Wednesday 11 September 2013
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Murrison.)
Instead of the normal pleasantries of wishing you well in chairing the debate, Mr Walker, may I express my particular thanks? Owing to the peculiarity of parliamentary procedure, I was told that I was chairing the debate this morning, but it would have been difficult to be in the Chair and making my speech at the same time. I am therefore particularly grateful to you for taking my place at this early hour in the morning. I am also grateful to many colleagues for turning up to discuss this extremely important subject. Indeed, I extend my thanks to Mr Speaker—I do not know whether he selected the subject for debate or it came about in another way—for making the debate possible.
It is often said that the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm, and that is absolutely true. The first duty of Parliament is to examine what the Government are doing in defending the realm. Over 25 years, the armed forces parliamentary scheme has played a significant part in helping Members of Parliament from all parties to examine what the Government are doing. I emphasise “from all parties”, because it is important for the Opposition to have the opportunity to find out more about the armed forces through the scheme. Frankly, however, Government Back Benchers do not have easy access to the armed forces, so using the scheme as a way of finding out what our people are doing on the ground and finding out a little more about defence is an extraordinarily important thing for Back Benchers of all colours to do. I have put myself carefully in a Cross-Bench position at the end of the Chamber this morning to illustrate that this is in no sense a party political matter.
For 25 years, the armed forces parliamentary scheme has done a fantastic job in enabling Back Benchers—and, indeed, on many occasions, Front Benchers—from both sides of the House to embed themselves with our armed forces in the Army, Navy and Air Force, and to find out what is happening on the ground. They are finding out not necessarily about strategic matters or ground defence, but about how our boys and girls, as we often call the members of all three of our armed services, do their work on the ground.
We are honoured to be joined in the Chamber by the Conservative Chief Whip. Not so long ago, when he was briefly the shadow Defence Secretary, he joined us in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is nice that he has been able to find time to join us in the Chamber this morning.
For 25 years, the scheme has enabled an enormous number of people—265, if my counting is correct—to find out what happens to airmen, and soldiers and sailors of both sexes on the ground. There is a third level to the scheme in the Royal College of Defence Studies, where those who have graduated from the lower levels can find out more about the grand strategy and the bigger defence picture. Largely, however, the purpose of the scheme is to find out precisely what is happening on the ground.
None of that would be possible were it not for the imagination, initiative and management over 25 years of Sir Neil Thorne, ably supported by his excellent wife. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The approbation around the Chamber confirms that everyone this morning wants me to thank him extremely sincerely for all the magnificent work that he has done in setting up the scheme and making it work. It is completely out of order, Mr Walker, to call attention to anyone in any gallery attached to the Chamber, and I would not wish to incur your wrath by doing so, but were there anyone in the Public Gallery who happened to have the name of Sir Neil Thorne, we would be happy that he happened to be here and most grateful for everything that he has done. It has been a magnificent scheme for 25 years.
The scheme has operated at four different levels—perhaps three in future—and 265 people in total have gone through it. In the introductory course, people learn a little about what the armed services are doing in general terms. There is also a postgraduate scheme, the advanced postgraduate scheme and the even more advanced postgraduate scheme, as well as a number of other schemes, all of which, I am glad to say—call me an anorak—I have very much enjoyed doing. My interest and involvement in defence have come about largely as a result of the scheme, so it has been a superb way of learning about what happens on the ground.
About a year or so ago, the Lord Speaker, Mr Speaker and the Secretary of State for Defence decided that it was time to do two things: to re-establish the scheme as a charitable trust; and to do so within Parliament. Happily, we have been able to do that over the past year or so. Last night, in Committee Room 14, we relaunched the scheme under a new name, the armed forces parliamentary trust. It is to be run by nine trustees: two appointed by Mr Speaker, namely the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and me; two from the House of Lords, who I think will be Lord Wakeham and Lord Rogan; two from the Ministry of Defence, Air Vice-Marshal David Murray and Sir Bill Jeffrey, the last but one permanent secretary; and two from industry, Helen Kennett of Rolls-Royce and Bob Keen of BAE Systems.
I am delighted that Sir Neil Thorne has agreed to become the ninth trustee and that, in response to an invitation from Mr Speaker, he has undertaken to become the life president of the scheme. We welcome Sir Neil’s continuing involvement and interest. In all, that is a good group of people to set up a charitable trust—a charitable incorporated organisation, which is a kind of mini-charity under the charity commissioners—which will be entirely within Parliament. Only last night, Mr Speaker told me that he has found accommodation in Parliament for our staff of one person, to whom I shall return. The scheme will be wholly accountable and transparent, with annual accounts, annual general meetings and the rest of it, as we must have in modern times.
Having taken part in the old scheme and expressed a number of concerns about its corporate governance, I am delighted that the Minister and the Speakers have overhauled the scheme. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the new trust is to be properly accountable? Will it allow pesky Back Benchers, such as me, to ask all sorts of pesky questions without getting chucked out of it? Will the role of any corporate contributors be clearly defined and constrained?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. The answer to both his questions is yes, on one condition: that he commits to take part in the scheme. We would welcome his contribution—he will be the lowest of the low, the most junior private soldier that it is possible to imagine, and we will put him through an absolute beasting, but I am happy to give him that reassurance. He has been a mild critic over the years, so it is useful and kind of him to come to the Chamber to offer his support this morning.
My hon. Friend asked who would be paying for the scheme, and it is worth expanding on that. Traditionally, it has been paid for by the defence industry, and there have been four main sponsors. One of the things that I have been doing over the summer is going round all the defence companies, and I have now secured promises from at least 10 and possibly 15 of them—all the majors, such as Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Babcock, as well as others of a similar nature—each paying a small amount of funding, which will be sufficient to cover our anticipated costs.
The reason why that is a better arrangement is because, with 10 or 15 sponsors, we can say that none is achieving anything. Indeed, my pitch to them has been to say, “I would like some money from you, please.” They have asked, “What do we get back?” and I have replied, “You get absolutely nothing in return whatever. This is CSR—corporate social responsibility—for the defence industry. You get no lobbying, no access nor your name on writing paper, unless we choose to do so, but you get the warm feeling, Mr Rolls-Royce”—for example—“ of knowing that you have helped with the education of Members of Parliament.” All of them accepted that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he recognise that one of the benefits that may come to the defence industry by helping the scheme is that Members of Parliament will be significantly better informed about the industry and the issues faced by our armed forces day to day?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. There have hardly been any defence debates or oral questions over the past 25 years in which hon. Members have not stood up and said, “Thanks to the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I know a little bit more about the armed forces. Therefore, the following question comes from my experience in the scheme.” My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the defence companies do not want anything directly in return, but it is good for them to know that there is a cadre of people in Parliament who understand defence, are interested in and sympathetic towards defence, and who have some kind of expertise when we consider broader defence matters in future. No lobbying is involved, but there are advantages for them in having a group of people who are more attuned to defence questions. That is how the sponsorship will work. Everything will be listed, declared and above board with minuted annual general meetings and so on. My hon. Friend can be reassured on that point.
The scheme will continue the movement started by Sir Neil Thorne over 25 years ago. We believe that the ethos he established of embedding Members of Parliament with the three armed services is right. Last week, I was happy to visit to RAF Brize Norton with other hon. Members, but we wore suits, we were VIP visitors and we did not get together with people on the ground or learn what they were doing. The whole ethos of the scheme is to be there as one of them and fully involved as an ordinary individual with people of all ranks.
It is important to maintain that ethos and to do so in a similar way, with visits of up to 20 or 22 days. The trustees are considering whether 15 days would be slightly easier, but broadly speaking the visits will remain the experience that hon. Members have enjoyed over the past 25 years or so, and they will no doubt tell us about it. I say “enjoyed” intentionally because the scheme is not only educational and helpful to our defence industry and to hon. Members in defence debates but good fun. That is key. The visits are fantastic fun, and it is important that that ethos continues.
We are continuing the movement, as the military say, rather than starting something brand new. The organisation is wonderful, but it needs a bit of change and thanks to what Mr Speaker, the Lord Speaker and the Secretary of State for Defence have asked us to do, we are continuing the movement under a new guise. The transition to the new scheme has been helped by the Minister, who has handled negotiations with great care and tact, for which I am most grateful. He had a useful group of civil servants behind him, particularly Mr Roy Brown and Ms Anna Platt in his private office, who were immensely helpful with the process. We should pay tribute to them, and we should also pay tribute to Sir Neil’s private staff, who have been much involved over the years. It is great to thank them for all that they have done.
We are close to establishing the new trust. As of yesterday, we appointed a chief executive or chief clerk, Major Johnny Longbottom, a Territorial Army officer who has had similar roles in the Ministry of Defence. He served for six months in Afghanistan and is well qualified and well suited in every way to be the new chief clerk or chief executive—we will decide on the title later. Mr Speaker has provided accommodation in Parliament; funding is on its way; our application to the Charity Commission to become a charitable incorporated organisation is in hand, and I hope that that will be done reasonably swiftly. Most of the necessary practicalities to establish the scheme in its new guise are in hand, and I very much hope that when the House returns in October the first course will be ready to go.
At a meeting last night, there were many applicants wanting to join the scheme. They can do so in any of the three services at a junior or senior level, or they can go to the Royal College of Defence Studies, although that course is full at the moment. We are ready to go as soon as the House returns in October, the first major event being a two-day course at Shrivenham from 11 to 13 November. We should be in a good position to get going swiftly.
Other hon. Members want to take part in the debate, so I will not detain the Chamber unduly, but it is worth reiterating that the scheme has done great work. During the post-war period, plenty of Members were ex-military and there was a strong military ethos in Parliament, but 25 years ago, Sir Neil Thorne correctly identified that that ethos had disappeared and that knowledge of the armed forces had declined significantly. He put that right by establishing the scheme, and the fact that we now have such a good understanding of the armed forces and defence in Parliament is largely due to its introduction.
We hope that we are facing a time when, after Afghanistan, we will have fewer deployments and fewer soldiers, sailors and airmen on operations for many years to come. Again, there is at least a risk that interest in and knowledge of our defence capability will decline in the next 20 years. I believe that the continuing armed forces parliamentary scheme will play an important role in maintaining interest in the armed forces even when we are not engaged in kinetic warfare around the world. We have as huge a role to play in the future as we had in the past.
We must thank Sir Neil for the past 25 years. Thanks to the initiative of the Secretary of State, Mr Speaker and the Lord Speaker, we are establishing the trust as a way forward so that in 25 years when we in this Chamber will, sadly, no longer be here, there will be another debate in this same Chamber saying how well the scheme has worked in the interim 25 years. I am most grateful to Sir Neil and to all who have been involved, and I look forward very much to the great honour of chairing the armed forces parliamentary trust in the years to come.
It is a pleasure, Mr Walker, to serve under your chairmanship. Members of the Panel of Chairs do not often serve under one another’s chairmanship. I was not expecting to be called so early, but I want to echo some of what has already been said, particularly about Sir Neil Thorne, his wife Sheila and the dog—I have forgotten its name, so I must apologise to Sir Neil. They have been a feature of my life for more than the last decade while I have been involved in the armed forces parliamentary scheme.
Becoming a Member of the House of Commons is a bizarre experience because it involves setting up a small business and accommodating the magical mystery tour that is the legislative process. We are given the key to a locker and a sack of mail, and told to get on with it. We wonder why we are here, what we are trying to do, and what our responsibilities are. We have obvious responsibilities to our constituents and, on a broader front, to the state as well, which is important. Reference has been made to defence of the realm and that looms large in our thinking, especially for those who, like me, were elected in June 2001 when people said we did not have a real job to do and everything was fine with devolution in Wales, so we could sit back and have a long holiday. However, something happened that September that changed the world and defined it for the immediate future and probably the next 50 years.
Telling people how they can help to resolve the problems, and committing them to armed conflict, has become a big issue that one must participate in. We can step back and decide to find out something about it if we do not understand it and want to understand it better. The one thing that helps with that is the armed forces parliamentary scheme, to which I pay tribute because it has done a lot for people. In my experience, it provides an insight into what people are really being asked to do and who must do the job from day to day.
When one puts on desert boots, finds that they melt and are not fit for purpose, and discusses what should be available, one gets some understanding of the matter. When living in a tent for a few days with the boys and girls, sharing the communal showers and other excitements such as dodging spiders and the real snakes, as well as the two-legged ones, one begins to understand exactly what pressures the armed forces experience as ordinary individuals in one’s own community or another hon. Member’s constituency. They take on a burden and provide a value for their community that people cannot understand until they participate with them and get an idea of what it means to be in dislocated places and to suffer some of their day-to-day experiences. I thank not just Sir Neil and those who have dealt with the scheme at a higher level, but those who have supported it throughout.
I now have friends in the military whom I would never have had before—I have had life experiences with them over the years—and I also know people in the Ministry of Defence and civil servants. All those various people are not immediately seen—and we are a pain to them. We are a burden. When we rock up to these things, we are not exactly helpful, because they have enough to do anyway. However, they put themselves out to accommodate us, so that we can begin to understand some of their experiences. We are educated in the process in the proper sense.
I make no apologies for the fact that the scheme is political, but it is not, in any shape or form, party political. It is said to be non-political, and in that sense it is non-political, but at another level it is highly political, because it gives us a political education and also helps others to understand the political process. Sometimes when we go along to such things we have to sing for our supper. All of a sudden, a major is giving us 200 troops, saying, “Go on, there they are. Tell them why they are here. You have a go, because I have been trying to explain it to them—you have a go.” It is educative in that sense, but people also understand us, because they can quiz us. We are a resource. If we participate, we have to make ourselves available as a resource, because it is not a one-way street. We should be not only drawing from the process but contributing to it, because that is what makes it worth while.
It is educative, and any education is of no value unless it is slightly subversive. The scheme is good, therefore, because we experience people at different levels who say, “They are a pain and now, maybe they know a bit too much. They are going to places, finding out things and coming back with”—what were described earlier as—“pesky, awkward questions.” Some people have a slightly ambivalent view of the scheme, but that is all about the friction that makes for the value of the process. It will be interesting to hear about other people’s experiences. What we find is that the military themselves are only too happy to help. Others, who perhaps do not fully understand the scheme, think that we will be doing something that we will not be. It has been useful to find that people from the Ministry are involved in the scheme, and people from the staff of the House of Commons. It is useful that people who are writing papers about defence can participate. The current Serjeant at Arms was a member of it. The scheme offers things not only to Members of Parliament, and it seems to me that that has been its value during its time.
On this business about sponsorship, and all the rest of it, over this period of time I have also become a member of the Select Committee on Defence, so I bump up against this stuff all the time in different ways. No one has ever asked me for anything in relation to the scheme—ever. That includes people from the Ministry and from any of the sponsors that have been involved. Perhaps they think, “Well, we won’t ask him anyway”, but I have never been approached for anything. All I have seen is them give their support through the proper administration—through Sir Neil and the scheme. I have never experienced anything other than that. Equally, I am pleased that we are making all that more transparent and more obvious, and that more people and more sponsors are getting involved. There is a huge benefit to them, both in our ability to understand and in their ability to get the advantage of having an educated electorate in the House of Commons, when it comes to making decisions on defence matters in future.
Let me say something about the future. People will want to make all sorts of comments about their individual experiences. Having played rugby, I think of the old saying, “What goes on tour stays on tour.” There are some things that people will want to know about, but I will not tell them, because they are particular experiences. I say that because if we get involved with a body like the military, stuff happens. With such experiences, we have to be accommodating.
We begin to understand things immediately. When I first started on the scheme, I went to the training college and spent a week doing basic training. It was fantastic—very, very interesting. I came away with a little card that all soldiers were given at that time—I was doing it with the Army. The card was about what they were trained to do. It was about their loyalty and their sacrifice, about them putting themselves in a particular position, and therefore about how the Government should support them. I have it in my wallet, but I am not allowed to use visual aids in the Chamber.
When we came to discuss the covenant, it was interesting. We have been discussing it, in my experience, right the way through the scheme, and that discussion has taken on a particular form. Out of such things, we begin to have a better understanding of why we are discussing codifying some things better, politically, than we were doing in the first place.
That discussion is just one experience. There have been other, more exciting experiences, such as dropping into the Borneo jungle and being cooked a snake curry by Gurkhas who tried to sell it as chicken. I could talk about all sorts of little experiences such as that, but what we get out of the scheme is an understanding that it is about people. It is about high politics, but it is also about people. They are what makes it work.
I have been lucky enough that in the past year, I have been at the Royal College of Defence Studies. Sir Neil would probably chide me because I took a bit too long to do the course, but it is very interesting. I now have friends in various militaries across the world. Some are now commanding militaries in countries that are potentially, and actually, in conflict with one another. I now know some of the commanders of the business that is going on. Knowing each other gives a different context to trying to understand how one can incentivise a change. If someone has an idea of how the Chinese think, and they are sitting next to a Chinese general on one side, a Pakistani general on the other, a German and an awkward Norwegian, and having a debate, it becomes very interesting. We are able to have tea with people who normally, in another context, we would never get together.
More generally, I would argue that investment in that defence diplomacy is something we all ought to understand and do more of. The armed forces parliamentary scheme gives us that, sometimes by accident. We participate with the military, and they are in coalitions all the time. They are in the context of the places in which they work. All of a sudden, we can be somewhere or another, and someone announces, “There are some Chilean soldiers”, and we have to deal with them. One thinks, “Chile? What do I know about Chile?” It is an education in that respect, and, again, if someone goes through the scheme in all of its different manifestations, it provides a breadth of experience that could not be bought anywhere else. It is a life experience, but more importantly, it is an education in the ability to understand not only immediate political questions but the context in which they operate.
In future, there will be a debate about whether uniforms should be worn. Perhaps others will raise that issue today. I think it is really important to wear them—I made a point earlier about boots melting. It allows us to begin to understand what other people are doing, and we should not abandon that idea. Sometimes we should mix in, because otherwise, people say, “Which one shall we shoot?” “The one without the uniform on”. That is not terribly helpful, because it means we are not part of the group. People say, “What you on, sir?”, “What are you doing, sir?”, “Who’s he?”, “Is that the armed forces pension scheme, sir?” I say, “I’m on the armed forces parliamentary scheme —what are you on?”—They ask because I am ancient, I suppose. We can then have a debate, because in a sense we are not different; we are just another dimension of them. Therefore, we can discuss things with them in a different way.
We also begin to understand which way is up. It is interesting to watch Members of Parliament learn how to iron—it is like basic training for some of them—how to put a beret on and all the rest of it. That is good entertainment, but it is more than that, because we can understand some of the things that we are giving people, how they work, and what it is all about. It is also about their ethos and what they invest in all that. We can begin to understand why that is important to them.
I finish by saying that we are having a debate about changing the mixture of regulars and reserves. One thing that is interesting to me about the scheme is that we would do 22 days before, but we are now talking about 15 days. A decade ago, people would say, “You are just signing up like the regulars”. The scheme provides another way of beginning to understand better what we are asking people to do—to dislocate themselves from their community for short periods of time. For those who have not done it before, it gives a limited insight into what that might mean and what we might be asking people to do.
