Wednesday 24 October 2012
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
Offshore Wind Generation (North Wales)
Motion made and Question proposed, that the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I am pleased to sponsor this important debate, and I welcome the Minister. As I am a member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, I am sure that he and I will be working together on many issues over the coming weeks and months. I pay tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), a Minister who was respected by people right across the energy sector, from industrialists to environmentalists, and with whom I worked well. He visited north Wales, and came to see the Anglesey energy island concept, and I am sure that I will be inviting the new Minister to come along to see the progress that has been made.
I know that the new Minister will make his mark over the coming months. He has already given us a very entertaining performance, in his response to urgent questions last week, and we look forward to more of that style and, we hope, to some answers to questions. I am sure that he will have the opportunity today to answer some important questions pertaining to low-carbon energy in north Wales.
To be fair to the Minister, he has a chequered history when it comes to wind generation, and I hope that today he can clarify his position, together with that of the Government, and tell us whether wind generation now passes his two tests of economic and environmental sustainability. To be fair to him again, he sent us a letter only on Monday, outlining the Government’s support for renewables, which I presume includes wind generation. I am sure that he will be able to clarify the position on those things in his winding-up speech.
I want to make my own position absolutely crystal clear. I am pro-nuclear, pro-renewables, including wind generation, and pro-energy efficiency, and I have never seen any contradiction between those three things. We need all three if we are to reach the goals that we all want: energy security and the decarbonisation of industry.
Yes, I absolutely agree. I am sure the Minister will acknowledge this later too: we should not be either/or; we need all the options. We need the base load that nuclear can provide, along with clean coal and gas, but we also need the flexibility that renewables give us, and I hope to develop that argument today.
As I say, I see no contradiction here. If we are to create the vibrant low-carbon economy that the UK wants, energy security, along with food security, is probably the most important challenge that this Government and Governments around the world will face in the future. North Wales is—I will argue that it can continue to be—a major contributor to a low-carbon future. My own constituency of Ynys Môn—the Isle of Anglesey—has been in the vanguard of nuclear generation for more than 40 years, and there are plans for a new replacement station at Wylfa. The island also has early wind farms, comprising of some 77 turbines—from the 1980s and 1990s—in the north of the island. There are plans for a tidal array at the Skerries, and footprints for two biomass plants, so no one can accuse my constituency and its people of not contributing to our energy needs or to the rich energy mix that we want in the future. I support the concept of Anglesey becoming Britain’s energy island, and I hope to invite—I am sure that I will formally invite —the Minister along to see the energy island programme and meet its director, John Idris Jones, and his team, to see how we can take this forward, with local government, local businesses and the Welsh and UK Governments working together.
Given what I have just said, I do not believe that I can be accused of being an “environmental Taliban”. The Chancellor likes to joke about such things, but he should not poke fun at people who want a balanced energy mix that includes renewables, as well as coal, gas and nuclear. Indeed, I do not understand why he made his remarks, because that is his Government’s policy. It was also the policy of the previous Government, so there has been consensus and continuity. Businesses and consumers tell me that they want clarity and continuity on energy policy, so that north Wales and the United Kingdom can become the centre of excellence that we want to see.
The purpose of this debate is to highlight the pros and cons, to focus the attention of Government, at all levels, on providing certainty for investment and to create the high skills and the low-carbon energy sector that can deliver in the future.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has secured this debate. He mentioned certainty, and uncertainty is the enemy of long-term investment. Does he agree that one of the problems with the present Government is the incoherence and uncertainty that is causing long-term investors such as Siemens to reconsider investment in the UK, because of the lack of clarity about Government policy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have just come from a meeting of industrialists, and they highlighted that very point. The Aluminium Federation was present, and it said that international companies are considering pulling out of the UK because of uncertainty about the future. The Minister will be aware of that, and he will try to work with others to allay the fears and create the confidence needed for the future. It is not warm words that will heat our homes or drive industry, but action, and we need to see that.
I am grateful for the opportunity to be involved in this debate. The hon. Gentleman referred to jobs in Wales; other parts of the United Kingdom will also gain greatly. In my Northern Ireland constituency, Harland and Wolff will benefit from jobs that come from the wind turbines in Wales. There are benefits for the whole United Kingdom: is that what the hon. Gentleman is saying?
Certainly, and if the hon. Gentleman is patient I will lay out the benefits. I want to see a centre of excellence in north Wales, but the supply chain will involve the whole United Kingdom. There will be downstream jobs, and I want to see those jobs within the United Kingdom, rather than in continental Europe, for example. Large shipments can come into north Wales, the north of Ireland and the north of England from other parts of Europe. I want to see the skills base here in the United Kingdom developed and capable of maintaining highly skilled jobs. The hon. Gentleman need not fear. We are not being parochial; we are being very pro the United Kingdom.
North Wales has an abundance of resources. It has the natural resources that are needed for hydro and wind generation and, importantly, it has a skills base in many of its industries. The Minister is au fait with the skills agenda, and the skills in north Wales are transferable from the aerospace, car and other industries into the new exciting wind-generation and renewables agenda for the future.
My hon. Friend is right, and he echoes the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas). We need that certainty, and we need stability and a strategy for the future, and I hope that the Minister will note that and address it in his remarks.
We have an important skills base in north Wales linked to colleges and universities. Coleg Menai in my constituency has adapted an energy centre, which is creating a skills base in construction. Many of those skills were lost over many years, so offshore wind is not only about generation, but about the construction and manufacturing jobs of the future. The colleges are linking up. The energy centre was created by the Welsh Government in conjunction with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the local authority, and it works with local colleges to provide young people with those skills and to give them hope for the future.
As I am sure that the Minister knows, Anglesey was chosen by the Welsh Government as an energy enterprise zone, which is important for concentrating minds on north-west Wales and on north Wales in general. In north Wales, we have good universities at Glyndwr and Bangor and a number of good colleges, many of which are involved. Bangor university has a school of ocean science, which is a world leader in marine energy. So when I talk about wind and renewable energies, I am talking about not only manufacturing and construction, but future research and development and being world leaders in new technologies as they appear. The school of ocean science is a world leader in climate change patterns, too, and we have to merge those things to make the area a centre of excellence.
I will not duck the issue: wind energy is controversial, although offshore wind is less controversial than onshore wind. Offshore wind turbines are less obstructive than turbines on land, and their size and noise are mitigated by their distance from communities. Obviously, that brings its own challenge, but aesthetics is an issue for many people. When people talk about the technology, they are often in favour of wind generation, but when they talk about location, issues are raised and many people are opposed. The planning system—it is difficult for any Minister to tackle this—polarises people’s opinions. People have to be either for or against wind generation, and we do not have a mature dialogue on future needs and the benefits that wind generation can bring to local communities.
Wind is controversial, and I believe Anglesey has had its fair share of onshore wind development. Given the sheer size and scale of the new turbines, they are best placed out at sea. Residents on Anglesey are not nimbys in any way and want to be part of the future of wind generation, but wind turbines should be offshore because of their large scale.
I pay tribute to a group of residents on Anglesey who have campaigned against the ad hoc development of wind generation, which is a problem in many communities. The only beneficiaries of onshore wind are the landowners and/or developers, not the communities; whereas offshore wind will have a combined benefit for the larger community.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the subject is close to my heart because of the impact on my constituency. Does he accept that the real issue is scale? Whether in Anglesey or Montgomeryshire, the issue is the sheer numbers. What has been proposed for my constituency is virtually a desecration of the area, as is simply the case with onshore wind. I welcome this opportunity to associate myself with his remarks, because he is also challenging the scale, which destroys areas.
Yes, I agree. Aesthetics and scale are big issues that we need to address. I am not only concentrating on that problem but considering solutions for the future. We have an abundance of wind, which is a proven technology, but it has to be in the right place. As the hon. Gentleman says, the scale has to be right for the area. I will develop that point.
I support microgeneration, and it is sensible in rural areas that isolated properties, farms and working communities have a source of electricity and that any surplus goes to the grid, but I oppose large-scale onshore wind generation. I hope that I am putting that in its right context.
As a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, I visited DONG Energy in Ramsgate and saw the scale of the London array and some of the areas down in the Thames estuary, where large-scale wind development has taken place. We flew over the developments to see their scale, and we took advantage of the opportunity to fly over the Olympic village when we came in to land in central London. The sheer scale needs to be close to a working port, and those ports need the necessary infrastructure.
Following decisions by the previous Labour Government, north Wales has great potential for offshore wind. Gwynt y Môr, which I think will be the largest site in Europe, is under construction by RWE npower and its partners. On completion, Gwynt y Môr will have an output of some 576 MW. Gwynt y Môr is close to the already-developed North Hoyle and Rhyl Flats offshore wind farms, which are a major hub for wind and renewable resources.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again in this important debate. Will he indicate how councils and the Welsh Assembly came to terms with how offshore wind generation affects the fishing industry? Some locations in Northern Ireland are coming up shortly, and one of the great issues for us is how they will affect the fishing industry on the north coast of Antrim and in my constituency of Strangford. How did the Welsh Government address that issue to ensure that the fishing sector can continue?
I cannot speak for the Welsh Government, but I can speak for myself. I am an ex-seafarer, so I understand some of the conditions at sea, and navigation is affected, as well as fishing. I respect that, but the consultations we have had in north Wales, and will have on future developments, contain important environmental impact studies. The marine environment is taken very seriously, and wind is sensitive. Oil is being drilled in the North sea, and I think wind generation is less intrusive than some of those projects. We have to get the balance right, but the impact has been taken seriously. If we are serious about developing renewable resources, we have to use them wisely. Wind is abundant in north-west Britain and north-east Northern Ireland, so we have to go ahead, but it is a sensitive issue.
As I was saying about Gwynt y Môr and the other already-developed offshore wind farms, the Celtic array is a round 3 Irish sea project, and I want to focus the Minister’s mind on that because of its sheer scale. As he may know, the Celtic array is a joint venture between Centrica and DONG Energy that will have the capacity to produce 2.2 GW and will service an estimated 1.7 million homes. The Celtic array will be located 19 km off the north-east coast of Anglesey, 34 km off the Isle of Man and very close to the coastlines of Northern Ireland and north-west England. Depending on the turbines that are chosen—this is important because technology is moving fast—there will be between 150 and 400 of them, and if the technology continues to develop in the same way, they might produce 6 MW each. So the turbines will be huge. The Celtic array includes array cables, export cables and substations located offshore, where they will be less intrusive. The connection to the grid, which is expected to be in Anglesey, will be made with a few cables, rather than the large amount of infrastructure that is needed for onshore in coastal areas that many people oppose.
Gwynt y Môr has already created jobs, and I want to highlight a number of them, because they represent a significant investment. Holyhead-based Turbine Transfers, which is a subsidiary of Holyhead Towing, has been awarded a £10 million contract to provide transfer vessels that will operate from the port of Mostyn in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). That is a local company with an international reputation founded by an entrepreneurial family, and it will benefit from the investment, which could bring more than £80 million and much-needed jobs to the Welsh economy.
Looking forward to the Celtic array, we need bigger infrastructure, bigger vessels and bigger port capacity. I will deal specifically with the port of Holyhead in my constituency, as it is the largest seaport on the western seaboard and, as a natural deep-water harbour, it has huge potential. I was disappointed by this Government’s decision, after the previous Chancellor’s announcement that £60 million would be set aside for essential port development so that—I stress this—United Kingdom ports could benefit. That was a missing link. We have manufacturing on land and generation offshore, but bringing them together needs port development, and the £60 million was set aside for that purpose. In October 2010, the coalition Government decided to make the moneys available to English ports only, with the Barnett consequential going to Wales and other nations of the United Kingdom. That put Wales at a serious disadvantage, because the consequential for the whole of Wales is about £3 million. Anybody who understands port development knows that that is a small drop in the ocean, so this seriously undermines Wales’s potential to develop.
The irony, reading the statement from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, is that much of the money allocated to English ports remains unspent. I ask the Minister, in his own joking manner, to pass it over to Wales as quickly as possible if he can. My serious point is that he should go back to Government, argue the case that the United Kingdom ports remain a reserved responsibility of the UK Government, get a grip on the situation and, from this Westminster Parliament, help Welsh ports. That is what we are here for: to represent the views of our Welsh constituents. We are losing out as a consequence of that decision, and it is unfair. As the new Secretary of State said in a response to me, if the Welsh Assembly Government were funding this, the money would have to be drawn from education and health budgets, which would be unfair. The money was originally intended for UK ports. UK ports are a reserved matter and this should be done fairly.
I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but on a point of clarity it is important to understand how the devolution settlement works and how Members such as me can help the cause by addressing the matter in the context of the constitutional position, so that we know what we can do, rather than just stating opinions.
Constitutional issues have their place, but it is clear that ports are a reserved UK matter—I have worked with previous UK Governments on developing ports in my constituency—so the Government should take responsibility and treat all UK ports the same. We are not asking for anything extra in Wales; we are asking for a level playing field so that Welsh ports can develop and, importantly, benefit the whole United Kingdom. If the development goes ahead and north-west Wales has port infrastructure, that will help the energy needs of the whole United Kingdom.
I move briefly to tackle head-on some of the criticisms of wind energy. Intermittency is an issue. Just as we need base load electricity at peak times for industry and domestic use, we also have off-peak periods. If hon. Members can remember the long hot summers we used to have, we needed to cut off much of our electricity generation during those times. Wind is an excellent resource in that respect, because turbines can be switched off easily. It is both costly and difficult to turn off a gas-fired, coal-fired or nuclear power station. We need the flexibility that wind and other renewables give us for the future. Of course, on long, cold winter days when the wind is not blowing, we need base load at full capacity, but the other side of the coin appears when we have warm weather.
The economics of wind are also controversial. In response to the mini-inquiry by the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change on the economics of wind power, DECC gave some interesting figures. Two large companies undertook research on DECC’s behalf, levelising the cost per megawatt-hour of the different technologies for producing electricity. Nuclear was by far the cheapest, but wind was considerably higher. I have the figures in front of me; they give costs looking forward to new technologies that may or may not develop in future. Nuclear costs £60 to £80 per MWh, compared with some £94 per MWh for onshore wind and £110 per MWh for offshore wind. Clean coal and gas using carbon capture and storage cost some £100 to £150 per MWh.
We need to develop those technologies to make them more efficient. Logically, if we can improve gas, coal and nuclear, we can improve our wind technology as well. I have seen some of the new turbines that are being developed. They run for longer, are more efficient and need less maintenance, so we can reduce costs.
Subsidy is not a dirty word to me. Most energy generation in most countries has had some form of subsidy, and emerging gas in this country was 100% subsidised by the taxpayer when it came into effect. I do not feel that we should not subsidise new technologies, although I think that the Government are right to move subsidy under the renewables obligation from onshore wind to offshore, now that onshore is established, to make offshore wind more competitive.
It is critical to emphasise, because it is not emphasised often enough, that the UK is in the vanguard of offshore wind technology. We must press forward with it. We need to consider the support and assistance given to companies such as Prysmian Cables in my constituency, which has created jobs as a result of the investment in offshore wind. That needs to be factored into the equation when we assess whether to invest further.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Moving on to the additional costs of renewables, one controversial point is the impact of renewable energy on household bills, and on business bills. We talk, rightly, about protecting the consumer, but a lot of British businesses are suffering from the high cost of energy. According to DECC’s estimate, as recently as 2011, public policies, including environmentally friendly subsidies to renewables, comprised about 7% of our bills. The Committee on Climate Change projects that costs might rise as much as 33% before 2020. Of that, two thirds will be contributed by the rising price of fossil fuels and one third by the cost of renewables. I want to put that in a proper context for the future. Yes, there is a cost in moving towards renewables, but there will also be a huge cost if we do not, given the rising price of fossil fuels.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham said, we must also consider the pluses of investing in wind generation and renewables. As he pointed out in his example, the socio-economic benefits to the north Wales region, and across the United Kingdom, would be huge. RenewableUK estimates that by 2022, the United Kingdom’s offshore wind industry will generate some £60 billion in gross value added, supporting some 45,000 jobs. Other estimates are even higher—as high as 0.4% of UK GDP and more than 90,000 jobs. That is the potential. This debate is about focusing attention on what has been achieved and on the potential for the future. Regions such as north Wales can benefit because of their natural resources, deep-water harbours and skills base.
The Celtic array project is not that far away, Minister, and we need to get this right. We need to get the port development right. We need to increase our skills base. We need stability, so that companies from all over the United Kingdom and beyond have the confidence to invest in our country. I support wind generation on the north Wales coast. It harnesses the benefits for the region. It will have benefits for the north of Ireland, the north-west of Britain and other parts of the United Kingdom, too. Governments at all levels need to work together. I urge the Minister, in the first few weeks in his job, to contact the Welsh Government—the First Minister is responsible for energy matters—and discuss these issues, so that Wales can have the benefits that it deserves for the future.
