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Commons Chamber

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 6 April 2010

House of Commons

Tuesday 6 April 2010

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What assessment he has made of developments in Afghanistan since the London conference of January 2010. (325349)

Since the London conference, the Government of Afghanistan have made progress on some of their commitments, including the Afghan Cabinet’s decision to approve the sub-national governance strategy and President Karzai’s recent decree boosting the high office of oversight’s powers to tackle and investigate corruption. In other areas, progress is slow—too slow. We continue to work with the Afghan authorities to encourage similar progress to be made in those other areas.

One area of our policy in Afghanistan—where, tragically, another British soldier lost his life at the weekend—on which I believe the Government have failed very badly is explaining to the public why we are there. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that that is the case and, if so, what is he going to do about it?

Every death of a British soldier in Afghanistan is a tragic event, and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to link this to a particular Government decision is unwise and not worthy of him. There is unity across the House that the border lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the gravest terrorist threat to this country and that stability in Afghanistan is absolutely essential not only to countering the threat that al-Qaeda might re-establish itself there, but to achieving stability in Pakistan. That is the fundamental reason why we are there, and it is why all three major political parties support our presence there. We all know, however, that there will not be a military solution in Afghanistan—the combined military and civilian effort will create the conditions for a political settlement, which is, after all, the only way to provide stability in that country.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of developments in Afghanistan regarding the well-being of women and their health, education and ability to work for their families?

I am sorry that this will be the last occasion on which my hon. Friend asks a question in this House; she has raised a very important point. On education, one can point to a qualitative shift. There are now, after all, about 6 million to 7 million children in school in Afghanistan, nearly half of them girls, which is a complete revolution in comparison with a decade ago. In other areas, however, as we heard from the civil society representatives at the London conference, progress has been much slower, including in areas such as political representation and health care, which my hon. Friend mentioned.

Amid all the debates that we will have in the coming election campaign, should we not all remember that throughout every hour of it we have 10,000 British servicemen and women in real battles in Afghanistan and that their role must be a paramount concern for whoever is elected on 6 May? Is it not true that the military advances made on the ground will be of long-term benefit only if the Afghan political processes also succeed and are seen to be legitimate? When the Prime Minister announced UK strategy for Afghanistan in November last year, he pledged that President Karzai would ensure that all 400 Afghan provinces and districts had a governor free from corruption and appointed on merit within nine months—by August this year. Is the Foreign Secretary confident that such benchmarks will still be met?

Perhaps you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, to say that I thought it completely appropriate for the Prime Minister when he spoke in Downing street this morning—and for the Leader of the Opposition when he made his response and for the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who I think took time out from the hurly-burly and political battles that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) mentioned—to say that this election campaign provides a chance not to forget what is going on in Afghanistan, but to discuss with and engage the British people on that issue. That is something that I—and, I hope, other right hon. and hon. Members—will be keen to do, because this is the time to engage the British people on the sacrifice being made and the purposes behind it.

As to President Karzai’s commitment, I believe that it was in his inaugural speech in the third week of November when he made the commitment to the transfer of security leadership and to extend governance issues in respect of corruption. The Prime Minister’s commitment remains. Early signs, over the three or four months since the announcement, have been positive and a number of provinces have had replacement governors who are, I think, an improvement on their predecessors.

In light of all that, should we not all accept how alarming it is to those who support the efforts of British forces in Afghanistan to read so many reports in recent days of apparent division between President Karzai and western nations? Given that steps to reduce corruption and to improve local government are vital for the counter-insurgency effort, is the Foreign Secretary absolutely confident that relations between this country and the US on the one hand and President Karzai on the other hand are as they should be, and that there is a clear enough mutual understanding of the approach needed to handle the situation in Kandahar, to conduct the elections well in September and to make progress on the integration and reconciliation process? Is he happy that all that is as it should be? Is not agreement on such things indispensable to our success in Afghanistan?

Agreement on such things is, indeed, indispensible, but verbal agreement is, of course, only one step in the process. I am absolutely confident that since the London conference there has been renewed unity not only between Britain and the United States but across the international coalition about the military and civilian strategy that is needed and the political settlement that can be generated. In respect of the Afghan Government, as I said in Kabul in November, words must be turned into deeds. That is the case both now and in the run-up to the Kabul conference, which is the moment when the international effort generated in London and the Afghan effort mobilised locally by a new Government—whose Cabinet has not yet been fully appointed, which points to some of the problems that exist—will need to be joined. That will be a very important moment to judge progress and how much confidence we should have. It would be unwise at this stage to say anything other than that we must continue to press very strongly on the agenda that President Karzai set out in November and that we have committed to—and we want to see it matched.

Finally, if you will allow me, Mr. Speaker—I apologise for talking at such length, but the Afghan issue is so important—the right hon. Gentleman has referred to comments made at the weekend. It is very important that we say very clearly that any suggestion that Britain, or any other country, has irregularly interfered in the election processes of Afghanistan is completely without foundation. Our troops were there guaranteeing the safety of people seeking to go and vote. I am sure that it is a unified position across this House to have absolutely no truck with such malign suggestions, especially about our troops, but actually about our whole country.

I associate myself and my hon. and right hon. Friends with the Secretary of State’s observations about Afghanistan and the debt that we owe to those who serve there, but, in his usual restrained way, he has not, I think, given the House a full and proper account of the Government’s response to these extraordinary and bizarre allegations of external interference in the presidential elections. What representations has Her Majesty’s Government made to President Karzai about these allegations, and if he is to be the centrepiece of political development, how can we have confidence when he makes such remarks?

I pleaded with Mr. Speaker to allow me to get in an extra sentence or two in order to address that, and I am sorry if that did not provide the comprehensive answer that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wanted. The Prime Minister spoke to President Karzai on Sunday, when he made absolutely clear our position in respect of these allegations. President Karzai did not repeat the allegations; in fact, he committed himself to working with the United Kingdom, but as I said in respect of an earlier question, it is important to turn those assurances into deeds. President Karzai is the elected leader of Afghanistan—he is the choice of the Afghan people. He certainly got more votes than any other candidate in the election, and it is by virtue of that election that he is our partner in securing our interests in that country.

European Security and Defence Assembly

Following the lead we in the UK gave last week, as laid out in my written ministerial statement, all 10 member states have agreed to close the Western European Union. We believe that future arrangements for inter-parliamentary dialogue should reflect the intergovernmental nature of European security and defence policy, should involve all EU and non-EU European allies and should be cost-effective for the British taxpayer.

I thank the Minister for that response, but is he not closing down one organisation without clearly setting out the arrangements that he wishes to put in place for the proper scrutiny of international defence issues?

That was not a unilateral decision, although the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that Britain took the lead. Many countries said that they wanted further action and that the architecture for examining common security and defence policy in Europe was no longer sufficient, but they did not want to do anything about it. We took the courageous step of saying that we wanted to withdraw. We now have a year during which we can negotiate precisely what the future structure should look like. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and others who have sat on the Assembly, but it was costing us some €2.3 million a year, and we believe that that money could be better spent elsewhere.

Whether it is the WEU or the Council of Europe, is the Minister satisfied that we increasingly only have structures that serve those countries which are member states of the EU and that therefore marginalise those countries which are not? I think that that will do us long-term damage.

The complexity of the WEU was that it had so many different categories of membership. There were the 10 core member countries, but all 27 members of the EU were allied, and then there were other countries, such as NATO allies, who took on observer status. That is why we believe that now is the right time to put together a more appropriate structure, so that the Parliaments around Europe, including our allies such as Turkey—one of the countries which my hon. Friend may have been alluding to—can closely scrutinise the common foreign, defence and security policy that has developed across the whole of Europe.

The Minister pointed out in his written statement of 30 March that the EU’s common security and defence policy remains intergovernmental and is thus a matter for national Parliaments. How does he see these arrangements operating in future, and how will he accommodate NATO allies such as Turkey and Norway, which are associate members of the current Assembly but which are not in the EU? How is this actually going to work?

One of the most important things is that we ensure that we have a cost-effective structure. The costs that have been incurred by the WEU Assembly alone for the United Kingdom over the past few years have been phenomenal. We believe, as does every other country among the 10 core members, that it is right to wind up that organisation. We do not believe it would be right—I can probably garner the hon. Gentleman’s support for this, at least—for the European Parliament to take on responsibility for considering this matter. We believe that it is clearly laid down in the Lisbon treaty that that should not be a responsibility for the European Parliament. I look forward to debating some of those issues with him over the next few weeks, since he has already turned down five debates with me on Europe since the beginning of the year.

Middle East Peace Process

3. What his most recent assessment is of progress in the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. (325351)

We welcome the Quartet’s determination to move swiftly to proximity talks addressing issues of substance. We continue to press both sides to show the courage, commitment and compromise needed to make real progress. The UK remains determined to do everything possible to achieve comprehensive peace in the middle east.

You will know, Mr. Speaker, that although all hon. Members in this place spend most of their time taking up issues at home, issues that arise abroad affect us all. Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the escalating violence in Gaza, and will the UK Government make it clear to the Israeli authorities that we will oppose any repeat of Operation Cast Lead and that no UK arms or equipment should be used in any such operation?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to our concerns about the escalation of violence over the weekend. We want to see an immediate end to all violence in Gaza. The rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel must stop, and we also urge restraint from the Israelis. More fundamentally, we want to see Israel remove all obstacles to humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza, and we want to see the release of Gilad Shalit. Both steps would be important confidence building measures in support of the peace process.

Will the Minister give his most recent assessment of progress in the middle east peace process in relation to the former Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair? Will he give us one concrete thing that Mr. Blair has achieved?

