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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 27 April 2011

[John Robertson in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela Watkinson.)

9.30 am

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this opportunity to discuss the political situation in Zimbabwe. The Minister will know that for many years I have been visiting Zimbabwe, and have done so during the current serious political crisis. I was there during the dark days of Operation Drive Out Rubbish, when hundreds of thousands of homes and small businesses were demolished, and many people, particularly trade union activists, were singled out for beating and arrest.

I visited Zimbabwe again last month, and I was pleased to be accompanied by two other members of the all-party group on Zimbabwe, of which I am pleased to be the chairman. We were there particularly to see what was happening with the parliamentary situation. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), who will contribute to the debate, was returning to Zimbabwe for the first time since 1979. His background as a trained election agent was valuable when we looked at political processes in Zimbabwe.

Lord Joffe was the other member of the delegation, and has an eminent record in southern Africa. He was the defence lawyer for Nelson Mandela when he faced the death penalty at the Rivonia trial, and defended many other leaders in the struggle against apartheid. He also defended a very young Jacob Zuma, so he is no stranger to political oppression. He was chairman of Oxfam at one time, so he has seen development and aid close up in many parts of the world. The delegation was thus very strong.

We came away from our visit with many anxieties, particularly about harassment of parliamentarians, but I also felt hopeful about Zimbabwe’s future. Given the high-profile events connected with Parliament in Zimbabwe during our stay, it was appropriate that our visit was funded by the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. That was the first of my many visits during the past 10 years that was funded. I am grateful for that, and pay tribute to the CPA, particularly Andrew Tuggey, for continuing to engage with Zimbabwe, even though Mugabe withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2003. It is very much in line with the Commonwealth principles set out in Harare and Millbrook in New Zealand that such engagement continues. I hope that before long, Zimbabwe will be able to rejoin the Commonwealth family. I know that many Zimbabwean Members of Parliament are waiting for that to happen.

Despite the hope, there are huge difficulties to be overcome. When the inclusive Government was formed, and particularly now with events in other parts of the world, especially in north Africa, attention was and is

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being diverted from what is happening in southern Africa, and there is a risk that that will continue. Mugabe and his strategists in ZANU-PF have for decades relied on a combination of regional intransigence and international indifference to neutralise anyone who opposes their monopoly on power. I am glad that the UK Government have not allowed Zimbabwe to fall off their agenda, and I pay tribute to the tremendously hard work and commitment shown by the Minister with responsibility for Africa, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), who, unfortunately, cannot be here today, but we are delighted to have the Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), here to respond to the debate. The Under-Secretary has followed in the footsteps of his predecessors in recent years.

We are also being well served by our ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mark Canning. He and his team could not have done more to make our visit useful and productive. The Minister will understand that because we have had conversations about Europe, and he knows how pleased I was to see our flag being proudly flown not just at the embassy well above the European Union flag, but from the ambassador’s car as it drove through Harare. That was an important symbol of the United Kingdom’s continuing engagement in trying to help that country.

I also pay tribute to Dave Fish, head of the Department for International Development in Zimbabwe. He has won huge admiration in the country for his understanding of the context in which our UK aid programme is delivered. It is not an easy job, and we saw at first hand his outstanding commitment to getting it right.

We witnessed a real unity of purpose binding together the courageous men and women who are at the forefront of the struggle to bring reform and progress to Zimbabwe, whether they are active in politics or in civil society. Above all, it is a tribute to the people of Zimbabwe and those who have led the struggle for democracy that the process of transition is still on track, and that the long march of reform is continuing. It is important to remember that despite appalling provocation, the Movement for Democratic Change has remained a peaceful political party, and has not reacted in the way that Mugabe presumably wanted it to react in the face of the tremendous violence and intimidation.

Of course, the vast majority of Zimbabweans would like the process to move more quickly, as would members of the all-party group. We are impatient, and we wish that reforms could be implemented much more speedily. It is frustrating to see opportunities being missed, and people’s lives passing by with promises unfulfilled. The process is fragile, and there are still powerful elements who want it to stall or be reversed. They are from the old political establishment, and have a vested interest in maintaining a system that makes them rich, and consigns the mass of the population to disease, destitution and dependency. It is a shameful irony that those who shouted loudest about independence and sovereignty and condemned the role of the British colonial Government have driven their once-proud country to hunger and handouts.

There is still massive resistance to political and economic reform from those in the political and military establishments. They see their personal position of wealth and privilege threatened. We were all angry to see the

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blatant dishonesty of those who are intent on protecting their own power. It was tragic to drive through Zimbabwe and see factories lying idle, farmland lying uncultivated, and the people who should be working them cast aside and unemployed.

During our visit last month we went to Chegutu, and I pay special tribute to two people from that area who have helped to show the world not just what has gone wrong in Zimbabwe, but what can be done to make things better. I am sure that many hon. Members saw the striking film “Mugabe and the White African”. The all-party Zimbabwe group arranged a screening at Westminster when the film was launched nearly two years ago. It features Ben Freeth and his father-in-law, Mike Campbell, and their attempts to keep farming at Mount Carmel in Chegutu. ZANU-PF bigwigs with their armed thugs were determined to take control of the farm, and to drive Ben and Mike off the land, even though it had been purchased legally in the relatively recent past, and with no expression of interest from the Zimbabwe Government.

Mike Campbell decided to challenge the seizure of his farm through the courts not only in Zimbabwe, but going right up to those of the region, and to the South African Development Community tribunal. Bringing a court case in Zimbabwe requires courage, and Mike Campbell, his wife Angela, and son-in-law Ben all suffered dreadful beatings and violence for daring to challenge ZANU-PF. Their farmhouse was ransacked and burned, and the police failed to take any action against the perpetrators. The SADC tribunal ruled that the actions of the Government of Zimbabwe were illegal. At that point the lawyers representing the Zimbabwe Government promptly walked out and declared that they did not recognise the tribunal, although for weeks they had appeared before it, argued their case and delayed the process by asking for adjournments.

The response to the SADC tribunal ruling showed up Mugabe and his ZANU-PF colleagues and demonstrated that their fight is not only with reformers in Zimbabwe, not only with the British Government, and not only with the Commonwealth and the EU, but with anyone who dares to stand up to their violent and destructive policies. ZANU-PF’s intransigent and dishonest response to the tribunal helped leaders of SADC Governments to recognise the true nature of what they are up against with the old guard in Zimbabwe. Sadly, Mike Campbell paid a high price for his battle, and just three weeks ago he died. He never really recovered from the beatings he suffered at the hands of Mugabe’s thugs, but I hope that his death will not be in vain.

We were also able to visit the constituency of Chegutu West, and its member of Parliament, Prince Matibe. He is the second person from that area to whom I want to pay tribute. He is an example of a promising young generation of Zimbabweans who are determined to play their full part in restoring Zimbabwe and making the country work again. They want a Zimbabwe that can stand proudly on its own two feet, feed its people and provide them with jobs. It was uplifting to travel around that constituency with the young MP, and hear not only what he wanted to achieve for the people of his home town, but to see some seeds of hope. Despite having slender resources, and in the face of constant

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harassment and violence, Prince Matibe and his colleagues in the MDC have worked on projects that are making a real difference to the people of Chegutu. We visited a newly built primary school for which funds have been raised, and we met the headmaster and some of the children. We also met the local councillor, a member of ZANU-PF who praised the project and, I am glad to say, was fully engaged with it. We visited a new market established by the MDC so that local people can buy and sell local produce. It was a small but confident beginning towards reviving a town where the biggest local employer, a cotton ginnery that a few years ago employed 5,000 people, now stands empty and derelict.

We had a full morning’s meeting with many Zimbabwean MPs, and we were struck by the fact that they described themselves as “engines for development” in their constituencies. As Lord Joffe pointed out, there are not many countries where MPs would describe themselves in that way. One thing that came to light during our discussions with MPs, particularly those from the MDC, was that they did not feel sufficiently engaged with or consulted by the implementing agencies of aid programmes that are funded by donor Governments, including the UK. Those responsible for aid programmes are of course anxious for their work not to be seen as interfering in any way with the internal politics of the places in which they operate. However, there can be dangers if local circumstances are not acknowledged.

Normally, aid agencies will consult local officials who are seen as being professional rather than political, but that is not the case in Zimbabwe. A deliberate ploy of ZANU-PF has been to politicise every level of life and government in Zimbabwe, meaning that district officers and officials in health care and education are apt to represent the views of ZANU-PF. To counter that, it is important that elected MPs and councillors who have a mandate from the people be consulted. Otherwise, there is always the risk that the views of ZANU-PF are fed into the consultation by the officials, and the alternative MDC view is excluded because it is regarded as political. That happens at the openings of new aid projects, for example, when the elected MPs would not be invited because they are seen as political. Those present are the officials, who are seen as not political, despite actually being even more political than the MPs but without a mandate. I know that Dave Fish took that on board as a result of some of our discussions with MPs.

The difference in the experiences of MDC MPs and ZANU-PF MPs was brought home to us very starkly. Although ZANU-PF representatives seem to be above the law, MDC MPs are frequently arrested and detained in custody. One of those was Shepherd Mushonga, who is an MDC MP for the Mazowe Central constituency and chair of the parliamentary legal committee. We met him just after his release on bail and he is a lovely, cheerful man. The charge against him was that he had stolen $700-worth of excess quarry stones donated for building a nurses home in his constituency, and used them to build a primary school. There is a widely held perception that the rise in arrests of MPs was part of the plan to change the voting strength of the parties in the House of Assembly and facilitate the election of a ZANU-PF Speaker.

The Zimbabwean Speaker currently holds the chairmanship of the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum. ZANU-PF does not

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like the fact that the MDC Speaker chairs that body because it plays a crucial role on behalf of SADC in planning, deploying and reporting on election monitoring programmes for the whole region.

We arrived in Zimbabwe on 13 March. Three days earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled by a majority of three to two that the election of the MDC chairman, Lovemore Moyo, as Speaker of the House of Assembly in 2008—he has been Speaker since then—was null and void. That ruling overturned an earlier High Court decision that declared the election valid. The Supreme Court decided that, of the 208 MPs voting, six had displayed their marked papers before depositing them in the ballot box, and that the secrecy of the ballot had been compromised. That seems a peculiar decision. On that basis, a few voters in one of our general elections could display their marked voting papers before depositing them in the ballot box, and render the entire election null and void. The ballot box is secret to protect voters. If people choose to disclose how they are voting, that is their business.

The good news, however, is that after a period of having no Speaker and no Parliament, Lovemore Moyo was reinstated as Speaker of the House of Assembly— many hon. Members will have met him when he visited this country. The voting figures showed that he had been backed not only by colleagues in the mainstream MDC and the tiny breakaway faction, but by some MPs from ZANU-PF. That shows that the longing for reform and for a country that works is spreading to the ranks of Mugabe’s own party, and we came across that attitude in some ZANU-PF MPs whom we met. Although they were less robust in their support for democratic processes than their MDC counterparts, we gained the clear impression that they too are weary of living in a country that is paralysed by failed policies and an intransigent leadership. Whether he really believed it or whether he said it simply as part of the diktat that is continually put forward, it was depressing to hear one ZANU-PF MP state clearly that Zimbabwe is in such a mess because of sanctions, which are stopping even medical supplies entering the country. That is complete and utter nonsense, but that MP believed it with a fervour that could have come only from total indoctrination.

Another MDC MP under arrest while we were in Harare—again, someone known to many hon. Members—was Elton Mangoma. He is the Minister responsible for energy and power development and the co-negotiator with Tendai Biti in the talks on the implementation of the global political agreement, facilitated by President Zuma of South Africa under the auspices of SADC. His arrest and detention in custody not only had a serious impact on the working of the inclusive Government, but exacerbated the already protracted delays in making progress with Zuma’s facilitation team on a road map towards the full implementation of the GPA. While we were in Harare, Elton was granted bail, but he was then rearrested on another charge. When he was granted bail, the state prosecutors invoked section 121 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, which suspends bail orders for seven days, thus allowing him to be kept in detention. He was subsequently rearrested on a further charge, but that time the attempts of the state prosecutor to deny him bail were dismissed by the High Court.

