Tuesday 16 July 2013
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
National Parliaments and the EU
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Swayne.)
It is a great pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
The ageing process has some charming aspects, one of which is that a new idea arrives and I sit and think, “I think I have heard this somewhere before.” If someone hangs around long enough, they may even find that not only have they heard the idea before but that they have heard it before before. I had that feeling when I heard of the latest strengthening of national Parliaments within the European Union context. At that stage I decided to break one of my basic rules: over the years I have never taken part in an EU debate without saying something that I have not said before. I recommend that practice to others, but on this occasion I thought I would pull together some thoughts on national Parliaments and some of the problems over the past few years.
Yet again, the role of national Parliaments is essentially being used as a fig leaf to hide accountability for decision making at the European level. The fig leaf is being used by national Governments, and we should not fall for it. I had a feeling of déjà vu 10 years ago, when I went to the Convention on the Future of Europe. One of the five working groups was on the role of national Parliaments, and an old hand sidled up to me and said, “Remember the dud they sold John Major?” I said, “No, I don’t remember the dud they sold John Major.” And the old hand said, “Well, during Maastricht they introduced the concept of subsidiarity and proportionality, which was supposed to appease the national Governments. There was also then a review of competences across Whitehall.”
It was funny—I thought I had heard that before. The dud they sold Major was on the principle that national Parliaments should be given a role on policing subsidiarity and proportionality—the Convention on the Future of Europe was in 2002 or 2003—so I said, “When has the principle ever been invoked?” I was then told that it had been invoked only once, during the British presidency, when there was the bright idea that we wanted to standardise the water temperature for sea lions in zoos. That was a step too far even for Britain and was deemed to be out of order on the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality.
Subsidiarity and proportionality are being chucked at an interesting case that is currently going through—the representation of women on company boards. I find that quite extraordinary. The rights of women are now seen to be something at the behest of national Governments. I thought we had already reached equality. Please give me equality, but not because of subsidiarity.
I will give a bit of history. In 1994, after Maastricht, national Parliaments were supposed to come to the rescue; and in 2002-03, they were supposed to come to the rescue again with a card system of yellow cards, red cards, vetoes and all those kinds of things. Yet again, we hear that national Parliaments are supposed to be strengthened, but in this place we are talking less about Europe than ever before. Previously, a small, select group of people would gather on Wednesdays ahead of a European Council meeting, and occasionally we would tell each other something that we had not said before. We considered the programme of the European Council. There were afternoon debates, and Ministers had to tell the Commons what was about to happen. Regularly, on the following Monday, the Prime Minister would give a statement on the results. Some Members will remember that we used to have great fun at those pre-Council meetings, because the Danes would usually have published the Council conclusions on their website ahead of the Council meeting. We made fun of that, but at least we talked about it.
What happens now is that debates ahead of a Council meeting are deemed to be Back-Bench business. I spent three consecutive Thursdays complaining about that to the Leader of the House, and I kept getting the same answer—that it is part of the Wright recommendations. We have overturned other parts of the Wright recommendations, so why are they suddenly sacrosanct? On top of that, the Prime Minister did not give a Council statement back in June because he said it was so boring, and he has combined the subsequent Council statements with hefty, serious foreign policy statements on other issues. The last Council statement was combined with a statement on Afghanistan. Both issues would have deserved a statement in their own right. National Parliaments are supposed to be coming to the rescue, yet Parliament is speaking less about the matter.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that retrograde step is particularly regrettable given that other Parliaments have actually started to improve their scrutiny? She mentioned the Danish Parliament, but the German Parliament now scrutinises the German Government’s negotiating strategy more closely ahead of European Council meetings.
Indeed. Ten years ago, the British Parliament was seen as having some of the toughest and most extensive scrutiny functions. We were also the first Parliament to open an office in the European Parliament so that we had representation there. Ten years ago we were a model that other people looked towards, and now we have fallen behind. We are doing less than others.
I am sure the hon. Lady would not want to move on to another subject without noting that the European Scrutiny Committee has now set up an inquiry into European scrutiny, to which she has given some very good evidence. Furthermore, last night the European Scrutiny Committee and two other Committees worked together to ensure that we changed the Government’s approach to the whole business of opt-outs and opt-ins and that the Government accepted the amendment that had essentially been drafted by the European Scrutiny Committee.
I fear to tread on the subject of the European Scrutiny Committee in the hon. Gentleman’s presence, because I know I would get it wrong. I would also rather rely on his intervening to tell the Chamber about the Committee’s work. It is significant that last night it was agreed that the negotiating positions had to be brought back to Parliament, but we all know that we are still only talking to each other in Committee Rooms rather than on the Floor of the House.
What would really improve national Parliaments? I am caught between a rock and a hard place, because I do not want national Parliaments to become separate institutions within the architectural framework of the EU. The EU has the Commission and the Council, but national Parliaments provide the majorities to form the Governments that send Ministers to the Council. There is, however, a little-known organisation that is known only to those who have been to some of its meetings—COSAC, which is the conference of European scrutiny committees.
Ten years ago, I was trying to broker a deal in that working group between national Parliaments so that COSAC would be strengthened in the red and yellow card system, but for that the MEPs would have had to leave COSAC. It is difficult for COSAC to arrive at a decision, because there are, say, four representatives from each country, two from the Government and two from the Opposition. If there is a coalition Government, in our case the representatives could be a Tory, a Lib Dem and two Labour Members, so there are probably three views among the four representatives. Consensus then has to be reached across 27 or 28 countries within extremely tight time limits. What then happens is that MEPs are the only people who are sufficiently united in their view and who caucus—they are usually united in the view that the European Parliament is good and national Parliaments are bad. The card system will not work unless the national Parliaments that exercise the veto have a network to talk to each other. If that network has an in-built number of MEPs who can outvote the national parliamentarians, it simply will not work. I do not know whether it is possible to change the job that COSAC does in such a way, but we will see.
I am following the hon. Lady’s remarks carefully. She refers to scrutiny as a key issue, but in Strangford, which has an agricultural and fishing base, it is not scrutiny that we want but changes in legislation to reduce red tape and bureaucracy. Does she feel that we can change things through the scrutiny that she refers to? If we cannot change things, scrutiny is no good.
The hon. Gentleman has gone to the nub of the matter. We need to decide what we think the role of national Parliaments is. Is it only to scrutinise? If so, we need to widen the base so that more Members take part more regularly. Or is it to get Governments to change their decisions at times? I think that it needs to be the latter, but a number of things have to happen to allow that. Early information is key.
We also need information about how people actually act in the Council of Ministers. I have sat in the Council of Ministers, and I know that there is rarely a vote. If there is, it is seen as a failure by the civil servants that they have allowed the situation to arise. They do a head count to see whether they have a qualified majority, and if they do not think they will get the decision they want, they give in gracefully.
That takes me to what really needs to change. We need a proper Europe Minister. That is not to cast any aspersions on the current Europe Minister, but the position is a fallacy. Why are matters involving the European Union, which deals essentially with domestic legislation, placed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Numerous Governments have tried at times to get the Europe function out of the Foreign Office. From what I gather, the trade union of Foreign Office Ministers usually gets together and it does not happen, but there is a question to be addressed there.
If the Europe Minister is in the Foreign Office and makes decisions and strikes bargains regularly, they might say, “There’s an idea here that affects agriculture on which we want some compromise”, or it might be on cigarette advertising, the working hours of junior doctors or any number of issues on which we can get a deal. Such deals are struck across various Departments. At that level of political bargaining, the House has no ability to scrutinise, take a role or even know what happens. We are simply given the end results. A Europe Minister should have accountability for our permanent representative in Brussels, UKRep, which does all those dealings, and be answerable to the House of Commons for the bargains struck. There was a stage when a previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, seriously envisaged such a role, but for whatever reason it did not happen.
I can hear the outcry: “You can’t politicise UKRep!” I am not saying that I would do it the way that the Finns do it, for example—they call their civil servant before them every Friday morning—but Select Committees can call civil servants. There could be a regular slot for UKRep representatives when they come on a Friday to brief Whitehall Departments about what they have done. They could stay until the Monday morning or come on the Thursday afternoon to give evidence. If we do not want to do it at the civil service level—actually, I would rather do it at the political level—there should be a Minister who is answerable to the House across Whitehall Departments for negotiations, compromises and deals struck in Brussels. It would be such a far-reaching brief that the Minister would almost function as a Deputy Prime Minister.
I am extremely interested in what the hon. Lady is saying, and I have often thought along similar lines. However, does she acknowledge that due to the critical mass of the European Union’s relationship with the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister and Downing street ultimately want to control all those matters? I suppose that that is understandable from their point of view. During the constitutional treaty discussions and the run-up to Lisbon, it was thought that the Foreign Secretary was out of the loop, because Tony Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) were in discussions but the Foreign Secretary was scarcely involved at all.
That is not my recollection. The biggest thing that happened during the convention was the Iraq war, which meant that people’s attention was rightly drawn to other things. However, as I was representing national Parliaments and not the British Government, I had access to the Departments across Whitehall in a way that even a Cabinet Minister probably never has. I had a snapshot of what was happening in various Departments at any given time, and then I saw how people negotiated and traded things.
There is nothing wrong with that, but if we do not know what deals are being struck, we can neither approve nor disapprove. What happens is not uniquely British: every Government comes back with a success that they regard as an ultimate success for their own negotiating position, and think that they have shown all the others how they have failed. Anything that they do not like, they blame on the European Union. We will never be at ease with the decision-making process unless we actually know what is going on. We take notice only of the things that we do not like; there is no cognizance of the things that we do like.
This is about the Europe Minister and the accountability of UKRep. This place needs to get its head around how we can break open that decision-making process and make it accountable here. I think that I am right in saying that we still do not even know whether one of our Ministers was at the Council meeting or whether he or she was represented by a civil servant. Is that information available?
Parliament is usually told in advance by a Minister from the appropriate Department who will be in the UK chair for a meeting of the Council. Certainly, for the Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council, I routinely table a written ministerial statement to Parliament that says whether the Foreign Secretary or I will be in the chair. In the subsequent report to Parliament about what happened at Council meetings, we have sometimes said that for a certain item on the agenda, the permanent representative was in the chair.
That is helpful. I hope that it applies not just to the Foreign Affairs Council but to all meetings that are open, so that we can know afterwards whether the Minister or a civil servant was there.
To give one example, I was on a committee considering defence procurement across Europe. Countries have a veto and can say that it is in their national interest for a particular piece of defence procurement not to come within the single market rules. There was a reference to how often the UK had used that veto, and I wanted to find out through written answers how often that veto was used by other countries, because without comparison with other countries a single figure is utterly meaningless; one cannot tell whether it is excessive or very low.
I think that the UK used its veto about nine times. If France had used its veto 315 times, there would have been something wrong. If France had never used it, I would want to ask a few more questions about why we had. The answer came back that the information was not available. The Foreign Office felt that it was not its job to answer for the European Union, but as an MP, I had no means at that stage to go further and find that information. Similarly, the Dutch had not fully signed up to that agreement. When I tried to find out why, I was told that that was an issue for the Dutch Government. That is a legitimate answer, but it does not allow us to understand how we are represented and how other countries are working on that.
Even if the Prime Minister does not wish to create a new role for a Europe Minister with responsibility across Whitehall—I can see why he might not want to do so, because it takes power away—let us consider the notion of the red card, yellow card or whatever colour it is. The card is meant to be a mechanism by which national Parliaments can say to the Commission, “Thus far, and no further. Step back again.”
When the red card system was first mooted, the Commission was up in arms, because it felt that it was insulting to suggest that it would ever bring anything forward that would breach the principles and could be objected to by two thirds of national Parliaments, or whatever. It subsequently got off its high horse and accepted the principle—but no more than the principle, that we can wave a card, because there is no duty on the Commission to withdraw its proposals or to come back with better proposals. Following the speech of the Foreign Secretary in Berlin, I gather that we now have ideas for an improved version of the red and yellow cards, and I look forward to hearing more about that.
Instead of the card system, however, perhaps the British Government will consider discussing with the Commission the idea of a delete button for legislative proposals. When we have a general election and the Government go, so do their manifesto commitments and legislative proposals; the slate is wiped clean. At the European level, there is no such delete button. Proposals that are not agreed in one parliamentary session, simply refuse to die. A classic example of that is the hallmarking directive, which comes up again every so often, because some countries have a particular interest. We can either negotiate something to death, so that it is almost meaningless, or we end up introducing something that, 10 years ago, when first introduced, was a good idea, but now no longer is.
One example was the effect of the working time directive on junior doctors. Negotiations on the working time directive started in the ’90s, with legitimate concerns about lorry drivers driving for too long, and so on. It was not until 1999 that I ended up trying to negotiate on opt-out for junior doctors, because we could tell that the working hours requirements would mean that the increase in doctors, which the Labour Government was bringing in, would be totally consumed in the first few years. We wanted the directive to be phased, but we then had court judgments that extended it even further. The political impact of that decision did not become apparent until almost 20 years after the original directive.
If democratic accountability means getting rid of decision makers when we think that they have made bad decisions, by the time a European Union decision on some things kicks in, it really is the Schleswig-Holstein question and only three people know the answer: one is mad, another is forgotten and the third is dead. If we had a process of completion that gave us some parliamentary input, we would know where the start and end points were, so we would know where we could use our influence and get the Government to take a stance.
I hope that the Minister will tell us more about the red card, but I also hope that he will say more about whether he envisages Parliament having a role in affecting the decisions of the Government before they go into negotiations. Unless we know beforehand, not only in the European Scrutiny Committee but through a mechanism by which what is about to happen is discussed on the Floor of the House, we cannot influence it. By the time the Minister goes to Brussels, the deals have been struck. Any Ministers who have attended European Council meetings know that they go on the plane, they read their papers, they arrive in Brussels and UKRep gives them a brief with the lines to take. Anyone who tries to unravel anything is told, “That’s the deal; that’s it.” At that stage, anyone short of the Prime Minister cannot unravel the deal.
I want to leave the Minister with a final, incredibly radical thought—a radical retrograde step to some perhaps. At the recent Königswinter conference, I chaired one of the groups and, by way of introduction, I asked everyone to say, going around the table, one thing that they really loved about the European Union and one that they would get rid of tomorrow if we could. The group was half Germans and half Brits, and to my absolute astonishment there was a consensus around the table that the one thing that we should get rid of was the European Parliament. Then I realised the real difference between the Germans and the Brits. We talked about the connection never being made and how a double mandate was the way to link things, but for the Germans the double mandate was to use some MEPs as national MPs, while for the Brits it was to use some nationally elected parliamentarians at the Brussels level.
We must look at the workings of the European Parliament. It will simply not do that our contact with it is getting less and less. With the closed list system, fewer and fewer people know who their MEPs are. The relationship is not only fractured, but virtually non-existent. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say even about some basic things. He may want to correct me, but we do not automatically issue passes for the House of Commons to Members of the European Parliament, so they have to queue up with everyone else. If we want a proper a dialogue, they ought to be here. I remember that we would not let MEPs have dining rights or book a room, because we thought that they would invade this place in order to enjoy the cuisine. [Interruption.] I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer).
I was not going to intervene, but my hon. Friend generously gave way before I asked.
I have two points to make on scrutiny and accountability. The European Parliament does not see itself as being accountable to national Parliaments; in reality, it is in competition, which is why many national parliamentarians around Europe are not in favour of the European Parliament, because it sees its future as taking over our role. Secondly, the rights of MEPs in this House were taken away some time ago.
The reason why I asked for the debate was to bring in some historical perspective, because since I have been in the House this is the third time that national Parliaments have been resurrected as the panacea for dealing with unaccountability. In the Scrutiny Committee, we have improved our function, but we have not extended that to the whole House. In fact, we have reduced the accountability of Ministers, and of the Prime Minister in particular, through debate in the House, in order for us to know what the Government are doing at the European level. Unless we have some structure or another to do that, we will simply never be at peace or feel that we know what decisions are being made on our behalf, whether we want to influence the decision or to scrutinise it.
Seventeen years! I am only getting close to 30 years. It is extremely refreshing to hear such cogent and well thought out concern about the whole European issue, which has dogged our political debates for the 30 years or so that I have been in the House—whether there is any connection, I cannot say. Today, the one thing that saddens me slightly and, I dare say, her, too, is that so few people are participating in a debate about what is at the heart of our democratic system. I regard this matter as being not “about Europe” but about Britain, and about democracy, which is not peculiar to any one country.
Our democratic systems have, in real terms, emerged since the 19th century, because of John Bright and others. I mention his name because the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston represents part of his old constituency, before it was Birmingham Central. His fight for the working-class vote was in essence the beginnings of our democratic system. The Conservative party, under Disraeli, gave in to the pressures. There is no need to go into the detail, but it was incredibly important and was based on the assumption that when people went into the polling booth and cast their vote secretly in a ballot box—that was the system that was devised in the late 19th century to ensure that the people had their say—we had a democracy. Other countries have run parallel with that, so the issue is not exclusively British but applies elsewhere in the whole of the European continent and the rest of the world.
I fear that with the movement towards bigger regional systems, even those who claim that they want world government ignore national identity, traditions and democratic systems, and therefore in essence national Parliaments, at their peril. The European Union, which I voted for as the European Community in 1975—I said yes—has since moved inexorably along a trajectory towards more and more centralisation and less and less national involvement.
The Minister for Europe is here. He and I have engaged in debates and discussions on the matter since at least 1988 or 1989, when I was first elected chairman of the backbench committee on European affairs in hostile circumstances. It was interesting that the national parliamentarians who then represented the Conservative party elected me in a secret ballot because I had put out a note explaining why I was standing, which was all about national Parliaments. I had written a pamphlet for the Bow Group called “A Democratic Way to European Unity: Arguments against Federalism” and I followed that up the following year with another called “Against a Federal Europe—The Battle for Britain”. I think I can fairly say—I do so without presumption—that what I set out in those two documents has remained the central problem.
