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6 Jun 2006 : Column 55WH—continued

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Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): Order. We will have no more sedentary interventions, Mr. Mackinlay.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am very grateful, Mr. Pope. I just wanted to point out the inconsistencies.

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): And you have done so.

Mr. Hoon: Repeatedly.

I was dealing with the question of political freedoms, and I turn now to freedom of expression. As anyone who reads Iranian newspapers will be aware, they certainly engage in colourful and sometimes vigorous debate, but it appears that the confines of such debate are closely circumscribed. In the course of the past five years, the regime has quietly extended its control over the Iranian people’s ability to express their views. Dozens of newspapers have been closed and journalists have been arrested. The journalist Arzhang Davoudi received a 15-year sentence simply for producing a documentary about another journalist who died in custody in suspicious circumstances.

The Iranian Government’s clampdown on the internet has largely passed unnoticed but is also of concern. Many websites that were accessible in Tehran two years ago are now censored, including the BBC’s Persian news website. The Iranian Government recently announced plans to establish a national internet. That would further restrict communication between Iran and the outside world. It would also facilitate control by the authorities. It appears that the Iranian Government do not believe that the Iranian people should be able freely to choose what they read.

The situation of Iran’s trade unions is also of concern. Strikes are not permitted, and in January hundreds of Tehran bus drivers were arrested for taking part in a series of strikes. The wives of some protestors were also arrested and several houses were searched. The head of the bus drivers’ syndicate remains in custody, some four months after the strikes.

Hon. Members voiced concern about the situation faced by Iran’s religious minorities, and I am grateful to them for their continuing efforts in ensuring that Parliament is kept abreast of developments. Reports that Iran’s supreme leader has instructed the army to identify Baha’is and monitor their activities are especially worrying. Hundreds of Baha’is have had their property confiscated, faced intimidation or been denied access to education. Mehran Kowsar is one of many members of the Baha’i faith to have been arrested for his religious beliefs; he has been in prison for well over a year. It is clear from that case that elements of the Iranian judicial system are in need of urgent reform.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I apologise for not having heard the whole debate, but I did watch the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on television.

So far, the one group that has not been mentioned is lesbians and gays. Many gay men have been executed in the past year. Indeed, execution comes not just through the courts but through officially or unofficially sanctioned death squads roaming villages, trying to find young gay men and executing them. That is
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outrageous and extraordinary. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had an opportunity to raise that specific issue with Tehran?

Mr. Hoon: Certainly there is concern about the situation faced by homosexuals and we are monitoring the situation carefully. We are not aware of any individuals being executed in Iran over the past two years solely on the grounds of homosexuality, but clearly there are other ways in which homosexuals are seriously affected by how the law operates there.

Chris Bryant: I would be very worried if the FCO genuinely believed that no one had been executed solely because of their sexuality. Trumped-up charges are brought before courts regularly, and it is the work of many organisations in this country to reveal the true outrages going on in Iran. The FCO should look into the issue much more carefully.

Mr. Hoon: I chose my words carefully, and I do not see any need to resile from them. Charges are brought for other matters, but I accept the force of what my hon. Friend was suggesting and the issue is of concern to us.

Referring to the Iranian judicial system, we have concerns about court hearings not always being held in public and about the principle of due process not always being respected. Cruel punishments such as flogging, stoning and amputation remain on the statute book. In a prominent recent case, the Iranian authorities executed two youths—one aged 17 and the other 20—on 13 May this year. They were hanged in Lorestan province barely a month after their alleged crime. The case raises important questions. How could a fair trial be completed in such a short time? Were the two able to exhaust every avenue of appeal open to them? Why does Iran continue to execute under-18s, in violation of international law?

The UK Government and the European Union have, naturally, posed those questions to the Iranian Government, but the case highlights important inconsistencies between Iran’s stated policy of ending such executions and its actions. The international community clearly has a duty to respond to such developments, which undermine basic principles of human rights, and we are committed to addressing that issue.

Andrew Mackinlay: I hope that the Minister will not think me impertinent, but before he concludes I would like him to tell us precisely what Her Majesty’s Government have done about such issues. Anyone who looks at the record tomorrow will see that, in the past few minutes, the Minister has acknowledged that we are aware of the problems. I want to know—as does the House—what he and his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office do in the face of those repeated human rights abuses, of which they are aware.

Mr. Hoon: I am, as always, grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I was just about to set out what we have done.

Under the British presidency of the European Union, we raised our human rights concerns with the Iranian Government on no fewer than 16 occasions. We led the European Union in issuing five statements,
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covering many of the issues that we have discussed today. We were pleased that all EU member states supported a UN General Assembly resolution that highlighted Iran’s human rights record last December. We have continued to be active in supporting EU action since then. We said at the start of our presidency that human rights would be a priority in our relations with Iran, and it remains a central part of our policy approach. Progress in our relations with Iran is dependent on action by the Iranian Government to address our human rights concerns.

