Combat Stress has also provided detailed evidence involving cases of individuals who have faced marriage break-up, unemployment, social isolation or substance abuse, all because they were unable to deal with their mental health. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) mentioned homelessness as well. We should be concerned about the figures, and I agree that it is right that we should seek to quantify the problem. The figures show that, even though help and support exist, too many people still find the stigma far too great to overcome. Until we tackle that stigma, no
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matter what support is out there, there will be no real change. Combat Stress’s campaign focusing on the issue of stigma is vital.
We have spent much of this year’s parliamentary debates on the forces discussing legislating for the covenant, so it is welcome that we are now debating the substance of the issues covered by the covenant and what it should mean in practice. It is right that nobody who serves their country in the forces should be disadvantaged as a result of their service. In some ways, however, getting the Government to enshrine that in law was the easy bit. The Government must now take action to implement the covenant so that we can see what it means in practice. I would welcome information from the Minister about the planned implementation of the covenant and how the Government intend to ensure that Departments and public bodies audit and change their policies to give our forces, our veterans and their families a fair deal.
My right hon. Friend highlighted the need to recognise how many veterans suffer from mental health issues. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the previous veterans’ Minister, announced plans when he was in post for a veterans’ ID card. The card would have enabled veterans to be identified easily and to get priority NHS treatment.
As we have discussed, it is difficult to quantify the level of need. Without a tracking system for veterans, we will never be able to do so. My right hon. Friend has asked in written questions how many ex-service people are being treated for mental health problems on the NHS, but there is no record, so the Minister replying was simply unable to give an answer because the data do not exist. Being unable to quantify the problem makes the Government unable to quantify the true cost of treating mental illness among former members of the armed forces. Therefore, the true impact is unknown at the moment. A veterans’ card would enable the Government to track veterans and offer the right support to those who need it.
In the Armed Forces Bill Committee, on which the Minister and I both served, the Minister reiterated his opposition to introducing an ID card, but the Government agreed earlier this year to launch a veterans’ privilege card allowing veterans to access commercial discounts. That is welcome, but I urge the Minister to look beyond discount schemes and extend those proposals, and to use the card as a way to ensure that veterans can access the support that they require when they need it.
Mr Gray: I am puzzled as to why the deeply bureaucratic and complicated system of issuing 5 million people with a piece of paper would help those suffering from mental stress many years after service to come forward and ask for the help that they need. I am not certain as to why that is a solution to the problem under discussion.
The proposals were not overly complicated. The initial proposal was to start issuing a veterans’ card to people who are leaving the services now, not necessarily to go back and identify the 5 million people, because, as the Minister has told me, he cannot identify them. If we do not start to make some changes, we will never be able to quantify the problems. When we are able to know who the people are, the right support and services can be offered to them and contact can be maintained where it is wanted to ensure that the
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services are being delivered. Then, when an individual presents with a mental health problem, they can clearly be identified as a veteran and we will be able to see the problem much more clearly.
Sir Paul Beresford: The point made by the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles was that many of these people will not present themselves and do not understand the problems, and that asking them will not get the result that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) seeks. That is why I have insisted— I think this point was raised earlier—that the decommissioning that is done in the States, and to some degree here, might be the answer, without the paper.
Gemma Doyle: No one measure will sort out this problem—there needs to be a range of measures. I think that, taken together, the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion and mine would help to address the problem. I do not think that we will be able to quantify the issues unless the data and the systems are in place.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has already mentioned that it is important that we do not overlook the particular impact of deployment on the mental health of our reservists. Professor Simon Wessely of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research states that reservists who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan are three times as likely to suffer mental health problems as members of the regular forces. The Government’s Future Force 2020 plan suggests that the role of reservists is to increase substantially as a result of the reductions in the number of regular service personnel, so the Government must have the support in place to ensure that reservists are prepared to take on those extra responsibilities and that extra role, as well as guarantee that they have access to the correct mental health care and support when they return from deployments or are no longer mobilised.
As in the rest of the forces, there has been progress in recent years. The reservist mental health programme extended mental health support for reservists, but, with their role set to increase, the provision of support will have to be pointed in the right direction to cope with the increased number of reservists who are to be deployed. I would therefore appreciate an assurance from the Minister that the mental health care of reservists will be given due attention.
In conclusion, I again congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles on securing this debate. We have heard of experiences from around the country, and they have illustrated the need for attention not to be diverted from the issue. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) asked what measures we can and should take to improve the situation. Combat Stress is asking for five things. I do not think that I can improve on them and would welcome the Minister’s comments on them. This debate has given us the opportunity to recognise the role that the NHS, the Ministry of Defence and Combat Stress play in supporting the mental health and welfare of our veterans. I pay particular tribute to Combat Stress, which, along with many other service organisations and charities, plays an outstanding role in support of the whole armed forces family, for which we should thank it.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): This is a hugely important topic, so I am delighted that the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) has secured this debate. I thank all Members who have taken part. The right hon. Lady is a former Minister with responsibility for public health and therefore knows a lot about the issues. I am not in any way clinically trained, so I tread very warily around issues of mental health. We should be wary of making grandiose statements on a very complex situation. I certainly try not to tell clinicians how to address it.
There is, however, a good story to be told. A great deal of progress is being made and the subject has rightly received a lot of attention in recent years. Our armed forces are currently deployed in the most demanding areas of conflict, and we have a moral duty, not only as a Government but as a nation, to support and look after them, to care for them when they are injured and to maintain that care when they leave service. Mental health problems, as we have heard, may take some time to manifest themselves, in some cases many years after service. Mental ill health can be a truly debilitating condition. As several Members have mentioned, it still has a stigma attached to it, and I believe that there is a lot of common ground across the political parties to remove the barriers for those seeking the help that they so desperately need.
I acknowledge the work of the previous Administration in launching ex-service mental health pilots throughout the country during the previous Parliament. Such was their success that they continue in the NHS, which is leading the fight to ensure that those who need our help receive it.
Although I am responding on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, it has been the policy of successive Governments that the treatment of all health-related conditions and problems for those who have been in service is the responsibility of the national health service. I mention that because I deal very closely with the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), who from time to time makes comments in the House about zombies—some Members may have noticed that recently—that may have deflected us from his excellent work in the Department of Health, especially his close work with us on various issues, particularly mental health. Indeed, he and I together visited Combat Stress in Leatherhead about a year ago. The NHS and the MOD together have also set up armed forces networks to ensure that ex-service personnel in particular can access health care. Members have said that people do not understand what ex-service personnel need, but this should go some way to helping in the future.
To ensure a coherent approach across the Government, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who served as a medical doctor in the Royal Navy, to conduct a study into the relationship between the national health service and the armed forces, including former servicemen, in terms of mental health. It was a thorough examination of our procedures and led to my hon. Friend’s well-respected “Fighting Fit” report. If hon. Members have not read it, I commend it to them.
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The right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles asked about our plans for the future. Essentially, they are based on that report. The former Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), announced on 6 October last year that we would accept all of the “Fighting Fit” recommendations. They include a scheme, beginning next spring, routinely to contact service leavers at the 12-month point after discharge to establish whether they have any health need for which they are having difficulty in accessing treatment. That is actually very difficult, because when people leave the armed forces, they often change address, move away, go abroad or do all sorts of other things. It is not as easy as one might think. In addition, we will enable those identified as having a mental health problem during service to continue to have access for up to six months to the MOD’s departments of community and mental health. That will help smooth the transfer of care from the MOD to the NHS. We have also enhanced service medical examinations to enable earlier identification of mental health problems.
One of the earliest “Fighting Fit” recommendations to be implemented is the new 24-hour helpline, which is run by the charity Rethink on behalf of Combat Stress and is funded by £200,000 from the Department of Health. It allows former personnel with mental health problems and their families to get specifically targeted support from people trained and experienced in dealing with serving and former armed forces personnel and their often complex mental health needs. It is a real success, and when I have met Combat Stress and its clients, I have seen for myself how important this enabling of the first step to seeking help really is. I telephoned the helpline shortly after it was set up because I am sometimes slightly sceptical about helplines, and I can assure hon. Members that it works.
Through working with Combat Stress, the NHS is also increasing the number of mental health professionals, with a focus on providing help to veterans with mental health problems. That provides the opportunity for veterans to be seen locally by NHS professionals who have a better understanding of veterans’ needs, working side by side with Combat Stress outreach teams and their extensive experience and knowledge.
To help with the process of removing the stigma, to which several hon. Members referred, the Government have introduced an online well-being network that is accessible to serving personnel, their families and veterans. It is called the Big White Wall and is staffed by professional counsellors, who can be contacted 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That social network, which is reflective of today’s society, allows individuals to engage with others who are in similar difficulty. The anonymity connected to that network allows for a free and frank exchange of experiences, with a view to generating a wider sense of support. The Big White Wall has logged 1,000 hits since going live, more than 40% of which are from serving personnel, which illustrates that it will be a success.
