7 Nov 2011 : Column 42
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): The more a balloon is inflated, the more it hurts when it eventually explodes. Would it not be better for us to help the Greeks default and devalue now rather than later?
The Prime Minister: We have argued very consistently that part of any solution has to be a very decisive writing down of Greek debt, because it obviously cannot afford the level of debt that it currently has. That is the plan that it is being offered. Some would argue that even that is not enough, and that is my hon. Friend’s position, but our view has always been that unless the debts are written down significantly, there will not be a proper solution.
Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): My right hon. Friend has rightly argued that fixing the eurozone is a matter for eurozone countries. May I welcome the fact that he has announced that we are making contingency plans for the possibility of that failing?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I said, it is difficult to say more about it in the House, but I will discuss with Treasury Ministers whether we can say a little bit more. If Members have contributions that they want to make or concerns about elements of any contingency plan, which would have to be very wide ranging and cover all sorts of different eventualities, they should talk to Treasury Ministers.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does the Prime Minister have an estimate of the liability that the UK would have incurred had we not excluded ourselves from the European financial stability mechanism bail-out fund that the Labour Government supported?
The Prime Minister: One thing that we have managed to keep out of is the European element of the Greek bail-out. That has had two iterations, and we were not involved in the first or the second. The specific idea of using the EFSM to support Greece was batted away by Britain.
Mr Sam Gyimah (East Surrey) (Con): One of the key issues about the eurozone is the need to recapitalise a number of European banks, especially those that are quite weak. What comments can the Prime Minister make about the relative strength of UK banks, and will he say that the UK taxpayer will not have to stump up any more cash to recapitalise our banks?
The Prime Minister: On the current plan for the recapitalisation of European banks, British banks would not require any additional capital because they are quite well capitalised already. There is a concern that needs to be expressed that as the Europeans move to recapitalise their banks, it is quite important that they do not do that purely by shrinking bank balance sheets, and that they encourage banks to find fresh sources of capital so that lending does not decrease in the European Union.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con):
Are we not in danger of ignoring the political reality of the current situation, which is that saving the euro at almost any cost is in the long-term interests of Germany, but
7 Nov 2011 : Column 43
not necessarily that of the taxpayers of the United Kingdom? That being so, surely the ECB and not the IMF must be the lender of last resort.
The Prime Minister: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend’s last point. The point about the future of the euro is that we should take a very hard-headed, national-interest view. All the evidence is that a disorderly break-up of the euro would have very bad effects on all the economies within Europe, and bad effects on Britain. One can make longer-term arguments about what it might mean and how things might change but, in the short-term, there is no doubt that when we are trying to secure growth and jobs in this country a disorderly break-up of the eurozone would not be good for Britain.
Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): May I thank the Prime Minister for the thoughtful and constructive leadership that he offered at the G20? The debate has focused quite narrowly on Greece in recent weeks. What is his interpretation of the emerging situation in Italy?
The Prime Minister: We all have to be careful not to speculate on other countries, but the requirement of those who are lending money to Italy is a clear and consistent plan for Italy getting on top of its debts and deficit. When they see that, interest rates will come back down again. However, that is a lesson to any country that if they do not have credibility in the markets, their interest rates can go up quite quickly.
Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that the UK already has a financial transactions tax—one that raises around £3 billion a year? It is just that we call it stamp duty.
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One point that Bill Gates made to me is that if other European countries introduce stamp duty on shares, they might find that they can get to the 0.7% of GDP that they are meant to be giving in overseas development assistance without having a financial transactions tax. If they care about overseas development, as this Government do, that might be quite a good answer.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 44
UK Border Force
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the UK border force, an operational division of the UK Border Agency. The border force is responsible for ensuring that only legitimate travellers and goods are allowed to enter and leave the UK, while reducing threats including illegal immigration, drug smuggling and terrorism.
Border force activities include verifying the immigration status of passengers arriving and departing the UK; checking baggage, vehicles and cargo for illicit goods; and searching for illegal immigrants. Border force officers confirm the identity of passengers arriving at the UK border; check passengers against a watch list known as the warnings index; and undertake a visual inspection of passengers’ passports. Where a biometric passport is held, the biometric chip, which contains a second photograph, is opened and verified.
Non-EU passengers undergo additional checks. Officers establish whether a visa is required and whether a visa is held. If the passenger has a biometric visa, a fingerprint database check can be made, and officers decide whether the passenger should be granted entry to the UK.
In the past, under the previous Government, some of those checks were lifted at times of pressure on the border. In the summer of 2008, warnings index checks were suspended on European economic area nationals—children and adults—on Eurostar services. At Calais, warnings index checks were suspended on European economic area and UK car passengers—again, adults as well as children were not run against the index. Since 2008, at various ports and airports, that happened on more than 100 occasions.
Officials tell me that once, in 2004, local managers at Heathrow terminal 3 decided to open controls and no checks were made. To prevent that from happening again, and to allow resources to be focused on the highest-risk passengers and journeys, in July I agreed that the UK Border Agency could pilot a scheme that would allow border force officials to target intelligence-led checks on higher-risk categories of travellers.
Initial options had been put to the then security Minister and the immigration Minister in January, who agreed them as a basis for further work. That resulted in proposals for a risk-based strategy coming to me in April. After further work, I agreed an amended and limited pilot scheme in July, which meant that, under limited circumstances, EEA national children, travelling with their parents or as part of a school group, would be checked against the warnings index—designed to detect terrorists and serious criminals—when assessed by a border force official to be a credible risk.
The pilot also allowed, under limited circumstances, border force officials the discretion to judge when to open the biometric chip, which contains a second photograph and no further information, on the passports of EEA nationals. Those circumstances were that the measures would always be subject to a risk-based assessment, that they should not be routine and that the volume of passengers would be such that border security would be stronger with more risk-based checks and fewer mandatory checks than with more mandatory
7 Nov 2011 : Column 45
checks on low-risk passengers and fewer risk-based checks for high-risk passengers. The advice of security officials was sought and they confirmed that they were content with the measures.
I want everybody to understand what was supposed to happen under the terms of the pilot. In usual circumstances, all checks would be carried out on all passengers. Under the risk-based controls, everybody’s passports would be checked; nobody would be waved through; visa nationals’ fingerprints would be checked; all non-EEA nationals’ biometric chips would be checked; all adults would be run past the warnings index; all non-EEA nationals would be run past the warnings index; and border officials would be free to use their professional judgment to check the biometric chips of EEA passengers and to check EEA children travelling with parents or a school group against the warnings index.
The pilot was extended on 19 September and was due to end last Friday. The results are not yet fully evaluated, but UKBA’s statistics show that, compared with the same period last year, the number of illegal immigrants detected increased by nearly 10%. Last week, John Vine, the independent chief inspector of UKBA, raised concerns with Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of UKBA, that security checks were not being implemented properly. On Wednesday, the head of the UK border force, Brodie Clark, confirmed to Mr Whiteman that border controls had been relaxed without ministerial approval.
First, biometric checks on EEA nationals and warnings index checks on EEA national children were abandoned on a regular basis, without ministerial approval. Biometric tests on non-EEA nationals are also thought to have been abandoned on occasions, again without ministerial approval. Secondly, adults were not checked against the warnings index at Calais, without ministerial approval. Thirdly, the verification of the fingerprints of non-EEA nationals from countries that require a visa was stopped, without ministerial approval. I did not give my consent or authorisation for any of these decisions. Indeed, I told officials explicitly that the pilot was to go no further than we had agreed.
As a result of these unauthorised actions, we will never know how many people entered the country who should have been prevented from doing so after being flagged by the warnings index. Following Mr Clark’s conversation with Mr Whiteman, the latter carried out further investigations and on Thursday morning he suspended Mr Clark from duty with immediate effect. The Home Office permanent secretary, the immigration Minister and I were notified of his decision that morning. The pilot scheme, which had been due to end the next day, was suspended immediately, and on Friday two other border force officials, Graeme Kyle, director of operations at Heathrow, and Carole Upshall, director of border force south and European operations, were also suspended from duty on a precautionary basis.
There is nothing more important than the security of our border, and because of the seriousness of these allegations I have ordered a number of investigations. Dave Wood, the head of the UKBA enforcement and crime group and a former Metropolitan police officer, will carry out an investigation into exactly how, when and where the suspension of checks might have taken place. Mike Anderson, the director general of immigration,
7 Nov 2011 : Column 46
is looking at the actions of the wider team working for Brodie Clark; and John Vine, the chief inspector, will conduct a thorough review to find out exactly what happened with the checks across the UKBA, how the chain of command in the border force operates and whether the system needs to be changed in future. For the sake of clarity, I am happy for Mr Vine to look at what decisions were made and when by Ministers. That investigation will begin immediately and will report by the end of January. I will place the terms of reference for the inquiries in the House of Commons Library.
Border security is fundamental to our national security and our policy of reducing and controlling immigration. The pilots run by the UK border force this summer were designed to improve border security by focusing resources on passengers and journeys that intelligence led officers to believe posed the greatest risk. The vast majority of those officers are hard-working, dedicated public servants. Just like all of us, they want to see tough immigration controls and strong enforcement, but they have been let down by senior officials at the head of the organisation who put at risk the security of our border. Our task now is to make sure—[ Interruption. ]
Mr Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting, but the Home Secretary must be heard. I know that these are matters about which Members rightly feel extremely strongly, although in fairness we might note in passing that on Friday Members of the Youth Parliament felt extremely strongly about the five motions on which they spoke, but they listened to each other with courtesy.
Mrs May: Our task now is to ensure that those responsible are punished and that border force officials can never take such risks with border security again. That is what I am determined to do, and I commend this statement to the House.
Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement and welcome her agreement to establish an independent inquiry. That inquiry must get to the truth, but it should do so considerably more rapidly than by January.
Reports have already reached me from the UK Border Agency today that the shredders are on and that there is a ban on internal e-mails. Will the Home Secretary look urgently into those allegations, and into what documents perhaps are being shredded and what e-mails deleted in the Home Office and UKBA on this issue? It is also important that the inquiry has access to all communications between Ministers, the Home Office and UKBA. The scope must cover the resource pressures facing UKBA. We now know that 6,500 staff are being cut from the agency, including 1,500 from the border force. We need to know what pressures officials were put under to cut corners as a result and keep queues down with reduced staff.