The people who enter the scheme must make a commitment, but I would urge any Member of Parliament to join up and do it, because it is not just about defence. It is about the whole context of the political process and the decision-making process. The ability to see the strategic view is what hon. Members will get from the scheme and what will be of value to them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) for securing the debate. When I arrived in this place in 2010, I was delighted to see that the armed forces parliamentary scheme was in place. Why? Just before I was elected, I attended the funeral in Redditch of a brave young soldier who had died in Afghanistan and who was the same age as my son. As I sat in the church with hundreds of others, I realised how little I knew about the armed forces and how they operate. The scheme has given me the opportunity to learn about the Army, meet the troops and travel the country learning about the Army. I have had the opportunity to join the Army at many locations, including Shrivenham, Devon, Windsor, Sandhurst and, indeed, Afghanistan. I have met soldiers at all levels, and one of the highlights was training with the officers on the downs near Sandhurst. I slept in a derelict house and took part in exercises with them. I can tell you, Mr Walker, that there was not much sleep had there.
Obviously, going to Afghanistan was a massive experience and one that I will remember for the rest of my life. Landing in Camp Bastion was an experience in itself. I certainly had no idea about the size of the camp and the scale of the operation. It was fascinating to see what happens there and to meet our troops, including some from Redditch.
Closer to home, 37 Signals has a base in Redditch, which I visited in my early days on the scheme. One of the conditions was that we had to turn up in our uniform. As I got out of the car, the look on the officers’ faces was incredible. Where they thought that I had got the uniform from, I had no idea, as they had never heard of the scheme before. But we quickly moved on and now we are all great friends. Last year, I joined them on their away weekend in Staffordshire, taking part in most of the exercises—I think that I missed the six-mile run. I hope to join them again this year.
The scheme allows Members of Parliament to see at first hand how the armed forces work. I have learned how to shoot guns. I have been in helicopters and armoured trucks. Last year, I learnt how the Army helped out at the Olympics. Those are just a few of my experiences, but I have very much enjoyed being part of the scheme, and I would like to pay tribute to Sir Neil Thorne for giving me that opportunity.
I encourage all my colleagues to consider taking part in the scheme. The knowledge that I have gained has been remarkable. I joined the scheme with no real experience, but now know a lot more. We owe the armed forces a great deal. They work tirelessly on our behalf, and I for one will never forget the experience that I have had and hope to continue having in the future. It is a great scheme. Long may it continue.
It is a pleasure to be able to say a few words about this scheme. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on bringing this matter to the House for consideration. I also congratulate him on the hard work that he has obviously done in relation to the scheme over many years when I was not in the House and on his chairmanship of the new scheme, as we move forward.
I became a Member of Parliament, like the hon. Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), in May 2010, and one of the first things that I was introduced to was the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I remember that there was an event—in the Jubilee Room, I think—and I met Sir Neil, who informed me about the scheme. From the outset, I was keen to hear more, as in the past I had served with the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years and in the Territorial Army Royal Artillery for eleven and a half years as a part-time soldier. I really enjoyed my time in the Army. The scheme gave me the chance to see it from a different perspective—that of a Member of Parliament—and to understand what the soldiers wanted us to do for them. That was always important.
The armed forces parliamentary scheme gave me, along with other Members of Parliament, a chance to join after passing a strict medical, taking part in a physical exercise and having an interview with Sir Neil and his good lady. I was privileged to be able to participate in the scheme. Like other hon. Members, I place on the record my thanks to Sir Neil and Sheila for their courtesy and good manners, for the attention and support that they give everyone on the scheme and, in particular, for the support that they have given to me.
I was able to enrol in the scheme, which facilitated visits to Ministry of Defence locations to meet service personnel and to hear what soldiers wanted and what their views were. It is always good to talk to a soldier. The officers will always give us the picture as they see it—I do not say that as a criticism of course—but the soldiers will always tell us exactly what the position is. We are able to hear from the soldiers what their opinions are, and it is good to hear them, because then we have both sets of opinions and we can mould our thoughts about how to represent soldiers in Parliament on the information that we have.
I had an introduction to the defence academy at Shrivenham, where I was able to see the bigger picture. We had an opportunity to see where the focus of attention would be in the future. Is it oil? Is it water? What are the mineral prospects for the world? We looked at Asia, Africa, the middle east, Alaska, Antarctica—all the big issues. The hope was that we would then be better able to understand the role of the British forces and the pressures that they are under.
I had the chance to go to BATUK in Kenya—the British Army Training Unit Kenya—as well as going to Canada and Cyprus. That was good to do not because we were getting out of the country and going on a visit, but because it gave us an opportunity to see what was happening in Kenya and the new training camp that the British Army was creating and where the focus of attention was in east Africa. There was the chance to see—I had never seen this before—the tank formations and training in Canada and to see in Cyprus the decompression of our soldiers coming back from Afghanistan. All those things give us a bigger flavour of all aspects of life in the armed forces. I had a week with the 1st Mercian at Catterick, and as the hon. Member for Redditch said, we were at Sandhurst.
The interesting thing was that no matter where I went in the world, I always met someone from Northern Ireland who was either fighting a war or cleaning up afterwards. We have a tradition of being a soldiering nation. It was wonderful to meet people from Northern Ireland wherever I went. I met a guy in Kenya—just sitting and having a cup of coffee—who was from Newtownards. On the way to Afghanistan, I met a guy who came from Comber. All these experiences and all the people we met helped to shape our feelings about the armed forces. I then used the information that we had got to ask questions in Parliament.
I had the chance, with the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), to go to Afghanistan. He and I will never forget that. We were there for St Patrick’s day. It was the first dry St Patrick’s day that I had ever experienced in my life—in Afghanistan, there is no alcohol whatever. To see boys from the Irish Guards and Royal Irish Regiment consuming vast amounts of Coca-Cola and mineral water and not what they really wanted was quite an experience.
The visit gave us a chance to see what it was like to be in Afghanistan and how the soldiers were performing and to get feedback from them about things there. Whenever people are in Afghanistan, they are there for six to nine months. We can also ask them how it feels to be away from their families. Therefore, we got a bigger picture of the soldier’s life and the issues in relation to their families back home. We had a chance to visit the army and police training camp at Lashkar Gah, and we were able to ask questions in Westminster about when the police training college would be completed. It was to be funded with $6 million. Again, we were able to ask the Ministry of Defence that question because of our visit to Afghanistan. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire, who introduced the debate, made that point very clearly.
Was the operation just about defeating the Taliban? When I went to Afghanistan, my idea was—I say this quite honestly—“Kill all the Taliban. That’s what we have to do,” but then I realised that it was about more than that. It was not simply about killing the Taliban. It was about persuading them that there was no danger in the allies and what they were doing. It was about winning hearts and minds. My perspective changed on what we should be trying to do.
It was a privilege to meet soldiers, to hear their concerns at first hand and to act on them on returning to Parliament. It was a bonus to be able to see exactly what our troops are going through and to get their perspective on the strategic defence and security review that took place. It was a wonderful experience to hear what the officers and the soldiers—the rank and file—thought of the strategic defence and security review. We could then feed that into the process when we came back to Parliament. That was another opportunity.
The armed forces parliamentary scheme is a tremendous scheme. It is being overtaken now by the armed forces parliamentary trust. It has given me a much better understanding of the role of our service personnel on the battlefield and at home, as they train and prepare for their next tour of duty. It was an opportunity to meet some of the families and see the work that the welfare service does for them. We have SSAFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. It has people strategically placed all around the world. It does tremendous work. I know a wee bit about its work at home, but it was good to see its work on active duty, where our soldiers were training. It is interesting to see the strains on families, and some of the soldiers we met in Canada were able to tell us what they would like changed. Everything we did was an opportunity to learn something and reflect that back to Parliament—I felt that that was my role. It is clear that our troops do their best on the front line, and they must be assured that their country is doing the best job for their families at home.
My hon. Friend mentioned SSAFA personnel and other groups. Does he agree that the AFPS also offers hon. Members the opportunity to mix with and talk to many of those behind the scenes, about whom the general public never or very seldom hear and to come back to Parliament better informed about what they do?
I thank my hon. Friend for that wise and truthful contribution. We met soldiers on many occasions, and I thanked every one I met for what they have done, because soldiers make a tremendous contribution to the whole nation and to MPs. My desire is that the scheme continues through the armed forces parliamentary trust, and the arguments for that have been well made. It is a wonderful chance to meet and greet, but more importantly to understand our troops and their struggles and to reflect on them, as we fight for them at parliamentary level.
The soldiers I met were always appreciative of us as MPs. It is not that we are better than anyone else, but we are Members of Parliament and they want to tell us what they are thinking and they want us to reflect it. They need someone to represent their views, which cannot always be understood merely by reading a report, and that is why, with the transformation of the armed forces parliamentary scheme to the armed forces parliamentary trust, I encourage others to support the scheme and see for themselves what happens outside the doors of this place.
May I say what a pleasure and delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker? In a previous life, I served with you when we were both officers of the Battersea Conservative party, so I am aware how much direction I will end up being given should I get out of line.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) for bringing the debate to Westminster Hall and for all his activities and diplomacy in trying to get a result. He has worked incredibly hard. He is a prime candidate for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at some stage. I cannot pass by without also paying tribute to Sir Neil Thorne, whom I have known for about 30 or 35 years. I trained to be a Conservative party agent in Wanstead and Woodford when he was the MP for Ilford, South, so I learnt an enormous amount about him when I was knocking on doors during the Greater London council elections in 1981. He has always shown me an enormous amount of kindness and respect. I am incredibly grateful for that.
The debate is incredibly important and should be seen as a tribute to Sir Neil’s hard work and the effort he has made. The AFPS has certainly helped me, as the MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, to understand better the role the armed services play in our lives and what we do. My constituency is a naval garrison city, with not only the Royal Marines, but the Royal Navy. I am delighted that I have had an opportunity to see how they operate first-hand.
I am also a Navy brat. My father was a lieutenant-commander when he came out of the Navy in the 1950s, having helped get the king and the gold out of Norway in 1940. My grandfather was the first lieutenant of the naval barracks at Devonport in the 1920s and the gunnery officer on HMS Valiant. My uncle commanded the Royal Marine garrison at Stonehouse, before becoming the commandant-general. Although I came from a service family background, I had never served in the armed services myself, so the experience of being a member of the AFPS has been incredibly helpful to ensure that I am better informed.
Tributes should be paid, for the work done to ensure greater transparency in how the AFPS operates, and that does not take away from the great tribute that Sir Neil deserves. He has given not only his time, but a significant amount of money to ensure the scheme’s operation, and that must be commended in a very big way indeed. The whole business of the AFPS is to ensure that we are better informed. We wear the kit and some of the uniform, so that we do not stick out like a sore thumb.
I have had a number of experiences through the scheme. I went to Shrivenham, where I heard the now late Richard Holmes make a speech about where he saw the armed forces and the international scene. I was on HMS Richmond with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), and we had a delightful time coming up from Malta into Menorca. The ship’s company had been off the horn of Africa, dealing with piracy. We had meetings with not only the junior ratings, but the leading ratings, as well as the officers. I learnt how important it is in this day and age, with the way that international conflicts take place, that a lawyer is onboard. One of the serving officers onboard—the chief executive officer—was a lawyer and able to say to her commanding officer, “I think you need to be very careful about how you operate here, because you run the risk of finding yourself involved in something.” The ship’s company were absolutely petrified of being sent back to Somalia and the horn of Africa, because it would have mucked up their leave arrangements. I am told that if there is one thing a commanding officer totally dreads, it is having to say, “Sorry, chaps, we’re not going back on Thursday. You have to go out and do a further week or so.”
I have spoken at length in the House about mental health and our armed services, and ensuring that there is support. It mentioned that in my maiden speech. I serve on the Defence Reform Bill Committee; I am finding it very interesting and hope that I can contribute to it. When I went to the Royal Marines training grounds in Lympstone, I met a Royal Marine on Woodbury common who had served in Afghanistan. He said that when he came back from deployment and had to unwind somewhat, he found it very difficult. He spoke to his wife and she said, “Gosh, don’t talk to me about the day you’ve had. I’ve just had an awful day of answering thousands of e-mails.” He thought that he could not get far by talking about his experiences. He went to talk to his mates, and it was only then that he realised that he could not talk to them either because they did not understand the experience that he had been through. He had to find his Royal Marine colleagues in Aylesbury, which is not exactly the most naval of places, to explain his experiences to them.
The scheme means that we understand not only what motivates people to work in our armed forces and do that brave job, but what the families go through. We need to ensure that we give those families 110% support, which is why I welcome the Government’s community covenant initiative. We go abroad when take part in the AFPS. I went to Afghanistan with the hon. Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), and one thing that I felt was slightly missing was that we did not have one conversation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the politics of that part of Afghanistan. I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, when he eventually takes over the AFPS, to promote greater understanding about political situations and what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing. At the end of the day, the things that we ask our armed services to do are merely tools in our foreign diplomacy. When diplomacy goes wrong and a state goes out of control, we expect our armed forces to go in; but in the end, there has to be a political and diplomatic solution. We can most certainly develop that and ensure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is much more involved.
Thank you very much, Mr Walker, for allowing me to witter on for a bit. I very much hope that equally good and constructive comments are made during the rest of the debate.
I appreciate that, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing the debate, and I endorse the comments made by previous speakers.
I would just like to put on record my involvement with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I have participated in it twice, in 1999 and 2008-09, spending 25 and 31 days respectively with the Army. In addition to a series of high-level briefings with senior Ministry of Defence officials and leading members of Her Majesty’s armed forces, I also took part in an exercise with the armoured division in Poland, during which Sir Neil Thorne joined the scheme participants, and in a NATO exercise in the snow and under canvas in Germany. I have also camped with Gurkhas in a remote area of Kenya, visited peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and troops at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, yomped over the Brecon Beacons in Wales, and taken part in a night-time exercise on Salisbury plain.
The participants in 1999 were the “famous five”: me, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) and former Members of Parliament, Christopher Fraser, David Drew and Lorna Fitzsimons. In November 1999, I tabled early-day motion 82, which was signed by 44 Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. The motion read:
“That this House salutes the 10th Anniversary of the establishment of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme; notes that a total of 90 honourable Members of both Houses have participated in the AFPS enabling them to speak with greater authority on matters relating to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces; appreciates the support given by the Armed Forces and various sponsors; and congratulates Sir Neil Thorne for his initiative in starting the scheme and for his continued involvement with it.”
As we have heard, more than 260 Members of both Houses have now taken part in the scheme. Today, after 25 years, we are witnessing a new chapter in the scheme set up by Sir Neil, who rightly goes into the record books not only as the founder of the scheme but as the life president of the trust that takes over from it. As an aside, I want to say that Sir Neil also established the police service parliamentary scheme.
I am conscious of your comments, Mr Walker, but I feel that it would be appropriate to draw attention to an article that appeared last April in Defence Focus magazine, which quotes Sir Neil as saying:
“When I entered the House there were very few Members of Parliament with direct military experience and there are even fewer today, which was having a serious effect on the quality of our debates on defence issues.”
One of the problems is that very few of us have knowledge of what it is like being in the armed forces. Sir Neil went on to tell Defence Focus:
“I know from when I was a member of the House of Commons Defence Committee that the military tend to treat you as if you are at least a two-star officer”.
The magazine graphically describes how,
“from the outset, the idea behind the scheme was to give politicians from all the main parties a chance to get access at an appropriate level. Which means getting MPs into a uniform sweating alongside soldiers, sailors or airmen.”
The scheme has Ministry of Defence backing, which is vital because the MOD provides the attachments. I want to place on record my appreciation of the liaison officers and all the people at the MOD who make the scheme possible for Members of Parliament.
Sir Neil also told Defence Focus:
“For a period after the Second World War, and with national service lasting into the early 60s, it used to be that Parliament was full of people who knew military business first hand. But it isn’t like that now, and meanwhile the world is a tricky place, so AFPS has to be a good investment for national parliamentary knowledge and decision-making”—
a statement about the scheme that I endorse. Sir Neil perceived another equally important role, which continues, for his initiative, as reported in Defence Focus:
“I always say to the MPs on the scheme, ‘look, the Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals always have avenues they can follow to make their points—it’s the soldiers, sailors and airmen who haven’t got a line to the Secretary of State, that are relying on you to speak up for them’.”
Thanks to Sir Neil, the armed forces parliamentary scheme and the past 25 years, when we politicians speak we hopefully know a bit more of what we are talking about than would otherwise be the case. I look forward to the new chapter with the trust.
Sir Bob, that was a very short speech. We now have 14 minutes left, and I would be grateful if Ms Stuart shared them with the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—seven minutes each. She does not have to, but I would be grateful if she did.
Given that the office of the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is on the same corridor as mine, I think it would be wise for me to share the time with him, in the interest of long-term relationships.
It was an honour to be asked to be a trustee of the new scheme, and I am happy to serve on the trust, together with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). There have been many tributes to Sir Neil Thorne today, and as I was sitting here I thought that as a former MP he will know that we all merely leave footprints on the sand of life and the waves wash them off. With some people, however, it takes longer before the prints are erased, and with Sir Neil I think it will take a pretty long time before what he has achieved so far, and what he will continue to achieve as life president of the scheme, is erased, and he should be proud of that. I do not think that the British are very good at saying, “I think I’ve done well,” but if anyone is allowed to say it, Sir Neil is.
The scheme is significant, but I want to make another point that has not come up so far. My first contact with the forces was a difficult one. I was the Health Minister who closed down the military hospitals, and I was not terribly popular at the time. One of the arguments used was, “You just don’t understand the forces,” which was valid, but the reason for the closures was that the royal colleges were saying that it was no longer possible to carry out the medical training in the way it needed to be done, and the NHS needed to make a contribution. Some 14 years on, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine is in my constituency, and we are in the reverse position of the NHS having to learn from the medical services provided there. That interaction is important.
I then served on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for eight years, and on the Select Committee on Defence, but visits as part of the scheme have a very different flavour from the ones we do for Select Committee or ministerial work—the relationships are different. They key thing about the scheme—I was with the Navy—is that it affords the enormous and rare luxury of suddenly being able to spend four or five days thinking about only one subject. It also provides contact with people from the captain to the cooks on board, who really say what they think, and even though they are not our voters we feel that we had better listen to them and take note. It is the nature of that exchange that is so important.
I want to make brief reference to sponsorship and transparency. In the modern world, such a scheme must be absolutely transparent. Just like my fellow member of the Defence Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), I do not think anyone has ever tried to say, “This is what we think you should be doing. This is a kind of sponsorship”—that might, of course, be just be a reflection of how insignificant we really are. This is a terrible admission: up until the point of the discussions on the scheme I had no idea that it was not just the Ministry of Defence that was picking the bill up. I had absolutely no idea that sponsorship was involved. I think that that was one of those rare occasions when ignorance is a sign of success.
It was right and proper to put the scheme on this new footing, and I am grateful to the Minister for helping to set that up. As a trustee, I will have much more involvement, so I ought to leave most of the time left to my fellow MP, the hon. Member for New Forest East.
I thank Mr Speaker and the Lord Speaker, as well as the parliamentary authorities, for realising that the scheme is one like any other, and for accommodating and facilitating it: the scheme is an extension of parliamentary activity in a different framework. The knowledge gained is fundamental. We should remember that Parliament came about because of the defence of the realm and how taxes were raised for it. We have forgotten that in many ways, but we should be brought back to remembering our primary function.
We should not just see the forces when they come back as injured soldiers—a real danger is that there is a public relationship with our armed forces only when they become victims—but be proud of what they do, understanding what they do and what a difficult job they have juggling politicians and the real world. The scheme facilitates, and I firmly believe will continue to facilitate, that learning.
Mr Walker, as a master of parliamentary procedure, you will know that when participating in a debate, one is not supposed to refer to the presence of anyone outside the confines of the Chamber. However, I am sure that you will allow me to say what a pleasure it is to know that Sir Neil and Sheila Thorne are present today to hear all the wonderful tributes to them and, as I am sure they would be the first to acknowledge, to hear the tributes that must be made to the civilian and uniformed staff of the Ministry of Defence over 25 years for their huge efforts in arranging the visits from the armed forces’ side.
