Wednesday 6 November 2013
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
UK Coal Operations Ltd
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. We have known each other for a long time, and I am grateful to you for being here today. I am also grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate on a matter that causes acute concern in my constituency and many other mining constituencies across the length and breadth of Britain. Many Members either have a direct interest in the people and the pits concerned, or represent people who have moved to their constituencies from mining towns.
Before I begin, I want to make a complaint. Yesterday morning, I was contacted by the BBC about the debate. I was told that the BBC wanted to cover the whole issue on television and radio, and that someone would contact me later in the day, which they did. The problem was that they rang up late last night and changed the whole basis of the programme, and I was told that it would now cover energy prices, MPs’ expenses and concessionary coal, which are entirely different matters. It is appalling that the BBC has not treated the matter as seriously as it should have done, and I want to put that on record.
Let me set out the background to this debate. Since the collapse of UK Coal—the company that the Government chose to run the coal industry—after a fire in Daw Mill pit a few months ago, most of the mining jobs have been lost and the liabilities are at risk, which are both very serious. That occurred because during the nationalisation of the coal industry, liabilities were transferred from the public sector to the private sector under TUPE arrangements. As I recall, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), and my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who is sitting next to me, warned some months ago of the collapse of the company and the subsequent fallout. They predicted that unless immediate action was taken, the scenario that we have seen would come about. I am grateful to them for that prediction, but it is sad that they have been proved correct.
I remind the Minister that when the Government privatised coal mining in Britain—against the wishes of those who worked in the industry, retired from it, or lived or ran businesses in communities around it, and against the wishes of the vast majority who expressed an opinion on the matter—they promised to honour all obligations and to guarantee them after the transfer, so that the obligations were at no risk whatever. It is clear from debates at the time that they were regarded by the Government as obligations governed by collective agreements established since nationalisation in 1947, but particularly negotiated in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, it can be argued that some of the agreements date back to the beginning of the last century, and I will provide some examples of that later.
Many people say that the obligation to provide concessionary coal represents a benefit in kind, but it is no such thing. It is a negotiated arrangement by which a portion of the coal dug was pooled for concessionary coal deliveries, both at the time and in the future, to anybody who had worked in the industry for more than a specified number of years. People sometimes speak of the concessionary coal purely as a benefit when it has, in fact, already been earned.
I realise that the Minister is likely to argue that his Department has no legal obligations to UK Coal or the individuals concerned, but I fervently dispute that. I believe that the Department has a moral and financial responsibility to those who were promised concessionary fuel as part of their employment package, and who now find themselves at sea. The national concessionary fuel scheme for employers was never designed to be put at risk. No agreement on privatisation would have been reached in this place if Members had thought that the arrangements might ever be put at risk. That is why the Government made it perfectly clear in Bill Committee and on the Floor of the House that they regarded that obligation as an essential part of the privatisation arrangements. I do not think that anybody who was involved in that would assert anything to the contrary.
Members on both sides of the Chamber want to participate in the debate, so I will be fairly brief, but I want to look at the facts. More than 2,000 ex-mine workers and their widows have lost their historical entitlement to concessionary fuel, or cash in lieu of fuel.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Constituents from Swadlincote, Woodville and Netherseal have contacted me about this issue. We have had meetings with the Minister, and letters have gone backwards and forwards. The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point about the fact that the resources have been set aside for future payments. The workers did not take that as pay at the time; it was set aside, and the coal would be there, or they would receive cash in hand, later on. Some of my constituents live in properties with coal-fired central heating. They do not have gas, and there is no other way of heating their property, so what are they supposed to do? The situation is costing my constituents £1,300 a year, which is an awful lot of money.
The hon. Lady is perfectly correct. We are talking about entitlements, and the amount of money that is being taken away from those people is absolutely outrageous. In any other industry, there would be uproar throughout the community. I am grateful to her for expressing her view.
About 400 of the 2,000 mineworkers retired on the grounds of ill health, either because of injuries that they sustained while working in the coal industry or as a result of pneumoconiosis, emphysema, silicosis, asbestosis, chronic bronchitis or a range of other serious illnesses. If hon. Members have ever seen anybody who is chronically disabled by those diseases, they will understand why concessionary fuel and other arrangements—particularly those concerning pensions—are so important.
I will not make too much of this, but I know about such illnesses because my grandfather died of pneumoconiosis when I was six years old. He had to be taken away from his home because he was in such pain, and he lived for about six weeks in hospital care before he died. He drowned in his own blood; his lungs collapsed. We are talking about not one miner, but hundreds. We can see the seriousness of the issue from the fact that among the 2,000 mineworkers that we are discussing, there are an awful lot of widows. The proportion of widows is much higher than it would be if we were talking about any other industry. Mineworkers die on the job; their lives are shortened by the work that they do, and we should be proud of them and support them in their old age. We should not think of trying to remove any entitlement that they have gained through their work.
The Minister can and must try to resolve the matter. It is not acceptable for him to do nothing to change the situation. He can change it, and he knows that. He can use section 19 of the Coal Industry Act 1994, which states:
“The Secretary of State may, out of money provided by Parliament, make such payments to such persons as he may think fit for the purpose of securing…supplies of concessionary coal…made on and after the restructuring date to persons who would have received such supplies from the Corporation under relevant arrangements if those arrangements had not been affected by steps taken in connection with the restructuring of the coal industry”.
The reality is that he can do it.
What are the costs of the scheme? The Government are getting away with this cheaply. In 1994-95, they received £800 million from the private sector in the privatisation of the coal industry. There are surpluses in the miners’ pension scheme and the British Coal staff superannuation scheme. I was a Minister in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and every year we talked about how much the surplus was worth. We formed and built the Coalfield Communities Campaign out of some of the reserves. There are hundreds of millions of pounds of surplus every year. The Government have taken that, both before and after privatisation, and that is a scandal, because that money should be paid to the miners who earned it, although that is another matter. The Government should make arrangements to settle the matter from that money. The estimated cost of picking up the concessionary fuel liability in its entirety is £34 million. If we are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds every year and the Treasury gaining £800 million from the denationalisation of coal, a mere £34 million is not very much. The Minister knows that the administrative structure is already in place, so no additional cost is attached to sorting this matter out.
I know that this does not directly come under the subject that we are discussing, but workers have also lost 10% of their pension because of the demise of UK Coal. Now their concessionary fuel will be lost. Either loss is too much. Many of them had previous service in the nationalised industry. Some worked loyally for the Conservative Government during the strikes of 1984-85. I did not agree with that, but they did not stand idly by; instead, they supported the Government in keeping the pits open. Many of the people involved in this matter are the same people who were involved then. A lot of them are thankfully in a different organisation now, but they showed loyalty to the Government, and the Government should begin to think about how they can reward that.
I will help the Minister: it is not just the 1994 Act that he can use. The European Council made a decision on 10 December 2010 on state aid to facilitate the closure of uncompetitive coal mines. That allowed the Government to make provision to ensure that key liabilities were transferred from past employers to any new entity, and were funded, so that UK Coal’s former contractual obligations were met, including those on pensions and concessionary fuel. It is therefore not true that nothing can be done. The EU decision allows the Government to make the payments outside the statutory system. The question is whether they will. It is possible, legal, just and fair. Let’s do it.
Order. It is my firm intention to ensure that everyone who wants to speak in this debate gets to do so. At 10.40 am, I will call the Front Benchers, although we might get to them before that. The running order that I propose is Mr Mark Spencer, Ian Lavery, Mr Marcus Jones, John Mann and then Mr Kevin Barron. Sporting an early entry for Movember, we start with Mr Mark Spencer.
I am grateful for your compliment, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) for calling this most important debate. While I am doing my thank yous, I should also thank the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, which has been active in pursuing this issue and is based in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Before we get to concessionary coal, it is worth reflecting on where we are and how we got here. We could be debating the tragic loss of 2,000 jobs, not only in my constituency but also at Kellingley colliery in Yorkshire, and that would be an entirely different debate. That loss has caused enormous financial distress in my constituency and in other parts of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire.
It is worth giving credit to the Minister for his work and support when the Daw Mill colliery caught fire and the pit got into difficulty. It is also worth paying tribute to the work of the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who was the Minister’s predecessor and who played an active role. It was a tragic position with enormous financial pressure on UK Coal. There was a moment when I worried that we were about to lose all those jobs, and the implications of that would have been enormous. Thankfully, with the support of the ministerial team and the work of UK Coal and a number of others, we were able to secure those jobs.
We should reflect on the implications for those who find they are losing the benefits they have built up. I hesitate to use the word “benefits”, because the hon. Gentleman said we should not call them that, but the scheme was part of the terms and conditions of working down a colliery. It was not only a perk, but part of the employment contract. While working in a pit, the person could see that their family was secured for life for energy provision.
The Government often say that we should support hard-working people who do the right thing, and no career is harder than working in a coal mine. Anyone who has had the opportunity to go down a mine will understand how difficult and hard the work is. These people worked hard and they did the right thing. We have a moral obligation to assist those who worked in the mines, as well as their spouses who might be widowed and find themselves under enormous pressure. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) pointed out, many of these people have coal-fired central heating systems, and the financial cost of moving to another energy source and installing a gas boiler is way beyond their means.
I had the opportunity to go round to some of my constituents with Newark and Sherwood Homes, which is a local authority housing provider. Some of its tenants use the free coal to heat their homes. Newark and Sherwood Homes said that it had given some of its tenants the opportunity to change to gas-fired central heating at the cost of the housing provider, but one of the tenants said to me that he did not want to do that, because his whole lifestyle revolved around getting out of bed in the morning, lighting the fire and heating his water. His reason for getting out of bed in the morning was to light that fire. To understand how these things operate, people have to live in a coalfield community.
I put on the record again that some of my villages do not have gas, so they do not have another way to heat their properties. If we could change them to gas, I am sure that we would have done. I thank my hon. Friend for stressing that it is a lifestyle choice for some people, but for others there is no choice.
I am grateful for that intervention. We are fortunate in north Nottinghamshire to have gas to most properties, but some of my constituents will be in the same position, and it is worth making that valid point.
While I have the floor, I will abuse your good will, Mr Hollobone, to a certain degree. I draw attention to the future and how we will move forward in this fantastic industry. I am conscious that Thoresby colliery, in my constituency, has a lifespan that will end sometime between 2016 and 2018. We need to think about how we will accommodate those employees and continue to provide our great nation with home-produced coal.
Just over the border in the constituency of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), is Harworth colliery, which is currently mothballed. I hope that the Government are considering how to reopen it at some point, if it becomes economically viable, and I will continue to discuss that with the Minister.
I implore the Minister to continue to talk to the Treasury about how to accommodate people in this very difficult position. I know that he has given the matter great thought. I hope we can soon accommodate those hard-working people who have done the right thing and should be supported by the Government.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) on securing this important debate.
I want to place on the record my thanks to the National Union of Mineworkers, which has done a tremendous job in highlighting the very difficult situation, and to people in the communities who have been constantly on the phone, concerned that, having spent a lifetime in the industry, they do not now have what was promised on the day they joined it.
We need to look at several things, but we must understand that the concessionary fuel arrangement is not, as many people suggest, a benefit; it is a hard-earned entitlement. It is not a free gift—it is not free coal or free fuel—but part of working underground. When people started work at the pit, they immediately got concessionary fuel, if they had a house and no one else in the house had the entitlement. They got fuel immediately, but we are talking about a lifetime entitlement. It had to be earned through years of service, so that when they finished work—many miners finished young, in their 40s and 50s, not too long ago—they had at the back of their mind their entitlement to fuel because they had worked the required amount of years listed in the national concessionary fuel agreement. This is from years ago, so I might be wrong and the situation might have changed, but I think that the required number was 15 years in the industry, with five of the last 10 years being continuous.
The right was hard earned, and yet we hear some people say, “Free coal bemuses me, by the way”. It was not optional or something that people had to go and ask the bosses for; it is deferred wages, as part of their employment package or their contract of employment. That has been disputed, but there is no doubt that the law clearly states that something not in people’s normal contract is an implied contractual obligation. “Law at Work” simply states:
“If terms have not been expressly agreed, they can be ‘implied’ through conduct or custom and practice.”
We cannot get much more “custom and practice” than people starting employment and getting fuel every week or month, or whatever the cycle was, to the time they finished work. It is not even in dispute: if it is not in people’s contracts but is an arrangement, it is an implied contractual obligation.
The hon. Gentleman is making an impassioned speech. Morally, he is absolutely correct, but the difficulty is that the employer, UK Coal, has gone into liquidation and so has side-stepped that obligation. The question is whether the Government should step in to fill that moral gap if there is no legal necessity to do so.
I understand exactly what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I think that there is a moral obligation. I will come to why I think there is more than a moral obligation.
Some 1,600 to 2,000 people will be affected, including widows—women whose husbands died underground—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield explained, those who left the industry under ill-health retirement. For some of the people who had accidents and retired, the judge agreed that they would have compensation, but that was sometimes reduced to the amount of concessionary fuel they would receive well into the future. All those things need to be looked at.
A few seconds ago, the hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head. We are talking about 1,600 to 2,000 people in this country, so the scale is not enormous. The amount of money could be found, and I am hopeful that it will be found. I passionately believe that the Government have a moral obligation to step in and right this wrong.
I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman is right, because, as the Member who represents the former Selby coalfield, I have in my constituency more men, women and, potentially, widows, than any other area in the national coalfield.
We must consider the moral obligation. No Government of any political persuasion or colour should have any problem with giving hard-working people what was agreed when they started employment. That is the issue. Some people suggest that there is an obligation to the taxpayer—there is, but that can easily be overcome.
My hon. Friend is touching on the responsibility of the Government. If we go back to the 1947 legislation relating to the nationalisation of the coal industry, we can see that some private mining companies had concessionary coal agreements with their work force, and those obligations were taken on by the nationalised industry. The Government therefore have a legal and moral responsibility to try to keep the arrangement going.
I sincerely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments, and I want to turn to how the Government could approach this important issue. I intended to read out section 19 of the Coal Industry Act 1994, but my hon. Friend has already done so. It clearly begins:
“The Secretary of State may, out of money provided by Parliament, make such payments to such persons as he may think fit for the purpose of securing any of the following, that is to say—”
I will not ramble on, as the provision has already been placed on the record, but it is from the Coal Industry Act, and we have to ask why it is there. It is there for a reason—to tackle the problem we face today. It is not there for any other reason. It is not there because it was thought that things would not happen, but because of the debate that was had at all stages of the privatisation of the coal industry in 1993-94. I urge the Minister to look at the situation and take advantage of what the Secretary of State is allowed to do in accordance with the 1994 Act. The matter was discussed at great length, and it is very interesting to read. People should take the opportunity to read Hansard at all stages to see how much of the debate was taken up by this issue, which is very important for many miners.
If the industry had not been privatised, such a situation would not have arisen. The only people who are suffering are those who have worked hard in the industry. It is not the Government who will suffer and it is not UK Coal, which has moved on to pastures new, that will suffer— it is the 2,000 people in the mining communities. As politicians, we have a responsibility to try to help those people.
We have already discussed the vulnerable people in the community—the widows and the elderly people—who have served a lifetime in the industry. They do not have any ability to earn in the future. As the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) mentioned, many of those people live in remote communities. They have only coal-fired power; they do not have gas. How will they afford to renew their heating systems and, on top of that, pay the horrendous hikes in prices for gas and oil, which we are discussing later today in the main Chamber? It is just impossible for them. We should not be putting such a burden on to people who have given their lives not just for the coal industry but for the people in this country.
People face a dilemma: do they get gas, oil or electricity? The price is all that they can look at—and whether they can afford it. We have problems with miners who, having started at the pit on the same day and worked side by side, have finished work under different circumstances. They have all put in exactly the same amount of time, and, under the national concessionary fuel scheme, had a lifetime entitlement to coal. Now, because of UK Coal’s failure, some people have that allowance and some people do not. It is discriminatory to say the least. How can UK Coal get away with creating such social destruction? It abandoned the coal industry one day and moved on to pastures new, leaving carnage behind. It left people in the mining community to pick up the pieces from big business, and they will fail. As politicians, have we not got the common decency to put that right?
A number of firms in the north-east are owed huge amounts of money by UK Coal, which moved on the next day to secure Thoresby, Kellingley and up to six open-cast mines. That was welcomed, but we should not look at that and say it was brilliant and leave the other people behind to pick up the pieces. That is just not acceptable.
UK Coal owes lots of money to companies in my area. It owes M J Hickey, a plant hire firm, £30,000; that could put the company out of business. It owes Northumberland county council £620,000, which will put huge strains on the local community. This is not good enough. I agree with what the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) said; of course we wanted to secure up to 2,000 jobs. I compliment the Minister on his assistance in that regard, because it is just so, so important. However, we must look at what is left behind.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. Lots of companies have been left with huge debts following the restructuring of UK Coal. Perhaps we need time to look at the pre-pack administration and the way in which large companies restructure following failure. A cleaning contractor in my constituency is thinking of getting out of the business because UK Coal at Kellingley has left unpaid a debt of several thousands of pounds, which will cost many, many jobs. The time has come for the Government to look at how companies can be operating one day and then be collapsing the business, going into pre-pack and reforming the following day.
Absolutely. That is the point I was making, so thanks for that. With regard to UK Coal, our fear is that there will be pennies left for people left behind. At the same time, as the hon. Gentleman has said, UK Coal is forging ahead under a new name, with the directors making fortunes and the company earning profits. It just cannot be right.
With regard to the obligation to the taxpayer, I have a letter from the Minister who wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) about the concessionary fuel. He said:
“I do not believe it would be fair to expect the tax payer to meet these additional liabilities on an ex gratia basis.”
That is terrible and it is not acceptable. The Treasury has creamed off—some people say stolen—up to £4 billion from the pensioners in the mineworkers’ pension scheme and other pensions from the surpluses that have been generated since privatisation. Is that not good value for the taxpayer?
I am talking about £4 billion, and it is rising as we speak. If we think that it is good enough for the taxpayer to continue to get a feedback in financial incentives from the mineworkers’ pension scheme, surely consideration should be given to paying 2,000 members concessionary fuel, which was part of their arrangements when they started work. I had said that the Government should get £2 billion from the pension schemes. That figure is now £4.4 billion.
As I am sure the Minister is aware, UK Coal was fined £200,000 only two weeks ago for an underground accident that killed an individual. It was also fined £50,000 for failing to prevent an underground explosion. Those moneys will be paid by the administrator, but what it means, if this goes to the nth degree, is that the people on the list—the 2,000 beneficiaries who hope to get something from the administrator—will be put into the same pot as the £200,000 fine for killing somebody and for an underground explosion.
What people need to realise is that the widow of that miner who was killed—the reason why UK Coal was fined £200,000—could suffer as a consequence. She could get reduced finances from her benefits to cover those fines, which were imposed for killing her husband. That cannot be right, can it? I hope that people understand exactly what I am saying. If not, I will try to explain it in more detail later. Basically, the situation is so perverse it is unreal.
The Government have an option. They have a responsibility under the Coal Industry Act 1994 to take care of those who are set to lose out and to correct an unjust situation that could cause financial problems for more than 2,000 people. I take solace from the reply that the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty received from the Chancellor yesterday. The Chancellor said that he understood the situation—I cannot quote him exactly—and that he hoped that there would be good news soon. I hope the Minister can tell us what that good news is or at least what we can expect.
