Previous Section Index Home Page

8 Dec 2010 : Column 109WH—continued

Festivals are a relatively low-cost and self-contained way for seaside towns to reposition themselves. For example, the Brighton and Hove food and drink festival supports the entire supply chain from farm to fork, and creates year-round promotion of the city as a quality destination for food lovers. The Sussex fashion awards, which are scheduled for February 2011, are another example and had the good sense to invite me to be a judge. Brighton dome and festival is a pairing of a year-round cultural festival to provide joined-up thinking and resources. However, health and safety rules, licensing costs, and restrictions applied by local councils on outdoor events and carnivals can have the effect of de-incentivising organisers. As events are one of the key creators of a buzzing, thriving economy, this is one relatively straightforward area where local councils and the Government can act rapidly to allow the private sector to facilitate change.

Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): My hon. Friend will know how lucky he is to represent a constituency that is so close to mine in the great tourist resort of Brighton and Hove. It has nearly 8 million visitors a year who provide £0.75 billion to the economy every year, and 14,000 people are employed in the tourism industry. He is right to say that tourism is not just about the beach and the sea. There is a variety of important cultural attractions in the city that we represent. Things such as music and arts, which I know are dear to my hon. Friend's heart, are important drivers, together with traditional attractions such as the Palace pier.

I would like to raise one point, and I thank my hon. Friend for allowing this interruption-

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): It is a rather long interruption.

Simon Kirby: Does my hon. Friend agree that we need better train services to enable people to come and see our great city?

8 Dec 2010 : Column 110WH

Mike Weatherley: I thank my hon. Friend for that speech, and for taking the impact of most of my speech away. If I may, I will return to the point about transport in a few minutes.

Unfortunately, many seaside towns in the UK have problems managing the night-time economy. Many councils and residents look with disdain at bars and clubs and their patrons, and a cultural shift is required to move on and recognise the economic benefits of that sector. Within Brighton and Hove, the night-time economy raises a figure in excess of £400 million a year, which goes a long way towards the figure mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet. A thriving night-time economy is one of the strongest draws for visitors to the coast and, increasingly, for the "silver mature" market, which includes myself. The night-time economy should be embraced and helped, not legislated against. Extended licensing hours, for example, have generally benefited the city, rather than had a negative effect.

One of the main blocks to feel-good tourism in the UK is the continued lack of investment in the infrastructure of seaside towns. That leads to limited and expensive parking and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) noted, inadequate rail facilities. Due to necessary but never-ending engineering works, Brighton and Hove is often inaccessible by direct rail at weekends, and the road works and lack of road capacity result in endless traffic jams at peak times. The cumulative effect of that has a negative impact on visitors, and the lack of investment in city centre parking in Brighton and Hove is a major obstacle to future development. The past decade of discouraging car use was a mistake; an integrated transport system is required, rather than forcing through one form of transport.

Congestion charging says to visitors, "Please do not come here." Let us hope that that idea is never implemented in Brighton and Hove, which depends on welcoming visitors rather than turning them away. The same applies to parking fines. Car parking should be a council priority when looking at investment in buildings and other attractions. I would also like to see proposals for the monorail along our seafront progressed. That would be an innovative scheme, and a first for the country. Such proactive development will boast the importance and desirability of the city as a destination.

I welcome the coalition shift towards having more planning decisions taken locally, and I hope that that does not lead to fewer planning approvals. Our record in Brighton and Hove over the past 20 years may be attributed to the proposal of inappropriate schemes, and to intransigent developers trying to foist their schemes on the city. It is also due to a cumbersome planning permission regime.

Although it is important to protect the unique Georgian and Victorian architectural heritage of our seaside towns, which have no equivalent in the world, it is equally important to see them as living, breathing spaces with economies to support. We need to get the balance right between protecting the best bits, and being bold enough to replace the mediocre.

In summary: it is time to regenerate. Tourism is vital important to my constituency, and we should encourage investment in destination hotels and attractions-the relaxation of some planning controls would help. We should also embrace the night-time economy, avoid
8 Dec 2010 : Column 111WH
excessive legislation and red tape, improve transport infrastructure, especially car parking, and recognise the importance of the tourism sector with tax breaks for small companies. For example, I would like to see the national insurance scheme currently proposed for the rest of the country extended to those cities in the south that require an occasional boost to tourism. Such issues are vital for Hove and Portslade, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response and to working with the Government.

3.5 pm

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) on securing this important debate. Like a moth to a flame, as a Blackpool MP I find it hard to resist any debate on tourism and seaside towns. Today, however, I do not want to talk about Blackpool. Close observers of the annunciator will have noticed that I represent Blackpool North and Cleveleys. Cleveleys is also a seaside town with a tourism industry, although it does not receive as much attention as its big brother to the south.

Many people holiday in Cleveleys without going anywhere near Blackpool. It offers a wonderful expanse of coast and some of the finest promenade architecture that we have seen built in this country over the past 25 years. Bus trips come for the day from far and wide. During the general election, I had a street stall in Cleveleys. By half-past 10 in the morning I was spending more time convincing voters from constituencies such as Stoke-on-Trent Central to vote Conservative than I was convincing those from my constituency. Obviously, I did not do enough because we failed win the seat in Stoke-on-Trent Central, but I did my bit.

Cleveleys has flat pavements. Hon. Members may wonder why I mention that, but flat pavements are unusual in seaside towns and they make the town accessible. A large number of coaches come to Cleveleys full of disabled tourists who know that it is an accessible resort that they can get around despite their mobility problems. Large numbers of pensioners also come to Cleveleys-again, because it is easy to get around.

Cleveleys has a good variety of shops and a large number of cafés for people to sit in should a shower pass over. One such place is the Carousel Café, which is run by the president of the chamber of trade, Martin Hunns. Although Cleveleys has some wonderful, positive aspects, it also has a few downsides. If one asked Martin about Cleveleys, as I am sure people do, he will say one thing:

The town is concerned about the sustainability of the range of shops on the main streets, and the future of its indoor markets. One such market is to close suddenly, although I gather that an improved version is on the way. A medium-sized seaside town such as Cleveleys has positive and negative aspects, but the main challenge it faces is that of marketing, branding and
8 Dec 2010 : Column 112WH
communication-something that other hon. Members have also mentioned. Who should do that marketing, and how?

I want to pay tribute to a lady called Jane Littlewood who runs a small business, Rabbit Design. She moved to Cleveleys from South Yorkshire, and saw the opportunity the moment she arrived. She now runs a website that promotes tourism in Cleveleys, which she does entirely on her own without any public funding. Unsurprisingly, the website is called, and I encourage hon. Members to do just what it says and visit Cleveleys. As Jane says,

What Jane does is more than a voluntary initiative and a nice idea; I think that it is the future for destination marketing in this country. For too long, we have assumed that the responsibility for marketing our seaside towns should lie with some sort of public body, be it local government, VisitEngland, VisitBritain-or visit whoever-or even the Minister's Department. Here, however, we have someone taking the initiative and doing something for the benefit of their community without a public body intervening. I hope that hon. Members will not groan when I say that that might just be an example of the big society in action.

If we look a little to the south of my constituency, although not as far as Southport, we see that South Ribble and West Lancashire have the Heart of Lancashire Tourist Association. It was recently spun off as a community interest company and is owned by the very businesses that it promotes. It is a true co-operative and does not need to be sustained by public funding. When we see the Minister's domestic tourism strategy, I hope that VisitEngland will have become not a body that picks and chooses the places that it promotes, but a repository of understanding and knowledge about how best to promote tourism in the UK.

VisitBritain's role is quite distinct: it is to encourage overseas visitors to come to the UK. I hope that it will work hard to encourage Chinese people to come and enjoy Blackpool pleasure beach, which will certainly be a cultural experience for them in many ways. VisitEngland, however, really has to focus on understanding how we promote domestic tourism. We all talk about the cliché of the "staycation", which might well be a passing, transient phenomenon, but we need to understand that there is a wide variety of holidays that our citizens can take in this country.

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet mention the concept of social tourism, which is close to my heart. I urge anybody who does not know what it is to come to the inaugural meeting of my all-party group on social tourism next week, where they can find out far more about the subject. They might even take part in the inquiry that the Family Holiday Association is organising for the start of next year on defining just what we mean by social tourism. We should try to find new ways of developing tourism and spreading its wider benefits to disadvantaged groups.

8 Dec 2010 : Column 113WH

I wonder how many Members here have heard of the Family Fund, an organisation that spends almost £30 million of Government money on giving families with disabled children short breaks in the UK. Many people say that we do not do social tourism in the UK, but we do, and the Government already spend £30 million a year on it. We need to understand what goes on already and what could go on in the future, and my hon. Friend mentioned many examples. We need to understand what benefits that could bring us.

I am really looking forward to reading the Minister's domestic tourism strategy, and I hope that it is a long read, because there is a lot that we need to deal with. When he presents it, however, we will have to address the fact that tourism does not stand in isolation. Tourism promotion, particularly in places such as Blackpool, can be hampered by some of the negative feelings that people have about seaside towns. Branding is not just about Blackpool town, the pleasure beach or the nice seaside; it can also be about some of the negative headlines on social problems that people read in our newspapers.

Before the debate, I asked the Library to put together a ranking of all Conservative-held constituencies by deprivation. I had a theory that there would be a concentration of very poor Conservative-held seats in seaside towns, and that is indeed the case. Of the top 10 Conservative-held constituencies by deprivation, six are seaside towns, and the list is topped, unfortunately, by the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd)-that is perhaps not a list that she would wish to top, but she does none the less. I come in at No. 4.

