30 Jun 2015 : Column 375WH

30 Jun 2015 : Column 375WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 30 June 2015

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Shale Gas

9.30 am

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered shale gas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

Is shale gas exploration right for the UK, right now, and right for the constituency I represent? The benefits of shale gas exploration are clear. Greater energy independence and security at a time of significant international uncertainty is a compelling proposition, as is the prospect of a prosperous new industry that can provide new jobs, business opportunities and direct financial benefit to local communities. The economy is important, but no economic benefit, vested interest or party political pressure could ever lead me to support something that I believed would have a detrimental effect on our countryside or the health of local residents. Over the last 10 months, I have met parties on either side of the fracking debate in an attempt to get a clearer understanding of the issues.

Shale gas exploitation will produce harmful greenhouses gases. The natural gas produced is a fossil fuel, and many object to its production because when burned it produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Some say we should instead focus on renewables, such as wind farms, solar and producing energy from household waste, but most reasonable observers would accept that we are a long way from green energy being able to met all our needs. Natural gas produces 50% less greenhouse gas emissions than coal and can help us to meet our climate change targets more quickly and cheaply. Although renewable energy production is increasing, in 2014 it delivered only 7% of our total energy needs. We need a mixed, and ideally domestic, solution to our energy requirements.

On Saturday morning, I visited the village of Kirby Misperton in my constituency, where an application to drill for shale gas has recently been submitted. Of about 50 people in attendance, 44 were against fracking and six had an open mind; none was in favour. These people are not professional campaigners: they are decent local people, desperately worried that fracking will change their lives forever, and not for the better. Their concerns mainly centre on safety—the potential for contamination of water supplies and air pollution—during production and after the producer has made their money and left; the spoiling of countryside by drilling rigs, noise and light pollution and lorry movements; and, at the end of the day, who cleans up and who pays up if things go wrong.

First, on safety, the fact that other Administrations—France, Germany, New York state and so on—have banned fracking is a major worry to many. So too is the “Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts” report from the

30 Jun 2015 : Column 376WH

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which had 63 redactions within 13 pages, including of a whole section on the impact on house prices. The Government’s position that

“There is a strong public interest in withholding the information”

did little to ease anxieties. It leads many members of the public to feel that they are being deceived, patronised or treated with contempt. We have only one chance: we need to get it right an to be seen to get it right.

The Environment Agency, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the mineral protections authority and the Health and Safety Executive regulate operations. Having met the Environment Agency, I am confident that our regulations are strong. Fracking will be allowed only outside groundwater source protection areas. According to one representative of the agency, chances of contamination are entering the “realms of fantasy”, but I would like to see a clearer, more robust and independent monitoring regime for the regulations. The Environment Agency is already stretched and cannot be reasonably expected to carry out truly independent checks on the producers’ operations and any consequential effects on the environment.

A 2012 International Energy Agency report on unconventional gas exploration includes in its golden rules:

“Recognise the case for independent evaluation and verification of environmental performance”.

Our current regulations require the producer to instruct a chartered independent contractor to take baseline checks before drilling and to monitor water and air quality before, during and after production. Concerned local residents do not feel that those checks would be truly independent, as there is a clear commercial relationship between the producer and the contractor. Would it not make sense for the Environment Agency to instruct the relevant chartered environmental engineers, with the bill reimbursed by the producer?

The Royal Society’s 2012 report states:

“The operator commissions and pays for the services of the well examiner… This might be someone employed by the well operator’s organisation. It is important that those carrying out examination work have appropriate levels of impartiality and independence from pressures, especially of a financial nature. Promotion, pay and reward systems should not compromise professional judgement…. The independence of the scheme must not be compromised.”

Evidence provided to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee in 2013-14 states:

"the weakest point of the regulatory process concerns the Environment Agency”,

which appears to have

“insufficient in-house expertise.”

The Committee stated that the agency

“should make it much clearer to the industry and the public exactly how and when they would inspect well sites.”

Many are also concerned about the amount of water required and whether it can be safely decontaminated and recycled, and whether contaminates can be disposed of, particularly on the scale proposed.

The spoiling of countryside is another major concern. I would be first in a long line of local residents who would fight tooth and nail to prevent any attempt to produce shale gas in my area in a way that industrialises the landscape. Traditionally, the fracking process involves

30 Jun 2015 : Column 377WH

a high number of lorry movements and unsightly infrastructure that could be a real blot on the landscape. Just one of the companies, Third Energy, has stated that it might drill 950 wells in less than a third of my constituency, which would require hundreds of thousands of lorry movements, all in one of the country’s most beautiful counties, with an economy heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism. North Yorkshire County Council, which would handle any application, has to take into account the impact on other parts of the economy, particularly tourism, and the suitability of our roads to handle additional traffic. The beauty of our countryside is North Yorkshire’s main asset and we must protect this at all costs.

A 2012 “World Energy Outlook” report on unconventional gas stated that production is

“an intensive industrial process”,


“can have major implications for local communities, land use and water resources… Improperly addressed, these concerns threaten to curb, if not halt, the development of unconventional resources.”

I propose clear planning guidance that there must be buffer zones, with a minimum distance between sites of, say, six miles. We do not want the images of a fracked industrial landscape from North Dakota to become a reality here. The 2012 Royal Society report recommends recycling and reuse of waste water and that water disposal options should be planned from the outset, thereby reducing traffic and the impact on local communities.

Who cleans up and who pays up if things go wrong? We need to make sure that our green fields are not turned into brown fields. Appropriate regulation and supervision may reduce the chances of things going wrong, but we also need to understand and provide for a situation where it does. Although groundwater source protection zones are excluded from fracking activities, what protections are in place for boreholes and artesian wells? According to United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas, the body that represents the industry,

“if a company causes damage, harm or pollution to the environment, they can be required under these regimes to remediate the effects and prevent further damage or pollution…. Environmental regulators and planning authorities have the power to require upfront financial bonds to address these risks. The industry does not wish to leave this to the taxpayer or the landowner. As a less expensive alternative to upfront bonds, UKOOG is working with Government on the development of an industry scheme that will step in and pay for liabilities.”

The Royal Society report states:

“Arrangements for monitoring abandoned wells need to be developed. Funding of this monitoring and any remediation work needs further consideration.”

What if the producer has gone bust? Who compensates those who have lost out?

As far as the jewels in the crown are concerned—namely, areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks, ancient woodlands and sites of special scientific interest—we need to state unequivocally that production will not take place in such areas. We must ensure that people do not feel that the Government agenda is being directed by big business. Many members of the general public do not trust business and also feel, perhaps unfairly, that too often politicians will support business at their

30 Jun 2015 : Column 378WH

expense. We need to take it one step at a time and ensure that people see that the process and facts are being properly monitored, assessed and reviewed.

All energy sources have impacts. As Members of Parliament, we have constituents who might be against onshore wind, solar farms, nuclear power or energy from waste. Twenty years ago in my constituency, many had similar fears when proposals were announced to carry out conventional gas exploration. Protests took place, views were heard and compromises were reached. Gas has been produced in the area ever since, with many residents unaware of its existence. Many members of the public have an open mind on fracking; others have genuine safety concerns. Whatever their viewpoint, it is critical that we keep the public informed and that local communities are consulted on the case for fracking, the potential benefits, the environmental risks and the proposed safeguards. We need to reassure the public that we are prepared to stop if fracking is significantly affecting lives and livelihoods, just as we did in 2011 when it caused earthquakes at Preese Hall in Blackpool.

In summary, we need: truly independent monitoring and publicly available analysis; a defined minimum radius between production sites; a clear solution on water recycling and disposal to reduce traffic; additional blight compensation for any person or community directly impacted; the release of an unredacted version of the DEFRA report; a clear willingness to stop if lives and livelihoods are affected to unacceptable levels; and, a clear answer to the question of who cleans up and who pays if the worst happens. We need to take the public with us, consult, provide expert scientific information and ensure that people do not feel they are being pushed or manipulated.

Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I thank him for his reference to Preesall in my constituency. Is he aware that yesterday, Lancashire councillors overwhelmingly voted to reject fracking in the county? The result was very clear: nine voted against and three voted in favour, which broadly reflects opposition to fracking across Lancashire—two thirds of people are in opposition, and the figure might be similar for his constituents over in Yorkshire. We had 300 local businesses write to the council, urging it to reject fracking. Those businesses included farmers, bed and breakfasts, media companies, the retail sector and many others. Does he agree that opposition to fracking runs across many different parts of our communities?

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. It might be of assistance to remind those hoping to take part in the debate that interventions should be short and to a single point. I think the hon. Lady made a mini-speech there, and I will not tolerate that in any future contributions.

Kevin Hollinrake: I absolutely accept that many local residents have real concerns, and we need to take those concerns into account before taking the next steps.

Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): As a point of correction, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) mentioned Preesall in her constituency. For the record, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) was actually referring to Preese Hall, which is a fracking well in my constituency.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 379WH

Kevin Hollinrake: I am grateful for the lesson in geography. It is not a part of the world I am all that familiar with, but I am very familiar with the geography of the beautiful parts of North Yorkshire, and I am strongly keen to ensure that they remain that way.

As the IEA report recommends, we need to:

“Integrate engagement with local communities, residents and other stakeholders into each phase of a development starting prior to exploration; provide sufficient opportunity for comment on plans, operations and performance; listen to concerns and respond appropriately and promptly.”

The public deserves precise answers to those questions.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he acknowledge that although the United States and Canada initially saw a transformative economic effect from shale gas, there has been a slowdown since 2014? Some gas fields are running at a loss. Does that not show that we need to ensure that there is an economically viable case in all instances of exploration?

Kevin Hollinrake: There is clearly an opportunity here. The volatility of oil and gas prices is not within my remit, but there is commercial pressure to exploit shale gas for future domestic security. I understand that; it is why we need to get it right.

The public deserve precise answers to their questions via every means possible, including a comprehensive series of community meetings conducted by real experts with real answers. It would be all too easy to join the chorus of political voices who oppose fracking in North Yorkshire, but I do not believe that politics should be about doing what is convenient or being swayed by a vocal minority; it is about doing what is right. At this stage, we need to look at the issues and solutions more closely and find those solutions that reassure the public that we have their interests at heart and that allow us to realise the benefits of low-carbon, low-cost energy independence.

9.47 am

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on obtaining this debate. It is important because it goes to the heart of the distinction between what it is to drill an exploratory well and what it is to have a fracking industry in any particular part of the country. He clearly set out the safeguards that are needed as an absolute baseline for any fracking at all to take place, as well as the cumulative effects of fracking and the extraction of shale gas on particular areas and what impact that has on the community in the longer term, as well as the impact on the consequential things needed to keep that industry in place—whether that is the disposal of wastewater, consideration of the intensity of various fracking pads, or a range of other issues.

I shall concentrate for a moment on thinking about what fracking as an industry might look like in this country, as opposed to what an occasional exploratory well might look like. The proposition in front of us is not for occasional bits of exploration; it is “Go for it. Let’s have a substantial fracking industry. Let’s change the nature of how we obtain our gas supplies.” The argument in favour of fracking is that it is a substantial

30 Jun 2015 : Column 380WH

addition to our national security. Some of the further reaches of the argument relate to bringing prices down, but that is quite wrong and misunderstands the nature of gas trading in Europe. There would not actually be any great difference in gas prices unless the whole of Europe decided that it would frack everywhere in Europe.

