Compulsory stock obligations were also mentioned. DECC is reviewing our future approach to meeting our international obligations on compulsory oil stocks. As has been said, EU member states have different approaches

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to implementing the obligations. The UK is one of the five member states that meet their obligations via an industry-based obligation, and I acknowledge the industry’s preference for some form of agency-based system as the desired way forward. Industry work on the costs and issues associated with different options is being assessed by DECC, and although we retain an open mind on the different policy options, we must ensure that our stock-holding obligations are met and that any public finance implications are understood. We will announce our conclusions in due course.

Concerns have been raised over the funding of other schemes—for example, there has been coverage of the EU emissions trading scheme. We recognise that the refining sector is one of a small number of sectors at serious risk of carbon leakage. As such, for the next phase of the ETS, the sector will still receive a level of freely allocated emissions allowances up to the level of a sector-specific benchmark, rather than having to buy increasing numbers of allowances by auction. We have worked closely with the industry to develop the allocation methodologies necessary to bring that approach into effect. We recognise the challenges it might pose for individual installations, but overall we believe that it is an acceptable approach to take across the EU.

Michael Connarty: The Minister knows that I hold him in high regard, but frankly there has been a lot of bluff and bluster so far and no effort to answer the questions the industry asked. I understand that DECC and BIS together are studying the impact of climate change energy policies, and I have been told that no one from the industry—the companies—has been at the table. Perhaps they are talking to some oil industry forum, but the complaint is that they are not talking to the people who will carry the burden

A long time ago in his speech, the Minister mentioned a level playing field. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk made a point about the difference in the carbon price in the UK compared with the EU. The impact of taxation on the industry is a burden, which is already showing in the price of electricity. When will the Minister deal with the main problem? He can write to me if he likes. The industry has been burdened with climate change taxes that are not justifiable and make it uncompetitive with the EU or the rest of the world.

Charles Hendry: I may have to write to the hon. Gentleman on some of those issues because he has almost squeezed out the opportunity for me to refer to them now. We continue to talk to industry—not only the refinery industry but all aspects of the energy sector. We see that as a fundamentally important part of our role, and we do it across other Government Departments as well. DOIF does critically important work, and we are looking at how to make it more constructive and how to do even more important work in that area. We are absolutely committed to building strong, close working relations with the industry in order to understand the challenges it faces and to ensure that we keep the UK as a competitive place where people wish to invest.

We are encouraged by the degree of investment that has come forward. We want more investment coming in and to work actively with the new players in the market. We will drive forward that determination, and will do so through consultation with the industry and working in

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partnership with it, because that is the best way to deliver the long-term stability and security that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk and everyone who spoke in the debate called for.

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Camp Ashraf

12.30 pm

Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): Before starting my speech, I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his statement of 8 April, in which he condemned the attacks on Camp Ashraf. However, I am appalled by what I regard as a conspiracy of silence on the matter. I am at a complete loss to understand why the British Broadcasting Corporation and others have not reported on the subject. It is deeply disappointing and most insulting to the relatives of those who were injured in the recent attacks.

The House will be aware that on 8 April, following direct orders from Nuri al-Maliki and at the behest of the Iranian regime, 2,500 Iraqi armed forces used 140 armoured vehicles to carry out a vicious assault on Camp Ashraf. The camp was home to 3,500 Iranian dissidents, members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, including 1,000 women.

I take this opportunity to add my voice to the international condemnation of that brutal and callous attack, a military assault against defenceless unarmed civilians. It led to the death of at least 35 residents, including eight women, the majority of whom were in their 20s. A further 350 were wounded. Of the 35 killed, 32 were shot in the head, chest or abdomen, and the other three were deliberately run over by Humvees and other military vehicles. At least 225 of the 350 injured suffered gunshots from the Iraqi forces.

The April attack is not over. Iraqi forces are amassing inside the camp, and several Iraqi engineering battalions have completed a 6 km embankment on the northern edge of Camp Ashraf’s main road. Malcolm Smart, the director of Amnesty International’s middle east and north Africa programme, stated:

“Given the nature and scope of these new military installations, we’re very concerned what Iraqi security forces may be planning.”

I strongly urge the Government to convey the demands that I shall list today to the Iraqi Government and their armed forces. They must stop any form of violence, aggression or attacks, especially using live ammunition against those civilised and unarmed refugees. Further, they must immediately withdraw all armed forces from Camp Ashraf.

Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that the Iraqis cannot now be trusted to uphold human rights in Camp Ashraf, and that the Government not only need to act but should act under international law?

Mr Amess: I agree with my hon. Friend, but I would go further. I am most disappointed with the American Government’s role in the matter. I am puzzled about a number of aspects, which I shall mention shortly. None the less, I agree with my hon. Friend.

I emphasise that the Ashraf residents have resided in the camp for 25 years. They have turned a desert patch into a small town using their own resources and money. The receipts for all their expenses still exist.

I turn to the Iraqi Government’s position. Iraqi officials claimed that only three residents were killed and that no live ammunition was used during the attack. However, I refer the House to the numerous footages posted on the

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YouTube website and aired by international television stations, which clearly show Iraqi forces indiscriminately shooting at and running over unarmed residents.

In a statement condemning the attack, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed that, of those killed,

“Most were shot, and some appear to have been crushed to death, presumably by vehicles.”

Simply put, an unarmed civilian population was slaughtered. I shall give my hon. Friend the Minister photographic evidence showing those who were injured in that disgraceful attack. The Law Society’s human rights committee confirmed in a statement condemning the attack that, in footage of it, Iraqi security forces were seen opening fire on unarmed residents, while others were ploughed down by heavy military vehicles.

The US State Department said in a statement on 8 April that

“this crisis and the loss of life was initiated by the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi military”.

That is all well and good, but what is it doing about it? Why was no assistance given by the hospitals, which could have tended the injured? I remind the House that, when the Iraqi Government took over protection of the camp in January 2009, US officials publicly announced that Iraq had given a written assurance to treat the residents humanely and in accordance with Iraq’s constitution, laws and international obligations. I have evidence of people being killed or injured, but what are the US Government doing about it?

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the United Kingdom Government making representations to the United States? Ever mindful of the fact that the UK and the USA fought together in Iraq as a coalition, is it not time for them to do something more constructive? Have our Government made representations to the USA?

Mr Amess: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I have said umpteen times that I very much regret voting for the war with Iraq, but he is right. The United States of America encouraged Britain to become involved. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will give us an indication of what pressure is being placed on the US Government to help.

The attack of 8 April is the second time that the Iraqi Government have resorted to using live ammunition and violence in brutally attacking defenceless and unarmed residents.

Mr Joe Benton (Bootle) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I share his sense of horror at the activities going on in Ashraf. I hear all sorts of appalling stories of terrible crimes against humanity. He may be coming to this point, and I apologise if that is so, but I am most concerned about the treatment of the wounded, the sick and the injured. It is another example of inhumanity to neglect such people, given that they will be non-participants in any shape or form, and I find it appalling. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has it in mind, but I do not want the opportunity to go by without raising the matter.

