Wednesday 7 December 2016
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tree planting in the UK.
I have a declaration of interest to make: the forest and wood-processing sectors are well represented in my constituency, which contains no fewer than three sawmills, including one at Newbridge-on-Wye, close to the ground of the famous Royal Welsh show at Builth Wells. It will come as no surprise that forestry has always been a strong interest of mine, and I was delighted to be selected by Members to chair the all-party parliamentary group on forestry soon after I was elected as a Member of Parliament. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Unanimous support, as you can tell, Mr Bone.
I will ignore that. The timing of this debate is fortuitous, coming as it does just after National Tree Week, which ended on Sunday. National Tree Week is the UK’s largest annual tree celebration, launching the start of the winter tree-planting season. It first took place in 1975.
The debate also coincides with the inquiry into forestry in England by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which took evidence from a number of organisations interested in trees and woodlands yesterday. It is heartening to see that Parliament is taking the issue of tree planting seriously. This debate is part of the important process of looking at the issue carefully throughout all the nations that make up the United Kingdom, so we can see what lessons can be learned and shared.
The first question to ask is, why does tree planting matter to the people of the UK? Secondly, if it does matter, are we planting enough trees? Thirdly, if we are not planting enough trees, how can we change that and plant more? I will discuss the three questions in the order I set them out.
First, why does planting trees matter? There are many reasons. Most people are surprised when they are told that the UK is the third largest net importer of wood products in the world. China, with its population of 1.35 billion, tops the league table, and Japan, with a population double that of the UK, is in second place.
The reason for our reliance on imports is simple. Woodland cover in England is only 10%, and about 40% of that is not actively managed. Our good friends in Scotland, however, are taking the lead among the home nations with woodland cover at 18%, but that is still only half the European average of 37%. The days of comparing ourselves against the great European averages as a benchmark may be drawing to a close, but it is worth reflecting that more than 30% of the land of all our large European neighbours—Germany, France, Italy and Spain—is covered by trees.
The World Wide Fund for Nature has calculated that global demand for timber, paper and energy from forests is set to triple by 2050. If we do not plant more trees now, and if we continue to rely on imports, then the UK will be competing against other growing economies for a natural resource that we can, and perhaps should, grow more of at home.
What do the British public think? Helpfully, the Forestry Commission has conducted twice-yearly surveys of public attitudes to forestry and related issues since 1995. The findings are consistent over time and are worth putting on the record. Three quarters of people agree or strongly agree that
“Trees are good because they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in wood”.
Rowlinson Timber in my constituency uses forestry products and imports many of them. Making products that go into the supply chain locks up the carbon for additional time and allows the wood to be recycled at the end of the product’s life, making a vital contribution to ecosystem services. Furthermore, planting new trees also assists with anti-flooding measures.
My hon. Friend makes two good points, which I will elaborate on as we make progress. Indeed, in the survey, two thirds of the public agree or strongly agree that:
“Planting more trees can help us cope with climate change by providing shade and reducing the effects of flooding”,
as my hon. Friend said. Four fifths agree or strongly agree that
“A lot more trees should be planted”.
I repeat that for the benefit of the Minister: four fifths of the public agree or strongly agree that a lot more trees should be planted.
Does tree planting matter to the people of the UK? The evidence I have just given strongly demonstrates that it does, and evidence does not come only from more than 20 years of opinion polling. The British public are right behind great charities that support tree planting, such as the Woodland Trust, Trees for Life and the John Muir Trust. Last week, an editorial in The Guardian—not my paper of choice, as has been pointed out to me—summed up our attitude to trees well:
“The British like to romanticise trees”,
it said, having earlier stated:
“We need greenery to feed the forests of our imaginations.”
I find it hard to disagree with those views.
Even in The Guardian.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has recognised the role of trees in mitigating flooding as part of natural flood management, and the EFRA Secretary of State recently announced a £19 million fund to plant trees, because of their contribution to locking up carbon. There are therefore many reasons why we should plant trees. Most importantly, perhaps, our constituents are overwhelmingly in favour of more trees being planted.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is about trees in not only in rural areas, but urban areas? Many people enjoy the presence of trees in towns, and they also act as green lungs—things that are physically beautiful, but also contribute to a better environment for all.
I represent a rural seat, so I am looking from the perspective of the rural economy—and, indeed, of how trees enhance rurality—but I fully agree with my hon. Friend. I chose my little shoebox of a flat in London because it is close to an open square, so that I look out over a little patch of green grass and trees, which reminds me of home. My hon. Friend makes an important point: that certainly puts a spring in my step as I come into this great place every morning.
There are many reasons to plant trees, not least the wishes of our constituents, so I now come to the second question that I asked. Are we planting enough trees in the UK? The answer, as people will not be surprised to learn, sadly, is no. Planting rates in England are at a modern low and have been described as woeful.
The forestry industry in the UK supports at least 79,000 low-carbon jobs and is worth nearly £2 billion annually to our economy. Industry body Confor, the Confederation of Forest Industries, believes that such figures could be significant underestimates. Most available statistics from our countries are out of date, although a recent study in Scotland pointed the way, showing that the sector there had grown by 50% between 2008 and 2014, during challenging economic times in the UK. Well done to Scotland!
In the UK as a whole, we are benefiting from relatively high levels of tree planting in the decades after the end of the second world war. Trees planted in the 1970s and ’80s are now available for harvesting, which is contributing directly to a boom in the forestry and wood-processing industries. Unfortunately, new planting rates in the UK fell dramatically at the end of the 1980s. There has been an increase in Scotland in recent years, but other countries of the UK have largely followed a downward trend.
Organisations such as Confor and the Woodland Trust have been warning about this downturn in planting and the effect that it will have over a number of years. The language used has, perhaps understandably, become more and more extreme. Confor highlights the threat to future supplies of wood to support businesses in the UK, while the Woodland Trust has wondered whether England has experienced annual deforestation in recent years. The situation is simply not acceptable.
I come to my final point, which is a simple question: how can the UK change our approach to tree planting and ensure that we plant more trees? There is some good news—and it is back to Scotland. My colleagues from Scotland will no doubt talk about it in more detail; several of them have put in to speak. It looks as though the Scottish Government, not Wales, Northern Ireland or Westminster, are leading the way. They have the most ambitious targets among the home nations and are taking steps to speed up their processes for approving larger planting schemes.
The application process that farmers and landowners are required to go through to access funding for planting is complex and costly. It can and does put people off. When public money is involved, it is right and proper that comprehensive safeguards are in place to ensure value for money and that high standards are followed, particularly for forestry. However, the relevant bodies across the UK should be able to approve larger schemes that fully meet UK forestry standard requirements within six months in most cases and a year in all cases, not the current two years-plus. That would provide reassurance to farmers and landowners that their applications will not get bogged down with continually rising costs.
We all know that the UK will have to look again at support for the countryside after the country leaves the European Union. We do not yet know what the level of support will be or what it will look like. That will be determined by not just the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but the devolved Administrations in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. We surely must grasp the opportunity in front of us to ensure that forestry has parity of esteem with farming and fisheries as post-Brexit countryside policy develops.
For too long, forestry has been the forgotten F-word in rural policy and a poor relation in land use policy discussions. If we grow and process more of the wood we need in the UK, jobs will stay in this country, rather than being exported overseas. Using wood grown in Britain is clearly a priority for this Government, and I firmly support that. Leaving the EU means that we can look again at public procurement rules. States in countries such as Canada and Australia have timber-first public procurement policies. Using more sustainable UK-grown timber will stimulate business growth and ensure that more of our woodlands are well managed.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I apologise for missing the very start. He was good enough earlier to touch on the fact that Scotland leads the way on forestry planting. On the use of wood in the UK, does he agree that the UK Government should look at more timber-frame house construction? Again, Scotland leads the way on that. Three out of four houses being built in Scotland use timber-frame construction, whereas in the rest of England and Wales it is something like 15%.
The hon. Gentleman takes advantage of my praise for Scotland, but I certainly agree with him on that matter, which I am sure the Minister will elaborate on.
The Chancellor’s autumn statement made clear the need for new homes across the UK. Using timber means that houses can be built to a high standard, more quickly and with less energy in construction, and it saves money over the lifetime of the property. The UK sawmilling sector, which is a large employer in my constituency, and the wood panelling sector process nearly all the 11 million tonnes of UK-grown timber that is harvested annually.
The sawmilling sector has invested £100 million in UK plants every year since the recession. UK timber has a wide variety of domestic and construction uses—it is used in building our homes, for decking, fencing and pallets for industry, and much more. Mills such as BSW in my constituency and around the country are among the most modern and efficient in Europe. We have much to be proud of. I look forward to hearing the views of other Members from around the country, because we all have an interest in forestry and planting trees.
My view might be best summarised by an adaptation of the famous 18th-century Dunning’s motion, which was passed by the House of Commons: tree planting in the UK has decreased, is decreasing and ought to be increasing. I urge Members to support that approach. I hope that all political parties and devolved Governments across the UK will work together to address the long-term decline in tree planting.
I understand that this debate is not particularly about Wales and NRW, and the Minister will probably keep off that subject, but I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. As a Welsh MP and someone who was involved in Forestry Commission Wales, I have been a great supporter of it in years gone by. Forestry has virtually disappeared into NRW. In my opinion—in hers too, I am sure—that is a tremendous mistake. Forestry Commission Wales was a beacon to look up to; now, as she says, forestry is the missing F-word. That is a great shame indeed.
I agree that this country needs more trees. We have to be sensible and look at the end product. We encourage farmers and landowners to plant trees, and they have to look at the return. The Government have to ensure that there is the right return and help for planting, processing and managing. We have to look at the evergreens—the softwoods—that can produce a reasonable return in 40 to 50 years; hardwood trees produce a return in 80 to 100 years.
There must be a place for both kinds of trees, but the sawmills in my constituency, which I have mentioned many times, require softwood. They employ 150 people—that will go up to 180 in the next 12 months—and they process softwood. We require a great deal of softwood in this country. As I have already stated, all the wood that we produce, the majority of which is softwood, is consumed in this country, and we import even more. We have to look at not just what makes the countryside pretty and what looks after its ecology but what our subsidiary industries require. So I agree in part.
I hope that all the devolved Governments and the Westminster Government will work closely to plant more trees, which would make such a difference to our economy, our environment and our communities. Significant new tree planting would provide solutions to a whole range of 21st-century problems. It would deliver jobs and investment to our rural areas, help to reduce the impact of climate change and flooding, create habitats for wildlife and wonderful places for people to enjoy, and provide the raw material to build the new homes that this country needs.
It is nice to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on securing this important debate and on his excellent opening speech. Unusually, most of us probably agree with most of what he said—especially his congratulations to the Scottish National party Government in Scotland for their record on tree planting.
Much of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was about the economics of forestry, and I will talk a little about that, but I also note the importance of tree planting for all of us—it is not just about economics. Woods and forests are magical places that give joy to millions and have deep roots in our culture and folklore, yet the UK’s woodland resources have declined since the middle ages, and by the early years of the last century had reached an all-time low of just 5% of land area. There was a real crisis during the first world war, when so much timber was needed for the war effort that trees were chopped down almost indiscriminately, with potentially disastrous effects.
Members who have read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic “Sunset Song” may recall the reaction of the small farmer Chae to his wife when he returned from the trenches and found that the woods around Kinraddie had been cut down.
“Hadn’t she got eyes in her head, the fool, not telling him before that wood was cut? It would lay the whole Knapp open to the North East now and the fair end of a living here.”
That is the important thing about trees, as others have said: they are good not only for the soil but for shelter belts for farming. Anyone who has been on the north-east coast of Scotland on a windy day will appreciate the need for trees around that area.
Trees have played a vital part in small farming for generations, and now they also play an important part in flood prevention along many of our rivers. The creation of the Forestry Commission in 1999 was a reaction to falling wooded areas and a real attempt to reverse that.
As the hon. Gentleman noted, Scotland has the highest percentage of woodland cover in the UK at 18% of our land area. That is predominantly—74%—softwood, which as he rightly said is productive, with the remainder being principally native woods. There have been attempts, notably by the Cairngorms national park, to plant trees to regenerate and extend the remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest that at one point covered the whole of Scotland. Those trees provide a haven for much of our native wildlife. Those who drive around my constituency can see red squirrels—our trees are one of the last redoubts of that magnificent creature. In other areas, forests provide habitat for the endangered native Scottish wildcat. Tree planting helps the environment and the conservation of species, and that should not be overlooked.
That is exactly the point I was making. Trees are important for many reasons. They provide a huge commercial opportunity, which I accept, and that exists in Scotland at the moment, but we must also preserve our ancient woodlands. People like to walk in woods, and they like them for leisure activities. Frankly, there is a huge market for leisure activities in woods that are not being chopped down.
There is a lot we can do and, as the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) pointed out, there is a huge benefit to be had in fighting climate change, because growing wood takes up more carbon. However, much of the forest planted since the first world war has been planted for economic reasons, and that is not always understood. By its very nature, forestry is a long-term investment as trees take many years to grow to full maturity, and there can be a lack of understanding when woods that have stood for many years are cut down. That happened in my constituency: when wood came to its maturity, the trees were chopped down and there was a bit of a public outcry because well loved woods were going. However, trees are a crop, much as any other, which will be harvested. They will be replaced or replanted, but it will take many years for the new trees to come to maturity. Perhaps a bit of public education is needed in some areas as to the nature of forestry, with people understanding that it is a crop.
Today, forestry is estimated to contribute almost £1 billion a year to the Scottish economy, and it supports more than 25,000 full time equivalent jobs. Much of the activity in forestry comes from the Scottish rural development programme, which is funded via the EU, providing real support for rural communities. As we do in many debates, I ask the Minister, in this apparently new era of the Government telling us exactly what they intend to do before article 50 is triggered, what they will do to ensure that such funds will still be available should we exit the European Union. Forestry is a long-term business that requires stability and confidence for investment decisions to be made both in planting and in timber processing. At present, the forestry industry enjoys zero or low tariffs on trade within the European Union, so it is vital that a level playing field remains with other parts of the Union should the UK end up exiting. Support industries such as forest industries are sensitive to sudden dips in demand. Even a short-term fall in planting due to uncertainty could put many Scottish businesses such as tree nurseries at risk, so long-term certainty is important for the industry.
The Scottish Government recognise the extreme importance of the industry and are taking the steps they can to reassure investors that Scotland is open for business in both planting and investment in the processing sector. They have recently held two summits with the forestry sector to listen to its concerns and ambitions on the future of forestry. The Rural Economy Minister, Fergus Ewing, has met leading representatives of forest management investment companies to try to reassure them as much as possible. The Scottish Government currently have a consultation on the future of the forestry industry. They are making a real attempt to grow the industry of, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire put it, the missing “F” in the debate, to provide jobs in many rural areas such as mine and those of my hon. Friends who are here today.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on what he said about forestry. It is an important industry, but I would like the Minister to address where we are going on funding for future forestry enterprises if we are leaving the EU.
We have heard from my fellow office bearer of the all-party group on forestry, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies). I support and reinforce all the points he made.
As someone with a direct family connection to the forestry and timber industry, I declare an interest in the subject. My husband plants tens of thousands of trees every year in Northumberland, as did his father before him, and his grandfather planted more than half a million trees after the second world war, when most of the timber had been cut for the war effort and shipbuilders on the Tyne. If my husband could, he would probably reforest the whole of Northumberland in native, ancient hardwoods, but perhaps that is a step too far for the Government. I declare my bemusement at why current tree planting rates are so low—despite my husband’s best efforts—when, as my hon. Friend eloquently pointed out, it can provide solutions to a wide range of problems that face us in the 21st century.
I would like to cover in more detail some of the issues my hon. Friend mentioned. The first is flooding, which has been a big issue for us northern MPs over the past few years. We do not yet hear strongly enough from the Government that they understand how we can genuinely alter the ecosystem to reduce that long-term risk. I am on record as saying that there is clear evidence that tree planting can have a positive impact in reducing future flood risk.
The management plans based on river basins that are coming through are much more robust, and there is a serious tree planting part to that picture, which is encouraging. However, we really need to drive that forward to ensure that it is not lost. Rather than the unambitious target of 11 million trees being planted under this Government, I suggested in the House back in December last year that we should look at a number closer to 200 million. That sounds like a big number, but it is not that much acreage. The Minister may not recall my suggestion, which was that rather than planting one tree for every five citizens we should plant five trees per citizen. There is a big difference in those numbers, but, with political will and an understanding of the benefits, we can aspire to go much further.
Planting trees in the uplands as part of a wider natural flood management plan can reduce downstream flood risks. It is instinctively the right thing to do. Particularly in Cumbria, where for many years upland behaviour has been driven by the level of EU funding for sheep on uplands, there has been a lack of planting, so now we have long-term water retention issues, to which trees would make a significant difference. A number of publications by Forest Research and the forestry trade body Confor have highlighted the opportunities. Projects such as slowing the flow at Pickering in North Yorkshire show the practical benefits clearly.
Critics say that trees take too long to grow to play a major part in flood risk. I would answer that in two ways, not only because I am married to a man who thinks long-term—that has been drilled into me after 20 years of marriage—but because the tree is a vital component of the work. Research has shown that tree planting can have an impact on water flows within a year as tree roots take hold and the ground is disturbed. More importantly, it is time that we looked at long-term solutions to long-term systemic problems rather than being satisfied with quick fixes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire listed a number of 21st-century challenges to which forestry can provide solutions, which should all be addressed for the long term in a sustainable way: delivering lasting employment in rural areas; building warm, attractive homes that people want to live in; creating beautiful woodland habitats for recreation and wildlife; and tackling future risks from climate change and flooding. Those issues do not require quick fixes, they need a considered long-term approach. That is not something that Governments are naturally inclined to. I appreciate that it is difficult, but that is where forestry comes in. It can deliver for the economy, for our communities and for the environment.
So why are we hesitating? The Government have set a modest target, and we will struggle to meet that unless something miraculous happens. I find it difficult to listen to climate change alarmists and hear about Government policies that drive less economically efficient use of taxpayers’ money for energy and climate change planning, when we could plant the most efficient, cheapest carbon capture technology, which nature has already given us: the tree. Perhaps the Minister will inform us of whether any work is being done with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to consider how we can join up our thinking about that.
What can be done? First of all, let us support good planting schemes by getting them through the application process quickly and efficiently and not miring applicants in paperwork and delay. An exciting application in my constituency highlights what can be achieved. As the Minister will know, we have a plan to plant 600,000 trees on land at Doddington North, near Wooler, one of the more northern towns in my constituency. That is almost half the number of trees so far planted in 18 months in the whole of England. Doddington will be a great example of modern, mixed forestry—a range of tree species planted with open spaces and designed to fit into the existing landscape and deliver a huge range of benefits. The Doddington plan was launched this summer near Wooler at our local countryside show, the Glendale show. There was wide support from the community and even wider support for the fact that the consultation had started such an early stage. Andy Howard, the man behind the scheme, was able to tell the local community a positive story:
“Our design for the Doddington North wood can provide a very diverse ecology with a wide range of species of tree, plant, bird and animal life supported.”
Let me now return to 21st century problems and the practical ways in which forestry, such as what is being done at Doddington, can provide solutions. We are all passionate about protecting wildlife, especially totemic species such as the red squirrel. Northumberland is one of the few areas where there is still the chance to maintain the red squirrel’s habitat and fight off the grey squirrels that try to invade the space. Doddington is in a red squirrel buffer zone, and a specific focus of the scheme is to increase the amount of habitat that supports red squirrels. The scheme will also provide significant flood mitigation measures, as two tributaries for the Till floodplain below the site in Glendale start on Doddington moor.
As for jobs, the largest local sawmill, A & J Scott Ltd, an independent business employing more than 100 people in my constituency, is keen for the Doddington scheme to go ahead. It needs a guaranteed supply of wood, and there is worry at forecasts showing that the supply of timber from the UK will tail off unless we increase planting rates now. Robert Scott, the managing director, said:
“An afforestation plan of this scale could be very beneficial to our business in the future. We have in recent years, expressed our concerns regarding the future supply of the raw material for our sawmill.
It is clear that the volumes of saw log material will decline within the next 10 years and we are concerned that our ability to maintain a steady supply will be compromised, thus threatening the future of our business.”
That is a clear and worrying statement, and it is well borne out by the facts.
I want to mention two recent reports. In 2014 the Forestry Commission’s 50-year timber availability forecast showed a damaging fall-off in future timber supply. Confor analysis suggested that 1,000 rural jobs in constituencies such as mine could be lost unless that is plugged. In June, a report on wood fibre availability and demand showed clearly that demand for wood, for new homes and the wood products we all take for granted, will outstrip supply within little more than a decade. It also says:
“In Northern and Central England, demand already exceeds potential availability.”
Do we really want to import more wood at higher cost, threaten rural jobs, rely on short-term fixes for flooding, and reduce the supply of a beautiful, flexible and sustainable material with which to build new homes? I do not believe we do, and that is why I am bemused.
People love trees. Confor and the Woodland Trust both support a policy of the right tree in the right place. At the moment, we seem to be pursuing a policy of almost no trees, in no places. Why are we making it so difficult? Let us support great schemes such as the one at Doddington, and our forestry and timber industry; let us begin working out how to remove the barriers to planting and get more trees in the ground; and let us start soon, or future generations across rural Britain will pay the price.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on securing such an important debate and delivering such a fine speech, full of detail about the works of the Scottish Government and how well we are doing. It is very much appreciated. He mentioned his constituency interest in the forestry and timber industries, and I have a similar interest. Forestry and timber have deep roots in my constituency. Indeed, the tree family is part of our family tree there. [Interruption.] It gets worse—but I do want to change tack and be serious, because the industry is an important part of the economy; and the family aspect is important, because there is great potential for our young people when they are building careers.
