House of Commons
Thursday 15 September 2011
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Rolling Stock Contracts
2. What assessment his Department has made of the ability of British-based train manufacturers to win contracts for rolling stock. (71829)
Since privatisation, Bombardier, as the only current UK-based train manufacturer, has supplied the majority of new trains across the UK main line rail and London underground networks, with a combined total of over 4,500 new carriages ordered since 1996. Going forward, there are a number of contracts that the Department would expect Bombardier to bid for, including the Crossrail project for the supply of around 600 carriages, and it is already a pre-qualified bidder. The tender for this contract is due to be issued in 2012. There are also potential future orders for the London Underground deep tube lines.
I listened to what the Secretary of State had to say and, quite frankly, I could have predicted his response. Why is he not prepared to do anything to reconsider his disastrous decision to award the Thameslink contract to a company that intends to build these trains in Germany?
I sometimes get the feeling that I am talking to a brick wall on this subject. I have said it before and I will say it again: the criteria by which the bids were to be evaluated were laid down by the Government in 2008. The criteria have to be followed, although they might not be the criteria the hon. Gentleman would like. We have made a commitment to look at the way we specify the criteria in future public procurements, but on this project it is Labour’s mess and we are landed with it.
Tom Blenkinsop: I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman told the Transport Select Committee that there was an option to review or restart the Thameslink procurement process at any time during the year before naming the preferred bidder. Will he now admit that that was a terrible mistake, which has put at risk Bombardier, Britain’s last train manufacturer, and thousands of British jobs down the supply chain?
The only other option available to the Secretary of State—I have to repeat myself again—would have been to cancel the Thameslink procurement completely and abandon the project. That power exists, but there is no power to alter the terms under which the competition is conducted once it has begun. That was made very clear by the representative from the European Commission and by the academic lawyers who gave evidence to the Select Committee.
The Prime Minister has agreed that the growth review should include a review of public procurement in the UK, and that work is now under way. We will look at what happens in other EU countries that are similarly constrained by EU procurement rules, and we will look at best procurement practice in large commercial companies to maintain long-term best value. We will certainly look at the opportunities provided by, and the appropriateness of, including socio-economic criteria, where appropriate.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to join me in congratulating Invensys, based in my Chippenham constituency, on winning a multi-million pound signalling contract on the Thameslink project. A world leader in train-signalling technology, Invensys has in the past experienced some difficulty in winning domestic contracts. What steps is the right hon. Gentleman taking to ensure that recognition of UK engineering talent is more commonly the rule rather than the exception?
The general rule is that we would expect to evaluate bids for contracts on their merits. Companies such as Invensys and, indeed, Bombardier have won many contracts on their merits, but we will look at whether we should, in appropriate cases, include wider socio-economic issues and factors, which some other EU member states routinely do in their public procurement processes.
Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister made a speech about the importance of investment in infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State provide some examples of how that might lead to more opportunities for UK-based train manufacturing in the short term?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We are sensitive to the pressures that the UK train manufacturing supply chain—not just Bombardier but the component suppliers—are under, and the Department is urgently looking at some other projects that might be advanced. In particular, the industry proposed a project to modify the cross-country Voyager train fleet so that it could run under electric power, which would provide—if Bombardier were to win the contract—a substantial piece of work for the crucial design department in Derby. That is at the heart of securing the future of that business.
Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister told the right hon. Gentleman to speed up delivery of Crossrail. Will he update the House on the new completion date for the project, which will, I presume, now be earlier than December 2019, the date to which he pushed it back after the election?
The Deputy Prime Minister did not tell me to speed up the Crossrail project. The thrust of his speech was the need to ensure that committed capital funds are spent on their intended profile. The requirements to keep demand in the economy mean that we must get those vital capital programmes spent on programme, and the Crossrail project is spending on programme and will deliver the completion of the project from 2016, with full running from 2019.
So the Deputy Prime Minister was wrong—there is no plan to bring forward projects and no plan for growth. May I ask the Transport Secretary about the procurement of trains for Crossrail? After his disastrous decision to award the Thameslink train contract to a company that will build the trains in Germany, putting at risk Britain’s train manufacturing industry, he has said that he is reviewing the Crossrail contract. As he has just confirmed that Crossrail is still being delivered on his slower timetable, rather than reviewing it for six months, why does he not scrap the process and start again, and this time ensure that Bombardier has a fair chance to secure the work. Finally—
The hon. Lady is all over the place. There is nothing to scrap in relation to the Crossrail rolling stock procurement programme, because we have not started that procurement yet. We announced that we will postpone the issue of the invitation to tender until the new year, in order that consideration be given to the findings of the growth review and how public procurement in this country can best support the strategic interests of the supply chain. The broader Crossrail project, involving a major infrastructure investment—the tunnels across London—is, as the hon. Lady and anyone who travels around London knows, already under way as is manifest in the large number of big holes in the ground.
3. What assessment he has made of recent trends in levels of rail travel. (71830)
Annual statistics for the year ending March 2011 published by the Office of Rail Regulation show that passenger travel rose during the year to reach an overall, all-time high of 33.6 billion passenger miles. The number of rail journeys has been rising steadily each year since privatisation with only one slight drop in the total during 2009. Since then the upward trend has resumed to reach a total of 1.4 billion journeys undertaken. Long-distance rail travel has nearly doubled since privatisation.
Will the Secretary of State put some pressure on Network Rail about the state of their stations? Whitland station, in my constituency, is now in such a deplorable state that it works against people wanting to travel on rail and against attracting tourists to our area.
Management of stations is the responsibility of train operators. Under the revised franchise programme that the Minister of State has announced, we intend to transfer leasehold ownership of stations to the franchise train operator, so that it can have a more direct, hands-on involvement. However, I will look into the specific example about which my hon. Friend asks.
The Secretary of State’s extraordinary statement that rail travel is something for rich people could be made only by one of the southern millionaires in the Cabinet. If he came to Rotherham, he would see plenty of people who are not rich, but they are now being threatened with the ticket office at Rotherham station, which is being rebuilt, being taken away. May I put it to him that many of my constituents do not do computers and need help and aid? That ticket office at Rotherham station must stay.
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what assisted channels are. Even as the purchase of tickets, over time, is bound to become more computer based, as new technologies are deployed and more tickets are bought online, through mobile technology and so on, there will still be a need for an assisted channel, and we will ensure that there is one.
Price is clearly a major factor in determining how many people use the railways. The previous Government went for above-inflation increases each year, and we have argued for increases below inflation. The Government have gone for 3% above RPI. Does the Secretary of State accept that 8% increases in rail, and 7% increases in London transport, is simply too much for people to deal with.
The hon. Gentleman says “we”. I am not sure who the “we” is. We have decided that we will have to increase rail fares by 3% in real terms for the next three years in order to protect the major programme of investment in the rolling stock, electrification and new infrastructure that the country needs. It is a tough decision, but it is the right decision.
Heavy Goods Vehicles
4. What assessment he has made of the potential road safety implications of increasing the maximum length of heavy goods vehicles. (71831)
In March I published a feasibility study and impact assessment on longer semi-trailers, undertaken by consultants including the Transport Research Laboratory. The research, which is available in the Library, includes consideration of the potential road safety implications.
