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Westminster Hall

Volume 599: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2015

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 September 2015

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

Midland Main Line (Electrification)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered electrification of the Midland Main Line.

There is no doubting the critical need for the country to keep its rail network up to date. Over the past 20 years, passenger numbers have doubled. Between 1997 and 2010, the number of inter-city trains went up from 580 per day to 1,228 per day. Current growth in use stands at 4%, and total movement of freight by rail is rising by 2.5% per year. With demand growing as it is, it is entirely understandable that there is cross-party consensus on the need for bold and ambitious upgrade works.

On the midland main line specifically, Leicester, Nottingham and Derby are all experiencing passenger growth at rates above the national average, and demand for rail in the east midlands as a whole is expected to rise by 16% by 2019. Coupled with that is the chronic lack of investment in the line over the past two decades when compared with other routes.

From anyone’s perspective, electrification is the next logical step for the rail network. Compared with a traditional service, an electrified line is more cost efficient, greener, thanks to reduced carbon emissions, and served by better rolling stock. There are also benefits in terms of reliability, connectivity, capacity and economic growth.

To take the midland main line as a specific example, electrifying the line from Bedford to Sheffield could cut carbon emissions by 13,000 tonnes per year. The project would also provide the higher W10 gauge clearance along the whole route, making it more accessible for freight, so there would be a further indirect environmental benefit, as the growing demand for freight could be met, taking more lorries off the roads. To give a rough idea of that benefit, on a traditional service a gallon of diesel will carry 1 tonne of freight 246 miles by rail as opposed to 88 miles by road; on an electrified line, of course, the environmental benefits would be even greater.

As for the economic benefits, it has been estimated that by cutting the costs of rolling stock, energy, track access and maintenance, electrification will cut rail industry costs by over £60 million per year, reducing the cost of the railway to the taxpayer. The midland main line serves one of the fastest growing areas of England, and a report prepared for east midlands councils and the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive by the consultancy firm Arup estimated that electrification would generate £450 million-worth of wider economic benefits. If the Government want to get serious about growing our economic potential outside the south-east and giving the northern powerhouse brand some substance, as a starting point they will have to commit to funding the midland main line project, as well as the TransPennine route upgrade.

Lack of investment in infrastructure has been one of the key restraints on growth outside London. In 2013-14 expenditure per head on transport capital was £166 in the north, whereas in London it was £332. Treasury figures published earlier in the year show that planned infrastructure expenditure on transport in real terms from 2015-16 is £2,604 per head in London, but only £391 per head in Yorkshire and the Humber, and just £346 per head in the east midlands. The lack of transport investment means that cities and towns in the north cannot link up into a single economy. Instead, we are still operating as single units and are not able to build up the economic scale and weight that would allow us to play to our strengths and complete globally.

The midland main line might feature only as a footnote in most discussions of the northern powerhouse, if it features at all—and I certainly do not want to get into a debate about what counts as “the north”, which might keep us all here a lot longer than we would like—but it is a vital link in the chain that will help with the Government’s stated objective of rebalancing the north-south divide. Without it, Sheffield and Nottingham will be left as the only core cities without a direct electrified connection to London.

In fact, the midland main line has the best business case of any major electrification scheme, including the Great Western main line. The Department for Transport’s own figures show a benefit-cost ratio of between 4.7:1 and 7.2:1 for the midland main line,

“dependent on train length and train type”,

compared with a ratio of 2.36:1 for the Great Western main line.

Does my hon. Friend think there is a slight irony in the fact that, as he says quite rightly, the midland main line has a better business case than the Great Western main line—and arguably than some of the works on the west coast main line over the years—but electrification of the line has been paused as a direct result of the overspend on the Great Western main line?

I agree 100%. My hon. Friend makes an important point; the midland main line work is paused not because of the business case for the line, which everyone agrees is probably the best of the lot, but because of overspend in other areas.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing a debate on this extremely important cross-party issue. Is not one of the problems—the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) alluded to this—the fact that because we are in the east midlands we are always forgotten about? We have one of the lowest amounts of public expenditure per head of population in the whole country, not just on rail but across all infrastructure.

Again I agree wholeheartedly; I could not have put it better myself. When I go about meeting business leaders, council leaders and civic leaders across the east midlands and Yorkshire, and right up into the north, that point is made constantly.

By now, we are used to hearing about Ministers’ ambition for the north and for the electrification of the rail network, but in reality, in both cases there is a lack of drive to push through the work needed if that ambition is ever to amount to anything. That is why Labour has been calling on the Government to recommence the suspended work on the midland main line and TransPennine routes. Last month, Rail Business Intelligence reported that the Government had instructed Network Rail to “unpause” the electrification of the TransPennine route. As far as I am aware, that is just a rumour, but I would be grateful if the Minister provided some clarification. If true, it would be a welcome development, but of course it raises a question for the Minister: why not the midland main line too?

By calling the suspension “a pause”, the Secretary of State is trying to downplay the potential consequences. The word implies that it will be only a brief time before everything gets going again, and that work will resume as if nothing had happened. In reality, delays in large infrastructure projects always have cost implications—just look at Crossrail. The same story is beginning to play out in this case, too. Philip Rutnam, the permanent secretary at the Department for Transport, told the Transport Committee in July that the principal issue that led to the suspension of work on the midland main line was cost. Network Rail’s initial estimate, in 2013, for the cost of electrifying the midland main line was £540 million. By December 2014, that figure was £1.3 billion. When the work was paused, £250 million had already been spent on contracts for ancillary works, such as rebuilding bridges. Some of Network Rail’s resources have already been transferred to other projects, making it harder and more expensive for the work to get going again. Further delays will only increase the bill.

There are knock-on effects, too. The doubt the suspension has thrown up has led to questions about what rolling stock will operate on the line. There are worries that, assuming electrification does go ahead, the current 1970s-vintage InterCity 125 trains will be replaced by transferred east coast class 91 locomotives, which have poor acceleration; in fact, with those trains, some long distance journeys would take longer than they do at present. So far, the Department for Transport has made no public statement about the specification of the rolling stock that will be used on the midland main line, and I hope the Minister will be able to rectify that.

I apologise, because I will have to leave before the end of the debate, as I have explained to the Chair. On timing, is it not crucial that the high-speed trains on the midland main line are replaced by 2020 because of issues over disability? Equally, Stagecoach’s franchise has just been extended to 2018, but there will have to be certainty about whether electrification goes ahead, because, as my hon. Friend says, that will affect the future rolling stock for the new franchise.

Once again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The recent invitations to tender for the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises have been framed to ensure that they cater for Sheffield’s economic growth requirements. However, it will be possible to meet those needs only with additional diesel-powered rolling stock made available from recently electrified routes.

The ongoing uncertainty over the future of the midland main line work is putting other projects in jeopardy. Those projects go beyond just the midland main line electrification. Some involve improvement works, which are to be delivered alongside electrification. Some £200 million has been set aside for improvements such as the remodelling of Derby station, the straightening of the curve through Market Harborough station and the four-tracking of the line from Bedford to Kettering and Corby. The Secretary of State has suggested that those works could go ahead independently of electrification, but the Department has failed to clarify whether they are still to happen.

There is one final side effect of the suspension. Skills providers have been gearing up to provide apprenticeships associated with the upgrade work, but those are now in doubt too. When the Select Committee asked the Secretary of State about that, he said that, although he was not able to give a precise number for those affected, he felt it was a key point, and he hoped to be in a better position to answer the next time he appeared before the Committee. I do not wish to usurp the Committee’s role, but is the Minister aware of any progress that has been made in quantifying the impact?

I do not wish to rake over the next point, but it is worth repeating that the Secretary of State had plenty of warning that the electrification projects were likely to run into substantial difficulties. As early as June last year, Network Rail told the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive that there would be difficulties in getting the midland main line work done to the relevant timescale. Last year, as a matter of urgency, the Secretary of State commissioned a report on the state of Network Rail’s electrification programme, which he received in September. The Department has refused to publish the report, so we can only assume that it contained warnings of future problems.

In November, Network Rail began to compile a list of the projects at risk. In January, the Select Committee gave an explicit warning about projects being announced without a clear idea of where the funding would come from. It is vital that the Government get a grip on the situation. The Secretary of State has said he is waiting for Sir Peter Hendy’s review, but while he waits for it to give him a solution, the problem is getting worse. He needs to provide a clear commitment to restart work on the midland main line as soon as possible, and that should be backed by a clear timetable under which the project will resume. Otherwise, the uncertainty will mount, and, for all the talk of ambition, the very real fear will remain that the pause will turn into a cancellation.

We need only look at the Hendy review’s terms of reference to see that that is not scaremongering. The review states that

“work that cannot be afforded, or is not deliverable, between 2014 and 2019 is profiled for delivery beyond 2019”—

and then, the key phrase—

“pending availability of funding”.

Taken by itself, that might be dismissed as back covering, but taken with the Department’s recent letter to Network Rail, preparing it for further Treasury-mandated budget cuts of potentially £1.5 billion, it suggests that the ground is being quietly prepared for cancellation. Assuming the rumours about work on TransPennine restarting are true, I am left wondering whether that project has been saved to provide talk about the northern powerhouse with some credibility, while the midland main line is to be ditched as too costly.

Order. Five or six people who wish to speak have already submitted their names to the Speaker’s office. I will not impose a formal time limit, but if hon. Members confine their remarks to about five minutes, we should be able to accommodate everybody who has applied and maybe one or two who have not.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Roger. I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing it. I was interested that he covered the costs involved in pausing work on the midland main line route, as well as the environmental aspects. I was also pleased that the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) mentioned the extension of the East Midlands Trains franchise, which is very welcome. That is good news for the service and it will provide a lot of continuity.

The outcome of the Hendy review into Network Rail spending will have real consequences for my constituents. The line is essential for business and leisure travellers. We are keen to promote tourism in the area, but it will be affected if the service is not as good as it could be.

When it became clear that Network Rail’s programme for railway upgrades was behind schedule, I supported the Secretary of State’s decision to take action to get it back on track and to ensure that it delivered, in a financially responsible way, the improvements passengers want.

Much of the work that is needed on our railways should have been done decades ago. Governments of all hues have let the railway system down. It is a shame it has taken so long to focus on electrifying the majority of Britain’s railways—something that was started in the 18th century.

I agreed that bonuses to Network Rail’s executive directors should be suspended after the organisation failed to meet targets. That went some way to making up for previous years, when the company paid out £1 million in bonuses at the same time as being fined £53 million by the Office of Rail Regulation for failing to meet train punctuality targets. I have to say that, on Monday, every other train was cancelled because of rather poor signalling, which caused a lot of disruption for a lot of people.

With that in mind, I am waiting to see what Dame Colette Bowe’s review says later this month. Later today, like many other Members in the room, I will be meeting representatives of the East Midlands chamber of commerce, as well as local economic partnerships and councils from across the region, to discuss the paused electrification and the potential outcomes of the Hendy review.

In Derby, we have the largest rail forum in Europe, and the business community is understandably nervous about what the review will say about not just the electrification of the midland main line, but the other proposed upgrade projects. While the pausing of the midland main line electrification was disappointing for those of us looking for that long overdue project to get under way, it should not prevent other improvements from being made to the main line, because those can and must be undertaken.

In his statement on Network Rail’s performance before the House on 25 June, the Secretary of State said that better services can be delivered on the midland main line before electrification. Those include a four-track railway line from Bedford to Kettering, which will create a six-path on the midland main line, so more trains will be able to use it—something we desperately need.

Our trains are a victim of their own success, because they are pretty full most of the time. In addition, changing the layout of the tracks at Derby train station to separate the Birmingham and Leicester routes will make a big difference. The only problem I have with it is that we will never go into platform 1—the easiest one from which to get out of the station—again. However, that pales into insignificance against the fact that we will not always have to wait outside the station, which is the only one on the way up from London to Derby where trains wait outside and people cannot get off until they go in.

The hon. Lady is demonstrating that we are mounting a cross-party argument today, with everyone behind it. She is right to mention the other works that are planned. Over the last few years, the journey time to Sheffield has been cut by 10 minutes for less than £100 million—great value. Will the Minister give a commitment today that the other improvement works will continue while the pause in electrification is in effect?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this is a cross-party issue that is important to all of us. It is important for businesses across the whole of the east midlands that there should be a much better service.

The proposals can clearly help to increase capacity on the main line route and provide economic benefits to the businesses that rely on them. I hope the Minister can inform us whether a clear green light to proceed will be given in the Hendy review. That will allow businesses and investors to make plans about investing in the necessary skills and capabilities needed to implement the improvements, without any concern that the rug might be pulled out from underneath them at a later date.

The business case for the upgrades and electrification remains strong. As well as creating an expected £450 million of economic benefits, the quicker and more reliable service would cut journey times by up to 15 minutes and improve freight access to the network. Numbers on the midland main line have increased by more than 130% over the last 15 years. A further 30% rise is expected in the next 10 years. All of us who travel on the trains will know that it is much harder to get a seat at peak times now.

I am hopeful that the Hendy review will give a clear answer about when electrification will be given the go-ahead again. A lot of companies in the supply chain part of the rail forum in Derby are waiting for the announcement. They need certainty to be able to plan, and so as not to have to reduce their workforce. The less ambiguous the answer, the better, because a lot of work has already gone into the electrification plans—for example, on the advanced design work for electrification and the re-building of a number of bridges. The longer we delay, however, the more uncertainty builds and the higher the costs will be if we decide to go ahead at a later date.

I am happy to continue working with the large number of stakeholders, including our local rail forum, who are looking to see the main line improvement go forward. Pausing it was the right thing to do, but I do not want this to be another project that is kicked into the long grass. I hope the Minister can inform us of when we will know for certain which projects are to be given the green light and what factors are being taken into consideration to determine that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this important debate.

As well as being the transport group leader for the Scottish National party in Westminster, I also represent the constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, which is quite a distance from the midlands, but that does not mean that I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment at the Government’s U-turn. When the news broke, people were quick to share their disappointment on Twitter, with the verdict that it was much less northern powerhouse than #northernpowercut. That was people showing how they feel when, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) said, the rug is pulled from under their feet. When vows are broken, it is always with a casual disregard for the people who based choices on them. In my view, the UK Government should reinstate plans to electrify the midland main line—and, for that matter, the trans- Pennine route.

The foundation on which a prosperous economy is built is its infrastructure and transport connections. That is as true in Scotland as it is in the north of England. That is why the SNP Scottish Government have already committed to a substantial rolling programme of electrification. They are keeping to what they said they would deliver for the people—a sharp contrast to what is being discussed here. In Scotland, more than 441 miles of track has already been electrified and 2016 will see the completion of the Glasgow-Edinburgh rail link. All that is happening in spite of the fact that the capital budget for Scotland was cut by 25% by the coalition Government. Indeed, there can be no doubt that in Scotland the electrification of the railways has a firm place in the Scottish Government’s blended transport strategy, as it should in the UK Government’s strategies for the north and south. I understand that, on making the announcement about pausing the projects, the Department for Transport shared its intention to pursue bigger and better solutions to increase capacity and reduce delays on the routes.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I think he is saying that the Government should reinstate this important project, which I agree with. However, does he agree with me that his constituents in Scotland have £2,000 more per person spent on them than those in the east midlands? Would he like Scotland to give some money back, so that we can have our line upgraded?

As on previous occasions, the hon. Gentleman will realise that I do not agree with him. I would be happy to have a separate debate to go through, line by line, why I do not agree, but I do not believe we have time for that today.

The north does not need a solution pushed out for the next political cycle, but instead a proper, continuing strategy. The Government hide behind the idea that they will sort things out for “the long term”—I heard the phrase used yesterday in this very Chamber. Well, the people are pretty fed up with being considered as commodities, to be told that they will be dealt with when the more important stuff is done. They were made promises and they want them carried out. They want a solution that satisfies current infrastructure needs and issues, as well as meeting the longer-term challenges and opportunities for the region.

We must have sympathy for those using current services. They would have put up with the teething problems of new services, but they are being asked, day in, day out, to cope with a diminishing service. It is not acceptable that thousands of passengers travelling on the routes in question spend the entire journey standing. Passenger numbers have already doubled since 1997, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said, and they are set to rise even further. The problem is not going away. Furthermore, the electrification of the routes is vital for improving transport connectivity. It is and will remain an integral part of the growing economy in the region.

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of chairing a meeting of the Westminster transport forum. When I asked one of the speakers, from the ports sector, what the biggest challenge to his industry was, he answered without hesitation that it was the railways. The investment that his company is making in northern ports will not be profitable or sustainable if there is not much improvement in railway infrastructure. The two must go hand in hand. The pause is not what was promised. There is concern and scepticism, rightly, about jam tomorrow; in fact, without greater rail investment, jams on the roads tomorrow are more likely.

We all remember the Chancellor’s visit to Manchester armed with a big commitment to rebalance the economy. Investment in the north was a top priority prior to the election; afterwards, there was no longer any money in the pot. That is simply not acceptable. It is understandable when people call what is happening yet another chapter in the story of the north losing out to the south. Surely the UK Government do not wish to perpetuate that feeling by failing in their promises yet again. More than 80% of transport infrastructure spending happens in the south, and people notice that it is not big ticket projects such as Crossrail that lose out. Without a serious shift in spending to give the north the investment it needs, the growth needed for competitiveness will simply not happen. The current poorly integrated and underfunded transport network is detrimental to business, commuters and freight movement and will certainly not deliver a prosperous economy.

In conclusion, without a swift assurance of Government’s commitment to the northern economy through the reinstatement of this project, there will be little credibility left to the northern powerhouse agenda. The Government should honour the promises that they made about electrification.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this important debate.

I certainly support the electrification of the midland main line, for reasons that many speakers have outlined. I will not waste minutes by rehearsing them; rather, I want to make a specific point about a project that is connected with the midland main line but stands alone from it. That project is the east-west rail line, which will connect Bedford on the midland main line through my constituency of Milton Keynes to Oxford and into the great western network. The project is well advanced; construction is under way. It will unlock huge benefits, including around 12,000 new jobs and a £38 million annual increase to regional GDP. It will improve the environment, and there will also be all the other benefits that we will get from that rail line.

Significantly, the project will also be a valuable addition to the whole national network and provide important connectivity for towns and cities on the midland main line through my constituency and into the south-west. To give an indication of the benefits that it may unlock, my local football team, MK Dons, plays in the same division as Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and Nottingham Forest. If fans from those cities wish to come and see their teams lose in Milton Keynes, they will be able to do so very easily by rail, because Bletchley station is a short walk from Stadium mk. For that and many other reasons, the east-west project will be very significant.

I would like the Minister, first, to confirm that the basic east-west project, which is not an electrified line, will very much proceed as planned. Secondly, it was envisaged that the east-west line would be electrified as well, which will enhance the project, and not just for environmental reasons. Critically, as the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) said, that will add significantly to the national freight network, providing an electrified connection from the southern ports and western ports through the midlands to the north. I would be grateful if the Minister said something about how she envisages the electrification of east-west rail, as part of the consideration of the midland main line electrification.

As I have said, Sir Roger, I have to leave before the end of the debate, as I have a prior engagement, so I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham), to the Minister and to you. I will not take up too much time—I understand that other hon. Members want to speak—but I want to re-emphasise some points that I made in interventions.

I remember, when I was first elected back in 1992—a long time ago now—going in the cab of a train down to London and being shown all the problems on the midland main line compared with the straighter and quicker routes on the east coast lines, and eventually, the west coast lines. All the curves and bends prevented the trains from going at maximum speed. Ten years later, I remember going to a conference with Network Rail to talk about how we might deal with the problems on the line; and, another 10 years later, we finally got the upgrade. It was a long time in coming, but, as I said in an intervention, for less than £100 million, we cut 10 minutes off the journey time to Sheffield. When we consider how many billions were spent achieving not much more than that on the west coast line, we can see what good value the midland main line offers when improvements to it are carried out.

That is a good starting point, and it leads on to the point that my hon. Friend has made very eloquently. The business case for electrification of the midland main line is very strong indeed. It is one of the strongest—stronger than that of the great western line, so we have to ask why it was put behind the great western line. Maybe the question of having to replace the rolling stock on the great western line drove that decision and put it ahead in the queue, but it was certainly not the strength of the business case.

That leads me on to issues for the future. Given that we have already delivered track improvements on the midland main line and have progressively, over the years, brought the journey time to Sheffield down to two hours—a long-term objective that we have now achieved—why can we not have a serious commitment from the Minister now that, irrespective of the electrification pause, we can get on with the other track improvements? As I understand it, they will take another 10 minutes off the journey time to Sheffield and mean reductions in the journey time to the stations in between. The Government can do that. They have not announced a pause on those, so can we have clarification that those other improvements will go ahead? Of course we want electrification as well, but this commitment can be given ahead of any decision on electrification. The Minister can do it today.

There are two drivers of this. We have some challenges coming up, the first of which leads back to my point that perhaps a driver of the great western line electrification was the issue of rolling stock. My hon. Friend has already referred to the fact that if we get electrification, we will need the new Hitachi trains to run on the track, because only they will give time improvements with electrification, not the discarded, heavy trains that are currently running on the east coast line. However, the problem is that the HSTs on the route are old, out-of-date and not friendly for disabled people and will have to be replaced because of disability legislation by 2020. Indeed, the HSTs we have are themselves second-hand and discarded previously from other train lines. They were not new trains—most of them—when they came on the midland main line in the first place. There is therefore a big decision to be made. If the rolling stock is to be replaced, what will it be replaced with? The HSTs will have to be replaced because of disability issues, and in my view it will be nonsense to replace them with more diesel trains, thereby effectively locking out electrification for the foreseeable future.

We also have the franchise issue. The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) referred to the good news, which has just been announced in the last few hours, about the extension of the Stagecoach franchise to 2018. That means we will have a new franchise from 2018, but will it be for an electrified service or a diesel service? Again, the franchisee will have to indicate what rolling stock they will use on the line. They are going to need clarification about the future of the line and electrification in order to make a sensible decision.

For all those reasons, it really requires the Minister to say yes to the track improvements now and to give a clear timetable for the decision on electrification, so that these other factors can be taken into account as part of that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) for securing this important debate.

Network Rail has said that it is committed to providing faster, more reliable trains on the midland main line and that investment will continue prior to electrification to improve performance and meet the growing demand from rail users in the east midlands. However, the Transport Secretary announced recently that work on the project had been paused. Network Rail has missed its targets and greatly overspent on the work that has been carried out. Sir Peter Hendy has since been appointed to review the failings of Network Rail. I hope his report will contribute to getting the proposed plans back on track as soon as possible.

