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24 Jan 2007 : Column 1421

Point of Order

12.31 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance about an apparent breach of planning law by two Ministers and our ability to question them in the House. Last June, Government inspectors removed plans for a large development in my constituency, just north of Harlow, as part of the draft east of England plan. The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), denounced that decision. However, I now understand that, on 13 July 2006, he privately met the Minister for Housing and Planning, in clear breach of the Government’s planning policy statement 11, which says that such representations

That meeting has proved to be prejudicial, for on 19 December, on the day the House rose, the Government reversed the inspector’s decisions, as the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning sought. My constituents believe that both Ministers breached the regulations, making the whole east of England plan liable to legal challenge. Given that, yesterday, Government officials refused to release the papers for that meeting, can you advise me, Sir, on how I, on behalf of my constituents, can hold both Ministers to account?

Mr. Speaker: It is not directly a matter for me, but the hon. Gentleman can pursue these matters through parliamentary questions and by seeking Adjournment debates. Of course, parliamentary questions can be written and oral, and he can challenge the Ministers during oral questions in their slot on the Floor of the House. Those are ways in which he could pursue the matter.

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Access to Inland Waterways

12.33 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): I beg to move,

It was a great pleasure for many hon. Members when, a few years ago, we passed—against a certain amount of opposition, I seem to remember—our right to roam legislation, which culminated in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. That Act was originally intended to encompass equal access to inland waterways; but unfortunately, that got deleted at the later stages of the preparation of that Bill, so there is no presumed right of access by the public to inland waterways in England and Wales at the moment. That is not the situation in Scotland. When the Scottish Parliament passed its equivalent of right-to-roam legislation in the form of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, it covered inland waterways in exactly the same way as it did access to land.

It is the Government’s position that access in England and Wales should not be a problem and is not a problem, and that voluntary access agreements will deliver what is needed. However, the reality is quite different. There are 41,000 miles of inland waterways in England and Wales that do not have a public right of navigation. Only 510 miles of mostly highly restricted access has been negotiated. Some agreements apply only for a few days of each year, adding little to the 2 per cent. of inland waterways with a public right of access. Ultimately, access is in the hands of the riparian owners—the fishermen. But if they refuse to engage in negotiation, there is no way forward for canoeists or others to make progress.

The Environment Agency has worked for two years to put voluntary access agreements in place. In October last year, it reported its achievement: 45 miles of access had been negotiated, much of which was already the subject of access agreements and was accepted for canoeing. Two years of negotiation have produced an extra 20 miles of access, much of which is subject to considerable restrictions and complex arrangements. Even the Environment Agency was unable to contact all the riparian owners. When it was unable to gain permission, it assumed a right of access. That sets a precedent and clearly there are some legal connotations.

The Bill would clarify the matter and would provide a legislative framework. For example, the River Teme is 60 miles long, but only 1 mile of access has been negotiated and that for only certain days of nine months of the year. The River Wear is 50 miles long; 7 miles of access has been agreed. It is absolutely clear that voluntary agreements do not work. We cannot rely on them. If we want to promote public access, legislation will have to be involved. There is no other way. The Bill sets out to redress the situation. I am most grateful to the British Canoe Union, which has done the spadework on this project and has produced a draft Bill, which I expect to be published if the House accepts my motion. The Bill is essentially a read-across
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from the Scottish 2003 Act, with a few tweaks to remove minor problems that have arisen. It codifies responsible access to and along water. It protects the environment and the activities of canoeists, anglers, other users and landowners, who are all required to adhere to an access code. A code similar to the Scottish outdoor access code would be developed to support the Bill.

A legal right of access would provide more recreational opportunities for a group of people—including canoeists, swimmers, boaters and members of the general public—who want to use the water for recreational and educational purposes. That would have knock-on benefits for public health. The recreational aspects of canoeing would coincide effectively with the Government’s “everyday sport” and the Welsh Assembly’s “climbing higher” strategies to encourage more participation in activities. That would be possible if there were more access to rivers.

I remind the House that at the last Olympics, 40 per cent. of the UK’s medal tally was won by athletes who practise their sport sitting on their bottoms in boats—by sailors, canoeists and rowers. Canoeists won a silver and two bronze medals, and the future looks good, because a total of one gold, three silver and one bronze medal was won by the British team at the recent world youth championships in Australia. Such results are achieved in spite of, rather than because of, the training opportunities available in England and Wales. Whitewater canoeists have to go to Scotland or Wales for training, and if they want to use Olympic-class
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facilities, they have to go to Holland. That is not a good starting point for our teams as they prepare for the 2012 Olympics.

Another virtue of wider rights of access would be reduced pressure on accessible parts of waterways that are overused and overcrowded. Given the seriousness of the position as stated by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I do not expect immediate Government support for my Bill, despite the fact that its proposals are in line with some areas of Government policy. I do not have any illusions about the success rate of ten-minute Bills in reaching the statute book. None the less, I hope that the Government consider their position and allow the Bill at least the chance of a Second Reading and the possibility of proceeding to Committee. I hope that I can convince them of the merits of my case, and I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Desmond Turner, Charlotte Atkins, Mr. Michael Meacher, John Bercow, Joan Ruddock, Dr. Howard Stoate, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Peter Bottomley and Sir Robert Smith.

Access to Inland Waterways

Dr. Desmond Turner accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for access by the public for non-motorised boating purposes to the inland waterways of England and Wales; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February, and to be printed [Bill 52].

24 Jan 2007 : Column 1425

Iraq and the wider Middle East

[Relevant documents: Uncorrected minutes of Evidence taken before the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees on 11 January 2007, House of Commons 209-i, Session 2006-07.]