The argument that a substantial fracking industry might be good for national security is the main argument put forward for it.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): It is true that there is no reason to believe that prices in Europe will come down by a factor of four, as they have in the United States, but it is also true that if we have more of something, the price is likely to come down. Increasingly, our strategy is to buy gas from Russia and liquefied natural gas from Qatar. That is not a viable way forward.

Dr Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we buy some LNG from Qatar, but only about 0.5% of the UK supply comes directly from Russia. Buying gas from Russia is really not an issue for this country, although it is for some other parts of Europe. My point was that the international trading arrangements for gas have three nodes across the world—the far east node, the north American node and the European node—and gas is traded and pipelined within those nodes. The product of shale gas in this country would simply go into one of those nodes and be traded across them, and the price would even out. That is my point about whether a shale gas industry would mean a substantial reduction in price.

I want to concentrate on what a shale gas industry in this country would look like. We have only one serious document sponsored by the Department of Energy and Climate Change that looks at the consequences of a serious industry. My concern is that that document, a strategic assessment produced by AMEC a little while ago, estimates the output from shale gas wells to be 3.2 billion cubic feet per well over 20 years. As an average output for wells in the UK, that would equate to the best level ever obtained in any well in north America. Conditions for shale gas in the UK are very different from those in the United States, and the likelihood is that the output per well would be far lower than the very best output in the US. On top of that, the current average US well output is about 0.8 billion cubic feet—far lower than the best ever output—and, more to the point, there is a rapid rate of depletion per well.

In fact, a shale gas industry in the UK would see relatively low gas output per well, with a fairly rapid depletion rate and the necessity for re-fracking, probably once every seven or eight years, were the well to be retained in production over 20 years. It is not a question of a well pad being drilled and then the equivalent of “nodding donkeys”, such as we have at Wytch Farm, nodding away quietly in the countryside. The process of trucks, waste water and re-fracking would have to be repeated every few years on that well pad in order to keep it going. Even then, the depletion rate is more rapid after the second re-fracking, after which the well goes out of business.

George Kerevan (East Lothian) (SNP): Given the multiplicity of wells that would have to be drilled, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK would require a

30 Jun 2015 : Column 381WH

massive pipeline system and investment in a massive gas storage system? That would affect a large number of constituencies, not just where the drilling originally was.

Dr Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the location of various wells would require either that the gas was stored in tanks near the well and then transported or that new pipelines be constructed to take it away. A pipeline could not be organised in the same way as for the North sea.

On the basis of the scenario I have outlined for what a shale gas industry would look like in this country, the estimates are that, in order to divert, let us say, 10% of our gas supply from conventional gas into shale gas and remove part of the need to have gas from Qatar or Russia—10% is a modest diversion—we would need to drill somewhere between 10,000 and 18,000 wells, and they would have to be re-drilled over a period. Of course, those wells would not be evenly distributed throughout the country—Members would not have around two wells per constituency; wells would be concentrated in the two areas of the UK where there are reasonable shale plays. Those shale plays are geologically faulted and difficult to get at; nevertheless, they are the main areas: Bowland shale in the north-east of England and across the weald in the south.

We are looking at 10,000 to 18,000 wells concentrated in two parts of the country. As the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said, that would probably result in the very intensive geographical concentration of fracking in those areas, with a substantial geographical concentration of take-off facilities and of the need to remove waste water, 7 million gallons of which per well will have to be removed and disposed of fairly safely as hazardous waste. We do not currently have the ability to do that in this country. We can do it for the occasional well, but we would not be able to do it very easily without substantial new facilities for such a concentration of hazardous waste, which would be repeated as the wells were re-fracked.

We need to ask whether all that is a realistic prospect compared with the gain that might come from extracting the additional gas. It seems to me that, if that is what we want for our energy strategy, there will be a very high price to pay throughout the country for a marginal gain. Are we really, seriously committing ourselves to that? Recent events in Lancashire demonstrate that it is rather difficult to get two wells into the ground, let alone 18,000 over a longer period. I am worried that we are setting ourselves up by assuming that some of our future energy supplies are going to be pencilled in for this particular route, when either there are unacceptable costs to reaching that goal or, to make the industry work, we will have to build a whole lot of infrastructure on the back of what we already have.

Having considered at how a UK shale gas industry might look, it might be interesting to look briefly at an alternative industry: green gas, which is the production of gas by anaerobic digestion plants and associated methods. It has been projected that, by using most of the available feedstock that could go into anaerobic digestion plants, we could probably divert between 5% and 10% of our domestic gas supply requirements. When I say “divert”, I mean literally divert, because green gas AD plants can now inject gas directly into the mains.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 382WH

There are eight green gas plants currently operating in the UK. I recently visited one in Poundbury, which, at certain times of the year, injects gas into the mains grid. People living between, roughly speaking, Lyndhurst and Weymouth will receive green gas from the Poundbury anaerobic digestion plant at various times of the year. There is direct substitution of the existing gas going into the mains. An AD plant would probably produce some 6 million cubic metres over 20 years. A well could produce rather more at some 20 million cubic metres, but it would have to be re-fracked several times. After that, the well would be capped and the operators would walk away. Because plants and animals continue to produce feedstock, AD green gas plants would simply continue. If we are considering changing from gas imports to domestic production for national security purposes, it might be a better idea to build a large number of AD plants and have one at the end of every lane.

David Mowat: I support green gas and anaerobic digestion. The hon. Gentleman said that the gas could be injected directly into the mains gas system. Is he implying that the characteristics of shale gas or other unconventional gas mean that they cannot be put directly into the grid? I do not follow.

Dr Whitehead: I am sorry if I unintentionally misled the hon. Gentleman. Shale gas can of course be injected directly into the grid. AD-produced gas has a slightly different calorific value, but with minimal treatment it can actually go directly into the grid in the same way as shale gas, so there is a direct comparison in production and in end use between the two processes. I suggest that if we want an industry that diverts substantial amounts of gas from import, building up AD plants and injecting green gas into the system might be a more environmentally sound and less intrusive way of doing so which might be more acceptable to the communities affected by any potential intensive fracking.

I appreciate that a farm AD plant at the end of a lane is not exactly the prettiest sight in the world, but it produces gas at a near zero overall net carbon cost, because it simply recycles what has captured carbon in the first place, and produces a different pattern of use. In the long term, it is potentially—

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but 11 further speakers are hoping to catch my eye. I shall have to impose a time limit, but the extent of that limit is in the hon. Gentleman’s hands.

Dr Whitehead: This hon. Gentleman was actually just about to finish.

Considering the industry as a whole, I suggest that AD is a rather sounder route in the long term than imposing 18,000 wells across the country with all the consequences that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton outlined. I heartily concur with his concerns, but there is an alternative and it should be seriously considered.

10.3 am

Seema Kennedy (South Ribble) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing this debate. I will keep my remarks short.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 383WH

The decisions taken at county hall in Preston yesterday and last Thursday directly affect my constituency. Lancashire County Council’s planning committee has rejected Cuadrilla’s applications to frack at Roseacre Wood and Little Plumpton, both of which are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies). Those two sites are on the north side of the River Ribble, just a few miles away from a site at Hesketh Bank in South Ribble, where Cuadrilla was given a licence to frack in 2008. That licence was suspended, along with all others, in 2011.

Most of my constituents accept that we need to explore this new form of energy as it will help national self-sufficiency in energy. Too often, however, those with legitimate concerns about fracking are dismissed as luddites or nimbys, but many of my constituents’ worries have not yet been adequately addressed by Government or the energy companies. The main worries are about safety, specifically water contamination, the lack of adequate infrastructure to support a new industry and the details of the compensation framework.

South Ribble is the floodplain of the River Ribble and is known as the salad bowl of England. Grade 1 agricultural land makes up 32% of my constituency, which puts it in the top 10 of such constituencies in the country, and 41% of my constituency is grade 1 or grade 2 agricultural land. The neighbouring constituency of West Lancashire has the highest proportion of grade 1 agricultural land in the country, and many of the farmers and growers in my constituency have fields that cross constituency boundaries. The industry employs many thousands of people and contributes to our nation’s food security.

The quality of the products grown relies on their growing in pristine soil that must be free from water-borne contaminants, which is the growers’ No. 1 concern. Fracking involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the ground, but what is the composition of those chemicals? We are told that drilling takes place well under the water table, but my constituents are looking for further reassurance from Government and the energy companies that there will be no seepage into the water table and that the pipes will not develop fissures. They also have certain concerns about residual flowback fluid.

The site at Hesketh Bank is down a long country lane. The villages of Tarleton and Hesketh Bank are already clogged up with wagons transporting salad and vegetables to market. I am already working with local campaigners to put pressure on the council to build the “Green Lane Link” because the road system is not even adequate for our primary industry of agriculture. Were a new industry to be introduced, local people would expect the energy companies to contribute towards new infrastructure. They would not want it all to come out of their council tax.

Finally, let me turn to the compensation framework. Research from the US is conflicting on whether house prices are affected by having wells nearby. There needs to be robust compensation for those whose homes and livelihoods are affected. We need statute to set down the framework, which should include obligations to provide infrastructure such as roads and schools, rather than leaving it to local council planning authorities. Furthermore, the news on jobs is unclear. Are they the sort of high-skilled, long-term jobs that we want in Lancashire? DEFRA’s

30 Jun 2015 : Column 384WH

report from March 2014, “Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts”, states that jobs will be available for locals

“on the availability of skills and experience in the local labour market.”

My constituents want more reassurance that energy companies will train local apprentices and employ local people for the long term.

Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) (Con): My hon. Friend rightly highlights the local impact of the industry, which generates significant concern in my constituency. Given the Government’s statement last week that local communities should have the final say on wind energy, does she agree that there should be special rules for fracking—I see in the paper today that the industry is calling for a change in the legislation—requiring applications to go through the normal planning process, like in every other industry? Local communities would therefore get a say about what the industry looks like in their area—if it appears at all.

Seema Kennedy: We have all accepted that local communities need to have total buy-in, and I am talking about what the energy companies do as well. National Government need to lay down such obligations. The companies need to be seen to be engaging fully with young people, providing apprenticeships and local jobs.

My constituents are not nimbys, but they want reassurance that fracking will not affect the quality of their land. They want concrete reassurances that their communities will be adequately compensated for any risks that they might face.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Before I call Graham Stringer, I will have to impose a five-minute limit on speeches. It is unfortunate that I have to do so, but it is the only way that I can contemplate getting everyone in.

10.10 am

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on an extremely well balanced speech. All discussion about the energy industry is fraught, because it tends to deal not only with the detail, but with people’s particular ideological positions.

In the time available, I will make two major points. The first is that this country is at a particularly critical moment in its economic history. The energy policy that we have had for the past seven or eight years—putting up the price of energy by moving to intermittent renewable sources, which has increased people’s bills—has had two unfortunate consequences: not only the price going up, but the deindustrialisation of the country, as industry has moved elsewhere in the world. As a result, although the policy objective is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the overall carbon footprint of the country has increased. The policy has been a mistake. We now have a big decision to make on runway capacity in the south-east—which I will not talk about, Mr Howarth—as well as on fracking. All those decisions are critical for our country’s future wealth.

