Tuesday 31 January 2012
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Michael Fabricant.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank colleagues for attending the debate, given Select Committees and various other activities; I will take interventions.
In 1982, the Falkland Islands war saw the loss of 255 British troops; also lost were 650 Argentine troops and three female islanders. Today is a good day to begin with remembering each and every one whose lives were lost. We remember the families who lost their husbands, the children who lost their fathers and those who were left with severe disabilities because of their wounds. There is no such thing as a good war, and people died in 1982 because politics, Governments and individual people failed them. Our job in this House is to ensure that that does not happen again. I also welcome the efforts made on behalf of the islanders by the various Foreign Office departments to improve the lot of the islanders.
The purpose of the debate is fundamentally fourfold. First, we need to reiterate the House’s united position that the Falkland Islands has our full support in every way. Secondly, I wish to see a self-determination law, confirming that all overseas territories with a settled population have an unambiguous right to remain British. Thirdly, I wish the Minister to update the House on the efforts of our diplomats who are fighting the trade blockade that has been ongoing for some time. Finally, I will attempt a brief analysis of the legitimacy of the Argentine arguments under the various United Nations conventions and the agreements between the countries.
Many would argue that the 1982 conflict happened because a weak Argentine junta decided to try and regain popularity at home. The junta lost the war and power. The underequipped and poorly trained Argentines were clearly men governed by lambs.
Actually, some of the Argentines were not that poorly trained. The Mirage pilots who flew in across San Carlos water and took out our ships were, in everyone’s estimation, not only brave but well trained. The Argentines, therefore, were not entirely poorly trained—some of the marines were not bad either.
It is a brave man who tells the colonel whether troops were good or indifferent at a particular time, and I bow to my hon. Friend’s greater knowledge.
Thomas Mann, however, was right when he said:
“War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.”
Among the almost 3,000 inhabitants of the Falklands, there is an overwhelming desire to remain a British overseas territory. It is not up to Great Britain to decide on the fate of the Falkland Islanders; it is their own right to decide where their sovereignty lies, and that will not change.
I have great respect for President Obama, and he is truly a groundbreaking politician and a leader of men; he is taking things forward tremendously in America. On this particular issue, however, I do not respect his decision, and am most concerned that it appears to have been made without full assessment of the UN rules on self-determination.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Britain asserted her sovereignty over the Falklands in the 1830s, about 50 years after she had been forced out of her sovereign territory in certain parts of north America. Despite the US stance on the Falklands, one very much doubts whether the US Government regard their administration of the east coast of America as simply de facto.
My hon. Friend referred to Hawaii and its original occupants, but one of the differences that I am sure he will confirm is that, in the Falkland Islands, the original occupants were not Argentine. In fact, throughout the whole history of the islands, only about three people from mainland Argentina have lived there. Does that not prove the point, but from a different angle?
I entirely agree, of course. We could get into a detailed and lengthy historical analysis of the origins of Argentina and its various provinces, as well as of the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. It is worth remarking, however, that the ninth generation of the people of the Falkland Islands was recently born on the islands. Although the population is immigrant, that is also true in Argentina, and I will come to that at a later stage.
Returning to my point about sovereignty, it is not up to the House of Commons or Great Britain to give the Falklands away; it is the inalienable right of the Falkland Islanders to decide where sovereignty lies. That will not change today, tomorrow or for however long they choose to remain part of Great Britain.
Would my hon. Friend agree that, if there were greater and less aggressive integration between the Argentine and Falkland Islands populations, whether at the education or business level and over a period of 30 to 40 years, or perhaps longer, the hostilities would dissipate to some extent?
All of us would like to see the individual countries getting on to a greater degree, and one of my themes in the debate is to make it crystal clear that we regard Argentina, fundamentally, as a potential friend. It would be good if trade relations were better, fishing were better harmonised or hydrocarbons work was done together. At present, however, the Argentine stance is blocking that route. If the Argentine President is claiming a “hearts and minds” approach, I am sad to say that her argument is deeply flawed.
We have said that there is a need to increase and improve trade relations, but what about the 13,000 people who were murdered and disappeared in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, under the regime that fought the Falklands war? Is it not time for a human rights inquiry into that? Let us look at the bad things as well as the good things.
With no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, I will not go down that route. One of the few good things to emerge from the Falklands war was the return of democracy to Argentina in 1983. It is entirely right that there have been various analyses of the history of Argentina but, with respect, it is not for me to lecture the Argentines on that history and on what they were involved with. Instead of looking to the past, I hope that we can look to a future of co-operation between these two countries, which already have plenty of trade and many common grounds. The Foreign Secretary, 10 days ago, wrote:
“There are many areas on which we can cooperate—on joint management of fish stocks, on hydrocarbon exploration, and on strengthening air and sea links between the Falklands and South America, as we used to do in the 1990s and ought to be able to be able to so again.”
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and a good case, but does he agree that one of the problems with the uncertainty currently surrounding the Falkland Islands is that it is extraordinarily difficult for business people to get on and make sensible business decisions? I draw his attention to a British oil exploration company, which I know, that wants to invest but is unwilling to do so until the political uncertainty has been clarified.
I accept that there is a need for greater economic certainty, but we must understand that the islands have a strong economy and a profitable business community, and that they are effectively self-sustaining. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the 1995 agreement between the Argentine and British Governments on oil exploration. In 1995, they signed a deal that identified a discrete area where there was to be joint hydrocarbon exploration. In 2007, the Argentines scrapped that deal to share oil found in that area. They effectively ripped it up, and there has been some uncertainty on development of the way forward on hydrocarbons and oil, but I believe that a robust approach from our Government will provide a better future for companies that want to invest there.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we are in a superb position to work jointly with Argentina on fisheries around the Falkland Islands because it does not have the complicated interference of the common fisheries policy? We can work jointly with such nations, when we cannot do so around our own waters.
I never thought that in a debate about the Falkland Islands I would become such an expert on squid and European fish embargoes, or that I would be trying to respond to an acknowledged expert on all fish matters, but I agree with my hon. Friend and accept entirely that there is great scope for the two countries to work together. If they do not, the story of some European waters will, sadly, be repeated in the south Atlantic, because fish stocks will decline.
Argentina claims sovereignty of the islands on an ongoing basis. Others may discuss in detail the historical argument, which is weak, but what would happen if Argentina retook the islands? Does it propose to throw the native islanders out? Does it propose to expel them by force from their homes and the land that they have tended and harvested, or to move them to a distant corner of one island? Let us be in no doubt that annexation of any small, peaceful and prosperous neighbour has no place in the 21st century. Whether that is done by negotiation or conquest, it equals colonisation, and occupation by a foreign power.
Many islanders trace their history, as others have said, back to the 1840s. They are men and women who were born on the Falkland Islands and have lived there for generations, had children there and made their lives there. Like most countries in Latin America, including Argentina, the population has grown through a natural flow of migration. The Falkland Islands now constitutes a nation of immigrants who have developed their own distinctive culture and identity. For Argentina to deny its right to self-determination is to question its claim to that self-same right. It would be surprising if the Argentines handed their land back to the Indian tribes who lived in the country before they arrived, and I doubt that that will happen. I will not attempt to pronounce the names of the Indian tribes who lived in Argentina before the immigrants settled there.
On the legal argument, the Falkland Islanders’ rights are recognised by international law. I never thought that I would cite favourably and support the Lisbon treaty, but I am pleased that it confirms that the European Union recognises the islands as a “full” associated territory, just like our other overseas territories, in part 4 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. Apparently, our decision to sign the Lisbon treaty upset the Argentines, and some would argue that they joined a large club. On this issue, I am a confirmed Europhile—I knew that the Lisbon treaty was good for something. The truth is that we should be proud that a group of islands thousands of miles from our shores, and fully 700 km from Argentina’s, wants to remain part of our great nation, and shares our values and culture.
As my hon. Friend has touched on the European dimension and with the Minister in his place, is this an appropriate opportunity to reinforce the view of many hon. Members that our consistent approach to the people of the Falkland Islands should apply to the people of Gibraltar, who must not see their sovereignty negotiated behind their backs?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. We are no longer a colonial power. Those days are, rightly, distant history. As such, we will never force any dependent territory to remain part of our country, but we will also not let down a dependent territory. Let us take Scotland as an example. I would not, of course, call Scotland a dependent territory, notwithstanding the subsidy and the inequity of the Barnett formula, but the Scottish referendum is a prime example of the fundamental principle that it is for the native people to decide their fate. Rightly, we will always welcome and defend those who wish to remain part of Great Britain.
I am pleased that there is a cross-party selection of Members in the Chamber early on this Tuesday morning when they have many other matters to attend to. We are presenting a united front across parties and throughout the House to show adamant support for the individual rights of people who live in the Falkland Islands. I welcome my hon. Friend’s comment, and the support from his party.
I want a self-determination law. It is well known that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to be fair, it has done excellent work in support of the Falkland Islands—is planning to introduce a White Paper in 2012 covering all aspects of the Government’s policies on the overseas territories. That is pending. I want all overseas territories with a settled population to have an unambiguous right to remain British, and to be defended from oppression in the absence of a majority voting for secession. All the 293,000 people in the Caribbean islands of Anguilla, Bermuda and Montserrat and the south Atlantic islands of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, and the plucky 48 people who live a precarious existence on Pitcairn Island, need to know that self-determination will always be recognised by this country.
My hon. Friend is right to put self-determination at the centre of his speech. Some 255 British personnel died when trying to ensure that self-determination prevailed for the Falkland Islanders. Does he agree that anything other than self-determination would be an affront to the memory of those men and women?
My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently. I pay tribute to all our servicemen and women who are serving overseas, protecting our interests and striving to preserve other people’s freedoms. Most importantly, I pay tribute to the thousands of troops, led by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, who are working on the Islands at this time. I know that many hon. Members here today represent constituencies with regiments that served or are still serving in the Falkland Islands.
People in Portsmouth whom I represent would want no hesitation in marking the 30th anniversary of the British victory in the Falklands war, and the posting of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge to the Falkland Islands should not be underplayed. He will be there to do a job, but his destiny as a future king and the man to whom the Islanders will one day owe their allegiance, should not go unacknowledged in Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee year.
Argentina has described the royal visit as an inflammatory act, which is ridiculous. The gentleman involved, who happens to be the future king, is going as a search and rescue pilot. Were he to save the life of some hapless Argentine sailor, I hope that Argentina would be equally as grateful as, I am sure, the individual saved by the presence of the Duke would be. I support the fact that the Duke of Cambridge has been asked to go and that he intends to do just that.
I pay tribute to Able Seaman Derek Armstrong from my constituency who was a pupil at Prudhoe community high school. At 9 o’clock this morning I met with students from that school who are visiting the House of Commons today—all hon. Members know of schools that visit the House in order to understand its history. On 22 May 1982, Derek Armstrong was 22 years old and serving on HMS Ardent. He was sadly killed in the attack that sunk that ship, and Prudhoe community high school now presents a Derek Armstrong memorial award each year to the best sportsperson at that school. It was amazing to see the students this morning as that living history, and the relevance of the Falklands war to individuals and to their school, was explained to them.
When the Duke of Cambridge goes to the Falkland Islands later this year, I regret that he will find an island that is under a degree of trade blockade. The Argentine President has upped that blockade by taking the slightly unbelievable step of blocking ships that are flying the Falkland Islands flag from their ports, and she has persuaded other members of the south American trading bloc, which includes Brazil and Uruguay, to do the same. A ship is not allowed access if it shows the so-called “defaced” Falkland Islands red ensign. Provided it removes its flag, however, and denies its true origins, it is given access. Such denying of a recognised international ship that is carrying a recognised international flag runs contrary to international law and is, I suggest, a protectionist and retrograde step. There is no justification for such petty actions that are done only to intimidate a small civilian population and, with respect, such things are beneath the Argentine people. Let us be blunt: such actions merely harden the resolve of this House, strengthen that of the Islanders, and do nothing to endear the Argentines to the Islanders. It is hardly about hearts and minds.
Are we in 2012 really going down a route that sees civilised countries make ever increasing efforts to block free trade? This is about protectionism. Will the Minister update the House on the efforts made by our diplomats to end the trade blockade? I accept that the Foreign Office has done—and continues to do—a great deal to support the Falkland Islands over the past few years, but I hope that it will do yet more to increase support, both financially and in terms of manpower, in the Foreign Office itself and on the Falkland Islands.
I will attempt to address the principle of self-determination, which is set out in article 1.2 of the charter of the United Nations, and article 1 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. The Argentines continue to say that we should negotiate on sovereignty, but about what?
Let us analyse the claims. In 1965, UN resolution 2065 noted
“the existence of a dispute between the Governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning sovereignty over the said Islands.”
It invited the Governments involved
“to proceed without delay with the negotiations...with a view to finding a peaceful solution to the problem, bearing in mind the provisions and objectives of the Charter of the United Nations and of General Assembly UN Resolution 1514 (XV) and the interests of the population of the Falkland Islands.”
UN resolution 2065 must therefore be read in line with UN resolution 1514, which states:
“The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.”
It adds—and this is key—that all peoples have
“the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
The argument that anything other than self-determination is supported by the UN agreements is completely wrong. Self-determination is enshrined within the resolutions and supports our case.
UN resolution 1514 continues:
“All armed action or repressive measures of all kinds directed against dependent peoples shall cease in order to enable them to exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence, and the integrity of their national territory shall be respected…Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
I could continue with an analysis of the various UN conventions and protocols, but under any interpretation, the argument supports the right to self-determination for the Falkland Islanders.
Thirty years after the Falklands war, we should be celebrating the culture of those special islands and investing in them in a variety of ways. We should also be promoting the fantastic tourism opportunities they could provide. The Mercosur countries of the south American bloc are our friends, just as we would like Argentina to be. We wish President Fernandez a full recovery from her operation. I am an MP from the north-east and my local football team, Newcastle United, is led by one Argentine and includes another, and those players are revered by thousands of people who support that team. In no way is Argentina our enemy; we wish to be trading partners and friends, and to take the relationship forward. This world has so much strife, but I say to the Argentines: let us work together for prosperity, not fall apart as fools.
The Argentine Government must understand that the future of the islanders does not lie with Argentina.
I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says about the right to self-determination, and his analysis of how those rights are enshrined by the UN. I understood, however, that he was calling for such a measure to be encapsulated in British law. He has said that we need a law of self-determination for the overseas territories, but he has not explained why he feels that that is needed as an add-on measure.
Such a measure would confirm the rights of those individual islanders who live in overseas territories that have a settled population, and show the United Kingdom’s strong intention to recognise self-determination. There are references to that in the various United Nations conventions that have considered such matters repeatedly, and in what are called colonisation committees that sit from time to time. Such a measure would send out a strong message and signal from this country that the self-determination of individual peoples, where they choose to remain part of Great Britain, is paramount.
As I was saying, the future of the Falkland Islands does not lie with Argentina or with Britain as such, and such arguments are a futile war of words. The decision rests, and will always rest, with the settled inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. Gone are the days when colonial possessions could be disposed of by giving away power, regardless of the views of the inhabitants. Instead, let us celebrate the unique history and culture of a small island people that still choose to remain British—and so they shall, suitably supported by this country. That position, and their choice in the matter, is non-negotiable.
It is a pleasure to speak in a debate under your stewardship, Mr Crausby. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for securing this important debate at this critical juncture for the Falkland Islands. I could not reasonably expect to be allowed to set foot back in my Gosport constituency if I did not take part in the debate, because the history of my town is indelibly linked in many ways with that of the Falkland Islands. We have many veterans of the Falklands war. Indeed, I share my constituency office with the indomitable Derek “Smokey” Cole, who runs the Falklands Veterans Foundation and who was responsible in part for raising the money to build Liberty lodge in the Falkland Islands. Even the iconic Gosport ferry is operated by Falkland Islands Holdings. We therefore have a very strong link to the Falklands.
As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Falklands war, there should be cause for joy in many ways. The Islanders should be able to celebrate their freedom, safe in the knowledge that their right to self-determination was protected by this country and always will be. The servicemen, many of whom lost so much, should remember the conflict secure in the belief that their sacrifices were not in vain.
This commemoration is marred by disappointment, given that it is taking place in the face of Argentine aggression. The islanders are suffering increased hostility and blocks on trade from neighbouring countries, while Argentina continues to misrepresent the situation on the world stage. I do not intend to recount again the challenges that Britain and the islanders face and that my hon. Friend so eloquently and fully outlined. Instead, I want to underline what I see as the most vital point in today’s debate—the islanders’ right to determine their own future should be absolutely respected by Britain, Argentina and the rest of the international community.
I intervene at this stage just to make one point. The Falkland Islands are defended by hugely capable royal naval assets at the moment. It is no secret that the Typhoon, one of the best multi-role aircraft in the world, operates from the all-weather airstrip. I will not go into the Army assets deployed. Let us be clear and send a message from this Chamber today—keep your hands off the Falklands; they are British and they will remain British.
My hon. Friend, as always, makes a very strong and valid point. A number of us in the Chamber were in the Falklands last year and got to meet many of our brave service personnel who work daily to keep the Falklands safe and independent.
The sacrifices and memories of the war are indelibly marked on the fabric of my constituency. Gosport’s role in the conflict was significant, with a great number of sailors and submariners coming from the town. Indeed, the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Fieldhouse, is a local boy. The town proudly commemorates that in the Falklands memorial garden.
This year, we will again pay tribute in Gosport to those who served and, in 2005, were honoured with the freedom of the borough. As their Member of Parliament, I feel immense pride for what my constituents sacrificed for people living thousands of miles away from them. They were brought together by their desire to be British. Ultimately, both then and now, the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands want to be British. With not a single islander fighting to renounce its status as a British dependent territory, neither the British nor the Argentines have any right to dictate their fate.
As I have mentioned, I was fortunate enough to witness for myself the powerful connection that the islanders feel with Britain last year, when I visited the Falklands with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is a remarkably beautiful place, yet one in which the scars of war are still very apparent. Minefields are still cordoned off. On Mount Tumbledown, where some of the battle took place, there is an Argentine bunker with personal belongings still in it.
Unquestionably, however, the most striking aspect of the trip was the regard in which the Islanders held those British who fought for them. At the memorial site at Bluff cove for the 48 people killed when Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Galahad was attacked, I bumped into veterans from HMS Fearless, two of whom were from my constituency. When I got over the shock of meeting so far away from home people who were my neighbours, they told me of the experiences that they had had during their visit to the Falklands. When they had gone to pay in restaurants, their bills were waived. When they had gone to hand over their fare in a taxi, the taxi driver had said, “No charge.” Everywhere they went, the ongoing gratitude of the Islanders 30 years later for their role in securing freedom was indelibly marked in every aspect of what they did.
It is that freedom that we are again called upon to safeguard today. I reiterate the desire expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham to see the House united in full support of the islanders and I urge the Minister to commit to a self-determination law confirming the right of all our overseas territories to remain British for as long as they want to.
Thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing the debate so well. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who never misses an opportunity to speak up for the Royal Navy and for Gosport. I am delighted that she is serving as chairman of the sub-committee of the all-party group on the armed forces, of which I am chairman. In that capacity, she is looking after the Royal Navy and doing a very good job, too. I thank her for that.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who has laid out with barristeresque detail and clarity the case for the continuing independence and right to self-determination of the Falkland Islands. I will not attempt to repeat or to disagree with anything that he said, which was absolutely right. I will expand on it a little, but without the learned qualities that he was able to bring to his contribution.
My hon. Friend was right to start by paying tribute to the 255 British servicemen whose bodies lie in cemeteries in the Falklands to this day. I think that that was the last war in which the bodies of servicemen were not returned to the United Kingdom. In remembering them and the sacrifice that they made for the freedom and independence of the Falklands Islands, one should also remember the very many servicemen who came home but who suffer, because of the terrible injuries that they sustained as a result of their service, to this day. It was a great pleasure recently to welcome Simon Weston to Wootton Bassett town hall to turn on the Christmas lights in the high street. One need only think of the sacrifice and the efforts that Simon Weston and others have made to help servicemen like themselves.
