Tuesday 12 November 2013
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
East Coast Main Line
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Stephen Crabb.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. It has been brought to my attention that today’s debate coincides with the beginning of a new documentary series on Sky about East Coast trains and the staff who work on them, so I want to assure you that the only interest I have to declare is as a regular traveller on East Coast trains and as an MP whose constituents are similarly frequent travellers; I definitely do not have an interest as a public relations executive for East Coast or BSkyB. The reason why my colleagues and I wanted this debate was not to promote that programme, but to discuss developments in a process that will have a significant impact on the staff and travellers featured in it.
It has been just over five months since we discussed the plans in a debate in this Chamber called by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald). As I did then, I pay tribute to hon. Members who have led the campaign in Parliament so successfully, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), who is in her place, and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). I thought and hoped that the strength of feeling and argument shown then, and in debates since, might have caused the Government at least to enter one of their now trademark pauses. There is still time for them to do so. In fact, we have not seen a pause, a rethink or any evidence that they are listening to the chorus of opposition to their plans, even among their own voters.
I am sure my hon. Friend will make a powerful speech in favour of the east coast main line. Is it not a fact that only about one in five—21%—of the general public supports the re-privatisation of the east coast main line, so why is Tory dogma prevailing?
That is a very good question, which the Minister will perhaps answer. For all of us here and our constituents, that is the question, and our only answer is that dogma and ideology are forcing re-privatisation to go ahead. The Government have pressed on regardless, and the tendering process is well under way, which is why my colleagues and I thought it was time for another debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made an interesting intervention in which he mentioned that the Opposition are blaming the current Government. Will the hon. Lady tell me exactly how many train companies were renationalised in the 13 years of the Labour Government?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I suggest that there have been many changes at East Coast in the past few years. In fact, for the first time in a long time, it seems to be working well, to the point that the east coast main line has a record level of customer satisfaction. The company has won 13 industry awards since 2012, including as Britain’s top employer. It is surely endorsement enough that so many Opposition Members who travel on East Coast trains week in, week out want to fight for it to remain as it is and against changing it again.
That is the point—the east coast main line does not need to change. The process might ultimately lead to a significantly worse deal for all our constituents, as well as for the Exchequer, when there is absolutely no need to go down such a path.
As I and others said in the last debate, East Coast is doing very well under the current arrangement, both for passengers and the Exchequer. Since the failure of National Express, thousands more services have been timetabled; hundreds of thousands more passengers have used services; significant investment has been made in passenger comfort and stations, including at Newcastle; customer satisfaction has been at record highs, notwithstanding the recent blip; and complaints have been handled in a timely way 98% of the time, compared with 73% of the time under private ownership.
No, I will not. I will make some progress, because many hon. Members want to speak.
This is the people’s railway. It is delivering real improvements for our constituents, unencumbered by the primary purpose of having to pay dividends. That is not to say that Directly Operated Railways is squandering millions on such trivial things as improving the experience of their customers and therefore winning more of them; it is also chipping in a lot of money to the Exchequer. By the end of this financial year, it will have returned £800 million to the Treasury and put the rest of its surplus of nearly £50 million back into the service. It of course gets the lowest rates of public subsidy of all the train operators, except London commuter services.
Ministers have always talked about the need for a private operator to bring in extra investment, but have failed to make clear how much will be brought in by this process. What investment we know about appears to come from the public purse. Just as with Royal Mail, Ministers seem to be privatising the profit, while keeping the ongoing costs on the public books.
The Minister will say that decisions should not be taken on the basis of ideology, and to an extent I agree, although I must of course confess to having a default opinion when it comes to the ownership of public services. However, the returns to the Treasury and the improvements in services provide the business case in support of our argument that the line should remain directly operated. Perhaps that is why nearly half of Tory voters oppose the Government plans. If anyone is guilty of ideological decision making on this issue, it is surely the Government.
As if the west coast main line shambles, which cost taxpayers £55 million, was not bad enough, the contract extensions for other franchises—the Government have had to negotiate them so that they could bring forward the east coast main line tender—will cost taxpayers millions more in lost revenue. For example, First Great Western paid £126 million in premiums last year, but will pay only £17 million next year, as a result of the extension terms it has been given by the Government. Ministers are actually throwing money away hand over fist, just so they can make a point of privatising a franchise that they know is doing perfectly well in public hands.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Is it not ironic that the Government want to return the east coast main line to the private sector when it is clearly succeeding very well in the public sector, while the private sector has failed twice on that line?
That is exactly the point. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Government clearly do not think that a state-owned company can run the franchise viably and deliver the investment in service improvements that we want.
How ironic it is that many of the probable bidders for the service are subsidiaries of state-owned railways. Eurostar and Keolis have confirmed that they will team up to bid for the franchise. As the Minister will be aware, those two companies are majority-owned by the National Society of French Railways—SNCF—which is France’s state-owned operator. Arriva, which already operates so many franchises, including the Tyne and Wear Metro in the north-east, and has received much Government investment over the past few years, will probably throw its hat into the ring. It is of course owned by Deutsche Bahn. Abellio, which, with Serco, runs Northern Rail trains in my area, might well be tempted. It is a part of the Dutch state-owned rail operator. The Government are therefore quite happy for the east coast main line to be run for public benefit—just as long as the British public do not benefit.
Does not the way in which contracts are handed out to such foreign, state-owned companies mean that taxpayers in the Netherlands, France and Germany will gain at the expense of British ones?
Yes, I agree. That is exactly the point. Instead of profits generated by the franchise benefiting British commuters through investment in service improvement and dividends to the Treasury, the Government prefer profits to be channelled to other European countries, in some cases to subsidise fares in those countries. If we are to achieve the modal shift from cars to rail that we need to ease pressure on our trunk roads and to reduce carbon emissions, we must have the investment and the ambitious targets and standards in place to ensure that services are reliable and can carry on improving. Unfortunately, it appears that the Government intend to put that improvement into reverse over the next few years.
It was brought to my attention yesterday that in the past couple of weeks, the Office of Rail Regulation has published a document setting out the desired outputs for the whole rail network for the next five-year control period. That document makes it clear that the standards expected of whichever company wins the east coast franchise will be significantly lower than the national average, and possibly even lower than those of most European routes. For example, the national standard for cancelled or seriously late trains—which I have had some experience of on the east coast over the past month: the fault for that lay not with the company but with all the storms and so on—is no more than 2.2% of journeys. The east coast’s standard will be 4.2%.The national standard for just mildly late trains, which can be anything between 10 minutes and two hours, will be 8.1% in the first year. For the east coast, it will be 17%, which is more than double the national standard, and equates to more than one in six journeys. That rate will be required to come down to 12% by 2018-19, but it will still be much higher than the national rate of 7.5%.
Over the control period, we could see an additional 15,500 trains officially late and more than 2,500 trains cancelled without the operator being deemed to be breaching its required standards. Why should the east coast be given a lower standard? It is way below what the public would expect, and way below the standards set by Labour for the current control period. The apparent loosening of the required standards does not appear in any of the preceding documents on which the public have been consulted, but has now appeared at a point when they can no longer have their say. Will the Minister explain why the standards are set so low and have been revealed in a document on which the public will not be consulted? Will he give us an assurance today that that is in no way linked to the tendering process, or the Government’s desire to get the most money for the franchise to hold up as a sign of success? If we move the goalposts and make things easier for whichever train operator comes in, it makes the deal more attractive to them, and that is what seems to be going on here.
If the Government are to go through with the privatisation, it is important that the Exchequer get as much cash as possible now and over the course of the contract. However, we cannot sacrifice performance standards to achieve that goal, because people will just give up on trains that are allowed to be late on one in six, one in seven or even one in eight journeys.
If the proposal is not linked to the tendering process, perhaps it is related to the fact that investment in tackling congestion over the coming control period will be less than half the £500 million that the Labour Government allocated. That investment has resulted in improvements in north London, flyovers at Doncaster and Hitchin, and the upgrading of a parallel route for slow freight between Doncaster and Peterborough. Will the Minister assure us that service standards are not being lowered to match the investment the Government are prepared to make? Our constituents rightly expect not just a punctual service but a decent service, particularly when they might be on the train for three or four hours or more when travelling to or from the north-east or Scotland—it can take up to six hours to get all the way up to Inverness.
Will the Minister rule out the introduction of a lower-tier or third-class service, which is allegedly in the prospectus that was sent to potential bidders? Indeed, will he rule out any degradation of standard-class service in a three-class system by a future operator?
There is no suggestion of a third-class service in the prospectus. One version of the document was leaked, but even that did not refer to a third class, but to the possibility of a service between standard and first class. Some might like to call it premium economy. No one has ever called it third class. Can we just lay that myth to rest?
I am sure the Minister is aware that the National Society of French Railways introduced a “no frills” service in France this year, below standard class. If Keolis and Eurostar win the contract, will he guarantee that we will not see the same here? I am happy to give way to the Minister if he wants to make that guarantee now; perhaps he will make it in his closing remarks. By way of assurance, perhaps he could place a copy of the document in question in the Library. I know he said that such a claim was never in the document, but if there is such a document, could he place it in the Library so the public can see that we are not being sold down the river—or in this case down the railway line? The Government are always keen to bolster their transparency credentials, and this would be an excellent way of conducting themselves in an open and honest way.
I will go away and look more closely at the matter. I may have missed the part to which the Minister refers. Perhaps he could write to me about it, so we can be assured that there will not be a third-class rail service.
I will conclude because many Members wish to speak in the debate. I leave the Minister with the words of one of his departmental predecessors, the noble Lord Adonis. He was regularly cited by Ministers as being against public ownership when he was Secretary of State, and that was correct. However, given the success of Directly Operated Railways, he recently had this to say:
“In the last four years East Coast has established itself as one of the best train operating companies in the country, both operationally and commercially…This has fundamentally changed the situation, and it is right and proper that East Coast should be allowed to continue as a public sector comparator to the existing private franchises.”
Lord Adonis is a wise man. He had an opinion. He looked at the evidence that contradicted his opinion and, like many a wise man before him, accepted that his opinion had been wrong and changed his mind. There is still time for the Minister and his colleagues to demonstrate similar wisdom and halt this process before more money is spent by the Department and the companies that might bid. They should accept that this experiment in public ownership, forced upon a reluctant Secretary of State at the time by the failure of a private provider, has been a success and can continue to be a success.
No, I am just winding up. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will get his chance to speak in a moment.
Most importantly, it is time for the Government to put British passengers and taxpayers first, before taking profits out of the system—especially where such profits then go to subsidise passengers in other countries. As I said in June, I hope the Minister will listen to what parliamentarians are telling him here today. We have already had the shambles over the west coast main line. It is in everyone’s interests for the Government not to make the wrong decision on the east coast main line as well. Let us call off the tender and give Directly Operated Railways the stability and support it needs to carry on improving services and sending much-needed cash back to the Treasury. At the very least, let us allow it to bid to run the service again in the coming years, and weigh up the public benefit that that would provide in a fair and open way. Come on, Minister: it is public versus private. Surely he is up for that.
It is a pleasure, Mr Bone, to serve under your chairmanship. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing and leading the debate today.
This is not the first Westminster Hall debate on the east coast main line and, unless the Government change their position, it will probably not be the last. The Government might not like to have such repeated debates, but the Opposition make no apologies for bringing the issue back for discussion time and again. We will do so until the Government change their policy, because there is an overwhelming case against forcing East Coast trains back into the private sector without even giving the public sector a chance to offer an alternative.
My hon. Friend reminded us of the positive financial record of East Coast trains and that the public are clearly against the return of the east coast service to the private sector. The staff on the line, and the cities up and down the line, do not want the service to return to the private sector, and public opinion is overwhelmingly against the proposals that the Government seem determined to push forward.
My hon. Friend and I have spent a considerable time campaigning on this issue in Edinburgh. Does he agree that the overwhelming response of the people we have spoken to while we were gathering signatures has been that they do not want the line to be re-privatised?
Absolutely. As my hon. Friend has said, she and other colleagues have spent quite a bit of time with me outside the railway stations in Edinburgh and at other locations, and not one person has come up to us and said, “Yes, we want East Coast trains to be re-privatised.” They have all recognised the value of this service being in the public sector.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this very timely and important debate and on making some excellent points. On the point about the value of having the east coast main line within the public sector, are there not lessons to be learned from what is happening with gas and electricity companies? When the private sector has no benchmark of public sector provision, does the consumer not get ripped off? Is there not an overwhelming argument for retaining at least one main line in public ownership, by which we could benchmark the other lines?
My hon. Friend might be, but that is not the issue today. What we are talking about today is giving an alternative to the private sector. He just referred to other industries, and one of the issues about those industries is this: to what extent is there real competition?
One of the problems is that within the railway sector in the UK, a very limited number of UK companies are able and willing to put in a bid for a line. On the east coast and west coast lines, we all know that the major UK bidders will always be drawn from Virgin, First Group, National Express and possibly Stagecoach.
Of course, Virgin also runs planes to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and First Group and the other companies operate other rail services. Some of them also operate bus and express coach services. So the issue is ensuring that there is at least some competition in the system, which the existence of Directly Operated Railways on the east coast main line would certainly provide.
Indeed. However, my hon. Friend is being perhaps a bit too restrictive, because I understand that one of the companies shortlisted for one of the Scottish railway franchises is the mass transit railway system—MTR—in Hong Kong, which I presume is ultimately owned by the Chinese Government. It appears that although the Chinese are able to build our nuclear power stations and run our railways, the British state is unable to do so.
I come to the essence of the argument. The Government say that one of the reasons why the east coast line should go back into the private sector is the success that there has been since the railway system was privatised. One of the oldest logical fallacies in the book is to say that because event B followed event A, event B must have been caused by event A.
What the Government are saying, of course, is that because passenger numbers have gone up since the railways were privatised, that must be because they were privatised. However, the fact is that we have not been able to establish that link between the two. For example, I can look at the local bus company in Edinburgh, my home city, which is municipally owned. The number of bus passengers has gone up dramatically in the past 20 years. That company is in the public sector, but I will not say that the rise in passenger numbers is just because of that.
Equally, however, saying that the rail network’s being in the private sector is why the number of passengers has gone up seems a very weak argument. In fact, the number of passengers on other state-owned railways in other parts of the world has gone up as well. The argument about privatisation seems very weak.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West pointed out, Lord Adonis, when Transport Secretary, made references to privatisation that are continually mentioned by the Government in defence of their policies. However, he has made it clear that he has learned from experience and is approaching this issue in a non-dogmatic fashion, in a way that the Government are signally failing to do.
Let us not forget that it was a Conservative Government who privatised the railways in the first place, against the wishes of the Labour party. Labour colleagues in Parliament at the time voted against that privatisation. Of course, the Labour Government after 1997 had a large number of priorities and I can certainly see why the issue was not, at that time, their No.1. However, as I have said, we are talking about the situation here and now. We have an opportunity to judge from experience and to ensure that the public get the best value for money and the best service, which, in my and my colleagues’ view, would be obtained by ensuring that the east coast line stays in the public sector.
Reference has been made to the way in which foreign companies are able to bid for the franchise. I will not develop that point any further, given that it has already been made by other colleagues. However, I will again make the point that there is a real issue about the lack of genuine competition within the rail franchising sector in the UK, including among British-based companies. Also, the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) made about comparing rail with the utilities was very well made.
One of the points made by Ministers when they have argued why the east coast main line should go private again is that—as I think one of the Minister’s predecessors, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), said—the record of East Coast trains on punctuality had “plateaued”. Again, that is another example of desperation and of the Government trying to grab arguments to support a weak case.
The fact is that East Coast trains has a good record on punctuality. As we all know, the main reason why there have been problems with train punctuality in recent times is certain factors—first of all, the recent storms, which were clearly beyond anyone’s control. Above all, however, they have been due to problems with infrastructure, which have not been the fault of East Coast trains.
I asked a parliamentary question on the issue a while ago. I received an answer about the 2012-13 split in responsibility for delays on East Coast trains: 18% of them were due to East Coast itself, 13% were due to “Other Train/Freight Companies” and 69% were due to Network Rail. We know that one of the reasons why 69% of delays were due to Network Rail was problems with the overhead line system, which was, of course, put in place on the cheap, and for which—again—a previous Conservative Government clearly have to take responsibility.
My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West referred to the new targets from the regulator regarding punctuality. One of the things that the regulator said in its recent report was that there is a problem with reliability on the east coast main line, and I welcome the fact that it did. However, like my hon. Friend, I am concerned about how the performance measurements for the east coast service have been reduced by comparison with those for many other lines in the country.
I know that it only sounds like a marginal reduction if the performance target is reduced from 90% to 88%, but of course what we want to aim for is 100% reliability. Obviously, we will never get 100% reliability, but every time the target is reduced—even by 1% or 2%—we release the pressure on that operator to ensure that, as far as possible, all their trains arrive on time.
The fact is that the new target for cancelled or seriously late trains was set at a rate that would allow 4.2% of east coast line trains to arrive more than two hours late or not at all. That does not sound like much, until we put those figures in another context and say that one in every 24 trains could be cancelled without any penalties whatever being imposed on the operator responsible.
As my hon. Friend has said, there are concerns about the fact that that change was not referred to in draft proposals for the new punctuality performance targets; it was a change that people could not be consulted on. The Minister should give an explanation as to why that was the case. Bluntly, if he cannot provide one today, he should go away and look at the issue, because it was a major defect in the process.
It is time for the Government to drop their dogmatic approach to the east coast line and to give the public sector operator a chance. Let Directly Operated Railways put forward an alternative model and we will see what represents the best value for money and the best service for the public. Please, Minister, do not come forward with the argument that I heard from one Minister some time ago, which was, “We couldn’t do this because the law wouldn’t allow us to do it, and we had to put it out to the private sector.”
As a Back Bencher, I cannot speak for those on the Labour Front Bench, but were the Government to come forward and say, “Yes, we will change the law to allow East Coast trains to continue to operate the franchise,” I cannot think that my party would oppose that. Perhaps the Minister will make that offer today. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) would be happy to respond to that.