We also need some answers from the Home Secretary now. In questions earlier and in her statement, she could not tell the House how many people came through our ports and airports this summer without proper checks. On average, 100,000 foreign citizens enter Britain every day. UKBA staff have claimed that reduced checks were in place almost daily from August, lasting at least half of the shift. How many people were not checked
7 Nov 2011 : Column 47
against the watch list? How many people did not have their biometrics checked? What is the Home Secretary’s estimate of whether anyone from the watch list entered Britain at that time? Did any convicted criminals or security suspects enter? The truth is that the Home Secretary does not know. She says that we will never know. Even now, she seems to be doing nothing to find out and assess who has entered the country and what the security risk might be.
The Home Secretary has admitted that she took the decision to reduce checks for EU citizens in July—not checking under-18s against the warnings index or doing biometric checks on EU passports—yet she will know that cases have been identified by border officials involving EU citizens, including people involved in organised crime, people trafficking, falsifying passports or removals of children who are wards of court. She made that decision—not Labour Ministers in the past: this Home Secretary—and that decision is her responsibility. She cannot run away from it or hide behind cases from 2004, long before new systems were introduced. She knows that the intention of Labour—and, we had assumed, Conservative—Ministers was to roll out e-Borders and to put the technology in place so that everyone could be properly screened entering and exiting the country, and not only at quiet times. In fact, the immigration Minister claimed in May that 90% of non-EU flights and 60% of EU flights were covered, but it turns out that he meant 90% of flights in the winter or at quiet times in the afternoons.
The truth is that instead of strengthening the checks year on year, as all previous Ministers had committed to do, this Home Secretary decided to water them down, as official Government policy, even though she never told the House. She has blamed officials for relaxing the checks further than she intended, yet she gave the green light for the weaker controls. She claimed in her statement that she did not intend it to be routine not to check the biometric chip in EEA passports, yet I have a copy of the interim operational instruction that she has refused to publish, which states:
“We will cease routinely opening the chip within EEA passports, checking all EEA nationals under 18 against the warnings index”.
“If for whatever reason it is considered necessary to take further measures, local managers must escalate to the Border force duty director to seek authority for their proposed action.”
So the Home Secretary gave agency staff the green light to go ahead and experiment to meet the pressures from queues, and look how far they went. A member of the Border Agency staff said this morning:
“Every day I let in 10 people who I think there would be a good case against”.
How on earth did Ministers not know about this? How on earth could there be continual complaints from staff for months without the immigration Minister or the Home Secretary knowing what was going on? At best, they were deeply out of touch; at worst, they were complicit in a loss of control at our borders.
This Home Secretary is presiding over growing chaos and corner cutting at our borders: Raed Salah was banned from this country by the Home Office, yet he was allowed to waltz in at Heathrow; 100,000 asylum
7 Nov 2011 : Column 48
cases have been written off as just too difficult to deal with; Ministers have now given the green light to an experiment to water down, rather than increase, border controls; and the Home Secretary does not even know how many people entered Britain without proper checks this summer. Thousands of people entered without proper checks, and without the Home Secretary having a clue what was going on. It is no good blaming the previous Government, or blaming officials. This is happening on her watch, these are her decisions, and this is her Government’s mistake. She needs to get a grip and stop passing the buck.
Mrs May: I must say that I regret that response from the right hon. Lady. There is no more serious issue than border security, but, instead of engaging with the facts, she has chosen to play party politics. She knows that the checks that I approved and the relaxation of checks, which I did not approve, are two very different matters.
Let me take her points in turn. She alleges that the pilot scheme and the unauthorised actions were the result of cuts. I explained the basis for the pilot scheme in my statement. I would remind her that the last Government were planning to cut the UK Border Agency and that it remains the stated policy of her party in opposition to cut the Home Office budget. She mentioned in passing that the House had not been informed about the pilot programme, but it has never been the policy of any Government to notify the House of operational matters such as those. Her own Government did not notify the House when they introduced a risk-based warnings index policy, or when they let passengers through Heathrow without even looking at their passports.
The right hon. Lady suggests that the problem was related not to unauthorised official actions but to the measures that we piloted in July. Let me remind the House again that, as I said in my statement, these measures allowed greater intelligence-led checks to be made against higher-risk passengers. Does the right hon. Lady think that was wrong; if so, why did the last Government introduce a warnings index policy that allowed risk-based checks back in 2007?
Let me remind the right hon. Lady of what I said. The pilot allowed officials in limited circumstances to use their discretion whether to check the biometric chip of EEA nationals and whether to run EEA nationals’ children travelling in family groups or school groups against the warnings index. Under her Government in similar circumstances, adults were not run against the warnings index, and on at least one occasion at Heathrow the border was opened up, so no checks were made against inbound passengers. She says that officials at UKBA are telling her that they were suspicious about individuals, yet they were being let through. It was clear in the guidance on the policy that for any EEA national or EEA national child against whom suspicion was felt, the officer should do the necessary biometric chip checks or warnings index checks.
The right hon. Lady asked whether the inquiry should include the decisions of Ministers as well as officials. I have already said that I am happy for John Vine’s investigation to look at what decisions were taken by Ministers and when. She asked about the publication of paperwork between Ministers and officials. We will certainly make all the relevant paperwork available to the investigations. I can assure her and the House that
7 Nov 2011 : Column 49
the paperwork will show without ambiguity that the relaxation of checks that occurred was not sanctioned by me.
The right hon. Lady asked whether any dangerous individuals had managed to come to Britain. That is a very serious issue; that is why I addressed it in my statement. I made it clear to the House that we are not in a position to be able to say how many people entered who should have been prevented after being flagged by the warnings index. We would have known, however, if anybody had tried to enter the country during the pilot, as the pilot was due to operate, because all adults were run past the warnings index and all non-EEA passengers were checked against that index. It was only EEA nationals’ children travelling with their parents or in a school group who were not automatically run against the warnings index. That is more stringent than the controls put in place by the last Government, who in similar circumstances did not check all adults against the warnings index.
I have said on a number of occasions that there is nothing more important than the security of our border, and I made clear in my statement the measures we are taking to address the lapse. In addition, we are reforming every route to the UK to reduce net migration; we are clearing the asylum backlog; we are improving removals; we are addressing the problem of article 8; and we are creating a border policing command in our National Crime Agency to improve our border security in the long term.
I will take no lectures, however, from the party that gave us a total net migration of more than 2.2 million people, the foreign national prisoners scandal, Sangatte, widespread abuse of student visas, the botched e-Borders contract, a 450,000 asylum backlog, no transitional controls for eastern Europeans, the Human Rights Act and a points-based system that failed to reduce immigration. My task now is to make sure that those responsible for this lapse are properly dealt with and to make sure that border force officials can never take these risks with border security again. That is what I am determined to do.
Mr Speaker: Order. A great many colleagues wish to participate in the debate on this statement. I know that a fine example of the brevity required will now be provided by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis).
Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): The shadow Home Secretary used the phrase “deeply out of touch” and “complicit in a loss of control at our borders”, which is, of course, a perfect description of Labour policy for the last decade. The Home Secretary made a decision on 22 July this year which only she could make, simply because she is the only person with advice from the security agencies. Can she tell us in broad terms what that advice was?
7 Nov 2011 : Column 50
Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): No one is asking the Home Secretary to take lectures. What she is being asked to do is take responsibility for the shambles over which she is presiding, 18 months into the Government’s term of office. Will she now answer the question posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)? How on earth did it come about that neither her immigration Minister nor she spotted that—as she claims—her instructions were not being followed? Does she never talk to immigration officers, or go to a port or an airport?
Mrs May: I do indeed go to airports and I do indeed talk to immigration officers, and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I find my discussions with immigration officers very fruitful because of the ideas they advance about better measures that we could take to improve security at our borders and reduce immigration, which is, of course, what the Government intend to do. Last week, during a period when the pilot was due to be operating, the chief inspector spoke to the chief executive of UKBA to express his concerns. As a result, conversations were held with the head of the UK border force, which led to the action that is now being taken.
Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I warmly welcome the approach that my right hon. Friend is taking, including the inquiry that she has instituted. Can she confirm that anyone who has illegally entered the UK as a result of these events will not benefit from an amnesty instituted by Ministers, as happened repeatedly under the last Government? Can she also confirm that such cases will not be allowed to pile up in a backlog of 500,000, as earlier cases did, including the 100,000 to which the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) had the gall to refer?
Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House of that point. It was the actions of the last Government that led to the build-up of more than 450,000 asylum cases, which has only just been cleared. We are now able to operate a much more efficient asylum system. I can also assure my hon. Friend that this Government are not in favour of allowing an amnesty to illegal immigrants.
Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): Last year the Government announced the abandoning of second-generation biometrics; we had not expected them to abandon first-generation biometrics quite so quickly.
I realise that we are dealing with a ministerial graveyard —as some of us know very well—but what monitoring and reporting mechanisms were introduced by Ministers so that they could be informed of the progress of the pilot programme and whether it was being eroded at the edges?
Mrs May: We ensured that there would be a proper evaluation of the pilot programme. The point of making it a pilot programme was to establish whether it would indeed be possible to target those who constituted a higher risk in terms of border security, and whether there would be benefits from such action. As I have said, the pilot ended last week, and the full results of the evaluation have not yet been made available.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 51
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): The Home Secretary read out a litany of occasions on which rules had been relaxed under the last Government. Is she aware of the guidance that was given in each of those cases, and does she believe that that relaxation may have contributed to a laxity in the system which has led officials to feel they need not always follow the rules to the letter?
Mrs May: I am aware of some of the guidance that was published at the time, which stated, for instance, that details of EEA nationals arriving on services that had been assessed as low or very low risk should be checked only on a targeted basis. Various relaxations were introduced at the time. I have asked the chief inspector of the UK Border Agency not only to assess what has been happening across the board in terms of checks, but to examine the processes for ensuring that Ministers’ decisions are properly undertaken, recorded, passed down and acted on, and that no one goes further than that.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I welcome the appointment of John Vine. I also thank the Home Secretary for agreeing to give evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs tomorrow, when we will probe her further on these matters. She will know that successive Select Committee reports have told successive Governments about the culture of complacency that exists at the highest levels of the UK Border Agency, yet senior officials were paid £90,000 in bonuses last year. May I urge her to turn this crisis into an opportunity? If the Vine report suggests a root-and-branch change to the way in which the agency is operating, will she please accept those recommendations—along with the recommendations of the Select Committee—and implement them?