The announcement of the pause has been met with much disappointment from businesses and constituents, not only in Derby North but in the east midlands as a region. The midland main line carries more than 13 million passengers a year. However, in recent years, when £12 billion has been spent on the rail network, only £200 million has been spent on the midland main line. We need to consider the fact that the midland main line network connects four of the largest cities in England: Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and Sheffield—although that might be just for football matches, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) said. Those cities are contributing to one of the fastest growing regions in the country. In fact, our region has been outlined to be Britain’s engine for growth. However, I am concerned that that will be more difficult if we do not complete the electrification of this line.

The electrification of the midland main line will provide modern, cost-effective and reliable transport, and it will support the growth and competitiveness of the east midlands as a region.

It is important to point out that this is not just about economic growth, but about housing growth. In north Northamptonshire we are seeing huge developments; Corby is, in fact, the fastest-growing town in the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at this issue through that prism, too, and that areas that are taking growth need to be rewarded when it comes to infrastructure to meet not only existing need, but the need of people coming to the area?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. One thing that we are very conscious of in this region is the growth we are having in housing and the need for the infrastructure that goes with that.

Despite all that I have described, I do not think we have had enough investment in the midland main line. I would also like to point out that the trans-Pennine network, like the midland main line, has also been paused. Although it will play an important role in the northern powerhouse, there is stronger case—certainly a stronger business case—for electrification of the midland main line to take priority. It is estimated the scheme would generate over £450 million of economic benefits a year for the midlands, as a result of quicker, reliable services between the four major cities that I have mentioned. Designs have already been submitted in some areas and bridges have already been built to accommodate the line. We now need clarity on when we can expect the project to begin again. If we are to keep growing the midlands economy, we cannot continue to have the slowest inter-city line. We need investment, we need improvement and we need the electrification process to be restarted as soon as possible.

It is a pleasure to make a contribution under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this debate. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), my friend and colleague on the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills. Her contribution and the others we have heard this morning underline the cross-party unity on and concern about this issue.

Let us cast our minds back to 2009, when Network Rail published a study of the electrification options for the UK network. It identified the midland main line as having the best business case for electrification of any route in the country, with the great western line second. The great western work is going ahead, but the work on the midland main line has been paused. Colleagues have made comments about pausing, and I always understood a pause to have a start point and an end point. Clarification about the end point would be helpful, for all the reasons that hon. Members have given—to provide certainty and confidence that the process will not simply be ended.

I understand the concern about cost escalation across the network as a whole that led the Government to decide to pause, but the line with the worst cost escalation overall is the great western line—up £700 million, from £1 billion. The cost escalation on the midland main line is comparatively low. Within the framework of the decision that was made, it therefore does not make sense to have paused the work on the midland main line.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough made a clear case for the benefits of electrification: the cost savings in revenue terms and the environmental benefits, such as lower CO2 emissions and pollutants. Others have made the point about the ability to have new trains—clearly most new trains are electric—and, in the long run, the work will have to be done to ensure compatibility with HS2. However, as others have pointed out, electrification is only one part of the discussion. It is important to continue to press for electrification, but we need to look at other line improvements, and there are clearly a number of places on the midland main line where work is required.

The Bedford to Kettering line needs additional track to be laid alongside the existing track to allow more trains to run and to speed up journeys to Sheffield and other points along the route. The single track on the Kettering to Corby line needs a second track. The speed restriction south of Leicester needs to be eliminated. The work that has been mentioned at Derby needs to be done and speeds between Derby and Chesterfield need to be raised. There is also the work at Market Harborough—I have worked closely with the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on this issue, and I know that, were she not engaged in her responsibilities as Secretary of State for Education, she would be making this point—where the track needs to be straightened for about one and half miles to raise speeds from 60 mph to 90 mph and to allow the station to be rebuilt.

The overall cost of all that work is significantly less than the cost of electrification. We have seen two thirds of the investment in the midland main line—the electrification—paused. It would be an outrage if the remaining third—the track improvements and all the related infrastructure work—was also delayed. I am looking to the Minister this morning to provide unambiguous confirmation that the funding will be available to proceed on all those points.

On the Market Harborough campaign, we reached the point before the general election where £24 million had been allocated by Network Rail, with a further £13 million allocated from the local growth fund, through a unique coming-together of the three local enterprise partnerships: Sheffield City Region, D2N2—Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire—and Leicester and Leicestershire. However, there was a small gap in the remaining funding, which we were assured before the general election would be resolved. That assurance is what a number of us, on both sides of the Chamber, are looking for this morning.

When the Secretary of State made his statement on pausing back on 25 June, he told the right hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier):

“We will press on with the rebuilding to speed up and straighten the track at Market Harborough…That will mean faster services soon”.—[Official Report, 25 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1073.]

We need to know when “soon” is. The Secretary of State also reaffirmed that commitment in an answer to me on the same date. Given that this issue has been well aired, I am assuming with some confidence that it will not be too difficult for the Minister to give a cast-iron guarantee this morning that that work will happen and that the money is available or to provide a date.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Roger. I join other hon. Members who have called strongly for the electrification of the midland main line to be unpaused as soon as possible, so that we can have it as close as possible to the original 2020 deadline. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this important debate.

Let me say at the start that I understand why the Government felt a need to pause a scheme when they thought costs were spiralling out of control. Those of us who care about the responsible use of public money accept that if things are going wrong and costs are escalating, we have to get them under control and try to get the best value from the amount of money we can spend on such improvements. I therefore do not object to a brief pause to reset Network Rail’s capacity to understand what it is doing, but I do object if that brief pause becomes indefinite and starts to look like a cancellation to those of us who want the line electrified, with electric trains running on it.

As all the other speakers have said, there is a strong business case for electrifying the line, which has suffered from under-investment probably for the whole length of its history. The two competing lines—one to the east and one to the west—have dramatically faster journey times. If I travelled from Tamworth rather than Derby, I could get to London in one hour, rather than an hour and a half. If I choose to go from Newark or Grantham, rather than Nottingham, I can get a journey time of about one hour, rather than one hour and 40 minutes. Those who live east of Nottingham or west of Derby do not use the midline main line, because of the historic under-investment and much slower journey times. There is a clear need for investment in the line to get a service that is comparable to those around it and to give the important cities of Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and Leicester the sort of rail service they need to attract the economic investment that the area so desperately wants and needs.

As other Members have said, that is a key point for the future of the line. We need to know by 2019 what rolling stock we are buying, because if we end up investing in the long term in diesel rolling stock, it will be much harder to make the case later for electrifying the line. The Government would then be faced with the question of whether to invest in dual-power trains to allow for possible future electrification. That would not be a sensible use of money.

My vision is for brand-new electric trains, built by Bombardier in Derby, operating on this line—I am not sure about those Hitachi things that the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) mentioned—but if we do not get the decision right now, we could find, when the next franchise is let in 2018-19, that this will have been a long-term decision not to electrify the line, and that would be a very bad decision. If we want the east midlands to be the powerhouse of growth, I want the engine room to be electric, not diesel.

I have another little request. The original plan to electrify the line missed out a couple of stations on a bit of the line through Langley Mill and Alfreton, which is on the Nottingham to Sheffield stretch. It seemed bizarre to electrify most of the line and then miss out a bit. I am not sure what that would do for services from Sheffield to Nottingham. I cannot see that it would do much for the direct trains to London from Langley Mill and Nottingham, which are so valued by my constituents. I therefore say this to my hon. Friend the Minister: as we are looking to unpause this, let us actually do the whole line, not most of the line, and get that little branch line added into the programme.

It is already proving quite hard to sell HS2 to my constituents as a great idea because of the pretty low return on the investment—it is certainly much lower than for electrification of the midland main line. If we have to go to people and say, “Look, a return of £4 for every pound that’s spent isn’t enough. We can’t justify spending this money electrifying this line where you could have nice new clean and faster electric trains and faster journey times somewhere in the early 2020s”—I hope—they will probably not understand why we can spend a hell of a lot more money trying to get a line that would be a bit quicker sometime in the 2030s.

We must be consistent in how we evaluate investment in rail infrastructure. If we cannot afford this project—if we cannot justify it—then those of us who do support HS2 will have a much harder job of trying to understand and explain why we are still doing that. I think all our constituents up this line would say, “We would rather have this scheme and these improvements sooner than wait and hope that we might get an HS2 in 15 or 20 years’ time.” The Minister should be aware that we have to be consistent and clear in giving explanations, especially if rail investment is going through the east midlands up to Sheffield. We cannot have a nice grand project that we struggle to sell while we are not investing in the short-term stuff that we really need.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point, and I support HS2 strongly as well. The Government have said repeatedly to people, “Don’t worry about HS2. It will not affect the investment in the rest of the railway.” Are people not likely to conclude that if electrification does not go ahead on the midland main line, that promise of no impact from HS2 is not being kept?

I think that would be the conclusion. People would see money being spent on rail improvements and think that it was all being sucked into HS2 and we were missing out on a much quicker and much more effective scheme, with a much higher rate of return. They would think that that was a somewhat strange decision, at a time when the Government are trying to get more value for money from public spending.

This is a very important scheme. It has a very strong business case. I think that it ought to go ahead. Let us get the pause done, get this re-energised, get a new timetable, which I hope would show completion in the early 2020s, and get the other improvements done. Let us get moving; let us get Network Rail under control, but this scheme should not be cancelled.

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) for organising the debate. I represent the town of Newark, which has some of the best rail links in the east midlands. We are very fortunate, as a small market town, to be on the east coast main line. I can get to and from London in an hour and 10 minutes. There has been some good news for us recently, thanks to some Government investment. Our east-west rail links have improved. The Castle line, which takes us from Lincoln through to Newark and into Nottingham, has been upgraded, although I have to add that I have seen an election manifesto for my predecessor but three, from 1975, promising that he would upgrade the Castle line, so transport investments do take a long time. We are also hopeful that the Government will deliver the upgrade of another, smaller line—the Robin Hood line, in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer)—which, equally, would provide an opportunity to unlock economic growth in an ex-coalfield community.

None the less, I cannot hide my constituents’ disappointment that the electrification has been paused, not because it affects Newark a great deal, but because it affects the large number of my constituents who commute into Nottingham and whose livelihoods rely on the economic success and vibrancy of that city, which, as has already been said, has comparatively extremely poor transport links. I can get to London in an hour and 10 minutes from Newark or in less time from Grantham, but for constituents taking the train from Nottingham, it will take two hours. That is clearly an absurd situation for a major city such as Nottingham versus a market town such as Newark.

I completely understand the Government’s reasons for the pause. As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, Conservative Members are the first to support sensible use of public funds. The pause seems entirely sensible as long as it is a pause and is not for too long. That is the overriding message from today.

I would like to make a few observations about Railtrack that have partly come out of my discussions with the Newark Business Club, which is one of the best business clubs in the east midlands and has a number of passionate campaigners for improvements in rail links not just for the Newark area, but for the whole of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. None of us is an apologist for Network Rail, but I would like to make three points that might help people understand why we got into this situation, and to ask the Government to take them seriously in the future.

The first point, of course, is that in the history of Railtrack, as it then was, it was the darling of the City when it was first launched, but it quickly became apparent that the company had committed the cardinal sin of failing to invest in its own assets. Ever since its creation, and under a series of Governments, there has been a chronic failure to invest in projects such as this, which has led us to the present day. We need to correct that. One corollary of that failure to invest has been a severe lack of skills in the industry. It is undoubtedly true that if the Government do not do more electrification projects, we will not have more skilled workers who know how to do electrification projects, more projects will run over budget and more bad decisions will be made, because there will be fewer and fewer skilled workers in this country to do what can be quite difficult projects. If we want more projects to be delivered on time and more sensible decisions to be made, we need to do more of them and invest more in electrification.

Decision making is done in Network Rail, but also, inevitably, in the Government and in the Department for Transport, because Network Rail is guided by the Department when prioritising. That has been one of the main themes that we have heard this morning. Prioritisation of projects is, at best, surprising at times. It would be good if, in future, with the arrival of Sir Peter Hendy, he was given sufficient freedom to apply his very good judgment and experience to judge which projects make the most sense to deliver at any one time.

There are two elements to that. One is the assessment of how difficult projects are. I am not an engineer, but the engineers I have spoken to make it clear that not all electrification projects are technically difficult. Some are; some are not. Indeed, some of the projects that we have seen are basically simple civil engineering projects, which require a great deal less than specialist railway engineering skills. Examples are the upgrade of the infrastructure at Doncaster and grade separation at Newark.

A number of projects would not be especially difficult to achieve. It is surprising that several of those projects are being put on the back burner when more difficult projects have been given the green light. One of my constituents, who was part of the team who delivered it, raised with me the electrification of 200 miles of line between Crewe and Glasgow over three years, on time and on budget, in the early 1970s. That shows that we can do electrification projects as long as we pick and choose and prioritise the ones that do not require such technical skill. In contrast, some projects that have been given the go-ahead are very technically difficult and it is little wonder that they have ended up being delayed and over budget.

I would therefore like the Minister and the Government to give Sir Peter Hendy, whose arrival I welcome wholeheartedly, the discretion to try to improve decision making in Network Rail about the choice of projects, and for there to be less meddling in those decisions, so that projects with very compelling business cases, such as this one, are prioritised and there is better assessment of which projects are expensive to deliver and technically difficult, as opposed to those that could be given the green light straightaway.

My next point is with regard to the direct award to East Midlands Trains. Despite our concern about electrification of the line, that presents a great opportunity for my constituents and those of many other hon. Members in this room. I remember when the south-west got news of major improvements in its infrastructure due to its recent grant award. The Minister might like to tell us something of what she knows about those improvements, because it is a big opportunity to see upgrades of stations, services and rolling stock, regardless of the pause in electrifying the midland main line.

My last point concerns the depressing feeling that the east midlands always loses out. At an event two days ago in London, I met a number of people from across the country, none of whom lives in the east midlands but whose analysis of the reason why the Government have paused the project was that of all areas, the east midlands would give the Government the least aggro. I do not think that that is the case, but that is the perception across the country, within Government and among my constituents. It is all the more important that we MPs—there are not as many MPs here today as perhaps there should be—work together on a cross-party basis to give the east midlands as strong a lead in Government as we possibly can.

A number of other MPs would have liked to be here—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is among them—but there are three East Midlands Trains events today. I believe that we will see all those Members at some time today.

I thank my hon. Friend for that remark. The east midlands consistently loses out across a whole range of areas, which include funding for our schools, our police service, our fire authorities, our local councils and, indeed, rail investment and our LEPs. Part of the blame for that must rest on us as Members of Parliament, because we need to be better at putting forward a consistent and intelligent approach. I look forward to the Government’s taking the east midlands more seriously in the years to come.

Order. Mr Hendry, I called you earlier because I wanted to make absolutely certain that you had sufficient time to make your remarks. As a Front-Bench spokesman, if you wish to make any additional brief remarks now, you may do so.

Thank you for offering me the opportunity to make additional remarks, Sir Roger, but I do not need to do so.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I always seem to do so in debates about infrastructure, and today is no exception. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this important and timely debate, which is his first in Westminster Hall. He introduced the subject skilfully and his arguments had great force. He has been a constant champion of public transport for many years, both on Sheffield City Council and since his election to this place.

It is four months or so since the publication of the Conservative party’s general election manifesto. Let us remind ourselves of what it said:

“We will back business by…electrifying the Midland Main Line from St Pancras to Sheffield”.

That is all very good. A decision to support electrification was made some three years ago, which was welcomed by passengers, local authorities and hon. Members of all parties. The midland main line has been the Cinderella of Britain’s main lines. As hon. Members have mentioned, the campaign to electrify the route goes back to the ’70s and ’80s, when British Rail said that doing so was “a first priority”, until the Conservative Government of the day withdrew their support. There is a distinct sense of history repeating itself. Nobody can fail to appreciate the strength of feeling that still exists on the issue in all parts of the House and all parties, and I am sure that passengers up and down the route will welcome the contributions of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.

The case for electrifying the midland main line is compelling. A Network Rail assessment in 2009 found that the project’s benefit-cost ratio was “technically infinite”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) has said. More recent figures published by the Department show that the benefit-cost ratio of the project is superior to those of other major projects that are proceeding. Network Rail has said that the project is

“critical to delivering a reliable and sustainable railway and tackling overcrowding.”

In 2012, the Government talked about an “electric spine” that would convey passengers and freight from Southampton to Sheffield, which was, again, described as a first priority in terms of rail investment.

Rail investment in the north of England, including Yorkshire, falls notoriously short compared with the funding made available to other regions. According to the Department’s own figures, rail investment per head is lower in the east midlands than in any other English region. That point has been emphasised by hon. Members from the region; I am sure that the Minister will agree that they have been giving her “aggro” about that, to quote the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick). The electrification of the midland main line would have gone some way towards addressing the inequalities.

Electrification is not the only problem, however. Some of the trains on the route date back to the 1970s. Although they have performed admirably over the years, they must be withdrawn or upgraded at significant cost by 2020 to comply with the Disability Discrimination Acts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) has pointed out. The clear aspiration was that the rolling stock would be replaced by superior electric trains, but that, too, has been thrown into doubt.

I will return to electrification in a moment, but it is important to set out that the upgrade package also contained significant speed improvements. Indeed, when the Secretary of State announced his decision to “pause” the electrification programme, he said:

“We will press on with the rebuilding to speed up and straighten the track at Market Harborough, and with the rebuilding of the Derby track layout. That will mean faster services soon, and it will enable us to make the most of the electrification and new trains that will result from future franchises.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1073.]

That point has been made by several hon. Members. The problem is that as far as we can tell, there is still a £9 million funding gap for the Market Harborough project, and there has been no clarity from the Department about whether and how that gap will be filled. Worse still, there are worrying rumours and reports—most recently in Construction News—that the Hendy review has concluded that only a fraction of Network Rail’s control period 5 schemes are affordable. That throws into further doubt some of the things that the Government have been saying, so I hope that the Minister can provide some clarity today. It has been reported in The Sunday Times and Passenger Transport that on top of escalating costs, Network Rail’s budget may be cut further in the comprehensive spending review, threatening not only improvement projects, but essential maintenance.

That is a world away from what we were told in April, when the Chancellor said:

“Spending review will set out improvements to rail travel in East Mids including electrifying Midland Main Line from Bedford to Sheffield”.

Let us not pretend that that has nothing to do with the choices that the Government have made, and nothing to do with the fact that different choices are announced before and after an election when marginal seats are at stake. Ministers have adopted a policy of implausible deniability on the matter, but let us recap some of the facts. We first raised concerns about cost overruns on the great western main line in in May 2014, just weeks into the new investment period. Last October, the then shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), asked the Transport Secretary to say

“which electrification projects will be delayed or cancelled”—[Official Report, 23 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 1030.]

as a consequence of cost overruns. The Secretary of State was apparently so concerned about those matters that he ordered an “urgent” review of Network Rail’s projects, which he received in September. He has refused to publish it, so we can only speculate on its contents. The Transport Committee warned in January:

“We are concerned that key rail enhancement projects…have been announced by Ministers without Network Rail having a clear estimate of what the projects will cost, leading to uncertainty about whether the projects will be delivered on time, or at all.”

The Committee stated:

“Electrification of lines in the North West, the North trans-Pennine line, and the Midland Main Line, should not be put at risk due to the projected overspend on the Great Western Main Line.”

Crucially, we now know, thanks to documents obtained by Labour under the Freedom of Information Act, that in March, Network Rail’s board agreed to

“decisions required jointly with the DfT re enhancement deferrals from June”.

Unnamed sources in the Department initially denied to the BBC that there was any knowledge of these discussions before the election. However, Network Rail’s chief executive subsequently confirmed:

“In mid-March 2015, Network Rail informed DfT that decisions may need to be made in the coming months about the deferral of certain schemes.”

Are we now asked to believe that Ministers really had no knowledge? I have previously described the midland main line as something of a Cinderella route, and to believe what the Government have been saying about the route is a bit like believing in fairy stories, which always seem to end with a silver carriage turning into a pumpkin.

Voters heard promises to deliver the electrification of the midland main line in the best of faith. The only people who did not know that the investment programme was collapsing, apparently, were Ministers in the Department for Transport. Will the Minister address that today? It is a straightforward question, but her Department has refused to answer it until now. When Network Rail told the Department in March that decisions may be required on the deferral of major rail projects, were Ministers in the Department informed?

I am happy to put to rest once and for all the conspiracy theory that the hon. Gentleman knows better than to perpetrate. My boss, the Secretary of State for Transport, has stated unequivocally on multiple occasions that the first time he received advice that either of these projects should be paused was on 15 June 2015.

The Minister has been very clear. She will have to answer my next set of questions, and I hope she will when she sums up. Were her officials therefore not telling her what they were being told by Network Rail, or was the chief executive of Network Rail telling porkies?

Looking ahead, it is not clear what remains of the Government’s much-heralded “biggest programme of rail investment since the Victorians.” It now looks as if the much-heralded northern powerhouse has had the power turned off, the midlands engine has been left to rust and the electric spine has been broken. There is enormous anger in the north of England about the northern powerhouse, of which the midland main line project is a part.

I was not going to intervene, but I thought this debate had been constructive and useful on both sides of the Chamber. The shadow Minister’s political rant is out of place. I could easily ask, “How many miles of railway did Labour build in 13 years?” This is not the place for that debate.

I have made it clear that there is cross-party anger about the delays to this project, and I think that anger is genuine from Government Members. I imagine that they are as concerned as Opposition Members about why something that was promised as recently as April has since been removed and about the discrepancies that appear to exist about what happened.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the record of the last Labour Government, I am happy to do so. There is not a lot of time.

I will simply say that Labour invested more in the railways in real terms than any previous Government.

I hope the Minister is able to confirm today that, whatever happened in the past, Cinderella will finally get to the ball. Ultimately, passengers in that part of the country need to know whether the full speed improvements package will go ahead, as planned. I even hope that she is able to tell us that electrification of the midland main line will go ahead under a reasonable timetable, as promised. When will that announcement be made?

This has been happening not for years but for decades. Passengers deserve clarity, and the Government are the only people who can give that clarity. I hope the Minister will do that today.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I have many questions to answer, and I will do my best to answer them. If I do not answer Members’ questions, I will be extremely happy to write with any specifics.

I will start by restoring what I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) was an important, factual and consensual debate that raised some extremely important questions about this vital infrastructure. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this debate, and I am delighted that it is his first debate—I still remember mine. He has big shoes and four paws to fill, and I hope he will personally pass my best wishes to his predecessor, with whom I worked and for whom I have the greatest respect.

It is great to see such a strong cross-party turnout for, and to hear such excellent contributions to, today’s important debate. I will address a couple of issues that came up. The first is the importance of investment in railways to drive economic growth on a local, regional and national basis, as the hon. Gentleman said in his opening speech.

