Wednesday 12 September 2018
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
High Speed 2
I beg to move,
That this House has considered High Speed 2.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Today I am calling for the scrapping of HS2. Coincidentally, today there is a ComRes poll in the Express, of which I have just been made aware, which shows that 67% of British adults do not think HS2 would benefit them personally at all, 61% think it is poor value for money, and more people oppose the construction than support it. I recommend that people read very carefully the basis of that polling. Interestingly, in the west midlands only 24% think that HS2 will benefit them. There is gathering momentum to derail the plans. Peter Oborne wrote recently in the Daily Mail that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other senior Ministers might be about to call publicly for it to be cancelled. Apparently, the Defence and Foreign Secretaries are of this view, as is my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson).
Members might notice that I am wearing my HS2 white elephant badge. A white elephant is defined as:
“a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.”
This particular white elephant might look docile and harmless at present, but it is not. I voted against the principle on Second Reading, as did many other Members here today, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). I did so because I thought it was a fundamentally flawed project.
The Second Reading of the Bill authorised the London to Birmingham route. Only 41 voted against that Bill, with 452 voting for it. Interestingly, the penny dropped for the second Bill on the stretch from Birmingham to Crewe, which directly affects my constituents. Although only 12 of us voted against it, the number who voted for it dropped considerably, to only 295 out of 650 MPs. Where were the other 255?
I want to pay tribute to my constituents at both ends of the constituency, who are profoundly affected by the project, particularly Trevor Parkin of the Stone Railhead Crisis Group and Ian Webb, Fred Smith and Gary White from the Whitmore2Madeley HS2 action group. I also want to mention Keith Ralls. Those people put specific questions in their petitions in relation to the manner in which they were injuriously affected by the HS2 proposals between Birmingham and Crewe. However, they are also profoundly opposed to the concept of HS2 in itself, which is clearly consistent with the opinion poll I have just mentioned.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I, too, voted against HS2, as I am sure he is aware, because we have probably the most affected constituencies in the country, given phases 1 and 2. If HS2 were to be scrapped, as he suggests, with potential savings of £50 billion, is he aware of the great British transport competition, which I recently launched in conjunction with the Taxpayers’ Alliance to identify how the money could be better spent across the country rather than in narrow swathes? Will he recommend to his constituents that they take part in the competition?
Order. Before Sir William continues his speech, I remind Members that a lot of people want to speak in the debate and I am sure that there will be interventions, which I hope can be kept brief, because otherwise it inhibits my ability to call everyone who wants to speak.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I have consistently voted against the project, for various reasons. It will affect investment in Coventry and at the same time be detrimental to the environment in Warwickshire. It has never been costed properly, and there has never been a proper impact study or a proper consultation that takes on board the community’s concerns. I agree with him that it should be scrapped.
I am extremely glad to hear that. I am sorry that I did not mention that in my opening remarks. Although he is an Opposition Member, I pay tribute to the wisdom of the hon. Gentleman.
I and the other people I mentioned are concerned about not only the concept, but the manner in which HS2 Ltd has dealt with the issues, as I have said in the petition that I and others deposited, and as I have said in previous debates. I also petitioned on the first and second Bills and raised all my constituents’ grievances, which are on the record for anyone to see. I do not need to go into those today, because I want to deal with the central principles.
I have also taken part in other debates with my right hon. and indefatigable Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham. Our criticisms about the lack of consultation on HS2 are already on the record. Indeed, back in November 2015 the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman found serious failings in HS2 Ltd’s engagement with a community in Staffordshire. The report stated that its actions fell so far below reasonable standards that they constituted maladministration. I had similar experiences to my right hon. Friend, and I understand that she will deal with that later in the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is not able to be here today. He apologises for that—he had another engagement—but I want to cite his concerns, which relate to the disruption it will cause his constituents and the disconnected nature of the railway, which is a matter of grave concern. He makes the point that the railway does not connect with Heathrow, the continent via HS1, or even Birmingham New Street station. He says that if ever there were a model of how not to design an integrated railway, this is it.
Amidst our collective opposition, the white elephant is running amok in the Treasury and has already charged the British taxpayer more than £4 billion before construction has even started. My own position on the outrageous and accelerating costs of HS2 is that, although £4 billion is a colossal sum, there is no excuse for continuing to throw money down a black hole. The spending plans began to spiral after 2018: £3 billion in 2019; £4.2 billion in 2020; and £4.8 billion in 2021. So if we are going to stop it, now would be a good time.
At this stage in the project, apart from drawing up plans, the biggest cost is the compensation schemes. The reason why billions of pounds are being spent at the moment is that the project is buying homes up and down the line because of MPs agitating for decent compensation schemes. Some of the money will come back in due course, because after 20 years the homes will be sold at a profit.
My hon. Friend is a valiant supporter of the Government. He chaired the Select Committee on the hybrid Bill and I pay tribute to the way in which he sought to deal with the problems that cropped up during the proceedings. However, there would be no need for compensation if there was not an HS2 project. I do not think the opinions polls that I referred to feature people who have been affected by the route of the line; they simply think it is an extremely bad deal. It is a white elephant indeed.
Although our colleague praises the fact that a lot money has been spent on compensation, the truth of the matter is that many of our constituents have had to fight tooth and nail to get the value of their properties, and in fact are losing out overall because it will be HS2 that capitalises on their properties. They have lost their homes and, in some cases, their livelihoods.
That in itself is a complete tragedy. I totally endorse everything that my right hon. Friend said. The project has caused an enormous amount of anxiety and stress. I have friends and constituents who have literally been made physically ill as a result. Not only is it a catastrophic exercise in maladministration and failure to cost things properly, as I will mention, but it has caused anxiety and ultimately cannot be justified.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan), who has led the way in consistently opposing HS2. I have constituents who cannot get compensation because they are just outside the area that qualifies for it. Surely that is a diabolical situation for people to find themselves in.
As I expected, the hon. Gentleman makes another extremely sound point. The reality is that people are affected by the indirect consequences. People talk about the number of jobs being created. I will come on to that as well, because many other projects could be put in place that would create an equal or greater number of jobs.
That is an extremely important point. I am sure that those listening to the debate will take note of it, as will the Minister.
Those linked to the construction of the project—the brainchild of no less a genius than the hapless Lord Adonis—seem to admit that there has never been a structured estimate of costs for phase 1 of the track. Mr Tim Smart, the chief engineer, told the High Speed Rail Bill Select Committee on 23 April that HS2 Ltd was unable to provide detailed cost estimates for parts of the project because it relied on its cost model as a guide to the entire project cost. Also, in evidence given to the High Speed Rail Bill Select Committee in the House of Lords, Lord Berkeley, the chairman of the Rail Freight Group, the representative body for rail freight in the UK, estimated that the cost of the Euston to Old Oak Common section—a mere seven miles—was more than £6 billion. We have to get real. That is based on the cost estimates and data from other projects using the rail method of measurement and commissioned by Network Rail.
I understand that that estimate was not challenged by HS2 Ltd, which appeared not to have any reliable costings. Unbelievably, that makes each mile of the planned route worth almost £1 billion. For the same price the UK could buy two new aircraft carriers, each costing about £3 billion, or 10 state-of-the-art NHS hospitals, or invest in local infrastructure in roads and so on.
The Treasury’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority has given HS2 an amber to red rating for each of the past six years, meaning that there is a high risk that it will not deliver value for money. A confidential report commissioned by the IPA and released in December 2016 also warned that the costs were likely to end up being between 20% and 60% over HS2’s £56 billion budget, which it says would be classified as “failed” by any internationally recognised definition. It also warned that HS2 was
“highly likely to significantly overspend”
by 20% to 60%, which would increase the cost to as much as £90 billion.
The Government assert that the scheme will bring benefits to the wider economy through an enlarged labour market and greater commuting capacity, but they admit that those benefits cannot be achieved by building HS2 alone, depending almost entirely on more spending not accounted for in the HS2 budget. The National Audit Office wrote a critical report in June further highlighting that the £55.7 billion funding package does not cover all the funding needed to deliver the promised growth and regeneration benefits.
The Public Accounts Committee also highlighted that issue in its September 2016 follow-up report, recommending that the Government
“seek assurances from the relevant local authorities that they have plans in place to identify sources of funding and financing”.
That means going out to other people and asking for more taxpayers’ money. Furthermore, politicians in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands combined authority have published HS2 strategies, with the West Midlands combined authority estimating that its HS2 local growth plan will cost £3.3 billion. However, it is by no means clear where that money will come from.
Aside from the fact that HS2 apparently cannot generate growth without more—unaccounted for—money being pumped into local communities, in September 2013 a report by KPMG suggested that although some communities would gain from a high-speed train line, it would result in economic losses in others, for which the Government would inevitably be asked to compensate. That remains the case.
The project has not yet left the station and the runaway costs are already out of control. If the situation was not so serious, I would congratulate the HS2 executives for their role in constructing the most amazing gravy train ever built in the UK, with one quarter of HS2 staff paid more than £100,000 in the last year, and the chief executive taking home £600,000. By way of contrast, Andrew Haines, the chief executive at Network Rail, is paid about £20,000 less than that. People can say what they like about our current network, but the fact that the HS2 boss is paid more than the head of a network that actually exists demonstrates a grotesque lack of control over finances.
Unfortunately, those are only the costs we know about. In 2018 The Sunday Times reported that a whistleblower who worked for HS2 Ltd as head of property said that staff were told to
“falsify figures, mislead parliament and cover up ‘petrifying’ overspends”
with regard to the budget for buying lands and buildings. I believe that there are already grounds under the Inquires Act 2005 for a full public inquiry into the scheme, as there were over Stafford hospital—an inquiry that I called for, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford was associated with as well. That inquiry changed the whole nature of the health service. A full 2005 Act inquiry into HS2, the engineering projects that go with it and its significant impact on our public finances is well worth calling for.
Before that, I would hope for, and I am calling for, Select Committee inquiries to review HS2, particularly by the Transport Committee, which has today severely criticised the Department for Transport over the east coast rail project. By comparison with HS2, that project is a walk in the park. HS2 needs far more scrutiny than it is getting and the High Speed Rail Bill Select Committee report could have gone much further in exposing the lack of planning and spiralling costs of the failing project. However, a number of people do need to be praised for their forensic scrutiny, and I repeat my praise for my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham.
The planned route cuts right through my constituency. Baldwin’s Gate, Bar Hill, Whitmore and Madeley are in a rural area of outstanding natural beauty. The proposed scheme slices it in two, with two viaducts at the River Lea valley and Meece brook valley, and two tunnels along the way, meaning that there will be an enormous amount of construction work in a delicate area. The environmental damage is not limited to Stone; the scheme cuts right through the country. The Woodland Trust has called it
“the biggest single threat from development to ancient woodland”
in the UK, with 98 ancient woods threatened with loss or damage from phases 1 and 2 of the project.
The National Infrastructure Commission has suggested that, in addition to the £56 billion that HS2 is projected to cost, £43 billion in additional funding will be needed to improve local transport links in cities outside London to allow people to make full use of the service. That is a combined total of £99 billion, yet in today’s poll 85% of people say they want the Government to spend that £99 billion on improving the capacity of existing railways instead of building HS2. The population in the west midlands will go up by more than a third, and improvements in local infrastructure are needed.
One of the questions in the poll revealed the London-centric nature of the proposal. Some 58% of Londoners support the construction of HS2, whereas only 20% of those in the north-east back it. Why are we continuing to back a failing scheme, supposedly planned for the benefit of those outside of London, if they do not even want it?
The case against HS2 has been well and thoroughly made. Perhaps less obvious have been the alternative policies we could pursue if the Government were to begin to roll back.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The whole concept is completely flawed. In addition, if we travel down from our constituencies in Staffordshire—from Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton or wherever—it takes around one hour 20 minutes or less. We do not need to travel at any greater speed than that. As I have already pointed out, HS2 is not even going to connect with Birmingham New Street. It is a completely crazy project.
On the basis of rail passenger growth on the west coast main line, it is accepted that there is a need to add capacity to meet future demand. The Government have dismissed upgrades to the current rail network and claim that HS2 is
“the best way of getting ahead of current demand on our core transport network.”
That might be true—if the demand were for poor management and a shoddy business case. In reality, capacity could be increased in far more cost-effective ways.
The length of trains could be increased from eight carriages to 12 on the existing main line network. That could be achieved by lengthening station platforms. The speed of existing trains could be increased, which would reduce the time benefit of HS2 compared with traditional rail. That would probably involve engineering solutions to remove bottlenecks on the existing line. The height of trains could be doubled, as has been successfully done on the continent and elsewhere in the world, which would increase capacity. All those solutions and many more would be immeasurably cheaper than HS2, but those small gains together would create a step change in the capacity and efficiency of the network.
If the Government really are bent on spending such a large sum, it is far from clear why it has to be on HS2. Shuttling along at 250 mph is quick compared with the west coast main line, but painfully slow when one considers the trains in development today. By contrast, Richard Branson’s 750 mph Hyperloop One is aiming to operate at nearly three times the speed of HS2. There are those who believe that the country should be focusing on new innovation rather than rebuilding yesterday’s technology. There may be some suggestion that the Hyperloop is a fantasy for the future, but that is what they said about aircraft, and it is the kind of innovative thinking that has to be examined in its own right. The HS2 project is out of time and increasingly obsolete. We need to be more innovative and to spread the improvements in rail infrastructure across the country as a whole.
I want to highlight the Great British Transport Competition from the TaxPayers Alliance—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey)—which seeks to identify alternatives. It was launched last week with the support of my hon. Friend and is seeking bids from across the country for transport projects that might be more deserving of the colossal sums being funnelled into HS2. There have already been around 50 bids for alternative schemes, which will be judged on their benefit to the local and wider economies, their ability to deliver value for money, the level of public support and the impact on the environment—in short, all the categories on which HS2 fails miserably. I encourage colleagues from all sides to enter the competition and to suggest better destinations for taxpayers’ money than this enormous white elephant.
It is clear that more money needs to be spent on infrastructure, but that needs to be on worthwhile projects—for example, the capacity of existing railways and the repair and maintenance of roads other than motorways. That includes, of course, dealing with potholes, which might seem far removed from HS2, but anyone who travels anywhere around the country in rural areas will know that potholes are the biggest issue of all. In my constituency and where I live, potholes are a massive issue and there is no money available at the moment.
When I had a word with a very senior member of the defence establishment yesterday, he was quite emphatic that he would much rather have the money spent on defence. Members of the Defence Committee and many other Members have also made that clear. Furthermore, we could help to reduce our debt and spend more on the national health service and other public services.
When the public do not support HS2, when environmental groups are up in arms and when it now appears that half the Cabinet want to chuck it, it is time to call it a day. The Chancellor needs to stop throwing money down a black hole and to put the brakes on this vanity project before it leaves the station. I and others have said on many occasions that this is a white elephant, but it is perfectly clear that it is not only a white elephant; it is a dying white elephant—or it certainly should be. I now believe there are grounds for a full review by the Transport Committee and others, as appropriate, and for a full inquiry under the 2005 Act into this disastrous project.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) on bringing HS2 to Westminster Hall for a serious debate today. Although I agree with him on a number of issues, on this issue we unfortunately find ourselves on opposite sides of the debate. I gently tease him about the start of his speech, where he referred to an opinion poll and laid a lot of the foundations of the logic of his argument on that poll and people not wanting HS2. I dismiss that opinion poll, because people will not have known all the facts about HS2, as I suspect he would dismiss opinion polls that ask for a second referendum on the EU.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the Select Committee on Transport examining HS2. From memory, that Committee has carried out three reports on HS2; I think the first was just after the 2010 general election. Every single one of those reports has supported the building of HS2. The Committee has looked in detail at one of the hon. Gentleman’s other points—whether there will be economic benefits from building HS2. It looked at the TGV system in France and found that some places that were connected to high-speed rail did not benefit, but those towns and cities that put effort into economic development and did not just sit back and do nothing—a point that is generally true, not just for high-speed rail—benefited enormously from the advent of TGV to their towns.
Another point that is often made against HS2, although the hon. Gentleman did not make it today, is that it will benefit London more than Manchester, Leeds or Birmingham. The argument against that is the Workington argument. If people wanted to be further away in time from London, we would all aspire to be in Workington, which is about as far away as we can get from London in time, but Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham actually do rather well, because they put effort into economic development and benefit from being close to London. Nobody wants slower times. They want faster times.
Of course, the serious argument in favour of HS2 was never simply about time. It is about capacity and improving our infrastructure. The number of passengers on the current rail network has doubled over the last 10 or 15 years, and one of the reasons for that—although not the only reason, given, for example, better marketing of tickets—is how poor our overall transport infrastructure is, how poor the motorway system is and how poor some of the rail system is. We need HS2, and it should go not only to Leeds and Manchester but to Scotland via Newcastle, Preston or wherever, which would help the infrastructure of the whole of the United Kingdom.
We see the London establishment—The Sunday Times, the Daily Mail and parts of the civil service—saying, “This is money going to the north of England.” In actual fact, the spending on transport in London and the south-east, but in London primarily, massively outstrips spending on transport in the rest of the country. The statistic I regularly give, which is getting more out of date but is still astonishing, is that the overspend on the Jubilee line in 2000 was more than the total expenditure on transport in the regions.
Another real competition is going on. Although Crossrail 1 massively overspent and is going to be delivered late—we still do not know what the costs will be, but it will happen and be a good thing, benefiting London and communities to its west and east—people now want Crossrail 2. The competition is not only for resources but for parliamentary time. It is about whether the Crossrail 2 hybrid Bill gets ahead of phase 2b of the HS2 Bill—the routes from Crewe to Manchester and from the west midlands to Leeds via Sheffield—which I completely oppose. Incidentally, the strongest support for HS2 has been in Greater Manchester and Leeds. There has been more opposition in London, where a lot of the costs fall because it is a very densely populated city. It would have been better if HS2 had started in Leeds and Manchester, not only because of the tremendous support but because there would have been immediate economic benefit, with people in London expecting and wanting the project to get to London faster. That is the competition we are seeing.
Another—rather subversive—argument is that the east-west route from Liverpool to Hull, which certainly needs improving, should take precedence over HS2. The two should go in step, because when HS2 is built— I believe it will be and go to Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester—in order to get passengers on and off the line, we will need the capacity to move across the north of England. There is not a competition as there is with Crossrail 2, because HS2 and the east-west route go arm in arm; we need both, and we need HS2 not to be delayed. I hope the Minister will reassure hon. Members that the HS2 phase 2 hybrid Bill will not fall behind the Crossrail 2 hybrid Bill in the schedule, because that would be a huge mistake.
One of the many points made by the hon. Member for Stone was, quite reasonably, about costs. Lots of infrastructure projects find it difficult to control costs and that is a completely reasonable point to make, as are points about the effects on our constituencies. The problem with the way in which the National Audit Office and the Department for Transport measure cost-benefit analysis is that transport schemes always favour London, because it is about the number of people and the time saved on their journeys. What is really being measured is the density of population, and that means that London schemes are always prioritised. The combination of the London establishment and the methodology used for cost-benefit analysis is bound to be biased against HS2, which is of major national importance for unifying the country after a period in which the north of England, other regions such as the south-west and whole countries such as Wales have been starved of resources.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s perspective. My father, having worked in the steel industry in Sheffield, would acknowledge that many businesspeople north of the Watford gap will prioritise the cross-Pennine links over HS2.
On the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, I argued in the initial stages that if we were going to do to this project to unify the United Kingdom, it should start in Scotland. Unfortunately, nobody listened. Does he agree that Scotland would have been a much better starting point?
The right hon. Lady makes a good point. I am a Manchester MP, I went to university in Sheffield and I always wanted the project to start in Manchester and Sheffield, but it would have been a unifying factor for the United Kingdom for the project to start in Scotland. There is no reason for it to start in only one or two places—it could have started in three; many projects of this scale do.
I could talk at length but many hon. Members want to speak. This is a project of national importance, like the third runway at Heathrow. I understand that the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) has constituency issues. Many of us understand national priorities but we are elected by our constituents and have to represent them. I understand that balance. I do not think that the HS2 consultation has always been perfect and it—and the compensation—could have been improved. I pay tribute to the right. hon Lady for the considerable amount of increased investment in HS2 tunnelling that she has managed to get for her area. We have to keep this in perspective. We do not want investment in the north of England to stop, yet again, because of the methodology and because lobbying in London is so intensely powerful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
I welcome yet another Minister for HS2 to the Front Bench. The turnover in Secretaries of State and junior Ministers responsible for this project at the Department for Transport has been regular, to say the least. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) because he made many of the points that I wanted to make. I will try not to repeat some of them, although some inevitably bear repeating.
Back in 2009, when Andrew Adonis and the Labour party announced the project, I told him that not only was it going to damage my constituency, but that it was an unpopular and costly proposition, and would perhaps not benefit the country as a whole—it will certainly be paid for by the many and be used only by the few. Unfortunately, the incoming Government, of which I was a part—I tried hard to persuade my colleagues in Cabinet to drop the project—went for it. Today, we find ourselves in a situation in which not a single inch of track has been laid, but billions of pounds have already been spent.
To follow up on the point made by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer)—we first came into contact when I fought the Manchester Central European seat many moons ago—I am very lucky to have persuaded my colleagues to invest in tunnelling. That was not only for my constituents, but for the country as a whole, because this dreadful project is going through an environmentally sensitive area—an area of outstanding natural beauty. There is merit in looking at making the area a national park, although that may not be successful. Such a rare piece of our land, with fragile chalk streams, really deserves that protection. It is a shame that such protection does not cover the whole of the AONB but stops prematurely at the end of my constituency.
