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24 Oct 2006 : Column 402WH—continued

That former official is advising us on how officials should guide themselves on the subject.

I have not been able to go into all the complications; this is not the right kind of subject for that, although we could write a book on it. The matter is urgent, and we cannot afford to wait. For various reasons, the national park authority feels that its hands are tied. I urge the Minister to visit the area as soon as possible and to see the landscape for himself. He must decide whether such things are acceptable in a national park. I do not think they are.

I urge the Minister to think about the questions that I have asked, although I accept that he may not be able to give full answers today. Will there be another Adjournment debate on the subject in nine years? If so, we can talk about the 18 years during which no action has been taken. Is it right that those operators can spoil and scar the countryside without making any restoration when the other companies in the area are, in the main, fulfilling their planning conditions and restoring those vein minerals that they are now taking out?

The Minister knows that things are not right. He may not be able to say so today, but action is needed. We need action to stop this remaining a local issue; it is of national significance. We need to consider whether the aggregates tax should be paid—and if not, why not? If the Minister cannot help, we need to know whether any legislative changes in the near future might give more clout to the Peak District national park. It has legitimate worries, but feels that its hands are tied.

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In fairness, the Minister appoints many of the members of the Peak District national park authority, and it is unlike any other elected planning authority, as the only elected element is the parish council nominees. I could say a lot more, but I am constrained by time. The matter is urgent. It is a national problem and it needs action.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): We have been doubly treated today. It is rare for members of the Whips Office in either party to speak; but today a senior Opposition Whip has been able to speak not only with great authority but with great passion on an extremely important subject, one that pertains not only to his constituents—in that sense, it is local—but, as he made extremely clear, one that has wider ramifications, especially given the care that we need to take of all our national parks. I hope that that goes some way to answering the clear questions that he posed about local importance. Yes, of course, it is of local importance; the appeal on Backdale is about the extent of quarrying, and it is a local matter. However, the implications go much wider and that is what the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) articulately brought before hon. Members today. I congratulate him on doing so and on the manner in which he has presented a powerful case.

National parks with areas of outstanding natural beauty represent our finest landscapes. We all have a duty to ensure their conservation, although we must also take heed of the social and economic needs of surrounding communities and the wider community. I wish to make it clear that I understand that mineral extraction is an important industry in the UK. We need the material that it produces if our economy is to continue to prosper. However, as a result, there will sometimes be tension between the economy’s need for minerals and society's clear desire to conserve some of our finest landscapes. That tension is well understood in the national parks, and mineral working imposes significant environmental challenges. Our mineral planning policy for parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty is very restrictive. New major mineral development is allowed in those areas only in exceptional circumstances and where it has been demonstrated to be in the public interest. All such proposals are subject to a most rigorous examination, which takes into account the need for the quarry, including national considerations of mineral supply and the impact on the local economy.

There should also be an assessment of the costs and scope for making an alternative supply available from outside the designated area or meeting the need in some other way. Any detrimental effect on the environment or landscape or on recreational opportunities also has to be considered, as does the extent to which any impact can be moderated. As a result, new mineral permissions in our national parks and AONBs are strictly controlled. However, many of the concerns that people have, including those raised today, relate to old mineral permissions in our designated areas. Many mineral permissions were
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granted soon after the second world war, when the priority was to maximise mineral working for national reconstruction. Environmental awareness and knowledge was scant and as a result permissions were granted subject to very few conditions.

The right hon. Gentleman compared the value of fluorspar and limestone and said the permission was there to get fluorspar—an important point that I do understand. The problem is that some of the permissions, including this one, are not specific about what they are for. That has led to the case being such a contracted and protracted one.

What was accepted in the 1940s and 1950s as the unavoidable consequences of quarrying would not be accepted today, and rightly so. In the 1990s, legislation was introduced to review all old mineral permissions and to continue to review all mineral permissions at 15-year intervals. The aim is to ensure that mineral extraction meets, and continues to meet, the up-to-date environmental standards that we have rightly come to expect. A permission granted in 1949 with typically three or four conditions, after review, would perhaps be subject to 50 conditions today and would aim to mitigate the impact of extraction. It would cover matters such as noise, dust, traffic and restoration—the points covered by the right hon. Gentleman.