Wind energy is simply about turning wind into electricity, but we need to generate real jobs, too. We are on the right track—a few years of stable government has given investors what they need. There are concerns now, and I hope that the Minister will address them in his winding-up speech. I will allow other hon. Members their opportunity to discuss what I think is an exciting future, with north-west Wales playing a big part in the low-carbon economy that we all want to build, and the UK being a world leader in that economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for bringing this agenda to the Chamber. It is extremely important to focus on how we grow wind energy in north Wales, and it is significant that every Labour MP representing constituencies in north Wales is here to lend their support to my hon. Friend.
Wind energy is significant for three reasons. First, it contributes to the green energy needs of our communities at a time of diminishing coal, gas and other resources. Secondly, it is an important engine of economic growth, as can be witnessed by what has happened in north Wales. Thirdly, there is a community benefit associated with economic and green developments that helps to regenerate other areas of our community in a positive way. I wish to speak briefly on all three points.
I am proud that the previous Labour Government generated, supported and encouraged the development of offshore wind farms in my part of the world. Wind farms were developed because the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and previous Departments with responsibility for energy, took an interest, campaigned strongly and worked with the Welsh Assembly Government to attract business. I seek an assurance from the Minister that there will be that level of commitment in the future.
On the contribution to green energy needs, I place on the record two particular facts. The Rhyl Flats and North Hoyle developments will generate 240 MW of electricity, which is sufficient for the energy needs of 200,000 homes. The Gwynt y Môr development will provide 576 MW of electricity, which is sufficient for the energy needs of 400,000 homes. Those are significant developments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn mentioned, the Gwynt y Môr development is the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom, and it is approaching the size of major European developments. Those green energy needs are being met.
No more than 15 years ago, during the time I have been a Member of Parliament, there was a colliery at Point of Ayr in my constituency that employed 1,200 people, producing coal and material that was used for energy. The colliery is no longer there, people are not employed and coal is not produced, and yet not two miles from that site there is now the potential to create alternative energy using natural resources on a renewable basis—a positive development that we should be seeking to encourage.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn mentioned, green energy jobs are important contributors to the economy of north Wales—not just in Holyhead in his constituency, and not just in the development of the offshore wind farms themselves. Mostyn docks is in my constituency. In the past decade, the port of Mostyn has had to face significant challenges. It had a roll-on/roll-off ferry service to Northern Ireland. It supports the development of Airbus from the major economic factory in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), where wings are made, produced and then exported via the docks.
In the past 10 to 15 years, the Mostyn dock development has diversified significantly to try to attract wind energy and enable the manufacture and construction of wind turbines. In the past few years, thanks to investment in offshore wind energy, the construction of six Irish sea offshore wind farms at North Hoyle, Burbo Bank, Robin Rigg, Rhyl Flats, Walney 1 and Walney 2 has led to a real expansion in the services provided at Mostyn docks. That is good news for the green energy sector and good news for employment in my constituency.
The Gwynt y Môr offshore wind development was mentioned earlier. That will now be based at the port of Mostyn in north Wales. The 160 turbines that will be installed offshore from north Wales will be assembled at the port of Mostyn in Flintshire. Mostyn will also benefit from the construction of an operations and maintenance base for the existing wind farms in Liverpool bay, North Hoyle, Rhyl Flats and, once complete, Gwynt y Môr.
In my constituency, where jobs in the old mining industry were lost, at least 100 long-term, skilled engineering jobs will be created in the port to staff the servicing of those facilities. On top of that, the actual construction of the facilities will see approximately 120 new jobs on site during the construction phase—a big boost to the local economy.
The £50 million lease and investment into port of Mostyn is Gwynt y Môr’s highest value long-term contract awarded to a company in Wales. That reinforces the company’s commitment to the port of Mostyn and investing in north Wales. It also underpins the work that the port of Mostyn is doing in exporting wings from the Airbus manufacturing site at Broughton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside. The port has had to diversify and bring in wind energy, but green energy is providing sufficient resource and employment to ensure that we can maintain development. As my hon. Friend knows, if the wings were not exported via Mostyn docks, and if that were the sole business, that would have a severe impact on the ability of Broughton to manufacture aircraft wings.
I was about to make that very point. If Mostyn had been unable to expand into other areas, the whole cost would effectively have fallen on to Airbus, because that is the route that the A380 wings take. There would not be a feasible alternative route, and that would impinge on whether the work was at that factory.
Green energy supports the manufacturing, construction and development base at port of Mostyn, and that underpins not just the energy sector in north Wales, but a wide range of other manufacturing industries, too. The 100-plus new jobs will also contribute more spending into the economy in north Wales. There will be a big impact on the economic base of our area.
The third issue I mentioned is the community benefit. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane)—[Interruption.] We have just had a boundary review and we are trying to work out where the boundaries are. I am sure my hon. Friend will speak about community benefits as well, but Gwynt y Môr will invest £20 million in local communities over the lifetime of the contract. The Rhyl Flats community fund is investing resources in Conwy and Rhyl. The North Hoyle partnership has funds linked to Denbighshire coastal partnership, including money for my constituency, too.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while that is very welcome, we still have a long way to go to catch up with countries such as France, which has areas that try to bid for these projects, whether nuclear power, wind or whatever, because there are great incentives—cheaper electricity, or some other payback? While there is some good stuff coming, we still have some way to go to get the issue moving.
I agree. This is a start, but it is a contributor to community benefits, which I want to spread wider than just the boroughs of Conwy and Denbighshire; boroughs in Flintshire in our area have an impact on economic activity in a negative as well as a positive way in respect of the development of wind farms.
Wind farms in north Wales are positive for the green economy, our local economy and the community. I have three requests to make of the Minister. First, I hope that he recognises, gives credit to and celebrates the fact that the industry is developing and flourishing in our area. I say that not to cause a political row between us, but to get consensus in the Chamber and with the Assembly on these matters.
The Secretary of State for Wales wrote a blog in 2009, when the Gwynt y Môr wind farm was being developed, under the headline, “Well done, Conwy”:
“I was extremely pleased and relieved to hear that Conwy County Councillors today resolved to seek counsel’s opinion on the merits of an application for judicial review of the decision to grant consent for the development of the proposed Gwynt y Môr wind farm.”
I could quote three or four other blogs from the Secretary of State, expressing a mild cynicism about the benefits of wind farms appearing in north Wales, including for its economy. I do not wish to cause the Minister any difficulty, but I genuinely want him to give words of comfort and encouragement and to say that his Government, of whom he and the Secretary of State are part, are committed to helping develop these industries in our area.
My right hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of the Secretary of State’s previous remarks, although I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is now in line with Government policy. The Secretary of State mentioned the negative impact that offshore wind farms would have on tourism. However, the opposite is the case, if anything. The chair of the association for north Wales tourism has said that the new development of Gwynt y Môr, and others, would not impact on tourism at all. So people who understand the industry are saying that there would be no negative impact as a result of offshore development in north Wales.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I represent places such as Talacre and Gronant, at the north end of my constituency, where holiday activity goes on undiminished by the wind farms in those areas. I want to get recognition from the Minister that the Government are committed to helping develop these important industries.
Secondly, we need the Minister to provide certainty about certain matters, because that is important in the context of the forthcoming Energy Bill. For the moment, there is the question of long-term contracts for difference to support renewable and low-carbon energy, guaranteed by fixed prices for output. We need clarity from the Government on the allocation process for contracts for difference. We need the Government to give certainty to the industry about timetables, including on targets for decarbonisation, so that long-term investment by wind farm developers can be considered not just in the context of the previous Government or this Government, but of any future Government, who will have to make long-term financial decisions. Cross-party consensus on the need for developing this industry, if I can get it, will help give that certainty.
Thirdly, I want to throw into the mix the fact that at Mostyn docks and in the offshore developments, we are assembling material constructed and built elsewhere. The Swedes—the Scandinavians—are masters at the production of wind-farm technology. We have probably missed the chance now, although we in the previous Government pressed to do it. The Minister should cast an eye gently on what we can do to help encourage UK-based manufacture and development skills. It is great to assemble at Mostyn docks and to have the skills offshore, but ultimately we are missing a trick if we do not consider the potential for future manufacture and technology development in our country.
I ask the Minister for confidence and certainty, to look at manufacturing and to please help support this industry, which really does create jobs in our area.
I had not planned to speak, but the issue is of such incredible interest to me that I felt that I had to. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing such an important debate and on speaking for half an hour and uttering hardly a word with which I disagreed. That is something of an achievement.
I have always thought of myself as living in mid-Wales, so I am conscious that I am contributing to a debate that is about north Wales. However, if the new boundaries go through, my house will be in Denbigh and north Montgomeryshire, so I consider myself, as of yesterday, a potential north Walian, which allows me a degree of credibility in this debate.
I have had a particular interest in onshore wind since 2005 and people from all over Britain have written to me about it, including several from Ynys Môn, although I have written back to say that I am not the Member for Ynys Môn, so, clearly, I have not followed up all the issues. Because of that, I understand that the issue is not just for my constituency and perhaps slightly more widely in mid-Wales, but affects many other parts of Britain. A lot of people are writing from Scotland now, deeply concerned. I am concerned about the same issue and I want to contribute to the debate because I want the new Minister to know the sheer strength of feeling in certain parts of Britain about onshore wind.
Before 2005, I would have thought of myself as a supporter of renewable energy in all its forms; there was no issue for me. Indeed, in Montgomeryshire we had several onshore wind farms and I had not expressed any particular opposition to those, because if they are limited in number they do not have a huge impact on the environment. However, a plan for a scheme suddenly emerged from the Welsh Assembly Government, as they were called—they are now called the Welsh Government—that identified an area of mid-Wales to be designated for a huge development of a dedicated 400 kW line that would probably be about 35 miles long. That might be fine in some parts of the country, but this would go up a narrow valley, right into the heart of mid-Wales—my constituency—and because this is a dedicated line it inevitably means that there would be, depending on the size of the turbines, perhaps 500 to 700 turbines in a relatively small, beautiful area of Britain. There are five applications now, which it was announced yesterday are going to a joint appeal later on.
We have to be careful about considering developing onshore wind in beautiful parts of Britain. Huge damage could be caused for little benefit. I am concerned about, and want the Minister to look at, the aesthetic impact of onshore wind turbines in large scale and great density, because that should be a material consideration in how we deal with such developments. We should not just look at the figures, because we know that offshore wind, for example, is more expensive to develop than onshore wind.
By taking offshore wind seriously, we will stand a much better chance of bringing its cost down to where it becomes competitive with onshore wind.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problem in his area, which I understand—I have debated the matter with him several times—but will he provide some solutions and talk about how his community is developing things such as biomass, geothermal and various other sources of energy, rather than just attacking the onshore wind developments? Can he come up with some solutions, because his area will need electricity in future and will need to generate its own electricity?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are various alternatives coming through, and I would give support to all of them. Developing renewable energy and moving forward to meet climate change targets often involves intrusive developments, and we have to put up with them, but I am concerned about the scale of the project. We cannot afford to be overly balanced in our comments if we are talking about making an impact at British level. One issue dominates in most constituencies, but definitely for me, and I stick at it, repeating things again and again. The Minister will become sick of it; he has been in the job only for a while, but his predecessor must have been sick of me. Every chance I get, I shall hammer home the fact that the operation of one of our policies is destined to desecrate my constituency. My duty to my constituency is to try to stop it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing the debate and apologise for being late, as I was attending a Bill Committee early this morning. I apologise, too, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who has just had a knee operation and is out of action, and my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), who is attending a Select Committee this morning.
I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) about technical advice note 8 and that policy needs to be revised. My biggest concern about TAN 8 and our planning process is that some developments are determined by the UK Government and some by the Welsh Government, based on the arbitrary level of 50 MW. I have two TAN 8 areas, one being area G in Brechfa, where there will be four or five different developments. They are all being determined individually, although the impact on people’s lives is cumulative. Should not all those developments be determined together, rather than individually?
That is a difficult intervention for me to respond to, although I will, because for several years I would have been supportive of the very point that he makes, which is about devolving responsibility for large-scale wind farms to the National Assembly. The reality, however, is that the policy and attitude in the Assembly and among the Welsh Government are such that I have said publicly that I would not support that policy now if I were to stand here for 100 years, simply because they are so determined to drive forward.
I was making a short speech, and Opposition Members have been looking at their watches, so I feel that I have contributed sufficiently. Thank you for the opportunity to speak, Sir Alan. I shall now allow others to contribute.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, and to speak after my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who I am delighted is an honorary north Walian for the morning—that is excellent, we always welcome tourists.
I place on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for securing this important debate. He follows in the footsteps of other great Welsh radicals such as Megan Lloyd George and Cledwyn Hughes in representing north Wales’s great island constituency. He is a great expert on energy with a passion for the low-carbon economy and a deep concern for how we can best meet the energy needs of our nation.
What has been encouraging this morning is to hear that we are not nimbys, that we support green energy and that we have a passion for low carbon throughout the UK but especially in our area of north Wales. We are passionate for the introduction of further renewable energy in the UK as a whole, including north Wales, and more wind energy, on and offshore, must be part of the mix. We in the House urgently need to support moves to encourage better, cleaner energy production, and it must be our task to promote the development of low-carbon energy in whatever way possible. If we are to do that sensibly and in a long-term and sustainable way, we must be careful about how energy policies are achieved and mindful of our choices when beginning new projects.
Let me share an example from my constituency, a proposal that even the writers of the most outlandish science fiction films could not have come up with. Imagine a designated area of outstanding national beauty—the Clwydian range and Dee valley—and then imagine plans for onshore wind turbines to be placed just outside it. That is the Mynydd Mynyllod wind farm proposal: 25 turbines, each 145 metres tall, at the foot of the Berwyn mountains. They would be placed in a non-TAN 8 area, an area not specifically designated for wind farms, and would each stand one and a half times the height of Big Ben.
It is encouraging to hear in the debate and throughout the House the support and the passion of the support for wind energy, but most Members would not therefore suggest, as a logical consequence, that wind farms can be sited absolutely everywhere—not, I suggest, at the side of Westminster abbey and perhaps not on the dome of St Paul’s cathedral or even on the humble and rather unremarkable piece of grass outside that is College green. Why therefore the double standard that allows turbines to be placed right by the Clwydian range and Dee valley area of outstanding national beauty? There is a great debate about whether wind turbines are beautiful—that is probably in the eye of beholder—but just as one would never place a large mural replicating Picasso next to Big Ben, it surely cannot be appropriate to site 25 wind turbines each of 475 feet on the outskirts of one of Wales’s and, indeed, Britain’s most beautiful natural areas, as evidenced by the AONB status.
To tackle climate change effectively, the Government need to harness intelligent, renewable forms of energy, and wind farms need to be part of the overall proposals to make such positive changes. Let us be creative and innovative, and look at better places for new developments and not simply site them without reference to their surroundings. The action group STEMM—Stop the Exploitation of Mynydd Mynyllod—rightly notes that the effect of the turbines at Mynydd Mynyllod would extend far beyond local residents, affecting visitor numbers, hotels and bed and breakfasts, and the numbers at local campsites and caravan parks, putting our precious and often precarious rural economy at risk. That is why hundreds of people have spoken out against the proposals and the recently added plans for further turbines in nearby Llandrillo. That is why I am pleased to support the campaign.
The First Minister of Wales—a member of the hon. Lady’s party—recently stated that he was in favour of full devolution of all energy powers. Last spring, I introduced a Bill to achieve that aim, but the hon. Lady and her colleagues marched through the No Lobby with the Tories. Where does she stand now?
I wondered whether the hon. Gentleman might be making his intervention to support Tal Michael in the North Wales police area, which seems to be a popular thing for his colleagues to do. The whole issue of energy is complex. Many of the major decisions will involve both Governments and we have to have that discussion, so what the First Minister has to say is worthy of debate. Let us have that discussion, because we will stand up for Wales, while the hon. Gentleman’s party will sell it down the river to a poorer future.
To return to my text, the great 19th century Welsh poet Ceiriog, who lived in another beautiful part of my constituency, wrote the famous poem “Aros Mae’r Mynyddoedd Mawr”, often translated as “Still the mighty mountains stand”. Those mountains of the Clwydian range stand and wait for all those who love and appreciate our uniquely beautiful landscape in north Wales. One thing I am pretty certain about, however, is that what they do not stand for is gigantic wind turbines, which, if situated there, would destroy the natural environment and profoundly alter the character and the economy of the area. The proposal needs to go back to the drawing board, and unless it is radically altered and more sensible geographical alternatives are considered, that is where it should stay.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing the debate. The six north Wales Labour Members who have been in attendance today met six weeks ago and decided to put in for the debate en bloc. My hon. Friend secured it, and we have come out in force today to support him. [Interruption.] As he correctly points out, it is his idea and his debate, so we are present to support him.