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Mr Amess: I know the hon. Gentleman to be a good and compassionate man. He is right. Indeed, as a result of the lack of treatment, another injured person has died. I understand that there are further difficulties in seeking adequate treatment, but I shall come to that in a moment.

On 20 April 2009, the Iraqi Interior Ministry signed a statement confirming that it had used its own police dogs in a search of Camp Ashraf and that no explosives or weapons were found. I have a copy of that document and I will hand it over to the Minister. It is crystal clear that the Iraqi Government have neither the intention nor the capability to protect Ashraf residents. The Government are far too weak and they have many Iranian proxies in their ranks. At the end of the day, they cannot be relied on to provide proper protection for their residents in accordance with international law and it would be naïve for anyone to claim otherwise.

On behalf of the majority of Back-Bench MPs and of 200 Members of the other place, I urge our Government to call on the United Nations to take responsibility for providing protection for the camp to ensure that the rights of the residents are not violated and to station a permanent monitoring team at the camp. To avoid any further loss of life or violent attacks, the Iraqi Government should immediately withdraw their armed forces from the camp, which is an unarmed civilian zone.

The Iraqi Government have often justified their totally unacceptable treatment of the camp residents under the pretext of imposing their sovereignty as a Government. Let me state clearly that the residents have respected Iraq’s sovereignty. Ashraf has been their home for 25 years. Photos and films exist to prove that. It is a well-documented and well-known fact. Furthermore, this sovereignty in no way can allow Iraq to breach international law and the residents’ fundamental rights under international human rights laws and the Geneva conventions. I have a copy of a protected person’s status card belonging to one of the residents, which was issued by the multinational force in 2004. It states that, until their final disposition, they are recognised as protected persons.

In a statement condemning the attack, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, described the attack as a “massacre”, and a massacre is exactly what it was. It was the cold-blooded murder of defenceless civilians by Iraq’s military. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said:

“There must be a full, independent and transparent inquiry, and any person found responsible for use of excessive force should be prosecuted.”

I demand that an international fact-finding mission, rather than one formed by Iraq, which was responsible for the brutal attack, carry out that task so that the perpetrators of this crime against humanity who ordered and carried out the killing of unarmed civilians are brought before international courts to face justice.

I have a list of 11 critically wounded Ashraf residents who could lose their lives, which I will give to the Minister along with a copy of my speech and the DVD of the attack. I ask that he takes action on the demands that we have raised today.

Furthermore, I have some details for the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for our relationship with the UN. Following the massacre in Rwanda, there was regret that the international community did nothing

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to stop it. In a world summit in 2005, a law was ratified stipulating that it is the responsibility of a sovereign state to protect the population in its territory and that if there are any signs that crimes against humanity, genocide or war crimes are about to happen, every UN member state has a duty to intervene to stop it. Such intervention does not violate the sovereignty of a Government. Rather it provides support for a state to realise its responsibility to protect its population. A massacre has already occurred in Camp Ashraf and there is every sign that the Iraqi Government have not fulfilled their commitments towards Ashraf residents. Instead, they have launched a massacre that has so far killed 35 and wounded hundreds.

I have four points on which I should like the Minister to reflect. First, we call on our Government to demand that the UN take responsibility for providing proper protection for Camp Ashraf and set up a permanent team in the camp. Secondly, the Government should demand that Iraqi forces immediately leave the camp and halt all further such attacks and aggression. Thirdly, I hope that the UN will form an international investigative mission for the perpetrators of this crime to face justice. Finally, the US should urgently provide medical assistance to the injured.

I urge the Minister and the Government to forward those basic demands to the highest levels within the UN, the European Union and the US Administration. I know that there is overwhelming support in the House of Commons and in the other place for the residents of Camp Ashraf to be protected. I cannot understand why there is so little reporting of this situation on TV and on the radio and in our newspapers. Why is there that conspiracy of silence? As far as international jurisdiction is concerned, right is entirely with these poor people in Camp Ashraf.

Following the Minister’s statement on 8 April, I know that I can rely on him to do the right thing and ensure that the injured and wounded in Camp Ashraf are dealt with and that permanent protection through the United Nations is given in future.

12.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) for securing the debate and for his courtesy in sending me a copy of his remarks in advance. I know that the situation of the residents of Camp Ashraf is important to him, as well as many Members of this House and the other place. I also thank other colleagues who have contributed to the debate. The recent incident at Camp Ashraf is a matter of great concern for the UK Government and others.

The Government have closely followed events at Camp Ashraf for some time. Staff at our embassy in Baghdad have made consular visits to Camp Ashraf to inquire about the welfare of those who may be entitled to UK consular services or protection. The last of these visits by embassy staff was on 16 March 2011. We believe that a small number of residents there have some connection to the UK, although no one has yet come forward to request consular assistance. In addition to those consular

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visits, we hold regular discussions about the situation at the camp with EU and US colleagues, and the Government of Iraq.

The situation poses complex challenges and, as hon. Members will appreciate, there are no easy answers. It has lasted a long time and is very far from clear cut. The Iraqi Government have a long-standing commitment to close Camp Ashraf and they have made that clear to the camp’s residents. Iraq’s sovereignty extends across all its territory, including Camp Ashraf, but along with our EU colleagues, we believe that using force is not the way to resolve the situation at the camp, and I shall say more about that in a moment. However, it is the Iraqi Government’s responsibility to respect and protect the human rights of the camp’s residents.

I want to say something about the residents of Camp Ashraf, who number nearly 3,500, the organisation to which they belong, and why they are there. Camp Ashraf is controlled by the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran—the PMOI. As I am sure hon. Members know, the PMOI is an Iranian opposition group with extreme leftist origins that was founded in 1965. It is also known as the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, or MEK. The PMOI is often referred to as the main opposition group to the Iranian regime and it works vigorously to promote that view of itself. However, the UK Government believe that it has little or no support within Iran and that it is not considered a legitimate opposition group by the Iranian people. Furthermore, we are unable to forget the PMOI’s violent history. It was responsible for a number of serious terrorist attacks that led to the deaths of many Iranian civilians. The violent history of the PMOI led to it being proscribed by the UK as a terrorist organisation. The UK Government have strongly opposed the PMOI’s de-proscription on two occasions: first, domestically in 2008; and, secondly, in the EU in January 2009. The organisation remains proscribed in the US. Nevertheless, whatever the history of the PMOI, our views and concerns about Camp Ashraf, the rights of its residents and the violence of the recent incident in the camp are clear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West made the point very strongly that, out of concern for the welfare of the residents of Camp Ashraf, the UN and the US should intervene to establish some form of presence there. However, as I am sure he is aware, it was always clear that following the expiry of the UN Security Council resolution mandate at the end of 2008, responsibility for the security and administration of the camp and its residents would pass from the US to the Government of Iraq. Before the handover took place, the US received assurances from the Government of Iraq that outlined their commitment to the humane treatment and continued well-being of the camp’s residents. We recognise that Iraq is now a sovereign democratic state and that responsibility for the residents of Camp Ashraf lies with the Iraqi Government, but we also expect Iraq to act in accordance with its legal obligations. The UN makes weekly visits to the camp and has regular telephone contact with representatives of residents of the camp. The UN also holds weekly meetings with the Government of Iraq’s Ashraf committee.