Clearly, the role of tourism in the economic regeneration of seaside towns is crucial, but we cannot see it in isolation, and we must tackle every other silo of Government activity. That is why I am so pleased that responsibility for this issue, in addition to being based in the DCMS, ranges across several Departments. That is crucial, because until we get the whole picture right, we cannot hope to get tourism right.

3.14 pm

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I am delighted to take part in the debate, which gives many of us in the Chamber an excellent opportunity to share our concerns about tourism in seaside resorts.

I want to begin by talking about deprivation. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), I have done some research, although not just into Conservative-held seats. When I looked at the ranking of towns according to the number of personal insolvencies and bankruptcies, four of the top five were seaside towns. I am afraid that one of them was Hastings, while another, which is closer to my constituency, was Plymouth, although it was a little further down the list.

One reason why such towns are so deprived is that they have relied on support from industries such as engineering and fishing. Teignmouth, in my constituency, used to have a much more active and profitable fishing industry, but that is no longer the case, and most of the catch must now be landed in Brixham. Solving the problems of seaside towns is not, therefore, just about tourism, although it plays a key role. We must also look
8 Dec 2010 : Column 114WH
at how we build supplementary businesses and industries. Much as I agree with hon. Members that the challenge is to ensure that tourism continues all year round, we must accept that there will always be more of it in the summer and that there will be a fair few part-time, rather than full-time jobs.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I completely support my hon. Friend's point. Does she agree that year-round interests, such as food tourism and heritage, are a particularly important part of the tourism offer? I am thinking particularly of food tourism in Kent, which has been a big growth area in the Canterbury and Faversham area and in Romney marsh, in my constituency.

Anne Marie Morris: I certainly agree, and that well-made point reiterates that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley).

The value of tourism is enormous. Members have mentioned several figures, but when I last looked at the issue, the prediction was that tourism would be worth £180 billion in this country by 2020. By that point, it will also be responsible for providing 2.89 million jobs, which is phenomenal. That would make a big difference to the current parlous state of the economy.

I represent part of Devon, which has 5.3 million visitors each year. That accounts for 7% of the Devon economy, which is well above average. In Teignbridge-the small heart of the part of Devon that I represent-32% of the work force are involved in tourism in some way or other. That is a very high figure, but it is not out of line with many of the figures that hon. Friends have mentioned.

Help is needed, because tourism is valuable for the growth of our economy and the recovery, but we need to identify how we make that help available, as many hon. Members have said. Perhaps I can briefly mention the key seaside towns in my constituency to help us see what the right solutions might be.

Dawlish Warren is a huge success story, and I am pleased about that. We have 800,000 visitors a year-on a good day, there are 20,000, which is a significant number. Why do we get those visitors? We have some excellent blue flag beaches and 505 acres of nature reserves, which attracts an interesting mix of tourists. However, we face the challenge of erosion, which is slowly pulling the beach back. As many hon. Members have said, the ability to solve such problems is not, dare I say it, in the gift just of this Minister, and I am pleased to say that I have had favourable responses on these issues from some of his Front-Bench colleagues.

Teignmouth is beautiful. It is a quintessential Victorian seaside town, but it, too, has its challenges. It has an ageing pier. It would be lovely if some of the suggestions made about lottery funding before the election could become a reality, because that could help. The town also has an ageing fish quay, which could receive EU funding and input, but those are proving quite elusive, and help from the Government in enabling seaside towns to make the most of EU opportunities would be extremely welcome.

Dawlish, which is a regency resort, is best known for its black swans. Jane Austen also stayed in the Strand, which is the main street running through the town. In
8 Dec 2010 : Column 115WH
answer to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys I would say that the big society is here in seaside towns. All three communities that I have mentioned have put together their own plans. They are well supported by the local community; there is not a great division. Indeed, the Dawlish plan is today on the Strand, ready to be inspected. What they need, having come up with the plan, is help with the solutions.

Clearly, No. 1 is marketing. I must declare an interest, because I am a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and the issue is close to my heart. One of our concerns is that, while we need the big society, with communities doing their bit, we also need an appropriate framework and strategy, and a toolkit for making tourism work, and marketing it, as my hon. Friends the Members for Hove and for Blackpool North and Cleveleys were saying earlier. South West Tourism is the body that provides that guidance and framework at the moment in my part of the world. It will be disbanded in 2011 because it was under the aegis of the regional development agency, which clearly will not survive. What will replace it is an issue that is dear to my constituents' and my heart. VisitEngland and VisitDevon provide some help and assistance, but they do not go to the heart of the need.

We need to grapple with the question of what the target market for tourism is. As hon. Members have articulated, the days of the bucket and spade brigade have declined, because those people are going to sunnier climes where they can guarantee the weather, and it is cheaper because they do not have to pay for entertainment when it is raining. We must think about not just social and cultural tourism, which are important, but those people who no longer have children at home-the so-called empty nesters-who are looking for a different type of holiday. They may want to combine a holiday across seaside resorts and rural sites. We need to think about what the target market is and how we segment it- by the type of holiday that people want to enjoy, or by geography? We need such a strategy, because otherwise all the efforts made locally will be fighting against each other. That has been one of the problems to date. In Dawlish the community has got together as a group to ask, "What do we do about our brand? What does Dawlish stand for? How could we market ourselves, together with Teignmouth, and perhaps some of the other destinations out on the moor?" Marketing is a key thing, and that is clearly one of the solutions.

The second issue relates to regenerating not just the housing stock but the fabric of the landmarks in the relevant communities. I have referred to our pier. I should love to find some money, perhaps from the lottery, to sort it out. One of the challenges with refurbishing seaside towns is VAT. VAT on new build, which is not really appropriate in this case, is zero-rated. However, we shall feel the full weight of the 20% rate next year. Would not it be wonderful if, for that type of regenerative building, the VAT rate could be 5%? I know that that is not in the Minister's gift, but it is perhaps in that of some of his colleagues.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend will be aware that we are one of only six countries left in Europe who
8 Dec 2010 : Column 116WH
charge double figures for hotel accommodation. The 21 who do not are all reporting increased turnover, increased tax take and an increased ability to create jobs. Does my hon. Friend agree that our Government should seriously consider that?

Anne Marie Morris: I certainly agree. The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) has raised that matter over the years. As my hon. Friend says, the rate is much lower across the continent. France has just brought it down to 7%. We need to look at that issue.

I suggest also that the Minister should consider business rates. They are the bugbear of many small businesses. Might we conceivably consider enabling communities to reinvest the business rates that are charged back into the community, the small businesses, and particularly tourism, which, certainly in my constituency, makes up a large part of the small business?

Damian Collins: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is encouraging that the Government, in their local growth White Paper, are including consideration of how councils can invest in the business infrastructure of their community and recoup that investment through tax increment financing in the future?

Anne Marie Morris: I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes a good point.

I want to talk now about the challenge of part-time workers. There is often a disincentive for them to take jobs because of the way the tax system works. If they are not working enough hours to take them over the threshold below which they do not pay tax, when they take a second job they are instantly thrown into paying the full base rate. There needs to be a way to simplify the process, so that individuals who take on several part-time jobs are not penalised, and do not have to reclaim overpaid tax.

I know that Front Benchers are considering the issue of people working 16 hours before losing benefit, which has meant that holiday businesses that employ people on a short-term basis find that when they want the flexibility for that individual to work a couple more hours it cannot be done without a huge problem for the employee.

I want finally to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) about local enterprise partnerships. They can play a crucial role in providing the strategy and support that will enable community plans to become a reality. They can also play a crucial role in enabling us to find the funds for the different plans. It would be helpful if the Minister and his Front-Bench colleagues could reinforce that point.

I look forward positively to the domestic tourism strategy. I am delighted that the Prime Minister said that he would like domestic tourism to increase from 35% to 50%. That is fantastic, and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to make my case.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): There are three hon. Members left to speak. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 3.40 pm exactly, so if hon. Members could share the time between them, that would be appreciated.

8 Dec 2010 : Column 117WH
3.26 pm

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I shall keep my comments brief, Mr Crausby, and, if hon. Members do not mind, turn their attention to Wales for a short moment, in the full understanding that some of what we have been discussing this afternoon is devolved; the issues are common to seaside towns throughout the UK.

There are a few areas on which I should like the Minister, if possible, to comment, and reassure us. In my constituency we have 10 seaside towns, and no two are the same in their complications and economic and environmental circumstances. First, national parks are without a shadow of doubt a great asset, to be protected, and essential for a successful and effective tourism industry. However, there is a feeling, at least in my part of the world, that national park planning departments are a barrier to investment, progress and individuals who want to expand their tourist industry. It would be encouraging to hear from the Minister whether consideration will be given to merging in some way the local authority and national park planning functions, to minimise the chance of complications, which inevitably lead to the rejection of perfectly reasonable and positive planning applications, to the detriment of the local economy.

Secondly, I want to raise a planning-related matter-it has been mentioned before, but I want to put it in the specific context of agriculture: that is ensuring that the people on the fringes, not necessarily in the seaside towns, can diversify their agricultural businesses in a way that benefits the overall tourism attraction of the area. That issue is common to national park planning applications and to local authority applications.

Mr Mark Williams: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in a Welsh context, the planning experience he alluded to has hampered the development of agri-tourism, food tourism and green tourism, which we in west Wales are uniquely placed to develop fully?

Simon Hart: The hon. Gentleman is completely right. His constituency is only a few miles up the coast from mine and I recognise his concerns.