It is time for the Government to change their policy. It is not what the public want, what the staff want or what the communities want—and it is not in the best interests of the public purse, either.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. It is important that we continue to raise and debate the issues on the east coast main line, with a view to persuading the Government, I hope, that they have gone down the wrong track. It is not too late to go into reverse. I am a regular railway traveller, but this is one time when I will be more than happy for the train to stop and go backwards.
It was not such a joy to arrive at Newcastle station a couple of weeks ago and be told that the best advice was to get off the train and go home. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and I were so determined to get here that we ignored that advice and soldiered on to Peterborough. That delay was due not to the train operator, but to the stormy weather; the line was certainly not the only one affected on that date. Some might suggest that East Coast let us down, but we were clear that that was not the case. Indeed, when we tried to take other lines to get from Peterborough to London, we discovered that they were all affected, whether they were privatised or not.
Things like that will happen in any travel system, but the service has—many regular travellers will say this—improved over recent years. People enjoy their journeys. I have said this before and I will say it again, because it is important from a Scottish perspective and an environmental perspective: the improvements are making inroads into getting those important business travellers, who otherwise might always travel by air, to use rail. If we are serious about creating a modal shift in transport, we have to make rail both attractive and reliable to get that kind of traveller. That is one thing the service has done extremely well.
I have taken part in at least four of the several debates that we have had on the east coast main line. As well as the Westminster Hall debate referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, we had a Backbench Business Committee debate in the Chamber in which many colleagues spoke. We have had many opportunities to ask oral questions, and we have all taken them up. At this stage, one might think that we should find something new to say and look at the matter from some new angle, but the problem is that our questions have never been answered. It is important that we go back over those questions. Perhaps on this occasion we will get responses to some key points.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ministers might ask why the public have so little confidence in the re-privatisation of the east coast main line, and the answer is simple: for the bulk of the time since the railways were privatised, the franchise has been in the hands of the private sector. The orders for new rolling stock on the line have only been secured since the franchise has been in the public sector. Much of the existing rolling stock is 35 or 40 years old. For the bulk of that time, it has been in private hands with little investment, apart from a lick of paint.
I thank my hon. Friend for making an important point on East Coast that speaks to how we run the railways. A lot of the public assumed that privatisation would mean that investment would be brought in and that everything would be brought up to scratch. That was the selling point.
The track investments are necessary and we need to see considerable improvement in the infrastructure on the east coast main line, particularly with the overhead lines, which have caused a lot of the recent problems. We need to see that crucial investment and we need to see the rolling stock upgraded, but none of the onus will be put on those who are being asked to tender for the service. Whatever investment there is will come from all of us as taxpayers.
The notion that we have to privatise to get investment was the selling point at the beginning, which people perhaps swallowed. They probably thought, “Yes, if that is a way of improving things, we will at least give it a try,” but that investment is not happening and will not happen in this case either. All the things that desperately need to be done will not get done through this privatisation process, which is, in many ways, a distraction from the measures that could lead to a real step change. We have talked about improvements and we are not complacent. We do not think that everything is perfect. We want to see a step change in the line, but it will not come through this process.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Lady, but would she care to speculate on whether the very investment that she and her colleagues are looking for in the east coast main line could be diminished once the Government get their way on HS2? Does she share the fear that such vast amounts will go into this bright, shiny new railway that, as in France, the existing lines might fail to get the investment that she and her colleagues desperately want?
I think the right hon. Lady knows that I do not share her views on this matter. We should not cast one railway line against another, because one of the advantages of HS2 is that it provides an opportunity to improve some of the other services, not least by dealing with the capacity question.
One issue is the opportunity cost of prioritising East Coast over some of the other long-distance franchises. Under the original franchising timetable from August 2011, a new contract for the west coast main line was due to start in October 2012, with Great Western starting in April 2013 and the east coast main line thereafter. However, following the debacle of the west coast main line bidding process, a new timetable was announced in March this year. The east coast main line, which was previously the last in the trio of inter-city franchises to be let, was brought forward to be the first. That was only made possible by the current operator of the west coast main line, Virgin, being given a franchise extension of four and a half years to April 2017. At the same time, the Great Western operator, First, has been given an extension of two and a half years to September 2015. In total, that is 77 months’ worth of extensions.
The Government justify prioritising East Coast by referring to the Brown review, which was carried out after the problems with the west coast main line. They are restating their belief that competition in the bidding process should drive down the subsidy required or drive up the premium payments offered. They say that that will push operators to be more efficient and innovative, and prompt investment in new services. One can argue that franchise competitions might achieve these goals, but the one thing that certainly will not achieve those goals is franchise extensions. That is because the Government, by setting up this arrangement, have no option but to negotiate with the existing operators on other lines. The only bargaining chip that Ministers can use is to threaten to call in East Coast’s parent company, Directly Operated Railways, but they are reluctant to do so, as is highlighted by their desperation to extract DOR from the east coast main line. How are the other franchisees threatened by Ministers saying, “If you don’t agree reasonable terms, we’ll take you into the fold of Directly Operated Railways,” when Ministers are running as fast as possible in the opposite direction with the east coast main line?
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. When there were problems with East Coast trains, as there were with Southern some years ago, Directly Operated Railways was able to step in and provide an alternative when the private sector failed. If Directly Operated Railways is taken off East Coast trains—I do not know what will happen to the organisation, but I presume that there might still be a shell company—the nucleus that allows it to operate an alternative may disappear, so there might not be an alternative even if a future private sector operator fails.
My hon. Friend gives a helpful example of where, instead of increasing competition and providing opportunities for the Government to exercise some control over the rail companies, that possibility might be being reduced.
The contract extensions, which were made necessary by the Government’s determination to pull East Coast forward, will cost the taxpayer a lot of money. In 2011-12, Virgin paid the Department for Transport a premium of £165 million, and First Great Western paid £110 million. Will the Minister confirm that there will not be payments of anywhere near those sums during the extension period? Will he also confirm that, apart from the roll-out of wi-fi on First Great Western, which all train operators are beginning to offer, the two extensions offer no improvements for passengers? There is less money coming in and no improvements; the extensions need not have been given had the Government stuck to their original timetable.
If the east coast main line had not been prioritised, the extensions simply would not have been necessary. There could have been fresh competitions, if that was the Government’s will, for the west coast main line and the Great Western main line. If East Coast had been performing badly in the public sector, there might have been some justification for what has happened—the imperative of turning East Coast around would have trumped other disadvantages of negotiating extensions on the west coast main line and the great western main line—but East Coast is performing well, so that reason simply does not apply.
The Government clearly hope that they can get to the next election with all the main line routes back in the private sector. The Government could take credit for that in the hope that it would be extremely difficult for any incoming Government to do anything about it. If that is not the motive, the Government have to say what is their real motive for proceeding in that way.
Public opinion has changed. People have seen the reality. Some people, although not necessarily all of us—there are always some critics—warned that privatisation of rail might be a step too far. Members of the public who were prepared to give privatisation a chance now see Directly Operated Railways as an opportunity to have a rail service in public ownership that brings money back to the Treasury. As I said earlier, when we talk to people, they enthusiastically support our campaign. The Government sometimes say that they listen to public opinion, and on this occasion I suggest that they do indeed listen to public opinion and stop the process before it goes any further.
People wait all day in Westminster Hall for one Graeme Morrice to turn up, then two turn up at the same time.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate on the future provision of the east coast main line rail service. She mentioned that she is a regular user of the East Coast service to London King’s Cross, and I travel regularly on the service from Edinburgh Waverley. We are both aware, as I am sure are many other hon. Members, of the benefits provided by the service to Scotland, the north-east of England, Yorkshire and beyond.
I note that, like me, my hon. Friend appreciates the general reliability, frequency, excellent customer service and value for money the service provides to all passengers. As a state-owned operator, the ethos of putting the customer first and ensuring the most effective and efficient use of public resources is the company’s prime objective. Private companies can be just as good, of course, but their foremost loyalty is to their shareholders and any profits not reinvested go on share dividends, often to already wealthy people.
The difference with East Coast being a subsidiary of Directly Operated Railways, a holding company owned by the Department for Transport, is that its surpluses are paid back to the Exchequer. As my hon. Friend has already mentioned, £800 million has been returned to the taxpayer since 2009. Moreover, East Coast has invested some £40 million in infrastructure and asset improvements in that period.
East Coast also has the best punctuality on the line since the service was privatised, and all passenger surveys and polling indicates that the overwhelming majority of people are satisfied with East Coast and wish it to remain in public ownership. So why are the Conservative-led coalition Government, supported by their compliant fellow travellers in the Liberal Democrats, intent on re-privatising what is evidently a most successful, lucrative and popular public service? Has re-privatisation been proposed for the right financial and service reasons, or is there another, perhaps more partisan, explanation? From the evidence available, it is apparent that that privatisation is born of ideology, not necessity.
Indeed, in answer to a parliamentary question in April, the previous Minister with responsibility for railways, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), implied that investment in the east coast main line’s infrastructure is not dependent on re-privatising passenger operations:
“Funding for the 2014-19 upgrade of the east coast main line will be delivered through the Office of Rail Regulation approving a £240 million increase in the value of Network Rail’s regulatory access base. Network Rail may then borrow up to this amount to fund the upgrade works.”—[Official Report, 15 April 2013; Vol. 561, c. 2W.]
For the sake of clarity, it would be helpful if the new Minister with responsibility for railways stated whether any elements of replacing and upgrading the electrification on the east coast main line are dependent on the transfer of the operation of passenger services to the private sector. Similarly, it would be useful if he explained how that investment will be delivered more swiftly if privatisation takes place. Finally, will he provide details of the increased investment, over and above the taxpayers’ money being put into the line, that would be delivered as a result of privatisation?
The past, current and planned public investment in the east coast main line has been and continues to be highly effective. If further investment is required, however, it could easily be provided by public means, given that the service returns far more to the Exchequer than it receives in subsidy. Furthermore, given the thoroughly negative history of private involvement in the east coast main line, it is highly probable that, if the East Coast service is privatised, taxpayers will be left to pick up the tab, as we have seen in so many other botched franchise deals, including, not least, on the west coast main line.
The British taxpayer has funded the east coast main line service successfully since November 2009, following 12 years of declining profits and eventual failure under Great North Eastern Railway and National Express. The service became hugely profitable almost immediately after re-nationalisation and has returned its soaring profits to the Exchequer every year, with the estimated total returned by the end of this financial year in excess of £800 million.
It is unfathomable that the coalition Government’s response to that success, which came about so quickly after years of failed management by the private sector, is to decide that this is a good time to give the private sector not just a second, but a third chance. It is appalling that the Minister and his Department are so eager to overlook the clear demonstration of the high quality of our public rail service management, the dedication of train staff and the co-operation of rail unions.
Rather than continue with this charade, the Minister should focus his efforts on sorting out the debacle of the west coast main line and other, similar franchise fiascos. It is ill-advised for the Government to create an issue out of nothing and to waste resources trying to solve a problem that does not exist, when they struggle to deal with real problems and real issues, often of their own making. I can conclude only that political dogma is driving this agenda, which I hope will ultimately be derailed.
I will make a short speech, because a number of Opposition Members want to get in before the shadow Minister and the Minister reply. I did not say this in my intervention earlier, but I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing the debate.
There has been some striking ideological dogma from the Opposition, and it smacks of having a brass neck to accuse the Government of dogma.
No, not at this point. I would like to make some progress, if I may, and then I will certainly give way.
I liked the fact that the hon. Lady started her speech completely against re-privatisation, but seemed by the end to be quite content to support it, albeit only in a way that she wanted and that benefited her constituents. Of course, that is what we would all want as Members of Parliament: we all want the best for our constituents.
The hon. Lady claimed not to be a PR cheerleader for East Coast. Indeed, like her, not one Opposition Member—I waited until quite a few had spoken—declared an interest. Since 2009, however, they have seen a real increase in services for their constituents. That is to be welcomed, and I am sure Opposition Members are pleased. However, some of us represent seats that have not seen services increase to the level we were promised they would be once East Coast was taken back into the public sector. Lincoln was promised seven trains down to and up from the capital a day, but we have ended up with one. Members can now see why I am perhaps not as big a cheerleader for East Coast as some Opposition Members.
No, not at this point.
The real elephant in the room is perhaps the fact that Opposition Members are worried that re-privatisation might bring some change to services. Although I agreed with some of the points made by the hon. Members for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), they might consider the fact that seats to the south of theirs are not just “and beyond”, as they were referred to. Lincoln is not “and beyond”; it is my constituency, and I will fight for it as hard as I can and as hard as Opposition Members, I am sure, do for theirs.
I would like to see better services from Lincoln to our capital city, as I am sure Opposition Members would from theirs. However, I am also aware that if trains on the east coast main line stopped at Edinburgh, and passengers then had to cross a platform to catch another train to go further north, people south of Edinburgh would see a vast improvement to their service. That is something a private operator might consider, although I am not saying it will. In Lincoln’s case, however, I would certainly like to see more direct trains daily and even at weekends.
The hon. Gentleman argues there is an evidence base that suggests that the east coast main line is better off privatised. However, whatever measure is used—whether customer satisfaction, profitability or prices—the evidence is that the line is better off as part of a directly operated public service, and I heard nothing to contradict that. The profits that are being made can be reinvested to improve the service or they can be used elsewhere by the Treasury.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that erudite and timely intervention, which is typical of the interventions he might make, but I would refer him to my first intervention. If he and the Labour party feel that way, why did they not re-nationalise the rail service across the whole country in their 13 years in office? They did not do that.
May I respectfully point out that the private operators did not provide the direct service the hon. Gentleman is calling for to his constituency in the 13 years or longer they operated the line? The private sector did not offer his city any improvements when it was in charge. That is surely an argument for saying that Directly Operated Railways should offer an alternative. The hon. Gentleman can then decide whether he wants Directly Operated Railways and East Coast or the private sector. Surely he can accept that there should at least be a choice.
I accept that different changes might be made. I thank my predecessor in the constituency, who, as a Transport Minister, perhaps secured the promise of seven trains a day down to and up from the capital. Ultimately, I was the lucky recipient of more votes in the 2010 general election, and I replaced her. Unfortunately, at that point, unlike some Labour Members who have retained their seats, East Coast decided not to follow through with its promise. That is to the disbenefit of my constituents. As I said, I will always stand up for them to secure the best rail services I can.
The question I was going to put has already been asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), but given the discussion earlier about the public view on this issue, does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the overwhelming majority of the public, including passengers, oppose privatisation? Is he aware that the Government have actually consulted on the issue?
I am, and I am happy to accept that the majority of people in his constituency, and the passengers who use the rail station he uses, might, like him, not want to see any changes to the level of services they enjoy. However, some of us, in seats that do not receive such a regular service, might feel differently, and that might be where the ideological difference is.
Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago, we had the wrong sort of trees on the line, and my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and I had to get off a train at Peterborough. We had a chat with quite a lot of residents and people who work on the railway there, and I have spoken to lots of people from Peterborough since. It is quite clear that the vast majority of them do not want the line to be taken out of public ownership and re-privatised. That is not Gateshead—that is Peterborough.
I will take those comments with quite a large pinch of salt. I would probably take on board a little more the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on behalf of his constituents. However, like him, I am pleased to see the new rolling stock on the east coast main line. Lincoln might—perhaps with hybrid locomotives—see better, more regular rail services, including at weekends. As I said, I have been fighting for that for my constituents.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith managed to bring nuclear power stations into the debate and mentioned that in 1997 there were other priorities for the Labour party. Obviously there were, because you did not sort out any power stations and certainly did not sort out the rail system. You were all busy spending money our country did not have.
Indeed I should not, Mr Bone. Thank you for that reminder.
I never refuse any opportunity to have a dig at the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West mentioned talk—although it has been refuted—of a third class on the east coast. I ask her not to tell IPSA, because I am sure it would try to make us all travel on it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, as always. I want to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate, one of several about the east coast main line that we have had in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber.
The Government have yet another opportunity to listen to what the overwhelming majority of the British public—not just in Easington or the north-east—are saying. Polling evidence shows that they believe that the east coast main line should remain a publicly operated service.
The last time we had a debate on this matter, the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), referred to me—and, if I recall correctly, my hon. Friends the Members for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) and for Gateshead (Ian Mearns)—as dinosaurs for believing that public services should be run for the benefit and in the best interests of the public.
I do support the renationalisation of the railways, and I certainly oppose the re-privatisation of the east coast main line—especially when there is evidence that Directly Operated Railways is providing a better service and returning more money to the taxpayer than the private sector. Furthermore, on two occasions when the private sector was operating the franchise, it failed. If my view makes me a dinosaur, so be it.
In numerous surveys, 70% of the public have regularly supported calls for the railways to be completely publicly run. That applies throughout the country and even in the south and south-east. Trains there are very congested, and there are similar concerns about the fact that private sector franchise holders are not delivering.
We have been given an example, in the success of the east coast main line under Directly Operated Railways, of how a public rail operator can work and deliver for the taxpayer. As my hon. Friends have said, more than £800 million in premiums will be returned to the Exchequer by Directly Operated Railways. The east coast main line receives the lowest net subsidy of any operator—only 1% compared with an industry average of 32% or more than £4 billion. The numbers tell the story. Let us not forget what happened previously, when National Express ran the service. It returned only £370 million in premium payments and turned its back on the franchise, leaving the taxpayer to pick up the pieces. Directly Operated Trains had to step in.
We have had private sector failures on the line and the operators have not delivered on their commitments, but the Government will not prevent National Express or other failed operators from bidding for the rail franchise. Labour Members have raised queries about that. The right hon. Member for Chelmsford confirmed in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn):
“National Express and its subsidiaries are permitted to submit for the pre-qualification process”—
that is, the bidding process—
“to run passenger rail services in all franchise competitions including the East Coast Main Line.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 970W.]
We should ask questions about that, given that the private operator has a track record—if hon. Members will excuse the pun—of failure.