It is a real honour to make the last speech by a Back Bencher in a debate about a scheme that has been an unalloyed and phenomenal success for a quarter of a century. I am delighted that this is one of those debates in which one can honestly feel that one agrees with every sentiment expressed so far.
The scheme has many things to recommend it, and I will pick up one or two of them in the time available. Both the Labour members of the Defence Committee, the hon. Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), referred to the sense of involvement in and participation with the armed forces, and to the difference between visits to the armed forces wearing their civilian suits as Committee members and wearing whatever variation of military uniform they have been privileged to wear on their scheme visits. I know that lawyers have been taking a close look at that, but I assure hon. Members that if we simply revert to being civilians visiting the military, something very precious will be lost from the scheme. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am delighted that colleagues are endorsing that with various signals, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) will do so explicitly.
May I take the opportunity absolutely to reassure my hon. Friend that we most certainly will not return to civilian dress during those visits? There is a debate about exactly what we wear, when and how we wear it and the legalities, but he is absolutely right to say that appearing on visits in some form of dress appropriate to the occasion is definitely what the future will hold.
I could not have expected or desired a more reassuring comment.
I now look for a second reassuring comment. I will not get it immediately, but I am looking to my old Front-Bench colleague of many years’ standing on the former shadow defence team—he is now, thank goodness, the Minister—to address what one might call the issue of trust. The reason why the scheme has worked so well is that people have been given privileged access to members of the armed forces at every level. There has been, as it were, an unwritten understanding that that privilege would not be abused. When one considers the very large numbers of colleagues of all parties who have been through the scheme, it is remarkable that there have been hardly any cases—in the low single figures—of raised eyebrows about someone going on the scheme and immediately tabling a raft of hostile questions on the Floor of the House.
That excellent outcome is very different from what might have been predicted at the start of the process. As something of an amateur military historian, I look forward to the day when I can go to the National Archives at Kew and look for the file of correspondence that must exist relating to the period in which Sir Neil originally approached the Ministry of Defence to propose that MPs have direct informal access to all ranks of the armed forces.
Exactly. That is precisely how people who have engaged in the scheme have understood their responsibilities, with very few exceptions. When one considers that the final stage of the scheme is membership of the Royal College of Defence Studies, that is quite remarkable. It may not be common knowledge, but those of us who are fortunate enough to be parliamentary members of the RCDS are taken on as full members and are considered to remain members for life. The essence of the RCDS course is meeting people, learning from them and establishing formal and informal contacts that will stand one in good stead in relation to one’s understanding of defence developments at home and abroad.
To inject a slightly quizzical note into my speech, that is why I was a little concerned recently to read an article about the eminent military historian Sir Max Hastings being refused the sort of informal contact that for many years he and many others have been allowed with senior serving personnel in the MOD network. That runs counter to the spirit of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, but I hope that it is simply a case of over-zealous application of some rule against leaking things to the media.
Certainly, if we reach a situation in which people like Sir Max Hastings—eminent historians and public commentators—cannot secure the degree of access that they used to have, or indeed if a similar bar is put on hon. Members, all I can say is that Ministers should take a deep breath, look at what has happened with the armed forces parliamentary scheme and realise that a tunnel vision approach to access by civilians, whether they are reporters or Members of Parliament, to the military is counter-productive.
The armed forces parliamentary scheme is a boon to hon. Members with little knowledge of defence, as it is to hon. Members when, as sometimes happens, their political party goes through a phase of anti-militarism. There was a period—thank goodness, long in the past—when the Labour party shifted in a unilateralist direction, and I am sure that it was very valuable to those courageous members of the Labour party who did not go in that direction to be able to recharge their intellectual batteries by having access to such a scheme. It is important that Members of Parliament who want to support the armed forces have the intellectual ammunition, on a non-partisan basis, to speak with authority about them.
I conclude by pointing out that the scale of the scheme when it started was for two Members of Parliament to visit each of the three armed forces, with two more visiting the Royal Marines, which is of course a subset—some would say, a superset—of the Royal Navy.
Indeed, which was the reason for my quick interjection of the word “superset”.
The scheme then moved to having five Members per service, and it now has very large numbers. We measure the effectiveness of a scheme or organisation by the demand for it. There is a huge demand for this scheme, and we are very grateful that the supply will continue to meet the increased demand.
I thank you, Mr Walker, for calling me to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Opposition Front-Bench team. I hope that colleagues and the wider audience will excuse me croaking through my contribution this morning. I am afraid that the ladies present in the Chamber will really not know what it is to suffer man flu.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing the debate and on his appointment as chair of the armed forces parliamentary trust, which is a new scheme. We are talking about the closing of one chapter and the opening of a new one. The first chapter lasted some 25 years and involved in excess of 250 participants, which is no mean feat. I hope that the second one will last as long, if not longer.
I, like others, wish to congratulate Sir Neil Thorne and his good lady, Sheila, on all the work they have done, with the support and able assistance of Ministry of Defence staff. They should be recognised not just for their work, but for the fact that Sir Neil made a significant personal financial contribution to the scheme. Many people would have walked away if they found that they had to dig their hand into their own pocket. He was determined to make the scheme work. The chink in the armour, as he saw it, was that people entered the House with very little knowledge on a whole host of things, but on defence in particular.
We have heard the experiences of others in the Chamber this morning, and mine were similar. I do not come from a military background. My father had done national service, and that was the sum total of my experience. How could I genuinely engage in defence debates, or even begin to understand those serving our country? It has been made abundantly clear today, and on other occasions, that the defence of the realm is greatly important to the future of this nation. How could I really begin to engage in what is undoubtedly one of the most important issues of the House?
When I first bumped into Sir Neil, he said, “So, will you be joining?” I did, much to the regret, I suspect, of the Royal Marines 42 Commando unit, which was stuck with me for a period of time. I entered at a time when we were in the throes of going into the conflict in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 and when there was a reconfiguration of the scheme. I must admit that I enjoyed the scheme. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire talked about fun—I think people must have a different interpretation of fun. In my last session, which took place during the night in February, I was on a rigid inflatable boat on Plymouth sound. The rain was horizontal. I was losing the will to live, but still had three days in front of me. It was an experience I will never forget.
Only last weekend, I took part in a charity abseil for Macmillan Cancer Support—it was the fourth such occasion. I had already learned what little expertise I had in abseiling through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, when we abseiled in a quarry in Devon. For those who have abseiled, they will be aware that when they are at the top coming down, they have a brake-man. When I was about to step over the edge, I looked back and a Glaswegian corporal said, “What is wrong now?” I said, “My brake-man is a Conservative Member of Parliament.” His reply was, “Don’t you worry, wee man. If anything happens to you, he’s going nowhere.”
Seriously now, we are talking about understanding—or at least beginning to understand—what people go through when they serve our country. The scheme offers a genuine opportunity to mix with all ranks. It helps us to understand what it means when people are doing a tour of duty and what they are missing, because they are away from their family. That understanding is vital to people such as myself and many others who enter the House. We are not like the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), who comes from a garrison town. He lives, eats, sleeps and breathes the military aspect of life in his constituency. Far too many of us do not have such experience, so the scheme has afforded us a real opportunity. This morning, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire threw out an invitation to the new scheme to the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell). I think I am safe in saying that there will be a big rush to join that queue and share the experience.
It is a sign of the times that we have had to change the scheme. It is about accountability and openness, which is what the wider world expects. There are far too many people out there looking in and saying, “What is this scheme about?” I share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) who, like me, initially had no idea how the system was funded. As I have said, I have never at any point been approached by anyone who has sponsored the scheme to say what it was they were looking for. Young guys serving in the Royal Marines have, justifiably and rightly, put me right about one or two things. The scheme was clear-cut and open, but, regrettably, it had to change because of the time in which we live.
I am delighted that the new scheme will have a comparable number of participants on an annual basis. There will be that mix of single-day and multi-day sessions. I missed out on a five-day session between Gibraltar and Cyprus. I will say nothing more, other than that I was somewhat relieved that I did not manage to make the session—I could not afford the time. There was an incident that caused colleagues who did take part to laugh deeply on their return. I actually picked it up on the news in the evening and realised how lucky I was not to have been there.
We need to recognise, as Sir Neil did, that what is required here in Parliament is a good and robust scheme to educate people. Colleagues have shared their experiences this morning, and they look on the scheme as something they would like to recommend to others. I only hope that the next 25 years, or however long the new trust will last, prove every bit as successful.
It is a great pleasure, Mr Walker, to serve under your serene and enlightened chairmanship. As I am in the mood, let me express some further sentiments—they are heartfelt—about the contribution to the scheme made by Sir Neil Thorne. Twenty-five years ago, we lived in a very different sort of world. We still had in this place a large number of Members who had served in the second world war or had pretty contemporary experience of national service. Sir Neil rightly identified that that would not be the case forever, and that is where we are today.
Sir Neil designed a scheme, 25 years ago, that would ensure that Members of the House and others understood a little bit about service in the armed forces and how defence works. That is important because, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said, although we get involved with a whole raft of things here, the most important thing that we do in Parliament—as it has always been—is connected with the armed forces. That is absolutely central to what Parliament is all about, and it is just as well that we have among us some understanding of defence and of how those who populate defence conduct their business. That is what the armed forces parliamentary scheme has been all about.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) first on securing the debate; secondly, on his hard work up to this point in securing the scheme’s future; and, thirdly and most importantly, on his election as chairman of the armed forces parliamentary trust. I fear that he is something of a rarity in Parliament today in having a really detailed understanding of the armed forces, and I can think of no better person to take the scheme forward to its next stage.
The scheme has interfaced with well in excess of 200 parliamentarians during the past 25 years—people who are then much better placed to contribute meaningfully to debate in this place. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made an interesting point about trust and openness. I repeat that the world was different 25 years ago. Today we are much more open and transparent in how we approach issues, and if there was any difficulty at all 25 years ago in exposing parliamentarians to what sailors, soldiers and airmen got up to, that is far less the case today. One of the hidden benefits of the scheme is that it allows that level of transparency, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the number of instances of abuse of trust on the scheme has been very small over time.
Following the extraordinary vignettes that we have heard, which were terribly colourful, I fear that my contribution to this debate will be rather more prosaic. Nevertheless, it is important to put on the record how we have come to this point. Having accepted the excellence of the scheme—I reiterate that it is excellent—we must understand that we are in a different place today from 25 years ago. Public expectations of bodies that interface with parliamentarians are different from what they were in the 1980s. It is interesting—is it not?—that we should be discussing lobbying and transparency in this fortnight. It is appropriate that we should be making real inroads into the next stages of this scheme during this short return to Parliament in September, because it is lobbying and transparency that would worry people—if not the public, then certainly the press—in relation to the scheme.
I am mindful of the involvement of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in attempting to review the position of all-party groups, and of the recommendations that he has made. Although the scheme is not an all-party group, it is nevertheless an organisation that involves parliamentarians and commercial sponsors. Potentially, therefore, if the Ministry of Defence and Parliament had not taken the gardening action that I think has been appropriate, the scheme might have been open to criticism, however ill-founded. All of us who have lived through the past five years or so in this place know full well that if we do not take timely action, events will overtake us. What we have done has been absolutely necessary.
There are a number of people in Westminster Hall today who have been intimately involved with, or at least had cognisance of, what has been going on in respect of the scheme since November 2010. That was when the previous Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), and the previous Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), together with Mr Speaker, decided that the scheme needed to be moved on to the point that we have been discussing today. Without detaining the gathering here today unduly, perhaps I can say that it has been a long, complex and protracted experience, with a surprising level of complexity involved. As convenor of the process during the past 12 months or so, I am deeply grateful to all those who have been involved in it and contributed to it. It has involved some people of great seniority who are well respected in this place and beyond, all of whom have brought their collective wisdom to the piece and contributed to what we have today.
I think that it is true to say that there is one thing worse than being asked questions as a Defence Minister, and that is being asked questions that are ill-informed. Having taken part in defence debates since 2001, both in opposition and in government, I am always aware of the massive contribution made by the armed forces parliamentary scheme in ensuring that the debates we have in this place are properly informed. Those who have taken part in the scheme carry a deep and intrinsic sense that they know what they are talking about. This morning, a number of hon. Members have talked about the ethos of the scheme and about what really matters to them, which is trying to get under the skin of those who populate defence in order to try to understand what makes them tick.
Although I have never been a member of the scheme, from my personal observation of it I know that it really cuts both ways. First, it is extremely useful for the men and women who serve in our armed forces to know that Members of Parliament are not a race apart and do not—at least in the main—have horns growing from their head. When one gets past the inevitable question or joke about one’s expenses, including quips such as, “You’ll be filling out your expenses form, won’t you?”—isn’t that amusing?—one finds that the degree of empathy that Members of Parliament have with the men and women of the armed forces with whom they are billeted is of a high order.
I think that all of us have spoken to constituents and others who have experienced parliamentarians on the scheme and who have by and large come away from the experience impressed with the interaction. That is reassuring. I am talking about extraordinary valuable citizens in the armed forces—they are citizens like no others. We owe it to them to assure them that parliamentarians who have a huge influence on their lives and careers have their interests at heart, and certainly understand what makes them tick.
I am sure that the scheme will be hugely popular. I am given a lot of assurance in making that assertion by the fact that 35 parliamentarians have enlisted for what we might call the interim scheme, which is currently operational. It is in no way a substitute for the previous scheme or indeed the scheme that will succeed it, but at least it allows Members of Parliament to have some sort of continuity of interaction with the armed forces. I am delighted that in this interregnum we have been able to facilitate a programme of visits to military establishments, so that we can continue that programme now that the trust—under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire—is able to take up the reins.
In closing, I reiterate my thanks to Sir Neil Thorne, who has done the House, and our discourse and our debate within it, a huge service over a protracted period of time. I have no doubt that the scheme—now under its new guise as a charity, which had to be established to give the public the assurances that they rightly expect of organisations of this sort—will be a massive success under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. We can look forward to the next 25 years with a great deal of confidence as the scheme, which is now a trust, goes from strength to strength.
National Parks (Planning Policy)
I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this matter to the attention of the House. Before I do so, I should mention for the Minister’s benefit that I am aware that national park planning is a devolved matter in Wales, so I will speak fairly generally because I do not want to give him an excuse for not answering my questions.
I also put on record my appreciation and recognition of the important role that national parks play in many of our communities. National parks bring in people, boost tourism and contribute to the life of local communities. This debate is not about the relative merits of national parks but about national park planning, and the distinction is important because, whether or not it is perceived, local businesses and householders across my part of Britain feel frustrated, and I know others share a similar view.
I will divide my comments into four brief sections. First, the impact on businesses and jobs; secondly, accountability and confusion within the planning system; thirdly, the affordable housing subsidy, which of course is not specific or exclusive to national parks; and fourthly, the Environment Act 1995. I will address those sections in that order.
First, on the impact on business, today’s debate is fortuitous in some ways, because the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales has produced and published a document entitled “Planning in National Parks.” An early chapter of that document lists 10 key findings, and it is rather frustrating and depressing for people such as me that each of those findings is negative. I will highlight three of the findings. First, the document says:
“Concerns were raised about the perceived lack of accountability of the National Park Authorities’ planning committees and the insufficient scrutiny on planning officer decisions.”
Secondly, it says:
“Interviewees did not believe that the National Park Authorities understood business and economic issues.”
Thirdly, it says:
“There was a perception among interviewees that planning applications submitted in the rest of Wales”—
outside national parks—
“were met with more helpful and constructive advice and a more positive approach to local economic development.”
I have some sympathy with national park planning officers because, in a sense, they are charged only with the implementation of policy, which is sometimes made some distance away from where they sit, but it is important to stress that national parks are a little bit more than simply custodians of the landscape. We are not talking about Yellowstone national park; we are talking about quite densely populated areas. What makes the national parks is the population and businesses that reside within them. That leads me conveniently to my second point, on accountability and confusion.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Fortunately, Wales is a very beautiful part of the world. Some 30% of our country is contained within national parks. What impact does he think that has on economic development in Wales? Obviously, 30% is far larger than the proportion of national park areas in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I am grateful for that intervention. We can look at it in two ways. First, the inward investment linked to national parks is hugely valuable in of our adjoining constituencies, but—this is my penultimate point—at the moment there is no provision in the planning application system for officers to consider social and economic factors. Ultimately, landscape and ecological factors always take precedence, which is a problem.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. He raises the important issue of accountability. All planning authorities have a difficult job to do. National parks do not benefit from having a democratic process. Does he agree that direct elections to national park authorities would help a great deal and have proved to be exceptionally successful in Scotland?
My hon. Friend second-guesses one of my recommendations. Although elected councillors sit on national park planning authorities, I think members of the public feel that those authorities are still somewhat out of the reach of the normal democratic grasp. That might be an ill-founded belief, but I think that national parks are a law unto themselves and there is no way for people to penetrate the system.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I disagree with him on one point. Northumberland national park is equally as good as, if not better than, Yellowstone or anything else the Americans have to offer, and it is consulting on the £10 million Sill project. Northumberland proposes to create the project with a number of local partners, and it is specifically considering the economic benefits, which surely makes the point that some national parks are considering the wider impact of what they are trying to do.
I am grateful for the third intervention on this point. My hon. Friend is right, but the 1995 Act, which I will quote in a minute, prescribes in law the requirement that where there is conflict between economic and ecological factors, a national park planning authority has to give precedence to the ecological consideration. Whether Northumberland national park is keeping to the letter of the law is a matter for it, but a simple solution would be to adjust the 1995 Act.
We appoint skilful people to serve on national park authorities. Does my hon. Friend agree that we ought to give them the flexibility to strike a balance between benefits to the economy, to biodiversity and to all other interests? What is the point of appointing skilful people to those positions if they are straitjacketed and prevented from taking sensible decisions?
My hon. Friend puts his finger on the point. One of the beauties of this debate is that the solution is simple to deliver. The Minister does not have to have an argument with the Treasury; it can be done. There is an Act of Parliament that needs a simple, one-line amendment to free up the expertise to which my hon. Friend refers and to reassure businesses and individual householders that national parks can consider a wider range of factors than is sometimes the case.
I will press on, because I have two further points to make on accountability and confusion, which the FSB Wales has highlighted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) said, although national parks might argue that they are democratic bodies because of the presence of elected councillors, there is a feeling that the planning system is impenetrable and at one remove from the reach that a local authority planning department may provide. The FSB report reflects the absolute conviction that the planning system is slow, confusing and therefore expensive, and that the system is only there for the well advised or wealthy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I draw his attention to the circumstances in New Forest national park, which crosses counties and several local authority boundaries. Particularly on the periphery of the park, there is exactly the confusion that he identifies. Local businesses and residents are not quite sure whether they should apply to the local authority or to the national park for planning permission. We have to be particularly aware of the vulnerability and, of course, planning pressures just outside the edges of national parks.
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that there is a simple solution to that, too. I suspect the solution might be indigestible for the Minister, because I can see no real justification for two planning authorities operating in the same area. It is perfectly possible for one planning authority to operate a standard system and an enhanced system for an area that happens to fall within a national park. That would save millions of pounds, and it would give the clarity that her constituents currently lack. The system has demonstrably worked in the past.