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the main business, and I inform the House that there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Liz Blackman.]

12.43 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The middle east is a region that engages every aspect of foreign policy, not just our security with regard to conflict, proliferation and terrorism, but the security of our economy, energy supplies and climate. It is a region that is critical to our deeper goal of building a safe, just and prosperous world for all. This afternoon, I will concentrate on four areas: first, of course, Iraq itself; secondly, Iran and Syria; thirdly, the middle east peace process; and, finally, I shall make some comments on the wider political and economic reform that is needed in the region.

For the purposes of our debate I will address each subject in turn, but for the purposes of analysis and policy making they are, of course, intimately linked. What happens in Iraq has direct consequences for political developments across the region. Iran and Syria present very distinct challenges to the international community, but both have the ability to play a pivotal role for good or for ill in Iraq, in the middle east peace process and in the region as a whole. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as has long been recognised, is a festering sore at the core of the region’s politics. We need and have a strategy for the middle east that recognises both the scale of the challenges and the links between them. I shall first speak about Iraq.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): As the disastrous conflict in Iraq has rightly been referred to as Blair’s war, will the Foreign Secretary inform the House of Commons of what is so important about the Prime Minister’s engagements this afternoon that he cannot be present in the House to take part in the first debate on Iraq in Government time since the war began?

Margaret Beckett: I do not recall whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in the Chamber—he may well have been—when the Prime Minister made it quite clear that, as we move towards the end of Operation Sinbad and its assessment, he will indeed report personally to the House. He shakes his head, but he is a little unlucky, because I have been in the House long enough, and have a good enough memory, to recall on how many occasions Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and indeed Prime Minister John Major, addressed the House. The double standards of those on the Conservative Benches, although probably inevitable, are somewhat undesirable.

As I was saying with regard to Iraq—

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Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP) rose—

Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will make a little progress with my speech.

Our fundamental objective in Iraq has been and remains to develop the capacity of the democratically elected Government of Iraq, and in particular to increase their ability to provide security and basic services to the Iraqi people.

The Iraqi Government of national unity have only been in place for eight months—something that we often overlook. Governing by coalition is never an easy job, and doing so in a country that has been riven by decades of terror and oppression, and in which there is no tradition of government by consensus, is harder still. What is being tried in Iraq today—genuine power-sharing among the different major communities—has never even been tried before. Prime Minister al-Maliki has made a clear public commitment to bringing about national reconciliation. As I said to Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi last week—I think that a number of Members met him on his visit—we strongly support that commitment to national reconciliation, and we recognise how important it is to the future of Iraq.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Margaret Beckett: In a moment. We have this month urged Prime Minister al-Maliki to redouble his efforts with all communities to demonstrate that his Government are pursuing a national and non-sectarian agenda, and we are providing help and support, including by sharing our experience from Northern Ireland.

Mr. Salmond rose—

Mr. Bellingham rose—

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) was first.

Mr. Salmond: I thank the Foreign Secretary. On 25 October last year, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister told us that he would be

Why should we believe him now that he says that he will debate it at some point in the future? Why was he so anxious to talk us into this disastrous war, but so reluctant to explain how we will get out of it?

Margaret Beckett: Frankly, that is rather a silly remark. First, the Prime Minister has given a very clear and simple commitment that that there will be, we hope, a clear, potential turning point in Iraq in the not-too-distant future, as Operation Sinbad comes to a close, and that he will certainly come to the House at that point. All of what the hon. Gentleman says totally neglects the fact that no Prime Minister in the history of this country has put themselves before the scrutiny of Parliament more than this Prime Minister. For example, he, and he alone, agreed to the long-standing request of Select Committee Chairs from both sides of
24 Jan 2007 : Column 1427
the House, and appeared before the Liaison Committee—for, if I recall correctly, several hours. He is not a Prime Minister who can be accused at all of avoiding the scrutiny of the House. He has set precedents that no previous Prime Minister of any party has been prepared to set.

Mr. Bellingham: I take on board what the Secretary of State says about reconciliation, but does she agree that whatever one believes about whether Saddam Hussein deserved the death penalty, the manner of the hanging, and the way in which it was handled, was an absolute disgrace and an outrage? Why was she, and the Prime Minister, so slow to condemn that?

Margaret Beckett: I do not think either of us was—certainly, I was not slow to condemn it. There was extensive comment. What is much more important is that the Government of Iraq deplored and condemned it. They were horrified at what had been done, which was clearly never intended. Someone was acting on their own volition and in a way that has caused great difficulty for all concerned.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned that the Prime Minister would come to the House at the end of Operation Sinbad or, as she said, when a turning point has been reached. How will we judge when that turning point has been reached?

Margaret Beckett: That is what the Prime Minister will come to the House to report.

The greatest challenge that the relatively new Iraqi Government face is ongoing violence. Eighty to 90 per cent. of that violence takes place within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad. In contrast, the four southern provinces account for around 4 per cent. So progress in Baghdad is of immense strategic and symbolic importance to the whole of Iraq.

On 6 January Prime Minister al-Maliki signalled his firm intention to get to grips with sectarian violence in Baghdad and Anbar. His words were:

He went on to say:

On 10 January, President Bush said that the United States would help the Iraqis to deliver greater and more lasting security to the capital. It is the joint judgment of the Iraqi and the American Governments that the Baghdad security plan, including the announced increase in troop numbers but, equally importantly, increased resources for reconstruction, is the best way to achieve that goal.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): In the course of her speech, will the Foreign Secretary give us some accurate estimate of the number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed since 2003, and the current death rate on the streets of Baghdad and other cities? Does she think Operation Sinbad will make the situation worse or better?

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