17 Jan 2012 : Column 595

17 Jan 2012 : Column 595

House of Commons

Tuesday 17 January 2012

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


Business Before Questions

London Local Authorities Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Further consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Wednesday 25 January at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).

London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Second Readings opposed and deferred until Tuesday 24 January (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Shaker Aamer

1. Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): What recent progress he has made towards securing the release of Shaker Aamer from Guantanamo Bay. [89805]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): The British Government remain committed to securing Shaker Aamer’s release and return to the United Kingdom. I raised his case again with Secretary Clinton during my visit to Washington on 12 December. My officials are currently exploring the new US legislation on detainee transfers for the implications for this case.

Jane Ellison: I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer and for the continued efforts of the Government on Mr Aamer’s behalf. Obviously, it has been 10 years so I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary could say more to the House about what he considers to be the roadblocks to release and whether he has given any consideration to asking international bodies, such as the United Nations, to support the British Government in their efforts to release Mr Aamer.

Mr Hague: This is a matter for the United States, not for international authorities. My hon. Friend is aware of the difficulties; there have been no transfers out from Guantanamo since the National Defence Authorisation

17 Jan 2012 : Column 596

Act, passed in 2010, all but precluded transfers from Guantanamo Bay. The Act has recently been renewed for 2012, with some amendments, which is why we are looking at its implications. We have asked about Mr Aamer’s health and welfare, and have been assured that he is in reasonable health, has access to medical treatment and is not held in solitary confinement.

International Conference on Afghanistan

3. Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the outcome of the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn; and if he will make a statement. [89807]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): The Bonn conference, which I attended last month, reaffirmed the international community’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan after 2014, through economic support, a plan for funding the Afghan national security forces and a clear set of principles for reconciliation. The Afghan Government committed themselves to progressing their development priorities and upholding their human rights obligations.

Susan Elan Jones: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his response. Can he tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that women’s human rights are maintained when UK and US troops are drawn down?

Mr Hague: We gave a great deal of attention to that at the Bonn conference. The ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas attended the civil society events, and I am pleased to say that 50% of the Afghan delegation to the civil society forum were female and a leading female civil society representative presented views at the main conference. The importance of the rights of women and their involvement was centre stage at the Bonn conference, and we assisted in that process.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): The Government’s stated policy objective in Afghanistan is to deny al-Qaeda and other extremists bases from which they can attack the UK and other British interests. In a letter to me of 6 December, copied to the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, referring to the threat from al-Qaeda, said that

“while the threat is not on the scale it once was…it does nevertheless remain a serious concern.”

Does that, which can only be interpreted as a downgrading of the threat in Afghanistan, have any impact on the timetable for withdrawal?

Mr Hague: We hope all the time that we are making progress against the threat in Afghanistan, and there is no doubt that in recent times al-Qaeda has suffered very serious damage and setbacks in Afghanistan and its vicinity. That threat is not over, as my hon. Friend was saying, but our efforts to improve security in Afghanistan continue, and it is a combination of our assessment of that threat and the need for continued political progress in Afghanistan to stabilise its regions. It is our assessment of a combination of all those factors that leads to our decisions on troop levels, with a decision for 2012, which we recently announced.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 597

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): The developmental teams that will remain after the British military ceases operations in Afghanistan are in danger of becoming top targets for insurgents. Did my right hon. Friend receive any indication from his American counterparts that they envisaged retaining some military capability in strategic bases in Afghanistan after 2014?

Mr Hague: The military position after 2014 is under discussion. Indeed, I discussed it this morning with General Allen, commander of the international security assistance force, and important decisions will be made at the NATO summit in Chicago in May next year. We do not envisage that development work in Afghanistan will be without security after 2014. As my hon. Friend knows, we are building up Afghan forces, which are several hundred thousand-strong, in addition to the potential for military co-operation from other states. The position on that will become clearer after the NATO meeting in Chicago.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The threat from al-Qaeda and the training that takes place in Pakistan is high. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Pakistani authorities to reduce the threat of al-Qaeda crossing the border into Afghanistan?

Mr Hague: We are always in discussion with Pakistan about that subject, and I have many discussions with the Pakistani Foreign Minister about it. We have regular contact at military level, as well as between the Prime Minister of our country and the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Pakistan’s own long struggle against terrorism is always high on that agenda, and we should recognise the efforts that it has made in that regard: huge numbers—perhaps 30,000 people—have died as a result of terrorist activity in Pakistan over the past 10 years. We look to Pakistan to maintain those efforts.

National Emergency

4. Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What his role would be in a national emergency. [89808]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): I would support the Prime Minister and the Government in their response, particularly in an international dimension.

Mr Bone: The Foreign Secretary might have a problem with that. Is it true that under Government contingency plans if the Prime Minister were killed in a terrorist attack it would be the Foreign Secretary who took charge of the Government until the Queen could choose a new Prime Minister?

Mr Hague: I can assure my hon. Friend that continuity of government plans are in place to deal with any catastrophic destabilising incident. I know that he has asked the same question of my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, and the answer is the same: we do not consider it appropriate to talk about these plans in public, but I can assure him that arrangements are in place for any such contingency. I cannot guarantee that there will be a place in the bunker for Mrs Bone, I am afraid.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 598

EU Economy

5. Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department of economic conditions in the EU. [89809]

16. Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department of economic conditions in the EU. [89820]

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): The crisis in the eurozone is having a chilling effect throughout Europe, which is why this Government are arguing vigorously within the European Union for action to promote growth by deepening the single market, boosting trade and cutting red tape.

Anne Marie Morris: I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that it is important that policies are enacted at EU level to encourage economic growth? Measures designed to help drive sustainable economic recovery, such as exempting micro-businesses from the burden of red tape, would have positive implications for all Government Departments across the 27 member states, including his own.

Mr Lidington: I agree completely with my hon. Friend, which is why the agreement at the December European Council for an exemption from European regulations for micro-business was particularly welcome, especially as that will apply not only to new European legislation but will prompt a review of the existing acquis in respect of micro-businesses.

Mr Spencer: Can the Minister assure the House that the principles of the Prime Minister’s veto will be followed through, and that any attempt by the EU to impose a tax on this country’s financial services will be vigorously resisted?

Mr Lidington: A financial transfer tax would require unanimous agreement by all 27 member states, which is something that the single market Commissioner, Monsieur Barnier, has confirmed to me. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we would not agree to the imposition of such a tax.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on the EU economy of the recent behaviour of the Hungarian Government? Has he reminded that Government that there is an expectation that all EU members adhere to normal democratic norms?

Mr Lidington: We are certainly concerned about any developments in other EU member states which might lead to even greater economic instability than we currently see. I have talked about the concerns expressed in a number of quarters with regard to Hungarian legislation with my Hungarian opposite number and with the Commission. As the right hon. Gentleman may know, the Commission is due to release the results of its assessment about now. The Hungarian Government have said that they will consider carefully and constructively the comments that the Commission makes, whatever they are, and I believe that that is the right way forward.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 599

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): It has been reported that the Foreign Secretary advised the Prime Minister before the European Union summit in December that if it is a choice between keeping the euro together or keeping the Conservative party together, it is in the national interest to keep the Conservative party together. Can the Minister confirm that the Foreign Secretary regards the unity of his party as more important to the national interest than the success or failure of our largest trading partner?

Mr Lidington: I really had hoped that the hon. Lady would have something a bit better to say than that. What the Government are determined to do is to support our allies and neighbours in the eurozone in their efforts to restore economic stability to their currency union, and also to press for the measures to promote job creation and economic growth which the whole of Europe desperately needs. We are not prepared to take lectures from the Labour party that signed away £7 billion of the British rebate and denied the people of this country the referendum on the Lisbon treaty, which it had promised.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the gloom about the consequences of an early break-up of the euro has been greatly exaggerated, bearing in mind the very positive economic experience for eastern European countries from the break-up of the rouble zone—very similar to the euro—in the early 1990s?

Mr Lidington: I have to say that it is unusual to find my right hon. Friend looking to the example of the former Soviet Union for inspiration. We have looked across Government very carefully at what the consequences of a eurozone break-up might be, and one of the key differences between now and 20 years ago is that the economies and the financial systems of Europe are much more closely interlinked now than they were then. It is certainly our judgment that it would be damaging to the British national interest were a collapse of the eurozone or a prolonged recession in the eurozone to take place.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): The credit ratings of a number of eurozone states have been downgraded this week. The bail-out fund is now considered to be far too small to do its job. Mario Monti, Italy’s unelected Prime Minister, said yesterday that there would be a backlash against austerity unless Germany provides more support to Italy. The crisis becomes deeper every day. Is it not the case that recovery for many of those countries can come only when they can recreate national currencies, devalue and start to grow again?

Mr Lidington: With respect to the hon. Gentleman—his views on the subject are utterly consistent and I respect them—that is a matter for the peoples and Governments of those sovereign countries. From our point of view, what is needed is for the eurozone countries to implement in full the deal that they agreed to in October last year, and for Europe collectively at 27 to move forward urgently with deepening the single market, boosting global trade and cutting red tape and regulation on our businesses. That is the way to growth and jobs.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 600


6. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the effect on bilateral relations with Brazil of that country having overtaken the UK as the sixth largest economy. [89810]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): The continued rise and success of emerging powers like Brazil present a great opportunity for our bilateral relationship. This Government have already shifted resources there. The Foreign Secretary will be leaving this evening for a visit to Brazil. In November I opened a new consulate-general in Recife in Brazil’s fastest growing region.

Jo Swinson: With the world’s fifth largest population and sixth largest economy, Brazil is an important economic power and a key market for expanding British trade, so the Foreign Secretary’s visit is welcome. It is also an increasingly important diplomatic power, so what can the Government do to encourage Brazil to play a positive leadership role on global issues such as climate change, human rights and democracy?

Mr Browne: That precise point will be central to the Foreign Secretary’s talks with the Brazilian Foreign Secretary in Brasilia tomorrow, but as an illustration of the seriousness with which we treat this relationship, let me tell the House that last year there were 14 ministerial visits to Brazil, whereas in the previous three years combined there were just 10 ministerial visits. So we are affording Brazil four times the amount of ministerial attention that the previous Government did.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that our trade at £5.2 billion in 2010 offers scope for considerable increase? What more can his Department do, particularly through UK Trade & Investment, to forge better links with the Brazilians in order to increase that trade?