Lembit Öpik: Is the Minister, like me, an optimist about human nature, and if so, does he agree that however difficult it has been so far to secure a change through dialogue with Iran, there is mileage in hoping that, through dialogue and by presenting the benefits of constructive action by the Iranian Government, we could make progress? I would be less optimistic if I had not seen some signs of response from the Iranian Administration in the past, especially when they knew that the public abroad were watching. Does the Minister think that dialogue might be worth while, and if so, can we discuss, outside today’s debate, the options for holding such dialogue with regard to the Baha’i?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He sets out the position sensibly and in a way that allows for progress. By highlighting the problems, we draw attention to how the Iranian Government should improve their record on human rights, but we must also acknowledge that the picture is not uniformly bad. There are areas where progress can be made—and indeed the benefit of this debate is that it allows us all to set out our concerns—but we acknowledge that in some areas there has been progress, although clearly far more work needs to be done.

In the recent past, under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Iran seemed to be taking significant steps forward. I regret that that progress has slowed in recent years. Indeed, as we have discussed, in many areas Iran is, sadly, moving backwards. However, we should not devalue the efforts of those in Iran who are working for reforms. Their task is being made increasingly difficult.

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Minister heard the chairman of the all-party Friends of the Baha’i group request a further meeting with him. As vice-chair of the group, I also make that request, but I know that my right hon. Friend may have to speak on behalf of another Minister.

Mr. Hoon: Well, I am always delighted to offer meetings on behalf of other Ministers, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend’s comments, and those of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), are drawn to my colleague’s attention. I am sure that they will be shown the normal courtesy extended to Members of Parliament.

It is important to recognise that real change can only come from within Iran. Obviously, we will continue to do everything that we can to support those working to achieve that change. This debate has been important. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside again for securing and initiating a debate on a subject that the Government take extremely seriously.

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A555 Relief Road

12.58 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise one of the most important issues facing my constituency. It also affects the wider south Manchester and Cheshire sub-region.

Following the Government’s roads review in 1998, long-held plans for three new road schemes in the south-east Manchester area were reconsidered as part of the Government’s multi-modal study for the north-west region. The three schemes are: the completion of the Manchester airport link road, west; a new Poynton bypass; and an A6 Hazel Grove bypass. The three roads are all interlinked and together make up what is commonly referred to as the south-east Manchester multi-modal study area—SEMMMS—or the A555 relief road. It is not a catchy name, I admit, but its importance to our area is immense. The plans for those roads, in various different forms, have been on the cards for decades. Indeed, the route of the relief road in my constituency has enjoyed protected planning status for around 60 years, and large numbers of houses and businesses in the locality have been shaped around those plans.

I hope that hon. Members appreciate the patience displayed by local people in my constituency and those neighbouring it. A succession of MPs, including my predecessor Patsy Calton and my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell)—who I am sure will give his views this afternoon on the importance of the scheme to his constituency—have fought doggedly to keep the relief road high on the agenda and to deliver a transport network that is fit to meet the needs of our communities.

Since the completion of the SEMMMS strategy five years ago, Stockport council and the neighbouring authorities in Manchester and Cheshire have invested considerable resources, time, effort and expertise into developing the road scheme. That represents one of those rare tripartite alliances at political level, but it has involved considerable co-operation on a professional basis, too. I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by staff in the local authorities who have been involved in developing the scheme.

In addition, the Government have provided substantial funding for aspects of the SEMMMS strategy and other local transport schemes in order to support the wider aims of the project. The public transport and regeneration improvements are welcome and are testament to the multi-modal nature of the project. There are, however, two gaping holes in the SEMMMS strategy that will ultimately determine the success of the policy, and with it traffic conditions in the community for a generation or more to come. The first is the extension of the Metrolink tram network, about which many of us have strong feelings, but which I shall leave for a different debate. The second is the relief road.

As we debate the issue this afternoon, Stockport council has been in the process of re-submitting further technical and financial details to the Department for Transport, as requested, in advance of what we understand will be a final decision this autumn. We
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have reached an absolutely critical stage of the process, and as decision day looms I am grateful for the opportunity to put the case in favour of the road to the Minister. I hope that she will be able to take on board the views expressed this afternoon.

The case in favour of the relief road is substantial to say the least. For example, consultation with residents and other stakeholders on the SEMMMS strategy, and more recently on the relief road itself, has been thorough and its results extremely positive. Environmental studies have been carried out in a meticulous fashion. The key local authorities involved have co-operated with the Department for Transport’s funding criteria and an expression of interest for a private finance initiative bid was submitted to that end. On the finer details of the road itself—traffic analysis, the organisation of junctions, use of land and consideration for other road users, such as cyclists, those using public transport and pedestrians—no stone has been left unturned in developing the best possible solution. It is my firm belief that this work makes a compelling and outstanding case for the construction of the relief road. It will provide value for money and undoubtedly enhance the quality of life for many thousands of residents and millions of commuters.