Many streets in my constituency are already unsuitable for long heavy goods vehicles, and the thought of even longer vehicles trying to get down narrow city streets will horrify many people. As the Minister knows, blanket lorry bans are not possible in many urban areas, for all sorts of reasons. May I urge him to think again, and to reject the proposal to allow even longer lorries on to totally unsuitable streets in urban and rural areas?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but he should note that because the turning wheels of longer semi-trailers are at the back, their turning circles are much tighter than those of existing lorries. I know that because I used to drive heavy goods vehicles myself. However, I will look into the points made by the hon. Gentleman, and we will announce our proposals when the House reconvenes next month. Then at least the industry will know exactly where we are going.
Has the Minister considered the environmental impact of very long vehicles, particularly in relation to small rural roads, and the safety implications for pedestrians and cyclists of elongated public service vehicles in the form of articulated buses?
We have indeed considered the environmental impact of longer semi-trailers, and have concluded that there will be less pollution in the community. There will be fewer lorries, because the longer lorries will be able to carry more cargo than can be carried now. We considered carefully whether longer semi-trailers posed a risk to cyclists in particular, and the risk is not there.
I know that the Minister is in some pain this morning owing to a tooth abscess, and I do not want to add to his discomfort, but people—motorists, cyclists and pedestrians—are frightened by heavy goods vehicles, and longer vehicles will cause even greater anxiety. Given the 40% cut in road safety funding and the results of the Department’s own consultation, which suggest that the number of casualties may be marginally higher if longer vehicles are introduced, will the Minister ensure that the road safety element features highly in his consideration? Surely it must be at the top of his agenda.
It is very kind of my shadow opponent to worry about my abscess, but I promise him that the NHS dentist will look after it for me.
We will carefully consider the road safety implications of longer semi-trailers, but we must sweat our assets better on the roads. We are not going to introduce heavier weights, and we are not going to introduce the mega-trucks whose introduction has been proposed to us. We will look carefully at the length of trailers to ensure that more products can be taken around the country with the same weight, the same fuel and fewer emissions.
I shall have to write to my hon. Friend about the A64. As for moving more transport on to rail, the industry rightly says that trains often take goods to the rail hubs, and trucks—which will now be the longer semi-trailers—take them from there to the distribution centres and supermarkets. When the longer vehicles are introduced, there will be fewer traffic problems, fewer lorries and more rail transport, which is what we want.
The Government recognise the importance of passenger opinion to their decisions about rail investment. The National Passenger Survey produces a network-wide assessment of passenger views on rail travel, which is used to inform the refranchising process alongside franchise-specific consultations. Other work by Passenger Focus, the independent advocate for rail users, also provides valuable input to decision making.
When I meet Slough’s rail commuters next Tuesday, they will tell me that they are fed up about the £170 increase in their fares next year, and fed up that three of the 10 most overcrowded trains in the country serve Slough. We are to have no new carriages, the Minister is dithering about whether we will be able to use Oyster cards—which will help to relieve the position—and Crossrail, although welcome, will slow down Slough’s service. What has the Minister to say to the commuters whom I am meeting on Tuesday?
I recommend that the hon. Lady say that this Government are fully committed to a major investment programme for our railways, much of which will benefit her constituents, including electrification, the intercity express programme, the provision of new rolling stock in the future, and improving the overall reliability of the line for her constituents, with the bottleneck at Reading station being dealt with. We are taking the concerns of the hon. Lady’s constituents very seriously. We recognise the anxiety about rail fares, but we are determined to get the costs of the railways down so that we can give better value for money to passengers and taxpayers.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the latest assessment of the High Speed 2 consultation that closed in July? Will she also reassure my constituents, all of whom are rail passengers, that every single one of their views will be taken into account?
6. What recent discussions he has had on reform of rail franchising. (71833)
The Secretary of State has held discussions that cover franchise reform in a number of meetings with rail passenger groups, local authorities, train operators. Network Rail and others.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she agree that as well as encouraging investment the Government’s franchising policy must be focused on efficiency, which in the long run will ensure that inflation-busting fare increases become a thing of the past?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Our rail franchising reform has the dual purpose of promoting private sector investment and delivering better services to passengers and of reducing the cost of running the railways. As I said in answer to the previous question, that is part of the wider strategy of working with the rail industry to get costs down and provide better value for money for passengers.
Talking about leaving messes that other people have to clear up, the privatisation of the railways has been a mess ever since it was introduced. May we address the issue of the franchise for the east coast line, as the commute to and from London that it provides for my constituents is a disgrace? When they want to travel cross-Pennine, they have to use trains that should be in the York railway museum.
I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the impact of privatisation. More people currently travel by rail than at any time since the 1920s, and reliability levels are high. I acknowledge that reliability on the east coast line should be better, however, and both East Coast and Network Rail are focused on that, as is my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). We do think that reliability needs to improve on the east coast line, but we also believe that, overall, privatisation of the railways has brought some tremendous benefits, including increasing passenger numbers.
The Government will carefully consider the McNulty review recommendations, including in the context of the specifications we put in place for rail franchises. Many of the decisions about ticket offices are addressed in what is known as the ticketing settlement agreement, and we will also consider that. We need to get the balance right by modernising the system so that it reflects the fact that the many new ways of buying tickets—such as the increasing use of smarter ticketing and internet purchasing—will in future change what we require from ticket offices, while also ensuring that people have the right channels through which to buy tickets.
Concessionary Coach Travel
10. What consultation he has had with coach operators on the effects of the withdrawal of the coach concessionary travel scheme. (71838)
The decision to end Government funding for the half-price coach concession was announced as part of the 2010 spending review. The Government have corresponded with affected operators on the proposed change and my officials have held discussions with National Express—one of the operators affected by the phasing out of the concession. An impact assessment relating to the ending of the coach concession has been submitted to the Reducing Regulation Committee. The final assessment will be published on the Department’s website and a copy will be placed in the Library of the House.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but I suspect that he will have received, as I have, countless letters from constituents who see much more expensive coach travel coming down the line as a result of the scrapping of the scheme by October 2012. Am I right in my understanding that no public inquiry with disabled or older people’s groups has been carried out? If so, what justification can he have for scrapping the scheme without first consulting the most affected users?
Of course we assessed the proposal as part of the spending review, and I mentioned the Reducing Regulation Committee assessment a moment ago. May I suggest that the position is not quite as apocalyptic as the hon. Gentleman makes out? A year ago, after the 2010 spending review announcement, National Express said:
“We are already planning for the removal of the coach concessionary fares scheme in October 2011 and will announce new products aimed at the over 60s and disabled travellers in due course. We believe the financial impact of the scheme’s removal is manageable and will be mitigated by our own plans”.
I thank the Minister for his comments. Many elderly and disabled people in my constituency have become reliant on coach travel because of its ease of use and cost-effectiveness. If this decision results in the withdrawal of some routes, what choice does he think those vulnerable groups in my constituency will be left with, given that train travel is acknowledged to be very expensive?
First, we have retained the bus concession in its entirety when many thought that was vulnerable in the current financial circumstances—that has not been chopped in any way. Secondly, the senior citizen railcard continues to exist, and it enables those people to receive a significant discount on rail travel. Thirdly, as I have said, National Express, which is by far and away the largest coach provider, is intending to put its own scheme in place, and I am sure it will do that. I say that, first, because it makes commercial sense for National Express to do so and, secondly, because the profits on its coach division increased by 14% in the last six months.
This proposal beggars belief—only on planet Norman can this be a good idea. Does the Minister not understand that removing the concessionary coach fares—an entitlement for almost 12 million pensioners and an additional number of disabled people—will, as Age UK puts it, have a “devastating effect” on many people, who will struggle to afford their coach journeys in future? Does he not see that by cutting too far and too fast his approach is having an unfair impact on pensioners and disabled people, and increasing the chances of them being socially isolated?