The difference is that the evidence now demonstrates the analysis of where we were going wrong, which was further and further integration, and that was in the 1988 to 1991 period. Since then, we have had Amsterdam, Nice and Maastricht, and we have had the constitutional and Lisbon treaties. Irrespective of the evidence, both economic and political, there is increasing distrust not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the whole of Europe. I need not give all the Eurobarometer’s figures, but 72% of those in countries such as Spain and Italy have now decided that they do not trust the European Union. I presume to say that riots, unemployment and the rise of the far right are all things that I said would happen when I wrote those pamphlets back in 1988-91 and since.
Despite all that, as well as the Bloomberg speech and the movement towards a referendum—I believe that there will be a money resolution this afternoon on the European Union (Referendum) Bill—if I am being completely objective, nothing has changed except public opinion. The facts demonstrate that those of us who have argued this case consistently over a long period have been proved right. I am not saying, “I told you so.” The matter is far too serious for that because, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, it is about our democratic system.
National parliamentarians are elected by virtue of manifestos in general elections. We ultimately control taxation and spending. That is what determines the nature of our economy, and it also determines public services. If circumstances arise in which the economic and political situation in this country, let alone other countries, becomes dysfunctional and as a result we cannot deliver the prosperity that people want, not only will they become completely alienated from laws that are generated to exclude them from participation in a prosperous business and social environment, but the entire fabric of the European system will disintegrate.
The real problem is the treaties. The issue is no longer just a call for reform. I was anxious for reform, and I have called for renegotiation for as long as I can remember, because I thought the treaties would go wrong. Now that they have gone so wrong, there is no prospect of their improving the situation and, as I will explain, there is absolutely no sign that any Government in any European country are seriously grappling with the intrinsic problem at the heart of the treaties. Governments talk about renegotiation, but we are past that. The reality is that we must leave the existing treaties—I make this point in the context of our national Parliament and our own country—because unless other countries are prepared to face up to the fact that there has been a cataclysmic failure of the system, they will not be impelled to make the changes that are needed to achieve what I still believe in: co-operation on the European continent and in trade.
I need not go into the arguments about trading, because we are talking about national Parliaments, but one reason why the British Chambers of Commerce and others have become so deeply disillusioned by the European Union in business terms is precisely the legislation that has come about as a result of being passed under the aegis of the treaties. Those treaties, because of the concrete framework of the acquis communautaire, cannot be changed without unanimity among all member states, and there is absolutely no intention whatever to make fundamental changes to the treaties.
The hon. Gentleman is making a profound point about the inflexibility of the European Union structure. Does he agree that the reason why European Union countries, with the possible exception of Sweden, are unlikely to withdraw support from the current treaties is that they have a history of fascism, communism or of being defeated in wars and controlled by other nations? They do not have the same confidence in their national democracies that we have in this country.
That is absolutely correct, and is not disrespectful or a criticism of those countries. In the past month I have been to Lithuania twice, and I have great affection for that country. One has only to look at the way in which it has been brutalised for 150 years by successive dictatorships—the Nazis, Russians and Soviet Union—to realise why it would want the security of working within the framework of something bigger. The same applies to Estonia, Latvia and many other countries in central and eastern Europe, so there is an understandable reason for their wanting to play safe, as it were. However, it is not playing safe that is the problem, because the price that people will pay for allowing that democratic system to be so much at risk will be another collapse of those countries if the democratic freedom that they fought for disintegrates as a result of the European Union’s failures.
The fact is that tinkering with the treaties is not the only thing required. It is about the very foundations of the EU, which brings me on to the question of ever-closer union. Certainly that was embedded in the early treaties, including in the treaty of Rome. However, it was not capable of being implemented, unless and until the genie was gradually eased out of the bottle as a result of successive treaty changes. People are cynical about the 1975 referendum, and I understand why. There is plenty of reason to believe that, in fact, it was done with some cynicism by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. However, the reality is that people such as Tony Benn and others, who were involved in arguments on the other side, challenged whether it would ultimately lead to political union.
Although I freely state that I voted yes in 1975, it was because, as far as I was aware, it was going to be a common market. It was not only that, however. It could only become more of an integrated, ever-closer union as a result of further treaties, which is why I most emphatically put my foot down on the Maastricht treaty—I tabled about 200 amendments, or whatever it was—and fought the arguments right the way through from beginning to end, because that was about the creation of European government. There is no disputing that, and I am very glad that the present Prime Minister stated in the House the other day that he thought that there should have been a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. He was right.
We do not need to go into the past too much, but the Maastricht treaty remains at the epicentre of the Lisbon treaty, because the Lisbon treaty is simply a consolidation of all the others. Anyone who cares to get those treaties out can see that, although I have to say that there are not many people who would. Sometimes even I have a great disinclination to get out the consolidated treaties and plough through them, although I notice that the Minister has them on his desk, with lots of little yellow flashes so that he can immediately leap to one article or another. However, I do not think this is about individual articles, nor is it about the intricacies of bits and pieces. It is about the fundamental structure.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the Lisbon treaty to a point, but does he agree that there is a fundamental difference between the Lisbon treaty and all the treaties that went before it, inasmuch as the passerelle clauses provide the right to change treaties without going back to the sovereign Governments and Parliaments?
One of the most offensive kinds of provision that appear in our domestic legislation is the Henry VIII clause, as we call it. The passerelle clause has all the same characteristics; it is a capacity to make changes without having to go back to the source of authority. However, we have to pin our main concerns to the source of authority, which is the European Communities Act 1972 itself. I allude to the White Paper, which was brought out, preceding that treaty, in 1971, and upon which, as a result of a huge amount of discussion in Parliament but not so much outside, the United Kingdom Parliament decided to pass the Act on an apparently—I say “apparently”—free vote. It happened, however, because certain Labour Members at that time decided that they would back Edward Heath’s proposals for what was to be enacted in the 1972 Act.
That White Paper is the foundation of our national parliamentary commitment to the whole panoply, the tens of thousands of lines—millions, I suspect; I have never counted them, thank God—the fabric, the labyrinth and the inexplicable and completely impossible complexities of the legislation, as was clearly demonstrated in yesterday’s debate on the opt-out. The fact is that all that ultimately turns on one piece of legislation, which we entered into voluntarily in Parliament—no doubt some, or perhaps most, did so for the best of motives. What it said was that we will accept all the decisions that are ultimately taken in the Council of Ministers as the legislation of the United Kingdom.
At the same time, we set up a scrutiny process, which I shall come on to in a moment. However, the fundamental issue is that the White Paper stated unequivocally—I do not have the quotation to hand, but I am sure that I will in no way fail to express it clearly—that we must retain the veto in our own national interest and to do otherwise would not only undermine our national interest, but endanger the very fabric of the European Community itself. That was a very wise remark, because as Members will note from what I said at the beginning, the whole of Europe is in convulsion. It is faced not only with a democratic deficit, but with a democratic crisis, and there is not only a eurozone crisis, but a European crisis. It affects the whole of Europe, which is being contaminated by a complete refusal to look at the essential ingredients of the treaties.
Those fundamental questions are now being completely ignored. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston referred to COSAC, which, as she rightly said, is not a well-known body. It is the meeting—periodically, but much more frequently these days—of the national chairmen of each of the European scrutiny committees in each of the member states. Believe it or not, its proceedings are recorded. They are even webcast—not, I suspect, that anyone knows that, but it is a fact.
In Dublin, only a month ago, I was invited by the EU presidency—then the Irish Government—to respond officially as the main respondent for the national Parliaments on the question of democratic legitimacy. Viviane Reding, who was meant to turn up, did not bother to. She sent a video, and I can assure Members that the Dublin parliamentarians were not at all amused. That is the manner in which we are being treated—that is all the member states. She said, unequivocally—I paraphrase her remarks—that we need a federation of nation states. It was completely and totally without any attempt to enter a dialogue or a debate. That was the line that she wanted to take; it had already been written. Viviane Reding is the vice-president of the European Commission and is responsible for justice and home affairs—the very matters on which we scored that notable result last night in upholding national scrutiny. However, they are not listening.
In Vilnius, the following month—only last week— Mr Sefcovic, the Commissioner responsible for relations with the national Parliaments and the European Parliament, made his position clear. I arrived in Vilnius at 1 o’clock in the morning, and I was back in London by 7 o’clock that evening. People said, “What on earth did you think you were doing going all the way to Vilnius for four hours?” I explained very simply that, as the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee—one of 28 national Chairmen—I had the right to be there and that, when I saw that the meeting was about the next steps towards political and economic union, I knew, in the light of what I know from other sources, that the EU has not the slightest interest in renegotiation; all it wants to do is to press on with the process of integration.
Leaving aside the scrutiny process, it was interesting that an increasing number of member state Parliaments are conscious of the impact that these issues are having on their populations, on which they rely for re-election, and of the fact that they must respond. A silent revolution is in the making. I am not going to exaggerate these things, but there is an issue when the Belgian representative gets up and starts talking about Belgium’s problems with democratic legitimacy. I cannot think of one of the 28 member states that does not, in the relevant chamber or outside, in the margins, over coffee, lunch or dinner, refer to the problem of democratic legitimacy.
The issue is terribly simple: if we do not get rid of the existing treaties and deal with the fundamental structure, there is no answer to the question of democratic legitimacy. We do our best in the European Scrutiny Committee. When I was first elected Chairman, at the end of 2010, the first thing I did was to set up an inquiry into the European Union and the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament, which is basically what we are discussing. I wanted to get expert evidence, and we did. Our report came out, and we made it clear that national Parliaments actually have the last say. We voluntarily introduced the 1972 Act; that is what the principle involved in the Factortame case is all about. It is not, as some people believe, that we are locked into a completely irreversible situation. Although the treaties say, as the Maastricht treaty did, that the euro, once entered into, is irrevocable, individual member states must voluntarily decide to accept that system.
At the moment, there is no recognition whatever that things are going wrong. There is not the slightest intention to change the foundations of the treaties, which is absolutely what is needed if we are to preserve democracy in each member state, including in the United Kingdom. Whether we are in the euro is by the bye; the fact is that all the other legislation that affects our economy every day must be subject not merely to a competence review, but to a clear decision. I look to the Minister, because the issue is his responsibility, although he will, quite understandably, take his instructions from No. 10.
I admired the fourth principle of the Bloomberg speech, which said that the fundamental principles of our national democracy depend on our national Parliaments. The Prime Minister was right; the question is whether we do anything about that. We are promising a referendum in 2017, but that is far too late. The fact is that it should be held before the general election, because we have profound reasons for getting on with it. In Dublin, when I had finished making my rather strong remarks about the state of the European Union and the role of national Parliaments, the chairman of the Bundestag’s European affairs committee said, “We must have a referendum in the United Kingdom as soon as possible, because people do not like the uncertainty,” and that is right.
We now have two Governments and two Parliaments, both dealing with the same subject matter. That inherent contradiction is completely unworkable. There are attempts at assimilation, but they just create a more complicated labyrinth, as a result of which the whole situation becomes increasingly dysfunctional. What is more, the creation of a two-tier, two-Government, two-Parliament Europe with no real connection to anything is happening before our very eyes, without any treaty changes. That is why a referendum is required.
The fundamental reason for holding a referendum is that a fundamental change is taking place now in the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. We are not talking about change in 2017; indeed, there may not be another treaty—I cannot say, although the Minister probably knows. However, whether or not there is another treaty, and whether or not there is renegotiation and some nibbling here and there—some of it may sound attractive to some people—that will not change the basic structure. That is what is wrong, and that is why national Parliaments must reassert themselves. They have the power to deal with their respective parties, particularly from the Back Benches, including by persuasion. I was extremely glad that the Government listened yesterday. It was partly a numbers question; we live in a civilised world, and we appreciate that there are times when Ministers recognise that they do not have the support that they need. Three Select Committee Chairmen got together—other members of the Liaison Committee were also involved—and that created a bit of a problem for the Government. None the less, we are grateful for what happened.
The hon. Lady mentioned consensus and the fact that there are rarely votes. I simply recommend that people read VoteWatch, which is produced by Simon Hix of the London School of Economics. It has demonstrated that where there could be different outcomes, all countries end up agreeing on 90% of the legislation, and I believe that the figure has increased since Simon Hix looked at that. Part of the problem is the qualified majority voting system and part of the problem is the co-decision system, but I shall park those issues. However, that is how the system overcomes the issue of what national Parliaments could decide for themselves if they regained the power that they should regain for themselves. I also recommend that people read Professor Damian Chalmers’s paper on democratic self-government, which will prove to be a seminal contribution to this debate. He will give evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee quite soon.
What worries me about the red card system is that it is a further indication of a refusal to grapple with the essential question—that we should end up as an association of nation states that have a veto where necessary, but that co-operate where possible. We should also be able to trade and to work in political co-operation with our neighbours, without being governed by them. The red card system is liable to increase federal arrangements. I do not see why, when this Parliament, as a national Parliament, says that it does not want a measure, we should then be obliged to say yes to it, just because we do not reach a certain threshold when other member states, for completely different reasons, say they want the measure or are not prepared to stand up and say that they do not want it.
That goes back to the fundamental question on which I will end. It is about the ballot box, freedom of choice and those questions that people fought and died for, and that should determine our attitude towards not merely nibbling at, revising or reforming the European Union, but dealing with the real problem: the foundations of the treaties themselves. It may be a big ask to expect the Minister to agree, but if we do not deal with that, just as those of us who found that what we said in the 1990s has not exactly been proved wrong, we will be in a similar place in 10 or 15 years’ time, and, regrettably, by then I fear it will be too late.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, in a debate that is of great interest to you. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing the debate and on a characteristically thorough and forensic speech, which drew on not only 17 years in the House, but many weeks and months—I do not know how many—on the Convention on the Future of Europe. She is a real expert and it was a great pleasure to hear her this morning.
I agree in particular with my hon. Friend’s overall argument that national Parliaments need to play a much greater role in holding to account not only the European Union, but our own Government’s decisions on Europe and the formulation of European legislation and policy. She and many other right hon. and hon. Friends, some of whom are here this morning, want parliamentary scrutiny of the EU and what our Government do in Europe to be enhanced and improved. That objective unites pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics, and hon. Members from different parties alike.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s specific point that it is regrettable that one of the first actions of the Government when they came into power in 2010 was to do away with pre-European Council debates. It is unsurprising that she, and others present and beyond our debate today, complained repeatedly about the decision, but unfortunately it was to no avail. While other member states are improving their scrutiny of their Governments’ decision-making and negotiating strategy ahead of European Councils, our Government have taken a retrograde step and have in effect decreased scrutiny. The Government have not simply done away with the pre-Council debates, but the post-Council debates are now combined with major issues of concern—whether Afghanistan or the horrific murder in Woolwich. Such subjects and the post-European Council report need to be separate. They are too important to be combined. Notwithstanding the scrutiny of the European Scrutiny Committee, it is vital that scrutiny also takes place on the Floor of the House, as she set out, so that all right hon. and hon. Members have the opportunity to scrutinise how the Government represent the UK in the EU.
The starting point from which I approach the debate is perhaps different from that of some hon. Members who have spoken. I am a passionate believer in our membership of the EU. I am both pro-European and passionately in favour of reform. Just because I believe in our membership, that does not mean that I think the EU is perfect—far from it. I spent six years of my life working and living in Brussels; I have seen at first hand the many imperfections of the EU. A vital part of EU reform lies in the issue that we are focusing on today: strengthening the accountability that national Parliaments have over European decision-making.
The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), in a speech in January this year, set out proposals for a red card system. It took the Government five months to come to the same conclusion, but we were encouraged—better late than never. As hon. Members are acutely aware, the current yellow card system was introduced by the Lisbon treaty, which the Labour Government negotiated. It gives national Parliaments the ability to force the European Commission to reconsider its proposals if they believe that a proposal violates the subsidiarity principle.
I do not think that anyone could honestly say that the yellow card system has been a stunning success, given the number of occasions we have reached the threshold. That is also a problem with respect to any possibility of a red card system, leaving aside the federalisation they both imply.
I do not claim that the yellow card system has been a stunning success. As the hon. Gentleman set out, it has been used successfully on only one occasion —the so-called Monti II proposals, which were then withdrawn by the European Commission. Just because the yellow card system is not a success at the moment, that does not mean that it could not be made to work better. I will move on to that and better co-ordination of national parliamentarians in a moment.
The Labour party is committed to pushing for a red card system when in government. It would, in effect, turn the yellow card into a red card, by stating clearly that a third of national Parliaments being against a proposal is a veto. It would not force the European Commission to reconsider, but would say, “No. Stop. Stop that proposal. One-third of national Parliaments have great concerns, therefore withdraw it.”
Even within the current treaties, the yellow card system could be made to work better, which brings me to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform—a think-tank that is well reputed and thorough on such matters—has suggested creating a national parliamentary forum in Brussels of MPs from different member states. I would be interested to know whether the Minister for Europe has considered that proposal. I regret to hear that European Commissioner Viviane Reding did not turn up to the meeting when the hon. Gentleman was in Dublin. Perhaps a new forum, made up of MPs—not necessarily including Chairs of Scrutiny Committees—meeting in Brussels could better hold to account European Governments, who have permanent representations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston suggested, there should be better political oversight of such representations.
Holding a gathering of MPs to talk about issues is not the same as holding people to account. Holding people to account means that there is a vote, within a constitutional structure that requires people to answer questions, and if the people who have the numbers on their side do not like a proposal, the Government’s position changes, as happened last night. The hon. Lady is suggesting a Parliament of fools.
The hon. Gentleman has not even allowed me to finish my point. If he considers the proposals from the Centre for European Reform, he will see that they are not about a talking shop. With great respect, I know that he sits on COSAC, which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston mentioned, and that committee needs to be vastly improved from its current formulation and in its make-up. Mr Grant says that it does not give MPs a big enough stake, is only consultative and is often treated “disdainfully” by MEPs—his word, not mine.