I must acknowledge the significance of Combat Stress’s collaborative approach with the NHS and the MOD, which was referred to by the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles and others. I bought my Christmas cards this year and last year from Combat Stress, so I would like to think that I do my little bit personally to
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support it. My Department provided Combat Stress with £3 million in the financial year 2010-11 for the treatment of those in receipt of a war pension who require treatment for mental health problems caused by service.
Combat Stress was formed shortly after the first world war to help those returning from the battlefields, but it is as important today as it was then. Indeed, I first came across Combat Stress 25 years ago when I was serving. It was known then as the Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society. We have heard today about Neil Blower, a former serviceman who served his country in Iraq and Kosovo. He experienced difficulties after service, but received excellent help and support from Combat Stress. He has now become a published author. I wish him continued success, and I should say to the right hon. Lady that I found the quotation from his book very moving.
I accept that the Government cannot and should not do everything. Through the armed forces covenant, we are building partnerships between all arms of government—national and local—and with the NHS to deliver better support to the armed forces community. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), who speaks for the Opposition, mentioned all arms of government and how we need to bring them together. A report on the covenant will be published before Christmas.
We also need to work more closely with the charitable sector to get the right support to the right people at the right time. The covenant has the important principle of removing disadvantage. Any former serviceman who is ill as a result of their service can access priority treatment through the NHS—subject, of course, to the clinical needs of others. We continue to work closely with GPs to make that more widely known because there is an education issue. The Department of Health, working with the Royal College of General Practitioners, has put in place an e-learning package for GPs. That will increase awareness of the status of patients who are veterans, thus enabling more proactive monitoring of veterans’ mental health and helping to ensure that they receive the treatment that they deserve.
We acknowledge that, in some cases, it can take years for psychological problems to manifest themselves. It is therefore important that we recognise through-life responsibility to our armed forces and that we do all we can to increase awareness and reduce the potential for developing mental health problems in the future.
Hazel Blears: If the Minister’s plans to reduce stigma are successful—and I very much hope that they are—that will inevitably result in more people presenting for treatment and help and support. I specifically asked him what his estimate is of the increase in the number of people presenting for next year and the years after as troops withdraw from the theatres where they have been active and what plans he has to meet that increase in the number of people presenting. I would appreciate some detailed answers to those specific questions.
I was going to come to that, but we do not have estimates for the figures that may emerge because it is a very difficult clinical situation. Some people—mostly not qualified doctors—say that a tidal wave of mental health problems is coming. I do not
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know whether that is the case, but what I do know is that we must be ready for whatever comes, so that we can help ex-service personnel. That is the right way forward, but making estimates that must inevitably be guesses because they depend on individual situations would not necessarily be very helpful.
I want to answer a few more of the right hon. Lady’s questions. We have mentioned stigma. It is our policy and that of the armed forces that mental health issues should be recognised properly and handled appropriately. Every effort should be made to reduce the stigma associated with such problems. Service personnel are given briefings before, during and after any operational deployment that explain the symptoms to look for and signpost the support services available. As well as medical officers, welfare staff, mental health personnel and chaplains also deploy to places such as Afghanistan and are available to provide help and advice.
One of the most successful recent innovations has been the introduction of trauma risk management—TRiM—which I have seen. That is a process of peer-group risk assessment, and mentoring and support for use in the aftermath of traumatic events. Such a process is undertaken as soon as possible after the event. That could happen, for example, after a patrol in a forward operating base. Evidence suggests that that process has been successful in increasing awareness and reducing the stigma attached to mental health disorders, which the right hon. Lady mentioned.
Away from the operational theatre, we provide a range of specialist care, primarily through 15 military departments of community mental health across the UK and four such departments in Germany. Those departments provide out-patient mental health care and are staffed by community mental health teams comprising psychiatrists and mental health nurses, with access to clinical psychologists and mental health social workers. In-patient care, when necessary, is provided regionally in specialised psychiatric units under a contract with the NHS.
To help our understanding of the issues that affect service personnel and those who have left the services, we fund a large-scale research project at King’s College, London on the experiences of those who are serving or who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only last Monday, I spent the morning at King’s with Professor Simon Wessely and other academic staff who are undertaking that research. If anyone wishes to go there, I can arrange a visit because they are extremely on the ball and know an enormous amount about the subject, as one would hope. The project includes a large-scale study involving more than 20,000 participants, which is monitoring the effects of operational service compared with a cohort group that did not deploy.
In May 2010—the project was funded by the previous Government—the latest phase of that research confirmed that there is a continuing relatively low prevalence of probable post-traumatic stress disorder for the UK armed forces. Some 4% of respondents displayed symptoms
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of PTSD compared with other studies that show a range of rates between 3% and 7% in the general population. Recent evidence suggests that PTSD is likely to present at a peak of about three years, but we accept that it may be longer in some cases. It is therefore important that we recognise our through-life responsibility to our armed forces.
I will try to cover the questions asked by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) made some excellent points. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) spoke with passion about the legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland. Having spent the best part of a year of my life on the streets of west Belfast, I have a very real understanding of and a great deal of sympathy with some of his points. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) spoke with great feeling, but we should be careful that we do not see ex-service personnel as victims. They are very capable people, and the overwhelming majority of people who leave the services plough a pretty good furrow and get a job. I had to become an MP to get a job; nevertheless, most people get a pretty decent job after they have left the armed forces, and they do not want to be patronised.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) added his experience of the Territorial Army and acknowledged the real difficulties that we face. On the reservists, he is absolutely right. I say gently to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire that we must understand—I think that she does understand—that many ex-service personnel do not want to be pursued. When they leave the armed forces, they do not want to be followed up.
The right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles particularly mentioned education. I will write to her if I may with the details, but I think that she will find that the further education scheme funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills provides free tuition for service leavers undertaking a first qualification at that level. That gives ex-service personnel the opportunity for higher studies, which they may have been denied by military service. Furthermore, they can build up learning credits during service that can be used to fund education for up to 10 years after leaving service. However, I will write to her with the details on that.
In conclusion, there is consensus here. The right hon. Lady has raised a very important issue. We can never remove the exposure to trauma in operations, but we must do all we can to minimise the effects that that might have. TRiM on the battlefield gives the opportunity to discuss the shared experience of trauma, and that concept is continued with the Big White Wall. For some, medical intervention is required, which I have discussed, but we continue to address the recommendations made in “Fighting Fit.” All that is complemented by Combat Stress and other service charities. As we have heard, they do a huge amount to rebuild lives, and we are, as a Government and a nation, eternally grateful for that.
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Arctic Convoy Veterans Medal
Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mrs Riordan, for the opportunity to secure the debate. I want to speak about two words: “heroism” and “bravery”. They are words that we hear too often in modern language, yet their true meaning is absolutely personified by the gentlemen in the white berets. They are the Arctic convoy veterans of world war two. They are the men who risked their lives again and again on what Winston Churchill described as:
“the worst journey in the world.”
On a daily basis, they endured sub-zero temperatures—sometimes as low as minus 60°—and had to hack away at the ice and snow that covered the decks and external parts of their ships. One veteran said that he did not realise how cold it was until he accidentally grabbed a ladder, which removed all the skin on his hand. However, the weather was nothing compared to the continual aerial bombardment from German U-boats, battleships and planes that plagued each trip.
One grim feature of the campaign was the use of suicide flights. Fighter planes were flung into the air with the use of a catapult when enemy aircraft were sighted. With nowhere to land when they were shot or ran out of fuel, pilots were forced to crash into the sea and face almost certain death. A total of 78 convoys delivered 4 million tonnes of vital cargo and munitions to the Soviet Union, which allowed the red army to repel the Nazi invasion. The cost in terms of life was horrific. More than 100 vessels perished and 3,000 UK seamen were killed in the treacherous waters of the Arctic ocean as they undertook terrifying trips to keep Russia supplied and fighting on the eastern front. Nine per cent. of the seamen who took part were killed— the highest fatality rate of any maritime campaign in the war.
The cost, had the Arctic convoys not succeeded, would have been worse. Nazi Germany would very probably have won the second world war. Churchill had promised to supply Stalin “at all costs”. He knew that, if Russia fell, the full weight of the Nazi military machine would be targeted at the west. Yet, because Norway and the Baltic states had been captured by the Germans, the only way to get supplies to Russia was through the northern ports of Murmansk and Archangel, which are both inside the icy waters of the Arctic circle.
Were the convoy veterans honoured with a medal by their own country? After all, even Russia—the Soviet Union—awarded medals that acknowledged its gratitude to the surviving sailors, whom it regarded as heroes. No. The convoy campaign was the only major sea campaign of the second world war not to be honoured with a specific medal. Instead, it was included in the battle of the Atlantic, which was a separate campaign to keep Britain supplied during the German U-boat blockade. This is the biggest fallacy: the Arctic convoy veterans all qualified for the Atlantic star. Leave aside that the Atlantic is 800 miles away from the Arctic and a wholly different campaign. Uniquely for campaign medals, recipients of the Atlantic star had to fulfil a six-month qualifying period, as opposed to just one day for the Africa star, for example.
