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11 Dec 2007 : Column 20WH—continued

10.43 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing the debate. He described to us his long association with waterways, mentioning the fact that he is the patron of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust in his constituency. I understand that he is also the secretary of the all-party group on waterways, which he seems almost to have forgotten, such is the number of titles and responsibilities that he has, and his passion and commitment to the waterways. It is understandable, given his busy agenda. He described travelling the towpath, and also talked about his credentials and honour as a Whip, welcoming me as the Minister responding to the debate, as we worked closely together in our respective Whips Offices. I thank him for that. I did not like what he said about my predecessor, who is a fine man, and an excellent Member of Parliament, and was a good Minister.

I intend to concentrate on the main body of my speech, which I hope will respond to the central concern raised. In any remaining time I shall respond specifically to some of the more general points. This is an opportunity for me to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to inland waterways and report that considerable progress has been made since the report on British Waterways by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am proud to be the Minister for inland waterways and I have been fortunate to see at first hand some of the tremendous benefits that waterways bring to communities. Many of those were articulated by hon. Members. In 1966, when Bobby Moore was taking England to World cup glory, and Harold Wilson was taking the Labour party to success in the elections, I had my first holiday on a canal boat, in my mother’s arms, on the Oxford canal, so from the earliest age I have had an affinity with the waterways.

Since I have become Minister with responsibility for waterways, my visits have included key regeneration projects such as Wood wharf. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) mentioned the opportunity presented by the Olympics, and I have visited Prescott lock, which will play a vital role, facilitating waterborne freight and contributing to a sustainable, environmentally friendly Olympics. I have also been to the Loughborough canal basin and Birmingham, one of the first large-scale inner city regeneration projects, which is a testament to what waterways can do for our industrial cities.

I have also met a wide range of stakeholders in past months, and have been struck by their enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for waterways. New Ministers are always put at a disadvantage when they meet stakeholder groups, who know their subject inside out and upside down. I am grateful for their enthusiasm and desire to engage in discussion about how to take things forward. To that end I am today meeting representatives of more than 30 interest groups—people who use the waterways—to hear their concerns
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at first hand. I want to improve relationships and do everything possible to facilitate constructive dialogue. However, hon. Members should remember that British Waterways is a public corporation, at arm’s length from Government, and it is for the board and executive to comment on operational matters.

Miss McIntosh: Will the Minister give way?

Jonathan Shaw: I would, but I should not be able to respond to all the points raised.

We need to maximise the public benefits of waterways while delivering an affordable, sustainable network within the total funding available. We are working closely with both British Waterways and the Environment Agency on developing long-term strategies to achieve that aim. Much has been said about ensuring that adequate funding is available for the waterways, and hon. Members have rightly expressed their communities’ aspirations to extend and restore the canals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) said, each restoration or new canal brings further revenue pressures on British Waterways, and we must recognise that. Given the fact that more people than ever before use the waterways, and that there is more enthusiasm for them, so that there are more people involved in the relevant projects, we must wrestle with the issues of competing demands on the public budget.

Miss McIntosh rose—

Jonathan Shaw: I have a huge amount to get through; I ask the hon. Lady to be quick.

Miss McIntosh: We hear what the Minister says, but does he accept that British Waterways, which is an agency at one remove, is limited in the amount that it can raise? We must recognise that the cost of fuel has put boating out of the reach of many people who would otherwise have taken great pleasure from those craft.

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful for that comment. On sustainable funding, British Waterways is not at the moment allowed to borrow. BW has assets on which it could be allowed to borrow, and the Government are working hard with the organisation, as part of its review, to ensure that it can come to a position in which it will be allowed to borrow. That is part of the sustainable funding footing that we want to see the organisation on in order that it can meet hon. Members’ aspirations.

Many comments were directed at me and the Department’s funding. Following the Department’s allocation, it is, as hon. Members would expect, going through a business planning prioritisation process to decide how we divvy up the money. We must do that, and hon. Members referred to a number of the Department’s many competing priorities. The Department is actively engaging with delivery partners in that process with an expectation that final allocations, including those for BW and the Environment Agency, will be known at the end of February. The role of DEFRA as custodian of the canal network on behalf of the Government has been recognised by Ministers and, at this stage, I am hopeful that the budget for BW will be
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broadly around flat cash for a three-year period. The Government are in discussions with BW on what that means for its business planning, and it is considering whether a further injection of capital from its commercial business into the network in the next three years is desirable. Hon. Members have asked me to be as clear as I possibly can, and I have set out for the House the position that the Government want to get to.

