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Wednesday 22 February 2012
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
Sri Lanka (Human Rights)
Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka at a significant moment in the country’s post-conflict history. Next week will see the start of the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Among the many pressing human rights issues from around the world that are due to be discussed, a debate and vote are likely on whether an independent, international commission of inquiry should be established to investigate the credible allegations of war crimes perpetrated at the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict in 2009. I, and many hon. Members present today, urge the Government to take action; I believe strongly that an international investigation must be initiated. The creation of an international inquiry has been called for by the world’s leading human rights and conflict prevention bodies, and, most significantly, by the UN Secretary-General’s panel of experts on Sri Lanka.
An estimated 40,000 civilians, many of whom were Tamils, died during the final days and weeks of the war. The victims and their families deserve to know the truth about what happened, and those responsible should be held to account.
A credible and independent inquiry is not possible within Sri Lanka, and President Rajapaksa’s regime has sought to censor and condemn anyone who has raised concerns about the Government’s actions during the war. The recently released report by Sri Lanka’s discredited Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission—the LLRC— whitewashed credible allegations of Government atrocities.
Sri Lanka has a long history of failing to investigate abuses of human rights, and without an international investigation, I fear that truth, accountability and justice will become yet another casualty of Sri Lanka’s long and bloody conflict. Without such an investigation, the pervasive culture of impunity in Sri Lanka that has such a detrimental impact on human rights on the island will continue unchecked. Without an international investigation and accountability for war crimes, prospects for reconciliation and long-lasting peace will diminish.
I wish to focus on three key areas that are fundamental to the debate on human rights in Sri Lanka: first, the failure of the President’s regime and the LLRC to address war crimes allegations; secondly, how that failure must be set in the context of the failure by the current Government—and previous Governments—to enact effective processes of accountability for human
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rights abuses; and finally, how those two elements reflect and encourage the culture of impunity that exists in Sri Lanka.
Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. Does he agree that another problem in Sri Lanka is that it is considered the fourth most dangerous place for the media? Some 40 journalists have been killed, and it is therefore impossible to get an internal, independent voice.
The UN panel of experts, two UN special rapporteurs on extra-judicial killings, the US State Department, the European Commission, Channel 4, the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the elders and others, have documented allegations of egregious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law that were committed by the Government and the Tamil Tigers during Sri Lanka’s conflict. The Sri Lankan authorities, however, have continually refused to address adequately those serious claims. The findings of the UN panel of experts, which stated that,
“most civilian casualties in the final phase of the war were caused by government shelling”
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He has referred on a number of occasions to the report by the UN panel of experts, which I am sure he has read in full. How does he equate his comments with the acknowledgement in paragraph 53 of that report that
“this account should not be taken as proven facts, and any effort to determine specific liabilities would require a higher threshold.”?
Mr Sharma: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will develop that argument later in my remarks. The demand for information from other sources indicates that there is a flaw and that further investigations are needed.
The Channel 4 documentary, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, is horrifying, and—I am sure all hon. Members will agree—made for difficult viewing. Disturbing footage captured on mobile phones as war trophies, by both Tamils under attack and Government soldiers, showed the extra-judicial executions of prisoners and the aftermath of the targeted shelling of civilian camps. Dead female Tamil fighters appeared to have been raped or sexually assaulted, abused and murdered.
Since its original transmission, the programme has been screened at the UN in Geneva and New York, and shown to politicians at the European Parliament and US Senate. It has prompted comments from leading political figures in the UK and around the world. The programme has been denounced by the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, as depicting “baseless accusations” of Government atrocities. Last week, however, the Sri Lankan army announced that it has appointed a five-member court of inquiry to examine
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the evidence shown in the programme, as well as the report by the presidentially-appointed war panel, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. A follow-up programme is to be aired next month, exploring the reasons behind the apparent international inaction after accusations of war crimes. The work of two UN special rapporteurs, who have authenticated footage of war time abuses in Sri Lanka, has been similarly dismissed.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am impressed with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, as, I am sure, is the whole House. Surely, however, the tribunal that has been announced by the Sri Lankan army is a welcome development. That the army is willing to investigate allegations of offences committed by its soldiers is a move that one would expect from armed forces in any democratic society and must be welcome.
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Is not it of some concern when the army is investigating itself, and was not the LLRC report meant to be the report that went into all the issues that people were concerned about? That is the failure in this instance, and we need to address it in this debate.
For more than two years, Sri Lanka maintained that it pursued a “humanitarian rescue operation” in the final stages of the war, with a policy of “zero civilian casualties”. Not until August 2011 did the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry concede for the first time that Government forces caused civilian deaths, but they took no responsibility for violating the laws of war. Indeed, the LLRC was appointed by President Rajapaksa only in the wake of domestic and international pressure to deal with issues of wartime accountability.
From its inception in May 2010 to the release of its long-delayed report in December 2011, the LLRC has shown that it is not fit for purpose. According to the UN panel of experts on Sri Lanka, the LLRC failed to satisfy international standards for independence and impartiality; it was compromised by its composition and the deep-seated conflicts of interest of some of its members. The UN panel stated that the LLRC mandate was
“not tailored to investigating allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, or to examining the root causes of the decades-long ethnic conflict”.
The concerns that I have set out have only been reaffirmed with the publication of the LLRC report. The LLRC’s conclusions on the prosecution of the conflict contradict many of the findings of the UN panel of experts, with Government forces largely exonerated of any culpability for alleged atrocities. In the light of that, many countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, as well as international non-governmental organisations, have criticised the LLRC’s failure adequately to address the allegations of war crimes.
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“many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN panel of experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 21WS.]
They say that the LLRC report does not provide a serious and full response to the evidence of the UN panel, the UN special rapporteurs or the “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” documentary. Indeed, following the broadcast of that programme last June, the British Government stated that if Sri Lanka did not respond positively to the findings and recommendations of the UN panel report and the concerns of the international community, they would support calls to
“revisit all options available to press the Sri Lankan government to fulfil its obligations”.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): Like all of us, I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s extremely well researched and detailed speech. In connection with the issue of the LLRC’s credibility, he will be familiar with the Amnesty International report titled “Twenty Years of Make-Believe”, which lists all the previous problems with these commissions. Is he aware of any credible body, agency or nation anywhere on earth that gives credibility to the LLRC’s report? We have heard many people say that it has no credibility. Is anyone speaking on the other side?
Mr Sharma: I thank my hon. Friend for that timely intervention. I am sure that the Minister will respond to it. I cannot at this stage find whether there is anyone such as my hon. Friend describes, but I will definitely be looking through the papers to see whether I can find anyone.
“all allegations of grave abuses”,
it follows that the UK should be willing to support an investigation under international auspices, in the light of the LLRC’s unsatisfactory conclusions. It is clear that independent credible investigations of human rights abuses cannot be achieved within Sri Lanka. The actions of the Rajapaksa regime and the conclusions of the LLRC support that case. Indeed, the need for an international investigation becomes even more acute when set against the backdrop of systematic Government failure to provide credible processes of accountability for rights abuses over many years. The current and previous Sri Lankan Administrations have established a number of domestic commissions of inquiry to investigate human rights abuses. However, they have often failed to provide accountability and justice for the violations identified.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a very powerful case. Does he agree that this is not just a matter of looking back at what happened and ensuring that it is properly and fully investigated? The UN Committee Against Torture, in its examination of Sri Lanka last November, concluded that it has serious concerns about
“the continued and consistent allegations of widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of suspects in police custody”.
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“torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by state actors, both the military and the police, have continued in many parts of the country after the conflict ended in May 2009 and is still occurring in 2011”.
Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Is not the issue one of accountability and not that we simply want to dismiss the LLRC report? Amnesty itself says that the report contained some good human rights recommendations. The Sri Lankan Government say that they themselves are capable of prosecuting violators in a court of law. Is not the issue how a high standard is brought to bear and people are properly held to account?
Mr Sharma: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that it would be better if I continued my speech, because the answers to the questions being raised now are ones that I will be developing later in my speech. I will definitely return to the issue.
Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system, which has been weakened in recent years due to the centralisation of power with the President, cannot even offer a credible domestic avenue to pursue accountability. As Amnesty International has stated, the system
“is subject to political pressure, lacks effective witness protection and is glacially slow…The system is so degraded that the vast majority of human rights violations over the past 20 years have never been investigated, let alone heard in court.”
The failure to hold those responsible to account for rights abuses has led to the development of a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka where anything goes, particularly in the Tamil majority areas of the north and the east. The militarisation of the region and the resultant impact on independent, civilian administration means that many Tamils fear that their culture and identity are under existential threat.
Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. I agree with all the points that he has made so far. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) highlighted the ongoing human rights abuses. Does that not call into question the decision of the current UK Government to deport many Tamil refugees who are in the UK? Should we not seek from the Minister replying to the debate an explanation of the Government’s policy on deportations back to Sri Lanka? I ask that question of my hon. Friend in the context of a constituent whose brother is about to be deported back to Sri Lanka. This is a brother who lost a sister fighting for the Tamil Tigers and who understandably is worried about what will happen to his last relative should the family history be known when he returns to Sri Lanka.
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Mr Sharma: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for his intervention. I am sure that the Minister has taken note of his question and will answer it. I will definitely be developing that issue later in my speech as well.
More than 160,000 people who were displaced at the end of the war and in the years before 2009 remain in camps or are living with host communities or in transit situations. Many live in tents and are without access to the most basic amenities, such as health care, sanitation, housing and education. Terrible human rights abuses are being perpetrated. Murder, assault, corruption, torture and sexual harassment are commonplace. Although wartime emergency laws have been rescinded, draconian powers of arrest and detention remain in effect. Thousands of suspected ex-combatants are still being detained without trial or access to legal representation.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s case, and I have spoken on behalf of the Tamil community a number of times, but he has just said that thousands of people are still being detained. At the end of the war, political prisoners—ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam cadres—numbered 11,000; the Sri Lankan Government now say they still have 300 in detention. Will the hon. Gentleman explain exactly where he thinks the rest of those who are in detention are? We do this cause no good if we are not accurate.
Mr Sharma: If the hon. Gentleman reads the full report, he will find out that all the figures are there. I am not totally ignoring what the Sri Lankan Government are saying, but we can pick up the figures from the facts and reports that are coming through and from the people we meet through our constituency casework. I am sure the Minister will talk about this, but the exact figures are in the report, and if the hon. Gentleman reads it fully, he will find them.
Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On this point, does he agree that it would be useful if the Sri Lankan Government produced a list of all the prisoners they hold in their custody so that the matter can be cleared up once and for all?
