Tuesday 16 November 2010
[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]
Policing (West Midlands)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Dunne.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. You and I have known each other for many years, and at one stage we had offices not far from each other.
There is concern in the west midlands and in its seven districts, but people should realise that that is against a background of economic difficulties that started with Lehman Brothers in America, and that should always be borne in mind when casting aspersions. At present, even with the situation that the Government inherited, we still have our triple A credit rating throughout the international monetary system, which tells us that although there were financial difficulties they were not on the scale that the present Government portray. Some of the measures that the Government have recently taken are unnecessary to deal with a situation that we had planned to deal with over the next four or five years. It is not generally realised that we had about 14 years to pay off our debts. It should also be borne in mind that when Labour came to power in 1997, 50p in every pound was spent on paying off the national debt. That tends to be forgotten; we had a two-year pause. However, the purpose of this debate is very much to discuss the impact in terms of police cuts in the west midlands.
The west midlands is a vital area for the British economy. This Government have taken a series of measures that have affected the region, where one in 10 people is unemployed. We have had cuts in education, and we have only to look around the seven districts to see what has happened as a result of the cuts in education capital programmes and in universities. Against that background, when trying to understand where the Government are taking the country, one is sometimes puzzled.
For the purposes of today’s debate, we should bear in mind that figures released in July this year show current police officer numbers at 143,734, which is nearly 17,000 more than in 1997; the Labour Government also introduced 16,000 police community support officers. Our manifesto guaranteed central funding to maintain those record police numbers. However, in a statement delivered by the present Chancellor, it was announced that central Government police funding will be reduced by 20% in real terms by 2014-15, which will have a direct impact on policing on local streets.
It is of interest that Chris Sims, the chief constable of West Midlands police, has stated that, for his force,
“20 per cent equates to over £100m.”
When asked about job losses, he said:
“As more than 80 per cent of our budget goes on staffing costs it is inevitable that we will lose jobs. The funding cuts will be phased over four years, with a disproportionate impact on years one and two.”
Clearly, the west midlands, including my borough of Walsall, will suffer a lot as a result of what the Government have stated.
My hon. Friend is spot on, and I shall probably come to that point later.
A July 2010 report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary stated:
“A cut beyond 12% would almost certainly reduce police availability”.
There is concern about the future of specialist police units, such as those for domestic crime and child abuse, which are no longer considered front line by the coalition Government. If we look at the regional impact, West Midlands police will be unfairly and disproportionately hit by the 20% cut to its police budget, due to its higher reliance on central funding: 83% of its funding comes from central Government, whereas only 17% is generated from council tax. Those cuts go way beyond what can be achieved through efficiency savings and better procurement. Some predict that West Midlands police could lose more than 1,200 officers and a similar number of police staff over four years. In real terms, it is expected that 400 police officers and 400 police staff will lose their jobs by March. In comparison, leafy Surrey, which has a lower crime rate, will get a better deal.
My hon. Friend has made a really good point. It is very likely that Ministers will say, “Well, west midlands is getting exactly the same impact as everywhere else,” but he has made it clear that that is not the case. In reality, the impact on police officers, police civilian staff and services will be disproportionate. One thing we will be looking for from Ministers today is that they address the actual cuts that will take place in the west midlands, not just the notional ones.
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. Anyone who works in local government, as I have, can tell us, as can experience, that an arbitrary cut across the board can be very punitive and disproportionate. What we have here is a punitive and disproportionate measure, because like is not being compared with like. That is one of the major problems with the proposals.
In the west midlands city of Coventry, as many as 40 police officer jobs will be lost over the next four years. These are only rough figures, and I am sure that they can be changed and contradicted, but we have the resources only to make some rough guesses about what is likely to happen. A combined total of about 29 police officers and staff could lose their jobs in each west midlands constituency before March, according to the chief constable, Chris Sims. If we look at the figures for police officers in Coventry, in 1997 there were 628; today, there are 843. That shows that the previous Government certainly tackled some of the crime problems in Coventry.
Let me take hon. Members back to 1997 and the years prior to that, which I certainly remember. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) will substantiate what I say next. During the Thatcher years, we had a problem in Coventry with youths terrifying neighbourhoods. My right hon. Friend experienced that in his constituency, and I am sure that he will recall that we had a number of meetings with the then Home Office Minister Lord Ferrers and my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who eventually became Home Secretary, on issues such as witness protection. In those days, in line with the record of the previous Conservative Government, people were left to their own devices. I remember visiting some flats in Stoke Aldermoor, which was in my constituency at the time, and seeing that old people there had steel doors for protection. We did not have an adequate witness protection scheme at that time; as a consequence, old people, or anyone, giving evidence had to face the person they had accused in the anteroom before they went into court. They were terrified. If they did give evidence but the culprit got away with it, they got a second visit. That gives us a rough idea of what things were like before 1997, and we should not forget that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East will also remember that we heavily lobbied Ministers to bring in antisocial behaviour orders, which everyone—certainly everyone on the Government Benches—describes as discredited now. At the time, however, they came as a welcome relief to those families and neighbourhoods, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will confirm that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to recall that the entire antisocial behaviour agenda was led in large part from Coventry, as a result of some of the very serious problems that we had on one or two council estates. People were systematically intimidating others and believing that “on their manor” they could do what they liked. The ASBO agenda was all about breaking the power of those local thugs to impose themselves on the neighbourhood in which they lived.
I thank my right hon. Friend for substantiating my argument.
Another measure introduced locally in Coventry was area co-ordination, which, for example, allowed the council to appoint wardens, who in turn got involved in local communities, won their confidence and gave them the confidence to go to the police if there were serious problems. Right hon. and hon. Members may remember that, at that time, a lot of members of the public were reluctant to talk to the police because they were intimidated and knew exactly what would happen to them.
It is worthwhile mentioning such things to encapsulate what happened before the Labour Government got anywhere. These days it is easy to rubbish everything that we did, but, on the contrary, we did a heck of a lot to make life easier for people in some neighbourhoods.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite the challenges to do with resources, effective policing is not necessarily a function of absolute police numbers? The police—even West Midlands Police Federation—would accept that. It is important that we build on inter-agency working, because a lot of problems in the west midlands, including antisocial behaviour, are related to health inequalities and deprivation. We need to ensure that the police in the west midlands continue to work effectively in partnership, because the nature of policing in the west midlands is changing to deal with some of the underlying problems we face.
The hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) makes the same claim as the Home Secretary—that, in some way, there will be no impact on the street as a result of the cuts. It is nonsense to say that we will be able to get police out of the back office and on to the streets and that we will be able to cut the number of police by as much as is proposed for the west midlands without there being an impact on our neighbourhoods. That is ridiculous—it is nonsense. Surely my hon. Friend agrees.
Chris Sims is a sensible and intelligent police officer. He has reiterated that, despite his resourcing challenges, it is perfectly possible for him to deliver the same levels of neighbourhood policing, even in the challenging situation that he faces. Even the West Midlands Police Federation has said that it thinks there can be better allocation of police resources to maintain levels of neighbourhood policing.
Would not it help the case for policing in the west midlands if Conservative Members joined us, instead of just echoing Government policy? From time to time when my party’s Government was in office I criticised them when I considered it appropriate, as did other hon. Friends. New Conservative Members may take that lesson on board if they wish.
My constituents complain that there are not sufficient police officers. In certain places in my constituency, which is not unique by any means in terms of antisocial behaviour, residents want to see a physical police presence. The cuts that are coming will make that situation even worse. It is regrettable that West Midlands police will be so adversely affected as a result of Government policy.
Not only that, but areas that are used to seeing a high police profile, including some more affluent areas, will now be badly affected by the measures. People in those areas will experience what people in the deprived areas that my hon. Friend is talking about have experienced. We accept that some of the newer Government Members are enthusiastic, but those of us with the benefit of experience know that, once they have seen the policies unfold and seen the impact at the sharp edge, they will really squirm.
I should like to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, because it is important that we are all sensitive to the position of a chief constable. A chief constable cannot get involved in political debates. It would be wrong of the chief constable for the west midlands to do so. He will inevitably do everything that he humanly can to safeguard services, because he is an excellent chief constable—there is no doubt about that. But the mathematics are clear. The reorganisation—the chief constable’s undertaking Paragon—was founded on a solid number of neighbourhood police officers, backed up by police community support officers, with specialist teams at force level dealing with issues such as child abuse and domestic violence. If a chunk is taken out of that, something will have to give, whether that is the front line, or specialist work, or a police officer turning up at the community meetings held in all our constituencies and making the difference between their being successful and less successful. Unless all parties recognise that, we will be doing our constituents a disservice.
My hon. Friend is right. I could not put it any better. We have always to remember that a chief constable is a professional person and that, as far as his job goes, he has no political opinions. If he is a good professional, he will make do with what he has, which is often not adequate, to say the least, and it will be less adequate as a result of the new measures.
It is not generally appreciated that Warwickshire police force often relies on West Midlands police to come to its assistance when needed. For example, the West Midlands police anti-terrorism squad will be involved from time to time in dealing with potential terrorist activities in Warwickshire. So Warwickshire has not escaped; the cuts will have an impact on the police force there. It is not my job to put the case for Warwickshire police, but it is my job to point out the impact on that police force as well. The results of the cuts will not be confined to the west midlands; they will flow across the borders.
The coalition has not chosen to prioritise the police. Since 1997, Labour added 1,423 police officers to the west midlands force, but that increase will be all but obliterated by the predicted cut of 1,200 officers over the next four years. The House of Commons Library—nobody would dispute these figures, would they?—estimates that crime in the west midlands has fallen by 35% between 1997-98 and 2008-09. Once again, the burden of the cuts will fall on those families who rely on these services the most—inner-city families. Anybody who lives in the inner cities knows that.
I hope that the Minister will answer the following questions. How will he explain the regional unfairness of the cuts to inner-city families in our constituencies, who see low-crime areas such as Surrey get a better deal? How will he assure the most vulnerable in our society—victims of child abuse and domestic violence—that they will continue to be prioritised when they are no longer considered front-line cases? Will he acknowledge the direct correlation between Labour’s investment in police officer numbers since 1997 and the 35% reduction in west midlands crime? How does he intend to ensure public confidence in the police service, while jeopardising their basic safety and security?
Consumer Focus research has shown that rank and file police officers cannot do their job as well without good community relations or the active support and co-operation of the public. Has the Minister considered the implications of fewer officers on neighbourhood watch groups, and the work of PCSOs? Has the Minister considered efficiency savings in the day-to-day operations of the police force before axing jobs? How can our police officers be expected to continue to protect and serve people in the west midlands to the same standard, when they have the burden of even more paperwork as a result of having fewer office staff?
That is as much as I can say at the moment, because my hon. Friends want to contribute to this debate. It was remiss of me not to declare an interest at the start of the debate, Mr Brady. Sorry about that.
I am proud to represent Erdington. It is a community that is rich in people, even if it one of the 10 poorest in Britain. It includes the great communities of Kingstanding, Tyburn, Castle Vale, Pype Hayes, Stockland Green—including Slade road—and Erdington itself. The area has seen huge investment under a Labour Government with more police officers on the beat being supported by more police community support officers in the streets of Erdington. It is a community that, like the rest of the west midlands, has seen a 35% fall in recorded crime. Over the past 15 years, it has seen an immensely welcome development—community policing. I remember attending the Castle Vale tasking group and seeing excellent engagement between the police service and the local community on how they would deal with problems together, including that of antisocial behaviour.
However, if the community is safer, there are serious residual problems. The police are a friend of Erdington, but they are also firm on crime and antisocial behaviour. Earlier this year, there was an upsurge in crime in Stockland Green. I met with the chief superintendent, the admirable Jim Andronov. He deployed an immense effort, including the use of intelligence, and as a consequence a number of charges were brought. Although there are still problems, it was a model of the police responding to the concerns of the community.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. That was intelligence-led policing; it was not about flooding the area with a large number of police. Labour Members are making a direct correlation between numbers of police and falling crime, but the two do not necessarily match up. Many countries have larger police numbers but higher rates of crime. It is more important to use the number of police officers efficiently. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the situation in 1997. In 1997, I was a serving police officer in Lothian and Borders police, so I come with a certain amount of experience. The level of patronising talk directed at new Members by those in the Labour party who say that we are just parroting phrases that we are given is poor.
With the greatest of respect, the hon. Gentleman may once have been a police officer, but he is clearly not in contact with the modern police service. Locally, the police told me that they had the time and resources, including front-line officers backed by support and intelligence, to tackle quickly and effectively a problem that was giving rise to serious concern in the Stockland Green area. Precisely because the community welcomed such an initiative by the police, real anger is now being expressed about what is happening.
On the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), I do not think we are being patronising; we are passing on experience. More importantly, the hon. Gentleman may have been a serving police officer, but he was not the chief constable. The chief constable has the total overview and knows the picture. It is easy for someone lower down the ranks to have a perception about something.
I am guided by what serving police officers tell me about their concerns, including what they predict will happen over the next stages. I will come to that in a moment.
There is real anger because of a 20% cut to the police service and the consequences of that cut. Is it true that 2,500 jobs will go in the West Midlands police service over the next four years? Is it true that 1,200 police officers will go? Is it true that there will be 40 fewer police officers in each of the 10 constituencies in Birmingham? Are numbers of police community support officers already being cut back? An excellent PCSO came up to me on Saturday in Erdington high street and said, “Jack, there used to be six of us. Are they now going to cut it down to three?” Will the Minister confirm those facts? They are undeniable truths.
Is it not also an undeniable truth that even if there had been a Labour Government, there would still have been 20% cuts in policing? Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten us as to how he would have gone about implementing the cuts that would have been introduced anyway?
I will come to the contrast between the pledges made at the general election in a moment—they are revealing. During the general election, the Liberal Democrats said that there would be 3,000 more police officers. They did not add, “On the dole.” The Conservative party said that there would be less paperwork. The reality is that if numbers of police officers and PCSOs are reduced, they will have less time on the beat and less of the support they need to do their job, and therefore more time will be spent doing paperwork. That in turn will lead to less detection, as I am sure the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) knows from his own experience. It will affect the work that goes on in the back room by way of intelligence gathering and sifting. There will certainly be more paperwork, including more P45s for police officers and PCSOs.
The impact on the west midlands, as highlighted by my hon. Friends, will be disproportionately harsh. Whereas 51% of Surrey’s police service comes from the central Government grant, the figure for the midlands is 83%. Will the Minister acknowledge that there is a major problem for the midlands, and that the consequences of a 20% cut across the board nationwide will hit the midlands disproportionately hard?
I am proud of my local association with the police service, and I know that it will do its best. Chris Sims is an admirable chief constable. However, serving officers and PCSOs have said to me in no uncertain terms that simple realities will flow from what the Government are proposing. That is not least because, as one police officer said to me, history tells us that the combination of soaring unemployment—it is estimated that up to 400,000 people will lose their jobs in the midlands—and falling police numbers will lead to more crime, less-safe communities and criminals who are more likely to get away with it.
In conclusion, the first duty of any Government is the safety and security of our people and our communities. It is absolutely wrong for the Government to put at risk the safety of the people of Erdington. There is real fear about what will flow from the cuts unless the Government change course. Will the Minister be prepared to change course?
I will be as brief as I can because some of the points that I wanted to make have been raised. However, I would like to reiterate one or two of them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) has just pointed out, the way that the cuts are being brought in is disproportionate. I asked the Home Secretary about the underlying reason for that, and I got no answer whatsoever, despite the fact that she claimed that she had prior notice of my question. Why are the high-crime areas being disproportionately hit in comparison with low-crime areas? The Minister knows that to be the case because of the proportion of policing that is paid for by grant. The cuts have been structured in such a way that the high-crime areas—including the west midlands, which has bigger problems although it is not the only such area—are being disproportionally hit by the way that the Government are making the cuts. I thought that we were all in this together. Why are people not being affected in proportion to the size of the problem that they experience?
It is disingenuous to say that there will be no cuts in the front-line service as a result of the measures being taken. There is no perfect organisation, but the West Midlands police service is recognised as one of the more efficient in the country. We are being borne down on all the time in terms of efficiency and pushing harder and further to get more police on the front line. That needs to continue under any regime, but I want to challenge Conservative Members. They will find over time that of all the organisations that they deal with as Members of Parliament, the police—more than any other organisation, in my experience—are under-resourced in terms of clerical support and back-up. When we write a letter to a police officer, we wind up with front-line officers having to respond to us because they do not have the back-office staff to anything like the extent to which some other organisations have them. Therefore, the cuts in back-office staff being planned in the west midlands—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington referred to a figure of more than 1,000—will drag police officers off the streets and into doing those jobs to an even greater extent than is the case now.
I also want to point out some of the difficulties that will be experienced in implementing the measures. We cannot make police officers redundant. Therefore, we shall probably have to enforce regulation A19 of the Police Pensions Regulations 1987 and discontinue police officers’ service at 30 years, thereby losing disproportionately extremely experienced police officers whom we can ill afford to lose. Does the Minister believe that the West Midlands police service will be able to cope with that without doing what I think the chief constable will have to do, which is freeze recruitment to that police service? I think that that is being planned and that that freeze will continue for the next four years, leaving a gap in policing that will move slowly through the force, giving it problems for a generation, never mind the next couple of years.
I want to make a point off the back of what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said. This issue does not affect only the west midlands, although the west midlands will really be in difficulty because of the proposed cuts. I do not know whether hon. Members are aware that a month or two ago Warwickshire police authority, fearful of how on earth the Warwickshire police force would cope with the agenda being imposed on it—it is one of the smallest police forces in the country—proposed an amalgamation with the Coventry police service. It did so because it simply did not see how the Warwickshire force would cope. It is not only big forces such as the West Midlands force, serving high-crime areas, that will have huge problems. Smaller police forces, carrying a disproportionate overhead because of their size, will wind up with the problems that have been described.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I shall be going to the Select Committee on Home Affairs shortly, Mr Brady, which explains why I cannot stay for the winding-up speeches. Is it not the case that the only people who will get any satisfaction from what is going to happen in the west midlands will be criminals, who will hope, despite all the efforts of the police, that they will not be caught for committing various offences? They are the only people I can imagine who will get any satisfaction from what the Government intend to do.