My third and penultimate point is about road and rail infrastructure. Of the 1 million international visitors to Wales, who have brought in £321 million in the recent past, a significant proportion-92%-made their journey to Wales in a car, but once people get as far as about Swansea it is almost impossible to travel any further west with any degree of comfort. It is even more difficult on a train. That is a subject for a future debate, when we will discuss the electrification of rail lines. We are not making things easy for the tourism industry in the west of Wales in that respect.

Finally, for the sake of brevity, let us not lose sight of the fact that although tourism is the subject of this debate, in my part of west Wales at least, coastal town regeneration is just as dependent on other industries as it is on tourism. To take the Milford Haven waterway as an example, in that location, there are two oil refineries and two gas terminals, and the biggest gas-fired power station in Europe is under construction. The inward investment to those enterprises is vital not only for the people who are immediately connected with them. The
8 Dec 2010 : Column 118WH
surrounding tourism industry and economic environment are linked to large-scale industrial investment just as much as they are to tourism. We must not lose sight of that. This is not a case of either/or; it can be both. I hope that in the Government's proposals, those few points are taken into account.

3.30 pm

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): It is a pleasure to contribute to this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) on initiating it. I will try to be brief, and I will of course add to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), in that I am bringing Wales to the table today.

I have the privilege of being the Member of Parliament for Aberconwy. That means that I represent the seaside resort of Llandudno, which is recognised in Wales as the queen of Welsh resorts. The experience of Llandudno is very positive, because it has been a success story in many ways during the past few years, but before I focus on Llandudno, it is important to point out that seaside resorts and former seaside resorts have developed in different ways during the past 15 to 20 years. For example, the resort of Llanfairfechan in my constituency, has developed into a dormer village or dormer town. People live there to enjoy what is available there: the scenery, the beach and so on. Tourism can play a part in the further regeneration of Llanfairfechan, but the town has played its own game and decided to serve as a residential community, which is obviously perfectly acceptable.

Penmaenmawr is another resort in my constituency. Believe it or not, Penmaenmawr was the favourite resort of Gladstone, the former Prime Minister. He used to go there every summer to recharge his batteries. Penmaenmawr became an industrial area, dependent on quarrying, but it is now rediscovering tourism as a means of regeneration. The residents of Penmaenmawr, who are very proud of their association with the former Liberal Prime Minister, would be more than delighted to welcome the current Deputy Prime Minister. If things become a bit hot in London during the next few days, he is more than welcome to come to Penmaenmawr, where he can enjoy the seaside and the mountains and contribute to the redevelopment of the tourism sector in that town.

However, the real issue for me today relates to Llandudno, which is a great success, as it has retained its Victorian ambience but has also tried to modernise itself and ensure that it is a seaside resort that works all year round. A previous contributor commented on part-time work and casual work. One of the big challenges in relation to tourism and economic redevelopment is to ensure that the tourism sector can provide year-round employment. Llandudno is keen to ensure that it develops year-round tourism, and it has done that by being proactive about its marketing, ensuring that it draws in the Christmas market and so on. However, it has also worked in partnership with the local authority to ensure that it can offer conference facilities and entertainment. The local authority has worked with the tourism association in Llandudno to develop Venue Cymru, for example, where there are a large theatre and conference facilities. That means that Llandudno attracts tourists all year round, which has the added benefit of allowing businesses
8 Dec 2010 : Column 119WH
servicing those tourists and visitors to employ people and give them proper jobs for 52 weeks of the year, as opposed to the casual employment that they had to depend on in that sector in the past.

Another of Llandudno's successes results from the fact that it has not seen tourism as something that works in isolation. In addition to being the queen of Welsh resorts, it has been the main shopping centre for north Wales for generations. The investment in retail has continued, and the important thing about that investment is that it is not just about the high street multiples, which are obviously very important to the local market. The wonderful thing about Llandudno is that it also offers independent retailers, who add to the experience for tourists when they come to the town. They have the feeling that they are in an old-fashioned resort. They can see the high street multiples, but they can also go to the back streets and find interesting retailers offering something completely different.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a council working with other councils in the region could bring in tourists for everyone? If a push is made to bring tourists to one village on its own, sometimes that does not work, but if a council works with other councils and other tourist destinations, with all their different attractions, everyone can benefit.

Guto Bebb: That is a very valuable contribution. Conwy council, which represents Llandudno, works in partnership with other local authorities, especially in relation to marketing the advantages of Snowdonia, for example, so yes, I agree with that point.

We are very fortunate that a large part of the town of Llandudno is under the management of Mostyn Estates. One of the strengths of Llandudno is that it has retained its character, due to the sympathetic management of the town by Mostyn Estates. That management has ensured that, for example, when people hit the prom in Llandudno, it looks extremely impressive. There are controls over the colour of the paint that can be put on hotels and there are controls in terms of not allowing buildings to be turned into houses in multiple occupation. That has kept the character of the town and has contributed to Llandudno's success.

I shall finish with these questions and points for my hon. Friend the Minister, because I am aware that time is pressing. The Llandudno Hospitality Association has a number of concerns, including one that was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. I am referring to VAT on hotel rates. One of Llandudno's successes is that it has turned its attention to offering a broad range of accommodation, from bed and breakfasts to high-class boutique hotels. However, there is a concern that we face a VAT rate of 20% on hotel accommodation, compared with much lower rates in the rest of Europe.

It is worth mentioning that 3.1 million people live in seaside resorts in the UK. That is more than the population of Wales. Wales has a Secretary of State and a Welsh Assembly fighting its corner. Is the voice of seaside resorts heard across Government? I am sure that the coalition Government will ensure that that is the case, but I would like reassurance on that point.

8 Dec 2010 : Column 120WH

Tourism should not be seen as a Cinderella sector in economic development. Local enterprise partnerships in England offer the opportunity to ensure that tourism development is part of those strategies. I hope that the LEP process in England learns the lesson from Wales. I am very disappointed, because the Welsh Assembly recently announced that it was targeting six specific sectors of the Welsh economy for growth and, for some bizarre reason, tourism was not included. I hope that the Minister will have more success in selling the importance of tourism as an economic development tool than his colleague did in the Welsh Assembly.

3.37 pm

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): I have sprung to my feet in defence of the town of Hastings in my constituency, as it was placed in a not very positive category by a number of my colleagues. Deprivation in seaside towns is a fact. The point is well rehearsed and has been repeated by many hon. Members here today. It is true that Hastings suffers on many indexes of deprivation, but I will not refer to that now, because I should like instead to draw attention to some of the many wonderful aspects of Hastings. It has a large natural park around it. We have wonderful food and drink, and next year will see the arrival of the new Jerwood art gallery, which I hope will contribute to regenerating the town.

I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister about the amusement industry. We all know that the seaside tourism industry is linked to the amusement industry, and if the amusement industry is hampered, so is the economic growth of seaside towns. The amusement and bingo industry has been under pressure as a result of the Gambling Act 2005 and, as we know, that has been exacerbated by the recession. Given the wider debate about the economic viability of seaside towns, it is very important that the amusement industry is supported. We have heard today about many new initiatives to support seaside towns and their industries, but we must not forget the old one-the amusement industry and its slot machines, which are important in attracting tourists to our towns.

The regulatory framework of the 2005 Act is robust and exhaustive and went a long way in defending and supporting people, but it also had some unintended consequences, damaging seaside towns. I know that at the moment a Government consultation is under way about maximum stakes, premises and entitlements. I hope that the Minister will be able to introduce some positive changes when the consultation finishes, because many seaside towns have been suffering under those measures. I am thinking particularly of private clubs that are no longer allowed to offer high-paying slot machines. People who wish to use such slot machines must go instead to casinos and gambling places, which have a less benign atmosphere than private clubs, which causes problems. Will the Minister consider carefully what can be done to support the amusement industry, which is so important to seaside towns?

3.40 pm

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) on securing this important debate. She spoke passionately about the issues, which are vital to the lives and livelihoods
8 Dec 2010 : Column 121WH
of many people in her constituency, as they are to the people and economies of many other seaside towns up and down Britain. I hope that she and the other hon. Members who spoke will use their influence with their parties to bring the issue to the attention of the Government, and to press for the necessary steps to secure the future of our seaside towns and ensure that the regeneration of seaside and coastal areas does not slip off the agenda.

Tourism is incredibly important for the survival and regeneration of British seaside towns. It creates huge numbers of jobs, both for people directly employed in the industry and for many thousands more working in related industries. Millions of people visit the seaside every year-after London, Blackpool and Scarborough are the country's second and third most popular destinations for overnight stays. In total, about 25% of domestic tourism is made up of people taking holidays at seaside and coastal towns. I have learned that Cleveleys is an attractive destination. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) spoke about the town's accessibility, and I shall certainly look at the website he mentioned.

Many hon. Members noted that tourism alone cannot be held responsible for ensuring the future of coastal communities, but it has also been noted that it is essential to start with the industry that made these places popular and, in many cases, famous and well loved. That means supporting tourism and directing support to seaside towns that rely on it as an economic lifeline. As the hon. Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) said, it means adopting a cross-departmental approach to help seaside and coastal towns tackle the problems that they face, and ensure that they remain, or return to being, places in which people want to live and work, as well as visit.

The coalition Government must take steps to end the cycle of seasonality that particularly affects coastal communities and to tackle joblessness and youth unemployment. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) spoke about the importance of the tourism industry in providing jobs for his constituents. The coalition should also act to provide better-quality and more affordable housing; to support the delivery of strong public services and infrastructure; to take steps to reduce the anti-social behaviour and crime that blights so many of our seaside towns; and to safeguard the growth of small and medium-sized businesses. The amusement industry, to which the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) referred, falls within that sector.

