Wednesday 21 March 2012
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vara.)
I thank you, Mr Davies, for the opportunity to begin this important and timely debate on Thamesteel and the future of UK steel production. I am grateful to hon. Members for attending the debate. Their presence illustrates not only the high importance with which hon. Members regard our country’s steel industry, but the sympathy that we all share for the 400 steelworkers at Thamesteel who are undergoing the most difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, those circumstances, which all steelworkers, if not all workers, are experiencing now, have not been seen since the 1980s.
I and many parliamentary colleagues wanted to secure this debate to highlight the dire way in which steelworkers at Thamesteel have been treated. Any steel site that is lost is a loss not just to the immediate area, but to British steel production and UK manufacturing.
Many steelworkers have been here before; it is a familiar tale for those in the steel industry. Thamesteel, which is based in Sheerness, employed about 400 workers and had a production capacity of 840,000 metric tonnes of billet and 600,000 tonnes of bar rod. The site itself began operations in January 1972, and production started at the UK’s first mini integrated works on the site of the historic Sheerness naval hospital. The site uses recycled steel to produce steel for the construction industry. Surviving the turmoil of MacGregor in the ’80s and a number of trade union derecognition plots by the management in the ’90s, this community and its men and women have seen it all.
In July 2002, when the site was owned by Allied Steel and Wire, ASW went into receivership and the employees lost their accrued pensions, but Community trade union fought a five-and-a-half-year campaign to secure a £12 billion financial assistance scheme, which secured the pensions of 90% of the affected workers, via a European Court of Justice ruling. In my former life, I was a Community trade union officer and lay official branch secretary and knew some of the people who were involved, and they stood by the Teesside Cast Products site and its steelworkers in their hour of need.
Securing this debate for the Sheerness steelworkers is the very least I can do to ensure that their case is heard at the highest possible level. UK steel producer Thamesteel, which was, until recently, owned by Saudi-based Al-Tuwairqi Group, went into administration after failing to secure an investor to rescue it from financial difficulties. That information was made public not by the company, but by Community trade union. Thamesteel became the second steelmaker that day to make an announcement that could result in job losses. Tata Steel Ltd, Europe’s second-largest steelmaker, also announced plans to overhaul its European tube steel business amid weak demand for its products. It said that the move could result in 200 job losses, predominantly at Corby.
Michael Leahy, the general secretary of Community, said that Thamesteel had informed the union’s local representatives that the accountancy firm Mazars had been appointed as administrators after a deal with a Swiss group to secure the plant’s future fell apart at the last minute. Michael Leahy said at the time that it was devastating news for everyone who worked at Thamesteel and for the wider community in Sheerness. Importantly for me, for MPs present today and for the work force, Michael said:
“Sheerness steelmaking can have a future and we will be doing all we can to save our steel in the coming weeks and months.”
It is of primary importance that that is reiterated, and that the site is not talked about in the past tense.
At the time, there were reports that Thamesteel had been in talks with Trafigura to secure a deal for the long-term future of the plant that would have resolved Thamesteel’s financial difficulties. However, Trafigura has so far declined to comment on speculation. We are all aware that the backdrop is one of a European steel industry struggling to cope with protracted weak demand in certain corners of the steel market, particularly in the long product construction sector. We are also all aware that the European sovereign debt crisis has made the situation worse by denting consumer confidence, as fears grow that Europe is set for lacklustre economic growth prospects this year.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. Although some 40% of the steel from the United Kingdom is exported to the continent, competitiveness has always been an issue. Last year, the Government gave something like £250 million to the steel industry to help towards rising energy costs. Does he agree that for all industry—not just the steel industry—to continue, we need to see some more benefit coming from the Budget today, to help the future of business in the United Kingdom?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes a valid point. The steel industry and other energy-intensive industries are worried about their future. The Government, I think, are willing to listen. We hope that the Budget will take more steps to help and assist industry. We need to consider other measures, but I will come on to them later in my speech.
Across Europe, steelmakers have been restructuring their operations in the light of weaker steel demand. Aside from Tata Steel and Thamesteel, ArcelorMittal—Europe’s largest steelmaker—began mothballing furnaces in recent months as part of an optimisation plan aimed at shifting more of its production to low-cost facilities. Recently, it also announced plans to shut indefinitely an electric arc furnace in Madrid due to weak demand. The move will affect around 270 jobs. It is also considering cutting 630 jobs at its Czech plant, to boost competitiveness.
Everyone here, whether MPs or people in the Gallery, is seriously concerned about what the UK Government are doing about UK manufacturing generally, and UK metal process industries in particular. What are the Government doing in Corby, Scunthorpe and Rio Tinto Alcan, to name but a few? There has been a lot of noise from the Government about the manufacturing sector, but little actual help. With 300 companies involved in the local manufacturing supply chain in north Kent, this issue is crucial. The sequence of events that led to the need for this debate on Thamesteel and the wider UK steel industry illustrate that clearly. I have taken some notes from my former Community union officer colleague, Ryan Slaughter, who has been dealing with the Thamesteel situation alongside local reps at Sheerness.
In late 2002, Saudi Arabia-based Al-Tuwairqi Group bought the Sheerness steel mill and formed Thamesteel Ltd. Al-Tuwairqi aimed to invest in the works and produce grade steel bar and billet for the middle east market. Much of the steel bar and billet produced by Thamesteel workers was used in large-scale construction projects across the middle east.
In April 2009, Thamesteel and Van Merksteijn acquired an equal controlling interest in Kierbeck Ltd—a reinforcing steel fabrication business—of 51%, which was held through the holding company TVM Ltd. In May 2010, Mazars administrators were appointed as joint liquidators of Kierbeck Ltd and the business and assets were sold to Kierbeck Thames Ltd, a sister company to Thamesteel, on 2 June 2010.
In the summer of 2010, a working capital agreement was reached with Stemcor UK Ltd, taking out a charge on various companies within the Thamesteel Holdings Group. In September 2011, Thamesteel stock holding was reduced to clear the balance with Stemcor until the full balance was cleared. Production at the rolling mill was also stopped temporarily, owing to a lack of working capital.
In November 2011, the melt shop stopped production. On 15 December, senior management sent an e-mail to management staff indicating that payment of salaries would be delayed—that was on the day when staff were supposed to be paid. On 17 December, HAT Holdings BSC—an Al-Tuwairqi Group company—agreed to invest £170,000 in Thamesteel after installing a debenture to secure future investment.
On 23 December 2011, employees received their last pay to date. On 24 January 2012, HSBC placed a freeze on all company bank accounts. On 25 January, Rod Weston and Guy Hollander from Mazars were appointed as administrators. Union officials were the first production employees to be informed that the company was in administration.
At 11 am on 26 January, Rod Weston addressed all employees at a mass general meeting, announcing 394 potential redundancies. Mazars told employees that, if they did not receive a call by the end of the day, they were redundant. Community union officials addressed employees and began the Save Our Steel campaign. On 28 and 29 January, 341 redundant employees received notices and RPl forms.
On 30 January, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) submitted early-day motion 2663 on the Thamesteel redundancies. On 31 January, Community union jointly organised with Mazars a workers’ support day. The majority of workers received help filling in RPl forms and advice from local colleges, Citizens Advice, Jobcentre Plus, Communitas, the Community trade union information advice and guidance training arm and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
On 1 February, Michael Leahy wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills asking him to meet Community union Thamesteel workers. On 7 February 2012, the first meeting of the Kent county council taskforce was attended by Ryan Slaughter, from the Community union; Ken Pugh, a county councillor; Kevin Lynes, the chair of the meeting and another county councillor; John Burke, who is the constituency manager for the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson); Jobcentre Plus; MidKent college; a representative of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; Peel Ports; and Citizens Advice. The aim of the taskforce was to provide immediate support and to plan a long-term economic strategy for Sheerness.
Also on 7 February 2012, Michael Leahy, the general secretary of the Community union, Roy Rickhuss and two Thamesteel workers, Pat Wiggins and Tom Butler, met the shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). On 13 February 2012, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills wrote to Michael Leahy and declined to meet Thamesteel workers who are Community union members.
On 10 February 2012, the first Thamesteel RP1 forms were received by the local redundancy payments office and a further nine employees made redundant. On 14 and 15 February 2012, a second tranche of RP1 forms were received by the redundancy payments office.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the contrast between the behaviour of the current Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and that of the previous Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson, is not to be believed, given that Lord Mandelson worked very hard when the steelworks in my constituency was under pressure and about to go under, and he worked really hard to ensure that it had a future?
I support my hon. Friend’s comments and will return to them, as she makes an important point. It is all about how we define industrial activism and whether we have an industrially active policy, where Ministers are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.
On 17 February 2012, the Community union Sheerness works branch met and voted to lobby Parliament. On 21 February 2012, the all-party group on the steel and metal-related industry, which I chair, met and heard representations from two Thamesteel workers, Pat Wiggins and Tom Butler. On 22 February 2012, the second meeting of the Kent county council taskforce took place. On 24 February 2012, the redundancy payments office received a third tranche of RP1 forms. From 27 February 2012, 240 RP1 submissions were paid to Thamesteel workers in a week.
On 8 March 2012, Community union Thamesteel workers held a lobby of Parliament. On 13 March 2012, Michael Leahy, the general secretary of the Community union, wrote a further letter to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, asking for assistance and a meeting with workers. On 16 March 2012, the deadline that Mazars had proposed as a cut-off date for bidders was passed. On 21 March 2012—today—a Westminster Hall debate to raise the concerns of the Thamesteel workers is being held. On 28 March 2012, creditors of Thamesteel will meet at Priestfield stadium in Gillingham.
Throughout this time, it is safe to say that the presence of the Government has been fairly non-existent and those of us who are here today, and the workforce, would like to know why. Why has the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills ignored requests to meet the democratically elected representatives of the workplace that is affected? Why have the Government so far waited for an invisible hand, instead of lending their helping hand? Why has the Secretary of State ignored a trade union that he knows can deliver results in saving steelworks, as was seen at Redcar’s Teesside Cast Products?
If the Secretary of State or the Minister agreed to meet the union, they could have heard directly from men such as Ian Crosby, Paul Davies, Michael John Terry, Aby Abraham, Gary Lewis and Barry Coulthard, who are all workers at Thamesteel who have written down accounts of their plight. Unfortunately, I do not have enough time to read out all their accounts, but if you will indulge me, Mr Davies, I will read out two of them.
Ian Crosby writes:
“I am a 29 year old man that has worked for Thamesteel for the last six years. I applied for the job when my then fiancée fell pregnant with our first child. The salary at Thamesteel was quite a jump from the job I had previously been in, as well-paid jobs to enable supporting a family are few and far between on the island. We are now married and have three sons, aged five, three and five months old. My wife is currently on maternity leave from her part-time job, so it is now more crucial than ever that I can support my family.
When the steel mill went into administration in January, it was absolutely devastating for my family. The fact that we were also not paid for our last month of service was awful for us. I literally had £6 left in my bank on the 25th of January. As you can imagine, with three young children and a house to maintain it is very rare to ever have any money left at the end of the paid month, but with it being the month after Christmas we were even more desperate for payday to come. My wife and I were questioning how we were going to afford nappies or milk for our youngest children, which is something that you should never have to question. My wife was very down about the whole situation and after just having a new baby it hit her even harder. It took almost four weeks before any money was made available to our family. As I had been in employment since I was 16, I am only entitled to contributions-based jobseekers allowance for the time being. This means my children are not entitled to school meals or milk tokens and I am not entitled to free prescriptions, dental care, etc. I find this unbelievable as I have never claimed benefits before and paid my taxes for over a decade, yet it appears you get penalised for that.
I have been applying for every job I can, and my wife has had to return to her part-time job months before her maternity leave was due to end. This is really affecting her as she is missing out on those crucial months with her new son that she was able to have with the other two. She is questioning herself and her parental qualities, but she really has no choice. There are no available jobs on the island and I have been unsuccessful with every application I have made.
I loved my job, and am finding it very hard to try and imagine what I am going to do now. The island has lost its main employer for men, and this is affecting many other areas of business. My only hope now is that a buyer is found to start producing steel in Sheerness once more. I think if this does not happen, then the situation will hit me a lot harder as I am still clinging on to that hope.”
Similarly, Gary Lewis writes:
“First of all, a thank you to all who are doing what they can to try and salvage what was Thamesteel. My story...
I was lucky enough to secure a position there in the autumn of 2006, lucky in that with a well-paid job, my now wife and I could plan our family together. Jen, my wife, has two children from her previous marriage and we also wanted our own. Jen was able to give up work and over the next few years we had two beautiful children, coincidentally both born on 25th June, in the same delivery room at Medway hospital, but three years apart. As people always do, we lived to our means, and managed to stay credit-free. We were able to meet all our outgoings and not build up any arrears. We were never well off, but we were not broke. The occasional night out was still possible, as was the odd short holiday.
We live in a modest three-bed semi in Queenborough, and feel we are part of the local community. My stepdaughter, who lives with us, was tutored at the Isle of Sheppey academy, our daughter Ruby attends Queenborough First School, as will Peter when he is old enough. My wife and I were married locally in January 2009 at the local Methodist church, where my wife’s uncle is a Methodist minister. He…travelled to conduct our ceremony. In the last six months, it’s been clear to all that something was going very wrong at Thamesteel. Bar mill production ceased in August last year, and melt shop production was sporadic to say the least. The message from the senior management was always positive, right up until 23rd January 2012, when it first became apparent that we might not get our pay in two days’ time. With the best will in the world, nobody could ever plan for that. In the build-up to Christmas, all we got was positive vibes, and spent up for Christmas as you always do. Everyone wants the best for their kids, so let them have it, our ‘jobs are safe’.
For the very first time in my life, I found myself on the phone to claim jobseeker’s allowance on 26th January 2012. I spent three whole days on the phone explaining to all my creditors—mortgage, energy, etc.—what was happening. The world was falling in and I couldn’t think straight. I tried to be strong for my family, and did the best I could, but the pressure was—and still is—immense. It’s made a hell of a difference to my life. I’ve applied for loads of jobs in my field of knowledge, in all parts of Kent. So far, I’ve had two replies, both of which have been negative. My JSA is now being paid, £210 a fortnight to cover all my bills. I’ve applied for help with the mortgage, but that only starts after 13 weeks. I’ve made an arrangement to pay reduced amounts for gas and water, and have applied to the Energy Trust for help with arrears on my electric bill. I still have to insure my property, keep a car on the road, and put food on the table. AND IT’S ALL GETTING HARDER BY THE DAY.
We have been lucky, in that the freezer was full when all this happened. We’ve been lucky enough to collect three food parcels from the Seashells centre in Sheerness, a scheme set up to help the steelworkers. I can’t thank those involved enough, as these have been a godsend. It’s a shame that I can only claim one more, but we’ll have to make do.
So what now with the works? Everyone waits with bated breath to see what offers have been made. Even if the mill starts up again, there’s no guarantee we’ll get our old jobs back. And there’s no other viable employer on the island. Nothing. Not for a skilled man with a family to support. Sheerness needs this steel mill, and why aren’t the government helping? Peacocks retail have been helped. Why not us? If there’s a continuation of no investment, either by the government or by the private sector, then Sheerness will be dead in its tracks. A town needs a large employer to survive. 350 of my mates are in the same boat. Then there’s the supply chain. I dread to think how many of us there are. Just a thought, has anyone been to Corby recently?
I can’t see us staying unless there’s a major change. All joking aside, we’re considering properties in Slovakia, northern Germany and northern Scotland. Please, help us.
Gary & Jen Lewis, Sammie, Ruby, and Peter, three chickens, two hamsters and a rabbit.”
During the mothballing of Teesside Cast Products, amid much criticism from the Tories and Liberal Democrats, the previous Government did get involved. Alongside One North East, Ministers were active in brokering potential deals with many potential buyers in the summer of 2009: Marcegaglia; Dongkuk Steel; and obviously SSI. We knew but we could not publicly say that SSI wanted to buy TCP at that time. The previous Government gave £60 million in aid for retraining, specifically for the Teesside area, including for workers at risk in Dow Chemical. That money has since been cut by a third. However, the overarching point is that the previous Government were involved directly. They rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty in lobbying and negotiating. I know that to be the case, as I was there in the area and living through the process every day for more than two years. The departure of Kirby Adams paved the way for a sale. It was not a lack of Government intervention that was to blame; there was a deliberate policy by Mr Adams to undermine a Save Our Steel campaign on Teesside. Thankfully, we won, and I wonder whether the Prime Minister would be bold enough to consider Mr Adams such a close political ally now.
I say this again: this debate is timely. How could TCP’s future be saved and Thamesteel be allowed to founder? Why were unions embraced as an integral part of the former’s success, yet ignored, leading to negative outcomes, in the case of the latter? Saying that European markets are in the doldrums is not good enough, because both TCP and Thamesteel have a history of selling to non-European Union markets—Asia in TCP’s case, and the middle east Gulf states in Thamesteel’s. This debate is timely because of the imminent relighting of the now SSI-owned Teesside Cast Products blast furnace. I was part of the Save Our Steel campaign on Teesside, which was supported by our local community, trade unions, the media and the men and women of Thamesteel.
I have a few suggestions for the Minister. Could we use the regional growth fund to attract any potential buyers that he might be aware of to the site? Could we talk to HMRC about holding off a little longer, to allow other buyers to come forward? Can we please at least have the Secretary of State directly involved, meeting with the work force, who are desperate to talk to him?
I will close with the words of the late Geoff Waterfield, the Community union chair of Teesside’s multi-union committee, who led the campaign locally. Sadly, he died at the age of 43 in August 2011 from undiagnosed leukaemia. He said:
“When I see a blast furnace, I see a thing of beauty... I see something that has given thousands and thousands of people a way of life, a good, honest wage, the ability to pay their mortgages, go on holidays and bring up their families. That to me is fabulous, that is a beautiful thing. When you come to Middlesbrough and see that skyline... That blast furnace is the heart of Teesside. As long as it pumps, there is life in Teesside.”
That is not just a Teessider’s fairy tale; the men and women from Kent have the same view of their steelworks. It is a story for all steelworkers in Britain. There is a way to save the site, and UK steel, if the Government do something to facilitate the process and lend their support. So the question for the Minister is: “What are you going to do?”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate in his capacity as chairman of the all-party group on the steel and metal-related industry, of which I am a member. What a passionate and emotional speech it was. I also congratulate members of the Thamesteel taskforce, which he mentioned. The taskforce was a brilliant example of how different, and sometimes conflicting, interests can work together for the greater good. I also put on record my thanks to Members on both sides of the House—although I have to say mainly on the Opposition side—who have supported the Thamesteel workers in their battle for justice.
Before talking about that battle, I want to explain a little about the events that led up to Thamesteel going into administration, many of which the hon. Gentleman touched on. Steel making first took place in Sheerness in 1972, and the plant was operated by a number of companies until it was taken over by Allied Steel and Wire in 1999. A couple of years later, ASW went into administration, and the plant was eventually bought by the Al-Tuwairqi Group, otherwise known as ATG—keep that name in mind. Since taking ownership of what became Thamesteel, ATG has imposed on the site a succession of disastrous management teams, which have run the company into the ground to such an extent that in the last three years Thamesteel lost £91 million.
