Norman Baker: I entirely agree, and I hope that the EU comes up with a solution that does not reflect national interest, but European interest, and makes sense for manufacturers and consumers by keeping costs down. That would be an entirely sensible outcome

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for many EU discussions. I assure my hon. Friend that we are using our influence, as far as we have any, to push for exactly that outcome.

Mr Marcus Jones: Promoting the standardisation of such charging equipment across Europe is obviously laudable, but if other EU member states are promoting their national interests while doing so, surely we should also give some consideration to promoting our national interest and the interests of our manufacturers in those negotiations. Does the Minister agree?

Norman Baker: I agree that we do not want to leave ourselves in a position where, to be blunt, we are outflanked. We must try to achieve a consensual arrangement for a single recharging solution that everyone can embrace. That is clearly the desired outcome, and it will ultimately be to the benefit of all countries in the European Union and more widely. Indeed, as we heard earlier, the best solution will be an international one, as it will keep manufacturing costs down and therefore the cost to the consumer down, too. We are seized of the need to make progress, but the House will appreciate that it is not entirely within our control.

The matter of apprentices was raised, especially the fact that we need a sufficient number with the skill to work on electric vehicles. I am happy to reassure the House that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are working together to identify the necessary skills and to consider how the demand-led further education system will deliver them. We are talking to the sector skills councils and the Commission for Employment and Skills about ensuring that the demand for green skills is shared with further education colleges and other providers. We plan to maintain a strong cross-Government focus on the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths.

Andrew Selous: The Minister is being generous in giving way, which I appreciate. What he said about schools is critical. To be blunt, if people do not have a GCSE in physics, they will probably not even make the starting gate. However, there is a chronic lack of physics teachers. I know that this is stretching the Minister’s departmental responsibilities, but it is important that we join these things up. Nothing will happen unless schools have the basic physics that will lead people on.

Norman Baker: As suggested, the number of physics teachers may be slightly beyond my brief at the Department for Transport. However, I have some sympathy for the point being made by my hon. Friend. The mindset in some areas and among some people is that manufacturing is an old-fashioned dirty business, and that people who want to progress in life should get white-collar jobs. That is unfortunate, and the Government are trying to change that mindset. Manufacturing is most important to the country, and it is a skilled task. Anything that schools can do to help promote it is entirely to be welcomed. My officials and I will ensure that my hon. Friend’s comments are drawn to the attention of the relevant Minister at the Department for Education.

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Before I run out of time, I shall deal with the other points that were raised. Hydrogen was mentioned. I return to the Government’s objectives, which are twofold—to create growth and to cut carbon. I do not want to get into the business of picking winners in the technology that finally emerges. It may be that what emerges is not an overarching technology; there may be different solutions for different vehicles, with the solution for council refuse collection vehicles being entirely different from that for the car that takes people to visit their aunts and uncles.

We should be careful not to impose Government solutions, or to guess which way technology is taking us. We should specify the outcome that we want—that of decarbonised road transport—and invite manufacturers, those involved in research development and others to come up with a way of achieving that objective. It is not for us to second-guess things, although it is tempting. I do not mean that as a criticism of the previous Government, but they started promoting liquefied petroleum gas in 2001-02. They had good intentions, but it turned out that the environmental benefits were less than they thought at first. To some extent, people were being led up the hill and back down again, and we need to avoid such outcomes.

We have a similar situation with biofuels, which were referred to today, and we must be careful to avoid the same problem. Biofuels were originally seen as the big solution, the silver bullet. Pressure groups were pressing the Government to do more with biofuels, but then did an about-face, saying that biofuels were terrible and had awful consequences. Biofuels, too, went up the hill and down again.

Biofuels are within my brief, but it is taking time to get the issue right. We believe that they have a role in transport, but they must be sustainable. They must also demonstrate carbon saving and show that they do not have unwanted consequences for the environment through indirect land use or in any other way. If we get the foundations right, we can build on them, but we cannot have the biofuels industry being built on sand or we shall run into environmental difficulties in the years ahead. That is why we are taking more time. We are consulting on the renewable energy and the fuel quality directives, and people have the opportunity to feed in comments. I hope that the Opposition will get involved in those consultations, to ensure that our policies on biofuels are right.

I turn to the comments of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. He spoke about fuel duty and VAT on fuel. It might have been fairer if he had referred to the fact that the Chancellor cut fuel duty by 1p in the Budget; he might also have referred to the fact that the Chancellor abandoned the above-inflation increases that the previous Government intended to introduce. There is an argument to be had about where the price of fuel should be, given its impact on the environment and the economy, and it is perfectly legitimate to engage in that argument, but we should have the facts before making the necessary judgments.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about our being the greenest Government ever, but the time to judge that will be at the end of this Parliament; only then will we be able to see whether the policies that started off down the track have been enacted and where they ended. I, for one, am determined that the aspiration should be turned into

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reality. I want us to be the greenest Government ever, and I have no reason to think that other Ministers take a different view. I believe that the Prime Minister, too, is committed to that objective. The time to judge us will be at the end of this Parliament, and I hope that we will have an overwhelming case to demonstrate that we have achieved that challenging objective.

As for the green investment bank, it did not exist under the previous Government. Whether or not it is allowed to borrow is a moot point. We created the bank and we have given it borrowing powers, which is a substantial departure from normal Treasury policy. It does not start until 2015, but it is a major achievement, and I hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish will acknowledge that; rather than painting everything as a glass half empty, he should recognise that the glass is half full—and getting fuller as time goes on.

Andrew Selous: I return, if I may, to what I believe is the most significant factor—the seven-year payback. Would the Minister be prepared to write to me, perhaps giving the matter further publicity, setting out the illustrative figures? I accept that they are illustrative and that they make assumptions about the price of fuel and so on, but that seven-year payback is critical. Would he be kind enough to set them out in a letter? I hope that he might also give the matter wider publicity, which could be critical in moving this vital industry forward.

Norman Baker: I am happy to give that assurance. I shall write to all Members present as a matter of courtesy. The Government will do whatever we can to promote electric cars and the uptake of low-carbon vehicles. We are committed to that agenda. That is why I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire for introducing this important debate.

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UK and Sierra Leone

12.28 pm

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me the opportunity to debate relations between the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone. I have been a Member of Parliament for more than a quarter of a century, and I have become a great fan of Sierra Leone over that time. I became a fan because many of my constituents and others who live in the London borough of Southwark come from Sierra Leone. I have come to know them well and work with them; I have seen them become involved in the local community, stand for public office and elected as local councillors; and I have seen one, Councillor Columba Blango, become mayor of Southwark.