Mr Sharma: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is an important point, and I am sure we will get answers from other Members, the Minister or perhaps the high commissioner himself—his representative is sitting here and will be taking a note of these points.
It was only in November last year that the UN Committee Against Torture produced a damning report on allegations pertaining to the ongoing use of torture and ill treatment by state actors, including the military and police. Highlighting allegations of threats to, and harassment of, human rights defenders, defence lawyers, journalists and others, the committee stated:
“It regrets that, in many cases, those allegedly responsible for acts of intimidation and reprisal appear to enjoy impunity.”
“address the aspirations and grievances of all communities”
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and pursue meaningful reconciliation after decades of political violence and conflict. A political solution to the ethnic conflict through devolution and negotiations with Tamil and other minority political representatives has not been forthcoming. Instead, as the International Crisis Group noted, the Government’s post-war agenda
“has been further to centralise power, expand the role of the military, undermine local civilian authorities, and politicise the institutions that should uphold the rule of law and combat impunity”.
All those who now speak publicly against the Government are imprisoned, leaving an all-powerful family Government who are becoming more centralised and heavy-handed. Economist and opposition figure Harsha de Silva says the army is becoming involved in hotels, farming, construction, golf courses, sports stadiums and even in running roadside tea stalls. The main political threat to Rajapaksa’s rule is former general turned popular presidential candidate, Sarath Fonseka, who currently resides in a Colombo jail.
Colleagues of two political activists, Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Murugananthan, who went missing in Sri Lanka’s north on 9 December, fear the men are in grave danger. On 9 January, hundreds of clamouring demonstrators marched through the capital, Colombo. They demanded that the Government release the activists, put an end to abductions in the north and pull the military out of former conflict areas. In fact, the opposite is happening.
Mr Weeraraj and Mr Murugananthan spent many of the months before they went missing campaigning on behalf of thousands of missing Tamils, many of whom were last seen in the custody of the security forces. The two were intercepted in the northern city of Jaffna by men on motorcycles. They were bundled into a white van and taken away. That pattern is now all too familiar. In a report in December, the LLRC wrote that it was alarmed by the large number of complaints of
“abductions, enforced or involuntary disappearances, and arbitrary detentions”.
Sinhalese and Muslims, who count as a separate ethnic group in Sri Lanka, are now being targeted in addition to Tamils, and some are turning up dead. On 3 January, Dinesh Buddhika Charitananda, a 25-year-old ethnic Sinhalese, was abducted at night. His body was later found near a river in a Colombo suburb. In October, Mohamed Niyas, a Muslim astrologer, was taken away in a white van by a group of gun-toting men and found dead three weeks later.
“the direct or indirect knowledge of the police and often also with the tacit approval of political authorities”.
The families of the two activists, Mr Weeraraj and Mr Murugananthan, have now petitioned the United Nations, and a spokesman for Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, says the case of the abductions is being sent to the UN Human Rights Council for investigation. The families turned to an international body because they could not get action from the local authorities.
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Such allegations raise questions about the deportation of Sri Lankans from Britain. The UK Border Agency is to continue forced-removal flights, despite human rights organisations warning of mistreatment. The agency has carried out two large-scale deportations to Sri Lanka since June, the last of which left Luton airport in September, despite the concerns of several rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which believe that deported Tamils may be at risk of arbitrary arrest and mistreatment.
One London-based non-governmental organisation, Freedom from Torture, which provides medical services to torture victims, has said that it has gathered evidence demonstrating that prisoners in Sri Lanka still faced severe mistreatment this year—more than two years after the island’s 26-year civil war came to an end.
“seriously concerned about the continued and consistent allegations of widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”,
“the prevailing climate of impunity”
In a case recently referred to in a UK Border Agency report, Freedom from Torture noted that, in spring this year, a Sri Lankan national known as Rohan was tortured after travelling back from the UK. According to Freedom from Torture, Rohan, who held a UK student visa, claimed that after returning to Sri Lanka to visit a sick relative, he was held by officials at Colombo airport and detained for three days, during which he was beaten and stripped and his skin was burned with heated metal. On the strength of his evidence of torture, he was later granted asylum in the UK.
The UK Border Agency has warned officials who are deciding asylum claims that NGOs have serious concerns about forcibly returned Tamils. However, the agency is also circulating a report that quotes senior Sri Lankan intelligence officials as saying that Tamil detainees are inflicting wounds on themselves to create scars that will support later asylum claims.
In the light of plans for a further mass removal flight on 28 February, I call upon the Government to do more to ensure that they are not returning individuals to a risk of torture in Sri Lanka. The fates of almost all those who have been returned on the charter flights thus far are unknown.
In response to concerns raised by Freedom from Torture about the risk of torture for Tamils returning to Sri Lanka, the Minister has provided public assurances about monitoring arrangements in place for those forcibly returned. He has indicated that for the recent charter flights, returnees were met by UK Government officials, provided with contact details for the British high commission in Colombo and given a small payment for onward travel. Against the backdrop of torture risks for those who return from abroad, there is widespread concern that those are woefully inadequate protections against torture. However, worse still, it is has just emerged that even those basic protections do not apply to anyone forcibly removed other than by charter flight.
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Could the Minister please explain how many people have been forcibly removed to Sri Lanka otherwise than by charter flight since the civil war ended? Why are those forcibly returned on ordinary flights not met at the airport and provided with an assistance package? Why was that disparity in protection not disclosed when the Minister was asked to explain the monitoring arrangements for anyone forcibly returned to Sri Lanka? How does the Minister intend to remedy that protection gap? What do the Government intend to do to verify the safety of those returned in the months following their return?
Sri Lanka’s entire approach to accountability, justice and reconciliation must be challenged to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent for the future. A failure to investigate alleged war crimes during the conflict undermines international law and respect for human rights and potentially sows the seeds for future conflict on the island.
“the international community cannot be selective in its approach to upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
Impunity in Sri Lanka, where violations were on a massive scale and yet the UN failed to act, sets dangerous precedents. It sends a message to Sri Lankans that the UN is irrelevant there, and it could re-enforce that message globally. That could create a situation where states that have not ratified the Rome statute would feel that they are beyond the reach of international justice and that crimes committed in the name of combating terrorism can simply be ignored.
The international community’s failure to take timely action in 2009 endangered hundreds of thousands of civilian lives in Sri Lanka. Continued inaction threatens future generations and institutions that are critical to the protection of rights in Sri Lanka and internationally. Sri Lanka’s failure to ratify the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court means that the court cannot act without a referral from the United Nations Security Council. Far from referring the situation to the court, the UN has not even established an effective system to document the extent of violations. It has never revealed what it knew about the final days of conflict or acknowledged the scale of the abuse that took place. The end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka should have been an opportunity for the country to turn a page on impunity. It is crucial that the UN and the UK should support genuine international efforts to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to give better protection to the rights of all Sri Lankans and ensure that violations, which became so commonplace in the past, are not repeated.
I call on the Minister to address the clear failings of the LLRC to deliver progress on accountability and acknowledge the need for the international community to act decisively during this session of the UN Human Rights Council to put the necessary machinery in place and to ensure that the UK plays a proactive and leading role in efforts to secure the strongest possible resolution on accountability for serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka, that any Human Rights Council resolution is not limited to the conflict period and that it includes within its scope accountability for torture and other continuing violations that make it impossible to secure a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.
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Reconciliation and sustainable peace must be built on the foundations of a credible truth and accountability process for the alleged crimes committed in the final months of the civil war. A genuine mechanism for truth, accountability and justice would challenge the prevailing culture of impunity and could play an important role in reducing the perpetration of human rights abuses. However, such a process can be satisfactorily conducted only under international auspices. Investigations of a similar nature have been voted for and conducted by the UN Human Rights Council on Libya, Syria and Ivory Coast in recent months.
The number of concerned hon. Members present at this Westminster Hall debate demonstrates the strength of parliamentary support for strong diplomatic action to be taken by the British Government. Many other hon. Members who could not be here this morning, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who had a pressing constituency engagement, have assured me of their support; so it is not only the Members who are present who are concerned. Others who could not get here support my argument and ask for the same demands to be met.
The next generation of Sri Lankans, whether they are Tamil or otherwise, deserve a future in which they can move on from the horrors that they and their families have experienced and the losses they have suffered on all sides. They deserve to know what happened and to be able to reflect on it as one of the most significant times in their nation’s history, for which those responsible are brought to justice. Only then will there be true and lasting peace.
Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I want to point out that I intend to start the wind-ups at about 10.40. As hon. Members can see, many of them want to speak, so I ask right hon. and hon. Members to be as brief as they can. Let us try to allow as many hon. Members to speak as possible.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing the debate and on his speech. Given the time, I shall not give the speech I have prepared, but will refer to various points.
The tremendous turnout today for a Westminster Hall debate shows the depth of feeling of Members throughout the House about getting justice for all in a country that has been troubled since independence in 1948; but what is this really about? We have had many debates in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber. Many words have been spoken by the previous and present Governments, but the time has come for action. To go back to when innocent people lost their lives—I am not making accusations against any individual, as that is not my role as a Member of Parliament—someone needs to identify who did it: who killed people. Then justice must be done.
I thought, as many others did, that we had seen the end of camps where people were detained for years—however many people might be in them. Again, I cannot give numbers, and I am not sure that anyone can. That in itself is a problem. In meetings that I and other hon. Members of all parties have had with the Sri Lankan
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high commission we have requested, “Please prepare a list.” It cannot be that difficult. If the numbers are as low as has been suggested, it is a relatively simple thing to do. If they are not, it is still not that difficult to do. Families in the diaspora and in Sri Lanka need to know what happened to their relatives.
I want to make it clear that I am not making any allegations, but I am asking questions about what is alleged to have happened. It is alleged that a number of babies and young children went missing at the end of the conflict some two years ago. What happened to them? Anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of them are still alive and have perhaps been adopted by families and do not know who their original families are. I do not know whether that story is true, but people who have lost their nieces, nephews or their own children have a right to know what happened to them.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not agree that the failure still to have answers to those questions demonstrates that the LLRC process was flawed and that we will only get answers if we have a genuinely independent investigation?