I am delighted—I suspect this has something to do with some of his jobs in a former life—with the hon. Gentleman’s reference to freight, which is often not considered when we talk about improvements to the railways and which is vital to the economic prosperity of such regions that export and manufacture. Indeed, I have visited several upgrade projects across the region, such as the Great Northern Great Eastern line, that have been specifically designed and delivered to improve freight paths for manufacturers in the region. Investment in transport across the UK is vital if the economy is to grow. I am happy to give what should be not a cast-iron guarantee but a stainless-steel guarantee that £38 billion of investment will be spent on British railways over the next few years, which is the biggest spend in generations—since Brunel’s time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough asked how many miles of track the last Labour Government electrified in 13 years, and the answer is nine. The shadow Minister, with whom I work frequently, is embarrassed to talk about that because we have finally woken up, on a cross-party basis, to the vital role of rail infrastructure investment in driving economic growth and better journeys for people using the railway.

I am happy to confirm that £38 billion is being spent. Successive Governments have not spent the right amount or invested enough in the railways. If we roll back the clock more than 10 years to 2003-04, when the last deals for the northern and TransPennine Express franchises were being negotiated, was there any conversation about replacing the clapped-out Pacers? There was none. The TPE and northern routes, which provide some services to the constituency of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, will transform passenger services in the north of England. It cannot come too soon.

I will quickly cover a couple of other things. The first is the Sheffield city region, of which the hon. Gentleman is a great supporter. The city is working across parties, across business and across political boundaries, and it is working closely with Transport for the North, an organisation that my Government have funded to the tune of £30 million and is designed to pull such decisions about the right form of transport investment as close as possible to the region’s people and wealth creators. It is not enough for officials at Network Rail or in my Department to sit and plan what improvements should take place; those improvements have to deliver the maximum benefit for people and businesses using the railways.

Sheffield has been a strong supporter of the proposals to enhance east-west connectivity and to maximise the potential and benefit of High Speed 2, and I am delighted that we still have cross-party consensus on the importance of the HS2 route, despite the voting record of the new Leader of the Opposition—that is a cheap shot, but I could not resist. I am delighted that the Labour party is completely committed to going ahead with HS2.

The deal for Sheffield gives more control over local transport schemes. It enables Sheffield to work directly with Network Rail to support the delivery of the Sheffield to Rotherham tram-train project, and it improves the vital co-ordination between Sheffield, Network Rail and Highways England to ensure that investment is pulled through by local economic priorities. I thank Members who have championed the Sheffield devolution deal.

My second point is on the TPE and northern franchises. I will not be drawn on several things, including the debate on where “the north” starts and the prediction of football results, although I am disappointed that there was no mention of the Leicester Foxes, of whom I have been a lifelong supporter. But I can assure Members that the current franchise negotiations for the northern and TPE routes will be transformational for passengers in the north.

Train capacity into major cities will increase by 30%. There will be brand-new trains, not the Pacers and not reworked tube rolling stock. Existing trains will be fully modernised. There will be £30 million of northern station investment funds. I could go on. The franchise negotiations will transform travel in the north and change passenger experiences from among the worst to some of the best in the country.

As I have been asked many questions about the midland main line, I want to discuss it in detail. I emphasise that a pause is a pause. For me—I think my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) said this—when an organisation such as Network Rail has been given an unprecedented burden, because it has never been asked to do this much investment in the railway before, and there is evidence that some of the work is starting to go wrong and that promises will not be delivered on, one can either carry on and then not deliver or say, “We must get this right.”

We have to deliver these improvements. We understand the economic case for delivering them. We have to find someone, who in this case was Sir Peter Hendy—a railway man to his fingertips—who can take the organisation to a point where it can offer cast-iron guarantees about delivery dates. Network Rail is tasked with delivering the improvements. We are relying on Hendy and his team to come back and set out exactly what that delivery programme looks like. He will shortly deliver a plan that will outline the delivery of the upgrades and set out specific clarity around the electrification projects.

Many hon. Members have asked me what all this means for projects that are already happening. If one travels from Corby to Kettering, one can see that the four-track work is going ahead. It is being delivered and tens of millions of pounds are being spent on the track-doubling project. We are removing the long-standing bottleneck at Derby station to speed up both Midland Mainline and CrossCountry services. We are improving the line speed south of Leicester station, between Derby and Chesterfield and at Market Harborough. Station-lengthening work is going on right across the network to enable longer trains to run, and we are adding capacity between Bedford and Kettering.

I want to mention freight, because the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough shares my interest in it. The promised freight gauge clearance schemes, which are vital to allow more freight on these lines, are going ahead, so additional freight services will be run.

Before the Minister moves on—I appreciate that she is trying to answer all the questions —I want to be absolutely clear on Market Harborough, which she mentioned in passing and skipped over. Is it guaranteed that the full funding—the money topped up from that provided through the local growth fund and identified by Network Rail—will be available for the full necessary works at Market Harborough?

The hon. Gentleman refers to the £9 million shortfall. I need to investigate that further and will write to him. I believe that efforts are being made by several organisations to fill that important funding gap.

The hon. Gentleman has prompted me to answer his important rolling stock question regarding electrification and the cascade, on which he is absolutely right to focus. It will be the case that when preparation work starts for the new franchise, which will be let in 2018, all the questions around rolling stock specification and the requirement for new trains will be put into it. When we invited tenders for the TPE franchise, we gave bidders an option and set out what we knew about improvement works.

By the way, there is this idea that we are somehow not investing in the north, but has the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) travelled on the new electric trains that run between Manchester and Liverpool and Liverpool and Wigan? Electrification has come to that part of the UK for the first time. I hope that he will join me in celebrating the fact that those cities now have new electric trains, which were delivered by this Government, as promised. We are 100% committed to ensuring that the £38 billion unprecedented investment in the railways happens right across the UK, not including HS2, which, as my hon. Friends pointed out, is vital to speed up journey times to and from the north and to pull wealth out of the south-east. We will also continue—[Interruption.] Did the hon. Gentleman want to celebrate and welcome that electrification?

There have been reports—I mentioned the one in Construction News—that say that the Hendy review has already concluded that only a fraction of the control period 5 projects are financially sustainable. Does the Minister have those reports as well? If so, how does she square them with what she has just said?

If I had heeded all the reports, I would have been letting the East Coast franchise to a French company instead of a fine Scottish and English company that is delivering unprecedented improvements for passengers on the east coast main line. I want to see the facts. I do not want to speculate, which can damage business confidence. We must be absolutely clear about what has been delivered, and I will wait for Peter Hendy’s report and my Department’s response. I am always happy to work on a cross-party basis with Members who pay so much attention to these vital improvements. As we go forward with the investment programme, that will help us to understand where the most important connections need to be made.

I want to mention today’s franchise announcement, about which I have already spoken in public. Although this direct award has less than two and a half years to run, we have negotiated some pretty significant improvements for passengers. I hope that hon. Members will agree that East Midlands Trains is a good operator. Its punctuality record is good. It has won multiple awards and ranks pretty highly in terms of passenger satisfaction, so we have allowed it to continue operating the service. From today, there will be 22 extra services between Nottingham and Newark Castle. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) mentioned, 24 new services were already delivered earlier this year. Timetable improvements will mean faster journey times and more services between Lincoln and Nottingham. Crucially, there will also be a pause—a freeze—on fares, so anytime fares on the route will not go up at all in the next two years. That is a company commitment.

In light of what the Minister has just said, has consideration been given to increasing the number of services, both northbound and southbound, from Corby? There is currently a real appetite for that, and it would be welcome for the reasons of growth that I suggested earlier.

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out the crucial link between a growing local economy and transport. I encourage him, and all Members here, to submit such proposals to the franchising consultation and planning process, which will be starting in the next few months. It is vital that we get these important routes right.

The freeze on fares—we will be paying the same in 2017 as we do now—is in addition to the Government’s cap on any rail fare increase above inflation for the next five years, which is a substantial commitment to ensuring that rail fares are appropriately priced for the travelling public. In addition, 15 more automatic ticket machines are being installed, along with better accessibility information and better customer information. There is an improved compensation scheme to ensure that if there are delays, such as those earlier this week mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, passengers can quickly and easily get the compensation to which they are entitled in cash or bank transfer, not railway vouchers. We made that change earlier this year. Improved wi-fi across the service has already been delivered to ensure that people can work effectively on the train.

I talked about some of the schemes that are going ahead. They are tangible and can be seen as one travels along the line. I have discussed today’s announcement, which will deliver some substantial improvements for passengers, despite the direct award only having a short time to run. I reassure Members across the House about the seriousness and determination with which the Government and my Department take the improvements. We have to deliver on what we promise. That is the purpose of the Hendy re-plan, which means that we will have a deliverable and affordable set of improvements. I invite all Members to work together to develop the proposals as we go into the new franchise. When we get the Hendy re-plan and confirmation of the work, I ask Members to work with me and constituents to ensure that people are fully aware of what is going on.

In conclusion, I never interpret enthusiastic, honest and fact-filled debates and submissions from hon. Members or broader groups as “aggro”. I am happy to keep working and to be as open, honest and transparent as I can. I thank hon. Members and people right across the country for realising that a rail renaissance is taking place in Britain. It is vital that we get it right and that we deliver right across this great country.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered electrification of the Midland Main Line.

Magistrates Courts: Suffolk

I beg to move,

That this House has considered magistrates courts in Suffolk.

Sir Roger, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I am pleased to have secured this debate on the future of magistrates courts in Suffolk, following the publication of the Government’s proposals to close two of the remaining three courts in Suffolk: the court at Lowestoft, which is in my Waveney constituency, and the court in Bury St Edmunds, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill). Sir Roger, with your approval and that of the Minister, I propose to speak for the majority of the time for this debate, and my hon. Friend will say a few words about the situation in Bury St Edmunds.

I am grateful to the Minister for the time that he has already given to me to listen to my concerns about the proposed closure of Lowestoft magistrates court. He has answered my questions in the Chamber and he and his officials have met Lowestoft solicitors and me.

There is no argument about the need to reform the justice system. However, any changes must not be at the expense of local access to justice. My concern is that the current proposals will imperil that. There is a need for a long-term vision of the future of our justice system, and it is important that local concerns and local knowledge are properly taken into account in the consultation that is now taking place.

There is a widespread view in Suffolk that the current proposals short-change Suffolk and that we have got a raw deal compared with other counties. The police and crime commissioner has expressed his concern, as have the temporary chief constable, the former superintendent in charge of the Lowestoft sector, the Police Federation, and the Suffolk and North Essex Law Society, as well as Lowestoft solicitors, who are working up an alternative proposal for Lowestoft. The East Anglian Daily Times has launched its “Justice for Suffolk” campaign and The Lowestoft Journal has launched a “Keep Justice Local” campaign.

In the early 1990s, there were 12 magistrates courts in Suffolk. If the Government’s current proposals go ahead, only one will remain, in Ipswich. Although Ipswich is the county town, it is located at the southern end of the county, and it is a long way from and inaccessible to much of the rest of the county, in particular—from my perspective— north-east Suffolk, including the Waveney constituency and Lowestoft. In Ministry of Justice questions last week, I highlighted the fact that under the current proposals Suffolk would be one of only six English counties with just one magistrates court. That contrasts with the three courts being proposed for Norfolk and the four that would remain in Essex.

Moreover, under the current proposals Suffolk would be the worst English county for the number of magistrates courts per square mile, with one for every 1,466 square miles, compared with one for every 692 square miles in neighbouring Norfolk, one for every 355 square miles in Essex and one for every 655 square miles in Cambridgeshire. In response to my question last week, the Minister referred to Suffolk’s being a very “law-abiding” county. That is true, but by no stretch of the imagination can Suffolk be described as twice as law-abiding as Norfolk, the neighbouring county, which has a very similar demography and geography.

In its consultation document, the Ministry of Justice stated that if its proposals are implemented across the country 95% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within one hour by car. If Lowestoft magistrates court closes, that will not be the case for many people in north Suffolk, whether they are urban or rural dwellers. Travel times from Lowestoft to Ipswich are approximately 90 minutes, whether by car or train, and there is no direct bus service. Journeys to Great Yarmouth and Norwich are by no means straightforward either. The position in Norfolk is very different, as Norwich is more centrally located in Norfolk than Ipswich is in Suffolk, with all the main roads to the different corners of Norfolk radiating out of the city.

Lowestoft magistrates court is a relatively modern building, which has the advantage of occupying a readily accessible location adjoining the police station. It is also close to the new shared offices of the national probation service and the community rehabilitation company, as well as the town centre, and within walking distance of both the bus and railway stations. There is also an adjacent car park, which is underutilised. The court’s concourse goes straight on to the pavement and there are lifts to the cells.

Any changes to the court estate must ensure that this strategically placed community asset continues to be used. The building is not expensive to run. Moreover, it has operated extremely efficiently over the years, outperforming other courts in Suffolk and Norfolk in terms of administering justice both promptly and fairly. It has been underutilised in recent years, although this is as a result of a reduction in the number of hearings scheduled for Lowestoft. Custodies have moved elsewhere, motoring offences have gone to Ipswich, and family proceedings also now take place in Ipswich. The magistrates court in Lowestoft sits less often than it used to, but that is not due to a lack of either magistrates or staff. The cynical might say that there has been a deliberate redirection of work away from Lowestoft, with fewer sittings taking place there so as to tie in with the agenda of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service rather than to provide a service to the local citizens, whose needs the court—and us—should meet.

There is also a concern that the analysis of costs on which the Ministry of Justice is basing its decision to close Lowestoft magistrates court is incorrect. That analysis shows 31 staff working from the court. It would appear that that number includes those administrative staff who work on the first floor in the fines collection department. They cover the whole of East Anglia and will continue to be employed if the court closes. Therefore, it is not appropriate to include their costs in those of running Lowestoft magistrates court. In addition, a further advantage of the court remaining open is that the cost of upheaval and relocation of its staff would be avoided.

The closure of Lowestoft magistrates court would make it very difficult for many people in north-east Suffolk to access justice. If court work is transferred to Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Ipswich, many people in Lowestoft, in the market towns of Beccles and Bungay and in the surrounding rural areas could not reach the relevant court in one hour by public transport. They would face significant travel costs in an area where wages are generally low, with the poorest and most vulnerable being most at risk.

The feedback that I am receiving is that the very thought of having to attend a court hearing away from Lowestoft, whether as a victim, a defendant or a witness, could put off many people from attending. There is a worry that there could be more failed trials, due to the difficulties in getting defendants and witnesses to court. With a local court such as Lowestoft, it is relatively easy for the local police to find those people who fail to appear in court quickly.

There are also concerns about domestic violence cases, and there is a strong view that such cases should be listed locally in the first instance. There would be problems in getting both support staff and victims to court if such cases are not heard locally. There is also a real worry that victims, witnesses and defendants in domestic violence cases could all find themselves on the same train or bus to another court. It might even be the case that the magistrate would be on the same train or bus.

The feedback from those hearings that already take place away from Lowestoft is not encouraging. Private family cases have their first hearing in Ipswich. That means more expensive travel, which adds to the trauma of going a long way to consider what are often complicated and highly emotional issues, such as child arrangement orders. If the case goes on for two or three days, the parties who live in Lowestoft will have to travel to Ipswich daily. Ipswich family court is already at capacity and is not coping. Consequently, some cases have been redirected to Chelmsford, which is a very long way from Lowestoft. With a 9 am start for hearings, there is a real challenge for people to get to court on time. Also, if social workers have to attend, they are in effect unable to do any other work for the remainder of the day.

The Government are placing great stock on increased use of information technology extending the use of “virtual courts”, with victims, witnesses and defendants appearing on screen. There is a place for that, but the feedback that I am receiving locally is that where it is being used, there are “teething difficulties”, with what was previously being done in a morning in Lowestoft court now taking the whole day.

There is also a worry that some of the pilots that are being carried out are in metropolitan areas, which are completely different to shire counties such as Suffolk. The single justice procedure pathfinder court, which commenced in mid-May, is taking place in south-west London. The “make a plea online” service is being piloted in Manchester. The rota online pilot is taking place in Hampshire and in south-west London. There is a view that if we rush to close courts on the premise that digital services will step smoothly into the shoes of magistrates courts, courthouses will have to be reopened if the new arrangements do not work, and where the courthouses have been sold or are no longer available, new ones will have to be built.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on making a brilliant and passionate speech on a subject that is important both for his constituents and for mine in South Suffolk. On information technology, do we not have to factor in broadband speed in areas that might be expected to use the services?

My hon. Friend is correct. In the context of going from 12 courts in the 1990s to the one that is proposed now, one hoped that traditional forms of communication—road and rail—and also broadband would have improved dramatically. They are moving in the right direction, but I do not think that they have improved to such an extent.

In family court and domestic violence cases there is a role for video links in safeguarding victims. In certain circumstances they are extremely appropriate and necessary, but solicitors emphasise to me the importance of personal interaction in reaching the right verdict. There is a fear that the whole process could be dehumanised, with serious implications for the fair administration of justice.

The great advantage of magistrates courts is that magistrates are drawn from the local area. They know their patch and can set cases in the right context, which is important in administering local justice. Such localism could be lost if courts were closed and their jurisdiction transferred to others 30 to 40 miles away—for example Ipswich, which is not easy to get to from Lowestoft. Any review of the court system should look closely at the scope of the work being carried out in magistrates courts.

With digitalisation, Sir Brian Leveson’s review and the Government’s proposed changes, the role and work of magistrates will change. As part of that, the Government should seriously consider changing the jurisdiction of and extending the range of cases considered by magistrates. That would enable justice to be delivered more locally, closer to communities. It could also help victims, because magistrates courts are less intimidating than Crown courts, and cases would also be dealt with more promptly. Moreover, research shows that significant financial savings would be achieved. Such a reinvigorating of magistrates courts and local justice can readily take place by enacting sections 154, 280 and 281 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The Minister has confirmed to me that such a review is taking place, but it should not be carried out in a vacuum; it should form part of the consultation.

Work in local magistrates courts underpins the legal profession in a town such as Lowestoft. Like magistrates, local solicitors know and understand the area in which they work, and they are immediately on hand, available at all hours to provide advice and guidance to their clients. They very much take on the role of a trusted adviser, gaining the respect and confidence of their clients who know them and know that they will do their best in representing them during what can be a harrowing and traumatic experience.

There is a worry that, without local courts, local solicitors firms could struggle to survive and local people would have to obtain advice from solicitors offices miles away from where they live. It is vital in Lowestoft that we continue to have a wide range of independent solicitor practices in the town.

In response to the consultation, Lowestoft solicitors will come forward with an alternative proposal for the Minister to consider. I urge him to give it his full consideration, as it will have been produced with the benefit of local knowledge, taking into account the concerns that I have raised.

Sir Roger, I am grateful to you for listening to me. I now hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds and look forward to listening to the Minister’s response.

I do not wish to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) has said, but so many of his points apply to my constituents too. Ensuring that the vulnerable are not in vehicles with people with whom they would rather not spend the hour before going to court is hugely important. We have a paucity of broadband, but we have a paucity of buses and railways also. Physically getting around our county is difficult enough, so we cannot put up with the removal of vital services.

Suffolk is one of England’s 48 ceremonial counties and the eighth largest by area, but conversely it is ranked 32nd by population size. Should the proposals to close Bury and Lowestoft courts succeed, we will have, as my hon. Friend has said, the worst court-to-square-mile ratio, and be one of only six counties to operate a single court, based, in our case, far to the east in Ipswich.

Ironically, it is perhaps because of our size and relative sparseness that the magistrates court in Bury St Edmunds is under threat. I agree, however, that some change may be right and proper. Government figures have put utilisation of Bury court at 39%, with parts of it not used at all. Additionally, the accommodation in the current building is inadequate, and its annual running cost of more than £250,000 is undoubtedly high. Closing the service at its current location will save the taxpayer £206,000, recoverable in seven months, but one cannot put a price on local access to justice. In a system that claims to guarantee legal rights, access to justice sits at its foundations, for all the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned. That is the most basic requirement, and indeed it was the cornerstone of the Magna Carta which, incidentally, was planned by the barons in 1214 in Bury St Edmunds. One can see, therefore, why we are a little incensed.

I urge that due consideration be given to the effect on the justices of the peace, who do sterling work. As they have said to me, they know their communities. They save the legal system a great deal and add enormously to the effectiveness of local justice. What my constituents demand, as do local law professionals, the police and crime commissioner, the high sheriff, the lord lieutenant, and numerous other stakeholders, is local access to justice. It is neither feasible nor reasonable to ask the people of Suffolk—the people in my constituency—to travel 45 miles on the A14, which is often blocked solid by traffic and accidents, to access justice in Ipswich. Because of local transport cuts and the rural nature of our community, that is exactly what will be asked of them and I worry that it will be impossible for the poorest and the most vulnerable, the exact people who need justice the most.

Economically, the arguments for closing the magistrates court are compelling, and I accept that changes can be made, but we must keep a court in Bury. A superb opportunity exists, if the Ministry of Justice were to feel inclined, to use Bury as a trial and have a more peripatetic approach to justice that would allow it to come back into our communities. The consultation allows for that kind of approach to making the necessary improvements and savings, and the Ministry has stressed to me, during our many conversations, that it is looking for good ideas.

Integrating the court into the public service village in Bury could provide it with improved accommodation that could be shared when not in use, thereby delivering more cost-efficient services across the board. Such new ideas can be developed, with fines and other services being provided online, integrated for vulnerable people who do not have broadband access—I reiterate that I have villages with streets with no access. That suggestion is completely in line with the Cabinet Office’s One Public Estate programme. However, when one Department is in the process of advocating and advancing such a programme it seems counterproductive for another to cause panic by stating that it proposes to close a service that is so patently suitable for inclusion in the programme, instead suggesting that it relocate it to a town some 26 miles away. It appears, not for the first time, that we need better joined-up government, and not just between our local authorities and services. Such a move would keep access to justice local. It would locate the court adjacent to the NHS and social services, which will, it is anticipated, take up residence. Consequently, constituents —particularly those who are vulnerable—would have all the support they needed when using the court.

The design of the next phase of development is still being formulated. Specific requirements such as cells and van docks could be incorporated at the start, rather than retrospectively fitted. To that end, I and other colleagues in Suffolk have strongly urged the Justice Secretary in an open letter to look favourably on any such proposal and to keep justice local.

As always, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Roger. I thank my three hon. Friends for their contributions today. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate, but I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) for her contribution and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) for his intervention.

