was an official observer in the Rhodesian elections back in 1982 and I remember meeting members of the then Government. Among the matters that came up that the hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned was the question whether the money that came from land, if compensation were payable under reform, could be taken out of the country. Of course, a different regime altogether applied to mines. Did he discuss with Lord Carrington article 5 of the constitution—if I recall it correctly; it was a long time ago? That was a hot issue at the time. It locked people in and it has in many ways been a contributory factor in the conflict, violence and hatred that Robert Mugabe has tended to generate.
We did not discuss with Lord Carrington the situation after the Lancaster house talks, other than in the most general terms. However, one pillar on which the agreement rested was the principle that the political arrangements—the constitution as agreed at Lancaster House—would remain in force for either 10 or 20 years. Somebody will correct me—[Hon. Members: “Ten years.”] Yes, of course, because it was 10 years later that the constitution was changed to create a different political arrangement. One plank of the Lancaster house agreement was that until or unless the constitution was changed, land title would change only on the basis that a willing seller sold to a willing buyer. In fairness to Robert Mugabe, after a bloody war against an illegal settler regime, he honoured that agreement to the letter. The problems arose later.
“Willing seller, willing buyer” is one thing, but the fact that the seller could not repatriate the money to the United Kingdom or wherever else they wanted to send it created a lot of pressure on the practicalities of the reform system. As I recall, in the mining sector, Lonrho negotiated a deal enabling it to take mining money out of the country. The whole thing was a complete mess, which is what generated a lot of the pressure.
We did not consider capital flows in detail in the report, but that is an important issue. Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman catches your eye, Mrs. Dean, he will be able to expand on it. It is crucial to the future as well as the past.
On finance and money, although the Lancaster house agreement did not require the UK to set up a land reform fund, the UK put up money for that purpose. The UK has always been one of the biggest aid donors to Zimbabwe: since 1998, it has been among the top three countries in the world giving aid to Zimbabwe, and for five of those 11 years, we have been the largest single bilateral donor to Zimbabwe. Since 2000, when political relations between the UK and Zimbabwe became strained, far from penalising Zimbabwe for farm invasions, the UK has recognised the country’s growing humanitarian needs and has increased aid from $20 million in 2000 to $89 million in 2008, according to independent figures from the OECD’s development assistance committee. I totted up the figures last night: since independence, the UK has provided Zimbabwe with $1.128 billion in aid—a considerable sum.
In the early years, $50 million was set aside for land reform, which paid for the resettlement of 71,000 smallholders. That was the scheme described by The Economist as particularly successful. In fact, not quite all the $50 million was used; $2 million or so was not. The only reason why the scheme did not continue is that the rule of law broke down and land was redistributed not to the rural landless poor, but to rich and powerful members of the ruling elite. I regard it as perfectly proper that British aid is used to provide livelihoods for poor African peasant farmers, but it should not be used to provide large capital assets to members of a country’s elite.
The hon. Gentleman is coming on to something that afflicts Zimbabwe and much of Africa: corruption. Does the all-party group’s report examine in detail the part played by corruption, particularly in the past five or six years?
This report does not, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that the group’s last report entitled “The Other Side of the Coin” was on exactly that issue. It focused on corruption in Africa, and in particular on the corrupt relationships between people in this country and in Africa. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has taken a close interest in the matter and brought a Bill before the House. Similarly, I brought forward an International Bribery and Corruption Bill 12 years ago. We are both happy that the Government have brought forward the Bribery Bill, which is before the House and will hopefully be on the statute book before the election.
With the hon. Gentleman’s support, I am damned sure that the Bill will go through. I believe it will make a real difference.
In 2001, the law on bribery in the UK was changed to make explicit for the first time the fact that transnational bribes made by British citizens or companies were contrary to law. That meant that the UK complied with the requirements of the OECD convention on bribery. However, it was not an effective law in terms of bringing cases before the courts. A few cases have been brought recently by the Serious Fraud Office, with convictions being secured through the courts or civil penalties being paid by companies in breach of the law. If the Bribery Bill becomes law, it will significantly strengthen the powers of the Government and help to prevent bad apples from the UK fuelling corruption abroad.
I am interested to find out what the situation in Zimbabwe is today and what the hon. Gentleman thinks about it. Does he agree with the provisions in the global political agreement that say that there should be a thorough land audit of the current situation in Zimbabwe, or does he think that that would enshrine the current situation? Does he think that those provisions would help in the production of a proper land title system that would allow farmers to borrow against the resulting collateral?
I should make progress or I will be delivering my speech in bits. I agree strongly with the provisions. I am glad that the Government have been instrumental in persuading the World Bank to set up a multi-donor trust fund to pay for such an audit to be carried out. That will be an important basis on which to build a viable land policy for Zimbabwe. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the matter.
The International Development Committee, whose Chair, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), is here, has just completed an inquiry into Zimbabwe that is due to be published on Friday. Because of the rules of parliamentary privilege, I cannot reveal what it says, but I can refer to evidence submitted to the Committee; that is in the public domain. The Department for International Development evidence said that in 2009-10, British aid to Zimbabwe will, for the first time, exceed $100 million.
I know that British aid is making a real difference, not only from reading DFID papers, but because I visited Zimbabwe a few weeks ago as a member of the International Development Committee. The aid is being used to distribute seeds and fertiliser to 375,000 smallholder households in Zimbabwe, to compensate those who have lost land and create new livelihoods for them. A great deal of British money goes towards fighting HIV/AIDS, for example through the distribution of tens of millions of male and female condoms. The UK is leading the multi-donor expanded support programme on HIV/AIDS, which is making antiretroviral drugs available to 58,000 people in Zimbabwe who would otherwise suffer from AIDS and die.
The UK is helping the World Food Programme to deliver food aid to 1.6 million people. We are supporting UNICEF to reduce the impact of cholera; in 2008, about 1,500 people died in a cholera epidemic. British money is being used to improve access to clean water and sanitation for 2 million people in Zimbabwe. We have a commitment to provide textbooks to 5,300 primary schools in Zimbabwe. We are providing technical assistance to the office of the Prime Minister and the office of the Finance Minister. British money is being well spent and is channelled largely through multilateral agencies to ensure that it is not misused through corrupt practices within the Zimbabwe Government.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for alluding to the work of the International Development Committee. Our report will come out on Friday. Does he agree that we learned from our visit to Zimbabwe that there is a huge capacity for recovery if only all parties come together, and that, contrary to what one might think from the propaganda, the UK Government are playing a pivotal role in co-ordinating aid and development and facilitating further investment in Zimbabwe, should the political process allow it?
I agree absolutely. I must tread cautiously so that I do not reveal what is in the report. However, I feel able to repeat what I said before we received evidence: I think that the global political agreement opens a new opportunity for the UK to advance the cause of development in Zimbabwe and build better relationships with the Zimbabwe Government. I believe that now is the time to engage, not to hold back.
The hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned the number of farms that Mr. Mugabe has handed over to members of the army, members of his family, members of ZANU-PF and individuals and companies involved with ZANU-PF. Will he highlight the problem that the country is not able to produce the food that its people need and is therefore reliant on overseas aid and food from other countries, even though it could be and has been the bread basket of central Africa?
This is the central tragedy: a country that used not only to be self-sufficient, but to export food to Zambia, Malawi and other countries in the region now has a food deficit that cannot be made good through commercial trade. In years past, Zimbabwe had a larger commercial sector in its economy than most countries in central and southern Africa. The gap has to be filled by donors from abroad through food aid.
It is to the credit of the UK that we have never flinched from that task, despite our very strong differences with the Government of Zimbabwe. If it is a question of whether people live or starve, the only thing a rich country such as ours can do is provide the food. If we are not welcome in person in the country, we need to find an agency such as the World Food Programme to deliver the aid on our behalf. We have done that, and it is the right thing to do.
When the Committee was in Zimbabwe a couple of weeks ago, we met the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai. He urged the UK to think about what he called humanitarian aid-plus. He did not suggest that circumstances are yet appropriate for large-scale aid to be channelled through the Government, but he did say that we ought to be looking at longer-term development, not just immediate humanitarian relief. To a considerable extent, that is what DFID is doing. It is looking at the issues of sewerage and water supplies and the provision of a basic formulary of drugs, rather than just responding to the health problems caused by food shortages. I would like us to do everything we can to move the aid relationship between this country and Zimbabwe on from one of humanitarian relief to one that builds economic and political capacity within the country.
The inclusive Government who grew out of the global political agreement incorporate members of the Movement for Democratic Change as well as of ZANU-PF, the long-term ruling party, but that Government are clearly fragile and under pressure. There have been some real achievements—most notably, of course, the stabilisation of the economy and the Finance Minister’s decision to dollarise the economy. That led to two immediate advantages: first, it stopped inflation in its tracks, and secondly it stopped the Zimbabwean central bank from printing money to give to the party in power or senior people in the ruling regime; that was what had destroyed the value of the Zimbabwean dollar. The inclusive Government are rebuilding the capacity of the civil service to deliver basic services to the people, but they have a long way to go.
My hon. Friend referred to the stabilisation of the economy. Would he at this point join me in noting the serious incident that took place yesterday? Last night, the Finance Minister, Tendai Biti, was involved in a serious car crash on a road just outside Harare. We understand that he is currently under observation in hospital, that his condition is stable and that he is expected to make a full recovery. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to join me and I am sure other hon. Members in wishing him well for a speedy recovery, given how important he has been in helping to stabilise Zimbabwe’s economy?