There is clearly a great—[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) at least give me the courtesy of listening to my response to his intervention? There is clearly a great problem with the current set-up, and having a presence in Brussels of national parliamentarians who could have a vote and scrutinise more closely the decisions taken by our and other Governments deserves closer consideration, rather than just saying that it would be a gathering of fools—a statement with which I profoundly disagree.
I recently met the Speaker of the Dutch House of Representatives, and she has an appetite, as do colleagues in other member states with whom I have discussed the matter, for Parliaments to work more closely together. The Government could give greater consideration to the successes in the Dutch, Danish and German Parliaments. For example, in the Netherlands, the standing committees—akin, I think, to our Select Committees—choose proposals from within the Commission work programme that they see as priorities and about which they might have concerns, and they refer them to their European affairs committee.
Our departmental Select Committees are not involved enough in proposals at an early stage, or even at later stages, and I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about what the Government could do to drive greater consideration and scrutiny on a policy-by-policy basis, given that, as has been said, a lot of European policy is not foreign policy—as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, it is an anomaly that it is often treated as such. Our departmental Select Committees could learn from the experience of the Netherlands.
My hon. Friend reminds me of another idea, which at some stage was discussed. What does she think of the suggestion that, rather than us going to Brussels, the Commissioners come here at the beginning of the work programme? They could give evidence to a Select Committee, or be here in Westminster Hall and answer MPs’ questions about the forward programme.
I welcome that suggestion, and the idea should be considered. European Commissioners do come to our Parliament, but not systematically.
In Denmark, before European Council meetings the Prime Minister has to go before the European committee to discuss her negotiating strategy, and in the German system, the Bundestag now has much greater power to scrutinise the Government’s negotiating strategy for those meetings. Our Prime Minister, when he had just been elected as party leader, told the party to “stop banging on” about Europe, and there are rumours in today’s press that the first report on the balance of competences, which we all await with bated breath, has been put off until after the summer, apparently because Ministers are fearful of their own Back Benchers. I would be interested to hear why a dispassionate, objective assessment of the balance of competences should be put off in that way. The Government again seem to be putting the party interest before the national one. We are worried that they feel compelled to delay the initial report, and we are greatly interested in what the Minister has to say about that.
This debate comes at a particularly important time, because the eurozone member states are likely to pursue further integration among the eurozone 17. Their Parliaments, and those in non-eurozone member states such as ours—there are 10 others, including Croatia—will need to scrutinise better what happens and what the dynamic is between non-eurozone and eurozone member states.
In conclusion, it deserves to be repeated that it is regrettable that the Government have abolished the pre-Council debates. I would like to see them reintroduced. Scrutiny in Committees, such as the one chaired by the hon. Member for Stone, is all well and good but nothing substitutes scrutiny on the Floor of the House. The Government should learn from the Dutch, Danish and German examples, drive better and closer co-ordination between national Parliaments from across the 28 member states, make the yellow card system work better and consider introducing a red card system.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing the debate, and on the presentation of her arguments. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) that I have never had any intention of seeking to appear before his Committee via a video link. I have always much preferred that he and I look each other straight in the eye, person to person.
Well, that is something best avoided in any meeting with parliamentarians, if humanly possibly.
I will try to respond to the various points that were made, in particular by the hon. Lady. She posed a number of questions and challenges, some of which focused on how we do European business here in Westminster, and others that centred on what might be done in the broader European Union context, and how national Parliaments should fit into the legislative process and decisions taken at European level.
I shall start with the hon. Lady’s points about how we deal with European business here at Westminster. Her most important point was that it was vital to find a way to engage and involve a rather larger number of Members in European business. I have to confess that when I go in to the Chamber for a debate on Europe, or in to a Committee, I feel at times like a cut-price version of Henry V before Agincourt. It is a matter of:
“We few, we happy few”
that are gathered together, and it is very familiar faces, from both sides of the House, that tend to feature. It is, however, not a Government matter, but a problem for Parliament. Parliament must take more seriously its collective responsibility as an institution to see, rightly or wrongly—individual hon. Members will have their own views on this—that we live in a world in which European Union business should be treated as mainstream political business, and not as something that can be quietly shoved off to some annexe next door and left to specialists to get on with in peace and quiet. The decisions that British Ministers of any party take in the Council of Ministers have an impact on the lives of the constituents of every Member of this House and I agree, therefore, with the thrust of what the hon. Lady said.
I disagree with the hon. Lady, however, in that I feel that the focus should not be just on the Chamber. The Chamber is clearly important, but we need to consider the role of Committees, including departmental Select Committees. In various evidence sessions with the European Scrutiny Committee over the past couple of years, I have tried to emphasise my growing belief that part of the answer lies in persuading the departmental Select Committees to give greater priority to that aspect of their work that covers European Union business. That is a matter for Select Committees, and it would be wrong for the Government to get into the business of seeking to give them instructions—the powers are already there within the terms of resolutions. It is primarily for those Committees to take ownership of those agendas and drive them forward. They can by all means invite European Commissioners to give evidence and by all means go to Brussels every now and then to take evidence and meet informally with people in the European institutions who are involved in legislation.
I look forward to the forthcoming report from the European Scrutiny Committee on the scrutiny process. I am sure that many of the matters that have been touched on this morning, such as whether we should move towards a mandate model of scrutiny along the lines of what the Scandinavian countries have, will be addressed in that report, and I obviously do not want to pre-empt the Government’s response to it. I say to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) that one of the characteristics of that mandate system—she rightly drew attention to some of its virtues—is that the sessions between the Minister and the committee to discuss a negotiating mandate take place in closed session. The public and press are not admitted and the report is not public, at least until after the negotiations are concluded.
Each of these systems has advantages and disadvantages, but could the Minister address where he would assume the collective memory of Parliament on these debates resides? The decision-making process in Brussels is so long, even with one term. Where would he focus that collective memory?
That is a very good point. To my mind, it means that one needs to focus the collective memory of elected Members through the members of the Liaison Committee, which is composed of relatively senior Members of Parliament, and through the system of the Committee Clerks. If we look at our Parliament’s representation in Brussels, we have some very talented people representing the two Houses, but that amounts to three staff. The Bundestag and the Bundesrat have 18 or 19 people between them, and that is on top of the German federal representation and the representative offices from each of the German Länder that are present in Brussels. Again, Parliament should consider the question of whether our level of representation and the number of people we have on the ground in Brussels are sufficient, but the Government cannot, or should not, issue instructions on that.
The hon. Lady asked whether COSAC could be improved, and my answer is definitely yes. It is an imperfect organisation, and it could be strengthened through reforms to the secretariat or through a formal power to summon commissioners, rather than expecting commissioners by convention to come and give evidence. It is not just about the formal meetings of COSAC, because if any system of red or yellow cards is to be effective, there has to be a culture of talking and working together that means that different parliamentary representatives, and in particular the chairs of the relevant committees, are used to having contact with each other in networking and co-ordinating an approach to a particular Commission draft measure.
The hon. Lady asked about the role of the Europe Minister, and she was very fair in how she put it. There is a perfectly legitimate debate to be had in this country about where that office sits. Some argue that it should sit in the Foreign Office. Others argue that it should sit in the Cabinet Office and so be directly accountable to the Prime Minister. Some argue that it should be a self-standing Department or be located in Brussels, in effect performing the political office of the permanent representative. In France, Germany, Poland and Spain my counterparts sit in their respective Foreign Ministries. In Sweden, however, the Europe Minister sits in the Prime Minister’s office and reports directly to the Prime Minister, although she represents a different political party from the Prime Minister in the current coalition.
The key thing is not where the Europe Minister sits, but how the right level of co-ordination and accountability is achieved across Government. The Europe Minister could be put in the Cabinet Office, but that raises the question of how the work at Brussels, which is certainly cross-departmental in Whitehall terms, is co-ordinated with the bilateral diplomatic work that has to be done with 27 other member states, because European business cannot be done in Brussels alone. I would be worried about a gap opening between a Minister dealing with Brussels business and a Minister dealing with our diplomatic efforts on, for example, Germany. We try to co-ordinate our conversations with German Ministers across all relevant political dossiers. When I see German counterparts, I do not talk strictly about Foreign Office business; I talk about financial services, the European budget and whichever European issues are high on the agenda at that moment.
The key is to have effective co-ordination through a Cabinet system, which we do through the European Affairs Committee of the Cabinet. I repeat the point I have made elsewhere: the permanent representative, who is a professional civil servant, follows the mandate set by the Cabinet. If he wishes to move from the mandate he has already been granted, he has to go back to Ministers and seek their agreement and authority to go beyond it.
On the question of yellow and red cards, under the current system national Parliaments or chambers of national Parliaments can submit a reasoned opinion that a draft directive or regulation fails to comply with the principle of subsidiarity. They have to submit that within eight weeks of the formal communication from the Commission about a draft measure. One third of the voting weight of national Parliaments needs to be signed up for the Commission to be compelled to carry out a formal review, and the reasoned opinion may only be submitted on the grounds of subsidiarity. We could make more use of reasoned opinions than we do. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone is meticulous in looking at the legal grounds of a directive and whether it meets the subsidiarity test.
The Westminster Parliament has so far submitted fewer reasoned opinions than some Parliaments in other member states, but we could look to reform the system. Is eight weeks long enough? Should we not give national Parliaments longer to consider their response? There is an obvious problem with recesses. Should we reduce the threshold below a third? Should we widen the grounds for challenge? If we have subsidiarity, why not have proportionality as well? Why not have some sort of test on excessive burdens on business, or on whether there is evidence that a draft measure would have a harmful impact on European growth? Why not make provision for the yellow card to become a red card under certain circumstances, with an outright veto that national Parliaments could impose? Could we give national Parliaments the power to impose an emergency brake in certain circumstances?
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have very little time left. Could we give national Parliaments an emergency brake to throw an issue to consideration by the European Council? Should we provide powers for a yellow or red card retrospectively, so that national Parliaments could, as a group, insist that the institutions consider repealing or amending a directive that was part of the acquis? Should we give national Parliaments the power to bring forward an own-initiative report? In the hands of the European Parliament, that instrument has been significant in helping to shape policy development.
I liked the idea from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston of some act of oblivion at the end of a Commission’s term. Under that idea, a measure that had not completed all stages would be deemed automatically to fall and would be reconsidered in the next Commission and the next European Parliament.
Ideas about a conference of national parliamentarians or a second chamber for the European Parliament are part of the discussion, although there are some serious practical issues to be considered. How would such an institution fit into the legislative process? How could it be made to work in practice, given the other parliamentary and constituency duties that Members of this House have to carry out?
I am conscious of the fact that giving a stronger voice to national Parliaments is only one aspect, though a significant one, of the reform that is necessary to make the European Union more accountable and more democratic than it is currently. It is in all our interests that a way is found to overcome the profound public disaffection that we see throughout the continent on European decisions. There is no European demos, and strengthening the voice of national Parliaments is the right way forward to restore greater democratic accountability to the EU.
Bill of Rights (Northern Ireland)
I am pleased, Mr Chope, to have secured this short debate today to raise with the Secretary of State the issue of the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. It is a busy day in Parliament from a Northern Ireland perspective—the Committee on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is meeting and the Secretary of State is due to make a statement in the House on the appalling and disgraceful scenes of rioting and serious disturbance that have affected many parts of Belfast, including my own constituency of Belfast East, in the past few days. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has been able to attend the debate, and that the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), has been able to join us for at least part of the discussion. I do not intend to detain the Secretary of State for too long on this issue.
The Bill of Rights is an important matter and the timing of this debate is appropriate. We stand here 15 years on from the Good Friday agreement which, notwithstanding the continued instability that we have witnessed over recent weeks and months, has laid the foundations for the significant transformation that has been delivered in Northern Ireland.
No agreement is perfect, and that includes the Good Friday agreement. I do not believe that every dot and comma of it must be protected for all time against change and evolution of Northern Ireland politics and society. However, its principles are hugely important and provide an agreed foundation on which we can build for the future. Indeed, my own party has argued for significant changes to the Strand 1 structures that govern the operations of the Assembly. Those changes would create a more normalised form of governance with a properly funded and resourced Opposition to hold the Executive to account, and with weighted majority voting replacing the current petition of concern arrangements, which are increasingly being misused. Such reforms are within the spirit of the agreement and are not a challenge to its key principles.
However, the Good Friday agreement was a carefully balanced package of measures that were endorsed by referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, so it is important that all parts of it are implemented. It is therefore of concern that so little tangible progress has been made over the past 15 years on the matter of the commitment within the agreement to develop a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which would address the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland after 20 years of the troubles.
In response to previous written and oral questions on the Bill of Rights, the Minister of State has indicated that this is a matter on which Northern Ireland parties must first reach consensus before the Government will act to legislate. Although I acknowledge that consensus is important and that it is currently absent, I do not believe that that is grounds for inaction on the Government’s part. It is the duty of Government as a co-guarantor of the agreement and as a signatory to it to engage proactively with all stakeholders, including political parties, to seek consensus on this and other outstanding issues. There is a particular responsibility around leadership on such issues when they are reserved matters.
Although the primary purpose of seeking this debate is to discuss not the content of any Bill of Rights, but the process by which the Bill can be advanced, it is important to put on record my own party’s broad views on the Bill of Rights. Alliance recognises that human rights are inherent and universal. There is scope for different jurisdictions to recognise different rights in domestic law, provided of course that no inappropriate inequalities are created in doing so. Rights and a framework for the delivery and protection of rights are important to protect individuals and minorities against the state and against others. However, any dialogue around rights cannot be separated from responsibilities. Those claiming rights cannot do so without some consideration for the maintenance of the framework of a democratic society based on the rule of law that provides for the exercise of rights. That is particularly important to emphasise in the context of the past few days when tensions between competing rights have spilled over into lawlessness in a way that is both destructive and reckless.
In broad terms, Alliance believes that any Northern Ireland Bill of Rights must be realistic and capable of being enforced through our own courts, consistent with European and international standards, and flexible enough to take account of changing circumstances in an evolving Northern Ireland. Furthermore, it must avoid entrenching any particular view of identity, such as the notion of two separate communities in Northern Ireland, which could reinforce sectarian divisions. Equally, it should avoid giving group rights precedence over the rights of the individual in a manner that would do likewise.
My reason for raising the issue at this time is in part also linked to the progress being made by the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) wrote to all party leaders about the Bill on 5 September 2011, seeking views on a number of measures that he hoped to include within the Bill. In the seventh paragraph of his letter, he raised the issue of the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights in which he offered two options for taking the matter forward. He said:
“There remains disagreement about possible further rights protections in Northern Ireland. I have agreed with the Lord Chancellor that any specific supplementary rights for Northern Ireland should be implemented in a separate section of any legislation that would give effect to a UK Bill of Rights. However, our forthcoming Bill may provide opportunities to handle this issue differently by, for example, giving the Assembly power to take forward work, or even legislate, in this area.”
At that time, the Alliance party view would have been that a UK-wide Bill of Rights could have provided a suitable vehicle for progressing the Northern Ireland Bill. Although Northern Ireland is a distinct society in many respects, it does not and should not exist in a self-contained bubble. It is part of a wider UK, all-Ireland and European and international context. In a globalised and interdependent world, individuals are interacting much more across frontiers, and human rights protections must recognise and respond to those challenges.
It was originally envisaged that any Northern Ireland Bill of Rights would be created in the context of a common platform across the UK provided by the European convention on human rights, but no wider UK Bill of Rights. However, Alliance recognised at that point that any process to formulate a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would have to relate to any potential UK Bill of Rights. That could still have entailed a separate chapter for the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights or a chapter within a larger document, provided that the subtleties of the situation in Northern Ireland were respected. However, it would be fair to say that the UK Bill of Rights has been kicked into some very long grass at this point and that we are unlikely to see it delivered in the medium term.
It is also the case that the opportunity to legislate for the Bill of Rights as part of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill has also all but expired as the Bill is now making speedy progress through the House of Commons and the Bill of Rights issue was not included within it or within the consultation that preceded it. Will the Secretary of State say how she intends to make progress with respect to the Bill of Rights in the absence of either of the identified options to do so?
I thank the hon. Lady for making such a valuable contribution to Westminster Hall. She will be aware that the recommendations contained in the Bill of Rights forum and those made by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission seem to suggest that abortion will be more freely available, and that there is a need to increase the age of criminal responsibility. The hon. Lady will know that the Democratic Unionist party, of which I am a member, the Ulster Unionists, the Orange Order and the Roman Catholic Church have objections to almost all of, or parts of, the recommendations put forward. How does she see the Bill of Rights going forward when so many people are against it? Does she not feel that we can go forward only when there is a consensus to agree with it across the whole of the community?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. He reinforces what I said earlier about there being no consensus on the issue. However, I want to address some of what he said. There are two narratives around the Bill of Rights. One is an expansive Bill of Rights, which includes a lot of detail, such as socio-economic rights to which he refers, and there are others who believe that that is not the role of the Bill of Rights. They believe that it should enshrine broader principles around which the country should protect people’s rights as individuals. I would tend towards that more broad definition rather than the more detailed definition that would include socio-economic rights. Abortion, the age of consent and various other issues are best dealt with through the normal democratic and legislative process and not through a Bill of Rights. That is my view and the view of my party. However, a Bill of Rights approach can inform how the debate on those issues takes place, but it is not the job of the Bill of Rights to supersede the work that Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly do when legislating on matters of socio-economic importance. That is part of the democratic imperative that must be maintained regardless of whether or not there is a Bill of Rights.