Mr Browne: I agree with my hon. Friend’s point. The economies of Latin America and Asia are growing fast and becoming increasingly important, which is why the British Government are determined to double trade with Brazil in the lifetime of this Parliament and why we are expanding the network of diplomatic and trade staff across Brazil, including opening a new consulate-general in the north-east of the country in November.

Middle East

7. Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Palestinian National Authority on rocket attacks on Israel. [89811]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): I met the President of the Palestinian Authority yesterday. We are extremely concerned about the recent escalations of violence, including Israeli air strikes on Gaza and rocket attacks by Palestinian groups on Israel. We condemn any actions in which civilians are hurt or killed and have called on all sides to show restraint and avoid a spiral of retaliation.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 601

Diana Johnson: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that response. In order to move to a two-state solution in the region, did he stress in his conversations yesterday the importance for Palestinian unity of recognising the Israeli state and bringing an end to the rocket attacks?

Mr Hague: Of course, that is extremely important, particularly when one considers the number of rocket attacks—it is reported that 758 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel in 2011. We certainly discussed Palestinian reconciliation and the fact that any Palestinian Authority constituted as a result must be able to work with Israel towards a two-state solution. I strongly welcomed the initiative of His Majesty the King of Jordan in bringing Palestinians and Israelis together in recent weeks for discussions. That is a positive development that we want to see continue.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s reply to the previous question. With Hamas raining many hundreds of missiles upon Israel, can the Government do more to try to stop weaponry being smuggled through tunnels into Gaza, and does he agree that the more missiles come over, the harder it is to make peace?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is absolutely and very evidently right that that does not help peace or the two-state solution that we all so urgently want to see. We call again for such rocket attacks on Israel to end.

Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary met the Palestinian President yesterday. In my later discussions with the President, he was at pains to emphasise the urgent need to make substantive progress in the coming days in the negotiations that the Foreign Secretary mentioned are taking place in Jordan. In the light of this urgency, when did the Foreign Secretary last speak with his Israeli counterpart and what steps are the British Government taking to ensure that ongoing Israeli settlement expansion is not allowed to be a reason for these crucial talks to be derailed?

Mr Hague: I also spoke yesterday to the Israeli Government, to the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Meridor—I speak sometimes to him and sometimes to my counterpart, Mr Lieberman. On this occasion I called Mr Meridor to stress the need for Israel to respond positively in the negotiations and put forward its own proposals, and I made the case, as I have often done in this House, that Israel needs to make a more decisive and generous offer than we have seen for some years in order to be able to make progress. The Israeli Government are in no doubt about our views and we urge both sides to continue with these talks and not to be so wedded to the 26 January deadline that the opportunity to continue the talks is lost.

Mr Alexander: I welcome the tenor of yesterday’s conversation with Deputy Prime Minister Meridor. In an earlier answer the Foreign Secretary mentioned the reconciliation process within the Palestinian community. Alongside the immediate prospects for the latest round of talks, will he give the Government’s assessment of the possible implications of a deal reached between

17 Jan 2012 : Column 602

Hamas and Fatah? Given Hamas’s stated position on Israel and the peace process, will he also give an undertaking that any internal political agreement reached within the Palestinian community needs to be assessed in terms of the external political implications on the prospects for peace in the wider region?

Mr Hague: I agree with that. As I said in answer to an earlier question, it is very important that the Palestinian Authority are constituted in a way that allows them to conduct negotiations with Israel. That includes, importantly, recognising the previous agreements entered into by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and that is a key point, so we hope that that will be continue to be the position of the Palestinian Authority. Of course, reconciliation is meant to pave the way for elections among Palestinians, and we cannot at this stage pre-judge or predict the outcome of those elections.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): The Foreign Secretary is right to call for temperance on all sides, but does he agree that it is unacceptable for senior officials and members of the Palestinian Authority to continue to attend cultural events at which individuals call for the end of the state of Israel, and that it is wrong for those officials to support sporting events named after “martyrs”—people who have murdered innocent Israeli citizens?

Mr Hague: We do not support any delegitimisation of the state of Israel. We are friends of Israel, and we support the right of Israel to exist in peace and security, but we believe that that peace and security is best served by urgent moves towards a two-state solution, and that always guides our policy.

Middle East

8. Mrs Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make representations to the Government of Israel on the increase in demolition of Palestinian homes in the west bank in 2011. [89812]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I do make representations on the demolition of homes, and I will continue to do so. I was in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories last week, and it gave me an opportunity to see some of those who are subject to demolition orders, including the Bedouin community outside Jerusalem, and to visit such people in the Negev as well. I had the opportunity also to raise those issues directly with Israeli Ministers.

Mrs Riordan: Is the Minister aware that the number of Palestinian homes demolished by the Israelis last year rose by 38%, and that the number of displaced Palestinians doubled? Does he agree that that is hardly the sign of a Government intent on peace settlements on the basis of the 1967 borders, and that it would send a signal to the Israelis if the UK Government supported the Palestinian bid to join the United Nations?

Alistair Burt: On the first part of the hon. Lady’s remarks, I am very conscious of the numbers, as indeed are many Members because of the representations that have been made to us. It is a very serious issue, which we

17 Jan 2012 : Column 603

take up regularly with the Israeli authorities. The movement and settlement of people is a hugely divisive political issue, and it is one reason why we have pressed both sides to move towards a settlement, because that is the only thing that will ultimately ensure that all those who live in Israel and in the Palestinian territory can live in peace and security.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): Does my hon. Friend accept that the demolition of Palestinian homes and the continued construction of settlements on the west bank, not to mention the construction of new houses in East Jerusalem, will make it increasingly difficult to establish a viable Palestinian state and, in turn, make it impossible to reach a two-state solution?

Alistair Burt: I share the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s concerns, and that is why we have repeatedly made clear to all our view that we regard illegal settlement building as contrary to the interests of peace building. It is a matter that must be addressed. It is vital to the division of land in the area, and that is why we constantly raise it.

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): How many Israeli settlements does the Minister think need to be built on Palestinian land before the chance for peace is destroyed?

Alistair Burt: The numbers are not a matter for the United Kingdom. What we do say, and say very clearly, is that building on occupied Palestinian land is illegal in international law and has been held to be so in some cases by Israeli law. That is why we regard the issue as an obstacle to peace, unless it is dealt with. It is vital that it is part of the negotiations, and that is why we wish very well the current efforts being made in Amman.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): Following the recent leaked internal EU report expressing concerns about the west bank, will my hon. Friend make it clear to the Israeli Government—and I understand that there is fault on both sides—that the construction of housing units in and around Jerusalem is counter-productive to the peace process?

Alistair Burt: The issue of East Jerusalem is particularly difficult. For there to be a viable two-state solution and a shared capital, it is essential that East Jerusalem retains its Arab character. That is why we are so concerned about the settlement building there. The Government of Israel are well aware of our concerns, which we make very clear. I repeat to the House that, as we all know, this matter must be included in the overall settlement, the basics of which we hope are being discussed by the parties with great intent in Amman at the moment.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Last week, Israeli forces cut off access to the village of Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin community just outside Jerusalem where a school was built using international donations. Is that an example of something that must be unacceptable? Given the international character of Khan al-Ahmar, what representations can the UK Government make to get the Israeli Government to change their mind on the matter?

17 Jan 2012 : Column 604

Alistair Burt: By happenstance, I was at the village and saw the obstruction of access take place. It was an unannounced visit as far as the authorities were concerned. Effectively, an Armco barrier was built across the access road that leads to a major highway. It was not immediately clear where the alternative access could be, except via a hill with an extremely steep gradient behind the village. That very lunchtime, I was able to make representations to the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, about the circumstances. This is precisely the sort of thing that raises concerns among the international community and makes it difficult for the Bedouin in that area to feel secure.


9. Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): What steps he plans to take in response to recent reports of human rights abuses by the Government of Russia. [89813]

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): We will continue to raise concerns about human rights with Russia at ministerial and official levels. We shall sponsor a number of observers at the forthcoming Russian presidential election that is due in March.

Mr Raab: I thank the Minister for that answer. With the US Senate due to approve the bipartisan Magnitsky Bill, which will impose mandatory visa bans and asset freezes on those responsible for gross human rights abuses, and with similar proposals in the Netherlands and Canada, will he look at the case for bringing forward an equivalent Bill in this House?

Mr Lidington: As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) in Westminster Hall the other day, if the American Bill, which I understand is at committee stage in the Senate, eventually becomes law, we will look closely to see whether there are lessons on which we might draw. My hon. Friend will know that we have powers in this country to ban any person from coming to the United Kingdom if there are grounds for concern about their character, conduct or associations.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): When the Minister is making representations in Moscow about human rights in Russia, will he raise with the Russians, who have a pivotal role at the United Nations, the human rights abuses in Syria, because if Russia unblocked its present position at the United Nations, it would allow real pressure to be brought on the Syrian regime?

Mr Lidington: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We obviously talk a great deal to Russia about the situation in Syria. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, within the past few weeks, has talked to Foreign Minister Lavrov about Syria, including to pass on our great concern about the systematic abuse of human rights in that country.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): Although the respect for human rights in Russia may be considerably greater than in it was in the Soviet Union, does not the terrible treatment of Mr Magnitsky, his death in custody and the refusal of the Russian authorities to recognise

17 Jan 2012 : Column 605

responsibility for what happened suggest that my right hon. Friend the Minister should follow the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and not wait until the United States has reached its conclusion, but do everything in our power to follow a similar course of action?

Mr Lidington: As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, we have powers in existing law to ban people from coming to this country on the grounds that their presence would not be conducive to the public good. He also knows that successive Governments have followed a practice of not commenting on individual cases. His concerns about the abuse of human rights in Russia are, however, well made. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and all Ministers, when they meet Russian counterparts, always make a point of raising human rights matters.


10. Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): What representations he has made to the President of Colombia on protection for trade unionists and human rights activists in that country. [89814]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary discussed human rights with President Santos during his visit to the United Kingdom in November. I chaired a discussion between the President and non-governmental organisations, which included the security of human rights defenders in Colombia, and the President reiterated his commitment to improving Colombia’s human rights situation.