Let me make one thing absolutely clear. There is no doubt that all three Members have been diligent and conscientious in how they have spoken up for their constituents. They have corresponded with me and met me. Indeed, they have enforced the point by having this debate. I have to say that I have learned a lesson. I tried to jest a little in oral questions when I told my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney that the figures he cited reflected the low levels of crime in Suffolk. I had the last word in the Chamber, but that has rebounded, because he has been able to come back to me this morning. Nevertheless, he has eloquently put forward the arguments for his constituents, as have the other Members.

I again emphasise that the consultation on the reform of the court system in England and Wales is genuine. Indeed, the consultation asks people to make submissions if they can suggest alternative places where the court can sit. There is this notion of the majesty of the court building as we have all known it for centuries and decades, but the 21st century has brought about enormous changes, and with those changes we must recognise that the traditional court building can also change. That is why I have specifically asked for contributions from members of the public and the legal profession if they can suggest alternative venues, such as town halls or other civic buildings, where we might not need to sit for five days a week, but where we could sit simply for a day or two.

I accept the Minister’s point; we all support the overall principle of trying to achieve efficiency savings in public services and so on, but does he appreciate that if there is no alternative, it is about having a minimum level of access to justice and the concern that we might be going beyond that? If that is the case, we should accept that we may simply have to preserve the current building, for example in Lowestoft.

I hear loud and clear what my hon. Friend says, but I will come on to what access really means in the 21st century shortly, if he bears with me. I make clear that any proposals from the consultation will be seriously considered by me and my officials. I take on board the figures that have been mentioned for the number of courts in Suffolk and the surrounding areas and the concerns expressed on the physical building being in Suffolk.

I also take on board what my hon. Friends say on travel times, but I turn to what precisely “access to justice” means. Access to justice in 21st-century Britain is different from what it has meant in centuries and decades before. Before, it meant proximity—the ability to go physically to a court, with all the majesty that goes with it—but the world has changed. People now work online. They do things from the comfort of their sitting room. People can now sit on a Saturday evening in the comfort of their armchair and, by use of their mobile phone, go online and plead guilty to low-level offences in a magistrates court, such as low-level traffic offences or the avoidance of payment of a TV licence. Likewise, people will be able, by use of their mobile phones, to pay any fines that may be imposed.

In like manner, access to justice can mean that victims and witnesses, particularly those who are vulnerable, do not have to go to a court and experience all the stress that goes with that. They can go to a room in their locality and, through video conferencing, access a court located elsewhere. Solicitors and barristers no longer have to go to court and hang around for two or three hours to have a five or 10-minute hearing before a judge. They can arrange a telephone conference. Lawyers on both sides of the case can sit in the comfort of their offices and a judge can sit in the comfort of his chambers, and at a given time the three of them can teleconference. That is happening. That is access to justice without moving, from people’s homes and offices.

I am coming to modern technology. I appreciate the difficulties of broadband. I appreciate the IT teething problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned. The Ministry of Justice is spending £130 million to ensure that the Courts and Tribunals Service will have an efficient communications system, fit for the 21st century. Of course there will be problems. Nothing will ever be perfect, but that is not to say that when we encounter a problem, we step back. Judiciaries and legal systems across the rest of the world are moving on. If Britain is to stay as a global legal player, we must move and recognise the way that access to justice, technology and the legal process now operate. We are working on the IT problems.

My hon. Friend spoke of his concern that the trials were being carried out only in metropolitan areas and said that that reflected badly on the service that people get in rural areas. Let me be absolutely clear: the service that people receive throughout England and Wales will be uniform. The pilots are carried out in metropolitan areas to ensure that the technology is tested against a whole range of cases, and that is more available in metropolitan areas than in rural areas, where volumes tend to be lower.

In the limited time remaining, which is about 90 seconds, I hope I can sum up by saying that the consultation is genuine. I welcome alternative proposals, whether they are on the siting of courts, the use of video conferencing or other measures that we may not even have thought of. I reassure my hon. Friend that this is a genuine consultation. I have taken on board all that he and my other hon. Friends have said, and I again commend him for having taken the trouble to secure this debate. I hope that I have given him some comfort that I will reflect carefully on all that he and my hon. Friends have to say.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Sgt Alexander Blackman (Marine A)

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the case of Sgt Alexander Blackman (Marine A).

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is the first time, Mr Pritchard. Before I start, I welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for Wells (James Heappey), and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), along with our colleague, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I thank them for coming to this debate. I also welcome Sergeant Blackman’s family, friends and relations, and the four members of the Royal Marines who are also here to listen.

We shall be debating an incident that took place thousands of miles away in one of the most hostile environments on earth; in fact, it is so hostile that 454 of our finest servicemen and woman have been killed there, and thousands more wounded. Lance Corporal Cassidy Little is one of those wounded men. He served with Sergeant Blackman during the fateful tour and is present today to support the debate. On behalf of us all, I thank him and his colleagues for their bravery, courage and devotion.

In Afghanistan, the enemy were clever, motivated, difficult to identify, ruthless and cruel. Torture and death faced those who fell into their hands. It was into this hellhole that Alexander Blackman and his fellow Royal Marines from 42 Commando were pitched in 2011. Sergeant Blackman was a 15-year veteran of six operational tours: one in Northern Ireland and three in Iraq, and he was on his second in Afghanistan. There is nothing that this former Royal Marine has not seen. In each tour he had served his country and his corps with great distinction and courage. He was that most valued member of the Royal Marines, the elite’s elite—a senior non-commissioned officer—and he had been recommended for promotion, but then came his last tour in Helmand province, the toughest of his military career.

Sergeant Blackman was posted to the remote command post Omar, with 15 younger Royal Marines under his command. They lived for more than six months in a small mud enclosure, in appalling conditions of physical discomfort. Daily, they patrolled on foot for up to 10 hours in a large hostile area where the Taliban were most active. IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, the roadside landmines favoured by the Taliban, were a constant threat, to the extent that the squad seldom used their vulnerable Jackal vehicle, preferring to patrol on foot instead. They were aware that hundreds of their comrades had already been killed or maimed by IEDs. The psychological impact was devastating. Firefights with the Taliban were common. So, too, were deaths and life-threatening injuries. Overall, 42 Commando lost seven men, and a further 45 were injured, many of them very seriously indeed.

On 28 May 2011, several Marines from Sergeant Blackman’s troop were tasked with establishing a new base in an area known as the badlands. During the operation, Corporal Little was caught in the same blast that killed Sergeant Blackman’s troop commander, Lieutenant Ollie Augustin, and Marine Sam Alexander, who had won a Military Cross on a previous tour. The blast also badly wounded Lance Corporal JJ Chalmers. Later that day, the Royal Marines discovered body parts hanging mockingly in a tree. We can all imagine the effect of such an incident on hard-pressed, very young troops.

While holding it together in such atrocious conditions, Sergeant Blackman’s frequent complaints to headquarters about the impossibility of performing his assigned tasks with such a small number of men for a period far longer than the recommended tour of duty went unanswered. He had one sole visit from his commanding officer, which shows how stretched 42 Commando was. For month after month, the huge weight of responsibility bore down on him as he tried to maintain morale, but a combination of factors were taking their toll.

I welcome my gallant colleague to the debate. He did have two weeks for R and R.

Those factors taking their toll included: the inadequacy of the accommodation, equipment and supplies; Sergeant Blackman’s inability to sleep; the almost total lack of supervision; the general isolation; the recent death of his father; the ever-present fear of death or injury; exhaustion; and the strain of keeping the young men under his command alive, in itself an awesome responsibility.

On 15 September 2011, towards the end of their fraught tour, Sergeant Blackman and his patrol were directed to an insurgent who had been fatally wounded by gunfire from an Apache helicopter. Horribly exposed in a known hotspot for enemy activity, they knew that other insurgents were in the area. They dragged the fatally wounded man to cover. That Sergeant Blackman then shot him is beyond doubt: the incident was filmed by a head camera worn by one of the Marines on patrol. I have seen all the footage. What he did was unequivocal. He appeared calm and matter of fact—points made by Judge Advocate General Blackett in sentencing. However, no camera on earth can capture all the circumstances leading to that one momentary loss of control, or what was going on in Sergeant Blackman’s mind at the time.

Except for Corporal Little and his colleagues, none of us here has endured anything remotely approaching what those Royal Marines experienced, and, God willing, we never will. Although both the court martial and the Court of Appeal said that they took into account mitigating circumstances with regard to the sentence, Jonathan Goldberg, QC, who now heads the defence team and is here today, believes that a number of significant mistakes were made. The court was never given the chance to consider the lesser verdict of manslaughter by reason of loss of control owing to the appalling stresses to which Sergeant Blackman was subjected for months on end.

Mr Goldberg advises that, by law, the judge advocate general had a duty to direct the jury on all verdicts reasonably open to them, regardless of whether the prosecution or defence chose to raise them. The verdicts included the ability for a jury to return a verdict of not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. Possible routes to such a manslaughter verdict included: temporary loss of control after months of cumulative stress; diminished responsibility owing to battlefield fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder; and finally, by reason of an unlawful act, in that Sergeant Blackman admitted desecrating a dead body.

Inexplicably, none of the above possible lesser verdicts were ever raised, either at the court martial or on appeal. The judge advocate general failed to direct the jury panel on those available lesser alternatives, instead imposing the mandatory life sentence for murder, resulting in a good man serving a minimum of eight years in jail without being allowed to seek parole.

On the other hand, a manslaughter verdict on these extraordinary facts could reasonably have resulted in three years in prison at worst and a suspended sentence at best. Sergeant Blackman insists that he was never advised by his then defence team that a manslaughter verdict was even a possibility. Indeed, he knew nothing of the manslaughter option until recently, when his new defence took over. Almost unbelievably in a murder case of such complexity, Sergeant Blackman was never offered a psychiatric assessment prior to his conviction. Moreover, it is bizarre that the Judge Advocate General’s said this in his sentencing remarks after conviction:

“We accept that you were affected by the constant pressure, ever present danger and fear of death or serious injury. This was enhanced by the reduction of available men in your command post so that you had to undertake more patrols yourself and place yourself and your men in danger more often. We also accept the psychiatric evidence presented today that when you killed the insurgent it was likely that you were suffering to some degree from combat stress disorder.”

The psychiatric report he referring to was presented before sentencing and not conviction. In other words, the panel did not know about the report when they found Sergeant Blackman guilty. Why not? What was the defence team up to?

Further evidence that was never heard at Sergeant Blackman’s court martial comes in the form of a 50-odd page document—the Telemeter report. Written by Brigadier Huntley, a few pages of the executive summary were released only this morning, despite frequent requests for the whole report to be published. Apart from criticising Sergeant Blackman, it confirms that there were concerns that the culture within 42 Commando

“was perceived by many…to be overly aggressive.”

The report also states:

“A number of those involved in this incident both directly and indirectly, felt that the Chain of Command had failed to provide them with adequate support before, during and after the court martial.”

As a former commanding officer, I find it extraordinary that this group of Royal Marines was left in the same position, obviously one of huge danger, for the whole six months. Was the rotation of the men in that position not considered?

That is a good question, and one that my hon. Friend can perhaps ask afterwards of the Royal Marines who were on that tour. As I understand it, they were covering a vast area of land, they were under-resourced and undermanned, and rotation was not possible.

I do not know. It is perhaps something that the report—the 50 or so pages that we have not seen—may hint at. We call for the report to be published now, so that the new defence team can use it to build up its case. Ultimately, we will have to wait until, as we hope, the Criminal Cases Review Commission takes up the case and demands the release of the report, or the bits of it that we have not seen.

On the psychiatric report, I believe that the sergeant was in hospital for a week, yet no reports were submitted about how he was, what the conclusions were and what his state was when he got home. Will my hon. Friend expand on that a little further? He mentioned it just now, but I think there is a bit more to say.

I am unable to expand on that particular point other than to say what I have already said, which is that the psychiatric report was there for sentencing, but not for conviction. That is what I know. He did spend some time in hospital, but I cannot expand on that particular period.

Rather than mention this in my remarks later on, it is perhaps relevant to do so now. I was the adjutant of 2 Rifles in Sangin during Operation Herrick X in 2009, and there was a well-established mechanism of TRiM—trauma instant management—which is the peer-to-peer post-traumatic stress management of people after each traumatic experience. Those records should exist within Sergeant Blackman’s unit. If that process had been done properly, it should have been identified well before he reached his breaking point that he was very much at risk. Those records should exist. If they have not come to light, it is a gross injustice.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I cannot expand on that too much now, but we are aware that Colonel Oliver Lee, Royal Marines, had written a report identifying seven criteria that commanding officers should look out for. I also believe that, as far as Colonel Lee was concerned, Sergeant Blackman ticked every box.

From reading what we have of the executive summary of the Telemeter report—what we have got of it—there is strong reason to believe that the full report is critical of the overall command structure, including the lack of supervision over Sergeant Blackman and his men, which would certainly support Sergeant Blackman’s claims. A sergeant in the Royal Marines is probably—I will get myself into trouble here—superior to, shall we say, a line regiment sergeant, in the sense that they are trained to be far more independent. That was one explanation given to me as to why, in this instance, Sergeant Blackman was left out there for as long as he was—because he was a sergeant and highly respected, and so on.

However, what happened in this instance struck me, too, as extremely odd—my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) hinted at this earlier on, and I agree with him. We are both former soldiers, and it was our duty as officers to visit our men and make quite certain that they were safe and well and doing the job that they should be doing, because that was our task. If we did not do that, things began to unravel. Maybe that was one of the reasons why things unravelled in this particular instance.

Going back to the report—50 pages of which, as I have said, still remain unseen—it is no surprise that the Daily Mail and Frederick Forsyth thunder about a cover-up and attempts to make Sergeant Blackman a scapegoat for a much wider failure of high command. Would the full report have given Sergeant Blackman a better chance in court had it been written and published openly shortly after the events, rather than long after his conviction? Vice-Admiral Jones has reportedly asked both serving and former officers not to comment if the press start asking questions.

Also of great concern is the resignation of Colonel Lee. As I understand it, he was a high-flier who resigned his commission in disgust over how Sergeant Blackman was treated and the refusal to call him in evidence at the court martial. Colonel Lee became Sergeant Blackman’s commanding officer just six days before the incident, although they never met.

Again, I am regrettably not a trained QC or lawyer—I wish I were. All I understand is that he was not, which can be further explored by the QC, who is actually in the room here today.

When he resigned, Colonel Lee wrote the following, which is one of the most damning indictments that I have found in the 10 or 11 months that I have been involved in this sad case:

“Sgt Blackman’s investigation, court martial and sentencing authority remain unaware to this day of the wider context within which he was being commanded when he acted as he did.”

He went on:

“My attempts to bring proper transparency to this process were denied by the chain of command. Sgt Blackman was therefore sentenced by an authority blind to facts that offered serious mitigation…The cause of this is a failure of moral courage by the chain of command.”

That is a devastating criticism and hardly a ringing endorsement of military justice. Colonel Lee’s evidence will be important if the case is referred to the appeal court by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which we trust it will be. It must be.

Sergeant Blackman’s conviction in 2013 left a deep impression on me as a former soldier. I visited him in Lincoln prison in December 2014—had I not, I would have gone to my grave with this nagging whatever you like to call it on my conscience and preying on my mind. There I met an intelligent, proud and professional soldier, alongside whom I would have been proud to serve. Several prison guards told me as I left that Sergeant Blackman’s incarceration was hard to comprehend. “He shouldn’t be here”, they said.

As for Sergeant Blackman, understandably he feels betrayed—a scapegoat, hung out to dry by the military and political establishments. He was fighting a war at our behest and on our behalf. He believes that his small patrol was given an impossible mission with little support or command structure. They were undermanned and overstretched, the impossible was demanded and a decent man was pushed beyond endurance. In his words, it was a

“lack of self-control, momentary lapse in…judgement.”

The aim of today’s debate is to highlight a miscarriage of justice. The debate will send an important message to those charged with administering justice to Sergeant Blackman and it mirrors the public outcry. Sergeant Blackman is the first British serviceman to be tried for murder by a court martial since the second world war, and I hope he is the last. War is a dirty, filthy, horrible, frightening business and every man— even the very best —has his breaking point.

I am indebted to the highly respected author Frederick Forsyth for his immense help and his interest in the case; to Jonathan Goldberg QC and his team, who are now representing Sergeant Blackman and are in the Public Gallery today, as I said; to the Daily Mail—which I do not often praise—for running such a well-researched campaign and for going to such incredible lengths to support Sergeant Blackman and his case; to Sir Tim Rice and Major General Johnny Holmes, both highly distinguished in their own fields, who have volunteered as directors of a fund-raising effort; and of course to the public for their support and their donations, which have now reached about £120,000 in five days. In addition, there have been thousands of letters; the Daily Mail is having to employ a team to open them.

I conclude with two observations: one concerns the court-martial panel and the other is entirely my own. When Sergeant Blackman was sentenced for murder—murder—dismissed from the Royal Marines and ordered to march out of the court, he gave his final salute in uniform. The panel, to a man, returned his salute—an act that is, as far as I know, unprecedented, especially given that they had just condemned him for murder. To me, that act speaks eloquently of their deep feelings of ambiguity.

I end finally with my own thoughts, having been involved with the case for nearly a year. Sergeant Blackman was and is no cold-blooded killer. He was just a man pushed to the very edge and sent to do a filthy job with his hands tied behind his back, and he is now no threat at all to anyone. He is paying a terrible price for a lapse of judgment. He is a man who deserves another hearing and should be allowed to go home to his wife.

It is an honour and a privilege to take part in this vital debate. I commend the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for giving us all the chance to participate and to hear at first hand his presentation in Westminster Hall today. I spoke to him last week to get some ideas and I asked whether the story would appear in the Daily Mail. He said, “I am not sure about that”—he knew of course, but he was preparing for the story to break.

This debate, arguably more than any other, is of the utmost importance as it comes at a time when a man’s fight for justice hangs in the balance. I am in the Chamber to participate both as the Member of Parliament for Strangford and as someone who is honoured to have served Queen and country in my time: as a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment and a Territorial Army soldier in the Royal Artillery for some 14 and a half years. I am here along with many other hon. and gallant Members.

Perhaps the case strikes such a chord with me because of my background, although it might simply be because justice was not done. That would explain why the case has caused such a public outcry, with more than 100,000 people calling for Sergeant Blackman’s conviction to be quashed. We in Britain pride ourselves on ensuring that justice prevails, but in this case I am afraid that it has not been done.

For the first time in history, a British serviceman has been convicted of murder. Given the injustices surrounding the court case, I am not surprised that the Daily Mail dubbed Sergeant Blackman a “political scapegoat”—well done to the Daily Mail for highlighting the case and giving us the chance to find out more about the background. What I find most shocking is that vital evidence was withheld and that a colonel who was blocked from telling the truth to the court martial was so disgusted that he resigned his commission.

Forgive me for a rather long quote, but it is important that it goes on the record. It needs to be heard in its entirety, because it is undoubtedly one of the most damning remarks made about the case. On his resignation, Colonel Lee said:

“Sgt Blackman’s investigation, court martial and sentencing authority remain unaware to this day of the wider context within which he was being commanded when he acted as he did.

My attempts to bring proper transparency to this process were denied by the chain of command. Sgt Blackman was therefore sentenced by an authority blind to facts that offered serious mitigation on his behalf”—

that is the thrust of the contribution of the hon. Member for South Dorset.

“The cause of this is a failure of moral courage by the chain of command.”

That is the quotation.

Given the evidence that has come to light and the failure to provide original evidence that might have resulted in a lesser charge of manslaughter, which was “deliberately withheld”, I see no reason why the case cannot be reviewed by the courts-martial appeal court. What has happened simply would not happen in any other case, particularly not in the British justice system that we regard so highly. For a British serviceman and acting colour sergeant in the Royal Marines, deemed to be a man of “impeccable moral courage”, to have been treated in such a way and to have been served with such injustice is downright wrong and completely and utterly unacceptable.

Sergeant Blackman was a man prepared to lay down his life for his country, who saw two of his comrades blown up, saw another comrade tortured and murdered, and saw another’s severed limbs hung from a tree by the Taliban. That was the daily hell that Sergeant Blackman faced. He had to keep it together for the men he led, just as now he keeps it together for the sake of his wife. He did all that in the face of post-traumatic stress disorder, another factor that might have significantly impaired his judgment on that fateful day. Now, this man has been let down by the country he fought so courageously for. I understand that the members of the panel that decided Sergeant Blackman’s fate were not informed of facts that could have helped to reduce his sentence.

This whole situation has come about because of a great failing in the justice system and in the court martial, as well as the failings of those in command who left Sergeant Blackman’s troop isolated, without enough manpower, under-resourced and sustaining a daily onslaught from the Taliban. Those failings were not Sergeant Blackman’s fault, but he had to deal with the situation regardless. It is no wonder that we have found out that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly as he was the one who had to lead a troop of men. He has said—I quote from the Library information pack:

“I had been sent to a brutal battlefield to fight for my country in an unpopular war.”

Given where he was and what he was doing, he was very clearly under physical and emotional pressure. He had no choice but to keep it together as best he could.

It is important to note that the man killed was one of two Taliban fighters sneaking up on a British outpost called Taalanda. Those two men had only one purpose: to kill the British troops at the outpost. An Apache crew was assembled and 139 rounds were fired from a 30 mm cannon; unsurprisingly, the crew did not think it possible that anyone had survived. Upon finding the casualty, it was noted that he had been fatally wounded and was unconscious, although at that point he had not passed away.

Sergeant Blackman knows that what he did was wrong. He claims that the remark he made about the Geneva Convention was in relation to the mistreatment of the corpse, something he knows he should not have done. However, the pressures that he was facing, frequently caused by the poor judgment of senior command, and the daily bloodshed that he witnessed while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder are valid reasons why, in a moment’s lack of judgment, something like that can occur. It saddens me that someone as highly thought of and well-respected as Sergeant Blackman, can, because of one split-second mistake, be dismissed and treated with such disdain and disrespect.

I fully support the e-petition, with over 100,000 signatures, calling for Sergeant Blackman’s conviction to be quashed. When I read about Big Al, as he was known to friends and family, it saddened me to learn that the 6 foot 3 inch giant had grown gaunt during his time in prison—it has obviously had an effect. It is little wonder, particularly as I am sure that Sergeant Blackman never in a million years expected to be serving a life sentence after serving his country with determination, bravery and dedication. His case needs to be referred urgently to the court martial appeals court, so that this shameful injustice can be fully investigated—this time, with all the available evidence and statements.

I reiterate the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and commend my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this debate and on all the research he has done for his eloquent speech.