Mrs May: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I was, of course, looking forward to appearing before his Select Committee in any case, and as that happens to have fallen at this time, I will, indeed, look forward to answering questions on this matter. There have over the years been reports that have rightly raised concerns about the operation of the UK Border Agency and what has been happening at our borders. I have made it absolutely clear to the chief inspector that I look forward to him not only reporting on what has happened, but bringing forward recommendations on how we can in future better ensure we are maintaining our border security.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does the Home Secretary expect any of the reviews that she has initiated to recommend that retrospective checks be carried out on any people who got into the UK over the period in question and on whom partial information had been captured, and what would such retrospective checks involve?
Mrs May: I do not expect the investigations by Dave Wood and Mike Anderson to come up with such a recommendation, because they are specifically examining what happened in relation to certain individuals. Chief inspector John Vine’s report will tell us in more detail what has happened over the period in question across the board, rather than at just a number of ports. I have to say, however, that I doubt that he will come forward with specific recommendations on any individual.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 52
Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): From the Home Secretary’s very defensive responses, we know who she is blaming in advance of her inquiries, but those who know the people at the top-end of the border force, and who know how that body works, say it is unthinkable that they would have taken these actions without the knowledge and approval of Ministers. That is right, isn’t it?
Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): Evidence to the Home Affairs Committee showed that while the agency was truly chaotic under the last Government, significant problems remain in respect of its ability to protect our borders properly. It is clear the agency is in need of urgent and real reform. As a start, can the Home Secretary assure me and my constituents that the Government will swiftly press ahead with the creation of a border policing command?
Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We will, indeed, be pressing ahead with the establishment of a border policing command inside the National Crime Agency. I am also pleased to be able to tell the House that the new chief executive of UKBA, Rob Whiteman, who has been in place for five weeks, has already done a lot of work in assessing what changes are required to ensure UKBA staff operate the maximum level of security.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): Can the Home Secretary confirm that all airports, including Manchester, were included in the pilot? If so, can she confirm whether those who run Manchester airport and the airlines that operate there were made aware of the pilot?
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): My constituency contains the nation’s second-busiest air gateway, and a majority of my constituents are deeply concerned about immigration. Will the Secretary of State say whether Gatwick was part of the pilot? If so, when her investigations are complete, will she tell us how many people came through during that period? Will she also confirm that national security will always be a greater priority than the length of the queues in immigration halls?
Mrs May: Yes, indeed Gatwick was included. It was possible for the pilot to be operated across all the ports; it was not specified for any particular ports. There was a focus on particular ports, but Gatwick was included and I believe that Manchester was too.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 53
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Does that mean that the airports in Scotland were included? If there are issues for the airports in Scotland, what discussions has the Home Secretary had with Scottish Ministers on this issue?
“Labour lied to people about the extent of immigration”—
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On Friday, while in my constituency, I received a phone call from someone who had been in the country illegally since 1965. This person had left the country, had been prevented by border officials from coming back in and then recently—on that very day—had been given six months to stay here. It is a question not just of checking these people, but of doing something about them when we see them.
Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Given the UK Border Agency’s reputation for mishaps and inefficiency, and the sensitivity of this issue, why did the Home Secretary bring this pilot into force without making arrangements for checking at regular and frequent intervals how it was actually working in practice? Why did it take three months before this failure emerged?
Mrs May: As I indicated in my statement, the pilot was for a limited period of time. It was exactly what it said: a pilot to test whether the operation was going to ensure that we could target higher-risk individuals, rather than routinely checking everybody in certain categories. The evaluation of the pilot would have led to a decision as to whether or not it was appropriate to continue that in any further way. This was for a limited period and the full evaluation was to take place at the end.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Does the Home Secretary agree that it is perfectly in order to give very well-paid, high-level senior officials some common-sense discretion, but if they go further than their discretion—further than is authorised by Ministers—and weaken our borders, it is appropriate to look at criminal sanctions for any misconduct?
7 Nov 2011 : Column 54
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Will the Home Secretary consider the question of staffing levels throughout the UK Border Agency? I am talking about the effect they have in respect of enormous queues at Heathrow and other airports, which become a deterrent to legitimate travellers; the inability of that agency to respond to written inquiries from people, including MPs; and the situation where the agency apparently cannot cope with its work load.
Mrs May: As I made clear in my statement, this was not an issue about staffing levels; this was a pilot that was intended to help us understand whether it was possible, with different arrangements, to make more intelligence-led checks on higher-risk individuals. We have made it clear that it is going to be possible to improve the border operations through the use of greater technology—the use of e-gates is an important element in that. The hon. Gentleman refers to letters written by MPs, but I must say to him that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration is responsible for signing— dealing with—about 60,000 letters on immigration matters each year.
Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): There has been a catalogue of problems in UKBA for many years, as was shown in a recent Select Committee report before this case took place. We had seen the disasters of the asylum backlog, which has not quite gone away; poor decision making; cases being dropped; and a huge number of successful appeal rates. Fixing this has defeated many previous Home Secretaries, so how can we be sure that this one will resolve it?
Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right to say that over the years—this is the point I have been making—successive Governments have come across difficulties in the operation of UKBA, or its predecessor organisation in the Home Office, in relation to security checks and border controls. This coalition Government are taking the right steps, by establishing the border police command, to strengthen our ability to deal with controls at our border. But, as I indicated in my answer to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), it will of course be for us to look at any recommendations that come from the chief inspector’s investigation in order to see whether further action is necessary to put in place what we all want: a system to ensure that UKBA can maintain the security of our borders in the way we wish.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): In her statement, the Home Secretary said that the controls had been relaxed without any ministerial approval, but she did not mention knowledge. Will she confirm whether the Prime Minister, No. 10, she, her Ministers, the permanent secretary at the Department or her private offices had any knowledge whatever of those relaxations and controls?
Mrs May: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the first I was aware of them was when I was informed by the permanent secretary that action had been taken against Brodie Clark, who is the head of the UK border force.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 55
interceptions and whether they were the same months as those we are talking about today?
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Is it not a fact that under this Home Secretary’s watch, something like 100,000 people, possibly including terrorists, have vanished into the undergrowth with nobody knowing where they are? When the Home Secretary said again and again in her statement “without ministerial approval”, was she not admitting that she does not have a grip on her Department? The responsibility ends with her.
Mrs May: I have been perfectly clear with the House that I take responsibility for the decisions I have made, and I have done that this afternoon. In the circumstances that have been set out, what we have seen is a pilot that was agreed, and actions going beyond that—unauthorised actions—taking place at our border.
Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): The Public and Commercial Services Union is alleging that staff cuts and staff shortages caused the relaxation of these rules. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity completely to reject those allegations?
Mrs May: Yes, I will take that opportunity. It was clear when the proposals for the pilot were presented to me that the desire was to ensure that more risk-based checks could be made and therefore that we would target resources on higher-risk individuals. In doing that, it could well be possible to improve security, but, of course, evaluating whether that was the case was the purpose of ensuring that this was only a pilot.
Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): Having served as a full-time official in the civil service trade union movement for 26 years, may I say that if a civil servant under the senior civil service had wilfully disobeyed an instruction he would have been guilty of gross misconduct and would have been summarily dismissed? If the matter is as clear-cut as the Home Secretary suggests, will she tell us why Brodie Clark is not facing the same sanction?
Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): I trust my right hon. Friend to sort out the sloppy and lax management culture that has prevailed at this agency for too long. May I ask about her excellent idea for a border police command? When will it be introduced and how many police will be detailed to it? What the public want now is even more reassurance that our borders are going to be safe.
The intention is that the National Crime Agency will be established in 2013. It will be necessary for legislation to go through the House to establish the NCA, and the border police command will be part of the national crime agency. I am not able, at this point, to
7 Nov 2011 : Column 56
say how many police will go to the border police command. I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that, given what has taken place, it is now necessary for us to have another look at exactly what we intend to do with that border police command.
“because of this culpable failure to protect the safety of the public,”
“position is now untenable”—[Official Report, 26 April 2006; Vol. 445, c. 575.],
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In her statement, my right hon. Friend said that border officials were free to use their professional judgment to check the biometric chip of EEA passengers. Given that biometrics are meant to speed things up and provide greater security, I and my constituents would want every passport holder with a biometric chip to have their passport checked.
Mrs May: Perhaps I should repeat what I said about the biometric chip. The biometric chip holds within it a second photograph. That is all it holds within it. The decision was taken under the pilot to allow discretion to be operated in relation to EEA nationals and the opening of the biometric chip on a risk-based approach. I am sure my hon. Friend would want a border force that ensures it is targeting those who place most at risk individuals living in the United Kingdom.
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Is not the real issue that any pilot that relaxes security and immigration checks at our borders is a disaster waiting to happen, and that is what we have—a disaster that has happened?
Mrs May: I explained in my statement the reasons for undertaking the pilot and also the fact that during the period that the pilot was undertaken, the number of illegal immigrants who were detected at the border increased. I think that rather improves security.
Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): Government figures show that by 2010 illegal immigration had reached an all-time high of more than 700,000 in our country. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the UK Border Agency is solely responsible for this shambolic state of affairs?
The UK Border Agency is the body responsible for putting in place the policy that is agreed for dealing with immigrants at the borders. The UK Border Agency does very good work—I have seen it for myself at Calais—in intercepting illegal immigrants who are trying to enter this country. It is doing that work on a daily basis to try to ensure that we reduce the number of illegal immigrants. This Government are trying to do something to reduce immigration into this country, to reduce net migration, and also to improve
7 Nov 2011 : Column 57
the removal of illegal immigrants so that those who come here with no right to be here are removed from this country.
Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): The House rightly takes seriously the issue of child trafficking. Can the Home Secretary advise me what evaluation was carried out on the increased risk of child trafficking as a result of the pilot and the increased risk of child trafficking that has occurred as a result of this scandal?
