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Westminster Hall

Volume 598: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2015

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 7 July 2015

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Coastal Flood Risk

I beg to move,

That this House has considered coastal flood risk.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I welcome the Minister to his role in the new Government.

I am glad to be able to raise the issue of coastal flooding in my first Westminster Hall debate. Normally, flooding gets little or no attention from Westminster until a major flooding incident occurs; then, politicians of all parties cannot get to the flooded communities quickly enough, armed with their wellies—or not, as was the case with the previous Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). Someone being forced to leave their home, seeing their possessions destroyed, or being unable to open their business is an extremely difficult thing for them to go through, so I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this issue.

We have seen several major flooding incidents over the past few years, several of which have caused huge disruption and devastation to many residents in my constituency, Great Grimsby. In December 2013, the east coast was hit by the largest tidal surge in 60 years. In June and July 2007, Yorkshire and Humberside was the region worst affected by the summer floods, which also affected coastal areas further down the east coast and across the south, as well as many inland areas. That was a consequence of the wettest summer on record. The floods in Grimsby last summer were also the result of exceptionally high rainfall, with some areas getting two weeks’ worth of rainfall in just one hour. Elsewhere, the early 2014 floods in the south-west and areas around the Thames came during the wettest winter on record.

What initially seemed like exceptional weather is quickly becoming the norm. According to the Met Office, four of the five wettest years in the UK since records began in 1910 have occurred in the 21st century. According to the Committee on Climate Change, sea levels around the UK coastline are now an average of 16 cm higher than they were at the end of the 19th century. It would be wrong to attribute each and every extreme weather incident to climate change, but it is clear that the climate is changing, and flooding is one of the main ways we are feeling the effects. History will repeat itself. We will see similar or even higher levels of rainfall and tidal surges, so are we doing enough to prepare?

Last week, the Committee on Climate Change reported on the progress being made under the national adaptation programme. The report is the first of its type and is required under the Climate Change Act 2008. The message in it is clear: the Government need to be taking much more urgent action to prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. As the Member who represents the most beautiful coastline in the UK, the Giant’s Causeway, I am particularly delighted to discuss the issue.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government must do much more on planning to prevent building in the floodplains along our coasts? There should be a moratorium—there should be no more building until the issues are resolved.

There is definitely a role for the Government in the planning rules for building on floodplains. Not enough consideration is given to the requirements on the builders of large numbers of new properties in such areas. There is clearly a role for the water companies as well, because there should be effective drainage in those areas. We need to increase the number of homes that we build throughout the country, so we must consider these factors.

One of the least controversial parts of the report by the Committee on Climate Change reads:

“Investment in flood and coastal defence assets will need to steadily increase in the future to counter the impacts of climate change.”

That was the consensus reached among all political parties following the devastation of the 2007 floods. Yet on coming into office in 2010, the previous Government abandoned that consensus and cut £100 million of funding from flood protection. Such short-sighted thinking is exactly the opposite of what is needed to protect against the effects of climate change.

After the 2013-14 floods, the Government made an additional £270 million available to repair and restore damaged flood defences. How much of that would have been needed had they not cut the budget in the first place? We will all be better off if we accept that these events are likely to become more frequent and so prepare ourselves better from now on.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has set out in detail its plans for capital investment in flood protection over the next six years, including the Grimsby docks flood defence scheme, which will protect more than 12,000 properties. Nevertheless, now that we are past the election, I urge the Government to support Labour’s call for an independent commission to set out flood defence spending in a much longer-term context. The Committee on Climate Change has said that the best-case scenario, on an assumption of 2° C of warming, would lead to at least an extra 45,000 properties being in the highest flooding risk category by the middle of the century. We know the future consequences of rising temperatures and sea levels. There should be parity between the length of time over which our adaptation strategy and our mitigation strategy are set out.

Although capital spending has been set out six years in advance, revenue spending on flood defences has been set only for the current financial year. With huge cuts to DEFRA’s budget coming in the Chancellor’s Budget statement tomorrow, many will be worried that funding to maintain existing defences will be further reduced. The National Audit Office reports that already half the nation’s flood defences are only minimally maintained. According to the Environment Agency, three quarters of defences around the Humber estuary are in less than good condition. On a visit in my constituency at the weekend, the council’s flood risk officers told me that as cracks in the sea defence walls appear each year, they are cementing over them by hand. We need investment in a continual maintenance programme. Will the Minister reassure us that his Government will put an end to the perverse situation in which new defences are put up while existing defences are crumbling?

As well as calling for greater investment in building and properly maintaining defences, the Committee on Climate Change said in its report that local authorities need to do more to manage the risk of surface water flooding by heavy rainfall. Following the floods in Grimsby last summer, North East Lincolnshire Council’s cabinet member for the environment, Dave Watson, is working with Anglian Water, along with his colleagues, to identify where flooding has resulted from Anglian’s infrastructure. They have recommended a change in maintenance practices or sewer upgrades to reduce the risk of flooding. But should not water companies be maintaining their systems in that way anyway? They are, after all, private monopolies. Is it not time the Government ensured that the companies do a bit more for the public they serve? They could start by ensuring that water companies provide better maintained drainage systems that can cope with heavy rainfall.

The Government must do all they can to minimise the risks of flooding, but the reality is that there will always be some people affected by it. It is therefore vital that Government relief reaches flood victims as quickly as possible. People in the Yarborough area of Grimsby are still recovering from the floods of last summer. Across the country, we saw delays in the Government stepping in to take action, and in getting relief funding out to affected residents and businesses. One example is the support promised to the fishermen in the south-west who were unable to work because of last year’s storms. Six months on from that extreme weather, just one fisherman has received any Government support. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have prepared a more effective relief programme for the next major flooding incident, both for providing immediate assistance while communities are flooded and for getting payments to them afterwards?

One major problem identified by North East Lincolnshire Council’s investigation into last summer’s floods was a lack of information for residents. The lack of transparency across the board on flooding is a major problem, and I will set out a few examples. First, there is a lack of a reliable warning system for surface water flooding. River flooding has a 27% false alarm rate, but surface water flooding has a 74% false alarm rate. Last year the lack of warning in Grimsby meant that the council was unable to make preparations in advance of the rainfall. The relevant agencies need to make a lot of progress in improving the warning system, and that is not something that local authorities can pursue on their own. Will the Minister update us on what the Government are doing to improve detection and warning systems?

North East Lincolnshire Council also identified a lack of awareness as a cause for avoidable disruption and stress for those who were flooded last year. Many property owners in high-risk areas do not know that they live on a floodplain, so many of those people were unprepared. With no plans for what to do in the event of a flood and many not knowing which organisation had responsibility for helping them, flood victims were left feeling that they were being passed from pillar to post as they contacted several different bodies before receiving assistance. We need to make people aware that their property is at risk of flooding and empower communities to protect themselves.

Finally on the subject of transparency, the Environment Agency in particular needs to do a far better job of opening up and starting to have conversations with local people. In my short time as a Member of Parliament so far, I have been contacted by several different constituents expressing their bemusement at actions taken by the agency. For example, more than 1,000 people have signed a petition to get the River Freshney dredged. The Environment Agency has rejected the proposal, saying that it is not a priority. At the same time, however, it has blocked planning permission for a housing development next to the river, because of the high flood risk. I am not saying that the Environment Agency is wrong in either of those decisions, because there might be good reasons for both, but the reasons have not been communicated to the communities that are ultimately affected by them.

Following the 2013-14 floods in the south-west, local people expressed considerable anger that the Environment Agency had failed to dredge the Rivers Parrett and Tone in the Somerset levels. The then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), agreed and said that the Environment Agency had “made a mistake”, in effect blaming it for the floods. His motivations were clear—he was directing the blame away from the Government for cutting funding to flood defences. The feeling among the local people was real, however, and the anger shown at the time should give the Environment Agency reason to become far more transparent. If dredging was not the right method in those circumstances, a more open, ongoing dialogue with local communities might have won them over to seeing that, or it might at least have given people an understanding of why the decision was made. Had dredging been appropriate, a two-way dialogue with local communities might have led to the realisation of that before the floods, preventing some of the devastation eventually caused.

In conclusion, the scale and regularity of floods in recent years have shown the costs of the failure to prepare for them, both financially and from the disruption and devastation caused to people’s lives. The Government need to be ahead of the curve and not wait for ever-more destructive flooding before taking the real preventive action that we need.

Order. We have six Members to speak, apart from the Labour party spokesman and the Minister. I want to get them all in, so will they please keep an eye on the clock? Please, on no account, speak for more than 10 minutes. I am sure that I can rely on the first speaker, Mr Martin Vickers, to obey my instructions implicitly.

Thank you, Sir Edward. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and it is particularly appropriate that you are in the Chair, because you know the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area well and have experienced flooding in your own constituency on a number of occasions.

Since the flood surge in December 2013 I have spoken in a series of debates on flooding, so today will seem a bit of an action replay as the debate continues in pretty much the same way. My constituency was badly hit; in the village of Barrow Haven virtually every home was flooded, and the New Holland and Goxhill area was particularly badly affected. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), whom I congratulate on securing the debate, is right that parts of Grimsby and the north end of Cleethorpes would have been severely affected had it not been for the actions of the port master at Grimsby to lower the levels in the dock. That saved thousands of homes in the north end and in the East Marsh area of Grimsby from flooding.

The 2013 surge was 1.93 metres higher than the one that killed 326 in the east coast floods of 1953. Since the 2013 tidal surge, the local authorities, the local enterprise partnership, the Environment Agency and local MPs from the Humber area have come together to produce a comprehensive document that is at present being mulled over by DEFRA officials. In reply to a recent question from me, the Secretary of State stated that there would be an announcement on any progress this month.

In last December’s autumn statement, the Chancellor announced the contribution of £80 million towards a proposed scheme, which is an adequate down payment. Yes, £1.2 billion is an enormous amount of money, but I emphasise that it is over a period of 17 years and it is essential for the people in my constituency and in neighbouring Grimsby, as well as to the south, that the work is carried out. The Environment Agency recently completed some flood defence work in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area, which is welcome, and it no doubt contributed to containing the surge 18 months or so ago. The context for the scheme is that it is a national one, not only local, and I emphasise that the £1.2 billion is for the whole of the Humber estuary. The scheme would protect an enormous number of homes and an important industrial and business area. The Grimsby-Immingham dock complex is, by tonnage, the largest port in the country. Without proper protection, those and other ports on the estuary are particularly vulnerable. A third of the country’s coal imports pass through Immingham, and the refineries there constitute 28% of UK refining capacity.

Based on best estimates, there will be another event with the potential to do as much damage as the December event. My constituents and those of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, as well as everyone throughout the Humber estuary, deserve protection equivalent to that for a once-in-50-years event, rather than the estimated existing once-in-200-years level. Associated British Ports—as I mentioned, the ports are crucial to the local and national economies—has produced a case study and a strategy document expressing its concerns and emphasising the importance of the Humber ports to the national economy. In December 2013, Immingham was out of action for about two and a half or three days. Had that been two and a half or three weeks, the impact on the local economy and the maintenance of power supplies would have been enormous.

The hon. Lady was somewhat critical of the previous DEFRA Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), but in fairness it is worth pointing out that he was in Immingham receiving reports from officials and local MPs, among others, within 36 hours of the December 2013 event. It was immediately recognised that the port was of great strategic importance to the country.

I appreciate that the timing of the debate is somewhat inconvenient, because the Budget statement is tomorrow. I therefore suspect that the Minister might not be as free as he would have been in a week or two’s time to give us details of how much more money the Chancellor will give us. Since the incident and the compiling of the report, MPs from throughout the Humber region have met with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister to urge them to commit to the scheme. I suspect that the Minister will be somewhat reluctant to say much—although Budget leaks are common these days, so he might like to give us advance warning that we will receive that cash.

It is an awful lot of money, but my constituents, those of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and those in the wider Lincolnshire area deserve adequate protection. It is fair to say that flooding issues have not been given the priority they deserve in recent years. Local knowledge—for example, from internal drainage boards or the farming community, which is particularly well versed in these matters—needs to be used as well as all the mapping and scientific data collected by the Environment Agency. We need to make better use of the farming community, to serve as flood wardens and the like.

My constituents in Barrow and New Holland live in fear. Twice in the past six years their homes have been flooded. That cannot be repeated. I urge the Minister to give us at least a hint of what might be coming in tomorrow’s Budget and commit to the £1.2 billion that is absolutely essential over the next 17 years.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing this important debate. I will make a couple of brief points related to my constituency.

As is the case with Grimsby, the main overall flooding risk for Hartlepool is the tidal flood risk from the North sea. A tidal flood risk mapping study carried out a couple of years ago identified two principal areas of tidal flood risk in Hartlepool. The first is in the area of the south marina and Church Street, where wave overtopping could lead to significant flooding of residential and commercial property, key roads such as Mainsforth Terrace, and the railway line and station. The second is on the headland, where it was projected that wave overtopping from the town wall defences could lead to significant flooding; in a worst case scenario, flooding could cut off the headland from the mainland.

In addition, in the Hartlepool area, Seaton snook and Greatham creek and beck discharge directly into the Tees estuary. Those watercourses are tidal and therefore vulnerable to rising sea levels, high tides and storm surges. Work is taking place to strengthen the sea defences on the town wall. In addition, a £10 million scheme, funded by the Environment Agency and Hartlepool Borough Council, will place concrete blocks on the existing sea wall from the Heugh gun battery to the far end of Marine Drive. That will help 500 households in the area.

Capital works are ongoing in my constituency, but I have a number of questions to the Minister. With coastal flooding risk, there is a need to be constantly vigilant. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby said, we are increasingly finding that defences meant to withstand a once-in-100-years incident are insufficient. Given increasing severity of flooding and additional flood risk from climate change, what further funding can be given to coastal defences in vulnerable areas such as Hartlepool?

Secondly, capital funding is very welcome, although I would question whether it is sufficient. However, as my hon. Friend so eloquently said, in many respects the effectiveness of sea defences will be based on adequate maintenance, and council budgets have been reduced by as much as 40%—certainly, that is the case for Hartlepool Borough Council—and are set to be squeezed even further. How will the Minister ensure that local authorities have appropriate resources to ensure that flooding risk is mitigated?

Hartlepool has a nuclear power station on the coast; there are plans both to extend the current station’s life and to build a replacement station. Given that the power station is an important part of the nation’s energy infrastructure, providing some 2% of Britain’s electricity generation at any one time, what additional resources and attention can be given to my area to ensure that that important strategic asset is not put at risk?

My final point is about the Heugh breakwater. The Heugh has protected much of Hartlepool from the North sea for many years. It is astonishing to watch the sea there. I encourage you, Sir Edward, and other hon. Members to come and have a walk along the promenade; you will see how fierce the North sea tides are as they bash in against the breakwater, and how effective the Heugh is at absorbing the strength of the waves, ensuring that Hartlepool bay is as flat as a pane of glass.

The Heugh is owned by a private company. Over many years now, it has been suggested that it would be acceptable to allow the final third of the breakwater to go to rack and ruin and fall into the sea. But people whose families have lived in the area for generations and know it well say that the impact of that on sea defences and flooding risk would be immense. The recently built sea defences I mentioned earlier will help to mitigate that. I know the Minister may not be aware of this particular case, but will he look at the importance of the Heugh breakwater for Hartlepool and see what can be done to preserve it?

This debate is incredibly important. Making sure we can mitigate the rising risk of flooding is absolutely essential. In recent years that has been a lower priority than it perhaps should have been, in my area and others. It is important that we mitigate the risks to ensure that businesses and residents are safe as far as is possible.

It is a pleasure to speak for the first time in this Chamber and to do so under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing this important debate.

It is important that we are talking about flooding in the middle of this warm and sunny July. For too long the problem has been that flooding has been discussed only when it is raining or the wind is blowing and the seas are at their most violent. From our experiences down in Somerset over the past few years we have learned that the key to protecting our countryside and towns from flooding is persistent effort rather than going from crisis to crisis.

On planning ahead, does the hon. Gentleman agree that although there is strong support for targeting areas that are currently affected, and strong empathy for those areas, if the Government are to think strategically on climate change, they should be looking 10 to 15 years ahead, and at areas that are currently not affected but probably will be in that time span? We really need to plan for the future.

I agree with hon. Gentleman to a degree. I invite him to join the queue of those of us seeking Government money to protect ourselves from flooding in our areas.

Today’s debate is focused on coastal flood risk, which is an important issue. In my constituency, the town of Burnham-on-Sea is often challenged by storm surges and violent seas. While campaigning in the area over the past few years, on a number of occasions I have seen people filling sandbags when there is not a raincloud in sight. However, the real challenge—and to this end it is interesting that representatives of areas in Lincolnshire and Somerset have opened the debate—is the confluence of high tides challenging coastal defences at the same time as heavy rain inland. That has certainly happened on a number of occasions in Somerset, and the challenges it poses grow ever more acute.

There are therefore three key points that I will focus on this morning. The first is the importance of continuing to invest in and reinforce coastal flood defences. In Somerset, our efforts are currently focused on having some sort of barrier to protect the Parrett, which would defend the whole of the low-lying Somerset levels from high tides. Having just been elected to the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, I will use this opportunity to put in the Minister’s mind the idea of another barrier, further out to sea, that could lagoon the Bridgwater bay as an energy generation scheme while also providing some much-needed coastal flood protection.

My second point is about the importance of sensible planning. Although there is huge sympathy across the whole of Somerset for those who were flooded last year, there is still not yet acceptance in our county—I suspect this is the case in many other counties around the country—that tackling flooding is not simply a problem for those who live on the low ground but a responsibility of those living up on the hills as well. Upland councils across the country need to pay greater heed to the importance of attenuation, in particular, so that planning policy ensures that water can be held upstream as much as possible rather than simply running down on to the low ground.

On maintaining inland waterways and drains, I must ever so slightly challenge the criticism from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby of the Government’s response to the flooding in Somerset in 2014. My experience is that there has been a fantastic response to our county’s problems, with tens of millions of pounds put into the effort there. There has been great success in dredging our waterways and drains.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but that came after a major incident that gathered national news. That is the only reason his area received the funding. Other areas around the country are equally, if not more, at risk of flooding, and they need funding for preventive work. That is what I am asking for today.

The frustration locally was that the flooding came after more than a decade of under-investment in local flooding protection schemes. The dredging has been a great success. Farmers and local communities report that the water moved off the land much more quickly this winter, so the dredging had an immediate benefit. The improvement of local pumping infrastructure has also been well received, and water has been moving more quickly out to sea.

I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, but I was at a meeting of the all-party group on flood prevention—I thought I should make it quorate before coming here.

Did my hon. Friend see the satellite photograph of the Bristol channel at the time of the floods 18 months ago? It showed a plume of soil going out into the sea, which gives credence to his point that we need to take an holistic view in areas such as Somerset and, no doubt, in Lincolnshire too. That needs to be about dealing with not only the problem in rivers such as the Parrett, but land use in the hills surrounding areas such as the Somerset levels. When maize and other crops are planted in the wrong place, Somerset ends up in the Bristol channel.

I absolutely agree: we cannot tackle flooding simply by dredging a river, building an attenuation pond or building better flood defences—taking a dynamic, holistic approach to managing the whole area is key. Within that, it is important to recognise what land is used for, and farmers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the impact of what they plant on their land and its ability to hold water.

I am pleased the hon. Gentleman responded in the way he did to the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon); he is absolutely right.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Environment Agency did offer the local authority money for dredging—I am not sure of the figure, but I think it was about £7 million—but the local authority rejected it?

I have a suspicion that the hon. Gentleman may be better informed about that than me, and it is not within my expertise to comment on it. However, it would be churlish not to recognise that in the wake of the flooding in 2014, there was fantastic investment, which has put right the lack of investment that we saw—for whatever reason—over the previous decades. That investment has been most welcome.

The key point I would make is that the response to the flooding in Somerset, where there was a confluence of high tides and heavy rain inland, allied with out-of-date flood protection infrastructure and land use that was perhaps unwise, saw the emergence of the Somerset Rivers Authority. At the authority’s heart is the belief that the solution was a locally sensitive, dynamic organisation that would tackle the causes of flooding across the entire catchment area. That is welcome, although I should report to the Minister that there are, I am afraid, still some conflicts between the community and conservationists. However, I am sure he will agree that, when push comes to shove, the community and local business must win out on this issue.

Finally, I have a request for the Minister. His Department has been looking at enduring options for funding the Somerset Rivers Authority. Will he update us on what point those options have reached and whether the Department is close to being able to offer Somerset County Council its recommendations on how the authority should be funded in the future?

It is vital that we talk about flooding year round, not just when it rains or when the seas are high.

Of course, Sir Edward.

The impact of flooding on the Somerset economy, and particularly tourism, has been profound. The people of Somerset have been encouraged by all that has been done to help us over the last few years, but the Minister’s commitment to provide future help would be most welcome.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am pleased to take part in this important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) for securing it.

Like other Members, I think it is important that the Government put in place measures to deal with coastal flooding and the coastal erosion it causes, not just when they happen, but beforehand, to try to mitigate their impact. Although weathering, the denudation of the land, coastal erosion and floods, which are a consequence of the confluence of storms, tidal surges and heavy rain, are very much natural phenomena, they have been accentuated and accelerated by climate change, which is the result of man’s inhumanity to the environment.

This is an interesting debate, but the emphasis has been on the Government doing x, y and z. Surely, there is a role for other agencies—a cocktail of agencies—to work together in partnership to deal with these issues.

I do not disagree, but the Government need to set the priorities and the strategic policy. Other agencies, along with local communities and councils, need to spell out their particular requirements so that we can determine the best interests of the wider public and what planning policy should be, and so that we can ensure that we protect our environment and our local economy.

In the last Parliament, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which I was a member of, dealt with flooding. The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who may have been the Minister then, talked to us about the issue, and we asked the Government to assess the possibility of a transition to a total expenditure classification for flood and coastal risk management to allow funding to be targeted at local priorities. We also looked at the Flood Re insurance scheme. Obviously, those issues have to be developed, and I look forward, as an incoming member of the Committee in this Parliament, to discussing any outstanding issues and to giving the Government a plan they might wish to consider, notwithstanding what may be in tomorrow’s Budget.