It came as no surprise, therefore, that Thamesteel eventually went into administration, but what was surprising was the revelation that the work force were told at the end of December that all was well with the company and they should have no fear for their jobs, despite the December wage bill being paid only because of an injection of £170,000 from an ATG subsidiary company, HAT Holdings BSC. The plant stayed open during January, despite Thamesteel having 350 creditors to which it owed a total of £147 million. It has emerged in the past week that at least two creditors issued winding-up notices, one at the end of December 2011 that would have been issued as far back as October except for a technicality. The order would have become effective on 30 January 2012, but on 25 January Thamesteel applied to the High Court to enter into administration, appointing Mazars as administrator. One wonders whether the dates were coincidental.
It has transpired that Mazars met with senior Thamesteel managers as far back as October 2011 to provide directors with a summary of the insolvency scenarios available to them, and a report was sent to shareholders in November. Thamesteel directors clearly knew during November and December that they faced a mounting financial crisis, so why on earth did they not share the information with their work force, rather than spring it on them on 25 January when the administrator made 341 workers redundant?
Those workers had not been paid since the end of December, and it was left to the Government’s Insolvency Service to step in and pay some of the wages, but only up to a maximum of £400 per week. The Government also funded redundancy payments due to workers, and when we talk about the Government we should not forget that it is the taxpayer who has had to stump up the money. As is the way when dealing with public money, there was an inevitable delay in workers receiving anything from the Government, but I must pay tribute to the Insolvency Service, which ensured that the vast majority of the claims were processed within 12 days of receiving the necessary documentation from the administrator. I also add that the administrator went out of its way to work with the Community union and other agencies, including Jobcentre Plus, to get the appropriate redundancy payment—RP1—forms filled in as soon as was practicable after the administration was announced. Nevertheless, there are questions to ask about why it then took 15 days for the forms to be sent by the administrator to the Insolvency Service.
Due to the delay in paying workers, many of them were in dire straits and it was necessary to set up a local food bank to ensure that families did not starve. It is a national scandal that in the 21st century, in one of the richest countries in the world, redundant workers should have to rely on food parcels to survive, and we must ensure that that never happens again. We have to change the benefits system to ensure that redundant workers receive in a more timely fashion the help to which they are entitled. Perhaps the Government will consider providing an immediate interim payment, which could be adjusted as soon as the paperwork was processed.
For now, however, we must move on and address a more pressing question: what is the future for Thamesteel? My big fear is that the rolling mill will be stripped out and shipped to Pakistan. Why Pakistan? Because most of the senior Thamesteel managers are Pakistani nationals and ATG has an agreement with the Pakistani Government to set up a steelworks in that country. I have only recently learned something that feeds my suspicion. It is unattributable information that although the bids for taking over Thamesteel closed on Friday, an offer was received on Monday of this week, which possibly came from Al-Ittefaq Steel Products Company. ISPC is 60% owned by Dr Hilal al-Tuwairqi, who also owns ATG.
Let us be clear: stripping out the rolling mill from the Thamesteel plant would be the kiss of death for steelmaking on Sheppey, but it need not be that way. The Sheerness steelworks, under all its previous owners, was a profitable plant with a skilled, dedicated and loyal work force. Its financial plight has nothing whatever to do with that work force and everything to do with senior managers who had no real interest in or understanding of the British steel industry. To the current owners, Thamesteel was just a vehicle for producing cheap, semi-finished steel billets that could be shipped to Saudi Arabia to be rolled in the company’s Saudi mills. Thamesteel was a steel cow that could be milked, and it was.
I urge the Government to recognise the Sheerness steelworks for what it is: an important industrial asset. Thamesteel, or whatever name the company ends up with, has the capacity to be profitable again. The plant has the capacity to turn over an estimated £500 million annually and employ 800 people. We need that capacity. Britain generates 1 million tonnes of ferrous scrap annually, of which 40% is recycled here, while the other 60% is exported. At the same time, perversely, Britain imports almost 50% of its steel reinforcing products. Surely it makes sense to convert more of the UK’s ferrous scrap into steel in this country. The gap between imports and exports will only get worse if Thamesteel is lost.
I understand that the administrator has received several bids and is in the process of analysing them. I hope that one of those offers, or more, is from a company that is interested in making steel. If a realistic offer is made, I urge the administrator, the creditors and the Government to accept it without hesitation. However, if the worst comes to the worst and the only offers are from companies that want to close down the site and strip its assets, I urge the Government to intervene immediately to save this important national industrial asset until, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland said, somebody can be found who wants to produce steel on Sheppey.
I think that, given the right help, there are people willing to take on the plant, but the biggest problem is the working capital that would be needed to get steel rolling again until sales income was received. Working capital at full capacity would be a minimum of £25 million, but offering that sum as a loan guarantee would be a small price for the Government to pay to keep open the last remaining steelworks in the south-east.
I suspect that Ministers will advance at least two reasons why they cannot intervene. The first is that, under EU rules, they cannot offer subsidies to the steel industry, but if they are honest with themselves and us, they will admit that our European partners find creative ways to help their own industries. In Germany, for instance, the Government have tilted the tax system to help to reduce the high cost of energy in its steel industry. That is a subsidy in all but name. The second argument will be that in the current economic climate, Britain simply cannot afford to help Thamesteel. That will be met with disbelief by many people, including me. I can think of any number of Government budgets from which the money could be lifted.
For instance, over the next four years, Britain will provide £1 billion in aid to India, a country with a thriving steel industry. Now there is an irony. Even more ironically, Britain will give £240 million this year to Pakistan, the country in which ATG is building a Pakistani-subsidised steelworks to which it might well ship the Thamesteel rolling mill. It would be outrageous if British aid were used, albeit indirectly, to help to build a steelworks to employ Pakistani steelworkers while British steelworkers were losing their jobs in my constituency simply because the British Government refused to intervene. Of course, I might be wrong. The Minister might commit to helping to save the Sheerness steelworks and the 400 jobs that go with it. I assure him that if he does, he will make me and my constituents happy.
Before I conclude, I will briefly mention the administration of Thamesteel, as it is important. In my opinion, Mazars has acted professionally and with the utmost propriety, in accordance with the objectives and rules of administration, but I would like to raise a concern about those rules. Is it right that an accountancy firm consulted about insolvency options should then be appointed administrator? Is it in order for the administrator to make workers redundant without paying them the wages and other payments to which they are entitled when the company still has funds in its bank account?
While on the subject of Thamesteel workers, although they can claim back the wages owed for January and those claims will be classed as preferential, claims will be capped at £800 per employee and the balance traded as an unsecured claim. The company has 350 creditors, including employees and connected creditors—people with connections to the owners. For instance, HAT Holdings BSC holds a fixed and floating debenture on the company for £170,000, which will be paid first. Of the £143 million owed to creditors, £137 million is owed to connected parties. I would like the Government to consider changing the rules of administration to ensure that all money owed to ex-employees becomes preferential claims, and that the claims of non-connected creditors take precedence over those of connected creditors.
A final aspect of administration with which I am unhappy is the fact that although the administrator has a duty to investigate the conduct of the directors in the period leading up to administration, and those findings are then reported to the Insolvency Service, the report is confidential, meaning that nobody can question the thoroughness of the investigation or its conclusions. I would like the rules to be changed to allow a representative of the work force access to the report and the ability to object to its content and its conclusions.
Thank you for your forbearance, Mr Davies, in allowing me to make such a lengthy contribution. As you will realise, the issues involved in Thamesteel’s administration and the plant’s future are complex. I could say much more about the events leading up to administration, and there are many more questions that I want to ask, but at this time I want to say nothing that might jeopardise the possibility of Thamesteel being rescued and will save my ammunition for another day.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate, which coincides with this afternoon’s Budget statement. If press reports are true, the statement’s main concern will be the tax affairs of people earning more than £150,000 a year. Our concern is different: it involves the hundreds of jobs lost as a result of the closure of Thamesteel and, more generally, manufacturing and steelmaking and their importance to our economy.
It is likely that we will hear a lot this afternoon about rebalancing the economy between finance and industry—indeed, the Chancellor ended his first Budget with a call for a “march of the makers”—but at Thamesteel, the makers have lost their jobs and, as my hon. Friend said, we as a nation have lost the product. I have some experience of that in my constituency, where the huge Bilston steelworks closed many years ago. I hope that that does not happen to the constituency of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), but most of my constituents would say that the area has never fully recovered from the loss of such a major employer.
I do not want to do what often happens in such debates by going over the history of the decline of manufacturing in the UK. Too many of this House’s debates on the subject are characterised by looking in the rear-view mirror. Perhaps we focus too little on globalisation’s impact on our manufacturing industries and on the possibilities for the future, which is what I hope we can concentrate on.
Manufacturing and steelmaking are still very important to the UK, even if we do less than we did many years ago. There are things that Governments can do—they are not powerless—to support those activities. I have referred to the Chancellor’s Budgets, and his autumn statement gave a relatively small rebate on energy and environmental costs to energy-intensive producers. The scale of that rebate was a fraction of those available in Germany, but at least it represented recognition that the Government have a role to play in trying to ensure that energy-intensive industries remain in the UK.
The hot strip mill in Llanwern in my constituency was mothballed last year because of the fall in demand for steel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what its former workers need is help now? Tata’s £20 million investment in the Port Talbot mill will help Llanwern in the long run, but Government action is needed now, not in 2013, when the measures for energy-intensive industries will be implemented.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I mentioned the rebate to give an example of what the Government can do. They are not powerless when companies have a global choice about where to locate and produce.
Before I ask the Minister some specific questions, let me say that I do not believe that any Government, of whatever political colour, can prevent the closure of every factory. That is not my stance. I was a Business, Innovation and Skills Minister before the election and the Department was not always able to prevent every closure. The Government cannot do that, nor can they magic buyers out of the air if they do not exist, but there are things that the Government, the Minister’s Department, and he and his Secretary of State can do, aided by the good officials who have accompanied the Minister to the debate.
What is the situation with potential buyers? How many have declared an interest? What kinds of bid are on the table? There is a world of difference between someone who simply takes the equipment and the plant and ships them abroad, and someone who is willing to continue production in the area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland mentioned the experience of Teesside, which is instructive. When the closure of that plant was announced, many people would have given up on it and thought that nothing could be done and that the situation was hopeless, but that was not the case. The plant might not have had the backing and the belief of the management, but the potential buyers believed differently.
The complaint at the time was not that the Government were doing nothing, but that we were interfering too much. I am prepared to accept that complaint, because, as I had to explain to the management, it may have owned the plant, but it did not have ownership of the overall situation. The Government had a legitimate stake in it, given the jobs that were at stake and the impact on the regional economy and on manufacturing in the UK. I am delighted that a new buyer has come in that has faith in the plant, the product and the workers, and that production has begun again. That shows that it is sometimes possible to find new buyers and that Government can play a role, as an honest broker, in bringing people together.
What role is the Department playing to try to act as a broker and to send out signals to potential purchasers that the UK believes in manufacturing? Is there, as my hon. Friend has asked, any potential for purchasers to apply to the regional growth fund for funding? Are there funds available for training? Such funds have been discussed in similar circumstances in the past and they may make the situation more attractive to potential buyers. There are things that the Government can do.
At a more basic and prosaic level, will the Minister clarify the situation in relation to redundancy and notice payments? The Government have a role to play. My hon. Friend read out letters and spoke movingly about the human effect on families with young children who are waiting desperately for redundancy payments and relying on food banks. This is a desperate situation, particularly for those families with young children. Some payments have been made, but will the Minister assure us that he will use his good offices to ensure that any outstanding moneys, which are the responsibility of the Insolvency Service and the redundancy payments offices, are paid as soon as possible? Families are desperately stretched, so I hope he will do that.
The previous Secretary of State, Lord Mandelson, has been mentioned, but if the Minister does not like that reference, I urge him to consider a different inspiration—namely, a previous Conservative Secretary of State who said that he would be happy to intervene before breakfast, lunch and dinner. I am sure that all Opposition Members would be happy if the Minister took that person as his inspiration.
I hope the Minister will assure us that the practice of not meeting the work force will end—I see no sense in not meeting them when they are desperate to meet—and that he and his Secretary of State will do everything they can to attract a buyer. I also hope that potential purchasers will be made aware of any available funding. Although the Minister cannot prevent every factory closure, he can play an active role in trying to secure a future buyer to continue steelmaking on the site under discussion. That is the commitment that every Member from every party wants to hear.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate, and the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on their encyclopaedic exposition of the situation at Thamesteel. I intend not to repeat the comments that have already been made, but to talk more generally about the steel industry.
The Teesside Cast Products plant is in my constituency of Redcar and we are still celebrating the fact that Sahaviriya Steel Industries took over the site a year last Monday. The fact that the plant has not yet made steel is testament to SSI’s investment in and refurbishment work on the site and its long-term commitment to steelmaking in the UK. The plant will soon start—within days—to make steel and it will be a world-class site again.
I commend the work force for their constructive attitude towards SSI’s proposed new culture at the site. We have had only one black spot—namely, a dispute between Balfour Beatty and others over certain trades. I am not taking sides in that disagreement, but 20,000 working hours have been lost and I hope that it will be resolved as soon as possible. Our Thai friends are surprised that that has affected them in an area in which jobs are so badly needed and that has such a passion for steelmaking.
Overall, this has been a great story, with 700 jobs protected, more than 1,000 people recruited and at least another 1,000 in related jobs. The local community is right behind it and the effects are already being felt: there is a spring in people’s step and Mary Portas’s recent report to the Prime Minister even singled out Redcar high street as bucking the national trend. That is the effect that such developments can have on local communities.
As well as SSI, I have Tata’s heavy beam mill in my constituency. It makes beams of outstanding quality—nine of the 10 tallest buildings in the world use them—but the mill has been affected by the construction downturn. The Government are doing many welcome things, such as support for manufacturing and apprenticeships, and the regional growth fund, from which SSI benefited to help with training.
The Government also want to invest in infrastructure, in which we have a great tradition on Teesside. In fact, I have a picture on my wall of Lambeth bridge lying in pieces in Middlesbrough before being shipped down here. There have also been announcements on green technology. However, we need a lot more drive on such issues. In particular, we need to ensure that public procurement represents best value for the UK, not just best price. In relation to how we deal with green technology, that includes where transactions might seem to be company to company, but there are actually huge underlying public subsidies in some projects.
Finally, I want to mention energy costs. I and a few other MPs, some of whom are here today, started the all-party group on energy-intensive industries in early 2011. We have had great support from at least 10 industries, but the No. 1 affected sector is, of course, steel. Tata says that its sites in the UK pay 25% to 50% more for their electricity than its sites elsewhere in Europe. In the autumn statement, the Government acknowledged the threat to competitiveness that that poses for UK industries such as steel. The £250 million mitigation measures announced in the autumn statement are welcome, but the mechanisms are still unclear and address only the additional future changes without dealing with the cost gap that already exists between the UK and Europe.
The delay and uncertainty surrounding that are deeply unhelpful. Companies cannot adequately plan for the future in a business where long-term planning is the norm. Uncompetitive business rates also have the potential to drive steel making out of the UK. Again, Tata compared rates payable at two of its sites—one in the Netherlands and one in the UK—and found a gap of approximately £10 million a year. That differential needs to be closed. Those costs are significantly out of line with those in the rest of Europe and are a threat to the ability of companies to invest and be competitive. At a time when the Government are trying to revitalise UK manufacturing industry, we should be doing all we can to support industries such as steel making by creating a level playing field on which it can compete.
I hope that the Minister will say more about the plans to support energy-intensive industries, especially steel. The UK still has a steel industry that is vital for our future security and prosperity, and I hope that the Government will do everything they can to back it.
I am pleased to have been called to speak in the debate. We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), who gave an excellent speech, and other hon. Members how important it is for the Government to act. Where the Government have acted in places such as Stocksbridge, Teesside and, indeed, my constituency of Scunthorpe, there have been better responses for local people. Indeed, the role of trade unions working together with management is significant in getting better outcomes for local communities.
I shall focus briefly on three things. First, I want to consider the need for demand now for steel and the need to introduce real infrastructure projects that create such demand. We know that there will be demand with High Speed 2, renewables and nuclear, but that is further away—towards the end of the decade. We need demand now. We do not need announcements about small things happening; we need real things to happen, with real action on infrastructure now. Today’s Budget gives the Government the opportunity to do that.
Secondly, as we have already heard in relation to energy supply and cost, the UK is far more expensive than its European neighbours. It is therefore difficult for us to be competitive in relation to decisions being taken in places such as Mumbai, because we look potentially uncompetitive compared with the other European options available to investors. On the package in the autumn statement, a consultation was announced in March that will report in March 2013. That continues the uncertainty. Even in March 2013, we will not know what that package of support looks like for energy-intensive industries. In the meantime, there is a policy vacuum and uncertainty, in which there is danger for UK steel. That needs addressing now.
The third element is the issue surrounding supply chain development and procurement, particularly in new industries such as renewables. We need action to ensure that we are in a position to deliver and procure steelmaking for our products that are being bought now. There has been the recent example of TAG Energy Solutions in the north-east, which is a case study of what should not happen. UK investment and UK steel are available, but the procurement process means that steel from elsewhere will be used to fund that development. That is not good enough. There is also the case of the Forth road bridge in Scotland, which will proudly be built with Chinese steel when UK steel in Scunthorpe and Dalzell is available. We need clear action on procurement and supply chain development.
We need action now on those three things to secure the UK steel industry. As the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) said, it is a crucial part of the security of this nation to secure UK steel. We need action on demand now, not tomorrow, and to bring infrastructure projects forward. We need action on energy security now, not in 2013. We need security for energy-intensive industries now and a package to sort that out now, not one that takes all the time in the world. We also need action on procurement and supply chain development now. If the Government take those actions, I am sure that Labour Members will fully support and embrace that, because it is in the interests of UK plc and of workers, such as the workers we see here today who are rightly concerned about their living. Thank you, Mr Davies, I have said my piece.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on his remarks. I associate myself with his comment on blast furnaces. The first time I saw a blast furnace in Port Talbot was a formative experience for me. Every hon. Member would benefit from spending some time in front of a blast furnace.
I want to talk about one aspect of the issues facing energy-intensive industries such as steel, aluminium, ceramics and cement—that of energy prices. I shall focus on one of the drivers that we can do something about while still meeting our carbon reduction commitments.
Today, business in the UK is paying around €10 a unit for electricity. If a business were located in France, that figure would be €7 a unit, which is the business rate. That is a difference of about 40%, and a very significant margin. That factor is important in the decisions being made. It is not true that our energy prices are more than those across Europe generally—our gas prices are cheaper than nearly everywhere in Europe—but electricity is expensive and continuing to get more expensive. It is hard for a Government to drive an industrial strategy that involves rebalancing the economy when energy prices are on an upward track relative to our major competitors. That is the issue.