I welcome the conclusion of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report that we have seen a remarkable renaissance in the fortunes of Britain’s historical inland waterways in the past decade, as was mentioned by many of my hon. Friends, and—sort of—by the hon. Member for Lichfield. It would not do his career any good to say, “It’s the best ever!”, but that is the case—our waterways are in a better state today than they have been since the second world war, and they are used and enjoyed by more people than at any other time in their history. I urge hon. Members to judge the Government over a period on what we have done for British waterways.

The Committee made a number of recommendations, including improving relationships, setting up an interdepartmental working group and carrying out research into the benefits of the waterways. I am pleased to confirm that we are making progress on those recommendations. First, I am committed to developing and strengthening our partnership with BW to ensure the continued and sustainable revival of our waterways, and I have frequently met its chair and chief executive. From my perspective, communications are good.

Secondly, as promised, we have set up an interdepartmental working group. The Departments to which I have written—Transport, Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Health, Communities and Local Government, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Treasury—have given the support that I asked for and are committed it. The first meeting of the group will take place on 17 December.

Thirdly, the Committee recommended that we undertake a study to determine the social benefit of the waterways network. Many hon. Members mentioned the additional benefits that the waterways network brings to the communities who live in and around it. A steering group has been set up, and the interdepartmental working group will consider those benefits at its first meeting.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) made an important point about the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. On the detail of that, he was right to say that the canal suffered a major breach in October which caused considerable distress to the local community. I am pleased at what he said about BW’s communication with local people and community leaders. Such communication is important for confidence. Often, when people complain, they do not know what the situation is, and if there is uncertainty, people become concerned. There will be a meeting on 19 December at which BW will set out what it intends to do. We know that the canal is hugely important for tourism in that area. It has a long history of instability, which the hon. Gentleman will know about only too well. There are plans to restore the abandoned section between Cwmbran and Newport, and the Crumlin arm, to promote further tourism, and he knows of those aspirations. I hope that we will see
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that restoration, but it will be enormously expensive, which has to be taken account of in relation to the other demands and aspirations that hon. Members have for their areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) is chairman of the all-party group—

Mr. Laxton indicated assent.

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend remembers that he is the chairman of an organisation, unlike the hon. Member for Lichfield.

My hon. Friend suggested that he is hard-up; I am sure that he will get a lot of sympathy in the House and in the wider community for that. The issue of licences relates to the issue of boat owners paying the costs. It is important to get the matter in perspective. Boat owners pay around 10 per cent. of the costs. The rest is paid for by all of us—by the taxpayer.

On a serious note, my hon. Friend talked about regeneration opportunities. There has been £7 billion-worth of waterside regeneration in recent years—I stress £7 billion. I have seen it at first hand, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (David Heyes) mentioned his area. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North mentioned industrial heritage, and was right to point out that the wonderful roof at St. Pancras was made by a former constituent of his.

When hon. Members get involved in local projects, I urge them to ensure that the projects offer opportunities for skills training. It is vital that the opportunity to pass skills down is taken, so I encourage engagement with learning and skills partners.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), who has a proud track record of championing the waterways, mentioned funding, and talked about opportunities for
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regeneration projects and the impact of the floods. Many hon. Members mentioned the unsung heroes, and I am sure that BW staff will be grateful for their comments. It has made representations to the Pitt review, which is designed to learn lessons from the floods. It will look at how the Government dealt with floods across the board, and BW is a central part of it. On funding, as I said, we need to put BW on a sustainable footing. There is a review group with which we are working closely to ensure that that happens, so that we can meet more of the aspirations that we and our constituents have for the waterways.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) mentioned the need for long-term funding, the opportunities presented by the Olympics and for taking freight on our waterways. She said that it is a Cinderella service, but I do not accept that. DEFRA has many delivery bodies, but BW does not receive the smallest amount. It might interest her to know that it gets more than some of the national parks, which have enjoyed and welcomed a considerable increase in funding in this year’s budget. Like the national parks, waterways have a contribution to make in delivering on sustainability. She also referred to the fact that Tesco and Sainsbury’s put freight on canals.