In summary, we have been talking about not free coal but an entitlement. It is an implied contractual obligation and an arrangement agreed and forged over generations of coal miners. I ask the Minister to urge the Government to treat those individuals fairly and in the spirit intended in the Coal Industry Act.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) on securing this important debate. It is extremely important to many of my constituents, who worked at Daw Mill colliery, which is right on the boundary of my constituency and the constituency of North Warwickshire. We have talked about the number of people who are suffering because of the loss of the concessionary coal allowance. We are probably talking about the best part of 2,000 people, and I suspect that about 20% of them live in my constituency, so people can see from that how important this issue is for many of my constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), who unfortunately cannot be here today, and I have spent a great deal of time addressing the issue of Daw Mill in recent months and, indeed, throughout the past year or so. I do not want to recite the issues about the fire at Daw Mill, the restructuring of UK Coal and so on, but during the past year, my hon. Friend and I have met many miners from Daw Mill, as well as many of their wives, girlfriends or partners, and we know from those meetings how devastating this situation has been for many of our constituents.
There is probably a list of issues that have emerged from the Daw Mill closure and the redundancies that have subsequently been made. The concessionary coal allowance only forms part of the challenges that many of my constituents face, but it is a very important part—not only for those who have just been made redundant, but for those constituents of mine who retired from Daw Mill since privatisation took place in the 1990s.
The crux of the issue is fairness. I represent many ex-miners, some who retired before privatisation happened in 1994, some who retired after 1994 and some who have just been made redundant. From my experience of discussing these issues with them, I know that most of them have spent all their lives since school working in the mining industry. In fact, many of those who have just been made redundant started working in the industry well before 1994, and many of my constituents who have been affected were members of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. They were the miners who, in 1984, ignored the calls from Arthur Scargill to try to hold the country to ransom; they supported other people across the country by crossing picket lines; and they went into work and got coal out of the ground in Warwickshire.
Those people who left the industry before 1994 have statutory protection; they are still receiving their coal allowance or, if they decided to trade in that coal allowance, their fuel allowance. However, all the people whom I represent who either retired from the mining industry after 1994 or who have recently been made redundant have now stopped receiving their concessionary coal allowance or concessionary fuel payments. We need to bear in mind that many of them are pensioners on fixed incomes who rely heavily on the allowance to heat their homes. As hon. Members have already alluded to, many of them still have coal-fired heating systems and, indeed, many of them live in ex-pit houses, many of which are not the best insulated properties and it therefore probably costs more to heat them than many modern properties.
There is an issue of fairness: the inequity between the people who left the industry before it was nationalised and the people who subsequently left it. Despite some of the arguments that have been made by Labour Members, there is clearly no legal obligation, but there is clearly a moral obligation on the Government to do something to help my constituents who are now struggling to pay their energy bills, through no fault of their own and despite the fact that they worked for many years in a very hard industry, with the expectation that they would receive the coal allowance.
Having spoken to my right hon. Friend the Minister, I know the work that he did in relation to Daw Mill, and I commend him for it. Unfortunately, from my constituents’ point of view, many of them have been the losers in all this, but many of them understand why jobs needed to be secured elsewhere. However, I implore my right hon. Friend to listen to this debate carefully and to speak to our right hon. Friend the Chancellor. My right hon. Friend the Minister knows that I and several other Conservative MPs have already spoken at length with our right hon. Friend the Chancellor about this issue. Seemingly, he is sympathetic, but it might be a good thing if my right hon. Friend the Minister could raise the issue on behalf of my constituents who are affected, and I sincerely hope that when our right hon. Friend the Chancellor is able to make his next mini-Budget—the autumn statement—later in the year, we can see some light at the end of the tunnel for these people, who have suffered badly following the demise of Daw Mill and UK Coal.
I congratulate and thank my near-neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale), for calling for and securing this timely debate. I hope that the Minister, who is listening hard to his party’s MPs, is already mulling over how the Government’s commitment to abolish green taxes will only mean anything in reality when Harworth colliery is reopened and re-mined. The coal there—there is enough for at least 30 years, and the possibility of more, if more shafts are sunk in the mine, which is on my constituency’s Lincolnshire border—would provide him with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that the Government are serious about that commitment.
I hope that we will not have to take legal action for one sub-group of those affected by the issue that we are discussing—the former miners who have had accidents, and the widows of those who died in accidents. There are up to 2,000 of them; my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) has already spoken about them. Some legal settlements relating to accidents incorporated the issue of concessionary coal, and therefore the obligation for that sub-group or subset will almost certainly fall legally on the Government. That is because those people who had accidents—by definition, through no fault of their own—including some of my constituents, settled for an amount from the National Coal Board based on concessionary coal being part of their compensation. For that subset of people, the Minister has no choice. I hope that common sense will be used, and that they do not have to waste our time and his, or pay legal costs to pursue compensation through the courts.
I will leave some time for my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) to speak. However, I must mention the issue of gas. In Bassetlaw, which is in north Nottinghamshire, 6,000 properties are without access to gas, so using gas is not an option for their owners. Indeed, some of those properties, which include terraced properties, could not safely have oil either. With fuel poverty, sometimes a calculated choice is made, but often there is no choice at all. Indeed, I and others have battled to get gas to particular streets, in order to provide that choice for those who want it, but the costs involved are prohibitive, because installing a gas main is not the cheapest thing in the world, and villages may be many miles away from other places. For many, when it comes to fuel poverty, there is no choice. The most vulnerable, and the most vulnerable to fuel poverty, are among my constituents.
Further clarification is needed, because the term “concessionary coal” suggests a give-away or perk, but the coal is part of the employment conditions and part of the pension. A good comparator would be Ministers and Members of Parliament who require remuneration for a second home. They need a second home to do the job and rightly are not taxed—indeed, they get the money back—on something that is legitimately used to do the job. It is right and proper that that is not a taxable benefit. There are many other areas of life where there are similar comparators. Exactly the same applies to concessionary coal. It is not a perk; it is part of the retirement pension.
I have only two more things to say, but one will take a little time. First, though, I want to refer to the letter recently received by my constituent, Mr Philip Hall of Manton, who is one of those affected. Mr Hall has received what has twice been described by the administrator as a “generous offer”. He is being offered two sacks of coal—not a week, a month or a year, but two sacks of coal for the rest of his life. He wants me to make the point that he does not feel that that is reasonable or generous. He feels that it is an insult.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I, too, have been made aware by one of my local retired miners that they have been contacted, I understand, via UK Coal and offered coal at a price that is higher than they would pay if they went down the local coal merchant’s to buy it. It seems a rum do, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so.
No wonder the administrators are calling Mr Hall’s offer generous. By comparison it is, but a country in which people living in fuel poverty are given two sacks of coal for life, for their pension, is not the kind of country that we aspire to have, or that the Minister aspires to have. I am sure that he would not want that to be part of his legacy as a Minister.
The second and final issue of substance that I want to raise is a matter that I have referred this week— the Minister has been copied in to the letter; it will be arriving—to the Serious Fraud Office. I hope that the Minister, not now but in the next few days and weeks, will investigate this fully. I do not believe that the splitting up of UK Coal has been done properly. I am not referring to the old logo being used in adverts at the moment, because that is peripheral. The company was split in two on 10 December. The land assets were put into a separate company called Harworth Estates Property Group Ltd, and that is where the value is—the huge value of those land assets—because this Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition are keen on house building, and they want the houses built in places such as Harworth. These are former coal sites, brownfield sites. There would be consensus, if the relevant Ministers were here, on building housing in these places. They would be saying, “Yes, this is exactly the kind of land on which we want to see lots of houses.” It is a huge asset—a fortune—that this company is sitting on.
I am not an expert on the legalities of splitting up companies, which is why I have referred the matter to the Serious Fraud Office and to the Minister, but I am pretty sure that people have to be honest about the values of companies. On 10 December, the company was split. I have with me a planning application dated 14 December. The planning application is from UK Coal Mining Ltd—a company that does not appear to exist any more or, if it does, is the one that we are talking about today, which owes the miners the money and the coal. The application is dated 14 December—four days later. This was over a weekend, so it was even fewer working days later. It is a planning application to Bassetlaw district council for 996 houses and other employment opportunities that was put in by this company. The profit on just this one piece of land is worth more than the money required for these miners and widows for the rest of their lives, and the application was put in a few days later.
The reason why I have referred the matter to the SFO is that things have to be done in the open when company changes are taking place, as far as I am aware, and I see on the application that the box has been ticked, and the officers have been named, for pre-planning application discussions. A little fee has been paid to Bassetlaw council, and there have been discussions with three named officers. Documents that I have seen demonstrate that the applicants are told that they will get approval. They know that the council, which is required by Government to have housing, wants housing built in that place. These people put the application in, having split up the company.
Which half of the company will see the profits from this when the application is in the name of UK Coal Mining Ltd? This seems to me very straightforward, and this is where we will need Government intervention. It will need to be the bit that owns the liability, because it seems to me that that is the name in which the application has gone in. It is the basis on which these people split the company up, and the basis on which they approached people, including me, to argue the case for developing the land assets in order to allow the mining operations to continue.
I went to my council of many years and persuaded it that what we want is not just a coal mine in Harworth. We want the land used for industry and for housing. We want a deal doing to allow the industry to survive, and to ensure that it is meeting its proper obligations to the retired. That is exactly what I did, in exactly those terms.
The company restructured just before it put in the application. I have a redacted copy of the application, but I see that it was put in by the applicant just days after the split-up. If that is not fraud, I do not know what is. These people have split a company up, knowing that there is a hidden value there—because they have had the discussions with the council—that needs to be built into the calculations. That value should be with the part of the company with the liability. They should not be allowed to get away with this. I am looking forward to hearing how the Minister will tackle his obligations and give the guarantees, in the language and detail that the Chancellor of the Exchequer used yesterday, and also how he will hold to account these people, who have stolen this asset from the taxpayer, miners and former miners, and ensure that they do not get away with it.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) for obtaining this Adjournment debate at such an opportune time. You are right, Mr Hollobone: I am an ex-miner. I received an e-mail from an ex-miner in my constituency in July this year. His name is George Fowler, and he lives in the village of Maltby. He said:
“could you please advise me on the situation with UK Coal? I was retired on ill health in 1998. The UK Coal administrator I spoke to informed me I had lost my fuel. The previous letter left me with doubts for my pension. At this time my health condition has deteriorated and left me again unemployed.”
He goes on to say that “it’s hard times” living on the benefit that he is on. I know George quite well. Like me, he was an underground electrician at Maltby colliery, and he was my apprentice for a number of years. He is clearly not happy with the current situation.
I was around when this House discussed privatisation, which my hon. Friend spoke about. I looked through the archives in my constituency office a couple of weeks ago and found a Department of Trade and Industry publication called “British Coal: The Government’s proposals for concessionary fuel entitlements after privatisation”. I assume the Minister is familiar with that document, but I will tell him what the then Tory Government were saying. The introduction and summary says:
“The Government announced in the White Paper ‘The Prospects for Coal’ its intention to privatise British Coal as soon as possible to free the coal industry from the constraints of public sector ownership.”
Ironically, the last coal mine in my area closed earlier this year, which certainly freed the coal miners of Rother Valley. I have lost six mines since first being elected to this House.
The introduction and summary continues:
“The Government intends to bring forward the necessary legislation as rapidly as possible… The Government recognises the importance to past and present employees of British Coal, and their dependants, of their present concessionary fuel entitlements. The Government is committed to safeguarding their entitlements.”
Paragraph 18 of the document, which was published in October 1993, addresses arrangements for continuing employees:
“The Government will ensure that the responsibility for supplying concessionary fuel to continuing employees will pass to successor companies by whom they are employed. This will be achieved by means of transfer schemes under the privatisation legislation. There will be a contractual obligation on successor companies to honour the continuing concessionary fuel entitlements of those persons who transfer to their employment.”
I think the Government are obliged to honour that, too.
When I worked in the coal industry for many years, concessionary fuel was effectively negotiated as part of our annual income, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said. Concessionary fuel was taken into account, as were pensions, in the increase, or lack of increase, in our wages. Previous Governments clearly said to people such as George Fowler that they would be protected following privatisation.
I have a copy of an article from The Guardian, dated 12 May 2013, on the situation at Daw Mill. The article reports that the Minister told The Sunday Times:
“We are looking at whether the ownership of Daw Mill can be transferred back to the Coal Authority.”
If the transfer had taken place, there would be clear implications for the public purse, because the Coal Authority, as I understand it, is funded by central Government, although it also receives fees for planning and so on. The Guardian article continues:
“UK Coal is largely debt-free following a complex restructuring of its parent group Coalfield Resources last year. However, as part of the deal, large pension liabilities from across the group were ringfenced solely within the UK Coal unit, which is committed to a demanding schedule of pension deficit repayments… Earlier this month, UK Coal was forced to deny claims that it was seeking voluntary liquidation after HM Revenue & Customs turned down a request for a delayed tax payment. Fallon said: ‘The cross-government response, coordinated by my officials, has ensured that we have been able to respond to the company’s needs, and help facilitate its financial position.’”
A number of people have said today that they do not want to go into the restructuring of UK Coal, but I do. I have a copy of the directors’ remuneration report from the annual general meeting of the restructured UK Coal. The report was drawn up last year, and I understand that it has been accepted. It was given to me a few months ago; I am happy to give the Minister a copy if he wants one.
Page 2 of the report, which dates from the run-up to the restructuring, states:
“Executive Director remuneration (excluding the Chairman) comprises a base salary, an annual performance bonus, participation in a long term incentive plan or arrangement, a car or car allowance plus fuel card, pension contributions to a defined contribution pension scheme or a pension allowance, life assurance and health insurance. Bonus payments and benefits in kind are not pensionable. An appropriate balance is maintained between fixed remuneration and performance-related remuneration.”
The report then addresses four individuals. I have a few minutes left, so I will read it out:
“Following a review of executive salary levels, Messrs Brocksom, Williams and Michaelson’s base salaries were increased to £242,889, £240,350 and £236,900 respectively with effect from 1 January 2012.”
The report then addresses the annual bonus for executive directors:
“However in light of the planned restructuring the Committee agreed one-off bonus arrangements for 2012, which replaced the normal potential awards…in respect of Messrs Williams, Michaelson and Brocksom.
Messrs Williams and Michaelson had the opportunity to receive an enhanced bonus of up to 150% of base salary in the event of the restructuring plan announced on 14 March 2012 being successfully implemented. The first half of this bonus (of up to 75% of salary) would be payable at the end of 2012 for achievement of specific targets to improve the operational and financial performance of the business together with achieving key personal targets.”
I do not have much time, and I want to get this on record. I will give way if I get the opportunity.
The report continues:
“The second half of the bonus (of up to 75% of salary) was to be paid on successful implementation of the restructure plan…but will be deferred until the end of 2013 and was conditional upon the continued employment of Messrs Williams and Michaelson.
As part of the restructuring…Messrs Williams and Michaelson transferred respectively to Mine Holdings and Harworth Estates. However, it was agreed and announced at the time of the completion of the restructuring that Mr Williams would leave the Mine Holdings business in early 2013. The Committee has determined that although Mr Williams broadly achieved the safety performance required, the operational and financial performance of the mines put the mines in such difficulties that they will not recommend to the directors of Mine Holdings that the bonus is payable (2011). Mr Williams also benefitted in 2011 from an award of 500,000 shares which will vest during 2013…The Committee reviewed Mr Michaelson’s performance in the year and will recommend to Harworth Estates that a bonus of £152,500 (2011: £114,900) is payable in respect of the operational and financial performance in the year.”
The company has serious problems, yet the report continues:
“In anticipation that Mr Brocksom would leave the business on completion of the restructuring, his enhanced bonus for 2012 was agreed at a lower level of 100% of salary, with no deferred bonus, following the successful implementation of the restructuring plan. He will receive this enhanced bonus of 100% of his base salary £242,888”.
I realise that I will have to sit down in two minutes, but the report states that
“Mr Cox, Chairman, was recruited on a base salary of £350,000 per annum on the basis he provided three days per week. In the light of the time Mr Cox was required to provide in 2012 in relation to the restructuring and on-going business, the Committee agreed to supplement Mr Cox’s base salary by £120,000 for 2012”.
That is for a three-day week, although I assume he may have worked a bit of overtime:
“However, this was not paid until the sufficient short term recovery of the mining business and the proposals for December 2012 restructuring were fully developed”.
I will sit down very shortly, but the report goes on to say that
“Mr Cox was granted the following awards pursuant to the authority contained in Listing Rule 9.4.2R(2):
A Long Term Award to acquire up to 2,800,000 ordinary 1 pence shares which will normally vest on 15 November 2013 (being the third anniversary of Mr Cox’s appointment)…An Award over 1,520,000 shares which was to normally vest on an annual basis in three equal tranches subject to Mr Cox’s continued employment”.
I also understand that UK Coal paid lawyers millions of pounds from the restructuring, yet George Fowler, and 2,300 others, have had their concessionary coal removed by the company. I do not know whether that is illegal, but it is obscene at a time when George Fowler and thousands of others have to suffer having the entitlements they worked for in the coal industry taken from them because of the scheme’s so-called liquidation. I hope the Minister will address some of those issues in the not-too-distant future.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I was going to say that it was a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) on securing the debate. I should declare an interest, in that my grandfather was briefly a miner in a pit in my hon. Friend’s constituency, although I should reassure him that, as I have explained to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Mr Hood), that was on my mother’s, not my father’s, side of the family, so it is just a coincidence that my surname is Greatrex.
The Minister has rightly been asked a lot of questions by Members on both sides, who represent constituents directly affected by the changes at UK Coal and who have a long and proud record of standing up for their constituencies and mining communities, so I will endeavour to speak for less than 10 minutes to give him the maximum opportunity to reply.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield and others have set out the background, so there is no need for me to go over it. However, I would make the point that this issue garnered a lot of attention from the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), following the fire at Daw Mill and the break-up and liquidation of UK Coal. During that time, the Minister’s predecessor, Members from across the House, representatives of the unions and others were involved in a number of discussions, which primarily focused on securing the jobs. As the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) said, we welcomed that, but issues were also raised about the liabilities and the potential effects on the people we are talking about.
It is worth reflecting on the point that this issue has been raised on both sides of the Chamber this morning, by people who do not necessarily normally agree with each other on a number of issues. However, given today’s comments, the Minister will be aware that there is a unanimous view that the situation we are discussing is unjustified and unfair for the people concerned.
I was looking at a written answer from the Minister from June, which demonstrated that the number of households in receipt of concessionary fuel under obligations on the Department of Energy and Climate Change fell from 132,158 in 2003 to 70,419 in 2013, for obvious reasons. However, between 2012 and 2013, it fell from 75,061 to 70,419, so the number of people we are talking about is approximately half the fall in the number of households in receipt of concessionary fuel under the current DECC scheme. It is worth making that point about the scale of what we are talking about, because the number of people entitled to concessionary fuel under the scheme as part of DECC’s obligations fluctuates and falls. DECC may well make projections of those numbers, but it may not be absolutely sure what they are, so if we are talking about 2,000 people, that should borne in mind in relation to DECC’s larger liabilities.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. The first relates to a point made almost in passing by the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), and, in a different context, by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), about some of the other liabilities and unpaid debts of the remaining parts of UK Coal, particularly to small and local businesses. That is an important point, although it does not relate directly to the concessionary scheme. Ministers would normally say that this is a matter for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but given that the Minister is also a Minister in BIS, he can perhaps give us an answer.