There is an attempt by ZANU-PF and the establishment to smear MDC MPs, and it is continually suggested that they lack the capacity to be Ministers or form a

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Government. That line is less strong now, but over the years it has unfortunately been picked up and repeated far too easily by some of the eminent academics involved in commentary on Africa. That is dangerous. There are many capable and talented men and women in the MDC, and if we look at what ZANU-PF has done to the country over the past 31 years, it is ridiculous to say that the MDC could not do better. The economic progress that has been made since Tendai Biti became Minister of Finance is encouraging, and it was such a change from my previous visits to see well-stocked shops. However, until there is the rule of law, an end to violence and intimidation and free and fair elections under a new constitution, investment will be scarce.

It is amazing what can be achieved with scarce resources. Paul Madzore, another energetic and impressive MDC MP, showed us around his constituency of Glen View South, which is a high-density suburb on the south-eastern outskirts of Harare. We were warmly welcomed by the staff and pupils of Glen View high school, which has brilliant O-level and A-level results—the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport suggested that perhaps one of our Education Ministers might like to visit that school. Despite having hundreds of children and very few resources, that school’s results are fantastic, and I am sure we could learn something from it.

Unfortunately, the new textbooks paid for by taxpayers in the UK and donated to Zimbabwean schools via the Education Ministry had not yet arrived at either of the two schools that we visited. However, the good manners and smart uniforms were, despite all the poverty, a delight to see. What a shame that for many pupils, their hard work and dedication will not be rewarded by jobs when they finish their education.

I could list all the MPs who have been arrested, but I will not go into all the details. I will simply say that just a month before our visit, another MDC MP, Douglas Mwonzora, who is co-chairman of the constitutional parliamentary committee, or COPAC, was arrested outside Parliament. He had gone to the police to make a formal complaint after a meeting that he held in his constituency was disrupted by a gang sent by a ZANU-PF MP, but ended up being charged himself. His arrest clearly had a serious impact on the timetable for the COPAC consultation programme for a new constitution. That consultation is vital under the GPA and must be completed before new parliamentary or presidential elections can be held.

That fact was strongly reinforced shortly before our visit, following the claim by President Mugabe that he would call for elections whether or not a new constitution was ready. He was contradicted by Marius Fransman, South Africa’s Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, who said that

“any calls for elections without the finalisation of the constitution-making process are in breach of the GPA as well as the constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment number 19, which gives legitimacy to the inclusive government.”

A number of people were arrested, including Munyaradzi Gwisai and 45 other social and human rights activists, who had simply brought people together to watch some of the videos coming in about the uprising in Egypt and revolts in Tunisia. They were arrested because watching those videos was apparently a move to subvert a constitutionally elected Government. We can therefore see the difficulties that people have when they want to organise.

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The fighting talk that we have heard from ZANU-PF about clamping down mercilessly on plotters of any revolts is entrenched in the thinking of the ZANU-PF old guard. Just this week, Stan Mudenge, who is a member of the ZANU-PF politburo and the Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, vowed to search out all the people who vote against ZANU-PF and mete out retribution. Addressing Mugabe directly, he said:

“President, I want to tell you that some people in my constituency have rebelled and they voted against you in 2008. They are now supporting the puppet party MDC but I want to say that we will fish them out and deal with them until they come back to us and do things our way.”

He went on to threaten:

“We have a very forceful and vigorous youth wing and our members of the armed forces who will make sure that no one loses direction again like what happened three years ago.”

There is clearly a severe attempt to intimidate and frighten people in the lead-up to what eventually will be, we hope, free and fair elections.

That sort of talk and those threats show how important it is for international monitors to be in place well in advance of the next election. It underlines the fact that they should be widely deployed during polling and that they should remain on the ground afterwards to observe the aftermath and to deter any attempts at retribution.

It is good to see that South Africa also recognises that. Deputy President Motlanthe recently said:

“The conception is that these elections would be a watershed like the 1980 elections that happened when the old Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. There would be a need for an international presence of the same scale, to ensure a bridge with the past”.

He went on to say:

“The next elections are viewed by all parties as watershed elections, and therefore they have to prepare for them thoroughly to ensure that there will not be any more violence or intimidation during the course of the election campaign.”

I know that monitors and observers cannot simply be imposed on a country, but as British taxpayers are expected to foot the bill for much of the electoral infrastructure, I hope that the Minister will agree that, working with SADC, we should surely be setting some conditions now in the framing of the electoral road map. Can he tell us what exactly the current state of affairs is as far as election monitors from donor nations are concerned? UK taxpayers have very gladly given substantial amounts of money to provide ever increasing aid to Zimbabwe, but they cannot be expected to do that without some freedom of access to see how these important affairs inside the country are being run, so we do need to put conditions on some of our aid.

I am reassured that a new consensus is developing in SADC that the crisis in Zimbabwe is dragging down the region and compromising social stability and economic progress. As many hon. Members know, I was a great critic of the previous President of South Africa, Mbeki, because of how little he seemed to do or how little he seemed to care, but President Zuma has adopted a robust approach and the recent SADC troika meeting in Zambia seems to have made it clear to Mugabe finally that he can no longer get away with his old tricks of duplicity and reneging on undertakings. Indeed, Mugabe was very angry about what he was told. I hope

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that the Minister will give us his assessment of current attitudes in Governments throughout the SADC region and more widely in the African Union.

In his report to the summit, President Zuma said that it was time for SADC to “speak with one voice” in impressing on all the parties concerned the fact that the situation can no longer be tolerated. He said:

“The focus that Zimbabwean parties have placed on elections without creating the necessary climate for those elections is an unfortunate sidetrack.”

He referred to delays in reform of the mass media, saying that there was a “lack of political will” to implement reform.

I hope that Zuma and his SADC colleagues will pay equal attention to the need for security sector reform. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what we in the UK are doing to support SADC in that important area, because historically we played an important role in the integration of the Zimbabwean army after independence and I am sure that at more junior levels there is still a desire for the police and military to resume a professional rather than a political role.

The Joint Operations Command is composed of the high command of the military, the police and the Central Intelligence Organisation. Many regard it as a de facto ruling junta with the ability to overrule and countermand any decisions of Ministers that run counter to the vested political and business interests of the ZANU-PF political and military oligarchy.

During our visit, we were honoured to meet Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai shortly before he left on a tour to meet Heads of Government in the SADC region, including President Banda of Zambia, who chairs the SADC troika on politics, defence and security, as well as leaders of Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique. On his return, Prime Minister Tsvangirai said:

“While I was away in the last four days, it appears the civilian authority is no longer in charge and dark and sinister forces have engaged in a hostile takeover of running the affairs of the country, with or without the blessing of some leaders of the civilian authority.”

That underlines the fragility of the situation and the real threat to progress, particularly in the light of the threats made just this week by ZANU-PF Ministers such as Mudenge. It shows why President Zuma is anxious about the threat of serious upheavals in the region following the trend that we have seen in north Africa.

We in the UK have close ties with Zimbabwe. There are social, political and diplomatic links. Despite all the talk of Africa’s new connections with China, India, Russia and other parts of the world, it is to the UK that Zimbabweans come for asylum. It is in the UK that Zimbabweans feel most at home if they need to live or work away from southern Africa. The diaspora have a crucial role to play in the new Zimbabwe, and I hope that we are giving the diaspora in the UK as much help and support as we gave those in exile from South Africa under apartheid.

I am very proud of the role that successive Administrations in the UK have played as advocates for change in Zimbabwe. The international response would have been far more feeble without resolute leadership from successive Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries. I think that the EU continued with its sanctions partly

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because the UK Government played a very important role in those discussions. I am glad that in this Parliament we have been able to play a part in keeping Zimbabwe in the spotlight and in giving a voice to the oppressed people of Zimbabwe. Many of those who lead the struggle for democracy and freedom there have given me their heartfelt thanks for the way in which their plight has been kept on the agenda in the House over recent years. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about our current engagement with our counterparts in the region.

North Africa and the middle east may be in the headlines, but the UK has a particular responsibility for Zimbabwe and our job as parliamentarians is to ensure that the Government continue to give support and help wherever they can to bring about a clear timetable for and a road map towards democracy, freedom and prosperity for the people of Zimbabwe and of southern Africa as a whole.

9.59 am

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): May I begin by thanking you, Mr Robertson, for calling me in the debate and giving me the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship? May I also congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for securing this debate on Zimbabwe, a part of the world with which I have had a long association since I was 19? I lived in southern Africa for several months in 1979, and I was there when, following the Lusaka Commonwealth conference, this country’s Conservative Government announced the setting up of the Lancaster House conference. In 1994, I spent nearly a month in neighbouring Malawi with my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) observing the campaign that saw Hastings Banda lose the first presidential election he had ever contested. That experience taught me that fighting elections in Africa is very different from fighting elections in the United Kingdom, because the roles of the chief and the village leaders, as well as access to balanced radio, are vital if the Opposition are to triumph.

Having spent 13 years as a Conservative party agent in south London, I found the trip with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to strengthen parliamentary links most stimulating and rewarding, but it was also deeply worrying. Last month, while the eyes of the world were focused on Libya and the middle east, I, the hon. Member for Vauxhall and Lord Joffe, who was Nelson Mandela’s and Jacob Zuma’s lawyer during the apartheid years, spent three days in meetings with the Prime Minister, MDC and ZANU-PF MPs, human rights lawyers and members of Zimbabwe’s civil society. I should say that at one stage during a dinner with some of the human rights lawyers I asked what they would do for a living should the whole situation be cleared up, and they did not have too much of a response. The trip also gave me an opportunity to have a refresher course in Zimbabwe’s politics, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady, Lord Joffe and David Banks, who is the all-party group’s convenor, for all their briefing and advice.

As many Members might be aware, the Chinese are investing heavily in Africa, particularly in Zimbabwe. They are financing the building of the Robert Mugabe national school of intelligence, a military academy just

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outside Harare, which is likely to contain communications equipment similar to that which one might find at GCHQ.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman raises a most interesting point about Chinese investment in Africa. Does he agree that our Government should do all they can to ensure that any Chinese investment overseas is used for good, not for bad?

Oliver Colvile: I thoroughly agree, and I will come to one or two points about that in the next few moments.

There is a real danger that Zimbabwe, sitting on South African borders, could become a Chinese-compliant nation. It should be noted that the Chinese are now South Africa’s largest trading partners. Unless we are careful, the Chinese could easily have access to the submarine base in Simon’s Town and therefore have an opportunity to control the all-important cape routes, which we need to send our trade to the far east. That is why what happens in Zimbabwe matters, and why it is important that there are free and fair elections.

Fairly soon after my colleagues and I arrived, we grasped the fact that two campaigns were going on in Zimbabwe: the air war to place pressure on SADC and President Zuma to encourage peaceful, free and fair elections; and a ground war to ensure that the MDC and other Opposition parties can campaign on a level playing field in the general election expected this autumn. The first process, which is intended to encourage SADC and the African Union to support the efforts of President Zuma and his facilitation team to plan and implement a road map towards credible and internationally recognised elections, will be much easier said than done.

It is part of African culture always to be deferential to leaders, who are seen as heroes and warriors. Whatever else we might feel and think, I am afraid that President Mugabe is seen as one such warrior and as someone who successfully fought for Zimbabwe’s independence after years of colonial rule. During his recent visit to a South African football stadium, he gained a standing ovation from the general public. Jacob Zuma’s desire to find ways of returning the 2 million Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa is being hindered by the fact that he faces local council elections in the summer and is likely to suffer some fairly heavy defeats, especially in some of the urban conurbations.

If we are serious about creating an environment for fair and peaceful elections, we must provide Mugabe and his supporters with a face-saving solution. Mugabe’s disappearance as President will not be the end of the matter, as too many people around him, especially those in the army, including senior army officials, have too much invested in his presidency. ZANU-PF sees him as its greatest asset in the forthcoming election. Whatever happens, the role of the army and the high command will be important, because they will be keen to hold on to their investment, especially their farms and other assets. They want to use Mugabe to secure their future for a few more years.

Within minutes of arriving in Harare, my colleagues and I were astonished to learn that 26 MDC MPs had been arrested, that the Speaker, Lovemore Moyo, was being forced to face re-election, and that beatings had started again in rural communities in the run-up to the general election expected later this year. Hon. Members

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can imagine what the outcry in this country would be if 27% of MPs from one political party were arrested, placed in prison and forced to raise funds to pay their bail. That would be the equivalent of 83 Conservative MPs or nearly 60 Labour MPs being arrested. I have no doubt that there would be an absolute outcry about that in this country and throughout the world—and rightly so.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): It would depend on which MPs were arrested.