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Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She mentioned the Africa star. Not only does the campaign star system allow for such a stand-alone medal—the Italy star is another example—but it permits recognition of a significant event, battle or sustained effort; for example, the one-off clasp, the 1939-1945 star, to commemorate the battle of Britain. Does she agree that there has been a worrying complacency on this matter, in that neither of those ready solutions has been proposed? Today, the Ministry of Defence’s own website does not even mention the convoys in the criteria for the Atlantic star.
Caroline Dinenage: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and has worked extremely hard on this campaign, as we all have. There is a ready-made solution within the star framework. The complacency in relation to rewarding these extraordinary men is, in many ways, shameful.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Probably the most powerful point she has made is that the qualifying criterion for the Atlantic star was 180 days, which by modern standards is very long indeed. I think that for the Falklands it was one day. For the current operational service medal, it is only 30 days. In fact, if she were devilish, she could ask the Minister what the qualifying period was for his two medals.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): If one considers that the war went on for six years, and people then looked back and decided on the length of time required to qualify for medals, I think that that was a perfectly reasonable position. As I recall, Northern Ireland was 30 days, which was essentially a quarter of a four-month tour. Actually, if my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) thinks that accumulated service medals should take longer to acquire—does he have one, or is he about to get one?—he raises a sensible point, but the second world war went on for six years.
Caroline Dinenage: In two moments, I will. I welcome the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, whom I think is still a serving member of the Army. I am sure that he very much represents the views of the service people of today, who recognise fully and fully appreciate the sacrifice that these gentlemen made.
Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (LD):
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Like others, I congratulate her on successfully securing the debate. She said that there were two words that she wanted to talk about. There are two other words that, unfortunately, have not been taken on board by the Government. One is gratitude—the gratitude of the nation to these men.
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The other is obligation—the obligation that successive Governments have refused to take up to honour these men with the medal they deserve. The Minister’s outburst belittled the importance of this debate, and I regret that he chose to make those statements. I believe that “obligation” and “gratitude” are the two things that the nation now needs to show these men while they are still alive.
Caroline Dinenage: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and echo everything that he has said. I know that he has also been a great supporter of the Arctic convoy veterans in their campaign for a medal.
Mr Andrew Smith: The hon. Lady has been generous in giving way. She is making a powerful and eloquent case. I just want to underline the strength of cross-party support for her campaign, and the support it enjoys among the wider British public, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) has said. We owe these veterans a vote of thanks, and we owe them a distinctive Arctic convoy medal.
The Minister talked about qualifying periods for medals. The Arctic convoys sailed in excessively awful conditions. It is important to point out that nobody could possibly have managed six months of continuous service in those horrific conditions. There were people who sailed on the convoys, and many who lost limbs in the horrific extreme cold, who did not serve long enough to qualify for the Atlantic star. The Atlantic star qualification—albeit perhaps inadvertently—was therefore set up in such a way as to make sure that nobody who only served in the Arctic convoys could qualify. The Arctic convoy veterans who did receive the Atlantic star—there were a good number of them—only did so because they had also been part of an Atlantic convoy during other parts of the war; they did not receive it purely on the basis of their serving in the Arctic campaign.
Why was the Arctic the only campaign of the second world war to be ignored? The most likely explanation is that, as world war two ended, the cold war began and our relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated. Fear of communism was growing internationally and it was somehow seen as inappropriate, or perhaps even unfashionable, to recognise the efforts of our country in supporting the Russians. In some ways, this whole incredible, valiant episode was just brushed under the carpet. It was only in the 1990s, after the end of the cold war, that this incredibly heroic band of gentlemen felt that they could put forward their case for a medal.
Commander Eddie Grenfell survived his ship being bombed five times, and being plunged into the icy water where life expectancy was just minutes. He somehow managed to get rescued from the water and then spent many months recovering in Murmansk hospital. He is now 91. Lieutenant-Commander Dick Dykes spent more time in the Arctic convoys than anyone else alive today. Such men are heroes, yet they are still fighting. Portsmouth’s The News has led a campaign for more than 10 years to get a medal for Eddie, Dick and the ever-dwindling
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band of brave men: only 200 now survive.
might be the champion, but the cause matters not only to people in Portsmouth.
Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): I appreciate the hon. Lady securing the debate and congratulate her on that. My now dear departed uncle was on one of the convoys, and he was thrilled to be awarded the Russian medal, although our brave convoy veterans are not allowed to wear it on the same side as their other decorations. If the veterans can receive that medal from Russia, as they did several years ago with great honour here in London, should they not be honoured by our country?
Caroline Dinenage: The hon. Lady makes a super point and underlines the strength of feeling on the subject up and down the country. It is almost impossible to understand why our brave servicemen have been rewarded by other countries and not by our own. It is not only a local issue, as she pointed out. Loch Ewe, from where the convoys were launched, has a museum and an annual service of remembrance, and the Scottish Government are even considering including the story of the Arctic convoys in their national curriculum. When I raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions in January, the incredible outpouring of support I received came from all over the world and from as far afield as Canada and Australia. The medal has the support of people in all walks of life, young and old, and nowhere more so than among our serving servicemen and women. Next year, a new diamond jubilee medal will be awarded to anyone who has completed five years of service in the military, whether on active service or not. Many of the young people in the armed forces in my constituency have said that, if it is only a matter of money, they will happily forgo their own medal in order to afford one for the Arctic convoy veterans.
Penny Mordaunt: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to me for a second time. Is she aware that the £12.3 million estimate for an Arctic convoy medal is based on incorrect numbers of servicemen and costings? Looking at the actual costs of other medals and allowing for inflation and even design costs, which obviously would not have to be included, I am hard pushed to reach even £1.2 million.
Caroline Dinenage: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information, which further underlines the obstacles that are being put in the way of doing the right thing. The Ministry of Defence was asked to review the medals system in July 2010, and it took 16 months to get nowhere. However, time is of the essence. It is 70 years since the first convoys, and the remaining veterans are in their 80s and 90s; of the thousands who took part in the convoys, only 200 are yet alive.
Mr Mike Hancock: The hon. Lady is being enormously generous in giving way again. Is she, like me, unable to find a single precedent other than that of successive Ministry of Defence Ministers from all Governments against giving the medal?
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Does the Minister agree that enough time has already been wasted on reviews and delays? How long will the new independent review requested by the Prime Minister take, and when will it be completed? Finally, what are the scope and leadership of the review? According to the MOD, the details are expected to be released shortly—but “shortly” is not a period that we understand. What does it mean? Time is not on our side, and I ask him to be more specific. I understand that the MOD hides behind rules, protocols and precedents, but another criterion ought to take absolute priority: this is the right thing to do. Those men are not politicians, and at their age they should not have to fight for justice. It appals me that people who gave so much to ensure the freedoms that we daily take for granted should have to beg for the recognition that they deserve.
Successive Conservative leaders in opposition have committed to the medal without review. It is dreadful that it has to be reviewed again and again. I urge the Minister to ensure that it is done quickly. Time is not on the side of those brave gentlemen. It would be utterly disgusting were a medal awarded and no one was alive to receive it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) for raising this important issue, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. She feels passionately about it, and we have discussed it in the past. There is no scintilla of difference between us about our respect for those of my father’s and her grandfather’s generation who served in the Royal Navy and the Arctic convoys in the second world war. It might be relatively cold outside, but as we sit here in our centrally heated comfort, well clothed and dry, it is difficult to imagine the conditions in which young men in their teens and 20s went to sea in the Arctic before we were born. I pay real tribute to their courage, resolution, determination and bravery when necessary—all those things were shown by the people whom we as a nation sent to war in the Arctic. We agree about that, and the question is what we should do about it.
I mentioned my father’s generation, and I was brought up immediately after the second world war, so I have a much closer feeling with it, if I may say so. My mother’s first husband was a glider pilot killed at Arnhem, and the courage and resolution shown by glider pilots were similarly astonishing. In the battle of Sicily more than half the glider force was dropped in the sea and almost all of them died, as far as I am aware, so then to get back in a glider and fly off to Arnhem and D-day was similarly incredibly brave. I pay tribute to all those from this nation who in the second world war did amazing things. Nothing that I say should detract from that. The Atlantic convoys, rather than the separate Arctic convoys, lost 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships.