Yvonne Fovargue: There is real concern that people are still being imprisoned in Colombia for trade union activity. What assessment has the Minister made of that situation, and what representations have been made?

Mr Browne: I share the hon. Lady’s observation that there are real concerns about human rights abuses in Colombia. We do not pretend otherwise, and we actually spend a lot of time and money on trying to improve the situation. The President has made that point, and he acknowledges our concerns. It is fair to recognise that improvements have been made in recent years, but many further improvements still need to be made and we are actively working to try to bring them about.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Is it not the case that the greatest human right of all is the right to life and that under the Administration of President Uribe and now that of President Santos the demobilisation of the FARC guerrilla group, reducing it from tens of thousands to 9,000 today, has brought about a new era of peace and prosperity in Colombia that is good not only for Colombia but for Latin America and for our bilateral relations?

Mr Browne: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The murder rate in Colombia has fallen dramatically. It is still very high by European standards, but it is nevertheless a lot lower than it previously was. I am delighted that the Colombian President signed a joint declaration on

17 Jan 2012 : Column 606

human rights when he was in London a couple of months ago, and we had the opportunity to talk about how we can enhance Colombia’s prosperity and trade opportunities, which are also important for its development.


11. Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): What support the Government are giving to the development of democracy in Tunisia. [89815]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): Having delivered bilateral support in Tunisia during the election process through help on voter outreach and through the United Nations Development Programme generally, the United Kingdom continues through its Arab Partnership to support efforts to rebuild democracy and freedom of expression in Tunisia and strengthen economic reform.

Mr Roy: The Minister will be aware that local governors have been replaced by unelected governors in Tunisia. What efforts can be made to bring about local as well as national democracy there?

Alistair Burt: It is a good line. The Arab Partnership is interested in working with the Tunisian authorities on what they are looking for by way of re-establishing government. It enables us to draw on resources right across the UK—for example, institutions, NGOs and organisations such as the Local Government Association —that have expertise to offer. The hon. Gentleman certainly makes an interesting suggestion. It has not been raised directly with me in my visits to Tunisia, but I will certainly take it back with me.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Anybody who has been to Tunisia recently will have been impressed by the enthusiasm for the new democracy and the ideals of the revolution, but many challenges remain, particularly in the economy. What material resources and assistance are the UK Government therefore giving the constituent assembly in the drafting of the new constitution?

Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to put the focus on the economy. When we talk about the changes that have taken place in the Arab world we concentrate on the political, but unless the economics are right they will undermine the political changes that have been made. The UK provides support multilaterally through the G8, the Deauville partnership and the European neighbourhood partnership, and we have offered support for capacity building right across the board, including on constitution drafting and issues affecting economic reform.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Loathing of corruption was the immediate catalyst of the Arab spring, but the Tunisian Association for Financial Transparency states that the British Government need to do more to assist the current Tunisian Government by providing information, particularly about finance in the British overseas territories and the transactions of the previous Tunisian Government. What discussions has the Minister had with the current Tunisian Government about access to the British overseas territories and their finances?

17 Jan 2012 : Column 607

Alistair Burt: I have had no discussions in the terms that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I know that one part of the assistance that we are already actively providing is to the anti-corruption unit in the Tunisian Government. It has already taken advice and support from the UK on that matter. I will consider what the hon. Gentleman says specifically about the overseas territories, but so far that issue has not been raised with Ministers.


12. Mr Sam Gyimah (East Surrey) (Con): What assessment he has made of political progress in Burma; and if he will make a statement. [89816]

14. Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): What assessment he has made of his recent visit to Burma; and if he will make a statement. [89818]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): I draw the House’s attention to the written statement on my visit to Burma, which was published yesterday. Last week, the Burmese Government and the Karen National Union signed a historic ceasefire. The following day, there was a significant release of political prisoners, which will contribute to greater democratic participation in the parliamentary by-elections. If that momentum can be maintained, we are clearly moving into a new phase in our relations with Burma.

Mr Gyimah: As my right hon. Friend says, the release of 651 political prisoners by the Myanmar Government is a major political statement and certainly one that is to be commended. What confidence does he have that all political prisoners will be released in time for the elections in April this year?

Mr Hague: The importance of the timing of last week’s announcement is that yesterday—16 January—was the date for any candidates to register to participate in the 1 April elections in Burma. The release of so many prisoners is therefore an important move ahead of those elections.

My hon. Friend is quite right to ask about other political prisoners. Our assessment is that of the 651 prisoners released on Friday, between 270 and 283 could be considered political prisoners. That means that political prisoners remain, although it must be said that there are definitional disputes over what a political prisoner is between the Burma Government and opposition groups. However, we of course look for the release of all political prisoners in Burma while welcoming that move as a major step forward.

Dr Huppert: All Members of the House support the release of the political prisoners and share the concern that there are still so many. However, I understand that the released prisoners have not been pardoned, but simply had their sentences suspended. What assurances has the Foreign Secretary had that they will be pardoned and kept out of prison rather than being re-arrested shortly?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is quite right about the details, although that seems to be the effective way for the President of Burma to secure the release of the

17 Jan 2012 : Column 608

prisoners—the laws allowed him to act decisively to release a large number of prisoners. Of course, let me make it absolutely clear that the improvement in relations between Burma, our country and many other countries would come to a very rapid halt and go into reverse were those prisoners to be taken back into custody, but the President of Burma said to me when I was there 10 days ago that Burma’s progress to democracy is irreversible, and all the Ministers I met said that all political prisoners would be released.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Although I welcome the changes and developments with the Karen people, they are far from the only ethnic minority within Burma with which there have been a lot of tensions and difficulties, as the Foreign Secretary will know. Despite progress in some areas, there has been an increase in attacks on other peoples. What discussions did he have on other ethnic minorities and what pressure is he putting on Burma to ensure that every ethnic grouping is included in the democracy that we hope is developing there?

Mr Hague: The hon. Lady is quite right: although what has happened in relation to the Karen people is important, other ethnic conflicts continue. I held a meeting with ethnic representatives from around Burma in Rangoon on my visit there and raised this wider matter with the Government at all the meetings I had with them. I also announced an additional £2 million of humanitarian assistance for displaced people in Kachin state, where fighting continues. It is important for the Government of Burma to understand that resolving the conflicts more widely around the borders and ethnic areas remains important.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): The Opposition join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming the release of political prisoners in Burma although, as he has acknowledged, many hundreds of men and women remain in prison there for their political beliefs. Will he tell the House what he did to push the Burmese regime to allow greater access for the world’s media, particularly in the run-up to the elections in April, now that restrictions have started to be lifted?

Mr Hague: I made the point to Government Ministers there that part of the essential opening up to the rest of the world is access for media representatives. Indeed, on my visit I was able to facilitate that access for the first time and to ensure that BBC correspondents could go to places or get invited to press conferences to which they would not previously have been invited. Each international visit helps to prise open to a greater extent the media’s access to Burma. We will continue with those efforts.

Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary join me in extending continued support to the pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi?

Mr Hague: I certainly will. I spent the best part of 24 hours with Aung San Suu Kyi during my visit to Rangoon. She is an inspirational figure, a great leader and a great hope for the future of her country.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 609

Libyan Assets

13. Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): What steps he is taking to support the unlocking of Libyan assets. [89817]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): The United Kingdom continues to play a leading part in working with the Libyan authorities on the recovery of assets through the alleviation of sanctions. On 16 December, the United Nations was able to lift the sanctions on the Central Bank of Libya and on the Libyan Arab Foreign bank, which released some £6.5 billion worth of assets in Britain alone for the use of the Libyan people.

Mr Reed: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In October last year, the Foreign Secretary noted in a letter that

“the countries of the Arab League will play an important part in providing the support the Libyan Government requires to rebuild the Libyan economy”.

Will the Minister tell us what recent assessment he and his Department have made of the contribution of the Arab League member countries to the economic recovery in Libya to date, and what form he expects it to take in the future?

Alistair Burt: The Arab League, in conjunction with the rest of the international community, played a vital part in ensuring the freedom of the people of Libya, and that support continues to be evident. The Libyan Government are establishing themselves and building their capacity to handle the recovery of assets and to determine the way in which they can be used. Accordingly, they are in discussions with ourselves and with Arab League partners, which are being effective. This is a process in which we are all engaged.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): One of the problems with liberal imperialist wars is that once they are over, we lose interest in their victims. I have already drawn attention to the United Nations report on the plight of the 7,000 prisoners who are being held by the current Libyan Government in the most appalling conditions and undergoing torture and many other dreadful things. What are this Government doing about that?

Alistair Burt: This Government do not lose sight of the victims of this conflict. The conditions of those in detention have been raised by Ministers on visits, and directly with the Libyan Government. It is a matter for them to be able to create the processes to determine the future of those detainees. The commitment to human rights is absolute, regardless of how those in Libya were taken prisoner, captured or anything else. The United Kingdom stands four square behind that, and so does the national transitional council, which has made clear its own concerns, as well as its determination to deal with the issue of detainees through appropriate free and fair judicial processes as quickly as possible.

Topical Questions

T1. [89830] Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 610

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): This week, I am visiting Brazil as part of our efforts to transform our engagement with emerging powers in Latin America. I will also co-chair the UK-Caribbean ministerial forum, which will reinvigorate our historic ties with those countries.

Margot James: Islamic fundamentalist violence has been increasing in Nigeria for more than a decade, and has now erupted beyond the northern region. What does my right hon. Friend think can be done to counteract this threat to Nigeria and to sub-Saharan Africa as a whole?

Mr Hague: We are focusing on that threat. We are sharing with Nigeria our expertise on counter-terrorism policy and on legal frameworks. We are also providing assistance with specific capabilities such as managing the consequences of a terrorist attack. In all of this, we are in close touch with our partners in the European Union and the United States. We are also supporting programmes in the north of Nigeria to address the root causes of insecurity, such as poverty and social inequality.

Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): Will the Foreign Secretary give the House his assessment of the calls by leading members of the Free Syrian army for the Arab League to refer the issue of Syria to the United Nations Security Council? In the light of the difficulties encountered by the Arab League observer mission, and on the basis of the aforementioned discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov, does the Foreign Secretary believe that there is any realistic prospect of the Russian Government altering their stance on Syria?