Secondly, what assessment has DECC made of the impact of the loss of the national concessionary fuel scheme on ex-employees and on fuel poverty, because the Department has responsibility for those issues? As we have heard, a significant number of people are off the gas grid and have no alternative to the scheme. Their situation in relation to fuel poverty will be significantly affected by the liquidation of UK Coal and the ongoing issue we are dealing with.
I note that a written answer the Minister gave my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on 16 October suggested the Government had a pretty closed mind on this issue. I hope the response I heard the Chancellor give the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty in the main Chamber yesterday, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery)referred to, is a sign that, although there are, as my hon. Friends have shown, potentially legal powers available to the Minister, as well as duties and responsibilities he can use, the Government recognise that there is a moral responsibility that goes beyond those issues. Ministers have to be careful when people start making arguments about moral responsibilities on the Government, but I underline that we are talking about a relatively small number of people.
My hon. Friend is talking about moral issues. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) said he did not think there was a legal responsibility. Of the 2,000 people concerned, the majority are injured, ill or widowed. For those who are ill with silicosis, pneumoconiosis, emphysema and other such illnesses, the effects build up over a number of years. They would have contracted their illness in the period when the National Coal Board existed, so there is a legal responsibility, which could be challenged.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I was about to say that a number of people have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, been forced, through no fault of their own, to leave work early, and the scheme’s provisions were part of their settlement. Therefore, there is—at least in some of those cases—almost certainly a legal duty, as well as a moral obligation.
To conclude, the Minister will have heard the strength of feeling. He will have heard about the legal opportunities open to him. He will also have heard the moral case. I hope he will take those points away, reflect on them and, in the further discussions he may have with the Treasury in the next couple of weeks, make it clear to the Chancellor and others that the message from both sides of Parliament—from every person who has spoken in this debate—is that there is a strong case for saying that he not only can, but should, act to ensure that people are not disadvantaged through no fault of their own.
I thank all those who have contributed to the debate, which has been passionate at times, but none the worse for that. I certainly recognise that the consequences of the fire at the Daw Mill colliery have been deeply felt in the communities involved.
Before I turn to the specific issues around concessionary fuel entitlements, I want to report more broadly on our response to the events that followed the fire. The fire began on 22 February, but the colliery had been at risk of closure since March 2012, and its operators, UK Coal Operations Ltd, had previously stated that they anticipated production would cease, possibly on a temporary basis, in early 2014. Unfortunately, the severity of the fire accelerated that timetable, and, as colleagues know, on 7 March, the company felt forced to announce the colliery’s closure.
It was clear from the outset that UK Coal’s management wanted to identify a way forward to secure the ongoing viability of the remaining business within the parameters of the law and propriety. There was a role for my Department in proactively supporting—yes, supporting—the directors of the company and their advisers to find a solution and to safeguard as many jobs as possible.
Over nearly five months in which UK Coal required support, officials from my Department co-ordinated a cross-Government response, with nine Departments and agencies involved, including Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Shareholder Executive, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Health and Safety Executive, the Coal Authority, the Insolvency Service and Jobcentre Plus. HMRC also worked with the company to help to manage its tax obligations.
We wanted to ensure that there was a fully joined-up approach at national and regional level, which would include ensuring that statutory redundancy entitlements were considered and, where appropriate, processed and paid as quickly as possible through the redundancy payments service; agreeing that the Coal Authority would put in place flexible arrangements on certain payments that the company was due to pay relating to its subsidence security obligations; and enabling the company to secure a rebate on its business rates from North Warwickshire borough council, following a revaluation of Daw Mill.
At local level, BIS West Midlands and Jobcentre Plus met local authorities and other local partners to bring about a response to manage the impact of the closure on employees, local businesses and the communities that were directly involved. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, that involved several tailored, employee-focused events, attended by large numbers of the Daw Mill work force. Jobcentre Plus also provided the work force and local businesses with advice on entitlements and alternative employment, including links to local and national information sources and resources. I firmly believe that, taken overall, the collective effort, nationally and locally, demonstrated cross-Government working at its best, to support the company and its employees while the directors worked with their advisers to identify a way forward to secure the future of the business.
Despite the fact that UK Coal underwent a major restructuring in 2012, it soon became apparent, following the Daw Mill closure, that a viable future for the remainder of the company and its employees would be achieved only through further substantial restructuring of the business. So while it was, on the face of it, disappointing when on 9 July the company announced that it had entered administration, it was clear to me that that was the only way the business could secure a viable way forward.
Subsequently, as part of the administrative process, the Daw Mill mine was disclaimed, which resulted in its transfer to the Coal Authority and to the Crown, under law. That approach is consistent with insolvency procedures and the terms of the licence. The Coal Authority, as it would with any colliery where the licence had been disclaimed, has assumed responsibility for securing the site and ensuring that there are no public safety implications. I reassure right hon. and hon. Members, with respect to the new fire that broke out last week at the colliery, that additional controls and safety measures have been put in place to contain it and disperse the smoke.
In addition, the authority is responsible for settling any future subsidence claims by way of security bonds previously lodged with it by the mining companies. As a result, about 2,000 jobs were secured at UK Coal’s two remaining deep mines at Kellingley and Thoresby and at six surface mining operations; an innovative plan was developed by the directors of the company with the Pension Protection Fund, which also provided PPF protection on accrued benefits for employees. That led to the remaining mining operations being successfully restructured and their assets held in individual companies owned by a new business, which now operates as UK Coal Production Ltd.
As part of the process of securing a viable way forward for the rest of the business and the majority of the work force, the directors and administrators had to take hard and, in many cases, unenviable decisions. It is obviously regrettable that job losses ensued and that many people continue to suffer as a consequence of those decisions, and I would not want to belittle that. However, I suggest that what happened was the “least worst” course of action to secure the future of the remaining collieries.
The hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) asked me about closure aid. That can be paid only for mines that were pre-notified to the European Commission prior to the expiry of the coal state aid decision in 2010. Neither Daw Mill nor any other UK mines fell into that category. Several hon. Members mentioned pensions, and I am happy to debate the coal pension schemes. The taxpayer, of course, has benefited from surpluses in the past. However, scheme members have also benefited from above-inflation increases of more than 20% since privatisation. They continue to have a cast iron assurance that the cash values of those pensions will never fall.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) wrote to me, but I have not yet seen his letter and I cannot pre-judge what the Serious Fraud Office might say about the issues he raises. However, I understand that the further restructuring this year involves much of the value of the group property being channelled precisely to support the pensions for employees and former employees.
As to concessionary fuel, it is important to understand the distinction between the national concessionary fuel scheme operated in my Department for the benefit of former employees of the British Coal Corporation, and private concessionary schemes operated by private sector coal companies, including UK Coal. Although they have a common administrator, they are governed by different arrangements. My Department’s obligations are governed by the national concessionary fuel agreements, which take the form of collective arrangements made between British Coal and the mining unions in the 1980s.
When British Coal was sold in 1994, the clear aim was to encourage a competitive industry to flourish free of the constraining influences of public ownership. It was therefore necessary to consider what, if any, of the corporation’s past legacy it would be reasonable and fair to expect private sector purchasers to bear. Among the things considered was the liability for the provision of concessionary fuel to former employees of British Coal and their widows or widowers who met the necessary criteria. It was decided that responsibility for those obligations should remain in the public sector, and they were therefore transferred to my predecessor Department in early 1995.
We currently service more than 69,000 beneficiaries, of whom approximately 57,000 are now in receipt of quarterly cash-in-lieu payments, while the remainder receive fuel. That has cost the Government some £1 billion of Exchequer funds. On the assumption that that will continue until 2050, we anticipate additional costs of some £450 million at today’s prices.
There is no obligation on the Government to fund private schemes that were the responsibility of private companies, and I do not accept that section 19 applies in the present instance. Our firm view is that, the liabilities having already been transferred to successor companies by the restructuring scheme, they cannot be transferred again through the same mechanism. I also have to consider not only the purposes and aims of privatisation but the wider context in which employees in other sectors regrettably lose entitlements to benefits on the failure of their former employer.
I fully appreciate, however, that the loss of concessionary fuel would have been a major blow to those originally supplied under the UK Coal arrangements, particularly when there is universal concern about energy prices. I understand, of course, that many of those affected are in poorly insulated houses or off-grid properties, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) said.
It is correct that the Government should consider requests to support those who have suffered as a consequence of events. Right hon. and hon. Members will have heard the Chancellor’s response yesterday to my hon. Friends the Members for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who have been pressing the campaign, along with my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles). We are now carefully considering what we can do to help those who have lost their concessionary fuel allowances. I can, in the exceptional and extraordinary circumstances of the Daw Mill fire, confirm that we are considering the request for additional assistance. I hope to make an announcement shortly.
The Government support the coal industry and those who have, regrettably and through no fault of their own, lost their employment and some of the benefits that came with it. We are determined to consider the matter further.
Child Abuse (Northumberland)
When I first came to Parliament, a long time ago, one of the pieces of advice that I got was, “If you have an abuse case, tread very carefully.” Anyone who has read about Operation Rose knows what I am talking about, and I will try to develop that in my arguments.
To start, we should concentrate our minds on Operation Rose. I will come to Terry Priestner and his statement later. I was a young councillor when Operation Rose was going on. I do not think that it came to any real conclusion, but it cost £5 million and it deliberated for three years. Perhaps that was one of its failures—it did not get down to the business quick enough and trailed a bit. There was also a lot of anguish on the other side—the carers and teachers accused—but of course in such an operation the innocent sometimes have to suffer, which is unfortunate.
The police started a trawl, which involved them going to interview at least 1,800 children in Northumberland homes, trying to get some information. The teachers and carers accused the police of trying to put words into the children’s mouths, although of course they were middle-aged people by then. That is what the police were accused of, but in reality I do not think that that was the case.
Mr Priestner came to me six months ago. I listened carefully and I went to the police, but the police could not do anything for him. I went to Northumberland social services and met the director, but they knew nothing about Mr Priestner. He was, however, in homes at that time. He knew about Operation Rose, and when he wanted to contribute, he was told, “Those things happen—abuse happens. It happened in them days and that’s the way it is.” As we know now with the Jimmy Savile case, all that has arisen again—everyone thought Jimmy Savile was a man of the people, but we know now that he was not. Therefore, a lot of people—in their 50s and 60s now, but who were in the homes at the time—are now saying, “It happened to me, but nothing happened.”
As I said, the police were accused of encouraging false allegations, and people were talking about lies against innocent teachers and care workers. Trawling for evidence was the wrong approach, according to some. Dozens of professionals from the north-east were backed by MPs, who had, according to media reports at the time, lodged complaints about the “blunderbuss”—I gather that is a gun, although I did not know that before I looked it up—
“effect of the five-year Operation Rose that saw more than 200 people investigated but in the end only six convicted”,
and, of those convictions:
“A total of 277 residents and former residents made allegations against 223 care workers for alleged offences including rape, buggery, indecent assault and physical assault.
Of 32 people who were charged with a total of 142 offences, five were found guilty, one pleaded guilty, 12 were found not guilty, nine had cases withdrawn, four died before their cases were heard and one remained on file.”
At the time, Assistant Chief Constable John Scott defended the police, but acknowledged that the trawling system could trap innocent people—of course it could, and we know that it did. He said:
“We would conduct the inquiry in the same way, were we to do it again.”
So his recommendation was, basically, that trawling was the best idea, even though it could, and did, fetch in innocent people.
At the time, the carers and the teachers formed a group to defend themselves. The matter even came before the Home Affairs Committee, which was chaired by Chris Mullin, and he suggested that a new type miscarriage of justice had arisen from the “over-enthusiastic pursuit” of the alleged abuse of children in institutions. He said:
“The decision to conduct this inquiry was taken in response to a large number of well argued representations.”
There was therefore enough evidence to have an inquiry, but for us to know whether the inquiry was run correctly at the time, I suppose will need another inquiry. If some people think that the first inquiry was wrong, we need an inquiry to find out whether it was. It did take a long time to get through Operation Rose, and that has been said many times, but I do not know though whether another inquiry would be the right approach.
I have, however, secured the debate on behalf of my constituent, because he wants to bring it up—perhaps the Jimmy Savile and new abuses business that is going on has concentrated his mind. He argues that the abuse he suffered at the hands of Northumberland social services, because they put him in those care homes, is still on his mind. Whether that is right or wrong, only people can tell—the people he accuses might be dead, but we do not know.
I will go through Terry Priestner’s statement, because it is best if I read from what he says, rather than read what I would say. He was in Northumberland care homes from 1969 until 1976 and suffered physical and sexual abuse and neglect. First, he was in Fordley children’s home, in 1970; the abuse was physical and the abuser Mrs Evans. Next was Earsdon children’s home, in 1971; the abuse was neglect, according to case records of an allegation by his mother, Mrs Priestner, and the abusers were the house parents, whose names he cannot remember. At Hillbrow children’s home in 1974, abuse was sexual and the abuser was Mrs Allenby. At the same home, there was also physical abuse, and the abuser was Mr Green. I understand that Mr Green was an ex-Royal Marine.
Such allegations, Terry Priestner states, were
“the main allegations…but are not the only events which took place. I did mention everything at the time”—
Operation Rose—but he was told:
“That’s just what happened in those days.”
That cropped up once or twice with Mr Priestner. He was told several times, by several people, “Them things happened in them days”—as with our friend Jimmy Savile, “He was a lovely man; it just happened, didn’t it?” That is the same sort of argument.
After Terry Priestner had spoken to me, according to his statement he
“was contacted by Northumbria Police again, and once again told them what happened along with names, places…and was told by them, we cannot find anyone of the names you have given us, which I find…ridiculous”,
because they were there. The police again said that such things happened in those days—that phrase keeps cropping up—and dismissed them. He also went to see Northumberland council, which also turned a blind eye.
Mrs Allenby, whom Mr Priestner accuses of sexual misconduct, went to court and was told that she would not face trial for nine counts of indecent assault dating back 27 years and which she denied. The prosecution at Newcastle Crown court told Judge Maurice Carr that it would not be in the public interest for the trial to proceed because vital documents were missing. That is what was stated at the time. Although there was no evidence—as far as I am concerned, it had been tampered with because it was there one minute and gone the next—there was still a case.
I appreciate that, but when there are nine accounts of sexual abuse and vital evidence suddenly disappears, something has gone wrong. It would be silly to ask for an inquiry into an inquiry—I do not think that has happened before—but I sometimes wonder whether we should do that.
My hon. Friend is brave to raise this matter. Child abuse cases are always difficult, but does he agree that all accusations and allegations of child abuse from sufferers should always be fully investigated and that no stone should be left unturned until a satisfactory conclusion, is reached for both sides?
That is right, and I do not know whether Operation Rose did that, but the attitude at the time was that such things happen in homes. Most people took that attitude, including the police. To mention Jimmy Savile again, it was also the attitude in the BBC. We must get a grip on that and get through the barrier for people like Terry Priestner. He wanted to raise the matter for publicity because other inmates with him in the homes were also abused. He knows them, but he does not know where they are, and he wants them to come forward. He is pleading for them to come forward with him, so that abusers such as Jimmy Savile and other celebrities, as well as people who worked for Northumberland council, do not get away with what they have done. Mr Priestner was in its care and he should have been looked after.
It is a minefield when there are also innocent carers. The report referred to innocent people whose lives were ruined, and it is awful if innocent people are accused. Many cases were dismissed, and only six or seven people went to jail. After everything, not many were convicted.
Terry Priestner made his point well. He never left my door. I thought he might go away, then the matter would have been out of my hands—we MPs do not like such matters—but he came back to me again and again, and as his MP, I had no option but to raise an Adjournment debate. I hope that I will receive a canny reply from the Minister.
It is good to see you back in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) on securing this important debate and on bringing the matter to the attention of hon. Members. As he set out in his forceful contribution, we are all too well aware that there continue to be shocking and appalling revelations of child abuse—particularly involving our most vulnerable children, who are unable to live with their families. My Department takes the issue extremely seriously. I had an adopted brother who was brought up in a children’s home in the late 1970s, so I am all too alive to the issues raised by some of those who were in residential care during that period.
I was saddened to hear that Mr Priestner does not feel that he has received the justice to which he thinks he is entitled following abuse that he has testified to and which was set out today. He experienced that abuse as a child living in children’s homes in Northumberland between 1969 and 1976. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot go into a commentary on individual cases, and that the police investigation is an operational matter for Northumbria police.
However, I understand that the protecting vulnerable persons unit within Northumbria police’s crime department has investigated the allegations. I also understand that, following substantial inquiries, it has not been able to take any further action in relation to Mr Priestner’s allegations. I appreciate and understand that Mr Priestner must feel extremely frustrated about that. If he remains unhappy about how the police have handled his case, he can, of course, raise his concerns with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, who will independently review how the investigation of his case was carried out.
Ensuring that vulnerable children are protected is one of the state’s most important responsibilities, whatever the care setting. As hon. Members have said, any case of child abuse is completely unacceptable. When allegations are made, we should always follow the evidence, wherever it leads, and ensure that no stone is left unturned.
Where does that leave victims who decide to tackle the problem of the abuse they suffered if they go to court and the evidence no longer exists? It is no good having an investigation when the papers may have gone. It might be helpful in one way, but it does not help the individual who suffered abuse over a sustained period.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said, unfortunately there are cases in which the veracity of the evidence presented to the court could have been greater than it was; some victims therefore feel let down by the efforts that the police made in good faith to bring the case to court with the highest possible level of evidence. We deal with that by ensuring that we have the best possible people and systems in place to carry out the investigation and to set out the case so that we do not miss the opportunity for convictions. In the past, there have been too many cases of failure to obtain convictions.
The fact that abuse occurred in the past makes it no less tragic. I am sorry that Mr Priestner has been living with that. The hon. Gentleman knows that, as a result of the terrible abuse that many children experienced in children’s homes, two major reviews into historical abuse were carried out in England and Wales. Sir William Utting’s report “People Like Us” was published in 1998. It was a comprehensive review of safeguarding for all children living away from home in England and Wales. Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s report “Lost in Care”, into historical abuse in children’s homes and foster care in north Wales, was published in 2000.
If Mr Priestner gets his publicity and, let us say, a dozen other people come forward with the same allegations—people who were in the home with him and know the abusers—will we be able to investigate them again? Brick walls seem to be going up, and Mr Priestner is on his own. If all the people come together, will there be another inquiry?
In the first instance, it is for the chief constable of Northumbria to consider whether there is sufficient new evidence to reopen the inquiry. We have seen a similar train of events in north Wales, with Keith Bristow looking at the investigation that took place there in the 1970s. There is a process to look at any new evidence and for it to be considered by the chief constable, but the decision is for her to make.
Following the reviews that have taken place since the investigations, considerable reforms in how children homes are run have been implemented, including significantly improving safeguards to protect children in children’s homes. All such homes, fostering services and other settings where children live away from home are now regulated and inspected by Ofsted to meet national minimum standards set by the Government. The standards include specific measures, so children are safeguarded effectively.
Everyone working in or for children’s homes and all foster carers now have to undergo an enhanced disclosure and barring service check. They are carefully vetted and monitored to prevent unsuitable people from working with children. All children’s homes and fostering services must now have child protection procedures in line with Government guidance. They have to be submitted for consideration to the local safeguarding children board and to the local authority designated office for child protection.
At the heart of those procedures are that any complaints of abuse by children must be taken seriously and investigated in a timely way. Quite rightly, listening to children’s voices has to be at the heart of the process. The hon. Gentleman mentioned how the culture and climate seemed to be different in those days. One of the reasons for that was that children were not listened to. Local authorities now have a statutory duty to support children in care to complain if they are concerned about any aspect of the services they receive.
