Wednesday 9 July 2014
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
Local Plans (Public Consent)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Amber Rudd.)
It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts, for a debate on a subject in which I know you have a particularly keen interest. I must say that there is no tumbleweed today; looking around me, I can see that my Conservative colleagues have a clear interest in this subject as well. I will try to give the short version of my speech. I had planned lengthy remarks, but if I was to say everything I have in mind I would consume my colleagues’ time.
I begin by outlining two key problems. First, land for development is extremely scarce in Wycombe, and there is real public anger at the prospect of building on all of High Wycombe’s reserve sites, which would further burden the inadequate infrastructure, especially our roads. Secondly, there is an obvious, acute need for more homes, especially those that people, particularly young people and families, can afford. In some cases there is a real sense of despair; I am thinking particularly of one working father I talked to with a family of four who will not only struggle to buy a home locally but might find himself facing the prospect of a Bank of England cap on the mortgage he would need.
There is a real problem of despair among those who do not own homes, and there is also a clear need for public consent. We need to find a way forward because the current approach is failing for three key reasons. First, collaborative democracy is inherently unlikely ever to meet policy makers’ aspirations. Secondly, a duty to co-operate is not the right way to co-ordinate decision making and works against localism. Thirdly, the crux of the matter is that the current system leaves individuals and families facing the imposition of costs without adequate recompense. I am going to say something about each of those points.
I rather regret that I cannot put a map in Hansard, but I will try to describe the problem in High Wycombe. It is surrounded by an area of outstanding natural beauty, apart from where the M40 emerges to the south-east, where it is green belt. That creates enormous pressure on development land—indeed, the district, which is larger than my constituency, is 71% AONB. There are four reserved sites in Wycombe: Abbey Barn north, Abbey Barn south, the Gomm valley and Terriers Farm, all of which are highly prized by local residents and would be served by roads that are already heavily used. We are short of school places and our hospital is already falling short of public expectations, having lost services; it is no surprise that the public have concerns.
Among all that, I have been very impressed by the commitment of Wycombe district councillors to represent their electorate and mine, as well as by the cool-headed professionalism of the planning officers. They are operating a system that they have been given, with all its complexities, uncertainties and, crucially, areas of discretion. They are determined to be constructive and certainly not to abdicate control to the Planning Inspectorate and developers, which is how they perceive things. They have explained clearly that, under their current proposals, most of the Gomm valley and Abbey Barn north in particular would remain undeveloped. Nevertheless, people remain concerned.
Turning to the results of a quality assurance survey about the local plan, I observe that of the 3,800 survey packs sent out, only 550 people replied. That tells me that non-participation remains a crucial problem. Nevertheless, about a third of people had seen the council’s leaflet on the local plan and read some of it, and 71% felt that new homes were needed locally. Aside from talking to local families, I have experience of talking to residents’ groups and finding out just how irate they are about the notion of their lives bearing specific costs without adequate compensation—and, it turns out, without adequate opportunity to participate.
The Government’s approach is an implementation of the collaborative approach to planning described in the Conservative party’s Green Paper, “Open Source Planning”, which was available online to download before the election—I did so and read it. Another thing I would observe about non-participation is that, given that the Green Paper very much explains what the Government have been doing, it is surprising that there has been so much controversy about the presumption of sustainable development—it was clearly articulated that a Conservative-led Government would implement that. It says something about non-participation in democracy that even the most interested campaign groups nationally appear not to have read the Green Paper.
I challenge the notion of open source consent. Without going off on too much of a tangent, as a software engineer who has participated in open source software projects, I observe that open source software is entirely voluntary—if someone does not wish to use it, they can do something else—and the incentives to participate are strong. In contrast, the land use planning system involves coercion and imposed costs, and there is no exit from it. The whole open source metaphor has been flawed.
The Green Paper said:
“Our conception of local planning is rooted in civic engagement and collaborative democracy as the means of reconciling economic development with quality of life. Planning issues drive members of the public to become engaged in local political campaigning and decision-making. Communities should be given the greatest possible opportunity to have their say and the greatest possible degree of local control. If we get this right, the planning system can play a major role in decentralising power and strengthening society—bringing communities together, as they formulate a shared vision of sustainable development. And, if we enable communities to find their own ways of overcoming the tensions between development and conservation, local people can become proponents rather than opponents of appropriate economic growth.”
We can see how that approach fed into our manifesto, the “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”, and then into the national planning policy framework, but I want to argue that it has failed. I am very sorrowful that it has, but I would like to explain why by describing some local experience.
The residents of Daws Hill have strong incentives to participate in local neighbourhood planning. The Daws Hill site is bracketed by RAF Daws Hill to the east and Wycombe sports centre to the west. The sports centre is going through a major redevelopment, and more housing will be built on RAF Daws Hill because it is a brownfield site. The residents formed a neighbourhood forum and set out in good faith to participate in the system that the Government had set out. However, the council ruled that neither of the two developments of interest to residents could be considered by the neighbourhood forum. There was a judicial review and an appeal, and the council was found to have acted properly within the law.
The chairman of the neighbourhood forum said:
“Having encouraged participation in local development through the formation of a neighbourhood forum, as set out in the Localism Act, the forum now finds that the local planning authority has the discretion to restrict its area, it appears, for whatever reason it chooses.
“In our opinion, this makes a nonsense of the legislation, which is supposed to be there to encourage participation.
“It's not surprising we feel aggrieved at the outcome of the legal process. We are struggling to see any advantage in participating in local affairs.”
I am dismayed that that happened, because I stood on a platform of radical decentralisation of power, which I very much expected we would deliver. People have wasted their time, money and energy—the outcome has been everything that open source planning was not supposed to be.
Elsewhere in High Wycombe, people are not participating to any great extent. Across the district there were about 1,700 responses to the local consultation; I have about 75,000 electors. In the rather unfortunate jargon of public policy theory, people are “rationally ignorant”— it is just not worth the effort of participating in these matters because they are complex and tedious. The process of information gathering, discussion and decision often produces unacceptable results that people are forced to accept. That is the problem with public choice factors. In reality, the public either have too few incentives to get involved or have found that in practice the system excludes them from the involvement that they want: the power to avoid having costs imposed on them.
Another active local group, Penn and Tylers Green residents society, which is most concerned about the Gomm valley, provided this eviscerating judgment on the national planning policy framework:
“The NPPF seems to us to be a disingenuous mixture of high-sounding intent and contradictory assertion. It identifies planning as aiming to achieve ‘sustainable development’, a term which, because it defies succinct interpretation, has come to mean popularly, ‘the importance of building houses’.”
Notwithstanding the Government’s honourable intent, we now have council, not community, power. Land use planning remains a complex and specialist subject, so Wycombe’s local plan was produced by planning officers, not residents bravely taking control of their own lives. Planning regulations remain so complex that specialist expertise is required even to work out whether a proposal is permitted development, about which I will talk more in a few moments.
It also turns out that the process of electing councillors every four years does not persuade people to accept the costs imposed on them by the plans and decisions of officials. The process followed is certainly lawful but it cannot be said to be democratic, given that the electors do not have the opportunity to discard the plan if they do not like it. I suggest that we see, by harsh experience and by reading the Green Paper, that the NPPF and collaborative democracy in planning have turned out to be an opportunity to comply enthusiastically with the goals set by authority, which is, I am afraid, the freedom to obey.
Regarding the duty to co-operate, if collaborative planning has not worked at the local level, what of collaboration among planning authorities? Whenever decision making is decentralised, a problem of co-ordination arises. The duty to co-operate was bound to bring different plans into conflict, and such conflicts were bound to be difficult to resolve.
I understand from planning officers that the burden of co-operation is now simultaneously slowing down delivery, as authorities communicate with the constellation of organisations indicated in the NPPF, and making planning less accountable to local people. How is public consent for a local plan to be obtained when it is bound to be the product of an opaque process of collaboration between many individuals working for many official bodies?
I understand that moves are now afoot to ask local enterprise partnerships to co-ordinate local planning authorities. When the chief executive of our LEP told me that a particular problem was that there were now so many economic plans that people could not reconcile them, I asked him, light-heartedly, “Are you saying that what we need is a strongman, with the power, authority and vision to resolve the plans and impose the solution on everyone?” He said yes, but of course I was parodying Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”; it seems that, once again, life imitates literature, if not art.
I will certainly not be quoting Hayek back to my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on securing this debate. Does he share my concern, however, that there is a lack of joined-up thinking among neighbouring councils? For example, Northumberland and Newcastle councils act differently in relation to the green belt on their border. Does he agree that that sort of problem needs the overarching view that he is so enthusiastically endorsing?
I do. One of the problems is that the valuation of things such as the green belt is subjective—different people will have different opinions about different pieces of land. Some green belts are not especially high in quality. Around Wycombe, as I have said, most of it is AONB, but it is probably true that some of what is just green belt is not especially high in quality. Where it is poor in quality, people will value it differently. When elected representatives are involved at a local level, it is not surprising that they are unable to agree a valuation of land.
That is the point I want to make. When it comes to co-ordinating plans among decentralised decision makers, only the price system can promise to reconcile those differences, through voluntary and mutual adjustment. It is precisely because only the price system can co-ordinate human action that economic planning by authority always falls short of people’s ambitions for it.
I turn to what I propose the Government should do. In the short term at least, we must inevitably continue to attempt to make planning by authority in land use function without doing too much harm. I therefore ask the Government to take three short-term actions.
First, the Government should take the time to deliver a genuine simplification of the existing rules, so that complexity does not undermine public trust in the system. For example, I understand that permitted development can now be farcical in practice. I looked at the website, and to me it seems that some of it can be simple. In practice, however, people find it so difficult to decide whether something is permitted development, and are so afraid of the consequences of being fined if they get it wrong, that, in practice, they often end up applying to the planners for a certificate confirming that permission for the development is not required. That is absurd. A solution has been put to me. It essentially involves abolishing permitted development and making things simple: if there were no response within an eight-week period, the development would be allowed to go ahead.
Secondly, the Government should ensure that the duty to co-operate is not allowed to produce a creeping reinstatement of unaccountable, unelected regional government through the LEPs. I endorse everything that the Conservative party has said about regional government; I do not want to see it reinstated through LEPs.
The Government should narrow the range of bodies among whom co-operation is required and state clearly that local planning authorities must resolve differences among themselves without adjudication by authorities of broader scope—notwithstanding the wise comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). If necessary, the test on the duty to co-operate should be relaxed to avoid reinstating the failed concept of regional government.
Finally, I ask the Minister to confirm the view he set out in his letter of 3 March 2014 to Sir Michael Pitt, chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate, regarding inspectors’ reports on local plans. The Minister says, in the letter:
“The special role of Green Belt is also recognised in the framing of the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which sets out that authorities should meet objectively assessed needs unless specific policies in the Framework indicate development should be restricted. Crucially, Green Belt is identified as one such policy.”
What I understand from that is that authorities are not required to consume green-belt or other protected land to meet those objectively assessed needs. That is critical for a place such as High Wycombe; although the housing need is clear, it is also clear that the place is surrounded by AONB. I am looking for the Minister to confirm that that is his view.
I turn to reserve sites and one of the difficulties of the NPPF. The reserve sites are all in close proximity to the communities they serve, special to the adjacent communities and local in character. Under the NPPF, they could be designated as local green space and managed as for the green belt. Will the Minister confirm that that could be done, in which case local councillors and planners would have the discretion to decide whether to do so, to protect those areas? After scrutinising the documents and considering the sites, which I know well enough, I am absolutely sure that that is the case. It would mean that we have local power, at least at council level, over those sites.
In the longer term, the crux of the matter is that the development of land imposes costs on other people. The fundamental reason why local plans are failing to attract public consent is that compensation for such so-called “externalities”, as the literature puts it, is provided to councils as the embodiment of community, not to the people affected. People simply have inadequate reason to consent and every reason to object. What is necessary to achieve public consent in land use decisions is what economists call “internalising the externalities”—that is, making developers cover the costs that they impose on others when they wish to proceed.
In the long term, it cannot be right to leave young people and working families facing a housing market with too few homes whose prices are too high. It is perfectly plain that more homes must be built, and built at reasonable prices with widespread public consent. There is extensive literature on how to deliver such a system through common-law property rights and market mechanisms. For example, “Liberating the Land” by the Institute of Economic Affairs provides a good survey. Its ideas include: covenant protections and deed restrictions, combined with affordable land use tribunals; tradable development rights; strengthening the law on nuisance; and various restraints from economic forces. National protection in law could be retained for AONBs, green belts and places of historic value.
I do not doubt that such a system would have its own difficulties, but it would offer a promise of a way forward, in which people had genuine power to say no and every incentive to say yes. We must abandon command-and-control economic planning in land use, and instead find ways to meet the laudable goals of the present system in a way that is realistic about public participation, incentives and the efficiency and effectiveness of bureaucratic processes. We certainly must not continue to preach market capitalism, only to practise socialism in land use before blaming inevitable failure on the market.
There is a clear way forward. In the short term, planning inspectors should accept local plans that meet the aims of the NPPF by protecting designated land, even if that means not building the full quantities of homes identified as being objectively needed. This is necessary to establish public confidence in the democratic legitimacy of the system. In the longer term, policy should give real power to the public, which means the power to say no, combined with proper incentives to say yes, including due compensation, without the public having to acquiesce to costs imposed by other people, including the long-term costs of losing beautiful, highly valued land.
Democracy is government by consent. Only when the public do not face costs without compensation will our system of land use control meet that aspiration.
I have just done a quick tot-up of those who wish to speak. We have about 50 minutes before the Front-Bench spokesmen come in. So, just as a guide, that means about six minutes each for the eight Members who are standing. Can we take account of that, please? I will not impose a time limit at this stage, but I have given clear guidance to ensure that everyone can get in and have their say.
As always, Mr Betts, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this debate and I will try to keep my comments as brief as possible.
Local planning is, without a shadow of doubt, the single most controversial issue facing Romsey and Southampton North. Planning is incredibly difficult for local councils, the elected Member, council officers and, most importantly, local residents. The constituency is split between urban and rural areas, but that makes no difference in planning terms; wherever you are in my constituency, planning is simply difficult and controversial. It is very hard to balance the competing issues of housing need with an entirely justifiable desire to protect green fields, countryside locations and—just as importantly—the character of urban areas.
I will use Bassett, on the edge of Southampton, as an example of where urban planning pressures are every bit as complicated as those of greenfield sites. The drive by developers to squeeze additional properties into back gardens and to demolish family housing and replace it with blocks of flats, as well as the continued spread of houses of multiple occupation, turn Bassett into a classic example of where garden-grabbing has continued apace. However, it is not all bad news. I commend the work of local councillors, particularly Les Harris, who has worked tirelessly with local residents on the Bassett neighbourhood plan. Bassett has been designated as a neighbourhood area in its own right, and in the autumn there will be a referendum on the plan. It is a perfect example of a community coming together to identify problems, and potentially using the planning system to its advantage. Obviously, I hope that the referendum will be supported and that the people of Bassett will have a defining say in the future of their own area.
Elsewhere in Romsey and Southampton North, the situation is less happy. The revised local plan comes before Test Valley borough council in the next few weeks, and there is a difficult balance to be struck between protecting green fields and meeting the demand for new homes. What is very sad is when one part of a wider community is set against another, and a determination to protect one greenfield site is at the expense of others. I do not pretend that there are easy answers—there are not—but I am quite convinced that planning officers and councillors continue to work extremely hard to identify the least worst options. The reality is that all the options would impact green fields or woodland, and all would have an impact on roads, schools and services. Whether it is in Whitenap, on the edge of Romsey; in Great Covert, between North Baddesley and Valley Park; or in Parkers Farm in Rownhams, there are some very difficult choices to be made.
Of course, I would prefer to see greenfield sites remain undeveloped. They not only add to local amenity but provide valuable agricultural land, and importantly they can act as sponges to soak up rain when it falls in massive quantities, as happened in Romsey at the start of the year. I have long argued in favour of a brownfield-first policy; more green belt for Hampshire, which has virtually none; and powers to enable those who have sat on brownfield land with extant planning permission for a generation to be obliged to bring it forward for development.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has made some important points about collaborative planning and why it is so hard to bring forward a plan that everybody is content with. Undoubtedly, the experience of southern Test Valley shows why it is critical to have a robust adopted plan, because until one is in place developers will continue to make speculative applications for land in local strategic gaps and in the countryside.
Public consultation is crucial but, as my hon. Friend said, too few people take part and it tends to be only those directly affected by a specific development who participate. In Romsey, there has been a fantastic effort to involve more of the community, and Romsey Future is an exciting project that aims to ensure the town’s future as a thriving market town. Many other bodies, including the Romsey Forum and the Romsey and District Society, have been proactive.
It is a huge frustration for local residents that localism has not delivered what they hoped it would. My hon. Friend concluded with an interesting point on “internalising the externalities”. I am not sure what it would take for residents of Romsey to view development adjacent to them as a good thing. However, we have to find a way to square that circle, because until we do we will continue to see community set against community and not the local co-operation that we all want.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on setting out the case. The Minister will have noticed that there are a dozen or more Conservative MPs here, and it will be interesting to see how many of them speak in support of his policies, because in the last debate that we had here on this subject not one Conservative MP did.
The simple fact is that, as the hon. Member for Wycombe has pointed out, the Government are not delivering what the Conservative party said in opposition, and I will cite—
Whatever it is, the general public are not exactly dancing in the streets. The public consent for local plans is the issue we are debating, and the Minister is personally culpable for what he approved in north Colchester not that long ago. He approved it despite the fact that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government personally visited the area to see it for himself. I got a Transport Minister to come down and see the existing congestion in the North Station road area, and despite that this Minister rubber-stamped a plan, knowing full well that the land had never previously been zoned for housing. How the plan came through the system is one of those great mysteries of life, but it did. Myland community council, the only parish council area in my constituency, was opposed to it.
Councillors across the borough ganged up and shoved the housing allocation on one area, so it could be argued that the public consent came from the democratically elected local borough council, but there was not public consent in the area affected. It is an area that has had massive new development, and it now faces the prospect of having an additional 3,000-plus houses on a roundabout that is already a quart in a pint pot. I have to tell the Minister that the situation is not resolved by adding another pint or two.
Indeed, only this Monday the Colchester Daily Gazette reported that around £2 million of public money will go towards a project to encourage commuters to car-share, use public transport, or cycle or walk to work instead of driving through the North Station road roundabout. Even before a brick is laid, public money is having to be spent and it will not sort out the mess that is already there, let alone the problems caused by having the additional housing on two sites, one the site of a former psychiatric hospital—allegedly, it is a brownfield site, but some brownfield—and the other on virgin open countryside. All that will come into this area.
There is another problem. Because the section 106 agreement did not produce sufficient funds for a primary school in that area, the local authority is now going to expand a proposed school that is yet to be built, over and above what was originally intended. Far from it being a community school, it will become a destination school.
Those are two direct results, Minister, of a decision made by you, for which you are culpable as the Minister responsible.