Oliver Colvile: I recognise that some in the Chamber might wish a number of those 83 Conservative MPs to be arrested, and that some of my hon. Friends might want some of those 60 Labour MPs to be arrested.

Little international attention is being paid to the plight of those Zimbabwean MPs, to the beatings or to how the proceeds from the Marange diamond fields, which are said to be the largest in the world, are being managed. Some 97% of those diamond fields are under the military’s direct control, and it is thought—I say it no more strongly than that—that the proceeds are being used to fund ZANU-PF’s political activities.

On preparing for the elections, many of those whom my colleagues and I met during our brief stay made it clear that there is a real need to allow outside observers into the country to follow the registration process at an early stage. The need for a new list of electors was underlined by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which reckons that 27% of the names on the existing list are those of dead people.

Overseeing the elections will cost money, and the EU and the UK will be asked to make a significant contribution. I quite understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office feels that it cannot observe the elections unless it has received an invitation. However, the Mugabe Government have been keen to drive a wedge between themselves and the MDC so that the MDC will walk out and the Government can say, “There we go. They couldn’t stomach it.” We need to encourage SADC and President Zuma to place pressure on President Mugabe and ZANU-PF to begin registration soon and to allow our observers in. Observers must be allowed into the country at the start of the process, not in the last few weeks of the campaign. If European and British observers are allowed in only at the end of the election campaign, the damage and intimidation will already have taken place.

There are, however, other practical things that we in Britain can do through our established political parties or the highly respected Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter). During our visit, my colleagues and I talked to a number of MDC MPs and looked at the equipment in their constituency offices and at what they can spend on campaigning. We also met moderate ZANU-PF MPs, who may well be needed in a future MDC-led Government. When visiting Paul Madzore’s Glen View South constituency on the outskirts of Harare, we were struck by the lack of duplicators to produce leaflets and by the lack of access to broadband. During a visit to one of

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the markets, however, I was fortunate to be able to liberate one or two of the ZANU-PF leaflets lying around.

We need to impress on SADC that if it is serious about credible elections, something must be done to make sure that, during the campaign, ZANU-PF is not allowed to deploy state resources, as well as the proceeds of illegal diamond sales and illegally seized commercial assets, while the MDC is under-resourced and unable to produce leaflets and to inform the electorate of a country in which 97% of children can read and write. Is not that statistic a fantastic result? It is certainly something about which there should be great pride, and perhaps we can learn some lessons from it.

We need to ensure that there is balance in the electronic media and that the non-ZANU-PF Opposition have the opportunity to broadcast their message via radio. Although there has been some freedom in parts of the written press, there is no freedom on television or radio. Perhaps the Department for International Development could consider funding a transmitter in a neighbouring state, such as Botswana or Mozambique, to provide balance.

I hope that our useful debate has done much to raise the profile of some of the issues that face a country that was once the breadbasket of Africa. I urge the Minister to consider further ways to encourage SADC to bring about fair and free elections, and to ensure that there is a level playing field for all the political parties.

Several hon. Members rose

John Robertson (in the Chair): Order. We should be able to fit in all colleagues wishing to speak, but I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen no later than 10.40 am, so will Back Benchers please use the time as best they can?

10.11 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on bringing this topic to the Chamber today. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) on his speech. I shall make only a couple of quick points because I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak. My interest in Zimbabwe—or Rhodesia, which probably puts me an older age bracket—comes from my constituency and from those who left Rhodesia, as it was called when they were residents, because of persecution and discrimination and because they wanted a different life for their children and families.

Previous speakers have commented on the need for elections, about which I have some concerns. Will they be fair? Will they be called too soon? Worry has been expressed about holding the elections this year, because they could be construed as unfair because of the nature of the electoral list. I make that comment because perhaps a third of the 5.5 million people in Zimbabwe who are registered to vote are not even in the land of the living, which makes predicting how an election will go very interesting. If a third of those 5.5 million people have passed on to the next world but can reach from the grave to cast their vote, there must be suspicions about whether the elections will be fair and give the result that they should.

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Some figures indicate that if someone wants a long life, they should live in Zimbabwe, because some people on the voting list are between 111 and 120 years old. In one area of Zimbabwe alone, 503 people on the voting list have passed on. Will the elections be fair? Will the Minister indicate how he, through his Department and his contacts with Zimbabwe, will ensure that fair elections take place? Only when there is a credible electoral list can we be sure that the elections will be fair and will give the result that they should.

I wish to comment on the views expressed about ZANU-PF and its treatment of the MDC. I am concerned about the trumped up charges and the spurious allegations, which undermine the democratic process that is being taken forward in Zimbabwe. I hope that the Minister will indicate how he sees change being brought about to secure the democratic process and ensure that the electorate in Zimbabwe has the chance to speak.

I commend MDC members for their contribution in their ministerial posts. They have been able to change a bankrupt economy into one that is showing growth. That is good news, and it shows what can happen in what was once the breadbasket of southern Africa, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said.

I have the same concerns as the hon. Gentleman about Chinese imperialism—I use that term honestly and factually, because that is exactly what it is. China has armed Zimbabwe with planes, weapons, artillery and everything that a modern army needs. It has ensured that Zimbabwe has modern communications equipment, as he indicated. China clearly has a strategy on Zimbabwe. Given our close relationship with Zimbabwe, I hope that we will use our political and diplomatic channels to ensure that we bring about change. Such change can happen only with the support of Zimbabwe’s neighbours, which I hope they will give.

I conclude with a comment made by Ian Smith when he was the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, as it was then, at a time of change. Looking back now, the change that he was looking at was never the change that we all would like. The change we need today is the same as the change that we needed in Ian Smith’s time. His statement was taken from Winston Churchill, who was a real hero of mine as a schoolboy:

“this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

We hope that Zimbabwe will reach that stage from which it can move forward. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that we can make the changes necessary in Zimbabwe.

10.17 am

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and all the members of the all-party group, including the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), on securing the debate and on keeping the issue high up the political agenda. The hon. Lady is right when she says that there is a risk of indifference at times, especially as more exciting political events on the international stage seem to take people’s attention, but it is important that Zimbabwe remains on the agenda.

We may take different views on which reforms we want and when we want them, but whatever our coalition’s disagreements over constitutional reform and its progress,

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at least my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has not ended up in chains in court, and at least my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has not had to go into hiding, which is what their opposite numbers in the Zimbabwean Government have had to endure. Elton Mangoma and Theresa Makone deserve enormous credit for the courage with which they have faced appalling abuses not only of public freedom, but of parliamentary, political and even governmental and ministerial freedom. It is extraordinary, but they are of course only the tip of the iceberg. The hon. Member for Vauxhall and many others pointed out the level of abuse in Zimbabwe, which unfortunately seems to be increasing again as the elections draw closer after it had seemed to subside.

The situation in north Africa, particularly Libya, holds lessons for various people, but sadly the lesson for some dictators might be that if they treat rebellion and dissent with sufficient violence and determination, they might have a chance of surviving and succeeding. That is obviously a lesson that we do not want ZANU-PF to be able to draw, so there is an interest in this for the international community, and the same lesson could be drawn from the situations in Yemen and Syria as we speak. We need to make it clear to the international community that that must not be the lesson drawn, and it must act with resolution in all those situations.

Luckily or unluckily, any thought of military intervention in Zimbabwe, despite what some constituents might occasionally call for, is absolutely out of the question, as I am sure the Minister will confirm. The important thing is that we should work not only with the international community but with regional organisations. Others have referred to the lead role of the Southern African Development Community, but the African Union is a co-guarantor of the global political agreement. I would be interested to hear from the Minister the latest intelligence from the African Union and others, and what position they are taking to guarantee that the constitutional process is going forward.

Of course, one country has an absolutely key role: South Africa is the leading political and economic force in the region. It is interesting that President Zuma has taken a robust line on the constitutional process. In gratitude, he is coming under attack from the state media in Zimbabwe, which recently described him as a “dishonest broker”. The language is becoming quite fierce, but in a funny sort of way that is an encouraging development. It is a sign that the southern African political community as a whole is becoming more realistic in its treatment of Robert Mugabe’s regime, and that it is prepared to make enemies within the ZANU-PF movement. South Africa’s historic position in the region is inevitably one of moral and political leadership. We should give President Zuma all possible support in that role, and I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on his latest contacts with the president.

With the onset of elections in Zimbabwe, we are in a sense putting the cart before the horse. The constitutional reform process was supposed, ideally, to precede the next round of elections, but that now seems to be in doubt. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s latest take on that aspect.

We are in a difficult situation with all countries where violent and dictatorial forces are in play. In many countries around the world—I look at East Timor, the former

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Yugoslavia and, I hope, Côte d'Ivoire—these dictatorial and violent forces have ultimately been defeated. We see clear defeat there, rather than compromise, yet our urge to avoid confrontation obviously leads us to suggest political solutions, with compromises and deals. Indeed, that was the source of the global political agreement in Zimbabwe, but it has not served the purposes that we hoped. Perhaps we should encourage the regional community to take a more robust political approach in Zimbabwe.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport was right to mention China. It is clearly investing a great deal of money in Africa. It is not generally clear where that money is going, but some of it is certainly going in less than helpful directions, such as armaments and intelligence and communications capacity. China’s hand is being seen in some of the least savoury regimes around the world—we can add Sudan and North Korea and various other countries to the list—and that has the potential to do China’s international reputation a great deal of harm. Commercial logic alone should show the Chinese that investing in regimes that are inherently unstable because they rely on violence and coercion will not be a good long-term strategy for China.

Oliver Colvile: One reason that the Chinese are interested in Africa is that it is wealthy in mineral rights and such things. If the Chinese can have some control over that, they will be very happy. They are not particularly interested, as I understand it, in what takes place in the country; they tend to bring in their own workers, who do everything that they have to do and then leave. That is a big problem. Some may say that they are acting in an imperious manner—they most certainly are, and in a very big way—and we in the UK have to be most concerned about that as it could be another sparking point. We may have trouble at the moment in the middle east, but it could be significantly worse elsewhere.

John Robertson (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be short.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The risk is that the Chinese will not leave once the resources have been exploited but that China’s interests will continue in many of these countries. It is imperialism on the model of the East India Company, I suppose.

“Imperialism” is a strong word to use, but there is certainly a risk of Chinese political and commercial dominance in some of these countries, and exploitation of the political vulnerability of these unsavoury and undemocratic regimes. That of course raises uncomfortable political questions for China itself, but the democratic international community needs to make a stand on that question. There certainly seems to be potential for an alliance between the UK, the European Union and the democratic west and the democratic nations of southern Africa.

I turn briefly to Mozambique. It is a democracy and a member of the Commonwealth. However, the exploitation of the Marange diamond fields is allowing diamonds to be smuggled or illegally exported to avoid Zimbabwean taxation. Revenue clearly passes back to the military and the coffers of ZANU-PF. It seems to me that the

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Government could make representations to the Mozambique Government to take a stronger attitude to controlling the Zimbabwean border, as it is a vital financial link in the chain that supports the regime.

I shall be encouraged if the Minister has good news for us, but I realise that it is a difficult situation. However, I believe that our instinct to take a robust line on human rights and democracy and to seek internationally based co-operation as a solution to problems of dictatorship and violence will serve us well.

10.26 am

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for securing this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and others for their contributions. I believe that Zimbabwe has a place in all our hearts. I am a former farmer. I visited Zimbabwe as an election observer for the European Union in 2000 and fell in love with the country. Its politics are a disaster. It is not about race or creed; it is about politics—and the man, basically a madman, who is destroying the country. I find it amazing that over the years the people of Zimbabwe have been able to stand the pressure, yet there is still some semblance of what is right and wrong, of what is law, despite all that ZANU-PF and Mugabe have done.

I emphasise the need for election observers to be in Zimbabwe quite early in the process. I was in Zimbabwe in 2000, when MDC first came to the fore; it would have won the election, no two ways about it, had it not been for the fear and intimidation. We should not forget the re-education camps out in the countryside; basically, they get hold of a population and re-educate them to ensure that they vote for ZANU-PF. They dig trenches and put coffins in them, and then make the people walk across them saying, “If you don’t vote for ZANU-PF, that’s where you’ll land up—in that coffin.” The guys that have been doing all this beating up and intimidation are then found sitting in the polling stations on election day, watching people come in to vote. I cannot believe what the people of Zimbabwe have to go through.