On fracking, there are two intellectually coherent arguments. I understand people from the green lobby who say—this often invades the discussion without

30 Jun 2015 : Column 385WH

being explicitly stated—that we should leave all fossil fuels in the ground forever, because we have already taken enough out. I do not agree, but it is intellectually coherent for people to say that. The argument that I support is that we need to look at every possible energy source for this country’s energy future. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) that we should look at green gas, and we should also put more money into research, because at the moment renewables cannot compete with the energy-intensity available from fossil fuels.

In the meantime, we also need to be developing shale gas. There is a case against and a case for, but there is not a case for pretending that we do not know or for simply kicking the can down the road and saying, “Oh, we’ll have a moratorium,” as some of the candidates in the competition for the leadership of the Labour party are doing. We have to make a decision about such things, and I think we should go for shale gas. More than 1 million wells have been drilled in north America. All those wells that have complied with the safety regulations—which are not as tough as the regulations that this country will have—have been drilled without any problems. The scare films are often about areas where the issues might not be to do with fracking, as it turns out, or where, if fracking is involved, the rules have not been followed. We have to go for it.

We have heard from two Conservative Members about the normal planning concerns that one gets—about the amount of road usage and what will happen to an area. Those are obviously genuine local concerns, but as a country we have to decide on the balance between those people with genuine local concerns and what is part of the national infrastructure plan. There is nothing unusual about that: when the country was cabled, the amount of local cabling decisions that could be taken were reduced. Shale gas is of such importance that we should have a national infrastructure plan.

I will finish with the final point made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. Rumours are sometimes put about wilfully by those who are ideologically opposed to fracking, so the worst thing that any Government can do, whether a Conservative or Labour one, or a coalition, is to hide information. We need to get as much information out there as possible, because fracking is safe and water will not travel through half a mile of rock. People need to be reassured about that and, by reassuring them, we are much more likely to get the economic benefits of a real shale gas industry.

10.15 am

Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing this debate.

The benefits of unconventional drilling have been well flagged. While bridging to a low-carbon future, it might provide the UK with a secure source of energy. However, the Government have only one opportunity to get things right, as my hon. Friend said. We are routinely told about the economic value associated with extraction, so in that context it is critical that people, especially those living near extraction sites, have cast-iron confidence that proper and sufficient investment is being made to ensure their safety during and after the drilling

30 Jun 2015 : Column 386WH

period. My constituency has seen exploratory drilling conducted near Balcombe under a licence granted in 2013 to Cuadrilla. The concerns of many residents were far from being assuaged and, if the resource is to be exploited, public acceptance and support are critical. The Government must ensure that the public have complete confidence that their overriding concern remains the safety of their citizens around the sites.

There are advantages to a country in being a second mover. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) referred to the US experience, which is clearly useful to learn from. I am sure that the Minister will place on the record her Department’s continuing monitoring of the US experience. We have much to learn from it and, given the far higher concentration of population in the UK, it is essential that we do so. However, I have constituents who are concerned that the Minister’s Department, having in large measure set out a safety regime, will cease to focus as much on the US experience. I would like a reassurance that that is not the case, not only in the Minister’s response today, but, more critically, in how the Department responds to the stories that emerge from the US in the coming months and years.

I also support my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton in calling for the monitoring of fracking activities not only to be independent, but in every respect to be seen to be independent. It would be damaging for the industry if a perception were to emerge that those being paid to monitor activities had a vested interest in those activities being ongoing.

Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that environmental impact assessments are key, in providing information to local communities before planning applications and looking at possible consequences, so that they may be taken into account and dealt with early in the planning processes?

Jeremy Quin: I agree with my hon. Friend in every respect. Other hon. Members have referred to the importance of getting information out there to reassure the public, and that is one example of us doing exactly that.

Water contamination is one example where reassurance might be required, as was referred to earlier. The construction of wells is key to this, with sufficient casing and cementing being essential to prevent groundwater contamination and manage the flowback fluid. As we have seen in Pennsylvania, there is inevitably a failure rate in certain new wells. Will the Minister provide a reassurance that the regulatory regime on well construction is sufficient to prevent substances from leaking? Monitoring of groundwater for contaminants is essential, not on the basis of an investigation every three years, but as a regular, routine undertaking during and after drilling. I appreciate that the Infrastructure Act 2015 specified that

“hydraulic fracturing will not take place within protected groundwater source areas”.

A lot may hang on the exact definition of what “groundwater source areas” comprise, so I look forward to that being clarified.

Lastly, under the Environment Agency’s recent consultation, flow testing could be covered by a standard permit granted to the explorer. The Minister will appreciate

30 Jun 2015 : Column 387WH

that, at this early stage of unconventional drilling in the UK, particularly in the context of early flow testing, anything that suggests a standard approach without particular consideration and monitoring will cause concern. We look forward to that being clarified in due course.

I have no doubt that the Minister will act with her usual boldness and determination in pushing this agenda forward. I simply ask that, in doing so, she uses the same determination—I have every conviction that she will—to ensure that the safety regime is not only highly effective, but capable of assuaging the concerns of people living close to drilling operations.

10.20 am

John Mc Nally (Falkirk) (SNP): I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing this debate on a subject that is close to most people’s hearts, of that I am quite sure.

I will be brief, but first let me say, by way of background, that I am speaking today because Falkirk, the area I represent, is at the heart of fracking operations, with test bore drills already in place. INEOS has planning permission to build shale gas tanks, and it has to be said that that is a hugely significant investment.

On 19 May last year, I attended a fracking conference at the Mermaid theatre in London on behalf of Falkirk Council, of which I was a member at the time. I assume that many Members present have attended similar conferences. After about an hour, I was thinking to myself, “Why do we keep being told that our regulations are the best and safest in the world?” It reminded me of an anecdote about Sir Alex Ferguson, who when looking at a player he was interested in was told that there was no truth in the rumour that the player had injury problems; the first thing he thought was that he needed to look at the player in a great deal more detail. I took that methodology back to my constituency: more analysis is required.

Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP): Does my hon. Friend agree that perception is reality, and that even if fracking were technically proven to be safe, the public concerns surrounding it would also need to be addressed, or else it could still be damaging to our economy in terms of our water production, the reputation of our food and drink industry, and house prices?

John Mc Nally: I agree totally with my hon. Friend. Perception is everything. The hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) referred to the salad bowl. If Mr Birdseye thinks that water contamination is going to affect his product in any way, he will withdraw and people will not buy the product. I am convinced of that; there is no second-guessing there.

The delegates at the conference I attended went on to listen to various utopian and dystopian presentations. That ignited for me the other reason we are here today. Last Thursday I asked the Secretary of State to produce a detailed health and environmental impact assessment for the conference in Paris this year. She answered that safety would always be a priority and that this country has a safe environmental working record. I eagerly await the presentation of the findings on the health and environmental impacts.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 388WH

Medact, a registered public health charity with over 1,000 public health clinicians and the like as members, has produced a report on fracking. The report concludes that fracking poses significant public health risks and calls for an immediate moratorium, to allow for the completion of a full and comprehensive health impact assessment. I agree totally with that position.

In Scotland, there is what we call the WOW factor—wind, oil and water. There is currently a moratorium, as the Scottish Government have listened to concerned communities not just in Falkirk but across Scotland. We have a worldwide reputation for the purity of our water; our vast food and drink industries require that that reputation is not tarnished in any way, shape or form. Under the Smith commission’s proposals, licensing of fracking will be devolved to Scotland, which makes absolute and total sense. We need to tread warily on this huge issue, which affects all our communities.

I intend to write to the Secretary of State to ask her to share with the Scottish Government the report she will present on fracking to this House and to the Paris conference. I cannot help but note that the Prime Minister’s comment about going “all out” for shale gas in the UK was a little premature. It could involve huge financial costs for companies that have invested in fracking, such as INEOS, as I sincerely hope that fracking does not take place in this country.

10.25 am

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing this debate and for the balanced way in which he presented his case, as others have noted.

If I put my national hat on—and given that I am a Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton down in Devon, where at the moment there is no notion that there will be fracking—it is easy for me to say that it is good for the country to have a great gas supply, so we must make sure that we get on with fracking. From the national perspective, that is absolutely right, but as a Government, we are keen on taking local people with us, and—dare I say it—at the moment we do not seem to be doing terribly well on that. All the locals are turning fracking down. We are going to have to rethink our approach to all this. We have to make sure that we do not simply talk about a sovereign fund that might help local people. We must be much more up front. How does an industry like fracking help local people? They have to see something tangible before they buy into it.

If I put on the hat of Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, we of course are concerned about our land, food production and groundwater. In the previous Parliament, the Committee was assured that when fracking takes place the water used is well beneath groundwater sources and the area from which we extract water to purify for drinking water—but is that the case? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) that we cannot simply have a blanket licence from the Environment Agency; each case has to be looked at individually.

Putting my Conservative hat on, I want to make sure that we are competitive and have an efficient industry. In this case, we must have an industry that extracts the

30 Jun 2015 : Column 389WH

gas—that is absolutely right. We still use an awful lot of gas and will still do so in future; if we do not use Russian gas, someone else will, so the gas we can extract for home consumption has to be good, but that gas should not be brought out of the ground at any price. If we need to put in more pipelines, reduce lorry movements and improve roads in villages and other areas where there are proposals for help with infrastructure, we have to do so. I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years, so everything in Europe is my fault—I just put that on the record. I look at the French: now, I do not always agree with the French, but I acknowledge that when it comes to exploiting resources, they put in all the infrastructure necessary for local people’s lives to be enhanced.

I say to the Minister, who is a very good Minister, that we must make sure that local people buy into fracking much more than they are doing at the moment. If we are going to stick to our principle that local people decide—I think we should—we are going to have to reassure them a great deal more about environmental safety, especially on water, and make sure that fracking is properly monitored. In evidence to our Committee, the Environment Agency said it had the capability to do that, but people need to be reassured that that is the case and that the agency will not be overstretched.

Another problem is that, while all of us can be experts beforehand on whether the gas will or will not come out, we cannot know until we have a number of wells in place whether the ground will actually give up the gas. We know the gas is there, but we are not certain that it can be got out. We may not, in the end, be able to produce the gas we expect, although we may be able to produce a lot more, which is very exciting.

There must be a balance: as we move forward, we must take local people with us, reassure them about the environmental position and reduce the number of lorry movements by piping more gas, however expensive that may be. In that way, the local population will, in the end, be able to buy into these projects, and our green and pleasant countryside will remain green and pleasant. We have a large population, and we want to keep our green spaces and our food production.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): Is not the problem that we are taking a piecemeal approach to licensing exploration, as opposed to a strategic approach that looks at the real impact the industry will have across our land?

Neil Parish: The hon. Lady makes a good point, which I am sure the Minister will address.

I will leave my comments there, because others want to speak, and it is right that everybody has a chance to debate this issue. Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton.

10.31 am

Tom Elliott (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) (UUP): I too thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), and I congratulate him on securing a debate on this important national issue. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton

30 Jun 2015 : Column 390WH

(Neil Parish) take all the blame for what has gone wrong in Europe. I am pleased, at long last, somebody has done that.

My position on this issue is clear, definite and unambiguous: I will not be in favour of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, while there is any reasonable suspicion that it has a negative impact on the environment and public health. There is still a lot of work to be carried out on that. The Government have progressed the matter too quickly.

It is easy to say that fracking in the bigger states of America is positive and produces a massive supply of energy. We need to compare those states with some of the areas we have heard about today and with my constituency, where there is cross-border exploration between Northern Ireland—in other words, the United Kingdom—and the Republic of Ireland. It is clear that we cannot compare a small, densely populated area such as mine with the vast, sparsely populated areas in America that are carrying out fracking. There is no comparison at all, but the Government have not taken that on board.