I am speaking today in support of my constituent Claire Warner, who is the wife of Sergeant Alexander Blackman—Al, as he is known to her—and in support of her parents. Claire is here today. She lives in the heart of the constituency of Taunton Deane, for which I have the great privilege of being MP. Claire and her family have been through unimaginable anguish and strain over the last two years since all this happened. They are deeply private people who have kept themselves very much to themselves, even in the heart of Taunton Deane. But now it is time to speak out, and so they are; that is why we are here today. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset is speaking out, as well—even the Daily Mail is—so I am now going to do so and add the weight of my argument to the case.

Taunton is a commando town. There is enormous public support for our brave and dedicated marines there. Locally, one senses a profound feeling that those defending our peace, protecting our world from evil and giving devoted service to their country must themselves be treated with the fairness and understanding that are due to them. That must always happen within the framework of the law.

We have heard much today about new evidence coming to light, allegedly suggesting that there has been a miscarriage of justice in Sergeant Blackman’s case—indeed, that he has been made something of a scapegoat. I therefore support the call for a review of the case, including that new evidence. That review should also consider the three routes to manslaughter, the stress that Sergeant Blackman was under and all available psychological reports.

I have been following the eloquent speeches that have been made about this very concerning case. I am here to represent Dr Melody Blackman, my constituent in Eastleigh and the younger sister of Al. She exactly echoes my hon. Friend’s points about the need for a fair hearing of all the evidence, to make sure that we get the right decision and that any and all decisions made are based on a fair hearing and a fair trial. We expect that fairness in every walk of life.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. That comes over so clearly from everyone I speak to, from the local support we have had, and from all the people writing to the Daily Mail. I think the Mail has about 2,500 letters, as well as money for the legal case, and all of the thousands of people who have contacted it have spoken up for fairness, as we are doing today.

I offer a small note of caution. We must take care when criticising our court martial system, as it is there for a reason. However, having spoken to a whole range of sources, in this brief speech I call for the case to be reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, with all that that entails, including, of course, the power to send the case back to the Court of Appeal.

Let us give this case the breath of fresh air it deserves, and give Sergeant Blackman a fair hearing. Ultimately, let us hope that we can give Claire her husband back at home.

I did not intend to speak today—I am here on behalf of constituents who asked me to attend—but, listening to the debate, it has struck me that there is something relevant that needs to be raised, namely how, as a public, we regard our armed forces, who are doing jobs that, to be blunt, none of us who have not been there would even want to imagine.

Miscarriages of justice can take place in all walks of life, whether civilian or military. It is right not to want to undermine a court martial. However, we would readily recognise that in a civilian court the process of justice is not always followed as it should be, so I do not see that it undermines the court martial process to say that a case should be looked at again.

When I joined the Royal Navy as an engineering officer, one thing I was convinced of was that I could not be a Royal Marine. It is a unique service—[Interruption.] It was certainly not one that appealed to me. The training that takes place and the jobs that marines are asked to do are of a degree of extremity beyond that which is asked of the regular forces. The problem in this case is that the courts have overlooked—I pay tribute to the Daily Mail for bringing this to public attention—the extreme pressures that these brave men are under when we, as politicians, order them to go and do what we have decided, on our whim.

I have said in the House before that war is the failure of politicians. It is nothing else. Every war in history, ultimately, was started by a politician, whether they were elected or not. We need to rebuild respect for those who stand up for what we believe in, for justice and security, and for the love of their country. It worries me that, in this building today, mainstream politicians are saying that terrorist organisations had a point and that we should somehow be critical of the armed forces that stood up to them.

Yes, mistakes can be made in courts of law, and it is right to review that, but let the message go out clearly that, along with the British people and the newspapers of this country, Members of this Parliament—on the whole—wholeheartedly recognise the dedication, honesty, bravery and selflessness shown day in, day out, even away from the combat field, by the brave people who stand up and do the job we send them to do.

My congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing the debate and on all the work he has done on this important issue. I speak as a former soldier, but also as the Member of Parliament for Sergeant Blackman’s parents-in-law, who sought my support when I was a candidate in the election and who continue to seek it.

The first thing I want to put on record is an apology for not speaking publicly on this matter before. In offering that apology, and in explaining why I feel ashamed at not having spoken out properly, I hope to shed some light on why so many in the military—those currently serving and those recently retired, particularly those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan—will feel so reluctant to speak out on this case.

We all go through the same pre-deployment training; we all get taught the rules of engagement. We all know how strong we would want to be when we face danger day in, day out over a six-month tour. We would all like to believe that we have in ourselves the self-control and restraint to remember every letter of that pre-deployment training when we face horrendous, extraordinary situations.

The reason so many of us have come home having acted like that is that we were surrounded by a chain of command and a regiment, whose members were watching our backs on the battlefield—continuing to fire as we moved forward, and continuing to fire as we replaced the magazine on our rifle. They were also watching our backs mentally and psychologically so that, when we got back from a patrol—after an explosion or after a firefight—we were talking to one another, with each of us understanding the pressures the other was under.

The reality is that there is a loneliness in command. From everything I have read, I have no doubt Sergeant Blackman was an extraordinary junior commander who had the welfare of his troops completely at heart. I know from the fact that some of his men are here today—standing up for him silently—that they would have followed him to the ends of the earth.

Again, I am speaking as an ex-commanding officer, albeit not in the Royal Marine commandos, or the Guards, but if this incident had not happened, this sergeant, in command of a small group—15 men—in such a situation for such a long period, would definitely be on the list for a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.

I thank my hon. Friend.

The reality is that when someone is in a junior command position in an isolated patrol base, there is a responsibility on them to be unbreakable. They do not stint; they do not even take half a step backwards. They walk forwards because that is the only thing their men will follow.

To give junior commanders confidence and strength, and to watch out for their welfare, it is incumbent on those in the chain of command to get around, to visit, to watch, to take people to one side to see how they are and, if they do need a few days out of the line, to invent a reason to get them back down to Camp Bastion so that they can recuperate and get back to the line rejuvenated and with the moral strength they need to lead.

In Sangin, in 2009, my battlegroup was on the very front line—we were taking the highest casualties that had been taken in Afghanistan up until that point. However, I remember only too well that, when there was an incident in an isolated patrol base, the commanding officer and the regimental sergeant-major would be on the first available helicopter up there; if they could not get a helicopter, they would be on the back of the first available patrol. They had a responsibility to get to those patrol bases, not because they wanted to be seen by the riflemen, but because they knew that if the platoon commander and the platoon sergeant were doing everything they had been trained to do, they would be looking out for their soldiers, but nobody in that patrol base would be looking out for them.

And it went on. When an event shook our entire battlegroup, the brigade commander appeared on the first available helicopter from Lashkar Gah. The reason we were able to come back knowing that we had done right and that we had not once crossed the line was that there were people all the way up the chain of the command watching out for us to make sure that we remained strong and resupplied, but also that we were being looked after.

There is a lack of understanding and empathy about what we ask our troops to do, and there are people in this room who have experienced that in the raw. The reality is that operations in Afghanistan over the last five, six or seven years have not been about conventional firefights between two uniformed enemies who stand and shoot at each until one side gives up. This is about a callous, cowardly enemy who uses the cover of night to lay improvised explosive devices with no metal content whatever so that our metal detectors cannot find them. We then ask young men—18-year-olds—and their junior commanders, such as Sergeant Blackman, to step out into the dark of the Helmand night and to walk until somebody has their legs blown off.

That situation is truly extraordinary, yet when this man’s will was broken, when he had taken too much and when his chain of command had let him down, leaving him in the line to continue leading patrols when he had clearly seen too much, we allow him to come home, and we judge those extraordinary circumstances—the extraordinary danger he faced in that extraordinary place—in an ordinary court, with ordinary law, where people are intent on viewing what happened in an entirely ordinary way.

Helmand was a murderous place—a place where the enemy never had the courage to be seen. It was down to the Apaches, with their thermal imaging, to take out those IED crews overnight, because infantry soldiers would never see them by day. They were happy to sit in their compounds and to wait for the explosion, taking satisfaction from another life ruined. They would lay IEDs about 3 feet from the one they thought would get the first casualty. Why would they do that? Because they would then get the front two people on the stretcher party taking the first casualty to the helicopter landing site to get him away to Bastion. This is an enemy who did not play by the rules. This is an enemy that tried your physical and mental strength every single day.

Sergeant Blackman snapped—I believe that is what happened—because he was not looked after by his chain of command. When we brought him home, we tried him in an ordinary court, and we failed to recognise that that extraordinary man deserved the benefit of having those extraordinary circumstances taken into account.

I have huge respect for my hon. Friend, who has experienced things I have never experienced. He has said twice that this was an ordinary court, where the case was tried in an ordinary way, but it was not. This man was tried by a military court. As I understand it, it did not even reach a unanimous verdict. If it had been an ordinary court, where the case was tried in an ordinary way by twelve good men and true, I do not believe this man would ever have been found guilty. It was not an ordinary court; it was a rigged court.

I had concluded, but it is quite right that I put on record that I was referring to an ordinary court martial.

But, none the less, an ordinary process. I just think that there is a lack of awareness of the extraordinary pressures this man was under. If the case goes to the Court of Appeal, or if, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) suggested, it is allowed to be judged by 12 members of the public, an entirely different conclusion will be reached. The problem is that Sergeant Blackman has already been in prison. We have already let him down, and that is unforgiveable.

I have been asked a few times for my views on the case, for a variety of reasons, and I have not offered them, but as it is yet again in Parliament and I am now, fortunately, a Member, I will use the opportunity to set out my view.

To give some context, I never achieved anything particularly great in the Army, but I have a unique viewpoint. I served three tours from the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict. I served in the chaos that was 2006, when we first went there; and at the strategic level in 2008 and 2009, with a unit that was involved in the strategic man-hunting outside of Task Force Helmand. I then served in 2010 in exactly the same area where the individual we are talking about served. At the end of that tour, my CO told me I was probably the most combat-experienced terminal controller in the Army at the time; so I have an intimate understanding of the issues at stake in the case.

I served in the exact same area as Marine A just 12 months before him, during a final tour of duty in southern Afghanistan. The area was renowned as one of the most contested in Helmand. In January 2010, the Americans had completed a huge operation in Marjeh to the south, which was complemented by a British effort called Operation Panther’s Claw to squeeze the heavily enemy-occupied areas around Nad-e Ali and the district centre in that area. All operations have unintended consequences, and the main one on this occasion was that the heavily armed and well organised Taliban commanders—what we would call tier 1 and tier 2 Taliban commanders—had been squeezed into an area just north of Nad-e Ali just south of the main Nahr-e Bughra canal; so they were fixed geographically in that area. The area is known on the map as 31 west; to the rest of us it became known as the jungle.

The area that I and subsequently Marine A served in was so demanding that, half way through that last tour, the holding ground unit that I was supporting was replaced by the theatre reserve battalion. My small fire support team, with one already dead, was asked to stay and be the continuity—the corporate knowledge, if you like—for that area of operations. The truth is that at that time, and no doubt a year later when Marine A was there—I shall call him that throughout my speech, because I do not believe that he should have been publicly named—the area was the darkest place in Helmand. That title switched areas as the campaign wore on. At times it belonged to Sangin, at others to Musa Qala. As I have said, I served in multiple areas on multiple tours, with different forces from strategic down to tactical level, and I have no doubt that it was the most demanding place I served in.

I found life a challenge when I came home from that tour. As ever, I made sure I could look my wife and daughter in the eye. No one died who did not need to die; but it was perhaps the most formative experience of my life. I suspect that for Marine A the experience was broadly similar. I would at this stage like to make an important point clear. I am no apologist for Marine A. I have been in his position, as have many others, but we have not broken the law and stepped over the abyss as he did. I also do not think it is for politicians to interfere with the judicial process, and I respect the opinion that has been given; but there are some serious problems with the case that I am deeply uncomfortable with, and I feel I have a duty to speak out about them.

One of my driving forces for coming into Parliament was how we look after our people within the military whom we ask and expect to keep us safe—although often we do not want to know how they do it. There is no doubt that the past 10 years have had a chronic effect on a generation of young men and women. There is also no doubt of the desensitising process that occurs when one is engaged with the enemy on a daily basis. It is how people cope and get by—morphing from human to animal and back again, as they learn to fight, live and survive like an animal in the backstreets of “the jungle”. Taking another man’s life is a serious and sobering engagement; extreme violence is to be expected, but as humans we adapt and cope, and as British soldiers we do what needs to be done to survive and win.

None of that trumps professionalism in the conduct of one’s duty. I give no traction to the views of those who say, “Marine A did what any one of us would have done,” or even, “He only did what they would do to him, given the opportunity.” I am afraid they entirely miss the point and do not help his case. However, we must never take the collective faults of a system or policy generated by the demands placed on our men, and hang them around the neck of one individual, as has happened in this case. During the maturing process of the Afghanistan campaign, there were some epic failures in the chain of command. “Courageous restraint” was a great concept, which most of us employed anyway before they gave it a fancy name; but that did not stop the commander of British forces in 2010 suggesting that summer that we start giving state awards for those who showed “courageous restraint”. I think the Americans are still laughing at us now.

A strange culture developed around the conflict at that time. Commanders wanted to “do” Afghanistan—to get it on their annual reports. As ever, most new officers in theatre would start trying to outdo their predecessors. We started to be asked to follow up direct action strikes from the air, which meant conducting a ground patrol to check for collateral damage on a target just after it was hit, which is insanity, considering where those targets are in enemy territory, and the IED risk—notwithstanding the fact that the effects of strikes are pretty obvious straightaway. The effect of that on our blokes was that every single step they took and every single round they fired was raked over time and again, under microscopic scrutiny with potential strategic effects. The pressure that that placed on men engaged in mortal combat was never correctly assessed or accounted for by the chain of command, or in the court case of Marine A. That pressure has never been higher in the history of armed conflict. There is a reason why Marine A is the first man to be convicted for the crime in question since the second world war. The effects of the strategic corporal, as it became known, have never been correctly assessed, and due care and attention have not been paid to the problem.

Into that arena stepped a deeply scarred man, of whom we had asked more and more as a nation, without respite. He had conducted multiple combat tours, yet those who thought they knew better down the other end of the radio did not heed his assessments of the specific threat to his patrol base in his area of operations. He had already lost his officer; he had seen body parts displayed and had been involved in the hunt for Highlander McLaren, which ended in such bad circumstances that to this day they rightly remain unreported.

My point is that someone should have seen what was coming. Marine A made a mistake and he got caught, and it would be naive to suggest that he should not be punished; but the mitigating circumstances in this case are great. He killed a mortally injured enemy combatant—of that there is no doubt; but does he deserve to be serving an eight-year prison sentence for murder? That is something I am deeply uncomfortable with. To my mind, the situation represents a serious and unfortunately characteristic failure in the chain of command to protect the man at all costs and assume a collective responsibility for a duty of care.

The trauma risk management procedure instigated to try to ameliorate the onslaught of disturbing experiences was a good idea but, again, tokenism prevailed. It was appallingly implemented and administered. I had a conversation only three weeks ago with someone at the top of the Ministry of Defence about how the TRiM procedure is being implemented, and all I can say is that it is delusional, the way assessment is done. We need to get that right. We have no one prepared to take responsibility for a care pathway for our servicemen and women once they leave, and I am determined to implement that.

My hon. Friend’s comments are very powerful. I think most Members of Parliament would be surprised at how many of their constituents are suffering from PTSD to this day.

As to the PTSD system, there is a chronic effect on a generation that we have asked to do our bidding in conflicts miles away. There is often a time lag before the effects kick in, but there still seems to be an idea of putting it aside, and that is simply not good enough. We have to look after our blokes better.

If a civilian commits murder they are entitled to a psychiatric assessment as part of the trial process. Why on earth was that not done in Marine A’s case? That man broke the law. He knew it, and he got caught; but someone must have seen it coming, and there was the point of failure. In this country, we do not look after our blokes well enough, and he is yet another example. We are getting better; the first thing the Prime Minister and Chancellor think of when more LIBOR fines come through is veterans charities. We now have a unique opportunity to get veterans’ care right. The sector needs clearing up, but that is for another day.

We have a justice system that is one of the fairest and most stringent in the world, and I have little doubt that Marine A’s conviction will not stand by the end of this Parliament. He has killed a man when he should not have done, in the heat, intensity, fear and sweat of a modern counter-insurgency campaign; but convicted of murder and sentenced to eight years? I am not comfortable with that, and I suspect I am not in the minority. We must do right by this man. I support efforts to look again at his conviction, and am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today, Mr Pritchard, and I commend the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this important debate and the passion with which he spoke about Sergeant Blackman.

The case raises issues of serious concern and it should be carefully considered by the Government, Parliament and parliamentarians. I want to consider some of those issues because I have great sympathy for many of the points being raised across the Chamber, although I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that it is not for parliamentarians to interfere in an individual court case. Therefore I will speak generally, if I can, about some matters that come out of this.

At the heart of the matter for me is the question of culpability. We train our servicemen and women to an extremely high standard, including on how to operate with integrity on the battlefield. Yesterday, in preparing for this debate, I spoke to a friend of mine who used to teach that course to recruits in the Royal Marines. Based on that conversation, my question is: can that training ever be foolproof? Can it ever see every contingency, given the conditions that we expect these troops to operate in and the action they get into with enemy combatants? If not, where does the appropriate level of culpability lie?

When soldiers are ordered to go out on patrol in highly dangerous areas or to risk their lives defending positions, the stress and psychological toll must be draining. Over a sustained period, those factors must surely affect performance and judgement. The psychological toll must be ever greater on those with responsibility for others—those in command on the ground.

To what extent did the pressures on the sergeant have an adverse effect on his mental state when he made the mistake that he made? I am no expert, and I am not privy to every detail of the case—I have not seen the full coverage, as the hon. Gentleman has—but I would like to know that that was taken fully into account by the court martial; there are questions about whether it was.

I hope that the Minister can indicate how we monitor the psychological toll being taken on our servicemen when they are put in these positions. His comments would be welcome; if we are to have confidence in military justice and that our servicemen are treated fairly, it is important that that is taken into account. As has been said by a number of hon. Members, there are questions about the issue.

How do we determine that a serviceman or woman is psychologically fit to be on the battlefield in the first place, and where does responsibility lie when things go wrong? I also have concerns over the accountability of command for incidents such as the one involving the sergeant, particularly in light of the comments, alluded to by others, of Colonel Oliver Lee, which have been widely reported. Although a couple of hon. Members have mentioned them, I will repeat Colonel Lee’s comments because they are important:

“Sgt Blackman was therefore sentenced by an authority blind to facts that offered serious mitigation on his behalf. The cause of this is a failure of moral courage by the chain of command, the burden of which is carried by the man under command.”

For me, that is extremely concerning. I would like to hear a bit more about that, and it needs to be looked into.

I have a further concern about transparency. It seems to me that transparency is essential in any legal framework but that it does not seem to exist here. Without transparency, how can parliamentarians or the public have confidence that the system of military justice is effective and fair? Given the age in which we live, where information is exchanged and shared like at no other time in human history, we must have a transparent military legal system that we can all have confidence in. What are the facts of this case? Do we know them all—if not, why not? What matters did the court martial consider? Crucially, which ones did they not consider in this case and others?

It has been widely reported that the evidence about the context in which our soldiers were serving was not presented at the trial—the lack of equipment, troop numbers and the job being asked of them, for example. We really need to make sure that that is taken into account. It is also my understanding—this point was mentioned earlier by the hon. Gentleman—that this case is being reviewed, but that there is a reluctance to release the report to the public. In the interests of transparency, I hope that that can be done. I hope that there are no redactions so that we can judge for ourselves on the basis of full information. It is not for me to say whether such evidence would have changed the verdict in the particular case; that is a matter for others. However, I think clarification should be provided on what was considered by the court martial and what was not.

As I said at the beginning, I think there is a case for reviewing the law as regards the prosecution of such crimes. We have to look into that, and I think we have an opportunity to next year. In particular, there is the degree to which culpability rests with individual servicemen and women who are expected to act under orders in extremely difficult and dangerous theatres and under restrictions through rules of engagement.

Forgive me, but I think the law is clear. Servicemen and women have a duty and a right to kill the enemy, until that enemy comes under their control—de facto, a prisoner. Once the enemy is under control, they have a responsibility to care for that person. In this case, clearly, Marine A did wrong by killing, or assuming he was killing, someone. That is against the law of armed conflict and the Geneva convention. It is quite clear.

What seems to be wrong, having listened very carefully to my hon. Friends and colleagues explain, is that the defence did not defend properly and the judge advocate general in a court martial did not give options to the board. They gave one option: murder—sorry, Mr Pritchard, I do not mean to be making a speech. Murder was one option; manslaughter was another, and at the very least should be considered by the military authorities to sort this out. That should be done with a new legal team, which has a responsibility to go straight back to the military authorities and say, “This is wrong. Sort it, please.”

I do not necessarily disagree with that, but I did say at the beginning that I was going to try to speak generally, rather than on an individual case, if and when I could, to make my points.

In conclusion, very important points come out of this case. I have a great deal of sympathy with regard to the individual case, but I think Parliament should be considering how we deal with incidents such as this when we put our troops in harm’s way.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for bringing this debate to the House and to all the hon. Members who have contributed to it. Their contributions have been extremely moving, particularly those based on personal experience, and I do not think we can fail to accept the genuine emotion that this has brought forward and the feelings of all who have served.

I place on record, from the Opposition side of the House, our support for our troops. They operate in places and deal with situations that mere civilians can have no concept of. They face danger and make decisions, often in a split second every day, that literally have life or death consequences, and, on top of that, they agree to maintain an extraordinarily high standard of conduct in those circumstances. I would like to record my personal gratitude and admiration for the armed forces community and their service to our nation.

Sergeant Alexander Blackman risked his life for his country in one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan. He was facing an enemy with scant regard for the conventional rules of conflict and, as we have heard, his record was exemplary. Indeed, he was recommended for promotion until he made one tragic error of judgment and shot a captive prisoner. That mistake had far-reaching consequences for everyone involved, including his family, and the families of those who serve their country, and the sacrifices they make, are too often forgotten. He was, as we have heard, court-martialled and found guilty of murder in 2013. In 2014, his appeal was rejected but the judge reduced the minimum term stating that the court martial had not taken his combat stress sufficiently into account.

I obviously have no wish to jeopardise the chain of command or operational effectiveness and, as we have heard from someone who has served, it is not for politicians to interfere in internal military matters, but I have some questions and requests for the Minister.

First, I request that the Ministry of Defence publish all the information, including the review of the run-up to the killing in 2011. We need to know about the situation on the ground and the training and, crucially, we need to have the assessment of the culture and the support that was given to this soldier. That, I believe, has been promised, but I am pressing for it to be released as early as possible. It is essential, because without it there will always be unanswered questions. For the sake of transparency, as well as for the individual and his family, the documents should be available so that we can try to find the answers.