About 18 months ago, I received a written answer from the Department of Energy and Climate Change stating that 18% of business energy costs were caused by our green—or our renewables—policies, which is a large chunk. That figure is set to rise to 30% by 2020. What matters is what that means relative to our competitors. It is not possible for gross domestic product to grow if energy is expensive. As we move from a service-based GDP to what I hope is a more manufacturing-based GDP, costs will be more in terms of energy per unit of GDP developed.
This is not about climate change. There are two aspects to what we are trying to do with our energy commitments: reduce carbon and go for renewables. The Climate Change Act 2008, which was rightly passed by the previous Government, committed us to an 80% carbon reduction by 2050. That is about the hardest thing I can imagine doing while we continue to grow the economy. A year later, the same Government signed up to an EU directive that said that, as well as an 80% reduction, we would produce 30% of our electricity from renewables by 2020. That is a contradictory objective. There is nothing in the first objective that says we have to go for renewables at the pace and scale we did. We could have gone much more quickly for nuclear power, or for carbon capture and storage—even more quickly than we are doing now, and I concede that the Government are moving in that direction.
There is a serious consequence here. We have two deltas in energy costs for companies such as Tata, Alcan and others: the delta of increased energy costs due to the need to meet our carbon commitments, which I accept as we have to do our bit, and the additional delta, over and above that, to meet a large component of that carbon commitment through renewables—a larger component than if we had just tried to minimise carbon at the lowest cost possible, which would have created the most jobs. I have sat through many debates, hearing about job losses related to the solar tariff. I remind hon. Members that the tariff was 43p a unit of electricity—the feed-in tariff that the Government belatedly cut. In France, electricity is being generated at 6p a unit. That is not sustainable: it has to be paid for by somebody and the buck is stopping at companies such as Tata.
The Government are continuing to do a lot in their industrial policy, and with the growth fund, which is far more focused towards the north of the country than the regional development agencies were—apprenticeships and all that goes with them. Energy prices are critical, and unless we get them right that will all be for nothing. The £250 million is welcome and is directed at the energy-intensive industries, but that is an error in focus, too, because all manufacturing requires energy. It is a continuum. There are not just a few companies at the top using a lot of energy; all manufacturing companies use energy. If they are paying 18% or 20% more than their competitors as a result of the Government pursuing policies that we do not need so as to meet our carbon commitments, the penalty will be job losses. Unfortunately, the jobs that have been lost are marginal jobs. They tend not to be seen in the same way, perhaps, as jobs in a solar company or a wind farm company, which are very high profile and all that goes with that. The Government need to focus on that and get it right.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate and on putting the case very clearly for active Government intervention to secure the future of Thamesteel and to provide optimum conditions for steel manufacturers to invest in the UK in the long term. My sincere sympathies, and those of my constituents, go out to the workers and families of Thamesteel. We know exactly what they are going through and the knock-on effect in the local community. We need to get the conditions right not just for them, but for the whole of our steel industry in the UK.
I have attended two starkly contrasting meetings recently: a very gloomy meeting with steel manufacturers, and a more upbeat meeting with motor manufacturers. The motor manufacturers said that there is investment in the UK. They have high-quality products—high-quality engines and so on—and they asked: what has happened to the supply chain? So much of the supply chain now is not in the UK. We have to get the steel part right, as well as the rest of the supply chain. We have to get the conditions right for manufacturers to want to invest in the UK in the long term.
In my constituency, Trostre does an exciting job of turning around very quickly whatever anyone wants in terms of a tin, to make exactly the right type of can with a two-week lead time. However, it cannot do that if it cannot get the raw materials—not if we end up having to import steel. We therefore welcome the investment in Port Talbot, but we must provide the right conditions for manufacturers to invest long term in steel.
Why on earth are we going down the road of the mad carbon floor price? We must work together with other countries on any form of combating emissions. We know there were faults with the emissions trading scheme. It was not perfect, but at least it was fair—it was a level playing field for everyone across Europe. We are absolutely mad to impose an additional tax on our steel industry that does not apply to any of our competitors across Europe. We have to get energy prices right. We have also got to encourage long-term investment in energy generation.
The mitigation packages, supposedly put in to help because of the carbon floor price going so high, are piecemeal, coming in too late and not giving the long-term stability we need. Furthermore, we need proper, sensible policies on taxation. We need more flexibility in capital allowances. We need money not only for research and development, but for demonstration and deployment. Unless the Government pursue an active industrial strategy, not only Thamesteel but many more steel plants will fail. I therefore hope that the Minister is listening.
I will not go through all the arguments that have been made in relation to Thamesteel, but the Government need to prove that they are listening to hon. Members and to the workers of Thamesteel.
Steelworkers are part of an industry that is like no other—it can be dangerous and it can be temperamental. It is dusty. It can involve heavy lifting. As I remember only too well, it can be fatal on occasion. Most steelworkers in the modern 21st century do not have university degrees. What we say is that they are graduates of the university of life—the life of a steelworks. Being a steelworker means having a skill like no other, whether working in an ore blending plant, a sinter plant, the coke ovens, the heat of a blast furnace, the basic oxygen steelwork, a degassing unit or a continuous casting mill of strip, slab and plate. Those skills are not learnt by reading a book; they are learnt at the chalk face. The men in this room who are watching the debate should remain part of that chalk face.
In Scotland, there are currently two plants: Dalzell steel plant in my constituency, and Clydebridge in Cambuslang. Those companies have just put in a bid to rebuild the new Forth road bridge—35,000 tonnes of steel. What did they get? Not an ounce. Not one ounce. Some 90% of the old bridge was built by Scottish steel. Not an ounce of UK steel. Not an ounce made in Scunthorpe. Not an ounce rolled in Clydebridge or Dalzell. Nearly 30,000 tonnes of steel will be shipped 12,600 miles from Shanghai, instead of being driven 34 miles along the M8 from Motherwell to the Forth. What a disgrace! What a way to treat a modern industry!
Steel has a very proud history, but it has a very bright future. It is a material that will be used in the future. It will be used for wind farms and offshore farms—all that will be made from steel. Unfortunately, unless the steel industry is helped and unless the Government listen, an awful lot of that steel will come from abroad.
Finally, I started by talking about Thamesteel; I would now like to talk about my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), who gave a passionate speech. Quite frankly, as someone who was a steelworker for 15 years, I could not have put it any better, and I congratulate my hon. Friend. I wish the workers of Thamesteel well. I hope that the Government are listening to their argument.
I will follow on briefly from my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy). I represent the Clydebridge steelworks—the other steelworks in Scotland that has been affected by the decision in Scotland. In the short time available, I will build on the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) about Government intervention. There are opportunities for Government intervention by using the procurement process properly. What we have seen in the example of the Forth road bridge debacle is an absolute and catastrophic failure of Government policy. Worse, in Scotland in the past few weeks, we have also heard a catalogue of excuses—commercial confidentiality, no Scottish firm bid, the procurement rules prevent Scottish steel to be used for the Forth road bridge—all of which have been proven to be demonstrably untrue.
I remind hon. Members that there is no one from the Scottish National party here to defend its decision. That is typical of how the SNP has behaved and is a wider point and a wake-up call, not just to the devolved Administrations, but to the UK Government, because we should support our manufacturing industry. Procurement rules do not prevent that and imaginative use of those rules can enhance it. It happens in France and Germany, and other places, and we should be meeting that challenge and doing the same thing for the sake of the people here in the Gallery today and the people whom we all represent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate. It was evident, during his passionate and emotional contribution, that he has steel—Teesside steel—coursing through his veins. He is a massive champion of the UK steel industry.
I shall concentrate on two broad things, and I hope that the Minister responds positively to both. First, I am keen for the Minister to set out the role that he anticipates the steel industry will play in the modern British economy. It is evident that we Opposition Members believe that a productive, thriving and competitive steel industry is an essential part of a modern, prosperous British economy. Steel is a vital component of the industrial sectors in which Britain currently has a competitive advantage and through which we hope to lead the world in future, such as oil and gas exploration, chemicals, aerospace, offshore wind technology and automotives.
It would be unsatisfactory to believe that we in the UK could rely wholly on imported steel from overseas because, somehow, it can be sourced at much cheaper cost. Such reliance would make us vulnerable to supply difficulties, quality concerns and price shocks and in the long run would undermine British competitiveness. In addition, the UK would miss out on valuable research and development opportunities. Tata’s Teesside technology centre at Grangetown, for example, focuses on long product research, which helps our nation retain our valuable manufacturing expertise. Similarly, Tata’s automotive engineering group, again, based in the UK, is essential for developing new generation steel for the automotive industry.
It is strategically important that we in Britain make steel. I hope that the Minister agrees and states what I hope is his strong belief, which we in the Opposition would support, that a thriving steel industry in the UK is a necessary part of a balanced economy based on manufacturing. As we have heard in this debate, we would also expect him to ensure that, as part of active and intelligent government, the Government provide an effective industrial strategy in partnership with business. That is not to pick winners, not to protect lame duck companies and not to embrace protectionism, but to recognise the vital role that British-made steel plays in our economy and to use the power of Government to help support that.
We have heard that the steel industry is notoriously cyclical and subject to difficulties. Cost pressures, especially in raw materials, are increasing. Demand for the product is falling, especially in Europe, and even in China in the last quarter, and steel manufacturers around the world are running down inventories rather than boosting output, and Thamesteel has been an obvious victim. I understand that this is a global matter, but the Government have real power here. What has the Minister done to ensure that he can intervene to stimulate demand to provide support for our steel industry?
We have heard time and again in today’s debate how measures such as the carbon floor price are impacting on energy intensive industries such as steel. It is estimated that British industry and British producers are paying up to 50% more in energy costs than their counterparts in France, the Netherlands or Germany. I anticipate, or at least hope, that the Chancellor will say something about this matter in his statement this afternoon.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not. I have a lot to get through in only seven minutes.
What active role are the Minister and other Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers taking to mitigate some of these additional costs for industry, as is happening on the continent, where the French and German Governments are helping to mitigate such cost pressures?
My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) mentioned the supply chain. What are the Government doing to help establish and nurture a UK supply chain, particularly for the renewable energy sector? We have the biggest market anywhere in the world for offshore wind, and steel is a large part of the manufacturing process. However, the industry estimates that only about 10% of the components going into offshore wind installations are British-made. Tata Steel is investing £9 million in its world-class pipe mills in my constituency to increase the possibility of winning contracts for offshore wind component manufacturing, but the company needs the Government’s active support to ensure not only that there is a level playing field for British steel manufacturers, but that those manufacturers get on the pitch in the first place.
The Teesside offshore wind farm is a good example. It is a major contract that involves 27 turbines off the coast of Redcar, each requiring a monopile using approximately 400 tonnes of steel plate. Tata Steel could have manufactured that plate in the UK at its Scunthorpe plant and used pipe mills in my constituency and elsewhere across the UK to process the plate. However, as we have heard, the contracts have been awarded wholly to Dutch and German steel manufacturers. Why is this allowed to happen? Clearly, the Government are not doing enough to support the creation of a UK supply chain to help steel.
Unless BIS takes a more active role and interest in this matter, the economic benefits in moving to a low-carbon economy will be exported to foreign competition at the expense of British-based jobs. The Minister needs to explain how he will help to create and support the supply chain, which would benefit the likes of Thamesteel and Tata. For example, why do not the licences for such wind farms require a certain proportion of components to be British-made? Why should not at least one British-based manufacturer be invited to bid for every contract? What are BIS Ministers doing to ensure that steel jobs and steel companies based in Britain can benefit from the transition to a low-carbon economy?
Secondly, I want to ensure that Thamesteel and its workers have as positive a future as possible and that the Government are working hard and energetically to support that end. Thamesteel is not a lame duck or an obsolete company whose time has passed. It was regarded as one of the fastest-growing steel manufacturers in the UK. In 2010, which was a difficult year for the construction industry, Thamesteel sales stood at £200 million, and it produced more than 100 tonnes of steel an hour, which was a plant record. There seems to be a strong prospect of a viable business. In that light, will the Minister outline what he, his Department, including other Ministers, and the wider Government are doing to secure a buyer for this business that is not focused on asset stripping? What brokerage is his Department providing, between the administrator and potential buyers, as a means to send out a message to the market that the Government value the steel industry and its component firms, such as Thamesteel? How have Ministers been directing the approach to this matter? Specifically, I should like the Minister to tell us what meetings BIS Ministers have had in this regard.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland said, the previous Government rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty trying to negotiate a deal, thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). In respect of the Thamesteel workers, are the Government not only not getting their hands dirty, but merely washing their hands and saying that the company is no longer viable? That would be a tragedy, not just for the 400 workers, but for the local businesses and the supply chain that rely on the firm and for the wider steel industry in this country.
How is the Department linking up with Kent county council, which I understand has set up a taskforce? Is BIS providing a co-ordinating role to ensure that the local authority, good trade unions such as Community, local chambers of commerce, further education institutions such as MidKent college, and local businesses are all co-ordinated and pulling together in the same direction to help Thamesteel be viable? Is there any waiving or deferral of business rates to encourage people who want Thamesteel as a going concern to make that happen? Why do Ministers not have more of a sense of urgency or imagination about this matter?
The workers have rightly been a key concern for hon. Members. Many workers have not been paid since a couple of days before Christmas and are now, as we have heard, having to resort to receiving food parcels. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) made the point in BIS questions last Thursday, and he rightly did so again this morning, that when a company goes into administration, the wages owed to its staff should be the top priority. In his response to the hon. Gentleman, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), said that he agreed
“that the interests of workers should absolutely take priority” —[Official Report, 15 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 376.]
He resolved to look into the matter.
Given the urgency of the situation, will the Minister update hon. Members about what can be done to ensure that amounts owing to workers are the top priority and that they are paid? What are the Government doing to ensure that workers receive redundancy packages? Will the Minister update us about on the current situation? Three months after many workers were last paid, the need to ensure that redundancy packages are provided immediately is urgent. Can he confirm and reassure me that all Thamesteel workers have now been provided with their redundancy packages?
The Department needs to act with a greater sense of determination for the wider good of the UK steel industry and for the welfare of 400 workers at Thamesteel. The Minister needs to have listened to the debate; he needs to act; and he needs to act now.
I congratulate you, Mr Davies, on chairing the debate. A lot of Members have been trying catch your eye, which reflects its importance.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate. I know how important the steel industry is for him, as he showed in his powerful and emotional speech. I congratulate, too, my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), who has been working energetically on the Thamesteel issue. His words show his commitment to that industry in his constituency.
I had some involvement with Allied Steel and Wire workers when I was shadow Secretary of State with responsibility for pensions; they faced such pension problems as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland referred to, and I was impressed by their dignity and commitment. At that time, I was pleased with the shared, cross-party view on the importance of ensuring that pension obligations were properly met. This morning, we have also heard important contributions from the hon. Members for Redcar (Ian Swales) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat). I followed with great interest the speeches of the hon. Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex).
Ironically, I came to the debate straight from the Cabinet, where the Chancellor was reporting on the Budget to his colleagues. I must not breach Budget secrecy, but it is a Budget for enterprise and one that will show further commitment to and support for British business. We recognise, however, that UK steel companies and their overseas competitors have been forced to take some uncomfortable decisions as they weathered the economic storms of the past few years—companies such as Tata Steel, which has had to reduce its work force by 25% and its capacity by more than 20%. Nevertheless, the UK steel industry remains a significant employer, and it is a welcome and important part of our broad manufacturing base. Its intensive research and development is an important contributor to the UK economy. The steel industry underpins many parts of manufacturing and, as we heard this morning, many local communities, in turn tying into crucial high-tech industries such as aerospace, automotive and construction.
Thamesteel, however, found itself at a significant competitive disadvantage on world markets, with competition from countries with lower costs, such as Ukraine and Turkey, so, sadly, it went into administration on 25 January, with the immediate loss of 350 jobs. The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), who has responsibility for business and enterprise,has been working closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey to ensure that those affected receive all the Government assistance available to get them back into work as soon as possible. My hon. Friends have met to discuss the matter.
Let me tell the House briefly what is involved. Tailored practical support is being provided by Jobcentre Plus through its rapid response service and by the talent retention solution programme, which can help engineers to find jobs in engineering. A Thamesteel taskforce has been set up locally by Kent county council to co-ordinate assistance; it has already met three times and is meeting again soon. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been liaising with the Insolvency Service on redundancy payments and unpaid wages, and I understand that, with the exception of one or two cases, all claims have been processed. We will of course maintain the pressure to ensure that every claim is processed. Yes, BIS can and does speak to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, although we cannot guarantee what the response will be. The sale of the plant is a matter for the administrators, Mazars, but officials in BIS and UK Trade and Investment have kept in close touch with them and have offered assistance to identify potential buyers for the business.
There is indeed practical help available, and I will try to cover that.
Mazars advised that it received some 70 initial approaches and that it organised more than 12 visits to the site. It has received a number of bids, which it is considering as part of due diligence. Mazars set a closing date of last Friday, 16 March, but it is willing to consider any credible bid, including a late bid received on Monday. The bids are all commercially confidential, however, and BIS has not been provided with specific details, so I cannot share any further information with the House. Sadly, we recognise that, given the depressed steel market in Europe and other companies’ idling production facilities, sale as a going concern might prove difficult, although we are absolutely committed to supporting manufacturing in Britain as part of our commitment to rebalance the economy.
As part of the autumn statement, therefore, we announced measures worth about £250 million to help energy-intensive industries, including the steel industry, to reduce their energy bills. That package was intended specifically to mitigate the effect of climate change policies and energy policies on energy-intensive industries such as steel. In February, we launched the third round of the regional growth fund, worth £1 billion, to which steel companies can bid as long as they comply with state aid rules. The £125 million advanced manufacturing supply chain initiative is expected to go live before Easter, and that will offer further funding opportunities for building supply chains.
In addition, UKTI has a programme of support for the UK manufacturing sector, including steel, in partnership with numerous stakeholders. The support includes organising UK groups at overseas trade shows, leading targeted trade missions and bringing potential buyers, investors and decision makers to the UK to see our manufacturing capability at first hand. The UKTI high-value opportunities team is continuing to work with plants throughout the UK to access large projects overseas. I too have been on trade missions on which we have been briefed specifically on major infrastructure projects abroad so that we can help to secure export opportunities for British businesses. That UKTI team recently helped Tata Steel to win a contract to supply steel to the Singapore mass transit railway system.
In addition, the national infrastructure plan identifies a pipeline of more than 500 projects, costing about £250 billion, extending to 2015 and beyond and including, for example, more than £1.4 billion in railway infrastructure and commuter links. Those projects should make a significant difference by stimulating demand for steel and, we hope, creating significant supply chain opportunities for UK steel producers.
Procurement is important, too. After episodes such as Bombardier, we recognise the need to manage the procurement and investment processes in the public sector so that we can sustain a competitive supply base that meets the UK’s strategic needs. The growth review, about which we will hear more in a few hours’ time, looked at how the Government can support businesses and ensure that, when businesses compete for work, they do it on an equal footing with their overseas competitors. That is why we announced a series of measures at the strategic supplier summit last November. We recognise that we need a more strategic approach to how we buy public goods, works and services so that we can better develop and manage our supply markets.