Of course, in Wiltshire, we are very fortunate to have the home of Help for Heroes and, in Tedworth, the excellent home for servicemen injured in war, which is in the process of being completed and which I visited last week. At a time such as this, it is terribly important not only that we remember the 255 servicemen who gave their lives for the freedom of the Falkland Islanders, but that we think about and make efforts to help the very many servicemen—52,000 altogether in the United Kingdom—who will suffer for the rest of the lives as a result of the service that they have given.
In that context, I will, if I may, make a slight deviation to my own constituency. I am thinking particularly of the servicemen from RAF Lyneham, as it was. Sadly, thanks to the previous Government, it is no longer RAF Lyneham; it is to become a cross-service training depot. In those days, the Hercules fleet was based at RAF Lyneham and performed a magnificent service in ferrying people up and down to Ascension Island and onwards to the Falklands.
Also in my constituency, we were delighted last Thursday to give the freedom of the town of Chippenham to 9 Supply Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps, which is the largest regiment in the British Army. Colonel Bob, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), might be interested to hear that 9 Supply Regiment, based at Hullavington, was given the freedom of Chippenham. Its predecessor also made significant contributions in supplying all that was needed during the great conflict 30 years ago this year.
The thrust of the debate today is plain. People in dependent territories and, indeed, elsewhere according to the United Nations, must have the right of self-determination. There can no question about that whatever. Most of the wars that we have fought in the past 100 years have been in the interests of freedom and of self-determination. It is right that people should be able to say for themselves whom they wish to run their country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham mentioned, that principle lies behind the current debate about a referendum in Scotland, although that is beyond the scope of this debate.
It is right that people should be able to say that they wish to remain one way or another. I suggest that if we challenged the 3,000 people who currently live in the Falklands to do so, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would receive 3,000 letters tomorrow morning indicating that every single one of them wished to remain British, to retain the British passport, to be part of Great Britain and to be a dependent territory of the United Kingdom. There is no question whatever about the unanimity and strength of desire of the people of the Falklands to do that.
With that background, it is only right that our nation should send the clearest possible messages to the Argentine Government that in no circumstances will we countenance anything like military action towards the Falklands. I must say in passing that military action against the Falklands is extraordinarily unlikely. There is not the remotest possibility that the Argentines will consider a replay of the war. None the less, they are choosing at this time for political reasons to make sabre-rattling noises, suggesting that they might do so. We should say that we will defend the Falklands to the last man—of course we would; there is no question about it, and it is impossible to imagine we would not. However, what is more important than that is what lies behind it, which is that we should be ready to say firmly and clearly to the Argentines—in saying this, we should echo it with messages to other parts of the world—that we do not believe it is right to say that the Falklands are part of Argentina, or to use the name the Malvinas. Just saying that and just making those noises undermines the right to self-determination of the people of the Falklands. It should not be allowed under international law. We should make it plain to them that we will not allow them to continue to do it.
Of course there are all sorts of ways in which we could persuade the Argentine Government of the wisdom of that view. They depend on us for all kinds of things. They want a sensible relationship with the rest of the world. The rude noises that they make about the Falklands should form an important part of negotiations that they might have with us about other things. It is outside the scope of this debate, but we heard this morning about strange remarks from Spain about Gibraltar’s independence and freedom. What we say in this debate about the Falklands is exactly mirrored in our approach to the independence and freedom of the people of Gibraltar, who have the right to decide whether they want to remain British—I am certain, having visited recently, that they do, to a gigantic extent. We must say to the Government of Spain, no matter what our relationship may be, that precisely what we did in the Falklands we would do with regard to Gibraltar, if they were to be foolish enough to tread on our toes in that way. We should reiterate the principle of independence and self-determination.
In congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham on calling the debate, I have only one slight regret. He may not realise that to this day 10 January is celebrated in the Falkland Islands as Thatcher day—and a good thing, too. It is a shame we could not have this debate on Thatcher day, the day on which she visited the Falkland Islands six months or so after the war was over. We should remember the part that she—a great woman—played in maintaining the freedom and independence of the Falkland Islands. Let us not forget it. I do not like “The Iron Lady”. It is not a particularly tasteful thing to have done. On an occasion such as this it is right that we should pay tribute to the great Margaret Thatcher for the wonderful work that she did in preserving the freedom and independence of the people of the Falkland Islands.
The question whether there is a risk of military intervention in the Falklands has already been touched on. I do not believe that there is a risk, or that the Argentines are foolish enough even to contemplate doing anything of the sort. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham that the quality and strength of the defence that we have in the Falklands—my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport saw the evidence when she visited with the armed forces parliamentary scheme last year—is such that no one, whether the Argentines or anyone else, would possibly consider it.
I have a couple of minor concerns about the outlying islands. I am very much involved with South Georgia, which is of course the place where the Argentines first landed all those years ago. To this day, it remains exposed to some degree. It is of course a quite remote place, entirely populated by rats, which we are doing our best to eradicate at the moment. It is a place that we have to keep our eye on to ensure that no intervention is possible there. The Argentines have also made some foolish remarks about Antarctica. It is covered by the treaty and is no part of Argentina. We should preserve the international nature of Antarctica from any possible encroachment by the Argentines or anyone else. There are not only diplomatic reasons, but important commercial reasons for that. Mention has been made of oil, and Rockhopper is a fine Wiltshire oil company, which is currently considering what it can do in the south Atlantic. I am delighted to help in any way that I can to ensure that its rights of exploration—if, indeed, it decides to use them—are preserved against a possible commercial objection by the Argentines or anyone else.
Our forces in the Falklands, as has been said, are second to none. They are ready to repel any boarder. However, I have one concern. This matter was raised in the Chamber on Thursday, during the defence debate. By the end of the current strategic defence review, we shall have an Army of 82,000 people. In many parts of the world, and under many definitions, that is not an army but a defence force. The number above which a force is considered to be an army is normally 100,000. Our Army is now the smallest that we have had since the Crimean war. Our Navy has been decimated and the RAF has been cut in half. If there were to be an encroachment today of the kind that happened before, we would not be able to produce a taskforce as we did then, because we simply do not have the resources. As I said in Thursday’s debate, that is entirely wrong. If we have a moral duty as a nation, whether in the Falklands, Gibraltar or elsewhere in the world, we must have the resources to carry it out. I fear that the strategic defence and security review has resulted in a defence force for this country that is not sufficient to carry out the tasks that the Foreign Office requires. The Minister may want to consider whether the Foreign Office could make stronger representations to the Treasury about the amount of money available for the defence of the realm, so that if we ever have to, we can once again send a taskforce of the kind that we are remembering today.
We are sending a clear message to the people of the Falklands, and to the United Nations, the United States and the rest of the world, that we believe that the people of the Falklands have every right to self-determination. The people of the Falklands must be allowed to decide their future, and we will use military force if necessary—certainly military defensive force—to ensure that that happens. However, we should send a stronger message that we are determined to do the same elsewhere in the world. We are determined that people’s right to make up their minds about their future, a free and independent liberal economy and democracy are the things that our nation stands for. We demonstrated that we stood for them during the Falklands war, and we stand for them elsewhere in the world; but to do so we need sufficient defence forces and investment.
It is a privilege to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I want to thank my room mate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for this important debate. As I take every opportunity to say, I like to think I taught him everything he knows.
Many of today’s speeches have been poignant to me. I want to convey a feeling of what it was like in 1982, when I was 15—nearly 16—years old. My father, Captain Alan Lewis Morris, who retired many years ago, was then the age I am now. He was in the reserves and was due to command a minesweeper that was stationed in Liverpool, out to the Falkland Islands. As it happened, it was his 25th wedding anniversary year, and he had already booked a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2; we all know what happened there. As a young man at that time, watching what was happening on television, with both excitement and apprehension at what was unfolding before my eyes, I had a bit of a moral and patriotic insight, which was part of my wanting to be here in the House of Commons today. My father never went in the end, because the day he was called up was the day the conflict ended. However, I remember wondering whether, if he went away, he would come back. The conflict was very hard on both sides. The fact that we travelled to the other side of the world and fought off an aggressor on a small outpost speaks volumes about the spirit of the British people.
Such action also speaks volumes for the spirit and the quality of our armed forces who always multiply up their small numbers when they go into combat. In Afghanistan, their morale is outstanding despite what is happening out there. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) outlined the situation in his admirable plea for more money for defence. If necessary, our forces will fight a superior force and retake the Falklands, because of the quality of the people that we have in our armed forces.
I thank my hon. Friend for that eloquent and powerful statement. I agree with everything that he says.
Thirty years on, the Falklands Islands is still, quite rightly, being protected by British troops. It is regrettable that the US State Department referred to the Falklands as the Malvinas. Coming from a shipping family, I was enlightened to learn that racketeering in world trade is still going on against Britain in that sphere of the globe. We have even had to drop the red ensign, which I find insulting as an English man, never mind as a Member of Parliament.
We must look to the future. There is oil in the region, although I have no idea whether that has anything to do with the fact that Argentina has started rattling sabres again. The oil, which might explain this reawakening of interest in the Falklands Islands, is hard to get at and extremely difficult to drill and mine for. The nitty gritty of this debate is people. Nine generations of people who have settled and lived in the Falklands want to be part of the British people; they are the British people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) so powerfully stated, the Falkland Islands is British. We shall defend the Falkland Islands just as we shall defend any other area of the globe that we represent. The islanders want to stay with us. We protect them and we are trading prosperously from their islands. Such facts speak more about our people, our sovereignty, their sovereignty and this Parliament.
I would like to have powerfully summed up this speech by saying how we would defend the Falkland Islands, but my hon. Friend, the colonel, has already said it for me and in a better way than I ever could. It is absolutely imperative that we protect our interests in the Falklands. We must protect the Falkland Islanders because the Falklands will always, and should always, remain British.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on securing this debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) said, she and I went to the Falklands earlier this year with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. For the avoidance of doubt, I hasten to add that, unlike my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham and for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), we were not room mates on this trip.
The excellent armed forces parliamentary scheme enables Members such as me who have no military experience or history to get a feel for what life is like in the forces. When we were in the Falklands, we visited the RAF, the Army and the Navy and we did exercises with them all. We also met the islanders, whose message to us was clear and consistent. Everywhere we went, they said, “We are British and we want to stay British for ever.” We must defend the rights of those islanders and send a clear message back to Argentina.
At one point on the visit, we spent the night on HMS York, which was an experience in itself. We were with the sailors, and not in the officers’ mess. I was with the stokers. [Interruption.] Yes, it was quite appropriate. It was an interesting experience. The ship was due to leave the Falklands and sail up the west coast of South America. As part of that detail, HMS York was due to dock in Chile to refuel and to give the guys some shore leave. While we were on the ship, though, the crew received notice that their shore leave had been cancelled because Chile would not allow them to dock or to go ashore. We can only surmise the reasons for that, but I suspect that it was due to the pressure that Argentina has been applying on the nations in South America. In particular, it has been using economic pressure. It has realised that military pressure will not work and so it has now turned to economic means. We were told that taxes are now being levied on companies that operate in and around the Falkland Islands if they want to operate in Argentina. Again, it is more economic pressure on the economic community that could help the Falkland Islands to survive and grow.
We have heard about the claims of inflammatory acts. The Argentines say that sending Prince William to the Falklands was an inflammatory act, but what about the pressures that it is applying to the other nations in South America? As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) said, we need to send a clear message to the Argentines. This is a case not of posturing but of being clear and firm. The Falkland Islanders are British and they want to remain so. For as long as they wish to remain British, we will defend them and we will not sit back while Argentina gets up to its old games. At the risk of being controversial, I ask the Minister to take a look at our foreign aid budget and see how much is given to Argentina, because there is a tool by which we may exercise a little bit of extra pressure.
It is 30 years since the Falklands war. Simon Weston has been mentioned previously. By complete fluke, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Simon many years ago and I found his tales of the Falklands war both fascinating and harrowing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport said, while we were in the Falklands, we visited the Argentine outpost on Mount Tumbledown, which was remarkably well preserved and still carries personal artefacts. I saw a training shoe and other such things. It was a very sobering experience. We must remember that war 30 years ago. I was 19 when it happened; slightly older than my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale. Thirty years seems a long time ago, but we must never forget that many British soldiers gave their lives for the Falklands. The islanders respect, remember and appreciate that. We must maintain our level of defence for them. It is their right to remain British and we must defend them.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on securing this debate. The good turnout today is a testament to the desire in this House to reiterate our support for the people of the Falkland Islands. As we mark the 30 years since the Falklands war, it is important to remember not only those who fought but the sacrifice of the 255 Britons who lost their lives. As we approach the anniversary, the increasing tension and the greater focus on the Falkland Islands must be particularly difficult for the families of those who died during the conflict. It is important that we use occasions such as this to reiterate our gratitude to them for their sacrifice and our commitment to protecting the Falkland Islands.
As I made clear earlier, Labour continues to support the islanders’ right to self-determination. It is a long-established principle that has been recognised by successive Governments and by the Falkland Islands constitution. Moreover, as we have discussed, it is set out in article 1.2 of the UN charter and in article 1 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. As the hon. Member for Hexham said, it has been reinforced by UN resolutions that deal specifically with the Falkland Islands and by the many other UN resolutions that reaffirm the commitment to the right of people to determine for themselves what their future should be. Therefore, I am not persuaded by him that there is a need to enshrine that principle in UK law. He has said that it would send out a signal that we are absolutely committed to upholding the right to self-determination, but I do not think that the purpose of legislation is simply to send out signals when the position is already clear. Indeed, I thought that the ideology that underpins his Government is that we should not go down the path of unnecessary legislation; that we should legislate only when there is an absolute need for it. Also, I am concerned that, if there were an attempt to enshrine that principle in UK law, it could be seen to undermine other principles of international and UN law that are not enshrined in UK law; it could seem that the principle were of a different status.
I agree with the hon. Lady about small government, but does she recall the occasion when her right hon. Friend, the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) entered into negotiations with the Government of Spain on the future of Gibraltar without consulting the people of Gibraltar? That shows that, on occasion, such things can slip. Is that not a reason for writing the principle into law?
I do not think that entering into negotiations or discussions with another country necessarily thwarts or flouts the right to self-determination. It is fairly well established that we will respect the right of the people in the overseas territories to determine their fate, and we have reiterated that over and again.
If the hon. Lady is saying that she could see no reason why the right hon. Member for Blackburn should not have discussed with Spain the future of Gibraltar without consulting the people of Gibraltar, is she saying that it would be perfectly reasonable for any other Foreign Secretary to enter into discussions with the Government of Argentina about the future of the Falklands without consulting the people there?
I am obviously not saying that at all. If we were having bilateral meetings with Argentina, or if there were a state visit to Argentina, and the issue of the future of the Falkland Islands were raised by the Argentine Government, we would of course have discussions with them about that. That is not the same as entering into negotiations or in any way at all committing to signing away the rights of the Falklands Islands without respecting its residents’ right to self-determination. As has already been mentioned, given that the Falkland Islanders are unanimous in their desire to remain British, I cannot see that as something that would in any way, shape or form be on the table in a serious way at any such discussions.
For the avoidance of doubt, I shall try to clarify the point that I was seeking to make, which I believe was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray).
There have, down the generations, been examples—whether it is Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands in the late 1960s—where successive Governments have sought to negotiate on sovereignty in circumstances where that has palpably not been the will of the people. My proposal would allow the House of Commons and Parliament to send out a crystal-clear message that self-determination is part of the law of this country, and negotiations cannot be entered into without observation of the individual rights of those persons. That does not currently exist, and that is the right reason why we seek a law on self-determination out of the Foreign Office White Paper that will be discussed in the House this year.
Perhaps we can agree to differ on that matter, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and whether he feels there is a need for the principle to be enshrined in UK law.
We share the Foreign Office’s disappointment about the decision to block ships that carry the Falklands flag. Developments since December have been particularly troubling, and we welcome the robust response from the Foreign Office. Although it is reassuring that ships have been able to get around that policy and continue to enter ports by carrying the British flag, it is obviously not acceptable for the Argentine Government, because they object to the Falkland Islanders’ choice to remain British, to seek to impose an economic blockade or to inhibit the Islanders’ way of carrying on their economic life.
It is also worrying that other south American countries have been brought on board in that decision. Will the Minister confirm which countries and representatives from south America have had direct discussions with the Foreign Secretary, who visited Latin America earlier this month, about the Falkland Islands? Was the blockade discussed with other countries? What was the outcome of the talks? Will the Minister assure us that the Foreign Office is using all diplomatic options to encourage Latin America to respect the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination? What assessment has the Foreign Office made of the impact of the tension with Argentina over the Falkland Islands on the UK Government’s efforts to strengthen the relationship with the rest of south America? Will the Minister explain to us what representations the Government have made to counterparts in Chile about protecting the one flight a week from Chile to the Falkland Islands, which President Fernandez has sought to stop?
We appreciate—I have reiterated this today—the need for a robust and unambiguous stance from the UK Government on our determination to protect the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination and, consequential to that, their British status. Is the Foreign Office concerned, however, that the Prime Minister’s choice of language might have unnecessarily inflamed the situation? I welcome the Prime Minister’s clear assertion in the House that the future of the Falkland Islands is a matter for the people themselves and that they will remain British for as long as they choose to do so, and we also agree that Argentina cannot disregard the Falkland Islanders’ right to choose. However, accusing the Argentine Government of colonialism, which was clearly an emotive choice of words, provoked a strong reaction from the Government and the Argentine people. Does the Minister think, with hindsight, that that was a wise choice of words? We are also concerned about the march on the embassy in Buenos Aires, in which protestors burned the Union flag. Will the Minister assure us that the welfare of the embassy staff is being protected?
Some suggestions have been made, not in this Chamber, but in the media, that the defence of the Falkland Islands would not be secure if there were attempts by Argentina to invade—although we note that the Argentine President has ruled out any military action. For example, in a recent piece in The Daily Telegraph, General Sir Michael Jackson said that Britain would not be able to reclaim the Falklands if Argentina invaded. I note that earlier in the debate the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is well informed on such matters, assured us that that was not the case and that there was no threat, but I would be grateful to receive some reassurance.
It is absolutely the case that we would not be able to send a taskforce tomorrow in the way that we did 30 years ago; we simply do not have the resources to do that. That is quite different from saying that we have no resources to defend the Falklands—of course we do. In particular, the building of a runway at the airport has made defending the Falklands an entirely different matter from what it was 30 years ago, when that did not exist. Of course we can do it today, but we would not be able to lay on a task force as we did then.
Argentina has now named an ambassador to the UK, which is a step in the right direction. Will the Minister tell us whether he has had any contact with Alicia Castro since her appointment? Does he intend to meet her soon? Have his officials in the Foreign Office had any contact with her? We are all keen to hear from the Minister his response to the various points that have been raised in the debate, so I will hand over to him.
Thank you, Mr Crausby, for presiding effectively over this morning’s important debate. I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for giving the House the opportunity to discuss in detail what is not only a topical issue, but a core issue of national importance, which has been receiving considerable media attention recently. It is quite right that we are discussing the matter in the House, and I pay tribute to all Members who have contributed to our deliberations.
In addition, Mr Crausby, I do not know whether this is improper in procedural terms, but I want to welcome Dick Sawle, a Member of the Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly, who is in Westminster Hall to witness our debate today. Other Members have quite rightly paid tribute to the British soldiers and Falkland Islanders who died almost 30 years ago in the Falkland Islands war, as well as to those who suffered lifelong physical and mental trauma as a result of the war. And as we approach the 30th anniversary of the war, it is also appropriate to reflect, as others have already done, on the deaths of Argentines during the conflict.