I now move on to a second development, which is causing great worry. A local authority wants to build all its housing allocation, or a large part of it, on the border of another local authority area. I will end my remarks by asking the Minister and his officials to investigate urgently what Tendring district council is playing at in wanting to build a large proportion of its housing allocation immediately on the eastern border of urban Colchester, which will create an urban sprawl going eastwards. I urge the Minister and his officials to look at that urgently, because Tendring district council is putting its housing allocation where the local people in Colchester do not want it. The people in Colchester will have no say in Tendring district council’s housing allocation.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this important debate on public consent for local plans. As ever, his take on it was challenging, original and stimulating.
I think that we all accept—we know—that we need more housing in this country, and we need it urgently. The Office for National Statistics projection is that 232,000 net additional homes are needed per year to satisfy demand, although now it is a bit more than that because the target has been missed for a number of years, so a backlog has built up.
Contrary to what a lot of people believe, demand is not all driven by immigration. Without any net migration, the net additional demand would be 149,000 per annum. There are various reasons for that—smaller households; no one has a lodger; students going away to university; divorce, and so on—but, of course, the biggest single factor is that people are living longer, which is positive. We need to get that message out more often.
I should like housing demand to be more re-balanced across the country. The recent regional growth figures are encouraging: over the medium term what has happened in Leeds, Manchester and elsewhere has been strong and, in the fullness of time, High Speed 2, and perhaps even HS3, will contribute to that further. However, these things cannot be decreed and they do not happen immediately. We cannot escape the fact that the south-east will continue to over-index on housing demand for quite some time.
It is for those reasons that, in my constituency of East Hampshire, the average first-time buyer is almost as old as I am; the average home costs over £320,000, and the median house price is 10 times median earnings. We know that to maintain the vibrancy of our towns and villages we need to have a mix of age groups and we need new people coming in.
We certainly need to promote the primacy of brownfield land, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said. It is also true—we need to get this message out more often, too—that both nationally and in East Hampshire there is not nearly enough brownfield land to satisfy demand. I received an answer to a written question from the Minister yesterday, which, with my rough maths, suggests that brownfield sites could satisfy 4% or 5% of demand for housing over a 15-year period.
My hon. Friend is making a good point on brownfield sites. I welcome the Government’s announcement this week on the local enterprise partnership funding, which will unlock a key brownfield site in York, on the edge of my constituency.
Is not the key point that we have to ensure that brownfield sites come forward more quickly? Actually, that is what green belt does. We always talk about green belt as protecting the character and setting of communities, which it does, but it is also important for driving urban regeneration. We must not forget that.
My hon. Friend puts the point about prioritising brownfield land well, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North. I cannot really talk about green belt, because we do not have any in East Hampshire, so, unfortunately, green belt protection does not really help us.
In general, people accept the need for more housing and for places for their children and grandchildren to live, but I rarely meet anybody who wants large-scale residential development to happen next to them. Often, people who use the term “nimbys” do so because it has not yet happened in their back yard. It is just part of human nature that people do not want large-scale developments to be built next to them.
In that context, I support local plans and neighbourhood plans. We can never make everybody happy, but the local plan plus neighbourhood plan process gets about as close as possible. However, plans alone are not enough; do-ability also has to be demonstrated, which is why the five-year land supply is logical. Once a process is set there must be insistence that it is followed; otherwise there is a risk of legal challenge from developers saying that there is restraint of their trade.
There is a big issue around public consent for local plans while they are still in process. In East Hampshire, our local plan is not finished and the five-year land supply is not in place, but applications have been proceeding apace and East Hampshire district council has been approving apace. Neighbourhood plans are in progress in a number of places, including in Petersfield, which is getting quite close to having a referendum, and in Alton, Four Marks and Medstead. I pay tribute to the volunteers who are doing an outstanding job on those neighbourhood plans, although I will not name individuals, because there are many of them.
They have attracted a huge amount of interest in Petersfield and Alton. I have attended public sessions where masses of people have come along and taken part. That has been an interesting and exciting confidence-building process.
A particular issue in my constituency has divided people. Part of my constituency is in the South Downs national park and part is outside. People in a town or village that is deemed sustainable, to use the terminology, and is just outside the national park may consider themselves to be at risk of development. That happens in Alton and Liphook and is a particular problem in Four Marks and Medstead. To hit the local plan target for a settlement in Four Marks and part of the parish of Medstead, 175 homes need to be built by 2028. The council has already permitted 151; there are applications pending for a further 322 and applications for a further 181 are waiting to be submitted. Of course, not all those applications may be approved, but multiples of the requirement for that settlement could be in place in, say, the first third of the plan period, rather than over the full 15 years. In that context, there is a danger of confidence in the plan process being eroded.
My big ask to the Minister is for more recognition of in-progress plans. There should be guidance on plans that are well progressed. Where per settlement plans—in our case it is called the interim housing statement—measure up to the overall local plan requirements, where local authorities are approving housing comfortably ahead of the pace required to meet the 15-year target and where numbers are already fast being approached in individual settlements, it should be possible for those settlements to defer applications for a reasonable period, to complete plans and carry public consent with them.
There are two further aspects. First, in respect of clarity on infrastructure, I realise that statutory requirements are involved and sometimes the process takes time, but authorities ought to be allowed to take time to pace applications. Secondly, with regard to incentive moneys, it should be made clear that at least some of that should be ultra-local, to maintain public support.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am also pleased to see my hon. Friend the Planning Minister. It was a great pleasure, during my time at the Department for Communities and Local Government, to work alongside him, so I understand some of the issues that he faces.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this debate on a subject that is of great concern to many of our constituents, as can be seen from the turnout in the Chamber. My hon. Friend raised many points that are relevant to Fylde, but I wish to focus specifically on local plan matters relating to my constituency.
The Localism Act 2011, of which I am a great supporter, was warmly received by communities in Fylde. Upon its introduction there was a clear intention to move away from the previous Government’s imposed top-down approach to planning that was driven by the regional spatial strategy. When Fylde borough council set about developing its own local plan, it accepted from the outset that this would result in a considerable number of new homes being built across the borough. However, during the process the council found itself frustrated on a number of key points.
First, when arriving at the total number of houses necessary for the 15-year plan period, the council found itself required to meet the previous housing numbers shortfall, despite having a new housing moratorium placed on them by the previous Government. As a result of this previous shortfall, many believe that the number of houses now required to meet Fylde borough council’s needs is greatly inflated and distorted. In a ministerial statement in March, my hon. Friend the Minster said that councils that had been under a housing moratorium could take this into account if struggling to meet their five-year housing supply. For the record, Fylde borough council is currently sitting at 4.5 years, with a number of plans in the process that could quickly take us to the five-year threshold. However, when Fylde borough council raised this with officials, it was informed that it would be unable to use the previous moratorium as part of its calculations. I have sent a letter to my hon. Friend, asking for urgent clarification on this issue. I would hate to think that the Planning Inspectorate is failing to follow his wise ministerial guidance.
Secondly, the Fylde local plan has been out to consultation, and the council is working to adjust it to take on board the often valid suggestions put forward by local communities. In the village of Warton, the local community has been exemplary in how it has embraced the local planning process. In the draft local plan, it was proposed that Warton would receive up to 1,400 new homes, which would have in effect doubled the size of the village, and that rightly caused great concern at a local level. However, the way in which the village responded truly embraced the core principles of the Localism Act 2011 in a way that I hope the Minister would appreciate. A number of public meetings were held and every home was leafleted to seek their opinions, culminating in a local referendum. While at times passions ran high, the primary focus was to find the correct long-term housing solution for the community.
As a result of the people of Warton’s hard work, it is my understanding that Fylde borough council is looking to reduce the number of new houses in Warton to somewhere in the region of 600. To reassure the Minister, the council has identified other areas in the borough that it believes are more suitable for taking up the balance of the houses proposed for Warton. I believe that that approach reflects the core principles of the Localism Act 2011. To my disgust, I have learned that developers want to ignore all that work and are proposing to put in planning applications to take the number of houses in Warton to more than 1,400. It appears that developers are using the lack of a five-year housing supply as a loophole to ram through applications against the intentions of the council and the wishes of the local people.
I am listening to what my hon. Friend is saying with great interest. We have similar situations in High Peak. Does he agree that the situation is causing a belief to fester among our constituents and residents that all these housing targets are being more centralised, as opposed to decentralised to the local authorities, as we are trying to do?
Sadly, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The aims of the Localism Act are not being delivered on the ground, and that is one of the areas of great frustration.
Developers know that if the council’s planning committee refuses applications for 800 homes in Warton, they can go straight to the Planning Inspectorate to appeal. We have seen that on a number of occasions across the borough. I have been informed that each appeal costs the council tax payers of Fylde something in the region of £50,000 plus costs and is done in the almost sure-fire knowledge that the Planning Inspectorate will bow to the developers’ demands. That ignores the views of democratically elected Members, local planners and, above all, the local community, which has worked tirelessly to come up with sensible alternatives. I hope the Minister will agree that that makes an absolute mockery of the principles of the Localism Act. If that approach is allowed to continue, we will end up with not a local plan, but a mishmash of planning decisions that have been railroaded through by developers and speculative land agents. I am not prepared to sit around and let that happen in Fylde.
The example I have given relates to Warton, but the same could be said of developers in Wrea Green, Staining, Wesham, Kirkham and now, as I have learned in the past week, Lytham St Annes. The problem is that each scheme is examined on its own merits by the Planning Inspectorate, rather than as a joined-up plan. As a result, there is a real danger of infrastructure failing to keep pace with development. The approach is unsustainable and could lead to a vast array of problems in our communities.
Developers need to understand that the Government have reformed planning policy to ensure that the UK’s housing and development needs are met in the future. It appears that some developers are starting to abuse the aims of the legislation. The planning Minister needs to understand that the Planning Inspectorate must work better with local councils. If the Planning Inspectorate fails to recognise the changes borne out of the Localism Act 2011 and continues to dance to the tune of developers, it should not be surprised if there is a groundswell of Members demanding that it be reformed. The subject is important for my constituency and I wish the Minister well in his endeavours, but it is important that he takes on board the concerns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for introducing the debate and making many sensible points. The previous speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), touched on what I want to say right at the end of his speech, when he talked about the Planning Inspectorate perhaps not reflecting the Government’s intention. On 24 October last year, I held a debate in this Chamber that was well attended by a number of Members, each of whom made their own different points. My point then was that planning policy needed to be clarified. On the one hand, the Government were saying that we have to have loads more houses, but on the other, they were saying that we need to protect the green belt and such areas. The Minister, to his great credit, listened carefully to that debate and some while after that called a number of us together to present the clarification of the policy, particularly on unmet need and the impact that that could have on the green belt. He said that the green belt should take precedence. He also clarified the duty to co-operate when he said that it was not necessarily a duty to agree, if that meant that the green belt would be compromised. He made very many other clarifications, which were extremely useful.
My concern is on the extent to which the guidance is being followed by the Planning Inspectorate and the local councils that are putting together plans and joint core strategies in my area. To give an example of the problems in Tewkesbury, we have a great deal of green-belt land, many areas of outstanding natural beauty and an awful lot of flood-risk areas. Tewkesbury’s assessed housing need for the next 20 years is 10,900 houses, yet it is proposed that it will take 18,900. A lot of those houses will be built on the green belt, which I believe to be contrary to Government policy. I have taken that up with the local councils, and they fear that the inspectorate, which will look at the plan and say whether it is sound, will not follow the Minister’s guidance. That is what they genuinely feel. At this stage, it is difficult to say who is right, but the councils, although they do not want to build on the green belt or in flood-risk areas, feel that they might have to do that.
There are various recent inspectors’ reports—there was one just last week in Somerset—where the inspector appeared to disregard consideration for the green belt. I say “appeared”, because it was a rather confusing report, and much confusion surrounds the decision. In my area, there seems to have been a compromise on an area of outstanding natural beauty in an appeal that was allowed on a development of 50 houses in the village of Alderton. That does not sound like a lot, but it is a significant increase on the number of houses it has. Although it is an area of outstanding natural beauty, the inspector seemed to say that where there is unmet housing need, the AONB might have to be compromised. I believe that to be contrary to the Government’s policy. They have clearly said that unmet need should not outweigh any significant harm that might be caused to the green belt or other such areas.
I strongly support my hon. neighbour’s view that local councillors in all three councils have in effect been bludgeoned into voting for a very unpopular joint core strategy for Gloucestershire, because of the fear of the inspectorate, but it is not just about AONB and green belt. The only request for local green space status in the entire JCS area is at Leckhampton, in my constituency. It is supported by me, the Leckhampton Green Land Action Group and in great detail by Leckhampton and Warden Hill parish council. That request has not been so much refused as completely ignored by the joint core strategy team, thereby defying every consultation on the subject in the local area for the past 10 years, in which development has been universally opposed. I want the Minister to look specifically at that case, but I strongly support the points that my hon. neighbour is making.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.
When the Government came to power they got rid of the regional spatial strategy system of planning, and that was welcomed. That was a good move. We introduced the Localism Act 2011, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) correctly said, people feel let down. They feel that the 2011 Act and the principle of localism have not delivered and do not look like they will deliver what people want.
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. One thing that I have lobbied hard for is the introduction of a new community right of appeal, which would give local people a real opportunity to have a say and would rebalance planning and deliver localism in the same way we have delivered an improvement in the planning process. Does he agree that that is a good idea?
Yes, I certainly would agree. We need to give more power to people, and that was suggested by the title of the debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe introduced. Local people feel that they are being ridden over by developers and that there is further confusion in the planning system. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we need to simplify, to ensure consistency and to clarify, certainly in my area, what the duty to co-operate actually means. More work needs to be done. He rightly referred to the letter from the Minister to Sir Michael Pitt, which said that green-belt land can be removed in the local plan process only in consultation with local people, and I must say that local people do not want that to happen. If it does happen, it is not because local people want it to happen. They believe in localism and welcomed the Localism Act 2011, but they are not convinced that it is delivering for them. It is better not to have a policy than to have one that goes on to disappointment.
My constituents are not opposed to development. I work every day to bring jobs to my constituency, as I am sure that all hon. Members do, and with those jobs must come housing. In 2007, my constituency was under water due to flooding. People lost their water supplies for three weeks and many people had to live in caravans for over a year. We had such devastation, which was threatened again earlier this year—the Prime Minister came to see the situation—and we do not want houses built in the wrong areas. That is what my constituents would want me to say today.
The Members present are almost exclusively Conservative. We have one Labour Front-Bench spokesperson and a couple each from the DUP and the Liberal Democrats. I probably should not say this publicly, but if we do not clarify the policy and sort it out, the Conservative party will lose votes. I want the Minister to take that on board. That is not the reason to sort the policy—there are many others—but it sounds like a pretty good one.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for securing this important debate. I will try to be brief, because I know that many other hon. Members are keen to speak.
I want to discuss my constituency and some of the impacts that the policy is having. The most recent consultation period of our local plan has concluded. The plan has been developed over several years and caused a great deal of concern and anxiety among local residents, who feel that it has not made sufficient provision for associated infrastructure. There is significant apprehension about environmental impacts; air pollution is already a significant problem in Warwick, which celebrates its 1,100th anniversary this year. There is also great concern that the number of houses planned is excessive.
Office for National Statistics figures released at the end of May have significantly altered the estimated population figure on which the plan is based. Population growth is now estimated to be less than previously thought. An increase of 15,000 rather than 21,000 has been predicted, a reduction of more than 25%. If the new population figure is taken into account, the number of houses required for the plan should also reduce dramatically.
I understand that, as a general rule, public policy cannot continually be revised and updated as new statistics come to light, but it is important to take them into consideration if they have such a clear impact on existing proposals. There is evidence that the current population assumptions, prior to the publication of the ONS figures, are based on a period of unusually high migration. Does the Minister agree that Warwick district council must take the new information into account in the development of the plan? That is the only way in which we can restore confidence in the process. The figures, which have been brought to the council’s attention, will, I hope, be taken into account when they revise the current version of the local plan. If they are not, given this information and local residents’ sincere concerns, it will be a breach of what we are discussing here today: public consent for local plans.
I appreciate that planning is difficult, especially when new information comes to light, but can we not agree that we need to give residents the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the planning process? Only genuine engagement with residents can produce a plan that local people feel they have ownership of and ensure that the plan does not ignore their opinions.
Local residents’ views should be integral to the planning system. With so much of the community clearly opposing the plan as it stands, I hope that all those involved will seriously consider the significance of the objections. The decisions of Warwick district council and other similar local authorities will have long-term effects. I hope to see a consensual, sustainable solution that will be beneficial for our local community and the needs of all our futures.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this important debate. I must say that I am a little more positive than him about the Government’s planning policy; the issue is more that we have failed to grasp the changes in the policy and to use them in the town halls of this country.
The Government have come a long way towards injecting democracy, kicking and screaming, into the top-down, target-driven planning regime of the previous Government. The Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework combined formed a strong first attack on the problem. They enshrined the importance of community buy-in as a central tenet of strategic and long-term planning, gave back powers to local councils and local communities and ended the top-down targets regime.
That said, it seems that the changes may have taken a little while to sink in at town halls, with many councils initially looking to opt for figures and equations taken from the inflated top-down targets of the regional spatial strategies rather than grasping the nettle and coming up with new approaches to determine housing need. As disappointing as that is, it is at least understandable. Outside council chambers, planning is a multi-million pound industry and developers are able—and more than willing—to outspend taxpayer-funded local councils in legal consultations, planning inquests and court cases, including at Glebelands and Jotmans Farm in my constituency.
With that in mind, it is entirely probable that local council planning departments are unwilling to be innovative and to break the established mould until another council had been successful, for fear of an expensive legal challenge by developers. I also fear that officials, councillors and perhaps even the Planning Inspectorate became quite comfortable with the old defence that, “The Government are forcing this on us; there is nothing we can do.”
Absolutely. I hear that said regularly. The costs of court cases are waved at councillors who are responsible for public funding. It is a permanent threat. On balance and given that backdrop, however, the Government’s planning reforms have fared pretty well, particularly since the superb guidance update and the accompanying letter that the Minister wrote to the chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate earlier this year.
Small districts and boroughs such as Castle Point have traditionally suffered the most in development plans, as their comparatively dense populations create big needs that put immense pressure on infrastructure and the precious little undeveloped green space on urban peripheries—no matter if there are larger districts with a higher ratio of undeveloped green space in urban communities within commuting distance.
If the big unit developers have their way with the green belt in Castle Point, it will be an unmitigated disaster, and not only for the environment—it will just not work. Developers too rarely deliver what they promise. They land bank, speculate on markets and cause distress and uncertainty to local residents, who see large swathes of undeveloped land swallowed up in a development plan only to see it sit there for years until the market is right. That is precisely what happened at the development between The Chase and Kiln road in my constituency, which was included in the last development plan in the 1990s and where construction began in earnest only two years ago.
The updates and clarifications on the NPPF issued by the Minister in February give more weapons to local councils to defend local plans from aggressive developer interest and allow them to be shaped more by engagement with local residents and therefore to achieve popular consent. We need to grasp what the updates offer local communities. They make it clear that the green belt does not have to be sacrificed in local plans and give more scope for local councils to bring forward the smaller and sometimes grotty brownfield sites that blight local neighbourhoods for redevelopment instead. That policy direction is well complemented by the Chancellor’s recent announcement, during his speech at Mansion House, that several hundred million pounds will be put in funds to help local councils bring forward brownfield sites.