That was rather over the top, if I may say so. The fact is that National Express operated its own coach concession arrangements before 2003, and it indicated last year that it believes the situation is manageable and that it intends to introduce a further concession. As I said a moment ago, the profits of the UK coach division of National Express have increased by 14%. Indeed, the profits of the National Express Group—a very successful company—have risen by 26% in the first half of this year. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the public purse should subsidise the profits of National Express, that would be an odd position for the Labour party to take.
The Government are strongly in favour of cycling, as we said in our coalition agreement. On 5 July, I announced the allocation of £155.5 million to 37 authorities to deliver packages of measures that support economic growth and cut carbon emissions, as part of the £560 million local sustainable transport fund—many of these include cycling. I will announce the remaining allocations in summer 2012. In addition, I have established a cycling forum, which met for the first time this week. We want to get more people cycling, more safely, more often.
The Minister will undoubtedly be aware of the huge success that cycling city status has brought south Gloucestershire. Could he now seriously consider the North Fringe to Hengrove major scheme bid that his Department has received recently? The scheme will further enhance cycling provision and will boost economic growth.
I agree that the initiatives in south Gloucestershire have been successful, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his inventiveness and ingenuity in including that question under this heading. He will understand that the project he mentions is subject to assessment under the development pool arrangements. A decision will be made later this year, but his support for the scheme is noted.
CTC reports that the biggest deterrent to cycling is fear of busy roads. What are the Government doing to improve driver training and put more emphasis on cyclists’ needs? How can the Minister ensure that dangerous or intimidating driving is made as unacceptable as drink driving?
Dangerous and intimidating driving is already subject to police enforcement, but we are taking steps to ensure that drivers are aware of cyclists on the road. A Trixi mirror pilot has been approved for London, and it is now in place and showing good results. The Under-Secretary with responsibility for road safety is very aware of this issue and is looking at driving training for HGV drivers in particular.
Rail Network (Sustainability)
Despite the deficit, the Government are investing £18 billion in the railway, supporting projects such as Crossrail, Thameslink, electrification and extra carriages on crowded routes. We are also determined to get the cost of running the railways down, and we are putting together a reform package to deliver this which will draw on the report produced by Sir Roy McNulty.
I thank the Minister for her reply. The Government have already announced improvements to the midland main line, which it is hoped will result in line speed improvements, but there is still a very strong business case for full electrification. What hope can she give me and many other MPs along the midland main line route that the Government will consider full electrification, particularly in the light of the HS2 route having being published so recently?
I can say that, yes, we will be consider whether the midland main line can be electrified as part of the work in HS2 control period 5, but we will also have to consider competing projects such as the northern hub or the electrification of the trans-Pennine route.
On train fares, may I ask the Minister for special consideration for commuters in Gillingham and Rainham and the south-east, which have had excessive RPI plus 3% increases since 2006? The Minister will know that commuters in the south-east have had excessive and unfair increases for that period.
I well understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, and he has lobbied hard on this issue. The fares are contributing to investments that have been made on the Southeastern franchise in the past and fares now and in the future will contribute to the major investment programme that the Government are delivering, but in the longer term it is vital that we get the cost of the railways down to respond to passenger concerns about value for money.
Elderly and disabled constituents of mine would like to access the rail network but are prevented from doing so by the poor station facilities. Merseytravel has had a budget cut of two thirds, which has caused delays to the installation of a lift at Formby station, to give one example. That lift is vital if elderly and disabled people are to be able to travel on the rail network at all. Will the Minister consider reversing that cut?
I will certainly look into the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned and write to him about it. I emphasise that access for all funding is continuing under this Government and is part of a major programme of upgrades that we have committed to undertake, despite grappling with a deficit that is as serious as anything in our peacetime history.
Economic cases for large projects are periodically refreshed—for example, to reflect the latest economic forecasts. A robust economic case for HS2 was prepared for the recent consultation, with a benefit-cost ratio of 1:2.6. An update will be published later this year. The latest update of the Crossrail economic case was published in July 2011, with a BCR of 1:1.97. I should make it clear that the economic case is only one of the criteria used in decision making for transport infrastructure projects.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. As he made clear, the business case for HS2 is stronger than the business case for Crossrail. The HS2 business case gets even better if the link north of Birmingham is taken into account. Given that fact, will the Minister consider bringing forward the construction of HS2 in order to stimulate the economy in the same way as has been mooted for Crossrail?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the HS2 project. Let me give him an example to reinforce his point. At the time the decision was made to build the extension to the Jubilee line, the BCR was less than 1, but I do not think that many people would argue today that we could possibly do without the Jubilee line extension. The construction profile and overall project profile for HS2 are based on the requirement to obtain parliamentary and other statutory consents and the cash-flow limitations of the Treasury’s ability to fund a project on such a scale. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to accelerate it.
I know the Secretary of State will be aware that there is widespread political and business support in my city, Sheffield, for HS2. Will he also consider how improving the connecting links to the wider city region could make the business case for HS2 even stronger?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I have said time and again that a major infrastructure project such as HS2 is not an alternative to routine investment in the rest of the rail network and that to get the maximum out of HS2 we will also need to improve the connectivity from the nodes on the HS2 railway to the surrounding areas.
Rolling Stock (Procurement)
As stated at the Select Committee on Transport on 7 September, for all future Government-led procurements—not just those for rolling stock—the Prime Minister has asked the growth review to examine the degree to which the Government can set out the requirements and the evaluation criteria with a sharper focus on the UK’s strategic interest, including a review of public procurement practice and outcomes in other EU member states and a review of current private sector best practice. The results of those reviews will inform future Government-led procurements.
I am sorry that the Secretary of State feels that he is talking to a brick wall when Members raise legitimate concerns about the impact on jobs of the Bombardier decision. I am concerned about the impact on Leicester, where many firms are part of the supply chain. What reassurance can he give those firms now that the majority of our trains will be built abroad?
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong to say that the majority of our trains will be built abroad. One contract has been awarded to Siemens, and those trains will be built in Germany. Other contracts are in the pipeline, and Bombardier remains a very strong bidder. It has demonstrated over the last 15 years its ability to win a majority of UK train orders. From 2014 we will have a second UK-based train builder, Hitachi, in the plant that it is establishing in Newton Aycliffe, with the creation of 600 new jobs.
I very much welcome the review of how the Department implements the procurement rules. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no time like the present for a thorough review of how this country has, in the past, gold-plated EU directives and regulations?
I should emphasise to my hon. Friend that the review is not concerned simply with train procurement but is a review of public sector procurement across the board. It will look at what is happening elsewhere and whether there are things that we can do differently so that procurements initiated by this Government do not have the flaws that hon. Members are identifying in the Thameslink procurement initiated by the last Government.
Since I last answered Transport questions, the consultation on high-speed rail has closed. The Department has announced £155 million of investment from the first-round allocation of the local sustainable transport fund, concluded deals to put new carriages on key commuter rail routes, set out the next stages in the Department’s rail franchising programme and launched a consultation on proposals for new lane rental schemes to cut the number of rush-hour roadworks.
Many of my constituents who are not rich but were used as guinea pigs for RPI plus 3% by the last Government have no choice but to commute by coach, getting up at 5 or 6 am to get into London. Will Ministers welcome the statement by Southeastern yesterday that it will henceforth use the flex possibility to consider elasticities so that areas where people are not well off and where there is significant competition may see lower fare increases in future?