The position of the Government, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is that we will have a review. It was thought that the earlier review, to which she referred, was insufficient, and therefore we are putting in place another one, for which the terms of reference and the chairman have yet to be decided. I can, however, assure
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her that that work is most definitely happening at the moment. It is important that the decisions be made not by me or by Ministers but independently. Neither the Ministry of Defence nor I will have any hand in those decisions, which will be made by an independent chairman and group. It is important that politicians do not have such decisions at their fingertips. The truth is that politicians should not be involved in awarding medals.
Caroline Dinenage: I think that politicians ought to have the decision in their gift. If they should not, why did successive leaders of the Conservative party promise the medal to veterans while in opposition? It should not be subject to review and it does not need independent scrutiny to decide that this is the right thing to do. Politicians are perfectly capable of making the decision and making the right one.
Mr Robathan: Every Member in the Chamber, pace the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) who might possibly be an exception, was born after the end of the second world war. Politicians should not revisit decisions made in the past, second-guessing those who are not around to speak for themselves and who knew the details, were much closer to them than us and would have known people who had been on the Arctic convoys, perhaps losing friends or relations on that convoy, when we do not.
The current situation is that an independent review, into which I will have no input, will investigate. However, I would like to state the facts, which are what we should deal with. The Admiralty fleet order dated October 1946 refers to
“Qualifications for the Atlantic Star”
“After qualification for the 1939-45 Star by six months’…service, in areas defined below.
(A) Six months’…service afloat as defined in Section III”,
“(B) Service in home waters, service on the convoy routes to North Russian ports, service in the South Atlantic between the longitude of Cape Horn and longitude 20° E”.
The point was that the Admiralty was trying to have one medal to cover those issues. Whether that was right or wrong, it is wrong to say that the Arctic was ignored. It was not. It was mentioned in the Admiralty fleet order, and it was recognised, but I accept that whether it should have been recognised further is a matter for debate.
The campaign suggests that the Atlantic star is not enough, and I understand the strong feeling about that. I cannot understand what it was like to be in such appalling cold. However, it was also cold in the Atlantic, and I have mentioned the 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships that went down. Most people who earned the Atlantic star must be very proud to have done so when so many died. One also reads of the deprivation on the Atlantic convoys. It was pretty tough going across the Atlantic being chased by U-boats, and many ships were sunk.
I do not believe that anyone here wants to get into a competition about who suffered most, although we must recognise the appalling conditions endured by the Arctic convoy veterans. The Minister is
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rightly sticking to the facts, but the facts are that the Arctic convoys were a separate theatre of conflict, and a precedent was set with the Canal medal. If it was thought that an error had been made, for understandable reasons—my right hon. Friend alluded to what they might be—we could revisit a decision. I do not believe that politicians should make those judgments, but it is our job to raise the concerns of our constituents throughout the country. There is a great feeling that we should revisit the facts, and there is a precedent for change if we think an error has been made.
Mr Robathan: I am saying that that determination is possible if people in the past got it wrong. We are saying in this debate that those in the Admiralty who determined who would receive medals got it wrong and that in some way we who were born after the second world war know better than those who were in that war. Actually, they were people like us, who are sitting in our centrally heated Chamber. Mountbatten was not on the Admiralty Board because he was Viceroy of India at the time, but he had commanded Kelly during the war, and ended up an admiral. That was not unusual for experienced people. We are in danger of saying that we should gainsay their knowledge and disparage their decisions, which were made by good people with experience.
The intention post-war was not to cover everyone with medals. Medals in the UK mean something, and we pay tribute to the people in the Public Gallery who are showing the medals that they won through risk and rigour. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport mentioned the USSR. Authoritarian regimes and dictators, such a Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, often throw medals around. North Korean generals are covered with medal ribbons. We have traditionally taken the view in this country—hon. Members may disagree—that medals will be awarded only for campaigns that show risk and rigour.
Mrs Glindon: Veterans who hold the Russian Arctic medal may think the Minister’s comment about regimes that give away medals is disparaging. I hope that he recognises that. Under Winston Churchill, the Government discouraged the award of the Russian medal, but the fact that it was given and that the brave men who received it were recognised should be mirrored in this country. I should be pleased if he made a different comment from the one that he made earlier.
I apologise if my comment was taken in the wrong way. That was not the intention. I am not sure when the Russian medal was given to our veterans, but I believe that it was after 1990. There are not many
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Soviet survivors from the second world war, but generals in the Soviet army were covered in medals, which is not the tradition in this country. That is the point I was trying to make.
Caroline Dinenage: The Minister’s comment about the Russians giving out that medal disparages what the Russians clearly recognise as the unbelievable commitment and bravery of gentlemen such as those in the Public Gallery to whom he referred. We are now in the habit of giving out medals to people who have not committed acts of bravery. Next year, the Queen’s diamond jubilee medal will be given to people who may have spent five years driving a desk in the Ministry of Defence.
Mr Robathan: That is a fair point, but the diamond jubilee medal is a commemorative medal, not a campaign medal. That is the difference, but I agree with my hon. Friend. She made a reasonable point. I apologise again if she took my comment the wrong way. My point was that some regimes give out a large number of medals, whereas traditionally the United Kingdom does not.
I commend Commander Grenfell and his colleagues on their campaign. It seems to have started in 1997, which was 51 years after the Atlantic star was awarded, so I am not entirely clear what prompted it. Two Members in the Chamber have been on their parties’ Front Benches, and the last Government, under a lot of pressure, decided that they would award a special medal, but they awarded the Arctic star. In Portsmouth, The News stated, under the heading, “We’ve Won” and “Historic victory in long battle to win honours for heroes of the Arctic convoys”, that Commander Grenfell said:
“I am really very happy with what we have achieved. It has been a tough campaign, but we have finally got the recognition the Arctic veterans deserved.”
“This is a tremendous result, and it is wonderful that the Arctic veterans have at last won recognition.”
Finally, the facts are that the decision is not one for politicians. I have huge respect for my father’s generation, who gave up their youth in the service of our country and deserve to be continually respected. The Arctic convoy veterans served in the particularly appalling conditions of the Arctic, but we should not pretend that we know better than experienced people who had taken part in the second world war and who had served on Royal Navy ships at sea. A decision will be taken, rightly, by the medals review. It should not be a political decision; it should relate to those who look at all the facts, take a view dependent on their respect for our veterans and make their decision accordingly.
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Police Stations (Overnight Staffing)
Ian Austin: I am grateful to have the opportunity to ask the Minister a series of questions about the proposed evening closure of Dudley police station, and, as we can see from the presence of other Labour Members, other stations in the west midlands. I want to express my admiration and support for West Midlands police, led by our chief constable, Chris Sims—[ Interruption. ]
Led by Chris Sims and his senior colleagues, the force has seen crime across the region fall over the last few years, but many of us are worried that the force will find maintaining its performance impossible, because it is being forced to cut its budget by £126 million over four years. It is losing 14.5% of its funding, one of the biggest cuts in the country. As a result, the force is losing 1,250 officers, recruitment has been frozen, and experienced and valuable officers are being forced to retire early because they have completed 30 years’ service. Other savings are being made in back office functions and administrative functions as well.
The force is now proposing that the front desk at Dudley and a number of other police stations be closed to the public during the evening or overnight. Dudley’s front desk has been closed to the public between 10 pm and 7 am for the last four years or so, but under the new arrangements the front desk would close at 6 pm and not open again until 10 am the next morning. I think it is fair to say that were it not for the need to save £126 million, West Midlands police would not have put this proposal forward. However, they have to make savings and they have put forward a number of arguments, which I will set out and deal with.
“The review of front offices found that public demand is very low in the evenings and overnight and recommended that staff be redeployed back into contact centres to increase the efficiency of call handling.”
“continue to provide 65 front offices open to the public; a service to local communities far wider than most other police forces offer across the country.”
“households will never be more than four miles from a 24/7 police station”.
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force has established a new appointments system so that officers will visit the public instead of expecting the public to come to them.
I am all in favour of new ways of communicating with people and having more locations in which the public can meet the police, but there are specific factors in relation to Dudley which I am not convinced the current proposals have taken into account. As soon as the proposals were brought to our attention, my colleague Councillor Shaukat Ali and I launched a petition asking that the proposal for Dudley police be dropped. The fact that more than 2,000 residents signed our petition in just a fortnight illustrates the level of local concern. Residents, businesses, publicans and students in the town all expressed their concern. The Central Dudley Area Committee held an emergency meeting and unanimously called for the proposal to be dropped.
There are a number of specific factors in relation to Dudley. First, the nearest station run by Dudley police for many will be at Brierley Hill, five or six miles away for many residents. Secondly, I receive frequent complaints about antisocial behaviour on estates near the town. Much of this obviously occurs during the evening, and people strongly value having a station open should they need it. Thirdly, Dudley is the largest town on the list and I do not think there is anywhere of similar size in the region that would not have a station open to the public in the evening.