I have stood in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber on a number of occasions to discuss how small brownfield sites not only are more likely to be realised for development faster, but put less strain on infrastructure. They are more likely to benefit the local economy by using local builders, solicitors and estate agents and by being marketed to local people. I am pleased by the updates brought in by the Minister earlier this year, making it easier for councils to have local plans based on such sites.
I thank the Minister for the strength of the policy updates, but I have a further, specific reason for thanking him. He supported me in my request for a representative from the Planning Inspectorate to visit Castle Point and explain to councillors and officers in blunt terms that they did not have to include undeveloped and locally treasured green belt in their new local plan if they could make, support and explain a case for why they thought it more important to preserve such spaces than to meet their purely statistical housing projections.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on this fantastic debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) is absolutely right that the policy of public consent for local plans, when it works, can work well. Unfortunately, in Labour-run Kirklees council, we do not have a local plan; there is not even an emerging local plan. What advice can the Minister give my constituents, who are now seeing a free-for-all? Furthermore, a Lib Dem councillor voted for the Lindley Moor development in the north of Huddersfield, which was completely against residents’ wishes. That was a casting vote, so my constituents are feeling frustrated.
Castle Point council is due to consider the public consultation responses to its emerging local plan and to take account of the policy updates. Although it is purely up to the elected councillors of Castle Point to make decisions on the local plan, I anticipate that much more brownfield than previously anticipated will be proposed for development, which can only be a good thing.
The Government have faced a mammoth task to inject real democracy and a commitment to community engagement into the system. They have shown commitment to the challenge and made significant progress, which should be applauded. Few residents would disagree that we need to build more houses, but only through democratic engagement and buy-in will that happen—and, I believe, happen more quickly—in such a way as to cause the least detriment to existing householders.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate and on his interesting and thoughtful speech.
The question that we are discussing is not whether we need more houses; clearly we do. The continuing undersupply of houses not only disadvantages young people, who need somewhere to live, and makes houses relatively unaffordable, but is a risk to the economy, as the Governor of the Bank of England has made clear. For all those reasons, we need to preface everything we say with the recognition that more houses are needed.
The question instead is how those houses are to be provided and whether a top-down planning system will be enough to provide them—and in a way that takes the public with it. Perhaps a system based more on incentives would deliver the houses. My argument, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, is that we need to move to a system based more on incentives, turning our back fully on the top-down approach. We attempted to do that, in part, in the Localism Act 2011, and the principle that power should be given to local people and communities is surely the right one. My plea today is that we keep faith with that localism, because it can deliver the additional necessary housing.
I want to give one example: that of a small village in my constituency. On the edge of the South Downs national park and in beautiful countryside, it now faces the potential prospect of fracking and airport expansion, on top of the continuing pressure on housing. The parish as a whole has only 458 people, with 226 in the core village itself. For years, the village has seen speculative development applications as a threat and has resisted them.
Recently, however, the village sat down as part of its neighbourhood planning process and decided for itself—overwhelmingly, in a referendum—to provide for 50 new houses. That decision was taken by a village with a total population of 226, because villagers decided that they wanted more affordable houses. The number of new homes was not imposed, given to them or required—they chose it. Local people overwhelmingly endorsed the move.
That powerful process of neighbourhood planning can turn the incentives around, so that instead of local people confronting what they do not want the whole time and resisting development, they instead ask themselves what they do want and what is necessary for their children. The process has been shown to have worked. Kirdford was the second village in West Sussex to have passed a neighbourhood plan; Arundel was the first, but those two were among the earliest neighbourhood plans in the country to have gone through by referendum. That is a testament to that policy, to its power and to the Localism Act, the principles of which I support.
Localism, however, can be undermined. It is undermined when the Planning Inspectorate charges in, exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) so eloquently described, adhering to an outdated set of rules or acting under orders—probably a mix of the two—and decides to impose still higher numbers of houses, or houses in a place that local people have not chosen in their proposed neighbourhood plans. Furthermore, in doing so, the inspectorate completely undermines any local support for the development proposed.
People then ask, “Where is this localism that we were promised?” We were all giving up our time—volunteers in the case of neighbourhood plans drawn up by parish councils—and spending a huge amount of it consulting with local people about where housing should go, winning around public support, but then seeing the whole process undermined, or even blown up, by idiotic decisions from the Planning Inspectorate, rewarding greedy, speculative development applications.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many developers simply want to push as many houses on to sites as they can, for their own financial ends and irrespective of what that will mean to the community? Developers do so because they believe that they can get away with it.
I have tried to bite my tongue for a long time in the debate, but I feel the need to point out to my right hon. Friend that I was driving my own car, without a driver or a private secretary. I was on my way to Chichester. Furthermore, on the A3 on the way back I had a tyre blow-out; I had to change the tyre myself.
The lesson to the Minister is clearly either to take public transport or to be driven around in an enormous ministerial car. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for coming to my constituency, then to Chichester, to meet local people and to hear for himself about the problem.
My suggestions are, first, to strengthen the process of neighbourhood planning—to make it easier, not harder, for local communities, to give them more support and to make the process less bureaucratic. Secondly, we should tackle the overweening power of the Planning Inspectorate. The inspectorate is out of control and it is defying localism. People do not want orders from a quango in Bristol. If we are serious about localism, we must deal with that.
The Conservative manifesto stated:
“To give communities greater control over planning, we will abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde said that if the Planning Inspectorate was not given new marching orders, hon. Members might decide for themselves that those marching orders should be given. I propose amendments to the Infrastructure Bill to send a clear signal to the Planning Inspectorate that what it is doing is undermining localism and support for local housing, and that that must stop.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing yet another important debate on planning.
The gist of the arguments that have been put forward today is that if we are to get the homes we need, we must have more involvement from the community in making local plans, as housing needs to be delivered in a way that secures consent. I totally agree with that.
I remind hon. Members of just how many homes we need. On current projections we know that we need to build upwards of 200,000 houses per year, but we are achieving a rate that is much lower, with just 112,000 homes completed in the year to March 2014. This year we know that there have been only 117,000 starts in the private sector and 22,000 in the social sector. That is simply not enough to keep up with demand. We have 1.8 million households on council waiting lists. This year the number of housing starts in the affordable rented sector fell to only 16,000, as contrasted with 54,000 in the last year of the Labour Government.
I hope all hon. Members would recognise that there is a significant housing shortage that needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, we all accept that we need more consent in the system. We have heard that from the Minister as well, who has said that he wants
“locally arrived at, co-operative solutions to difficult problems, rather than having top-down Government imposition of solutions… We all deserve to have our voices heard and we all deserve to be part of that solution.”—[Official Report, 13 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 243WH.]
The problem for him is that that is not really happening in practice.
I want to take up a number of comments made by Government Members today. The hon. Member for Wycombe was very clear on the need to have public consent and a collaborative democracy. That means more community control over what happens and a more effective system of neighbourhood planning. I was a bit confused about whether he was suggesting that we get rid of local plan making all together. I do not think that would be a sensible way forward, but clearly something needs to be done to make the current system reflect local needs better.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) has had a positive experience of neighbourhood planning, but noted her concern that land banking makes it difficult to secure consent and that local people do not feel that localism is delivering for them. The hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) reminded us of the importance of finding appropriate sites and funding associated infrastructure. That is important in securing consent. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) talked about the need to rebalance growth across the country. I could not agree more, given that my north-east constituency desperately needs economic growth.
The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) said that we need to take on suggestions from local people about which sites are appropriate. I agree that that is necessary if we are going to get the long-term solutions to our housing need that we all want to see. He mentioned difficulties with the Planning Inspectorate, and was backed up on that point by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who said that a number of decisions by the Planning Inspectorate have been inappropriate. I will leave it to the Minister to respond to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury about whether he will do anything to make the Planning Inspectorate change its mind. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) said we need ongoing reviews of local plans, which is an interesting suggestion.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) was unusually positive about the current system—she must have given the Minister a moment of light relief in our debate. The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) asked the key question: how will houses be delivered in a way that takes the public along with the development that is needed? He also stated the importance of putting neighbourhood planning at the heart of the system.
All those points have been backed up by the way in which some constituency issues are finding their way into the media. There have been a number of headlines recently—I am sure that the Minister is aware of them—saying things such as “Planning decisions cast doubt over government’s localism agenda”, “Government ignores local residents’ concerns” and “Ministers ignore concerns over out-of-town retail plans”. My favourite is “Government takes ‘nuclear option’ with new planning laws”—essentially, a criticism of the way that the current system is operating.
Something is going wrong if the Minister is espousing localist credentials but local communities feel that they are being let down and their opinions ignored. There are a couple of reasons for that and a couple of things he could do. We are relying on a plan-led system when so few plans have actually been adopted, and few of those adhere to the NPPF. That puts a huge problem at the heart of the system and means that many inappropriate sites are being put forward for development because local plans are not in place. Also, where neighbourhood plans exist they need to be strengthened, so that more attention is paid to them and local people feel they have a much greater say over which sites are appropriate. That is what we are trying to get at today.
Lastly, we agree that consent needs to be put at the heart of the planning system, which is why we have set up a commission under Sir Michael Lyons to see how that can be delivered. I hope the Minister pays attention to what that commission says when it reports in September.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am used to facing your inquisition and find my current position a more comfortable one to be in. Although it is more comfortable with respect to you, it is slightly less comfortable with respect to my cherished colleagues, who are familiar faces in debates such as these. They represent their constituents eloquently, passionately and with total conviction.
The difficulty is that in a sense it is of no comfort or consolation to those constituents that although they are suffering from intense problems, others are beginning to be able to make the system work. It is of no consolation to the residents of Fylde to know that in many other parts of the country, because residents there have managed to get a local plan in place, local decisions are being made and adhered to, not overturned by planning inspectors. Nor is it of any consolation to the people of Daws Hill to hear that in other parts of the country there are now 1,000 communities working on neighbourhood plans, nor that there have been 20 referendums on neighbourhood plans, all of which—20 out of 20—have shown the overwhelming support of local people for plans that, as in the community of Kirdford in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), are for quite significant housing growth. It is of no consolation to people to hear that things may be working elsewhere.
The responsibility for the Government is to create a system that applies to everyone and every area, in which every community and every council knows what its responsibilities are.
The crucial thing about Daws Hill is that the two developments that bracket it were excluded from the neighbourhood forum. I have every confidence that if those two areas had been included the residents of Daws Hill would have been full and keen participants in the process.
I fully understand the frustrations of the residents of Daws Hill about that decision. It is unfortunately the case that the council is the duly elected planning authority. It is democratically accountable and therefore it is with the council that the ultimate decision lies on which areas are to be designated.
I believe that every single contribution to the debate started with an acknowledgement of the desperate need for housing. The debate was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker)—I congratulate him on doing so—and so perhaps he will forgive me if I point out that in Wycombe, which is certainly not untypical in the south of the country, the affordability ratio stands at 9.6 compared with 6.45 nationally. That means, very simply, what the father of four told him: the average price of a house in the lower quartile—the lower quarter of available houses—is 9.6 times the average income in the lower quartile of earnings, so someone who is not particularly well paid would have to spend nearly 10 times their salary to buy a house.
Now, as we know, the Governor of the Bank of England has, entirely responsibly, clarified that mortgages of more than four times income should be rare. We also know that mortgage lenders require a deposit, and the Government have put in place the Help to Buy scheme to make it possible for people to get mortgages on 5% deposits. However, there is simply no way that that gentleman, or many like him, will ever be able to afford to pull together nine or 10 times the average income without huge support from somewhere else. This Government are not willing to stand by while housing and home ownership become the preserve of the rich and those with wealthy parents, and we have to act.
The Minister is making some good points about the need for housing, but he is making none about the need for local people to have a say about where that housing is. Does he not agree that a community right of appeal, not a third-party right of appeal, might well put the Government on the side of responsible communities?
If my hon. Friend is a little patient, she will allow me to say how the planning system absolutely gives people the ability to decide where developments should go.
I would like to start by explaining where the concept of objectively assessed need comes from. In every constituency, there are people who would like to buy a house or a flat. They might move several times, because they currently rent, and rental leases are often relatively short. They might not even get on the electoral roll or, indeed, be living in the area where they would ultimately like to buy. Who represents them in this democracy? Who represents them in local residents’ meetings deciding how many houses the community is willing to accept? We need to represent them; that is why a national Government are elected. That is why Governments have a responsibility to tell local councils, “Yes, you should decide where you are going to meet your development needs, but, no, you don’t decide whether you meet them.” We do not allow local councils to say, “We do not want to provide enough school places”—we require them to provide enough places. We do not say to the local national health service, “You decide whether you want to provide enough doctors and hospital beds”—we say, “You have to work out how and where you are going to meet your needs.” It is simply the same with housing. We represent those who do not have a vote in these public meetings and have not voted for the local councillors, perhaps because they do not live in the area yet or are not even of voting age. I take that responsibility very seriously, and I make no apology for that.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for mentioning affordability in Wycombe, and I am acutely aware of it, not least because it affects me too. However, it is precisely because I agree with the imperatives he has set out that I think we should move to an incentives-based system that produces consent.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, because it was much the most challenging and stimulating of his very challenging and stimulating speech. I hope he will be pleased that there is a pilot of development benefits, which the Chancellor announced in the Budget, and we are working on exactly how it will work. The idea that it is not just the local council that should receive income and revenue streams from development is controversial in our planning system. The council has traditionally always received such income, whether through section 106 agreements or, as happens now, through the community infrastructure levy and the new homes bonus. What has not happened before is that the benefits go directly to householders. That happens in the Netherlands and other parts of continental Europe, and it seems to secure a level of consent that, as hon. Members have eloquently explained, we still do not manage to secure, even with local and neighbourhood plans. That is why the Government are undertaking this pilot, and I would very much welcome my hon. Friend’s thoughts about how it should operate, because we are devising it at the moment.
On that subject, we have decided to allocate to neighbourhoods that put in place a neighbourhood plan—I remind my hon. Friend that 1,000 communities are working on them—25%, uncapped, of all revenues from the community infrastructure levy. That will go to the community—to the parish council—to spend on community assets, community facilities and improvements to community amenities, as the community determines. That will not be decided by the council or a Minister—it will be decided by the community. That is a proper reward for the intense and usually entirely unpaid work people in places such as Kirdford and Bassett put into their neighbourhood plans.
In my urban constituency, I represent people on the housing waiting list, as well as some of the poorest areas in south-west England. The truth is that, if all the housing planned for the Cheltenham area went ahead, and it was all social housing for rent, people would be able to have three houses each. Massively more housing is being planned for our area than required by natural population growth. The developers have no interest in making it all social housing for rent—that is what Cheltenham borough council is doing in the urban areas, on brownfield sites. However, the developers have said quite explicitly to their investors in the City that they want traditional market housing; they want expensive commuter homes on greenfield sites that are cheap to build. In many areas such as ours, demand is insatiable. House prices are high because we have good jobs and good schools. Our towns have often grown enormously over decades, but that does not bring down house prices.
I am sure we would have been happy to hear a full speech from the hon. Gentleman, because he has a lot to say in representing his constituents. It is, of course, very much open to him to make such points at the examination in public of the local plan, which I know he has some difficulties with.
I want to conclude by, in a sense, warning hon. Members and, indeed, those they represent to be careful what they wish for as they approach the next election; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) referred to the simple matter of planning becoming an election issue. I say that because the alternative proposed by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and the Labour party is dramatically less localist than what we, albeit with problems—one step forward, half a step back—are trying to achieve.
The hon. Lady referred to the review the Labour party has commissioned from Sir Michael Lyons. Let me refer to an article from today’s Guardian—I am sure she will agree that The Guardian is a bible of wisdom—which quotes his speech to the Local Government Association conference in Bournemouth yesterday. The article says:
“Speaking to the LGA in Bournemouth, he said a Labour government would not be abandoning the current national planning policy framework that requires councils to make land available, and if anything it would be turning the screw on councils. He said: ‘We are breaking eggs to make omelettes. The backlog is so serious here that we have to do everything we can.’
His remarks suggest the National Planning Inspectorate will, if anything, have a bigger role in ensuring houses get built.”
The British people have a choice. It is not a choice of whether to meet our housing need and to offer the next generation what I suspect every Member of Parliament in this room enjoys—the ownership of their own home. The choice is whether we try to work with local councils and local communities, giving neighbourhoods incentives to work out what new houses they will build, or whether we allow Ministers in a Labour Government to impose decisions on them. I know which choice I will be making next May.
Health Provision (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight a number of concerns I have about the provision of health care in my constituency. I want to cover three main issues: the challenges facing my local clinical commissioning group; the provision of renal services to my constituents; and the difficulty in recruiting GPs in Kent in general and my constituency in particular.
Sittingbourne and Sheppey are covered by the Swale clinical commissioning group, which is the smallest CCG in Kent, if not in the country. Because of the way the management component of its budget is allocated on a per capita basis, its size puts Swale at a financial disadvantage compared with larger CCGs. That is a huge challenge. The Swale CCG faces a number of other challenges, and to highlight those I will explain something of the demography of Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
The population pattern of NHS Swale CCG is broadly similar to that for the rest of Kent and Medway, but in contrast to other areas it has a slightly larger proportion aged from birth to four; and a 68.1% increase is predicted in the population aged 65-plus, from 2011 to 2031. That includes, in the 85-plus group, an even greater predicted increase of 142.3%, from 2,600 to 6,300. In 2009 it was estimated that only 5.8% of the population in my constituency came from a black or minority ethnic group. However, that proportion has gone up over the past five years. In addition, the proportion of Gypsies and Travellers living in Swale is higher than in many other areas. Those things are all challenges.
In comparison with the population profile of England the NHS Swale CCG area has proportionately fewer people aged 80-plus, at the moment, but more people aged 60 to 69; and proportionately more young people under the age of 19. However, there is also a pattern of outward migration resulting in proportionately smaller age cohorts between the ages of 20 and 44. With the overall ageing of the population and predicted demographic change there will be an increase in the risk factors relating to increased chronic disease and, importantly, multiple morbidities. Life expectancy from birth in Swale is 79.3 years—the lowest among the eight Kent CCGs. That compares with 80.9 years for Kent and Medway as a whole. Within Swale there is a huge, 10-year gap between the highest and lowest life expectancy. In some more affluent areas the life expectancy is 84 years, while in our more deprived areas it is just 73.8 years. Indeed, Swale is the third most deprived district in Kent and is ranked 99 out of the 326 districts in England.
As to deprivation at the practice level, none of our GP practices is in the 40% least deprived category, but eight are in the 20% most deprived category. A number of areas in Sittingbourne and Sheppey are in the bottom 20% quintile on the national deprivation scale. That level of deprivation has been identified as contributing to lower life expectancy. The bottom 20% of the population also has a greater prevalence of preventable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancers. In addition, people in long-term deprivation have a higher risk of poor physical and mental health.
Deprivation is also associated with unhealthy behaviour such as higher smoking rates, alcohol misuse and decreased physical exercise. Health and social effects resulting from long-term deprivation including unemployment can last for years, and possibly a lifetime, because of the accumulation, through chronic stress, of factors that trigger the premature onset of chronic diseases. Thus demographic change and relative deprivation are likely to drive an increase in chronic disease, unless primary and secondary preventive measures are systematically put in place.