I am a great fan of Sierra Leone, because I have had the opportunity to visit it on more than one occasion, most recently the year before last. I place on record my thanks to Ian Hughes, our high commissioner, who hosted that visit, and to Magali Tang, who works with me on Home Office, immigration and other matters. We were given a good opportunity to catch up on matters in general and to meet much of the community, but we went specifically to look at the challenges of deforestation that face the area around Freetown and of the climate change agenda.

I have become a great fan of Sierra Leone because I have seen how the country has bounced back from one of the most terrible civil wars that Africa has seen in recent times. It was a civil war in which the most terrible atrocities were committed. Many people were killed and many lost their families and their homes. Even those who survived were often left so badly injured that they were unable to be economically self-sufficient. Many were placed in homes in Freetown because they had had both their arms or legs chopped off. The most terrible things happened in that most terrible of civil wars.

With the help of the United Kingdom, the country has come through. There is huge respect in Sierra Leone for the UK Government because of their willingness to support a great Commonwealth friend. I have joined with many Sierra Leoneans in the past few days to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence from the United Kingdom. They were celebrating not because they had wanted to shake off their links with the United Kingdom, but because of their growing self-confidence. There was a great service in the Walworth Methodist church in Southwark, a celebration party in Camberwell and many other events. There was a diplomatic reception hosted by his excellency the high commissioner for Sierra Leone on 27 April.

It is a pleasure to welcome the Minister to this debate. I have just learned from him that he had the privilege of representing Her Majesty and the Government at the anniversary celebrations in Sierra Leone. He will no doubt regale us with an account of the optimism that he found in that lovely west African coastal country, which was once a member of the empire and is now a proud member of the Commonwealth. Let me also pay tribute to the high commissioner of Sierra Leone in the UK. He is fully engaged with his community, and is a hugely popular and respected figure, as he was when he was in public life and politics in Sierra Leone.

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There is no intention in this debate to catch out the Minister or give him a hard time. I just want to set out some of the facts about Sierra Leone as it is today, and then share with the Chamber the issues on the agenda for the future. Our link with the country comes through not just history, respect and diplomatic interchange, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. I will come back to the way in which we help on a day-to-day basis.

Sierra Leone is a beautiful and peace-loving place with many natural characteristics and resources. It has a beautiful coastline that provides harbouring for ships from across west Africa, and the potential for oil exploration. None the less, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, and we need to remind ourselves of that, because with poverty comes great challenges. Sierra Leone has a population of about 6 million people, and more than 20 ethnic groups. In the civil war from 1991 to 2002, there were tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 2 million people—about a third of the population. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Governments under President Kabbah of the Sierra Leone People’s party and under President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress party since 2007 have been seeking not only to strengthen democracy but to ensure that the economy can grow so that it meets the needs of its people.

When I was talking to the high commissioner at one of the recent celebrations, he said that the most visible sign of economic progress is the improvement in infrastructure. That will be welcome not just to Sierra Leoneans but to many visitors. On my first visit, I had to go by road from Freetown to Bo and, as I told the high commissioner, it was the least comfortable road journey of my life because there were more potholes than road. I am talking about not little undulations in the road but serious holes. Sorting out the road surface, the road structure around the country from the capital to the provinces and the internal air flights is fundamentally important if people are to be able to travel for work or for social activity, to sell their wares or to exploit natural resources.

The list of Sierra Leone’s natural resources is not small or insignificant. It includes diamonds, titanium ore, bauxite, iron ore, gold and chromite. Unlike Zambia, most people in Sierra Leone do not work in mines. They work on the farms, scratching a living from agriculture, which brings me to the other important background fact. Like every other country, Sierra Leone has been challenged by climate change. A huge percentage of the population is under the age of 16. People have responded to the rapid growth in population by over-harvesting timber and taking away some of the forests, by expanding cattle-grazing, and with some slash-and-burn agriculture. That has been no good for the forests or the soil. Furthermore, the civil war has depleted many of the country’s natural resources, and there has been significant over-fishing.

The challenge is to ensure that the good order of nature is restored in Sierra Leone and that there is careful husbanding of natural resources. The country is concerned to ensure that any exploration for oil is

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conducted very carefully. It is keen to avoid the problems that Nigeria went through—huge exploitation, corruption and environmental disadvantage.

One encouraging sign is that refugees in surrounding countries are slowly returning. The increase in the population is not just due to the birth rate rising; people feel that it is now safe to come home. The increase puts huge pressure on the urban areas such as Freetown. Although it is mainly a rural community, some 30% of the people of Sierra Leone live in urban areas. The challenge is to find enough work for people, which is where the United Kingdom can be of help. One area in which we have started to do significant amounts of work is in building up the public services. I think that I am correct in saying that in the last full financial year, DFID spent just short of £45 million on Sierra Leone. The largest single item on that budget was money for better governance, to ensure that corruption was reduced and did not return and to support the presidential elections next year. The next largest area of support was health, and there were other financial commitments to social services and education.

The reason those financial commitments are so important is to be found if we look at the specific indicators of health and deprivation in Sierra Leone. For example, there are key indicators on health in the country in a report by the United Nations Development Programme. The report shows that 46% of the total population is undernourished; expenditure on public health in Sierra Leone as a percentage of GDP is only 1.4%, and the under-five mortality rate for every 1,000 live births is 194, so nearly 200 out of every 1,000 children who are live births—or nearly 20%—do not survive to the age of five. There are also education indicators in that report. The percentage of those of both sexes aged 15 and above who are literate is just over 40%; the expenditure on education is under 4% of GDP. The mean years of schooling for those who are currently adults has been just under three years, and the expected years of schooling for children is currently just over seven years. In addition, 81% of the population is in poverty and nearly two thirds of the population live on less than $1.25 a day. Those figures show the economic and social situation in Sierra Leone.

It is not surprising, therefore, that until recently Sierra Leone was at the bottom of the league in the UN development index. Although there has been some slight improvement in that respect since 2000, the graphs comparing Sierra Leone with sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world show that Sierra Leone stayed at the bottom of the league. It is a great tribute to the Government and the people of Sierra Leone, and to our relations with that country, that in the last year—when the last UN development index was produced—there has been a significant and noticeable improvement in Sierra Leone’s place in the league table. It had been 169th in the world, but it has moved up. It may not be halfway up that table, but it has moved up to 158th. For Sierra Leone, that improvement is really important, and the country’s high commissioner leads me to believe that the next publication of the UN development index may well show that Sierra Leone has made further progress.