I have spoken to members of the tourism industry, and I was told this morning that, after a period of neglect and decline, it was the previous Labour Government who ensured sustained investment in seaside towns, delivered in particular through the regional development agency, which the coalition has scrapped. The previous Labour Government backed coastal tourism and worked hard to ensure that the British seaside was becoming, once again, an attractive place for people to live, work and enjoy simple pleasures, such as the beach and the sea, and popular visitor attractions.

Earlier this year, Labour launched its strategy for seaside success, which included £5 million to help the most deprived seaside authorities, building on its record in government of targeting an additional £127 million of funding on coastal local authorities to help them meet the particular challenges that seaside towns can
8 Dec 2010 : Column 122WH
face. The hon. Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), for Hove (Mike Weatherley) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) discussed additional provision and activities in our seaside towns. Labour's strategy also involved a "seasiding" campaign to promote festivals, other cultural initiatives and the non-seasonal economy, and to support the development of heritage attractions, for example, the renewal of historic piers. Those things are needed to make our seaside towns year-round destinations. The campaign involved plans to improve infrastructure, tackle disproportionate levels of deprivation in seaside towns, and work with regional and local bodies to ensure that seaside towns and seaside tourism could flourish. Hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), talked about the problem of deprivation in such areas.

The coalition's cuts to RDAs and the budgets of organisations set up to promote tourism will hit hard and hurt at a time when the industry needs support, particularly in seaside towns that still depend heavily on tourism. The Government, from the Prime Minister downwards, have yet to show that they have the plans to secure the future of our seaside towns. Yes, we have heard lots of warm words about the state of seaside tourism in Britain, but I argue that they are simply an endorsement of Labour's record, rather than a strategy that the Government will pursue while in office.

The Minister has taken the trouble to visit Britain's seaside towns, which is to be welcomed, but we have yet to hear his findings, and we look forward to doing so. If the Government are to support seaside towns and continue Labour's work to regenerate such areas, the coalition must tell people, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said, how seaside holidays and attractions in coastal towns will be advertised to appeal to visitors, following the 34% cuts to VisitBritain and VisitEngland and the 32% cut to the English Heritage grant. As the hon. Member for Southport said, what role will local enterprise partnerships play now that the Government are going to abolish regional development agencies? Will LEPs have any responsibility for the regeneration of our seaside towns?

The hon. Members for Newton Abbot and for Ceredigion referred to the impact on the tourism industry of the VAT rise to 20%. Has there been an impact assessment of its effects on our seaside and coastal towns? If so, I would like to see it. In short, what is the Government's strategy for ensuring that tourism is supported so that it can continue to play an integral part in our seaside and coastal towns? Without Government support, British seaside towns and the people who live and work in them face another period of decline.

It is not enough to rely, as the Conservative party so often does, on the power of the private sector. I spoke to Peter Hampson, director of the British Resorts and Destinations Association, this morning, and he shares my concerns that, if the challenges facing seaside resorts are not addressed, if resorts are not protected and developed, and if budgets to attract tourists to them are consistently cut, then people will simply go elsewhere.

The coalition needs to answer a question for the tourism industry: the people whose livelihoods rely on seaside and coastal tourism and those who have chosen to make their lives at the British seaside. How much of the overall spend on promoting tourism will be directed to seaside towns? What plans do the Government have
8 Dec 2010 : Column 123WH
to ensure that work to support and regenerate seaside towns will continue? How can the Government expect the private sector to invest in seaside towns without seeing a clear lead from Government and the public sector? Without a clear and cohesive public policy to support seaside tourism and seaside towns, the risk is that places such as Ramsgate in the constituency of the hon. Member for South Thanet and other coastal resorts, about which we have heard a lot today, will decline once again.

3.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (John Penrose): It is a pleasure to have you as our Chairman today, Mr Crausby. I echo other hon. Members' thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) on securing the debate and leading it so well. She demonstrates that she is sticking up for her constituents in an incredibly effective fashion. Her lead has been followed during the debate by a great many other Members from seaside towns all around the country.

I think it was the hon. Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) who pointed out that although the problems and issues faced by seaside towns have a common thread running through them, seaside towns are different in different parts of the country. However, on the basis of today, if one thing about every seaside town is clear, it is that they all have a pretty determined local Member wanting to stick up for them here in Westminster. To put it politely, we are all as biased as each other, and convinced that our seaside town is far better than anyone else's. I suspect that I fall into the same category, because I am of course convinced that Weston-super-Mare is the best seaside town in the country-I am getting frowns from the rest of the room.

Important points have been made. I will not take them in any particular order, but will endeavour to respond to as many of the questions and points raised as possible in the limited time available. There has been a shared conviction throughout the debate that tourism is an incredibly important part of the regeneration opportunities available to any seaside town. Tourism provides a superb opportunity for rapid economic growth in a financially efficient fashion.

We are lucky in the coalition Government to have a Prime Minister who was willing to mark his enthusiasm for the sector and recognise its importance by making a speech about it in August. Older hands at DCMS tell me that they cannot in recent decades remember a Prime Minister making a speech about the visitor economy within the first 100 days of a new Administration, and making the point that the sector is so important to the British economy that he wants to put it front and centre of the Administration's economic plans. We are lucky to have the prime ministerial wind in our sails; it is tremendously helpful to have that kind of support. That is because, as a number of Members have rightly pointed out, tourism cuts across a wide variety of different Departments in Whitehall, so it is up to me and anyone else interested in the visitor economy to make the case for tourism in the Department for Transport, in the Home Office and with the UK Border Agency, and in all the different Departments that tourism touches.
8 Dec 2010 : Column 124WH
It is essential to ensure that everybody knows that we have high-level patronage and a great degree of importance attached to the industry.

The most commonly mentioned concern and opportunity was marketing. It was raised by a series of Members-my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), the hon. Member for Southport, and my hon. Friends the Members for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), and for Hove (Mike Weatherley); apologies to anyone I have left out. Marketing is essential, because since the 1980s seaside towns have faced the difficulty of establishing a new USP, or unique selling proposition-a new position within the market to bring people to them in the wake of the relative decline of the UK seaside bucket-and-spade holiday, after everyone started going to Spain and other places on cheap charter flights.

Some places have managed that brilliantly. We can all think of examples round the country where seaside towns have done well: Bournemouth has done extremely well out of the conference trade; Rock in north Cornwall has done well out of food tourism; festivals have brought seaside towns to life; and funfairs are one of the major draws to Blackpool, even now. A lot of development capital is going into the Blackpool seafront as we speak. There are ways of re-positioning a seaside town, by establishing a new marketing position that creates a new draw and underlying raison d'être. However, it is up to that individual seaside town to come up with its specific local example and to put it out there, so that people know why they might want to come to Weston-super-Mare, Hastings or wherever.

It is essential that the Government help that process to happen. The Government cannot do that from the centre, and tell any one seaside town what its new USP ought to be. That has to come from the local economy and the local tourism industry, supported by the local authority. One of the coalition Government's most important initiatives is to assist the birth of a new kind of destination management organisation-a new kind of local tourism board, whatever it is called. It will be led by the local tourism industry, which lives or dies by the success of its local destination. We all have examples in our constituencies of well-run, high-powered, large and small local tourism firms that know what is right for them, and for Weston-super-Mare, Hastings or South Thanet. It is up to them to tell us what to do, and for us to ensure that they can create a destination marketing organisation that will position the town and attract new visitors to it on a sustainable basis.

That means that we need to have an organisation that is primarily managed and led by the local industry, rather than by the public sector. The public sector needs to support, help and do what it can, but we want the local industry to take a hard-headed commercial look at what the town can offer to visitors, and then market the heck out of it in the most commercially savvy way.

That means that the new DMOs, or whatever we want to call them, will essentially be managed and led by the local tourism industry. It is essential that that takes place. Equally, it is worth remembering that the phrase "destination management organisation" is not the same as "destination marketing organisation", though they share an acronym. It is vital that when we have
8 Dec 2010 : Column 125WH
created the local destination marketing organisation, it acts as the voice of the visitor in the local community. The local industry should say, "It is essential that, working in conjunction with the local authority, we are able to frame our local tourism industry and attractions, and organise the local public spaces, in a way that shows off our town and its attractions to the best advantage." That means it must have a strong voice-a seat at the table-with the local authority, and act as the voice of the industry and the visitor in any decisions that the local authority may take, in order to ensure that each seaside town's unique charms are shown off to their best.

That is how we need to reform marketing. There will be a new kind of partnership marketing, a partnership between the local tourism industry and the local authority-ideally with matched funding-so that we can maximise the money being spent in an effective, commercial way to promote each seaside town to the utmost.

A number of Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, and for South Thanet, mentioned social tourism. That is a particularly interesting idea that I discussed recently with Mr Tajani from the EU. There is an EU-wide programme called Calypso under way at the moment. It is an interesting notion that we need to explore carefully. Members will be aware that there is a very limited pot of public funding. Therefore, anything we do in this area has to be done in the way described by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet; as she said, we do not have to spend additional public funding on it. I welcome that instinct; I think she is absolutely right to say that we need to come up with solutions that are not going to add to the burden on the taxpayer. If there are proposals coming out of the new all-party parliamentary group that is being set up, I will be interested to hear them. We are also engaging with the European effort via Mr Tajani.