When we grow trees in my constituency, we grow careers for people who want a rewarding job. I am keen for girls and young women in particular to take up the opportunities. We take forestry seriously—not least because I share my constituency area with the Forestry Minister in the Scottish Government, Fergus Ewing. However, forestry is also seen as a major developing industry in the highlands. That growth and development can happen only if we have a responsible commitment to sustainability. The Scottish Government see great potential in forestry, and consider it an excellent area in which to get young people involved; but it must be supported and developed, and I know that they are committed to taking their good work to greater heights.
The headquarters of Forest Enterprise Scotland is in my constituency, in Inverness. It is responsible for managing Scotland’s national forest estate and contributes to what I would call the local five-a-day of our economy—health, wellbeing, education, community development and protecting our natural and cultural heritage. Its work has the potential to benefit not only my constituents but all the people in Scotland, and beyond.
The Scottish School of Forestry, Inverness College, University of the Highlands and Islands, is the principal institution for forestry training and education in Scotland. We have a good reputation locally for providing successful forest managers in both the public and private sectors of the industry. The school acquired its sites from the Forestry Commission in 1972 and sits in its own 10-hectare woodland. It is the only forestry training provider to deliver higher and further education in its own practical training environment.
Among the area’s timber industries is Gordon Timber, in Nairn, which was founded in 1862. Since the late 1880s it has been managed by four generations of the same family, and is now recognised as one of the top sawmilling companies in the UK. The BSW Timber sawmill in Boat of Garten is a major employer in the area, and our plant contributes significantly to the local economy. BSW Timber was founded in 1848 and is the UK’s biggest sawmiller. It employs more than 1,000 people across seven locations, four of which are in Scotland.
Norbord, in Inverness, was the first manufacturer of oriented strand board in Europe. It was also the first OSB plant in Europe to receive Forest Stewardship Council accreditation, demonstrating commitment to the environment. Production at Inverness and Genk combines to make Norbord one of the largest OSB producers in Europe. Earlier this year, the Canadian company Norbord announced that it plans to invest up to £95 million in its wood panel factory near Inverness.
The final business I want to mention is MAKAR at Loch Ness, which has established a progressive timber-based design and build system that is rooted in the resources of Scotland. It has honed its knowledge of modern construction methods to get the optimum performance from home-grown timber. Not only does that reduce the carbon footprint of MAKAR’s buildings; it stimulates a regional industry that feeds investment into the economy. It is important that we support tree planting in Scotland, and note the wise words of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire about investing in the future.
Forestry is a devolved matter within the UK, and Scottish Ministers already direct domestic Scottish forest policy. However, domestic forestry is heavily influenced by EU policies and regulations, and co-financed funding is received for Scotland’s rural development programme. The Scottish National party in government has created the most ambitious planting target in the UK. England and Wales have annual targets of 5,000 hectares and 1,000 hectares respectively. Our target is 10,000 hectares. Scotland created 83% of all new woodland in the UK in 2015-16, so there is considerable development in tree planting in Scotland.
A recent report for the Forestry Commission assessed the potential role of UK forestry in combating climate change. Forestry Commission Scotland recently published its climate change action plan, setting out the action it intends to take to increase the contribution of Scottish forestry to the response to the challenges of climate change. The plan focuses on five key areas: protecting and managing existing forests; woodland creation, including energy crops; adapting to climate change, with a major focus on countering fragmentation through forest habitat networks; sustainably produced wood for energy and construction; and reducing the forestry sector’s carbon footprint, for example through improved timber transport infrastructure. Planning authorities should therefore consider the contribution that trees, woodland and forestry can make to local strategies in their efforts to adapt to climate change.
My hon. Friend has talked about climate change and sustainability, which is what tree planting is all about. Is it not crazy that the Government currently provide renewable subsidies for biomass energy, which is completely contradictory to sustainability and tackling climate change?
My hon. Friend makes the point clearly. I certainly agree that there is a nonsensical approach to renewable energy policy in the UK at the moment, which should be reviewed.
I want to go on to the issues facing the forestry sector. Given that the Scottish forestry sector receives vital support from the EU, the Scottish Government are focused on continuing investment in the sector to ensure economic growth, so that the reckless gamble of Brexit does not impact on that vital Scottish industry. The Scottish rural development programme, which is funded via the EU, provides vital support for the Scottish forestry sector and rural communities.
One of the main threats of Brexit is to confidence in the sector and to levels of woodland creation, and the long-term impact that will have on timber supplies to the domestic processing sector. New planting by the private sector is particularly sensitive to confidence about the availability of SRDP grant support in one to two years’ time and wider uncertainty in investment and land markets. I would like to hear reassurance from the Minister that the UK Government are taking steps regarding the future availability of forestry grants and that mitigation will be provided on that issue.
It is of extreme importance to reassure investors that Scotland is open for business, in both planting and investment in the processing sector. Timber processing has expanded significantly in the past 10 years. The Scottish Government have held two summits with the forestry sector to listen to its concerns and ambitions for the future of forestry in Scotland. EU referendum issues were discussed indirectly, with regard to securing future funding for woodland creation grants; even there, the EU is important.
Our Rural Economy Minister, Fergus Ewing, has met with leading representatives of forestry management and investment companies to provide reassurance that the Scottish Government are committed to seeing the forestry sector thrive. Currently, the forestry sector enjoys zero or low tariffs on trade within the EU, so it is vital that there is a level playing field with other parts of the European Union. Support industries, such as forest nurseries, are very sensitive to sudden dips in demand, and even a short-term fall in planting could put some Scottish nurseries at risk.
As I said, the SNP has created the most ambitious planting target in the UK, at 10,000 hectares a year, and Scotland created 83% of all new woodland in the UK in 2015-16. Since the forestry grant scheme opened in April 2015, more than 1,000 applications, worth £45 million, have been submitted, including for more than 8,500 hectares of woodland creation. Of that, 4,300 hectares of woodland creation, with a value of around £23 million, has been approved.
This issue is very important. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire for securing the debate and allowing it to be discussed. We are approaching Christmas, and it is important to end on the right tone. Christmas trees are an important seasonal part of Scotland’s rural economy. Scotland’s forests provide homes for wildlife, as my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mike Weir) mentioned, as well as places for recreation, and they help to reduce the impact of climate change and flooding.
To underline the importance of the industry, the First Minister has encouraged people to support Scotland’s rural economy this Christmas by buying home-grown Christmas trees. Two Norway spruce trees, grown by Highfield Forestry in Beauly—right on the edge of my constituency, in an area I used to cover as a local councillor—were delivered to the First Minister’s official residence, Bute House. Let us hope that tree planting and the timber industry in Scotland and the UK have a very happy new year. We wait to hear the answers on how that will be delivered.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on securing this debate. He does an excellent job chairing the all-party group on forestry.
Here we are, having this debate in Westminster Hall, and we can look around and see the timber not only in this room but in Westminster Hall itself and the oaks that were used to build that huge roof. Oaks were cut down over the years to build our fleet, when we went across the world and did various things. I will not go into the details of everything we did, but much was successful, although others may not say so. Over that period, we naturally cut down a great deal of oak forest. World wars then had their effect, and we set up the Forestry Commission after the first world war to plant a great number of trees.
Yesterday, we took evidence in the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as part of our forestry inquiry. The one great plea made on grants was to bring back the one-stop shop. People are finding that when they apply for grants, they have to go through Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency and deal with DEFRA. It seems to be taking up to a couple of years to get a grant through, which is just not acceptable. Now, as we look to reform after leaving the European Union, there is much we can do with that grant scheme to make it simpler and more encouraging for landowners to plant trees.
Our Scottish friends who are here are to be congratulated, but I want to prick their bubble just a tiny bit. Some land in the UK is much more suitable than other parts for planting trees, and other land may produce 4 tonnes of wheat per acre. Some of their land in Scotland may not produce 4 tonnes of wheat per acre, so the competition for that land between crops and trees is not quite so great as elsewhere. In the north of England and Wales, there is much land that will be very good for forests, where we can create a crop—we must remember that it is a crop.
I declare an interest: I am a farmer. I do not have a big farm. If I choose to plant trees on my farm, I lock them in for one, two, three or perhaps four generations. If someone has only a small farm, they may not want to do that. I am sure the Minister is aware of that. There is a way we can manage forests: we can have large forests, perhaps on some of the marginal land. We can have deciduous trees and conifers, perhaps with strips of deciduous trees around the edges. We can make it much more accessible to the public and aesthetically beautiful and still have a crop—we must remember that timber is also a crop.
Half the time, what puts a lot of landowners off planting trees is that when they do so, a lot of the population then say, “Over our dead bodies will you cut down any of those trees.” However, trees are a living crop. They grow and mature, and then we use them for building our houses. That is all great, and it is all part of forestry, which we sometimes forget.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but the issue is not just EU grants; it is how we deal with grants after we leave the EU. If we have the right mindset, we could produce a better grant scheme. If a percentage of better quality land further south in England where good crops can be grown is taken for trees, we will have to have a system to reward landowners for doing that. Otherwise, they will naturally decide to continue to grow other crops. Trees may be grown for aesthetic, conservation, and recreation reasons. Major forests may provide recreation, but that may also be done around our cities and highly populated areas. The great challenge for a grant system and support is to get people to plant in those areas, which is what I am keen to see.
Points have been made about climate change and the need to plant more trees to absorb carbon, as well as to stop flooding. That applies not just on marginal and steep land. In areas of run-off where intensive crops are grown, planting strips of woodland stops flooding and soil erosion. We can do an awful lot and we do not have to follow the common agricultural policy. I do not want future Governments to say, “We can’t do this.” We can do it if we look at it sensibly.
I thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) for bringing forward this debate, which is very topical. Balcas is a big timber firm in my constituency and I should declare an interest because I have a small amount of forested land on my farm. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one way of developing our own policy in the United Kingdom is to have zoned areas of forestry? He referred to difficult land—at least, I think he hinted at difficult land in Scotland—but he did not mention difficult land in Northern Ireland. Does he accept that zoned areas of forestry might be an opportunity?
Yes. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but we would have to be careful to have the right zoned areas. I am fearful of civil servants and others drawing lines on a map. They are not always entirely in the right place. We can have zoned areas, but we must put the right system in place to encourage people in those areas to grow trees. People will be more likely to do that if the right grant system is in place, because there will not be competition for what to grow on the land, so it could happen. We need to move forward and to make sure we have a balance between broadleaved trees and conifers. There is an anti-conifer world out there and some people say we cannot have conifers. We can, and in larger forests we can make sure the mixture is right from the recreation and management point of view.
Trees can be planted to stop flooding. I went up to Yorkshire recently with the floods inquiry where, traditionally, the Forestry Commission had turned the soil up by digging trenches and planted trees on top. When there is a flood, the water runs off down the furrow and straight into streams much quicker. As we plant, we must be more careful about possible flooding. Many things can be learned and achieved. With more trees we will create a better landscape and environment, and lock in carbon. We can reduce flooding and we can manage our land better. Highly productive farms have corners in fields and other places that are difficult to cultivate and they can be planted with trees. The area I represent includes the Blackdown hills, which are full of copses and small areas of woodland that are essential in our landscape. We should see more of that.
My final point is the fact that much of our woodland is not managed environmentally or for wood production. It is important that more woodland is managed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we have some serious problems because of lack of ability to make best use of woodland? In many parts of southern England, where forestry has been managed for many decades, we have a lot of ancient woodland and a concerted effort is needed to support land managers to improve that forestry.
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. We could have a carrot and stick approach with small grants for such land. Some people buy woodland for tax advantages, so perhaps we could tweak that to require management of the land. If people buy land, should they leave it when it could be managed for environmental purposes as well as to provide a resource? We need a lot of woodchip and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made much of the fact that we import so much wood. We can grow more timber and we can burn it in wood-burning stoves in our homes because there is nothing like wood to provide a homely feeling. That cannot be beaten.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend for bringing forward this debate. We can grow more timber and create more forests with a better environment, but we must use our land carefully as we do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. We have had an excellent debate. We have all talked positively about the benefits of trees, but we need hard action. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on his excellent opening remarks; I say that not just because he praised the Scottish Government in a way that made me fear he may be taken out the back and given a good thrashing afterwards. His wit and charm are critical to his chairmanship of the all-party group on forestry. He does an excellent job.
The hon. Gentleman started by asking arguably the most important question: why does tree planting matter so much? He then went on to describe the many ways in which it matters economically and environmentally, and the huge public support out there. The environmental impact is significant and we should be conscious of that as we make policy decisions. Four fifths of people agree that more trees should be planted; that gives the Minister a resounding mandate, well beyond the 37% of votes the Conservatives won in the general election. I suggest that 80% support should be embraced.
The hon. Gentleman was poetic. I do not know whether he was in the debate on ancient woodland, but talking about trees seems to bring out the inner poet in Members, which should be encouraged. We will all take with us the phrase, “the forgotten F-word”, which reinforces the point about forestry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mike Weir) and Chief Whip made an excellent contribution and set out the historical context, which is particularly important when we talk about forestry. As we heard, that is a long-term investment, so learning from past mistakes is critical. He also brought up one of the most significant issues that we need to focus on in the debate: the importance of EU funding and SRDP funding in Scotland. He joined the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire in supporting the moves made by the Scottish Government.
The MP for just across the border, as I call her—the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan)—spoke about her husband. We all have challenges doing this job and have to score brownie points whenever we can with our spouses. The hon. Lady has earned many a token today. I commend her for not jumping to her feet when she heard the question “Should we leave the EU?”, although I did see some hairs rise on the back of her neck at that point. She made an important point about flooding and also said that we should set more ambitious targets.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) made an excellent and puntastic contribution. He used this excellent line: “When we grow trees, we grow careers.” That is a lovely way of putting it. Trees are long-term investments and their progress is slow to witness—a bit like many Government policies—so we sometimes do not notice that progress. What my hon. Friend said was a lovely way of reinforcing the point. Like a couple of hon. Members, he also mentioned BSW Timber, which is headquartered in Earlston in my constituency. It is always a delight to hear that excellent company mentioned. Clearly, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, as in mine, forestry is hugely important.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) made excellent points. He was obviously fresh from evidence sessions lined up because of this upcoming debate—that is the advantage of chairing a Select Committee. The point about a one-stop shop for grants is important. If we want to move on this issue, it is important that it should not take two years to get a grant through; otherwise, people will simply be put off by the process.
The hon. Gentleman also flushed out the interesting and important point about the competitive aspect of land use choices. Trees are a crop. The challenge, of course, is public attachment to them. We need to maintain the premise that they are a crop. Yes, they have wider benefits, but they remain a crop. That needs to be considered in relation to planning and harvesting. We need to ensure that people are not put off because of what I have described. The hon. Gentleman also made excellent points about the need for balance. This is not just about large-scale forestry; forestry, in many aspects, has a use in terms of both local land use and the wider benefits.
As I mentioned, forestry is very important in my constituency. BSW Timber is headquartered there, but there are many other forestry businesses. They may be involved in production. An example is Cheviot Trees, a state-of-the-art nursery in the Scottish borders and across in Northumberland. There are also many businesses that rely on forestry, such as the small business that I visited recently on the Buccleuch estate that makes timber homes. It is two guys working away on the estate and producing the most magnificent dwellings, which are now in huge demand.
The forestry industry contributes almost £1 billion a year to the Scottish economy and supports more than 25,000 jobs. It is clearly critical to Scotland’s economic success today and in the future. As we heard, forestry is a devolved matter, but it is heavily influenced by EU policies and regulation and, more importantly, by funding. In Scotland, that is through the Scottish rural development programme.
As we heard, forestry is a long-term business. Stability and confidence are required to enable investment decisions to be taken. Our domestic market is highly vulnerable to changes in currency and trade policy. The sector needs clarity on the regulatory frameworks, but also, critically, on funding models. Although the Government stepped in initially to honour funding models until 2020, we need to get on the front foot in terms of what will flow on afterwards.
Economically, forestry is a very sound and worthwhile investment, but the other aspect, which means that the debate should have been attended by everybody, not just a few of us with an interest in forestry, is that the environmental impact is also huge. Forestry is playing a key role in helping Scotland to meet its ambitious climate change targets. I will give some notes to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire—he was very good on Scotland; there was just a slight gap there. [Laughter.]
A free transfer!
Forestry will deliver on the annual carbon saving target. That was set at 0.6 million tonnes of carbon by 2010, which is rising to 1 million tonnes by 2020. Forestry is a huge part of the strategy in that area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said, the Forestry Commission recently published a climate change action plan, looking at how we can build on the current success. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made the fair point at the start that although Scotland may be leading the way in the UK, there is still room for improvement. There is acceptance of the Select Committee Chair’s point about the most effective use of land. There are areas that we can and will develop further.
We heard about the annual planting targets of 10,000 hectares, but as important are the moves to speed up and streamline the approval processes for sustainable plantations. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire outlined, that needs to happen in England; the Scottish Government are already on the front foot in that respect.
I mentioned Cheviot Trees. When this debate was announced, its managing director, Harry Frew, got in touch with me and asked me to attend this important debate if I could because, in his words:
“We don’t feel the urgency of tree planting is seriously understood nor is activity being implemented in a meaningful way in England.”
Mr Frew is clear that the Government get it—they have the nice words and some of the rhetoric—but what is missing is action. I hope that in this debate he will get reassurance from the Minister that there is action to match those words.
I have a genuine concern as we head down the Brexit path about the ability and resources in DEFRA to deliver in a post-Brexit world. My own experience of getting responses out of DEFRA, as the DEFRA spokesperson, has been poor. Responses are slow. I got a response today to a question submitted on 1 September, and two responses are still outstanding. In a resource-constrained environment, in which people are struggling to do the day job, how will the Department cope with the bigger challenge for DEFRA—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but it is the rule of the House that he should have only 10 minutes. He has now gone on for longer than that, and if he does not bring his remarks to a conclusion, that will cut down on other hon. Members’ time.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I apologise for running over; I am concluding. Will the Minister assure Harry Frew that there will be action to match the ambition? Will she tell us what she will do to ensure that forestry is a success story in the future as well as today?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies). This has been a very interesting debate, and his opening remarks set the scene perfectly as to why tree planting is important and why we need to plant more trees. He mentioned the amount of wood that we import, how important it is that we become sustainable as a country, and the importance of planting trees for climate change, which several hon. Members mentioned. He also mentioned the construction industry and why it is important that we grow our own timber to make our homes more beautiful. I congratulate Hackney Council in this regard. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of this, but it is the first council in England to promote timber in its planning policy for building.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) made some excellent points. He requested more support for farmers and landowners when applying for the grants, which is really needed, and I hope the Minister will give us some positive thoughts on that. He also mentioned that we must not forget we have to plant in urban areas as well. Before I became a Member of this House, I worked with a charity called Trees for Cities, which does great work; again, it would be good to see its work also supported. The hon. Members from Scotland who are here today talked powerfully about the importance of forestry to Scotland’s economy and their cultural heritage.
I want to focus on the issue raised specifically by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) about the importance of tree planting in managing flooding. I was also pleased to hear her talk about red squirrels; we have red squirrels in our garden, and it is great that we are supporting those through tree planting as well. Obviously, flood prevention is particularly important in my constituency. Hon. Members know about the terrible floods that we had in Cumbria just a year ago. This is something that—I will mention my husband as well—my husband and I have taken a very personal interest in. The River Marron flows through our land for half a mile, and the Marron goes into the Derwent, which caused a lot of the damage in Cockermouth and further downstream. We have been talking and working with the Rivers Trust and the Woodland Trust, and we are having 500 trees planted on our land—400 on the land and 100 along the banks of the river—to try to help with the kind of work that hon. Members have talked about.
Since I became a Member of Parliament, and more recently the shadow floods Minister, people have contacted me to talk about the particular role that tree planting has in slowing down the flow of water to help to combat levels of flooding. Somebody gave me a really interesting study from North America that was published in 2012. It found that deforestation in snowy regions at least doubled, and potentially quadrupled, the number of large floods occurring along rivers. There is a lot of really good scientific evidence out there that we can look at.
The Forestry Commission has also set out four ways in which trees can reduce flood risk. The first is by evaporating more water than other, shorter vegetation— coniferous trees are better at doing that, so we have to look at those as well as at deciduous. Woodland soils retain water better than soil under grass, which slows floodwater down before it gets to the rivers themselves. Trees alongside the rivers create more drag—we have had some trees placed to create drag in our river, to slow down the flow of water—and also help with the problems of soil erosion and the movement of sediment.
The deadwood along the rivers can play a vital role: it is obviously good for wildlife, but it can also slow down the flow of the waters. People often talk about concerns about deadwood because it can come loose, get clogged under bridges, dam and cause problems; but surveys of the River Kent in Cumbria found that the benefits outweigh the risks as long as the rivers are managed properly. That is really important; we do not always manage our rivers properly and we need to look at that very carefully. Obviously, the location of tree planting is important. We have to make sure that everything is done in the right place.
Will the Minister say what plans the Department has to roll out more of the natural flood prevention measures? Those are very low in cost when compared to paying afterwards for the cost of damage that floods have caused. As has been said, the Government have missed their tree planting target and Confor recently calculated that they are seven years behind schedule. The Woodland Trust also says that tree planting is now at an all-time low. Members have talked about how many more trees the Government have pledged to plant, and I understand that the Conservatives’ last manifesto included a pledge about tree planting. I urge the Minister to turn this very disappointing situation around and to do whatever she can to encourage more tree planting to push forward that manifesto promise. We really need to get back on track. If, in her response, the Minister could give us some idea about how we are going to get on track and meet those targets, I am sure that all hon. Members who have spoken today would be pleased to hear that we are going to make some progress, because we really need to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on securing this debate. As has been said, there have been a number of contributions and interventions showing how important a role trees play in the heart of our nation, holistically as well as economically and environmentally.