Secondly, if there is judged to be new evidence that was not presented or that was presented too late or options that were not put forward, can that be considered further by whichever means is appropriate? We owe it to everyone involved to ensure that justice has been done.

This is a difficult and emotive subject for us all. We ask a tremendous amount of our armed forces, including that they operate to an extremely high standard of values and principles in incredibly difficult and challenging circumstances. When they are found not to have lived up to that, we owe it to all to ensure that the highest standards are applied to our justice system and that, wherever possible, transparency is a watchword.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I start, of course, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this debate on an emotive case that has continued to be of concern to many people. I also congratulate, on their passionate contributions, my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), for Wells (James Heappey) and for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Stirling (Steven Paterson) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue).

Standing here now and having listened to the debate, I am remembering that it is nine years since I served in Afghanistan, in the summer of 2006. I listened to the contributions of some of my hon. Friends, but frankly my tour was quite unremarkable. It bore no significance compared with the experiences of the Royal Marines in Afghanistan, in Helmand, and I seek to make absolutely no comparison between my experiences and theirs. I am, however, very mindful, when I think of that time, of just how far away we are today in the House of Commons from Helmand all those years ago. I am very mindful of that.

In the days before this debate, I spent considerable time considering this case. I have read in detail the full internal review and have seen the headcam tapes presented at trial. As part of my wish for transparency, I arranged court permission and offered my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) the opportunity to see the full unredacted footage alongside me this morning, in my desire to understand the wider issues. I have discussed the case and appeal with a number of military officers, including both commanding officers. I share the concern of many for Mrs Blackman and am clear that the MOD must not stand in the way of a fair and just consideration of this case. I am, however, equally clear that no serviceman or woman of our armed forces is or can be above the law.

This case has been difficult for everyone connected to it. No one can see the clear pain of Mrs Blackman as she seeks to support her husband and not be deeply moved. Equally, we are all conscious that we cannot fully appreciate from the safety of the House the challenges of operations in extraordinary and dangerous circumstances, and these are extraordinary challenging circumstances, with extraordinary people doing an extraordinary job. I know that the House will join me in recognising the Royal Marines for their huge contribution in Afghanistan during many gruelling operational tours. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] We are justly proud of our soldiers, sailors and airmen—of the work they do and the way they conduct themselves. We hold our armed forces to a higher standard, and we are right to do that. Our men and women must be better than those they confront; they must set a higher standard and, even when provoked, must hold to their professional standards. Our Royal Marines fight hard, but they fight fair.

We as Members of Parliament and I as the Minister responsible for service personnel have a special duty to these people and their families. It is right that we have undertaken the review to learn the lessons from this incident, and I recognise the public interest in seeing the report in full, but I must weigh that against being fair to individuals named in the case. For that reason, I have agreed to the release of the executive summary, recommendations and letter from the Fleet Commander, with the only redactions being individuals’ telephone numbers and a relatively junior civil servant’s name. I have also withheld the bullet points that relate to an individual who has not yet been named in the media. Simply due to the shortness of time between the announcement of this debate last week and today, I have been unable to follow the full process required under the Data Protection Act, but let me make it clear that it is my intention to unredact those paragraphs as well in due course.

I have, as I said, read the full report in detail. It is a full and frank assessment and contains detailed information about our tactics and operational security. It is my view that its unredacted release into the public domain would breach our ability to conduct campaigns in the future. However, as hon. Members will have seen from the 17 recommendations released today, the Royal Navy, alongside the other services, is pursuing detailed implementation plans, many of which are already well advanced. I have spoken today to the Fleet Commander, and he assures me that he is tracking and pressing progress and this is a matter treated with the utmost seriousness.

That said, I remain convinced that transparency is the key in this case and I am keen to provide it. Therefore, if Sergeant Blackman’s defence team wished this report to be considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the MOD would provide them with a confidential copy.

I hope that this release quashes the claims that the MOD is trying to undertake some sort of cover-up or conspiracy in this case; that is simply not the case. With regard to the legal case itself, Sergeant Blackman and two marines under his command were charged with and prosecuted for murder. They were tried in an independent and impartial judicial process. Guilt or innocence is decided by a panel made up of military personnel who understand the unique challenges that our service personnel face. The two marines were acquitted, but Sergeant Blackman was convicted. A great deal of evidence was heard in the trial of the immense stresses and strains of the operational context. Sergeant Blackman’s company commander during the time of his deployment gave evidence at the trial. He outlined the tactical situation and difficulties faced by troops located in patrol bases. I do not think that those personnel underestimated the immense challenges that Sergeant Blackman, and so many of our people, faced during that time.

We can say that somebody is in the military, but that is clearly a very broad church. What steps were taken to ensure that the individuals who were passing judgment on this soldier had relevant personal experience of the pressures that that individual was placed under at the time?

My hon. Friend tempts me into getting into the details of the preparation for the particular court martial. Of course, he will understand that it is right that, as Ministers and Members of Parliament, we do not seek to start influencing the way in which these trials are conducted. I do not know what the process was. There would have been a balance, of course. Anybody who knew Sergeant Blackman probably could not sit in judgment against him. However, my hon. Friend will forgive me if I avoid being drawn into those sorts of detail, because I do think that would be inappropriate for someone in my position.

Sergeant Blackman appealed against his conviction and sentence to the court martial appeal court. It is important to note, given the concerns that some have expressed about the court-martial process, that that court is made up of the same judges as sit in the civilian Court of Appeal. The court martial appeal court, chaired in this case by the Lord Chief Justice, upheld the conviction and the sentence. However, it reduced the minimum term, as has been said, from 10 years to eight.

I understand that Sergeant Blackman and his legal advisers are considering whether, as their next step, there is any new evidence that they would wish to put to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, with a view to its being referred to the court martial appeal court. This is a legal matter and not a decision for Ministers, but let me reiterate: should that happen and should either the commission or Sergeant Blackman’s legal representatives make a request for the review or elements of it, I reassure hon. Members that the Ministry of Defence will, of course, co-operate fully to ensure that justice is done. To be perfectly clear, I mean that I would be willing to release the report in full, on a confidential basis, to either the defence legal team or the commission.

I began by saying that I was fully aware of the concern felt by many regarding the case. I recognise and accept that it remains difficult for some to accept the decision of the court martial and the court martial appeal court. The system seeks to combine independence and legal professionalism with an appreciation of the military context and the realities of military life. The civilian judge advocate gives direction on the law, and military personnel decide on guilt or innocence. It should not be forgotten that in this case they acquitted two of the accused. Where there is a conviction, they decide with the judge advocate on the sentence. An appeal can be made to the highest and most experienced judges, and there is the possibility of further review if important new evidence emerges. This is, rightly, an independent judicial process, not a political decision. I respect the system, and hope that hon. Members will do so as well.

I am most grateful to the Minister for the hard work that I know he has put into researching the case, and for his frank response, which was not expected. The new legal team and the family will be grateful for the fact that he has offered to give the report to the defence team if they request it in confidence. That will help enormously. I also pay tribute to all my honourable and, in many cases, gallant colleagues. The Minister speaks humbly about his time in Afghanistan. He may not have faced the same challenges as others, but he was still there, and for that I commend him most highly.

This has been, as colleagues have said, a highly emotional, charged debate. That will not get Sergeant Blackman out of jail, however, nor will it get his case reviewed. What will are the facts. As the Minister and others have rightly said, we cannot and should not interfere with the legal process. My job and ours, along with the Daily Mail and others, is to highlight where we think that things have gone wrong. Where we see an injustice, it would be wrong not to stand up and say what we think. That is what we were voted in to do, and that is what we have done today.

I hope that the attention that the case is receiving, and the facts of the case, will get it reviewed. Regrettably, I am not as eminent, as bright, as intelligent or as experienced as Mr Goldberg, and sadly I never will be, but it is into his hands and those of his team that we place the responsibility of pursuing that legal avenue. Big Al, as he is affectionately known, and I have met him—

I just wanted to build on that point and clarify what I said earlier about the MOD. I thank the Minister for the candid nature of his speech. He has shown us that we have a real opportunity, with the team of Ministers at the MOD, not only to get this case right but to tackle the causes of what happened. We all know the facts, but there are causes behind the story. We have a unique opportunity now, before the matter moves out of the public eye, to get those things right.

I know that this is strong, but in my experience of dealing with Ministers and those at the top of the MOD, there is a significant gap between the duty, attention to detail and the genuine heartfelt concerns of the ministerial team and the attitude of those at the top of the MOD. The latter have recently, in conversations about trauma risk management and how we manage people going forward, shown themselves to be delusional. We need to tighten that gap to make sure that we do not miss the bow wave of people coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq and suffering from mental health problems. I hope that as a result of our debate today, we will be able to see the many factors that contributed to the incident that we are discussing.

I thank my gallant and distinguished colleague. Given all his experience, there is, dare I say it, no one better on our side of the House to speak in such a way.

Aside from the points about this case, do hon. and gallant Members agree that it remains extremely important that our soldiers behave with the highest possible standards, and that we do not abuse or execute prisoners of war?

I entirely concur with that, and I am sure that everyone in the room would do the same. We have to set a bar, and the bar has been set. There are occasions, however, and sadly this is one, where, for all kinds of mitigating reasons, one man—a highly professional soldier—snaps for a single moment. On the emotional side of the argument, very few of us here, except for the truly gallant Members who have served in Afghanistan, fully understand the pressures that these young men, and of course the officers and those in command, are put under.

I will end shortly, because I know that the Chair would like to have the final say, which is only right. I believe, as do a sufficiently large number of people, that there has been a miscarriage of justice, albeit not an intentional one. It is not for me to say otherwise, because we are talking about a court martial that did its job. The facts as I understand them were not fully presented to the court martial, however. If a court martial is to convict fairly, it needs all the facts, and I believe that they were not fully present on that day.

We hope that all the attention that this case has rightly been given will get it back to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. We rely entirely on Mr Goldberg to achieve that, and the matter is in his safe and secure hands. My aim is to bring Big Al home. If we can get the case heard, that is the first step. The rest, as has been said, is up to the law and the lawmakers.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the case of Sgt Alexander Blackman (Marine A).

Submarines and the Fishing Industry

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered submarines and the fishing industry.

It is a pleasure to bring this matter to the House for consideration. A number of hon. Members have indicated an interest in the subject matter. In particular, may I mention my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who also wishes to make a contribution? I have made the Minister aware of the need for the hon. Member for South Down to make a contribution.

I have been trying to secure a debate on the subject since May, and it seems appropriate that we discuss it this week in light of recent developments. On 15 April 2015, an Ardglass prawn trawler, the Karen, was fishing in the Irish sea when it was almost pulled under the water by a Royal Navy submarine. The four-man crew deserve high praise, because it was only as a result of their quick thinking that the Karen did not meet a fate similar to that of the Antares and her crew in 1990. Not only was the trawler dragged backwards at 10 knots and almost pulled underneath the water, but it was almost pulled apart. The boat’s hull was almost destroyed; this was not a simple snagging, as it was initially described.

Not only was the net found on the seabed separated from the bridle, but the saddle connecting the bridle had also been cut off. What is more, the full details have not been made known by the Minister, the MOD or the Royal Navy. We were initially informed by the Royal Navy that none of its submarines were in the Irish sea, and the Minister told Parliament that a UK vessel was not responsible. That has changed in the past week or 10 days. Originally, suspicions fell upon the Russians, as we were led to believe that a Red October had been responsible. That was after being informed by the Royal Navy that its nearest submarine was 150 miles from the location of the incident with the Karen. Not only was that completely inaccurate but it has taken the Royal Navy five months to accept blame for the incident, which should make us uncomfortable because that in itself suggests a possible attempt to cover up.

This is not the only incident this year. In fact, there have been two such incidents. In March, the trawler Aquarius almost met a similar fate when it came into contact with a submarine. Captain Angus Macleod said that he and his four crew were “extremely lucky” after his net was dragged in front of his 62-foot boat off Lewis. Again, the Royal Navy denied involvement in the incident, which is too similar. In light of recent revelations, trust must be restored between fishermen and the Navy, because trust has understandably wavered considerably.

Are there any protocols or a code of practice in place in relation to the Karen? Are those protocols and that code of practice being adhered to, and are they effective?

I will set out the protocols and the system that were in place. Protocols have been in place for a great number of years, but in this incident the protocols were clearly not followed, which is of concern to me, as it is to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.

This is the first year since 1993 in which there has been an incident involving the submarine service and a fishing vessel. We are grateful that the code of practice has been effective, but it is simply unacceptable to have two incidents within a month. Not only did it take a considerable time for the Royal Navy to accept responsibility, but initially there was complete denial that submarines had even been in the area. When we get down to the details of the submarine, the incident becomes even more bizarre. It is little wonder that the Royal Navy seriously needs to reconcile itself with fishermen across the United Kingdom to ensure that safety is paramount and that such actions do not happen again.

The submarine in question, HMS Ambush, which is aptly named, is the Navy’s latest hunter-killer submarine. The submarine can supposedly detect fishing trawlers up to 3,000 miles away. With that in mind, how was HMS Ambush able to get so close that it dragged the trawler 10 knots backwards? Furthermore, submarines should be able to detect the noise of boats. Again, I find it difficult to comprehend how the submarine’s crew were oblivious to the fact that it had just dragged a fishing boat across the sea, causing substantial damage.

Another issue is the supposed claim by the Royal Navy in its letter to the captain of the FV Karen that the submarine did not correctly identify the Karen as a fishing vessel:

“the submarine therefore approached too close to you and ultimately became entangled in your nets”.

That was the explanation given to Mr Paul Murphy and Mr Tom Wills, who are present here today. The nets were retrieved from the seabed by the Portavogie trawler, Deliverance, and it transpires that the submarine’s propeller had caught in the net, which is what caused the Karen to be dragged backwards. When the nets were found—this is something that has to be answered to today—they appeared to have been neatly cut from the boat not by a propeller but, I suggest, by divers. The cuts were clear, neat and uniform. The nets were still in excellent condition and, other than having been physically detached from the boat, had sustained no damage. That is not in keeping with the Royal Navy’s explanation. If the propeller had been caught in the trawler’s nets, one would expect to see nets that had been badly torn and ripped and that were ultimately beyond repair. As I have explained, that was not the case. Given the circumstances, it is completely impossible that the submarine’s propeller became entangled in the Karen’s nets. It appears that we have yet another untruth regarding this incident.

That brings me to another point, because protocols were not followed. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) has referred to protocols, which are important because they are laid down to ensure that such incidents do not happen. The protocols are in place to ensure that submarines and fishermen can work separately and harmoniously at the same time and in the same area. They were introduced to ensure safety at all times following the loss of the Antares and its crew, yet in 2015 we have seen that these guidelines were not followed in two incidents. In the Karen’s case, the protocols seem to have simply gone out the window.

We are all aware of the Subfacts system for managing the relationship between the Royal Navy and fishermen. Under that system, the Royal Navy should make the Belfast coastguard aware of any submarine activity at 7.10 am and at 7.10 pm daily, which allows the coastguard to send out warnings to fishing trawlers in the area, but that was not done. At the time of the incident, the Joint Warrior exercise was taking place involving 55 ships from 14 countries. Warnings were given to HM Coastguard at Aberdeen, Clyde and Stornoway. Belfast was not informed of any activities in its waters. Why not?

The second item of protocol that was obviously not adhered to is that submarines have to keep a distance of at least 150 feet from any trawlers. If that is not possible and they come into close contact, the submarine is supposed to surface. Again, that did not happen. Not only that, but in the Joint Warrior exercise, the Navy switched off the GPS and used gunnery, which is obviously not acceptable because fishermen are completely oblivious to whether submarines are operating in their area. That is why HM Coastguard Belfast should have been informed, and I am incredulous that it was not.

There are several critical factors in this debate, and I am sure that the Minister will be able to give a full and satisfactory response, as Mr Murphy and Mr Wills are listening intently. I understand that Admiral Matthew Parr sent letters in which Mr Murphy and Mr Wills were told that they would shortly be contacted by the Ministry of Defence to discuss compensation. As yet, neither man has been contacted about that. The letters were dated 4 September and 6 September, but given the nature of the incident and the MOD’s subsequent behaviour, contact should already have been made and the two men should have been informed of what compensation would or could be available. That is particularly important, because a simple apology will not suffice, especially because of the regrettable way in which the case has been handled.

After the incident, the Karen made its way back to Ardglass, where part of the deck had to be lifted because it was so badly damaged when another section was completely ripped off. The damage to the boat is estimated at some £10,000. We thank God that nobody was injured, but compensation must be paid.

My first question to the Minister, in addition to the questions I have already asked, is when exactly does the MOD intend to get in touch with the men involved to discuss compensation, and when can the gentlemen expect to receive it? It is important that they have this compensation so that they can move forward. My second point applies to every fishing fleet in the United Kingdom, because their relationship with the Royal Navy has been damaged. We cannot overestimate that damage and the lack of confidence and uncertainty that fishermen feel. The hon. Member for South Down has stated in the press:

“Fishermen must be confident that their vessels will not be damaged by submarine activity and where incidents do take place, the government will own up to it immediately.”

She is absolutely right, and it is imperative that trust is restored. That will be difficult, and it will take much longer than the repairs to the Karen, but none the less let us get the process moving. Let us have reassurance, and let us give confidence back to the fishing industry and the fishing sector that fish the seas around the coasts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Physical damage, although inexcusable, can be repaired, but the loss of trust is not so easy to resolve. So far, the MOD and the Minister have not assisted in that process. In light of that, what will she and the MOD do to ensure that relationships are healed, that trust is restored and that, if any incidents occur in the future, the Government take responsibility immediately, rather than repeating the long adherence of some five months?

I will end on this point, because I want to give the hon. Member for South Down an opportunity to speak. I have been reliably informed that the Royal Navy has changed protocols regarding fishing vessels, but whom, if anyone, did it consult from the fishing industry? In the Public Gallery today are representatives of the fishing industry, who tell me they have not been consulted. If changes have been made to the protocol—and I understand that they have—what exactly are they? Are they changes for the better? There must be a consultation with the bodies that look after the fishing industry. It would be ludicrous to put in place a protocol without involving those people in the changes. Surely in these circumstances the fishing industry cannot be kept in the dark. It needs to ensure health and safety at all times. That is the critical factor. There must be co-operation with the fishing industry to make this a reality.

We do not want to hear about any more such incidents. I look forward to the Minister’s full response, and I hope she will provide clarification and explain openly and honestly what exactly took place on 15 April.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for affording me this opportunity to make a contribution on behalf of my constituents. Mr Wills, who owns the boat, Mr Paul Murphy, the skipper of the boat, and the chairman of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation are with us today. They are all my constituents from Ardglass in County Down.

We met the Minister earlier today, and I was grateful for the opportunity to outline to her the exact circumstances of what happened on 15 April and to set out our grave annoyance at the fact that the submarine did not adhere to the proper protocols by coming to the surface. I understand that, as a consequence, the Royal Navy is currently exploring new protocols and will be holding direct discussions with the fishing industry to come to a proper determination.

The incident happened on 15 April. On 17 April, I met Mr Murphy in Ardglass. Following the incident, he was suffering from a great level of trauma because his fishing nets had been snagged and his fishing boat had been dragged backwards. He was on the boat with his crew members. We want to ensure that the fishing efforts deployed by Mr Wills, Mr Murphy and the other fishermen who ply their boats in the rich fishing grounds of the north channel and the Irish sea can continue unhindered. Impediments must not be put in their way by the Royal Navy or any other jurisdiction’s vessels that are carrying out other activities.

I was told in a parliamentary answer on 10 June, and on the Floor of the House in Defence questions on 15 July, that it was not a Royal Navy vessel. I understand from what the Minister told me today that further investigations were carried out as part of the Marine Accident Investigation Board inquiry, which took evidence from the Royal Navy. It was then discovered that it was a Royal Navy vessel. That determination was made on 6 August, following the Minister’s probing. I hope that, as a result of that probing, the compensation due to my constituent will be made payable.

I also hope that the Ministry of Defence will give an undertaking through the Minister that such an incident will not happen again and that fishing efforts will not be interfered with. Fishing makes an enormous contribution to my constituency, in which two of the three County Down fishing ports are based—Ardglass and Kilkeel. Other incidents in the Irish sea must equally be investigated, such as the incident of 14 February 2002, which was subject to an investigation. Three people lost their lives, and their relatives want the investigation reopened.

I have several questions about this incident. I am grateful that the Minister has today directly apologised to Mr Murphy and Mr Wills for what happened and the trauma they suffered. She said in that meeting that the incident should not have happened. I would like her to put that on the record today clearly and unequivocally. We would like to know why the protocols set up in 1993 as a result of a previous incident were not adhered to. What consultations will be carried out on the new protocols? Will the fishing industry—the fishermen and those in the fish producer organisations—be directly involved in the consultations and in helping to devise the new protocols? Only the fishermen have a direct knowledge of those seas, the amount of fish in them and the places where spawning takes place, where there is biomass and where there are other issues.

What was the operational programme for the submarine activity on that day in the north channel and the Irish sea? The hon. Member for Strangford referred to the Subfax text, which clearly states that there was to be no submarine activity that day. That information was directly exchanged with the fishing industry, so why was there an error? Why did the Royal Navy breach protocol by not bringing the vessel to the surface? Why were the British Government so quick, as has been suggested by others, to blame a vessel belonging to another country? When will the new protocols be finalised? When will the report of the Marine Accident Investigation Board’s investigation be published? Will it be made available publicly to members of the fishing industry—in particular, Mr Wills and Mr Murphy—and will a copy be made available in the Library?

Several other questions arise. This incident was one of many involving fishing trawlers and submarines around our islands. It is a major public safety issue, and fishermen’s lives are at risk. Why was a UK submarine so close to the coast of Northern Ireland? It is our understanding that naval exercises take place in the north-east Atlantic, not the Irish sea. Why did it take so long to admit that?

Other issues have been raised directly with me. Was it a Trident submarine? We know it was the HMS Ambush, but was it on such a mission? Will the Minister conduct a separate inquiry, or will the incident be covered only by the Marine Accident Investigation Board inquiry? I think I gathered from the Minister earlier today that it is all to be part of that inquiry. She will understand from the viewpoints that I, my colleague, the hon. Member for Strangford and my constituents have expressed that we need to know that such an incident will not happen again. My constituents must get the full compensation they are entitled to, and there must be discourse between the fishing industry and the Royal Navy. Any incidents since 1993 must be fully investigated and, if necessary, reopened so that such an incident can never happen again in the Irish sea.