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the Bill of Rights has caused controversy. The forum for the Bill of Rights sat from December 2006 until March 2008 and produced what is probably one of the most non-consensual reports that has ever been produced in Northern Ireland, which in itself is quite an achievement. In addition, the Human Rights Commission’s advice to the Secretary of State, which was delivered back in 2008, also drew fierce opposition from some quarters. Clearly, there is still much work to be done. I am not suggesting that we are at a point where a Bill of Rights is ready to be drafted and put to Members for agreement. However, the fact that there is work to be done should be an impetus to doing that work.
In conclusion, as with many other difficult issues, consensus is currently absent, whether it be on parades, on flags and emblems, on building a shared future, or on dealing with the past and its legacy. The Executive have convened talks, which will happen during the summer and in the autumn, to address those issues and to seek sufficient consensus to make progress on all of them, in an attempt to give renewed energy to the discussions and to end the inertia that has characterised the process of late. I believe that is welcome. I also believe that Dr Richard Haass agreeing to chair those talks impartially will add its own momentum to them. However, it is very clear from research conducted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium that a significant majority of people in Northern Ireland favour a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland being implemented in line with the provisions in the Good Friday agreement, and that that includes a significant majority of ordinary members of each political party in Northern Ireland, including the hon. Gentleman’s own party, within which I think the support for a Bill of Rights among ordinary members ran to about 80%.
Notwithstanding the political and ideological impediments to reaching sufficient consensus, I hope that today the Secretary of State will at least commit to a process that would help to breathe fresh life into this issue and make good on a promise made 15 years ago, which is still important to so many people in Northern Ireland today.
Perhaps I ought to explain that I am standing in today for my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, because he is busy with the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill Committee. It is a great pleasure to respond to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing it. As she says, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is an important issue for consideration. It was good to see the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with us for a short period, and it is good to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whose contribution to the debate was very welcome.
Hon. Members will appreciate the thoughtful and measured way that the hon. Member for Belfast East has approached this subject, which has provoked strong feelings on different sides of the argument. Of course, we in the Conservative party are no strangers to controversies and divided views on human rights matters.
Perhaps it would help if I went back over some of the ground covered by the hon. Lady and went back to the section of the Belfast agreement that deals with rights. There is a degree of ambiguity in the way that section is written. Although the text does not go as far as stating that there would definitely be a Bill of Rights, the agreement certainly contemplated that a Bill of Rights was potentially an important part of the settlement. The Belfast agreement said that the Human Rights Commission
“will be invited to consult and to advise on the scope of defining, in Westminster legislation, supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.
The agreement added:
“These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and...taken together with the ECHR ...to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland”.
Of course, the arguments for and against a Bill of Rights have been debated extensively in the 15 years since the Belfast agreement was signed. I will just give a few examples: there was the Bill of Rights forum that followed the 2006 St Andrews agreement; and there was also the advice offered to the previous Government by the Human Rights Commission in 2008. Among other things, that advice proposed extensive so-called socio-economic rights, including
“the right to an adequate standard of living...the right to work, including fair wages”
and it even included
“the right to have the environment protected”.
Following that, there was the ensuing Government consultation, and the current Government published responses to that consultation in December 2010. The then Minister of State for Northern Ireland—the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire)— described the consultation as having demonstrated widespread
“opposition to a wide-ranging Bill of Rights and support instead for a more limited set of rights... This divergence of views was also reflected in the submissions made by political parties in Northern Ireland”.—[Official Report, 16 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 131WS.]
In fact, as the hon. Member for Belfast East said, there are few issues in Northern Ireland that have caused such divided views or that have been so thoroughly examined and debated as the subject of our debate today.
Despite that, however, 15 years on from the Belfast agreement, it is clear that there is no consensus on how to move forward, and I am afraid that there is no sign of one emerging in the immediate future. That was the case under the previous Labour Government, and I am afraid that it has remained the case under the current Government.
My predecessor as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—had numerous discussions on this matter with political parties in Northern Ireland and with other interested bodies. As we have heard, in September 2011, he wrote to party leaders in Northern Ireland, setting out the possibility that the proposed Northern Ireland Bill, which is being discussed upstairs as we speak today, would give the Assembly
“the power to take forward, or even legislate, in this area”.
I am told that he received no responses from the political parties to that part of his letter.
Since last September, when my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I arrived at the Northern Ireland Office, we have discussed a Bill of Rights with a number of organisations and people, including the Irish Government and the Tanaiste. Like our predecessors, we have found little—if any—common ground among them, but that has not been for lack of trying. We have certainly engaged extensively on this matter.
Of course, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would be a matter of constitutional significance. As such, it would be very important to secure cross-community support if it were to have any chance of succeeding. It is not something that could, or should, be imposed over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland by the UK Government acting unilaterally. That position is reinforced by the fact that the main impact of any Bill of Rights unique to Northern Ireland would fall on the devolved institutions. So, before we could make a move towards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, there would have to be broadly based cross-party agreement. The Government would like to see this issue resolved, given the role that the Government played in the Belfast agreement, but we cannot simply conjure consensus into existence.
I should add that the chances of achieving broad agreement on additional rights for Northern Ireland might be better served if some of the advocates of a Bill of Rights were more realistic in their ambitions. Clearly, proposals from some organisations that focus extensively on socio-economic rights are very unlikely to gain cross-party approval in Northern Ireland. However, if that was the route that Northern Ireland wished to go down, the impact on the rest of the UK would also be a factor to consider. For example, there would be complex issues to resolve around the interaction of welfare-type human rights with the principles of parity that currently operate in relation to the benefit and welfare systems. Matters of cost would need to be carefully considered.
As the hon. Member for Belfast East said, this debate is primarily about the means, or process, to deliver a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, rather than the content of such a Bill. However, I welcomed her thoughts on the Alliance views on these matters. As she said, it certainly makes sense to focus on a realistic and flexible approach to any future Bill of Rights, which is capable of adapting to Northern Ireland’s changing circumstances. She is right to say that we should proceed with caution against anything that entrenched a particular and restrictive view in relation to identity and against anything that made it more difficult to resolve the sectarian divisions that sadly persist in Northern Ireland society. So I listened with interest to her thoughts on those matters.
Having looked back at some of the statements that the Alliance party has contributed to the debate, I note that there is acknowledgement that significant hurdles are still to be cleared in arguing why Northern Ireland needs to have a fundamentally different human rights regime—especially from other neighbouring jurisdictions. I also acknowledge that party’s statement that the aim of policy makers should not be to preserve Northern Ireland as a place apart, requiring special measures. Those sentiments would be worth considering in terms of a way forward on a Bill of Rights.
The intervention by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted some of the difficulties here. For example, were abortion to become tied up in the concept of a Bill of Rights, that would be an intensely difficult issue to resolve using a Bill of Rights as a mechanism. That illustrates the difficulties in the way of reaching a conclusion on this matter.
Although there are reasons why further progress on a Bill of Rights will not be easy to deliver, I hope that I can provide some reassurance regarding the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland. It is important to emphasise that Northern Ireland has an extensive, well-developed system of human rights protections, through existing UK-wide legislation—not just the legislation that happens to be labelled directly in relation to human rights, but statutes dealing with matters such as discrimination. For example, fair employment legislation places obligations on employers that are unique in the United Kingdom. In particular, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 imposes a statutory obligation on all public bodies to carry out their functions with regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity for everyone. Of course, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has emphasised that it puts respect for human rights at the heart of all its work. That is an important part of policing practice in Northern Ireland. So I hope that no one will seek to say that, without a new Bill of Rights, Northern Ireland is somehow left as a human rights desert. That is certainly not the case.
Looking ahead, if there were agreement on additional rights for Northern Ireland, the Government would examine how best to take things forward. We remain open to the suggestion that work on this, including legislation, could be taken forward by the Assembly. In our 2010 manifesto, we called for the replacement of the Human Rights Act 1998 with a UK Bill of Rights. Although that proposal did not make it into the coalition agreement, were it to be revived in future, the relevant legislation could include a separate section to cover supplementary rights in Northern Ireland, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast East.
In the meantime, both the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor have said clearly that, if the Conservatives win the next election, we will seek radical reform of current human rights law. That would include re-examining our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. However, in considering the future of human rights legislation in the UK we would, of course, give careful consideration to Northern Ireland’s position. We are happy to include debates and ideas on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as part of our general consideration of the future of human rights rules in the UK as a whole.
Just for the record, as I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), consensus is far from being reached in Northern Ireland. The largest Unionist political parties and other sections of the community are opposed, in part or in whole, including the Roman Catholic Church. Will the Minister confirm that nothing will go forward without the overall agreement of the largest Unionist parties—the largest section of people—and one of the largest Churches and religious groups in Northern Ireland?
I can give the hon. Gentleman reassurance of that nature. As I have said, it would be virtually impossible to adopt a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland without extensive cross-party support. If it were not possible to persuade the major political parties of the merits of the Bill of Rights, I do not see how it would be possible to deliver one.
In conclusion, this has been a worthwhile debate. I noted the reference made by the hon. Member for Belfast East to the Richard Haass working group, which starts its work soon on parades and flags and the past. Naturally, if it wishes to look at Bill of Rights matters, we will consider what conclusions it reaches. The Government will continue to examine seriously any other proposals to resolve the issue. Yet this issue should not deflect us from other important objectives for Northern Ireland that we are focused on, particularly in light of the weekend’s events.
We have to continue our efforts to rebalance the economy and help Northern Ireland compete in the global race for investment and jobs. We need to press ahead with the implementation of the economic package agreed at Downing street last month, between the Prime Minister, myself and the Deputy First Minister. And we must continue working with the Executive to tackle sectarianism and build a genuinely shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland.
The riots that we have seen on the streets of Belfast and other places in Northern Ireland over recent days are disgraceful. It is important that we start to address the underlying social divisions that can contribute to tensions around issues such as parading in Northern Ireland. I look forward to addressing the House on that matter in about an hour’s time.
Shale Gas (Lancashire)
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to be given the opportunity to introduce this Adjournment debate on community interests in shale gas in Lancashire, and it is a great pleasure to do so under your chairmanship, Mr Benton.
It is important for Parliament to hold regular debates on shale gas, because there is considerable potential for it to impact on the constituencies of many right hon. and hon. Members. The title of my debate in the Order Paper suggests that I would like to focus exclusively on the financial benefits that shale gas could bring to communities in Lancashire following the recent announcement of a community benefits package by the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. As we are still in the early stages of shale gas development, however, I firmly believe that further work is still to be done on a range of other related issues, most notably on regulation, community engagement, the development of a UK supply chain and the suitability of potential sites.
I have consistently campaigned on the regulation of the shale gas industry. In my Adjournment debate in October 2012, I addressed the need for a body to be formed to oversee the workings of the regulatory bodies on matters relating to onshore oil and gas development, because it is imperative that shale gas development takes place only if we have robust regulations in place. I pay tribute to the previous Minister with responsibility for energy, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), for responding to those and other issues that I raised in my Adjournment debate and for establishing the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil.
The Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil must take on responsibility for ensuring that the existing regulatory bodies, namely the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, DECC and Lancashire county council as the planning and mineral rights authority in Lancashire, work together to deliver a world-leading, gold-standard regulatory framework. It is the responsibility of the office not to become a regulator but to ensure that those that are empowered to be regulators are doing so to an exemplary standard.
I also urge the Minister to ensure that regulations are robust and are developed to ensure the highest environmental safeguards, as opposed to what is simply convenient for the industry. The focus should be on robust regulations and we should try to get away from using words such as “streamlining.” When people hear about streamlining, they interpret it as the watering down of regulations, which I am sure is not the case. Were it the case, it would not be acceptable to me.
I welcome the decision to make environmental impact studies compulsory for shale gas development sites, regardless of size, which is an evolution from where we were two years ago. Regulation is not what is written on a piece of paper; it is about what is enforced. I therefore urge the Government to ensure that we have regular, on-the-ground visits by regulators and inspectors, some of which must be unannounced so that shale gas development sites have the authority of operating to the highest environmental standards and no one is beyond reproach. In order to achieve that, it is important that regulators are provided with sufficient resources to fulfil their role.
We must be able to anticipate future developments as the industry progresses, if shale gas development does take place. We must be fleet of foot to ensure technical changes as the industry evolves and that the regulators and regulations are fit for purpose. For example, it would be inconceivable for regulations on shale gas developments in Lancashire to be entirely enforced by the HSE from Aberdeen. The HSE is based in Aberdeen for various obvious reasons, and therefore if and when the shale gas industry develops in the north of England, it is important that it responds accordingly, with regulators based in a much more localised area. Consideration must therefore be given to the creation of a regulatory hub to monitor the development of shale gas at a local level so that anyone who puts in a freedom of information request or writes to the Minister to discover what he is doing can have confidence that this is being taken seriously and things are being done diligently.
In my first Adjournment debate, I stated my strong opposition to the suitability of the Anna’s road site for potential shale gas extraction. My position remains unchanged, and I welcome the announcement from Cuadrilla that it has put on hold any potential development of the site. Decisions will be taken not by Members of Parliament but by elected county councillors, and therefore I do not plan to say any more on that in this debate.
Finally, I urge the Minister to ensure that there is rigorous monitoring of the traffic light system that was put in place following the seismic tremors in Lancashire in 2011, because it is important that public confidence is absolutely maintained in the system. Much work was done to ensure that the traffic light system was put in place prior to the resumption of fracking, that it is indeed fit for purpose and that we constantly monitor and review it to ensure that it does the job for which it is intended so that we see no repetition of the seismic tremors that we experienced in Blackpool.
Public engagement in any controversial sector is critical, but in something as new and controversial as shale gas it is absolutely paramount. I therefore want to see engagement with the local community at the forefront of what is done by the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, the regulators and the industry itself. Although the industry has done some work to address that, it is an area that needs substantially more work as the industry evolves and potentially develops.
When the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil was established earlier this year, one of its main roles was to support public engagement and to help people to understand the facts about unconventional gas and oil production and what that could mean if it takes place in their area. With such a central role to play in the future of shale gas development, it is important that the office has the necessary resources to help drive public engagement.
I am sorry that I cannot be here for the whole debate, but I have to go to a meeting on the Keogh review rather urgently. Does my hon. Friend agree that the community engagement fund that is being created for the benefit of local communities has to be transparent in its governance and cannot just be dominated by local government interests? Has he considered what types of community organisations could be brought in to ensure that the fund is truly reflective of the local communities that are meant to be benefiting?
My hon. Friend is a champion of transparency like no other, and he pursues transparency in other areas of his work. I know that he has now turned his attention to ensuring that shale gas is also transparent. I will touch on some of those issues later in my speech, and I know that other hon. Friends will do so, too.
It is inconceivable that the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil has a single page on the Government energy and climate change website. I might be wrong, and I stand to be corrected, but this is an opportunity for the Minister and the Department to create an interactive online portal where my constituents and my hon. Friend’s constituents can go to seek information, a myth buster that is scientific, evidence-based and impartial.
I get many questions from constituents, which are often highly technical and which I simply cannot answer. I am a Member of Parliament not a geologist, and I have no background in the oil industry, so I need somewhere I can go to get those questions answered. I pay tribute to the people at DECC who for three years have been studiously answering letters, often through Ministers including the current Minister, but a community interactive portal where people can post questions and in the fullness of time—they will not get instant responses; it may be days, weeks or potentially longer—get impartial, independent and science-based replies would help to take away some of the fear, the unknown and the uncertainty that shale gas currently has for many people. Information and transparency are key.
I thank Duarte Figueira, the recently appointed head of the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, for taking the time to discuss with me in more detail many issues relating to shale gas development. He has always found the time and always been courteous. I encourage that sort of attitude and ethos within the office, so that no one can be in any doubt about its willingness to engage and answer questions.
Community involvement is not just a role for the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil; ultimately, companies must take responsibility for it. I urge them to ensure that they are sufficiently resourced and have the right people in place to deliver quality, effective and impartial community engagement, to tell people what they are doing and when and to take people with them. Ultimately, that is a challenge not for Government but for developers, but I want the Government to oversee it and ensure that they do so effectively.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must carry communities with us on projects such as this. It cannot be done to communities; it must be done with them. The experience with wind energy, for instance, has not been good when we have left it to the industry to carry communities with them. All too often, the industry expects Government to pass unpopular laws that second-guess the planning system. Does he agree that we need to consider ways to share the economic benefits directly with local communities, for instance through reductions in their electricity bills or rebates in their council tax?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that what is important is not that the local council, the Treasury or the companies benefit; they would all benefit from the development of shale gas. Ultimately, it is vital that ordinary people in areas hosting sites see meaningful, tangible, long-lasting and substantial benefits. I will touch on that, and I know that the Government have made an announcement on the subject.
Moving on to the development of the UK supply chain in shale gas, some people criticise the Minister for wearing two hats: energy and business. That criticism is short-sighted. Having experience in both makes him absolutely the right person to ensure that we take the right decisions in developing the infrastructure and supply chain across the whole energy sector, and particularly within shale gas.
There has been much speculation in the press about the number of jobs that could be created by shale gas. If shale gas is developed in Lancashire, it is imperative that local people get maximum employment opportunities. From speaking to those in the industry, I understand that a significant number of jobs in shale gas come not from drilling for gas but from developing the manufacturing supply chain and supporting industries.
I urge the Minister to seek close Government working with the industry to ensure the development of a UK—indeed, a Lancashire—supply chain. It would not be acceptable for the equipment to be manufactured overseas when we have UK businesses with a strong engineering heritage and a highly skilled work force in Lancashire. This is a great opportunity to use those skills to develop a manufacturing base in the region to supply equipment for the shale gas industry. In the long term, an offshore shale gas industry could ultimately develop, and that could drive a considerable amount of highly skilled, well-paid, leading technical jobs. It is important that the north of England does not miss the opportunity or shirk the challenge.
I also urge the Minister to ensure that local enterprise partnerships, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the gas companies undertake a scheme to co-ordinate with local colleges and schools to ensure that apprenticeships are offered to those keen to enter the industry and retrain where applicable. People are key, and it is vital that local people get the benefits and do not miss out.