I want to flag up what seem to me, from my visits to Sierra Leone and my conversations with Sierra Leoneans, to be five specific issues on which I hope that the

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Minister can give me positive encouragement, in addition to the general encouragement that I know he is capable of giving, and that is hugely well received in Sierra Leone.

First, we must continue to support the development of a decent public health service in Sierra Leone. On my last visit to the country, 18 months ago, I went to the maternity hospital in Freetown and I was told that there are two gynaecological consultants for the whole country. There is a desperate shortage of specialist doctors and specialist nurses. The challenge for the health service in Sierra Leone is not only to train Sierra Leoneans to become specialist doctors and specialist nurses but to ensure that they are not then lost to Sierra Leone as a result of their coming to this or another country and not going back. There is absolutely no problem with us helping in the training of Sierra Leoneans to become doctors, dentists, nurses, radiographers and consultants, but it is really important that people with those specialist skills do not become part of the diaspora, helping in countries such as the UK, but instead remain in Sierra Leone. One of the big challenges is to ensure that those people are in place in Sierra Leone, not only in Freetown but in the other towns and cities.

Secondly, we must continue the work in public health that has begun. In Sierra Leone, there is still a high risk of people dying or becoming seriously incapacitated because of disease. The vaccination and public health programmes—and, partly, the education programmes—as well as the actual delivery of vaccination and the like, are all hugely important. For example, pneumonia, malaria and other diseases can either kill people or reduce their capacity for survival and economic activity. That public health activity, in the rural areas as much as in the urban areas, must remain a priority in our practical links with Sierra Leone.

Thirdly, we must continue the good military and defence links that we have had with Sierra Leone. It is very important that the UK continues to enjoy the huge benefit to our reputation in Sierra Leone that results from our support for the country during the civil war and our help in bringing that civil war to an end. Of course it should not spend excessive amounts of money on military and defence—that would be absolutely the wrong thing to do—but if Sierra Leone is to remain proud and free, its military and law-and-order agencies, including the police, need the capacity to protect its independence and its national assets, such as its diamonds, from future incursions like the incursion that happened in the past from over the border with Liberia. In that respect, the continuing collaboration with and training of the military and, where appropriate, the police in Sierra Leone are very important.

Fourthly, we must continue the really good educational links between Britain and Sierra Leone. The Commonwealth has provided a wonderful opportunity for continuing links with further and higher education in Sierra Leone. Along with colleagues from both the other main parties in the UK, I have sought to ensure that Commonwealth scholarships are retained, and that we maximise the opportunities for people in Sierra Leone to study abroad, whether they are undergraduates or studying for a postgraduate degree, such as a master’s degree. It is important that we continue those educational links, because the exposure of young people from Sierra Leone to this country and of young people from this

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country to Sierra Leone can only benefit future generations in the two countries, promoting mutual understanding between the UK and Sierra Leone and economic progress in Sierra Leone.

Fifthly and lastly, it is of course vital that we continue to help improve the governance of Sierra Leone and continue to support the country’s Government, both in the country’s Parliament—by giving the Parliament and the country’s MPs the support that they need—and in regional and local government. The other day, a significant anti-corruption agreement was signed. Corruption has been the bane of much of African politics. However, Sierra Leone has been determined to try to tackle the issues of corruption. It has dealt with many of them well, but many challenges still remain. I hope that we can give the people of Sierra Leone all the support and encouragement that we can to ensure that the rule of law is understood and followed, and so that people who think they can exploit Sierra Leone do not get away with it and instead are brought to justice and pay the price for their actions.

I hope that this debate sends a clear signal to Sierra Leone about how much we value it. I think that the last debate that we had in this House on Sierra Leone was the one that took place at the time of the civil war, when things were very dark and grim indeed. The picture there is wholly different now. We encourage the people of Sierra Leone to ask when they need our support and to tell us when they do not need it, so that they can be independent. We also want to say to them how much we value the progress that they have made and the recovery that they have embarked on. They need to maintain economic growth, but above all, they need to keep the civil and civic peace that is such a wonderful development after the civil war in their country. Sierra Leone is a country of many faiths; it is predominantly Muslim, but there are many Christians and people of other faiths, and all of them live in harmony with each other.

We salute Sierra Leone on the 50th anniversary of its independence, and we thank it for its contribution to Africa, the Commonwealth, this country and the world. I hope that the Minister can say, on behalf of the Government, how much support we will continue to give to Sierra Leone and how much we value the precious links that have been established over the years between our two countries.

12.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) on raising the issue of the relations between Britain and Sierra Leone, which is of great importance to his constituents. I understand that his constituency has one of the largest diaspora communities from Sierra Leone. He has worked tirelessly on behalf of that community. He said that he is a great fan of the country. The feeling is mutual in Sierra Leone, where he is hugely respected.

This debate is timely for two reasons. The first is that Sierra Leone has recently celebrated 50 years of independence from the UK. The second is that I myself have just returned from a four-day visit to the country to take part in those celebrations as the official representative of Her Majesty’s Government. I welcome this chance to

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discuss matters that are of interest to many Members. Although recent events in the middle east and north Africa, as well as in nearby Côte d’Ivoire, continue to demand the attention of my ministerial colleagues, it is important that we do not lose sight of developments elsewhere in the world, including developments elsewhere in the region.

Sierra Leone is on the cusp of a better and brighter future. Fifty years after attaining independence, 10 years after the end of a bitter and bloody civil war, nearly four years after the present Administration came into office and just over a year before a historic fourth post-war election, it is set to complete a difficult transition and to step forward into a brighter and better future for all Sierra Leoneans.

Sierra Leone is a rare success story in west Africa. The 10 years since the end of the civil war have seen slow but steady progress, including a functioning democracy at the service of its people, who have seen a rare peaceful handover of power from one party to another in a democratic election. There has been refurbishment and extension of the national infrastructure, which is so essential to the economy and to a functioning society and, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, the roads have improved immeasurably and are vital in ensuring that the rural economy can move forward. Progress has also included macro-economic stability at a difficult time in the global cycle and steady economic growth, with the prospect of a step change upwards when mineral exploitation plays its proper part in the development of the economy and the country.

The UK and the international community continue to support that progress, and we welcome Sierra Leoneans’ efforts to shoulder a greater burden themselves. We encourage them, their Government and their institutions to grasp confidently the reins of their own future. We also recognise that despite the remarkable progress in the past decade, Sierra Leone faces huge challenges.