Mr Hague: I think that it would be right for the Arab League to bring its concerns and any decision that it makes at its forthcoming meetings—it has two coming up, on the 19th and 22nd—to the UN Secretary-General and UN Security Council. Over recent weeks, I have encouraged the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Mr al-Arabi, to bring Arab concerns directly to the Security Council, because I believe that the time is long overdue for the Security Council to be able to speak on Syria with a united voice. The right hon. Gentleman will recall—his question partly referred to this—that when we last tried to do so, on 4 October, our resolution was vetoed by Russia and China. I am not optimistic that the situation with regard to Russia’s attitude would be different at the moment, but we will continue to discuss the matter with Russia. It would help if the Arab League were to come to the UN directly with its concerns.

T2. [89831] Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary assure the patriotic Falkland Islands that any posturing by the Argentine Government will be met with a very firm response?

Mr Hague: I can assure my hon. Friend of that. The view across and in all parts of the House on the Falkland Islands is firm and consistent: we believe in the self-determination of the people of the Falkland Islands, and it is their self-determination, of course, that they wish to remain British.

T4. [89833] Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): In line with the recent report by the UN rapporteur on torture, will the Minister condemn the practice by

17 Jan 2012 : Column 611

Israel of holding children in solitary confinement, and will he make representations for the release of the 106 children who remain detained within the Israeli military prison system?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): We welcome the fact that Israel has recently changed to 18 the age of majority in those territories for criminal jurisdiction, but we have made, and continue to make, representations in relation to children’s rights—the right of audience, the right to interpreters and the like—and from the Dispatch Box recently I said that the practice of shackling children was wrong.

T3. [89832] Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Under the Government’s excellent new human trafficking strategy, the Foreign Office is required to have country business plans obliging ambassadors and high commissioners to take appropriate local action against human trafficking. What action has been taken?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this matter. We have highlighted to our posts around the world the key commitments in the human trafficking strategy that they can help to deliver. Those include engaging with foreign Governments to ensure that common challenges are identified, and encouraging them to work with us to address those challenges. We have asked each of our posts to identify a single point of contact on human trafficking, and we are working in consultation with colleagues across government and with non-governmental organisations to bring together all the work that is already going on, including on the specific local challenges in each country. He can therefore be assured that our posts across the world are working hard on this.

T5. [89834] Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment have the Government made of recent calls by the Qatari leadership for Arab states to intervene militarily to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and would the Foreign Secretary support such action?

Mr Hague: That is one view—and an important view, of course, coming from the leadership of a state such as Qatar. As I mentioned in reply to the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), the Arab League is meeting on the 19th and 22nd, so we should not presume that this is the view of the whole Arab League. Although we continue to increase the pressure on the Assad regime and strongly support the Arab League’s work, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have not called for military intervention in Syria, the consequences of which would be far more difficult to foresee than in Libya and the legal authority for which does not exist. As things stand, therefore, this is a distinct case from that of Libya.

T8. [89838] Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): The Foreign Secretary’s previously referred to visit to Brazil this week is welcome and continues his much-needed drive to make trade the cutting edge of British diplomacy. As the balance of world economic activity shifts to the east and the south, would he agree that a blinkered approach to trade inside the European Union is not only very last century but painfully lacking in ambition?

17 Jan 2012 : Column 612

Mr Hague: We need both actually. Given the flat economies in the eurozone and the fact that exports to the eurozone have fallen over recent years, it is doubly important that we develop our export markets across the rest of the world. However, there is also a strong case for driving growth within Europe, through free trade agreements with the rest of the world, by pushing forward the single market in services and digital services and by removing regulatory barriers to growth. The Prime Minister will very much be pushing that agenda at the European Council on 30 January.

T6. [89835] Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps, if any, are being taken to prepare for the possible implications of Iran’s seeking to close the straits of Hormuz?

Mr Hague: As the Defence Secretary pointed out in his speech in Washington a short while ago, any such attempt to close the straits of Hormuz would be illegal and I believe that it would be unsuccessful. It would also be damaging to Iran—to its own economy and its own situation. I think it is important for Iran to desist from statements on this subject and to engage instead with the offer of negotiations with the E3 plus 3 countries. In the meantime, we are working ahead of next week’s Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels to extend sanctions on Iran, including an oil embargo on a phased basis. Work on that is going on now to increase the peaceful pressure on Iran to negotiate.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: In view of the huge interest, brevity is vital.

T9. [89839] Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): What progress is being made on the forthcoming constitutional referendum in Zimbabwe, which will be a prerequisite for free and fair elections in a country that has had more than its fair share of violence and intimidation in elections in the past.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concern about continuing persecution, particularly of Movement for Democratic Reform MPs. There was the dreadful case of the recent arrest of Lynette Karenyi allegedly for insulting the President. Obviously, the immediate priority for Zimbabwe is preparation for the referendum on the constitution and making sure that the road map to credible free and fair elections is in place.

T7. [89836] Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): What steps are the Government taking in the coming year further to strengthen the parliamentary systems in our overseas territories?

Mr Bellingham: I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) for participating in the mission to observe the British Virgin Islands elections in November. We believe that having observers is good practice for open democracies like ours and the overseas territories. This is highly relevant to the Turks and Caicos Islands where we hope to have elections later this year if the milestones continue to be met.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 613

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): While my right hon. Friend strives to halt the tragic loss of life in Syria, will he also be mindful of Harold Macmillan’s advice that one should never underestimate the capacity of a middle eastern state to replace a bad Government by an even worse one—or, may I add, by no effective Government at all, which could create even greater bloodshed?

Mr Hague: It is not only middle eastern states that do this from time to time. I very much take what my right hon. Friend says, but I have to point out that there has been, I think, a better trend than that during the last year, which can be seen if we look at events in Libya and Tunisia and at democratic developments in Morocco and Jordan. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend’s warning is well taken: we always listen to the words of Harold Macmillan and to his.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Has the Foreign Secretary had a chance to read the reports from the Carter Centre, the European Union, the United Nations and the Catholic Church of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the recent conduct of the presidential elections there and the barely credible reports of a 100% turnout in some areas, which led to President Kabila being declared the winner and the British ambassador attending his inauguration? What representations is the right hon. Gentleman making to the DRC Government concerning those elections and the future of democratic elections in that country?

Mr Bellingham: On the positive side, there was far less violence in these elections than there was in 2006. Furthermore, most voters who wanted to vote could and did vote. I agree, however, with the hon. Gentleman that there were a number of serious irregularities throughout the electoral process. That is why we called on the DRC authorities to investigate them properly and fairly. It is vital that lessons are learned.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): As we discovered during events surrounding the invasion of Iraq, it is essential for states to act only on hard evidence. In relation to Iran, will the Secretary of State encourage not only Iran itself but the whole international community to listen carefully to the International Atomic Energy Agency this time?

Mr Hague: Yes, it is very important to listen carefully to what is said by the International Atomic Energy Authority. As my hon. Friend will know, it was a report from the IAEA which, in November, referred to the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme and the concern that was felt about it. That has fortified our determination—the determination of countries throughout the European Union—to adopt the measures that we will be discussing next week although, as my hon. Friend has said, they must always be based on hard evidence.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the current crisis in Pakistan and its possible implications for our country?

Mr Hague: We have been making a continuous assessment of political events and tensions in Pakistan over recent weeks and days, and we are in close touch with a variety of Pakistani leaders. My noble Friend

17 Jan 2012 : Column 614

Baroness Warsi was in Pakistan for several days last week and met many of the leading figures there. We are friends of a democratic Pakistan—across the House we are friends of a democratic Pakistan—and we look to all concerned in both the political and the military leadership to work together to ensure a democratic and constitutional future for their country.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I know that the Foreign Secretary will share my disappointment at the news that the overseas territories have been refused permission to enter a vessel in the diamond jubilee river pageant in June. Will he assure the House that they will be granted full recognition and participation in the diamond jubilee celebrations?

Mr Bellingham: I want to praise my hon. Friend for his indefatigable support for the overseas territories. As he knows, we will shortly publish a White Paper which will discuss how we can reinvigorate our relationship with them, and obviously we want them to participate fully in Her Majesty’s jubilee celebrations.

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can play an important role in encouraging the Burmese to maintain the progress that he described earlier?

Mr Hague: Yes. That is particularly true given that Burma will have the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014. One of the points that we made to other ASEAN nations at the United Nations General Assembly last year, before Burma’s appointment, was that the country must be pushed in the right direction—the direction in which it is now moving—if it expected to have the chairmanship, and those nations seem to be working well together.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): What steps can be taken to limit the shipment of arms and munitions from Iran in particular to militant groups in Palestine?

Mr Hague: We are very concerned about the shipment of arms by Iran, and about Iran’s consistent support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, but there has been evidence over time of arms shipments from Iran to other parts of the region as well. We will always express our concern about those actions, and will always encourage other countries in the region to live up to their own legal responsibilities to intercept illicit armed shipments. That is certainly happens, but we will always encourage those countries to ensure that it continues.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): What assurances did the Foreign Secretary seek and secure from the Burmese Government that there would be free and fair elections in April?

Mr Hague: That main assurance I sought was that at least a large tranche of political prisoners, but preferably all of them, would be released before the date on which candidates should register for the elections. I warned the president directly that the elections would not be considered free and fair if most political prisoners were still in prison and unable to stand. That is why I am

17 Jan 2012 : Column 615

pleased that so many prisoners were released a few days before the deadline for registration. We will now have to judge the circumstances in which those elections take place—to judge whether there is free debate in the media and out in the country—but I can certainly say on the basis of my meeting with the committee of the Mutual League for Democracy that there is real enthusiasm and determination to ensure that such free debate does take place.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): At this sensitive time in relations with Iran, will the Government still do what they can to encourage Iran to improve its record on religious persecution—for instance, in the case of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who apparently faces a death sentence unless he is prepared to give up his Christian beliefs?

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend and many other Members have made representations about this matter, and there

17 Jan 2012 : Column 616

was a very good debate about it in Westminster Hall last week. We will continue our representations in relation to Pastor Nadarkhani. History tells us that efforts to make people of faith recant their faith are doomed to failure: the faith endures, and the name of the faithful is remembered long after the torturers are forgotten.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I apologise to any Members who may be disappointed, but the appetite for questioning the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues is invariably insatiable.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Unassuaged.