I was going to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his contribution to this House over a number of years—I still do—but I can give more than one example. One of the most important sources of progress in the middle east in recent times has been the improvement in economic development and enhanced security in the west bank. The former Prime Minister has played a crucial role in making that progress possible alongside President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.

Will the Minister tell us how many Foreign Office resources have gone into supporting Mr. Blair’s role? How many diplomats and how many security people have been involved? Should not that money have been diverted to the Foreign Office team on the ground? Is not that the best way for British foreign policy money to be spent?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the former Prime Minister was appointed by the Quartet. He is the Quartet’s representative in the region, and an appropriate level of resource is deployed by the United Kingdom to support his efforts in that role. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that it is disingenuous to ask questions to which he has already received the answers in writing.

What role is Iran, with its opposition to Israel’s very existence, playing in Gaza in escalating violence and supporting Hamas?

My hon. Friend is right to raise concerns about the interference of Iran in Gaza and elsewhere in the middle east. There is no doubt that Iran poses a threat not only because of the development of its nuclear weapons but because of its continued support for a variety of terrorist organisations in the middle east that destabilise sovereign states. We need to be clear. If there is to be stability and progress, it is important that we take the role and threat of Iran seriously.

First, I agree with both the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and the Minister about the priority that needs to be given to trying find a peaceful way forward in Gaza at the moment. Does the Minister agree that it would help us in trying to persuade the Israeli authorities to reopen the border crossings if they could be given the assurance that effective measures are in place to stop the smuggling of arms and explosives into the Gaza strip? In that context, can he say why, more than 12 months after our Prime Minister said that he was looking for ways to use British naval resources to stop such smuggling, no action seems to have been taken?

UN resolution 1860 makes the importance of stopping smuggling very clear, which is the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Surely he is aware of the significant development in relation to Egypt creating a security strategy, which means that there is a serious reduction in the capacity of those who seek to smuggle those weapons, goods and services. As he is aware, that is vital not only for security, but because Hamas collects taxes and benefits from the smuggling of goods and services.

Has the Minister seen the article in the 29 March edition of The New Yorker by its editor, David Remnick, who is a staunch supporter of the state of Israel? Mr. Remnick writes:

“Without the creation of a viable contiguous Palestinian state…it is impossible to imagine a Jewish and democratic future for Israel.”

When are the Israeli Government going to be persuaded not only that the oppression of Palestinians is wrong in itself, but that it jeopardises the future of the Jewish state?

The article to which my right hon. Friend refers is entirely consistent with statements that have recently been made by President Peres of Israel. It is very clear to us that there is urgency in terms of progress in the peace process, which relates to the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside an Israel that is free from the threat of terrorist attack, the final status issues being dealt with as quickly as possible, borders being consistent with 1967, the status of Jerusalem, refugees and the offer from the Arab League to normalise its relations with Israel. The only recent glimmer of hope has been the Arab League summit at which Arab League leaders expressed their support once again for proximity talks and reiterated their offer, in return for two states, to normalise relations with the state of Israel.

Turks and Caicos Islands

The finances and governance of the Turks and Caicos Islands were in a sorry state when we were forced to suspend constitutional Government. We are now working through the Governor on stabilising the public finances, on immigration issues and on issues relating to Crown land. The special investigation and prosecution team is in place and working.

The Foreign Affairs Committee has recently been made aware of serious concerns about the special investigation team’s current investigation in the Turks and Caicos Islands, namely about the lack of adequate resources to fund the investigation and about the timetable that will lead to the ending of direct rule from the UK as early as 2011, which might not allow for a complete investigation. Will he address those issues?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to make sure that a full investigation is conducted. That is why I am working very closely with colleagues in the Department for International Development to see whether there is a means of ensuring that the investigation team has the moneys to find out the truth, which is sorely needed in TCI. In that case, the moneys would be returned once assets were sequestered as a result of criminal investigations. We need to return as fast as possible to elections in TCI, because otherwise people will think that this is a return to colonial rule.


5. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the coalition in achieving the UK’s foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan. (325353)

We regularly assess the progress that we are making in Afghanistan to secure our goal of an Afghanistan that can no longer be a haven for international terrorism. Key indicators include the development of the Afghan national security forces, the delivery of public services and the development of the economy. The London conference reiterated the unity and coherence in the international effort, aligning this behind a clear Afghan plan.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Pakistan is very important to the effectiveness of the coalition in these matters. Will he tell the House what ongoing discussions there are with the Pakistan Government to encourage them in what they have been doing to bring security to the border with Afghanistan, so that there is no hiding place for terrorists and insurgents there?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. For the first time, we have complementary pressure on both sides of the Durand line. It is also significant that, for the first time since 1947, there are more Pakistani troops on the Afghan border than on the Indian border. That is a very significant development: Pakistan has taken severe losses, but it has moved its deployments. The meetings held the week before last between the Pakistani Foreign Minister and the leaders of the armed services in Washington were absolutely critical, as they renewed and reformed the US-Pakistan relationship, which is critical to Pakistan’s role in helping to achieve stability in Afghanistan.

I associate the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru with comments already made in support of service personnel on operations. The Pentagon’s top commander, Admiral Mike Mullen, has said that corruption in the Karzai Government could ruin the coalition strategy in Afghanistan, so does the Secretary of State understand why a growing number of people in the UK are asking why our young men and women are dying every day in support of a Government largely built on graft, cronyism and electoral fraud?

I am glad of the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to support the troops who are there, which I know is genuine and real. However, by saying what he has, he is recognising that they are there to ensure our own security. The Afghan Government are a partner in achieving that.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that corruption is a cancer at the heart of any society. A society trying to fight a counter-insurgency is doubly cancerous: that is why the London conference placed such emphasis on it, and why we must hold President Karzai to his commitment in his inaugural speech to clamp down on what he called the “culture of impunity” in respect of corruption.


6. What recent assessment he has made of progress towards political reform by the Government of Zimbabwe. (325354)

9. What recent assessment he has made of progress towards political reform by the Government of Zimbabwe. (325357)

Hardliners in Zimbabwe continue to obstruct political reform. Effective implementation of the media, electoral and human rights commissions agreed by the parties to the global political agreement in December is absolutely essential.

Has the Minister noticed the case of Owen Maseko, the artist who has been imprisoned and harassed because of his depiction of the terrible carnage that went on in the 1980s under President Mugabe? Is this a sign that the problems in Zimbabwe are continuing, and that a political settlement is still very far from certain?

I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House want to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his many years of outstanding service to this House on a variety of very important issues. On the substantive issue that he has raised, the continued flagrant abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe of course remains a concern, as does the lack of political progress on reform. We very much welcome President Zuma’s renewed leadership on behalf of the Southern African Development Community, which we think is very important. We hope to have a report back from the recent visit to Zimbabwe within days, so that we can be clear about the implementation of reforms going forward.

The Minister has spoken about President Zuma’s package of measures to facilitate some sort of agreement. What chance does he give those measures?

I am not a betting man, other than on the outcome of the forthcoming election. The serious point is that hon. Members in all parts of the House have called for South Africa to play a responsible leadership role for a long time. We all know that it is in the best place to influence real change in Zimbabwe. We believe that President Zuma’s efforts are new and potentially radical, so this is a source of optimism and hope, to use a current phrase.

Will the Minister bring me up to speed on the extent to which the Financial Services Authority or his own Department have managed to determine the location of Mr. Mugabe’s laundered money?

The EU agreed in February to extend its targeted measures, which include an arms embargo, asset freezing and travel bans. Those measures are now affecting 31 companies and 198 people. On the specific point that my hon. Friend raises, I shall get back to him in due course.

At the founding of Zimbabwe, the UK put significant resource into helping the development of infrastructure—education systems and the training of people—through a wide range of organisations, including the TUC. A lot of the beneficiaries of those programmes have, of course, become the targets of Mugabe. Will the Minister work with his friends in South Africa to help to restore some of those links and get education programmes in which we can play a role back on the table?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that co-operation and collaboration, which achieved so many positive results. The UK is currently the second-largest bilateral donor to Zimbabwe, providing £60 million in aid, which is spent primarily on health but also on education. We remain deeply concerned by the intimidation, arbitrary violence, repressive legislation and curbs on press freedom that violate the rights of the Zimbabwean people. That is why political reform is so important.


8. What assessment he has made of the implications of the outcome of the recent elections in Iraq for UK policy in the region. (325356)

The 7 March election was evidence of Iraq’s progress towards full democracy, a particularly important development in the middle east. It is important that the result is respected by Iraq’s political leaders.

It is also the case that Iraq’s neighbours have a key role in supporting Iraq’s democratic future. A democratic Iraq can play an increasing part in maintaining a stable and secure middle east.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and welcome the progress being made. In terms of further progress for Iraq, does he agree that contact with businesses is enormously important? Will he continue to do all that he can to improve the situation, particularly in relation to visas—the current arrangements mean that Iraqi business people are more likely to go to Europe than the UK?

My hon. Friend speaks with a good deal of expertise in these matters. She is absolutely right: as we have drawn down our military contribution in Iraq, there is growing importance for our economic, political, cultural and educational engagement with Iraq. That was the purpose of the Iraq investment conference in April 2009, and we are absolutely determined to make sure that British companies get the full benefit of a growing and more stable Iraq.

In the parliamentary elections five years ago, the then Prime Minister sent people out from the policy unit here to assist then Prime Minister Allawi with his election campaign, which actually looked like fairly discreditable interference in the affairs of Iraq. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that Mr. Allawi succeeded this time without the assistance of anyone from the United Kingdom?