We are aware that there have been calls for the residents of Camp Ashraf to be considered as protected persons under the fourth Geneva convention. However, under international humanitarian law, that status applies only

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when there is an international armed conflict or a situation of occupation. Neither of those scenarios applies in Iraq now, but that does not mean that there is a legal vacuum. As I have said, Iraq is obliged to treat residents of the camp in accordance with Iraqi law and the international human rights treaties to which it is a party.

I now turn to the events of 7 and 8 April. Along with our international partners, we have been active—and we continue to be active—in calling on the Government of Iraq to stop the violence against residents of Camp Ashraf. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West was good enough to mention the statement that I made on 8 April, but it bears repeating so that it is in Hansard:

“The UK Government is disturbed to read reports that a number of civilian residents have been killed and many more wounded at Camp Ashraf yesterday. I absolutely deplore any loss of life and my sincere condolences go out to the families of those involved.”

Mr Binley rose—

Alistair Burt: May I finish reading out the statement before I give way to my hon. Friend?

My statement continued:

“The Iraqi Government has provided us with assurances on several occasions that it will treat individual residents of Camp Ashraf in a humane manner, act in accordance with Iraqi law, the Iraqi Constitution and its international obligations. We urge the Iraqi Government to uphold this commitment. Our Ambassador in Baghdad has been expressing our concerns to the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the highest levels. We call on the Iraqi Government to cease violent operations in Camp Ashraf immediately and to ensure that the residents have full access to medical care.”

That last comment about medical care addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr Benton) and a number of other hon. Members. The statement went on:

“It is important that the Government of Iraq takes immediate steps to calm the situation and ensure that the human rights of the residents are respected. We are aware of a request by UNAMI”—

the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq—

“to send a humanitarian monitoring mission to Camp Ashraf as soon as possible. We fully support this request and therefore urge the Iraqi Government to quickly grant permission. We call on all sides to engage in a constructive dialogue that can lead to a lasting resolution to the situation.”

Mr Binley: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I respect him immensely, so I am surprised that the Foreign Office is continuing to argue against the findings of the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, which dismissed the Government’s view of the PMOI totally out of hand at the time. Furthermore, for all the talk about international law, at the end of the day Britain and other nations committed themselves and made sacrifices to create the Government of Iraq in the expectation that that Government would be democratic and free. We now know that the Iraqi Government are not willing to uphold international law, and I believe that we ought to be doing much more than the Minister’s statement of 8 April suggests. If I may say so, I believe that the Minister secretly thinks that too.

Alistair Burt: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments. On the first part of his intervention, I stand by the Foreign Office’s belief that the PMOI’s background, history and present activities require it to remain proscribed

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by the UK—that is our view. Nevertheless, as I indicated very clearly, the history of the organisation does not relate to what is happening on the ground now, which is a matter of fundamental human rights and of ensuring that people are treated properly and decently, as well as having proper access to medical care. The injunctions of my hon. Friend and others in that regard are absolutely right, and we are seeking to ensure that the Iraqi Government uphold that commitment.

The second part of my hon. Friend’s intervention was about the difficult issue of how a sovereign Government, once they have been established, meet their obligations when they have a particular responsibility. It is not the responsibility of those outside the country to do the things that are required to be done by a sovereign Government. The process is difficult, but it is absolutely necessary to get the sovereign Government to live up to the obligations that have been set out. We and our international partners must continue to make that clear.

This is a frustrating situation. The circumstances of Camp Ashraf, including the living conditions of its residents, must be extremely difficult, but it is a complex situation. The history of the organisation involved cannot be completely ignored, which was why I set it out, but our position on the immediate recent issue has been clear, and I have stated both what we did at the time and what we are attempting to do now.

Mr Amess: I know that my hon. Friend has very little time left to respond, but I must say that the fact that the PMOI is a proscribed organisation is absolutely ridiculous. One only has to consider the way in which we deal with the Irish Republican Army to see how facile the position on the PMOI is. However, does my hon. Friend think that the Foreign Office could facilitate a small group of British parliamentarians going to Camp Ashraf to see the situation at first hand?

Alistair Burt: I will not answer my hon. Friend’s question directly, because clearly I would need to take some advice on colleagues’ safety, background and everything else. Ultimately, it would be a matter not for us but for the sovereign Government involved. However, I hear what my hon. Friend says and I will consider it.

In addition to my making my statement of 8 April deploring the loss of life and injury, which I have just read out, Cathy Ashton, the EU’s high representative, did much the same. UK representatives on the ground reinforced the message. The ambassador in Baghdad and EU heads of mission met the Iraqi Prime Minister on 4 April to discuss Camp Ashraf. Our ambassador hosted a meeting with the UN, the US and the EU on 7 April to discuss concerns, and he phoned the Iraqi Foreign Minister to urge the Government of Iraq to allow immediate access for a UN mission to Camp Ashraf. We also called for the violence—from whatever source—to stop immediately, so we have made our position as clear as we can.

Latest reports indicate that the situation in Camp Ashraf remains tense but calm. The Government of Iraq allowed a small US medical team access to the camp on 10 April. I understand that, following international pressure from the UK and other countries, the Iraqis have subsequently allowed medical access. A visit to the camp by UN officials took place on 14 April. Although the Government of Iraq did not allow other missions to

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participate in the UN mission, a UK military adviser to UNAMI was present. The UN visited a makeshift mortuary within the camp and photographed 28 dead. Yesterday, the UN confirmed to our embassy officials in Iraq that 34 people were killed in the recent incident and more than 70 people were injured. I repeat that we deplore those events.

The current situation in Camp Ashraf is of great concern to the UK and we remain fully engaged with the issue. We hope that UN missions, including the British embassy, will be allowed to visit Camp Ashraf to assess the situation in the near future. We will continue to work with our international partners to press the Government of Iraq to respect the rights of the residents of Camp Ashraf.

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Reddish Business Incubator

1 pm

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Scott. I would like to place on the record my thanks to Mr Speaker for granting me this debate.

I wish to raise a number of issues about the Reddish business incubator, a business support project that has been operational in the Stockport part of my constituency since 2008. When I secured this debate, there was confusion among officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government about whether the debate should be for them or whether it fell under the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I can assure the Minister, for whom I have great respect, that it most certainly falls within his Department’s responsibilities, because most of what I want to say concerns the ineptness of the Liberal Democrat-run Stockport metropolitan borough council.