The challenges of climate change are great, with coastal flooding one of the most pressing we face. The marked increase in storms and tidal surges is leading to coastal flooding, at a cost to residents, businesses and farmers. Rising sea levels are a particular issue in my constituency, as climate change leads to coastal surges and rising tide levels in the Irish sea. Government agencies have undoubtedly focused their efforts on erosion in areas close to roads, and they have carried out work, but the problem extends far beyond that. We are experiencing serious, irreversible environmental damage along our coastline. That is having not only a long-term impact, but an immediate impact on businesses, residents and farmers. They may find that they have less land this year than they did two or three years ago and that sewer pipes have been exposed on the coastline. A premier links golf course in my constituency cannot get planning permission at the moment; those concerned are looking for rock armour to protect it from the impact of climate change and the effects of coastal flooding and erosion. There is a need for a sensible path forward, to enable the economy to grow and the environment to be protected, and so that we do not lose funding as a consequence.

In my experience Departments will go a certain distance, but then they and the Crown Estate commissioners invoke the Bateman formula, which says that Departments are each individually responsible for the land in their own territory. As a consequence, there is no joined-up thinking on the matter, whether in central Government or the devolved regions, so—notwithstanding budgetary issues for the Government and the devolved region’s responsibilities—they need to come together at a climate summit to tackle this important issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby has already suggested a Government climate change risk assessment and national adaptation plan, and that is another collaborative approach. That is needed to prepare the UK for the impact of global warning. It is urgently required to safeguard the environment, to protect the economy, individuals, families and farming and rural communities, and to make provision for financial growth and job creation.

I urge the Minister to spell out directly the direction of future Government action with the devolved regions, and to explain how we will move along the path of climate change mitigation and protection of our local natural environment.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) for bringing the matter to the Chamber. The presence of so many hon. Members whose constituencies have requirements relevant to the debate shows its importance for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is nice to see the shadow Minister the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) in his place; we always look forward to his speeches. I especially welcome the Minister and look forward to hearing how he will respond to our requests.

There will not be many in this place who have not heard me rave about the unrivalled beauty of my constituency, Strangford. Those who have been there will agree with me about it, and will want to return to visit it again. It is truly a gem in the crown of Northern Ireland. It has perhaps—no, not perhaps—the most beautiful, majestic and breathtaking landscapes and shorelines in the entire United Kingdom. That is a fact, and it is a pleasure to put it on record. However, to quote a superhero film that my boys love,

“With great power comes great responsibility”,

and the power of the sea off the Irish coast has brought coastal erosion, which has a great impact on homes and businesses along the coastline of Strangford. For that reason I am very thankful to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby for bringing the issue to the attention of hon. Members.

I want to outline the effect of coastal erosion in my constituency and to conclude by asking the Minister about the strategic response. The problem has risen to a head with massive storms and tides. I and some concerned councillors felt we had to hold a public meeting, at the community house in Ballyhalbert, a beautiful seaside village on the Ards peninsula. I highlighted the fact that it is beyond time for a strategic plan on coastal erosion and better co-ordination between Departments. The matter is devolved to Northern Ireland, but we have tried to consider a strategic response and a way to co-ordinate the response between the regions, as well as to co-operate with Europe. Also taking part in the meeting were Diane Dodds MEP, Michelle McIlveen MLA and Councillors Adair and Edmund, along with the chief executive of Ards and North Down Borough Council, Stephen Reid. All of them have been seeking action on the issue, as have I and the many constituents who took the time to attend the meeting on a wet, windy and inhospitable day. It was abundantly clear that the public need action. It is not too often that there is such co-operation between bodies in Northern Ireland, but it was good to see it, and it highlights how essential the issue is.

Hon. Members may not know the areas on which I am focusing, but it is the same general picture for all UK coastal areas. The storm of the winter before last meant extra costs of some £800,000 for the Department for Regional Development, or Transport NI as it is now called. The road replacement at Whitechurch Road in Ballywalter cost £280,000; the damage to the Shore Road in Ballyhalbert cost £36,000; Roddens Road cost £86,000; and road repairs were needed at Portaferry Road, Ards, Greyabbey and Kircubbin. The total was in excess of £800,000. What was a once-in-100-years flood became a once-in-20-years or once-in-18-years flood. The frequency then came down to once in three years; flooding now seems to happen with shocking regularity, and the need for money for repairs is building up.

Frustration reigns—and all hon. Members who have spoken have alluded to that. Transport NI, the Department of the Environment, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Rivers Agency or the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development cannot or will not accept responsibility for damage to property or take action to prevent flooding. At the Saltwater Brig in Kircubbin in my constituency, high tides led to damage to many houses and business properties; and insurance claims for that small area were in excess of £100,000. The council had a small role to play, and had a small sum of money that it could give to those who made contact immediately. It was a small sum in relation to some of the insurance claims, but it gave people £1,000, which at least enabled them to find alternative accommodation at short notice.

It is now obvious that someone needs to take control. After discussions with the chief executive of Ards and North Down Borough Council, it is intended that the council will be the conduit to pull together all Departments and to address what is needed and what the council priorities should be. That is one of the things that we set about doing. No longer will we be using sticking plasters, or putting a finger in the dyke. As flooding caused by coastal erosion becomes regular and commonplace, we need longer term action, as otherwise flooding will have an impact on the life of the community, on the accessibility of the road network, and the potential of tourism to deliver more jobs and boost the economy; it would be a tragedy if coastal erosion were to hold that back.

I would like the Minister to talk about the role of Europe. I believe it has a strong role to play, and that is why we invited a Member of the European Parliament as well as councillors and a Member of the Legislative Assembly to the meeting that we held. We need a strategic response. The newly installed chief executive of Ards and North Down Borough Council has given a commitment to initiate a study on the impact of coastal erosion, and to prepare. Prevention is the correct policy; that will address the massive expenditure that has resulted from high tides and storms. That strategy must be implemented UK-wide with additional funding from and the co-operation of Europe. I hope that that will be the outcome of today’s debate—that it will be a look at how we can do things better.

Many residents have conveyed their concerns to me, and given that my constituency is bounded by the Irish sea and Strangford lough—it has the longest coastline in Northern Ireland, taking in almost three quarters of my constituency—that is no surprise. We need to highlight the seriousness of the situation, given the severe weather conditions that often hit our coastlines, and then take action to preserve our beautiful coastline and people’s homes, livelihoods and lives. We are attempting to take action locally, but today’s debate and the speeches from all parties and regions of the United Kingdom show that we need funds to enable us to address the issue adequately. We need a UK-wide strategy on coastal erosion, involving all regions, DEFRA, DARD and the European Union. Europe has a vital role to play and must be part of the solution.

I call Liz Saville Roberts. There is still another speaker after you, so it would be good if you could try to finish by roughly 10.20 am.

Thank you very much, Sir Edward, for calling me to speak. I will be brief.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing the debate, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I have listened with great interest to the previous contributions. This is the first time that I have spoken in Westminster Hall, and it is a delight to do so.

A number of communities, large and small, in my constituency have been contacted as part of the consultation on the regional shoreline management plan and alerted to potential flooding threats. I understand that there are 787 residential properties and 710 non-residential properties at high risk of flooding in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and it is mainly a coastal threat. It should be noted that the third best beach bar in the world, Ty Coch at Porthdinllaen, is named by its owners, the National Trust, as a potential loss in the next 50 years; the bar is possibly a poster boy for the dangers of global warming. Also, if anyone is enthusiastic about golf, I recommend that they visit Porthdinllaen, which is one of the most beautiful places in my region.

I shall refer to one particular community, Fairbourne, on Cardigan bay. Residents have recently established a group, Fairbourne Facing Change, and have worked alongside the local authority, Cyngor Gwynedd, in response to concerns arising from sensationalist media reports in 2014 about the potential impact of combined coastal and river flooding. The local authority has committed to protecting the community for the next 40 years, but the saleability of properties remains a challenge.

I wish to raise three specific issues. First, I draw Members’ attention to an innovative buy and leaseback feasibility study in relation to the village of Fairbourne, which will be reported back to the National Assembly of Wales.

Secondly, there are issues related to the saleability of properties. Mortgage providers appear to be committed to a set period of residual life before being prepared to lend against a property. If it is perceived that a house has a residual life of, say, less than 60 years—that is not a formally identified figure, but it seems to be a working number—the property is assessed as having nil value. It would be beneficial if mortgage lenders were prepared to accommodate shorter periods when there is a commitment to protect communities, and if a Government body were to provide a guaranteed value for a period of years to be realised at the end of a mortgage. Of course, that idea will be considered in the feasibility study that I mentioned.

Thirdly, and importantly for my constituency, I remind Members of the significance of the work that Network Rail does locally. I imagine that it does similar work in other communities as well. In our case, the work relates to the Cambrian coast railway line. It should be noted that maintaining the line from Machynlleth to Pwllheli serves both as a transport function and effectively as a sea barrier against extreme weather. We saw that 18 months ago in Barmouth, when the railway line effectively protected the town from flooding. It is essential that the Cambrian coast railway line is safeguarded for the future, for both those reasons.

It is important to mitigate the effects of flooding and to consider and address the wider implications of flooding for people’s lives. I reiterate what was said earlier about the need for co-ordinated action between the devolved nations and the Government here in Westminster.

Thank you so much, Sir Edward, for just squeezing me in at the end.

I am delighted to be at this debate, which is so pertinent for Somerset, where I come from. I thank the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for her pertinent points about what is going on in Wales. I will be very brief.

Yes, we had a crisis because of the floods last year—the worst flooding in our area for 200 years—but because of the joint effort of everybody working together, we got over that crisis, and I welcome the support that we received from the Government. The Burrowbridge wall is just unbelievable to drive past—it is a huge flood protection wall that has been put in place.

I will put in a bid for the Somerset Rivers Authority. There is debate going on this very week back in my constituency about how that authority will be run, how people will work together to provide flood protection in future, and how that flood protection will be funded. That is essential for what we call the wider catchment work, which many Members have referred to. That is attenuation work, which means having ponds and the right crops and trees up in the hills to stop the water rushing off the ground so fast. It also means looking out for what happens in the towns, so that when we have heavy rain all the water does not suddenly rush off the ground to the Somerset levels and out to sea, crossing our coastal area, where the tide is coming up at the same time. I ask the Minister to look carefully at what the authority will bring him, and I urge the Government to continue to support the funding of protection on the Somerset levels, particularly the Somerset Rivers Authority project, because it will be a model for many other areas.

This is my first time speaking in Westminster Hall, too, and I do so on a pertinent issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing the debate. I represent a coastal community that is surrounded on three sides by the sea, so this issue is particularly close to my heart.

Of course, coastal flooding is a particular problem in England, with 5 million properties in England potentially being affected by it, and we have heard from hon. Members about some of the extreme weather that has impacted on their constituencies.

I will pick up on what hon. Members from Northern Ireland, including the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), have said about the devolved nations. I will talk about where we can learn from one another, which is quite important. Similarly, one hon. Member from Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), talked about Europe.

Let me talk for a minute about Scotland, where the situation is a little bit different from the situation elsewhere. Our topography is slightly different, but that is not to say that we have not been affected by the devastating impact of changes in the climate, extreme weather and flooding.

The environment is largely a devolved matter in Scotland, and flood risk management has been a priority for the Scottish Government, who have invested quite heavily in flood defences and maintained and protected funding for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. We have also looked at developing a national picture of flood risk across Scotland, which will help us with investment efforts in the future.

The subject of my first question was raised by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). Will the Minister give us a slight insight into tomorrow’s Budget? I ask because we are worried about cuts to the budget for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, especially at this time. The UK’s own climate change risk assessment of 2012 said that one of the biggest challenges in the UK will be flooding and water shortage. So can the Minister tell us why there is a possibility of DEFRA’s budget being cut, and what impact such a cut might have on the Scottish Government?

May I offer the hon. Gentleman some comfort, albeit without having any knowledge of what is happening to the DEFRA budget? At times of great austerity, DEFRA managed to protect the flood funding budget; in fact, it spent more on flooding than any Government had in any previous year.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, and I am glad that the situation reflected what was going on north of the border; I know that he had a good working relationship with the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, Richard Lochhead. We need to talk about this issue, to find out how we can learn from one another across these islands as we face the challenges of climate change.

The hon. Member for South Down said that we were facing a situation arising from “man’s inhumanity to the environment”. We are seeing the devastating impact that that is having on communities across these islands, and further afield. That is why we are interested in looking at climate justice, and considering not only adaptation to climate change but mitigation of it. We also need to consider how climate change impacts on people beyond these shores.

We are seeing the increased impact of climate change. We have taken action in Scotland through our national coastal change assessment and our national picture of flood risk. I ask the Minister what he can he learn from us and what we can learn from him. I urge that the issue is treated as a priority, because it is a priority for communities across these islands. We must continue to invest in flood defences.

Sir Edward, it is always a great pleasure to speak in any debate chaired by you, given your wise counsel, but today I specifically thank my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), not only for raising a very important subject but for doing so with great aplomb and the sort of attention to detail that I imagine will endear her to her constituents for many years to come.

I am keen to get off to the right start with the new Minister, so I begin by saying that it is really good that there is a Government Department that takes coastal defence risk seriously. I might think that it is a shame that that Department is the Ministry of Defence and not the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and as a former distinguished Chair of the Defence Committee the Minister might feel that that is a point of welcome contact between us and that we can work from there.

The Defence Estates special focus investigation on flood implications for MOD locations set out plans to abandon the Hythe and Lydd ranges, valued at £200 million, which are next to the flood-prone Romney marshes on the south coast. A report released under freedom of information regulations states:

“The MOD estate will be exposed to greater risk as a consequence of climate change…Many sites, both inland and coastal, are vulnerable to flooding...Climate change and sea level rise means that defending coastlines is becoming more costly and technically difficult. The increasing cost of maintenance means that existing defences may be abandoned in areas with low population or fewer tangible assets.”

The Hythe and Lydd ranges, known as DTE SE—defence training estate south-east—form

“the principal area for operational training. The range complexes comprise the most extensive collection of urban training facilities in Europe and extremely varied terrain. This makes the region unique in its training provision.”

Paragraph 6.9 of the report shows that the Ministry has examined the possibility of locating the training facility elsewhere, but that

“capital costs and compulsory purchase issues aside, this size of space cannot be replicated in another part of the UK, simply because an area the size required to translocate these facilities…is not available.”

Sea level rises and the increasingly severe and frequent extreme weather in the UK show that climate change is an issue not just of national wellbeing but of national and global security. The threat that climate change poses to our ability to live well is growing in many parts of the UK, particularly on our coasts. The risk has risen because of human activity, but until recently people acted in ignorance, and therefore innocence, of the effects of their action on future generations. However, our failure to act today, with the full knowledge of the cost of our inaction, is, in the words of the Pope, “a sin against ourselves”, a sin against the world.

That other fine Catholic in another place, Lord Deben, chair of the Committee on Climate Change, has pointed out that it is unnatural for us to act like ostriches, but it is also irresponsible and immoral. The committee’s first statutory report to Parliament on the Government’s progress in preparing the UK for the impacts of climate change was published last week. It shows that the Government have taken the ostrich approach.

I will get to the committee’s findings in a moment, but first I want to raise two points that appear to me to show the Government’s disregard for their responsibility to protect our economy and wellbeing from the impacts of climate change. First, the Government were asked to put up a Minister to speak at the launch of the committee’s two progress reports. They chose not to. Secondly, no Minister currently has responsibility for climate change adaptation. The role has been handed to a part-time Lord and DEFRA “spokesperson”, whatever that means. It certainly does not mean a Minister of the Crown.

The Conservative-led coalition removed climate change adaptation from DEFRA’s priorities, and this Government have removed ministerial oversight. That is serious. Tens of thousands of homes, critical energy and transport infrastructure and many towns and cities in England are located on the coastal floodplain. The Government’s failure to take adaptation seriously is an insult to all of them.

We know that our efforts to reduce flood risk in the past have saved the lives of those who live on the coastal floodplain, as well as billions of pounds potential damage. No one died as a direct result of the 2013 tidal surge event, whereas the tidal surge of a similar magnitude in 1953 killed 307 people. Improved flood defence structures and reliable early warning systems protected hundreds of thousands of homes and ensured that 18,000 people were evacuated. However, many coastal communities were balancing on a knife edge during the 2013-14 winter floods. The fact is that defences protecting thousands of homes and critical infrastructure, not to mention much of the city of Hull, almost failed.

The Committee on Climate Change addressed a couple of simple questions on climate change adaptation. First, is there a plan? The answer that the committee gave was yes, but that it is inadequate. Secondly, are actions taking place? The answer was yes, but they are not time-bound and most are not being measured. Thirdly, are those actions reducing the risk of failure of our critical infrastructure and loss of life? Answer: no. That is the view of the Government’s independent Committee on Climate Change, set up to advise the Government on these matters.

Over the past four years there has been under-investment in flood and coastal risk management. I am sorry that the former Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), is no longer in his place, because I want to rebut his words specifically. He said that there had been an increase in investment under the last Government. There was not. Over the past four years there has been under-investment totalling more than £200 million. The graphs are there for all to see in the report by the Committee on Climate Change. I counsel the Minister to have a look at those graphs; the graphs and the bar charts showing what was spent are all there.

The committee states:

“Due to this underinvestment, expected annual flood damage will be higher now than it was in 2010.”

That is a direct quote from the Committee on Climate Change. Against that evidence, can the Minister please justify his insistence and that of ministerial colleagues that flood risk has been reduced over the past five years? He will know that the only way in which that claim can in any way be substantiated is through the fact that those at low risk and very low risk of flood damage have been taken out of the equation, but those at significant, high or very high risk of flooding have seen that risk increase.

Only 77 local planning authorities out of 340—23%—have local flood risk plans. Of the 20 local authorities in England that have the highest number of households at risk from river or coastal flooding, 17 do not have adopted plans in place under the national planning policy framework. What is the Minister doing to ensure that all local planning authorities have those plans in place?

The Committee on Climate Change has identified that the Government have no plan to reduce flood risk to properties already protected by coastal defences. That means that as sea levels rise because of climate change, the chance that those defences will be overtopped or fail is increasing. However, the Government are focusing only on improved emergency evacuation planning. Why have the Government not informed coastal communities that they should be prepared for increasingly frequent evacuations as flood risk increases because of climate change?

Since 2001, 27% of floodplain development—that equates to 68,000 new homes—has been in areas with a one in 100 or greater annual chance of flooding, and about 23,000 new homes have been built in areas with a high likelihood of flooding; that is a one in 30 or greater annual chance of flooding even where flood defences are in place. Can the Minister explain why all the Government’s planning assumes that that development is not taking place? That is their own stated assumption behind their figures.

Ports handle 95% of the country’s imports and exports by volume. Half of the UK’s port capacity is located on the east coast, where the risk of damage from a tidal surge is greatest. However, it is not clear what improvements in flood protection have been made, or are planned to be made, to Britain’s ports. Some ports, having participated in the first round of reporting under the compulsory adaptation reporting power, have decided not to provide an update as part of round 2. Will the Minister confirm which ports have not reported in round 2, but did report in the first round?

Why was the risk of coastal erosion not mentioned in the Planning Inspectorate’s assessment of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station? Coastal defences can fail, as we saw during the 2013-14 winter storms at Dawlish, which has been mentioned in the debate. Projections suggest that the length of the rail network exposed to coastal erosion will increase from 11 km to 38 km by 2050 and to 62 km by 2100. What are the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Transport doing to address that?

When will the Government release the findings of the national resilience review that was launched in response to the 2013-14 floods? Only two of the six wetland priority habitat types currently meet the 90% target for being in a favourable or recovering condition. The Minister will know that, as well as being extremely important for wildlife, those habitats play an important role in buffering sea defences from waves and storm surges. Only 37% of floodplain and coastal marsh is in favourable or recovering condition, and there is currently no process for reporting progress against the Government’s target. That should be a priority for DEFRA from the point of view not only of flood risk, but of habitats and the wider environment. Does the Minister expect to meet his 2020 targets in those areas?

It is the duty of Government to provide strong leadership and the investment that is required to ensure that all parts of the country and all sectors of the economy adapt effectively to climate change. Coastal flooding is not a stand-alone risk; combined with fluvial and surface water flood risk, the effect can be devastating. The Government have not risen to the challenge of matching the risk that we face.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) for securing this important debate. Flooding is one of the biggest challenges that the nation faces, and it is of immense importance, particularly in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

Coastal flooding on the east coast is particularly extreme. Hon. Members from all over the country have made moving speeches, but it is difficult to think of any communities that face a more extraordinary collection of challenges than those on the Humber. Events that normally affect coastal flooding, such as low pressure zones and the height of the tides—this year, tides are at an 18-year high—combine with the geography of the east coast of England and the very low-lying land to make the Humber particularly vulnerable. It is good that hon. Members have focused on that problem.

In his good speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) made an analogy with the tidal surge of 1953 and pointed out that the 2013 coastal surge in the Humber was 1.93 metres higher. Although that is true, the coastal surge in 1953 resulted in the flooding of 24,000 properties and the death of more than 300 people; in contrast, in 2013, despite the fact that the surge was much higher, only 2,800 houses were flooded, no lives were lost and—perhaps most importantly for the Government—156,000 properties were protected on the Humber.

The tone of the debate has been, understandably, concerned and occasionally negative, but it is worth bearing in mind the fact that the Environment Agency and the Flood Forecasting Centre have made huge progress in making us safer against flooding. The basic arguments made by right hon. and hon. Members can be divided into three categories: the value of that which we protect from floods, the threat posed by the floods and our response to those floods. Our response includes advance prevention; capital and investment and maintenance to ensure that flood defences are in place; recovery measures; and, underlying everything—and as raised by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby—forecasting.