On the subject of localism, which I suppose is the word for which I am grasping, if my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) were here he would be on his feet by now saying, “Actually, it does seem odd that decisions can be so varied.” Decisions can vary from test drilling for shale gas to housing developments. Instead of such decisions being taken in the community by the community for the community, in many cases they are being taken by inspectors about whom none of us have any knowledge, and who certainly have not been elected by anyone in the vicinity in which they are handing down their judgment. That gives councils, and indeed central Government, a bad name.
It is almost worse than that, because the arrangements favour those who can afford planning consultants and who have the patience, energy and money to unpick a system that, as we will see in a minute, seems almost to have been written by people who never learned English—not in the same place I learned it, at any rate. The planning system should be simple, not complicated or expensive, at the point of use.
There is a perception—I believe it is based on the truth—that the affordable housing subsidy, which is not unique to national parks, raises almost no money. In 12 months in my area, it raised eighty thousand quid, which is not enough to build a garage, let alone to meet an affordable housing target. The subsidy is stalling development and putting developers off undertaking valuable work, which is having an impact on jobs in the building trade in the areas affected. Worst of all, the subsidy is causing the affordable housing project to dry up, so affordable housing targets are being missed by miles in many national parks. This is one of those rare polices that fails every test it is set.
I wrote to the Minister about the affordable housing subsidy, and I hope he will forgive me for reminding him of his reply of 3 July 2013, which I shall quote for my own personal amusement:
“Where there is a disagreement about the viable level of affordable housing contributions, applicants have a right to appeal. If a section 106 agreement has not yet been signed, the applicant may appeal against non-determination of the planning application. If a section 106 agreement has been signed, applicants may apply for a review of the affordable housing element and, if necessary, appeal. This review must be on the grounds of viability only and evidence will be required to support the case.”
I hope the Minister will forgive me, but that is enough to suck the life out of almost any sane person. If that is the obstacle people are set when making a perfectly reasonable challenge to the level of affordable housing contributions, it is no wonder people lose the will to live.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, the easiest way to make a start on that is to scrap the affordable housing subsidy altogether, because it is failing to achieve anything it was originally set up to do. It has a perfectly worthy objective, but at the moment it is having the opposite effect from the one it was designed to achieve.
I want to finish on the Environment Act 1995—not, perhaps, an Act that is uppermost in all our minds, but I shall, none the less, quote from it. National parks have two designated purposes: to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities and to conserve and enhance the park’s natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage. So far, so good.
However, where there is a conflict—we touched on this in an earlier intervention—the Act states that greater weight should be attached to the conservation purpose:
“In exercising or performing any functions in relation to, or so as to affect, land in a National Park, any relevant authority shall have regard to the purposes specified in subsection (1) of section five of this Act and, if it appears that there is a conflict between those purposes, shall attach greater weight to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area comprised in the National Park”—
that was possibly written by the person who wrote the letter I referred to earlier. To the rest of us, those words mean that, if there is a conflict—there will, almost inevitably, with every application anybody makes, be an environmental and economic conflict—national park officers are bound by the 1995 Act to err in favour of the conservation element. Even if the conservation downside is tiny, and the economic upside is huge, officers are bound by the letter of the Act to take decisions that could, in some cases, be bad for the economic and social well-being of the communities they are there to serve, although I do not, by the way, blame officers for interpreting this part of the Act in the way they do. However, economic considerations are crucial; they are definitely crucial in my national park and, I suspect, in everybody else’s too. At the moment, however, they are not getting the proper airing they deserve.
That leaves the Minister with three solutions to chew over. First, he could scrap the affordable housing subsidy altogether—I think he will probably just let that go through to the wicketkeeper—or he could at least make a distinction between rural and urban developments. The affordable housing policy tends to favour urban developments and to put rural ones at risk, and he could explore that.
Secondly, the Minister should merge the national park and local authority planning functions, thereby saving a vast amount of public money and applying greater consistency to the planning process, which ratepayers will appreciate. If that is not possible, he should make provision for national park decisions, taken by an unelected body, to be called in and reviewed by the local authority planning body, which is, of course, democratically electable. That should be a free service. If somebody puts in an application that gets a perverse response, there should be a localised system of appeal to support the area’s ratepayers. I can see no obstacle to that suggestion.
Finally, the Minister could amend the 1995 Act to give economic and social criteria the same weight as it currently gives environmental criteria. That recommendation is simple, cheap, deliverable, practical and logical, so it will probably never happen, but, none the less, I put it to the Minister that he could consider and perhaps discuss it, although I realise he cannot make up policy in Westminster Hall.
I hope my comments have been fair to national park planning officers, who have a devil of a task in trying to satisfy their various customers. However, I also hope I have alerted the House to the fact that all is not well in the national park planning system, and there are great frustrations. People are trying to do their best as part of our economic regeneration and recovery, but, sadly, they see national parks as an obstacle to that progress, rather than an asset. I hope the Minister can give us some encouragement in that regard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing the debate. He has talked to me about this subject on a number of occasions, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), and I am delighted that we have a chance to explore some of the ideas they and others have proposed.
Neither you nor I, Mr Walker, are fortunate enough to have national parks in our constituencies—we would be blessed if we did. It is important to say that national parks are true jewels in the crown of the English and Welsh landscapes, as all hon. Members will agree. They are some of the most beautiful parts of the country, and it is right that we accord them a different status from other beautiful landscapes and approach development issues slightly differently.
That is why the national planning policy framework, which made substantial changes to many planning policies and reduced the amount of planning policy dramatically, nevertheless includes strong protections for national parks. The framework stresses that valued landscapes should be protected and enhanced and that great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in national parks. It also says that planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas, except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated that the proposals are in the public interest.
It is important to start by saying that everyone who is here for the debate considers national parks something to be tremendously proud of, which we all want to protect. We all understand that what makes national parks work as economic and social communities is often their beauty. The beauty of the national park is the business of the national park and of the communities within it. Even the people who want to develop activity within national parks recognise that the chief source of their livelihood is the parks themselves and the beauty of their landscapes.
It is important, therefore, to protect national parks; but that does not mean, nor does anything in the national planning policy framework imply, that there should not be economic and social development, and growth, in national parks. Some hon. Members may have heard or read that I got into a little hot water at the annual general meeting of my old friends at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, when I talked about the danger of making rural communities into museum pieces, not so much protected as embalmed. That applies to many communities within national parks; they will retain their life and appeal only if they are allowed to change and develop, and if people can get jobs and set up businesses. That is a necessary underpinning to national parks not just as wildernesses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire pointed out—not like Yosemite—but as living, breathing sets of communities. There are 300,000 people living in our national parks, and the combined turnover of all those parks combined is more than £10 billion. They are hives of activity, industry and economic creativity, which we must support.
My hon. Friend has therefore made some observations and suggestions about how better to reconcile the goal of protecting the landscape of national parks with that of supporting sensible, sustainable development within them. His fundamental complaint, perhaps, is that because national park planning authorities are not democratically accountable to local people—because they are not elected— they are somehow less able to achieve the balance that local people want. Often those local people have moved to the park because they love the landscapes, so they are not indifferent to them, but nevertheless they want balance between sensible development and protection of the landscape.
There is some good news. Things may not be as bleak as my hon. Friend suggests. First, as he will be aware, local authorities and parish councils can nominate people to the boards of national parks, so there is a link with the local democratically elected authorities. Secondly, and probably more importantly—I respect the view that nominations are a pretty shoddy form of representation— 41 communities within national parks are currently working on neighbourhood plans, the new possibility that we created in the Localism Act 2011 to enable a community to draw up a plan for its own development. That is a profoundly democratic, grass-roots, accountable initiative, and it is great news that so many communities in national parks have embraced it. Perhaps, however, it reveals the very frustration that my hon. Friend talked about—the fact that people do not currently feel able to express themselves through national park planning policy and the decisions that are made.
I have heard my hon. Friend’s point that localism, which the Government passionately believe in, and which after a long gestation and difficult birth is now taking root in communities throughout the country, may not be as fully expressed in national parks as it might be, and that we should perhaps consider ways to help national parks to reflect that policy more fully.
My hon. Friend also talked about the affordable housing subsidy, which I know relates to his national park. I remind the House that, sadly, although I of course have imperial ambitions, I am not the Planning Minister for Wales. I am but the Planning Minister for England, and would be very nervous—especially when the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) is present in the Chamber—about trespassing on the sovereign powers of the Welsh Planning Minister.
I entirely accept the reproof for the impenetrability of the language in my letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. I myself often find such letters quite hard to understand, and perhaps that is the point—perhaps that is sometimes intended. However, in layman’s language the paragraph that he read out means that if the cost of the subsidy that developers are being asked to provide towards affordable housing makes the development unaffordable—if it is something that will never make them any money—that is a reason to challenge the subsidy. Putting too great a burden on a development in the form of the various contributions that are asked for, with the result that no one will go ahead with it, is shooting oneself in the foot and means there is a need to look at the issue again, and that is a basis on which to challenge such subsidies. That is what viability means; it is a term designed to obfuscate, but it really means that if the requirements mean the development will not happen, those involved should look at the matter again. There is much in law, in the national planning policy framework and in more recent measures to give a basis for challenging any such arrangements that will drive development out.
Perhaps I may, in closing, issue an invitation to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and to the other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate—and to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, who wanted to be here but is chairing the Treasury Select Committee. Could we have a conversation with Members of Parliament and other representatives of all national parks—not just those represented in today’s debate—about three issues? One of those issues would be the balance between growth, economic and social development and the protection of the landscape, and whether current legislation properly captures what we are trying to achieve and what communities in national parks want. Another would be whether the current arrangements for national parks planning policy fully reflect the desire for a more localist planning policy. Also, perhaps we might explore whether, through some of the methods suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and other hon. Members, decisions could be made more accountable, transparent and responsive to local conditions. That would be a constructive step.
I make no promises about what changes the Government might be inclined to support, and when, if at all, they might be willing to act; but I will approach the matter with an open mind and ask my officials to work up some of the proposals. I should like to have a conversation with all the people who represent national parks, and with the national park authorities, to reach a better understanding of what we might do so that national parks remain the proudest jewels in the crown of the English and Welsh landscape, while also being living communities that grow, develop and thrive.
Human Rights (Commonwealth)
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Today is an opportunity to address candidly some of the human rights abuses happening in the Commonwealth. Today is also an occasion to review the progress that has come to pass due to the combined efforts of the Commonwealth countries working collaboratively.
Commonwealth nations have been successful in obtaining change. All 54 countries have created a document detailing our shared values, and it is the first such document in our 64-year history. The Commonwealth charter sets out strong, clear values, promotes human rights and commits all nations to protecting their citizens from discrimination.
I had the pleasure last week to be part of the UK delegation to the 59th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference, at which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) led an informative debate on human rights. Although the debate enabled us to celebrate our achievements in that field, it also sharply highlighted areas of grave concern, which I will discuss today.
I will focus on the treatment, education and representation of women, the death penalty and the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed people. I will call for David Cameron and other senior Ministers to join the Canadian Prime Minister in refraining from attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, owing to the horrific and continual human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She is absolutely right to call on Ministers to refrain from attending CHOGM. Will she confirm that one of the reasons why Ministers should do so is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s advice on the Sri Lankan Government’s human rights record is that Sri Lanka is one of 27 countries about which the FCO has concerns? How can the Government condone those concerns by attending a conference, when they could use the opportunity to make it clear that they do not countenance the Sri Lankan Government’s behaviour?
I am extremely grateful for that intervention, which echoes my thoughts. I will address those questions in more detail later, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for sharing them.
The Commonwealth charter is an exciting development that allows the Commonwealth to shape itself as a compelling force for good. The charter commits all nations to the universal declaration of human rights and opposes all forms of discrimination
“whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”
The Commonwealth charter states that those rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and that they cannot be implemented selectively. I will point out where we can improve our practices to ensure that those clear, explicit definitions are upheld.
Women’s rights vary hugely across the Commonwealth. Although I am well aware that the topic merits a debate in its own right, in the limited time available I will draw attention to a few key areas of concern.
The Commonwealth charter states that the education of girls is an essential component of human development. The Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai certainly agrees. Malala’s determination to defend girls’ right to education is one of the most inspiring stories of our modern age. Despite Malala exposing some of the dangers for girls who are trying to access education, however, there are still great barriers. In Cameroon an estimated 38% of girls are currently missing from secondary education, which is simply unacceptable. Women’s education is important not only for empowering the individual, but for the country’s development. It is right that that is recognised in the Commonwealth charter. The Commonwealth comprises not only some of the most developed nations, but some of the least developed. Creating effective education for young women is imperative for change for the better.
Child marriage is a harmful practice that constitutes a violation of the most basic and fundamental rights of young women. There are provisions in the Commonwealth charter for investing and promoting young people’s development. Being a child bride causes appalling harm to a girl’s prospects for education and, indeed, to her health. Only this Monday, we heard of a girl of eight dying from internal sexual injuries after her marriage to a 40-year-old man in Yemen. Unfortunately, that horror is widespread and prevalent across the world, as at least 14 million girls—more than half of whom live in the Commonwealth—marry under the age of 18 every year. There is a clear need to legislate to put an end to child marriage. We need to put an end to the practice, so that every girl is free to enjoy her childhood. All leaders of Commonwealth nations must collectively support steps taken at the United Nations to eradicate child, early and forced marriage.
The Commonwealth charter recognises the importance of women’s rights:
“We recognise that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential components of human development and basic human rights.”
Throughout the Commonwealth, however, women are in need of a voice. To make the necessary changes, we need better representation of women in our Governments. That change would ensure the rights of women can no longer be ignored. Representation is key to creating positive changes to all the current issues that face women across the Commonwealth.
In the Chamber of Deputies of the Rwandan Parliament, 56% of representatives are women; I am ashamed to admit that only 23% of MPs in the House of Commons are women, placing us 65th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union. We clearly have a lot to learn about women’s representation.
The Commonwealth charter commits Commonwealth nations to the universal declaration of human rights, and article 3 enshrines the right to life. The death penalty fundamentally undermines that right. Worldwide, great progress has been made on abolishing the death penalty. However, Commonwealth countries including the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Swaziland, Malawi, Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon and the Maldives still support the death penalty. Thirty-six Commonwealth countries have the death penalty. Although I acknowledge that many of those countries have expressed a commitment in legislation not to carry out executions and are abolitionist in practice, death sentences are still regularly given, even if they are not fulfilled.
In August 2012, nine people were executed in Gambia, with President Jammeh calling for all death sentences to be carried out “to the letter” by mid-September. Those executions were in sharp contrast to the trend in west Africa towards ending the use of the death penalty. Amnesty International, along with 66 other human rights organisations and west African civil society groups, condemned the executions in a public statement released in September 2012.
There has been a recent resumption of executions in Nigeria, where there had not been an execution since 2006. Four men were hanged in June. Papua New Guinea recently passed legislation that expands the crimes for which the death penalty could be used, signalling a return to its use, even though no executions have taken place since 1952.
We must also recognise that individuals continue to be sentenced to death, or executed, for crimes not involving intentional killing. Therefore, the punishment does not meet the threshold of “the most serious crimes”, as prescribed by article 6 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, to which all Commonwealth countries are committed by our charter. For example, people are condemned to death for blasphemy in Pakistan, for forms of aggravated robbery in Kenya and Zambia and for drug-related offences in Malaysia and Singapore. That is simply not acceptable under current international law. The death penalty must be repealed in all 36 Commonwealth countries.
The persistent persecution of the LGBTI community in the Commonwealth undermines the entire point of being free from discrimination. The Commonwealth charter does not explicitly mention the protection of LGBTI people. I understand why that compromise position was taken, but I believe it is a grave mistake, as 41 Commonwealth countries currently criminalise homosexuality. Those laws are often a historical relic of British colonial rule that continues to stigmatise and marginalise the LGBTI community across the Commonwealth.
My hon. Friend is making a strong and wide-ranging speech. I want to associate myself in particular with her comments on LGBT rights in Commonwealth countries. Will she join me in commending the work of the Kaleidoscope Trust, the president of which is Mr Speaker and which enjoys support from members of all parties across the House? It works with LGBT activists in many Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries to fight against the type of discrimination that she describes.
I absolutely support the work of the Kaleidoscope Trust, but a vast amount of work unfortunately remains for us to do.
It struck me forcefully when visiting the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg last week that many of the battles for racial equality had been won. It should be celebrated that apartheid is over, but segregation between homosexuals and heterosexuals continues in other parts of Africa. Many terrible cases from across the Commonwealth illustrate the appalling way that the LGBTI community and LGBTI activists have been treated. In Cameroon, Alice Nkom and Michel Togue, who are defence lawyers for LGBTI people, have received telephone calls and text messages on a daily basis from anonymous people who threaten them and their families with death. In South Africa, 24-year-old Noxolo Nogwaza was brutally murdered in KwaThema township. An active member of the Ekurhuleni Pride Organising Committee, she was raped, repeatedly stabbed and beaten to death. The police responsible for the investigation into her murder have so far made no progress and no suspects have been arrested.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech so far. Does she agree that that example shows that we must do a lot more than simply change the laws? South Africa has a rainbow constitution that is very much against discrimination based on sexuality, but the problems that she highlights still exist on the ground.
The fundamental problem is that, although equality is embedded within the Commonwealth charter, LGBTI rights are not mentioned explicitly, so these grey areas are exploited.
Last year, armed police raided a human rights workshop attended by LGBTI activists in Kampala, Uganda, arresting five staff of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project and 12 other participants. That happened in the context of the Ugandan Parliament seeking to pass an anti-homosexuality Bill, which could include punishing homosexuality with the death penalty. The Bill would create legal provisions to persecute and punish people just for being LGBTI, which directly contradicts all international human rights legislation and should be condemned by the international community. I am aware that Uganda claims that criminalising homosexuality is partly in the interest of public health. In reality, however, it further stigmatises and marginalises groups, making education about effective forms of sexually transmitted disease control considerably more difficult. HIV control is incredibly important as it is an enormous problem within the Commonwealth.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the David Cairns Foundation, which does superb work, and I wish all power to it.
Commonwealth countries contain more than 60% of people living with HIV globally, despite representing only some 30% of the world’s population. The importance of HIV control is backed by the eminent persons group— a group of 10 leading figures from around the Commonwealth, chaired by the former Prime Minister of Malaysia. In 2009, the EPG was commissioned by Commonwealth Heads of Government to examine key areas of reform for the Commonwealth. It recommended decriminalising homosexuality. That recommendation was made specifically in the interests of non-discrimination and outreach to educate LGBTI communities about HIV transmission.
The Commonwealth charter needs to name LGBTI as one of the categories of potential discrimination. It needs to call for homosexuality to be legalised across the Commonwealth to ensure that that persecution stops. In the interest of not sounding too negative, I would like to congratulate the Commonwealth countries where it is legal to be LGBTI, including Australia, the Bahamas, Canada, Cyprus, India, Malta, Mozambique, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Africa and the UK.
Finally, I want to talk about Sri Lanka. The horrific civil war that waged for 26 years in Sri Lanka ended in 2009. There were concerns about human rights abuses and war crimes, committed by both the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. International attention was captured by allegations of the systematic targeting of civilian hospitals within a designated no-missile zone. Video evidence exists of extreme cruelty, including beheadings and rape. Such images shocked the international community and left a permanent scar on Sri Lanka’s human rights record. It was absolutely correct that the allegations were investigated and that due redress followed those investigations. To examine events during the period from 2002 to May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which was welcomed by many civilians. Implementing the commission’s recommendations, however, has been both slow and selective. Post-2009, grave concerns still exist about military engagement in civilian activities in the north, including sexual abuse, the situation of detainees from the war, the impact of forcible disappearances, impunity, hatred and violence against religious minorities, the intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, the weakening of democracy, growing authoritarianism, the erosion of the rule of law and the abduction and murder of journalists.