Offshore wind power clearly has great potential as a market for British steel, so we understand the disappointment that an EDF offshore wind project contract, in which a UK company won some of the fabrication work, does not involve UK manufactured steel. We have to recognise that, ultimately, such decisions are commercial, but we are working with the Department of Energy and Climate Change to see how we can help to strengthen the supply chain so that UK companies are better placed to compete for such business. Together with the Crown Estate and senior executives from 17 developers, we have therefore established the offshore wind developers forum.
We are committed to rebalancing the economy and we very much hope that, as part of that, we can see a strong manufacturing sector.
Water and Sanitation
I am delighted to have the opportunity in the run-up to world water day tomorrow to initiate this brief debate on global access to water and sanitation, and to highlight one of the most significant challenges facing the world. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation remains one of the major barriers that must be overcome if real and sustainable progress is to be made in education, health, food security and economic productivity. Without water, nothing else works.
An estimated 800 million people globally still do not have access to clean water, but an even larger number— 2.6 billion, or more than one third of the world population—have no access to even basic sanitation and so are exposed to the health risks associated with poor sanitary infrastructure. As a direct result, people—the majority of them children—are dying of diseases that the provision of potable water and sanitation could eliminate almost entirely. That is illustrated by the fact that the biggest killer of children under five in sub-Saharan Africa, and the second biggest globally, are diarrhoeal diseases, the vast majority of which are entirely preventable conditions caused by inadequate sanitation and hygiene.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this debate. Will she join me in congratulating some of the faith-based organisations and other charitable institutions that in small parts of sub-Saharan Africa have made significant progress in delivering clean water to those communities?
I do indeed, and I will name some of them later, but there are many others that I will not have the opportunity to name. I recognise that that co-operation and collaboration is an important part of trying to expand the network of sanitation and clean water internationally.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on calling this enormously important debate. Does she agree that initiatives such as Oxfam’s water week, which engages children in both education and fundraising for specific projects in specific countries—Mali last year and Niger this year—are an important way of raising awareness and achieving practical results?
I agree entirely. It is important to engage young people in that work, because they will no doubt carry it forward.
Annually, more children under five die as a result of diseases arising from inadequate sanitation and hygiene than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined, so the impact is huge. Open drainage channels and sewers provide the environment conducive to the breeding of mosquitoes, which spread such diseases.
I am a former civil engineer with a long-standing interest in international development, and this issue is particularly close to my heart. During my term as lord mayor of Belfast, WaterAid was one of my nominated charities, and since my election to Parliament I have continued to work closely with it and other charities, such as Tearfund, to pursue this issue with the UK Government. I thank both charities for their support to me in preparing for today’s debate and, more important, for their work with others to maximise access to clean water and sanitation globally.
I agree that there is a huge amount of cross-party support for the hon. Lady’s case, but will she join me in congratulating the Government on their commitment to overseas spending, which creates an environment in which we can take up the challenge? The money is available to do the job throughout the world, and the Government should be congratulated on that.
I have congratulated the Government on that on numerous occasions, and I will congratulate them on other matters, but I will also press them on areas where further progress could be made.
This subject is important to my constituents, many of whom signed up to the recent Tearfund postcard campaign calling for more action on water and sanitation. Last October, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and I joined Tearfund to present more than 10,000 postcards to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, to highlight the importance of action.
I recognise that in the UK, the biggest step change in public health and mortality rates resulted not from medical advances, but from widened access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. During the late 19th century, as both water and sewerage infrastructure expanded dramatically, the life expectancy of an average member of the population in this country rose by 15 years—a remarkable increase, delivered over a short period.
I am chairman of the all-party group on water and sanitation in the third world. Does the hon. Lady agree that whatever progress has been made on access to drinking water, which we acknowledge is improving, only 63% of the world population have access to sanitation, which is well below the 75% target, and that if we do not get sanitation right, water will not be right either?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope to come to that point.
The British Medical Association has recognised that commissioning of the sewerage system in London was the most important breakthrough in public health—more significant than the discovery of penicillin or development of vaccine programmes. If developing nations are to experience a similar step change in their outcomes, there can be no more effective place to start than investment in water, sanitation and hygiene.
There has been progress, particularly on access to clean water, and this month brought the welcome news that the UN millennium development goal on water has been met five years early. However, it is clear that approximately 10% of the world population still have no access to clean water and there is still much work to be done. Also, the global figure disguises the disparities in progress between, and even within, different countries. That needs to be considered carefully when planning future programmes. For example, almost half the progress towards the millennium development goal can be accounted for by progress in India and China alone, whereas progress in sub-Saharan Africa has generally been much slower; and although Sierra Leone, for example, has made significant improvements in access to water, with a national average of 55%, that masks a significant disparity between rural access, at 35%, and urban access, at 87%.
Even allowing for the complexities of the picture, significant progress has been made on access to clean water. However, my understanding is that, by contrast, the millennium development goal on access to sanitation is not on track for delivery. Indeed, it has been identified as one of the most off-track millennium development goals. I would welcome the Minister’s views on what action the UK Government could take to try to ensure that focus is maintained on taking forward work on that specific problem.
At the current rate of progress, it has been estimated that it could take 350 years to ensure that everyone in Africa alone has access to adequate sanitation. That differential delivery between water and sanitation may be due in part to the stigma that surrounds discussion of sanitation in many cultures, including our own. That needs to be tackled in the developing world because education on hygiene is critical to improving public health. In India, for example, it is estimated that almost 51% of the population still defecate in the open, and that poor sanitation costs India around 6% of its GDP.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing this debate and on her continuing work. Does she agree that if we are to make real progress, the key is partnership working by voluntary organisations and Church groups, which have been mentioned, and substantial Government resources? We are delighted that the Secretary of State is to attend the high-level WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene—meeting in Washington. At that meeting, should he not focus on partnership working between countries globally, and ensuring that resources across the piece are shared and co-ordinated more effectively?
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. It is hugely important to maximise the benefit of our investment.
Lack of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene also carries with it significant gender implications that can, in turn, impact more widely on communities.
I would like to make a little progress first.
In developing countries, women and girls still shoulder most of the responsibility for the collection of clean drinking water from wells, which may involve long and arduous daily journeys. The provision of simple village standpipes could therefore improve not only health, but education outcomes for women and girls in particular, because, freed from that daily chore, they would have time to attend school. The provision of proper and private sanitation facilities in schools has also been shown to reduce education drop-out rates for girls reaching puberty. Women are more likely to bear the burden of caring for those who contract diseases as a result of poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene, and that significantly restricts the degree to which they can be economically active and independent. Most disturbingly, lack of access to water and sanitation can leave women and girls more vulnerable to violence and sexual assault, either as they travel long distances to collect water, or as they wait until nightfall before defecating in the open.
By investing in water and sanitation, we can improve the health and education of millions of people around the world and tackle gender inequality. Access to water and sanitation transforms lives, improves health outcomes and lifts people out of poverty. With every penny of public expenditure under scrutiny, it is important that the resources available for international development are invested in ways that will have maximum impact and are sustainable. Investment in water, sanitation and hygiene meets that economic test.
The UN human development report estimates that for every pound invested in water and sanitation, £8 is returned in saved time, increased productivity and reduced health costs. It is therefore a prudent as well as a necessary investment. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is estimated to cost sub-Saharan Africa 5% of its gross domestic product—an amount equivalent to the aid received by the region. That fact demonstrates the link between long-term sustainable development, and the specific direction of aid towards water, sanitation and hygiene projects. The impact of such investment could be multiplied if we collaborate with other Governments and with non-governmental organisations and charities that can assist by providing education to local communities through Church and community networks, and by supporting increased capacity among state and non-state players in the field.
The provision of water and sanitation is a fundamental part of the foundations on which our progress on other millennium development goals will be built. It is also an area that delivers significant economic and social returns. One would imagine, therefore, that it would be the aid investment of choice, but sadly that is not the case. Speaking of water and sanitation, Kofi Annan stated:
“No other issue suffers such disparity between its human importance and its political priority.”
In 2010, the UN-Water global annual assessment of sanitation and drinking water looked at the amount spent by donor countries on aid for that sector. It found that although levels of international aid have been rising since the mid-‘90s, the proportion spent on water and sanitation has declined. In the mid-‘90s, the proportion of aid spent on water, sanitation and hygiene was more than 8%, but that has now fallen to less than 5.5%. The UK’s bilateral aid to the WASH sector made up less than 2% of our total aid budget in 2010, and less than 50% of the average reported by other donors.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this subject before the House. She has mentioned the importance of water for sanitation, but it is used for other things such as watering crops, or the work done by the churches. Water is also used to make bricks for industry, so it is important for employment, health and food. Does the hon. Lady agree that sanitation is one part of the need for wider water provision?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Water security and the cost of water in many developing countries limits crop production, because people cannot afford to irrigate their crops. Countries that are able to develop irrigation systems have more productive fields and are able to produce more food to feed their people. It is a hugely important issue.
Members have asked me to be positive about what the UK Government are doing, and of course I will be where appropriate. The UK Government have taken a lead on development policy, and I commend them on that. In 2006, DFID expanded its list of basic public services to include water and sanitation, and the UK and Dutch Governments announced their support for a global framework for action at the UN in September 2008. The UK Government played a key role in the development of that global partnership, and “Sanitation and Water for All: A Global Framework for Action”, was formally launched in 2010, with a high-level meeting that was linked to the World Bank spring meeting in Washington. The timing allowed Finance Ministers and those with responsibility for the delivery of water and sanitation to attend. The second high-level meeting will be in Washington next month, and through the Minister I wish to thank the Secretary of State for indicating to me and to other right hon. and hon. Members who wrote to him, that it is his intention to attend.
I also thank the Secretary of State for his pledge to continue providing support and guidance to the Sanitation and Water for All partnership. As yet, however, although 35 developing nations have indicated that they will attend, only seven donor countries have done likewise, and I urge the Government to use whatever influence they have to encourage other developed nations to engage with that key forum. I would also be grateful if the Minister outlined how the Government intend to make manifest that pledge of continued support in the coming months and years.
As I understand, DFID is close to announcing its portfolio review of water and sanitation projects, which seeks to identify where more can be done. I await eagerly the publication of that report, and perhaps the Minister will confirm when that will take place.
Absolutely, and it is hugely important to plan how we can streamline all those efforts. It is hard to have sustainable development unless you have access to clean water and sanitation.
Given that more than 35% of UK official development assistance is now spent through multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, I hope that DFID’s review will have assessed thoroughly the performance of such agencies in delivering progress in the sector, and considered how the UK can influence agencies to deliver increased commitments on WASH. I hope that it will also address the lack of political priority given to investment in water and sanitation when compared with other aid portfolios such as health and education. Without access to WASH, any progress achieved in other areas is significantly constrained.
One practical measure that would maximise the impact of overseas development aid, would be to integrate WASH into other connected health, education and nutrition programmes. In 2006, the International Development Committee recommended that sanitation become an integral part of the work of health advisors. I would be grateful if the Minister indicated what progress has been made on that.
In conclusion, I urge the Department for International Development to build on its activities to date, to be even more ambitious in its future goals, and to use its influence internationally to press others to do the same ahead of the Sanitation and Water for All high-level meeting in Washington DC next month.
I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for securing this important debate, and I welcome other hon. Members who have chosen to attend this morning.
Ensuring access to water and sanitation for the poorest is, to pick a metaphor, the bread and butter of development. When we get it right, so much else follows: children become more likely to reach their fifth birthday, and they are healthier and in a better position to benefit from education; women, who carry most of the world’s water, are empowered; and economic growth and prosperity are enhanced and facilitated. While we fail to deliver those most basic necessities, not only are there an estimated 2.4 million preventable deaths each year, but generations of people become trapped in poverty.
Tomorrow is world water day, and this year we have much to be proud of. We learned this month that the millennium development goal of providing access to clean drinking water has been met, and that between 1990 and 2010 more than 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water. It is rare in international development to get news as good as that, and it shows that when aid money is spent well, it can make a tangible difference. Development works, and that is an example of the sort of progress that we can make. However, a great deal of work remains to be done. Some 783 million people remain without access to clean drinking water, and sub-Saharan Africa remains off track. The challenge is most acute for sanitation, which is one of the most off-track millennium development goals: about 40% of the world’s population—2.5 billion people—still lack basic sanitation.
The UK Government are committed to accelerating progress in that area. Last year, we made a commitment to provide 15 million people with access to clean water and 25 million people with access to sanitation and to improve hygiene for 15 million people by 2015. We are also committed to helping the world’s poorest countries to harness the full potential of their water resources and reduce the risks posed by floods, droughts and contaminated water. In Sierra Leone, for example, the Department for International Development provides support through the Government, UNICEF and NGOs, to improve access to water and sanitation. In 2010-11, that resulted in 100,000 more people having access to clean drinking water, 250,000 people in rural communities having improved sanitation and 380,000 people being targeted in hygiene promotion campaigns.
I hardly need to stress, on Budget day in the UK, how important it is that every pound of investment in this sector delivers the maximum impact. Our work in this sector, as elsewhere, is driven by the imperative that investment should deliver good value for money, be based on the best evidence of what works and be spent transparently and accountably. That is why we commissioned a review of the UK Government’s portfolio of work on water, sanitation and hygiene promotion. In particular, we wanted to know whether our investment was going to the right places, reaching the poorest and achieving the greatest impact possible. I can tell the House today, as requested by the hon. Member for Belfast East, that we will publish the details of that review to coincide with world water day tomorrow.
I am pleased to say that, overall, the review shows that the portfolio provides excellent value for money, delivering results across 14 major bilateral programmes. The review also shows that our programmes are reaching the people who need them most. In 2010-11, three quarters of the money that we spent through our country programmes was spent on basic systems—such as rural water supply schemes, hand pumps and latrines—that are most likely to reach the poorest. That is a higher proportion than for almost any other donor. We are doing that in the countries with the greatest need, such as Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Bangladesh and India.
Detailed evidence from the review will inform my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and my other ministerial colleagues when they consider whether and how the UK Government could do more. Just as important, the Secretary of State will share that evidence with other donor countries and developing country Finance Ministers when he attends the Sanitation and Water for All high-level meeting in Washington on 20 April. As hon. Members will know, the UK and Dutch Governments were backers of the Sanitation and Water for All initiative, launched in 2008. Through that initiative, DFID has been seeking to secure better targeting of aid to the sanitation and water sectors, as well as improved transparency and accountability from other donors and national Governments.
At next month’s meeting, progress will be assessed against past commitments, and we expect that new commitments will be made. However, we do not want just new commitments to do more. To see an equitable spread of access to safe water and to make better progress on improvements to sanitation, we need better targeting of aid. I can assure hon. Members that the Secretary of State will, based on our own experiences, highlight how well-targeted aid can reach poor people in fragile states and encourage others to target resources more effectively.
It is an injustice that the lack of something as basic as clean water and sanitation should still adversely affect the lives of millions of people. That injustice has the potential to undermine the achievement of a range of millennium development goals. For those reasons, the Government remain committed to dealing with this important issue. To that end, we will ensure that what we do achieves the greatest impact, that we keep learning and refining our aid programmes and that we share our knowledge and evidence with our partners, so that together we can all do more in the sector of water and sanitation.
Safety of Journalists Abroad
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I am pleased to have secured the debate, which will focus on the sadly topical issue of the safety of journalists abroad. The debate is timely, as a meeting is to take place tomorrow in Paris at which the UNESCO international programme for the development of communication will consider the report, “The Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity”. The UK will be represented by Professor Ivor Gaber.
Recent news has drawn much international attention to these issues. On 22 February, in the Syrian city of Homs, the American-born veteran war reporter Marie Colvin died, along with French photographer Remi Ochlik, when a shell hit the building in which she was sheltering. The 56-year-old had been a reporter for The Sunday Times since 1985 and had covered conflicts from Chechnya to the Arab spring. She won glowing posthumous accolades. The Foreign Secretary said:
“For years she shone a light on stories that others could not and placed herself in the most dangerous environments to do so.... She was utterly dedicated to her work, admired by all of us who encountered her, and respected and revered by her peers”.
The priest at her funeral said, simply, that she was
“a voice to the voiceless.”
Sometimes, reporters such as Marie Colvin play a greater role than that of providing a voice—Peter Oborne, in The Daily Telegraph, wrote:
“At times, Colvin herself intervened in history, as she did in 1999 in East Timor when she helped save the lives of 1,500 refugees encircled by Indonesian troops in a United Nations compound. The situation was so dangerous that the UN commander wanted to evacuate, leaving the refugees to their fate. But Colvin insisted on staying behind, thus shaming the UN commander into staying - and averting a potential massacre.”
Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik are not the only journalists and media workers to have lost their lives in the course of their duties since the start of this year. Each year the International News Safety Institute publishes its “Killing the Messenger” report. These reports show, on average, two deaths among people working in news media every week—last year, for example, the INSI reported 124 deaths. Already in 2012, there have been 23 deaths, eight of them in Syria. Far more have been injured or have been the victims of abduction, hostage taking, harassment and intimidation.
Because of the threats that they face, many journalists have had to resort to self-censorship in an effort to protect themselves, rather than lose their lives. Not all those deaths, injuries and threats to lives, freedom or jobs have been to journalists and others working in war zones. Some 60% of the loss of life in 2011 occurred away from conflict zones, in areas where investigations were underway into organised crime, corruption or other illegal activities.
A press freedom violation can be an assassin’s bullet aimed to kill an investigative journalist and to intimidate and silence his colleagues. It can be the knock on the door from the police, bringing in a reporter to question her on her sources, or put her in jail with or without a proper trial. It can be a restrictive media law, which puts the power over editorial content into the hands of censors and press courts.
Journalists and media staff have been killed in the line of duty. Often they are local journalists working their own patch who died because someone did not like what they wrote or said, or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Every job has its risks, and journalists, whose job it is to bring into the open what someone wants hidden, are at greater risk than most, but the risks today are unacceptably high. In some parts of the world, harassment, threats and worse have become an unavoidable part of the job. In war or civil conflict, the risks often escalate: for example, the invasion of Iraq triggered the deaths of 350 journalists. Worldwide, more than 1,000 have died in the last 10 years, but sadly, unless the life is that of a well known western correspondent, the world barely notices.
Organisations seeking to ensure improved security for journalists deserve our support and thanks. I have already mentioned INSI, which, since 2004, has provided basic safety training free of charge to more than 2,000 news media personnel in 23 countries. Other such organisations include Reporters Sans Frontières, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Freedom of Expression eXchange and the Inter American Press Association. Our own National Union of Journalists, which has 38,000 members, is the voice for journalism and for journalists across the UK and Ireland and is affiliated to the International Federation of Journalists, which is the world’s largest organisation of journalists, with around 600,000 members in more than 100 countries.