T2. Yesterday’s unemployment figures were disastrous for Wirral and the wider Merseyside economy. Given that RPI is now over 5%, will the Secretary of State explain how his RPI plus 3% train fare hikes will help work pay for ordinary people? (71849)
Merseyrail is on a different fares framework from the rest of the country—I think that it is on RPI. We all fully recognise the concern about rail fares. The decision on RPI plus 3% has been taken to enable us to deliver a massive programme of rail upgrades, which is essential if we are to deal with passenger concerns and promote vital economic growth.
T4. Last night I drove down to my constituency and, unusually, the motorway was very clear. However, it is often the case that there are accidents on both the M3 and the M4 and it seems to take an unfeasibly long time to get the motorway reopened afterwards. Will the Department do something about that? (71851)
My hon. Friend raises a very topical point. She may know that in August we had one of the longest ever post-accident closures on the M25 very close to my own constituency, as it happens, when the motorway was closed for more than 24 hours following an accident. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), has been in discussion with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the police lead on traffic services. A working group is now operating between the Highways Agency and ACPO, which will be reporting before the end of the year. We have also allocated £3 million to invest in the latest laser scanners to allow the police to record traffic accident scenes more quickly and allow the clear-up of the motorway to progress more quickly.
T3. The Government are asking more disabled people to find work through the work capability assessment programme. Does the Minister understand that transport, and in particular cancelled station upgrades, slow replacement of rolling stock and rising prices are a significant barrier for many disabled people in Wigan and across the country? What action is he taking to address this? (71850)
We are taking a good deal of action to help disabled passengers whom we want to have full access to the transport system. Plans are going ahead to ensure that rail vehicles and buses are fully accessible, we are also continuing with the access for all programme to upgrade railway stations, and I regularly meet disabled groups to ensure that our programmes and policies are fully in line with their wishes.
I am grateful for that question because metal theft is an extremely serious issue for passengers on the rail network and for motorists who are now affected on motorways, and the coastguard service. This is a matter that we take very seriously, because of its impact on business apart from anything else. There was a very good meeting of Ministers from a number of Departments yesterday. We have a plan to ensure that we are using our existing powers as fully as possible, and to look at what other steps may be necessary to deal with this high level crime.
T5. Businesses have been encouraged by the announcement of a Humber enterprise zone and the Government’s commitment to finding a sustainable solution to Humber bridge tolls. Will the Secretary of State give a green light to potential investors by announcing when the upgrade to the A160 will take place? (71852)
I genuinely apologise to the hon. Gentleman. Because he was asking about the Humber bridge, I assumed that he was asking about tolls. I will write to him specifically on the A160 as soon as I return to the Department.
I am happy to consider any representation that my hon. Friend wants to make, but our primary objective is to ensure that funds are available for an additional crossing in the future, and our approach to Dartford is to ensure that that can be affordably delivered.
T9. In awarding the Thameslink contract, did the Secretary of State take into account Siemens’ industrial relations record? Siemens’ global business strategy has been described as aggressively anti-union, and staff currently working for First Capital Connect on the existing Thameslink bid have not been reassured by the Government that their terms and conditions will be protected by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 should they transfer to Siemens. Will he reassure those workers and the House that TUPE will apply in such circumstances? (71856)
My understanding is that TUPE will apply in such circumstances. For the record, Siemens employs 16,000 people in this country, many—indeed, I think most—are represented by the Unite union, and my understanding from the inquiries that I have made is that relationships between the union that represents them and the company are extremely good.
T8. The extension of high-speed rail to Manchester will bring huge benefits to my constituents, both in terms of jobs and growth. Will the Minister reassure the House that this line will not stop at Birmingham but will come to Leeds and Manchester, and additionally will he confirm that if we are to have a proper integrated transport plan, we should look at a rail link between Rossendale and Manchester to complement it? (71855)
Ah, the sting in the tail! My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I understand the concern that some Members representing seats in the north-west, Yorkshire and places further north have about the fact that we have to progress this project in two separate stages through two separate hybrid Bills. I have made it clear on every occasion I possibly can that the Government are committed to the whole Y network project. The benefit-to-cost ratio is based on the whole Y network, and I will do whatever I can to build into the first hybrid Bill reassurance to people and businesses in Manchester, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the north east that we will indeed complete the full Y project.
The Minister referred earlier to the access for all programme. Newton station in my constituency is in dire need of an upgrade to improve access. Will he speak to Transport Scotland to ensure that the station gets those improvements quickly?
T10. Daniel Upcraft and his fiancée Nicola were hit by a heavy lorry while queuing in traffic on the M25 last April. Daniel was left with very serious brain injuries and Nicola tragically lost her life. The driver of the lorry was found to have had undiagnosed sleep apnoea and the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case against him. Will the Minister please agree to meet Daniel’s mother, Carole, my constituent, who is running a campaign to raise awareness of the impact of sleep apnoea on drivers’ ability to maintain vigilance? (71857)
It would be a pleasure to meet the family, and I praise the work they are doing. This tragic loss was the result of a medical condition that is very difficult to diagnose, and we need to do a lot of work prior to diagnosis so that people are not driving with this terrible illness.
Will the Department for Transport carry out a full risk assessment before removing emergency towing vessels from the waters around the Hebrides and Orkney and Shetland?
I met the hon. Gentleman recently to discuss this. We have made an assessment. The contract ends at the end of this month. I have worked closely with all local communities and the Scottish Government to try to find out whether there is more funding. We do not have the funding for it. The present contract, which was brought in by the previous Government, is a disaster for the taxpayer and the local community. I am still willing to look at other proposals, but they will have to be brought forward quickly.
Would my right hon. Friend like to join me on one of the most beautiful and picturesque railway lines in the country, between Liskeard and Looe, to see for herself how our rural railways support coastal communities and the tourist industry?
Integrated transport authorities have effectively re-regulated buses in the larger metropolitan county areas, which has squeezed private bus companies and made the bus wars in rural areas particularly fierce. That is great for those who live on lucrative bus routes, but services to smaller rural villages have become so bad as to be non-existent in some places. What is the Minister doing to help people out in those smaller rural areas?
Local decisions are a matter for local authorities, which are elected and are in the best position to make those decisions. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Competition Commission is examining the bus market and will report later this year. We will obviously give serious consideration to its recommendations.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Female Genital Mutilation
Before answering that question, I would like to offer the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House for being unable to attend questions today; she is in the United States on ministerial business relating to counter-terrorism. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who has responsibility for disabled people, and I will endeavour to field questions from the House.
The Government are committed to eradicating female genital mutilation. The Crown Prosecution Service’s legal guidance, which was launched last week, is an important step in preventing this horrendous practice. We hope that it will raise awareness of the issue and help prosecutors bring perpetrators to justice.
I thank the Minister for that reply. The section of the new guidelines on reluctant victims focuses very much on the difficulties of obtaining evidence and gaining victim co-operation, but for years great expertise has been brought to bear in prosecuting child sexual abuse. Could not this expertise be brought to bear in the area of FGM?
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful suggestion. It is a really important point, because I am sure that much could be learned from the real progress that has been made in investigating and prosecuting child sexual abuse cases. Where appropriate, prosecutors should make links with experts in other areas in order to build a stronger case.