In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, we set up a group to investigate fracking. Anyone who wants a report that is positive about fracking can find one, while anyone who wants a report that is directly opposed to it can find one too, so we set up our own group to look at the issue. The group, which contained someone from the medical profession, solicitors, business people and farmers, came up with three recommendations, which I fully support.

The first is that we cannot progress with fracking unless there is a full, independent—I stress “independent” —environmental impact assessment that demonstrates that there will be no negative environmental impact. Secondly, there must be a full, independent public health impact assessment. Members have talked about public health, but it is not always given the importance it should have, and it is sometimes overlooked. We must therefore have confirmation that there will be no negative public health impact. Thirdly, there needs to be an economic appraisal of how good fracking is not only for the UK, but for local people. What will they get out of it economically? Will their land simply be taken off them and vested in someone else? Will trucks drive through their areas? Will they have monstrous structures on their back doorsteps? Will they get a reduction in their rates or council tax? Will there be a direct economic benefit for them, or will the big companies come in and take all the benefits? That is something people will not comprehend.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton indicated that we have not been good at taking people with us. That will not happen unless the three points I mentioned are dealt with and it is shown that fracking is not harmful to the environment or public health and that it provides an economic benefit to local people. That is the position of the Ulster Unionist party. I should make it clear again that the Government have moved on too quickly.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. I am afraid I have to allow time for the two Front-Bench speakers, and the spokesman for the Scottish National party also has to take part. I will have to restrict the remaining Back-Bench speech to three minutes. I call David Mowat.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 391WH

10.36 am

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): In my three minutes, I shall make just a couple of quick points.

Although I support fracking, I agree with the three points made by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott): there can be no issue with public health, we should have done more to bring local benefits to the fore, and the environment cannot, of course, be damaged. In the end, those things will have to be assessed by people who are independent and have the confidence of the local community. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, it is clear that, whatever else we take from the debate, we must accept that we have not brought local people with us on fracking. However, every form of energy has issues, whether it is solar, wind or nuclear, which is still by far and away the dominant form of decarbonised energy in the world. Fracking also has issues, and we have to work through that to decide whether fracking is worth it. Members have said that fracking may not be cost-effective, and if it is not, it will not be done, so that problem goes away.

I want to talk a little about the three elements of UK energy policy: low-cost energy, sustainable energy and energy security. Gas has a major role to play in all those, but the fact is that our own gas is running out. Output from the North sea is 70% of what it was 10 years ago. Some 85% of the energy used in this country still comes from fossil fuels, with coal and oil making up by far and away the majority. If we could replace all the coal being used in the world with gas, that would reduce global carbon emissions by the same amount as a fivefold increase in renewables. That is something we should be going after, and parties that believe in a low-carbon future should embrace it. There are, therefore, environmental advantages to fracking.

We have talked about cost, and it has been said that fracking in the UK may not transform the economy, as it has in America. In the United States, there is massively lower fuel poverty—I have not heard those words today. We may well not succeed in reducing our gas bills by a factor of four, with the same transformative impact that has been seen in American manufacturing. Manufacturing is relocating from parts of the UK.

Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the reduction in gas prices in the United States of America simply will not happen in the United Kingdom, so it is not appropriate to talk about fracking being a game changer in terms of reducing fuel poverty?

David Mowat: In an intervention I said I thought it unlikely that gas prices would be reduced by a factor of four. I also think it unlikely that if we have more gas in Europe there will not be a reduction in gas prices, with a knock-on impact on fuel poverty and on the competitiveness of our chemicals industry, what is left of our steel industry, and our aluminium industry. Those industries have to a large extent left our country, not only for south-east Asia but for other parts of Europe with lower energy prices than ours where coal continues to be burned.

The issue before us is the fact that we produce roughly 80 GW of electricity in this country, and 24 of them will be turned off by the end of the decade. We already

30 Jun 2015 : Column 392WH

have a 2% capacity margin for 2017. Members in this Chamber—not just those on the Front Benches—must be accountable on the question of the lights going out. Shale gas is not a panacea and I do not argue that it is, but we should explore it responsibly and take into account the environmental issues raised today. However, we should not fail to understand that our country is not infinitely rich. The resources in the North Sea that kept large parts of our country going for a long time are running out. We import more and more of our gas from Qatar and increasingly, potentially, from Russia. Parliamentarians all have a role, and a responsibility for the UK as a whole to take those issues seriously.

10.40 am

Callum McCaig (Aberdeen South) (SNP): I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and congratulate him on obtaining the debate, and on his impeccable timing, given the news on the decision in Lancashire. Time is clearly of the essence, so I shall crack on.

Five themes have been brought out in the debate, and alignment between them is needed if fracking is to be a viable part of the energy mix: safety, public support, climate change, how that fits in with the total energy mix, and economic viability. Dealing with this is to be devolved to Scotland. Scottish Ministers have suggested a moratorium while concerns are explored. That is welcome and it will go a long way towards ensuring that discussions on the food and drink and tourism industries, which my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) mentioned, are not put in jeopardy by fracking.

There is a question about whether new licences will be issued while the process is going on—it has been suggested that they will not—and there is also a question about licences that have been granted, and how they will be considered when things are devolved. I think there are issues about the economics. If we are to have a truly safe regime it needs to be gold-plated, but that is likely to be more expensive, and I understand that it will be more expensive in the UK than it would be in the United States. Doing things more safely than they are done in the United States, from a more expensive cost base at the start, with gas prices considerably lower than those of a number of years ago, brings the economics into question. I take the point that if shale gas extraction is not economic it will not happen, but we need to consider that when time is spent on exploring.

Perhaps the biggest issue is not economic viability or whether shale gas will change our dependence on fossil fuels, but whether it would be the best use of this country’s resources, from the carbon dioxide point of view, and whether we are going to meet our objectives on reducing carbon emissions. Shale gas will produce more.

Antoinette Sandbach: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. Time will not be added on for this intervention.

Callum McCaig: Perhaps the hon. Lady will be brief.

Antoinette Sandbach: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that burning coal is more deleterious than shale gas, which has a lower carbon footprint?

30 Jun 2015 : Column 393WH

Callum McCaig: I certainly do, but it has been pointed out that other technologies could be better. In the context of carbon, when we extract more resources we need to make sure that we get the best ones and the biggest bang for our buck. As I represent Aberdeen, and given the continuing potential of the North sea, I wonder what effect investigating new onshore gas will have on the well established offshore industry, which makes an immense contribution. That needs to be considered along with the entire energy mix that we are considering.

10.44 am

Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing the debate. That fact that 18 Members from four parties have taken part shows how important and pressing the subject is for many parties. I know the Thirsk and Malton area well and acknowledge its beauty. My train stops there on the way down to London and on the way back, although I have another hour to go then.

This is the first debate I have participated in from the Front Bench on the subject of shale gas. Before the election my former colleague Tom Greatrex, who was the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, looked after this area of policy. His expertise on energy policy was recognised on both sides of the House and I am sure that Parliament will miss his knowledge and good humour.

Our position on shale gas was formally set out in debates on the Infrastructure Act 2015. We made it clear that there should be no shale gas extraction without a framework of robust regulation and comprehensive inspection. Regrettably, the Government have consistently sidelined our legitimate environmental concerns, and those of the public, in a headlong dash for gas. Speeches from different parties today supported that view. With 80% of homes in Britain still reliant on gas for heating, shale gas may have a role to play in displacing some of the gas that we currently import, boosting our energy security; but I want to make it clear that that potential worthwhile benefit must not come at the expense of robust environmental protection, or our climate change commitments.

During the passage of the Infrastructure Act 2015, we were clear about what changes were needed. The Government initially accepted Labour’s amendment to overhaul the regulatory regime for shale gas by introducing 13 vital measures before extraction could occur. That was a huge Government U-turn and a great victory for the protection of Britain’s environment. However, in the House of Lords the Government watered down five of those crucial commitments.

The Government watered down regulations to prevent fracking under drinking water aquifers, ignoring the existing definition of such areas and insisting on the need for a new definition—thus scope was opened up for the weakening of the measure through leaving some areas out. They weakened regulations to prevent fracking under protected areas such as national parks, dropping our proposal to prevent fracking “within or under” protected areas. Instead, they indicated that they would block fracking only “within” them, creating the prospect

30 Jun 2015 : Column 394WH

that protected areas such as areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks could be ringed by operators fracking underneath them. They dropped requirements for operators to notify all residents individually of potential developments, and to monitor all fugitive emissions—not just methane. Finally, they weakened regulations requiring an environmental impact assessment at all sites.

We tabled an amendment to reverse those changes, but were denied a vote. There should be no shale gas developments in the UK unless those protections are re-introduced. It is right that individual applications should be decided at local level, as has been outlined this week. It is not the place of central Government to become involved and to trump local democracy. That is the Eric Pickles way of doing business. It is not mine, nor that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). However, the decisions made in Lancashire in the past few days and people’s concerns reflect the fact that the Government have repeatedly ignored genuine and legitimate public concern in a dash for shale gas at all costs.

Does the Minister accept that the continued public concern over shale gas extraction might be caused, at least in part, by the Government’s refusal to address their legitimate concerns? Does she agree with me that the best approach would be to accept, as they have once before, the amendment that Labour tabled to the Infrastructure Act 2015, which would ensure there was a robust regulatory framework? Without that, people will not have the confidence they need and to which they are entitled. I look forward to the Minster’s reply to those concerns and to the crucial questions of many colleagues. There is public concern across the country, as yesterday’s events in Lancashire showed. I hope she will address those things directly, so that the public can be fully informed of the issues in this important debate about how we can safely and most cost-effectively meet our energy needs and our climate change commitments.

10.49 am

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): It is a great pleasure to be here today, Mr Howarth. This has been an incredibly valuable and timely debate on the potential of shale gas. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) was exactly correct to say that to take advantage of the huge potential offered by shale, we need to get it right, and as the new Minister for energy, I can assure him that making sure we get it right is a key focus for me.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) mentioned that often, the people who object to shale are called nimbys or luddites, and she is also exactly right. I would never call those with local, very well founded concerns nimbys or luddites. Plenty of people in my constituency have concerns about all manner of things, ranging from HS2 to wind farms, to anaerobic digestion plants. They are not nimbys or luddites, but local communities who need to understand better. My priority will be to reassure them and, yes, to use an element of persuasion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) pointed out, we need to take local people with us, so that will be my absolute focus.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 395WH

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): The Minister is absolutely right about taking local people with us. The whole debate about fracking is ultimately about trust, as has come out loud and clear in this morning’s debate, but sadly, findings of the Government’s “Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts” report were redacted. That does not fill people with trust, so will she encourage the relevant Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to publish that report as soon as possible?

Andrea Leadsom: The report is going to be published. The timing is up to DEFRA, but I share my hon. Friend’s concern that it should be made available to the public, so that they can draw their own conclusions.

I want to mention that my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) was keen to speak up for his constituents, but sadly, there was not the time. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) rightly pointed out that keeping the lights on is a key and critical role of Government, and that shale has the potential to contribute to that. We need home-grown energy more than ever before, so we in this Government remain committed to renewables, which now provide 15% of our electricity. We are also committed to energy efficiency and, vitally, to affordability. Shale gas could be a pragmatic, home-grown solution to help meet those needs.