The Falkland Islanders have faced successive challenges from Argentina to their democratic right to decide how and by whom they are governed, but the British Government’s support for the Falkland Islands is unequivocal. So, for the avoidance of doubt, I say to the House today that we—the British Government—believe in the principle of self-determination for the Falkland Islanders, and our position has not changed and will not change. Our strong response to the statement by the Latin American bloc, Mercosur, last month, a statement which purportedly banned vessels that fly the Falkland Islands flag, was a clear demonstration of our position, and to Argentina itself we expressed our deep disappointment at its attempts to intimidate the Falkland Islanders. We condemned Argentina’s actions both in London and through our ambassador in Buenos Aires. From Argentina’s attempts to harass Falklands-bound shipping or its attempts to close south American ports to Falklands vessels, to its threats to cut off the air links between Chile and the Falklands or to damage companies that do legitimate business in the Falklands, there is a pattern of behaviour designed to blockade the Falklands economically, which is unacceptable and utterly counter-productive if the objective is to make the Falkland Islands part of Argentina.
I visited the Falklands in November, and I have been listening to the debate this morning with interest. I am slightly concerned that in this debate we are perhaps giving too much merit to the present-day posturing of the Argentines. I welcome the Government’s actions, which the Minister has been setting out, but does he recognise that it is important that we ourselves do not fall back on posturing or indeed on inflammatory statements?
I want to start my response to the hon. Lady by thanking her for going to the Falklands; we had a good meeting on her return to discuss her experiences and what she learned from that visit. I take her point that we should not exaggerate the effectiveness of the Argentines’ actions, and I will discuss that point later in my speech. At the same time, however, it is important that, without being inflammatory in our language, we are very clear and unequivocal in this debate about the position of the British Government and, I believe, the British Parliament, and do not leave any room for misinterpretation.
I want to reassure the hon. Member for Hexham and others who have contributed to the debate that the Government have been extremely active in condemning any attempts by Argentina to erect an economic blockade of the Falklands, and it is right that we call it what it is, which is an economic blockade. It is designed to try to hurt the Falkland Islanders economically, to disadvantage them and to reduce their standard of living. As I have already said, we have been very clear that we regard that course of action by Argentina as wrong. We want vital trade links to be maintained.
We are not in any way complacent about what is happening at the moment. We understand the tactics being adopted by the Argentine Government, and they may yet seek in the months ahead to intensify the pressure that they are applying. However, to expand on the point that I was just making to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), we should not exaggerate the success that Argentina has had. The Falklands economy continues to grow strongly, with a budget surplus and very healthy reserves. If the objective of the Argentine Government is to weaken the resolve of the Falkland Islanders through economic means, it is not an objective that they have achieved.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who speaks for the Opposition, asked what representations the British Government are making to countries across south America. The answer is that we make frequent representations at a very high level. As she said, the Foreign Secretary has just been to Brazil, where he specifically raised the issue of the Falklands at the highest levels of the Brazilian Government. We have also made unambiguous representations to the other Mercosur countries, Uruguay and Paraguay, and to Chile, which is associated with Mercosur. Indeed, right across Latin America, we have made our position clear, and I have made direct representations to Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and other countries right across Latin America, some of which instinctively support the Argentine position however many representations we make. Nevertheless, it is still important for us to make our position clear and unambiguous, and I think that other Latin American countries are more susceptible to reasoned argument than those that instinctively support the Argentine position.
I apologise for coming in late; I was detained, but I have been watching the debate downstairs. The Foreign Secretary was in Brazil, which is not a natural ally of Argentina, and yet Brazil is lining up with Argentina on the Falklands question. Did the Foreign Secretary obtain any reassurance that Brazil, which is now a major world power, is going to distance itself from what is, frankly, the very wrong position that Argentina is taking and that it would line up with the world’s democracies, including our own, or did he return empty-handed?
No, I would not see it in terms of the Foreign Secretary returning “empty-handed”. Brazil is keen to have a constructive relationship with its neighbour, Argentina—the relationship with Argentina is important commercially and politically for Brazil. At the same time, we are very pleased that Brazil is keen to have a growing relationship with the UK. The Foreign Secretary had an extremely valuable and productive visit to Brazil, and he had extensive talks in Brasilia with the Brazilian Foreign Secretary. The subject of the Falklands was not the only subject that was raised in the discussions between the two Foreign Secretaries, but it was raised. Not all of our diplomacy is so visible, because some of it is more discreet than that. I assure my hon. Friends and all Members present for this debate that we attach a very high priority to the issue of the Falklands, that the Brazilians and others understand our position and that, like ourselves, the Brazilians and others do not wish to see an economic blockade of the Falklands.
The hon. Member for Bristol East, who speaks for the Opposition, asked whether I thought that the Prime Minister’s position was appropriate. It is right that the Prime Minister is clear in this House—in Parliament—about the strong support that the British Government give to the status of the Falkland Islands. And on the military point that was raised by a number of Members, I assure the House that the Government continue to take necessary steps to maintain the security of the Falkland Islands.
More broadly, Members have talked about our wider relationship with Argentina. We have made it clear to Argentina that we are enthusiastic about having a more productive relationship and about addressing global issues together, including climate change or the global economy. Argentina, of course, is a member of the G20, so we have another opportunity in that forum to raise and discuss issues with it, and to build alliances with it where it is appropriate and in our shared interests to do so.
We want to work with Argentina constructively. There are areas where we share interests. We not only share economic interests, but wider trade issues, energy issues, transport issues, cultural issues, sporting issues and educational issues. There are lots of areas where we want to work more productively with Argentina than we are sometimes able to do at the moment, but only so long as Argentina understands that that process is not in some way part of a negotiation on the Falkland Islands. The status of the Falkland Islands is non-negotiable for us, but in other regards we wish to have a helpful and productive dialogue with Argentina.
I have not yet had the opportunity to meet Argentina’s new ambassador to the UK—I do not think that she has arrived in London yet. However, I certainly will meet her when she arrives and at the moment I have regular and perfectly amicable engagement with the Argentine chargé d’affaires, who will be replaced by the ambassador when she arrives.
I accept all that the Minister says concerning the desire of the UK Government to work hand in hand on so many issues with the Argentines. However, does he agree that no threat of conflict from any Argentine Government will pressure the British Government into any negotiations that would undermine the will and determination of the Falklands people to remain British?
Yes. I hoped that I had made that clear, but I will make the point again for the avoidance of doubt. Our position on the self-determination of the Falkland Islands is and remains non-negotiable. We have secured assurances from countries elsewhere in south America that they have no appetite for joining Argentina in attempts to damage the islands’ economy.
We have asserted our commitment to deepening and broadening Britain’s engagement with Latin America as a whole. To the Falkland Islanders, we have offered reassurance of our enduring commitment to their security and to their well-being. More than that, we have ensured that both in south America and in the UK their views are heard and their wishes are, increasingly I hope, respected.
The Prime Minister and others have voiced their support, and our embassies have worked tirelessly across Latin America and more widely in other countries around the world, to support the position of the Falkland Islanders. In some regards, that is already yielding dividends. At the recent UK-Caribbean Forum, for example, the Foreign Secretary and I were personally involved in making the case for the people of the Falkland Islands, and I am pleased that Caribbean Governments gave their unanimous backing to the rights of the islanders to self-determination.
The point has been made in this debate on whether we should have a self-determination law in the UK. The right to self-determination is already enshrined in law, as hon. Members know, via article 1.2 of the UN charter, and article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and it is worth emphasising that it is also written into the Falkland Islands constitution. The British Government already have a legal obligation to uphold both the principle and the practical consequences of self-determination, so we do not see the need for additional work in that area. We believe that point is clearly established.
We will continue all our work throughout 2012 and beyond in all those regards. The cornerstone of our policy will always be the islanders and their clearly expressed wishes. I have had many opportunities to meet representatives of the Falkland Islanders to discuss their concerns and to work closely with them. It is fair to say that I devote as much attention to the Falkland Islands as to any other part of the world. Despite the small population it is a part of the world of extreme importance to the FCO. We work closely with representatives of the Falkland Islands to ensure as best we can that their interests are met.
Indeed, I have been honoured with an invitation from the Falkland Islands Government, and I can announce this morning that I will visit the Falkland Islands in June as it commemorates the 30th anniversary of its liberation. The Government feel it is important to have a Foreign Office Minister present for that anniversary event. I am pleased to attend what will be an important and sombre occasion. I am also looking forward to taking the opportunity to get to know better the islanders and their home.
The House will welcome the fact that the Minister intends to visit the Falkland Islands in June, which is an important symbol of our support. While he is there, will he take the opportunity to nip down to South Georgia and have a look at the excellent work done by the South Georgia Preservation Trust to eradicate rats?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. My programme has yet to be finalised, apart from the anniversary date, when I will participate in the commemorations. I am in the Falkland Islands for a number of days, so I will be taking the opportunity to gain a wider understanding of a range of issues that affect the Falkland Islands and possibly other islands in the area. I had in mind more clear-cut economic and social issues, but I am open to any suggestions that my hon. Friend wishes to send to my office.
I thank the Minister for giving way, and I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate. May I second the invitation to South Georgia offered by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) It makes a lovely canoeing trip: perhaps he could take the journey from the Falklands to South Georgia by canoe and see what the way of life is like.
On a more serious point, the Minister has gone through the relationships developed through the Foreign Secretary going to Brazil and through representatives here in the UK. However, will he put on record the contribution that the Falkland Islands representative in Britain, Sukey Cameron, makes to the agenda, and the work that she does through her office to ensure that the Falkland Islands stays at the top of the political agenda in the UK, and to ensure that trips, such as the one the Minister is to make in June, are well-organised and well-informed?
I am happy to pay tribute to Ms Cameron in the way that the hon. Gentleman asks. I meet her frequently, and she is a great champion of the Falkland Islands and islanders and makes an extremely compelling case for their interests. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who visited the Falkland Islands last year and brings extra knowledge to the debate as a result.
It is understandable that this anniversary year will see much focus on the past. It is right, of course, that we remember and give thanks for the sacrifice of those who fought and died in defence of the islands. Their sacrifice secured the islanders’ future. Now, in 2012, that future looks brighter than ever for the people of the Falkland Islands. The economy of the Falklands is on a secure footing and the islanders will continue to build new enterprises and to explore new markets. Tourism is on the increase—around 65,000 cruise-ship passengers visited the islands last year—and the figure is set to increase in future years.
Oil exploration is continuing apace. Let me be clear, as the issue arose during our deliberations, that the resources around the Falkland Islands belong to the islanders. It is absolutely right that they should develop that aspect of their economy and they enjoy our full support in doing so in the future. It is not for us in Westminster to set out what the future holds for the Falkland Islands. That is the preserve of their people. They have that right to self-determination about which we have spoken at length in this debate. Only they can decide how to respond to the opportunities and challenges of the years ahead. The British Government are determined to ensure that they have the right to self-determination but they make their own choices about how to order their affairs. That is quite right and proper.
While is it for the islanders to determine their own future, it is for the UK to enable them to do so in a secure environment and without pressure or interference from others. That is why, apart from a range of wider considerations across Latin America to do with trade, politics and working together on matters such as climate change or cultural exchanges, we are very keen to ensure that the position of the Falkland Islands is understood in Latin America and further afield.
I also pay tribute to the members of the Legislative Assembly, who have been extremely effective in their meetings with other countries at explaining their position, in a way that many countries find compelling when they hear it directly from representatives of the Falkland Islands rather than just the British Government. I know those efforts are intensifying, and I welcome them.
The Falkland Islands will face many challenges in the future, ranging from the economic to the environmental. It is a remote part of the world and has a small population, which can present difficulties. However, one thing will not change: the UK will always be forthright in support of the islanders’ wishes and relentless in upholding their rights.
I finish by drawing attention to what the Foreign Secretary said recently on the matter. It will leave the House completely clear about the Government’s intentions and reassure hon. Members who have spoken before me:
“The future of the Falkland Islands is about people…Thirty years after the Argentine invasion, their right to self-determination remains, and will always remain, the cornerstone of our policy.”
Thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing the debate so effectively, and thank you to all hon. Members who contributed to discussing this important issue in the 30th anniversary year of the Falklands war.
Policing (North Wales)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Crausby, and to see so many colleagues from north Wales here to debate this important issue.
It is not often that I can begin such a debate by saying that we can learn something from the Welsh Conservatives, but today I am privileged to be able to do so. The Welsh Conservatives have cancelled their Llandudno conference this year, apparently because of security costs. I am not sure whether they think extra security is needed to hold back the crowds or to ensure that none of their politicians get out to hear what local people think. Wherever they plan to skulk off to instead, I hope they face the full weight of the law for non-payment of the £20,000 that the Imperial hotel is likely to lose because of their bad business practice in cancelling so late. Leaving aside their cowboy capitalism—I see that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) does not wish to intervene—the Conservatives’ decision has betrayed a fact they have been trying to deny since the general election, which is that good security costs money, and without enough funding, security will suffer.
That principle brings me to today’s debate, ahead of next week’s vote on more cuts to the North Wales police force. The first duty of any Government is to protect their citizens, or to put in place the brave men and women who do that for us. We all rely on our police forces to keep us safe, and we in north Wales are extremely lucky to have an excellent force, which provides a top-class, professional service to our communities. Our police force, however, is being let down, and law and order—cyfraith a threfn—is being woefully let down in the process.
Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary was asked to advise the Government on possible efficiency savings in the police force, and said that
“cost cutting and improvements in productivity could, if relentlessly pursued, generate a saving of 12% in central government funding without affecting police availability—but only if there was a fundamental ‘re-design’ of the system”.
Despite that advice, the Government are pursuing a 20% cut in police funding, stripping the police of 8% more of their funding than the experts said could be removed safely.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. Is it not the case that the Labour Welsh Government are cutting funding to police forces by 6.3%, compared with 6.9% from central Government? Would she defend that difference?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s crib sheet comment, but I remind him that the Welsh Government, who are dealing with a very difficult situation from the UK Government, are increasing the number of police community support officers by 500. I urge him to reflect on that. I also note his non-comment on his party’s lack of funding in his own constituency, Aberconwy, thanks to the cancellation of its Llandudno conference.
Despite HMIC’s advice, the Government are pursuing a 20% cut in police funding. On the ground, that means that since the last general election, North Wales police has lost 85 police officers, or more than 5% of its whole force. By 2015, it is forecast that more than 360 staff could go—179 officers and 186 civilian staff. After years of steadily rising numbers of police officers, so many are now being cut that already we have fewer officers in north Wales than we did a decade ago. Meanwhile, the population of north Wales has increased by over 12,000.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful case, which exposes the Government’s ludicrous argument that somehow they can cut some mythical back room—and even the middle room, whatever that is—without affecting front-line services. In north Wales, front-line police officers are being cut.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, and I will go on later to mention some aspects of policing, such as forensics, that are covered by the description of back-room policing.
Ministers say repeatedly that police chiefs are the only ones responsible for cutting back on numbers. Despite the inspectorate’s advice, they say:
“By the end of the spending review period, the police will still have the resources to do their important work.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 September 2011; Vol. 730, c. WA28.]
In fact, no fewer than nine times in the past six months, Ministers have given the same answer to various questions in Parliament about falling police numbers. The mantra goes a bit like this:
“we have set a challenging but manageable funding settlement for the police service. It is for the chief constable and the police authority in each force to determine the number of police officers that are deployed given the available resources.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 16.]
Perhaps we will hear that again from the Minister today, to round it off to a nice, even and decimal 10.
In my constituency, the practical effect of the Government’s policy in terms of reduction is that dedicated community police officers, who have been hugely effective and successful in policing local areas, have been taken away from particular geographical areas, which is causing great concern among councillors and having a huge impact on the ground. Will my hon. Friend urge the Government to look again at the impact, not in the back room but on the streets?
I agree totally with my hon. Friend and share his concern about the impact in Wrexham county borough.
If the Government know how police chiefs can keep all their people and premises on 20% less money, with a rising population and fewer back-office resources, I hope that the Minister will tell us. North Wales police knows its own organisation’s needs better than anyone, and it has made it clear that it cannot keep all its officers under the budget cut. Our excellent chief constable Mark Polin made his position perfectly clear, saying:
“If I am going to keep the organisation in balance, we are going to have to lose a significant number of staff…I have no wish to reduce any of our staff, but I have got to. I have no choice whatsoever”.
No choice whatsoever—Ministers know that that is true. Now is the time for them to stop passing the buck and take responsibility for the chaos that they have created.
North Wales’ policing needs will be hit particularly hard because of the rural nature of our area and the loss, on top of the 20% budget cut, of the payment that used to be awarded to help cope with that. One hidden change brought in alongside the headline cuts to budgets is the merging of the rural police grant into the core settlement. It is effectively being abolished for police forces such as North Wales, which used to benefit from it directly.
Our rural communities have specific policing needs, and the rural grant was introduced by the Labour Government to address them. A sparse and scattered population cannot be policed in the same way as an urban centre. Police have to cover huge distances, incurring extra costs in fuel or infrastructure such as buildings that urban police forces need not budget for. That is why the Home Office’s police allocation formula working group considered and rejected the recommendation that the rural grant should be rolled in with other categories of grant and effectively lost. Again, however, that expert opinion was ignored, and north Wales will have to do without.
Why does it matter? Let me give an example. Last year, part of my constituency suffered some worrying arson-related attacks on cars. That kind of crime requires exactly the same kinds of police resources in a rural village as it would if it happened in an inner-city area, but rural police are spread more thinly and need to travel further to reach the trouble when it happens. No amount of so-called efficiency savings can mitigate the geography, unless Ministers would like all of my constituents and others in north Wales to relocate together to one place in order to make things easier. The Countryside Alliance rightly makes the point that the proposed levels of police cuts would be “a free-for-all” for those who would commit crime in the countryside.
I am delighted to see the Labour-led Welsh Government fund an additional 500 community support officers across Wales, but the loss of the rural police grant is a double whammy for us. The official figures show that vehicle crime is up in north Wales by 84% over the past year—from about 130 incidents in November 2010 to 250 in November 2011. Burglary and other crimes, including theft, shoplifting, criminal damage and public disorder have also increased during that time frame.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will acknowledge that crime is a reality in every part of the United Kingdom. She mentions statistics regarding increases of burglaries and robberies in Wales, and sex crime is also an issue. Does she agree that we as Members of Parliament need to remember that behind every one of these crimes are horrifying stories of lives that have been blighted—many of them changed, never to be the same again—and that it is therefore necessary to have the police available to stop crime?
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Throughout the ’90s and the past 10 years, there was a consensus among all the political parties on the need to confront crime by increasing the number of officers. Is it not a profound shame that that consensus has been broken, and that the impact that that will have on individual people’s lives is being ignored by this Government?
In a moment—I must make progress. The offences that I have listed are exactly the kinds that tend to increase when police numbers fall. HMIC published research last summer that acknowledged that lots of factors affect crime rates, but it also stated that
“there is relatively strong evidence for the potential of an effect of police numbers on crime, particularly with regard to property and other acquisitive forms of offending.”
It also noted:
“Research suggests that frontline officer numbers are one factor in a force’s ability to fight crime.”
In north Wales, official statistics obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) show that since 2001, crime broadly decreased as officer numbers rose. It is good common sense—more police officers can fight more crime—but, sadly, the Government parties seem determined to ignore the links. Their line is to quote one sentence from last year’s Home Affairs Committee report. I suspect that the Minister may wish to do that today, so I will save him the task. It says that
“there is no simple relationship between numbers of police officers and levels of crime”,
but that line has been carefully cherry-picked. The rest of the report is full of evidence to the contrary. In the same paragraph as the quotation that the Government like, the Committee offers a clarification:
“However, the loss of posts will have an impact on the range of services that the police provide and the way in which they are provided.”