For me, this project has been one of poor management, poor corporate governance and failures in communication right along the way. Let me refer to a couple of constituency cases; in fact, I have a letter that I will hand to the Minister at the end, addressed to the Secretary of State, about yet another failure regarding a constituent. The issue is communication; as far as I am concerned, HS2 has not learned any lessons about communication with communities.
My constituent is troubled by the closure of Shire Lane, the partial closure of Roberts Lane and the completion date for the construction of the link road. Since last November, she has been given a range of dates, ranging from January this year to April and May, and now to September or even July next year. She has continually chased answers, only to be ignored or told that someone will get back to her.
My constituent’s complaints about HS2’s engagement can be summarised in terms of sporadic communication; broken promises; incorrect information; having to chase constantly, making her feel that she is a nuisance to officials; and the trivialising of her concerns. At the same, a very glossy engagement strategy brochure, which is a spin on public relations, has been delivered to her house. Goodness knows how much that cost to produce. It seems that HS2 is continually secretive. People must not be messed about like that.
My constituent received the first letter on 20 June, which stated that HS2 required land access. It said:
“we will need to enter your land to carry out surveys or investigations during the period from 23 July 2018 to 30 September 2018.”
The second letter, dated 22 August, was exactly the same, but changed the dates from 1 October to 31 December.
On the date of completion of the link road, the communications audit trail shows that HS2 took more than a month from the last known completion date for the link road to tell residents that it had been delayed another six months. That is not good enough. I will hand the letter to the Minister to pass to the Secretary of State. I am sure the Minister will look into this matter.
I had another case earlier this year that bears repetition. It was on compensation, which everyone seems to think is so highly paid to constituents who are thrown out of their homes. I raised this issue with the Secretary of State, and he had to fix it. After HS2 had agreed the compensation, my constituent wrote:
“Despite us having a clear and agreed contract for a year, signed in January 2017, having provided all the necessary documentation from our end, and HS2 Ltd being obligated by the contract to pay the sums to us within 21 days, three months later HS2 Ltd have still not fulfilled their side of it and made the additional payment to us.”
That transaction threatened a disabled couple’s move into their newly adapted home.
I think the Minister is familiar with the case, but it bears repetition because of the contrast with the lucrative high salaries paid to officials, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone alluded to. HS2 paid at least £100,000 in salary and perks last year to 318 officials—up from 155 in 2015-16. It spent more than £600 million on consultants—well over double the figure the previous year. This is a taxpayer-owned project, but more than 25% of staff enjoy a six-figure remuneration package, including salary, bonus and company pension contributions. Four years ago, that proportion stood at 4%, and two years ago it was less than 17%. If we add that up—particularly the extremely expensive and often very aggressive and intimidating barristers who have been used in the hybrid Bill process—the costs really outweigh what is reasonably to be expected of a taxpayer-funded project.
I will not mention Carillion or the fact that the Department has not updated the costs of the project. There are so many areas in which this project falls down. For example, for years we pushed for a property bond scheme, but in May 2018, the Department set up a High Speed 2 property price support consultation, and it will publish its decision on the consultation exercise later this year. When will that consultation be published, and what are the chances of getting the property bond that has been promoted by many people?
The whole project is starting to slip and is out of control. The phase 2b Bill has been put back and will be tabled again in 2020. The Government say that will not have a bearing on the final completion date
The Minister is shaking her head, but I would like better clarification on that issue. It is depressing not only that the legislation is being halted and is slipping but that there are setbacks in the civil works. The initial costs for the main civil engineering contracts for the first phase of HS2 are £1 billion over budget. That will lead to delays in starting the works. Seven contracts covering the work were announced last July, estimated at £6.6 billion, but I understand those have slipped by at least six or nine months.
The Minister was shaking her head, but she will know how difficult it is to extract information about the project. I have been batting on about that for a long time. This is taxpayers’ money, and the project should be transparent. I understand that it is commercial in confidence, but it is not transparent. Indeed, if hon. Members try to read the documents, they will find a large amount are redacted. Minutes from meetings often are not published on the Government website in any timely manner. That goes against HS2’s framework agreement. The minutes are often meaningless. HS2 has published board minutes up to March 2018 as far as I know, but I am not sure that that fulfils its responsibility to engender public confidence and accuracy in the information it discloses. The Minister should address that. All minutes of all meetings should be published on a timely basis. HS2 is supposed to be committed to being an open and transparent organisation, but I am afraid that is far from the truth.
When it comes to my local area, I am exceedingly worried about my local authorities. They face potential local government reorganisation—we do not have a decision yet on that. The cost and burden on my county council and district council have been quite phenomenal. Neither will get back the time, money and true cost to our local institutions, and that is not to mention our parish and town councils, which have really been burdened in this matter.
I have nothing against the Minister, as she knows. We have known each other for quite some time, and I am very proud that she is a politician. She must not take this personally, but I have called for a dedicated Minister. The champion for the Oxford-Cambridge link, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), has called for a dedicated Minister on that project alone, yet HS2 is much larger and there is no sign of a dedicated Minister. He is a Minister just going into Government and has called for a dedicated Minister on something that is actually smaller and less complicated than this project.
I have been so disturbed by what I have read and heard recently about the failure to extract information about this project. One might think that I would get disheartened and get HS2 opposition fatigue, but I am afraid there is no such luck. Sometimes I feel I am the only person who is trying to hold the project to account, although my colleagues are doing a sterling job.
I wrote to the Secretary of State on 17 August because I was particularly perturbed that Sir John Armitt had called for the Government to invest £43 billion more in further transportation links so that HS2 could meet even the basic business assumptions made about it. I have asked the Secretary of State to ensure that the Government carry out a full evaluation of this project—its viability and its value for money for the taxpayer. These moneys could be spent on other areas of modernising transport and communications in the UK and on other matters. As can be seen in the newspapers today, many people think that the money would be better spent on health and education, certainly in view of the technological advances in transport. The Government are still playing catch-up on 5G and on other matters.
In the interests of the country and taxpayers, I hope the Minister, the Cabinet and the Secretary of State will respond positively to the request I made, which I copied to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for their consideration. Because of the major implications of this massive expenditure, the high costs and the poor corporate governance, HS2 should be completely independently assessed. If that results in a pause while that work takes place, I will be satisfied. I hope that HS2 will hit the buffers. It is not good value for money for the taxpayer.
I fully understand the concerns of constituency Members. The worst thing to happen to a Member of Parliament for a rural constituency is to have a railway go through it. A nuclear power station would bring several thousand jobs, an airport expansion would bring jobs, but if a railway goes through a constituency, particularly above ground, it is bound to affect the local people but bring them little benefit. Even if a motorway were built, there would be junctions—some of the locals would benefit. It is terribly difficult for Members of Parliament to deal with this sort of project.
The timescale of most rail projects is another problem. HS2 started in 2009 and the first phase will probably finish in the mid-2020s. Most people, when they think about a Government project, think it is all fully worked out and in a filing cabinet in Whitehall. They cannot understand why their questions are not answered. The reality is that there is a sketch, the details for which are then filled in. People get fed up because they keep writing to their Member of Parliament to try to get reassurances on things, but they cannot because things have not been detailed and designed.
The wear and tear on MPs and their staff is pretty formidable. I know most Members here have dedicated staff in their office dealing with constituents, many of whom get ill and suffer stress as a result of living with concerns about a national infrastructure project. I understand where most of the local Members are coming from, but Parliament voted for HS2 by a large margin. I abstained in the first vote because I had a role in the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill Select Committee. HS2 should not be seen as separate from the rail network but as part of it. Its genesis was that the west coast main line’s capacity was filling up. It was thought that if a new line were built, it might as well be a high-speed line, and that if all the intercity traffic were put on that, opportunities would be opened up to have more freight on the west coast main line and more services.
This is about investment in public services. If this country has had a problem over decades, it is that we have sometimes not invested in them enough. It is also about linking up the spine of the country, eventually getting to Scotland. As the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) pointed out, there are benefits at his end of the country as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) is perfectly right that much of the cost is related not to building the railway but to all the stations—the major cost of Euston, Old Oak Common and Curzon Street. HS2 has to be seen as part of a major regeneration project for those areas. The result is that, although it takes decades to get any kind of money back from investment in railways, there will be major benefits where investment goes in.
My hon. Friend made a brief comment about there being no spur to Heathrow. Most people coming from the north are not actually going to Heathrow, but HS2 goes through Old Oak Common, as does Crossrail. All one will need to do is walk across the station to get on Crossrail, which I think will take eight or nine minutes to get to Heathrow. Spending £1 billion on a spur would not be a good thing to do.
HS2 is a national infrastructure project and will roll out over 30 years. That means civil engineers can plan for the long term, training academies can be set up and Britain will improve its rail network. That does not diminish the fact that MPs whose constituencies are affected have to deal with the real difficulties of their constituents, farmers and owner-occupiers. We are a small country with a lot of owner-occupiers who are very vocal when their communities are affected, and I know that creates special difficulties for their MPs. My hon. Friend has to some extent played a part in changing history in our relationship with Europe—I suspect he will be more successful on Europe than on stopping HS2.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. After the excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), I will not go into a lot of detail but will concentrate on two matters: the overall cost and implications, and some specific problems relating to my constituency.
My hon. Friend has already referred to the rising cost of HS2. The latest estimate we have seen is at least £80 billion—that was from Michael Byng, whom I have met and whose work is based on the standard method used by Network Rail to cost its projects. That estimate is approximately 50% more than the one the Government have used in their arguments for the Bills to approve HS2 so far. Such a sharp rise in costs would have a serious impact both on the rate of return of the project and on public finances. It would also make it by far the most expensive railway in the world and by far the largest infrastructure project in Europe.
It is surely time to at least pause the project and conduct a proper costing, so that Parliament knows what we are committing to. HS2 has more information now than it did two or three years ago, when it arrived at the £56 billion figure. It is incumbent on the Government to bring the issue back to Parliament, because we need to know the facts. It may well be that Parliament nevertheless approves a project costing 50% more—that is Parliament’s prerogative—but it is up to Parliament to make that decision, given that the figures are likely to be so different now from what they were when the project was originally put before us, certainly at phase 1 if not at phase 2a.
During that pause, we could look at alternatives as well as the costs of the proposed plan—alternatives for improving capacity and reliability on key routes around the country, especially for Scotland, Wales and all the English regions, so that we have a fully integrated proposal for the future of our rail network. In the case of the north of England, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) mentioned, a fast east-west link should be made a priority.
The problem with HS2 is that it was specified as a solution before the needs had been properly identified. It also assumed that we had to have a train capable of 350 to 400 kph because that was becoming a standard elsewhere. However, rather than looking to France, Germany or China, where distances between major population centres are greater, we should perhaps look to Switzerland, where intercity speeds are comparable to ours and where there is a highly regarded, reliable railway. Speeds of more than 200 kph are already achieved on some of our lines and are perfectly adequate. We need to make those speeds standard across far more of our network, rather than increasing the gap between HS2 and the rest of it. We have one chance to get this right for the coming decades, because once HS2 is fully committed to, there will be little or no financial capacity for an alternative approach. It is surely worth pausing and developing a full national rail plan based on capacity, connectivity and reliability, rather than speed.
In previous debates and in my petitions, I have raised a number of concerns about the way my constituents have been dealt with. I will repeat the most significant of those. No one should be prevented from moving home as a result of the blight caused by HS2. My constituents’ experiences have been mixed. Some have been assisted well—quickly and efficiently—by HS2, but others have had lengthy delays and unreasonable refusals. Constituents have been told that their long-held plan to downsize once their children have left home is not a good reason to sell. That is not acceptable.
I am also increasingly concerned about the sheer quantity of additional land that HS2 aims to take over or compulsory-purchase in addition to that specifically required for the route. Just last week, a constituent told me that some lovely woodland near the River Trent, which he has been rehabilitating, is now required for a depot. There is also the question of properties that have been purchased by HS2 remaining unoccupied in some villages. I know the Minister takes that seriously, and I ask her to look at the current situation.
I return to the need for the Government to bring the question of the cost of HS2 back to the House in a transparent manner so we can judge again its cost-effectiveness, the business case and whether our public finances can afford it now that circumstances have changed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) on securing the debate. As a great believer in the future of rail transport, I have long welcomed greater investment in our railways. On Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill, I raised the positive case for ensuring that HS2 trains serve Stoke-on-Trent, and I continue to push for the enhanced connectivity that our growing economy needs. I am pleased that the Department for Transport recognises that. However, I have continued to raise concerns about the level of disruption that we are likely to experience during construction—in particular, I did so at the Bill Select Committee. I will set out how HS2 could deliver much greater benefits for the substantial investment being made and how its impacts can be mitigated much more effectively.
The new high-speed rail line is sound in principle but, as I have always warned, for HS2 to maximise in practice the suggested social and economic benefits, it must be met with improvements locally on the conventional network. Indeed, much more work must be undertaken in partnership with Network Rail to assess what measures will be necessary to ensure that the conventional network is up to an acceptable standard to facilitate HS2 classic-compatible services.
Services via Stoke-on-Trent and Stafford should terminate not at Macclesfield but at Manchester, and work must be done to understand how additional capacity can be facilitated on the network north of Macclesfield to allow for that. In addition, work must be done to address constraints caused by the numerous junctions and level crossings on the network throughout Staffordshire. Importantly, there is a section of the line at Alsager that must be redoubled to increase capacity and the frequency of services linking through to Crewe and beyond.
While the commitment on HS2 services serving Stoke-on-Trent is welcome, current levels of economic growth demand more than one service an hour. In particular, the introduction of a classic-compatible service between Birmingham Curzon Street and Stoke-on-Trent, terminating at either Manchester Piccadilly or Liverpool Lime Street, would help relieve severe overcrowding on the network north of Birmingham.
There are clear challenges with running HS2 services on the conventional network, some of which I have outlined. I hope that the Minister will indicate what is being done to understand what works are required to achieve full integration. That spending must be planned for in Network Rail’s control period 6, which is due to start in 2019. As I continue to stress, it is essential that HS2 works effectively with Network Rail, the city council and other partners to ensure that improvements to Stoke station are completed.
My greatest concern is about construction traffic. Traffic modelling carried out by HS2 is based around the stipulation that 90% of excavated material will be reused in construction. As an estimate, for every 1% that that figure is out, there would be roughly an additional 250,000 vehicle movements. Geotechnical ground investigations have yet to be undertaken on phase 2a, but studies on phase 1 commenced in autumn 2017 and that data will include analysis of the quality of the excavated material, which will help inform whether it is viable to reuse 90% of it. It is essential that early lessons are learned from phase 1, and the data is vital to informing the traffic modelling.
There will be a significant impact from construction traffic on the road network along the route, especially at junction 15 of the M6, which serves Stoke-on-Trent. That location will see the highest impact from construction traffic during phase 2a. HS2 figures suggest that it will cause gridlock at the junction, with a 50% increase in HGVs at the morning peak and nearly a 100% increase at the afternoon peak. It has been widely recognised that the approach taken in the traffic assessment is insufficient; it is not a network analysis but an analysis of junctions independently of one another, which is most problematic at this location.
Junction 15 is made up of three interacting junctions, yet HS2 has analysed the impacts separately and independently, meaning that the full impact has not been recognised. I call for the Government and HS2 to take action to ensure that junction 15 is upgraded before the construction of phase 2a. That is essential to ensure that it can accommodate not only HS2 traffic but future growth in the economy and complete the national smart motorway spine. I also call for upgrades on the A34, where it is predicted there will be a 400-car queue every evening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for bringing forward the debate and all other hon. Members for their pertinent questions. Let us first remind ourselves why investment in growing our railways is imperative. We need investment in capacity growth and connectivity, which is being called for particularly in the north but also across the rest of the country. We also need to see environmental improvements, particularly in air quality. Rail provides a real opportunity for modal shift, whether from car to train or, indeed, from plane to train in the case of high-speed trains. We also need to invest in economic opportunity, so much so in the north, which for generations has missed out on the investment we have seen in London and the south-east.
However, we must be mindful of communities, the environment and construction costs. For such major infrastructure projects, we must also be mindful of skills, the opportunity for employment and how we develop engineering across the country. We must also be aware of the cost of getting it wrong. It is therefore right for hon. Members to call for reviews, investigations and transparency, because this is a publicly supported project about which the public demand answers, and they must receive them. As the project moves into a new phase of governance and leadership, it is important that a new approach is brought to high-speed rail to put in place the scrutiny that the public demand.
We must also get answers from the Minister. We have heard speculation and read reports, so today I ask her to clarify the actual costs of each part of phase 2—phase 2a, phase 2b east and phase 2b west—so that we can all understand the figures, how they have been derived and where costs fall. We must also understand the timeline, which we hear has been set back.
HS1 was hailed as a success, coming in on time and on budget, but clearly the rumours are that HS2 will not have such success. We need to understand why the learning of HS1 has not been translated into this project. HS1 is successful in bringing people from mainland Europe to the UK and in taking people to the south-east. We are proud of that project, but we must understand where the needs sit now.
I understand the public’s frustration. The complete chaos across our rail network over the last three months has set it in the minds of so many that rail can no longer be relied on. We have seen people stranded at stations, people losing jobs because a train has not turned up, and people not getting home to see their family in the evening. When the Government cannot even get the basics right, people are asking, “Why aren’t we getting things shored up before we move on to HS2?” We will read the Glaister report—I understand the interim report will be out later this month—which will address those issues, with interest.
We must have a fully integrated rail system, not one with segregated high-speed rail. I want assurances from the Minister that we will see that integration rather than have high-speed rail just for people who can afford premium rates, because that will not bring economic opportunity to the north. That is why Labour is clear that we would have one fully integrated rail network owned by the public and run by the public as we move forward.
We know that we must build more capacity on the rail network, that we must invest in the economies of the north and that people must be able to travel. The point about freight is important: we need more paths for freight. We must enable that serious modal shift and move freight off roads and on to rail. Investment is therefore imperative, as we know that the road haulage industry cannot recruit the drivers required to run the freight network on the roads. We must make those changes, and we therefore need available paths to do that. Building that capacity is essential, and the west coast main line will lend itself to that.
We also need leading-off capacity to the south-west, Wales and elsewhere across the north, including north of Manchester and York. Labour has closely considered how to develop a long-term plan for rail investment because, as many hon. Members have indicated, it is important to invest in the right places. We have been clear that creating a Crossrail for the north, bringing that connectivity to the north of the country, is our priority.
The Secretary of State’s decision not to electrify the trans-Pennine line has brought real damage to the north, but Labour will introduce reparation for that decision as soon as we come into government. We will ensure that someone can travel from Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, York or Hull, and down into Sheffield and up to Teesside and Newcastle. These are important decisions, and Crossrail for the north will be our priority, ensuring that we catch up on the timeline on which we have been so let down by this Government. Building connectivity to Sheffield will start to address the issues about what route HS2 should take in a faster way, because we wish to ensure that people can get to where they need to go. We must also invest in digital rail so that we get maximum capacity and opportunity from our railways. We must address the dreadful overcrowding that commuters experience day by day, because often people are not even able to get on the trains.
On speed, we believe that it is important to improve the east coast main line. Since we do not know when—or indeed whether—HS2 will be achieved, it is important that control period 6 provides extra capacity for speed and upgrades to the east coast main line. Travelling from York to London will take only 1 hour 31 minutes, and the additional time saving that HS2 will bring to cities such as mine will not be the reason why we need the additional spend required by high-speed rail. This is about capacity, not speed; it is about whether someone has a seat and can work or carry out their activities. That is why we need to invest in rail.
We must also ensure that we are responsible for the environment. I have met the Woodland Trust, and I am concerned about some of the environmental impacts of the project, particularly on sites of special scientific interest. We must be mindful that once things have gone, we cannot bring them back, and I believe that we must maximise our support for the environment as this project moves forward.
Today we have all identified wasted opportunities. Where, for example, is the cycle route alongside this network? That would make sense, but it has not yet been planned, despite its minimal cost. The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) mentioned a depot that suddenly appeared on land, and we must scrutinise every decision and decide whether it is imperative for each little piece of infrastructure to go ahead, or whether there are alternatives. It is certainly distressing to hear that so much construction will be delivered by road rather than rail, and it is important to consider that.
Finally, on economic opportunity, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) that we need better connectivity to the north. Manchester is such an exciting city, but we cannot stymie its growth by denying it that much-needed connectivity. Liverpool is also moving forward and follows closely behind. We must ensure the right connectivity and invest in the right places. We need transparency on spend as we move forward. People are concerned; they are paying so much more for their rail fares, which have gone up by 35% under this Government, and they need to understand what the future will hold.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) on securing the debate. The construction of HS2 phase 2a will have a significant impact on his constituents, and they have in him a tireless advocate for their interests. I hope that today I will be able to answer most of his questions, and those of all Members who have made thorough and considered contributions to the debate. If I do not, I will follow up those points in writing.
Before I respond to the specific points raised, I wish to outline why the Government are committed to HS2. Quite simply, our current train network is running at almost completely full capacity. Demand on the west coast main line has increased by 190% since 1995, and people are often left standing the whole way on long-distance journeys. We are close to being unable to add any more seats or trains, and although delays occur less frequently than in the past, we still need to overcome that challenge. HS2 will be a new train on dedicated high-speed lines, and because long-distance services will be shifted to the brand new railway, that will free up extra space for more trains to run on the most overcrowded and heavily congested routes.