I remember that one of the returning officers in Harare in 2000 was a school headmistress. She went along to the polling station and hoiked out all the ZANU-PF polling agents. In those days she would have had the power and audacity to do that, but ever since, of course, it is being broken down. That is why we have to get election observers in there, and we have to get them in reasonably early so that we can see what is going on.

The electoral roll will be completely manipulated, as it was back in 2000. Then it had been worked out that most of those who would vote for the MDC were more educated and moved around Zimbabwe a lot, so no one was allowed to re-register. In that way, they managed to exclude an awful lot of the population. Not only were 25% or 30% unable to vote, but they found reasons to exclude anyone that they thought would vote for the MDC.

We are rightly giving aid to Zimbabwe, but we must put some conditions on that aid. There must be some form of governance. We in the UK are in a coalition, are we not; but how on earth would a coalition work in Zimbabwe? We in the Conservative party might think, “Right, we don’t like what the Liberal Democrats are

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doing, so we’ll arrest them all and put them in jail, especially if there’s a vote and we think we’re likely to lose it in Parliament. Let’s lock ’em all up. It’s a very good form of democracy, isn’t it? You make sure you win the vote by arresting the opposition.” It is not any form of coalition or democratic Government as we know it. That is where things are going horribly wrong in Zimbabwe.

Then there are all the farms in Zimbabwe that are being given to the so-called “war veterans”. Some of them look remarkably young if they are war veterans from the 1970s. Most of them are probably in their 30s or 40s—there is no way that they are war veterans. I will be quite blunt: they are a bunch of thugs, basically, hired by Mugabe to go round and destroy these farms. Of course, once they get the farms, there is another problem. They drive off not only the farmers themselves but the farm workers, and we should not forget that these farms are homesteads that include a school and a medical centre. These farms are communities in themselves and everyone is driven off them, leaving nobody to farm them. The machinery is destroyed and the cattle are killed, and the whole process just brings about a degradation of agriculture. Instead of Zimbabwe being the bread basket of Africa, it is now receiving food aid. That is just impossible to believe.

I know the Minister will say how difficult the situation is, and it is very difficult. I am fairly hawkish about these matters. Let me be blunt: if we had enough armed forces I would be quite happy to see some of them sent to Zimbabwe, but that is not going to happen and I am a realist in that respect. Nevertheless, we must face up to the fact that the Chinese are going into Zimbabwe with their own work force. If they want to take out minerals, they take away the hill that the minerals are in and it just disappears from Zimbabwe and goes back to China. That is what the Chinese are about. They are not investing in Zimbabwe for the right reasons and we must be clear about that, because what we need is investment—good international investment—in Zimbabwe. However, who will provide that investment while the farms are being repossessed? In fact, the thugs are now fed up because there is not enough wealth to find on the farms, so they go into the cities, such as Harare and Bulawayo, and that is the problem. They are destroying the businesses that people should be investing in.

I say to the Minister with all sincerity that, however difficult it is to do so, when we give support to Zimbabwe let us actually try to bring about a democratic change, because when we can get some form of reasonable governance in Zimbabwe the people of Zimbabwe will be more than ready for it. They will work together. That country, which is a highly educated country, will prosper. Perhaps in some way, that is where Mugabe went wrong: he educated people in Zimbabwe, and they could then find out that there was a better way to run and rule their country. I urge the Minister to bring about genuine change in Zimbabwe, and we will give him all the help we can.

10.33 am

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you very much, Mr Robertson, for calling me to speak. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on securing this important and timely debate. I pay tribute

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to her tenacity and long-standing involvement in this cause, in her role as chair of the all-party group on Zimbabwe. She and other Members have spoken eloquently today about the tragedy of what has happened in recent years in Zimbabwe, and about the courage of those in the country who have stood up to Mugabe. She mentioned the Movement for Democratic Change, the trade union movement in Zimbabwe and Zimbabwean civil society.

Debates such as this are an important opportunity for Parliament to demonstrate on a cross-party basis our commitment to and solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe in these difficult times. On 10 March there was a debate in the other place, secured by Lord Avebury, in which a number of important contributions were made, again on a cross-party basis. One was from Lord Chidgey, who placed great emphasis on the importance of security sector reform in Zimbabwe, an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall this morning. In that debate, Baroness Kinnock, a former Minister with responsibility for Africa, placed great emphasis on the important role that the European Union can play, a point echoed in a number of this morning’s speeches.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall referred to the tendency of ZANU-PF to smear the MDC and other critics and opponents. In February, I had the opportunity to meet Zimbabwe’s Deputy Prime Minister, Thokozani Khupe, and the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jameson Timba, here in London. Both are members of the MDC and, like my hon. Friend, I was very impressed by their dedication and professionalism, which give the lie to the smears against them that she described.

I also want to put on the record my appreciation for the work of a number of organisations in and around Zimbabwe, such as the Open Society Foundation. Here in the UK there is Action for Southern Africa, which arose out of the former Anti-Apartheid Movement, and the British Trades Union Congress. I also echo the thanks and appreciation that my hon. Friend expressed to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and I support her in saying that we look forward to the eventual return of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), who is the Minister with responsibility for Africa, is in Africa today, and I welcome the Minister for Europe to his place in Westminster Hall to respond to the debate. Last month, I tabled a question to the Under-Secretary asking him what recent discussions he had had on the role of the Southern African Development Community in monitoring progress towards the 24 goals in the global political agreement. I want to take this opportunity to thank him for his response and to put on the record on the Opposition’s behalf that we absolutely share the Government’s concerns about the situation in Zimbabwe, and that we appreciate the strong and real personal commitment to Africa that he has demonstrated since he took office almost a year ago.

I also want to put on the record that we welcome the statement in February by the Foreign Secretary supporting the European Union’s rolling over of restrictive measures—travel restrictions and asset freezes—for those who have perpetuated human rights abuses and political oppression in Zimbabwe, and of course the continuation of the arms embargo on Zimbabwe. These measures from the

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EU offer an important bargaining tool with which we can apply pressure on Mugabe’s regime. As a number of hon. Members have said during the debate, we cannot and must not leave unchallenged ZANU-PF’s claims that the EU’s targeted measures are in any way undermining the humanitarian aid that is needed to assist the people of Zimbabwe. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) said, those measures are only needed because of the policies of Mugabe.

As the hon. Gentleman also said, Zimbabwe was formerly the bread basket of Africa, but in recent years we have seen a very significant increase in the UK’s bilateral aid to Zimbabwe. I am pleased that the previous Labour Government increased that aid to £67 million in the last financial year—2009-10—and I very much welcome the fact that this Government have decided to maintain that bilateral aid. However, I agree with hon. Members, from all parties, who have said that that aid should be an opportunity for us to exert more leverage on Zimbabwe in this crucial period. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall made the very important point that, in the case of Zimbabwe, consulting officials rather than elected politicians is perhaps not the best route, and certainly should not be the only route in terms of the implementation of aid; and that we should also consider consulting elected members of Parliament and councillors in Zimbabwe on a cross-party basis.

Martin Horwood: We need to treat the conditionality of aid very cautiously. The hon. Gentleman’s Government —the last Labour Government—were right to grant aid to Zimbabwe through the UN and NGOs exclusively, rather than giving aid from Government to Government, and we have been right to follow that policy. It is important to understand that point.

Stephen Twigg: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. What I sought to do was to echo an important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall about the specific circumstances right now in Zimbabwe. An approach that relies on officials, which may well make sense in the vast majority of countries, does not make sense in the case of Zimbabwe, for the reasons my hon. Friend set out earlier.

I echo what a number of hon. Members have said about the robust approach of President Zuma, which, as my hon. Friend has said, stands in stark contrast to the lamentable record of his predecessor. I also agree with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I happened to be in South Africa in 2003 when Walter Sisulu had just died, and I saw the pictures of Mugabe at Sisulu’s funeral. Mugabe got exactly the sort of response then that the hon. Gentleman described in his speech today, and we need to remember that public opinion in Africa, particularly southern Africa, is a challenge, and that we should give whatever support we can to President Zuma and to other Governments in the region who are now prepared to stand up to Mugabe’s thuggery.

We have seen some progress in recent years towards economic improvements in Zimbabwe—my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall referred to visiting shops that were full of produce—but clearly, as this debate has demonstrated, political developments have fallen well

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short of what we would expect. Targeted measures remain an essential lever at our disposal, but we also need to press a number of issues that require immediate and intensive political and diplomatic pressure.

First, there is the need for a new constitution that is endorsed by the people of Zimbabwe, and I press the Minister to respond to the points made by almost all this morning’s speakers about the vital importance of getting election monitors on the ground as soon as possible. Secondly, there is the importance of opening space for a free media to publish. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport spoke about access to balanced radio and the possibility of securing Department for International Development funding for that. Thirdly, there is the crucial importance of an independently verified electoral register. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about people who are on the register but are no longer with us, and about fairness in the electoral register being important in there being a free and fair election. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke about the experience of manipulation of the register in Zimbabwean elections. Fourthly, there is the crucial role that we can play in securing the root-and-branch reform of the security sector.

Progress, as this debate has demonstrated, has been painfully slow. I welcome the establishment of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, Human Rights Commission and Media Commission, but it is demonstrable that those bodies do not have sufficient resources to operate effectively, and there is a real danger that what should be independent bodies might serve no purpose other than the objectives of Mugabe and his supporters. Any election that is held ahead of an agreement to a new constitution, the opening of space for free media, an independently verified electoral register and security sector reforms will not be acceptable, and it is vital to restate that throughout this debate.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) spoke about the escalation of abuse in the run-up to elections, and I want to highlight the very concerning recent escalation of violence in Zimbabwe, and to refer to an excellent but disturbing report from Human Rights Watch, “Perpetual Fear: Impunity and Cycles of Violence in Zimbabwe”, which documents the context of impunity within which ZANU-PF activists have perpetrated systematic violence against other Zimbabweans, whose only aspirations are for a free and democratic Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch has observed the active and passive forms of impunity that are fostered by the democratic deficit in Zimbabwe, and as long as fear and intimidation are either encouraged or ignored by the state apparatus, democratic developments will not be achieved.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall said, SADC has an increasingly important role to play. She said that there are reasons to be hopeful, but the situation is fragile. What today’s debate has demonstrated once again is the very real cross-party agreement in this House in standing up for the people of Zimbabwe. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport talked about the important role that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy could play, and I echo those words.

A number of hon. Members have referred to events elsewhere in Africa and the middle east, and there is clearly a danger that the world, and the UK in particular,

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will take its eye off the ball. We have a unique influence and we need to use it, as has been said, both directly with South Africa and with the other SADC countries, the wider African Union, which has its own responsibilities, and our European Union partners. I am keen to hear the Minister’s current assessment, as the Minister for Europe, of the perspective at a European level, and also at an African level, with the role that SADC and the African Union have to play.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall paid tribute to Mike Campbell, and said that we must hope that his death was not in vain. Too many lives have been lost in Zimbabwe; too many people have suffered through the tyranny and thuggishness of the Mugabe regime. We must not take our eye off the ball. I again congratulate my hon. Friend and the other members of the all-party group, and I look forward to the Minister’s response, which I am sure will demonstrate that the Government maintain their absolute commitment to the people of Zimbabwe, and the absolute commitment of the British people to securing a democratic future for the country.

10.46 am

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for initiating the debate and for giving the House the opportunity to express views upon Zimbabwe this morning, and I also thank all those who have taken part: the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). All their contributions spoke from a mixture of heart and head. What came through to me was the profound commitment, and love—I do not think that too strong a word—on the part of those Members for Zimbabwe and its people, coupled with an appreciation of the complexity and difficulty of the challenges that the country faces, and of the efforts by successive United Kingdom Governments to do what is best to try to make it possible for the people of Zimbabwe to decide upon the destiny of their own country. I thank the hon. Lady also for her kind words about the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), and about our ambassador to Zimbabwe and the head of the DFID team in that country.

In discussing Zimbabwe, it is right to focus on not only the deep-rooted and abiding problems that afflict the country, but, as the hon. Lady did in her opening speech, on the progress that has been made in the face of difficult odds, since the formation of the inclusive Government in 2008. There has been a marked economic recovery, illustrated by a robust 8% growth rate in 2010, although it is also fair to remind ourselves, as has been said, that some sectors, most notably agriculture, are failing to perform at anything like their full potential because of the disastrous economic policies pursued by Zimbabwean leaders.