Mrs May: The evaluation of the pilot’s impact was intended to demonstrate that. In relation to the possibility of increased child trafficking, I come back to a point that I made earlier. It was clear to officers that it was at their discretion to check children who were coming in, either in family groups or in school groups, and they could follow up any suspicions that they had in relation to that by undertaking those checks.
Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): We know that the radical Islamist Sheikh Raed Salah walked past UK border controls this summer, despite being on a Home Office banned entry list. Was this connected to the news that we hear today, or was it simply a case of someone not checking his passport?
Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that under the previous Government the public lost confidence in Labour’s ability to manage immigration and border controls, and that that drove a significant number of people into the hands of the far right? Does she agree that we should not let the people down in such a way?
Mrs May: I agree with my hon. Friend. Sadly, the immigration policy of the previous Government led to significant concerns among members of the public. This is an issue that matters to members of the public. It is this coalition Government who are taking action that I believe members of the public want us to take to reduce net migration into this country, to get rid of the abuse of student visas, and to deal with some of the other issues that led to the significant numbers of people coming into this country over the past 13 years under a Labour Government.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): The right hon. Lady knows more than almost anyone how uniquely serious the security situation is in Northern Ireland. Can she please confirm that Belfast International was not included in the wave-through amnesty?
7 Nov 2011 : Column 58
Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that she will not quadruple the number of work permits for non-EU residents, that she will not preside over the growth of hundreds of phoney colleges that bring in phoney students, and that she will not plan a large-scale amnesty?
Mrs May: I am happy to confirm all those points. Indeed, far from doing any of those things, this Government are getting rid of the abuse of student visas by ensuring that colleges that have been bringing people in to work rather than to study can no longer do so. It is this Government who have brought in an annual limit on non-EU economic migrants.
Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Given the concerns about the UK Border Agency, can we be clear about why the Home Secretary did not arrange to monitor this sensitive pilot or, given her wide range of responsibilities, why the Immigration Minister did not do so? Can we also be clear what he signed up to and what he was told? Let us not wait until January for those answers. Will the Home Secretary issue a statement to that effect this week?
Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): We heard suggestions earlier that documents were being shredded and e-mails were being deleted. What powers will the three inquiries have to ensure that documents are available to them and witnesses can be called to give evidence?
Mrs May: I can assure my hon. Friend that the internal inquiry has been ongoing since the first information on the matter was available on Thursday and is continuing. I expect it to be a relatively quick inquiry. The inquiry by the chief inspector is starting today, and I saw him and one of his assistant chief inspectors this morning. They have already started the necessary work for conducting the field work at various ports around the country and will have the full powers available to the chief inspector in normal circumstances.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): We have been rather disappointed by the Home Secretary’s answers on Manchester and Belfast airports and the number of people coming into the country. Will she make available to us as soon as possible all the details about the ports and airports involved, the times they were involved and the number of people who came in, rather than waiting until January for an inquiry? She should make it her business to find these things out.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 59
Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (LD): I hope that the Home Secretary will not mind me saying so, but she sounds today like she is more on autopilot than anything else. Does she recollect being given a report about the pilot at the end of September? If she did not see it, which of her Ministers did?
Mrs May: As I indicated in my statement, it was decided in the middle of September to extend the pilot until this week. If that is the report the hon. Gentleman is talking about, we of course looked at it and considered whether we should extend the pilot.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): If the Home Secretary agrees that every aspect of this issue should be investigated, will she confirm that the inquiries will consider the resources that are made available to UKBA?
Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Will the Home Secretary congratulate the front-line UKBA officers who do a brilliant job around the country, including in Dover, and is she aware of Phil Woolas’s comments that his efforts to tighten our borders were opposed by Treasury and Foreign Office Ministers?
Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I will indeed pay tribute to the work that is done by UK Border Agency officers at our ports, including those who are at Dover. As I made clear in an earlier answer, they do very good work on a daily basis to stop people coming into this country illegally and to seize goods that should not be coming into this country. As I say, those who operate at Dover should be commended for the work that they do on a daily basis.
Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): If the pilot was to be evaluated, someone must have been collecting information on how it was working. Can the Home Secretary tell us where that information was held, and can she now answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) about whether any Minister or ministerial private office knew what was going on?
Mrs May: Yes, we were looking at the operation of the pilot, as a full evaluation, at the end of the pilot taking place. Opposition Members have asked on several occasions whether during the course of the pilot it became clear to Ministers that it was being operated not just as requested and authorised, but in another way, and the answer to that is no.
Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Brodie Clark was governor of Whitemoor prison when five IRA men escaped, yet he was promoted to be the Prison Service head of security and then to head the UK border force. The Home Secretary explains that things will improve under the NCA, but does she agree that confidence in the agency would be bolstered if its head were subject to a parliamentary confirmation hearing?
7 Nov 2011 : Column 60
Mrs May: My hon. Friend is an assiduous member of the Home Affairs Committee, and I suspect that it may choose to return to that issue. As he will know as a member of the Committee, in due course the head of the National Crime Agency will be available to appear before the Committee and to talk about his proposals for the agency, which will include the border police command.
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): Was there a specific incident that caused Mr Vine to raise his concerns only last week with Mr Whiteman, or did he have concerns during the previous four months? Did he raise them with anyone? Did such individuals raise those issues with the Home Secretary or anyone in her office?
Mrs May: The chief inspector had carried out an inspection of a Heathrow terminal, and during that inspection he developed a concern about the consistency of the controls being operated. It was that issue that he raised, and it was following discussions about that issue that what had happened has come out.
Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): Earlier this year I hosted a delegation of Chinese business men and investors, who very politely told me that they felt they had undergone excessive security screening and delays at Heathrow airport. When the Home Secretary introduced this shambolic pilot, did she not consider the message that it might send to legitimate and well-meaning trading partners from other parts of the world, who have undergone a far more rigorous examination?
Mrs May: I am not quite certain where the hon. Gentleman is coming from on that particular point, because he seems to complain on the one hand about a pilot with some limited relaxation of controls, and on the other hand about excessive controls.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): This summer, returning from holiday at the end of August along with thousands of others, we arrived at Heathrow, where we were actively discouraged from using the modern technology that the Home Secretary has talked about so frequently in her answers. Will her pilot study indicate exactly what percentage of passengers arriving used the new machines, what percentage went through officials and what percentage of people caught trying to enter illegally went through either the machines or officials?
Mrs May: E-gate usage is known—those figures are available—and one of the matters that I have taken up with the UK Border Agency is the extent to which it should encourage people who are able to use e-gates to do so. The hon. Lady’s experience suggests that otherwise has occurred.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): The Home Secretary says that she discussed the pilot with the Immigration Minister and the Minister responsible for security, but did she consult ministerial colleagues and security officials at the Department for Transport? If so, what was their advice?
7 Nov 2011 : Column 61
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I am appalled that the Home Secretary set up a pilot at Manchester airport and did not know she had done so. That is extraordinary. Will she now answer without any ambiguity the question that has been asked four or five times: did information come from those pilot schemes into her or any other Minister’s office in the Home Office—yes or no?
Mrs May: As I have made clear, an evaluation of the pilot was going to take place at the end of the study, so that we could look at how it was operating and whether it was doing what it was expected to do. As I said in my statement, a decision was taken in the middle of September to extend the pilot until November in order to ensure that there was a fuller period of time to make the evaluation.
Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman refers to the Prime Minister’s involvement, which has been referred to by another hon. Member, and I answered that question: it was a matter for the Home Office and decisions were taken by the Home Office.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 62
M5 Motorway Accident
The Secretary of State for Transport (Justine Greening): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement to update the House on the serious collision that took place on the M5 motorway in Somerset on the evening of Friday 4 November.
As the House will be aware, at approximately 20 minutes past 8 on Friday evening, a road traffic collision occurred on the M5 northbound in Somerset involving multiple vehicles. Some of those vehicles subsequently caught fire. The incident occurred between junction 25, Taunton, and junction 24, Bridgwater North, approximately a third of a mile north of junction 25. The emergency services and the Highways Agency responded to the incident immediately, and therefore a large number of emergency service vehicles and resources were able to attend the scene very quickly.
At approximately 9 pm, based on the numbers of casualties and vehicles involved, Avon and Somerset police declared a major incident. Due to the nature of the incident scene, it took some time to confirm exactly how many people and vehicles were involved in the collision. Avon and Somerset police have now confirmed that 37 vehicles were involved in the collision. Tragically, seven people lost their lives. A further 51 people were injured and were treated at Musgrove Park hospital, Yeovil district hospital or at the scene.
I would like again to offer my condolences—and I am sure those of the House—to those who have lost friends or family in that horrific crash, as well as to offer our thoughts to those who have been injured. The families of those who lost their lives are being supported by specially trained family liaison officers from Avon and Somerset police, who will continue to work with them as long as they are needed.
Police investigations on the motorway were completed at 10 minutes past 4 on Sunday 6 November, and the scene was then handed over to the Highways Agency and its contractors to begin repairs to the carriageway.
The collision incident caused a significant amount of damage to the highway: a stretch of 40 metres of road was damaged by fuel spillage from vehicles and a stretch of 60 metres was damaged by intense fire. Two lanes of the southbound carriageway reopened yesterday at 20 past 5 and, following extensive resurfacing works, all lanes on the northbound carriageway reopened shortly before 9 pm. The final remaining lane closure on the southbound carriageway was removed at 20 past 9 last night, and the road is now running in both directions.
The Minister responsible for roads, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), visited the scene of the incident on Saturday, and I was there yesterday. I was tremendously impressed by the determination and professionalism of staff from the emergency services—police, fire crews and ambulance staff—local hospitals and the Highways Agency. They worked with real dedication in the most difficult of circumstances. Our efforts to deal with the scene also involved the Environment Agency. The way in which all those agencies were able to work together highly effectively was critical in ensuring that those involved in the accident were helped and
7 Nov 2011 : Column 63
treated speedily. I pay tribute to Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham who, as gold commander, led those efforts.