I thank the Minister for her response. One midwife, Alison Hughes, is organising a conference on 21 September in Birmingham, because the situation is getting serious. She now treats up to five cases a week of women giving birth who have been mutilated, and it causes huge problems. If the Minister cannot give me an answer now, will she write to tell me whether any cases that are going to be prosecuted are in the pipeline?
This is an important issue, and I am aware of the hon. Lady’s interest and involvement in it. On the conference and cases in progress, the police investigated 58 cases in 2009-10, but none so far has come to prosecution. I do not know, as I stand here, whether there is anything in the pipeline, but the legal guidance is one of the main hopes behind making prosecutors more aware of how to take cases forward, and I am very happy to deal with her directly.
The Minister will be aware that the charity Forward published a report in 2007 which identified that 20,000 girls under 15 years old were at risk. One of its recommendations was that the issue be treated not just as a health issue, but as violence against women and girls. Will she set out what progress is being made to place the focus not only on health, but on the violence aspect?
We certainly do put the emphasis on the issue being not just about domestic violence, but about a violation of human rights. It is the most serious of offences against young women—all women—and it is part of our action plan, which includes 88 actions. The legal guidance is also part of the issue, but we are taking a range of measures.
For example, I was at the Manor Gardens centre—[Interruption.] If Mr Speaker will forgive me, I must say also that there are guidelines for front-line services, so that people on the front line can spot girls who do not come forward and ensure that we get assistance to them, support them and signpost them and work with more people who work in the community—including those who work with the FGM forum, which is a very important centre.
My Bill in 2003, which became the Female Genital Mutilation Act of the same year, came into force in 2004, but I have continually asked this question in the House: 74,000 young girls have undergone this procedure in the United Kingdom, every year the numbers are increasing instead of decreasing and other countries are able to bring prosecutions, so what is the point in having a measure on the statute book unless it improves the lives of people and does not just lie there?
I understand the right hon. Lady’s frustration. We are all frustrated, and in government we are frustrated, but we are working with the police and all relevant partners to try to ensure that prosecutions go forward. We have distributed more than 40,000 leaflets and posters, which have been circulated in schools and to health services. The guidelines are to enable prosecutors to bring cases, but clearly there are issues because, as she knows, when such acts take place in the family and are part of a—[Interruption.] I understand, but what I have seen from working with the FGM forum and across government is that those with a knowledge of the community are best placed to help us to get families to bring cases forward, and we are working with the police and the prosecution service to do so.
We want people to be able to balance their work and caring responsibilities, and the Government are committed to removing the barriers to that. Over the summer, we put forward our proposals to extend to all employees the right to request flexible working, and we will respond to that consultation in due course.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The ability to work flexibly can work for many different groups of people, and that is why we believe that bringing forward measures that could give people more opportunities to do so is so important. I hope that I can count on his support.
I think my hon. Friend mentions one incentive himself and makes a very good point: the flexibility itself can be an incentive for companies to take it up. But we have set up legislative opportunities to improve the situation and, importantly, non-legislative opportunities, because the very culture of companies—in particular, the culture of “presenteeism”, which unfortunately too often pervades small and large companies—can make it very difficult for employees to take up flexible working.
Many Members of the House will have personal experience of trying to juggle a career and looking after small children. What action is my hon. Friend taking to help parents of young children to return to the work force after looking after their children?
I was in that position, a few years ago now. It is a difficult transition to make. That is why we are making it a great priority to introduce a new system of flexible parental leave so that new parents can choose how to share child care between them. That, along with our reforms of the benefits system under universal credit, will help many more women in particular to stay close to the labour market.
As we have heard, flexible working can be a very good thing, but sometimes the phrase is misinterpreted by employers, and that leads to bad practices such as zero-hour contracts and unrealistic flexibility that they look for from employees instead of giving them set hours. Will the Minister guard against always using the phrase “flexible working”? We may think it is a positive thing, but some employers interpret it differently.
The Minister will be aware that one of the biggest barriers to women returning to work is lack of child care. Women who want to work flexibly need to know that that child care will be not only available but affordable. Has she seen the report by the Daycare Trust and Save the Children, which says that the cost of child care is driving people out of work and making it impossible for them to afford that child care? What will the Government do about this? Will she ask the Chancellor to look again at the child care elements of the working tax credit?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. It can be a real problem for families to identify the right child care. That is why, under our universal credit reforms, we will continue to invest at least the same amount as is currently in place to support child care, and we are focusing on exactly how we will deliver that. I was pleased to see that colleagues in the Department for Education have extended early years free entitlement for three and four-year-olds to 15 hours. These are the sorts of measures that will make a real difference to the people the hon. Gentleman mentions.
Flexible working is vital for the economy and for families. The only thing the Government have done so far on flexible working is to stop regulations coming in that would have extended the right to request flexible working to parents of 17-year-olds. At the same time, policies on jobs and on child care are making it harder and harder, with every day that goes by, for women and parents to work. With women’s unemployment at a record high and rising, and with child care support being cut as costs rise, her Government’s own memo on women says:
“we have made bold statements or promises but haven’t delivered enough”.
The truth is that they have not delivered at all; they are making it worse. What is the Minister going to do, and when does she think that women’s unemployment will start to fall—this month, next month, next year?
Unlike the right hon. Lady’s Government when they were in power, we do not blow hot and cold on flexible working; we are committed to it. This Government absolutely take seriously the issues that are faced by women, and we have already taken a great deal of action to ensure that women are supported not only in the workplace but throughout their family life. We have increased spending on health and child tax credit, and the right to request flexible working is part of that package. We have taken 880,000 of the lowest paid workers out of income tax altogether, the majority of whom are women. The right hon. Lady needs to look at the score card of achievements that we have put in place and compare them against her own.
Violence against Women and Girls
On 8 March this year, we published our action plan on tackling violence against women and girls. We have already delivered on that in several areas, including a commitment to provide more than £38 million of Home Office and Ministry of Justice funding over four years for local specialist services to support victims of domestic and sexual violence.
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. It is true that under the previous Government, the number of rape support centres in England and Wales fell dramatically. This Government have committed £10 million to local rape support centres over the next three years. The Ministry of Justice is working with the sexual violence sector to open 15 new centres where there are gaps in provision. The first four of those will open this year in Hereford, Trafford, Devon and Dorset. Further work is being done to identify other parts of the country where there is an acute need for such services.
One resource identified in the action plan to end violence against women and girls is participatory local budgeting. The plan states that Stockport is to have this from March 2011. However, Stockport has been doing local participatory budgeting for three years. Will the Minister clarify whether there will be additional funding, as is implied in the action plan?
The No. 10 memo describing why women do not like this Government suggests that targeted Home Office work on women, crime and confidence is required. At the time when the officials were drawing up that memo with a focus group that looks to me as though it was made up of secretaries and researchers in No. 10, I was listening to women in my constituency, who were worried about perverts harassing them on buses and on the street. What targeted Home Office work is being done to help such women?
We are working with all the police agencies and the Association of Chief Police Officers to focus on those issues, including stalking and harassment. Tackling stalking, for example, is a key priority for the Home Secretary. We have committed long-term funding to the national stalking helpline over the spending review period and we have set up a national stalking strategy group to ensure that actions on stalking are taken under the violence against women and girls action plan. That is an example of one area of work that is targeted.
Civil Partnership Ceremonies
Earlier this year, I announced our intention to implement section 202 of the Equality Act 2010 to remove the ban in England and Wales on civil partnerships being registered on religious premises. It is a voluntary measure for faith groups that want to allow that to happen. It is an important step forward for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights, and for religious freedom. We are considering the responses to the public consultation and working to bring the regulations into force by the end of this year.