Reports of human rights abuses since the formation of the inclusive Government have fallen well below the peak, but there has been a worrying trend in the early months of this year of a reverse in those promising signals. There has been greater freedom for the print media, and the constitutional review process, despite its

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frailties, has helped to open up democratic space. The important point to note is that those achievements, both economic and political, are a tribute to the courage, dedication and persistence of reformers of all stripes in Zimbabwe. I pay tribute to all the reformist politicians, civil society groups, free trade unionists, churches and others in Zimbabwe who express their hopes for and work their utmost towards a better future for their country. Those people and organisations are not the creatures of any foreign power; they are the authentic expressions and voices of the people of Zimbabwe.

However, those efforts by many in Zimbabwe risk being undermined by a few who wish to sacrifice their own country’s prosperity and political development in order to hang on to power and the opportunity for plunder. Resisting those efforts and reinforcing Zimbabwe’s progress with a process for free, fair and credible elections will demand still greater courage and commitment from reformers in Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe’s neighbours in the region and those members of the wider international community in Africa and elsewhere, including the United Kingdom, that support Zimbabwe’s transition to full democratic freedom.

Rightly, much of this debate has focused on the great concerns about the increase in reports of politically motivated violence since the new year. The Government share that concern. The high-profile arrests and threatened arrests of senior members of the inclusive Government in March and April signalled a stepping up of the partisan politicisation of the legal process. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham was right to pay tribute to the courage and endurance of leading democratic politicians in Zimbabwe in the face of such treatment. We remain equally concerned by ongoing reports of rising intimidation targeting civil society groups and political activists.

Several hon. Members asked about the Government’s view of the regional approach to the political challenges facing Zimbabwe. South Africa and the Southern African Development Community more generally act as the facilitators and guarantors of the global political agreement and play the lead role in brokering an agreement on a road map to free and fair elections. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham pointed out, it is somewhat ironic that the global political agreement should have been fully implemented by now, yet Zimbabweans and SADC are trying to agree on a path to the next round of elections before the GPA has been implemented anywhere near fully.

President Zuma of South Africa has shown in the creation of the elections road map that he is prepared to demonstrate strong and active leadership in the region. We hope that that critical document will address the many individual points raised by hon. Members during this debate, including the quality of the electoral register, the reform of the electoral commission, access to media and provision for the presence of international observers at the elections. The United Kingdom is certainly ready to support international observers in any way possible, yet it remains the case that we can send observers only in response to an invitation from the Government of Zimbabwe.

On the points made about this country’s programme of bilateral aid, following the bilateral aid review, our programme of aid to Zimbabwe has been increased further to £80 million for 2011-12, the largest amount

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yet. That is crucial. Our aid provides vital support, in particular for primary education and basic health treatment inside Zimbabwe. For example, last year we provided essential medicines to 1,300 primary care clinics and rural hospitals. The nature of that aid and the fact that it is distributed via the United Nations and non-governmental organisations rather than through the Zimbabwean Government means that I am cautious, to put it lightly, about calls for greater conditionality in the provision of aid, although I guarantee to the hon. Member for Vauxhall and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport that I will report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development on the points they made about conditionality.

Kate Hoey: I thank the Minister. I think we are all conscious of the issues involved in aid. Our point is that it is not necessarily the Department for International Development but the agencies themselves—the big charities working in countries such as Zimbabwe—that need to be much more aware. They try so hard not to be political that they end up being political in how they operate on the ground.

Mr Lidington: The hon. Lady has made her point well. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend is made fully aware of the case that she makes.

The EU targeted measures on Zimbabwe remain in force. This Government remain committed to them, and the European Union has made clear its commitment to the continuation of those measures. We remain willing to revisit them within the year, but only if further concrete developments take place on the ground. We will not be shifted by coerced signatures on a partisan petition. On behalf of the Government, I make it clear again that we need to lay to rest the delusional nonsense that the EU targeted measures, which apply to 163 individuals and 31 entities in Zimbabwe, are somehow responsible for the widespread deprivation and suffering endured by the people of Zimbabwe. The right way to help with the economic plight of the people in Zimbabwe is for Zimbabwe’s leaders to pursue the kinds of economic

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policy and give the commitments to good governance that will attract investment and add to Zimbabwe’s trade relationships with the region and the rest of the world.

In view of the time, I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport about the Kimberley diamond process and Marange, and I will copy the letter to other Members who have taken part in this debate. As my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for Africa has made clear on numerous occasions, we continue to take a firm line within the EU, which acts on our behalf in the Kimberley process, insisting that Zimbabwe should comply fully with the rules laid down in the process before diamond exports are permitted.

China has an important role in the growth and development of Africa, and considerable progress has been made in areas such as infrastructure as a result of Chinese financing. Like China, we see trade as vital to helping African economies to grow and escape poverty, but one lesson of the developing world is that as countries grow and develop, they require not just physical infrastructure but skills, improved health services and, critically, better governance, better public institutions and a clear commitment to the rule of law rather than arbitrary government. We believe that it is vital that donors, including China, be open about their investments and make clear what they are spending and what results they achieve. That enables people to hold Governments to account and ensure that donors co-ordinate their work effectively.

Interestingly, some of China’s recent experience, for example in Zambia or Libya, might give pause for thought to those who have assumed that China can maintain an economic relationship with African nations without regard to issues of governance and the rule of law. Where those prove lacking, investment and the safety of expatriate workers can sometimes turn out to be at considerable risk.

I express once again my gratitude to all those who have taken part in this debate. The Government remain determined to pursue the course on which we are set, and we hope to see Zimbabwe reach a more prosperous and democratic future.

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Irish Communities in Britain

11 am

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): First, I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on the Irish in Britain, which seeks to raise awareness and to represent within Parliament the interests and concerns of the Irish community in Britain. The group works closely with the Federation of Irish Societies, which is an umbrella organisation serving the community in England and Wales. The federation also provides the able secretariat for the group. The all-party group is a genuine cross-party enterprise, reflecting the rich and diverse Irish community in the UK. Indeed, I would hope that you would be a member of the group, Mr Robertson, because you represent a Scottish community with Irish connections.

I am immensely proud of my Welsh heritage. My children were born in Rhyl, the same town where their father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were born. They are fluent Welsh speakers. In 1997, I set up the first Welsh language lessons in Parliament for MPs, their staff and journalists. I was also informed by the Eisteddfod committee that I helped to raise more private sector funding for the Eisteddfod than any other MP when it met in Denbigh in my constituency 10 years ago.

I am, however, a Welshman of half Irish descent. My father, Michael Ruane, was from a little village called Carnmore, near Oranmore in the County Galway, as the song goes. He was one of the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen and women who crossed the Irish sea to Britain in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s to help to rebuild Britain after the devastation of the blitz and a six-year-long war in which 700,000 young British people—mainly males—lost their lives. He helped to build the roads, dig the tunnels and lay the telephone wires. More than half his siblings followed him. His sisters Mary and Norah worked as nurses in the NHS in Birmingham, and his other sister Sally, a Carmelite nun—Sister Columbanus —taught children with special educational needs in Worcester. They were not alone. The emigration in the 1940s was almost as great as that of the 1840s after the famine.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In Newcastle, which is where my Irish ancestors settled, that combined pride in Irish heritage and regional identity is very strong, as is exemplified by the Tyneside Irish centre, which is in my constituency and which campaigns and raises money for our local charities.

Chris Ruane: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and I pay tribute to her work for our all-party group. Indeed, I believe she was present on the night we re-founded it last year.

I am proud of my Irish roots. I helped to set up the North Wales Irish Society more than 20 years ago, along with Tom Noone, Patsy Scahill, Tom Wilkie, Angela and Stuart McDonald, and many others. I joined the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly more than 10 years ago, and last year I re-established, along with Lord Dubs, the all-party group on the Irish in Britain. As a mark of my joint loyalties to Wales and Ireland, I named my first daughter Seren, which is

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Welsh for a star in the heavens, and my second daughter Mairead, which is Irish for Margaret.

Turning from my personal past to the political present, we pray that the contemptible murder of the Police Service of Northern Ireland constable, Ronan Kerr, earlier this month will not turn back the clock, that the light of peace and political progress is undimmed, and that war is over. We share a weighty responsibility to ensure that the process continues to offer hope, and to resist any move to untangle the intricate latticework of political agreement that has emerged over the past 20 years. Strong British-Irish links are essential to build on the peace in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), not only for the role that he played in the peace process as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but for his role as co-chair of BIPA and as a founder member of the all-party group on the Irish in Britain.

Looking around, I see a new generation of Irish, and a new generation of Irish in Britain. In the absence of fear and the consequences of the troubles, the community is less isolated, more diverse and more optimistic than ever. People are proud of their Irishness like never before, and I include in their number the many MPs of Irish origin, a number of whom are present today.

The coalition Government’s response to the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday set a strong moral tone that was welcomed by the Irish community here. We are all stronger as a result and more able to deal with the past and to move on. I give particular credit to the Prime Minister for his role in replying to the Saville inquiry. His response convinced many sceptics that he was serious about continuing the good work of the peace process in a positive, non-sectarian and non-party political way, and about building the bonds between the UK and Ireland.

Times are not easy, however. There are few left to brag about the invincible rise of the Celtic tiger. The effects of the global economic crisis that is wreaking havoc on this country are also devastating Ireland. The Irish in Britain share a sense of uncertainty for the future. For too many there is real fear. The so-called forgotten Irish—the elderly, the poor, the homeless and Irish Travellers threatened with eviction—benefited from the generosity of the Irish Government during the boom years, but their situation remains vulnerable.

The all-party group is working to encourage recognition of the Irish in Britain, to support the Federation of Irish Societies, to stimulate dialogue and co-operation on Irish affairs, to promote Irish culture and sports and, importantly, to raise awareness of the needs of the vulnerable Irish and those at risk. Again, I give full credit to the Prime Minister—I am giving him a lot of credit today—for his big society initiative, which I support fully if it is about inclusivity and if it includes the most vulnerable, in which group I include Irish Travellers and Gypsies. Of all ethnic groups in the United Kingdom, Irish Travellers in Britain face the worst prejudice and experience the worst rates of infant mortality and lowest life expectancy. It is a community on the edge. It is a community with a real fear that Government policies may fuel worsened social exclusion and deterioration in community relations, compounded by a dramatic new accommodation crisis and a situation in which education and health needs go unaddressed. Government at all levels—the UK Government, devolved Administrations

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and local government—should ensure that there is ongoing dialogue and consultation with the Traveller community on issues that affect it.

A few worrying signs are coming from elements in the new coalition. I am concerned about other vulnerable groups, such as the unemployed, those with drug and alcohol problems, single mothers and—this is an old-fashioned term that is being given new credence—the “undeserving poor”. A truly big society would recognise that all members deserve to be included and helped. To vilify those groups, as was done in the past with Lilley’s famous list, will not result in a big society and a better Britain, but in a beg society and a bitter Britain.

I want to say a few words about the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. It was set up more than 20 years ago to help improve east-west relationships between politicians in Ireland and the UK. Its membership extends to the devolved Governments of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as to the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. It has achieved its aim of improving relationships between the political classes. Politicians as diverse as Arthur Morgan from Sinn Fein—a former Teachda Dala—and the former Conservative MP Michael Mates have been listened to with respect by all sides of the assembly, which meets once a year in the UK and once a year in Ireland.

The assembly has four committees that look at various aspects of UK-Ireland issues. Committee D, which is ably chaired by my friend Lord Dubs has twice looked at the issue of the Irish in Britain, including at our most recent report last year. One of its strongest recommendations to both the Irish and British Governments was not to see the Irish community in Britain as an option for easy cuts. Those cautionary words were immediately welcomed by the Irish community. The Federation of Irish Societies chief executive, Jennie McShannon, said:

“If the better off are uncertain for the future; the less well off have cause to be fearful. I am certain that recovery will not be accelerated by ignoring the needs of those most in need of help. Even in a tough climate, hard-won progress on equalities cannot be lost.”

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this extremely important debate at a timely period in our Parliament. Unfortunately, I cannot claim to have any Irish ancestry. Does he agree that the Irish experience in Britain has sometimes equalled the Jewish experience? Secondly, and more importantly, will he pay tribute to those organisations that make such a contribution to the welfare of Irish people in Britain, such as Leeds Irish Health and Homes, the Leeds Irish community and Irish centre, and many other organisations of a similar ilk up and down the country?