Last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, completed a seven-day visit to Sri Lanka. She raised strong concerns over the continual and increasingly authoritarian direction in the country. The international community—in particular, the Commonwealth community—should put pressure on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to force him to show that there is a strategic plan to implement all the LLRC report before Sri Lanka’s Ministers consider attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Owing to the lack of clear implementation of the LLRC report and continuous concerns about human rights abuses, I am calling on David Cameron and senior ministers—
I apologise. Thank you for the correction, Mr Gray. I am calling on the Prime Minister and senior Ministers not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November, unless there is a serious and committed response from President Rajapaksa. I want our Prime Minister to show his commitment as an international citizen and as a serious defender of human rights by joining the Canadian Prime Minister in his boycott of the meeting.
In conclusion, the Commonwealth charter clearly intends to defend all people in the Commonwealth. I hope that by the time the Commonwealth games come to Glasgow in summer 2014 dramatic improvements can be seen across the Commonwealth for the good of its people. To that end, I call on my fellow parliamentarians across the Commonwealth to ensure the full implementation of the Commonwealth charter. I call on them to invest in and encourage the development of women’s rights and to ensure women’s representation and education. I call on them to end the practice of child marriage. I call on them to decriminalise homosexuality to ensure the health and safety of our LGBTI communities. I call for the abolition of the death penalty in all Commonwealth countries. Finally, I call on our Prime Minister not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this November, so enabling him to draw attention to the current concerns in Sri Lanka.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Gray. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion)—I want to say “my hon. Friend”—for her speech. It is a pleasure to attend this afternoon’s debate to support and agree with much of what she had to say. Like her, and the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), I was at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference last week and found it a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, experience. I had not intended to take part or speak as much as I did, which is probably the case for many of us, but some of what we heard at the conference could not go unanswered.
Gatherings of the Commonwealth, such as the CPA conference, are great moments. Bringing parliamentarians across the Commonwealth together is completely appropriate, to remind us of the shared values and history that we enjoy. We found a lot of consensus among Commonwealth parliamentarians on a range of issues. I attended a number of sessions, including one on the empowerment of women, although that went a little bit agley, with a contribution on the legalisation of drugs, which did not seem appropriate to a debate on female empowerment in business, unless there was a niche interest. We also had an interesting session on caring for our elderly population, which was a bit more orderly. The female parliamentarians also had many enjoyable hours in the Commonwealth women’s conference, from which of course we men were barred. That aside, it was an interesting gathering.
In the plenary sessions, bearing in mind the Commonwealth charter and the provisions on democracy, we had some interesting discussions about self-determination and the democratic rights of the citizens of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. There was strong support for the motion that we eventually agreed on Gibraltar and for the motion that we quickly agreed on the Falklands. The British delegation was united in support of the rights of people in the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar to determine their own destiny and future.
We had an interesting debate on human rights in general and on the charter. The hon. Member for Bristol East made a fine speech from the podium—fine and provocative, which I think was what she intended, and it certainly sparked an important debate. She made reference to the charter’s article on human rights:
“We are committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights…We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”
Debate was sparked off by “other grounds”, and turned into a discussion of the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in different countries.
I do not speak regularly on LGBT issues in this country because, fortunately, we operate a “live and let live” policy. Rights have advanced greatly in the past few years, certainly under the previous Government and hopefully under this Government with regards to equal marriage, so the issue is not one on which I would usually engage, although I am supportive of those rights. We almost take them for granted in this country, people of my generation in particular but, given some of the contributions at the conference after the speech by the hon. Member for Bristol East, I could not help but participate in the debate.
We heard some quite frightening speeches, in particular from Cameroon and, to an extent, from Ugandan representatives. It reminded me that, although we have much in common throughout the Commonwealth, with many shared values, there is a great deal that divides us, and we should not pretend that those divisions do not exist. Furthermore, it is incumbent on all parliamentarians from this country and from other parts of the Commonwealth to make it clear when we disagree. In response to comments from a Cameroonian delegate regarding homosexuality, in which she stated that it went against the laws of nature, there was a sharp intake of breath from our delegation and many others in the room, particularly the Canadians, who also spoke on the issue. I therefore felt the need to speak in that debate.
Appropriately enough, we were in South Africa, a country that knows all too well the history of dividing one group from another to the disadvantage of all. When we attack one individual’s rights, ultimately we have an impact on everyone else’s rights. I felt the need to intervene in that debate, and to point out things with which I am sure everyone in the Chamber would agree. We do not want to preach to those countries, and we have a stain on our own history in terms of what people have thought—not so long ago in this country we thought that a role for women in politics was inappropriate and that people in Africa were incapable of governing themselves. We know about such stains on our history, which I made mention of and about which we are embarrassed.
Similarly, as I said in Johannesburg last week, even today in our own country, which is a modern, liberal-looking democracy, as parliamentarians we come across people who still hold quite frightening views. Our responsibility is to challenge such views. I do not pretend that our country does not have people who think some of those things, but we have a level of protection for rights, which have expanded in recent years, of which we should be proud. I therefore felt that it was important to speak up on the issue and to make it clear that, while we have stains on our own history, we have learned the lessons. It is not about preaching, but about simply standing up for the rights of minorities elsewhere.
If there was one glimmer of hope on the LGBT issue, it came in the contribution of one of the Ugandan parliamentarians. He seemed to be saying, “Well, we know that our views on this issue are not as developed as yours. Maybe, in a couple of decades’ time, this won’t be an issue for us.” That seemed a strange admission, almost as if he was saying, “We know we are wrong, and in 30 years’ time we won’t be wrong.” It was an odd contribution. I spoke to that parliamentarian afterwards, however, and he was at pains to assure me that the particular piece of legislation before the Ugandan Parliament, of which the hon. Member for Rotherham made mention, was unlikely to be introduced in its current form.
That debate divided the Commonwealth—sadly, as older Commonwealth against new Commonwealth—and comments that were supportive of what the hon. Member for Bristol East had said tended to come from our delegation. My right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) made an excellent contribution, and there were contributions from Canada and New Zealand. Samantha Sacramento, the Minister for Equality from Gibraltar, made a fine contribution as well, but for me the best speech came from the podium, from the Deputy Speaker of the South African Parliament. Deputy Speaker Mfeketo made a brilliant speech in which she spoke passionately about how the experience of South Africa was relevant to LGBT rights; in that country, they know about the impact of one community being divided off and having special laws passed against it.
Such comments were more powerful coming from another African politician, rather than, sad to say, from a white parliamentarian. Many contributions, such as that of a parliamentarian from Mauritius, were in essence, “Well, you gave us these views. You came here in colonial times with those views. You came with your Bible and told us that this was wrong, and yet now you are preaching to us.” All the contributions from Canada, New Zealand and the UK were of limited impact compared with the fine speech of Deputy Speaker Mfeketo.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point. Does he share my concern about some groups, in particular from the United States, which have been stirring up homophobic hatred in countries such as Uganda? There are some quite sinister activities going on, with a number of reports over the past few months. That is exactly the opposite of what we ought to be seeing.
I am concerned about that, and some people in our own country like to stir up such views. I hope that Ugandans are as quick to dismiss the views of such outside influences, wherever they come from, as they would be to dismiss the views of their former colonial masters.
As I said, the contribution from the South African Deputy Speaker was very fine, and I associate myself with calls from the hon. Member for Bristol East at the conference and the hon. Member for Rotherham today that we must do more to ensure that the charter does exactly what it says on the tin—as the old Ronseal advert used to say. Furthermore, when the charter mentions discrimination on “other grounds”, our country and our Government must challenge such discrimination, whatever and wherever it may be.
I want to comment briefly on Sri Lanka. I heard the hon. Member for Rotherham call for a boycott. I have engaged in issues arising from the Israel-Palestine conflict, but I have always been against boycotts as a way of trying to solve such issues. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s conference next year will be in Cameroon. Given some of its views on the rights of LGBT people and women, it could be said that we should not attend it, but boycotts are not necessarily the solution. What Prime Minister Harper has done in Ottawa was bold, but I am not sure that a boycott would be in our interest. I sometimes think it is better to attend such meetings and to make the case on the ground in the country concerned. We must be careful about boycotts, although I entirely concur with the hon. Lady’s comments on human rights in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bristol East referred to that issue at the conference, and she challenged the Sri Lankan delegation to demonstrate a commitment to human rights at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
I concur with much of what the hon. Member for Rotherham said. The conference last week was fascinating. One does not often come back feeling like a human rights advocate because one does not often feel the need for that in this country, but I came back from South Africa better educated and a little frightened at some of the views I heard. The Government must ensure that they challenge those despicable views.
It is a delight, Mr Gray, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for such an important debate. I want to concentrate on three issues: the murder of my constituent, Khuram Shaikh; Sri Lanka’s inability to follow the Commonwealth commitments on the rule of law; and the Prime Minister’s decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Sri Lanka in November.
Some hon. Members may be unaware of Khuram Shaikh’s case. At Christmas 2011, he went on holiday with his partner, Victoria, to Tangalle in Sri Lanka. At a Christmas day party at their hotel, a number of what the Sri Lankans would call political goons entered the hotel and started to cause trouble. My constituent was stabbed and shot dead. Victoria was taken to a basement room and gang-raped. I know that because I visited the crime scene in Sri Lanka and have spoken to witnesses. People in my office have met Victoria, I have read witness statements, and the Sri Lankan police have shown me medical reports that prove those points. Obviously, Khuram’s family are extremely distressed. We are approaching two years since the murder but no one has been charged. Khuram’s father, who is also my constituent, visits his grave every day and his brother, Naser, campaigns hard for justice. The pain and anguish can still be seen in their eyes when one meets them.
I turn to the human rights aspect of the case. We are all well aware of the Commonwealth charter, which refers, among other things, to the rule of law, a key principle that Commonwealth countries are expected to abide by. We all know of glaring examples of Sri Lanka not following that principle: the recent impeachment of its chief justice; journalists being murdered or kidnapped, as my hon. Friend pointed out; the disappearance of people who do not agree with the Government; and systematic political interference with cases in the justice system.
The lack of justice for the murder of Khuram Shaikh is an example that encapsulates Sri Lanka’s refusal to follow the rule of law. It is a matter of public record that one of Khuram’s alleged murderers is a local politician who is close to President Rajapaksa and his son. Indeed, such political goons operate and deliver on behalf of the President’s political party in Sri Lanka.
The allegation in Sri Lanka is that the case will not come to trial. We are approaching the second anniversary of the murder, but the suspects have not been charged. The rule of law is not being applied, because those people are being protected by the Sri Lankan President. Khuram’s case has taken on significance in Sri Lanka because it encapsulates the problems that many Sri Lankans face at the hands of their own Government. There is no doubt in my mind that the Sri Lankan Government do not respect human rights, and there is no doubt that the rule of law is not being applied. Khuram’s case exemplifies that.
I turn to what the British Government can or should do about these issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been very helpful in pursuing the case, and I am pleased that our Queen has decided not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in November. There is a political dimension to the matter. All the indications are that the Prime Minister will attend the summit in Sri Lanka, and I believe that to be a grave mistake. The Government put strong emphasis on exports and believe that developing trade is important. I welcome Rolls-Royce’s major deal with SriLankan Airlines, but that should not wipe out our concerns about how the Sri Lankan Government treat their own people and foreign nationals. The Prime Minister’s attendance will be seen as endorsing the Sri Lankan Government’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law.
The spectre of Khuram’s death and the failure to get justice will haunt the British Prime Minister as long as he is on Sri Lankan soil. It will be literally horrifying to see a British Prime Minister shaking hands with a Sri Lankan President who is so intimately involved in protecting the murderers of a British national. For that reason alone, I urge the Government and the Minister to think twice about who attends the summit.
With the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting scheduled to go ahead as planned later this year, I intend to talk about the insult and hurt caused by its taking place in Sri Lanka. This country has had a bad few weeks of doing nothing about human rights abusers, but my disappointment at Britain’s decision to give succour to the human rights abusers in Sri Lanka knows no bounds.
Our Government have happily bestowed respectability on a regime that cluster-bombed its own hospitals, killed tens of thousands of its own citizens and turned its country into the most dangerous place in the world in which to be a journalist. Amnesty International has said:
“We continue to witness a deterioration of human rights in Sri Lanka”.
It has also stated:
“Despite the armed conflict ending over four years ago, human rights violations continue, with the Sri Lankan Government cracking down on critics through threats, harassment, imprisonment and violent attacks. Journalists, the judiciary, human rights activists and opposition politicians are among those who have been targeted in this disturbing pattern of government-sanctioned abuse.”
I share Amnesty’s disappointment that the UK Government
“failed to assert that the Commonwealth Heads of Government should not be hosted by Sri Lanka unless there were significant improvements in human rights”.
I remember the terrible stories constituents used to tell me about their friends and family. For example, my local newsagent had lost contact with his sister who was trapped with her family in a bunker in the so-called no-fire zone, being shelled by the Sri Lankan Government every day. So incessant was the bombing that, in desperation, she made a run for it across open land that was heavily bombarded. No one has heard from her since. A young man who lives near the tube station told me about his aunt, whose body had been so badly mutilated that her family had to take a box to pick up all the pieces.
Channel 4’s groundbreaking “Killing Fields” documentaries have drawn the world’s attention to a major human rights catastrophe—what the UN panel of experts called a
“grave assault on the entire regime of international law”.
The latest figures show that more than 146,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for, with the World Bank estimating that 100,000 people are still missing, probably dead. Justice must prevail, yet there has been no independent international commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes.
There is still no civil administration in the north. Instead, the area has a military governor. The people have no democratic representation of the kind we would recognise in the west. Tamils continue to suffer due to the Sri Lankan armed forces’ military control of the north and east, and resettled war victims have no say. The situation on the ground is not good.
Speaking at the end of her visit to the country in August, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that
“although the fighting is over, the suffering is not.”
She argued that Sri Lanka
“is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.”
She raised concerns about the
“curtailment or denial of personal freedoms and human rights…persistent impunity and the failure of the rule of law.”
She also warned:
“There are a number of specific factors impeding normalisation, which—if not quickly rectified—may sow the seeds of future discord.”
Meanwhile, even a recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report has named Sri Lanka as one of its 27 countries of concern. It is no wonder the Foreign Affairs Committee concluded last November that holding the Commonwealth meeting in Colombo was “wrong” and urged the Prime Minister to avoid going unless he received
“convincing and independently-verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights”.
No such improvements have taken place. According to Freedom From Torture,
“for the first time in years, Sri Lanka has replaced Iran at the top of the shameful table that tallies the country of origin for the thousands referred to us each year for clinical services here in the UK.”
As time goes by, it becomes increasingly clear that the war and all that has followed have been a criminal venture. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the conflict as an “unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe”. Tens of thousands of people were massacred, and oppression on a scale beyond our imaginations really did take place.
Thanks to the amazing work of brave journalists such as Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, we know that the Sri Lankan Government were firing cluster bombs, white phosphorus and rockets at civilian areas, including hospitals and so-called safe zones. In previous debates, I have reflected on the dreadful loss of Ms Colvin. It is a cruel irony that she was killed covering human rights abuses in Syria, where the world has so far done little to stand up to a brutal regime that has no qualms about mass killings of civilians and abuses of the rules of war, when she spent so many years campaigning against similar abuses in Sri Lanka.
As the UN has stressed,
“not to hold accountable those who committed serious crimes...is a clear violation.”
When we hold no one to account, we get what we now witness in Sri Lanka: extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, gender-based violence and torture. Despite that, a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is still scheduled to take place in Colombo, and our Government are doing nothing to stop it. What sort of message does that send?
The Commonwealth was right when it took from Sri Lanka the honour of hosting the previous Commonwealth summit, and Britain was right to be in the group of nations leading the way in calling for that honour to be taken away. If that was right then, how can it be right now to bestow honour on a regime that has not changed?
The truth remains that Sri Lanka has still not undertaken a truly independent international investigation into war crimes. Were such an investigation enforced, there might be reconciliation and lasting peace. The British Government clearly disagree. They have sent the wrong message by not boycotting the summit, and that is made worse by policies such as deporting Tamil asylum seekers and selling weapons to Sri Lanka’s military.
The coalition’s actions stand in marked contrast to those of the previous Labour Government. We helped to bring an end to Sri Lanka’s preferential trading status in the EU, we voted against an International Monetary Fund loan deal worth $2.5 billion and we blocked Sri Lanka’s bid to host a Commonwealth summit.
If we just roll over and let the Sri Lankan Government take the mickey out of us, whatever will people think in Syria? For the sake of other civilians around the world who are under threat from their Governments, we have a responsibility to be strong when it comes to Sri Lanka. Justice will not be served by giving the Sri Lankan regime a platform or by giving President Rajapaksa dozens of photo opportunities alongside leaders such as our Prime Minister who were too weak to say they would not go to the summit. Every brutal dictator around the world will look at those pictures and think, “Yes, Sri Lanka is respectable now. They ignored the rules of decency. They committed atrocities against their own people. The world did nothing. And now tribute is being paid to them. Crime does pay.” Is that the message we want to send? Not in my name.
Given that the UN Commission on Human Rights is in session this month, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has done the House a service by ensuring that we have the opportunity to debate human rights across the Commonwealth.
Like previous speakers, I want to focus on Sri Lanka. I therefore warmly welcome the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), as well as the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden alluded to the fact that Navi Pillay, the UN’s human rights commissioner, visited Sri Lanka at the end of August and held extensive meetings with people in the north and the east, as well as with Government officials, politicians and a series of organisations. She is the most senior UN official to have visited the north since the UN Secretary-General visited back in 2009. Although it is welcome that Ms Pillay was allowed to go wherever she wanted, it is striking that she has reported that the Sri Lankans who came to meet her were harassed and intimidated by security forces before and after their meetings.
Ms Pillay’s statement following her visit was particularly striking. She noted, among other things, that the surveillance and harassment that she described appear to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, where critical voices are often attacked or even permanently silenced. She outlined concerns about recent attacks on religious minorities and reported a series of complaints about missing relatives, military land grabs and life without basic facilities. Given that Ms Pillay is such a senior figure in the UN, the bluntness and directness of her comments are striking.
Ms Pillay’s concerns are far from isolated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden alluded to, Amnesty International continues to highlight the lack of genuine, substantial measures on the part of the Government of Sri Lanka to meet their human rights obligations. There remains a significant body of evidence pointing to serious human rights violations, some of which amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, including extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and the intentional shelling of citizens. Critics of the Government, whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Christian, continue to face harassment. Torture in police custody is routine, and attacks on minorities appear to be increasingly widespread and tolerated.
According to Amnesty International, there have been more than 20 attacks on Muslim places of worship and businesses in the past 12 months. There was apparently no known investigation into an attack in July on the Arafa Jumma mosque in Mahiyangana. Apparently, a Government Minister simply ordered that the mosque be closed. Journalists, opposition candidates, human rights activists and particularly Tamils in the north and the east are routinely harassed, intimidated and assaulted.
As other hon. Members have said, the question remains, why on earth are Commonwealth Heads of State still planning to meet in Sri Lanka for their annual summit, thereby validating the regime? As the House is aware and as other Members have restated, the Canadian Government have made clear their profound concern. Indeed, Prime Minister Harper has said he will not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting if Sri Lanka remains the host.