I would like to highlight a number of the irregularities that have dogged the business incubator project since its inception and continue to do so to this day and, more importantly, the consequences for Stockport’s hard-pressed council tax payers. The situation is so serious and complex that it is difficult to do it full justice in the time allotted for the debate, so I will briefly outline the main issues.

Some of the main points are: for a long time the business rents on the incubator units have not been collected; there are ongoing financial problems with the whole project; and there is a complete lack of transparency in how it has operated finically in the recent past and how it will do so in the future. This series of failures has ultimately led to Stockport metropolitan borough council having to offer additional financial assistance, and to take over the project just to keep it afloat, despite Councillor Dave Goddard, the leader of the council, being on the company’s board—a real conflict of interest, which I will explore further in my speech.

The project’s troubled history began back in 2008 when the Stockport Business Incubator Community Interest Company, a provider of business incubation facilities, started trading as a social enterprise, owned 50% by Stockport council and 50% by Broadstone Mill Ltd. At that time, Stockport council matched Broadstone Mill Ltd’s £315,000 investment—a substantial amount of council tax payers’ money. The council subsequently invested an additional £150,000 via the local authority business growth incentive, further to extend the incubator and develop the Stockport enterprise centre, which, in January 2010, resulted in the incubator moving to the third floor of Broadstone Mill. Almost £500,000 of local taxpayers’ money was therefore invested in the project.

Let me clear: it is not a bad thing that local councils want to invest in business support and help businesses through these tough economic times; indeed, neighbouring Tameside council, which is also part of my constituency, did just that with its very laudable Tameside Works First programme, and Stockport followed suit with Stockport Boost. Nevertheless, I and a number of others in Stockport have for some time had serious doubts about the Reddish business incubator and its financial viability. Those fears are justified because, as the incubator

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was set up as an arm’s-length company, there has always been an unclear understanding of exactly how its financial dealings could effectively be scrutinised.

I know that the Minister champions valiantly the cause of open government, and that he will understand the concerns of my constituents who have paid a lot of their money into supporting the project. Here is an issue for him: Stockport council has failed properly to scrutinise the running of the facility. An inspection of the company’s board meeting minutes, which were released under a freedom of information request, paints an interesting picture. We are told that in October 2008 the build costs had stayed within the £630,000 budget, and so all appeared to be fine and well. Even so, early concerns were expressed about the failing global economic situation, and in late 2009 there were concerns that the occupancy take-up at the incubator had not been as high as anticipated, and that the flow in the pipeline of new-entrant companies had stalled during the year. By this time, we are told, working capital had been hard to secure. Indeed, that was such a concern that the board started to operate a policy of ensuring that new-starting companies had at least several months’ working capital. However, despite the warnings, the business incubator company minutes of March 2010 show that things were still okay at the mill, with a 70% occupancy rate. Indeed, board members, including the leader of the council, were also informed that the project would financially break even by March 2011.

Here is the real irony: just a few weeks after the general election in May 2010, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), was only too happy to hot-foot it up north to visit the incubator, as an example of the Liberal Democrats in action and, as was reported in both the Manchester Evening News and the Stockport Express, he was only too happy to praise the project. As well as stating that it was a shining example of what could be done to help economic growth, he said:

“Local initiatives like these are exactly what the country needs.”

Given his party’s subsequent actions regarding the education maintenance allowance, tuition fees and the cuts to council budgets, the support of a Liberal Democrat Cabinet member was pretty much a kiss of death to the Reddish business incubator project.

I must congratulate the persistence of the Stockport council Labour group, and particularly that of Councillor Philip Harding, who had real suspicions about the project’s finances and put in freedom of information requests to shed some light on how the project was operating. As a result, we now know that concerns were raised by the Reddish incubator company’s board in September 2010, when two tenants’ unpaid rents totalled approximately £20,000 and there were further reported cash-flow problems, leading to wider questions about why the project was facing a financial deficit. The documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that concerns were raised at a very senior level about the governance issues, and about how they should be looked at as part of a financial review, and that there were concerns that roles and responsibilities in the venture should be made clear for all parties and individuals concerned.

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Stockport council Labour group’s suspicions proved correct when we saw reported in the Manchester Evening News that in September 2010 a further £38,500 of Stockport council tax payers’ money, which could well have been used to protect vital local services, was transferred across to address the increasingly perilous cash-flow situation. However, as we were to see, that was not even enough to balance the books. Meeting notes from October 2010 show that further questions were asked about why the business incubator’s financial situation was so poor when a report to the March 2010 board meeting had suggested that the incubator should have broken even by March 2011. They also outlined how monthly project expenditure was significantly exceeding income.

By November 2010, it was becoming clear that there were very serious financial problems with the Reddish business incubator, that ongoing difficulties with collecting rents and other factors were making it run deeply into the red, and that it would need immediate payments to become economically viable. Furthermore, the board minutes show that for the incubator to run as a viable project it would have needed to attract 80% occupancy by March 2011, to rely on significant and difficult-to-achieve cost reductions, and to recover all previous bad debts. As we have seen in a leaked council cabinet report in the Manchester Evening News, in March this year it fell yet again to Stockport council financially to bail out this ill-fated project. Indeed, the confidential report to the council’s executive tells us:

“The company is projected to be in deficit by £160,000 by the end of the current financial year”

due to both

“lower than expected income”


“higher than expected expenditure”.

The report adds:

“The company does not have sufficient funds to clear the outstanding deficit.”

The leaked report also recommended that the council should directly oversee the future management of the incubator facility with a business plan to make the facility viable by 2011-12, and that Stockport council should take out a new 25-year lease with the landlord of Broadstone Mill. That is a shocking situation for the Liberal Democrat-run Stockport council to find itself in. It will effectively have to bail out its own scheme entirely from Broadstone Mill. Then again, the council certainly has form when it comes to wasting council tax payers’ money shamefully. Only last year, the arm’s-length organisation responsible for managing Stockport’s council homes spent £20,000 throwing a massive birthday party for itself, to which it invited some 370 revellers. The Minister will no doubt be pleased to hear that I declined my invitation.

We must put the matter into the context of today’s economic background and all the cuts that Stockport council plans to implement. So far, Stockport council plans reductions of about £17 million this year, and about the same amount is due to be cut from its budget the following year. That means that £123,000, allegedly in efficiency savings, will be cut from the welfare rights and debt advice service, and £250,000 will be saved by effectively doing away with the community meals service, or meals on wheels, in its current form. Perhaps worst of all, £100,000 will be cut from the school crossing patrol budget, which might mean that one third of the lollipop ladies and men in the borough will be lost.

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There are important questions that must be answered, given that Stockport council seems intent on throwing good money after bad. The council must come clean and tell us exactly where the £160,000 will come from to keep the Reddish incubator afloat. It also seems that the council’s strategy to keep the project running banks heavily on increasing the number of businesses operating in the centre, although no increase is certain. The plans to make the scheme a success seem to be based on an assumption that the current financial position will be turned around, but no thought seems to have been given to the possibility that the scheme will just rack up more debt and become an even bigger burden to the council tax payers of Stockport.