My hon. Friend will recognise that forestry policy is a devolved matter, but I undertake to give an overall picture of tree planting in the UK while focusing on measures for which this Government are responsible. The debate offers me a chance to highlight our commitment to plant 11 million trees this Parliament, the role of forestry in the economy and the potential for woodland expansion to help us meet our carbon goals and our reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. We are actively working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on our national emissions reduction plan.
Hon. Members have highlighted many benefits of tree planting, such as flood alleviation and the potential for building homes. The phrase “The right tree in the right place” has been used, and certainly the right tree can be the solution to many of the challenges we face. Considerations include whether it is the right use of land, where to plant and whether trees are broadleaf or softwood. Those are challenging policy objectives to balance, but when the Government bring forward our 25-year environment plan next year, I hope hon. Members will have a good idea of what we intend to do in the long term.
Total tree planting in England, both new planting and restocking, was 4,000 hectares in the year to March 2016. In Scotland it was 12,500 hectares, and it was 1,900 hectares in Wales and 800 hectares in Northern Ireland. Traditionally, planting is measured in hectares rather than individual saplings, with different planting densities for different kinds of trees. In the case of new creation, Scotland’s ambitions have already been highlighted—10,000 hectares a year are planned. In the last year, it achieved 4,600 hectares. I understand that in Wales there is an ambition to plant 2,000 hectares a year, and 100 hectares was achieved. One hundred hectares was achieved in Northern Ireland as well, and as has been pointed out, in England it was about 700 hectares.
I do not blame the Minister for one moment for the problems with the grants system at the moment, but I hope she will cover the idea of trying to bring back a one-stop shop to speed up grant applications. I think that would be really good, and I would like her to consider it.
I hope to cover that very soon, and I hope that my answer will satisfy my hon. Friend. One reason why there has been a dip compared with prior years is that a new scheme has come in, focused on European rules. It is usual that in the first year of such a scheme, take-up tends to be lower. I know that, certainly in England, we are already seeing some significant increases. Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century and our aspiration is to grow it even further to about 12% coverage by 2060—as has been pointed out, it is currently at 10%.
I would appreciate being able to make a bit more progress, because I hope to answer some of the questions that my hon. Friend raised. If I have time, I will of course give way at the end.
We intend to grow woodland cover through the countryside stewardship woodland creation capital grant, the woodland creation planning grant and the woodland carbon fund, which has already been referred to. We recognise that there have been specific challenges to the take-up of countryside stewardship under the rural development programme. In England, the latest figures show that planting in 2015-16, and planting to September this year, will have achieved close to 1.4 million trees.
There were many reasons for the disappointing take-up. As I have already indicated, the new programme cycle is part of the challenge, but I understand that the Forestry Commission, the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England have worked together to resolve some of the technical challenges faced by the new scheme. To respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—I know I will be coming to his Committee to give evidence—I commit to looking into the issue in more detail to understand some of the issues and how further improvements could be made for the future. We know that recent improvements have had a beneficial impact and that the number of applications is certainly up, whether or not they are all approved. We will shortly put guidance on to gov.uk and advise the sector about a new round of countryside stewardship woodland creation grants and woodland planning and woodland improvement tree health grants in 2017. We encourage farmers and land managers to apply for the grants to expand and manage their woodlands.
The £1 million woodland creation planning grant scheme was launched last year. The first round was widely welcomed and generated plans for more than 1,000 hectares of planting. It supports the effective and sustainable design and planning of schemes, including the site at Doddington moor, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) referred. As she said, that has the potential to be the largest private sector woodland created in England for more than 20 years, with plans to plant 600,000 new trees. The project is still subject to regulatory approval from the Forestry Commission, and one challenge is that an environmental impact assessment will be required. The second round opened in September. The woodland creation planning grant has so far attracted applications that could cover a further 2,000 hectares and lead to 4 million trees being planted.
To further support tree planting, on 10 November the Forestry Commission opened the £19.6 million woodland carbon fund, which is aimed at boosting woodland creation rates and helping the Government’s future carbon targets. We are aiming specifically to generate private sector investment for large-scale forestry, which will serve the purpose of being a carbon sink and could be a future source of supply, as has been indicated.
On leaving the European Union, without prejudging any future discussions, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that there will be support on a value-for-money basis, following the setting of policies that are bespoke to the needs of this nation. As for actual schemes, I suggest that the schemes that were approved up to the autumn statement will be honoured in full. People often seek certainty on the maintenance part of schemes, and I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire that future schemes will be developed as part of our work on the environment plan.
On the barriers to getting grants and the timeline of how long it takes, I understand that the countryside stewardship schemes, which do not require an environmental impact assessment, are being handled rather quickly, and that the challenges relate to larger schemes. We remain keen to minimise and streamline regulatory burdens where appropriate. We are considering consulting on the EIA regulations, including those relating to forestry, to see what we can do to improve the process while preserving good environmental outcomes.
On commercial forestry, to achieve the 12% woodland cover ambition, we need more forestry investment by the private sector. We are committed to working with the industry and rural businesses to support landowners to plant more trees. The public forest estate is the biggest single producer of timber in England, supplying around 49% of softwood last year. Historically, all woodlands in England were managed to produce fuel and fibre. The PFE will continue to supply a very large proportion of wood in the future while we work with landowners and timber processors to further increase volumes of softwood and hardwood coming to market in the medium and long term. That will be achieved by establishing new productive woodlands and by bringing more existing woodlands into productive management.
I know that the production sectors that use timber would like to expand the supply. The UK currently imports 80% of the timber it uses, so we recognise the opportunities that exist for rural economies if we can expand the domestic supply. That is why I am pleased that, through such things as the woodland creation planning grant, we are starting to see signs that investors and forestry businesses are developing larger-scale, more commercially viable schemes.
As has been said in many contributions today, the benefits of trees are multiple. As we consider our future approach to the environment through the 25-year environment plan, we know that woodland and forestry have much to offer. As well as supplying timber, trees deliver many benefits, including for recreation opportunities and for wildlife and biodiversity, but the benefits go far further than that. The roots of trees can provide greater land stability on slopes and help to reduce flooding by allowing water to penetrate more rapidly into the soil rather than running off into rivers, and they can help to improve water quality by reducing soil erosion.
As for the flooding we have seen in recent years—I recognise that the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) had that horrendous experience a year ago—it is not possible to protect all communities completely from every instance of flooding, but with the frequency and size of floods predicted to increase, we need to adopt a whole-catchment approach to flood risk management. That approach can enhance the performance of traditional flood defences. Trees planted as catchment approaches can help with heavy rain, as I have indicated. I assure the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Forestry Commission will continue to work together to integrate tree planting into work to reduce flood risk, as part of catchment-based approaches. My hon. Friend will be aware of the Cumbria flood action plan and the £15 million that was announced in the autumn statement to work towards that.
Trees have other benefits, too. They are important to us in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, providing a valuable and relatively inexpensive carbon sink, which can contribute towards meeting our ambitious carbon targets and tackling climate change. We recognise the potential benefits for air quality, and in helping to regulate a flow of rain into the sewers or provide a canopy of shade from the sun. However, that all comes back to having the right tree in the right place.
Active woodland management is important not only to help monitor and protect against disease, but to increase the biodiversity of our woods by allowing light into them to enable other plants, insects and woodland species to thrive. A lesson that was learned in Cumbria, and which I heard about there in the summer, is that active management is needed especially on riverbanks, because several trees effectively became missiles as they hurtled down rivers, crashing into bridges alongside boulders and causing considerable damage.
We recognise the pivotal role played by urban trees, and I commend the work done on community forests. I visited the St Vincent de Paul primary school in Liverpool and did some tree planting with some youngsters. I also visited the National Forest Company in the midlands last week; it is a successful example of the large-scale transformation and regeneration of landscape.
Peter Ackroyd’s book “Albion” starts with a chapter called “The Tree”, recognising that trees are central to the heart of what makes our country so special—all four nations comprising the United Kingdom. This may surprise you, Mr Bone, but my favourite tree is the horse chestnut. I recognise that it is a non-native species, but it is at the heart of being a child—playing conkers, seeing the candles form, and the great cover that it provides—and it is so sad to see the terrible diseases that now afflict those trees across many parts of our nation.
Would my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire like to intervene briefly, before he has his two minutes to wind up?
I would. We hear a great deal from the Minister’s civil servants about how woodland cover is at its highest since the 14th century. I want to work out, first, why we are using that particular factoid and secondly, who can prove that we are in that position.
Well, I use the statement because it is accurate and true. At times people challenge us, understandably, and accuse us of various things to do with forests, and I want to point out how successive Governments—but this Government in particular—have accelerated tree planting in recent years, recognising the importance of trees to our natural landscape.
I look forward to working with hon. Members and stakeholders in woodlands and forestry to promote more private investment in the sector, not only to secure greater economic benefit but to capture more carbon and maintain the public benefits that we all value so much from our existing woodlands and forests and the wildlife and biodiversity that they support.
May I say what a pleasure it has been to have this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bone? Thank you for allowing us to do so. I have just a couple of minutes; I would like to pick up on everybody’s comments, but time is against us, so I just say that “the right tree in the right place”, which my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) mentioned, is the phrase of the day, and we need to take note of that.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) mentioned careers. Forestry is no longer about somebody just going out into a wood with an axe; these are highly skilled, highly technical and recognised positions. I would recommend that anybody out there look for a career in forestry, because—my goodness me—what a career they would have. I praise considerably my great friends, the Members from Scotland who are here today—I am delighted to be able to finish by praising them, because being part of the UK allows me to do so. We are better together, and I thank them.
There is much more I would like to say, but if we look out of the window opposite me in the Chamber we can see the wonderful Christmas tree in New Palace Yard. It is the festive season, and we are delighted about and looking forward to everything that Christmas brings. But I ask the Minister and everybody else, when they look at a Christmas tree outside or in their living room, to please think about extra planting from 2017 onwards.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tree planting in the UK.
Large Logistics Parks (Transport Infrastructure)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered transport infrastructure for proposed development of large logistics parks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank hon. Members for attending the debate.
The need to transport essential supplies and other consumer goods around the United Kingdom has spurred the demand for large distribution parks, especially in my constituency of South Leicestershire and around the midlands. Property developers have responded by lodging an increasing volume of applications with local planning authorities, many of which are small and insufficiently resourced to deal with such large-scale proposals and the infrastructure required to support them. Often, the applications comprise large land-takes—many of greenfield sites and rural areas where there is little culture of planning across different authority boundaries, even between neighbouring authorities. As a result, there is a need for a co-ordinating national policy specifically governing the development of these large logistics parks.
The logistics industry has expanded over the past 20 years —not only to supply retail outlets, but to satisfy the boom in internet shopping, with which most hon. Members are well familiar. This year, online retailers such as Amazon and others account for one third of the warehousing property development market, with supermarkets accounting for one quarter. Currently, 80% of costs of all goods are transport costs, even before taking into account on-costs of infrastructure maintenance, the environmental costs of traffic congestion or, indeed, the health-related costs of air pollution. A recent World Bank report stated that congestion on UK roads is the worst in Europe, and the UK has the highest percentage of premature deaths owing to poor quality and polluted air.
The Government have defined a national policy, preferring the development of rail-based freight terminals and seeking to minimise fossil fuel-based road transport. For example, the Daventry International Railfreight Terminal close to the M1 in Northamptonshire, and near Rugby in Warwickshire and Lutterworth in my constituency, is a major development entering its third planned phase. Further planned developments are taking place at East Midlands Gateway with airport and rail connections, and near Hinckley, with a planned rail depot. Despite all that, there has been a proliferation of distribution centres reliant on road transport, notably in my South Leicestershire constituency and in adjacent constituencies. As the infrastructure rarely aligns with the speculative development of land-based centres, roads and highways are frequently under strain owing to the volume of traffic they now carry.
As there is no national policy of locating distribution centres to match essential regional needs for longer-term economic development, there continues to be what I call the piecemeal development of many road-based sites. At a local level, there is little integration of inter-authority planning for optimum locations. Such unplanned development leads to increased volumes of traffic on local roads. The resulting traffic congestion leads to delays and queues at key junctions, disrupting citizens’ day-to-day travel to work, school and health facilities. As a constituency MP, I experience this congestion when I take my daughter to school. I see hundreds of heavy goods vehicles every week and I have witnessed accidents involving HGVs in and around the Magna Park area.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He makes an important point about traffic congestion. There is an Amazon fulfilment centre in Rugeley in my constituency, and HGV fly-parking is a real problem for local residents. Does he consider that to be an issue as well?
In my area, there is a proposed development on green-belt land near a one-way motorway junction. The Greater Manchester spatial strategy includes plans for the motorway junction to become two-way in 40 years, but the development may take place within the next two years if that very important land is taken out of the green belt. There are also developments with no consultation in St Helens, in the neighbouring borough, which will increase the traffic again on that junction. Does the hon. Gentleman agree we need some national infrastructure in place to develop the proposals for logistics sites on these important pieces of land?
I agree with the hon. Lady’s points. I want to give others the opportunity to speak in this important debate, but my point is that it is now time for the Government to set out their proposals for a national policy on the location of these large logistics parks.
With your permission, Mr Bone, I would be delighted to hear other contributions.
I am very grateful to the Minister. As I said, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) on raising the issue and calling for this debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.
My constituency, Cannock Chase, is home to several large logistics parks, largely because of the constituency’s proximity to motorways, rail and the trunk road network. For instance, Kingswood Lake business park in Cannock is home to logistics businesses such as APC Overnight. Given its proximity to the M6 and the M6 toll road, Cannock and the surrounding area is increasingly being considered for other large logistics centres. However, the issues that my hon. Friend highlighted can be illustrated by some of the issues faced by residents and businesses in Rugeley.
In contrast to Cannock, Rugeley is not within a mile of the motorway network but, as I mentioned, it is home to one of Amazon’s fulfilment centres. The site was initially developed speculatively, with Amazon identifying it as an ideal site in the midlands to home one of its fulfilment centres. The site and the town do not have the facilities, however, to cope with large volumes of HGVs, often only having a small turnaround time window at the Amazon site. Specifically, there is no lorry parking locally and no facilities for drivers to use. The consequences, as I have mentioned in previous debates, is HGV fly-parking.
Residents of Rugeley, particularly those of Leathermill Lane, Love Lane and local businesses based in Towers business park on Wheelhouse Road, are plagued by lorries parked up overnight that are probably best described as being littered around the streets of Rugeley. Not only is this an inconvenience to road and footpath users; but it creates a safety issue on those roads. Even worse, residents and businesses have to put up with the litter that the drivers leave behind. I will not elaborate; I leave it to hon. Members’ imaginations to work out what that litter includes. I have been in regular contact with Staffordshire County Council and the local police to call on them to take action to address those issues. I met Amazon earlier this week to raise the issue directly. This symptom highlights the need to consider transport infrastructure when developing plans for logistics parks.
Like the constituencies of both my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, my constituency has a very large number of logistics parks. We must not stand in the way of economic development, but it is important that infrastructure is provided.
The issue is a concern to my constituents in villages such as Monks Kirby and Pailton, who are affected by the proposals for the large logistics site in Leicestershire. The solution to that problem is improving the A5; I hope the Minister will tell us about proposals for dualling the A5, which forms the boundary between my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire.
I completely agree with a couple of my hon. Friend’s points. We must not get in the way of economic development, which I will touch on shortly. The A5 goes all the way up to Cannock, and the road is permanently clogged. I support anything that will lead to the A5 being dualled as quickly as possible, which would alleviate many of the problems we are talking about today.
Consideration of transport infrastructure is particularly important when we consider the redevelopment of the Rugeley B power station site, which is opposite the Amazon fulfilment site. These are early days, but the infrastructure cannot cope now, so I have concerns about the plans for developing the site. The infrastructure we have now will not support further logistics centres.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister and the Government should require neighbouring local planning authorities to consult jointly on planning development for such large logistics sites and other infrastructure? Proposals for the development of logistics sites, such as Magna Park, should be accompanied by adequate pre-planned development of road and rail infrastructure.
I completely agree. I get complaints about sites in neighbouring constituencies. We are so close to the M6 toll road and the M6 that other developments are in the pipeline. The Rugeley B redevelopment crosses the boundary between Cannock Chase District Council and Lichfield District Council, which need to work together. I am pleased that a taskforce is pulling together the two district councils, the county council and the local enterprise partnership. I have been calling on them to consider the strategic vision for the site so that we ultimately have highly skilled jobs for the future residents of Rugeley.
The situation in which we find ourselves in Rugeley with Amazon, and the situation in which we could find ourselves as we look to the redevelopment of the Rugeley B site, clearly demonstrate the need to consider infrastructure and the surrounding policy, and the need to work collaboratively at all levels.
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that we must seriously consider introducing policy to ensure that consideration is given to the local infrastructure that such large parks require. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and it is a double delight to speak at this small lectern, which is a new addition to this assembly that adds to both my status and grandeur, as if I needed either.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) on securing this debate. He is right that the circumstances he set out are the result of other changes. He is right to draw attention to the fact that this is a growing trend that is a result of the way that people obtain goods and the way those goods are dispatched.
I am inclined to the view of Schumacher, and I am a fan of his book “Small is Beautiful”. Of course, he said:
“Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful.”
I am inclined, too, to regard politics and commerce as best conducted on a human scale. Nevertheless, we must deal with things as they are. I understand that the consequences my hon. Friend set out present particular challenges in the area he represents. It is often said that there is a geographical triangle where there is a propensity to develop such sites, and his constituency is in that triangle.
As I know from earlier discussions with my hon. Friend, he knows that logistics is a vital part of our country’s economy and prosperity. I have responsibility for freight, which is, in part, why I am responding to this debate. I take a keen interest in how logistics continues to develop and in how we can support HGV drivers and businesses, but I am mindful of the effect of those businesses on communities, which is the essence of this debate. This is about how storage facilities are changing and how logistics parks affect local communities.
I am delighted that the Minister is standing up for logistics. There is a lot of logistics development in my constituency, and it is often thought of as low-calibre work with hulky blokes throwing boxes around, but nothing could be further from the truth. These are high-tech, well-structured, well-managed and well-organised businesses that perform a vital function in getting goods to consumers.
In representing people in this House, and in serving in Government, we draw on our personal and constituency experiences. My uncle was a long-distance lorry driver, and my cousin followed him into that job. I represent many hauliers in South Holland and The Deepings, and I have regular dialogue with them. As Members would expect, I have discussions with the industry as a Minister.
I am equally anxious and concerned about the effects on traffic in local communities, particularly from developments around logistics sites, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire has mentioned. We need to, and can, strike a balance between the interests of the industry and the interests of local people. We often have to do that as Members of Parliament, and the Government perpetually do it. These things are never entirely straightforward, but I hope, in the short time I have available, to be able to set out how we can strike that balance.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), and I agree with the Minister, but in my constituency I already have one of Europe’s largest logistics parks, which presently has between 9 million and 10 million square feet of warehousing. The proposal to double its size would unacceptably lower the quality of life of my South Leicestershire constituents. At what point do we say enough is enough? How large do these logistics parks need to get before we say that?
My hon. Friend has many virtues, and two that stand proud are the determination and rigour with which he defends his constituents’ interests—a well-known aspect of his work in this House—and, secondly, his insight. That insight will have allowed him to determine, from my opening remarks in which I quoted Schumacher, where I intuitively stand on these matters. I will say more about that later in my speech, but my hon. Friend draws to our attention the important subject of scale. It would be easy for central and local government to assume that there should be no limits on scale, but I am not sure that that is the right approach. I look at these matters in a holistic way.
Does the Minister also take into account the effects on air quality of these large logistic parks and the vehicle movements? For example, in Greater Manchester we have already failed to meet our air quality objectives on a number of occasions. The new logistics parks will increase the standing traffic and will therefore have an effect on the local community’s air quality.
Barely a day goes by when I do not think about air quality. I was in an inter-ministerial meeting yesterday afternoon to discuss exactly that. It is important that we recognise that the effect on the environment of large developments can be significant and must always be taken into account when we consider them.
Overall responsibility for planning in England rests with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, so we are straying on to his territory to some degree, which I am reluctant to do. As the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire will both know, it is the Department for Communities and Local Government that issues national planning practice guidance on how the Government expects planning to help to deliver sustainable development, but the planning system has at its heart ensuring that the right development takes place in the right places. Not all places are suitable for particular kinds of development; that is the essence of what my hon. Friend has argued today.
The planning system has benefits to the community as well as to the wider economy. Local plans, prepared by local planning authorities in consultation with the community, are at the heart of that system. They must be prepared with a mind to contributing to sustainable development that is consistent with the principles and objectives set out in the national planning policy framework. A local plan should include the strategic policies to deliver homes and jobs, the provision of retail and commercial development, and the provision of infrastructure, including infrastructure for transport.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire is concerned that local planning authorities will work in isolation and not address wider regional issues. I reassure him that the national planning policy framework expects local authorities to work with neighbouring authorities and transport providers to develop strategies for the provision of the viable infrastructure necessary to support sustainable development. Indeed, I will go further than that: further to his arguments today, I will discuss with my DCLG colleagues whether the framework is as effective as it might be in respect of transport. It may be that we can do more. I do not want to say anything definitive today—you would not expect me to do so, Mr Bone—but given my hon. Friend’s remarks today and with respect for the case that he has made, we may be able to do more.
It is very important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) said, that we consider this in the round with the transport infrastructure that supports the development, so I want to explore the matter further. I shall come back to the A5 in a minute, but I want to make it clear that, as a general principle, transport infrastructure and these developments must be hand in glove.