Given the statistics that my hon. Friend has reeled off about the public subsidy going into private sector franchises, there is a good argument that the new rolling stock in the private sector franchises has been put in not by private sector investment, but by public sector subsidy. The public pay for private profit.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We are privatising the profit and nationalising the cost and risk of the investment. That is a bizarre approach to the public finances. In my view, companies in either sector that fail to deliver on commitments or promises to the taxpayer should not be allowed to take over franchises—they have shown that they are not competent to run them.
It is very expensive to travel by rail in the United Kingdom, compared with other countries. British train tickets are now the most expensive in Europe. A typical season ticket costs 14p per kilometre in the UK, compared with just 8p per kilometre in Germany. Holland and France are the next most expensive countries. A day return in the UK costs 26p per kilometre compared with 17p per kilometre in Germany. As to season tickets into the capital, a 24-mile commute into Paris would cost £924 a year; a similar commute would cost £705 to Berlin and £654 to Madrid—but for someone travelling to London it would cost £3,268 a year. Those are huge sums, and after a decade of price increases. Those are never welcome, but at a time of austerity when wages are effectively frozen and, in many cases, falling, an intolerable strain is being put on family budgets.
While fares have been shooting up, dividends to shareholders in the big five transport companies contracted to run UK rail services reached nearly £2.5 billion. When people ask, “Where is the money going?” the answer is that a big chunk of it is going there—in dividends to private train operators. There are examples of excessive boardroom pay. Some of the highest paid directors receive more than £1 million.
East Coast offers a genuine alternative, with all profits reinvested back into services—money that otherwise would go as dividends for shareholders. I hope that the Minister will listen to the concerns expressed by hon. Members and the British public and end the failed franchise bidding policy.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate. She made a compelling case against the privatisation of east coast inter-city services, and there were other strong speeches, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore). She rightly said that Ministers have consistently failed to justify selling off the east coast line, and hon. Members who attended previous debates may feel a sense of déjà vu. However, while I share their frustration, I make no apology for the persistent questions from the Labour Benches about an unnecessary, unwanted and wasteful privatisation. The answers have changed each time, but the absence of a credible case has remained constant.
We were told first that East Coast had to be privatised because punctuality had plateaued; better punctuality rates, however, have been achieved than under the previous, failed private operators. We were also told that we had to sell off East Coast to secure outside investment, but Ministers then had to admit in answers to written questions that the cost of track upgrades and rolling stock procurement would in fact be met by the taxpayer.
Then we were told that privatisation would lead to better value for money, but since 2009 East Coast—as we heard—has been virtually subsidy-free; all profits have been reinvested in the service and £800 million will have been returned to the taxpayer by the end of the financial year. Finally, the Minister told us in an answer to a written question last Monday that it would never be appropriate to compare any franchise to another, even though the former Minister, his colleague the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), had frequently contrasted east and west coast inter-city services.
The same confusion was at work in the leaked east coast franchise prospectus—the document that raised the prospect of third-class travel. It is clear that at a late stage a decision was taken to alter or remove positive references to East Coast performance since 2009. One statement, that
“staff engagement is at an all time high”,
was altered to:
“staff engagement has been improved”.
Then there was a reference to “the current, successful business”, which was downgraded to only “the current business”.
Some facts were erased completely. I shall share a few examples. On page 19:
“East Coast Main Line’s public reputation has remained consistently high”;
on page 20:
“Since the beginning of 2011/12 East Coast Main Line has been the recipient of 35 industry awards”;
on page 27, it was stated that East Coast’s passenger satisfaction was
“higher than the 89% for all long distance operators”;
and page 31 said:
“Over the last two years East Coast Main Line has developed a genuine choice for customers in terms of fares and customer offering.”
All were deleted, but we do not know who ordered those changes. Perhaps the Minister can tell us today.
The Secretary of State may believe that he speaks on behalf of passengers, as he told the House at Transport questions last week, but I am sure that they would not want to see Ministers rewriting history in such a way. Has the Secretary of State not seen the passenger satisfaction statistics? Since 2009, East Coast has achieved the highest ratings on the route since records began. The 2011 timetable changes introduced the equivalent of 3 million more seats a year, bringing improved services to communities along the line. Industrial relations have been improved, with employee engagement up and sickness absence down, from 14 days per year in 2009 to nine and a half days last year. Furthermore, polls show that twice as many people oppose the sell-off as support it. Even half of Conservative supporters are against it.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that Tory Ministers are rushing through a botched privatisation of rail services; they have form, after all. However, the Liberal Democrats—unfortunately, none is present today—need to be reminded of their position in opposition. At the time, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), said:
“My view on the franchise agreements is clear…if a franchise is handed in to the Government—handed back—it should be held in the public sector as a public interest franchise, not least as a comparator for other franchise agreements currently operating.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 83WH.]
Nevertheless, in government, the Liberal Democrats have voted in favour of privatisation without a word of protest. So this is not only a Tory sell-off; it is another Lib Dem sell-out.
There is an alternative. As a not-for-dividend operator, East Coast has invested all its profits—some £48 million—back into the service, instead of splitting it with shareholders. It has proved excellent value for money and will have paid back almost £1 billion by the middle of 2015, combining better services for passengers with improved value for the taxpayer. That is why we have suggested that, if the Government press ahead, at least East Coast should be able to bid for the new franchise.
As hon. Members have recognised, it is nonsense to say that the German, French and Dutch state operators will be able to bid, but that the current, successful British operator will be barred. It is also remarkable that Conservative Ministers have come before the House to tell us that they are not in favour of that additional element of competition. By doing so, Ministers have made it clear that this is about politics, not the national interest. They are content to watch profits being spent on foreign rail networks, and they have also said that they would allow National Express, which walked away from the franchise in 2009, to bid again.
Meanwhile, as my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) said, instead of clearing up the mess caused by the collapse of the west coast franchise competition, progress on other lines has stalled as Ministers desperately try to complete East Coast’s sale before the general election. The collapse of franchising has already cost the taxpayer at least £55 million, and the Government have been forced to seek costly direct extensions—in one case, for more than four years— to free up enough time to push East Coast out the door.
As a result, First Great Western will pay only £17 million in premium payments next year, compared with £126 million last year. When combined with the similar deal to extend Virgin’s west coast contract, taxpayers will lose out on £173 million in franchise payments in 2013-14. That is before taking into account the loss to the wider economy, as orders have been put on hold, hurting the supply chain and threatening jobs and skills.
Does the Minister really believe that those wasted millions could not have been put to better use? They could helped to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis by holding down the cost of tickets, but instead the Government are allowing some fares in January to rise by more than double the rate of inflation.
In fairness to the Government, they did announce one interesting policy: a £500 cap on the cost of a standard return. It was interesting for the wrong reasons, however, because the policy will benefit no one—there are no standard return fares that cost more than £500. When the rail industry proposed the cap, were Ministers aware of that fact, or were they duped? I would be happy to take an intervention on the point—but perhaps the Minister will address it in his speech.
After months of delay, the Government’s fares and ticketing review offered only cold comfort to passengers. East Coast passengers, however, will be feeling the impact of disruption, as despite the operator’s best efforts, infrastructure failings are an all-too-regular occurrence on the line. The previous Labour Government committed £500 million to the line in the current control period and a further £247 million is due to be invested in control period 5, but that pales by comparison with the billions spent on the west coast, and poor asset knowledge compounds the problem.
Network Rail is due to carry out a review of civil structures by March 2015, but the Government intend to award the new franchise in October next year. Will the Minister confirm that without adequate knowledge of the disruption ahead, the successful bidder could walk away with millions in preventable compensation payments? Is that cost to the taxpayer not reason enough to slow the reckless pace of this privatisation?
The truth is that the current operator has won national awards for the way in which it manages disruption, and its management have drawn up a five-year plan for managing upgrade work and the introduction of the inter-city express trains. They should be entrusted to deliver the plan, just as they delivered record punctuality and passenger satisfaction ratings.
We all know, however, that the sell-off is not about improving services; it is about ideology and the Government’s determination to bring to an end this successful alternative to franchising. It is not too late for Ministers to halt the process, but if they continue, they will be putting privatisation before passenger interests, which would say everything about the priorities of this out-of-touch Government.
It is a great delight to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing the debate, which provides yet another opportunity to present the benefits of rail franchising and to talk about the east coast main line franchise.
I have listened to a number of Members speak this morning, and I hope to address some of what they have said and asked for on behalf of their constituents. Regrettably, I cannot deal with all the points, because we are engaged in a commercially confidential and sensitive procurement exercise to appoint the right service delivery partner for this vital and historic railway. On 25 October, we began the competition for the inter-city east coast main line franchise by publishing a notice in the Official Journal of the European Union, and publishing the inter-city east coast prospectus and the pre-qualifications documents, so that prospective bidders can apply to take part in this important competition. The prospectus set out some of the new policies to be included in the new franchise, such as capitalisation requirements and the GDP support mechanism to mitigate the kinds of failures we have seen in the past. The Government have learned the lessons from the west coast main line and put in place new procedures and policies. I am confident that the competition will run smoothly.
We are now in the pre-qualification stage of the competition, so it is only right that I am careful in my comments this morning not to prejudice the competition. As is normal, the Department has set up clear processes, which I must follow, for the transmission of information to the market throughout this competition.
The Minister mentioned the prospectus that is in the public domain. Will he explain the difference between that and the leaked prospectus to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) referred and from which I obtained information about the proposal for third-class rail travel? Where did that leaked prospectus come from, and does it even exist? It was printed in The Daily Telegraph, which I am sure he thinks is a jolly good paper that would not print something that did not exist.
The hon. Lady is drawing me into commenting on The Daily Telegraph, and I would rather not do that at the moment, for obvious reasons. The Government rightly do not comment on leaked documents. If the hon. Lady wants to rely on it, it is for her to do so, but the Government rely on the prospectus that we have issued.
I shall pick up some of the questions asked this morning. There has been a whiff of mischief in this debate. Much has been said about political dogma and the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) gave himself away when he said that he supports renationalisation of the railways. That is what this debate is about. It is not about securing the best deal for passengers, the railways or the east coast main line. It is about renationalisation.
The whiff of mischief continued from the Labour Front-Bench spokesman who was keen to point out what she believes is the benefit of nationalisation, but failed to point out that the previous Labour Government saw the benefits of the franchising system and privatisation, and continued with that process throughout their 13 years in office. Moreover, I gently remind the hon. Lady that when she starts a catalogue of failures, she might remember who had not done enough work on the franchising process in 2007 when National Express took it over.
On the spirit of mischief, does my hon. Friend find the attitude of Labour Members rather odd? I understand that Labour is considering supporting HS2 if the Secretary of State raises the extra private sector funds by selling a 30-year concession on HS2 for £10 billion. Does that not sit rather oddly with the arguments that have been deployed today?
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point and alludes, as I did, to the whiff of mischief that we are hearing from Labour Members today.
The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West asked about the prospectus and where she might find it. It is available in the Library—and I have a copy here—but I will ensure that a copy is sent to her. She commented on performance, and I refer her to page 67, which states that the franchise agreement will include three levels of benchmarking for the performance metrics that any franchisee will have to meet.
The hon. Lady referred to third class. I intervened to say that we will not specify that and have not specified it, but I gently guide her to Eurostar, which has a standard premier class to make better use of off-peak first-class coaches. If someone wanted to make better use of first-class coaches during off-peak times, I am sure that she and her constituents would regard that as a benefit.
I know that I cannot tempt the Minister to discuss the existence of the leaked document, but page 66 of the publicly available document states:
“We would be open to variations in the ratio of first to standard class accommodation…We would be unlikely to consider any variation which delivers a worsening of passenger experience”,
which I believe third class would. Will he confirm that no third class will be allowed under the franchise?
The hon. Lady is dancing on a pinhead. I have made it clear that in the document we will not and have not specified a third class. I would have thought that she and her colleagues supported utilising first-class coaches, so that more passengers can have a better experience.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) who told us that it was impossible to argue that the decline in ridership on the railways between the early 1900s and the 1990s was due to public ownership, or that the benefits of privatisation, which has seen ridership double, could be established. He then proceeded to use exactly those arguments for the east coast main line, which was slightly surprising.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) who referred to securing new rolling stock under the public sector. The inter-city express programme has been running for some time. The trains will be procured by Government and will also be used by Great Western, and that is currently being operated by First Great Western. To suggest that the IEP process was not running beforehand was wrong.
It is equally odd that some hon. Members sought to suggest that the Government have been panicked into the inter-city east coast main line refranchising. What they forget is that the franchise consultation had already been held prior to the west coast franchise being stopped. It had already been announced back in 2011 that the intention was to publish the invitation to tender in January 2013. To contend that this is a rushed privatisation—we may discuss the word “privatisation” in a moment—is simply nonsense.
Does the Minister accept that the original plan was for the east coast main line to be the last of the three lines to be refranchised, so the only reason that it now seems to be in line with the original date is that the whole thing was put on hold due to the complete debacle of the west coast main line?
The hon. Lady cannot argue that we are rushing it through when she has just said that we are keeping to the original timetable. The then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond) announced a timetable and we had already started the consultation prior to the west coast refranchising process being stopped, so it is nonsense to argue that this is rushed.
We followed the absolutely standard procedures. We had a public consultation between June and September 2012, and there will be further consultation when the ITT has been finalised. The Government are putting in place the refranchising process that will deliver the best partner to deliver the best benefit for all customers on the east coast main line. That is the way forward.
Premier Motor Auctions
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time ever, Mr Bone? I want to tell the story today of the theft of a profitable Yorkshire company by the mafia—I do not mean the criminal mafia that we often speak of, but Britain’s dark-suited mafia, which in this case is represented by Lloyds bank and PricewaterhouseCoopers, both acting in collusion and neither of them subject to police controls, because both regulate themselves.
The company is Premier Motor Auctions, which had a turnover of £160 million, had 160 staff, and was profitably selling 50,000 cars a year in 2008, which was one of its most profitable years. It was described by Lloyds as a “great auction business”. However, the company had an overdraft facility of £1.75 million, because the chief executive, Keith Elliott, was pushing the limits to expand the company. That included the costs of due diligence on an aborted takeover, the purchase of a new site in Birmingham and a proposal to establish a business in the United States. The overdraft facility gave the bank the idea of taking it over and it introduced Irving Warnett of PricewaterhouseCoopers to the company as a non-executive director. He called himself, as he came in, a critical friend, and he worked for Ian Green, who was the northern leader of business recovery services for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Warnett went through the accounts and insisted on creating a £2 million account for a Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency contract that the company held. That turned out to be unnecessary—it was not even required by the DVLA contract—but it created a hole in the company’s finances, which Lloyds agreed to fill by increasing the borrowing limit to £3.75 million, in return for which it demanded vigorously and robustly that the company be sold via an administration in which PwC would, amazingly to me, act for both parties. That was in September 2008. It was to be sold to Lloyds Development Capital under what was called Project Tic, which was headed by the takeover specialist Matthew Packham.
Elliott fought back, and he got the support of a venture capital firm called Endless, which described Premier Motor Auctions as an excellent business. It was prepared to refund the £2 million borrowing that had been unnecessary, but Lloyds, in return, insisted on owning 50% of the business and proposed to put the business again into administration. That was described by Lloyds as Project Toc, and PwC was to handle the administration, at the end of which Lloyds was to buy the business for £1. To ensure that that happened, Lloyds then threatened to withdraw funding on 4 December, which was the day before the deal was completed. It said, in internal documents, that this was its attempt to crystallise the position and to do a deal without Keith. PwC was proposing to act for both sides, which, again, I would have thought was a conflict of interest on its part.
Elliott, not to be beaten—resourceful man as he is—did a deal with Scottish Motor Auctions, which agreed to put up £2 million and avoid administration, which, as it pointed out, would have shattered confidence in the business. That was a good deal from the point of view of Elliott and Premier Motor Auctions, but not from the bank’s point of view, and in 24 hours, the deal, on 11 December, had been aborted and a new deal was reached between Scottish Motor Auctions and Lloyds, over Elliott’s head. Lloyds and Scottish Motor Auctions would now take over the company, so the bank was still achieving its aim, despite Keith Elliott’s resourcefulness in getting the £2 million paid off.
The central question, therefore, becomes who aborted the deal with Scottish Motor Auctions. A director of Scottish Motor Auctions said that it had been given a very clear steer that SMA’s bid would be unacceptable—unacceptable, presumably, to the bank. I have had a considerably long letter of explanation from the bank, and I am grateful for that. It has given me an explanation some of which is actually correct. The bank says that it did not abort the Scottish Motor Auctions deal, and it points to PricewaterhouseCoopers. PwC has refused to answer any questions on the issue, so I do not know whether the deal was aborted by Mr Warnett or by his boss Ian Green—they both worked in the same office and shared the same secretary—but I do know that aborting the Scottish Motor Auctions deal made the difference to PwC’s fees, which went from £10,000 for the SMA deal, if it had gone through, to £500,000 for carrying out the administration, which Lloyds wanted to do. The total cost of that administration, including lawyers’ fees and everything, came to £1.2 million.
In some respects, that is the end of the story. Keith Elliott was forced out, and to get his overdraft, he had been forced to sign a warrant to the bank, which is something banks tend to force on customers now, giving it the option to purchase, which it now proposed to exercise, excluding Keith Elliott entirely. That was what he was told by post earlier in December. Therefore, a company that was making, that year, £2.5 million, before interest and tax, was put into administration by PwC and bought back by Lloyds and Scottish Motor Auctions. It is now functioning again and generating considerable profit for them. Elliott has been forced out, and Scottish Motor Auctions, Lloyds bank, and presumably PwC, which handled the administration, are laughing all the way to the bank, having made a very considerable, generous profit out of the deal—out of effectively stealing the company. Elliott is left owing £2 million on a warrant that he signed to get the £2 million from Lloyds in the first place.
In my view, the way in which the company was taken over does not just smell—it stinks. It is a monstrous theft of the company. The Independent Banking Advisory Service, which Keith Elliott consulted, has confirmed that this is happening elsewhere to other companies taken over by banks in this fashion. IBAS says that the banks are being protected by Government and have a “special relationship” with them. I quote from a letter of 28 September 2012 in which IBAS states that that special relationship
“has allowed the banks and other professionals with whom they have conspired—to plunder and gain control of very profitable business, which the banks had marked as targets”—
as Lloyds had marked Premier Motor Auctions—
“…deliberately using the insolvency industry as a shield to conceal many acts of deception and fraud.”