However, as my right hon. Friend highlighted, although there is still a long way to go—there obviously is—progress is in the right direction in the league tables. That is why colleagues in this House, and indeed elsewhere, applaud the progress but also recognise the very significant challenges. It is also why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and his Ministers prioritised Sierra Leone in the recent bilateral aid review, which will ensure that the country continues to receive much-needed UK aid.

As a friend of Africa and of Sierra Leone, I follow events in the country and the region very closely. As I have already mentioned, I was very pleased to be able to attend the recent independence day celebrations as the official representative of Her Majesty’s Government, and I found Sierra Leone to be a firm friend of the UK. The celebrations were truly authentic, and although they were held in a hot, humid stadium and other venues, the spirit of national celebration and the optimism for a bright future were there for all to see. The President made an excellent speech, calling on all Sierra Leoneans to put their past behind them, without blame, and to commit to learning the lessons of that past and to dedicating those lessons to working together to make a better country for their children and grandchildren. The President’s rhetoric was truly inspiring and uplifting.

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As well as the 50th anniversary celebrations, my visit focused on prosperity, security, the UN and regional issues. I had an excellent meeting with the President, who thanked the UK for our consistent support since the end of the civil war 10 years ago. His country is a radically different place now, but he entirely appreciates that there is still more to do to heal the wounds of war, and we agreed that getting the economy right was a crucial part of that.

The UK can be proud of its contribution to helping Sierra Leone’s economy to grow. Since the end of the war, we have supported the economy through the judicious use of budget support, which has helped to assure macro-economic stability. As a result, Sierra Leone has seen an average annual growth of 6.4% since 2003, which is a big achievement by any standard. To ensure that that continues, we are using UK aid to support the development of the energy sector and to improve access to micro-finance and finance for new businesses, and, through our prosperity agenda, we are encouraging further investment. The successful London trade and investment conference in 2009 saw a fourfold increase in new foreign investment inquiries, which is incredibly encouraging. We will continue to work closely with the Sierra Leone Government and business to help the economy grow, generate wealth, create jobs and increase Government revenues, to enable the country to stand on its own feet.

One initiative that has great potential is the Salone business network, which was formed to support Sierra Leone’s efforts to raise its international profile and attract blue-chip companies. Sierra Leone’s resource wealth and natural beauty have the potential to transform the country, with its fertile soils that can become the basis for a successful and lucrative contribution to solving the food shortages that are pushing up prices around the world.

Minerals—iron ore, diamonds, gold, rutile, and potentially oil—could truly transform the economy of the country and the lives of its people. However, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, success cannot be assured, and careful thought and difficult decision making will be needed. Experience elsewhere demonstrates that economic development can have both positive and negative consequences—we have all seen and studied the resource curse of Africa.

To ensure that Sierra Leone reaps the benefits of agriculture, tourism and natural wealth, it is crucial to bear in mind the following: transparency, on the part of both companies and Governments to maintain credibility and ensure efficient bureaucratic process; equity, providing a fair return for the Government, the people and the companies investing their cash and knowledge; and competition, with companies exerting themselves to the utmost to ensure they are the most profitable and flexible, and pay the best wages, to attract the best workers. Similarly, to attract the best businesses and to ensure that Sierra Leone sees the full benefits of commercial development, the necessary institutions and processes must be in place. The UK is working with Sierra Leone to make that a reality.

My right hon. Friend made four additional key points. He mentioned health, and in particular maternal health. When I was in the country, I visited the excellent Princess Christian maternity hospital in Susan’s Bay. That was one of the high points of my visit because I

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had the chance to see for myself the work that the Department for International Development has done in putting in expertise on the ground.

I do not know the exact numbers of specialist doctors, nurses and gynaecologists, but I will get back to my right hon. Friend on that. What I can tell him is that the hospital is functioning really well and is saving lives by enabling a large number of Sierra Leonean women to have their children in a maternity hospital. That is encouraging and uplifting. I completely agree with my right hon. Friend about the crucial importance of extending the health service and medical treatment out into the rural areas, and DFID is certainly on the case. I also agree entirely about the crucial importance of building up capacity and progress in those areas. Significant progress has been made, but more can be done.

On military training, one of the abiding observations that I came away with was the huge gratitude on the part of the Government and the people of Sierra Leone for the UK’s intervention at the end of the civil war. It was a very well timed intervention, which enabled the progress through to democracy, and the rebel forces to be beaten. Since then, we have had the British training team in place, which has been transformed into the international military advisory and training team. The team is still led by Britain, and the vast majority of its officers and non-commissioned officers are from Britain. It is running a staff college there, which is a centre of excellence. I am keen to see the IMATT continue and develop original scope, training not just the military from countries in the region, but the police, building capacity and professionalism in the key security and police sectors.

This debate has provided an ideal opportunity for me to praise the work of the Sierra Leonean diaspora in the UK, many of whom live in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. Diaspora communities play a vital role in encouraging socio-economic recovery in their mother countries. Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials have had several meetings with the Sierra Leone Diaspora Network in recent years, and the excellent British high commissioner in Freetown, Mr Ian Hughes, joined my right hon. Friend in addressing a group of his Sierra Leonean constituents last year. It is important that we maintain those strong links with the diaspora community. Incidentally, I want to pay tribute to the hard work of Mr Ian Hughes and all his in-country team, who do an absolutely first-class job in supporting Sierra Leone as it continues its recovery and development.

I have seen first hand the excellent results that the DFID team has achieved on the ground. Sierra Leone used to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women to give birth in but, through judicious intervention and a really imaginative aid programme, that has changed. Sierra Leone has come a long way since the civil war, and with the recent instability in Côte d’Ivoire, it should be seen as an example of how a west African nation can move forward, heal divisions and rebuild itself. Sierra Leone is an extraordinary place, and I have a vision that in the future it will be a confident, independent and self-sufficient country, of which its people can be incredibly proud. We look forward to working with them over the next 50 years.

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Employment and Support Allowance

12.59 pm

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have secured this debate and to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. This is an important matter for many of my constituents. Employment and support allowance was introduced by the last Government to replace incapacity benefit. As we are all aware, it is designed to support people who are too sick or disabled to work full-time or at all, or who need significant retraining, and who meet certain conditions. The benefit is funded by the Department for Work and Pensions.