My hon. Friends who have intervened have mentioned community benefits. On the financial community benefits from shale gas, I broadly welcome the overall shape of the proposed package. It is absolutely right that communities that host shale gas pads should also be the primary beneficiaries. I know that the Government and the Minister have put in a lot of work on that issue. I thank the Minister for his work. It is not an easy task.
I also want to make it perfectly clear that the £100,000 paid must be per well fracked and not per shale gas pad. I have read some ambiguity from commentators in the press, although I never believe everything that I read in the press. It is therefore important for the Minister to give some clarity that it is £100,000 per well and not per well pad site. As he is aware, a pad can contain up to 20 wells, so it is therefore imperative that we have clarity in order to avoid confusion in future.
I welcome the principle that communities benefit from a percentage of revenue generated. At the moment, 1% is proposed; I know that some of my hon. Friends wish to speak about that. If it remains at 1%, the money must be highly localised. If, however, a desire to spread the money over a wider area becomes the prevailing mood, we have no option but to seek a higher percentage level, as I am not prepared for the benefit to my communities hosting shale gas pads to be diluted. That is the decision that we must take.
It is right that a significant proportion of revenues—I believe the figure proposed is one third—should go to the county council, as the mineral rights authority. However, I would like the rest of the money to be placed into a community endowment fund to ensure that the communities that host shale gas sites benefit for generations to come. I know that the Minister is driving much work on the issue, and I look forward to seeing the final results. I like the thought of a National Trust-style model, where the money is awarded to causes that benefit the community in the long term. Those could even include major infrastructure projects. However, it is also important that individual people benefit. Options including direct cash payments or money in the form of energy bills must also be explored. My constituents who host such sites, and my hon. Friends’ constituents who will host them in time, must be their prime beneficiaries.
If my hon. Friend were sitting closer to me, I would think that he had read my notes, but as he is an honourable gentleman and far enough away, I know that he has not. He is absolutely right. We are in the early days—indeed, the infancy—of the industry. If it goes ahead, we still have questions and uncertainties to get through. It would be wrong to set too firm a percentage level at this stage, but we also need clarity that when a company says that it will pay 1%, or whatever percentage it turns out to be, it cannot renege or change its mind when the ink is barely dry. With the best will in the world, companies change chief executive. They can be taken over. Governments also change. The intentions being set out honourably at this moment in time could change in future.
We also do not yet know how profitable it will be or how much money it will cost to extract the gas, or what future gas prices may be. It is therefore important that the level set is sustainable for local communities and everyone else who has a stake, including the Government and the operators. It is in no one’s interest for the benefits to yo-yo and fluctuate to such an extent that no one knows what they are getting.
Some colleagues have called for a statutory underpinning for the agreement, so that the industry and Government cannot renege. I will put my trust in the work that the Minister is doing at this stage, but I seek assurance that were a company to renege on its commitment, the Government would not shy from being direct with it to ensure that the community benefit package was not lost to the people whom I represent.
Shale gas is controversial, but the Government are engaging with the issue and taking some tough decisions. I will be a critical friend of the Government. If they are not getting the regulations right or not engaging with the community, I will highlight that to the Minister. Similarly, the industry should not expect an easy ride; my colleagues and I will be emphasising anything that we regard as shortcomings. Any attempts by the industry not to adhere to regulations, not to engage with communities or not to ensure that communities are financial beneficiaries, and we will hold its feet to the fire.
We will return to this subject in many debates to come, Mr Benton, but I thank you for your chairmanship today.
I will take you at your word, Mr Benton, and, as it is customary to say, it is a great pleasure and delight to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a great pleasure and delight to follow the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), who is my constituency neighbour and who placed the arguments and his position with his usual sense and robustness. I will do my best to follow him.
The hon. Gentleman said what ought to be the theme of this afternoon’s discussion: the regulations must be robust and to the highest environmental standards. He rightly passed a warning shot—if I may put it that way—across the Minister’s bows about the use of language, and I shall return to that later in my contribution. The focus needs to be on “robust”, not on “streamlining”, and I entirely concur with what the hon. Member for Fylde said.
I also agree with what the hon. Gentleman told the Blackpool Gazette—that he would be
“inflexible on the point that there must be a gold standard of regulation reached before any potential move to the extraction phase.”
That is a position with which I wholeheartedly associate myself.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), who speaks for the Opposition, also holds that position. He will speak for himself shortly, but in an article for PoliticsHome, when the survey by the British Geological Survey was published, he warned about too much hype:
“For many who are against renewables, shale is the silver bullet. For some who advocate green technologies, the extraction of unconventional gas is catastrophic for the environment. While it may help generate lurid headlines, an absolutist position does little to ensure a realistic assessment of the role shale and other unconventional gas could play in our energy mix.”
That is an important position to set out.
Coverage in the national media has become extensive, not least since so many people outside Blackpool and the Fylde were alerted to the matter by the famous occasion of the earthquakes, to which reference has already been made. I think that I am speaking for all hon. Members in the Chamber who represent constituencies in or near the Fylde when I say that there is a wide variety of views, ranging from absolutism at both ends to scepticism on either side of the frame. Those views were picked up well in a recent article in The Observer by Robin McKie, a distinguished science editor there for many years, who has dealt with the issues in a solid way.
The balance must be struck between the prospectuses of the companies concerned, which will necessarily be expansive, and the realities of the science on the ground and of the amount of gas that is actually extractable. The amount is a key issue, because, as the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) rightly identified, that might affect any arguments or discussions about the amount of money available at a future stage. It is therefore incumbent on the Government to get the balance right. At the end of the day, they will set the regulations—I concur with the hon. Member for Fylde that what DECC has done has been proportionate and measured—but I caution the Minister to continue in that line, not least in the context of the Chancellor’s remarks, because the Treasury’s position to date has been far too gung-ho in cheerleading for the industry.
The hon. Gentleman talked about unwarranted criticism of the Minister for wearing two hats, with his ministerial responsibilities for energy and for business. I am worried not so much about two hats as about the possibility of three—the third one appearing if the Minister were to follow his Treasury colleagues and become simply a cheerleader for the fracking industry. It is important that he remembers his quasi-judicial role as we take forward sensitive decisions. Language, whether emanating from him or from his civil servants, is particularly important.
Community benefit is the frame in which this afternoon’s debate is taking place, but which communities and where? There are communities of interest, reasonably so, in the development and the possible production of jobs, but also in the residents of the area and—not to be sneezed at—in the visitor and tourism industry. When we discuss the benefits or where the jobs will come from, we must look not only at what Cuadrilla or British Gas, which has now joined the enterprise, say about the numbers of jobs that might or might not be created—there can be lots of arguments about that—but at the impact on existing jobs, particularly in tourism, and on green issues. The number of jobs and the effects that those jobs will have on the local area from a positive point of view need to be balanced against the potential—that is all I say at the moment—for things to develop in such a way that tourism, the environment and the continued enjoyment of the Fylde area by residents are jeopardised.
I therefore move on to geographical communities, as well as communities of interest. Blackpool has not thus far been the site of any drilling experiences, but it was Blackpool that got the earthquake. In Blackpool, we were able to provide the definitive answer to the often-asked question, “Did the earth move for you?”, because it certainly did, and in some measure. Seriously, if such things are to have an effect on the reputation, image and attraction of Blackpool, then Blackpool must also be included as a potentially benefiting community, as well as the other areas of the Fylde.
I have mentioned the potential adverse consequences on seaside and rural tourism, and they should not be treated lightly. More independent assessments of the amount of work and jobs that might be created would be welcome. For my part, I so far remain fairly sceptical about some of the numbers produced by Cuadrilla, as I remain sceptical about some of its estimates for the amount of extractable gas available.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has seen the Institute of Directors report, which was published about six or eight weeks ago, but it was interesting. It modelled what a pad might look like, how many jobs might be involved in the supply chain and so on. If he has not had a chance to look at that, it is worth doing so, because it is a substantial piece of work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As a former member of the Select Committee who believes in evidence-driven policy, I will look at the Institute of Directors report, as I will look at many of the other bits and pieces that come before us. We can have as many reports as we like, but at the end of the day the issue will remain one of judgment and proportion. What I am urging on the Minister and the Department and what I think largely echoes what the hon. Member for Fylde said is that they should proceed with caution. The precautionary principle should apply. I make no complaint against some of the people who propose the change because they want their business to succeed, but in the famous words of Mandy Rice-Davies after the Profumo affair, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Some people in other business areas will look at it through their end of the telescope, but it is not our job as Members of Parliament to look at it through their end of the telescope. Our job is to look at the effect on our constituents.
With that in mind, I strongly urge that we proceed with caution on the precautionary principle and probe laser-like into what the benefits will be and how broad they will be, and perhaps even to look at the impact on rural and seaside tourism, which are and should be interlinked. Our primary concern as Members of Parliament in the area must be for our residents’ well-being and environment. The Fylde is not like Arkansas or other areas of the United States that are relatively large and sparsely populated. The concern, whether justified or not, about contamination of the water table and other negative effects experienced in the United States would be much more profound and pronounced in the UK.
This morning, I went to Tate Britain for a quick peek at the wonderful exhibition of Lowry’s paintings of industrial Britain. He had the ability to summon up a terrible beauty from the destruction and marred landscape of the industrial revolution. We should take care in our House and in our deliberations not to be overborne by hype or business prospectuses. I would not want to see some of that terrible beauty visited on the Fylde in the 21st century.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on securing this debate on this important topic. I am not a Lancashire MP, but I stand here as a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, which has looked at the issue in some detail, and as chair of the all-party group on unconventional oil and gas.
I have worked on this issue in some detail and discussed it at great length with a wide variety of stakeholders throughout industry and beyond. There is great consensus on the community benefit and we have reached the stage where no one is disputing or discussing whether we should have a community benefit scheme; we are simply discussing the detail. There are various reasons why an effective scheme is important and it may be best summed up in a phrase that many hon. Members have heard before: the industry requires a social licence to operate. A community that hosts shale gas resources and could see shale gas development take place is entitled to ask two legitimate questions: is it safe, and how will our community benefit from the process? It is incumbent on the Government and industry to answer both those questions
Today’s debate is not about safety, except that, echoing hon. Members who have spoken, we must take this forward with the highest environmental standards, in keeping with the gold standard that we already apply to oil and gas regulation in the UK. Today’s debate is about the benefit to people and communities in Lancashire. It is their gas; it is not Cuadrilla’s gas or Centrica’s gas, and it is certainly not the Government’s gas, although the law may imply that it is. I am not a socialist, but as far as I am concerned, it belongs to the people of Lancashire, and it is important and absolutely right when developing a domestic UK shale industry that the local communities who will host that industry and new development should benefit from their own natural resources.
Loosely speaking, two benefits can accrue from a large-scale infrastructure project. One is the natural or organic benefit: the jobs, supply chain and activity from the very process of the investment and flow from the activity without intervention from the Government. The other, which is what we are principally talking about today, is the artificial cash benefit that can be put in place by the industry through voluntary agreements or by the Government to ensure that some of the profit and revenue stream from the industry are shared locally.
I want both forms of benefit to accrue to the people of Lancashire. On the first point, it is essential that the maximum benefit in jobs and investment accrue as locally as possible to the operation of the shale gas pads. Employing local people and developing a local supply chain is fundamental to making the industry part of the community instead of it being an outside industry that comes in and does things to the community.
In Aberdeen and the surrounding region, for example, the offshore oil and gas industry supports 137,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs. We may not see quite the same number of jobs in Lancashire, much as we would all love to, but the highly detailed report by the Institute of Directors estimated that there is potential for up to 74,000 direct and indirect jobs nationwide from developing UK shale gas. Not all the jobs will be in Lancashire, but many will, and it is important that when the industry and particularly the supply chain go forward with their plans, they do their best to maximise the number of jobs that stay locally within the region.
On the artificial cash benefits, the proposals currently under discussion have been alluded to: £100,000 per exploratory well and eventually 1% of revenue from the development phase going to the local community. Over the lifetime of a shale gas pad, that could amount to a considerable sum, and I agree with those who have already noted that we should remain flexible about community benefits to ensure that, as the industry’s profitability becomes better known and we have more information, we can ensure that the benefits remain at a suitable level.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about one fundamental and important question. How does one define the community? Most of our present discussions about community benefits boil down to the question, who is the community? The judgment call on exactly who should receive a direct benefit is often spoken of in terms of municipal level—parish, district or county—but it is important to note that people do not necessarily mean the parish council, the district council or the county council. They use those words as shorthand for the municipal level to which the community benefit should go.
If the community is defined too narrowly, it may create division rather than consensus, and I have seen that in my constituency. When campaigning in Curdworth as a young parliamentary candidate not that many years ago, I asked what the village’s main issue was and someone said, “Them on that side of the village got compensated for the Birmingham northern relief road and we over here, one road over, weren’t.” The compensation package had caused division in the village because the definition of who should benefit was too narrow.
However, if the definition is too wide, there are two concerns. One is simply that if the benefit is diluted too much, it may not provide a genuine benefit. Another danger is the message sent about the impact of the industry. If someone living 10, 15 or 20 miles from a shale gas pad is told that they will receive a community benefit to compensate them for having it in the area, are we not pandering to a myth, because someone 15 or 20 miles away may not notice that it is there? The evidence is that there will probably be no impact more than a few miles away from a shale gas pad.
For the purposes of this debate, I think Salford can be Lancashire and that there will be immediate benefits there.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that apart from immediate local benefits, there will be general benefits for the whole country if the exploitation of shale gas is successful because the real impact will be a lowering of energy prices?
I absolutely agree that it is important not to forget that Lancashire is part of the wider UK economy and that there are potentially significant benefits to not only Lancashire, but the whole UK economy. The jury is still out on how much shale gas might bring energy prices down, but it is certainly true that it might help to prevent them from rising as much as they might have done, which is, in effect, the same thing.
The majority of the members of a community who will be impacted by such development will be affected not by the actual activity of drilling for gas, but by the wider construction activity. In that respect, shale gas development is no different from any other infrastructure development. More people will probably be affected by things such as truck movements than by the activity of drilling for the gas.
When the Energy and Climate Change Committee visited Hinkley to discuss the Hinkley Point C power station, we had a long discussion with local parish councils about their concerns. I was struck by the fact that not one mentioned the fact that a nuclear reactor was going to be parked at the side of their town as a concern. They were concerned about truck movements, dust, noise, vibration and, interestingly, which pubs the itinerant work force were most likely to drink in.
When we look at the wider community benefit, and at how wide we go, therefore, it is important that we do not give the impression that somebody who lives five, 10 or 15 miles away from a shale pad requires compensating because of some activity that takes place there.
Others wish to speak, so I will say no more, other than that there is widespread agreement over the principle we are talking about. I do not think anybody here disagrees with the broad thrust of what community benefit will look like. We are now down to the definitions. What amount are we talking about? How should we levy it? Which community will benefit? Later, there will also be the practicalities of how moneys will be disbursed and to whom. We are in a good place, given that we are discussing the mechanisms involved in getting these things right, rather than whether we should do them. There is wide consensus that we should do them, and I think that is right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on the lucid and clear way in which he introduced the debate.
There are many views of fracking. Some, I do not agree with, although I respect them. The Tyndall view of fracking and shale gas is simply that getting them out will add to the greenhouse gases circulating around the globe, so they should be left where they are. I do not agree, for reasons that may or may not be correct, although I believe them. Principally, I do not think that our energy consumption will fall much over the next 20 years or that renewables will be sufficiently developed by that stage to plug the gap. Other alternatives also seem pretty unattractive. One is the extensive building of nuclear power stations. Buying ever cheaper coal—coal is becoming cheaper—is another. Importing gas is probably the favoured alternative, and we will probably face a choice between using Russian, Kazakhstani or Qatari gas or shale gas, which we have in appreciable abundance in Lancashire—the shale there is much deeper than in many parts of the United States, where shale gas is being exploited to some effect.
I have the advantage of having visited one of the exploratory wells and seen the precautions taken to ensure that what happens is not environmentally intrusive or damaging. I therefore have a better feeling about the regulations the industry must currently abide by, although we are looking at a tougher regulatory environment in the future. We already have extensive planning controls and health and safety regulations, as well as oversight from the Environment Agency.
Clearly, good regulation is crucial to the successful development of shale gas. I say that because I have also seen some slightly alarmist anti-fracking propaganda. We have probably all had sight of “Gasland”, with the taps that catch fire and so on, and we have probably all heard the exaggerations about the chances of pipes fracturing, threats to the water supply and subsidence. People have also exaggerated the number of wellheads we need, and they have talked about traffic densities and movements that are unlikely to materialise—producers are unlikely to want to move gas around by lorry if they can find a better way to move it. To be fair, a lot of the people who object would object if all those concerns were set aside; in other words, they have the same fundamental objection as the Tyndall climate change group—they think shale gas is not something we should dally with and is not something for the future.
Against that argument, there are clearly powerful economic arguments. If shale gas materialises as Cuadrilla and others hope it will, that will be good for the country’s balance of payments and it could have huge implications for the north-west’s economy. My constituency, which is on the edge of the Bowland special protection area, will, I hope, benefit in some way. I am not holding my breath on that, because we have seen false dawns locally before. Gas was discovered in the bay, and the production facilities can be seen from Southport beach. We hoped that that would have enormous benefits for the local economy, but it led to Hamilton Oil sponsoring a few events, and that was it. When one of the few fibre-optic cables from America came on land on Southport beach, I dreamed of Southport becoming not the Aberdeen of the north, but the silicon valley of England, but, somehow, that did not happen; we just got a quietly humming shed on an industrial park and little in the way of local employment. I am not, therefore, holding my breath, but I am none the less encouraged by the fact that the shale gas industry has made some pretty good opening moves, which will, I hope, move us in the direction of rebalancing the economy and provide some local community benefit.