Mr Scott: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. During the conflict, we saw reports of murder, rape and torture. Now we are hearing about people being resettled into other people’s jobs and being moved into homes and areas where Tamils had lived. No one can deny what we saw in the Channel 4 programme; it was there. Some people have said that it was not correct and that it was not edited in the right way, but no matter how the programme was edited, someone is still dead at the end of it, killed by someone else. If there is ever to be reconciliation, we must have answers. Those answers are needed not only by the Tamil people, but by everyone in Sri Lanka, so that everyone can live in democracy and harmony. That can only be done if justice is done.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): On accountability and independence, does my hon. Friend agree that the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council is an ideal opportunity for that mechanism to be set forth, so that we have a genuinely independent process and that the questions that he properly raised can be answered?
The Americans have explicitly stated that if the internal mechanism is flawed and accountability is not addressed, they will put pressure on an international mechanism to probe human rights abuses. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether we can support the Americans at the UN in Geneva.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op):
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should also look at other international channels apart from the United Nations, given that the Human Rights Council took a deplorable decision in the previous consideration not to support an international inquiry into the event? The British Government should also raise the matter within the
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Commonwealth and follow the lead of the Canadian Prime Minister, who said that unless the situation in Sri Lanka changes, he will not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo in 2013.
Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): My hon. Friend rightly talks about what the Americans have said, but they used the word “if”. They said, “if accountability is seen to be failing.” Does he not agree that given the recent publication of this report and, notwithstanding the understandable scepticism, the signs of progress, more time should be given to see whether those involved can genuinely and accountably deliver? If they do not, then we hold them to account.
When someone has had an accusation made against them, I have some concern about them taking high position until that accusation has been proved not to be true. Allegations have been made against Major-General Shavendra Silva, who is the Sri Lankan deputy ambassador to the United Nations and who has recently been appointed to a special advisory group on peacekeeping operations. Until he is fully cleared of those allegations, should he be in a position of such high authority?
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Mannar has provided a list of more than 2,000 people in his congregation who have disappeared and that he cannot get answers to where they have gone?
I appreciate that other Members want to speak, so I will finalise my words shortly. The Tamil people deserve justice; everyone in Sri Lanka deserves justice. Anyone who has committed a crime must pay the price; they need to be tried. Then and only then can reconciliation go forward. If we do not fight for justice, each of us, no matter what our political party and no matter who is in government, either now or when the atrocities took place, must hang our heads in shame. I fear that with everything that is going on in the world—whether in Syria, Libya, Somalia or in other countries—a lot of people, including, forgive me, the Government of Sri Lanka will hope that this issue goes on the back burner, but I can give an assurance today, on behalf of Members from all parts of the House, that it will not do so. We want justice for everyone, and it needs to be done as quickly as possible.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab):
Last month, I was one of the signatories nominating Channel 4 News for the Nobel peace prize in recognition of its work in highlighting human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Parliamentarians around the world were shocked when Channel 4 broadcast a harrowing
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documentary, using video from victims and perpetrators that proved, according to the UN special rapporteur, “definitive war crimes”. I imagine that all of us have seen that programme, and none could forget the impact that it had on us. The Minister himself gave an eloquent speech after watching that programme. It showed the routine shelling of civilians in hospitals and safe zones, video evidence of executions carried out in cold blood at point blank range. Disgusting scenes were shown of dead, semi-naked women, who had obviously been sexually assaulted then shot dead, being thrown on to the back of lorries, while soldiers joked about who was the best looking.
“By bringing to light the breaches of international conventions by the Government of Sri Lanka in a bold manner and by piecing together numerous forms of evidence in a coherent way, the value of independent journalism to the building of a peaceful global order in the century ahead has been amply demonstrated.”
“serious violations of international humanitarian law”
“unlawful killings perpetrated by soldiers, police and...groups with ties to the Government.”
Although the previous British Government may have come to realise what was going on too late, they are widely recognised for taking a lead in standing up against those abuses. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) was widely praised for visiting Sri Lanka and imploring the Government there to stop shelling their own people. Thanks to his influence, we brought an end to Generalised System of Preferences—GSP Plus—which gave preferential trading status to Sri Lanka in Europe, prevented it from hosting a Commonwealth conference and voted against an IMF deal worth $2.5 billion.
Siobhain McDonagh: I hope my hon. Friend will understand, but I will not give way. I want others to be able to speak, so I must do this quickly. Britain has a proud record of leading world opinion. The grip we had in leading international opinion is, I believe, one reason why the United Nations has placed so much emphasis on accountability for war crimes. Yet despite the UN stressing that
“not to hold accountable those who committed serious crimes...is a clear violation of Sri Lanka's international obligations”
and despite the Panel for Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka calling for an independent, international investigation into war crimes, Sri Lanka instead established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that was clearly not independent. After all, it was comprised of people who supported the Sri Lankan Government’s behaviour during the civil war and, according to the Sri Lankan Government, the LLRC’s job was to
“relegate the past to history.”
“The British Government is, on the whole, disappointed by the report’s findings and recommendations on accountability...These leave
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many gaps and unanswered questions...We note that many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN Panel of Experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered. We believe that video footage, authenticated by UN Special Rapporteurs, should inform substantive, not just technical, investigations into apparent grave abuses.”
“On the all important question of accountability, the Commission has completely failed to deliver.”
However, although our words have sounded damning, I must say that the Tamil community are increasingly concerned that British actions are anything but damning. Freedom from Torture’s chief executive, Keith Best, has said:
“The UK government has insisted that Sri Lanka demonstrate ‘progress’ on accountability for international crimes by the end of 2011...but there is no getting around the fact that the necessary progress has not been achieved”.
How can Britain respond? Despite the lack of progress; despite the widespread evidence of torture; despite the fact that more than 300,000 Tamils are being held in camps after the war, with many of them still living in deplorable conditions described by the International Crisis Group as being
“devoid of the most basic amenities”;
despite independent reporters still not being permitted to report; and despite allegations of all sorts of ongoing human rights abuses, Britain has embarked on a policy of sending planeloads of Tamils back to Sri Lanka even though there is a genuine and understandable fear about how they might be treated there. How does that look to the rest of the international community? What it looks like is an endorsement by Britain of the appalling behaviour of the Sri Lankan Government and a snub to Tamils who fear for their safety. Understandably, Tamils look at us and say that, if Britain were serious about its criticisms of Sri Lanka, those flights would not be taking off.
What is even worse is that, while everyone else has been increasingly frustrated by Sri Lanka’s efforts to use the LLRC to wriggle out of its legal obligations to investigate war crimes, not once have we heard from the mouth of a British Minister these words: “We support an independent international mechanism to conduct investigations into the alleged violations that took place in Sri Lanka.” Those are not radical words; they simply repeat what the UN panel of experts has asked for.
“a UN commission of inquiry into all crimes committed”.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) has said that the Labour party supports an international commission to investigate the “acts of unconscionable violence” perpetrated in the final months of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict in 2009. Britain’s recent reticence and reluctance to join in that support for the UN panel of experts is extremely disappointing and has no doubt been noted by many Tamils here in the UK. I hope that the Minister will be able to rectify that situation today.
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Britain is respected around the world for taking brave and principled leads, as we did in supporting military action in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Libya; in imposing sanctions against Robert Mugabe and Bashar al-Assad; and in helping establish the International War Crimes Tribunal. Surely we can join the moderate voices supporting the calls by the UN panel of experts for an “independent international investigation”.
I hope that the Minister will remember how he felt, and how we all felt, when we saw the Channel 4 documentary on Sri Lanka: numb; angry; and driven to right the horrific wrongs that were shown. Crimes such as those must be investigated and justice must be served. Kofi Annan has said that
“the international community cannot be selective in its approach to upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
On behalf of my constituents, I implore the Minister to consider the message that Britain is sending the world by forcing Tamils on to planes to go back to a country where torture continues, and by failing to support loudly the UN panel of experts. I hope that today we can reassure British Tamils that Britain is serious about doing the right thing, and that we will take a lead on human rights in the international community.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I commend the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this very timely debate. At the outset of my remarks, however, it is important to stress that Sri Lanka has many things to be proud of. Its record on literacy, child mortality and life expectancy is among the best in south Asia and, indeed, one of the best of any developing country. Sri Lanka also has a proud tradition of democracy and the rule of law.
Sri Lanka ought to be an aspiring leader within south Asia and, indeed, the democratic Commonwealth, but the truth is that gaining such a status demands the highest possible standards of human rights, and the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this debate and from many other debates and commentaries around the world is that, during and since the violent conclusion of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka’s record has not met those high standards. That casts a rather dark shadow over the country’s otherwise proud record in development and democracy.
The UN panel of experts produced its report in 2011, which found credible allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in Sri Lanka. The report also highlighted the fact that a staggering number of civilians—40,000—were killed in the closing weeks of the war in Sri Lanka and, critically, it called for an international accountability mechanism, which several hon. Members have already referred to.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD):
On accountability, does my hon. Friend share my concern about the committee of inquiry that has been set up by the Sri Lankan army and that was appointed by Lieutenant-General Jayasuriya, who was the commander of the security forces in the Vavuniya area during the last few years of the war? Moreover, does he hope that
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the Minister, when he responds to this debate, will indicate that that is not the sort of accountability that the British Government believe is effective in holding people to account?
Martin Horwood: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In fact, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall pointed out that there has been a series of internal commissions and inquiries within Sri Lanka, none of which have really had much credibility. Possibly the most credible of them has been the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which produced a report last year, and it is important to acknowledge that that report made some tough recommendations in relation to detainees and media freedom. Furthermore, it dispelled the myth that there was no shelling of civilians and that, for instance, the shelling of hospitals by Government forces did take place. In that sense, that report by the LLRC was an important step forward.
Nevertheless, I should still like to hear from the Minister what progress he thinks has been made in implementing the recommendations of the LLRC report. For instance, Human Rights Watch reported only last month that there are still several thousand people in Sri Lanka who, having initially been detained under the emergency regulations, are still in custody. Many of them have been held for years without trial, which is in violation of international law. The Sri Lankan Government have so far refused even to publish lists of those who have been detained. Of course, as several hon. Members have pointed out, there are severe limitations to the LLRC report, particularly in relation to the army’s conduct and to accountability for possible war crimes and humanitarian crimes that may have been committed.
More fundamentally, however, there are other, deeper issues with Sri Lankan society. The Foreign Office’s own human rights report highlighted, for example, issues of torture. The report quoted the statement by the World Organisation Against Torture that
“it had received credible testimonies of torture from across the country, including in cases not related to the ethnic conflict or terrorism”.
The role of the army in Sri Lankan society is an increasing concern. Earlier this month, The Economist highlighted the role of the Sri Lankan President’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the country’s defence secretary. The Economist said:
“His brother, Basil, calls him ‘fully vegetarian, the nicest, kindest person in the family’, yet he is widely feared.”