As the council’s own report indicates, it runs significant risks in taking on the scheme itself. It needs a significant increase in rental income, vastly improved occupancy rates and robust rent collection activities, all on top of a marked reduction in expenditure and rigorous cost control. Given that Stockport council was naive enough to invest £500,000 in this folly during some of the worst economic times in recent years, the latest development does not inspire many with confidence for the future. It is recommended that the council bail out the project at a cost of £160,000 and take over its running entirely. As I understand it, that could well be on a 25-year lease, with no first break for 10 years, so the council tax payers of Stockport might have to prop up the project for the next decade or more.

Councillor Dave Goddard, the Liberal Democrat leader of Stockport council, has been a member of the board of that rotten council tax-sucking company, which I feel raises many uneasy questions about conflicts of interest. Councillor Goddard should be ashamed not only to have been a member of the board of a community interest company so financially inept that it has failed miserably to collect rents or even cover its own costs, but to have ensured, as leader of Stockport council, that his administration wrote blank cheques to keep the scheme running. Now the council is effectively being authorised to take it over completely. It is frankly wrong that members of Stockport council have been kept in the dark about that costly but cosy arrangement, and that it took freedom of information requests and a leaked cabinet document for it to be placed in the public domain. Frankly, it stinks.

It also raises a question about the relationship between Stockport council and the scheme landlord, Broadstone Mill Ltd. As the Reddish incubator is owned 50:50 by each, will the Broadstone Mill share benefit financially by being effectively bought out by the council? We certainly need more transparency and clarity about the financial links between the two and what payments have been received to date. To recap, some of the payments that we know have been made between the two include rents, loans of about £40,000 to Broadstone Mill for lift refurbishment and extra payments to make up the revenue deficit on the business incubator. Although those extra payments might not be financially irregular, they must at least be scrutinised fully to eliminate any lingering suspicion of financial impropriety.

I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on whether the Reddish business incubator scheme does not raise a wider issue about community interest companies, which are funded by local authorities but run at arm’s length from them. It is difficult, if not all but impossible,

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to scrutinise them effectively until it is way too late or, as in the case of the Reddish business incubator, until one has run into significant financial problems.

I know that the Minister is a great champion of open local government, as is his boss, the Secretary of State. I am sure that he will take a dim view of the goings-on at Stockport council regarding the scheme. I have every confidence that his Department will take a close look at what has happened and continues to happen there, and I am sure that that will further his resolve to ensure that proper scrutiny arrangements are developed for all arm’s-length companies and trusts that operate council services and spend council tax payers’ money. Under his Government’s big society plans, it is likely that even more local services will operate under such loose arrangements.

Councils need the power to scrutinise. To return to Reddish, it is Stockport council tax payers who are bearing all the risk of the scheme and effectively picking up the bill for the inept failures of the community interest company, the council leader and the Liberal Democrat council executive. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise these serious issues in the House, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points I have raised.

1.18 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing the debate. To judge from his suntan, he comes hot from the campaign trail. It has been a beautiful weekend to be out on the hustings, and I detected a hint of the hustings in his remarks, if that is not too churlish an observation.

I shall address the context of the business incubator before I turn to the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. As he acknowledged, the Government’s policy is one of localism. It is important that local authorities’ behaviour and policies are held to account by local people—as a local representative, he is taking the opportunity to do so today—but it is not for central Government to comment on the detailed policies and practices of local authorities. They are, rightly, independent of central Government, responsible for their own finances and free to make their own decisions.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Localism Bill will increase opportunities for local authorities to be relatively free to take decisions and to be scrutinised on them locally. Indeed, we want to go further than that. Beyond the Localism Bill, the local government resource review, which has kicked off, is considering options to allow authorities to keep their business rates precisely so that there can be a better relationship between the opportunities for new business in an area and the rewards that an authority receives from them. It is important that we consider and expand the opportunities available for local councils to engage with their businesses so that there is encouragement for more to be set up.

The potential for increased control of local finances will mean that local councils will be able to consider whether business incubators—or innovation centres, as they are sometimes called in other authorities—are right for them. There is no reason why such types of

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activity should not be provided by the council or with close council involvement. It was not clear from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks whether he thinks that the innovation centre—the business incubator—should be closed down and its activities ceased, whether it should not have been established in the first place, or whether it should be run in a slightly different way. I will be happy for him to intervene if he can clarify that.

Andrew Gwynne: I mentioned that I was supportive of local authorities supporting local businesses. I also mentioned Stockport Boost and Tameside Works First, which are good examples of where that happens in my constituency. What I am concerned about is the bottomless pit that seems for ever to be filled by council tax payers’ money in Reddish. We need to get a grip on this. More importantly, the local community, through the local council, needs to scrutinise that effectively. The real problem in Reddish is that there has not been effective scrutiny.

Greg Clark: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s clarification. I take it from that that he is in favour of incubators and of them succeeding. I think that he would want to be the first to congratulate the council on securing valuable jobs. Some 140 people are employed in the incubator, and I think it is important to recognise the potential for increasing employment in small businesses in a part of his constituency that is relatively deprived. I hope that he supports the principle of an incubator, although it would be reasonable for him to set out any concerns about how it has been managed in the past and how it will be managed in the future.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the incubator model is typically not financially self-sustaining. Most of those that have been established involve some degree of public support, whether from European funds, as is sometimes the case, national Government funds or local authority funds. For example, his Labour colleagues in Darlington are keen to establish a business incubator and are looking for central Government funds to support that. The model of a business incubator usually involves some commitment of public funds with the intention that that should create jobs and reduce other demands on council revenue and expenditure so that a virtuous cycle is generated.

The hon. Gentleman is a reasonable man and I think that he would be the first to acknowledge that, in times of economic difficulty, small businesses will be affected—perhaps more so than larger businesses, in some ways. I am sure that he would agree that it would not be right to take away something of particular importance at a time of economic difficulty. It is right to keep faith with small businesses, rather than exacerbating the difficulties they might have due to the state of the economy by introducing jeopardy into an arrangement that exists to make sure that there are jobs to replace those that are lost elsewhere in the economy.

Andrew Gwynne: I take on board what the Minister says about business support, but does he think that the obligation of the community interest company to the local taxpayers of Stockport should be at least to collect the rents from the businesses in the business incubator?

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Greg Clark: Of course, and I will talk about the hon. Gentleman’s point later. Any administration of any organisation should be run to standards of good practice, and it is important that that continues. It was the hon. Gentleman’s Government who established community interest companies as a model in which the voluntary sector, communities and the local public sector could come together to pursue not-for-profit opportunities of local benefit, so I hope that he is not suggesting that there is something inherent in the structure of CICs from which we should back away. Obviously, he is right to ask questions and he has obtained information on the running and the practices of the organisation.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that his council in Stockport and other Greater Manchester authorities have come together to make a successful and impressive proposal, which I think he supports, on the local enterprise partnership for Greater Manchester. The document that was successful in achieving authorisation is clear that the No. 1 ambition of the LEP is to develop Greater Manchester

“as a powerhouse for entrepreneurs, business start ups and innovation”.