I hope that the Department will inquire into that, because if it is happening on a bigger scale than at Premier Motor Auctions, it is an appalling practice to impose on businesses that want to compete, prosper and grow, and it is a threat to businesses besides Keith Elliott’s.
What smells even more and is even more worrying is the lack of redress for a company director and company in this situation. Neither Lloyds nor PwC has answered the specific questions—about who aborted which deal, why and when—that I and Keith Elliott have put to them. Lloyds has been helpful in giving its side of the story, but it still has not answered the questions and it will not agree to an independent investigation by a liquidator that Elliott will fund personally to prove that he was right. It has also prevented disclosure by six directors after he won a court order for disclosure of their internal papers.
PricewaterhouseCoopers—a distinguished name—has been even less helpful. Elliott’s inquiries were answered by a lawyer’s letter, saying that his queries were
“calculated to cause annoyance and inconvenience to our client”.
That’s a nice one. PwC has not answered my questions, either. It will not correspond further. It has told Elliot to sue it. All that is, to me, as clear an admission of guilt on the part of PwC as we are going to get. It can get away with it, because the regulation of accountancy and insolvency is handled by the regulator, which is the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. That would better be renamed the “society for the prevention of cruelty to the big four accountancy houses”, which manage the institute’s staff, provide time off for their partners to serve the institute, dominate its proceedings and make it judge and jury in their own case. It has not investigated Elliott’s claims. It has told him that his redress is now by means of judicial review, which it is not, of course, because that is out of time.
The Financial Reporting Council, which is the regulator of regulators, will not investigate because, it says, the number of people affected is small and doing so is not in the public interest. Well, if investigating the theft of a company is not in the public interest, it beats me what is.
The Minister and the Insolvency Service both say they have no standing in the matter. The problem that we are talking about is the theft of a viable, profitable company by one of the big banks, in close co-operation—conspiracy, one might say—with PricewaterhouseCoopers. What I am asking this morning, therefore, is, first, that there be an official inquiry into this company theft, which should cover the question whether this is going on with other banks—whether other companies are being taken over by the banks, in collusion with accountancy houses, in the same way. It is in effect the theft of companies.
I am asking secondly for effective independent regulation of accountancy, audit and insolvency. Regulation by the Institute of Chartered Accountants, the protective body for the big four, is just not enough, and it means that the big four are in effect their own masters and take their own decisions. That is a totally undesirable situation. The public and companies must have some right of redress and right of appeal—some knowledge that there will be an independent inquiry into such abuses.
I am asking thirdly for the effective regulation of the banks to ensure that they do their job, which is lending to support small and medium-sized enterprises, rather than using the power that they have from granting overdrafts to take them over.
I am asking, as a general issue, that the enormous power of those big beasts the banks—banks that are too big to fail and are in effect protected by the Government —and the enormous power of the big four accountancy houses, which are too big to control and in effect regulate themselves through the Institute of Chartered Accountants, be restrained. We need a healthy, vigorous and open environment for business and we need institutions such as the banks and the big accountancy houses to be accountable and effectively regulated in the public interest. Everywhere, great power such as exists in the hands of the banks and the accountancy houses must be accountable, and it should be in this instance.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) on securing the debate. He has been a tenacious advocate on behalf of his constituent, Mr Elliott, and his concerns about the administration of the companies of which he was the managing director. I applaud the hon. Gentleman’s work on behalf of constituents generally, which we all wish to undertake as MPs in our own constituencies.
I hope to be able to address some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised on this specific case, although he will appreciate that there are limits to what I can say—and, indeed, do—on this case. However, he has also raised his concern that these issues exist more widely, so I will also touch on what the Government intend to do to address issues in the insolvency market more widely.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
The concerns that the hon. Gentleman has outlined regarding this case include the alleged conflict of interest involving the administrator, the accountancy firm PwC and the bankers, Lloyds. Mr Elliott has made it clear that he considers that the close relationship between PwC and the bank enabled his companies to be sold in an inappropriate and irregular way. The hon. Gentleman described that as, in effect, the theft of the company. I appreciate that his constituent feels very strongly about this issue, not least because this was his livelihood and his company. We all understand that.
The hon. Gentleman also outlined his concerns about the wider context of the banks acting with the big four accountancy firms to sell businesses at a profit for themselves, to the detriment of creditors and those who had been running the companies. I recognise that people are worried about the independence of insolvency practitioners and I will come to those matters, but I should perhaps try to manage expectations. I may be unable to satisfy the hon. Gentleman on the specifics of this case, because I do not have the power to intervene in individual insolvencies. The issue is not whether I am willing to do so; it is simply that I am not able to do so.
The hon. Gentleman will inevitably be more familiar with the intricate details of the case than I am, but my understanding is that Irving Warnett was introduced, he says, as a non-executive director and a critical friend of Premier Motor Auctions. My understanding is also that, whatever discussions took place, he was never actually appointed as a non-executive director, so the legislation on directors’ responsibilities does not specifically apply to him. The issues about a conflict of interest have been investigated, and I will come to the way in which that complaint was handled.
The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the two different deals that seemed to be on the table in December 2008. One was much more appealing to Mr Elliott. The other, which ultimately was the one undertaken, was clearly not as acceptable to Mr Elliott. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about where that decision was made, but I do not have the power to secure that information.
That said, I strongly encourage any company receiving correspondence from a Member of Parliament about a constituency case to engage with that Member of Parliament and answer their questions. After all, we elect 650 MPs to represent everybody up and down the country, and the office of Member of Parliament should not be disrespected by any individual company. It would be helpful if the relevant companies found it in themselves to engage a little more constructively and answer some of the questions that the hon. Gentleman understandably put to them on behalf of his constituent.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted a couple of deals, which go by the interesting names of Project Tic and Project Toc. In August 2008, Lloyds were apparently insisting that the company went into administration, which he referred to as Project Tic. Project Toc involved Endless LLP and Lloyds buying the company out of administration through a specially created new company. It is difficult to comment on those specifics, because the sale did not take place under either of those projects.
Mr Elliott complained to the ICAEW, which is the insolvency regulator of the administrator, Mr Green. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it investigated the complaint, which involved the potential conflict of interest around Mr Green becoming administrator when previously, it is alleged, there was a material relationship between PWC and the companies involved.
The ICAEW investigation concluded that no conflict of interest arose, on the basis that PwC was acting as investigating accountants for the bank prior to the administration, and therefore it was not contrary to the code of ethics with which all insolvency practitioners must comply. The ICAEW also looked at PwC’s negotiating to sell the business in the days before Mr Green was appointed and stated that that likewise did not breach the code because PwC was trying to maximise asset realisations, which was compatible with Mr Green’s duties as administrator.
Every insolvency practitioner should be aware of potential conflicts of interest. There was an investigation in this case, because there clearly should have been awareness of that, but if an insolvency practitioner works for a particular firm, a conflict of interest is not automatically inevitable. The investigation found that there was no conflict of interest in this circumstance.
In fact, as the Minister pointed out earlier, Mr Warnett was not appointed as a director, but the letter from Lloyds specifically said that he was to be a non-executive director. On that basis, he was received by the company and gave advice to create the £2 million hole in the accounts.
The ICAEW investigation was only a partial investigation of part of the complaint. The complaint, which put three headings together, had to be treated as a whole to show the conspiracy, but the ICAEW said that it could not be treated in that fashion and that it would investigate only part of it. That investigation was certainly far from thorough, because it has left open the question whether PwC could act for both the company and the purchaser in the administration.
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, Mr Elliott was unhappy with the investigation and therefore also asked the Insolvency Service to use its oversight role to review whether the ICAEW had dealt with the case properly in its investigation of the complaint. The Insolvency Service concluded that the ICAEW had adhered to its complaints processes and that the finding of the investigation committee was not unreasonable.
I have not seen the letter of engagement from August 2008 on the appointment of a director, but whatever is in that letter, if somebody is to be appointed as a director, a formal process must be undergone through Companies House. That did not happen, so there was no status as non-executive director, even if it was supposed to happen. The investigation took place and was looked at by the Insolvency Service, and that is where the powers we have get us to in this circumstance.
I am absolutely sympathetic. I understand the concerns of Mr Elliott and the hon. Gentleman. It is important that those who deal with the insolvency of a company are seen as independent, and I understand why on this occasion there is not necessarily confidence that that was the case. I stress to all insolvency practitioners that they need to look long and hard at their position when they take on the administration of a company, to see whether there is any potential conflict. They should take appointments only where they feel that they are able to act with independence.
The hon. Gentleman placed the issues raised by the case in the wider context. It is helpful to look more generally at what we are doing for companies that find themselves in a similar situation. The Insolvency Service is taking an increased interest in conflicts of interest. It is focusing its oversight regulation work on the specific issue of insolvency practitioner independence. When it goes out to monitor insolvency regulators, it looks at how those regulators consider alleged conflict of interest cases and whether the current code of ethics is robust enough.
For example, the Secretary of State recently wound up a number of introducer firms that had inappropriate relationships with insolvency practitioners. Creditors and complainants continue to express concerns about the effectiveness of the regulatory regime for insolvency practitioners. Stronger oversight powers would help to improve confidence in the regime. We will therefore bring forward proposals, when we can find time within the legislative programme, to strengthen the powers of the Secretary of State as the oversight regulator.
The case brings to mind issues more generally. Many hon. Members have expressed significant concerns about the pre-pack process. In July, I announced that Teresa Graham would be appointed to undertake an independent review of the pre-pack procedure. The review is under way and is considering, among other things, whether pre-packs provide value for creditors and how confidence in the procedure can be improved. We have passed on the concerns that Mr Elliott raised to the review team, as part of its evidence-gathering process, so that it can look at a variety of different cases where people have been worried about what has happened. The review is expected to conclude by spring next year—in just a few months’ time.
The Insolvency Service has also worked with the regulators to develop a revised standard for pre-packs, known as SIP16—statement of insolvency practice 16. It requires insolvency practitioners to provide earlier and more detailed information to creditors about valuations, marketing and the justification for a pre-pack.
Importantly, where there is evidence of abuse by an insolvency practitioner, creditors can now use a new single complaints gateway. It is a single point of access for complainants and therefore much easier to use, given the fragmented regulatory regime with different regulators. It will also make it easier for the Insolvency Service to oversee the progress of complaints. Common sanctions guidelines have been introduced by the majority of insolvency regulators, to create more consistency in disciplinary standards.
In conclusion, I shall turn to the role of banks. Banks will undertake reviews to assess the viability of a company for continued or enhanced financial support. As a fundamental feature of our financial and insolvency law, lenders that have valid security must be able to appoint an agent, such as an investigating accountant, to protect the value of that security. Banks also need to act responsibly and consider the implications of any decision they ultimately take.
The Government recognise the problems that there have been in the banking sector, which have done a considerable amount to undermine people’s faith in the banking system. We recently responded to the report from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which marks the next step in the Government’s plan to improve confidence and build a banking sector that upholds high standards of ethics and professionalism. We will continue to strengthen standards in banking, by working with the regulators to strengthen corporate governance and ensure that firms have good systems in place to maintain standards on ethics and culture. Such issues are important.
I appreciate that what I have outlined on insolvency and banking will not necessarily help in the specific case brought to us today, but I hope that it provides reassurance that we are aware of the important general issues and are taking action.
Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Programme
[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]
Thank you for your presence in the Chair, Mr Sheridan, and I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate. May I say how pleased I am to see a Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office here at a Defence-allocated debate? I see it as good evidence of joint working between two important Departments. I am also delighted to see so many other eminent parliamentarians in the Chamber. I welcome interventions, hostile or friendly, during my remarks.
Iran’s nuclear weapons programme poses the greatest threat to global security that we face. Surprisingly, the issue is not being taken seriously enough in Parliament, or indeed by the international community. All eyes seem to be focused on Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia, when actually the greatest risk of a global conflagration comes from Iran. Iran simply cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. There are elements within the regime who are mad and bad enough to use it, and their target could be Israel, Saudi Arabia or any number of other countries in the region or further afield. I contend that we must take the issue far more seriously, and that the longer it goes unresolved, the greater the risk that Iran will get a nuclear weapon or weapons and develop the ballistic technology to project the weapon not only in the region but further afield.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in promising to give way, although he might regret it. He and I had an interesting week in the delegation to Gaza, and he is well aware of Israel’s behaviour concerning the encirclement of Gaza and the treatment of the Palestinian people. Israel, of course, is a nuclear-armed power. Does he not think that the key to the issue in that region is for Israel to divest itself of nuclear weapons to remove the potential for a nuclear arms race in the region?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, and I enjoyed our joint visit to Gaza. He and I agree on many issues involving the Palestinian Authority and Israel. We can certainly agree that the situation must be resolved quickly and that the current US-led negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians offer perhaps the best chance of resolving those issues since the state of Israel was founded.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he not agree that Iran has shown ample evidence of its hostility towards a peaceful solution to the situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis and that Iran’s aggression is in fact directed towards the existence of Israel?
I agree with my hon. Friend that Iran has said some unfriendly and unpleasant things about the state of Israel and its right to exist, which he and I and most Members totally abhor. The question in the previous intervention was whether Israel’s possession of a nuclear weapon was not a big issue in itself. Of course it is, but the whole Israeli mindset has to do with defending Israel’s people, not projecting aggression elsewhere.
I know that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) is looking at me quizzically because he will not agree with much of that, but the perspective of the state of Israel is that the Jewish diaspora throughout the world, but mainly in eastern and western Europe, suffered the horrors of the holocaust, and out of that was born the state of Israel. He and I and others can agree or disagree about that history, but the fact is that half the present world’s Jewish population lives in the state of Israel, and they have found nowhere safe in the world throughout the history of the Jewish people. The state of Israel now offers the best chance for Jewish people to live in peace. They have developed a nuclear weapon or weapons because they want to defend themselves. They do not want to deploy that weapon against anyone else; they just want to be left in peace.
I fully accept many of my hon. Friend’s arguments about an expansionist versus a defending nation, but within the United Nations and the global community, there are rules about the development and holding of nuclear or any other weapons. Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which imposes certain obligations that ultimately involve its being taken to the Security Council; Israel is not. Does he therefore recognise the disparity there, and will he join me in urging Israel to sign the NNPT, or at least to allow inspection of its sites?
I am keen to get the focus back on Iran. One way to do so might be to point out that if Israel were led by undemocratic, tyrannical religious fundamentalists and Iran was led by a democratically elected Parliament and Government who were constitutionally capable of being removed without strife, we might be having this debate about Israel’s nuclear weapons rather than Iran’s. The key lies in democratisation, or the lack of it, in the respective countries.
As always, my hon. Friend is on top of matters. He makes an extremely pertinent point, and he is quite right to bring us back to Iran.
Yes, this is about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Would we be having this debate if the state of Israel did not exist? Perhaps, but the threat of Iran deploying a nuclear weapon would not be nearly as great. The mad and bad people in Iran have said often enough how much they despise the state of Israel. There has been argument about whether they have said that Israel should be wiped off the map, but that is clearly the intention of some people in positions of authority in Iran.
Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism worldwide, not just in the middle east but in Europe and further afield, and it has an appalling human rights record. It is a very unpleasant country led by a very unpleasant regime. The idea that it should have at its disposal the ability to deploy a nuclear warhead or warheads should fill the world with absolute horror. Ever since 1945, with a brief interruption for the Cuban missile crisis, the assumption has been that nuclear weapons are so horrible that they will never be used, but I think that we could envisage a situation in which Iran, if it had a nuclear warhead, might well use it. If a future regime had the ability to manufacture a warhead and the ballistic capability to deliver it on Israel, it might well decide to take the chance to wipe out 7 million Israelis.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this most timely debate. Does he agree that although we have been talking about Israel, we must underline the fears and anxieties of many of Iran’s Arab neighbours? Should we not be concerned about reports that Saudi Arabia will look elsewhere to bolster its nuclear capability, or investigate the possibility of so doing, if Iran is given what it considers to be a good deal? A good deal for Iran would, of course, be a bad deal as far as everyone else was concerned. Not only Israel and the west but Iran’s Arab neighbours are concerned about the situation.
The right hon. Gentleman knows more about religious divides than most of us in the House. In many respects, the split between Protestants and Roman Catholics is similar to that between Shi’as and Sunnis. The divides between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia date back centuries. If Saudi Arabia feels that the wrong deal is negotiated in Geneva, there is a real chance that the Saudis will buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan, because they will want to defend themselves against the threat from Iran.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the situation is not just about Israel versus Iran; it is about Iran versus, frankly, the rest of the world. That is yet another reason why the international community simply cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, because the likelihood of its wanting to use them in future is simply too great. That comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). Iran’s horrible regime is far removed from any process of democracy, and we can easily envisage circumstances in the near, medium or distant future in which someone in authority in the country might decide, “We have got a nuclear weapon. Let us use it.” That is a frightening prospect, which puts our worries about places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia into the shade. It is the big issue on which the international community must concentrate.
I am in no way an expert on nuclear technology, but I have read enough to be convinced that Iran does not want to develop nuclear technology simply to provide power for its own people. It is hellbent on developing a nuclear weapons programme. The Foreign Secretary confirmed to me on the Floor of the House that the UK Government are convinced that Iran has enriched uranium to at least 20%. That is way beyond the 3.5% needed for civilian nuclear use, which suggests that the country is trying to develop a military capability. My understanding is that uranium for use in a nuclear warhead must be enriched beyond 90%, and although the gap between 90% and 20% might seem large, in nuclear physics terms it is actually quite small. Uranium enriched to 20% is more than half way to weapons-grade uranium. One of the worries about the potential deal now supposedly being negotiated in Geneva is that Iran might be left with a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, which it could bank and use to develop a nuclear warhead in the future. Any interim agreement that allows the Iranians to hang on to their nuclear stockpile is not worth having.