That duty extends to ensuring that children have access to independent advocacy. Each child’s personal independent reviewing officer has a legal responsibility to ensure that children know about the benefits of advocacy and are helped to access that when they need it, rather than when it becomes available. As part of the Government’s commitment to put the voice of the child at the centre of care planning, we are funding, over two years, the national youth advocacy service and Voice to provide an advocacy advice service for children in care and care leavers across the country, including children in residential care.
In 2002, the previous Government appointed a children’s rights director for England, who was given the statutory duty to carry out regular consultations with children in care about specific aspects of their care experience. The consultation includes questions on feeling safe, bullying and any other interaction they are having with professionals that they feel is inappropriate. The results are published in an annual care monitor report.
This year, we have revised the statutory guidance, “Working Together to Safeguard Children”. It sets out specific advice about safeguarding children in care. It includes guidance on how social workers and the police should act on allegations of abuse made by children. It is abundantly clear in that document what they must do and what their responsibilities are.
Underpinning the effective safeguarding of children are the safeguarding children boards. Every local board has a strategic responsibility for drawing together all the relevant agencies to work together to improve safeguarding outcomes for children and young people in their area, and to hold those agencies to account in respect of that work. Children in care, including those in care homes, are a priority group for LSCBs.
From the continuing unravelling of historical abuse cases, we know that there can be no scope for complacency. That is why my Department and I are absolutely determined to ensure that children in care are safeguarded effectively and that they can achieve their potential.
One of the things Mr Priestner has said to me is, “Wait a minute. All these people have been coming forward from way back in the ’60s making allegations against this Savile man, and they are being dealt with. Now I am making an allegation against people who abused me in a children’s home, and yet I am hitting a brick wall. What’s the difference?”
As I have explained, the decision on whether to reopen the case is a matter for the chief constable of Northumbria police. If there is new evidence, or others want to come forward who previously did not or they did not have the opportunity, that is clearly a matter for her, and that will be looked at in the proper way.
If there is continuing concern about how Mr Priestner’s complaints were dealt with, he may, as I said earlier, refer the matter to the IPCC to look at in more detail. Recent cases have shown that new evidence and deep-rooted concerns about the conduct of an investigation can lead to the reopening of some investigations—for instance, in north Wales—so that we get to the bottom of exactly what went on and ensure that all those responsible are brought to account.
Shocking revelations about the exploitation of children by predatory adults in their community have demonstrated the particular vulnerability of children living in children’s homes. That is why this year we have been driving forward a significant programme of work to improve further the current regulatory framework for children’s homes. Those improvements will place greater accountability on children’s homes providers and local authorities to ensure that children are safeguarded effectively and provided with stable and good-quality care. That will be particularly important where children are placed in homes that are a considerable distance from their home. No child should be out of sight, out of mind.
In December, we changed the rules so that Ofsted can now share the names and addresses of children’s homes with local police forces, making it easier for the police to identify where vulnerable children are living in their area and to put in place strategies for protecting them. Many may wonder why that was not possible previously. When I discovered the situation, I wanted to get to the bottom of it. We have now changed the rules, and the information is now being shared as normal practice.
We have just carried out an extensive consultation on proposals for improving the effectiveness of safeguarding arrangements for children’s homes. The proposals in the consultation are intended to improve significantly co-ordination and close working between all the agencies responsible for children—particularly local authorities, children’s homes and the police. The consultation ended on 17 September.
We are also proposing to introduce new responsibilities for local authorities, so that a decision to place a child in care far away from home can be made only by a director of children’s services, and only after they are satisfied that the placement is in the child’s best interests and will meet their specific needs. We also want to put in place a requirement on local authorities placing children out of area to seek and exchange information with the area authority in which the child is to be placed, to assure themselves about the suitability of the care to be provided in the other area.
We are planning to introduce new rules for children’s homes, requiring them to have policies describing how they will prevent children from going missing, and to make monthly monitoring visits to children’s homes more independent of a home’s day-to-day management. The independent person visiting children’s homes will have a specific responsibility for assessing the effectiveness of each home’s safeguarding arrangements. The new rules also include a new requirement for children’s home managers to carry out an annual risk assessment of the area where their home is located. Where concerns are identified, homes must put in place clear strategies to protect children.
We are doing those things because I want to ensure that, in the future, only homes that can deliver high-quality care for our most vulnerable children will be acceptable, and that all homes will have a remit to strive for excellence in respect of the children in their care. My aim is to develop a revised framework for homes that is no longer based on meeting national minimum standards, but which requires them to set high aspirations for the children in their care. There is no greater responsibility for the state, as corporate parents, than to protect children.
No child who is placed in the care of their local authority and who is placed in a children’s home should ever have to experience poor-quality care. I am truly saddened that Mr Priestner experienced care in a number of homes that has clearly affected him deeply and that he feels he has not received the justice he needs. I am afraid that I am not able to set up an inquiry, as Mr Priestner has requested, but if he is unhappy with how the police handled his case, he may raise concerns with the IPCC. We are taking forward a comprehensive piece of work, which we hope will make a difference.
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting
[Mr David Amess in the Chair]
Let me say at the outset that many hon. Members have taken the trouble to turn up this afternoon. If those who have not written in beforehand could quietly indicate that they wish to make a speech or just an intervention, that would be helpful. Obviously, I want to call everyone who wishes to speak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. Before starting on my main points, I would like to say something on behalf of the all-party group on Tamils, which includes the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), whom I thank for all her help and support on this issue. The all-party group has always condemned and will always condemn any terrorism whatever. Various accusations have been made that are not correct, so I wanted to put that on the record.
This debate is about the loss of tens of thousands of innocent people’s lives. I believe that that is beyond any party politics, and it is not my intention to bring any party politics into today’s debate.
One of the most important things that everyone talks about is peace and reconciliation, but before there can be that there must be accountability and justice; the one cannot be achieved without the other. The all-party group contacted my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and asked that the decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next week be reviewed, but I have to base my words on the fact that the UK will be attending that meeting. In the light of that, it is vital that various points be raised, and I will raise them; I am sure that other hon. Members have important issues to raise as well. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his place.
Let us consider the various issues raised by me and other hon. Members. At the time of the conflict, many children went missing, as well as adults. We fear that we know what happened to those thousands of people, but is it too much to ask, for the dignity of the families concerned, that what happened to the children and adults who disappeared should be confirmed by the Government of Sri Lanka? I have been promised that on numerous occasions, including at meetings where the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden was present, but we have never heard a word about it.
Sri Lanka has failed on many fundamental core values of the Commonwealth, such as democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, the rule of law, judicial independence and good governance; we have only to look at what has happened to members of the press and at what is happening with any protests that people want to take place during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next week.
For the first time in the Commonwealth’s 64-year history, those core values were adopted into a Commonwealth charter, which was signed by Her Majesty the Queen, as the head of the Commonwealth, in March 2013—[Interruption.]
Okay, it was not me.
The Channel 4 documentaries broadcasted many authenticated videos showing very significant evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the end of the conflict in 2009. There is new evidence in the documentary shown recently, “No Fire Zone”; it shows the fate of a Tamil TV presenter in a stark reminder of the Sri Lankan Government’s cruelty in that period. Until now, they had insisted that she had died in combat during the final stages of the conflict. That has now been shown—not by me, but on TV—not to be the case. There are many unanswered questions about accountability during the last period of the conflict and war, when innocent Tamil civilians were brutally killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Again, it is not me making that claim; it has been shown in TV documentaries. It cannot be denied.
I would like to quote from a short story about one of the disappeared people. This is from The Daily Telegraph of 18 October:
“The abductors arrived in a white van shortly before midnight, stopping outside a modest home in a palm-fringed town on Sri Lanka’s north-western coast. Inside the house he shared with his uncle, Anton Saniston Manuel lay asleep in his sarong.
The men burst in and at the point of a gun the 24-year-old fisherman was led away. That was five years ago and nothing has been heard of Anton…since that night.”
Sometimes his family think that if they had killed Anton in front of them, that would have been better, because they could have buried him and mourned him. They would know what had happened.
The same pain is endured by thousands of families across Sri Lanka. As President Rajapaksa prepares to welcome the dignitaries who will arrive for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, he is striving to portray Sri Lanka as a thriving democracy recovering from decades of civil war. If only that were true. I, like colleagues on both sides of the House, pray that there will be democracy, closure, justice and reconciliation, but have there been any signs of that? I am afraid not.
Let us consider some of the issues that have arisen and have been raised. I have various notes with me, but I am not going to use them. What I am about to say involves all of us, regardless of political party. In 2009, what was happening was known by some of us, and some of us said what was happening, but nothing changed and those lives were lost. That should never have happened. All of us, including me, owe an apology that at that stage, we did not do what needed to be done. For that, I say publicly that I am sorry. I know that colleagues will feel the same.
Tragically, we cannot bring back the lives of the innocent civilians, but what we can do is start today to tackle some of the issues that still exist, such as the violence against women and the massive increase in sexual crimes that is being seen not only in Tamil areas, but across the whole of Sri Lanka. We have to tackle these things. If we are to have reconciliation and justice, there is no point in trying to sweep things under the carpet.
I shall say what my fear is. My fear is that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting will go ahead and will portray Sri Lanka in a certain light—as the current Government wish it to be portrayed. I do not believe that that is the correct light.
I know that the Prime Minister, the entire delegation of Ministers and everyone else who is going to Sri Lanka do care, will visit the areas that I am calling on them to visit in the north of Sri Lanka, will seek unfettered access and will raise the human rights issues. I hope that that happens.
I cannot say what the Sri Lankan regime will and will not allow. That is not in my gift. But if we do not raise these issues, we will be having another debate in this Chamber or in the main Chamber, asking the same questions, year after year after year.
Yes. Of course it would be wrong to impose any restrictions. If we truly are to move things along, there must be free access for anyone—not only the British delegation, but any other delegation—to go anywhere, see anything, hear anything and speak to the people without those people being scared to say what they want to say.
I thank my constituency neighbour and friend for giving way. I suspect that he is aware that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has called on the Sri Lankan Government to assure the Prime Minister that anyone he meets, and their families, will not subsequently be harassed or intimidated. We know that that happens regularly in Sri Lanka. If the Prime Minister meets figures who are critical of the Government, there is a risk that the situation may be serious for them after he and other Ministers have left.
I agree totally with my neighbour.
I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will not continue for long. I have raised my concerns, but I raise one final point. Those of us who have spoken out for justice, reconciliation and peace for all in Sri Lanka should not be targeted and accused of being terrorists or of being wrong. That is unacceptable. Hon. Members on both sides only want justice, peace, reconciliation and accountability.
I do not want to beat about the bush: Britain should not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka later this month. It is disgraceful that our Government are heaping credibility on the Sri Lankan regime by doing so.
In just nine days, the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne will effectively bestow their blessing on the regime when they are photographed alongside President Rajapaksa, who is widely considered to be a war criminal. The images of a king-to-be and a Prime Minister with such a person will cause enormous distress to his victims. Worse, they will give succour to other potential war criminals and show just how easy it is to get away with it. As Amnesty said,
“By hosting CHOGM in Colombo, the Commonwealth is giving an extraordinary and ill-deserved seal of approval to impunity for human rights violations in Sri Lanka.”
President Rajapaksa is head of a regime that cluster-bombed its own people, many in the laughably titled “no-fire zone”. It killed at least 40,000 of its own citizens. Even now, nearly 150,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for. Yes, the Tamil Tigers were a cruel terrorist organisation, but according to the United Nations, the large majority of civilian killings were
“the result of Government shelling and aerial bombardment”.
There was systematic shelling of hospitals and civilian areas by Government forces, as well as restrictions on humanitarian aid.
Channel 4’s documentary “Killing Fields” drew the world’s attention to what the UN panel of experts called a
“grave assault on the entire regime of international law”.
The channel’s latest documentary, screened on Sunday, was almost too harrowing to watch. Mobile phone footage, authenticated by the metadata in each file, showed further evidence of what reporter Jonathan Miller called
“the worst…crimes committed this century…that is saying something, given what is going on in Syria.”
Sri Lanka’s own so-called Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission has totally failed to provide accountability. The UN panel of experts said that it was “deeply flawed” and called for an independent, international investigation into war crimes. Yet Sri Lanka continues to ignore even the most minor allegations, describing them as unsubstantiated or biased.
In the absence of accountability or reconciliation, the situation is getting worse. As the UN human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, said just weeks ago,
“although the fighting is over, the suffering is not.”
For her, Sri Lanka is
“showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”,
“curtailment or denial of personal freedoms and human rights...and the failure of the rule of law.”
Amnesty also described
“a deterioration of human rights...violations continue, with the…Government cracking down on critics through threats, harassment, imprisonment and violent attacks.”
Journalists, the judiciary, human rights activists and opposition politicians are all targets of what Amnesty calls a
“disturbing pattern of Government-sanctioned abuse.”
Sri Lanka is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to meet Sandhya, the wife of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a satirist and journalist who disappeared in 2010. Earlier this week, the BBC screened an excellent documentary, “The Disappeared”, which was about the impact of abductions and secret murders in Ireland during the troubles. Even 40 years on, victims’ families are haunted by what happened, and their emotions are still raw. Mrs Eknaligoda’s husband disappeared just three years ago. The paramilitaries responsible for his disappearance cannot be dismissed easily as terrorists, as might have been the case with the IRA; they are agents of the Sri Lankan establishment.
The state of Sri Lanka has done next to nothing to help Mrs Eknaligoda to find her husband. When she reported his disappearance, the case was not investigated. Instead, she was locked up. Police officers called to court to account for what happened to her husband routinely fail to appear. Ministers refuse to answer letters about the case, other than to acknowledge receipt. Sri Lanka’s chief justice, Mohan Peiris, blithely told the UN human rights commission that Mr Eknaligoda had gone abroad, with absolutely no evidence to back up the claim.
Mr Eknaligoda is not the only one of Sri Lanka’s disappeared. Amnesty reckons that there have been thousands of disappearances, including at least 39 critics of Sri Lanka’s Government, since 2010. Many are not even Tamil; Mr Eknaligoda is Sinhalese. Every one of those disappearances is a tragedy, in a country that is well used to brutality.
What was so shocking about meeting Mrs Eknaligoda and hearing her story was how unsurprised I felt about it. Our Government’s complete failure to hold the Government of Sri Lanka to account is also no surprise. Indeed, although this was Mrs Eknaligoda’s first visit to Britain and hers is a cause célèbre around the world, the British Government refused to meet her.
Freedom from Torture says that Sri Lanka has replaced Iran at the top of the table of torture cases referred to it in the UK. Tamils continue to suffer owing to military controls in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The Foreign Affairs Committee has concluded that holding the Commonwealth meeting in Colombo was “wrong”. It told the Prime Minister not to go unless he received
“convincing and independently verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights.”
No such improvements have been seen, yet still the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne will go.
Our Government claim to be concerned about
“disappearances, political violence and reports of torture in custody”,
but for the next two years, Sri Lanka will chair every important committee of the Commonwealth, and President Rajapaksa will pose alongside our Prime Minister. If our Prime Minister seriously thinks that his presence alongside Rajapaksa will help the victims of disappearances or cluster-bombings, he clearly knows nothing about Sri Lanka.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful case. She is a strong champion of human rights in Sri Lanka. Does she share the sense of betrayal felt by British Tamils living in my constituency, hers and elsewhere in the country that our Government are lending credence to the Sri Lankan regime by insisting on attending the meeting?
As far as I am aware, the hon. Lady was in this House in 2009, when the decision was taken in Trinidad and Tobago, under a Labour Government, to go to Sri Lanka. Will she tell the House how many times since then she has spoken out on the subject?
I cannot, but hon. Members on both sides in the debate will know that at every possible opportunity—every debate, every event and every early-day motion—I have been making this point. I would be making it if the Government were Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Social Democratic and Labour or Democratic Unionist. It is of the utmost disinterest to me who is in power; what is of interest to me is the fact that this is happening. Although no one would regard me as the best friend of our former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), he assured me that his Government would not go to Sri Lanka for CHOGM, and he respected that promise.
My hon. Friend is probably aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee report “The FCO’s human rights work in 2012” stated:
“The FCO objected to a proposal that Sri Lanka might host the 2011 CHOGM on human rights grounds but did not obstruct a proposal that it might do so in 2013… That approach now appears timid. The UK could and should have taken a more principled stand in 2009, and should have taken a more robust stand after the 2011 CHOGM in the light of the continuing serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.”
If the British delegation is silly enough to go on the sanitised, Government-approved visits that are almost certainly lined up, how will that help the victims? The propaganda machine will go into overdrive, presenting Britain’s participation as giving credence to the regime. No doubt, the Government will claim that their attendance at CHOGM is an opportunity to raise dissidents’ concerns, but I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government will not put anyone in danger by meeting them. After the UN met critics of the Sri Lankan regime earlier this year, there were terrible reprisals. I hope that the Prime Minister will not seek to assuage his guilt about CHOGM by putting the lives of those whom he meets at risk, and I hope that the Minister will guarantee those people’s safety long after the summit has ended.
The Government will not even guarantee the safety of Tamils whom they deport from Britain, however. According to Freedom from Torture, at least 15 Tamils whom Britain deported to Sri Lanka were tortured on their return, and they are only the ones who have managed to escape back to Britain to claim asylum again. Many others remain.
The truth is that Britain should not be going to Sri Lanka next week, because to do so will be seen as an endorsement of a Government who fired cluster bombs, white phosphorus and rockets on their own people. The Government may think that justice will be served by having President Rajapaksa pictured, all smiles, alongside our Prime Minister, but what will dictators such as President Assad think when they look at those pictures? Will they be put off? No, they will be smiling, just as President Rajapaksa will be smiling. That will send the message that human rights can be breached, people can be murdered, journalists can be disappeared and the Commonwealth and Britain will do nothing. For the sake of every future victim of a murderous regime, nothing but a boycott of this despicable summit will suffice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, and to follow the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this timely debate. It is incredibly important, and we have heard two very moving speeches already. I take on board what my hon. Friend said about the need for peace and reconciliation, and I agree with him that before that can be achieved, there has to be justice and transparency. Although, in my humble judgment, significant progress has been made in the peace process and in all the work that has been done since the peace in 2009, there is still significant unfinished business and many questions remain unanswered. There is a vital need for justice, transparency and accountability.
I think it was a grave mistake to give the CHOGM the go-ahead to meet in Colombo. In 2009, I supported putting on hold the decision on whether the summit should go to Colombo, and having Perth as the venue for 2011 as an interim measure. That whole discussion should have continued apace. I would like the Minister to comment on the decision-making process within the Commonwealth, and particularly within the secretariat, which does the heavy lifting work behind the process of selecting the venues, because a similar situation may occur in the future. Not many Commonwealth countries are totally unsuitable for hosting a CHOGM, although one can think of a few, but it certainly should not be going to Sri Lanka.
Having said that, although the CHOGM should have been postponed—it should have gone to Mauritius this year, and the stream of work on whether Colombo was a suitable place to host it this year should have continued— since the Commonwealth has decided to go firm on Colombo, the Secretary of State, his Ministers and the heir to the throne are right to go; I disagree with the hon. Lady on that point. What would be achieved by the son of the head of the Commonwealth, and the Foreign Secretary of a country that is seen as central in driving the Commonwealth agenda, boycotting the meeting?
I certainly accept that, and it is one of the downsides. On the other hand, the signal must go out that the Commonwealth is an organisation that is growing in stature and strength, and becoming more relevant in the world. The Commonwealth is bigger than one country, one city and one President, which is why it would be a mistake for our Government to boycott next week’s CHOGM.