The second core point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire was that all developments that generate significant amounts of movement must be supported by a transport statement or assessment. Plans and decisions should take account of whether opportunities for sustainable transport modes have been taken up to reduce the need for major transport infrastructure changes. Such plans should also consider whether improvements within the transport network can be undertaken to limit the significant impacts of the development in a cost-effective way. Crucially, they should plan positively for the development and infrastructure required in the area. They are designed to take into account longer term trends and changes of the kind that my hon. Friend has set out.
Critically, the presumption built into the national planning policy framework is in favour not only of development but of sustainable development. How we define sustainability in respect of transport infrastructure is crucial, and I want to study that in greater detail, as I said a moment ago. Should my hon. Friend have further concerns about that or feel that additional clarity would be desirable, I will happily ask my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to meet him and discuss the matter. It is right that Ministers should always make ourselves available to Members, because by doing so we make ourselves available to the people we serve.
On development more generally, I recently waxed lyrical—at least I thought I was lyrical—on the subject of beauty. I add to what I said that all we build should be as good as it can be in its relationship with the local environment and in its aesthetic. That may sound odd in respect of what is essentially an industrial development of the kind that my hon. Friend spoke of, but actually we once took the view that everything we build should take into account its aesthetic relationship with everything around it. The idea that we should take a crude, crass reductionist view of industrial development and the landscaping that surrounds it is not acceptable to me. Given my responsibility for the built environment, which crosses all Department’s areas of responsibility, I will certainly take a look at that subject too in relation to what my hon. Friend said.
Let me say a few things about the work I have been doing on heavy goods vehicles. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) raised what is known as fly-parking—the parking of heavy vehicles in inappropriate places. I have looked closely at that and have recently held two round-table summits on HGVs with large numbers of people from the sector to explore what more can be done, because I am determined that more can be done. It is absolutely right that we work with local authorities to take further steps to make that kind of parking, which I know causes such concern to my hon. Friend, her constituents and many others, a thing of the past; I intend to say more about that soon.
I want to develop a national plan, as was recommended in this debate, for good and sufficient overnight lorry parking, to ensure that we provide lorry drivers with the facilities they need and that inconsiderately or illegally parked lorries do not blight local communities—and I want to do it quickly. On the back of our discussions and the overtures made to me by hon. Members, my ambition is to identify how all the significant gaps in overnight lorry parking provision in England can be filled and for private provision to be made available as soon as possible, certainly over the next three to five years.
Quality standards have also been raised with me, as hon. Members will know. I am not satisfied that they are as should be for overnight parking facilities; there are some very good facilities, but by no means could all facilities be so described. I want to set national standards to ensure that our HGV drivers can park safely, securely and in reasonable comfort, with the baseline facilities that anyone would expect from a parking area.
I am looking closely at the provision of lorry parking spaces nationally. There are significant gaps in capacity, particularly in the east of England and the midlands. I have commissioned a fresh survey, which will be taken this winter, to update the figures on that. The standards that I have described, the further work on illegal parking and the work I want to do in a number of places will make a sea change to the provision.
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in South Sudan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, although it is no pleasure to consider the scale and depth of the plight of South Sudan today. We probably all remember that back in July 2011, we greeted what was then the world’s newest country, South Sudan. The hope was that decades of violence would end and there would be new beginnings for the South Sudanese people. Five years on, the country has been plunged into civil war once again, with the rebel leader Riek Machar calling for armed struggle against President Salva Kiir’s Government in Juba.
Although violence erupted again in July, we know that it had never been far away: the country has essentially been in conflict since 2013. We have seen instability and conflict spread throughout South Sudan, into some previously untouched areas such as the Equatorias and greater Bahr el Ghazal. The conflict has also taken on an ethnic dimension and brought to the surface historical injustices, along with present day grievances.
Humanitarian indicators rarely tell the whole story, but in the case of South Sudan, the numbers are staggering. Out of a population of 12 million, some 3 million people are displaced. Of those, 1.8 million are internally displaced inside the country—most people believe that is a conservative figure—and 1.2 million have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries. The indications are that 4.8 million people are currently food-insecure and that one in five South Sudanese women in the protection of civilian camps have reported sexual abuse. We know that women and girls have been disproportionately affected by the crisis in South Sudan, as they account for 57% of the registered internally displaced people. The situation is expected to deteriorate even further in 2017, with increased conflict, deepening food insecurity and a further deterioration of the country’s already desperate economic situation.
We recently had a clear warning from the United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, that there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the possibility of genocide. We see hate speech, stereotyping and polarising rhetoric on South Sudanese radio and social media. Trust in an inclusive, distinctive South Sudanese national identity is at its lowest ebb. With the dry season approaching, there are fears of a large-scale Government offensive in the coming weeks.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He mentioned the UN special adviser. Does he agree that there is an incredibly important role for the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, which has been spectacularly under-delivering, with poor leadership, and that UNMISS needs to be beefed up substantially and have its role extended and expanded, in line with the recent UN inquiry?
The hon. Gentleman has an acute insight into the country, from his time as the Minister for Africa. I pay tribute to his sterling work on the all-party parliamentary group for Sudan and South Sudan, which he vice-chairs; I serve alongside him as chair. He rightly raises the recurring criticism of the performance of UNMISS, but I do not want to turn this debate simply into a critique of its failures, although they are many. I want to see how together, at a UK level and internationally, we can better respond to the situation in South Sudan.
This is not to pretend that there are not other dire situations crying out for our attention and further effort. All of us will have been moved by the reports from Yemen on television and radio last night and this morning. We know that hon. Members right across this House are seized with the plight of people in and fleeing from Syria and surrounding countries. This debate is not an attempt to single out South Sudan as the only humanitarian crisis that warrants our attention and consideration.
In trying to help the situation in South Sudan, we have to confront the failures there. Those include failures in political leadership in the country, in terms of the President and the former vice-president, who is now in South Africa. Government and opposition forces are prepared to visit violence on their own people, and in parts of the country that were previously spared some of that violence. We have to be up front about those failures. Of course, we also have to recognise, as some have highlighted, how corruption and conflict have been drivers of each other in South Sudan. We saw that spelled out clearly in the report a few months ago by the Sentry, backed by George Clooney, in respect of both Government and opposition players there.
Faced with those challenges and difficulties, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) is right to call into question the performance and effort of the UN mission in South Sudan, and particularly the questionable leadership. However, rather than just offering rightful criticism, it is incumbent on the international community to provide a new resolve.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The UN is a multifarious organisation. We should recognise that it is the UN’s special adviser on genocide who has sounded the alarm over the risk of genocide in the country and reminded people that all of us in the international community bear responsibility for monitoring the incitement to hatred.
I fully accept what the right hon. Lady has said. That is why I specifically quoted the UN adviser.
We have to look at what further actions can be taken to help people in South Sudan who want to stand up against hate speech. We can talk about the scale of devastation in the country and forget that there are still people there trying to hold on to the fragment of civil society that remains. There are people in a range of churches who are trying to hold on and offer degrees of decency and cohesion. They should be our partners in trying to create some sort of coalition of hopeful purpose within South Sudan and internationally.
It is important that where we have political and diplomatic engagement at an international level in South Sudan, we must be straight and blunt with both Government and opposition forces and do what we can to get them to engage better and more consistently in dialogue. We also have to be much more active in our partnership with those who stand for the interests and rights of the South Sudanese people, and who do so without being implicated in any sort of corruption whatever.
There are non-governmental organisations in South Sudan, and they are well supported by some of the international NGOs, which of course find it harder to cope there because of the deteriorating security situation and the poor infrastructure. NGOs are finding it hard to keep themselves safe and to reach different parts of the country to provide the level of aid and services they want to give. Nevertheless, we need to stay fully engaged with them.
I recognise that the UK Government have made a point of ensuring a relatively joint effort for both Sudan and South Sudan on the part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, just as we in the all-party group have made a point of staying together and covering both Sudan and South Sudan. I welcome the Government’s effort. I am not here to say that whatever failures there have been in South Sudan are a result of a failure of effort, initiative and intent on the part of the UK Government, but we always have to ask whether there is more that we could do and whether there are other partners with whom we can engage more actively.
I should mention the work done by the churches, not least the Catholic Church. Ahead of the debate, as well as the very good Library briefing, Members will have received excellent briefings from World Vision and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, which works in South Sudan alongside its Irish counterpart, Trócaire, an organisation with which I am very familiar. We have also had important briefings from Amnesty International, Oxfam and others. When considering the role that the churches might play, we first have to show that we have listened to and heard many of the voices inside South Sudan. They have pointed to the scale of the problem and indicated the need for aid; they have also indicated their faith in the efforts of the international community.
We are seeing a deterioration into violence. That violence is being targeted more and more viciously at people who might previously have regarded themselves as safe, so the question arises whether there should be an arms embargo. The all-party group recently held a session at which we were informatively briefed by Dame Rosalind Marsden of Chatham House, who has deep experience of Sudan and South Sudan, as well as by Anna Oosterlinck from the UN panel of experts and Emma Fanning from Oxfam. The question of an arms embargo came up in the course of our discussions, and some people present said, “Well, there’s no point having an arms embargo because that will affect sophisticated arms, whereas people in South Sudan are being killed with machetes and fairly crude weapons.” That is a counsel of irresponsibility.
If the international community is in a position to impose an arms embargo on a situation that is clearly deteriorating, and if the violence involves not only crude traditional weapons but more sophisticated ammunition, then a clear stance has to be taken. The UK Government will say that they have reflected that stance at the UN, but some of these things need much more direct effort and engagement.
The deteriorating humanitarian situation exists in a political context, of course. I have no wish to rehearse the recent political history of South Sudan—the political destabilisation and how the conflict has emerged—but there are obviously questions about how the new Government formation is going to work. Many people have doubts about whether the new vice-president really has the capacity and standing to carry people in the same way as many people would say that, unfortunately, the displaced vice-president might be able to. There are dilemmas and challenges in taking forward the peace process.
Not only are there concerns about the humanitarian situation, with people not having the means of life and a place to live, but we have seen the return of cholera. It is present in nine counties, and it has returned largely because so many people are on the move. Their moving away from home has bought about diseases of that sort. That is an indicator of the further deterioration we are likely to see.
We are also witnessing continued human rights abuses by both the Government and the opposition, with attacks on their own people and violence being visited on civilians—people who would not be identified as combatants or as harbouring combatants in any way, and who should not be considered as such under any normal interpretation of conflict. They have found themselves grossly victimised. Ahead of the debate, Members will have received significant briefings from Amnesty International, which reissued its report from several weeks ago called “We did not believe we would survive”. The report sets out a dire narrative of killings, rape, looting and all sorts of other depredations in Juba, which are now spreading more widely in South Sudan.
I pay tribute not only to those in the all-party group but to other Members who have raised many of the issues I am discussing relating to the violation of human rights, including the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), who will respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition. They have raised a number of questions, and in fairness, the Government have acknowledge those issues. I stress that I am not here to criticise the Government for just providing commentary on the situation. I know just how difficult the situation is, but there is a danger if we in this House decide that somewhere like South Sudan is in the box marked “Too intractable” or “Just too difficult,” because that would ignore the dire plight of the people there. Not only would that be at the expense of the people of South Sudan, but we would deny support and solidarity to the many people who are trying to help them, whether they are from the international agencies in various arms of the UN or the key international NGOs and charities.
I have acknowledged the shadow Minister; I should also acknowledge the Minister, who recently attended a meeting, sponsored by the all-party group on women, peace and security, which focused specifically on South Sudan and was attended by several charities and campaign groups. Against the backdrop of the unprecedented levels of displacement, security and violence, the meeting highlighted how all that was bearing down on women and girls. We heard evidence on how circumstances for women and girls, which were already dire before 2013, have further deteriorated. One in five pregnant women die in childbirth and one in three pregnant or lactating women are malnourished. Of the children still in school, only 40% are girls. An adolescent girl in South Sudan is three times more likely to die in childbirth than to complete primary school.
Violence against women and girls is widespread—other hon. Members and I have previously debated that topic in this Chamber and elsewhere—particularly intimate partner violence. Rape, sexual assault and exploitation, early and forced marriage and abduction all continue to be reported to humanitarian agencies and other organisations. I am sure the Minister will recall from the meeting he attended that although the assumption when we talk about violence against women and girls in conflict situations is often that active combatants are committing the violence and abuses, it is happening much more widely and nefariously as well.
Initial analysis from the first prevalence study on violence against women and girls in South Sudan shows that in some areas of the country, more than 70% of women have experienced sexual and/or physical intimate partner violence, and one in three women have experienced some form of sexual abuse, which could include rape and transactional sex.
In that situation, when delivering whatever interventions we are part of—either directly or through shared international input—we must ensure that, in our support for conflict resolution and peace building in South Sudan, there is space for women’s participation both in formal conflict prevention and in the ongoing peace process. Of course, that participation is limited at the minute, if it exists at all. We should support people and organisations such as the South Sudan Women’s Peace Network, as well as the churches, as they make the call for at least 25% representation of women in institutional and constitutional reform processes, instead of the marginalisation and neglect that women in South Sudan face at the moment.
We were told back in 2013 that the UK was shifting away from “business as usual” in South Sudan. I do not decry the contribution that the UK has made to peace and development in the country; it has been significant. I pay tribute to DFID for the leadership that it has been able to provide in very difficult circumstances, and for what will hopefully be the UK’s role in helping with peacekeeping operations, including as a member of the troika overseeing South Sudan’s peace process. In addition, as part of the UN’s high-level review of women, peace and security, the UK made eight global commitments on women, peace and security a year ago, many of which apply particularly to South Sudan and should be given real and active application in the country.
However, despite all those commitments and all that intent from the UK Government and others, the sad reality is that “business as usual” persists for women and girls in South Sudan, where the situation has now deteriorated well below even what might be called critical levels. More is needed from the international community to try to achieve some standard of wellbeing, and to try to underpin the safety and protection—and, of course, the empowerment and longer term protection—of women.
I have referred to the fact that a number of organisations that are very familiar with and engaged in South Sudan have issued good briefings. Not all of them have been able to give their name, because many of their operatives are exposed and at risk, which tells us something about the scale of the problem. In fairness, it also shows us that the situation is difficult even for Government and international agency representatives working in that environment; that is all acknowledged.
Nevertheless, when it comes to addressing the humanitarian situation, we should not divorce that from the appalling human rights abuses that have taken place on all sides in South Sudan. The fact that they take place on all sides does not excuse them in any way, and it does not absolve the international community from its duty to try to hold people properly to account for them. The churches in South Sudan are clear that part of the reason for the destabilisation in South Sudan, and part of what has helped to eat at whatever passed for a moral fabric in that nation, is the fact that there was a sense of impunity and a lack of accountability. For people who want to live by good standards and ensure that others can live their life well, those things are hugely difficult and a source of scandal and frustration.
As well as highlighting the position of women and girls, I want to acknowledge the fact that, as we all know is the case in all conflict situations, there is the dire danger of a lost generation being created, as we see the crisis and the humanitarian need worsening. Given the impulse and the imperative to meet that need in the short term, we often forget some of the longer term consequences. I pay tribute to other all-party groups in the House, including the all-party group on global education for all, which has often made the point that education is often neglected in areas of conflict, because it is not seen as requiring first-order humanitarian intervention. Similarly, a former all-party group in a previous Parliament—the all-party group on protecting children in armed conflict, which was led by Fiona O’Donnell—highlighted these issues.
There were some very good points in the briefing that we received from World Vision, which perhaps other hon. Members might want to take up when they speak, about the effort that can and must be made to ensure that there are interventions in the terrible situation that exists in South Sudan to try to ensure that some semblance of an educational opportunity is afforded to children. That is not just about giving them their right to education, which should be a part of a universal right; it is also about helping to create a sense of stability in an area. Education helps to consolidate some sense of community and some fabric of normality in a situation where people are being displaced and then further displaced, where there is more and more fear of violence and, of course, where there are the problems of hunger, which in a country such as South Sudan are complicated by the ravages of climate change.
Having at least the offer of an educational opportunity for children is one of the things that can help to keep people in an area; it can be one of the anchors to build a community. Of course, it is also one of the ways of lowering the risk of children, particularly boys, being lured into the life of child soldiers and being used as agents of conflict, not just suffering as victims of conflict.
I have referred to a number of the briefings that exist. I hope that other hon. Members who will speak after me might be able to give more articulate voice to some of the worthy points in a number of those briefings, and I also look forward to hearing the response from all the Front-Bench spokespersons.
Order. I think there are four hon. Members who wish to speak. Looking at the time, without putting a formal time limit on speeches, that leaves about eight minutes each. If hon. Members could recognise that, it would give everyone a fair chance.
Thank you so much, Mr Betts, for calling me to speak; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
When I was the shadow International Development Secretary, one of the most dangerous things I ever did was to take a flight from Lokichoggio in northern Kenya to Juba and on to some of the villages in Southern Sudan that had been razed to the ground by the Janjaweed. I remember one thing so powerfully, which supports what the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who has secured this debate, has just said. I met the women there and they said something that has never left me.
The women said—through an interpreter, obviously—that for 30 years they had had war in their country and they had no faith whatever in their male leaders to make peace, because their impression was that men liked fighting. With great respect to my all-male colleagues in the Chamber—they are all male bar one, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) —I could not agree more that women need to be round the table making the peace.
It is so tragic to hear what is happening to this newly born country. After 30 years of civil war between the north and south in Sudan, one of the first new countries to come into existence recently has erupted into violence and is on the brink of genocide, if not already suffering it.
I have referred to the warnings that the United Nations special adviser has given. However, as the hon. Gentleman has said, just to read the reports of organisations such as Amnesty International—eye-witness reports of the human rights violations in South Sudan—requires a strong stomach, frankly. Mr Betts, if you will forgive me, I will place on the record the extent of the horror of what women in particular are suffering in South Sudan. Amnesty says that there were clearly
“serious violations of international human rights”.
That was in July, during the violence then. People took refuge in United Nations sites, but they
“faced the terror of being exposed to crossfire with shelters of plastic sheeting or mud as their only cover.”
Then, of course, it was the women—it always is—who had to leave the UN bases, or other safe places. Amnesty International’s report said:
“Over a roughly one-week period that began just after the fighting ended, dozens of Nuer women were systematically raped. Many were raped by more than one soldier. ‘When they released me…my clothes were full of blood.’”
I am sorry to have to read that into the record, but I do not think, standing here, we should baulk at just how bad the situation was. We should not be surprised that the response of those vulnerable people has been to flee. Some 3 million South Sudanese people—that is probably a conservative estimate—have been displaced, and 90% of those fleeing are women and children. They are disproportionately affected. The present reality demands concrete action from the international community. I applaud what the Government have been doing, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman who secured the debate: we are going to need to do more.
In my short contribution, I want to keep my eyes focused on the ways forward and on how the international community can support effective peace. More remains to be done if peace is to prevail. The strategic focus must be on bringing the conflicting parties back to the negotiating table and ensuring that whatever agreement is agreed is fully implemented. I was particularly struck by what Dame Rosalind Marsden said about what is next for Sudan at the recent meeting of the all-party group for Sudan and South Sudan. She highlighted the key way forward to be an emphasis on political inclusivity. When looking to the future, we must ensure that all voices are heard. The international community must focus on calming the rhetoric in South Sudan and supporting grassroots reconciliation processes through the Churches, women’s groups and youth leaders.
I was struck by something that Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala said, because I think it is directly relevant. He said:
“Many people in South Sudan are wounded in spirit. The pain of decades of war has not been addressed; our hard-won independence did not bring justice for the many who had suffered. No one has been convicted of crimes against humanity, and people have not been able to tell their stories, to relate what happened to them and their family members. Without reconciliation and forgiveness, our wounds will remain open.”
That is the point. Unless those things are addressed, peace will not take root and hold in that country.
Given the prevalence of Christianity throughout the country, Church leaders have a strong role to play. From its recent submission to the International Development Committee’s inquiry, I am aware that CAFOD has been focusing on the role of the Catholic Church and Church leaders as facilitators and promoters of the peace process. I know that the APG for Sudan and South Sudan met the South Sudan Council of Churches, which is perhaps the most promising Church-led reconciliation body in South Sudan. I am also told that it met with the Pope in Rome recently and is planning more ecumenical visits. I strongly commend the Church networks to the Minister and, through him, the Foreign Office. They are a way in which this country can help to bring about a secure peace.
In conclusion, I encourage the UK Government to increase their engagement with the Church. I like the phrase that the hon. Gentleman used. We need to create a coalition of hopeful purpose—something that will last for generations. Among all that, let us please make space for women’s contribution to peace-making.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for securing this important and timely debate and for his diligence on international humanitarian and human rights matters. It is a pleasure to speak after the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), who made a powerful speech.
The Department for International Development’s aid strategy was set out just over a year ago, and last week we had the publication of its bilateral and multilateral development reviews. What is clear in the strategy and the reviews is that in addressing poverty we also need to address conflict as a driver of and sometimes a consequence of poverty. In many ways, South Sudan is tragically a prime example of how the new aid strategy could be applied to good effect. The civil war that blights South Sudan today began almost exactly three years ago. Since then, we have seen numerous ceasefires brokered, the UN continue its peacekeeping programme in the region and a formal peace agreement, but none of those measures has succeeded in preventing the sustained violence that has already been described. In many ways, it is one of the least well publicised humanitarian crises of our time, which makes today’s debate especially welcome.
Even before South Sudan became a sovereign nation, the foundations for the new country were shaky. Decades of war in Sudan and across the region had caused widespread poverty, inequality and instability. The infrastructure needed to develop a new country was not there. That has made it incredibly difficult for humanitarian missions to deliver aid effectively to all parts of the country and it has held back the country’s economy.