The report also notes the evidence of Mr McKeever, the chairman of the Police Federation, who said in his evidence that
“there is a clear trend in the relationship between police officer numbers and crime.”
The report also references Councillor Burns-Williamson, deputy chair of the Association of Police Authorities, who told the inquiry:
“My guess is that, given the cuts over the four-year period…probably crime levels will start to rise.”
Elsewhere, even the Conservative Mayor of London agrees that “numbers matter”.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that subject—something told me it would appear. The position is clear. Before the last election, the Labour Government made it plain that, in common with the police, they would agree to 12% cuts in order to reduce back-office costs. I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to what a future Labour Government may have to do with the so-called deficit plans of this Government, which appear to mean total cuts but very little growth. It would be dishonest of me to offer a prediction in such circumstances, but let me be clear: if there was a Labour Government in office now, we would be sticking to 12%. The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in what he says from his central office crib sheet.
Those calculations of 12% were given at a time when the economy was improving—GDP was going up, unemployment was going down and confidence was going up. At that point, things were on the mend. Since this Government have been in power, they have added an extra £158 billion to the bill. We have to recognise that.
That is absolutely correct. There is no question about what the previous Labour Government did, or about what a Labour Government would do if they were in power now.
The Government speak about back-office costs, but they seem to forget that forensics, family liaison and call-handlers, among others, fall within that definition. Surely no one in the 21st century can define front-line policing as a few Dixon of Dock Greens plodding amiably around the patch. In fact, it seems that everyone, except for the Ministers in charge of the policy, agrees that there is some link between the number of officers available and crime levels. In other words, fewer police officers will find it more difficult to police crime.
If crime increases in the coming months and years, I am sure that it will be blamed on snow, an extra bank holiday, the eurozone or, for all we know, on Britain not quite making it in the Eurovision song contest. The victims of crime, however, will ask why the Government did not listen when the experts told them that a 20% cut was too much. We need to act now to stop that happening.
The only officers whom the Minister seems to think are important are the ones who do not yet exist—the elected police commissioners. There is not one shred of evidence that imposing these outside managers on police forces will cut crime by one iota. The policy is a gimmick, pure and simple. It is totally unfounded on fact or previous best practice. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Police Authorities of Wales has recommended that the establishment of police commissioners—or, in their words, the “bureaucratic web” and a
“poor model of police governance”—
should be deferred. The Government, however, continue to press forward regardless.
The plan will not come free. Incredibly, even though North Wales police, like other police forces, is losing police officers because it has not been given enough funds to pay for them, the Government have still found £100 million—the cost of 600 full-time officers—to pay for these new positions. They argue that the plan will connect the public to the police service, but the idea that the public see more elected officials—bureaucrats by any other name—as the answer to crime, rather than more policemen and women, is totally absurd.
The creation of the new commissioner posts will bring politics into policing like never before, providing yet another difficulty and distraction for chief constables trying to do their jobs to protect law-abiding citizens in the midst of a funding crisis. Operational independence will be threatened as electioneering takes the place of long-term planning. Collaboration between forces could be threatened as commissioners from different political parties prefer to compete with each other, with an eye on the next election. That is not the way to run a police force. I imagine that most of our political parties will field candidates for the positions and that some of the victors will do the best job they can if they are elected, but that is not the point. The point is that the policy itself is a total shambles.
Next week, Parliament will be asked to vote on the police grant report, which will seek to cut a further 7% from North Wales police’s budget—£3.4 million. I see that the Minister appears to be working his electronic device. Perhaps he could throw this calculation in: £3.4 million. North Wales cannot afford these cuts. If we want to support our police and our communities, we must stand up against the reckless cuts that the Government are trying to push through. It would be totally irresponsible to go ahead when officer numbers have already had to fall and when communities are losing their police stations. Instead, our officers should get the backing they deserve and the funding they need to stay in their jobs and do them without interference.
I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us why he thinks he knows better than Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, better than the Association of Police Authorities and better than the Police Federation of England and Wales. I hope that he will tell us what he thinks North Wales police should do differently to avoid losing officers, how they can make our large rural areas more efficient to police and what possible reason Members have for voting through a further 7% budget cut next week. However, I hope even more that Ministers will listen to the evidence and hear how it affects north Wales and other parts of the UK, and that they will have the courage to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing the debate.
I am still hoping that the debate will be an opportunity not for a display of new Labour, but for a display of new realism. Perhaps the hon. Lady might like to explain why the Welsh Assembly has cut police funding. I understand that the Labour party supports the budget reductions because its economic credibility depends on it and it cannot guarantee to reverse any of the funding cuts that the Government are going to make. Yet, at the same time, Labour opposes every step that the coalition Government take.
In fact, we have heard in the debate today that one of the cuts Labour Members think they can support is a 12% reduction in the police budget. If that is the case, perhaps the hon. Lady or the official spokesman for the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) when he responds, would like to tell hon. Members exactly how many officers that will equate to, because the hon. Lady is in cloud cuckoo land if she thinks that a 12% cut does not relate to a reduction in staffing numbers.
Just to clarify the position for the right hon. Gentleman, the budget for the Welsh Assembly is provided by the UK Government, who cut the budget. The Welsh Assembly has less money because the UK Government cut the funding. That is why there are cuts taking place in the Welsh Assembly.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is rather better versed in matters in Carshalton than he is in those in Wales. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) has made clear, the reason for that situation is a reduction in funding from Westminster. I also made it clear that, partly to mitigate what has happened, the Welsh Assembly Government have increased the number of PCSOs by 500. The right hon. Gentleman speaks of wishing for a new realism and a lack of partisanship but, quite honestly, I find his comments totally partisan, totally unhelpful and showing a total lack of knowledge of the people of north Wales.
I am very happy to respond to that; indeed, I have responded to similar points in a number of debates since the new Government were elected. The financial circumstances do not allow such pledges to be funded. It is as simple as that. What this discussion has revealed is that we need to have an important debate—perhaps if we set aside partisanship, we could have that debate—about using police officers effectively. For example, if we recruit more police officers and put them in a call centre, it might add to police officer numbers, but it does not necessarily equate to a more effective police force.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I need to make a little progress, having taken four or five interventions already.
I hope that this morning’s debate will not be totally partisan. Clearly, there are some very challenging circumstances for the police in north Wales. I understand that, prior to the election, they had lost 85 officers and that, under the previous Government, there were some issues that needed to be addressed. There has since been a further reduction in officer numbers. As the hon. Lady said, I acknowledge that, for rural forces, there are clearly bigger challenges than for forces in urban areas, where, for instance, it is easier to call on support from neighbouring forces because the distances are smaller. I acknowledge those points.
In those circumstances, it was right that the chief constable, Mark Polin, undertook the reorganisation proposals that he has instigated in terms of setting up the hubs, reducing senior management numbers and merging three divisions into one. It is perfectly appropriate that, having undertaken that reorganisation, the matter should be looked at again to see what the impact has been. We need to consider whether such an approach has been effective and whether it has perhaps had unintended consequences that the chief constable may be able to address.
In the past, the chief constable has criticised partnerships, so I hope that he will not go down the line of saying that partnerships get in the way of the police working effectively. Certainly, my experience is that partnerships—particularly those with the local authority, the voluntary sector and other partners—are an effective way of reducing crime in an area, not a hindrance. I do not consider officers who are allocated to a partnership role as being officers who are badly allocated in that respect.
Another point that the chief constable’s review may touch on is the issue of overtime payments because, clearly, there has been an increase in north Wales. I accept that there will be circumstances in which overtime payments allow officers to be specially tasked for a particular initiative. However, at the same time, there needs to be a balance between an acceptable reliance on overtime and police officer numbers.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I have no experience of living in north Wales. I am not purporting to have the very local knowledge that she and other Welsh Members here have. Clearly, that is not the case. If she takes part in a debate about London policing matters in the future, I may throw that comment back at her to see what her experience has been and whether she has lived in London, as I have for the past 30 years. She may be able to comment in some detail on that matter.
I want to move on to what might in the longer term present a solution to these problems. I—and I think many hon. Members present—would like the Welsh Assembly to take on greater responsibility for policing and justice issues. I see that some Members are not in agreement with me, but others may well be. In the longer term, if Wales wants to have total control of its policing and therefore have responsibility for deciding what the appropriate level of policing is and what percentage of its budget should be allocated to policing issues, that is an ambition I support.
Clearly, I accept that there would be enormous challenges to achieving that and that we would have to try to unpick the funding arrangements that apply to policing. I, and many hon. Members here, know that that is extremely controversial. Depending on which part of the country someone comes from, the funding arrangements either work for or against them. Clearly, that issue would require long and detailed negotiations. However, in the longer term, I cannot see any other solution to providing the policing that Wales feels is acceptable for Wales. As long as the UK Government—in whatever shape or form—continue to provide funding for policing, we will always have rather sterile debates about central Government not allocating enough money, and the Welsh Assembly not being able to deploy the resources that it would like to deploy.
On that final point, which I hope will provide a longer term solution to these funding issues, I conclude my remarks. As I said, I hope that this debate will not be entirely partisan. I had 13 years’ experience in opposition and I always felt that it was clearly my role to attack the previous Government, which I did, hopefully with some vigour. At the same time, I always felt that as an Opposition Member it was incumbent on me to reflect the reality of the circumstances, and deploy some solutions for the Government to consider.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing time for this important debate.
I know a thing or two about north Wales, as we all do in the Chamber, unlike the previous speaker, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). I begin by quoting that esteemed organ of truth, the Daily Post:
“Overtime spending by North Wales Police rocketed to £3.6m in 2011. The news comes as the force struggles to keep as many front-line positions as possible intact while facing the need to make major budget cuts under the national public spending squeeze.”
It then refers to overtime payment soaring—
“from £3,591 in 2010 to £5,314”—
in one month. It goes on:
“A Freedom of Information request revealed that the force had increased its spending from £2.7m in 2010 to £3.6m in 2011”
on overtime. Perhaps that is an inevitable consequence of having too few officers on the ground. I can understand that fully. I am a huge supporter of the North Wales police. Close members of my family have been police officers and I am not here to detract from the work that they do, which is often dangerous and thankless. Without them, heaven knows where we would be.
Nine months ago, the chief constable of North Wales police announced that there would be a radical shake-up of policing in north Wales. There would be a given number of hubs—nine in all—from which rapid response vehicles and personnel would be dispatched when the need arose. The chief constable vowed that emergency calls to serious crime would not be compromised after the changes, but he warned that it was inevitable that police reaction to some low-level crime would be affected, as they coped with losing 121 uniformed officers and at least the same number of civilian staff. On the nine response hubs, he said:
“These will not improve response times but will keep them the same.”
That is not even an assurance that there would be an improvement in response times; there would merely be an effort to keep them the same. The hubs may be perfectly acceptable in areas where travelling is reasonably easy. I am sure that those areas bordering the A55 think it is a useful idea, given that a vehicle exhibiting blue lights can travel a long distance on that road in a relatively short time.
The hon. Gentleman refers to Rhyl. That also surprises me. There has been a fairly high crime rate there for some years. Of course, we understand that this policy will be reviewed in the coming weeks. I hope sincerely that those who will be making the decisions will have some regard to what is being argued here today. I support fully what the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said.
The right hon. Gentleman has a deep knowledge of north-west Wales and, indeed, Anglesey. The creation of hubs has actually led to the closure of local police stations, so policing is not even coming nearer to the people; it is moving away from local communities. Does he agree that that is an issue?
I agree fully. My late father was a station officer once on Anglesey, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Clearly, things have changed and the nature of policing has changed, but he is right. There is now a shake-up that has the potential to be very damaging, particularly in rural areas, as the hon. Member for Clwyd South pointed out. Further west, in my constituency of Dwyfor Meirionnydd, this policy does not make a great deal of sense, and there have been complaints about it in the past few months. For example, Pwllheli town council has written to the chief constable about its concerns, and I support fully its contentions. Furthermore, members of Tywyn town council have likewise had cause to complain, and I understand fully their reason for doing so as well.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I congratulate him on making a very thoughtful speech about the management of North Wales police, an issue that is hugely important to us all. He is clearly unhappy with the arrangements that have been proposed for north Wales. Does he agree that this is exactly the sort of issue that will feature in the campaign for the election of a police commissioner? The public will then have the chance to express their view in the campaign.
Indeed, but if there is no money in the kitty, it is a waste of time discussing it. The budget cuts are the problem—the core problem is that we are all meant to do much more with less. If there is no money to pay for it, it does not make any sense, however clever any candidate might be, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I referred to Tywyn, which is a town of approximately 2,500 inhabitants. There is now one community officer stationed there. The nearest hub would be Dolgellau, which is some 18 to 19 rather tortuous miles away. I wonder what the result would be if there were a major disturbance in the town, leaving only one officer to deal with it for at least 20 to 30 minutes before back-up arrived—it does not bear thinking about. It is no wonder that the Police Federation in north Wales is gravely concerned about the situation. It is unfair on individual police officers who face a difficult and dangerous job at the best of times, but it is equally unfair on the citizens of Tywyn and Meirionnydd, who pay the same level of taxes as everybody else and can therefore reasonably expect the same level of service.
The same is true of Pwllheli, where there are approximately 2,760 inhabitants. The nearest hub is Porthmadog. Again, it is a difficult drive to get there quickly, but the situation in Dwyfor is possibly even worse when we consider that the hub is meant to service Aberdaron at the tip of the Llyn peninsula. With the best will in the world, I do not know how any rapid response vehicle is possibly expected to reach Aberdaron from Porthmadog in less than 40 minutes. The situation is therefore critical, and we are almost waiting for something drastic to happen before the plan is scrapped. I will also mention the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, which has again been denuded of police officers. Again, a town of 3,600 inhabitants is to be served by the hub in Porthmadog.
This looks like an exercise that has been dreamt up in an office, rather than by anyone who knows the geography of north-west Wales generally, and of Dwyfor Meirionnydd in particular. I am pleased to be able to use this debate to voice deeply held worries and concerns on behalf of my constituents. I understand that the scheme was put in place for a trial period and is now due for review. I urge the chief constable and the police authority to reconsider it urgently in light of the fact that, to my knowledge, on some weekends, the old county of Meirionnydd may have as few as three police officers on duty in the winter months. In the summer months, the population rises eight to tenfold. This is unacceptable and dangerous during the winter. It is dangerous during the summer—I would say scandalous. The authority must go back to the drawing board and reconsider the plans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.
This has been an interesting debate, but it did start out in an extremely partisan manner. Indeed, many hoteliers in Llandudno in my constituency would be amazed at the glee with which their loss of business is seen by Labour Opposition Members. To return to the issue that we are debating today, we need to consider the comments made by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). The new plans have had teething problems. They are clearly not working in his constituency, and I accept his comments. But it must be stated that the chief constable’s decision to change the way that the service operated in north Wales has been positive in some parts. In my constituency—I have visited the police station in Llandudno and Llanrwst, for example—the response to the changes has been positive, with the view of the officers being that they are spending less time on paperwork and getting more support across north Wales. That is important, because previously north Wales was, for some bizarre reason, split into three almost independent sections—east, central and west—and little or no support passed between them.
The changes have ensured that the police are able to serve north Wales as an entity. From my position, representing Aberconwy in the centre region, there has been an improvement, with support officers coming from Corwen, for example, to support officers from Llanrwst. We should welcome that effort to ensure that we make best use of the resources. I pay tribute to the chief constable, who is doing a difficult task in trying to deal with cuts to the budget, which are not being denied by Labour Members. We have heard the shadow Chancellor comment that he cannot guarantee a reversal of any cuts. Yet in a debate such as this we get opportunistic chants from Opposition Members claiming that things would be significantly different if they were in power.
It is important that we consider the way that police numbers grew in north Wales during Labour’s time in office. It is true that the number of police numbers in north Wales increased by 13% between 1997 and 2000—I pay tribute to the Labour Government for increasing police numbers—but in the same period the number of civilian officers working for north Wales police increased by 84%, so it is debatable whether resources were put on to the front line.
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman says that the increase in resources is necessarily the reason why North Wales police have performed well. The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) said that higher police numbers equated to falling crime. It is tempting to say that that must be so, but during Labour’s time in office there was a significant period when the number of police officers in north Wales increased but crime increased and a period when the number of police officers declined and crime declined.
There is a perception that more officers working will have an impact on crime levels, but statistics from the Labour party’s period in office do not necessarily support that view. My view is that the use made of those officers is just as important as the number of officers. Similarly, getting rid of waste and double practices, such as having three areas in north Wales that did not work together, is just as important as the numbers.
The number of police officers in north Wales has been reduced by 108, according to statistics that I have seen from North Wales police, but the chief constable has also said that it is looking to recruit an extra 72 officers in the next financial year. There is a tendency for the Opposition to portray everything as bad and fragile, when in the year to September 2011 there was a 1% decline in the total number of crimes committed in north Wales.
It is dispiriting for officers in north Wales, who are working hard to try to deal with these issues, to be told that the police service in north Wales is failing, when we have seen a decline in police numbers.
Again, I am surprised by that comment, because throughout this debate I have heard Opposition Members saying that we must put the resources on the front line. There is a choice to be made. If the number of officers increased by 13% in the Labour years, is there a justification for an increase of 84% in non-police officer staff at that point? That question should be asked. This is not an attack, in any way, shape or form, on any individuals working within the system, but we need to ask whether an 84% increase in those numbers was justified, when the number of front-line police officers increased by only 13%.
The hon. Gentleman is using selective statistics. In addition to the police officers going, the number of police community support officers was increased. People wanted policing in the community. As a consequence of investing in those PCSOs in the communities, crime came down in local communities across north Wales.
I accept that comment. But if we include PCSOs and special constables in the totals, North Wales police are better served now than they were during the period the Labour party were in government.
It is important that we discuss the context of this debate, which is that we are facing a severe financial crisis. This Government are willing to get to grips with that issue. The chief constable in north Wales is willing to challenge the way that things worked in the past and to take difficult decisions to try to ensure that the allocated funding goes further.
It is important to mention the unacceptable degree of hypocrisy from Opposition Members on funding. They say that a 6.9% cut from Westminster is unacceptable in this financial year, but that a cut of 6.3% from the Welsh Assembly can be defended on the basis that the Assembly’s funding has also been reduced. This is the crux of the issue. Choices and priorities have to be made by the Government. We see in the Opposition, and in the performance of the Welsh Assembly, a complete and utter abdication of responsibility and willingness to take hard, difficult decisions.
When I get a full explanation from the shadow Chancellor about why and how he can save the North Wales police service, although he will not reverse a single cut that we have made, I will take the arguments of Opposition Members more seriously.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.
Two hon. Members have mentioned the Conservative party’s cancellation of the Llandudno conference on security grounds and that, somehow, Labour Members are gleeful about that. I spent Saturday with my mother-in-law in Llandudno, helping the local economy and the local hotels and hostelries. I put my money where my mouth is, in many ways.
I am proud of Labour’s record on policing over the past 13 years. It can be said—hon. Members will know—that I have not always been on message and did not always agree with what the previous Government said, but on law and order they did what the people wanted. Every constituency Member of Parliament was asked about reducing crime and improving resources for policing in their area, and the Labour Government delivered. Those extra resources were funded in the communities. For the first time, we saw police support officers on the beat, making a difference in many areas, including prevention, detection and processing crimes. The whole police family was strengthened and one complemented the other.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) tried to pick off civilians versus front-line police officers, because the police family was delivering for communities. The back-room people have an important role to play in processing crimes to ensure that we get criminals into the courts. They are not semi-detached from front-line policing; they complement it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who is not in his seat at the moment, said rightly that under the previous Government—I am proud of this—north-west Wales had the highest detection rates not only in Wales but in the United Kingdom. A large rural area is difficult to police—the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and the hon. Member for Aberconwy know the area that I am talking about—but the police overcame those difficulties and, in a rural area, reduced crime faster and kept it down lower than in many parts of the UK. It was no surprise that that happened because of the increase in resources, which communities were asking for.