I will come on to that point. Since I started studying the Commonwealth, and indeed during my time as a Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, answering for the Commonwealth in the Commons —when he was a Foreign Office Minister, Lord Howell had responsibility for the Commonwealth, and my right hon. Friend the Minister has taken over his work—I have thought that the process is the wrong way round. The country that hosts a forthcoming CHOGM should be in the chair in the two years running up to it, rather than taking over the chair post-CHOGM. That would give it a chance to set the agenda and work tirelessly on some of the priorities that the Commonwealth needs to deal with.
I am concerned that the Sri Lankan Government will be far too defensive in their chairmanship of the Commonwealth, and that they may well use that chairmanship to deflect criticism of some of the appalling historical abuses discussed by my hon. Friend, which have not been accounted for or explained. We must try to implement a better mechanism to ensure that the chair of the Commonwealth drives the agenda that the members of the Commonwealth want.
The hon. Lady mentioned the UN panel of experts. I read their report, which is highly compelling. They suggested that there should be a new independent international investigation of the crimes; that would be a natural extension to the work done by the eminent persons group in the run-up to Perth. Would it not be an idea for the Commonwealth to carry out an independent international investigation of those crimes, as recommended by the UN panel of experts? Will the Minister put that suggestion to the Commonwealth? It would be a good way of ensuring that the Sri Lankan Government concentrated on things that matter, and their involvement in the process would be one stage removed, because the investigation would be carried out by the Commonwealth.
Finally, it is incredibly important that we take a positive view post-CHOGM, because the Commonwealth has an important future. It must concentrate more on trade, commercial diplomacy and the potential for foreign direct investment between Commonwealth members. After all, it is an organisation that encompasses a vast number of people—at the last count, in excess of 2 billion —and total trade between members of some $3 trillion. There is potential for increasing that trade, and using trade and business to break down barriers between communities; for underpinning peace processes; and, above all, for helping to bring about justice and reconciliation. Sri Lanka needs wealth creation and prosperity, but it also needs answers to the questions that have been raised. The Commonwealth can turn what I believe was a mistake into something that will be positive for the future.
It is a delight, Mr Amess, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this important debate, and I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham).
My comments fall into three sections. First, I want to talk about the rule of law in Sri Lanka. Then I want to talk about my constituent, Khuram Shaikh, who was brutally murdered nearly two years ago while his girlfriend was gang-raped. Thirdly, I want to talk about the deterioration of the Commonwealth, not least because of its association with Sri Lanka and its President.
We know from the persecution of the former Chief Justice, from the murder of and attacks on journalists, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned, and from the attacks on human rights activists that the rule of law does not often apply in Sri Lanka, even though it is a key principle of the Commonwealth. For the next two years, we will have a chairman of the Commonwealth, President Rajapaksa, who has little or no regard for the rule of law.
We know from the case of Khuram Shaikh that the President of Sri Lanka puts political patronage and the possession of power well above the rule of law. Over the past two years, my office and I have come to understand Sri Lanka and how it works, or rather how it fails to work when it comes to Commonwealth principles. I have visited Sri Lanka twice in the past nine months. I have met Government Ministers, Opposition MPs, solicitors, senior police officers and soldiers, Sri Lankan diplomats, members of civil society and ordinary citizens. My office staff have flown to Moscow to meet Khuram’s girlfriend, who was raped. I have visited the scene of Khuram’s murder in Tangalle. We have spoken with Canadian and British witnesses who were present on the evening of the murder. We have facilitated meetings in Austria with DNA experts who are familiar with the case. We have had time to study the case in detail, and there is little we do not know.
There is an important point to make. We know the alleged murderers were arrested soon after the murder but were then released on bail. Little has happened since. Then, just two weeks ago—nearly two years after the murder—a senior prosecutor suddenly announced that a trial would get
“off the ground within the shortest possible time.”
That announcement was made just two weeks before the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. I apologise for my cynicism, but one cannot help thinking that the latest announcement is window-dressing for the CHOGM.
Let us be clear about why this is an example of the breakdown in the rule of law and why President Rajapaksa is not an appropriate person to chair the Commonwealth. One of the key murder suspects—the alleged ringleader at the murder scene—has already been connected to the murder by DNA reports. He is chairman of the local council in Tangalle and an active member of the ruling party. He was suspended from the ruling party, but he was quickly reinstated. People in the Southern province of Sri Lanka, including British nationals to whom I have spoken, will tell you that the key murder suspect is a creature of the President and delivers votes for the President’s party. Since no case has come to court, the suspect has become emboldened and, indeed, more violent in the area. He has nothing to fear, because he has the protection of the President. That is why a trial has not yet taken place.
I conclude with this final concern: the Commonwealth cannot allow the CHOGM to become just an opportunity for President Rajapaksa to showcase Sri Lanka. It also has to be used to shine a light on the failures of his regime and to push for change. We are not only on the verge of a British Prime Minister flying over 5,000 miles to shake hands with a President who is protecting the murderer of a British national; we are on the verge of the Commonwealth being led by someone who has no regard for the rule of law. That should worry all of us.
It is a delight, Mr Amess, to serve under your chairmanship. It is the first time in three years that I have spoken in Westminster Hall.
I want to talk about one aspect of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that is taking place this month, as opposed to citing all the aspects. I am listening with great interest to what other Members have said, and that will become apparent at the end of my speech. At the CHOGM, people will rightly talk about poverty alleviation, education, access to water and drugs, and meeting the millennium development goals, but one subject that does not get much attention is lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. In parts, the Commonwealth is failing on that.
Within the Commonwealth, 40 countries still criminalise aspects of LGBT life. Of those 40 countries, 14 are in Africa, eight in Asia, seven in Oceania and 11 in the Americas. One of them is Pakistan, where consensual same-sex relations carry a maximum penalty of death. Just think of that for a second: death. Alongside that, Bangladesh, Barbados, Guyana, Singapore and Uganda all have a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for consensual same-sex relations. That is in stark contrast to some Commonwealth countries that have made great strides. South Africa is one of them. Same-sex marriage was allowed there in 2006, which was well ahead of the United Kingdom, where same-sex marriage was allowed this year. Earlier this year, I watched footage of the New Zealand Parliament passing similar legislation. I had a tear in my eye when I saw people in the public gallery singing after that legislation was passed. That is in stark contrast to what is happening in many other Commonwealth countries. The final communiqué from the CHOGM of 2011 does not overtly refer to LGBT rights at all. One part urges members to consider becoming party to all major international human rights instruments, and to implement fully the rights and freedoms set out in the universal declaration on the human genome and human rights and so on. If we scratch the surface of that, we all know what that means. We also know that if there had been an attempt to put LGBT rights overtly in the communiqué in 2011, there would not have been a communiqué. We all know how it works; we have all been in international forums in which we have had to agree communiqués. I hope that the opportunity will be taken in 2013 to be far more overt about the progress that can be made in Sri Lanka.
One Commonwealth member state that is home to some of the strictest laws on same-sex relations is Uganda. Section 145 of the Penal Code Act 1950 is “Unnatural offences”, which states:
“Any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature…or permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature, commits an offence and is liable to imprisonment for life.”
I went to Uganda a couple of years ago with an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation. We went to see the Speaker of the Uganda Parliament, and we spoke to her about a private Member’s Bill that would make the law even harsher. It was clear to us that we were making absolutely no progress. We were an all-party delegation and she finished by telling us, “Don’t tell us how to run our country.” We were given short shrift.
The Prime Minister spoke about the maltreatment of those who practise same-sex relations after the 2011 CHOGM. There was a failure to reach an agreement among the leaders at that summit. The Prime Minister threatened to dock some UK aid to nations that have discriminatory laws against those practising same-sex relations. It would be a mistake to punish the people of those countries for what their Governments are doing, but we need to look at how we can influence those Governments far better.
Thank you, Mr Amess. I will take your comment on board. We must look at the action the Government can take to influence Commonwealth countries while not penalising their people.
The Kaleidoscope Trust, a UK-based trust working to uphold the rights of LGBT people internationally, received reliable reports that LGBT activists in Sri Lanka had been threatened with arrest, and organisations had been warned that they could be closed down if they continued to advocate human rights for all. That is particularly poignant, given that Sri Lanka is hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this month.
I will finish with two quotes I have been given by two friends. One is from Ben Summerskill of Stonewall. I spoke to him earlier today, and he said,
“There needs to be a commitment to decriminalise homosexuality throughout the Commonwealth. There is a shadow that is cast over the Commonwealth and its relevance in the 21st century unless it can make giant strides towards the elimination of this most hideous of discriminations.”
Matthew Todd of Attitude magazine said,
“In 2013, homosexual relations are still criminalised in the majority of nations of the Commonwealth. This is an unacceptable situation, which sees millions of people suffer hugely diminished lives and, in some cases, lives that are destroyed altogether. It is imperative that the Commonwealth supports and campaigns for the basic human rights of all its citizens, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”
I agree with both those comments.
The CHOGM in November 2013 has the opportunity to do what Ben Summerskill and Matthew Todd describe. Our Government must not miss this vital opportunity to speak up for a group of people who are denied their human rights by their Government. As the Prime Minister indicated in relation to the CHOGM 2011, it will take a journey for some Commonwealth countries to make progress on this issue. Well, the CHOGM 2013 in Sri Lanka is the time to start that journey, and we should start with the human rights that are denied to people who live in Sri Lanka.
In 2012, the FCO identified Sri Lanka as a country of concern in its annual human rights and democracy report, admitting there had been some “negative developments”. The report highlighted the number of abductions and disappearances, as well as the intimidation of human rights defenders, members of the legal profession and the media. Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa has repeatedly rejected demands for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes, including from the Prime Minister.
In August 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited Sri Lanka and noted the country’s worrying “authoritarian turn”. What concerns me is that there is a sense of complicity on the part of our own Government with what is going on in Sri Lanka, where we see the deepening and embedding of corruption, injustice and violence. I say that because Freedom from Torture has claimed that, despite the Sri Lankan Government’s claims of new-found peace, the post-conflict torture of Tamils is ongoing. The UK Government appear to be complicit, because they have forcibly removed Tamils back to Sri Lanka, where they know those people have been met with torture and ill treatment.
Following a freedom of information request in February, the UK Border Agency now admits to granting refugee status to up to 15 Sri Lankans who had been forcibly returned to Sri Lanka and subsequently tortured or ill treated, and who had then come back to the UK. That is deeply worrying.
Furthermore, Home Office solicitors are suggesting to judges in our courts that evidence of torture—scars, wounds and broken bones—is actually self-inflicted. They are saying that to push the courts into agreeing that people should be deported from this country. That is desperately worrying.
I have a constituency case of a 24-year-old man whom I will call Mr P. He came to the UK in April 2013 on a student visa. He subsequently applied for asylum on 26 April. He held pro-Tamil separatist political opinions, which he expressed in Sri Lanka and in the UK. His asylum application was refused by the Home Office, but it was won on appeal in July.
Mr P is a journalist, and he had previously worked on a newspaper in Sri Lanka in a minor capacity. In April 2011, he was detained and assaulted. He was released with the help of the newspaper’s circulation manager. In November 2012, he was admitted to Jaffna general hospital with multiple soft-tissue injuries to his body, lip laceration and teeth fractures—he had been beaten with rifle butts. The medical-legal report concluded—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) for initiating the debate. I also endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) about gay rights across the Commonwealth, where much work has still to be done.
I have a strong view—I have not changed it—that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting should not be in Colombo. With others, I have argued that case in the Liberal Democrat party and in the Government. We did not win the argument, and I understand, therefore, that the Minister appears before us committed to going with the Government’s decision. He has been courteous in receiving some of us and listening to the arguments we want the Government to make.
I want to put to the Minister again some of the arguments I have put elsewhere, including to him at our meeting. First, I hope the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister will publicly argue for the independent inquiry into war crimes I believe still needs to happen. It is unarguable, on the basis of independent evidence, that there were war crimes.
I do not defend the Tamil Tigers—they committed terrible atrocities, too—but Governments have particular responsibilities, and they fail them dreadfully. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who I think is visiting Parliament today, went to Sri Lanka in August. She was clear in her report that the situation was not improving, but getting worse. She said she feared that the country was becoming increasingly authoritarian and that, since the war had ended, democracy had been undermined and the rule of law eroded.
Secondly, I would be grateful if the Prime Minister and Ministers went to Sri Lanka equipped with a list, based on independent evidence, of the disappeared, those who have been killed and those who have been tortured or harassed. I would like them specifically to challenge President Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan Government to tell us what happened to those people—particularly senior lawyers, newspaper editors and others who have simply been wiped out.
Thirdly, I hope we can address the structural need to change the way in which the Commonwealth works if it is not to become entirely disrespected over the next two years under the chairmanship of President Rajapaksa. The idea I have put to Ministers is that we should argue that, consistent with the Commonwealth charter, there should be a panel—a small group of, possibly, three people at any one time—whose job it is to be the Commonwealth’s human rights panel. They would make sure that, in future, the Commonwealth does not decide to go to countries that are clearly abusing the charter’s human rights requirements.
Lastly, I hope we make the strongest representations and engage in the strongest discussions to make sure the next secretary-general of the Commonwealth is much tougher and much more effective in standing up for human rights than the current incumbent.
I want to speak in the debate because two and a half weeks ago a delegation of seven Tamil constituents came to my constituency office. Two men sat in my office with tears in their eyes as they gave accounts of the torture they had recently been subjected to at the hands of the Terrorist Investigation Division.
Both men were asylum seekers who had come to this country hoping to find a safe haven. One had returned to Sri Lanka voluntarily; the other had been deported. One of the men rolled his sleeves up to show me the scars on the front of his arms, where he had been repeatedly burned with cigarettes. Another man told me how he had been abducted. When he left one of the camps in Sri Lanka, he was bundled into a white van and hit across the back with a steel rod. He also had electrodes placed on his head, and a bag covered in petrol was placed over his head in an attempt to suffocate him.
When the Minister and the Prime Minister are in Sri Lanka at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, I want them to raise with the Sri Lankan leadership the torture that is happening. I would like to know what the Minister will say to the Sri Lankan leadership about the accounts that those of us with Tamil communities in our constituencies have heard first hand.
Will the Minister raise with the Sri Lankan leadership the horrific things that we saw on the documentary “No Fire Zone” on Sunday? There was individual witness testimony about the shelling of hospitals and food supply areas in the later days of the conflict; it said that the firing came from the Sri Lankan Government. What discussions has the Minister had about Sri Lanka not becoming automatically the chair of the Commonwealth? That is an honour that the country does not deserve to have bestowed on it. We risk endorsing not only what has happened in the past because of the actions of the Sri Lankan Government, but what is happening now.
The hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) said that we cannot bring back the lives of those who have been killed in the conflict; we can respect them, however. I would prefer it if the Prime Minister did not represent us at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, but we need to take a strong stand there to respect those lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I do not want to beat about the bush either, so I will congratulate the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary on the Government’s decision to attend the CHOGM in Sri Lanka next week, despite the fact that there is huge pressure, as we have seen this afternoon, to boycott it. That pressure comes from parties who are more interested in furthering divisive politics and hindering efforts to bring communities together—especially Sri Lankan communities in the UK.
Of course, as the Minister has said, the decision that Sri Lanka would host the CHOGM this year was taken in 2009 under the Labour Government and reaffirmed at the CHOGM in Perth, Australia, in 2011. Changing that 2009 decision would have required a consensus among Commonwealth member states, and it is clear that there was no widespread support for a change of location. That is why I now believe that it is necessary to attend the CHOGM to support the Commonwealth as an institution that matters greatly to Britain, to try to ensure that there is a positive outcome to the meeting, and to put the situation in Sri Lanka firmly under the international spotlight, which I am sure everyone in the Chamber wants.
The future of the Commonwealth as an institution is more important than the location of any one meeting. We should support its development by participating in the meeting and promoting an ambitious outcome. The Commonwealth consists of 53 independent member states representing nearly one third of the world’s nations and more than 2 billion people. It has some of the fastest-growing economies, trading £3 trillion of goods and services each year. It is a valuable diplomatic and trading network for the United Kingdom, and our influence and role in it depends on our valuing it and taking part in discussions.
There has been positive progress in Sri Lanka, especially in the war-affected areas. The outcome of the Northern provincial council elections has given the opportunity for the Tamil National Alliance to represent the people in that region. Other developments include the clearing of nearly 1.5 million land mines, with the help of the British charity the HALO trust, which I saw when I visited the country last year; the resettling of nearly 300,000 people who were kept hostage by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; the freedom for all people to move anywhere in the island without fear of suicide bombers; and the right of the Tamil people in particular to send their children to school without fear of abduction and conscription by the LTTE.
I know those things because I have bothered to visit the country; I have not, with the greatest respect to other Members who have spoken, just watched a documentary. Many of those who have spoken have not even visited the country. I spent eight days in Sri Lanka last year, travelling all over—to the north, south, east and west. I went to Jaffna and saw the chamber of commerce leaders. I visited resettlement projects in Ariyalai and saw mine clearance in Kilinochchi. I met the leader of the Opposition, Mr Sampanthan, and the President. I saw different communities, traditions and faiths living beside each other harmoniously, and rebuilding their lives after the horrendous civil war. I saw Sinhalese boys and Tamil girls playing together in the school playgrounds. The UK should help Sri Lanka to rebuild itself, and that includes attending the CHOGM.
The number of hon. Members present for the debate shows how important it is. I am a firm believer in the Commonwealth and what it means. To be a member of the Commonwealth says something about a country and its core beliefs.
The Commonwealth charter sets out the core Commonwealth principles of consensus and common action, mutual respect, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, legitimacy and responsiveness. It affirms belief in 16 principles including democracy, human rights, tolerance, respect and understanding, freedom of expression, and gender equality. Those are the things that the Commonwealth stands for. I am proud to be part of a group of countries who assert that they abide by those principles and it is incumbent on us all to ensure that the body that we sign up to plays its part in putting those principles into action on the ground.
There have been calls for the Government to abstain from attending the CHOGM and I understand the reasons for them. About a month ago, a post on persecution.org highlighted comments by the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, who said that the Sri Lankan Government are playing down the issue of groups who spread hatred and violence against minorities, and protecting them. In her statement at the 24th United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, she said that she was “alarmed” at the recent surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities. She added that attacks on churches and mosques, and
“the lack of swift action against the perpetrators”
The Sri Lankan authorities have rejected those assertions, but there is certainly cause for concern. Christian organisations assert that there has been an increase in violence and intimidation towards Christians and in the vandalising of church properties. As to the treatment of the Sri Lankan Opposition, I have carefully considered the evidence presented by the Global Tamil Forum, which is very compelling. That flags up to me a need for intervention, and that is where the CHOGM has a clear role to play.
It should be made clear that we seek change not from a simple international human rights perspective, but because it will benefit the people of Sri Lanka. My Parliamentary aide was married three years ago and went to Sri Lanka for her honeymoon; she talked about the friendly people and the scenery, and had many stories to tell. It is clear, at the same time, that all is not well in Sri Lanka, and that cannot be sugar coated or glossed over. It must be discussed, and changes must be made soon.
I approach the matter with caution; there should be an understanding that the CHOGM should be used not to pretend things are fine, but to emphasise how strongly the Commonwealth and the House feel that the Government of Sri Lanka have a lot to do to bring their standards up to Commonwealth standards, and that we shall be watching and waiting to see that that happens.