To add to the long-term challenges, the population of Sittingbourne and Sheppey is growing rapidly. That rise in population, the level of deprivation in my constituency, and the need to address health inequalities, were recognised by NHS England when it set the budgets for 2014-15 and 2015-16. Swale was one of 82 CCGs nationally that received an allocation above the 2.14% basic increase for all CCGs. For 2014-15 we have been allocated a 2.63% increase, compared with the average of 2.59% across Kent and Medway. That increase equates to an extra £3 million, for which we were grateful. However, I do not think that it properly reflects the challenges facing Swale CCG as it tries to square an ever widening circle of health inequality.
Swale CCG is doing its best, and working with other CCGs and health trusts it is implementing a two-year and five-year plan to transform services in the Sittingbourne and Sheppey areas. One of the key areas of work is the implementation of the Better Care Fund, under which money will be transferred from acute care to community care. The vision is to provide better care in the local community, which will reduce the need for hospital treatment. In Swale steps are already under way to transform health care. They include integrated primary care teams, which involve community nurses working with GP practices in a partnership approach to improving health care. Integrated discharge teams in Medway Maritime hospital and Darent Valley hospital, which, by the way, are not in my constituency, enable patients to leave hospital sooner by putting the support in place that they need in the community. Work is also being done with our rapid response services to provide support to patients with an acute crisis, to enable them to be managed safely in the community.
Improved dementia services will be helpful. Swale has been allocated two additional dementia nurses, bringing the total to five. They work with GPs and primary care teams to identify the support required by people with dementia. That multi-agency approach is making it possible to provide a more proactive response for people with dementia, and it links in with the enhanced services remit to which GP practices in Swale have signed up for over-75s. Of course the number of over-75s is predicted to rise dramatically in my area, so we will need more resources to cope.
In addition, changes are being planned to primary and community care and a consultation is commencing now on devising a new system for people in Swale and neighbouring areas. That consultation will consider how the out-of-hours service can be better integrated with walk-in centres and minor injury units to provide 24/7 care, with better joined-up care for local people, which will support a reduction in the number of people attending accident and emergency. Links are being built with the acute hospitals to facilitate that community-based approach.
To transform health care locally Swale and neighbouring CCGs are implementing whole-system change and have recognised that further support is needed to make it successful. Swale CCG would like support for several initiatives to enable the work it is doing to be completed to the highest quality. One of those is significant training and development for all health and social care staff, to help them adapt to the new health landscape and their roles and responsibilities, and support more clinically demanding care. Another is better engagement of all organisations in the health and social care economy, to ensure that they are signed up to the principles and vision of the transformation, and to break the silo mentality of provider organisations.
Finally, the CCG would like support for a more realistic expectation with regard to quick results, because whole-system change will take years to implement and CCGs should not be penalised, as they are under the current system, but incentivised with new payment mechanisms. Realistic expectations about the pace of change should be supported by transition funding to support the changes that are planned, which will take time to implement and embed. That will make it possible to provide support for the development of new services before the old ones are scaled back. Swale CCG is doing its bit, but it needs help.
The second health issue I want to raise relates to renal services, particularly the delivery of dialysis treatment. I have been campaigning for some time for a dialysis satellite unit to be set up in one of my two local community hospitals. I have some very sick patients who must travel to Canterbury, Maidstone or Medway for dialysis treatment. One very elderly patient who needed daily dialysis was so sick by the time she returned home from her treatment that she was unable to visit the renal unit the following day.
I will continue to campaign for a full-scale satellite dialysis unit in my constituency, but in the interim I am discussing with NHS England the installation in one of our local community hospitals of a bank of home dialysis machines that could be used by kidney patients who are suitable for home dialysis but, because they live alone or have insufficient room in their houses, are unable to make use of the service.
I appreciate that setting up a bank of supervised home dialysis machines in a local hospital will not help all renal patients in my constituency, but if only a handful are saved from having to make long and sometimes uncomfortable journeys to a distant hospital, it will be a worthwhile exercise. Local NHS England managers have so far been extremely helpful and are undertaking a feasibility study that I very much hope will prove that such a scheme is feasible. I wanted to raise this matter today not only to put on the record my thanks to those managers for their help, but to urge Ministers to consider making funds available so that similar units can be set up in all hospitals that do not have dialysis units.
I would like briefly to highlight my concerns about the difficulty of attracting GPs to our area. One of the problems is that because Sittingbourne and Sheppey is relatively close to London, it is difficult to attract young doctors because many of them prefer to work in the capital rather than to move out to the sticks. In Sittingbourne and Sheppey, the problem is becoming acute in some areas where practices are short of GPs and struggling to cope with a rising number of patients.
Swale has one of the highest patient headcounts per doctor in the country, and that will be made worse over the next three years because one in three of our GPs is expected to retire during that period. What steps can Government take to ensure that those GPs are replaced so that my constituents will continue to have access to a doctor and that waiting times to see a GP do not continue to rise?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate. He demonstrated his masterly understanding of the health challenges in his area and deep knowledge of and concern for the more deprived parts of his constituency. I thank him for that. His constituents will be grateful to know that he has such a handle on those issues.
Before I respond to some of the particular issues that my hon. Friend highlighted, I want to highlight the excellent work carried out every day by those who work in the NHS, not just in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but in mine and throughout the country. I hope we can always take the opportunity in a health debate to put on the record our thanks to hard-working NHS staff for everything they do in our constituencies.
I turn first to renal policy and particularly my hon. Friend’s local campaign. End-stage renal failure is an irreversible and long-term condition, and he was right to highlight the problems caused by more and more people living with long-term conditions, particularly when combined with other long-term conditions. It results from chronic kidney disease and needs regular dialysis treatment or transplantation.
Since 1 April 2013, NHS England has been responsible for securing high-quality care for dialysis patients as part of its specialised commissioning responsibilities. It has established a clinical reference group specifically for delivery of renal dialysis services, which brings together clinicians, commissioners and public health experts with dialysis patients and carers. It has published service specifications for both home dialysis and hospital and satellite dialysis, which my hon. Friend described. The specifications are important because they define clearly what NHS England expects to be in place for providers to offer safe and effective services. They are there to ensure equity of access in a nationally consistent, high-quality service for patients everywhere.
NHS England has recently consulted on amendments to a range of service specifications, including for renal services and dialysis. Those updated specifications are expected to be published later this year following consultation this autumn. My hon. Friend will take a great interest in that because it is obviously directly relevant to the campaigns in which he is engaged. I know that he has had meetings, and the feedback from NHS England is constructive about the excellent way in which he is engaging with it, and I am glad to hear that.
My hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of a satellite dialysis unit at Sheppey or Sittingbourne community hospital, but I gather that to date it has not been possible to provide such a unit because there is concern that not enough people in the area need that service. However, he is rightly pressing local NHS officials on that. One issue that comes into the calculation about setting up such a unit is the safe level of staffing to meet patient need, as well as viability and efficiency. Those are important calculations to ensure that any service meets needs.
The point about what I am trying to achieve is that renal services are trying desperately to get more people into home dialysis, because that is an inexpensive way of providing dialysis. All I am suggesting is that when patients cannot have it at home because they live alone, it should be available at the local hospital. I do not believe the cost should be too much of a factor.
That is a fair point and one that my hon. Friend has raised in the discussion. NHS England is exploring the possibility of a self-care unit in the area. Such units have been developed in a few places around the country and, as he outlined, those units are particularly useful for people who can get themselves on and off machines or bring carers with them to help because they tend not to be staffed units. It is similar to home dialysis but, as he rightly said, can be used by people whose homes are not suitable for that.
I encourage my hon. Friend to continue the discussions. I met local NHS officials yesterday and encouraged them to continue to keep in regular touch on the matter. I understand that the area director for Kent and Medway will write to my hon. Friend shortly following his recent meeting. I would be happy if he kept me informed of how the discussion goes because I am interested in it.
My hon. Friend rightly highlighted in great detail a particular challenge with local funding. Obviously, the Government have protected the overall health budget for the NHS in England and NHS England in turn has ensured that every clinical commissioning group in England will continue to benefit from stable real-terms funding in the next two years. Reflecting changes in population around the country and better targeting is key. Something that often comes across my desk as public health Minister is the challenge of getting that right where there are pockets of deprivation, particularly deep deprivation, in areas that might not flash up on the radar when looking at how resources are meted out. We want the NHS to be in a good position to offer the best services to patients where they can do the most good and meet need. Responsibility for CCG allocation rests with NHS England, but the Government’s mandate to NHS England makes it clear that equal access for equal need is at the heart of the approach to allocation.
NHS England’s decisions in December last year mean that over the next two years every CCG should receive real-terms funding growth. The purpose of doing that for the next two years instead of just one was to try to provide stability and certainty so that local commissioners can plan services. The sort of issues that my hon. Friend highlighted and the long-tem problems associated with deprivation, such as co-morbidity, over-indexing on smoking and so on, need stability of commissioning because they need long-tem consistent intervention in many cases to ensure that we are meeting patients’ needs. That means that every CCG will receive cash growth in funding of at least 3.9% over the next two years, and those with the fastest-growing populations will get more. Swale CCG’s funding allocation increase of 2.63% in 2014-15 is just above the national average and its increase of 2.05% in 2015-16 is just below the national average. That real-terms growth was given to all as a minimum of 2.14% in 2014-15 and 1.7% in 2015-16.
In order that the issue is looked at objectively, free from political considerations, the Health and Social Care Act 2012 made how health funding is allocated between different areas a responsibility of NHS England. NHS England has taken an evidence-based approach that balances the demands of growing populations and looks at historical underfunding, which is probably one of my hon. Friend’s great concerns, and at maintaining stability.
NHS England has also decided to leave the weight given to the inequalities indicator unchanged at 10%. The new indicator has less variation in it than the old indicator when looking at variation across CCGs, and it is now able to pick up pockets of deprivation within CCGs. That adjustment should favour my hon. Friend’s area for the very reasons that he outlined, and NHS England has accepted the advice it has been given by an independent committee that that is a better measure of inequality for this purpose.
NHS England’s consultation on the impact of the new formula earlier in the year did not have an inequalities weighting at all, which led some people to jump to the wrong conclusion, but it does not reflect the final decision, which is to include an indicator of inequality with a weighting of 10%. They are finely balanced judgments, particularly around the progress of the pace of change towards the right amount for a particular area.
While the Minister is talking about the funding and the formulas, I point out that there is an anomaly, which goes back to the dialysis treatment. The CCG is not responsible for the commissioning of dialysis, so it cannot control where the patients go, but it is responsible for funding the transport of those patients to the hospitals. It seems a bit of an anomaly that the CCG has no control over where the patients go, but is expected to fund the transport. I wonder whether that could be looked at.
It is a fair point, and I will ask the NHS team in my hon. Friend’s area to consider that as part of his ongoing discussions with it. As I said, getting the funding formulas right is not a perfect science, but the new formula is more responsive to pockets of deprivation. However, he has highlighted some challenges around smaller CCGs in a fair way.
My hon. Friend also highlighted issues and concerns about GP recruitment, and I know he has raised them before. A number of GPs in Swale are due to retire in the next few years. That is a challenge we see elsewhere in the country, and it has also been reported that Swale has a higher ratio of patients per GP than some other areas, so we recognise that that is a potential challenge. GPs work hard and do a vital job, so we are all concerned about making sure that we have the right number of GPs in our area. At a national level, despite a decrease in headcount, there has been a small increase of 1.2% in full-time equivalent GPs since 2012, and the number of practice nurses and other practice staff has also grown. My hon. Friend talked about the great public health challenges, such as co-morbidities, and there are many things that practice nurses increasingly deliver and their interventions can be extremely effective.
However, we recognise that the work force need to grow to meet rising demand. In our mandate to Health Education England, we have required it to ensure that 50% of trainee doctors enter GP training programmes by 2016. The Government will also be working with NHS England, Health Education England and the professions to consider how we improve recruitment, retention and return to practice in primary and community care. That is something that my ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), is very closely considering and is engaged in active discussions on.
I understand that the Kent and Medway area team from NHS England are working closely with the local CCGs, GP practices and HEE to improve the overall recruitment and retention levels of qualified doctors entering general practice as a specialty. I also understand that Swale clinical commissioning group has set up the north Kent education, research and innovation hub, which met in June and is meeting bi-monthly. The hub will be looking, at a local level in particular, at what needs to be done to address expected shortages. That is right because, with the best will in the world, these things cannot be solved with a grand plan in the centre. We also need to address some of the local issues and some are very granular with regard to what can help to attract GPs to particular areas. It is right that that is being done at a local level.
In the few minutes remaining, I want to touch on proposals for out-patient care, because, again, my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey highlighted the value of early intervention and community health services, and of keeping people well in their own homes. In particular, as well as being good for individuals, that takes pressure off A and Es. We do not want to see routine conditions presenting in A and E at an acute stage, so it is really important that we get out-patient care right.
Proposals in my hon. Friend’s area include consolidating services into six co-ordinated out-patient clinics from the current 15 sites. The benefits of that include value for money from modern facilities and equipment, a wider choice of appointment times, and a greater ability to perform enhanced diagnosis—the Government have made early diagnosis a real priority; far too many conditions are still being diagnosed at an acute stage in A and E, so early diagnosis is critical. A greater proportion of his local population will also be within 20 minutes of an out-patient appointment, which is important. The East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust is working with the NHS Canterbury and Coastal clinical commissioning group in consultation. A public consultation on out-patient services was completed in spring this year. I know that my hon. Friend will have been very engaged with that and that those proposals have now been brought forward.
A number of other workstreams are in place to address the issues that my hon. Friend outlined. I encourage him to talk with the public health directors in local authorities. The public health lead now sits in local authorities, and I am seeing some great innovation around the country from local authorities and directors of public health to address some of the really deep-seated challenges that he outlined. Many of the figures that we are seeing for public health are going in the right direction at a population level, but they often mask what is happening with smaller sub-groups of the population, for whom the figures are not moving in such promising directions. That is exactly what my hon. Friend was describing, so along with all the other people he is engaging with, I encourage him to make sure he engages with directors of public health and, in particular, the local Public Health England teams.
My hon. Friend should ask them what they are seeing in areas around the country that is really working. Some of the places I have visited, with similar demographic challenges and similar public health challenges, are piloting interventions that are really effective. One of the great opportunities of more devolved public health is that it gives rise to local innovation, and we see that imaginative approach being brought to bear by people who really know their populations. However, one slight challenge is how we identify good and emerging best practice and ensure that we get it promoted more widely. I encourage my hon. Friend to ask questions of his local public health specialists, and in terms of the population challenges he faces, he should ask about things that are being piloted elsewhere that might effectively be brought into his area.
I end by congratulating my hon. Friend again on being a really effective champion with regard to the local health challenges his community face. It is great to see a constituency Member with such a grasp on the range of challenges. I often respond to debates on the reconfiguration of bricks and mortar, but understanding the deep health challenges that a particular population face, and doing so at a granular level, is also really important in how we shape services for the future, so I congratulate him on that. His constituents have a great champion in Parliament for their health needs. I am very happy to continue to engage with him, and I encourage NHS England in his area and his CCGs to continue the constructive dialogue that they have had—and continue to have—to provide the best services to his constituents.
Srebrenica Massacre Anniversary
[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I very much welcome the opportunity to mark this week’s annual Srebrenica memorial day in the United Kingdom. First, I declare for the record that I visited Bosnia in February as part of a visit arranged and funded by the Remembering Srebrenica charity, which, as the Minister is aware, is supported by the UK Government.
Just over a week ago, we marked the 100th anniversary of the key event that prompted the descent into the outbreak of world war one. It was appropriate that, when we visited Sarajevo, our city tour passed the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. That reminded us, first, that Bosnia is a country at the heart of modern European history and, secondly, that it is one that, sadly, has known conflict and strife over a prolonged period, both before and following the momentous events of world war one. The scars of conflict often remain for generations. Our visit was not only about commemorating the dead, but about how we could build a lasting legacy, both in Bosnia and at home, that would work to heal those scars and prevent further conflict.
It is heartening to witness the strong cross-party support, evidenced by the hon. Members present, for the excellent work of Remembering Srebrenica, together with the financial and diplomatic assistance provided by the Government. Last night, along with colleagues, I had the pleasure of attending the memorial event at Lancaster house, at which the President of Bosnia and Herzegovina was present, along with the Mothers of Srebrenica. A similar event is being hosted on Friday this week by the Scottish Government in Edinburgh.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady secured this debate. It is very heartening to see people across the political parties taking an interest in it. She has highlighted the commemorative event last night at Lancaster house. It was addressed by President Izetbegovic and attended by Baroness Warsi, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Minister and many others.
The hon. Lady also highlighted the fact that there will be a commemorative event in Edinburgh this week, hosted by the Scottish Government Minister Humza Yousaf. Does she agree with me that this instance of Governments, politicians and charities such as Remembering Srebrenica, doing tremendous work, is a model? Would it not be helpful for other European countries that have pledged to mark the tragedy in Srebrenica to look at what is happening across the nations, regions, towns, cities and communities of the UK to mark this important date, and to try to follow that model in the years to come?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who accompanied me on the visit in February. Following the passing of the resolution by the European Union in 2009, and given the problems within Europe—I will touch on those later—it would be very helpful for other countries to look at the good practice being followed across the United Kingdom. I know that the delegation will also be visiting Cardiff and Birmingham as part of its week of visits to see the good work being done by the charitable sector and by central and local government across the country.
Srebrenica’s fate in July 1995 continues to haunt us as the starkest failure in Europe’s history post-world war two. It was not, of course, the only massacre in the long and bloody war, which lasted more than four years, following the collapse of Yugoslavia, but it was by far the largest and most calculated in its planning, its execution and in the subsequent attempts at cover-up.
Following months of constant siege and the failure of the Dutch UN peacekeeping force to safeguard the population, the Bosnian Serb forces took control of the town on 11 July 1995. A day later, on 12 July, women and children were evacuated from the town while Bosnian Serb forces began separating out all men between the ages of 12 and 77 for
“interrogation for suspected war crimes”.
The night before, about 15,000 Bosnian Muslim men had attempted to escape from the town and were shelled and shot at as they fled through the mountains. It was basically a walk of terror and death, which for many of them lasted over five days. In the five days after the Bosnian Serb forces overran Srebrenica, more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed. Many of the bodies were buried in hastily dug mass graves, but following the unintended release of US satellite photographs showing the location of a number of the sites, a gruesome and chaotic reburial was organised, scattering body parts in many cases over multiple sites in the heavily wooded hills surrounding the town.
As we discovered on our visit in February to the International Commission on Missing Persons, it was only after the possibility of using DNA technology just over a decade ago, and the taking of tens of thousands of samples from the surviving family members of those who were massacred, that substantial numbers of the victims could be properly identified and interred with the respect and dignity that they deserved.
Nineteen years after the massacre, a number of Bosnian Serb leaders have been indicted for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The two most prominent—Radovan Karadzic, the former President, and Ratko Mladic, the military leader—remain on trial to this day at The Hague.