Both the NUJ and the IFJ monitor press freedom violations and campaign for greater safety for journalists who are at the greatest risk and have the least protection. They have established support for journalists and media staff in conflict areas through rapid safety training, and ensured that leading media organisations, such as the BBC, Reuters, CNN and major newspaper groups, put health and safety in the mainstream of international media development strategies, take responsibility for the safety of journalists and provide for their safety training.
Despite that work, the continuing high level of media deaths cries out for more action by international institutions, such as the United Nations, to force Governments to pay more attention to the safety crisis affecting journalists and media workers. More has to be done to improve safety and to combat impunity. Impunity occurs when the political will to back investigations into the killing of journalists is absent; when legal frameworks are inadequate; when judges are weak or corrupt; when the police or investigating authorities are incompetent; when meagre resources are assigned to those responsible for providing security and enforcing the law; and when official negligence and corruption are rife. Combating impunity is a vital element of freedom and security. If there is little fear of the case ever being investigated, let alone the perpetrator being identified and brought to trial, there is no deterrent against people threatening, harming or killing journalists. Recent reports from IFEX show that in nine out of 10 cases of journalists being killed while performing their professional duties, the perpetrators of the crimes are never prosecuted. Other research shows that more than two thirds of the people responsible are not even identified because of the failure to carry out sufficiently thorough investigations. In effect, in many countries it is almost risk-free to kill a journalist—murder has become the easiest, and perhaps the cheapest and most effective way of silencing troublesome journalists.
The record of Governments in far too many states in tackling impunity is appalling. I have heard reports of intimidation of staff and families of the BBC’s Persian service. At one end of the spectrum, there are countries such as Gambia where journalists have been targeted, oppressed and jailed. In response to international campaigns in support of Gambian journalists, Yahya Jammeh, the President of the Gambia, declared:
“I will kill anybody caught tarnishing the image of my government. I will kill you and nothing will come of it.”
Of the situation in Syria, the French journalist Jean-Pierre Perrin said:
“The Syrian army issued orders to kill any journalists that set foot on Syrian soil.”
Given the army’s relevance in the death of Marie Colvin, what information does the Minister have on that claim? Since November 2009, the International Federation of Journalists has been campaigning to force the Aquino administration in the Philippines to investigate fully the killing of 21 journalists and media workers in what has become known as the Ampatuan massacre. Some progress has been made, but not enough. For many years in Somalia, which is one of the most dangerous African countries for journalists, no crime committed against a journalist has been investigated and so no one has been convicted, and now it appears that the current Transitional Federal Government have been persecuting journalists, their union and media organisations. I am pleased that our Foreign Secretary raised the safety of journalists with President Sheikh Sharif during his visit to Mogadishu in February, and that he has pressed for an independent inquiry into the death of Hassan Osman Abdi.
What about the leading democracies? The United States has consistently refused to carry out credible and independent investigations of the killing of journalists, including the killing of ITN’s Terry Lloyd near Basra in March 2003, and the killing of Spanish cameraman Jose Couso and others when US forces fired on Baghdad’s Palestine hotel in April 2003. The IFJ has catalogued 16 other cases of journalists who have died since March 2003 at the hands of US soldiers in Iraq without a proper investigation being carried out. When the world’s leading democracy refuses to prosecute those who are responsible for serious violations, what chance do we have when we confront the likes of President Jammeh of the Gambia? But what of our own Government?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Before he moves on and talks about our own Government, I want to put on record a tribute to Martin O’Hagan, the only journalist specifically targeted and assassinated during all the troubles in Northern Ireland. He was murdered in September 2001 and sadly no one has ever been convicted of his murder. It is important that everything possible is done to bring to justice the people who carry out attacks on journalists here, and I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his endeavours to raise this issue.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for highlighting that case. He is absolutely right to say that our own Government must go out of their way to ensure that all cases of our own journalists being killed, whether at home or abroad, are thoroughly investigated. In some respects, however, I do not believe that our own Government have a perfectly clean record on this issue.
Portuguese Timor, as East Timor was then called, became the focus of Indonesian destabilisation in 1974. A civil war from August 1975 to September 1975 killed more than 1,000 people, and instability and unrest continued afterwards. Into that situation flew two British citizens, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, who were working for the late Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine network in Australia. They headed for the East Timorese border town of Balibo, where on 13 October 1975 they met three other journalists who were working for the rival Channel Seven network in Australia. Three days later, all five were dead. Their deaths form the basis of an excellent new film, simply called “Balibo”. As I said in a previous Westminster Hall debate:
“When Britons die abroad, we anticipate our Government doing all they can to help the relatives. We expect the Government to seek as much information as possible and to share it with the relatives. Sadly, in this case, the opposite happened. From 1975 until 1995, there was almost complete inaction. The Government were involved in a disgraceful cover-up.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 97WH.]
Our Government knew about the planned invasion and our ambassador, Mr Ford, advised the Indonesians to keep it covert; consequently no warning was given to the journalists. After their killings, Mr Ford suggested that
“we should ourselves avoid representations to the Indonesians about them”,
to which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office replied, “We agree”.
Eventually it was left to a coroner in New South Wales in Australia to conduct an inquest into the death of Brian Peters, one of the two British journalists who had been killed. Her report in November 2007 said that all five journalists had been “deliberately killed” and she named those responsible. She said that Brian Peters had died
“from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by… Indonesian Special Forces”,
including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah. She also said that Brian Peters was killed
“on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo.”
The Australian coroner concluded that an international conflict was under way at the time, so the killing of the journalists was a war crime. There are two named Indonesians, both still alive, who are credibly accused of war crimes against two British citizens, but still, five years after the inquest and 37 years after the murders, all our Government are doing is waiting to see whether the Australian federal police will instigate war crimes proceedings. In my view, that is not an adequate response. Our Government should be taking their own action.
If individual Governments are failing, what about the various regional bodies? Sadly, those who look to those bodies for help are often disappointed because they are apparently spineless. Journalists under fire in Asia, the middle east and Africa expect little, if any, support from the Association of South East Asian Nations, the Arab League or the African Union. The African Union, for example, has its headquarters in Ethiopia, which is a known abuser of press freedom, and its human rights body is in, of all places, Gambia, which is a known jailer of journalists.
If more action is to be taken, we have to look to wider international bodies. UNESCO is the sole UN specialist agency with a mandate to defend and promote freedom of expression and its corollary, press freedom, as well as to combat impunity. It has various tools and instruments at its disposal, including international humanitarian laws, universal human rights laws, covenants, declarations and resolutions. They range from UNESCO’s resolution 29, which condemns violence against journalists and obliges states to prevent, investigate and punish crimes against journalists, to the establishment of the Guillermo Cano world press freedom prize, as well as the annual world press freedom day, which is on May 3 each year. All those instruments make it clear that journalists, including embedded journalists, are civilians and must be protected as such. In addition, the Geneva conventions define the murder or ill-treatment of journalists in times of war or major civil unrest as a war crime. Journalists have the same rights as civilians in armed conflicts, whether those conflicts are between nations or situations of widespread civil conflict.
Those instruments are meant to compel Governments to abide by international laws and standards, but the sad reality today is that not many journalists can rely on international institutions to defend their rights when they disappear, are jailed or are murdered. A few years ago, journalists were full of hope when the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1738, which reasserted that journalists and media professionals engaged in areas of armed conflict
“shall be respected and protected”.
Unfortunately, that hope is getting thinner by the day, as UN bureaucracies are often reluctant to confront certain Governments.
Some countries do not even provide information they are requested to give voluntarily. Since 2008, the council of the international programme for the development of communication has encouraged member states to submit information, on a voluntary basis, about actions they have taken to prevent impunity and about the status of investigations conducted into each of the killings of journalists condemned by UNESCO. Such reports are intended to be included in a public report submitted by the IPDC to UNESCO. The 2010 IPDC report, which dealt with crimes committed in 2006 and 2007, showed that only 18 of the relevant 29 countries provided detailed information on judicial follow-up into cases of the killing of journalists in their country. The 2012 IPDC report, which dealt with crimes committed in 2008 and 2009, showed an even worse response rate, with just nine of the relevant 27 countries submitting responses.
Tomorrow, at the IPDC meeting being held at UNESCO, the latest IPDC report will be discussed, as well as a final draft of the “UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity”. That plan is based on a consultation involving all relevant UN agencies, following, I am pleased to say, an initiative led by the UK at a previous IPDC meeting. The aim of the plan is to work
“toward the creation of a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers in both conflict and non-conflict situations, with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide.”
The plan includes strengthening UN mechanisms; doing much more to shine the spotlight on countries that appear to be dragging their feet in the protection of journalists; raising awareness; assisting member states to develop their own legislation and mechanisms for protecting journalists; improving collaboration with relevant agencies; and developing further safety initiatives, which might include the creation of so-called media corridors in conflict zones. I am pleased that it was a UK-inspired initiative that led to the development of the plan.
I welcome the statement given in response to a parliamentary question on 22 February 2012, by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), that the Government “fully supports” UN initiatives to improve the safety of journalists, but I believe that our Government can go further. For example, ours is one of the few developed countries that does not contribute financially to the IPDC’s work. We are a member of its council, but we do not contribute to it. We should do so, especially as much of its funding is used to train journalists in how best to protect themselves from physical attack. We should also consider how we can help other organisations that do similar work. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that. Perhaps he will also explain why our Government does not contribute to world press freedom day.
Our Government can go further in what they press UNESCO to do. Currently, member states are only “encouraged” to supply information on work to combat impunity and on investigations into the deaths of journalists. We should surely press for such reports to be more detailed and mandatory. Reports should also be published sooner and in full—the report on killings in 2010-11 is not due for publication until 2014. The IPDC should be encouraged to speed up the process. Such actions, together with the widest publication of reports—or of failure to report—will help to put teeth into UN Security Council resolution 1738.
Furthermore, we must press UNESCO to make it absolutely clear that the promotion of safety and the ending of impunity have to apply in non-conflict areas as well as in war zones. “Conflict” should be viewed in its broadest interpretation. States where there is impunity should have to face a persistent international publicity campaign, not once a year but every time they acquiesce in, sanction, or turn a blind eye to the murder of a journalist. They should be made responsible for their negligence and, in many cases, their complicity. Again, I look forward to the Minister’s response to that point. We need to be seen to take these matters seriously, so will the Minister consider one other suggestion: that annually the UK voluntarily releases and distributes full details of its representations and actions relating to the rights and lives of threatened journalists?
Today hundreds of journalists are in jail, and scores are killed each year. Journalists working in dangerous conditions feel isolated and abandoned by the very international institutions created to protect their rights. I want our Government to speak out forcefully for press freedom and push back against member states that seek to block international institutions from fulfilling their mandate and enforcing international laws.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) on securing a debate on an issue that is not only important but becoming increasingly so because the problem seems to be intensifying.
When I found out about the debate I was, by coincidence, reading a collection of essays by Vaclav Havel, one of the 20th century’s greatest dissidents and human rights champions. He said:
“Today, in the era of mass media, it is often true that if a deed lacks adequate coverage, particularly on television, it might just as well have remained undone.”
That, of course, is what repressive autocratic regimes rely on, and it is why we need good journalists. We are grateful to them for going beyond the call of duty and normal professional competence to run risks that most of us certainly would not. On that, Havel said:
“Humanity’s thanks belong to all those courageous reporters who voluntarily risk their lives wherever something evil is happening, in order to arouse the conscience of the world.”
I am sure that we can all think of legion examples over our adult lifetimes, and perhaps even from our childhoods, of seeing things on the television that have made us realise how small the world is and how important it is to take action.
I had some conversations with a war correspondent for one of the major British newspapers, and I want to report what he said:
“Despite the recent deaths and injuries to journalists in Syria it is essential that there is independent reporting from there. Otherwise all we are getting are the views of the regime and the opposition.”
That attitude is admirable, because a small number of people run risks for the benefit of a large number. The correspondent also said that
“it is proving to be very difficult to work inside Syria. The sheer ferocity of the regime attacks means that you are vulnerable and unlike Libya for example, where the rebels held half the country, there is nowhere to run to. Another difference between these two conflicts is that the journalists captured by the Gaddafi regime were all eventually freed”.
It does not look as though that is the case in Syria.
This debate raises issues about the role and responsibilities of media organisations and about Governments. British media organisations are obviously careful about where they send their staff, but journalists are concerned about how freelancers are treated—not that they are treated as somehow expendable, but that less responsibility is felt towards them. That is clearly not right when media organisations and the rest of us take freelancers’ stories and pictures. Freelancers are obviously on temporary contracts and are often cash-strapped, and few of them have hostile environment training or are insured. They are under not exactly more pressure but more temptation to run risks that others might not, and I have been told that that might be especially so with tabloids and news organisations that do not maintain international offices in different parts of the globe. Media organisations have responsibilities, and they need to consider how they treat everyone whom they pay to get news for their outlets.
Another thing that came from the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Bath is that the high and growing number of deaths is mainly made up of people working in their own countries. Last year, 106 people died reporting overseas, but people who are reporting in conflict situations or under violent and autocratic regimes are not just caught in the crossfire, but targeted and attacked for what they are writing and filming, by their regimes, terrorist organisations and criminal gangs. We need to consider that issue carefully.
The IFJ research also revealed that the great majority of deaths have occurred in peacetime, which tells us that journalists die not only in war situations but when reporting from countries that do not respect human rights and where the press is not free, as it is in this country. That is a major part of the risks that they face.
The right hon. Member for Bath spoke about the problem of impunity—a serious problem in Russia. The whole world knows of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, but it is probably not as well known that the Russian Union of Journalists has found that between 1993 and 2009, 300 journalists died or disappeared. The National Union of Journalists is running a campaign focusing in particular on the situation faced by women journalists. When women journalists are in risky situations, they are threatened not just with violence but with sexual abuse and attack, and particular care must be taken. The NUJ believes that women are put into even riskier situations, which is extraordinary.
The international status of journalists under the Geneva convention is extremely important, as is the role of the United Nations and UNESCO’s potential to protect journalists in countries where they are being threatened and to ensure that their rights are enforced. I do not want to delay hon. Members for long, but I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what he is doing to ensure that international forums use all available levers to increase the safety of journalists.
I join others in thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster) for securing this debate and in paying tribute to journalists around the world for the work that they do to bring important subjects to our attention. One category that might have been overlooked is that of journalists embedded with military units in active conflict zones. Although they experience the greatest protection that the Army or Ministry of Defence can offer, they still willingly and in some cases cheerfully put themselves in considerable danger to bring us the full reality of the circumstances in which our armed forces operate. We should recognise that as frequently as we can.
I will touch on two subjects that are slightly distinct from the theme on which my right hon. Friend based his speech. The first is the impact of the danger that journalists face daily on their families at home. Secondly—to do something unusual that I hope the Minister will approve of—I want to offer a tribute to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for how it has handled an incident that is close to my heart.
On 22 February, Gareth Montgomery-Johnson—a constituent of mine from a small village called Llansteffan in Carmarthenshire—and his colleague Nicholas Davies-Jones from nearby Llanelli were arrested by the Misrata brigade of the Libyan militia. They were working for Iranian television at the time, and they were held on allegations of spying. As soon as it occurred, the family made contact with me, as the Member of Parliament for one of the journalists involved, and with the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who represents another member of the family. The families, as one would expect, were expressing considerable fear and uncertainty about the prospects and fate of their sons, when several things happened simultaneously. The Foreign Office, spurred into life, made immediate contact with the families and the Members of Parliament contacted on their behalf. Officials in Libya also made instant contact with the two journalists, thus ensuring that they were held in as reasonable conditions as could be expected in the circumstances and that they had food, water, any necessary medical provisions and access, if at all possible, to a telephone to make even the briefest of calls back home. I particularly want to mention Mar Menendez at the Foreign Office in London for co-ordinating that process and ensuring, whatever the time of day or night, that we MPs and the family members knew what was going on as far as that was possible in those unclear circumstances.
Finally, the Minister with responsibility for the middle east and north Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), sent me an unsolicited text at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night simply to alert me that the two journalists had been transferred from the militia to the Libyan authorities, that any charges or potential charges of spying were being dropped and that they would return to the UK as soon as possible—a process that has now been successfully completed.
I use this opportunity to put that on the record, forgetting any party or political differences, to pay tribute to those involved for reminding us that when the chips were down—as they certainly were over the days and weeks that my constituent was being held against his will—the system worked well. Having spoken to Gareth Montgomery-Johnson’s mother and father, I know that they too are particularly grateful for the help, support and guidance that they got from the Home Office. I thought it would be remiss of me not to record that formally.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) on securing the debate and on his excellent opening speech, which set the discussion in context. I am secretary of the all-party parliamentary group for the National Union of Journalists, of which he is also a member. We have been addressing the subject for numerous years and have had a series of ministerial meetings, including with the Secretary of State for Defence some years ago about embedded journalists and what mechanisms could be put in place. I concur with the statement about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. When individuals have been detained or gone missing—a number of journalists have disappeared—the FCO has been nothing but superb in the support that it has given to families and the representations that it has made.
We thought that our representations years ago were an opportunity for us to tackle the issue of impunity. Various international instruments were in place, and we thought that the number of journalists dying and disappearing would decline, but that has not occurred. It is shocking. I went through last year’s list. I will not read the names into the record, as it would take too long. Most names are probably not even notable; often, they were simply journalists working on the ground at local level. The list ranges around the world and includes support workers as well as journalists and TV production crew.
I will read out the figures for the past five years. I cannot remember when we last debated the issue, but we certainly debated it in 2006. In 2006, we were angry and concerned because 155 journalists and staff were killed. Then, in 2007, the number rose to 172. It was 85 in 2008, 139 in 2009, 94 in 2010 and 106 in 2011. The right hon. Gentleman is correct: the number has grown to 120-odd in the updated figures and, therefore, things are not improving. Records prepared by the NUJ, working with the International Federation of Journalists, confirm that more than 1,000 journalists and support staff have been killed over the past 10 years. Only one in eight of the killers is ever prosecuted, and two thirds are not even identified.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, we can identify individual regimes. The Gambian regime under Jammeh has been a nightmare, and we have raised the issue time and again. Jammeh will brook no opposition or democratic debate, and any journalist who reports on corruption in the regime is risking their life. Many journalists have left the country, and this country has given many of them refugee status.
Given that we are taking on such regimes, it is embarrassing that we have not been able to secure a proper inquiry into the deaths in Iraq of Terry Lloyd and the person working alongside him. When democratic countries do not pull their weight, it is difficult to enforce proper practices in other countries.
I share the concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) raised about women. On international women’s day, the NUJ, via the IFJ, once again raised the issue of the extreme violence against women. The IFJ and NUJ have consistently tried to expose and denounce individual cases. As Mindy Ryan, the chair of the NUJ’s equality council and the IFJ’s gender council, said:
“The climate of impunity for crimes against female journalists constitutes a serious threat to the most fundamental of free expression rights. Moreover, there is an on-going concern over the fact that the authorities tend to deny that these women have been killed because of their work as journalists. Instead, they tend to indicate robbery or ‘personal issues’ as motives of the media killings.”