Yes, I will. I know that every hon. Member in this Chamber would also wish to join the Minister in sending those greetings. I hope that it is not just a rhetorical flourish; I hope that our ambassador in Harare will convey the greetings of this House and send our best wishes to Tendai Biti. He is an absolutely pivotal figure and is extremely bright. He is, of course, the architect of the finance reforms that stopped the runaway inflation, and he will play a vital—pivotal—part in Zimbabwe’s economic recovery. His good health and speedy return to office is extremely important not only to the politics of Zimbabwe, but to the people of Zimbabwe. I worry when I hear about car crashes in Zimbabwe, because the Prime Minister there lost his wife in a car crash. Although we know that the roads are much more dangerous in Africa, that incident shows how fragile the inclusive Government are.
I shall briefly refer to the four recommendations in the report and say a word or two about the global political agreement. We came to four principal conclusions. First, when we in the UK consider land reform, we must recognise that it is a highly charged political issue. At the time of independence, the settler farmers made up 1 per cent. of the population, but they owned 70 per cent. of the land. Most of the farmers in the 1980s had bought their land from earlier generations of white settlers, but the land title that the first settlers obtained at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century was disputable to say the least.
When the Committee was in Zimbabwe, I talked to a white archivist who had just retired from the civil service. He was a fourth generation Rhodesian, as he called himself, and his family were farmers. He said that when his family arrived at the turn of the 19th century and staked out their claim to land, they told the local people that they had a choice: work for them or get off the land. One has to understand why there is an African sense of grievance. That is not to say that the process of land invasions is a wise, sensible or justifiable response to that grievance, but to ignore the fact that there is a very real grievance is to put off finding a solution to the problem.
Our second recommendation was that the UK needs to combat more actively the “promises betrayed” myth in Africa and that we need to assert that we are one of Africa’s best development partners. Over the past decade, the United Kingdom has doubled—possibly even trebled— our aid to Africa. We have done more than that in Zimbabwe; we have increased it fivefold. We must continue to support Zimbabwe’s development both politically and economically.
Thirdly, we made comments about the dual land tenure system. I was pleased to note in the Government’s response that they share our view that real land title needs to be provided to all Zimbabweans who are farming. However, the Government point out rightly that the Zimbabwean people and their Parliament must make that decision—it is not a decision that we can make here.
Fourthly, we recommend that the UK should re-engage on the issue of land reform—including on making a financial commitment to land reform—once the quality of governance is such that we are assured that the money spent will go to provide land to the landless poor, not to elite groups. We make the point that the UK cannot do that alone, partly because of a poisoned post-colonial relationship and partly because it is a responsibility for the wider donor community. That matter ought to be dealt with on a multilateral basis and is possibly something that could flow from the “Domesday Book” work on defining land title, which is being carried out—funded—by the World Bank’s multi-donor trust fund.
Finally, I want briefly to read some extracts from the global political agreement, which was made between ZANU-PF, the largest party in Government since independence, and the major Opposition parties—the two factions of the MDC. Article V of the global political agreement recognises
“that colonial racist, land ownership patterns, established during the colonial conquest of Zimbabwe…were not only unsustainable, but against the national interest, equity and justice”
and accepts the desirability of comprehensive land reform in Zimbabwe.
The agreement states that there was a difference of opinion between the MDC and ZANU-PF. It says:
“While differing on the methodology of acquisition and redistribution…under a land reform programme under taken since 2000”,
the parties accept
“the irreversibility of the said land acquisitions and redistribution.”
The parties agree on a number of other issues, but I want to set out just four of the points that they agreed. First, they agreed to
“conduct a comprehensive, transparent and non-partisan land audit”.
As I said, that is under way and it is being funded by donors, including this country. Secondly, they agreed to
“work together to secure international support and finance for the land reform programme”.
When the political conditions allow, I would want our Government to support that and to take a lead in constructing a multi-donor fund. Thirdly, they agreed to
“work together for the restoration of full productivity on all agricultural land”.
DFID is already working on that, and I mentioned the seed and fertiliser distribution programmes.
However, the parties to the global political agreement, which included the MDC, also
“call upon the United Kingdom government to accept the primary responsibility to pay compensation for land acquired from former land owners for resettlement”,
and I do not accept that. That statement was made in a political agreement between Zimbabweans. It is not for the UK to compensate those whose land was taken by force; the responsibility to pay compensation must lie with those who forcibly took the land. After all, it is 45 years since Britain ruled what is now Zimbabwe, in which time we have seen 15 years of an illegal settler regime, which was in revolt against the British Crown, followed by 30 years of independence. It is those who have broken the law in Zimbabwe in recent years who have a responsibility.
The all-party group and I strongly make the case that the UK should be a generous aid donor and, in particular, that it should set up a fund to help pay for land reform. However, we should do that because we are good development partners, not because of an historical debt, particularly when actions have taken place decades after the colonial period. We should work with the Government of Zimbabwe not just to distribute seeds and fertiliser, but to put together a range of policies on land title and other matters to help Zimbabwe recover the agricultural productivity that it once had and to become the bread basket of Africa once again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) on his debate. Today, I have spoken to members of Tendai Biti’s family, both here and in Zimbabwe, and he is recovering. He has met many of the Members here, including the members of the all-party group on Zimbabwe, and he will be very grateful and pleased that we are sending him our best wishes.
Land is an emotive issue in Zimbabwe; having travelled hundreds of miles through Zimbabwe over the past 10 years, and coming as I do from a farming background, I feel pretty emotional about it myself. My emotion arises, first, from seeing thousands and thousands of acres of good agricultural land revert to scrubland. It also arises from seeing thousands and thousands of skilled agricultural workers consigned to enforced idleness, joblessness and the prospect of having no future. It is outrageous that that should be happening in a world short of food and on a continent where hunger is never far away.
What makes me very angry indeed, however, is the thought that my constituents just down the road in Lambeth, Vauxhall and Brixton are paying their taxes so that food can be shipped halfway around the world to feed people in a country that, until very recently, exported food. Indeed, it could still be exporting food but for the disastrous actions of Mugabe and his ruling clique, which has sacrificed the prosperity and well-being of an entire nation to their greed for power and plunder.
It is really important to set the discussion of land in Zimbabwe in that context, because there is a tendency among many people and many of the relief agencies to tiptoe around the real issues. Some people still often blame the food shortages on bad harvests and bad weather, when the truth is that the chaotic fast-track land reform process has resulted in whole swathes of land being taken out of production. Earlier this month, the Red Cross announced that more than 2 million Zimbabweans are urgently in need of food assistance, before going on to blame the shortages on drought in some areas and excessive rain in others.
That statement shows a real drought of honesty over the real reasons why Zimbabweans are hungry. While ZANU Ministers and the people at the top of the armed forces sit in the farm houses that they have grabbed, the land lies uncultivated and unproductive, and those who should be working it are displaced and destitute. That is shocking and scandalous. Whatever the weasel words from Mugabe and his apologists about righting the supposed wrongs of colonialism, the people of Zimbabwe are now far worse off than they were in the 1980s.
It would be helpful if the Minister could assure us that DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will do all they can to make sure that NGOs delivering programmes funded by British taxpayers become in no way complicit in promoting the politicised misrepresentation of facts favoured by ZANU-PF. I realise that it is sometimes difficult and that organisations do not want to jeopardise their operations in the country by becoming overtly political, but if we are providing their funding, it is important they should not, for the sake of a quiet life, play along with sometimes distorted versions of events that denigrate the UK and gloss over the appalling record of Mugabe’s Government.
Recently, the general secretary of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe, Gertrude Hambira, came to speak to the all-party group on Zimbabwe about a report and a film produced by the union, which show the human rights violations suffered by farm workers as a result of the land reform process. She was in hiding until very recently because armed men forced their way into her home to abduct her. Only last month, the Central Intelligence Organisation—Zimbabwe’s secret police, who are still operating in Zimbabwe despite the global political agreement—raided the union’s offices looking for Gertrude, and she had to flee to South Africa for safety. Such things are still happening day in, day out to trade union leaders who tell the truth about land reform in Zimbabwe and who try to defend the rights of workers.
The hon. Lady mentions an important trade union leader who has fled to South Africa, but what about the hundreds of thousands—nay, millions—of Zimbabwe citizens, including those who have been driven off the land by the so-called war veterans, who were not even born when the war took place, who are causing unrest and social disorder in parts of South Africa, among other countries?
Of course. It is refreshing to see President Zuma engage much more with the issue. Indeed, shortly after he left this country—I am sure that his visit had something to do with this—he was literally followed by Zimbabweans wherever he went, and he has recently been in Zimbabwe. South Africa is suffering, too, because of the overspill from what is happening in Zimbabwe.
For 20 years, as we know, Mugabe was not interested in land reform, which was not a priority. When he did move it to the top of his agenda, it was not because he suddenly wanted to right an historical wrong; his real aim was to cripple the trade union movement because of the looming political threat. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions broke its alliance with ZANU-PF, and Morgan Tsvangirai, who was then the ZCTU general secretary, went on to found the MDC. Farm workers were an obvious target for retribution because they made up the largest sector of unionised labour. What is even worse—this is often overlooked—is that there is a nasty whiff of xenophobia about taking things out on farm workers, many of whom are descended from Malawian migrants. That is a whole new issue, which needs to be looked at.