In the short time available, I will try to touch on all those issues. Powerful arguments have been made about the economic value of that which we protect from flooding. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes focused on the unique industrial base around his constituency, and the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) drew attention to power generation in his. More fundamental than the economic importance of these areas, however, is the protection of human lives. As the Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border, I have, like everyone in this room, seen the impact of floods, and it is extraordinary to experience something that feels so biblical. I have seen families staring in disbelief at their possessions floating on the floodwater. I have witnessed the terror, the risk to people’s lives, and the complete upset of the ordinary relationship between land and water that flooding causes. We have an obligation, in a time of climate change, to make sure that that does not persist.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) described the £800,000 of damage caused by flooding to transport infrastructure in Northern Ireland, which illustrates the problems that flooding can cause in the absence of proper prevention. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) described the damage done in their constituencies by uncontained flooding. Their contributions bring us to the central question of flood response, which can be broken down into prediction, prevention, emergency response and recovery.

I am delighted to welcome to Westminster Hall the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), who is following in the footsteps of his distinguished predecessor. He and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd raised some constitutional issues. As both hon. Members are aware, we are discussing a fully devolved issue, but one on which we can learn from each other. One of the great advantages of devolution has been the opportunity to look at each other’s approaches, particularly for my Department. The environment was one of the earliest things to be devolved, so we have been able to learn from Wales on recycling and from Zero Waste Scotland. I hope that we can learn from each other when it comes to flood insurance schemes, and there are certainly things that we can learn from Scotland on planning.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) raised a serious question about strategic thought. Governments are not always as good at strategic thought as they could be, but I am more reassured about the approach to flooding than I am about other aspects of government. The Environment Agency has a 100-year plan for shoreline management, which is a much more expansive and long-term form of planning than we are accustomed to.

In my contribution, I indicated the need to bring Government bodies together. In particular, we need to reach outside local government, regional government and Westminster towards Europe. Has the Minister given any thought to how we can best do that? In meetings in my constituency, we have brought all those people together. There is a European aspect to the long-term strategic response, so we need to involve Europe. Will the Minister give us some thoughts on that?

I am happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and talk about his experience in his constituency. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby talked about detriment to fishermen, and European funds have contributed £400,000 to repairing the damage to fishing equipment that has been caused by extreme flooding events. There are many more ways in which Europe can participate, and I would be interested to hear about the hon. Gentleman’s experience.

Partnership is at the core of everything that we are trying to do. We are finding ways to bring together the excellent work of the Environment Agency, the genuine concerns of local authorities, the knowledge of people such as farmers—my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes has touched on that—and the private sector. Port authorities are highly profitable private industries, which have an obligation to invest in their own capital infrastructure.

Does the Minister agree that in areas such as mine, where the railway line at Rufford is at risk from flooding, Network Rail should contribute financially to the internal drainage board, which is on the table, and not leave the matter in the hands of farmers and rate payers?

That is an interesting proposal. I do not want to be bounced into looking at something that I have not thought about, but the basic principle behind my hon. Friend’s suggestion is correct. One would want all those stakeholders to contribute to IDBs. I would be interested to see whether that would work for Network Rail, and I would be happy to sit down with my hon. Friend and talk about that in more detail.

At the heart of the contributions by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and the shadow Minister was the question of resources. The discussion is becoming a slightly tedious one in which statistics are played back and forth. As the shadow Minister will be aware, because he has heard us say it again and again, we have invested more resources in flooding, in cash terms and in real terms, than the previous Labour Government did during their last five years.

This has been an interesting debate, but there have been suggestions that flood defence spending is at least £500 million below what is needed to keep pace with increased floods and rising sea levels. How do the Minister and his Department intend to address that, notwithstanding tomorrow’s Budget and its implications?

What exactly does the hon. Lady mean? Does she mean that there should be a particular target such as a once-in-100-years, a once-in-75-years or a once-in-200-years flood risk? How exactly would she weigh up expenditure on two or three isolated houses against other forms of expenditure? I ask because the Environment Agency runs extremely complex and serious models to try to get the right relationship between Government spending, public spending and the risk on the ground. Our models show that we have improved the level of flood protection by about 5%, rather than just keeping up with it, so I am interested in the source of her statistic. If she would like to sit down with me, I would be happy to discuss it in more detail.

I will try to be brief, but I want to enlighten the Minister on the question of funding. Simply, the projections are based on the peak year of 2010, after which there was an initial cut of some £200 million in the following two years. The Government then amended that figure for restoration, which was emergency funding. The bar charts and graphs produced by the Committee on Climate Change show that that funding bumped the figures above the original projected gain line. The Environment Agency has put in two new lines below that level, but those lines are deemed to be “best possible” and “rather optimistic” scenarios by the Committee on Climate Change. I recommend that the Minister looks at the reports and graphs by the Committee on Climate Change because they explain the situation in some detail and show exactly what the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) said.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I looked at the reports by the Committee on Climate Change because he, or somebody else, tried to submit an urgent question. I reassure him that I am the responsible person in the Department because I was being prepared for that urgent question on the climate adaptation report.

The central issue for this debate is not simply whether we define the emergency funding as part of the Government spend over the past five years; it is, at least from my point of view, that the six-year commitment in Government spending has allowed us to do much smarter long-term planning. The Environment Agency has done that well, and we were able to make considerable savings. It is a real model. Whoever is in government next—including the shadow Minister, if he were to take over—the most important thing is ensuring that the Treasury makes such long-term settlements, which have completely transformed the way we do our capital planning.

I thank the Minister for his reflections on where we can learn from each other across these islands. Does he see an opportunity for greater European co-operation in his long-term planning? The importance of the European Union was raised earlier by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Is this an area where we should be deepening our co-operation with the European Union, and is that part of his planning for the future?

In theory, I am very comfortable with that suggestion; in practice, a great deal of this is extremely local. There are four fundamental types of flooding in Britain, and a lot of that flooding is governed by specific weather patterns and geography. Much of the mitigation is governed by local knowledge, but of course I would be interested if the hon. Gentleman has ideas that he would like to share, particularly from Europe.

In the limited time available, I will touch on the four main issues raised by hon. and right hon. Members today. Those issues seem to fall into the categories of new technical solutions, the prioritisation of flood spending, emergency response and recovery. On new technical solutions, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby raised the question of dredging, particularly in relation to Freshney. My hon. Friends the Members for Wells and for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) talked about upland attenuation. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells also raised the issue of barrages, and the hon. Member for Hartlepool talked about the Heugh breakwater.

Different technical solutions have been proposed. I am happy if hon. Members want to take up those proposals and see why the Environment Agency is pursuing other technical solutions and has different views on the breakwater at Heugh, for example. I assure the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that we will look again at Freshney in this financial year, and she will of course be aware that dredging is not a solution in all cases and can lead to higher and quicker movements of water downstream. Upland attenuation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells will be aware, can help in limited areas but is not suitable for large catchment areas and extreme flooding events.

Prioritisation is partly a question of perception. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, for example, raised the concerns of farmers in Barrow. We have committed £4.6 million towards the £6 million scheme that will directly address the needs of the farmers of Barrow. The hon. Member for Hartlepool mentioned the power plant. Again, nobody doubts the importance of that power plant but, as he is aware, it is on relatively high ground. We calculate that, at the moment, there is a one-in-1,000 risk for that power plant, so we do not consider it a priority. If he has different information, he should by all means come to us.

The shadow Minister mentioned the Hythe and Lydd ranges, where I have been on built-up-area exercises. He made an important point, and the Ministry of Defence can be expected to contribute. I am happy to have that discussion again with the MOD. On the general question of the prioritisation of coastal flood erosion over other forms of flooding, I can reassure hon. Members that 43% of the £23 billion that we have committed to flooding is directly directed towards coastal flooding.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby talked about emergency response, which is the third conceptual issue. We have an increasingly sophisticated operation through the gold commands, the Environment Agency emergency room and Cobra. I take on board the shadow Minister’s point about local authority plans, which I am happy to follow up. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby also raised the issue of recovery, on which there is more we can do. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd talked about buying. We have chosen the Flood Re insurance scheme model, but there has been some examination on the east coast of exactly those kinds of models, which I am happy to discuss in more detail.

The final conceptual issue is prediction, which reminds us how flooding is so incredibly technical. North Lincolnshire Council asked why we are less good at predicting surface water floods than coastal floods, river floods and groundwater floods. The answer, of course, relates to the source of those floods. North Lincolnshire Council needs to understand that, if we are lucky, we can get four or five days’ notice of a coastal flood because such flooding is governed by the height of the tides, by a low pressure system and by the speed of the wind. We can see the height of the water in a river, and we can see groundwater. Surface water flooding, particularly at the moment, is caused by summer thunderstorms. The Met Office finds surface water much more difficult to address because—to make an analogy—although we can see that bubbles will raise the top of a boiling pot, we cannot tell where those bubbles are going to be. However, we plan to invest some £96 million in a new supercomputer that will increase sixteenfold our ability to do the kind of projections, and provide the kind of support, that are needed.

Over the next six years, we have a £2.3 billion programme covering more than 1,500 projects, and we aim further to reduce the risk to at least 300,000 households. That investment—the shadow Minister is now bored with these statistics—will help to avoid more than £30 billion of economic damage and will help economic development and growth. We estimate that every £1 invested in that way brings us at least £9 of economic benefit. That is why I agree with everyone who has spoken. I therefore pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, but I also pay tribute to everyone else for their service to their constituencies and their understanding of local needs. There is almost nothing in government that is more important than focusing on preventing floods and protecting communities against such risks. Nothing else can be as devastating to communities, and there is nothing else in which I am as proud to participate as a Minister.

I thank the Minister for taking our concerns so seriously. It is clear from today’s attendance that this is a national issue. We have had representations from the north, south, east and west, from the islands and from the devolved nations.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

I remind Members that at the conclusion of the next debate, at 11.30 am, the House will observe a minute’s silence to mark the 10th anniversary of the events of 7 July 2005. The silence will begin at the point at which the next debate is to end, so I would be grateful for Members’ co-operation in ensuring that we are able to commemorate those events appropriately.

Nuclear Warheads (Transportation)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of transportation of nuclear warheads.

I thank the Minister for being here, and I hope that she can answer some of my questions about the transportation of nuclear warheads. It may come as a shock to many, but nuclear weapons are regularly driven past the homes of millions of people as they snake their way across Britain. Nuclear warheads were transported through my constituency at least three times in the last 18 months: in January and July 2014, and in January 2015. They were moved in large convoys of more than 20 vehicles on the M74 through Rutherglen and across the centre of the city of Glasgow.

On each occasion, they were travelling around midnight. Driving in the dark involves particular risks; the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has pointed out that drivers are far more likely to fall asleep at the wheel at night. Although only a quarter of all journeys take place between 7 pm and 8 am, 40% of all injuries sustained in accidents occur during this time period.

For several years, the convoys avoided the centre of Glasgow and skirted around the city. Now that restriction has been lifted, and they travel openly on the M74 and M8 through the heart of Scotland’s largest city. Until 2005, nuclear convoys took their time on the long journey from Berkshire to Coulport. Each trip took three days, with two overnight stops. Now the convoys’ journey is continuous, with a crew change halfway and no overnight stops. That means longer stretches on the road, driving at night, driving through urban areas and driving for longer, which all make the dangers of an accident even greater than in the past.

I am aware that the Ministry of Defence will be able to cite numerous safety procedures that are adhered to. I am also aware that the MOD carries out regular safety exercises and will consider its emergency plans to be robustly tested. But accidents can and do happen. In January 1987, in the county of Wiltshire, two nuclear warhead carriers, each transporting two nuclear warheads, came off the road after sliding on ice. One of the carriers suffered damage after rolling on its side. Fortunately, the containerised weapons were not damaged in the incident, but it took 18 hours to recover the damaged vehicle.

The MOD has failed to learn lessons from that accident. It continues to move nuclear weapons in the middle of winter, in icy conditions. At 11 pm on 11 January this year, a convoy drove past a sign on the M74 at Hamilton that said “Winter weather, take care”. It then went through my constituency, across Glasgow and over the Erskine bridge, 45 metres above the River Clyde.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no better example of the MOD’s blatant disregard for public safety in transporting nuclear warheads than when that convoy crossed the Erskine bridge in my constituency? The Erskine bridge, high above the Clyde, had been subjected to gusts of nearly 100 mph, and high-sided vehicles had been advised not to use the bridge. I cannot imagine a more ridiculous decision, made solely for convenience rather than safety. It is a completely wrong-headed approach to dealing with such a cargo.

I concur with my hon. Friend. The convoy proceeded despite the high wind warnings flashing on approaches to the bridge. For several days the Met Office had been issuing warnings across the country of high winds or snow. It would not have been possible for the convoy to complete its journey that week without driving at some point through an area where there had been an extreme weather warning.

In addition to the accident in Wiltshire, there have been other accidents: warhead transporters have crashed into each other, a nuclear lorry has been involved in a fatal head-on collision and a convoy has been stranded for hours following a major breakdown. In August 2014, the Sunday Herald newspaper reported that more than 70 safety lapses had occurred on nuclear convoys in the five-and-a-half-year period ending in December 2012. Like many others, I was shocked to learn that such safety incidents have occurred more than once a month on average. In 2012 alone, 23 incidents happened, raising fears that the safety of nuclear convoys might be deteriorating.

In 2005, the same newspaper also revealed an internal MOD report warning that nuclear warheads could accidentally explode if involved in a major crash, because a bomb’s key safety feature could be disabled, leading to what the MOD terms an “inadvertent yield”. That is a rather abstract way of saying that a burst of incredibly lethal radiation would be unleashed. The consequences of an accident could be catastrophic. If there were a major fire or explosion, lethal plutonium would be scattered downwind. Plutonium-241 has a half-life of 24,000 years and is difficult to detect. An accident in my constituency could leave it and neighbouring constituencies a wasteland.

Now it looks as if more convoys than ever will be travelling to and from Scotland. The MOD has a plan to overhaul and upgrade the entire stockpile of Trident nuclear warheads, the Mk4A refurbishment project. Successive Ministers have been coy about telling Parliament about those upgrades. Surely taking all the warheads down to Berkshire and then back to Scotland will mean that we can look forward to an increase in the frequency and size of convoys over the next few years.

My hon. Friend mentions convoys. Convoys include both the materials themselves and vehicles meant to deal with accidents when they happen. I am sure that my hon. Friend and the Minister share my concerns that in my constituency in 2007, the convoy vehicles got separated and lost in foggy weather; it took many hours for them to get back together, during which time anything could have happen and they would not have been able to respond.

I agree with my hon. Friend. In the longer term, this Government want to build a replacement for Trident and to keep nuclear weapons on the Clyde for at least another 50 years. It is being seriously discussed that those convoys will continue through the heart of Scotland’s largest city for the next half-century.

The convoys travel across Britain. The MOD’s own publication “Local authority and emergency services information” lists 85 English, 13 Welsh and 21 Scottish local authorities through which the convoys might travel. Those 21 alone account for about two-thirds of all Scottish local authorities. The convoys pass through many towns and cities, including Oxford, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh and Stirling, but the most dangerous route that they take is through the middle of Glasgow. How would Members feel if those weapons of mass destruction were driving down Whitehall? That is the threat that the citizens of the Greater Glasgow area face on a regular basis.

In addition to moving whole nuclear weapons, the MOD also regularly transports radioactive components of nuclear weapons by road in specially-built high-security vehicles. Those vehicles entered service in 1991 and were due to be retired in 2003, but the date was put back to 2009, then to 2010 and then to 2014. The delay has meant that the MOD is using unreliable vehicles to move parts of nuclear weapons. The trucks have suffered a series of breakdowns and faults. Fred Dawson, former head of radiation protection at the MOD, said of the situation:

“This does little to instil a sense of confidence in the safety of MOD’s nuclear activities. One hopes that the MOD has RAC or AA home recovery cover on all its vehicles.”

The public found out about the nuclear convoys as a result of the work of campaigners in Nukewatch, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Scottish CND and Faslane Peace Camp, which have shown great commitment over many years in shining a light on those deadly cargos.

Today we live in a new world of social media. Eight weeks ago, several members of the public were horrified when they spotted the vehicles driving across Scotland. They took to Twitter to pass on to the world what they were seeing. The MOD is deluding itself if it thinks it can keep secret 20-vehicle nuclear convoys travelling on our main roads; they are well documented, with organisations such as Nukewatch tracking and recording them. Given that the convoys are so easily recognisable, they are a target. Road safety is not the only risk. Nuclear weapons cannot deter terrorism; instead, they pose a potential threat from terrorism.

In May, the people of Scotland selected 59 MPs; 57 made it clear in their campaigns that they opposed Trident. That decision should be respected. Continuing to transport nuclear weapons across Scotland is an insult to the people who live there. There is no safe way to move nuclear warheads. As long as there are nuclear convoys, there will be an unacceptable risk of a release of lethal radiation, and calling it an “inadvertent yield” makes it no more acceptable or less dangerous. The safest way forward is to scrap Trident and put an end to nuclear convoys.

The thought of nuclear weapons, which are designed to flatten cities, travelling close to our homes in the early hours of the morning is enough to give anyone nightmares. Parents should be able to put their children to bed at night without worrying about the risk of a nuclear accident. It is time to remove that danger and let us live in peace. I have questions for the Minister, which I hope she can answer at the end of the debate, and I will then pass over to my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), who wishes to make a few comments.

Until 2005, MOD rules stated that nuclear weapon convoys should not travel in the hours of darkness. Can the Minister explain why that restriction was imposed and why it has been lifted? Between July 2007 and December 2012, there were 70 safety lapses on nuclear convoys. The highest number—23—was logged in 2012. To what extent have departmental spending cuts affected the apparent rise in safety incidents? What steps have been taken since 2005 to ensure that bomb safety features are not compromised in the event of a crash and how has the risk of an inadvertent yield been lessened?

Order. The rules of the House state that if an hon. Member wishes to speak, she must have the permission of the mover of the motion—I assume the hon. Lady does—and of the Minister.

Thank you, Sir Edward. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and the Minister.

My hon. Friend has made many important points this morning. Like her, I have substantial concerns about the transportation of nuclear weapons around the UK. Weapons of mass destruction have absolutely no place on our busy roads; in fact, they should have no place in our country at all. Weapons of mass destruction are wrong—morally, on safety grounds, on defence grounds and financially, too. The quoted cost of replacing Trident—£100 billion—is so big as to be almost beyond understanding. The Greek debt crisis, which is causing such concern, relates to figures of around £300 billion, so replacing Trident equates to a full third of Greek debt—an astonishing sum. Yet nuclear convoys continue to travel thousands of miles every year.

The journey from Aldermaston in the south of England to Coulport on the west coast of Scotland is a long one. Obviously, it is not clear exactly what routes are used, and I understand the reasons for that. What is very clear, however, is that, according to the “Local Authority and Emergency Services Information” document to which my hon. Friend referred, the Ministry of Defence has the ability to transport nuclear weapons all across the country. In fact, as she mentioned, it is expressly permitted to do so in 123 local authority areas in the UK—a huge swathe of the country, stretching from Exeter to Liverpool and Powys to Highland, and of course, many constituencies in Scotland, including my own constituency of East Renfrewshire. Transport through other areas is not ruled out if required. In reality, few areas of the UK have no likelihood of nuclear weapons being transported through them. I suggest that that is not widely known and that any community would feel real concern if convoys of nuclear warheads were driving down its roads.

The convoys drive on many of our busiest motorways, as well as major and minor roads. They travel alongside families going on holiday, people going to work and HGV drivers taking their loads around the UK. They also share the roads with other dangerous vehicles, such as fuel tankers. One of the worst types of accident that could happen is a collision between a tanker and a lorry carrying Trident nuclear weapons. The intense heat that would follow a fuel fire could engulf a nuclear warhead. The smoke drifting downwind would be contaminated with lethal plutonium. A severe fire could also cause the high explosive in the weapon to detonate. Although a nuclear explosion is unlikely, a conventional explosion in a Trident warhead would still have a devastating effect, dispersing plutonium for miles around.

As we heard, the MOD admitted that between July 2007 and December 2012 there were 70 incidents on nuclear weapon convoys: 56 engineering incidents and 14 operational incidents. Some related to support vehicles, but such incidents can still affect the whole convoy and its safety. In July 2011, a command vehicle suffered a dramatic loss of power and the whole convoy was left on the hard shoulder of the M6. Two lanes of the motorway were coned off and nuclear weapons were left sitting there. In July 2010, the convoy commander got lost and took a 45-minute diversion off the planned route. In March 2012, a convoy was diverted because of low-flying aircraft from an MOD establishment; what would happen if a low-flying fast jet collided with a lorry containing Trident nuclear warheads does not bear thinking about. The force of the impact would mean that there would be little left of the truck or its nuclear contents. Many of the 70 incidents might be dismissed as minor, but many had the potential to lead to much more serious situations.

The kind of threats that those in favour of Trident suggest it defends us against are not the threats that we are seeing manifest themselves across the world. None of us needs to be reminded about the terrible loss of life suffered as a result of terrorist attacks. Trident is not a deterrent against that real and present danger to our communities. Terrorists are a real danger to the safety of our Trident convoys. The only way to eliminate that threat is not to have Trident travelling on our roads at all.

We cannot afford to continue with more of these deadly cargos for another 50 years in the blind hope that a catastrophe will not happen. I call on the Minister and the Government to recognise the very significant dangers and to act decisively to bring them to an end. Like my hon. Friend, I would like the Minister to allow us to hear for the first time about the Mk4A project. What does it involve? How much will it cost? What impact will it have on the frequency of nuclear convoys? The truck cargo heavy duty Mk3 lorries that currently move nuclear weapons are due to be retired in 2025. It would be useful to know what provision has been made for a new fleet of lorries in the plans for Trident replacement, and at what cost.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing this important debate and on her appointment to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. Nuclear warhead transportation is clearly of concern to her and her constituents. It should be noted that it and related issues are of concern to people across the country, including those in areas such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady said and I will address her points in turn. She will appreciate that I am limited in what I can say by security considerations, but I will try to give her the fullest answers possible. I start by reassuring her over the issues of cost that she raised. We are committed to all aspects of the deterrent and its security and safety. That has been the Government’s policy and it will continue to be. She will know that it was one of the red lines in our manifesto and is one of our red lines as we go into the strategic defence and security review.