It is a pleasure to follow so many powerful speeches.
I want to read a quotation from Wikipedia, about what happened to
“the properties of the people involved in the uprising”.
The article describes how
“they killed all cattle and other animals, burnt homes, property and even the salt in their possession during the repression. Paddy fields in the area of Wellassa were all destroyed. The irrigation systems of the duchies of Uva and Wellassa, hitherto the rice-bowl of Sri Lanka were systematically destroyed. They also massacred the male population of Uva above the age of 18 years.”
That was a quotation about us, the British, during colonisation.
It is clear that Sri Lanka has had a difficult history and things have happened that today we judge as crimes. Change is beginning and I would like to see the intergovernmental conference as a key point in that change—a time when people go to Sri Lanka and say, “It is time for change. If you want to be part of a modern, inclusive world, then this must not happen again.”
We could sit back and take a view from 10,000 miles away, but then there would be little chance of our being heard. Instead we could go to Sri Lanka, meet its various people, and give the message that there is a better, democratic and inclusive way, which works. That is why I wish the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Minister a good and successful trip next week.
I have some questions for the Minister. If he cannot answer today, I should be grateful for a response in writing.
First, what agenda of human rights issues in Sri Lanka has been prepared for the Prime Minister to raise? Does it reflect the debates in the House? Have the Government, indeed, put human rights in Sri Lanka on the agenda of the meeting? What opportunities have been identified to raise human rights abuses in Sri Lanka in the various sub-meetings, and what mechanisms have been identified for doing that?
What strategy do the Government have for raising those issues in the Commonwealth meetings following the CHOGM and what opportunities have been identified for the next 12 months? If Sri Lankan Government representatives accused of human rights abuses seek to attend meetings of Commonwealth bodies held in this country, will they be granted a visa? If anyone from the Sri Lankan Government accused of human rights abuses enters UK territory, will the Government seek to hold that person to account in law?
As has already been asked, will the Government support the call for a further UN investigation into human rights abuses with a view to seeking action by international judicial bodies to hold individuals to account? Will the Government review the policy of deporting Tamils to Sri Lanka in the light of the evidence of the arrest and torture of returnees?
Finally, I deeply regret that the Government are not following the Canadian example of refusing to attend the meeting. Initially, Canada conditionally refused to attend on the basis that there should be some improvement in human rights within Sri Lanka, and then declined to attend, as a result of the lack of improvement. I fully concur with the appeal by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I repeat that, even at this late stage, I would like the Government to think again. If the Prime Minister attends, the message will go out that Governments can kill, maim and persecute with impunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I wish to make three brief points. First, despite the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, we now know that there have been continued human rights abuses, particularly in the persecution of the Tamils. Secondly, we cannot ignore the violations of basic human rights, and I believe that we, as a country, can make a difference. Thirdly, there is no better time to take a stand against this rogue regime than during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. I wish that we were not going to attend, but now that we are, we have an opportunity.
Since the ceasefire, some horrific things have gone on, including the arrest of journalists, as has already been documented this afternoon. The UN Human Rights Council has expressed its concern at continuing reports of
“enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society and journalists, threats to judicial independence and the rule of law, and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.”
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have to say that I have not visited Syria, but I know that it has an evil regime. I have no plans to go to North Korea, but I know that it is also a pretty evil regime. Just because I have not been to a country, it does not mean that I cannot fight against what I see as injustice.
The United Kingdom has huge leverage in relation to Sri Lanka. In 2012, we imported more than £900 million of goods and services—a 13% increase on the previous year. We are Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, its second largest investor behind China, and its main source of Western tourism, something from which I am sure one of my hon. Friends has benefited.
The UK holds a unique place in the Commonwealth, and we have to take the lead on this matter. The Commonwealth charter of values was mentioned earlier, and those values are incredibly important. I do not want people, for many years to come, to be reminded by this Commonwealth summit of the 1936 Olympics in Germany, which should never have taken place.
As we will be there, and as we have leverage, the Government should make specific demands: stop the persecution of the Tamils once and for all; take concrete steps completely to demilitarise the north and east; restore a proper justice system; and ensure that Tamils have basic human rights, including the right to life and freedom of expression, movement and assembly. The Government must ensure that the Sri Lankan Government publish a list of all prisoners and where they are held; that the International Committee of the Red Cross has access to all detention centres; that a neutral commission is appointed by the UN to safeguard property rights in Tamil areas, and all resettlement programmes; and that Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission implements the recommendations made in its interim report more than a year ago. Above all, the Government should make sure that Sri Lanka complies with the recommendations of the UN panel of experts report, and arrives at durable justice for the Tamil-speaking minority. If the Government use the occasion to demand those changes, they will show real leadership and promote the universal Commonwealth values of which, as a nation, we are so proud.
I have very few Tamils in my constituency. There are no votes in this for me. I am arguing for this because I believe in justice and because I believe that we must help nations suffering from genocide. The Tamils have suffered injustice for far too long.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned the Freedom from Torture freedom of information request and the UK Border Agency’s reply in February. In its 2011 “Human Rights and Democracy” report, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office referred to allegations of torture of people who had been sent back to Sri Lanka and were subsequently given asylum in this country, but stated that there was no substantiated evidence that people returned there had been tortured. Interestingly, neither the allegation nor such a statement appeared in the FCO’s 2012 “Human Rights and Democracy” report. The Foreign Affairs Committee has questioned that, but we got no answers from Baroness Warsi when she gave evidence to us. Our report recommended that the FCO
“state whether it still holds the view that there is no substantiated evidence of torture or maltreatment of people who have been returned by UK immigration authorities to Sri Lanka.”
Will the Minister short-circuit the process and give us an answer today? Do the British Government still hold the view that people returned to Sri Lanka are not tortured, and that there is no substantiated evidence, or is their view—given the increasing concerns, and the compelling evidence of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and others—that there is evidence that calls into question the UK Border Agency’s policy of returning to Sri Lanka people who we know have been mistreated since 2009?
In those circumstances, when the Prime Minister meets President Rajapaksa and his several brothers, who run the Government in Sri Lanka, will it not be time to make it clear that the British Government and British parliamentarians expect answers to our questions about people sent back from this country to Sri Lanka and then mistreated, and to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and others about the mistreatment of British citizens in Sri Lanka?
Is my hon. Friend aware that Judge Lobo has referred to the assistance offered by country guidance cases? In an appeal in the first-tier tribunal, he has said that the people at risk are those who have outstanding charges against them—journalists associated with publications critical of the Sri Lankan Government, and those who are aligned to pro-Tamil separatist movements and are working towards the destabilisation of the unitary state. That relates specifically to risks to people who are returned to Sri Lanka.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I will not respond to his intervention.
Finally, it is all very well to say that the Government should be there—that the Commonwealth is so important that the British Prime Minister, the heir to the throne or the Foreign Secretary should attend the meeting—but let us look at the history of the Commonwealth and where it is now. Many years ago, the Commonwealth agreed the Harare declaration, which set out human rights values and how institutions should work. In the past, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and other countries have been suspended from or have walked out of the Commonwealth because human rights issues were raised.
I must say that I am extremely disappointed with the Commonwealth secretary-general—I know him personally, because he was previously the Indian high commissioner in this country—and the way in which he has run the organisation. There has been a downplaying of human rights issues under the current Commonwealth secretariat. I am not giving away any secrets when I say that the British Government tried to raise these issues in 2009 and subsequently. In a vote in the Commonwealth, 50 votes were in favour of going to Colombo and four were against. That is the problem that we have to confront in the organisation. If the Commonwealth does not change, it will become irrelevant.
It is a pleasure, Mr Amess, to serve under your chairmanship. Obviously the debate is about the UK’s presence at the CHOGM. I can understand why so many Members feel frustrated about the situation, given the big question marks over the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka. Much praise has been heaped on Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, who has decided not to attend the upcoming summit in protest at Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Instead, he is sending a Minister from his Foreign Affairs team. I read his sentiments and agreed with the main thrust of them. He argued that because the Sri Lankan Government had failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values, he should not attend the summit. On that point, I believe that he is wrong. Indeed, the Canadian opposition argue that whatever misgivings there are about the host country, the suggestion that the institutions of the Commonwealth should be sanctioned by Canada, and by withholding funds, would be misplaced. That is right. It would be making a false and disingenuous connection between the merits of a member state and those of the broader and more important Commonwealth institution.
Paul Dewar of the New Democratic party said that if Canada had wanted to send a stronger message, it could have moved to remove Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth until there were concrete improvements. I agree, but our Labour Government supported having Sri Lanka as the home country and ratified the selection. This Government inherited that decision. Whether or not Sri Lanka should have been chosen is clearly something that the Chamber wishes to debate, but Labour must answer for its decision. Despite the protestations that we hear from Labour Members now that they are in opposition, when they were in government, they brought about absolutely no change in the circumstances in Sri Lanka for the Tamil people.
For all the attention on Canada’s decision, the CHOGM will be well attended, and rightly so. As the Prime Minister of Australia said, we do not make new friends by rubbishing or abandoning our old friends. I know how difficult it might be for some of the Commonwealth countries, but the conference will proceed with full attendance. The symbolic absence of Commonwealth Heads of Government may deliver a sense of satisfaction to opponents of the Government, but is history not littered with political gestures—boycotts of sporting occasions, trades and summits? In the end, Governments must talk and then they must act; it is what they do best. Engaging in Colombo is better than disengagement.
I have acknowledged the many shortcomings in Sri Lanka and the humanitarian failings, and I am not hiding from them, but engagement is better than disengagement. I do not underestimate the search for justice, but it must be justice for all, and we must look forward and not back. We can learn lessons from the past and hopefully apply them to Sri Lanka.
I congratulate both the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this debate and hon. Members on making such passionate speeches, including the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), who raised the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights across the Commonwealth. That is the subject of a major Liberal youth campaign this year, and I am sure that he will join me in welcoming that.
In 2009, we saw a time of relative hope in Sri Lanka. The civil war had just ended and the decision to host the CHOGM was optimistic, but understandable. As many of us now realise in retrospect and with hindsight, it was the wrong decision, but it is one that is impossible to reverse at this late stage. I also understand the Government’s reasons for wanting to attend the CHOGM. The Government argue that it is an opportunity to advance human rights and democracy, and the values set out in the Commonwealth charter, through dialogue and friendship. That is true, but the Government must understand the risk of undermining the credibility of the Commonwealth charter if Sri Lanka takes up the chairmanship of the Commonwealth over the next couple of years.
The Prime Minister has also argued that the summit is an opportunity to shine the spotlight on human rights issues. If that is the case, then he should certainly follow the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) that that spotlight should also shine very precisely on the issue of the victims of the violence who have disappeared.
In general, such a spotlight is also dependent on media access and transparency. I suggest to the Government that even at this late stage, we should question whether the Prime Minister should attend, and we should make that attendance conditional on four things. First, full and unhindered access to all parts of the country, including the north, is needed by not only Ministers and officials but the international media. Secondly, adequate safeguards and guarantees are needed for those who speak to international media, Ministers and officials. Thirdly, we need a rapid assessment of whether we think any progress at all is being made on, for instance, the recommendations of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. The fourth condition is about whether the British Government should raise the issue of the chairmanship of the Commonwealth going forward to 2015.
My strong inclination is that the Prime Minister should not attend the summit if those conditions are not met. I urge the Government, even at this very late stage, to look carefully at the matter. We have heard from many hon. Members that there is evidence that torture, harassment and the curtailment of human rights are, if anything, increasing. In January, we saw the impeachment of the Chief Justice, Dr Bandaranayake, and in August, we saw Navi Pillay’s critical report. It is not too late, even at this late stage, to rethink the Government’s plans.
It is a pleasure, Mr Amess, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced it. First, he paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for all the considerable work that she has undertaken on the issue. Secondly, he rightly stressed, on behalf of us all, opposition to all forms of terrorism, because both state and non-state actors abuse human rights.
Today, we have very much focused on human rights and on the real concern of Members from across the House over state abuse—indeed, only last week the issue dominated Foreign Office questions. I was pleased that the Foreign Secretary said that he and the Prime Minister will be visiting the north of Sri Lanka to see for themselves what is happening. I also hope that they will take on board the recommendations of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which said in its recent report:
“We recommend that the Prime Minister should obtain assurances from the Sri Lankan Government that people who approach him to talk about human rights while he is in Sri Lanka to attend the CHOGM do not face reprisals or harassment by security forces.”
During the exchange in the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) asked the Foreign Secretary what issues he would take to Sri Lanka and what issues he had already raised. He referred to the answer to a written question in July in which the Foreign Office stated that it expected “progress” in human rights and post-conflict reconciliation in the run-up to the summit in November.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) wrote to the Minister, asking him what issues in relation to Sri Lanka had been taken up. She asked him to clarify
“which, if any, of these issues and other specific human rights abuses, the Prime Minister has raised directly with President Rajapaksa, or which he is intending to discuss?”
She went on to ask,
“could you confirm whether the Government would support the appointment of President Rajapaksa”—
that has already been raised in the debate—
“as Chairperson in Office and what commitments you would seek from him for his two years in the post?”
The Minister must accept that there is real concern, and mounting evidence, that Sri Lanka is heading in the wrong direction—not simply a steady state position, but actually heading backwards.
This month, the FAC criticised the scant evidence of progress in political and human rights. In August, the human rights commissioner said that Sri Lanka was heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Even a Government human rights and democracy report in 2012 warned of “negative developments”. It also talked of
“Restrictions on freedom and opinion…Attacks on and intimidation of journalists, legal professionals, human rights defenders and others…Lack of progress in post-conflict reconciliation and the absence of an independent, thorough and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by both sides during the military conflict…Sri Lanka’s decision to reject a large number of recommendations at the UN Human Rights Council during its Universal Periodic Review in November 2012.”
Those are all matters of real and considerable concern.
In the light of that, it is very unfortunate that the Prime Minister did not reverse his earlier decision to attend the summit. If he had done so, he would have made very clear to the Sri Lankan authorities the extent of Britain’s concern. If he does so even at this late date, I assure him that the Opposition would support him.
In recent months, the Government have also failed to use the prospect of the Prime Minister’s attendance at the summit to force Sri Lanka to address the growing concern over human rights. That has been a misjudgment and a missed opportunity. Even now, the Prime Minister should join his fellow conservative—Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper—and insist on immediate and tangible progress from the Sri Lankan Government before he flies to Colombo.
Such progress should include full implementation of the recommendations of Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Whatever the deficiencies of that commission, it outlined some of the suffering that took place during the civil war and provided a starting point. The progress should also include an announcement of measures to prevent torture and ill treatment, including by the police, which are still taking place; much evidence has been given of that today.
There should be an introduction of legal safeguards for freedom of expression and protections for journalists, and Sri Lanka should establish the independence of the judiciary, following the impeachment of the chief justice in January. Sri Lanka should also unblock the BBC’s World Service, which has had to suspend its broadcasts in Sri Lanka because of the interference and interruption of Tamil broadcasting.
I hope that the Minister and the Foreign Secretary will advise the Prime Minister to reverse, even at this late date, the decision to attend the summit; to set out a clear UK action plan to support tangible improvements in human rights in Sri Lanka; to add his voice to the growing calls for an international UN-led independent investigation into alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Sri Lanka; and to seek urgent assurances from Sri Lanka that it will respect the Commonwealth charter on human rights during the summit itself, and not use violent force to suppress protests. Doing these things would be good for Britain, good for the Commonwealth and very good for the long-suffering people of Sri Lanka.
I am not sure whether I will be able to answer everyone’s questions in the eight minutes of the debate that I have been left, but I will endeavour to address them either now or in writing.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) for securing this debate. I recognise the valuable work that he and his group do for the Tamil community.
Before I respond to the points made by right hon. and hon. Members during today’s debate, I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing condolences to the family of Thavisha Lakindu Peiris, a Sri Lankan national who was murdered in Sheffield last Sunday. Two people have been remanded in custody on suspicion of murder. I have discussed this case and travel arrangements for the family with the Sri Lankan high commissioner this afternoon.
I recognise that the Government’s decision that Ministers should attend the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka is controversial. I know that many in this House and in the other place have suggested that we reconsider the level of our attendance, and that also appears to be the position of the Opposition party. However, it has not escaped some people’s notice that it was a Labour Government who made the decision with others, in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, that Sri Lanka should host the CHOGM. It strikes some as slightly opportunistic that it is only in the last few weeks, as we are packing to go to the CHOGM in Sri Lanka, that Labour has suddenly announced that the Prime Minister should not be going.
I assure hon. Members that the decision to go to Sri Lanka was not taken lightly by the Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North highlighted, as host of the CHOGM Sri Lanka will also become chair-in-office of the Commonwealth for the next two years. The decision for Sri Lanka to host the CHOGM was taken four years ago and there has been no widespread support across the Commonwealth to change it.
We have repeatedly said that Sri Lanka must make progress on reconciliation, accountability, political settlement and human rights. That is a message that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I will take to the Sri Lankan Government.
All Sri Lankan people deserve a stable, peaceful country with universal respect for human rights. It is vital that the Government of Sri Lanka show firm commitment to implement all the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. Currently, they have accepted about half of the recommendations, but progress in achieving them has been slow. We also want to see the promised commission on the disappeared, and we continue to call for an independent investigation into other alleged abuses during the conflict to be implemented transparently and to meet international standards.
Allegations of war crimes, rape, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, impunity for attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, religiously motivated violence, detention without charge, the suppression and intimidation of civil society, constraints on the media and political interference with the judiciary must be confronted and fully investigated.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) asked about an investigation. The British Government have consistently called for an independent, thorough and credible investigation into allegations of violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law by both sides in the military conflict.
The film footage recently shown on Channel 4 was disturbing—I saw it on Sunday night, and no one who did could have failed to be repelled and moved by it in equal measure—and brings to international attention important information to support allegations of grave abuses. A credible investigation into the allegations is urgently needed to help to bring closure to the victims and their families.
Britain will not look away. We will continue to press the Sri Lankan Government for tangible action on all these points, and we will continue to pursue our objective through the United Nations Human Rights Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) talked about progress, and we do see some progress in Sri Lanka. Many, but not all, of the 12,000 ex- combatants detained in 2009 have been released. UK aid is supporting their reintegration.
Progress has been made on ridding the country of mines, which has been helped by funding from our Department for International Development. Last year, the UN Security Council’s working group on children and armed conflict removed Sri Lanka from its agenda following significant progress in rehabilitating and reintegrating child soldiers.
We have seen the resettlement of many internally displaced people. The first northern provincial council elections since the start of the conflict in 1983 were held in September, with the Tamil National Alliance winning 78% of the vote. Although it noted issues of concern in the pre-election period, the Commonwealth observer mission described the polls as largely peaceful, with high turnout across all the provinces. We now want elected representatives to be able to contribute meaningfully to regional governance.
It is because the British Government want greater progress and to maintain pressure that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary and I have said that we want to see the situation on the ground for ourselves while we are in Sri Lanka, and talk to all communities, NGOs and members of civil society to hear their stories first hand and learn more about how the UK can help.
We have already begun that process here in the UK. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark said, I have met members of the all-party group on Tamils, the Commonwealth Journalists Association and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Tomorrow I will meet members of the British Tamil community to listen to their views. During the CHOGM, I will also meet relatives of the disappeared to hear their stories.
In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has pledged to visit the north of Sri Lanka, where some of the greatest damage was done during the years of conflict, in what will be the first visit to the region by a foreign Head of Government since Sri Lankan independence in 1948.