Unless we can demonstrate that women are being raped, abused and murdered as a result of their professional work, what happens to them suddenly becomes just an ordinary crime, and countries and regimes can act with impunity. One of the worst examples involved the journalists who were exposing the sexual abuse and assaults taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 8,000 cases of sexual violence were perpetrated in a single year. Women journalists, in particular, came under attack and faced threats as a result of the work they did to expose those things.
As the right hon. Member for Bath said in opening the debate, everything comes back to the question whether we can get UNESCO and other international organisations to ensure that there are reports on investigations into crimes against journalists. The investigations that do take place are extremely limited, and the reports on them are often not published. Indeed, even if they are, there is no follow-through against the regime or the country involved—we do not seem able even to expose them effectively.
The Government could take a lead on the issue. That is not a party political point, and Members across parties have urged such action in debates in the past. The UK Government need to be the Government who are seen to stand up for journalists around the world. Where they are a member of an international body that has a role in protecting journalists against such crimes, they should not allow it to meet without our raising these issues and ensuring that we gear up for action.
In addition, we need to put the issue on the agenda in some of our bilateral relationships. For example, the next time the Government meet Putin, we have to put this issue back on the agenda. Russia has been one of the worst places for journalists, who are hounded simply for revealing some of the corruption in that country. We cannot try to develop harmonious relationships with countries while turning a blind eye to the atrocities that are perpetrated against journalists just because they are doing their job.
We need to think in more detail about the mechanisms that can be used not only to expose countries, but to ensure that action is taken against them. We should seek to isolate those countries and regimes that are notorious for assaulting and murdering journalists simply for undertaking their jobs.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Philippines, which is a stark example of what we are talking about. We virtually know who the killers are. We know how journalists have been murdered and what butchery has taken place, but no action is taken. When defendants are brought to court, they are not the real defendants, and the people who motivated or employed the killers are never prosecuted. We should expose such rogue regimes for their attacks on journalists, and the international family should isolate them.
Somalia has also been mentioned, and I pay tribute to the Foreign Office for the work it has done to ensure that we secure the best protection we can for journalists. One issue there, however, is that the secretary of the National Union of Somali Journalists was murdered. We are playing an increasing role in providing assistance to Somalia, and we are developing the country and investing in it to ensure that we bring peace and security to the Somali people. Whatever governmental systems are established, however, we need to embed in Somali culture the critical role that journalists play both in developing democracy and as one of its foundations. We need to embed in the Somali culture and system of government a respect for journalists, as well as protections for freedom of speech, freedom of journalism and democratic expression.
I want our Government to stand up on this issue. There is not a lack of political will, but we need to tell the rest of the world, “If no one else will, we are going be the country that protects journalists and puts this issue on the agenda whenever we can. We are going to be the country that makes sure that international bodies perform the roles set out in their statutes.” There are various protections for journalists in statute; the Geneva convention has been mentioned, and we have various UNESCO and UN directives. All the law is there, but it needs implementing. Our role is to shame international organisations into working alongside us to ensure that such statutes are implemented.
In addition, we must call out those regimes that murder and butcher journalists simply for reporting the truth. In that way, we can stand as a beacon of light on the issue and help to reduce the catalogue of death and murder that has gone on year after year. We were here five years ago, and I do not want to be here in another five years, after another 500 journalists have been killed. I do not want to see any more Marie Colvins, and I do not want to see any more disappearances.
I join other Members in congratulating the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) on securing the debate and on highlighting some serious examples of the danger that journalists continue to face while working overseas.
We are all familiar with high-profile cases such as the recent tragic death in Syria of Marie Colvin, an internationally renowned foreign correspondent who was rightly feted for her bravery and for her determination to carry on and get the story, even though she faced great personal danger. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said, we do not hear as much about the local journalists who are investigating corruption or reporting on conflicts, and who also run a serious risk of persecution, injury or death, but who do not have the benefit of a Government overseas who can raise concerns and provide consular support.
Reporters Without Borders has said that local journalists pay the highest price every year to guarantee our right to be informed about wars, corruption and the destruction of the environment. Let me cite one example. I have recently returned from a visit as part of a delegation to Colombia. We looked at the human rights situation there and met a great number of human rights activists, journalists and campaigners for press freedom and civil freedoms. The Minister has also just returned from Colombia, although I gather that his trip was mainly to discuss trade issues. However, he will, of course, be very much aware of the human rights situation and the risk to journalists, and perhaps he will tell us whether he had an opportunity to discuss those issues.
The right hon. Member for Bath talked about impunity, and the crux of the matter is that if we do not ensure that those who are guilty of crimes against journalists are brought to justice, whatever those crimes are, there will be no deterrent to those who want to threaten or terrorise them, or otherwise to prevent the development of a free press, or stop journalists working. A free press is one of the most essential elements of a democracy, and one of the most important tools for promoting it, and opposing oppression. It must be protected, which includes bringing people to justice.
These days, the issue is not just press and broadcast journalism, which we might describe as mainstream journalism. The Arab spring, in particular, has highlighted the role of so-called citizen journalists. People now blog, tweet and post pictures taken on their camera phones, or video footage that they have taken in the middle of unrest. Sometimes that is the only voice that we hear about what is really going on. Those people give a voice to protesters and ordinary citizens who would otherwise be voiceless. It is far more difficult to bring those people, who are sometimes known as netizens, or citizen journalists, under the formal umbrellas of protection. They will not be trade union members or work for companies that can protect them and push their case. However, there is not, these days, a clear dividing line between one form of journalism and another.
Even in this country, we have bloggers who are now regarded as mainstream journalists. They can be seen on “Newsnight”, but the bulk of their work is blogging from the street. In some countries where the mainstream media are banned, or subject to serious repression, the voices of those citizen journalists are the only ones that we hear. I would be interested to know what efforts have been made to bring those informal journalists under the umbrella of protection. There is little mention of that in the UNESCO draft action plan.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about the need to build a strong press in the countries concerned. The stronger the press, the safer and better protected the journalists are, because other people working in the field will be able to highlight abuses. I have been involved with some work being done on that front by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Quite often in meetings with members of delegations from abroad, or at overseas conferences, it is possible to talk to politicians about their work as politicians, but rarely is there an opportunity to talk to journalists. The politicians often do not have the support of a free, robust and well equipped and resourced press. That makes it difficult for them to do their work of democratic scrutiny. There is considerable scope for the UK Government, whether through the foundation or otherwise, to do more to promote strong and independent media in such countries.
Today’s debate is timely, as UNESCO is presenting its draft action plan this week. UNESCO notes that there has been little improvement in the safety of journalists in the past few years. Figures for casualties tend to vary quite dramatically from year to year, depending on circumstances, so there was a fall in the number of deaths in 2007 and 2008, because the situation in Iraq improved, but there was a significant rise in 2009 because of the one-off horrific incident of the deaths of 30 journalists in the Philippines on 23 November. There are some differences between the figures cited by the UN, those reported by Reporters Without Borders and those of the International Federation of Journalists, but all the sets of figures make it clear that across the globe journalists are still coming under attack and being censored, kidnapped, threatened, arrested, jailed, forced to flee or even killed.
The draft action plan emphasises the need to extend UNESCO’s work, such as in assisting countries to develop laws and mechanisms that support, rather than suppress, freedom of expression and information, and to implement the rules and principles set out in UNESCO’s 1997 general conference resolution on violence against journalists. The Minister may well say that that the draft action plan stems from a meeting that was called following a UK initiative last year, and I would be interested to know more about the role that the UK played in drawing up the draft plan, and what role it envisages in taking it forward. When will the five aims of the plan be implemented and what resources will be devoted to that?
Recently, the Government have taken considerable interest in Somalia, with the conference in London, which I welcomed. I have met journalists from Somaliland, and even there, where it is relatively peaceful, there have been problems with the jailing of journalists. Are there countries where the Minister feels the UK could play a particular role—perhaps on a pilot scheme or project basis—and do imaginative and innovative things to support the development of a free press, as well as protect those who promote it?
Thank you, Mrs Main, for giving me the opportunity to conclude this fairly brief but important debate. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who has a long record in his 20 years in the House of championing the safety of journalists. It is to his credit and to the benefit of the House that we have the opportunity to discuss it this afternoon. I thank other hon. Members who have taken the opportunity to take part in the deliberations. Of course, the main business of the House today has been the Budget statement in the main Chamber, but there are many other important things happening in the world and the one that we are debating warrants our attention.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for her speech and for highlighting the threat faced by women journalists, which may sometimes be greater than that faced by males. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for his praise both for the Foreign Office—such praise does not always flow as freely during debates as we might wish—and for the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). I shall pass the expression of gratitude on to him.
I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for his speech today, and for the consistent and manifestly sincere interest he takes in the subject, and to the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for her contribution. To answer her question, I was in Colombia on Wednesday and Thursday last week, and although there were considerable discussions about trade and commercial opportunities and about political and diplomatic relations between Colombia and Britain, there was also a focus in my programme on human rights issues in the broadest sense, including threats to journalists and trade unionists, and the action that the Colombian Government and others were taking to deal with those threats. It was a broad-ranging visit, which concentrated very much on that issue.
I should say at the outset that the Government are deeply concerned about the safety of journalists; we strongly condemn their harassment and intimidation, and of course the assassinations that take place in some awful cases. I am full of admiration, as are others who have spoken in the debate, for those who bring us news from around the world, many of whom take enormous risks and who occasionally pay a great price to provide that service. I think we are all sometimes inclined to take it for granted that we can switch on the television or radio or read a newspaper and feel that we have been transported to an area of great hazard and danger and given an instant understanding of the political situation and threat to life there. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the person who brings that news and information to us is in that environment, as are the cameraman and other support staff. At great risk to themselves they inform us, and without their doing so we would not be informed.
The efforts of such people enable voices that would otherwise go unheard and events that would otherwise go unseen to reach audiences not just in the United Kingdom, but around the world. Although there are distinguished journalists of all nationalities, British journalists and news organisations play a leading role in informing not just British audiences but global ones about global events. The deaths of Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik and Rami al-Sayyed while reporting with great bravery from Homs are a terrible reminder of the risks that journalists take to report the truth. Every Member who has contributed to this debate has rightly dwelt on their deaths and paid tribute to their work.
This Government attach great importance to freedom of the media, which with the freedom to express one’s views is fundamental to a strong democracy. A free press allows space for challenge and innovation, supports transparency and deters corruption. It exposes human rights violations and ensures that people can exchange ideas. All citizens must be allowed to discuss and debate issues, challenge their Governments and make informed decisions.
Sadly, according to studies by both Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit, we are witnessing a decline in media freedoms around the world. That is affecting both print media, which in an increasing number of countries are coming under state control or heavy state influence, and the internet, where there has been an increase in blocking and censorship. Many Governments do not wish to be accountable to their people and want to remove all checks on their power.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath has set out comprehensively, that means that in many parts of the world the work of journalists, bloggers and others is obstructed. They are harassed, monitored, detained and, on occasion, subjected to violence. Some have paid the highest price—we have discussed some such cases today. According to the latest figures from Reporters Without Borders, 11 journalists have been killed so far this year in connection with their work. In 2011, 66 journalists were killed and 71 were kidnapped, while 199 bloggers and netizens were arrested and 62 physically attacked. Although such occurrences may not be the norm, they are not quite the exception either. For many years—the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to this—journalists have faced problems that, while they may or may not be isolated incidents, add up to a consistent pattern of threats to them.
It is vital that the international community continues to speak out in support of press freedom and the protection of journalists. The UK is supportive of the work of UNESCO and looks forward to a positive outcome from its meeting in Paris on the safety of journalists. We fully support the aim to strengthen the mandate and working methods of UNESCO and other United Nations bodies to tackle violence against journalists and the high levels of impunity. We welcome initiatives that encourage UN agencies and special rapporteurs to work closer together and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath has proposed, we are already pressing UNESCO to be more transparent and speed up the publication of its information on the killing of journalists. We also support the proposals to raise greater awareness of the issue and to encourage states to fulfil their commitments on media freedoms. We believe that concerted, co-ordinated action is vital. Later, I will talk about countries that are of particular concern to us—another issue raised by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington—but severe abuses take place in many countries.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bath is right to say that the UK is not currently funding the work of the international programme for the development of communication. I do not wish to sound like I am passing the ball within Government, but that decision was taken by the Department for International Development, although the Government may revisit it in due course. I assure my right hon. Friend that we are providing, and will continue to provide, assistance to journalists working in difficult environments. We are doing so via support for specific projects, such as an ongoing one in Mexico with Article 19 as part of our human rights and democracy programme fund, and other mechanisms, such as the Lifeline fund for embattled non-governmental organisations, which provides emergency assistance to journalists working in support of human rights.
In times of armed conflict, states bear the primary responsibility to respect, protect and meet the needs of civilians. We encourage all states to respect the Geneva conventions affirming that journalists are civilians under international humanitarian law. We fully support UN Security Council resolution 1738, passed in 2006, which makes it clear that deliberate attacks on journalists, media professionals and associated personnel who are reporting on armed conflicts and are not directly participating in hostilities are unacceptable.
At the 31st international conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva in December 2011, we made three further pledges on the protection of journalists, namely: integrating specific components on the protection of journalists into the training of our armed forces; providing journalists embedded with our armed forces with security training; and ensuring that national criminal law makes it possible to prosecute those who commit serious violations against journalists. We will report back on our progress to the 32nd international conference in 2015.
As highlighted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual human rights reports, our missions around the world continue to raise freedom of expression issues in countries of concern. That will be reflected in the latest human rights report, to be published in a few weeks’ time. We consistently raise individual cases of attacks against journalists and call for prompt and full investigations into them. We stated publicly our concerns about the treatment of foreign journalists in China when, in February 2011, several were physically intimidated or detained without explanation. In Azerbaijan, support from the UK and others resulted in the release and pardon of blogger Mr Fatullayev on 26 May. In July 2011, we condemned attacks in Belarus, where more than a dozen journalists were detained, beaten and their equipment broken during peaceful protests.
We also frequently raise our significant concerns about the fate of journalists in Iran. A 2011 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists showed that, once again, Iran has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world. The arrest of six journalists in September and October who were accused of working for the BBC and of espionage was particularly troubling. All have now been released, but too many others remain in prison.
My right hon. Friend talked about events in East Timor and Syria. I share the concerns about the two British journalists, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, and the other journalists killed in East Timor in 1975. The UK Government firmly believe that those responsible for their deaths should be held to account. Following publication of the Australian coroner’s report, the authorities there took the decision to review the evidence and consider the conclusions of previous investigations into the case. For legal and investigative reasons, they are unable to provide specific details of their work, which is ongoing. I fully appreciate the frustrations with the pace of progress, but the FCO continues to act as an intermediary between the British families involved and the Australian authorities, and will do so for as long as necessary.
I know that the Minister has to read what his brief says, but will he tell us whether he seriously believes it is acceptable for five years to elapse since the conclusion of the coroner’s work before the Government decide whether they are going to bring about a war crimes proceeding on behalf of two of their citizens who were murdered in East Timor by the Indonesians?
I appreciate the passion with which my right hon. Friend brings us again to that case. Let me undertake to go away and look at the matter in greater detail, because I have not only responsibility for human rights policy in the generality, but geographic responsibility for that part of the world. I give a personal undertaking to him that I will consider what more can be done to assist the families of the journalists concerned. There are practical constraints on the British Government, often bigger than the public or even sometimes Members of Parliament fully appreciate, and obviously we are not operating within our own jurisdiction. Nevertheless, we will do what we can. I will let my right hon. Friend know what more, if anything, we can do in that case.
The other country I wanted to mention before I concluded is Syria, where terrible atrocities continue to be committed. The UK sees it as vital that evidence of those atrocities is systematically gathered, documented and securely stored. What form of accountability or justice processes should take will be for the Syrian people to decide. That will be an essential means of reconciling communities in Syria following the trauma that is being inflicted on them both by the regime and, in some cases, by those on the ground who oppose the regime. We want to make sure that comprehensive justice is done in Syria, which requires that information is gathered according to an international evidential standard suitable for local and international courts.
Let me make our central purpose clear: all those who commit human rights violations or abuses in Syria should and must be held accountable for their actions. We commend the work being done by local organisations, the UN independent commission of inquiry on Syria, Amnesty International and others to document what is happening in Syria. The UK is also directly helping to document those atrocities. After despatching a scoping mission to the region in February, the UK sent a further mission between 27 February and 12 March to gather evidence on human rights violations and abuses committed in Syria. The work undertaken by the mission is necessarily a snapshot, but it has had harrowing accounts of President Assad’s brutal efforts to hold on to power. No one who is responsible can act with impunity or believe that the world will not find out who they are. Justice has a long memory and a long reach. In this case, as in others, there will be a process of accountability.
Once again, I thank my right hon. Friend and others for giving me the opportunity not only to address topical issues of concern, such as the situation in Syria, but to talk about individual cases more generally and to address the wider concerns in the House about the safety in which journalists do—or, in some cases, do not—operate around the world.
I reiterate that the Government believe that journalists must be allowed to express themselves freely and safely within international standards. We strongly condemn their harassment, intimidation and assassination. The role of media professionals remains vital in providing citizens with reliable and accurate information. That role must be protected. The UK is one of the world’s greatest and longest standing democracies, and it transmits around the world our values of freedom of expression and of the importance of people being able to exercise free and informed choices. It is therefore right that we should continue to be at the forefront of setting the highest standards and of insisting that others should meet those standards to the benefit of people around the world.
I thank Mr Speaker for allowing this debate.
If somebody is in an accident and ends up in a coma, they need a litigation friend to instruct a solicitor to sue for damages. A litigation friend, or next friend, is very different from a Mackenzie friend. A litigation friend makes decisions for the person who does not have capacity. If somebody is not in a coma, there is a question of what threshold is required before appointing such a litigation friend or guardian. Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, recently stated:
“Persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities are today routinely placed under a guardianship regime in several European countries—they are deprived of their ‘legal capacity’. In the eyes of the law they are seen as non-persons and their decisions have no legal relevance. This policy violates agreed human rights standards.”
He refers to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities of 2006.
In England and Wales, the situation is materially worse, primarily because secrecy of the judicial system has allowed widespread malpractice to develop, as revealed last week by Professor Jane Ireland’s report on psychological expert reports. A good example of that is Rachel Pullen’s case, which is currently grinding through the Strasbourg court. Her daughter was removed and adopted, although there were no hearings at which any of the evidence was challenged, because the psychologist appointed to assess her deemed her too stupid to instruct a solicitor. That was clearly not true, as was determined by a later psychological report. However, it was too late. The psychologist said she was incapable of instructing a solicitor. The Official Solicitor came in as her litigation friend and conceded the case against her on paper and there was no hearing. At her appeal, I made two important points for which the court criticised me.
My first point was that the system allows the local authority to veto the appointment of an expert, thus making the expert financially beholden to the local authority. Professor Ireland’s report revealed that the overwhelming majority of experts in the family courts made most, if not all, their income from writing expert reports. Parents only instruct an expert once, but the local authority does so continually. That creates a complacent environment in which experts frequently write the report the local authority would wish to see—well, those experts who drive Ferraris, Porsches and Formula 1 motor cars do anyway.