Gas is the cleanest fossil fuel. It still provides a third of our energy demand and we will need it for many years to come. Around 70% of the gas Britain uses is for heating, and many people in businesses will need to keep using gas for heating while we develop and deploy renewable heat sources. We are likely to continue relying on gas to provide much of our heat, as well as to generate electricity into the 2030s, but even with our projected doubling of renewable capacity by 2022 and the planned creation of additional nuclear-fuelled generation in the 2020s, increases in gas-fuelled generation will be needed, as we phase out unabated coal. Flexible electricity generation, such as that fuelled by gas, is also needed to help balance the electricity grid as our policies bring forward relatively inflexible and intermittent low-carbon generation.

We used to be net gas exporters, but that is no longer the case as North sea gas declines. By 2025 we expect to be importing over half the gas we consume. Meanwhile, events around the world show us how volatile energy supplies can be. Developing shale gas could make us less reliant on imports from abroad while providing more jobs and creating a whole new British industry. It is therefore vital that we seize the opportunity to at least explore the UK’s shale gas potential while maintaining the very highest safety and environmental standards, which we have established as world leaders in extracting oil and gas over decades.

I fully appreciate, of course, that many people are worried by the stories they have heard about fracking, so I want to address, as a key point in my remarks, the most important and overriding concern of shale gas exploration, which is safety. Reports by the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Public Health England have considered a wide range of evidence on hydraulic fracturing in a UK context, concluding that risks can be well managed if the industry follows best

30 Jun 2015 : Column 396WH

practice, enforced through regulation. We have one of the world’s most developed oil and gas industries in the North sea basin and some of the world’s most experienced and highly regarded regulators. We have been successfully regulating the gas and oil industry in the UK for over 50 years. Our regulatory system is robust and we are proven world leaders in well regulated, safe and environmentally sound oil and gas developments. We have strict requirements for on-site safety to prevent water contamination and air pollution and to mitigate seismic activity.

The health and safety and environmental regulators are independent, highly specialised and well trained and will enable the development of shale gas in a safe and environmentally sound manner. Regulators simply will not allow unsafe or environmentally unsound operations. They are able to suspend and revoke permits immediately, and if necessary, impose criminal sanctions, including prosecution.

Mark Menzies: As the Member of Parliament for Fylde, I am very reassured to hear what the Minister is saying. However, will she assure me that as well as the planned inspections, some will be unannounced?

Andrea Leadsom: I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. It is certainly intended that there will be regular visits from health and safety and Environment Agency staff, and that there will be unannounced visits.

John Mc Nally: Will the Minister give way?

Andrea Leadsom: No, I am sorry. We are really short of time—I apologise.

The Environment Agency assesses the hazards presented by fracking fluid chemicals on a case-by-case basis. They will not permit the use of hazardous chemicals where they may enter groundwater and cause pollution. The Health and Safety Executive scrutinises well design and requires week-by-week written updates on drilling progress. DECC has implemented a thorough system of rigorous checks before any drilling or fracking, as well as a live traffic-light system during the actual operations to ensure that earthquakes will not occur.

To reinforce the regulations further, the Infrastructure Act 2015 introduced a range of further requirements if an operator is to carry out hydraulic fracturing. They include a mandatory environmental impact assessment, which is absolutely vital. There was a misunderstanding that fracking would not require an environmental impact assessment, but that is not the case and DECC has tried to remedy that misunderstanding. Any hydraulic fracturing will require separate independent environmental impact assessments. Additionally, unlike in the United States, in this country disclosure of all chemicals used in the fracking process and 12 months of baseline groundwater monitoring will be required. There will be specific community benefits to be paid and the complete exclusion of protected areas. We already require everything that has been recommended by the European Commission.

To summarise on safety, we have among the best and most experienced regulators in the world and a 50-year track record on safe oil and gas exploration. Our regulatory environment for shale is the toughest in the world, but it is also important to discuss the enormous potential

30 Jun 2015 : Column 397WH

benefits of a successful shale gas industry, not just in energy security, as I have said, but in direct benefits to jobs, growth and community investment.

Ernst and Young has estimated that a thriving shale industry could mean 64,500 jobs nationally or over 100 jobs per year at a typical site. The value of the supply chain for the industry has been estimated at £33 billion between 2016 and 2032. This is an incredible opportunity. We are at a pre-beginning phase, but there is a huge amount to play for. British engineering is at the forefront of the world and we have the opportunity to showcase that further by developing for ourselves a safe and environmentally sound shale gas industry. In November, we announced a new national network of colleges for onshore oil and gas to train the next generation of specialists to help the UK seize those opportunities.

The final, very important, point I want to address is the position of local communities. We believe that every community hosting shale should share in the benefits, so we have committed to setting up a sovereign wealth fund to ensure that revenues are shared fairly. We welcome industry’s commitment to putting £100,000 per fractured exploration well to local communities and then a minimum of 1% of any subsequent production revenues. That could be worth as much as £5 million to £10 million over the life cycle of the well. Wider communities will also benefit, as local councils will retain 100% of the business rates that they collect from productive shale gas developments.

I sincerely thank all Members for participating in this debate. It is important that we have the opportunity to discuss such a key issue for our future energy mix. As the UK’s Committee on Climate Change said of shale gas in 2013

“the UK will continue to use considerable, albeit declining, amounts of gas well into the 2030s”,


“if anything using well-regulated UK shale gas…could lead to lower overall…greenhouse gas emissions than continuing to import”


Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered shale gas.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 398WH

Ampthill Primary Care (Parking)

10.59 am

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered Ampthill primary care and parking.

It is a pleasure to bring this debate here under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I spend many hours sitting in the Chair that you are in at the moment, so it is a pleasure and delight to be on the other side, representing Ampthill residents and GP surgeries. It is also a delight to have this Minister—my friend and constituency neighbour—answering the debate. It is worth putting it on record that he is not only one of the nicest and kindest MPs in Parliament, but someone who is absolutely deserving of his position. It is an honour to present this debate to him.

I would like to begin by discussing Ampthill. I hope that I will not disclose anything that I should not here, but my right hon. Friend and I have bumped into each other in my constituency on more than one occasion, not least when he was checking out the new Waitrose store opposite the area that I am about to discuss. I would like to set the scene by talking about the Ampthill surgeries and the problem we have, before I go on to some of the finer points.

Just off Oliver Street in Ampthill is about an acre of land, on which sit three GP surgeries, a fire station and a nursery and playschool. It is an incredibly busy area. Unfortunately, only a few months ago, for reasons that I do not fully understand, a car left one of the car park places and went through the windows of the GP surgery into the waiting room. There is a constant feeling of panic, anger and fear in the car parks. I myself have witnessed on a number of occasions cars not only mounting the kerbs, but mounting the kerbs—it is a very narrow kerb; there is limited kerb—where elderly people are walking. I was myself the subject of a road rage attack at the GP practice just a few months ago. There is nowhere for people to park when they visit the doctor, so people become very distressed. Many drive away, which leaves the GP appointments unfulfilled. Many just abandon their cars to get into the doctor’s practice, which causes chaos. Many people become very stressed and agitated, and start shouting not only at the receptionist, whose fault it is not that there are no car parking spaces, but at each other out in the car park.

At 9 o’clock in the morning, there is a stream of cars arriving to drop children off at the nursery and playschool. Around the outside of this area of land are the doctors’ practices, with their allocated car parking, but in the middle of this very congested area is the shabby prefabricated building that is the playschool. A constant stream of traffic is coming in to drop children off and going out again, leaving people with appointments from 9 am in a desperate state as they try to get to the surgery.

During the general election campaign, I was visiting my doctor’s surgery with a member of my family. I could not park, so I dropped my mother off to go in and was hovering around trying to get a place when a couple knocked on my car window and begged me to do something about the car parking. Then I was driving along and someone else did exactly the same thing. The fact is that I had already tried to do something. I had

30 Jun 2015 : Column 399WH

brought the situation to the attention of the local Central Bedfordshire Council. I set up a petition in the GP surgeries and was astonished that within no time thousands of people had signed the petition, which I will present to Parliament. People are desperately concerned that something very serious is about to happen in that car park area.

I ask the Minister whether, as part of the solution that I will come to, he will come with me to see the area so that he can understand what I am talking about, because I think it has to be seen to be understood. It has to be seen to be believed—how bad it is. He could talk to some of the reception staff, who are on the end of patients’ anger, upset and stress and have to answer to the doctors as to why people cannot get in for their appointments or blood tests—because they simply cannot get out of their cars.

The situation is exacerbated because the doctors’ surgeries in Ampthill are so good. The doctors are excellent; the reception staff are too. We all know the gatekeepers from hell who usually have those jobs in a doctor’s surgery. We do not have that in Ampthill surgeries; we have compassionate, understanding and extremely helpful staff in those surgeries. I think it would be good for the Minister to meet those staff and hear their story as well, because I will need his support to find a solution.

In their wisdom, SEPT—South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust—decided earlier this year to reallocate 20 district nurses to this incredibly congested area, so that it would be used as a base by those nurses, with their cars, even though there was nowhere for them to go. So an already very tense situation was made 20 times worse by 20 more cars turning up daily in the area. People are already afraid and an accident has already occurred, so for that to happen as well is exasperating for everyone concerned, staff and patients alike.

Some action has to happen, and soon. The status quo is not acceptable. I wanted this debate today because I wanted to put this on the record. I want it on the record, if something does occur in this area, that the problem had been noticed and people had been notified and that, on behalf of the doctors, staff and patients, I, Central Bedfordshire Council and others were trying to reach a solution to ensure that something did not occur.

There are a number of options. I will describe what would be the best scenario for this area, because the GP practices are not in the best condition. They are in shoddily erected, prefabricated buildings. People will know the kind of thing I am talking about; when a town is growing, infrastructure is hastily put in place. They are not the best facilities. The ideal solution would be for us to have a polyclinic—a new, purpose-built facility. We could amalgamate the three surgeries and have one new facility that provides enhanced services compared with what we have now. A number of patients, such as those needing INR—international normalised ratio—testing and other testing, have to travel to Bedford for services that, in this day and age, should be available at their GP practice.

The ideal solution would be a brand-new, off-site, purpose-built GP practice. That is what I would like to push for, because it is what Ampthill needs, and it needs it because it is growing. New houses are being built. It is a very popular, central destination in Mid Bedfordshire.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 400WH

It is very close to Flitwick train station. Interestingly, the patients who attend Ampthill surgeries come from areas in a 20-mile radius. They come from as far away as Wootton, Toddington, Flitwick and Barton-le-Clay. Patients from all over the area attend Ampthill surgeries. In fact, one of the people who are leading the campaign and part of the patient representative group is a patient who lives in Wootton. Because of the excellence of the GP practices, they attract patients from a wide area. The ideal scenario is for us to recognise what a good GP, primary care situation we have there, and to take that and move it to a purpose-built building.

Another scenario would be to demolish the shabby prefabricated building that is the playschool and move the playschool somewhere within Ampthill where there is not the constant congestion and traffic fumes all day long around the facility or the enhanced danger that comes from such dense traffic going in and out of the area. That is another solution—to move the children away. There are buildings in Ampthill that could be used in any of those situations.