In February, I travelled to Bosnia with five fellow Scots: the Very Reverend Lorna Hood, who was then moderator of the Church of Scotland; the Church’s director of communications, Seonag MacKinnon; the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson); Sergeant David Hamilton from the Scottish Police Federation; and David Pratt, the foreign affairs editor at the Sunday Herald. We were met with warmth and friendliness at all our meetings, including with the Grand Mufti and the remarkable Mothers of Srebrenica, who have fought so hard to ensure that their dreadful loss does not vanish from our memories. However, there was an overwhelming sense that this was a country and people too long stuck in an uncomfortable limbo, relying on a bare ceasefire agreement that halted the killing but has failed to address the main problems that the country faces. The presidential palace had been firebombed the week before our visit, and protests were continuing, as we witnessed on our visit.
The Dayton agreement was never designed to be a permanent solution. Twenty years later, that agreement has institutionalised the factionalism that over the years has led to the current political impasse. In my role as vice-chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which has worked extensively in the region for many years, I am only too aware of how the current overloaded bureaucracy throttles political progress and leaves many in Bosnia giving up hope of finding a better alternative.
Understandably, attention in the European Union during the past few months has focused on the emerging conflict in Ukraine, but I argue that there is a clear need, post the May European Union elections, for a much greater focus on finding a long-term political solution for Bosnia.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. Does she agree that it is important that we keep Bosnia and Herzegovina high on the agenda? Obviously, as chairman of the all-party group for Bosnia and Herzegovina, I have visited it many times, and I visited previously with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I will visit it again in a couple of weeks with Lady Warsi to do some refurbishment of a rape crisis centre outside Sarajevo. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that we keep up these visits and that we make them as often as we can, to ensure that Bosnia is high on the political agenda?
I entirely agree. I know that the hon. Lady has done a lot of good work personally in this area, both in her current position and in her work previously with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
When a country comes off our TV screens and out of our newspapers, it is all too easy for us to forget and think that the situation has been solved, but that is not what is happening in this case. I visited Croatia the year before, and the difference in tone and approach that I witnessed in Croatia and Bosnia was stark. That drove home to me the need for us to ensure that this issue is a foreign policy priority.
While I was in Bosnia, I met a senior female member of the Social Democratic party, one of the Labour party’s sister parties. She stressed that the engagement of the international community was vital in creating the necessary momentum and support for change in the political process.
The Westminster Foundation, as the hon. Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) is aware, has been working to encourage the development of secular political parties, particularly in work with young people and women. I believe that the encouragement of a secular political landscape should still be a key part of the United Kingdom’s contribution.
Does the hon. Lady agree with me on another potential benefit, in addition to those she has mentioned, of greater international interest in Bosnia and Herzegovina? I am sure she is as shocked as I am by the repeated voices that one hears from Republika Srpska denying holocaust, appearing to justify ethnic cleansing and opposing the idea of Bosnia and Herzegovina thriving as a state with a place for all peoples and offering a better future for all regardless of their faith or ethnic background. Does she agree that it is important to shine a light on the darker recesses of extreme politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure that it can move towards a better European future for all in that country?
The hon. Gentleman touches on a point that the President of Bosnia and Herzegovina raised in his speech to us last night at Lancaster house. All political parties and leaders in Europe, particularly in this region, are beholden to do what he describes as they address conflicting views. The understandable reaction of the Bosniak population to the threatening tone and manner that has been adopted is one of great concern. It is important that the United Kingdom and other members of the European Union clearly state that such language and tone in the debate are completely unacceptable.
As the hon. Member for Moray is aware, we met the Grand Mufti, who spoke about the long history of links among the country’s faith groups—Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish. However, outside Sarajevo and its main towns, those links are becoming increasingly threadbare, with little direct contact between the different communities. The current structures have encouraged separation. Young people attend separate schools, and they grow up with little or no contact with their Bosniak, Croat or Serbian neighbours. Economic stagnation, overwhelming and corrupt bureaucracy and high unemployment have meant that many have already left. The prospect of European Union membership since the global recession appears even more distant, and the lack of political will to change has led to despair, which we have witnessed in this year’s protests.
Constitutional amendments to break down administrative silos are one thing and an economic plan with outside support is another, but the lack of any proper grass-roots reconciliation process after such a long period is probably the greatest challenge that needs to be addressed if one nation is truly to emerge from the grim civil war. I note that since our visit, there have been a few encouraging signs of communities trying to come together outside the established but separate networks, and I hope that the Minister can give us some indication of how the Government hope to assist that process over the coming weeks and months.
In our conversations with the Mothers of Srebrenica, there was strong criticism of the International Criminal Tribunal. The delay in apprehending key figures, which we all know about, and the length and cost of proceedings, contrasted uneasily with the original claims that justice would be achieved for the victims and their families. The tribunal was the first of its kind, and undoubtedly, despite the acknowledged problems, it was an important step forward in setting international standards.
The Mothers of Srebrenica spoke eloquently about the failure, domestically and internationally, adequately to attend to the equally important need to provide justice locally. Few cases have been taken against those who directly carried out the dreadful murders over many agonising hours or undertook the burials and reburial of the victims. We learned that at least one of the direct participants in the massacres is currently employed at a senior level in the local regional government, which covers the town itself. We were frankly astonished to find that the Serb population is still using a school that was a site of one of the massacres, where many hundreds were killed.
We all need to learn the lessons about what has happened in Bosnia when we consider our current and future work in post-conflict states. International tribunals will, of course, continue to play an important part in justice, but truth and reconciliation at the grass roots is equally important in giving people permission to move on without disrespect to those who have lost their lives in such dreadful circumstances. Our meeting with the impressive International Commission on Missing Persons, established in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, reinforced the fear that too little attention was being paid to the increasingly open genocide deniers, whom the hon. Member for Moray has mentioned. The ICMP still faces regular challenges by Bosnian and Serbian politicians about the probity of its evidence.
The ICMP maintains the world’s largest DNA laboratory system dedicated exclusively to identifying missing persons. It works worldwide and is currently assisting in parts of the middle east afflicted by conflict. I am sure that its workload will continue to grow, given current events in the region. The focus of much of its work over the past 18 years in the former Yugoslavia has been to produce consistent, incontrovertible evidence to counter those who seek to deny. The ICMP’s record speaks for itself: 70% of the 40,000 missing from the Yugoslavian conflicts, and almost 90% of those reported missing from Srebrenica, have now been accounted for.
As a Glasgow MP, it was a great pleasure to meet Adam Boys, the ICMP’s director of international programmes, who is originally from Glasgow and has worked in Bosnia for many years, together with Dr John Clark, who has been the chief pathologist for the International Criminal Tribunal and who lives a few hundred yards from me in Glasgow. The UK Government have been a consistent and strong supporter of that work from the outset, and I hope that we can be confident that that support will continue.
As the Minister is aware, the charity Remembering Srebrenica is holding a series of events across the United Kingdom this week to commemorate the anniversary, as well as organising visits to Bosnia for young people so that they can become advocates in their local communities. The charity’s work and obvious passion have been rightly commended by many Members, and it has made many friends in Bosnia.
In an age when xenophobia and racism can all too quickly spring up, and where people are regularly urged to retreat behind domestic borders, it is essential that communities throughout the United Kingdom have the opportunity to learn more about the history that surrounded events in Srebrenica and why that history is relevant to their lives. The chair of Remembering Srebrenica, Dr Waqar Azmi, who conducted last night’s commemoration, pointed out:
“If the xenophobic claims of ethnic superiority could prevail amongst white, indigenous people who are assimilated and have lived together for hundreds of years, what chance do ethnic minority communities have in Europe?”
That is a question that we all need to address. It is vital that we do not forget why a country in our own continent fell into such a disastrous and brutal civil war. The sad truth is that the cost of conflict can continue for many decades after the guns stop.
We need to invest politically and financially in a process that embeds reconciliation and provides local as well as international justice. If we have not succeeded so far, we must be determined to keep trying. The 7,000 men and boys who died in July 1995 deserve nothing less.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this debate, which is timely in many ways. As she rightly says, we have to remember the circumstances surrounding the events at Srebrenica, and coming as it does 100 years after the events in Bosnia that led to the outbreak of the first world war, the anniversary of those events is particularly timely and ominous.
My visit to Srebrenica was probably one of the most moving experiences in my life, and the relative peace and tranquillity of the area belies the horrors that happened there. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the first world war, and we all notice that on the memorial plaques in our own constituencies, the same names appear over and over again. From the list of names on the memorial in Srebrenica, we see just how many people lost a large number of relatives from the same family. Does that not serve to show the real horror that occurred in those few days?
That is absolutely true. It is in the nature of genocidal attacks to be targeted at particular communities, and in those communities the losses—not only on a large scale but at the level of individuals and families—can be almost unimaginable. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point that out.
The events that led to the outbreak of world war one in the Balkans were in many ways characterised by their unpredictability. The emerging, growing Serb state was covertly attempting to destabilise the Austro-Hungarian empire and had calculated that helping assassins to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand would not precipitate a whole-scale catastrophe for Serbia. That was a miscalculation, and Austria responded by issuing Serbia with an impossible ultimatum. Unexpectedly for Austria, that drew in Russia, which led to the involvement of Germany, France and, ultimately, this country.
The unpredictability of events was part of the July crisis that led to the outbreak of the first world war; what is almost more horrifying about Srebrenica is its very predictability. There was not only the massacre of those few days in July 1995; there had been a siege for years before and people had been starving to death. Ethnic cleansing had been happening in hundreds of villages around the region as part of the strategic attempt to establish a Serb republic. The humanitarian disaster was already looming, even before the massacre, and the international community was well aware of it.
More than two years previously, in April 1993, UN resolution 819 was passed, establishing Srebrenica and its immediate area as a safe haven in the Yugoslav conflict. The people of Srebrenica were assured repeatedly that they were absolutely safe and that the UN troops, with Dutch and French commanders, would stand by them. I know that those commanders have come under intense scrutiny in the subsequent decades, but it was clear that they were trying to secure close air support at the time of the massacre. On one astonishing occasion, that support was refused because someone had filled in the request on the wrong form.
The implications of the massacre in Srebrenica and the way it was handled by the international community were significant not just for Bosnia but for the United Nations system and the whole international community. I think it was in 1999 that Kofi Annan’s report on the UN’s performance had to accept that, along with the international community as a whole, the UN bore huge responsibility for what happened in Srebrenica. In a way, the ghosts of Srebrenica would haunt the United Nations for many years to come.
After that came the development of the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. It was first and foremost an obligation on sovereign Governments and those in power in various regions to protect their own citizens. The development of the idea of the responsibility to protect gained ground not only because of what happened in Bosnia but because of what happened in Rwanda only about a year before, and because of what subsequently threatened to happen in Kosovo when NATO intervened to try to avoid a further humanitarian disaster. The emergence of the idea of the responsibility to protect—that the international community could not simply stand by and let events happen with such terrible consequences—has helped to shape the whole international system ever since.
It has, however, taken some time for the responsibility to protect to be used explicitly in UN resolutions. It was used in UN resolution 1970 on Libya in February 2011 —one of the rare occasions on which there has been consensus in the UN, the political will to act and the knowledge of an emerging humanitarian disaster—and mentioned again in UN resolution 1996 on South Sudan, but those are isolated examples.
It is difficult to achieve the necessary political unanimity, especially now in a Security Council that has become broadly polarised between the western permanent members on one side and China and Russia on the other—they are now much more reluctant to license what they see as western intervention following what they saw as the west going too far in Libya. We must ask ourselves serious questions about whether the international system is still working and about what reforms to the UN system might be needed in order to uphold the responsibility to protect.
It is now quite a long time since Srebrenica, and it is beginning to fade into people’s memories; or at least it is outside Bosnia—it is still very real in the minds of people in Bosnia, as Members have said. We must remember Srebrenica, just as we must remember Rwanda and the other occasions on which the international community failed to protect ordinary men, women and children and allowed intolerable massacres to take place.
We must decide how we are going to reform the United Nations, how we are going to bring together the international community to be able to take action, and how we can generate the political will to say that sometimes we do have to take action and there does have to be military intervention. With hindsight, we tend to celebrate the intervention in Kosovo and think of it as justifiable. In generous moments, most people would say that the invasion of Afghanistan—the NATO and allied intervention there—was justified and has established something of a stable state, although there are people who will question that.
However, what I see as a much more freelance action in the invasion of Iraq is clearly much more questionable. That did enormous damage to the ability of the international community to take action, because it was done on a much more unilateral or bilateral basis, principally by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair on our part. That undermined the potential for international action in subsequent international crises and has terminally damaged the reputation of that kind of intervention. In the vote on Syria last summer we saw the shadow of Iraq hanging over the debate to a large extent. The fear of getting embroiled again was still very much alive.
Nevertheless, we must remember the Srebrenicas, the Bosnias and the Rwandas. We have to work out how we can intervene effectively as an international community and learn the lesson of what happened in those dreadful days. When it comes to the situation now developing in Syria and Iraq, the lesson is that although action and mistaken interventions have consequences, so too does inaction. There was inaction in failing to support an effective political settlement in Iraq that did not alienate the Sunni population to the extent that they welcomed ISIS with open arms when it appeared to be liberating them. There was inaction in failing to support the democratic forces in Syria to the point where they were a credible opposition to President Assad and an alternative to the extremist jihadi elements there. Inaction, as well as action, has its consequences.
The ultimate lesson of Srebrenica is that inaction sometimes has terrible consequences. We need to work out the ground rules and the overarching strategy, as well as the international community’s response and the framework for that response. That way, when these events start to develop—not when they are unpredictable like the first world war, but when they can be seen years in advance, developing in front of all our eyes and the glare of the international media—we must be able to take action, or otherwise see more deaths like those at Srebrenica.
In conclusion, I welcome what the hon. Member for Glasgow North said about xenophobia and racism. We are living in difficult economic times, and in such times it is always easy to blame those who speak differently or look different from ourselves. We have seen elements of that in British politics and in politics across Europe in the recent European election campaign, but we must guard against that kind of xenophobia and racism. Ultimately, it is only through tolerance and reconciliation that we can prevent these kinds of disasters from taking place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing the debate and on the content of her speech. She set out what happened, but also the lessons to be learned and, like the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), told us what we should be watching out for, especially bearing in mind what is happening across Europe.
Members might be aware that I am the chair of the all-party group on commemorating Srebrenica. I want to commemorate the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. My interest in Bosnia and Yugoslavia arises from having worked for the United Nations mission in Kosovo between 2000 and 2002, just after the NATO bombing of Serbia. While I was in Kosovo, I had the opportunity to speak to different people and heard about the genocide from some of the victims’ family members.
The background to the massacre is the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s, which, as we all know, led to the conflict. That war sparked numerous atrocities and attempts at ethnic cleansing, such as the mass rape of women, which the United Nations has said can be described as a war crime. Studies have shown that something in the region of 20,000 to 50,000 Bosniak Muslim women were raped by Serb forces and abused for many months.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North said earlier, many atrocities occurred. I think about 100,000 Muslims in total died in the whole Yugoslav conflict, but the reason why we are concentrating on Srebrenica is because of the way it happened—its deliberate manner and the fact that people were taken into this particular area, a UN safe haven. This was not a situation, such as that in Libya or Iraq, where one does not know what is happening on the ground and difficult decisions have to be made as to whether to go in without knowing what the consequences might be; here was a clear case of a group of 8,000-odd men and young boys deliberately being taken into a safe area. What makes it even more horrendous, and it reminds me a bit of what happened in Rwanda, was that there were—I stand to be corrected—Belgian, Canadian and Dutch troops there who were supposed to protect those people, but failed to do anything about it. That is what is truly shocking. It was not a case of, “Shall we intervene?”; they knew that people were being massacred, and they stood by and did nothing.
So far, we have not had an apology from those countries, saying, “This is what our armed forces failed to do.” There has been no apology from anyone. As has already been mentioned, everyone knew what was happening there. Years before the massacre, people knew what has happening, and everyone failed to protect the victims. One thing that is sometimes forgotten is that it was not just a case of 8,000 people being massacred in one go, but the failure of people who should have been there to protect them.
To be fair to the Dutch commander, Colonel Karremans, by the accounts I have read, I think he was committed to try to protect Srebrenica and the people there. It was the failure of the UN to deliver close air support, which he repeatedly requested, that effectively doomed his troops. His troops did engage with Serb forces at times. They had had hostages taken and were in a difficult position—almost impossible militarily. It was the failure of the overall UN command to deliver air support that doomed his mission.
That may be one explanation given, but I think the hon. Gentleman would find that most people who were there would not agree with that version of events. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is a former colonel who was in Bosnia at the time. I happened to talk to him a couple of days ago. He was there just before the massacre. He said that he had asked for British troops to remain and said that they should not be taken away, but regrettably, they were removed. Apparently, he passed on his sentiments—as we have all come to know, he is clear in his views and would express them forcefully—that it was not right that those other forces should be there. He gave an example of the Belgian logistics team asking for British troops to protect them while they carried out a logistics operation. What were the Belgian troops doing to try to protect their own? They had to call the British Army in to protect them. I think it is quite well known internationally that some armies and forces are much braver and more willing to do things. [Interruption.] I know that I am verging on controversial territory, but some forces perhaps tend to take the path of least resistance. That is exactly what we saw in Rwanda.
As someone who has been there, does the hon. Lady think that, whatever the rights and wrongs of Dutch or NATO troops, for any European who saw the Serbs separate men and boys from women alarm bells must have been set off about the past of this so-called civilised continent we live on?
That is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman puts it even better than I have. That is the point I am trying to make. It was so obvious what was happening. Everyone knew. I would go as far as to say that people turned a blind eye to what was happening. It was like, “We couldn’t care less about these people.” Exactly the same happened in Rwanda as well, where troops from certain countries also turned a blind eye, and a whole load of massacres took place there.
The world at large needs to know what happened, as do the continent of Europe and people in our country. It is regrettable that although it was a few years ago that the European Parliament passed a resolution to say that the anniversary should be appropriately commemorated in all European countries, only in the last year or two have commemorations taken place. The first commemoration happened last year in Lancaster house, and this is the second year. I organised a book of signatures yesterday in the Members’ Cloak Room, and I am pleased to say that 160 hon. Members signed the book in one day. Obviously, people in this House understand and appreciate the matter.
I know that the Department for Communities and Local Government has been doing some work and has contributed some money to allow such events to happen, but the matter needs to be taken even more seriously. Councils and organisations throughout the United Kingdom need to be aware of it, and we should ensure that people know about it. First, it is a way of recognising what has happened. Secondly, it is a reminder of what can go wrong. After the second world war and the genocide of the Jewish people, we thought that such things could not happen again—certainly not in mainland Europe—only to find, just 19 years ago, that such things did occur again.
Last night at Lancaster house, one of the most striking sentiments I heard was one of the mothers saying, “I am not going to say ‘never again’, because people said that after the second world war, and here we are; we suffered it again.” We all say those words, but they are not good enough, are they? We need far more action.
I absolutely agree. I was there at the memorial service. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
I want to pick up on something the hon. Member for Cheltenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North said about attempts to prevent such things from happening again. I declare an interest, although I am sure it is completely irrelevant, because it is not because I am Muslim that I am making this point, and many colleagues and friends have made this point already. At the moment, in our country—I do not think for one minute that it will lead to that sort of level—if we look at media coverage in television, the newspapers and front-page headlines, 99.9% of the coverage is anti-Muslim. A lot of the media publish complete lies on their front pages. For example, there was the Muslim plot to kill the Pope—a complete lie. There was also the story about Muslims wanting Muslim toilets at public expense—a complete lie. It goes on and on.