The issue of daylight saving was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet. I will not add much to that, because the subject was debated fully on Friday. The tourism industry is very much behind the initiative. It is convinced, as are other industries such as
8 Dec 2010 : Column 126WH
retail, that it will greatly help the sector. However, it is not as simple as that, as I am sure my hon. Friend will realise, because grave concerns about the impact on quality of life have been expressed by our colleagues in the north of Scotland. It would be dangerous-and potentially divisive-for the rest of Britain, and certainly England, to impose a solution without the consent of Scotland. A point made strongly on Friday was that any progress needs to be made through consensus, having built up a democratic voice across the UK, rather than having one sector of the country trying to impose the change on another. We have the opportunity to build such a consensus, because the Bill is to go into Committee, and I welcome that.

There were a couple of comments about VAT and business rates. That is a tremendously important area, but I am conscious of time coming to an end, so I shall be brief. We dealt with business rates during an intervention, pointing out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already announced that there will be an opportunity in future for local authorities to keep some of the proceeds of growth from the additional business rates that are created by local economic growth, potentially generated by the tourism industry. That will provide local authorities with a powerful incentive for getting behind local tourism bodies that are trying to drive economic growth through tourism; they will have a strong financial incentive to take part and assist, which they did not in the past.

I have received representations from the tourism industry about VAT on a number of occasions. I have given the industry the following challenge on that issue. We all appreciate that we have a huge financial deficit-bequeathed by the previous Government-that needs to be closed. It would therefore be extremely difficult for any Chancellor of the Exchequer to hand out tax reductions in the short to medium term. The challenge the tourism industry needs to face up to is this: if it wants a better deal than any other sector of the economy, it needs to explain why it is more important than all the others, which will also be asking for a special deal on VAT or other taxes. That will include the miners, the banks, the IT sector and all other sectors of our economy. If that case can be made, I will be delighted to make representations to the Treasury-but not until then.

8 Dec 2010 : Column 127WH

Rail Services (Nuneaton)

4 pm

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss an extremely important matter for my constituents, namely the provision of rail services to Nuneaton. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister, who has taken time from his busy schedule to respond to the debate. I also thank those of my hon. Friends who are here this afternoon for their support; the issue clearly affects neighbouring constituencies as much as it does mine.

My hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt be fully briefed on the subject. However, it might be of some assistance if I first set out the history and background to Nuneaton station. I shall then speak about the west coast main line and lastly about local services, particularly the Nuneaton to Coventry service.

Nuneaton station was opened in 1874, when the London and North Western railway opened the Trent valley section of the west coast main line. It was built to avoid the congested areas of Coventry and Birmingham-even then, we had problems with rail capacity. Unfortunately, Nuneaton's rail services were considerably reduced under the Beeching axe of 1963. That led to the closure of Nuneaton Abbey Street, Stockingford and Bedworth stations later that year. In addition, in 1965 the Nuneaton to Coventry line was closed to passengers. Happily, in 1988, under the previous Conservative Administration, the Nuneaton to Coventry line was reinstated for passengers, as was the station at Bedworth.

Nuneaton's association with the west coast main line has not always been a happy one. Tragically, on 6 June 1975 six people died and 38 were injured when the Euston to Glasgow sleeper express crashed just outside the station. The train was carrying the then Labour Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Fred Peart, who survived after a short spell in hospital. I do not remember much about the crash as I was only one at the time, but I have seen the dramatic press photographs of that awful incident.

Let me deal with the specific issues that affect Nuneaton rail services. The first is to do with the west coast main line. Traditionally, Nuneaton station's place on the west coast main line has been a great advantage. Nuneaton enjoyed fast hourly services to London and the north-west, peak and off-peak, until 2008. In that year, the very high frequency timetable was introduced, at which time fast off-peak services from Nuneaton disappeared.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this valuable debate. My constituency is immediately adjacent to his, and those who live in the north of my constituency are served by Nuneaton station. Does my hon. Friend agree that one problem is that investment in the west coast main line led to an imperative on the operator to minimise city-to-city times? One way to achieve that was to reduce the frequency of stops at stations such as Nuneaton and Rugby.

Mr Jones: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I shall return to the subject later.

Passengers wanting a fast service from Nuneaton now face the significant inconvenience of having to take an additional train to Coventry or Rugby to pick up a fast service. The alternative is to make a 30-minute car journey to Coventry or Rugby to catch the fast train.

8 Dec 2010 : Column 128WH

I campaigned on this important issue before the general election. I wrote to the Department for Transport and to Virgin Trains, the train operator. The response was most unsatisfactory. The Department for Transport blamed timetabling changes on the operator, and the operator blamed the Department for Transport. Neither offered a solution to the loss of amenity for passengers from my constituency. That loss of amenity is substantial, and I fear that it will greatly reduce Nuneaton's ability to attract inward investment from business and commuters. That is particularly galling given that we are now only an hour away from London and from the north-west.

Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I echo what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey).

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is much wider and that it affects not only the people of Nuneaton but people from Bedworth and the surrounding area of my constituency? They rely just as heavily on effective and fast rail services from Nuneaton station.

Mr Jones: As my hon. Friend knows, Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council takes in part of his constituency. People from Bedworth, too, have been disadvantaged by the timetable changes.

That brings me to the future of timetabling. Under the previous Government, there was an unfortunate tendency for too much political interference with timetabling. That often prevented operators from giving better services, including the sort of improvements demanded by my constituents. I was therefore greatly encouraged that the coalition agreement included the clear intention of looking at rail franchising differently, and of considering how the Office of Rail Regulation works so that we have a more powerful regulator. I hope that the Minister will assure me that the regulator's role is to be strengthened, and that we will see improvements in rail services from my constituency.

I am aware of this week's announcement on rail franchising, and I broadly welcome the statement. However, I am slightly concerned about the proposed west coast main line refranchising. That will be let from 2012 to 2026, when the first trains are projected to start running on High Speed 2. I was initially led to believe that HS 2 would improve high-speed rail capacity on the west coast main line. However, having had many conversations on the matter with various interested parties, I am slightly concerned that that may not be the case. Will the Minister assure the House that fast services on the west coast main line will survive post-HS 2?

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. The problem affects my Hinckley constituents as it does those of surrounding areas.

I might be able to help my hon. Friend. I believe that that the 16.10 Euston to Bangor train may stop at Nuneaton when the new Pendolino trains come into operation. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Department for Transport made that point in a letter to a user group. Has my hon. Friend received information on similar lines?

8 Dec 2010 : Column 129WH

Mr Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that. I have not received that information, but if what my hon. Friend says is right, it is most welcome.

It is important that the preferred bidder on the west coast main line deals with a number of points. First, consideration should be given to Nuneaton's becoming a regular pattern stop, as it once was, to enable more frequent fast services to run from there. Secondly, we should end the moderation of competition rules to allow new providers into the market. I am fully aware that if substantial investment is involved, it may impede changing the rules in that regard. Substantial upgrade work was undertaken at Nuneaton station in 2004, so I hope that changing the rules will not be so much of an issue. I am also aware that open access providers have been assessing the viability of providing additional services on the west coast main line, which brings me to my next important point.

I have discussed capacity with a number of operators and potential operators. My discussions all lead me to believe that there is additional capacity on the west coast main line. If the Minister would confirm that this possibility is under definite consideration, I would be most grateful. Rail usage at Nuneaton has increased over the past five years by 37%, and I have little doubt that there is still capacity to increase it. The neighbouring constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) and for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) and mine give a catchment area of more than 300,000 people, which has substantial potential.

Having set out my case for additional fast services on the west coast main line, I should like to turn now to the provision of local services, particularly the link with Coventry. My hon. Friend the Minister is no doubt aware of my interest in this matter. He knows, too, that the Secretary of State has kindly arranged a meeting with me next week, which will be attended by several colleagues.

The importance of the link between Coventry and Nuneaton cannot be overestimated. Coventry is the closest city to my constituency. Statistics show that there is a clear correlation between the more affluent areas in my constituency and a travelling distance of 10 and 15 miles to the workplace, and Coventry is the only geographical location that fits that description. There is currently an hourly service from Coventry to Nuneaton, with a stop at the neighbouring town of Bedworth.

Access to employment opportunities for my constituents is vital, as indeed is access to both Warwick and Coventry universities for higher education opportunities. If we are really serious about improving social mobility within the areas of relative deprivation in my constituency-there are a number of such areas in the bottom 20% of the national deprivation indices-improved rail services will play a vital part in closing that gap. An example of how the inequality gap can be bridged is demonstrated by Coventry's plans to redevelop part of the city centre that surrounds the railway station. The redevelopment scheme is projected to create some 15,000 jobs, from which my constituents would benefit if only there was more convenient rail access for them.

That brings me to the Ricoh arena, which is home of Coventry City football club and the Arena Park shopping centre. Some 600 people are employed there and further development is envisaged. Both facilities are adjacent to the railway line, but, currently, there is no station for a
8 Dec 2010 : Column 130WH
stopping train. That is perverse given that the arena contains not only a large shopping area and conference venue but a stadium, which is set to host football matches during the 2012 Olympic games.

Mark Pawsey: My hon. Friend will be aware that the reason for the location of the football stadium-immediately adjacent to the railway line-was that the primary means of access would be by train, yet there is no station. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to press for such a facility to be introduced at the earliest opportunity so that people from across the country can easily get to the stadium, particularly in time for the rugby world cup in 2015.

Mr Jones: That is a perverse situation. On the drawing board, it was envisaged that there would be a station adjacent to the stadium. Unfortunately, it has never materialised. It has been under discussion for 10 years, I think, and, unfortunately, it was very much neglected by the previous Government.