Certainly, I have no information to suggest that there was any support from the United Kingdom in that respect. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman knows, on that occasion the result did not work out in favour of the Government in the Iraqi election.

I hope we continue to assist Iraq by all means possible, particularly in rebuilding the rule of law. I want to place on record an e-mail that I received a few days ago from the very brave judge who sentenced Saddam Hussein to death:

“I am…former chief investigative judge in the Iraqi High Tribunal…I am writing today after a long time to say thank you very much for your help”—

which means this country’s help—

“to restore the Iraqi justice and rule of law. Without your support we could not have done what we did.”

Although my right hon. Friend is not retiring, I think the whole House owes her a huge debt of gratitude for the way in which she has conducted her work as the Prime Minister’s special representative on human rights in Iraq. She has stood up for the rights of people in Iraq in a remarkable way, and although there was deep division in the House on the Iraq war, I hope that there is unity around the commitments that she has reported and made in respect of human rights, an independent press and a free and independent judiciary.


We have a very close and productive relationship with Argentina on a range of issues, including in the G20, on climate change, sustainable development and counter-proliferation. We have absolutely no doubts whatever about our sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, nor over the islanders’ right to develop a hydrocarbon industry within Falkland waters.

Is the Minister satisfied that there remains enough defence capability in the Royal Navy to deter Argentina from any mistaken reversal of position, going back to military adventurism, given that we now have almost as few destroyers in the Royal Navy as there are Liberal Democrat Members attending this session of Foreign Affairs questions?

I am not in charge of Liberal Democrat attendance, although it is sometimes better to have fewer rather than more.

We are confident that we have what we need to be able to maintain the security of the islands, but it is important to bear in mind that the Argentines have made it very clear, even in some of the noises off that they have been making, that they are not talking about blockading the Falklands, and they are not talking about returning to the 1980s. That should be a reassurance to us all, although of course we should never be complacent.

The Minister will be aware that the Argentine Government have introduced new permit rules for ships travelling to and from the Falkland Islands. What impact is that having on the islands, and what steps is he taking to have those permit rules lifted?

Obviously, it is for the Argentines to make whatever declarations they want to make, but they have not made it clear what will follow on from the laws that they passed a few weeks ago. So far, as I was telling the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), there has been no blockade of the islands; there has been no impact on the islands, and I very much hope that that remains the same. Frankly, no matter how much argy-bargy there is, we will always return to the principle of self-determination for the Falkland Islanders.

It is all right for the Minister to say that it is not having an impact, but there is an impact: there are threats against companies that do business in the Falklands and that want to do business there in the future. Has not the time come for the Minister or the Secretary of State to visit the Falkland Islands to show their solidarity to the people who live there?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I think that he is now the second person who has offered to send me off to the Falkland Islands during the general election campaign, but I am not sure whether he is recommending that that should happen before I submit my nomination papers.

The serious point is that I had conversations with the Argentine Foreign Secretary during the inauguration of the new President of Chile in Santiago a couple of weeks ago, and it is very clear from those conversations that the Argentines have no intention of blockading the Falklands. They do not want to talk about war. They do not want—and it would be inappropriate for any of us—to raise the temperature of the conversation that we are having. In my conversations with people from the Falklands, I have made it clear that, if they want a Minister, they can have one as soon as they want them to visit.

Will the Minister be very clear in saying that he will vigorously defend the rights of the Falkland Islanders to remain within the United Kingdom family and that they will not be used as a trade-off for oil exploration?

I do not know whether I can make it any clearer than I already have: we are absolutely certain about our sovereignty. We rest our case firmly on the United Nations principles, which state that the self-determination of the people on the islands is vital. We believe that we have stronger cards now, because the European treaties also happen to make it clear that the Falklands remain an overseas territory, as part of the United Kingdom. We are not complacent about this, but we are very determined.


What discussions has my hon. Friend had with our international partners regarding the release of political prisoners in Burma? In particular, what role has China been playing?

My hon. Friend has a long track record of raising issues to do with Burma. It is important that the House continues to shine a light on events in Burma. As our Prime Minister said recently, the new election laws are totally unacceptable. The targeting of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy is particularly vindictive and callous. As a consequence of those new laws, the NLD has now said quite rightly that it is unable to participate in elections that will be illegitimate. Of course, we work with our international partners, especially those countries that have the biggest capacity to influence the situation in that country, and we continue to raise Burma with the Chinese.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma has made the unusually strong recommendation that the UN should consider establishing a commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese regime. Last month, the UK ambassador to the UN said that Britain would support the establishment of a commission of inquiry. What steps are the Government taking to build an international coalition to take that forward, particularly by working with countries such as Australia that have already expressed strong support?

First, we are pursuing an arms embargo against the regime in Burma with our international partners. We want the UN to take action as soon as possible on that initiative of our Prime Minister.

We support a commission of inquiry in principle, but it is important that we do not propose a vote at the UN on such an issue when we do not have sufficient international support for it to be successful. If that were to happen, it would give false comfort to the regime, so a lot of work must be done to build sufficient consensus to ensure that there is maximum international support for establishing such an inquiry.

Does my hon. Friend realise just how much frustration is felt by those of us on both sides of the House who have campaigned on Burma for many years when we see so little progress? In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), he did not say when we will ask China to face up to its responsibilities in the region and the country.

Mr. Speaker, this is an opportunity to pay tribute to your personal role in ensuring that the issue of Burma continues to be a high priority for parliamentarians inside and outside the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently visited China, and this was one of the issues on his agenda. We make it clear in our bilateral and multilateral discussions, including with ASEAN and China, that everything possible must be done to put pressure on the regime so that it understands that until it is committed to democratic reform and free and fair elections, its isolation in the world will inevitably continue.

EU Budget (Reform)

13. What recent discussions he has had on prospects for reform of the EU budget; and if he will make a statement. (325361)

Reform of the EU budget was last discussed at the December European Council. Heads of Government agreed that the Commission should produce a report in order for the Council to provide orientations on priorities during 2010. Her Majesty’s Government remain committed to far-reaching reform of the EU budget.

I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. In 2005, however, the Government gave away £7 billion of money that was due to us from the European Union rebate in return for a complete review of the EU budget, which was supposed to have finished by the end of 2009 but clearly has not happened so far. By breaking their promise, and effectively giving away £7 billion of British taxpayers’ money for nothing, have we not seen how useless the Government are at standing up for Britain’s interests?

I really like the hon. Gentleman, but he sometimes speaks the biggest load of tosh when he absorbs everything that is poured out by his Front Benchers. The truth of the matter is that he, like many hon. Members, voted for enlargement of the European Union. We believed that it would be in the interests of this country to bring 10 new countries, and then a further two, into the European Union because we would be able to improve trade with them and they would be able to improve their human rights. However, we cannot wish something and not will the means, and if those new countries were to join the European Union, someone would have to pay that bill—we were prepared to step up to the mark. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman’s party has become so Europhobic that it dare not even look at the facts.

Will the Minister reassure the House that, in any discussions on the reform of the budget, we will not lose sight of the goals that were set by the Lisbon agenda at the European Council in 2000?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to ensure that Europe is competitive, and able to compete for new jobs and to be part of future economic models, rather than relying on its historical system of budgetary expenditure. That is why we have supported reform of the common agricultural policy for a long time, and I personally believe it is morally offensive that Europe should overpay so that other parts of the world are not able even to compete on a fair basis.

Overseas Operations (Financing)

15. What recent assessment he has made of the financing of his Department’s overseas operations; and if he will make a statement. (325364)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my written statement of 10 February, in which I made it clear that I have agreed a package of measures with the Treasury to offset the foreign exchange pressures on the FCO budget in the year ahead and allow us to continue to deliver a world-class and comprehensive diplomatic service.

At this stage of my political career, may I drop any ritual references to the Government’s overall difficulties with economic management or their shedding of the overseas pricing mechanism, which has given rise to these difficulties? Let us concentrate on the main point. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that Members on both sides of the House want this country to have a first-class foreign service representation and will not tolerate any deviation from that?


16. What assessment he has made of the likely outcome of the forthcoming shura to be held by President Karzai of Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (325365)

Indeed; I am grateful for the help from the Opposition Front Bench. The forthcoming peace jirga will be the Government of Afghanistan’s opportunity to secure the support of the Afghan people for their reintegration and reconciliation proposals. To deliver this support, we encourage the Government of Afghanistan to make this event as inclusive as possible.

Afghanistan needs a politics of national unity to defeat the Taliban and corruption, and to create conditions that will allow British troops to leave. What is my right hon. Friend doing to try and ensure that when the Loya Jirga is held later this month, it ends up creating a more inclusive politics for Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The greatest resource for international forces and for the Afghan Government is that less than 10 per cent. of the Afghan people want the Taliban back. There is widespread hatred for the brutality that they represent. However, a political settlement for Afghanistan is something that this Government have been advancing for some time, saying clearly that the purpose of military and civilian effort is to create the conditions for a political settlement. The peace jirga is the first chance to take that forward. It is not about negotiations, but about preparing the ground. We want it to be as wide as possible—1,200 to 1,500 participants have been mentioned. I welcome that. It is also important to say that all the tribes of Afghanistan must have a say in that future political settlement. It is not a matter of including former insurgents, only to find that northerners then leave the political settlement. It is important that all the ethnic tribes are balanced in a political settlement that can endure.