Chris Ruane: I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about how the Irish were treated in the UK many years ago. Over the past 20 or 30 years, that has been put right. I pay tribute to the work of the organisations he mentioned in Leeds and across the UK to bring the Irish together and protect Irish communities.

What assurance can the Government offer to vulnerable groups that the axe will not fall unfairly on their heads and that the dignity of minorities will continue to be recognised and respected? The reports I have mentioned

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highlighted the specific health needs of the elderly Irish. My father’s generation, which helped to rebuild this country out of the ruins of war, helped to staff the hospitals and the NHS. That generation is now elderly and in need of help themselves. Does the Minister agree that elders in our big society should be valued and protected, that all available means should be employed to identify and measure the disadvantage faced by specific groups, and that steps should be taken to provide a remedy?

Our recent report also recognised the role played by Irish centres in the cultural and social care needs of local communities. Given the importance of the flagship Irish cultural centre in Hammersmith, the assembly accepted our recommendations and considered that the threat of closure that has resulted from the council’s decision to terminate the lease and put the premises on the market represents a tragic blow to the Irish community not just in Hammersmith, but across the whole of the UK.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend not only for securing the debate and his comments about the Irish cultural centre, but for everything that the all-party group—along with the embassy, the Irish Government and the Irish community—is doing to try to save that centre, because it is valued internationally and nationally. It is a terrible shame that the Conservative council is holding the centre to ransom and demanding £2 million. If it does not get that money, it will sell the centre to a property developer. I ask all hon. Members who are here, including the Minister, to join the “Wear your hearts for Irish arts” campaign and save the Irish cultural centre in Hammersmith, which is doing something for our country, not just for my constituency.

Chris Ruane: I concur entirely with my hon. Friend. Hammersmith is known for promoting Irish talent and encouraging Irish philanthropy throughout the whole of the UK.

The fact that cross-generational talents have been harnessed and closer relations with local business developed shows the potential of the community as a long-term investment in the development of community and community values. We are talking about the big society in action. Does the Minister agree that local councils have a responsibility to the community in all its diversity, and that all parties should in good faith work together to find a viable solution for Hammersmith and all other centres under threat?

Our report on the Irish in Britain recognised the need to make sure that there is a full and accurate count of the number of Irish in Britain through the national census. We campaigned for a national tick box for the Irish, and I give full credit to the Federation of Irish Societies, which launched a public awareness campaign in the build-up to the 2011 national census to tackle persistent undercounting of the Irish community. It did so with the full co-operation of parliamentarians from all parties in both Houses. In fact, the launch of the campaign took place just 20 yards away from here in the Jubilee Room last year. The ethnicity box on the 2011 census attempts to make clear that it is about Irish roots and identity, not about someone’s passport or place of birth.

Irish community groups campaigned to make the census inclusive and to try to prevent anyone from being excluded. Census statistics inform millions of

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decisions made by public authorities and businesses that are trying to meet demand for goods and services, and to distribute resources fairly. An underestimation means that the needs of the weak and vulnerable in our community are overlooked. The assembly agreed that the problems facing the Irish community could not be properly addressed unless they were assessed on the basis of full, reliable data. It called on public authorities in Britain to make it standard practice to keep and monitor data on the Irish as an ethnic community, and for them to use those data to inform policy. What assurances can the Minister offer that the data collected in the course of the census will be analysed thoroughly and that information on all ethnic groups, specifically including the Irish, will be used to inform and direct public policy in the years ahead?

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Ruane: I give way to the co-chair of the all-party group.

Simon Hughes: Obviously I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said, but may I make a plea through him? I gather that one in 10 census forms have not yet been returned and that people were told that they could return them in six weeks. I make a final plea to the Irish community to do just what he and the campaign called for: ensure that the forms get in. The number of Irish in Britain is currently recorded as around 900,000, but some of us believe that the realistic figure is more like 2 million than just under 1 million.

Chris Ruane: I concur entirely with the right hon. Gentleman. The 10% of people who have not registered are likely to be the most poor and vulnerable, many of whom are illiterate or semi-literate. It is incumbent on the Government to find out exactly who those people are and to make sure that they are registered so that they receive the services that they deserve.

I shall conclude so that the Minister has time to respond. We of Irish heritage are proud of our community and believe in pulling our weight—I have lots of it. The recognition of the Irish in Britain extends beyond the collection and use of census data. A strong and confident community organisation has benefits for all. Groups such as the Federation of Irish Societies are already working in partnership with the Irish Government on their global emigrant strategy.

The term “the forgotten Irish” has great resonance within the Irish community in the UK. I feel that their contribution to the rebuilding of the UK after the war and to the successful establishment of the NHS has been unsung and under-recognised. Their story has largely been untold. Perhaps that was because of their reticence within the community and a natural rural shyness, or perhaps it is because there was not a willing audience to listen. My father had only one picture taken in his time over here, which was at his wedding, and he was not too happy with that.

Simon Hughes: With the picture or the wedding?

Chris Ruane: With the picture—cheeky!

Many of the memories of the forgotten Irish were not committed to film, or to video or audio recording. The chance to capture their memories is fast fading as many die off. The Irish TV station RTE has produced the fascinating series “The Forgotten Irish”. What can the

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Government do to help to promote similar interest on this side of the Irish sea? The BBC and others have taken initiatives to capture the thoughts and memories of the ex-soldiers and key workers of the two world wars, as well as the peacetime triumphs of other key groups within society. Will the Minister consult his colleagues to see whether greater recognition can be given to the contribution of that post-war Irish cohort who did so much to improve this country? As Sir Alfred McAlpine said,

“the contribution of the Irish to the construction industry in the UK was immeasurable”.

Where are the statues and plaques to these people who did so much?

A great deal of effort has gone into the report on the Irish in Britain. What assurance can the Minister give that his Government value the contribution of the Irish in Britain? Will he undertake to study the recommendations of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and address its concerns, and will he agree to meet a small delegation representing the Irish in Britain to take this agenda forward?

11.18 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Robertson, and to have the opportunity to respond to what is an important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on giving me the opportunity to do that and, on the way, to establish why some of the questions he has asked are rather difficult to answer. He very properly drew attention to his own mixed heritage and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and others spoke in the same vein. Until somebody tests my DNA, I do not think I have any Irish in me, but it would be surprising if there were not some somewhere in there. One of the realities of Britain—which we should glory in rather than be embarrassed about—is that we are all mongrels in our heritage and culture, and we rightly value and treasure that. I thank the all-party group for the work it does in ensuring that the two Houses of Parliament and the Government are kept fully apprised of the concerns and the needs of the Irish community. We welcome the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly report and the work of the all-party group in Westminster on behalf of the Irish community.

The report makes some interesting observations. I want to pick up three themes, each of which the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd also brought into his discourse. Time will be short: if I leave out points, I hope that he will remind me afterwards. I will be happy to respond more fully to some of his more arcane points.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in acknowledging that the coalition Government have continued to invest energy in securing a full, comprehensive and successful resolution of the difficulties in Northern Ireland. I share his condemnation of the incidents and the murder, which are obviously designed to disrupt that process. I am sure that all parties share an utter determination to ensure that attempts at disruption are unsuccessful.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the importance of delivering services to the Irish Traveller community, which is one of my personal ministerial

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responsibilities. Both I and the Secretary of State have made it clear that this problem must be dealt with. The indicators for Gypsies and Travellers—including Irish Travellers—are not good. With regard to education, there are currently 4,000 Travellers of Irish heritage registered in English primary, secondary and special schools. They are, unfortunately, among the lowest-achieving pupil groups at every key stage of education. At key stage 2, just over 26% of Travellers of Irish heritage achieve level 4, compared to the 73.5% of all pupils. At key stage 4, 21.8% of Travellers of Irish heritage achieve five or more A* to C GCSE grades, compared to the national average of 54.8%—less than half the level of achievement.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, there is a strong link between deprivation and under-achievement. Some 43% of all pupils registered as Gypsy, Roma or Irish Traveller are eligible for free school meals—an indication of the deprivation that so many of those households suffer.

Mr Slaughter: With other members of the all-party group for Gypsy Roma Travellers, I had the opportunity to visit Dale Farm last Thursday. The Minister will be aware, because of his responsibility, of the particular problems of Dale Farm. Ignoring the legal and other history, will he acknowledge that in relation to Dale Farm, mass eviction is not the answer? Will he meet members of the all-party group to discuss other ways to resolve the issues there, without contemplating perhaps the largest ever eviction of a Gypsy and Traveller community, most of whom are Irish Travellers?

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman tempts me to use my remaining six minutes on an issue that is not at the core of this debate. Of course, I would be happy to meet the group to discuss matters of mutual interest, whenever it is appropriate.

I spoke about the educational disadvantages facing Irish Travellers. Health indicators are also bad: 22% of Gypsies and 34% of Travellers report asthma or chest pain, compared to 5% and 22% of the general population. There is a national health inclusion programme designed to reach those people. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) made the point about accommodation. Of course, there is a statutory requirement for local authorities to assess Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs. The Government have secured £60 million of funding, for the comprehensive spending review period, for the provision of new Traveller pitches and the refurbishment of existing ones. Under the new homes bonus scheme, local authorities will be given cash incentives to deliver new homes, which does include new Traveller sites.

I could elaborate on other matters, but I should press on. The Secretary of State has set up a cross-Government ministerial working group to address the inequalities faced by Gypsies and Travellers. I am a member of that

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group, which has met a number of times. We are looking at addressing the range of issues: educational attainment, health outcomes, employment, access to financial products, and unlawful denial of access to commercial premises. The group’s agenda has been set in consultation with members of the Gypsy and Traveller community. We are moving ahead with that, and further information and progress will be reported to the House in due course.

Turning to data collection, I heard the plea from the chairman and the deputy chairman of the all-party group for the census forms to be filled in, with the Irish tickbox used. I am not sure that describing it as the Irish tickbox does it justice. I understand the plea, but I ask the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd—bearing in mind his introductory remarks—whether he ticked the Irish box, the Welsh box or the British box. The alleged or stated under-recording of the Irish is part of the much broader question of what it means to be British and to be a member of society here. How people self-identify is surely the way to go. The hon. Gentleman can perhaps tell me later whether he ticked the Irish box.

Simon Hughes: The Minister is well known for his support for minority communities and for the disadvantaged. Following the invitation from the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), is the Minister willing some time in the summer to meet not just the all-party group, but the Irish ambassador, if willing, and the Federation of Irish Societies? It would be very significant for the communities Minister to have a meeting with representatives of the Irish community in Britain.

Andrew Stunell: I am strongly inclined to say yes. However, the Foreign Secretary might have a point of view about that. The Government are willing to meet at the appropriate level; if that is me, I am happy to be that person. I do not want to pre-empt the whole of Government on to my shoulders.

I would like to squeeze one point into my last 90 seconds. In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd raised fears that the Government were not focusing properly on ensuring that discrimination was eliminated in our society. I remind him that the public sector equality duty came into force on 5 April. That places a duty on public bodies to consider the needs of all the individuals they serve when they are developing policy, in delivering services and in relation to their employees. The Government believe that local providers are best placed to decide which data are needed to inform their local priorities and monitoring. If they choose to do so, they are in a good position.

With regard to the centre in Hammersmith, the Government hope that the parties involved can work together to achieve a satisfactory outcome. However, it is not the job of the Government to intervene in that discussion.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Railway Expansion

2.30 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I want to talk about a number of schemes associated with such places as Colne, Skipton, Bidston, Halton, Burscough, Todmorden, Fleetwood and so on—places that I know flummox Hansard reporters, so I will give some clarification on those at a later stage.

I would like to start with a largely unquestioned truth that I think most people will buy into, which is that connectivity between centres of economic activity further stimulates whatever economic growth and activity one gets there. I am also happy to agree with anybody who suggests that growth cannot be stimulated simply through connectivity—by building a railway line or a road. A classic example in the north-west is Skelmersdale, which has an excellent motorway joining it to the rest of the world, but which still has a very poor economic performance.