About nine years ago, I was approached by RWE npower renewables and asked to support the erection of 30 turbines off the coast of my constituency—the North Hoyle turbines. I looked at the situation, listened with care and agreed to support that. The company listened carefully. I asked it how many jobs would be created, and it said only seven in the first instance, most of which would be filled from Scotland, which has deep-water expertise. I asked it to connect with the coastal communities by putting together a fund. It was probably going to do that anyway, but it did so with style. It allocated £30,000 a year to Prestatyn and £30,000 a year to Rhyl. When the Rhyl Flats turbines were switched on just five or six miles down the coast, I again asked for funding for Rhyl and Prestatyn, but it said no. When I asked again, it said yes to Rhyl with an extra £15,000, but no to Prestatyn.
The company has connected with those coastal communities through those funds. The fund proposed for Gwynt y Môr is £19 million over 25 years, which is considerable. We live in a convergence area that was a European objective 1 area. I am asking RWE npower renewables whether that £19 million can be clean money to multiply up to perhaps £100 million as match funding for European structural funds. That could have a huge impact on the coastal communities, many of which, such as Rhyl, Prestatyn and Colwyn Bay, are suffering. The insolvency figures for last year came out on Monday, and five of the top towns for insolvency in the UK are seaside towns, two of them in my constituency. An investment of tens of millions of pounds over the next 10 or 20 years could have a big impact in those coastal communities. It has had an impact so far, and it will have an impact in future.
I turn to the politics. When I switched on the North Hoyle lights about six years ago, the Prime Minister, who was then Leader of the Opposition, was in north Wales at Llandudno for the Tory party conference. He referred to the turbines and called them giant bird blenders. We all know that he then went on to hug a husky at the north pole and said how important environmental credentials are for the Conservative party, but he was facing both ways at the same time, and that was echoed by his Tory Welsh Assembly Members. The Tory AM for Aberconwy, Janet Finch-Saunders, said that the Gwynt y Môr project will damage tourism in north Wales and is viable only with massive Government subsidies for renewables.
Political careers were built in north Wales on the back of opposition to offshore wind farms off the coast of north Wales, and it is interesting that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) and the Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) are not here today, because I believe that opposition to wind farms helped to build their political careers. That opposition continues at a high political level. The Chancellor referred to supporters of renewables as the “environmental Taliban”, comparing us with Taliban terrorists who shoot 14-year-old girls in the head for standing up for education. That is the level of debate, the terminology and the lexicon that is being used by leaders of the Tory party, and there is no escaping that. However, I make an honourable exception of councillors in Prestatyn in my constituency, many of whom were Conservatives, but stood up, supported wind farms, and went against the flow, and they should be commended for supporting the North Hoyle and Rhyl Flats wind farms.
I move on to a less party political point. Offshore wind farms will make a big difference in my community to tourism and job creation. If RWE npower renewables is tied in with our further education and higher education sectors in north Wales, that could make north Wales a world base for renewable energy, and we could exploit our expertise around the world. When countries are considering offshore renewables, north Wales and the north-west could be the first port of call.
The vision for the future is exciting. The finance is available from the green investment bank and 20 other independent and private sector banks and from the European Investment Bank. The future is bright for renewables in north Wales, and I ask the Minister to respond positively and to go against his leadership and support Labour MPs in north Wales; and I ask MPs generally to ensure that renewable offshore wind is a key component of the British energy market.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this important debate and, more importantly, on his unstinting efforts to develop a range of energy resources on Anglesey. He has made enormous efforts to harness its unique combination of resources and location to generate electricity and provide much-needed jobs. He recognises that it is never easy to attract new industry and jobs, but the problem is being exacerbated by the Government’s uncertainty and dithering, their lack of a clear industrial strategy, and their tendency to respond with knee-jerk reactions, instead of working with the industry.
My hon. Friend has recognised the unique potential of north Wales to provide energy for the future, whether using marine currents around the coast or the wind to generate electricity. North Wales is well provided with natural resources, which enables it to make a significant contribution to our energy needs while generating much-needed local jobs, using the skill base to which he referred.
The UK is extremely well endowed with wind resource. It certainly has the best resource in Europe, and some estimates suggest that the UK has 40% of Europe’s potential wind power. The north Wales coast certainly has its fair share. To make a success of that renewable energy potential, we need a Government who are wholeheartedly behind the industry, and what industry wants above all else is certainty, consistency and clarity. To make long-term investments, industry needs to know that the Government are not going to move the goal posts.
We understand why the Government make industry nervous. Last year, we saw the utterly disgraceful fiasco of the unilateral cuts in feed-in tariffs. People in the industry understood that the tariffs would be gradually tapered downwards, but, preposterously, the Government suddenly imposed a cut, even before the end of the consultation period, leaving businesses racing to install solar panels before deadlines; provoking difficulties in the supply chain, because manufacturers, fearful of being left with redundant stock, ran down production; and leaving out of pocket self-employed plumbers who had risen to the challenge of green energy and forked out on courses to train themselves up in installing solar panels. Housing associations across Wales were forced to abandon plans to provide solar panels that would have benefited local low-income households, and people lost confidence in what community projects would deliver That was all because the Government chose to push the industry over a series of cliff edges, instead of allowing it to progress down a gentle slope.
In the wake of the lack of consultation on feed-in tariffs, the Government, far from reassuring industry that they will consult properly with it in future, are doing the reverse. Not many people know that on the last day before we rose for the summer recess and, predictably, without any consultation, the Government sneaked out an announcement that they are abandoning the long-standing commitment that public consultations should normally last 12 weeks. It is outrageous to suggest that as little as two weeks, and sometimes no consultation at all, is appropriate for decisions that impact on industry, businesses, trade associations, unions, local government and the public.
So there it is, plain for all to see in black and white: the Government are abandoning any pretence at engagement and consultation. That really is a blow to far-sighted industrialists who want to work with the Government to deliver energy infrastructure. Will the Minister assure us that he intends to work with industry, and that he can influence his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and in the Treasury to provide the certainty that we need for continued investment in offshore wind? We need to ensure not only that the huge investment that goes into offshore wind farms such as the Celtic array benefits the local work force with the work to construct and maintain the wind turbines, but that the conditions are right for the supply chain and the manufacture of components here in the UK. Unfortunately, there is a lack of clarity, and lack of a clear industrial strategy.
A fortnight ago, with other MPs and AMs from south-west Wales, I visited Port Talbot steel works, where Tata has invested £185 million to rebuild a blast furnace, and £55 million to create a gas-cooling system. During our discussion there, we were reminded that when Dr Karl-Ulrich Köhler, head of Tata Europe, had visited the plant in July, he called on the UK Government to take down obstacles to growth. Dr Köhler said that the £240 million investment in Wales showed the company’s commitment, but that Tata needs Ministers to help
“to remove obstacles that are in our way as far as competitiveness is concerned”.
One point Dr Köhler was referring to was the Government’s decision to impose an unrealistically high carbon floor price. That burden on energy-intensive industries is unique to the UK. It is bad enough ever to impose punitively high carbon floor prices on industry, but to do so when steel manufacturers are struggling to fill their order books, because many of their customers are caught up in the Government’s double-dip recession, is utterly stupid.
We all accept that it is difficult for manufacturing industry to compete with countries that have very cheap labour costs or low environmental standards, but the carbon floor price makes us uncompetitive even when compared with other European countries that have similar standards of living and similar environmental standards. The Government should be working with our fellow Europeans on reducing emissions to create a level playing field, not imposing a burden unique to the UK manufacturing sector.
It is all very well for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to claim that it has announced a £250 million package for energy-intensive industries, but that will be spread very thinly, and it would have been better if the Government had not imposed such a high carbon floor price in the first place. Karl-Ulrich Köhler also called on the Government to think about their supply chain more strategically—in other words, to ensure that we provide a domestic market for the steel that we produce. The challenge to the Government is what measures they can take to encourage maximum use of UK-manufactured components in the construction of offshore wind farms.
Colleagues in Tata have calculated that offshore wind turbines can use more than 1,000 tonnes of steel and typically use at least six different types of steel, but that some UK offshore wind developments have only 10% UK content, with all the major steel components being imported from outside Europe. Tata estimates that the UK market for offshore wind will be 4 million tonnes of steel by 2020, and through investments in the UK, Tata Steel has indicated a clear intention to be part of that market. All too often, however, new supply chains present a risk to developers, and they tend to prefer current suppliers in Germany and elsewhere, which means that the UK is nowhere near capturing the full economic benefit of those developments. We certainly do not want a repeat of what is happening in Scotland, where the Scottish National party Government are replacing the Forth road bridge at a cost of £790 million and the consortium building the bridge chose to use 37,000 tonnes of Chinese steel to be fabricated in China, Poland and Spain.
In 2011, the Minister’s predecessor said that in taking forward the next stage of offshore wind development we must ensure that the supply chain jobs come to the UK. Therefore, for continued investment in offshore wind and the supply chain, we really need to know that the new Energy Minister is on the side of industry. It is no secret that he has expended considerable energy campaigning against proposed wind farms in his Lincolnshire constituency, and that, back in 2009, he insisted on regional TV:
“Wind turbines are a terrible intrusion in our flat Fenland landscape. Renewable energy needs to pass the twin tests of environmental and economic sustainability and wind power fails on both counts.”
Is he opposed to all wind farms, or only those in his constituency?
How can I describe the attitude of the new Secretary of State for Wales towards wind farms? To call it lukewarm would be very generous indeed. His antipathy to Gwynt y Môr was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), and the Secretary of State is well known for his scathing comments about the Welsh Government’s TAN 8. Back in 2006, he treated the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs to his views on the Rhyl Flats many times over. Now he has said that he wants to work with the Welsh Government, but he will do Wales no good at all if he greets potential investors in offshore wind with a lukewarm approach.
I hope that the new Energy Minister might now be converted to the cause and that he will go out with evangelical enthusiasm to convert our new Secretary of State for Wales. Sadly, however, with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs an advocate of shale gas fracking, and the Energy Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales both seemingly wind farm sceptics, potential low-carbon investors could be forgiven for thinking that the Government are boosting support for the oil and gas industry, throwing doubt on how much support there will be for renewables and undermining the Prime Minister’s pledge to be the greenest Government yet.
Small wonder that a fortnight ago we heard that major green businesses sent letters to Ministers. Siemens, Alstom UK, Mitsubishi Power Systems, Areva, Doosan, Gamesa and Vestas, which together employ 17,500 people in the UK energy sector, say that a lack of decision-making and threats to relax environmental targets have caused them to reassess the political risk of investing in the UK. It is serious stuff when such companies are threatening to go elsewhere and we could lose thousands of new jobs. It would be tragic if we lost new investment in renewables simply because the Government are not only dithering, but backtracking on their supposed commitment to a green agenda. In addition, more than 50 companies and non-governmental organisations, including Microsoft, Asda, EDF and Sky, released a similar letter demanding an end to uncertainty over the direction of the UK’s energy policy and the inclusion of a decarbonisation target in the upcoming energy Bill.
The Minister’s predecessor summarised what we need to do in his article for The Observer this weekend, when he said that
“our future can’t depend on gas alone… Energy security can only be delivered with a mix of technologies… Renewables harness the exceptional resources of these islands… Harnessing our low-carbon potential isn’t just right environmentally, but it is a central plank of energy security… But there isn’t much time left. Decisions on where to invest are being made now. Uncertainty and hostility would undermine the UK’s ability to secure the jobs and economic benefits from the supply chain for those new power plants. And if those companies walk away from the UK, it is a permanent loss and we all pay the price.”
To sum up, will the Minister confirm his unreserved support for the development of offshore wind in north Wales, and state whether those investments will enjoy the full support of his colleague, the new Secretary of State for Wales? Assuming that the mixed messages from his Government have not frightened companies off from investing in renewables in north Wales, will he also tell us what policies he will pursue to keep jobs in the supply chain in the UK—jobs in the steel industry and in the various components industries?
I thank the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for drawing the House’s attention to this important matter and for securing the debate. His advocacy of the interests of his constituency is a model of good representation. When I entered the Chamber today and saw the array of his Welsh colleagues, I reflected for a moment on what the collective noun for a group of Welsh people is. I thought perhaps a “choir”, a “valley”, or a “Barry John”, but then, given my experience of Wales, I decided that it would be a “charm” of Welsh Members.
I will attempt to respond to the points raised in the short time available to me. The hon. Gentleman began by highlighting four points. He talked about the need for a viable energy mix, and he is right that to maintain energy security and build resilience into the system, we need a mixed range of energy generation. Renewables are an important part of that mix. He mentioned clarity— a point reflected by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)—and certainty. The Energy Bill will provide precisely that.
If I were a more partisan man, I might say that the Energy Bill should have passed through the House long ago, because we have known for a long time that we need extra resources and to replace the generating resource. Indecision has characterised policy in the past, but let us put that to one side. We now have the chance for a Bill that provides just that clarity and certainty, and just the platform for investment that produces the kind of mixed array of energy generation sought by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn. He also spoke about skills, which are critical.
I am grateful to the Minister for trying to charm Welsh Opposition Members. He mentioned the Energy Bill. I agree that for many decades there should have been greater investment in our infrastructure and that the dash for gas in the ’80s and ’90s was wrong. We are now back to square one, because the gas has run out. Will the Minister clearly tell the House when he expects the Bill to be laid before Parliament, and when we can start debating these issues? It is already a year and a half late, as the Government first announced it 18 months ago.
I expect it to be laid before Parliament next month, but it would be wrong for me to pitch above my pay grade. The Leader of the House will have a view about the parliamentary timetable, which will of course be agreed through the usual channels.
None the less, we anticipate that the Bill will be laid next month. I hope that we can get on with the business of scrutinising it carefully, ensuring that it is fit for purpose and that we have a largely consensual strategy based on a shared understanding of energy needs and a determination to develop a long-term view about what our energy future should look like. I do not think that there is much difference between the parties in the Chamber today about the fundamentals, but let me highlight some of the areas that need greater clarification—the sort of clarification that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn sought in his opening remarks. Before I do so, however, I want to deal with his point about skills.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of skills in this mix, and he knows—indeed, he mentioned it—that the higher education and further education sectors, in Wales and elsewhere, are playing a key role in providing the skills that are necessary, particularly in the emerging technologies, to make the aim a reality and to provide the jobs that are desirable and the competences necessary to bring about the future that I describe.
The hon. Gentleman raises those issues against a background of change in his constituency; I am thinking of the closure of Wylfa and the associated closure of Anglesey Aluminium, but also of the great success that his constituency has enjoyed in respect of offshore wind. He makes the very important point that to provide secure, affordable, low-carbon energy resources, we have to face up to some of the challenges associated with the development of the offshore wind industry.
Let me be clear: offshore wind remains an important part of Government policy in meeting the objective of providing the mix that the hon. Gentleman suggested was essential, that we certainly believe is vital and that will be underpinned by the provisions of the Energy Bill. Offshore wind is one source of affordable energy. It provides a free and limitless domestic supply of fuel. We have a great deal of resource because we have shallow seas, consistent winds and an increasingly skilled work force who have experience of working offshore.
The challenge—this point was made by a number of hon. Members—is to ensure that the whole of our kingdom gets the most benefit from the investment. That is about the supply chain, I agree; as a direct result of the contribution from the hon. Member for Llanelli, I will look again at what measures we can put in place to ensure that we get maximum benefit, through the supply chain, from these important developments.
Furthermore, we need to provide absolute certainty for those who want to invest. Investment in this sector, because it is an emerging sector, is inevitably a matter that people will consider very carefully. It is not a long-established sector, with all that that means. The technology is relatively new. The scale necessary to drive down costs is only just beginning to emerge. Therefore, the commitment that the Government make to offshore wind is important in signalling to potential investors that they can consider this option without fear of a policy lurch or change.
That is another reason, by the way, why it is important to develop an energy strategy that is consensual—because, of course, policy can change when there is a change of Government or Minister. Governments do not last for ever, and Ministers sometimes last for even less time, so it is very important that a signal is sent out from the House and through what the Government say and do.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn talked at length about some of the specific impacts on his constituency, but of course there is a specific impact across the whole of Wales. We have heard a great deal about the Gwynt y Môr wind turbine development, which is currently under construction. It has already helped to generate significant economic opportunities and create new jobs in Wales and more widely.
The port of Mostyn will serve as the operations and maintenance base throughout the life of that development. Turbine Transfers, which is based in Anglesey, as the hon. Gentleman knows, will supply transfer vessels and crew. It has already created, I think, 20 new jobs as a result. DRB Group, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who also contributed to the debate, will provide crane units. Prysmian Cables in Wrexham won an order to provide cables worth some £15 million. Jones Bros of Ruthin won a multi-million pound contract for preparatory groundworks for the building of a substation. A little further south, Mabey Bridge in Chepstow won a contract to provide drill components.
We know that there is a significant supply-chain impact and that that has a real value in terms of jobs and skills, and we should understand the offshore wind industry in that way. This is not simply about the short-term benefits that may arise from a particular development; it is about building an infrastructure, in terms of supply, jobs and skills, that can benefit the whole of Wales and the whole of the kingdom.