The solutions are not easy, but no solution ever is. I have found, as an MP and in other aspects of life, that whenever anyone proposes an obvious solution to a problem, someone will always come along with 100 reasons why it cannot happen. Too often, people who would otherwise be required to put a great deal of imagination and effort into finding a solution simply say, “We can’t do that.” We must dispense with the words “We can’t do that, because” and look for ways we can do this. We need to come up with imaginative proposals, knock down a few barriers, chuck a few of the excuses out of the window and find a solution. I am concerned about the fact that too many people are treading water. Instead of meeting their responsibility to find a solution, they are finding excuses for continuing with the current untenable situation.

If anybody suggests as a reason for inaction that there is no popular support, I have a petition with the signatures of thousands of people, all of whom expect action. Ampthill residents expect something to happen. There has been extensive new development in Ampthill, from Fallowfield to Ampthill Heights, but most of the section 106 money from those developments went into education. I do not decry that fact; I simply point out that in Ampthill not everybody has children, but everybody needs to use the NHS facilities. The elderly do not have young children, but they are some of the biggest users of NHS surgeries. The GP receptionist told me that many people ask for late evening appointments so that they can avoid the pre-school traffic, because they think that parking will be less congested. Unfortunately, the situation is quite bad at that time of night, because that is when everybody comes out of work and wants a GP appointment.

The local feeling is that we need to find a solution, and a polyclinic would be an ideal one. More than anything, however, we need money. I know that NHS England has money from section 106 allocations that belongs to Ampthill residents. That money is sitting in NHS England. I am not sure exactly how much it is, but I have been told various amounts, from £8,000 upwards. It belongs in Ampthill, and it should be spent on primary care in Ampthill. There is no better cause to spend it on than the parking situation at the Ampthill surgeries.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 401WH

Other people have to come to the table, including Central Bedfordshire Council and the GP practices. As fundholders, they should bring their allocation. The whole thing should not rest on the shoulders of the GP practices, Central Bedfordshire Council or NHS England, however; we need partnership working to find a solution. I have asked my right hon. Friend the Minister whether he would come and visit the surgery. What I would prefer is a meeting, with him, the fundholders, Central Bedfordshire Council and NHS England, and me, so that we can all work together to thrash out the solution we need for Ampthill, to make visiting the GP practice—something that nobody ever does willingly or happily—a less stressful, tense and sometimes turbulent affair. We must do that soon. I hope my right hon. Friend will agree to that, and I hope he agrees with me that it is a good way forward.

I also hope that my right hon. Friend might have some ideas of his own, and that he might be able to bring to the table something that will reassure the fundholders, the patients, the doctors, the receptionists and the councillors. I pay tribute to the councillors in Ampthill, who have done their bit to try to sort out the problems. I spoke to Mike Blair and Paul Duckett about the matter only recently, and I know that they have tried to do their bit, but they keep meeting a brick wall of: “We can’t do this, because—”. I hope the Minister will help me to bash down that brick wall and find a solution, so that we can work in partnership to resolve this difficult situation. Let us hope that if we do that, we can prevent a tragic and disastrous scenario of the sort that may result if we tread water for much longer.

11.15 am

The Minister for Community and Social Care (Alistair Burt): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Some years ago, I canvassed for the Conservative party in your by-election. I have many happy memories of that time, not least because I had the opportunity to meet regularly almost all the Conservative voters in the constituency, none of whom prevented you from being here.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) warmly for her kind remarks, and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. She was right about a number of things, including my knowledge of Ampthill, where I have indeed bumped into her. She has been an excellent colleague and partner in a variety of matters that affect Bedfordshire, and our two constituencies abut each other. I know Ampthill well because I regularly run in the park and use the tidy tip. The significance of that is that the main street to the tidy tip from my home in Wootton is, of course, Oliver Street, so I know it extremely well. In the world of the future, new technology will make it possible for viewers of our debates to see maps of areas that we are discussing. It would be easy to project a map into a televised debate such as this. However, as we are in a Chamber full of words rather than pictures, I can merely allude to that idea.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in her description of Oliver Street. It is a tight street, which is closely parked. Whichever direction they travel along the street,

30 Jun 2015 : Column 402WH

drivers will at some stage have to stop behind parked cars and allow traffic from the other direction to pass. In the area surrounding the surgeries, there is a cluster of buildings and some car parking arrangements that my hon. Friend has described well. I emphasise that I know the street well, and I shall be happy to respond later to her comments on the car parking problems.

I shall start by talking about GP services. My hon. Friend referred in a recent blog post to the growth taking place in Ampthill. She has described the primary care group as “the Cinderella of Ampthill” and said that it has had none of the recent investment or money associated with that growth. I want to address the issue of GP care being a Cinderella service and the question of investment in Ampthill. I pay a particularly warm tribute to all who work in primary care, not least in Ampthill, and in general practice: the GPs, the practice nurses and all others who work for patients. Primary care is the bedrock of the NHS, and although we are all familiar with what happens in hospitals, too often we seem to take for granted the service that patients receive from primary care.

My hon. Friend spoke about primary care in the widest sense, and I echo that. Primary care is much wider than general practice; it is all the day-to-day healthcare provided by healthcare professionals, and thus it includes such professions as district nurses, pharmacies, dentists and other ancillary occupations. Accordingly, as my hon. Friend has said, the trend is for the expansion of primary care facilities to be more than simply GP surgeries, and the Government have recognised that. Recently, in his first speech about general practice during this Government, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the primary care infrastructure fund. That is a fund of about £750 million spread over the next four years, which offers practices the opportunity to seek investment in premises for development and the like. Such investment is sought by way of a competitive bid, and that is being taken forward in various waves. If the practices involved have not put in a bid, it is a matter for them. Clearly, £750 million spread across the country will not solve everyone’s problems, but it recognisees the need for some practices to seek to grow and for their premises to have the sorts of ancillary functions that we will all start to take for granted as, hopefully, fewer people go to acute hospitals for treatment that can be carried out elsewhere. The modern practices of the future will do that.

Easy access has to be part of that future. There is no point in seeking to do minor ops at the various ancillary services provided in the community if people cannot park. My hon. Friend spoke about the wide range of places from which these practices draw their patients. Ampthill has a population of about 6,000, but the practices have a total of some 20,000 patients, so the majority of those patients will clearly not be walking but coming by car. It is therefore necessary to ensure that adequate facilities are available. Ensuring adequate parking will be important for the premises of the future.

Primary care probably has the widest scope in healthcare, and it includes patients of all ages, from every socioeconomic and geographic origin and with all manner of acute and chronic physical, mental and social health issues, including multiple chronic diseases. Consequently, a primary care practitioner must possess a wide breadth of knowledge

30 Jun 2015 : Column 403WH

in many areas. Some 90% of all NHS patient contacts take place in general practice, which is why it is important to ensure that modern general practices, and the practices described by my hon. Friend, have everything they require. What many of us think of first when we think about the primary care profession in this country over recent years is that it has developed a wide skill base and body of knowledge. GPs provide a complete spectrum of care within their local community for problems that combine physical, psychological and social components. They attend patients in surgery and primary care emergency centres, if clinically necessary, and they visit patients’ homes. GPs must be aware and take account of all factors when looking after patients.

In his recent speech, the Secretary of State made it clear that he recognises that GPs need to call on an extensive knowledge of medical conditions to be able to assess a problem and decide on the appropriate course of action. They must know how and when to intervene through treatment, prevention and education to promote the health of patients and their families. Recently, the Commonwealth Fund, an independent institute based in the United States, declared that the NHS is the best healthcare system in the world. Although many people assume that to be because of our acute hospital care, the bedrock for the research on which that determination was based turned out to be family care and general practice, which is a further reason for addressing the needs of general practice—in the widest possible sense, from availability to ease of access—as my hon. Friend has done.

Most GPs are independent contractors to the NHS. That independence means that, in most cases, they are responsible for providing adequate premises from which to practise and for employing their own staff. As we have heard from my hon. Friend, GPs are determined to do the right thing in relation to parking. It is noticeable that the three surgeries that serve Ampthill’s population of 6,000, and patients from the wider area, are located within yards of each other in the middle of town. There is already parking for staff and patients, and there is a bus service with a bus stop nearby. Oliver Street is a main through-route in Ampthill. It is busy and narrow, and the presence of a fire station, an ambulance station, a nursery and a school in the vicinity all contribute to heavy traffic, particularly at certain times of the day.

Nadine Dorries: I missed out a point that I want to put on the record. A fire engine was recently prevented from leaving the fire station because of congestion caused by cars coming in and out of the pre-school off Oliver Street, which is near the practices. A fire engine being trapped and unable to leave a fire station owing to traffic density is not good.

Alistair Burt: There are things that we are able to do and things that we are not able to do. The general traffic issues in the town are, of course, a matter for other authorities beyond the Department of Health, but my hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point.

In the Houghton Close area, there is pressure on parking for both practice staff and patients. GP practices, as independent contractors, are responsible for providing adequate premises and for employing their own staff. In passing, I want to say a word about the way in which such practices look after their patients, which is entirely

30 Jun 2015 : Column 404WH

relevant. Good things are happening in primary care and in Ampthill. The key test of that is the GP patient survey, which gives patients a chance to comment on the performance of the practice where they are registered. Patients say that the three Ampthill practices—the Oliver Street, Houghton Close and Greensand surgeries—have a good story to tell. Overall, across all measures, the three practices are averaging around 90% satisfaction. Most of us would love to have that degree of satisfaction, although, Mr Howarth, you have that in your constituency, as indeed does my hon. Friend. No score of the practices is below 84%, and the scores are much higher in many domains. For example, all of Greensand’s scores are 90% or above, with 96% reporting satisfaction with their overall experience of the surgery. It is therefore clear that today’s debate concerns what patients agree are good, all-round, high-performing practices. While addressing their needs, I congratulate each practice on its commitment to providing the best service to patients, of which, to a degree, the subject of this debate is an element.

There is pressure on parking in the Ampthill area, which is why there have been recent moves, encouraged by my hon. Friend, to consider what can be done about it. In matters such as land purchases that affect the public sector, it is often advisable to take advice from the district valuer. The Ampthill practices have had discussions with the town council about purchasing a grassed area next to the fire station which they hope to convert to additional parking. NHS England is prepared to contribute part of the cost. However, the decision on whether to buy or sell the land is not for me or anyone in Whitehall; it properly belongs to the prospective purchasers and the landowners.

The town council has made a request to NHS England to fund the purchase and set up a car park to increase parking capacity in the area. The land, once purchased, would not be for the sole use of the practices but would be open to all users. The estimated cost of the land is between £8,000 and £9,000. NHS England has agreed to fund some 25% of the cost, which is believed to be a fair portion of the practices’ proposed usage of the area, with no commitment to recurring costs. NHS England was also asked to provide funding for maintenance of the parking facility. Although NHS England is prepared to contribute to the purchase cost, it is not prepared to fund the maintenance costs because it will not be the dominant or exclusive user.

My hon. Friend made a fair point about the recent addition of some 20 practice nurses in the practices at the request of NHS England, which carries a certain amount of obligation. I therefore hope that we will be able to go back and see what more can be done. In February 2015 the town council’s planning committee considered the matter and advised the practices to discuss it directly with the fire service’s landowners. I will therefore encourage the continuation of that process. We have discussed the matter further with NHS England, which is prepared to think again about the costs involved. Following this debate and the representations we have made, the way is open for my hon. Friend to further discuss the situation directly with NHS England, the town council and Central Bedfordshire Council. I am grateful for the advice of the leader of Central Bedfordshire Council, James Jamieson, to whom I spoke last night. I am pleased to accept the invitation to visit the area

30 Jun 2015 : Column 405WH

more formally, which will give me a great opportunity to speak to the practices involved, to see the situation on the ground and to consider whether there is anything further we can do.