Independent research carried out by a number of universities has shown that the constant negativity, the made-up stories and the media not telling the truth, or not putting things in context, has given a lot of people a bad understanding of Muslims and their religion. All religions have questions to answer, and there are things in all of them that can be looked at, but concentrating on one group of people and telling lies about them is really wrong.
A recent survey showed that 33% of people think Muslims are not really right for this country, that their religion is not appropriate and that they do not belong here. I feel very offended, because, although I was not born in England, I was brought up here, and this is my country. There are 3 million Muslims out there, but they are all being slated because of the actions of a few.
A lot of people in some parts of this country have never come across a Muslim, a black person or an Asian. Any information they have about a particular religion, group, culture or community will come from what they read in the paper. The images and information they have will be formed by that, as opposed to by meeting people.
In that respect, it is great that we have free speech and a free press, but people should show some responsibility. This hatred perpetuated towards particular groups leads to events such as those in Bosnia or in the second world war. If we look at some of the information and literature put out by the Germans and the Nazis, we see that the words used against the Jewish people were very similar to those being used against Muslim people in this country. In Bosnia and Yugoslavia, a lot of hatred also built up against different groups.
That is why responsibility has to be exercised by not only our media, but our political leaders. Some of them have said things that perpetuate the image of Islam as being somehow inconsistent with the British or the western way of life. That is a wrong narrative, and it needs to be addressed.
I hope I am forgiven for digressing slightly, but it is important to mention this issue, because hatred against a particular group does not just happen overnight. Somebody does not suddenly say, “Right, tomorrow we are going to kill this group of people.” Good, decent people are subjected to certain images and ideas, they get caught up in the frenzy of it all and atrocities happen. I am sure some people in Bosnia now think—years later, when they have had time to think about things—“God, what did we do?” People get carried away; the human mind is very susceptible. That is why we have to be careful.
The Government have done some good work on this issue, but I ask the Department to do even more. If the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister could be at next year’s holocaust memorial event, that would certainly send some messages.
I want to speak briefly, because it is important that people reading the debate realise there is all-party support for the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) and for what she has done today.
This is an important debate, partly because it is a memorial debate—there is not much we can do about these incidents, but we can talk about them. Often in our debates, we ask for finance, for something for the health service or for education. Occasionally, however, it is right that we in the House of Commons remember what happened in the past, even though there is little we can do about it. In that way, we can, I hope, draw some lessons.
I have been to Sarajevo and stood at the corner where Franz Ferdinand was shot, and it is extraordinary to be at that place, which is on the cusp of history. Oceans of print have been written about what caused the assassination and the catastrophe that engulfed Europe in the years following. A lot has also been said in the debate about the responsibility of the Dutch and the Belgian troops—what they did and did not do—but we miss the point if we focus too much on that.
Ultimately, what happened was not the fault of the Dutch or the Belgian troops; it was the fault of the people who conducted the massacre—they were the evil ones. The debate is important because it acknowledges that, somewhere in our human condition, there is a streak of evil, which can spring up in the most unlikely places and in all people. The point of this debate is surely to affirm a very simple principle, which I can articulate and then sit down: we are all part of one humanity.
I would certainly like to associate myself with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh).
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) for securing the debate. I was saddened to hear about her conversations with the Mothers of Srebrenica and about their criticisms of the delay in apprehending perpetrators. As she rightly says, that sits badly with the original claims about achieving justice for the victims and their families. I was genuinely shocked to hear that one of the direct participants in the massacres has a senior job in the regional government and that a school that was the site of one of the massacres is still being used as a school. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that truth and reconciliation in affected communities is so important in giving survivors permission to move on with their lives.
As we have heard today, 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys lost their lives in a criminal, genocidal frenzy. Women and girls were brutally and systematically raped as an act of war. It is almost impossible to begin to understand what the justification for that could be—I find it completely incomprehensible. These things happened in Europe, just 19 years ago.
Let us remind ourselves a little of the background. In his well considered and measured speech, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) rightly took us back to UN Security Council resolution 819, which designated the 30 square miles around the town of Srebrenica as a United Nations safe area. The resolution condemned Bosnian Serb attacks on the UN peacekeeping force, their interception of humanitarian assistance convoys and their deliberate actions to force the evacuation of the civilian population. It demanded the immediate withdrawal of Bosnian Serb forces from the area surrounding Srebrenica—a relatively small town—and requested the safe transfer of wounded and sick civilians. It required both sides in the conflict to demilitarise the town, but this they failed to do.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations requested additional military support, which was not forthcoming. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) passionately recounted, the failure of United Nations member states contributed to the inability to maintain the safe area.
Srebrenica fell to Serb forces on 11 July 1995, prompting a stream of refugees to the UN bases at Potocari and Tuzla. A mortar and tank attack on the UN base made it undefendable. By the end of the day, the Bosnian Serbs were in control of the whole area. On arriving, they began to separate off all the men and boys aged between 12 and 77. A column of 15,000 people fled towards the town of Tuzla, but it was pursued and shelled. A thousand of those who were fleeing were killed that day, but over the following 72 hours the captured Muslim men and boys were marched to killing fields for execution.
Nineteen years on, some of those responsible have been brought to trial and held to account for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide; but reconciliation is a complex process that takes place within communities and across generations. It takes time, honesty and determination to achieve it. As I prepared for today’s speech I recalled a similar debate earlier in the year for Holocaust memorial day. I, like many others, remembered how after the second world war we said “Never again,” and set up the United Nations to promote international peace and security; yet we have still witnessed outrageous atrocities around the world.
In the days immediately following the Srebrenica massacres this House met and heard accounts of the events. MPs discussed the role of the United Nations peacekeeping force, the circumstances in which the UN force fled the safe zone it had created around Srebrenica, and what provision was to be made for the thousands who had been displaced and who were in need of urgent help. Srebrenica showed us that the United Nations needs access to effective military capability, and needs to demonstrate willingness to act. Srebrenica was one of six UN safe areas. Those who were gathered in the designated safe haven around Srebrenica had, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East said, the right to expect that the United Nations would keep them safe.
In 2010, on the 15th anniversary, President Barack Obama said:
“This atrocity galvanized the international community to act to end the slaughter of civilians, and the name Srebrenica has since served as a stark reminder of the need for the world to respond resolutely in the face of evil.”
It is clear, with hindsight, that the international community should have intervened in Bosnia before Srebrenica. We should have been more resolute in our actions, once there, and should have provided the protection we were there to ensure. The Opposition have made clear our support for a strengthened United Nations that can intervene and uphold its commitment to maintaining international peace and security.
On Friday, when we mark Srebrenica memorial day and remember the victims and their families, we must renew the pledge of “Never again,” and renew our commitment to educating the present and future generations, so that history does not continue to repeat itself. I congratulate the Government on their commitment to remembering Srebrenica, and on their focus on fighting the forces that drive genocide. Last year’s funding of £170,000 was a welcome and important step. It established the UK’s first memorial day, created a dedicated online archive, and sent community leaders on visits to Srebrenica. The £800,000 that the Government have pledged for this year and next year, which will be matched by the charity Remembering Srebrenica, will ensure that the project develops and reaches further into our communities. With 750 young people visiting the area to learn the lessons of Srebrenica, we will be better placed to challenge intolerance at home and abroad, and to understand its extreme consequences.
I warmly welcome the work of the charity Remembering Srebrenica, and commend its founder Waqar Asmi’s commitment to creating a cohesive society for everyone. I also commend the charity’s aim of encouraging everyone in our society to learn about the consequences of hate and discrimination. It is critical that we should understand the horror and the legacy of events in July 1995, not just for the renewal of our pledge of “Never again,” but so that we can strengthen our communities to challenge prejudice and division, whatever their nature. All of us in the Chamber today recognise the importance of that work. It is vital to continue to remember such heinous atrocities of deep-seated xenophobic sectarianism. That drives a determination to foster resilient, inclusive and respectful communities here and abroad.
I know from his blog that the Minister has visited Srebrenica and I look forward to hearing the reflections he will no doubt recount in his response, but I want, if I may, to draw on something he said in his piece, about the phrase “ethnic cleansing”, which suddenly became part of everyday news-speak. Those two simple and mundane words express an amoral political intent to cleanse a country or area of human beings: a genocide of communities because of their difference. Yet such simplistic terms cannot possibly convey the true horror of war and genocide. The only true lexicon of war and genocide must be the real stories of the victims and their families, and I will give voice to a couple of those stories now.
One is the tragic story of Hasan Nuhanovich, who survived because he was an interpreter, first for Canadian UN troops and then for the Dutch troops. He describes events on 11 July when thousands of people, mostly women and children but also men and boys, fled the town and arrived at the UN base. Some were allowed in but the gate was then closed and a hole in the fence was sealed. That left about 5,000 to 6,000 people inside the base and 20,000 people outside. He heard the killing, screams and shots, and then the UN base fell to mortar and tank attacks. He says:
“The UN told me to tell the people to start leaving the base in groups of five—they didn’t say anything else.”
The people were hoping and thinking that the UN was in charge and would know what to do, but when they reached the gate they saw Serb soldiers standing there, pushing the men and the boys away from their sisters, wives and children. There was a separation taking place right there outside the gate. People realised at that moment that they were not going to any safe place; the Serbs were going to take them away.
“My family was among the last ones to stay inside. I tried to keep them inside the base for as long as possible. But they were forced. Three UN soldiers came inside with three UN military observers and looked at my family and told me, ‘Hasan, translate to your family, tell them to leave right now.’ I was crying. My brother, who was 19, was sitting on the chair. Of course, my parents knew what was going to happen. But they were behaving in a different way; they actually tried to calm me down—they felt that if I start panicking, I would cause trouble for myself. If their elder son, myself, could remain inside the base, could stay alive, let’s at least try to do that. They knew my brother was going to be killed, they knew they were going to be killed. All the time as they were walked out of the base, my parents told me, ‘Hasan, stay. You can stay. Your brother will be with us; he will be OK.’ I was walking behind them, screaming and saying, ‘I am coming with you.’ But my brother turned around, and he started screaming right at my face: ‘You are not coming with me, you are going to stay inside because you can stay.’ And that was the last time I saw my family.”
Hasan has since discovered what happened to his mother. She killed herself with broken glass rather than submit to rape at a police station.
On the excellent Remembering Srebrenica website, I read the story of another Hasan, who at the age of 19 was part of the column desperately fleeing Bosnian Serb forces on foot, through the woods, away from Srebrenica. His story is terrifying and raw with the horror of the events he witnessed, but at the end he tells us that in 2009 he took a job at the memorial centre and has settled to raise a young family of his own. He tells of the pain of having to recount his story to visitors several times a day, but he is happy to do so, he says, because
“now, finally, someone is listening.”
Those who survived endured the most excruciating and traumatic experiences. Mevludin Orich lay for nine hours in one of the killing fields, playing dead while Serb troops patrolled the blood-soaked field, finishing off anyone who showed signs of life with a pistol shot to the head. He heard an old man plead, “Please don’t do this to us, children, we haven’t done anything to you,” but the old man was also shot.
Lying on top of Orich was his dead cousin, Hars. At one point, Orich saw a Serb soldier walk towards him. The soldier paused to shoot a man in the head, and then continued to walk toward Orich. Orich closed his eyes, but the shot did not come. Close to midnight, the shooting stopped and the Serbs left. Orich managed to shake off his cousin’s body, stand up and head into the forest. To do so, he had to climb over the bodies of the dead and the dying. That type of scarring and traumatising experience is bound to haunt the survivors, their families and their communities for decades, even generations, to come.
I have been to Srebrenica and Potocari to see at first hand the devastation left by the events of 1995, and I have spoken to many of the women and their children who survived that atrocity. Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the biggest remaining issues for many of the families involved is closure, because there were many situations where the acts were so despicable that the bodies and remains of family members have still not been obtained, and so are unable to be buried in the cemetery in Potocari?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. One of the things that shocked me when considering the idea that reconciliation is happening in Srebrenica in Bosnia and nearby was the lack of detail about where these mass graves are. There might be another 100 mass graves out there. The gentleman I just spoke about—the second Hasan—needs to know where his dad and brother are because he wants to be able to bury them, but he cannot do so. Until such knowledge is out, reconciliation is hard.
I say to the first Hasan that we are listening and that is what today is about. Reconciliation will help to mitigate, to some extent, the trauma and the scars of people in this community, but for many of them what they lived through will be with them forever; it will pass down through generations, as events reverberate.
We can all agree in Westminster Hall today that Srebrenica was a very dark day for Europe, when once more it was consumed by a cloud of deep-seated xenophobic sectarianism, and innocents were yet again brutally murdered and mercilessly slaughtered in the name of nationalism. We have to find a way to rid ourselves of the cancer of intolerance and discrimination, and we must create a United Nations that is capable of fulfilling the noble mandate that it was given. The people of Srebrenica had a right to expect protection; the international community failed them. We must see, we must know and we must remember Srebrenica. And we must learn.
First, I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), as I often do in these debates. As usual, she delivered her speech powerfully and in an emotionally charged way. I thank her for doing so because this is an occasion when it would be very easy to talk about diplomacy, and the rights and wrongs of what happened 19 years ago and earlier, but it is what happened to the people in those circumstances that counts. I thank her for speaking in the way that she did.
It is customary on these occasions to thank the initiator of the debate, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), so I do that both in the customary sense and in the sincere sense. I do so not only because I am the Minister responsible for the Government’s work in this sector but because it is something that, as a Minister, I find incredibly moving and powerful, compared with some of the other things that I have to do. In addition, it is an issue that has interested me for a long time.
Both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) reflected on the events that took place in the 1990s. With the possible exception of yourself, Dr McCrea, none of us who have taken part in this debate were MPs at that time. I was a young councillor—I was in my mid-20s—in Bristol, watching the TV coverage night after night, from the original invasion of Croatia and the bombardment of Vukovar by the Yugoslav national army, as it was at that time. I then saw how events unfolded in Bosnia and then, of course, in Kosovo in 1999. I felt angry and impotent that all this was happening in our European family of nations.
I will not stray into discussing the culpability of any of the troops on the ground, as some colleagues have done; for a start, that is probably beyond my remit. What I will say, however, is that we ought to remind ourselves that troops on the ground—whether they were from the UN or from the nations that were referred to—are responsible to democratic Governments. Perhaps it is the politicians of that era who should have been spoken of in condemnatory language, and I will stray no further than that in going beyond my remit.
The Department for Communities and Local Government gives significant amounts of money—the hon. Member for West Ham mentioned the £970,000 that our community integration budget has put into the Remembering Srebrenica events, both for last year and the next two years—and staff in the Department make a big personal commitment. There is a ministerial commitment as well. Those who were at Lancaster house last night would have heard all three Ministers who have an interest in this issue—the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Baroness Warsi and myself—speak from different perspectives. The three of us do not always agree on everything, but we are committed to this project, both for what it says about Britain in Bosnia—the project is very much appreciated in Bosnia itself—and for the effect that it can have on the next generation of community leaders and politicians in this country.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North opened the debate by mentioning Sarajevo and its resonance this year. When I was in Bosnia in April, I, too, stood on the corner where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. The generation of politicians who put together the League of Nations after world war one said, “Never again”; the generation of politicians after 1945 who put together the UN said, “Never again”; and no doubt our predecessors back in the mid to late 1990s said, “Never again.” Well, “never again” does not happen by accident; it happens by tough, grinding diplomacy.
I will stray slightly beyond my remit again, Dr McCrea, to say that, as a passionate Europhile within the Government, I think we sometimes need to remember that it is a major achievement of the European Union that conflict has not broken out among its member states. Moreover, apart from Albania it is the former Yugoslav republics that are still queuing up to join the EU. Of course, Slovenia and Croatia are already in. A couple of years ago, I went on a Westminster Foundation for Democracy visit to Macedonia with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) to help Macedonia with its preparations to become a member of the EU, and one day—I hope soon—Serbia and Bosnia will join that European family of nations as well. Then, perhaps, “never again” will actually have achieved a diplomatic outcome.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) mentioned commemorating Holocaust memorial day in the UK. She also said, in respect of the second world war, that all the attention tends to be given to the holocaust and asked about what is happening next year. In 2015 it will be both the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz—the hon. Member for West Ham has not been to Auschwitz yet, but I went many years ago, and we will renew the agreement to go together at some point soon, before that anniversary—and the 20th anniversary of events in Srebrenica.
I represent the Government on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and I assure the hon. Member for West Ham that we are thinking carefully about the significance of both those anniversaries and making sure they get all the appropriate attention from the Government, the royal family and—they more important than the politicians or other leaders—the survivors. The survivors of the holocaust are now smaller in number and many of them are quite old and frail, so we need to ensure that it is done in an appropriate setting for them, too.
Let me turn to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and our commemoration of Holocaust memorial day each year. Some of us spoke in the annual debate in January in the main Chamber, and most hon. Members were careful to ensure that we talked about all of the genocides that have taken place, which, with the exception of the holocaust, have sadly all happened in the lifetimes of all hon. Members in this Chamber: the unravelling of Yugoslavia; Rwanda; Dafur; the events taking place in South Sudan, and Cambodia.
I agree. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that we need to disseminate that information, particularly to our schools, to ensure that it is firmly embedded in our education system, so that youngsters learn about these atrocities and can learn from the mistakes of the past?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to stray again from my remit, but I have done it once, so let me do so once again, this time into the territory of the Department for Education.
Having visited schools, as I am sure all hon. Members do, I have spoken to history teachers—and to history admissions tutors at universities, in the days when I was the Lib Dem higher education spokesman—who tell me that children do learn about the holocaust and the Nazi period, although perhaps too much. I think they also need to learn about world war one, which is highly relevant over the next four years, and about the other genocides that have taken place in the lifetime of their parents. I am sure that every responsible history teacher and citizenship teacher in the country will ensure that they do so in the next 12 months.
Hon. Members mentioned closure, and the hon. Member for Glasgow North mentioned the important work of the International Commission for Missing Persons. Many powerful memories will stay with me from my visit to Bosnia, and the visit to the ICMP in Tuzla will certainly be one of them. Adam Boys, a Scotsman, is doing the archaeology of warfare—forensic science—digging up mass graves that contain not whole bodies, but dismembered bodies.
Such was the planned nature of what took place in the mid-1990s, it was not just a massacre; there was an attempt to cover it up by physically separating the bodies with bulldozers—I am being graphic—and scattering the remains over a wide area, deliberately, so that the crime was to some extent physically covered up. The remains of the people were thought at the time impossible to identify. Of course, now, through advances in science, it is possible to identify them. Many people are now getting that closure, but sadly it is often closure from the match of a DNA blood sample—the laboratory in Tuzla has blood samples donated by all surviving relatives who wished to do so, to be matched with a missing male relative—with a piece of a ribcage, the bone of a hand or part of a skull, not to a whole body. However, at least at that point a burial of partial remains can happen and some closure is afforded.