Let me say again that we understand that renewables are an important part of that mix and that offshore wind is part of that. However, there are questions to be asked—indeed, they have been asked in this debate by a number of hon. Members, who put their case very well.
Yes, the hon. Member for Ynys Môn is right to say—other hon. Members made this point, too—that costs should fall as scale grows. It is right that we see the support that we give this industry at its beginning as rather different from how it will compete subsequently. That is true across the energy marketplace, by the way. We need to move to a more market-responsive, more competitive energy marketplace, including in the area of renewables.
It is also right, as a number of hon. Members suggested, that community benefit needs to be at the heart of what we do. These things must not be imposed on communities, which must feel a sense of ownership and influence over where they are located. Community benefits need to be considered very seriously. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) was able to secure such a benefit for his community. He was right to do so. We have a role to play in that as local constituency MPs. As a Government, we will also do what we can, as I have in the call for evidence on onshore wind. That obliges us to reconsider the benefits that communities attain from that kind of development.
Let me say a few words about onshore wind, because my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) raised that issue. I entirely agree that we must see it as being about aesthetics as well as utility. I regard it as almost extraordinary that people can stare at some monstrous concrete structure and tell me that it is beautiful. These are industrial structures. Placing them insensitively, in areas where there is large-scale and understandable opposition to them, has done immense damage to the debate about renewables. I think that we need to settle the onshore wind argument to get on the front foot and have a more positive debate about renewables—of the kind that we have had today. I think that we need a new paradigm in those terms. E. F. Schumacher, who wrote “Small is Beautiful”, a wonderful book, which I am sure you are familiar with, Sir Alan—
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way, but I did ask the question initially about port development. Will he work with the Welsh Assembly Government and the port authority of Holyhead to maximise the potential of that port? Will he, as a Minister, come and see it—see the potential for himself?
For a sumptuous Welsh lunch, which the hon. Gentleman will no doubt provide? Of course.
“Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology toward the organic, the gentle, the elegant and beautiful.”
I associate myself with those remarks. We need to understand the impact of industrial structures in rural communities, and to that end we need a different settlement on community ownership, community engagement and community benefit. However, let me be clear. The Government are firmly committed to the development of UK offshore wind resources. We understand their significance and value. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn has done us all a service in allowing this Chamber to consider that value and that significance in this short debate.
Rail Freight Traffic
I apologise in advance, Sir Alan, because, as you can probably tell, I picked up a rotten cold over the weekend, so my accent is probably even less understandable to hon. Members than it normally is. I will do my best.
It is not possible for me to overemphasise the threat that the proposed swingeing increase in charges for access to the rail network poses to the coal industry. I appreciate that the Office of Rail Regulation is obliged to consult on track access charges ahead of the next contractual period, as has happened twice before, but the last time a rise was proposed—for 2009 to 2014—the ORR subsequently listened to responses from the coal and power industries and ended up cutting charges. It is all the more surprising then that it should now seek to raise charges to the coal industry by a massive 64%. It has proposed introducing an additional freight-specific track access charge to apply to electrical supply industry coal and spent nuclear only, which could increase the cost of Scottish coal delivered to English power stations by £4.50 a tonne.
Apart from causing a further switch from coal to gas and encouraging a modal switch from rail to road, the impact would be catastrophic for Scottish producers, who are already in a precarious position.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it seems bizarre when the Government are talking about energy security that the effect of the charge is that we will be more likely to import coal, rather than using coal from our shores?
I certainly do agree, and I intend to raise that point later in my speech.
The charge would exclude Scottish-produced coal from the English market, resulting in a reduction in output of up to £3 million tonnes a year and, as my hon. Friend said, its replacement by imports. More than 1,000 direct jobs will be lost in an area of already high unemployment, particularly in the west of Scotland. Even the threat of the proposal is constraining investment, and it is imperative that it is withdrawn immediately.
I assure my hon. Friend that I can understand her Ayrshire accent perfectly well this morning, even though she has a cold. Does she agree that it is concerning that the ORR seems to be suggesting that the electricity coal industry can afford to pay the increases, when there are problems in the industry in Ayrshire and jobs are under threat?
Yes, totally. I intend to cover that topic later in my speech.
We are only too aware that the charge is proposed in a context of revenue-raising efforts and cuts across the board. The Government seek to end what they regard as a subsidy to the power industry. I argue that the proposal is ill thought out, counter-productive, at odds with existing Government policy and amounts to a possibly fatal attack on the coal industry, especially in Scotland and my constituency.
I will provide some background to the current position of the coal industry in Scotland. It is well publicised that coal mining in the UK is struggling. Contrary to the statements in the consultation documents about high international coal prices, the reality is that coal prices have fallen by some 30% so far this year. The recent trading announcements from a number of coal industry companies, which show an industry under severe financial pressures, reflect that. Margins are wafer thin and there have already been redundancies in Scotland, including in my constituency. Scottish Coal, for example, is consulting on 100 redundancies on top of a 10% cut in wages for the whole work force—hardly a thriving industry.
An increase of £4.50 a tonne in freight charges for supplies to England will lead to an immediate reduction in output, as high-ratio coals within existing sites are abandoned, with the possibility of some sites closing altogether. The suggested track charge increase could double the cost of coal transport from east Ayrshire to customers in England. That increase will impact heavily on the viability of coal operations in Scotland, with the very real prospect of mine closures. If operations involving the three companies in my constituency close, it will have a devastating impact on employment—direct and indirect.
We, of course, have already experienced the devastation of mine closures in our communities, so we know the results only too well. The area has never really recovered from the closure of deep mining in the ’80s, but open-cast mining has thrown us a lifeline, with well-paid jobs and community benefit. History has shown that local people are prepared to tolerate inconvenience and blight on their landscape, because they know how important the jobs are for every generation.
My hon. Friend has rightly identified that people have been prepared to accept the surface mining open-cast industry in many of our communities. Does she agree that that will be put at risk if coal is transferred back to the roads, rather than transported by rail?
Yes, and some of the companies are not in a position to do that, even if they wanted to.
In 2012, 1,196 people are directly employed in open-cast mining in Scotland and 704 in east Ayrshire, which has the greatest number of coal sites in Scotland and the highest number employed in the industry. It produces more coal than any other area in Scotland and that is worth some £9.4 million to the local community. Following the decline of the deep mining sector and the devastation that followed, decline has set in and has been difficult to shift. The area has had consistently higher than average unemployment rates, population decline and trends of low economic activity and a high percentage of jobs in the public and retail sectors and areas of high relative deprivation. I am sure that the Minister gets the picture, but, if not, he is welcome to come to see for himself. The bottom line is that under no circumstances can we afford to lose the relatively secure, well-paid, private sector employment and input to the local community that the open-cast mines bring.
The consultation includes a range of suggested charge increases, but an increase of £4.50 a tonne is forecast. The consultation states that coal producers could absorb that increase in track charges, but no evidence base is presented to support the assertion and it appears to be just an arbitrary statement. Furthermore, the consultation proposes that the coal and the nuclear industries be singled out to be burdened with the increased track charges. A cynical view would be that the ORR sees those industries as a captive market without the ability to revert to road transport.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there has been an element of price stability in rail freight charges and that organisations and companies, such as Fergusson Group—one of the major suppliers of coal—in my constituency could not have factored in the massive price hike suggested in the consultation?
Yes. The regulator has a duty to ensure that companies can anticipate what the price regime will be, so that they can plan.
Figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change show that coal production in the UK was 17.9 million tonnes in 2011, and Scotland contributed 33% of that, as a part of supplying the UK’s coal-fed electricity generation needs. There are concerns that the consultation proposals are contrary to certain Government policies and, if implemented, could pose a serious threat to not only the coal industry, but the rail freight industry and, in particular, the viability of Scottish coal mines, as I said. Only a few minutes ago, the Freight Transport Association contacted me with its concerns about the potentially devastating impact on rail freight in Scotland.
Coal is a significant and essential component to electricity generation in the UK. It regularly contributes more than 50% of the electricity produced on a winter day and, quite commonly, 40% on a summer day. Against that background, requirements are also imposed by the large plant combustion directive, the industrial emissions directive and electricity market reform. Notwithstanding that, the key electricity market reform drivers are security of supply, affordability of electricity and decarbonisation.
The proposed increase in track charges will threaten the security of indigenous coal production if we accept that the result of such charges will be to shrink the coal market by 5% to 10%, as identified in the consultation. That would damage the secure industry base of coal-generated electricity capacity, which has been consistent at 40% to 50% of the total generation. Given the much longer haul from the mines in Scotland to the English power stations, the adverse consequences of the track charges will be disproportionately felt in Scotland compared with elsewhere in the UK.
On the affordability of electricity, the consultation assumes that the Scottish coal producers will absorb the increased costs. As previously stated, there is no evidence base for such an assumption, and the coal industry is currently under financial pressure. The additional costs will threaten mine viability, given the inevitable switch to gas by generators, and that will impact on price and the security of supply.
In the conclusion to the report “The impact of changes in access charges on the demand for coal”, the ORR consultants acknowledge the threat to Scottish-produced coal by the long-term impact of increased track charges on the development of future open-cast mines in Scotland. However, those concerns do not appear to have made it to the conclusions of the main consultation report. I can only assume that they believe that the Scottish coal industry and more than 1,000 Scottish jobs are expendable. What form of consultation was carried out by NERA—the ORR consultants—to allow the suggestion that the Scottish coal producers can bear the cost of any changes? The fact is that they cannot and will not absorb those extra costs.
The ORR charging regime could detrimentally affect employment and investment in Scotland’s mining sector and typically in economically deprived areas. Have the Scottish Government and relevant local authorities engaged with ORR to assess the potential effect, and will mitigation plans be drawn up should the proposals be implemented?
Would a 10% reduction—the reduction proposed by ORR for freight traffic—in passenger traffic be considered an acceptable result of increased track charges? If not, has ORR discriminated against the coal industry on the basis that it seems to be content to see a decline in real freight traffic?
Assuming a 5% to 10% reduction in UK coal production, there will be a requirement to increase the amount of coal that is imported, which will increase the carbon footprint in transport and probably increase carbon emissions. The transfer of environmental and social impacts overseas is of concern to the UK Government. The report “Securing the future—UK Government sustainable development strategy” states that environmental policy should encompass impacts outside the UK. It says that
“there would be little value in reducing environmental impacts within the UK if the result were merely to displace those impacts overseas.”
Those impacts would include the transport of raw materials into the UK. It is important that the UK makes the most of its indigenous coal assets and recognises that, apart from the important security of supply issue, a domestic minerals industry is the most sustainable way to supply the market.
In the market analysis section of the consultation, there is an acknowledgement that there could be a substantial reduction—up to 25%—in the demand for rail-hauled coal because
“there is scope for reductions in length of haul”.
As coal can only be mined where it exists, it appears to be a clear policy of the ORR to direct electricity generators to import coal via ports to achieve the shorter haul on rail that it alludes to in its analysis, rather than take indigenous UK coal. Owing to the substantially longer haul distances for Scottish mined coal to the English power stations, the track charge proposal can only be seen as a direct attack on the Scottish coal mines.
Furthermore, generators sourcing their coal from overseas will not be able to pass on any increased track charges to international coal producers. Despite all the crocodile tears that we have heard in the past couple of weeks, the only way in which those extra costs can be recovered is through increasing the price of electricity to the consumer. If there is a need substantially to increase coal imports, there is concern over whether there is enough rail-served deep port capacity to cope with the increase.
Carbon capture and storage projects are due to start in 2014. The proposed increase in track charges could seriously damage the prospects of such projects before they start. That would threaten the ability of the UK to build up its indigenous capacity and to be self-sufficient with respect to energy supply. We all know that carbon capture and storage is the way forward for the coal industry in the longer term.
It is clear from the ORR-commissioned reports that a distance-related charge creates significant market distortion. How is that acceptable in competition terms? The Scottish industry has invested tens of millions over recent years. How could this fundamental change in charging policy by the ORR have been reasonably anticipated, and hence the risk of stranded investments avoided?
Has the ORR constructed an economic impact assessment on how the increase in charge would affect the Scottish mining industry, and how will such a charge affect the rural communities in my constitueny? We have already been thrown to the wolves once before.
The coal industry is heavily dependent on a healthy rail freight sector, and any potential threat to it is also a direct threat to the coal industry. The Rail Freight Group issued its initial response to the consultation in a letter to the chief executive of the ORR on 28 May 2012. I note the RFG’s comment about how the ORR chose to balance its duties and whether undue weight was given to the duty to have regard to the funds available to the Secretary of State, perhaps at the expense of the duty to promote the use of the railway for rail traffic, and the duty to enable companies to plan their businesses with reasonable assurance. That concern seems to be backed up with the apparent acceptance by the ORR within the consultation document that a 10% drop in coal-rail traffic as a result of increased track charges is acceptable, without any analysis of the potential impact on the rail freight industry or on the coal industry as an end user.
In a letter to me on 1 October, the Minister stated:
“the Government wishes to facilitate the continuing development of a competitive, efficient and dynamic private sector rail freight industry. We are committed to ensuring that policies and regulations should work to this end and should not create unnecessary transactional costs or other obstacles to the achievement of these objectives and future growth. In an industry where planning and operational decision-making are increasingly devolved, we would wish ORR to have regard to the importance of sustaining efficient and commercially predictable network-wide freight operations when they take decisions about access rights and charging structure.”
Although that may not have been the unequivocal response that I would have liked, it did raise my hopes that the Minister understood what the impact of these proposals would be if they were put into practice.
All my comments show that the consultation has been blinkered. It has not considered the wider strategic effect if the suggested track charges are implemented. The proposed track charge increase appears arbitrary and not supported by any evidence base, as is the comment that the coal industry would be able to absorb such costs. That leads on to the unacceptable conclusion that there will be a reduction of 5% to 10% in coal transport by rail, which is an odd position for the ORR to support, bearing in mind that it has a duty to promote rail use.
If those charges are implemented, they will affect the viability of the UK coal industry, especially in Scotland, with the resultant increase in imports and carbon footprint and loss of employment. The practical effect of the proposals is a direct attack on the coal industry in Scotland and the likely withholding of further investment in the industry. The proposal would also seem to be contrary to other Government policies of indigenous energy generation, security and affordability of supply, employment and sustainable development.
I hope that the Government will agree that the most appropriate way forward is the maintenance of the status quo in respect of the current charging regime. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I apologise again for my slightly difficult throat.
Thank you, Sir Alan, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this debate. I think that all hon. Members taking part in it will join me in wishing her a speedy recovery from her affliction, although it did not seem to impinge in any way on her ability to make her case.
I also give the hon. Lady a commitment. I have just over 10 minutes in which to speak; if I do not deal with all the points she raised in her speech, I will write to her about them.
I will start by making two points that need to be made clear at the outset. First, the framework of charges for both freight and passenger operators is set independently of Government by the Office of Rail Regulation, which, as the hon. Lady knows, is the independent economic regulator for the railways in Great Britain. The ORR establishes the charging framework by means of a periodic review, which also establishes Network Rail’s outputs and funding.
Secondly, the proposals in the ORR’s consultation document are just that—proposals. The ORR has received a number of responses to those proposals, which it is now considering. I understand from the ORR that it intends to publish its decision on whether to introduce a freight-specific charge in its consultation conclusions document, which is to be published next month. I should reiterate that no decisions have been taken yet and that the ORR is aware of the concerns that have been raised by the hon. Lady, other hon. Members and other interested parties.
Given the fact that these are matters for the ORR, it follows that there is a limit to the extent to which it would be appropriate for me to make any comment on them. However, I can explain the steps the Government are taking to promote continuing growth in the rail freight industry.
We support the ORR’s plans to give the freight industry early assurance over the level of access charges by setting a cap on them. It is crucial to any industry’s forward planning that it has a clear indication of what its likely costs will be. The Government wish to facilitate the continuing development of a competitive, efficient and dynamic private sector rail freight industry. We are committed to ensuring that policies and regulations should work to that end and not create unnecessary transactional costs or other obstacles to the achievement of those objectives and future growth.
Although the Department for Transport cannot direct the ORR, we can and do provide guidance on the overall approach that we see as the framework for the ORR’s activities, and we expect the ORR to take that guidance into account in its decision making. For example, in an industry where planning and operational decision making are increasingly devolved, we want the ORR to have regard for the importance of sustaining efficient and commercially predictable network-wide freight operations when it takes decisions about access rights and charging structures.
Of course, as the hon. Lady will realise, it is not only the Westminster Government who provide guidance to the ORR; the Scottish Government provide guidance too. Scottish Ministers have stated that they expect the ORR, in developing the track access charges arrangements for freight operators, to use a mechanism that recognises the impact that freight operators have on the network but maintains the attractiveness of rail to freight customers and is sufficiently adaptable to prevent the outputs of businesses in Scotland from becoming uncompetitive in their key markets.
The Government’s strategy for the railways was set out in the March 2012 Command Paper.