The scale of the humanitarian crisis was set out fully by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle in his opening speech. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that 1.87 million people have been internally displaced. As he said, more than 1 million people have fled to neighbouring countries to escape the violence. That equates to around one quarter of the population of the country having to uproot themselves and leave their homes because of the civil war. More than 200,000 people are living in UN protection of civilians sites.
As my hon. Friend said, food insecurity is a massive challenge. Almost 5 million people are food insecure in South Sudan. According to the World Food Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, up to 4 million of them are severely food insecure, and the numbers are going up as a consequence of the conflict. As both speakers have said, DFID is playing an active and positive role, and I pay tribute to the role that the United Kingdom has been playing. DFID has been working in South Sudan since 2006 to try to address the humanitarian situation and establish the capacity for future development, including through the South Sudan peace building programme, the South Sudan recovery fund and the South Sudan service delivery programme. Crucially, there is also the support that we and others are providing to the refugees in neighbouring countries, including Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. The UK is the second largest bilateral donor in South Sudan after the USA. The presence we have in South Sudan, despite the conflict and the challenges we face, is crucial.
I echo what my hon. Friend said about education and how vital it is that even in these challenging circumstances, the needs of children in South Sudan are not forgotten. As he said, it is vital that we do not have a lost generation. When the Minister responds, it would be good to hear about the programmes that the Government are supporting for education in South Sudan—particularly the education of girls and young women. We have seen a renewed global focus on education this year with the launch of Education Cannot Wait, which looks at the needs of refugees and other people living in emergency situations. Last week, the International Development Committee, as part of our education inquiry, visited Jordan and Lebanon to see for ourselves the impact of the Syria conflict on the education of children and young people in those countries—both the refugees and those from the host communities.
Despite the great efforts of Governments, including our own, we know there have been extraordinary violations of human rights, as my hon. Friend set out so powerfully in his opening speech. Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to monitor and report human rights violations? In particular, when such violations arise, how are we going to bring the perpetrators to justice? As has been said, the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on genocide, Adama Dieng, has already given stark warnings about the risk of genocide. What are the Government doing with partners to ensure that the situation does not become a genocide? What representations are we making to the South Sudanese Government? There is, as the right hon. Member for Meriden said, a shared responsibility. That continent had the Rwanda genocide in 1994 and the conflict in Darfur more recently, and it is vital that we learn lessons as a country from such events.
At the height of the conflict, DFID and the Foreign Office had to limit staffing numbers in the country for understandable reasons. Can the Minister tell us whether he sees a point at which the Government will be able to restore some of the reductions in DFID and other staff working to relieve the humanitarian crisis faced by the people of South Sudan? We know that many NGOs have similarly had to reduce their staffing numbers. For example, Médecins sans Frontières told the International Development Committee of the ongoing security risk faced by its hospitals and other humanitarian outposts. In written evidence to the Committee, it told us that during the most recent surge in violence, two of MSF’s clinics in Leer were looted and they have not been able to reopen because of the ongoing insecurity. What can we do as a country and what are the Government doing in conjunction with other multilateral donors to ensure the safety of humanitarian staff working in the region?
My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle set out some of the concerns and issues with UNMISS in the region. Reports have raised serious concerns. I have been told of a recent incident at the Terrain hotel. The UN peacekeeping mission was only a few miles away from the hotel and yet it failed repeatedly to respond to emergency calls from civilians. As has already been said, UNMISS has struggled to fulfil its mandate for a number of reasons, but lack of co-operation from the Government of South Sudan is a major factor. Does the Minister think there is more that we could do, perhaps via the United Nations Security Council, to raise these questions?
Finally, as with all conflicts of this nature, in the end we need a diplomatic political solution that brings peace. I ask the Minister what more can be done to bring an end to this conflict through diplomatic means. Next Tuesday the International Development Committee will take oral evidence on the situation in South Sudan, including from the Minister. I very much welcome today’s debate and look forward to hearing contributions from other Members and the responses from the Minister, the SNP Front Bench and my own Front Bench. As my hon. Friend said, we face a humanitarian crisis, a set of challenges that relate to human rights and justice, and a fragile young country that desperately needs a peaceful, diplomatic solution.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg); I am reassured that the issue is receiving the attention of not only the all-party parliamentary group for Sudan and South Sudan, but also that of the Select Committee. I am an Afro-optimist, but I must admit there is very little to be optimistic about in South Sudan, which is perhaps one of the reasons why we should engage in the subject. I sometimes wonder about the anecdote of the MP who says, “I did something about this; I spoke about it in the House of Commons”; the constituent reminds them that that does not in itself effect change.
As I have gone from country to country in Africa, I have occasionally read in the local papers about proceedings in our Chamber—the references and the criticisms. They are taken seriously. I would very much like the Minister, through our ambassador in Juba or through Christopher Trott, our special representative for Sudan and South Sudan, to take a copy of Hansard and to say to Riek Machar or Salva Kiir, “The ex-Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, was not happy.” Let them see the support that their citizens have from us here in the House of Commons.
All too often in meetings, Kiir and the President seemed to be more interested in their own political future and dividing up the cake. I remember a farcical argument about who did which Cabinet jobs, and it became apparent that the Cabinet jobs with lots of cash flowing through were the ones of interest. It was the personal and financial interest of those involved that drove things forward.
I am not going to be particularly diplomatic. My private office always reminded me as a Minister, “You are the first diplomat.” This was when they gave me a lecture on being more diplomatic. The worst Foreign Minister I met in my two years was Barnaba Benjamin, who, thankfully, has now been sacked. He was oblivious to the need for a proper dialogue and change. I am not sure about the degree to which he was authorised on behalf of the Government to take such a position in the UN, but we are certainly in a better position without him.
Festus Mogae, the ex-President of Botswana, was a strong influence when I was dealing with the situation, but he was heavily under-resourced. I urge the excellent Minister to have discussions with his Foreign Office colleagues to make sure Festus Mogae gets all the resources he needs. A few thousand pounds to fly the right people to the right location to chat or paying the hotel bill for a few nights for the right people might sound trivial, but it can be transformational in its effect.
The Chair of the Select Committee referred to infrastructure problems and physically getting around the country. One looks at a map, but the roads are impassable physically or impassable because of the security situation. One cannot get around unless one flies into regional airports.
There is also a broader infrastructure problem. The international community got it disastrously wrong when South Sudan was declared an independent nation state. The international community, including the UK Government, felt that if certain building blocks were provided, a principal one being an election, everything would sort itself out. When I was in Juba meeting people from civil society, they said, “What you do not appreciate is that everything has been stripped away. Everything that you consider normal in the community—the checks, the balances, the free press, the local councils, the parish councils, and, to a degree, even the churches—have been eliminated.” We should reflect on that in other situations.
I remember, bizarrely, South Sudan taking a great interest in the Scottish referendum, and I realised why. They did not want Scotland to be independent, simply because they would no longer be the newest nation state in the world. They were vehement in their opposition. There was an undertone of pride about being a new nation state. There was hope and drive there. It was very strange. When I visited, the IMF was due to arrive. The situation seemed wholly farcical. The economy was in total collapse and the support of the IMF would have made sense only if the Government system was sorted. I am interested to find out how that has developed.
In the UN camps, I visited women who had been raped—some in the camps themselves, but principally outside the camps. I was struck by what I heard. I had been told to expect graphic stories of how they had been raped so that I would appreciate the horror of the situation. However, none of them wanted to discuss that—not because I was a man, but because they were used to politicians coming in and listening. They knew that I was meeting Salva Kiir the next day and they had specific policy recommendations: “You need to tell our President this; you need to tell our President that.” They clearly felt totally disenfranchised.
At the UN I met two female British police officers. I am interested to know whether the secondment of UK police forces to the camps is still working. That was really useful because people were getting raped in the camps. The UN camps were relatively porous and people could get in and out. The police officers helped the community to police themselves. They acted almost as police trainers to the community, rather than policing the area themselves.
We should learn lessons from when people come back together. When Machar came back to Juba, he brought bodyguards, which, given the history, makes a lot of sense. I suggested that some should come early to pave the way so that there were no misunderstandings among the combatant forces. I expected two, maybe 10, maybe 20, bodyguards—there were 1,000. I am no military man, but that sounds more like a battalion than close protection officers.
There was a bizarre debate over whether we should transport the rocket-propelled machinery. We ended up helping to bring back some of the rocket-propelled devices, but not the actual cartridges that go in them. Indeed, when things unravelled, it was among the bodyguards that things started around the presidential compound.
We need to look at the situation in relation to Sudan more generally. It is good that the all-party group is covering both areas, particularly the Chinese relationship and the oil relationship. When looking at the numbers, it struck me that there did not seem to be any economic sense in pumping oil and sending it to China. I could not quite work out why it was economic to do that, unless there were big bribes going on behind the scenes, separate from the flows to China.
This was one of the two areas, the other being Burundi, that, despite my being an Afrophile and Afro-optimist, kept me up at night. I do not know what one could have done differently, but I hope that those places still keep some at the Foreign Office up at night—I am sure they do. With all due respect, I hope they occasionally keep the Minister up at night, looking at what we can do for the people of South Sudan, as well as those who have left it and its neighbouring countries.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on his presentation of the issue and the hard work that he has done on it. I also congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. They have made fantastic and focused contributions, and they clearly have much more knowledge than I do and have had experience in South Sudan.
It will be of no surprise to many here that I am taking part in the debate. Humanitarian situations have always touched me, and this one does too. As we are in this place and can use our influence to make changes that help people, that is what we should do. That is why I shall continue to speak in such debates. If we can help, clearly we should—that is where I am coming from. We have received a lot of information from many people, including the briefing pack that the hon. Member for Foyle mentioned. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, and I want to make some comments on that issue and human rights.
The briefing pack states that close to 3 million South Sudanese have had to flee their homes since civil war broke out in December 2013. An estimated 1.87 million people have been internally displaced, and more than 1 million people are refugees in neighbouring countries. We are witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe in South Sudan, and those figures cannot be overlooked as we try to grasp the enormity of it. It is estimated that 4.8 million people were food-insecure in July 2016. If that is not a crisis, then what is? When a ceasefire was declared in July, after five days of heavy fighting that marked the fifth anniversary of the formation of the world’s youngest nation, I was shocked at some of the images and the coverage. It showed that despite the ceasefire, which followed days of devastating fighting, a humanitarian emergency gripped the nation. Untold numbers were massacred and thousands more sought refuge in churches. People rush to churches in the hope of finding sanctuary —as they should, because that is where sanctuary should be. Unfortunately, that did not save them either. The humanitarian issue is the most urgent, starting with the lack of drinking water. The International Red Cross has managed to send teams into the two main hospitals, but it is beyond time for Governments worldwide to step in and do what they can.
Many Christians have lost their lives in the civil war, although it is not possible to give the number. I want to ask the Minister about that. In this House I have a duty to be clear about it, as do other Members. Reports suggested that some 300 people, including scores of civilians, were killed in the violence in July, and there were UN reports of horrors such as mass rapes, and children and the disabled being burned alive. Can we even begin to imagine how horrible those things are? Words cannot take it in. The UN said in its report earlier this year that it had received
“harrowing accounts of pro-opposition civilians killed by being burned alive, suffocated in containers, shot, hanged from trees or cut to pieces”.
There were stories of children and disabled people being among such victims. No one is free from the depravity, violence and brutality of the people involved. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said at the time:
“The scale and types of sexual violence—primarily by Government SPLA forces and affiliated militia—are described in searing, devastating detail, as is the almost casual, yet calculated, attitude of those slaughtering civilians and destroying property and livelihoods”.
More recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that there was a
“very real risk of mass atrocities”
in South Sudan and that peacekeepers deployed in the war-torn country would not be able to stop such a bloodbath.
The people who reside in South Sudan have suffered a painful history, enduring years of conflict. Today, the humanitarian situation has again reached the most deplorable levels. There have been reports, as other hon. Members have said, of the rape of women and girls on an unprecedented scale. In response to the very careful words of the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), who clearly outlined the situation of violence against women, I would say that all of us here are speaking out against it too. I find it incomprehensible when I try to take in all that is happening.
The current circumstances seem a far cry from the formation of the transitional constitution, which provided some positivity about the direction the country could have taken. It even included a stipulation on the separation of religion and state, prohibiting religious discrimination even if the President declares a state of emergency. The emphasis in South Sudan at the start was excellent, but those clear principles have been strayed away from. It is common for rights of that type to be enshrined in law in developed nations. The statement that
“all religions shall be treated equally”
“religion or religious beliefs shall not be used for divisive purposes”
indicated much potential. Tragically, however, such promising rhetoric has failed to be fully realised because of the continuing conflict. Instead, a process of ethnic cleansing has gripped the country, involving massacres, starvation and the destruction of villages. Members will know that South Sudan is one of the most diverse countries in Africa, with approximately 64 different ethnic groups brought together as one. Sadly, the three UN commission members say they have observed deepening divisions between the groups, which may lead to an increase in violence if urgent action is not taken to de-escalate tensions.
Large parts of the country have no functioning courts or even traditional reconciliation methods, and that is exacerbating issues and affecting the potential for peace. Developing the judicial infrastructure of the country is therefore of the utmost importance and must be addressed. Other institutions that can help to create a path to peace should also be supported. For instance, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust has heard of the positive role of the Churches as long-term mediators—which they should, can and want to be—and an influence for reconciliation. As the Minister of State, Baroness Anelay, has said:
“Both accountability and reconciliation remain essential for South Sudan to move forward”,
and it is imperative that we support
“the ongoing efforts of community groups, including churches, to pursue reconciliation at the local level.”
I believe that they are a conduit for change and reconciliation. Considering that, will the Minister ensure that our embassy officials discuss the importance of religious communities in the country and the role they can play in peace and reconciliation as well as in offering refuge to innocent civilians who desperately need it?
As the UN commission has said:
“The stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda and the international community is”—
as we all believe—
“under an obligation to prevent it.”
The idea of the separation of states was to stop genocide, yet it continues unabated. We have a moral duty to do all we can to halt the genocide taking place right under our noses.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) is right that it is good to be able to say he has spoken in this debate in Westminster Hall, but it is not enough. We who are speaking are not the ones who can make a change. We look to the Government and the Minister to take our words and drive them into a strategy and plan for change. I have read the response of the Department for International Development, which has said:
“The UK is the second largest bilateral donor to the humanitarian response in South Sudan. We expect to provide assistance to 3 million people between 2015 and 2020, the majority of whom are internally displaced people, but also those living in the host communities supporting them. Our support will include life-saving food and clean drinking water as well as sanitation, shelter and health care.”
All that is good, but it is not sufficient to plaster up the bleeding without attempting to deal with the assault that causes it. With that in mind, will the Minister reassure the House that Her Majesty’s Government are doing all that they can—not just alone but with other Governments—to prevent further conflict in South Sudan and support the efforts for a peace process to end the violence?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on obtaining the debate and on his comprehensive introduction to it, as well as all the other hon. Members who have made informed and important contributions. I congratulate him on his work as the chair of the all-party group for Sudan and South Sudan, of which I am proud to be a vice-chair. It has been a busy time for the all-party group. We have welcomed a number of delegations and representatives as part of a continuing inquiry into the situation in Sudan and South Sudan. Recently, I had the honour of meeting representatives of the Sudan Council of Churches, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s former and current advisers on Anglican communion affairs, Bishop Precious Omuku and the Right Reverend Anthony Poggo, Bishop of Kajo-Keji, who is from South Sudan. The role of the Church has been touched on, and I may come back to that.
The repeated message from those visitors, and from the reports prepared for the debate, is just how dire the situation is on the ground. That is particularly tragic given the hope that surrounded independence in 2011. South Sudan remains the youngest country in the world—despite our best efforts in 2014, although the situations are of course markedly different on a whole range of levels.
We have heard the words “tragic”, “dire” and “gruelling”—we are almost running out of words to express the tragedy of the situation, yet many analysts say there is no end in sight. In particular, the issue of gender-based violence has been touched on. We are in the middle of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. Saturday of this week is Human Rights Day. Tomorrow there will be a debate on violence against women, and next Friday there will be a private Member’s Bill on the Istanbul convention. Those are supposed to be reminders to galvanise us into action, yet the situation only seems to be getting worse.
The constructive suggestion from the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) about the role that women have to play in the peace process is important and worth emphasising, and that has to be built into all the diplomatic and humanitarian responses. The former Minister, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), emphasised that point in recounting his experience of meeting with women.
The whole country is affected by the humanitarian disaster. Some 1.87 million people are internally displaced and nearly half the population are food-insecure. There are increasing health risks, such as cholera, which the hon. Member for Foyle mentioned. There are attacks on non-governmental organisations and humanitarian organisations—organisations that are there on a humanitarian basis, trying to provide help on the ground—such as the attack on the Terrain compound. There is also an increasing tribal dimension and a real risk of mass atrocities, as identified by the UN Secretary-General.
There has to be some hope for progress. There is a role for the Government, which we have touched on, and the role of faith-based and Church organisations has been mentioned frequently. The Church has historically played an important role in building peace after previous conflicts. It has a reach into communities across the whole country and, crucially, is owned and led by leaders from those communities. The particular interest that Pope Francis has taken in the situation has been mentioned, so it would be interesting to know how the Government are working with the Church on the ground. Given the UK’s role in the troika, is there any role that the UK’s representative to the Holy See can play, or is playing, in helping to facilitate those dialogues?
We have a Department for International Development Minister here today, and I echo the points made by the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), about DFID’s support, and particularly about continuity of education for children so that future generations do not get wrapped up in a cycle of violence, and about the importance of working through NGOs on the ground. The humanitarian “Charter for Change”, which a number of organisations have signed up to, such as the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development and the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, emphasises that support for organisations already on the ground is important, especially as access for external organisations becomes more difficult. In providing a humanitarian response, it is important that we do not lose sight of longer-term development work supporting livelihoods, the mainstreaming of peacebuilding and finding ways to link that with humanitarian responses to build resilience in communities going forward.
With regard to influence at the United Nations, it would be useful to know where the Government stand on pushing for an arms embargo as a matter of urgency. The UK’s ambassador has called for that, but how is the UK proactively working to identify what blocks there might be to that at the UN? Is there a role for increased sanctions against not just military figures but high-level civilian and political figures? There has to be continued pressure on both sides to get back to the negotiating table to implement a ceasefire and allow humanitarian access. There has to be discussion with neighbouring countries and support for displaced people in refugee camps on the borders as well.
There also has to be support here at home in the UK. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel of UK citizens to South Sudan, yet I struggled to find on the Home Office website any country guidance about how South Sudanese refugees who make it here should be treated. I hope they will be welcomed and supported to settle in this country, given the challenges that they have faced and made it through.
As the hon. Member for Foyle said, nothing should be too difficult or too intractable for us. We sometimes wonder where these debates get us. I hope that diplomats will take this strong demonstration of cross-party support very clearly and that the Government will be encouraged by that. If they step up their action, they will have our support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for securing this very important debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group, he has a considerable interest in the issue. In his very passionate contribution, he rightly pointed out the serious human rights violations and, in particular, the disproportionate impact on women and girls. I also thank the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Chair of the International Development Committee, as well as the hon. Members for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady).
It is clear that Members from all parties are alarmed by the rapidly deteriorating situation in South Sudan and have grave worries that the country could fall further still, with new reports of violence against civilians every day. Despite several ceasefires, what we are seeing unfold in South Sudan does not show the country moving towards a more peaceful period. We must work closely with our international partners and, crucially, the African community to stabilise the situation in the country. We therefore wish to seek assurances from the Government that the UK is doing all that it can to alleviate the growing humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. Time does not permit me to cover the many issues of equal importance that hon. Members have raised. I will concentrate on three areas of concern.
The first issue is the sheer scale of the refugee crisis being created by the conflict, with 1.3 million South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries and more than 1.7 million internally displaced. For a country with a population of between 11 and 12 million, let us be in no doubt that this is a huge figure, with more than one in five people fleeing their homes. It is very worrying because the most dramatic manifestation of a deteriorating humanitarian situation is the scale of the movement of people. The mass movement taking place in South Sudan paints not only a bleak picture of the situation, but an extremely disturbing one. It is clear that alarm bells in the international community should be ringing loudly, for this situation is only set to get worse.
The second focus of our concern is the enormous funding shortfalls experienced by UN agencies operating in the region, something that has not been talked about as much today but which is very important. For example, of the almost $650 million that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees needs for the South Sudan situation, it has only managed to secure $166 million, or 26% of its funding requirements, which leaves a $483 million funding gap. Although I welcome the UK’s $6.5 million contribution to the UNHCR South Sudan situation fund, it seems that our international partners are less than willing, with even the International Olympic Committee contributing more than Italy or Spain. That is frankly unacceptable. We need not only to up our game and contribute more to this neglected crisis, but to get on the phone, get around the table and press our allies to step up and plug the gap.
Supporting refugees, which is vital if we are to address the humanitarian situation that the South Sudanese face, can happen only with adequate funding. Without funding, it is a struggle to register new arrivals, provide shelter, relocate refugees to better, safer sites, provide access to food, increase health services, and provide water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. Not providing those things deepens the humanitarian crisis, as we are seeing. The UK and its partners urgently need to address that gap, particularly as we enter the dry season, when large offensives that will displace more people are expected. I urge the Minister to provide some clarity on that point.
The third and final issue, which has rightly been the subject of most of the focus of this important debate, is the human rights situation in that country. Numerous abuses—including, as we have heard, sexual violence, rape and the use of child soldiers—have been committed against civilians. Most worryingly, as hon. Members said, there is a real concern that the conflict could escalate into ethnic cleansing and genocide. In 2010, the US director of national intelligence warned that a new genocide is likely to occur in South Sudan. It is with deep regret that we are beginning to see his prediction come true, as the situation becomes less a conflict between Government and rebel forces, and more one between armed militia and defenceless civilians. Human Rights Watch reported that soldiers and police forces are conducting house-to-house searches for certain ethnic groups, followed by multiple killings, despite ceasefires being in place.