Some Members participating in the debate will have seen the moving film “Mugabe and the White African”, which was released recently. The all-party group had a screening of the film, which members of the International Development Committee saw before their visit to Zimbabwe. The film follows the proceedings of the Southern African Development Community tribunal, leading up to its ruling in 2008 that the seizure of commercial farms was illegal. The tribunal decided that the amendment to the Zimbabwe constitution allowing the Government to seize white-owned farms without compensation violated international law.
It is particularly significant that the ruling should have been made by a tribunal set up by the SADC, the regional grouping of African nations. Needless to say, Mugabe promptly announced that he did not recognise the authority of the tribunal, even though his own Government had ratified the protocol establishing it. In February in South Africa the North Gauteng High Court ruled that the SADC decision could be enforced in South Africa and that certain assets of the Government of Zimbabwe could be seized, to provide compensation to dispossessed farmers.
The UK provides substantial support across the SADC region and DFID has helped with the strengthening of SADC institutions. It is futile to provide support for those much vaunted regional bodies if they can be disregarded as soon as they become inconvenient. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what discussions he has had with Governments in the region about making sure that ZANU-PF Ministers honour their international obligations, particularly those made to the country’s SADC partners. That has a bearing on the cavalier way in which Mugabe still treats the global political agreement. He signed up to the agreement and was really only allowed to stay on in government because of it. The pressure came from South Africa. Yet SADC has seemed pretty impotent when it comes to exercising the guarantee that it gave to the MDC when it signed up—reluctantly, but in the interest of the country—that ZANU-PF would not be able to wriggle out of its obligations to observe the spirit and letter of the agreement.
If only Mugabe would reread what he said 30 years ago, in January 1980, when he arrived back from exile in Mozambique:
“We will not seize land from anyone who has a use for it. Farmers who are able to be productive and prove useful to society will find us co-operative.”
He has actually seized farms from black farmers and white farmers who bought their land legally long after colonialism finished. We must not allow the colonial issue to override everything, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of York said, it is a long time since this country was directly running Zimbabwe in any way.
Land is the key; it should be productive and should be used to grow crops to feed the people and to export. It should be used to provide employment and to generate the wealth needed to pay for local schools and community hospitals. Now at long last there are encouraging signs that Zimbabwe might be moving towards proper democracy. As those signs materialise into reality, I hope that we can enter into productive partnerships with forward-looking MDC Ministers in the Government of Zimbabwe, such as Elton Mangoma. There are really good people around, who know what needs to be done to get Zimbabwe moving.
I hope that the Minister will tell us more about DFID plans to encourage investment in enterprises related to agriculture. What can be done that will help to re-establish enterprises that will generate employment and foreign earnings? One of the realities is that many of the methods of modern agribusiness are not labour-intensive. There is a need to find ways in which value can be added to agricultural produce before it leaves Zimbabwe. That will not only boost employment; it will boost Zimbabwe’s export earnings. It will help land to become again what it was for so long: the mainstay of the Zimbabwean economy and the foundation of vibrant local communities. None of that can happen until Zimbabwe has genuinely free and fair elections, a new Government and a new President, elected on the basis of support for the rule of law and real democracy. That is what the House should work towards.
It is always a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) speak about Zimbabwe. Her courage on the issue is known to many of us in the all-party group on Zimbabwe. The anger that she feels at what has happened to that wonderful country burns in her rhetoric, and it is a privilege to follow her.
This is a poignant moment for me to speak on the issue, because I have today been given information about two constituents, Adele and Bruce Moffatt, who escaped after what happened to them on their farm and came to live with their children in my constituency. They went back to Zimbabwe and in the past day or so have had a really horrendous experience. They were subjected to continuous beating for more than 90 minutes and were marched into the bush, where they were certain they were going to be murdered. They managed to talk their way out of it and escape. They are still trying to find out what has happened to others close to them, and it is a worrying time for many families in this country, and of course in Zimbabwe.
I pay tribute to the all-party group on Africa for the report. It was a very good piece of work. I played a very small part in it, because I attended one hearing, when Lord Carrington gave evidence. If I have half the marbles that he has at his age I shall be a very happy old man. He is a remarkable person and his recall of what must at times have been very confusing negotiations at Lancaster house was remarkable.
I have seen land reform from close to in Zimbabwe. I visited a farm where all the tractors were covered in signs saying “A gift from the people of the European Economic Community”. The farm, near Karoi, was configured like an east European collective, and its productivity was plunging compared with some of the commercial farms, owned by all races, round about, which were very well farmed. I worried when I saw how aid from the EEC, as it was then, was being used. I have also visited farms that were invaded by so-called war veterans. To be a war veteran someone must be more or less my age, in their late 40s, but there were people there considerably younger than that. It was not possible that they fought in the war, unless they were soldiers while they were toddlers.
The most important point that I want to make in the few minutes left to me is to respond to recommendations 2 and 4 in the report. What worries me and, I know, other Members of both Houses who meet from time to time, concerns what I should call the next generation of African leaders. Many are very impressive people, and many have been involved in business. They are involved in politics in an entirely laudable way and they present themselves as a new hope for a continent that has suffered too long from poor governance. However, in many cases, it is apparent that they still have a hang-up about Lancaster house, saying that there was a betrayal there and that we are in part to blame for what happened in Zimbabwe.
The report has done much to debunk some of the wrong perceptions about that. It is now up to some of the very clever people we meet in high commissions and the Foreign Office and other organisations to get out there to show those people that we stuck to our word; the problem started in Zimbabwe and can be solved in Zimbabwe. Until we do that an apologia will hang over the debate on land reform in the whole region. We desperately need the Minister to say that our high commissions will be charged with the job of selling that point, to lay to rest a perception that has been allowed to continue for too long.
Recommendation 4 is an excellent one—along with the rest of the report. The British Government, whatever form they take in the coming years, need to re-engage with governance issues in Zimbabwe, not in a colonial sense but in a supportive sense. Anything of that nature that one says at the moment is misconstrued in the Government-friendly Zimbabwe press, and we have to be careful about the language we use. All of us in this House have to do that. The problem is Zimbabwe’s. We must stand by as friends of the people of Zimbabwe to support them at the right time.
As for the taxpayers in our constituencies, and the giving of aid, I barely hold a surgery now at which a Zimbabwean does not come to see me. It might be about a visa issue, or a welfare issue. Too often it is about poverty, because people are living in straitened circumstances in this country. Many of them are intelligent, good people who want to go back to Zimbabwe and take it to its recovery. We can get a massive bang for our buck in aid, because not only can we re-energise that potentially fantastically productive country, but—if we want to be thoroughly selfish about it—we can save our Exchequer the burden of supporting so many people who have escaped the regime. In pure cash terms, for regeneration, we can contribute sums of money that will have an enormous, over-arching effect, in the good that they can do.
We need to look forward in this debate. I noticed that Denis Norman, who was the Farm Minister, suggested a process of some form of land nationalisation. Perhaps there should be some form of sale and lease-back—some form of leasing arrangement. The Commercial Farmers Union is suggesting a truth and reconciliation committee. Those are all good suggestions and I hope that they get a good hearing, but ultimately they are nothing to do with us. It is a question of a solution for Zimbabwe that we can support.
On page 31 of the report, there is a map showing just how fertile the country is and how what was once the bread basket of Africa has become a basket case. However, it can revert to being that again—if I had the same rainfall over the same soil on my farm I would be a very happy farmer indeed. We must find every way we can to support the economy.
We have covered the question of tenure, and I have run out of time. I will finish by saying that we must take a mature approach to the future, recognising that for some people certain perceptions will remain realities, whatever efforts are made. If we tackle the wrongly-held beliefs in an open and clear way and assist civil society and the stabilising forces in Zimbabwe as they re-establish themselves in the years to come, we can make a huge difference to the future of that country. We must support the agriculture and food production infrastructure, if our aid funds allow, and work hard to make Governments in the region aware that unless they stabilise Zimbabwe they risk destabilising further the whole region.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) on securing the debate and he and his colleagues in the all-party group on Africa on their excellent report, the recommendations of which seem extremely sensible. I will show them to my parents-in-law, because they were both born in Bulawayo and came to this country rather depressed after the unilateral declaration of independence. They have relatives who have been farmers. Indeed, my wife’s uncle was a farmer in Zimbabwe until he eventually decided to give up the ghost and go and farm in South Africa. Before he did so he had a crocodile farm, because he found that that helped the war veterans decide not to come and take the land.
I have learnt some of the background to the situation from my wife’s uncle and, in particular, from my father-in-law, who stood in the elections against Ian Smith. My father-in-law was part of the Liberal white party there and selected his constituency in that election because he worked out that, if he were elected, the party would win the election and defeat Ian Smith. He was depressed by the political situation at the time because he predicted the war and how bad things would get. He could not bear to watch that happen to his beloved country and so decided, having been rejected by the white population, to find work elsewhere. He ended up as the head of the Law Commission in this country. While he was a lawyer in Zimbabwe he defended some of the black tribes against seizures of their land by whites, so as a lawyer he was very much involved in that in the 1960s and has some interesting tales to tell.
Many of those tales relate to one of the report’s main points, which is that we must get over the narrative from history that so bedevils the debate even among black politicians, who in many other respects are extremely progressive and have an encouraging outlook, as the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) said, and that is quite correct. My father-in-law explained to me that if one looks back far enough in the history of land ownership and land disputes in Zimbabwe one will see that there were disputes between the Shona and the Matabele. That is not to say that Britain’s record is good in that regard, because it is not at all, and he is critical of some of the things white settlers did, but his major point is that if we keep going back to history we will get nowhere.