The hon. Lady makes a pertinent point, but I think that she is trying to tempt me. What I said at the beginning of my comments—and this is perfectly valid—is that the ORR has made a number of suggestions and proposals that have been put out to consultation and it will reach conclusions on the right way forward when it makes its announcement in November.
As always in consultation documents, there is a range of options to be considered, some of which will be adopted while others will be discarded. That is part of the consultation process and it is perfectly valid, provided that the ORR considers the responses to the consultation and any guidance and advice that the British Government, the Scottish Government or others give them.
I was referring to the March 2012 Command Paper before the hon. Lady’s intervention. It set out how our passenger and freight railways support the Government’s overall transport vision: by supporting economic growth; by facilitating business, commuting and leisure journeys; by providing a greener transport option than road and aviation; and by relieving congestion on our road network. Among other things, the Command Paper states that there is a strong case for Government to continue providing support for the rail freight industry, to create a level playing field.
The rail network transports approximately 90 million tonnes of goods per year. It is of strategic importance—rail freight delivers more than a quarter of the containerised food, clothes and white goods we use and delivers nearly all the coal for the nation’s electricity generation. It also invests heavily in the provision of its services; there has been about £1.5 billion of private sector investment in rail freight since 1995.
The role of the rail network in the delivery of coal to the electricity supply industry should not be underestimated. In winter, coal-fired electricity generation regularly contributes more than half the country’s daily electricity needs, and even in summer it can commonly provide 40% of the supply.
I know that the Scottish coal producers play an important part in providing coal to power stations in England; more than 60% of their rail deliveries to the electricity supply industry are to English power stations. Clearly, the Scottish coal industry has a keen interest in the ORR consultation and in any determinations that could have an impact on its market, especially when about 78% of the UK power industry’s demand for coal burned by power stations is already met by imports rather than by domestic production—a point that the hon. Lady made very clearly in her speech.
There is a very delicate balancing act to be managed here, between trying on the one hand to ensure that Network Rail can recoup an appropriate share of the infrastructure management costs from the rail operators—the ORR’s proposals would be worth around £50 million a year in additional track access charges—and on the other hand trying to ensure that the charges on individual market sectors are not more than they can realistically absorb.
There are a number of elements to the charges that freight railway operators pay for access to the network: a capacity charge; a traction electricity charge; a fixed charge designed to recover the cost of freight-only lines; and the variable track usage charge that is the subject of this debate.
For the next funding control period starting in 2014, the ORR is proposing to replace the current freight fixed charge with a new charge designed to ensure that freight operators pay a contribution towards Network Rail’s fixed costs that are associated with rail freight. That charge would be levied on rail freight market sectors that have the ability to bear the charge.
The level of the charge, and the different sectors’ ability to pay it, is, as the hon. Lady knows, the basis for the ORR’s initial conclusions, which are at the heart of the consultation launched in May. Those initial conclusions suggest that the charges should be levied not only on electricity supply industry coal and the movement of spent nuclear fuels—as they are now—but on iron ore and other coal movements, and that these charges should be based on rail tonnage and possibly on distance travelled.
There is fierce competition in the logistics market, not only between the various freight operating companies but between the rail freight operators and the road haulage sector. It is also important to remember that whereas the rail sector is expected to pay all the external costs for its mode of transport—the cost of wear and tear on the infrastructure, and the cost of measures to mitigate environmental impacts—that is not currently the case for road transport.
That is one of the reasons why rail freight operators pay only a proportion of the track charges paid by franchised passenger operators. It is also one of the ways in which the Government have been seeking to level the playing field between road and rail. Moreover, it is worth bearing in mind that in control period 4, which covers the period from 2009 to 2014, rail freight benefited from a 29% reduction in its access charges.
As I am now running out of time, I say again that I will write to the hon. Lady on the other points that I had wished to make in response to this debate. However, in conclusion I will just come back to the point that I made at the beginning. The ORR has made its proposals as part of a consultation exercise and it has received a large number of representations. As is the case with any consultation, the ORR will now consider the arguments that have been made in the representations that it has received, in order to review its proposals before it takes further steps.
I assure the hon. Lady that the ORR will give full consideration to all the representations it receives from a wide group of people—from hon. Members, the British Government, the Scottish Government and others—before it publishes its recommendations later this year.
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure and honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I also welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss). This might be her first performance as a Minister here—perhaps not. I am sure she will enjoy this one as much as she may have enjoyed the previous one. She has appeared before the Select Committee on Education and gave a fine performance. I am sure that we are in for a treat.
I asked for this debate because it concerns an important policy that should be deliberated. We need to think how we can adapt the role and recruitment of governors for the challenges ahead in the education system, which is still being reformed, quite rightly.
I want to thank all the governors who govern. We have nearly 300,000 possible governors; there are some vacancies at the moment. They meet regularly, often in relatively difficult circumstances, to deliberate on their schools and education policy. They must be thanked for all that they contribute to their communities and their schools. What I have to say about reforming governors and governance has nothing to do with the devotion of most governors to good practice and to the future of their individual schools.
Lord Hill of Oareford, one of the other Ministers in the Department for Education, said:
“The most important decision-making group in any school is the governing body… Governing bodies should set the overall strategic direction of a school, hold the head teacher to account and have a relentless focus on driving up standards but not get dragged into micromanaging the school or the minutiae of its day-to-day activities.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I echo his words on the efforts of school governors. What does he think of the Secretary of State for Education’s description of school governors in his speech last July? He described them as
“Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status, not a job of work”.
Out of a total number of several hundred thousand governors, there are bound to be some who are not as good as others and some who are there for reasons not necessarily those that we would all expect or salute. As I said, we have to congratulate and thank all governors generally speaking but note that there are bound to be some who do not rise to the challenge.
I return to Lord Hill’s quotation because I shall address the debate in that spirit. I have been a governor—whether I am a local worthy is another matter—in total for about 20 years in various organisations, such as further education colleges and primary and secondary schools, so I do have some experience. I dealt with a difficult situation quite recently where governance had been judged inadequate and the future of the head teacher became an issue. I am no stranger to controversy in school governance, as well the more reasonable activities of a governor.
I managed to persuade the Education Committee to conduct a full-scale inquiry on school governance, and I see that a member of that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), is here. He will know that I was keen to do that, and I am pleased that we have an inquiry under way and that the first evidence session will take place in January.
I have also established an all-party group on school governance and leadership. The striking thing about that is that every time we have had a meeting we have had standing room only. There clearly is an appetite and interest in governance, governors and the policy around them. We have produced two publications: “Stronger Boards, Better Education” and “Who Governs the Governors?” We draw two significant conclusions from each of them. I will refer to the direction of travel in my remarks. The question of accountability is clearly at the core of who governs the governors. The question of skills versus stakeholders is clearly at the core of the quality of boards. I will set out those issues in more detail in due course.
As I have already said, there are a number of changes in the world of education, and the academies programme is clearly one of the most significant. It has significant implications for governance in several ways. I have referred to accountability, but the fact is that, as schools become more independent from local authorities, we should ask our governing system to fill the vacuum created. That is not an unfortunate vacuum—it is quite deliberate and quite right that schools are more independent and autonomous—but we must have a proper accountability system within schools.
Might it not have been a good idea, rather than to have had the vacuum and then work out how to fill it, to build the capacity first, so that there was no vacuum to fill? Would that not be a more consistent and sensible way to make public policy?
As I have already quoted Lord Hill’s view of governance and as the Education Act 2011 included reference to governance and talked about governors and the membership of governing bodies, that is on the agenda. I am simply saying that we need to think more about it now, but it has not been ignored. That is the key point. The context is the changing role of schools in terms of autonomy and accountability with implications for local authorities.
The next thing we should talk about is the role of Ofsted, which has a significant responsibility to check what governors are up to with regard to the performance of schools. The sad fact is that the chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, has said that 40% of governing bodies are satisfactory or inadequate. Therefore, 60% are doing a good job, but too many are not doing a good-enough job and some are doing a fairly poor job. We cannot have that because it is inconsistent with our objective of ensuring that all schools are good schools and, as part of that process, that governing bodies play their part.
That brings me to the question of local authorities when schools start to fail. Are they acting quickly enough and do they take bold enough decisions? For example, do they introduce an interim executive board when necessary, or do they wait until it is too late? There is evidence that they do the latter. We need to test that out and be bold enough and courageous enough to admit it. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) is nodding in agreement.
There is no defying the facts, which are that on occasion local authorities do not act swiftly enough. Interim executive boards are quite useful tools. The interesting thing is that when they are introduced they are swift at dealing with some of the problems that they encounter, largely because they have focused skills and are not stakeholder-oriented. They focus on how to make a school better. In my experience, putting in place interim executive boards has produced encouraging results. The kind of governing body that we should consider for all schools in the future should be more like an interim executive board and less like the kind of boards that we sometimes have, which are too big, too cumbersome and too focused on stakeholder situations.
The concept of a temporary executive board underlines the question of what exactly should be the role of the head teacher—we need clarity on this—which I had always thought to be executive, and the governing body, which I had always thought to be non-executive. In a sense, if we are talking about establishing an executive body, we must question whether the non-executive piece has done the right job. However, I am not sure whether we can equate the work of an executive temporary body with that of the governing body. I am interested to hear about the clarity that we will need between executive and non-executive bodies.
That is an interesting question, but what I am trying to sketch out is the nature of the board itself. A board of 20 members and stakeholders, which effectively salutes the status quo and wants the status quo to be maintained, is a different thing from a smaller, more flexible and more responsive board that is charged with the task of improving the school. That is the distinction that I am trying to draw out, and we should have that in mind when we think about future governing bodies.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on his work in the all-party group. It is encouraging that such issues are being discussed. I apologise, Mrs Main, that I will not be able to stay for the rest of the debate. We have a Minister appearing before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, so I will have to disappear shortly.
On the potential conflict, or clash of ideas, between stakeholder and skills, does the hon. Gentleman not feel that it is possible to stick with some form of stakeholder model but look at how we can ensure that the balance of skills is there as well, so that we cover both perspectives?
I knew that the hon. Gentleman had been approached, which is why I felt at liberty to mention it and to encourage him to participate as vigorously as he obviously will. He is absolutely right about the stakeholder versus skills matter, but I believe that we need more skills and less emphasis on stakeholders. If we have too many stakeholders with vested interests, who are thinking about the status quo and not wanting to upset the apple cart, we are going down the route of not facing up to the big decisions. Governing bodies would be wiser to focus more on skills than on stakeholders, and that is the direction of travel that we should go in. The Government have already relaxed the rules about local authority governors, and we should go further and say, “Look, there is the emphasis on skills rather than the stakeholders.”
I have been the chairman of several governing bodies and a member of many, and I have seen stakeholders represent their groups and their communities extraordinarily well, but they do not necessarily ensure that the tough decisions are made in the school, and that is the distinction that I draw. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting the spotlight on that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I agree with him about ensuring that governors who come on board have those skills, which they can use to hold the head teacher and the rest of the executive to account, but at the moment there are some 30,000 governor vacancies in the country. How do we go about filling them and ensuring that the people who are chosen have the right skills?
That is a really good question, to which there are two answers. If you have everything corralled off into stakeholder groups, you are—are you not?—limiting the number of people who you can recruit. By definition, the pool is necessarily smaller. If you say that you must have parent governors or local authority governors—
Order. I have waited quite a while before saying anything, but may I now issue a gentle reminder to the hon. Gentleman? Quite a few hon. Members seem to be speaking directly to him rather than through the Chair. I have not had any input into this matter, so I advise the hon. Gentleman to direct his comments through the Chair.
That is a really important point, Mrs Main. I am suitably chastened.
If a governing body is recruiting from a relatively small pool, it will, by definition, be harder to recruit. That is my first point. My second point is whether we need to have 20 people sitting around the table. Should we not be looking at smaller governing bodies?
Governing bodies should recruit people from outside the education field as well, because it is imperative that schools have a better relationship with businesses, thereby improving career opportunities for their pupils. Part of a governing body’s role is to provide an interface between the school and future employment and further and higher education.
Let me now focus on the role of the chairman and the need for them to be properly trained and, possibly, remunerated. If we want someone who is going to spend quality time with the head teacher and who is able and willing to challenge them and to support them when they are implementing necessary changes, we need someone who has the commitment, the appropriate professional skills and, if necessary, the reward. I want to put on the table now the idea that we should be remunerating people. This is not a new idea, and it has been advanced by others, not least the chief inspector at Ofsted, and we need to consider it very carefully.
Another element of the role of the chair is whether or not they have been formally assessed. We need to introduce a system in which assessment is rigorous. We do not want a few old friends gathering around for a cup of coffee, slapping one another on the back and saying, “Hey, you have done a really good job.”
The other key person in a governing body is the clerk, and they must be someone who is capable of taking notes, ensuring that meetings run properly and advising the governing body on its statutory responsibilities and any other legal implications of its actions. I have seen too many governing bodies struggle without such advice and make inappropriate and sometimes quite useless decisions.
An issue that I have already raised in relation to one of the reports is whether, when parents have lost confidence in the school governors, they should be able to dismiss the governors en masse. That would be a final accountability mechanism that was not necessarily used often, but which was an ultimate threat. Such a mechanism would ensure that governing bodies were mindful of the need to interface properly with the parent body.
Those issues are important with respect to the chair and other aspects. On the structure of governance, I want to focus on three areas. First, it would be sensible to think in terms of more federal structures for governing bodies. The evidence is—this certainly shows up in the academies programme—that where we have governing bodies looking after more than one school, the likelihood of outstanding schools being developed is much higher. That is a statistical fact and one that we need to note. However, it is also important that we bear it in mind that good schools can spread best practice to the schools that need to improve, and through a federal or a partnership model of governance, that might happen more often and more readily. It seems to me that that is a direction of travel that has already started with the academies programme, but it should be promoted.
Does my hon. Friend think that with small rural schools, including primary schools, that sometimes have particular challenges in attracting sufficient governors, the model he described—a single governing body for multiple schools—could be especially important?
I thank my hon. Friend for that very astute question, and the answer is an emphatic yes. I believe that smaller schools in rural areas would benefit from one good governing body running two or three schools, and we should also look at vertical models, by which I mean secondary schools with feeder schools and not just primary schools. To some extent, it is horses for courses, but we must put this idea on the agenda as a direction of travel to ensure that we get better governance for schools, including those that he mentioned.
I assume that in all this discussion my hon. Friend still recognises that there is a real value in the governors’ relationship with and understanding of the school. The point, probably, is to look at all the players and ensure that they all play their part appropriately, because it would be unfortunate if the governance structure became so dislocated that it became a form of Ofsted. I do not think that is what even my hon. Friend wishes to see.
Absolutely, my hon. Friend is right. It is not wise to say that we will go in completely the opposite direction. There is a balance to be struck, which is that where there are neighbouring schools with common interests and common issues that would benefit from a federal or partnership model of governance, that model would be good and should be welcomed. However, where there is a school that clearly does not fit that description, that type of model would not work. It is up to governing bodies to think that matter through. I am simply saying that the federal or partnership model of governance is one that we should promote where it is useful and relevant.
The second aspect of structure that I want to talk about is size, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire touched on. In many cases, a governing body of 20 or more governors is simply unnecessary. Actually, such a body quite often ends up with just a core number of governors playing the decisive role, and once one of that core number goes the rest are bereft of the necessary skill and expertise, and the governing body can fall apart. That relates to the recruitment problem. As we have heard, about 30,000 governor posts are still vacant, so it would be wise to consider relaxing the rules on the size of governing bodies and having fewer, but more focused and more skills-orientated, governors on a governing body.
I have already talked about the importance of governors challenging head teachers. It is absolutely right that head teachers should be challenged, but they should be challenged constructively. However, it is also really important that we have governing bodies that govern strategically, focusing on the long-term interests of the school and its pupils. It is necessary to think in terms of formulating a governing body that genuinely has that capacity to be strategic—to think about the school plan and what it can do to push forward the aims and objectives of that plan, and any other plan that is appropriate. Those are three areas of structure that need to be considered.
In one of the publications that I referred to, the all-party group certainly came up with 12 as the ideal number. Having 12 governors means having a reasonably good chance of getting a good cross-section of skills, and there would also be a sensible way of dealing with succession planning, which also needs to be considered when we discuss governors and the future structure of governing bodies.
One thing that the all-party group has done is produce a list of 20 relevant questions for governors to ask themselves. We went through a fairly exhaustive process. We had lots of governors in one of the Committee Rooms of the House, talking about the questions that should be asked by governors. They are the questions that we want to encourage more governing bodies to ask of their head teachers and of themselves.
One of those questions is:
“Do we engage in good succession planning?”
“Do we carry out a regular 360 review of the chair’s performance?”
Still another is:
“Does our strategic planning cycle drive the governing body’s activities and agenda setting?”