“A Tamil leader says the army oversees ‘oppressive, insulting, humiliating’ rule in the north, with tales of land grabs, murders and rape. In Colombo, political observers worry about the militarisation of politics.”
“Some local journalists are warned by editors never to write about him”—
“Asked if he frightens people, he says: ‘If they don’t criticise me, it is because there is nothing to criticise.’”
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Obviously, there are also specific cases, such as those of Mr Weeraraj and Mr Murugananthan, the activists who have disappeared, and indeed the continuing case of Sarath Fonseka, a former general, who had the temerity to stand against Mahinda Rajapaksa in a presidential election. Can the Minister tell us—if not now, then in writing—what representations are being made on those specific cases to the Sri Lankan Government? Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and others have raised the issue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. It has also been raised, as has been mentioned, by the Canadian Government.
In conclusion, I want to ask the Minister three specific questions. First, has he raised the issue of an independent accountability mechanism, as recommended by the UN panel of experts, with the Sri Lankan Government, within the EU and at UN level? If so, what progress has been made? I do not want words put into the Minister’s mouth, but it is important for us to know that those discussions are taking place. Secondly, what is our response to the Government of Canada and others who have questioned whether it is right for Sri Lanka to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, given Sri Lanka’s record on human rights? Thirdly, I emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall about the continued deportation of Sri Lankans from this country, when such deep concerns are raised by the Foreign Office about the treatment of detainees and those in custody. Obviously, the Minister has to be diplomatic, but it is time to send a clear message that, as a democratic Commonwealth country with high aspirations, Sri Lanka’s record on human rights and accountability for crimes committed is simply not good enough and has to change.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate. Last year, my political researcher got married and she had her honeymoon in Sri Lanka. She regaled me with many stories about Sri Lanka—the ones that she could tell me about, of course. We see the tourist veneer, which is the good part of Sri Lanka. We do not see the underbelly of the political displacement taking place. People have been killed and more than 1 million people have been displaced.
“escalating political killings, child recruitment, abductions and armed clashes”,
a climate of fear…spreading to the north by the end of the year”.
It outlined the violence against women and also referred to the death penalty. Sri Lanka has not officially used the death penalty since 1976, but there are well-documented cases of disappearances and murders. Non-partisan humanitarian organisations, notably Human Rights Watch, contradict official statements. Human rights violations include murder, rape and land grabs. People from all walks of life are disappearing.
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I commend the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for her comment on the sending back of Sri Lankans who have come to the United Kingdom and who will be forcibly repatriated without any consideration. Will the Minister comment on that?
I want to speak on an issue that concerns me greatly: evangelicals and Christians in Sri Lanka. Today, we have talked about the Tamils and their human rights. I want to talk about the rights of Christians. I have regular contact with Release International. It provides prayerful and practical support for those who need help. There have been attacks on Christians in south and west Sri Lanka recently. Several people have been injured and many have had their homes damaged. Attackers have shouted threats. Christians have left the area. Families have fled to the jungle. Local police have been informed, but no one has been made accountable. Why did this happen?
On July 10 last year, a pastor in Ampara district was hospitalised after being beaten by a Buddhist monk and others. The pastor from Mount Carmel church in—I will not try to pronounce the name of the place; in an Ulster accent, it will not come out right—attended a meeting about land distribution that was convened by the monk, and the pastor was attacked by those present. He was also later assaulted in his home. He was taken to Ampara hospital with injuries to his arm and severe pains in his stomach. In the Puttalam district in western Sri Lanka, the Prayer Tower church in Mahawewa was desecrated with excrement on June 5. Later on the same day, some 200 protestors carrying placards and clubs demanded the church’s closure. A lay preacher who tried to remonstrate with protestors was beaten.
Evangelical Christians face violence and opposition in the Buddhist-majority nation. Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka have caused concern among Protestant Christians by renewing their calls for anti-conversion laws. Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with Sri Lanka in relation to that?
The Jathika Hela Urumaya party, which has been pushing for legislation banning forced conversion since 2004, renewed its campaign in a press statement this month. It is clearly targeted at those of an evangelical, Protestant and Christian disposition. The JHU’s Prohibition of Religious Conversions Bill proposes to “ban fundamental Christian groups in the island”. Sri Lankan Protestants, especially evangelicals who are a particular target for discrimination and even persecution, fear that the law outlined in the Bill could be used to limit their church activities. Will the Minister respond to that as well?
Release sources inside Sri Lanka say that Christians are also concerned about a loosely worded circular issued in September by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It stipulates that building or maintaining places of worship
“must be sanctioned by prior approval of the Ministry.”
According to our sources, evangelical churches in particular are facing increased pressure from the state, with “indiscriminate closure and threats”. Applications to register formally are “routinely rejected”, and there is
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evidence that planning permission is being denied for non-church buildings—even houses—if the applicant is a Christian individual or organisation.
We have a responsibility and a duty not only because Sri Lanka is a former British colony; we have a duty to use our influence to ensure that basic human rights are adhered to. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country—I have never visited, but people tell me that it is—that has been ravaged by war. I represent Sri Lankans in Northern Ireland. We have had our 30 years of troubles, which have impacted on our economy, but we are getting better. The potential of Sri Lanka is being shrouded by atrocities and human rights desecrations. We must apply diplomatic pressure to bring about change. I urge everyone here to support the people of Sri Lanka. They have no voice to speak for themselves. We must be that voice for them.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. In the few minutes that I have left, I will first declare, as is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, that I visited Sri Lanka in January. I will visit again at the beginning of March with the charity, International Alert.
I have listened with great interest to the contributions made by hon. Members today. Some important points have been raised, although I would add that the unanimity of view of Members here is perhaps not as clear-cut as some contributions would lead us to believe. While I was in Sri Lanka, I saw quite a lot of positive progress being made. I am not dismissing the genuine concerns that many individuals have raised, but at the same time they should be seen in the context of what is being done. A great deal of rehousing work is being done, with nearly 50,000 houses having been built. Resettlement is going well. I visited Manik Farm, one of the internally displaced person camps. I met people there and heard that they were keen to be resettled back to the places from which they had been displaced. I also saw that the conditions in which they were living at that time were not as is sometimes described. They had good facilities.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that the Sri Lankan military have now occupied more than 7,000 sq km of land in the Tamil majority areas in the north and east, for which they have no credible property rights?
James Wharton: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Throughout the period of conflict, the military occupied large swathes of land in the north and east, and they continue to occupy parts of land. One of the things that I saw while I was there is that the military are now contracting the spaces that they occupy. That does not take away from the genuine concerns that are raised about the military presence in the north and east, but it is none the less a fact on the ground that the amount of land that they are occupying is reducing, as that land is returned to its rightful owners. There have been areas of progress in Sri Lanka. I had hoped to say more on them, but I am conscious of the time.
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The LLRC, which has been the topic of much discussion this morning, makes a number of strong and good recommendations. In some areas, it has been criticised. Understandably, hon. Members have raised some of those issues this morning—for what it does not say, as much as for what it does say. In responding to the LLRC, we should recognise some of the actions that the Sri Lankan Government are taking. During my visit there, when I met representatives, whether parliamentarians or Ministers, I found that the issue was being taken seriously.
It is welcome that the Attorney-General is investigating allegations made throughout the process and that police investigations have begun into allegations made to the LLRC. It is welcome that an army court of inquiry has been established to consider not just the allegations raised with the LLRC but the Channel 4 documentary, which, although disputed, is now being investigated.
Welcome progress is being made, and we are in danger of damaging that progress if we rush wholeheartedly to the UN Human Rights Council and ask for action now. Sri Lanka must be given time and space to deal with the issues, along with an understanding of the context and history of the recent experiences in that country. The issues must be addressed fully, but we must give Sri Lanka the opportunity to address them internally before rushing to take international action.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate. Ever since the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was published, I have thought that Parliament needed to discuss it. The turnout today has meant that Members have had to rush their contributions and many have not had the chance to speak. Perhaps the Backbench Business Committee or the Government ought to consider a full day’s debate on the Floor of the House, like the one we had on Somalia just before the half-term recess. I think that many Members would be keen to make more of a contribution.
We have heard accounts of appalling abuses in Sri Lanka. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) discussed violence perpetrated against women, which has not received sufficient attentions. There are also concerns about displaced people. Many Members have referred to the Channel 4 film “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”. I attended a recent exhibition in Parliament with photographic evidence of some of the abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka. I do not want to cut into the Minister’s time, and I do not think it would be a good use of my time to detail those abuses—they are on the record and in the public domain—but it is worth restating that the UN panel of experts found credible the allegations of a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some of which could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
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Attempts have been made to dismiss some of the evidence produced, including attempts to rubbish the Channel 4 film by suggesting that the footage of violence against women could have been faked. It is important to put on record that, although the UN panel of experts was not given as much access as we would have liked, it found that the original allegations were credible.
Robert Halfon: I support everything that the hon. Lady is saying. Is she aware that in November 2011, the UN Committee Against Torture reported that the Sri Lankan military behaved as though they were above the law and noted threats and harassment against human rights workers, defence lawyers and journalists?
Kerry McCarthy: Again, we must take seriously the fact that the allegations have been substantiated. They are, for all intents and purposes, a fact, and we must proceed on that basis, rather than still debating which side is right or wrong about the allegations. It is notable that the LLRC report makes no mention of torture in 338 pages.
Mr Love: Notwithstanding some concerns about time for the LLRC report, there has been a general consensus in this room about its significant shortcomings and failures. Does my hon. Friend agree that Government action is called for to address those shortcomings, and that the call for an international independent investigation must be sustained?
Kerry McCarthy: Labour was concerned about the LLRC’s composition and terms of reference, and the report’s flaws have borne out that concern. As the shadow Foreign Secretary said last year, we were not convinced that the commission could do its work even with international participation, and we thought that an international commission was needed to consider the evidence. That is still the Labour party’s stance.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement in response to the publication of the LLRC report was critical to a degree, but perhaps not as critical as Members feel it should have been. Will the Minister explain in more detail exactly what he sees as the report’s flaws? Is it the Government’s stance that the LLRC is a sufficient basis for moving forward and that it is all about implementing the recommendations, setting a time scale and making progress, or does he think that the report, although useful in parts, is not a sufficient foundation for moving forward and that an international investigation is needed instead?
I particularly hope that the Minister can give more clarity on what the UK Government’s stance will be at the UN Human Rights Council in March. It has been said that the US will introduce a resolution calling for further action. I would be interested to know whether the Government support the US on that. A time scale is needed, as is a mechanism for ensuring that the recommendations in the LLRC report are not just allowed to drift.