The chair of the three-person commission in South Sudan, acting on behalf of the UN Commission on Human Rights, stated that they are observing deepening ethnic divisions, and that the stage is being set for a repeat of the Rwandan genocide. In the 1990s, the world stood by and watched as the Tutsi people of Rwanda were not just killed but exterminated in swathes of that country. We cannot let that happen again. To prevent that, we must ensure that the failures associated with UNMISS are properly addressed and that there is accountability and a working justice system. I have substantial reservations about UNMISS’s ability to protect civilians, in the wake of an investigation that identified an ineffective response to violence and a risk-averse posture. I would be grateful if the Minister can tell me what the UK is doing to ensure, when the mission’s mandate and budget are extended, that its shortcomings are corrected and that it is able to properly protect civilians.
On the issue of justice and accountability, although I understand that DFID is funding several access-to-justice programmes in South Sudan, the criminal justice system in that country is not only still grossly under-resourced, but lacks the capacity in several important areas to see through investigations and prosecutions. What are the Government doing to support efforts to bring those guilty of atrocities to justice? What are they doing more widely to prevent genocide, particularly through arms embargoes and their enforcement?
Although the world’s attention is rightly focused on the growing refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq, we must remember that other crises are emerging around the globe, many of which are as serious. We must take the humanitarian situation and the rising spectre of genocide in South Sudan seriously, and we must not let it take hold or stand by if it does.
It is testament to the importance of this issue and the weight that Members attach to it that we have had such a wide range of contributions to the debate from across political parties. I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on raising this issue.
There is a very difficult set of circumstances in South Sudan. It is a sad and, indeed, tragic story. Hon. Members spoke about a range of concerns and issues, which I hope to address in the time remaining. I will explain the British Government’s position, what the UK is doing to try to mitigate the impact of what is unfolding in South Sudan, and what we might do, looking to the future, to set that country on a better path—one that has eluded it thus far.
The hon. Gentleman set out the situation in South Sudan in stark terms. It voted overwhelmingly for independence in 2011, but in 2013 fighting broke out between the forces loyal to President Kiir and those loyal to the Vice-President Machar. A peace agreement was signed in August 2015, but fighting broke out again in Juba in July, and Vice-President Machar fled the country. Estimates of the number of people killed in the fighting since 2013 range from 50,000 to 300,000, but it cannot be denied that a significant number have been impacted by the effects of the instability and fighting. Many lives have been destroyed, and many others remain in the balance. The question, which right hon. and hon. Members have covered widely, is, what can we do to assist?
Some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Foyle, spoke about UNMISS—the UN peacekeeping force of 13,000 or so troops, to which the UK is scaling up its contribution to 400 to assist it in its work. They mentioned the challenges it has faced and the criticism it has come under as a result of its perceived failings. It is right to be critical of its failings, but we also have to recognise that the Government of South Sudan have often been a very significant factor in preventing it from doing its job. That is one of the challenges that we face as an international community when engaging in South Sudan, and we are continuing work to try to resolve it. The UK’s increased contribution of some of the world’s most professional soldiers, who will be able to provide additional leadership and support, will hopefully make a difference, but that will not remove a number of the barriers and challenges, not the least of which is the behaviour of the Government of South Sudan.
The hon. Gentleman and a number of other right hon. and hon. Members raised issues including the challenges that women and girls face, and the important contribution that the UK, in particular, is making in the field of education in South Sudan. He commented on reports from a range of organisations that have taken an interest in this space and contributed significantly to the broader understanding of what is happening and what needs to be done.
The hon. Gentleman and others also raised the concern that there is a perception that some have acted with impunity, and have committed crimes and done things that, in some cases, we find entirely unacceptable, but have not yet been brought to justice. The peace agreement signed in 2015 agreed that a hybrid court would be established to bring to justice those guilty of the most egregious human rights abuses. The African Union is currently considering models for it, and our international partners are encouraging it to move it forward. Those who have committed or are complicit in serious crimes should and indeed must be brought to justice, not just because it is important that the victims of those crimes have justice, but for the message it sends to the international community more broadly about the approach that the UK and the international community take in the world. We will stick firm and fast to that approach and encourage our partners and other nations to co-operate in delivering it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) spoke of the tragic circumstances in South Sudan and quoted moving parts of Amnesty International’s report. She focused on the impact on individuals—particularly women and girls—and commented, I think appropriately, on the need to bring parties around the table, and on the role that the Church and church leaders can play in that process. Those comments were echoed by the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), among others. We recognise the important role that civil society can play in peace building, including in South Sudan, and Members highlighted the role that churches can play. We are working with them to find ways to support action for peace—the Churches’ campaign—and we are working closely with the churches, including through our ambassador to the Holy See, whom hon. Members mentioned, Bishop Anthony Poggo and Bishop Precious Omuku.
We are engaging with church leaders and supporting Churches’ objectives and broader activities. The Churches can play a key role in bringing together some of the groups that will need to be brought together if we are to secure peace for South Sudan. We stand ready to work in tandem with any actors in this space who can help us to achieve our shared objectives, and the Churches have a proud history and tradition of doing that. That has been recognised by right hon. and hon. Members today and, I can assure them, is recognised by the Government.
In one guise or another, I seem to appear before the Chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), daily at the moment, which is testament to his and his Committee’s work ethic and interests. He drew on his wide and comprehensive experience and understanding of some of the broader challenges, including the need to address conflict when we wish to deal with poverty. The Department for International Development focuses very much on alleviating poverty, and rightly so, but we have to recognise that the underlying causes of poverty can be many and varied, and conflict is one of the strongest, most easily identifiable and most challenging to address.
I was struck, too, by the fact that the Select Committee Chair raised the issue of neighbouring countries, demonstrating his grasp of the breadth of the challenge, which affects not only South Sudan but its neighbours. In this financial year we will spend £15 million in Uganda, nearly £4 million in Ethiopia and more than £3 million in Kenya on support for refugees from South Sudan. More needs to be done, because of the significant pressure on neighbouring states from the large numbers of people who have been forced by circumstances entirely beyond their control to flee their homes, often in fear of their lives or in search of basic amenities, provisions and support. The impact on neighbouring states is significant, and the hon. Gentleman was right to mention it. We are cognisant of it and engaged. Where we can, we are determined to contribute not only to finding peace in South Sudan, but to helping its affected neighbours deal with the consequences of the unfolding events.
The Chair of the Select Committee also raised the issue of education. I am pleased to confirm that the UK is a lead donor to education in South Sudan. We recognise its importance, particularly for girls, but also more broadly. “Girls’ Education South Sudan”, is our £61.4 million programme, running from May 2013 to April 2019. It will benefit 240,000 girls, as well as boys, and more than 2,500 schools, resulting in improved learning outcomes and completion rates and helping to minimise the disruption of the terrible circumstances in which many young people find themselves. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point, which deserved mention.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) drew on his extensive experience of Africa generally and South Sudan in particular. He is free of some of the constraints that affect those of us in ministerial office, and was able to be slightly less diplomatic than I might choose to be in this debate, but I recognise the importance of his comments. He is right: what we say in the Chamber is not the same as what we do and how we act, but people follow what is said in this place and the mood, thoughts and concerns of hon. Members. He has made his views very clear.
From my own travels and people I have met in Africa, I know that my hon. Friend’s time as a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is respected, and the weight attached to his comments is not insignificant. I therefore hope that actors in this place will heed his words, because they are both wise and important, and they send a clear message to those who, if they changed their actions, might make a real and direct difference to the lives of many people in South Sudan.
My hon. Friend asked specific questions about the IMF. I understand the surprise he expressed about it, and I confirm that the process is on hold given the situation in South Sudan. He also asked about the contribution of the UK police to improving the security situation. I am sorry to confirm that, the crisis having re-emerged, the policewomen whom he met—or their replacements—were withdrawn in July. We have not been able to restart that process because of the particular security risks.
The hon. Member for Strangford talked about the need for basic amenities and the challenges for South Sudan. Basic infrastructure is often not present, which makes delivering aid, doing good, monitoring progress and doing all the things that the international community wants to do in that country all the more difficult. He rightly spoke about the terrible impact on many Christian communities. He is a champion for Christian communities throughout the world—this is not the first debate in which I have heard him raise the issue—and his voice is strong and clear. I hope that it will be heeded. People, whatever their background, are suffering in South Sudan, and that includes many minority groups. Christians are suffering much as a result of broader events and, given the role of the Churches, and the clear and urgent need for the international community to rally to do what can be done to avert what might be a crisis in the country, his comments were timely and apposite. I welcome them.
The hon. Gentleman’s comments were echoed to some extent by the spokesman for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow North, who also asked about our actions and activities at the United Nations, as did the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain). At the United Nations, we continue to call for an arms embargo and to be proactive in our support, engaging with our international partners in that space. We recognise the challenges in delivering unified, global international action in such circumstances, but that is no excuse for not trying to secure it. The UK plays a lead role in that, which I welcome, and it will continue to do so, which is important.
The shadow Minister focused on three areas, which I have already touched on to a great extent. He spoke about the scale of the refugee crisis, which is not only in South Sudan but in its neighbouring countries, and recognised the need for serious action to deal with it. The UK plays a significant role, but I accept that there is more to do. He rightly spoke about funding shortfalls. I have lobbied my counterparts in other donor nations by phone, and I will continue to engage in that space. The UK is the second largest humanitarian donor, in particular through our humanitarian and resilience programme in South Sudan—the £443 million HARISS programme, running over five years from March 2015 to 2020. We will provide food, shelter, access to water and health services to millions of vulnerable people, including women and children. We want our global partners to assist in the process, too—many do, but more needs to be done. His comments were important in that regard.
The shadow Minister also mentioned his concern about the escalating violence. Reference has been made to the concerns expressed by the United Nations, and many hon. Members referred to the danger of genocide in South Sudan. As is broadly accepted, however, we are not in that place at this time, although we are in a place where genocide is a very real risk. The international community must pay heed to that risk and take the warning. It must act and engage constructively and energetically to avoid what could become something that we look back on as a scar on our conscience if we are not careful about how we act today.
The UK is playing a key role by leading our international partners, investing through the Department for International Development, applying pressure through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, working through many agencies based here in this country or supported from here, and expressing its views and concerns through forums such as this one in Westminster Hall. We must continue to do all that and to focus our efforts, because the lives of many millions of people may hang on our success or otherwise. The goal and its pursuit are worthy, and I am pleased to see the House engage in that, across parties, as wholeheartedly as has been demonstrated this afternoon.
I thank the Minister for replying to so many of the points made by many right hon. and hon. Members. I thank the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and the hon. Members for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) for their contributions. They all articulated a number of the issues and factors to do with the existing problems in South Sudan and the possible actions to mitigate some of them in the short and the long term.
The Minister rightly touched on a number of the points that were made, and he acknowledged the problems with UNMISS, as did other hon. Members. I would not wish UNMISS to escape any criticism, but I did not want the debate only to focus on it and its failure.
We must remember that UNMISS failed not only the people of South Sudan but the very good people of the NGOs who had made a commitment there. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned the Terrain hotel incident, which involved NGO people being victimised. We should offer solidarity and sympathy to NGO workers who have had to leave South Sudan, perhaps for their own safety, or who have been evicted more cruelly. It must be hugely frustrating for them, knowing the problems of the country, to be denied the opportunity to add their bit of capacity.
The other people to whom we must of course offer solidarity are the people of South Sudan themselves. Emma Fanning from Oxfam, when she spoke to the APPG, made the point that it is the resilience of the South Sudanese people, in offering solidarity themselves, to which we have to pay tribute.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
UN’s Not Too Young to Run Campaign
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UN’s Not Too Young to Run campaign.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Today’s generation of young people is the largest the world has ever known. Half of the global population is under the age of 30, yet young people are starkly under-represented at virtually every level of government and politics. Efforts have been made around the world to promote young people’s right to run for public office by seeking to lower the legal age of candidacy.
In 2007, as a result of the “How old is old enough?” campaign, the minimum candidacy age in England, Wales and Scotland was lowered from 21 to 18, in line with the voting age. In Turkey, young people lobbied the Government to reduce the age of candidacy for Parliament from 30 to 25. In Nigeria, the Not Too Young to Run campaign has embarked on a mission to address age discrimination in candidacy for the legislative and executive branches. That serves as an inspiration for the global campaign.
Building on the not too young run—I need to get that right; I am going to be saying it a lot. The global Not Too Young to Run campaign will focus on promoting young people’s right to run for public office. The campaign, launched by a partnership of the office of the UN Secretary-General’s envoy on youth, the UN Development Programme, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the European Youth Forum and the Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement, aims to elevate the promotion of young people’s right to run for public office and address widespread age discrimination.
Launching the campaign, the UN Secretary-General’s envoy on youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, said:
“Young people have every right to be active participants in civic and public life and it is time to ensure they no longer face arbitrary barriers to run for public office—whether at the local, regional or national level…Through the Not Too Young To Run campaign, my office will work with partners around the world to raise awareness about the issue of age discrimination and promote and expand the rights of young people to run for public office.”
In a rapidly changing world where more than 50% of people but fewer than 2% of elected legislators are under 30, the campaign highlights that young people’s active participation in electoral politics is essential to thriving and representative democracies worldwide. The campaign emphasises young people’s rights to engage fully in the democratic process, including their right to run for office.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said:
“Younger generations are not adequately represented in formal political institutions such as Parliaments, political parties and public administrations. This leads many to feel leadership and policymaking are reserved for an élite. A society that does not fully respect everyone’s equal right to participate is fundamentally unsound. The right to express opinions—including criticism—and to participate in public affairs are essential to ensuring state institutions are accountable, grounded in service to the people.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and how, eloquent as ever, he is setting out his case. Does he agree that institutions such as the Scottish Youth Parliament and the UK Youth Parliament provide fantastic opportunities for young people to project themselves and have an experience of electoral office that stands them in good stead?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will come to the benefits of the Scottish and UK Youth Parliaments a little later.
The Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Martin Chungong, has said:
“If young people are not too young to get married, to serve in the military or to choose the parliamentarians who will represent them, they are Not Too Young To Run…IPU calls for the age at which people may run for political office to be aligned with the legally permitted voting age. IPU Member Parliaments agreed to this in 2010 when they adopted a resolution on youth participation in the democratic process. If more young MPs were elected, there would be more role models from whom young people could take their lead and engage in politics. The time has come to increase youth representation in politics and we are happy to join forces with the United Nations Envoy on Youth in this endeavor”.
The campaign will gather inputs and ideas from young people around the world through a series of online activities and engagement, while providing a platform and resources for national campaigns to flourish.
If I may quote one more person, I should say that I was particularly taken with this quote from Johanna Nyman, President of the European Youth Forum:
“Young people bring the fresh ideas and innovation to politics that are sorely needed! In an era when young people are turning away from traditional politics, we must all work together to increase youth participation in politics and to encourage political parties to welcome younger candidates and young people to run for political office.”
I likewise congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that part of young people’s enthusiasm and engagement comes from their right to vote? The Scottish independence referendum was one of the best demonstrations of that. We welcome the fact that 16-year-olds can now vote in Scottish local authority and parliamentary elections; it is just disappointing that they were not able to do so in the European referendum and that they cannot vote in Westminster parliamentary elections.
I absolutely agree, and I will come to that point too. My hon. Friends must have copies of my speech.
Johanna Nyman continued:
“If the last few months of global political upheaval have taught us anything, it should be that politics needs young people more than ever and that young people do care passionately about the decisions made about their future.”
On behalf of the Scottish National party, I welcome this UN campaign, which raises awareness of the need to get more young people involved in politics. We share the UN’s wish to inspire young people to run for office, vote and engage in politics. As has been mentioned, Scotland values young people’s involvement in politics, and our independence referendum was a great movement for young people. With the power to legislate for that referendum in September 2014, the Scottish Parliament enabled 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. Turnout in that referendum among people aged 16 or 17 who were able to vote for the first time, 66% of whom it is estimated registered to vote, was 75%.
Following the positive experience of that referendum, calls grew for the voting age to be lowered across the UK. Speaking at a press conference on 19 September, the First Minister of Wales said that high youth turnout proved that teenagers cared about politics. He said:
“How often do we have discussions bemoaning the fact that young people don’t vote…That didn’t happen yesterday. The case has been made much more strongly for 16 and 17-year-olds to get the vote more generally in elections across the UK”.
I cite the independence referendum as one of the main reasons why I am here. The grassroots nature of the campaign allowed young people such as me to take ownership of ideas and get involved in politics. For me, it meant going out in all weathers to knock on doors right across what is now my constituency, and I ended up running the yes campaign in that area. That gave me the confidence to decide that I would be just as good as anyone else at representing the area where I grew up, for which I have a deep passion.
Encouraging young people to get involved in politics is not new for the SNP. After her famous Hamilton by-election victory in 1967, Winnie Ewing used her maiden speech in Parliament to argue that the voting age should be lowered to 16. Further, the SNP Scottish Government have lowered the voting age to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in all Scottish parliamentary and local council elections. The same day that happened, the UK Government denied young people the right to vote in the EU referendum. The SNP tabled an amendment calling for the EU referendum franchise to include 16 and 17-year-olds, but unfortunately it was rejected. I encourage the Minister and the UK Government to look again at extending the UK-wide franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.
Like many colleagues from all parties, I get invited to schools to speak to pupils about my job. I was recently lucky enough to go back to my old school, Banchory Academy, to talk to some modern studies classes. When I studied higher modern studies at Banchory, there were probably only around 12 people in the class; when I went back last year, there were two classes of at least 18. That shows the growth in political engagement among young people in Scotland. The questions that young people ask me about political issues are always informed and articulate. Young people nowadays are digital natives, and with constant access to social media, they are always up to date with the latest information, news and current affairs. Indeed, 16 and 17-year-olds are often much more informed than people much older than them.
The Scottish and UK Youth Parliaments and youth councils are good examples of young people being engaged. Those are hubs of active young people taking political issues right to the heart of communities across Scotland. The Scottish Youth Parliament and youth councils have been important in raising awareness of issues of importance to young people such as mental health. It was also inspirational to see hundreds of Youth Parliament MPs debating in the Chamber a few weeks ago. The ones I saw spoke passionately and with authority on a variety of issues, and I am sure some of them could give Members of this place a run for their money.
At the weekend I met with one of my local MSYPs, Kyle Michie, to discuss the Not Too Young to Run campaign and get his thoughts on youth participation in politics. He had this to say about being an MSYP and youth political engagement:
“I have spent nearly two years involved in the Scottish Youth Parliament. In this time I have gone from being politically unengaged to encouraging and promoting involvement in politics to local young people. Organisations such as the youth parliament are effective in that they not only inspire Members of the Youth Parliament but countless others to speak up for their opinions and rights.
It is a positive shift in our culture that young people can initiate and take part in dinner table debates. Young people more than ever have been encouraged to promote their beliefs in a rapidly changing world—a skill which is undoubtedly vital to ensure Britain becomes a country that our future generations want to live in.”
Having been an elected representative continuously for nine and a half years, despite having celebrated my 30th birthday only earlier this year, I encourage young people every time I meet them to get involved in adult politics, because politicians here are making decisions that affect their lives. Does my hon. Friend do similar?
I do. Every time I visit schools or speak to youth groups, I encourage them to get involved. I am going to mention my hon. Friend a little later on in my speech—nine and a half years, really? Wow!
It is important that we emphasise to young people that they could get involved in politics. However, we should also emphasise that there is not just party politics—when I was young, party politics was the last thing I wanted to do; young people can also get involved in community groups or in issues that they care about. Whether charities or campaign groups, the point is to get involved in something that they care about and make a difference.
I am lucky to be joined by some of my colleagues today who are fantastic examples of being not too young to run. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), as she mentioned, was 21 when she was elected to Aberdeen City Council in 2007. She would have been the youngest if it had not been for her brother who was elected at the same time at the age of just 18. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig), who is not here today, was also elected to Aberdeen City Council in 2007, and in 2011 he became the leader of that council at age 26.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) was elected as a councillor in 2012 at the age of 24, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) was also elected at 24. Believe it or not, my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) was at one point the youngest councillor in Scotland when he was elected in 2005. Finally, my hon. Friends the Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald)—he is not here—were under 30 when they were elected to this place, although I delight in reminding them that that is not the case anymore.
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
It seems like a long time since I was elected to local government back in 2005. Does my hon. Friend agree that although I was fortunate in having support from the local party network, who really encouraged me to run for election—I had not thought about doing that until then—that is not necessarily the case for everyone? The case he is making is about putting in place that support network for young people who want to get involved.
Absolutely, and I will come on to speak about that. I cannot mention colleagues without mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), who was elected to this place at the age of just 20, edging me out as the youngest Member.
In the wake of the vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump, we saw people taking to the streets to protest against those decisions. It was fantastic to see that passion, but we need to emphasise to young people that politics is not just about protesting against decisions they do not like or having a rant on Facebook. We need to make the case that they should be harnessing that passion and making use of it. The message must go out that “If you think the level of debate in politics is poor, get involved. If you think politicians aren’t representing your views, get involved. And if you think you can do a better job, get involved and run for office.”
I, along with a number of colleagues, would not have run for elected office if it were not for those in elected office encouraging and supporting us to run. Running for office, at whatever age, is not easy, and it is important that those elected at every level, whether council or Parliament, encourage young people to run. I would like to put on the record my thanks to those who encouraged and supported me to run. I would also like to thank those who told me I was too young and inexperienced and that I could not and should not run. Due to my contrary nature, that was as much of a motivator to run and succeed as those telling me that I could do it.
