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23 Mar 2010 : Column 51WHcontinued
The precise nexus of companies and organisations on TCI is enormously complicated, and it is sometimes difficult to be precise about who owned what at any particular moment. Mrs. Misick, the wife of
the former leader, believed that the major construction firm Johnston International, which I referred to, was owned or at least controlled by Lord Ashcroft, and the former governor believed that that was the case for both that company and Belize bank.
I understand that Michael Ashcroft also had an involvement in a sugar mill in Grand Turk, but I am not sure whether that continues. He was involved during 2006 and 2007-during which time he visited the islands alongside the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)-in discussions about his company, Airport Holdings Ltd, taking over part ownership of Providenciales airport and doing major reconstruction work in exchange for a 49-year share of the departure tax on TCI. That is to say nothing of the Belize bank which, as Sir Robin Auld's report makes clear, was the holding bank for the party-political slush fund accounts that were held on behalf of the Progressive National party.
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) on securing this important debate. As he said, I was part of the delegation in 2004 to the Turks and Caicos Islands, and I endorse many, if not all, of the comments that he made. I am also a member of the all-party group on Turks and Caicos Islands, which my hon. Friend established in the House as a consequence of that visit.
The Minister has touched on the issue of potential corruption in the awarding of public sector contracts on the islands. In many respects, the present governor and previous governors have acted as honest brokers on the islands ever since they played a role within the legislative process. Will the Minister confirm that both past governors and the present governor have expressed concern over the years about the awarding of public sector contracts on the islands?
Chris Bryant: Absolutely. Former governors have made it clear that they have been troubled by some of the processes used to award contracts, the personal nature of the way contracts have sometimes been awarded and the involvement of people from elsewhere. Governors have expressed ongoing, continuing concerns, and those exist in the archives of the Foreign Office.
Mr. Prentice: I have a simple question. Will Lord Ashcroft be invited to give evidence to this inquiry into corruption?
Chris Bryant: As I said earlier, I do not want to say anything that could in any sense prejudice or jeopardise the investigation. Helen Garlick is a fiercely independent-minded woman and she must do the investigation that needs to be done. I will not be drawn on that point.
A point detailed in Sir Robin Auld's report is that one of the elements of corruption was the inexplicable wealth that many people seemed to enjoy. In some countries-Hong Kong, for example-such wealth would overturn the burden of evidence necessary when trying to prove that there has been bribery or corruption. One element of that, which was particularly virulent in the TCI, was that nobody ever registered their financial interests. Mr. Misick stated that
"in relation to gifts and party political donations, there has been no one who has ever declared, probably with the exception of one new member who probably declared a small amount and this is
primarily because, particularly the small nature of our Territory, persons giving political contributions would have preferred to be not named."
We have no idea who made political donations in the TCI whether in cash or in kind, or whether people provided aeroplanes, houses, larger houses, additional finances or shopping opportunities for people's wives. We have no idea what was provided to politicians by any of the people being investigated or otherwise.
If anybody has a clear understanding and experience of business in TCI, they should present themselves with any information that they have as a matter of urgency. They might have given money, entirely innocently, as a political donation to a party that they wanted to support. However, if they found out that that gift was never registered, they should be worried about whether the other person might have thought that they were being bribed, whether the donor concerned thought that they were bribing or not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge asked some important questions about the future for TCI. The financial situation is difficult, and part of my sense of anger about the situation in TCI is that it is difficult in part because some enormous contracts were awarded. Contracts were awarded for 25 years using PFI and PPP arrangements and, in the case of the two hospitals, it was unclear how important or necessary those arrangements were at all, let alone the cost that they have come in at. That is going to weigh as a heavy financial burden on the people of TCI in the future, making it difficult for the governor to come forward with a sustainable economic model for the next few years.
We are keen to return to full constitutional government in TCI as soon as possible. We have to clarify a series of different things and change the system of belongership and how that is handed out. We must change the allocation of Crown lands, and ensure that the electoral system is ready. However, unless there is some terrible problem, our clear commitment is to have elections in July 2011, which is the date when the next round of elections would have been held.
I hope that the future for TCI will be rosier than the last few years have been. I hope that the investigation led by Helen Garlick is able to proceed without interference and brought to a successful conclusion, not least so that some of the assets that have frankly been stolen from the people of TCI can be returned.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise with the Minister what I am sure he will be the first to appreciate is likely to be the first of a considerable number of representations made to Ministers in Parliament about the impact of the Government's preferred route for the proposed high-speed railway. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) are present. I have spoken to the right hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who, because of his office as Speaker, cannot take part directly in debates. He is very actively pursuing the interests of his constituents in respect of the impact of the preferred route on the Buckingham constituency.