Mr Speaker: And unassuaged, as the hon. Gentleman helpfully points out from a sedentary position.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 617

Point of Order

3.35 pm

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Thursday 12 January, the Russian embassy published on its website a highly personal and inaccurate attack on me. The attack related to a debate the previous day on human rights in Russia and the treatment of Sergei Magnitsky, in which several Members of all parties spoke. I believe this is the first time that a foreign embassy accredited to Her Majesty’s Government has so attacked a Member for carrying out his parliamentary duties. Clearly, the Russian embassy is not covered by the rules of privilege or free expression in Parliament, but I hope, Mr Speaker, that you do not think this is a welcome development, and that Members must be able to say what they think about other countries without coming under pressure or intimidation from embassies and accredited diplomats.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for notice of it. I certainly agree that no Member of the House should be intimidated in exercising his or her undoubted right to free expression in this House. I might add that although my own imagination is moderately vivid, the idea of the right hon. Gentleman being intimidated by the Russian embassy or anybody else is beyond it.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): They send you bottles of vodka and take you to a Japanese restaurant.

Mr Speaker: If there are no further points of order, or sedentary heckles by the hon. Gentleman, we shall move on to the ten-minute rule Bill.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 618

Sexual Offences (Amendment)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

3.36 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to create an offence of paying for sexual services of a person under the age of 21 years; and for connected purposes.

In talking about this subject, I shall turn directly to the issue of drugs, on which I have frequently spoken before in the House. It is a key issue in respect of the problem the Bill addresses, and I think the Bill will have a positive impact.

Legislation has many purposes, one of which is to change people’s behaviour. Many previous Governments have passed far too much criminal justice legislation that attempts to send messages and give signals to society. This Bill does not attempt to do that; rather, it attempts to change behaviour, which is a far more effective strategy.

There are three main ways in which teenagers, both boys and girls, get drawn into prostitution; one of them is trafficking. The Bill does not deal with that topic in detail, but it has been well aired in this House in recent times. As a result, there has been a flurry of legislation, but it needs to be used far more effectively—both the Government and the police must deliver.

This Bill’s measures would not have a major impact on trafficking, and they should not be considered as an answer to that problem. Instead, they should be seen merely as a minor assist. Trafficking is, however, one way in which teenagers get cajoled into prostitution.

Abuse and drugs are far more significant factors, however, especially with younger teenagers, and the Bill will make a greater impact in dealing with them. Those two factors—sometimes in combination—tend to lead to the dysfunctional behaviour of 16, 17 and 18-year-olds entering the world of prostitution. Sometimes that happens through coercion and sometimes it happens through desperation, although an element of both is often involved.

I wish to start by discussing the issue of abuse. Until the previous general election, I was the Member of Parliament representing Rampton, the largest secure hospital for women—the only secure hospital for women—in this country. I have visited it and talked to staff on numerous occasions, so I am aware that one incredible reality of the women there is that, of course, they are there because they acted in hugely abnormal and horrific ways, and they will often be there for life, but all the evidence suggests that they were abused as children. That is a fact and a reality; it is not an excuse.

In my work on tackling drugs—for better or for worse I have conducted a huge amount of field research, both with organisations and with constituents—I have found that, without question, 16, 17 and 18-year-olds who are getting addicted to drugs are doing so because of major trauma in their lives. A range of major traumas is involved, but the correlation we should always look at first is with abuse as a teenager, be it psychological, physical or sexual. The use of sex becomes a way of generating income within the drug community. It tends initially to be a way of buying or trading drugs, which

17 Jan 2012 : Column 619

becomes endemic and then spreads to become a way of obtaining cash, through sex with strangers; this predominantly affects women, but it also affects young boys, too. The problem for the 16, 17 and 18-year-olds who find prostitution to be an easier route to quick money than burglary or robbery and to be more profitable than the easier option of shoplifting is that this dysfunctional activity then traps the addict, much more so than those other behaviours, in a way of life that they cannot get out of.

I am not here to make a moral speech about prostitution. There is an important debate to be held on the rights and wrongs of prostitution and the laws that should have an impact on it, but my Bill does not deal with that. My Bill does one thing: it raises the threshold for the illegality of paying for sex. Of course there is a threshold, which is currently 16. Where someone is under 16, the huge consequences of the criminal law and imprisonment are involved because of the age of consent. But the moment the victim becomes older than 16 there are no punitive powers to deal with the person who is paying. I wish to see this Bill adopted by the Government at some stage solely and simply to raise that threshold, because by raising the threshold one raises the threshold. That may sound like a truism, but this approach will change the behaviour of those choosing to pay. The behavioural implication is there for those worried about breaching the criminal law and risking 14 years in prison because someone could be a minor of 15 and a half years old. On that borderline, threshold behaviour changes, so I would like Parliament to change that threshold to 21. In essence, that will take all the teenage years out of the real threshold and will change the behaviour of people who are paying. I am not making moral judgments about what people do as adults.

My Bill seeks solely and simply to raise that threshold. I think that doing so will have a huge impact because the age group involved—older teenagers—must be given the space in which to turn around their lives. Our current legislative framework makes them the victims as, in reality, the powers available to the police, even though they are often wisely and deliberately not used, are to arrest and criminalise young people, which worsens their life chances and their chances of turning around the situation.

Explicitly changing the threshold, as well as changing the behaviour of those who are paying, will create space to allow the various agencies to work and turn around the situation for those 16, 17, 18 and 19-year-olds. That situation can then be transformed, particularly for those who have a drug dependency or who have suffered abuse. Such input, as they develop into adults, will make a defining difference in many cases. We have all seen the kinds of people who are the victims in our constituencies; we all know that they can be anyone and that they can be concentrated in areas where there are particular problems. The correlation to major trauma, however, and to abuse and the provision of the support and ability to impact on those young kids—that is what those boys and girls are—are wholly missing from the process.

I propose this Bill as a small contribution that, for some of them, would have a significant impact. It would raise the threshold for those who choose to pay and remove a reasonable number of those teenagers from the industry, creating space so the agencies who wish to work with them can do so positively and allow them to turn around their lives.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 620

3.46 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I rise to speak about the motion on the Order Paper, although I have nothing specific to say about the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann)—[ Interruption. ] Let me explain, Mr Speaker—

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is opposing this, I am sure.

Chris Bryant: I am opposing the motion on the Order Paper, because it reads:

“That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend”

and all the other stuff that my hon. Friend mentioned. I do not think that we should be giving leave to bring in any more Bills, as there is absolutely no point in assenting to yet another Bill being brought in. If it is to be successful and to be brought into law, by Prorogation it will need to have gone through all its stages in this House and all its stages in the other House. We know perfectly well that the Deputy Leader of the House—who is in his seat and will, no doubt, assent to this—has absolutely no intention of ensuring that there will be time for the Bill to have its Second Reading, let alone to go into Committee. Consequently, I cannot see that there is any sense in it.

I merely point out that there are 109 private Members’ Bills on the Order Paper and only three are from—[ Interruption. ] I hear an hon. Gentleman say that that this should be a point of order, but it is not. The motion on the Order Paper states that we should give the Bill the right to go forward, and if hon. Members are going to agree to its going forward, they should ensure that there is time for it to do so and for it to do something substantial. There is a means of doing that.

There are 109 private Members’ Bills on the Order Paper—several have come from Mrs Bone, it is true—and only three have come back from the Lords and therefore stand any chance of becoming law before Prorogation. They are the Live Music Bill, which has already been through all its stages in this House, the Contaminated Blood (Support for Infected and Bereaved Persons) Bill and the Building Regulations (Review) Bill. Only two are in their remaining stages, which will take place this Friday, and could possibly become law, unless the Deputy Leader of the House were to say that the Government would give time in some of the next few days, when we are, frankly, slightly less busy with Government legislation. That would enable us to enact some of the private Members’ Bills.

Alternatively, I hope that, as a lot of Members want to legislate on specific matters that would be of significant advantage to our constituents, the Backbench Business Committee will consider making time available on Back-Bench business days for private Members’ Bills. As we discussed in last week’s debate, I do not believe that this House should just be representative—it is important that we do the representing. We cannot do the representing as Back-Benchers if private Members’ Bills just stack up on Fridays. There are 64 this Friday and I guess we might get to debate two of them in any kind of substance, and the rest of the Bills will not even be heard on a day when we are sitting.

If hon. Members want to agree to this going forward, I say to them sincerely that they should ensure that there is more time for private Members’ Bills, because

17 Jan 2012 : Column 621

sometimes they make some of the best legislation.




The Whip, who should be silent, is trying to accuse us of not having given enough time, but in my time as Deputy Leader of the House we got more private Members’ Bills on to the statute book in one year than this Government will in two full years in one Session. Frankly, he can go back to his silence.

Question put and agreed to.


That John Mann, Fiona Mactaggart, Natascha Engel, Mrs Louise Ellman, Gavin Shuker and Siobhain McDonagh present the Bill.

John Mann accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 March, and to be printed (Bill 272).

17 Jan 2012 : Column 622

Backbench Business

[Un-allotted Day]

Future of Town Centres and High Streets

3.52 pm

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the future of town centres and high streets.

Let me begin by thanking the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), and her fellow colleagues on the Committee for granting this debate. I thank also hon. Members and Friends who supported the request for this debate at that Committee.

We all have at least one if not several town centres or high streets in our constituencies. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members share my passion for our town centres. For me, that passion was developed during my time as a local councillor and council leader, when I had responsibility for town centres during the deepest and darkest period of the recession. Our town centres are focal points for shopping and meeting friends and colleagues, as well as for accessing entertainment, leisure, culture, public services and transport among other things.

The economic and social contribution that our town centres make cannot be understated. High streets make up 13% of UK economic value and 14% of total UK employment. Unfortunately, over many years the position of our high streets and town centres has been eroded to varying degrees. Many of the stronger retail chains have squeezed out the individual small businesses from many high streets but are now retrenching owing to the economic conditions. They are becoming dependent on fewer and fewer stores and consequently are withdrawing from many of our town centres.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, as well as on setting up the all-party group on town centres. Does he agree that one way of regenerating town centres is, as happens in my constituency, to give tax incentives to areas that are trying to regenerate themselves and to independent shops and small businesses so that they can set up, as opposed to only the chains coming into every high street across Britain?