Topical Questions

On 1 April I announced that I had instructed the British Indian Ocean Territory Commissioner to declare a marine protected area in the territory, which will include a no-take marine reserve. By establishing this marine protected area, the UK has created one of the world’s largest marine protected areas and has doubled the global coverage of the world’s oceans benefiting from protection. I wish to emphasise that the creation of the MPA will not change the UK’s commitment to cede the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence purposes. It is also without prejudice to the outcome of the current pending proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights. The BIOT administration has been tasked with taking the establishment of an MPA forward in order that this is achieved in a realistic, sustainable and affordable way.

Finally, on a separate topic—[Hon. Members: “This is a different question.”] No. On a separate matter, Mr. Speaker, I hope you will allow me to say, I am sure on behalf of the whole House, that we utterly condemn yesterday’s attack on the US consulate in Peshawar and the earlier suicide attack in Lower Dir. There can be no justification for these bloody acts.

May I return my right hon. Friend to the question that was raised a few moments ago—the problems that some of our overseas posts are experiencing as a result of exchange rate fluctuations? Surely it cannot be right that some of the staff at our overseas posts have to volunteer to work for a period for no salary to make up the posts’ funding. Can we reinstate the overseas pricing mechanism and reinforce the measures that my right hon. Friend mentioned a few moments ago?

That is certainly one of the issues that will be considered in the next comprehensive spending review. The £75 million that has, in effect, been added to the Foreign Office budget for this year will ensure that the comprehensive first-class global network that we have is maintained and developed.

May I associate the Opposition utterly with what the Foreign Secretary just said in condemnation of the attack on the US consulate in Peshawar?

Following up the question by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), will the right hon. Gentleman look again at the recent report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which warned of “very severe strains” on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and

“an unacceptable risk to the FCO’s ability to perform its functions”

as a direct result of his decision to transfer the entire exchange rate risk of the Foreign Office’s expenditure to the Foreign Office for 2008-09? Given that no other major Foreign Ministry in the world conducts its affairs in that ridiculous way, will he now concede that it was a grave and short-sighted error and join me in saying that, whoever the Foreign Secretary is in one month’s time, they should pledge to reverse that bad decision?

I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that many other countries are having to make the sort of efficiency savings that the Foreign Office in this country has made. As he will have seen, the French Foreign Ministry and those of other countries are facing severe budgetary strain, and we make no apology for taking our efficiency measures seriously. However, I thought that he would want to welcome the fact that we have secured the £75 million to ensure that, when the Labour party returns to the Government Benches in one month’s time, we are able to ensure significant long-term progress through the comprehensive spending review.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend recollect that in 1997 this country was politically isolated in Europe and the social chapter had shamefully been left unsigned? Does he agree that great progress has been made in areas from justice to climate change through a more positive engagement in the intervening 13 years? Would that not be put at risk if we were to become the great ignored of the EU in the coming weeks? (325375)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The pro-European part of the Conservative party is leaving this House, and we have already paid tribute to one such right hon. Gentleman. In 1997 this country was a source of despair to its friends and disdain to its enemies, and that has been reversed over the past 13 years—on Europe, on overseas aid spending and on a range of human rights and other democracy-promotion issues. We will fight this election proud not only of our foreign policy record, but of the fact that we are going to be proactively and positively engaged with the European Union.

T4. I cannot believe that the Foreign Secretary tried to suggest with a straight face that scrapping the overseas pricing mechanism was a good idea, or that he defended it. How can he seriously suggest that subjecting to the mercies of the foreign exchange market the budget of his Department and our ability to project our influence overseas is a good idea? Did he really sign up for it? (325377)

I certainly did not say anything other than that the efficiency savings that we are making are important. The hon. Gentleman is very welcome to check Hansard in the leisure time that he has over the next three or four weeks. However, the fact is that we run a comprehensive service, with 261 posts throughout the world. It is widely recognised for its influence both in bilateral and multilateral relations, and long may that continue.

T3. Almost one year ago the Sri Lankan civil war came to an end. Some 280,000 Tamils were then put in detention, and 70,000 people in Sri Lanka are still in detention camps. What are our Government doing to press on the Sri Lankan Government the need to ensure that the Tamil population are completely released and reintegrated into society, so that they feel that they have a stake in a future Sri Lanka? (325376)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have provided £13.5 million of assistance in the post-conflict period to help almost 300,000 people who have been displaced by fighting. Of course, there has been some progress in terms of the number of people in camps falling to about 80,000, but that is not good enough. The Government will continue to apply pressure to the Sri Lankan Government until all those people are allowed to return home safely and freely.

T6. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Foreign Affairs Committee that the current exchange rate pricing mechanism for the Foreign Office is simply unsustainable? The extra £75 million is welcome, but it is a one-off, and this is not an issue that can wait for a comprehensive spending review. Does not the Secretary of State think that he should negotiate a new bilateral deal with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? (325379)

On reflection the hon. Gentleman, who I know follows these matters carefully, will understand that that would not be a very sensible course. Any Government after the general election will have to set a framework for public spending for all Departments, and it is quite right that the Foreign Office has negotiated a special bilateral agreement for this year. That is very important, but it is also important that we then take a long-term look at the funding of the Foreign Office and other Departments. The ability to do so on a three-year or even longer-term basis is a good thing, and that is the right way to proceed.

T5. In the nearly three years during which my right hon. Friend has been Foreign Secretary, has he ever taken a Labour fundraiser with him when meeting the leader of a foreign country? (325378)

No, I certainly have never taken a Labour fundraiser to a meeting with a foreign Government, and I look forward to the day when the shadow Foreign Secretary can give me a straight answer to the question whether Lord Ashcroft has ever been taken to meetings with foreign Governments in places where Lord Ashcroft has business interests. I have written to the right hon. Gentleman three times about that; I know that the postal service has its problems, but we have never had a reply.

T8. Following the recent worrying events in South Africa, what discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his overseas counterpart to ensure the safety and security of British football fans who will be travelling to South Africa later in the year to the World cup finals? (325381)

I hope that all UK citizens will be supporting the English team, and I am sorry if the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) wants to distinguish between English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish fans in respect of the World cup. Obviously, we talked about the issue when we met the South African President and South African Foreign Minister during the state visit last month. They are taking the issues of security and wider provision for fans extremely seriously. The bilateral engagement between our two countries is of a very high order on this important issue.

T7. Will the Secretary of State tell us what representations were or will be made by him to the Israeli Government in relation to the Palestinian and Arab Christians who were denied access to the holy places over Easter, the most important festival in the Christian calendar? Will he do all he can to ensure that access is given to these Palestinian Arabs, who are a minority, so that they can celebrate that important feast in future? (325380)

First of all, I am sure I speak on behalf of Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to my hon. Friend’s unique contribution to the affairs of this House. I shared a corridor with him when I started my parliamentary career; I shall leave it at that. It was a tremendous privilege to get to know him.

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. One of the constant conversations that we have with the Israeli Government is about ensuring that there is maximum support for interfaith harmony in Israel and that any restriction of movement is lifted, other than in the most extenuating of security circumstances.

T9. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that it is his Government’s policy to increase the British contribution to the European Union by billions of pounds and to pay for that by cutting back on the funding of British overseas postings run by his Department? Because that is the net result. (325382)

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, because he is quite an intelligent man; that that is not the policy of this Government nor, indeed, of his party.

I hope that my right hon. Friend recalls the Royal Society’s prognosis of July last year that tropical coral reefs might survive on this planet for only another 40 years because the rate of destruction was so great. Does he understand the very real hope that his announcement on Friday of last week, about the designation of the marine protected area in the Chagos archipelago, has given ocean scientists around the globe?

Last week’s announcement has been widely welcomed in the scientific and environmental community, and for good reason. A unique resource is being created for the future—for all future generations, for the planet, for scientific research and for the protection of the environment. It is a very good symbol of the sort of internationalism and the sort of responsibility that this country should stand for.

As one who believes that our country is extremely well served and represented by our diplomatic service, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to assure the House that there are no plans to close or amalgamate any of our embassies?

I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman on many occasions and have come to know his wisdom and his commitment to the House and to our political system. I hope that he will not be too embarrassed if I pay tribute to him from this side of the House and thank him for his very many years of outstanding service, not just to his constituents but to the House. I know that we have tried to remove him at successive general elections, but without much success.

In respect of the Foreign Office’s 261 posts around the world, we keep all our posts under very close review but there are no plans at the moment to close any embassies.

It is not just that Palestinians in Jerusalem and East Jerusalem are being prevented from praying; they are having their houses confiscated in ever-increasing numbers as well. Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of those Palestinians are having to seek asylum in this country, and should they be audacious enough to return to their own country and step off the plane at Tel Aviv, they are in danger of being tortured, put back on a plane and returned to Britain?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I wish him well in his retirement and thank him for all his service to his constituents, and of course to our party and the House.

Jerusalem is rightly at the centre of all the great religions; it is a tinderbox. It is very important that all sides are very careful in the actions that they take in that respect, and that the rights of all denominations and all faiths are respected in that special place. The committees and other structures that have been created to govern the holy sites are there for a purpose, and the rules and norms that they have established need to be adhered to very closely indeed.

The people of Estonia have held this country in particular regard ever since the intervention of the Royal Navy in their war of independence after the first world war. In fashioning the future foreign and defence policy of this country, will this Government and the next never forget the professionalism and sacrifice of Estonian forces fighting alongside British forces in Afghanistan and the professional and courageous military personnel who, on a tiny budget, show courage above all possible expectations?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is the last of the parliamentary swans making their swansong at questions this afternoon, but he is a very fine swan indeed. He has been a great Member of this House and I pay tribute to him and to the many other retiring sensible, pro-European Conservatives who still exist.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about Estonia and its contribution. Our troops, in Afghanistan now and in previous conflicts, have known perfectly well that the Estonians have been very strong and successful allies of ours.

Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), does the Minister agree that NATO should be the cornerstone of European defence?

Following on from the question by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) about business in Iraq, is the Foreign Secretary aware that businesses that I speak to feel that the British Government are not supporting them adequately? Given that Iraq has the world’s second largest oil supply and that there is a desperate need to rebuild its infrastructure after the war, what more can he do to build ties with the incoming Iraqi Administration so that British business can do more business with Iraq?

This is the only European country that has held an Iraq investment conference and we are committed to UK Trade and Investment and other embassy functions that support commercial diplomacy. The hon. Gentleman’s question would be better if he could give me any details of companies that he says have been frustrated. We would be very happy to work with them, because I assure him that many other companies are delighted rather than frustrated.

Chagos Islands

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the declaration of a marine protected area around the Chagos islands and what consultation took place before the announcement was made.

On 1 April 2010, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced the creation of a marine protected area in the British Indian Ocean Territory. It will include a no-take marine reserve where fishing will be banned. The creation of the MPA is a major step forward for protecting the oceans not just around the territory itself but throughout the world.

The decision to establish a marine protected reserve was taken following a full public consultation and careful consideration of the many issues and interests involved. The response to the consultation was high, with more than a quarter of a million people registering a view. The great majority of those responses came in the form of petitions, but the response was so wide-ranging that it was global, including from private individuals, academic and scientific institutions, environmental organisations and networks, fishing and yachting interests, members of the Chagossian community, British Members of Parliament and peers and representatives of other Governments.

The great majority of respondents—well over 90 per cent.—made it clear that they supported greater marine protection of some sort in the Chagos archipelago in principle. However, the views on the proposal were mixed and the responses were not confined to the options listed in the consultation document. The announcement is the first key step in establishing an MPA. There is still much work to be considered and we intend to continue to work closely with all interested stakeholders, both in the UK and internationally, in implementing the reserve.

The Minister must be aware that on 10 March I was given an undertaking in a Westminster Hall debate that consultation with interested parties, Members of Parliament and the Chagossian community would take place before an announcement was made. No such consultation has taken place, and there has been no communication with me as chair of the all-party group on the Chagos islands or with the Chagossian communities living in Mauritius, the Seychelles or this country.

The Minister will also be aware, because he gave the apology on behalf of the Government, that a terrible wrong was committed against the Chagos islanders in the 1970s and 1980s, when they were driven out to make way for a US base. Every other marine protected area proposed anywhere in the world by anybody includes a local human element to protect the zone. He knows full well that the Chagos islanders support the MPA, but not with a no-take policy; they support it with a sustainable fishing policy that will enable a sustainable community to return to their islands to live and look after the MPA.

Finally, the Minister will also be aware that later this year the islanders’ long fight for justice and human rights, which has been fought so that they can return to their islands, will be heard at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Many of us believe that the islanders will be victorious. At that point, will he accept that the islanders’ return can also be protective of the environment from which they were so cruelly snatched all those years ago?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he does as chair of the all-party group. He has brought the views of the Chagossians to the attention of many people in this House and further afield, expressing with clear articulateness their rights and needs. However, I should just say to him that our decision to set up the MPA has no effect on our relationship with Mauritius; it does not change one jot the guarantees that we have made to its Government. Nor does it have any effect on our relationship with the Americans in respect of Diego Garcia or on the hearings that will be held later this year at the European Court of Human Rights—this decision is entirely without prejudice to those.

I apologise to my hon. Friend and to the House, because it became clear to us that, notwithstanding the commitment made to him in the debate, no further information could have come in that would have made any difference to the decision on the protection of the marine environment in the British Indian Ocean Territory. He referred to the question of whether there should be a no-take agreement or a sustainable fishing arrangement. The truth is that very few sustainable fishing arrangements around the world have ever been successful, which is why we believe it vital that there should be a no-take arrangement in this area. Extensive consultation did take place over several months, including with my hon. Friend, part of which was, of course, the Westminster Hall debate that he led.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on raising this urgent question. He initiated the debate in Westminster Hall and the Minister might wish to think again about what the hon. Gentleman said about the lack of consultation with the Chagossians; at the very least, even at the public relations level, that was unfortunate.

It is appropriate that the House considers these issues before Parliament is dissolved, given that the Chagos islanders’ case is before the European Court of Human Rights. There is a great deal of sympathy from those on both sides of the House for the plight of the Chagossians, and their interests must be placed at the heart of any decisions made about their homeland.

I would like briefly to put two or three questions to the Minister. What discussions have the Government had with the Government of Mauritius since the Foreign Secretary’s announcing the creation of the marine protected area in the Indian ocean, which the Conservative party welcomes? The Foreign Secretary said in his statement last week that the creation of the reserve

“will not change the UK’s commitment to cede the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence purposes”.

Will Mauritius be legally liable to continue the marine protected area when that occurs? What safeguards will be put in place to ensure the long-term protection of the marine area and, in particular, any investment that the UK and other partners make in the development? Furthermore, what discussions have been had with regional states, such as Maldives and Seychelles? Are they supportive of the idea of a marine protected area? Finally, what steps are the Government planning to take to ensure effective enforcement of the ban on illegal fishing in the zone, and how will they ensure that the marine protected area is not simply a paper proposal without practical impact?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his broad support for the measures that we are undertaking. I think that all Members of the House are keen to ensure that one of the areas of greatest biodiversity in the world, which is within British territory, can be protected for the future.

The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions, including about what consultations and discussions there were with Mauritius. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke on Thursday with the Prime Minister of Mauritius, and there have been extensive discussions with others in the area. I should say, in answer to the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, that one of the things we have to do over the next few months is lay out precisely how the reserve will function. During that process, of course we have to discuss specific elements with the Chagossians, their representatives and Members of both Houses, and we are keen to do that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the fishing. He will know that the British Indian Ocean Territory is particularly important not only because 784 different kinds of fish live on the coral reefs, but because many fish migrate through the territory, and it is the fishing of those migratory fish in the territory that is providing a major problem for fish stocks across the whole of the Indian ocean. That is why we believe that this is a particularly important moment. We will be suspending the three licences presently made available, which bring in something like £1 million a year, and finding the money elsewhere.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on raising this issue. Following the hon. Gentleman’s important question about consultation, will the Minister say whether the Chairman and Members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which in this Parliament carried out an inquiry into our overseas territories, were consulted? Again following on from the hon. Gentleman’s questions, will the Minister assure the House that the creation of the MPA, which the Liberal Democrats would, of course, automatically support, will not affect the ability of the Chagos islanders to return and have a sustainable community? Finally, will the presence of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed US warships be permitted within the zone of the MPA?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that the Government feel deep regret—many right hon. and hon. Members have also expressed such regret—for how the Chagossians were treated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, we believe that that has now been settled in the highest court of this land by the Law Lords. Yes, a court case will be heard in the European Court of Human Rights, but this is an important step to take, notwithstanding any possible discussions or judgment handed down by the Court, because we believe that the biodiversity in that territory is essential to the world. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks from a sedentary position whether the Foreign Affairs Committee was consulted. The whole House was consulted, the country was consulted, and we extended the consultation process by weeks so that others could take part. I must say that many Foreign Office consultations get hardly any replies at all, even from the Liberal Democrats, and yet in this case more than 250,000 people expressed their view—90 per cent. of them in support of the MPA. Notwithstanding the rows that some people want to raise about the process, I hope that they support the policy that we are adopting.

Order. This is a matter of considerable interest, as is reflected in the number of Members seeking to catch my eye, and I should like to accommodate everybody. There is, however, pressure on time, so pithy questions and answers are the order of the day.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that the vast majority of endangered species are in British overseas territories, rather than on the UK mainland. The Government have been criticised in the past for not paying enough attention to this aspect of our overseas territories. What effect will the proposed area have on protecting endangered species?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and I pay tribute to her because, when she had responsibility in the Foreign Office for the overseas territories, she started a lot of the work that has enabled us to undertake such work now. Reference was made earlier to the coral reefs in the British Indian Ocean Territory. Actually, it is one of the few areas in the world where the coral reefs have been rapidly growing again, and that is because of the work that we have been able to do in recent years. We will now be able to do more. There are 220 species of coral there, many of which are specific to the Chagos islands, and we will be able to protect them by establishing the MPA.

Will the Minister try again to explain what happened between 10 March and 1 April, the first day after Parliament rose for Easter? Will he also kindly explain the size of the proposed area, and tell us whether the Chagossians’ return to the islands will be affected by these proposals?

There will be absolutely no effect on whether Chagossians have a right or do not have a right to return to the islands by virtue of the announcement that we have made. I thought that I had made that clear already—

The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, so I have obviously misunderstood the precise nature of his question. Doubtless he will inform me of it later. He also asked what happened between 10 March and 1 April. We made the decision that no further information could possibly be garnered that would affect whether it was right or not to establish a reserve now. That is why we decided to act. We believe that it is in the interests not only of the territory itself but of the whole of the Indian ocean and of the biodiversity of the planet that we start the MPA as soon as possible.

The Minister has still not explained the reason for the urgency. The consultation ended only on 5 March, and the facilitator herself said that the process would take three months, so why has this been rushed through? Will he also answer this question: does this decision not rule out the Chagossian people ever going back to live there?