Yes, I fear that that will be the case. Conservative Members say that there is no direct correlation between police numbers and crime. Yes, of course other issues impact on the police and we have to push the police for efficiencies, as we have to push every area of public service for efficiencies, but something that has a major impact on crime levels is the level of unemployment, and unemployment levels are about to go up considerably. We shall therefore see more people without work and fewer police officers to protect our communities. There is an inevitability about that, and this is where Chris Sims is caught. He wants to reassure the community that he represents. He is a good man, trying to do a job. He does not want to make people fearful, but frankly he does not know how he will cope with the levels of cuts that are being imposed on him and still be able to provide the level of service that he has been able to provide in recent years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this important debate. I know perfectly well that the aim of the coalition—its ideological ambition—is to achieve a smaller state and that it has concluded that it can do that by cutting deeply into public services and blaming the previous Government for that reckless gamble. I understand that. The reality is that the people of the west midlands will deliver the final verdict on the coalition’s plans, but my fear is that we may witness a law-and-order disaster and an explosion in crime before the electorate are afforded that opportunity.
I have been involved in policing matters since I first came to the House in 1997. I have always believed that it is the duty of Government to give the police the numbers and the resources to do their job. I am proud of the Labour Government’s record in raising police numbers to record levels and in leaving office with crime lower than it was when we came in. Ours was the first Government to achieve that since the first world war. In addition, like everyone else here, I am proud that 16,000 police community support officers were put on the streets.
I do not know what happened to the review of the future of PCSOs that was to have been conducted by the former shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). Some people may recall that it was announced with great fanfare at the Police Federation conference last year. I do not know whether it ever reached a conclusion.
Actually, I was referring to the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal to review the future of PCSOs. I do not know whether that reached a conclusion, but the reality is that unless the west midlands force receives the grant necessary to sustain PCSOs, they will disappear from the streets of places such as Selly Oak. We shall suffer the folly of front-loaded cuts, as my hon. Friends have said. We shall see the destruction of a decade of improvements.
We are likely to see two effects on West Midlands police. The funding cuts will result in job losses for civilian staff. It will be called the reverse civilianisation policy. That means that the previous policy of recruiting civilians to perform crucial support but non-direct-policing tasks, thus freeing up police officers to fight crime, will be put into reverse. As a result, civilian staff numbers will fall and officers will be taken off the streets to perform clerical and administrative duties—and that is from a Home Secretary who claims that there is too much bureaucracy and she wants crime fighters rather than form-fillers. People will ring up only to be told that no officer is available; they are all too busy manning the CCTV cameras, typing up reports and answering the phone.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) said, it will not stop there. As the budget tightens, the chief constable will be forced to pay off some of his older and most experienced officers in a desperate attempt to save money. The West Midlands force risks being reduced to the status of a reactive response unit. Some estimates suggest that we will lose as many as 40 officers per constituency in Birmingham.
Initiatives that are the cornerstone of community-based and partnership policing—the very thing that the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) supports—will be the first to go. Youth programmes that are designed to attract young people to sporting activities, such as those that I have witnessed at Chinn Brook recreation ground, and to prevent them drifting into vandalism and mindless antisocial behaviour will be lost. Local innovations such as police reward cards, which the police have pioneered in the west midlands to engage young people at a level that they appreciate and understand, will go. Social programmes, through which officers have worked with schools such as Kings Heath boys’ school and Highters Heath, Billesley and Hollywood primary schools, will be lost. Finally, as the force shrinks, crime will of course rise.
It is not too late for the Government to rethink their priorities. It is not too late for the coalition to wake up to the enormous gamble that it is about to take with law and order. It is not too late to recognise that having created an age of austerity, the last thing we should do is cut the police. There is still time to accept that the political gamble of police commissioners does not make sense when every spare penny should be used to keep police officers on our streets. Who else would pick this moment to blow £100 million on a reckless political gamble, when we should be trying to keep the force at a strength that will enable it to do its job?
The picture that I have painted is not inevitable, but it will be the inevitable outcome of the decisions that the coalition is taking: it will be the consequence of a Government who, by their choices, have demonstrated that they misunderstand policing. For the sake of our communities in the west midlands, I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is prepared to listen and to think again about the measures that are necessary to preserve high-quality policing in Birmingham and the west midlands.
I will make three brief points before the winding-up speeches.
First, it is easy in debates in the main Chamber, and sometimes in Westminster Hall, to get into political knockabout, where the role of the Opposition is to attack and the role of the Government is to defend, but at the end of which, nothing comes out. It is fair to say that Opposition Members have made political points in this debate—that is unsurprising, given that we are politicians. However, a serious question has been put to the Minister and I do not want to get to the end of the debate without hearing an answer. This question is vital to the service that our constituents receive. Several of my hon. Friends have posed the question, but allow me to pose it again, Mr Brady.
The west midlands is a high-crime area and a deprived area. Because of the structure of police funding, it relies on Government grant to make ends meet to a greater extent than many other parts of the country. It receives £579 million a year from the Treasury. Although we agree with inter-agency working and that policing is about more than numbers, 20% cannot be taken out of the budget without having a serious effect on deprived communities in the west midlands. Does the Minister recognise that problem? Does he think that a 20% cut is the same for Surrey and the west midlands? If so, he needs to say that and the public need to hear him, because they know that it is different. If he recognises that there is a disproportionate effect and that the reality on the ground will be different in the west midlands, we need to know what the Government will do about that. It is not unknown that when budgets are restructured, one should consider using mechanisms such as floors and ceilings in local government spending to ensure that the effects are dampened in certain areas. Will the Government do anything to recognise the specific problems in the west midlands, or will they just say, “It’s 20%, that’s it. It’s up to you to sort it out in your region”? We need to know the answer to those questions at the end of the debate and I hope that the Minister will give it.
My second point follows on from those of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). Actual crime gets to communities, but the fear of crime can sap their confidence and eat away at them. We all know the paradox that the higher one’s fear of being a victim of crime, the more chance one stands of being a victim of crime. As I said earlier, we need to give the chief constable space to recognise the difficult position he is in and to do what he has to do. He will do everything he can to ensure that communities are not scared or worried by what is going on. He is doing everything he can to keep service levels up, but the fear of crime will rise.
One reason for the rise in the fear of crime will be visibility. A great thing about police community support officers is that the police are seen to be on the high streets and in communities talking to people. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) spoke of the importance of intelligence-led policing, but where does the intelligence come from? The best intelligence often comes from informal, chance conversations, which tell the police that so-and-so lives in such a place and that they talk to someone else. That is an important reason to have visibility in service terms, but it also reassures local communities just to see the bobby or the PCSO on the beat.
The dilemma for the police, when faced with such cuts, is whether to maintain that visibility and reassurance or whether to ensure that they are available to respond to incidents that occur. That would probably be done by car because that is the quickest way to get to incidents. That might be the realistic response, but the result would be the loss of local contact on the street and the reassurance that that brings. That worries me. Again, I ask the Minister whether I am right. If I am wrong, he should tell me, but if I am right, what will he do about the situation through the funding for West Midlands police?
My final point is about community engagement, which hon. Members from all parts of the Chamber have said is important. It is important in my area of Northfield, where there is a local strategic partnership. Such partnerships exist across Birmingham with greater or lesser degrees of success. One of the strong elements of our constituency strategic partnership is that we decided at the start that it would be chaired not by a local councillor or politician, as many are, but by the local senior police officer. There have been a number of chairs over the years, and their role has been incredibly positive. They have sometimes brought a reality check to the debate and to discussions on inter-agency working. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) has spoken about local tasking meetings, which have been important in his area. Such local engagement is important.
Although I know the police will do all they can to continue with local engagement, I fear that it will suffer in the face of the coming pressures. When it starts to suffer, we should remember that the cuts in policing do not exist in isolation; they exist at the same time as other agencies that are part of the inter-agency working that Government Members have mentioned also face cuts. For example, Birmingham city council has rightly been criticised over the issue of child protection and safeguarding. Big changes are happening in Birmingham as a result—whether fast or effective enough is another matter. The pressures on the local authority to act are real.
Some of what is being done makes sense. Procedures are being built on procedures, to ensure that some of the real tragedies we have seen in Birmingham do not happen again. However, my worry about that—the relevance to policing will be seen in a minute—is that, in the process, something will be lost when we are only focusing on the crisis: when we are just stopping crisis after crisis. With so much emphasis on putting in place procedures to stop the crises, we will start to lose the low-level stuff, the real preventive stuff.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the dangers for child protection work. Is it not also the case that Birmingham has a low-funded youth service, one of the poorest in the country? Exactly his argument about engagement and child protection and safety is our argument for engaging young people and diverting them from crime.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Such issues interrelate. If we have the children’s services department chasing and trying to prevent the crises—rightly, in many ways—we lose the low-level stuff. If, simultaneously, we are cutting back on the youth service, we will be causing problems. If the local police are under pressure as well, the inter-agency work that all those agencies want to do will start to suffer.
Ultimately, what will suffer is not this or that committee or tasking meeting and whether or not it happens, but the reality of service to our constituents and the people we represent. If we are to do something about that, if we expect Birmingham city council, the police service and others to respond properly, they must be given the chance. I conclude where I started: if they are to be given the chance, we must recognise the specifics of the problems. It does not mean denying the fact that economies must be made, or arguing that somehow, the problems the country faces will just go away; but it does mean recognising that areas such as Birmingham, Coventry and other parts of the west midlands have specific and extreme problems. Those problems, such as getting the youth service properly staffed or the children’s and police services working properly, are interrelated. The idea that, in the middle of that, taking 20% out of the Home Office grant of £579 million will not have a grave impact is simply a cloud cuckoo land idea.
I accept that, when the Minister responds, he will doubtless make his riposte to the political points and say, “The Labour Government did this, and we are going to do that.” However, before he gets to the end of his speech, will he please answer this question: do the Government recognise that there will be a disproportionate effect on the west midlands, yes or no? If the answer is no, is he prepared to say that to the people we represent, as well as to those in the Chamber? If the answer is yes, what will he do about it?
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing the debate today and on setting out so clearly why it has been called. I also congratulate other right hon. and hon. Members from the area covered by the West Midlands force for clearly setting out their views and concerns. I also pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of all police officers and staff in all the police forces throughout the country, but in particular in the West Midlands police force.
I feel fortunate to be standing here, because my right hon. and hon. Friends have set out with great passion and determination the reasons why the proposed cuts, for the west midlands in particular, are unfair, wrong and need to be looked at again. My hon. Friend set out his long experience and knowledge of policing, and gave practical examples of what policing was like before 1997. He talked about the need for a proper witness protection scheme, which did not exist before 1997. He also set the scene of what has happened since the record investment in policing. We are all keen to hear the Minister’s responses to the long list of proposals and questions clearly set out by my hon. Friend.
I was struck by the comments of a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends about the knock-on effect of the cuts for smaller police forces neighbouring the West Midlands force. Again, I hope that the Minister will be able to put our minds at rest in his response.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) gave a clear example of what policing meant in his constituency, on the streets of Erdington and other areas, and of the anger felt about the proposed cuts. We look forward to the Minister’s response to his list of questions, too. Interestingly, my hon. Friend reminded us of the Liberal Democrats’ promise in their May manifesto of 3,000 additional police officers. I had a quick look through the coalition agreement this morning; sadly, there is no sign of any additional police officers. I am therefore not sure what the Liberal Democrats are bringing to the table on policing. I understand that they certainly do not support police commissioners.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) clearly set out the disproportionate effect for the West Midlands police force of the cuts in funding and the discrepancy between what happens in his area and other areas of the country. He also spoke about the effect of losing the most experienced officers—those with 30 years’ or more experience will go, which will present problems for the chief constable and senior officers. He also made an important point about back-office cuts and their direct effect on front-line policing in the west midlands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) set out his long interest in policing. He made clear his belief that, behind the cuts to the police service, is an ideological approach to a smaller state. He talked with passion about the youth projects and the local innovations in his constituency of which the police have been part and parcel.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) reminded us clearly, at the outset, of the professional role of the police officer and the need for the chief constable to behave in an obviously professional way. We need to be mindful of that. We expect the chief constable to work with the resources available, but it is clearly down to the politicians to make the case for why more resources need to be made available. My hon. Friend also set out the cases around funding and deprived communities in particular. He asked the Minister to respond to the particular problems faced by areas such as the west midlands and the disproportionate effect of the 20% cut. He also spoke about the problem of fear and the need to reassure the public, with the role of the police in community engagement and preventive work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) reminded us that the majority of the police budget—80%—is spent on staffing, so this debate is about jobs.
One of the things that we should not lose sight of when we talk about staffing levels—leaving aside the office staff about whom we have all expressed concern—is that we also have people such as cleaners. They are sometimes from one-parent families. Their jobs could be on the line, just as much as anyone else’s.
My hon. Friend makes an important point.
Turning to some general comments on the cuts, chief constables and police authorities in the 43 police forces around the country will be facing tough choices from this winter, following the announcement in the comprehensive spending review last month. It is quite clear from the 20% cut over four years that the Home Secretary has totally failed to stand up for policing in the Home Office budget. When compared with other public services and the money that has been provided for them, it is clear that the police are losing out disproportionately.
I believe that the coalition Government are taking huge risks with that approach. The cuts are too hard, too fast and reckless. The Opposition have made it clear that we would protect front-line policing, but it is clear that, under the approach taken by the coalition Government, it will be impossible for front-line policing to be protected with cuts at such a level. Safety on the streets should be a top priority for any responsible Government, and police funding should reflect that, as it did under the Labour Government. Proper support for our police is vital, which is why Labour believes that we need to keep every police officer we can equipped to do the job.
As we heard, crime fell by 43% under Labour, even through the strains of the recession, because of our three-pronged approach. One part of that approach was having more police, and I take issue with the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), who implied that this is not about numbers, because it clearly is. It is wrong to say that having fewer police officers on the street will somehow not have an impact on the levels of crime. The other parts of that three-pronged approach were having more powers to detect crime and antisocial behaviour and sending more criminals to prison. That was our approach, but I worry that the coalition is putting all three elements into reverse with its cuts.
We have all waited patiently for the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), who is a former police officer, to answer the point that several Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), have raised. Perhaps he has taken a monastic vow of silence. Why is it that his party committed to having 3,000 more police officers on the beat, but now supports removing 40 police officers from each of the 10 constituencies in Birmingham?
My hon. Friend raises an important question, and the Minister might be able to respond shortly.
Let me make one final point about policing in general. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned the politicisation of the police through the madcap scheme of establishing police and crime commissioners in each police force area. That will be done at an estimated cost of at least £50 million, at a time of savage cuts to front-line policing. I ask the Minister to think again, because the scheme seems to enjoy little support.
We heard that the number of police officers in the west midlands has increased from 7,113 to 8,536 since 1997.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if it is legitimate to have a referendum to determine whether people want directly elected mayors, it would be equally legitimate to ask them whether they would prefer scarce and precious resources to be spent on keeping police officers in their jobs or on electing a highly political animal to dominate the police and change the character of British policing? Would that not be a localism agenda?
As we know, the coalition Government are wedded to the idea of localism, so the Minister might feel able to respond to that suggestion, which would fit very much with asking local people what they would like.
As I said, we have heard about the increase in the number of police officers. We have also talked at length about the problems with the grant that the West Midlands police force receives, which constitutes 83% of its total funding and which is not raised from local council tax. I seek guidance from the Minister about his approach to the precept that local councils will be asked to agree for policing. Does he expect it to go much higher? That would not fit with the approach taken by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to restricting council tax increases. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what he expects from police authorities in terms of the precept.
We have heard a great deal about these issues not being confined just to the west midlands. I think that they will start appearing in the press almost every day. Today, we have heard that the Greater Manchester police force is looking at 3,000 job losses, including 1,500 police officers. Those job losses will be set out in a report from the chief constable to the police authority, and it looks as though at least a quarter of the force’s staff will go over the next four years.
It is worrying that there might, as we have discussed, be a push to remove officers with more than 30 years’ experience in the police force. The provisions that are being used were introduced not to bring about such a wholesale reduction in the number of experienced officers, but to be used in the interests of policing with particular officers. Will the Minister comment on that? There is particular concern about what will happen to the specialist skills of some experienced officers, particularly those in the specialist domestic violence units and rape units. The general public will have real concerns about the impact on their communities when we lose that specialist policing.
We know that efficiency savings can be made. A report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary entitled “Valuing the Police: Policing in an age of austerity”, which was published in July, said that there could be a redesign of the police system, with savings of about 12%, but cuts of 20% go well beyond that. West Midlands police has already taken action to streamline its operations and promote greater efficiency through the Paragon programme, which is set to save £50 million over four years. However, it does not look as if the coalition Government will work with police forces that are doing the right thing by looking for efficiency savings. Comments from KPMG and the Police Federation make it clear that 20% real-terms cuts across the country over four years—they will be front-loaded, so chief constables and police authorities will have to implement them right at the start of the four-year period, which will make it difficult to make plans—will mean that no efficiency measure that police authorities and chief constables can possibly introduce will be enough, and front-line policing will suffer.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to the long list of questions from my right hon. and hon. Friends. I hope that he will think again about the impact on the West Midlands police authority.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing the debate. I will certainly endeavour to answer as many as possible of the questions that hon. Members have put to the Government.
I understand the passion with which hon. Members have spoken and their concern to secure the best possible policing for members of the public in their constituencies. Members on both sides share that concern. We want to ensure that the public remain safe, and it is, of course, the Government’s duty to do everything we can to achieve that. Nevertheless, there are two strands to this debate, which were correctly identified by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). The first concerns the political points that hon. Members have made, and I will respond to those first. The second concerns the specific position of West Midlands police, and I will endeavour to respond on that as well.
I cannot let the moment go by without observing that the reason why this Government have to make cuts in police funding is to deal with the deficit bequeathed to us by the previous Government. I must make that point because political points have been made by Opposition Members, who accepted no responsibility for the position in which their party left the country. Indeed, they appear to be proceeding on the basis that we can simply ignore the contribution that policing can make to delivering savings and that what is being announced now is somehow all the fault of the new Government, who have been in office for barely a few months.
I think that my party, when in government, faced up to that. The Minister is not facing up to the fact that the bankers started the problem; we did not. Until that is faced up to, there will be all sorts of problems, because nothing has been done about it.