Through the Treasury, the Government are concentrating principally on incentivising shale gas development. I am in favour of that, and we certainly need to explore it, because this business could be hugely profitable. The issue then is, what will happen to all the profits? Will they simply leach out to the south-east or wherever the company headquarters are, or will we feel the benefit locally? If I can throw my two pennies-worth on the table, I would like to see a levy that is channelled towards investing in permanent renewable energy in the area. At some point, the shale gas, like all other such energy sources, will run out. Other Members have other attitudes and other proposals. The hon. Member for Fylde talked about the supply chain, and I agree with what he said about that. He also talked about energy rebates, and none of my constituents would be unhappy to receive them.
We are at the beginning of what will probably be quite a protracted discussion with the Government and the industry, but it is important that we discuss these issues among ourselves. Those of us who are embittered northerners have too often seen wealth generated in the north accumulated and spent somewhere else. That is the one thing, above all, that we wish to prevent.
It is a pleasure to be called after the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh). As a Member from the embittered north, may I say that I am really pleased that Salford still regards itself as part of Lancashire? I am even more pleased that north Warwickshire now regards Lancashire as part of the United Kingdom. It is nice to know these things.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), whose constituency I have to drive through every week to get to a third of my constituency, on getting the debate. As he said, this is the second debate he has initiated on this issue. I have managed to get only one, but he has managed to get two, which shows the power he has. However, I have a part share of the debate on shale gas on Thursday, so perhaps things are more balanced. On Thursday, I will talk more about safety matters; today, in view of the time, I will talk principally about the compensation system.
In our earlier debates, virtually all of us stressed the need for the Government to commit, at least in principle, to some form of community compensation when a possible go-ahead with extraction was announced. In that sense, we are pleased with where we have got to. We have had the announcement that the compensation system will be established. We have learned that it will be run by the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group. We have learned it will provide £100,000 per wellhead at the exploration stage, and I will be interested to hear the answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde about the distinction between wellheads and pads. We have also had the indication that, once production starts, 1% of all revenues generated over the lifetime of the well will be allocated to the local community. The suggestion is that one third will go to the county and two thirds to the local community, which I assume means the district.
In one sense a good start has been made, and I compliment the Minister on the work he has done to get things to that stage; but we want more clarity and certainty. We also want a guarantee of additionality, and ideally we want more money. I will begin by talking about clarity. At the moment the UK Onshore Operators Group has said that two thirds of the revenue generated will go to the local community. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) raised the question of what the local community is. There is a question in relation to the wellhead: that because of the engineering that could be used in Lancashire it will go down vertically and then horizontally. Will the local community be defined in relation to the extent over which the gas is extracted, or just where the wellhead is? I am not splitting hairs: those things will be brought up locally, for Members of Parliament to answer.
As to the figure of two thirds being directed locally, does that refer to the district councils, such as Wyre, in my case, or Fylde; or does it mean a unitary authority—Blackpool? My major concern is about what happens if those councils take the third or two thirds. What commitment do we have that that will really be seen as additional to the normal process of local government revenue grants? I have absolute faith in my right hon. Friend the Minister and, indeed, in the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), but let us think of a future time, when other Ministers have come along. What if Lancashire county council, or, indeed, the district councils, are gaining a fair amount of money just on the basis of the 1%, and they apply for the normal general grant? Or what if there are regional growth fund applications for the area? Will not a future Minister say, “Well, Lancashire has that money; it does not need this other money”? That is my argument about additionality. We need some guarantees about it—that the money will be additional, above and beyond what the localities would normally expect under the local government or business funding systems or whatever, and they will not be disproportionately treated because there is extra money.
We are all struggling to find the right vehicle and I am sorry that none of us has the perfect answer—the hon. Member for Southport and others hinted at one—to whether the money should go into something like a sovereign wealth fund for Lancashire, or, indeed, a trust fund. That might be managed by professionals, but open to applications from the districts, parishes and counties for funds—and major, structural funds. My other argument will be that 1% is not enough. Big profits will be made. I understand the strictures of the hon. Gentleman: we are at the beginning of an industry. However, perhaps there could be a rising scale as the profits mount up. There is a serious issue about 1%: it is not enough. If the predictions about the productive capacity of the Bowland shale are right—and it stretches across Lancashire and parts of Derbyshire, and even that other county called Yorkshire—5% would be a substantial amount of money, which would guarantee to the people of those areas that something would be left after the shale gas was gone, as it eventually will be. That something might be renewable energy; it might be all kinds of things, but that is the kind of vehicle that I suggest.
There are other examples of such things, and we can learn from mistakes that have been made. I understand that the Shetland Charitable Trust has got itself into trouble over what it can and cannot fund. The Alaskan funds are quite interesting because of the dividends that they have been able to pay out, on top of the future capital investment that will be available to ensure that when the oil goes Alaska will be left with something. That is what we are looking for. It is certainly what I am looking for: to be able to tell people in Lancashire “We will be prepared to put up with all this”—because I am not sure there will be too many jobs in it—“as, at the moment, we, or some of us, are prepared to put up with wind farms out at sea and on the hills, and possibly a new nuclear power station, if some long-term investment will be coming back to Lancashire, and it will not be used as an excuse to deny Lancashire other funds.”
That is the principle that I would like the Minister to consider. I know he cannot give us direct answers today, and I am grateful for how far he has got on the question. There will be future meetings, until we reach a system. Members of Parliament of all parties from the part of the world in question need to prove that serious investment will come back to the boundaries of our county, however we define them, and those of other counties that will be affected in the future. Then, provided all the safety and environmental measures that we may debate on Thursday are secure, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde has stressed, there is absolute clarity and transparency and independent regulation, we can give our support and make a vital contribution to the United Kingdom, in the way that Lancashire has always been prepared to do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on obtaining the debate. It is not really a surprise to many of us that following the announcements that formed part of the spending review—or rather announcements of announcements, as I anticipate more detail soon—there is heightened interest in the broad subject of shale gas and fracking, with two debates this week.
Some hon. Members who will take part in Thursday’s debate are not here today, and I hope that they will read this debate before then. What has been good about it so far is the degree of thought and rationality that has been applied to wider issues of community benefit, and not just the specifics. Those thoughts have come, not surprisingly, from Members of Parliament from all parties in the affected area; they have the right and responsibility to speak up for their constituents. As many have intimated, even if they have not said so explicitly, we do not yet really know what we are dealing with. We can know only after some exploration, when we find out what is being extracted and what will be got out of the ground. We can then make further judgments; but we can get to that stage only if there is public confidence and acceptance.
The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) referred to a social contract—I am pleased to hear he is not a socialist; that gave me some comfort. However, the idea of a social contract is vital. The technology is not new, but an existing technology is being given a new or different application, and it is not surprising that there is anxiety and concern about the impact. That is not least because people have seen reports and films about the experience in other parts of the world, notably the USA. It is right for Government and the appropriate authorities to take those things seriously; because confidence is necessary. That is why the hon. Member for Fylde was right to begin his remarks by talking about regulation. I hope that he does not mind my saying that he was right to point out that the issue is not just the robustness of the regulation; it is also the comprehensiveness of monitoring. Having all the right regulations does not necessarily guarantee that what should happen does happen. That is not to cast aspersions on any individuals or companies that may be involved in the future: it is a question of public confidence.
The reality is that for a number of months, following the cease in activity after the earthquake, or earth tremors, that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) referred to, many of us were waiting for the Government response to those issues. Despite the comments of some hon. Members—who are not here today but who have an interest in the area—who thought that that it was a dereliction of duty for the Government to have that pause on activity, I think it was exactly the right thing to do in order to assess properly what was happening. I take the geological survey published a couple of weeks ago as an aspect of that evidence base that needs to be assessed, but it only tells us what the theoretical resource is and not what is recoverable.
We had a debate in Westminster Hall on the Energy and Climate Change Committee’s initial report into shale gas, which the hon. Member for Fylde was not able to take part in at that time, as he was a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then energy Minister, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). However, I seem to recall that the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), who have spoken today, were present and took part. Since then, a lot has happened and things have moved on, but in March last year, we set out a number of conditions, from the Opposition perspective, that we thought needed to be in place in relation to regulation. I am sure that we will delve into these matters much more on Thursday, but I want to highlight what we suggested those conditions should be, because they speak to the wider point about the way in which the whole issue continues to develop.
We said that the chemicals used must be restricted to those that are proven to be non-hazardous with mandated public disclosure of all the chemicals to be used, including their toxicity levels. The integrity of each well must be assured to prevent water contamination, with independent assessment of the well design, the cement bond between the casing and well bore, in addition to the composition of the casing to determine its ability to resist corrosion. Seismic monitoring should be put in place with a traffic-light system, to which the hon. Member for Fylde referred earlier, as has been the case in the Netherlands and Germany. The level of methane in groundwater should also be assessed prior to any drilling, because a criticism that has been made a number of times relates to potential contamination. Sometimes it goes further, and some people claim contamination of groundwater from methane, when, as we are all aware, methane can occur naturally in groundwater. Unless there is initial monitoring of it as a baseline study, we cannot tell whether anything untoward has happened. We said—the hon. Member for Fylde also made this point—that all potential shale exploration should be subject to an environmental impact assessment, given that previously, smaller applications did not necessarily need to be. We also said that we believe the monitoring should take place over a 12-month period to allow sufficient time to gather the evidence required to make an informed decision to proceed with exploration.
I am pleased that late last year, the Government broadly accepted, or came up with, a very similar set of conditions. Those conditions are comprehensive, although there are still some gaps in regulation that the Government need to fill, which I will come on to later in the week. But, as others have said, the regulation needs to be robust, and I am sure that that is exactly the intention of both the Minister and the Department. I repeat the point about language, and using language that suggests, even if it is not the intent, that the regulation will be streamlined—which can mean a number of different things to a number of different people—is not necessarily the best choice of language in this regard.
I move on to community benefits, on which some important points have been made so far this afternoon. I take a broadly similar position to the hon. Member for Southport. When making the case, there are people who have legitimate concerns about a number of areas that need to be addressed, while some are against shale exploration and have a principled, ideological position. It is fair enough for people to take that position, but there is a need to separate those ideological objections from legitimate environmental concerns, and that is exactly what the regulation needs to do.
In terms of community benefits, the Government have acted on onshore wind, and, given the ongoing discussions, I am sure that we will get more on community benefits in relation to nuclear in the near future. We have had a broad acceptance that there is a degree of disruption, that there is a need for that to be recognised, and that there should be some community benefit and support. However, it is not as straightforward as it initially sounds. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South made the point about what local impact is, how that is best defined, and where community benefits are. The Minister is well aware of the issue. I read a comment from him that must have been made at the time of the announcement; he was talking about what might impact on a particular community, but if that community uses a swimming pool that needs to be rebuilt in an adjacent town, how can that line best be drawn? We really need to get into the detail of that over the next period, because there are potentially significant financial benefits, quite apart from the impacts that others have discussed in terms of jobs and economic activity.
I want to reiterate a point that has been made. I have, in front of me, documentation from the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group, when it put out its community engagement charter. The point about whether it is a wellhead or a pad is important—the language used by the UKOOG refers to it being per well site. That language in itself is slightly ambiguous, in terms of it being a well site, as opposed to a wellhead. Will the Minister try to clarify that important point?
On the wider point about community benefits, we know that in relation to the foreshore, the Crown Estate has established a system of community benefits. Not a huge amount is flowing into that fund at the moment, but it will in future in relation to offshore activity. The fund is effectively administered by the national lottery and it is appropriate for a number of community bodies, as well as local authorities, to apply. Will the Minister say more about consideration of that type of model or of that as part of the model, as opposed to something being run by an industry group?
There is a wider point in relation to Shetland, which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood referred to. In one of my previous lives, I was a local government officer in Scotland. It always used to gall us that, every year, when the 32 local authorities in Scotland got their audit reports, Shetland got the worst one in terms of sustainability of funding, but it was okay, because it has that huge amount of money there. In fact, with what is happening west of Shetland, it probably has quite a lot to be able to rely on well into the future. However, there is a point about long-term sustainability as well, which I think needs to be reflected in the wider community benefit picture. The Minister is well aware of the issue, and he asked how we stop funds being swallowed up by the local authority social services budget—I think that was what he used as an example of a local authority budget that is always under pressure, where there is the temptation to plug the gap, if there is additional revenue. However, this really needs to be something additional. We do not know the scale yet, as the hon. Members from Lancashire have made clear in their contributions.
I shall finish by reiterating a point that has been made about regulations. Regulations need public confidence and wide acceptance, and the same goes for the community benefits package and arrangements. Communities need confidence in them and they need to know that they will be appropriately and fairly dispersed and applied. They need to see that the benefits are there for them to use in recompense—although not formally in recompense—for the disruption there may be during the activity that may or may not happen in Lancashire or elsewhere in the years ahead.
May I join colleagues in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr Benton? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on securing an important debate on this subject and on his constructive approach. If I may say so, I congratulate Members on the tone that they have adopted throughout their contributions. I will try to answer the various points that have been raised.
My hon. Friend began by rightly raising the interests of communities, and the debate has clearly demonstrated that community interests have a number of dimensions and apply to all potentially affected communities across our country. I will group my comments into four areas: first, local communities should be clear on the Government’s policy on shale; secondly, they should be clear on when they will be engaged locally and by whom, and have access wherever possible to objective information; thirdly, they should be reassured about shale development and that it will be carried out safely and in a way that protects the environment; and finally, they should know exactly what benefits should flow from hosting shale gas developments. I will tackle each in turn.
As a Government, we believe that shale has the potential to provide this country with greater energy security, an incentive to growth and more jobs. Through the co-ordination of the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, we are creating the framework to accelerate the development of shale responsibly. Looking at the big picture to see how our various energy sources fit together in the market as we transition to a low-carbon future, we quickly realise that oil and gas will form a key part of our energy requirements for some decades to come. We need to recognise that shale gas development is part of a historic continuum in the development of our domestic resources. Over 2,000 conventional oil and gas and coal bed methane wells have been drilled in the UK. Fracking, of course, is an established exploration technique used around the world. I see unconventional resources as a part of the bigger picture and continuum.
As Members will know, the British Geological Survey has now estimated the total volume of gas in the Bowland-Hodder shale, which includes Lancashire, at some 1,300 trillion cubic feet. Effective exploration of that resource is necessary to help us understand how much of that gas is technically or economically recoverable. We are therefore encouraging the safe and environmentally sound exploration that will help us determine that. With robust regulation now in place, there is nothing to prevent licensees from bringing forward new drilling plans and seeking the necessary permissions. In Lancashire, Cuadrilla has recently announced further plans for exploration, and of course we welcome Centrica’s recent investment in its licence in the area. We are therefore likely to see Lancashire lead the way in the exploration phase, which if proven will provide local communities with real benefits and opportunities.
Early community engagement by companies in the industry is essential to gaining public acceptance of and support for shale gas development. We have worked closely with the industry to encourage strong engagement that addresses local concerns. We are therefore pleased that the industry—through its trade body, the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group—has recently collectively adopted a community engagement charter. One of its objectives is to identify and proactively address local issues and concerns. In addition, each operator will engage with local communities and other stakeholders, beginning in advance of any operations or any application for planning permission. For our part, the Government have a role to play in supporting public engagement by ensuring access to evidence-based information that can address the questions raised and inform public debate.
My Department is looking urgently at how we can swiftly take forward the suggestion from my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), which has also been touched on this afternoon, to ensure that we provide clear information to the public on the myths that tend to surface about shale, so that we can help the public to separate fact from the fiction. An objective of the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil is to help people understand the facts about shale gas, and that includes supporting local authority engagement with communities where it can assist in resolving issues and allowing projects to proceed where appropriate. Officials are developing plans for how we can do that in practice and will be engaging with local authorities—particularly Lancashire, at this stage—on what assistance is needed from central Government to best deliver support.
Some of that is already happening. The Lancashire shale gas forum, established by the Environment Agency, already brings together county and district councils, regulators including the Health and Safety Executive, my Department and the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil to discuss strategic shale gas issues and matters of concern to local communities. That forum is meeting today.
I am not able to confirm that immediately, but I may be able to do so shortly. I certainly understand the question. My information was that the group included Lancashire county council and the district councils, and my assumption was that that would include Blackpool. If I am wrong, I will let the hon. Gentleman know as swiftly as I can.
I turn to regulations that ensure safety and protect the environment. In our country, we have more than 50 years’ experience regulating the onshore oil and gas industry. Our system of regulation is comprehensive and fit for purpose for exploration, but we are not complacent. We want continuously to improve it, and local communities will expect no less. A number of regulatory bodies and Departments are involved, including the Environment Agency, the HSE, my Department and the Departments for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Communities and Local Government. The Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, which has no regulatory functions, co-ordinates activity across Government on unconventional gas and oil, including on the regulatory process, while ensuring that shale development remains safe and the environment is protected. We are making good progress. The Department for Communities and Local Government will shortly publish planning guidance for industry, mineral planning authorities and local communities on how shale gas developments should proceed through our planning system.
For its part, the Environment Agency recently published a statement of actions to simplify the regulation of exploratory activity by the oil and gas industry while maintaining environmental protection. As a first step, it will publish draft technical guidance for consultation by the end of July, setting out its requirements on operators and giving them, local communities and stakeholders more certainty. The Environment Agency and the HSE have already agreed to work closely together and have developed a joint approach to inspecting new exploratory shale gas operations under a memorandum of understanding, which directly addresses one of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde made. That means that they have agreed a joint programme of inspection for the next series of fracturing operations in England and Wales. They will meet new and first-time operators, advise them of their legal duties and conduct a joint inspection of key operations, including cementing and the verification of cementing and the main hydraulic fracture.
In addition, the Department of Energy and Climate Change will check that the HSE and the Environment Agency, or its Scottish equivalent the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, have no objections before it consents to drilling operations. Furthermore, if hydraulic fracturing for shale gas is intended, we will require measures to address the risk of induced seismicity, namely prior analysis of geological risks and the submission of a detailed fracturing plan, including a traffic light control protocol.