We must take the view that it is the job of all the people of Zimbabwe to look after the land and ensure that they can grow the food that they all need. As other Members have said, if the people can work together there is no reason why Zimbabwe should not be able to feed its own population and children and even export food. That point is well made in the all-party group’s report.
The question is how land reform happens. Other Members have rightly said that that is ultimately a matter for the Zimbabweans. The fate of the unity Government, particularly the involvement of the MDC, is unfortunately still in question, and everyone is right to try to support them as much as possible. The news about Tendai Biti is shocking, and like others we send him our best wishes. The most frustrating thing is that the policies that could be pursued would be in everyone’s interests and could turn things around relatively quickly. The report recommends, for example, that communal land ownership must have title and that sorting out the title of the land that has been seized would mean that people could borrow for the seeds, tools and implements they need. There are ways forward if there is the good governance that is so critical to such policies.
I am sure that our Government will play their part, although I think that recommendation 4 of the report is well put, stressing the need for British support to be on an increasingly multilateral basis so that we can get over some of the historical baggage that is so bizarre and unhelpful.
One matter that is not covered in the report, and which I would be interested to learn more about after the debate, is the role of China in Zimbabwe, particularly with regard to land. One reads reports of Chinese state corporations buying up land, which is adding a new and complicating factor. I am certainly not an expert on that, but I wonder how it is being factored into the recommendations and thoughts, not least because there is a danger that the deals that one hears are being made between some of those corporations and, no doubt, members of the ZANU-PF elite could create even more problems in due course.
I do not pretend to have expert knowledge, save for what I have heard from my father-in-law, but I think that Britain has much to contribute in the situation. We can help by dispelling the myths. I believe that the politicians in Zimbabwe need to know that we have a lot of cross-party support on the matter in the House. There is a great deal of unity, but above all there is much good will towards the people of Zimbabwe.
My final point, which was also made by the hon. Member for Newbury, and which backs up the point on good will, is about assisting Zimbabweans in this country. In many respects, that would be the quickest way of showing that good will and giving support, and it would mean that we would not necessarily have to get involved in the difficult and sensitive politics of Zimbabwe immediately.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have many Zimbabweans, both black and white, who come to my surgery seeking support with visas and Home Office problems. It pains me to see some of them who are in an extremely difficult position, either because they are still waiting for their asylum case to be heard or because their case has failed, although, rightly, they are not being sent back. The fact that they are not allowed to work and are given no support in training seems to me to be one of the biggest missed opportunities in development. I urge the Minister, as I have urged the Foreign Secretary and Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to talk again to the Home Office on that, because there must be a way around it. We have an opportunity to instil the skills, expertise, work experience and contacts in a whole generation of Zimbabweans who could then help to rebuild their country.
There is a broader point on the asylum seekers and refugees who come to our shores and whom we do not treat properly. We do not give them the opportunity to return to their countries with added value and extra skills. I think that there is a case for some kind of temporary development visa that tells those people that they can stay, get work and get trained because we want to put in their hands and minds the skills that would allow them to go back and rebuild their countries. Would not that be Britain showing leadership in development? Would that not be one of the easiest ways to show that development money is better spent on the people who will ultimately deliver better futures for countries such as Zimbabwe?
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) for obtaining this debate. It is very timely, coming in the wake of the excellent report from his all-party Africa group and in the light of the fact that the International Development Committee is about to publish its report.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). Many of our constituents have an instinctive empathy with the plight of the people of Zimbabwe. Like him, I have had tragic cases of people who fled from Zimbabwe, having lost close relatives in brutal circumstances. They have been well looked after by others in my constituency, and there are strong support groups in this country that are giving a great deal of help to the people of Zimbabwe.
I shall start where the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) ended. We and the British Government need to do everything we can to make the global political agreement work and to ensure that there is a finite date for the next election, because the only sustainable way forward is for Zimbabwe to move from a transitional Government to a Government who are properly elected through free and fair elections, if that were ever possible.
In the short run, However, IHS Global Insight shares the International Monetary Fund’s concerns over the sustainability of Zimbabwe’s recovery. It says that for that country, which is starting from an extremely low base, rising output in the agricultural and mining sectors is the quickest way to growth. It is clear that this debate on land is extremely important, and that how land reform moves forward is also important.
An aspect of the conditions in Zimbabwe that has not been raised in this debate, although the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) got very close to it just now, is that an estimated 3 million to 4 million people have fled Zimbabwe and are refugees and asylum seekers, many of them—probably 2 million to 3 million—in South Africa. That leaves an estimated residual population in Zimbabwe of about 8 million, of which about 6 million were in need of food aid in 2008. According to the World Food Programme, perhaps 2.7 million are still in need of food and subsistence aid. The situation in Zimbabwe is dire.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury is a great expert on farming, and I farm as well. There is no doubt about it: Zimbabwe used to be the bread basket of Africa. Not only could it feed its own people, but it was one of the major food exporters to the whole of the rest of Africa. It is sad that the land reforms instituted by President Mugabe from 2000 onwards have resulted in a situation in which an estimated 4,000 farmers have been displaced from their land, and, just as important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said, almost 300,000 agricultural workers have been displaced from the farms where they worked—many were brutally killed—and their skills have disappeared. As my hon. Friend knows, what is important is not only the ownership of a farm, but the skills of the people who work on it and produce the crops.
The global political agreement that provides the mechanism for a land audit is a good way forward. Once we have established who owns the farms—whether they are the right people to own them is a different question—it will be possible develop some form of land registration system, and then people will be able to borrow against the collateral of the land and reinvest in some of the infrastructure that has been so run down. That is why farms are lying idle: infrastructure for grain storage, irrigation and so on has in many cases gone to rack and ruin because it has not been maintained properly.
There is a need not only for capital infrastructure for the farms, but for working capital to buy machinery to harvest and plant crops and for the sort of assistance that the Department for International Development is giving by supplying farmers with seeds to plant and fertilisers. Production can be cranked up, but many things needed for that are desperately lacking.
I am sorry, Mrs. Dean, that I had to nip out for a European Scrutiny Committee sitting.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the action of the South African court in giving a right to seize Zimbabwean Government property in South Africa in pursuit of compensation claims by white farmers is a tremendous step forward in establishing their rights? What does he think about the attitude of the President of South Africa in that context? We have the sense that the South African Government are reluctant to take the right action against Mugabe.
As he so often does, my hon. Friend reads my mind; I was coming on to that point. We need to make the global political agreement work. We need to make the judgments of the panel enforceable under the judicial system of Zimbabwe. My hon. Friend is a great constitutional lawyer, so he will know that unless one can obtain enforcement of a judgment, there is not much point—I will not say that there is not much point in getting the judgment, but the judgment itself is not the critical thing. Enforcement is critical, and that is why Zimbabwe needs a proper judicial system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) stated in a report on his recent visit to Zimbabwe:
“A land audit that establishes exactly who is in possession of what, as a first step towards a conclusive settlement on this most sensitive of issues, is crucial yet shows no sign of getting off the ground. Nor has Mugabe released all political prisoners, or honoured his commitments to open up the media space. And all the while Zanu PF thugs and militia lurk in the background.”
There is real fear in the back of Zimbabwean people’s mind that the law and order situation is still highly unpredictable and unsatisfactory. That is why the country needs a general election and a properly, constitutionally and democratically elected Government.
As a farmer, I would like to probe some of DFID’s policies—that is the information that I hope the Minister will be able to provide today. The hon. Member for City of York said two important things. First, he said that, having examined the matter in forensic detail, he does not think that this country has any further obligations under the Lancaster house agreement, and that, furthermore, the situation is entirely the fault of the ruling political party, which brought about contraventions of the law of that country through the land reforms conducted since 2000. Secondly—on the opposite end of the scale—he said that this country has contributed almost $1 billion to Zimbabwe since independence. That is an important point that we need to keep stressing to the world. Far from abandoning Zimbabwe, we have been a huge supporter and a huge help to that country through its difficult times.
I want to probe the Minister about the almost £100 million-worth of aid that we will give Zimbabwe this year. A great deal of it—I have the programmes written down here—will go to shore up Government infrastructure. How effective does he think direct aid to the Zimbabwean Government has been? Is it bringing about a real improvement in the structure of government? Would we do better by channelling more of the aid through non-governmental organisations, which are able to reach the kind of areas that the Zimbabwean Government, let alone the British Government, are not able to reach?
Only two programmes are to do with food assistance and farming reform, and I wonder whether more cannot be done to encourage the kind of things that I have been outlining—planting crops but doing it better—at least on community and community co-operative lands. The Minister will talk about the conservation farming system, and that is great, but we need to go beyond that and teach farmers how to plant crops properly and how to grow them, and how to get farms recapitalised so that food production starts to increase. Marketing pathways need to be re-established so that farmers can get their food to market and, above all, people must have the wherewithal to be able to buy it. Although the economic situation in Zimbabwe is improving, most people in most situations are still unable to pay for ordinary food. They simply do not have the ability to pay for the food that is now in the shops. I would like to hear from the Minister how he envisages the situation developing, how effective our aid to Zimbabwe is, whether we are right to give aid directly to the Zimbabwean Government and how he envisages the global political agreement panning out.
Does the Minister think that we are able to put any pressure on President Zuma of South Africa? As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton and others have said, President Zuma was pressurised hard during his recent visit. Were there any diplomatic signs that that pressure on the South African President had an effect? He is able to bring more pressure to bear on Zimbabwe than anybody else in the world.