I did not understand a word, I am afraid, that the hon. Gentleman said, but we are indeed facing up to the problem of the deficit that was bequeathed to us by the previous Government. We simply do not regard it as sustainable that we should, in a few years, be spending about three times as much on debt interest alone as we do on the entire criminal justice system. In the Government’s view policing can make its contribution to reducing the deficit, by making savings.
It is clear that Labour had a policy of halving the deficit over four years. It is clear as well, as I said in my speech, that we looked to efficiency savings, which we thought could bring about a 12% saving. I do not quite understand why the Minister feels that the Opposition do not have a policy on the matter. Clearly, we do.
I am intrigued to hear that the Opposition now admit that they would have been cutting the policing budget, if that is what the hon. Lady is saying. One would not have known that from any of the rhetoric used by the Opposition Members, who talked as though it were not necessary at all to deal with spending by police forces. Perhaps the hon. Lady should have a word with her hon. Friends and explain to them exactly the scale of the cuts that she proposed.
Is not there a contrast between the Liberal Democrat pledge of 3,000 more police officers, the pledge made by my party to protect front-line policing, and what the Minister said to his constituents at the time of his election? Did he tell them that there would be cuts to front-line policing?
Let me try to explain to the hon. Gentleman that it is our ambition, too, to protect front-line policing. We want policing to be maintained in neighbourhoods, in the form of neighbourhood policing and response policing, so that when people dial 999 they can be certain that officers will arrive. Of course we want that, and so does the chief constable of the West Midlands police—as do all chief constables. We believe that it will be possible to protect that front-line policing in spite of the cuts to the police budget that we have announced. I shall explain why, but first I wanted to get out of the way the point that we had to deal with the deficit; it is our responsibility to do so in the national interest. We have now had an admission from the Opposition that they would have cut spending as well. Of course they will not say how they would have allocated £40 billion of spending cuts, but there is no doubt—because they have admitted it before and repeated it today—that some of those cuts would have fallen on police budgets. Let us have less high moral outrage from Labour Members. Let us accept that, whoever was elected, policing budgets would have to be dealt with because of the deficit bequeathed to the country by Labour’s fiscal mismanagement.
The second issue that hon. Members raised was police numbers. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North said that “sadly,” there was “no sign” of additional police numbers in the coalition agreement. Do I take it from that criticism that she would have liked a commitment to an increase in police numbers, or that that is the Opposition’s new commitment? Apparently not. She was apparently saying that it was sad that there was no sign of additional police numbers—she is nodding at that. Can I have from her an assurance that she would like an increase in police numbers?
The Minister knows jolly well that I was referring to the promise in the Liberal Democrat manifesto in May of 3,000 additional police officers. I was looking at the coalition agreement—the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives coming together to set out their policy platform, so that we could all see their plan—to see whether the Liberal Democrats got that promise into the agreement. Clearly they did not.
The hon. Lady is indeed perceptive. There is no commitment to increased police numbers. Why? Because, in the words of the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in the note that he left for us, there is no money. [Interruption.] No. Of course we cannot make a commitment to increase police numbers. I am making the point that the hon. Lady cannot make it either, and that in the run-up to the general election the then Home Secretary, now the shadow Chancellor, refused to give a guarantee that police numbers would remain as they were then.
Is it the Minister’s plan to talk until 11 o’clock without getting on to the central issue that has been raised in the debate—the fact that the West Midlands police force is being hit disproportionately, in comparison with many low-crime areas? Will the Minister spend some time between now and 11 o’clock attempting to justify the disproportionate hit that his proposal is making on the high-crime areas of the country, one of which is the west midlands?
I set out at the beginning of my speech the way in which I would respond, and my intention to discuss the situation of the west midlands. The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends made the mistake of introducing a political tone to the debate, and they can hardly be surprised that I respond in kind. If they had chosen to approach the debate in a different way, they would have had more time for the specifics that they want covered. I suggest that they intervene less if they want me to get to the points that I certainly intend to deal with.
The question of numbers has been raised in debate among my hon. Friends and others. Certainly there are, or there were last year—police numbers were beginning to fall in some forces before the general election—a record number of police officers in the country. However, it is not possible to make the simple links between crime levels and police officer numbers that hon. Members have made. I have pointed out before the example of the New York police: the overall police work force contracted by 10% in the past decade—a significant fall—and crime fell by over a third in the same period. Of course they had to focus on making savings and working more efficiently.
I point out to hon. Members who want to make such a simplistic link that in the 12 months to June, most of which period fell within the reign of the previous Government, violence against the person without injury increased in the West Midlands police force area, and so did the number of domestic burglaries. If there is a simple link between the number of police officers and crime levels, why did that happen? The Opposition Members here today are experienced and they know perfectly well that there is not a simple link. The questions we should be dealing with are: how well are resources being deployed and, given that money will be tighter in the next few years, how can we ensure that efficiencies are driven towards getting what the public want—the maximum visibility and availability of policing on the streets?
That takes me to my third point. The independent inspectorate of constabulary recently reported on police officer deployment and made two crucial points. The first was that, on average, the proportion of police work forces that is visible and available to the public at any one time is 11%. There is a significant variation between forces, but that tells us that roughly nine tenths of police resources are not visible and available to the public at any one time, which raises concerns about deployment and should make us look at the efficiency with which resources are being deployed, and at such factors as bureaucracy. Opposition Members made very little mention of that.
Yes. I am, I hope, coming to all the points that hon. Members made. I want to address them, but I am making the crucial point that the test of police effectiveness is not just to do with the overall sums of money that are spent, or even the overall numbers of officers. It is what is done with the officers.
The inspectorate made a second crucial point, which is that police forces between them could save more than £1 billion a year by improving the way they work. As the hon. Lady said, that would represent about 12% of their budget, once the ability of forces to raise precept was taken into account. As a result, the cut that we announced would be reduced to an average of 14% in real terms over four years. However, I accept that that is an average figure and that some forces have a greater ability to raise money from precept than others—a point made by the right hon. Member for Coventry North East. I shall come shortly to how we can deal with that.
The figures I have just given leave a funding gap of two percentage points. The matters that the inspectorate report did not cover will also need to be addressed. For example, forces could procure collectively rather than separately, which would save hundreds of millions of pounds; and savings will accrue from the announced two-year pay freeze across the public sector that, subject to the police review board’s agreement, will apply also to police officers. We believe that significant savings can be made by police forces, including by the West Midlands force—that is on top of the Paragon programme, which is already delivering savings—while protecting front-line services and, crucially, the visibility and availability that concern the public.
We heard nothing—literally nothing—from the Opposition about procurement or other areas where savings could be made. They made the simplistic assumption that a reduction in budget was bound to lead to a reduction in the number of officers on the streets or available to the public, but that is an assumption that they should not make.
If we take what the Minister says at face value—I am prepared to accept that he must be right—will he tell us how many officers we in the west midlands can safely afford to lose before he would be concerned? Will he also answer the point about the disproportionate grant, which all of us have raised?
I have told Opposition Members of the structure that I wish to apply, and I have said that I am seeking to answer that point.
The deployment of resources is a matter for the chief constable and the police authority. It is not for the Government to decide; it will be the chief constable’s decision. The task now falls on him to drive the savings that are necessary, particularly the savings in the back and middle offices, to ensure that the front line can be protected. I repeat that we believe that it can be.
The crucial point is that we have not yet announced the grants for specific forces. The cut that we announced was therefore an average. Within a few weeks, in early December, I shall announce a provisional grant settlement for each force. In considering the level of grant that should be made available to each force, we will go through the proper processes and take account of things such as damping and the needs of forces. That process is under way, so the sensible points by Opposition Members were well made. However—this is something that Opposition Front Benchers will have to address—if some forces are to be given a degree of protection because they raise less money from council tax than others, two questions arise.
First, why should forces in areas where people are already contributing more through the council tax suffer a bigger cut in Government grant? Why should they be punished by a bigger cut? Secondly, if forces such as the West Midlands police were to be given a smaller than average cut, which is what I think the Opposition are asking for, which forces do they say should be made to suffer a greater than average cut? Will the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North confirm that it is Opposition policy for forces that receive more through the council tax to suffer a bigger than average cut? Will the hon. Lady confirm that now?
The House will have noted the resounding silence, and seen that the hon. Lady’s head is down.
Ordinary people listening to our debate will have noted that the Minister is playing silly political games rather than acknowledging that the Government grant is provided to areas that have higher levels of crime. That is the reason for them. Saying that that should not be taken into account when allocating the size of the cut does not address the central problem. People need policing proportionate to the scale of the problems that they face. Does the Minister not accept that?
Of course these things are taken into account. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that if he does not want to play silly political games, he and his hon. Friends should not have started in that vein. Now that he is making a serious point, however, I remind him that we are going through the formal process of allocating grant. Need, of course, is a crucial factor, but that is already reflected in the way in which grant is allocated, particularly for urban areas.
The particular point that I am making to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North and to the right hon. Gentleman is this. If it is argued that a disproportionate share of the savings should fall to the West Midlands police—in other words, that its share of the savings should be lower because the local precept contributes less—the question to be answered, not by the right hon. Gentleman and Opposition Back Benchers, because it is outside their remit, but by Opposition Front Benchers and others is: which forces will therefore have to pay more? As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is a perfectly fair point.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he confirm that the consequence of the disproportionate impact on the West Midlands police service will be that 2,500 jobs are to go over the next four years, including 1,200 police officers? Will he confirm that that is a fact?
No, I cannot confirm that that is a fact. The hon. Gentleman seems to misunderstand the position. First, the grant settlement has not been announced. Secondly, these decisions are not announced by the Government. It is not for me to say; I therefore cannot confirm that what he describes as a fact is indeed a fact. These are decisions for the chief constable and the police authority.
It is clearly unrealistic to suggest that the Government can guarantee the number of police officers, and nor can the Opposition. The question is what the Government can do to ensure that police forces are in the best possible position to make savings and to protect the front line. We believe that it is possible, including in the west midlands, to make significant back and middle office savings so as to ensure that resources go where the public want them.
I have attempted to reply to that question. We will be considering all the proper criteria, including the needs of each area, questions on the damping that has been applied and all the other factors that Opposition Members have raised. I have always been willing to discuss sensibly with right hon. and hon. Members the particular needs of their local forces, and I have discussed them with the chief constable.
Another important aspect to this debate is that reducing bureaucracy will help to ensure that police officers are released for front-line duties. We will save hundreds of thousands of officer hours through measures such as reducing the national requirement on stop-and-search and scrapping entirely the stop-and-account form. The Government are determined to do everything that we can not only to make savings but to protect front-line policing and the number of officers in the neighbourhood. We believe that if police forces work constructively, they can help to achieve those savings and protect front-line policing.
Although I am extremely grateful to have secured this debate, it is unfortunate that, 36 years on, the Cyprus problem remains unresolved. There have been many staging posts along the way, where hopes have been raised and dashed. The tolerance and discipline of the Cypriot people must be recognised and not seen in any way as a weakness, because they have a determination to win back their island.
Despite UN Security Council resolutions calling on Turkey to withdraw its forces from Northern Cyprus, Turkey has stubbornly refused to do so. In fact, Turkey has declared on more than one occasion that if it has to make a choice between Cyprus and its accession to the EU, it will choose Cyprus.
Indeed, these very days remind us of Turkey’s continuing intransigence over the years. Rather than working to implement the high-level agreements of Makarios-Denktash in 1977 and Kyprianou-Denktash in 1979, on 15 November 1983 Turkey instigated and supported separatist acts by the Turkish Cypriot leadership with an illegal unilateral declaration of independence of the northern part of Cyprus. That action prompted UN Security Council resolutions 541 of 1983 and 550 of 1984, which condemned the UDI, declared it illegal and called for its immediate withdrawal. As a result, no country in the world has recognised the illegal regime, except Turkey, which funds it and exercises virtual control over it.
The newly elected leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, Mr Dervis Eroglu, continues to advocate the same separatist policies on Cyprus. On the anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus earlier this year, he said:
“After 20 July 1974 there has been a new geography and two separate states, two separate peoples, two separate republics and two separate sides”.
It is against that backdrop of intransigence that President Christofias of Cyprus continues to negotiate in good faith for a lasting solution to the Cyprus issue.
To counter the intransigence of the Turkish Cypriots on the property issue, the President of Cyprus recently made several proposals: to conduct an independent census of population and property ownership in Cyprus; to link the issue of property with that of settlers, as they are interdependent; that the ghost town of Varosha should be returned to its inhabitants; and that the port of Famagusta should be opened, under the supervision of the EU, for the purposes of trade between the Turkish Cypriots and the EU.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and we must do all we can: I hope that this debate will reinforce this Government’s insistence that Turkey take those negotiations or discussions seriously. I thank him for that important intervention.
The meeting on 18 November at the UN between the UN Secretary General, President Christofias and the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community will provide a good opportunity for the Turkish side to show its respect for UN resolutions and the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, and to respond positively to the various proposals put forward by the President of Cyprus. We must remain optimistic and sincerely hope that the meeting will prove to be successful, and that Turkey will take seriously not only the concerns of the Cypriot people, but those of the international community.
Sadly, to date the Turkish verbal support for the ongoing negotiations has not been met by their deeds—not a single step has been taken to that effect. Within the context of negotiations, Turkey has rejected all the proposals put forward by the President of the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey still maintains illegally a 40,000-strong occupation army in Cyprus, it has not implemented the Ankara protocol vis-à-vis the Republic of Cyprus, and it has repeatedly used the so-called “isolation” of the Turkish Cypriots as a pretext for the political upgrading of the non-recognised entity—the Turkish Northern Republic of Cyprus, or TNRC—in Cyprus.
Mr Brady, I want to take this opportunity to welcome the high commissioner from Cyprus, who has joined us today for this very important debate.
Having visited Cyprus, I saw at first hand, as others have done, that Turkish Cypriots are far from isolated. More than 60,000 Turkish Cypriots have passports and identity cards of the Republic of Cyprus and therefore of the European Union, allowing them to travel freely across Europe and to benefit from Cypriot health care and social security. In addition, more than 10,000 Turkish Cypriots cross the green line every day to work in the Republic of Cyprus. Moreover, Turkish Cypriots are able to trade their goods freely in the Republic of Cyprus and export them overseas, through the recognised ports and airports of the Republic of Cyprus. However, they are prevented from doing so by the Turkish Cypriot authorities.
It is equally unfortunate that Turkey’s intransigence has been rewarded with a seat on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member and that both Europe and the US are prepared to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s activities.
May I also say, in a non-partisan way, that the recent visit by our own Prime Minister to Turkey did nothing to help the Cyprus problem? While he was publicly supportive of Turkey, unfortunately he did not make public mention of the Cyprus problem. However, I am led to believe that he made a private call to President Christofias. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that that was indeed the case.
I think that the Prime Minister actually mentioned in his speech that Turkey had to resolve the Cyprus issue, so it is not quite correct to say that he did not mention it. That may need to be checked. I read his speech and he specifically said in his speech that the Turkish authorities had to resolve the Cyprus issue.
I have not had the good fortune of reading the speech; I am led only by press and media reports. However, let me say at the outset that I do not wish this issue to become a partisan one. I also put on record that my own party, when it was in government, did very little—if anything—to solve the Cyprus problem. So it is not a question of apportioning blame. When my party was in government, it was just as poor at addressing the Cyprus problem.
Some of the other areas that I want to cover are the issues surrounding the missing persons of the 1974 invasion, the destruction of the cultural heritage of Cyprus, the restoration of property rights and Turkey’s accession to the EU.
Can my hon. Friend add to that list of issues his response to the orchestrated campaign in the media in relation to suggestions that, if the talks at the UN in New York are not successful, it may lead to a two-state solution for Cyprus?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a school of thought—certainly among the Cypriot people—that regards the press and media as biased toward Turkey. I sincerely hope that the discussions next week will take a balanced approach.
Many colleagues here today have visited Cyprus, seen it for themselves and heard stories about the young men and women who went missing during the invasion, never to be seen again. Their loved ones’ heart-breaking stories cannot fail to leave a lasting emotional imprint on all of us. Those families have the fundamental human right to find out what happened to their loved ones, and we as a Government should be asking Turkey to facilitate that request. To this day, the whereabouts of more than 1,400 individuals are still unknown. It is a human tragedy that should not be allowed to continue.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the 1,400 young men and women who went missing during and after the invasion should be a main item on the agenda at this week’s meeting? It is now 2010, and there are 1,400 families with missing people. Should that not be a main theme on the agenda at the meeting on Thursday 18 November?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One cannot overestimate the distress caused to the loved ones of the missing Cypriot people. All that they ask of the Turkish people and the Turkish Government is to understand the severity of their feelings. It should be a crucial part of the discussions to bring some conclusion to that problem.
The destruction of Cyprus’s cultural heritage is equally unacceptable. In 1965, Turkey ratified the Hague convention of 1954 on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict. Nevertheless, since Turkey’s intervention and subsequent occupation of Cyprus in 1974, it has been responsible for the devastation, vandalism and looting of the island’s cultural heritage on a scale unworthy of any civilised nation, let alone a prospective EU member. According to the Church of Cyprus, more than 500 churches and monasteries in the northern part of Cyprus have been destroyed, and some 15,000 small relics have been looted. Some colleagues and I recently visited the annual Morphou rally and saw for ourselves the graveyards and cemeteries that have been devastated. I am more than happy to pass the photographs to the Minister if he should require to see them.
Colleagues will also be aware of the indefensible isolation of Famagusta, or Varosha as it is known in Cyprus. The city has been left to rot while the rest of the world has moved on. Many Cypriots can only look on with horror and dismay while their properties are occupied by strangers. Turkey’s invasion of 1974 left 200,000 refugees homeless, many of whom fled their homes with few or no belongings. There is no doubt that if Turkey wished and had the political will to find a satisfactory conclusion to the problem, we could find a way to restore the properties to their rightful owners.