As my hon. Friend knows, we do not believe that the Chagossians will be returning to the islands—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] But this particular decision has nothing to do with that. It is completely separate from the decision, in its entirety. As I have already said, the House of Lords has made it clear that the position of the UK Government is correct in law, and the only place where there is now contention is in the European Court of Human Rights.

Does the Minister accept that he has just let the cat out of the bag? What he has just said clearly indicates that he is trying to separate the MPA from the rights of the Chagossians, who, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said in our debate the other day, are regarded as having been subjected to a terrible wrong. Given the Minister’s much vaunted interest in human rights, would he be good enough to understand that some of us believe that when we are offered consultation, we expect to get it?

There has been substantial consultation. This has been one of the most far-reaching—and the most replied-to—consultations that the Foreign Office has engaged in. More than 250,000 people took part in it, and 90 per cent. of them supported the idea of creating an MPA. However, this decision has nothing to do with the rights, or the lack of rights, of people to return to the islands of Chagos. Yes, I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that what happened in the 1960s and early ’70s was absolutely shameful. I agree with him that the early compensation that was paid was also shameful. Later compensation has been paid—something in the region of £14 million in today’s terms. However, it would be unrealistic to expect the Chagossians to return to those islands, however much individual Members of this House might want that to happen.

Does my hon. Friend accept that he cannot hide behind environmentalism to mask what many of us fear is an encroachment on the rights and legitimate expectations of the Chagossian people? He argues that the consultation he carried out approved a measure of support for further marine protection, but does he not accept that very few people want further marine protection at the expense of the Chagossian islanders, which is what the House is concerned about this afternoon?

The extension of the marine protected area and the new measures we are taking will not have any direct or indirect effect on the rights or otherwise of Chagossians to return to the islands. These are two entirely separate issues. Some have suggested that one should protect humans and not bother to protect the marine environment—[Interruption.] I know that that is not what my hon. Friend is saying, but in order to protect those who fish across the whole of the Indian ocean I believe that we have to protect the marine environment.

Given that the Minister has called the treatment of the Chagossians “shameful”, does he not understand the concerns reiterated on his side of the House by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) that this is being rushed through in double-quick time? That will lead many—and not just the usual suspects—to suspect that the Government are using the environmental issue as a fig leaf for the continued abuse of these human rights.

I have to underline for the hon. Gentleman that the environmental issues are very significant. The tuna that pass through the British Indian Ocean Territory feed many people across the east coast of Africa. Those supplies are being rapidly diminished. We need a no-take policy across the area. There are many other elements of biodiversity on the islands that we need to protect, but the decision has nothing to do with the rights or otherwise of the Chagossians to live on the islands.

One of the most important groups of Chagossians were consulted—the large group who live in Crawley. They were very clear that they wanted the marine protected area, but they were keen to keep a foothold in their history. Although most will decide to remain in Crawley—I am very glad they will do so—they are keen to have a stake in the islands’ future. Can the Minister give us any assurance about that?

I should pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has one of the largest Chagossian communities in the country in her constituency; I know that various Foreign Office Ministers have met her and the community. She is absolutely right that there should be an ongoing connection between the Chagossians and what happens with the MPA. That is why, as I said earlier, I am keen to ensure that, if I still hold this post after the general election, we have ongoing discussions with the Chagossian community in this country and further afield so that the implementation of the MPA meets the requirements and needs of the Chagossians.

Will the Minister clarify what would happen if the islanders returned and were unable to fish, as that would make it difficult for them to live? If they return, will they still be able to fish under the new regime?

As I said earlier, we believe it difficult and next to impossible to create a sustainable fishing regime in the British Indian Ocean Territory. Wherever it has been attempted elsewhere, it has failed. At the moment, the Chagossians have chosen not to take up any of the three fishing licences available within the British Indian Ocean Territory, but there are many elements involved in the question of whether life would be sustainable on the islands for the Chagossians—not least the fact that many of the buildings in which they lived back in the ’60s and early ’70s are no longer habitable.

My hon. Friend needs to be aware that this issue will not go away. Will he explain why conservationists and scientists feel that they have been used by the Government in their introduction of the marine protected area as a way of stopping the Chagossians from going home?

Well, I am sorry. I am fond of my hon. Friend and I am sad that he has made that point this afternoon, as what he said is not my experience. The non-governmental organisations that I have spoken to have made it clear that they fully support the MPA.

Impressed though the House may be with the Minister’s marine knowledge of the Chagos islands and his Rumsfeld-like impressions in not needing to know what he does not know, will he tell me what livelihoods remain for the Chagossians, many of whom live in my area of West Sussex? Secondly, will he tell us whether any pressure was brought to bear on him by his American counterparts in the naval base nearby?

Absolutely no pressure was brought to bear by the United States of America on me or anybody else. I am not in charge of the community in the United Kingdom; I have responsibility only for the British Indian Ocean Territory itself.

May I urge my hon. Friend to stick with the science, because he is absolutely right? A no-take zone in the area is vital; upon it depend the livelihoods of more than 500 million people in the Indian ocean territories, because those coral reefs represent the seed bed for most of the marine fish life in the Indian ocean. It is an absolutely vital resource, and he must absolutely stick with the science. May I further urge my hon. Friend to understand that the coral reefs there are so sensitive and pristine that the scientists who work there do not even wear sun tan lotion for fear of contaminating the coral?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to him for his long-term interest in these matters. The larger grouper fish and the wrasse are almost fading into non-existence in other parts of the Indian ocean and, without the protection that we will be able to provide in the British Indian Ocean Territory, they could well become extinct, thereby depriving many millions of people around the Indian ocean of any means of living at all.

Does my hon. Friend think that the late Robin Cook, who is the only Foreign Secretary really to have recognised the rights of the Chagos islanders, would have endorsed this decision—and if Robin Cook had taken this decision, does my hon. Friend not think that the least he would have done would be to come personally to the Dispatch Box to defend it?

Well, I am absolutely certain that Robin Cook would have wanted to bring forward the protection for the biodiversity in the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Business of the House

I should like to make a business statement. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier today, the business for this week will now be as follows:

Wednesday 7 April—Consideration of a business of the House motion to facilitate business to prorogation, followed by remaining stages of the Bribery Bill [Lords], followed by consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [Lords], followed by motion relating to the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2010, followed by remaining stages of the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, followed by all stages of the Appropriation Bill, followed by all stages of the Finance Bill, followed by consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Digital Economy Bill [Lords], followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

Thursday 8 April—Remaining stages of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Crime and Security Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Children, Schools and Families Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Energy Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Financial Services Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Flood and Water Management Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been received to all Acts. The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified. Parliament will be dissolved on Monday 12 April by proclamation.

As the Prime Minister announced this morning, Her Majesty will summon the new Parliament to meet on Tuesday 18 May.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement. May I say how delighted we are on these Benches that the Prime Minister has at last pushed the button and called the election? We relish the prospect over the next four weeks of taking our argument for lower taxes on jobs, less waste and reduced debt across the country.

On the forthcoming business, will she confirm that there will be Prime Minister’s Question Time as usual tomorrow, oral questions to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on Thursday and no interruption to the schedule for Adjournment and Westminster Hall debates? Does she accept that we will enter into constructive discussions with the Government about the Bills in the pipeline, balancing the need for scrutiny with the need to get certain legislation on the statute book without further delay?

For the benefit of the whole House, will she tell us how long the debate will be on tomorrow’s business motion? So that the House can pace itself, will she tell us how long she expects the House to spend on each of the Bills whose titles she has just read out?

Finally, as she has made no announcement about the draft Standing Order on the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, will she now confirm that the Government have finally kicked into the long grass the proposals to set up a business committee? Will she confirm that it will fall to the next Government to introduce this important House of Commons reform?

I can confirm that there will be questions to the Prime Minister in the usual way and that there will be questions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. We will table the programme motion this afternoon, so hon. Members will be able to consider it, and it will then be debated. Obviously, the length of the debate on the programme motion will be a matter for Mr. Speaker.

As far as the draft Standing Order is concerned, following the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, we have agreed—the House has agreed—the election of Select Committee Chairs, the election of members of Select Committees and that Back-Bench Members should be able to—

I am just trying to explain to the House the progress we have made. Back-Bench Members will be able to table motions that can be voted on. The House has resolved to agree that there should be a Back-Bench committee for House business. We have drafted the Standing Orders that would give effect to that and they have been tabled. I think it is wrong for hon. Members who did not win the vote to table amendments that serve as an objection and I would therefore ask hon. Members who have tabled amendments to withdraw them so that we can approve the Standing Orders. They do no more and no less than give effect to the resolution that the House has already expressed of wanting to proceed with a business committee. I think hon. Members should withdraw their amendments, which serve as an objection, so that we can conclude the matter in this Parliament. If that is not the case, and Members persist with their amendments, we will at least have made progress on all the things I have listed. The House will have decided in principle to make progress but the Standing Order change, which we have already drafted, could be done as the first act of the next Parliament.

I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) who, for obvious reasons, is in Somerton and Frome, from where, I am sure, he will be deservedly returned, as will my other right hon. and hon. Friends who are standing again.

May I ask the Leader of the House about the Digital Economy Bill? The proposal appears to be to take the Second Reading today and all the remaining stages tomorrow. Given that there are a number of highly controversial proposals in the Bill, especially that about web blocking, surely now that we are in the wash-up, the most appropriate thing for the Government and the Leader of the House to do at this stage is to say that the Government will not proceed with those controversial parts of the Bill. That will save us all a lot of time and trouble over the next two or three days.