Perhaps I am wrong, but I understood the Foreign Secretary to say in a press interview that an interim agreement was being discussed, and a long-term agreement would be considered later on. I do not understand the concern about an interim agreement. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am no expert on nuclear weapons.
There might be a problem here with my accent and that of the hon. Gentleman. I understood the Foreign Secretary to be talking about an interim agreement prior to arriving, we hope, at a full accord. The problem with an interim, short-term agreement is that, if I am right—I hope I am not—and the Iranians want to develop a nuclear warhead, such an agreement might give the Iranians time to develop enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear warhead. An interim agreement might, effectively, give the regime diplomatic cover to complete its nuclear weapons programme without the international community’s agreement.
It is not for me to defend the Foreign Secretary, but as I understand it, he was talking about weeks rather than a long-term process that might allow Iran to develop along the lines the hon. Gentleman suggests. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s fears would be realised within the short period of time the Foreign Secretary was talking about.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The prospect of the debate clearly brought Iran to the negotiating table last weekend, so I congratulate him on his international reach. Does he share my biggest concern that all the dancing around the diplomatic handbags—talks about talks, talks about resuming talks, talks about inspectors going back in and talks about what they can inspect and when they can inspect it—is a typical conjuring trick by Iran to distract the international community while it gets across the line and builds a bomb? Should not the Foreign Office be extremely cautious about any gift horses from Iran?
My hon. Friend speaks wise words, and I am not surprised because he is always on top of such important issues.
That leads me on to a point I was going to make about the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in June 2013. President Rouhani is meant to be the bee’s knees. The former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), has said how much he admires him. Hassan Rouhani spent some time at Glasgow Caledonian university and knows this country well, but he is not a pleasant individual at all. It is not as though he has recently emerged with an unblemished record; he has been deeply involved in the unpleasant Iranian regime for quite some time. He was involved in the Islamic revolution when it started in 1978, and he helped Ayatollah Khomeini found the regime. Between August 2003 and October 2005, the now President Rouhani was Iran’s chief negotiator in nuclear weapons talks. In 2004, he gave a speech to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, in which he said:
“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan. By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there”.
Those words reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) that Iran may well be using the talks and the supposed rapprochement as a ruse to cover up the fact that it is quite close to developing a nuclear warhead but, critically, needs six to 12 months to finish its programme. What better way to ensure that it has the time and space to complete the manufacture of a nuclear warhead than to engage the international community in talks?
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward a debate of such great concern to us all. Does he see any grounds for optimism—or only danger—in an Iranian leader who is so much more able to enter into discussions than his predecessor, Ahmadinejad, who was clearly a danger to everybody; or is he just packaging and is there nothing at all in his greater willingness to talk with other leaders?
It is difficult enough to be minor politicians in this country, as we are, having to deal with different issues and factions; it must be a nightmare being a politician in an unstable and unpleasant place such as Iran. I am sure that President Rouhani has to balance all sorts of different issues and say things he does not believe to appease one faction in relation to another.
I hope that I am wrong, but I suspect that Iran is attempting to buy space to cross the nuclear finish line, so that it can have a nuclear weapon. The prestige of President Rouhani and others in the Iranian regime would then be at its peak, because Iran would be a nuclear power, able to throw its weight around in the middle east and the world as never before. If I am wrong, that is great, but if I am right, we face the prospect of Iran being a nuclear power. Once it is such a power, it will be too late for the world to do anything about it.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is unlikely that Rouhani has any serious differences with the Ahmadinejad regime? The fact that he was one of six chosen from 3,000 potential candidates by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei indicates that he is probably completely at one with them. Is it likely that somebody who wanted to execute demonstrators campaigning for freedom shares any of the values of democracy or of the west?
The hon. Gentleman speaks a great deal of sense and makes some extremely pertinent points. I hope the Foreign Office has taken note of his intervention. I suspect that, going back to the 1930s, the default position of the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence is to try to arrive at an agreement to solve our problems through international accord. Of course, all of us see a lot of sense in that, but it must be stated in this case that no deal is probably far better than a bad deal. A bad deal will not solve anything. In fact, a bad deal will allow the Iranians under their present leadership, with all the other people behind the scenes, to cross that nuclear finish line. Once Iran has a nuclear weapon, the negotiating stance of the Foreign Office and the international community will be blown out of the water. This is our best chance to stop nuclear proliferation in the middle east.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that whatever the merits of the argument about an interim deal giving Iran the time to develop nuclear weapons, the issue is about Iran being allowed to retain the capacity to do so? That is crucial, as is the easing of sanctions. Surely one of the greatest issues for the Iranian regime is the crippling effect of sanctions, and one of its main desires is to ease that situation. It is estimated—I would be grateful if he gave us more information about this—that the easing of sanctions might be worth up to $20 billion to the Iranian regime, which is a major motivating factor and a good one. Iran’s retention of the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, rather than its willingness to do so or its actually doing so, is the key issue.
The right hon. Gentleman’s powerful intervention is absolutely right. I hope the Foreign Office is better informed than I am and can give us the statistics. I am not sure, however, whether sanctions have brought the Iranians to the table; I do not know. It might well be that that is nothing to do with sanctions, but is all a ruse for Iran to buy diplomatic cover. What do I mean by that? If Iran can be seen to engage with the P5+1, it makes it much more difficult for the Israelis to take out Iran’s nuclear programme with military strikes. That is the point of the rapprochement.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that any agreement, interim or full, that allows the Iranians to retain their capability to make a weapon—perhaps not now, but in the future—would be a bad deal that was not worth having. From the perspective of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and I hope ours, any capability left in Iran that enables the regime or a future one to develop nuclear warheads should be completely unacceptable.
Iran currently has all sorts of capability. The centrifuge capability has recently been beefed up, with IR-2 centrifuges that can enrich uranium five times faster than the old ones. There is the heavy water production plant at Arak, which nuclear inspectors have never been allowed inside. There is a facility at Fordow that is underground for one reason—so that nobody can get to it. There is also the centrifuge capability at Natanz.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about the multiple avenues Iran has to achieving to a nuclear capability, which are in addition to the Iranian regime’s history of stalling, lies and concealment. Would he welcome a statement from the Minister that the Government and the international community will be rigorous and exacting in their approach to the regime and will leave it nowhere near the threshold of obtaining a nuclear capability?
I would welcome such a reassurance, but I am also looking forward to hearing my hon. Friend’s speech. I will soon sit down, because I have already spoken for far too long. Almost every Member present is more qualified to speak on these issues than me, and I am interested to hear what they say.
It seems to me that we face in Iran a country that wants to develop a nuclear warhead and that is mad and bad enough, either now or at some point, to have a high likelihood of deploying such a weapon. I do not believe that that is fanciful talk; I think it is a definite prospect, about which we should be very worried. In the next six months or so, we have a chance to negotiate a proper deal that will put Iran’s chances of making a nuclear weapon out of reach and give Israel, Saudi Arabia and every other country in the region the security they need, as we look forward to what I hope will prove to be a much more peaceful century around the world than the last one.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate and on kindly taking so many interventions, which was very welcome.
I say at the outset that I do not want the continuation of any wars in the region of Iran. I want a process that will bring about disarmament, so I approach the debate from that standpoint. I also approach it from the standpoint of a representative of an inner-London constituency, in which many Iranian refugees live. They form almost a timeline of the political changes in Iran: there are refugees from the Shah’s period, the Islamic revolution period and all the later regimes. The human rights abuses of Persian Iranians as well as of Kurdish people and others are very real to me and to the people in my constituency. I am not unaware of Iran’s appalling human rights record and the continuing executions that go on. Any pressure brought to bear on Iran must be as much about a dialogue about human rights as anything else.
I am acutely aware of the history and deep ignorance of Iran in the rest of the world. Many think that Iran is part of the Arab world, which it clearly is not, and many are simply unaware of the sense of anger there is at how Iran has been treated by the west ever since the end of the first world war.
There has been the exploitation of Iranian oil by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation, which later became British Petroleum. Britain has made a huge amount of money out of Iran over the decades. Likewise, the coup—a UK and CIA operation—organised against the Mossadegh Government in 1952 is remembered, and people are angry about it. The support that we gave to the Shah, and that the Shah gave to BP, resulted in a loss of national well-being.
There is a history of which we should not be unaware, and we must think about those things. The Islamic revolution of 1979 was a product of an awful lot of those issues and that pressure, including the appalling behaviour of the SAVAK secret police under the Shah, which paralleled the behaviour of the secret police under the Ayatollah after the revolution. At the time, though, they were seen to be a step forward.
Then there was the Iran-Iraq war after the break with the USA, in which the west supported Iraq against Iran. That terrible conflict cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people—possibly 500,000 people. It was an utterly useless and ghastly war. I recall visiting the border area between Iran and Iraq some years later and was taken to a glorified scrap metal yard, which was in fact heaps of old planes, tanks and armoured personnel carriers that bore the markings of every arms manufacturer in the world bar none. The people of Iran and Iraq have suffered a great deal.
We come now to the wish of Iran to develop its own nuclear power facilities. I do not think that Iran or any other country should develop nuclear power because it is an intrinsically dangerous form of power generation. I am probably in a minority in the Chamber in having that position, but that is my view. However, in law, Iran is certainly entitled to develop nuclear power for peaceful use, although it is certainly not entitled to develop nuclear weapons.
We then move on to whether Iran has nuclear weapons or the capability or intention of having them. Along with the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) and two others, I had an interesting discussion with the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority in Vienna on behalf of the Iran group. It was a fascinating experience. The inspectors confirmed that, as of that time, Iran did not possess nuclear weapons and was not in a position to make nuclear weapons. It is important to make that clear.
Iran has a fatwa against nuclear weapons, imposed by the Grand Ayatollah, who said that it would be un-Islamic to develop nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Clearly, then, there are many people in Iran who are strongly opposed to the country having nuclear weapons. That is not to say that there are not people there who support them; I am sure that there are.
Iran is, and has been for a very long time, a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It is therefore open to inspection—not necessarily under the voluntary or supplementary protocols, but certainly within the terms of the mandatory part of the NPT. Every other country in the region is a signatory to it except Israel, which is the only one that possesses nuclear weapons; apparently, despite the Foreign Secretary’s unwillingness to answer this question yesterday, it has 200 nuclear warheads, which is rather more than Britain and France.
The nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference envisaged a nuclear weapons-free middle east and tasked Finland with setting up a conference to bring that about. That conference did not take place, and, at last year’s preparatory conference for NPT review in Geneva, which I attended, we heard speeches from all the countries of the region. There was universal anger that this nuclear weapons-free middle east proposal had not been taken further forward.
The Egyptian delegation—this was before the coup in Egypt—made it clear that Egypt was extremely angry about that, and peremptorily withdrew from the conference. As yet it has not completely withdrawn from the non-proliferation treaty system. Other countries made it clear that they were also extremely angry. It is quite obvious that unless progress is made on a nuclear weapons-free middle east, which obviously must include Iran and Israel, then clearly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others could start to develop nuclear weapons. If anyone has nuclear power, it is not impossible for them to extend that into getting nuclear weapons. We must be well aware of that.
Since the election of President Rouhani, there has been a narrative that he is a huge reformer and a liberal compared with everything that has gone before. He is certainly different from previous Presidents; he has a wish for a relationship and an understanding with the west, and I suspect that he is feeding into the wishes of an awful lot of ordinary Iranian people who also want to have a better relationship with the rest of the world. I am no less aware than anyone else here of the human rights abuses that have happened and continue to happen in Iran. However, such considerations do not restrict British negotiations or friendly relations with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or many other places that have totally appalling human rights records. We should be condemnatory of human rights abuses wherever they occur across the whole region.
The non-intervention in Syria by Britain and the United States has had some interesting effects. One is that within a few days of the decision there were conferences with Lavrov and John Kerry. There was a serious discussion about removing chemical weapons from Syria—and that is now happening, which is good. There have been much more serious discussions about getting a Geneva II process under way, which clearly must involve Iran if it is to mean anything.
Surely, we should be saying to Iran that we do not want anyone to develop nuclear weapons in the region, that we will push really hard on getting a nuclear weapons-free zone conference to ensure that there is no requirement on anybody to have nuclear weapons and that we will include Iran fully in Geneva II. The rather strange insistence on the acceptance by Iran of everything to do with Geneva I—it is not clear what it does and does not agree with on that—should not be used as an obstacle to getting the country involved. Clearly, if there is to be a ceasefire and a long-term peace in Syria, it has to come about with the involvement of Iran as well as of Russia, all the forces in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and everybody else, otherwise the implications of massive flows of refugees and the carnage in Syria just continue. The danger then moves on to the possibility of a war with Iran.
We must negotiate with Iran. We must respect it and its culture, build a relationship with it and recognise that it is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The danger would be if it walked away from that treaty and chose to develop nuclear weapons, because Saudi Arabia would do the same and there would then be an arms race within the region. Some rather zany commentators in the US think that Iran should get nuclear weapons on the basis that it would create a regional balance and then we would move on. Balancing nuclear weapons terror is not a way to bring about peace.
I thank the hon. Member for Kettering for securing the debate, which is extremely helpful. I hope the Government will get the message that preparing to reopen diplomatic relations with Iran is welcome, as is the fact that discussions are going on. I look forward to the Minister’s reply, and I hope he will cover human rights in Iran, as well as nuclear power and the potential for others in the region to develop nuclear weapons.
I hope the Government will put serious effort into supporting the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to bring about the dream of a nuclear weapons-free zone across the middle east, because that would help to bring about a much longer-term peace throughout the region.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this timely debate. I do not agree with all the points he made, but he made some important points about, for instance, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium being among the considerations the negotiators must take on board.
The news that the Foreign Secretary brought to the House yesterday about progress in the negotiations, or the talks about talks, and about Foreign Minister Zarif proving to be someone whom western powers could do business with, was very welcome. We should reflect for a minute on how far we have come in a year and a half. I was looking back on some notes from May last year, and we were talking then about the risk of strikes on Iran and of a regional war being sparked by preventive strikes against Iran by the United States or by conflict breaking out over the strait of Hormuz. The situation now is not quite unrecognisable, but it has moved a considerable distance.
One crucial change is the election in the summer of President Rouhani. We may think that the electoral process was flawed, and we may think that the constitution of Iran is flawed and still gives too much power to the theocracy, but the election was undoubtedly genuinely contested, and it has undoubtedly changed the political landscape. We must therefore be a little wary of doing a reverse of the Whig interpretation of history: nobody naively believes that things will always get better, but we must never fall into the trap of thinking things can never get better. We must take advantage of the situation when someone such as President Rouhani is elected, because he is at least saying many of the right things, and he appears to be acting in many of the right ways.
In its statements over the past six months on President Rouhani and the situation in Iran, the Foreign Office has been very cautious and guarded, and it has talked about actions speaking louder than words. I have sometimes found that a little frustrating, and we could have seen a bit more enthusiasm for the reforming faction in Iran. However, if I am criticising the Foreign Office for going a bit too slowly, and others are criticising it for going too fast, it has perhaps got things just about right.
We should applaud the diplomatic efforts that have been made by British, international and, in this case, European Union diplomats. I was struck by the Foreign Secretary’s praise of Baroness Ashton in the House yesterday. She is, as a Brit, demonstrating not only the great British tradition of diplomacy, but the potential for the European Union to play a positive role in world diplomacy, not displacing, but complementing, national diplomacy. That is very positive.
There are three points that I would like to make. The first builds on my point about seeing the positive potential, rather than always accentuating the negative. I would ask the Foreign Office to be robust not only in pursuing the positive avenue of negotiations, but in standing up to anyone we traditionally think of as an ally who might try to stall the negotiations or prevent them from making too much progress.
There are two countries that I am particularly concerned about. One is Saudi Arabia. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, made an interesting comment last month. He said that following Washington’s failure to strike Syria and its entering into nuclear talks with Iran, there would be a major shift in Saudi Arabia’s relations with it. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s perspective on American-Saudi relations and on our own relationships with Saudi Arabia, in the context of the Iranian nuclear talks. I hope we will not allow Saudi Arabia to stall our progress in this area.
Through the channel of this debate, I would tell the Saudi Government that if they look back to the 1990s, to the presidencies of Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami in Iran, they will see that there were much more cordial relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has been only since the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005 and then the coming to power of King Abdullah that the two countries have got into a regional cold war and have almost been fighting proxy battles as rival regional powers from Bahrain to Syria to other places across the middle east. That is regrettable, and they should perhaps realise that the presidency of President Rouhani offers a path back to more constructive engagement.
Like the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), I also have concerns about Israel. We have not heard very constructive comments from Prime Minister Netanyahu about the E3 plus 3 talks. He has expressed real fear that they will result in a deal that
“will not work for Israel”.
However, Israel must also see its long-term interests. Surely, the most positive thing for Israel would be a process that ultimately leads towards a nuclear-free middle east and certainly one that has a realistic prospect of achieving a nuclear-free Iran.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for not congratulating him on securing the debate. Does the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) not think that the situation between the Israeli Government and the Palestinians is linked to this issue? That must be part of a solution in the middle east, because we cannot have a settlement with Iran in isolation. Does the hon. Gentleman also not think that the settlements Israel has been building have thrown some difficulties in the way of the road map to peace? Finally, despite what the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, there were demonstrations two or three years ago in Iran, and the opposition came close to winning the election. Internally, that may be motivating the regime a lot more than the hon. Gentleman suggested.
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points, although we are also seeing positive engagement by Palestine and Israel in peace talks, so that is another area where we can accentuate the positive. My point is that we should be clear with our traditional allies in the region that we want to pursue this process with Iran robustly.
My second point relates to what the hon. Gentleman has just said: this has to be a regional process. I would therefore like to ask the Minister what the status is of the proposed plan to move towards talks on a nuclear-free middle east. That plan should include Israel as well as Iran. It could be revived in the new, more constructive atmosphere that is emerging. It might also connect with other disputes in the region. That plan was on the table quite seriously, and I would like to hear where the Foreign Office thinks the talks now lie.