There are two types of ESA. Claimants may be able to get either or both, depending on their circumstances. The two types are contributory ESA, which is available to those who have paid enough in national insurance contributions, and income-related ESA, which is available to those whose income and capital are low enough. ESA claimants must be over 16 and under state pension age, unable to work due to sickness or disability and not entitled to statutory sick pay. Most importantly for this debate, they must satisfy certain tests. Between October 2010 and March 2014, all current incapacity benefit claimants will be reassessed under the new work capability assessment, rather than under the personal capability assessment used under the old regime. Work capability assessments are causing much concern among many of my most vulnerable constituents.

I think that all parties agree that our benefits system should screen out those who try to access disability benefits despite being entirely fit to work. However, disability benefits should not be used, as incapacity benefit was by the Tory Government in the 1980s, to manage unemployment numbers artificially. The work capability assessment has been in use for some time, and I am confident that I am not the only Member of the House being approached regularly by constituents who are angered by how it works, or whose disability benefits have been withdrawn after an assessment. Work capability assessments have been contracted out to a private organisation, Atos Healthcare, in a £300 million deal by the Government. Atos Healthcare is part of the Atos Origin group of companies, most noted for its IT outsourcing operations. It has Government contracts in the Home Office and elsewhere.

The assessments carried out by Atos Healthcare no longer take into account GPs’ assessments of an individual’s impairment or long-term condition, ignoring them in favour of a set of questions, which take an average of 15 to 45 minutes to answer, administered through software developed by Atos. The software requires assessors to ask a set of questions on which the applicant can score up to 15 points, putting him or her into the ESA support group. GPs, who in many cases might have known applicants all their lives, and who in any case have a good understanding of applicants’ medical, social and emotional status, are ignored by the new system.

Instead, a new set of individuals called health care professionals come into play. They are trained by Atos for an average of four to 16 weeks in understanding targets—that is most worrying—and the all-powerful LiMA, or logic integrated medical assessment, software. They are given time limits for each assessment and told that the more people they can see in a given period, the

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better it is for the targets. Health care professionals consist of physiotherapists, nurses and doctors. I am not saying that those professionals do not know what they are doing. However, they are bound by the software that they are operating.

Work capability assessments mean that under the new system, blind claimants who can get around safely with a guide dog can be forced on to jobseeker’s allowance, as can deaf claimants who demonstrate that they can read and write. Claimants who cannot walk but who can use a manual wheelchair will no longer score points. In addition, references to hands have been removed from the picking-up activity, specifically to make it harder for amputees to score points.

Some activities have simply been cut altogether. For example, the activity “bending and kneeling”, which I would have thought critical to determining whether an individual is fit for any kind of work, has been completely abolished for health and safety reasons, as people apparently should not bend forward when lifting. Perhaps most worryingly, half of all the scoring descriptors for mental health and learning difficulties have been removed from the procedure, making it much harder for people with depression, anxiety and many other forms of mental illness to get ESA.

A constituent recently visited my surgery who was assessed and passed as completely fit for work of any kind, despite the fact that she could not walk without crutches and could not stand or sit for long periods because the discs in her back had completely disintegrated. Because she could both stand and sit, she was classed as fit for work. Another constituent visited my surgery to tell me that the examiner told him that he had no problems moving, despite the fact that he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. Good days and bad days are a feature of rheumatoid arthritis. On bad days, movement can be much more severely restricted. It is difficult to understand how such a bland, all-encompassing assessment can be made of an individual’s health needs. My constituent’s condition highlights a great concern about the tests, which is that they assess claimants only on a particular day and not over a period of time. That is important, because claimants with rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease all fall into a similar category.

In 2010, an independent review of the tests by Professor Harrington concluded:

“There is strong evidence that the system can be impersonal and mechanistic, that the process lacks transparency and that a lack of communication between the various parties involved contributes to poor decision making and a high rate of appeals…evidence has consistently and regularly highlighted problems with each stage of the WCA process, which limit both the assessment’s fairness and effectiveness.”

Atos’s own staff have said that the assessments are too harsh. Prospect, the trade union representing 135 Atos doctors, has stated that the target of seeing 10 or more people a day is unrealistic and will lead to inaccurate assessments, especially in complex cases. It should come as no surprise, then, that ESA appeals have increased by 56%. Figures rose from 25,700 in the second quarter of 2009-10 to 52,000 in the same quarter of 2010-11. Almost half of cases were overturned on appeal. Such a degree of failure is staggering and makes a powerful case for change.

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Furthermore, the assessments do not consider the context of the claims or the claimants. A representative survey by Ipsos MORI compiled from a face-to-face survey commissioned by DWP found that nearly a third of those going through the ESA process were described as having literacy problems. A further 6% had problems speaking English, 11% had numeracy problems and 22% were described as being in one or more disadvantaged groups, including those with mental health issues, ex-offenders, and those with perceived learning difficulties. An overwhelming 69% of those going through the WCA had multiple health conditions. That is greatly similar to other assessments, such as for special educational needs, which are often made more difficult by multiple health conditions. I acknowledge that that makes it hard for assessments to be as accurate as they should be. It underlines the case for changing the procedure, which is too simplistic and inaccurate.

Those in the support group and in the fit-for-work group had the same number of health conditions, namely 31. In all groups, 81% of people were receiving medical treatment for their condition, with 38% waiting for hospital or additional treatment. Those statistics do not suggest to me that we are dealing with a set of fraudsters pretending to be sick or disabled, or a set of individuals who have been languishing on incapacity benefits for years. In fact, 71% of applicants for ESA were new claimants making their first claim.

Evidence is mounting that the entire process is likely to cost the taxpayer more than the original benefits bill that it is designed to cut. The cost of Atos contracts, tribunals and additional health care caused by the misery and failure of the work capability assessment adds up to higher long-term costs, yet it is all being done under the guise of state efficiency. Despite the overwhelming evidence that WCAs are not working as they should, Atos was awarded a further contract by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2010.

I do not want to be tribal about this. I am perfectly aware that it was the Labour Government who introduced the new system. I am not interested in blame, but in seeing what is wrong put right. I am not saying that people should just be left to rot on ESA. I know all too well, from my own family history, what incapacity benefit did to people’s mental health when they were thrown on to it after losing employment in the 1980s. Nor am I saying that it is not right for the state to make sure that only those eligible for the benefit should get it. There is no doubt—the evidence is indisputable—that people who are on ESA, or who were on incapacity benefit before that, for a period of time are more than likely to spend the rest of their days on it, and that is wrong. It always has been and always will be wrong. What I am saying is that the system that has been put in place is not only unfair in how it assesses disability, but too rigid and inflexible. It does not take into account the needs of individuals, and it is more about saving the Treasury money, ironically, than helping the individual.