The improvement of Nuneaton's rail services has been recognised as an issue of great importance for nearly a decade. It is a conundrum that has been greatly ignored. I hope that the coalition Government will give the matter much more urgent and sympathetic consideration. Capacity can be improved, and frequency and usage increased by taking the following measures: improving the line's infrastructure, including a new platform at Coventry; providing new stations at Bermuda in Nuneaton and at the Ricoh arena; and providing additional rolling stock.

There is a huge lack of capacity at Coventry station, because the Nuneaton-to-Coventry service currently shares a platform with the fast service that connects to the west coast main line. At the moment, providing more local services has to be traded against the loss of the fast services on the west coast main line from Coventry, which is clearly not going to happen and is not an option. An additional station bay at Coventry station would remove the current impediment and allow for a twice-hourly service between the two stations of Nuneaton and Coventry.

A new station at Bermuda in Nuneaton would further strengthen access to the service, particularly from the adjacent area of relative deprivation. The Ricoh arena station would increase opportunities for my constituents to reach a greater diversity of employment and provide much improved access to the arena when matches and events take place. It could also strengthen the position of Nuneaton as a pleasant place to stay during such events, thus increasing the chances of inward investment for the hotel, leisure and hospitality industry.

As I mentioned earlier, additional rolling stock will be required to achieve these improvements. I was glad to see in the Secretary of State's recent statement that an additional amount of new rolling stock is to be introduced to the overall network. I hope that such an investment will enable existing stock to be moved to lines such as the Coventry to Nuneaton line. I ask my hon. friend the Minister to take these arguments back to the Department, where I know that an assessment of the Coventry to Nuneaton upgrade project is now under way.

In conclusion, I hope that I have set out an argument based not just on narrow and parochial terms but on economic and social grounds because improvements in
8 Dec 2010 : Column 131WH
services would lead to real benefits for constituencies across Coventry, Warwickshire and Leicestershire. Such benefits would inevitably help a region that has really suffered under the recession that was bequeathed by the Labour Government and reinvigorate an area in which private-sector growth and jobs are badly needed after years of decline.

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this debate and on providing an opportunity for the House to debate rail issues at Nuneaton. Let me preface my remarks by referring to recent statements by the Secretary of State. I hope that my hon. Friend is pleased with the level of the Government's investment in rail. We recognise the value of rail both in helping growth and cutting carbon emissions.

Let me turn first to the west coast main line. The £9 billion west coast route modernisation project renewed and upgraded the country's key main rail line. It accommodates many long-distance passenger trains and numerous local and regional passenger services, and handles 40% of the nation's rail freight business. It was a good example of the railway industry pulling together to deliver a very important project.

Modernisation has delivered a successful and robust railway that has headroom for passenger and freight growth. The west coast main line regularly achieves more than 90% reliability. Passenger growth has been very encouraging, with 4 million additional journeys following the completion of route modernisation, and I expect the growth to continue. This week, I noted that the first new 11-car train of the 106 Pendolino vehicles on order was delivered to the UK for testing and approval ahead of passenger service. Given the level of investment in both the trains and the infrastructure, it is important that the west coast main line timetable secures the best return for taxpayers on the money spent. The timetable ensures that rail contributes the maximum possible to the overall transport network of the country. It has delivered a significant modal shift from car and air. Rail has now doubled its share of the London-to-Glasgow market to around 13%, and to between 75 and 80% of the London-to-Manchester market. Rail serves those markets well.

The current timetable maximises the use of line capacity and fleet resources. However, some difficult choices had to be made when the current west coast main line timetable was designed. As my hon. Friend knows, a few established services and calling patterns were changed. No towns were left isolated. Overall, the vast majority of passengers have benefited, as is demonstrated by the growth that is now being witnessed. Headline improvements delivered with the completion of modernisation include: three trains an hour to both Manchester and Birmingham; new hourly all-day services from London to the Trent valley, Crewe to London and London to Chester; significant journey time reductions, including London to Warrington and Preston to Glasgow services, which are now 30 minutes faster, and London to Liverpool, which is 25 minutes faster; and a full weekend service with journey times and frequencies very similar to weekdays.

8 Dec 2010 : Column 132WH

I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that all such improvements are very welcome. One of the difficult choices was the decision to remove the Nuneaton stop from Virgin and west coast off-peak services. Unfortunately, it is not a high-earning station in off-peak times or one where business is likely to grow significantly when compared with other opportunities on the line. Quite simply the revenue and growth opportunities are much greater elsewhere.

The removal of the fast off-peak service was forecast to lose around £200,000 in revenue from Nuneaton. That needs to be set against the £600 million that modernisation will have generated between 2003 and 2011. In the current service pattern, London peak traffic, which accounts for the vast majority of demand and revenue at the station, benefits from a standard journey time of around one hour for the 97 miles. The fastest journey achieves an average speed of over 100 mph, which is one of the fastest commuter services in Europe. To serve more diffuse evening peak travel patterns, fast Virgin services continue to call at Nuneaton throughout the evening.

Off-peak services are provided by the new 100 mph air-conditioned Desiro trains that are operated by London Midland. These services give Nuneaton new hourly direct journey opportunities to towns such as Stoke, Tamworth, Rugby and Milton Keynes. They also provide the opportunity of cross-platform connections with Virgin west coast services at Rugby, giving a total journey time of one hour and 12 minutes to Euston. The previous direct hourly train completed the journey in the longer time of one hour and 15 minutes.

The timetable proposals for the current west coast main line services were widely consulted upon and welcomed in many parts, particularly in the north-west of England. However, I suspect that my hon. Friend wishes to promote Nuneaton's case further. Therefore I urge him to comment on the consultation draft of the Network Rail west coast main line route utilisation strategy, which is published today. Nuneaton stakeholders will also get the opportunity to present their case during the consultation phase of the west coast franchise competition. The Government plan to issue an invitation in the Official Journal of the European Union for the competition in January 2011 and in due course we will issue the inter-city west coast franchise consultation document. I also urge my hon. Friend to discuss his ideas with the accredited franchise bidders once they have been selected.

The Secretary of State recently gave his approval for Network Rail to proceed with construction of the north chord, which will improve the capacity and reliability of the west coast main line and provide freight trains from the east coast with improved access to the midlands and the north-west. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman today, if he does not already know, that that project has recently attracted €5 million of European Union funding from the trans-European network towards its £29 million cost. I expect construction to start in spring 2011 and take about 18 months to complete.

The hon. Gentleman asked a couple of questions about the west coast main line. In particular, he asked what would happen when the new high-speed line opened. I am advised that it is too early to say what the stocking patterns will be on the west coast main line, but it is obviously anticipated that the faster inter-city services
8 Dec 2010 : Column 133WH
will use the new high-speed line. Perhaps he will want to have discussions with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who is the rail Minister, closer to the time, to ensure that the inter-city services are properly factored into the timetable for the west coast main line as it pertains after High Speed 2 opens.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about spare train paths on the west coast main line, in particular whether there were any spare train paths for open access operators. I am advised that the Office of Rail Regulation is investigating that matter, but the key question is whether it is best for an open access operator or for an additional franchise service to use any spare train paths. Open access operators would provide perhaps five trains a day. London Midland has also applied to improve the London to Crewe service. So we must reach a balance in the public interest between the open access arrangements and what might come in from a franchise operation. Nevertheless, his comments are noted by my colleagues.

Let me consider the Coventry to Nuneaton upgrade. Earlier this year, we received a business case submission from Coventry city council, Centro and Warwickshire county council. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the upgrade consists of doubling the frequency of the service between Coventry and Nuneaton, new stations at Bermuda-is that right? I thought that Bermuda was elsewhere.

Mr Marcus Jones: It was named after the country.

Norman Baker: As I was saying, there will be new stations at Bermuda and the Ricoh arena, and longer platforms at Bedworth. To accommodate the more frequent service, a new bay platform will be required at Coventry station, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As he knows, all those features are included in the bid.

Consideration of the bid was put on hold pending the spending review. The Department's spending review settlement was a good outcome for transport, but it was not sufficient to fund the full pipeline of schemes prioritised under the previous system of regional funding allocations. Tough decisions are necessary to get the best value from the available public funding.

The Coventry to Nuneaton rail scheme has been included in the pre-qualification pool for funding from the local major transport schemes budget. That is because we have not yet verified the scheme's value for money. We will conduct a preliminary sift and make decisions by January about whether that scheme and other such schemes can join the development pool. The decisions in January will be based largely on the ability to deliver significantly within the spending review period and the scope for reduced Department for Transport contributions from those most recently requested, as well as the potential for a scheme to demonstrate a compelling value-for-money case by the final 2011 deadline.

8 Dec 2010 : Column 134WH

We also need to ensure that some of the more challenging aspects of the scheme are fully addressed. They relate primarily to the ability of the railway to handle the size of the crowds that are forecast for major events at the Ricoh arena and the availability of rolling stock, especially for evening events at the venue. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is a safety issue in relation to huge numbers of people turning up at a relatively small station to try to access a short train; that is a serious issue with using rolling stock for such events at the Ricoh arena. We are now reviewing the business case and we are in regular contact with officials at the three authorities to seek further clarification about certain matters to ensure that we have all the information we need for the sifting process in January 2011.

As I have said, there are a large number of extant schemes in the pipeline. I am sure that some will drop out because they will not be progressed by the promoters of the schemes, and we hope that other schemes will see a reduced cost. Generally, the more we can reduce the cost of schemes, the more likely it is that we can proceed with more of those in the pipeline.

Dan Byles: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I am conscious that we are short of time. Some of my constituents are concerned that high-speed rail- HS 2-and the level of investment that will be required for that project could lead to a crowding-out of investment in more local rail services. Can the Minister give us an assurance that, if high-speed rail goes ahead, that will not happen?