Turkey has effectively created a so-called state in northern Cyprus, to the detriment not only of the Greek Cypriots whose property was confiscated by the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus but of the Turkish Cypriots who have suffered under Turkish rule by becoming a minority in the northern part of Cyprus. According to the Turkish Cypriot press, Turkey has transferred 180,000 settlers into northern Cyprus, with the consequence that Turkey has imposed its ideology there. More mosques than schools have been built in northern Cyprus—181 mosques to 162 schools—and the crime rate has soared due to uncontrolled immigration from Turkey. Education and health services are becoming overburdened. The Turkish Cypriot media also report that in order to enshrine the ideological shift further, Turkey is now demanding that settlers account for more than 50% of new appointments in the civil service, police, education and health services.
That is the backdrop to the relentless efforts by Turkey and those who blindly champion its membership of the European Union to push for outcomes that legitimise all the grave consequences of Turkey’s illegal invasion and 36-year military occupation of the northern part of the island.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important and timely debate as we look to the UN meeting on Thursday. Does he acknowledge that Cyprus itself supports Turkey’s accession to Europe? Obviously, that cannot happen unless the Cyprus problem is resolved, but he mentioned blindly supporting accession. The Cyprus Government are willing to go down that path as long as the Cyprus issue is settled.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That will be a crucial part of the discussions, and the Turkish authorities must take it seriously. I certainly hope that they will.
I wish the UN negotiations every success. There is no doubt that they are complex, but they must be solved in order to draw a line under the Cyprus problem. However, the key to a solution is in the hands of the Turkish Government and authorities in occupied northern Cyprus. A solution that reunites the island for the benefit of all Cypriots and leads to the withdrawal of the Turkish occupation army from the island will boost Turkey’s chances of joining the EU more than any other single factor, but that will require Turkey to change its bullying behaviour and give the Cypriot people a chance to live in peace in their own free and united country.
I remind my colleagues of Cyprus’s long-standing and mutually beneficial relationship with the United Kingdom. The Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities constitute a strong and vibrant part of British society, predominantly in London, the midlands and Manchester. Equally, Cyprus welcomes more than 1.7 million British tourists to its shores every year. In addition to that mutually beneficial relationship, we have a special responsibility as a guarantor power of Cyprus’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. Therefore, we must be an honest friend of Cyprus and help the two communities reach a solution for Cypriots and by Cypriots that safeguards the whole island’s territorial integrity and unity. After all, any proposed solution must be put to a referendum. The last effort to solve the Cyprus problem, in 2004, demonstrated what can happen when an imbalanced solution proposed by third parties lacks the support of the people.
Some people argue that the Cyprus problem has had its day, that its shelf life is over and that only elderly people in Cyprus pay attention to it. I have a letter from Alexis Stavrou, president of NEPOMAK, the world organisation for young overseas Cypriots in the UK. It is an extensive, emotional and fact-finding letter, and I am more than happy to share it with any colleagues who wish to see it. I wish for a satisfactory solution to the Cyprus problem in the near future.
This is an important and timely debate, and I welcome the opportunity to speak as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Cyprus. I see colleagues here who are officers and members of that group, and recognise that the spirit of the debate is an all-party one. We want to make a consensus point to the Minister that it is important that we take extremely seriously this country’s responsibilities as a guarantor power and do not simply sit on the sidelines. We need to make it clear that the Cyprus problem must be solved and the island reunited.
There was a debate on the subject last year and the Library prepared a standard note dated 4 November 2009, which states:
“many commentators have suggested that the current window of opportunity may well be closed if the presidential elections in the north in April 2010 bring in a nationalist president. The current prospects for a settlement have been put at about two in five.”
I am not sure what people would say the prospects are now. In the north, a nationalist politician has been elected. Nevertheless—as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) said—despite the campaign during that election for a two-state solution, talks have continued. We must recognise that engagement has continued on the basis of the United Nations framework, which clearly refers to a federal bi-zonal, bi-communal solution. That is the framework everyone will be discussing as they approach the United Nations meeting.
The debate is timely given that, as was mentioned in an intervention, reference has been made to the subject in the media by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who raised the spectre of partition. I want to refer to that article—indeed, I have given notice to the right hon. Gentleman that I wish to do so. We have had such debates before; indeed, many colleagues here have also been involved in those discussions. At least 70 talks have taken place, and there may be fatigue in relation to the issue. When we discuss concerns about overseas disasters, colleagues will deplore—as I do—references to compassion fatigue. That becomes imbued when people do not react as they should do to what is happening, and simply accept and tolerate a situation because it goes on and on. My constituency has perhaps the most Cypriots of any—both Greek and Turkish Cypriots—and during my time as a Member of Parliament, I have seen a degree of “Cyprus fatigue” occurring, if one may put it that way. The question is whether Parliament itself has been guilty of that as the years have gone by—or, indeed, whether the British Government have been guilty of it.
My constituents will not allow that to happen. They remind me—if not daily, then weekly—of how, at these times, such a situation is not acceptable. Both Greek and Turkish Cypriots in my constituency want a settlement and a reunited Cyprus. Many of them are refugees and, as has been said, they miss their loved ones. They do not know the truth of what happened, and they cannot even begin the process of reconciliation without that information. I defy anyone attending the rallies held in July by those who are still missing loved ones to go out on to College Green and be fatigued from hearing the protest and seeing the pictures of those loved ones. I encourage everyone to attend such rallies, when we get to that point in July. When we are reminded of the fact that fundamental human rights have been breached, property has been lost and the right to return to villages has been lost—as colleagues have said—we cannot in any way be fatigued.
In my constituency during the election campaign, Cyprus was inevitably an issue. I was given a book about Cyprus and, on the inside cover, the author has written:
“Why do you as the mother of parliamentary democracy allow Turkish troops to continue to occupy our island?”
That is a very simple but profound question that continues to be asked, and that we cannot simply ignore and become fatigued about through the passage of time. Parliament must stand up for Cyprus, which is why it is so welcome that hon. Members from all parties are doing that today. Through the all-party parliamentary group on Cyprus, we want to encourage more parliamentary colleagues to become involved in the issue and join the group.
Also, we as Parliament must take more seriously our guarantor powers and responsibilities—indeed, the Government must also do so. We cannot sit on the sidelines as a spectator. It is fundamentally enshrined that we, as a guarantor power, must ensure the independence of Cyprus and the sovereignty of the whole island. That must be fully respected. If, in any way beyond that, one were to be fatigued about the Cyprus problem, one would only have to read the article written by the right hon. Member for Blackburn in The Times on 8 November to be energised.
The right hon. Gentleman’s influence is now confined to the Back Benches and the media, and I am confident he has no influence on the Government in this regard. I do not know whether his article was deliberately provocative, but it has certainly served the useful purpose of galvanising support for reunification—not for partition. It is worth analysing the argument that has been made in the media—I do not want to pay too much attention to the article because I do not think it should be given more credibility than it is worth—to allow the Minister to respond and to contrast such opinions with the Government’s approach. Doing so would benefit the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, and the community at large.
When one considers the right hon. Gentleman’s argument, it is—to coin a phrase—based on straw. He says that if talks fail, the Government should formally consider partition. First, that is not legal. The United Kingdom’s obligations in the 1960s treaties relate to a commitment not to support
“any moves towards the partition of the island or the recognition or upgrading of any separate political entity.”
I would welcome the Minister’s making it clear that partition is not an option for Britain. It is not an option for the United Nations and, fundamentally, it is not an option for the European Union, which cannot accept a divided member state. Secondly, it is not ethical. The right hon. Gentleman’s article referred to the numerical advantage of Turkey over Cyprus in terms of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. However, one cannot say—certainly we in the House cannot say—that law and justice do not matter if someone is big and strong. I do not want to make this a partisan issue—that certainly has not been the nature of the debate—but the previous Government talked about having an ethical foreign policy. The right hon. Gentleman was a member of that Government, and I wonder how his opinions sit with that argument.
Thirdly, such an argument is wrong on the basis of fact. Reference was made to the Annan plan. From being involved in this subject, we all know that, regarding the argument, we can often go back into history and be left there. However, we need to be accurate about history. The Annan plan did not fail as a result of the late President Papadopoulos ratting—as the right hon. Gentleman said—on the deal. The Annan plan failed because it was imposed—this is a lesson to be learned by the United Nations—by the Secretary-General and others, who sought to impose a deal through their own time limits on the Greek Cypriots. The plan came very late in the day; indeed, it was seen at only five minutes to midnight by some people before they had to start making a decision on it. As the Prime Minister states in a letter to me that has been published, we need to recognise that
“The ethos of the current process, by Cypriots and for Cypriots, and without the imposition of deadlines distinguishes it clearly from previous processes, such as the Annan Plan.”
Reference has also been made to the accession process, to suggestions that Cyprus alone is standing in the way and that the matter of Cyprus is a convenient excuse for other countries to object to Turkey’s accession. I support Turkey’s accession and realise that it has great advantages. I welcome the Government’s commitment to Turkey’s accession and do not see it as being at odds with what we want to do; indeed, I consider it to be an important part of ensuring that we receive justice for Cyprus. Let us not forget that Germany, Austria and France have deep objections to Turkey’s accession, but they do not simply rely on the matter of Cyprus as a convenient excuse.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. On Turkey’s accession to the EU, does he agree that it will be important for there to be continuing support from both Cyprus and Greece? The questions raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) will go a long way to undermining that continuing support, on which Turkey’s membership will crucially be dependent.
That is quite right. The argument has been taken into terrain that is neither practical nor lawful. We must properly recognise the parties whose support is needed to move towards accession.
We must also recognise the facts. The reality is that the European Commission’s report published on Tuesday 9 November admonished Turkey for not moving faster to settle border disputes and normalise relations with Cyprus. That involves the Ankara protocol, which deals with proper access to ports for Cypriot shipping. Cyprus has been a member of the European Union since 2004, which is important. The Prime Minister made that point clearly in his letter:
“part of Turkey’s accession criteria also requires full, non-discriminatory implementation of the Additional Ankara Protocol, including allowing access to its ports for Cypriot shipping. We continue to press Turkey to do this.”
I ask my hon. Friend to be slightly firmer on those requirements, and perhaps the Minister might also like to comment on them. Turkey must do more than just allow access to the ports through the general Ankara requirements. We must accept that it cannot become a member of the EU while it has armed forces occupying part of Cyprus. It is not just about access to ports; all Turkish troops must be withdrawn from the island before we can proceed.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. It is not simply the case that Cyprus is standing in the way of EU membership; it is up to Turkey to recognise that it must remove the army and that the island needs to be reunified. Turkey must take those steps before it can move towards EU accession. The European Commission’s report also noted the Commission’s assessment that freedom of expression needs to be strengthened in Turkey, both in law and in practice. It highlighted the fact that shortcomings remain in the free exercise of religion, and reference was made to disputes with neighbours, including Armenia. Those are other factors that go beyond Cyprus. It is important to get the facts right when making the argument about the accession process.
I believe that talk about partition is loose talk. Where would the property rights of my constituents and others stand in a partitioned land? Where would the villagers whom I met on Saturday evening stand? They are desperate to return and to have free movement, so that they can take up their proper rights to their villages. Where would villagers from Eptakomi, which I have visited, stand if they want to return, or those from Famagusta, which has been mentioned, and from other places? What about the enclaved people in Rizokarpaso, whom I visited some years ago? They are few in number, but there are huge human rights concerns. Where would they stand in a partitioned land?
There is talk of two peoples and two states, but that does not fit with the reality, the ethics, the law or the practice. One example is the Maronite community, whom I have mentioned in previous debates, who have not had free access to three of their four villages. On 17 July, the army allowed Maronite inhabitants to attend a church service in one of those villages, Ayia Marina, for the first time as a one-off. That is progress, but it was just a one-off. The Maronite community would like to know why they cannot have continued freedom of access and the basic freedom to worship. They have that freedom in Kormakitis, but why not in Asomatos and Karpasha?
There has been some progress. Crossings have been opened in the north-west of the island, progress has been made in relation to missing persons, with the remains of 690 Cypriots being exhumed, and some better access has been granted, but I encourage the Minister to press Turkey for better access to restricted areas for investigations.
In conclusion, it is important that we build a consensus. Indeed, the Prime Minister made that point in his letter:
“The UK’s politicians also have an important role to play in supporting the efforts to build consensus”.
That is what we want to achieve. It is a consensus on the reunification of the island of Cyprus as one country. It is a single international personality, with a single Cypriot citizenship, on a single united island.
This is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate you, Mr Brady, on your exalted position—I trust that it is the result of a lack of available positions on the Front Bench given the poor coalition that is now in government. Hopefully, you will one day tread the boards in that direction.
I am pleased to hear it, Mr Brady, and I trust that you will continue to exercise your great degree of independence on political matters from such a prime position.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) for securing this excellent opportunity to discuss what is a very serious subject. I should at the outset declare an interest: I have a small Cypriot community in my constituency, which my hon. Friend failed to mention in his list. As a result, I was invited to visit Cyprus in September for a day and a half—travelling by second-class air fare—to speak at the Morphou rally in the south of the republic.
It is important that we are having the debate at the start of a week in which, as we all know, serious talks will take place in New York. I must say to Members present, and to others who will read the pages of Hansard, that the whole question of Cyprus is expressed as a problem for Cyprus, but—as I keep saying again and again—it is also a problem for Europe and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) said, for Turkey itself.
Let us look at why Cyprus was allowed to join the European Union, a move that was led by Britain. A British Government argued that Cyprus should be in Europe because it would have been ridiculous and folly to keep it out of Europe. We all know what Cyprus was at the time of its entry. It was being treated as an offshore island by many, with 7,500 companies on its shores. It had its own stock exchange and an independent link into the European banking system. It was probably best placed for trade with the old eastern bloc, which most of Europe was not. It had a fine relationship with areas of the middle east and an outstanding trading relationship with China and Africa, which many EU countries did not have. As I understand from scientific texts, Cyprus is one of only four places on the planet that have windows into space, and, communications being so important for the future, it was important that that was kept in the European sphere, rather than being independent outside it. If anyone has any doubt about that, they will recall that it is for that reason that Britain’s listening and searching stations are still situated on the island.
Last, but not least, there is the importance of oil and gas, not only for Europe, but for the rest of the world. People will have to consider the importance of the European oil and gas pipeline, which is now being driven down to the shores of Greece, where further pipelines will be fixed that go across to Limassol in the republic. Similarly, pipelines will be coming down to join the central European pipeline from the Caspian sea, and they will link in to guarantee oil and gas for Europe. Cyprus will shortly become the gas station of Europe, and possibly the world, which is another reason why it was important that it came into the EU.
The talks that will take place this week in New York are very important. Although I praise greatly my colleague, the chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, those who argue in favour of the Annan plan should be asked which Annan plan they favour. Annan 1 had some important aspects that people might have used for the basis of negotiation, but after time there came Annan 2, Annan 3, Annan 4 and Annan 5, and each one was worse than the one before.
In this week before the talks commence, we have had a deliberate provocation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)—a colleague from this side of the House, in this place—which was an attempt not only to influence the talks in New York, but to set in motion a political dialogue in Europe that would call for partition. No one with whom I have discussed the issue of Cyprus has argued such a case. I trust those of my colleagues who say that the announcement by that individual two weeks earlier that he would take the opportunity to speak freely around the world, and possibly be paid for doing so, was not one of the reasons that he tip-toed in such a sordid manner into that area of political discussion—I hope not. I met him last night in this place and left him in no shadow of a doubt about what I thought of his position. I fervently countered each of his arguments, and we accepted that we would continue to disagree.
Let us look at why there needs to be a conclusion to the sordid affair of Turkey’s involvement in the independent country of Cyprus. Turkey has no right whatever to be there. Anyone who has any doubt about that should look back only 100 years in history. They will find that the Turkish state sold the island to Britain for 110 pieces of gold—that is the reality. Turkey sold it many years ago and gave up its interest in it.
Since that time, successive British Governments have participated in the life of Cyprus in a positive way. They built good institutions and mechanisms that are still alive on the island today—there was good purpose in those people. As I said earlier, that is one of the main reasons why we have supported the case for Cyprus to enter the European Union.
However, Cyprus is still left in the abyss of division, and we cannot agree that that should continue. I say to this British Government, as I said to the previous Government, who were of my political persuasion, that they cannot and should not stand idly by while individuals take advantage of the situation in Cyprus. British citizens take advantage of it—wrongly, in my opinion—but no action is taken against them. I refer, of course, to British citizens who foolishly invest vast sums of money to get properties and land on the cheap and then seek to put them on the market to make money. That has to be stopped. Rather than actions to try to stop freedom in Cyprus, perhaps some action should be undertaken by the British Government against British citizens who act in that way.
I refer hon. Members to my interests in respect of Cyprus. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, when an agreement is reached, those people who decided to invest in or purchase property in northern Cyprus should not be recompensed by either the Greek Cypriot people or the British Government?
All I can say is, “Well said.” I agree with every sinew of that argument and would take it even further. The hon. Gentleman may recall that the European Court of Justice recently made a decision in the Loizidou case, in which a property had been taken over in the north and used for 27 or 28 years. The ECJ said that a large sum of money should be given in compensation just for use of the property and then, whenever the stage is reached at which property is handed back, no price should be paid for that property portfolio. The same thing should apply to others, and I say that in the knowledge that a handful of my constituents have been foolhardy enough to invest in Cyprus. They were told clearly and repeatedly, time and again, by the British Government—and I said this in local papers when the issue came up—that they would be foolish to invest in such a way, but greed and avarice took over and they foolishly did so. They had one sole objective, which was to make money for themselves.
To conclude—I know that several other people wish to speak—there can be no veto on full EU membership for the Republic of Cyprus, or on its recognition by the United Nations as an individual nation. I doubt that there would be any support in this or any future British Government for partition of the island. We have fought for years to try to get a solution to the problem. We fought in Germany to get what we thought was the last remaining wall in Europe pulled down, and I do not believe that we would go for partition in Cyprus.
In the course of achieving freedom for Cyprus, there are projects that are trying to identify the remains of people who were killed, but we must insist that work is done on other areas of concern. Many people are still missing, and we must work with the Turkish Government and insist that they provide the knowledge that they have of the whereabouts of missing persons. They should perhaps also suggest that leading religious figures and bodies—Greek and Turk, Muslim and Christian—appeal to their leadership to reveal any information they have.