In the meantime, the relief road scheme has received the backing of local, sub-regional and regional partners, all of whom recognise its importance. The Greater Manchester chamber of commerce supports the plans; Manchester airport—a key economic driver for our region—is in favour; the regional assembly emphasises the strategic importance of the road not just to south Manchester but to the north-west as a whole; and most importantly, local people, who know the roads best, are overwhelmingly in favour of the scheme. During the last major public consultation, approval rates were around the 90 per cent. mark.

I have repeated on many occasions during this long process that a policy of building our way out of the trouble when it comes to traffic congestion is not the solution by itself. That is precisely why this scheme has been designed not to attract extra traffic but to deal with existing levels more sensibly and efficiently. It is also why it is an integral part of a wider package of public transport improvements, including Metrolink, which I mentioned earlier. The simple fact is that the south-east Manchester area has a road network that never has been, and never will be, able to cope with its volumes and patterns of traffic. Previous Governments have ignored and compounded the situation, but Ministers have now been presented with an ideal opportunity to correct and improve matters.

If further evidence of the unsuitability of the current network is required, one has only to look at the existing A555 airport link road. In short, the A555 currently represents a colossal waste of public money insofar as the central section of the scheme was built first, but its beginning and end were never built. It is no wonder that it has been christened by local residents as the “road to nowhere”. It stands as a monument to bungled, short-term transport planning and its legacy has been to funnel congestion through Heald Green, Bramhall, Woodford and Poynton—to name just a few of the districts affected. With that congestion has come damage to the quality of life for people living in those areas. Residents in the Cheadle constituency put up considerable opposition to that “road to nowhere” at the public inquiry 15 years
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ago, and they were right to do so. I believe that they are right now in their support for the relief road and the need for its urgent completion.

The benefits of the scheme as proposed go much further. There are many roads in the Cheadle constituency that simply were not designed to carry the weight of traffic that currently passes over them, which has such a negative impact on the quality of life locally. They include, to name just a few: Finney lane and Wilmslow road in Heald Green; Jackson’s lane, Bramhall lane south and Woodford road in Bramhall; and the A34 at Gatley. I have not even mentioned the knock-on effects felt in other communities such as Cheadle and Cheadle Hulme, or at locations such as the A6 between Stockport and Hazel Grove—one of the busiest bus corridors in Europe and a transport route that all too often resembles one enormous, polluting car park.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): My hon. Friend has made a powerful case, and I hope that the Minister has listened carefully. He has just drawn attention to the A6 in my constituency, and the part of the A555 known as the Hazel Grove bypass will complete the road network in my area. It is a key part of the Government’s strategy. It is cost-effective, essential and has broad local support. It is part of a package; my hon. Friend mentioned the tram and rail links. Does he agree that we need the Minister to give the go-ahead to the public inquiry, so that we can roll the scheme forward for the benefit of his constituents and mine, and the whole community of south-east Manchester?

Mark Hunter: My hon. Friend makes his point in his usual exemplary way. I agree that we are looking for the Minister to indicate that the Government will give the green light to the public inquiry and allow the urgent completion of the road scheme that is so badly needed.

Of course, the south-east Manchester region is not alone in facing severe traffic congestion; I am fully prepared to acknowledge that. We are not alone in lobbying for major improvements, as I am sure the Minister will testify, but the plan is unique in that it is a long-term, sustainable scheme. It is my firm belief—shared by many others—that it deserves the approval of the Department for Transport. To the best of my knowledge, no other scheme has been in the planning for so long while having so much support from so many different sections of the community.

A vast array of information has been made available to the Department for Transport about this scheme—much more than we could possibly do justice to in the short time we have this afternoon—concerning traffic flows, junction design, environmental factors, public transport integration, consultation, cost-benefit analysis and much more. On every count, the SEMMMS A555 relief road comes out positively.

Ministers have made themselves available to speak to me and other Members over the years about the importance of the scheme, and I thank them for that. Without wishing to tempt fate, I have always found their attitude to the scheme to be positive and their responses to be constructive, if slightly more non-committal than I would have liked. However, as I have already said, I simply do not believe that any other transport project has jumped through as many governmental hoops, has overcome as many obstacles and has the backing of such a wide group of interested parties as this relief road.

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It is not a cheap project and as we continue to await the Government’s response costs will inevitably creep upwards, but its benefits to our region mean that it is worth fighting for. The Minister and the Government have been presented with a chance to deliver a visionary, ambitious and truly integrated transport strategy for our region. I implore the Government to seize this unique opportunity and approve the road. My constituents and many others are depending on it.

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