I was concerned to hear the Sri Lankan high commission mention the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which took decades to be implemented and reach its conclusions, and the Stephen Lawrence investigation, which took 18 years. We should not be using that sort of time scale, or thinking that it will be decades before prosecutions are
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brought or resolutions are found. The US Government’s suggestion that report-backs should be made at future Human Rights Council meetings in June and September is a good starting point for setting a time scale and moving the agenda forward.
On deportations, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) has had to leave, but he mentioned a constituent’s case. I appreciate that it is not in his portfolio, but will the Minister clarify the UK Government’s stance on deportations to Sri Lanka? A flight is due to leave on 28 February, and people are concerned about that. To his knowledge, have there been any allegations of mistreatment on return of those forcibly removed by the UK to Sri Lanka? What attempts have the UK Government made to monitor suggestions that people returned forcibly to Sri Lanka will be at risk? Are efforts made to investigate such allegations? What does he think would qualify as a substantiated allegation in a context where victims and family members might be reluctant or not in a position to come forward to give evidence of their concerns?
I will let the Minister reply, but the main thing that I want him to confirm is whether he sees the LLRC report as a basis for moving forward or whether he thinks an international commission is needed. Does he think that the UN is the right body to take things forward? Does he support not just an international investigation but a much stronger mechanism to ensure that justice is done for the victims of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka? The culture of impunity that has been allowed to develop must no longer continue.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this debate, for how he introduced it and for the content that he delivered. Numerous colleagues have spoken. I do not have time to mention them all, but I welcome the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Mr Scott), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Stockton South (James Wharton), and by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who spoke for the Opposition, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Several interventions were also made.
I agree, not for the first time, with the hon. Member for Bristol East. Once again, my portfolio produces opportunities for debate for which an hour and a half is plainly insufficient. I could have spent a good length of time responding to the speech of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, let alone all the contributions made by others. Both the passion with which colleagues have dealt with the matter and their knowledge of this complex issue are reflected by their taking part in such numbers.
Before I answer colleagues’ specific questions, this is an opportunity for me to put on record how we currently see things and deal with the first issue raised by the hon. Member for Bristol East, which is how we view the report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
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Given that we are Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, and given our unique role in the Commonwealth, if the LLRC’s recommendations are not implemented by the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in September, will Britain seriously consider boycotting the Commonwealth leaders’ summit in 2013?
Alistair Burt: Let me come to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting a little later. We recognise that we have a long-standing relationship with Sri Lanka and all its peoples. We appreciate our international responsibility, in company with others. Let me develop where our policy is, which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and others will find helpful.
Our policy towards Sri Lanka is built on the United Kingdom’s values and on British interests. It will balance the future of the people in Sri Lanka, who must get on with their lives after terrible years of conflict, with the need for a sense of justice about the events of the past. We express again our abhorrence at some of the events that concluded the conflict, which still leave questions for the Sri Lankan Government to answer, just as we do at the campaign of violence, suicide bombings, the use of child soldiers and terrorism practised by the LTTE during the conflict—a conflict that, after decades, has left recent scars that still need to be healed.
Our policy is not starry-eyed about allegations against the Sri Lankan Government or unaware of concerns about current human rights issues. However, we acknowledge open statements from the Sri Lankan Government about what needs to happen to reconcile and move forward, and we recognise the sovereign Government’s ability to make things happen through implementing measures set out by the LLRC and through addressing issues that were not dealt with satisfactorily in the report.
We will work with other like-minded Governments, inside and outside the Commonwealth, to see that Sri Lanka upholds its professed values. Where we have expertise that may help, we will offer it, in reliance on Sri Lanka meaning what it says. Where that proves not to be the case, we will, privately and publicly, bilaterally and in conjunction with others, say and do what this House would expect us to do.
“we continue to believe it is important that an independent, credible and thorough mechanism is put in place to investigate all allegations of grave abuses.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 21WS.]
Does the report form a basis for progress? Yes, it does. We said that there are some aspects of it, particularly in relation to reconciliation and justice, where clear suggestions for the way forward have been made. We said
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that they had possibilities, and I said clearly that implementation of the recommendations is the real test of Sri Lanka’s progress.
There are other areas where we did not believe the LLRC provided an adequate basis for going forward, principally in relation to accountability issues. We believe that more must be done with regard to those. As either the hon. Member for Bristol East or another hon. Member quoted earlier,
“we note that many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN panel of experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered.”
“We believe that video footage, authenticated by UN special rapporteurs, should inform substantive, not just technical, investigations into apparent grave abuses.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 21WS.]
Accordingly, our approach is to work with both the Sri Lankan Government and international partners on the different aspects. Where we believe the Sri Lankan Government can and should make progress, we still believe that a process led in Sri Lanka is better than one led internationally. However, where progress cannot be made, we reserve the right to work with international partners to apply pressure to ensure that it is made. That remains our position on an independent investigation and the international aspect of it.
There is much in the report that can contribute to the pursuit of enduring peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, but that can happen only if the recommendations are implemented in a timely fashion. We call on the Government of Sri Lanka to move quickly to implement the recommendations and to address questions of accountability for alleged war crimes that were left unanswered by the LLRC report.
I will deal with two or three major issues raised by colleagues in the debate. First, I will deal with the deportations, which is an important issue. All asylum and human rights applications from Sri Lankan nationals are carefully considered on their individual merits, in accordance with our international obligations and against the background of the latest available country information. The situation in Sri Lanka is still evolving, and where individuals can demonstrate that they face a real risk of prosecution and/or ill treatment on return, they are granted protection. It is only when the UK Border Agency and the courts are satisfied that an individual is not in need of international protection and has no leave to remain in the UK that removal is sought. We do not routinely monitor the treatment of individual unsuccessful asylum seekers once they are removed from the UK. They are, by definition, foreign nationals who have been found, as a matter of law, not to need the UK’s protection, and it would be inconsistent with such a finding for the UK to assume an ongoing responsibility for them when they return to their own country.
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The Foreign Office follows the human rights situation in Sri Lanka closely. For chartered flight operations, we currently make a small payment to enable returnees to travel to their home town or village. We also ensure that UK Government representatives are present at the airport. Every returnee, whether on scheduled or chartered flights, is provided with the contact details of the British high commission in Colombo, should they want to make contact with the migration delivery officer based there.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall brought up the discrepancy between scheduled and chartered flights, which I acknowledge. As I said, we give everyone the same information, and we have been able to meet chartered flights. I have now asked colleagues in Colombo to see what we can do to meet scheduled flights as well, where that is practicable. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the same information is given to everyone to allow people to contact us in private—not the Sri Lankan authorities—and so far we have not been able to substantiate allegations. However, we remain open to anything that would do that, because it is essential that those returned are safe.
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item 4, countries of concern. We also raised specifically the Channel 4 footage in the interactive dialogue with UN special reporters last June. We will continue to work with international partners to support Sri Lanka in its pursuit of enduring peace and reconciliation. We are aware that the US is preparing a draft resolution for the Human Rights Council, and we are likely to support it.
In relation to the Conservative Heads of Government—[ Laughter. ] If only. It was a Freudian slip. In relation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka next year, it is too early for us to make the same pronouncement as the Canadians. There is much to be done before the meeting. We are conscious, as everyone in Sri Lanka is, of the importance of that meeting and its ability to stand for the highest values of the Commonwealth. No one is unaware of that position.
I conclude by repeating some earlier remarks. A number of specific issues will be answered by letter. The ongoing question is, if such things are going on, what are we going to do? We will work with the Sri Lankan Government on the implementation of LLRC and other human rights recommendations to deliver what they have declared they will deliver. We will work with international partners—Commonwealth and others—to urge action in areas where adherence to Commonwealth or human rights values is still lacking. We are conscious of the power of international bodies, such as the Human Rights Council and CHOGM, to apply pressure and to encourage the raising of standards. We are also conscious of time scales. Our activity will be both public and private, and I will regularly update colleagues. No one should doubt that there is still much to do in Sri Lanka, and no one should doubt that the UK Government recognise that.
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Flood Defences (Exeter)
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I will outline for the benefit of the Minister, who, I am sure, has already been very well briefed about the subject, some of the background. I then have a number of questions for him. If he cannot provide me with answers at the end of the debate, perhaps he could write to me over the next couple of weeks with the responses.
Over the past few decades, we have been incredibly lucky in Exeter to have benefited from excellent flood defences, which were constructed following two devastating floods that took place in quick succession in the early 1960s. Thousands of households and businesses were flooded out in my constituency. Those flood defences are a wonderful resource for the people of Exeter, who use them to walk on and walk their dogs. I use them regularly to enable me to cycle through the city centre, thereby avoiding some rather busy roads. They have also protected us from the devastation that floods can cause.
The challenge we face, however, is that the independent Environment Agency says that the flood defences that have stood the test of time over those decades are now no longer sufficient to protect us from a major flood at the frequency with which the Environment Agency says we need that protection. Those flood defences need a significant upgrade or some alternative flood defence scheme will be required to provide Exeter households and businesses with the flood protection that they not only need but require if they are to qualify for flood insurance.
When the flood defences were built, they provided Exeter with protection from a major flood at a rate of around once in every 75 years. However, the current Environment Agency estimate is that, because of climate change, the rate of flooding has increased to around once in 40 years. It does not take a genius to work out that, given it is now 2012, we are already overdue a major flood in Exeter. Indeed, I have noticed a couple of occasions in recent years when the water has got very close to the top of our flood defences.
The Environment Agency tells me that upgrading Exeter’s flood defences is its major priority in Devon and Cornwall—it needs to happen, and it needs to happen very quickly. As we all know, the trauma of flooding can be very significant indeed. The excellent charity, the National Flood Forum, which I met yesterday to discuss the issue says:
“It can take up to two years for homes to dry out and be restored and during this time, many families live in temporary accommodation. The process is stressful, time consuming and simply beyond some people, particularly those who are elderly or vulnerable. The dread of flooding again can cause long term distress and mental health problems.”
As well as the challenge that we face locally in upgrading our flood defences, a second issue that is just as important relates to the statement of principles that the previous Labour Government signed with the insurance industry. Under the statement of principles, householders can still get flood insurance at reasonable rates if they are at
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risk or serious risk of flooding. The statement of principles runs out on 30 June next year, so we face a potential double whammy in Exeter. We will not have the flood defences that the Environment Agency says that we need to provide protection to our homes and businesses. Depending on whether the insurance industry’s estimate or the Environment Agency’s estimate is used, we are talking about between 2,500 and 3,500 homes of local people in well-known areas of the Exe floodplain: St Thomas, Alphington and low-lying parts of St Davids and St Leonards as well. I happen to live in one of those areas—admittedly, on the first floor, but I suspect I am still as at much risk as anyone.