In the past, in bolder days, it is true that Governments built roads to nowhere and built rail tracks that are not used. Private developers also have a sharper eye for what needs to be done. Normally, however, one connects areas on the assured assumption that people or goods will want to travel along the line of connection. In the beginning of rail, the assumptions that were made were very bold indeed. People built trains out into the wild west in the United States. They built trains through the south American jungle. I have even been on a train through a mountain in Switzerland. I am not sure that the Department for Transport would consider such a project in these days, but certainly people were very bold and imaginative. They even built train services—very good train services, at one stage—to the English coast, although they have curtailed some of those in recent years.

They were all, by and large, high-risk ventures with potentially high returns. Increasingly, as time went on, private developers got less of an appetite for that and the state was expected to shell out more to fund, subsidise and back whatever rail infrastructure was put in place. Of course, with state involvement came a gradual sense of entitlement. People feel entitled to connections, whether by road or by rail. In many parts of the country, where the rail connections have gone, they grumble and have grumbled for many decades since they departed. There is, however, an acceptance by most people that the quality of the connections, whether by rail or road, have something to do with the size of the place and how isolated it is.

In the early days of rail it soon became apparent that they had one very big competitor—roads. Roads are an obvious substitute. Certainly, in the 1940s and 1950s roads were seen as an almost lethal competitor, and so we got what we call, or might be regarded as, a managed contraction—an ill-managed contraction—under the much-defamed Dr Beeching. I say it was ill-managed because all sorts of peculiar things were done. For example, Blackpool was deprived of a railway line simply because not enough people bought tickets in Blackpool. The fact that thousands and thousands of people bought tickets in Glasgow to go to Blackpool and then return did not seem to affect the planning they engaged in then.

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We have inherited that structure, which did not necessarily occur for the right reasons and not necessarily on a wholly rational basis. In turn, we have had to pick up the economic consequences that that structure gives us. Since then, clearly, there have been changes. Some changes are favourable to rail development, some not so. Recently we have seen oil prices rise and road congestion become an increasing worry to Governments of whatever persuasion, and we have seen environmental concerns move to the front of the stage. Counter to expectations—it was assumed that rail was in decline—we have seen that, despite prices, an element of overcrowding and occasional poor reliability, rail use has increased dramatically. I saw the first transport plan during the course of the previous Government, and even that predicted a decline in train use that was never fulfilled. People were genuinely surprised—I was on the Transport Committee at the time—to see that trend reverse. It did not just reverse as far as passenger traffic was concerned, but for freight traffic as well.

What has not changed significantly, or has not increased, is what I would call the rail reach—the speed with which trains move around the place and the overall capacity of the system. That is despite lobbying from groups and communities across the country. Normally, such lobbying has not been for anorak-based nostalgia schemes, but for quite modest, sensible, rationally argued enhancements—restoration of linkages, replacement of curves that had been taken out by Beeching—and in places where there is clearly some sort of demand, and where a demand case can be made. Those are not demand cases based on nostalgia, but on what people consider to be hard economic realities.

We have to ask the question why. Why, despite the increase in ridership—if I can put it like that—and despite the fact that the rail service has survived relatively intact since the days of Beeching, have we not extended anywhere at all to any great extent? That is something of a puzzle and I have tried to explain why. Several different explanations can be given. One is a belief among hard-edged planners at the Department for Transport that all schemes are necessarily based on sentiment and nostalgia, and not on a dispassionate review of the economic facts. Another explanation—this is clearly a major consideration—is the fact that in rail terms capital works are very expensive so far as signalling is concerned, particularly since privatisation. Signalling has almost become a private monopoly, and it is very hard to get the price down. If there is any kind of plan that involves alteration of signalling, we can expect the figures to increase dramatically beyond expectation.

Another reason why schemes are hard to progress is that unlike roads, the rail planning process is fairly opaque. The fragmented character of the rail industry—with Network Rail providing the track, and train operating companies with relatively short-term leases providing the railway carriages—means that people often work to short-term considerations with limited horizons. The fact that there are a number of players involved—including planning authorities, transport authorities and whoever supports the scheme locally in business terms—means that progressing a rail scheme is no easy matter. Anybody who has been associated with any campaigns of the kind I described at the start of this peroration will know how difficult it is to get all the ducks lined up. One good reason—or one bad reason—why we do not seem to get

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anything to happen is that we have not actually done anything. All those schemes have remained in the pending tray for as long as I can remember, so all the fear, bias, anxiety and expectation that people have about such schemes remain exactly in place.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who represents a neighbouring constituency. He talked about the difficulties of developing new railway schemes. Does he think that it is easier to make more use of the existing network, and what the opportunities are there? There is a scheme in my constituency that he is familiar with—the plan to build a new station in north Maghull. I think that he will go on to talk about the same railway line. That would be a much easier scheme, because that is a development on the existing network. The economic benefits of that should be relatively easy to attain. I wonder what his thoughts are on the cuts that the Government have pushed through, which mean that that scheme and many others on the existing network have gone.

John Pugh: Strangely enough, and I hate to be parochial, I am not completely familiar with the scheme the hon. Gentleman mentions, even though it is close to my constituency. I will say that Governments, and Network Rail in particular, have found it quite easy simply to develop what we have, rather than extend beyond that. Certainly, in discussions I had with Network Rail in the previous Parliament, it was fairly clear that that was the mandate it was being given by Government—to sweat the assets it had, rather than do anything as venturesome as actually building a new track, or putting a new line down anywhere. What the hon. Gentleman suggests is certainly complementary to what I am suggesting, rather than the opposite.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): After 13 years in which the Labour Government did not invest properly in infrastructure, I welcome and celebrate the Government delivering £45 million to redouble the Swindon to Kemble line. That is exactly the right kind of decision that will develop our infrastructure for an effective, rebalanced and powerful economy.

John Pugh: I certainly endorse that point, which is similar to that made by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), about getting more value and use from the assets that we have.

I would like the Government to be bold just once in a while and to put down a piece of rail that had not previously been there—as happens in other countries—or even to restore a piece of rail. I will talk later about huge schemes such as Crossrail, which are the exception, but all I am pressing for is that the Government advance a small railway scheme—anywhere. At the moment, we have no such practice or history to look at. We know about bypasses and what happens as a result of them, but we have no idea whether restoring the Todmorden, Halton or Burscough curves will involve either the impact that the promoters believe, or some of the costs that the Government fear. We simply have not done anything.

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Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting case and might be getting to the point that I want to make. Is the real reason why there has been little investment in new lines over the past 30 years or so because of the methodology used for new investment? A terrific amount of investment is going into the railways at the moment, but nearly all of it is for the south-east, because the criteria used are about capacity and overcrowding, not about economic development, which is the point he was making. Does he agree that a rebalancing of the criteria of economic development and of overcrowding is needed because otherwise all the money will go to the south-east?

John Pugh: I heartily endorse that sentiment, as well as the hon. Gentleman’s point about methodology. He makes a very good case. However, the Government are in favour of rebalancing the economy, and they accept that one of the ways of doing so is through infrastructure capital projects, particularly on something such as rail. It is sad that really big rail schemes are being progressed in the south yet very little is happening up north, apart from such necessary developments as the Manchester hub.

It is fair presumption that if we want to move people around the country, laying down metal track and then shifting people around in large, uncomfortable iron boxes need not automatically be seen as the best approach. However, if we took that presumption to its logical conclusion, it would debar any tram schemes, although in places such as Manchester they have been extraordinarily successful. Even if that presumption is in place, it has to be tested, although that rarely happens. It is contested, however, when we come to the really large schemes such as Crossrail, high-speed rail and the Thames Gateway, on which the Government seem to be prepared to proceed—most hon. Members would support that.

To be fair, the Government have looked at the area I am speaking about: restoring curves. During the passage of railways legislation under the previous Government, Tony McNulty, the then Transport Minister, let it slip that the Department for Transport was looking closely at some of the schemes to see if they had any value. The Government were taking the folders out of the cupboard, dusting them down and seeing what worked and what did not. However, since that inadvertent confession of what the Government were up to, none of the research has seen the light of day, as far as I know. There is a presumption against such development, and that presumption is not argued but insidious. It was actually contested just before the general election by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who is now Under-Secretary of State for Transport. He expressed his support for a range of smaller schemes, some of which I have mentioned already.

Being completely fair, there is evidence that rail travel is more expensive than it looks, given that it has a hidden public subsidy, as the Minister will no doubt say at some point. However, there is rather less evidence than there used to be that empty carriages are being carried around unnecessarily. I remember the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), during his short spell as Secretary of State for Transport, calming things down by suggesting that he was going to contract the network further because parts of it were

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full of carriages of fresh air. No one is saying that any more. However, a man would never lose money by betting against the Department for Transport’s dismal projections on rail use. I recently looked at some statistics that demonstrated that even branch lines, which are one of the archaic aspects of our structure, are showing increased use.

There is a case that needs to be answered. Many hon. Members during their time in Parliament make cases for specific schemes, but what happens when we question the institutional inertia on the topic and when rational people bring forward considerations? Whether or not it is because of the methodology used, which the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) mentioned, hurdles get put in place.

In the past, the Department for Transport has asked me for a business case. Sensibly, I have asked what needs to go into a business case, but the Department is completely incapable of telling me, so I do not know what a good business case should look like. There simply has never been a good business case for a project such as I am suggesting that has been accepted by the Department. Demand studies have been carried out, but they are not so much optimised as—if this is a word—pessimised. People always assume the worst-case scenario, and that if the track is laid and the trains are built, no one will use them. Prices, however, are always maximised, without any indication of how competitive they are by international standards. I point out again that if we had adopted the same approach for trams that we have for small-scale railway infrastructure development, we would never have got a tram scheme off the ground.

If the Department for Transport puts in place the demand and the business case hurdles yet enthusiasm is still not dimmed, it is normally then suggested that the obvious way to promote the scheme would be under some local funding solution. However, there is always an underestimate of what a hard ask that is. Promoters of any substantial scheme would certainly have to talk to local councils to get them lined up, as well as dealing with passenger transport authorities and regional development authorities, when there were such organisations. All such organisations, by and large, have erratic, on-off funding streams. Their strategies have been revised over recent years and then changed again. The demands made of them have also changed, and even the labels of the organisations have changed, given that PTAs became integrated transport authorities. They are subject to changing mandates and central directives, some of which come from the Department for Transport. The promoters are then expected to pull all those organisations together and to work with national bodies such as Network Rail, which are also subject to prescriptions from the Government and the Office of Rail Regulation. Granted, Network Rail is more approachable than the disaster that was Railtrack, but it is still hard to deal with it. Had doing so been easier, we would have got to the yes-or-no stage for a scheme before now. What actually happens is that most schemes exist in limbo—they are simply around; neither in nor out, and neither done nor not done. Periodically, there are outbursts of activity in connection with them, but nothing that would represent substantial progress.

We can ask whether that is a problem, because no progress means that no money is spent, which means that no money is lost. People have a horror of losing

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money on railway schemes—of spending money futilely. We can look with equanimity on an unused road, but an unused railway is a different proposition. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton that this does matter. If any such schemes represent economic opportunities missed, they are largely economic opportunities missed in areas that need them: in the north, and outside the south-east and the London area.

Not to progress such schemes leaves in place a transport structure that, post-Beeching, does not make much sense, would never have been designed like that, and has been vandalised. Investigation of such schemes and why some people are keen advocates of them shows that they were often attempts to deal with a huge transport anomaly in their area. The third reason for requiring clarity is that while schemes remain in limbo, the land is preserved, the track bed is kept, and the aspiration and hope is retained—but for what, if there is no case for implementing them?

Many post-Beeching schemes that are still alive and kicking today are not based on pure nostalgia, and there is normally not a case for never implementing them, but there is also no clarity about when all the boxes for implementing them will be ticked. The situation is strange and Kafka-like, and we cannot get out of it. The Government have been honourable and clear in saying that such schemes are off the books for four years, although I understand that some are an exception, but while they are in that strange transport limbo we may be missing serious economic opportunities that we should investigate to a conclusion.

I want to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton about the London parallel. The Chair of the Select Committee on Transport constantly recites figures—they elude me for the moment—on how much is spent on transport in London compared with elsewhere.

Graham Stringer: Nearly all.