It was a harrowing and painstaking task for all concerned to deal with the incident, and I would like to take the opportunity to thank massively all those involved for their efforts and bravery, including individual members of the public who were passing or near the incident, some of whom tried to help those trapped in vehicles. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the local community, people and businesses in and around Taunton. From local people and hotels offering to accommodate relatives of those injured and members of the public offering support, to local off-duty hospital staff turning up at their hospitals to help to provide care, it was humbling and inspiring to see how selflessly so many people were willing to offer their support to others who needed it.
It would be a mistake at this very early stage to speculate about the causes of the collision. Investigations into the cause of the crash are still at a very early stage. To put that in context, the recovery phase finished only yesterday, and it is only today that the investigation phase becomes the key focus. While Avon and Somerset police have indicated that the presence of smoke on the carriageway is a significant line of inquiry, Assistant Chief Constable Bangham has been clear that, in his words to me earlier today, it is “far too early” to jump to conclusions on the causal factors of the incident. Our first priority now must be to ensure that the police are able to conduct a comprehensive and thorough investigation of the crash.
As I said, earlier today I spoke to Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham, whose Avon and Somerset force is leading the ongoing investigation. He told me that, given the large number of vehicles involved, and the need carefully to look at the vehicles recovered and of course to talk to the many witnesses, it may be some weeks until the investigation can conclude on any cause or causes of the incident. The police continue to appeal for witnesses, and I encourage anyone with any information to contact the police directly on 101 or by calling Crimestoppers on 0800 500 111.
I would like to emphasise to the House the extremely high priority that I attach to road safety. The UK has a proud tradition as a world leader on road safety, and that is a tradition that I am determined to continue. Although the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads has fallen dramatically over the past 20 years, the horrific crash on Friday has reminded us of the terrible personal consequences of collisions for motorists and local communities. Earlier this year, the Government published a road safety framework that commits us to a range of activities that will enable us to do even better in future. We will of course take full account of any lessons from this terrible collision in developing our future policies and supporting the future safe travel of people.
The safety of our roads also requires effective partnership working across a wide range of organisations—national and local government, police and emergency services, and many others. We need to work together effectively if we are going to do the best job we can of ensuring that people stay safe on our roads. Over the coming weeks, and going beyond any lessons that may be learned from
7 Nov 2011 : Column 64
this particular incident, I will be considering carefully our forward plans on road safety to ensure that we have the right measures in place to deliver real and urgent progress on tackling the continuing blight of death and injury on our roads. I commend this statement to the House.
Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement and for early sight of it. I am sure that we would both have preferred the circumstances of her first appearance at the Dispatch Box as Secretary of State for Transport to be different, but may I take this opportunity to congratulate her on her appointment? I wish her well in her new role, and I am sure that her decision to visit the scene of this horrific incident over the weekend will have been appreciated, as will the visit of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), particularly by those still working to deal with the aftermath. May I associate Labour Members with the sympathy that the Secretary of State expressed for those who have lost loved ones and those who have suffered injuries in this tragedy?
I join the right hon. Lady in thanking the emergency services in Somerset. Tales of extraordinary bravery have emerged from what must have been a terrifying situation, and yet again we have been reminded of the professionalism and dedication of our emergency services. I also add our thanks to the staff of Musgrove Park hospital in Taunton and Yeovil district hospital. They provided an exceptional response after the incident and are continuing to provide the first-class care that we have come to expect and rely on from our national health service.
This is one of the worst road accidents we have suffered for many years, and it is right that the police must now be able to carry out the very thorough investigation they have begun into the cause of this tragedy. The truth is that we do not know today whether there were steps that could have been taken to prevent the incident. We must await the conclusions of the investigation and avoid the temptation to rush to judgment.
While families are struggling to come to terms with their devastating loss and victims lie injured, I do not believe it is the right time to pass judgment on specific policies. The Secretary of State said that lessons will be learned for future policy development. Will she confirm that the conclusions of the investigation into this incident will be fully considered before steps are taken to advance any of her Department’s proposals that she has inherited that may have a bearing on road safety?
The Secretary of State referred to the dramatic fall in the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads over previous years. However, she will have noticed the increase in deaths over the last year, which was reported just last week. That is something of which she and this House need to take particular note. She should know that she will have the full support of the Opposition if she brings a renewed focus to the challenge of reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether she has yet discussed this incident with the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is in his place, and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills? Have they confirmed whether they intend to review the licensing regime for
7 Nov 2011 : Column 65
public events, firework displays and bonfires? Following the fire under the M1 in April, the then Secretary of State for Transport promised a review of the wider lessons that should be learned about the activities that we allow to take place under motorways. Will the right hon. Lady update the House on that work and on any conclusions that have been reached? Will she consider widening that work to consider activities alongside, as well as underneath, our motorways?
Finally, I would be grateful for an assurance that the Secretary of State will make a further statement to the House following the conclusion of the investigation. It is important that there is an opportunity to discuss these issues more fully than feels appropriate today. I thank her for ensuring that the House has been updated at the earliest possible opportunity following this tragedy.
In response to the points that the hon. Lady made, of course we will consider the lessons that can be learned from this incident, if there are any. As she pointed out, the most important thing is to ensure that the police can get on with their investigation as it unfolds. It is worth reiterating her point that, for the families of people who have been injured and particularly for the families who have lost relatives, it is important that we do not speculate unnecessarily about what might have caused the accident.
On road safety, the hon. Lady pointed out last quarter’s figures, which showed a rise in fatalities. It is also fair to point out that in the 12 months to the end of June, we continued to see an overall reduction in fatalities and injuries on our roads, so the trend is moving in the right direction. The challenge for this House is to ensure that that does not level off and that we take steps to ensure that the figures come down further, as far as possible.
The hon. Lady’s question about licensing arrangements slightly prejudges where the police investigation may end up. She has made the point that there is a question over whether this event falls under the Licensing Act 2003 as a regulated event. That is clearly something that the police and the local authority will consider.
If the police investigation that is under way presents any conclusions that I think it is important for this House to consider, I will of course come back and make a statement. It is possible that the police will conclude that they cannot say absolutely what caused the collision. However, if there are meaningful lessons and conclusions that it is worth this House discussing, I will ensure that we have a follow-up statement.
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con):
If I may, I will pay tribute to the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who is in his place, because it is the nightmare of every MP to face such a tragedy. The Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State made it clear that this matter will be thought through logically. One worry is that, as the M5 is the most important arterial route in our county, whatever happens to the M5 affects the whole county. When decisions are made, I ask the Secretary of State please to consult the MPs with constituencies along the M5, so
7 Nov 2011 : Column 66
that we have some input into any recommendations that are put forward by the police and the Highways Agency for the future of the road.
Justine Greening: I very much hope that we will be able to have an ongoing dialogue with local MPs about the effectiveness of any measures that end up being proposed. Frankly, I would expect that about any key proposals that affect any Member’s local public transport.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): The right hon. Lady says that the road death figures are still heading in the right direction, but my reading of the latest figures was that, even before this terrible crash, we were looking at the first annual increase in road deaths that this country has seen for 20 years. As she will know, that is deeply worrying to road safety campaigners and others. Will she at the very least have another look at her predecessor’s plan to encourage faster speeds on the motorways by increasing the speed limit?
Justine Greening: To go back over the figures on road safety, of course it is concerning that the most recent quarter’s figures that have been released showed such a rise, but we should still not lose sight of the fact that the trend is in the right direction. We should also be conscious of the fact that levels of road safety can, of course, be affected by the weather, so it is not quite as straightforward as simply saying from looking at those figures that there is an underlying reduction in road safety compared with previous quarters.
One key point to recognise in relation to those numbers and the right hon. Gentleman’s point about speed is that people can drive unsafely at any speed and in any weather conditions. It is important that we do not jump to a conclusion when the police still have to examine the causes of the accident, and that we ensure that we have a measured discussion about action that could be taken in future months to improve road safety. We as a House need to have that discussion in a responsible and balanced way.
Mr David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I join the Secretary of State and my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), for Wells (Tessa Munt) and for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), as well as the other local MPs, in congratulating the emergency services on their fantastic response to Friday’s tragedy. From a Yeovil perspective, I particularly pay tribute to the many people from my constituency, including at Yeovil hospital, who did fantastic work on Friday night and Saturday morning.
Although the Secretary of State is absolutely right not to leap to conclusions when we do not know the full facts, there are undoubtedly many positive lessons to be learned from the response of the emergency services on Friday and Saturday. I hope that she will undertake to ensure that that best practice is spread to all emergency forces across the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. During both my trip to the scene and local hospitals and that of the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, the point was constantly made to us about the extremely
7 Nov 2011 : Column 67
effective way in which a number of different agencies had worked together. For example, at the hospital that I visited in Taunton, staff talked to me about how they had in place an emergency process for dealing with such an incident, and it worked extremely well when an incident finally happened. There are best practice lessons to be taken from that, and we will certainly work to ensure that they are disseminated to other agencies across the rest of the country. I hope that the Highways Agency will play a key role in that.
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Secretary of State’s personal commitment to road safety, because every single death is a tragedy. May I ask her to look again at the framework that her Department has developed? I believe that there has unfortunately been a tendency to see an increase in safety measures, such as better eyesight testing, as a burden rather than as something that will save lives.
Justine Greening: In all this we must strike the right balance, but I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that I take incredibly seriously the issue of safety not just on the roads but across the transport system. I will take a very careful look at it to ensure that we always strike that balance. The strategic framework for road safety that we published in May contained a number of steps in the right direction. I would of course like to consider what more we can do, but we have, for example, increased fixed penalty notice fines for many motoring offences. The fixed penalty notice fine for speeding had not risen since 2000. The Government are taking a number of steps to ensure that we have a very proactive approach to road safety.
Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that the M5 is the major spine road into Devon and Cornwall, and is very busy in both directions. This appalling tragedy has been a real shock to all of us on the peninsula. May I therefore commend her for her calm and measured way of responding to the crisis, and join her in thanking the emergency services? In particular, I thank the Highways Agency for getting the road back together again so quickly.