We not only have the threat to those homes, but the very real possibility that, when the agreement with the insurance industry runs out, those homes and businesses will either not be able to get insurance against flooding or their insurance premiums will rise so fast that they become unpayable. The impact of that on thousands of homes in my constituency could be housing blight: people will not be able to move, sell their homes or get mortgages for them. Around 1,000 businesses that are affected—they are mainly on the major Marsh Barton industrial estate—will be unable to borrow or sell their businesses.
The recent study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on flood risk in the light of climate change predicted that damage from floods could rise tenfold to more than £10 billion in the coming decade. We have already seen the impact of the huge cuts—a 27% cut in their first year in office—that the Government have made to investment in flood defences. A number of schemes that back in 2010 had indicative funding for the next financial year, 2012-13, now do not have funding at all and will not go ahead.
In the past few weeks, a very damning report from the Public Accounts Committee said that the combination of Government cuts and the likelihood that hard-strapped local councils such as mine simply will not be able to fill the funding gap, as the Government are expecting them to do, has left a huge mismatch between the money available and the flood defences that we need.
As I have said, I have a number of questions for the Minister. First, does he accept the Environment Agency’s analysis that, for every £1 invested in flood defence, £8 is saved? If so, why are the Government cutting investment in flood defences so drastically? Given the calls—even from some Government Members—for more measures to kick start our economy, does he agree that reversing the cuts in flood defences, which is exactly the kind of investment in vital infrastructure that many economists are calling for, including the CBI today, would provide much-needed business for the building trade? If so, has he made such representations to the Chancellor in advance of the forthcoming Budget?
If the Minister cannot persuade the Chancellor to invest more in flood defences, will he review the new requirement for local communities to fund or part fund vital flood defences? If he will not review that requirement, how much or what proportion of the cost of the Exeter scheme does he expect will have to be shouldered by my local council tax payers? Given the big cuts in local government funding, where does he expect my local authorities to find that money?
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If the local authorities are to be responsible for paying the bulk of the money the Minister expects to be raised locally, what in his view should the balance of responsibility be between the district authority and the county council? Exeter city council—the district council—prides itself on having the fifth lowest district council tax in the country, and the prospect of having to fund the whole cost of the scheme would be an unacceptable burden on my local council tax payers. What does he imagine to be a fair sharing of responsibility between the city council and the county council, which is the upper tier authority responsible for flood protection?
Would the Minister advise the local authorities concerned to borrow the funds needed? That might actually be sensible, given our record low long-term borrowing costs. Would they be allowed to do so? If they do, can he give an assurance that that will not fall foul of Treasury rules? Given all those challenges, I would be grateful to the Minister if he gave me some idea of when he thinks work on upgrading Exeter’s flood defences might start and be completed.
Given the potential gap between that work being done and the ending of the agreement with the insurance industry on cover, what progress is the Minister making in his discussions with the insurance industry about what will happen when the statement of principles runs out next year? Is he aware of the extreme urgency, given that insurers will be issuing new annual policies this summer that span the period after which the agreement ends? Is he also aware of reports that some insurance companies are already refusing to renew policies or are significantly increasing premiums because of the current uncertainty?
What estimate has the Minister made of the likely increase in insurance premiums if no alternative solution is in place in time? How many more property and business owners are likely to find they cannot get insurance at all if this happens? When does he expect to make an announcement about what the Government propose to put in place of the statement of principles? I am sure that he will be aware that the industry has a preferred model of a public subsidy, in effect to pay for the premiums for at-risk property owners over and above a threshold. Has he had discussions about that and other models with the Treasury?
Has the Minister pointed out to the Treasury that the cost to the Government of such a scheme would be a fraction of the cost to the Government if the floods take place and they have to pay the clean-up costs? What does he think about the insurance industry’s preferred model of pool reinsurance? Would he favour it being compulsory or an opt-in model, such as the scheme already available to businesses to insure against terrorist attack?
Do the Government intend to consult on their proposals when they are published? Is it likely that whatever solution the Government come up with will require legislation? If so, we are looking at a very tight timetable indeed. The indications that I have been given from the insurance industry—in fact, it has stated them publicly—is that it feels frustrated at the lack of progress and does not feel that the Government are taking the issue seriously enough. Will the Minister give my constituents a categorical assurance that they will not be left in a position next year where they do not have the necessary upgrade of
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Exeter’s flood defences and they do not have a replacement for the agreement with the insurance industry that currently ensures cover at reasonably affordable prices?
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is of great concern to thousands of householders and businesses in my constituency. They face a potential double whammy in a very short space of time next year: not having the upgrade to our flood defences that the Environment Agency says that Exeter requires and the uncertainty that hangs over them about the future of their insurance cover. I would be grateful to the Minister if he reassured them on those points.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing the debate on a matter that is of great concern to his constituents. Nothing would please me more than to be able to protect the nearly 4,000 properties that are currently at risk in Exeter. I hope that we can make progress in the coming months and have a scheme in place as quickly as possible.
I am sympathetic to the need to improve the existing flood defences in Exeter. First, let me be clear on the record that flood and coastal erosion risk management is an absolute priority for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Government are committed to protecting people and property from flooding and coastal erosion where it is sustainable and affordable to do so. The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of spending. I want this to be a constructive debate that focuses on the needs of his constituents, but we are talking about a 6% difference in this spending round compared with the previous spending round. In the context of cuts to Departments such as DEFRA of approximately 30%, that shows the absolute priority that we are giving flood and coastal erosion risk management, coupled with the efficiencies being found in the Environment Agency budget to spend more on the front line and on the partnership funding, which I will come on to talk about and which will be important for the aspirations of his constituents.
Mr Bradshaw: I have no desire to turn the debate into political ping-pong, but Lord Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency, talked about a cut in cash terms of approximately 27%. The figures for capital investment by DEFRA for flooding work between 2010-11, the last figure of Labour spend, and 2011-12, are £354 million down to £259 million—a 27% cut in anyone’s terms.
The right hon. Gentleman, who was a Minister in DEFRA, will understand that these things are done in spending rounds. Very few flood schemes go from conception to commissioning in one year, which is why we base it over a spending review period. The excellent chairman of the Environment Agency will confirm—our figures have been sent to the Public Accounts Committee—that there is a 6% difference. The last Chancellor in the previous Labour Government, of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member, announced shortly before the general election that there would be 50% capital cuts in budgets. I will be generous to the right hon. Gentleman and say that if his party had won
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the general election it would not have cut the capital budget by 50%, but it would certainly have cut it. I think that he would have also implemented all the recommendations of the Pitt review into those very damaging floods in 2007, part of which form the basis of the partnership funding system that we have introduced, and part of which resulted in the implementation of local flood risk management through lead local flood authorities. That is very important for communities such as his, and I hope that we can work together constructively in the coming months to achieve a result for those people.
It is the nature of flood and coastal defence investment that there are always more projects than national budgets can afford at any one time—there always have been and, sadly, always will be. Some 5.2 million homes are at risk from flooding and we want to protect as many of them as possible. Funding has always needed to be prioritised, and that would be the case even if capital budgets had not been reduced in the spending review.
As we have heard today, the Environment Agency is developing an option for Exeter that is expected to cost £25 million over its lifetime. Under the new partnership funding system, that might attract approximately £13 million funded by the general taxpayer. That leaves a shortfall of £12 million. Many schemes are funded totally by the taxpayer. What we have now in our partnership funding scheme is a totally transparent system. For years, communities such as the right hon. Gentleman’s wanted schemes like this to go ahead, always believing that total funding by the taxpayer would be available, but always just missing out and never knowing why—now they can see a transparent funding system.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the “independent” Environment Agency. It is part of DEFRA; it is the Government in terms of spending flood money. The people in the Environment Agency are the experts. They have developed that transparent funding system on the lines of the recommendations of the Pitt review and have come up with the scoring for what can be achieved for his community.
Exeter is an excellent example of why we have had to change the funding approach and introduce the partnership funding scheme. The new approach follows recommendations made by Sir Michael Pitt’s review of the 2007 flooding, in which he said that local communities should be allowed and encouraged to invest in flood risk management measures so that more can be done and more schemes can be introduced. He also said that future investment plans should not simply assume that the cost of flood alleviation is met centrally. Those recommendations were accepted fully by the Government. If we had carried on with the old system, we would be placing an ever-increasing burden on the general taxpayer to meet the long-term costs of flood defence alone. Those costs are expected to rise considerably with our changing climate, as the right hon. Gentleman predicted in his speech.
The old system artificially constrained how much could be done in each town and city because Government funding has always been, and always will be, limited. The old system meant that schemes were either funded in full, or not at all, based on top-down decisions. Many worthwhile schemes, such as in Exeter, were knocked
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back for funding, in many cases without a realistic prospect of ever going forward. At a cost of £25 million, the Exeter scheme would have been in that category, doomed never to have had a high enough priority for full funding. Transparency and greater local involvement is at the heart of the new partnership funding system. Instead of meeting the full costs of a limited number of schemes, national funds are spread further in order to achieve more overall. Many schemes will continue to be fully funded, where value for taxpayers’ money is sufficiently strong.
In other cases, such as Exeter, national funding is available to part-fund the project. This approach creates space within the system for local and private contributions to help pay for the significant benefits to land, property, infrastructure and other assets realised when defences are built. There are potentially many sources of funding to tap in to, both public and private.
Last year, the community of Morpeth found itself in a similar position to Exeter. The proposed scheme in that area did not meet the old criteria for full funding, so it was deferred, potentially indefinitely. Under the new approach, the Government were able to meet around half of the costs of the scheme. Leadership was shown by Northumberland county council, meaning that the scheme is now fully funded and will proceed in the coming months, with half the money—coincidentally, up to £12 million—met from local sources. This example shows the power of the new system, and there are many others that I would like to point to; this is important in addressing one of the right hon. Gentleman’s points.
In south Derbyshire, Nestlé contributed £1.7 million to a £7 million scheme to protect 1,600 homes and further financial contributions have been made from industry and other means. In other areas, the planning system has been used to unlock schemes, whether through section 106 money or some other form of funding, rather like exception site housing schemes in rural communities. The income from those schemes goes to deal with flood and coastal erosion risk management. In respect of another scheme in York, York city council is finding the money to bring it above the line.