I am all in favour of using new methods of communicating with people, but it is to the West Midlands force’s credit that it operates so many more open front desks than other forces. The fact that there is a busy and active, fully staffed station is very important to traders and shoppers.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): My hon. Friend knows that we are in the same position in Coventry. It will be difficult for the public to get access to a number of police stations, particularly over the weekends, as a result of the reduction in hours. Not far from where I live is Chace police station, which is a major station for Coventry. More important, when anyone is arrested for alleged terrorism, they are normally held there until they are moved somewhere else. It is vital that the Minister take a serious look at this.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend has experienced another problem. At weekends, when crime is more likely, it is difficult to get a senior officer at these stations to talk about certain incidents that may happen in the centre of Coventry or in different locations in Coventry. Several police stations in my constituency, but equally in the other two MPs’ constituencies, will be experiencing the same thing. It is vital that people have an open police station at the weekends so that they can get to the people they want. It is no good leaving sergeants in charge.
Ian Austin: My hon. Friend is correct. There are various ways in which his and my stations could be kept open in the evenings and, in his case, at weekends by looking for savings in other areas. It would help if the force was not being forced to find this level of savings in the first place.
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college and sixth-form buildings in the town centre, which will result in hundreds more young people in and around the town during the evenings. The new college includes a theatre, which will bring hundreds of visitors to the town at night. Our town centre market is about to be rebuilt, strengthening the town centre economy with, again, more activities in the evening. Several pubs and cafés and a wine bar are currently being refurbished. Much of the regeneration of the town centre is based on driving up trade and activity in the evening. Finally, there is strong public support for my campaign to open up the castle in the evenings during the summer for concerts and plays, which would bring thousands more people to Dudley during the evenings.
On the number of visitors, the force’s own figures show that a third of front desk enquiries come between 6 pm and 10 am. That is bound to increase as a result of our ambitions to boost the town’s night-time trade and visitor economy. In the light of these particularly local factors, I want the Minister to ask the force to reconsider this particular proposal. Not unreasonably, the chief constable says that if front desks are not closed, savings will have to be made elsewhere. I understand that, but I need to be convinced that all possible savings have been found from administrative and back office functions before front-line services such as Dudley’s front desk are cut.
Forces across the country buy pretty much the same cars and other vehicles, uniforms, protective clothing and equipment. They use similar computer systems and so on. Will the Minister explain why individual forces are still procuring cars, vehicles and equipment individually and separately instead of driving down costs by purchasing centrally and getting bigger and better deals for the taxpayer? Will he tell me why we have police, fire and ambulance services in the west midlands operating separately instead of merging some common functions? Why do they all need separate finance, human resources and PR departments, for example? Why have we got 40 separate local or regional police forces across England—four in the west midlands alone—all providing different and separate services instead of sharing expertise and knowledge, as well as administrative functions and computer systems, for example?
Rationalising such functions would save a fortune, but I can think of other savings that we could be making, too. Many of the areas I have listed are precisely the areas that we identified as part of the 12% efficiencies that we would have made over four years, rather than the 20% cuts that have been front-loaded and that are being imposed on police forces at the moment. Is it not the case that the Government’s decision to go much further and much faster has probably impeded forces’ abilities to make efficiency savings, which would take time to work out with other police forces, but would limit the impact on the front line? They are being forced to do these things more quickly and more severely. That has forced them into quicker but more damaging savings, such as reducing the number of front-line officers and closing stations in the evening instead of the administrative and procurement savings that I have suggested.
We should also consider why the police authority and force are based in costly offices in the middle of Birmingham city centre, which is probably the most expensive place to run a service anywhere in the west midlands. Like me, I am sure my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall North
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(Mr Winnick) and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) could identify offices in their own constituencies where services could be provided much more cheaply.
The Minister will no doubt say that he cannot do much about where the authority is based, but he ought to be ensuring that it has found savings from all the other areas before touching the front line. He can certainly do something about the way the police force is funded.
The police authority and leaders from all parties in councils across the region have made representations to Ministers on two specific issues. Although all police authorities have been subject to some reduction in the Government grant, authorities such as the West Midlands police authority have effectively been penalised because they kept precept increases to a minimum over the past few years. They are, therefore, more reliant on the Government grant compared with authorities such as Surrey, which increased precepts at a faster rate and are therefore less reliant on the Government grant.
Mr Jim Cunningham: My hon. Friend makes a comparison between the west midlands and Surrey. In the west midlands the authority relies on an 80% grant from central Government, whereas in Surrey it is the reverse. That shows a real disparity.
My hon. Friend also mentioned efficiencies. I do not have a lot of evidence, but once or twice I have noticed that during an incident such as the arrest of a person for causing a problem on a bus, it can sometimes take six police cars to surround that bus and remove the individual. When talking about efficiencies, perhaps that practice should also be examined.
Ian Austin: My hon. Friend is correct. Total spending power—the Government grant and the precept—in the west midlands will reduce by over 4% in 2011-12, compared with only 1.5% in Surrey. As the Minister will know, that position is exacerbated further by the application of grant damping, together with the “floors and ceilings” that have been applied every year since the last funding formula review. As a result, the West Midlands police authority will receive £27 million less than its full formula entitlement, whereas Surrey will receive £4 million more. It means that the West Midlands police authority, which has one of the highest policing demands in the country, will be forced to make the biggest percentage reduction in spending, while areas such as Surrey that have much lower need and demand will make the smallest reductions. As the West Midlands police authority says,
“this is neither fair, reasonable nor indeed equitable.”
Stations such as those in my constituency would not be faced with closure in the evening if the Government introduced arrangements that properly reflected the need and demand for policing services in the west midlands, and which treat that area and the people who live and work in it fairly and equitably.
I will suggest one other saving. Although I am not against elected police commissioners in principle, I am not sure how they will find enough things to keep them busy and in particular to justify their enormous salaries—I thought about that when I visited the police authority last week, and it is an interesting point. One argument that was recently advanced for police commissioners cited the great job that we were told the Mayor of London did during the recent riots. The Mayor of
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London, however, looks after a whole range of services and functions across the city, and has a much bigger area of responsibility than simply the police. I am not sure what police commissioners will do to justify being paid £100,000—as I understand it, the police commissioners in the west midlands will be paid £100,000, and they will be the best paid in the country. That seems an odd priority when resources are so scarce that we are losing 1,200 officers and face the evening closure of stations such as that in Dudley.
Finally, does the Minister think that the officers in question and my police station’s front desk are front-line services? I would have thought it difficult to identify anything more front line than a full-time police officer and a public inquiry desk. At the election, the Prime Minister promised that there would be no front-line cuts, and that any Cabinet Minister who proposed them would
“be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again.”
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) has secured this debate because Bloxwich police station in my constituency is affected by this issue. My hon. Friend is right.
Mr Winnick: I certainly will, Mrs Riordan. As the Minister knows, the West Midlands police force faces a devastating cut of 26% over the next few years. That is bound to affect it adversely both in the west midlands as a whole and in individual constituencies. As indicated, there will be 1,250 fewer police officers as numbers fall from 8,627 to 7,377. Moreover, there will be fewer members of police staff in other roles. That is the background to what is happening and the reason why certain cuts are taking place at the moment.
The decision to close Bloxwich police station after 6 pm each day cannot be justified. My figures show that on average, more than 30 residents visit the station at some stage during the time it will be closed. Furthermore, the fact that the police station is closed will lessen the feeling of security among the residents. There may be alternative ways of contacting the police, but that does not alter the fact that the police station will be closed when previously it remained open, and people are concerned about that.
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We started a petition to protest about what was happening, and there was not the slightest reluctance by anyone to sign—I would have been surprised if there had been. I know that the Minister is checking the figure I gave about the number of people who go to the station—that is the average figure that has been publicised; if it is not the most accurate figure, so be it. The fact remains, however, that until now and before the cuts were announced, the police station remained open and its closure was never suggested. The only reason the station will close after 6 pm every day is that indicated by my hon. Friends. I hope that, when looking at the situation in Dudley and Coventry, the issue of Bloxwich station and whether it can remain open will also be considered.
Finally, I sent the petition to the police authority with a supporting letter, and I believe that there should be a genuine consultation exercise in which people are asked their views. If the Minister wishes to challenge what I have said about the need for Bloxwich police station to remain open, let a genuine consultation exercise be held in Bloxwich, and other areas of my constituency that use that station, so that people can express their views.
The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) on securing this debate. I recognise that the availability of the police is a matter of concern to his constituents, and the Government share that concern.
Police visibility and availability is important, and we want to see more police officers on the streets preventing and cutting crime, rather than sitting behind their desks. We must, however, recognise that policing today reaches people through many means, not just police stations, and we must be careful not to confuse buildings with the visibility and availability of the police, which I fear may be behind public concern.
I know that the hon. Gentleman recently attended a meeting of the West Midlands police authority at which it considered a report by the chief constable on the proposed operating hours for the force’s public inquiry offices, and he also mentioned the petition that he presented. As I understand it, the views expressed by petitioners will be taken into account as a response to the police consultation. The consultation period will continue until 15 January, after which time all responses will be considered. Such decisions are taken locally and not by the Government.