What the Minister and everybody else will be able to glean from this debate is that the British people care deeply about what happens in Zimbabwe. We want to see an alleviation of the situation in which the former bread basket of Africa is not able even to feed itself and more than 2 million people are today dependent on food aid.
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) on securing today’s debate. As chair of the all-party group on Africa and through his membership of the International Development Committee, he has demonstrated a long-standing interest in development in general and in the future of Zimbabwe in particular. The insightful report on land in Zimbabwe by the all-party group is a powerful testament to his interest.
I also acknowledge the many other thoughtful contributions made by Members on both sides of the House, including interventions by the hon. Members for Stone (Mr. Cash), for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who chairs the International Development Committee, and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). I shall come in due course to the substantive speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of York, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), along with the Opposition spokespeople’s comments.
A number of Members have referred to the reputation that Zimbabwe’s land has earned that country as the bread basket of southern Africa, and how rebuilding the productive capability of Zimbabwe’s land for commercial and smallholder farmers is critical to the country’s future. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall and the hon. Member for Newbury in particular drew our attention to the continuing violence in Zimbabwe. My hon. Friend highlighted the case of Gertrude Hambira, secretary-general of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe, who had to go into hiding following harassment and intimidation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to continue to highlight the harassment and arrests of human rights defenders and political activists, and the way in which farm invasions have continued and, in some respects, escalated. We continue to urge all sides of the Government to fully observe the spirit as well as the letter of the global political agreement. The hon. Member for Newbury mentioned two of his constituents, Adele and Bruce Moffatt. The experience that they have just endured is another powerful illustration of the problems that continue to scar Zimbabwe, not only in the experiences of those who work on and own farms, but in the human rights situation in the country more generally.
Some of today’s speakers are members of the International Development Committee. When the Select Committee recently visited Zimbabwe, it was able to witness some of the Department’s work, and I look forward to receiving that Committee’s report shortly.
As others have said, today's discussion about land reform has to be set in the context of the challenging political situation in Zimbabwe. I believe that the inclusive Government remain the best opportunity for achieving the economic and political reform that Zimbabwe so desperately needs. The establishment of an inclusive Government has led to progress: for example, the stabilisation of the economy has meant that goods are available in shops, inflation has been tamed and there is now a reasonable basis for discussion with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Huge improvements are still necessary, but there has been progress.
The humanitarian situation has also improved. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall in particular, will remember that, at this time last year, more than 100,000 people had been affected by the worst cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe's history and 7 million people were receiving aid. This year, fewer than 250 people have been affected by cholera and about 2 million are likely to need food aid.
We are giving support for sanitation measures. The hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to point out, in response to one of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), that almost all our aid goes through the United Nations or international NGOs. A very small proportion is spent as technical assistance to Ministries that are committed to reform. Our aid goes through organisations in the UN or through INGOs with whom we have long-standing working arrangements, and there is an extensive programme of audits and evaluations of the aid’s effectiveness.
That leads me to highlight the continuing challenge of delivering basic health and education services, which Members who have visited Zimbabwe and those who follow events there closely will recognise. I welcome the efforts by President Zuma and his team to address the blockages that impede implementation of the global political agreement. We have consistently called, and I do so again today, on all sides of the Government of Zimbabwe to push forward reform and do all they can to meet the needs of their people. We had a useful discussion with President Zuma when he came to London. He joined the Prime Minister in calling on the inclusive Government of Zimbabwe to complete as soon as possible the implementation of the global political agreement. Both countries called for an immediate end to harassment, the repeal of repressive legislation and the establishment of the principles of free speech and free association. They also made it clear that the inclusive Government have to put in place the conditions for free and fair elections.
Many Members know that President Zuma recently visited Harare. I understand that the visit resulted in real progress and agreement in principle on a range of the outstanding issues that impede progress in Zimbabwe. President Zuma said that the package agreed during his visit would take the process forward substantially. Given the sensitivity of the discussions, he has obviously not disclosed the details of the agreements that were reached, but we are hopeful that the details will become public. The Zimbabwe negotiating teams from all three political parties and the three South African facilitators will meet from 26 to 29 March to discuss the issues further and develop implementation plans. They intend to report back to President Zuma by 31 March.
Is the Minister able to enlighten us on any discussions that the Government have had with President Zuma about how he, or the Southern African Development Community, as the guarantor of the global political agreement, will take the agenda forward? It is all very well reporting and reporting, but how will it be taken forward?
As I have said, one the key ways for SADC and South Africa to take forward the process is to meet with the players in the inclusive Government. President Zuma’s recent visit to Harare is an important sign of his commitment to take forward the global political agreement and to try to broker further progress. We welcome the President’s visit, and the fact that his negotiating teams are following up on it.
As the all-party group reports, donors have to approach the complex issue of land reform with great sensitivity. I welcome the fact that the report clearly states that the UK did not make promises at Lancaster house that were subsequently betrayed—
Manchester Bus Travel
The Manchester cross-city bus scheme illustrates some general points about bus travel in urban areas, and it is obviously specific to Manchester. Its purpose is to improve public transport between East Didsbury, Manchester city centre, Middleton and Salford, and it runs through much of the inner city. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) would also like to make a few points about the impact on his constituents.
The scheme consists of bus priority measures, such as excluding cars from part of the route, road widening, increasing capacity at different junctions and adjusting traffic light sequencing electronically—not between red, amber and green, but when they go on and off and what priority they give to buses. Everyone would agree with the scheme’s objectives, which are to improve bus services, to integrate public transport, to improve reliability, to decrease journey times, to provide environmental benefits and to reduce accidents. Unfortunately, when examining the scheme in detail, it becomes clear that it is most unlikely that those objectives will be achieved.
The majority of my points are about the Manchester scheme—why it is fundamentally flawed, and why it will disadvantage my constituents—but general conclusions may be drawn about the difficulty of improving public transport, particularly bus transport, in urban areas where the bus system is deregulated and a free-for-all.
Experience of bus priority measures on radial routes shows that, although there may be an increase in the number of buses travelling along major radial routes and an increase in the number of passengers on those routes, the bus companies—First Group has almost a monopoly in north Manchester and Stagecoach has almost a monopoly in south Manchester—achieve that and increase their profitability by withdrawing services from other parts of the network and putting them on those radial routes. There are improvements on radial routes at peak times, but a worse service elsewhere. If the integrated transport authority wants to replace the withdrawn services as part of the network, there is a direct raid on the public purse. That applies anywhere, but it applies particularly in Manchester.
The first objective is improved bus services, and services on those routes are quite good, although they could be better throughout the city. It is difficult to improve them by much, but there is likely to be a worsening of services in the network as a whole. We must remember that, although authority is available in the Local Transport Act 2008 to start quality contracts and to take control of fares, service levels and networks, the proposals are based on partnership, so there will be no control of fares, networks and schedules. Bus companies will be able to do what they do so well and have a business model that directly targets the public purse, rather than producing the best bus services for passengers.
I shall illustrate what is happening in Greater Manchester, and why we need quality contracts and not the cross-city scheme. People in Broughton and Kersal in Salford use the 95 and 93 routes. One is subsidised and the other is provided by First Group as part of the deregulated system. They are unreliable, and greater public subsidy has been put into one of those routes, but passengers have a poor service. What those passengers require is a service to Hope hospital, but there is no direct connection because First Group does not find it profitable to run that service. People also need services to new centres of employment, such as the new BBC site in Salford Quays, but there is no direct route. That is a case for having a planned and regulated network, and I hope that it illustrates, in particular and in general, why we are unlikely to see an overall improvement in public transport.
The second objective is better transport integration, but that simply cannot be guaranteed in a deregulated system because the bus companies will put on and take off services, so that they make the most profit and receive more subsidy from the integrated transport authority.
The third objective is reliability. The 95 and 93 routes are unreliable not because of congestion—in the early evening when there is little congestion the buses often do not turn up—but because First Group is unreliable. I asked the Department for Transport a parliamentary question about the causes of unreliability generally in the bus system. At least one third of them were due to poor maintenance and buses simply not turning up. It had nothing to do with congestion. That objective is unlikely to be achieved.
There may be an improvement in journey times, particularly for journeys across the city, if the scheme goes ahead. But for the vast majority of my constituents who go into the city centre, the improvement in journey time would be limited.
I simply cannot understand what environmental benefits there would be for my constituents. There would be more buses, so more particulate matter—PM10s and PM2.5s—and more congestion. There would probably be an increase in rat-running and noise pollution, so my constituents would suffer twofold or threefold. It is also claimed that there would be a reduction in accidents. There is a comparator on the Cheetham Hill road and Bury Old road, where a bus priority scheme has been put in place. When travelling from Manchester city centre, a big sign before the bus priority section shows how many accidents there have been in the previous 12 months. The evidence is that the scheme, which is hazardous for pedestrians, is not good for car users or shopkeepers and has not helped to reduce accidents—quite the reverse.
On economic benefits, it is vital to the economy to increase capacity, so that more people will go into Manchester city centre to enjoy the benefits of a thriving economy. In the analysis that we have seen, there is no assessment of whether the scheme would mean more people getting into the city centre, or fewer.
A consultation process on the scheme started in October and continued until December. I asked for it to be extended, and the integrated transport authority and the passenger transport executive were good enough to extend their acceptance of submissions for another four weeks. However, they did nothing extra to improve communication with my constituents who were involved, and I found that the consultation was deeply flawed and very poor.