Another constituent came to see me recently, because he had also been refused ESA. He was a manual worker—a printer—and that was all he knew, in terms of work. He had been in printing all his life. He had emphysema and had suffered a heart attack, which, as I think most of us would agree, would make it very difficult for him to do manual work again. Anyone who knows anything about emphysema will say that it is a disease that kills and that

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tends to kill slowly, disabling the individual suffering from it in the process. Those of us who live in the old coalfield areas and in steel communities know all too well what the disease can do. It is terrible. I know, because I have seen members of my family suffer from it. It is a shocking, awful disease.

My constituent needed help to train to do something else. He may only ever be able to work part time, and certainly not in the job that he had been used to all his life. It also has to be said that my constituent desperately wants to go back to work. However, because of the way in which the current system is set up, he was refused ESA and forced to go on to the jobseeker’s allowance, and he is now being chased to take any job that comes along, regardless of the potential long-term impact on his health condition, emphysema. There is no support for retraining, which is what ESA should offer, and no recognition of the fact that he, a manual worker, is no longer fit to engage in that type of work. That is not acceptable. We need a much more flexible view of how we help people who often have multiple health conditions and who need help, not punishment. Significant investment would be required, but in the long term I am sure it would pay dividends by way of increased numbers of disabled people back in work and reduced health costs. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on that point.

I also seek a response on several other points. I would like confirmation of when each of the 25 recommendations in Professor Harrington’s report will be implemented, including a change to the form for claimants that would allow them to describe in detail how their symptoms and why their condition make it difficult or impossible for them to work, and allowing them to receive a summary of the report on them that Atos submits.

Will the Minister give us details of what the implementation will mean? How will DWP ensure that the assessment is carried out in accordance with the recommendations and, in particular, is improved to be fairer and more accurate for people with fluctuating conditions? That includes what happens to disabled claimants and those with long-term conditions who drop out of the process. Finally, why has the migration of the 1.5 million people on incapacity benefit already begun without the implementation of the recommendations to which I have referred?

This is a debate of immense importance for disabled people throughout the country and for workers who, for one reason or another—usually because of the form of work in which they have been engaged—have ended up with lung or heart conditions and so on. The issue is important and is causing a great deal of distress. I await the Minister’s response, particularly on when Professor Harrington’s recommendations will be implemented.

1.16 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this debate. It is a useful opportunity to put on the record, once again, the things that we are doing to make sure that this is a proper, fair and appropriate process.

I should like to correct the hon. Lady on a number of things that she has mentioned where she has not got her facts right or is a little out of date. First, however, I pay

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tribute to her for referring to the fact that it was the previous Government who introduced this system. She has set out in detail the context for the changes that we are putting in place. I agree with her that the system that we inherited was not adequate. It did not do the job properly and in many cases led to wrong decisions about individuals. I and my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions have spent the past year trying to sort all that out, so that we were ready for the start of the migration process. I shall explain to the hon. Lady in some detail how that was done.

I shall begin by picking up on some of the points made about Atos, the contractors. The hon. Lady mentioned that Atos was contracted, but, as she knows, it was contracted originally by the previous Government. We have not sought to change the contracting arrangements because, frankly, it would be massively disruptive to do so in the middle of the process. What we have sought to do is address the issues surrounding Atos that have led to concerns being raised. Let me be clear—Atos has no financial targets. A myth has been circulating for some time that our contractors are incentivised to find people fit for work. That is absolutely not the case and I am happy to put that on the record.

It is also not the case that there is a target of seeing 10 people a day. The only indicators and targets that Atos has relate to the quality of the work that it does for us. We have been careful to make sure that that is the case. It would be absolutely inappropriate to have a situation in which a third-party contractor was incentivised to reach a particular outcome in an area as sensitive as this. The hon. Lady can be reassured that that is not the case.

Before moving on to the details of the Harrington review, I shall address the hon. Lady’s query about the internal review, which was carried out by the previous Government, which made a number of recommendations to us, and with which we have decided, after much thought, to proceed. The internal review was carried out over the last 12 to 18 months of the previous Government. It looked at how the assessment was working and made a number of recommendations about changes. It did a number of things in particular, and there are two or three reasons why I decided to accept the recommendations of the previous Government and to implement that set of changes—they were introduced at the start of last month—to the assessment. The first of them related to mental health. The hon. Lady is not right on the mental health issue. This is a matter of great concern to me. I am acutely aware that mental health problems and fluctuating conditions are crucial, as she rightly said. Getting them right is fundamentally important. They are the most difficult areas of health challenge to deal with as we go through the assessment process.

We looked carefully at the impact that changes to the assessment recommended by the internal review would have on people with mental health conditions. The assessment we have carried out shows, in fact, that more people with mental health conditions will find themselves in the support group with long-term unconditional support than would have previously been the case. The set of changes we have just introduced should increase the number of people who receive ongoing unconditional support for mental health conditions. That seemed the right thing to do.

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The second thing we did was to address the fact that people in between periods of chemotherapy could, theoretically, be found fit for work. We did not think that that was right and therefore we have excluded people who are in between courses of chemotherapy from any kind of return-to-work process, as well as those involved in chemotherapy at a particular moment in time. Again, that seemed the right thing to do.

On the change the hon. Lady referred to in relation to people who are blind, partially sighted or in wheelchairs, we had a situation that was inappropriate and wrong. Let us think of the motivation behind these changes. Fundamentally, we are trying to help people with the potential to work to get into work and not end up spending the rest of their lives on benefits. The internal review highlighted that, under the previous system, if someone was a Paralympic athlete with a university degree, there was no obligation for them to look for a job. That is not right. Some people who are blind or partially sighted and are out of work have long since adapted to that condition and have worked before. They should be looking for another job and it is wrong to say that that should not be the case simply because they are blind or partially sighted. I am not suggesting that that is what the hon. Lady was saying, but that is what the previous system provided for. We have introduced an adaptation factor into the assessment, so that a judgment is made about how well somebody has or has not adapted to their condition. That factor will have to be considered.

I want to give the hon. Lady more detailed context on the way in which that consideration now takes place. Over the past few months, we have made big changes to the whole process precisely because of the kind of issues she has rightly identified. I have no interest whatsoever in putting anybody who is not fit for work into a position whereby they are being pushed towards trying to find work. That is not in our interests as Ministers, as a Government, as individuals or as a society. Indeed, if somebody is not fit for work, an employer will not hire them, so we would achieve nothing from such an approach.