On the community benefits, I think we all agree that it is vital that communities that host shale benefit from the developments. As part of the recently published charter, the industry has set out its benefits proposal, which is, as has been said, to provide communities with £100,000 per fracked well site at the exploration stage and 1% of revenues at the production stage. The industry estimates that that amounts to as much as £5 million to £10 million per pad, and some £1.1 billion overall for communities in the UK. We welcome the offer from the industry. It represents a good deal for communities at this stage in the development of the UK shale industry. I am pleased that the industry has pledged to keep the offer under review and to consult communities about it in the light of operating experience.
At this stage, the operators group envisages that community funding will be split, with two thirds going to a local-level community fund and one third to a wider fund at county level. That need not mean the local authority itself; it might be a charitable or other foundation operating at county level. The operators have pledged that at each stage they will work with the local community funds to set out what level of benefits would be provided on a per household basis, so that even though communities may choose to use the funds to pay for community-wide measures residents will understand what their share of the benefits is at the household level.
The industry plans to publish further details of the proposals later this year, setting out more on the funding allocation and on how the charter will operate in practice. As the industry develops the details further, it will engage with interested parties and the local authorities involved, so I urge interested Members also to engage in the process and to help shape the proposals further. I assure Members that we in the Government will continue to work with the industry to ensure that it delivers on its commitments and, importantly, to keep the offer under review as we learn more about how the industry is likely to develop in the UK.
Finally, one of the potential benefits of shale gas production is job creation. My hon. Friend referred to the importance of the supply chain. Building partnerships to encourage job creation and growth is part of the work being led by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills under the Government’s growth strategy, and DECC will work closely with BIS to assess the need for skills development.
The oil and gas sector strategy has already identified how the sector and the Government can work on the skills challenges the offshore sector faces, and it points out that links could be made with opportunities in other sectors, including that of shale gas. Work on supply chain mapping is also being commissioned. To improve the responsiveness of the skills system to the needs of business, BIS is promoting much greater employer leadership and closer collaboration between business, higher education and further education colleges. We are already seeing signs of that in Lancashire, and I hope that other companies and institutions will follow the lead of Cuadrilla and the university of Central Lancashire.
In the brief time remaining, I want to respond to the points that have been made, but if I cannot cover them all I hope that colleagues will allow me to write to them in detail. I was asked how we will monitor seismicity. The monitoring system will include a prior assessment conducted by operators. A fracking plan will have to be submitted. There will be a traffic light warning protocol and real-time monitoring, and if any activity over 0.5 on the Richter scale is detected the operation will be halted and further steps taken. The British Geological Survey has a national earthquake monitoring system that will, of course, alert us all to any changes in natural background seismicity.
I was asked how we would maximise local job opportunities and improve apprenticeships. The industry commits in the charter to encouraging that wherever reasonably possible. I was also asked about greater public engagement by the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, which I have already mentioned. We are developing plans, as has been suggested, and we are committed to reinforcing how the public can have access to more independent information.
On transparency and the type of organisations involved in enjoying community benefits, I was asked whether we should share benefits directly, for example through reductions in bills. I have already said that I welcome the industry’s commitment to flexibility, to engaging with communities and to consulting them over the autumn. Even if it is decided to take the benefit more generally—the new swimming pool that was mentioned, for example—I want local households to be clear what the benefit would be if it were a reduction in their individual bills, so that everyone understands the contribution that shale gas can make. The operators have committed to publishing each year how they are adhering to the charter, once the system of benefits starts to operate. The information about each local arrangement will be made public, and the next community down the line will be able to see it and decide whether it wants a similar package.
I was asked whether the benefit is per well. In the charter offer it is per well site, but that is one thing that the industry will consult on in the autumn. The disruption and the impact of the whole operation is at the well site, but the length of horizontal drilling means that some of the activity takes place a long way from the site. That is one of the issues that will be clarified a little later on.
I hope that I have responded to the main points that were raised, but I undertake to pick up any others later. I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. I think we have shown that it is perfectly possible to approach the development of this entirely new industry as neither zealots nor victims but in a practical, constructive way, working through the issues one by one and ensuring that our communities get the benefit of what is potentially a very exciting development.
St Raphael’s Hospice
I appreciate having this opportunity to address the House on an issue that is of major concern to my constituents, to the many staff who work at the very valued institution of St Raphael’s hospice, which is in north Cheam in my constituency, and to the staff who work at the adjacent charitably run St Anthony’s hospital.
I suspect that when the Minister saw the title for the debate, he turned to his officials and said, “What on earth am I doing a health debate for?” I can well understand that reticence and puzzlement as to why a Health Minister was not invited to respond. I want to use the debate to explain why I am grateful that a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister is responding. The issues are not so much about health care as they are about accountability, transparency and the responsibility of trustees in discharging a public good and a common purpose. The debate requires an intervention or some involvement from the Foreign Office.
I ask the Minister to intervene on behalf of my constituents to safeguard the future of a much valued hospice and a widely respected hospital. I ask that our ambassador to the Holy See make officials at the Vatican aware of the concerns I am expressing. I will explain why. The Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross of Liege is a Catholic charity that owns and runs St Anthony’s hospital and St Raphael’s hospice, both of which are based in north Cheam. Together they employ 900 local people and are much loved, much admired institutions with a strong tradition of volunteering, which is very much at the heart of the hospice movement.
The trustees of the Daughters of the Cross are six Catholic nuns, who have decided to sell St Anthony’s hospital to a commercial concern, bringing to an end more than 100 years of care and Christian mission for the sick, the vulnerable and the dying. Their decision confounded and distressed those who work at the hospital and the hospice, as well as many of my constituents and many in the wider community who benefit from the work of the institutions. The decision is all the more perplexing because the Daughters of the Cross charity, according to its latest accounts, has more than £80 million in cash and investments, even before selling off the hospital. Lack of money is not the problem and should not be a justification for what is being done.
Worse still, the Daughters of the Cross have so far failed to explain why a proposal for a new Catholic charity with new trustees could not form the basis of a gracious and negotiated passing of the baton to a new generation of trustees. Instead, Daughters of the Cross are insisting on the withdrawal of all the existing funds currently held by St Anthony’s hospital—some £35 million in all—as well as a capital receipt for the disposal. In my meetings with the charity, the trustees talk about the money being their money. There is no recognition that the money is held in trust, or that it is the result of co-production between the Daughters of the Cross and those who work in the hospital and hospice.
The issue I am raising is not a religious one. It is about the behaviour of a charity and the reputational damage that is doing. The Daughters of the Cross is a congregation of pontifical right. It does not come under the temporal or spiritual authority of the Catholic Church in England. It is answerable directly to the Vatican in Rome, and critically it has not yet obtained permission from the authorities in the Vatican that oversee decisions to dispose of assets held by the Catholic Church. The body with the decision-making authority is called the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, whose secretary is Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo. As part of the charity’s governance, it has well-established advisory committees that bring together community and expert opinion to guide the trustees’ decisions, to ensure that the right investments are made and that the right development of services takes place. Sadly, that expertise has been sidelined in this matter and not given the weight it deserves.
The chairman of St Raphael’s hospice, Dr Ron McKeran, has written to Archbishop Carballo, imploring his committee to exercise its oversight role and use its discretion to stop the sale and instead fully explore and take forward the creation of a new Catholic charity. Dr McKeran and many others believe that the sale of St Anthony’s will destroy the very special Christian character of the hospital. In his view, the actions of the charity’s trustees seem to be devoted to turning charitable assets into greater financial reserves, rather than to turning public donations into charitable activity. I believe that Dr McKeran’s analysis is spot-on.
The sale will expose St Raphael’s hospice to financial uncertainty. That is critical. At present, the hospital, as part of the same charity, provides a hidden subsidy of around £1 million a year. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two institutions. The hospital provides vital services, including IT, payroll, catering, and site services. Cutting the hospice free of its ties to the hospital, eventually to become a stand-alone charity, would leave it facing the prospect of a million pound funding gap.
There is an alternative: a proposal to spin out a new charity to take St Anthony’s and St Raphael’s forward together, maintaining the Christian mission that has flourished on the site in north Cheam for more than a century. The trustee nuns of the Daughters of the Cross have so far not explained why they are unwilling to appoint lay trustees, as other similar charities have done. There could be a managed transition with new trustees taking up the reins when the nuns are no longer able to exercise their responsibilities as trustees. That is more in keeping with the ethos of the charity, but the trustees are confusing their worries about their own mortality with the bigger picture and the purpose of the charity they founded. The trustees have offered no explanation as to why the reserves of £80 million and the moneys from the disposal of a very valuable site in Chelsea cannot be used to achieve their ends.
As a result of all that, the hospice finds itself in limbo, uncertain of its future and reliant on words of good intent, but no guarantees. I hope the Minister understands the concern that I and many of my constituents have about the future of St Raphael’s hospice. My concerns have already led me to write to the Charity Commission, asking it to investigate how the charity has conducted itself, the lack of due diligence and the risk of financial and reputational damage. It cannot be right for a charitable purpose to be subverted by the personal concerns of the trustees about their own long-term involvement in the charity. Nor is it right for the trustees to set aside the expert opinion of their own advisory boards, as well as the views of the staff, volunteers and the public. Their goal should be to secure the long-term future of the charity. That is why I am asking the Minister to act: not to interfere in matters spiritual, but rather to set out those concerns to the authorities in the Vatican who have the final say.
Will the Minister ask our ambassador to raise the matter, urging that it be carefully considered, and that the representations from Dr McKeran, myself and others are properly taken into account? At the very least, will he ask our ambassador to draw the attention of the appropriate authorities in the Vatican to this debate? There is no authority in the UK that can prevail upon the Daughters of the Cross to change its decision; only an intervention from the Vatican can hope to protect the future of the much loved and cherished St Raphael’s hospice.
I finish by quoting from a letter from June Whitfield, who is a doughty fundraiser for St Raphael’s hospice. She recently wrote to Sister Veronica Hagen, who is the chairman of the trustees of the Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross. The letter ends with these two paragraphs:
“And I urge you to reconsider the proposal of the Management, staff and supporters of the hospital and hospice to instead create a new charity encompassing both St Anthony’s and St Raphael’s.
The Daughters of the Cross established St Anthony’s Charitable Hospital in 1904 and then built St Raphael’s Hospice in 1987. Their ethos and faith have served the people of both Sutton and Merton well for over a century, it would be not just sad, but unforgivable if you and your current colleagues are the ones to extinguish these beacons of hope and faith in an increasingly difficult world.”
That is absolutely right, and I hope the Minister can help.
May I begin by expressing my pleasure at serving under your guidance this afternoon, Mr Benton?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) on securing this important debate today and on setting out his case and concerns, and those of his constituents, so eloquently. I pay tribute to the role that he has played in supporting his local community on this challenging and difficult issue, and I am struck by the strength of local feeling that clearly exists about the future of St Raphael’s. This is clearly a great concern for many people, given the excellent and dedicated work that has been undertaken—both recently and over a significant period—both by St Anthony’s hospital and St Raphael’s hospice.
In particular, the work of the hospice exemplifies the huge support that exists for the hospice movement across the whole United Kingdom. St Raphael’s clearly plays a very important role in the lives of many people within the community of Sutton and Cheam. Indeed, hospices such as St Raphael’s have a crucial role to play in providing a dignified environment for people with serious or terminal illnesses throughout the United Kingdom.
Of course, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the additional £60 million in Government funding that was awarded to hospices across England earlier this year. A total of 176 hospices will benefit from that fund. It will not only help to improve conditions within hospices themselves, but support the care that hospices provide to people in their own homes, which is a crucial factor that he personally focused on when he was a Minister in the Department of Health and for which he deserves enormous credit.
Given today’s debate, I am particularly pleased about the award of more than £500,000 to St Raphael’s hospice, which I understand will help towards building its new extension. Investment in hospices is vital, not least because more and more people are using their services. Hospices need support to provide the care that is so desperately required. Such additional funding will enable hospices to modernise their premises, to improve further the facilities and care that they provide to patients and—significantly—to give increased support to patients’ families. The importance of that support and the continued provision of compassionate and dignified care at what is a very difficult time for both patients and their families should never be underestimated.
St Raphael’s can be held up as an excellent example of the strong role that faith groups can play in contributing to wider society. St Raphael’s ethos of accepting people of all faiths and, indeed, people of no faith is admirable; that is exactly the sort of model for interfaith relations that the Government are keen to promote. It is also important to say that this role of religion and faith within communities makes a vital contribution to national life, by not only guiding the moral outlook of many people but providing help for those in need. Compassion and the desire to provide assistance to those who suffer are excellent principles for faith groups to focus on.
Across the country, people from different faiths are working hard, not only in countless churches but in countless mosques, temples and synagogues, as well as in charities and community groups, to address problems in their local communities. The Christian Churches have an extensive national framework of buildings, expertise, volunteers and reach that can put them at the very heart of providing services, not only to the homeless but to others in need. St Raphael’s is a very good example of that in my right hon. Friend’s own community.
I will now turn to the future of St Raphael’s, which was the main focus of my right hon. Friend’s remarks this afternoon. I understand that, as he quite rightly pointed out, the trustees of the Catholic Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross of Liege are members of an international order of religious sisters based in Belgium. They help to provide health care and similar services, both in England and around the world. As he also quite rightly pointed out, the Daughters of the Cross are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Ultimately, they are subject to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, based in Rome within the Roman Curia of the Holy See.
Given the strong local concerns for the future of the important health care and hospice provision provided by St Anthony’s hospital and St Raphael’s hospice, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is making representations to the relevant Holy See authorities, through the British ambassador to the Holy See. I will come on to the details of those representations shortly.
Our ambassador has also spoken to the apostolic nuncio in the United Kingdom, Archbishop Mennini. We understand that the archbishop would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend, if he was willing to attend such a meeting, to hear his concerns and discuss these important issues. The papal nuncio, as His Holiness the Pope’s representative in the UK, is an appropriate vehicle for these concerns to be expressed and passed to the Holy See, as is, of course, our ambassador to the Holy See.
I can inform my right hon. Friend that only this morning our ambassador had a meeting in the Vatican with the secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, and was able to brief him on the concerns of the local community about the future of St Anthony’s and St Raphael’s. I am delighted to tell my right hon. Friend that the archbishop was fully aware of the case and acknowledged receipt of the recent letter from the chairman of St Raphael’s hospice about the issues that my right hon. Friend has articulated today.
In the meeting this morning, the archbishop made it clear that the decision on the future of St Anthony’s and St Raphael’s was ultimately for the trustees. However, he assured the ambassador that the Vatican would look carefully at the case, as it does all such cases, and will do so over the summer. I can inform my right hon. Friend that there are similar cases, particularly across western Europe, as those who are providing the health care are ageing, as he described earlier. The archbishop also confirmed that, in general terms, guidance would be given to the trustees on the basis of the known preference of the Church that such good works should continue to be run on Catholic lines and that a reply would be forthcoming to the chairman of St Raphael’s hospice once proper consideration had been given. I hope that goes some way to placating the concerns that my right hon. Friend outlined, but I suggest that he follow up the offer of a meeting with the papal nuncio in the UK.
I thank the Minister and his officials for so rapidly and diligently pursuing this case on behalf of my constituents. I am sure that Dr McKeran will look forward with great interest to the response from the Church. May I ask the Minister to do one further thing, which is to ensure that the report of today’s debate is also passed to the papal authorities, so that they can be aware of our exchange?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I understand that the archbishop in the Vatican was made aware this morning that this debate was taking place. However, I will of course be happy to respond to my right hon. Friend’s request, to ensure that he sees the Hansard report of the debate passed through our ambassador to ensure that there is follow-up to this debate in the way that he describes.
With your indulgence, Mr Benton, I would just like to set out, for a couple of minutes, the importance of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Holy See. This debate exemplifies why it is increasingly important for the UK to maintain a positive, dynamic and energetic relationship with the Holy See. Not only for bilateral purposes but globally, there is significant mutuality of interest between the UK and the Holy See.
To that end, Baroness Warsi led an historic visit of seven British Ministers to the Holy See, where they were received at the highest level, including an audience with the Pope. This visit broke new ground, both in the scale of the delegation and the substantive nature of the talks, which covered issues as diverse as sustainable development, conflict prevention, Somalia and the ongoing process of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
During 2013, we have worked closely with the Holy See in furthering our global agenda. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote to His Holiness Pope Francis in June this year, before the G8 summit, to brief him on our agenda and to seek his views. That is a reflection of the importance that we place on the influence and role of the global Catholic Church and the Holy See.
Of course, this has been a historic year for the Vatican, with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to stand down and the subsequent inauguration of His Holiness Pope Francis. The Government warmly welcomed the appointment of Pope Francis, and we strongly support his unceasing desire to tackle social and economic injustice, poverty and disease—issues that of course have been at the heart of our own G8 agenda.
I will conclude by reiterating the importance of the Catholic Church—along with so many other religions and faith groups—as a provider of much-valued and often unsung social services, including health care and hospice provision, support for the homeless and the marginalised, education provision and much else. The Government value the work of the Daughters of the Cross in running St Anthony’s hospital since 1904 and St Raphael’s hospice since 1987, and we understand their difficulties in maintaining these responsibilities. However, like my right hon. Friend, I very much hope that a solution can be found that satisfies all parties and that ensures the continuation of these vital services to the local community.
Women in Wales
It is good to start early on this hot, sunny July afternoon, Mr Benton.
Last year, I looked at the financial cost for women in Wales of the policies of the coalition Government. The study, which was based on parliamentary questions and Library research, revealed that, directly due to coalition policies, £1 billion would be taken away from Welsh women. It highlighted that more than £700 million would be lost to women in Wales as a direct result of pension changes; housing benefit changes, not including the ruthless bedroom tax, would account for more than £13 million; nearly £40 million would be lost due to changes in working tax credits; and public sector pay restraint would cut £300 million out of families’ pockets.