I believe that the route that the Government have said they prefer will seriously and irreparably damage the quality of my constituents' lives and the landscape of the Chiltern hills. Two aspects of the proposed route caused me particular dismay once I began to inspect the details. First, the plan for a viaduct to carry the railway around the western perimeter of Aylesbury, coming at the nearest point just 70 metres from people's homes, looks certain to cause massive damage to the quality of life of many hundreds of my constituents.
Secondly, I share the sense of outrage expressed to me in letters, e-mails and conversations with constituents since the Secretary of State's announcement on 11 March that the Government plan to route the line through the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty-landscape that successive Governments, whether Labour or Conservative, have designated as of exceptional national importance.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for agreeing that I could intervene in this short debate. Even in the report that has been given to the Secretary of State, the first point made in chapter 4.2.39 on the quality of life and the landscape and townscape is that the
"main landscape impact of HS2 would occur in the Chiltern Hills".
Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is dismaying that when HS2 Ltd made its proposals to the Government, not just the preferred route but even the runner-up were set to carve a swathe of destruction through the centre of the area of outstanding natural beauty. In my constituency, the villages of Great Missenden, South Heath and Wendover would be drastically affected. I should also tell the Minister that in the past 24 hours I have received the first reaction to the proposal from the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, which argues that the preferred route would have both a direct and an indirect impact on woodland sites-predominantly ancient woodlands-and on wetland sites, including a nature reserve and a site of special scientific interest on the border between Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.
To rub salt into the wound for my constituents and for the county of Buckinghamshire as a whole, the Government's proposal seems to be all pain and no gain-no direct benefit at all-for people living in
Buckinghamshire. There is to be no improvement to the infrastructure used by local people, just years of disruption during the construction phase and permanent damage to both our rural and our urban environments. Indeed, I find it remarkable that the same Government who have designated Aylesbury as a growth area, who are insisting that the town provides many thousands of additional homes and who at the same time have refused to plan for the transport infrastructure to sustain that development now announce plans for a fantastically expensive piece of infrastructure that will bypass the very place that the Government have designated for growth.
As we are at the start of what is likely to be a long process, I want today to concentrate on putting to the Minister a limited number of questions on issues that constituents have been raising directly with me in the past 10 days. First, I should like him to say something about the public consultation, which I understand is scheduled to begin in October. What exactly will be the scope of that consultation? The Secretary of State, in his recent letter to me, stated that both the principle of a new high-speed rail line and the question of a route would depend on the outcome of the consultation. I infer from those comments that the Government accept that it is perfectly in order for people, during the consultation process, to propose alternative routes or, indeed, to challenge the principle of HS2 altogether. I hope that the Minister will today confirm that that is the case-that my understanding is correct-and that the Government do not intend to begin drafting a hybrid Bill until the consultation and the subsequent period of reflection and appraisal to which the Secretary of State has referred have passed.
Secondly, what will be the nature of the public consultation? Of course, a number of bodies such as the Chilterns Conservation Board-the statutory agency to safeguard the environment of the Chilterns AONB-the Chiltern Society and the parish, town, district and county councils along the route will make representations, and I know already that local residents are organising themselves into community campaigns in order to prepare for the consultation. However, I want the Government not only to listen to public representations, but to be proactive and to ensure that every resident in the affected neighbourhoods is contacted and both encouraged and enabled to take part.
Mrs. Gillan: Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be reassured that the Department for Transport is paying attention to the detail in this case, because the consultation document that has already been issued on the exceptional hardship scheme relates to a consultation period that is less than the 12 weeks recommended by the Government, and the consultation will most likely take place over a period of purdah and therefore contravene some interesting rules on consultations? Also, Buckinghamshire county council was completely omitted from the list of individual local authorities that were part of the list of consultees. Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of attention to detail that causes the major county council to be missed off is rather alarming?
I hope that that is a lesson that the Minister and his Department will take on board. The point that my hon. Friend makes about the impact that
the period of purdah around the general election campaign can have on public consultations and the ability of the Government machine to publicise those consultations is something to which I hope that Ministers will pay attention. It would be outrageous if people in effect were to lose a number of weeks of publicity for the consultations because of the election. The obvious thing to do would be to extend the consultation period by the appropriate number of weeks.
I hope, too, that Ministers will make a personal commitment to come to my constituency and to others along the route to hear for themselves the views of the people whom their policies will affect so dramatically. I should perhaps add that as the preferred route in my constituency runs within 2 miles of Chequers, I think it likely that whoever holds the office of Prime Minister can expect to have his ear well and truly bent by his neighbours.