As any of us who have lost loved ones in the past know, if there is any shade of doubt about what occurred, we think about it all the time. If individuals are missing, we live with that on a daily basis. It is no different for the hundreds of thousands of people—not just mothers and fathers but brothers, sisters, cousins and nieces—who have missing relatives in Cyprus.
The free world must also make certain demands about the kind of solution that is achieved. It cannot be right that 180,000 settlers have been moved from the mainland of Turkey into Cyprus and told that the property on which they live is now their own, when they have no right to it whatever. Those people have to return.
Last but not least—most important of all—the tens of thousands of troops who illegally occupy the north of the island have to be taken back to the mainland. There can be no peaceful solution in Europe while troops from a country that is not a member of the European family reside on European shores. That is the reality. They have to go back, and I ask this Government to plead with Turkey to start that process.
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr Brady. This is the first debate I have attended for which you have been in that position. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, just in case I have one in respect of this issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), who represents a part of the country that is dear to my heart. I congratulate him mainly on the timing of this debate, which comes just in advance of the forthcoming United Nations-sponsored meetings in New York.
I start today from the premise that the coalition Government, the previous Government and I have all been committed to Turkey’s entry to the European Union. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, Greece and Cyprus have also been committed to its entry. We take that position to reject the crude anti-Muslim feeling that one sees across Europe—it has no place in a decision in respect of Turkey—but also because Turkey’s membership would be good for the EU and for Turkey. The question is how we achieve its membership.
The first thing—I say this with some passion—is that we do not issue threats about a two-state solution in Cyprus. I was rather surprised by the mention that was made of the role of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). People who pay attention to these matters will of course know that there has been an article on them by Martin Kettle in The Guardian, and a leader in the Financial Times, which show the somewhat dubious consistency over the years. I read the articles with some care, and was reminded of the negotiations on the referendum and the Annan 5 proposals. The one lesson that we should learn from that experience is that to issue unveiled threats and to try to maximise the pressure on one side rather than the other is almost certain to be counter-productive, and to fail.
The first thing that I would say to the Minister, therefore, is that, when the parties assemble at the United Nations, I hope that Britain in its role as a guarantor power will try to exercise some leverage on other guarantor powers, and also on the two communities taking part in the direct negotiations. It is important to be impartial in that regard. Everyone says that we need to get into a proper negotiation and, to do that, equal pressure on all parties to the negotiation is required. We have to have, as the United Nations states, the courage to “break the stalemate”, but the stalemate is not broken by trying to break one of the parties to the negotiating process.
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was placed under the spotlight last week by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, and I was reassured by his response:
“I do not want to say anything at this moment that might make those talks more difficult.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 139.]
Those are surely wise words at this time, and I only wish that others had taken that lesson to heart.
What if we ended the isolation of the northern part of Cyprus? I am often told that its having access to a market of the European Union would make a tremendous difference, and that the very low living standard of the people there would suddenly be transformed. The collective evidence is that the most likely way to transform the economy of the north of Cyprus is to find a solution to the division of the island. That will achieve more than any other step. We have to accept that if the area is not reunified, and does not get the support of the Cypriots on the rest of the island, it will be a very long time before the northern part of the island can look towards European-style standards of living.
It has also to be said that the north of the island remains very dependent on subsidies from Turkey, and that will not change in the short or medium term. Although the isolation might be ended, there are factors that increase the isolation from Cyprus itself. Mention has been made of the changing demographics in Cyprus: Turkish Cypriots are leaving the island and people from the mainland are still coming in. That will do nothing to reverse the isolation; it will, I would argue, increase it.
The isolation is, of course, also strengthened by certain politicians—we have all heard the comments. Mr Denktas cast a very long shadow during his 22 years as leader of the Turkish Cypriot community. In the statements that are made—and we have heard some recently—it is said that there are two peoples, two languages and two cultures and there must, therefore, be two states. We reject that idea, but if they do not, it is hard to see how they will prevent the Turkish Cypriot community from continuing to leave the island. The Turkish Cypriot community recognises its long-standing bonds with the rest of the Cypriot community on the island, and would continue to experience the isolation.
What are the consequences of a two-state solution? I turn to the Financial Times leader writer:
“A two-state solution is not an ideal outcome.”—
a bit of an understatement by a leader writer—
“It would impose grave costs on the Greek Cypriots in terms of maintaining high levels of military expenditure to counter the perceived Turkish threat. In the short term, it would deal yet another blow to Turkey’s prospects of joining the European Union.”
So, let us look at the matter in slightly more detail. Yes, the solution would be a major blow to Turkey’s membership, and I wish that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn had thought about that. Would it inflame relations? Undoubtedly, and not just those between the Governments of Cyprus and Turkey, but relations that have been unfrozen in recent years and have enabled many people from the north of the island to cross the border to work in the south.
A two-state solution would inflame relations between Greece and Turkey, which have, of course, been a major problem in recent years, but it would also increase instability in the eastern Mediterranean. What would the consequence of that be? It would not be just Cyprus that was building up its military arms; we would see, I suspect, just a little bit of an arms race in the eastern Mediterranean. What would the impact on NATO be? Such impact is one of the major reasons why the Americans are so keen to find a solution, as is, of course, the impact on the island itself, with the continuing exodus of Turkish Cypriots. Such a solution would have a negative impact on Turkey’s membership of the EU and would give heart to those European Union member states that are not really concerned about the situation in Cyprus. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), there are other reasons why France, Austria and other European Union states continue to object to Turkey’s application. We need to unify those states in support of EU membership for Turkey, and we do not achieve that by ostracising Cyprus, or by ostracising Greece, at this particular time.
I finish by asking two things. First, I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) please to give us a defined statement that the Opposition parties continue to support the negotiating process and take on board the Foreign Secretary’s wise words. Secondly, I ask that the Government not just wholeheartedly support the negotiating process—I know that they do—but that they do so while recognising that Britain, because of its unique position and its guarantor power status, and because it is a member of the Security Council and a critically important member of the EU, should do more. We need to kick-start that negotiating process when it happens next week, but let us be in absolutely no doubt that it is only that session that can lead to a viable, long-term, stable solution in the eastern Mediterranean. Frankly, talk of any other issue is wild and unnecessary; we all need to get behind the Government, the two parties, the other guarantor powers and the United Nations to ensure that this succeeds where it has failed in the past.
I welcome this debate, secured by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan). I, like him and some of my colleagues, have been involved in the Cyprus debate for many years and I often feel, with some despondency, that we do not make further progress, even after the annual Trafalgar square rally and our visit to the Morphou rally in Cyprus. I was therefore pleased that the coalition Government outlined, in its document for governing, that Cyprus will be taken seriously.
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
Cyprus has faced many invasions in its long and continuous history. The difference in the experience since 1974 is that 40% of the island is divided from the other part, based on people’s origin, religion and nationality, effectively expelling the Greek Cypriots from their own homes in the occupied areas and moving Turkish Cypriots into the occupied part of the island. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) misses the point. More than a quarter of the population of Cyprus and many people who live in this country are still experiencing the effects of the invasion. They are not allowed to live in their legally owned home, not able to cultivate their land or to worship in their churches and not even allowed to tend the graves of their loved ones, which is most distressing for a lot of people.
Much mention has been made of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is unfortunate that my right hon. Friend did not take the opportunity to attend this debate and share his pearls of wisdom with us?
It certainly is a great shame that the right hon. Gentleman did not attend today. [Interruption.] I am informed that he was, in fact, invited to come along. Perhaps he had something else to do in the House, I do not know, but it would have been useful if he had come along and clarified his comments, particularly as a former Minister.
For the first time in history, the people of Cyprus have been left, de facto, separated into homogenous racial, religious and geographical areas. That continues to happen, despite the General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations and other organisations adopting resolutions that condemn the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and support the independence and territorial integrity of the Republic of Cyprus.
The division planned by Ankara was strengthened in 1983 by the unilateral declaration of independence by the Turkish Cypriot leadership, with Turkey’s encouragement and support, and the establishment of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It is worth stating that the international community directly and categorically condemned this secessionist action. The Security Council stated that the act was “legally invalid” and demanded the revocation of the “unilateral declaration of independence”. As a result, the illegal occupying regime has not been recognised by any state other than Turkey, the occupying power.
In addition to the human tragedy, I have seen for myself the cultural and religious destruction that is taking place. Hon. Members have spoken about recent political issues and the talks, which I welcome, but I shall focus on the continuing destruction of the history and culture of the island. The occupying force in the north appears to be working to erase any reference to anything Greek or to Christianity in the north part of the island. The Turkish occupying force has replaced all Greek names of towns, villages and roads with Turkish names. At the same time, I am concerned that Neolithic settlements are being destroyed, such as the one at Apostolos Andreas-Kastros, which, for those who cannot understand my poor Greek, is on the eastern tip of the island. Prehistoric and historical towns, such as the famous site of Enkomi and the ancient city states of Salamina and Soloi, are being left to the ravages of time.
Clear and undeniable desecration is occurring in churches. This year, when I took the opportunity to cross the line, I visited the occupied town of Morphou and saw for myself churches being used for so-called alternative activities—for example, we saw one church being used as a dance studio and another being used as a warehouse. Some churches are derelict and left dilapidated. What shocked me most was desecration of the churchyards: I saw one being used by the fire service, which parked fire trucks on graveyards; the second was not only left in a desecrated state, but was being used as an army base. I cannot understand how an occupying force could allow its army to do that.
Cyprus is often referred to as the crossroads of civilisation. What I witnessed there were not the actions of a civilised nation, but shocking and disrespectful behaviour by an invading force.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s accurate descriptions. Other descriptions have been given by Members of Parliament who have crossed over, including of former churches being used for animal husbandry. Does the hon. Gentleman know that the Leventis Foundation, which conducted an examination of stolen artefacts—my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned that more than 1,500 have been stolen and shipped abroad—found that many were found in huge numbers, including in the walls of churches, with references dating back as far as St Paul? All had been stolen. Whole walls were stolen and exported to the United States and other places for sale.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting, useful point. I am aware of some of the artefacts that have been removed from the island. In a judgment of the United States Court of Appeal in 1990, the judge ordered the return of the Kanakaria mosaics to Cyprus. The president of the Court Appeal, Chief Judge Bauer, mentioned a characteristic quotation from Lord Byron, which I think the hon. Gentleman will find interesting, describing the Turkish invasion of Corinth in 1715. Of the many churches and monuments that lie today in ruins on Cyprus, Bauer says:
“As Byron laments, war can reduce our grandest and most sacred temples to mere ‘fragments of stone’. Only the lowest of scoundrels attempt to reap personal gain from this collective loss. Those who plunder the churches and monuments of war-torn Cyprus hoarded their relics away, and are now smuggling and selling them for large sums, are just blackguards.”
That description could apply to people who are continuing in that fashion today.
I say to the British coalition Government that in the talks about the accession of Turkey to the EU, there are red lines on which hon. Members here today will insist. First, land and property must be returned to its rightful owners without compensation being paid to those people who decided, through greed and avarice to invest their moneys in the northern part of Cyprus. Secondly, the people who are missing need to be identified and returned to their loved ones, so that they can start the grieving process. Thirdly and finally, I urge the British Government to secure an agreement that is acceptable to all the islanders—not just the Greek Cypriots, but the Turkish Cypriots as well. We want to be even-handed and open with all islanders and to remove the only divided island left in Europe, so that we can have the peace and security in Europe that we want.
We have had an important debate this morning. I commend the tone in which it has been conducted: serious, practical and honest. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate and on his opening speech, in which he showed his knowledge of and passion for the subject. He emphasised that we need a balanced approach to Cyprus and touched on the complexity of the issues confronting us, particularly missing persons and property ownership. Indeed, he is a true and honourable friend of Cyprus.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) made a good speech, in which he warned us to be wary of what is sometimes termed “Cyprus fatigue”. We must all ensure that we are fully engaged with the issues and that we take the matter forward collectively. The hon. Gentleman, and others, referred particularly to remarks by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). I should like to make it clear that in both his article in The Times and the interview on the “Today” programme, my right hon. Friend was expressing his entirely personal view. It is not Opposition policy. Labour’s policy, I believe, is unchanged. We are focused foursquare on ensuring that maximum support is given to the talks at the United Nations in New York this week. We encourage both parties to work together harmoniously to come to a just, fair solution.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr Meale), who talked about the abyss of partition—a highly graphic way to put it, and I am sure that we are all mindful of what he said. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), whose wise words stressed the need for us to be impartial in ensuring that both communities together reach a mutually agreeable solution. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr Offord) powerfully expressed his concern about the destruction of artefacts in the north of Cyprus and the need to protect places of worship.
We are at an important stage in what will, we hope, be moves towards peace and reconciliation in Cyprus. I emphasise that Labour believes in a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement for the whole island. Our view is that only a settlement that is negotiated by Cypriots for Cypriots, and acceptable to both sides, will ensure the future of Cyprus. We support a unified Cyprus and a Cypriot-led process under the auspices of the United Nations. We do not support a solution that is imposed or enforced by others. The United Kingdom must offer its full support to the negotiations that all Cypriots want to succeed.
When Labour was in government, we proposed that 50% of the land currently in UK sovereign bases in Cyprus be made available to a united island once a resolution was found. We hope that that proposal will be taken forward by the current Government when the two sides resume their talks.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate. He has a long track record in this House of interest in and support for Cyprus. As the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) said, the contributions to the debate have been thoughtful and forthright in equal measure. I thank the hon. Members for Mansfield (Mr Meale) and for Edmonton (Mr Love), and my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and for Hendon (Mr Offord) for their contributions. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) and the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) for their interventions.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss Cyprus and I have listened carefully to the points raised during the debate. The Government support a just and lasting settlement on the island. As has been said, that was an important manifesto commitment and a priority recognised in the coalition’s programme for Government.
I am sure that the House will agree that the status quo is neither satisfactory nor adequate for any community in Cyprus. Reference has been made to the plight of Greek Cypriots, particularly those in displaced families, and, in fairness, to the isolation and economic underdevelopment of the Turkish Cypriot community. Only a united island within the European Union will provide the long-term peace and security that all Cypriots deserve, as well as bring economic development and prosperity to the region. The hon. Member for Mansfield was right to draw our attention to the tremendous economic opportunities in the eastern Mediterranean, which could be capitalised on to the mutual benefit of all Cypriot communities, of Turkey and of Greece, if a just and lasting settlement can be achieved.
A settlement would enable a generation of people to find a way to close a traumatic chapter in their lives, particularly by addressing the difficult issue of property and the isolation of Turkish Cypriots. I believe that reunification would also provide the space for civil society to flourish in the north and south of the island, and for the leaders of the communities to spend more time helping to find solutions to global issues, and ensure that the Cypriot people as a whole come out of the current global economic downturn well placed to enjoy a prosperous and sustainable future. In my view, those benefits far outweigh the admitted difficulties of the compromises that would be necessary to reach a settlement.
Let there be no doubt that the United Kingdom Government are committed to supporting the ongoing settlement negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, and particularly of Alexander Downer, which are aimed at achieving a settlement based on a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality. That political equality must be accorded not only—although most obviously—to the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, but to the smaller minorities on the island. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, chairman of the British-Cyprus all-party group, reminded us of the Maronite community. The position of the Maronite community and its members’ entitlement to cultural and religious freedom of expression will be fully resolved only by a comprehensive settlement that reunites the island. The Government support the resolution passed by the Council of Europe in July 2008 that called for additional measures to
“support the revitalisation and promotion of the cultural, religious and linguistic heritage of the Maronites,”.
Does the Minister agree that not only do we have a moral obligation to support a solution in Cyprus on a one-state basis, but we have a legal obligation based on the treaty of guarantee and the memorandums that we have signed with Cyprus? Does that differ from what he has just said?
No, it does not. The hon. Gentleman draws me on to comments that I was about to make.
Far be it from me to criticise a distinguished elder statesman such as the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), but I am happy to make it clear that the Government’s position is to support a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality for a united Cyprus. We do not support partition. As the hon. Member for Wansbeck has said, as one of the guarantor powers, we are bound by treaty not only to resist but to prohibit any step that would lead either to the partition of Cyprus or to its unification with any other country. The new British Government remain in support of that position on the present and future status of Cyprus.
Does the Minister agree that there would be a great danger if Britain’s policy moved away from the one that he has expressed? If we break the treaty signed in the ‘60s that gave independence to Cyprus, it would break all other parts of the treaty. That could affect the British bases on the island.
As a general principle, if one signs and ratifies a treaty, one should stick by its obligations. That is what we intend to do.
Important British interests are at stake in the search for a settlement in Cyprus. The amount of human misery in Cyprus, whichever community we are talking about, would in itself justify making the search for a settlement a political priority; but there are also hard-headed British national interests at stake. Although a peaceful and lasting settlement in Cyprus would not, as others have said, remove all obstacles to Turkish accession to the European Union, it would remove one of the most significant blocks to that process. I believe and the Government believe that Turkish membership of the European Union is in the interests not just of the UK, but of Europe as a whole. A settlement would also make possible the effective co-operation between NATO and the European Union that has been impossible for so many years, because of the stand-off between Turkey and Cyprus over the events of 1974 and what has happened since.
I hope that both sides in the negotiations and especially at the forthcoming meeting in New York can continue to show both flexibility and leadership. The leaders have the full support of the international community and they need to grasp the opportunity to find a solution before that window closes.
One of the concerns expressed widely within Cyprus is that Cyprus is not considered important enough internationally for a solution to be found. In reflection of that, would it not be sensible for the British Government to make greater use of the European Union to try to bring parties together and to pressure all the parties to negotiate, and would it not be much more sensible if the three guarantor powers, of which we are one, met to try to co-ordinate the putting of pressure on the two parties at the negotiations in New York?
I would not rule out a meeting of the guarantor powers at some stage, if that would be helpful. The hon. Gentleman reminds me that in his speech he called for vigorous diplomacy on the part of the British Government. I do not dissent from what he said, except that I would add two words of caution. First, by virtue of our history and status as a guarantor power and our possession of the sovereign base areas, we of course have a particular interest in Cyprus and the search for a settlement there; but sometimes, precisely because of our history, we are not necessarily the most welcome source of advice, particularly public advice. Sometimes it is better if others—in this case, the United Nations envoy, Mr Downer—take the lead. It is very important that the negotiations are seen to be, in the end, in the ownership of the Cypriots themselves, because unless there is buy-in from both communities in Cyprus, a settlement will not endure.