I welcome the fact that the vulture fund Bill—the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill—and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill are both on the list. That is very welcome. It seems to me to be extraordinary, however, that the proposals of the Wright Committee on a Back-Bench business committee, which the Leader of the House has herself put forward, are not on the list. She seems to be saying that those measures are not on the list simply because a few Members are opposing them, but there are, equally, a tiny number of reactionary Members opposing those two Bills. Surely those three measures are in the same position. It is in her gift to bring forward the Wright Committee proposals at this stage. On three separate occasions—three weeks in a row—she undertook to put those proposals to the House. Surely it is a breach of faith for her to refuse to do so now.

As far as the Digital Economy Bill is concerned, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there will be a full Second Reading debate today, so it will have a normal Second Reading debate. It has had considerable scrutiny already in the House of Lords: it had seven days in Committee, which is more than any other Bill in the programme, and three days on Report, whereas every other Bill in the programme had only one day. However, I know that Members want it to be scrutinised in this House too, and there will be a further chance for scrutiny at the time of making the regulations to give powers to the courts to block access to internet sites in relation to copyright infringement. As that element of the Bill has generated much debate, those regulations will be subject to a super-affirmative procedure, which will operate in the following way.

There will be a public consultation on the draft regulations prior to their being laid in Parliament and they will be laid in draft in the House with an explanation of why they satisfy the necessary thresholds required to make the regulations. Those thresholds are set out in the Bill. At the same time, the public consultation response will be published. Draft regulations will sit in the House for 60 days and, at the same time, Committees of both Houses will consider them. That is the critical part of the super-affirmative procedure. It allows Committees, including Members of this House, to consider the provisions even though there will not be Committee stage in the normal way. Final regulations that take into account the recommendations of the Committees will be laid in Parliament and will be subject to the normal affirmative procedure. Of course, the Bill will make progress in the wash-up only on the basis of consensus.

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on including the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill in tomorrow’s business? That demonstrates not only the Government’s profound commitment to international development but the fact that they listen to the House of Commons. Has she received any indication that the Bill’s passage through the House of Lords will be facilitated so that it can receive Royal Assent before Dissolution?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his words about the vulture funds Bill, which has considerable support across the country. We expect and hope it to make good progress in the House of Lords. As I have said at successive business questions on Thursdays in the House, it was disappointing that Opposition Members blocked it. They needed only to drop their objections for it to go through, and now they have seen the light and dropped them, so we hope it will go through and become law.

The wash-up following the decision to dissolve Parliament is, by tradition and convention, always uncontentious and by agreement. Significant parts of the Digital Economy Bill are highly contentious and it is the view of many that it should not be debated at all following the announcement of Dissolution and that it could and should properly be left to a future Government, which could be done very swiftly indeed. Unless the right hon. and learned Lady is prepared to give a clear undertaking that the contentious parts of the Bill will be dropped, it will not go through. It is not good enough to say that it will be left to a statutory instrument in a future Parliament.

But I was trying to explain to hon. Members that there will not be just the normal affirmative procedure, which does not allow for a Committee and for amendments to come from a Committee. If one thinks about what a Committee stage does, one sees that it allows Members of the House to consider the Bill in detail and to make amendments to it. The super-affirmative process that I have announced to the House, which will apply in the case of these contentious measures, will provide scrutiny by Members of this House in a Committee stage that can then lead to amendments. Therefore, whatever the House does by agreement in the wash-up will not come into force until there has been a Committee stage, in effect, under the super-affirmative procedure. I think the hon. Gentleman had worked out his concerns and objections before hearing my explanation that we would deal with the matter in this different way. This is something that can be discussed further when the Secretary of State moves the Bill’s Second Reading later today.

The York-based company Jarvis made more than 1,000 track-renewal workers redundant last week. The skills of a work force are essential to the future of the railway. Network Rail is retendering the Jarvis work, and whoever wins it must re-employ the Jarvis workers. If my right hon. and learned Friend cannot find time for a debate on this important matter before Parliament is dissolved, will she at least ask the Secretary of State for Transport and the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber—who I know has had many discussions about the matter—to meet me urgently to discuss these workers’ jobs?

I entirely take the point that my hon. Friend has made. He is absolutely a champion for people employed in his constituency, and he is understandably very concerned about the Jarvis employees who have been made redundant. I will ask the Secretary of State for Transport and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills to meet him so that he can discuss how to reassure his constituents and lay their concerns to rest.

The right hon. and learned Lady may recall that, at the last business questions, I made an intervention about the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, which I was promoting. In response, she said—accurately perhaps, but slightly sharply for her—that I was “earnest” but “not relevant”. She has included the Bill in the wash-up, so may I thank her most warmly on behalf of all those, both in the House and outside, who have promoted it? I ask her to do her very best to ensure that the Bill goes through, given that the official Opposition have always supported it.

I was going to apologise for making perhaps waspish comments to the hon. Gentleman, but unfortunately I cannot remember at all the exchange that we had. However, he is right to say that the Bill is important, and he has played an important role in it. With the support of all sides of the House, it will become an Act of Parliament.

I would have found the delegation to a Committee of controversial elements of the Digital Economy Bill more reassuring had I not seen item 12 on today’s Order Paper. The Draft Conditional Fee Agreements (Amendment) Order 2010 was rejected by a Committee last Thursday but, less than a week later, it is being reintroduced by the Secretary of State for Justice. Even at this late stage, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider making representations to remove those controversial measures from the draft Bill?

My hon. Friend can be reassured that the motion on the Order Paper to which he refers will not be moved today. It might be on the Order Paper now, but it is not going anywhere.

On 11 March, the right hon. and learned Lady said that

“it is gratifying that there were very big majorities in the House last week to resolve this matter and move forward. We have the resolutions of the House. My task now is to make sure that the House is given an opportunity to endorse the Standing Orders that will give effect to them. My mandate is the will of the House as expressed in the resolutions. We need Standing Orders to give effect to them—nothing less.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 433.]

Through you, Mr. Speaker, may I urge the Leader of the House to explain why she is reneging on a commitment that she gave for two weeks running—that if there were objections to the Standing Orders, they could not go through on the nod and that she would make time for the will of the House to be made clear? In her own words, it is her duty and responsibility to ensure that that happens.

First, we should remind ourselves that the overwhelming majority of the Wright Committee’s important proposals have gone through. Secondly, we have drafted the Standing Orders that give effect to the will of the House, and it is disappointing that they are being blocked. However, the Standing Orders have been drafted and are available for the House, and there will be an opportunity when the House returns for them to be put into effect. The objections are there. If they are taken off the Order Paper, they can be dealt with and go through as remaining Orders of the Day. If they do not, the hon. Gentleman should not be alarmed. All is not lost. They will remain there; they represent the will of the House, as expressed by a large majority, and it can happen as soon as the new Parliament arrives.

Will there be an opportunity to discuss the business of Government during the election period? In particular, will subcontracts continue to be let for the aircraft carrier order in my constituency? Given that the Royal Navy and the aircraft carrier are under threat from the official Opposition, it is obviously something of great interest to many of my constituents.

The relationship to the business motion is extremely tangential, but I am sure the Leader of the House will deal with it.

My hon. Friend will be reassured, as all Members should be, that although this country, as we know, remains in a fragile economic situation, we are on the right path. Businesses are beginning to grow and unemployment is beginning to fall, but we will continue to make sure that we take the right decisions for the future of the economy. Businesses will be able to look to the Government to be sure that we stand beside them—we do not let the recession take its course, as the Opposition would.

In the very short time available before Parliament is dissolved, could the Leader of the House find time for a short debate on the decision by NHS West Sussex to close two very popular dental surgeries? One is at Maywood health centre in Bognor Regis and one is at Flansham Park. The decision has baffled the 4,000 patients who are registered with those dental surgeries. I have written to the Secretary of State for Health to enlist his support, but a debate would be helpful in trying to persuade NHS West Sussex to reverse that wrong and unpopular decision.

Obviously, as the hon. Gentleman will know, that is a matter for local decision making. He has written to my right hon. Friend and will await a reply. He will know that his constituents, like all our constituents, have benefited from the massive increase for NHS funding, including in primary care and dental services.

The Leader of the House has listed approximately a dozen measures to be discussed in the next two days. She did not tell my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House how much time she expected each measure to take. Will she now do so? Will she also allow the House to sit on Friday so that the Standing Orders can then be approved properly on that day?

A few minutes ago, the Leader of the House told us that the controversial elements of the Digital Economy Bill, in relation to the application of technical measures, would be covered by the super-affirmative procedure. Can she confirm that it will apply to clause 11 as well as clause 18? She told the House that the Bill would go through only as a result of consensus. Can she define what she meant by “consensus”?

There is plenty of opportunity to discuss all this in detail with the Secretary of State when he brings forward the Bill for its Second Reading.

Waste Recovery and Disposal Facilities (Public Consultation)

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

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require planning authorities to conduct a local referendum before considering planning permission for new large-scale waste recovery or disposal facilities which involve the recovery or disposal of waste from more than one county area; to provide that planning authorities and the Secretary of State must not grant planning permission if the result of such a referendum indicates that local people do not wish a facility to be developed; and for connected purposes.

In the last 10 years society has dramatically altered. Twenty-four hour access to rolling news and media and widespread and easily available access to the internet mean that today’s individual is far more enlightened in terms of information than ever before. People are more aware of what is happening within their own communities and where their money is being spent. If a community requires more homes, a school or a hospital, traditionally developers have worked with local councils and provided a solution.