Of course it is reasonable for religious premises that wish to hold civil partnerships to be able to do so. However, does the Minister agree that it is entirely inappropriate for the Government to get involved in any decision about civil partnerships being held in a particular religious venue?
I reassure my hon. Friend that I totally agree with her sentiment. The Government have made the decision to enable premises that want to host civil partnership registrations to do so. This is about religious freedom. I am absolutely clear that it is not for the Government to force any religious organisation to host civil partnership registrations if they do not wish to do so.
I hope that all churches will want to celebrate same-sex commitments. However, I am worried that the Government are introducing another anomaly. When gay people get married in a civil partnership they will be able to have religious symbols and ceremonies, but if straight couples do not want to get married in a church, but would none the less like to have religious music or symbols, they are not allowed to have them. I think that we should go for straightforward equality with gay marriage and straight marriage being exactly the same.
I have had many conversations on this issue. I know that the hon. Gentleman wants these things and we have discussed them. Right now, we are moving forward on allowing civil partnerships to be registered in religious premises. From listening to people, it is clear that there is a desire to move forward on equal marriages and partnerships. We are working with people to move that agenda forward.
Palestine and the United Nations
Always a treat, Mr Speaker.
I should like to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement stating the intentions of Her Majesty’s Government with regard to the application next week of the Palestinian Government at the United Nations.
First, Mr Speaker, may I apologise to you and the House for the absence of the Foreign Secretary this morning. I think it is well known that he and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are on a visit to Libya and I am sure that the whole House will wish them both well as they make that journey and return safely.
With permission, I will make a statement in answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the Government’s intentions with regard to the application next week of the Palestinian Government at the United Nations. The Palestinian leadership has yet to submit any application to the United Nations. If and when an application is received, we will make a decision about how to respond. Without knowing the content of any such application, it would be premature to speculate on what the Government’s response might be.
This year marks the 20th year of the middle east peace process—20 years since the Madrid conference was launched. For the Palestinians and Israelis, not much has changed in nearly two decades since the Oslo accords were signed. The Israelis continue to face threats from violent extremists and the Palestinians still have no state. The UK has long been clear that peace in the middle east, enabling a resolution of the long-running dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, has enormous importance for global and regional security. The goal of the international community should be to ensure that this is the last year of process and the beginning of a lasting agreement between the parties. Events in the wider middle east region call for a redoubling of international efforts to support peace, stability and democracy. Nowhere is that need more pressing than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The world can no longer claim that change in the middle east will come slowly and incrementally, or allow the middle east peace process to limp along indefinitely, as it has done. If the peace process becomes a casualty of regional change, it will feed instability and violence, not democracy and human development. While the Arab spring goes much broader than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this dispute deeply affects the politics of the broader region. The fluid dynamics resulting from the Arab spring make the prize of stability that would result from any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians even more significant.
There is no alternative to negotiations to address the fundamental issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a solution cannot be imposed from outside. The parties need to redouble their efforts to break the impasse and resume negotiations on a two-state solution before the window to such a solution closes. Bold leadership is needed from all sides. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can afford to let the opportunity for peace slip further from their grasp. The two-state solution is the only way of realising the Palestinian aspirations for a state of their own and the long-term security that the Israelis deserve.
The Prime Minister made our position on United Nations’ recognition of a Palestinian state very clear during the visit of President Obama in May. He agreed with the President that a Palestinian state was a legitimate goal, but that the best way of achieving that was through a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. So, our focus remains on continuing to push hard for a return to negotiations on the basis agreed by the Prime Minister and President Obama. The United Kingdom Government want to see borders based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, security for Israel, and the right for Palestinians to govern themselves in a sovereign and contiguous state. We see Jerusalem as a shared city which will be the capital of both countries and we also, of course, accept that there needs to be an agreed and just solution for Palestinian refugees.
However, Palestinian action at the UN this month now looks increasingly likely. As I have said, we do not yet know the form that such action might take. We are working closely with partners to build consensus on a way forward that recognises the progress the Palestinians have made on their state-building efforts, that meets Israel’s legitimate security concerns and that avoids confrontation in the UN.
Whatever action is taken in New York, it is important that this increases the prospects for a return to negotiations. It is important to remember that action in the UN is not an end in itself. September is not the “closing date” for resolution of this conflict. What happens next is vital, which is why our goal remains to ensure that steps taken now pave the way for significant, conclusive talks. It is vital that any action in the UN does nothing to endanger the prospect of talks. It is emphatically in our national interest to see an independent, democratic Palestinian state living in peace with Israel, not at some ever-receding point in the future, but within a limited, practical time frame—not a part-deal on temporary borders that gives no promise for the future, but an agreement on all final status issues that will signal an end to all claims. I would like to assure hon. Members that the British Government will not cease in their efforts to support the parties in finding a long-term, sustainable solution to this conflict that will make this vision a reality.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be totally inconsistent to support freedom for the people of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, but not actively to support, through this country’s UN votes, comparable independence for the people of Palestine, who have been waiting 64 years for UN decisions to be fulfilled and implemented? Will he understand that a Palestinian success will transform the situation in the middle east, but that if the Palestinians go to the UN Security Council and, if needs be, the General Assembly and fail, the Israelis will regard it as a triumph and it will be the end of the 20-year peace process? Will the Government stand up and put their hand up for the Palestinian people at the UN?
The Government have always been clear about their recognition of a Palestinian state at the conclusion of a process of negotiation between the parties in which mutual security has been guaranteed. We see no reason to move from that position, because anything else would threaten the compromise and security position that we all want to achieve. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the importance of success in New York and what it would mean. We agree entirely. It would be a disaster if in New York one side proclaimed triumph and the other reacted to a disaster. We are working hard with all partners to try to ensure that, whatever comes out of the UN, it is in the spirit of both sides feeling that something has been gained and that we have a situation moving towards those negotiations that need to succeed. We are all well aware of how success or disaster could be viewed and what the consequences could be. It is very important that at this stage we work as hard as possible for a resolution that will mean that both sides will be able to recognise that they have gained something and that we all have an opportunity and real hope for the near future.
Does my hon. Friend understand the profound sense of disappointment that there is in the House—and will be outside—at the nature of his remarks? Britain’s influence and reputation will inevitably be substantially diminished unless we show a positive approach to this issue. The Minister did not really answer the contradiction posed by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). How is it that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary can be in the middle east, doing everything in their power to support the principle of self-determination, while the British Government, so close to the question being asked in New York, are unable even to take a position on the Palestinian application? Does he understand that the most telling criticism of British policy in the middle east has always been that of double standards? Is this not just an illustration of that?
If my right hon. and learned Friend would like to tell me the final terms of the resolution that will be presented to the UN, we might be in a position to answer the question. However, as I indicated, our position on recognition of Palestine as a state is assured as a result of the processes that have been gone through and the negotiations that are vital between both sides. As I mentioned in my statement, what happens next week is not an event, but part of that process. Palestinian statehood will not be secured by a resolution, whatever anyone thinks or whatever is passed at the UN. It will be secured by the mutual recognition of both sides, which comes through the negotiation process that both sides have been committed to. Our position remains that we are determined to ensure that whatever happens at the UN next week—and he genuinely should not prejudge anyone’s position in this on any side—it is good for the future and not damaging to the negotiation process.