Justine Greening: I thank my hon. Friend for those words. It is actually a stretch of road that I know very well. In fact, I had driven along it myself only two weekends before. He is absolutely right that we should pay tribute to the Highways Agency, which did an outstanding job in being ready to work with the police and then, critically, in taking the necessary steps once the police had released the scene. The agency not only ensured that the highway was safe for motorists to get back on the southbound carriageway as quickly as possible, but took steps to re-lay the northbound carriageway, which took just five to six hours. That meant that we were able to get that carriageway opened on Sunday night rather than Monday morning.
I should also say that the Highways Agency did an excellent job on the Friday evening of ensuring that the motorists who were not directly involved in the accident but were held up as a result of it were safely and gradually escorted away from the scene.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 68
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): May I associate myself with the words of condolence to all the families affected and the words of praise for all those involved in what must have been horrific? I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I believe that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), will know—hopefully he has whispered it in the ear of the Secretary of State—about the very positive impact that the Heavy Rescue Partnership has had, saving lives in association with Staffordshire fire and rescue. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the investigation will consider whether the availability of such an approach might have made the difference on the night of that terrible incident?
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) in his comments about the emergency services, and I wish particularly to point out the contribution made by the family liaison officers who work in such circumstances.
I was present at the time on the southbound carriageway, and I saw what had happened as I was drawing off the road at the Taunton junction. I do not think I have ever seen anything like what I saw on Friday evening. It was an absolute inferno, and it was impossible for me to leave the car on the southbound carriageway to do anything.
Will the Secretary of State commend the bravery of two of my constituents, both of whom are in their 20s—a young man called Sam Jones and another gentleman by the name of Tom Hamill? Both played their part in rescuing people from the vehicles, particularly Tom, who I understand saved the life of a very small baby. I thank them for doing that.
Justine Greening: I pay tribute again to members of the public who, in many cases, selflessly put themselves in the way of harm to help and save others. We have all read of the many acts of heroism that people instinctively performed to help those whom they saw in need. In a world in which there is a lot of discussion about a big society, the fact that people’s instinct when they saw such a tragedy unfolding was to run towards it and try to help says an awful lot about the spirit of local communities up and down our country, particularly in Taunton.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab):
Will the Secretary of State join in the heartfelt tributes paid to my constituents and neighbours Tony and Pamela Adams, who died in the accident? We can all empathise with them—they were on a journey that they had made many times before, but within seconds a normal situation descended into hell on earth. They were not just another statistic; they were two lovely people who had been sweethearts for 50 years. They were stalwarts of the Allt-yr-yn community and their local church, St Mark’s. In fact, Tony had organised the order of service for yesterday. No one is expecting any instant solutions from the Government, but may we take it that we as parliamentarians will understand the immeasurable loss to the family and
7 Nov 2011 : Column 69
friends, and say that we will do all we can to ensure by the decisions that we take that an accident of this kind is less likely in future?
Justine Greening: Yes. I once again send my condolences to that family. There is very little that anybody can say to their relatives at the moment that will provide any real comfort under the circumstances of this tragedy. As the hon. Gentleman points out, it happened instantaneously, which is a particular challenge for families who lose people in such circumstances. I can assure him that, as I have said to the House already, I take road safety and safety across our transport system incredibly seriously, and I will ensure that if there are any lessons to be learned, they will be acted upon, although we must wait for the outcome of the police investigation.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I echo the condolences offered by hon. Members on both sides of the House to the families who have been badly affected. Connectivity with the peninsula not only by railway but by road is a very big issue. The M5 is the only arterial dual carriageway that goes the whole way down. Is my right hon. Friend willing to meet me and people from the south-west to discuss how we can improve that connectivity, and to find ways to ensure that when the motorway is closed, as it had to be, we can get to and from places much more easily?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary with responsibility for roads and I will be quite happy to have that meeting. The broader point that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) makes on resilience is critical. We saw the challenges for the road network in that area last year. Although my visit yesterday was to show support for the emergency services and the Highways Agency and the wonderful work they had done, I took the opportunity to raise initially some questions on winter resilience for that area, and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): As chair of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Road Safety, the transport safety charity, I welcome the Secretary of State to her new job. We look forward to working with her on safety issues on a cross-party basis.
This tragic accident reminds us all that speed does kill, and hon. Members must think very carefully about it. I hope that when we analyse—[ Interruption. ] Yes, we must carefully analyse this accident. I hope that one specific thing that the Secretary of State’s experts look at is the fire. It is very unusual in road accidents to have fires of that intensity. Many of us in road safety campaigning organisations have been worried for some time about the vulnerability of the fuel tanks of commercial vehicles. Will she ensure that she looks at that, and will she consider the restoration of the road safety partnerships?
The hon. Gentleman is right that the fire was a significant factor in the number of fatalities and it is fair to say that it was a particularly unusual occurrence. He asks about fuel tanks on heavy goods vehicles. As he will be aware, there are a number of regulations on ensuring that HGVs are safe, and he will be interested to know that EU harmonisation rules mean that over the next three years those standards will
7 Nov 2011 : Column 70
become even tougher. I am very happy to talk with the hon. Gentleman, who has an interest in this area, to see how we can maintain a balanced and informed debate on how to improve road safety.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): May I add my name to those of my right hon. and hon. Friends in commenting on our sympathy for the bereaved and our praise of the security and emergency services in Somerset, particularly the Avon and Somerset constabulary? May I also thank the Secretary of State for being calm in her approach and for being willing to look at the evidence, particularly in relation to the 80 mph speed limit? I do not think that now is the time to be dwelling on those issues, but a full and thorough review must be the right way forward.
Justine Greening: I agree with my hon. Friend. Critically, we must bear in mind that safe driving on motorways is not simply about the maximum speed limit; it is also about smart driving—not driving too close to people in front and braking in a way that is not too quick and that surprises motorists behind. There are an awful lot of different aspects of safe driving on motorways. In fact, we are already considering whether we can ensure that learner drivers have some experience of driving on motorways as part of their training. That proposal has been put to us. We can do a number of things to improve the situation. Clearly, it is important for individual drivers at all times to bear in mind that although there is a speed limit, they must drive according to the conditions of the road and the weather.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): May I thank both Front Benchers for voicing so clearly the sentiments felt on both sides of the House for all those involved? Crash barriers save lives, and they are particularly well designed in the UK. We can see from the pictures that the crash barriers prevented vehicles from going on to the southbound carriageway. However, a degree of compression was caused by having crash barriers on both the hard shoulder and the central reservation, where we expect them to be. Such compression exacerbates the potential for fire to spread, as people are funnelled into a particular spot. As part of the Secretary of State’s investigation, will she look at whether having crash barriers on both sides of the road had any impact on the spread of fire among vehicles?
Justine Greening: The hon. Lady is right to point out that the Highways Agency must manage risks. The crash barriers are on the side of that particular stretch of motorway because there is a steep bank. She raises the issue of the compression of vehicles, but alternatively, had the barrier not been there, the risk is that vehicles would have gone down the bank. Nevertheless, the police were quite careful to ensure that they looked around the banks to see whether there were any injured people or fatalities who were not on the motorway itself. The Highways Agency takes a risk-based approach to such things, which is what it had done on that particular stretch of motorway.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con):
I agree with the whole House on our heartfelt sympathy for those who lost loved ones in this absolutely terrible crash. I congratulate the emergency services, which
7 Nov 2011 : Column 71
were there within four minutes, which is an excellent response. As other hon. Members have said, the M5 is the great arterial road into the south-west. However, we need to look not only at the M5, but at the A30 and A303, because they are also major roads into the west country.
Justine Greening: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. It is important that we look across the road network to ensure that roads are maintained safely. As I have said, it is important that we wait for the police to go through their investigation into this particular incident, which could take some weeks, before we can draw conclusions on any actions that need to be taken.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): This tragic accident is a salutary reminder to every single one of us just how easy it is to go from cruising along a motorway to ending up in a pile-up. Although I would not make any comment on the initial causes—it is not appropriate for any of us to do so—and although I hear what the Secretary of State says on the complexity of the speed issue, will she remember that faster speeds mean longer stopping distances and greater impacts on collision, and will she abandon plans to raise the speed limit on the motorways?
Justine Greening: As I have said, it is far too early to jump to conclusions about the possible cause or causes of the accident, but I can reassure the hon. Lady that I take road safety incredibly seriously, so I shall, of course, always ensure that I am happy that the measures that we introduce are appropriate.
Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the emergency services and in offering my condolences to those affected by this terrible tragedy. Stopping distances are critical. A growing trend on all motorways is the fact that cars drive in such close proximity one behind the other. May I invite her to consider the increased use of chevrons painted on the road, which encourage individuals to think more carefully about their distance from the car in front, allowing that critical stopping distance and therefore saving lives?
Justine Greening: We are in the middle of several pilots considering whether chevrons can help drivers work out how much space they need. One of the challenges is that heavy goods vehicles need much longer stopping distances than cars, which is something to bear in mind as well, because there is no point in cars stopping in time after an accident if the HGVs behind have not left themselves enough stopping distance.
Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on how she has approached this subject, and echo the comments that have been made today. There will be a report, and I thank her for saying that she will return to the Chamber, but will she also indicate whether she will include Members of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly, so that best practice can be rolled out throughout the UK?
7 Nov 2011 : Column 72
Justine Greening: I shall ensure that we share best practice more broadly. Obviously, I know that the devolved authorities take their own decisions in this area, but I think that they will be happy to learn any lessons that can be learned.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): This major incident involved emergency services from across the region. I pay tribute to them. What support will be available to them and to members of the public, including one or two of my constituents, involved in this terrible tragedy?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. It was one that I particularly raised with the local hospitals involved, Assistant Chief Constable Bangham and the Highways Agency, and I can provide reassurance that the necessary support will be in place. Of course the emergency services are used to dealing with very serious and harrowing accidents, but they would recognise that this was a particularly large and challenging one. Although many people in the emergency services have attended many such accidents in the past, there are some accidents that require support to be in place, and this was one of them.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Emma Barton lies in hospital in a coma. She lost her mother a few months ago, and she lost her father and sister in this accident. It is easy in these debates to think of such accidents merely as statistics, so I want to put on the record my condolences to any family she has left, and to her friends and other relatives. I commend the tone in which the Secretary of State made her statement today. Will she join me in ensuring that any additional services that may be required for people involved will be provided?