The protection and defence of the United Kingdom is the primary responsibility of Government. In a world becoming more uncertain, as seen by the recent actions of a resurgent Russia, the Government are committed to maintaining the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent to provide the ultimate guarantee of our national security. In recent years we have reduced our stockpile of warheads and the number of warheads on our submarines. The ratio of our warheads to Russia’s is roughly one to 40. I hope that indicates to the hon. Lady the scale of what we face and the fact that Trident is a deterrent.

I thank the Minister for her answers so far. As SNP Members, we will admit that we do not want any nuclear weapons, and her comparison between the UK and Russia does not sit well with us. We would like to see the deterrent abolished completely. If we use nuclear weapons, where would that leave the UK? There would be no UK; there would be obliteration. What are her comments on that?

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s intervention, because although the bulk of my remarks will focus on the safety and transportation concerns she has expressed—I take her concerns at face value—at the heart of the debate is her and her party’s position on nuclear weapons. Of course we never want to use such weapons. However, as a Defence Minister who passionately believes that there would be dread consequences for the hon. Lady’s constituents and the whole UK if we did not have a deterrent, I believe it is absolutely fundamental that we retain that deterrent and say to those who would do us harm that there would be consequences if they used such dread weapons against us. I am happy to debate that point with the hon. Lady and her colleagues at any time; it is incredibly important and at the heart of what the debate is about. I will take at face value her concerns about the transportation of warheads, so I will address the bulk of my remarks to those points.

The specialist defence sites involved in delivering our nuclear weapons programme are based at Clyde, at Coulport and at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire. As such, it is necessary to transport nuclear defence material, including warheads, between those sites, although the movement of such material is kept to the minimum necessary to meet operational requirements in support of the UK’s strategic deterrent programme. It is an important principle of nuclear warhead safety that warheads should not be moved unless it is necessary.

I make it absolutely clear that the safety of the general public and the security of nuclear weapons convoys are our first priority at all times. Safety is paramount during the transportation of defence material, and all appropriate measures are taken to ensure that such weapon convoys can operate safely. Our safety record is excellent. In more than 50 years of transporting such material by road in the UK, there has never been an incident that has presented any risk to the public or the environment. A stringent safety reporting system is in place so that all incidents, however minor, are recorded and assessed for possible improvements to future operations.

The hon. Lady and her colleague referred to the log and expressed concerns, particularly about transportation during severe weather. As Members would expect, I have been through the log. On the Erskine bridge incident, the authorities were consulted. In any scenario where there are adverse weather conditions, Traffic Scotland and the police in Scotland are consulted. The convoy was not crossing the bridge until the weather had moved on. That is recorded.

Concerns have previously been expressed about convoys travelling through residential and urban areas. While the House would not expect me to discuss the specific details of routes for obvious security reasons, I assure Members that the routes are carefully selected as part of a rigorous risk assessment process and are regularly reassessed for their continued suitability. The transportation of nuclear and other hazardous materials is governed by international and national regulations, including the Carriage of Dangerous Goods and Use of Transportable Pressure Equipment Regulations 2009, as amended in 2013. Although there are exemptions for certain defence-related activities, Government policy is to comply with the principles of those exemptions.

The safety of nuclear convoy operations is carefully considered at all stages of the transportation process. Operational planning always takes into account such factors as road and weather conditions, and we consult with all relevant local agencies before undertaking a convoy move. Contingencies are planned for. The convoy is operated by a highly trained crew, consisting of a first-aid team, firefighters, mechanics and others to enable roadside repairs and personnel equipped to monitor for radiological hazards.

Members will be aware that the weapon is by its very nature an extremely robust device, designed to withstand launch and re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. It is transported in a benign configuration and secured in a custom-designed container that is tested in accordance with International Atomic Energy Agency standards to protect against a range of scenarios, including impact on a motorway at speed, a drop from height and a fuel fire, among others.

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will make a little progress. The vehicle that carries the container is custom-designed to provide robust crash protection, even in the event of a severe road accident. We have invested in our vehicle fleet and completed a significant upgrade programme in 2014.

Another issue that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned was the threat of terrorism with the transportation of nuclear materials. The risks associated with terrorist attack are mitigated by a range of counter-measures, including the vehicle itself, specific warhead protection measures, intelligence, monitoring and armed escort, which includes the Ministry of Defence police. Although the operational details of those counter-measures are understandably classified, Members can be reassured that we have the capabilities to deal with any such threats. Our security arrangements are kept under review, frequently tested and subject to formal inspections to ensure that they meet the required standards.

The limited movement of nuclear defence material together with inherent safety and security features and procedures mean that the probability of an accident leading to a release of radiation is extremely low. Nevertheless, as part of our rigorous approach to safety we maintain wider arrangements to respond to any incident, no matter how unlikely; that includes the Nuclear Emergency Organisation and the necessary contingency plans to deal with any accident. Under the auspices of the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator and with the participation of the emergency services and local authorities, we also carry out regular exercises to rigorously test the continued effectiveness of our response.

Does the Minister not accept that that will be cold comfort to our constituents, given that it would take a minimum of four hours for those emergency activities to manifest themselves in our constituencies should an incident occur?

The hon. Lady is not correct. The nature of the convoy means that those necessary responses are built in. Any reaction that would need to go beyond that is rigorously tested and speedy.

I understand that this is not the first SNP debate that focuses on safety concerns. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West will know from freedom of information material that the incidents she referred to are very low-level and include putting the wrong fuel into a support vehicle. They have not in any way threatened the safety or security of the material in transit. The level of concern that the hon. Lady expresses is disproportionate to the incidents—I think that comes down to her party’s objection to the deterrent full stop.

I hope that the hon. Lady’s party will focus on that issue. I would be happy to engage in the debate because I passionately believe that we need the deterrent. Focusing disproportionately on safety—the incidents are in the public domain, so I can clearly show what they were, how meticulously they were recorded and the “lessons learned” programme that followed—does those who support Operation Relentless a grave disservice. These are incredible men and women who, whether they are on the submarines or part of the support and logistics operation, do an incredible job. One thing that I object to about the hon. Lady’s line of argument is that it does those people a disservice. If the issue is whether we should have nuclear weapons, I hope the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West will focus on that.

I will have to draw my remarks to a conclusion, for the reasons that you set out at the beginning, Sir Edward.

I think I will close on this: I am happy to hear any suggestions that SNP Members have about how safety can be improved and any other practical concerns, but I am not sure what they are suggesting. Are they suggesting that we move part of the operation elsewhere? I am not sure, but I would be happy to hear what they have to say.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Srebrenica Genocide (20th Anniversary)

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide.

At least 8,372 men and boys were murdered by the Bosnian Serb army within a couple of days, starting on 11 July 1995. At the time, I was in the Army and the Chief of Policy at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe at Mons in Belgium. I was there when the first reports of what was happening in Srebrenica came through. The operation in Bosnia then was a United Nations operation rather than a NATO one. Despite Srebrenica being declared a UN safe area under the watch of the UN protection force, Serbian paramilitary units over-ran and captured the town. Then General Ratko Mladic and his Bosnian Serb forces systematically rounded up and murdered well over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. It was an act of genocide.

Mladic’s men methodically and coldly separated out men and boys, and herded them away. Fusillades of shots were heard throughout the area, as batches of the men and boys were cold-bloodedly and methodically shot. Mladic himself had promised that no harm would befall anyone, but it was immediately obvious to the local people that that was a total lie.

For their part, the 400-strong Dutch battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Karremans, which was charged by the UN with protecting the citizens of Srebrenica, did very little by way of protest, and even surrendered men and boys to the Bosnian Serb army. At the time in Mons, I asked the SHAPE staff why the Dutch battalion charged with protecting Srebrenica had not used its weapons to safeguard the people. I was told that they had been ordered not to get involved, which I found appalling—under the Geneva conventions of war, those in command have a duty to protect civilians. Unbelievably, I was also told that the Dutch had used the excuse that they could not open fire because their anti-tank weapons were out of date. That is astonishing, considering that most of the belligerent forces’ weapons were out of date anyway by that time.

There is overwhelming evidence of a huge number of atrocities. Men and boys were taken away and summarily murdered in batches; individuals were cut down at whim; and large piles of bodies were pushed into huge pits by bulldozers. Some of the victims were undoubtedly buried alive. One child, who could not have been more than 10, was ordered to rape his sister and was killed when he could not do so. Mothers had their babies’ throats slit before they themselves were raped. Many people chose to commit suicide and some people, particularly women, hanged themselves in the woods around Srebrenica. Agony and death were everywhere, and yet the Bosnian Serb army and its friends carried on committing cold-blooded acts of murder against anyone who they thought was a Muslim. The situation was sheer hell.

Despite being far away in Belgium at the time, I felt a deep affinity with the people on the ground in Srebrenica. Some two years before, it was my soldiers who had first gone into Srebrenica and it was my UN commander, General Philippe Morillon, who had declared on 16 April 1993 that Srebrenica would be protected.

When I learned what was happening in Srebrenica two years after I had left, I felt sick at heart and in some way responsible for what was happening. In truth, the people of Srebrenica had been abandoned to a ghastly fate by the rest of the world. In February 1993, as commander of the British UN battalion in Bosnia, I had witnessed such bestiality at a place called Ahmici in central Bosnia. We even had to dig a mass grave into which we placed more than a hundred bodies—children, women and men. But the horror did not stop there; it continued.

On 1 March 1993, as their commander I ordered soldiers of B Squadron 9th/12th Royal Lancers to cross the lines from Tuzla to see what could be done to help people in Srebrenica, who were being besieged by the Bosnian Serb army. My intelligence organisation suggested that the situation in Srebrenica was very grim, and intelligence officers heard repeated commercial radio calls from Srebrenica for someone—anyone—to come and save them. It was heart-rending.

During the next two days, my soldiers managed to get to Srebrenica after a very difficult passage through hostile Bosnian Serb army territory. When they arrived, they found an appalling situation. About 20 civilians had been killed by incoming shellfire when our vehicles appeared, because they had naturally clustered around us; they were surrounded by people who they believed were their deliverance. One officer—my interpreter, Captain Nick Costello—was talking to a woman holding a baby when the baby’s head was blown off by a shell splinter.

A few days later, we escorted General Morillon into Srebrenica. He was welcomed almost as a saviour but after a while, when he said he was going back to his command headquarters in Sarajevo, the people blocked him in and refused to let him leave. Off his own bat, he declared Srebrenica to be a UN protected area. None the less, there was a crying need to get innocent people out of the place and to safety. Between March and April 1993, British soldiers under my command, including pilots flying helicopters provided by French forces and the Royal Navy, evacuated several thousand Bosnian people from the Srebrenica enclave. Shortly afterwards, the UN ordered British soldiers to be replaced—first by Canadians and then, a year or so later, by an ineffective Dutch battalion.

The Bosnian Serb army finally took the town of Srebrenica on 11 July 1995. Upwards of 10,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys attempted to walk 63 miles across mountains, rivers and minefields to reach safety in the nearest Muslim territory of Tuzla. Only about 2,000 of them made it.

When I visited Srebrenica recently, I met Nedžad Avdic, who was only 17 in July 1995, when he was shot. He was with me yesterday in Parliament but cannot be here today. Despite being badly wounded, he survived and crawled out from under the bodies of his friends. I wish to place on the record what he said. His testimony is chilling. This is what he told me:

“In July 1995, when Mladic’s offensive started, the Dutch forgot us, left their checkpoints and fled. We had no option but to follow them and wait for help, but it did not come.

We were afraid of going to the Dutch HQ at Potocari and feared for our lives. After days of hiding in the woods and hills around Srebrenica, my father, uncle and I headed in the direction of Tuzla on a long, unknown and uncertain road through the woods and minefields.”

Those minefields were extensive: it took us a huge amount of time to negotiate them and get there.

“We were an endless column of men and boys under constant bombardment by Serb artillery from the hills. Many of us were killed and the wounded cried out, in vain, for help.

In the chaos, I lost my father and ran through the crowd crying and calling for him. Lost in the middle of the forest, we did not know where to go. Bare-footed, exhausted and frightened we gave ourselves up. As many as 2,000 men and boys were loaded on to lorries, including me.

We were tortured and were dying for a drop of water. We were forced to take off our clothes. One of the soldiers tied our hands our backs. At that moment, I realised it was the end. We were told to find a place and lined up, five by five.

I thought I would die fast without suffering. Thinking that my mother would never know where I finished they begun to shoot us in the back. I don’t know whether I lost consciousness, but I lay on my stomach bleeding and trembling. I was shot in my stomach and right arm.

The shooting continued and I watched the lines of people falling down. I could hear and feel bullets hitting all around me. Shortly after that I was wounded heavily in my left foot. Men were dying all around me. I was dying in deadly pains and had no strength to call them to kill me. I said to myself: ‘Oh my God, why don’t I die?’

The pain was unbearable. It was midnight and the lorry moved away. Trying to raise my head I noticed a man who was moving. We untied one another”—

can you imagine the pain this boy was going through?—

“and avoided the next arriving lorry.

After days of wandering through woods, hiding in streams, sleeping in grave-yards and crawling with my terrible pains, we reached territory under Bosnian government control. My father, uncle and relatives who sought shelter with the Dutch soldiers in Potocari did not survive.”

The Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Centre, situated on the opposite side of the road from where the Dutch battalion was based, records the known deaths of 8,372 people murdered by the rampaging Bosnian Serb army. Nobody can be absolutely certain, but most certainly 6,066 bodies are buried in the Potocari cemetery and about 7,000 genocide victims have been identified through DNA analysis of body parts recovered from mass graves.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent, powerful speech. Last year, I travelled to Srebrenica to see that centre and worked with a local charity, Medica Zenica, which looks after people who were raped during the war. We met a woman there who had been raped so many times she did not even know who the father of her child was. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the mums of Srebrenica, because they have tirelessly worked to make sure that this will never, ever be forgotten and should never, ever happen again.

I thank my hon. Friend for her very appropriate intervention. It is highly appropriate and a great honour that some of the mothers of Srebrenica have just arrived in this Chamber. All of us in Parliament pay tribute to them for what they have had to endure. Many families in Srebrenica lost all their menfolk.

I have seen some 1,000 body parts that are yet to be formally identified. Of course, some people’s remains will never be found. I am president of the British charity, Remembering Srebrenica. It has organised remembrance events in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I thank colleagues from those countries who have helped those events take place. Yesterday, there was a large remembrance service in Westminster Abbey—2,000 people attended—and there are continuing remembrance events throughout the country this week.

There is another charity that does sterling work in the Srebrenica area, but it gets scant funding recognition from the British Government and I wish that to be put right. The charity, officially called The Fund for Refugees in Slovenia, was founded in 1992 by my friend, Lady Miloska Nott OBE, who is here today. Despite its name, the charity’s main thrust has always been in Bosnia. There it has done long-term, sustainable work in the Srebrenica area— not so much the town, but 20 km out from it, in an area that was deeply affected, too. It has built 144 houses and 14 schools for those most affected by the 1995 genocide. It has also built a medical centre. I pay a huge tribute to all that Lady Nott and her charity have achieved.

I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend on securing this debate. Before being elected as an MP in June 2009, I visited Srebrenica. It was an extremely moving experience that left a lasting impression on me. I echo what my hon. Friend says about the charity; Lady Nott helped organised the visit for me and other colleagues. I commend her work and that of the organisation. I echo what my hon. Friend says about working with such charities, to continue the rebuilding in Srebrenica and ensure that this genocide is never forgotten.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which I endorse and want to add to. One of the things that Lady Nott’s charity does is to take Members of Parliament to spend the night in some of the houses that her charity has built. Through that experience, colleagues get a real feel for what is actually happening on the ground.

I ask the Minister to ensure that the Government recognise this great work. Please, if they can, will our Government contribute financially to the work of a charity that is extremely well run, has good due diligence and makes such an impact on the local area?

I will finish now. This morning, we paused to remember the 7/7 bombings. This Saturday, 11 July 2015, we should all pause to remember that, 20 years ago, the hopes and lives of a small town—8,372 men and boys—were agonisingly destroyed by Bosnian Serb bullets. God bless their memory. All our prayers go to those who survived the Srebrenica massacre and to the mothers of Srebrenica, who still live with what happened every moment of their lives.

It is an honour and a privilege to follow the excellent and moving speech by my hon. Friend on the other side of the House, as I like to call him, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who had a distinguished career in Bosnia and who has done so much since to raise what happened not only in Srebrenica but in so many other places. I have often been truly moved when he has told me of his experiences during those times, as well as those of his wife and many others. Truly, one can only imagine the horrors that he and many others saw.

It is a bleak week, as my hon. Friend said. Today, we remember those who were tragically killed in the 7/7 bombings in London. It is only a short while since the horrific attacks in Tunisia. Tragically, it is the 20th anniversary of the genocide—it is clear that it was a genocide—in Srebrenica. It is an opportunity to stop and reflect on the consequences that hate, intolerance, ideology and, dare I say it, turning a blind eye can have for men, girls, boys and women—humans who share the same blood and flesh as us, regardless of their religion, ethnicity and background. It was truly moving to attend the memorial in Westminster Abbey yesterday and to have the chance to meet again many people I was able to meet on a trip with Remembering Srebrenica to Srebrenica, Potocari, Tuzla and other locations. I saw the places where such horror and brutality emerged, and I can say without hesitation that it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

I remember what I was doing in 1995. I was 15 years old. I was out celebrating with friends on the beaches of west Wales, having a good time and relaxing, yet Nedžad Avdic, who my hon. Friend referred to and whom I have met, was just two years older and was being corralled into a building with his family and friends. He saw so many brutally murdered and executed around him. That struggle, which my hon. Friend illustrated so clearly with Nedžad’s words, serves as an example to us all. We might live in the same continent, but great horrors can emerge at any time.

While I was in Bosnia, we travelled to Srebrenica and Potocari on a bus. As we approached one of the tunnels on the windy roads through the beautiful Bosnian countryside, one of our guides—he was also a survivor, and his name was Mohammed—said, “This is where I emerged from the tunnel.” I said, “What do you mean?” He was one of those who managed to escape to make that long, arduous march through the mountains, attempting to evade the Serb forces at every step. Those people suffered without food and water in brutal circumstances. He was one of the lucky ones—he survived. He told me that he had done a lot of survival training as a youngster in equivalent bodies to the scouts. He used those skills, but his friends and those around him who did not have that skill of surviving in the wilderness often succumbed or were lured down to what they thought was safety by Serbs who told them to come down from the mountains. In fact they were being lured to their deaths—that was the brutality of it. I was taken aback by the video footage kept by those who committed the atrocities. While we were in Potocari we saw some truly chilling footage of executions, of people being led away and of people being lured falsely to their deaths. It will stick with me for the rest of my life.

We also went, as my hon. Friend reflected, to the mortuary and saw the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons. I was truly shocked not only that brutal murders had been carried out, but that the Serb forces chose to disturb the mass graves and dig bodies up. They knew that the evidence would emerge, so they tampered with the remains. They split them across multiple graves. It is truly shocking.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I have been to Srebrenica, and I think it leaves an indelible mark on the soul of anyone who has been. It was such a dreadful occurrence.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the International Commission on Missing Persons. When I visited, we met ladies who still have not found their husbands and sons because of the atrocities that the Serbs committed with the reburial of bodies. The ladies of Srebrenica cannot lay their loved ones to rest. I commend publicly the work that the International Commission on Missing Persons is doing to try to identify remains through DNA and other means. That would enable those people at least to lay their loved ones to rest.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I was struck by how so many people were not afforded dignity in their life and were then also denied it in their death, as were their families. Many Srebrenica mothers are sitting in the Public Gallery, and I have been struck by how they just want the matter resolved—they just want to know where their loved ones lay. Advances in technology have enabled identifications to take place, but the extent of the desecration and damage to the graves was such that a number of individuals still cannot be identified. I praise the work of those involved in the International Commission on Missing Persons and others who have done such diligent work over many years trying to bring that sense of closure to the families. I must point out that that feeling is shared by the new generation in the Balkans. One of the workers we met in the mortuary was from Serbia. She was absolutely dedicated to her work, and she wanted to ensure justice and dignity for the families so brutally broken apart by these acts.

Much has been said, and many reports have been written, about the terrible events of that time in Bosnia. Much focus has been put on the situation of the Dutch forces in Potocari and others. To my mind, the actions that took place were deeply concerning and unconscionable. To walk around the battery factory and other locations where thousands were effectively sent to their deaths is a deeply disturbing experience.

It is fair to say that although I am proud of this country’s role in recognising the genocide, in holding memorial events such as we saw yesterday and in hosting the President of Bosnia and many others—including the mothers and survivors in the last few days—we must take a step back and reflect as an international community. This weekend, a number of concerning allegations were made in The Observer concerning what the wider international community knew about directive 7 and about the speech that Ratko Mladic gave to the Bosnian Assembly where he said of the enclaves:

“My concern is to have them vanish completely.”

There were questions about the messages or signals alleged to have been given to Mladic, Karadžic, the Bosnian Government and others about the tenability of the enclaves. We know that on 2 June, Mladic ordered the destruction of Muslim forces in the enclaves, but it is important that we are frank about the worrying allegations that some members of the intelligence services from other countries—including, I am sorry to say, the UK—knew about some of the Serb plans.

I do not think it would be right to focus on individuals, but the allegations are serious and worrying. I do not know their veracity, but it is vital that the international community does all it can to own up to whatever faults and failings there were, as happened after the terrible genocide in Rwanda and other international atrocities. I ask the Minister gently for some assurance that those allegations are being looked at and that any evidence that emerges will be shared in full and frank detail. Now, we can only learn from the horrors, and from the failure at all levels to protect all those people in Srebrenica and at other locations. We must do that. We assume that the march of progress is inevitable and that these crimes cannot happen again, but unfortunately it has been shown far too often that they can.

When we were in Sarajevo, we saw a remarkable and moving exhibition of photos of survivors from Srebrenica and the surrounding areas. I encourage everyone to see it, because it is an important indicator of what happened. It was displayed alongside an exhibition about the horrors and atrocities being committed in Syria today. We need to reflect on the fact that, tragically, we often consider situations after the event and look back at what may have gone wrong. There has been much controversy in the House about the votes and decisions that we have taken on Syria, on which Members have different views. Why do we always focus on those decisions, rather than look back two and a half or three years earlier to understand how we got to a position where such atrocities and flagrant abuses of human rights could take place? That is something for all of us to reflect on.