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) asked me to be open and honest about funding. I hope that I have been so and that I have provided some insight into the difficult discussions that all Departments have at this time of year. The Department is committed to British Waterways, to establishing better relations, and to ensuring that stakeholders have a say on how the network is developed. We want to meet the aspirations of the thousands of people who enjoy the waterways and the rich heritage that they bring to communities up and down the country.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lichfield for initiating the debate. I am proud to be the Minister with responsibility for waterways, and I look forward to working with hon. Members in the months to come.

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Malaysia Campaign Veterans

11 am

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I sought this debate because now more than ever it is vital that we give the achievements of our veterans the recognition that they so richly deserve. At a time when British troops are serving in some of the most dangerous and hard-fought conflicts in the world, some at home are questioning the nation’s support for our armed forces. That is why it is nothing less than our duty to ensure that the 5.5 million ex-servicemen and women—our veterans—who have risked life and limb for Britain and defended her when she has been under threat know how much we value their dedication, courage and sacrifices.

When I was Minister for Veterans, I set out my mission statement quite simply, saying, “We will value our veterans, their widows and their families, and we will do all in our power to demonstrate that.” How we value our veterans is a measure of Britain today. The care we show them, or in some cases the lack it, cannot fail to impact upon the morale of today’s servicemen and women deployed around the world, including those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I want to draw attention to the disgraceful treatment of the 35,000 veterans who took part in operations in Malaysia from 1957 to 1966. The Malaysia campaign saw British and Commonwealth troops confront Indonesian volunteers infiltrating Malaysia. The conflict claimed the lives of 114 Commonwealth servicemen, with another 180 wounded. The British and Commonwealth force successfully dominated the border area and defeated the incursions, leading to a lasting settlement of the dispute that had threatened regional stability. Like all veterans, the men who took part in that struggle deserve our deepest gratitude and respect. As our forces face similar problems in Afghanistan today, the case of the Malaysia veterans is surely all the more poignant.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is making an important point at a time in our history when we should remember the veterans, because so many of our servicemen and women are serving in dangerous places around the world. However, we are talking about very special veterans, because the Malaysia campaign was the last conflict to be fought by conscript soldiers. These were not volunteers; they were conscripted to serve their country.

Although there were some shocking incidents during that war of which we should be thoroughly ashamed, the vast majority of veterans who served did so with great professionalism and dignity. They served their country not as volunteers, but as conscripts, and in such circumstances it is particularly important to recognise their efforts.

Mr. Touhig: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. He is right to say that those were the last conscripted troops and that they deserve our special care and attention.

In January 2006, the veterans were given permission to accept but not wear the Pingat Jasa Malaysia
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medal—the PJM—which is a decoration instituted by His Majesty the King of Malaysia to commemorate the services of British and Commonwealth forces in safeguarding Malaysia’s sovereignty during the conflict. The PJM honours the valour and sacrifices made by forces that served in Malaysia between 1957 and 1966. I welcomed the decision by Her Majesty the Queen, acting on the advice of the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, to grant permission to the 35,000 veterans who took part in that operation to receive that medal. However, the decision of that Committee—commonly known as the HD Committee—to advise Her Majesty that the medal could be accepted but not worn is the most disgraceful and insensitive act by faceless mandarins in Whitehall that I have ever encountered.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): I have followed this issue carefully. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there seems to be no consistency in the application of the five-year rule and no transparency in respect of the HD Committee, which seems to make up rules to suit itself at any particular time?

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Lady anticipates some points that I want to make, but I am grateful for her comment because it reinforces some aspects that I want to develop.

The absurdity of that crass and insensitive decision was demonstrated when veterans were allowed to wear the PJM in Malaysia on the occasion of that country’s celebration of its 50th anniversary of independence last August. Earlier, in a written statement on 31 January 2006, the then Minister for Trade, who also served as a Foreign Office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), said:

In effect, those exceptions set aside the rule forbidding double medalling when a British award has already been given for the same service, and also set aside the five-year rule preventing the acceptance and wearing of non-British awards for events or service more than five years ago, which the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) mentioned. In other words, the HD Committee waived two key rules so that the veterans could accept the PJM and then re-imposed the same rules to prevent them from wearing it.

Most people—most sane people, that is—would think that fairness and common sense dictate that our veterans, having been given permission to accept the PJM, should be allowed to wear it, but when I was a youngster growing up in Abersychan in south Wales, my mother often used to say to me, “Son, in life you will find that sense is not that common.”

I have a letter from one of the veterans, who told me how proud he was to be invited to the Malaysian high commission to receive the PJM, but how distraught he was at the last sentence in the letter, which said that he needed to remove it when he left the building.

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