Mr Jones: I certainly think that we at least need to put our town centres and high streets on a level playing field with other parts of the retail industry. We need to be as innovative as possible to make sure that taxes are as low as possible for people who want to operate on our high streets.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I commend the hon. Gentleman on his success in securing the debate. Dudley town centre has seen better days; it is just a few miles up the road from the Merry Hill shopping centre. Does he agree that Dudley town centre would be ideal for one of the pilot studies resulting from Mary Portas’s review? Does he agree that the Minister should select Dudley for one of the pilots and that the Minister

17 Jan 2012 : Column 623

ought to come to Dudley so that I can take him around the town centre and he can see for himself the problems we face?

Mr Jones: Dudley is an important area and the hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for it, but I think it probably ranks somewhere behind my constituency in relation to this matter.

In the last few days alone, we have seen some long-standing store chains, such as Blacks Leisure, Peacocks and Barratts, all enter administration. In the words of Mary Portas,

“our high streets have reached a crisis point,”

a statement with which I am sure many people up and down the country will agree.

A number of factors have led to the decline of our high streets, although the main reasons are undoubtedly the steady rise of out-of-town retail shopping malls, together with the dramatic impact of the arrival of internet shopping, which has soared. Back in 2007, it accounted for 4.8% of retail sales, but last November it was found to account for 12.2%. That is a challenge to our town centres, and it will be greatly exacerbated by the increased use of mobile phone technology, which is broadening the internet spectrum.

Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. May I share with him the experience of my local town of Leek, where the totally locally Leek initiative has been developed by independent shopkeepers? The idea is that if everybody who lived in Leek spent £5 each week in a local shop rather than on the internet, it would be worth £4 million to the local economy. Does he agree that we need initiatives such as that to promote local high streets?

Mr Jones: It is important for people to try to get the best deal in terms of their shopping habits, but reliance on local shopping is also important. Only in that way will we secure the future of our local town centres and high streets.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): My hon. Friend eloquently lays out the reasons why many town centres are falling on hard times. Has he noted Mary Portas’s remarks about the motor car? In market towns, and in rural areas, a car is no luxury, and it is essential for the vibrancy of those towns that there is adequate parking. What does he feel about that and, in particular, Portas’s remarks about a league table for car parks?

Mr Jones: My hon. Friend makes an extremely sensible point. For far too long, we have not thought about the people who want to drive into our town centres and we have not considered the quality and availability of car parking. We have certainly not considered its cost, which I shall come to later. It is extremely prohibitive and is one reason why there is not a level playing field for our town centres in relation to their out-of-town competitors.

In my constituency, Nuneaton town centre has fared reasonably well, and better than many. There is a property vacancy rate of about 6% while the national average is 11.1%, although the factors I have mentioned account

17 Jan 2012 : Column 624

for a vacancy creep that is happening at different rates across the country. Many of the factors in my analysis of the reasons for decline may be a little simplistic, but what we do to arrest that terminal decline is far from simple.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Is he aware of a study by Transport for London showing that the average retail spend per month is £373 for people who walk to their high street but only £226 for those who take their car? Similar studies show that those who cycle or take the bus or train spend more than those who drive.

Mr Jones: My hon. Friend makes a reasonable suggestion, but there is a difference between travel in the London area and the situation in other regions of the UK. I can certainly say that far more people who shop in my local town centre in Nuneaton drive there than use local transport, so we have to be pragmatic.

Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that people who do not go to the town centre at all because they cannot walk or drive spend nothing at all?

Mr Jones: That is a sensible if not obvious point, and it is important.

As for how we address that decline, I welcome the review that the Government have instigated and their decision to commission the Portas review, which has not just brought the views of Mary Portas, a recognised retail guru, to the high street but has served to stimulate much-needed debate on this crucial issue. I was delighted that Miss Portas took time when researching the report to hold a discussion with the all-party group which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) mentioned, I chair. The meeting was nearly as well attended as this debate, which highlights the importance of our town centres and high streets to parliamentarians and their constituents.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he welcome what is happening in Wellingborough and Rushton, where the Government’s economic policies are being enforced with great gusto? We have free car parking, and a new Marks and Spencer is opening in Wellingborough. A multi-billion pound project is hopefully about to open in the Rushton area providing jobs and local availability for shopping.

Mr Jones: My hon. Friend makes an excellent case for his local area, and such positivity will do nothing but help further investment in his constituency.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I agree that my hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that the neighbourhood planning provisions in the Localism Act 2011 give local communities a greater say for the first time in helping to shape the sort of town centres that they need and want?

Mr Jones: That vision is certainly significant and, along with the national planning policy framework provisions such as the “town centre first” policy, it is extremely important. I shall come on to that in a moment.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 625

I shall go through some of the Portas proposals in more detail but, before doing so, I should like to quote the final words of the review:

“Those are just my ideas. What are yours?”

I hope that it is in that spirit that right hon. and hon. Members will use the focus of today’s debate to feed into the work of the Portas review through their own constituency experience, which should serve to inform Ministers’ thinking before they make their response and implement any policies following that crucial review.

I will briefly mention one or two points from the five groups of recommendations in the Portas proposals. I very much welcome the idea of a town team. Many constituencies have town centre partnerships or business improvement districts, and I was personally involved in setting up a town centre partnership in the town of Bedworth in the neighbouring North Warwickshire constituency when I was council leader. The concept of the town team represents a shift in thinking.

Dan Byles: As my hon. Friend and neighbour has mentioned the town of Bedworth in my constituency, may I take the opportunity to thank him for doing that work when he was leader of the council? Bedworth is one of those towns that are linked to a larger town in the borough, and was sometimes considered, for want of a better word, the slightly poorer neighbour by the council.

Mr Jones: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. With regard to the local shopping on offer, Bedworth is an extremely important player, even if it is not as large or always as vibrant as Nuneaton.

Town centre teams would give more teeth and opportunity for more detailed public-private sector engagement, which could go beyond the operational, micro issues, that town centre partnerships and BIDs deal with, and cover strategic issues, helping to shape the vision for our town centres. The proposal would allow landlords to become investors in town teams or super-BIDs, and would seek to strengthen that vision for town centres with the possibility of leveraging in further private investment. The all-party group secretariat, the Association of Town Centre Management, very much advocates that approach and is convinced that there is real will on the part of the private sector to make a major contribution to this.

Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that if we are trying to attract investment, the proliferation of betting shops taking over premises from the closure of banks and building societies, which has happened in Deptford high street in my constituency, is a disincentive and spoils the diversity of our high streets, which is so important and which we need to hold on to or bring back?

Mr Jones: Betting shops are an important part of our town centres and high streets, as I am sure the right hon. Lady would acknowledge, and they offer valuable employment. However, the proliferation of betting shops has been caused to some extent by the provisions of the licensing legislation in relation to the number of machines that such businesses can have. That needs looking at and Mary Portas refers to it in her report.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 626

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): In addition to the proliferation of betting shops, there has been a proliferation of high-cost credit lenders on our high streets, which prey on some of the most vulnerable members of society. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Medway council, which has established a cross-party working group to look at how the council can get involved in ensuring that the licensing of those money-lending shops is controlled and reduces the possible damage to the most vulnerable members of society?

Mr Jones rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) responds, let me say, first, that he has been speaking for 14 minutes. I am sure many Members have been greatly enjoying his speech, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman has been enjoying it, but there are nearly 50 Members who wish to speak and to whom a time limit applies, so I hope he is bringing his remarks to a conclusion. Secondly, the frequency with which he gives way is a matter for him, but he might want to bear that in mind. Thirdly, interventions are too long.

Mr Jones: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that guidance. I will try to keep my remarks brief and to keep interventions to a minimum.

Starting new enterprise is crucial on our high streets, particularly with many of our chain stores retrenching. We need to reinvigorate our independent shopkeepers. Street markets and indoor markets are an important route to doing that. In my constituency we have an award-winning street market on Wednesdays and Saturdays which often has more than 150 stalls. As in the case of car parking, which I shall come to shortly, local authorities must be careful to make sure that markets are not just cash cows and income generators for the local authority, but are there for the benefit of the local community and the local town centre.

That brings me to ways of allowing businesses to flourish. Lower taxation and less regulation are the keys to unlocking that potential, although we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Through deregulation—for example, the deregulation of pedlars—we could end up with a situation where pedlars can turn up and trade alongside market traders, without paying any rent or rates. The market traders who have traditionally been on our high streets will find themselves at a disadvantage.

Car parking is a major issue. There is a case study in the Portas review that mentions Swindon, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) will probably elaborate on that. Although I acknowledge the restraint on both Government and local government budgets, further direct action on car parking charges must be explored. It would be fantastic if a pilot scheme could be run to see whether we could bring in free short-stay parking that would have the effect that we are looking for. The pilot should be run in a constituency, and I would make the argument for that to be my Nuneaton constituency, but other right hon. and hon. Members probably have other ideas on that.

There is also an inherent unfairness in how the business rates regime applies to town centre car parks and out-of-town-centre car parks, and we need to look at that

17 Jan 2012 : Column 627

carefully to ensure that we allow our town centres to operate on a level playing field. As Mary Portas rightly pointed out, we need to look carefully at planning in our town centres. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned the national planning policy framework, and we must ensure that the “town centre first” policy and the sequential test are retained in the framework. I also think that it is important that office development is included, because although we must not deny out-of-town development, we must ensure that it is proportionate and meets the needs of a particular area.

I note your comments about time, Mr Speaker, and appreciate that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak. By bringing the matter before the House, I sincerely hope that we will have a positive debate, that our views will prevail and that the Minister will go away loaded with positive ideas from Back-Bench Members that can be fed into the Government’s review. I firmly believe that the British people instinctively wish to see our high streets and town centres not only survive, but flourish and prosper, as they form one of the unique components that make up the UK.

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the Mayor of London, who today announced £177 million of targeted regeneration investment for town centres and local high streets, of which Brentford and Isleworth will receive £4.8 million?