Our local fishing industry, which comes out of the County Down fishing ports, must be fully protected. The significant contribution it makes—both onshore through processing and offshore through fishing efforts—must not be interfered with. We already have to deal with possible marine conservation zones, and there has been a general conversation about wind power in the Irish sea. We must ensure that those issues and bits of infrastructure do not interfere with our fishing industry—an important part of our local economy. Above all, our fishermen must feel satisfied that they are safe when they get into their vessels and go into the Irish sea. We must not forget that there was a loss of fishing days, and we are already penalised by the days at sea restriction. I thank you, Mrs Main, and the Minister for being here today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate on a subject that I know is of great importance to him and his constituents. I also thank all hon. Members who spoke and made representations on behalf of their constituents. I welcome the opportunity to address Members’ concerns and those of the fishing community, for whom safe and secure operations of our military vessels in the vicinity of their activity are essential. I repeat what I said in my written ministerial statement on 7 September: this incident and the delay in identifying and addressing the events and their consequences are deeply regretted.

I have written to the Karen’s master and met him and the owner to acknowledge the Royal Navy’s responsibility for the incident and to offer my personal apologies on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. A representative of the Royal Navy met them both personally to apologise on behalf of the Navy for the incident and the delay in acknowledging responsibility. I touched on compensation previously with the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie). Of course, there must be full compensation. My role in that process is to ensure that that happens swiftly. If there are any concerns about that process, please feel free to let me know.

Can we have a timescale for the compensation? The hon. Members for South Down and for Dunfermline and West Fife are also interested in that issue. There has been delay: five months of not working while the boat is repaired. There has been £10,000 worth of damage, so we need a timescale. Let us have it in black and white.

I will be happy to put in writing to the hon. Gentleman the process that will now happen. The delay is clearly unacceptable. I will talk about the reasons for it, but now that we know what happened, there should be no delay in ensuring that these people are properly compensated for the trauma they have endured as well as the material damage.

The Karen was very close to sinking and I have no doubt at all that that must have been a terrifying experience for the crew. The fact that the vessel did not sink was almost wholly attributable to the crew’s swift and professional response. They took immediate action to release the brake on the winch and prevent their vessel from capsizing. They are to be commended for their actions, which undoubtedly prevented a much more serious outcome.

As Members will be aware, the Royal Navy stated it was confident that no submarine was involved and I gave that advice to the House. New information that came to light as a result of the Royal Navy—not as a result of an external investigation or my inquiries—confirmed that, in fact, a UK submarine was responsible for snagging the Karen’s nets.

Once that information was confirmed, the Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) was informed on 6 August. During August, I held meetings to establish the full facts, question the Royal Navy and discuss changes to policy to ensure the safety of fishing vessels. I wanted to ensure that all the facts had been captured, that the incident and failings by the Royal Navy were fully understood, and that we had in place a policy that would provide reassurance to the fishing community and to the crew of the Karen in particular. That work was done at speed and took about a month to complete. I then took the earliest opportunity to inform the House and put the record straight on 7 September.

That answers given earlier were proved to be incorrect is deeply regretted. I am sure that the House will appreciate that our standing policy is not to comment in detail on submarine operations. However, I can say that the incident occurred because the submarine did not correctly identify the Karen as a fishing vessel with nets in the water and thus did not give her the berth she otherwise would have had.

People have questioned why the submarine did not surface at the time of the incident. It has also been suggested that the recovered fishing gear shows evidence of having been cut, further raising speculation that the submarine surfaced after the incident to remove the material. I can only repeat that the submarine was not aware of the incident at the time. I expect the issues raised by hon. Members to be covered by the Marine Accident Investigation Board report.

If the submarine had been aware of the incident, the protocols in place under the code of practice for submarine operations in the vicinity of fishing vessels would have required her to surface and remain on scene to render assistance.

I thank the Minister for giving way. In her response, will she indicate when the report will be made available and to whom and where it will be placed?

Certainly. As I have already said to the hon. Lady, that report will be produced in short order. I know that there is a meeting on 24 September between Commander Operations Royal Navy and that body and I will do everything I can to facilitate the report’s circulation by placing a copy in the Library of the House of Commons.

If I were able to tell Members the full details, I think they would come to two conclusions. Although why the incident happened might be understandable—due to the nature of submarine operations—it is in no way acceptable. It is clear that our policy on fishing vessels and reporting such incidents must be improved and made more consistent. Having identified the very specific circumstances of the incident, the Royal Navy has already taken steps. I will come on to consultation in a moment, but changes took place with immediate effect because I felt that was incredibly important.

First, the process by which a vessel is classified has been reinforced, using stricter criteria to prevent incorrect assumptions being made. The instructions issued to submarine commanding officers have been updated to reflect the lessons learnt, which will also inform the training given to future commanding officers. If a vessel’s identification cannot be established, the commanding officer must assume that it is a fishing vessel with nets in the water and behave accordingly.

Secondly—this is critical—the Royal Navy’s reporting procedures have been reviewed to enable it to confirm more quickly whether a UK submarine was involved. For operational reasons, if we cannot confirm that it was not us in short order, we will assume that it was. There should be no delay in verifying whether a Royal Navy submarine was involved, regardless of the kind of submarine it was and the operation or activity it was conducting. We should respond within a few days and take action accordingly. I assure the House that the safety of our submarines and that of other mariners is most important to the Royal Navy.

Can I ask the Minister why Her Majesty’s Coastguard in Belfast was never informed? If she cannot give an answer today, perhaps she can give the answer to that and the other questions we have asked later? I would appreciate that.

In the brief moments I have left, I am looking at what is known as a Subfax. Clearly, we want that to be as comprehensive as possible. It cannot include submarine operations from other nations, but I am looking at that and I will happily follow up with the hon. Gentleman on that. On other issues raised, with regard to speculation that it was a Russian vessel, that is not something that we have said, although I can understand the speculation in the press on that.

The importance of the relationship between the Royal Navy and the fishing communities is fully recognised. That is why the code of practice was drawn up. The Royal Navy will step up its engagement with the fishing community. Good work has been done to date: for example, close working relationships have been developed with the Clyde Fishermen’s Association and other organisations on the west coast of Scotland. However, we want to do more. Following the incident, I have asked the Navy to establish a formal working group to improve communications and consultation with the Northern Ireland fishing industry in particular and, as I have already expressed to the hon. Member for South Down, I welcome input on that.

I am afraid that I have run out of time, but I assure the House that we want to do all we can to ensure that those in the fishing industry can go about their business not only in safety, but without fear. I will be happy to write to hon. Members to give them further details.

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

Alun Richards and Kashif Shabir: SFO

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Serious Fraud Office, and the cases of Alun Richards and Kash Shabir.

This debate concerns allegations of fraudulent misrepresentation and collusion involving Lloyds bank and receivers used by that bank. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and I both have constituents who, as customers of Lloyds bank, underwent the same ordeal: having their hitherto successful businesses revalued downwards, forced into receivership and then sold. The allegations concentrate on but are not confined to Lloyds’ operations in Wales. The facts of the cases resemble the malpractice at Royal Bank of Scotland identified by the Tomlinson report, which was published on 25 November 2013.

I bring this matter to the House today so that Mr Kash Shabir, my Cardiff Central constituent, may have his account of events put on the parliamentary record. I anticipate that my hon. Friend will do the same in respect of his constituent, Mr Alun Richards.

I would like to put on the record the case of one of my constituents, which relates to this matter. Michael Field bought some land and borrowed from Lloyds bank to finance a project to build several houses. He maintained his payments without fail, was a good customer and fulfilled all the terms and conditions of the loan agreement, but Lloyds seized his assets and foreclosed on him. He then discovered that his assets were actually traded inside the bank, which was a great concern. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to intervene and change things to protect customers such as Michael Field?

My hon. Friend makes a very interesting and valuable point about the fact that this bank is part-owned by the taxpayer. The Government should look into its internal practices.

Both Mr Shabir and Mr Richards say that they have suffered significant financial and emotional harm as a result of the actions that are alleged. Mr Shabir built his business from scratch. He was a successful entrepreneur and property developer, with a portfolio valued at around £10 million. He enjoyed an excellent credit rating and reputation among banks and building societies. In 2006, Lloyds bank competed against Barclays bank to win a large portion of his business lending. Lending was secured by Mr Shabir with Lloyds at 1% above the base rate, because of his excellent track record. So far, so good, people might say.

As the House knows, however, the 2007-08 financial crash brought Lloyds to the brink of collapse. At the peak of the financial crisis, Lloyds requested emergency funding from the UK taxpayer. The Government set up a division within the Treasury—UK Financial Investments —to manage the bail-out of Lloyds, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Northern Rock.

For Lloyds to secure and receive that bail-out, it was essential for it to quantify and declare to the Government the amount of money required to save it from collapse. So it conducted an overall assessment of its investments and assets. This appears to have prompted Lloyds to take the opportunity to reassess its relationships with customers who were borrowing large sums on what are called fine margins. Customers on fine margins are good customers allowed to borrow at low rates. Due to the lack of liquidity, however, the cost of money in the money markets had risen significantly—more importantly, it had risen to a point above the contractual levels at which it was being borrowed.

Almost overnight, those businesses on fine margins, which Lloyds had regarded as its best customers, became highly vulnerable since the bank could no longer make profits from those arrangements. As Lloyds sought to improve its own position, the fine margin customers were targeted first, to eliminate them from the bank’s portfolio. That was particularly true of small and medium-sized enterprises, which did not have the resources to defend themselves.

Banks almost always lend money that is secured against assets, by way of a loan agreement. The parameters of that agreement, such as the loan to value ratio, are set out in writing at the outset. Provided that a customer’s assets do not fall below the agreed level, the customer is, in broad terms, described as safe.

During the financial crisis, it is alleged that Lloyds and other banks adopted a mechanism known as down-valuation, to engineer a shortfall. Again, that practice has been recognised in the Tomlinson report, and it has two consequences in this case. First, Lloyds was able to secure a larger bail-out from the taxpayer. Secondly, individual customers were held to be in breach of their loan conditions. That enabled Lloyds either to renegotiate more favourable terms for itself or to eliminate its customers altogether, by triggering receivership proceedings and then the sale of those businesses. It was that second engineered consequence—of being in breach of loan conditions—that brought about the unjustified failure of many successful companies and individuals, including Mr Shabir.

I will explain to the House in a little more detail the mechanism of the alleged collusion applied to engineer a down-valuation in respect of Mr Shabir’s portfolio. Lloyds bank utilised Alder King LLP, commercial property consultants and Law of Property Act receivers, for the majority of the valuations that it carried out in Wales. Alder King was the approved professional company for all receiverships in south Wales. What is of particular concern is that Lloyds engaged as a manager for its Wales operations an equity partner of Alder King, Mr Jonathan Miles, who worked within the bank’s recoveries department—the very department responsible for making receivership appointments. In this position, it is alleged that Mr Miles worked with the valuers and receivers from his own firm of Alder King, and was able to manipulate Mr Shabir’s business into failure.

I am told that Mr Miles never disclosed his own identity as an Alder King partner and misrepresented his position to Mr Shabir as being an employee of Lloyds bank and a long-time Lloyds bank manager. Mr Miles had a Lloyds email address, Lloyds-headed stationery and a Lloyds business card, all of which he used daily. I am also told by Mr Shabir that Mr Miles appointed another Alder King receiver, his Alder King partner Mr Julian Smith, as the receiver in Mr Shabir’s case. Mr Smith wrote to Mr Miles thanking him for making the appointment. Mr Smith was also given a Lloyds email address, together with Lloyds stationery. He had full access to confidential customer data and communicated directly with Lloyds customers, misrepresenting himself as a Lloyds employee, it is alleged.

During Mr Miles’s secondment to Lloyds, he had 2,400 live cases, each worth in excess of £1 million, within his recoveries department. Those were 2,400 live cases in respect of which, if he wished to, he could appoint receivers from his own firm, Alder King. Alder King received substantial professional fees for its services as appointed receivers. These figures illustrate the size and scale of the obvious conflict of interest and the potential for financial abuse. The role played by Mr Miles within Lloyds, with the bank’s knowledge and consent, created an immediate and significant conflict of interest.

Mr Shabir accepts that banks will utilise the services of third-party specialists, such as surveyors, in their day-to-day business, but in engaging such third parties it is the bank’s responsibility to ensure that conflicts of interest do not arise. In Mr Shabir’s case, his Lloyds portfolio was down-valued by Alder King by more than 50% from its original valuation, placed into receivership and sold. Mr Shabir has four valuations from the same period by other Lloyds panel valuers, all reflecting nearly double the valuation of Alder King at the point of placement into receivership.

Once the portfolio of properties was placed into receivership, the receivers failed to transfer all associated bills to themselves, and Mr Shabir has since become the recipient of approximately 30 county court judgments for claims against properties that had been removed by the receiverships from his control. His credit rating is now completely destroyed. This young, successful entrepreneur, who grew up in a small terraced house in Cardiff and built a business worth £10 million, has been financially destroyed. With a young family who are dependent on him, he has lost his entire investment portfolio, with only his family home remaining—on which Lloyds has a second charge.

Mr Shabir alleges that he was forced by Lloyds to take out an interest rate hedging product as a condition of his lending facility with Lloyds in November 2006. When his portfolio was transferred to the recoveries department of Lloyds, it unilaterally cancelled the hedge and levied termination fees of almost half a million pounds against Mr Shabir. It is alleged, and now confirmed by Lloyds, that the hedge was mis-sold. The sales process was non-compliant in seven respects that the Financial Conduct Authority suggests are mandatory for a compliance sale.

I turn to the regulatory framework. In March 2015, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey), conducted an inquiry into the insolvency regime. At the inquiry on 4 March 2015, evidence was heard about the practice of seconding insolvency practitioners and surveyors within lenders’ restructuring divisions. Mr Graham Horne, deputy chief executive of the Government’s Insolvency Service, said that receivers should never work as active insolvency practitioners within a bank. Mr Julian Healey, head of the Association of Property and Fixed Charge Receivers, expressed concern about the impression the practice gave and concluded that if receivers on secondment also worked on the same bank’s administration, there was “clearly” a conflict of interest.

Mr Shabir made a formal complaint to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors about Alder King’s conduct. In its response, RICS specifically confirmed that Mr Julian Smith of Alder King was on secondment to Lloyds at the time of the valuation of Mr Shabir’s portfolio, when he personally acted as the valuer, but also when he was appointed by Mr Jonathan Miles as the receiver. During the same period, Mr Jonathan Miles, as head of receiverships for Alder King, was embedded in Lloyds bank as Mr Shabir’s allocated bank manager.

Despite the evidence that Mr Horne and Mr Healey gave to the Select Committee, RICS somewhat astonishingly claimed to see nothing wrong with Alder King’s practice. It responded as such to Mr Shabir shortly after the Select Committee hearing at which the chair of the RICS regulatory board, Eve Salomon, gave evidence. Although the alleged collusion and fraudulent misrepresentation were first identified and raised with Lloyds by Mr Shabir in 2010, responses have amounted to no more than stonewalling by successive levels of Lloyds management.

As Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee at that time, and following personal representations from Mr Shabir, we did research into this matter. It indicated that there was a consensus across the professional bodies involved, apart from RICS, that the process demonstrated a clear conflict of interest. The bodies took it to the Minister, and I know the Minister made representations, but still absolutely nothing was done. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that reflects a serious deficiency in the monitoring process within the industry—one that results in the most devastating consequences to individuals and the economy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a huge gap in the regulatory framework that must urgently be addressed.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Mr Shabir told me that he is aware that not only have the issues been discussed with the chief executive of the bank, Mr António Horta-Osório, and the past chairman, Sir Win Bischoff, but the bank has dedicated senior managers, including two managing directors, to consider the case. Unfortunately, rather than seeking to address Mr Shabir’s complaint, Lloyds has applied those resources to devising a strategy to deflect him.

There has been no substantive response to Mr Shabir from Lloyds bank since October 2011. Such limited correspondence as has taken place has been issued by Lloyds’ solicitors, who have been unhelpful and dismissive, and has included a proposal to forgive the indebtedness created by Lloyds’ own actions, along with Alder King, in return for Mr Shabir’s signing a confidentiality agreement—effectively a gagging order to prevent any further discussion of any aspect of the case. Mr Shabir told me, unsurprisingly, that that was unacceptable to him, as he would have had to relinquish the £2 million of equity he originally took to Lloyds bank and have been prevented from speaking out about his experience. Because commercial lending by banks is not regulated by the FCA, it cannot intervene and investigate.

Mr Shabir’s case was referred to the Serious Fraud Office in September 2013. I am told by Mr Shabir that a substantial amount of evidence was provided to corroborate the allegations. I have seen correspondence between the former shadow Attorney General, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), and Mr David Green, director of the SFO. The correspondence took place between the end of October 2014 and the beginning of November 2014. In his letter to my hon. Friend, dated 7 November 2014, Mr Green confirmed that the SFO was

“working with partners to identify the extent of information and evidence that relates to the practices described and to ascertain if there is a systemic or institutionalised problem that warrants the application of the criminal law.”

Mr Green also confirmed that the SFO had met with a number of other parties concerning Lloyds and Alder King, but, since 7 November 2014, nothing further has been forthcoming from the SFO.

Mr Shabir tells me that the number of people affected by Lloyds’ actions is in the thousands, and the Tomlinson report highlighted the extensive practice of down-valuation. Following the publication of the Tomlinson report, the Federation of Small Businesses, recognised as a super complainant, met the Welsh Affairs Committee on 20 February 2014, along with representatives of RICS. Action groups have been formed. They are multifaceted and multidirectional groups because of the specific circumstances of individual group members. There has been press coverage in the financial sections of national newspapers, including in The Times today. The BBC produced a “Panorama” programme featuring the issue.

In conclusion, we are left with a situation in which it is alleged that a partly nationalised bank, having found itself in unfavourable business arrangements, has been able to manipulate matters to its advantage, steering successful companies into receivership while depressing the valuation of those companies and individuals’ assets to augment the emergency funding it would receive from the taxpayer.

The bank has been assisted by supposedly independent professional advisers who are embedded in the bank and financially benefit from receivership appointments engineered in conjunction with the bank. An obvious and significant conflict of interest has been allowed to operate, unfettered by any regulator. RICS has declined to criticise, never mind condemn, the actions of Alder King, and the SFO has, it appears, sat on its hands, all at extreme financial and emotional cost to Mr Shabir.

There is a public interest in an investigation into potentially criminal misconduct by taxpayer-supported banks, whether it is conducted by the SFO or another agency in a position to do so. Mr Shabir has waited long and patiently enough for some action, so will the Solicitor General tell us whether the Government will undertake to investigate fully the following issues by making specific enquiries of Lloyds, Alder King and RICS?

The first issue is the extent of the practice of down-valuation and the number of seconded personnel embedded in the bank who have received receivership appointments; the second, the monetary value involved; and the third, the number of customers affected. Will the Solicitor General raise these serious issues with the Secretary of State, so that an urgent inquiry might be considered? Finally, will the Government undertake to ensure that Lloyds, as a partly public-owned bank, is proactively contacting and meeting customers to discuss redress for the affected businesses?

Order. Before I call Mr Huw Irranca-Davies, I should say that the debate will finish at 5.41 pm, so the wind-ups will start at 5.21 pm.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your stewardship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for securing this debate and for laying on the record a comprehensive and detailed view of how her constituent has been affected. That is what I intend to do for my constituent, Mr Alun Richards, regarding a related issue. The story, the allegations it contains and the impact that it has had on him and his family are shocking. At best, there is a conflict of interest, with evidence of duplicity; at worst, there is evidence of collusion and real criminality that could go beyond these two cases. The points that my hon. Friend has put to the Solicitor General will help to establish the scale of the problem.

Alun Richards comes from a well-established and successful farming family of long pedigree in the Amman valley in west Wales. He is an award-winning farmer and former Wales young farmer of the year, representing the UK at European levels. His farming business expanded over years, but he knew, as many farmers do, that he had to diversify to grow further. Milk quota changes, mad cow disease, foot and mouth, milk prices and global dairy competition forced Alun to move out of milk production. Farmland was turned to crop production and farm buildings freed for other uses, initially largely funded by family money. It was successful, and the business grew and prospered. While the family had been long-term customers of NatWest RBS, other banks were keen to secure Alun’s growing business, among them Lloyds TSB.

To secure Alun’s custom, Lloyds gave him an attractive offer of the type reserved for the very best businesses: 1% over base rate. That, combined with further family money, allowed Alun to convert farm buildings and the original farmhouse into offices and meeting rooms to be let out. Further expansion included a conference centre. The original farmyard became the Tycroes business park, a beacon for employment in the area that was opened by His Royal Highness Prince Charles. Over time, the business expanded into other property, including an office block in Swansea. It was based on solid foundations and steady growth. It was successful, solvent and profitable every step of the way. The office block was financed through Lloyds, a link that originally came through Alun’s successful business being identified and snapped up by local and regional agricultural managers at Lloyds. Alun’s accounts had now been transferred to Lloyds and all was going well. Tenants were queuing up for the business park and Alun was being introduced as Lloyd’s best customer at the Royal Welsh show.

At the same time, however, the regional manager had identified a failure by the local manager, who should, the regional manager said, have consolidated seven existing loan accounts into one and should have created an overdraft as part of those consolidated loans. Despite the issue being identified, the consolidation and overdraft rearrangement never happened. That failure became the reason that Lloyds used as the justification for Alun’s booming business—to which Lloyds was lending at premium rates for trusted and successful customers--being transferred into recoveries. To be clear, the lender, Lloyds, had identified that a consolidated loan was needed, but it was not arranged, which subsequently became the reason for the business being transferred to recoveries. That itself seems remarkable, but it was in recoveries that my constituent alleges that the real abuses took place. Let us look in detail at how the transfer to recoveries of a successful business happened.

In 2008, Alun was telephoned and told that his account was being taken over by a new manager. Alun believed that his Lloyds account was progressing to a higher level of management—it was a successful business. After two weeks, Alun had heard nothing from his new manager, so he decided to telephone his original manager to ask who his new manager was. The manager informed Alun that he had been transferred to the recoveries department at Bristol. That was a complete shock. Alun then made contact with recoveries, which asked Alun if he could enlighten them as to why his account had been sent there. Alun was told that recoveries only dealt with dead and dying accounts, not accounts that were alive and kicking like Alun’s. Recoveries duly sent Alun’s files back to Alun’s manager and his regional agricultural manager. Recoveries were amazed when Alun’s manager and regional agricultural manager quickly returned Alun’s files. Recoveries told Alun that his files could be parked on a desk for three months and that he would be able to find a new bank or a new Lloyds manager. However, Alun quickly found that, behind the scenes, the banking sector was in meltdown and that that was affecting decisions.