Secondly, although the search for a settlement in Cyprus is seen by the Government as an important political priority, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that in the conduct of foreign affairs, just as in the conduct of domestic politics sometimes, it is best to talk candidly to friends, allies and partners behind closed doors, rather than through a megaphone. We have to suit the technique to the occasion.
May I press the Minister further on the details of the relationship with Turkey? The hand of friendship has gone out from the Prime Minister to Turkey. Will the Minister be able to draw attention to the role that we play in terms of pressing the case for Cyprus?
I will come to that very point in a moment. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of it. Before I do so, I want to deal with a point that the hon. Member for Caerphilly raised by saying that the coalition Government have maintained the offer made by the previous Labour Government to cede nearly half the sovereign base area territories in the event of an agreed, negotiated solution in Cyprus.
I shall now respond to what my hon. Friend just said. We welcome the support that Turkey has given the settlement process. Prime Minister Erdogan has publicly stated his full support for the Cyprus settlement process on a number of occasions, including in March this year, when he confirmed—this is an important point—Turkey’s acceptance of the UN principles under which the process takes place. We regularly discuss all aspects of the Cyprus issue with Turkey. As my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green said in an intervention, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did so publicly as well as privately when he visited Turkey earlier this year. Most recently, we raised the subject of Cyprus during President Gül’s visit to London last week, and I did so with Turkish Ministers when I attended the Bosphorus conference in Istanbul in October.
Turkey has an important role to play in encouraging the Turkish Cypriots to grasp the opportunity of a settlement and to ensure that the negotiations succeed. A settlement will deliver economic benefits to Turkish Cypriots and end their sense of isolation once and for all, which is a key Turkish objective. A settlement in Cyprus will, we believe, be of great benefit to Turkey as a whole and her ambition eventually to join the European Union.
A number of hon. Members talked about particular aspects of the tragedy that has afflicted Cyprus for more than 30 years. Some referred to the damage done to cultural sites and places of worship. There is no doubt that that damage took place, particularly during 1974 and in the immediate aftermath. I have made note of the points that were made particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North about the alleged desecration of cemeteries and church graveyards. I will take advice on how we might raise that issue.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is important, as a means of helping to build community reconciliation, that we support confidence-building measures at local level and take account of the reality of the grief still experienced by many individuals and families. Action in respect of the proper treatment of cultural and religious sites and co-operation in the search for missing persons are matters that the British Government take very seriously indeed. We have given particular support to the work of the European Union’s Committee on Missing Persons and we donate to its annual budget. As hon. Members know, the CMP has so far found just under 700 sets of human remains, both Greek and Turkish Cypriot.[Official Report, 23 November 2010, Vol. 519, c. 2MC.]
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not, because I am getting very near the end of my time.
I welcome the commitment of the Cypriot leaders from both communities to the current negotiations. Their meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this Thursday is a positive step, but there is a great deal of further work to do to maintain the momentum and to ensure that the important opportunity to achieve a strong and lasting peace is not lost. These are different from previous negotiations. It is now in the hands of the leaders themselves to reach agreement. I agree that there can be no arbitration or tight deadlines, but a purely open-ended process will not benefit the Cypriots themselves. I urge all parties to engage positively and flexibly in negotiations and to grasp the opportunity to secure the benefits that all communities in Cyprus so richly deserve.
(Rotherham) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate on Yorkshire Water and the problem of leakages in the region and in my constituency in particular.
Sometimes, an individual case illuminates the landscape of powerful organisations that, although they may genuinely believe themselves to be working in a responsible, correct and legal manner, do not realise that by a sequence of events and decisions, they end up treating an ordinary—I do not much like that word—citizen of our nation unfairly. This is the story of a little man confronting a giant, powerful conglomerate that is trampling over his rights.
Mr George Georgiou is a British citizen of Cypriot origin who lives in Foljambe road, a modest road in my constituency. He came to Rotherham in 2007 to buy a little fish and chip shop at the bottom of that road, which produces as good a cod and chips as one can get in Rotherham, a town that is widely acknowledged to have the best fish and chip shops in Yorkshire.
There was flooding in other parts of the constituency in 2007. Early in 2008, Yorkshire Water carried out some mains work at the top of Mr. Georgiou’s road. Ever since, he has experienced flooding in his basement. He lives at the foot of the road, which is about 200 or 300 yards long. When the water goes downhill from any mains, it ends up in his basement.
To set the scene, Yorkshire Water is the monopoly utility supplier of water in the region. It wields its monopoly power from a product that falls for free from the sky. It makes handsome profits; last year it made £116 million. It operates in a closed market with no competition, and it pays its top executives well. Its chairman, Kevin Whiteman, to whom I shall return, was paid a little short of £500,000 last year. Despite the profits and the pay of its bosses, Yorkshire Water has the worst performance on leakage of any water company in Britain. Ofwat last week condemned the firm for losing 295 million litres a day through leakages last year. Some of that 295 million litres has flooded the basement of my constituent’s home.
For nearly three years, Mr Georgiou has, with my help, asked Yorkshire Water to accept its responsibilities. That giant monopoly has treated a man who is struggling to keep his head above water—almost literally—and his business alive with nothing short of contempt. Following the classic behaviour of the bully, the more that Mr Georgiou has protested, the more the bullying has increased.
Mr Georgiou has had to install a pump in the basement of his house and shop, as if it were a ship of Nelson’s time that needed continuous pumping to keep it dry. He hardly dares to leave his home for the fear that the water may rise and cause an electrical short. It is surreal to go into a modest home at the foot of a road in Rotherham and find, beneath a ground-floor fish and chip shop, the steady ingress of water, with a pump working away and buckets present day and night.
Like all water companies, Yorkshire Water has a statutory duty to repair and prevent leaks. Instead of so doing, it has come up with excuse after excuse to explain why the water in Mr Georgiou’s home is nothing to do with it. I have here a huge file of letters, which make up a kind of comedy. Yorkshire Water explains that the land around Mr Georgiou’s house is damp. Well, it is damp in the winter when it rains and dry in the summer when it does not rain. The correspondence then states that it is drains water and that other homes have been affected. That shows a tenuous connection with truth, given that neighbours and previous inhabitants of 69 Foljambe road confirm that it is as dry as any other home, save for when the rain becomes so torrential that all Rotherham is damp for days afterwards.
I will not burden the Chamber by reading out the whole correspondence, but I will quote from Yorkshire Water’s own assessment:
“Some of the cellar water examples are in the range expected of mains water”.
It then quotes from the Yorkshire Water excuse book, as written by its Czech consultant, one Mr Kafka:
“because it is possible to propose other explanations of certain sample results does not mean that these other explanations are true.”
I have tried to work my head around that statement, of which the former US Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Rumsfeld, might have been proud. In plain English, Yorkshire Water was saying that anything that it says is true and anything that one of its clients says, even on the basis of independent advice, can be ignored.
Mr Georgiou is a determined and reasonable man. From his e-mails, it is clear that he is not the cross constituent whom all hon. Members know only too well. He has sought advice from and sent samples to outside experts and assessors. They have all come back and said that they think it is mains water from Yorkshire Water. At his own expense, Mr Georgiou has had his basement and the land around it dug up in search of the water leak. Yorkshire Water insists that he is responsible for the leak because it has nothing to do with water at the foot of Foljambe road.
In a letter dated 6 October 2008, Mr Trevor Craddy of Yorkshire Water complains about Mr Georgiou having hired a private plumber, at his own expense, to dig up the land to find where the water was coming from:
“One would have expected that the private plumber having been unable to find a leak would have stopped digging at that point.”
To stop digging is advice that Yorkshire Water might well have taken. For a small amount of money in relation to the firm’s profits and salary levels, it could have tanked the cellar and helped Mr Georgiou to focus on his fish and chips, rather than making him into a Rotherham David taking on the Goliath of this unaccountable, rich monopoly.
The environmental health department of Rotherham metropolitan borough council has investigated the leak and has shown that the water does not come from its pipes. All I have sought to do is to help my constituent, in a classic example of what an MP does at the constituency level. I have no axe to grind against Yorkshire Water; it is a good company in many ways, save for the wretched problem of endless leaks. I have secured this debate to ask the Minister to examine why it is that there is no effective mechanism to hold to account such powerful, rich monopolies. They have a licence to make money and pay pharaonic executive salaries, beyond public control or accountability. Ofwat appears to be powerless —we have written to it. Rotherham council is powerless. The Consumer Council for Water is helpless.
On 17 November 2008, Mr David Freeman of the Consumer Council for Water in Yorkshire wrote:
“We do not feel able to tell Mr Georgiou that we are satisfied that the problem is not mains water”.
That double negative flatly contradicts the constant line from Yorkshire Water that the water that is constantly going into Mr Georgiou’s home, that is making his life a misery and that is stopping him from developing his small business, has nothing to do with it. The Consumer Council for Water, like Ofwat, has no power to compel Yorkshire Water to behave responsibly.
I have tried to work with the company. I have had several conversations with Kevin Whiteman, who was Yorkshire Water’s chief executive officer and is now its chairman. In summer 2009, he agreed to make a joint visit to Mr Georgiou’s home, but that never happened. In what I thought was a reasonable way forward, he agreed to arbitration. I recommended that warmly to Mr Georgiou. Naturally, Mr Georgiou wanted his team of experts to discuss the matter with Yorkshire Water’s experts. One does not go into an arbitration by oneself to face a giant company that has a battery of scientists, technicians, lawyers and public relations people. Mr Georgiou and I said to Mr Whiteman that we would go to arbitration. We laid out the issues that we thought needed to be discussed, presented our papers and notified him of our team of expert witnesses.
Suddenly, however, Yorkshire Water and Mr Whiteman withdrew their offer of arbitration. I cannot, in my 16 years as an MP, remember such an example of bad faith and breach of trust by the CEO of a powerful monopoly. He offered arbitration, but the moment it was clear that arbitration would not deliver the result he wanted, he withdrew it. To withdraw that offer of arbitration, made to me and which I persuaded Mr Georgiou to accept, shows an indifference to fair play and to a basic level of respect for a British citizen who has nowhere else to go if he wants his water delivered—Yorkshire Water is, of course, a monopoly supplier.
That is why I have sought this Adjournment debate. I want to send a message to Yorkshire Water, on behalf of all the residents of Yorkshire, that the loss of 295 million litres a day from its pipes is not acceptable. The company and industry were privatised more than two decades ago. At the time, we were told that the companies had to take over from municipal water works engineers, who were just paid ordinary salaries, and that a shareholding structure with a board of directors and non-executive directors, and paying the chief executive and the chairman loads of money, would improve things. Yet here we are, 20 years later, and the leakage rate is as bad as ever, which is a huge waste of a precious resource when we are worrying about water shortages across the world and, frankly, not the best of tributes to the notion that privatisation of a monopoly public utility is the magic solution to making companies really efficient.
I sought an Adjournment debate with reluctance. I had obtained one some months ago, but withdrew it, because I still wanted Yorkshire Water and Mr Georgiou to come together and find a deal. I could not believe that the thousands of pounds of investigations, documents, technicians, lawyers and staff hours spent saying no to this man could possibly be justified. For probably a 10th of the collective money spent by Yorkshire Water in denying him his rights, it could have tanked the cellar and made good the problem.
All right hon. and hon. Members deal daily with difficult cases and we make our representations as best we can. However, I have never come across such a shocking example of the mistreatment of an individual without any resources or private wealth. The entire bureaucracy of Yorkshire Water has been deployed against Mr Georgiou. All he wants is for the firm to accept its clear responsibility and duty so he can carry on his business without manning the pumps in his cellar all the time.
I do not have time to read out all the letters and reports cranked out by Yorkshire Water as it spent thousands of pounds and hour upon hour of its employees’ time in order to crush Mr Georgiou. Instead of producing his fish and chips, he has had to engage in this lonely battle for justice. The latest twist to the tale is a county court civil case—again, Yorkshire Water would rather spend a fortune on lawyers than simply accept its responsibility.
I finish, frankly, in despair. The Minister is a decent man and, as a constituency MP, he can probably tell other dire stories of how powerful, unaccountable monopolies trample over the rights of citizens. He has no executive powers, as a Minister, to compel Yorkshire Water to do anything. I do not know if the new Government’s ideas of localism or the big society can alter the balance of power between the citizen and the monopoly or quasi-monopoly companies, which have so much power without responsibility in our land.
I regret having to bring the matter to the attention of the House—I do not want a war of words with Yorkshire Water—but my duty to my constituent is clear. I hope that Mr Georgiou can feel at least that his Parliament and MP can be voices against what I believe is a great wrong done to him. I am grateful to have had the privilege of securing this Adjournment debate today.
I start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) on securing the debate. Without commenting on his specific case, I also congratulate him on fulfilling the House’s fine tradition of right hon. and hon. Members standing up for their constituents when they feel they have been wronged. It might have been a tad easier to give the right hon. Gentleman a fuller response had I known he would raise that specific case, but I will do my best to talk about it. In my early remarks, I will set that case in context.
The control of leakage from water company distribution networks is a vital component in maintaining an adequate supply-demand balance in the supply of water. The failure of some water companies consistently to meet leakage targets undermines efforts to convince customers to adopt water-efficient behaviours. It is clear from the views expressed in the current water White Paper online survey that leakage is an issue held in high importance by the public, not just in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency but across the country.
The failure of some companies to meet annual leakage targets reflects badly on the generally good performance on leakage—that is why I would take slight issue with the right hon. Gentleman. He said that we are where we were 20 years ago, but there has been considerable improvement. It is not my job to defend or to be the voice of any water companies. If anything, my job is to ensure that a fair deal is being achieved by the consumer. However, we want to be accurate in dealing with leakage—it is not where we would like it to be, but we are moving in the right direction, and a number of different factors are involved. I will talk about some of those factors in a moment.
The latest figures show that leakage has reduced by more than a third since its peak in 1994-95—a reduction of 1,837 megalitres per day, equivalent to the daily needs of more than 12 million domestic customers. Between now and 2015, the target leakage in England and Wales is due to fall by a further 97 megalitres per day.
At this stage, it is useful to remember that fixing leaks can be costly—that is no excuse for it not happening, but it can be costly. Customers have told Ofwat, the independent regulator, that they do not want to see large rises in bills to reduce leakage, and, clearly, the serious disruption caused by digging up streets must be considered.
Companies are now reaching a level of leakage at which the extra costs associated with repairing leaks—in terms of manpower, materials, fuel, carbon emissions and so on—are equal to the costs of producing the water that is leaking. That is not to say that we should not redouble our efforts—of course we should—but we should see them in the full balance of what we are seeking for a modernised water company through the current review process.
The water companies report their leakage performance annually to Ofwat. When Ofwat assesses a company’s performance against leakage targets, any decisive external events are taken into account. The prolonged cold winter we experienced last winter presented a challenge to the water companies in managing an increase in burst mains and in minimising interruptions to consumers. The coldest winter for more than 30 years had different impacts on networks across England and Wales. All companies reported high numbers of burst pipes over that period because of ground movement caused by freezes and thaws—I am not saying that that is in any way related to the particular case referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. In addition, snow cover for longer than normal made it more difficult for the companies to find and repair their leaking pipes.
Ofwat’s primary consideration when deciding what action to take against a company that fails its leakage targets is whether the target failure affects customers’ security of supply. Does the increased leakage mean a higher risk of restrictions on customers’ use of water? A leakage target failure would be considered much more serious were it to jeopardise water supplies to customers. Ofwat’s policy for assessing leakage failures takes account of a company’s performance over a three-year period, and it does not automatically take regulatory action after a single year’s failure.
A range of options is available to Ofwat. The right hon. Gentleman said that it was powerless—I will come on to talk about his specific case—but Ofwat can act against a water company that is failing on leakages. For example, in 2006 Ofwat used its powers to secure an undertaking from Thames Water in response to a failure to meet leakage targets. Since then, Thames Water has reduced leakage by more than 190 megalitres a day. It achieved that by spending approximately £150 million of shareholders’ money, not by putting the cost on its bills. That is one tool that can be used to bear down on the problem.
During last winter’s cold weather, Yorkshire Water experienced an increased number of burst mains, and the same happened across the country. This is the first time the company has failed a leakage target since targets became mandatory in 1998-99. Since 1995, when the company received significant negative media coverage after the drought of that year, it has renewed more than 2,800 km of water mains. The right hon. Gentleman made some grudging, but nevertheless generous comments about the company’s performance on some issues, grinding his teeth as he did about pay issues, and I completely understand. As I say, however, I am here not to be the voice of the water companies or the regulator, but to make sure that the consumer gets the best deal.
On the circumstances of the case the right hon. Gentleman described, I must be extremely careful, because I understand—he may differ—that it is now the subject of legal proceedings. I will therefore have to be extremely guarded in the words that I use, and he will be able to correct me if the information I have is wrong.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, his constituent, Mr Georgiou, has experienced long-term, chronic ingress of water into his cellar—that is not disputed. He made a complaint to Yorkshire Water, which was not resolved to his satisfaction. The Consumer Council for Water became involved and supported Mr Georgiou in the processing of his complaint.
I will not reiterate the details of the case because the right hon. Gentleman has laid them before us, but I will answer some of his specific points. He said that the consumer council was unable to force Yorkshire Water to act, and he is absolutely right that it does not have the power to force a water company to take action. Nor is it in a position to determine liability in such cases. However, it does have powers to obtain any information required to ensure that customers’ complaints have been handled appropriately. My understanding is that it supported Mr Georgiou in getting the information that he required. A review of how the consumer council handled the case is being carried out by the regional chair, who will look carefully at these issues.
The right hon. Gentleman has a further opportunity to raise this matter through the parliamentary ombudsman on behalf of his constituent. He says that Ofwat has no specific powers to resolve this complaint, and he is right that it does not have the power to resolve complaints about liability in such cases. It appears the case has reached the point where it is the subject of legal proceedings. I would very much like to be able to say more, but I am informed that that could prejudice those proceedings.
The Minister is being extraordinarily fair and decent about this case. Nothing would give Mr Georgiou and me greater pleasure than not to have to proceed to a county court case, but to settle this matter modestly, cleanly and quickly now. As a result of this debate, I hope that Yorkshire Water might take that on board.