Obviously, there are loads of other questions, but formulating these questions—and, indeed, the other work of the all-party group—has been useful in sketching out ways in which governing bodies might like to consider testing themselves, because we need more rigorous self-assessment by governing bodies.
Members will be pleased to hear that I am nearly finished. I want to finish off by asking a few key questions that are relevant to this debate. The first is, how do we make school governors focus on school improvement, based on a proper understanding of data performance? That question is a combination of wanting to ensure that we have school governors who challenge the performance of the head teacher and who are able and willing to take tough and rigorous decisions, but who are also capable of understanding, analysing and drawing appropriate conclusions from the amazing amount of data and information that fly around.
I have already touched on the second question, but I will repeat it as a sort of finale: are the governing bodies that we have too unwieldy, how do we ensure that we move from a stakeholder situation towards a skills-based governing body, and can we enhance the professionalism of school governing bodies? I want to emphasise the idea of ensuring that the chairmen of governing bodies are properly trained, properly engaged by the head teacher—and vice versa—and remunerated in a way that is consistent with their responsibilities and with the skills that we need to recruit for such posts.
Regarding skills and ability, local authorities such as mine set a minimum training requirement that governors have to do, linked to compulsory aspects of the overall training scheme. Does my hon. Friend agree that that type of training by certain local authorities, in partnership with governing bodies—for example, the partnership between my local authority and Medway governors—works well?
Yes, I do. There are good examples of training schemes and the National Governors Association—a good organisation to which I pay tribute— also does a huge amount of good training work. However, we must ensure that governors and governing bodies recognise that there is a strong need for governors to be trained, because some governors seem to think that training is something that people do only if they are bored, not because it is necessary. We need to promote the training of governors.
We are engaged in a real set of reforms in the world of education, which is an opportunity to look at governors and governance in a way that reflects our understanding of the new autonomous and independent approach that schools should have, as well as the fact that we want to drive up standards, wherever it is necessary to do so. We want not to waste time, but to get on with things to ensure that we have the appropriate leadership, impetus and toolkits to deliver the job.
I am not being prescriptive. I am simply raising issues that should be on the agenda to inform our discussions on changes to school governance. We should at all times—this is an appeal to the Minister and her colleagues —mention governance, underline its importance, encourage people to become governors and recognise that school leadership through effective governance is what we need as part of the mechanism to ensure that our schools continue to improve.
Thank you, Mrs Main. May I preface my brief remarks by paying tribute to all our school governors? They do an incredible job, many of them in difficult circumstances. I can think of hardly any other role that anyone can play in our community that has more potential to help improve the life chances of our young people.
Two years ago, a friend of mine took over the chairmanship of a governing body in a difficult inner London primary school. He has spent most of his spare time in the past two years helping the head teacher to manage out under-performing staff. That school has transformed its performance in those two years, but it has not been a pleasant task. It has taken up a lot of time. He is not paid for it. He does it out of a sense of dedication and duty to the children in his community and their prospects.
I want to say a little about the importance of training for school governors, based on a recent story from my own constituency, which I have spoken to the Minister’s Secretary of State about on a number of occasions. One of my high schools in Exeter was on the brink of being given final approval for academy status, and it emerged that the head teacher at the school was paying himself more than the Prime Minister. He was employing his wife as his deputy, and some other family members were also employed at the school. What happened in the end, thanks to a freedom of information request from my local newspaper, was a call from me to the local authority to launch an inquiry. The local authority went into the school and carried out an inquiry—a thorough one. It recently reported and it was very shocking and damning.
I can summarise what went wrong at the school—I have had this experience before in schools that have gone wrong. There was a powerful—perhaps autocratic—head, who ran the school like a fiefdom and who had a rather cosy relationship with the chair of governors, who was, I think in this case, too weak. They basically made decisions together about the school—some of them against the rules, according to the report—and they froze out the rest of the governors.
I am not necessarily blaming the rest of the governors for their failure to ask more questions and to scrutinise more effectively. I think they could have done that, but one of the things that struck me when I looked into what went on at this school—I talked to not only the existing governors, but the staff, some of the new governors who have gone on to the governing body since the scandal broke, and some of the very good public servants at Devon county council who were responsible for supporting and training governors—was the lack of a requirement for governors to receive training.
I know that the Government and particularly the Minister do not like regulation. She does not want to ply schools with more responsibilities and duties. The Government are all about localism, autonomy and local decision making, but—I issue this warning in the gentlest possible way—with the Government’s policy driving towards more autonomy for schools, it is even more important that governors are properly trained because they will be assuming a much more significant role as a result of that autonomy. If a school comes under the umbrella of a local authority, at least the local authority still has a locus to intervene when something goes wrong, which is what happened in the case of the school in my constituency. If that school had already gone through the academy process and become an academy, the local authority would have had no means of intervention whatever. I am afraid it would have fallen to the Minister or her Secretary of State to intervene.
I suggest that the Minister and her Secretary of State are storing up all sorts of future potential problems for themselves by removing that level of local authority scrutiny. Given that that is the policy that they are set on and determined to implement, I urge her to at least consider the pleas from the very good public servants around the country who support governors and provide governor training. I urge her to listen to their appeals that the Government should consider making training for school governors mandatory. Since the scandal erupted, the school has invited the local authority trainers in. They are doing a great job. The governors are realising that there are lots of things they did not know about the job, but they do now.
At most schools in Devon the governors are given training, but there are others—most of them academies—that resent any interference and advice from the governor training bodies. Given that academies have no local democratic oversight, the only backstop is the Secretary of State, so it is more important than ever that governors are given the skills to do their job properly, exactly as the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) alluded to in his speech. If they are not given the skills, I predict that the Minister will see more scandals. There was another much worse scandal along similar lines in a school or schools in Lincoln. The Minister should seriously consider the impact of her policy and how important that makes it for governors to be properly trained.
I also urge my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who speaks for the Labour party from the Front Bench, to consider whether we might adopt mandatory training for governors as a policy. I think it would be popular and not too burdensome. It is the least that parents expect. They expect the people who are in charge of the quality of their children’s education at a local level to be properly qualified and properly trained to be able to do a very important job effectively and well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for securing this debate and also for the work that he has done through the all-party group in providing information and reports. His 20 questions for governors to ask themselves is a minor classic. I hope that that is recognised.
I should declare an interest—of a sort, at least—which is that until earlier this year my wife served on the executive of the National Governors Association, and so to some extent I get these matters in stereo from my personal experience and also from her background. I want to emphasise the point that our 300,000 school governors are the biggest individual group of volunteers that we have. They are all unpaid, or virtually all unpaid. They work in every constituency and every school across the country, with significant responsibilities that have been increased with the education changes not only in the past two and a half years, but perhaps in the past 10 years, as the various Education Acts have come to fruition.
The governing bodies are responsible for children’s welfare and education and, of course, for the quality control of the teaching and the curriculum that is delivered to them. I think there is a general rule in systems of democracy and accountability that a power cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be redistributed. In a situation in which local education authorities are losing power and in which the Government have a professed wish to localise power, that inevitably means that power and responsibility are increasingly transferred to governing bodies and to governors.
I do not necessarily agree with all the direction of travel here, but local education authorities have a reduced role in supporting and challenging their schools and in monitoring the standards and outcomes of their schools. To a much greater extent, schools are beholden to Ofsted. It is to a considerable extent now an option for schools not to participate in the services provided by local education authorities, and that increases the responsibility that comes to governing bodies. I would say, in parenthesis, it has not taken away the duty of local authorities to have regard to the well-being of all the children in their area, which of course can lead to some tensions.
The Government have what I regard as an excellent localist policy of taking power away from Whitehall and Westminster and bringing it back to local communities. That is being done in some slightly wobbly ways in the educational sphere. I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that some of the measures do not produce extra localism, but the crucial point is accountability. If power and responsibility are taken away from elected Governments, on the one hand, and elected local authorities, on the other, that accountability has to be held firmly and solidly by school governing bodies.
Now that the right hon. Gentleman is more free to speak candidly than he might have been when he was in government, will he explain his remarks about those aspects of Government policy in the sphere of education that he feels do not contribute to localism?
I suspect, Mrs Main, that you would rule me out of order if I answered that question, because it is important to focus on the issues before the Chamber.
Clearly—this is where I challenge my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud—any Government, if they see the need for change and reform, would be strongly tempted. He talked about changing the balance between stakeholders and skills, and I want to challenge that proposition because it is not a dichotomy. It is not a choice between stakeholders or skilled governors, but a question of ensuring that stakeholders are skilled to retain local community accountability. We jump from the frying pan into the fire if, instead of democratic local education authorities and a democratically accountable Secretary of State, we have professionalised experts with special skills running our schools with no special links to the pupils or staff and no democratic accountability. I want to pull back on what he said, and I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that we do believe in localism and accountability to the local community—both to the local community of parents and the broader community—that every school serves.
The net effect of the changes that have been made in the past few years is that governors have more power and responsibility, which means they need more skills and focus. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that we need to boost and build that.
There is a significant difference in scale and professional need between a secondary school and a primary school. Here, again, I want to make a localism point. Governments have a strong tendency—I experienced this myself, both in government and out of government—to imagine that there is a solution that addresses all the problems. I urge a flexible approach. We should understand that schools come in different sizes and shapes. A secondary school may have a turnover each year of more than £1 million, while a primary school might have a turnover of just a small fraction of that. We need to ensure that we do not over-engineer what we are asking.
Several references have been made to Ofsted. Schools are, of course, required to meet the standards of Ofsted. Whether, in a democratic structure, schools should be accountable to Ofsted is a moot point, but one of the things that is happening now and will happen more in the next year or so is that, even when a school’s results and teaching standards meet Ofsted’s criteria, it may now fail because it does not meet the governance criteria. It is right that there should be such tests of governance and that those tests should be done by Ofsted, but I suspect that quite a number of school governing bodies across the country are in for a bit of a surprise when they realise that they cannot bumble on in their traditional relationship with their head teachers and school bodies and excel as far as Ofsted is concerned.
I believe hon. Members and the Government need to recognise and support the role and development of governors. They are a crucial link in the delivery of good education to our children, and they are at a crucial point in challenging the professionals on what they are doing in the classroom and how they are doing it. Governors are often hard-stretched volunteers, strong on commitment and enthusiasm, but without the range of skills they need to be fully effective. Increasingly, they are the people who not only pass judgment but are themselves being judged on the quality and effectiveness of the education that their school delivers.
What do I think should be done? We have been strong on what might be called “brave words,” but what ought to be done? We should pick up on the Government’s report of two years ago, in which the Government asserted that school governors are a vital part of the education system who are traditionally undervalued and do not have the respect and support that they deserve. We now need to turn that absolutely correct statement of intent into real action. The plea made by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for mandatory induction training for governors is something the Government could take on board. Additionally, imposing a training duty without considering the cost would be a mistake when schools are under pressure. Obviously, the degree to which schools are under pressure is different in different places, but all schools face real budgetary challenges over the next few years and, desirable and essential as training is, imposing that through any system without the matching resources would be a betrayal of what the Government are attempting to do to improve educational standards.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for securing the debate. I apologise for missing some of the opening remarks.
My right hon. Friend points out the financial challenges that a number of authorities and schools are facing and with which governors are grappling, but does he agree that, for governors to be able to do their jobs well and to do their best for their school, transparency and clarity in education funding is absolutely vital so they know where they are heading? Will he join me, therefore, in calling on the Government to provide greater transparency on the new funding formula as soon as possible, certainly before the next general election?
Within the scope of the debate, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker).
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned the role of school clerks. School clerks, like parliamentary Clerks, are a vital link, and just as parliamentary Clerks ensure that we stay on track by giving us wise and sound advice, so it should be for school governors. I draw the attention of hon. Members to an extremely good programme run by the National Governors’ Association to find the school clerk of the year. There are regional rounds, a national round and, ultimately, a national school clerk of the year. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether the Department for Education will consider giving more encouragement to that process so that there are higher levels of participation, and using that to raise standards and improve the spread of best practice across the country. The Department might achieve through promoting excellence what may be much harder to achieve through a strong regulatory framework. I offer that suggestion in the spirit of helpfulness for which I am famous.
We need also to make sure that governors take a strategic view of their role. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud about them not getting too hooked up on the size of the chairs or the colour the toilet is painted, or even what days off the school should have. Instead they should be considering the important strategic issues of staffing, training, the delivery of education, and the relationship of the school to the community. There is a huge job to be done in that respect.
I urge the Government and Members of the House to work with governors, and not to impose things on them as we develop the support that they undoubtedly need for their more responsible and challenging role under our new arrangements. I want to add to the thanks that have been given for all the volunteer work that school governors do, and for the effectiveness of so many school governing bodies in raising standards and playing an active and effective part in providing good education. The debate is an opportunity to celebrate those things. I hope that the Minister will tell us that in the years ahead we shall go beyond celebration to support—and results.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to follow the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). It is always a joy to discover people who realise after they have left the Government that the rhetoric about localism and decentralisation is suddenly not as true as they thought. Perhaps in time, the right hon. Gentleman will discover the same things about the Department for Communities and Local Government as he has discovered about the Department for Education.
I thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for securing the debate, his interesting practical suggestions and his work on the question of school governors. Like him, I pay tribute to the 300,000 people who serve as school governors in communities, as well as to governors in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central. We, like many cities, could do with more, and higher calibre, school governors—there is no point in hiding from the Ofsted figures on the quality and satisfactoriness of governors—but I am not sure whether the Government’s education reforms are helping to improve governor capacity. In short, the confusing morass of competing initiatives arguably undermines the capacity for local leadership and muddies the waters as to what is required of a governing body. That relates to the importance of building capacity before we establish a vacuum in local governance, rather than finding that a situation has arisen and thinking about how to resolve it.
That point is particularly relevant to academies. The speed and slapdash nature of the academy conversion process under this Government is putting at risk people’s willingness and ability to serve their schools. That is, first, because of the competing powers of academy sponsors and existing governing bodies. Governance provisions for converting to an academy set only minimum requirements and allow for a reduction in size and composition of the governing body. The laxer rules are more open to abuse. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), in academies a lack of governor control can be particularly worrying. Indeed, there are widespread reports of academies selecting their own governors or manipulating the process. If we are interested in proper accountability and a proper non-executive role for governors, we must sort out the relationship between sponsors and governors. Evidence shows that where such changes in governance have taken place previously, the governors nominated by parents, staff and the local authority are the casualties.
I am not ideologically opposed to the academy programme. There are some able academy sponsors in Stoke-on-Trent—notably Stoke-on-Trent college and the Church of England diocese of Lichfield—but aggressive takeovers of governors can put communities’ backs up and affect the success of the academy conversion process. Furthermore, what is happening represents a massive centralisation and accrual of power by the Secretary of State. I always thought that conservatism was about the little platoons of society. I thought that the big society was an attempt to revive the great teachings of Edmund Burke for the 21st century. Instead, we have in our Secretary of State, with his minions, a Jacobin centralist of whom the Rev. Richard Price would have been proud. The Government are intent on gutting local communities and local democracy to hand over the practice of teaching and the inculcation of citizenship often to carpet-salesman chains and car dealerships.
Absolutely, Mrs Main.
Since the Education Reform Act 1988 came into force, the Secretary of State has accrued an extra 2,000 powers, including on questions of local school governance. Indeed, the Secretary of State, not Parliament, has almost total de facto control over what schools do, even including the curriculum, thereby subverting the role and contribution of a governing body. There are now often no intermediate bodies or forms of civil society standing between the head teacher and the Secretary of State. That is a recipe for the arbitrary misuse of power—something that the Tory party was originally established to fight against in the late 17th century. Surely good school governance is about respecting local democracy and civic engagement. It is about having the right people round the table with the right composition of skills and a balance of capabilities, and providing effective strategic oversight, not day-to-day management. The comments of the hon. Member for Stroud on the role of federations in that context are particularly germane and interesting.
Good school governance is about conducting professional recruitment procedures, drawing on specialist expertise, and, where necessary, holding teachers to account in the interest of parents and pupils. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter, I have experienced in Stoke-on-Trent a situation involving a strong-willed and arguably devious headmaster and a governing body that was unable to take control. It was up to the local education authority to step in and deal with that situation. Had that happened in an academy, I would have been worried about the teaching of those children and their prospects.
To act properly in such situations, governors require the right support. They need professional induction training and professional clerking services. I take the points made about mandatory training and the costs involved, but we want that to become almost the norm, without it necessarily being mandatory. Although that requires greater professionalisation and dedication on the part of governors, it also requires wider respect for that role from the Secretary of State and the Government. We have had the Teach First campaign, which the Labour Government successfully inaugurated, but what about a “Become a Governor” campaign—not necessarily with a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger? Instead of talking governors down and undermining their role in the school ecology, we should celebrate them as civic heroes. We need, as the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove suggested, to raise their esteem. That is what the 2010 report suggested. Instead, the Secretary of State has condemned those civic-minded individuals
“who see being a governor as a badge of status, not a job of work.”