I was concerned by the remarks made by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights following her visit to Sri Lanka earlier this year. She reported visits by the police and military officers to villages that she planned to visit, and intimidation of ordinary citizens who spoke to her. A number of Members have raised that very issue this afternoon.
We have urged the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that there is free access for all international and domestic media and NGOs at the CHOGM, and the freedom to travel around the country without hindrance. I have raised this issue repeatedly with the Sri Lankan Government—most recently with Foreign Minister Peiris on Monday and with the high commissioner this afternoon. They have repeated their assurances on this matter.
Equally, however, after the CHOGM, we want a better reporting environment for journalists so that they can go about their business without fear of intimidation, and we also want a firm commitment from the Sri Lankan Government to investigate reported attacks. In a country ranked 162 out of 179 in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, it will be important to bring the spotlight of public, media and international scrutiny to this matter.
By going to Sri Lanka, we will be putting the Sri Lankan Government under the spotlight on the international stage, and we can air our concerns. Debates such as this one, which I hope will be replicated in legislatures across the Commonwealth and the world, can only help to increase pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to address their own domestic issues. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North for providing us with this opportunity, and to all Members for their contributions to the debate.
It is a pleasure to introduce this rather grim subject under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, given your committed support for family life.
Ten-year-old Ben Philpotts will always be remembered by his teachers at Trevisker community primary school in Cornwall with his hand eagerly in the air and with a beaming smile. Ben was a positive spirit, very popular and a much-loved member of his school community in St Eval, near Wadebridge. He was a boy who showed enthusiasm for everything that he undertook. He was a keen member of his local football team and was a natural sportsman.
Ben’s uncle, my constituent, Don Philpotts came to my constituency surgery a few months ago to tell me his tragic story. Ben’s short life ended on 18 January 2010 when his father, Harry, bludgeoned him to death with a sledgehammer, causing severe head injuries from which he quickly died. Harry had also murdered Ben’s mother, Patricia, and later set fire to the family home, resulting in widespread burns to himself, from which he died a few days later.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on a tragic event in Cornwall that horrified the local community. Does he agree that we must do everything that we can to protect vulnerable people from such incidents?
I most certainly do. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on this case. Part of the family lives in my constituency, but the events took place in his constituency, so this is a classic example of working together.
For some time before the events, Ben’s father had been receiving treatment for mental health problems from Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. During that treatment, Harry made threats against his wife and son, but those threats were not taken seriously by those treating him and were never communicated to his wife on the grounds of patient confidentiality. The case was later considered in a serious case review compiled by the local safeguarding children board in Cornwall. The report highlighted that Ben’s father had experienced mental health problems for two years and once had delusional thoughts about his son. The report concluded that no evidence could be found that mental health staff had considered the implications for Ben of his father’s return to live at the family home or considered that Harry’s co-operation with treatment to manage his delusional and paranoid systems was neither consistent nor maintained. On the contrary, no agency reported any child protection concerns regarding Ben or registered any concerns for his safety at the time of his death.
Although my constituent, Ben’s uncle, remains deeply dissatisfied with the failure to properly assess the risk to Ben and his mother, or to inform her of the delusional and paranoid thoughts that her husband had expressed to mental health staff, he is also anxious that there should be much more awareness of the public policy challenges of such cases. The issues cut across several areas of Government policy, and my aim today is to draw wider attention to some common themes that arise in such cases and to encourage the Government to consider a cross-departmental approach to understanding and responding to those issues.
Ben’s murder was front-page news in the media and daily newspapers. We can all recall cases that appear to have a similar theme. Richard and Clair Smith from Pudsey and their children, Aaron and Ben, were described as “the perfect family.” They similarly made news headlines two years ago when Richard stabbed and strangled his wife, before stabbing and suffocating his sons, aged nine and one. He then set fire to the family home, dying of smoke inhalation. Richard also had mental health problems. He was described as an obsessive and driven man who appeared to have been motivated by depression to seek the destruction of both himself and his entire family.
Just days before the Pudsey murders, another father reportedly turned on his family. Tobias Day, from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, had recently lost his job as a policeman. He killed his wife, Samantha, and seven-year-old daughter, Genevieve, and he tried to kill his two other children, Kimberly and Adam, before finally taking his own life. Just over a decade ago, Robert Mochrie murdered his wife and four children in Barry, South Wales, before calling the school bus operator to say that his 10-year-old disabled daughter would not be attending school that week; he also cancelled the milk. Later he hanged himself, surrounded by his murdered family. He had also been previously treated for depression.
“Family annihilation” is the generic term applied to such cases in the USA and has been adopted here. In essence, the cases are those in which a parent—almost invariably a man—murders his partner and his own children before going on to commit suicide.
Professor David Wilson and Dr Elizabeth Yardley of the centre for applied criminology at Birmingham City university have undertaken a historical analysis of such cases going back to the 1980s. Professor Wilson is also editor of The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, which recently published some preliminary findings from his research. I am grateful to Professor Wilson for his guidance on this debate.
Professor Wilson and his colleagues examined 71 cases in England and Wales between 1980 and 2012—59 involving fathers and 12 cases in which the mother was the murderer. In almost all the cases involving men, the wife or partner was included in the murders, but in the cases where the mother committed the crimes, the husband or partner was not a victim. An example of the latter is the Donnison case in 2010 in Heathfield, East Sussex, which neighbours the Minister’s constituency. That lends weight to the proposition that family annihilation might predominantly be about a personal crisis of masculinity.
Professor Wilson’s team has suggested that there are certain similarities that subdivide such crimes into four broad categories. Anomic cases are those in which the family is seen as directly linked to the economic and financial success of the father. When that is threatened, the perpetrator responds by seeking to destroy himself, his home and his entire family. Self-righteous cases are those in which the murderer blames the mother for a family breakdown. The pre-eminent role of the father is viewed by the murderer as pivotal to his own image and concept of family, which causes him to obliterate his family. Disappointed cases are those in which the father believes the family have turned against him and, for instance, failed to follow his strictures on family life or religious matters. Finally, paranoid cases are those in which the offender harbours mental health delusions about his family.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Is a distinction drawn in the research between the awful murders and more general, awful domestic violence, or is the former but the particularly ugly tip of the awful iceberg?
The research shows that in a number of cases, although not all, there is a history of domestic violence, and I will develop that theme. The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point.
It must be acknowledged that the incidence of family annihilation is mercifully low. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports that some 60 children a year in England and Wales are killed by their parents, which is equivalent to about two thirds of all child murders. The numbers may be small, but child murders still represent more than 10% of all murders in our country. Although mothers and fathers are later found to be equally responsible for such deaths, the circumstances and ages of the killers and of the children killed are markedly different. Mothers are typically responsible for the murders of very young children in the aftermath of childbirth, for instance, because of post-natal depression or post-partum psychosis. Parliament has long recognised that phenomenon and passed the Infanticide Act 1938. Older children, however, are much more likely to be killed by their father. We tend to take small comfort from the idea that such instances are very rare. We see them as temporary losses of sanity and done in the heat of the moment when someone snaps. That idea provides a reassuring framework to explain what would otherwise be incomprehensible. That may be convenient and reassuring for us, but in many cases it is just not true. Researchers show that family annihilations are virtually all premeditated and typically executed with a chilling calmness and sense of purpose.
The trigger for such attacks seems to be, usually, relationship breakdown or a dispute over children when a relationship might already have ended. The Birmingham studies have identified a significant rise in cases of family annihilation during August, in the school holidays, and at weekends, when children are perhaps being passed from one parent to another. Half the cases identified by the research related to crimes committed at weekends.
I am concerned that the crime statistics do not separately record incidents of family annihilation, probably because of their rarity. Statistics are, however, compiled for infanticide, so the argument about the instance of family annihilation should not exclude consideration of compiling and publishing such figures. Professor Wilson has told me that he does not think that his work has been impeded by a lack of official statistical data, because the cases typically attract significant press attention, so the internet search capacity for press stories has tended to highlight most cases for the purposes of his research.
Previous studies—to come to the point made by the right hon. Gentleman—in particular that in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology, emphasised the rareness of violence convictions among those who commit such offences. Of 203 cases examined in that study, only seven involved a killer with a previous criminal record of violence. That, however, does not tell the whole story. Professor Wilson has highlighted to me that in many cases subsequent inquests throw up evidence of some previous domestic abuse. The evidence tends to come from family or friends, but the abuse had not escalated to the point of criminal prosecution. That may be another reason why police forces and the courts should give closer attention to fully recording details of all accusations of domestic abuse. For too long, clearly, the domestic dispute has not been taken seriously enough by some serving police officers.
For that reason, I applaud the Home Secretary’s September announcement that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is being required to look at the performance of individual forces in England and Wales to examine the way in which they approach, investigate and record cases of domestic violence. I would prefer to see the review as one of a series of measures better to address the shortcomings in how we deal with such tragic cases. At the weekend, The Sunday Times reported that one of the cases the Home Secretary had in mind in ordering this review was the murder of Rachael Slack and her two-year old son, Auden, in Holbrook, Derbyshire, three years ago, by Auden’s father, who later committed suicide. The father had been treated for mental illness, but we do not know what information may have been shared by the mental health professionals.
Family annihilation seems to be rarer in the UK than in the USA or in some parts of Europe, and one of the factors driving that could be our tougher gun laws. The Birmingham researchers found that in the United States and some parts of Europe the greater prevalence of such weapons led to 80% of family murders being carried out with a gun; in the UK, that number is less than a fifth. Nevertheless, we have seen family annihilation cases in which unstable men had been permitted to have shotguns and firearms, but then used them to murder their families.
The Michael Atherton case is one shocking example. The murderer had been granted a licence for both shotguns and firearms even though he had been reported for domestic violence on many occasions. In fact, the weapons had been taken away from him after such an incident, and then returned. The police officer who had approved his application turned out to have been running his own dealership in confiscated weapons, while serving as an officer, which led to him receiving a suspended prison sentence. Atherton used his weapons to murder his partner and her relatives before killing himself.
I wish to emphasise one further shortcoming. When the perpetrator of such a crime commits suicide, the duty of the coroner seems to be limited to identifying how the deceased died and giving verdicts accordingly. Invariably, the cases are massively distressing for the surviving relatives, and coroners sometimes seem at pains to be guarded about saying anything negative about the perpetrator. There is no duty to undertake any further analysis of the background circumstances or the state of mind of the perpetrator, except for the purposes of determining the cause of death and who might have been responsible. That denies us the opportunity to learn any lessons.
Given the rare incidence of such cases, it has been suggested that they should merit a much deeper analysis through what some academics have called psychological autopsy. The true incidence of mental illness as a contributory factor could be helped by a detailed review of each case—there are not so many cases, so it should not be an onerous requirement. Perhaps it should involve examining coroners’ reports and police files, interviewing relatives, friends and contacts of the deceased, and analysing medical records from hospitals and general practitioners.
The Atherton case and that of the serial killer Derrick Bird led to a 2010 proposal that the individual health records of all NHS patients holding shotgun or firearms certificates be file-tagged with a recommendation that, if a GP considered that such a patient presented a risk to themselves or the public, the police should be alerted. That seemingly reasonable and prudent proposal to improve public safety was later vetoed by the Information Commissioner on the grounds of patient confidentiality, the self-same argument that led to the failure to alert my constituent’s sister-in-law to the danger his brother posed to her and her son’s safety.
The purpose of the debate is to draw greater attention to the phenomenon of family annihilation and to the important research that is being done to understand it better. My purpose is also to urge the Government to build on the Home Secretary’s review of police effectiveness in dealing with domestic violence by creating a cross-Government initiative to encourage better risk assessment and information sharing between health professionals, the police and members of the public who might be at risk; to promote better statistical information about cases of family annihilation; to examine the concept of undertaking psychological autopsies in cases in which the perpetrator of family murders has committed suicide, by undertaking a full assessment of the history of that person, including questioning family members; and, finally, further to strengthen gun control legislation to ensure that no person with a history of domestic abuse or who is suffering from mental illness can get access to lethal weapons.
As the Home Secretary said when she ordered her domestic violence review,
“We have a duty to provide vulnerable people with the best possible protection.”
Sadly, I feel that in Ben Philpotts’s case, and in many of the others I have highlighted in the debate, we have fallen a bit short in that duty. The general crime rate in this country is falling, but, though still mercifully rare, the number of cases of family annihilation is rising. There should be a public policy response to meet that challenge.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) for the opportunity to debate this important issue and for the lucid and measured way in which he presented his case. Family annihilation, or domestic homicide as it is more commonly known in this country, is a diabolical crime and one that the coalition Government is committed to tackling.
Fatal domestic abuse is all the more shocking in cases involving children. As my hon. Friend said, family annihilation has no established definition but is a term that is often used to describe the tragic circumstances in which a parent kills their children, and sometimes their partner, often before seeking to take their own life. As he said, such cases are rare in this country—the Home Office homicide index suggests that around six incidents of a parent killing one or more children and a current or former partner were recorded in 2011-12—but they are all the more appalling to us when they occur.
Child protection is a priority for the Government, and we are committed to ensuring that we have the best possible arrangements in place to protect children and families from harm. Only last week, I spoke to the House about my concerns regarding the circumstances of the deaths of Rachael Slack and her young son, Auden—to which case my hon. Friend referred—at the hands of Rachael’s mentally ill former partner. I outlined the steps that are being taken to review the apparent police failings in that case.
My hon. Friend rightly drew our attention to the tragic deaths, also in 2010, of Ben and Patricia Philpotts at the hands of Ben’s father, Harold. I am aware that a serious case review of the circumstances surrounding Ben’s death was published in August 2010 and that, sadly, it concluded that lack of communication between local agencies contributed to the risk that he and his mother faced. Action is being taken to address that failing, as I will set out later.
Closer to home, my hon. Friend is no doubt aware of the appalling incident in Cwmbran in September 2012, in which Carl Mills set fire to the house where his partner, Kayleigh Buckley, was staying with their six-month-old daughter, Kimberley, and her mother, Kim, resulting in the deaths of three generations of one family. I understand that a local review of that case is ongoing and that, in due course, it will be quality assured by a Home Office-chaired panel. The Government takes such cases extremely seriously. We must ensure that lessons are learned to deliver justice for those who have lost their lives. We must also do more than that; we must ensure that lessons are acted upon.
I am aware, as my hon. Friend is, of the recent study by Professor David Wilson and Dr Elizabeth Yardley of Birmingham City university regarding the behavioural patterns of male so-called family annihilators. I thank the authors for their attempt to bring new learning to such a difficult area, with a sensitive and well written report. However, I do not agree that domestic homicide is on the rise. Official statistics from the homicide index show that the domestic homicide rate has remained stubbornly static over the past decade at around two a week.
My key focus is to ensure that we do everything that we can to support local agencies to reduce the occurrence of such tragic events. To help to achieve that, the coalition Government has instigated a new process, so that every local report on a domestic homicide is reviewed and quality assured by a panel of independent and Home Office experts. I understand that such a review is ongoing in the case of Kayleigh, Kim and Kimberley Buckley. Each review results in a tailored action plan that must be delivered by the area in question to ensure that we learn from individual tragedies. The Home Office will shortly issue a document collating the lessons learned from those reviews into a national action plan. I hope that that meets some of my hon. Friend’s concerns.
On child protection services, following the publication of Professor Eileen Munro’s review, the Government has published a new version of “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, which provides statutory guidance for all professionals who work to protect children. The new guidance is less bureaucratic and puts more trust in front-line skilled professionals. The guidance clarifies the core legal requirements, by making it much clearer what individuals and organisations should do to keep children safe and to promote their welfare. The guidance provides a national framework within which local agencies and professionals draw up and agree their own ways to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
The Government has also made a series of reforms to the police’s handling of domestic violence and child abuse. All police forces have measures in place to ensure that officers have the knowledge and skills to deal effectively with cases of child abuse and domestic violence. Specific training on domestic violence and abuse is included in the national police training curriculum. That training was updated this year to take account of the Government’s introduction of a new definition of domestic abuse. The new definition helps to prevent the escalation of abuse that may end in tragedy—the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) referred to this—by dispelling the belief that domestic abuse begins and ends with violence. It places coercive control at the centre of determining whether abuse is taking place.
The police play an important part in local child safeguarding arrangements and have a statutory responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and to investigate child abuse and other crimes committed against children. The police have a legal duty of care. As well as their duty to investigate criminal offences, they have emergency powers to enter premises and to provide immediate protection for children who are believed to be at risk of significant harm. Nationally, we are working to ensure that local police and children’s services are best placed to respond to allegations of child abuse, and our existing arrangements have been further strengthened with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre becoming a core part of the National Crime Agency.
The Government has ring-fenced nearly £40 million for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services. Facilities funded with this money include 144 independent domestic violence advisers, who help victims of domestic violence to have their voices heard, and 54 multi-agency risk assessment co-ordinators to protect the interests of those who are most at risk, by bringing all agencies together to promote information sharing and to drive up a joined-up local response to supporting victims.
In the various welcome collaborative initiatives that the Minister has mentioned, will the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) about mental health professionals having knowledge of the potential risk to others in the community be addressed?
Yes. I addressed the mental health issue in part during an Adjournment debate last week, but I have asked my office to investigate further the Information Commissioner’s ruling, which is what I believe the right hon. Gentleman is referring to, and rightly so. It is an important point.
Up to 60% of abuse victims report no further violence following intervention by independent advisers, so clearly they are working effectively to some degree.
National funding operates in tandem with local initiatives. Local safeguarding children’s boards bring together local authorities, health organisations, the police and others to co-ordinate member agencies in protecting and promoting children’s welfare. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North will join me in endorsing the Cardiff Health Alliance’s multi-agency approach to supporting victims of domestic and sexual abuse and integrating child protection and domestic abuse training to ensure a joined-up local approach. It is vital that all local authorities remember the importance of such initiatives when making difficult decisions about spending in coming months.
We must do more nationally to reach out to those caught in a cycle of abuse, which is why the Home Office has piloted two initiatives to empower victims and to stop domestic abuse in its tracks. The first of these is the domestic violence disclosure scheme, known popularly as Clare’s law, which offers the opportunity for anyone to seek disclosure of a partner’s violent past. Those who have the legal right to know are provided with information that could save lives, which empowers them to make an informed choice about their future.
Our second pilot scheme creates a new process to protect victims in the immediate aftermath of domestic abuse. Domestic violence protection orders have the power to prevent a perpetrator of domestic abuse from having contact with the victim for up to 28 days. That offers both the victim and the perpetrator the chance to reflect on the incident. It provides the victim with an opportunity to determine the best course of action to end a cycle of abuse and sometimes stops the unsatisfactory requirement for them having to leave the house for their own safety. We are carrying out an evaluation of both of pilots, and we expect to be able to announce plans for their future this year.
The Home Office has funded a project to improve the understanding of the different local multi-agency models in place to support the sharing of information about safeguarding responses for children and vulnerable people. The project recognises that many areas are considering new and different ways to deliver services and aims to develop a national picture of what models are already in place—for example, multi-agency safeguarding hubs and co-located assessment or specialist teams.
The project will increase our collective understanding of what is happening and provide a practical exchange of learning and experience to local areas that are looking to develop their multi-agency working and information-sharing arrangements. Early findings from the project were released in July, as part of accelerated action from the Government’s new national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people. The report provides information to help local areas that want to put in place more effective local multi-agency approaches and responses. The Government are now developing a further package of support to ensure the early identification of children and families who are at risk and to ensure that agencies are best placed to prevent abuse from happening.