When I was elected, I was surprised to find that the international classification for a young MP is under 45. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] While that may suit some of my hon. Friends, that demonstrates the skewed nature of politics internationally. I am not saying that all our politicians should be under 30, but our politics needs to reflect society better.
It has been a pleasure to raise awareness of the campaign, which is an important step in encouraging young people to consider running for office. Young people will have to live with the consequences of the decisions made by politicians now and will most definitely have to sort out some of the mess that those decisions have left. We need young people to participate in decision making globally so that Governments and other actors take into account the effects of decisions that they may not be around to see. It is crucial that we as parliamentarians do all we can to ensure that our politics reflects our society, whether that be in age, race or gender, and to inspire and encourage young people to run for elected office. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I am delighted to be introduced in that manner, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to respond to this important debate, which reminds me and I think all of us of where we started our own journeys in politics and the fact that we punctured through the veneer of the perception of what it is like to dare to be a politician in this country. We do need a thick skin and to be able to weather the storms of the Chamber or indeed Westminster Hall and, sometimes, the exposure, the intrusion into our private lives and so on.
Every time there is another story—however interesting or appropriate it might be—that somehow has a go at a politician or a Minister, it sends a more negative message to someone else who might be considering saying, “Actually, I’d like to stand in politics, but boy I don’t really want to enter that world.” We have to bear in mind the atmosphere that we create if we want other people who are watching this to be able to be encouraged to say, “Yes, I am happy to step forward into that exposure in order to participate in democracy” at arguably the mother of all Parliaments. That is important to Britain.
As a Minister in the Foreign Office, I spend a lot of my time going around the world underlining the importance of the rule of law, democratic values and human rights. We have 800 years of experience of that ourselves and we cannot expect others to change. However, we in this country must endeavour to underline the standards that we aspire to be achieved in other countries. It is therefore a real pleasure to respond to the debate.
How do we galvanise and inject that seed of aspiration so that people do not necessarily stand in politics but participate in the political debate, which is just as important? I remember that when I was growing up, my school had an opportunity to participate in the UN youth assembly, which was a fantastic introduction for us. It armed us with more knowledge and experience of how decision making took place, which is crucial. I am sure all of us as MPs have visited schools in our constituencies to encourage students to participate in mock elections during the election season, and indeed once they become 18, too. It is tough.
The latest figures I see from Ipsos MORI show that time is arguably better spent targeting over-65s, of whom 78% are likely to vote, than 18 to 24-year-olds, of whom less than half are likely to vote. It is therefore beholden on us to try to change that, to get those youngsters, who are the future—they are the ones who hopefully will step into our shoes—to be involved and understand. Unfortunately, the challenge is that there are a lot of distractions, particularly with the internet and so on. People sometimes do not engage with the electoral process until they start paying taxes and being more affected by policy. We need to make sure that we burst that perception, and ingratiate ourselves and engage with young people to tell them to participate, have a view, share that view and influence decision makers.
I appreciate that this is not the tone of the debate, but I am sure the Minister did not mean to say that young people are too distracted by the internet to take part in politics. I am sure what he meant to say was that young people’s attention might be elsewhere—which is the same for adults. It is not only young people who sometimes look at other things. I do not think it is right for the Minister to say that young people are too distracted by the internet to take part in politics.
No, I did not say that, but I am happy to clarify: the internet and other things that youngsters have nowadays can be, and are, distracting. It is the same for adults as well; there is a lot going on in our lives. We have a duty to make the importance of politics relevant. I hope that clarifies the point that I think the hon. Lady misunderstood.
Focusing on the work of the United Nations is important. Stepping aside from the work that we are doing in this country, we have to make decisions here about our place in the world and where we want to be. That is all part of the political mix, and it is where the public have a chance to influence us, such as in decisions on how much we spend on defence, on the environment or on international aid.
At the local level, age does not matter. People are affected by the character of their communities. It is critical to participate in local debates, whether or not people are old enough to vote. Again, it is important for us to not be distracted by the figures but to see them as a target, and to say, “Let’s change this; let’s engage with the youth and with schools in ways that we have perhaps not done before”.
The debate has certainly drawn attention to the hugely important development of democracy, not just in this country but beyond our shores. The facts are simple: more than half of the world’s population is under 30, yet they provide less than 2% of the world’s elected politicians. That matters, because young people are the future. Each generation brings fresh priorities, different perspectives and creative ideas. A representative democracy can only fully serve the needs of its people when it is truly representative of all of them.
While the situation is easy to describe, as has happened in the debate, the causes and remedies are much more complicated. Young people are less likely to vote and participate in the political process generally, possibly due to the perception that politics is run by an older generation that does not pay sufficient attention to the needs and interests of the young. If there were more young role models in politics, I believe that more people would follow their lead. We welcome the valuable perspective that the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) brings to this debate and the encouraging of greater participation.
Strong external factors can discourage young people from participating in formal politics, such as the disparity that exists in several countries between the age at which people can vote and the age at which they can stand for office, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Another barrier has been the failure of political parties to promote enough younger people. Our selection processes all too frequently seek political experience, often at local or regional level, or long-held party membership, before candidates are selected. We perhaps need to update those views. That was reflected in the Richmond Park by-election, although not by my party. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) was expedited to become a candidate after a short membership of her party and actually won the election. That shows that the electorate are happy to consider somebody who has not been a party member for goodness knows how many years before having the right to stand as a candidate.
Supporting and promoting human rights, democracy and accountable institutions are key elements of our work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Vibrant, effective and accountable democracies are more likely to create the stable, peaceful and prosperous societies that we seek, and they tend to make for more reliable international partners.
Young people sometimes have to overcome centuries of social stereotyping that can confuse age with qualification. The fact that so much of the planet’s next generation remain so peripheral to representative politics across the globe is certainly worrying for the future of representative democracy, so it is right that we should look at the whole range of ways of encouraging people to participate in politics—particularly the young. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine is right to draw the House’s attention to the UN’s Not Too Young to Run campaign, which began on 22 November and aims to raise awareness around the world about the barriers to young people’s participation in public office.
I appreciate the Minister’s response. As a Foreign Office Minister, will he tell us what the UK Government are doing in other areas around the world to promote participation, not only among youth but among genders and minorities to increase participation in politics?
I will certainly come to that in the short time available; I will also write to the hon. Gentleman with more details, if I may. Perhaps after the debate he can tell me which areas he means. We have specific programmes tailored to certain countries in different parts of Africa, which are nuanced to reflect what is actually happening on the ground. Our Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the British Council are engaged on that, and a lot of work that the Department for International Development does through NGOs is directly connected to trying to get greater engagement and greater accountability, which helps to challenge corruption and all of the other issues as well. That is at the heart of what the Foreign Office is trying to do.
Returning to the United Nations’ efforts, the campaign aims to gather ideas for the promotion and expansion of opportunities for young people to stand for public office and to inspire them by showcasing young elected leaders. The campaign fits into a range of existing work by countries across the world to try to increase young people’s participation. I mentioned the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Educating the next generation about the political process and nurturing their interest is the essential first step. That is why the foundation runs programmes to promote youth participation in politics, including youth networks for political parties in the Caribbean and eastern Europe, with the aim of encouraging young people to engage in political life and become candidates for office.
In Africa, for example, the Nigerian group, the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement, which was an inspiration for the Not Too Young To Run campaign, is pursuing projects that support young people’s political participation not only in Nigeria but in other parts of Africa as well. It is also planning to work further afield in east Africa, moving across to Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco, too.
I am delighted that we are able to focus on this issue. It is something that I do not think we spend enough time on in Parliament. We all get elected, we come here, we pat ourselves on the back and then we focus on the big policy issues, but talking about wider participation in democracy is absolutely key. I very much commend the United Nations’ campaign. It is something that is at the core of what the Foreign Office is trying to do, as I said.
On every visit and in all of our engagement with members of Governments, the international, outward-looking Departments—from the Department for International Trade to DFID to the Foreign Office—look to inspire and to make sure that we engage the younger population so that they are involved. When they are not involved and governance is absent, and when there is a vacuum of inclusion, youngsters can be attracted, in the worst case, to forms of extremism, to violence, to crime and so forth. Engagement is critical from an early age. Schools, communities, families, Governments and international organisations such as the United Nations all have a role to play.
In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine on drawing the issue to the attention of the House. I hope I can sum up its importance by quoting the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which has been mentioned a few times in the debate:
“Young people need democracy—and democracy needs young people”.
Question put and agreed to.
Dartford Crossing: Congestion
[Mr Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered congestion at the Dartford crossing.
I am pleased to have secured this debate. I appreciate that the arguments have been made in the House on a number of occasions in the past couple of years, but until Dartford is relieved of the threat of another crossing, I will continue to lobby the Government to locate the new lower Thames crossing away from Dartford to the east of Gravesend, which is option C.
The Minister is aware that the decision is keenly awaited. We all want it to be made swiftly, primarily so we can get on with building the crossing and have some alleviation of the congestion that Dartford suffers daily. Until the decision is made, I and others will continue to harass the Secretary of State for Transport and the Roads Minister.
I hope to make a contribution later, but first I want to say that I hear what my hon. Friend is saying loud and clear about a decision being made. However, surely he agrees that whatever the decision is, the Government must demonstrate that it will solve the original problem: congestion in Dartford and at the Dartford crossing.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Option C, which Highways England prefers, would do exactly what he says. A significant proportion of the congestion—more than the 14% that is often quoted—would be moved from Dartford and, more importantly, a choice would be provided for motorists. At the moment, drivers, particularly of freight vehicles, have no choice and must use the Dartford crossing. Freight vehicles often cannot fit through the Blackwall tunnel, so must go to Dartford. If there is a problem on the approach to the Dartford crossing in Kent or Essex, freight and other vehicles cannot use the crossing, so there must be a choice and some resilience in the system, which is not there at the moment. It is clear that option C should be built, because of the choice it would give to motorists and the resilience it would provide that is currently not there.
It is in the interests not only of Dartford but of the whole country that we tackle this significant congestion problem. I submit that the approach to the Dartford crossing is the worst stretch of road in the whole United Kingdom. Not only does it have some of the worst congestion in the country, but to add insult to injury, drivers must pay to use it. They often pay to sit in traffic, which is why it is the worst stretch of road in the UK. The Department for Transport should deal with it as a priority.
No other stretch of road impacts so much on so many people. No other road has had a song released about it. You would rule me out of order, Mr Owen, if I quoted the lyrics of that song, but I am pleased to say that a cleaner version is now available on the internet should anyone want to download it. I think you get the gist of what the lyrics are likely to be. They illustrate clearly the frustration that many people experience when using the Dartford crossing.
No stretch of road in the country has such an impact on the local population as the approach to the Dartford crossing. When the M25 in my constituency is congested because of traffic on the A282 approach to the crossing, it paralyses the local town. It prevents children being picked up from school and people from getting to work and carrying out their business, and creates horrific pollution levels. It is killing people in the Dartford area.
It is worth looking at the accident figures for the A282 approach to the crossing. It is not just pollution that is having a detrimental impact on people’s health in Dartford; it is the accidents. During 2011-12, there were 79 accidents on the approach road. The following year, when the work started on the free-flow system, that number had increased to 143. In 2013-14, there were 318 accidents, double the previous number, and if that was not sufficient, from September 2014 to August 2015, it doubled again to 675. Last year, the combined figure for injury and non-injury accidents showed a reduction, which was pleasing, but still as high as 487. That is an horrific number of accidents in the area.
I completely agree that the number of accidents my hon. Friend is describing is horrendous. What I cannot get my head around is how moving 14% of traffic—the figure may be disputed—away from the existing crossing will significantly reduce the number of accidents at that spot.
It has been shown that capacity will increase by some 70% under option C. Highways England provided that figure, which illustrates clearly that option C would improve traffic and the problem of accidents at the approach. It is not just the volume of traffic that causes accidents; the poor road layout and the poor signage compounds the problem. We have seen a ninefold increase in the number of road accidents per year between 2012 and 2015, so better road signage and a better road layout are desperately needed to reduce the number of accidents at that location.
It is fair to say that we must plan ahead for the increase in traffic flow at the Dartford crossing. The tunnels were designed for 140,000 vehicles a day, but anything up to 170,000 use them daily and the laws of physics say there must be traffic issues. Traffic management must be looked at seriously, not just at the new lower Thames crossing and not just while it is being built. We must have better management of traffic flow and mitigate the problems affecting Dartford.
We should have been discussing this some 15 years ago. Road planning means planning ahead for problems that will exist in future. It is a brutal fact that nothing was done for so many years that, to all intents and purposes, we are playing catch-up and trying to deal with a problem in 10 years’ time when it is here today. We should be debating the opening of the new lower Thames crossing, but instead we are debating where it should be.
I return to a point I made to my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe). There are two options on the table: option A and option C. Option C is preferred, not just by Highways England but others, because it would provide an alternative for motorists and some resilience in the network. The idea that we should just build more and more crossings at Dartford is pure madness. It flies in the face of common sense to suggest that more and more crossings in the same location, relying on the same local roads funnelling through the pinch point that Dartford has become, is a solution to the problem.
When we are looking at what has worked well and what has not worked well in the whole Thames area, it is fair to say that the west of London is more affluent than the east of London, partly because of the lack of connectivity east of London compared with that to the west of London. Chelsea and Battersea trade very well and the transportation links are very good. Richmond and Twickenham are north and south of the Thames and interlink very well. However, when we come to the border between Essex and Kent, the Thames is like a brick wall between the two counties. Those two affluent counties cannot trade with each other to their full potential because of that lack of connectivity. I argue that option C would change that fundamentally and provide the connectivity that is lacking.
I agree very much with what my hon. Friend is saying about the lack of connectivity between Kent and Essex. That may well be a barrier to economic growth, and one argument for a new crossing is that it will stimulate such growth, but option C is a halfway house. If we were really trying to develop economic growth, we would go for something further east, perhaps linking Canvey with north Kent—an option D road solution.
That is an interesting idea. I think that the cost would be astronomical, but having more crossings is essential. Perhaps it could be a plan for the future. At the moment, we do not have anything east of Tower bridge other than the Blackwall tunnel and the Dartford crossing, and vehicles relying on the Woolwich ferry to try to alleviate some of the problems is simply not a solution.
We have mentioned before the failure of commerce to take off in the area east of London. When we talk to businesses in the area, we find that they desperately want option C to happen. We can speak to the garden city builders, the local enterprise partnership, the Freight Transport Association, Eurotunnel, the road haulage industry and Lakeside and Bluewater shopping centres. We can speak to almost any organisation outside the Gravesham area and, in Essex, the Basildon and east Thurrock area, and what it wants is for option C to happen. The Thames Gateway project has been held back as a result of a lack of infrastructure. The infrastructure is not there to support the commerce that is desperately needed in that area. Therefore, in Kent at least—the situation may be different in Essex—we are hard-pushed to find a business or organisation outside the Gravesham area that does not think that the solution to the problem is option C.
Another reason for that is that option C, according to Highways England, would enable vehicles still to travel at 70 mph. If we built another crossing at Dartford—option A—vehicles would be restricted to 50 mph. That is another clear reason why option C is the preferred route for so many organisations and people.
Another reason is that, with option A, there would be six years of roadworks on Britain’s worst stretch of road, at Dartford. It would be catastrophic for our area if we had to deal with that problem. It would affect the whole region as it has never been affected before, and hold back the south-east region in a way that it has never experienced, if we had six years of roadworks preventing vehicles from travelling from Kent into Essex and in effect closing off that whole area. The consequences of those restrictions would be catastrophic for the area both financially and in terms of people’s quality of life. If we build option C, the roadworks will not affect the current crossing. They can be dealt with in isolation at that location; they do not need to impede the traffic that is using the crossing now.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock mentioned an option D. There could also be option E, F and so on. Some people have put forward the so-called A14 option, which is preferred by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway). It would be a 5-mile tunnel that simply ran parallel to the M25 in the east, coming off the M25, I believe, south of junction 2 and connecting up roughly around junction 30.
Highways England estimates that option C will cost £4.5 billion and take 10 years to build, but it is half the length of option A14, so I shudder to think what A14 would cost and how long it would take to build. The closest that we have come to a quote for that was in the answer to a parliamentary question tabled back in May. The estimate was that it would cost some £6.6 billion to build option A14. That would be prohibitively expensive. I have worked out that that tunnel would be roughly one fifth of the length of the portion of the channel tunnel that is under the sea. That gives people some idea of how long the A14 tunnel would be, and I am not aware of even any geological surveys having taken place. Frankly, a route that simply runs parallel to another and works more or less as a relief road, as opposed to a separate route, is simply not a viable project.
Some 30,000 leaflets were delivered in my constituency in support of the A14 option. They pointed out the virtues of that idea to my constituents and asked them to contact me to support it. Well, however many leaflets were delivered—we are told that it was 30,000—I have had just one response since then. The idea cannot exactly have taken Dartford by storm. It is not seen as a viable alternative by the people of Dartford—not in my experience, anyway.
I therefore conclude by saying that we need the lower Thames crossing to be built east of Gravesend—option C—and in the meantime we need Highways England to come up with innovative ideas as to how we can mitigate the existing congestion at the Dartford crossing. I ask the Minister to listen to his own traffic experts at Highways England, who favour option C, and to almost every business that has expressed an opinion on the issue. Listen to the local enterprise partnership, the garden city builders, the Thames Gateway, Bluewater, Lakeside—the list goes on. I ask him to listen to the haulage industry, but also to the people of Dartford, who have suffered immeasurably as a consequence of the Dartford crossing. It has affected the quality of life of local residents in a way in which no other area of the country has been affected. In Dartford, we are sick to the back teeth of congestion at the Dartford crossing, and we therefore ask that a plan be put forward swiftly to deal with the existing problems, but also, and most importantly, to have the lower Thames crossing built where it gives the motorist an alternative, which is east of Gravesend—option C.
It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership, Mr Owen. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing the debate, although there is a sense of déjà vu about it, given that we discussed this issue at some length only three weeks or so ago and it seems to have occupied my inbox for most of this year. However, that does not mean that this is not a very important debate and we should not rehearse the arguments time and again to see whether new explanations or opportunities arise.
I have great respect for my hon. Friend. We came into Parliament at the same time and have worked on a number of things together. However, on this issue we are fundamentally divided. We agree about the principle and about what we are trying to achieve, it is just that we have completely different ways of achieving it. I want to put it on the record straight off that this is not about pushing the problem from my constituency to his, or pushing it to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway). It is about doing what we believe to be right.
I want to state from the outset that although I fundamentally oppose option C, that is not just because it would go through my constituency; it is because I do not believe that it would solve the problem. This is a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation opportunity, so anything less than solving the problem where it actually is would be, in my opinion, a lost opportunity. We need to finish the M25. Anything else will be a waste or a mistake. It never got finished in the first place.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham were here—he would have been were he not out of the country—he would say that our hon. Friend the Member for Dartford should be down on his knees begging for option A14, begging for a solution at the existing crossing. I understand my hon. Friend’s opposition to that. I understand why he and our hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock are opposed to a solution where the existing crossing is. Their constituents have suffered, as my constituents have, immeasurable amounts of congestion. It is hideous, and we all know that, but if we put in a solution that does not solve the problem, they will still be suffering hideous amounts of congestion.
I want to paint a picture. It is a picture of a future where, despite my objections and all the evidence I have presented to the various Roads Ministers I have met and to the Secretary of State that option C will not work and will fail to tackle congestion at Dartford, option C—the “road to nowhere”, as it has been described—gets the go-ahead. The Secretary of State signs it off with the Minister’s advice and off goes option C into its next stage, cutting through huge swathes of countryside in Thurrock and across the fenland, which is destroyed and lost forever. Houses—some of them newly built—are demolished. A tunnel is constructed between Gravesend and Tilbury and miles of new motorway is built across the green and pleasant land that once was Thurrock.
On the first day the Minister is there, accompanied by the Secretary of State, with scissors in hand. There is ribbon cutting, fanfares, cars flowing beautifully and lorries arriving from Dover and heading off to wherever they are going, enjoying the views of the green and pleasant pasture from the motorway. That leaves the 86% who want to use the existing crossing—we can dispute whether it is 14% who want to use the new crossing, but it is around that, and that is Highways England’s figure—sailing onwards towards the existing Dartford crossing, enjoying a 14% increase in capacity on both the bridge and the tunnel. The traffic is flowing beautifully as far as the eye can see until—bang—an accident at the tunnel mouth, which is not a rare occurrence.
The written answer I received from the Department for Transport on 23 March 2016, in response to a question I tabled on 16 March asking how many times there had been delays or tailbacks caused by closure at the Dartford crossing, said:
“Typically there are in excess of 300 incidents per year resulting in partial or full closures of the Dartford Crossing. On average each incident takes approximately 27 minutes to deal with, often requiring a lane closure for safety.”
The impact of that means it can take up to
“3 to 5 hours for the road condition to return to normal.”
In response to another question that I tabled on the same day, asking how many times the Dartford crossing had actually closed in the past 12 months, I was informed that there were nine unplanned bridge closures due to either high winds, broken-down vehicles, collisions or police-led incidents, and that the west tunnel had closed five times and the east tunnel 12 times. Looking at those answers, I fail to see how a new crossing up to 15 km away from junction 2 on the Kent side, and 9 km away from junction 30 on the north side, would ease congestion at the existing crossing.
My hon. Friend heard the figures that I gave on the number of accidents that we have had on the approach. Whenever that happens in the future, Highways England cannot inform freight coming from Dover that there is an alternative, because there is not one. It can only tell them about the congestion that exists. If we were to have option C, they would at least have a choice that does not exist today.