HS2 direct intercity services will improve the experience of all passengers. Train operators will be able to run more varied and frequent services, including more passenger trains to locations that are not directly served by HS2. From 2033 we expect up to 48 trains to run on the network every hour, carrying more than 300,000 passengers a day—around 100 million a year. There will be greatly increased capacity, faster journey times and better connectivity between eight of our 10 largest cities. Those are the fundamental benefits of HS2, and it will make the lives of passengers easier.
However, the HS2 project is about more than transport—that point was made by many hon. Members—and we want it to turbo-charge economic growth that is shared by the entire country, allowing transport to open up new work and study opportunities and boost the prospects of millions. The key point is that increasing connectivity and capacity to and from the midlands, the north of England and London will help to rebalance the UK economy, and the benefits of that will be felt long before the railway enters the operational phase in 2026.
We are already seeing progress. Tomorrow I will be in Worksop, meeting local businesses to discuss the opportunities that arise from HS2. We know that more than 2,000 businesses have already won work on HS2, and an estimated 6,000 jobs have been supported by it. Meanwhile, 100 apprentices are already working on the project, with 2,000 expected to do so over its lifetime, many of them trained at our high-speed rail colleges in Doncaster and Birmingham. I suggest that Members drop in to visit one of those colleges, to see the opportunities being provided for those young people. HS2 provides a massive opportunity to train people in the skills that the UK needs to compete globally, and it will allow us to generate long-term employment opportunities across the UK.
Birmingham—as a Brummie, I am allowed to say this—is the heart of HS2. The Mayor of the West Midlands combined authority has said:
“HS2 will be worth billions to the West Midlands economy once complete”.
He is a strong supporter of the project. I could not be more passionate about trying to improve the economy, employment prospects and aspirations of young people from our second city. Of course, HS2 will not do that all on its own, but it will be an enabler of economic growth by connecting our great cities and towns in the midlands and the north, encouraging employers not to focus only on London and the south-east.
As I travel around the country to make the case for HS2, there is a true sense of pride and excitement about the project. I recently met the leaders of Bradford Council and Leeds City Council to discuss their plans to maximise the potential of HS2 and regenerate Leeds city centre. The leader of Leeds City Council has said:
“HS2 is an incredible opportunity to create something truly transformational to the economy of our city and the wider region.”
That is what the north is saying. Too often we just hear the voices of London and the south-east.
It is that sense of enthusiasm about HS2 and its potential that we want to encourage. That is why the Government are also working hard to ensure that HS2 integrates with the emerging ambition for Northern Powerhouse Rail and transport improvements in the west midlands. We have been in close contact with local authorities on the route developing growth strategies that will ensure that the benefits of HS2 are fully realised in local areas. That work is critical to the long-term impact that HS2 will have on regeneration and connectivity between our great cities.
We are making progress with the construction of HS2 and remain on track to deliver the plans. Work is starting on phase 1, which will link London and Birmingham by 2026, and we are legislating for phase 2a, which will connect Birmingham and Crewe from 2027.
There is a real problem—a potential scandal—about the issue of where the spoil will go. Is it going to be used properly? Can it be used? The other thing that I will write to the Minister about—I hope she will send me a reply—is to do with boreholes in the Whitmore and Baldwin’s Gate area. I have some serious questions about the viability of the proposed tunnel work.
I know that my hon. Friend has raised that matter a number of times, including with the Select Committee. It is a detailed question that requires a detailed response. I am happy to provide him with a written response. I know that he has already had a response from the Select Committee, but I am more than happy to put things down on paper.
Phase 2a will connect Birmingham and Crewe from 2027, which is many years earlier than expected. Phase 2 will run from the west midlands to Manchester in the west and Leeds in the east, completing the network by 2033. We are committed to delivering to those timescales. Of course I am deeply aware that the project, despite its huge benefits, will have a significant impact on many people during construction.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly as she is reading out some of the PR speech that I have heard before from Ministers about how marvellous HS2 is. Has she carried out an economic impact assessment on my constituency of Chesham and Amersham? Can she tell me exactly how we will benefit or what damage will be done to the economy? Can she give me detailed figures to show how HS2 benefits my constituency?
I know that my right hon. Friend has been a strong champion of her constituency and has undertaken a forensic investigation into HS2. There will be broader benefits, not only to her constituents but to people living around HS2, and that will create a number of opportunities. I will respond to some of the points that she raises in a moment, as I get through my speech.
My right hon. Friend talked about the impact on her constituents. I agree that previously HS2 did not deal with enough efficiency or compassion with the issues raised by constituents. We must continue to work with MPs and constituents affected, and we must work with affected landowners, businesses and residents to ensure that they are suitably compensated. We must make addressing their concerns a priority wherever we can.
I will now address the finer points made by Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone, as well as making a number of points about HS2, delved into the far more important topic of potholes, which his constituents have raised with him. In case he was worried about numbers, I can assure him that £6 billion is being invested in repairing potholes to help improve the condition of our local highways. Funding includes a record £296 million for the pothole action fund, which is enough to fix around 6 million potholes. In case there are any concerns, there is funding available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone made a number of points about costs and spending relating to HS2. I confirm that the 2015 spending review envelope of £55.7 billion for HS2, in 2015 prices, still stands, of which £27.18 billion has been set for phase 1 and £28.55 billion for phase 2. He also mentioned the route from Euston to Old Oak Common. HS2’s strategic objectives are to deliver connectivity between London and our cities in the north and the midlands. Old Oak Common will offer connectivity to Crossrail, on the great western main line, dispensing passengers east and west into London. I think that adequately covers the issue of costs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone also mentioned the environment. There is no denying that HS2 will have an impact on the environment as it is laid. We want HS2 to be more environmentally responsible than any other major infrastructure project in the history of the UK. We are aware of the potential detrimental impacts it could have on the environment and we will do what we can to mitigate them, as well as creating a new green corridor incorporating 9 sq km of new native woodland, alongside tailor-made habitats for species, including 7 million new trees and shrubs for phase 1 alone.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone also raised the issue of maladministration. HS2 Ltd has moved on positively from the point that he raised. HS2 does not always get it right, but I hope that he will agree that the level of engagement has improved, both locally, with local community engagement officers, and here in Westminster, with drop-in meetings for Members.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for the work that he does with the Transport Committee. I point out that the Committee’s last three reports stated clearly the case for HS2. To be clear, the phase 2b Bill will be in Parliament long before Crossrail 2. The timetable for the phase 2b Bill will be announced shortly. That will help to unlock Northern Powerhouse Rail and it will be debated before Crossrail 2.
I will respond to all the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) about her casework and I am more than happy to take her notes away. I fully understand how stressful it must be for constituents who are having to deal with HS2, if their issues are not dealt with swiftly and appropriately. I can only apologise if those cases have not been dealt with efficiently. I will do my best to ensure that each constituent’s case is dealt with as swiftly as it can be, and I am more than happy to take that work away.
My right hon. Friend also raised the issue of a national park—she has spoken to me about this previously—and I have raised it with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I would encourage her to do so as well, and I hope to continue to work with her on that. Her constituency has already received more than £26,000 from HS2 to help her neighbourhood to be as green as possible.
My right hon. Friend also raised the matter of the property bond. We ran a technical consultation about that this year and we are now examining responses. We will take a position on the outcome and there will be an announcement later in 2018.
I am a little nervous that I am running out of time, so I will quickly conclude. If I have been unable to respond to everyone’s questions, I will write to them.
I want to ensure that we fully understand the strategic case for HS2. It will not only increase capacity and improve connectivity, but create jobs and regeneration in the UK. For far too long investment and prosperity have been focused on London and the south-east. HS2 will completely change that, benefiting communities up and down the line, but mostly in the north. Moreover, our 2017 manifesto makes a clear commitment to strategic national investment, including HS2. The vote on the phase 1 Bill in the House of Commons was 399 to 42 in favour, and in the House of Lords the figures were 386 to 26.
I am sorry to have to say it, but I am wholly unconvinced by the Government’s reply. That is not surprising, as I put forward a case that, coincidentally, is on the same lines as the opinion poll published today. That shows that 60% of all voters in the UK are against the proposal in one shape or form. That is a pretty significant poll. The whole question of relative costs, compared with other demands on the UK budget, such as defence, public services, the NHS and the rest, quite clearly demonstrate that HS2 is a white elephant. I do not believe that it has any proper justification. I will leave it at that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered High Speed 2.
Shale Gas Exploration: Planning Permission
I beg to move,
That this House has considered planning permission for shale gas exploration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank all those attending and all those who have come along to speak. It is fantastic to see so many people in this Chamber for a 30-minute debate on fracking; it demonstrates the importance of this matter and the particular importance of the proposals before us.
Today I will talk about the current consultation, which the Government started and which will conclude in November, on the proposals to permit shale gas exploration through the permitted development scheme and the proposals to permit shale gas production through the national significant infrastructure projects scheme.
If hon. Members will bear with me, I will do one to two minutes of introduction and then I will be happy to take interventions.
I will set out my stall immediately: I stand here today to highlight my concerns on both those proposals and an industry that is highly controversial as a form of energy extraction, has a chequered history in the United Kingdom, has not been proven at scale and has, in my part of the world, caused the greatest amount of opposition that I have ever seen in my 15 years of experience in politics.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this debate. The Government talk a lot about localism. Does he agree with me that, if that means anything and is not just meaningless waffle, it should mean that decisions taken by local planning committees should be the final say on the subject of extracting shale gas, and that those decisions should not be subject to being overturned by some faceless inspector who does not have to live with the consequences of his or her decision?
Before the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire continues his speech, it is right and proper that the Minister has 15 minutes to respond. The hon. Gentleman indicated he was willing to take interventions, but I should warn him that they need to be very limited in number, or he will have no speech of his own left.
I appreciate the Chair’s guidance and I will seek to conclude by 11.15 am, with any interventions that I have taken.
I thank the Minister, who has been incredibly kind to me in hearing my comments on this and has spent some time with me already to talk about it. She is fully aware of my views both on fracking in general and on these proposals; I do not think anything I say today is new. I know there is a range of views in this Chamber on fracking. That is a discussion for another time. I am on record as being hugely sceptical of the merits of fracking. I do not think it will achieve its objectives and I wish we would move on to something else in our energy policy.
I will not take objections. What we need to debate here is the proposals on permitted development and NSIP. Whatever one’s views on those, my concern is exactly as has just been outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire. The proposals before us for permitted development and NSIP do one main thing, and one main thing only: they take people out of a process that it is vital for them to be part of so that they have their opportunity to speak and to highlight why things are appropriate or inappropriate for their local area and why their environment will be so affected if these things go ahead.
I have had five sites in my constituency; one is currently being developed and a second one is before the planning inspectorate. Does my hon. Friend agree that, were we to go down the permitted development route, the concerns raised by residents about traffic planning at Roseacre Wood, which will probably kill it as a suitable site, would not be considered, and that the proposals the Government have laid before us are quite frankly bonkers?
My hon. Friend has a way with words, and he sums up the real concern within and without this House about the proposals. I understand the consultation is under way and is open; I hope that the Minister will highlight that she and the Government have an open mind on this. If I may demonstrate for a moment my experience in my constituency, I have had a planning application for exploration in Marsh Lane, which is the reason I became interested in this and the reason I have soured massively on fracking as a whole. That application simply to explore, which would be allowed under permitted development rights, would mean the imposition of heavy industrial equipment for five years. It would be the equivalent of pouring two football fields’ worth of concrete into an area that has not been changed since the 1695 enclosure Act, and putting a 60 metre-high drilling rig up there for six to nine months.
I will not give way for the moment. It is not just the 60 metre-high drilling rig; it is the industrial equipment that would stay there for a period of five years just for the exploration. From my planning application, that is a 2 metre-high perimeter fence, a 4.8 metre-high combination of bunding and fencing, two to three cabinets of 3 metres in height, acoustic screening of 5 metres in height, four security cameras of 5.5 metres in height, a 2.9 metre-high power generator, two water tanks of 3 metres in height, a 4.5 metre-high Kooney pressure control, a 4 metre-high blowout prevention and skid and choke manifold, 9 metre-high lighting and a 10 metre-high emergency vent. That is the wholesale industrialisation of the Derbyshire countryside for what is not a temporary period—and that is just exploration.
On the Island we have great problems as well, because we are one of the most geologically unstable parts of northern Europe. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very poor precedent for the Government effectively to force through something that is locally unpopular in many areas, because they could do so with many other things in future, including housing targets? Overall, as well as fracking, this is poor democratic accountability on the part of Government.
I will give way in one moment. This is the point about permitted development. On the NSIP proposals for actual production of fracking, having read the consultation I am unsure how this can be put into NSIP, even if it was a good idea. The consultation itself seems to confuse major shale gas production with shale gas production, but I have not seen a definition of major versus minor. Ultimately, the point about shale gas is that it happens in many places. Either we are defining a single well pad as major and sticking individual well pads into the NSIP regime—
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important debate. As he knows, I am far more positive about the prospects for shale gas exploration than he is. Nevertheless, I and the Select Committee that I sit on have raised genuine concerns about the permitted development process, the clarity around it, and whether it relates to simply drilling a hole on an existing well pad or the construction of an entire well pad, which is heavy industrial construction and could literally go anywhere in any one of our constituencies. There are real concerns and we need clarity on that specific point.
As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, people from Mosborough were on the march that we had in Bolsover. We approach fracking in a different way from what he has described today. It is no wonder that the richest man in Britain, the head of INEOS, who has 60% of the shares, is very much into fracking. He is fracking in our area and he is fracking in the North East Derbyshire area. People from as far away as Scarborough came to that rally and the truth is that most of Britain is against fracking. Why does the hon. Gentleman not do the same as I have done and tell the Government, “I am against fracking wherever it happens.”?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s involvement in this. This is my second debate on this question, and I welcome his attendance. I have been making the case strongly for North East Derbyshire and strongly against fracking in North East Derbyshire since I had the privilege to be elected to this place, and I will continue to do so. The hon. Gentleman is a former miner and I have a huge amount of respect for him. I am the grandson of former miners who probably worked with him in the last decades that we were in the mines. One thing that unifies us—we are on exactly opposite ends of the political spectrum—is fracking. We are products of the soil and the toil and the mines in our area, which we have been proud to be part of for generations, and we do not think that fracking is the right way to go.
To continue my NSIP point, the Planning Act 2008 put down a series of criteria that large-scale infrastructure projects should meet. I looked at them in preparation for the debate. Some examples are quite close to what we are talking about, such as gas reservation projects and liquefied natural gas reception facilities. For those to meet the NSIP regime criteria they need to hold 4.5 million cubic metres of gas a day. An individual fracking well and an individual fracking pad would be less than one hundredth of the size required by those criteria. That is the fundamental problem: the NSIP regime was not designed for this project and we should not use it.
As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the impact of shale gas—the right hon. Gentleman is also a member—I am extremely concerned by issues that Professor Styles suggests could occur in mining areas like ours if fracking goes ahead at scale.
I will try to wind up as I want to ensure that the Minister has time to speak. As I said at the beginning, the fundamental problem with permitted development and NSIP is that it takes local people’s voices out of the discussion. Nearly 4,000 people in North East Derbyshire have been involved in the discussion because they are hugely concerned about this project. Whether people agree or disagree with it—I disagree—we have to give people the opportunity to voice their opinions. The consultation on the table, “Permitted development for shale gas exploration”, says that
“the Government will strengthen community engagement by consulting on whether developers should be required to conduct pre-application consultation prior to shale gas development.”
There is no point in conducting pre-application consultations if these things will be approved no matter what.
Fundamentally, if we have a problem of a lack of public consent for fracking, which we do—we clearly do in some parts of the country, such as mine—we should treat the problem either by not bothering with the policy or by trying to change people’s views. My view is that it should be the former, not the latter. We should not try to treat the symptom by taking people out of the process. I hope that, at the end of the consultation, the Government will listen and this will not go forward. Taking people out of the process is why the proposals for permitted development and NSIP for fracking are fundamentally wrong, and I hope that they do not go ahead.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to see so many engaged colleagues in the Chamber. I remain grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), whom I have met on many occasions to discuss at length his facts versus other facts. I will continue to engage with all Members; as they know, my door is always open to discuss any issue relating to energy policy.
As all Members know, given Ministers’ quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I am not at liberty to comment on any particular applications or any local mineral plans.
I will make a little progress and then I will happily give way. To be clear, Government Members stood on clear manifesto commitments to develop a shale industry in this country and to bring forward proposals to review permitted development rights and the NSIP regime. We put together an extensive, long-running consultation so that all views, which are profoundly held on both sides, had an opportunity to be expressed.
As I said, I will make a little progress and then I will give way. I welcome a longer debate on this issue because I am a passionate advocate of convincing people of the scientific evidence for climate change. Everything that my Department has done has been based on scientific evidence. I find it profoundly disturbing that, when it comes to exploring the potential of an industry, we refuse to accept the science. I have met—[Interruption.] I am not giving way.
Thank you, Mr Howarth. Decorum is always the watchword.
I have met, and continue to engage with, many of the scientists who have put out studies relating to fugitive methane emissions and the seismicity question, which is of course concerning. I find when talking to those scientists that, behind that, they have a fundamental aversion to using any form of fossil fuel. Indeed, the briefing that many Members received today, and which I have seen, says that fossil fuels should stay in the ground.
She says she has a solar panel. [Interruption.] Can I please make some progress? Some 70% of homes in this country— maybe more—rely on gas to cook children’s teas. We also rely on gas for a substantial proportion of our energy supply. We have a choice: we can continue to import increasing amounts of foreign gas and effectively be at the behest of other nations that do not share our interests, or we can soberly, calmly and scientifically assess whether we can develop the shale gas industry.
I refer all Members to our superb Committee on Climate Change, which will tell them that, in every single scenario for reaching our carbon dioxide reduction targets, gas is in the mix. I am happy to debate the safety and responsibility of the industry in terms of doing that correctly, but I will not set this country’s energy policy based on an ideology premised on using 100% renewables now, which cannot be delivered at the right price. If Members accept that—[Interruption.] No, I will not give way; I will respond to the points from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire.
Members will have received data today suggesting that the vast majority of the British public are opposed to shale gas exploration. That is not true. The data suggest that 13% of people strongly oppose it, almost 50% of people do not have a view, 15% support it and 2% strongly support it. Most people do not have a view on this because they understand that being at the behest of a foreign gas provider is probably not great for British energy sovereignty. Many coalmining communities also understand the value of high-value jobs and economic investment in their areas. That is why I urge all Members—[Interruption.] I am not giving way.
Order. The Minister has indicated that she will not give way, certainly for the time being. Members standing up and asking her to do so after she has said she will not does not make a lot of sense. Perhaps she will indicate at some point if she is willing to take interventions.
I will move on to the substance of the debate and respond to the points from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire on the decision-making process.
It is in no one’s interest—in Government, in local government or in a community—for the planning process to be where it is today. We are stuck in a morass of protest and countervailing information. Frankly, I pity any local councillor who gets an application on their desk, because they will shortly have a travelling circus of protestors to deal with, most of whom do not hail from the areas where these sites are located. We then have policing issues and protestors blocking roads and preventing young children from getting to hospital. That is an entirely unacceptable way to express democracy in our country. [Interruption.] I will certainly not give way to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) at any point.
I will certainly not give way to the hon. Gentleman.
As set out in our manifesto, we intend to consult on what can be done to the planning process. As well as looking at moving production rights into a national regime, as we have done for other complicated energy sources, we have considerably increased the level of support for local authorities and local decision makers. We have set up training; we have provided funding. I will shortly appoint a shale gas commissioner, who will have deep and extensive constituency knowledge of the issue and will be out there, helping local residents to understand some of the challenges that exist. To put the myth-buster in place again, we are not overriding local decision making; there are plenty of opportunities for decision makers to express their views in the pre-consultation stage, as is done for other complicated and difficult energy policies.
There is another myth I want to bust, after which I will be happy to take some interventions. Some talk as if we are not in a country that prides itself on environmental regulation, but we have the strongest environmental regulatory regime for offshore oil and gas production in the world. I find it perverse that political parties north of the border promote offshore oil and gas and those regulatory controls with gusto, but when it comes to applying exactly the same—indeed, more rigorous—regulatory standards onshore, those parties suddenly turn a blind eye to energy sovereignty and cheap sources of fuel that are entirely consistent with Britain’s global low-carbon leadership. We will not have energy policy in this country set by politics and ideology; we will deliver cheap energy, low-carbon energy, and energy that is consistent with energy sovereignty.
I am disappointed by the Minister’s response so far. I put on the table some clear views about planning, but she has spent the first eight minutes of her speech not talking about planning. The reality is that people need to be heard, and people are not being heard with this speech.
I am sorry, but I did begin by saying to my hon. Friend that I could not comment on individual planning applications. The purpose of the consultation is to get as many views as possible, particularly from those who are engaged in the planning process, about what the rights should look like. The floor is open for my hon. Friend to express his views, and all the things he has said today will be fed into the consultations.
A vast majority of respondents to the consultation on the national planning policy framework were opposed to fracking, as the Government’s own response set out, yet you are going ahead regardless. How can anyone have faith in any consultation process that this Government launch on fracking?
The hon. Lady shakes her head, but she should check the number of responses she will get. As I have set out, based on the public polling data, the vast majority of people do not have a particular view on this issue. Many people understand, especially after the “beast from the east” and the Salisbury poisoning, that being reliant on foreign energy sources is not a great place for us. If the hon. Lady shares my faith in the Committee on Climate Change and its view that gas is an important part of a low-carbon future, she will know that many responses come from organisations that are profoundly opposed to ever burning a molecule of fossil fuel. That is not a sensible place for our energy policy to be in.