“Providing a visible and accessible service to the public is core to the approach West Midlands Police takes in delivering its mission of ‘Serving our communities and protecting them from harm.’ West Midlands Police must deliver reductions in its budget of £126 million, but in making these savings we have been clear that we will still offer the protection the public demands, but the way services are delivered must change.”
The approach described by Chief Constable Sims reflects the core challenge that the police service faces—to reduce costs while maintaining and, indeed, improving public services. The Government have no option but to reduce public spending. As a service spending £14 billion a year, the police can and must make their fair share of
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the savings needed. I think that there is cross-party agreement that the police can make savings; we may disagree about the amount.
The hon. Member for Dudley North and his hon. Friends raised the issue of the funding for the west midlands. Of course, I will revisit the damping decisions to be made in relation to the third and fourth years of the spending review. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. I have said before that we decided that an even cut across police forces was the only fair solution, because otherwise we would be penalising forces that were already taking more from local taxpayers than others. These are difficult decisions, but we decided that that was the fairest solution. I repeat that we want to move away from damping to full implementation of the formula as a proper reflection of policing need. It is difficult to do that when funding is falling, because it means that other forces would have to pick up the bill and receive a deeper cut than the level proposed by the Government, and those forces would not regard that as fair. Nevertheless, I will continue to consider these matters and have just reassured the chair of the police authority and the chief constable that I will do so. As I continue to take the decisions about individual allocations, I will pay the closest attention to the points being made.
My absolute priority is to ensure that the police service retains and enhances its ability to protect and serve the public, but for that to happen, business as usual is no longer an option for police forces and authorities. A fundamental redesign of police force organisation is needed. This cannot be about salami-slicing police resources. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has shown that a significant proportion of the police work force are not working in front-line roles—that is certainly true in the west midlands—and that there is wide variation among forces when it comes to the availability and visibility of officers to the public whom they serve. That is evidence that forces can do much more to manage their resources better in order to prioritise front-line services. I know that the very good chief constable in the west midlands has embarked on that mission. He is focusing on the redesign of policing that is necessary to deliver a high-quality service to the public, given that resources are diminishing.
The test of the effectiveness of a force cannot be the total amount being spent on it or the total number of staff it employs—or how many police stations it has or when front counters are open. There is no simple and automatic link between those things and how accessible the police are or how crime is being fought. The effectiveness of a force depends on how well the resources available are used.
It is plain from the report provided by the chief constable to the police authority last week that West Midlands police have devoted more of their resources to managing contact with the public than similar forces have, but without reaching the productivity levels that could be achieved. The cost of that approach is not only financial; it constrains the ability of the force to return officers to the visible policing that the public want. The changes proposed will enable the force to deliver a £1 million saving on the cost of managing contact with the public. They also involve redeploying officers and staff to make better use of their time and skills, rather than staffing police counters at times when few people
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use them—I will come to that point. Staff from the sites with reduced hours will be redeployed into contact centres, which will improve call handling, and police officers will be released to other duties, so the proposals about which the police are consulting involve changing the balance of resources to improve the way in which the police respond to the public through the channels by which and at the times at which the public actually contact the police, rather than preserving a service in places where and at a time when the public rarely use it.
West Midlands police have found that, during the daytime, on average only two people an hour visit each front counter. Many of those visitors are solicitors visiting the custody facilities or are people whom the police have asked to attend, such as in relation to bail or production of documents. The proposed new opening hours for a number of station front counters will meet two thirds of existing demand, which is concentrated in daytime hours.
I note that the hon. Member for Dudley North has said that one third of front-desk inquiries come between 6 pm and 10 pm. It is worth him looking at the graph produced by the police that shows the actual demand at Dudley police station. I have just been looking at it. He may be right that one third of the inquiries come between those times, but let us look at the actual number of people making visits—those who choose to come in, not those who have been asked to come in by the police, because clearly they could be asked to come in at a different time. I think that the hon. Gentleman knows what the numbers are. At 6 o’clock, the average number was 0.3—0.3 people came in. It was 0.4 at 7 o’clock, 0.4 at 8 pm and 0.2 at 9 pm. At 10 pm, it was zero. During daytime hours, when the counter will remain open, the peak number of visits to Dudley police station came at 2 pm. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman knows how many people came in at that peak time. One person came in. We need to understand the scale of the numbers of visits, what hon. Members are asking for and the impression that may be being given to local people of what the changes to the service mean.
The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) referred to Bloxwich police station. He is right: there is a little more demand on Bloxwich police station out of hours. I do not know whether his figure of an average of 30 is right. It does not look correct on the figures that I have, but I am happy to take what he says at face value. I can tell him that the peak number of visits in the daytime occurred at 4 pm and that two people came in. At 10 pm, the start of the out-of-hours service that he was concerned about, it was one person. Therefore we need to get all of this in context.
I have consistently said—this view is shared by chief constables—that we must find a new range of strategies for the police contacting the public. There are very good examples up and down the country of forces doing far more with their money—getting more bang for the buck—by finding new ways of contacting the public. Whether that is through the new opportunities that various media present, whether it is through contact centres on our new non-emergency number, 101, where people can get hold of the police, whether it is through the internet or whether it is the contact that the police can have through things such as supermarket surgeries, where they can meet thousands of people, rather than
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the very few who may come in to a police station, it is incredibly important that we realise that there are many more innovative ways by which contact can be maintained.
Nick Herbert: I agree with the hon. Member for Dudley North about the importance of driving savings where we can to ensure that front-line activity is protected. That should be our shared ambition. I am committed to it, and so, I know, is Chris Sims. All the things that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are exactly the areas where we are doing that. We are driving hard on procurement. On police vehicle procurement, which he mentioned, the Police Act 1996 (Equipment) Regulations 2011 came into force in March. That means that all forces must now buy vehicles through a national procurement framework. We have identified some £380 million-worth of savings that could be achieved by police forces through better use of IT and procurement. That is a very good example of what the hon. Gentleman was talking about. The point about interoperability was also right. He mentioned interoperability between the blue-light services. We are encouraging forces to collaborate and share services. He will know about the innovative proposals that West Midlands police have in relation to business partnering. We are encouraging the 43 forces to share services and reduce back-office costs. I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman about all that, and chief constables are working on it.
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The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of police and crime commissioners. I am pleased that he said that he was not against them in principle. I know that Labour is now calling for candidates, and I have no doubt that we will be putting up a candidate in the west midlands. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman plans to run. The truth is that there will be no greater running cost with the police and crime commissioner than there was with the authority. We are absolutely determined about that. There is no reason why the police and crime commissioner should cost more. I believe that it will be a full-time position, because it will involve the important job of holding the force to account, which the authority currently does. It will be vested in one person, rather than the whole authority, so I think that it will be a full-time job in a big force area. We have just decided that it will involve responsibility for victim services as well.
The police and crime commissioner will do the very important job of holding the force to account and being the voice of the people. They will provide a voice for exactly this kind of exercise and pay attention to public concern, but if I were the police and crime commissioner for the west midlands, I would be looking very hard at the proposals that the chief constable has made. I would be looking at the numbers and saying, “Actually, they make sense, given that we need to make savings and improve the visibility and availability of officers by innovative means.” When we look at the actual number of visits that hon. Members have talked about, does it really make sense to be saying that making the changes is scandalous and wrong and that the service will not be the one that the public need? I suggest that, if people re-read the report, they will see that the proposal is not an unreasonable one for the chief constable to make. I understand why hon. Members raise these issues. I believe that our objectives are the same, but I also believe that in this case they should be supporting the chief constable in his endeavours.
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Zimbabwe is an independent sovereign country, but one with which the United Kingdom has strong historical ties. We therefore have a duty to work for the best outcomes for the people of Zimbabwe, because to ignore what is going on there is to condone it.
“Half way through lunch two police details came to the gathering and informed us that we had not asked for police permission to have the gathering. The member of staff at whose house we had gathered and myself were taken to the local police station where we were detained for over two hours before being released with a stern warning. We had apparently ignored a law requiring permission to have a gathering at a private house!”
There are seven issues I want to address, but first let me give a little context in respect of recent events. About 4 million Zimbabweans have set up camp over the border in South Africa. They are refugees from their country because of what has gone on there. That figure represents 20% to 30% of Zimbabwe’s entire population, including the worldwide diaspora of Zimbabweans.
There have been terrible violence and brutality. In 1983 and 1984, there were the massacres of the Ndebele people—the first major post-independence dispersion of Zimbabweans. This was black-on-black violence, and tens of thousands of people were displaced. They fled initially to the second city of Bulawayo, while others left for Botswana and South Africa. This crime against humanity was quickly forgotten by the rest of the world.