Norman Baker: I hope that high-speed rail is going ahead. The Government have made it very clear in the coalition agreement that we are committed to it and the Secretary of State has been working very hard on it, taking personal responsibility for promoting it. However, my hon. Friend will also have noticed that, since the formation of the coalition Government, we have announced, for example, the progress of 2,100 new carriages; an electrification programme across the country; that Crossrail is going ahead in its entirety; that the Thameslink programme is going ahead, and new light rail extensions in Birmingham and Nottingham. The public at large can be in no doubt that the Government are committed to investment in rail: high-speed rail; conventional rail, and indeed light rail. We see that investment as a way of creating growth in the economy and cutting carbon emissions. I can therefore give him an absolute assurance that we will not see local services carved out. We are determined to ensure that rail has a future, both for local services and for high-speed services.

The Secretary of State will be happy to give my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton more detail about the Coventry-Nuneaton line in the meeting that I understand has been scheduled between them for later this month.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair: Order. As the Member who has secured the next debate and the Minister who will respond are present, we will begin.

8 Dec 2010 : Column 135WH

Civilian Deaths (Ballymurphy)

4.27 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): It is a privilege to open this Adjournment debate under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.

On Monday 9 August 1971, the then Northern Ireland Government introduced internment without trial. That policy was dramatically and drastically imposed by the British Army. It could only have been implemented with the sanction and counsel of the British Government and their agents. It was a misguided and counter-productive response to the security and political concerns of Government at the time. However, in today's short debate, we need to consider first not the longer-term fallout from the disaster of internment, but an immediate fatal atrocity that was perpetrated with its imposition. On 9, 10 and 11 August 1971, 11 innocent civilians were killed in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast by the Parachute Regiment, the same regiment that was specially deployed to Derry months later on 30 January 1972-Bloody Sunday.

The fact that 11 innocent victims of Ballymurphy were killed over three days at a time of wider, serious conflagration, repression, violence and many other deaths meant that Ballymurphy was not really landmarked as an atrocity in its own right, either at the time or for some time after. That is why the victims' families and the people of Ballymurphy have challenged us all to acknowledge that theirs has been the forgotten atrocity. They have resolved that it will be forgotten or passed over no more. They need to set their truth free, to have the innocence of their loved ones fully vindicated, to have the enormity of what was perpetrated and then papered over fully understood, and to have responsibility taken for those awful events by the forces and power of the state.

I salute the dignity and determination of the families who have come together in such a purposeful and powerful way, and who have lobbied all the parties in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government and the British Government. In recent times, they have been briefing Members of this Parliament about those dark events that have been frustratingly and disturbingly overshadowed for too long.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I was lobbied by the sons of one of the people murdered, and I was taken aback by the ferocity of the force used on that day. A mother had half her face blown away. People lying wounded on the ground were shot at point-blank range. Wounded people were taken to the barracks and killed there. Atrocities were committed, and I fully support my hon. Friend in his fight for justice.

Mark Durkan: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He rightly brings us to the details of what happened during those three days in Ballymurphy. I acknowledge that these were not the only deaths that occurred during that period; in fact, there were 28 deaths in total. The wider scale of the deaths should not be used by anyone to diminish the seriousness of the questions that must be asked about Ballymurphy, nor should those questions diminish the seriousness of the grief felt by the families of other victims killed then
8 Dec 2010 : Column 136WH
and since. It is important, if that atrocity is not to be forgotten, that the victims should not be forgotten. Particularly in a debate such as this, their names and what happened to them should be remembered.

The first victim, on 9 August, was Father Hugh Mullan, who was shot as he carried a white cloth while going to the aid of someone else who had been shot and wounded. In a debate in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) spoke poignantly about his regard for the iconic image of Father Daly in Derry on Bloody Sunday. In Ballymurphy, another priest with a white cloth went to the aid of a victim, and that priest was shot. When Frank Quinn, seeing him lying wounded, went to his aid, he too was shot. Both of them were then shot further as they lay on the ground. A priest who went to the aid of an injured parishioner was killed, and someone else who came from his place of safety into Army gunfire was killed as well.

The third victim was 200 yards away. At exactly the time when Father Mullan and Frank Quinn were being shot, the Army was firing near the Taggart barracks at the top of Ballymurphy. Paratroopers were firing indiscriminately. Noel Phillips, a young man of 19, was shot and wounded. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said, a woman, Joan Connolly, came to his aid, calling to Noel Phillips that it was all right; she was coming to him. She was then shot in the face. Joan Connolly was a mother of eight.

The fifth victim was Daniel Teggart, a father of 13. He was initially shot while running for cover, but was then repeatedly shot-up to 14 times-while he lay defenceless on the ground. Also on 9 August, Joseph Murphy, a father of 12, was shot in the leg. He received no medical attention; neither did some of the other victims, including Noel Phillips.

On 10 August, the seventh victim, Eddie Doherty, was killed as he made his way home along Whiterock road. A digger and a Saracen moved in to dismantle a barricade blocking the road. From the cab of the mechanical digger, a member of the Parachute Regiment shot Eddie Doherty in the back.

Early in the morning of 11 August, John Laverty, age 20, was shot dead by soldiers. Joseph Corr, a father of seven, was also shot and died of his injuries on 27 August. The Parachute Regiment alleged that both men were firing at the Army. Neither men were armed, and all ballistic and forensic evidence disproved that testimony.

The 10th victim was Paddy McCarthy, a community worker, who was wounded in the hand while attempting to leave the local community centre to distribute bread and milk. Hon. Members must understand that after the introduction of internment, no normal commercial or other services were running, so people engaged in that sort of operation at the community level. After Paddy McCarthy decided to continue with his deliveries hours later, he was stopped by soldiers and beaten. He suffered a massive heart attack and died as a result of that ordeal.

The 11th victim, John McKerr, was taking a break from his work at Corpus Christi church in Ballymurphy and had walked 50 yards from the chapel gates when a British sniper shot him. Local residents went to his aid and remained at his side until an ambulance arrived, but he died of his wounds on 20 August.

8 Dec 2010 : Column 137WH

I read out those details because when we talk about events such as Ballymurphy, all of us can speak in shorthand using particular names and locations, but it is important to remember specific events. This is the first debate on this subject, although I believe that there will be others, so it is important that the background facts are spelled out.

One problem at the time was that the Royal Ulster Constabulary did not investigate the deaths, because that was not the done thing in those days. The arrangement was that killings and other actions by the Army were investigated by the Royal Military Police. As we know from the findings of the Historical Enquiries Team, those interviews seem to have been conducted on a tea-and-sympathy basis. Officers' versions of the circumstances and their actions would become the RMP's accepted version, which would then become the received version accepted by both the Northern Ireland Government and the British Government of the time. The RUC was basically left to accept those conclusions as a matter of fact. For those reasons, the killings were not properly investigated at the time.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mark Durkan: I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) first.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I commend my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I, too, have met the Ballymurphy families in Westminster, at Stormont and in Ballymurphy. I am struck not only by their innocence but by their sheer humility and need to find justice and truth. Does my hon. Friend agree that the activities of the Parachute Regiment must be examined in connection with their use and deployment at the time in Belfast, Derry and throughout Northern Ireland?

Mark Durkan: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Wider questions must be asked of the powers that be, in both military command and political oversight, about how the Parachute Regiment was deployed in Northern Ireland in those days. Clearly, the Parachute Regiment's behaviour in Ballymurphy should have been factored into the thinking about its future deployment. People should have had that in mind when it was decided to send the Parachute Regiment, specifically, to Derry for Bloody Sunday. Of course, the Parachute Regiment must account not just for the deaths in Derry and Ballymurphy, but for the killing of two innocent Protestants, Mr Johnston and Mr McKinnie, in September 1972 on the Shankill.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): My hon. Friend's words hang heavy in the air, and it will take more than the wind of history to blow them away. In a speech last month, my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) referred to the stigma still attached to the families. Does he believe that an inquiry could finally establish the innocence of the victims, bearing in mind the statements that were released at the time, which appeared to give a contrary impression but were never substantiated?

Mark Durkan: Yes, I believe that it could. The state adopted the view at the time that what the Royal Military Police established in its inquiries with the
8 Dec 2010 : Column 138WH
soldiers who carried out the actions would be the official, received version of events. So long as the state does not specifically repudiate that version of events, it will be left hanging there. That is one of the reasons why the families want to see that version properly probed and resolved, not just for themselves, but because there are surely wider questions for us all about how the state could conduct itself in that way and ignore the serious questions that arose as a result.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing up the matter in a debate in Westminster. As Lord Mayor of Belfast, I had the opportunity last year, and even before that, to meet the families of the victims. Does he agree with me that in both Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday-the two incidents have to be looked at as related-the pain of loss was compounded by the fact that those who were victims of a crime were effectively treated as though they were in some way guilty?

Mark Durkan: The hon. Lady has put her finger on an important point. I do not talk about the victims of Ballymurphy or Bloody Sunday as if they were the only people who suffered grievously and need truth and justice, because there are many other victims of other forces or self-styled forces who are also due that. However, one thing that sets the victims of Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday apart is that they were denied the promises, albeit hollow promises, made by the state at the time that no stone would be left unturned in the pursuit of justice. The state and its political establishment denied them the sense of solidarity that other victims were given. They were accorded no sympathy or recognition of their innocence. Their innocence was impugned, because the suggestion was that they had somehow conspired to bring death on themselves or others.