I think that incubators such as that under discussion can play an important role, as all Greater Manchester councils, whatever their political complexion, would recognise. I do not think that this is a question about the principle of business incubators or about having community interest companies.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the performance of the incubator in question. On accountability for public funding or any other type of initiative, it is established that there are means—for local councillors, and for local representatives such as him—by which to obtain information and to shine the spotlight on the way in which organisations operate. He has done that by securing this debate, and I know that he has done so locally as well.

When considering Stockport council’s decision to support the business incubator project, it is worth remembering that every authority has a structure in place whereby it has to account for public sector funds. Indeed, legislation requires, and will continue to require, all local authorities to make arrangements for the proper administration of their financial affairs, to ensure that their financial management is adequate and effective, and to have in place a sound system of internal control that includes arrangements for the management of risk. I believe that this particular project was called in by the council’s scrutiny committee and considered in detail. Information has been disclosed through the freedom of information process and the future plans for the organisation have been established. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, after looking at the matter closely, nothing has led me to believe that Stockport council has not exercised the proper degree of scrutiny. Nothing that the hon. Gentleman has said today has established that the council has been derelict in any of its responsibilities.

Andrew Gwynne: Will the Minister give way?

Greg Clark: I will not, because we have only a couple of minutes left and I want to conclude my comments. It is not a question of passing judgment on whether Stockport council was wasteful in its decision to provide support to the incubator. That decision has been made by a democratic and independent organisation and by a

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local authority aiming to help businesses to start up and grow in its area. As central Government, we should respect that.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we should make use of the powers available. He said at the beginning of the debate that I believe in transparency. The measures in the Localism Bill will increase the transparency to which local authorities are subject. I am keen that local people should be able to see what is being done with taxpayers’ funds. The local authority’s business plan for the incubator is in the public domain and people can take a view on whether it is an acceptable way to proceed. If they look at other business incubators throughout the country, they will see that it is rare for an incubator to operate at 100% capacity. The point of an incubator—almost—is to have some space available so that prospective businesses can locate there, so this situation is not out of the ordinary.

I know that that the local enterprise partnership will take a particular interest in the matter. It has made it clear that the facilities will be important for the full employment potential of Greater Manchester to be realised. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in Greater Manchester, including the other authorities, will consider how this particular incubator can be part of a network that the LEP may look to establish across the city so that it can realise the undoubtedly great potential for the small businesses of Greater Manchester to lead the way out of the economic difficulties from which they are suffering. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to address the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.

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Sikh Turbans (Airport Searches)

Mr Lee Scott (in the Chair): Before we begin the next debate, I would like to say that the sheer volume of hon. Members in the Chamber means that all interventions should be as brief as humanly possible to give the Minister the chance to respond fully.

1.30 pm

Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Scott. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who helped me in securing the debate. Protocol dictates that I refer to him as an hon. Friend, but I genuinely feel that I and the Sikh community as a whole have established a deep friendship with him. He is a valuable asset to the debate and to the House.

The world seems to be in a challenging season at the moment. There are natural disasters and Government instability all over the globe. Security checks have become a way of life, and will be for the foreseeable future. We, as citizens of this challenged world, are tasked with finding the balance between security and freedom. Problems have arisen in the past few months regarding the hand searches of Sikh turbans in airports based on new EU regulations. Under EU regulations, airport security is allowed to insist on a hand search of the turban if the passenger in question either sets off the metal detector or is chosen at random for a search.

As a Sikh, although I do not wear the traditional turban, my father is turbaned and I understand the Sikh community’s great distress at the thought of having turbans either publicly hand searched or, in some cases, physically removed. That is seen as deeply disrespectful in the Sikh culture and is perceived in almost all the community as a humiliating breach of personal privacy. The Department for Transport has taken the lead in trying to rectify the situation by establishing a trial that would have airports offering swabs of turbans for explosive residue.

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the implementation of that practice is taking too long and that the Department for Transport should press all UK airports to implement it at the earliest possible opportunity? Airports should also ensure that proper training and equipment are put in place for staff.

Paul Uppal: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend and echo the sentiments he has expressed. I am taken aback by the number of hon. Members who want to intervene and speak in the debate, so I will be very brief in my comments.

The trial was well received by the Sikh community, but it is still not the norm in airports. The trial is optional in airports but, even in participating airports, some staff are loth to allow Sikh passengers the option. I am proud that the Government have advocated on the issue and have put in place alternatives without sacrificing the safety of their citizens.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman concerned—as I am given the consultation I have had with the substantial Sikh community in Wolverhampton—about the inconsistency of the application of the principles and guidelines that

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have been issued by the Government to the airports? That is a matter of great concern. Even in those airports that have opted in to the trial, not all staff are carrying out the procedures as they should.

Paul Uppal: I will cover some of those issues in parts of my speech that I intend to reach. However, I understand the sentiments that the hon. Lady is expressing.

In particular, some of the concerns have focused around Italy and Poland, where there have been problems. Perhaps I can illustrate the strength of feeling on the issue by quoting the Indian External Affairs Minister, Mr S.M. Krishna, who said:

“Wherever there is an insult to Sikhs, we take it as a national insult.”

That related to an issue involving the removal of the turban of Amritinder Singh, who is the coach of Sikh golfer Jeev Milkha Singh, at an Italian airport. He was made to physically remove his turban and place it with other security items in a tray.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is illustrating the core of the problem. The UK has a substantial Sikh population, whereas hardly any of the other European Union countries do. There is a real lack of understanding of the culture of the Sikh community and, indeed, of the Sikh faith in some European countries. In the UK, our shared history and our substantial Sikh population mean that we do understand. Is it therefore not utterly incumbent on Ministers and officials to fight on the issue strongly at European level to make sure that those concerns are heard, understood and acted upon?

Paul Uppal: I completely understand the sentiment expressed by the right hon. Gentleman. Towards the end of my speech, I will echo such points. The UK can take a lead on the matter and provide a way forward for a lot of our European partners on the issue. I will come to that during the denouement of my speech.

There is still discussion among Sikhs on the issue and many hon. Members are being contacted by Sikhs in their constituency, which is why I have secured this Westminster Hall debate. I hope that we can get clarification on the things that remain ambiguous, as well as enter into a frank discussion between ourselves and the Minister on what needs to happen in future.

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): I have had such discussions with my Gurdwara in Hounslow. There is a major concern that the fact this is a trial means that many airports are not taking part in it, including Luton and London City. In total, we are talking about 18 million passengers. A lot of Sikhs are going through airports that are not part of the trial.