My hon. Friend has read the next point in my speech. The fact is that vehicles would have to commit to an alternative long before any incident happened. Just look at the map—I know that I am not really allowed to use props, but there is a useful map that shows how far the existing crossing is from where drivers would have to commit to when going north to option C or coming south around the M25 to option C.
So there we are tootling around the M2, on to the A2, and unbeknown to us there is a prang, as I described, at one of the tunnel mouths. It instantly loses 50% of capacity. However, we are already past junction 1 on the A2/M2 and we do not know there has been a prang. We are already in the flow of traffic and are committed to the route that we are taking, whether we are in a car or a lorry. Instantly, traffic starts backing up at the Dartford crossing.
The same scenario applies on the north side. Indeed, when I made these points to a logistics company based very close to the crossing in Thurrock, it said that the traffic backs up at the rate of a mile a minute when the crossing closes. Even allowing for exaggeration, the point is clear: a crossing far from the existing one—where we know that it fails because of its importance around the M25—will do nothing for Dartford or Thurrock residents, for Essex or Kent residents or for anyone in the south-east of England, because vehicles will be trapped.
What my hon. Friend describes is what we have now. When there is a problem at the approach to the Dartford crossing, everything is stuck. Even if only 30% of vehicles can be given adequate notice, by better signage, that they can use the alternative at option C, that will help thousands of vehicles. That cannot happen at the moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, but the point still stands. There will be vehicles trapped within what I am describing as the “congestion triangle” between junction 29 of the M25, junction 2 of the M25 and junction 1/2 of the M2/A2. Once someone is past any of those points, they do not have an alternative. Even if option C were built, they would still be heading towards the existing crossing. Although option C may still function beautifully once there has been an incident at the existing crossing, it will do nothing to address the problem. There will still be vehicles trapped in serious congestion in and around the existing crossing. No one can show me how option C would address the problems that I have just highlighted.
I know that it is not very fashionable to base decisions on evidence. We are in this post-truth era, but if Members look at my badge—everyone who would like one is welcome to one—they will see that I love evidence. Where is the evidence that option C will actually address the congestion, the poor air quality and the catastrophic impact of a failure at the bridge? When I challenged Highways England on that exact point, when I sat down with Mr Potts before he moved on, he said, “We will have to do that modelling after the decision is made.” Quite frankly, that is not good enough, and that is not the right thing to do. That is why Dartford and Thurrock should be begging for a solution at the existing crossing. It may well be option A14. I do not know; I would like to look at all those options again. I hear very clearly what my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford says about the inconvenience of the roadworks that would come from building at option A, and that does need to be addressed. However, anything that fails to sort out the problem where it actually exists is a missed opportunity.
When I sat down to write this speech and gather my thoughts, I really struggled to know where to start. Both my hon. Friend and I could write a book on this issue; we have been living this now for years. We can go back and we look at the history of the project. It started in its current form back in 2009 and has had a number of different incarnations during the past few years. We are now getting close to a decision. It may well be that the Minister and the Secretary of State stick with option C, as recommended by Highways England. However, I fear that we are answering a question that was posed many years ago, conflating too many different issues and not actually answering the original question: what do we do about congestion at Dartford?
Until we can answer that question satisfactorily—whether we spend £4.5 billion on option C, or £6.5 billion on option A14—we should not commit to anything. We have to know that what we are going to do and spend billions of pounds on will actually have an impact on the lives of the people my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and I represent. Until that can be proven, building a very handy road from Dover to the north of England, although that may have merits, would be a wrong-headed decision. My hon. Friend has made many, many points that I agree with, and we want the same outcome. We want better air quality for our constituents. We want free-flowing traffic. We do not want the number of accidents and the problems that we all see. However, if we do not address that problem now we are still going to have real problems in the future.
My hon. Friend asked why so many people have opted for option C. There was a long list of people, including those at Lakeside, but I would just challenge that. I am not challenging them saying that they would like option C, but look at where Lakeside is located, with its slip roads going the wrong way on to the A13 heading towards junction 30 on the M25. Even with the slightest incident its slip roads back up very quickly, so I am surprised by that. Very few people from the long list of those who want option C are based in Thurrock, although I accept that some are. However, when given only one option—I think we all accept that the consultation that was conducted earlier this year really presented only one option, which was option C—it is no wonder that people said that was the one they wanted. They were not really given an opportunity to comment on option A.
Finally, I reiterate that we have to solve the problem where it lies. We all deserve to see the evidence and see how this will work before any decision is made to carve through my constituency, or indeed that of my hon. Friend.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing a debate on this long-running issue, which he has raised many times on behalf of his long-suffering constituents, for whom traffic gridlock regularly causes misery.
As a child growing up in south London in the 1960s with grandparents in north London, I have vivid memories of the Blackwall tunnel, which was then a single tunnel with two-way traffic. I remember my sister and I singing in the back of the car, whiling away the hours—however, it was probably not the song with the X-rated lyrics that the hon. Gentleman referred to—and how we cheered when the Dartford tunnel came along. It was a huge relief but, as we have heard, we now need a 21st-century solution. I am sure that we all are awaiting the Minister’s response with interest, so I will keep my remarks brief.
The hon. Gentleman made an excellent case for option C, and the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) made a different case; it felt ever so slightly as though one was intruding on a family dispute that had been running for a long time, and I certainly do not want to pour oil on troubled waters. However, to rewind slightly, back in 2013 the Government decided that we needed a new lower Thames crossing connecting Kent and Essex. We are now three years down the line and, whatever the different views, we really need a decision. This has taken a long time and has created massive uncertainty for residents and businesses.
Despite the problems, I am told that the economy locally is doing well. However, I am also told that 73% of businesses in Dartford feel that their business is suffering because of congestion, and growth is clearly being stifled by the growing crisis. The Dartford crossing is designed for some 140,000 vehicles to cross a day. On average it reaches that design limit, with 137,411 vehicles crossing daily in 2014-15. Some people tell me that it is operating at 117% capacity. The number of journeys made using the Dartford crossing rose by around 2 million between 2011 and 2015, and 869 complaints regarding congestion have been made to Highways England in just the last 12 months.
Last month, the Minister said in a written answer that according to a traffic modelling assessment and traffic flow forecasts produced for the Dartford crossing by Highways England, the annual average daily traffic flow at the crossing is forecast to rise from 140,000 vehicles in 2014 to 159,300 vehicles in 2025. The new housing development in the nearby garden city and the proposed theme park will introduce further challenges, so I think we can all agree that congestion at the Dartford crossing is already severe and that, without action, the problems will only get worse.
In a Westminster Hall debate in January, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), said that the Dartford crossing was identified in 2011 as “a top-40 project”—but if it is a priority, why are the Government yet to deliver the solution? The need for an effective solution is not just about logistics; it is a matter for public health. It has been estimated that 6.7% of deaths in Dartford are partly attributable to long-term exposure to air pollution—a sobering figure that is exceeded only by London and Slough. Although minor improvements in reducing congestion have been achieved since the removal of the tollbooths and the introduction of the Dart charge, there is still a long way to go.
A freedom of information request to Highways England showed that in the past two years, unpaid Dart charge fines by UK-based drivers have topped £500,000. If the Dart charge is to be effective in cutting congestion, fines need to be properly enforced and non-payers chased. Of course, there are also the non-UK based non-payers. That point is timely, given the Brexit debate going on now in the main Chamber, so will the Minister tell us today what progress he has made on chasing European non-payers? Will that form part of the Brexit negotiations? Indeed, in the new spirit of openness that apparently started yesterday, will he tell us whether it is part of the Government’s negotiating strategy even? Where will it be in the priority list? Could it be a red line—even a red, white and blue line?
But I digress. The Labour group in Dartford—ably led by Jonathon Hawkes, whom I thank for his advice in preparing for this debate—has rightly called for a new traffic plan focused on delivering additional investment to bring forward the delivery of promised improvement works, intervention to ease the bottlenecks that cause congestion and improvements to the public transport network, as well as the decision on the crossing. Many were hoping—indeed, expecting—something to be announced on that subject in the autumn statement. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the Government will invest £220 million to ease congestion at critical pinch points around the country, but there has been no mention of whether the hard-pressed people of Kent and Essex will benefit from that. In fact, there has been no mention of where that money will be spent at all, so perhaps the Minister will enlighten us today.
To return to the crossing and the recent history, as we have heard, Highways England is still examining the evidence submitted in its consultation process earlier this year on a new lower Thames crossing and has said that the Government will make an announcement later this year. Autumn was mentioned at one stage. Today is a very warm winter’s day, but we are beyond autumn and definitely into winter. The end of the year is imminent, so I am hopeful that the Minister will announce that decision today. I have been studying his countenance carefully to see whether he is a man who seems likely to be bearing good news. We shall see in the next few minutes. He may even find a way of describing the decision as a thing of beauty. Again, I do not know—I live in hope—but if he does not, I hope he will tell us why he cannot tell us and when he might be able to do so.
If the Government are serious about solving Britain’s congestion crisis, they need to get the ball rolling on the major projects that they have promised. The problems in Dartford are reflected across the country, and improving our country’s infrastructure cannot be put on the back burner for any longer.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remark that many projects need to be addressed. However, if we can focus again on the problems that we are experiencing between Kent and Essex at the existing Dartford crossing, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) wants the same thing, as I said, but we differ on how that should be achieved. The hon. Gentleman said that we need a decision, and I agree, but it has to be the right decision. Just because option C is something that is being presented does not make it the right thing. It is something and we can get on and make the decision, but if it does not tackle the problem, does he agree that that would be a missed opportunity?
There are limits on how long one can procrastinate. Evidence has clearly been gathered and it is time for the Government to make a decision. They need to end the uncertainty and make a decision on this issue without further delay, because Dartford has suffered from years of under-investment in local road networks and public transport, and the Government need to commit now to immediate investment in the local road network around the location of the new crossing. Local councils need to be assured that they will not be asked to foot the bill for those much needed improvements, which is a major concern, given the levels of cuts to council budgets.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need a decision, so that we will be able to get on with building a new crossing. Does he agree with me, though, that we needed a decision 15 years ago? The fact that that decision was not made then, and that nothing at all was done about the congestion in Dartford, has resulted in the problems that we experience today.
I see where the hon. Gentleman wishes to lead me, but I will not be tempted to go down that path. All I will say is that the Government are in place today and the Minister is in charge. It is up to him whether to make the decision but I am sure that the hon. Member for Dartford would agree that a decision would be timely, and that having one as soon as possible would be best.
I have been told that Dartford, like so many other places, needs a new traffic and transport plan, taking in road improvement, connectivity and improved public transport provision. As we speak, people who are sitting in their cars in queues at the Dartford crossing will be anxious to hear what the Minister has to say. I hope he can bring them some good news and that he does not disappoint.
What a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing the debate. As the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who speaks for the Opposition, spoke of seasons, I thought of John Clare, who wrote:
“The winter comes; I walk alone,
I want no bird to sing;
To those who keep their hearts their own
The winter is the spring.”
Perhaps the seasons are what we perceive they are.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, this is not the first time we have considered these matters in recent weeks. Indeed, on 14 November we had a longish debate on the Floor of the House on exactly this subject, to which he and my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) contributed. None the less, he is right to say that repetition is no sin. Indeed, it is virtuous when it obliges Ministers to consider matters as closely as I have been invited to again today. It is right that we should consider these matters, because we take the issues very seriously.
The Dartford crossing is an important part of the arterial road network and is used extensively by private motorists and hauliers—by those carrying freight, particularly those going to Dover. There are important issues, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, of congestion and safety. The answer, quite simply, is that we need to do more; I would be the first to acknowledge that. I will talk a bit about some of the things that I have pledged to do when I have spoken about the Dartford crossing in recent weeks, and about what I have done since. Ministers have to be held to account and if they say they are going to do things, they should be expected to deliver on those pledges. I want to reassure those who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, take a strong view, including many of his constituents, that tackling congestion at Dartford should be a priority and that it is a priority for the Government and for Highways England.
I will start with some of the facts. When my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock talked of evidence, I thought of C.S. Lewis, who said that
“reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
Although the facts are important and I take them very seriously, one should never be the captive of them because, in delivering these kinds of strategic policies, one must exercise—dare I say it—one’s vision too. None the less, let us look at some of the facts with which my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and others will be well acquainted.
The Dartford crossing has provided the only road crossing of the Thames east of London for more than 50 years. I, too, was familiar with the Blackwall tunnel when there was nothing else, because I grew up in south-east London and used that road many times. The Dartford crossing is one of the busiest roads in the country, used 55 million times a year by commuters, business travellers, haulage companies, emergency services and holidaymakers. It opened in stages—the west tunnel in 1963, the east tunnel in 1980 and the bridge in 1991—in response to the growing traffic demands of the kind the hon. Member for Cambridge described. The existing crossing is at capacity for much of the time and is one of the least reliable sections of England’s strategic road network of motorways and major trunk roads. Congestion and the closure of the existing crossing occur frequently, and I know that this creates significant disruption and pollution, which impacts on businesses and individuals locally.
In the Adjournment debate that I referred to earlier, I mentioned that options for the M25 at Dartford have been considered for a considerable time. Indeed, various methods have been used to help to ease the congestion problems at the crossing. As a response to congestion, in particular on the approach to the payment booths, a cashless payment system called Dart Charge was introduced on 30 November 2014. In fact, Mr Owen, you will remember that I was the Minister at that time, during my first visit to the Department for Transport. I emphasise the word “visit” because all ministerial appointments are visits and nothing more, are they not?
I was pleased with the Dart Charge, knowing that it would help with the flow of traffic, and it has had some impact. The hon. Member for Cambridge made that point, and I will come to the other points he raised in a moment. I do not want to overstate the impact of the Dart Charge, but I think it was the right thing to do and it has had a positive effect. Overall, the Dart Charge and the new road layout have improved journeys through the Dartford crossing and reduced journey times for drivers.
Although I accept that traffic flows have improved from Essex into Kent since the toll booths have been removed, I dispute the argument that they have improved from Dartford into Essex. A lot depends on how those figures are measured. Certainly the people of Dartford have no sense whatever that improvements have come about in anything like the manner that the Minister mentions. They feel, almost universally, that congestion has got worse in Dartford since the toll booths were removed.
Yes, I understand that. I think that is partly because those changes were made against a background of increased demand, so the number of vehicles using the crossing actually continues to grow. In a sense, any improvement will have been mitigated, affected and, for some, concealed by the growing traffic volumes.
In factual terms—the evidence is important—volumes of traffic have grown by more than 5% in the past year. Now, that might sound relatively minor but, given the figures I used earlier, 5% growth in a single year is an extra 2.7 million crossings. It is unsurprising that people see that extra volume of traffic and say that the Dart Charge has made less difference than it actually has because, of course, it is not possible to compare the situation with what it would have been like had we not done it.
It is important to recognise, however, the proper concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and the profound concerns of those whom he represents. In the end, the issue comes down to the fact that the crossing is operating at over-capacity—something like 117% capacity. Journey times southbound are estimated to be significantly better than before the Dart Charge was introduced, being very nearly five minutes quicker, on average, in the year to August 2016 than the year before.
Northbound, however, we recognise that there is still more to be done. A combination of increased traffic and significant roadworks at junction 30 resulted in only a relatively small improvement in journey times in comparison with journey times prior to the Dart Charge. Anyone who uses the crossing regularly will know that there is a significant difference between the northbound and southbound crossing times. My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock will certainly know that.
I know the Minister is now very aware of some of these issues, as we have debated them on numerous occasions. He cited a figure a moment ago: he said that the crossing is operating at 117% capacity at times. If 14%, which is Highways England’s own figure, were diverted away from that, would that not still mean that the existing crossing would be operating at over-capacity at some times? Ergo, do we not need to increase the capacity at the existing crossing, rather than build something else with other aims in a different place?
I hesitate to intrude on the well-mannered and comradely debate between my hon. Friends the Members for South Basildon and East Thurrock, and for Dartford. It is certainly true that one would need to consider any further crossing eastbound in connection with, and in the context of, Dartford. My hon. Friend is right to isolate those two things. To see them out of context would be an error, and the Government certainly will not do that. It is right to take account of the effect at Dartford of any changes that were made. I would not want my hon. Friend to assume that that is not my view, although I do not think he does.
The approach to the two northbound tunnels also has to be controlled for lorries carrying dangerous goods. For this corner of the south-east, which has more than its fair share of oil and petroleum facilities, a number of petrol tankers use the tunnel. To make this safe passage, the tankers are queued and taken through in a convoy while all other traffic is held. The older west tunnel is a smaller bore and cannot accommodate the taller lorries that travel the network, so the mix of lorries across both tunnels reduces the flow of traffic. That is an important point.
I have said repeatedly, including when we last debated these things, that I would look at what improvements could be made. I related those remarks to the facts that I have just described. I have asked Highways England to look closely at what more can be done to separate vehicles. I understand the concerns of staff about traffic wishing to cross west to east at junction 1A, which I have asked Highways England to look at. We may be able to do further work on the A282, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford knows, and at the junction where gridlock often occurs.
Those are all important matters, and they do not obviate the need for a more strategic solution, but I want to be absolutely sure that, in dealing with the different kinds of vehicles and local people’s access to the crossing, we are doing as much as we can and should do. To that end, I commissioned Highways England to consider those matters more closely. Further work may be possible that would go some way towards alleviating the problems that my hon. Friend has set out.
The safety and performance of the crossing is under constant review to identify other ways to improve conditions. Continuing improvements to the traffic safety system that was introduced as part of Dart Charge, and the management of dangerous goods and abnormal loads, will form part of any further work. I will update hon. Members when I have a report from Highways England about the further steps that it intends to take—that is the right way to go about things.
Managing traffic flow during incidents and reopening lanes as soon as possible afterwards are also important and have often been a cause of concern to local people. I spoke of road signage the last time we debated these matters and, looking at it again, there are issues with the signage on the crossing approaches, particularly northbound. We might be able to do more in that area. We are working with local authorities on both sides of the crossing to improve traffic flows between local and strategic road networks, which has been a perennial issue.
Trying to provide a solution that assists those travelling from far away to far flung destinations who want to cross, as well as addressing the very local traffic in the immediate Kent area and the traffic that moves between Kent and Essex, is important to our consideration of how to get the best outcome. That is not entirely straightforward, but it does not seem impossible to find a way to address both objectives.
Highways England and Kent County Council have a joint approach on a number of improvement measures to junctions used by traffic approaching the crossing from Dartford, which will be familiar to my hon. Friend. The roadworks at junction 30 and the A13, which greatly affected journey times, were substantially completed last week. That should help, and motorists should start to see the benefits of reduced congestion at the crossing and improved journey times as a result.
Plans are also being developed to encourage over-height vehicles to be in the correct lanes. As I mentioned earlier, it is important that HGVs are not stopped and redirected as they cross because that has a significant effect on congestion. We may be able to improve the signage in that respect. As my hon. Friend will be aware, Highways England regularly meets a wide range of stakeholders to discuss other improvements and how they might be implemented. I meet the chief executive of Highways England on a monthly basis, and I keep the performance of this road under regular review. There is more to do, and I will keep my hon. Friend and all hon. Members updated on Highways England’s plans and future actions.
Before I move to my pre-peroration, and then to my exciting peroration itself—I will also say something about the lower Thames crossing—I should say that the hon. Member for Cambridge asked important questions about compliance with the charge, and he deserves answers. Initial compliance, as he will know, is some 93%. He is right about what happens next, and I share his view. He is right that pursuing those in other domains who do not pay the charge is challenging. We do that work, and I often interrogate my officials about their progress. As a specific result of his question, I will make our latest compliance figures available in the Library—again, that is the right thing to do.
The evidence shows that the Dart Charge is working, and 93% initial compliance is indicative of that. When we take into account the people who pay later, the figure is impressive, but any non-compliance is undesirable and it is right that we use every avenue to chase those who do not pay.
In the longer term, the Department for Transport recognises the argument for the lower Thames crossing and the role it might have in easing congestion at Dartford. Highways England consulted on a shortlist of options from 26 January to 24 March, with 47,000 people taking part, making it the largest ever public consultation on a UK road project. No decisions have been made, but I hear what the hon. Gentleman said about the seasons, notwithstanding my admiration for John Clare. It is important that we go further in making our findings and conclusions known. We will take a decision when we have considered those responses, and we will report on the location, route and type of crossing. Subject to the necessary funding and planning approvals, we anticipate that the new crossing, if publicly funded, could be open in 2025.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has once again done the House a service by allowing us to explore these matters. I hope he can tell from what I have already said that the Department and I take the issue very seriously. We are considering all that can be done to ease the circumstances of his constituents, because we know how important this crossing is for them and our country.
The strategic road network is receiving unprecedented attention from this Government, and my hon. Friend will know that the road investment strategy, which I developed when I was last a Transport Minister, is the first time in a long time that a Government have taken a long-term view on how we should invest in roads and then committed funds to that view. In doing so, we are cognisant of changing circumstances and particular places where those circumstances are having an impact on other Government priorities, such as air quality and the perennial and compelling priority of safety. To that end, he can be sure that we will be decisive and determined not only in protecting the interests of all those who use our roads but in doing the right things to make the investment work for the best.
In that spirit, Highways England will continue, on my instruction, to monitor closely conditions at the crossing, to understand the various factors contributing to performance and to ensure that we use this crossing in the most effective and efficient manner.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), and I agree that we all want the same thing. I thank the Minister for his responses. The biggest decision of all, of course, is whether we choose option A or option C. If anyone were to suggest that all the existing London crossings should be put in the same place, we would think them mad. That is effectively what option A offers: more of the same in the same location. Option C would offer an alternative choice to motorists that is not currently available. I ask the Secretary of State for Transport and the Roads Minister to consider that option.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).