The constituency I represent has a history of coalmining; it once powered a nation. However, the people I represent do not think that fracking is an alternative to a meaningful industrial strategy. Why should my constituents be asked to take a huge leap of faith on behalf of fracking companies?
I am sure that the hon. Lady engages extensively with her constituents. I spend a lot of time talking to communities, and to the representatives of former coalmining communities. In many cases, they are convinced that shale gas exploration could bring high-value jobs and economic development safely to parts of the country that have been left behind by successive Governments.
I will expand on comments made by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron). My constituency is an area that can be fracked, and has a rich history of mining, especially in the village of Allerton Bywater. Because that history of mining is so long, there are many unmapped mine shafts and mine workings in the area, and a great many of my constituents are gravely concerned that, with the injection of water and the other things that are going on, there is a real possibility of geological movement and sinkholes. We are talking about a planning issue, and it is vital that the Minister hears on behalf of my constituents that the situation of communities varies hugely. Where there are former mine workings, there are real concerns about the geological impact of so many unmapped mine shafts.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the complexity of the geology. He is absolutely right that local geological knowledge and seismic management and measurement are, and will remain, a vital part of any exploration or production site. However, many of his constituents will have been told that there are massive seismic risks from any form of shale gas exploration. In fact, our environmental standards are so tight that if there is a seismic tremor less than that brought about by the rollercoaster on Blackpool seafront, that well process—
It happens to be true: the well process will have to be paused. I refer back to the fact that we have the toughest environmental standards for oil and gas extraction in the world. Other countries are coming to us and saying, “Could we use those standards, because we also recognise the opportunity presented by shale gas extraction?” Frankly, if anyone in this room believes that the UK, with its proud history of environmental regulation, would want to do anything to endanger its green and pleasant lands, they need to go away and have a nice cold drink.
As I have said, I have been working on this for eight years, and the Minister is absolutely right to highlight some of the progress that has been made, such as the traffic light system. I urge her to listen to the concerns of Members about permitted development and planning changes. I urge the Government to work with us in a constructive way to address those concerns, as they have in the past.
I thank my hon. Friend for his measured approach. He is looking at these developments in his constituency and working very closely with his local communities. He is absolutely right, which is why we have launched an extensive, extended consultation to ensure that we hear from as many people as possible.
I thank the Minister for her comments. It is quite clear that we need to be assured of what steps the Minister and her Department will take, and what criteria will be in place, to ensure safety is paramount. When doing shale gas investigation or mining in former mining areas, safety has to be paramount. Can the Minister give an assurance that it will be?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right; that is why our environmental regulatory regime is already the best in the world. Colleagues will see from various write-rounds that we are bringing together the regulators to form one virtual regulator, so there can be no doubt about what regulatory matters apply to which communities.
I accept that there is tight regulation on below-the-ground issues, but, above the ground, planning permission is currently required for non-conventional drilling. That will not happen if there is permitted development, and the ability of local authorities to regulate lorry movements, for instance, will be taken away. There is huge concern about that, and I invite the Minister to look again at the proposals, because I do not believe there is a parliamentary majority for them.
I will give way shortly. I want to assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that the challenges presented by waste water and traffic movements are driving innovation and investment in the industry. The industry is working with the National Physical Laboratory to innovate, to reduce those challenges and to create something that we can export to other countries that are desperate to improve.
Thank you, Minister; you have been very generous with your time. To me, this strikes at the heart of a community’s ability to determine its future. Local democracy is undermined if Whitehall is seen to be undermining it with a consultation that, in the case of Bury, ignores votes that have already taken place about whether we want fracking in our town. We determine the investment; we determine the plans for jobs and homes interpreted by Government targets; and we have already rejected the Government’s plans for fracking. Will the Minister take seriously the voice of the people on this issue?
There has been an unprecedented level of decentralisation of decision making under this Government. The hon. Gentleman referred to homes and business involvement; all of those issues are being devolved.
The challenge in this space remains that there are far too many people shouting fact-free nonsense about the process. I was at the conference of the parties in Germany last year. Germany has turned its back on nuclear power—a policy that some in this Chamber agree with—and as a result, its emissions are going up as it burns more coal. That is a country in hock to ideology. In this country, we make energy policy to drive down our emissions, keep costs down for consumers, and create a competitive advantage and energy sovereignty. That is why we are going through the process of consultation.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Colombia Peace Process
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the peace process in Colombia.
Although my visit to Colombia earlier this year was sponsored by ABColombia, I have not yet been able to register the fact, because I do not yet have the figures. It is not the case the case that ABColombia wants me to say something on its behalf—I am not lobbying on its behalf—but it certainly paid for me to visit. I went with the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and we had a very productive visit, but I want to make the position clear from the outset.
As I think all hon. Members will know, the conflict in Colombia has been one of the most disturbing of the past 100 years. It is not much commented on, particularly in the British press or on British television, but it is a simple fact. It has gone on for 50 years. There have been 220,000 casualties; 177,000 civilians have been killed, more or less; and 25,000 others have disappeared—nobody knows where they have gone. Some 45,000 children have been killed in the conflict.
Perhaps one of the most shocking statistics is that between 5 million and 6 million people have been displaced. In a population of 50 million or 55 million, a phenomenal number of people have had to leave their lands. They have been forced off their lands and moved to other places. Often they have been forced into complete and abject poverty. Having lived on land where they were able to achieve subsistence by growing crops and looking after animals, they have suddenly found themselves in urban populations with no means of making a living and without a home, so they rely on begging.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. The tragedy of Colombia is that half of the 7 million or so refugees have been forced to go and live in slums in cities, which has just increased the problem, both for the Colombian Government and for the rest of the world.
Indeed. We were in La Primavera, a small town in one of the more remote districts in the north-east of Colombia, and it was striking that a lot of the campesino population, who 10 or 15 years ago would have had a few hectares per family on which to grow crops and have their livelihood, had suddenly found themselves begging on the streets in La Primavera. Of course, the urban townsfolk and the local authorities get quite racist about this, frankly—that was the impression we got. People being forced into poverty when they had a richness in the way they lived previously is one of the most distressing elements of what we are talking about.
The massive exodus that we are seeing from Venezuela at the moment is also an enormous problem for Colombia. In the past I have been very critical of President Uribe, who I think sometimes used the ideological confrontation with Venezuela as a means of bolstering his own political support inside Colombia. Indeed, President Santos’s first and most successful job was to restore proper relations between the two countries. However, the fact that between 1.5 million and 2.5 million Venezuelans are leaving Venezuela because of the extraordinary problems in that country and their fear for the future is causing a real problem for Colombia. The Spanish President was in Colombia a couple of weeks ago and commented on the fact that it is an extraordinary success that Colombia has managed to accommodate so many people. But inevitably, with so many people who are in effect economic refugees, there are enormous dangers.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that part of the terrible human loss has come from the targeting of trade union leaders and human rights defenders? Just this year, 123 leaders and human rights defenders have already lost their lives as a result of assassinations.
I think that the figure of 123 is just for the first six months of the year. One difficulty, which I will come to later, is that it is very difficult to get precise numbers. The mixture of different military and paramilitary organisations engaged in the conflict over the 50 years has meant that very often the Government, or people sponsored by the Government, have effectively been killing human rights defenders. Sometimes it is a genuine mistake but, I think, very rarely. This is often referred to as false positives by the Colombian authorities, but I think that actually, in many cases, we could see that sometimes a presidential decree, certainly under previous Presidents, or somebody being referred to as a political undesirable, would mean that somebody would take it into their mind a few weeks later simply to bump them off. The number of incidents is still growing. This year there have been very significant numbers, and it shows no sign of stopping. I will refer later to some of the things that I think could be done.
One problem is this. Everybody knows about the FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, but there are many other groups, such as the ELN—Ejército de Liberación Nacional—and the paramilitary groups that have collapsed into dissent. Some of them are much less co-ordinated and structured. The fact that many of them resorted to the illegal cocaine trade to fund their military activities has meant that they have become addicted to that trade. In the end, in many cases, there is very little difference between the criminal—the pure criminal—and these paramilitary organisations. In particular, in the most difficult-to-reach parts of the country, such as in Chocó, there are still significant numbers of these groups, such as the Black Eagles and the AUC, which are still quite clearly engaging in intimidation, assassination, torture and murder.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this really important debate. Does he agree that there are some areas where the FARC were previously in control and have been moved out as part of reincorporation, so there is now a space for these dissident groups to fill and that is creating the sorts of dangers and the climate whereby criminality and the number of murders are rapidly rising? There seems to be no Government control or police control over those areas.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The issue of land ownership, which I will come to, is a really important part of trying to resolve the long-term issues from the conflict, because where the space is theoretically owned by nobody, it is almost certain that somebody, usually with criminal or paramilitary intent, or both, will step in to fill the vacuum.
Let me give just some characteristics of the conflict. Obviously, there has been the murder of human rights defenders and trade union activists, which has already been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), and I have referred to the stand-off with Venezuela. The corruption of judges has meant that it has been very difficult to secure convictions of those who have been involved in all this. I am enormously grateful to the British Government for all the work that they have done to try to restore, or help to restore, the criminal justice system in Colombia to a more secure form of justice. I very much hope that will continue. If more money needs to be put into it, it should be. I note that the European Union is putting in €35 million for a fund to help Venezuelans acting as refugees in Colombia. It would be good to know whether the UK will be contributing anything towards that. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that question later.
The single biggest element of the conflict, which makes it so different from others, is the massive consolidation of land ownership that has occurred. It is not just that, as a result of the colonial past, lots of people have big farms—far from it. Some 1% of the largest farms have 81% of the land, and the 0.1% of farms that are over 2,000 hectares have 60% of the land. That is a phenomenal consolidation. It is considerably worse now than it was even in the 1960s. In 1960, 29% of farms were over 500 hectares; in 2002, 46% were over 500 hectares; and in 2017, 66% of farms were over 500 hectares. One factor behind that extraordinary consolidation is that British-funded agribusinesses want to plant vast acres of oil palms, which often leads to significant deforestation and the taking of lands that had previously been used by campesino and indigenous peoples.
I might need a bit more notice to answer that question, if that is all right. There is a point here for all of us, whether we run a big industry or not. If we want to rely on palm oil, and if there is an enormous demand for palm oil in British supermarkets, the temptation will be to cover all of Colombia with oil palms. It is good that some supermarkets have said they will not use palm oil products at all. I hope we move further down that route.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North and I flew over large chunks of Colombia. At one point we were in a heavy thunderstorm, which was quite frightening—the aeroplane, which was only a six-seater, was wobbling all over the place. I was quite nervous, until I looked at the pilot, who was on WhatsApp on his phone throughout the whole flight, which sort of reassured me. The most extraordinary thing, having flown over Colombia and seen all the acres devoted to palm oil, was to learn that Colombia can no longer feed itself, yet it has some of the richest agricultural lands in South America. We think that we know what an avocado is, but there are 50 different types of avocado in Colombia. In the past, people grew to eat, but increasingly they grow to provide for an external market. I understand why Colombia wants to earn a living in the world, but it is crazy that such a country is unable to feed itself. Of the 43 million hectares devoted to agriculture in Colombia, 34.4 million are devoted to cows and only 8.6 million to crops. That means that 1 million campesino families have less land to live on than a single cow.
I pay tribute to a succession of wonderful Colombian ambassadors to the United Kingdom, who have sometimes had to pick their way through very difficult subjects. In my experience, they have all been impeccable. I am not sure whether Néstor is leaving soon, but if he is I hope that anybody here who knows him will send him our best regards.
If I could say one thing to the Colombian Government, it would be that we in the United Kingdom want to do everything we can to help in the process of land reform, because that is the essential element of the peace accord. It is good that everyone sits around the table and all the rest of it, but clause 1 of the peace accord refers to land reform. In La Primavera and El Porvenir we met a variety of different communities, including the Sikuani indigenous people, and we met campesino families in Cajamarca. Their biggest concern is that they do not have land to live on. If they do not get secure title, they will simply move in ever greater numbers into the big cities, which will exacerbate all the problems of poverty.
We visited the Sikuani, who were wonderful. I think they trained themselves in Spanish to be able to talk to us better, as it was not their first language. They were thrown off the lands they used to occupy by the FARC and then by other paramilitaries. They have tried to get the land back, but they need legal title to feel secure on that land. Only a few months ago, some people—it is difficult to know exactly who they were—accompanied by Colombian police officers, who were photographed, came to try to throw them off their lands again and destroyed some of their sacred grounds.
Clearly, across Colombia, but particularly in the more remote areas, there is a deliberate intention, sometimes sponsored by members of the police and the armed forces, to try to intimidate campesino and indigenous people off their lands. That can be changed only through the much faster acceleration of the process of restitution of land, the declaration of title and the granting of baldios. The word “baldio” in Spanish usually means wasteland, but it also refers to the large amount of land in Colombia that does not have proper legal title, which the Government theoretically own. The peace process was meant to deliver to every campesino family enough baldio land to live off, and that is the most secure path towards peace. That has been limited to certain areas of Colombia, and I hope the Colombian Government will consider looking at other areas as well in the next phase of the peace process. They have tried to put a time limit on the process, which I think is a mistake. The process is still remarkably slow, and many indigenous and campesino people simply do not have access to their land.
There has been a peace accord with the FARC, as I mentioned. We met some members of the FARC, who have handed in their guns and turned to peace. They are desperate to ensure that the peace process is fulfilled. It was a difficult process to arrive at. One element of the peace process is incomplete: a deal with the ELN. The Spanish President was trying to encourage the new Government of President Iván Duque to sit around the table with the ELN. The ELN is not as co-ordinated, structured or—some might say—principled as the FARC. There is not a single organisational structure in the ELN. Thus far, it has not been part of the peace accord. I note that the day by which Duque said that the ELN had to surrender its last 17 hostages has now passed. I do not know whether anything has happened today, but yesterday Colombian Government Ministers were saying that they will not sit down at the table until those hostages have been surrendered, and the ELN was saying that it cannot surrender those hostages, because of Government military activity in the areas where they are.
We all know from our experience in Northern Ireland that politicians sometimes have to say one thing in public and scurry away into the background to do something completely different. Mrs Thatcher—or the British Government at the time—was having conversations with terrorist organisations, just as John Major did long before it was publicly known. In the same way, a former Colombian ambassador to this country, Mauricio Rodríguez, was deployed by President Santos to have initially secret conversations with the ELN. I hope that the same is happening at the moment. Some of the attacks on human rights defenders and others in Chocó and other parts of the country are undoubtedly being committed by dissident groups alongside the ELN. If there is to be peace, in the end, everybody will have to sit round the table.
On the issue of human rights defenders, we had a productive meeting, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North will agree, with the people from the National Protection Unit. They genuinely want to protect everybody who comes under threat and intimidation, but I still do not think that they have the resources to do the job properly. We heard about one woman who had full protection measures up to the point she got out of the car and walked half a mile down the drive to her house, which was obviously the most dangerous place. Those issues are really important. Women, in particular, are being attacked and need much greater protection.
Colombia is a great country of phenomenal riches. In Cajamarca, we saw La Colosa, which is a mountain that a British-registered company wants to turn into a gold mine. The people of Cajamarca, some 18,000 of them, organised a plebiscite—a public consultation, as they call it—under state provision, and more than 93% of people came out against the mine. As a representative of a former mining constituency, I am not opposed to all extractive industries—I am quite in favour of mining—but for people to get a chunk of gold out of the place they are talking about, they would have to take half the mountain away. It is right at the top of a series of valleys, and two wetlands come together at the top, so all the water for large numbers of communities down the river could be damaged and become impossible to drink. I am not an expert, but it seemed to the hon. Member for Glasgow North and me that whoever came up with the idea of taking away a mountain and the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of Colombians did not have any real idea of how to go about business.
I very much hope that we have an opportunity to meet the company, AngloGold Ashanti, and say that that mine is not going to happen. The people of Cajamarca have a right to have their consultation honoured. I am not a fan of referendums—they can go terribly wrong—but when the people have spoken with a definitive result of 93%, that has to be honoured.
Over the last 200 years, our country has been closely related to Colombia, and we want to continue to do an enormous amount of trade in the future. For many politicians in this country, it would be a joy to see the proper fulfilment of the whole peace accord in Colombia. There is a famous book, “Open Veins of Latin America”, and this feels like one of the last remaining open veins in Latin America. It would be good to sew up that wound.
This is a hugely interesting debate on a subject that has increasingly become part of my intense interest in politics. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate and on raising issues that have stimulated that interest. I need to know a lot more about land ownership and land reform in Colombia, and I shall be going away to find out exactly what has happened.
My interest in the issue started with my family: my son married a Colombian girl. I did not know much about Colombia, so I simply wanted to know, and I suddenly realised that so much about this wonderful country is not known to the British population at all. I wanted to try to change that in different ways.
My knowledge has greatly increased, because I spent most of August in Colombia. I spent a week in the capital, Bogotá, and almost a week in the second city, Medellín. I also spent time in the rural area of Boyacá, where my family originate from and where some of them still live, and I had a few days of relaxation in Anapoima. I now have greater knowledge of the country, but it is so huge that there is still much to learn. That is why I welcome today’s debate.
My trip coincided with the inauguration of the new President, which signalled a substantial change in the country. There was also the attempted assassination of the President of next-door Venezuela, which also had a huge impact. When I was driving around, I saw so many Venezuelans walking along the road, on the backs of lorries, or thumbing lifts—just leaving the country and moving into Colombia in very large numbers.
The most relevant part of my visit for today’s debate was the five days that I spent in Medellín, the second city, and not because a flower festival was taking place—probably the best flower festival in the world—but because of the way in which that city has dealt with a history of violence. I was grateful to the Mayor of Medellín for organising a day for me to understand exactly what has happened in the city. Throughout the 1990s, it was the murder capital of the world, with 25,000 murders in 1992 and 27,000 in 1993, but when I was there, I could not believe that that had been the case. In my Sunday newspaper about two weeks ago, I read that it had dropped out of the 30 most murderous cities in the world. What astonished me was that the people had decided that they wanted an end to the scale of the violence—it was done through people power. The level of forgiveness that was needed in the population to deliver that result is truly astonishing.
I will touch on two issues of inevitable concern. First, the rumoured approach and direction of the new President, Iván Duque. The hon. Member for Rhondda, and others in interventions, have mentioned the continuing murder of human rights defenders, which is quite shocking. As has been outlined, Colombia experienced serious internal conflict from 1964 to 2016 when the peace accord was agreed and signed by Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC. The whole world celebrated the accord and thought it was wonderful, so there was inevitably some concern—which I shared because of my developing interest—during the election campaign, when the favourite to win suggested that the agreement needed to be changed in certain ways. The worry was that that might produce some negatives. However, the new President has now been in place for five weeks and most of what I have managed to glean from the comments that have been made so far seems to me to be incredibly encouraging.
The first issue was who was appointed to the various positions, but the appointments have been generally welcomed. They have shown a streak of independence. One of the concerns was that it was thought the new President would be too influenced by Álvaro Uribe, a previous President, who really was not a great supporter of the peace agreement or of the FARC coming into Government. The independence shown by that is important and, as I say, the appointments seem to have been welcomed.
I am afraid I make a rather different reading of all of this. I have met President Uribe—in 2010, I think—and he was very opposed to the peace process and the peace accord, and I think that it is still to be seen whether President Duque will decide to go his own course and be an independent man. However, with some of Duque’s Ministers, including in some of the key departments, the strings are undoubtedly being pulled by Uribe.
That is not the impression that I have been receiving, but it is a perfectly valid point and I certainly think that that is how Uribe is seen. Nevertheless, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is welcome if the new President is seen as having a degree of independence and being his own man, because he was sponsored, or at least supported, by Uribe in the election; we should welcome that independence.
The inauguration was only five weeks ago. I have written down one or two things that I have gleaned since then. Duque has reiterated a commitment to the peace process, which is good; everybody will think that is to be welcomed. There is an open invitation, and a public open invitation, to FARC combatants to continue their involvement in the reintegration process. There is a reassurance that committees established in the peace process will continue. There have been no modifications at all to the terms of the peace agreement; it had been feared there would be. Who knows what may happen in the future? As of now, however, there certainly have not been any modifications. There is a new high commissioner for peace, a new presidential councillor for stabilisation, and a commitment to work with the international community, including with the UN, the US and indeed the UK, which are also to be welcomed.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that commitments are all very well but until the Government get on top of the paramilitary situation we will still see assassinations of human rights defenders, trade unionists and others who are really trying to represent the working people and the average citizen in Colombia?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and I do agree; indeed, that is the point I will now come to. Clearly, the new President faces some real issues that cause concern, and that concern is shared by everybody in the rest of the world who has a regard or a love for Colombia.
One big issue is the control of the drug trade, and there is also the murder of human rights defenders in increasing numbers. What has been happening is completely unacceptable to the whole world and it is a huge challenge for the new President. I think he will want to satisfy the world community that he is looking at the situation in Colombia and taking seriously the need to defend the human rights defenders. As I say, that is a challenge, but a measure of his success as President will be that he reduces the number of murders; one murder is too many and there are clearly far too many murders in Colombia.
Most of the murders in Colombia are probably drug-related. Those who dominate the drug trade are seeking to prevent people interfering with that trade. The drug trade certainly caused all the murders in Medellín in the 1990s and it is probably a significant reason why we are seeing human rights defenders being murdered, which no civilised person could possibly agree with.
The new President faces some massive challenges and I cannot imagine anybody in this Chamber not wishing him well. Clearly, the development of the drugs business and the export of drugs to the rest of the world is a huge issue. The amount of cocaine coming out of Colombia is probably increasing. The President has got to stop that; the high number of murders has got to be reduced; and the peace process has got to continue. At this stage, however, I think we can be encouraged by the President’s first five weeks. Let us hope that at the end of his four years in office we can look back and say that they were a very successful four years. I am still hopeful that they will be.