Mr Jones: That is fantastic news, and just the sort of support that our town centres and high streets need. It is extremely important that we support our high streets and town centres not only as Members of Parliament, but as individuals, and that at all times we promote their cause so that they are there for hundreds of years to come, as they have been for us all thus far.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. In view of the level of interest, and as has been made clear on the Annunciator, I have imposed a seven-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

4.12 pm

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this important debate. The state of our high streets and town centres is important not only for our local economies and for providing jobs, but for strengthening our local communities. I think that setting up the Portas review of the high street was an inspired decision by the Government, although Members will not be surprised to hear that I have concerns about how the Government are supporting the retail sector.

Retail is our country’s largest private sector employer and accounts for 20% of the UK’s gross domestic product. The sector accounts for 40% of employment for the under-20s and pays 28% of all business rates. Now that the Government have achieved a youth unemployment level of over 1 million and failed to replace the public sector jobs that have been cut with private sector jobs, we can see how important the sector is to the health of our economy.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 628

The retail sector’s prospects for 2012 are not good. Hardly a day goes by without another high street brand going into administration; Peacocks has already been mentioned. Consumer confidence is exceptionally low. Although that is clearly impacting on the larger retail multiples, it is also having a devastating impact on independent retailers, a group of businesses that do not always have a voice—or rather, are not always heard—in debates about the economy. That is why I believe that commissioning the Portas review was an inspired decision. It inevitably shines light on the smaller retailers that provide the diversity and quality customer service that enhance our high streets.

There has been much press coverage of Rochdale’s town centre in recent months, not least because McDonald’s has decided to leave, and because we have a disproportionate number of charity shops. In reality, however, our town has a great retail offer. Businesses such as Chantilly, 25 Ten, Denis Hope, Bragg and the Number Ten Gallery are perfect examples of the high-quality independents that enhance Rochdale’s high street, but Rochdale, like towns throughout the country, needs the Government to act more quickly and responsibly.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): It is terribly important to point out that the issue is not just about retail, but about attracting people into town centres. Beckenham used to be a wonderful place to go, but it is getting shoddier and shoddier, and we need more funding to make such areas good places for people to go—even if they are going there not to spend any money, but just for social reasons.

Simon Danczuk: I agree, and the Portas review makes the point that town centres are not just about retail, but about being a community magnet that brings people in for a variety of reasons. One problem is that the Portas review was delayed for months, and came to us late, but it is also disappointing that the Minister has decided not to respond until the spring.

The review makes a host of recommendations, practically all of which I welcome, but it also pushes a disproportionate amount of responsibility on to local government. We all know that towns such as Rochdale have received devastating cuts from this Government, so it will not be easy for local authorities to implement some of the recommendations, such as discounted business rates. Local councils can help with national market day, and set up town teams, as Members have said, but it is for central Government to take responsibility for the major issues affecting our town centres.

On planning, as the review recommends, the Government must put the town centre first, and following their consultation on the national planning policy framework, I get the impression that they will. I believe that they will make that change to the draft NPPF.

But the Government need to go further than the review, and we would benefit from looking at how credit insurance works in the retail sector, and at how the lack of credit insurance for wholesalers and suppliers makes it difficult for businesses to manage cash flow and, ultimately, to survive. A Government scheme to assist suppliers with credit insurance would certainly help.

The review makes some welcome recommendations on business rates, and Mary Portas is right to highlight the adverse impact of business rate levels on our high

17 Jan 2012 : Column 629

streets. In Rochdale, retailers that are closing have cited high business rates, but the Government have just introduced the biggest hike in such rates for 20 years—an increase of 5.6%. That is just not sustainable for small businesses on our high street.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is also a problem with bank lending to enable high-street shops to invest and bring their businesses up to the standard that we all expect in this day and age?

Simon Danczuk: That is absolutely right. Bank lending is a real problem for small businesses, and one that the Government need to address in terms of the larger economic situation.

Returning to business rates, I also highlight the problem with the Valuation Office Agency. I recently had a Rochdale bar owner attend my surgery, describing how the VOA had told him that it assumed his takings would be about £179,000 per year—a figure that he could only dream of achieving. I know from my own dealings with the VOA that its performance leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is it difficult to deal with, it is also slow to act. Thousands of businesses in Greater Manchester have appealed against the new business rate valuations, yet the VOA admitted that in 2010 it could deal with only 3% of the appeals made, leaving a massive backlog that still needs clearing. The VOA is now refusing to publish what percentage of appeals are successful—presumably to discourage businesses from challenging its valuations. We should not underestimate the impact that business rates and the VOA are having on the high street. I urge the Government to give those issues more urgent attention.

I started by mentioning consumer confidence. We cannot underestimate the adverse impact that our country’s economy is having on our high streets. For all the tweaks and adaptations that can be made locally, it is the level of unemployment, the fear of becoming unemployed, the lack of credit for small businesses and high inflation that will make or break our high streets.

To conclude, the Portas review provides worthwhile recommendations on which the Government can act, but there needs to be urgent action, and the Government need to recognise the effect that their economic policies are having on our high streets.

4.20 pm

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): I am pleased to be taking part in this debate about the health of our high streets and town centres. I will risk making the passing comment that to see so many colleagues here to take part in a debate with a one-line Whip suggests that there is not a lot wrong with the health of our Parliament. It is an encouraging sight. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for triggering this debate, and Mary Portas for producing an excellent report on our high streets and town centres.

High streets and town centres have been under assault for many years from out-of-town shopping centres. Perhaps that horse has now bolted, but there is the new threat of internet purchasing. That is, in part, a generational thing. In the place where I live now there are four

17 Jan 2012 : Column 630

families, as three of our grown-up children and their spouses have joined us in our little community, which was described, when I became a Minister in 1996, as an evangelical community on the edge of Dartmoor. That sounds very alternative, but it is nothing like that. With three families of a younger generation, it seems that the delivery vans arrive several times a day as a result of their internet shopping. We grandparents are not really doing it, but the younger generation are. This is a very new assault on the high street.

That is why I strongly support what is perhaps the key recommendation of the report—that a new vision for the high street must recognise that it is not just about retail but about culture, community and leisure. We must make a visit to the high street or the town centre like a day out. It should be a pleasurable experience, and not just about retail.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that many of those who make purchases on the internet take the trouble to visit the high street and look at the product that they wish to purchase, only to go home and buy it more cheaply on the internet? Without the high street, that market simply would not work.

Mr Streeter: I think that that is right, although my daughter and son-in-law spend most of their time browsing not in the shops but online, and make their purchasing decisions in that way. Either way, of course, is good. High streets will never compete with the internet or out-of-town shopping centres on retail alone. That is the important point that the report tells us.

My constituency of South West Devon has three shopping centres: Plympton, Plymstock and Ivybridge. Most of those communities will be well known to colleagues in this House. Over the nearly 20 years in which I have been privileged to represent those communities, I have seen the ebbs and flows of the high street. It is right to say that local people want to support their town centres, but it is important that the offer from them is right and attractive.

Mary Macleod: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Streeter: I will of course give way, but for the last time.

Mary Macleod: Does my hon. Friend agree that market days have a role to play in the high street to give shoppers something different? On Saturday, he is welcome to come to the Turnham Green terrace market day in Chiswick, in west London.

Mr Streeter: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right. However, if I had a choice between being in Devon or Chiswick on a Saturday, I know which one I would choose. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I suspect that most of my colleagues would say exactly the same thing.

I thought that it would be helpful if, drawing on this excellent report and my experiences over the past 20 years, I came up with the five golden rules for regenerating our town centres and high streets. The first is to have local leadership. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) spoke eloquently about what the Government

17 Jan 2012 : Column 631

should do, but let us talk about what the local community should do. Bottom-up local leadership is crucial in sparking the regeneration of our town centres and high streets. I give the example of Ivybridge town council, which already has in place a neighbourhood plan and has engaged the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment to come up with a brand new vision for the town centre.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Streeter: I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind. I have given way twice already, and I have an awful lot to say.

Ivybridge town council is very keen on the report that Mary Portas has produced and hopes that the Government will formulate a number of policies to make it a reality. Local leadership, particularly from the energetic town clerk of Ivybridge, Lesley Hughes, is a crucial part of taking forward the regeneration of our town centres. Two of the other areas that I have mentioned, Plympton and Plymstock, are suburbs of Plymouth and do not have their own town councils, and we can see a real difference in how they grip the need for a new vision.

My second point is about the buy-in of the other local authorities involved. Whether they are district councils, county councils or unitary authorities, it is very important that all the relevant authorities are involved in bringing forward new visions. They need to be brought together on issues such as land ownership, parking, highways and various other powers.

We have heard talk of the important part that business rates can play in town centre regeneration. The Minister for Housing and Local Government is listening to me right now, and I say to him that the Government need to encourage and incentivise local authorities to make more creative use of business rates collected locally to underpin and support local businesses and new economic development in their communities. Let us find ways of doing that.

Thirdly, I wish to mention car parking. I have been through 20 or 30 years of town planners, architects and academics telling us that we need to build sustainable communities with the car designed out of them. I am sorry, but it has not worked. Whether it is right or wrong, the people of this country have chosen the car. For most of us, in our rural communities, the car is absolutely essential. In many parts of my community there is not one bus a day but one bus a week, and if someone misses it by two minutes they are in for a long wait. It is essential to provide space for car parking in the regeneration of our town centres and high streets, and for that parking to be either free, very reasonably priced, or free for a certain period. We are all lazy.

I also support “pop and shop” schemes whereby people can park outside a shop for a few moments even in a pedestrianised or semi-pedestrianised area, to pick up their dry cleaning, get cash out of the bank, buy the grandchildren an ice cream or whatever. I am afraid that the idea of designing out the car is now old-fashioned and has to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Car parking must be at the heart of what happens.

Fourthly, we need flexible planning. In the west country we have a lot of rural areas and a lot of rural planning authorities that have done a great job of preserving our

17 Jan 2012 : Column 632

countryside for many generations. However, I say to them that we do not want our town centres or high streets to be museums. We need much more flexible planning laws. I agree with Mary Portas that we should change the law on use classes to make it much easier to change from one high street use to another. I suspect that planning officers in many parts of the world need a paradigm shift. In too many places, their default position is to say no and then try to justify it. I hope that our planning guidance, which has somehow got stuck somewhere in the system in the past few weeks, will be introduced early in this new year to encourage and incentivise local planning officers to allow new life to be breathed into our high streets. We need much more flexibility, because our high streets must not be left as a museum.