There is a legacy of old mineral permissions in the national parks and the Peak District national park has the greatest number of old permissions of all the English national parks. Backdale is one of those. The vast majority of initial reviews of old permissions are now complete and up-to-date working practices are in operation. However, a relatively small number of initial reviews of old permissions, including those relating to Backdale and several other sites in the Peak district, have stalled, for a variety of reasons.

Applications for review in the stalled cases in England were made before regulations came into effect in the year 2000. They required that, where mineral working caused a significant environmental impact, environmental statements should be provided to inform the review. Those regulations include a sanction for the suspension of operations where information is not provided. Some of the stalled initial reviews are still awaiting environmental information to inform the determination of new operating conditions. The mineral planning authorities cannot decide the applications without the information. Advice was issued that, under current legislation, mineral planning authorities cannot require the submission of that information either. Meanwhile, the operators of those sites can continue quarrying. That is the Catch-22 we are in.

The situation is clearly unsatisfactory, but the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for minerals legislation, fully appreciates that. It is preparing to consult on new regulations which, among other things, would provide a sanction—exactly what the right hon. Gentleman inquired about—to ensure that outstanding environmental information is provided and new conditions can finally be determined.

Mr. McLoughlin: Is the Minister saying that that could be done by regulation and does not need primary legislation?

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Barry Gardiner: At the moment, colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government are trying to put a system in place by introducing regulations. I cannot speak for the outcome of those investigations, but that is what they are attempting to do.

We have heard today about other planning problems relating to Backdale quarry. The Peak District national park authority considers that the quarrying of the limestone taking place at Backdale is in excess of that allowed under the terms of the mineral planning permission. The matter is subject to action by the authority, which has served an enforcement notice in respect of the mineral operations. The owner and operator of the site have appealed against the notice and a public inquiry into those appeals has been arranged for February 2007, as the right hon. Gentleman said. I cannot comment on the merits of that issue, as to do so could prejudice the outcome of those appeals. I hope that he will not take that as an indication that I am resiling in any way from some of his comments.

While the inquiry is pending, the authority wished to serve a stop notice on the operator until the appeal was decided. However, it could not afford to do so in case the appeals were successful and the authority was faced with claims for compensation by the owner and operator. The authority approached my Department to see whether the Government would agree to refund any compensation it might face if the appeals were successful. We agreed, but stressed that it was a one-off and on an exceptional basis. We also stressed that the offer was solely to enable the authority to carry out the actions it thought necessary. It implied no view on the merits of the authority's case against the operator, as that would have been improper.

I recognise that some would consider that the continued mineral extraction at Backdale and indeed others at Longstone Edge, should be stopped. Mineral planning authorities have a wide range of powers to revoke or modify mineral planning permissions. The decision on whether to revoke or modify any existing mineral permissions on Longstone Edge rests with the national park authority. It must consider whether such action would be justified on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind the resources that they have available. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural
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Affairs provides an annual grant to the national park authority, bearing in mind the constraints and competing priorities within DEFRA and the needs of the authorities themselves. It is then for each authority to determine where its priorities lie and to make decisions about how to spend its budget accordingly.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the underwriting of the national park authority’s actions by my Department under my predecessor, now the Minister for Schools, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), symbolised and strongly signified that it was a matter that the Government recognised as having much wider ramifications than for Backdale.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the point that the aggregates levy sustainability fund should be used to support the national park authorities. The fund has enabled about £30 million of work through Natural England and predecessor bodies, to address impacts on landscape and biodiversity additional to any requirements under minerals planning legislation. That has not been restricted to protected areas or to the effects of old mineral permissions. My officials have been working with Treasury officials to determine whether the fund should continue after the current commitment until 2007, and if so, what form it should take. No decision on that has yet been made.

In addition, there may be a case for a differential rate for the levy and we are looking into that. The Chancellor, of course, keeps all taxes under regular review, with announcements made through the pre-Budget report and the Budget process.

There is also a question whether the exemptions under the aggregates levy should be reviewed. My colleagues in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are aware of the reported issues of aggregates extracted for commercial purposes under exemptions such as for vein minerals, and they are looking into that. I think that that addresses the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question about the aggregates levy and the different valuation rates for limestone and vein minerals. In the meantime, we are taking action to help to resolve the problems of—

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Western Sahara

1.30 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise once again the situation of the Saharawi people and Western Sahara. I shall keep my remarks especially brief because I want my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) to say a few words if he catches your eye, Mr. Caton.