Every day, remains of parts of new bodies are being discovered and individuals are identified. However, there are still thousands of unidentified, unaccounted-for deaths in Bosnia, so the ICMP’s work will need to continue for many years to come.
Just on that point, the Minister will be aware, from his visit to the ICMP offices—I also visited and was moved by the warehouse where the remains yet to be identified are still kept—that it is now working in the middle east. It has already been to Libya and, given the events that are occurring as we speak in Syria and Iraq, it is likely that this type of work will be required on an even larger scale. I hope that the Government consider supporting this venture, allowing it to expand, because it will provide in future years the closure that it has provided to the victims in Yugoslavia.
That point was forcefully made to me at the time by Adam Boys, but continuing the funding is a matter for other parts of Government. The British Government have been one of the main supporters of the ICMP—that is certainly acknowledged—but sadly its work will probably be needed for many years, not just in the former Yugoslavia, but in other conflict areas.
The hon. Member for West Ham, who leads for the Opposition, mentioned the Remembering Srebrenica project—a £1 million commitment by the Government—and also Dr Waqar Azmi’s Ummah Help charity, which helps to take delegations of young people to Bosnia, specifically to Srebrenica. It is curious that the Department of Communities and Local Government does that, but we do it for two reasons. First, people from all over the world live in our major towns and cities, which, as a Liberal, I celebrate. In my constituency casework there are still refugees, mainly from Kosovo rather than Bosnia, and I am sure that there are people living in West Ham, Bolton and Bristol who are directly touched by what is happening. The effects of other conflicts are felt by families in our country. It is right that we support that reflection and understanding.
Secondly, we ask people who go on these delegations—the plan is to take some 800 people to Bosnia in the next two years—to use that time and apply the lesson of history that they will have learned in Bosnia in their own communities when they return to the UK. The 75 people who have been out on these delegations so far are all now feeding back their pledges about how they are going to make Tower Hamlets, Newham, Luton, Birmingham, Bolton, Blackburn and other places more cohesive and harmonious places to visit. The most obvious thing they are able to do is organise their own Remembering Srebrenica events throughout the country this year, and 16 events are taking place, in addition to the official events in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh that have been mentioned.
On Sunday evening, I attended an amazing event in Luton, which was organised by the five young people who were on my delegation in April. They made their own powerful speeches; two of the mothers, who I will mention shortly, spoke; and Ed Vulliamy, who was an ITN journalist at the time but now writes for The Guardian, gave his perspective as a British witness who was there. That powerful event was followed by an Iftar event, this being Ramadan. Several other events are taking place, including many organised by the police, including the police in Hertfordshire, City of London, Greater Manchester and Northamptonshire.
The practical reason why we are funding the project is so that people can learn the lessons of what so easily can happen. Several Members referred to that. Let us not forget that this is a place where the winter Olympics took place and where, when I was growing up, better-off friends went on holiday. I would still like to go to Dubrovnik on holiday. It was a civilised part of Europe, albeit a Communist dictatorship, where people had co-existed for a long time, and it unravelled very quickly. We must learn the lesson that community cohesion does not happen by accident. It is the responsibility of us all in public life to constantly work at it and nurture it in our constituencies and communities across the country. That is why it is right that a significant amount of British taxpayer’s money goes into that programme—not just to appreciate the lessons of history, but because it has direct practical application in making our country a better place.
The hon. Member for West Ham, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham and the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who was with us earlier, mentioned that ugly phrase, “ethnic cleansing”. While the practice had been around for a long time, the phrase came into use during that conflict. We all remember Martin Bell, who compered last night’s events in Lancaster house, speaking about it. It shows how we can use phraseology to obscure an awful practice, and it is right that the hon. Member for West Ham used graphic language to bring to life what actually took place.
To add some of my own reflections to those of other Members, on my visit we were hosted in Srebrenica itself, by its mayor. He must have been a decade younger than me. He was the only person from his class in school to survive that massacre. Imagine that happening to any of us. We are all of an age where we possibly have school reunions. Imagine if someone’s school reunion was just them; the only person left from their class. That was the experience of the mayor of Srebrenica. The person who looked after him at the time was our guide for the whole visit, Mohammed, who was a couple of years older than the mayor. He guided the future mayor up into the mountains. A lot of people survived by fleeing into the forests and the mountains, pursued, shelled and shot at by the Bosnian Serb army, trying desperately to get to the safe haven of Tuzla. Members will be familiar with those awful scenes at the Potocari battery factory of people behind barbed wire pleading to be saved. I am not sure whether it is the same Hasan as the one mentioned by the hon. Member for West Ham, but the Hasan who guided us round that battery factory lost male members of his family. The most awful thing of all is that he lost his twin brother.
Opposite that battery factory where people sheltered is the Srebrenica memorial cemetery, where 8,372 marble obelisks stand as a physical memorial to the men and boys who were killed. The youngest had not yet entered his teens and the oldest had not quite entered his 80s, and there were all ages in between. On the memorial we saw in Sarajevo, on every single line—it was in alphabetical order and there were no Stephens to be seen—was the year 1966, which is the year I was born. In trying to comprehend the scale of the deaths that took place in a few short days, those sorts of things bring it home.
What really brought it home to me, and the most powerful memory of all—this remarkable group of people has been mentioned by several Members—was the Mothers of Srebrenica, a group of women of all ages who have dedicated themselves to ensuring that the rest of Europe never forgets what happened in their homeland. While they are called the Mothers of Srebrenica, they are widows and people who have lost a brother, a nephew, a father or a grandfather. The scale of male bereavement is all-embracing. Some lost 40 or 50 male members of their family. I have quite a small immediate family; others might have larger families. Imagine someone losing just about every male relative they know—that brings home how they have suffered. The hon. Member for West Ham was right to point out that some of these people have suffered not only with their bereavement, but with the physical and sexual abuse that they had from the Bosnian Serb army that murdered their menfolk.
How do we get something from this issue? That is what we should reflect on. The Government are putting investment into the visits, so that all the young people, police and other community leaders going to Bosnia can come back to Britain, having learnt the lessons. I will end my speech the same way I ended my speech in Lancaster house last night. Learning the lessons of history, thinking about what a reasonable parliamentary occasion this has been and going to the events are all very well, but none of that counts for anything unless we all pledge, just as we are asking the young people to pledge on these visits, to look at how we can make all our constituencies better places. That is my challenge to myself, to Members and to everyone else.
Humanitarian Situation (Iraq)
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am grateful for the debate, because it is timely, and I am glad that the Minister is present.
I care very much about Iraq. I have been involved with it since the late 1970s, when I met some Iraqi students who had left Basra and Baghdad for Cardiff. They opened my eyes to the brutality of the regime of Saddam Hussein and I campaigned against its abuses—first through an organisation called CADRI, the Campaign against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq. Many Members of this House were members, as well as exiled Iraqis such as Hoshyar Zebari, who is now the Foreign Minister of Iraq, and Latif Rashid, a former water Minister.
In the late 1990s, I was involved in setting up an organisation called INDICT, which campaigned for Saddam and other leading members of the regime to be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide through an international tribunal set up by the United Nations. Later, we campaigned for prosecutions to take place in individual countries that had an international jurisdiction with respect to war crimes and crimes against humanity, but that did not happen, despite our best efforts. I went to many countries and we interviewed many Iraqis in exile, but only one country almost went through with the process, and that was Belgium. At the last minute, however, the Belgian Parliament changed the rules of the game.
The evidence collected by INDICT of the crimes that had taken place and of the direct involvement of certain members of the regime was subsequently used in the war crimes trials in Baghdad, some of the sessions of which I attended. Over a number of years, as the special envoy on human rights in Iraq for both Tony Blair and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), I went to Iraq about 26 times in all, and at times when it was quite difficult, but I have many friends there. The idea was to help the Iraqis after 30 years of a brutal regime; we tried to explain the niceties of human rights and what they meant in practice.
I still have friends in Iraq. I was last there 18 months ago, when there was a stand-off between the peshmerga of the Kurdish regional Government in Kirkuk and Mr Maliki’s Iraqi forces. They did not actually clash, but it was certainly a stand-off.
I also meet people from the Iraqi Parliament regularly at the Inter-Parliamentary Union; I always look out for them and we spend some time together. The women in particular need to be commended for their bravery. I will not name anyone, but one woman doctor is a Member of Parliament and she has stayed in Baghdad the whole time. She still practises as a doctor, but she is also active as a politician. Since the start of the recent conflict, she has been sending me messages regularly about their concerns in Iraq. I pay tribute to the bravery of such politicians, because it cannot be easy always to be surrounded by about 30 bodyguards—each MP has about that number, which illustrates how dangerous and difficult the situation is.
Since January this year, the surge in violence between armed groups and Government forces has resulted in an estimated 1.2 million internally displaced people in central and northern Iraq and an estimated 1.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing the issue to us for consideration. The Christians in Iraq are under particularly serious pressure. They are centred around Mosul and the plains of Nineveh, but the takeover by ISIS has had a detrimental impact on them and they are threatened, because of their religious views, with crucifixion, beheadings, bomb attacks, beatings and loss of property. Does she agree that we must always ensure that religious persecution stops and that religious freedom wins?
Certainly. In fact, the last time I was in the Kurdish area, about 18 months ago, I went to a conference of all minority religions—there are not only Christians, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, but many other religious groups as well. The conference was supposed to bring them all together. I also met various groups individually, some of which wanted to set up territories of their own, although I think that they have been persuaded that that is not a good idea. We need to ensure safety for all the minorities of Iraq.
The attention of the world is focused on the terrorist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIS or ISIL. Inside Iraq, however, the group is only one part of a larger revolt that has been years in the making. Although there is some co-ordination between ISIL and other Sunni groups fighting in northern Iraq, ISIL is only part of the revolt. Anger against Nouri al-Maliki and the behaviour of the Iraqi Government has been building for almost eight years.
The Maliki Government reneged on their promises to build an inclusive Government with the Sunnis and went after moderate Sunni leaders as soon as American troops left. It is regrettable that the Iraqi Parliament has had to adjourn again until the middle of August. It did convene, but has adjourned because it could not agree on the election of a new Speaker.
Iraqi army and police crackdowns over the past year in cities—including Falluja and Madain—have been part of the escalating Sunni-Shi’a tit-for-tat violence that has plagued Iraq for over a year. In one incident in April 2013, dozens of Sunnis were killed by Iraqi security forces in the town of Hawijah during what had been a peaceful protest. As a former US official in Iraq, Ali Khedery, wrote in the Washington Post on 3 July, the US policy during the crucial years following the 2008 Sunni awakening was to place its faith in Maliki to build an inclusive system rather than supporting other political actors.
The international community should support a process in which all political stakeholders could be brought together to review the political process and devise a whole new formula for the sharing of power and resources in Iraq. More specifically, it should step in and play a role in helping solve the real problems in Iraq by encouraging a unity Government. In the end, the involvement of other countries, particularly those supporting only one side or the other in the conflict, can only destabilise the region further.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on raising this important issue. Like her, I have real knowledge of the region, having served in the no-fly zone over northern Iraq in a previous career as a Royal Air Force officer; last year I returned there, invited by the Kurdistan regional Government. She is absolutely right that the international community needs to support the area.
Some 100,000 refugees from the Arab south and 260,000 refugees from Syria are being supported by the Kurdistan regional Government, and there are now half a million extra people displaced from Mosul and Anbar. I welcome the £5 million of funding that the Department for International Development has brought forward in support, but the right hon. Lady is right that we need the whole international community to stop the crisis from becoming even worse and prevent the complete splintering of the country.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I was partly instrumental in setting up the no-fly zone: I visited Kurdistan when I was shadow International Development Secretary, and then came back and spoke to John Major about what I had seen—Kurds fleeing over the mountains from helicopter gunships and so on. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman took part in the no-fly zone.
The numbers are horrific. The armed conflict in Iraq has spread from Anbar to Mosul and into parts of central Iraq. With sectarian clashes growing, already nearly half a million Iraqi citizens have been displaced from Anbar province. After the ISIL takeover of Mosul and large areas of northern Iraq, perhaps half a million refugees fled from Mosul, many of whom took refuge in areas controlled by the Kurds. There are reports that many are now returning to Mosul because they feel that they have no other choice and that the city is relatively calm at this moment.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate and commend everything she has done by way of her engagement with Iraq over the years, which I greatly respect. I agree with her about the importance of engaging others in the region, but faced with the humanitarian catastrophe that looms and given the suspicion of Governments, including external Governments, is there a particular role for non-governmental organisations, including those from Britain? How far will they be able to get effective relief to people in the very difficult circumstances of the conflict on the ground?
That is the challenge. I have no easy answers. I was about to spell out those challenges, in fact. One is access for humanitarian organisations to people in need—we know how difficult that has been in Syria, for example. There is also the scale of need in reaching all those requiring assistance. I will be highlighting both those issues as I go along.
Humanitarian organisations’ access to people in need continues to be a significant problem due to the multiplicity of actors. On one side, it involves liaising with the Iraqi armed forces—especially the security forces—Shi’a militia and the Kurdish peshmerga. On the other side, it involves armed opposition groups including Ba’athists, tribal militias and members of the former regime and military, along with ISIL. In addition, there may also be forces from other states such as Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to liaise with.
Access for humanitarian agencies to areas of Iraq under ISIL control is difficult. Humanitarian organisations have limited dialogue with ISIL because of a lack of familiarity with its chain of command, and so often have to get authorisation from different leaders and groups to ensure safe access. So far deliberate obstruction does not appear to be the problem; it is more the time that needs to be taken to establish proper channels of communication, particularly with extremist rebel groups and actors. There are, however, established contact points with the Sunni tribes already, which is helping with gaining access.
Thousands of displaced Iraqi civilians are stranded at checkpoints separating the areas controlled by the Kurdish regional Government and the rest of Iraq. At first, civilians who fled the ISIL-controlled areas were being allowed to enter Iraqi Kurdistan, but in recent weeks and days, access has been severely restricted by the KRG. Some of those who fled are seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan while others want to travel southwards to the capital and beyond. The former are mostly Sunni Muslims who fear air strikes by Government forces and their allies, as well as the possibility of further brutality by ISIL. The latter are mostly Shi’a Muslims from the Turkmen and Shabak communities who are trying to flee southwards to Government-controlled areas of Iraq where the majority of the population is Shi’a and where they feel there is no risk of an Islamic State takeover.
With the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from northern Iraq, the KRG have gained control of the disputed oil-rich town of Kirkuk and other areas. In recent days they have announced plans for a referendum on independence—a move fiercely opposed by the Iraqi central Government. Regardless of the political wrangling between Baghdad and Erbil, it is absolutely imperative that civilians displaced by the conflict are granted refuge in and safe passage through KRG-controlled areas. I ask the Minister, what representations are being made in that regard? What assistance has been and will be offered to the Kurdish regional Government to help them respond to the needs of the displaced in areas under their control?
Although Iraqi and international political discourse both seem largely out of step with the rapidly changing reality on the ground, the sectarian dimension of the conflict is becoming more marked by the day and Iraq’s diverse communities are struggling to grapple with the new reality. They increasingly wonder where and how they can be safe. For example, in both Turkmen and Shabak communities there is now division among Shi’a and Sunnis. Turkmen Shi’a are trying to flee to the Shi’a stronghold in the south, but the Turkmen Sunni are not even contemplating going there: they are staying put in the north, terrified of Government air strikes against areas controlled by ISIL.
A woman whose relatives—two young children and their parents—were killed in an air strike in Tal Afar on 22 June stated:
“We are not with ISIL, but when the government bombs ISIL we are in the middle and when we get killed nobody cares”.
One man, a father of eight who had just driven nearly seven hours from Sinjar, taking a long detour to avoid Mosul and his home town of Tal Afar—both now under ISIL control—told Amnesty International:
“We do not want to stay in Kurdistan; we just want to pass through to get to the road southbound to Baghdad and on to Najaf in the south”.
Many Shi’a Turkmen and Shabak civilians have alleged that their Sunni neighbours are co-operating with the Islamic State, while Sunni Turkmen and Shabak have accused Shi’a members of their community of being linked to pro-Government armed Shi’a militias. No general evidence is provided to support such polarising narratives, but perception can be as important as reality, poisoning relations between communities and adding fuel to an already inflamed situation.
Minorities in Iraq, including Christians, Yazidis and others, feel particularly vulnerable, and rightly so. The Islamic State referred to its Yazidi hostages as “devil worshippers” in one of its recent videos. That and the abduction of two Christian nuns in Mosul on 28 June are just two examples of a string of recent incidents targeting minority groups. Members of Iraq’s majority communities do not feel safe either. Indeed, most of those killed and displaced in this conflict were from the Shi’a and Sunni majority communities, who happened to be a minority in a particular place at a particular time.
Increasing speculation about a possible three-way split of Iraq into Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish states or entities is raising serious concerns about the further massive population displacement that is likely to ensue. Minorities are very concerned about whether, if that came to fruition, their communities would have a future in Iraq. Iraqi leaders and would-be leaders and their backers in the international community must act responsibly and work towards finding solutions to the current crisis that will ensure that members of all communities are protected and their rights respected.
The recent wave of fighting has also led to many people being detained by the Iraqi security forces and armed groups. It is becoming very difficult to track detainees as areas of control fluctuate and detainees are often moved. Amnesty International has recently spoken to released detainees from the Yazidi community who were captured by ISIL, as well as to family members of those still held by the group. At least 24 Iraqi border guards and soldiers were captured by ISIL last month in north-west Iraq. Some were released later, but the rest are being held by ISIL across the border in north-east Syria. The captives are among scores of minorities who have been targeted in a spree of sectarian detentions and abductions carried out by ISIL in recent weeks.
I will attempt to do so, Dr McCrea, as soon as I can. I am obviously not very good at timing myself. I have several questions that I am sure the Minister will be able to answer.
A recent Guardian report states that ISIL has been looting antiquities from the region and selling them in the international marketplace. That happened previously after 2003 when many of Iraq’s antiquities were looted; I understand that many of Syria’s antiquities have also gone. Some $36 million of antiquities, up to 8,000 years old, were allegedly taken from the al-Nabuk area alone. Given that the UK is an important antiquities market and to stop funding for terrorist organisations and impoverishing Iraqis of their heritage, should the Government not ensure that “blood antiquities”, like blood diamonds from conflict zones, are not sold here?
Many families are in need of water, food and shelter, and want to feel safe. I hope that the international community will react with generosity, as it normally does, when the UN asks for funds. I know that the UN does not have enough money—it never does—for such things, but this situation is urgent because people are already dying and the situation may get worse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this important debate, and I acknowledge her deep and long-serving experience and wisdom in the matter. It is quite something, and I learned several things from her speech.
I will give a short introduction and then immediately answer some of the points the right hon. Lady raised. With so little time left, I will not get through everything I wanted to say.
As we have heard, on 8 June in Iraq’s northern province of Ninewah, heavy fighting between the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the Iraqi security forces led to casualties and mass displacement among the civilian population. The UN estimates that 650,000 people have been displaced, not including an estimated 500,000 people who had fled previous fighting in Anbar province. Some are in hotels and some have been temporarily housed in tented settlements, but most are staying with families. All want to go home. As fighting continues and access to some areas is incredibly challenging, it is difficult to know how many people are affected, but we know that the mass displacement and long-term disruption to the lives of millions that we have already seen in Syria are now affecting Iraq.