Colombia is a wonderful country. Anybody from Britain who spends time there realises that it is very different from what we are used to. It is a truly spectacular and wonderful country, I think it has a wonderful future and I rather hope that, at a personal level, I can play some part in helping that process. And we, as a British Government, should play an important part in that process as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again today, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate at a really important time. I do not think that I can emulate his Spanish accent, but his speech really was excellent.
I should say that I visited Colombia last month alongside Justice for Colombia, which paid for my visit—I, too, am waiting for final details to update my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is good to see the Minister for Europe and the Americas in his place today. I thank him again for meeting me just before the summer recess and for his offer last week of a further meeting following my visit to Colombia.
As we have heard today, Colombia is a country of contrasts. It is the most beautiful of countries, but it is also a country scarred by decades of civil war, during which hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared, murdered or tortured, including—in fact, predominantly—trade unionists, human rights defenders and social leaders, and Colombia still is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.
That is why the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016 was such a moment of hope for Colombia, for those of us in Westminster Hall today and indeed for everyone around the world who has a specific interest in the country. It was an agreement to end the armed conflict through a ceasefire, with disarmament by the FARC; a new special jurisdiction, courts and a truth commissioner; political participation by the FARC as a legal political party with seats in the Congress and the House of Representatives; land reform, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda talked about; and the substitution of illegal crops with legal ones, with time-limited subsidies to peasant farmers. Overseeing all of that would be a United Nations verification mission.
Nearly two years on from the signing of that historic agreement, and nine years after I first went to Colombia, I went back there last month with colleagues from Parliament, trade union leaders, lawyers and one of the Northern Ireland human rights commissioners, as part of JFC’s peace monitoring delegation. I know the Minister is very aware of the work of JFC, and I place on the record today my admiration for the incredible work it has done since it was set up by the trade union movement in 2002.
JFC has supported Colombian civil society in defence of human rights, labour rights, peace and social justice. Over the last few years, it has seen the involvement of the Irish trade union movement and politicians from the entirety of the island of Ireland. Those politicians have shared their experiences of the Good Friday agreement, including how they negotiated that agreement and dealt with its implementation, which has been of considerable benefit to the Colombian Government and the FARC as they learn how to construct and deliver a peace agreement.
When I first went to Colombia, I was a trade union lawyer, and I was struck by the fact that doing that job in Colombia would have put my life at risk; even now, as an Opposition MP, I would probably still be in the same situation. The people I met in Colombia in 2009 sparked my long-standing interest in the country, which is why I was really desperate to return this year. In particular, I wanted to see how the peace agreement is progressing.
I arrived in Bogotá the day after President Duque was inaugurated. He ran his election campaign on a promise to dismantle parts of the peace agreement. I hope that that promise will not be seen through by his Government—I suspect he will have more problems delivering that dismantling element of his manifesto than he originally thought. The agreement is fragile, and the progress of its implementation is slow—based on what I saw in my time-limited visit, I am sorry to say that some of it is non-existent.
In addition to meeting members of all the opposition parties, the UN, diplomats and trade union leaders in Bogotá, our delegation travelled to meet people in rural regions in the north and the north-east of the country, on the border with Venezuela. In the oil-rich region of Arauca, we visited one of the 26 zones in which former FARC combatants and their families are being reintegrated into civil society. In Colombia they call it “reincorporation”.
On the journey we took from Bogotá to Filipinas, we went on a plane—not as little as the one that the hon. Member for Rhondda went on—and then on a bus. What we saw during that journey, and what we heard and saw when we got there, was a clear demonstration of how what was promised and agreed in the peace agreement had not materialised, because of the failure to provide the basic resources necessary for reincorporation to succeed.
One reaches Filipinas by a dirt and rubble track that is strewn with huge craters and that becomes impassable in the frequent heavy rain. It took us five hours to travel 70 miles. People in Filipinas cannot access education, and some have died trying to get out of what is essentially a camp to get medical treatment. The small amounts of fresh produce that people can grow simply will not survive the journey along the track from the camp to the nearest town—by the time it gets there, the crop is destroyed.
One former FARC combatant explained to me that they managed to build some homes, but that, because of the rain, the homes flood. So they have water pouring in from the roofs of their homes, but they do not have any water in the toilets, because there is no mains water.
The lack of access to education and the inability to make a living not only make life very difficult but create an area of criminality, which is the only option for some people because they cannot survive through legal means.
The camp in Filipinas was only partially constructed. People there explained to me that they have the skills to build and complete the houses and infrastructure, but that because of the bureaucracy involved in getting the funds from central Government to local authorities and approved contractors to carry out the work, and because of the endemic corruption in Colombia, very little of the funding gets through. That is why infrastructure is not getting built. Will the Minister consider discussing with his colleagues in the Department for International Development whether the UK Government could provide specific funding or assistance that could be ring-fenced to target things such as building a 70-mile road that would make a transformational difference to communities?
Likewise in Tibú, just 12 km from the Venezuelan border, I met many campesinos—peasant farmers—and social leaders. We repeatedly heard evidence about how the voluntary crop substitution programme is not working. Many families have signed up for the programme, but, again, the funds are not coming through and the implementation of productive projects is not happening. I met the head of the chocolate farmers’ co-operative, who said that hundreds of families had signed up to the crop substitution programme because there is huge internal demand for chocolate in Colombia—I have tasted it, and it is the most fantastic chocolate. Never mind the internal demand, they want to be able to export that fantastic product and grow the industry, but they cannot do that because of the lack of implementation of the agreement.
In both the rural regions I went to, the challenges created by the arrival of people fleeing from Venezuela, which has already been touched on, are a huge concern. I travelled through Cúcuta, the main entry point into Colombia from Venezuela, which more than a million people have passed through, either staying in Colombia or moving on to other Latin American countries. Many of those people are second-generation Colombians who fled Colombia because of the dangers to them, but who are now returning as economic refugees from Venezuela. People in Arauca said to me, “We want to welcome them back. We want to help them. We have shared our food with them, but we have no money. We have so little food, we can barely feed all the people in our zone, never mind helping those who are arriving.” That naturally creates tensions, so I am really concerned. Of all the problems Colombia has had, and still has, in implementing the peace agreement, the problem with Venezuela and the arrival of more than a million people is the one that could, on its own, scupper it.
Colleagues have already talked about the murders, and I will not repeat what has been said, but I want to make the point that, there was a real spike in assassinations during the two-stage presidential elections. In the first month of President Duque’s Administration, 33 social leaders have been murdered, and more than 80 FARC members or family members have been killed since the start of the peace process. After a peace agreement, there is always a really dangerous period initially and an expectation that there will be problems, but the situation is tragic, and we really need to help Colombia all we can to prevent such problems.
I have mentioned the dissident guerrilla groups moving into previously FARC-controlled zones, where there is, effectively, no policing. The army cannot operate there, so there is no protection for the people who live there. During my visit I asked the police, the army and the UN about the numbers of prosecutions and convictions that have taken place since 2016, based on the hundreds of murders. I was not told about a single conviction since that date. The Minister is aware of the long-standing problems created by the culture of impunity in Colombia. I hope he will address in his response what steps the Government are taking to impress on the Colombian Government, and particularly the Fiscalía, that impunity must stop if there is to be any chance of the agreement succeeding.
I want to turn now to one of the most important elements of the peace agreement: political participation. As part of the agreement, the FARC has 10 seats in Congress for the two electoral periods starting this year. When Congress opened in July, only eight of the 10 Congress men and women-elect were able to take up their positions. Two of them, Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, could not. Jesus Santrich has received his official accreditation as a member of Congress, but has been unable to take up his seat, because he has been held in prison since April under threat of extradition to the United States. Ivan Marquez, who was the head negotiator for the FARC during the peace talks, left Bogotá in the aftermath of Santrich’s arrest because of his concerns about the lack of guarantees that he will not be subjected to political and legal persecution.
On 17 August, I visited Jesus Santrich in his maximum security prison, La Picota, in Bogotá. After a couple of hours going through the various checks, fingerprinting and questions, we arrived in a wing in a very large, noisy prison, where he is kept in isolation. He has a small cell with a bed, a light, a toilet and nothing else. He is a former FARC leader who was involved in the drafting and negotiation of the peace agreement with the Colombian Government negotiators. He is the subject of a US extradition threat based on an allegation that he conspired to smuggle 10 tonnes of cocaine out of Colombia on an aeroplane. He categorically denies the allegation.
Jesus is blind. He suffers from a degenerative eye condition that has become so severe that his sight is almost non-existent. He has other major health problems. No evidence has been presented to him, his lawyers or any court in Colombia to back up the allegation. He is essentially in administrative detention, prevented by the Colombian Attorney General from swearing in as a member of Congress, despite a constitutional right to do so.
Jesus has been denied any equipment to help him cope with his disability in prison—no Braille pen, no audiobooks, no voice recorder. He cannot have anyone read to him. He cannot have a radio or a television, unlike all the other prisoners, who can also have a visitor on a Wednesday to bring them some food. He is not allowed any contact with other prisoners. He has been on a 41-day hunger strike to protest against his treatment. He is very frail, still losing weight and obviously showing the strains of nearly five months’ incarceration. Previously he had been locked in his cell for 24 hours a day. Shortly before we visited, that regime was changed to allow him out for one hour every 24 hours.
Jesus is entitled to have his case considered by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, known as the JEP, established under the agreement. On the day I was there, he had been told that there had been a decision by the constitutional court that the JEP must be allowed to review any evidence against him. However, there are widespread concerns, which have already been alluded to, about the court’s ability to operate free from Government interference. It is worrying that one of Jesus Santrich’s lawyers for the transitional justice process, Enrique Santiago, has on two occasions been denied entry to the prison to speak to him. Enrique hopes to visit him on 17 September, and I shall follow that up to ensure that due process, and Jesus’s fundamental right to access to his lawyer, are respected.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I have not been to Colombia, which is something I hope to put right in the near future. Is my hon. Friend concerned, as I am, that American extradition is used as a threat against people who are part of the peace process? Will she, through the Minister, appeal to the Americans to review the use of extradition as a threat to people who have played an active role in bringing the peace process to the point it is at today?
Thank you, Mr Robertson. I will wrap up with a few questions to the Minister. I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend, and I hope that the Minister will address it. It was one of the things I was going to ask him about.
I have three questions. Will the Minister make representations to the Colombian Government about the conditions in which Jesus Santrich is being held, and particularly about the lack of access to disability aids? Will he also impress on them the absolute right of lawyers to visit, to prepare a case for the JEP? I take on board the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). Finally, Senator Victoria Sandino, another FARC senator, is visiting the UK at the end of the month. She led on gender and equality aspects of the peace agreement. A request has been made to the Minister’s office for him to meet Senator Sandino. If he could say something positive on that, it would be welcome.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
I visited Colombia nearly two years ago, with my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). My trip was sponsored by Justice for Colombia, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I must admit that, given that we had gone there for the ratification of the peace deal through the Colombian Congress, perhaps naively I expected to encounter hope and excitement about the peace deal as it made its way through, and the consequent agreements and measures. However, we found a situation far from hopefulness. We saw and encountered the consequences of a sharp uptick in paramilitary activity. We visited many of the areas mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), where we heard testimonies from people whose families had been tortured, kidnapped or murdered. Many of those people lived in areas that had previously been controlled by the FARC; after it moved out, paramilitaries moved in.
Many of the people we met also described their fear—their absolute belief—that the paramilitaries were an arm of the state security services, and were deliberately being employed to undermine the peace process. As has been mentioned, during the peace process there was a huge increase in the number of murders of human rights leaders and social and community leaders. We met the army after hearing many of those testimonies, and expressed the concern that the paramilitaries were just another wing of the state security services. Obviously, we met flat denial on that point; but also, shockingly, we met flat denial that the paramilitaries even existed in Colombia. We were told that the paramilitaries had not existed since the ’90s and that all the killings were in fact the doing of the ELN, under the name of the paramilitaries, to undermine the army and the Government. To my mind, that underscored and reinforced the concerns we already had about their being linked to state security forces. Those we spoke to were in complete denial about the reality on the ground.
We also met ex-FARC combatants, FARC political prisoners, and people living in FARC-controlled territories. We heard concerns about the zones—my hon. Friends also expressed such concerns—in relation to what would happen after the peace process, with the FARC surrendering its weapons and moving into those zones. They were promised accommodation, education, food and water and democratic participation in those zones. They worried that they risked everything in committing themselves to the peace deal, and that the promises would be broken. Going by visits that have been made, and the testimony of some of my hon. Friends today, those promises have been broken.
I am sure that the story of the Mothers of Soacha is familiar to many Members. The story they tell is about the consequences of a presidential declaration by President Uribe when he was in power. He told members of the army in the armed conflict that they would be given time off, and extra holiday and pay, for presenting dead guerrillas. That declaration led directly to the army, posing as recruitment agencies, advertising work in poor rural areas. Young men in those areas came forward to apply for the work, and the army tortured, kidnapped and murdered them, dressing them up in guerrilla combats and presenting them to their senior officers in return for pay and extra holiday. We met the mothers of those young men who had been kidnapped, tortured and murdered, and who have been slandered as having been guerrillas in the armed conflict. Some of those involved have been convicted and imprisoned, but the sentences were pitiful. I mention that because there are serious concerns that civilians who committed crimes as part of the armed conflict—those who were truly behind those heinous crimes—will not come before the transitional justice courts, and that there will be reliance on the criminal justice courts, which, as we have heard, have not been sufficient in delivering justice.
I have given those examples because I want to raise two concerns with the Minister. What progress can he report on the system of justice, truth, reparation and non-repetition and on the matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised—the establishment of a body to examine and dismantle the paramilitaries? I fully accept that the UK Government cannot take responsibility for the matter, and cannot make change happen; but the Colombian people need to understand that the international community remains foursquare behind the peace process and the measures and agreements that came from it, and that the UK will use all its influence, through trade, diplomacy and the membership of any international organisation, to drive change and help the Colombian people move towards peace.
I was not going to speak, Mr Robertson, but there are a few minutes before the Front-Bench speakers begin. I wanted to make one appeal. Everyone has highlighted the number of murders of community leaders, trade unionists and human rights activists. Disturbingly, many of those murders happen in rural areas where people are trying to diversify away from the growing of the coca plant. Clearly, there are people, whether paramilitaries or the armed wings of narcotics traffickers, who are trying to maintain the drug trade and the trafficking of drugs from Colombia. That has an impact on our streets, and in America.
As I pointed out in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), there is an issue for the Americans, to do with their foreign policy and the way they apply it in Colombia—and particularly the way in which law courts in Colombia use the threat of extradition. People who have been mainstays of the peace process—movers and shakers—have been targeted. I draw attention to the plight of Simón Trinidad, who is held in confinement in America. He has been extradited. There has been no court case or proven case against him, but he has spent several years incarcerated underground in a US prison. I urge the Minister to make representations on his behalf.
In this short speech, I wish to stress to the Minister the issue of US foreign policy towards Colombia. People have spoken highly of his dedication to that issue and his understanding of the peace process in Colombia, so will he use his good offices to draw to the attention of the United States the implications of some of the actions that it has taken in undermining the peace process, and thereby facilitating drugs trafficking from Colombia?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson—it is something of a rare pleasure for me to be in Westminster Hall these days. I declare the same interest as that of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), because I took part in the ABColombia visit, which I will register in due course. I had some familiarity with Colombia even before then because I worked for the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which is one of the funders of ABColombia, and I had therefore had the immense privilege of meeting many visitors and human rights campaigners who had travelled from Colombia to Scotland and the United Kingdom. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to travel to Colombia this year—it seems that the British embassy has been kept pretty busy with visiting UK parliamentarians, but it has been on a cross-party basis, even if from a kind of Celtic fringe.
What I saw, and what has been described in the debate, is a country in transition that stands on the brink of two potential futures. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, Colombia is lush, verdant and fertile. We ate fruits that do not have names in English because they are so exotic, and they were incredibly tasty. At the same time, as Members have said, the legacy of the conflict is visible everywhere, with burnt-out houses, the risk of land mines, and the displacement that we have heard described.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) was right to talk about the progress that has been made, but one thing that was said to us—perhaps these were words that we put into people’s mouths—was the idea that things in Colombia are better than they were 10 years ago, but not necessarily better than they were five years ago. That, in a way, sums up a lot of what I came away with, and this debate has brought out the overall sense of contradictions and clashes between what the reality on the ground ought to be, what the rules, agreement and constitution state it should be, and how that reality is actually experienced. That could involve a clash of constitutional rights. We heard about a potential mine in Cajamarca where, even though a local plebiscite has made it explicitly clear that the local population do not want it, plans continue, applications are lodged and concessions granted. We hear that constitutional rights exist for indigenous people and campesinos to reclaim their territory and get those land titles, but at the same time the Government declare that land to be a zone for special economic development that they are prepared to hand over to multinational companies for monocropping.
We heard powerful testimony from the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) about Jesus Santrich. He has the right to be sworn in as a member of Congress, yet he is also being kept in administrative detention by that same Government. We heard from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) that in some cases officials are completely in denial about the very existence of paramilitary groups, so there seems to be a real tension and contradiction in terms.
We heard about the human rights defender who was dropped off from her bullet-proof car and left to walk the last, most dangerous, half mile in the dark. Again, there is a right on paper and alleged institutional support, yet it does not seem to be being fulfilled. When we met young campaigners—I was struck by how young many of the human rights campaigners we met were—we could understand that sense of frustration. They had begun to question things. They said that they were trying to use all legal routes available to them, and to defend the rights written into the constitution and international agreements, yet they got nowhere. That is where the sense of frustration comes through, and that is where the risk of backsliding, even inadvertently, into violence raises its head. The Colombian Government and their institutions must respond to that challenge.
There is also a challenge for the international actors, which for our purposes starts with the UK Government. I am grateful to the UK embassy, which hosted us and which has presumably hosted many delegations over the years. A lot of work is clearly going on, and I have lodged written questions—and will continue to do so—to get a sense of the kind of work going on. Members have asked what more the Department for International Development can do, but it has withdrawn from Latin America, which is slightly disappointing. I wonder whether at the very least expertise could be shared, or whether there is a way to leverage some of the skills and knowledge that DFID has built up to find ways to re-engage with Latin America, and Colombia would be a good place to start.
As we have heard, there is a responsibility on multinational companies, many of which are headquartered, operate out of, or are listed on the stock market in the UK. AngloGold Ashanti is just one of those—a mine called La Colosa cannot possibly be a small-scale artisanal project. It threatens vast communities, yet those companies are signed up to the Ruggie principles—the UN’s guiding principles for business and human rights—which must be adhered to. Such environmental degradation and further displacement of the population by multinational companies will only add to instability.
We heard about the impact on human rights defenders and the threats that they are under, and one in three murders of human rights defenders around the world over the past year or so took place in Colombia. Collectively, global human rights defenders have been nominated this year for a Nobel peace prize, and I hope to see that progress. As has been said, we as citizens and consumers have a role to play because our demand for precious minerals, palm oil, and rubber is driving the monocropping, and we should also consider our own practices.
The young people, campesinos and indigenous groups who we met are not looking for a static or historical existence; they want to produce for their country and the wider world. They want commercialisation of their crops, but it does not have to be one size fits all. Production can be sustainable and co-operative. People can produce for themselves and their communities and sell to the wider world, with the right kind of institutional backing and infrastructure. Today is Back British Farming Day, but perhaps we should also back sustainable and sensible Colombian farming. Gold can be taken out of the ground only once—once the top comes off a mountain, that is it, but if land is sustained and cultivated, it can produce for generations to come.
We went to a conference for pastoral and social care bishops in Colombia, and it was Pope Paul VI who once said:
“If you want peace, work for justice”.
The key to peace is stability and prosperity, and Colombia is a country of vast potential. That was my first visit—I hope it is not my last—and I look forward to hearing how the Minister will respond to all the different questions and recommendations that have been made to ensure that Colombia and its people can reach their full peaceful potential.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate and on his excellent introduction and thorough understanding of the situation. He detailed the long conflict, the deaths and displacement caused, and the recent further destabilisation caused by large numbers of refugees from Venezuela, as well as the inter-relationship with the drug trade and the fundamental injustice of landownership in Colombia, which, as he pointed out, has been getting worse over the past 50 years. He pointed to the role that we as consumers can play in the UK, and we should pay more attention to that. He also pointed out how well represented Colombia has been in this country. Indeed, His Excellency Néstor Osorio Londoño recently made a great visit to Durham to talk about the peace process and consider the connections between the UK and Colombia.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) spoke about his visit to Medellín and his worries about the violence. I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for her long-standing commitment to the issue, for the speech she gave today and for her bravery in going into that prison to meet the key people suffering in the peace process. That is extremely important and vital work, and I salute her for what she has done. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who pointed to the horrific trail of violence and the emotional legacy that leaves for people. It is not enough to say that the Uribe Government were in power some time ago, because people have to live with the consequences.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) spoke about the problem of drug trafficking. Some 30 tonnes of cocaine come into this country every year, and the volume doubled in 2015 and 2016. It is a problem that we need—pardon the pun—to crack. We have an interest in doing that, but our overriding concern is that the people of Colombia live in a more peaceful situation. The spokesman for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) pointed out that the country is in transition and that if the provisions of the peace process are not adhered to, there will be frustration, backsliding and a risk of even greater violence.