It is all very well to judge or criticise those who have taken specific decisions, but the question is: how did we allow this to happen on European soil just 20 years ago? How can we work, on all sides of the House, across the continent and across the world, to ensure that such horrors can never happen again?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I add my congratulations my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing this debate and on his work on Srebrenica in the House. I pay tribute to him and to all involved for ensuring that the tragic events in Srebrenica have not been forgotten. The commemoration of those events serves as a warning to all of us, particularly those in government in or positions of influence, of what can happen even here in Europe, which we tend to think of as civilised, and certainly as safe and secure compared with many parts of this troubled world.

Evil can enter the hearts and minds of men. As the service of Compline in the Book of Common Prayer says, we must

“be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”.

The devil can enter the hearts of mankind, especially when propaganda and evil leadership are involved.

Like the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), I was privileged to join my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham in last year’s delegation. Such a visit reminds one of the evil that can take place, even in mainland Europe. Those of us who attended yesterday’s commemorative service at Westminster Abbey and the reception that followed heard from a number of people about how important the UK’s voice can be and how much the UK has contributed, over many generations, to the attempt to bring peace and stability to many troubled parts of the world. The challenge continues.

Since he was first elected five years ago, my hon. and gallant Friend has worked tirelessly to ensure that the events of 1995, and those who were brutally murdered, are not forgotten. I thank him for his dedication, not least through his campaigning as the president of Remembering Srebrenica, a British charity founded by its chairman.

As we have heard, 8,372 men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces. Those murdered were both old and young; I note that the eldest was 94 and the youngest five. Although their ages were diverse, their ethnicity was not. The victims of this horrific moment of barbarity on European soil were targeted based on who they were. They were killed in some of the most brutal and barbaric ways imaginable—they were events that one can find it very difficult to believe. As has been said, the genocide was the worst crime in Europe since the second world war.

My hon. and gallant Friend described in chilling detail how the slaughter came about and was carried out. We must never forget the brutality that man is capable of, and it is right that we use parliamentary time to commemorate the events of two decades ago. The atrocities now taking place in north Africa, Iraq, Syria and so many other places remind us that we must be eternally vigilant. It is worth recalling that the former Yugoslavia was a popular holiday destination for British people, who would have visited many of the places touched by the massacre. A mainstream European country descended into brutality. Let us hope that we can indeed remain eternally vigilant. But will we? Let us hope and pray that we do.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing this debate and I salute his leadership in Bosnia. Along with many others in the House, I am deeply impressed by what he did in his time in command. It would be hard not to be moved by the experiences he shared in his speech and by some of the things that have happened since. I thank him for that.

We remember those who were murdered in July 1995—more than 8,000 Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, in and around the town of Srebrenica during the Bosnian war. The killing was perpetrated by units of the Army of the Republika Srpska—the VRS—under the command of General Ratko Mladic. The former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, described the mass murder as the worst crime on European soil since the second world war. That gives an idea of the magnitude and horror of what took place.

I am sure that we all remember the coverage from 1995—it would be hard not to—and, as we were reminded by the first speech, it was shocking in its intensity. I can vividly recall not being able to believe or understand the senseless genocide that was taking place. I was looking at the TV and thinking, “Is this happening, or is it unreal?” Yes, it was unreal, but it was happening in front of our modern society’s eyes.

The paramilitary unit from Serbia was known as the Scorpions. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) used biblical language to describe them as a lion looking for whom to devour. That is what they were doing. They could have called themselves other names, but they chose the Scorpions, and they were known for their evil, wicked depravity and murderous thoughts. Officially, they were part of the Serbian Interior Ministry until 1991, and they participated in the massacre, along with several hundred Greek volunteers.

In January, the conviction of five men from the former Yugoslavia was upheld, which was welcome news to all those who remember the sheer horror of these events. However, more than five men were involved, and more than enough time has now passed by this, the 20th anniversary, for action to have been taken. We all believe it is time that those involved—from inside and outside Serbia—were held accountable.

In 2004, in a unanimous ruling in the case of Prosecutor v. Krstic, the appeals chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which is located in The Hague, ruled that the massacre of the enclave’s male inhabitants constituted genocide—a crime under international law. The evidence of the forcible transfer of between 25,000 and 30,000 Bosniak women, children and elderly people that accompanied the massacre was found to confirm the genocidal intent of the members of the VRS main staff who orchestrated the massacre and who need to be held accountable.

In 2005, in a message to the 10th anniversary commemoration of the genocide, the Secretary-General of the United Nations noted that, although blame lay first and foremost with those who planned and carried out the massacre and those who assisted and harboured them, the powers with the ability to respond had failed to do so adequately. He said that the UN had made serious errors of judgment and that the tragedy of Srebrenica would haunt its history forever, and that is clearly the case.

Serbia and Montenegro was cleared of direct responsibility for, or complicity in, the massacre, but it was found responsible for not doing enough to prevent it and for not prosecuting those responsible, in breach of the genocide convention. The preliminary list of people missing or killed in Srebrenica, which was compiled by the Bosnian Federal Commission of Missing Persons, contains 8,373 names. As of July 2012, 6,838 genocide victims had been identified through DNA analysis of body parts recovered from mass graves. As of July 2013, 6,066 victims had been buried at the memorial centre in Potocari. Almost 1,500 victims have still not been identified. Let me put that into perspective. As the hon. Member for Beckenham will know, approximately 3,000 people were killed over a 30-year terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland. In three days, almost three times that number were killed in Srebrenica.

There is a lesson that has been taught so many times, but that I fear we are not learning: we must take action before things reach this stage. An apology for a massacre is not enough. There must be a determination that we never allow these things to happen again. There must be not just words, but deeds. There is so much happening in the world that we need to act on, and it is my firm belief that action must be taken, lest our children stand in this place in 20 years’ time lamenting the fact that we allowed the actions of ISIS, among others, to happen. That is for another debate and another day, but it is not disrespectful to the memory of the men we are talking about to plead for us to learn from the inaction we saw and to take action when needed.

I was proud to be one of the hundreds of parliamentarians who signed the Remembering Srebrenica book of pledges, and I will be prouder still to be remembered as a parliamentarian, in a House of parliamentarians, who learned the lesson taught by atrocities and who honoured the memories of those who so senselessly lost their lives by doing all in my power to prevent a repeat of such atrocities.

My hon. Friend talks about learning lessons. Does he agree that those of us who have lost loved ones in more normal circumstances cannot even begin to understand the pain and anguish felt by those who, 20 years later, still do not have the remains of their loved ones and who cannot have a burial so that they can begin to grieve properly? We have seen that in Northern Ireland over 40 years, but the scale in this case is unimaginable, and we need to do what we can to resolve the issue.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is impossible to gauge the unfathomable enormity of what took place. In Northern Ireland, people disappeared, and some of the bodies have not been accounted for. We feel for their families. However, if we magnify that a thousandfold, we get a sense of what these things mean in Bosnia.

In conclusion and as this important anniversary approaches, I hope that all political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in the wider region, will focus not on the politics, but on the human tragedy of not just Srebrenica, but the war as a whole, and will take forward reconciliation with greater urgency. There can be no more fitting tribute to the innocent victims of war than that we remember each and every one of them today and that the Government do their best to make changes and to hold people to account. Twenty years after these events, we need to hold those responsible accountable. We all know, of course, that they will be held accountable in the next world and that they will have to come before a judgment seat to answer for what they have done, but I would like to see them get their just rewards in this world before they reach the next one.

Order. Three more people wish to speak. I do not wish to impose a time limit. If each Member speaks for a maximum of five minutes, we should be able to fit them all in.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. Often, when we contribute to debates in this place, we find ourselves following far superior contributions. In this debate, that was inevitably going to be the case, given the personal experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whose contribution was poignant and moving, as I have come to expect from him. As ever, the modesty he shows hides much about this difficult and awful time in European history, and I am sure he will always keep that to himself.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this important and timely debate and for the work he has done on many aspects of this awful experience. I also pay tribute to him for yesterday’s commemoration service in Westminster Abbey. It was an extremely important moment, which clearly meant so much to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and, most importantly, to the survivors and the families who lost loved ones.

Sitting in the peaceful surroundings of the abbey yesterday, and listening to the addresses and readings, I could not help but reflect on the horrors of the events we are talking about. The idea that such genocide could ever happen again on European soil would have been unthinkable before the events in Bosnia, especially given how much the continent had suffered during world war two, and it is staggering and shameful that such things did happen again, just half a century later. Demonising people for who they are was something we had all prayed and hoped would never happen again.

My experience of Bosnia is nothing compared with that of my hon. Friend or many others taking part in the debate. My first visit to Bosnia took place at the beginning of the previous Parliament. I was part of a delegation of Conservative Members of Parliament and MEPs from across Europe. We went to Bosnia as part of a social action project called Project Maya to help refurbish a school for children with special needs, and anyone arriving in Sarajevo is instantly struck by the bullet holes in the buildings and the scars of war.

We were also there to meet politicians, young people and organisations involved in rebuilding the nation and in ensuring that these events are never forgotten and that lessons are learned. One of the first visits we went on was to the International Commission on Missing Persons, which the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned. It is impossible to understand how anyone would feel losing a loved one in the horrific circumstances we have heard about; however, not knowing what has happened to them or where they are, and not being able to have a dignified burial or the acknowledgment of their death, must make the grief unbearable. The commission was tasked with trying to resolve those issues for families.

What made things even worse was that the bodies of those who had been killed were not only buried in mass graves, but dug up again and buried in other places. Identifying them has been a mammoth task for the commission. If that were not enough, suspicion and fear have meant that many families have felt reluctant to give DNA so that bodies could be identified. We saw how the commission tried to overcome that through confidential bar coding and other measures. I understand that now some 71,000 blood samples have been taken to help with the identification process. So far 91 mass graves have been uncovered in Srebrenica, yielding some 6,800 positive identifications of more than 8,000 missing people. Some people have been able to bury their loved ones, but, tragically, some have had to do so again as more body parts have been found. Not being afforded the opportunity to go through the natural cycle of bereavement makes the atrocity even more cruel.

For me, the most moving visit was to Srebrenica itself. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth described the countryside, and that is what struck me: it was beautiful, but we were about to visit somewhere where such a terrible thing happened. There was an eerie silence in the factory when we went round it, reminiscent of my visit to Auschwitz. In the film I saw the faces of the men who were terrified and knew that something awful was happening. Seeing all the names on the stones at the memorial was really moving.

Going up to the village, I spoke to some of the mothers. They gave a moving speech about what had happened to them. I felt utterly powerless and weak in the company of one of the women; I went up to her and said privately, “I am sorry that the west stood by.” Her reply was remarkable. She said, “It is not your fault; you were not around at the time. You were not in a position to make a decision, but if ever you see people suffering again, please don’t stand by and watch it happen.” Those are words that will stick with me for ever.

I will never forget the visit to that country. It has had a lasting effect on me. On this 20th anniversary, it is right to remember, but it is also important to learn the lessons—to make sure we do not again stand by and let such atrocities happen, and that, when people are persecuted for who and what they are, we stand up and support them. We should also pay tribute to the work of Remembering Srebrenica. It does some great work with young people in our country, including 750 educational visits to enable people to learn.

I pay tribute to all those who continue the fight to make sure that we do not forget—especially the mothers. There was testimony yesterday in Westminster Abbey from the president of the Mothers of Srebrenica:

“Europe and the world bear responsibility for the genocide in Srebrenica. Silence on genocide is its approval. However, I firmly believe that twenty years later, Europe and the world can make things better.

Help us find the bones of our children! Ease our suffering by protecting the mother from the murderer of her child. Take the uniforms off our children’s murderers. If there was no justice and mercy for more than 10,000 innocent men, women and children systematically murdered back in 1995, then please show some mercy and justice today.

We still believe in goodness. We believe that truth and justice are on our side. We bear no hatred towards those who executed this inhuman plan, because hatred is weakness and we refuse to be weak.”

Those are incredible words from people who have suffered so much, and we can learn much from them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham again on the debate. It is important to remember, and it is important that as a free nation we should always stand by the people affected if we ever see atrocities happening again.

I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate and on all the work that he has done over the years with Remembering Srebrenica. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Srebrenica, which was set up about three years ago. I want to thank right hon. and hon. Members who have supported it and its work.

My interest in what happened in Bosnia stems partly from having seen what happened during the war in the former Yugoslavia, as it disintegrated before our eyes. In addition, I worked for two years with the United Nations mission in Kosovo, from 2000 to 2002, so I had a chance to see at first hand some of the things that happened in Yugoslavia. I did not have the opportunity to travel to Bosnia, because of various security issues and concerns at the time, but I had the chance to speak to people who had been there—and, of course, to people generally across Yugoslavia. I am sure that Members are aware that there were many massacres in Kosovo too, carried out by Miloševic and his people. I had a chance to see mass graves there.

I am grateful for the fact that we are remembering Srebrenica and the 8,344 young boys and men who died in the massacre, but it is also right to remember that those were not the only deaths. About 100,000 Muslims died in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. In addition to the killings, as is almost inevitable in wars, thousands of women were raped. We have heard accounts of how that happened consistently—and it seems almost to be a pattern in war.

I was humbled yesterday to be one of the 20 people to light a candle in Westminster Abbey. It was a wonderful event. I thank not only Members of the House who have given cross-party support, but the United Kingdom; we were the country that years ago pushed in the European Parliament for an annual day to commemorate Srebrenica. It is sad that even though the Parliament passed a resolution that the event should be commemorated every year in all the European countries, we are probably the only one still doing it properly. The rest of Europe has a lot of catching up to do.

I pay tribute to our country and our Parliament for what they have done, and for the assistance given by the Foreign Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government. I hope that the commemorations will come to be held in not just a few towns and cities, but every town and city in the country. The events in question should never be forgotten.

Much has been said about the details of the horrific crimes that happened. I met some of the mothers and survivors about three years ago for tea on the Terrace. The hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) spoke about dignity and forgiveness, and how the mothers bear no malice despite everything that has happened to them. Perhaps the world at large can gain understanding from such things. People were killed for their religion, sometimes by neighbours—one of the mothers said that some of the people who turned against her family were neighbours.

We need to learn the lesson from the fact that such dehumanising hatred can build up—that we are mistaken if we target groups and tarnish our view of them because of race, ethnicity or religion. Treating a group constantly as not part of our society, or not fitting in with our values or doing certain things, is the sort of thing that can lead to such genocide and neighbours turning against each other.

I want to touch on genocide or killing that is still happening; Syria has been mentioned. Conflicts are sometimes confusing, and the situation in Burma is also relevant. May I have another minute, Mr Chope?

The hon. Lady has the Floor, but I hope to fit in Mr Kerevan as well, and we need time for proper winding-up speeches.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much.

I want to mention Burma, where ethnic cleansing is happening and many are being killed. I am sorry that the international community has not been doing much about it. Perhaps we need to move on that.

I pay tribute to my gallant friend, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for organising the debate. “Gallant” is an important word, because it is a truism—true in this case—that the people who hate war and its aftermath most are former soldiers who have experienced it. We should remember that.

I will briefly explain why this debate is of significance to me. I was born at the end of the 1940s and am of the generation brought up in the shadow of the Nazi holocaust. It was axiomatic to us that such mass, clinical, industrial murder could never take place again in Europe—but it did. I was shocked when it happened in Srebrenica. I had thought that it could never happen again, but it will always happen again if each generation does not learn the lessons and if we do not preach the lessons to the young of our country. We have to go on doing that; it will happen again unless we go on preaching the dangers.

I also want to speak because I have a Bosnian Muslim constituent. Campaigning in the general election, I knocked on a door in Haddington, a country town in Scotland, in East Lothian. A happy family from an immigrant community answered the door and it turned out that they were from Bosnia; they had come over as refugees in the aftermath of the war. I did not know that a number of refugees at that time had been relocated to Haddington to keep them together and to form a local community. It is now 20 years on, however, so I happily asked, “Are any other Bosnian families still here?” The people in the door laughed and pointed next door and up the street and I discovered that quite a significant community had made its home in Haddington. They were talking with broad Scottish accents, as is the way if someone lives there for a while. We have made them welcome, but they have joined us and entered our community despite all their traumas, so I thank them.

In my past life I was a documentary filmmaker, and I have been so moved by this issue over the years. We made a documentary film about the survivors of the massacre with Samir Mehanovic, an old Bosnian Muslim friend of mine who suffered and lost family in the crisis, but now lives here. It will be shown in an edited form on BBC World and we are premiering it in Sarajevo at the weekend. The film is designed for the cinema; we wanted people to see things on the big screen, in the dark, to achieve immediacy, rather than having it go on in a living room on the small screen, which does not have the same impact.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned some of the footage taken by the Serbian irregulars and the Serbian army of the cruel things they were doing. I could only watch some of the scenes once. I actually argued with my friend Samir in favour of taking the footage out of our film, but he would not have it—it traumatises him to watch it, but he wants people to see.

The message of our film is the one I wanted to bring to the Chamber, however briefly: we should not only honour and remember the dead, but remember the living. There are many survivors—most are now in Tuzla—but they have found it difficult to find work, their memories are still in their heads and they still need help, support and solidarity. We must remember that fact, which I commend to the Minister. There is still work to be done for the living as well as the dead.

My final point involves Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, who in the past few weeks has been doing his usual thing of denying the massacre. He has even been to the massacre site and denied that it ever took place. There have been contacts between the Bosnian Serbs and the Moscow regime; pressure is put on Moscow to continue to operate at the United Nations in an attempt to stop proper UN recognition and continuing investigation of the massacre. I commend that fact to the Minister.

There is still work to be done at the UN to ensure that we go on remembering Srebrenica, seeking justice for the victims and remembering those who are still alive.

Thank you, Mr Chope. Others have done this, but I thank in particular the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for bringing this timely debate to the House. This event was one of the most devastating of the 20th century—something we hoped never to see again, but did. All of us are thinking about the people of Srebrenica this week. They will certainly be in my prayers over the coming days.

I want to say something about the hon. Gentleman; if I may, I shall call him my hon. Friend. The events in Bosnia were important when I was growing up—at school, as a student and when I travelled to Bosnia in 1996. I remember watching the hon. Gentleman on television, giving one of the first positive views that I saw coming out of Bosnia. His bravery at the time came across the television screen to the young man I was. I also pay tribute to the work that he has done since—he never left it behind, but kept going.

The conflict shaped my view of the world; it had that effect on many people. However, in a previous life I also spent many happy times working in Bosnia. It is a wonderful country. The tributes that we pay today must also go to the people who have built Bosnia since. The bravery of the country is reflected in the fact that so many have attended the debate in the Public Gallery. That, too, takes bravery—to come and sit through the debate, keeping the memory of Srebrenica alive. I hope that hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to those who have joined us today.

In the House, we often disagree on issues, but I want to pay tribute to the UK Government for what they are doing at the moment. They are, to quote President Izetbegovic of Bosnia, “leading the way” in Europe in remembering Srebrenica. This week there has been a service in Westminster Abbey and on Friday I will attend a service in Edinburgh with our First Minister. It is great to see that there will also be a service in Belfast city hall and one led by Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales. That is tremendous.

My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) led a Scottish delegation to Bosnia and Srebrenica last year. He said:

“We must never ever forget the act of genocide that happened at Srebrenica and it is a duty of every one, irrespective of race or religion, to teach the generations that follow us to challenge the evils of hatred, racism and extremism at all times, which is why the Remembering Srebrenica’s ‘Lessons from Srebrenica Visits’ are so important.”

I pay tribute to his work.

Many of us have talked about the lessons that are needed. There was a failure of not only the UK, but Europe and the international community only 20 years ago. Paddy Ashdown, who puts it better than I ever could, said:

“Whether through error, misjudgement, an inability to comprehend, or just inattention, we stood aside when we should not have done. We should therefore remember Srebrenica, not just to bear witness to those who suffered, but also as a warning to us all of what happens when we turn our back.”

My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) said that we need to honour not only the dead, but the living. In honouring the living, we reflect on man’s inhumanity to man. We think about the other conflicts in the world and the lessons that we can learn from them. We might not always agree on what those lessons are, but it is important to learn them.

I again thank those who have attended the debate and who continue to work hard to keep the memory of Srebrenica alive. They do a service to us all.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.

Every time the story of the terrible events in Srebrenica 20 years ago is told, it is as shocking as it was when the truth was first revealed. As we have heard today, what happened in that small mountain town in the Balkans stands apart as one of the darkest chapters in European history. It is the story of thousands of families who believed that they were in a place of safety and shelter, but who were brutally and systematically put to slaughter. It is the story of how more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men lost their lives and of how rape was inflicted on countless women and young girls as a weapon of war. It is the story of how an entire community were stripped first of their dignity and then of their humanity, just because of the names that they were born with. The crime was described by the United Nations as

“the worst committed on European soil since the Second World War”.

Many of the details of what the victims experienced are simply too harrowing to put into words. That is why it is so important that we mark this anniversary.

I therefore congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing this important debate. He spoke with all the passion and expertise we would expect from someone who served as he did with great distinction in Bosnia. I take this opportunity to thank him for the great service he has done for this House in bringing us together to mark this terrible tragedy. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), and the hon. Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), for East Lothian (George Kerevan) and for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) for their excellent contributions to the debate.

What the hon. Member for Beckenham said had particular resonance for me. As a young officer in the British Army, one of my first deployments was to Kosovo during the conflict that took place there in 1999. Although we were several hundred miles away, we could still feel the legacy of what happened at Srebrenica. Forces loyal to Slobodan Miloševic were on the march, again seeking to cleanse towns and villages. I saw at first hand how division and hatred can tear a country apart, ripping apart families and destroying people’s lives. I remember discovering the scene of massacres and the piles of people’s personal possessions. Those memories will never leave me.

We must never allow the terrible crimes of Srebrenica to be forgotten. It was genocide, as has been declared by both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and it is important that we use that word. As we mark two decades since those atrocities, I offer three brief reflections.