A series of other eminent Commonwealth advocates have highlighted Sri Lanka’s unsuitability to host CHOGM. Their concerns are thrown into sharp relief by the new Commonwealth charter, which was agreed in March by Her Majesty the Queen, following the agreement of the rest of the Commonwealth states. The charter was one of the key recommendations made by the eminent persons group to reform the Commonwealth that was accepted at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October 2011, and the Prime Minister committed to it. Perhaps the most crucial passage in the charter is:
“We are committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, for all without discrimination on any grounds as the foundations of peaceful, just and stable societies.”
The Sri Lankan Government can by no means be painted as achieving, or even be perceived as taking serious steps to achieve, that commitment. I therefore continue to be surprised at how little effort Ministers have put into using the CHOGM as leverage to achieve reform in Sri Lanka. Why, for example, have the Prime Minister and the Foreign Office not sought to build a coalition to have Sri Lanka formally put on the agenda of the Commonwealth ministerial action group? There may be meetings of Commonwealth Ministers where the subject of Sri Lanka comes up; but that is not the same as a decision to put it on the agenda of the ministerial action group.
In the past, countries such as Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Nigeria and Fiji have all been—indeed, Fiji still is—formal items on the ministerial action group agenda. An implicit rebuke is thereby sent from the whole Commonwealth, and it is forced to set up a series of actions to be taken to bring a country back in line with Commonwealth values. If the Minister and his colleagues are serious about wanting to apply pressure to the Rajapaksa Government, perhaps he will commit today to building a coalition of Commonwealth countries to put Sri Lanka on the Commonwealth ministerial action group agenda. Given the importance of Canada’s views within the Commonwealth, Britain would surely have a crucial ally in beginning to apply the pressure necessary to achieve that end.
I should welcome clarification of the Minister’s view of the Commonwealth secretary-general’s performance in his handling of human rights concerns in Sri Lanka. I can find no evidence of any statement even of concern from him. He has agreed to organise an observer mission to follow the provincial elections in the north of Sri Lanka, but in the context of widespread human rights abuses, that invitation appears to be another example of the observance of the forms of democracy, rather than its substance. If I am right to think that Mr Sharma has not spoken out, it is surprising that a secretary-general who presided over a recommitment to the Commonwealth’s democratic values and traditions as recently as March should have nothing to say about continuing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka—never mind those that date back to the events of 2009.
If the Prime Minister goes to Sri Lanka without taking any further significant steps, he will be validating the regime and giving it succour and comfort. He will create further incentives for Mr Rajapaksa and his colleagues to continue to ignore Commonwealth values.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate, which is timely coming so soon after last week’s Commonwealth parliamentary conference.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for giving an informed speech in South Africa about human rights and the charter. It was not only an informed speech but an extremely brave one, which directly confronted prejudice in all its forms across the Commonwealth. The spirited debate that followed showed that she had touched a few nerves. I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who among other things kept us amused during long hours at the conference. I thought in some of his comments he was in danger of making it seem much more interesting and fun than I remember it being—but I obviously spent too long in meetings. It is worth pointing out in passing what a strong UK delegation we sent to the conference. We certainly made our voices heard on the question of promoting human rights in the Commonwealth. We got a lot of interesting work done, and I think we genuinely made progress for some of our colleagues.
We should take a moment to welcome the Commonwealth charter, because it contains some very useful statements and sentiments, which will help us to move towards greater equality in Commonwealth countries. I am short of time so I shall not read out key phrases—we have already heard some of them—but it contains a strong commitment to tackling discrimination in whatever form people experience it. It is up to all of us to press for those commitments to be implemented.
In the few minutes I have for my speech I will concentrate on the need for further progress on gender equality. I shall do that through two aspects of the matter: women’s representation in Parliament and the education of young girls. I am not suggesting that the other issues that have been raised this afternoon are not important, but I do not want us to lose the gender dimension of the work that needs to be done.
The Commonwealth’s current plan for action for gender equality runs from 2005 to 2015; it has found that across the Commonwealth Parliaments continue to be male-dominated, and that the goal of increasing female participation in political bodies and representational politics is far from being achieved. Some of the major challenges identified by the Commonwealth secretariat included the persistence of traditional gender stereotypes, conflict for women between family and work demands, the masculine culture of politics and inadequate funding to support female candidates. Going by the many discussions in the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians sessions last week and the week before, those things continue to be barriers to women’s representation in politics and wider public life for many of our colleagues across the Commonwealth.
However, we in Britain should recognise that we also have some way to go. I paid tribute several times last week to our African sisters who have made more progress than we have. For example, the Rwandan Parliament has made great strides in the advancement of women. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said that they currently hold 56% of the parliamentary seats there. They are also well represented among Ministers and are creating strong role models for women and girls. Aspects of the Rwandan experience are being transferred to other Governments. The Seychelles, South Africa and Mozambique are making significant progress in increasing the number of female representatives in their Parliaments.
We all acknowledged last week that much more needs to be done. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has a great role to play in continuing to support women and getting more of them into politics. We had the first gender conference here last November, supported by the CPA UK branch and the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It identified the need for ongoing training, ongoing support, mentoring schemes and the need to talk to women about how they raise money locally to support candidatures in local and national elections. I hope that we as a Parliament can continue to support that work.
However, we will not get more women into public life unless we address the issue of girls’ access to education, which, again, we discussed in detail last week. We know that we will fail to meet millennium development goals 2 and 3 on getting universal access to primary education and getting more girls into school, but those matters are so important. The World Bank has made it really clear that economies in developing countries will not progress unless more girls are educated. Across the Commonwealth, we have to press for millennium development goals 2 and 3 to be met, and I hope that we can use CHOGM for that. I have heard what my hon. Friends have said today—that the meeting should not happen. However, it is likely to take place in Sri Lanka, and I hope that we can use it to lobby our Commonwealth Heads of Government to make better progress on getting girls into education and to tackle the issues of child marriage and female genital mutilation, which we did not manage to raise as much as we could have done last week. We must have that on CHOGM’s agenda.
Lastly, when I was in Lesotho a couple of weeks ago, I saw that its Government were trying to get more girls into school. They have major challenges ahead of them. A number of UK charities, including the Durham-Lesotho Link in my constituency, are doing all that they can to help improve access to education. Sentebale is doing important work there. We have to reach out beyond Parliament to voluntary sector organisations, so that we are not only pressing Commonwealth Governments to make progress but assisting them practically in doing so.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on bringing the matter of human rights before us for consideration in the Chamber. It is a great privilege to be able to comment on it in the time I have. I specifically want to focus on the right to religious freedom and liberty, which has increasingly been denied to those who profess the Christian faith throughout the world. Members have referred to the Commonwealth charter. Words mean nothing without action, and this debate is all about action to follow the words of many people on the matter. In introducing the debate, the hon. Lady referred to religious liberties, as others have, and I want to focus on that issue.
The national director of Aid to the Church in Need UK, Neville Kyrke-Smith, has cited research stating that 75% of all religious hatred in the world is directed against Christians. He has referred to 200 million Christians facing discrimination and 100,000 being killed each year for their faith. I am aware, Mr Gray—you will keep me right on this one—that “Human Rights in the Commonwealth” is the title of the debate, so I shall focus my contribution on the Commonwealth and its countries. There certainly continues to be a denial of the right to religious freedom, and subsequent persecution of Christians, in those countries, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should be more proactive in addressing that. The Open Doors 2013 world watch list is shocking. Nine out of the top 50 persecuted areas are Commonwealth countries, so clearly, Commonwealth countries have a job to do. I find the situation disturbing in the extreme.
In the top 10, there is the Maldives, which is well known as a holiday destination. I shall not mention the person’s name, but one of my constituents is in the Maldives this week. He is a Christian who goes to my church, and if he reads his Bible in the Maldives and people know about it, he will be arrested. He will be deported, and probably thrown in prison, and have all sorts of actions taken against him. Open Doors records:
“This is the only country in the world which requires all citizens to be Muslim. Conversion to another faith is prohibited by law and converts face extreme pressure from family and society—often having to leave the country. The authorities exert extensive control on the people to correct any deviation from Islam. There are no church gatherings or buildings. Religion is moving towards Deobandi Islam—the religion of the Taliban, whose mission is to cleanse Islam of all other influences. There are very few indigenous believers.”
Will the Minister tell us what has been done, from his office, to influence Commonwealth countries and specifically the Maldives to allow the basic right to religious freedom? What protection is given to people, and what action and responses have there been?
Referring to Nigeria and particularly Nigeria north, Open Doors said:
“The Islamist agenda to bring Nigeria under the ‘House of Islam’ versus the election of a southern Christian as President has caused much unrest. The Islamist group, Boko Haram, has claimed the lives of at least 800 Christians”—
we cannot deny the extremity and brutality of the violence there has been.
“The decisions of local government, especially in the twelve northern Sharia states, mean that Christians experience restrictions in schooling, threats of abduction, forced marriage”—
there has been violence against women, as hon. Ladies have referred to in their contributions—
“as well as denial of employment, clean water and health care. It is dangerous to convert and for churches to integrate new converts.”
Some of the stories that have come from that country are awful and abhorrent.
What has Great Britain done to influence the situation? Have we given any support on the ground to Christians in the area? I hope that we have, through the Foreign Office and through Ministers. If we have not, what are we doing? Have we advocated religious freedom? If we have not so far, why not? If I sign my name to something in the House, I always intend, as other Members do, to take it right through to the end. I am keen to find out what we have done, as a Government and a nation, on behalf of Christians, who are the silent minority in many countries. We cannot remain silent, and I ask the Minister to begin to address the issue through whatever means are diplomatically permissible.
Time does not permit me to go on too long. However, I would like to take the time to highlight the fact that of the seven countries that are applying for Commonwealth status, three are in the watch list of the top 50 countries for Christian persecution—Algeria, Sudan and the Yemen. Will the Minister pledge today that those applications will not succeed unless each country takes major steps to see an end to the persecution of Christians and to allow complete religious freedom for all?
When I look at Commonwealth countries and understand that they make up almost a third of the population of the world, at 2.2 billion people, I am reminded of my history lessons. History was one of the subjects at school that I liked—it was probably the only one that I excelled at, to be honest. I am interested in history, and particularly the history of the Victorian era. Under Queen Victoria, Britain ruled a third of the world. It was said that the sun never set on the British empire, because of the vastness of what Britain controlled. Although I am fully aware that membership of the Commonwealth does not equate to that in any way, it does equate to some form of influence. I believe that we must step up and use our influence to ensure that there are human rights and religious freedom for all, in every area of the Commonwealth.
When Queen Victoria was asked the secret of the empire’s success, she said:
“Tell your prince that this book is the secret of England’s greatness.”
She was referring to the Bible. I believe that the freedom to worship will also be what the success of the Commonwealth is about, and I fully support the views that other Members have put forward today.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and all the other speakers, several of whom were in South Africa with me last week. I hope that I do not repeat too much of the speech I made in Johannesburg, as they might find it much duller on a second hearing.
As a starting point, I want to echo what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, which was that the charter means nothing if it is just words on paper. It is very easy for people to sign up and say, “We all share these values”, and “We are one big happy family—aren’t we lovely people?”, and so on. What the Government do on the ground is what matters. It is about how they implement the charter and how they continue to review and monitor it, and make it stronger. The most important thing is that the charter must not be used as a fig leaf for human rights violations.
I also want to echo what the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said. When I spoke in Johannesburg last week, I was very conscious that we should not, as the UK, be going in and preaching to other people about human rights, particularly given our history as the colonial power in many of the countries that we are addressing.
As the hon. Gentleman said, it is ironic that, going back many years, we took Christianity to some of these countries and told them that things such as homosexuality were wrong, but now we are coming back and saying, “Hang on, we got it wrong that time. You have to think something completely different.”
One thing that came out of the response to my speech in Johannesburg was this. We were told by a few of the delegates, “You have to give us time, because we’re new democracies. You’ve been established a lot longer. It will take us longer to win hearts and minds and to progress these ideas of equality.” What concerns me about some of the countries is not that they are taking longer to reach the position that we are at with things such as same-sex marriage and allowing gay couples to adopt, but that they are moving backwards—in the wrong direction. I am thinking of things such as the Bill that Uganda has been debating for the past few years about bringing in the death penalty for homosexuality. The issue there is not people struggling to keep up with us and moving more slowly than us; that Bill is actually a step in the wrong direction. We also see that with other countries outside the Commonwealth, such as Russia, which is now moving in a very worrying direction on LGBT rights.
As was said, the Commonwealth charter refers to the Commonwealth’s opposition to
“all forms of discrimination”.
I want to pick up the point about LGBT rights being covered, we think, under the broad description of “other grounds”. I suspect that the intention was that because it would be impossible to get every Commonwealth country to sign up to a specific reference to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, “other grounds” would be included so that countries that want to interpret that as meaning that we are against discrimination on those grounds can believe that, and those that are more reluctant to do so can pretend that it is not really in there. That lets some of the countries off the hook. I am referring to the 41 countries that will claim adherence to the charter, but will continue with their policies of discrimination.
Let me cite an example. I mentioned it in South Africa in response to the delegate from Cameroon. In June of this year, the gay activist Eric Lembembe said in response to attacks that were taking place on the offices of gay rights organisations in Cameroon:
“Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”
Two weeks later, he was horrifically tortured and murdered.
This is the important thing. Governments have a key role to play, but not just in the laws that they pass. They must recognise that the laws that they pass and the discussions that they have in Parliament filter down into horrific attacks on people in the streets. We see this even in countries such as South Africa. I echo what the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole said. The Deputy Speaker of the South African Parliament made an amazing speech, declaring her support for equality and saying that that was a country that had fought discrimination, and had fought apartheid. Thirty or 40 years ago, at that Commonwealth meeting, there would have been people arguing that apartheid was perfectly legitimate on human rights grounds, that different people had to respect different cultures and so on. However, even though that country has enshrined anti-discrimination measures in law, there is still that battle for hearts and minds that needs to be won at grass-roots level. The stories that we heard about corrective rape of lesbian women and the fact that the police were not really prepared to take those allegations seriously were very worrying indeed.
I therefore ask the Minister to tell us what the Government have done to pursue this agenda since our debate in March on Commonwealth day. He said then:
“We fundamentally believe that we should do much more and we remain concerned by recent attempts in several Commonwealth states to introduce punitive laws on homosexuality.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 186WH.]
Is it the Minister’s view that laws criminalising homosexuality and, in particular, attempts to introduce the death penalty for same-sex relationships not only undermine the clause in the charter that talks about an appreciation for
“the dignity of all human beings”,
but violate international human rights standards?
I will mention very quickly the issue of the death penalty, because my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham was very comprehensive in her coverage. I am pleased that the UN Human Rights Council is looking at, in particular, the issue of the death penalty for under-16s, for pregnant women and for people with mental and intellectual disabilities, and the impact on the children of those who are executed. That has not been on the agenda before, so I welcome that, but would the Minister update us on the impact in the Commonwealth of the Government’s “Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty” and what attempts the Foreign Office is making to promote the second optional protocol to the international covenant on civil and political rights? That protocol specifically signs people up to opposing the death penalty. Does the Minister share my assessment that the death penalty—the use of capital punishment—does not comply with the spirit of the charter, and is that an argument that we will be advancing with other Commonwealth countries?
Let me briefly mention something else that I talked about in South Africa. We had just had news of the resolution of a particularly horrific case in the Maldives. It involved a 15-year-old girl who had been sexually abused by her stepfather for many years and ended up giving birth to his child. When she tried to report that to the authorities, she confessed to having some sort of sexual relations with another adult man and she was sentenced to a flogging—100 lashes—which could have been postponed until her 18th birthday. When I went to meet the relevant Minister in the Maldives, I was told that that should not have happened; she was a vulnerable child and should have been a ward of court. The people there were at great pains to assure me that it was a mistake. As it happened, the Government could not direct the court to drop the sentence, but that did eventually occur.
Yes, that is a particularly extreme example of someone who should not have been subjected to such an ordeal, but many other women still find that although they are the victim of a crime, they are treated as criminals. They are charged with adultery and receive the punishments that flow from that because they have been raped. Sometimes they are forced to marry their attacker. There is just the fact that flogging is used. I was told in the Maldives that they tend to turn a blind eye to adultery unless a pregnancy results, because that is concrete evidence that something has been going on. As a result, 95% of convictions and punishments for adultery are given to women, because it is obviously much easier to show that a woman has become pregnant than it is to show which man was involved.
The use of flogging as a punishment is, I would say, in clear breach of the prohibition on
“cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”
in the universal declaration of human rights. Are we pushing that point at international level to try to persuade countries that they should not be using flogging as a punishment? Women should have no fear of reporting crimes against them. They should be confident that they will be treated as victims, rather than being put on trial themselves.
The last thing that I will mention is CHOGM, which many other hon. Members have discussed. The Government’s long-standing and repeated position was that they would make a decision on attendance closer to the time. The Minister said during our debate in March that no decision had been taken, and I received a similar response in Foreign Office questions in April. The Government have a real opportunity to use this situation as leverage to say to the Sri Lankan Government, “We are reviewing whether to come to CHOGM. We are reviewing the size and scale of our delegation and, indeed, our attendance overall.” However, in May, the Prime Minister announced that both he and the Foreign Secretary would represent the UK in Colombo. Can the Minister tell us what changed between the end of April, when it seemed that that was still a matter for consideration, and early May? Why was the decision taken to send the most senior delegation, and why did the Government choose to announce that so far in advance?
It is not even clear that the Government are united behind the decision. In May, the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged in the House that it was a “controversial” decision
“in the light of the despicable human rights violations”.
He concluded rather vaguely:
“If such violations continue, and if the Sri Lankan Government continue to ignore their international commitments in the lead up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, of course there will be consequences.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 634.]
When I tabled a written question, however, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), was unable to tell me what those consequences might be and in which circumstances they would be considered. I hope that this Minister will be able to provide more clarification in his closing remarks.
I do not have time now to discuss the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights about her recent visit to Sri Lanka—some of my colleagues have mentioned that—but I hope that the Minister will do so. I know that he has limited time; he is looking at the clock, but he will get his 10 minutes. The UN commissioner’s conclusion was:
“The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded”.
She warned that Sri Lanka, far from showing improvement, was
“showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”.
I hope the Minister will tell us what consideration the Government have given to the UN commissioner’s report and whether it has influenced the size, scale and scope of the delegation going to CHOGM.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this timely debate. I thank all Members who have taken part for their thoughtful contributions. I am struck by how many hon. Members went to the Commonwealth parliamentary conference in South Africa. As the Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth, I find that level of support and interest in the House reassuring. I do not have much time to answer all the questions, so if I do not address their questions, I will get back to hon. Members and write to them.
I was struck by the fact that there is more in the debate that unites us than divides us. We all have incredibly serious concerns about human rights in the Commonwealth, particularly in Sri Lanka. In the little time available, I will try to explain the Government’s thought process and how we arrived at the final decision to go to Sri Lanka.
I apologise for the fact that I was not here for the debate. I, too, was in Johannesburg and I want to endorse what my right hon. Friend the Minister says: there is far more that unites us over human rights than divides us. I happened to catch the debate on the screen earlier, so I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said that voices from this country’s delegation were united in support of the speech from the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) about the importance of human rights, particularly gay rights.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who speaks for the Opposition, clearly made an excellent speech—I regret to say that I have not read it, but I shall certainly do so at the earliest opportunity. If you will permit me, Mr Gray, before I turn to Sri Lanka, I will quickly address some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Rotherham, because the debate was designed to cover more than that topic.