The debate comes at an important moment in the sad history of Western Sahara. The United Nations Security Council will meet in the next few days to discuss the way forward on the peace process after 15 years of Moroccan obstruction. My hon. Friend the Minister will need no reminding that, as a permanent member of the Security Council, the United Kingdom has a vital role to play in resolving the dispute, which has gone on far too long. It has a legal responsibility under the UN charter as a permanent member of the Security Council to protect the people of Western Sahara from continuing Moroccan oppression. Sadly, it is failing in its responsibilities.

The history of Britain’s approach has largely been one of indifference and inaction. I am talking not just about the current Government; the problem dates back a considerable time. While offering the bromide that it supports the UN process or UN efforts, the UK has built up its own relationships and trade with Morocco, and has done very little to compel Morocco to end the illegal occupation and to allow a referendum on the right of self-determination, or to exert pressure on Morocco to end the human rights abuses committed against the Saharawi people.

By recently signing up to an EU agreement with Morocco whereby the EU will pay Morocco to fish Western Sahara’s waters, the UK is rewarding Morocco for its occupation. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North had a lot to say on that in a debate with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), but it remains a running sore.

I hope that the Minister’s comments will give us some hope for the future, because we have had enough bromides. I suspect that he will say that the UK will continue to support the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy, but all the messages coming back are that the UN is losing respect in the territories, and the Polisario feels that time has run out. Sadly, the UN has achieved precisely nothing in the 15 years since the ceasefire. The reason why it is unable to do anything seems to be that countries such as the UK will not engage in the proper process of bringing self-determination to the territories. If that continues, we will end up with the current shameful situation, which is unacceptable.

Britain’s membership of the UN Security Council is premised on our responsibility to pursue and enforce the fair and lawful resolution of disputes before the council. The Government claim that they take that very seriously. In a pamphlet published last month, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote:

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Indeed we should, but the Saharawis live in fear under Moroccan oppression, and unless the UK and other powers do something, they have no prospect of advancing. It is tempting to say that the British Government have done absolutely nothing to show that they are on their side, but even that would be wrong, as the Government are doing something worse than nothing—they can be seen to be complicit in the continuing occupation.

When the fisheries deal, which is about plundering the fish in Western Sahara’s waters, was signed, objections were made, but that made little difference. Britain agreed with that deal, and for some hon. Members that was a very sad day. Was the Minister aware that the EU justified the deal by distorting a 2002 opinion from the UN legal adviser, Hans Corell, and that Mr. Corell himself said that the agreement was a violation of international law? Action could have been taken to forestall the deal. I am aware of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office legal opinion that the agreement does not “prejudice” any eventual settlement of the dispute, but can the Minister explain how paying Morocco to allow the EU to fish the waters of the occupied territory pressures Morocco into agreeing to any settlement involving self-determination in the territories?

The occupation in which Britain is, sadly, complicit remains an ugly thing. The Saharawi people are denied their political and human rights; they are oppressed. How do we know that? After organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International raised the profile of allegations of torture against prisoners of conscience in Western Sahara, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a fact-finding team to the territory in May this year. Is the Minister aware of the existence and contents of that report and, if so, how does he intend to act on some of the shocking findings? In case he has not seen the report—it has not been published; behind that lies a tale that I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North may be able to speak about—we are happy to furnish him with a copy of it, because it contains a number of serious allegations that need to be followed up.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes his points with great sincerity. I am sure that before he concludes he will want to comment on the fact that the Saharawis are a tribal people and of the 32 tribes that make up that race, only two support the position that he puts before the Chamber. Therefore, there is undoubtedly a dispute over which side speaks for the people. I am sure that he would wish to comment on the fact that only two of the 32 tribes support the Polisario position and that therefore the position of Her Majesty’s Government and preceding Governments seems to be the fairest if one looks at the issue from an unbiased point of view.

Mr. Drew: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The simple answer is, “Let’s put it to the test; let’s have a referendum.” That is the way to determine who has the right to speak for the territories. If Morocco had agreed to the terms of the Baker plan, there could have been a referendum.

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It is interesting that Simon Conway of Landmine Action is in the territories, looking at the munitions situation. Incidentally, Landmine Action produced an interesting report on Lebanon last week. It is sad to say that exactly the same munitions—many improvised explosive devices and a great amount of cluster munitions—continue to lie on the territories of Western Sahara. I again plead with the Minister for something to be done to speed up the clearance of those areas, because the people cannot go back even if they want to.

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