With all that in mind, I want to point out a couple of further issues and ask the Minister a few questions. Those chapters of the peace process that cover crop substitution for the campesinos, land redistribution and special courts to try former FARC fighters are extremely important. It is worrying that in his campaign to become President of Colombia, Iván Duque rejected some aspects of the deal, particularly the special jurisdiction for peace and the participation of former FARC members in politics.
When the Colombians were seeking to secure the peace process, they deliberately went to the international community to get its backing. That strengthened the Colombians’ hand and enabled them to present to both sides a degree of neutrality and authority that they would not otherwise have had. One question I have for the Minister is whether the British Government, in their continuing engagement with the process, are drawing on our experience in Northern Ireland. What are we doing in practical terms on that front?
My colleagues asked a question about the support that we have been giving through EU funding programmes, which I repeat. They also raised the issue of DFID funding. I know that the Government are doing some work to try to improve good governance in Colombia. I had a meeting recently with the person who had been seconded from the National Crime Agency to help the Colombian police improve their anti-drugs work, but what are we doing to support reform of the criminal justice system? A properly independent criminal justice system is extremely important in this process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham spoke about the role of the Americans. What representation has the Minister made, not only to the Colombians but to the Americans, about the powerful role that they can play for good or ill? To what extent are the requests for extradition well-founded? It would be a matter of extreme concern if those extraditions are politically motivated. If the people being threatened with extradition are not seeing the evidence for why they are being threatened with extradition, that puts a big question mark over the process.
The British Government have a continuous dialogue, I am sure, but what representations has the Minister been able to make to the new President about the importance of sticking with the peace process? There was a very interesting editorial in the Financial Times recently, and I want to read a paragraph from it. It states:
“Mr Duque has said he will be outspoken about Caracas’s egregious failings… Venezuela is a genuine threat to international stability, too often ignored by too many for too long, and Colombia is on the frontline. But responding to it requires a multilateral effort that Mr Duque needs to cultivate by extending, rather than overturning, the international goodwill built up by his predecessor.”
That speaks directly to our role in supporting the international peace process. The Minister knows that the Government are the penholder for Colombia in the Security Council. What initiatives has he taken? What initiatives has he asked our representative in New York to take in that role?
Everybody in this House is keen to support the Colombian peace process. We know that the contribution we can make from this country is small, but it may none the less be significant. I urge the Minister to continue on a positive path.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on initiating the debate and thank him for sharing with us his insights from his recent visit. If this were the BBC’s “Mastermind”, it would be his specialist subject. I appreciate the input from Members here today, who have enthusiastically developed exceptional knowledge of the situation. It is one of those areas where once someone gets stuck into it, they get very emotionally involved and just want to stick at it. I commend the efforts people are making. Their enthusiasm is shared by all parts of the House. I do not think there is any difference between us in what we are trying to achieve.
I want to give our assessment of the direction of the peace process and what we know about President Duque’s Government, which is only four or five weeks’ old. I would also like to say something about the impact on human rights, which I know many Members follow closely. I will also respond to some of the specific questions that have been raised, particularly on land reform, Jesus Santrich and DFID. I will come to that in a minute.
It has been less than two years since the signing of the historic peace agreement between the Government and the FARC. What has been achieved? Perhaps most significantly, the FARC are no longer an armed group, but are now a legitimate political party with members in the Congress. Earlier this year, they took part in elections for the first time. As far as peace processes go, that is a significant achievement in a very short time. With regard to the agreement itself, 353 of the 578 commitments made by both parties in the final deal are now in different stages of implementation, including important changes to Colombia’s legislation. The constitution has been amended to allow FARC political participation and to set up the legal structures of the special jurisdiction for peace.
It is perhaps the more practical elements of the commitments, affecting ordinary Colombians, where progress has been rather more uneven. More than 13,000 former FARC combatants and militia have formally registered for reintegration into civilian life, but slow progress on training, fear of reprisals and simply the time spent waiting for reintegration has seen more than 1,500 of them slip away to join dissident groups and criminal elements. That risks undermining improvements in security. Colombia has seen its lowest numbers of recorded homicides for more than 40 years, which is at least something to be welcomed.
In terms of security, this year’s elections have been called the safest for decades, with record numbers of people voting. That was no doubt aided by the end of FARC’s military campaign, and by temporary ceasefires announced by the National Liberation Army, or ELN. The ELN, which was not party to the 2016 peace agreement, has continued its campaign of violence since the end of a temporary ceasefire in January that was agreed with former President Santos. Just this week, the ELN rejected President Duque’s new conditions for a return to talks in Havana.
The ELN and criminal gangs, so-called BACRIM—bandas criminales—have embarked on a campaign of violence and intimidation in communities where the FARC have withdrawn. That is largely aimed at controlling the underlying and continuing problems that we know about, such as the record levels of coca production, extortion more generally, and illegal mining. In 2017, fighting between those groups caused 61 major displacements, forcing at least 12,000 people from their homes. The British ambassador recently discussed with the new Defence Minister our specific concerns about new cycles of violence in the Pacific coast region, with its largely Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.
Those who speak out for the rights of local communities are also often singled out for attack. The UN reports that at least 121 human rights defenders and community leaders were killed last year, and Amnesty says that Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders. I have discussed with my Colombian counterparts our concerns about violence against human rights defenders, and the steps that are needed to protect them. During Colombia’s universal periodic review of human rights, which took place in May, the UK stressed the need for new protection measures for human rights defenders and support for victims of conflict-related sexual violence. I am pleased to say that all the UK’s recommendations were accepted by the Colombian Government, but more work remains to ensure that human rights are prioritised by the new Administration.
Turning to that new Government, President Duque was inaugurated on 7 August. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to discuss the incoming Administration’s policies for peace and security, and all sorts of issues that we have been discussing today. During the election campaign, the President shared an insight to his ideas about the peace process. We know that he wishes to change some aspects, and we understand that he will do so only through the proper congressional and legislative procedures. It is also worth noting that in recent weeks President Duque’s position appears to have softened in contrast to his earlier statements, and he has said that he wishes to work for unity, not polarisation, in the future of the peace process.
We are working with the new Government to understand their priorities at this early stage. The Prime Minister spoke to President Duque in August, shortly after his inauguration, and said that he could count on the UK’s continued support for the peace process. The Foreign Secretary also spoke to the new Foreign Minister, Carlos Holmes, in New York a few weeks ago, and shared our pride in the UK’s role as penholder for the peace process at the UN Security Council. Indeed, we will help to renew the mandate for the UN special political mission in the coming weeks.
We of course provide support for the peace process, including through our £34 million conflict, security and stabilisation fund. UK-funded projects are strengthening the rule of law in post-conflict areas. They are rehabilitating former child combatants and reforming the Colombian police. Other programmes are helping to record and investigate cases of conflict-related sexual violence, and provide training to victims in how to access justice. The UK is also the largest donor to the UN trust fund, which is supporting the implementation of the peace agreement. We have also provided financial support to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Organisation of American States peace monitoring mission.
I will turn quickly to some of the specific issues that were raised. A very big—perhaps the biggest—issue is land reform, which is very complicated. We have vigorously supported land reform, and raised it with the former Government continually. It is very much at the heart of the peace agreement and must remain a top priority for the Colombian Government. Over the last two years the Colombian Government have formalised 1.6 million hectares of land for farmers—pretty well the size of Northern Ireland. The former Government started a pilot for registering land in rural communities. The legislation is still to be passed, but it is an important step that needs to be taken.
Progress has been made, but there is more to do, because only four in 10 campesinos have legal titles. One Government agency, Fondo de Tierras—my pronunciation is not as good as that of the hon. Member for Rhondda, but he can give me lessons—which was set up under President Santos, aims to give 3 million hectares of redistributed land to campesinos within 12 years.
The question about the Department for International Development I can answer only in respect of my experience as DFID Minister a few years ago. Hon. Members are right that DFID pretty well withdrew from Latin America. It focused on the most impoverished countries in the world. Although my understanding is that Colombia is eligible for official development assistance, there are no direct programmes there. However, there will be programmes that benefit from contributions that we have made to multilateral organisations. As a rule, DFID does not do much infrastructure directly; it supports large infrastructure projects through multilateral organisations—although when I was Minister I was pleased to open a bridge across a ravine in Nepal. That was an example of an infrastructure project that DFID had sponsored; they benefited from my very effective ministerial decisions. However, I have to say that the question of DFID involvement in the continent is thrown into stark relief by the growing collapse of Venezuela next door.
On the arrest of the FARC leader Jesus Santrich, there is always a conflict between wanting to re-embrace FARC leaders and bearing down on any continuation in drug smuggling. When the two collide, as they appear to have done at least in the optics of the arrest, there is obviously a dilemma. It is the first case of its kind to be considered by the transitional justice mechanisms set up by the peace agreement. It is essential that due process is followed. I must also say that I, too, admire the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for making that prison visit.
I would say a bit more about our general bilateral relations, but I have run out of time. We should all commend Colombia for the progress it has made over the past two years. We recognise that more needs to be done, and we look forward to working with the Colombians as a reliable partner, and ensuring that the UK does everything it can to support the continued success of the peace agreement.
I am grateful to all hon. Members. There is clear concern across all political parties that the peace process should not now founder, and we want justice for all the people of Colombia.
I am enormously grateful, as I think is the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), to Louise Winstanley, who organised our trip to Colombia—although she is a very hard taskmaster, because we were getting up at ludicrous times in the morning. Colombia often listens to the international community. I was struck that one of the hotels we stayed in was called the Hotel Lusitania. It is unusual for a hotel to be named after a ship that was sunk. The links between the United Kingdom and Colombia are very strong. Of course, some of those links are quite dangerous, not least in relation to the cocaine trade and, I would argue, to palm oil as well.
We are engaged and involved in the situation in Colombia. It is very early days in the presidency of Iván Duque, and we wish him well. I note what the Minister said about the softening of the tone. It may well be that he does exactly what President Santos did, which was to get elected under the Uribe umbrella but then storm off in an entirely independent direction. I very much hope that is what happens.
I will end with the most sobering comment that I heard from one campesino family. They said that their grandfather had been told by the paramilitaries, “Either you will give us your land, or your widow will.” That is the injustice that still has to be put right.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the peace process in Colombia.
Criminal Justice System: Veterans
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered veterans in the criminal justice system.
It is good to be holding this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank you for the support I know you will give me throughout the debate. On several occasions, I have had the opportunity here in Westminster Hall to highlight the amazing, innovative work with offenders at Her Majesty’s prison Parc in my constituency. The Parc Supporting Families initiative has changed lives. It has brought a focus on being alcohol and drug free and on the impact on families, friends and communities. It has built relationships with families and taught prisoners parenting skills. It includes substance misuse programmes, prisoners reading with their children and making visits more family friendly, as well as building links between the schools of prisoners’ children and the prisoners, so that the children are largely protected from the impact of their parents’ sentences.
Many of the ideas successfully launched at Parc were picked up by the Farmer report and have been applied elsewhere. This new holistic approach to offending, which places increasing responsibility on the offender to address their behaviour while professional staff support and enable change, has had a radical impact on offending. Parc has built on that and in 2015 opened the first ever ex-military offenders unit, Endeavour. I visited just before the recess and promised the staff and prisoners I met that I would seek a Westminster Hall debate to emphasise the impact of the work they are doing on themselves and the wider community.
I commend the work of the staff at the unit. They go beyond just going in to do their job. It is their whole focus, knowing the change that they can bring across Wales. I also emphasise the eagerness I felt from the veterans and their willingness to tackle the issues that had led to their offences, and I pay tribute to the wide range of partner agencies involved. The work has had a huge impact on the lives and futures of the 270 men who have passed through the unit since it was opened. I urge the Minister or someone from the Ministry of Justice to visit and see the work, and the leadership that the unit has from Janet Wallsgrove, the director of Parc, and Corin Morgan-Armstrong, the inspirational head of family intervention, custody and community—does that not just say exactly what prisons should be about?
We have to recognise the task the staff, the volunteers and the inmates at Parc are trying to do. They are tackling years of failure—failure of families and of the state, particularly the education system and the way in which, in this country, we do not teach emotional and relationship education. They are tackling quite a high degree of failure from the Ministry of Defence to address not only the problems that military personnel bring with them into the military, but the negative experiences that they may have had while serving that leave them ill-equipped to deal with life back in the civilian world. Those problems are then left for the criminal justice system to deal with. Quite honestly, society has for far too long dealt with those problems by locking them and the people away.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and pay tribute to her considerable experience in this area. Does she not think this is part of a wider problem in terms of society supporting, or rather not supporting, our military veterans? That is why it is vital that there is a question on this subject in the next census.
It is absolutely vital that we know how many veterans we have and where they are, but many veterans do not want to self-identify. There is a question of shame and not wanting to be identified, so there would have to be some nuancing around that whole question.
We are failing people who have served their country and that cannot be acceptable to anyone. Let us be clear: not every service leaver is likely to end up in prison, in the same way that not every service leaver will end up with mental health problems—I am deeply concerned that that image is being allowed to grow. For many, the transition to civilian life, while challenging, is successful. The MOD has improved its programmes, although it still lacks anything more than a one-size-fits-all approach.
A recent report from the Forces in Mind Trust and King’s College London looked at data held by liaison and diversion services, and shows that we do not even really know how many offenders have served in the armed forces. I have seen figures for the last five years that vary from 2% to 9%. That has to change; we need better, more effective statistics, so that we know the problem we are dealing with.
Military life provides structure and comradeship, which many may have lacked in their lives before they joined the services. That comradeship and structure might not equip people with the education, skills and coping mechanisms that they need for transitioning into civilian life. Some may not have the emotional skills to cope with relationship issues or their change of status. Emotional issues had played a part in almost all of the cases of men that I spoke to, but all also talked of the trauma of going from hero to zero. One minute they are heroes, respected by family and community, and the next minute, they are nothing and nobody. For many of them, that trauma led in some part to their offending, which exacerbated the feeling of zero-ness, because they were totally rejected by family and community after offending.
Like many MPs, I have dealt with numerous cases of veterans who have hit hard times. In the majority of cases, it was not the veteran who approached me—it was their family and friends. Ex-service personnel are not good at asking for help. They are used to being problem solvers—indeed, that is what they are taught to be—but many also need training in seeking and accepting help. One of the men had been offered help and had turned it down because it was not exactly what he was looking for and he did not want to compromise. He made his life harder as a result.
Certainly, the military covenant has meant that individuals with an armed forces focus are spreading out across services. Among the prison service, there is definitely a wider acceptance and recognition of the need to look at ex-service personnel. That awareness is growing, but we do always need to do more.
We all know about post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health problems within the military and I do not intend to go through that again. We are seeing increasing numbers. We need to examine how many of those who are in our prison system and are exhibiting signs of mental health problems and post-traumatic stress have served, and where they have served. We need to do that research as we cannot work just on the basis of “we think”.
I appreciate that the Minister is having to respond to other Department’s failures, but that goes with the job. The Forces in Mind Trust has summed the situation up well:
“more efforts could be made upstream of the”
criminal justice system,
“for example during transition out of the military, when some of the risk factors for offending behaviour may be targeted. Interventions to improve employment, housing”—
a big issue, fundamentally important—
“mental health and alcohol and substance misuse outcomes could reduce the rates of offending following transition.”
Identifying veterans in prisons is not straightforward, as I said. Since January 2015, new arrivals in prison have been asked to self-identify themselves, but that relies on people being willing to do so, and not everyone is. The feeling of letting others down is significant, and they might not want that identification. Consequently, numbers vary. Before 2015, estimates of the number of veterans in prison varied between 3% and 9% of the prison population, as I said, but now we simply do not know. Will the Minister look again at how offenders who are ex-military are identified, and work with the Ministry of Defence to improve identification?
Identifying individuals is only valid, however, if we provide the right kind of help, so that veterans are not failed again. To quote the Forces in Mind Trust report again,
“veterans have a different profile of welfare, mental health, alcohol- and substance-misuse, and general health needs than general population offenders.”
We therefore have to produce a different form of response.
Parc prison provides a good place for such work to start. In the past 18 months, 207 veterans have been identified, 153 of whom served in the Army—but there are likely to be more—19 were ex-Navy, 18 were ex-Royal Air Force and 17 would not disclose their service. Those in the group are serving sentences for a wide range of different offences but, among them, a disproportionate number have been sentenced for sex offences, 89; violence offences, 35; and drugs, or drugs and violence, offences, 24.
The role of the unit for the ex-military, as for other programmes at Parc, is to prepare prisoners to rejoin society successfully. That is what prison should be about. Considerable thought went into establishing the unit: 160 Brigade visited Parc to discuss the idea beforehand, and General Nick Carter visited and talked to the people in the unit, including the prison officers who support it, and I cannot begin to tell the House the boost that that gave to ex-service personnel.
Great efforts have been made to build partnership links with organisations appropriate to work with ex-military. There is a steering group and it provides a comprehensive programme to address everything from employment to housing. There are too many organisations to mention—although I have a list for the Minister—but they include SSAFA; the Royal British Legion, as one might expect; SToMP, or Support Transition of Military Personnel; Care after Combat; and Emmaus.
The practical aspects of civilian life are not the only ones that need to be addressed. Emphasis needs to be put on tackling relationship issues, and prisoners’ personal lack of self-respect—low self-esteem was very apparent among the ex-military personnel I spoke to, with that sense of going from hero to zero. The partner organisations carry on the work started in the unit, providing vital continuity once a veteran is released. We cannot allow that transition from prison into the civilian world to fail, because if it does it is devastating for the ex-service personnel.
My hon. Friend lists myriad organisations that do excellent work in support of our veterans, but availability is scattergun, and it is almost a postcode lottery for many parts of the UK. Does she agree that the unit at Parc offers a national benchmark, the basis for a national programme?
That is exactly why I secured the debate. Prisons other than Parc are doing such work, but I have to say—with a sense of pride—that Wales is doing the best work in the UK with offenders who are ex-military. We are leading the way. Parc is an exemplar that I hope the Minister will look at to see how we can roll it out across the UK.
Not every veteran at Parc is in the Endeavour unit— 39 ex-military sex offenders are in the vulnerable persons unit, and initially charities were reluctant to work with this group, but that has now changed, which I am pleased about—but its results are encouraging. In the unit, veterans look after each other. Interestingly, the old ethos of respect between prisoners and prison officers is back—it is like stepping back in time, say officers who served then—and there is a real sense of trust and looking out for each other. Individuals I spoke to during a visit said that they feel safe. Cells are left open, there are no thefts and there is a sense of working together to overcome problems. Comradeship is key to people feeling that they can keep working to confront some quite difficult things that have happened in their lives, and to deal with the tensions and fractures within their families.
Emmaus, for example, rehomed three ex-military offenders from the unit, with one of them gaining full-time employment as a store manager. Two veterans secured full-time employment following release from the unit, one of whom now even employs others.
All of the prisoners I spoke to were eager to re-enlist. All of them wanted to know something, and this was the big message that they wanted me to tell, although I appreciate that it is not the Minister’s responsibility: they wanted an opportunity to serve. They wanted to make good on their failures. Somehow we need to look at whether there is an opportunity, case by case, for individuals who have offended to re-enlist in the regulars or the reserves.
The MOD needs to work with the Minister to address when and where people served, and when and how they transitioned out. An awful lot of them seem to have been discharged from the military and so re-entered society with no support, so they moved into the criminal justice system, and wider society had to pick up the risks and the problems. A review of the military justice system needs to look at how we can make that process more effective.
Parc has a wraparound service, as is needed at the point of transition. Will the Minister look at what is being done at Parc? I also recommend that he looks at the excellent work at HMP Oakwood on peer-led veterans’ life skills and support training. In brief, therefore, the issues are employment and employability; housing and support; capacity to re-enlist; relationship education; transitional issues to be addressed before leaving the services; and moving from hero to zero, or self-worth and self-esteem. May we have research into whether there is any correlation between those who have suddenly moved into our criminal justice system and those who formed part of the sudden reduction in the size of our armed forces in 2010 and 2011? There are concerns that that might be part of the issue, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. There also needs to be a greater effort to tackle sexual offences in the military, and domestic violence.
The military justice system of course has a responsibility, and I appreciate that I have given the Minister a lot to think about that is not within his brief, but if we as part of wider society do not tackle the problem, we will only see it grow and continue.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) for securing the debate and for her typically thoughtful speech on an important issue. I am sorry that we have so little time today for it.
I also pay tribute to all those who serve, or who have served, in Her Majesty’s armed forces, and to the families that support them. The British armed forces are the best in the world; it is those who serve in them who make them so. The armed forces covenant reflects the huge debt that, as a society, we owe to all who serve. It is a pledge to all who have served, or are currently serving, that they will be treated fairly, looked after and not disadvantaged due to their service. I am proud to work alongside colleagues from the Ministry of Justice, across Government and on both sides of the Chamber in this important area. I particularly highlight the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I will ensure that he is aware of the points the hon. Lady made for the Ministry of Defence.
Our criminal justice system is there to do a number of things: to punish and deter those who break the law; to provide redress for victims of crime; and to protect society—in many ways, the overriding aim. In that respect, we must focus on reducing reoffending through our system by providing effective rehabilitation. That applies to all those in our custody or in the criminal justice system, regardless of background. We are determined to ensure that those in custody are held in safe and decent conditions and receive the support they need to meet their rehabilitation and physical and mental health needs.
In that context, it is right to recognise the sometimes very specific needs that former armed forces personnel in custody may have. The Ministry of Justice was pleased to welcome in 2014 the Phillips review of veterans in the criminal justice system, which looked at that issue. It highlighted that ex-military offenders have similar profiles to non-military offenders, but with multiple mental health and socioeconomic risk factors, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. We must seek to address those factors. The latest Ministry of Justice offender management statistics show that, across our 85,000 prisoners, around 3% of new receptions declared themselves as having served in the armed forces. This figure has remained fairly stable for several years.