Paul Uppal: I completely understand the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. She has also campaigned on Sikh issues and is actively engaged with them. I echo that comment in saying that the current trial is not a long-term solution and there are still screening problems at airports in the UK and all over the world. It is my hope that the swab test will be the standard test all over

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Europe in the near future and that it will be offered first, rather than attempting to force people into a hand search.

There is always hope for tomorrow. New technology is being developed from X-ray machines and will be more sophisticated than swab tests. That could make the problem a thing of the past. However, until that happens, we must work together to increase awareness both in the Sikh community regarding their right to ask for a swab test and in airports to ensure that all passengers are treated with respect regardless of their choice of religious dress.

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): My hon. Friend talks about new technology. Is this issue the reason that new technology should be explored more quickly? I am thinking particularly of a company in my constituency called Laser Optical Engineering, which could produce a system of lasers that would scan passengers, both Sikhs and non-Sikhs, for explosive substances. The technology already exists and it is incumbent on the Government to adopt such technologies to help to solve these issues.

Paul Uppal: I agree with my hon. Friend. Technology will be the way to solve the problem and the need for it is paramount. I wholeheartedly agree with her perspective.

I shall be very brief because I can see that many hon. Members want to speak. I shall sum up with this last paragraph, which is personal to me and is something I saw with my own eyes. In the aftermath of 9/11, two individuals were killed in the US after reprisal attacks because they were turbaned. The people who attacked them assumed that they were terrorists because they were turbaned. Such a view breeds on misconception and ignorance, and I want to highlight in today’s debate the need to tackle such opinions head on. I want to champion the fact that we have a long-established Sikh population in the UK, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), and that we have a respective history.

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I represent a constituency with the largest Sikh population, where a large number of people work at Heathrow airport, and they also work at other airports around the country. When we are talking about new technology, security is the prime issue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, after the five K’s, the turban is the most respected symbol of identity among the Sikh community and that the majority of Sikh people have proven to have integrity and respect for the security of the world in general? Does he also agree that airport staff and other European nations need to be told to be more respectful towards that fact when we are trying find solutions? The Government should be negotiating with European Governments to ensure that that happens.

Paul Uppal: Perhaps I can answer that by specifically referring to this philosophical point. In a sense it is obvious for me, as a British Sikh, to speak about this issue. One has to be very careful, because one can be stereotyped. It is important, however, to come to all such issues from a philosophical point. We very rarely, in legislation or in other things we do, understand anybody else’s pain. I assure hon. Members that I

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understand the pain of Sikhs on this specific issue, because it is something that I have seen and experienced in my own family.

I will sum up quickly, because I feel that there is a groundswell of hon. Members who wish to speak. We, in Britain, have a rich and deep historical perspective and understanding of the Sikh contribution to British history.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I want to congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that he feels very strongly about the issue. Does he agree that it is key to ensure that we have a balance between the security concerns of the travelling public and treating people with respect? It seems to me, and to the Sikh community in Dartford, that we can achieve that balance through the use of modern technology, which has been mentioned, rather than simply having Sikhs manhandled in airports around the country.

Paul Uppal: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is the balance that we are talking about. Nobody taking part in this debate, nobody to whom I have spoken in a Gurdwara and nobody I have met in my constituency wants security watered down in any way. That is the furthest thing from any right-minded person’s mind, but there has to be a balancing act. That balance is the point, not just in what we do in Britain, but in what is done across Europe. I have mentioned the fact that we have a deep history here. I wanted to raise that point because it would be remiss of me, as a British Sikh, not to remind our European partners of the unique contribution of the Sikhs—not just to British history, but globally—through what they do and their values.

1.42 pm

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): I want to congratulate my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), on securing the debate. I agree with him that this is an issue of deep concern to our Sikh constituents and it has been raised with me many times. A petition was presented to me with several hundred signatures from the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in my constituency, and I know that that view is reflected elsewhere.

There is one issue at the core of this, which is that we all agree that there is a need for adequate security at airports for all passengers, but it is surely better to implement it in a way that respects cultural traditions and does not offend people of a particular faith. To that end, the Department organised meetings with Sikh representatives in the run-up to implementing the decision. Those representatives thought that agreement had been reached at the beginning of February about how to implement the directive using swab and wand technology and using searches only as a very last resort. The core of the problem has been an inconsistency in the application of that, a lack of communication on how that is to be done, difficulties for Sikh staff working at airports as well as Sikh passengers passing through airports, and an ongoing dissatisfaction and deep distress and concern in the community about how this is unfolding.

Will the Minister, in her summing up, say whether she understands the distress in the community? Why was the implementation in February not preceded by proper

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information for both passengers and staff on how to implement the new procedures? Why has there been such inconsistency between one airport and another—surely the security requirements are the same throughout all airports?

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab) rose—

Mr Lee Scott (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry, this is actually an intervention. There has not been an application to speak, so there cannot be an intervention on an intervention.

Mr McFadden: I stand corrected, Mr Scott. I will briefly come to a conclusion. Does the Minister agree that the exchange of correspondence between Ministers and Sikh representatives has not resolved the issue since February? Is the time now right for a meeting at ministerial level between Ministers and Sikh representatives? I am sure that I and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West and other hon. Members with many Sikh constituents would be happy to facilitate and attend such a meeting if that were helpful. It would be important if the Minister were to do that.

I echo the point that, because of the long history and tradition of the Sikh community in the UK, other countries in Europe will look at how we implement the directive. So far, that has not been done in a way that the community has consented to. I suggest that the Minister has that meeting and that the UK implements the directive in a way that enhances security at airports, that the community can go along with, and that means that other countries in Europe will look at our lead in implementing the directive. If that is not the case, we will have ongoing concern and distress in the community, and other countries in Europe perhaps going even further in causing distress to Sikh passengers passing through their airports.

1.46 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) on securing the debate on this very important issue.

I should first respond straight away to the request for a ministerial meeting. I am very happy to agree to meet representatives of the Sikh community to discuss the issue. I will also respond to the questions about the Government’s approach. I emphasise that the Government are fully aware of the major importance of this issue for so many hon. Members who have turned up today and for the Sikh community. I appreciate and understand, as do my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government, the pivotal role of the turban in Sikh culture and religious observance, and the distress and concern caused by the possibility of a public hand search of a turban.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): All of us in this Chamber, when we see a turban, understand the spiritual nature that it signifies. Does the Minister agree that the values of Sikhism—tolerance, self-discipline and respect for others—would, when applied to this policy, sort it out straight away? What we actually need is for our European partners to be told in no uncertain terms that we stick by the Sikh community in Britain and we want them to be shown respect.