My second point referred to a letter from the Official Solicitor to Rosleys solicitors. I expressed the view that the letter was created at a later stage and inserted in the file. It was obvious from the letter that whoever did that did not have access to Rosleys office, as there was no received stamp on it, no headed paper was used for its purported sending out, its address format was unusual and the date of receipt and purported posting out was impossible. The court decided that my mentioning those facts was not providing evidence and was critical of my claim. I stand by my claim, and I believe that what I have just said is indeed evidence of forgery. Real problems remain with the appointment of litigation friends. The Rosleys letter was supposed to explain to someone that the Official Solicitor had been appointed as their litigation friend, which is why the letter was so important.
Given the secrecy of the system, people are not generally aware of how the process works. Lee Gilliland, for example, was evicted without notice because he had the Official Solicitor appointed to defend his probate case. The Official Solicitor did not warn him that he was due to be evicted. The Official Solicitor was appointed on the say-so of his general practitioner, Dr Hoyte, who said:
“He has grievances and fixed ideation about many official bodies.”
I find it odd that that is relevant to his having legal capacity. In my view, the fact that someone has a grievance about an official body does not warrant their being turned into a non-person and prevented from making decisions.
The big problem for anyone for whom the Official Solicitor has been appointed is finding any way to challenge such a decision. Most firms of solicitors simply refuse to act for someone without litigation capacity. The civil procedure rules do not really allow people to challenge the appointment of a litigation friend. CPR rule 21.9 states:
“(2) Where a protected party regains or acquires capacity to conduct the proceedings, the litigation friend’s appointment continues until it is ended by court order.”
The assumption is that litigation friends cannot be wrongly appointed. In Professor Ireland’s review of 126 court bundles, she found that two thirds of the reports were “poor” or “very poor”—84 cases where, if the judge relied upon the report, really the decision should be quashed. That raises questions.
England and Wales do not have the facility for a proper review of expert evidence. We do not have the Daubert process that is used in the USA. Any solicitor appointed to act on behalf of a protected party is in danger of being subject to a conflict of interest. Let me mention the case of Anthony Neil Barker, whose website is www.neebert.net. He has written me long, detailed e-mails about how he has regained his capacity, but cannot escape from the Court of Protection. I have some difficulty understanding how that can happen, but when it involves large sums of money, it is not surprising. It is in the solicitor’s interest to keep him as a non-person, as the solicitor can then charge him for things.
Noreen Akhtar is a constituent of mine, whom I have been refused permission to meet. She is a secret prisoner. Experts have determined that she does not have the mental capacity to decide where she lives. I have seen the expert reports, and they look as unreliable as many of the other reports referred to.
Husan Pari has now left the country to get away from the system that made her a non-person. The psychologist who interviewed her through an interpreter said that she was a non-person. A psychologist who later interviewed her in her own language was clear that she did have mental capacity.
The Official Solicitor’s office is an unaccountable place. He has told me that he is not accountable to Parliament on the basis of individual cases. Furthermore, he is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, or at least not within this area, but he is subject to it in other areas of his activity. Instead, the Official Solicitor is accountable to individual secret court hearings. That really is not good enough. There must be some accountability beyond a few people in suits who have a common interest in concealing malpractice. Hon. Members need to read Professor Ireland’s report to find out about that.
An interesting additional function of the Official Solicitor is to deal with people imprisoned for contempt of court. Deborah Paul is currently serving a one-year sentence in Holloway prison for contempt of court, as part of a private family law case that has turned public. The civil procedure rules strictly forbid people being imprisoned in secret. However, it was revealed in Hammerton v. Hammerton that people are imprisoned with reporting restrictions. I wonder who is protecting Deborah Paul’s rights. When I wrote to the Official Solicitor about his duty to protect the interests of contemnors, he gave me no confidence that he was doing anything. The recent striking off of Dr Ruth Coppard and the attempt by Dr George Hibbert to remove himself from the General Medical Council practising register should really ring alarm bells.
Our family legal system is founded on expert opinion. However, these foundations appear to be more like quicksand. The secrecy in family court hearings has allowed a culture of complacency to develop. Although procedures such as a modified Daubert procedure would enable improvements, secrecy creates a culture that tolerates malpractice. Secrecy in family court hearings has led to broader unaccountability in the appointment of litigation friends and their management of decision making.
I was quite surprised when Professor Ireland’s excellent report on the quality of psychological expert opinion was produced, not because I did not know that this was happening, but because the report was part-funded by the Family Justice Council. However, I was not surprised that, although the report was ready for release in September 2011, it was released six months later. There are people who would like to sweep the contents of the report under the carpet.
I will not quote a lot from the report. Anyone who is really interested in justice in our secret courts should simply read it.
Professor Ireland and Professor John Beaumont, who is from the same university, have produced proposals for a modified Daubert procedure, but that is only a partial solution. Secret courts are unreliable courts. What is needed is less secrecy. Anonymous reports by parties to proceedings should not be subject to any constraints. There must be a facility, potentially via the Information Commissioner, to produce fully public reports.
Justice is important, and it is clear that the system is very unreliable. It is also clear that Parliament needs to resuscitate its powers of investigating individual cases. It is too easy for authorities to refuse to provide information. In the Goder case, where a litigation friend was appointed and the daughter, Yvonne Goder, was imprisoned, probably in secret, there is an allegation that the money from three houses was stolen. Even taking the issue through to the legal ombudsman has not identified what happened to the money. Tracking payments is quite easy and accounts can be provided. However, if a case gets to the legal ombudsman without accounts, I am worried about whether the regulatory system is working properly.
The question always is, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? In this case, who is regulating the regulators? The answer has to be Parliament. Parliament needs to establish a small inquiries committee to find answers where none are forthcoming. Where litigation friends are appointed in secret hearings based upon expert evidence that is known to be systemically unreliable in three courts and about which there is no other systemic research, it is very difficult to find out what is happening in a very murky system. We know that large sums of money are being paid, but we are unsure what for and whether that is in the interests of those people for whom the money is held.
There is always a question about who is appointed as a litigation friend. The Official Solicitor is supposed to be a last resort, but seems to me to be the first choice in many instances. I tried to use judicial review through a limited company to find out what was happening with one secret prisoner—Matthew Hawkesworth—but got nowhere, and the court decided to punish me for the effrontery of challenging the system by awarding costs against me personally, as well as against the limited company. That is one reason why judicial review is an insufficient remedy for a quite significant, wide-ranging problem.
Some solutions to the problem therefore rest with Parliament, rather than with the Government, but they do need to review the situation. I have always spoken about how our judicial system is not compliant with the European Union standards as applied to Croatia, and I will not repeat that in my speech. The Government must take such things seriously.
I have rattled through my speech reasonably quickly. The Minister is well aware of my concerns, because I have been concerned about this matter for a long time. One great difficulty in respect of how our constitution operates is that we have developed an approach whereby Parliament is regarded primarily as a body holding the Executive to account, but the courts—the judicial estate of the constitution—are held to account also through public consideration of their decision making, which then influences Parliament. Parliament then makes decisions and guides what happens if any rules need to be changed, and they clearly need to be changed in a number of situations.
One of the reasons why I have ended up helping to get rid of the Official Solicitor, as people might put it, or to remove their litigation friend is that it is almost impossible to find a way of doing so. People who are often quite bright go around phoning up firms of solicitors and saying, “Oh, the Official Solicitor is acting for me,” and the firms reply, “Well, we can’t deal with you.” Even then, there is still the matter of legal aid.
I tend to get involved because people must be aware of my concerns about how the litigation friend system operates and come to me. I have talked to other hon. Members who have encountered difficult situations as well, but people often get excited about the being made into a non-person thing. I do not blame them for that, but they get quite angry, and when they present themselves to other hon. Members, they do so in quite an angry state, yet that is in part because the system is simply not responding to them. As described by Thomas Hammarberg, they are treated as non-persons and their decisions have no legal force.
I have spent some time studying the historical records of Parliament, which are interesting and available in the Library. What Parliament used to do more readily, because people came with casework or whatever, was to establish small committees of inquiry into issues that might have developed because they got stuck and could go no further. Parliament needs to have a willingness to establish a committee of inquiry just to find out the facts. The House of Commons may be a court, but, constitutionally, it would be wrong to revert to taking decisions that have legal force on individual cases. What about investigation, however, and that question of who is regulating the regulators? How do we manage the process when a regulatory system goes wrong? In a limited number of cases—we would not want to overwhelm ourselves with work—Parliament has the power to find out what is going on.
To take the case of the three houses, there is clear evidence of some sort of fraud, and finding out what fraud has occurred is critical. One difficulty, as in the recent Asian royal family case, is that sometimes the regulators or the police will steer clear of an issue. Interestingly, in that case, which relates to the funding of al-Qaeda, the Australian police are willing to investigate, whereas I am told that the UK police are not. I do not have that in writing, but I shall pursue it with the Government if I do so.
I leave the Minister a reasonable amount of time to respond. Some serious issues are going on and have been for some time. With Professor Ireland’s report and the recent regulatory action in respect of Dr Ruth Coppard and Dr George Hibbert, it is becoming more obvious that the problem is serious. I am interested in what the Government have to say.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) on securing this Adjournment debate today on a subject in which I know he has significant experience and interest. He mentioned a number of live cases, which he must appreciate I am restricted in discussing, but he also discussed a wide variety of interrelated and serious topics, which I shall do my best to address.
I acknowledge that the family courts and the Court of Protection deal with some of the most difficult questions affecting the lives of individuals and families, their rights and capacity to make decisions about their own future, as well as decisions about who is best able to take care of children and to provide them with a loving and caring home environment. The courts take such matters seriously, and rightly so. They are sensitive and personal matters and there is a difficult balance to be struck between respect for an individual’s privacy, in particular that of children and other vulnerable people, and promoting openness to support public confidence in the court system.
On litigation friends or guardianship, my hon. Friend has written to me on several occasions regarding the effectiveness of the Mental Capacity Act 2005—he has doubts about the effectiveness of the Act and how it is used. The Act is, however, widely supported by stakeholders for the empowerment it gives to individuals. He referred to an article by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights—I thank him for sending it to me before the debate—on persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities under guardianship being deprived of their legal capacity in several European countries. In the article, the commissioner calls on European Governments to review their legislation on legal capacity and urges recognition that supported decision-making alternatives should be developed for those who want assistance in making choices or communicating them to others.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the Mental Capacity Act provides a statutory framework to empower and protect people aged 16 and over who lack or might lack capacity to make certain decisions for themselves because of illness, a learning disability or mental health problems. Implemented in October 2007, the Act encompasses five main principles. First, there is a presumption of capacity—that all adults have the right to make their own decisions and must be assumed to have capacity to do so unless it is proved otherwise, and that capacity is presumed to be ongoing until there is evidence to the contrary. Secondly, it sets out the right of individuals to be supported to make their own decisions—that all reasonable help and support should be provided to help individuals to make their own decisions and, if necessary, to communicate those decisions, before it can be assumed that they have lost capacity. Thirdly, the Act provides that it should not be assumed that people lack capacity simply because their decisions might seem unwise or eccentric. Fourthly, if people lack capacity, anything done on their behalf must be done in their best interests, and the Act provides a checklist of factors that all decision makers must work though when deciding what is in the best interests of the incapacitated person. Finally, if people lack capacity, before a decision is made on their behalf, all alternatives must be considered and the option chosen should be the least restrictive of their basic rights and freedoms.
The Act is intended to assist and support people who might lack capacity and to discourage anyone who is involved in caring for someone who lacks capacity from being overly restrictive or controlling. It also aims to balance individuals’ right to make decisions for themselves with their right to be protected from harm if they lack capacity to make decisions to protect themselves. The Act covers a wide range of decisions made or actions taken on behalf of people who might lack capacity to make specific decisions for themselves. Those decisions can be about day-to-day matters such as what to wear or what to buy when doing the weekly shopping, or about major life-changing events such as whether the person should move into a care home or undergo a major surgical operation. Certain decisions, specified in the Act, can never be made on behalf of a person who lacks capacity to make those specific decisions, either because they are so personal to the individual concerned, or because they are governed by other legislation. Such decisions concern family relationships, such as consenting to marriage or a civil partnership, consenting to have sexual relations, treatment under the Mental Heath Act or decisions on voting in an election or referendum.
The capacity to litigate is based on a common law test of capacity set down by the courts. My hon. Friend is aware of the Masterman-Lister case which makes it clear that the presumption is that all adults are competent to manage their property and affairs; it is for the person alleging incapacity to displace that presumption and to prove incapacity, not for an adult to prove his own capacity; and it is a fundamental right of a person to conduct proceedings. That presumption is not removed lightly. The assessment of litigation capacity is a matter for the court in the individual case to decide and—this is important—not for an expert giving evidence on capacity. I confirm to my hon. Friend that the legislation in force in England and Wales supports individuals to make their own decisions, as called for in the commissioner’s article.
My hon. Friend also questioned how litigation friends are appointed. The appointment of a litigation friend is governed by procedural court rules. The duty of a litigation friend is set out in rules and associated practice directions. The courts would not wish people to be deprived of their autonomy or prevented from conducting their own proceedings in the absence of cogent evidence that they lack the mental capacity to do so.
My intervention might be reasonably long, to deal with some of the Minister’s points. I accept that the Government do not comment on individual cases at all, not only on individual live cases. I accept the Minister’s argument that to some extent the Mental Capacity Act is compliant with the UN convention of 2006 and that movement has been in the right direction, if not as far as one might hope. My argument is that the system itself has no real accountability or any proper checks and balances. The court makes the decision, but it is based on opinion from a social worker or expert, and there is no real opportunity to check that process.
I have addressed the position of the courts, which are independent of the Government. I will come to the question of experts later.
My hon. Friend also queried the role of the Official Solicitor as a litigation friend. The Official Solicitor is an independent office holder of the senior courts whose duties include acting as a last-resort litigation friend to those who lack the capacity to conduct their own litigation. He is not accountable to Ministers or to the Ministry of Justice for his decisions in individual cases, nor are Ministers or the Ministry responsible for those decisions. The Official Solicitor will conduct the litigation on behalf of the person for whom he is acting as litigation friend fairly, competently and in their best interests.
I asked the Minister a question about the Official Solicitor, who I accept is supposed to be the litigation friend of last resort. My point is that he is often the litigation friend of first resort. The most important question is: how do we know that the Official Solicitor is doing his job properly?
The Official Solicitor may be legally qualified, but his role is not that of a lawyer: his role is to make decisions and to instruct lawyers. Normally, the Official Solicitor instructs another firm to act. The question is: how do we know that the Official Solicitor is doing his job properly?
Five minutes perhaps.
I turn now to the family justice review and expert witnesses in the family courts. In their recent response to that review, the Government set out plans to implement a comprehensive programme of reform of the family justice system. We are grateful for the impressive work undertaken by David Norgrove and his fellow panel members in diagnosing the problems of the current system and setting out clear recommendations to remedy them.
The review was clear about the need to create a more coherent system, characterised by trust and co-ordination between the different courts and agencies involved. As the first step towards that, we are establishing a Family Justice Board to provide greater leadership and co-ordination across delivery agencies nationally and locally, and to prepare the system for the changes to come. In private law, we are determined to put in place a framework that will support separating couples to resolve their disputes more reasonably and more quickly. Whenever possible, there should not be a need to resort to litigation in court.
In public law, when the state intervenes to take children into care, our overriding priority is significantly to reduce the current unacceptable levels of delay. The average care case now takes 55 weeks, and many take much longer. That means months of uncertainty for a child trapped in a difficult situation. That must not continue. We intend to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows for a six-month time limit on care and supervision proceedings. That will send a powerful message that the current level of delay is unacceptable.
We appreciate that the six-month limit will not be achieved without fundamental changes to the way the system works. One aspect of the reform is to the way in which expert witness evidence is used in the family courts. The evidence suggests that in public law family proceedings, expert witness evidence is used in about 90% of cases, and on average, nearly four reports per case are requested. That high number of reports may well reflect an understandable desire for certainty and for as thorough a process as possible to be gone through before life-changing decisions are made. As the family justice review acknowledged, expert witness evidence can often be necessary to ensure a fair and complete court process—for example, to establish whether a child has been harmed by accident or not. Nevertheless, we agree that too many reports are commissioned that add little value to the court’s understanding of the issues and add further delays to the process. We have already announced our intention to legislate to ensure that reports are commissioned only when they are necessary to resolve the case.
In family proceedings involving children, the court must decide whether to permit an expert witness to be instructed, or to allow expert witness evidence to be used in court. Expert witnesses have an overriding duty to the court that takes precedence over any obligation to the party or parties who have instructed them. They are under a duty to assist the court with objective and independent advice and to provide advice that conforms to the best practice of their profession. My hon. Friend mentioned recent research and cases reported in the press showing that there is a problem with expert witnesses in the family courts.
My hon. Friend referred to practice in the United States, and I would be interested to see data on the systems used there, but we do not agree that a review is necessary. The family justice review has already conducted a thorough analysis of the problems in the family justice system, and the Government have made a commitment to significant reform. We will consider carefully the findings of the recent research on psychological expert witness reports. We accept the need for reform of the use of experts in family proceedings and for more research following the study.
I do not think that the family justice review managed to identify the real problems in the system. It was flawed from the start inasmuch as the panel members were generally people who worked within the system, instead of people who have had experience of it and are critical of it. I do not agree with the Government’s conclusions or those of the family justice review.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but the family justice review has been well received widely and across all sections and stakeholders, and that is the basis on which the Government are proceeding.
My hon. Friend mentioned Professor Jane Ireland’s recently published research on psychological expert witness reports used in family public law proceedings, and I agree that it is a useful contribution to our understanding. As Professor Ireland points out in her report, it is the first study of its kind and is based on only a small sample of family cases. While it is indicative of weaknesses in the practices of some psychologist expert witnesses, it is not possible to determine from this preliminary study whether the findings are representative. Nevertheless, the Government accept that there is a need for further research in this area, including on the quality of expert witness reports, to further our understanding of the issues identified by Professor Ireland and the family justice review.
We also agree that there is a need to improve the quality of expert reports. We intend to work with the relevant bodies, including the Legal Services Commission, expert witnesses, health sector bodies and local authorities, to develop quality standards. Others in the system also have a role to play: they include legal sector professional bodies providing support and guidance to lawyers who are responsible for commissioning expert witnesses; those responsible for maintaining ethical and quality standards within the medical profession: and expert witness representative bodies. Each has an important contribution to make to ensure that expert witnesses undertaking this vital work for the courts have the right training, skills and knowledge.
My hon. Friend discussed openness in family courts, and there are often calls for greater openness. It is of course vital that the family justice system commands public confidence and that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done. At the same time, there is a clear need to balance the desire to be more open with ensuring that the privacy of vulnerable children and families involved in these cases is protected.