John Pugh: I suggest that the ratio is 10:1, and perhaps an hon. Member will correct me if I am wrong. I speak with some bitterness, because I spent two years discussing the Crossrail Bill. Its Committee stage was one of the longest in the past 50 years, and it was pure endurance, but one could not help being impressed by the scale of what was being attempted, although there were days when one thought there were better uses for one’s time. It is an engineering marvel, and will link the bankers of Canary Wharf with their planes at Heathrow. I am not against that, but London is already probably the best connected capital in the world, and it already has a tube and bus network that is the envy of every other city in the UK. I genuinely doubt whether London’s contribution to UK plc will be massively affected whether or not we build Crossrail on the most expensive real estate on the planet, with all that is involved. If the bankers of Canary Wharf, like their Venetian counterparts, are forced to take a vaporetto along the Thames, life would not be greatly worse for the nation or the economy.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I cannot help intervening. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the coalition has embarked on the biggest programme of rail capacity expansion in modern history, which includes significant projects in

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the north of England, not just electrification, but most recently the announcement that the Ordsall chord scheme has had the go-ahead? That will provide significant benefits for people living in cities throughout the north of England.

John Pugh: I am not saying that the Government have done nothing. I am saying that, like all Governments previously, they have in the pending tray schemes on which they have reached no rational conclusion or that have not been investigated thoroughly, and many of them are in the north-west. Even taking into account the investment in the north, which I welcome, applaud and wholly support, the proportion of that investment—the Minister may contradict my figures later—compared with the proportion anticipated for London, including Crossrail and the Thames Gateway, does not chime with the general drive to rebalance the economy.

I accept that there is a problem with overcrowding in London. Anyone who travels on the Northern line at certain times of day will testify to that. However, that is largely because London’s population is always swelled by the enormous number of people coming here every day by train, not because they cannot do business elsewhere, but because getting into and around London is already quite easy for business purposes. It is not easy absolutely, but it is easy compared with many other places.

Anyone who takes a few cross-country journeys by rail, such as from Reading to Liverpool or somewhere that is not on the London axis, knows how difficult they are. Although there has been investment in the north, we often have regurgitated rolling stock that the south-east does not want or has finished using. The bulk of the new rolling stock is coming to the Thames Gateway and the London area, but in Lancashire—the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton will agree—we have the most appalling, aged rolling stock rolling up and down the northern line with no immediate improvement in sight. We have not gone as far as I would like in doing something about regional inequality in transport investment. If I transpose in my mind any of the schemes to which I have alluded and imagine them happening in London and the south-east, I conclude that they would take less time.

The Burscough curve is my scheme of first preference. There are two stations, half a mile apart, in a growing, substantial dormitory town. Trains of two major franchises cover two city regions: Merseyside and Preston, as well as central Lancashire. Those two conurbations have been identified as being poorly linked by transport, but linking those two city regions requires only half a mile of track. If that were the case in Southwark, Kensington, Walthamstow, Richmond or the Thames Gateway, I have no doubt that it would have been funded and done years ago. Colleagues may play the game for themselves with their own pet schemes. What is a no-brainer in London is often a half-century campaign elsewhere.

A simple example with which some hon. Members will be familiar is the snarl-up between freight traffic from the docks and passenger transport trains from Liverpool Lime Street station. That went on for a long time, and arose simply because of the failure to put in the Olive Mount chord. It was wholly supported by all

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the economic interests in the area, and it has now been done, but I genuinely believe that it would not have taken the same length of time had it occurred at Felixstowe, near Tilbury or elsewhere in the south-east.

I am encouraged by the pre-election support of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes for smaller schemes. I am heartened by the Secretary of State’s view that even in times of austerity it is sensible to sustain capital investment in transport, and that is what the Government are doing. I am restrained by due and proper caution with regard to some of the schemes, their costs and so on, but we can all travel in hope and never arrive. The Department can set out clearly what it can achieve, or it can simply wash its hands of the matter and put it down to local decision making. I have given reasons why that is not the best outcome.

I want to address the real problem of institutional inertia. We would never have found out that passengers do not suffocate in railway tunnels had we not sent passengers through them—that should not be done in an uncontrolled way, but we certainly managed to find out what happens. We do not know what happens if a scheme such as that at Todmorden progresses, because such schemes do not progress; they remain static. We will never find out whether restoring curves make sense, unless we restore them. That should not be done randomly, and I suggest that the Department rescues its paperwork on curves and their restoration, and prioritises its projects using criteria that can be understood. We must learn lessons by actually carrying out a project and make something happen.

We must also consider other alternatives. There is a long historic link between housing development, which the country sorely needs, and rail development. Housing development often provides a subsidy for rail development. A few years ago I attended a reception—other hon. Members may also have been there—at which the Kilbride Group promoted what it was doing for railway development in the south-west. That was linked to a major housing development, and a similar aspect of housing subsidy could creep into a project such as the Burscough curves. I am aware of the role played by that group and of the possibilities elsewhere. Given that so many people have banged on about this issue for so long, it would not harm the Department for Transport to invite those with such schemes in mind to some sort of seminar, at which problems and prospects on both sides could be aired.

It would also help enormously for the Department to point to an extra mile of track somewhere, and say why it had or had not worked, and to explain why it appears to be neither physically nor financially possible to put back track in England. That would be one way forward. It does not commit the Government to a single penny but it means that we can discuss the various schemes. A while ago I asked to speak personally to the Minister about the Burscough curves, but I understand that she had other priorities at the time and I lay no blame at her door for that. However, I am not comfortable with the strange, Kafkaesque world in which nothing really happens except that the odd consultant gets paid from time to time. The bizarre anomalies that lead to people supporting various schemes continue, but no final decisions are made. I suggest that there is a more intelligent way to do things.

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3.2 pm

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I came to this debate to listen, rather than to participate, but that was such an interesting speech and I would like to make three simple points. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate. He made an excellent speech with many important points.

My first point is a bit of a boast. It might come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman to know that, when I was chair of Manchester airport, I was responsible for creating two new railway lines in the north of England. One was to the south of Manchester airport, and one to the north, and they connected the airport to the main rail network. It was tough getting those lines. At the time there was Railtrack—there is much to say about Railtrack and some of the current problems that we have in the railway system of too much money going in and not enough coming out. Turning the railways into a property company was one of the worst mistakes of the 1990s. Having first created a link to the rail network to the north of Manchester airport, we agreed with Railtrack to create a link to the south and the west coast main line. As we reached an agreement, Railtrack withdrew all the funding and Manchester airport had to put in the money. That was a difficult problem.

My second point is to expand on my intervention. If looked at over a period of 10 or 15 years, the amount of money that enters the transport system in the south-east of England and London is unjustifiable on a national basis, given that we are one country with huge regional disparities. Some statistics are worth quoting. The overrun of costs on the Jubilee line extension came to more than the total investment in rail and transport in the rest of England over the 18 months that it took to finish that extension. I am not talking about the cost of the Jubilee line extension itself, which was built partly to connect south-east London and partly to justify the money spent on the enterprise zone in the docklands. That statistic is an outrageous imbalance, and if we take that example, it is not surprising that we have such regional disparities.

If we add up the public-private partnership, which is sometimes left out of the equation, Thameslink, Crossrail and the investment going into the Olympics and transport into east London, the rest of England is left with only about 4% or 5% of that investment—the figure varies depending on how the sums are done. It is interesting to note that whatever area is looked at, such as education or health, London receives more per capita than the rest of the country, probably for good reasons. Nevertheless, the one block of expenditure where the gap between London and the south-east and the rest of the country has been growing is in transport. Ministers have never been able to justify such disparities—I am not talking specifically about the current Minister; I am referring to those in the previous Government—and to explain why that change took place when the London economy was doing better. That comes back to the methodology used for investment in the capacity of the system in terms of carriages, and for new investment in signalling and tracks.

The arguments based on capacity and overcrowding are not stupid. If people have to sit on top of each other there is a case for making platforms longer and putting on extra coaches. However, if that is the main—or

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only—criterion, we end up with a final result that means that 90% of investment goes to the south-east. Because that investment is put into transport, which is economically vital and important and helps the economy to grow, more congestion is created. The best way to put that argument is to say that investment is provided to support congestion. As the hon. Member for Southport said, we should not get rid of criteria on overcrowding, but we should balance them up so that investment is also made in places where it will have an economic benefit. That will probably involve a lower cost-benefit ratio than one would get in the south-east, but if we do otherwise, we will create more congestion. As the hon. Gentleman said, London probably has one of the best transport systems of any capital city in the world. It can certainly compare with most, but there is still a lot of congestion because there is an imbalance in the country.

My third point was to compliment the Government—not something I do regularly—on their commitment to High Speed 2. That is a generational project for rail expansion, but it will happen only if all three parties are committed to it. Not long ago, along with other members of the Transport Committee, I questioned Minister after Minister about High Speed 2, and they all gave good reasons for why it was not going to happen. To be fair, the Liberal Democrats have always been in favour of it. The Conservatives came out in favour of it because they thought it was a way of answering the question about capacity in the London airport system and winning the London mayoralty, which was a bad reason, although the outcome was good. The Labour party also came to support High Speed 2, partly because we eventually had a Secretary of State who understood something about transport before he took up his post, which has been unusual over the past 50 years or so. He was committed to High Speed 2, and the Labour party came to support it.

High Speed 2 is vital for the country’s future. It is one of the key measures that will rebalance the economy in the way I described. If it does not happen, the economy will become unbalanced in the opposite direction. At some point in the next 10 or 15 years—I cannot give the exact date, and the projections are never that accurate anyway—the west coast main line, even though it is much improved and has extra capacity, will reach full capacity. That is the best case that can be made to doubters in the Conservative and Labour parties. There will have to be extra capacity on the west coast main line at some time, and it might as well come in the form of High Speed 2, which would link this country to the continent and make us feel like the rest of Europe, with excellent train services. That is the basic case for High Speed 2, and it has nothing to do with the environment or getting people off aeroplanes; it is an economic case and it relates to the north of England.

There are two other things I would like to say. If we are going to build extra capacity down the west coast main line, we also have to build extra capacity into the ordinary rail system in the north of England. It is a shame that we have to wait for control period 5 for that increase in capacity to take place, but I hope that it will be there before High Speed 2 happens. The rail system in the north of England—this is another great statistic that I often use—runs on schedules that are slower than they were 130 years ago. The schedules for the trains running between Blackburn and Manchester, between

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Bolton and Manchester and in the rest of the north-west would have shamed Gladstone; they are quite shameful. It takes as long to get from Doncaster to Manchester in round terms—there are a few minutes difference—as it does to get from Doncaster to London, and that illustrates the imbalance in the transport system. By and large, someone can get to London very quickly, but it will take them quite a long time to get anywhere else, and that is true not just in the north of England. We therefore need extra capacity, whether or not that involves electrification. I welcome the commitment to the Ordsall chord. I also hope that we can have the northern hub as soon as possible in control period 5 and that we can really improve the capacity and speed of trains.

I have one final point about high-speed rail. As I said, the case for it is economic. The case for the connection between Birmingham and London is based on capacity. However, High Speed 2 will be a failure if it goes only between London and Birmingham. What is the point of that? It really must go to Manchester and Leeds, and I hope that it will go beyond, to Edinburgh and Glasgow. That will really bring the country together and bring economic benefits to the west and east sides of the country. Although I do not expect this to happen—things have probably gone too far—I would have started building the lines from the north to the south. That is partly because we would have had support for that. I understand why Conservative MPs have done what they have, and they have every right, and the responsibility, to represent their constituents’ interests and to oppose what is going on, but I suspect that it would have been much easier politically to start high-speed lines in the north, given the enthusiasm and support for them in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Manchester and Merseyside. I have tilted at many windmills in my political life, however, and that is not one that I will tilt at too much.

If High Speed 2 cannot be started in the north of England, however, there must be a solid commitment as the hybrid Bill dealing with this issue goes through the House that the lines will go at least to Manchester and Leeds, if not further. Those of us who are long enough in the tooth to have been talking about regional disparities in transport for 25 or 30 years remember the commitments given regarding the Channel Tunnel Bill. There were commitments that trains would come through the tunnel and go to cities in the north of England, including Manchester. Those trains were built, and they were in sheds outside Manchester for years before they were scrapped; indeed, every time anyone got on the west coast main line in Manchester, they would have gone past those sheds.

I will support High Speed 2, and I want the Labour party to stay committed to it. However, in keeping the three parties together, which will be a national project that might take 25 or 30 years, there must be an absolutely solid, unbreakable legal commitment to build the line to the north of England and beyond, if possible. I hope that the Minister can respond to those points.

3.16 pm