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Mrs Villiers: Absolutely. As I shall go on to outline in my speech, the key to resolving the issue in a way that the Sikh community are happy with is to secure a change in EU rules. The Secretary of State is focused on that, as am I, and I will outline what we are doing on that in my remarks. We are anxious to resolve the issue in a way that is consistent with Sikh beliefs and values.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): We are considering those in the Sikh community, and we appreciate and understand their circumstances. May I suggest that the Minister should also look at the issue of Christians having to go through a body search whenever they go through airports? I make that comment because some of my constituents have come to see me about this issue. Some have had metal parts put into their bodies through medical procedures, and have to be subjected to a strip search every time they go through an airport. We are looking at the issue in relation to Sikhs; will the Minister look at it in relation to Christians as well?

Mrs Villiers: We always keep security arrangements under constant review, but I think that all of us here would agree that this issue has special resonance and concern for the Sikh community. Protecting air passengers from the threat of terrorism is crucial. Although several high-profile attempts to blow up commercial airliners have been foiled since 9/11, aviation remains, I am afraid, an iconic and enduring target for terrorists. The recent cargo bomb plot demonstrated once again that those wishing to launch attacks on aviation are well informed about the processes in place—any potential vulnerabilities could be exploited by terrorists.

As the threat evolves and as the terrorist groups devise more sophisticated plans to attack aviation, so our response must evolve. Working closely with airports, we regularly reassess our security regime to ensure that passengers and cargo are effectively screened, and that we comply with our international obligations. However, at the same time, we are very aware of the impact of screening measures on all communities and on the travelling public generally. We are always open to ideas on how to reduce inconvenience for passengers and to improve screening.

Fiona Mactaggart: I note the Minister’s point. I challenge my constituency neighbour’s claim to represent more Sikhs than any other Member in the south—they have all moved to Slough now, and I represent them.

The issue is not only about getting European agreement but about consistency in UK airports. Previously, Heathrow had agreed to abide by the wand and swab arrangement, yet I hear from constituents working or travelling through there that it is not consistently applied. Would the Minister, in advance of any meeting with the community, meet with airport operators to ensure consistency within the individual airports?

Mrs Villiers: The DFT is of course in touch with airports. There were some teething problems associated with the trial of alternative screening methods, but we are anxious to ensure that they are resolved.

In April last year, new European rules on the screening of headgear came into force, requiring headgear to be searched by hand whenever a passenger or member of staff triggers a walk-through metal-detector alarm or is

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selected at random for a search when entering a secure restricted area. The new rules immediately triggered serious concern in the Sikh community.

The coalition Government were not in office when the rules were adopted in Europe, but we acted swiftly in response to the opposition expressed by Sikhs about how the new rules were operating. Meetings with the Sikh community were held, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked UK airports to delay implementation of the new EU rules while we discussed with the community how to address its concerns. The Department also raised the issue with the European Commission, and further meetings with representatives of the Sikh community were held.

Following those meetings, we conducted laboratory tests using explosive trace detection equipment to identify, if possible, an alternative to a hand search that would give equivalent protection. I am grateful to all the members of the Sikh community who took part in those tests. Initial results indicated that the most effective alternative process involved the use of ETD coupled with a hand-held metal detector. Although the lab work produced some encouraging results, scientists recommended that a larger on-airport trial would be required before any final conclusions could be drawn. We then acted quickly and got permission from the European Commission to proceed with a larger trial, to establish formally whether a combination of ETD equipment and hand-held metal detectors could provide an effective screening method for religious headgear as an alternative to the EU rules which had caused such concern.

The Commission agreed to our request and the trial started on 14 February. It will last for 18 months and represents a crucial step forward towards the solution that everyone present in the Chamber wishes to achieve. Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are all taking part, along with 19 other airports around the country. The trial is now in progress or due to commence shortly at most major UK airports. Seventeen of the top 20 airports are taking part, including Birmingham, which serves the region including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West.

Once the trial had been approved by the European Commission, I am afraid that we could no longer postpone the implementation of the April 2010 rules, which I know caused disappointment—I fully recognise that—but our obligations under the EU treaty meant that we had no choice. Airports had either to comply with the EU regulation or to volunteer for the trial of the revised procedures for screening headgear. We were left with no other course of action.

Mary Macleod: I congratulate the Government on making progress on the issue, while trying to find a solution that works for everyone. Can the Minister clarify what ongoing discussions are happening between the Europe Minister and the European Commission to find a resolution as soon as possible?

Mrs Villiers: A number of discussions have taken place with the European Commission. I shall report to it after this debate, to emphasise the serious concern expressed in Parliament about the issue and the importance that hon. Members place on achieving a resolution as quickly as possible.

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Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): The issue is important not only in the Sikh community; all other faith communities, as far as I am aware, are supportive of the view of the Sikh community, because they understand the respect-for-faith issues. The matter is now the dominant political issue in the Sikh community.

Before the Minister finishes her speech, I hope she can assure us that the Government’s position is that the outcome should be: no hand interference with the turban and no forced removal of it. If she can give that position statement on the Government’s behalf, we will know that we are aiming at the right place and, hopefully, that the negotiations will be a success.

Mrs Villiers: Certainly our aim is to reach a solution that avoids public hand search and removal of the turban. That is what we want to reach, but we must be certain that effective alternative screening methods are available.

My officials have been working with the airport industry to encourage the widest possible participation in the alternative screening method trials, but such trials are voluntary. We cannot compel all airports to take part, but we are seeing real progress as the trial proceeds. We are getting a valuable, real-world opportunity to see how the technology works in practice. Only by such testing can we demonstrate and be certain that the method works. Only then, with such evidence, can we hope to secure a change to the European rules so that one day, we hope, all airports will offer the alternative screening method using a combination of ETD and hand-held metal detectors. My officials will pass the trial data to the European Commission, as part of our efforts to secure a resolution.

We are continuing to work hard with airports to ensure that the introduction of the trial methods proceeds smoothly and that any teething problems are resolved. Airports are committed to working with the community to resolve those difficulties.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West highlighted concerns about search procedures in other EU member states. We have no power to tell other member states how to run their security procedures—that is a matter for them—but I appreciate the concern and unhappiness expressed in other member states about the searching of religious headgear.

Mr Virendra Sharma: Is the Minister willing to write to the partner states expressing the concerns of Members and of the communities represented at the debate, so that the member states can start listening as well? As previous speakers have said, there is a lack of understanding in the European countries about Sikh and other faiths.

Mrs Villiers: That is a good idea. I am happy to write to the equivalent Ministers in other member states, pointing out the concerns expressed.

The strength and vibrancy of our Sikh community in the UK gives us a special interest in the issue, an insight we can usefully share with our European partners, so we will be doing our best to lead the debate not only with the Commission but with other member states. We are working hard for a solution. I appreciate that there is real frustration. Achieving the change we need will take time. Unfortunately, amending European law is never a speedy process. However, I would like to assure the Sikh community, all my hon. Friends and other Members present at the debate today that the Government take the issue very seriously.

Further meetings with the Sikh community are planned for May. We will continue to work hard on the issue and to engage closely with community leaders to maintain the highest levels of passenger security, but to do so in a culturally sensitive way which we hope will address the concerns of the Sikh community.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.