The land invasions that began in 2000 were, effectively, a Government-sanctioned looting spree and a desperate election ploy in reaction to the rapid rise of the Opposition Movement for Democratic Change. ZANU-PF was prepared to annihilate vital organs of the economy to win the election. Agricultural productivity declined by 80% between 2002 and 2008. Zimbabwe used to produce about 330,000 tonnes of wheat a year; last year, it produced 11,000 tonnes, and this year, it produced 10,000 tonnes.
I was an election observer in 2000. At that time, the farms were being overrun. It was not just the white-owned farms that were affected, but all the black workers who were driven off them. Ever since, there has been virtually no production on that land. Zimbabwe should be one of the bread baskets of Africa;
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instead, it has to import food. Everything we can do to bring about change and some sense in Zimbabwe would be great.
There were three years of national food deficit in the 20 years from independence to the beginning of the land invasions, and those three years were actually years of severe drought. In the other years, the country maintained an export surplus. Since 2000, when the land invasions started, there have been 11 consecutive years of food deficit.
There are now 1 million AIDS orphans out of a resident population of about 11.5 million. One child in four has lost one or both parents to AIDS. Meanwhile, up to 500,000 of the 1 million farm workers who were removed from white farms have died as a result of a combination of malnutrition and inadequate health services.
The first major issue I want to concentrate on is the prevention of violence and intimidation in the run-up to the general election. In the 2008 elections, polling station results were used to target areas of Opposition sympathy. Huge groups of militia roamed the countryside, beating, burning and killing people at random. Torture bases were established—nightmarish places where the innocent were afflicted for days at a time.
In this period, more than 200 people were killed, thousands were beaten—hundreds of them now have lifelong disabilities—and tens of thousands were displaced. This was revenge and pre-emptive action rolled into one. The message driven home was that people’s choice in the second round of the vote was literally between President Mugabe or death. Rightly or wrongly, the MDC decided to pull out of the election with a week to go, hoping to spare people further suffering.
The International Crisis Group in southern Africa warns that there is a real danger that ZANU-PF will employ violence again to force people to vote. As we know, there must be an election before 2013. Reports in the independent press and statements by Opposition parties indicate that violence is already escalating significantly across the country.
On 10 November, Southern Africa Report, the South African Development Community’s bulletin of political and economic intelligence, announced that the Zimbabwe Defence Force had taken delivery, via an African intermediary, of the first of several consignments of Chinese small arms and equipment—a deal said to have been negotiated by Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. The consignment included 20,000 AK47 automatic rifles, uniforms, 12 to 15 trucks and about 21,000 pairs of handcuffs.
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Mugabe, international observers and monitors are essential, and I will press the Minister to respond to that point when he replies. Additionally, a peacekeeping force, which could be deployed in the country at least three months ahead of an election, particularly in rural areas, would help to protect the lives, livelihoods and homes of vulnerable communities. The peacekeeping force should be required to remain in place after the election to prevent violent retribution.
We need to look at reform of the security forces in Zimbabwe, because even under the multi-party Government, the armed forces remain central to all aspects of life. The Joint Operations Committee, which is a non-statutory body, is made up of President Robert Mugabe’s inner circle, and it remains antagonistic to the unity Government with Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC. It is also distrustful of non-military politicians, even in President Mugabe’s own ZANU-PF party.
The security forces’ access to economic opportunities has strengthened their bond with President Mugabe and their willingness to defend the status quo. While conventional military capacity and competence have declined massively since the 1990s, Zimbabwe’s security forces remain a major and arguably the central obstacle to the resolution of the country’s political instability. Unless the security sector is reformed, violence initiated by ZANU-PF is likely to continue, making the holding of free and fair elections problematic at the very least.
On racism, there are further steps that we can take. Is it not a pity that Zimbabwe does not look across the border to Zambia, one of whose vice-presidents, Dr Guy Scott, happens to be white and a democratically elected politician? Would it not be good if Zimbabwe had the same spirit as Zambia and took the same action?
Zimbabwe actually signed the United Nations convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination on 13 May 1991. That bound Zimbabwe to allow its people full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the right to property and protection before the law. It also condemned racial propaganda and hate speech. Unfortunately, it does not allow for individuals to activate procedures to get the UN to ensure compliance; it needs a fellow signatory United Nations state to do that.
For more than a decade, the Zimbabwe Government and ZANU-PF have been allowed to get away with demonstrably defying the treaty. No signatory state has called for an investigation. No signatory state has asked for the 18-member sitting committee of independent experts to be activated and to go to Zimbabwe. No signatory state appears to care enough about racial discrimination in Zimbabwe to do anything about it. Frankly, many people find that hypocritical.
What would the benefits be of a signatory state getting the UN committee to investigate under article 11 of the convention? The committee would undoubtedly act as a deterrent for continued acts of abuse in the land programme and the indigenisation programme, just as the habitat investigation acted as a deterrent to stop the further destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes by state bulldozers back in 2005. It would help protect the region’s judiciary, by taking the issue to an independent UN body, and it would provide the west with a defence against the fantastical charges of neo-colonialism when
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it raises concerns about racial issues. It would provide any future democratic Government with support to resolve the land issue in Zimbabwe. It would also help to restore much needed investor confidence in the country.
I am concerned about the Zimbabwean Government’s consistent refusal and failure to recognise international legal judgments. For example, the international and regional court of the SADC tribunal, which the SADC Heads of State suspended in May due to pressure from President Mugabe and ZANU-PF, needs international support to become a functioning court once more. Individual states must be held accountable in future, so that the rule of law and human rights can be promoted in the SADC region. Pressure needs to be exerted on policy makers, to ensure that the SADC treaty and protocol are not changed in the August 2012 SADC summit, and I hope that the United Kingdom will be active in ensuring that. Without an international regional court, there is little hope of effective accountability or economic development being able to take place in the region. Furthermore, significant economic development cannot take place without respect for property rights, human rights and the rule of law, something with which the UK Government are already properly concerned in their international development policy.
I want to turn to the Marange diamond fields. I am grateful to the hon. Members who have joined me for the debate. They may be aware that participants in the Kimberley process agreed to relax the ban on export sales last month, subject to an adequate verification regime being in place. The European Union, the United States and Canada switched from opposition to the ban to abstention. The human rights group, Global Witness, is leaving the Kimberley process in protest at that decision. It is estimated that last week’s diamond auction could raise about $300 million US dollars. Contacts that I have in Zimbabwe commented earlier this week as follows:
“The situation is worse now than it has even been, the needs are spiralling. The theft of the diamonds has sadly given ZANU-PF a new lease of life and the future looks grim. There is no reason to think that when Mugabe dies the position will improve.”
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although the picture may look grim, as the wave of life eventually laps from Mr Mugabe, there is a significant opportunity for that country to re-establish and redevelop itself and put in place the democratic structures that ought to be?
Andrew Selous: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for attending the debate and intervening. Like him, I am an optimist; I think that Zimbabwe can have a fantastic future, given its agricultural productivity, the resources of its people and its natural advantages in the region. The challenge for us is to help the political process to allow that to happen, so I agree with the point that he made.
On the treatment of Zimbabwean Anglicans, hon. Members may know that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was recently accompanied in Zimbabwe by bishops, not only from Zimbabwe, but from South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana and Malawi, all of whom were absolutely horrified at what has been happening to
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Zimbabwe’s Anglicans. Since 2007, Anglican congregations have suffered systematic harassment and persecution at the hands of the police, often in direct contravention of court rulings. A report, which was handed to President Robert Mugabe, outlined details of that litany of abuses, which include false imprisonment, violence and denial of access to churches, schools, clinics and mission stations.
In the dioceses of Harare and Manicaland, properties belonging to the Anglican province have been misappropriated. It is a matter of the greatest sadness that Zimbabwean Anglicans are being prevented from continuing their work supporting local and often very needy communities with health care and education. Their priests and people are being denied access to their own clinics and schools. Many such institutions have been taken from Zimbabwe’s Anglicans, and are now under corrupt or poor management, being rapidly run into the ground and stripped of their assets. Details of that unwarranted activity and its impact on local communities were presented to President Mugabe in a report by Archbishop Rowan Williams. Every week, tens of thousands of Anglicans are denied their basic right to worship, because of the lies and falsifications propagated by the now excommunicated former bishop, Dr Kunonga, and his associates.
I have concerns about how the sanctions might be being evaded in Zimbabwe, and I ask that the Minister look into that. A glaring issue is that nationals of countries, including the UK, that have applied the sanctions—both individuals and companies—have continued to support the regime and nothing has been done about them. The British Government and others punish ZANU-PF, but fail to police their own citizens and, according to my sources, that includes companies such Old Mutual.