My hon. Friend makes an objective comment and I agree with him. Such a major scheme should have had not only consultation but pre-consultation and discussion. That did not happen. There was an exhibition in the sixth-form college where I have my offices, but it attracted only 50 people. Within my constituency, and just outside it, probably between 15,000 and 20,000 people are affected by the scheme, so there is a suspicion of bias. Two hundred people have written to me supporting the extension of the consultation and asking for traffic impact assessments. That has not been done. The engineers have looked and said, “There is sufficient capacity on the major routes and those routes near them, so it is all right.” That provides an incentive for rat running, rather than looking at the impact of the scheme on my constituents.
One of the surprising things was the number of people who wrote to me—perhaps it is not that surprising. Some mentioned the potential impact of rat running, which has to be envisaged and does not happen at the present time. However, people who live on the main road, Rochdale road, are more strongly opposed to the scheme because their businesses and ability to access their homes will be badly affected. The final nail in the coffin of the suggestion that the consultation was effective and successful is that almost nobody to whom I spoke or who wrote to me, including some well-informed residents groups such as the Trinity group, or the Collyhurst village group, knew about the scheme until I talked to them. The consultation has been defective, to say the least.
I want to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister a number of questions. Some of my points refer to the integrated transport scheme. I know that the Government supported the Local Transport Act 2008, and they have put money into helping integrated transport authorities move towards quality contracts. Can the Minister do anything else to help the Greater Manchester integrated transport authority move towards a quality contract that would deal with some of the problems in a way that the cross-city bus scheme does not? Has he got a breakdown of Exchequer expenditure and local expenditure and how it would be used in the scheme? Will he tell us whether the bus service operator grant could be transferred to the integrated transport authority? Although integrated transport authorities have little control over buses, if the bus service operator grant were transferred to them it would give them a real handle on how to deal with those bus companies that exploit my constituents. Does he agree that Greater Manchester is not making the progress that it should towards an integrated transport authority because it is led by a Liberal Democrat and supported by Conservatives? Both west Yorkshire and south Yorkshire are making more progress.
My final point is that there is clearly no benefit for my constituents. They will get the pollution, the rat running and the noise, but very little improvement in the time it takes to get into the city centre. All the benefits, if there are any, will go elsewhere and people are likely to get a worse bus service. Some of the junctions on roads where people live will have increased capacity. The junction of Moston lane and Rochdale road is dangerous at the moment, and together with local councillors, I fought hard to get improved pedestrian crossings on that road. If the junction capacity is increased, it will become more dangerous. I look forward to the Minister’s reply to the general and detailed points about this scheme.
Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on securing this timely debate. When I reminded him that the integrated transport authority had not bothered to consult Members of Parliament in its wider consultation, that was not a matter of vindictiveness on my part. Together with some of my local councillors, I will go to see the chair of that body on Friday, so the debate is timely in that sense and it is helpful to concentrate people’s minds on the exchange that will take place later this week.
I share my hon. Friend’s unease. We all agree that in Manchester in particular, and for bus transport in general, the idea of a modal shift and getting people out of their cars and on to buses is right and proper. Improving the quality of the bus travelling experience is important as part of that process, and where possible, part of that means taking buses out of congested zones and helping them to move more quickly. That makes a lot of sense.
In Manchester, the concept of the bus corridor attempts to tick a box. For virtually all my life and that of my hon. Friend, Manchester has been a city with its north and south broken apart. Integrating transport systems to give proper through transit is a good idea, and I concede that that concept has merit. However, the specifics of this scheme are difficult in two ways. First, it is not certain that it will make the difference that we are told it is intended to make. Secondly, if the scheme makes a difference, under the law of unintended consequences, improving the lot of some will have a potentially serious and deleterious impact on the lives of others. Those who will experience the downside of the scheme are more likely to live in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, because our constituencies are at the centre of the conurbation. Of course, if we see the affluent suburbs of Greater Manchester shifted into bus transportation that will be a good thing, but not if the cost is borne by our inner-city constituents.
My hon. Friend concentrated his remarks on the north of the city, but I want to mention the route through the Wilmslow Road and Oxford Road corridor that comes in from the south of the city. It is probably one of the most bussed routes in this country; there might be parts of London that can out-bus it, but there is nothing in the north of England. It is the student corridor, and a huge number of buses go up and down that route.
The present proposal is for everything to be de facto pedestrianised, except the public transport systems. The Oxford Road corridor goes through the university area of the city, which is a heavily congested part of the road system in the morning, so the concept makes a degree of sense. The problem is what happens to the traffic that is displaced from that corridor. The planners told me that in their view, traffic will simply disappear long before it hits the central part of the city, and people will find other ways into the city leading to a reduction in car transport. However, the models are frankly bizarre and perverse. I was shown what was described as the industry model. I do not say this boastfully, but many years ago I used to be a statistician so I probably know a little about mathematical modelling. I know that the old concept in life, “Garbage in, garbage out,” applies to mathematical and road transport models just as it applies to everything else. If we do not provide the proper parameters on the way in, we do not get the results coming out.
One bizarre thing that the model showed me was how traffic coming in from the south of the city in the morning—this will mean something to local people; I do not expect my right hon. Friend the Minister to follow it in detail—would turn right past Manchester Royal infirmary and then turn right again as it passed the infirmary, which would take it back out south of the city. No one going into the city in the morning chooses to joyride and hit the congestion zone simply to go out of the city again at that point, or at least if they do, they are crazy, and there cannot be too many people in Greater Manchester who are crazy enough to want to do that. Therefore the model, of itself, did not fill me with confidence that the modellers knew what they were doing.
I am concerned that there will be a displacement factor and that the displacement will move the traffic that currently uses the Wilmslow Road and Oxford Road corridor on to, in particular, the Lloyd Street corridor in Moss Side. That road has a number of secondary and primary schools. It is a residential part of the city. When the planners said to me that they wanted a reduction in the accident rate because some students are injured in accidents on the Oxford Road corridor, which is a serious point, I said that we do not advantage things if we reduce accident rates for students and simply move the problem on to younger people and young children on a road a little way away as we move the traffic past those schools.
The point that I want to establish for the Minister is that the modelling has not been convincing. When I challenged those putting the case, they were not convincing in their response. That is the first point. The second point is that in a system such as the one that we are discussing, there may be a benefit, but we must ensure that there are not disbenefits that are sufficiently large or sufficiently concentrated to outweigh it, at least for those local communities.
There is another part of my constituency where there will be other traffic flows. I am referring to Upper Brook street and the fact that there is already the disadvantage that some of my constituents are cut off from the university area. I want to see that situation made better, not worse.
My final point is that significant public moneys will be put into the scheme. We need to know that it has been robustly tested so that the costs are acceptable to those who will bear them, that the benefits are real and that the cost-benefit in total is worth having, but that case has not yet been made.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean; I think that this is the first time that I have done so. I place on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) for securing this debate on cross-city bus travel. I am grateful for his contribution and for that of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd). They managed to articulate, in a short time, their passion for ensuring that we get good value for taxpayers’ money and reminded me and the Government as a whole of some of the unintended consequences of good intentions that can arise when people try to improve public transport and the knock-on problems that that can cause to other parts of the public transport family.
Let me say at the outset that I will be considering shortly whether to grant initial funding approval for the cross-city bus corridor and I have been persuaded to take into account the points raised by both my hon. Friends this afternoon before I decide what I shall do with the scheme. As I said, it will come before me shortly. I will not go through the 15 pages of my speech, which I had envisaged doing. What I will do is write to both my hon. Friends with specific points that I cannot address during my speech. I want to deal with the specific points that they raised.
My hon. Friends will be aware that the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive is the promoter of the scheme, but the ITA is the governing body to which the PTE reports. I have no brief to defend them or to speak on their behalf, but I am sure that it will be appreciated that it is far better that decisions on public transport are taken locally rather than by me, sitting in Whitehall and not appreciating what happens locally.
Over the last period, we have spent record amounts on public transport, including buses. This year, we are spending £2.9 billion, and more journeys are being made on our buses this year than at any time since deregulation in the mid-1980s. Some 4.5 billion journeys are made a year, and millions of journeys are made in Manchester. However, my hon. Friends reminded me that if we are to encourage more people to use buses, simply putting more buses on the road is not enough. We need to ensure that bus passengers have punctual and reliable services on clean and efficient vehicles. PTEs have a huge role in ensuring that that is the case.
Greater Manchester PTE has been working in partnership with Manchester, Rochdale and Salford councils to identify how to improve local transport connections. Their proposals include introducing highway, bus priority and congestion management measures, together with significant improvements for pedestrians and cyclists. The scheme that we are discussing forms part of the package to be funded through the Greater Manchester transport fund, which relates to a proposed investment programme of £1.5 billion for prioritised transport schemes designed to deliver the maximum economic benefit to Greater Manchester. That is why I am so pleased that my hon. Friends have reminded me, on the day when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave an outstanding Budget statement, of the importance of securing value for money for every single penny that is spent.
The PTE expects the cross-city bus package scheme to enhance the existing Greater Manchester quality bus corridor network and to help to address the unique problems of the Oxford Road corridor, which has the highest demand for bus travel in Greater Manchester but the poorest results in terms of performance, which causes me huge concern.
My hon. Friends have demonstrated that they know the area much better than I do. I have been told that the Oxford Road corridor is the location of Manchester Royal infirmary and the higher education precinct, which comprises the sites of two universities. It is also a significant economic centre and includes about 4 per cent. of the city’s business stock. The PTE has predicted that the employment potential of Oxford road will increase from 36,000 jobs in 2008 to more than 55,000 by 2020. The proposed scheme is designed to enhance public transport links between areas of deprivation to the north and west of Manchester.