High and low-level crimes were increasing and the record of the previous Conservative Government—[Interruption.] The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), said that he was not being partisan, but he made probably the most partisan speech this morning and said that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), whom I congratulate, knew nothing about London policing and that he would take exception if she intervened. She was a London councillor in the borough of Southwark for many years and was involved in the crime and disorder partnership in Peckham, so she knows a little bit more about London policing than the hon. Gentleman knows about north Wales policing. The title of this debate is “Policing in North Wales”, so my hon. Friend is more than qualified to talk about that.
There would have been cuts whichever Government were in office, but they would have been far more selective had there been a Labour Government. Our manifesto commitment was to prioritise policing and to protect its funding—the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington smiles at that, but he wanted an extra 3,000 police officers in his manifesto although, along with student tuition fees, that commitment was dropped immediately. The economic climate is difficult, and deficit reduction and bringing down debt are important, but politics is about priorities, and priorities are different between the parties. Before we went into the general election, the priorities of the Liberal Democrats were similar to those of the Labour party. The Labour party in government would have taken different decisions and, I believe, would have strengthened policing and kept the levels of crime down, though, yes, they would have had to get rid of some posts.
I want to talk about north Wales in particular. We have seen a huge reduction in central funds for policing, but I want to remind Members in the Chamber that much of the extra policing that occurred in north Wales between 2001 and 2010 was from the council tax payer. The controversial chief constable, with the police authority, put up the precept in order to have extra police on the beat. The choice of the local police authority was backed by the people, and each of the town and community councils put up their police precept to pay for what was originally known as the 10p bobby. Those extra police have been taken away by central Government, which is an important point.
Absolutely. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have changed their view. Priorities have to be set, and our priority would have been to keep policing levels high.
We have seen central Government cuts, but that cut has been across the board. We paid for the extra policing, but central Government have robbed it from us. We are seeing a depletion in the police whom we, the council tax payers of north Wales, specifically paid for. We took a decision in that period that other local police authorities in Wales did not, yet the cut across the board of up to 20% will affect north Wales as much as other police authorities in Wales and England. That is grossly unfair to the taxpayers and constituents of north Wales. That important point is often overlooked.
I am pleased that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is present to respond, but I would have liked to see the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who has certain responsibilities. He was a doughty campaigner for increased funding in north Wales, including a prison for north Wales, because he wanted to see more police on the beat and more criminals in jail—in local jails—and he and I stood shoulder to shoulder to get an extra prison in Wales located in north Wales. Now, apparently, he is no longer standing up for north Wales but for the Westminster Government cuts. It is a shame that he is not in the Chamber, because I would have liked to look him in the eye and told him that myself, but I will give way to his spokesperson.
I always very much enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s speeches and take great note of them. The one difficulty that I have in listening is the seemingly total blank refusal to accept that there should be a reduction in the cost of policing in north Wales. Is his party’s policy that there should be no cuts in the cost of policing? What impact will that have on other budgets, bearing in mind that the shadow Chancellor has accepted that the cuts proposed by the current Government cannot be reversed because of the economic situation?
I am certainly not saying that there should be no cuts. As the hon. Member for Aberconwy has said, there was without doubt a reduction in police numbers between 2008 and 2010, but that was achieved through efficiency savings. Also, the police authority in my area made it clear what it was doing, and the local people supported it because they understood it. What local people do not accept—if the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is not aware of this, he needs to talk to people in his constituency—is the across-the-board cut to policing just because of the Government deficit reduction plan, coupling the savage cuts with police cuts. People wanted to make a choice, and that is the difficulty.
I will deal with the shadow Chancellor, because obviously the papers from the Conservative Whips keep rolling out that line. What he said was that in 2015 he will be left with higher debts and higher borrowing than we would have had in 2010, which will be a difficult situation and he will have to make difficult choices. However, I assure the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that I will be fighting within my party to ensure that policing has a priority. I ask him and the hon. Member for Aberconwy to do the same, because rather than having this knockabout, they should stand up for policing in their local communities.
Front-line police officers, yes, but the total amount including PCSOs and special constables rose. The police authority made that choice, which the people of north Wales accepted because they saw extra policing on the street. Prevention of crime and reducing the fear of crime are as important as police officers tackling criminals, and the Government have overlooked that with their “one-cap-fits-all” cuts throughout the country.
Opposition politicians are not the only ones whingeing. The Police Federation chairman has said that we are going back to the policing levels of the 1970s, with fewer than “215 officers per 100,000”, which is a difficult level for the future. The reduction in the number of staff in north Wales has been by more than 200 but, even worse, it is projected to be 360 by 2015. It is no use blaming the police authority, as Ministers suggest. The chief constable of Gloucestershire, in many ways a similar area to north Wales and to north-west Wales in particular, has said that policing is on “a cliff-edge”. He is not an Opposition politician, and he cites closed police stations, sold-off vehicles and the departure of senior managers and a third of the police.
What else can go in the future to make the projected cuts that are being talked about? The answer is obviously the front line. However the front, middle and back are defined: if we do not have the resource in the first place, we cannot put it on the front line. I worry, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd pointed out, about when there are serious incidents. Since I have been a Member of Parliament, there have unfortunately been a number of murders and serious crimes in my area; I know the amount of police resources used in such circumstances, when they are taken from elsewhere. If we have a thin blue line and then take police away to serious crime or incidents for many months, communities face a difficult period. That is why it is no coincidence that robbery figures have gone up by more than 60% and burglaries by some 12%; there is a link between the number of such opportunist crimes and a time of high unemployment and social deprivation in many areas. Those crimes are worrying to the individual because of the theft and the damage to property, but also because of the damage to people. People’s confidence goes, as does business confidence in towns and communities throughout the country. Those factors cannot be separated out.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the increase in the burglary rate of 12%. Within that, particularly worrying is the number of first-time offenders—their first offence is burglary, whereas in the past that crime was seen as something people perhaps graduated to, so we are seeing a worrying trend.
I understand that other people want to speak, so I will draw to a close. Such crimes are serious and they have gone up out of proportion to the others. I accept the figures of an overall reduction in serious crimes, but some figures are worrying, because there are now more victims of crime, who have had their property attacked, burgled and robbed, with theft and fraud going up. Many people are now feeling the effects of the reduction in policing, so one cannot just say that reported crime is down.
[Mr Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I shall conclude on that important point. Like many astute Members of Parliament, I go into communities and talk to people. Many people in rural communities say that it is a waste of time calling the police because by the time they arrive, the perpetrator of the crime has disappeared. People tell me that it is pointless calling the police and reporting incidents to them. That is worrying, and we should all be concerned about it. Reported crime may fall, but coupled with that there will be an increase in robberies and burglaries because of the scale of resources that have been taken away.
I urge the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to consider the matter seriously. Instead of imposing across-the-board cuts next week, he should consider rurality as a special case, and put the rural grant back into the policing figures. In north-west Wales we have one of the best records, and the Government are snatching that away from us because of how they are imposing the cuts across the board. I appeal to the Minister to stand up for rural areas because crime is out of kilter with the rest of the country, and areas such as mine are going from best to worst through no fault of the police on the ground, who do an excellent job. I pay tribute to them and to the chief constable in these challenging times.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing this important debate on an issue that is dear to our hearts as elected politicians and to our constituents. I will not be police-bashing. The police in north Wales have done an excellent job over the years, including the former chief constable, Richard Brunstrom. Despite all the shenanigans and publicity-seeking, he put the extra funding that we provided into front-line services. Mark Polin, the new chief constable who replaced him, is also doing an excellent job.
However, things are not right in north Wales. The latest statistics show that there was a 1% drop in crime, but if one drills down and looks at the areas of crime, there has been a 12% increase in household burglaries, a 30% increase in fraud, a 10% increase in theft, and a 60% increase in robbery. Those increases are directly attributable to the cuts in the number of police officers and back-office staff. North Wales used to be the safest place to live in the United Kingdom, and if we are too complacent and do not stand up and be counted, and if we do not challenge the coalition Government, we will not be doing our job as Opposition MPs. The Opposition have been told not to be party political about the matter, but it was a political party that made the cuts. That political party stood on a manifesto of putting 3,000 extra police officers on the beat, but it cut the number by 16,000. Those political decisions were made by political parties, and Labour MPs in opposition will hold the Government to account.
I will not give way yet. I have a few more messages for the right hon. Gentleman. He stood up and said that he was party political for 13 years, and that he hoped he had done a good job in holding the then Government to account. We are going to be party political, and we will hold the right hon. Gentleman and his party and the other coalition party to account.
I will provide solutions. I will come to them. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), the shadow Minister, announced an inquiry into the future of policing, the Minister said that that was political abdication. Now is the time to have an inquiry, as we are going into a double-dip recession with massive cuts. Now is the time to analyse the issues facing a modern police force in the 21st century, but the Minister called that political abdication.
Another issue is the decline in the number of criminals caught and prosecuted. In north Wales, there was a drop of 11.5% between April and November last year. I do not believe that that is the fault of the police. North Wales is a big geographical area. It requires a lot of policing and resources, and a lot of funding.
I have given the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), a bit of a roasting, and the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) deserves the same. He did not stand up for his constituency when his party pulled out of holding its spring conference at Llandudno, and he has not stood up for policing in north Wales. The cuts are dangerous, and are having a dangerous impact in our communities. All he can say is to ask what the Labour party did. He and his Government are in power now, and they are implementing cuts too far and too fast.
I said that it is easy to spout platitudes from the Opposition Benches. The truth of the matter is that the Labour party has not explained how it would deal with the current deficit and ensure that the cuts in north Wales would be avoided in view of the shadow Chancellor’s comments that he would change any spending cuts undertaken by the Government.
The hon. Gentleman’s complacency is unbelievable, as is that from his colleague, the junior Minister at the Wales Office, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. When faced with these horrendous statistics, he said that it was most important that crime continues to fall in Wales, and that the latest figures showed that recorded crime is down 7%, which is even better than the 4% fall for England and Wales. That is complacency.
The Home Secretary did not stand up for policing during the cuts review. Other Ministers stood up for their Departments and their cuts were lowered. The chief police officers said they could cope with 12% cuts, and that was what the Labour agreed to. Our answer was to listen to what the professionals had to say, and to back them with 12% cuts. That was our answer then, and that is our answer now. The Tory and Liberal cuts are too far, too fast. There are also cuts in court costs. Denbigh magistrates court and Rhyl family court have both closed in my constituency. The prison population is at an all-time high. We are coming to a double-dip recession, and we know that crime patterns follow employment patterns.
The cuts are wrong; the pacing is wrong; the timing is wrong; and the scale is wrong. The pacing is wrong because the cuts are front-loaded. All the cuts are coming to suit the political timetable of a general election in 2015. The Government are front-loading the cuts and introducing them thick and fast to avoid the political consequences in 2015. The timing is wrong. We may be going into a double-dip recession when crime rates will rise, but the policing cuts are bigger than ever. The scale is wrong, because 12% is acceptable, but 20% is not.
Hon. Members have asked what Labour would do. When Labour left power, unemployment was coming down, confidence was going up, and growth was going up. Since then, all three have gone in the opposite direction. That has led to £158 billion of extra deficit, which is the responsibility of the coalition parties. That is what the shadow Chancellor meant when he made his comments. He cannot plan for 2015 and say that he will not cut this or that. We do not know how much more of a pig’s ear the coalition Government will make. How high will the £158 billion go? Will it perhaps go to £258 billion? Our solution would not have been to have an extra £158 billion of extra deficit.
Hear, hear. That is excellent chairing, Mr Leigh. I agree with every word you said.
In other areas, such as youth unemployment and youth crime, the Rhyl city strategy in my constituency put 420 young people back to work in 18 months, but that was ended within three weeks of the coalition Government coming to power because of political spite. It was an effective Labour interventionist policy, and it was ended because of political spite. Since then, we have been promised a Work programme but, as I suggested to the Prime Minister last week, it is a doesn’t work programme, because the number of people the Government said would go back to work will not do so. We have massive youth unemployment and massive police cuts in north Wales. We have seen what happened in the inner cities—riots—and the coalition parties should be very careful about making such cuts.
I pay tribute to the coverage of this issue by the Daily Post, in both its reporting and its political commentary, and I will conclude with an editorial from 8 December:
“The blame for any fall in standards arising from these budget cuts will rest with the Government, not the chief constable.”
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Leigh, and I thank the previous Chair, Mr Crausby, for his chairmanship in the early part of the debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones). She has raised an important issue and generated a significant debate.
Contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), and for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) have highlighted the concerns felt by their communities, and I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) for his concern about western north Wales. We have also heard interesting contributions from the hon. Members for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), and from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). He was helpfully reminded of his election pledge to support 3,000 extra officers during this Parliament, although he has since voted for cuts that over the past 18 months have led to a reduction in police numbers of some 8,000 officers.
I pay tribute to the chair and members of North Wales police authority, and to Chief Constable Mark Polin and his team. They have done a professional job over many years to ensure that north Wales is still one of the safest places in the UK in which to live. There has been great police support, good detection rates and sound community-based policing, and the engagement at levels of inspector, constable, sergeant and police community support officer has been helpful to Members of Parliament and to my constituents.
North Wales is a challenging area to police. It contains large rural areas, two languages and strong urban areas where crime is driven by urban challenges. There is also the cross-border challenge involving crime that potentially enters north Wales from parts of north-west England. There are the ports of Holyhead and Mostyn, which is in my constituency, and a range of other issues that create a complex and challenging model with which North Wales police authority must deal. I speak today as shadow Police Minister, but also, proudly, as the Member of Parliament for Delyn, which falls within the area of North Wales police authority.
The partnership of North Wales police authority with local councils and Members of the Welsh Assembly—who, as has been mentioned, were re-elected in May last year on a pledge to support 500 police community support officers—is important, and the authority’s co-operation with neighbouring forces has led to a reduction in crime over the past 10 years. At the start of the last Labour Government’s term in office, there were around 65,000 crimes each year in north Wales. By the last year of the Labour Government, that had fallen to 44,919 crimes—a reduction of over 30% that meant 21,000 fewer victims per year. As has been mentioned, victims feel 100% of the crime committed against them, and to have 21,000 fewer crimes is a compliment to the efforts of North Wales police authority and the Labour Government.
That reduction in crime was due to a range of issues such as new ways of working, innovation, the previous Government’s approach to community safety and attempts to make authorities work with the police, better co-operation and prevention, closer working partnerships, improvements in CCTV, an increase in DNA testing, automatic police number plate recognition to look at cars crossing the border, improvements in vehicle safety, station improvements, a whole range of criminal justice measures, and increased confidence in policing and co-operation with the communities as a whole. I contend, however—this is the central argument of the debate—that one of the biggest issues in helping to support policing and reduce crime over that period concerned the number of officers who were on the beat and visibly engaged with their communities.
In 1996, the last year of the previous Conservative Government, 1,378 officers walked the beat and worked in North Wales police authority. By the last year of the last Labour Government, 1,578 officers were in place—there were 200 additional officers in north Wales. Additionally, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friends and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, 159 PCSOs were put in place in north Wales during the last five years of the Labour Government, to help to support levels of policing and visibility on the ground. That was coupled with a rise in the number of special constables, which again helped to increase police visibility. There was a major increase in police numbers at the same time as a major reduction in crime, and 21,000 victims of crime were saved.
I would contend that. When I was the Minister responsible for policing, I encouraged and set a target for an increase in the number of special constables over the course of this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman cannot escape the fact that, during the last Labour Government, there were 200 more police officers and 159 PCSOs in north Wales. After the first year of this Government we have seen a worrying fall in police numbers for the first time, and we are likely to see a further fall over the next few years.
I can assure you of that, Mr Leigh. Thirty police officers in north Wales have been forced to leave under regulation A19 because of reductions in policing in the Budget. That is worrying, but I am most concerned that between March 2010 and September 2011 we have lost 85 police officers in north Wales. I am also worried because Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary—these are not my figures—suggests that we will lose 207 officers during the course of this Parliament. The grant settlement for 2011-12 is £49.6 million but, if approved next week, that will drop to £46.2 million by 2012-13. Projections for North Wales police authority mean that by 2015 the grant will be £43.7 million a year—a cut of almost £6 million.
I challenge anybody to explain how we can cut £6 million from policing budgets in north Wales and make that up solely from back-office savings and other efficiencies. When in government I supported efficiency measures in procurement, overtime, improving back-office support, adopting single uniforms, IT systems and a range of other issues. However, the level of cuts that we now face, and which we will vote on next week in the House, is dramatic. The cuts will impact on police morale and, more importantly, on the ability of the police to fight crime in north Wales.
Police spending per capita over the past year in north Wales has reduced from £148 to £137. The changes now being implemented have led to consultations on police station closures—including at Mostyn, Flint, Holywell, and Mold in my constituency—due to officer numbers. Now, for the first time, crime is rising. The figures presided over by the Minister last week showed an 11% overall rise in levels of personal crime. In 2011, north Wales saw worrying increases in crime: a 60% rise in cases of robbery, a 12% rise in instances of burglary, and an 11% rise in sexual offences.
As well as cuts to the budget, there is the uncertainty caused by the elections of police commissioners on 15 November this year. We will participate in that experiment as it is the law of the land, and we will fight that election, but I still worry about the future of policing.
I believe, however, that there is another way. The Labour party agrees with HMRC’s projection that a 12% cut is realistic when looking at overtime, procurement, modernisation, collaboration and back-office procedures and, as the Minister knows, we would have done that were we in government. The figures he produces for north Wales, however, show a cut in funding of £5.9 million over the next two years. That will lead to further pressures on the chief constable, further difficulties in fighting crime and, in my view, a poorer service for my constituents and people in north Wales.
The Minister needs to think again. He has an opportunity. This very day, he has announced an extra £90 million for the police force in London—coincidentally, just before a London election this year. If he can do it for London, he can review the position of north Wales for next week, and I will urge my hon. Friends next week to scrutinise seriously the Minister’s proposals.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing the debate. She referred to the fact that she asked me a number of questions on the Floor of the House about police funding. On the most recent occasion, she referred to me as the Prime Minister. That is the only nice thing that has been said to me since I became the Police Minister. I was grateful to her for the brief compliment that she paid me, even though it was done in error. That said, I regret the way in which she chose to introduce the debate. She kicked off with a partisan attack on the Conservative party.
No, the hon. Lady kicked off with an attack on the Conservative party and she made it clear that that was to be the tenor of her speech.
I would like to deal with a few factual matters. The hon. Lady kept talking about 20% cuts. She said that there would be 20% less money; she talked about 20% budget cuts. That is, of course, the persistent implication of those on the Opposition Benches. It is correct that in the spending review there has been a 20% reduction in central Government funding, but all the Opposition Members know perfectly well that police forces are not funded just by central Government and therefore it is simply not the case that there are 20% budget cuts in the North Wales force or any other force in the country. It is important that I make that clear, because the difference is very substantial.
I wonder how many hon. Members think that there will be no precept rise in north Wales in the next three years. I ask them to intervene on me if they think that there will be no precept rises. There is no intervention. Clearly, none of the Opposition Members thinks that there will be no rises.
Can the Minister answer the intervention that I made on my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn? How is it a saving if an officer who has been employed for 30 years is forced out of his job and paid a pension that is two thirds of his pay to sit at home doing nothing? For an extra third, he could have been kept in his job.
That is a completely different point, but the hon. Gentleman should ask himself why chief constables are taking decisions about the early retirement of a minority of officers if they think that that will not save them money.
Let me return to the point that I was making, because it was important. I was asking hon. Members whether they thought that in north Wales there would be no precept rises in the next three years. No hon. Member appears to think that there will be no precept rises. Clearly, they all think that there will be precept rises. Even if there are no precept rises in the next three years, the real-terms reduction in funding is just over 15%—not 20%, but just over 15%. That is a cash reduction of 7%.