The hon. Lady asked about early forced marriage, which I completely agree is entirely repugnant. Through our forced marriage unit, a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Department operation, we directly support anyone at risk in the UK and British nationals abroad. We will continue to strengthen protection for those facing forced marriage. We provide training for professionals to help them to identify potential victims and improve awareness of the issues, so that those at risk, including children and young people, know where to go for support. I am sure that there is more that we can and should do, but we are entirely at one on how morally repugnant such marriages are and on female genital mutilation, about which I feel strongly. People in this country, where alas is it all too pervasive, are finally taking it seriously.
The hon. Lady also raised the death penalty in Nigeria. We are of course appalled that the execution of four prisoners on 4 June ended Nigeria’s seven-year moratorium on the death penalty. We consider the executions to be a serious setback for human rights there. We urge the Nigerian Government to halt further executions. It is worth reiterating the Government’s position: we oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. We lose no opportunity to make that clear to those who still use it.
The hon. Lady raised the proposed anti-homosexuality Bill in Uganda. We have raised our concerns with the Ugandan Government at the highest levels. The Foreign Secretary raised the issue with Sam Kutesa, the Ugandan Foreign Minister, during a bilateral meeting held in the margins of the Somalia conference on 7 May. We are in close contact with civil society groups and, through support for training, advocacy and legal cases, we support efforts to improve human rights in Uganda, including campaigns for LGBT rights. Commonwealth membership is based on shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and it is clear that the Commonwealth’s credibility is linked to its ability to uphold and protect those core values.
The debate has come at a crucial moment. The Commonwealth’s ministerial action group has a new, stronger mandate to protect standards of governance and human rights—it is time for CMAG to live up to that mandate.
I think I know what the hon. Gentleman is going to say and I will answer his question about CMAG in a minute.
Although respect for human rights across the Commonwealth is uneven, we have an opportunity to address that, guided by the principles set out in its charter. As we heard from hon. Members this afternoon, the charter was presented to Parliament in March and it commits members to
“equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights for all, without discrimination on any grounds”.
Used effectively, the charter will inform debate and provoke change. Circumstances in some member states may lead some to doubt the strength of that commitment or the capacity of the Commonwealth to bring about change. I recognise that valid concerns exist, but we must grasp the opportunity that the charter offers. Reform will not happen overnight—I am realistic about that—but I am confident that the Commonwealth can deliver.
In the remaining moments, I shall address our attendance in Sri Lanka, which is an issue we are divided over: some hon. Members think that we should not go to Sri Lanka and others think that we should. The right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), who is no longer in his place, thinks that we should not. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, who is in his place, thinks—I think rightly—that we should. It is worth pointing out the history. In 2009, Sri Lanka offered to host CHOGM in 2011. At CHOGM in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, the Heads of Government decided not to accept the offer and decided that Australia should host CHOGM in Perth in 2011. They decided that Sri Lanka should host in 2013, and that decision was reaffirmed in Perth, at which the Commonwealth representative was a Minister from the previous Government. There was no widespread support among the Heads of Government for a change of location.
The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the Commonwealth day debate on 14 March. As she said, since the debate the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I have decided to attend the meeting. That is the right thing for the Commonwealth—an organisation we strongly support—which has a positive role to play in promoting freedom, democracy and human rights. The non-attendance of Her Majesty was also raised. It is worth pointing out for the record that Her Majesty, as head of the Commonwealth, will be represented by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. That CHOGM will discuss the crucial issue of what will succeed the millennium development goals in 2015, following the publication of the report of the high-level panel, co-chaired by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. It is important that the Commonwealth articulates a clear view that recognises the centrality of Commonwealth values such as gender equality, good governance and the rule of law to the enabling of development. We are pressing for the discussion of those values to play an important part at CHOGM.
We must be willing to respond if we think that the actions of fellow members do not reflect the values we espouse. We will take with us to Colombo a clear message that the British Government have given consistently in this Parliament, in the UN human rights council and in our contacts with the Sri Lankan Government: Sri Lanka must make progress on human rights, reconciliation and a political settlement. A key test of that will be the northern provincial council elections on 21 September, which we are pleased the Commonwealth and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation have been invited to observe—a positive step forward. On such issues, the Commonwealth is complementing the work of other bodies such as the UN. The human rights council passed a resolution in March, co-sponsored by the UK, calling for reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited Sri Lanka last month and expressed strong concerns, many of which we and others in the Commonwealth share—and those concerns certainly seem to be shared by hon. Members this afternoon. CHOGM will focus attention sharply on the work yet to be done to achieve the aims that the Sri Lankan Government themselves have agreed in follow-up to the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. It will allow Commonwealth Governments to understand better the problems still affecting Sri Lanka and consider what support they, and the Commonwealth collectively, can offer.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary told the House on 3 September, we have concerns about media and non-governmental organisation freedom at CHOGM and have pressed the Sri Lankan Government to allow unhindered access. My ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), will reiterate that message when he visits the country on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government in October.
I was asked why there is no reference to LGBT rights in the Commonwealth charter. The charter explicitly states:
“We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”
Our view is that the phrases “all forms of discrimination” and “or other grounds” cover discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as any other form of discrimination. The way of life of LGBT people is criminalised in over 40 member states, and they live with dreadful prejudice in some of them. The appalling attitudes towards homosexuality that persist in some Commonwealth countries threaten to undermine the commitment to non-discrimination that is central to the charter.
Satellite Information Services
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank you, and Mr Speaker, for allowing me to call this debate on an issue which, although having been mentioned in the House before, has never been the subject of a debate. Recent events, however, mean that it deserves to be aired, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply to the points that the debate will raise. I acknowledge the work that the Minister and his Department have done on the matter, and I know that he will have to speak to colleagues in other Departments about the issues that I will raise.
I speak as a friend of India and, indeed, of sport. I want to see India assume its rightful place at the high table of international sport. I sought this debate as much out of concern for India’s reputation as for the future of Satellite Information Services—SIS—important though that is.
As the Minister knows, in October 2010, under notoriously difficult conditions, SIS successfully delivered widely praised world-class broadcast coverage of the Delhi Commonwealth games for the global television market, on behalf of the Indian public service broadcaster, Prasar Bharati. The decision to host the games in India was made when I was Minister for Sport, and that is where my involvement comes from. I was involved in ensuring that we did our best to help the Indian Government to have a successful games. I believe that India was very successful, but the events that unfolded were perhaps a bit disappointing.
The SIS unit that was responsible for negotiating and delivering the contract was, in effect, the former BBC outside broadcasts, which SIS had acquired in 2008. However, regrettably, it seems that from almost the very day on which SIS was awarded the contract the company was the subject of sustained hostility from a wide range of interests. Before and during the games, it was the target of unwarranted accusations and serious, misleading media smears, compounded by what appeared to be at best obstruction, and at worst harassment, from official sources, including, oddly, a tax office inspection of the company’s accounts in the middle of the games. That should all be seen in the context of the maelstrom of rumours, accusations and charges of maladministration that followed the games.
One result of the situation has been that although SIS received partial advance payment, not a single payment has been made since the games concluded, and the company is still seeking in excess of £28 million in unpaid charges, costs and liquidated damages. This is a sorry story, which has overshadowed the games, sadly damaged India’s global reputation and seriously affected a company that has done nothing wrong, and everything right.
From the earliest stages of the contract, it was apparent that SIS and the ex-BBC colleagues had been caught in the crossfire between different political and commercial interests, and it also became clear that there were other interests that wished to see those involved in the Commonwealth games, and in the broadcast contract in particular, discredited. It also appears that, at some level, there is a marked reluctance to settle any debts associated with the games, employing every means—legitimate and otherwise—to avoid paying the bills. Indeed, almost every foreign contractor involved in the Delhi games has faced similar difficulties in obtaining payment. For SIS, however, the situation has been even more damaging than the failure to collect a commercial debt because the reputation of the company has been seriously and unfairly attacked, possibly resulting in a loss of future earnings and threatening the very viability of the company.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of the problems surrounding the games, the Indian Prime Minister commissioned a report from an independent committee, headed by Mr V. K. Shunglu, to investigate all the allegations of wrongdoing and to make recommendations. Let me be clear: I think that that was the right thing to do. The Prime Minister was absolutely reasonable and proper in holding such an investigation into the serious allegations. Sadly, the quality of the committee’s work fell a long way short of what the Prime Minister had every right to expect. That failure was a betrayal of the Indian Government, who were clearly determined to do the right thing, and of the Commonwealth games themselves.
The first report produced by Shunglu concerned the broadcast contract, but the manner in which it was prepared almost guaranteed that it would be flawed and inaccurate. It was notable that much of the false information published in the report echoed, almost verbatim, the false allegations that had been planted in the Indian media, yet the investigating committee made no attempt to approach SIS to verify the information before publishing it, apparently choosing instead to rely for its facts on the very same sources that had been feeding the media. Not only were the “facts” false, but they could easily have been corrected by looking at the publicly available and verifiable information, or by referring to SIS.
Most worrying however, was the committee’s recommendation that a criminal investigation into SIS by the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation—the CBI—was needed. Aside from the damage to the reputation of SIS, the existence of the criminal investigation has provided a reason for Prasar Bharati to avoid settling the outstanding payments.
I apologise for arriving a minute or so after the debate began. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the report puts the viability of SIS at risk? I am looking for an opportunity for our Government to stand up for the company. It did a great job in India and it does a great job here—my local race course, Uttoxeter, relies on its great work.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for intervening because this is not about partisan party politics but about a company that did great work for the UK in its ambassadorial role to the Commonwealth games. We are all pleased with the successes of the Olympics and the Paralympics and what they mean to our great nation. The Government, through the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, need to help the company. SIS has been caught up in a situation that I found embarrassing. Having been Minister for Sport, I did not think that those sorts of things could happen, but clearly they have.
On 31 July 2012, the CBI investigation filed its report in court. Although the report is not yet public, it is known that the CBI has comprehensively dismissed all the allegations made against SIS by Shunglu. The Shunglu committee is now widely discredited. Most encouraging in that respect is a recent statement from the Indian Government that describes the central allegations in the Shunglu report as being based on the wrong premise and the wrong facts. However, under the Indian legal system, a criminal investigation is not formally closed until the CBI court makes its ruling following receipt of a CBI report and, unfortunately, although a date for considering the report has been set on no fewer than 15 occasions, each time there has been an adjournment to a later date. That is obviously a matter of great frustration for SIS, and it represents a continuing and unfair slur on what, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) said, is a fine and highly respected British company. I do not think that any of us in the House would want external involvement in the Indian legal system, but the number of delays must surely create credibility issues for the company.
I think that the real reason SIS has remained unpaid is not the existence of the criminal investigation but because Prasar Bharati has refused settlement, and is locked in dispute with SIS over a range of contractual matters. As with any project of this scale, understandably there are areas of disagreement and dispute, but the contractual matters were not central to the delivery of the contract. Those peripheral issues are now subject to arbitration, and would have no obvious bearing on the payment of the greater part of the outstanding debt. Sadly, there seem to be few signs of any wish to expedite or facilitate fair payment. Indeed, since the games, SIS has continued to be the subject of a range of hostile initiatives from various agencies and, in the arbitration process, of a highly aggressive approach by lawyers acting on behalf of Prasar Bharati.
Although few would argue that the core contract was performed in anything other than spectacularly successful fashion, Prasar Bharati has seized a £3 million performance guarantee provided by SIS before the games and, arguing that the entire contract should be considered voidable, has even demanded the refund of the partial payments paid to SIS. As I have said, the court case is a fig leaf of justification. The real area in which the Government might offer assistance is in encouraging Prasar Bharati to engage constructively in the arbitration process and to settle the issue amicably, fairly and soon.
Not only have Prasar Bharati lawyers had SIS in their sights; at times, it has almost seemed as though one Indian Government agency after another has been lining up to take shots at the firm. I will give one example. In a sensible move to enable the necessary participation by foreign contractors in the Commonwealth games, the Indian Government passed a regulation to allow duty-free temporary imports of equipment for the games, but the Indian customs authorities have sought to exploit every possible loophole to seek payment of duty. One claim against SIS, which was thrown out, suggested that because SIS might have used some of the equipment, it was technically second-hand equipment and therefore subject to duty, as second-hand goods were not specifically mentioned in the Government’s duty waiver.
SIS’s achievement in delivering a quality product for global audiences under the most adverse circumstances—we all remember the preparation issues and problems of the games—has been applauded by client broadcasters all over the world. In most countries, SIS would be seen as a hero, but instead it has been persecuted as a criminal.
As I said earlier, I had the honour of serving the country as Minister for Sport when India was awarded the Commonwealth games. I shared the widespread view that that was a fine and well-deserved decision, and I still hold that view. There were many heart-in-mouth moments and nerve-jangling worries during the run-up to the games. On one occasion, I met Commonwealth games officials who were concerned that, three months before the games, things were not in place. However, the good news was that they were, and it was a great pleasure for me to see the success of the games, as it was to see a company such as SIS working with the Indian Government and showing national broadcasters that it was in an effective partnership.
It has also been a joy, over the past decade or two, to see India increasingly taking its place at the high tables of the world: with its economy and as a great, vibrant democracy, it has been playing its part in the world.
I raised this issue in Foreign Office questions just last week. I, too, want to speak highly of the company. I know many of the executives quite well. They are generous in supporting charity events and many other things, for which I commend them. The hon. Gentleman is discussing India’s reputation, on which I do not wish to cast any doubt, but will he suggest to the Minister that he might look carefully at India’s record on such issues, because other companies have experienced questionable delays?
I am grateful for the intervention of the hon. Gentleman, whom I will call my hon. Friend: he and I have been involved in many issues concerning great sports in the world. I would go back to the Olympics and Paralympics in London, which were the pride of our country, and India should have pride in the fact that it staged the Commonwealth games, but Governments should and must look at the people who have helped them to achieve such distinction.
I am involved in the issue because I believe that the company has been unfairly treated. We have tried to push the interests of British companies in the world of sport in relation to the next Olympics in Rio in 2016. British companies have brought fantastic expertise to the world of sport, and companies such as SIS should not, for the reasons that I have outlined, be in this situation.
I am not making an attack on India, which is a nation of great resolve that can do fantastic things, but its reputation is being impugned. I hope to go to India in the next few weeks, as part of a delegation to promote sport and its wider benefits, and to have an opportunity to speak to the Indian Minister for Sport to try to resolve the matter, because the very unfair situation has impacted on the country. Having been a Minister, I know that it is not for Ministers to involve themselves in the legal situation, but we need to send a strong message that the company has been treated badly, which has had an impact on the reputation of the country, and that the matter needs to be resolved as quickly as possible. I have mentioned the delays arising from the number of times that it could have been resolved and, quite frankly, that does not show positive input in relation to what the Indians should do.
As hon. Members will know, the Commonwealth games next year are in Glasgow. Such games are a massive part of our sporting environment and our sporting legacy. It is great to have the opportunity for people from the Commonwealth to come together. India showed its mettle by applying for the games and by, in the end, holding a successful games. All I ask is that it honours its commitments to companies such as SIS and stops the in-fighting, and that the Minister and his colleagues give people working in the sector the necessary reassurance that we are doing everything we can to resolve the issue.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister might be able to say today. I understand the problems about his and other Departments working together, but time has moved on, and we must ensure that he speaks to his Indian counterparts to express our concern and find a way to support this great British company, SIS, which through no fault of its own, has been put in a ridiculous situation. I hope that he can be positive in his speech, including if there need to be meetings with SIS or parliamentary colleagues. As I have said, this is not a partisan matter, but one on which colleagues from all parts of the House want to support the company and to see a successful end to the problem that it faces.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) for calling this important debate, and to my hon. Friends the Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for their contributions.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Bradford South that Delhi was a wonderful host for the 2010 Commonwealth games, and that Glasgow will be a wonderful host for the 2014 games. As we have seen with the Commonwealth games and the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, such events leave a lasting sporting legacy. That was the case in India and the United Kingdom, and it will be so in Scotland, with those countries enjoying world-class sporting facilities and a renewed interest in sport in all parts of their communities.
Our relationship with India goes wide and deep, not least because of our sporting rivalry. We, of course, beat India in 2012, and then India beat us—or, more accurately, England—in the Champions Trophy. One example of the legacy for India of the Commonwealth games was that it was a springboard for New Delhi to host a formula one grand prix. The purpose-built track has received great reviews from all involved in the sport, and it is now a fixture on the formula one calendar.
Unfortunately, concerns have been expressed in this debate by a senior Minister in the previous Government, as well as by senior Conservative Back Benchers, about the problem that SIS faces in relation to receiving payments for goods and services following the Commonwealth games. As the hon. Member for Bradford South has said, SIS is a highly reputable and successful British company that employs almost 1,000 people and has a multi-million-pound turnover.
It is therefore right and proper that the Government should seek to assist SIS in relation to its problems, and we have very much been engaged with the issue. Ministers, as well as two high commissioners in Delhi, have raised the matter a number of times with our Indian counterparts. The Business Secretary and the Minister for Trade and Investment have also raised it, as have Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers. Indeed I, too, have raised the matter, and I intend to write to the Indian Minister to raise it again. I understand that the Minister for the Cabinet Office is in Delhi tomorrow and also hopes to raise it. There is no shortage of Ministers raising this issue of concern.
I hope that our good friends in the Indian Government, with whom we work on a whole range of issues, will have noted our concerns and this important debate. Matters of little import are rarely raised in the House, and it is a measure of how important the British Parliament considers this issue that we are having this debate today. We are determined to engage with the Indian Government on it until it is resolved. I have met representatives of SIS Live and I have said that I am happy to help where I can. I remain in discussions with the company.
The hon. Member for Bradford South set out with great clarity the events that have led to the position that we are in today. It is absolutely right and proper that India should take seriously any allegations of corruption. It is also absolutely right and proper that those allegations should be thoroughly investigated, which is indeed what has happened. An investigation was called, and it was undertaken by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Although the report has not yet been published, it is pretty clear what the findings are. They are that no evidence of wrongdoing has been found in the SIS case. It is also the case, as we would expect, that all those alleged to have been involved in instances of bribery or corruption have consistently and strenuously denied it.
The CBI report came out at the end of July—not at the end of July this year, but at the end of July last year, so over a year ago. Again, it is absolutely right and proper that the judicial process should take its course. It would be unconscionable for the British Government to be seen to attempt to interfere in any shape or form. None the less, we note that the proceedings have been adjourned some 15 times, and we very much hope that they can come to their logical conclusion. As the hon. Gentleman said, SIS has been paid for some of its work, but is still owned some £12 million—40% of its contract—as well as the £3 million bond that has been cashed in, to which he referred.
To be blunt, if I were to choose to debate issues to do with India and our trade with it, I would want to spend this half-hour debating the fantastic commercial ties that the UK has with India, which are expanding and growing all the time. The Indian economy has remained vibrant even through the economic downturn, and India is, and should be, a fantastic place in which to do business. It would be extremely unfortunate if the continued publicity around this case were to give businesses in either country the impression that it is difficult to trade.
The point is India’s reputation in the sporting world. As a former Sports Minister, I recognise that sport is high-profile. It covers the back pages and sometimes the front pages of our newspapers. India has a role to play because of the magnificence of Indian sport. None the less, this matter will damage the reputation of Indian sport if it does not get resolved.