I am aware—my hon. Friends raised these points very well—of the concerns that they have about the public consultation on the proposed measures, which I understand took place last October, November and December. I understand that there will be a further opportunity to provide feedback as part of the traffic regulation order process, which the local highway authorities are promoting on the PTE’s behalf. In addition, I have been reminded that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central will meet representatives of the ITA this Friday to discuss, in particular, his concerns about displacement of traffic on to residential routes in Moss Side. I have taken on board the points that my hon. Friends raised on consultation.
It is worth reminding my hon. Friends of what my role is. Since receipt of the business case, the Department has been working closely with the PTE, but we are not yet in a position to approve the proposed scheme for entry to the programme of local major transport schemes. We had concerns about some of the issues relating to the application given to us, which we have worked through with the scheme’s promoters. Our assessment of the bid for the scheme has focused on the traffic appraisal, which has highlighted a number of issues on which the PTE and its consultants have had to undertake further work. I hope that that is another reassurance that we, too, spotted some problems with the scheme and we have asked for further work to be undertaken. We have now received the results of the additional work. One concern related to the modelling. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central remembers his days as a statistician. He will be reassured that my officials, too, thought that there were issues, which led us to ask for further work to be undertaken.
I am aware of the concerns that my hon. Friends have raised about the scheme in today’s debate. I note the concerns about the impact on their constituents of the proposed implementation of the measures both along the Rochdale Road corridor and in Moss Side. I take on board the concerns raised about quality contracts. We have done all that we can to encourage local authorities to use that important tool to improve services. My hon. Friends will be aware that the Conservative party has made a commitment to abolish it from the toolkit of local authorities. We are also considering how we can revamp the way in which we subsidise bus-operating companies in order to ensure that we get maximum value for money. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley raised concerns about some of the challenges of governance, particularly in relation to leaders from different political parties.
Let me reassure my hon. Friends that I will take on board what they have said. I will read Hansard tomorrow morning to ensure that I take on board the points that they have raised before I make a decision. If there are specific points that I have not been able to answer due to the shortage of time, I apologise. I will write to both of them this week to give them the answers that they need so that they are armed with the necessary tools, including for the meeting on Friday with the ITA, to ensure that they get the best possible service for their constituents, who deserve nothing less.
Queen’s Diamond Jubilee
It is a great pleasure, Mrs. Dean, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Minister for taking time out of his busy diary to respond to this debate. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) here, as he has done so much on this matter with his private Member’s Bill.
It is very much within the context of the Government’s planning for Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee that I believe we should have a festival of Britain, and I am keen to push the idea to the Minister. Indeed, I have raised the subject before in the main Chamber, and I was most grateful for his response; the idea of that happening in conjunction with Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee was something that he welcomed as having an excellent socialist genus.
I believe that we have the opportunity to hold a year-long festival of Britain, with the Olympic games being a dramatic crescendo. I would like particularly to thank Mr. Malcolm Felberg, who took the effort to lobby me on the idea; he is a constituent of the right hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). It would give us the opportunity, in line with the Government’s approach, to have activities taking place in villages, towns and cities across the country, perhaps avoiding some of the pitfalls of the grand projets that sometimes come with such occasions.
It has been the style and approach of the Government to give good notice of the jubilee week. It is testament to the way in which the Government are listening to proposals that nothing is cast in stone at this stage. However, a good deal of planning would be necessary. I believe that it would be right to have some activity on the south bank, and I am grateful for the local and regional media’s interest today in the idea of having a 1951-style festival. It would be most apposite, given the First Secretary of State’s antecedents and his grandfather’s involvement in the 1951 festival.
It would be good to have some activity on the original south bank site; that would cheer the nation and promote British technology. Indeed, although there might be a danger of there being some Wilsonian white-heat-of-technology ideas, it would nevertheless be useful to celebrate manufacturing excellence, given that the Government are trying to manage the economy in such a way as to reduce slightly our dependence on financial services.
Most importantly, however, it will give us the chance to celebrate these glorious Elizabethan years. It will also give us a chance to capture the attention of visitors to the United Kingdom during the Olympic year and, in line with the Labour Government’s slogan of 1946, to show that “Britain can make it”. These are challenging times—times of austerity, perhaps—and to be able to say that we have excellence in manufacturing and that Britain can thrive and recover would be a good theme between now and 2012, as the economy recovers.
The year 2012 should be a festival of Britain that celebrates British talent in art, culture and sport as well as in industry. However, there is clearly an important royal process for it. Only Queen Victoria has celebrated a diamond jubilee. That was pushed for by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who really wanted to celebrate the British empire.
Now is our chance, with such a celebration, to reflect positively on our Commonwealth ties, and to consider the changing nature of British society in the context of our imperial history. It is regrettable that our children do not learn as much about our imperial past as they could, particularly as its history has made our country what it is today. Such teaching would go a long way towards redefining the nature of migration in the minds of the young. I hope that I do not offend too many colleagues in the Chamber by saying this, but it would also provide many salutary examples of how foolhardy military engagements in far-off places can be a great trap for our nation.
Beyond schools, I believe that a 2012 festival of Britain would bring the chance for scholarships and apprenticeships to assist the disadvantaged, to show that their talents are most applicable as Britain rebuilds her economy and as we move away from services—particularly financial services—to manufacturing, technology, innovation and science. Perhaps we could have diamond jubilee scholarships, open to students from Commonwealth countries, that could foster British values overseas.
It is right that we should have a physical presence. I am aware of the danger of being accused of saying that significant public sector finances should be made available for such an initiative, but we would clearly want to catch the spirit of the silver jubilee. I remember attending street parties in 1977—I am sure that other Members remember it too—and I believe that that is the community approach that the Government would like to adopt.
It might be appropriate, with many people going to the Olympic site, for them also to have the opportunity to go to a site here in the centre of London, behind the London Eye. It might be apt to have a new Skylon. I know that Winston Churchill took the original down very snappily after he was re-elected. That emblem of the original festival of Britain was the subject of teasing; it was said that, like the economy, it had no visible means of support. Perhaps that approach could be pursued now.
I am attracted by the idea of a permanent legacy for the festival of Britain jubilee year. In some ways, that is a criticism of what is going on with the Olympics. Some of the legacy prospects for the Olympics are less ambitious than they were at the start, and some of the ambitions for a cultural Olympiad have unfortunately had to be put to one side. Perhaps that is something that could be dealt with as part of a diamond jubilee for Her Majesty. After all, when we look around our country, we see in many towns and villages that a great many of our commemorations of Queen Victoria are the result of her diamond jubilee.
Hardly ever does a debate go by without my mentioning Croydon; I have mentioned Croydon 42 times during this Session of Parliament. A permanent legacy could be found in the neighbourhood of the London borough of Croydon in a rebuilt crystal palace. Another Minister described me as living on another planet for suggesting the idea, but there would be some value to it. Situated in the demographically dynamic south of London, a new palace could embody all the elements of art, culture, sport and industry that the festival would promote.
A crowning glory in jubilee year would be for a British museum extension to be built in south London—a testimony to south London and to Britain’s global reach. After all, it was after the 1851 exhibition that the original palace was exported to Crystal Palace. In many ways, one can see a continuity in the prospects for any general exhibitions that we might have. The 1851 exhibition was clearly industrial and technological, and the 1951 exhibition was about post-war reconstruction.
A 2012 jubilee commemoration and exhibition could be based on green jobs and technology, perhaps emphasising LED technology. In Croydon, a green energy technology exhibition could rejuvenate the failed Skyline project, which I am sad to report to the House went into administration this week. It would also brighten up our lives in this time of economic downturn, perhaps with a project to light up London. That would be a very bright way in which to celebrate.
I feel that Her Majesty commands our respect and allegiance as our monarch, but she has earned our love by the manner of her reign. As in previous jubilee years, we can look to our sovereign lady as a symbol of unity in difficult times.
Moreover, there is much to celebrate from the original festival of Britain. I am pleased to have a facsimile of the official festival of Britain book, which was produced by HMSO and written by Mr. Ian Cox. Many of the themes mentioned are similar to those of today. Tolerance, for example, was one such theme, although ethnicity was somewhat different. The book said that the British nation was one of the most mixed people in the world, and it emphasised the importance of tolerance. Moreover, it tried to define—this was one of the difficult challenges—what it is to be British.
When I was on the Education and Skills Committee, we asked our witnesses, “How do you treat Britishness?” They had the temerity to reply, “How do we define that?” It is a very difficult thing to do. The HMSO book defined Britishness as a mixture of the lion and the unicorn, the lion being about realism and strength and the unicorn about fantasy, independence—something that I very much appreciate—and imagination.
Colleagues will be most amused to hear that reference is also made to a new initiative in west London—the new London airport sited 15 miles west of London. The HMSO book said that the terminal would be grouped on a 50 acre site in the centre of nine main runways, and that the facilities would enable the airport to handle “4,000 passengers”. That shows how modest the ambitions were, and how easy it is for a project to grow and grow—no talk there of third runways.
I feel that the jubilee festival of 2012 provides us with an excellent opportunity to celebrate our cultural diversity and helps us to crystallise a sense of national identity.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on proposing this debate. He has extensively referred to the Commonwealth and the importance of involving countries with strong historical ties to Britain. Does he agree that this is also an opportunity to involve those countries and territories that still remain part of the United Kingdom? We have 16 British overseas territories and five Crown dependencies. Does he feel that they should be included in this great celebration of Britain? May I also say that the idea of a festival of Britain is something that I wholeheartedly endorse?