We inherited the internal review and looked at its conclusions, which we have implemented. We set up the Harrington review precisely because we had concerns of the kind that the hon. Lady has raised. She has rightly looked at the Harrington recommendations, of which there are 25. As we stand here today, all the recommendations bar, I think, two have already been implemented and the other two are due to be implemented by the end of this month. By the time we get to the point in June when the first big wave of people will be reassessed as part of the incapacity benefit-employment and support allowance migration, all of the Harrington recommendations will be in place. The ESA50 form has already been updated and the various other recommendations have all been put in place. I reassure her that there is no question of waiting for a point much later in the year before all that happens; it is happening now. When Harrington provided his recommendations, something I insisted on with officials is that we cracked on and delivered these changes, so that they are in place for the IB-ESA migration.

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The most important of Professor Harrington’s key recommendations was about the decision-making process. We had a situation whereby, up until the past few months, the final decision about whether somebody was found fit for work was technically taken by a decision maker who was a senior member of staff within Jobcentre Plus. Those members of staff had tended to view the outcome of the Atos assessment—the work capability assessment—as gospel because it was carried out by a health care professional. They thought such assessments just had to be rubber-stamped.

We have changed that totally and have created a process through which the decision makers are told not only that it is their decision, but that they have to look at other evidence—for example, the hon. Lady referred to GPs’ evidence. Our decision makers are expected to look at other medical evidence submitted by the individual concerned and at the GP’s and consultant’s comments to form a rounded view. Indeed, if they believe that they do not have enough evidence, they have the freedom to go back and ask for more. That is a big change. We have effectively downgraded the role of the work capability assessment in the process. It is an important part of the decision, but it is no longer the only part of the decision. That will make a big difference.

Professor Harrington highlighted precisely the situation the hon. Lady identified surrounding mental health conditions. That issue is a hugely complex and sensitive area that needs to be dealt with carefully. Within the Atos health care professional network, Professor Harrington recommended that we introduce mental health champions to whom the assessors can turn for advice if they are uncertain about how to react to particular responses. Those champions are already in place. In fact, we have gone back to Atos and said, “We’d like some more of them please.” The numbers will be increased by the early summer. I am very keen to ensure that we provide a proper focus on and expertise in the mental health field.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): On the decision makers and support for mental health, could the Minister provide some numbers and the geographical basis of those numbers, because it is an issue of real concern in north Wales?

Chris Grayling: In terms of the mental health champions, there are I think about 50 in the network. The number will rise further and is rising; they are being recruited all the time. By the time the process is finished, there will be one champion for about every two to two-and-a-half assessment centres. Someone will be constantly on call. In some cases, those champions will be present and, in other cases, they will be at the end of a phone line. The hon. Lady made reference to the Harrington recommendation on the individualised statement—the summary of the assessment. We want the champions to be involved when the individual concerned picks the phone up and says, “I’m not quite sure about this.” That view can be reflected in that statement, which will be introduced later this month. So that recommendation will have been dealt with as well.

Angela Smith: I am very pleased with the fullness of the Minister’s response, but will he comment on the situation that threatens individuals with long-term and

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sometimes terminal conditions, such as emphysema, who may be fit for some form of work, albeit only for a few hours a week? Those people are currently failed by the system.

Chris Grayling: I will come on to that because I want to make another point in response to the hon. Lady’s question about fluctuating conditions. Professor Harrington is currently working on that to see if there is anything else we need to do. However, we are trying to ensure that there is expertise within the Atos network of individuals and that training is provided to both decision makers and Atos professionals about fluctuating conditions.

On the hon. Lady’s other point, a crucial part of this jigsaw puzzle is the Work programme that will start in about three or four weeks’ time. That programme is designed to provide specialist support for precisely the kind of person she has mentioned. She said that the person concerned wants to work, but that he clearly cannot work in the job he had before. If we put him into the sickness benefits environment and leave him there, he will probably never work again. We can offer him the opportunity to have specialist support through the Work programme, with providers who are contracted on a payment-by-results basis and in a system where we pay different amounts for different levels of challenge. For example, somebody who is coming off sickness benefits will command a higher tariff than somebody who is a conventional job seeker without sickness challenges. The aim is to encourage the providers to work with somebody in that position to find a job that he can fulfil.

I do not regard it as acceptable—I am sure that the hon. Lady and I share this view—to have a situation whereby anyone who has the potential to work is parked on the sidelines and is unable to get the support that they need to get into work. From our point of view, the most fundamental part of the change is not to try to find people who cannot work fit for work. Indeed, those who end up in the support group—the group that needs ongoing unconditional support—will get more money as a result of the change.

The key goal is to identify those people who have the potential to return to work so that, through the Work programme and other support provided by Jobcentre Plus, we can give them the help they need to get into the workplace. That is what this is all about. We will do our best to get it right, but I am sure that we will make some mistakes along the way. We have introduced a reconsideration stage at Jobcentre Plus to try to ensure that we catch our mistakes early. However, it is important to realise that this is all about helping people who could work to do so. Otherwise, the only alternative is for them to spend the rest of their life on benefits, and I do not believe that that is in their interests or in any of our interests.

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European Union (UK Permanent Representative)

1.29 pm

Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate, Mr Leigh, and to the Minister for coming to respond for the Government. I am also very grateful to my colleagues. To allow for those who wish to speak, I will try to limit my comments to less than 10 minutes.

Exactly a year ago today, at an emergency meeting of EU Finance Ministers, the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), committed Britain to bailing out the eurozone. The deal he struck has made UK taxpayers liable for more than £10 billion—so far. By any measure, that has been a pretty disastrous deal for Britain. Having spent the past 12 months struggling to cut public spending by £6 billion, we have ratcheted up liabilities worth far more than that.

At a time of austerity at home, the Portuguese component of the bail-out alone could have covered the basic salaries of either a quarter of a million nurses or private soldiers, 114,000 NHS doctors or 160,000 police constables. Why are Ministers about to promote Sir Jon Cunliffe, one of the senior officials behind that disastrous deal, to be the next head of the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union?

We do not actually know for certain that Sir Jon will be the next head of UKRep. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that in his comments in due course. Indeed, despite attempts through parliamentary questions and letters, and freedom of information requests, we are not even allowed to know that his predecessor, Sir Kim Darroch, is standing down next month, in June; we know or suppose that only on the basis of anonymous Whitehall press leaks.