My third and final point relates to the non-proliferation treaty. It is something of a rich irony that the E3 plus 3 could also be described as the N5 plus 1. Here we have six countries lecturing Iran on nuclear proliferation, but five of them hold nuclear weapons themselves—only Germany does not. It would send a positive signal if we discussed our own willingness to look at the nuclear threshold. There are countries around the world that have stopped short of it, even though, as in Japan’s case, they probably have the technological capacity to step over it. We are asking Iran to stop at the nuclear threshold or, ideally, to step well back from it, so perhaps we should be constructive in looking at whether we can step down the nuclear ladder; indeed, it is technically our obligation as a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to look at progress towards disarmament. I will not get sidetracked into a debate on Trident like-for-like replacement, but the Liberal Democrat position is clearly that we could make a constructive contribution in that regard. I do not expect Ministers immediately to leap up to support that, but they should perhaps reflect on what we can do as part of a global process.
I agree with the hon. Member for Kettering that the talks must be robust and real, and that there must be a real negotiation that puts real demands on Iran. However, at the same time, we should reflect on the fact that all nuclear weapons are dangerous, and there are probably people in every country who are mad or bad enough to use them. The ideal that President Obama has set out of a world free from nuclear weapons and of a global nuclear disarmament process actually getting under way in the 21st century is one we in this country should do everything we can to support through our fast-improving relations with Iran and through our own attitude to nuclear armaments.
I welcome the debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is to be commended on securing. He is right about the importance of the issue, which is on a different scale from other issues that we are involved in, in the middle east or elsewhere, important though those are.
I remind the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) that the debate is about Iran, not Israel or Saudi Arabia—still less about nuclear disarmament. Disarmament combined with unreciprocated concessions to aggressive regimes did not always guarantee a brilliant outcome in the previous century. Iran is an aggressive regime. I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about the Iranian people and culture, which I distinguish from the regime. Many people in Iran are oppressed by it, and notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Cheltenham, it is still a long way from being a democracy. It was observed that there were 3,000 possible candidates, although I was told that 678 presidential candidates were disqualified by Ayatollah Khomeini as ideologically unsound. Only six were allowed to proceed—one of whom is now President Rouhani. I agree with my right hon. and hon. Friends that an approach from any source in Iran must be engaged with constructively, and I support their way of proceeding. However, I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering that we must not look through rose-tinted spectacles at President Rouhani.
It is nothing like the democracy that I would like the Iranian people to have and that many of them would want. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering that we should not see President Rouhani as a completely new broom. We must not be naive. He has been part of the present regime since its inception and has held high office in it. He has been involved in its nuclear negotiations in the past, and, as my hon. Friend showed in the quotation he used, has stalled and used other devices to further Iran’s nuclear intentions.
I believe that it is the resolute intention of the Iranian regime to acquire nuclear weapons. Why on earth would it have put itself through what it has gone through for so many years—sanctions, international opprobrium, all that has happened in the United Nations and all the economic problems that have been caused for Iran—if not because it wanted nuclear weapons come what may? Is the international community getting it all wrong, and have all the leaders over the years been completely mistaken? I think not. We must accept that the Iranian regime is determined to have nuclear weapons. We should not let them fall into its hands. No matter who else may or may not have them, that regime has demonstrated beyond peradventure its aggressive intent in the region and throughout the world, through the export of terrorism by proxy to other countries in the region, including Lebanon and Syria; through its involvement in propping up the Syrian regime now; through its export of worldwide terrorism against Israel and Israeli citizens; and through its leaders’ aggressive statements in the past. We can have no doubts about the nature of the regime and the fact that we should not let nuclear weapons fall into those hands.
It is right, however, to engage with the regime, and I support the Government’s approach, but we must take an exacting and resolute approach in negotiations. We must not exaggerate, as I think the hon. Member for Cheltenham was in danger of doing, any progress that has been made already. We are only at the interim stage and have not even concluded an interim agreement. Let us not rush to say that there is agreement before it happens. We need to apply exacting and rigorous conditions to the regime and should take the view that if there is any doubt or anything unsatisfactory in any negotiations it is better to have no agreement than a bad agreement.
If the Government can reach an agreement that leaves Iran nowhere near the threshold of holding nuclear weapons, that rolls back the Iranian nuclear programme and that creates a framework in which peace can be achieved in the region, they deserve to be encouraged. They must have high expectations and I encourage them to be rigorous and, if necessary, cynical about the regime. In the past it has played for time, stalled and tried to reach a certain level. Iran must go back to the position it was in before it started its nuclear armaments programme; it must dismantle it and put itself far from the threshold of having nuclear weapons.
I agreed with some of what the hon. Member for Islington North said, although not all of it. Human rights are human rights anywhere in the region; but human rights in Iran are at stake. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends, if they get a chance, to raise the issue of human rights with Iran. The regime has an unenviable record on human rights in many respects. I have in the past taken up the issue of persecution of Christians by the Iranian regime, which included death or prison sentences merely for practising their faith. We should not go into the negotiations with any illusions about the regime.
I am pleased to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.
This weekend, we honoured the dead of two world wars. It was the horror of the first world war that led to a huge desire for peace and disarmament in the decades that followed. During the 1920s and 1930s, there were disarmament conferences and complex negotiations leading to impressive disarmament treaties, such as the Washington naval treaties. What happened afterwards was instructive. The democracies observed the treaties. The British Navy, for example, redesigned battleships such as the Nelson and the Rodney in strange configurations, to stay within the limits of the Washington naval treaties. The Germans had a much more practical approach to the matter. They simply lied about the tonnage of their battle cruisers, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, claiming to stay within the treaty terms, but actually breaching them.
We must therefore understand that, in disarmament negotiations and military confrontations, what matters is less the weapons systems than the nature of the Governments who possess them. An example of that is our attitude to the nuclear weapons that Russia holds today, compared with our attitude to nuclear weapons held by the Soviet Union. We were desperately concerned about its nuclear arsenal, because the Soviet Union was governed by a system with an aggressive ideology and a ruthless approach to what it regarded as the inevitable confrontation between communism and capitalism. Once the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia turned, however hesitantly, in a more democratic direction, we ceased to be anything like as concerned about its nuclear weapons systems. We became concerned about whether such systems would leach out of Russia into the hands of other totalitarian-inspired groups. We did not mind so much what arsenal Russia possessed—and continues to possess—provided that it remained in safe hands and not extremist hands.
That is why the comparisons between Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon and Israel’s possession of a nuclear weapon are, frankly, unfounded. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), whom I congratulate both on securing the debate and on the way that he introduced it, we would be concerned today about Israel’s nuclear arsenal if Israel were governed by an extremist religious clique, and we would not be worried about Iran having nuclear weapons to anything like the extent that we are if Iran were as democratic as Israel is at present.
Having said all that, we have to operate within the boundaries of what is or is not practicable. The reality is that if Iran chooses to acquire nuclear weapons, unless some state or alliance of states seeks to intervene in some military way physically to prevent it from doing so, Iran cannot be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons if it wants them enough. As has been pointed out, Iran is signed up to the non-proliferation treaty. I quickly conferred with my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) and I think that we both agree that ultimately if Iran chose to leave the NPT, frankly there would be nothing that could be legitimately done to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, any more than anything could have been done to prevent Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons in the way that it did.
I always refer to him as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), although we are on opposite sides of the argument. In his contribution, I believe that he was trying to suggest that Israel perhaps ought to give up its nuclear weapons and that that might improve the situation, and he ended his speech by saying that he did not believe that the balance of power, or the balance of terror, was the right way to keep the peace in the middle east. I am afraid that I disagree with him on both counts. I think that Israel giving up its nuclear weapons—and Israel is not party to the NPT—would actually encourage other countries to commit aggression against it. I believe, however, that the possibility of the balance of terror may, in the end, come to be our only resource against Iran, because—as I said before —if Iran is determined to have nuclear weapons and if it is more important to Iran to have nuclear weapons than, for example, to have the sanctions against it removed, Iran will have nuclear weapons, unless somebody wants to launch a military strike against it.
In conclusion, we lived through—what was it?—70 years or more of confrontation with the Soviet Union, and we survived that period of intense confrontation through a policy of containment. The containment policy meant that we neutralised the weapons systems of the power that could potentially attack us, and we allowed the slow development of internal political forces until that country’s system of government changed. If ever there were a country that ought to be subject to a policy of containment, it is Iran. Sometimes I get the impression that the leaders of Iran are almost being deliberately provocative, so as to incite some sort of military strike against it to bolster their position with the population at home. I have no doubt that if Iran can be contained for long enough, democracy will emerge in the country and, as I said at the beginning, when democracy emerges the question of what weapons systems a country has or does not have becomes almost completely irrelevant.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. May I also say what a thoughtful and principled speech my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has just made? He is a true believer in the importance of the nuclear deterrent and of the logical application of standards that the deterrent must adhere to.
I had better declare that I have chaired the all-party group on Iran since 2006; my co-chair is now the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). In that time, I have visited Iran and made a number of trips around the world to meet Governments and officials linked to the policy on Iran.
I should start my remarks by saying, briefly, that there is a real certainty in the debate that there is a nuclear weapons programme in Iran. However, that certainty is not shared by the United States Government. The US national intelligence estimate of 2007 said that Iran had halted the programme, and in 2010 the US national intelligence estimate yet again confirmed that Iran was not on the verge of breakout. These national intelligence estimates are significant bodies of work, drawing on intelligence from around the world and on the work of different agencies, so we should not just brush them aside.
A country does not just jump from 20% to a nuclear weapon. The uranium has to be weaponised, the grade of the uranium has to be increased and the weapon must be tested, which would usually leave a very significant footprint and take some time. If we take those facts in conjunction with the US national intelligence estimate—and, indeed, with some of the reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency—we see that there is not such an urgency. Iran is not suddenly going to produce a nuclear weapon. In addition, there is the supreme leader’s fatwa that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic. I have visited Iran and if anyone wants to understand the country they have to understand its supreme leader. When the supreme leader says that about nuclear weapons, he means it. It is absolutely imperative that people follow that ruling.
That does not mean that there are not people in Iran who want a nuclear weapon; I suspect that there are plenty of people there who wish to have one, for the purposes of deterrence. If a sane-minded Iranian who represented New Forest East was living in downtown Tehran, I suspect that he would believe in the principle of deterrence, given that his neighbours are Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Those are sworn enemies of Iran, ideologically different and religiously opposed—there are all sorts of issues that we could say we faced in the cold war in the late 1940s. Those differences are often brought home to Iran by the terrorist attacks across its border. We should certainly remember that the supreme leader—for now—has made that ruling and that it is not something to sniff at.
I totally agree that the nature of the regime goes hand in hand with the issue of nuclear weapons. Obviously, Iran’s record on human rights is abhorrent. It has engaged in the persecution of the Baha’is, the suppression of women’s rights and the persecution of lawyers and of people who lead strikes, including bus drivers who lead strikes and have their rights under the constitution denied. It is very important that we do something to put pressure on Iran about those issues and ensure that they are resolved.
Let us remember that the only democracy in the whole region, other than Israel, is Iran. Iran’s democracy may not be one that we think perfect, but it is a democracy that operates at all sorts of levels—the guardian council, local councils and the mayor of Tehran are all elected. Iran has an active democracy. There is no democracy in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria or others of our allies to whom we sell weapons systems around the world.
There is a democracy and a constitution in Iran. One of the reasons for the green movement in 2009 was the desire among the Iranian people to follow the rule of law. If someone reads the Iranian constitution, they will see that it is quite good, even though it was authored by a Belgian. One of the reasons for the green movement was the demand that the denial of rights to people should stop. Label someone a “terrorist” or a “Zionist spy” and they do not have those rights. Well, we live in a democracy that labels someone a “terrorist” and they are then locked up for 90 days, without the same rights that they would have if they were labelled a “criminal”. Iran is certainly more extreme, but let us not forget that the temptation to deny people their rights for all sorts of reasons is not just confined to Iran.
Then we talk about security guarantees. It is a rough neighbourhood down there—a very rough neighbourhood, with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. No one has mentioned the recent discovery that in Saudi Arabia there is a ballistic missile launch-pad facility with two aiming marks: one to Tel Aviv and one to Tehran. It is a rough neighbourhood and I think that if I were there, I, too, might like to look out for myself.
At the heart of all this is trust, rhetoric and history. Let us not forget that Iranians distrust the west as much as we distrust Iran. That is at the heart of this process. Let us remember that we distrusted Gorbachev, but we did not say that because he was from the Soviet regime—the regime that was pulling people’s toenails out and torturing them—we could not do business with him and we could not find a solution. We did not write him off. I was involved with the peace process in Northern Ireland in 1994 with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), who would have been appalled by the people I had to meet in the course of trying to make peace with our enemy. We do not necessarily just write people off.
The history of Iran, the great game, the fact that the BBC World Service was used in 1953 to trigger the coup against Iran’s only democratic prime minister—if we were Iranian, we might be a bit suspicious of western media, although now I think that would be wrong. Then there was the grand bargain offered up in 2003, which was the demilitarisation of Hezbollah, the offer to suspend enrichment of uranium and even a movement to a Saudi recognition of Israel, which was dismissed out of hand by the United States Administration.
We are in the business, with this peace process and the process at Geneva, of trying to build trust. We cannot indulge in rhetoric and history to rule that out. We have to give it a chance. We are not stupid and we have all been here before. No one has rose-tinted spectacles when it comes to dealing with Iran; it is a straw man argument to say that we do. We need to work on that and the Government are engaging. I am confident that we will get there, if we just give it a chance.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. There have been five speeches in the debate, which is topical because of the past week’s events in Geneva. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)—although we disagree on nuclear weapons, I respect his position—made a thoughtful speech that put the present situation in its historical context. The hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) recognised that much of the suspicion in Iran is down to the history that our country and others have in the region. That is important when we are looking at a possible solution to nuclear weapons in the ongoing talks.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) rightly raised the possibility of proliferation throughout the region. He mentioned Saudi Arabia and other nations that might wish to acquire nuclear weapons if the Iranians were to develop their capability. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said on nuclear deterrents vis-à-vis this country, but I do not agree that if Iran developed a nuclear weapons capability, it would somehow offer a balance of terror with Israel. The clear way forward is to stop Iran developing that capability in the first place.
The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) warned the Government not to look at this process through rose-tinted spectacles, and I agree. No one should look at the history or the actions of the present regime in Iran and think that we are dealing with people who have not committed atrocities on their own people or have not exported terror to other parts of the middle east. When I was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence, I was aware of the involvement of Iran in attacks on our troops in southern Iraq and its support for insurgents against those forces.
We on the Opposition Benches see Iran as a threat—if it acquires nuclear weapons—not only to security in the middle east, but to global security. A nuclear-armed Iran would not only change the balance of power within the region, but, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham argued, it would also lead to other nations wishing to acquire a nuclear capability. Many of those nations have the funds to do that.
If Iran gained a nuclear capability, that would be a blow to the United Nations goal of a nuclear-free middle east. It would also be a step away and against the goal that we all share of ensuring that new countries do not acquire nuclear weapons. We in the UK and on the Opposition Benches—well, some of us, anyway—are committed to the retention of our nuclear deterrent, but it is important that we encourage others and ourselves to reduce our nuclear weapon stockpiles. Allowing the Iranians to have a nuclear weapons capability would be a severe blow to that non-proliferation position, which I think all parties in this country would want to protect.
The Opposition agree with the Government’s twin-track approach to Iran, with the imposition of strict sanctions and the encouragement through diplomatic channels to ensure that we can get an agreement that ensures that Iran does not acquire a nuclear capability. Much has been said this afternoon about the election of President Rouhani. I accept the points that hon. Members have made about him and some of the atrocities that have been carried out by the Iranian regime. He stood on a platform of reform, and the sanctions imposed by the international community on Iran are having an effect on the Iranian community and the Iranian people. It is important that we continue our diplomatic efforts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North discussed the UK’s diplomatic relations with Iran. I welcome the appointment of the chargés d’affaires and hope we will see the embassy in Tehran opening to commence that dialogue in the not-too-distant future. That dialogue will be so important in steering the Iranians away from developing nuclear weapons and in raising some of the points about human rights and their support for terrorist activities—both in the region and more widely—that have rightly been mentioned.
This weekend’s talks were positive. It is a disappointment to us all that the next step has not been taken, but, overall, we are moving in the right direction and the Iranians are taking a more positive tone and stance. I say to hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Kettering, that there are two options. One is to allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear capacity and take some type of military action against them. The other is to have talks, to give Iran a chance to disarm and to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Given what the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North said, that would be the preferred option.
Doing nothing is not an option. The Opposition support the continuation of strong and tough sanctions while, as the hon. Member for Hertsmere said, not looking at Iran through rose-tinted spectacles. We have to recognise that the negotiations on ensuring that the Iranians give up their capacity to develop nuclear weapons will be tough and hard. I wish the Government and our international partners well in arriving at that international settlement. It will make not only the middle east, but the world, a safer place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate at such an important moment in the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue. I also congratulate the other hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon. I will address the points raised in their various contributions.
To set the scene, it is worth saying three things. First, Iran has shown over the course of recent months that it is genuinely taking a new approach to negotiations. We need fully to test that and explore the opportunity—I go no further than that at this stage—for a deal. We believe there may well be a deal on the table that would give us meaningful assurance on our immediate proliferation concerns and create the space for a comprehensive solution.
Secondly, let me absolutely clear: there is no question of our seeing this issue through rose-tinted spectacles. We approach this negotiation with our eyes wide open. We are fully aware of Iran’s history of concealment and its defiance of its international obligations. We will continue to be firm in our approach to Iran on that and other issues. Thirdly—this addresses a point raised by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and others—despite the fact that progress on nuclear talks remains possible, we are not blind to Iran’s nefarious activities in its immediate region and beyond, or its terrible human rights record.
I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering will take some comfort from what I have just said. He was worried about the possibility of the talks becoming a space in which the Iranians could continue to enrich. The obvious point is that, without the talks, Iran will continue to enrich anyway, so we might as well give the talks a chance. I cannot go into the detail of the negotiations and the terms around which they revolve, but clearly the basis of the deal is that Iran will take concrete and verifiable action to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear programme, and the E3 plus 3 may consider some measure of sanctions relief to offer in return. There will not be a deal unless Iran ceases its enrichment programme.