Surely, it should be both, as I am sure it is in St. Albans, Mrs Main. It should be a mark of status and should be taken seriously and conscientiously as work. Just as with the stakeholders-versus-skills question, this is not an either/or option.
As the Government’s reforms grind on and local education authorities are stripped of their functions, the role and importance of the governor will only grow. When we think about such questions in the Labour party, we always have in our mind creating brilliant schools in local communities. The Government—a Conservative Government, of all things—seem concerned with denigrating governors’ volunteerism, undermining their capacity and transferring all power to Whitehall functionaries rather than local champions. If we want true governors creating great schools, we should focus on capacity-building, training and raising their esteem.
I shall give the Minister a bit more thinking time. It is not her first outing in Westminster Hall, but I welcome her as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education. She is obviously a woman of many talents: in addition to what might be regarded as the first part of her ministerial job, she does curriculum, exams and—we have found out today—school governance. It makes us wonder what the Minister for Schools is doing with his time. Perhaps he is over in the Cabinet Office, planning on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. I congratulate her; she is obviously doing a job and a half in the Department.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing the debate and on his thoughtful remarks on governance. I thank him, too, for his work on the issue with the all-party group on education governance and leadership. He set out his view that skills should predominate over stakeholders in how governing bodies are set up—he had some interesting thoughts on that—and quoted Lord Hill a lot, as well as in the context of governor training. Lord Hill might benefit from some assertiveness training for the next time he tries to speak to the Prime Minister and resign, so that he is more successful than on the previous occasion.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) made a good point about mandatory training for governors, outlining brilliantly one of the big issues facing us: the unexploded ordnance that must be out there when accountability has been drawn out of the system. There is a worrying vacuum, as some Members have pointed out, in the pell-mell pace of reform set by the Secretary of State in his desire to be seen as a great reformer. My right hon. Friend is not the first to say that, but he said it effectively. I have no doubt that there is unexploded ordnance out there, and that the lack of accountability will result in scandals in the near future.
We have already seen such incidents, whereby powerful head teachers, without mechanisms in place to hold them to account, have been able to misuse public money. In some cases, criminal charges are involved, so we cannot talk much about them here, but I worry, as does my right hon. Friend, about the vacuum of accountability that is developing rapidly as the academies programme proceeds without sufficient thought having been given to the issue of governance.
I welcome the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) to the Back Benches following his stint in the Government. Clearly, he was a little unhappy for some of that time. He hinted to us, while rightly staying in order and not going into too much detail, about some of his unhappiness with Government policy in this area, particularly on local accountability and education. I look forward to hearing more from him in the House on that subject in the weeks and months ahead as we debate education policy more widely.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will hear more, but it will not be in any way to undermine this Government’s bold moves on localism, including in education. I was pointing out to him—I regret that I did not convey it more accurately—that if we take power away from one institution and give it to another, we must ensure that that institution has responsibility and the skills to bear that responsibility.
I interpreted the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks as meaning that he was worried that, in some cases, for “localism” read “centralisation”, but perhaps I was reading too much between the lines. Nevertheless, I look forward to hearing what he has to say on the subject in the weeks and months to come.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) spoke about the need to build capacity within the system, given that a vacuum has been created by what he described as a slapdash approach to reform and its impact on governors and local accountability. I urge the Minister to reflect on hon. Members’ contributions about their concerns over the vacuum that is emerging.
I join others in praising the 300,000 volunteers—probably the country’s largest volunteer force of any kind—who give up their time freely to serve on governing bodies across the country. I suspect that almost everybody participating in the debate has served at one time or another on a school governing body, and that everybody therefore brings a degree of expertise to the debate, having seen how governing bodies work.
In government, we continued a process of giving more responsibility to governing bodies, tried to reduce local authority interference in how governing bodies operate and made changes relating to the composition of governing bodies. We also started the academy programme—a targeted intervention to try to lift the worst-performing schools in the country’s most deprived areas, which successfully raised standards. I say in passing to the Minister that that is different from simply re-badging a school as an academy and expecting school improvement to happen automatically. It will not happen without a genuine intervention to try to improve standards. However, I will not stray too far from governance while making that point.
I praise governors. We tried to enhance their role. Hon. Members have referred to some of the work done latterly by the previous Government, particularly by the former Schools Minister, Lord Knight, who is now in another place. Unfortunately, some of his initiatives ran out of time as we reached the general election. The discussions held at that time outline the difficulties of reaching consensus—I sympathise with the Minister on this—on the right balance between governing bodies’ ability to perform their strategic role in improving performance in schools and, as other hon. Members have mentioned, the need for governing bodies to have their feet on the ground and their roots in the community, and to use local information and intelligence to do a good job. This is not an easy issue to tackle, and it is appropriate that we try to build consensus on reforming governance in our schools, rather than making the issue a big divide between Government and Opposition.
However, it is important that that debate is held in a tone that shows respect for the work done by governors across the country. That is why I mentioned, in an intervention on the hon. Member for Stroud, the Secretary of State’s speech on governors earlier this year. I suspect that he was trying to make the same reasonable point that the hon. Member for Stroud made: standards vary, and governors are a mixed-ability group like any other. However, in his temptation to use figurative and colourful language, the Secretary of State deeply offended many governors across the country by using the phrase “local worthies” to describe the people who give up their time to serve on governing bodies. The full quote is:
“Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status, not a job of work.”
That remark deeply offended large numbers of people, whether it was intended to do so or not. When the Secretary of State wants to offend, he is usually quite deliberate about it, but I am not sure whether he did on this occasion. Libby Purves, who has sympathy with the Secretary of State’s approach to some things, wrote on 9 July in The Times:
“The expression ‘local worthies’ has no place under any government, let alone a Conservative one that claims to want a Big Society and less central nannying.”
I make a plea to the Minister at least to tell us that she will not use such derogatory language when talking about our country’s largest volunteer force, who give up their time to do the difficult and challenging job of helping our schools be the best that they can be. That would greatly help to raise the tone of the debate, so that we can get on with discussing the important, central issues.
On another recent occasion, the Government tried to recruit governors effectively as spin doctors for their policies by putting out a plea via e-mail. The Guardian reported in August that the Department for Education, having created a database of sympathetic head teachers, was trying to enlist governors. An e-mail was sent from the National College for School Leadership to approximately 40 school governors saying that the DFE’s school governance unit is planning “communication activities” around new regulations coming into force next week regarding the size of governing bodies.
School governors are volunteers who give up their time to serve their local schools. They are not there to be recruited as spin doctors for the Secretary of State and his reforms. I hope that the Minister will distance herself from that approach by the Department.
There are real challenges to be faced to get the balance right between the strategic job that governors have to do and the local input required for them to represent the local community effectively. Views differ widely. Some colleagues believe that in this new world in which most secondary schools are now academies, and where they are no longer in the orbit of the local education authority, there is a case for the professionalisation of governing bodies and for executive governing bodies to be in charge of a chain of schools, with, perhaps, more local advisory bodies for local schools. That is one end of the spectrum. At the other, there are others who think it essential to maintain that aspect of localism and ensure that every school, whatever its size, has its own governing body and chair of governors.
I want to probe the Minister on the Government’s current thinking on the governance of schools. Is it her view, and the Government’s, that governors should remain as a voluntary force in support of our schools, or that they should be professionalised and become a strategic board, with at least the chair of governors, and perhaps others, being paid for their work? What is her current position on the payment of governors? Is it Government policy to pay more governors?
Does the Minister believe that there should be fewer governing bodies? In other words, rather than having governing bodies for each school, should there be governing bodies that look after a chain of schools? Does she agree with the Secretary of State that governors are glory-seeking “local worthies”, or is she prepared to recognise the work of local governors? I look forward to hearing her answers.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. It has been very instructive and helpful, and we have heard a lot of interesting contributions. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for his tireless work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on education governance and leadership, on which he has worked hard in the past few years. There is no doubt that his questions have been helpful to many governing bodies. He has a wealth of experience, and he has skilfully covered many of the points that I planned to make.
I thank the National Governors Association for its work, and I completely agree with hon. Members who have expressed their thanks to governors who play such an important role in helping our schools, driving up school and pupil performance and ensuring that every child receives the best possible education. As has been mentioned, hundreds of thousands of volunteers serve as school governors. One of them is my mum, who is a school governor in Leeds. I can assure hon. Members that I receive regular feedback from the front line, at all times of the day and night, about what is going on in schools in Leeds. I am not without a direct feedback loop.
Being a school governor is not only an influential role; it also demands skill, time and energy. We very much appreciate those who volunteer. Governors have four sets of responsibilities. First, they have a strategic function, which many hon. Members have mentioned. Secondly, they use their skills and experience to ensure that the school is doing the right thing, that the school and the governing body run efficiently and effectively and that the school works to continually improve itself. A theme that we have heard in the debate is that school governing bodies need to be not just satisfied with how things are, but to train up and have continuous professional development for the school to improve.
There has been rather a lot of selective quoting of the Secretary of State’s governance speech. He praised many governors and acknowledged the important role that they play. He was describing what he thinks bad governance looks like, as opposed to what he thinks good governance looks like. His comment was certainly not about all governors or in any way meant to be detrimental to the many people who serve their local schools and are an important part of the local community.
I was pleased to hear that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) continues to support the academy programme, which was, of course, set up under the previous Government. I want to respond to the important points raised by him and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on school accountability, and explain the Government’s approach.
In September 2012, we introduced new rules for Ofsted that make governance more central to how schools are assessed. In category 3 of a school requiring improvement, Ofsted may recommend an external review of governance. It can also give schools subsidised training for the chairman of the governors—something mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud. If a school is in unsatisfactory category 4, the Secretary of State or local authority may impose an interim executive board to replace the governing body, or it may be forced to become an academy with a sponsor, who may replace the school’s leadership, head and governors.
The essential philosophical difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we think that governing bodies need to be measured on the outcomes that they produce, rather than on inputs. Although I am a great supporter of training and professional development, it should not be a mandatory requirement, not least, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) mentioned, because it will impose costs on governing bodies. We do not know what the content will be. In my time, I have been on a fair few training courses that promised a great deal but did not deliver. That is not to say that I do not support training, but simply to say that it is a judgment that the chair of the governors and the school should exercise to ensure that its governing body has the right skills and experience. Rather than mandating the governing body to carry out things in a particular way, we should hold them accountable for the outcomes. They should take up the kind of professional development and training to ensure they have the right skills, as in the case raised by the right hon. Member for Exeter, to challenge the head teacher and understand the finances of the school. That is our broad approach.
I appreciate what the Minister says, but the performance of the school that I referred to was not bad enough for it to qualify under the new Ofsted rules that she has just outlined. The school was still improving and doing well enough. The problem was not the performance; the problem, basically, was corruption within the school. The worry that I have is that there is no local accountability in academies and that there is nothing anyone can do—except for her.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. What I am saying, though, is that the capability of governors and the outcomes of governance will be assessed as part of the Ofsted assessment. It is not just a matter of looking at the academic performance of the school; it is also about understanding what the governors are doing and how they are carrying out their duties.
The Government have legislated so that some schools that are doing well academically do not have to be inspected. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) was making the point that that can mask corrupt practices and there will not be sufficient governance or training in place for governors to monitor that properly and nip it in the bud before it becomes a huge issue.
The Ofsted inspection will take place in due course, if the school performs below satisfactory levels. The reality is that, often—I could tell the right hon. Member for Exeter about similar cases in my constituency—poor performance on financials is related to poor overall school performance.
My colleague, Lord Hill, who leads on governors in the Department for Education, has already presented the awards for school clerk of the year, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove, who also spoke about ensuring higher take-up. I understand that Lord Hill has committed to doing so again next year, which is good news for all of us.
I was interested the suggestion that we run a “becoming a governor” campaign and will take that back to Lord Hill for further discussion. We are, of course, happy to listen to suggestions from all parties in the House about how to improve standards of governance. As right hon. and hon. Members rightly said, there is a process for ensuring that all governing bodies attain the capability that we want, so that they can carry out their functions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised some other issues. His organisation’s work promoting skills in governing bodies is important. He is right; we need wider recruitment of governors, including business people who have financial skills that would help, as the right hon. Member for Exeter mentioned. My hon. Friend welcomed our efforts to relax the constraints on the size of governing bodies, so that we have governing bodies that are fit for purpose and offer the right scrutiny of what head teachers and schools are doing.
Being a governor can help build the individuals’ skills and experience. We have talked a lot about how the governors’ skills and experience can contribute to the schools’ performance, but we should also see it the other way round. I know a lot of people who have benefited from their time as a governor and have been able to build up their capability to understand how a school works and education policy, management and financial scrutiny.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned the platoons that we are seeking to support in society. In that regard, it is important that we retain governorship as a voluntary service, because it is a two-way process, with members of the community gaining experience as well as contributing to the future of a school and schools gaining from that experience of the community. The Government do not have any plans to pay governors and go away from the well-established principle of voluntary governance. There might be times—for example, if a school is in trouble and an interim executive board is needed for that failing school—when payment might be appropriate, but in the general run of things, we support a continuation of the voluntary governance principle.
The Department has no plans to have for-profit schools, so the hon. Gentleman asks a hypothetical question.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned rigorous self-assessment of governing bodies. That is important. We must move away from the idea that the Government can mandate what schools and governing bodies should do to the idea governing bodies are responsible for building their capability.
I thank the right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate and hope that I have answered their questions. This debate has helped highlight the importance of governors and governing bodies in schools. Often, when discussing schools policies, we end up talking about teachers, who are important in delivering an excellent education, but the structures that surround teaching and how we hold them to account are also important, as are the roles played by volunteers in our schools.
I am glad that we have had this debate. I will take up the issues raised with Lord Hill. If right hon. and hon. Members wish to write to me about further issues, I am happy to take those up, too.
Baha’i Community (Iran)
Freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are issues on which I have placed significant emphasis in my work at Westminster. I believe and the evidence shows that societies that respect those fundamental human rights also tend to fare better in their protection of other human rights. I have therefore worked with Open Doors —an organisation focused on freedom for the persecuted Christian Church. However, I recognise that freedom of religion and conscience must extend to people of all faiths and none—a point that was convincingly reinforced by the Under-Secretary during a recent meeting that I hosted looking at the experiences of Christians in the Arab world. At that meeting, members of the Baha’i community in the UK shared their concerns about the continuing persecution of Baha’is and other religious minorities in Iran. I want to focus on that issue today.
My personal contact with the Baha’i community predates my election to Parliament, extending throughout my chairmanship of Belfast city council’s good relations partnership and my term as lord mayor of the city. Although it is a relatively small religious community in Northern Ireland, many of its members play a very active and prominent role in civic society and in peace building in Northern Ireland. Through that, I became more aware of the extent to which they are a community that continues to suffer religious persecution in the faith’s country of origin.
Many hon. Members will be aware of the long-standing persecution of the Baha’is in Iran—a matter raised in a debate on 11 January 2012 by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). Today, while focusing specifically on the persecution of Baha’is in Iran, I think that it is worth noting that the systematic and aggressive manner in which the Baha’is are persecuted is reflected in wider persecution of other religious and cultural minorities in Iranian society.
The human rights situation in Iran has worsened in recent years, and the specific treatment of religious minority communities, including Sunni Muslims, Christians and Baha’is, has deteriorated further, as exemplified by the sentence of capital punishment threatened against Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Christian. That deterioration is also documented in the recent UN “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran”. It details the treatment of Iranian Baha’i, Christian and Dervish communities. Members of all three religious minorities have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention and the curtailment of their freedom of assembly. Members of the Dervish communities have also undergone torture and prosecution, with their property being attacked and confiscated by the authorities. I therefore contend that the protection of human rights, especially the freedom of religion and of conscience sought by the Baha’is, would also benefit other minority religious traditions.
Does the hon. Lady agree that Iran’s record on human rights generally is appalling, and does she consider that its persecution of the Baha’is is an attempt to wipe out the Baha’is as a group and their religion?
I think that that is absolutely right. Certainly, the memorandums that have been circulated by the Government there indicate that that is their eventual aim and objective. I want to come on to that.
Two recent reports—one issued by the UN Secretary-General and the other by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran—offer the most current and in-depth analysis of Iran’s human rights record. Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the special rapporteur, expressed concern about
“inconsistencies in the country’s legal framework, capricious implementation of the rule of law, and tolerance for impunity”.
He characterises the trend with regard to religious freedom as “disturbing”, noting:
“Members of both recognized and unrecognized religions have reported various levels of intimidation, arrest, detention and interrogation that focus on their religious beliefs.”
The Secretary-General observes that since his last report on Iran to the UN Human Rights Council, “human rights violations” have
“continued, targeting in particular journalists, human rights defenders, and women’s rights activists… Discrimination against minority groups persisted, in some cases amounting to persecution.”