Let me complete the point and then I will give way to the hon. Lady. Let us say that there are precept rises in line with the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast. That is entirely a matter for the police authorities, so we do not know, but if there is a precept increase along those lines in the next three years, the real-terms reduction in funding in that period will be just over 10%. Translated into cash terms, that means that the force will have 1.2% less cash at the end of that period than it does now. That is the devastating impact that hon. Members are claiming for force funding.
The right hon. Gentleman is right: I once made a slip of the tongue and referred to him as the Prime Minister. I think that that is probably because I confused his complacency and arrogance with that of the current incumbent. Will the Minister please answer the point that I raised and the point that Chief Constable Mark Polin raised—that people had no choice whatever in the decisions that were made? Can I bring the Minister back to some of the real questions that people have asked, rather than the Tory partisan sophistry that he is giving us today?
I withdraw my kind remarks to the hon. Lady. She dished it up and she should expect to get it back. I can assure her, if she wants a serious debate about police funding, police organisation and how police forces can rise to the challenge, that no one is more anxious to engage in that serious, measured debate than I am. Indeed, I think that it is too absent from the House of Commons. It is, however, going on in policing in the real world, because out there, people are having to deal with that challenge. She, however, chose to introduce this debate in an entirely different manner—in a partisan, often cheap manner. She started off in those terms, and I will therefore give her back what she dished up to Government Members, without apology.
I was, however, making a serious point. I was making the point that the spending reduction—
The Minister keeps bringing down the size of the cut that there actually is. I do not believe that he is right, but if he is, why does he think that North Wales police and, indeed, all police forces are cutting and feel that they have to cut front-line policing?
I will come to the issue of—[Interruption.] I will come directly to that issue. We have always said that the reductions in spending will mean that there will be a smaller work force. No one has ever disputed that. The issue is how those reductions are managed and what the impact then is on policing. I completely reject, and have consistently rejected, the binary link that hon. Members make that suggests that any reduction in public spending will mean a reduction in the quality of the service or that any reduction in headcount will mean a reduction in the quality of the service. That is the fundamental difference between Government Members and Opposition Members. We do not make that binary link. We are interested in the quality of the service and how well resources are deployed. Until Opposition Members understand that point and start talking about value for money and wise spending rather than big spending, they will continue to be in the position that they are in.
The Minister is generous about giving way. He talked about the precept and council tax. Does he think it fair that the people of north Wales, through their council taxes, have paid extra into other forces but are getting the same level of cuts from central Government? Does he want to balance the situation? If north Wales taxpayers paid less through their council tax, would he increase the central Government allocation to them in the interest of fairness?
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. We can discuss it further in the forthcoming funding debate. I am happy to answer it. In taking decisions about damping, we had to consider whether to make an adjustment for those forces that raise more from council tax. I considered that matter very carefully and it was a difficult decision, but in the end we decided that it was not fair to penalise those local populations that are already raising more from local taxpayers by saying that they would receive even less central grant than would otherwise be the case. The expectation of all chief constables and police authorities at the time was that there would be an even reduction in funding. We decided to apply an even cut as a consequence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand—he may shake his head in disagreement—that that was a proper justification for that decision. It would have been unfair to penalise local taxpayers even more for the fact that they were contributing higher amounts than was the case in many other areas.
I want to make another point to the hon. Member for Clwyd South, in the short time left to me, on the facts of what is happening. There was a reduction in police officers in north Wales of 3.4%, according to the latest figures, in the year to September 2011. That is slightly lower than the national reduction. The reduction in staff is greater than that; staff are often overlooked in relation to these decisions. The hon. Lady’s case is that any reduction in funding is bound to produce an increase in crime, but of course the facts have not been going with her. The facts would not support the case that she makes even if it were intellectually a consistent case. On the latest figures, total recorded offences in north Wales in exactly the same period—to September 2011—were down 1%. There are, of course, particular crime categories within that where that is not the case, but equally there are other categories where crime levels have gone down by bigger margins than that.
It is very important that the force keeps on top of crime. I spoke to the chief constable this morning, and he reassured me. I will quote him. He believes that the force is
“on track to hit a three-year reduction target of 6.3%.”
That is the right ambition. The simple point is this: there is no simple link between spending levels, officer numbers and our ability to fight crime. It depends on effective organisation, good management and effective deployment of resources. It is about—
It is a pleasure to bring this debate to the House today and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh.
Social mobility, the advancement of the individual irrespective of birth, gender, colour or class, was the underlying reason I entered politics. My inspiration for that was not so much politicians, I am sorry to say, but the great industrial philanthropists of the 18th and 19th centuries, with their business ethics, worker engagement and strong principles. I grew up in Liverpool, so for me one person stood out above all others: William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers, who, incidentally, did go into politics. William started work at his father’s grocery business in Bolton, working his way up the ranks before setting up his own business. Perhaps it was that journey, from shop floor to business ownership, that shaped his outlook on life, which was that anyone could achieve, given the right support and conditions.
Lever’s belief in others and his ability to achieve inspired me, and it is that notion of support allowing social mobility that we need to engender in society, allowing for personal fulfilment and opportunities for all. Business at its best can do it, and so can politicians. That said, everyone has a role to play: parents, teachers and community leaders. All can offer support, encouragement, hope and advice. In Britain today social mobility has never been so remote for so many people, with only one in five young people from the poorest backgrounds achieving five good GCSEs including maths and English, compared with three quarters of those from the richest families. Only one in four boys from working class backgrounds gets a professional or managerial job, and just one in nine of those from low-income backgrounds reaches the top income quartile, whereas almost 50% of those with parents in the top income quartile stay there.
Such lack of social mobility is damaging for those individuals, who are never able or allowed to fulfil their potential, for their families, the community and the country. The personal waste is tragic and, in the cold light of day, to a number-crunching statistician, so is the economic waste, which must surely act as a wake-up call to politicians of all parties to do something. One study has estimated the economic benefits of creating a more highly skilled work force at £150 billion a year by 2050—an additional 4% of GDP; and there is evidence that the demand for skilled workers currently outstrips supply, so there are jobs out there at the top that cannot be filled.
I have personal knowledge on the matter in question, coming from an area where I saw only too clearly the extra hurdles that put achievement a pace or two further away from people—although I also lived among a few startling exceptions who managed to defy the odds and become socially mobile. It was for that reason that I went back to university to study corporate governance and wrote a paper on the character types and personality traits of those who succeeded, irrespective of background, as well as interviewing more than 500 school kids from tough areas, to see what support and guidance they felt they needed to succeed. I hope today that I can bring some personal knowledge to the debate.
My hon. Friend has done far more than she has said, and has produced a book, “If Chloe Can”, a careers book to help inspire people. It was turned into a theatre production, which is now touring the country, and I and several of our hon. Friends went to the premiere. I saw at first hand how many children from poorer backgrounds were inspired by the role models on stage that day, whom my hon. Friend brought along. Does she therefore agree that a key to introducing social mobility is to get great role models to inspire people and show them that people from their background can achieve success in life?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. That was one of the key things that came up when I went round schools on Merseyside, asking children what they needed to know, and what answers they wanted. Some asked, “How did you ever know what you wanted to become?” or “How do you know what jobs and opportunities are out there?” More importantly, they said they wanted to see people like them, from their backgrounds, who had achieved. I put together a magazine and distributed it free to more than 5,000 girls in Merseyside, and the people in it were role models such as Jo Salter, the first lady from the UK to become a fighter pilot; Louise Greenhalgh, the first to become a bomb disposal officer; Debbie Moore, the first woman to set up a plc; Lucinda Ellery, a single mum of three kids who has an international company; Jayne Torvill, the ice skater; and Emily Cummins, the inventor. All those people managed to overcome personal adversity to achieve, irrespective of where they came from. That was what made me look into character types and personality traits, which seemed so much more influential on where someone ended up than background or grades. Ambition, focus, being a team player, being positive and being able to complete a task, were key, and we need to tell children about those things, which give them hope. They do not need to know that they came from a certain background. They need to know that they need inner strength to achieve.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. I hope she will comment on social mobility for people who are disabled, and on the need for public transport to enable them to go where they want to be. Does she agree, and will she comment?
I will make one comment, because I worked with people who were able-bodied, and with others who were not so able-bodied. One in particular who was a huge inspiration to me was a young girl called Shelly Woods, who I hope will get an Olympic gold in the Paralympics. She was supported by other people and thought she could achieve, even though she had always wanted to do sport as an able-bodied person. She became paralysed in an accident playing hide and seek, when she fell out of a tree, and has lived both as an able-bodied person and as someone who is not able-bodied. Her story was poignant, and she talked about the vital strength and support of teachers and family members. I do not know whether I can give a clear answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point—I am sure that the Minister can—but I hear what he says; the support he speaks of is needed.
It is important to look in the round at what can be achieved. The coalition Government are doing that, because social mobility will not be achieved by a single initiative. It is a question of a host of interventions, providing small steps at various stages in someone’s life, to enable them to climb up. Social mobility appears to have stagnated in the UK in the past 30 years. Children’s educational outcomes are still overwhelmingly tied to their parents’ income. The OECD published “A Family Affair: Intergenerational Social Mobility across OECD Countries” as part of “Going for Growth 2010”; it shows the United Kingdom as among the countries where socio-economic background appears to have the largest influence on students’ performance. Although initiatives have been introduced in the past 30 years, it appears there has been little success.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing the debate to the House. Does she agree that more effort needs to be put into boosting self-confidence and self-esteem in children? As she knows, those are prerequisites for mobility, success, and the goal that she is describing. Assuming that the importance of self-confidence is accepted, does she perhaps also believe that school subjects such as music, drama, art, sport and reading out loud in class may need to be given upward value? That is not at all to put a negative slant on the baccalaureate idea or the education policies that we are putting forward, but to underline the importance of the issues in question.
I do indeed believe that self confidence is crucial. In fact, I led a debate on confidence for girls in particular. There is a lot of evidence, both academic and from Ofsted, that we need to encourage that, which is why I am so impressed with our national citizenship service in which kids from all backgrounds come together to get involved in team play and outdoor pursuits. The 30 children from the Wirral who participated last year said that it was a life-changing experience and that it really boosted their confidence. Yes, confidence needs to be developed both inside and outside school.
We need to look at social mobility as a whole and consider the various interventions that can be made over a life cycle. I welcome the fact that the social justice agenda and the social mobility agenda have come together with an emphasis on fairness and life fairness. Family support and support growing up are crucial.
The Department for Communities and Local Government found that 120,000 families in England have complex social, health and economic problems and it has designated an early family intervention programme. Yes, I know that it will cost £448 million to support such families, but it is in an attempt to break up a never-ending cycle of dependency and under-achievement that ultimately costs the country £9 billion a year. We therefore have not only the evidence to show that we need to take up such a programme to help the lives of people, which so often can be forgotten when we look at numbers, but the economic imperative to ensure that we push it through.
Does my hon. Friend agree that even beyond the 120,000 most troubled families throughout our society, the gap between rich and poor appears by the age three, which puts into sharp relief the need for support for parenting in the family?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The coalition Government are right to introduce new nursery care for toddlers. There will be 15 hours of free early education a week for all two-year-olds from poor homes, which will help 240,000 disadvantaged children. The pupil premium for disadvantaged children in England’s schools will be worth £600 per pupil per year.
Today, I want to dwell on the sciences not just because the Minister for Universities and Science is present but because it is a passion of mine. An education in the sciences can promote social mobility. As chair of the Chemical Industries Association, I hear on a daily basis about the need for more science students, technicians, engineers and scientists. The jobs are there, but we do not have the children to fill them. Moreover, they are high-paying, life-long jobs with futures. Only last week, I was promoting science in schools with the Chemical Industry Education Centre and one of the companies present admitted that it had taken on 10 post-graduate chemistry places, and, sadly, only one of them went to somebody from the UK—such is the lack of those in the UK with suitable qualifications.
I hear such stories on a weekly and even a daily basis. People comment not just about what is happening on the jobs front but about science education itself. David Braben, who is known for computer games such as Elite and Rollercoaster Tycoon, said:
“We have become a nation of consumers rather than creators in terms of technology in education, and this has implications further down the line.”
Eric Schmidt of Google had a withering summation of the British system, saying that it has forgone teaching computer programmes in schools. He said:
“I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools...Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”
The president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Moshe Kam, said that there were systematic failures in the UK education system, which has serious knock-on effects for the economy.
The fact that our nation, which created and advanced the computer, has now become a nation of consumers is absolutely outrageous. Therefore, how we teach the subject is vital, which is why I welcome the determination of the Secretary of State for Education to have five core subjects taught to everyone in school. We have to start off by pushing five core subjects to everybody from every background, and not just to those who come from a slightly wiser professional background. There must be an imperative in the school system.
I know that my hon. Friend is a doughty fighter on this subject. Does she remember from our conversations after her “Workhouse to Westminster” paper that I too can claim to have descended from people who were in a workhouse? On the issue of the E-bac, she is right to say that we must ensure that we spread these core subjects as widely as possible. However, does she also agree that we must accept that a lot of these kids who will take on these subjects go back to very disturbed backgrounds and difficult home lives? They do not get the same support that someone in a more middle class school might get. We must be careful about what we wish for and we must ensure that proper support is available to those kids to do their best in those subjects.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We must ensure that we give those children the support that they need. I am delighted with the new university technical colleges that Lord Baker, Lord Adonis and Peter Mitchell are fighting for because they could provide people with a startling difference in their life. The timetable starts at 8.30 in the morning and ends at 5 o’clock. It does not matter whether someone comes from a difficult background or has a difficult home life, because they do their homework in school.
I know so many bright children who need an application for their education. For so long, we have learned a subject in isolation without really knowing where it is going. The university technical colleges are addressing that issue. Yes, they are academic, which is excellent, but the fact that they have a longer day and a longer week means that the pupils will have 30% extra time to do projects for companies and to mix with people whom they had never mixed with before, which goes back to the issue of those vital real life role models.
I am glad that we are at last having a discussion about going to university and encouraging people to ask, “Is that really best for me or is an apprenticeship better? Do I really need to get a job?” The Office for National Statistics reports that we now have more than 1.3 million graduates who earn less than the average wage for someone who has been educated to A-level standard. Did university really benefit those people, or did they feel pushed into going to university by quotas for schools? Did a lack of knowledge lead them on to that journey to university? Did university support them in the way that it should?
According to the recruitment agency Adecco, one in five employers says that school leavers make better workers than university graduates. It is crucial to be able to stop for just a second and think, “What is it that I want out of life? What can I do and have the support there?” We should not limit our options at a young age because we did not take the subjects that we would need later on in life. When I was at school, if we did not know what to do, our teachers would say, “Study science for as long as you can because you can do anything with a science O-level”— I am giving my age away now. If youngsters study science at GCSE or A-level, they can always do something. By the way, the lynchpin is chemistry, which is something that we are not always told.
University technical colleges are brilliant. I have read the JCB college booklet and seen what the very first university technical college in Staffordshire is doing. For the children, the experience has been life changing. Some were not doing well in school and feel that they have been given a second opportunity. A life sciences university technical college is coming to north Liverpool, which is associated with the university of Liverpool. Therefore, it will be linked with the university and with business, including Unilever, Novartis, Redx Pharma, Bristol Myers Squibb and Provexis. Hot on the heels of the Liverpool university technical college will be the Wirral university technical college. [Interruption.] I notice that the Minister is smiling there. All that is key.
I want to mention, as an aside, the significant effect that Brian Cox has had on the uptake of physics and maths, so much so that the president of the Institute of Physics, Professor Sir Peter Knight, has talked about the Cox effect. He has inspired new physicists and new mathematicians, so much so that applications to Surrey university this year for physics have gone up by 40%. I mention that because how we communicate our message is key. Brian Cox had a platform: television and the media. People found him exciting, innovative and interesting, and they went and did it.
Thank you, Mr Leigh, for pointing that out. I am just about to come to my questions.
I want to know about our communication strategy. How are we going to reach out to the kids whom we want to help and support, not just to the people who are already going to get it? It is key that we talk about it not only in policy—it is not just about words, but about deeds and actions. I want to mention the Speaker, who will hold an event for me on social mobility tonight, for 150 different people who have all turned their lives around, from business, drama and the arts. He is also giving Back Benchers a voice—he has introduced the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme, in which 10 people from different backgrounds are having a new look on life. I have one, and I want him to be known here: Luke Shaw Harvey from Stoke. He is working with me, and I think it is important.
How will we co-ordinate what we are doing? How are we following it through? How are we looking at the impact? What is our media strategy? How are we going to promote science to children? I see science as a great enabler for everyone. What are our careers advice and opportunities? How will we know about and promote the success stories, so that they are part of the cycle of social mobility?
Thank you, Mr Leigh, for protecting the Government’s interests by giving me an opportunity to respond to the large number of extremely pertinent questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey). We all know how committed she personally is to the cause of social mobility. I have read the accounts of “If Chloe Can”, and clearly that is exactly the type of initiative that is needed to raise aspirations and for young people to know what they can achieve regardless of their background, and I congratulate her on that.
I also welcome the interventions from my hon. Friends. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility, and it is great to see him present in the Chamber. My hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) also made important interventions. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole suggested the exciting sub-heading of “Workhouse to Westminster”—it is good to see that the Minister responsible for the workhouse, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has just arrived in the Chamber. “Workhouse to Westminster” is the motif for our debate today.
The challenge that we have in improving social mobility, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West painted vividly, is one that the coalition is committed to addressing. Probably the most important single document in which we have set out our policies is “Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility”, which was published last April. It had the important feature of tackling all the different stages of a life cycle, and it showed that at each stage, we had to raise our performance. We have already heard, from the interventions, about the importance of the early years, and we recognise that. That is why we are committed to a new entitlement of 15 hours a week of free early education for two-year-olds, in order to try to tackle the problem in that area.
Coming to school years, the coalition is delivering the pupil premium, which for next year will be worth £600 a year for pupils from tougher backgrounds. The excellent free schools policy is already working, with new free schools being set up. Rising to my hon. Friend’s specific challenge of communication, we also have “Speakers for Schools” and a related programme, “Inspiring Futures”, which aim to get 100,000 people into schools and colleges to talk about their jobs and career routes. The challenge is not just about aspiration—sometimes people have the aspiration, but they do not know how to fulfil their aspiration or understand the routes to get from where they are to what they want to be. Having people who have taken a route through to achieving their ambition in a certain career arrive in a school or college to describe it with practical examples is important to tackle the communication challenge that she identified.
I recognise that universities, which are my particular responsibility, are only one of the routes into a well-paid job, a career and a fulfilling life. It is equally important that people have the opportunity of apprenticeships, which is why the coalition is delivering 100,000 extra apprenticeships. We have achieved that in our first year, and with the excellent leadership of my colleague, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), we are ahead of that target; we will deliver even more.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West asked about universities. One of the encouraging things about universities is that whereas in the earlier stages of the education process, people from disadvantaged backgrounds, sadly, fall further and further behind, getting to university is the first stage of the process in which it looks as if—the evidence is controversial, but I think the majority of evidence is pretty clear on this—young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds over-achieve compared with others. It is the first stage in which instead of falling further behind, they start catching up. That is why it is important that we do everything we can to ensure access to university, which the coalition is committed to.
Although the decision to go to university or not has to be for an individual, and we want more information for young people as they make their choice, so that they can decide whether going is the right thing for them, nevertheless, I offer to my hon. Friend some figures: on average, graduates earn £32,000 a year, while on average, non-graduates earn £19,000 a year. The averages are pretty compelling.
My hon. Friend referred particularly to science and asked me what we could do on that. There is an excellent initiative of STEMNET ambassadors. These are people who have made practical careers in the sciences, who may have built up a business or may be working as scientists. There are 28,000 of them, 40% of whom are women; it is important to get the gender mix. Again, they go around to schools, science fairs and elsewhere to explain what they have achieved as engineers, scientists or managers, drawing on their expertise and communicating it to young people.