The hon. Member for Islington North made the obvious point that human rights in Iran remain in a terrible state, and we agree with him. The negotiations in Geneva are purely about the nuclear file, and the hope is that the twin-track approach of exchanging non-resident charges d’affaires, and so on, will create preconditions that enable progress to be made in other areas.
The hon. Gentleman asked the Foreign Secretary yesterday about the middle east weapons of mass destruction-free zone, for which we argued during the non-proliferation treaty review in 2010. There has been a small amount of progress on that recently, and we hope to be in a position to make an announcement in the near future.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) made three clear points. The first was on the international relations dynamic. Tempting though it is, it is not my position to comment on Saudi relations with the United States. Perhaps it would be helpful if he considered that in the context of Iran’s history of negative involvement across the Gulf. There are many states beyond ours that are extremely suspicious of Iranian activities, and justifiably so. There is concern across the wider Gulf—the concern in Israel is often mentioned—about many of the worries raised this afternoon. We already keep all our key allies in the Gulf fully briefed on where we are.
I hope that I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question on the nuclear-free zone in the middle east. He mentioned disarmament here in the United Kingdom, and I can do no better than repeat the comments of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) by saying that we have a slightly different view on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) talked about our approach to the talks, and I hope that I have reassured him on that. The phrase “rose-tinted spectacles” has come up on a number of occasions this afternoon, and there are no rose-tinted spectacles in the Geneva talks. Everyone knows exactly what is involved, the difficulties of what we are dealing with and the backdrop against which we are trying to do this. However—one only has to talk to the Foreign Secretary, who has met the regime on a number of occasions in New York and Geneva, to get a feel for this—there is a new feel to the talks. It is important that we test that to see what can be achieved. If we are able to get over the line, I doubt there is anyone anywhere in this Chamber who would not agree that that is a good thing. The question is, to test Iran’s resolve and to see what is achievable, but we must do so with our eyes wide open.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made a good and thoughtful speech, as he always does, and he is absolutely right that Iran ought to be the subject of a system of containment. In a sense, of course, that is what an interim deal before a final deal will seek to achieve, and he is right to make that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), the co-chair of the all-party group on Iran, talked about the importance of trust, which is a key component that he compared to Northern Ireland. I remember someone saying to me some years ago that, in relation to Northern Ireland, the Government of the day were in about the right place if everyone was marginally unhappy with them. I suspect that might be a principle that applies here, too. He is absolutely right about the importance of gaining trust. The hope is that, if trust builds during the negotiations, it could translate into other affairs. He has the Government’s approach in a nutshell—it is important to take the opportunity seriously but to be realistic about what can be achieved.
I thank the hon. Member for North Durham for supporting the process. I was struck in the Chamber yesterday by the level of support from Opposition Members, including the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and others who dealt with the issue in the past and know what is involved. I am grateful for the continued support of the hon. Member for North Durham.
I do not know whether there is anything that Members feel I have not addressed, but I will provide a brief update on where we are.
As most people know, the Foreign Secretary returned on Sunday from the E3 plus 3 negotiations in Geneva, which were the third round of talks since President Rouhani’s election in June. The talks were detailed and complex. They covered every aspect of Iran’s extensive nuclear programme, and the Iranian negotiators were, as has been reported and as the Foreign Secretary mentioned yesterday, tough but constructive. The focus of the negotiations was to reach agreement on a first step—this was the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East—that would create confidence and space to negotiate a comprehensive settlement that resolves the Iranian nuclear issue.
Talks ended without that interim agreement because some key differences remained between the parties. Disappointing though that was on one level, it might comfort people to know that we are not running into the talks with rose-tinted spectacles. The negotiations are tough and have a long history, but the gaps are narrowing. At the conclusion of the weekend, the E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers presented a united position, which we believe gives us a very strong foundation for the next round of talks on 20 November.
Provided the conditions can be met, the Government are in favour of reaching an interim agreement. As the Foreign Secretary told the House yesterday, the agreement being discussed would have real benefits for global security, but it needs to be detailed, clear and concrete. The agreement also needs to assure all countries that the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran is being addressed and, therefore, it is crucial that the agreement cover all aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme. We believe that such a deal is on the table and is within reach.
Sanctions have undoubtedly played an indispensable part in creating the new opening. Sanctions are putting the Iranian leadership and the Iranian economy under serious pressure. We think that the sanctions are costing the Iranian economy at least $4 billion a month or $48 billion a year. There is no question of our relaxing the sanctions pressure before we have taken action to address the proliferation concerns.
It is worth noting in passing that, while the talks are going on—this goes to the centre of what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said in his opening remarks—the Iranian nuclear programme continues to advance. The most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report of 28 August noted that Iran’s stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium continues to grow. Iran has installed more than 1,000 advanced centrifuges, which are capable of enriching at a significantly faster rate, and there is also the heavy water research reactor at Arak. All that represents a breach of the United Nations Security Council and IAEA board resolutions and shows why, in the interest of international security, we want the talks to succeed.
Because of the time, I will finish by saying that this afternoon’s debate has revolved around two dynamics. There is a new opportunity to do something, and I think that everyone in the Chamber would agree that, if that opportunity exists, we should take it. Rest assured that we are going into the talks with our eyes wide open. We know what we are dealing with. I do not think anyone is in any doubt that a deal will be difficult to achieve, but such a deal would be in the interest of the international community.
On a point of order, Mr Sheridan. Throughout the debate my seat has been referred to as Lancaster and Wyre Valley, Lancaster and Wyre or Wyre and Preston North. Given that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) is sitting behind me, I want to correct the record. Before the boundary changes, I was the Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Wyre, but I am now the Member of Parliament for Wyre and Preston North.
Sittingbourne and Sheppey Road Infrastructure
It is a delight, Mr Sheridan, to serve under your chairmanship. Two years ago, I took part in a general Westminster Hall debate and used it not only to highlight some of the positive business developments that were taking place in my constituency, but to set out a number of problems with the local roads that needed to be solved if we were to attract even more investment to the area. Those problems have not gone away and in some cases have got worse. I want to use my time today to repeat some of my concerns about the road infrastructure in my constituency.
In many ways, the problem has been brought about by the success of business in our area, which is ironic because the other side of the same coin is that the very same problem could hold back future investment. Sheppey has a major port that is used for the import and export of thousands of cars every year, and we have the largest prison population in the whole country. Eurolink in north Sittingbourne will, when its current expansion plans are realised, be the largest industrial and business park in the south-east. Morrison’s regional distribution centre is also situated in Sittingbourne, and next door is the largest paper mill in the United Kingdom. The thriving Kent science park is in south Sittingbourne and is at the cutting edge of life sciences.
Those success stories generate valuable employment, but also an increasing amount of traffic that is threatening to overwhelm our local roads. When I listen to BBC Radio Kent in the mornings to hear what traffic problems I will face on my drive into London, the same motorways are almost always mentioned: the M25, the M20, and the M2, as well as the Dartford crossing. On the A roads, there is occasionally a problem on the A2, the A20 and the A21, but one Kent road is mentioned every morning without fail: the A249, which happens to be the main road into Sittingbourne and Sheppey from the M2.
Anyone who witnessed the horrendous multi-car pile-up on the Sheppey bridge a few weeks back will appreciate the number of vehicles that use the A249 every day. Not only is it the only road off the Isle of Sheppey, it is also the road used by the thousands of people who commute from Sittingbourne. Traffic from the Eurolink industrial park, the Morrison’s regional warehouse and the paper mill also feeds on to the A249. That has created at least two major pinch points: one at the roundabout at the junction between the A249 and the northern relief road—I will come to that project in a moment—and the other at the roundabout where the A249 meets junction 5 of the M2. The latter is a particular problem because the congestion created at the roundabout affects not only the slip roads from the M2, but local roads.
The Kent science park also creates congestion on local roads in south Sittingbourne, which is another problem that needs to be resolved. The owners of the park, with Swale borough council and Kent county council, have plans for a link from the M2 at what would become junction 5A, but they have been stymied by current Highways Agency restrictions on spur roads from motorways. I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor about the problem and received an assurance that his Department was reviewing that restriction. Is there any update on that? I am keen to see that spur built because not only would it help to relieve congestion on a number of roads in south Sittingbourne; it could form part of what we hope will eventually become the southern relief road.
That leads me back to the northern relief road, which links the A249 to both Eurolink and Great Easthall, which is a housing development north of the A2. The problem is that the northern relief road has never been completed, so it is not much of a relief to anyone. Obviously, local businesses on Eurolink and the residents of Great Easthall want the final link to be built as soon as possible, but many other people feel that finishing the northern relief road without first building a southern relief road would be a mistake because it would simply increase congestion on the A2 and the number of vehicles using rural roads in villages such as Bapchild, Bredgar, Rodmersham and Tunstall as rat runs to the M20.
I have some sympathy with the latter view, which is one reason why I have long held the view that a southern relief road is critical to Sittingbourne’s long-term future. Not only would it open the way to completion of the northern relief road, while protecting the southern villages; it would help to reduce congestion on both the A2 and the A249.
Another pinch point on the A249 is where it joins the A250 on the Isle of Sheppey. Until it hits that junction, the A249 is a dual carriageway, but thereafter it goes into a single lane all the way to Sheerness. That part of the A249 is also the main road into Sheerness docks and we desperately need the dual carriageway to be extended at least as far as the eastern boundary of the docks to allow easier access. That would allow a major expansion of the docks, thereby creating additional employment in one of the most socially deprived parts of my constituency.
There is also a problem on Sheppey with the newly created A2500, which is the main road link between the A249 and the eastern part of Sheppey. The A2500 feeds into Minster, which is the largest community on Sheppey and has seen the largest expansion of housing. Sadly, the junction at the A2500 and Barton Hill drive, which is the main route into Minster, is simply not fit for purpose and is seriously congested daily, all year round. The A2500 is also the main road to the three prisons on Sheppey, and ironically also feeds the main holiday camps on the island, so the congestion increases still further during the summer.
The Minister has kindly agreed to come to my constituency next year to open a new logistics hub that, ironically, is being built alongside the A249 and will no doubt add to the current traffic problems at the Morrison’s roundabout. I wonder whether he would agree to meet representatives from Swale borough council and my local business community on the same day to hear at first hand their concerns about our local road infrastructure.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate on road infrastructure in his constituency. I also congratulate him on the excellent progress he is making with his “Movember” moustache.
I know that the subject is of great importance to him and his constituents, including businesses in the area, and he spoke eloquently about that. I had the opportunity to have a session with my officials to update myself on the current situation and to hear some of the history of developments in this important area.
Road transport has always been important to the area. From the Roman road, Watling street, which goes through the constituency to the less evocatively named Sittingbourne northern relief road, which opened in December 2011, roads have always been important to the local economy. My hon. Friend highlighted the congestion on the major roads in the area, and he will know that this Government recognise the issues and the importance of transport infrastructure to support the economy. He also knows that we are looking at easing congestion at the Dartford crossing through a new lower Thames crossing to deliver additional capacity. We consulted on options earlier in the year and will make an announcement later in the autumn.
We have already announced increased Government funding to deliver improvements around the trunk road network, targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to delivering a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor in his statement on 26 June, when he announced the conclusions of the Government’s 2013 spending review. The Treasury’s Command Paper, “Investing in Britain’s future”, set out that the Government will invest
“over £28 billion in enhancements and maintenance of national and local roads”.
That includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £4.9 billion for local major projects. More than £12 billion has been allocated for maintenance, with nearly £6 billion allocated for repairs to local roads and £6 billion for maintenance of strategic roads, including resurfacing 80% of that network.
On future investment planning, my hon. Friend will know that the Highways Agency is conducting its route-based strategy process, which is involving local stakeholders in the consideration of future priorities. It may be useful if I say a little more about the approach we are taking, as that is the mechanism by which we will look at issues on roads such as the M2 and the A249—which, as we have heard, feature so regularly on local radio congestion reports—between Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
In our response in May 2012 to the recommendations in Alan Cook’s report, “A fresh start for the Strategic road network”, we agreed to develop a programme of route-based strategies to inform the identification of future transport investments for the strategic road network. Route-based strategies will provide a smarter approach to investment planning across the network and see greater collaboration with local stakeholders to determine the nature, need and timing of future investment that might be required on the network. We will produce a uniform set of strategies for the entire network, including the M2, the A249 and the M20, as part of the “Kent corridor to M25” route-based strategy.
The Highways Agency has recently completed a series of local engagement events to help identify the performance issues on those routes and the future challenges. I welcome the enthusiasm with which stakeholders in Kent, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, have participated in the progress so far. The Highways Agency and the Department will use the evidence to prioritise and take forward a programme of work to identify indicative solutions that will cover operations, maintenance and, if appropriate, potential road improvement schemes. That will then be used to inform investment plans beyond 2015.
The route-based strategies therefore provide an opportunity for stakeholders to provide evidence about problems on the A249 trunk road or the M2, so that the need for improvements can be considered, and I will certainly take my hon. Friend’s speech as part of that process. In addition, the Highways Agency continues routinely to engage with the planning system. That helps to ensure that improvements to the strategic road network are identified and delivered where they are required to mitigate the traffic impacts of local plans and planning applications.
My hon. Friend, in his support for the new junction 5A on the M2, also raised an issue of policy relating to new junctions on motorways. In that regard, the Department has recently published new policy guidance on the way in which the Highways Agency will engage with communities and the development industry to deliver sustainable development and economic growth, while safeguarding the primary function and purpose of the strategic road network.
That guidance is entitled “The Strategic Road Network and the Delivery of Sustainable Development”, and it provides that, where appropriate, proposals for the creation of new junctions or direct means of access to motorways may be identified and developed at the plan-making stage in circumstances where it can be established that such new infrastructure is essential for the delivery of the strategic planned growth. I understand that Swale borough council may be bringing forward proposals for the expansion of the Kent science park as part of its plan-making process, although it is not yet determined whether that development constitutes strategic planned growth, or whether a new junction with the M2 is essential for the delivery of that growth.
The Highways Agency recently met Swale borough council, Kent county council and the operators of the Kent science park regarding those matters, and discussions are ongoing. Decisions on whether a new junction can be accepted in policy terms will be taken in due course, and I will take a personal interest in that decision-making process. Apart from the policy deliberations, consideration also needs to be given to the technical hurdles in providing a junction that is safe and affordable and does not increase congestion on the strategic road network.
It is widely recognised that the condition and efficiency of the local road networks is also essential for economic growth. Nearly all journeys will start or finish on those networks, which are relied on by local residents and businesses alike. Maintenance and management of the networks is the responsibility of the local transport authority. In the case of Sittingbourne and Sheppey, that is Kent county council.
Local road funding, in the guise of integrated transport block funding, is available to local transport authorities in England outside London for small transport improvement projects, such as road safety schemes, bus priority, cycling infrastructure and real-time information. That funding allows local authorities to ensure that their transport networks are kept in good condition. It enables them to improve road safety and to stimulate local economies and growth by reducing congestion in their local communities. Between 2010-11 and 2014-15, Kent county council will have received £39.4 million through that funding route, and the funding is set to total some £2.75 billion across England between 2015-16 and 2020-21.
Highways maintenance block funding is also given to local transport authorities in England outside London to maintain their highway networks, including carriageways, pavements, structures and so forth. The funding allows local authorities to ensure that their highway networks are kept in good condition. It enables them to improve road safety and to stimulate local economies and growth by reducing damage to vehicles and goods. Between 2010-11 and 2014-15, Kent county council will have received £105.8 million for highways maintenance, and the recent 2013 spending round commits to providing just less than £6 billion to local highway authorities over the six-year period between 2015-16 and 2020-21. Indeed, before the 2010 election, when I was in the shadow Transport role, I visited Kent county council to see some of the innovative technology it was using to identify how best to use that money, and particularly the way it addressed the problem of potholes. That funding equates to £976 million a year and highlights the Government’s commitment to the country’s most valuable public asset and to ensuring that our local highways are fit for purpose.
In addition to that funding, the Government have recently announced plans to create a local growth fund from 2015-16 onwards. That fund, among other things, will allow localities to prioritise infrastructure schemes that are deemed essential for economic growth. Those schemes are expected to include major road improvements on the local road network, such as the type of relief road my hon. Friend referred to. That LGF pot will be worth at least £2 billion a year until 2021. The fund will be devolved to local enterprise partnerships across England, and Kent is part of the South East local enterprise partnership. It is for the South East LEP to identify its priority schemes for funding as part of its strategic economic plan. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to make the same representations he has made today to his local LEP to ensure that it understands the importance and priorities of the schemes in his constituency, not least in connection with the port and the science park.
The LEPs have already had some LGF funding allocated to them by formula to enable them to bring forward plans for local major transport projects. The confirmed allocation for the South East LEP is £65.9 million for the four-year period from 2015-16 to 2018-19 inclusive. In addition, the South East LEP will have the opportunity to bid for a lot more than that next year when submitting its strategic economic plan to the Government in March 2014.
The Government recognise the importance of an effective transport infrastructure to the growth of the economy, and there is a real commitment to enhancing our transport networks. More than half the £12 billion that the Chancellor has committed to the local growth fund over the six years from 2015-16 onwards is coming from transport budgets. That amounts to £1.1 billion in 2015-16 and a further £1 billion a year for each of the following five years for long-term planning of priority transport infrastructure. The growth deals currently being negotiated between the LEPs and Government will enable access to that funding. It is a competitive process, and the areas that present the most compelling and robust evidence-based arguments for growth strategies will be the most successful in accessing that finance.
We see the growth deal process as critical in ensuring that essential transport projects are put forward and funded. I know that Kent county council and local businesses are playing an active role in the South East LEP to ensure that the process delivers necessary infrastructure in the LEP area.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. It reminds us of the importance of an effective transport network to the economy. I have been clear that this Government are committed to, and have set out plans for, large-scale investments to improve both the local and strategic road networks. Indeed, the money we are putting into roads during the next 15 years is equivalent to the entire cost of the High Speed 2 project, including the rolling stock.