While I am on the subject of planning, it is worth saying that sometimes English Heritage does not help us. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) will agree that the decision to list Plymouth civic centre as some kind of historic and beautiful building, when it is probably the ugliest thing outside Dudley, is absolutely disgraceful. [Interruption.] Have I got myself in trouble there? I think I probably have.

Fifthly, landowners and developers need to be brought into the equation, and they need to be much more creative. I shall finish by returning to Ivybridge, where there is a development called Glanvilles Mill that is full of empty or half-empty shops. We need much more creativity in establishing a new development to bring Ivybridge into the 21st century.

I commend the report to the Government, and I hope that at the end of the debate the Minister will tell us that he supports it completely and will bring in a lot of new policies to make it happen.

4.30 pm

Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab): I am sorely tempted to throw my notes away and to join the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) in castigating English Heritage, but I shall resist.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate and all those Members who approached the Committee, of whom I was one. The debate is a reflection of their wisdom, because this issue clearly excites interest on both sides of the House and across the country, largely because everybody has a local high street and a local town centre—not just Members of Parliament, but individual citizens. The importance of the welfare of high streets and town centres cannot be overestimated.

The issues around town centres and high streets are perennial. I join others in welcoming the Government’s commissioning of a report from Mary Portas and her work. The report introduces some new language, and anyone who reads it can tell that it has been written not by a planning professional or a civil servant, but by somebody whose main qualification is in the business about which they are speaking and whose enthusiasm is patently transparent. That runs through the whole report. I am not quite familiar with a few expressions in the report—I do not know what she means by a “three-dimensional retailing experience”—but we can forgive that kind of hyperbole when the essence of what she addresses is so critical to the health of so many of our communities.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 633

I notice that the Government say they will have their response out by the spring, which I think means the day before the House rises in the summer, whatever date in July that might be. I hope the Minister takes into account what people say and how important this issue is. I sometimes worry about Ministers’ responses to Backbench Business Committee debates. They accept motions—although there are no specifics in today’s motion—but spend all their time during their speeches explaining why they do not agree with them. I hope that that will not be the case today.

High streets and town centres mean different things in different parts of the country—they mean different things in urban areas, semi-urban areas, towns and villages—but in both this country and around the world, the common denominator is that the local market, however we describe it, is a key ingredient of the local community. In many ways, it defines the local community. As others have said, it is not just a place of trade and exchange, but a place of social interaction and opportunity, a meeting place and a centre for all kinds of activity, not merely retail.

There are many different aspects of the high street debate. I agree with the hon. Member for South West Devon that the threat is no longer from new out-of-town developments. Time will tell whether we have sold the pass on that and whether we allowed too many developments in previous years with which the traditional local ribbon high streets must contend, but the threat is not from new developments.

Robert Halfon: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful speech. He says that local retail centres are not a threat, but all the retail centres in Harlow are very popular and have a huge advantage because they have free parking. People can park outside the door and go about their daily business at the retail centres, whereas many shopping precincts—not just in Harlow, but all around the country—are paved over and very difficult to park near, and many have parking charges. Does he agree that free parking would make a huge difference, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) suggested?

Jim Dowd: I shall come to that in a moment. Perhaps I have not made myself clear. I do not think that the threat comes from new developments, the construction of which seems largely to have abated, as the hon. Member for South West Devon pointed out. The fear is that we have already created too many of them, and that they will still have an effect on the traditional town centres and high streets.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our high streets have a wider role in supporting local supply chains and increasing local resilience? In some areas, there is still a threat not only from out-of-town developments but from large distribution depots, which are merely displacing jobs rather than creating new ones.

Jim Dowd: That is indeed true.

I was involved in producing a report a few years ago, and we discovered that, in the large retail sector, it takes £150,000 worth of turnover to support one job, whereas

17 Jan 2012 : Column 634

the comparable figure for small and independent retailers is £100,000. So, small and independent retailers are much more likely than large ones to produce employment. They are also much more likely to be used by people locally, and the value stays within the local community rather than being exported to a national centre elsewhere. They are also of much greater value to the community in terms of social cohesion as well as retailing.

Some 10 years ago, I was approached by the Independent Retailers Confederation at an event here in the House, and we had further discussions. I then tabled an early-day motion relating to retail crime and under-age purchasing, which highlighted the fact that although those issues apply to all retailers, they present a bigger challenge and have a greater effect on small retailers than they do on the large multiples. I know that some Members take a proprietorial—almost parental—interest in their early-day motions, e-mailing and writing to everyone to ask them to sign them. I take a much more hands-off approach, however; I table them and send them off to find their own place in the world. So, I submitted the EDM with only my name on it, but within a week, it had attracted about 88 signatures.

I spoke to some of the Members who had supported my motion, and it became clear that although there had been an all-party parliamentary retail group for many years, there was a strong feeling that its work did not reflect the interests of small and independent retailers. I am not criticising its work at all; I think that it is a valuable adjunct to the work of the House and the interests of its Members. It is fronted by the British Retail Consortium, which is an estimable organisation that does a good job of representing its interests. However, the consortium effectively represents large retail traders and multiples. That is perfectly legitimate, but the idea that it represents small and independent businesses is just plain wrong. We need only to look at its membership lists to discover that fact. It includes some online businesses that have no trading premises, but, apart from those, its idea of a small trader with only one outlet is Harrod’s or Fortnum and Mason. They are not small retailers, by anyone’s definition.

We then formed the all-party parliamentary small shops group. I am particularly indebted to the hon. Members for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), and to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), now the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, as well as to the right hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). We undertook to establish an inquiry, along the lines of that of a Select Committee, into the future of the high street. It was the first report of its kind, and it attracted a lot of attention. We made a number of recommendations, most of which were ignored. Some, however, were enacted, and some were partly enacted. There is, however, a wealth of information, material and advice on the future of the high street, of which Mary Portas’s report is just the latest. There is also the all-party small shops group’s report from seven years ago and reports from the Evening Standard and various community groups and academic organisations. I hope that the Government will take long-overdue action and relentlessly pursue a policy in the interests of retailers of all sizes and the communities that they serve.

17 Jan 2012 : Column 635

4.40 pm

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on showing great leadership through his work on the all-party town centres group and in securing this debate. The group goes from strength to strength under his chairmanship. I also congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on allowing this debate to take place, because hardly a constituency in the country is not affected by this issue and there is hardly a high street not in need of improvement and enhancement.

Many Members have referred to their own high streets and constituencies, and I shall be no different because I represent the market town of Dartford, which, despite a planned regeneration project, has to contend with all the difficulties that every high street in the country has to deal with. However, I also represent Bluewater, which is one of the largest out-of-town shopping centres in Europe, so a special range of challenges affects the local area.

I have found that high streets do best when they adapt to changing times and offer something different from out-of-town centres, but that difference can be part of their strength. That is often overlooked by high street managers. Out-of-town shopping centres and high streets are not the same but offer alternative experiences. We should not lose sight of the differences between the two, and so we should not approach them and their needs in the same way.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the report written by Mary Portas, and there is much to commend in that report, but I disagree with some aspects of it. Sadly, Mary Portas is very disparaging about out-of-town centres, yet that negative approach is misplaced. She asserts that out-of-town centres have a negative social and environmental impact on the areas where they are situated. That is simply not my experience. I am not sure what negative impact they have on the environment in which they are situated. On the social impact, in my experience, they have a positive, not a negative, impact on the local area. When I visit Bluewater shopping centre, I see families enjoying meals out, cinema visits and socialising with others. This is a good thing for the local area and is part of the positive social impact that Bluewater, for example, has had on my local area.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am glad to hear about the families enjoying themselves at Bluewater, but does my hon. Friend not agree that if they are enjoying themselves there—or, indeed, at Cribbs Causeway or other out-of-town shopping centres—in the way that he described, it means that they are not doing so in the town centres?

Gareth Johnson: Yes, but I do not feel that it is an either/or situation. Many families can enjoy both the high streets and the out-of-town shopping centres, but in different ways. Very often, out-of-town shopping centres can be destinations that people enjoy.

Robert Halfon: I invite my hon. Friend to the Harvey shopping centre in Harlow. It is a wonderful shopping centre integrated with shops in the local town centre. Does he not agree, though, that the answer to his conundrum is to have a level playing field, as I mentioned earlier, so that high streets have the same rights as shopping malls and out-of-town centres?

17 Jan 2012 : Column 636

Gareth Johnson: My hon. Friend extends a kind invitation but he need not have because I have visited Harlow shopping centre many times. It was a very pleasant experience, but I do not agree with the assertion made by some—not by him—that we can make high streets better by making out-of-town shopping centres worse. That is simply not the case. We need to ensure that both shopping destinations are vibrant.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Member think that although the high streets might offer certain qualities and a particular type of shopping experience to shoppers, they also need the prices and the bargains? I do not do any of the shopping—my wife does that, and she always looks for the bargains, as I am sure is the case with every hon. Lady in the House.

Gareth Johnson: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. People will always be out bargain hunting when they are shopping. My wife is exactly the same, but there is also a place for quality in the marketplace.

Let me make some progress. Mary Portas has said that out-of-town shopping centres are responsible for job displacement. Bluewater shopping centre employs some 15,000 people. I simply do not accept that that number of people lost their jobs in the local high streets as a result of Bluewater opening. If these assertions are incorrect for Bluewater and north Kent, I presume that they do not apply elsewhere either.

In many ways, the success of many our out-of-town shopping centres helps to highlight what is needed in our high streets. In short, high streets can learn from out-of-town shopping centres. High streets need to become attractive, safe locations for people to spend their time, day or night; they need to be attractive to families and to people who will want to spend quality time there.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that as much as anything else, town centres must remain accessible and that planning authorities have too much of a tendency to force change in transport systems, like imposing one-way systems or parking restrictions? In so doing, they are often limiting the town centre; they want to force a retailer to pay just because it has come into the town.

Gareth Johnson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course town centres need to be accessible. Perhaps the most popular way of achieving that is through car parking provisions. This is how shoppers want to do their shopping; if they have heavy shopping bags, they might not wish to use public transport, however good it is.