I commend the Minister on his very accurate speech. Self-declaration is a really serious issue. Care after Combat, which is in most prisons—frankly, the big charities were not in there doing the work the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) talked about—knows that the guys and girls who go to prison, for myriad reasons, will not self-declare, even though we know they have served, because their national insurance number has a marker. When I was a Minister and sat where the Minister is sitting, I called for that situation to be reversed so that, rather than people self-declaring, they have to declare that they do not want to be declared. We must address their safety in prison; it is not just pride—some of them are at risk. I commend Care after Combat, in particular, for going into prisons and not caring what people have done, just so that it can get people back out and not reoffending.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. I pay tribute to him for his work when he was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice; if I recall correctly, he initiated the Care after Combat pilots, and I pay tribute to the work of that charity too. If I may, I will come on to that and the point about self-declaration shortly, because the hon. Lady made a powerful point about it.
We have begun gathering data on the percentage of veterans among the population of offenders in the community, because, although they are not in custody, we have an obligation to them too. The data is being analysed and will be available in due course. The statistics are important because they highlight that, although some have suggested there is an over-representation of former armed forces personnel in the criminal justice system, that does not appear to be the case. However, as the hon. Lady and others have highlighted, the statistics are vital; if we wish to help former armed forces personnel in our criminal justice system, knowing who they are and understanding them is the only way we can do that.
My strong belief is that we must emphasise that, for someone coming into the criminal justice system, their service connection is an asset, not a liability. As has been alluded to, the Ministry of Justice made changes in 2015 so that every individual coming into custody in England and Wales is asked if they have served in the armed forces. A mandated self-declaration form is also completed by the national probation service. The hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend made a powerful point about the deep pride many former armed forces personnel have in their service and in who they are, which can sometimes inhibit them from making that declaration. The hon. Lady asked if I will have another look at that issue, and I am happy to tell her that I will look into it in more detail following the points she and my right hon. Friend made. It is important to these people’s rehabilitation and reintegration into society that we know who they are, so that we can ensure that the services we provide meet their needs—for example, by addressing identified needs such as mental health issues or PTSD.
Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons noted in 2014 that 26% of ex-service personnel—those we knew about, to go back to the point about self-declaration—reported having a current mental health or emotional wellbeing problem in its survey. That statistic was similar in the general prisoner population. What was distinct for veterans in custody, however, was that they were more likely to report feeling depressed or suicidal on arrival—the figure was 18%, compared with 14%—and more likely to have a higher incidence of physical health problems.
If we do not understand the nature and extent of the problem, how can we possibly hope to address it? For an individual who has served, being able to disclose that is a step towards helping themselves as well as allowing us to help them. It opens the array of support networks available, and it draws down the social capital that that group has earned and invested in from their time in service.
Many talk about letting the services down by ending up in prison, but what lets these people down is not understanding them. A key principle in desisting from crime is that people should be able to define themselves positively. To see oneself as ex-service, not ex-offender, gives people a chance to have a positive self-view.
I am conscious of time, but I would like briefly to touch on a few of the wider changes that we are anticipating as a Government with regard to veterans generally, and on the importance of partnership working with other organisations. I also want to say a few words about Parc, which was the focus of the hon. Lady’s speech.
The veterans population is changing, and the prison population is changing. The large cohorts of ex-servicemen and women who experienced the forces as part of their national service, or who served during the cold war years, are now giving way to a much younger group who have served in recent conflicts. A much younger veterans population has different expectations of how they want to be supported. They may be more open to asking for support—for mental health problems, for instance—and possibly less concerned about where it comes from. Across Government we will try to bond together and co-ordinate the support available, but we will rely on the first-hand knowledge of networks operating at grassroots level to look at trends, use data and keep us on top of how services should be shaped and designed in future.
The hon. Lady was right to highlight the hugely important and innovative work being done at Parc. I join her in paying tribute to the staff and the team there for what they are doing—I know her visit went down very well, and they were very pleased to see her. I hope to visit Parc soon as part of a tour of a number of prisons in Wales. Partnership working is key to what they do there, not just within Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service—I hope lessons from Parc can be learned across the system—but with forces charities.
I stand behind all those working in this area, and particularly the wide range of military charities that work across the criminal justice system to provide for the specific needs of veterans, in parallel with the ongoing provision available for all offenders. Those charities include, for example, SSAFA, Forces in Mind, the Royal British Legion and, of course, Care after Combat, which my right hon. Friend mentioned. I encourage those groups to continue their networks and their work, and particularly those specific pieces of work that show us where we need to go in future. It is through the knowledge and sharing experiences of voluntary sector and service charities that we are able to continue improving services for veterans. My door is always open to them to talk to me about their work.
I will conclude, to give the hon. Lady a minute to speak if she is permitted, Mr Hollobone.
Order. I am afraid that is not permitted. We really must get the message round all Government Departments that, in a half-hour debate, the Member leading the debate does not have the right of reply. The Minister has almost one minute remaining.
I am grateful, as ever, for your sage guidance, Mr Hollobone.
I am clear that more could be learned from the Endeavour unit and the particular focus placed on targeted work with veterans. I welcome the benefits of the day-to-day peer support that former service prisoners can share, but I am cautious we do not go too far in separating individuals from the mainstream prison regime and the work that can be done in it. I am keen to explore what more can be done in this area to capture and share good practice.
I welcome the chance to take part in this debate and to play a role in representing the work that is being delivered so expertly across our prisons and probation services on behalf of those individuals who have stood up to serve their and our country. I am only sorry that time is so short. The need to work with and for that group is one that every person in this House, regardless of party, will acknowledge.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the preservation of historic battlefields.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your generous words and for chairing the debate. I chose this subject to allow other Members to contribute, as I am aware that there are historic battlefields, both on land and at sea, in or near many constituencies. This is a national issue, and it is right that it is given national attention by the Minister. However, I wish to turn my attention to a specific battlefield that is currently under threat. The battle of Bosworth is one of our nation’s most historic and important battles. It is where the last English king to be killed fighting in battle, Richard III, fell. It is where the Tudor dynasty under Henry VII was born. It truly changed the course of English history.
I must declare an interest. As the author of a book about the battle of Bosworth itself and a recent biography of Richard III, I have spent years researching the battlefield. I went from climbing rickety ladders to the top of St Margaret’s church in Stoke Golding to view the original site of the battlefield, to searching for original documentary evidence in the Vatican library. I was present at the 2010 conference at which a new location of the battlefield site was unveiled. It was demonstrated that the battlefield was far larger and stretched across a far wider area than previously thought. An expert archaeological team led by Dr Glenn Foard found nearly 40 cannonballs—the most ever found on a medieval battlefield—and the famous gilt silver boar badge, Richard III’s insignia, demonstrating that Richard’s men fought in a different location from previously thought. Those archaeological surveys of the battle, limited though they naturally were by time and resource pressures, provided a glimpse into what lies beneath the fields of Bosworth battlefield. More will surely be discovered if future archaeological investigation is allowed. Who knows what new technology will reveal in time?
The battlefield site, which is centred on Fenn Lane in what was then a marshy area known as Redemore, retains its rural setting and, crucially, provides us with an understanding of the contours and landscape of Henry Tudor’s approach to the battle on the morning of 22 August 1485. Given that we know Henry himself remained at the back of the battle as fighting began—he had never actually experienced open combat—only for Richard III to spot his standards and charge with his household cavalry towards Tudor, who was surrounded by his men, it is also likely that the final phase of the battle took place around the location of Fenn Lane.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I also congratulate him on growing a beard over the summer, in true Tudor fashion. I have received a host of emails about this matter, from Ricardians and non-Ricardians alike, which shows how much the preservation of the Bosworth battlefield matters to the public. As I think he will agree, the battle marked the transformation of this country from the middle ages to the early modern world, with all that means for our national story.
I could not agree more. I know that, aside from representing a constituency in relative proximity to the battlefields of the midlands, my hon. Friend is himself an historian and scholar and has read several books about the battle. We have talked privately about the matter, and I appreciate his input to the debate.
Henry VII was crowned at Stoke Golding and instituted a battlefield chapel at St James church in Dadlington. That indicates that the battle of Bosworth was fought in that area rather than in the traditionally accepted area of Ambion Hill, where Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre is based. Ambion Hill seems more likely to have been Richard III’s encampment the night before the battle. The fact that recent archaeological and documentary evidence demonstrates that the site of the battle was far wider and in a different place—around Fenn Lane—from the previous registered battlefield location overwhelmingly proves the need for caution in preserving the existing battlefield area and its surroundings.
However, that need is not being heeded. As the Minister will be aware, a recent planning application for an 83-acre driverless car testing track in Higham on the Hill, adjoining the Fenn Lane area, has been the subject of intense local and national opposition. Earlier this week more than 12,500 people had signed an online petition against the application, and hundreds of written objections have been submitted to the official planning process. A final decision on the application by Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council has been deferred to 25 September.
I am fully aware—I am sure the Minister will remind me—that that is a local decision that will be made by the council. I am sure the council will reflect on the overwhelming number of written submissions and the huge petition that will be submitted later this month. I want to put on the record my gratitude to the people and organisations who have been in touch with me since I secured the debate. I thank in particular the Battlefields Trust and Julian Humphrys; the historian Michael Jones; Richard Mackinder, who has been integral to some of the archaeological work on the battlefield site; and of course the Richard III Society, for their kind input to my speech. Their voices, along with those of the thousands who have expressed deep concern about what may happen to an area of the Bosworth battlefield, should be listened to closely. I hope councillors do so, for the sake of future research and knowledge about the battle. The application threatens to destroy precious historical material that I believe should be preserved.
We must recognise the national precedent that the local application risks setting, and ask ourselves how we managed to get into a situation in which a battlefield of historic national importance is threatened in this manner. It is worth considering the current national framework for the recognition and preservation of battlefields. Battlefield sites in England are material considerations in the planning process, and they are designated by Historic England and put on the register of historic battlefields under powers conferred by the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953, as amended. Although that legislation does not confer a specific responsibility to create a register of battlefields, one was created in 1995 by a joint project of English Heritage, the National Army Museum and the Battlefields Trust. In 2011 that register was incorporated into the national heritage list for England, which is administered by Historic England.
In Scotland, an inventory of historic battlefields was introduced in 2009. It is compiled by Historic Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Ministers under the Historic Environment (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2011, which followed the Scottish historic environment policy of July 2009. Further guidance was issued in March 2011.
Since 1995, 47 battlefields in England have been designated as registered battlefields by Historic England—previously called English Heritage. Under planning legislation, the effect on the site and setting of a registered battlefield should be a material consideration for any proposed development. Planning policy statement 5, “Planning for the Historic Environment”, states that there should be a presumption in favour of the conservation of designated historic assets, and that local authorities should assess whether the benefits of an application for development outweigh the disbenefits. It also recognises that many historic assets are not currently designated and that, despite that, there should be a presumption in favour of conservation such that substantial harm to, or loss of, the battlefield should be “wholly exceptional”.
Several issues with the legal status quo deserve to be reconsidered. Substantial harm to a battlefield location should be “wholly exceptional”, but what of “minor harm”? Notwithstanding that those definitions are entirely subjective, a series of planning applications granted over a period of time may individually be defined as causing only minor harm, but in combination may cause incremental damage that is defined as substantial harm. The culture of permissiveness in our planning process allows for historic sites to be substantially eroded without the law ever being broken. Over time, subjective decisions that encroach on an historic battlefield site create an objective reality of destruction. No one would suggest that to take a single stone from Stonehenge would be considered minor harm, for clearly that would not be the case. One stone of many, once taken, would permanently alter the appearance and the historic preservation of the site.
Perhaps one of the long-standing issues with getting battlefield preservation taken seriously is that so much of it is not visible to the naked eye. The dead, their remains and their relics are buried, so we are faced with what is unknown rather than what is known. If we knew what was there hidden beneath the fields, we would preserve it; yet not knowing currently allows for battlefields to be thrown into the mix of the planning process. To argue that just 1% of a battlefield might be affected by a development is entirely to miss the point. That could be the 1% of a battlefield that witnessed the most important stages of combat or may yield archaeological treasures of national importance, just as the discovery of the Bosworth boar demonstrated.
In the past, planning and development were dealt with with consideration for battlefield heritage by the then English Heritage battlefields panel, a non-executive specialist panel that advised the organisation on policy and practice and included membership of organisations such as the Battlefields Trust. Yet following the establishment of Historic England, that specialist panel was disbanded. Will the Minister consider either writing to, or convening a meeting with, Historic England to see whether the panel could be re-established? Will he also investigate whether the Battlefields Trust could be registered as a statutory consultee when it comes to any planning applications within the area of registered battlefield sites? Currently it is not, which has resulted in the trust becoming aware of the planning application at Bosworth only at a very late stage, placing the battlefield at risk. It would have made sense for it to have been consulted and indeed advised earlier on in the planning process.
Finally, there is the issue of the boundary of the registered battlefield site to consider and whether the register meets all of the preservation needs of historic battlefields. Bosworth battlefield has been on that register since its inception in 1995, originally as an area of 632 hectares. That has been expanded to 1,072 hectares, together with an extended area of newly located battlefield agreed by the English Heritage battlefields panel in July 2011 and formally adopted in June 2013 following an extended consultation period.
In addition, the battlefield has its own conservation plan—effectively a form of local plan—drawn up by Leicestershire County Council and approved by the local planning authority, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council, for use as part of the evidence base for its local plan. The conservation management plan includes a set of guiding principles and policies intended for those involved in the management of the battlefield area, including those dealing with recreational activity, land management and planning matters.
It is interesting to note that in the plan, policies were drawn up to
“ensure that topographic views across the Battlefield and within its setting are conserved and managed in order to protect significance enabling understanding and interpretation”
and also to ensure that
“any new development within the area and its setting does not have an adverse visual or landscape impact on the special qualities of the area, and that existing development which detracts from the area, where appropriate, is mitigated”.
One might ask whether that conservation plan was not being mitigated by the current planning application, which indeed seems to run contrary to those policies. That is for Hinckley and Bosworth borough councillors to decide on 25 September, but councillors can be responsible only for implementing and adhering to existing legal guidance and frameworks as they stand in the national planning policy framework.
The current guidance and frameworks clearly do not afford historic battlefields adequate protection against development and destruction; hence we are faced with this important test case at Bosworth. I have called this debate today because this issue is of national significance. It is time to think again and revisit the entire topic of how battlefields are protected through the register of historic battlefields, and indeed the spatial limit in which the register itself self-defines battlefields. The register was first created over 23 years ago, and it is perhaps worth reflecting on the massive advances in battlefield archaeology and heritage studies since then. A review of how we could best preserve our historic battlefields and landscapes should be considered. Just as we have areas of outstanding natural beauty, it is worth considering whether for the future we should be creating areas of national historic importance that would recognise historic sites and their surroundings as areas that we wish—and need—to conserve for the future, just as we do with parks. I urge the Minister to consider my suggestion for a review. Perhaps he would be kind enough to consult his Department and see whether that might be possible.
Bosworth is the battlefield under threat today but, while the current legal framework continues, no doubt there will be others. To build over one part of a battlefield site threatens to set a precedent of permissiveness that could erode our ability to protect our battlefields across the country. We should plant our standard squarely on preserving Bosworth and its heritage, both past and yet to be discovered.
Order. The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than seven minutes past 5. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the Minister would leave three minutes at the end for the mover of the debate to sum up, that would be great. Four Members are seeking to contribute and we have 20 minutes, so I impose a five- minute limit.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on bringing the issue to Westminster Hall. I feel strongly about the preservation of culture and history. As an Orangeman, as a member of the Royal Black Preceptory and as an Apprentice Boy of Derry, I have a sincere and real interest in our history. The Chamber will be glad to hear that I will not sing the historic song “The Sash”, but I will refer to the four important battles that took place to enable King William to overthrow the pretender James and his Jacobite army in what was then Ireland at the battle of the Boyne.
“It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.”
I could sing that, to everyone’s pleasure—but I am not sure that is the right word, so I will not do it.
There has been European funding successfully to preserve and build on the history of these monumental battle sites at the Boyne, with an incredibly impressive museum and guided tour of the site providing lots of information for the tourist and the historian alike. There are also museums aplenty in Londonderry to mark these historic events. However, in my opinion in Enniskillen we do not do justice to what was surely a turning point in the Williamite wars. In Enniskillen, armed Williamite civilians drawn from the local Protestant population organised a formidable irregular military force. The armed civilians of Enniskillen ignored an order from Robert Lundy that they should fall back to Londonderry and instead launched guerrilla attacks against the Jacobites. Operating with Enniskillen as a base, they carried out raids against the Jacobite forces in Connacht and Ulster, plundering Trillick, burning Augher Castle and raiding Clones.
A poorly trained Jacobite army of about 3,000 men, led by Viscount Mountcashel, advanced from Dublin. McCarthy’s men were mostly recruits, but on 28 July 1689 McCarthy’s force encamped near Enniskillen and bombarded the Williamite outpost of Crom Castle—better known as Crom. Two days later, they were confronted— and vastly outnumbered—by about 2,000 Williamite Enniskilleners under Colonel Berry, Colonel William Wolseley and Gustav Hamilton. The Jacobite dragoons under Anthony Hamilton stumbled into an ambush, taking some 230 casualties. Mountcashel managed to drive off Berry’s cavalry with his main force, but unwisely McCarthy halted and drew up his men about a mile south of Newtownbutler.
Many of the Jacobite troops fled as the first shots were fired, and up to 1,500 of the 3,000 were hacked down or drowned—500 tried to swim across the lough, but only one survived. Four hundred Jacobite officers were captured and later exchanged for Williamite prisoners. The other Jacobites were killed. Mountcashel was wounded by a bullet and narrowly avoided being killed. He went on to command the Irish brigade in the French army. That victory at Newtownbutler ensured that a landing by the Duke of Schomberg in County Down in August 1689 was unopposed.
That pivotal battle in the history of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and what was then Ireland deserves a museum. The hon. Gentleman made his case for Bosworth, and I am making mine for Enniskillen. When I was first elected to this place, my parliamentary aide was particularly excited just to walk around this place. She loves history, as I do; in all honesty, it was probably the only subject at school that I excelled in and enjoyed. With two little ones at home, she does not find the time to do that now, but when she comes over here she particularly enjoys it. The history of what is now Northern Ireland is just as rich, yet it is not marketed well. We must do more to attract people to the area. Enniskillen has some of the most beautiful landscape—aside from, of course, my own Strangford constituency—and its history is rich, but when we do a Google search of the battle we find no links whatever to anything that would draw people there.
We can do better. While we must physically preserve, we must also preserve interest, and that is done by making it interesting to new generations. The Orange Order, of which I am a proud member, does its part, but I believe there must be more funding available to commemorate such important sites, and interactive learning to make them as compelling to young people now as they are to this old boy here—I was a young boy at one time. It is important to do that.
I think of the Americans, who love coming over to enjoy the history and to celebrate their short history, when they look toward Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for their historical background. I think how rich we are in culture and heritage, and it excites me to think what else we can do. I look forward to the Minister’s contribution and his endorsement of all the historic battle sites across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I put it to him and his team that they must determine the next steps not simply of preservation, but of enhancement of our history and our culture. The battles of Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne were important battles. The battle of the Boyne was the one that changed history for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but Enniskillen has never been looked after.
I speak as the Member for the constituency concerned, as I have been proudly for 30 years, when I say to the House that this is a battle between ancient and modern; it is about preserving the old or progressing the new. The old that we are talking about is only 1% of the battlefield, and the boundary of the battlefield was recently moved. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), whose excellent book “Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors” I happen to have with me as a guide, is a historian and spoke passionately for the nation as a whole on changing the rules, but I must tell him that local opinion is not with him on this question.
I applaud Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council for calling this in to see what is possible, but we must be clear about this. The MIRA technology park, which has 35 international companies and will employ 1,000 engineers over the next seven years, needs the connected and autonomous vehicle testing track. I was there on 28 July for the Queen’s Award for Enterprise. It was a memorable occasion, since it is not often one sees a Lord Lieutenant in a yellow jacket driving a JCB; we had a very entertaining day, and I was able to talk to the senior employees, some of whom had flown in from Japan, about the importance of the project. I am not sure I see how that new track can be built anywhere other than at the location currently designated.
I point out to my hon. Friend that Historic England has agreed that the site will have no physical impact on the key parts of the battlefield. There is apparently limited harm to the varied archaeological sites there. There have already been 10 pieces of work, including geological surveys, trial trenching, metal detecting and an assessment of the battlefield setting. I would not object and I am sure MIRA will not object to looking at my hon. Friend’s suggestions; nevertheless, studies have been undertaken. Furthermore, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council, in connection with the county council and other authorities, is looking at a nature trail with six points throughout the battlefield to explain what happened there, which is an important part of our national heritage.
We must also bear in mind, however, that at MIRA, which is on the A5 boundary and almost straddles the east and west midlands, we have an £80 million investment twice over from Horiba. I spoke to both Takeshi Fukushima, the chairman of MIRA, and Masayuki Adachi, the president and chief executive officer of Horiba. We must understand that this is a multinational business, developing batteries and computer-aided connected and autonomous vehicles all across the world. It is critically important for the future not just of my constituency, but of the east midlands, the west midlands and the nation as a whole that this goes forward.