That is one of the reasons why the other victims who not only received mortal injuries but found themselves in the twilight zone of state condemnation are due vindication and proper affirmation of their innocence through independent international assessment, and that is also why someone must be held responsible and why responsibility must be taken. That is important, not least in the light of the important and positive statements that the Prime Minister made when the Saville report was published, and in the light of those important findings themselves. The Prime Minister said several times on that day, and it was repeated on the day of the Saville statement and when the report was debated last month, that the Government take responsibility. It is important that the families of the victims of Ballymurphy hear someone take responsibility for those events.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): My hon. Friend has been an absolute champion, as have his colleagues, of those families for many years, and I am sure that he will ensure that they are never forgotten. Does he agree with me that, although the role of the Parachute Regiment, who were quite clearly murderers in this case, should not be overlooked, the state itself had a failing, and is there not arguably a direct link between its inaction over Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday? Does he agree that, had the state done the right thing in Ballymurphy, we might have avoided what happened on Bloody Sunday?

8 Dec 2010 : Column 139WH

Mark Durkan: That is a very pertinent point. The Parachute Regiment committed those killings in one area in a concentrated operation, and just because they did not take place in one day, it does not mean that it was not a concentrated operation. Those deaths were not properly investigated alongside other Army killings.

We now know, because of investigations by the Historical Enquiries Team and work done by the Pat Finucane Centre, that in the autumn of 1971 there were liaison meetings between a representative of the military and the then Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, Basil Kelly, to look at the possible risk of prosecution of soldiers for some of their conduct. The Attorney-General seems to have suggested that prosecutions might have to take place on some matters, such as traffic offences, but he was seized of the need to try to avoid prosecutions for more serious or controversial offences. In December 1971 he decided, on the basis of the shooting of Billy McGreanery that September, that no soldier should be prosecuted for anything they did in the line of duty. As I say, that decision was made in December 1971, and it is hard for those of us who know about that not to believe that in the minds of the Army, that became the going rate, as regards what the yellow card did or did not mean. It meant that they could behave with impunity. It is hard to believe that the Army, and certainly the Parachute Regiment, were unaware of the Attorney-General's decision.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am listening with great interest. Some deeply pejorative statements have been made about an organisation that is being referred to as the Parachute Regiment. The Parachute Regiment is an enormous organisation consisting of three battalions. As the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say during the debate on the Saville report, what we are talking about seems to relate to one battallion, and indeed to one specific company within it. The Parachute Regiment has given invaluable service to this country. It might have had some difficulties and problems and done some wrong things, but I beg that we be more specific about an organisation that is very gallant, and whose services have been well recognised.

Mark Durkan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. By referring to the Parachute Regiment in broad terms, I was certainly not trying to impugn anyone or extend my remarks to anyone who feels that they are in a position to disown and disclaim what happened that day. I am aware that today we heard condolences expressed in the House regarding a member of 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who lost his life tragically in Afghanistan. I am sensitive to those considerations and take the hon. Gentleman's sensitive admonition in the spirit in which it was intended and in which it was conveyed.

When the Attorney-General made his judgment following the killing of Billy McGreanery, the RUC commander in Derry at the time, having read what the military police had said in relation to the shooting and the statement of the soldier concerned, recommended that that soldier be prosecuted for murder. That recommendation was endorsed at RUC headquarters, and it was the Attorney-General who subsequently created the new rule about prosecutions. That is why I think that all those events raise wider issues that need to be pursued.
8 Dec 2010 : Column 140WH
None of that information was available to the Saville inquiry, because it had not yet been discovered by the Historical Enquiries Team and the Pat Finucane Centre.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree with me that that has to be described as an atrocity? Eleven people died, and yet 39 years on we still have no resolution, no apology has been offered to the families and there has been no independent inquiry. What do the Ballymurphy families need in order to be able to move on with their lives and draw a line under this?

Mark Durkan: I thank my hon. Friend-

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. I respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that this is a 30-minute debate, so if he expects a comprehensive response from the Minister, he will need to give him some time.

Mark Durkan: I was about to thank my hon. Friend for his question and say that I look forward to it perhaps being answered by the Minister. I spoke with the Minister earlier, and he told me how much time he would need and expressed a wish to see interventions taken so that we have could have a free-flowing debate.

I hope that the Minister has heard all the points that other Members and I have made, but, most importantly, I hope that he is in a position, working with the Secretary of State, who has already met the families, to address some of the questions that he knows the families have. This debate is to let them and the Minister know that the questions do not come only from the families.

4.50 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I am most grateful to you, Mr Crausby, for chairing this afternoon's proceedings, and I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for securing this debate.

I start with a sin of omission rather than commission. Yesterday was my first encounter across the Floor with the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). I congratulate him and welcome him to his new role as shadow Minister-indeed, he is my shadow. I know him well from the past. We served together on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, and I know that he has given that Committee long and distinguished service. Its current Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), is here today.

The hon. Member for Foyle spoke in detail today about the Ballymurphy families' campaign. The hon. Members for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and for South Down (Ms Ritchie) stated that they had both met the families as, indeed, have my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I. We met them in October to discuss their case. The families recounted their moving stories at length, and we both expressed our profound sympathy for the loss that they had suffered.

We also listened carefully to the families' requests for an independent international investigation, recognition of the innocence of their loved ones, and an apology. We did, of course, note the ongoing independent investigation into the case being carried out by the Historical Enquiries Team. I understand that many of the families do not support that investigation, but it is right that I reiterate this afternoon the Government's
8 Dec 2010 : Column 141WH
strong support for the work of the HET. It has demonstrated on several occasions, whether in the Majella O'Hare case or the McGreanery case in the constituency of the hon. Member for Foyle, to which he referred, that it carries out its investigations with absolute professionalism and independence.

Furthermore, as I said last night in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, the HET's projected spend to 2011 is £32.5 million. If we compare and contrast that with the cost of the Bloody Sunday inquiry at £191.5 million, the Rosemary Nelson inquiry at £45.5 million, the Robert Hamill inquiry at £32.4 million and the Billy Wright inquiry at £30.4 million, we can begin to see the good value for money that the HET provides. I understand that the families have presented information to the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland and have asked him to consider using his powers to reopen the inquests into the deaths. Such decisions are, of course, properly a matter for the Attorney-General, not the Government.

Several Members rightly pointed out that the Government need to consider their response to the Ballymurphy campaign in the wider context of how we deal with the painful legacy of Northern Ireland's past. However, we must also consider the wider context of the events in Northern Ireland in August 1971, a time when violence was escalating at a rate that would lead to the bloodiest year in Northern Ireland's history. Between 9 and 11 August, there were 28 deaths in total across Northern Ireland, 11 of which were in Ballymurphy.

The Government's approach to the conclusions of individual reviews and reports is absolutely clear: where wrongdoing or failings by the state are clearly identified, we will accept responsibility and apologise. In that context, I would associate myself more closely with the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) than with the somewhat rash comments made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty).

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his statement on the Saville report, we do not honour all those who have served with distinction in upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland by hiding from the truth, but neither do the Government believe that the past can be adequately addressed by focusing solely on the actions of the state. To respond to the point made, I believe, by the hon. Member for Ealing North, that is why we do not believe that selecting a further series of cases to be subjected to a lengthy public inquiry is an appropriate means of addressing the legacy of a conflict that saw more than 3,500 people from all parts of the community lose their lives.

Naomi Long: I welcome the Minister's strong support for the work of the HET, but does he agree that if we are not to have further individual inquiries, the Government must take-and lead-a comprehensive approach to dealing with the past and its legacy? I fear to say that, as yet, that has not been forthcoming.

Mr Swire: Indeed, if the hon. Lady will allow me, I will just say:

8 Dec 2010 : Column 142WH

Those are not my words, but the words of the hon. Member for Ealing North, as reported in the Belfast Telegraph on 5 November 2004.

Thomas Docherty: Without wishing to compound his ire towards me, can the Minister clarify whether he is therefore criticising the decision to hold the Bloody Sunday inquiry? It sounds as if he is saying that it was held only to line the pockets of lawyers rather than to help bring some comfort and closure to the families.

Mr Swire: The hon. Gentleman should not conflate the two things. I was repeating what the Belfast Telegraph reported the hon. Member for Ealing North as saying about further costly inquiries. As for ire directed towards the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, if I heard him correctly, he made some severe criticisms of the Parachute Regiment which were then picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark.

Various Members, not least the hon. Member for Belfast East just now, asked how the Government thought inquiries could be replaced. We are committed to listening to the views of people across Northern Ireland on dealing with the past. It was clear from the summary of responses that we published to the previous Government's consultation on Eames-Bradley that there is little consensus at present. However, as we emphatically do not believe that the past can simply be shut down, we will continue to seek a way forward.

Stephen Pound: I thank the Minister for his kind words earlier. Much of what he is saying is outside the remit of the HET-and I understand and support his comments about it. What assurance can he give us tonight, what process can he offer, what peace can he bring to those family members who still desperately need nothing more than the truth to be brought out? If not the HET, what?

Mr Swire: The Government are looking in a measured way at options that might command support across the community, including the option of creating an information-sharing process that could help families and the wider society achieve greater understanding of the events of the past 40 years. We are consulting on that. There is no easy or quick answer. I tend to agree with the hon. Gentleman that further costly inquiries are not the way forward, but I stress again that that does not mean that we can bury the past. We have to address the issues, and we will do so in a measured and, I hope, sensitive way.

In conclusion, I welcome this important and valuable debate and again thank the hon. Member for Foyle for bringing the matter to the House. I reiterate that the Government are committed to considering carefully the Ballymurphy case in the context of how we deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland's troubled past.

Question put and agreed to.

4.58 pm

Sitting adjourned.

    Index Home Page