I feel especially honoured that the hon. Gentleman has spared the time to attend this debate, particularly bearing in mind his prominent role in emphasising the importance of our nation’s continuing to celebrate its links with the overseas territories. It was very notable how the original festival of Britain emphasised our link with overseas nations, the Commonwealth and the remaining empire. It strikes me that it would be entirely within that tradition to do so again. It is a great loss that we should no longer celebrate either those links or our sense of responsibility to those nations. We all pay credit to the hon. Member for Romford for the way in which he has so successfully flown those 16 flags over the duration of this Parliament.
In any exhibition, it should be possible to promote the advances in aerospace, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and green technology. Perhaps there could be a Science museum exhibition to highlight recent British inventions and discoveries. We could extend the London Open House and Open Garden Squares weekend programmes to the rest of the country, as well as promote paintings by British artists at metropolitan and provincial galleries. Moreover, we could have festivals of film and theatre, featuring British writers, actors, producers and directors. After all, one of the best ways in which to promote the success and diversity of the British economy is through the media.
How wonderful it would be if such an enterprise culminated in Andy Murray’s winning Wimbledon, England’s winning the European football championship and the British team’s winning an unprecedented number of medals at the Olympics, which would be opened by the Queen in her diamond jubilee year.
It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mrs. Dean, and to hear the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) talk about his vision of sunlit uplands in 2012, which I, too, very much wish to see. Let us hope though that 2012 will be the third time that Andy Murray wins Wimbledon.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised this very important subject for debate, and I am also delighted to welcome the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who has a long and proud record of support in this area. We have heard a number of interesting ideas and contributions. I look forward to seeing the facsimile record waved by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central during the debate. For more detail, I shall have to read about the festival of Britain during the summer, when I have a bit more time.
I am aware that the subject is a matter of interest not just to the hon. Gentlemen but to many people across the United Kingdom and Commonwealth. My noble Friend the First Secretary of State and I have received many letters on the matter. The way in which the Commonwealth and the dependent territories are referred to in the debate is extremely important, and I certainly wish to see them fully involved in the celebrations that happen in 2012.
Let me bring the hon. Gentleman up to date. On 5 January, I made a statement to the House announcing a special diamond jubilee weekend. The late May bank holiday will be moved to Monday 4 June and an extra bank holiday will be added on Tuesday 5 June. A diamond jubilee medal will be issued and there will be a competition for city status. Although it is still early days, I am now pleased to be able to report that the First Minister of Scotland has confirmed that there will also be a four-day weekend in Scotland, which means that people from across the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth will be able to celebrate the jubilee together.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility of staging a year-long festival of Britain. He knows already of my great interest in that event and the context in which it took place in 1951. It is a very attractive idea, especially given the success of the 1951 festival, which so lifted the spirits of the nation after such a difficult time of rationing. Although the crisis then was of a slightly different nature and scale to the one we are encountering now, it is still important that we have a positive picture of Britain—not just for the outside world but for Britain itself.
Although it is still early days, as I said, we are already planning certain events. Given that the jubilee is only two years away, it may be too late to develop a completely new year-long festival. Moreover, 2012 may already be rather full of major events. We have the diamond jubilee and the Olympic and Paralympic games, which open in London less than two months after the diamond jubilee celebrations. However, the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that we already have plans for the cultural Olympiad to reach an exciting climax in 2012. Festival 2012 will mark the finale of the cultural Olympiad and it will run from 21 June to 9 September 2012. It will be preceded by a series of “festival trailblazers” at the start of 2012. At the heart of the festival will be a programme of new commissions by the best artists and creative talent in the world. The festival will be a wide-ranging series of events covering pop, film, fashion, theatre, opera and digital innovation. By the end of 2010, the main elements of the 2012 programme should be in place. In addition, I can also report that Buckingham palace itself is currently developing some exciting plans for the jubilee weekend.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is planning a wonderful Cecil Beaton photography exhibition that will celebrate the Queen’s reign. That exhibition is likely to open in Scotland before coming to London early in 2012. It is anticipated that the exhibition will then travel to other museums and venues throughout the United Kingdom and other countries.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of cultural events in connection with the festival of Britain idea that he has proposed. We perhaps need to think more carefully about how to co-ordinate events during the celebrations in 2012. Although we need to recognise that all these events will be happening and that the diamond jubilee will occur very near to the Olympics, it is important that we celebrate the diamond jubilee separately from the Olympics, because a diamond jubilee is such a momentous occasion.
It will be only the second time in our history that a monarch has celebrated a diamond jubilee. The respect in which Her Majesty is held within our nation and across the world is so profound that the jubilee will be an opportunity to ensure that that respect is conveyed, so I would hate to think that the diamond jubilee would be overshadowed in any respect, even by an event as massive as the Olympic games. We have therefore to think quite carefully about how we approach the various events occurring in what will be an extremely exciting year.
The Big Lottery Fund is considering how it might support community-led activities to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the street parties in 1977, which I am sure we all remember, and I am certain that such parties will happen in 2012. It does not matter what I say or what anyone else says; I think that people will organise such parties off their own bat. As the hon. Members for Croydon, Central and for Romford may be aware, the Awards for All programme, which was funded by the lottery, made a significant contribution to the success of the golden jubilee celebrations in 2002.
We are receiving lots of ideas and suggestions all the time; there is no shortage of ideas coming through, not least from the hon. Member for Croydon, Central. There is a proposal for a diamond jubilee horse race, which is very appropriate given the Queen’s long-standing interest in horse racing, and that idea is currently being developed by the horse racing industry. The Government also hope that communities will come together and find their own ways to look back and remember the past 60 years, as well as to celebrate the Queen’s many interests and achievements.
I was very taken by the hon. Gentleman’s reference to monuments across the country. He is absolutely right to say that many of the monuments to Queen Victoria in our communities emanated from her diamond jubilee in 1897. It would be good for communities to think now about organising themselves in that regard, because it is sometimes quite difficult to realise that the next two years will pass very quickly.
Many of these ideas to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee will be completely independent of Government and, of course, that is how it should be. The diamond jubilee is not in any way a political event. We want to create the right environment for the jubilee celebrations to take place, and I am sure that we will proceed on a cross-party basis.
As the hon. Members know, there will be a diamond jubilee medal and a competition for a new city. I am not yet in a position to give more details about the criteria and eligibility for the medal or about the competition for city status. However, I can reassure the hon. Members that work is under way on both projects, drawing on the precedent set by the golden jubilee in 2002 and the lessons that we learned then. I am well aware of the strength of feeling about eligibility for the medals, and we will bear that in mind when we reach our decisions.
The diamond jubilee will be an ideal opportunity to celebrate science and innovation in the United Kingdom and I am sure that will be reflected in the events that take place in 2012. Recently, I attended an excellent exhibition in Manchester called “The Big Bang”, which aimed to encourage an interest in engineering and science among schoolchildren and young people. I was privileged to meet schoolchildren and young people, of ages ranging up to 18, who had completed fantastic science and innovation projects.
I do not think that such projects come to the attention of the general public enough. The type of interest that the diamond jubilee celebrations in 2012 will foster will provide a platform for us to celebrate all that is great about the United Kingdom, our culture, our science and our innovation. The diamond jubilee should certainly be an opportunity both to reflect on the past 60 years and to think about the future. I am sure that Her Majesty would wish to see it celebrated in that way. It will be a huge opportunity for us to present the United Kingdom in a way that will be to the long-term benefit of the country.
I am delighted that the Minister has said that the Olympics should not drown out the diamond jubilee. It is very important that we ensure that the two events are separate. I think that the historic significance of Her Majesty’s 60th jubilee means that it should be the most prominent event of the year, although we will also celebrate the Olympics.
May I also commend the Minister for what he has just said about schools? Can he assure the House that schools will have a vital role to play in celebrating the diamond jubilee and in teaching young people about the importance of the monarchy and the role that the Queen has played in creating stability and unity within our nation?
The hon. Gentleman is very aware that we share an interest in constitutional history and in the genius of the British constitution. Of course, the monarch plays a massive part in the success of the British constitution. It is very important that we communicate, especially to young people, what a special governmental set-up we have within the United Kingdom.
One of the reasons for Her Majesty’s success is the way that she has been able to maintain respect for the monarchy in a time of massive change. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central referred to a description of Heathrow airport from 1951, which showed that the changes in the past 60 years have been enormous. There are ideas around now that could not have been contemplated when Her Majesty came to the throne, yet the respect that she is held in now has been maintained throughout that period of change. It is crucial that we stress her importance in that regard.
The Minister is quite right to conclude this debate by returning to Her Majesty herself. The past 60 years have been a time of great change, including in social attitudes. The Queen has been the focus of attention in times of national celebration, but she has also been a source of counsel in times of crisis for the nation.
Indeed. The Queen fulfils an extraordinary and demanding role, but the respect that she is held in shows how well she has performed that singular role in the past 60 years. The diamond jubilee will be a tremendous opportunity to say thank you to her for the service that she has given.
I know that the hon. Members who have spoken in this debate will continue to contribute their ideas as we approach 2012. I greatly welcome their continuing interest. We will take on board what they have to say, discuss it further with them and see how the matter is resolved as we come to 2012.
Question put and agreed to.