There was an intervention particularly about disabled people. While we sometimes focus exclusively on social background and access to university, we have made it clear in the letters that we have sent to the Office for Fair Access that it should look at other things as well. One that we specifically identified is proper arrangements for disabled students, so that they have an opportunity to learn and do not suffer from excessive drop-out rates.
My hon. Friend also talked about other examples of what could be achieved. She was right to refer to the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme. It is important that people have a fair opportunity of internships. We are clear that if young people are in employment, they should be properly paid for it. The Government attach a lot of importance to that.
As well as the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme, we should also remember—I suspect that this also applies to several Members present—the Social Mobility Foundation, which also finances people to come to work in the House of Commons if they would not otherwise have been able to afford to do so.
The lesson that the coalition takes from the debate is that yes, we need to intervene at every stage of the life cycle: early years, school, apprenticeships, university and opportunities afterwards. However, nothing beats the personal experience of seeing people who have overcome barriers. What my hon. Friend describes and promotes, not least through the excellent play to which she referred earlier, is fundamental to providing young people with opportunities. I very much support and welcome the efforts that she is personally making.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Leigh.
I called for this debate to draw attention to the crippling effects of one of the country’s most common health conditions and the problems that people living with it face in their working lives. I will be honest: before securing this debate, I knew very little about inflammatory bowel disease. I knew the bare facts, but I did not know the impact that IBD has on sufferers in their daily lives. For example, I did not know that there are more people with IBD than people with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. However, if we asked the person on the street about either of those two terrible conditions, I am sure that they would know at least the barest details. By contrast, if we mentioned IBD to someone, it is quite possible that there would be some confused looks and silence. Indeed, when I mentioned this debate to people over the weekend, I had to explain what it was about.
Perhaps the problem comes down to the fact that many of those who live with IBD are often too embarrassed by the symptoms or are afraid to speak out about what they have to go through daily. Living with IBD is particularly difficult as the condition is known to fluctuate and can flare up at any time without warning. What is more, unlike the impact of many debilitating illnesses, the impact of IBD is not always obvious to other people, making it difficult for them to understand what a sufferer is going through.
The problem is particularly acute in the work environment, as someone who is suffering from IBD can find it difficult to tell their employer what is wrong with them. In a survey by Crohn’s and Colitis UK, 78% of people with IBD said they worry about their ability to manage their symptoms in the workplace. In addition, 62% said they worry about not being able to carry out their responsibilities adequately and 36% said they fear losing their job as a result of their condition.
Those of us with a long commute may worry or moan about traffic on the roads or finding a seat on a train, but few of us have to worry about where the nearest toilet is, which really is the difference between being in or out of work for someone with IBD.
Those fears are particularly prevalent among young people with IBD who are about to enter the workplace for the first time. When young people with IBD were asked about their condition, 56% of them said that their condition causes them to rule out some career options that they might otherwise have considered.
I am sorry for not giving the hon. Gentleman notice that I wanted to speak; I had not realised that he had secured this debate. I just want to emphasise the point that he is making. My mother suffers from Crohn’s disease and has twice had operations to remove part of her bowel. On both occasions, she nearly died. I have seen her symptoms daily and growing up as a kid I actually saw her cry because she was unable to get to a public toilet after being refused the use of a toilet—a private toilet—in a shop. This condition really impacts on people’s lives. It changes the whole way in which they have to live and work, and sadly a lot of workplaces are not set up at all for people who have it.
I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman, and I will develop that point about workplaces further as I go through my speech. I am glad that he has raised it. Very often in this place, we quote statistics and sometimes we use them to bash the Government, but in the middle of all those statistics there are real human tragedies and stories that are taking place. As I have said, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that point and I hope that his mother is dealing with life a bit better now.
I want to return to the point that I was making about young people with IBD. At a time when more and more of our young people are struggling to find work, the last thing that we need is for them to rule out career options. Since becoming involved in the campaign to raise awareness of IBD, I have heard story after story from young people who are unable to fulfil their potential because of the problems that the condition causes. This story is particularly common:
“Leanne is a full time foundation degree student from Crewe and has a part time job in a local pub. As a 19 year old she finds it especially hard having an illness which isn’t highly understood or visible. Having a condition which includes side effects like fatigue means not all employers or educational institutions understand the challenges she faces, and she even says that most people mistake this fatigue for laziness. She has had bad experiences in the past with employers and teachers who do not fully understand her condition and what it can mean on a daily basis. She describes herself as a passionate individual who wants to commit to jobs and her education, but finds it difficult on bad days. She has in the past been called “unreliable” during a flare-up of her illness. This ignorance can be damaging and can have a lasting effect on someone so young.”
I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for bringing this matter to the House. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who spoke earlier, has illustrated very clearly the issues involved. As elected representatives, every one of us has to deal with these issues every day with our constituents.
The hon. Member for Islwyn has referred to work. The civil service in particular seems to have issues with its “early warning scheme”, as it calls it, and there is no flexibility in that system. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that it is time for the civil service to address that issue, so that people who want employment in the civil service can stay in it and not have to leave?
Yes, absolutely, and that is really the crux of the issue. IBD is not a condition that causes symptoms all the time; there are flare-ups, and then the condition goes back down and people go back to normal life. If there is a problem in the civil service, I hope that the Minister will address it when he responds to the debate.
In today’s economic climate, with youth unemployment at the level that it is, we cannot allow someone with IBD to believe that their condition bars them from the job market. I heard another story of a young person, James, who was diagnosed with IBD in his early teens. James is currently studying for a degree at the university of Sheffield, but he is worried about managing his symptoms in the workplace when he graduates and begins to look for work in what is already a challenging job market. James has said:
“I think the use of the toilet without restrictions has to be paramount. I also think employers should give employees the opportunity to confidentially declare any illnesses which may affect the efficiency of their work. I think employees, regardless of what illness they have, should be allowed to use the facilities, so people who are ill do not feel isolated. Also, I think there should be no stigma attached to having the sudden urge to use the toilet. This is often the case, I would have thought, if you work/live with the same people for a long time. I am concerned that, after having worked so hard to get my first job after I graduate, if I have to have time off for illness or procedures I will be under more pressure in my job. The job market is so competitive and if someone is less ill than me, I will be placed under more pressure due to a situation beyond my control. It is pretty inevitable that I may need time off while working, but due to the competitiveness of the job market there will always someone who will be able to take my place.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this debate. In my own company, which I have registered in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, we have experienced this problem, as it affected one of our management team. As a company, we decided that we would facilitate that individual because they were a good worker; they were enthusiastic in what they did. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has raised the issue of the civil service, surely the private sector needs to take a grip of this issue and a company ought to overlook the difficulties that a person—old or young—may have and see the potential benefits they can offer.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for putting that policy in place in his company. As I have said, when I have spoken to people about IBD there is a real fear of being embarrassed about it and not being able to tell someone about it. If a company creates a culture or an environment where an employee can go to their boss and say, “I’ve got this condition,” in many cases the problem can be overcome and resolved. As the hon. Gentleman has this example of something that has worked, I hope that it can be passed on to the Minister, perhaps to solve the problem that the hon. Member for Strangford raised about the civil service.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene on him, and I do so to support the point that he is making. I have had a colostomy, having suffered from bowel cancer. As an individual, I made a huge point of being very public about that fact, including about the ways that I have dealt with the disease. And I must say that that approach has given a lot of people in my constituency hope. A disease such as bowel cancer is not something that is embarrassing any more. People talk about bowel cancer and bowel issues now as part of normal life, and it is hugely important that people in the public eye—as we used to call it—talk about these conditions and do not hide them away, so that they become more accepted by everybody else.
I remember the hon. Gentleman in his previous life as a Welsh Assembly Member, and I also remember the good work that he did to raise awareness about this issue. I hope that more people follow his example and raise awareness of what is a really serious situation.
Returning to my example, when they graduate, people such as James may be too embarrassed to ask for help from careers advisers or Jobcentre Plus staff, who are already feeling the strain caused by the sheer volume of people whom they are trying to get back into work.
Some people do not even make it to university due to the challenges that they face in their teenage years from IBD. Here is an example of such a person:
“Because of immune suppressants which I take to manage my IBD, I have a very low immune system and become very ill, very quickly. I have already missed one year and I have had to re-sit my A levels. I feel a complete failure. I wanted to become an architect but I just cannot keep up with my studies. I feel I have let myself and my family down and my career is only just supposed to be starting.”
There are endless stories of young people with IBD who are worried and concerned about their future. A diagnosis of IBD should not mean that a person has to restrict their ambitions, whatever those ambitions are. The prospect of starting work is particularly daunting for anybody leaving school or university, but it is made even harder for those who are simultaneously coming to terms with a long-term health condition.
Many employers lack knowledge of IBD, which complicates the problem further. A study undertaken by Crohn’s and Colitis UK found that two thirds of employers admitted to knowing very little or nothing at all about the needs of employees with IBD. When asked to name some of the symptoms of IBD, most were unable to name any, while others displayed a misunderstanding of the condition. One even attributed IBD to a lack of “work passion”. That could not be further from the truth, as we see from the example of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies). Half of people with the condition revealed that they feel they need to put in additional effort to compensate for the time they take off for hospital or doctor’s appointments.
There are steps that employers can take to provide extra support for employees who suffer with IBD. There are simple adjustments, such as allowing an employee with IBD to visit the toilet when needed and, if possible, sit near a bathroom. That can help an IBD sufferer stay in employment and not feel awkward about the condition when they are in work. Some 65% of people with IBD believe that the opportunity to work flexible hours could maximise their productivity.
I do not want anyone to think that young people are the only group to be affected by the condition, as we have seen with examples today.
On the issue of work ability, there needs to be an acceptance not only that sufferers need to use the toilet, but that a lot of people rely on vitamin B12 injections. As one gets nearer the time for the injection, energy levels drop. Employers need to recognise that there could well be a change in work patterns as the time for the injection approaches.
That was the point that I was trying to make. All we are looking for is a little understanding from employers. We are not asking for a great change in legislation. We want them to foster an environment where people do not feel embarrassed about going to their employers about their condition and that, when they do have to take medication, they are allowed time to do so. That will not affect anyone’s productivity; if anything, it will improve it.
As I have said, I do not want anyone to think that only young people face this problem. Some are forced to take early retirement due to the unpredictable nature of their disease. Until last year, John was a university lecturer. He found that working and living with a chronic condition such as inflammatory bowel disease was too much to cope with. He was unable to rely on the stability of his bowels while giving lectures. He chose to take early retirement without much of a fight. It took 18 months to get his pension released early on partial incapacity grounds, which took a toll, as his condition was going through a flare-up. Even though he has come to terms with his current medication, in order to help keep his symptoms under control, the IBD is difficult to live with and dictates how much travel he can do on a daily basis. It has been financially tough on John and his family, as he was the sole source of income, which has now been halved. The majority of his lump-sum payment made on retirement had to be used to fit a downstairs toilet.
I do not have to tell anyone how important it is to keep people in work, particularly in this economic climate. However, we have to accept that people with fluctuating health conditions may be in or out of work, and employers have to adapt to the different needs of those with the illness.
One clear issue is the disability living allowance and the benefits system. Does the hon. Gentleman feel there are occasions—I am aware of them—when the benefits system is not flexible enough to enable someone to achieve disability living allowance and to return to work later, if they have to?
That is why we need flexibility in the benefits system. When people have this debilitating disease that very often stops them from working—they cannot do anything, they cannot leave the house—they cannot claim benefit. They do not even slip into the system or anything like that. That has to be borne in mind.
In the week that we are debating the remaining stages of the Welfare Reform Bill, it is important that the benefits system reflects the different needs and requirements of those with fluctuating health conditions. It is crucial that those with IBD do not struggle to cope at work through illness, or live in poverty when they are unable to work. I have heard stories about people with the disease having no income, which forces them out to work. Take this testimony:
“As my symptoms are not regular, I do not qualify for any benefits. So when I am actually too ill to work, I must simply either choose not to work or lose money. It is stressful having to explain the situation without going into too much detail.”
The Government need to recognise the disabling elements of long-term fluctuating conditions such as IBD and include provision for those in the benefits system. The importance of that is underlined by the Government’s introduction of universal credit, and the need to attend back-to-work interviews. The unpredictable nature of IBD means that people with the condition, who are required to attend interviews and undertake other work-related activities, may at times require flexibility, should they experience a flare-up of their condition.
Ultimately, IBD does not have to hinder someone’s work potential. People live with the condition and make a positive impact in the world of work every day. All they ask for is sensitivity and understanding. I do not think that is too much. Therefore, I believe that employers, health professionals and policy makers have a duty to ensure that there is a greater understanding for those with fluctuating conditions such as IBD.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate. What we have heard in the past 15 minutes is an example of this House at its best, where we all seek in as positive a way as possible to have an influence on the lives of people who are struggling with very challenging circumstances. There is no doubt that that applies to those who suffer from the two main conditions we are discussing in this debate, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, both known as inflammatory bowel disease. We understand that they are serious conditions. In severe cases they require hospital treatment and surgery, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), and they make life extremely difficult for those who suffer from them.
I would like to deal with the hon. Gentleman’s questions in two parts. In the latter part of his remarks he referred to how we treat people with the conditions in the benefit system. I would like to touch on that first, and then on employment and universal credit, which I believe will help people with fluctuating conditions.
I start with the question of ensuring that we provide appropriate support through the benefit system for those unable to work because of the scale of their condition. We seek through the work capability assessment to take sensible decisions about those with fluctuating conditions. I hope and believe that the work we have put in place over the past 18 months will improve the way the WCA works and responds to fluctuating conditions. We are continuing to look at how to improve the process in relation to fluctuating conditions.
Where the effects of the condition are such that an individual is unable to work, they will and should receive appropriate support by way of employment and support allowance. Individuals with IBD are most likely to score under the incontinence descriptor of the WCA, which recognises that in the workplace an important consideration is personal dignity. It looks at continence in relation to the ability to maintain continence of bladder or bowel or prevent leakage from a collecting device. Additionally, individuals who are either moderately or severely affected by the disease may also have restrictions in a number of other work capability assessment areas, for example, where there is low body weight, malnutrition, persistent pain and fatigue.
As a result of the hon. Gentleman initiating the debate and a number of other people raising concerns with my office recently about these particular fluctuating conditions, we have looked again at how we are handling people with the conditions who are going through the work capability assessment, because I want to ensure that we get it right. In fact, all we have identified is that people with a primary diagnosis of the two different IBDs we are talking about are more likely than other groups to be allowed employment and support allowance, to reflect the high level of debilitation experienced by many individuals with such conditions.
The majority of people with IBD who have completed their work capability assessment are allowed employment and support allowance. The statistics show that they are more likely by around a third to be placed in the support group or the work-related activity group than the employment and support allowance client group as a whole. I think we see a picture of a system that is reflective of the nature of the challenges that these people face. We will not always get it right; I never pretend that that will be the case. From what I can establish, we are already reflecting, in the way we handle people with IBD, a recognition of the severe and significant issues it can pose for sufferers.
The work capability assessment considers each case on its merits. Alongside that, it is important to state that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, many people can and should continue to work. There is a duty to ensure that employers understand, help, and work with people to make sure that they stay in the workplace, and I praise him for his comments on that. We have therefore ensured that the work capability assessment recognises that some people can manage their conditions successfully and return to work. In some cases, symptoms might be less severe, or might fluctuate so that they are unable to work for only short periods. Others might respond well to medication and be unlikely to have any long-term functional restrictions. For those people, it is important that we provide them either with appropriate support to stay in the workplace or with help to get back to work.
We can all play a role, as the hon. Gentleman is doing today. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) for his comments. One great strength of the House is that we can take a lead. Sometimes we might be frustrated that individually, as Members of Parliament, we cannot wave a wand and change something overnight, but we have the ability to access, influence, create platforms and shape the way people think. Within our constituencies and beyond, we have the ability to influence the way employers think, as the hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly seeking to do today. I commend the message that he is sending out. It is one that I hope Members will continue to send in relation not only to IBD but to the many fluctuating conditions that make people’s lives more difficult, although they should not and need not make it impossible for people to stay in the workplace. A bit of understanding from an employer can go a long way in preserving skills important to the organisation while giving employees the flexibility to deal with the challenges that they face.
However, for those who are struggling and finding that their employers are less supportive, which is bound to happen, we seek to personalise support for each individual through the work done by Jobcentre Plus and the Work programme. Along with both sets of organisations delivering support for the unemployed— our Jobcentre Plus offices up and down the country, and the different organisations working with the Work programme—we seek to individualise support as much as possible and ensure that we match individuals to employers.
One great way to overcome the challenges that people with different disabilities and health problems face in the workplace is by matching individuals to employers who understand, respect and support them. We encourage our Work programme providers and Jobcentre Plus offices to work closely with charitable groups for people who face different health challenges in order to ensure that organisations have the best possible understanding of the support that they need, so that we can do job-matching work to the best of our abilities.
In addition, where mainstay provision is not appropriate, we provide specialist support through Access to Work and Work Choice, which are available to the individuals with the most complex support needs. Each year, Work Choice aims to help about 9,000 people with disability and health problems into work, and Access to Work provides support to about 35,000 individuals.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole that it is essential for employers to make reasonable adjustments, which might include unrestricted access to toilets for people with IBD. It is common decency, and there is no earthly reason not to. I know we have not always moved beyond the world in which we have lived, but one would hope that in today’s world, not many employers would deny someone access to a toilet. I believe that in most of our economy—ideally, in all of it—that should be a management practice of the past. Employers now have a duty under the Equality Act 2010, and they are putting themselves at risk if they do not pay attention to an individual’s needs, if those needs are reasonable and sensible. I certainly regard unrestricted access to a toilet as being entirely that.
We are also trying to ensure that all those who work with us in the Department for Work and Pensions networks and who have a responsibility for health care—particularly health care professionals working with people undergoing the WCA and, in due course and Parliament permitting, the assessment for the new personal independence payment—have an understanding of the nature of the health conditions that they will confront in their work. The doctors and nurses working with us and Atos Healthcare on the assessments, for example, already have a knowledge of IBD from their professional training. However, those who are not from such a background—physiotherapists, for example—undertake a training module on inflammatory bowel disease as part of their work capability assessment induction. A learning set on continence, including a focus on IBD, is offered to health care professionals as part of the Atos Healthcare continuing medical education programme. To assist them in their knowledge of such conditions, health care professionals also have access to an evidence-based repository.
We try hard to ensure that we provide the people who work for us with access to information about fluctuating conditions, mental health problems and other issues that they will come across in their duties, so that they are as well placed as possible to be responsive in their decision-making and to get those decisions right. We have no interest whatever in getting such decisions about people wrong. This is about taking the right decisions and providing support for people who have the potential or are perfectly able to continue to work, and then finding the right employers for them. However, it is also about understanding the limits of an individual’s ability to work and ensuring that we do not end up making someone work who cannot realistically do so.
We are continuing to work to improve our knowledge, understanding and processes, and the responsiveness of those processes, for people with fluctuating conditions. In the past few months, our adviser on the work capability assessment, Professor Malcolm Harrington, has carried out a project in partnership with organisations that represent people with Crohn’s disease, IBD and other fluctuating conditions to enable us to understand better how we can improve our processes to ensure that we take well-informed, appropriate decisions. The group has made a number of recommendations to us through Professor Harrington. We are considering our response, but I have given a clear commitment that the Government will do everything that we realistically and reasonably can to improve the way we work and ensure that we take the right decisions.
It is important, too, to find the dividing line. That will always be a difficult challenge for any Government, because, as the hon. Gentleman has said, there are two sets of points. The first is about employment and the need to get things right for those in work, and the second is about the need to get things right in our benefits system for those who cannot work. Finding a dividing line between the two is very difficult. There is no simple black-and-white answer to the two sides of that problem. The Government must do everything we can in our assessments and judgments to make our decision-making as accurate as possible. There is no exact science, of course. When we come to that grey area, no individual on the borderline is definitely able or unable to work.