I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I am sure that anyone who knows about his experience as a successful Sports Minister under the previous Government, and his continued engagement in sport and sporting issues, will take those words with the seriousness that they deserve. As I have said, we have a fantastic relationship with India, and it is one we want to build on. We want good trading relationships. We want to remain one of the top destinations for Indian foreign direct investment, and we want to increase the business that we do with India. It is important to remind the Chamber that UK companies can, and do, succeed in India. The Prime Minister went to India in February. He took with him more than 100 businesses, including 30 small and medium-sized enterprises, demonstrating our continued commitment to do business with India.
We want to double our bilateral trade by 2015 to £23 billion. Despite tough global economic conditions, it was already worth more than £15 billion in 2012. India is the fifth largest foreign investor in our country and we are the third largest foreign investor in India, with more than 400 companies based there.
Jaguar Land Rover has recently announced the creation of 1,700 jobs as part of a £1.5 billion investment, which shows just what a strong British-Indian partnership can achieve. Tata Consultancy Services has set up a delivery centre in Liverpool, and Ashok Leyland has established its first overseas technical research and development centre in Warwickshire. Hinduja Global Solutions has expanded its TalkTalk operation in Preston. All such developments show the UK as a great place for Indian companies.
InterContinental Hotels is to expand in India by building 12 new hotels. Hampshire-based Serco has announced a partnership with ICICI Bank, India’s leading private sector bank, to service payment solutions for the Indian transportation industry jointly. There is the potential to do so much more. The UK excels in technology and expertise, which will meet India’s needs as it develops, and India offers complementary capabilities and innovations. As a Government, we are here to help British companies invest in India and Indian companies invest in the UK through the activities of UK Trade & Investment.
Later this month, the Minister for Trade and Investment will open India’s first British business centre in Delhi, headed by the UK India Business Council and supported by British business groups. There is a plan to open a series of centres across the major high-growth cities, forming a pan-India network by 2017, which will go a significant way to helping us do even more business together.
It is important to continue to improve the bilateral business environment and to remove obstacles so that more business can be done. We are working towards that with the help of the revitalised Joint Economic and Trade Committee, which was set up by Prime Ministers from both countries in 2010. The CEO forum led by Peter Sands and Ratan Tata has reported back with its recommendations of how we can capitalise on opportunities to increase trade and investment.
There is also the prospect of an EU-India free trade agreement, which would made a huge contribution to further liberalisation, and we strongly support the conclusion of such an ambitious deal. This is a truly cross-Government effort across Departments. Our relationship with India goes much wider than just trade and investment. We co-operate on a huge range of issues, including education, science and research, climate change, international development, defence, security, international issues and of course culture, which is my own subject area. We want more UK companies doing business in India, and we want more Indian companies investing in the UK, but we know that there are challenges. Bilateral business is good for both of us, and we want the UK to be India’s partner of choice.
Nevertheless, we will remain engaged, closely, with the SIS Live case. We want a great British company to have its difficulties resolved in India. As I have said before, it is absolutely right and proper that the Indian Government should wish to investigate any allegations of corruption. Given the findings of that investigation, we hope that there will be a speedy conclusion to the judicial proceedings and that, while we wait for that speedy conclusion, some kind of commercial negotiation can take place between the respective parties to see whether a conclusion can be put on the table for when those proceedings come to their appropriate end.
Brierfield and Nelson (Regeneration)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It is also a pleasure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will respond to the debate, because he is one of the few Ministers whom I have yet to lobby directly on this issue. His colleague in the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), accepted my invitation to visit Pendle back in November 2012, as did his other DCLG colleague, the Minister for Housing, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), in June this year. My right hon. Friend is welcome to visit Pendle any time.
I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate on regeneration in Brierfield and Nelson. First, I will set out the background for the debate and outline some of the successes that we have had to date. Then I will address some of the challenges that we still face in the area: empty homes, Brierfield mill and assisted area status.
The towns of Brierfield and Nelson contain some of the most deprived wards within Pendle. There are regeneration challenges in other parts of Pendle, such as in the town of Colne, where I live. However, the problems in Brierfield and Nelson are the most acute in the area and are therefore the focus of the debate.
Pendle is ranked the 41st most deprived local authority in England out of 326, and both Brierfield and Nelson have wards that rank in the top 200 most deprived wards in the country. The percentage of people in Pendle who have never worked stands at 8.33%, which is above the nationwide average of 5.61%. However, the percentage in Brierfield is significantly above the percentage in Pendle—with nearly 15% of people in Brierfield having never worked—and in some wards in Nelson, such as Bradley, the percentage is 17%, and the percentage in Whitefield is 25%. That translates into very high numbers of people claiming out-of-work benefits and low educational attainment and aspiration.
That situation contrasts sharply with the growth opportunities in the borough. Pendle as a whole has one of the highest proportions of people engaged in manufacturing of any part of the country. About 27% of Pendle jobs are still in manufacturing, compared with a national rate of just 10%. Pendle employers include companies in a dynamic aerospace sector, such as Rolls-Royce, as well as companies in the nuclear supply chain, such as Graham Engineering. Pendle has a large number of the fastest growing companies in Lancashire and the wider north-west, and they are powering growth opportunities in the area. The Prime Minister visited one such company, Hope Technology, earlier this year.
Those companies received a significant boost in July, when the Government agreed with the arguments that I and others were making and approved £5 million in additional business support, via the regional growth fund, to help our local mid-sized manufacturers to expand. That should help to create more than 500 new jobs, safeguard a further 250 jobs and bring more than £20 million of private sector investment into the area. Since 2010, we have also seen the number of apprenticeships in Pendle double, while unemployment has fallen significantly. The latest unemployment figures, published this morning, show that the unemployment rate in Pendle is now just 4.3%, which is well below the national average.
In addition, significant investment has been made and programmes undertaken by the council and central Government that have helped to boost the area. The reopening of Manchester road to traffic through Nelson town centre in 2011, along with associated street scene improvements, has given the town a genuine boost, as has the Government’s decision to designate Nelson in May 2012 as one of the first 12 Portas pilot towns in the country. That saw Nelson receive £100,000 to try new schemes to attempt to bring people back into the town centre, and even led to a visit from the retail guru Mary Portas herself. Crucially, that cash was in addition to £100,000 that Pendle received via the high street innovation fund. For young people in Nelson, a new state-of-the-art youth zone on Leeds road was opened by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) in October 2011, in his then role as Children’s Minister.
Pendle council has invested £1.2 million in two new sports pavilions in the area: one at Bullholme in Barrowford and one at Edge End in Nelson. In August, the area secured £150,000 of funding from Sport England for the new Steven Burke Sports Hub, named after the gold medal-winning cyclist from the town of Colne. Added to contributions from other sources, £308,000 will now be invested in the area around Swinden playing fields in Nelson, to create a cycle track and to improve sporting facilities. Plans to expand the role of Pendle community hospital—investment for which was secured by the last Conservative MP for Pendle, for facilities that ideally would be located in Nelson town centre—are also progressing well. Nelson has benefited from Heritage Lottery Fund money to restore the old library on Booth street and to improve Marsden park. Also, the long-standing problem of a lack of primary school places has finally been addressed by the decision to build two brand new schools—Whitefield infants school, where I am a school governor, and St Paul’s primary school—at a combined cost of £14.1 million.
Similar big investments can be seen in the smaller town of Brierfield, with the Lob Lane mill redevelopment providing new homes on a major derelict site. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing was able to visit that site earlier this year. The library also benefited from a £500,000 face-lift in 2012, thanks to the then Conservative-led county council. Brierfield is also home to Pendle’s first primary academy. Walter Street primary school, a school in special measures that had continually failed to improve, has become an academy and is now called Pendle primary academy. Although we are still in the very early days of this transition, after working with the outstanding Nelson and Colne college the school’s results in June showed a significant improvement in reading, writing and maths.
A huge amount of investment and positive change is clearly being made under the current Government, but I will now turn to some of the challenges that we still face in the area. Empty homes remain a real problem in Pendle. The Minister will recall the Westminster Hall debate that he responded to in July, which I also attended, when the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) set out some of the challenges that he faced in his constituency. Many of the root causes of the problems in Brierfield and Nelson are very similar to those in Hyndburn and other parts of east Lancashire. However, in Pendle a combination of factors and the hard work of Pendle borough council, which is jointly run by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, have led to some genuine progress during the past three years. The number of empty homes in the borough has fallen from 1,847 in 2010 to 1,414 in July this year—a reduction of almost a quarter, and I expect the number to be even lower by the end of this year.
We now have the lowest number of empty homes in the area for some time, and that significant reduction—made under this Government—is very welcome. However, things are in danger of stalling. The largest provider of social housing in Pendle is the Together Housing Group, which is spending more than £10 million to bring 300 empty homes across Pennine Lancashire back into use, by offering a purchase and repair option and a lease and repair option. More than £3 million of that investment has come from the Government, via the Homes and Communities Agency, and it could have huge benefits for the towns of Brierfield and Nelson. To comply with the HCA’s funding guidelines, the Together Housing Group is required to register a lease with the Land Registry. However, where a property has a mortgage against it, a housing association requires the consent of the lender to register the title. This is a big stumbling block, as lenders are refusing to do that simply because the scheme does not comply with the standard buy-to-let terms and conditions. Despite attempts to open dialogue with lenders, the Together Housing Group is still being refused by them repeatedly.
I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing about this issue recently, and I would appreciate it if my right hon. Friend the Minister could address this challenge in his response to the debate. Sadly, without a resolution, much of the money will remain unspent and many of the 300 empty homes that I have mentioned will remain boarded up.
I will now turn to Brierfield mill. The Government gave Pendle council a £1.5 million grant, via the HCA, to buy Brierfield mill in March 2012. Formerly, it was the home of a major local employer, Smith and Nephew. Under the previous Government, this building complex was bought by a Birmingham-based Islamic charity, which had planned to convert the site into a 5,000-place girls boarding school. The scale of that project would have been disproportionate to the rest of the local area; there would have been more people in the school than in the town of Brierfield itself. Now in public ownership, this employment site, which covers 400,000 square feet and is located next to the M65 motorway and Brierfield railway station, has the potential to be a key driver of jobs and growth. The project offers the opportunity to provide more than 500 jobs in a mixed-use development, comprising work spaces and enterprise areas in leisure, a possible hotel development and residential uses. However, bringing this major grade II listed building back into use in such a deprived part of the borough will require some public funding, in addition to private sector investment.
In June, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing kindly accepted my invitation to visit Brierfield mill. I have also met another DCLG Minister, Baroness Hanham, to discuss the council’s European regional development fund bid. Pendle council submitted an ERDF funding bid to the DCLG for a managed workspace scheme with a total cost of some £3 million. The bid was for approximately £1.5 million of ERDF to be matched by £1.5 million from the council’s joint venture company with the private sector, which is called Pearl2. However, when assessing the bid the Department raised concerns about procurement and state aid rules, and there have been long negotiations over the past few months. Although officials have been helpful, it looks as though the bid will need to be scaled back to meet those requirements, so much so that continuing with the bid appears not to be viable. I would appreciate the Minister committing to look into the council’s ERDF bid and providing any assistance that he can.
Another equally tricky issue relating to Brierfield mill is securing funding to acquire and improve land at either side of the site to make it more attractive to private sector investors. A key part of that would be a new access road into the site from the M65, which the architects and council believe to be critical to the project’s success. Although that would probably cost in the region of £1.5 million, it would help unlock the site’s potential and draw interest from private sector investors and be a sensible use of taxpayers’ money. Sadly, in his response to Pendle council on 20 August, the Minister for Housing said that all the funding streams that could help to pay for it are fully committed. Again, I would appreciate any thoughts the Minister has on how we could progress the issue. There are barriers in freeing up these grant opportunities for Brierfield mill, and I simply ask the Minister to assist where he can.
Pendle council’s submission to the current consultation put forward four wards to be granted assisted area status: Brierfield ward, the Bradley ward of Nelson and the neighbouring wards of Old Laund Booth and Barrowford, which contain high rates of manufacturing jobs. The proposed wards are all within the M65 corridor, which is highlighted in the Pennine Lancashire investment plan as a key economic growth corridor. The corridor has the potential to generate around 15,000 new jobs and 2,300 new houses. Concentrating assisted area status along that growth corridor, which runs through Brierfield and Nelson, will help to boost regeneration and growth.
The council believes that assisted area status will provide significant opportunities for business growth and development, which will act as a catalyst in bringing high-quality jobs to the deprived areas within the wards and the wider deprived areas of Pendle. There are further eligible wards in Pendle, but the council considers that those four have the greatest potential to utilise the benefits of assisted area status, which will have a positive impact on the local economy and assist with regeneration. I appreciate that assisted area status and the consultation is a matter for Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers, but I urge the Minister to join me in lobbying them on Pendle’s behalf, as a positive outcome would have significant positive effects on regeneration and growth.
In conclusion, I am greatly encouraged by much of what has been achieved by the coalition Government over recent years, particularly at a time of very tight public finances. In Brierfield and Nelson, most of the credit for that lies with the current leader of Pendle borough council, Councillor Joe Cooney, his predecessor Councillor Mike Blomeley and the excellent officers at the council. Rather than simply throwing money at problems, the local authorities and other bodies have had to work innovatively to deliver positive outcomes. However, there is clearly still significant potential for growth in Pendle, and I hope that the Minister can support our area’s ambitions.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) on securing the debate, on the forceful way he has drawn the Government’s attention to the concerns in his area and on his success in his lobbying endeavours to date. I understand the challenges that he has raised and I will address them as best I can.
Before I do that, however, I thought it would be helpful to put into context the Government’s work to help areas such as Pendle drive forward better growth and regeneration. We are firmly of the view that local leaders are best placed to understand their local economies and the needs of their areas, and that is why, as we have developed our policies, we have done all we can to reform the system, putting the levers and incentives in the hands of local leaders and local communities. It is also why we have established local enterprise partnerships, bringing business and local authority leaders together. We have also established enterprise zones, worked with the major conurbations through the city deal programme and introduced a £750 million Growing Places fund at the local enterprise partnership level.
We have supported small businesses through the small business rate relief scheme and decentralised control over resources, for example by removing many of the ring fences on local authority budgets. We have rewarded places that deliver growth through, for example, the new homes bonus and the business rate retention scheme. We recognise in doing that how important regeneration sites such as Brierfield mill and Nelson are to Pendle’s local economy.
I am delighted that I will be added to my hon. Friend’s long list of Ministers within the Department for Communities and Local Government whom he has lobbied on these issues. He referred to his lobbying of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis); the visit that he had from the Minister for Housing, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk); and the conversations that he has had with my noble Friend Baroness Hanham. As a result of that lobbying, and that of the excellent local council of my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, we have already seen some real successes, which bear repetition. As he rightly said, he has secured £100,000 for the development of Nelson high street as part of the Portas pilots, and he described to us the excellent use to which those funds are being put. A further £100,000 has come from the high street innovation fund to provide yet more help in areas with the highest empty property rates.
Pendle has also received two thirds of a million pounds of new homes bonus money, which has already been put to excellent use in helping first-time buyers obtain mortgages by providing guarantees. Pendle has received £2.3 million of direct funding to bring 227 empty homes back into use by March 2015, as my hon. Friend said. Perhaps most significantly in the context of this debate, Pendle has already received £1.58 million of funding from the Government through the Homes and Communities Agency to buy Brierfield mill, securing the site for development when it might otherwise have been sold off for piecemeal developments. I must also refer to his successful lobbying of the Government that led to the announcement of £5 million of business support through the regional growth fund.
As my hon. Friend rightly said, there are still a number of challenges, with much to do and problems to be overcome. I must point out that there is no hidden pot of cash that I can dip into to help solve some of those problems. As he has already been told by my hon. Friends in the Department, the funding streams are already fully committed, but that does not mean that we cannot provide further assistance in some form. I particularly encourage him to ensure that his local council is working as closely as it can with the Lancashire local enterprise partnership.
My hon. Friend referred to the bid for assisted area status. He has rightly said that if that is granted, it will make the area eligible to receive regional aid, typically in the form of capital investment in business. I am pleased to hear that the council is working actively to take up the opportunity of applying for assisted area status for four wards in his area. He is well aware that we are at an early stage of the process. Stage 1 of the consultation phase closes on 30 September. Returns from that first phase will inform the development of a draft assisted areas map, which will be drawn up by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for stage 2 of the consultation in the winter. Following ministerial agreement, the map will then be submitted to the European Commission for clearance before coming into effect on 1 July 2014.
Although there is still a way to go, I seriously urge the council to work closely with the local enterprise partnership, because the LEPs, with their clear strategic overview of their area’s economic priorities, will influence decisions on assisted area status significantly. It is crucial that Pendle influences the LEP’s thinking. By raising the issue so publicly today, my hon. Friend has already helped the cause, for which I congratulate him.
I am particularly concerned to hear about some of the problems being faced in relation to the empty homes programme, which my hon. Friend has rightly highlighted. We have provided £235 million of direct funding to help local authorities, housing associations and community groups address the most problematic empty homes, which would not otherwise be brought back into use. As he rightly says, Pendle has received £2.3 million of that funding to bring 227 empty homes back into use by March 2015. The council and registered providers are working incredibly hard to address those empty homes, as the reduction in the number of empty homes in Pendle is already proving. They have already had great success, but as he has pointed out, there is a complication in the case he describes: many successful empty homes schemes are predicated on councils and other providers leasing the empty homes from their owners, which has increased the number of private sector leasing schemes such as the LinkedUp empty homes scheme operated by Together Housing Group.
Having recently been made aware of the particular challenge that my hon. Friend describes, the officials in my Department are already seeking a solution. Our attention has also been drawn to that challenge by the Empty Homes Network. It transpires that some mortgage lenders are not agreeing to their borrowers entering into the lease arrangements on which the empty homes programme is based, which I find incredibly surprising because such private sector leasing schemes will not only provide a regular rental income for the owners to help them repay their mortgage but improve the value and condition of the asset. Derelict properties sitting on the asset books of mortgage companies are a problem not only for the mortgage company but for the local community. Such properties become a magnet for rats and squatters, driving other local residents away.
I hope mortgage lenders will look at the scheme rather more favourably that they have to date. To try to achieve that, my officials have been working closely with the Empty Homes Network and the Council of Mortgage Lenders to highlight to lenders the real benefits of entering the scheme. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the Council of Mortgage Lenders is now engaging directly and closely with us on that issue, and we hope to persuade it to support the programme and persuade its members to engage much more actively in it. Those discussions are ongoing, and I cannot say that there has been a positive outcome, but successful discussions are taking place. Additionally, the Empty Homes Network is now going to produce a guide designed to help lenders and providers find suitable solutions to the problem. I am pleased that we are making some progress, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work to ensure that the issue is being addressed in the way that it is.
I am also aware of the discussions that have taken place between the borough council, the Homes and Communities Agency and my Department on the further development issues around Brierfield mill. We will continue to do all we can while bearing in mind that there is no hidden pot of cash that I can find. My hon. Friend particularly referred to the European regional development fund bid related to the mill, on which there have been difficult procurement and state aid issues. Following those discussions, we have ring-fenced the ERDF funds for the project, and we are now awaiting a further application from the council. Provided the application addresses the issues in the way that we have advised, I am reasonably confident that we will be able to approve the bid.
On the link road, there are no funds available within the Department to assist my hon. Friend. I am sure he will be active in lobbying other Departments, and I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Transport will now be looking forward to having further discussions with him.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he and his council have done in making huge strides on the regeneration of the area. He has made an important contribution to that work, and I thank him for continuing to raise the issue, for bringing the problems to us and for ensuring that we are working collectively for the benefit of the people who live in his constituency.
Question put and agreed to.