Through the funding streams set out in the spending round, and through the route-based strategies and strategic economic strategies, processes are in place to identify future transport needs, but also to consider the range of possible solutions. This morning, I was in Birmingham, looking at some of the managed motorway schemes—or smart motorways, as we now call them—which show how we are already managing to deliver better transport solutions in all parts of the country, including the north, the west midlands, the east midlands and, of course, the south-east.
It will be important for future investment proposals to be clearly supported by local stakeholders and for clear consensus to exist on what is required. Ultimately, any future investment proposals need to demonstrate a strong business case and the delivery of both transport and wider economic benefits. In that way, we can place ourselves in a strong position to make the best use of the funds available and establish a sound base for the future development of an effective transport system that can contribute to a low-carbon economy.
I very much look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency and seeing the situation at first hand next year, when I plan to visit the opening of one of his local logistics companies. I hope that at the same time, as he suggested, there will be an opportunity to meet representatives of Kent county council, the local district council and the local enterprise partnership, as they will have as key a role as Members of Parliament and other stakeholders in determining the priorities for transport investment in the south-east and ensuring that the taxpayers’ money we are investing in this way is spent wisely and in the place where we get the most biggest for our buck.
Glenanne Gang Murders
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, even if the subject matter is sombre.
A recently published book by Anne Cadwallader, “Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland”, is the result of work by the Pat Finucane Centre and work previously conducted by members of the Historical Enquiries Team in investigating a number of historical murders in Northern Ireland. The reports by the Historical Enquiries Team, of course, were made available to families, but were not published. That is the basis on which it has worked. The reports on 10 murders were made available to the Pat Finucane Centre.
The Pat Finucane Centre, through Anne Cadwallader, has worked painstakingly to spell out the narrative that emerges from those 10 reports by the HET, but also to build on the work of document recovery and evidential pursuit, which has taken the Pat Finucane Centre to the National Archives in Kew. Although the issues in the book “Lethal Allies” pose fundamental questions about the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland Office and armed groups, we should not ignore the fact that it also spells out sharp questions about the Ministry of Defence—not least, but not only, in respect of its oversight of the Ulster Defence Regiment in those years.
The book dwells on the deadly, devastating work of what was called the Glenanne gang. It was more of a syndrome than a fixed gang, because, as the book points out, what was initially thought of as a gang operating in what was called the “triangle of death” or “murder triangle”, ended up being a network, able to source members in the UDR or serving in the RUC—particularly in the part-time reserve—at the time of its involvement in the paramilitary activities. It was also able to source a lot of its weaponry in raids in UDR armouries, one of which was a joint UDR-Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve armoury. The documentary evidence shows that even the MOD suspected that the raids involved large degrees of collusion.
I shall take a selective skimming of the evidence, but I hope that it is relevant. A letter in July 1972 from Army headquarters Northern Ireland, from the civil adviser to the general officer commanding, acknowledges an earlier letter asking about UDR involvement in the UDA. The letter, to Lieutenant-Colonel J.L. Powell in the Adjutant General Secretariat at the Ministry of Defence main building in Whitehall, also says, among other things:
“The UDR has to draw a line somewhere between hard-line Protestants who can safely be contained in the UDR, and those who cannot. The UDA is not an illegal organisation, and membership of the UDA is not an offence under the military laws; it is also a large organisation not all of whose members can be regarded as dangerous extremists. One important (but unspoken) function of the UDR is to channel into a constructive and disciplined direction Protestant energies which might otherwise become disruptive. For these reasons it is felt that it would be counter-productive to discharge a UDR member solely on the grounds that he was a member of the UDA.”
The letter later says:
“Similarly, it is not formally laid down that where an applicant to join the UDR is found to be a member of the UDA, his application must automatically be rejected.”
It goes on:
“I am sure that this moderate line towards UDA supporters is the right one in view of the role of the UDA as a safety valve. In my opinion it would be politically unwise to dismiss a member of the UDA from the UDR unless he had committed a military offence; the dismissal of a member of the UDR on lesser grounds could well lead to wide-spread morale problems particularly in certain areas.”
Tellingly for MPs, it goes on to say:
“I recognise the reasons why Ministers might wish to be able to say unequivocally, in reply to Parliamentary Questions, that membership of the UDA is not compatible with membership of the UDR and that we have no evidence that any UDR member is actively associated with the UDA. But I fear it would be wrong to offer categorical assurances on either point, and indeed it might be very damaging politically if Ministers were to make a public statement which implied that the UDA was an outlawed organisation.”
That tells us that the mentality was more about sensitivity to the reputation of the UDA than to the integrity of the UDR as part of the security forces.
As we go through the various documents from the MOD in 1973, we see that it casually and frequently refers to collusion in its internal documents when describing overlapping membership between the UDA and UDR. There is also evidence from 1973 of the Irish Government, on the basis of representations and complaints from the SDLP and many other people with pastoral and other community interests, registering strong concerns with the British Government about what was going on in relation to some members of the UDR, their overlapping membership of the UDA and the seepage of weapons.
I shall not dwell on the issue here, because you, Mr Sheridan, might rule that that was about the Foreign Office side, but we have a letter from the British Government that basically dismisses the clear concerns of the Irish Government in early 1973 as mere electoral gimmicks.
A series of internal Army and Ministry of Defence reports in 1973 show the ongoing loss of weapons from UDR armouries—and, in some cases, the homes of UDR members. Those reports point to suspicions of and concerns about collusion. A significant MOD report in August 1973, called “Subversion in the UDR”, said:
“Since the beginning of the current campaign the best single source of weapons (and the only significant source of modern weapons) for Protestant extremist groups has been the UDR.”
It then sets out the details of significant arms losses for 1972-73. I do not wish to go through all the figures for the self-loading rifles, sub-machine-guns and pistols that were lost or the much smaller number that were recovered.
That internal British Government report on subversion in the UDR indicated that a significant proportion, perhaps 5% to 15%, of UDR soldiers would also have been members of the UDA, the Ulster Vanguard Service Corps, the Orange Volunteers or the UVP. Another part of that report confirms that:
“The discovery of members of para-military or extremist organisations in the UDR is not, and has not been, a major intelligence target.”
There we have wilful negligence—people recognise that there is a risk, they see that there has been a pattern of collusion, with arms being removed into the clutches of loyalist paramilitaries, and they know there is overlapping membership, but at no point does anybody make it their business to make it a serious matter and intelligence target.
That document on subversion in the UDR was circulated in government and there were a number of replies from a number of people. We will be able to present all the documents at a later date—hopefully, not too much later—to the Minister and the MOD, if it is too much to expect the Minister to reply to all the information today. We might say that it is depressing and regrettable, but those memos and letters in response to that document confirm the accuracy of the report. There was no real dispute about its assessment.
The document tried to indicate that the security vetting process had improved, so some reliance might be put on it. It is interesting to note that the Army director of security said, in response to that suggestion in a memo dated 20 August 1973:
“I would make the general point first that the process is in fact only a screening procedure and has no relationship to normal security vetting carried out on people who require to have access to classified information.”
In a subsequent paragraph in the same letter, he says:
“In order to counter doubts expressed by some MPs about the impartiality of RUC records, the check was extended to include the interview of at least one character referee ‘to establish that an applicant is of good character, is not an active supporter of any organization at one or other extreme of the political spectrum and is likely to act in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.’”
In the next paragraph, he says:
“Although the injection of the interview has probably been successful as part of the PR exercise involved on the checks, it can have had little effect on improving the value of the screening. The applicant nominates the referee, who is almost certain to be influenced in his favour and can add little to the security knowledge of the applicant.”
We have a clear picture: the Ministry of Defence knew the concerns but was not itself concerned, and did nothing to stem members’ involvement in the UDA or the weapons leakage that went with it.
Weapons leakage happened at numerous levels. The most significant raid occurred at the Lurgan UDR and Territorial Army Voluntary Reserve base in October 1972; they raided so much that they could not carry it all away. There was another raid exactly a year later, on 23 October 1973, on the Fort Seagoe UDR base, and another major arms raid at the Magherafelt UDR base in 1975. All of them were conducted similarly, and the lack of proactive security in place showed that no lessons were learned.
What then happened to those weapons? It was not just an embarrassing lapse of security; they were then used by an absolutely ruthless killer gang network. One Sterling sub-machine-gun was stolen from the Glenanne UDR base before the other raids to which I referred. It was stolen some time between 20 and 21 May 1971, as the Historical Enquiries Team found.
The HET was unable to find any documentation explaining the circumstances of the theft, nor could it find any evidence that any investigation had taken place. The whereabouts and use of the weapon during the four-year period between May 1971 and 1 September 1975 are unknown. It did not feature in any ballistics report before the murder of Denis Mullen. After that, it was used to kill 10 other people over a period of 11 months.
On 1 September 1975, a Sterling sub-machine-gun—UF57, and then a long serial number—was used to kill Denis Mullen, a Social Democratic and Labour party branch secretary who had just won promotion to become the first Catholic ambulance controller at the new South Tyrone hospital in Dungannon. Gunmen threw a clod of mud through a window of his home at Collegeland. He went to the front door to investigate, and they opened fire, shooting him 27 times at close range. His wife Olive ran for her life through the house with bullets slamming into the walls behind her and crawled across the kitchen floor before climbing out through a window to run for help.
Their daughter, Denise, aged four, heard the shots and got out of bed to find her father bleeding and dead at the front door. She stood over his body for an hour, her nightdress soaked in blood, before the police considered it safe enough to remove her and her 11-month-old brother, who was still in his cot. A former Member of this House, Seamus Mallon, also arrived at the scene. He had heard interference on the police radio in his car, was immediately alarmed that it might be his friend and party agent Denny Mullen and went to the house. Denise Mullen, now Denise Fox, spoke about those events at her party conference this weekend, along with Seamus Mallon, to put them on record.
It should be remembered that some convictions were obtained for all 11 subsequent murders committed with that sub-machine-gun, unlike many of the other murders committed by the Glenanne gang. Those convicted included a private in the Territorial Army, a former UDR man and a serving RUC officer. That UDR weapon’s 10 other victims included Peter and Jenny McKearney, an elderly couple shot dead at their farmhouse near Moy on 23 October that year; Michael Donnelly, 14, Patsy Donnelly, 23, and Trevor Brecknell, 32, killed on 19 December; Brian, John, Martin and Anthony Reavey, shot dead on 4 January 1976; Fred McLoughlin, shot dead on 15 May 1976; and Patsy McNeice, shot dead on 25 July 1976. Altogether, that weapon rendered 19 children fatherless and orphaned five.
I am citing only one weapon as an example. The book catalogues 120 killings, all of which relate to the murderous machinations of the Glenanne gang. That is not something being said only now, with hindsight; these allegations and concerns were apparent at the time, as we know from the suggestions in the papers about how to offset the complaints and allegations being made by MPs and others, and the dismissal of active concerns from the Irish Government and at the community and pastoral level.
I am particularly struck by a quotation by Father Denis Faul two days after a bombing in Killyliss in which two men, their sister and her unborn child were blown to pieces by a gang in which the HET believes a UDR man was involved. Only a few days after those murders, on 26 April 1975, Father Denis Faul said:
“The Government are teaching a deadly lesson to the people: that power comes out of the barrel of a gun; that the ballot box is powerless against force; that police and army can betray their trust and not be the impartial servants of government and people; that the judiciary can fail to oppose tyranny and to protect life.”
Many of us tried to scream those concerns at the British Government, the British establishment and the MOD. We know that there were layers and lines of dismissal and denial and that the people offering those concerns were denounced as subversive or irresponsible.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which relates not only to Kew, but to other locations as well. Sadly, our hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) cannot be with us, as her predecessor, Eddie McGrady, died yesterday. Down the years, Eddie McGrady supported Seamus Mallon in making these very allegations and voicing these concerns.
In touching on those murders, I have in no way decided that they are the worst or the most egregious. I have tried to edit my concerns in this debate to focus on angles of responsibility and irresponsibility on the MOD’s part. I doubt whether the Minister has been briefed on what exactly is in all the documents that the Pat Finucane Centre has unearthed and on which the HET has drawn, but I assure her that the Pat Finucane Centre is more than willing to assemble a thorough compendium of papers for the MOD’s fuller consideration and for the sake of a fuller response from the British Government.
An important process is under way in Northern Ireland that we hope will produce ways to address some of the wider concerns about the past. The Haass process should not be used by the British Government, particularly the MOD, to dodge their responsibility to tell a truth that they denied for so long.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing the debate. He raised a serious issue that has been the subject of much comment over a considerable period of time. In recent weeks, the allegations that members of the security forces were part of a murderous gang that killed more than 100 people in the 1970s have been given further currency in the recently published book to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.
I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has raised some points that I will not be able to address in my speech. I apologise for that, but I assure him that I will write to him with responses to as many as possible of those questions. The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) mentioned the records at Kew, and I am told that those records have been made available to researchers and feature heavily in the book “Lethal Allies”.
The hon. Member for Foyle will be aware that such serious allegations should properly be dealt with by the police, so I can say little about them. It is right and proper for me to condemn all sectarian attacks, by whomsoever they may have been carried out, but I cannot comment on the accuracy or otherwise of the allegations, and it is not for the Ministry of Defence to usurp the function of the police by seeking to carry out investigations about those who may have been involved. As I understand it, the Historical Enquiries Team has investigated several cases associated with the Glenanne gang, but I am not aware that those investigations have led to any fresh allegations of specific criminal activity by soldiers that are to be investigated further. Of course, if such evidence were found and given to the police, it would be for them to decide whether any further inquiries should be made. If they decided to pursue the matter, my Department would provide every assistance to any subsequent investigation.
It is clear to me, as it will be to most Members here today, that during the long period that we refer to as the troubles, terrible crimes and atrocities were perpetrated by extremists on both sides of the community. The account by the hon. Gentleman of a number of terrible murders and killings brought back to me large chunks of my childhood. It is easy to forget that 40 years ago, such events were almost a feature of life. Here we are, 40 years on, enjoying a period of peace that we could not foresee within our own lifetimes. There were incidents of great tragedy when members of the community were innocently and accidentally caught up in events that led to serious injury or death.
Many allegations have been made about the armed forces’ role in various cases involving violent deaths during the troubles, which remain unsolved. As I have said, such allegations must be investigated. At the same time, however, it is only right for me to make the point that some of these allegations may well be untrue. The truth can be uncovered only by painstaking and professional investigation. Although I am aware of the criticisms that have been made of the Historical Enquiries Team of the Police Service of Northern Ireland—that is not a matter for me, of course—I pay tribute to the work they have done in carrying out this necessary task over a period of several years.
The Minister has made the point that some of the allegations against individuals may be untrue, but does she accept that the documentation shows that the Ministry of Defence knew one thing in private but told an entirely different story in public? Does she accept that the evidence points to the fact that the MOD dismissed the concerns that were being legitimately expressed by Members of this House, by other representatives in Northern Ireland and by other Governments?
I am in danger of repeating myself, but those are matters for the police to investigate. It would not be appropriate for me to comment. Those matters should be investigated thoroughly, honestly and vigorously by the police. It is not my Department’s intention to shy away from acknowledging or apologising when genuine mistakes or errors have been made, or where, as a Department, we have failed in our obligation properly to manage our activities in Northern Ireland. We know from the conclusions reached by Sir Desmond de Silva in his review of the circumstances leading to the murder of Pat Finucane that the Ministry of Defence made important failures in managing important aspects of our intelligence operations during the mid to late 1980s. Some reports have suggested that that situation may have prevailed for several years. We know, for example, that some members of the security forces bore responsibility for the leaking of some sensitive intelligence information to loyalist organisations. Indeed, there have been convictions as a result, and rightly so. We also know that Army weapons, as the hon. Gentleman has described, have been stolen from military establishments and used in terrorist attacks by loyalist gangs.
Those failings were totally unacceptable and should never have occurred. Equally, however, attempts to claim that such practices were endemic throughout the security forces serving in Northern Ireland are, in our view, quite unsubstantiated. Sir Desmond goes into great detail on the matter in his report, which was based on unhindered access to the archives of the police, the Army and the Security Service. He shows, to my mind incontrovertibly, that the actions of the security forces frustrated loyalist terrorists and significantly reduced their operational capacity in Northern Ireland.
I want to assure the Minister and anyone else who may be concerned that in pointing to the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that they are supported by MOD documentation, I do not want in any way to traduce or hurt the memory of many other members of the security forces, including those of the Ulster Defence Regiment, who served with honourable motives and who believed that they were serving their community. They were let down every bit as much as the civilian community was by the corruption at the heart of the process.
I absolutely agree that we must pay tribute to the majority of those individuals who served in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described. As the Minister with responsibility for veterans, I feel strongly that we owe the security forces who served in Northern Ireland a great deal of gratitude. The vast majority served with courage, fortitude, integrity and dignity, risking their lives to bring about the conditions that eventually enabled a process to take place that allowed the people of Northern Ireland to lead peaceful lives without fear for themselves or their families. Northern Ireland has been transformed since the Good Friday agreement was signed.
Devolution has brought about many improvements for the people of Northern Ireland, and the recent positive achievements such as the city of culture award, the investment conference and improved tourism, against a backdrop of relative peace, have been welcomed by all sections of the community. Although a number of people continue to pursue their aims through violence and maintain destructive links to the past, they are, thankfully, few and there is very little public support for their actions.
I would be quite happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me, which would be the proper way to raise the subject. The Chair has made a good point that the case may, in any event, be sub judice. As the representative of a Department that has, I believe, made a huge contribution to the current stable and optimistic situation in Northern Ireland, I share the hopes of many that the Executive’s invitation to Richard Haass to address a range of issues, including those arising from the past, will lead to some real progress on this difficult issue. Although we should never seek to ignore the past, I hope that there will be a great emphasis across all parts of the community on shifting our collective focus to a future shared by all the citizens of Northern Ireland. Where things have been done that should not have been done, it is right that the police carry out full, rigorous and professional investigation, and when people have done wrong, they should be brought to justice.
Question put and agreed to.