I give the hon. Gentleman every commitment that our goal is to get right what we do. In all our reforms, including the reforms coming through Parliament this week to which he referred, it is not our wish or intention to do the wrong thing by people who find themselves in a difficult position in their lives. We have to find the correct approach in one of two different routes. It might involve finding the right support to get them into work; it might involve getting them into the benefit system. However, what we are trying to avoid is sending people down the wrong route: for example, somebody with the potential to work who is not asked to do so, or somebody who has the potential to work but is not encouraged to do so.
All of our reforms are about taking the right decisions, as far as we possibly can, by those individuals, and providing support, knowledge, and understanding for people with such conditions. We will not always get it right, but we will do our best to do so, and to deepen knowledge and understanding right across the workings of the DWP about IBD and other fluctuating conditions suffered by the people whom we seek to help.
Offshore Renewable Energy (East Anglia)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I am very pleased to have secured this debate, because it provides an opportunity to focus on the East Anglia offshore renewable energy industry at a particularly important time in its fledgling life. Much work has already been carried out, both by the Government and industry, and exciting times lie ahead, if the right policy and investment decisions are made and seen through.
The future can be bright; thousands of new jobs can be created; the economy can be rebalanced towards the regions and towards engineering and specialist manufacturing; and the country can have a source of energy that is secure, stable in terms of price and environmentally friendly. Looking further ahead, we can build an industry that can compete on a global stage, with firms taking their services and skills around the world, and in due course we can become net exporters of electricity, instead of being importers vulnerable to fluctuations in fossil fuel prices.
We are at the dawn of a new era. The two largest wind farm developers off the coast of East Anglia—Scottish and Southern Energy and East Anglia Offshore Wind—are about to enter important stages in the process of obtaining the necessary statutory approvals for their developments. Moreover, the Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth enterprise zone, which is focused on the offshore energy sector, will come into operation on 1 April.
These are exciting times, but it is important that we ensure that we realise the full potential that this opportunity presents for the East Anglia economy. The Thanet wind farm is a great engineering feat, but much of the value generated by that project went to companies outside the UK. Non-UK ports have been large beneficiaries of the round 1 and 2 offshore wind farm projects. Lessons must be learned so that we can ensure that our coastal communities, such as that in Lowestoft in Waveney, which I represent, benefit fully from this opportunity.
Much good work has already been done and the foundations have been laid. The original foundation stone, which has been there since time immemorial, is the North sea, one of this island’s most vital assets. It is a great resource, out of which the fishing industry in Lowestoft and other ports was created, only to be reduced to a shadow of its former self by the common fisheries policy. The North sea also gave us the oil and gas industry, which has many features that are transferrable to the renewable energy sector—skills, a supply chain of approximately 500 businesses employing more than 10,000 people across Suffolk and Norfolk, and the best health and safety regime in the world. Now the North sea offers another dividend, in the form of wind in the immediate future and, in due course and with the right nurturing, wave and tidal power.
I should emphasise that, while I want to ensure that we realise the full potential that the North sea has to offer, I am conscious that it is an asset, a treasure that we should nurture for future generations. The role of guardian is played by organisations such as the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is based in Lowestoft, has a long track record of applying science in the management of fisheries and provides sound impartial advice to support the green economy.
The OrbisEnergy centre in Lowestoft has become a centre of excellence for the offshore renewables sector. Six sites in and around Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft form part of the enterprise zone. The New Anglia local enterprise partnership is a green economy pathfinder, and Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth ports have been granted CORE status as one of five centres for offshore renewable engineering.
All that work is to be applauded, but various challenges need to be addressed if the industry’s full potential is to be realised in East Anglia, and I shall outline those challenges in the time remaining. The first is the policy framework. The offshore renewable industry is highly mobile—investment will flow to the most attractive destinations. It is, therefore, important that the Government send out the right message that there is a stable fiscal regime and a secure support mechanism to encourage the necessary investment in new technologies.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) addressed the need for a stable fiscal regime when he referred to the oil and gas sector during his Adjournment debate last week. On the need for a reliable support mechanism, the Government’s proposals in the consultation on renewables obligation banding for offshore wind and wave and tidal technologies are acceptable to the industry, but it is vital that those for offshore wind are not reduced any further, because that could delay the projects, and wind supply chain companies might be tempted towards competing European nations.
It is also important that electricity market reform mechanisms are delivered quickly and at a level that gives confidence to developers, investors, manufacturers and contractors to invest in the post-2017 opportunities that will come from the round 3 wind farms.
On the wave and tidal sector, the proposed five renewables obligation certificates per megawatt-hour will help the UK maintain its lead over the other competing nations in this emerging sector, and that can be reinforced if support is forthcoming from the green investment bank. It is also important that the UK takes a lead role in developing transparent European market rules that in due course will allow us to export surplus renewable energy to Europe and vice versa.
The second challenge is planning. As I have said, both SSE and EAOW are at crucial stages in obtaining consent for their developments. There is a concern that the consent process is taking too long, that statutory bodies are not showing sufficient flexibility in considering applications and that they should adopt what the developers call the Rochdale envelope approach.
Delays could have a negative knock-on effect on investment decisions in relation to the wind farms themselves, in terms of the creation and reinforcement of supply chains and in relation to grid connections. That could lead to a loss of confidence in the UK sector just as it has become a world leader. It is important that decisions are made promptly and that statutory consultees are properly funded to cope with the number of planning applications, which will increase dramatically with round 3 applications.
RenweableUK, the trade body for the wind and marine industry, has recommended the establishment of a stakeholder resource fund to build capacity and expertise among statutory consulting bodies. It recommends a total spend over the next three years of £12 million and that the industry should be open to considering the possibility of making contributions itself.
Further down the line—although this is already concentrating people’s minds in Suffolk and Norfolk—is how best to connect the East Anglia Array, which will generate electricity equivalent to five Sizewell C power stations, to the national grid.
Traditionally in Britain, electricity has been generated in the north and the midlands and has been transported up and down the spine of the country. We are now looking to change this axis so as to transmit power in an east-west direction. It is important that, if possible, use is made of the existing infrastructure. At present, the National Grid Company is establishing whether that will be possible. If not, it will be necessary to provide a new transmission route. In doing so, open dialogue will be vital from the outset between communities, the National Grid Company and councils, to ensure that all factors are taken into account when determining the most appropriate and best means of transmission, whether overground or underground, and when determining cost—both immediate and whole life—and environmental impact.
All parties must face up to this challenge. With 25% of the current electricity generating capacity due to be retired by 2016, it is important to move quickly to ensure that the lights do not go out. At the same time, however, we must not unnecessarily blight what is a special landscape.
Thirdly, it is important that we ensure that people in Suffolk and Norfolk have the necessary skills to take up the many jobs that will be created. At a recent seminar on supporting young people in Waveney, which I held jointly with Jobcentre Plus, Mark Jones, the managing director of Lowestoft-based AKD Engineering, spoke graphically about the importance of doing this and the fact that, if we do not, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring prosperity back to the Lowestoft and Yarmouth area will be lost, with work going elsewhere. The further education and apprenticeship policies that have been enthusiastically promoted by the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning provide an ideal basis on which to build, but we also need to promote the teaching of science, technology, engineering and maths in our schools.
The technology and innovation centre for renewable energy needs to be up and running as soon as possible, and I hope that organisations such as OrbisEnergy and CEFAS in my constituency will play an important role in that project. The private sector and the East of England Energy Group, through its skills for energy programme, also have a key role to play, and it is important that national and local government work with them.
Fourthly, it is important that the supply chain is reinforced. The enterprise zone and CORE designations will help do that. We should promote manufacturing processes, whether they involve turbine manufacturing, foundation manufacturing or the provision of sleeves for turbines. If we can encourage those to take place in East Anglian ports, it will help to support supply chain businesses. That will lead to costs being driven down, which will make offshore wind more affordable and, in turn, will consolidate the UK’s position as a world leader in this sector.
A problem that supply chain companies often face is that they need three types of contract to come together at the same time: the contract with the wind farm developer for the provision of a piece of equipment, the contracts with sub-contractors for component parts, and, finally, a financing agreement with their bank. At present, securing any one of those three types of contract requires certainty on at least one of the other two. That leads to an unenviable chicken and egg problem. A means of addressing that dilemma would be for the green investment bank to offer loan guarantees to offshore wind projects entering the construction phase. I would be grateful if the Minister could look into that.
Finally, I come to infrastructure. Good infrastructure is vital. In previous debates, I have emphasised the importance of improving road, rail and broadband links to the East Anglian coast, which is very much at the end of a line. I will not restate that case here, other than to repeat the need for investment in the road network in and around Lowestoft, which is currently gridlocked as a result of sewer repairs taking place in Station square.
Instead, I want to emphasise the importance of two other types of infrastructure investment—first, ports and, secondly, the grid. The enterprise zone and the CORE initiatives will help Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth ports, but they are at a disadvantage both when compared with other British ports that are in assisted areas and that benefit from capital allowances and the £60 million UK ports competition, and when compared with European ports that are in public ownership. I wholeheartedly support the tradition of private sector investment in UK ports and the advantages of innovation and dynamism brought to the industry by a market-based approach. However, East Anglian ports need to be able to compete on a level playing field. I therefore urge the Government to consider the provision of a three-year replacement fund that would act as the equivalent of the capital allowances and port infrastructure funding that is available elsewhere.
With regard to the grid, there is the need not only for upgrading with additional transmission and distribution capacity, as I have mentioned, but for a smart grid and a European supergrid. That would allow peaks and troughs in electricity generation to be smoothed out while enhancing security of supply and, in due course, enabling Britain to export electricity, thereby helping the balance of payments.
In conclusion, this is not a plea for a blank cheque, although the coastal communities fund should recognise the contribution of offshore wind farms to the UK economy. The Government have already made a significant investment and are pursuing the right policies. However, we need to ensure that such policies come to fruition and that they hit their two targets: first, to achieve a secure low-carbon energy supply with less price volatility and, secondly, to build a new industry in which Britain is a world leader and to create new jobs.
East Anglian people and businesses want to be at the forefront of this drive. On their behalf, I conclude by saying this to the Minister: work with us and together we can not only hit these targets, but achieve the economic growth that this country so urgently needs at the current time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate. He has shown a long-term interest in the scope for East Anglia to become a leader in renewable technologies and, within the Department of Energy and Climate Change, we are very grateful indeed for his constant support. I am delighted that he is supported today by some of my hon. Friends who represent Suffolk constituencies. They share his ambitions for East Anglia and how it can take advantage of the opportunities that are clearly there.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there are bright prospects for East Anglia and that this is an area where international opportunities could develop for the businesses setting up and operating within Norfolk and Suffolk. The expertise they can gather is something they can certainly take overseas as well. Earlier on in this Government, the Prime Minister said that we would be the greenest Government ever. The actions that we in DECC have since taken have shown how seriously we take that commitment.
I well remember my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency a year ago, when I had the chance to go with him to the OrbisEnergy centre to meet some local business leaders to try to understand the commitment, enthusiasm and excellence that they can bring to this area. On that visit, I was also pleased to have a chance to go to Great Yarmouth, Sizewell and Norwich to see for myself how well poised East Anglia is to take forward opportunities in the low-carbon sector. I have also had opportunities since then to talk to the New Anglia local enterprise partnership. I am very encouraged by its enthusiasm and commitment to make the best case for businesses in East Anglia and to address the skills issue, which my hon. Friend rightly mentioned.
As my hon. Friend said, since my visit, both Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth have been designated centres for offshore renewable engineering, or COREs. That is a great achievement and a tribute to the skills that are already based in those areas. Both towns are home to an impressive energy sector supply chain, with some 500 businesses employing more than 10,000 staff directly within the two port areas, and many times more people in the wider supply chain spread across East Anglia more generally.
My hon. Friend raised the issue about supply chain opportunities. I want to reassure him that the Government are not neutral about that. We are sending a clear message to those who are developing the offshore facilities that we would like them to give British companies every opportunity to pitch for their business. My concern is that sometimes they are not even on the tender list. We are going to great lengths to ensure that they get the chance to pitch. At the end of the day, it is a commercial decision, but we are very happy to call up the chairman and the chief executives of those companies investing here to highlight to them the strengths of British companies and those companies operating out of the United Kingdom in this area.
My hon. Friend also raised the issue of the UK ports funding scheme. As he will be aware, that shifted from being a ports project across the whole of the United Kingdom to an economic development scheme, because we felt it was important to link the development of the port to a specific economic activity. As a result, under EU state aid rules, the funding can go only to assisted areas. However, it is encouraging to note the extent to which companies are willing to look outside the assisted areas for where they see the right port facilities and the rights skills base. We are seeing some good, encouraging interest from companies looking at the United Kingdom more generally.
Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are home to some of the leading offshore wind companies, including ScottishPower Renewables, Vattenfall, SSE, Seajacks, ODE, Gardline, SLP Smulders, CLS, Petrofac and AMEC, among others. Lowestoft is already the operations base for the Greater Gabbard wind farm and is well positioned to take advantage of future developments. Later this year, we expect the first offshore wind project from the East Anglia zone—East Anglia ONE—to submit its application for development consent to the Infrastructure Planning Commission. East Anglia is well positioned to take advantage of future wind farm developments.
My hon. Friend understandably picked up the issue of planning. During this year, those decision-making powers will be transferred from the Infrastructure Planning Commission, where such decisions are currently taken, directly to Ministers. The one thing we have been absolutely clear to enshrine in that is the time scale. The final decision will be taken by Ministers, which means there will be no extra delays as a result of the process. Somebody can be sure that, within just over a year of submitting their application, they will have a determination. What frustrates people most is not being turned down; it is the absence of a decision at all. People want to know whether their investment is likely to go ahead and therefore we are keen to ensure that they have that clarity.
I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that the future of the UK’s energy supply has to be secure, flexible and low carbon. We envisage a mix of low-carbon generation made up of new nuclear, carbon capture and storage, and renewable sources. We must also combine that with energy efficiency, as the cheapest energy of all is the energy not used. In all those areas—nuclear, carbon capture and storage and renewable sources—East Anglia has an extremely important role to play. The skills base and expertise that are already there are very encouraging and the ambitions of the companies involved to take this forward is something we can truly celebrate.
Renewable energy, and offshore renewables in particular, are set to be a major part of our future energy supply. Some technologies, such as onshore and offshore wind, are already established and some, such as wave and tidal, are still emerging, which is why we have given the higher level of ROC support to them. It is absolutely clear that offshore wind will play an important part in the UK’s energy future. It is a low-carbon energy source. It is also a domestic energy source, which means that it will play a role in securing our long-term energy security.
The UK is already the world’s biggest offshore wind market. We are working hard to maintain that position, and are determined to do so. We already have the most installed capacity and this is only the beginning. We also have the biggest pipeline of projects to 2020 of any country. Deployment of offshore wind will require an investment of tens of billions of pounds. For that huge sum to be invested by industry, we need to do all we can to ensure that developers, investors and manufacturers have confidence in the market and see the UK as the No.1 destination for their money.
Electricity market reform, as my hon. Friend rightly says, will give confidence and long-term visibility to investors, and will encourage the investment we need to renew our generating infrastructure. We have seen great progress in just a year-and-a-half, since the Government were elected. It was not even on the agenda before the election. In the course of just more than a year-and-a-half, we have established the structure of an entirely new electricity market—massive progress that we will shortly enshrine in legislation, but with ongoing discussions with developers to ensure that, if they need to make earlier decisions, they will understand how the funding will work to secure their investments.
Our reforms to the planning system will ensure faster, more efficient consenting, while retaining democratic accountability. We are currently considering the responses to the consultation on the bands for the renewables obligation to ensure appropriate levels of support for renewable technologies and value for the taxpayer and consumers. We are creating the green investment bank, to which my hon. Friend referred, to deliver financial interventions that address market failures specific to green investment needs, thereby supporting growth and environmental objectives. One of the priority areas for the green investment bank will be offshore wind.
We are working with Ofgem to ensure cheaper and timelier offshore grid connections, to encourage innovation through competition, and to enable new entrants to compete in the market. Ofgem has already run one successful tender round for offshore transmission and is in the process of running a second.
My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of onshore grid issues. This week, the Institute of Engineering and Technology publishes a very authoritative report, which goes into more detail than anything I have ever seen before, about the comparative costs of undergrounding and overgrounding. Where it is possible to use existing infrastructure, that should of course be part of the process, because significant concerns have been raised.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on all his work in pushing Suffolk to be the greenest county and for Waveney to develop a national leading hub, and I acknowledge the support given by the Minister.
The issue of where cabling goes is very important. Suffolk wants to be the greenest county, just as the Government want to be the greenest Government, but it would be a contradiction in terms if developing the green hub means putting pylons all over the countryside. I ask for the Minister’s support in pushing those energy companies hard to ensure that pylons are not installed in a way that will destroy the beautiful Suffolk countryside.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest and for the recent event he hosted for businesses in East Anglia to talk about that matter. He raises an issue that is current and important. We face the absolute fact that when electricity is generated we need to find ways of getting it to market, and that requires a massive upgrading of our grid infrastructure. We have made changes to how that is dealt with. In a national policy statement on grid, we talked about the need to explore alternatives to overgrounding. The report published this week by the IET is a further example of our determination to get a clear understanding of the facts. The companies involved—National Grid, in particular—are in no doubt whatever about the public anxiety that this can create, and they are looking at ways of ameliorating that. I am encouraged from my discussions with them that they are keen to explore how best to ensure that a new generation comes through in a way that is harmonious with the communities through which that electricity will pass.
Offshore wind is quickly making the jump from an emerging technology to a major part of the UK’s electricity supply. Through the industry-led Offshore Wind Cost Reduction Task Force, we are working to create an action plan to bring down the costs of offshore wind to make it cost-competitive with other forms of low-carbon generation. The task force will report to Ministers in spring. It is clear that industry and investors recognise our commitment to offshore wind. Many companies, including those in East Anglia, are gaining access to that new market. I want the UK to benefit from the jobs associated with offshore wind, not just from the low-carbon electricity. I want UK companies not just to supply UK wind farms, but to start supplying other countries, too.
The supply chain is already building up to support the wind sector, and it is doing good business. As this debate is focused upon East Anglia, let me just pick a few recent examples since April 2011. Gaoh Energy, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, has secured a met mast order for the Moray Firth offshore wind development. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), there is a new energy skills centre, where courses will be offered to support the UK offshore wind industry from early 2012. It will eventually be able to accommodate more than 200 young people a year on engineering and welding courses. Wells Harbour, in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), has secured contracts for work at Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm.
We are therefore already seeing some key investments coming forward, and not just in the domestic market. Seajacks, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), has won a £100 million order to supply the Meerwind offshore wind farm in Germany. There is no doubt that the levels of deployment we are likely to see in the UK and in Europe are far in excess of current production capacity—rapid scaling up will be needed. That offers the potential for significant employment and economic benefit for the UK, with the opportunity to create a broad manufacturing base in a high-value-added sector that, partly as a result of the sheer size of the turbines, really needs to be somewhere close by. I intend it to be here in the UK.
The industry is at an early stage of development, but is set for huge growth. The UK is well placed to make the most of it, and the Government intend to do so. We have a strong research and development capability, and some excellent engineering, technology and manufacturing opportunities. In East Anglia, I have seen for myself some of the outstanding examples of businesses that are ready and able to take advantage of those opportunities. I have met the people in the local authorities who are determined to ensure that the educational provision is there to bring forward the skill set. I have met with the local enterprise partnership, too. That, combined with the immense commitment and enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, and my hon. Friends from other parts of the county, shows that this is an area with immense potential and we look forward to it being realised.
Question put and agreed to.