Today I was at a breakfast meeting at quarter to 8 at the Department for International Trade, at which the Secretary of State pointed out that we are still the fifth biggest economy in the world and the world’s fastest growing and most successful high-tech market. He also talked about TP11—the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—in connection with post-Brexit trading arrangements; I know my hon. Friend who is chairing this debate will be pleased to hear about building trade deals with 11 Asian countries. We have to be the centre here; we do not want it to go anywhere else. I am indebted to local people I know well who have said to me that local people want it. I quote a friend of mine, Stan Rooney, a former borough councillor who is now chairman of a parish council, who said:
“A technology ‘war’ is being fought currently to develop the technology and only this week Chrysler Automobiles US have announced they are to build an identical facility costing £23m.”
That is, identical to MIRA. I agree with him when he says:
“Time is of the essence!”
I commend the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing the debate. He was right to talk at the start about the need to preserve our historic battlefields not only on land, but at sea. I feel that I have strayed into a very polite tussle between two Conservative Members, so hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I wish to restrict my remarks to talking about protection of other historic battlefields, including those at sea and in particular shipwrecks, rather than taking a side in this most polite of fracas.
The area I represent has its own historic battlefield in Freedom fields, where Plymouth parliamentarians fought off the cavaliers in the Sabbath Day fight, ensuring that Plymouth remained on the side of the parliamentarians in the English civil war. We also have many memorials to those sailors who died at sea. In particular, I will talk about the wrecks from the first and second world wars as part of our historic battlefields theme, because it is important that those people who died far away from our shores are remembered with the same fondness and receive the same level of protection as those who died on UK soil.
The issue of historic wrecks was picked up by the Defence Secretary over the summer, and his intervention was very welcome. Since entering this place last June, I have been raising the issue of HMS Exeter in particular, a Devonport-based warship that was sunk with a number of other Royal Navy warships in an engagement with the Japanese in the Java sea during the second world war. When she sank, some of her crew were taken to a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and their experiences after that are well known, but there are many people who died on board HMS Exeter, in sealed compartments. She sank to the bottom of the sea and that was supposed to be where she would rest.
That has not been the case, however, because there has been illegal salvage of HMS Exeter. We no longer have an HMS Exeter in the Java sea, because she has been completely salvaged and completely removed, including the remains of the Royal Navy sailors who died on board. There have been many stories in the press over the past couple of years about the remains of those people who perished on board HMS Exeter, as well as her sister ships, HMS Encounter and HMS Electra, being thrown into mass graves or discarded overboard when she was lost. The same focus on protecting our historic battlefields must also apply to those that are far from our sight, particularly in areas where we previously had a presence but no longer do, in order to keep up the protection of those sites.
The Dutch Government have done much work on the protection of the flotilla that HMS Exeter was part of, because of the loss of a number of Dutch warships, and the Dutch Parliament in particular has been putting pressure on its Government to do that. We in this place can learn a lot from them about how we can keep pressure on Ministers, because I do not believe that the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office have been as thorough as their Dutch counterparts in protecting those wrecks. In particular, teams that went to investigate reports of British sailors being dumped in mass graves were sent by the Dutch Government, not the UK Government. We have a lot to thank our Dutch cousins for. I particularly thank Captain Smitt, the Dutch defence and naval attaché in London, for his correspondence and for keeping us informed of how those remains are being preserved.
The simple truth is that we do not know where the remains of the sailors who died on HMS Exeter are. They could be on the seabed around her previous site, or they could have been taken on land when the sealed compartments of HMS Exeter would hoisted on to salvage vessels—we simply do not know. My challenge to the Minister, as part of a discussion of how we protect our historic battlefields, is to make sure that we monitor those lost wrecks not only for oil pollution but for illegal salvage. That should be a cross-departmental joint endeavour between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office.
Can we also start to create public awareness of historic battle sites, either on land or lost wrecks—both from the Royal Navy and, importantly, from the merchant navy, which lost many more ships at sea? Will the Minister think about creating an equivalent of UNESCO’s register of at-risk world heritage sites for wrecks abroad? Several UK bodies keep a list of our wrecks and those that are in danger, raising awareness of at-risk wrecks and, importantly, where the remains of Royal Navy sailors who died in service to our country on those ships may be disturbed or not treated with dignity or respect. That should be looked at, and I will be grateful if the Minister will cover that in his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank and pay tribute to my very good friend and constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), for securing this important debate and, predictably, for an interesting and brilliant speech.
I am an ardent lover of battlefields and their powerful history. Whenever I travel to Europe and the middle east, for instance, I invariably end up looking for an historic battle site. I enjoy searching for them and relish finding them. They are inspirational places of heroism, honour and sacrifice. The United Kingdom has a wonderful native array of battlefields from across the span of history. Historic England lists 47 battlefields on its national heritage list, but the Battlefields Trust calculates that there are more than 500 battlefields or sites of conflict across the United Kingdom. They range from the obvious—castles and city walls—to culturally important targets of Viking raids, such as monasteries and ports, and from well-defined battle sites to more vaguely understood sites where there is record of a conflict.
Indeed, Little Solsbury Hill, overlooking Bath—about 12 miles from my constituency—has been identified by historians as a possible site for the battle of Badon Hill, in which, during the 5th century, a British Arthur-like figure led the resistance to the Saxons invading from the east. It is a beautiful site and it is well worth a walk to the top of the hill.
The castles and cities that saw important sieges and struggles, from the Norman conquest, through the wars of the roses and into the civil war, are already well protected from inappropriate development or destruction. However, although battlefields are just fields, they are culturally significant and are often filled to the brim with interesting and vital archaeological remains, but as we saw with the recent proposal to build on part of the site of the battle of Bosworth, people do not always treat them as valuable, historic sites.
More than that, battlefields have a number of concerns that built history does not, and it is not only the physical location of a battlefield that needs protection. Visitors and researchers alike can gain a wealth of information from visiting the site of a battle. To truly preserve them, we need to preserve the topography, the fields of view and the setting of the field. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, all those features were of great importance to the armies and commanders who fought on the field, and all are of interest to anyone seeking to understand how and why they fought where they did and the impact of territory and strategic points. As Winston Churchill said, one must “tread the terrain” to really understand a battlefield.
That is true of Landsdown Hill, the closest of the Historic England battlefields to my constituency. The 1643 battle there was a key part of the parliamentary defence of Bath, and so the whole strategic defence of our capital. Royalist forces and Cornish pikemen sought to force parliamentarian forces from the hill. I hope the parliamentarians here are pleased to hear that they failed against the steep slope and the protected position that parliamentary forces held on the top of the hill. Both sides retreated under darkness but, importantly, Bath was saved.
There is already a monument to Sir Bevil Grenville—erected before enlisted soldiers were commemorated—but the value of the battlefield is much greater than just the monument. To understand the history of Lansdown Hill, one needs to be able to see that it overlooks Bath, how steep the ascent was for men who had spent the day harassed by fast-moving cavalry and how easy it was for armed men to shelter at the top of the hill.
Lansdown Hill is not at any immediate risk. Historic England’s entry on the national heritage list for the hill makes for reassuring reading:
“The landscape of 1643 had much in common with that of today… Two key viewpoints are publicly accessible and a complete circuit can be achieved from public highways and footpaths.”
That is what the protection of battlefields has to look like: not only access to a restricted section of history, but freedom to enjoy and experience historic landscapes as they were used by the people—the men—who literally put them on the map.
The case of Bosworth Field is shocking not only because of the potential ruination of a battlefield, but because of the key role that that particular battle played in our nation’s story, and because it ignored the warnings of recent history. As my hon. Friend said, any building on recognised battle sites will disturb archeologically important remains, whether bodies, weapons or just material evidence of the armies that fought there. That not only is a risk to academic research into these battles, but will damage education across the school system. The new history GCSE encourages children to understand our nation’s history better and includes a requirement to study a local historic site, explicitly including battlefields.
I hope that hon. Members will forgive me, because I have cut a lot out of my speech. I hope that the battlefield at Bosworth remains protected and undisturbed. I also very much hope that the Minister will acknowledge that some larger good could come out of this, with developers and councils all across the country coming to value our incredible heritage more and understanding why it has to be preserved.
It is, as always, a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) was due to respond on behalf of the Scottish National party but has unfortunately been called away on constituency business, so I am afraid that the House will have to contend with my response.
It has been a thoughtful debate, and it has been very interesting to observe. It started with the contribution from the hon. Member for Kingswood, who is clearly a well-respected historian and author—I think you said he was perhaps “dangerously overqualified” to speak in the debate, Mr Hollobone. It was a real pleasure to listen to him. He spoke very passionately about the situation in Bosworth and the number of people who objected to the development there. The hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) obviously takes a different view. It is difficult enough to comment on what is essentially a live planning application, but when two hon. Members from the same party disagree on the issue, it is very much a debate in which I wish I could take a step back.
There was then an interesting contribution from hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a very dear friend of mine. I was somewhat relieved when he decided it would probably be in his best interest not to recite “The Sash”. As a western Scotland politician, I will make no further comment on that. None the less, he spoke passionately about Enniskillen and the battle of the Boyne.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) spoke passionately about HMS Exeter and made what I thought were fairly reasonable asks of the Minister, which I am sure he is hoping for a positive response to. I do not think it is beyond the wit of man for the Minister to look at those. We also heard from the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who spoke about his love of battlefields and who waded in a little to support the hon. Member for Kingswood. Based strictly on how many Members spoke to it, the cause of the hon. Member for Kingswood is probably winning.
The SNP is committed to the stabilisation and preservation of all archaeological and historic sites, and we encourage all their owners and managers to contribute towards the improvement of their condition. Last year Scotland celebrated the year of history, heritage and archaeology, marking the country’s rich historic environment and past. Scotland’s first historic environment strategy was published in 2014 and set out a vision, definition and desired outcomes for a rich, historic environment, and it provides a framework within which organisations can work together to achieve positive outcomes. Historic Scotland also provides grants and funding to projects that aim to protect and promote Scotland’s historic environment.
I will not comment on the situation with the A9 and Killiecrankie battlefield, because the issue is ongoing and the Scottish Government are giving it consideration. However, if hon. Members have not made one already, I would strongly recommend a trip to the Bannockburn heritage centre in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). There is great debate about where that battle actually took place. I think that most historians would acknowledge that it did not take place on the site where the heritage centre is, but it is well worth a visit.
I am conscious of time and of perhaps being a bit of an intruder in this debate, so I will conclude by saying that we must always ensure that we preserve and cherish our historic battlefields for the generations to come, because to do otherwise is historical and archaeological vandalism, which in my view is unforgivable.
We have had a very good debate—at least for the part that I could hear above the sound of the noisy heater directly behind me, which I am told engineers are being sent to try to fix for future debates. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate. We all know of his expertise in this subject and are all greatly informed whenever he makes an intervention about historical matters in the House. We all would have enjoyed, I am sure, hearing much more about his research and not just the planning difficulties around the Bosworth Field site. He made the very good suggestion that it was perhaps time to review the subject again and think about creating areas of national historic importance, and I know that the Minister will want to reflect on that.
We had a very good contribution, as ever, from my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who once again informed us in some detail about the historical background to the situation in Ulster. We heard from the hon. Member for Bosworth itself (David Tredinnick), who, perhaps surprisingly to some of us, was not in favour of the points made by the hon. Member for Kingswood, but made his own points about the important economic contribution that the development proposed there would make to the area.
We had a very good contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who rightly reminded us of the importance of battlefields at sea and made the very good and sensible proposal of an at-risk register for wrecks. Again, the Government should consider that. Finally from the Back Benches, the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) told us about important battlefields around his constituency, including around Solsbury Hill, that very beautiful area around Bath, and described how brave British warriors all those years ago—centuries ago—tried to see off European invaders known as Anglo-Saxons, who are still with us to this day, despite those brave efforts at the time.
It is a great pleasure to me, as a former history teacher, to speak on this subject, but I am very grateful to my work experience student, Sophie Lewis, who will shortly be going to Oxford to study history and English, for her help in researching for today’s debate.
Battlefields act as a visual reminder of events in the past that have shaped our culture. Winston Churchill once described battles as
“the punctuation marks of history”.
The presence of historic sites such as Bosworth reminds us that we are ultimately a product of all those past events and conflicts. Our heritage as a nation enriches our culture, underpinning so much of who we are and how we think of ourselves today. These are places that should, wherever possible, be preserved so that we can visit them and ponder on the meaning of them to us today.
As we have heard, however, battlefields are vulnerable to modern-day pressures. The most recent publication of the “Heritage at Risk” register, in 2017, showed that 8.7% of 46 registered battlefields in England are at risk—eight battlefields are under threat from development, 16 sites are endangered by arable cultivation, and 10 sites have been subjected to unregulated metal detecting. As we have heard, the establishment of the register of historic battlefields in 1995 was a very important step in the protection of our battlefields. As has been mentioned, the work of the Battlefields Trust and English Heritage, as well as the agencies in the nations of the UK, has been significant in advocating for the preservation of battlefields, but local authorities have a role to play, too.
The economic and historical consequences of neglect of battlefields should not be ignored. Tourism is closely linked—directly linked—with heritage sites, so preserving them will encourage the tourism industry and there are economic benefits to be considered. In addition, historical inquiry and archaeological study give us a greater insight into anthropology, providing us with a more complete understanding of the battles that forged our history and the people we are as a result. The revolution in archaeology in recent times has extended our knowledge, so we must allow room for that to continue.
Our own political role here in the Houses of Parliament has been influenced by these battles, including during the civil war. In my own constituency of Cardiff West, an important battle of the second civil war took place at St Fagans in May 1648, when parliamentary forces, I am glad to say, routed the royalists, killing 200 troops and taking 3,000 prisoners. In the space of 20 years, Britain experienced regicide, a republic and military rule. Things culminated in the trial in this very building of King Charles I and his execution just a quarter of a mile up the road from here. These events are reflective of wider issues that we face today: the fight for representation and democracy and disagreements on policy and the devolution of power.
In the case of Bosworth Field, the hon. Member for Kingswood has raised his concerns as a historian about the application to construct a connected and autonomous vehicle testing track. In Shakespeare’s version of the battle, Richard III cried out in anguish:
“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”
He did not cry, “A driverless car, a driverless car, my kingdom for an autonomous vehicle.” Technological progress is important, but not at the expense of our essential heritage. When the Welshman Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven and marched through Wales under the standard of the red dragon to seize the English throne from Richard III, he ushered in what others have said is the modern era of our history. I hope that, in considering that application, the local authority will take that longer view. This site of a major turning point in history should not be tarmacked over to create a literal turning point for cars and lorries with no one at the wheel. As the Minister in theory is at the wheel here today, can he tell us what he will do to protect our heritage in this case and for historic battlefields in general? He ought not, as the hon. Member for Kingswood said at the outset, to consult and see whether it is possible to do something, but do what Ministers should do: act, and instruct his officials to do so.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your chairmanship today. My sincere thanks go to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for introducing the debate on this important issue and to all hon. Members for their valuable input and contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood is, as has already been said, a world-class expert in this area. His opinion is extremely authoritative; of that there is no doubt.
As the Minister responsible for arts, heritage and tourism, I am always heartened to see the passion and vigour that our nation’s heritage evokes. England—in fact, the whole United Kingdom—is fortunate not to have borne frequent witness, if one can put it that way, to the many pitched battles that have marked so many other landscapes worldwide, but that means that our historic battlefields are all the more precious and unique. Wherever they are located, historic battlefields provide an important anchor to the evolution of this country. They are a reminder of our past.
The conservation of historic battlefields is therefore integral to understanding this country’s heritage. They are currently conserved, of course, through our planning system. Their significance is highlighted by their inclusion in the register of historic battlefields, maintained by Historic England. For inclusion on that register, an historic battlefield must be historically significant and its location and boundaries should be well attested and beyond reasonable doubt. The determination of planning proposals that may impact on registered battlefields is the responsibility of local authorities across the country, unless, of course, the decisions are called in by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. It is imperative that local decisions and solutions, tailored to the unique circumstances, are reached in a way that is accountable and accessible to local residents. It is a local issue prima facie and one that local authorities should be accountable for.
Any appeals to the planning process are made to the Planning Inspectorate and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. While I am extremely interested in the future of our registered battlefields, it would be inappropriate for any Minister to comment on individual planning decisions at this stage. None the less, I want to assure hon. Members that the current scheme for registered historic battlefields is robust and affords these battlefields a good degree of protection.
The national planning policy framework indicates that local planning authorities should give great weight to the conservation of heritage assets of the highest significance, such as registered battlefields. Any proposals there may be should seek to avoid or minimise, wherever possible, any conflict between conservation and development. The NPPF indicates that substantial harm or the total loss of registered battlefields should be wholly exceptional. Where a development proposal involves less than substantial harm to such a battlefield, the relevant local planning authorities should weigh that harm against any public benefit of the proposed development. We have heard different viewpoints in the debate, which exemplify the issue of harm and benefit. Short-term benefits are not, were not and will never be an acceptable reason to damage our national heritage.
The aim of the register of historic battlefields is to ensure that reminders of our past are sustained and enhanced, to preserve them for generations to come. I am therefore delighted to report that, of the 47 registered battlefields, the vast majority—43—are not deemed to be at any risk at all. I am proud to say that, in the past two years, two battlefields have been removed from the list of those at risk, due to the diligent and effective collaboration between Historic England and local authorities.
I appreciate the Minister is delivering a speech. He had my speech in advance so that he was able to reflect on my points. I would be grateful if he would address some of the specific questions I asked of him in terms of being able to look at the expertise, because it is clear from my speech that Historic England does not have that expertise and that we need to restore the battlefield committee.
Given the allotted time, I will address those points in a moment.
Historic England offers its expertise pre-application and once a planning application has been made. In all instances, it ensures that a thorough and complete assessment of any risk to the battlefield is made and provides that advice to the local planning authority. It then lies with the local planning authority to make a decision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood spoke about the recent application to expand a test centre for autonomous vehicles near Bosworth battlefield. I reiterate that, while it is inappropriate for me to comment on local planning matters, I trust and expect that, in every case, the local planning authority will carefully balance the benefits of development against the harm. That said, I hope he will be pleased to hear that Historic England and Leicestershire County Council were able to agree a comprehensive new conservation management plan in 2013, which has helped to ensure development with limited public benefit has been avoided, while allowing improvements to the visitor centre and other features that enhance the historic appreciation of the battlefield.
I fully understand the concern hon. Members have for the other battlefields deemed at risk by Historic England. I want to reassure the House that Historic England has engaged with local authorities wherever our national heritage is under threat and continues to do so. While it is ultimately the decision of local planners, I commend the collaboration between Historic England and local partners that resulted in two of the at-risk battlefields—Stamford Bridge and the site of the first battle of Newbury—being removed from the register in 2016.
I note my hon. Friend’s comments on a possible review around the future preservation of historic battlefields, which I aim to discuss with my officials and Historic England. On his point about the previous existence of a register, the panel was amalgamated some years ago, which is why we are where we are now with the register of historic battlefields. So I think that issue is covered, but we will continue to look at it.
I will talk to my officials about my hon. Friend’s request concerning the Battlefield Trust’s role as a statutory consultee and ask them to discuss the proposal with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Additionally, I am happy to look at the proposals for areas of national historic importance, and I will write to him about that.
I am conscious of my hon. Friend’s point about incremental change causing harm to battlefields and the point made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) about other sites. It is crucial that sites, including maritime sites, are respected, cherished and revered. While my hon. Friend is right to be concerned about incremental harm, the scale of proposed development does not mean that its impacts are downplayed.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I have every faith that our historic battlefields will continue to be conserved in an appropriate and steadfast manner. Where issues arise, I expect local authorities will seek to conserve our treasured national assets and ensure they are protected for future generations to enjoy. I hope we can work together to conserve and advocate for these important, cherished reminders of our national heritage.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick), who has been incredibly gracious in allowing me to have this debate on what could be considered a constituency matter. We have spoken about it, and it is obviously also a matter of national significance. I am grateful for his permission to speak today. I also thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), as well as my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti). It is indicative of the passion that our heritage brings out across the entire United Kingdom that most of the major parties have been present.
When it comes to the Scots, I remind the hon. Member for Glasgow East that 500 Scots fought on Henry Tudor’s side under Bernard d’Aubigny at the battle of Bosworth, but Scots also fought on Richard III’s side, so they were fairly canny in splitting their allegiances. A Scot called MacGregor stole Richard III’s crown the night before that battle.
We have had an important debate, and I am grateful to the Minister for taking away some of the points I have raised. I will not repeat myself, but I underline that there are inadequacies in the legal framework as it stands. Most of the land in my constituency is protected by having the status of green-belt land, so no development can take place on it, yet a battlefield of historic national importance does not have the same protection in the planning process. I wonder whether it is time to revisit that. These sites are a crucial part of our heritage. Once they are gone, they are gone—once they are built over, they are built over—and we will no longer have the ability to look archaeologically at what might have taken place there.
I urge councillors to vote down the planning application on 25 September, but if it goes through, I hope that they will hold MIRA to account in ensuring that there is the maximum possible investment in archaeological surveys, which have not been fully conducted—there need to be a minimum of two full archaeological surveys on that land—and extra investment for a possible digital recreation of the battlefield site. That is very much a second-best option; I am still absolutely determined that the site of the battle of Bosworth should be protected.
The issue is about what we value in this country. When it comes to the dichotomy between the future and the past, there is money to be made in heritage. Leicester City Council estimates that £45 million was raised as a result of Richard III’s body being dug out of the tarmac, and I find it bizarre that having dug up a king and generated a huge amount of tourism revenue in the city, we are now about to tarmac over part of the battle of Bosworth, which I would argue against.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the preservation of historic battlefields.