One could argue that, via the process of democracy, local people have their views and concerns more or less met within the provision of the planning decision-making process, but that is not always the case. Often, despite extensive consultation, the wider community view may not necessarily reflect the opinions of those citizens whose lives and environment will be deeply affected and impacted upon by a decision that has been taken elsewhere and, ultimately, local people feel powerless to control their quality of life.

When we live with what is recognised as a broken society, it is important that the process is reversed and that local people are once again empowered. Local empowerment is vital when the objective of a Government is to roll back the boundaries of the state to reverse what we have today, which is a big state centralising power and local people who feel helpless. We need citizens to become more involved in how their communities function and are shaped, to become community shareholders by taking ownership for the residents of today and future families of tomorrow.

My party has already articulated the desire to establish local housing trusts, which will enable local people to get together, form a trust and dictate how local housing needs will be met. Local people will drive the local housing growth agenda. They will be empowered and in control. We have exciting new policies in education that will enable local parents to establish and run local schools. However, my Bill proposes a further approach when the need for larger infrastructural facilities is required in a local community.

An area of Mid-Bedfordshire, which incorporates the communities of Stewartby, Marston Moretaine, Brogbrough and Lidlington, has been targeted for some time by the Government for development and growth. Not surprisingly, people who live in that targeted area would like some say in how it grows. A proposed inappropriate eco-town has already been successfully fought off by engaged and active local residents. As a result of European legislation and the need to cease using landfill and to create energy-from-waste facilities, Rookery Pit, within that growth area, has been designated as the preferred site for an energy-from-waste plant. That has raised a number of issues.

A large American company—Covanta—has maximised the opportunity to enter a sham process of local consultation and public relations, to try to convince local people that it has in some way advanced as a preferred developer and operator. The company has even indicated to me and other people that it is talking to local planners, which is not the case. The fact is that many organisations may tender, and probably will do so, to build the energy-from-waste plant at that location.

Bedfordshire has an excellent recycling record and already recycles 44 per cent. of its waste. I am sure that the majority of people in Bedfordshire understand the need to cease landfill and to burn what rubbish is not recycled, thereby creating clean energy in the process, but they do not understand why Bedfordshire should process the waste for Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Milton Keynes, Hertfordshire or anywhere else—counties that are quite capable of providing facilities to cater for their own waste.

It is time for the people who will be affected by such a proposal to be not only consulted but given a vote and the power to decide how and in what way their community and environment will alter. There is strong local opposition to the Covanta proposal, which in no real way benefits the local economy but aesthetically damages the local environment. From many of the beauty spots in Mid-Bedfordshire, the Millennium park, Ampthill park and Houghton house and, indeed, the home of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the Covanta proposal would blight the landscape, and all will be able to see the proposed development.

The hope of Mid-Bedfordshire’s economic growth targets being attained via tourism would be dashed in one planning approval. The already congested M1 and A421 would become blocked with the congestion and fumes from lorries carrying waste from other counties. They would use the same motorway junction as the traffic for the proposed Center Parcs site, which has yet to be built, and the assessment of the traffic on that junction has yet to be carried out. The size and scale of the proposed Covanta site make landscaping and disguise almost an impossibility even after five years of established growth and screening. The building would be half the height of Big Ben, which stands at around 80 metres high, and the chimneys of the proposed plant would stand at 145 metres. Mid-Bedfordshire cannot boast many hills, so I hope that the comparison with Big Ben and our flattish landscape provides some perspective on the visual impact that such a facility will have.

Therefore, given the enormous negative impact that a waste facility catering for more than the requirements of Bedfordshire would have on people living in and around the designated area, those people should be given a greater say in what happens. The Bill proposes holding a local referendum—the results of which the Secretary of State would honour—that would genuinely harness local opinion and allow a yes-or-no decision to be taken on the size and capacity of such a facility.

Facilities of Covanta proportions can be disguised in the wonderful, large-scale USA, but England is a fairly small island that is already becoming over-populated. We have no capacity for a facility of the size of the Covanta proposal. We have no spare air in Bedfordshire for errors of toxic fumes, we have no vista or horizon large enough to accommodate a facility the size of the Covanta proposal, and local people are running out of patience. Residents not only will have to deal with fumes and pollution from backed-up lorries on the A421, but will experience light pollution as the area will be plunged into almost perpetual daylight.

Very few jobs will be created by the facility and there will be very little benefit to the economy. Overall, one can only envisage a damaging and negative effect on the daily life of local residents. Residents do not say that there should be no such facility; they believe that a facility is required to deal with Bedfordshire’s waste, but not one of the size proposed, so they would like more say about what happens in their local area.

Question put and agreed to.


That Nadine Dorries present the Bill.

Nadine Dorries accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 102).

Digital Economy Bill [Lords]

[Relevant Documents: Third Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on Channel Four Annual Report, HC 415, and Fourth Report from the Committee, on Future for Local and Regional Media, HC 43; and Fourth Report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, on Broadband, HC 72.]

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is important to acknowledge at the outset that the timing of our Second Reading debate is unusual, as I think that we would all accept, and I shall set out more detail about that in a minute. The substance of what we are considering, however, is how we protect and build on the great British success stories that are our digital and creative sectors. The United Kingdom is now No. 1 in the world in those sectors, measured as a proportion of our gross domestic product. The creative industries have grown at twice the rate of the economy as a whole over the past 10 years, and they should do so again over the next 10, thus helping to create many of the jobs of the future. The speed of that growth has been more than matched by the speed of technological change. Many of us will be carrying communications devices that we could not have imagined even five years ago. Hon. Members might even be using them as I speak, given that the rules in this place were sensibly relaxed a few years ago.

Pagers are long obsolete, as the hon. Gentleman will know.

Most of us, and certainly our children, are consuming music, film, books and other creative content in ways that would have baffled previous generations. The digital revolution has brought huge benefits and opportunities for a country such as Britain that is creative, innovative and flexible, but such rapid change also brings challenges. The overriding challenge that the Bill tries to address is that of keeping the legal framework that applies to our digital and creative sectors up to date in such a fast-moving world.

Will the Secretary of State be kind enough to explain why his name did not initially appear next to the statement on compatibility with the European convention on human rights? Is there a mysterious reason, was it an oversight, or did the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), who is sitting next to him, just get there slightly ahead of him?

My right hon. Friend is right to mention the success of the creative industries. With reference to our children, the industry must act responsibly—with respect to video games, for example. Such responsibility must accompany the success of the digital revolution.

Indeed, and there are important provisions in the Bill that will help strengthen the protection of children in respect of video games, about which I shall say a little in a moment.

It is not ideal that the Bill is not likely to enjoy full debate through its Committee stages in the House, but at the end of a Parliament there are always Bills to which that applies. This was the case in 2005 with a number of Bills, including the Gambling Act, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act and the Disability Discrimination Act, none of which was completely uncontroversial.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State. I was the shadow Secretary of State during the wash-up last time, when the Gambling Act was considered. That Bill had undergone full scrutiny in Committee of the House of Commons. Can the right hon. Gentleman give an example of a major Government Bill that generates substantial opposition that has a Second Reading one day and goes into wash-up for completion the next day?

I do not want to read out the entire list of Bills. I have a much longer list, but I will let the hon. Gentleman have it and he can refer to it in his speech, if he wishes.

If the Bill gets on to the statute book, it will be with the co-operation of the main Opposition party and, I hope, the Liberal Democrats and others too. One of the Bill’s strengths is that most, if not all, of it enjoys a good level of cross-party support. If it did not, its prospects of surviving the wash-up negotiations that will take place between now and Prorogation would be slim indeed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there might be a deal with the Tory Front-Bench and the Lib Dem Front-Bench teams, but that the 20,000 people who have taken the time to e-mail their MPs about the Bill in the past seven days are extremely upset that the Bill will not receive the scrutiny that it deserves and requires?

We are all aware of the e-mails with which we have been inundated in recent days. I am sure my hon. Friend is also aware of the competing newspapers adverts today from the unions and trade organisations representing those who work in the creative sector who, with respect, probably number hundreds of thousands and feel it is important that the work that they create is not devalued by an issue that we will shortly discuss in more detail. They feel just as strongly that they need the legislation now as the people he mentioned think we should not pass it.

No. I shall make some progress. Many hon. Members want to speak in the debate, and if I take too many interventions, they will not get the chance to make their speeches.

It is not true to say, as some have claimed, that the provisions of the Bill have not already been the subject of considerable discussion. Many of them have been heralded for some time in the reports of Select Committees of both Houses, including our own Select Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). Many of them were contained in the Government’s “Digital Britain” White Paper published last summer after a year’s meticulous work by my former ministerial colleague, Lord Carter.

That report was subject to a full public consultation and rigorous scrutiny by the relevant Select Committees of both Houses. More recently, the Bill passed through the other place which, as I am sure hon. Members will recognise, contains a large number of peers who show a great interest in these matters. That is perhaps why the Bill took a month longer than we would have hoped to complete its Lords progress. It was debated for 12 full days—more than 50 hours—on the Floor of the other House, during which some 700 amendments were tabled. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House reminded colleagues in Business questions, it had more debating time in the other place than any other Bill in this parliamentary Session.

Will the Secretary of State look back in history and see what happens to legislation that gets pushed through the House quickly, without consultation? It looks as though we could push some measure through—perhaps there will be a little stitch-up between the three Front-Bench teams—but out there, ordinary people, many of whom have only begun to realise the repercussions of the Bill, will feel totally let down by Parliament, just before a general election.

With respect to my hon. Friend, I suggest that in her constituency many ordinary people, as she refers to them, who work in the film, TV and creative sectors desperately want this Bill, and their voices should be heard, too.

I give way to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), the Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.