I want briefly to say what the Department for International Development has done. I am pleased to be able to say that the UK was the first country to send a team on the ground, deploying three DFID experts, to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The team’s rapid assessment from the field meant we were able to announce on 13 June, three days after the capture of Mosul, an initial £3 million of support to displaced people. That included £2 million via the rapid response facility mechanism to non-governmental organisations in the region—the right hon. Lady asked about NGOs—to provide clean water and sanitation, essential medicine, women-friendly hygiene kits, basic household items, and a further £1 million for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to establish camps and provide dedicated protection teams to identify and assist vulnerable people, including women and girls. The right hon. Lady knows of my interest in women and girls and their protection.
The Prime Minister has since pledged an additional £2 million of emergency humanitarian relief to help the tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis in serious need. This second package of support will provide emergency medicines, including polio and measles vaccines, food and basic shelter to women, men and children affected by the crisis. It will also enable aid agencies on the ground to trace and reunite families who have been separated while fleeing. That funding is in addition to the £292 million that DFID has allocated to support refugees fleeing from Syria. Some of that support had been in Iraq, and now Iraq itself faces a humanitarian crisis.
The right hon. Lady asked some specific questions. In terms of the politics, the walkout of Sunni and Kurdish representatives from the new Parliament last week was extremely worrying. The Iraqi Government must urgently demonstrate unity and co-operation, but I am sad to say that I see no sign of that. Political unity is the single most important factor that will counter the threat from ISIL, bring about an end to the conflict and stop the worsening humanitarian situation. It is essential that all parties involved in the political process reach the necessary decisions and compromises to form a broad-based, inclusive and representative Government who respond to the need of all Iraq’s different communities.
Humanitarian access is a major problem in areas that are controlled by ISIL. However, our humanitarian partners and the International Committee of the Red Cross inform us that some aid, including vital medical assistance and the provision of clean water, is getting through. Humanitarian actors are adjusting their programmes as the conflict continues to evolve, but it is very challenging and clearly we are not reaching everyone.
In terms of what else we are doing and representations, the UK Government are undertaking considerable political and diplomatic efforts to stabilise the region and to promote unity among those who support a democratic Iraqi state. In the KRG areas that the right hon. Lady asked about, we are working closely with the British consulate in Erbil and engaging directly with the Kurdish Government. We will provide a technical expert to the Kurdish Government to help them plan and manage the response to those who are displaced in the KRG.
On minority groups, our field team have met displaced minority groups, particularly those who have fled Mosul. As the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, Christians and Turkmens are concerned about their safety and are likely to settle more permanently in the Kurdish areas, and our support will reach those people.
I was going to say quite a lot about women and girls, but I think time will run out on us. Going forward, one thing I did not raise—because I am skipping parts of my speech to get to the end—is that the Saudi Government have given $500 million to the appeal, so it is a fully funded appeal. Although it is very positive that, thanks to Saudi generosity, the UN appeal is now fully funded, needs related to the displacement and interruption of critical services in Iraq will not be resolved quickly, even though we have a fully funded appeal. We will continue to work with humanitarian partners to ameliorate the suffering of those Iraqi women, men and children enduring terrible hardship on a daily basis. In addition to financial support from DFID, we are also providing technical assistance to support the UN and the Kurdish Regional Government effectively to co-ordinate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the affected populations.
As well as addressing the short-term humanitarian needs, we are undertaking a great deal of effort on political support to help resolve the crisis and promoting political unity among those who support a democratic Iraqi state—
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I thank the Minister for allowing me to ruin her afternoon. I am sure she had other things that she would have preferred to be doing.
Why are we having this debate? I went to the Brandon Street gurdwara in Gravesend a few months ago, and I was amazed by the strength of feeling over a petition on caste discrimination. Since then, I have been around the country with my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who is the Prime Minister’s diaspora champion, and I visited Leicester, Southall and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller). I did not realise that quite so many people in the UK suffer because of “traditional”—if that is the right word—caste systems originating in south Asia.
According to a survey on one of these castes, published by the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, 58% of Dalits—that is to say the untouchables, the Chamars, or whatever else people want to call them—believe they face discrimination because of their caste. Much more interestingly, 80% believe that the police would not understand caste discrimination if it was reported to them. Some Dalits are being ignored for promotion. They are victims of humiliation or harassment and sometimes they face being fired.
Is there a form of hidden apartheid within our shores? After some brave and necessary moves by our Home Secretary to outlaw such things as forced marriage, can we really continue to excuse ourselves for not putting people who practice this casteism on the wrong side of the law?
There has been a timeline to this. In November 2009, the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance published its report, “Hidden Apartheid—Voice of the Community”, highlighting lower-caste experiences of caste discrimination. Between April 2009 and April 2010, during parliamentary debates on the Equality Bill, Dalit organisations sought to persuade parliamentarians to include caste as a new protected characteristic.
On 1 October 2010, the Equality Act 2010 came into force. The caste power found in section 9(5)(a) of the Act allows amendment by ministerial order
“to provide for caste to be an aspect of race”.
In December 2010—I am halfway through these dates now, by the way—an independent research report asked for by the last Government was published by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. It suggested that caste discrimination and harassment were falling outside the Act. The coalition Government are still considering that report.
In August 2011, Amardeep and Vijay Begraj, a married couple—he had been working in a solicitor’s firm as a manager, and she had been working as a solicitor—came before the courts. The argument was that he, and I think she, as well, had been fired because their union, being from different castes, had not been approved of. The Home Secretary then publicly considered whether to add the caste system to the equality law.
The Government will tell us in a moment, which is part of the reason why I have called this debate.
On 1 March, the Minister present made a statement. She announced that the Government were thinking of taking an educational approach to this and would use Talk for a Change. However, the NIESR criticised that, saying that it only raises awareness and does not assist people being discriminated against by their employer, nor by such things as day care centres.
The Government then asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to review and make recommendations. In April 2013, the Minister was asked to sign the ministerial order and on 29 July, the Government published their caste discrimination legislation timetable. It will run up to and beyond the 2015 general election. On 5 February, the Begraj tribunal was abandoned, because the judge recused herself when she was told by a third party that a witness in the case had had their home smashed up by an unknown group. On 28 February, the EHRC published its two reports on the matter and called on the Government to add in the necessary protections on caste.
Let me just give a brief outline of caste in the UK. According to the 2011 census, about 4.5 million in this country are of south Asian origin. Of those, about 20% are from the untouchables, the Chamars, the Dalit community—I think it is about 860,000 people.
What is the Hindu caste system? Who are these 1 million Dalits in the UK and where do they fit in? Imagine a pyramid and at the very top, there are the gods, and then there are four castes. The top caste, the elite, are the Brahmins; these are the people who traditionally were the priests. Then there are the Kshatriyas; they are just below the Brahmins and were traditionally the warriors and the kings. Below them, there are the Vaishyas, who were the merchants and the farmers. Below them, at the bottom, there are the Shudras, who were the servants. Below even them, by this narrative, right at the very bottom—sometimes not even included in pretty pyramids like the one I have here in my notes—are the Dalits. They are known to some as the handlers of filth, or the untouchables.
This really is happening in the UK. After lunch, we were looking on Twitter. People can have a look themselves. They should look for “Brahmin for life”, “Jat for life” and “Brahmin boys look out for each other”. There are even dating websites. There is nothing wrong with that, but what about www.brahminmatrimony.com or this from www.asiansinglesolution.com? X is an
“Attractive, down to earth, caring, Hindu Brahmin girl with strong values and morals”.
As previously mentioned, 80% of the Dalits in the survey said that they did not believe that the police would understand if caste-based discrimination was reported to them.
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend called for this debate. Does he share my concern at what I would characterise as the nonchalant, “Who cares?” ignorance of discrimination being pursued by the current Government’s policy in this regard? Somehow they believe that the discrimination that he has just spoken about will magically end at the workplace—that somehow because there is discrimination protection outside, we do not need to have any protections inside the workplace. Does he not think that that is nonchalant?
I will come on to that, and I know that the work that the Minister is doing also applies to it.
There has been recent court action. There was the successful case of Tirkey v. Chandok, in which the claim for caste discrimination was allowed. However, these are just what I think are called first instance decisions and are not binding. According to Swan Turton Solicitors, there was a conflicting ruling in an earlier case, Naveed v. Aslam, in which the tribunal rejected any claims for caste discrimination. It was stated that the reason was that the Government still had not exercised their power to amend section 9(5)(a) of the 2010 Act.
The simple fact is that at present, if a person in the UK is harassed because of their caste in places of employment or education or where they receive public services such as health and social care, there is no legislation in place to protect them. Let us not overstate this, but in the past few weeks I have repeatedly come upon people who have said, for example, that they feel like they are looked down on by members of what would be traditional castes. People have told me of their disapproval of inter-caste marriage. I have heard anecdotes about some people not having had the choice of marrying the person whom they would like to marry. I have even heard about people who have not felt welcome at certain places of worship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that he is very well respected in the south Asian community in his constituency, which neighbours mine. Will he comment on what I have found? I do not know whether my experience is similar to his own. I am talking about just how shocking the caste system and discrimination within it can be. We see classism existing in every community, but this goes way beyond that to create a great deal of friction between different groups of people. Most concerns come from within those communities themselves.
That is a great point. What my hon. Friend is talking about is the fact that in our areas we have a lot of Sikhs, and of course among the central tenets of the Sikh faith are tolerance, equality and so on. I know that the Sikhs, certainly on our shared patch, are working on it, but this occurs far more widely across the south Asian communities in our country.
What is the reason for saying that we need some sort of legislation? It is as I have suggested. In the area of employment, there is the example of a manager of a bus company in, I think, Southampton who had to deal with a demand from someone that his shifts be changed so that he would not have to work with someone of a lower caste. Twenty per cent. of Dalits felt that they had been informally excluded from social events, informal networks and so on.
In the area of health, the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance reported a few cases. One related to an elderly woman who was being looked after. Her carer, who was from a “higher” caste, found an icon indicating that the person she was looking after was from a lower caste, and the son of the bedbound woman found that his mother had not been washed for a number of days. We have had examples of physiotherapists refusing to treat people of lower caste. In the area of marriage, we have heard of the Begraj case. We have heard of people feeling unable to marry outside their caste.
What could legislation do? It could send the message that castes have never existed in Britain and really should not. It would protect people in workplaces, schools, hospitals and so on.
The Government’s commitment on these issues has been welcomed by victims of caste discrimination and forms just one part of the wider reforms being put forward. The Home Secretary has outlawed forced marriages, which are, as she rightly put it,
“a tragedy for each and every victim”.
Female genital mutilation is also illegal in this country. I am not sure, therefore, that we can necessarily use the argument that we might upset certain people in the south Asian community.
I forewarned the Minister of these three questions. First, the Government have published a timetable for caste discrimination legislation. Why does it run up to and beyond the 2015 general election? Secondly, will the Government involve the relevant groups and communities in their preparation of the public consultation document? It would be very good to see the involvement of some of those groups in that consultation. Finally, in plain English, when will the consultation document be published; does the Minister expect any further delays?
I will be very brief so that the Minister will have plenty of time to reply. First, I pay enormous tribute to the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) for securing this debate, for the way in which he has spoken on this subject today and for his willingness to grant me a few minutes of his time. I am very grateful for that.
I am one of the trustees of the Dalit Solidarity Network and a member of the all-party group for Dalits, the chair of which is Bishop Harries, a Member of the House of Lords. Together with the director of the Dalit Solidarity Network, Meena Varma, I have been to the United Nations in Geneva to raise issues of Dalit discrimination in India and many other places, but also, clearly, in this country.
I will briefly put on the record the enormity of the situation. Around the world, 260 million people are Dalits —scheduled castes. They suffer grievous discrimination, terrible poverty, appalling levels of crime committed against them and, in most of India and Nepal and other places, appalling standards of living. Every week, 13 Dalit people in India are murdered. Five Dalit homes are repossessed every week. Three women are raped every day. Eleven Dalits are beaten every day. A crime is committed against Dalit people every 11 minutes in India.
The Ambedkar constitution is an excellent document. Dr Ambedkar was himself a Dalit. It absolutely outlaws discrimination and has some provision for protected employment for people of the scheduled castes. It is a very effective document, but raising these matters with the Indian Government or the Indian high commission is extremely difficult; they are quite resistant to having good discussions about it.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, discrimination also exists in this country. There are roughly 1 million Dalit people in Britain. As a result of both the case that he brought up, which was one that we raised in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council, and the debates that took place in advance of the Equality Act 2010, we are in a situation in which we are relying on the Government now to introduce regulation to put it on the face of the law in this country that it would be illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste.
In getting to this position, the Government of the day in 2010, the then Labour Government, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) as the Minister leading on the Bill, accepted an amendment put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) that required the Government to undertake research on caste discrimination in this country. That research demonstrated clearly that there is serious discrimination, and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said, in terms, that the British Government had an obligation to introduce the legislation. The Minister, I am sure, will tell us that consultations are taking place. I agree with consultations; everything should be consulted on, but there should be a limit to the time in which that is done. I am very disappointed that, at the moment, the introduction of the regulation will take us past the end of this Parliament and into the next Parliament. I would like to see something done in this Parliament and I hope that the Minister will give us good news on that.
My final point is that it is never popular to stand up for people who have been grievously discriminated against. I am really pleased with the way in which a number of Members have raised the matter today. Discrimination is wrong in any circumstances and against anybody, and people should be treated with dignity and respect. Our purpose today is to get into British law that clear declaration; at the same time, that will give us the moral authority to talk to others about it. I hope that the Minister will agree to introduce regulations quickly. Above all, I hope she will agree to attend a meeting with the members of the all-party group, which I am sure others could also attend, so that we can have a longer discussion about the matter. The time has come to act and not delay.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Dr McCrea. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) for securing the debate, and I thank other hon. Members who made important contributions.
The Government have always said that there is no place for unlawful discrimination or prejudice in society. That applies to caste-related issues as much as it does to race, religion or belief. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) drew attention to instances of caste hostility and prejudice in our society, and I would like to make it clear how much the Government sympathise with people in such situations. The experience of such antagonism and exclusion from one’s own community must be incredibly distressing. My hon. Friend and others have urged the Government to press on with introducing legislation to make caste discrimination unlawful, and that is exactly what we are trying to do.
Many hon. Members will recall caste being debated during deliberations on the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill last year. It was the will of Parliament that a duty be imposed to make caste an aspect of race for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, and we are well aware of that duty. However, we are also aware that during parliamentary debate on this matter, speakers from all the main parties acknowledged that caste was a particularly sensitive and complex area. Some have suggested that caste legislation should be easy to introduce, but that is simply not the case. There are a number of complexities, and there is no general consensus on caste in the UK, even among communities that are most affected by it. Some have campaigned long and hard for the introduction of specific caste-related legislation, but others—who are equally well informed—do not believe that caste discrimination exists and consider that legislation is, therefore, unnecessary. That does not negate the duty on the Government and the votes in Parliament last year, but it means that we need to prepare a consultation document which, as far as possible, commands the confidence of the relevant groups.
In July 2013, we set out our timetable leading up to the introduction of caste legislation. The process was thorough and detailed, and it was designed to ensure that future legislation was fit and proper. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has been helpful in taking the initiative forward. To start the process, the EHRC commissioned some independent research into identifying a possible definition of caste. The research was also to consider which of the current exceptions for race would apply equally to caste, and to identify whether any new caste-specific exceptions should be included in legislation. The research was intended to inform the contents of the Government consultation that was due to be issued in spring 2014. However, although the EHRC duly published its initial research reports in February 2014, two issues arose earlier this year that have had significant implications for the public consultation.
The first was the unanimous agreement that whatever we did, we did not want to entrench people’s identification with a specific caste within society. That is why a review clause was included in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 to allow for future consideration of any caste provisions to make sure that they remain appropriate and necessary. That clause cannot be exercised until at least five years after the Act comes into force, which it did in May 2013. The EHRC had originally intended to commission a second research phase that would establish much-needed baseline data that could be used as a starting point for consideration of whether caste legislation was doing its job and stopping unlawful discrimination. Unfortunately, on further consideration the EHRC felt that that research would not be possible and that it might be intrusive and ruin good relations in communities. We have discussed those problems with the EHRC and we are now deciding how best to establish baseline data. We are conducting a feasibility study on the matter.
I am sorry, but I have no time and I have got a lot to talk about, so I will push on.
The second issue concerned a recent employment tribunal case, Tirkey v. Chandok, in which the tribunal found that caste already had legislative protection because it is inherently an aspect of the ethnic origins provision of race in the Equality Act. I want to make it clear that the finding of a single employment tribunal does not set any legally binding precedents for other tribunals. However, the decision reopens concerns that have been debated in Parliament about the extent to which the Government must recognise links between domestic equality law and our international obligations, the relationships between those obligations and future provisions covering caste discrimination, and how such provisions might be framed.
We believe that we need to address those two developments—the Tirkey case and the lack of baseline data—as thoroughly as possible for the purpose of the public consultation. We need to assess the feasibility of any further research into caste discrimination, given the limited success that previous researchers have had in producing clear, generally accepted evidence. We also need to assess the consequences if higher courts were to take the view that caste discrimination is already unlawful under the Equality Act, which might call into question the use of further, specific provision. That is why we have announced that the consultation will have to be put back until the autumn.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham has asked me to deal with three questions, which I will go into in a little detail although not in the order that he mentioned them. He asked whether the Government would involve the relevant groups and communities in the preparation of the public consultation document. Many groups have recently had the opportunity to take part in the research commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was published in the “Caste in Britain” reports. The Government have studied those carefully. I also look forward to the groups responding to the consultation and commenting on our proposals.
No, I will not; I have very little time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham asked me to confirm when I expected the consultation document to be published, and whether I expected any further delays. We anticipate that the consultation will happen later in the autumn. I am as anxious as he is to get on with it, and I do not expect any further delays.
The final question my hon. Friend asked was about why the timetable goes beyond the general election in May 2015. We set the timetable purely and simply because we felt that that was a sensible amount of time in which to do the job properly. It is a complicated and sensitive matter and we have to be careful. At the end of the day, we want to get it right. The process includes two full public consultations followed by debates on an affirmative order; it will take some time to do that exercise correctly.
I accept that the delay will disappoint certain Members, and others, but our duty to the public is to ensure that any legislation that the Government introduce meets the mandate given to us by Parliament. In this case, we need to ensure that legislation would provide thorough and proper protection for all those who need it and that the ongoing need for and merits of that legislation can be thoroughly and properly evaluated. To do that properly may take a while, but it is essential to get the detail of such important matters right. I hope that hon. Members present, and others, will have the patience to wait until we are able to consult fully later on this year.
I am very grateful. If I may, I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a direct question. She has talked through many reasons for delay; if the issue was discrimination based on gender or race, would she personally be as comfortable about the arguments for delay that she has presented today for those suffering discrimination based on caste?
All I can say is that I believe that any form of discrimination is absolutely unacceptable and I will seek to deal with it as quickly and effectively as possible. That relates to caste, colour, race or any form of discrimination, because it is abhorrent and I know how much hurt and damage it can cause.
Question put and agreed to.