I cannot argue against my hon. Friend’s position. He goes to courts and sees cases, and he takes a view. It is not an easy balance to strike. The debate on this issue has been long running and is controversial. It has been subject to two public consultations, but little consensus of opinion has resulted. The Government have accepted the concerns expressed by the Select Committee on Justice in its inquiry into the operation of the family courts and agreed that we should not commence the provisions in part 2 of the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010. We are still looking at ways in which the family courts can release more information. In doing this, we will take into account the findings from the final report into the family courts information pilot, which was published in September 2011.
I emphasise that the Government firmly support the right of every adult to make their own decisions about their future whenever possible, and to be assisted to make those decisions if necessary. We also support the need for greater transparency in the operation of the courts. We accept that the current position in the family courts is unsatisfactory and we are considering ways in which more information can be released. We are committed to radical reform of the family justice system to help to improve the lives of thousands of children and families.
Mobility Scooter Safety
It is good to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. Given that this is, I trust, a non-contentious issue, I hope that you will not be called to action.
Like many hon. Members, I have heard complaints and concerns about the design and safety of mobility scooters on the road, and the risks posed to those who use them and to other road users. Only yesterday, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) proposed a ten-minute rule Bill to update and clarify the Road Traffic Act 1988 on the use of powered wheelchairs, and his speech in the main Chamber also touched on mobility scooters.
I secured this debate after being contacted by one of my constituents about the design failing of his scooter, and following a meeting that I held with a Plymouth-based organisation called Scoot-A-Long. Both meetings forcefully flagged up significant failings in the system that cut across a number of Departments. I therefore tabled questions and wrote letters to the Departments of Health and for Transport, but the responses have not satisfied me or my constituents.
I would like to mention Mr Brian Fleming and describe his experiences, which have angered and frustrated him. He has been frustrated because, despite every attempt to highlight the problems, no one appears to be listening and he worries, as do I, that at some point a fatality will occur. He has been dedicated to raising awareness about the safety of these vehicles, and he has tried to interest programmes such as “Panorama” in his story.
Let us start at the beginning. What do we know about accidents involving mobility scooters? The answer is virtually nothing, and the full recording of incidents on the road that involve mobility scooters is unlikely to start before 2013. We are also not sure how and where off-road incidents take place, and whether they are ever likely to be recorded.
Recently, there was the tragic death at Bodmin in Cornwall of an elderly gentleman, Mr Moore, whose scooter flipped over on a steep slope. Because of the interest generated by this debate, Thompsons solicitors contacted me to provide a couple more examples of incidents that were linked to mobility scooters or motorised wheelchairs, which are known legally as invalidity carriages—that definition probably ought to be updated. A 79-year-old woman was left with serious injuries after a van collided with her mobility scooter in Sunderland. One claimant was shopping in Newcastle, but as she queued up a mobility scooter suddenly came towards her, knocking her to the floor. She suffered serious damage—a broken hip—and still has difficulty walking. Those are just a few examples, but we need to reduce the risk of such accidents and tragedies happening by increasing our knowledge of where and how they occur.
What do we know about the safety standards applied to imported mobility scooters? Again, not a lot. The Department for Transport has not commissioned safety checks on any vehicle model, and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency—the MHRA—which, according to the Department, is responsible for regulation in that area, does not commission safety checks on mobility scooters before their placement in the market. One has to ask, why not?
I find that astonishing. Would we allow a medicine to enter the market without it reaching a certain standard? No, we would not. Would we allow a car to go on the road without it reaching a certain standard? No. Why, then, is a mobility scooter allowed to go anywhere without a check, particularly when, on occasion, they are used by people who have never driven a car, perhaps have no road awareness and who may be frail? We expect people who drive cars on the road to take a driving test, yet a significant number of people are using a scooter on the roads with little or no road knowledge, other than as a pedestrian. I will return to that point.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. There is an active group in my constituency that makes mobility scooters available, and it has noted the issues that she seeks to address. A lot of police forces have also tried to emphasise the need for safety, and for people to have experience and to take advice when using mobility scooters. Does she feel that the time for the police to give advice, as with The Highway Code, is long overdue and that introducing registration will secure safety for everyone?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. A lot of good work is being done by various police authorities and other organisations to try to raise safety awareness. I will return to that point.
There is growing pressure to have a Minister with responsibility for older people, and such a person might be responsible for drawing these issues together—putting them in one place—and considering whether we need to regulate further, or indeed to legislate. The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety called for such a post to be created, and there is no doubt that the safety of mobility vehicles was one reason behind that request.
Let me return to Mr Fleming. He is getting on in years—I will not say how old he is—but he has had a distinguished career. He has a degree of engineering knowledge, and he therefore speaks with some authority on the workings of his scooter. He contacted me because he has a Pride Colt 8, which, I understand, the MHRA has received complaints about. Indeed, one Pride Colt 8 was involved in an accident in Staffordshire, and the investigating police officer got in touch with me. He wanted to know what I knew about that vehicle, given the parliamentary questions that I had tabled. That cannot be right: police officers should not need to ring a Member of Parliament who happens to have tabled some questions to seek out information on the background and mechanical failings of a particular vehicle. Such information should be available elsewhere.
The Pride Colt 8 owned by Mr Fleming had a series of failings. Its electric autobrake failed, the head console was affected by corrosion and there was a catastrophic failure of the drive, leading to the product being recalled—need I go on? There is a long list of complaints, and a frankly unsatisfactory response from the manufacturer. The scooter does not appear to be fit for purpose and it can stop without warning. It passes basic requirements for use on the pavement, although not the road, yet it is being used by some on the roads.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate about something that affects a growing number of people in our society, either as scooter users or as their fellow pedestrians and road users. Does she agree that we need to set the discussion in the wider context of ensuring that the design of pavements and lowered pavements takes account of the needs of scooter users, so that they are not left in dangerous situations or forced to cross the road? I have been to look at certain locations in my constituency with users of mobility scooters.
One point that I have been made aware of concerns the advertising of mobility scooters. The adverts show an almost deluxe mobility scooter that can go anywhere. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has seen the adverts, but the scooters seem to be able to go through muck and snow, and go anywhere, almost like a four-wheel-drive mobility scooter. Does she agree that adverts ought to show what is achievable?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that between him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), my speech has been covered. The hon. Gentleman’s point is correct: the adverts suggest that some of these vehicles are all-singing and all-dancing. Indeed, there are individuals who soup up their scooters, for whatever reason, but that is clearly a separate issue.
Many imported vehicles are not legal on our highways, yet that is where they are innocently being used by the purchasers. In addition, there is no requirement for insurance. I would welcome the Minister’s view on why that is. Is it because of the cost factor? How many vehicles have been prevented from reaching the market because of design flaws or other concerns? What powers do local trading standards officers have in such circumstances, and are they being encouraged to use them? Mr Fleming feels that he has been going round in circles locally, as one organisation passes responsibility to another.
The Pride Colt 8 has no width-indicating lights for night use and no brake lights, so right hon. and hon. Members will understand the obvious risks involved should these scooters be taken on to the highway. Many owners of the scooters say that they are forced to use the roads because local councils have not created a safe pavement environment for them. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East on exactly that point. Clearly, with council budgets being cut, they are very unlikely to be able to commit significant spending to this area, however desirable.
Scoot-A-Long supports disabled people to support themselves in getting out and about to places such as Dartmoor and even taking scooters on to Dartmoor. It also runs training courses and has expressed to me serious concerns about the lack of training available generally and about the quality of some scooters. I tried one of them out, and I have to say that the top speed of 8 mph is extremely fast. The limit on pavements is 4 mph, but untrained people do not know that. John Seamons, an excellent chap from Scoot-A-Long, expressed concerns to me about the way mobility scooters are sold to the public. Some highly reputable companies will ensure that the scooter size is correct for the user and that training is offered, but others are interested simply in a quick sale. Anecdotally, there are people who buy scooters and then are far too scared to use them.
Others adapt scooters in interesting ways. I heard yesterday from a person in Stevenage who had been out shopping when he suddenly heard “Land of Hope and Glory” playing. He turned round to see a gentleman on a mobility scooter who was having trouble reversing. The gentleman on the scooter smiled at him and said, “It’s all right. It helps me because it plays when I’ve reversed into something.” That is not really how it is supposed to work. People need support and training. Although that is an amusing story, it makes a serious point.
There are some excellent examples of organisations attempting to ensure that good advice is given. Norfolk constabulary—the police force—is one of many organisations trying to do good work. It is working alongside Halfords and is one organisation whose advice, as part of its Safe Scoot campaign, is extremely thorough and easy to follow. It encourages safety awareness courses, but those are not compulsory. How many mobility scooter users have read The Highway Code? They might have passed their driving test decades ago, when the rules were slightly different. The Highway Code also applies to people who intend to use scooters on the pavements, but I imagine that very few scooter users have gone to the trouble of reading it. How many users understand the different issues raised by using a mobility scooter in icy conditions or that wearing reflective clothing is a good idea? How many users know that they should not be in bus lanes?
I know that the Minister is aware of the issues that I am raising, but I hope he agrees that with an ageing population action must be taken to ensure that standards are maintained with regard to the safety of these vehicles and that some basic training should be undertaken by all users. It is also important that, if scooters are sold to people who have never driven and they intend to use them on the road, training is compulsory. I am not sure whether they should even be on the road if they have not passed the driving test.
We also need to be aware that younger, able-bodied people are buying mobility scooters. Recently, one was seen cruising along the seafront at a Devon resort—the young man driving it had his golf clubs on the back. We see young women who appear to be able-bodied when they get on and off their scooters using them to do the shopping. A scooter may be an alternative to a small car in some circumstances—a much cheaper alternative, because people do not have to pay all the additional road taxes and so on—but that could spiral out of control if we do not get a grip on it.
What action can the Government take to close some of the loopholes? What action will they take to ensure that the products that come to market are safe and fit for purpose, and have been checked? That will require cross-departmental working. What action will be taken to ensure that records are kept of accidents? I suppose I am asking for a coherent, cross-departmental strategy, across the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the DFT and the Department of Health, pulling together all the safety issues to ensure that proper guidance is always issued and that vehicles cannot be imported for sale in the UK without the designs being checked and being safe.
I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) for securing this debate on an important matter that is of increasing interest to many people—mobility vehicle safety. She referred to the ten-minute rule Bill proposed yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley). She will have noticed that he was arguing that, because these vehicles are a lifeline for many people, we should deregulate to some degree to give them the mobility and independence that we would agree in principle they should have. She argues that they should be safe and that we should take steps to ensure that people are properly trained to use them; everyone would agree with that in principle as well. That is the nub of the problem: both perspectives are valid, but they point in different directions. The Department for Transport is trying to deal with that problem, which is quite complicated, but let me try to give the hon. Lady reassurance about the steps we are taking to try to resolve it.
Officially, the UK has more than 10 million disabled people and our population is increasingly ageing, so mobility vehicles will in future have an even more important role to play in enabling disabled people to live independent lives. It is part of our policy, as it was the previous Government’s, to seek to improve access and safety for all people, including disabled and older people, to help to enhance their quality of life. We consider the issue of mobility scooters in that context.
By the way, if the hon. Lady looks at my written ministerial statement of 1 March, she will see that I indicated our intention to replace the legal term “invalid carriage” as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it is in primary legislation, so we will need a slot to deal with it, but we fully accept that it is an inappropriate term in this day and age.
Our aim is to balance the mobility needs of disabled people with their safety and that of others. The previous Government consulted formally in 2010, and on 1 March this year I published the Government response to that consultation. Let me take first the safety of particular scooter models that are available to buy.
The position on design standards for mobility vehicles sold in the UK is that before a manufacturer can offer a vehicle for sale, it must meet EU manufacturing standards. To obtain that mark in the UK, a manufacturer must first submit a technical file relating to the product to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. On imports, there is nothing to stop someone buying a mobility scooter from another country over the internet without taking advice. If the vehicles do not conform to European standards, trading standards officers have the authority to seize them, but I cannot imagine that that happens very often in practice. I think that many trading standards officers, if they came across such a vehicle, would be very reluctant to seize someone’s lifeline—the vehicle necessary for them to get from A to B.
There are challenges, but the straight answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that someone can bypass the regulations if they buy on the internet, and trading standards officers have the power to deal with that when they come across such vehicles. Part of the problem is that vehicles are not always bought from reputable dealers. They are often bought on the internet, or second hand, or by some other means where the control mechanism is not in place.
There is a case for information to be passed on by GPs—who may recommend a vehicle to a patient—pensioners’ groups and Age Concern to ensure that proper advice is going out to those who are considering buying mobility scooters. It is about information getting to people before they take the step of going to the internet or somewhere else to buy such a vehicle.
I agree that information is important, and I will come on to what we are doing, but it may not be a complete panacea.
One of the main concerns about the carriage of scooters on public transport is whether or not they can be safely secured. The design of the scooter may mean that it does not have appropriate anchorage points, so there is a danger that it may tip up and cause injury. There are international standards to which manufacturers can refer to determine how to secure wheelchairs and their occupants when travelling in a vehicle, but there are no such standards for mobility scooters. That is one of the issues that I want operators and manufacturers to consider when it comes to improving the design of scooters for carriage on public transport.
There are also concerns among public transport operators that people are being sold scooters that are inappropriate for public transport and yet they have an expectation that they can use them. There is a space designed for wheelchairs and some scooters will necessarily be designed at a level above that, so transport operators can legitimately say, “This vehicle is unsuitable for carriage on light rail, tram, train or bus.” I want to ensure that we get some consistency of approach from operators and some clarity for members of the public as to which vehicles can and cannot be carried on public transport. If we end up with vehicles that are heavier and bigger and do what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase argued for yesterday, it will benefit users when they take them on the road, but not when they want to take them on public transport. These are very complicated issues to get right.
As the hon. Lady said, there are also safety concerns about the use of mobility scooters. There are reports of people being injured by them when they are used on pavements, and of users being hit by other vehicles when they are used on the road. Unfortunately, no accident statistics are available to demonstrate that the use of mobility vehicles represents a major public safety problem—the evidence is all anecdotal. However, I have raised the matter, and from 2013 the police will be able to record—I hope they do—whether a mobility vehicle has been involved in an accident on the public highway. Thus we will begin to gather more reputable and objective information than we have at the moment.
I recognise the concerns, however, which is why, in my written ministerial statement of 1 March, I indicated that I do not intend to change the maximum permitted speed of mobility vehicles. I agree that 8 mph does not sound very fast, but it certainly is fast on one of those scooters. I tried one out myself when I went to a scooter place in Rochford, and I was taken aback by its acceleration and speed—and I am someone who has been driving on the roads for some 30 years. I was also rather taken aback by the instability of the vehicle. I believe it is absolutely right not to increase their maximum speed. It is possible that some vehicles might be bought on the internet, without the controls of reputable dealers in this country, but the concerns about the reduced stability of vehicles at speed, and the more serious consequences of any collision if higher speeds are permitted, are such that I will not be increasing the speed at which those vehicles are permitted to travel.
I have also announced that there will be no change to the minimum age for using a class 3 vehicle. There would be safety concerns if a child under 14 years were permitted to take a vehicle on to the public carriageway. However, I have to balance that judgment against the legitimate health and independence benefits that such a vehicle can bring—these are difficult judgments to make—so I have decided to permit class 2 powered vehicles, which are restricted to the pavement, to weigh up to 150 kg unladen in order to help children with more acute clinical needs to have more equipment on their chairs. For reasons of public safety, I have also decided that the use of two-person mobility scooters should not be allowed on the public highway. Two-person scooters are likely to be heavier than the maximum legal weight limit—150 kg for class 3 vehicles. Some two-person models also exceed the maximum speed limit of 8 mph.
The consultation in 2010 considered whether the law is adequate or whether there should be a new means of tackling misuse of these vehicles. I have concluded that no new legislation is required—not even to make these vehicles more conspicuous—but I have asked officials to examine how current legislation could be better enforced. That does not mean that we are looking to prosecute more mobility scooter users. The laws relating to mobility vehicles are not the same as road traffic laws that apply to motor vehicles, but there is legislation dating from Victorian times that can be used to control reckless driving and we want this to be more widely publicised and better understood.
Issues remain around insurance, eyesight tests and training, which brings us on to the question of what we can do to help people who use these vehicles. There is currently no mandatory requirement to insure vehicles, although we strongly recommend that individuals take out insurance voluntarily, or to have eyesight tests, although my Department has for many years advised that people should be able to read a number plate at a distance of 40 feet. I want to look at how the test can be made more practical so that there is much greater take up. I have concluded that mandatory eyesight testing is not necessary for users of class 2 scooters, which are restricted to the pavement, but I am clear that the position in respect of class 3 scooters requires further consideration. I am talking about the vehicles that can travel at 8 mph as opposed to 4 mph and that can be allowed on the highway.
The consultation responses in 2010 emphasised real concerns that mandatory insurance and training could unfairly penalise a particularly vulnerable section of the community. However, we want to find ways to achieve greater take-up of insurance and training, which is why I have been talking to key stakeholders. I held a meeting only yesterday with the trade association, vehicle training organisations, the insurance industry and disabled charities and organisations to review the available evidence and options relating to insurance and the use of specialist training providers. My written statement on 1 March deliberately left open the questions of eyesight testing, insurance and training because I wanted to take advice from everyone concerned, including users, disabled charities and road safety people to try to get to a position that everybody finds comfortable. It was a useful meeting, and my officials have taken away the comments and will use them to take the next stage forward. As the hon. Lady rightly said, it would be helpful if more training was available.
Norfolk constabulary was represented at the meeting yesterday. The hon. Lady mentioned that county, where some really good work has been done—indeed I was in Norwich before coming to this debate. We can learn from Norfolk’s example. The trouble with Norfolk is not that it is not doing the right thing—it is—but that its practice is not emulated everywhere. We need to find a way of rolling that practice out right across England and Wales—I hope that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will forgive me, but England and Wales are my responsibility—to ensure that that training is available more widely. That is one of the issues that we are trying to address sensibly for the future.
There are clearly issues about basic training and about the safety of these vehicles, particularly ones that have slipped in under the net and do not meet European Union standards. I am not able to answer the hon. Lady’s question about whether models have been stopped from being brought into the country, but I will raise the matter with MHRA. Cross-departmental work on the issue is under way. We have been in touch with the Department of Health, and if she was in the Chamber yesterday, she will have seen that the Minister for Disabled People from the Department for Work and Pensions was with me on the Treasury Bench to listen to the ten-minute rule Bill. We are trying to work collaboratively across Departments.
That is a relatively new issue. I have not yet come across anyone going to play golf in a mobility scooter, although I have no doubt that it does happen; nor have I come across scooters that play “Land of Hope and Glory”. I am sure that whoever composed that particular tune did not have reversible scooters in mind. None the less, I take the hon. Lady’s word for it. If these scooters are now being used by groups for whom they are not designed, particularly if people are using them to avoid the requirements of road traffic legislation for other vehicles, that is a serious matter that I will take away to consider.
I hope that I have managed to convince the hon. Lady of two things: first, that we are seized of the need to make progress and we are trying to do so in a constructive and consensual way; and secondly, that this is not an easy issue. There are conflicting demands on us from different directions. Coming up with an answer that meets everybody’s aspirations will be difficult, but we will try.
Question put and agreed to.