As this was happening, Alun’s business was slowly grinding to a halt, so he engaged his then MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who wrote to the chairman of Lloyds bank. Alun then had a visit from a Mr Holliday and Mr Miles, who introduced themselves and presented business cards showing that they were managers in the Bristol recoveries department of Lloyds bank. Mr Miles assured Alun that everything would be resolved. In the presence of two qualified accountants, Mr Miles was asked about his background at Lloyds, because they had not met before. He went to great lengths to provide a history of his employment at Lloyds. He stated that his career had been in the branch network and that he had only recently transferred to recoveries. He produced business cards stating he was a Lloyds manager and carried on stating that he was Alun’s manager on Lloyds-headed notepaper and in emails from his Lloyds address for the next two and a half years.

It was only by pure chance that Alun later discovered that Mr Miles was in fact a qualified chartered surveyor and member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors —RICS—and also an equity partner in Alder King, which was never officially disclosed to Alun at the time. All correspondence to Alun from Mr Miles was signed in his capacity as a Lloyds manager. It was not stated that Mr Miles was on secondment from Alder King to Lloyds, and Alun has an internal emails, obtained by a subject access request to Lloyds, confirming that no secondment agreement exists between Alder King and Lloyds. Mr Holliday then insisted that Alun’s debt to Lloyds had to be repaid within 10 years, not the 20 years that was in the original loan agreement. Soon after, Alder King was appointed as LPA receivers over Alun’s business.

Alun was shocked to find out that Alder King was previously owned by Lloyds and contacted the receiver, a Mr Hughes. Mr Hughes had previously been a managing director at Alder King and past chairman of the Association of Property and Fixed Charge Receivers, or Nara. He was also a chartered surveyor and member of RICS, so he was well-qualified to understand the Law and Property Act 1925. Alun attended a meeting at Alder King’s offices in Bristol with Mr Hughes and Mr Holliday and Mr Miles from Lloyds. Alun was supported by his accountant, who took minutes. At no point was it made clear that Mr Miles was a chartered surveyor, a RICS member or an equity partner at Alder King. He was always introduced as a Lloyds bank manager. Mr Hughes should have made Mr Miles’ position and the potential conflict of interest quite clear.

On hearing Alun’s story, Mr Hughes immediately resigned his position as receiver, despite discussions with Mr Holliday, who insisted that Mr Hughes remain appointed. It was clear that Mr Hughes was aware of not only the conflict of interest, but potential criminal fraud and the misrepresentation of his business partner Mr Miles. There was financial profit in this situation. Another three months passed with little activity from Lloyds recoveries. Mr Smith from Alder King was appointed as LPA receiver, along with the reappointment of Mr Hughes.

By March 2011, two years on from the shock meeting with Mr Holliday and Mr Miles from Lloyds recoveries, Alun’s life and business were grinding to a halt. As a result, Alun, along with his MP, went to the main Lloyds offices in Gresham Street, London. Alun’s then MP presented a letter to request a meeting with António Horta Osório, Lloyds’ new chief executive officer. A Mr Young met them and listened to the story and stated that there

“had to be a resolution”.

By now, Alun was dealing daily with Mr Young, who had given him direct access via landline, email and mobile. Mr Young gave an ultimatum to recoveries to resolve matters with Alun or the case would be taken over by Mr Cumming, the global managing director, with overall responsibility of Bristol recoveries. After that, however, Alun was locked out of his business park, with Lloyds having sold the property as mortgagee not in possession.

Two of the tenants of the Tycroes business park bought the property for £70,000. Although Alun Richards had in his possession a valuation for the same business park of more than £2 million, carried out by surveyors Lambert Smith Hampton only two years previously, LSH had reportedly provided Lloyds with a zero valuation of the same premises. The business park had 12 units, two office blocks, a large conference centre and 5 acres of future development land—but a zero valuation.

Notification to Alun of the sale came via solicitors TLT. It transpired that TLT was acting for Lloyds bank, Alder King, Mr Smith and Mr Hughes. Is that not a conflict of interest? Alun’s then MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli, arranged a meeting with Mr Young and Mr Cumming at Lloyds headquarters in London. Subsequently, Mr Cumming took sole responsibility for Lloyds’ actions and agreed to visit the farm to see at first hand the damage that had been caused to Alun and his family.

An auction of the remaining farmland had been planned for that evening, but was cancelled by Mr Cumming. That was strange, as Lloyds had appointed an LPA receiver to take charge of all the properties. A further property, Mansel house in Swansea, which Alun had purchased as his pension fund, had a valuation of £600,000 and a loan of £480,000 secured with Lloyds. The LPA receiver sold it at auction in London for £125,000, two years after it had been bought by Alun. Of the £125,000 realised for the property, Alder King took a commission of £50,000, realising a loss of £405,000 to taxpayer-owned Lloyds bank.

Mr Cumming kept his word and visited Alun’s farm to see the damage. Again he took full responsibility, and he declared that he would be back within a week to return Alun’s business to the position it was in before this fraud began. Alun had now had a high-profile managing director in Lloyds bank travel to his farm in rural west Wales and state that he would return Alun’s business to its original position, but the next week came and went. After three weeks, Mr Cumming wrote to state that he had decided on an independent investigation into his department’s action.

Mr Cumming appointed solicitors Hogan Lovells to lead the investigation, but over the next year Hogan Lovells parked it in the long grass. Lloyds then decided to sell the rest of Alun’s portfolio by auction—the fourth attempt to sell the properties, as the previous three had been cancelled. Alun’s father bought all the lots, but Bristol recoveries, Alder King and the other RICS auctioneers who were now involved were furious and used an opt-out clause in the small print to cancel the sale. They then sold the farmland on a first come, first served basis at a knockdown price. Shortly afterwards, Alder King resigned as receivers. Alun had started out with a portfolio valued at £5 million and a successful business, with borrowings of £1.3 million; he has ended up bankrupt and with nothing.

Where is Alun’s case now? Alun Richards and Kashif Shabir had their first meeting with the Serious Fraud Office on 11 November 2013, when they presented what they believe to be overwhelming evidence of criminal fraud. Another meeting was held one year later. I understand the file to be open and awaiting progress—that is what we are seeking. Alun made separate but identical complaints to RICS—as did Kashif Shabir—regarding his personal circumstances, which involved an additional set of regulated members. RICS refused to take the bundles of evidence from Mr Richards, but then somehow concluded that there were no breaches of its code. RICS relied solely upon the representations of its members. It would therefore not be unfair to assume that it is offering a degree of protection to its fee-paying members. Where is the professed protection for the customer?

The Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills looked at the case on 4 March 2015, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey). In attendance were principals from five independent industry regulators, including Eve Salomon, chair of the regulatory board of RICS, Graham Stockey, principal surveyor for RICS, Julian Healey, chief executive officer of Nara, and Daniel Hardy, chairman of Nara.

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central, who referred to the evidence given at the hearing being entirely in opposition to the practices adopted by Lloyds and Alder King working in unison, giving the appearance of collusion. Furthermore, when parties with a mutual financial interest are working in conjunction with each other, there are obvious opportunities for abuse. It is just such an abuse that I wish to highlight and that I believe my constituent Mr Richards is the victim of. In addition, it is known that Alder King, as I touched on, was the recipient of substantial fees, amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds in this case. The incentive is obvious. In Alun’s case alone, Alder King was able to charge more than £400,000 in total fees for acting as receiver.

What about the Solicitors Regulation Authority? The general case is further exemplified by the fact that both Alder King and the bank were utilising the services of not only one law firm, but specifically Mr Hayllar of TLT solicitors, who was representing both the bank and the receiver simultaneously. What chance does the customer have when facing a united front from a tripartite relationship and he is not even invited to the party? In fact, his exclusion is what makes the party happen. The consequences of the alleged criminal fraud of Lloyds recoveries in Bristol, along with Alder King, are far reaching, because more than 3,000 customers were with the Bristol recoveries at one time. Such fraud could have cost the British taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds of the bail-out money that was available to Lloyds bank.

In conclusion, there is more to these cases than my hon. Friend and I have said today. Allegations have been made against individuals and organisations such as the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, which appears complicit because of its failure to step in and act when concerns and allegations against its members were raised. ACCA will now only communicate with my constituent via a solicitor.

Surely now is the time for the Serious Fraud Office to take action. Now is the time to shine a spotlight on the allegations of criminality, collusion and corruption. What the two cases illustrate might be the tip of the iceberg. The SFO surely has a duty to pursue the matter, to see whether the allegations are substantiated and, crucially, whether there are more cases like this out there—we have heard that there are, with more victims suffering in silence and believing themselves helpless after their profitable businesses have been destroyed. The SFO has the power, authority and remit to do something—to make inquiries of the regulator, Alder King and the bank, and to quantify the extent of the situation. We could be talking about millions of pounds, but only the SFO can uncover this. Far from being responsible banking practice, this looks like daylight robbery. A thorough investigation is needed and it is needed now.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing this afternoon’s extremely important debate on behalf of her constituent, Mr Kashif Shabir, and the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), Mr Alun Richards. This is my first outing in the role of shadow Attorney General, which I am pleased to be taking on, in particular in a shadow Cabinet that for the first time has a majority of women. I am thoroughly looking forward to holding the Attorney General and the Solicitor General’s feet to the fire, but also working constructively with them when appropriate.

As with all Serious Fraud Office cases, those of Mr Richards and Mr Shabir are complex, but they have been carefully and passionately set out by my hon. Friends. There is much to be passionate about. As many of us know from our constituency postbags and surgeries, there are many more cases such as those we have heard about today throughout the country. Since the financial crisis, small, medium and even large firms have been brought to their knees by the banking system, with serious allegations of malpractice being made. Good and credible businesspeople such as Mr Richards and Mr Shabir have seen their credit ratings destroyed, after having worked hard for years and decades to build up their businesses. We only need to look at the Bully Banks campaign to see just how many firms and individuals have been affected by allegations of malpractice over the past few years.

Indeed, I have a constituency case involving the now acknowledged mis-selling of interest rate hedging products, or swaps; my constituent’s family, and the many who rely on them for good, skilled employment, have been reeling from the consequences of that ever since. We are not discussing the swap mis-selling scandal today, but the activities alleged by Mr Richards and Mr Shabir, and the consequences of those activities, bear a striking resemblance to the situation suffered by my constituent. I have a real fear that that indicates a systemic failure in our banking system across the country.

As my hon. Friends for Cardiff Central and for Ogmore have explained, the cases of Mr Richards and Mr Shabir involve allegations of the deliberate under- valuing by Lloyds of their properties—known as down valuation—in order to put them in breach of their loan-to-value ratios on secured debts, and thereby engineer defaults on their loans. That in itself is an extremely serious allegation. I believe it has been rejected by Lloyds, but was covered in some detail by the 2013 Tomlinson report commissioned by the Business Secretary in the coalition Government, Dr Vince Cable. In his report into banks’ lending practices and treatment of businesses in distress, Lawrence Tomlinson commented:

“This has been one of the most common complaints in the evidence received for this report. Revaluation of assets appears to be used on frequent occasions to put businesses into default of their loan agreements.”

He went on:

“Many businesses have submitted evidence demonstrating what appear to be unquestionable under-valuations of properties. They are so stark compared to original and current values of the property that their accuracy has to be called into question as well as the reason behind such an inaccuracy.”

The report concluded—and this is the crux of the matter, particularly in the cases we are considering:

“Not only is the undervaluation itself a concern, so is the relationship between the bank and the valuers. Often, much of a valuer’s work will come from the banks and there is therefore an inherent conflict of interest as there is a natural incentive for the valuer to act in the interest of the bank.”

In March, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee took evidence as part of its inquiry into the insolvency industry. Witnesses conceded that it is becoming more common for property receivers to be seconded to banks. Sometimes even surveyors and receivers have been known to be seconded within lenders’ restructuring divisions, therefore working on lenders’ distressed loans books. As even the industry witnesses to that inquiry conceded, in such a situation there is potential for a serious conflict of interest.

In both the cases we have heard about this afternoon, Lloyds bank utilised Alder King LLP for its property valuations. Yet Alder King also had staff seconded to Lloyds, working within the bank’s recoveries department—the very department that was responsible for receivership appointments. As reported by both the Financial Times and The Times, such staff were engaged directly in work on the cases of Mr Shabir and Mr Richards, but allegedly gave the impression that they worked directly for the bank, not Alder King LLP, the firm that was to benefit financially from the businesses going into receivership. It is that alleged conflict of interest, and its very significant consequences, about which Mr Shabir and Mr Richards have lodged their complaints to the Serious Fraud Office.

As we have heard, as no response had been received from Lloyds to the complaints since September 2011, Mr Shabir’s and Mr Richards’s cases were referred to the SFO in September 2013. Two meetings were held with the SFO, during which a substantial amount of evidence was provided to corroborate the allegations, but it was not until 7 November 2014 that the SFO’s director, David Green QC, responded and acknowledged the gravity of the issues raised. I understand that nothing has been heard from the SFO since, some 10 months on from that communication.

Of course, Mr Shabir and Mr Richards are not the only ones making such allegations about the activities of Lloyds bank and Alder King. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central mentioned earlier, when my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) was shadow Attorney General, she wrote to the SFO director about this issue on behalf of two other Labour Members of Parliament and their constituents. In his response, also dated 7 November 2014, David Green stated:

“I can assure you that we are taking appropriate steps to pursue this serious issue.”

Like my hon. Friends the Member for Cardiff Central and for Ogmore, I look forward to receiving an update from the Solicitor General—or, subsequent to the debate, in writing from the Attorney General—on the actual progress that has been made in investigating these serious allegations. We all appreciate their complexity, but it is now two years since the matter was first referred to the SFO.

There is also clearly a significant public interest in the matter, not least because we are, after all, discussing a bank that was bailed out by the British taxpayer and remains part-owned by the public purse. In addition, since 2010, the Serious Fraud Office’s funding has been cut by just over 12%, with potential serious implications for its ability to prosecute serious and complex cases of fraud and bribery effectively and in a timely manner.

In the light of what we have heard this afternoon, hon. Members need urgent reassurances from the Government Law Officers that the SFO does in fact have the resources it needs to investigate such cases. That question is even more pressing given the further £20 billion of cuts to public spending anticipated at the forthcoming spending review, with the Chancellor reportedly requiring Departments to model budget cuts of up to 40% by 2019-20.

Although allegations such as those made by Mr Richards and Mr Shabir may make for uncomfortable listening for the Government, it is deeply concerning that every time the Serious Fraud Office wants to take on a major case—LIBOR rigging being a prime example—it now has to effectively go cap in hand to the Treasury to apply for additional funding, sometimes referred to as blockbuster funding, in order to do the job. That clearly has implications for the vital independence of the SFO, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer potentially has a veto on what is investigated. Indeed, Transparency International has stated its concern about that situation:

“The process for additional budget approval may present a substantial risk of political influence.”

Again, I would appreciate an assurance from the Solicitor General that there is no need for such concerns, in particular with regard to the case we are discussing.

During questions to the Attorney General in July, the Solicitor General stated:

“It is important that we give our full-throated support to the work of the SFO because, as the hon. Gentleman says, if there are doubts about the integrity and efficacy of that important arm of the prosecutorial authorities, we are in serious trouble indeed.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1611.]

I could not agree more, but when we hear of cases like those of Mr Shabir and Mr Richards, who—like many thousands of businesses across the country—appear to have been badly let down by the system, such statements are understandably thrown into doubt. We need to know that the Serious Fraud Office does not just take such matters seriously but has the will, capacity and resources to investigate and then prosecute where appropriate. I look forward to hearing the Solicitor General’s reassurances in that regard.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I pay warm tribute to the hon. Members for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) for bringing this important debate to the Chamber and for having not only the courtesy but the sense of co-operation to approach me before it so that I could clearly understand the cases that would be raised. I hope, in the light of that, to offer an appropriate response. My response has to be calibrated bearing in mind the nature of the office I hold and the importance of having an independent prosecutorial service, and I know that Members on both sides of the House understand that.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and welcome her to her post as shadow Attorney General. I was delighted to hear her remarks. Although no doubt we will disagree about some issues, I am sure we will be able to work constructively together in the finest traditions of the Law Officers and shadow Law Officers, and their unique role within Government.

The issues that have been raised—it is almost axiomatic, but it is important to say it—are important. They are wide-ranging and the presence of the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) has been helpful, because, as he reminded us, he was the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that took oral evidence in March. I am grateful to him for coming to the debate. He will appreciate that issues of regulation are for other arms of Government, but one function of debates such as this is for the House to hear the bigger picture, so that all arms of Government are fully aware of Members’ concerns.

The hon. Member for Cardiff Central asked for a general review. As she will know, there have been a number of reports and reviews on specific aspects of this type of alleged misconduct. We heard reference to the Tomlinson report, which, in itself, gave rise to what is termed the skilled persons report under section 166 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. That report is due to be produced at the end of the year. It relates to another bank, but the type of alleged activity is highly germane to the issues that we have been discussing.

I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for confining myself to the debate’s terms of reference. What I aim to do, first, is to offer strong reassurance to hon. Members about the importance with which the SFO regards all allegations and the threshold test that it must apply.

I listened to the shadow Attorney General’s remarks with great interest. I disagree with her about the very nature of what is a demand-led service and the importance of having blockbuster funding to allow for the flexibility that the SFO needs, in terms of hiring or engaging staff, and larger numbers of staff at different times, particularly to deal with finite inquiries. There is also the impracticability of maintaining very large staffing numbers at all times because of the inevitable pressures that will exist upon its budgets, whatever the economic weather. With respect, the point that the hon. Lady was missing was the terms of reference within which the SFO was set up, and it is important to remind the House about those, because they are highly germane to the test that has to be applied to all allegations of fraud.

Those of us with a long memory will remember the Roskill report of 1986. It was groundbreaking because it made important recommendations about the investigation of serious fraud that gave rise to the Criminal Justice Act 1987. The Roskill model, which was the embedding of investigators and prosecutors together in one group, gave rise to the Act and setting up the Serious Fraud Office.

The sort of cases that the SFO deals with are what I, and I think all of us, would regard as the very high-profile, big-risk cases involving huge sums of money, large numbers of victims or new types of fraud, whether the manipulation of LIBOR rates, or allegations involving major companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Barclays, Tesco and Rolls-Royce. This is a particular type of serious fraud for which the threshold has to be high and, in fact, it is set out in the Act. We therefore have to recognise that, sadly, not all cases of alleged fraud are going to fall to the SFO to investigate. As I said, it can only formally commence investigation if the criteria and circumstances set out in legislation are met.

The police have the primary responsibility for investigating crime here, and Action Fraud has been established as the national reporting centre to which reports of alleged fraud should be referred in the first instance. The SFO’s role is limited to the investigation and prosecution of cases of serious and complex fraud. However, I can assure the House that when referrals are made to it, a member of the SFO assesses every single one. That task is not to be underestimated. The vast majority of referrals to the SFO are not about matters that it can properly investigate, but it takes every single referral seriously, and it will give each one due consideration and pass on details to other agencies that may be more suited to dealing with it or placing particular cases. It also retains the material that it has been given, using that for intelligence purposes to help inform other agencies and, indeed, sometimes in its own work to identify those top-tier cases that are appropriate for it to investigate.

I thank the Minister for the helpful way in which he is laying out his points. He mentioned the threshold test. If evidence was to be gained that this went beyond two individual cases and that there were far more, would it pass the threshold test? If that is the case, rather than relying on the CPS or on individual prosecutions, would it be, in the light of the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central, appropriate—or, in fact, necessary—for the SFO to make inquiries of Lloyds, RICS, and Alder King in relation to how many examples of conflict of interest and potential financial gains along the way this could affect? If we are talking about thousands of people—my apologies for the length of this intervention, Mrs Main—I suspect we are in SFO territory.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman can be forgiven for the length of his intervention, because he asked a very pertinent question. Although I cannot prejudge the precise parameters of what might happen in the future, circumstances may well change, and the SFO, keeping matters under review as it does, would then have to be guided by that change in circumstances. In other words, we cannot rule that possibility out. It would be wrong of me to do that.

Dealing, then, with the specific allegations, I have to acknowledge that it would be unusual for me to comment in detail about allegations either leading towards an individual or made by an individual or a company, but I am aware of course that Mr Shabir and Mr Richards have raised their allegations with a wide range of people and organisations, and I do not underestimate their importance. The two gentlemen clearly have had a very difficult time. The consequences of what has happened are extremely serious for them. That said, I have to stress that these remain allegations. It is not for me to comment on their merits or whether they are well founded. I have to acknowledge the effect of allegations that are made, and that is an important point when discussing them in a public forum such as this. Those are the constraints within which I think I should operate.

Although Mr Shabir and Mr Richards have presented their cases together, they are making slightly different allegations. It is right to say, as has been said in the debate, that the SFO has met the gentlemen on more than one occasion; the allegations have been considered in great detail; and there has been close liaison with other law enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies to gather any relevant material that they may hold. However, the SFO has explained to both gentlemen that their cases, individually, would not meet the threshold and would not be investigated, because as stand-alone allegations, they do not come into that top tier. That has been made clear. We have already—I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ogmore—started to outline and discuss what might or could happen to change that position, but that is the status quo.

I have said that it is important to recognise that the SFO does not investigate every case of alleged fraud—that is not its purpose—and I know that despite referrals to other organisations, no proceedings have yet been brought. However, the material provided by Mr Richards and Mr Shabir is being kept or has been kept under active consideration by the Serious Fraud Office, and this matter is kept under review as new information may arise. It is not a closed file, but obviously at this stage the threshold has not been reached.

This is exactly what the SFO should be doing. It is seeking to make intelligent and intelligence links to identify cases of serious or complex fraud. To seek to investigate every case would defeat its purpose and overwhelm its resource, and frankly it would have no statutory footing on which to do so. I argue strongly that the current director has demonstrated that he is prepared to take on difficult and high-profile cases. The seriousness of the investigations to which I have referred will, I hope, demonstrate to hon. Members the sort of case that the SFO should be taking on. In other words, the office has a specific role that Parliament has given it. If the SFO can put all these allegations together with other intelligence to establish a case of serious or complex fraud, it will do so, and that is why it has decided to keep this significant matter under review.

It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank everyone who participated in the debate, but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who is the new shadow Attorney General, and the Solicitor General. I am very grateful to you all and for having had the opportunity to put the case for my constituent.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Serious Fraud Office and the complaints of Alun Richards and Kash Shabir.

Sitting adjourned.