Mr Bradshaw: I am interested in the scheme in Northumberland that the Minister mentioned. Will he outline—if he does not know, perhaps he will write to me—whether the county council or district council was involved and what the balance of funding was?
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Richard Benyon: The county council provided funding from its capital budget. I am not going to sit at my desk—once the right hon. Gentleman’s—and try to dictate the balance of contributions from district or county councils, businesses or whatever. That is the purpose of implementing the Pitt recommendations. These should be local decisions.
There is at least clarity. If I made an exception and broke away from the clear rules that guide the scoring of schemes, I am sure that, given his previous position in DEFRA, the right hon. Gentleman would be the first to recognise that I would be called back to this Chamber, rightly, by hon. Members from all parties, asking, “Why have you made an exception? Why have you broken the clear guidelines that you have set to favour one scheme?”
Despite the economic situation, DEFRA plans to spend more than £2.17 billion on flood and coastal erosion risk management. The latest projections suggest that we are on course to exceed our target to protect 145,000 households by March 2015.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Will the Minister share those examples, principles and policies with the Northern Ireland Executive, because we obviously have coastal erosion and areas of flooding in Northern Ireland, which, frankly, the authorities have been dilatory in managing and dealing with? It would be worth while sharing with our own Government in Northern Ireland the examples that the Minister has shared with hon. Members, so that we can learn from them.
Richard Benyon: I am happy to share everything. There are no state secrets in what we are doing here. We just want more schemes to go ahead. I am happy to share examples with ministerial colleagues, the Northern Ireland Executive and anyone else who is interested.
We are learning and our learning curve is steep. I am impressed with how the Environment Agency has implemented this new scheme over this year. The fact that we are able to take on more than 60 new schemes in the indicative list for the coming year shows that it is working.
Let me answer some other points made by the right hon. Gentleman. He defined the statement of principles as ensuring that insurance was available to every household and used the words, “at reasonable rates”. Actually, that is inaccurate. The statement of principles does not influence pricing. It never did; that is part of the problem. Some 2,500 homes in my constituency were flooded in 2007, many of which can get insurance because of the statement of principles, but the high premiums and high excess charges are really testing some people.
Is there urgency about how we progress in our dealings with the insurance industry? Absolutely. Do we want an arrangement moving forward from 20 June 2013 that still ensures that insurance is widely available? Absolutely. We will make an announcement in the spring that will give a full year for new systems to be in place, providing clarity and ensuring that insurance is freely available. We hope that we will also be able to announce that there will continue to be some sort of pool arrangement for those in flood-risk areas who are on low incomes. That is important.
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It is also important to note that partnership funding has weighting for communities where there are high levels of deprivation, because we recognise that there is a lack of capacity in many such areas to take forward schemes under partnership funding and there is a desperate need to resolve these issues so that some vulnerable people can be protected. Therefore there is a weighting in favour of such systems.
In the past, insurers have charged everyone in a pool system, so that constituents of the right hon. Gentleman, and mine, who do not live in areas of high flood risk are subsidising those who do. The statement of principles always was going to end in 2013, whoever was in Government. We are desperately keen to find a solution that takes things forward.
The Association of British Insurers, which is, rightly, a lobbying organisation on behalf of large financial institutions, says that it needs a Government subsidy—a taxpayer subsidy—for the insurance industry. That is not realistic, but we think that there is a way forward and that we can work with the industry and find a solution. I assure the right hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members that we are working to achieve that.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Public Accounts Committee’s criticisms of the partnership funding scheme. I will make the same point that I made when those were published: we are implementing the recommendations of the Pitt inquiry, rightly instigated by the previous Government. Pitt made 92 recommendations, in a good report. We are implementing its recommendations on partnership funding and the local aspect—the creation of lead local flood authorities—giving local authorities the capacity to take forward flood and coastal erosion risk management. That is working well.
Will we review partnership funding? We are constantly reviewing it; we want to streamline this new concept and get it right, but as I said earlier, it is not for me to dictate whether a local council, a district council or any others provide that added element of the funding. It is wrong to say that we want hard-pressed council tax payers to dig deeper into their pockets. There are various ways in which this funding is found. Yes, sometimes local authorities step up to the mark, but that is by no means always so.
Under the latest capital programme, 22 schemes are going ahead in Devon and Cornwall this coming year, with a total of £5 million grant-in-aid funding during 2012-13, including the construction of improved flood defences in Braunton, Ottery St Mary, St Ives, Stoke Canon, Teignmouth and Truro, and a further 49 projects in Devon and Cornwall have indicative funding for 2013-14 or later, subject to confirmation of the outcomes, cost and partnership funding arrangements.
I recognise that this matter is important to the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents. I have had constructive conversations with colleagues from all parties, many of which have resulted in successful commencement or announcement of schemes, and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will continue to work with him to try to achieve a good result for the people of Exeter.
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[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): This debate is on behalf of my constituent, Mrs Anne Williams, to help seek the truth about what happened to her 15-year-old son, Kevin, at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. All that Mrs Williams asks for is the truth, and I hope that that message is given loud and clear to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General over the next 90 minutes.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for considering the issue. I understand that he has written recently to Mrs Williams to say that, upon application for a new inquest, he will consider all the evidence put before him and not restrict an application to new, unheard evidence. That is extremely welcome news, for which Mrs Williams, who is watching the debate from the Public Gallery, and I are grateful. Of course, I also thank the 118,000 people who signed Mrs Williams’s e-petition calling upon the Attorney-General to order a fresh inquest into Kevin’s death. Mrs Williams would like to thank everyone who has made the debate possible.
The focus of today’s debate is tightly drawn around the circumstances of Kevin’s death at Hillsborough, and my opening remarks are similarly narrowly focused, but it is important to recognise that the debate encompasses all those who so tragically lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster. Both directly and indirectly, the evidence that I will present about Kevin’s death is significant for all whose lives were irreversibly changed that day.
From the outset, I make it clear that, contrary to the conclusions of the initial inquest into Kevin’s death, Kevin was alive long after 3.15 pm on Saturday 15 April 1989, and he did not die of traumatic asphyxia. The evidence is unequivocal. The testimonies are unmistakable. The original inquest into Kevin’s death was wrong.
All Members present today are familiar with the tragic events at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. It is not my intention to recall in great detail the many accounts of what happened that day, nor do I intend to talk about the many failings that led to the disaster. This debate is not about pointing the finger of blame, it is about the truth of what happened to a 15-year-old boy.
Kevin arrived at Hillsborough football stadium early on 15 April, entering the ground at around 1.30 pm. Spotting some friends in pen 3, he and his friend Andrew left pen 4 at about quarter to 2. As the pens became more congested, Kevin, like many others, was forced to the ground. Kick-off came and, shortly after, the game was abandoned. According to coroner Dr Stefan Popper and, consequently, to the inquest into his death, Kevin was already dead at or before 3.15 pm. Yet video evidence shows Kevin being lifted out of pen 3 at 3.28 pm and being resuscitated on the pitch by Police Constable Michael Craighill.
PC Craighill then helped carry Kevin across the pitch on a makeshift stretcher, with off-duty fireman Mr Tony O’Keefe and other Liverpool fans including Mr Stevie Hart. Both Mr O’Keefe and Mr Hart are here with Mrs Williams today. The off-duty fire officer, Mr Tony O’Keefe,
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is on record as saying that Kevin was still alive at 3.31 when he was being carried across the pitch. Mr O’Keefe said:
“In my opinion, he was still alive. Taking this kid and many others across that pitch, you see signs of life in someone and think I’m going to get him to the right end of the ground and give him to someone else. I didn’t have any doubt that he would be dealt with when we put him down. We carried him on a piece of hoarding to the other end of the ground and I looked down, saw people taking over and I thought, yeah, he’s going to be okay.”
At 3.37 pm, Kevin was being resuscitated by off-duty police officer PC Derek Bruder, aided by Liverpool fan Johnny Prescott and a member of St John Ambulance; they found a pulse in Kevin. PC Bruder had seen Kevin moving his head and being sick, so he went over to help. He saw an ambulance enter the ground and tried to stop it so that Kevin could receive medical attention. The ambulance, however, did not stop. PC Bruder provided an official statement shortly after the disaster, along with a second statement four months later in which he identified himself on photographs taken at Hillsborough.
PC Bruder was visited at his home on 3 May 1990 by Detective Inspector Sawyers of the West Midlands police, to take a further statement to clarify certain medical issues made in PC Bruder’s first statement. During the visit, DI Sawyers rang the coroner’s office and handed the phone to PC Bruder. On the phone was the pathologist, Dr Slater, who explained that during the throes of death a body builds up gases that can cause it to wriggle slightly. So while PC Bruder understood that the purpose of the visit was to clarify certain medical details, what transpired was that the pathologist responsible for Kevin’s autopsy was in fact dictating to PC Bruder what he had seen.
The conversation at PC Bruder’s home continued, with DI Sawyers explaining how all the video footage of the tragedy had been studied by the inquiry team and how the ambulance to which PC Bruder referred in his first statement could not have been in the ground at that time because there was no supporting evidence. DI Sawyers then went on to ask whether PC Bruder could have been mistaken about the ambulance. PC Bruder responded to those statements at the Stuart-Smith scrutiny:
“This really annoyed me and I told him that I was not mistaken, nor did I imagine the ambulance, and I insisted that he made reference to it in the statement. I told the inspector that I would be available to give evidence at the inquest should I be required. I expected to give evidence at the inquest in order to clarify my position on the obvious grey areas which emerged. To my surprise, I was never called to give evidence in the case of Kevin Williams.”
Following the visit, DI Sawyers said at Kevin’s inquest that PC Bruder was mistaken about the ambulance and that he must have seen the ambulance that is on record as exiting the ground at 3.20 pm. DI Sawyers said that PC Bruder was also mistaken about finding Kevin’s pulse and about seeing him be sick. The coroner concluded that if PC Bruder was mistaken about the ambulance, he must also have been mistaken about Kevin’s condition. However, contrary to DI Sawyers’s comments, video and photographic evidence has subsequently emerged, along with a statement from Mr Tony Edwards, the assistant driver of the ambulance, that confirms PC Bruder’s testimony that an ambulance did pass them at that point, at 3.37 pm. There are serious concerns about PC Bruder being persuaded on the phone by pathologist
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Dr Slater of what he actually saw that day, but the underlying fact is that PC Bruder was not mistaken about the ambulance, and that there was therefore no legitimate reason for his testimony to be dismissed.