The first is that justice must always be done, no matter how long it takes. The perpetrators of those terrible acts must be brought to justice. The international community, including the UK, has made an important contribution to that, through both the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the Bosnia and Herzegovina state court. Twenty senior Bosnian Serb leaders have been indicted over the past two decades and both Radovan Karadžic and Ratko Mladic are now on trial in The Hague. A further seven people accused of taking part in the massacre were arrested by the Serbian authorities as recently as March this year.

It is right that Britain has provided support to the state prosecutor’s office to help ensure that those guilty of war crimes do not go unpunished. We must continue to stand in solidarity beside Bosnia and Herzegovina and provide what support we can. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister updated the House on the latest efforts that are being made to that end.

Does the Minister agree that we need to extend every possible support to the families who lost loved ones at Srebrenica whose fate is still unknown—a point rightly raised by the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham)? Many of the bodies of those who lost their lives in those July days have never been recovered, and too many families are still looking for the remains of their loved ones so that they can give them a proper burial. As well as the 8,372 who perished, more than 15,000 men fled across the mountains to Tuzla to try to escape the slaughter. Many of them would never make it. Some were ambushed; others, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, were tricked by forces wearing stolen UN uniforms to lull them into a false sense of security. The locations of many of the mass graves that they were buried in are still undisclosed. That must be resolved as a step towards broader reconciliation.

Secondly, we must make every possible effort as an international community to ensure that such appalling events are never repeated. It is easy to say, “Never again”; the hard part is ensuring that our words are matched with deeds, as the hon. Member for Strangford said. There is a particular responsibility on us, Great Britain, to play our part in living up to that, as a leading member of the United Nations. As the hon. Member for Beckenham said, history has long accepted that failings by the UN contributed to what happened at Srebrenica. Those included delays in providing support to a UN peacekeeping force that was ill-equipped and ill-prepared. As Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General, wrote in 1999:

“Through error, misjudgement and an inability to recognise the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.”

The blame for what happened in Bosnia will always rest with the people who carried out those hateful and heinous crimes, but those who stood by or did not act readily enough also have a burden to carry. Our duty today is to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. We must work together to ensure that the international community has both the will and the capacity to act in response to cases of genocide or crimes against humanity. That approach is enshrined in the UN’s responsibility to protect, but in recent years cases such as Darfur and Syria have reminded us that there has not always been willingness to act. Does the Minister therefore agree that, as we mark 70 years since the signing of UN charter, we must ensure that our actions continue to live up to its founding values, to protect

“the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”?

I welcome the Government’s role in drafting a resolution at the UN to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica. That decision was not without controversy; indeed, some Serbian leaders have called for the resolution to be dropped. If anything, the tensions over the resolution remind us of the challenge that remains in healing the wounds of the past.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Before the Division, I was welcoming the role that the Government have played in drafting a resolution at the UN to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on what progress is being made on agreeing the text of a UN resolution on Srebrenica and what efforts the Government are making to ensure that it commemorates the anniversary in a suitable and respectful way.

Let me raise a separate but related point. The Minister will be aware that the French Government and others have floated the idea of permanent members of the Security Council suspending the use of the veto in cases of genocide. That was not the issue at Srebrenica, but it does have relevance for preventing any future atrocities like it, so I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm what the British Government’s attitude is to that proposal.

Thirdly and finally, we must continue to bear witness to what happened at Srebrenica. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the countless charities and organisations working to ensure that the lessons of genocide are passed on and never forgotten: Remembering Srebrenica, the Fund for Refugees in Slovenia, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Holocaust Educational Trust and many others.

I also welcome the fact that the UK has contributed funds to the memorial complex near Srebrenica. Nothing will make up for the horrors of the past, but the first step we can take to ensure that they are never repeated is to ensure that future generations know what happened in Bosnia in 1995. They need to know that genocide is not just something that happened many years ago at the end of the second world war. It can happen today, and it could happen in the future if we let down our guard.

I end with this reflection. It is particularly appropriate that we are holding this debate today, a decade on from the terrorist attacks of 7/7. In preparing for it, I reflected on an event that I attended in Parliament last week at which I was honoured to meet survivors of the holocaust. Of course, our country is still recovering from the painful blow inflicted on a beach in Tunisia just 11 days ago. Whether we are reflecting on what happened 70 years ago in Auschwitz, 20 years ago in Srebrenica, 10 years ago on 7/7 or two weeks ago in Tunisia, those events are all bound together by the same thing—hatred, extremism and contempt for human life. Above all, that is what we must overcome if we are to ensure that our world is never again darkened by such atrocities. We need to educate all our young people about the importance of tolerance, respect and always challenging racism, discrimination and hatred. If this anniversary reminds us of nothing else, let it remind us of that. That would be the best tribute that we could possibly pay.

The genocide in Srebrenica—the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys—represents the worst atrocity in Europe since 1945. It is also probably one of the darkest moments in the history of the United Nations. Twenty years on, it is right that we recall those events, pay tribute to the victims of the atrocities committed at Srebrenica and remember those from all sides who have lost family members and friends during the conflicts in the Balkans. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) both for securing and leading today’s debate and for the way in which he has spoken up for Bosnia and Herzegovina, for the memory of Srebrenica and its victims and for the western Balkans region overall during his time in the House.

Hon. Members have rightly said during the debate that alongside those who lost their lives at Srebrenica, we need to hold in our thoughts the survivors, who to this day mourn the loss of their family members and friends. The testimony of Nedžad Avdic, which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham included in his speech, was a searing testimony to the appalling nature of the events that took place in and around Srebrenica 20 years ago. While commemorating those events, we need also to redouble our resolve to continue to push for the perpetrators of war crimes in the Balkans and elsewhere to be brought to justice.

This is an opportunity to encourage greater reconciliation both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the wider western Balkans region. It is also a moment to pause and reflect on the lessons learned and commit ourselves to making “Never again” not just a slogan, but a reality.

The United Kingdom is leading the drafting of a United Nations Security Council resolution to commemorate the victims of the genocide in Srebrenica and those who suffered on all sides in the war. That resolution encourages further steps towards reconciliation and a brighter future for Bosnia. The draft text that we have tabled also affirms our determination to prevent genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and to use all the tools at our disposal to do so. The Security Council is due to vote on the resolution in New York this afternoon.

As the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) said, Srebrenica is an acute reminder of the extreme consequences that can occur when divisions are allowed to prevail and when we fail to stand up to extremism and hatred, so this is also an important opportunity to reflect on what can happen when hatred and discrimination go unchecked.

Of course, part of reconciliation is about justice. It is for that reason that UK funding has provided immense support to the state prosecutor’s office, where financial support to the Srebrenica team from 2004 until December 2012 has had a direct impact on the number of successful prosecutions for Srebrenica-related war crimes. Our embassy in Sarajevo continues the valuable work on justice, supporting programmes to bring Bosnia’s justice and security sectors into line with international standards.

However, there is a great deal more to do. Reconciliation is also about rebuilding the damaged relationships to ensure that communities can live alongside each other in a cohesive and integrated manner and that intolerance never again divides Bosnia and Herzegovina or Europe. I am therefore glad that regional leaders of all faiths and ethnicities will join citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and representatives of the international community at the burial of more than 130 people and in shared commemorations at Potocari cemetery. Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal will represent the United Kingdom at the ceremony on Saturday 11 July.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham asked about the work done by the Fund for Refugees in Slovenia. I can tell him that Lady Nott is due to speak to my officials later this week, and we will obviously be interested to hear her ideas at that point, although the fact that the Department for International Development does not at the moment have an in-country programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina means that one obvious potential source of funding is not available.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) asked me about the recent article in The Guardian. He was generous enough to say that he did not expect me to go into detail about it, but I have read the article. Comprehensive documentation has been published by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and the detailed Harland report in 1999 gave the official United Nations version of events. I think that the best thing we can do is to learn the lessons and resolve that we will never again stand by and close our eyes to atrocities of the sort that were committed two decades ago.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the International Commission on Missing Persons. I have seen for myself the work that it does in Sarajevo and Cyprus under extremely difficult and challenging conditions. We have been a strong supporter of the ICMP since it was established and we have provided more than £3 million in funding over the past 15 years. In the last financial year alone, we provided several hundred thousand pounds to help the ICMP to excavate a previously unknown mass grave site at Tomašica in north-west Bosnia and Herzegovina, which could produce evidence that will have an impact on ongoing cases before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. I assure the House that our commitment to the ICMP will continue.

We are spending about £4.75 million this year on projects that promote security and stability in Bosnia, including on peacekeeping, security sector reform, good governance and community reconciliation. We want Bosnia and Herzegovina to fulfil its potential as a stable, prosperous nation in the heart of Europe. When I have been to Sarajevo, I have found it encouraging to talk to young people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, who see their future as being in the mainstream of European civilisation and who want not to forget the past, but to come to terms with it and build a better, more united future for their country.

In February last year, the entire international community heard the concerns of the Bosnian people. The demonstrations brought into stark relief the urgency of addressing key political and economic challenges, such as creating jobs for young people in their own country. That is why in November last year, our Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), alongside his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, led a new initiative to try to re-energise Bosnia’s path towards EU integration, a plan that has been adopted by the EU as a whole. The focus of that initiative is on delivering real reform and changes that will have the most direct impact on the Bosnian people. That does not mean that we can avoid addressing difficult political and constitutional issues, but I believe it is right to move ahead as quickly as possible with changes that will make a difference for the better to the lives of ordinary families from every community in Bosnia. Bosnia’s political leaders have signed up to that approach, and they need to implement reforms that will move the country forward and create a society that will bring opportunities for all its citizens. It is vital that old, divisive nationalist politics does not get in the way. Last year, in response to the appalling floods, Bosnians from all ethnicities showed that faced with a crisis, they could work together.

The bloodstained nature of recent history means that the path will not be an easy one, but we have a public commitment by party leaders from across the political spectrum in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The international community has a responsibility to support the people in holding their leaders to account to improve the lives of their citizens. All citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve lasting prosperity and stability, and that will be achieved only when hope and good will for the richness of all members of society prevail over division. Building a secure, integrated, reconciled Bosnia and Herzegovina is, I believe, the best way to ensure that we can in truth say, when we reflect on Srebrenica, “Never again.”

I thank everyone who has taken part in this important debate. I end by expressing my gratitude for the support we have had from behind us—from the Mothers of Srebrenica and some of the victims, who are here today. It is probably not parliamentary protocol to say that, but we are here for them. God bless them.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide.

Avon Ring Road (M4 Link)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the M4 link to the Avon ring road.

I rise to make the case for what I believe to be the most important road infrastructure project in my constituency, which could benefit not only my constituents in Kingswood but the whole city of Bristol and the surrounding region of south Gloucestershire. As the local MP, I believe that we desperately need a new junction on the M4 motorway to link to the Avon ring road, which runs through my constituency.

I appreciate that the Minister is new to his post, and I welcome him to the Department. I am sure that he has already received many representations from people calling for roads to be built, extended or dualled, but I believe that the case for an M4 link to the Avon ring road should be considered as a priority for the Department and the Government. Local people in eastern Bristol have the limited choice of accessing the M4 at junction 19, which is the junction with the M32, or at junction 18, which is the turn-off for Bath.

For hundreds of my constituents who journey along the M4 daily to work, the situation proves to be a commuter’s nightmare. Those who want to access the motorway are forced to travel up the Avon ring road past the Hambrook lights at Frenchay and access the M32, which takes them on to the M4 at junction 19. The frustration of commuters wishing to take the M4 eastbound, who wait in the traffic that builds up on the ring road at Emersons Green—not helped by the 2-plus lane—is hardly improved by the fact that they can almost hear the sound of the vehicles on the M4, because the motorway at that point is less than a stone’s throw from the ring road.

If we look at a map, we see that the Avon ring road, the A4174 and the M4 run so close together in parallel that we could be forgiven for thinking that they are adjoining carriageways on some sort of superhighway. At the Wick Wick roundabout or the Westerleigh Road roundabout on the ring road, where access points already exist and bridges cross the M4, the motorway lies tantalisingly close, but motorists have no other option than to wait patiently in a queue that stretches for miles along the ring road, and then to travel—against their instincts and better judgment—in the opposite direction for three miles before turning back on themselves. In the end—after a wait of, at times, an hour—a commuter will join the M4 at junction 19 and travel back past Emersons Green, where they started.

Understandably, such delays leave my constituents furious. The delays and the ensuing congestion result from the fact that the only way to access the M4 from the eastern side of Bristol is at junction 19. That has caused the M32 to become a pinch point on the M4, which is struggling to cope with the rising volume of commuters. With the development of new housing at Lyde Green, next to Emersons Green, and the planned housing at Filton, the Bristol area is set to expand significantly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I commend him on a brilliant campaign. Does he agree that although we want to unleash enterprise and create more jobs, and new housing is much needed, we have to have the infrastructure in place to support it?

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for his comments. He has led the way in developing a suitable mix of housing and employment land at the proposed housing estate at Filton airfield. He is absolutely right that we may have employment, land and housing, but we need transport infrastructure in eastern and northern Bristol to ensure that the city can expand appropriately and to reduce congestion. With thousands of extra cars on the roads, there will remain only one access point to the M4. The time has come to provide a solution by delivering a new junction, junction 18A, at Emersons Green. With the M4 and the Avon ring road effectively touching, the project would be moderate on the scale of other Members’ requests. A new junction would link with the Avon ring road, providing instant and improved access to the M4 for the eastern side of Bristol, thereby reducing congestion on the M32 and at junction 19.

Junction 18A is such an obvious, and some might say easy, solution that the Minister may wonder why it has not been thought of before. Well, it has: the scheme was first proposed back in 1985—I was four years old—when plans for the Avon ring road were being developed. The junction and link road were given the go-ahead, but they were never built. The blame lies with the local authority of the time, which apparently spent the non-ring-fenced money elsewhere. What may have happened decades ago in the 20th century, however, should not cloud the fact that, as we approach the third decade of the 21st century, Bristol and its surrounding region urgently need a new link road to the M4.

I am determined to press the case for what is known locally as the “M4 link”, as I have done repeatedly over the past five years since becoming the MP for Kingswood. I held a debate in Parliament on this issue back in May 2011, and in April 2012 I handed in a petition of more than 1,500 local residents supporting the M4 link. I put on record my appreciation for the determination of local councillors such as Colin Hunt, James Hunt, Rachael Hunt and Dave Kearns to keep fighting locally for an M4 link, which has resulted in South Gloucestershire Council commissioning a feasibility study into the junction that will report later in the year.

Only last year, in July 2014, I met the Minister with responsibility for roads, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), at the Department to make the case for a new junction and link road. On 25 March 2015, during the final Prime Minister’s questions of the Parliament, I raised the case for an M4 link with the Prime Minister himself. He responded by stating that the Secretary of State for Transport would be pleased to receive representations. I was delighted that, in April, the Transport Secretary was able to visit the proposed site of the M4 link and to listen to local businesses and councillors making the case for a new junction and link road.

Since then, the campaign for an M4 link has, pardon the pun, stepped up a gear, with the launch of a new cross-party campaign, Gateway2Growth. Several representatives of the campaign are in the Public Gallery today, and they are calling for junction 18A to be built at Emersons Green. The campaign includes the Bristol and Bath science park and Business West, which represents 18,000 businesses across the south-west, and its purpose is not only to highlight the transport and congestion need for an M4 link but to make the overwhelming economic case for a new junction. Above all, a new junction would help to put the thriving community of Emersons Green on the map.

Emersons Green is a success story in the making. It is the location of one of south Gloucestershire’s largest ever housing developments. A consortium of developers is currently working to deliver 2,500 new homes, schools and community and leisure facilities at Lyde Green, and some 2,800 homes have been built at Emersons Green West since the late 1990s. The area is currently home to the Bristol and Bath science park, Airbus, the Harlequin business park and the National Composites Centre, and it has the potential to grow even further. The area contains a flagship employment site for the west of England, which was recognised by the Government in the establishment of the Emersons Green enterprise area. There is the potential for developing 45 hectares of employment space, which would provide economic growth for the creation of some 7,000 new jobs. At the heart of that employment site is the Bristol and Bath science park, which is home to more than 40 successful businesses and is a crucial hub for young and emerging science and technology companies to grow and thrive. One of the park’s success stories has been the National Composites Centre, which has become an internationally renowned asset for the delivery of world-class design and rapid manufacture for sectors including aerospace, automotive and heavy infrastructure.

It is vital, therefore, that the surrounding infrastructure matches the area’s ambition so that it is able to reflect the present day Emersons Green while also being able to cater for future demands. A new junction 18A at Emersons Green, providing access to the M4, would help to turbocharge economic growth in the area. Back in 2006, the Bristol transport study estimated that a junction would provide an economic benefit of around £270 million; I believe that figure would be far higher today. In order to understand more fully the economic benefits of the proposed junction, the Gateway2Growth campaign has commissioned an independent study exploring the business benefits of junction 18A. The study will be conducted by Dr Phil Tomlinson, senior lecturer in business economics, and Marc Betton, PhD researcher, from the University of Bath. The comprehensive report will have its national launch at the House of Commons on 16 September, which will be attended by local MPs, councillors, business leaders, academics and residents. I personally invite the Minister and his departmental officials to attend the launch so that they can hear for themselves the economic benefits of the proposed junction 18A and M4 link. I request that the Department seriously and urgently considers the case for junction 18A as part of any future Government transport infrastructure commitments.

The phrase “long-term economic plan” could have been designed with the lengthy campaign for an M4 link in mind—the campaign has certainly been extremely long term. However, I assure the Minister that my resolve, and the resolve of local businesses, the Gateway2Growth campaign, local MPs—including my hon. Friends the Members for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall)—and the people of Kingswood and the surrounding area, is to argue that the case for a new junction has not diminished, nor will it. The case for the M4 link has never been stronger and, with the foundation of the Gateway2Growth campaign, never has our local area been so united behind the common ambition of delivering better road infrastructure for the Bristol area.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak in this debate, Mr Williams. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing the debate, and I welcome the new Minister to his place.

Although my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood was four years old, I was not even born when the scheme was initially proposed. My constituency of Thornbury and Yate borders his constituency at precisely the point between junctions 18 and 19 of the M4 where the new junction is proposed. Since the building of the Emersons Green development, there has been a significant increase in the volume of traffic in the area. The A4174 between the site of the proposed junction and junction 19 of the M4 is particularly congested at peak times, which has a large knock-on effect on the villages in my constituency between the Emersons Green development and junction 18. There has been a steady increase in traffic movements through villages such as Pucklechurch and Hinton, where cars are using country lanes to access junction 18.

The local South Gloucestershire district councillor, Ben Stokes, has highlighted specific concerns about the junction of Cotswold Way and the A46, where traffic regularly tails back due to the volume of traffic on the A46. Motorists are becoming increasingly vulnerable as the pressure on junction 18 and the A46 increases. I also thank Councillor Steve Reade, who has pointed to the increasing volume of vehicle movements along the A420 through Wick in recent years. Residents of Kingswood, Bridgeyate and Oldland Common are exiting the M4 at junction 19 and travelling through Wick, rather than using the more congested junction 18.

My constituents have also raised concerns about the increasing difficulty of walking or cycling safely around the village of Pucklechurch. I fear that more pressure will push more people into cars, which will add to local concerns about air quality on the A420. The 2,500 homes planned at Lyde Green, which reaches from my hon. Friend’s constituency slightly into my own, will lead to a further increase in vehicle movements and more pressure on our villages’ already strained local infrastructure. Pucklechurch and Wick are small villages with a community atmosphere. They were never designed to be used as a daily bypass for commuters, nor were the roads that run through them.

Part of the solution is the construction of junction 18A, giving motorists a quick and effective route to the M4 and creating new capacity to absorb the traffic created by the new housing developments and growing businesses in the area. I know that a great number of my constituents make the daily commute to Bristol to work, and the current congestion means that a journey from Yate to Bristol always takes more than an hour. Although many commuters would still use the same stretch of road, the pressure on the ring road would be greatly relieved by the proposed junction.

I believe that the proposal will provide us with additional capacity for commerce to enter Bristol, which will connect new businesses, encourage trade in the region, help reduce unemployment and, crucially, create more skilled jobs in my constituency. I ask that the Government consider the proposal as a long-term investment in a thriving part of the country. As more families move into the area, we must encourage businesses to grow and to trade with each other locally and nationally.

In summary, the proposal will significantly reduce journey times into Bristol for many of my constituents, improve access to the M4 and reduce the traffic burden on the villages affected by the growing population. If we want our infrastructure to match our ambition, it should be seen as a vital part of the future of south Gloucestershire.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, for the first time in my new capacity. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this afternoon’s debate on the M4-Avon link road. He is right that since starting in this job, I have been besieged by colleagues with cunning plans for which they are seeking investment. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) highlighted how old they are, and therefore how old some of the rest of us are. In 1985, when this campaign started—I remember it clearly—I was working for B&Q. Things move in different directions.

I am aware that this topic has been the subject of previous parliamentary questions and debate. I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood for continuing to highlight the growth that will take place in Bristol and south Gloucestershire and the important role that good transport infrastructure will play in building a sustainable and strong local economy. I am also aware of the excellent work that he has done to represent and promote the interests of Kingswood since he came to Parliament. He has been a vigorous local champion and has won a deserved reputation for it.

I will address the points raised by both my hon. Friends, but I will start by setting out what we have already done as a Government to invest in infrastructure in the area. I applaud the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood and other Members of this House in championing the campaign for access to growth. As he said, the Emersons Green Bristol and Bath science park development will create 7,000 jobs, part of an estimated 60,000 jobs across the wider west of England concentrated on six local enterprise areas and the flagship Bristol Temple quarter enterprise zone. There will be 95,000 new jobs in the west of England by 2030, in addition to much-needed new homes.

The west of England lies at a crucial point in our national transport network, providing road and rail access not only to the south-west and south Wales from the midlands and the south-east but to international markets via the Severn ports. It plays a key role in our national economy and our national transport network. The west of England road and rail network provides access for local people and businesses and keeps our nation moving. As my hon. Friend highlighted, reliable connectivity enables west of England residents to access jobs and local businesses to reach the marketplace.