Both reports refer to one religious minority community in Iran—the Baha’is.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate; my constituency in Milton Keynes is home to a significant Baha’i community, and its members are grateful for the fact that she has been able to do so. In addition to the persecution that she has already outlined, is she aware that there is particular targeting of Baha’i-owned businesses in Iran and that people are going in daily to try to strangle the livelihood of those businesses and force them out of business?
I am aware of that. Indeed, I am very conscious of the fact that the economic exclusion of Baha’is from society in Iran is part of the Government’s approach to the persecution that they undertake, but it also affects those who are not Baha’i, who are often employed in those businesses and also lose their jobs as a result.
The persecution of Iranian Baha’is has a lengthy history going back to the inception of their religion. Many Baha’is were arrested or killed following the 1979 revolution. Denial of the right of freedom of religious belief shifted in the early 1990s to social, economic and cultural restrictions, to which we have referred and which have blocked the development of the 300,000-member community through the deprivation of livelihood, the destruction of cultural heritage and the obstruction of young people’s access to higher education. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of Baha’is arrested and detained for religious reasons. It went from four in 2004 to 109 in April 2012. It is estimated that 116 Baha’is are in prison today for their faith.
The special rapporteur’s report speaks first of “serious discrimination” against the Baha’i community in Iran, expressing alarm about the
“systemic and systematic persecution of members of the Baha’i community, including severe socio-economic pressure, and arrests and detention.”
The entire Baha’i community is subject to identification and monitoring by agencies of the Iranian state, as mandated by a confidential directive authored by the head of the Iranian armed forces in 2005. Baha’i schoolchildren are monitored and slandered by officials in schools, and those who openly declare their religion when pressured to deny their faith may be expelled from schools and universities.
On 31 May 2012, in a joint statement, a number of human rights organisations expressed concern about the systematic deprivation of and discrimination against the Baha’i in institutes of higher education, in violation of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. Hundreds of Baha’i students have reportedly been banned from entering public and private universities. That denial of access to education at primary, secondary and tertiary level actively contributes to the long-term economic and social exclusion of Baha’is in Iranian society.
The special rapporteur’s report also deplored the Government’s tolerance of an intensive defamation campaign aimed at inciting discrimination and hatred against Baha’is. That propaganda asserts that Baha’is have recruited members by irregular means or acted against national security, in collaboration with the west or with Israel. Attempts by the Iranian Government to link religious belief to subversive political views have created a hugely potent sectarian mix, highlighted in “Inciting Hatred: Iran’s media campaign to demonise Baha’is”—a report of the Baha’i International Community, published in October 2011. Contrary to the propaganda, the Baha’i community is committed to non-violence and non-partisanship.
Fears are rising among international experts on ethnic, racial and religious cleansing that wider and more violent attacks against the Baha’i community may be forthcoming. That is based on the situation that has been developing in recent years, including the emergence of Government documents that display the intention to identify and monitor all the activities of the Baha’is and all their contacts.
In March 2006, a United Nations official publicly disclosed a letter, dated October 2005, from Iranian military headquarters instructing state intelligence services, police units and the revolutionary guard to make a
“comprehensive and complete report of all activities”
“for the purpose of identifying all individuals of this misguided sect”.
Since 2005, a vigorous campaign has been waged in the state-run news media against the Baha’is, and the targeting of their children for harassment and abuse by teachers and administrators in the schools system throughout the country has occurred, against the backdrop of a general upsurge in violence against Baha’is and their properties. In March and May 2008, the structure of the religion was more directly targeted with the arrest and imprisonment of the seven national-level Baha’i leaders.
Reports of the condition of one Baha’i community in the city of Semnan may offer a case study in the worsening trajectory of persecution facing Baha’is. Semnan is a town of 125,000 people, east of Tehran. It is home to a Baha’i community of several hundred people. During the past three years, reports from Semnan have demonstrated mounting evidence of an orchestrated effort to escalate significantly the persecution of Baha’is in the town. They have been subjected to arson attacks on homes and businesses and the forced closure of Baha’i-owned businesses, including the raiding and sealing of two factories in May 2012, leading to the denial of employment for 53 individuals, a significant proportion of whom were not Baha’i.
Since 2009, at least 30 Baha’is have been arrested and detained, 26 of whom have been sentenced to prison terms. The authorities have facilitated a campaign of incitement to hatred against them, which has seen the distribution of anti-Baha’i pamphlets, the use of anti-Baha’i rhetoric in Friday sermons in Semnan mosques and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, schoolchildren being targeted for insults, mistreatment and even physical violence. Fellow pupils have been encouraged by teachers to hurt their Baha’i classmates physically, and administrators have sought to segregate Baha’i students from their peers.
The Baha’i community of the UK is therefore deeply concerned that the Iranian authorities are using Semnan as a training site for refining and improving their methods of oppressing Iranian Baha’is nationwide. The goals of that campaign appear to be aligned with an infamous Government policy memorandum from 1991, which effects a policy of the extirpation of every Baha’i community in Iran. The memorandum states that the Government’s dealings with the Baha’is must be conducted in a way that blocks their progress and development. It goes on to give clear instructions for the expulsion of Baha’is from higher education and for Baha’i children to be enrolled only in schools with
“a strong and imposing ideology”.
It also instructs that individuals who identify themselves as Baha’i be denied employment.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. I have had frequent meetings with Peter Black from the Baha’i community in my constituency about such issues. This House and country are very good, both domestically and in their representations, on the issue of the persecution of the Baha’i in Iran. Does she believe that the EU could do more as a whole to press Iran to stop the persecution and prevent the ultimate destruction of the Baha’is there?
The international community can do a huge amount, and the EU has to play its role in that. The Government have shown great leadership, and I am about to make specific requests based on where they can show further leadership.
The situation is clearly grave, and the treatment of the Baha’i community is an indicator of the lengths to which the Iranian authorities are willing to go in the persecution of religious and cultural minorities. It is hugely important that the Government continue to speak with a strong voice on the international stage about human rights, of which freedom of religion and conscience are key. That is why I want to raise my concerns with the Minister today.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall today. I have a significant and strong Baha’i community in Newtownards in my constituency. Members of that community have expressed concerns to me over the medical treatment of those who have been imprisoned. Does she agree that when someone with medical conditions is living in a cramped cell, those medical conditions worsen? Can the UK Government and the Minister in particular do something on that?
That is a valid concern, which I hope will be addressed in what I ask the Minister and the Government to do.
The debate is timely, because the UN General Assembly third committee is reviewing Iran’s human rights record this week in New York, so, as I draw my remarks to a close, I have two specific requests. First, ahead of the UK co-sponsorship of a resolution on human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, will the Government make every possible effort to win support for the resolution from the widest representation of UN member states and to ensure that the resolution is adopted with the largest possible majority and thus carries the maximum weight of international opinion?
Secondly, in light of the reports by the Secretary-General and the special rapporteur, to which I referred earlier, will the Foreign Secretary request, as a matter of urgency, that the United Kingdom’s mission to the UN specifically raise the situation of the Baha’is in Iran at the dialogue of the third committee, with the special rapporteur on Iran and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, on 24 and 25 October, respectively? In doing so, the Government would not only place the sustained abuse and persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran in the international spotlight, thus creating pressure for that to end, but hold out hope to many people around the world, of all faiths and of none, that religious persecution will not go unseen or unchallenged by the international community and that the cause of religious freedom and freedom of conscience will have a strong, international advocate in the UK Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for the way in which she put her points across and congratulate her on securing the debate. I recognise what she said at the beginning of her speech; she has a long record of engaging with such matters and of encouraging those of minority faiths in Northern Ireland to work with others. Her record with Open Doors, which I know very well, and other organisations is consistent in seeking religious freedom for many different faiths in often difficult contexts. For that reason in particular, it is a pleasure to thank her for what she has already done and to respond to the debate. I thank the other hon. Members, who share such concerns, for the impressive turnout from both sides of the House.
As the hon. Lady made clear, the treatment of the Baha’i community in Iran is appalling, as is the wider human rights situation. That any state can treat its religious minorities in this way is shocking, and all the more so given the religious underpinning of the current regime and its oft-stated claim to respect human rights. What the hon. Lady set out clearly today is only a small part of the daily struggle of ordinary Baha’is and the continual and serious abuses they suffer in Iran. Sadly, such experiences are all too familiar to me; I have stood before the House on many occasions to express my deep concern and have met on a number of occasions representatives of the community in the UK who display their support for those in Iran.
In a sense, the hon. Lady and others have made the point that the issue is indivisible. Today, we are talking about the Baha’i community in particular, but we know that we could be talking about other minorities in Iran. An indivisible link brings all together—a attack on one is clearly an attack on all.
To set some context on Iran: there have been more than 300 executions so far this year; more journalists and bloggers are imprisoned there than in any other country in the world; numerous human rights defenders and lawyers languish in prison; opposition leaders are kept under house arrest; and religious and ethnic minorities are systematically persecuted. It is not a job half done.
Let me give an assessment of the current situation and explain what the UK is doing and will continue to do. For many years, Baha’is in Iran have experienced harassment, discrimination and violence in a systematic attempt by the Iranian state to repress their community. Iran justifies such actions on the basis of “national security”, “maintaining public order” and other such empty claims. As the hon. Lady mentioned, the Baha’i community points us to what appears to be a secret Iranian Government memorandum from 1991 that calls for the machinery of government to block the progress and development of the community. Whatever the origins of the memo, an observation of what has happened on the ground since then demonstrates that the objective of the Iranian Government and their attitude towards the Baha’i faith amounts to systematic persecution.
Events on the ground confirm a pattern of Baha’is being systematically deprived of their rights as Iranian citizens. They have been excluded from private and public sector jobs, denying them the ability to earn a living. They have been prevented from holding positions of influence in Iranian society. Their properties and businesses are seized and their homes, businesses and cemeteries attacked. Baha’i children are harassed in schools and their right to higher education is denied. Students are banned from universities if it becomes known that they are Baha’is, and those attempting to establish an alternative, through the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, about which I have issued statements in the past, are arrested on charges of threatening national security.
Arrest and imprisonment is, sadly, a regular feature of Baha’i life. The seven Baha’i leaders arrested in 2008 remain in prison. They are serving lengthy prison sentences of 20 years, having been subjected to unfair trials that did not comply with even Iran’s laws. Many others have been arrested and imprisoned, often on spurious charges and in defiance of the rule of law. The experience of the Baha’is in being let down by Iran’s judicial system reflects a situation that is all too common for the Iranian population as a whole. The use of violence and incitement to violence by fellow Iranians against the Baha’is sadly appears to be building. Reports received by Baha’is from followers in Semnan province in the north of Iran suggest an escalation of persecution by the Government and intensification of the existing policies of monitoring, discrimination and harassment.
There are alarming signs of a clampdown on Baha’i economic activity there, such as the raiding and closure by Intelligence Ministry officials in May of two factories that were fully or partially owned by Baha’is. On 17 October we received worrying reports of the arrest elsewhere in Iran of a further 17 followers of the Baha’i faith. As yet, it is unclear why they were arrested and whether they will be charged with any crimes.
The situation of the Baha’is in Iran is just one illustration of Iran’s many human rights failings and its lack of respect for the rule of law. This is a regime that appears unconcerned by the absence of a fair trial and that detains and mistreats people at will. Such shameful behaviour lies at the root of many of the abuses perpetrated by the regime.
Challenges to the Iranian authorities on its record have been dismissed or met with silence. The effect is a growing impunity for the perpetrators of human rights violations. That is having a further chilling effect on respect for human rights in Iran. Iran’s continual refusal to change course, or even to engage on the issue in a meaningful way, is simply deplorable.
In terms of what we have been doing and will continue to do, and our interaction with other international agencies, the British Government do not let such things pass. We will continue to monitor closely, and speak out against, persecution of religious minorities in Iran, including the Baha’is, which flies not only in the face of international law, but does not comply with Iran’s own laws or professed values.
I and my ministerial colleagues condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their religion. We strongly support the right to freedom of religion or belief, as defined by the UN’s major human rights treaties. The promotion of human rights, including religious freedom, is central to British foreign policy. We regularly make clear to overseas Governments the importance we place on religious tolerance and eliminating all legal provisions and policies that discriminate against religious believers.
Accordingly, we remain, and will continue to remain, at the forefront of international condemnation of Iran’s behaviour against the Baha’is and other religious minorities such as Christians and Sunni Muslims.
On the wider human rights situation, the UK has played a leading role in introducing EU human rights sanctions against 77 individuals responsible for human rights abuses in Iran. We will review those again next year with EU partners.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing this important debate. The Minister spells out clearly the firm actions that the UK Government have taken and they are to be commended. Does such action have any positive impacts on the treatment of Baha’is in Iran?
The honest answer is that it is genuinely difficult to tell. It is a closed society and it is difficult to get information, but the objective information we get is not good. However, what it does have an impact on is the population. The UK is not so daft as to believe that the Iranian regime speaks for all the Iranian people. We monitor carefully what the Iranian people say to each other, on social network sites and the like. The Iranian people are a savvy internationally based people. They are actually more aware and concerned about their human rights position than perhaps they appear to be in relation to, say, the nuclear file and the nuclear issue. They are disturbed that there is a sense that as a good Muslim nation they are put in the dock for offences committed by their own Government that they feel very keenly about. Accordingly, although there may not be an impact every day on the day-to-day life of Baha’is or other minorities, the sense of outrage of the Iranian people is building up. That is why it is so important to raise such issues, for us to talk about them in Parliament and for us to do things through the international agencies—as I shall come to—in order to ensure this is known to the Iranian people.
In other countries of the world where there are more democratic societies, Red Cross would be able to visit prisoners in jail and give some help. Red Crescent is the equivalent in the middle east. Has contact been made with Red Crescent, for instance, to visit those prisoners if possible to see how they are getting on and whether they need help?
That is a good question to which I do not have the answer at my fingertips. I know that in some cases it has not been possible for Red Crescent to visit detainees, and occasionally Red Cross as well in appropriate countries, which is an offence against human rights. However, Iran’s human rights abuses make a pretty long list. I will inquire about that and write to the hon. Gentleman and copy it to the hon. Member for Belfast East.
As I have said, in the wider human rights situation, we do believe those human rights sanctions have an international impact.
The hon. Lady mentioned the annual resolution at the UN General Assembly being tabled by Canada. I can assure her that not only do we support it but we are actively lobbying for more states to support that resolution. That is again an example of the international condemnation that takes away the floor from Iran when it tries to claim that it has international friends and that it is only a select number of western countries and Israel that tend to be against it. This international condemnation gives the lie to that. In relation to the hon. Lady’s other concern, we will refer specifically to Baha’is in our intervention at the UN. We will make sure that is specifically on our agenda.
We actively lobbied for the appointment by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2011 of a UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, with whom I have spoken a number of times. We will continue to support him in his crucial role of investigating human rights violations and seeking genuine engagement from Iran to address international concerns. His latest report, being presented today, and on which we will comment, further confirms our picture of a terrible situation for Iran’s Baha’i community.
The hon. Lady quoted the UN Secretary-General. I can do no better than say again myself that he said
“systematic persecution of members of the Baha’i community, including severe socio-economic pressure and arrests and detention”
are the substance of Iranian response to the Baha’i faith.
I thank the Minister for giving way and acknowledge his diligence on this and other issues. I also commend the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). Will the Minister indicate whether it would be possible, without posing any risk of reprisals on, or further suppression of, Baha’is, for diplomatic players from the EU to have any more active and direct engagement with the Baha’i community in the current context, at least as a way of mitigating the sense of isolation and helplessness that they must feel as a community suffering compound persecution?
I think we would take advice locally as to what would be the best form of engagement with the Baha’i community. We would not want to do anything that would make life more difficult. It is a closed society so getting in to see representatives locally can be difficult. Those who are able to come outside Iran and make contact with others in order to tell the truth about what is happening and engage are warmly welcomed. We can certainly ensure we do as much of that as possible.
While Iran has on occasion suggested dialogue with the international community on its human rights record, it repeatedly fails to follow that up, so we do not judge its efforts to be genuine. For example, Iran has yet to respond to the recommendations either of the UN Human Rights Committee, following its examination under the international covenant on civil and political rights, or of the UN special rapporteur in his report to the Human Rights Council of March 2012. Nor has it shown or reported any progress in implementing its universal periodic review before the UN Human Rights Council. I am afraid we have to judge them by what they do.
Our message to Iran is that we will not tire of asking difficult questions and highlighting human rights violations where we find them, until Iran takes real steps needed to address our concerns. The persecution of Baha’i and other religious minorities in Iran must stop, and the Iranian regime’s wider repression of minority or alternative views must end, too. Iran has a shameful record of detentions of human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers, and seems callously ready to use tools such as the death penalty with abandon in order to intimidate.
The quiet determination of the Baha’i to co-exist peacefully with fellow Iranians as part of a diverse and tolerant Iranian society should be embraced by Iran’s Government. We will continue to call on Iran to improve its appalling behaviour and we will not waiver in our support for the plight of the Baha’i.
Question put and agreed to.