I refer the House to my relevant entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) for tabling an urgent question on this important issue. Surely it would have been better for the Government to have come to the House this week with an oral statement covering this issue and the developments elsewhere in the region, including Syria.
Labour has long supported the establishment of two states living side by side in peace and recognised by all their neighbours. There is widespread frustration and disappointment at the failure to make any progress in recent years. We seek an immediate return to meaningful negotiation between the parties, based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, resulting in a Palestinian state living in peace and security with Israel.
The Palestinians’ path to independent statehood will require recognition at the United Nations, and Labour supports that goal. We will judge any move made at the United Nations next week—such as the potential upgrading to observer status of the Palestinian delegation—on the basis of the contribution that it can make to securing meaningful negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and achieving a comprehensive agreement. Contrary to what the Minister has said today, however, we believe that the options before the international community are now clear. This morning, President Abbas, who has seized the attention of the world on this issue, has said that the Palestinians will pursue statehood in the absence of genuine alternatives.
Will the Minister set out the Government’s position for the House today—the last opportunity before the House rises for the recess—and tell us how the United Kingdom will vote on the following three very real scenarios? First, how would we vote in the UN Security Council on full recognition? Secondly, what would be our position in a vote in the UN General Assembly advocating full recognition? Thirdly, how would we vote in the General Assembly on enhanced observer status for the Palestinians?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what was, at the beginning of his remarks, a clear statement of a position that is virtually identical to that of the Government. That is to say, he and his party will make a judgment on any option that is put forward next week on the basis of the contribution that it can make to an ultimate settlement. We will do exactly the same. I am sure that he will respect my position when I tell him that I cannot answer his hypothetical questions, because every nuance in every comment adds to the general pot that is now being discussed. There are times when these issues have to be put privately, before a public position can be taken.
Over the past few weeks, we have heard many statements from representatives on all sides, indicating that a vote might be taken in the United Nations Security Council or that it might not, that it might be taken in the General Assembly or that it might not, or that this might depend on a Quartet statement. All those issues are still live and current, and although I quite understand the House’s desire to know the negotiating position, it would be genuinely unfair of hon. Members to press me on that at this stage. My answer would have to be the same. I understand entirely where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, and we take comfort from understanding, from his first remarks, that he and his party recognise the position that we are in. We want to ensure that nothing that is put forward and agreed next week will damage the prospect of peace between the parties, which we believe will come from a negotiated settlement and, we hope, as soon as possible.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s firm commitment to a two-state solution, but I put it to him that what has changed over the past 20 years has been the building of a wall through part of the west bank and a programme of settlement building that is very close to closing the door to a two-state solution. May I urge him to take very seriously the Palestinian bid for statehood while, understandably, calling for some conditions?
Does the Minister agree that although a negotiated settlement for two states—Israel and Palestine—can bring peace and security to the two peoples, a resolution that cannot deal with the critical detail of borders, Jerusalem and refugees may simply raise false expectations, leading to frustration and violence, thereby impeding the essential and urgent path of negotiations?
The hon. Lady accurately characterises the difficulties and nuances in this situation. It may not be all about a resolution; it may be about a resolution with a Quartet statement dealing with parameters. All that is up for discussion. She is acutely aware of the subsidiary issues that would go alongside any resolution and which are being much discussed at present.
I commend the calm and balanced approach set out by my hon. Friend—so unlike the wild and irresponsible statements by others on both sides of this House, whose long years have clearly not brought them wisdom. What matters—[Hon. Members: “Withdraw.”] No, I will not withdraw it; I believe it and I am happy to restate it for anyone who cares to hear it again. What matters in this situation is actual changes on the ground, in the feelings, thoughts and fears of Israeli people and Palestinian people. What does not matter is posturing in the House of Commons or the United Nations General Assembly by politicians trying to associate themselves with a cause and taking up a brave position, but not thinking about the people whose interests should be at the heart of it.
I am grateful for the wisdom and advice of colleagues on all sides and at all different stages in their parliamentary careers. I welcome it from those who, like me, have been around for a while and from those who are new here. My hon. Friend gets to the heart of it when he says that there are dangers and risks that come from people taking established positions at a very early stage, when the truth, as we all know, is that negotiations proceed on a parallel track, sometimes in private and sometimes leading to a different outcome. We all need to keep our counsel calm and wise over the weekend, and I am absolutely certain that those most closely involved in negotiations would entirely fulfil my hon. Friend’s requirements.
That last intervention from the Conservative Back Benches could have been more appropriate in the Israeli Parliament. Is the Minister aware that if there is a vote at the United Nations, what we do will be seen as how far Britain is genuinely committed to the Palestinian cause and to the creation of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state alongside Israel? Time and again British Governments have said, like today, that they are in favour of a Palestinian state, but so far there has been little action to bring that about.
It is because we are well aware of the implications of the United Kingdom vote on any resolution that we are being so careful and working so hard to ensure that a resolution is not couched in terms such that it either leaves one side completely dissatisfied and adds to the frustration or indefinitely extends the chance of reaching a settlement to deal with the frustrations that the hon. Gentleman very properly articulates.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that when Netanyahu visited the United States in May 2011 he said that he wanted to negotiate with the Palestinians and that Israel would not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state? However, does he not also agree that it is difficult to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority when its main partner is Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel or renounce terrorism and continues to fire missiles on Israeli towns?
Our position on Hamas is well known and we have no contact with it. However, as we know, there are difficulties on all sides, and each side has reasons why it has not wanted to proceed to negotiations or why it might rebuff others. Equally, each side knows that if it really wants a settlement, it is in its power to try to overcome those difficulties, seek confidence and assurances from each other and move on. What is different now—this may come through next week—is the urgency of the situation, as conveyed by the whole international community. We need to make progress and that requires all sides to be prepared to take the steps to help that happen, difficult though they may be.
For many decades the Palestinian people have sought justice, peace and recognition. The vote in the UN is the culmination of a very good campaign that has been supported by a wide range of Palestinian opinion. Does the Minister recognise that not to support it—to vote against it—will put the whole cause back a long way and reduce the chances of any kind of long-term peace and settlement in the whole region? He must be more positive than he has been so far today.
I am positive about our wanting a situation next week that leads to proper negotiations to see the settlement of the dispute, because of the frustrations that the hon. Gentleman articulates. I cannot be more positive about that than I have been, but there is no resolution yet and I would take issue with the sense that this is the culmination of a campaign. My sense is that the United Nations procedure next week is an important event, but there will be a day after and facts on the ground will not be different the day after. What the UN has to lead to is something that makes the situation on the ground capable of the solution and compromise through negotiations that we need. That will be to the benefit of both the Palestinians and the Israelis alike.
The hon. Gentleman raises, in his own way, a practical issue that affects the occupied territories. It is much discussed in this House and, as we are aware, something that a settlement between the two parties will ultimately sweep away, so that we have a viable west bank and Gaza continuing the economic progress that we have seen in recent years, as supported by the United Kingdom. However, those issues have to be dealt with by the parties themselves in the negotiations that we all wish to see.
Polling consistently shows that over 60% of both Israeli and Palestinian communities support a two-state solution. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that everything is done to support the peoples of both countries in their aims and aspirations?
There are many interpretations of what happened at the UN in 1948, but my hon. Friend is right to suggest that a resolution at the United Nations by itself does not secure the peace between peoples unless it is soundly based on proper recognition, respect and confidence between the two. That is what we earnestly wish to see from the negotiations, which we hope will restart shortly and which we are pressing for as part of our approach to this weekend.