Justine Greening: I can absolutely confirm that. I understand that Emma Barton’s boyfriend is with her in the hospital. My hon. Friend’s points underline how for some people this is an unfolding drama: there are some in hospital who, because of their condition, are unaware that they have lost their nearest and dearest. That is another reason why it is right to approach any debate on road safety in an incredibly sensitive manner until the police have had time to conduct their investigation.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Successive Governments over the past 40 years can be commended on how they have approached road safety. The number of road deaths last year was the lowest since records began 85 years ago, and by the time the previous Labour Government left office, the annual death toll on our roads had been virtually halved. The Secretary of State said that she attached an extremely high priority to road safety, and I welcome that, but there is no need to speculate because it is clear from all the evidence that if an 80 mph speed limit is introduced on our motorways, if moving traffic is allowed on to hard shoulders, and if there is a reduction in the frequency of MOT vehicle roadworthiness tests, the number of deaths, injuries and crashes will rise. Given the increase in the number of serious injuries and deaths in recent months, does she agree that it would be criminal to pursue those three objectives?
7 Nov 2011 : Column 73
Justine Greening: There is not much that I would like to add at this point. We need to let the police get on with their investigation, rather than prejudging what they might say were the causes of the collision. The other point is that the pilot on hard shoulder running, on the M42, proved it to be safer.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): The public tragedy of these seven deaths, so far, needs to be considered alongside the 35 private tragedies—the average number of deaths per week—in comparison with the 107 deaths each week 25 years ago. I commend my right hon. Friend for saying that we want to look for the causal factors and then consider what further measures we can take. However, will she get the Government to consider whether the question of the change from summertime to wintertime, which brings with it an average death cost in this country of 70 lives a year—two weeks’ worth of deaths—is worth returning to in time? I do not want an answer, or a promise to do it, straight away, but that is one of the decisions that the House could take, and it would save a significant number of lives.
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend, as a former Minister with responsibility for roads, always has an important point to make. I am aware of the arguments about daylight saving time—there are arguments on both sides—but obviously we have to be conscious of how any change would affect not just the south of our country but the north. I have no doubt that we will continue to have that debate over the coming months.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I very much agree with my right hon. Friend’s comments about considering road safety measures more generally and not just speed limits, but may I urge her, as part of her review, to consider the system in France, where they have two levels of mandatory speed limit on motorways—an 80 mph limit for fair-weather driving and a considerably lower limit for adverse conditions?
Justine Greening: I have considered that. In fact, I was in discussion with the AA over the weekend to hear its views on HGVs and the speed limit. It has supported variable limits. However, it made another point too. Organisations such as the AA think that drivers can take decisions for themselves about the right speed to drive at, and that is something that we should be trying to build upon. It is important that drivers take responsibility for driving in a way appropriate for the road conditions.
Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): In the context of getting to the truth of what happened in this dreadful accident, will my right hon. Friend tell us whether CCTV or traffic cameras were in operation along that stretch of the M5? If so, are they being used as part of the inquiry?
Justine Greening: When I went to the Highways Agency yesterday I saw some of the monitors on which the footage from those CCTV cameras can be viewed. People are viewing that footage, but the main challenge is that it was dark, which means that the information in the images is less than was hoped for. None the less, that footage will definitely be looked at to see whether it can provide any information that can feed into the inquiry.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 74
Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): I associate myself with the words of sympathy being expressed across the House. Does the Secretary of State agree that while the facts remain uncertain and emotions remain so raw, it is inappropriate for lobbyists and lobby groups to use this terrible tragedy to further their own campaigns?
Justine Greening: We all need to be conscious of our responsibility to approach road safety in a balanced, informed and sensitive way, given the tragic collision on the M5 on Friday, and I hope that the House will show leadership in doing just that.
Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I was travelling southbound on the M5 in Somerset on Friday evening and was diverted from the motorway, which meant that thankfully, unlike the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), I did not have to see the incident that led to loss of life. However, I did see a multiple collision in queuing traffic, which added to the demands on the emergency services that night. As part of a review, will the Secretary of State consider what steps could be taken to improve warnings and information for other road users, so that they can be better prepared for what is up ahead?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right to raise the subject of information. It is not just when there are accidents that it is good to give motorists additional information so that they can make their own decisions about how to avoid a congested area. I would also like to look into how we can get better information to motorists on a daily basis, because it can help whatever the driving circumstances.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend to her place, endorse her remarks, echo her condolences to the families, and commend her statement. It is absolutely right to take a calm and measured approach towards making road safety the key priority. Given some of the increases in braking technology, for instance, I am sure that she will have the support of the whole House if she does not rush to early conclusions on the remarks about speed at this stage.
Justine Greening: We have always said that any decision we took would follow a consultation, and that is right. These are important areas to get right, and they require a balanced approach. That means understanding all the downsides and upsides before any final decision is taken. I can therefore assure my hon. Friend that we will go through the right process before we take any decisions.
Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I would like to add my condolences to those affected by this awful tragedy, which is a serious reminder of the continuing toll on our roads. Just last year, in 2010, there were 1,850 deaths and more than 200,000 injuries, or some 600 every day. Mechanical failure contributed to some of those casualties. Will the Secretary of State join me in celebrating the success of the MOT test, which helps to improve safety standards?
The MOT test has been in place for many years, and of course it plays a role in ensuring that cars are roadworthy. However, we should also recognise its limitations, and the fact that motorists will
7 Nov 2011 : Column 75
always need to take the necessary steps to ensure that their vehicles are roadworthy in between tests. If there are indications to suggest that a vehicle is not roadworthy, it is the motorist who has the responsibility to ensure that it is checked by a local garage.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Twenty-nine years ago I had the sad responsibility of identifying several friends who had been killed in circumstances similar to those on the M5 last Friday. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must not forget those who had the sad responsibility, if not duty, of identifying their friends or family members, or the calm courage that they needed to go through that awful process?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right, and that is one of the reasons why we have to approach this in a measured way. In fact, the formal identification process is still under way for many of those families. Only once we have got through that, and the pathology, can the coroner for the south-west start his inquest, which we would hope can take place later this week. Many of us cannot even begin to understand what it would be like to go through such a traumatic experience, and we always have to bear that in mind.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): My right hon. Friend is fortunate to have as the Minister with responsibility for roads the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who, as a former professional firefighter, brings his personal knowledge and experience to this issue. We have heard from several Members today that one of the sad features of this tragedy was the extent of the flames and the inferno that resulted. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the inquiry asks not just how we can prevent such crashes from happening, but how we can prevent vehicles from bursting into flames?
My hon. Friend is right on two counts. First, we have a Minister with responsibility for roads who is perhaps uniquely placed to bring his insights to bear in dealing with such incidents. His visit to the site the day after the accident was vital in giving
7 Nov 2011 : Column 76
us the assurance that the necessary steps were being taken. In relation to the fire, there is no doubt that the police will look into not just the precise circumstances that led to the collision, but why things unfolded as they did. As I have said, HGV fuel tank standards will be toughened and get progressively better over the next three years. That is obviously good news, and appropriate, and if there are further lessons to be learned, they will be.
Justine Greening: Again, there is a danger of jumping to what the solutions could be following the police investigation. Suffice it to say, however, that I am of course open-minded about taking any steps that we think can improve road safety and ensure that we maintain—indeed, improve—our road safety record.
Localism Bill (Money) (No. 2)
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Localism Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown under the Act.—(Jeremy Wright.)
LOCALISM BILL (PROGRAMME) (No. 3)
That the following provisions shall apply to the Localism Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 17 January 2011 (Localism Bill (Programme)) and 17 May 2011 (Localism Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
7 Nov 2011 : Column 77
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in a substantial number of Lords amendments, which will be listed in the Official Report. If the House agrees to the amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
[Following are the Lords amendments in which financial privilege is involved: 3 to 12, 23, 29, 40, 49, 50, 54 to 60, 62, 64, 66 to 69, 72, 74 to 115, 131, 148, 150, 157 to 165, 225, 226, 250 to 254, 257, 260, 294, 295, 302, 312, 334, 335, 337 to 344, 349, 371, 376, 377, 387, 389, 395, 399 to 402.]
Greg Clark: For the best part of a century, most Bills that have passed through this House have taken power from communities and councils and given more power to central Government, or in some cases to European government. This is an historic Bill, not just for the measures it contains but for what it represents. It is about striking out in a different direction. Power should be held at the lowest possible level. We want this to be the first Parliament for many years that, by the end of its Sessions, will have given power away.
That is true for many of the Bill’s provisions—the community right to challenge; the community right to bid for assets of public value; the abolition of regional spatial strategies; the introduction of neighbourhood planning—but nowhere is it more significant than in clause 1, which deals with the general power of competence. The general power of competence changes the default position. Currently, local government exists to do the things that central Government require it to do. Clause 1 turns that default position upside down. Local government can do the things that it thinks are right, unless they are positively banned. What is not forbidden is permitted. The question for councils is not, “Can we do this?” but, “How can we make it happen?”
I am pleased to see across the Chamber veterans of our many hours in Committee, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). The Bill has enjoyed 70 hours of scrutiny in the House of Commons and 105 hours of scrutiny in their lordships’ House. It has also been the subject of advice from many outside groups. As colleagues who served on the Committee will know, I have always taken the view that, if we are going to make use of that parliamentary time and
7 Nov 2011 : Column 78
engage with a large number of submissions from outside groups, it behoves the Government to listen to the sensible suggestions that have been made, and to the constructive advice we have received, with an open mind.
There is a form of Bill-handling in which it is seen as the Bill Minister’s responsibility to carry the Bill through its every parliamentary stage as though it were a Ming vase, to repel boarders and to keep people away from it so that emerges intact at the other end. That has never been my view. I think that it is right to listen to constructive suggestions, of which there have been many during the Bill’s progress.
I want to pay tribute to the scrutiny that all members of the Committee performed. I am sorry to see that the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) is not in her place tonight, because she approached her responsibilities with the utmost dedication and forensically scrutinised the Bill. We all know that the Opposition lack the excellent resources provided to the Government by civil servants, so I would like to pay tribute to her leadership on the Bill from the Opposition Front Bench. We do, however, have the benefit of the presence of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, although the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) has been moved to other duties. He is therefore the last man standing, and I am glad that our team is intact. Much rests on his shoulders, and we are grateful for his contribution.