At 3.40 pm, following PC Bruder’s intervention, Special Woman Police Constable Debra Martin found Kevin’s pulse and helped take him into the gym. Miss Martin was told to stay with Kevin and to carry out resuscitation, which she did. After conducting heart massage and resuscitation, Kevin’s ribs began to move and he stirred from unconsciousness. Thinking that she had revived Kevin, Miss Martin picked him up in her arms. Kevin opened his eyes and spoke the word “Mum” before he slumped back and died just before 4 pm. This, again, is the sworn statement of a registered special WPC, yet the events that I will now describe are quite unbelievable.
Miss Martin’s original statement, made within weeks of the disaster, described the events that I have just described. However, a few months after the disaster, Miss Martin was visited at her home by Detective Constable Appleton of the West Midlands police. The purpose of the visit was to seek her signature on a second, contradictory statement. Considerable pressure was put on Miss Martin to ratify the amended statement. In the end, she succumbed to the pressure, and signed the second statement without reading it. In the second statement, anything that referred to signs of life in Kevin was gone. There was no reference to a pulse, or to him saying, “Mum.” In total, Miss Martin was visited on four separate occasions by senior police officers whose aim was to convince her that her original statement was mistaken, and that Kevin was not alive when she treated him. Miss Martin has stated on numerous occasions that she stands by what was in her first statement, and that she was bullied by senior police officers to sign the second statement, which was wholly inaccurate.
This is what happened to Kevin at Hillsborough. At 3.28, he was pulled from pen 3, and resuscitated by a police constable. At 3.31, he was carried across the pitch by, among others, an off-duty fire officer, who swears that Kevin was still alive. At 3.37, he was resuscitated by an off-duty police officer, who testifies that Kevin was still alive. His statement was dismissed due to lack of evidence relating to the whereabouts of an ambulance. That has subsequently been proven to be an accurate account. Finally, at a few minutes before 4 pm, a special WPC found Kevin’s pulse, picked him up in her arms, and watched and listened as he opened his eyes and spoke the word “Mum”. Those are the facts of that day, plain and simple. Kevin was alive well after 3.15 pm on 15 April 1989.
As a result of the ruling of the coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, that all the victims were either dead, or brain dead by 3.5 pm, the inquest into Kevin’s death was dealt with as such. I have dealt with key parts of the evidence that show that Kevin was unquestionably alive after 3.15 pm, and I turn my attention to the cause of Kevin’s death, which is as contentious as the timing. At the inquest, Dr. Slater, the pathologist who conducted Kevin’s autopsy, concluded that he had died of traumatic asphyxia. Mrs Williams told me recently that although the 3.15 cut-off point has caused great anger and distress to her and many other families who seek justice for their loved ones, her main reason for wanting a new inquest is that Kevin did not die of traumatic asphyxia. Since the inquest, Mrs Williams has obtained several expert
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evaluations of Kevin’s autopsy report. Without exception, they all disagreed with Dr Slater’s findings.
The first evaluation was courtesy of Dr James Burns, forensic scientist at the Royal Liverpool hospital. Dr Burns spent a considerable time with Mrs Williams re-evaluating the autopsy report with the evidence obtained from PC Bruder and Special WPC Martin. Dr Burns concluded that the fractures that Kevin had suffered in his neck would have caused swelling around the windpipe. The swelling would have resulted in the gradual closing of his airway, which would have taken at least three quarters of an hour to happen. Dr Burns produced a report for Mrs Williams, which contradicted much of what Dr Slater had reported. Of further interest was his letter to Mrs Williams, in relation to the evidence of WPC Debra Martin. He wrote:
“It strikes me that Special WPC. Martin has been the victim of unjustifiable adverse criticism amounting almost to ridicule. I am amazed that the evidence of Miss Martin, a dental nurse, by training, and a special police constable of five years standing, is treated with such incredulity, amounting almost to hostility. I see no reason to doubt the evidence of Miss Martin when she states that she picked Kevin up in her arms, that Kevin opened his eyes, moved his mouth and said “Mom”.
The second noteworthy evaluation was that conducted by the late Dr Iain West, a former consultant forensic pathologist at London’s Guy’s Hospital. Following assessment of Kevin’s autopsy photographs, Dr West stated:
“They do not indicate the classic signs of Traumatic Asphyxia.”
Like Dr Burns, Dr West fundamentally disagreed with the official autopsy report, believing that Kevin’s injuries would not have led to unconsciousness within a few seconds, and that if medically trained professionals had been present, an emergency tracheotomy or cricothyroidotomy would have relieved Kevin from suffering the fatal asphyxia that led to his death.
Some hon. Members may not be aware that traumatic asphyxia usually results from an individual being crushed or pinned under a large weight or force. The cause of death resulting from traumatic asphyxia is related not just to the impairment of respiration but, importantly, to physical interference with the return of blood from the upper part of the body to the heart. That results in swelling and haemorrhaging in the upper part of the body, most notably the face. Dr West did not believe that Kevin’s body displayed such symptoms, and concluded in his report:
“This mechanism, (of death by traumatic asphyxia) leads to quite unmistakable pathological findings which differ from those seen in Kevin Williams’ body.”
Dr West explained to Mrs Williams that if Kevin had died of traumatic asphyxia, and had Kevin looked the way that Dr Slater described at the inquest, she would not have been able to recognise him, but she was able to do so.
I should stress that Dr West was an extremely distinguished and respected pathologist. His cases included the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, the Brighton bombing of the Conservative party conference, the second autopsy on Robert Maxwell, and the death of Joy Gardner, the deportee who died in a police struggle. Very simply, Dr West concluded that Kevin did not have any of the injuries to his chest that would have been a necessity if he had died from traumatic asphyxia. The only injuries that he sustained were to his neck.
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In 2006, Mrs Williams sought the expertise of Dr Nathaniel Carey, a similarly distinguished pathologist and successor to Dr West as consultant forensic pathologist at London’s Guy’s Hospital. Dr Carey concurred with Dr West’s examination, concluding that the simple administration of oxygen through the insertion of a rubber tube down the windpipe would have saved Kevin. Had medical personnel been present, that would have been a routine procedure.
Mrs Williams has had three previous requests for a new inquest into her son’s death refused by the Attorney-General’s office, and she has been refused an inquest by the European Court of Human Rights due to timing technicalities. In light of the compelling evidence, it is simply remarkable that her requests have been refused. Why is it that what clearly happened after 3.15 that day has not been fully investigated? Why were two police officers pressured into changing their witness statements? Why has the opinion of three expert pathologists been collectively ignored? Why has Mrs Williams never been granted a new inquest into Kevin’s death when the evidence is so compelling?
An inquest into a death is a fact-finding inquiry to establish reliable answers to four important factual questions. The first relates to the identity of the deceased, the second to the place of death, the third to the time of death, and the fourth to how the deceased came by their death. Those are statutory requirements, yet the inquest into Kevin’s death has clearly failed factually and reliably to answer two of those four statutory questions. I hope that I have made that clear to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. Kevin was not dead by 3.15 pm on Saturday 15 April 1989, and he did not die of traumatic asphyxia.
It has been suggested that one key consideration for not previously granting Mrs Williams a new inquest is the wider interests of all concerned, notably that witnesses would be required to cast their minds back to events that many have tried to put behind them. However, I can confirm to my right hon. and learned Friend that, of the individual witnesses mentioned in my remarks, Miss Debra Martin, Mr Derek Bruder, Mr Johnny Prescott, Mr Stevie Hart and Mr Tony O’Keefe have all said very recently that they would be happy to give evidence should a new inquest be granted. I thought it appropriate to put that firmly on the record.
As Members of Parliament, it is our duty to represent our constituents, and to fight for what is fair, just and true. I stand here today because Mrs Williams has not been treated fairly. Justice, thus far, has not been served. The truth that Mrs Williams has campaigned so tirelessly to discover has yet to be officially recorded. Following publication of documents by the Hillsborough independent panel this summer, Mrs Williams will again submit to the Attorney-General a request for the original inquest into Kevin’s death to be quashed, and for a new inquest to take place. For the sake of justice, I beg the Attorney-General to grant Mrs Williams the inquest that she, and Kevin, so rightly deserve.
Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Nine hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak, and there are approximately 50 minutes remaining for the debate. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind when making their contributions.
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Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on his effective description of what happened on 15 April 1989, and I add my thanks to all those who have worked hard to secure this debate. I also congratulate the family of Kevin Williams, and Mrs Williams in particular, on the tireless work with which they have pursued this campaign. I hope that this debate will help Mrs Williams and her family to move nearer to a point at which the truth is fully in the public domain and that what actually happened to Kevin and others on that day will be recognised one day soon.
I am speaking in this debate because of the connection that Kevin Williams and his family have with my constituency. Kevin Williams lived in Formby until his death at Hillsborough. He went to Freshfield primary school and Formby high school, as did his brother and his sister, Sara, who still lives in Formby. There is widespread support for a new inquest across the country, as evidenced by the large number of people who signed the e-petition organised by Anne Williams. People in my constituency often ask me about Hillsborough and about the call for a fresh inquest into Kevin’s death. Nearly 23 years after the terrible events at Hillsborough, the depth of feeling among my constituents remains strong, and it is right to hold this debate.
I will comment briefly on the fact that this debate is being held in Westminster Hall rather than the main Chamber. The Government gave an undertaking that petitions that attract more than 100,000 signatures will be awarded a debate in the House of Commons. That responsibility was passed to the Backbench Business Committee, but it has little time to allocate for such debates and was unfortunately unable to award time for this discussion in either the main Chamber or Westminster Hall. For me, and for many others, the importance of this issue and the almost 23-year injustice experienced by Anne Williams and her family, as well as the families of the other 95 people who died and others who were affected by the trauma of events at Hillsborough, mean that the case of Kevin Williams deserves to be allocated a debate in Government time. I also believe that a vote could have been held on a simple motion that called for a new inquest to be held, or for the Attorney-General to consider such an inquest. We are not able to hold such a vote in this Chamber, and in my view, such a motion would have enabled Parliament to show that it understands the strength of feeling among our constituents.
The Attorney-General has indicated that he will consider the evidence afresh, rather than simply review the findings of his predecessors in office, and I welcome that. He has also indicated that he will await the release of papers by the Hillsborough independent panel before reaching a conclusion. He has said that he will allow further representations to be made to him once the panel has released the papers to the families involved, and he has told Mrs Williams that she will have the time that she needs to consider the information in those papers. The offers made by the Attorney-General are welcomed by Mrs Williams, and I believe that they are a step in the right direction.