The Government believe that investment in infrastructure drives economic growth and improves lives. We have ambitious plans for infrastructure investment, whether in road or rail, as part of our economic plan. We have an infrastructure deficit, as we have a financial deficit; we have not invested in infrastructure. That applies to all parties over many years. We are playing catch-up with the investment that we need at a time when our finances are under pressure, but this Government’s clear will is to address that deficit. A significant amount of cash is being allocated to doing so.

Roads play a huge part in that. Nearly every kind of economic activity depends on roads in some way, and a high-performing road network improves the health of our economy. Our commitment to deliver a step change in investment in transport infrastructure was made clear in the road investment strategy launched by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the end of the last Parliament. The RIS sets out how £15 billion will be invested in more than 100 schemes across the road network between 2015 and 2021. In the west of England, that will include a new junction on the M49 at Avonmouth, to support access to the 14,000 jobs planned for that area, and work on the A417 near Birdlip. Both schemes have been championed and prioritised by the local enterprise partnerships and local businesses, which has been an important factor in their selection.

Roads are not the only transport mode in which we are investing. In the west of England, the Government are investing £113 million in three metro bus schemes to provide a 50 km bus rapid transit network that will link key economic and employment centres and regeneration and development areas in the greater Bristol area, including the enterprise area at the Bristol and Bath science park in Emersons Green. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood will be aware, construction has already started on those schemes. The metro bus is designed to extend the choice of transport modes, particularly for private car drivers, encouraging them to make a modal shift to public transport.

The schemes represent an investment of £182 million, of which £113 million will come from the Department for Transport, with the remainder coming from the council and third-party contributors. As part of the work, the new 23-mile north fringe to Hengrove route will improve sustainable access to the Emersons Green science park area.

South Gloucestershire and Bristol councils have recently received £13.9 million from the Department for Transport for major maintenance and enhancement of the A4174 Avon ring road. The scheme will improve the A4174 between the A38 at Filton and the A4 at Hicks Gate. It will involve major structural maintenance of three structures, extending the life of the existing carriageway and providing footways and cycleway maintenance and enhancements.

Altogether, the West of England local enterprise partnership has secured £230.7 million from the local growth fund over the period up to 2021 to drive forward the growth of the region’s economy. It has prioritised more than £50 million for funding the MetroWest phase 1 rail scheme, which will reopen the railway line to Portishead and provide other rail enhancements in the west of England area. The LEP has also committed £20 million in local growth funding to support sustainable transport schemes.

I wanted to give the context of the investment in infrastructure taking place in the area. Investment in local transport infrastructure such as I have outlined is critical to local communities and the local economy. It is essential that we continue to develop our transport network to meet new needs. The local enterprise partnership has highlighted the development of the Emersons Green Bristol and Bath science park in its strategic economic plan. I fully understand why both my hon. Friends and the business community in the region support the call for improved links to that growing area from Avon to the M4. It is an understandable economic case.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood will know, the A4174 link road is part of the local road network, whereas the M4 is part of the strategic road network, meaning that there are two main paths through which investment can be secured. Sadly, I have not come here bearing a large cheque to deliver the scheme, but I can provide guidance on routes ahead.

Investment in the strategic road network is handled through the road investment strategy, which involves 100 schemes and £15 billion in investment. We are basically moving to a system of road investment that is comparable to the rail investment system, with control periods and projects identified for delivery in five-year units. We announced the first RIS in December last year, and we are developing the process for the next one, which will run from 2020 to 2025.

The first RIS was built on a detailed assessment of the needs of the road network—existing points of pressure and places where new development would be possible. In many places, that included building better links between the local and national road networks, which is exactly what has been identified this afternoon. I am keen for the second RIS to deliver in exactly the same way as the first. I want the process to be open, find the best way to get value from our roads and encourage all groups with ideas for improvements to get involved and contribute.

The Infrastructure Act 2015 commits us to a series of route strategies that assess the needs of the whole road network. Highways England will use the strategies to engage with local stakeholders, identify current and future constraints on economic growth and explore how investment will address constraints and unlock opportunity. I expect to announce how we will develop the second RIS after the party conference season. Highways England has already committed to publishing its route strategies over the next 18 months or so. They will be the platform from which to take forward the opportunity for a new M4 junction and see whether we can build it into the next RIS. A very strong case has been made, and I would strongly support all my hon. Friends from the area contributing their views and local expertise to the process. I will ensure that officials in my Department and Highways England keep my hon. Friends fully aware of the opportunities to get involved.

I am trying to make the process more open, to encourage a greater contribution from local economic drivers, such as chambers of commerce or local enterprise partnerships. That is a bit of a change from the earlier RIS. I want to increase the emphasis placed on economic development and what road investment can do to unlock it. The scheme discussed today is exactly the type that would be appropriate for consideration. Ahead of that process, I suggest to my hon. Friends that they continue the campaign and work with local groups to ensure that everyone is aligned and that there is consensus that the link is the best way to address the area’s transport needs.

That is the route for national funding for the strategic road network; I shall now address local sources of funding. The west of England councils are undertaking a joint spatial plan and joint transport study. They will consider strategic needs up to 2036 and assess a potential strategic transport package for the area. Prioritisation of potential schemes has not yet taken place, so the debate is timely. Once the local enterprise partnership has established the priorities, it will then explore funding options. Access to Emersons Green Bristol and Bath science park is identified as a shared concern for the agencies that would deliver such a scheme. I would therefore encourage the local enterprise partnership, South Gloucestershire Council and Highways England to work together to develop a proposal that will meet the needs of both the local economy and the strategic road network, in a way that can be delivered in financial and engineering terms and, above all, is safe for road users.

It is important to consider all the options, including the proposal that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood outlined. He put forward a strong case, and I will ensure that it is considered extremely favourably within the Department. I can commit to joining him on the 16th for the launch of the local plan; it is a kind invitation. The Government are committed to investment in infrastructure and to providing clarity into the future, so that contractors can scale up and skill up and we can have more appropriate planning to deliver greater economies. We must make every effort to address the long-term historical infrastructure deficit I mentioned earlier.

We remain committed to growth deals and to providing ongoing support for LEPs, which are delivering growth and jobs. Funding for proposals such as the link could come through growth deals or LEPs, and there are also opportunities in the road infrastructure schemes. I hope that I have provided a little bit of a clue as to the way forward for the campaign. I would be happy to help, and a very strong case has been made. I understand entirely why the link matters. It would open up opportunities and improve the quality of life in the area. I am aware of the congestion as people come down the M4 before taking the motorway spur into the centre of Bristol. The economic growth of the area is vigorously championed by local MPs.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood on securing the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate on his eloquent contribution. The Government are committed to modernising local and strategic transport infrastructure. That is part of our long-term economic plan, which is already delivering infrastructure needs that were unmet by previous Governments. That work will continue, and my hon. Friends will have my support in delivering for their area.

Question put and agreed to.

Jobcentre Plus

I beg to move,

That this House has considered reform of Jobcentre Plus.

It is once again an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. It is good to see you back in your place. This is the first time we have been in a debate together since you were re-elected, on which I congratulate you.

Since the early 1970s, we have tried 34 different schemes in an effort to get long-term and young unemployed people back to work, at a cost to the country of more than £13 billion. Each scheme has had varying results, but in the main has failed. Welfare dependency and long-term joblessness continue to scar our society. That is not just a failure of policy, but a moral failure. Joblessness damages families for generations. It sets people and groups against each other. It divides people into tribes with no common purpose. William Beveridge said:

“Unemployment is like a headache or a high temperature—unpleasant and exhausting but not carrying in itself any explanation of its cause.”

From the youth training scheme to the new deal for young people, and now the Work programme, multiple schemes have not tackled the causes of unemployment. Long-term joblessness remains stubbornly high, at over 32% of the unemployment rate. No real effort has been made to reverse decades of long-term unemployment or welfare dependency. Our attitude, across this House, needs to change. We cannot accept that long-term unemployment is here to stay or that people will waste their lives on welfare. People should never accept that they will have to lower their ambitions to go into low-paid, insecure jobs. Our welfare system has to be a ladder to success, not a way of life. It is not attitudes that must be shifted; we can deliver change only if the right processes are in place.

The first port of call for any jobseeker is Jobcentre Plus. Jobcentre Plus should exist to get people back into work. Despite claims over the weekend that Jobcentre Plus has helped 100,000 people into work, it still has a record of failure. Policy Exchange research, as outlined in its report “Joined Up Welfare: The next steps for personalisation”, found that only 36% of JSA claimants found a job within six months of claiming benefits and kept it over a seven to eight-month period. Others did not find employment or cycled in and out of work. Only one in five people sent to colleges to increase their vocational training ended up in employment. That research is underlined by Ofsted, which found that in some examples the success rate of Jobcentre Plus schemes is as low as 1%.

The Policy Exchange report identified the root causes of the problem, which is that the design of our employment services has two main issues: the signposting of services does not occur from identifiable points and the delivery of services is nowhere near specialised enough. Policy Exchange could not have been clearer:

“The dominance of Jobcentre Plus on employment support services prevents the development of more specialist providers and personalised welfare services.”

Policy Exchange concluded that Jobcentre Plus is not fit for purpose. Given my experience as a constituency MP over the past five years, I tend to agree. It does not reflect the modern job market, where employees no longer stay in the same job for life—it is more like less than a decade, and falling. It also does not reflect globalisation, whereby people have multiple careers in their lifetime. It is not suited to supporting, helping and retraining people, as necessary.

If someone were to ask for help now, Jobcentre Plus would direct them to the Universal Jobmatch site. The good jobcentres would offer to help people with their CV, but in effect someone would have to wait for six months before a jobcentre really started to help them. Jobcentres are not even attractive places to visit. For far too many people, they are the places they go to be sanctioned; furniture is nailed to the floor and there is a security guard at the front door. Beyond that, the system’s one-size-fits-all model does not reflect the individual needs of jobseekers or understand what employers are looking for.

The situation is even worse for young people. We all know the stories about the Work programme, whereby people with degrees were forced to leave volunteering programmes that would help their future to work in jobs that would not. Some progress has been made, especially in south-east Wales with the work coach delivery model, which provides a single “work coach” for a jobseeker’s entire period of unemployment. However, it seems that much of this activity is too little, too late. Even now, people are getting just a maximum of 20 minutes with a single person—20 minutes to help someone to begin a life-changing process. It is all part of another attempt to make a broken system function just a little bit better.

It is time to change the entire system. Doing anything less would mean that long-term unemployment was not being tackled, and we would create yet another generation of people dependent on welfare. That would fail not only the young people who cannot get a job, their families who often have to support them and the long-term unemployed who are stuck on welfare and want nothing more than to work; it would fail our entire country.

The Prince’s Trust calculates that the cost of youth unemployment to the nation is £10 million a day. To put that into context, that amounts to more each year than the combined budgets for the Cabinet Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Change will cause pain in many areas, but the decisions that secure long-term, sustainable employment for everyone in our country are worth the short-term hurt that would be caused. It will require a generational effort, but we must start now. The first stage is to abolish Jobcentre Plus.

Jobcentre Plus must be replaced with an agency that exists to contract charities and private recruitment companies to provide a service based firmly in the communities of the long-term unemployed. That service would ensure that there is localised, individualised and specialist support for jobseekers, delivered by groups with a proven track record of success in their locality.

As the Policy Exchange report identified, it would be more effective for funding to flow to different providers, following the individual jobseeker to the service provider best able to get them into work, rather than funding remaining static in one organisation, as it is now with Jobcentre Plus. If someone loses their job on Friday, they should expect to have a personalised discussion with a jobsearch expert by Monday about what employers in the area are looking for, what they want to achieve, what barriers are stopping them from achieving their goal and how they can get the skills that they need and that employers want.

The providers must work hand in hand with local employers. They must know the skills that employers need, the jobs that need to be filled and how candidates can be successful. Once these things have been identified, the local providers should work with jobseekers to get them the skills that employers want, rather than forcing them into jobs through sanctions.

This is not a matter of right versus left; it is simply a matter of following what works. The OECD’s 2010 report, “Off to a Good Start”, found that countries such as Australia, which have moved from a “work first” approach to a “train/learn first” approach, achieved much greater progress in helping people out of work into sustainable, long-term employment. The same report highlighted that

“A move towards early and selective intervention…helps to avoid the build-up of a large pool of youth at risk of becoming long-term unemployed”.

It is by partnering with the people providing jobs, determining what they need and then delivering it that we will tackle long-term unemployment.

A similar model has worked before. In the 1960s, Bobby Kennedy, the New York Senator and presidential candidate, pioneered a community development corporation in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. That organisation succeeded in turning Bedford-Stuyvesant from one of the poorest areas of New York into one of the most desirable places to live in New York. The CDC is a not-for-profit, community-based corporation that is free from central Government control. It provides a localised and personalised service, and supplements employment programmes with economic development activities and community development. It is driven by a board made up of established local business leaders, charities and—most importantly—local residents, who are brought together in partnership by government to harness the best of private enterprise and the best of social action, with the clear aim of creating and expanding locally owned businesses, and providing residents with the training they need to work in those companies.

The CDC designates each local entrepreneur with a single contract person, who is given full responsibility for helping them to establish and grow their new business, creating growth, jobs and prosperity for the entire community. The CDC contract-holder provides a range of services, including providing guidance in gaining funding, negotiating with banks, finding the best location, and selecting the right equipment, staff and resources. In effect, it provides the services that an entrepreneur needs to start their company and make it a success.

Once the company opens its doors, the CDC increases its efforts. It will be the responsibility of the contract-holder to make that company a success, so that it adds to the economic prosperity of the community. These new companies will be good for communities and for reducing unemployment. The CDCs will support entrepreneurs and help to grow companies, which will create new employment opportunities.

The CDC model has worked before, but it must be updated for the modern world. Employment service providers must bring about a system targeted purely at need and demand. We should use this form of partnership and competition to deliver the jobs that we need for the future.

However, as with all things, there is an elephant in the room. Anyone who has worked in business—especially in small and medium-sized enterprises, as I did in my days at a bookmaker—knows that taking on a new employee is a risk, especially one who has been long-term unemployed. I can understand why firms often choose not to do so. That is where the Government must step in and encourage companies to employ the long-term unemployed. The Government are large enough to take the risk away from companies. We can give employers tax breaks for taking on the long-term unemployed. Yes, there will be a cost, but doing nothing has a greater cost; there is a greater cost in allowing joblessness and welfare dependency to continue.

That is why we must be clear to people. The Government will play their part, creating the new jobs and helping the jobless to get the skills they need to fill them, but jobseekers must play their part as well. As the philosopher John Rawls has said, in a just society

“all citizens are to do their part in society’s co-operative work.”

For me, that means that no-one can be allowed to have a life on welfare. I support the Government’s welfare cap—work must always pay more than benefits. However, for far too long sanctions on jobseekers have had exactly the opposite effect to the one we want. Often through no fault of their own, and in many cases because of the faults of Jobcentre Plus, people are being sanctioned, which traps them in a cycle where they cannot find work and cannot receive the support they need.

In the last Parliament, a Work and Pensions Committee report, “Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley review”, found that at present the sanctions regime does not achieve its aims, and that often all sanctions achieve is harming vulnerable people and causing financial hardship, further trapping the jobless in welfare dependency.

The solution illustrates how, more than any other problem, the issue can be solved only by using both the left and the right. The Policy Exchange report called for the creation of “citizen support centres”, operating separately but alongside employment support providers. These centres would act as the primary and central hub for accessing Government services, including all benefits. That would make the process of receiving payments distinct from receiving help into work.

However, that is not enough. What is also needed was identified in the Institute for Public Policy Research report, “It’s All About You: Citizen-centred welfare”, and it is welfare responsibility contracts. They are legally binding contracts between jobseekers and the Government that outline in plain terms what is expected of jobseekers, what sanctions they will face if they do not fulfil their obligations, the Government’s responsibility to them and the responsibility that they have to the Government and society.

I will end by restating a simple fact. This issue is not about Labour or Tory; it is not about left versus right; and it is not about political advantage. It is about doing what works. In the past 40 years, welfare dependency has been allowed to become a way of life in many of our communities. Joblessness has become the norm for too many families. Low pay, insecure jobs and the lack of a future have been allowed to become part and parcel of people’s lives. Poverty of money and ambition are all too often just facts of life now. No Government of any hue have managed to solve this. Simply put, we have failed our country and our constituents. We have tried the same thing over and over: ineffective training programmes, irrelevant to the real needs of business; sanctions for those who cannot get jobs; and subsidies for low pay through tax credits. We have tried time and again to reform jobcentres, but to no avail.

We need a new approach built around partnership between Government, charities, private enterprise and local residents, in which the individual needs of the jobless and of businesses are properly catered for, in which we harness the right structures and right techniques to create new jobs for the unemployed at a local level and in which support from Government is matched by responsibility from the jobless. We have no future as a country if these problems continue to exist. Communities across the country such as the one I represent have no future when unemployment and poverty are a fact of life.

Let me be clear. It is our duty in this place to get Britain back to work. This is the only future our country has: one in which we work our way out of poverty, out of low pay and off welfare dependency. The great American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that to govern:

“demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.”

We have tried the current method of getting people back into work for the past 40 years. It has failed. It is time to try another.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this important debate.

Job seeking is often a stressful, unpredictable journey that is usually travelled alone. Losing a job is difficult, not only for the individual, but often for their families as well. The search for work—perhaps following redundancy, or however a job is lost—is never easy, and although for most people it is over within six months, many are left to endure cycles of short-term work and long periods of unemployment.

Jobcentre Plus has remained the single biggest gateway into the world of work for generations, with jobseekers culturally bound to the process of examining the jobs board at their local job centre, or dole office as it used to be known. However, research shows that although 75% of people claiming jobseekers allowance gain employment within six months, only about half of claimants leaving JSA are still in work eight months later.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this important debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) sets out powerfully the statistical case relating to Jobcentre Plus. Does she agree that there has been a problem with the Government’s rhetoric, which is exacerbating the position of the unemployed, because rather than accepting that unemployment is a difficult time in a person’s life, people have been stigmatised as shirkers? That has made the atmosphere around Jobcentre Plus far more difficult than it needs to be.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I agree. The rhetoric often binds people in cultural divisions.

The process simply is not working. The world has changed since the inception of the jobcentre and, indeed, Jobcentre Plus. To be fair, the Department for Work and Pensions has implemented changes that take account of the increasingly digital way in which people access services and information. Its aim of “digital by default” ways to sign on is a clear move to base its services in the computer-centric world where many people exist.

However, the Welsh Government’s “National Survey for Wales 2013-14” confirmed that 21% of the Welsh adult population aged 18 or over does not regularly use the internet. In the local authority area of Neath Port Talbot, where my constituency is situated, that figure is almost 41%. Although 82% of people use the internet for email and 74% for general browsing, only 17% used it to look for work. Youth unemployment in Neath Port Talbot in May 2013 was 9.7%, compared with 9.0% in Wales and 7.8% for the UK as a whole, and 2% of young people had been out of work for more than six months. As those statistics suggest, there is a great need for good quality job search, support and advice in Neath, and other constituencies like it.

I wish to highlight two examples of how community-based organisations have improved the job prospects and quality of life for people in my constituency of Neath. One is in a community suburb of Neath town centre, called Neath East, and the other is in a small village called Banwen, at the top of the Dulais valley. The people of Neath East came together to try to regenerate their area, first establishing the Melincryddan Community Conference, known as MCC, and later joining forces to create the Neath East Communities First partnership. This partnership has sought, and continues to seek, the views and participation of community members in deciding on actions to regenerate the area.

One of the first needs identified was provision of advice to be available locally, which led directly to the provision of Melin advice centre. Initial consultations revealed that many claimants were being turned away from Neath Jobcentre Plus, as they lacked the necessary IT skills and/or access to fulfil the three basic criteria of day one conditionality—compiling a CV and having an email address and a Universal Jobmatch registration—and the staff at the jobcentre did not have the time to assist them.

The MCC/Communities First partnership put staff in the jobcentre to provide a two-phase approach, with funding secured in 2014 from the Jobcentre Plus flexible support grant. First, it helped claimants with the immediate task of meeting their conditionality requirements, ensuring that they navigated the systems properly and were armed with the requisite documents. Secondly, it directed claimants to its own advice centre for more tailored, in-depth advice that aimed to secure them better long-term employment prospects.

The Melin centre offers a range of services and facilities, including adult learning classes, welfare rights advice, and employment search and support. It also delivers a range of health and wellbeing activities, employing more than 15 members of staff. It is now working with between 50 and 130 people each month, all seeking support to meet the day one conditionality criteria.

MCC has succeeded in helping people in Neath East to gain employment opportunities by helping them to navigate the systems properly. That has vastly improved the services being offered by Jobcentre Plus and is therefore improving the quality of life for those in the community.

The Dove Workshop in Banwen was formed during the 1984-85 miners’ strike as a response to the need for the community to come together and share skills and solidarity. Led by women, for women, the organisation began as a way of offering adult education and skills training, so that local women were better equipped to find work during the year-long strike that saw their partners and fathers out of work and on the picket line. Although the strike came to an end, Dove Workshop did not. Instead, it grew in strength, scale and scope, working not only with women, but with all parts of the community, providing education and a range of services and projects. It has acted as a union for the community during times when not everyone worked, and it recognises that those who are working work in disparate sectors, industries and places.

Dove now employs 30 people in a community where jobs are rare. It continually supports its staff to undertake training and further education, providing a number of services associated with learning, offering opportunities for volunteering, work experience, IT drop-in services, employment support, CV writing, and much more. One project delivered by Dove is “Building Livelihoods and Strengthening Communities”, funded by the Big Lottery Fund in partnership with Oxfam Cymru. This project, together with Dove’s own advice service, works to support local people in their pursuit of good quality, sustainable employment.