I turn to the four specific points that my hon. Friend made. On risk assessment, I hope that he has been reassured to hear about the work that has taken place since the tragic events of 2010 to establish multi-agency risk assessment conferences and, more recently, wider work to promote multi-agency safeguarding models, such as multi-agency safeguarding hubs, which draw together local agencies to protect those who are at highest risk. I agree that, although patient confidentiality is important, it cannot be allowed to stand in the way of saving lives. The right hon. Member for Oxford East rightly made that point. I am happy to reassure him that the national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people, which I lead, has identified the sharing of information as a critical issue and is working on advice to dispel myths that prevent the effective sharing of information.
My hon. Friend asked a valuable question about the recording of statistics. I am happy to reassure him that the Home Office homicide index retains detailed information about domestic cases. He made the point that, in considering the level of data captured, we must consider whether the additional detail justifies the resources needed to obtain them. That is a balance to be judged.
On post-homicide reviews, I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about the limitations of coroner’s inquests, but I am sure he will be reassured to hear that coroners are under a legal duty to refer cases involving the death of children to the local children’s safeguarding board in a process that triggers a serious case review, as happened in the Philpott case.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased about the Government’s initiation of the domestic homicide review process. I agree that we must be joined-up in addressing domestic violence, which is why, for example, I undertook in the House last week to raise our approach to mental health in domestic violence cases with the Department of Health at the next inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, which I will attend and which will be chaired by the Home Secretary.
My hon. Friend referred to the importance of gun control in the context of domestic abuse. I am happy to tell him that, as part of the revised guide on firearms licensing law, we have introduced new, detailed guidance on firearms and domestic violence for the police that makes it clear that evidence of domestic violence will generally indicate that a person should not be permitted to possess a gun.
So-called family annihilation seems to transgress the fundamental natural instinct to protect that we expect a parent to feel for a child. Understandably, these cases cause shock and outrage, but we must appreciate the complexity of the circumstances that may contribute to such tragic outcomes, and continue to co-ordinate a joined-up approach to tackling child abuse and domestic and sexual violence to protect those who are most at risk. Through our violence against women and girls action plan and the national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people, which I now lead, the Government has made significant strides towards a better reality for the victims of child and domestic abuse. However, we recognise that there is still much to do.
Only last week, I raised my concerns about domestic abuse at a meeting of all chief constables, and in the coming weeks I will meet representatives of third-sector groups and the Director of Public Prosecutions. I look forward to discussing our plans with them. It is vital that we protect those who are vulnerable to the worst crimes. I look forward to updating Parliament on our continued progress in tackling domestic violence and child abuse in the coming months.
Police and Crime Commissioners (Wales)
Thank you, Mr Amess, for the opportunity to debate the powers and performance of police and crime commissioners in Wales.
Public confidence in the police authority that covers my constituency has been rated as among the lowest in the country. As recently as 2008, Gwent police were working to raise public confidence in their service from a very low 39%. Even now, just 53% of people are satisfied with the service that they receive, which is one of the lowest rates in the country. For a service built on giving the public the confidence to sleep soundly at night, that is shockingly low, and that is why I am in favour of the PCC role. It is a link between the public and the police who serve them, and a check and a balance that is independent of the police. If the job is not being done well, the public have the final say. Those are principles that we as Members of Parliament can appreciate.
However, many have argued that there is no appetite from the public for PCCs. For example, the Welsh turnout for the PCC elections was a meagre 14.9%, with a polling station in the Gwent area reporting a turnout of zero. One year on, those poor figures still colour many opinions of PCCs. So why is there a troubled mandate? Well, the original November polling day was the worst possible time to hold an election; the large areas covered by each police authority make traditional campaigning very difficult; and this was compounded by the Government’s decision not to use freepost leaflets. It all adds up to a system set up to return pretty meagre results. Having said that, let us stop using the small turnout as a stick with which to beat PCCs.
My hon. Friend amplifies the point very well.
We should judge PCCs on their ability to restore confidence in the police in the future, not on the botched system that installed them. The charity, Victim Support, encouraged PCCs to sign pledges to champion the victims of crime. It asked for the police to be more victim-focused and more effective at meeting their needs, and to give victims and witnesses a strong voice in the wider criminal justice system. Those are the sorts of issues that we should be considering when deciding whether PCCs have been worth it.
Unfortunately, Gwent’s PCC has been making headlines by not following another principle that Victim Support alluded to: the need for PCCs to be both open and accountable. Anyone following the story of PCCs across the country will be disappointed with the saga of Gwent PCC Ian Johnston and his turbulent first year. Mr Johnston instigated the retirement of Chief Constable Carmel Napier on May 23, despite the fact that Gwent police reported crime figures that at one point in 2012 showed the highest reduction in England and Wales—15% overall.
A lack of openness has threatened to damage the PCC role. First, Mr Johnston’s request for the chief constable to retire was revealed only in a leak to our local newspaper. When asked why this had taken place, Mr Johnston said that it was in part because there had been doubts about the crime figures produced by Gwent police. Although we all agree that that sort of scrutiny is exactly what we expect from a PCC, since then, colleagues and I have been demanding evidence that the figures were a case of statistical sleight of hand.
Is my hon. Friend familiar with the evidence given by PCCs and deputies to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs on 11 July in Cardiff? The North Wales PCC gave me some very evasive and, at worst, misleading answers about his residency and whether he lived in Cardiff or in north Wales, in Caernarfon.
I heard about that case. It is up to the Minister to look into the issue of the residency of the North Wales PCC. It is important, and has been raised at various times by colleagues.
Six months on, Mr Johnston has produced no statistical evidence that the impressive crime figures that we heard about in Gwent were not accurate. Instead, in a letter to me, Mr Johnston has said that he had heard reports from members of the public
“that officers seemed preoccupied with numerical targets and talked about a limit on the number of crimes that could be recorded each day”,
“that the Chief Constable was pursuing a numerical target driven culture that focussed on the volume of crime.”
An internal review of crime recording has been set up since the chief constable’s retirement, but I am not convinced that that is sufficient. In the meantime, through press articles and the questioning of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, a picture was painted of a difficult working relationship between Mr Johnston and Ms Napier.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems thrown up by the Gwent saga is the fact that the PCC has been intervening in what are effectively operational police matters? He has seen himself as a chief constable in waiting as well as a PCC, which points to a weakness in the legislation. There is not a clear definition of what is strategic and what is operational.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will ask the Minister about the Government’s and MPs’ scrutiny of PCCs and their role.
Everything is coming out in dribs and drabs, and it has threatened to undermine the public’s confidence in Gwent police, and the voters’ confidence in the PCC role. Our PCCs must appreciate that although they are in a position of authority, they are not above authority. They must face tough questions, too. The furore around policing in Gwent is reducing, and a new chief constable, Jeff Farrar, has been appointed. Having seen his work on Operation Jasmine, an investigation into terrible care home abuse, I am confident that he will be an asset as the head of Gwent police.
As we move forward, I propose three things. The lines of communication from the PCC must be as open and detailed as possible. In Gwent, having to drag out information from the PCC has been a painful process, and that cannot be right. It benefits no one if information is hard to obtain. That was the old system, which we should be moving away from. That is particularly relevant, given that police forces face Conservative cuts of 20%, which go too far, too fast.
The Welsh Labour Government are doing all that they can by funding 500 new police community support officers during their Assembly term, and by protecting the community safety budget, but it may not be enough. A PCC who is open and transparent could go a long way to help staff and the public understand the difficult decisions that will be taken at this difficult time.
Secondly, from a Gwent perspective—this is the nub—we need confidence in the data collection and performance measurements used to review our police. We have all heard constituents’ concerns that the figures do not translate to what they see on the streets. As their elected representative, Mr Johnston needs to look into the public’s concerns and regain the confidence of all of us. Let us see whether the Gwent police internal review of crime recording ever comes to anything.
Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s visit to Gwent as part of its national crime data integrity programme would be a perfect opportunity, once and for all, to look into the claim that crime reporting was being capped in Gwent. Will the Minister consider that?
Finally, let us measure PCCs against criteria such as victim satisfaction levels within the justice services in the coming year.
I have no disagreement with my hon. Friend about the qualities of the new chief constable. Does he recall that the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), asked the police commissioner:
“Would you be surprised if people decided not to apply to come to Gwent given the circumstances surrounding the departure of the Chief Constable? Do you expect a good field of candidates?”?
The commissioner replied:
“I think we will get a very good pool of talent from which to select the next Chief Constable.”
Does my hon. Friend not think that it would have been advisable to ensure that there was a large pool of talent and a choice, rather than what we had, which was one candidate for the job?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; he has been very generous. On the last year of performance and the powers of the police commissioners in Wales, does he agree with me that one of the crucial things that we have seen is the variety in performance levels and willingness to be transparent, particularly with the public? I have had a very positive experience in south Wales with both the police commissioner—my predecessor in this place—and his deputies. He has had a positive role with other people in the community, but I know that that has not necessarily always been the case with other commissioners. The Dyfed Powys commissioner was also very transparent when he came before the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is variation in performance and willingness to be open with the public, Members of this House and others?
Does my hon. Friend agree that one lesson that must be learned from the developments in Gwent during the past 12 months is that the PCCs have incredible powers? In Gwent, the chief constable was in effect dismissed in a way that was legitimate according to the law, but which negated any kind of natural justice. She was basically told to retire: “If you don’t retire, you’ll be sacked.” What is more, that was without any established employment procedures or practice at all. Again, that was done under the legislation, but it does create a big question mark, because I do not think that any other post in the public sector has as much unaccountable power as a PCC.
Yes. My hon. Friend makes the point very powerfully. That is what happened in the Gwent area, and I think that we still need to unpick what happened on that occasion. That is why we need to have that extra, important look at crime data recording in Gwent and get to the bottom of that question, which is at the core of Ms Napier’s resignation. It is now up to the Government to detail how they will scrutinise the role of PCCs in Gwent and across the country.
It is always a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on obtaining the debate. He raised a number of interesting and legitimate questions relating to the powers and performance of police and crime commissioners in Wales, and I will seek to respond to all of them. I hope that he will agree with me that police officers and staff in the whole of Wales—not just in Gwent—are making a significant contribution to the successful fight against crime. In that context, I am grateful for his support for the role of the PCC.
Given all the points made by the hon. Gentleman and by other hon. Members about PCCs and policing, I shall start by talking about the context in which the PCCs operate. The Government inherited a policing landscape disconnected from the public. There was a lack of local democratic accountability, as the public had no direct involvement in the old police authorities. At the same time, there was too much central Government interference through centrally imposed targets that stifled police professionalism and discretion, and there was too little Government focus on tackling national concerns such as organised crime.
Reform was necessary, but it had to take place against a very tough financial background. Despite that background, we have embarked on the most radical reform of policing in 50 years. The reform is aimed—PCCs are central to this—at ensuring that the police are more responsive to the public and more transparent in their work. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about transparency and I will deal with that in detail in a second. The reform is also aimed at ensuring that the police are more flexible in their approach and more suited to the demands of the 21st century.
At this stage, it is clear from the figures that matter that the reforms are working. Crime is down to the lowest level ever recorded. Let me narrow the focus to Gwent. In the period from June 2010 to June 2013, crime in Gwent went down by 29%. In the past year, since the election of the police and crime commissioner, it has fallen by 4%. I will not weary hon. Members with the figures for the other three police regions in Wales, but they are all consistent with that.
Gwent has had the biggest fall of any of the police regions in Wales, but all of them show significant falls, both over a three-year period and over the past 12 months. The test that we in the Government put on the police is now a simple one. We swept away all the targets; we just ask them to cut crime, and they are doing so. They are doing so across Wales and in particular in Gwent. Everyone involved is to be congratulated on that.
Of course, we have not reached the end of the reform process—one never does. The reforms continue, and the next and most radical phase of police reform is aimed at transforming front-line policing. We want every police officer to fulfil their potential and to feel a greater sense of professional pride, so that the public get a better service. The impetus for change now lies both with the police and with the PCCs.
The Minister will have noticed that the trend of reducing crime was accelerating before the arrival of the PCCs, but does he really think that a level of support for a candidate of, say, between 6% and 8% of the total vote is any kind of meaningful democratic involvement?
I agree with the point, which many people have made, that one would have wished the turnout to be higher. It was not ideal, but the fact was that 5 million people cast votes in last year’s elections and that is approximately 5 million more than ever had a say in the police authorities that the PCCs replaced. Police authorities were unaccountable, invisible bodies. Now, people have the chance to elect the police and crime commissioner.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the senior Dyfed Powys police officer who told me that it might be between two and five years before we are able properly to assess the benefits or otherwise of police and crime commissioners? Perhaps it will be then that we will see whether there is public appreciation of them and voter turnout might be somewhat different.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the length of time. Now that we are more or less up to the first anniversary of the PCCs, we can see what each of them has done and can make a realistic assessment of their effectiveness, rather than simply looking at the turnout in the elections last November.
Let me deal with some of the specific issues that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent and others brought up. One was transparency. I find it difficult to accept the criticism that PCCs are in any way less transparent than the system before. I defy any Member of the House to have gone out before last November, asked their constituents who the chair of the police authority was and expected more than one in a million to know the answer. They were completely invisible; we know that.
Specific criticism was made of the police and crime commissioner in Gwent. I have been on his website and found that, on the page entitled “Transparency”, he says:
“As well as the information we have a legal responsibility to provide under the…Act…and The Elected Local Policing Bodies (Specified Information) Order…we have…agreed to make the agendas and minutes of the Strategy and Performance Board…and the Joint Audit Committee…available. The SPB is where the Commissioner holds the Chief Constable to account and the JAC provides comments, advice and assurance on matters relating to the internal control environment of both the Chief Constable and the Commissioner.”
There is a series of pages, whose titles include “Gifts and Hospitality”, “Register”, “Publications”, “Finance”, Performance”, “Decisions Made”, “Estates Register” and “Complaints Information”.
The document is transparent. A person does not even need to be in Gwent to see it; they can sit in London and find out quite a lot of detail about what the police and crime commissioner in Gwent is doing. I gently suggest to the House that none of that would have been available 12 months ago, because police authorities did not have to do that sort of thing.
I perfectly accept the anonymous nature of police authorities before PCCs came along. However, does the Minister not accept that we only found out that the PCC in Gwent had effectively sacked the chief constable—made her resign—because of a leak in the local newspaper?
I will return to the departure of Carmel Napier; I said that I would deal with each individual issue that came up.
Regarding the point about Winston Roddick, I think there was some feeling in the intervention and response of the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) that a cloud hung over Mr Roddick in some way. There had been an allegation that he did not live in the area for which he had been elected. The Independent Police Complaints Commission found no evidence to support that allegation and therefore did not pass on the investigation file. Its report said:
“Considering the evidence provided by witnesses, voters and credit checks, the supporting mobile phone cell site analysis and the account provided by Mr Roddick, in my opinion, there is no evidence that a criminal offence may have been committed by Mr Roddick.”
I think we should put the matter to bed.
Is the Minister aware of the complaint that has been made by four of the five candidates for the north Wales police and crime commissioner elections in recent days—both about the IPCC decision and about other matters that have come out as a result of that investigation? Notwithstanding what he has just said, will he look further into the matter?
What candidates choose to describe themselves as at elections is, perhaps happily, not a matter for Ministers. I merely observe a point that has been made by many others after people have claimed that being an independent means that one is not a politician: being an independent means that someone is a politician who will not tell people what their politics are, which is what I have always believed.
The point is a serious one. In the dark age before 1987, when my constituency had a Conservative Member of Parliament, a certain Winston Roddick had stood and described himself as a Liberal Democrat. He stood in north Wales as an independent, and then metamorphosed into a Liberal Democrat overnight. Is that not likely to bring the whole process into disrepute?
There is a long history of people changing parties throughout long political careers—indeed, the greatest ever Englishman—Winston Churchill—did it. I feel that it is not necessarily for the House to comment on the issue.
Many PCCs have done extremely good work. In Gwent, Ian Johnston has actively promoted a drug intervention programme, which has seen a 15% rise in participants over the past year. I shall be non-partisan about the issue. Only one of the four PCCs in Wales is in my party, but I have examples of all of PCCs doing good work.
In south Wales, Alun Michael has launched a number of evidence-based initiatives with partners—for example, working with two health trusts to analyse and reduce the number of violent incidents that result in victims being taken to A and E. In north Wales, Mr Roddick has asked the chief constable to devise an operational delivery plan to tackle rural crime, with a rural crime team already in place to act as a contact point for farmers and residents. In Dyfed Powys, Chris Salmon has worked with his chief constable so that all stations there now operate on a “when we’re in, we’re open” principle—if a member of the public calls at a station when an officer is in, the caller will be attended to.
The point that I made about public scrutiny bears repeating. PCCs are subject to public scrutiny in a way that police authorities never were. The public now know whom to turn to and whom to hold responsible if they have concerns regarding policing in their area. We know that 73% of the public in England and Wales are now aware of the role of PCCs, which contrasts with the 7% of the public who knew what to do if they had a complaint under the old police authorities.
The Minister has been generous in giving way. What is his relationship with the PCCs in Wales? What specific concerns have they raised with him to which he has been able to respond positively? Is he able to give any examples? For example, has he discussed police funding for south Wales and Cardiff as the capital city?
I regularly meet all the PCCs. I have met the PCCs in Wales as a group. They are, as all people are, energetic in pleading their own cause. I always listen as sympathetically as is sensible.
It is interesting to note the change in the amount of public correspondence that the PCCs receive. Some have reported a fiftyfold increase in public correspondence over the year to date compared with the old police authorities. The public are engaging with the PCCs, and the PCCs are becoming key local leaders across the whole criminal justice system.
I should deal with the case of Carmel Napier, because that was an important part of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent’s speech. First, I should, as I am sure others who know her would want to, thank Carmel Napier for three decades of service to the police and for her leadership—not just in Gwent, but at a national level—on improving the police response to violence against women and girls.
It is clear under the legislation that it is for police and crime commissioners, not Ministers or Members of Parliament, to make decisions about appointing, suspending and removing chief constables. The process for a PCC to remove a chief constable is set out in legislation and, contrary to some of the points made earlier, includes strict safeguards. There is a police and crime panel, which has a wide remit to review or scrutinise decisions made by a PCC.
As has been mentioned, the PCC has the power to appoint a new chief constable, and has done so in Gwent this week. It is for the commissioner to determine who is best placed to lead the local constabulary. That is provided for in legislation. For the first time, there are confirmation hearings and proper public scrutiny of the event, which in the past happened behind closed doors and in secret.
May I finish this passage? I have been generous in giving way.
The Home Office has issued a circular to advise PCCs and chief constables of the principles and legal requirements for appointing chief officers. In addition, as part of its role in supporting PCCs and chief constables, the College of Policing has developed guidance and a toolkit for making senior appointments. The college also supports PCCs by providing details of career history, skills and qualifications of prospective chief constables to ensure that commissioners have as much information as they need.
That was the final point I was determined to get to before I sat down. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that HMIC is in the process of conducting a review of crime recording integrity—precisely his point. That review is of all forces, so it will include Gwent. The integrity of the crime figures in Gwent is being investigated by HMIC as we speak. It will break the investigation down into two parts.
As I said, HMIC is conducting a general investigation into integrity, and it will no doubt be aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concern.
I hope that I have been able to respond to all the concerns raised by hon. Members. The reforms will continue. I want to see PCCs take a greater role in cross-cutting issues, leading to less wasted police time and bureaucracy and a better use of technology. We want to see more force collaboration and greater public understanding of how their local force functions. We want PCCs in Wales to build on their—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).