Although this matter is not fundamentally the responsibility of the Department of Health, I acknowledge our interest in ensuring that these practices have what they need to provide what is obviously an excellent service to constituents, to consider the opportunity for purchasing proper parking facilities and to help and liaise in some of the discussions that will take place under other people’s auspices. Finally, I will have a chance to see the situation on the ground, rather than passing through on the way to the tidy tip or another run in glorious Ampthill Park.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the House today. Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

Question put and agreed to.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 406WH

Human Rights Act

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

2.40 pm

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of the Human Rights Act 1998.

I am delighted to welcome you to the Chair, Mr Betts, and to see that we have a healthy turnout of Members and non-Members here today. I am grateful to the organisations that provided briefings ahead of today’s debate. I should particularly like to place on the record my appreciation of the efforts of Liberty, Amnesty International, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The Gracious Speech included a commitment by Her Majesty’s Government to introduce proposals for a British Bill of Rights. I was pleased that it was framed in such terms for two reasons. First, it is still apparently the policy of Her Majesty’s Government that it should be approached at least on a British, if not UK-wide, basis. Secondly, I was pleased that they are seeking to bring forward proposals and not, as in respect of other commitments in the Gracious Speech, legislation. I take it from that that we are in a place where there is still a debate to be had and where thinking is still going on within government, and I welcome that. I hope that today’s debate is an early part of the debate that will be conducted elsewhere, within the Chamber and the Select Committees in this House and the other place, and even within the various all-party groups. I also hope that this debate will, as befits a subject of this magnitude, be conducted in a thoughtful way and one that accepts good faith and differences on all sides.

The Minister has a significant background in the area of human rights and I do not question his good faith in this matter. I would probably disagree with him both on the definition of the rights and also on the way in which they might be perfected, but I certainly accept his background and his good faith. I hope that the debate in government will not take as its starting point the paper published last year by the former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), which was entitled “British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities”.

The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), whom I am pleased to see in his place today, said that that paper contained a number of howlers which are quite simply factually inaccurate. Those who have known the right hon. and learned Gentleman for as long as I have will know that for him such language borders on the intemperate. Those within government who are considering how to proceed in this way would do well to listen to his words. I expressed that view at the time as a Cabinet Minister. I felt that that contribution to the debate failed to take proper account of the way in which the Human Rights Act had become part of the constitutional architecture of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield also asked the question that goes to the nub of the issue: what are we seeking to achieve here? Having seen recent

30 Jun 2015 : Column 407WH

pronouncements within government, that remains the question. To answer that question, however, we first need an answer to a much more fundamental question: what is the Government’s intention in relation to the European convention on human rights? Is it that we should remain party to the convention, or will the Government at some future stage, if they are unable to achieve their stated aims, countenance withdrawal from it?

It is worth reminding ourselves of exactly what the Human Rights Act does and the change that it wrought after its implementation. In a dry legal sense, it allows access to convention rights through our domestic courts. Section 2 of the Act says that in reaching judgment our UK domestic courts must take account of the European Court of Human Rights judgments. Whether this was to be extended to make it a binding precedent was considered in the other place during the passage of the Bill and was expressly excluded, so I think the ambit and the extent of the operation of section 2 is an important part that is often misunderstood or just ignored.

The Human Rights Act has brought much more than dry jurisprudence to our legal system and to our constituents. It has offered many of our fellow citizens a basic, fundamental right to respect and dignity in their dealings with government and other public bodies. To take a few instances, it has allowed people with mental health problems the opportunity to retain some rights and some control over their own lives when dealing with the national health service; it has allowed victims of crime to insist on proper investigation of the crimes from which they have suffered; and it has allowed families to be kept together in circumstances in which the operation of the state might otherwise have kept them apart. At its most basic, it has in one instance ensured the right to life. In one case that was offered by way of a working example, a patient suffering from dementia was on a ward where he had been subject to a “do not resuscitate” order. On investigation, it was found that the doctor in charge of the ward had imposed such an order in respect of everybody on the ward without discrimination. At its most fundamental, the Human Rights Act protected the patient’s right to life.

I suspect that such cases are the easy cases. If we dealt only with the easy cases, we probably would not be here today. There is no denying that the application of the Human Rights Act has produced a number of controversial cases. The cases of Abu Qatada and those relating to the right of prisoners to vote are two that spring most readily to mind. This goes to the heart of the matter for me. Human rights are not just there for the nice people. If we are to defend human rights in a meaningful and worthwhile way, we have to be prepared to defend the rights of the unworthy individual from a legitimate authority, or the right of an unpopular minority against the popular majority. Perhaps I should declare an interest: as a Liberal Democrat, I know what it is to be part of an unpopular minority.

For such reasons, the Human Rights Act is inevitably going to be unpopular in government, because it stops Ministers doing what they might otherwise wish to do and what they might otherwise find it expedient to do. That is why, if the protections are to be meaningful, they must be overseen by the judiciary, and not by Parliament or by the Executive, who are insulated from

30 Jun 2015 : Column 408WH

the mood of public opinion at any given time. That brings us back to the question posed by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield: what are we hoping to achieve here? In truth, the Abu Qatada case and the right of prisoners to vote are cases that, before the Human Rights Act, would have got to Strasbourg. Those are exactly the sorts of cases that we saw going from this country over the years.

The question that then arises is if we are trying to get round these cases by somehow seeking to repatriate jurisdiction, what does that mean for the United Kingdom’s future as a contracting party to the European convention on human rights? When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope he will answer this question: what is the Government’s position in relation to our continued future as a contracting party to the convention on human rights? Are there circumstances in which the Government would be prepared to leave the convention? Doing so would put us in rather select company: it would be us and Belarus, and that is not the company I envisaged the United Kingdom finding itself in. In previous Parliaments, I worked with Amnesty International and other organisations on the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. I campaigned with various groups in the United States, South Korea, Japan and elsewhere. The UK has tremendous standing on human rights across the world. We would lose a lot if we walked away from the convention and put ourselves in the company of Belarus. We should be doing what we can to bring Belarus within the convention; we should not be seeking to join it outside.

I want briefly to consider the constitutional architecture of which the Human Rights Act is now such an important part. For example, it is hardwired into the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Before the hon. Gentleman gets to that issue, he has just been dealing with UK jurisdiction delivered by the 1998 Act. Is he aware of the appalling delays that existed before the Human Rights Act? For example, in the case of Abdulaziz, Balkandali and Cabales, which I was involved in when director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, women were separated from their husbands for seven years before getting a judgment that proved that the then British immigration rules breached their human rights.

Mr Carmichael: Indeed; the time it took to get such cases to court—and the need to have the means to do so—was a glaring injustice, and that situation was affected by the introduction of the Human Rights Act. People needed money, or somebody behind them with the means, to get access to human rights. We should not return to that.

On the devolution settlements, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly both have the Human Rights Act hardwired into them: their Acts must be compatible with it. It has already been established that if this is to change, at least for the Scottish Parliament a legislative consent motion would be required in accordance with the Sewel convention. Given recent votes in that Parliament, I do not see how that is going to happen.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 409WH

The situation in Northern Ireland is even more acute, because there the Human Rights Act is the subject of part of the Good Friday agreement. The second part of the “Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity” section of the agreement states:

“The British Government will complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency.”

The creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the body overseeing it, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, have given effect to that.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): The right hon. Gentleman makes compelling points about the need for the Human Rights Act to be retained. In relation to the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday agreement was enshrined in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, with a direct coincidence of human rights provisions. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Northern Ireland Committee on the Administration of Justice recently stated unequivocally that any breach of human rights legislation, or any plan to withdraw it, would be a breach of the provisions of the Good Friday agreement and of the Northern Ireland Act 1998?

Mr Carmichael: Indeed. That illustrates perfectly what I say about the Human Rights Act being hardwired into these agreements, including that settlement. Underpinning that, we should remember that many parties on both sides—in both communities—in Northern Ireland took a massive leap of faith when entering into the Good Friday agreement in the first place. Many of them were prepared to take that leap of faith because of the assurances given by the Government about protecting human rights. Let us not forget that the roots of the civil rights movement are to be found in that conflict; for many people, human rights have always been at the heart of that movement. We should also not forget that the peace process remains a very delicate animal, as was made apparent just before Christmas. We should never take its continuation for granted.

Let me return to the question: what are we seeking to achieve here? If there is a risk to the stability and sustainability of the Northern Ireland peace process, is it worth it? Either there is a UK Bill of Rights with the widest possible operation or we will end up with different standards of human rights protection applying in different parts of this—I use the term advisedly—United Kingdom. That is not what my party, and other parties represented in this Chamber, campaigned for last September. Human rights protection should be uniform across the whole United Kingdom.

I fear that in introducing this proposal the Government have created more problems for themselves than they have realised. I offer the Minister one piece of assistance before I conclude. My learned noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill recently delivered a lecture entitled “Do we need a new Magna Carta?” in which he spoke about how human rights can be protected by a British Bill of Rights. I will happily send the Minister a copy, if he needs it.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 410WH

If we are to move beyond the Human Rights Act, it can only be done in a way that improves, not diminishes, the protection that is available to our citizens.

Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair): We are going to struggle for time, so I am putting a five-minute time limit on speeches. I hope that everyone keeps to that, or makes shorter speeches if they can, to help us through.

2.57 pm

Mr Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), whom I congratulate on securing the debate.

I will not repeat points made by the right hon. Gentleman, particularly his survey of the benefits of incorporating the European convention into our own law through the Human Rights Act. I will concentrate on what I understand the broad thrust of the Government’s proposals to be, because only by doing that can one start a proper analysis of whether benefits might flow from the proposals that outweigh some of the costs—particularly the costs he identified of problems relating to the devolved institutions and Governments—that are undoubtedly present.

It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that there was talk before we created the Human Rights Act of a British Bill of Rights, which was much trawled over by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats during the early 1990s. The project was not pursued because there was a realisation, as time went by, that it was a highly controversial proposal that inevitably sought to bring into one place all sorts of suggestions about rights that might be included in it. Indeed, it is noticeable that as a result of the renewal of this debate, prompted by the Government’s approach, lots of interesting papers are being produced on the possibility of having a Bill of Rights—I was reading one the other day by Geoffrey Robertson QC—not all of which are likely to commend themselves to the Secretary of State for Justice, because of their content.

It was because of that realisation that the then Labour Government in 1998 adopted what was in many ways a very conservative—with a small “c”—proposal in respect of simply bringing about incorporation and preserving the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, tweaking the text in one place to emphasise that, where there was competition between freedom of expression and anything else, freedom of expression should be given a high priority; but otherwise simply allowing the law, through the convention’s incorporation, to be interpreted in our courts. I have to say that I entirely agree with what the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. While there are areas where I have criticisms—I think they are well known—broadly speaking, I think the Act has conferred huge benefits on this country in terms of the accessibility of rights.