Have things got any better since then? Clearly, the answer is a resounding no. Things continue to get worse for women in Wales, whether because of the replacement of well-paid jobs by lower-paid ones, sustained attacks on public sector jobs, the increase in zero hours contracts and part-time working, cuts to child care, or direct tax or benefit changes, such as the bedroom tax. Whichever cut it is, women in Wales are being hit hard.
Why is this situation affecting women so badly? Women are, on average, poorer than men. Some 64% of low-paid workers are women and in later life women’s average personal pensions are only 62% of the average for men. Women also live longer, often spending the final years of their lives alone. Women are more likely to be the primary carers for children, older people, the sick or the disabled. Nearly three quarters of carer’s allowance claimants are women, confirming that women take responsibility for the majority of care. Women are also far more likely to be lone parents. Indeed, in Wales 95% of lone parents are women and that group is much more likely to be below the poverty line. Women are also more likely to be the victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Given that women use public services and benefits more than men, it is clear that when provision is cut it will hit women even harder. The fact that women are bearing the brunt of the Government’s deficit reduction plans is proven by Library research. Of the £14.4 billion raised in 2014-15, through changes to taxes, benefits, pay and pensions, £11.4 billion—some 79%—comes from women and £2.9 billion from men. In a Cabinet with three times as many men as women, it is hardly surprising that women’s voices are not being heard at the highest level.
The cuts in the public sector are particularly affecting us in Swansea East, because we have high dependency on public sector jobs. Does my hon. Friend agree that the cuts are impacting much more strongly on women than on men, because more jobs are being developed for men, but not as many for women?
In terms of public sector employment and cuts to it, my hon. Friend is right. I will mention that later.
Let us look for instance at tax and benefit changes. The coalition Government and Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions have consistently described their welfare cuts as fair. Clearly, they are unaware of or are ignoring the disproportionate impact they are having on women in Wales. A recent Office for National Statistics study on the effect that benefit and tax changes have had on incomes by household types demonstrates the negative financial consequences for women and families. That study, which covered the financial years 2010 to 2012, shows that a lone parent household with dependent children is £2,248 worse off. We have already established that the vast majority—95%—of lone parents in Wales are women. For other families, the situation does not get any better. A household with two adults and two children is nearly £5,000 worse off. The stress on parents who are trying to accommodate such an income fall, bearing in mind the huge hike in living costs, adds a great deal of pressure for people who are already working hard to keep their heads above water.
A recent report by the TUC showed that most jobs created since the recession have been in low-paid industries such as retail, the service sector and residential care. That was borne out by the ongoing inquiry by the Welsh Affairs Committee into the Work programme. Nearly 8% of the 587,000 net new jobs since June 2010 have been in sectors where the average pay is £7.95 an hour or less. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that long-term unemployment has increased by nearly 100,000 since May 2010, and a shocking 86% of that increase is among women. Young Welsh women are particularly struggling in the labour market, with one in five out of work. In the figures released in June, the overall unemployment rate in Wales remained unchanged at 8.4% but the number of unemployed women rose again.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is a particular problem for young mums in Wales? According to the House of Commons Library, a couple with a joint income of around £24,000 will lose £1,300 in benefits as a result of the changes to child trust funds and tax credits, particularly the baby element. An awful lot of people in Wales, including many of my constituents, come from households with a joint income of around £24,000. Young mums will be particularly vulnerable and will have very little money to spare for their children.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Young families, in particular, will be hit by the cumulative impact of the loss of the child care element of tax credits, the child trust fund and maternity grants.
In Wales, most part-time jobs are undertaken by women; 27% of public sector employees work part time and 85% of those are women. Although it is true that many women want to work part time, many others have no choice.
I have some sympathy with many of the points that the hon. Lady has made on the welfare reform agenda. On child care, does she acknowledge that the Government have announced a constructive package that will help many young mothers? The figures suggest that 5,700 people in Newport would benefit. Child care is a particular problem, and the Government are taking action. In a spirit of fairness, I am sure that she would acknowledge that that should be recognised.
As far as I can see, the action on child care is too little, too late. Many families in my constituency are struggling with huge child care costs, which are bigger than those in many countries around the world. The Government’s proposals will take time to filter through and will have no immediate impact on those families. In addition, the little bit of help that has been provided for child care is totally offset by the huge cuts to tax credits.
According to the Bevan Foundation report “Women, Work and the Recession in Wales”, the number of people in Wales who work part time because they were unable to find a full-time job has increased by 79% to one in five of all part-timers. In addition, the burden of unpaid work still falls on women. Child care responsibilities or caring for older people mean that many women have little choice but to work part time. Contrast the difference between the Labour Government in Cardiff, who are doubling the number of Flying Start places despite losing £1.4 billion from their budget, with the coalition in Westminster, who have cut the child care tax credit by up to £1,500 a year for low paid women while giving millionaires a tax cut of £2,000 a week.
In Wales, women make up two thirds of public sector employees, so the steady and sustained attack on jobs in the public sector has affected women disproportionately. In addition, the pay freeze has worsened the pay gap between men and women; the full-time pay gap now stands at 14.9%. In many parts of Wales, particularly in places such as my constituency, the public and private sectors are completely intertwined. If money is taken from public sector workers, less money will be spent in the local economy, which in turn hits the private sector. By affecting so many women in such a way, the Government are directly affecting the Welsh economy.
The living wage is one that meets the requirements for a basic quality of life and reduces families’ reliance on Government programmes for additional income. In 2012, it was calculated that 24% of all working women earn below the living wage and 62% of those earning less than the living wage are women. How do we stand in Wales? Wales has the second-highest proportion of people earning below the living wage in the UK, the highest proportion of part-time workers earning below the living wage and, at 44.5%, the highest proportion of female part-time workers earning below the living wage.
In Wales, many women are on zero-hour contracts, which were the subject of a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) in this Chamber last week. Recent UK estimates suggest that 97,000 people in Wales have such contracts, of which at the very least half will be women. I know from bitter experience, however, that Government answers to parliamentary questions on the matter are difficult to come by.
Labour wants universal credit to work, but even the impact assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions states that
“second earners may choose to reduce or rebalance their hours or leave work.”
As a result of pay inequality and time taken out of the labour market to raise children, fewer women tend to be primary earners in their households, so the policy will simply not work for many women. In addition, many people are concerned that women will be sanctioned because they struggle to find the child care to enable them to take a job. That question was raised in the Welsh Affairs Committee inquiry into the Work programme.
Government cuts are not only affecting women disproportionately but cutting off access to advice and legal support. At the same time as all the changes are being made to benefits, swingeing cuts are being made to advice services. Organisations such as Citizens Advice, Shelter Cymru and Consumer Focus Wales provide such services, but the sector is expected to lose approximately £3.36 million from various sources over the next 18 months, which is the equivalent of 50 full-time jobs. In fairness, the Welsh Government have recognised the importance of such services and recently provided £1.8 million of extra money to allow the organisations to adapt to the increased demand for their services.
My local citizens advice bureau in Newport, which does excellent work, has had 745 more cases this year than last, but that tells us only part of the story. The citizens advice bureau can only deal with the numbers for which it has funding and advisory capacity. The staff know that more demand exists, but they cannot meet that demand without additional funding. That is happening at a time when people need more help than ever before. As we all see in our surgeries, demand increases every week.
The changes to legal aid demonstrate yet again that the Government are willing to make cuts irrespective of their impact. I am already seeing heartbreaking cases in my surgery following the cuts to some family and civil legal aid. One mother of three children came to see me because her ex-husband had refused to return one of the children after a stay. The father has a high income but the mother is in receipt of benefits, so she sought legal advice but was informed that she does not qualify for legal aid. Because both parents are considered good parents, a court case will be required to solve the issue, but she does not have the money to pay for it. Her husband can have a solicitor but she cannot. She told me that
“the poor no longer have recourse to justice, only the well off.”
Unfortunately, she appears to be right.
Many victims of trafficking and domestic abuse will no longer be eligible for legal aid. According to research by Rights of Women and Welsh Women’s Aid, half of all domestic violence victims will not qualify for legal aid to help them and their children safely to separate from abusive relationships.
In recent years, we have seen a welcome change in emphasis from the police on domestic violence, and more people are now willing to report domestic violence. If people are being asked, rightly, to come forward, but they are being failed when it comes to legal funding, the situation is serious. I would have thought that people right across the House would regard domestic violence cases as extremely important.
My hon. Friend is quite right. The changes to legal aid require a much higher level of evidence to be provided, and organisations such as Women’s Aid believe that as a result, half of women across Wales will not have access to legal aid if they need it.
There are so many areas in which women are disproportionately affected, and I have only talked about a few. I could have talked about the abolition of crisis loans, the bedroom tax, changes to tax credits or pension changes. Name a policy and it is likely to hit women hardest. When families are already feeling the impact of more than 7% inflation on energy costs, with Wales having some of the highest electricity bills in the UK, as well as more than 6% inflation on clothing and more than 4% inflation on food, people can see why it is important to address the inequalities.
Equality law states that whenever the Government propose new legislation and policies, they have to give due consideration to the impact that the changes may have on equality of opportunity between men and women. Time and again, it is clear that the analysis is either inadequate or being ignored, as women in Wales are disproportionately affected by the coalition’s policies. Rather than getting the analysis right, the equality duties were highlighted in the Government’s red tape challenge, and there are fears that they might be watered down or dropped altogether by the coalition.
It is now time for the Secretary of State for Wales to carry out an in-depth analysis of the impact of his Government’s policies on women in Wales, because no matter which way we turn or whatever policy we look at, the Government are letting down women in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Benton.
I thank the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for securing this short debate on the important subject of women in Wales and the situation under this Government, or any Government. I thought I was coming in here to listen to a debate in the round on women in Wales, but—I hope she forgives me for saying this—in fact we were treated to a speech that was pretty similar to those we have heard in Westminster Hall and on the Floor of the House numerous times in the past three years: a general attack on cuts and welfare reform, dressed up as a debate about women in Wales. We could have been discussing the role of women in public life, higher education or the legal sector in Wales, or the efforts that we as a Government are making to help women in Wales smash through the glass ceiling and take their place on boards, running companies and being leaders in all spheres of life in Wales. What we actually had was a crude attack, if I may say so, on our welfare reform proposals and our approach to deficit reduction.
Does the Minister not accept that the full title of the debate is “Effect of Government policies on women in Wales” and that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has cited specific statistics about the situation as it affects women and women in Wales? She made that point a number of times. It is about the actual effect on women in Wales and the lack of an impact assessment or, if there is an impact assessment, the lack of sufficient attention to it, because there has been a disproportionate effect on women.
The danger when looking through any particular demographic lens—we could have been debating the impact of policies on young people, older people, disabled people or people from ethnic minorities—is that we are lured into making generalisations and over-simplifications. We have had a bit of that this afternoon, so hopefully I will inject some balance into the debate.
The starting point, of course, is the economic context and the enormous financial crisis that still faces this country. It is worth putting on record again—I know that Opposition Members will roll their eyeballs at this—that the reason why we are having to take very difficult decisions about public expenditure, and the reason why we are having to restore discipline to our national finances, is the financial mess that the Labour party left after 13 years in government. I will go further: future generations of women and girls would not thank us if we shirked our responsibility now and did not address the deficit and the debt. They would not thank us for the burden of debt that we might hand on to them if we did not take the difficult decisions that we are taking.
I say with all due respect that we have had three years of this Conservative-led Government, and the record is now wearing a bit thin. It is no longer valid, if it ever was, to blame everything on the previous Government. Surely to goodness the Minister can form a better argument in defence of what he has done.
The context is important, and it is valid. I reject what the hon. Gentleman says.
The Labour party is committed at the moment to cutting £7 out of every £8 that the coalition Government are cutting. The Labour party has said that it is committed to that level of budget cuts. Of course, it will not say where. I listened to the hon. Member for Newport East give a long list of cuts to which she objects, but she will not say what her party would have cut. She is also not saying that her party, if it were in government, would actually increase spending on any of those services. I hope she will forgive me for saying this, but it is a little disingenuous to attack all the efforts that we are making to restore discipline to our national finances without also being up front by saying, “As a party, if we were in government, we would probably be cutting all of these things, too.”
Let us move away from cuts and look at job creation. In Swansea East, the most recent figures show that between May 2012 and May 2013 female unemployment rose by 13.5%, yet male unemployment fell by 1.5%. Things are just not working for women, are they? That is really what the debate is all about. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) was attempting to say—and I think she said it very succinctly—that it is not working for women. What are this Government going to do on their behalf?
There are communities in Wales in which unemployment among women remains a very serious problem, and I recently spent a day visiting various initiatives in the valleys, looking at job creation schemes and efforts to address long-term unemployment among men and women. I completely recognise the point that the hon. Lady is making, but let us step back and look at the bigger picture.
More women in this country went out to work today than ever before in history. There are now 13.8 million women in employment, which is more than ever before. Female unemployment actually rose under the last Labour Government by 30%. Under this Government, since May 2010, the number of women employed in the UK has increased by more than 350,000; in Wales, the number of women employed has increased by 21,000. The picture is not as gloomy as the hon. Member for Newport East presents. The employment rate in Wales among women is up by 1.2 percentage points, which is good progress. We are not complacent about that, and we need to be ambitious about improving it, but the trajectory is positive.
In the hon. Lady’s constituency of Newport East, there are now 2,400 more women in employment than two years ago. Surely she must welcome that. The employment rate among women in her constituency is up by more than 6%. Some positive things are happening.
I do not have the specific statistics to hand, but as I said to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James), there are certainly communities in which the trends are not as positive as the broader Welsh trend that I have presented here. We need to be more ambitious and redouble our efforts to see unemployment fall across all categories of women in Wales. I hope Members of all parties can agree on that.
Beyond just the positive signs we are seeing in the employment market, we as a Government absolutely recognise that many, many families face real financial pressure at this time. Many of those families, as the hon. Member for Newport East rightly says, are headed by single women, which is one reason why we are absolutely committed to assisting with the cost of living. We have seen some significant increases in the cost of living, which have placed huge burdens on families in recent years. That is one reason why we are doing one of the most effective things that can be done to put cash back in families’ pockets, which is to take the lowest-paid workers out of income tax altogether. We have now cut income tax for more than 1.1 million working people in Wales by increasing the tax-free personal allowance. By increasing it to £10,000 in 2014, we will lift 130,000 of the lowest-paid workers in Wales out of income tax altogether. Let no one be in any doubt: the majority of those 130,000 people lifted out of income tax—57%—will be women.
The hon. Member for Newport East spoke in great detail about some of our welfare reform measures. The introduction of universal credit is central to our welfare plans. Why are we reforming welfare? First, we cannot begin to think about cutting the deficit and the debt burden unless we are serious about welfare reform. Also, we all have communities in our constituencies where there are people who have not worked a day in their life—we have 200,000 such people in Wales, and worklessness is still a huge problem in many of our communities. If we care about those communities and are bothered by that, we must be serious about welfare reform. We as a Government are certainly bothered by it, which is why we are putting so much energy and focus on welfare reform.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East said, we support the idea of making work pay, but it seems to us from the figures presented by professional organisations that universal credit may actually provide a disincentive for the second earner in a household to go out to work or take on more hours. Can the Minister take that back as a serious message to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and ask them to consider it, so that the introduction of universal credit does not create a disincentive for people to go out to work?
If that is a real concern and there is evidence to back it up, I will certainly take it to my noble Friend Lord Freud, the Minister responsible for welfare reform, and discuss it with him. I sit with him and discuss the impact of welfare reform in Wales, because I am concerned about it. The whole purpose of introducing universal credit is a more simplified system, which we want to incentivise more work. We hope that more women will choose to re-enter the labour market, partly on the back of the introduction of universal credit. Some of them will be in work already, but we want them to take on more hours if they choose to do so. We want people to be able to make the right choices for them in their circumstances at that point in time, and we want a welfare system that supports those choices rather than creating negative incentives that work against the interests of the families and individual women that we are discussing.
Households with single women and couple households will be better off on average after the introduction of universal credit. We are clear that that is what the modelling shows. Single women will receive an average increase in benefits of about £13 a month, and the figure for couple households will be £16 a month.
The impact of child care costs has been mentioned. We recognise that, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for putting on record some of the measures that we as a Government have taken to assist with child care costs, most notably the introduction of the tax-free child care scheme, which makes child care simpler and more affordable for parents to access. From autumn 2015, working families will be able to claim 20% of child care costs, up to £1,200 per child under 12. We believe that that will contribute significantly to helping women who want to go out to work in Wales by encouraging those who want to do so to get back into the labour market and take the jobs that are being created.
To respond to the point made by Opposition Members, I absolutely agree that more women than men have been affected by public sector job losses, due to the proportion of men and women who work in public services. Nevertheless, it is true—even in Wales, where Opposition critics said that it could not happen, because we were led to believe that the private sector was too weak—that more private sector jobs have been created in Wales to offset public sector job losses. Women are taking up those new jobs. Some of them will need extra skills training, and we are committed to helping provide that, but I genuinely believe that the employment situation is not nearly as grim as Opposition Members say.
There is a general problem in the economy at the moment that real wages are falling as a consequence of the recession. We are seeing that across sectors. Actually, a great many women want to work part-time. When I go around and talk to unemployed men, one common complaint that I hear is, “A lot of the new jobs being created are much more suited to women with families.” A great many women in Wales have been able to benefit from that structural change in the labour market.
We could also talk about pension reforms such as the introduction of the single-tier pension and tackling the historic inequality between men’s and women’s pension receipt. We could talk about the efforts that this Government are making to tackle domestic gender-based violence, a point raised by Opposition Members. We as a Government are absolutely committed to, and serious about, breaking down the barriers that women face in all spheres of life, so that women can play their fullest role in work and have equality at home, in educational institutions and—