ZANU-PF officials have been able to externalise huge quantities of funds through share swaps between the Zimbabwean and London stock exchanges. Old Mutual has joint ventures with the Government of Zimbabwe that started before the formation of the unity Government, yet nothing is done. Moreover, those investments are directly connected to gross human rights abuses. Old Mutual has shares in a joint venture on the diamond fields where more than 200 panners in rags were gunned down from helicopters to clear the decks for investors. There are numerous reports of ongoing abuses. I understand that Old Mutual claims that any regrettable events predate its involvement.
The Central African Mining and Exploration Company purchased land from the Zimbabwean Government believed to have been extorted from another mining company and, in doing so, poured tens of millions into the pockets of the regime at a time when it needed election resources. What action can the British Government take on those issues?
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab):
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Before he concludes, will he say something more about sanctions and restricted measures? He understands, as does the Minister, that the EU will decide what will happen with sanctions in February. Does he agree that it must be handled incredibly carefully and that we must not rush into removing any of those restricted measures, unless there is real evidence
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that it will make a difference to the political framework of getting a peaceful resolution and a free and fair election?
Andrew Selous: I welcome the comments of the hon. Lady, who is chair of the all-party group on Zimbabwe. She is right; the current regime has concerns about the sanctions. I think that they are partially effective. Her comments are wise, and I hope that the Minister will heed her words.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he recognise that South Africa is vital to getting a political solution in that part of southern Africa? A very big problem for President Zuma is that President Mugabe is still seen as a war hero and as the last war hero from the great struggle in the first place. That has made life difficult for President Zuma in trying to deliver.
Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and on hearing the remarks of former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with which I intend to conclude, he will hear that he is also in agreement with him on that point.
Our own Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, was born in Uganda in 1949. A former lawyer, he incurred the wrath of the dictator, Idi Amin, because of his judicial independence, and was locked up for 90 days three weeks after his marriage. In a speech in 2007, he described how he had been
“kicked around like a football and beaten terribly”.
“a scourge on the conscience of the entire world”.
“If it does not, the blood that is spilled will also be on their hands.”
Desmond Tutu is Archbishop Emeritus of South Africa. He said that the incomprehensible greed, appalling lack of compassion and unspeakable cruelty demonstrated by the Zimbabwean elite contradict the classical African concept of ubuntu—the essence of being human. He described the
“state-orchestrated crimes against humanity on a massive scale countrywide”
“to ignore its suffering is to condone it.”
I look forward to hearing what action the UK Government will take, particularly on election observers, the outstanding SADC legal judgements, action in the United Nations, the integrity of the sanctions regime and the Marange diamond fields.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham):
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing
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this debate, and I praise him for his concise and compelling speech. If I do not answer all his points, I shall write to him after the debate.
The timing of the debate is certainly opportune—ZANU-PF is currently holding its conference in Bulawayo, and it has an important few days ahead of it. Next year and early 2013 will be a pivotal time for Zimbabwe. The actions that ZANU-PF and other political parties take in the next 18 months will have a huge impact on the shape of Zimbabwe’s future.
Our policy at such a crucial moment can be summed up simply: we want to do all that we can to support the Zimbabwean people’s aspirations for a more democratic, stable and prosperous country. To set out what that means, it might be useful for me to provide a brief update on the situation on the ground and the role that the UK is playing.
It is important to recognise that the reform process has not stood still. Although movement is slow and can often be obscured by events, progress has been made. The economy, under the stewardship of the quite excellent Finance Minister Tendai Biti, continues to show signs of robust recovery. He forecast an impressive 9.5% growth in 2012 in his budget speech last week. There is a lively media, and newspapers that are openly critical of the Government are sold every day on the street corners of Harare. The provision of basic services has improved out of all recognition, supported by the important contributions of the Department for International Development and others in the donor community. Textbooks are now in every secondary school, medicines are in hospitals, and food is on the shelves. Zimbabwe has come a long way since its nadir in 2008, and we can be proud of the role that we have played.
There has also been progress, but not as much, in the political arena. Constitutional reform is moving forward, and although the process has been tough and slow, there seems to be no doubt on any side that a new constitution will be adopted before the next elections. There will almost certainly be a referendum on the new constitution early next year.
However, despite those green shoots of progress, there are considerable causes for concern. There are still those in Zimbabwe who seek to erode the reform process to retain their personal hold on power. The promising figures of the budget mask an unsustainable over-spend in public sector salaries. Violence and intimidation targeting activists from civil society and both Movements for Democratic Change continue, especially at the hands of the Chipangano militia group in Harare. Partisan political bias within the state security mechanisms threatens to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic foundation, as has been demonstrated by the cancellation of four Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai rallies by the police last month. A particularly acute illustration of that concern is the recent death threat made by an alleged state security officer to an MDC-T Member of Parliament, in response to points raised about the Marange diamond fields in a parliamentary debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire also gave other examples.
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Recently I had the opportunity of hosting Roy Bennett here. Will the Minister consider arranging for his officials and himself to receive a briefing from Roy Bennett about some of the ongoing party persecutions in Zimbabwe?
Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising his meeting with Roy Bennett. I also had the chance to meet Roy Bennett when he was here, about six weeks ago. He gave us a fairly comprehensive report, which we have seen. We will look at any other report he produces, because we have great admiration and respect for him.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire mentioned Marange diamonds. I would like to touch briefly on the recent Kinshasa agreement of the Kimberley process. It was the result of considerable diplomatic effort by the European Union and our partners, and we played a full role in it. I believe that the outcome, although not perfect, is a reasonable one for both Zimbabwe and the KP. We went into the negotiations with clear red lines on what we would not compromise on, and they remained intact in the final deal.
Under the terms of the agreement, Zimbabwe can export only diamonds from the Marange region that comply with KP standards. We need only to look at Minister Biti’s budget statement to see the importance of that revenue to the Zimbabwean Treasury. Furthermore, the agreement establishes a credible and independent monitoring mechanism to ensure that the standards are respected, which includes a role for civil society. The EU, Canada and other countries were pivotal in driving that forward. The United States abstained, but we were satisfied with the outcome because our red lines were kept in place.
I will say something about the subject of land and the continuing practice of illegal farm invasions. Such abuses are once again increasing in frequency. It causes privation not only to farmers and their workers, who are being forced from their land, but to the entire agricultural sector of Zimbabwe. As my hon. Friend pointed out, tobacco yields are down 38% on 2000 levels, and wheat yields are down a staggering 82%. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, the fact that a country of Zimbabwe’s agricultural potential still requires food aid for its citizens is quite appalling, and it is a result of destructive and vindictive land policies.
It is not only the UK that judges such actions to be illegal and in contravention of the global political agreement; it was also the judgment of a 2008 Southern African Development Community tribunal, which ruled in favour of three Zimbabwean farmers, including the late Mike Campbell. The demise of that tribunal was a retrograde step for regional law, but despite its suspension, the ruling was upheld by a South African court this June.
We have always recognised the central importance of the land question to Zimbabwe, which is why we contributed to a land redistribution programme immediately after independence. While we have never accepted the allegation that the UK alone should fund compensation for land redistribution, we remain willing to engage other donors
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in a land reform programme in Zimbabwe that is transparent, fair and pro-poor. We regard a land audit, as provided for in the GPA, to be a necessary first step in the process, and the EU made it clear some time ago that it was willing to fund such an exercise.
Continued farm invasions are symptomatic of a wider disregard for human rights, which extends to those of different political and religious persuasions. I welcome the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire on the UN convention, and I will write separately to him. I want to assure the House that the Zimbabwean Government are under no illusions of our strong condemnation of the ongoing abuses.
The enduring uncertainty over the timing of the next elections is at the centre of much of the abuse. Under the terms of the existing constitution, elections must be held by June 2013. What is crucial is that polls, when held, are preceded by the necessary reforms and avoid the devastating levels of violence that were seen in 2008. To that end, the UK fully supports the efforts of SADC, particularly those of South Africa and President Zuma, as they work with all three main Zimbabwean parties to agree a path to the finalisation of the GPA and a road map to elections. I assure my hon. Friend that the road map will include key items, such as provision for proper observers and monitors, a fully independent electoral commission and an electoral roll that is fit for purpose.
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As he pointed out, it is vital that the police and army stay out of the electoral process.
Regional engagement is essential. No country exists in a vacuum. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the recent Zambian election provides an impressive regional role model to follow. We, as outsiders, have only a secondary role to play, but I assure Members that we have been absolutely explicit in assuring the southern African region of our commitment to and full support for their efforts. We stand ready to do more if called upon, and have made clear, for example, our willingness to participate in the provision of international monitors.
As for the EU’s targeted measures, we have made it crystal-clear—I say this clearly to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—that we stand ready to revisit the measures only in response to concrete changes on the ground.
Zimbabwe is facing an absolutely critical time. Lessons must be learned from what has happened elsewhere in Africa, including northern Africa. A free and fair poll, which respects the will of the democratic majority of Zimbabweans, should follow the example of Zambia—