In the House of Commons Committee, we strengthened the Bill, especially in relation to the duty to co-operate. We had some very productive discussions on that, in which we established agreement with hon. Members across the House. On Report, we said that we would consider the neighbourhood planning aspects of the Bill in the House of Lords, because some of the amendments that were suggested by Members on both sides of the House required greater technical reflection. Many of the amendments that we shall consider today deal with those matters.
The process has been productive. Looking at the report of the Third Reading debate in the House of Lords, I was struck by some of the comments. Lord Best, speaking on behalf of the Cross Benchers this time last week, said that
“the key role of this House in scrutinising legislation has been wonderfully illustrated by the progress of the Localism Bill. I have been given a list of 10 major issues that were originally of considerable concern to the Local Government Association, for example, and on which that body, representing local authorities up and down the land, now feels reassured and to a very large degree satisfied with the legislation as it now appears. The same kind of list could have been devised by a number of external agencies, with the same satisfaction rating at the end of that.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 31 October 2011; Vol. 731, c. 1106.]
“we are now sending something like 100 pages of amendments back to the Commons. What is more notable is that all those amendments have been passed without the need for a vote; in other words, we have truly reached consensus.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 31 October 2011; Vol. 731, c. 1107.]
“It has been a listening team, which has boded well for the outcome of the Bill… The Government have listened to the voices of experience and common sense.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 31 October 2011; Vol. 731, c. 1108.]
7 Nov 2011 : Column 79
That has been our demeanour throughout the proceedings, and it will continue to be our demeanour as we approach the matters before us today. I see from the amendment paper that suggestions from colleagues on both sides of the House have serious thought behind them, and I will respond to them constructively and positively.
Having dealt with the general power of competence, let me turn to some of the amendments in the group, starting with those that cover transport. There was extensive discussion in the other place on the general powers, and it was argued that the general power of competence should be extended beyond the local authorities that were in the original drafting of the Bill. Lords amendments 4, 5 and 7 therefore extend broad new powers to the integrated transport authorities and their passenger transport executives. These points were also raised by Opposition Front Benchers in Committee. The provisions will enable authorities to undertake ancillary and possibly joint activities outside their geographic boundaries, for example. This will improve and strengthen the Bill in the direction that we have set out, and I am pleased to commend those Lords amendments to colleagues today.
We agree with Lords amendment 6, which proposes to extend the general powers of competence to, for example, combined authorities. We know that Greater Manchester has established very satisfactory arrangements for joint working, and it is reasonable that those powers should be extended to such arrangements. Lords amendments 8 to 13, 242 and 399 to 402 have been termed collectively the “core cities” group of amendments. They represent a significant breakthrough. During the passage of the Bill, it was clear to those on all sides that we had an opportunity to embed mechanisms to allow the future devolution of power from central Government to local government. Working over the summer with the representatives of the Core Cities Group and the leaders of local authorities, from all parties, across the country, we were able with the co-operation of Front Benchers of all parties represented in the House of Lords to agree a set of amendments that will allow for the transfer of public functions and the delegation to local authorities, by agreement and subject to a super-affirmative procedure.
This is an important new power. It will allow us to enact, without the need for primary legislation, agreed transfers of power between local authorities and central Government. Those transfers of power might not be obvious today. I have encouraged particular cities across the country to consider which powers that are currently held by central Government they could usefully discharge themselves. This mechanism will give us the opportunity to allow them to do so, and I should like to put on record my gratitude to the leaders and officers of the Core Cities Group for their help.
A few technical amendments in this group respond to recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. On Second Reading and in Committee, we had much to say about the so-called Henry VIII powers that were to be made available to the Secretary of State. My view at the time was that we should go through them individually, and that those that were proved unnecessary or superfluous should be removed as the Bill progressed through the House.
We have delivered on that commitment. A substantial number of those powers have now been narrowed in scope or, in some cases, removed. For example, Lords amendment 231 will ensure that orders made under the
7 Nov 2011 : Column 80
Bill are subject to the affirmative procedure. That power will allow the Secretary of State to amend or repeal any power that overlaps with the general power of competence, but it will require the affirmative procedure to be employed. Lords amendment 232 will remove an exception that permitted orders to be accepted through the negative resolution procedure. I will not go through all the amendments, but I think that Members will acknowledge, as did their lordships, that we have responded to the concerns that many hon. Members expressed about the nature of the powers reserved to the Secretary of State. Benign though the present Secretary of State is, there was a fear that some future Secretaries of State might not be as localist in their intentions. Those provisions will now be safeguarded in the Bill.
The final amendment in the group will remove all doubt that fire and rescue authorities should not be able to charge for community fire safety advice or for fire prevention activity. This matter was raised in the other place by Baroness Smith of Basildon, a former fire Minister, and we have been pleased to introduce the provision.
I am grateful for their lordships’ scrutiny. I am especially grateful to the Front-Bench team that represented the Government so well. It was led by Baroness Hanham and supported by Lord Taylor, Lord Attlee and Lord Shutt. We urge colleagues to agree to the Lords amendments in this group.
Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): The Minister always sounds terribly reasonable and persuasive, and one could almost fall for his view that the Bill is a Ming vase. In fact, it is really a dodgy, cracked, second-hand urn. He has had to amend it hugely in the other place.
I do not wish to detain the House too long on this group of amendments, as we have a lot to discuss, but I want to put on record the fact that we are deeply concerned at having only three and a half hours tonight in which to discuss more than 400 amendments. The Minister referred to the scrutiny that the Bill has already had, and we absolutely accept that several statements had to be made today, but we had hoped that the Government would extend the time available for these discussions. Dealing with over 400 amendments in three and a half hours really does not improve parliamentary scrutiny. It was heartening when we constantly heard from the Prime Minister before the election how much he wanted to return to Parliament many of its powers and to improve parliamentary scrutiny—but we have never seen it from this Government. We did not see it with the Health and Social Care Bill and we are not seeing it with the Localism Bill.
The Minister would have us believe that this is an historic Bill that returns power to the lowest level. In fact, it is not. It is a Bill about centralising power and devolving the blame. [Interruption.] I knew I would upset the Minister eventually; it was only going to be a matter of time. We welcome some of the Lords amendments, but we have to make it clear that we still think this Bill is shambolic and has not been thought through. The fact that the Government had to make so many amendments in the other place shows how little they thought about it to start with.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 81
executives and for combined authorities, for which we argued in Committee, as the Minister will remember. It is a bit of pity, I think, that the Government resist such provisions in Committee and then wait to bring in the amendments from the unelected House.
Greg Clark: We discussed these matters quite extensively in Committee. I think there was a shared view across the Committee that where the Government agree with some amendments proposed by Members, the convention is that they should reflect on them to ensure that they are legally robust. That is an established process, and throughout proceedings on the whole Bill, as I think the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) would agree, I have honoured every commitment I made from the Front Bench—for example, that we would consider any suggestions positively. That is why we have come back with these proposals. We have delivered on every commitment we made, so it is a little churlish of the hon. Lady to suggest that it was somehow delayed.
Helen Jones: I remind the Minister that there is such a thing as Report stage in the elected House, and that he is allowed to propose amendments there—he does not have to wait for the Bill to go to the unelected House. He could have accepted amendments at that stage. He says he has to make sure that things are “legally robust”, which Ministers often say, and I must be frank with him and point out that in my experience it is often used as a delaying tactic while Departments sort out what they are prepared to agree to and what they are not.
We welcome amendment 3, which makes it clear what fire and rescue authorities can charge for and prevents them from charging for community fire safety work. I am glad that the Minister listened to my noble Friend—not simply a turn of phrase, as she is my friend—Baroness Smith in the other place, as she has great experience in these matters.
Greg Clark: The hon. Lady has pointed out that her noble Friend is indeed in the House of Lords. Unlike her, I am prepared to listen to the House of Lords. What the Baroness said would not have been heard in the House of Commons.
Helen Jones: I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention, but while their lordships add much to our debate, there is something to be said for letting the elected House deal with these amendments properly. He has brought them back from the House of Lords and more than 400 amendments are going through in three and a half hours. That does not strengthen the position of the elected House.
The Minister also mentioned the core cities provisions. We welcome the powers to authorities proposed in the amendments, especially where they would improve local economic development and wealth creation and increase local accountability. We hope that the powers will be used to ensure better co-ordination on the ground. We note the duty on the Secretary of State to consider a proposal from local authorities for the transfer of public functions.
7 Nov 2011 : Column 82
of State. It is not simply a Bill about devolving powers to local authorities. The Secretary of State retains, albeit subject to certain safeguards, an extraordinary power to repeal, amend, revoke or disapply any duty on local authorities.
We do not intend to oppose the amendments, but we think they have to be seen in the context of the extraordinary Henry VIII powers that the Secretary of State still retains. I repeat that, however much the Minister tries to persuade us, he is not introducing an historic Bill that devolves lots of powers to local authorities. He is introducing a Bill that gives many more powers to the Secretary of State. Everything we debate this evening will have to be seen in that context.
Andrew Stunell: As my right hon. Friend the Minister eloquently set out in respect of the last string of amendments, the Government believe that we need to decentralise power to local communities. I think that is now a shared all-party analysis, that the days of top-down control should be removed and that we should move to bottom-up control.
For the last 30 or 40 years—my right hon. Friend suggested perhaps for the last 100 years—there has been gathering frustration at the way in which local communities and local councils have had their decision making taken away from them and their power denuded, and, particularly for those in local government, how they have increasingly faced a situation in which everything they did was either compulsory or prohibited with no scope for local discretion or for taking account of local circumstances, local needs, local resources or, indeed, local opinion.
The communities that local authorities have served have had the role of angry bystanders, whereby things were simply done to them, imposed on them or dumped on them—not done by them, decided by them or, least of all, chosen and delivered by them. This Bill marks a huge cultural change not just for those local communities and local councils, but for those in Westminster, and perhaps even more for those in Whitehall. We need to change that culture: it is a long overdue change, and this Bill makes a start on achieving it.