That is a very reasonable comment.
I started by saying that the House offers hon. Members the ability to stand up for people who feel, rightly or wrongly—this may be their perception or the reality—that they have been done down by a large company, bureaucracy or organisation, and it is entirely right that hon. Members have that ability.
On the exact rights and wrongs of this case, I have the right hon. Gentleman’s word, which I entirely endorse as correct. However, when such matters are dealt with in legal proceedings, other factors are sometimes brought in, and it would be entirely wrong for me to pass comment at this stage. None the less, the right hon. Gentleman’s comments are on the record. His persistence on behalf of his constituent is not only on the record of the House, but visible to those of us in the Chamber in the form of the file sitting on the desk in front of him. I assure him that if I can assist further without prejudicing legal proceedings in any way, I will, of course, be happy to talk to him.
Nuclear Power (Dungeness)
I want to pay tribute at the start of this debate to Councillor Willie Richardson, who represented Romney Marsh and Dungeness at Kent county council and Shepway district council. He was a great advocate of Dungeness and a supporter of nuclear power there. Sadly, Willie died last week, and his funeral will be held tomorrow in Lydd. He would have taken a great interest in today’s debate.
Dungeness nuclear power station has been an important part of the economy of my constituency for a number of years. The A station was given the go-ahead by the Minister for Power in 1959. In the deliberations before that decision, careful consideration was given to not only the need for new sources of energy to supply the national grid, but the unique environment of Dungeness.
Dungeness is a peninsula made largely of flint shingle that has built up over the centuries. It is one of the largest peninsulas of its kind in the world and the largest in Europe. It is right that it receives protection and special designation, as it has for many years, but it is also a working community, and people rely on the jobs that come from that community and, increasingly, from the nuclear power station.
The story of the success of Dungeness as a community involves the management and effective support of a brittle habitat and environment, with nature and man working successfully in partnership. Many would say that the arrival of nuclear power at Dungeness in the 1960s and 1970s has done a lot to underpin the important environmental work that has been done there. Indeed, some of the habitats, plants and wildlife that now exist at Dungeness would probably not be there were it not for the human intervention required to support and sustain the nuclear industry at Dungeness.
During the Government’s consultation on new nuclear sites, as part of the national policy statement on energy, there were considerable representations from my constituents, Shepway council and Kent county council about the economic importance of nuclear power at Dungeness. Approximately one in 10 jobs in Romney Marsh is linked, directly or indirectly, to the power station. It is estimated that Dungeness B station, the one that is currently in operation producing energy, puts about £20 million a year into the local economy. Without that continued investment and the continued presence of nuclear power it is hard to see how we could make up the shortfall. It is primarily for that reason that there has continued to be considerable support from the community for nuclear power at Dungeness, and for a C station—a new generation of nuclear power to replace Dungeness B when it stops production in the late 20-teens or in the 2020s. It is an important part of the local economy and we do not think we could live without it.
I believe that Dungeness could also play an important part in meeting the country’s energy needs. The Minister and his colleagues have spoken before about the need to keep the lights on and said that to do that we need new sources of energy production. The national policy statement on energy and the search for new nuclear sites is at the heart of that decision-making process. If we are not to be reliant on imported energy, whether gas from Russia or—particularly pertinent in my constituency—nuclear power from just across the sea in France, we need new sources of energy production. We believe that Dungeness is potentially an important new site for nuclear power and new energy.
These opening remarks set the context of the issue and its importance for my constituency. The matter has so far been considered by the Government through their consultations on the national policy statement. I do not want to go over old ground, but shall focus instead on some of the results in the recent report and update on the consultation, which the Government published last month. I was very disappointed, as were my constituents, that Dungeness was not included in the list of preferred sites in the national policy statement. It was on the previous Government’s original longlist of 11 sites, but last year that was reduced to 10, with Dungeness being removed. The list has now been reduced to eight approved sites, with three sites not approved within the national policy statement for the building of new nuclear sites to be completed by 2025.
I acknowledge that the Government’s report says many positive things about Dungeness. In particular it highlights the fact that Dungeness remains in many ways a credible site for deployment by 2025, and my constituents take considerable heart from that. However, the issue with the power station has been the objections, primarily from Natural England, that allowing a new power station to be built at Dungeness would be in contravention of the designations of the site, particularly those that were brought in through the EU habitats directive. There is legal protection for the site. I want to examine some of the issues relating to that protection, in response to the Government’s consultation.
First, the Government said in their consultation—I am quoting the site report for Dungeness:
“Given the nature of the issues at Dungeness, it may be easier to ascertain that there will not be adverse effects on the integrity of the SAC at the detailed project level of an application for development consent.”
The Government talk at some length in the site report for Dungeness about the fact that, even if the site is not included in the national policy statement, a developer and energy company could come forward with proposals that could go to the planning commission and ultimately to the Secretary of State for approval. Unfortunately there is a barrier to that process even being started, or to reaching the Government’s recommendation that perhaps, at that more detailed planning stage, it is possible to ascertain whether there can be mitigation of the loss of habitats and sites at Dungeness that will come from building a new power station. However, unless the site is included in the national policy statement, no energy company will be prepared to take such a risk, given the uncertainty about the detailed cost and the great expense involved in taking a nuclear power station proposal into the planning system, if it is not even clear in the Government’s national policy statement that they consider it to be a site that could be delivered.
Following the Government’s guidance in their own site report for Dungeness, could some consideration be given to including Dungeness in the national policy statement, while continuing to cite the Government’s reservations about loss of habitats, and stating that those would need to be considered and resolved at the planning stage, before the Secretary of State could give approval? If the Government were prepared to make that concession, an energy company might consider the site seriously and think about how a proposal could be taken forward, and the objections overcome.
Many people in my constituency would like Natural England’s objections to be examined more thoroughly. They relate primarily to designations protecting the rare vegetation on the shingle at Dungeness. It is a particularly important site and areas of the land would be lost. However, a new nuclear power station would directly affect only about 1% of the land of the entire special protection area and special area of conservation at Dungeness, so some of us would question whether it is true that a new power station would damage the integrity of the whole site. In relation to the European regulation, that is what should be considered—not necessarily the direct loss of one piece of land, but whether the integrity of the whole site there would be compromised.
Anyone who visits Dungeness A and B stations and looks carefully at the site can see the area of land that was laid out and prepared in advance, in the belief that a C station would come at some future point. It is very clear where the station would go. That land was, largely, disturbed when Dungeness B station was built. It has been protected and fenced in for 30 years or so since that time, and in that time the shingle has reverted to the appearance and the kind of habitat that was there before the station was built. It is believed that some of the plant life and vegetation has returned to the shingle, and that some of the insect life that existed at Dungeness before the B station was built has also returned.
I think that the return of the habitat should be carefully studied, to see whether the vegetated shingle at Dungeness is somewhat more robust than has been believed. Residents of Dungeness and Willie Richardson, when I saw him two weeks ago, have made the point that those who have lived in the community all their lives know that new vegetation springs up. Perhaps it is not such a delicate flower, but a slightly more robust species, albeit that the environment is one where many would find it hard to imagine plant life could grow. It grows and it returns, and that should be considered. The vegetated shingle at Dungeness may seem like a small point, but the jobs of thousands of people in my constituency and in East Sussex hang in the balance because of the interpretation of the regulations affecting the site. That creates a restriction on our ability to build a new station there.
The Government can also set aside consideration of the European regulations on habitats if they believe that there is an overriding national interest that allows them to do so. Indeed, for a number of the eight sites with which the Government are proceeding, they have made exactly that case and said that the national interest is such that development should be allowed. We would like that to happen at Dungeness as well.
The argument has been made that eight other sites can be developed first and that therefore Dungeness should wait. That seems incredible to us. If there is a good case for building the station, why should we wait for other sites to be built before we carry on and build it? Why not say that to proceed with nine sites would be entirely consistent with our view of our energy need? The Dungeness site could be developed before some of the other eight that the Government are considering. If they are prepared to say that there are national interest grounds for allowing the other sites to be developed, why not do the same with Dungeness?
Other countries have been in the same position and allowed national interest to take precedence over the environmental provisions, because they have thought it was the right thing for them. One example in a report submitted to the Government was Baden-Baden airport, where the German Government said that the site needed to be developed. The Government, in considering that, have said that there were not necessarily alternative sites, and that was only one airport site in one location; but no one would pretend that Baden-Baden airport is the lynchpin of the German aviation system or its primary hub airport. The German Government made a discretionary decision to allow that airport to go ahead, and we are asking the British Government to consider a similar case for Dungeness power station.
I have also investigated whether there is a good case for the national grid to have a feed-in point from a new nuclear power station at Dungeness. It is unique among all the nuclear sites that the Government have been considering in being south-east of London and in an area of high energy demand. The new power station would easily supply enough electricity to power the entirety of Kent, and more. There is an imbalance in the energy system. We need more energy coming in from the south. I contacted National Grid to ask its opinion and was told that the charges for connections to the grid are substantially lower in the south-east and on the south coast than in other energy-generating areas such as Scotland—particularly the north of Scotland. In a letter to me, the company said:
“It is more favourable for prospective new generation connecting to our network to locate in the lower cost charging zones, including the South and South East, thereby minimising transmission investment requirements.”
Do the Government not consider it part of the national interest that, in these difficult times, a good economic case can be made for locating a new power station closer to the area of greatest energy demand, particularly one that can be delivered relatively quickly?
The debate on whether Dungeness power station goes forward is based not on whether the local people are for it or against it. They are overwhelmingly in favour. Indeed, in general remarks made earlier in the year about where new stations should go, the Secretary of State said that consideration should be given to whether they can be built alongside existing nuclear sites and whether there is strong local support. Dungeness meets both criteria. It is not that Dungeness should not go forward simply because the Government believe that it is not a credible site or that it could not be delivered before 2025. It is and could be, and that was clearly stated in the Government’s site report. It is not that Dungeness should not go forward because the country does not need new energy capacity. We do, and the Government noted in the site report that the question is whether environmental decisions mean that Dungeness could not be delivered now, not that it could never be delivered.
We return to the environmental and habitat regulations. For many of my constituents, that brings up important questions of how our laws work and the way in which those laws control how we are governed. The regulations were brought into British law as an EU directive. When they were introduced, there was no debate and no local consultation on what they might mean. No one realised that it would effectively result in a block veto on a new power station at Dungeness. It is now years since we went through the process, however, and that is where we are.
I cannot believe that the Government truly knew of the extent of the regulations. Why would Dungeness have been included in the consultation longlist of the original 11 sites if the Government believed that it could never be deployed? That poses considerable questions about the way in which we are governed. The regulations, interpreted by the Government’s advisers, can ignore the views of local people, local councils, Members of Parliament, and perhaps even the private views of Ministers and others in the House. Instead, the regulations take precedence even when no one wants them.
We are left having to fight for something that I believe should be relatively straightforward. However, it is a fight that I am determined to pursue on behalf of my constituents, as many of their livelihoods depend on a new nuclear power station at Dungeness.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this debate. He is a great champion of Dungeness and, indeed, of the whole Romney Marsh area, which is in his constituency. I know that this debate is only the latest of his efforts to fight for his constituents, and I have no doubt that he will continue. My constituency of Bexhill and Battle is adjacent to Romney Marsh, so I know a little of the area. Indeed, I have ridden over it a number of times. It is a spectacular and wonderful part of the country. It is very special.
The debate is important, and my hon. Friend has raised some serious questions. I shall endeavour to respond to them. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who usually deals with nuclear energy matters, is unable to be here, so I speak for him today.
There are a number of points of detail that could probably be best advanced in a meeting rather than in debate, and I know that my colleague will be keen to pursue them.
I start by setting out the context for the coalition’s energy policy. The United Kingdom needs a robust mix of all types of clean energy assets—including, as my hon. Friend made clear, new nuclear power stations. We need such a policy in order to achieve the twin goals of energy security and dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, we wish to decarbonise the whole energy sector by the mid-2030s. As a result, we will need nuclear power.
Nuclear power is a proven low-carbon technology, and it is anticipated that it will play an increasingly important role as we diversify and decarbonise our sources of electricity. Failure to decarbonise and diversify could result in the UK becoming locked into a system of high-carbon generation, which would make it difficult and expensive to meet our 2050 emissions targets.
The nuclear power station at Dungeness has been generating low-carbon electricity for decades, for which we are extremely grateful. We have seen decades of service from the communities at Dungeness, Romney Marsh and the wider area, sometimes from the same families. I understand their concern about the loss of active generating capacity there and their strong interest in seeing a new build. That is perfectly understandable.
My hon. Friend suggests that we should think of the impact on the local economy. As he knows, we assessed sites against criteria that were consulted upon publicly. However, the criteria themselves do not directly cover the economic impact. That does not mean that economic factors are not important, and the accompanying appraisal of sustainability considered the impact of new nuclear power stations on surrounding areas. It noted that employment in the Shepway district council area is lower than the national average, and that a new nuclear power station at Dungeness would bring economic benefits to the area. Unfortunately, Dungeness failed one of the discretionary criteria, and we believe that there are better alternative sites.
The key is obviously planning. In the coming decades, we will need a substantial amount of new, local carbon-energy infrastructure, but it must be built in the right places. To help in this, the Government want a planning system for major infrastructure that is rapid and predictable, but still accountable. We announced our intention to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission and to move its expertise into a new major infrastructure planning unit, which will be part of the Planning Inspectorate. Consents for major infrastructure projects will be decided by Ministers, who are accountable to Parliament, and based on recommendations from MIPU. That will ensure that decisions are made by those who are democratically elected.
Planning decisions should be taken within a clear policy framework to make them as transparent as possible. The energy national policy statements, ratified by Parliament, will be a blueprint for decision making on applications for development consent for the relevant types of infrastructure. National policy statements will set out Government policy, so that the matter does not need to be reopened for each application, which is what led to delays in the past. National policy statements should also help applicants by giving greater clarity about matters that will be taken into account in making a decision. Our energy national policy statements are currently being consulted on, with the consultation ending on 24 January 2011. The national policy statements will also be scrutinised by Parliament: as set out in the coalition agreement, they will be put before Parliament for ratification.
The nuclear national policy statement identifies sites that the Government consider potentially suitable for the deployment of a new nuclear power station by the end of 2025. That will reduce speculation about where new nuclear power stations may go, and it will allow public engagement and national debate at an early stage in the process. Eight sites are listed. They have been assessed using a process and criteria that were consulted upon in 2008. The assessment was informed through an appraisal of sustainability and a habitats regulations assessment. It was also informed through the input of specialists, such as the regulators and the public and energy companies. After careful consideration, the nominated site at Dungeness, along with sites at Braystones and Kirksanton in Cumbria, were found not to be suitable.
I really do understand the concerns that have been raised by my hon. Friend about our not listing Dungeness. Responses to the consultation on the draft nuclear NPS illustrated the strength of feeling about the importance of Dungeness to local people and, in particular, to the local economy. However, after careful consideration of all the responses, including those from the local authority and EDF Energy, the conclusion has not changed.
None the less, I will preface my explanation with a reminder that we are currently consulting on a revised draft of the nuclear NPS and we will, of course, consider any new evidence that we receive. If my hon. Friend is able to bring forward new compelling evidence and can marshal that evidence, we would be receptive to it and he should certainly discuss that point when he meets my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden. However, the bottom line is that, to date, we have not seen any evidence that is sufficient to take us in a different direction.
Let me say why we have decided, on balance, that Dungeness should be excluded. Dungeness actually passed all but one of the assessment criteria, so I understand that the local community will have a heightened sense of disappointment, given that Dungeness came quite close to being listed. However, Dungeness did not pass the criterion on internationally designated sites of ecological importance. I also have to say that we have concerns about whether the site could be protected from flooding and coastal erosion.
The Minister makes an important point about flood risk. However, it is true to say that the nuclear site at Dungeness will have to be protected to support the decommissioning of the A and B stations, and the life and decommissioning of the C station will probably take place within that period.
That is a perfectly valid point. Nevertheless, there are concerns about the potential defence of the site, particularly given the advent of climate change and the sea-level rises that are due along that whole stretch of coastline.
However, the criterion on which the site failed really centred on the effects on ecological sites that are designated at the highest European level for their ecological importance. As my hon. Friend said, the assessment was carried out in line with the requirements of the habitats directive, which protects such sites.
Dungeness failed because we do not believe that a new nuclear power station could be built there without causing adverse impacts on the integrity of the Dungeness special area of conservation or that adverse impacts could be avoided or even substantially mitigated. Dungeness is the only nominated site that overlaps with a European designated site to such an extent that the avoidance of adverse effects is not possible. Furthermore, it is not considered that mitigation of the effects of direct land take is possible.
My hon. Friend raised the entirely legitimate point that there would actually be a very small amount of encroachment by any new site at Dungeness, and he asked if a smaller site would be acceptable. However, the fact of the matter is that changes on a small amount of land take do not necessarily have an equally small environmental impact. There are other important factors to consider, such as the sensitivity of the receiving environment. The assessment of Dungeness identifies the SAC as a most sensitive area. Natural England’s advice is that even a small area of land take may be deemed to have an adverse effect and that there are no minimum extents defined for whether an adverse effect would occur.
Our conclusion is that, even if a small “footprint” were taken, an adverse effect could not be ruled out, mitigation of any such effect would not be possible, and it would be very difficult to compensate for any such effect, due to the lack of a proven or accepted methodology for providing compensation, a lack of areas that are suitable or sufficient in size for habitat creation, the active role that coastal processes play in maintaining the shingle habitats and the time that it takes shingle vegetation communities to establish themselves successfully.
In the site report that the Government produced for Dungeness, there is a helpful page of summary of the concerns regarding the D6 criteria. The report notes that some concerns exist:
“due to lack of alternative shingle habitat in the area”.
As my hon. Friend the Minister will probably know, because he knows this particular part of the country, there is an awful lot of shingle there and I think that that is an argument that people have difficulty with.
My hon. Friend makes his point very clearly.
The Dungeness SAC is considered to be the most important shingle site in Europe and in fact it is one of the largest shingle expanses in the world. England has a significant proportion of the European total of vegetated shingle and the largest example of a shingle beach in England is at Dungeness, which is approximately 1,600 hectares in size and made up of ice age flint deposits. The pattern of shingle ridges at this site has built up over 5,000 years.