The sense of urgency that the Minister talks about seems to be almost entirely absent from the Government’s position. On the contrary, in his response to the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) he talked about mutual recognition. Does that not give the game away? Is this not actually about giving the Israeli Government a veto over when a Palestinian state is recognised?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement and the words that he used. Personally, I strongly believe that there need to be negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and that at the end of that process the state of Palestine should be recognised. May I therefore urge him to join the United States in the Security Council in vetoing the premature creation of a Palestinian state and also in the General Assembly in voting against such a proposal, but to make it clear that at the end of negotiations, when matters are satisfactorily resolved, we would universally recognise the Palestinian state?
My hon. Friend tempts me again to take a position on a hypothetical situation. Let me say again that I cannot go into that until we see a resolution. I stick to the position that I have taken, which is the belief that the United Kingdom must ensure that whatever is tabled next week and whatever gets through the United Nations leads to a proper approach to negotiations in which both sides can feel confident of some movement.
Can I ask the Minister a simple question? I have heard all the problems that he has outlined and the finessing of those on our Benches, but does he agree with those who say that if there is recognition, it would be a barrier to progress? Would it not be better for two nations to recognise each other and continue to negotiate a settlement than for one to reject, acting as a colonial nation, and for the other to be an imprisoned nation?
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. The barriers to progress are many, and they are very much about trust and confidence as well as the legacy of negotiations in the past. A situation where one side proclaims victory and the other feels defeat will not help anyone, no matter what the subject matter might be. Let us therefore try to work towards a situation next week where a resolution will not bring that about, which is what many parties are seeking to achieve.
I welcome the Minister’s cautious approach on this issue. As said by other hon. Members, there is no way that a unilateral declaration of statehood can make up for negotiations. There is a risk of the issue becoming a battering ram for those who seek the delegitimisation of Israel, so will he give us an assurance that the British Government will take no part in anything that seeks to do that?
I can assure my hon. Friend that neither this Government nor the previous one had any truck with the delegitimisation of Israel, and they both took many steps to reject those who tried to project such an image—and that will continue. Ultimately, the relationships between the rest of the world and Israel and, indeed, the rest of the world and the Palestinians will be much affected by the way in which they can work together to get the agreement that we all seek. We will do everything in our power to encourage that.
Following the recent terror attacks on southern Israel and the storming of the Israeli embassy in Egypt, does the Minister agree that what Israel needs now is partners and peace on the ground rather than being isolated at the UN?
The hon. Gentleman makes a sharp point. The situation in the middle east has changed, not only over months but over weeks. It increases the sense of urgency with which this Government are approaching these next few days and our determination to say to both parties that, in the midst of such instability and concern, what an extraordinary event it would be to go away from the United Nations with something that the international community was confident would lead to progress and in respect of which both sides could accept that they had gained something and would therefore want to respond to the international situation of concern and the need for urgency. That is what we would like to seek.
As someone who supports the creation of a Palestinian state, does the Minister agree with me that if there is to be enhanced or full representation for Palestine at the UN, those representatives need to be able to speak with authority for the majority of decent Palestinians as opposed to an extremist minority?
I am sure that the ultimate representation of Palestinians at the UN, which is clearly a matter for the Palestinian Authority, will be decided by what President Abbas said when he announced the relationship with Hamas, stating that it had to live up to the principles of a democratic future state of Palestine, with recognition of previous agreements, recognition of the state of Israel, and an end to violence.
The Minister continually refuses to give an indication of the approach that the Government will take next week because the negotiations are ongoing. The negotiations, however, are not ones from which the British Government are an absent partner; they are actively involved in those negotiations, so it is fair to ask what attitude the British Government are taking towards them. Will the Minister at least say how the Government would vote on the three particular scenarios put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)?
I give a straight answer to a straight question. No, I will not respond to those scenarios, for the reasons I gave. I was asked about our approach, but I hope I have made our approach, as well as our determination, very clear. The detail is not there because the detail of a resolution is not before us. Of course it has been widely discussed, and although we are not an active party to the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, we have a huge interest. I hope I have conveyed the approach and the intention of the United Kingdom.
This Government have long campaigned for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit. I take my hon. Friend’s point: we are all aware that gestures and things could be done that would be highly damaging to the process as a result of what might happen next week, yet extraordinary gestures could be made that would mark a real difference and a step forward. One such gesture would certainly be the release of Gilad Shalit, but that is not, of course, within the control of the Palestinian Authority.
The Minister talks about not handing anyone victory or defeat, but does he recognise that, if the vote were taken and the Palestinians were defeated at the United Nations, this would simply hand an absolute victory to those in Tel Aviv who would recognise that there was no pressure to make any progress whatever?
The hon. Gentleman speaks with great experience on these matters, but I have to say that those in the respective foreign affairs departments looking at the issue would recognise that there is significant pressure from the United Kingdom on all. Again, I cannot be tempted to commit to a particular position on a vote that is not yet clear.
In June, I visited the west bank and east Jerusalem and saw the consequences of the state of Israel’s policies of apartheid and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people. Bearing in mind that Israel does not honour United Nations resolutions, is it not time that Britain, Europe and the rest of the world treated Israel in the way we treated apartheid South Africa?
Does the Minister agree that the real judgment should be for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly on mutual recognition, security guarantees, an end to violence and incitement, settlements, borders, Jerusalem, refugees and other day-to-day trade issues, and that any intended UN declaration, including on observer status, simply evades all those issues?
As my hon. Friend has made clear and as I mentioned in the course of my remarks, many subsidiary issues—hugely important ones—are being considered at the same time as any potential resolution. Of course, he makes the point that much of this is wrapped up together, so taking one position out of all those and believing it to be definitive is highly unlikely. That is why we continue to press for both sides to be in negotiations on all the issues that my hon. Friend mentioned.
Order. I am grateful to the Minister. I have done my best to accommodate the level of interest of colleagues and I apologise to those whom I have not been able to accommodate. If the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray)would stop wringing her hands and listen to the explanation, she might leave better informed. There is a business statement to come and two very heavily subscribed debates are to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. Ordinarily, I try to get everybody in; I cannot today. I hope that it is understood.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 10 October will be:
Monday 10 October—Remaining stages of the Protection of Freedoms Bill (day 1).
Tuesday 11 October—Remaining stages of the Protection of Freedoms Bill (day 2).
Wednesday 12 October—Opposition day [unallotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 13 October—Motions relating to the use of hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and Committees (HC 889), improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny (HC 800) and ministerial statements (HC 602), followed by general debate on High Speed 2.
The subjects for these debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the week commencing 17 October will include:
Monday 17 October—Motion relating to MPs’ pensions, followed by motion relating to disclosure and publication of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 18 October—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 19 October—Opposition day. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 20 October—Consideration of Lords amendments.
Friday 21 October—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 13 and 20 October will be:
Thursday 13 October—A debate on responses to the riots.
Thursday 20 October—A debate on scrutiny of arms export controls (2011): UK strategic export controls annual report 2009, quarterly reports for 2010, licensing policy and review of export control legislation (HC 686).
Finally, on 12 July, the House was able to convey its gratitude to Sir Malcolm Jack on his retirement from the office of Clerk of the House. As today is the last sitting day before the Clerk retires, may I take this further opportunity on behalf of the House to reiterate our gratitude and to send him our warmest wishes for the future?