It is right that the proposals remain opaque. I do not criticise the Government for that; in so far as they are going away from the proposals published in October, that seems to show a high level of common sense. The question then still arises: what benefits will we get from having a Bill of Rights? I accept that if we wish to have a Bill of Rights that includes rights not protected by the European convention on human rights, such as the

30 Jun 2015 : Column 411WH

right to trial by jury or some practices that might be different in different parts of the United Kingdom, there might be some merit in it; but as long as we remain adherent to the convention, the wriggle room for the Government regarding the convention and its text will be extremely limited—so limited that the ideas prevalent in the

Daily Mail

that the Bill of Rights would lead to some seismic change in the diminution of rights is simply misleading. We are on dangerous ground indeed if we start to peddle that as a notion to those who seem to be infuriated by the existing rights we have at present.

I was greatly reassured by the Prime Minister’s comments that he had no intention of pulling out of the convention. It would be so contrary to every Conservative philosophical principle of building an international regime for the rule of law and the promotion of rights that I cannot conceive of any mainstream political party embarking on such a course. I was delighted when he confirmed that recently, and I think the Minister may be able to confirm it again this afternoon.

Where does that leave us? The answer is that it leaves us embarking on a project that I am happy to help the Minister with, but one that I think will prove in reality to be extremely difficult, for the reasons given by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, and that, at the end of the day, will deliver extremely limited benefits—indeed, so limited that I begin to wonder whether the project is worth pursuing at all.

With those thoughts in mind—I keep them general at the moment—I simply wish to assure the Minister that I am more than happy to continue to engage with him and others from the Department in which he serves on this issue. I have all sorts of ideas that I am happy to put forward, but it is important that we get some idea at the outset of what we are trying to achieve. Without that, we are in serious danger of taking a wrong turn.

3.2 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate. It is timely and important, and I concur with all the points made by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) on how we approach this subject. We have to be aware that we are all concerned about human rights. Some of us have spent a great deal of time trying to defend the human rights of the most vulnerable people in this country and other parts of the world. I regularly attend the UN Human Rights Council, for example, and see the importance there of having a forum where those rights can be defended, difficult though it may be. It at least gives the rest of the world an opportunity to say to an authoritarian Government, “You are in breach of the universal declaration of human rights of 1948, and there will be consequences if you persist.”

The European convention on human rights, which was drafted by the Tory Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, gives serious levels of protection to an awful lot of people—the right to family life and a number of other things which are frequently quoted against it in relation to immigration law and other matters. I urge those who decided to go down a tabloid road of saying, “All that matters is to get rid of the controversial Human Rights Act,” to be

30 Jun 2015 : Column 412WH

specific about what they want and what they mean by that. It seems to me that the agenda behind it is to walk away from the convention on the basis that it somehow interferes with our laws and rights. Well, at one level, any time any Government or Parliament anywhere signs a treaty, of course to some extent it reduces their powers and their unfettered ability to do something. That is the whole point of a treaty. By signing up to a convention that covers the whole of Europe, it means that we support a basic level of human rights for people across Europe.

Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con): Is it not important to draw a distinction between the convention and section 2 of the Human Rights Act? The point made about the Human Rights Act is that it incorporates the convention into English law. There were convention rights in the United Kingdom and in particular in England before the Human Rights Act. Section 2, which requires that the courts “must take into account” the acts of convention bodies, could be repealed without coming out of the convention. It is important to draw that distinction.

Jeremy Corbyn: That is an interesting point, but I am not sure the hon. Gentleman is correct. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) is about to correct me to correct him.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): To clarify the apparent misunderstanding among Government Members, section 2 of the Human Rights Act is quite clear. The former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), was careful to remind the House of the careful steps that the Government went through before 2000. Section 2 says that UK courts and tribunals should take account of Strasbourg case law. It is not that they have to do so; it is possible for a UK court to consider and then ignore the jurisprudence. The understanding is that it is about taking account of, rather than blindly following the jurisprudence.

Jeremy Corbyn: It says “take into account”, and that is what it means. In forming the judgment, the court “must take into account” the convention. The court might decide—it sometimes does—

Alex Chalk indicated dissent.

Jeremy Corbyn: Shake your head as much as you like, you will still have your head on your body.

Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair): Order. My head and my body are not a subject of discussion at this stage, so the words “you” and “your” are not appropriate.

Jeremy Corbyn: Thank you, Mr Betts. May we get back to the question of the Human Rights Act and what it says? It incorporates the convention into British law and requires courts to take account of the contents of the convention and the rights within it. The Conservative party’s love affair with the tabloids before the last election was all about walking away from this controversial thing because it interfered with British law. Interestingly, the Government, in the person of the Foreign Secretary, now say that we will not leave the convention, but that we might not operate within the purview of the European Court of Human Rights in the future. I am not sure

30 Jun 2015 : Column 413WH

how those two things can be put together. The Foreign Secretary said he will restore rights to British courts, but the rights of British courts have never actually been taken away; they have been asked to take into account an important convention.

The politics are simple. If Britain withdraws from the European convention on human rights and sets up a British Bill of Rights that is outwith that convention and may have all kinds of things within it—good, bad, indifferent, appalling or wonderful—it sends a message to every other country in Europe. Those countries thinking about withdrawing from the European convention because they have been criticised for their treatment of Travellers, for their treatment of gay, lesbian or transgender people, for suppressing popular protest or for closing down internet sites and suppressing newspapers would be a little bit happier if one country withdrew. If Britain—one of the original authors of the document—withdraws, I suspect that many others will withdraw, and the human rights of the whole continent will be significantly damaged as a result. I urge the Government to think carefully about this issue before they go any further.

The Prime Minister was quick to quote Magna Carta, but then bizarrely went to Runnymede to make a speech saying, in a sense, that he would ignore Magna Carta and withdraw from the European convention. He did not seem to realise that most of Magna Carta has been overturned by subsequent legislation anyway, and I think it is only the section on the right to trial by jury that remains. There was also a fundamental misunderstanding about Magna Carta defending the rights of free people. Unfortunately, the statutes of the time defined free people as those who had been given their freedom by the King. The vast majority of the population—the peasantry—was not given any rights at all.

In St Stephen’s, there is a wonderful painting of King John reluctantly putting his seal to Magna Carta. All the barons are saying, “Do it,” but a peasant is lying on the ground saying, “There is nothing in this for me. This is between the barons and the King.” The principles set out in Magna Carta—I would urge people to visit the Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library—descended through the law in many other ways, on the basis that irrational Government should be held to account for what they do and that everybody should be given rights to stand up for what they believe in, with the rest of society being required to allow them to do so.

I do not know what will be in this British Bill of Rights, if it comes about, but I am pretty horrified by the mood music surrounding it, which is about damaging our civil liberties and rights.

Sadiq Khan: Does my hon. Friend agree that, just as judges often made decisions that did not please all the tabloid media before the Human Rights Act was passed, it is possible that judges will make decisions that some newspapers do not find to their liking even after a Conservative Bill of Rights has been introduced?

Jeremy Corbyn: It is part of the balance in our constitutional process that Parliament is independent of the Executive and that the judiciary is independent of Parliament. Sometimes, the judiciary makes perverse

30 Jun 2015 : Column 414WH

decisions, and sometimes its decisions upset Ministers and lots of other people. That is the point of having an independent judicial system and of referring to the basic principles in the European convention on human rights—the right to assembly, the right to free speech, the right to know and the right not to be discriminated against.

I urge the Government not to go down this road, but to accept that the contribution made in the aftermath of the horrors of the second world war by the European convention on human rights and the wonderful document that is the universal declaration of human rights, with the work that Eleanor Roosevelt put into it, is part of a narrative of giving rights to everybody around the world, whatever their station. If this country, which prides itself on being the longest continuous democracy and having the longest lasting parliamentary system of government and judicial system, walks away from the European convention, every dictator and every person who is annoyed by international conventions will be a bit happier, and it will be a sad day for those who are standing up bravely for human rights against the most oppressive regimes in the world. Please don’t do it!

3.11 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I welcome the Minister to his place in what is the Justice Department’s first debate in Westminster Hall.

At the risk of offending both sides, may I suggest that we need to be a bit less theological? I have much sympathy for the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) in opening the debate, and by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who is a distinguished lawyer. However, I suspect that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

There were human rights protections before the Human Rights Act came into force. The United Kingdom was a signatory to the European convention, and it is worth observing that although Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, in his subsequent career, was not noted for being on the liberal wing of the Conservative party, he none the less thought that the convention was a good and desirable thing. There were protections in the convention that the British courts took account of. It is fair to say that there were also sometimes practical issues about access and implementation, and we should not lose sight of that. The thought, therefore, that the Human Rights Act is a sort of holy grail is probably misleading, and we should not be afraid to think of looking at it again and reforming it. Equally, we should not assume that the convention is a permanent intrusion on the rights of British courts, because that would be wrong too. Let us try to find a way through the middle.

I serve on the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and legal affairs committee. Perhaps rather horrifyingly to some people, I also serve on a committee that appoints the judges to the European Court—the idea that a committee of politicians appoints judges may seem odd to us, and that is perhaps an issue we have to look at. The quality of the current Court is, frankly, variable: we have some very good people, and we have some people whose independence does not come from the tradition that we are used to, if I can put it that way. On the other hand, the United Kingdom

30 Jun 2015 : Column 415WH

generally does not have an issue in terms of being at variance with the Strasbourg Court—we have one of the highest rates of compliance with its judgments—so, again, a bit of perspective might be required.

It is perhaps ironic that the Human Rights Act did not seek to create a binding precedent, but the approach taken by our domestic judiciary has frequently got fairly close to that. That is not an issue that withdrawal from the convention, of itself, would address, so we have to be realistic about what can be achieved. In any event, Strasbourg judgments would be regarded as being at least of persuasive value in arguments before our Supreme Court. Simply repealing the Act will not, therefore, make some of the controversy go away, and we have to be realistic about what can be achieved.

On the other hand, bizarre consequences sometimes stem from the Act’s operation, and we perhaps need to look carefully at that. I do not take the view that that would be a signal that we have turned our back on human rights. Britain’s compliance with the convention is rather better than, for example, Russia’s—I do not think we have invaded any of our neighbours recently—so let us put our disagreements with the convention into a bit of perspective.

I hope the Minister will give us a little more assistance on how we go forward. We are committed to a consultation, which is right. In fairness, the Government have committed themselves to a much more significant consultation than that which happened before the Human Rights Act. I would like to know more details of the consultation’s timetable and what form the consultation will take.

Mr Grieve: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is one thing we need to look at? In the past, where we have found difficulties, we have legislated in separate legislation—we did that with the Immigration Act 2014. Changing the text of the Human Rights Act may not be the best course of action. If there are areas of difficulty, we can see whether there is separate legislation that is still compatible with the convention that we can introduce.

Robert Neill: My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very fair point. I hope the Government will include that as part of the consultation. Some of the things that cause offence to many of our constituents might be remedied more easily in a more appropriate fashion. That is an important point.

The Government are committed to basing a British Bill of Rights on the convention, but we need a little more detail about what “basing” means. For example, are there any rights in the convention that it would not be proposed to include in the Bill? That is critical, because people would be concerned about a diminution of protections. On the other hand, are there areas where the current protections might be enhanced? We need that spelled out at an early stage.

What is the timetable? What is the proposed scope and level of detail of the prelegislative scrutiny? The Justice Committee, which I chair, will be most anxious to be involved in that scrutiny, but other parts of the House will also rightly have to have an input. We also need carefully to address the impact across the whole United Kingdom, because the United Kingdom was a signatory to the convention, and the Human Rights Act was a United Kingdom piece of legislation. It is important that we reflect on all those matters.