The buried and exposed shingle ridges at Dungeness are exceptional for the succession of unique shingle habitats that they support, as they demonstrate the evolution of such habitats. There are small depression features in the shingle structure at Dungeness, known as open pits, which are thought to be unique in the UK. The shingle also supports fen and open water communities and a large and viable population of great crested newts, which form part of the SAC designation. The site is considered to be one of the best areas in the UK and one of the most diverse and extensive examples of stable vegetated shingle in Europe.
Under the regulations that protect such sites, plans for development that are likely to have significant effects, such as the nuclear NPS, can be adopted only where the relevant authority, which in this case is the Secretary of State, is satisfied that there will be no adverse effects on the integrity of the protected site. As I have said, following consideration of responses received during the consultation, to date we remain of the view that a new nuclear power station cannot be built at Dungeness without having an adverse effect on the integrity of the Dungeness SAC.
Where such adverse effects cannot be ruled out, a site can be included in the NPS only if there are no alternative solutions; if there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest, which is a test that must be made under the habitats directive, and if effective compensation can be made. Our assessment has found that at the eight sites on the revised draft nuclear NPS there is potential for adverse effects on the integrity of Natura 2000 sites to be avoided or mitigated. Therefore, those eight sites are alternatives to Dungeness that meet the requirements of the habitats directive, as they better respect the integrity of Natura 2000 sites. I therefore have to say that, given the particular adverse effects in relation to Dungeness and the availability of the other eight sites to contribute towards meeting the need for nuclear-generating stations, the Government do not consider that listing Dungeness is justified. The assessment has also found that it would be difficult to compensate for adverse effects, such as direct habitat loss.
I know that that will come as a disappointment to my hon. Friend, but I also know that he will continue with his campaign. I assure him that, although I have given him our clear and stated view today, we remain open to new evidence.
Sustainable Communities Act 2007
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Turner.
Back in 2007, I was one of the sponsors of the Sustainable Communities Bill, which was so ably steered through its various stages by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who is now a Parliamentary Secretary in the Cabinet Office. I know that he would agree that the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 is rightfully the legitimate offspring of more than 120 national organisations, which came together under the umbrella of Local Works.
Pressure for the Act came out of the experience of people up and down this country who had watched their communities decline over the years and who recognised what that meant for their quality of life. At the heart of the problem was the loss of key local services. There was the closure of a fifth of the post office network in just a decade, and the loss of a quarter of our local grocery stores; also, a fifth of local bank branches went over that same time frame. More than 30,000 community retailers were painted out of the picture.
However, that process was not just about the high street or the village store, but about the quality of our public spaces and the run-down of community halls, community centres and children’s playgrounds. In addition, it was about recognising that losing community resources is not only bad for the local environment but impacts on the bigger picture, as it forces people to travel further and further from home to gain access to what used to be on their doorsteps. At the same time, Local Works and its contingent parts observed our country’s increasing disengagement with politics, while also picking up the message that people are prepared to re-engage and get involved if they believe they can make a difference by doing so.
The philosophy behind the drive for what became the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 is simple. First, community decline is a national and ongoing problem, and it will clearly worsen if nothing is done. Secondly, in most instances, the best efforts of local citizens and communities will not be enough to reverse the trend, so Government must help. However, communities are the experts on local problems and the solutions to them, so Government actions must be directed by communities and not central diktat. What was needed was a mechanism by which local people could drive Government action to reverse community decline and promote local sustainability. The Act was and is the vehicle for doing so.
I have said that the Act is the baby of the Local Works coalition. So it is, and I congratulate the coalition, but we should remember that the gestation period was very long and that a succession of hon. Members volunteered to act as midwife along the way. Essentially the same legislation was promoted by Julia Goldsworthy, by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), now Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and by the much-missed David Drew, then MP for Stroud. That demonstrates the cross-party nature of support for the legislation, just as early-day motion signatures and attendance at the Second Reading debate in 2007 demonstrated the strength and depth of that support in all parties.
One thing that united MPs with the organisations and communities so actively campaigning on the issue was the determination that the Act should not be just another consultation exercise. Of course consultation has a valuable place in our political development, but to reverse community decline, we needed something that delivered rather more. The Act sets in law for the first time a bottom-up process in which central Government have a duty to co-operate and reach agreement with the designated selector, the Local Government Association, on which proposals for Government action made by communities and councils will be implemented.
What has happened since the passing of the Act? In October 2008, the previous Government launched the first invitation of proposals. Local Works responded by holding more public meetings across the country, and organisations, communities and individuals lobbied their councils to resolve to use the Act. Some 100 local authorities responded, and in partnership with their communities they drew up 300 proposals for Government action and submitted them to the Local Government Association by the end of July 2009.
The scope and breadth of the proposals is eye-opening. They included measures to protect local post offices, shops, pubs and other suppliers; to increase the sale and production of local food; to protect local public services; to promote local renewable energy, microgeneration, energy efficiency and recycling; and to increase democratic participation. The wide-ranging nature of the proposals showed how enthusiastic communities had become about various aspects of the sustainability agenda.
The Local Government Association shortlisted 199 of the proposals and submitted them to the Government in January this year. Of those 199, Local Works identified 30 that it described as a vision for local sustainability, arguing that it is vital that the Government agree those proposals to protect and create truly sustainable communities. Many of the proposals involve no extra financial burden to the Treasury, as they simply devolve power, give councils new powers or change existing rules. So far, so good.
In preparing for this debate, I read the Hansard report of the Third Reading debate on the Sustainable Communities Bill. It is noteworthy that Members from all parties regarded the Bill as important legislation, especially for a private Member’s Bill. It is also noteworthy how many of them—including Ministers in the current coalition Government—looked forward to seeing the Act’s impact. There was a sense of urgency in the Chamber on that day.
The situation in which we find ourselves is therefore astonishing and extremely disappointing. To date, no negotiations have been reported between Government and the Local Government Association, as required by the Act, to reach agreement on the shortlisted proposals. Delaying doing good is always a cause for concern, but I believe that in this case there is an additional danger. Many people have spent time and energy getting involved in identifying how the Act can deliver for communities throughout the country. The feedback I have seen shows that some of those people are becoming extremely disillusioned, and disillusionment is often followed by disengagement.
To demonstrate that point, I shall quote from a few councillors and organisations worried by what they see as unnecessary delay. Councillor Anne Ward of South Hams district council said:
“It’s a disgrace that there’s been no movement on this for over a year—makes you wonder why we all bothered!”
Councillor Richard Robinson of Broxtowe borough council said:
“It has now been over a year and three months since proposals were submitted and yet they have still not been dealt with by the Government. There is now widespread grave concern that the huge numbers of people who put their time and energy into getting involved in the Act are becoming disillusioned and disengaged.”
Councillor Clare Hopkinson of Warwickshire county council said:
“It is unacceptable that government moves so slowly.”
Councillor Elaine Hall of Moor Monkton parish council said:
“It has now been a year and three months since these proposals were put before government and we need to see some action.”
Councillor Robert Dyson of Shadwell parish council wrote to the Minister, saying:
“I gather that 300 ideas were finally put forward to the last government some 15 months ago, since which time there has been neither feedback nor action.”
Tellingly, he went on:
“You are now part of a new Government, which is promoting the idea of the ‘Big Society’. If the idea is to be something more than a mere slogan, can you please give me some assurance that some active consideration will be given to the ideas put forward to promote local sustainability?”
Ruth Bond, chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, said:
“We now are encouraging the government to ensure the Act is properly implemented by dealing with the proposals. It is important that this is done soon as it is over a year since the proposals were submitted…When our members and others start to see results at a local level their involvement will have meant something and more people will be inspired to engage in this new democratic process. However if things drag on there is a serious risk that disillusion will creep in and further damage public involvement in democracy.”
Mike Benner, chief executive of the Campaign for Real Ale, said:
“Since early last year, many communities and councils, as well as our members and branches, have been involved in the Act. Hundreds of exciting ideas for government action to promote thriving communities, many of those relating to protecting and enhancing local pubs and local beer, were submitted as proposals. However, we are concerned that the process is dragging. It is over a year since the first set of proposals was submitted. Our members and others who got involved are starting to ask what is going on. Because of this we believe it is vital that the government deals with the proposals made under the Act urgently.”
I have similar comments from the chief executive of the Rural Shops Alliance, the director of Unlock Democracy, the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, the chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the executive director of Friends of the Earth.
A while ago, to try to stimulate action, I tabled early-day motion 178, which calls on the Government to deal expeditiously with the proposals under the Act. That motion is now supported by 236 Members from across the parties in the House—by far the highest number of signatures for any early-day motion this Session. I understand that the Government have said that it might be next year before all the proposals are dealt with. If so, the disillusionment I have demonstrated will deepen.
It also raises another question about process. Before the end of this year, the Government must announce the timetable for the second invitation of proposals required by the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on such an important issue. On process, does he agree that local authorities should have the option to submit proposals when they want, so that the 2007 Act creates a continuous, streamlined process?
It will be a continuous process, but I support the timetabling in the original Act, because it ensures that projects are considered and should have ensured that the Government were engaged by now with the Local Government Association.
I mentioned the consequences of the 2010 Act. That Act will mean that a new tranche of proposals will be invited very soon. As I say, if the Government do not pull their finger out, they will have to announce the second invitation before having dealt with the proposals from the first. That will send out all the wrong signals about the Government’s commitment to sustainable communities. Let us get things moving right now.
I recall that the Minister was at the Bill’s Second Reading debate. He intervened on the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner on the issue of garden grabbing—a subject I know is close to his heart. In responding, the Bill’s promoter described the Minister as
“a well-known champion of localism”—[Official Report, 19 January 2010; Vol. 455, c. 1041.]
Today, I am asking him to prove that that description is accurate.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Turner, and it is a privilege to respond to the debate, which has been initiated by the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton). Throughout my time as an MP, and before then, he has been a passionate advocate for all things local and sustainable. Indeed, he was described to me just this morning—I know he will take this as the compliment that it was intended to be—as being the new David Drew, to whom he referred earlier.
The hon. Gentleman has the admiration of the House not only for helping to secure the passage of the Sustainable Communities Bill, which he did with the now Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), but for rightly keeping up the pressure on the Government to take the required action. I join him in paying tribute to the Local Works coalition, which has been absolutely indefatigable from beginning to end. It was a tortuous process to get the Bill passed, and it is quite right that he is taking a continuing interest in ensuring that the provisions are enacted.
In responding to the hon. Gentleman’s passionate speech, I would like to do three things. First, I reiterate my personal view of the importance of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007—indeed, the Government share that view. Secondly, I am pleased to say that I can give him substantial reassurances on the points he raised. I hope that that will also reassure people listening to the debate. Thirdly, I shall discuss how, in the next round, we can respond to some of the bureaucratic problems that have beset the process to ensure that we can address the issues more speedily in future.
I supported the Bill during its passage through Parliament. I regard the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 as one of the most important pieces of legislation to be enacted in the past decade. The principles established by the Act mean that local people have the right to know what is being spent and done on their behalf in their communities. Armed with that information, local people should have the right to suggest alternative ways of proceeding. Local people’s right to have their suggestions seriously considered, rather than rebuffed, is the essence of a new approach to government that is fundamental and will change how government is done. I am determined to ensure not only that we follow those principles in the decisions we make about the Act, but that such principles underpin the localism Bill that will shortly be introduced to the House. It should no longer be possible for people in authority to say to community groups and local community institutions, “You can’t do what you want to do just because we say so.” Such an approach is not terribly good parenting and it is certainly not good government. We need to move away from it once and for all.
On the hon. Gentleman’s particular concerns about the timetable, he is right that the first invitation was issued in October 2008. Some 301 submissions were received by the LGA in July 2009 and a short list of 199 was supplied just before Christmas, on 23 December 2009. I share his frustration. When we came into government, I was pleased to be appointed to the portfolio with responsibility for the Act. Frankly, I hoped to be able to pick up a substantial body of work that had been done from December to May and to find that things had been properly scrutinised and were ready to be enacted. My inheritance was that no decisions had been taken and no decisions were ready to take.
Although incoming Ministers do not have access to previous Ministers’ papers—and rightly so—my understanding was that only about a dozen of the proposals were minded to be introduced with any particular speed. I will be candid with hon. Members: that was a disappointment to me when I came into office. However, I was determined that we should not simply progress a select, hand-picked few proposals that might catch the eye of Ministers, but that we should take a comprehensive approach and adopt the demeanour of wanting to say yes, rather than trying to find reasons to say no. Far from there having been no negotiations with the LGA selector, I have, in fact, been through all the proposals with it. We have already agreed with the LGA selector on half the proposals.
I have no doubt about the Minister’s commitment to localism, but I am a little worried that he says that there have been negotiations with the LGA. Openness and transparency are at the heart of the Bill, and the process by which the selector—the LGA—chose which measures it wanted to send on to the Minister was done openly in open meetings. He now informs me that there have been negotiations, but they have not been reported to anybody. They have certainly not been reported to those bodies and organisations that are the driving force behind making the Act work.
In fact, the term “negotiations” is a misnomer because we found it easy to agree. There is positive volition on the part of the Government to say yes to as many of these proposals as we can. Within the next few weeks, I hope to be able to agree—I am meeting the chairman of the selector again next week—with the selector on all the proposals made under the Act. What the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely correct: if we are to move on to the next round—as, indeed, we will be doing—we ought to have dealt with the current proposals. I have been very careful and have personally gone through every proposal made—there are a lot of them and they consume much paper—and I hope to be able to give a positive response to about two thirds of the proposals selected by the selector. That relates to two thirds of all short-listed proposals. I hope that our response, which again I hope will be made soon, will be very positive.
My Department’s business plan commits us to making these decisions by the end of January 2011. That is our published commitment. As I say, it is a source of frustration that more preparatory work was not done by the previous Government. I do not want to make a party political point; it is more of an administrative point. It would have been nice not to have had to start from scratch on the matter but, in the time we have had, we have made pretty good progress. I would like to be in a position to make that announcement well before the published requirement of the end of January 2011. I would much prefer to be able to do it before the end of the year—before Christmas—and I will be pushing for that.
What the Minister is saying is very welcome indeed. I would just like to challenge him on two things. He is being a little unfair on Ministers in the previous Government. Obviously he has not seen the papers, but I think considerable progress was made—although admittedly that was initially on, as he says, about a dozen projects. More importantly, is he saying that we will have the announcement on the projects before the end of this year?
That is my intention. I should reiterate that our public commitment is to making the decisions by 31 January 2011, but I am doing everything I can to bring that forward. If we can make the decision before the end of the year—before Christmas even—that is what I would like to do. I am personally working with my officials and with the LGA selector to try to do that. In any event, the published self-imposed deadline of 31 January is a backstop, but I would like to use best endeavours to bring that forward.
In response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on the subsequent invitation for the next round, I would like to make a simultaneous announcement on the arrangements for the next round of submissions from community groups across the country. It is not a one-off exercise, but the beginning of a different way of approaching government, and I am absolutely determined to build on it and go further. We want to do that as soon as possible, and certainly before we are obliged to do so.
My hon. Friend touches on an important point. I pay tribute to the selector panel and, in particular, to Councillor Keith Mitchell, who has put a great deal of effort and personal commitment into scrutinising the measures and putting them forward. Here we get on to the wider agenda, because the principle embodied in the 2007 Act is that communities of all descriptions, including, but not exclusively, local government, should have access to the machinery of government so that they can unblock the barriers that prevent them doing what they could do. I want to look at how we can extend that.
One of my earliest impressions when I became a Minister was that I had access to a wide range of talented people in the Department who are there to help turn ideas into reality and policy ideas into law. However, my view, which I suspect those hon. Members present share, is that the best ideas are not the exclusive preserve of Ministers, or even of senior officials, in Whitehall, but actually come from people in communities. It seems to me, therefore, that the support and advice that Ministers have access to ought also to be available to people in communities. That is a commitment that I have made and am working on so that we can, almost literally, turn government upside down in the Department, to make help and support available to people in communities, rather than being exclusively for Ministers to help them get things done. After all, if Ministers need help in overcoming some of the barriers, goodness knows that people in communities will, too.
I have established a team that we refer to as “barrier busters”. During the last Communities and Local Government questions, I extended an invitation to Members who have examples of burdens, rules, regulations and barriers that are standing in the way of local action, and which only central Government are able to remove, to contact the Department so that we can give them access to people who can help them to look at the regulations and the law or to bang heads together in Whitehall if that is necessary. We will not always succeed, but we will certainly do the best we can to achieve that.
The opportunity in the next round is to make access to our “bureaucracy busters” more widely available across the country and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham suggested, to see whether we can ensure that we do not need to wait for a long time before acting on good requests. If something is a good idea, we should get on with it.
By coincidence, I happened to have a meeting with Local Works and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner this morning to discuss how we can really build on the ambitions and the early success of the Act to go ever further and better in future. I hope that we can make some improvements to the system that will make the Act even more effective in the months ahead.
I welcome the invitation to visit the bureaucracy busters. On the theme of consulting Members of Parliament, if it proves that the Minister cannot deliver the accelerated timetable that he clearly hopes to deliver, would he be prepared to meet a cross-party delegation of Members to discuss how we move forward?
I do not need to make it contingent on that eventuality: I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman at any time and with any colleagues who have a contribution to make. MPs are leaders in their communities and have experience and knowledge, as he has in spades, about some of the obstacles we need to overcome, so I would be happy to meet him and other colleagues in the weeks ahead. Our formal commitment, which I ought to respect, is to make a decision by the end of January, but I will do everything in my power to make that earlier.
The approach embodied in the 2007 Act that local and specific approaches to problems can provide lessons on how things can be done better by other communities, not only in that area, but across the country—possibly around the world—is a powerful way of thinking about government. It is about helping with the specifics, learning the lessons and then taking practical action. I am determined that our response will respect the spirit of the Act and indeed will imbue our whole approach to government. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to discuss the matter today and hope that all Members, and everyone who has given their time, effort and commitment to the process, will shortly see that there is an even greater prospect of success in the future than we have heard today.
Question put and agreed to.