Lastly on this point, how long will the public consultation last? A period of six months is being talked about. That seems a very short time in which to consult seriously people right along the proposed route from Euston to Birmingham, let alone to examine the options beyond Birmingham, to which the White Paper, entitled "High Speed Rail", refers. In addition to the impact of the general election campaign, Christmas and the new year seem likely to fall in the middle of the Government's proposed consultation on the preferred route, which would compress the notional six-month timetable even more in practice. There is already a lot of public cynicism about the consultation, and there is an expectation that it is being done simply for show, so I look to the Minister to give me the strongest possible assurance that those public fears are mistaken.
People will want and need access to a lot of detailed information ahead of October, so that they can prepare their arguments. If at all possible, I want the public consultation to take place on the basis of arguments and debate about a commonly agreed set of facts. To take one obvious example, little information is as yet available to show how much noise would be heard by people living along the route. I talked to some of the environmental pressure groups in my constituency this morning, and they told me that HS2 Ltd has so far been rather reluctant to divulge any of the detail about its assumptions about noise levels and noise footprints. I know that that would be a difficult, technical and complicated bit of work, because ever since I was elected, I have had to deal with the issue of the noise from the M40, which cuts through the village of Stokenchurch, at the southern end of my constituency. However, people have a right to know not just the conclusions that have been reached by HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport, but the assumptions and background work on which those conclusions were based. If there is a reluctance to come forward with that detailed information, people will understandably assume the worst. It will be up to Ministers to insist that the Department, HS2 Ltd and Network Rail, which has done its own work on the high-speed proposal, are open with the public.
If the project goes ahead, on whatever route, it is vital that the Government show that they have learned lessons from the experience of building the high-speed channel tunnel link through Kent. A few hours ago, I talked to Mr. Patrick Begg, the regional director of the National
Trust, who said that, in environmental terms, the High Speed 1 process was brutal, poorly conceived and done on the cheap. To give a specific example, my local wildlife trust says that one lesson from High Speed 1 is that the indirect impact on woodland adjacent to the line in Kent was more severe than had been estimated before construction because of interference with the flow of surface water. Local councillors in my constituency, who have been in contact with their counterparts in Kent, were warned that the impact during construction went far wider than the immediate line of route. One was warned that he should expect every village and country lane within four or five miles of the route to be wrecked for some years while the line was built.
Mrs. Gillan: I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen this, but I want to bring to his attention "News of the Woods". It is produced by the Chiltern Woodlands Project, and the Minister could well look at it. The project has helpfully produced the "Special Trees and Woods" interactive website at www.chilternsaonb.org/special. The website shows the enormous concentration of special trees and woods directly along the route that Lord Adonis has chosen for the route.
Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes a telling point.
It is pretty obvious that a construction project of such a scale will need depots for building materials, arrangements for removing spoil and access over a long period for large numbers of heavy vehicles and plant. The Government need to be straight with people about what would be involved during construction, and they need to pledge that country lanes and the rural landscape in the area surrounding the route will be restored to their previous appearance after construction.
Finally, on compensation, many people are distraught because their properties have been utterly blighted. I know of elderly people who were relying on the value of their home to provide the capital to finance their care home fees in the not-too-distant future. I welcome the Government's proposal of an interim scheme to help people whose properties are blighted before the statutory provisions come into force. Why, however, is the scheme so narrow in scope and so niggardly in terms of the compensation offered? It is right that owner-occupiers should be helped, but business premises are excluded from the current proposals, even though owners may have plans to sell and retire. Without the proceeds from such sales, those owners will not be able to retire.
Furthermore, why should compensation be capped at 85 per cent. of the market value? People in Buckinghamshire did not ask for the line and they get no benefit from it at all. If the Government believe that it is in the overriding national interest that the scheme should go ahead and that my constituents must accept a massive sacrifice for the greater national good, it is a matter of justice that my constituents should be properly and fully compensated for what they stand to lose.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con):
I endorse all the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). We can see the level of interest in the debate by the presence of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and my hon. Friend the Member for
Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who are sitting alongside us, but who are precluded from speaking because of the brevity of the debate.
I have a few simple questions for the Minister. First, no environmental impact assessment has been published. I had a meeting with his boss, Lord Adonis, the other day and I was told that he had no intention of publishing an impact assessment before the general election. How can that be right? When can we expect to see the impact assessment for the Chilterns?
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): That is of particular relevance to my constituency, as the part of it that the railway slices through is an environmentally sensitive area and a nature reserve. In the absence of an assessment, it is difficult to know what the impact will be on that very sensitive part of the Colne valley.
Mrs. Gillan: Secondly, I would like to know what account the Department and the Minister have taken of section 85 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. I hope that he will be able to tell me-it should not be too difficult for him.
Finally, I asked the Secretary of State to visit my constituency to speak directly to constituents, who are rightly alarmed about the proposal coming so close to a general election. Lord Adonis told me that he has
"limited diary space in the coming weeks"
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