As with MCC, for many years Jobcentre Plus in Neath has sent many jobseekers to Dove because Jobcentre Plus staff were unable to assist them directly, as they lacked the time and resources to do so. Dove also applied for the Jobcentre Plus flexible support grant, but was unfortunately denied funding. However, Dove has never turned away someone seeking help, and it continues to provide advice today. To me, Jobcentre Plus is a conveyor belt whose purpose seems to be to offer unemployed people the prospect of six months’ work. However, MCC and Dove cater to an individual’s needs, ambitions and quality of life, so that they can fulfil their potential and make a meaningful contribution to the community.

It is a pleasure, Mr Williams, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this important debate on a matter that we discussed at some length recently in our discussions on the Scotland Bill. I speak as the Scottish National party spokesperson on fair work and employment, and this issue is close to my heart. I will come on to that point later.

It would be fair to say that Jobcentre Plus and related employment support programmes have at times been seen as unfit for purpose, and that has been said by Members on the Opposition Benches today. Many aspects of the system have had a damaging impact on people looking for work. The SNP wants to see the full devolution of welfare powers and the Jobcentre Plus network to enable the Scottish Parliament to create a fairer system of welfare and employment support. Recent statistics show that nearly 150,000 sanctions were applied in Scotland between the end of 2012 and September 2014, affecting nearly 85,000 individuals, including nearly 3,000 disabled people. We have said that we should be getting people off benefits and into work, but how can making them hungry and unable to pay bills and increasing their debt support them in finding a job?

Professor David Webster has highlighted the fact that the number of sanctions resulting from the Work programme has been considerably higher than the number of people obtaining jobs from the Work programme. In Scotland, 46,265 sanctions were applied between June 2011 and March 2014 because claimants failed to participate in the Work programme. In the same period, 26,740 job outcomes resulted from the Work programme.

Moving on to sanctions and conditionalities, the UK Government have reformed Jobcentre Plus in recent years as part of their welfare and employment support reform programme. As we have acknowledged, there is no doubt that those working in jobcentres are doing their best, but one of the most pernicious aspects of the Government’s changes has been the intensification of the welfare sanctions and conditionality regime. Under the Government’s welfare regime, jobseekers are monitored on the jobs they apply for. If they fail to apply for enough vacancies, they are faced with sanctions, whether those are reductions or suspension.

The hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) made reference to the digital aspects of the system. Scotland, like many parts of the UK, has many rural areas. It is often a challenge for people to get online to access the system to apply for jobs. If a jobseeker voluntarily leaves work or refuses a notified vacancy, the first sanction period can be up to 13 weeks, the second up to 26 weeks and the third up to three years. The Work programme, which took effect in 2011, is mandatory for all jobseekers who have been out of work for more than nine months and requires jobseekers to take unpaid work experience, often in poor-quality opportunities such as retail. Those who fail to comply with certain conditions are often sanctioned.

The sanctions and conditionality regime, which is administered by the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus, has had a particularly worrying impact on poverty and inequality in Scotland, and it is fair to say that the powers being devolved will not give us the opportunity to intervene early. We tabled a proposal on that for the House’s consideration, but sadly we were defeated. Child poverty organisations have warned that by 2020 an additional 100,000 children in Scotland could be living in relative poverty after housing costs because of UK Government welfare reforms, and those estimates do not yet factor in the additional £12 billion of cuts to the annual welfare budget that we will no doubt hear about extensively in tomorrow’s Budget and the debates on it.

The hon. Lady talks with passion about the impact of sanctions, but does she agree that the whole business of claiming JSA is based on a contract signed by the benefit seeker and Jobcentre Plus? It is a commitment on both sides. Jobcentre Plus rarely uses sanctions. They are used only as a last resort. It is a stick and carrot approach. The reducing level of unemployment across the country shows that the approach is working effectively. Does she agree?

I am afraid I do not. I have a number of examples, and I will happily cite one that comes from Citizens Advice Scotland. An east of Scotland citizens advice bureau reports that a client was sanctioned for failing to attend an appointment that he missed because he was on a forklift training course. He was advised by the jobcentre to attend after he finished his course, but was sanctioned for not coming on his normal signing-on day. The client was married with a young child and required a food parcel to feed his family.

Sadly, the stream of people coming through my constituency office door has not indicated that the job programmes are working. We want full devolution to Scotland so that we can have Scottish answers to Scottish questions on some of these matters. I have no doubt that there may be areas where sanctioning is working, but there seems to be a consensus that modernisation is required. A Poverty Alliance report in February 2015 found that action to increase state benefits, end the punitive sanctions regime, address in-work poverty, raise the minimum wage and promote the living wage that will ultimately have the biggest impact on stemming the growth of food poverty in Scotland.

The Scottish Government have done a lot to mitigate some aspects of the UK Government regime, and they continue to do what they can with the resources they have to alleviate the impact of welfare reform and cuts. Current and planned Scottish Government funding will result in an investment of around £296 million over the period 2013-14 to 2015-16. The Scottish Government are also providing £33 million in funding for the Scottish welfare fund in 2015-16 to mitigate the impact of benefits reform. We will have to see what we can do on the further cuts. They are also providing local authorities with £35 million in 2015-16 to allow them to top up discretionary housing payments to meet the estimated £44.8 million required to compensate for the cost of the bedroom tax.

The proposals in the Scotland Bill to allow the Scottish Government to top up reserved benefits are welcome, but Scotland is expected to mitigate the impact of welfare cuts from a budget that is being cut year on year. Scotland must have full control of working-age benefits to create a fairer system that provides adequate support for those who need it.

We have done a huge amount on the living wage—we are halfway towards our target of having 500 private companies paying it. We reached the 250 mark two weeks ago with a nursery just outside my constituency in West Lothian. However, the Scotland Bill as it stands restricts the devolution of employment support programmes to those for long-term unemployed and disabled people. That would prevent the Scottish Government from providing effective early intervention for those recently out of work and from joining up employment support services with previously devolved services, such as skills and education. The Smith commission report stated:

“The Scottish Parliament will have all powers over support for unemployed people through the employment programmes currently contracted by DWP (which are presently delivered mainly, but not exclusively, through the Work Programme and Work Choice) on expiry of the current commercial arrangements.”

We must intervene early, and we must have the powers to do that so that we can effectively help people out of benefits and into work. Roseanna Cunningham, the Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training, has said:

“The Work Programme as it stands is not fit for a modern Scotland but there may be aspects of the current system that do work for individuals and organizations and we want to hear those views too. Professor Alan McGregor and members of the advisory group will play a key role in drawing in views from all areas of the country in as many sectors as possible.”

The Scottish Government will have responsibility for the Work programme and the Work Choice programme within two years. They have set up an advisory group so that we can work on that.

The Smith commission’s recommendations went further than the Scotland Bill’s limitations on employment support, and the SNP wants to go further yet and devolve the Jobcentre Plus network in Scotland to Holyrood. That would deliver the complete and coherent devolution of welfare-to-work functions, ensuring co-ordinated support for those out of work. Having responsibility for universal credit sanctions and conditions would also empower the Scottish Parliament to ensure a more effective, supportive and socially just approach to getting people into work. With those powers in Scotland’s hands, we could rectify the failings of the jobcentre network and the damaging changes to welfare and employment support that are harming so many in Scotland.

I want to finish by explaining why this subject is so close to my heart. I recently employed a young man called Marcus Woods who had worked passionately behind the scenes on my campaign. He had been out of work for some time and gave his time to my campaign free of charge, with great dignity and passion. I recently employed him full time. I am proud to have taken someone who had been on benefits and long-term unemployed out of unemployment and into work. I have seen with my own eyes how the opportunity to be involved in the democratic process in Scotland has inspired someone to come into full-time employment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this debate.

Jobcentre Plus performs a crucial public service, and I put on record my thanks to the staff who are coping with immense changes to the welfare system. Many Jobcentre Plus staff are doing an excellent job in demanding circumstances and are dedicated to improving the lives of the people they serve. Nevertheless, as we have heard clearly this afternoon, there are undoubtedly concerns about service quality, claimant experience and outcomes. There are also questions about staff morale and whether Jobcentre Plus has the resources and capacity it needs.

The major reforms with which Jobcentre Plus staff are grappling—such as universal credit and Universal Jobmatch—have been beset by systems problems, resulting in poor service to claimants and major delays. Although more people are moving into employment and Ministers like to claim that welfare reforms are the reason, people are not moving into work and out of poverty, and in any event there is considerable dispute about the contribution of welfare reforms to the rising employment rate.

Last year, the then Work and Pensions Committee carried out a review of Jobcentre Plus that looked at some of the major challenges it faces and how it is coping with them. The Committee made a number of suggestions for improvements, on which I hope the Minister will be able to update us today. Perhaps I can start with universal credit, which Ministers have claimed will transform the prospects of those who are out of work. The project is in total disarray. Today, some 65,000 people are on universal credit; when it was first introduced, we were told that 1 million people would be on it by April 2014. That is less than 1%—

I accept your ruling on that, Mr Williams, but universal credit has of course been argued to be the tool by which Jobcentre Plus will be able to move people into employment. Clearly, if the universal credit programme is way behind in the number of claimants it is supporting, it cannot be fulfilling its function and Jobcentre Plus cannot be taking advantage of it in order to move people into work. The problem with universal credit is that it is shrouded in secrecy. We have not seen the business case that would show us whether it is indeed going to be an effective tool for Jobcentre Plus staff to use to fulfil their role of supporting people into work.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has recently written to the Secretary of State with some questions, and I want to ask the Minister the same ones. Will she ask the National Audit Office to publish quarterly progress reports on universal credit, to be laid before Parliament, and will she publish the full business case and plan? Will she also explain how Jobcentre Plus staff are being supported with the roll-out of universal credit?

As we have heard, Jobcentre Plus has the important role of supporting people into employment and, if they are further from the labour market—perhaps they have been out of work for a long time—routing them on to more specialist support programmes. There are a whole range of interventions under the “Get Britain Working” banner, and for the long-term unemployed there is the opportunity to be routed on to the Work programme or, for some disabled people, the Work Choice programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn was right to observe that those programmes have not often performed well for jobseekers and those experiencing long-term or youth unemployment—particularly long-term youth unemployment.

That is why Labour proposed a compulsory jobs guarantee so that every young person who was unemployed for more than a year would be guaranteed a job, education or training, or the opportunity to undertake proper work experience. That would be modelled on the future jobs fund that we introduced in 2008, or the more successful programme in Wales, which, as my hon. Friend highlighted, draws on factors that make for a successful labour market programme: it is commissioned locally; it involves local authorities, specialist local organisations and, crucially, local employers; and it is designed around the needs of the local labour market.

The hon. Lady mentions working together and programmes that have worked both throughout the UK and in devolved areas; will she join me in welcoming the Scottish Government’s Opportunities for All scheme? The Scottish Government have worked with local authorities, and it has been a huge success, with more than 90% of young people going on to positive destinations. In my own county, West Lothian, that proportion is over 96%. Perhaps, with the Minister, we can have cross-party discussions on the potential to incorporate the various programmes that have been mentioned today into Jobcentre Plus in the short term. That way, we could see how to achieve future success.

I note what the hon. Lady says. She highlights the importance of devolving to a local footprint—although perhaps not to one as small as a local authority area in all cases—that can properly recognise the players in and needs of the local labour market. She is right that Ministers should be working with all authorities, local, regional and national, as well as with Members, to look at which programmes have been successful and what can be learned. It is clear that for many people the Work programme has not been successful.

Last year’s Work and Pensions Committee report on Jobcentre Plus highlighted some significant difficulties with expertise in the needs of people who experience worklessness. It highlighted a particular lack of experience in relation to lone parents, and the need for related training. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on that. Will she also tell us what is happening with lone parent flexibilities? How are Jobcentre Plus staff applying them?

Will the Minister say something about the disabled people who are being routed by Jobcentre Plus on to the Work Choice programme? The programme was intended for the most severely disabled people who are furthest from the labour market, but increasingly it seems to be used for those who are likely to be able to get into work quite quickly and easily. Mencap in Trafford told me recently that as a Work Choice contractor, it was being measured on getting people work-ready within 13 weeks, and that it was unable to get outcome payments for those with whom it would need to work for a much longer period.

The Select Committee also raised doubts about the flexible support fund. The workings of that fund, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees), are opaque. We cannot see what the money is being spent on and we cannot see who is receiving it. Will the Minister say, for example, whether it is being used to help lone parents with childcare costs? Will she begin to make proper information available to Parliament about the use of the flexible support fund?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) identified problems with Universal Jobmatch in 2014. He highlighted duplicate jobs, fraudulent scams and posts advertising jobs at the other end of the country. The Select Committee highlighted an overemphasis on Universal Jobmatch as a tool to monitor compliance with conditionality, which it said should be secondary to helping claimants find a job, with Universal Jobmatch enabling more time to be spent on advice and support.

What help is being offered to jobseekers and employers to make the best use of Universal Jobmatch? Can the Minister say that scams and duplicates have now been eliminated and that claimants are not being penalised if they do not apply for jobs that are unsuitable or miles away? Do the Government intend to continue with Universal Jobmatch when the contract is up for renewal next year?

My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn and a number of other hon. Members mentioned conditionality and sanctions at Jobcentre Plus, which are an area of big concern. Labour Members are not against a conditional system for benefits, nor are we against sanctions that are fair, proportionate and transparent, or come with appropriate safeguards. Rates of sanctioning, however, remain high. Ministers were caught out only this week by the UK Statistics Authority in a letter to Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, accusing them of presenting figures in a way that is not supported by rigorous statistical analysis.

We have repeated anecdotal reports of irrational and unreasonable decisions. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Jobcentre Plus is measured on getting people not only into sustained employment, but off flow—so sanctioning people and driving them to cease claiming benefits altogether, because to do so is too difficult and awkward. As a result, we are measuring the wrong thing. I strongly support last year’s call by the Select Committee to move from a measure of those going off flow to one of sustained employment.

Everything points to an oppressive culture. We still have reports of informal sanctioning targets in some Jobcentre Plus offices, which Labour is absolutely opposed to. I hope that the Minister will be clear today and deny the existence of all targets, formal or informal, once and for all, across the whole network, or say that she will be taking steps to stamp them out.

Jobcentre Plus has a vital role in supporting people to look for work, find work and get the financial support that they need. For many years it performed extremely effectively, but now it is under huge pressure and is fraying at the seams. I am interested to hear from the Minister her vision for the future of Jobcentre Plus—for the claimants and its staff. At present it is translating into a poor experience for too many claimants and poor value for money when it fails to get people into sustained work.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate and I pay tribute to many of his remarks. He rightly stated that Jobcentre Plus is important and nothing to do with left or right on the political spectrum. The debate is about people; it should not be about structures or institutions, although I will come on to speak about the jobcentres and various programmes and partnerships.

Importantly, the debate is about many of the bigger societal issues to do with unemployment and about the challenges that we face as a society in all our communities, given what unemployment and the spiral of worklessness mean for individuals and families. That was the focus of our welfare reforms in the previous Parliament under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as it will be of this Government’s agenda. We are on the side of working families and individuals, and we aspire to achieve full employment and, rightly, to do more to support those individuals who are furthest away from the labour market. Those are the individuals on whom we must concentrate Government resources, to help and train them and to secure real opportunities for them.

I thank everyone who has contributed to this important debate, which has covered a range of significant employment issues, including support to help people in work. In my view, work helps to transform people’s lives, which is about the wider world consisting of individuals as well as of society.

Jobcentre Plus, however, is the core theme of today’s debate. Labour Members will not be surprised that I will categorically disagree with claims that Jobcentre Plus is not fit for purpose. Like the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), I pay tribute to everyone who works in our jobcentres and in Jobcentre Plus. Every day up and down the country our advisers work with individuals, local authorities and local organisations in the community to support and help people not only to come off benefits in the long term, but—importantly—to get access to the labour market. We want to help them on the journey to secure long-term employment.

Every day our work coaches conduct nearly 100,000 interviews across a network of more than 7,000 jobcentres. They work closely with local employers—as is right and proper—which I have seen for myself in my constituency. If I remember rightly, back in 2010 in Witham, I too was almost critical, because my perception was that jobcentres did not have enough of a locus in the local employment market and were not making enough connections with local employers. That has now changed, and I have seen that for myself in the jobcentres I have visited. I can speak with some conviction about the Witham jobcentre, which now works with local employers.

Importantly, our jobcentres and work coaches have a clear understanding of the local labour market. They know where the skills shortages are and who the training providers in their community are. They provide the guiding role to support claimants who come to them in search of local employment opportunities. Therefore, I take issue with the overall assertion that Jobcentre Plus is not fit for purpose. It is doing a good job and we should pause for a minute and recognise that we now have one of the highest employment rates in the developed world and the second lowest unemployment in the European Union. That has been achieved through our network of jobcentres, obviously, but also through rightly focusing on support and assistance to people who need that to access the labour market. That has been achieved, yes, through the wider economic reforms of the Government, but also by creating the right economic conditions for businesses to grow and thrive. It is important for sustainable businesses to employ people, to sustain employment and to invest in people, jobs and economic growth. Jobcentre Plus also has a vital role in all our local communities.

I am sure that everyone in the Chamber and across the political divide pays tribute to the work of people in the jobcentres. However, we are discussing their expertise and increasing their powers, as the Minister rightly said. What is her response to my example of twice the number of people in the Work programme being sanctioned as are actually getting work through it? Surely that statistic suggests that such programmes are not working.

We touched on this during debate on the Scotland Bill last week and I told the hon. Lady that if she wants to bring me the evidence of such cases, I will look into them myself. I have also said that to her party colleagues—bring me the cases and I will intervene personally, look into them in more detail and see what can be done. I want to come on to the Work programme as well.

It is important. We want to ensure that we are doing the right thing for individuals and supporting them, because the issue is not only one of institutions, processes and structures, although they are there for a reason.

I will highlight a couple of points about Jobcentre Plus. There has been some criticism of it, but the National Audit Office reported that it responded well to the challenge of the recession from 2008 onwards and the recovery. The OECD stated:

“The UK experience suggests that merging the public employment service and benefit agency has improved employment outcomes”.

Furthermore, Jobcentre Plus has added £5.5 billion to UK GDP since its introduction. In the previous Parliament, the Work and Pensions Committee commented that Jobcentre Plus has performed “effectively” and “is cost-effective”. Last year, Jobcentre Plus achieved or exceeded every one of its labour market performance measures. That is important.

Jobcentre Plus is a high-volume national organisation, and so not every experience will be perfect. That is a fact of life with such an organisation—not everything will be right. We monitor performance and have service standards, but more can always be done to improve quality and professionalism. We are conscious of how we can improve services, and improvements are based on feedback that we receive. I experience that personally when I visit jobcentres.

I turn now to the issue of partnership. The Government cannot achieve our objectives on employment on our own. We can do so only by working in partnership with others in the private and voluntary sectors, at national, regional and local levels. I have touched briefly on my own experiences going out and about to jobcentres, and I have seen that partnership work in action. I know about the partnership work taking place in the constituency of the hon. Member for Islwyn—we see it in case studies and he will be fully aware of it—and I pay tribute to all the community-based and local organisations in his constituency. One is Groundwork’s Routes 2 Life, which provides work experience and skills training for over-50s—again, this issue does not just affect young people but runs across the age range. It is relevant to the fuller working lives agenda, as well as how we can support those young people who may face challenges when trying to get a foot in the labour market because they do not have the right work experience or CV. Borough councils are involved as well. Across Wales, there are plenty of great examples of partnership, and they should be developed further.

Importantly—this is always a challenge for central Government in my view—this is a question of integration: how we join up working, and how that joined-up approach delivers results. We need the right outcomes, not just for the structures and systems but for individuals. I am also clear that I want more local authorities, in particular, to work more closely with voluntary sector, charity and other community and labour market partners.

On a national level, there is much more integration. Following the general election, my party has committed to achieving full employment, with more focus on young people getting the support they need. We have also made a commitment to help more women get work and to support more individuals with disabilities getting into work. We can do that only by working across Government. That is right and proper, and we will use every lever at the disposal of central Government to integrate our services and support everyone across the age range, as well as young people and people with disability or health issues.

On devolution, there is, for example, the Manchester devolution deal for the combined authority. Projects in central London are working with local authorities, and—together with Glasgow City Council—we will launch a programme to support employment and support allowance claimants in finding and remaining in employment. That is the right way forward. We should devolve to our communities, and the Government support that agenda.

I am pleased to say that there is greater partnership integration with the Work programme, including getting people access to apprenticeship opportunities, and there is more to do on that. We want a more constructive joint-working approach to ensure that, for example, claimants in Wales are able to access the full range of support that they need. That includes projects funded through the European social fund, which are targeted at particular disadvantaged communities; naturally, we want to do more to support them.

The Work programme aims to support claimants at risk of long-term unemployment. It has been successful and, to date, has supported over 400,000 long-term unemployed people in getting back into work. As a result, we have been able to get more people back into work and support people through very challenging circumstances.

The Work programme has been improving after a shaky start, but it is still not performing well for disabled people. Will the Minister tell us how she intends to improve performance for disabled people and answer my question about the role of the Work Choice programme in that?

Absolutely. I will. My point is that the Work programme has been successful—it has been one of the most successful employment programmes in the United Kingdom’s history. At the end of the day, that should be welcomed and supported by all of us.

The Government are clear that we want to support more individuals with disability into work. A lot of work is being done with Work programme contractors and providers to concentrate more resources and investment in that area. If I may just share an anecdote, last week I sat down with Work programme providers to look at what has been working and some of the successes and strengths of the Work programme, and how we can address some of the real challenges for individuals with disabilities. That is the right thing to do, and we should all be focusing on that. We should also look at what support and interventions we can put in place not just for individuals with disability but for other individuals who are further away from the labour market—for example, those with health conditions.

Am I right in thinking that there will at some point, probably before the end of the year, be a review of some of the criteria for selection for contractors for the Work programme? I believe that the current contracts come to an end at the beginning of 2017, so there is an opportunity for all Members—and for Select Committees, all-party groups, and so on—to chip in ideas for the Government to consider over the next few months.

My hon. Friend is right. We can never stand still on this issue and it is important that we learn the lessons as we go forward. On that basis, I would welcome Members’ views.

To conclude, Mr Williams—

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).