My point is this: why should we not know? The head of UKRep is a public servant, and yet is almost entirely without accountability to the public in whose name he cuts such deals. Not only should the public have a right to know, but those whom they elect should have the right to approve—or indeed veto—candidates for the role. Through an accident of history, the Prime Minister has inherited, more or less intact, the powers that once attached to the monarch: the award of peerages, treaty-making powers and, most importantly, the power to appoint officials. I propose that those powers should pass to Parliament. The next head of UKRep should be appointed following an open confirmation hearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Now that we have changed the Standing Orders to free Select Committees from the dead hand of the Whips and placemen, the Commons Select Committees are no longer the hiding place for such people. I believe that the Committees are up to the task of holding the Executive to account. They should be given responsibility for confirming key Executive appointments, beginning with that of Sir Jon Cunliffe.

Democratising the appointments process, when it comes to senior officials, is hardly controversial. Indeed, we have been toying with the idea for more than a decade. As early as March 2000, the Commons Liaison Committee issued a report, “Shifting the Balance: Select

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Committees and the Executive”, which mooted the idea. Indeed, as early as July 2007, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), in his first statement to the House as Prime Minister, promised pre-appointment scrutiny hearings—even if his Ministers chose subsequently to ignore the views of some of us on the Children, Schools and Families Committee regarding the appointment of a new Children’s Commissioner.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): My hon. Friend will be glad to know that the Government are taking the issue seriously. Yesterday, the new chairman of S4C, the Welsh television channel, was announced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The Department has agreed that the Welsh Affairs Committee will be allowed to undertake a pre-appointment hearing to see whether it approves the appointment. That is a positive way forward and shows that the appointment has to be scrutinised by Parliament.

Mr Carswell: Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As in many things, Wales is ahead of us. His point also shows that across the board there is an appetite for restoring to the people’s tribunes the power to say yes or no to appointments made in the name of the Crown. It is an abuse of Crown prerogative when key appointments are made without those we elect having the right to their say.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend think that this could happen with immediate effect?

Mr Carswell: Absolutely. When the chairman of the BBC Trust was appointed recently, it was made clear that he would be appointed only following a confirmation hearing. It is one of those great things—it does not actually require primary legislation, or even a change in the Standing Orders of the House, to bring into effect.

The Liberal Democrats have supported measures to strengthen the legislature over the Executive for as long as anyone can remember; I hope that they remain as committed now that they have joined the Executive. In opposition, the Prime Minister specifically championed the idea of reforming Crown prerogative. In government, he threw his weight behind the idea of confirmation hearings, insisting that Chris Patten face such a hearing before being confirmed as chairman of the BBC Trust. Why not hold a similar confirmation hearing for the man who, more than any other, will be responsible for negotiating our future in Europe? As its own website states, UKRep

“represents the UK in negotiations that take place at the EU level, ensuring that Britain’s interests are heard”.

Kim Darroch, the current head of UKRep, apparently

“represents the UK’s interests at weekly meetings of heads of mission from all 27 Member States.”

At what point do those who profess to represent our national interests answer to the nation for the deals that they strike in our name?

We fight general elections with politicians promising, to one degree or another, to change policy on Europe, yet in what sense are those who make European policy answerable to the people’s tribunes? The conventional

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model of accountability for European policy via Ministers no longer works. The Brussels agenda is too vast and all embracing, and the scope of deal making too wide for Ministers to track how it works two or three days a week from London. That leaves too many Ministers signing deals that they did not actually author, and nodding through agreements that they have not properly considered.

Ministers in Brussels might make key decisions about what is on the wine list, but in Brussels the real business is conducted all too often by permanent officials. As the great diarist Alan Clark—some of us may have read his books—commented about a Council of Ministers meeting run by UKRep, way back in 1983:

“A succession of meetings, but no possibility of getting anything changed…Everything is fixed by officials in advance. Ministers shaking hands are just window dressing”.

I suspect that very little has improved in the past 28 years.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): My hon. Friend speaks as if the appointment of Mr Cunliffe as our next ambassador to Brussels is a done deal. Did he not read two weeks ago in The Sunday Times a profile of the Prime Minister by Anthony Seldon, which said that the Prime Minister was taking a close, personal interest in this appointment?

Mr Carswell: I did, and I glean the pages of the newspapers for little hints and Whitehall leaks as to who may fill that vital role. Precisely because we are led to believe that the Prime Minister takes such a keen interest, I have every hope that he may do the right thing and allow the people’s legislature to have the final say on whether that man should indeed occupy that important position.

I suspect that if Ministers and ex-Ministers today were as honest and candid as Alan Clark, they would perhaps admit that much the same happened at the two ECOFIN meetings last May, with officials making key decisions that Ministers nodded through. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), wrote candidly in a letter dated 18 July to a Lords Select Committee about the decision to participate in a bail-out mechanism:

“While these decisions were taken by the previous Government, this Government judges them to be an appropriate response to the crisis.”

I am not sure how easily that sits with the Government’s claims that we are necessarily reluctant participants in the bail-outs. Perhaps that conveys the impression that Ministers may change, but the permanent officials and the policy that they determine remain the same.

Requiring Mr Cunliffe—or Sir Jon, I should say—to appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee to explain why he is the best man to negotiate for Britain in Brussels begins a process of changing all that. Regardless of whether Sir Jon is given the job, the process of confirmation hearings would end the appointment and promotion of senior Europe diplomats without scrutiny.

When George Shultz was US Secretary of State in the 1980s, he had a routine for appointing US ambassadors. He would ask them to come into his office and to point to their country on a large map in his office. They would

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duly point to Kenya, Uganda, Guinea Bissau or wherever. “Nope,” he would tell them while tapping the USA, “this is your country.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that the US, which has always had a degree of legislative control over both appointments and treaties, has a clearly defined strategic vision and a readiness to deploy proportionate force in defence of its interests. Nor can it be entirely coincidental that, when Parliament was supreme and our diplomatic service small and subordinate, we, too, were willing to project our interests. Without effective parliamentary oversight, however, our salaried officials negotiating with Brussels last May managed to make us liable to bailing out a common currency of which we are not even a part.

For too long, Westminster politicians have contracted out large chunks of international relations to the permanent functionaries in Whitehall. Regardless of whether they come from a background in the Treasury, the Cabinet Office or indeed the Foreign Office, we should no longer defer key policy making to unelected officials.

Hugo Young, not a man I quote often, was a convicted —sorry, convinced—Europhile, Guardian journalist, author of “This Blessed Plot” and perhaps the foremost federalist of his generation. He understood how contracting out policy to permanent officials had profound consequences for the development of Britain’s Europe policy. As he perceptively grasped, it meant that Britain’s Europe policy was driven by diplomats rather than by their elected, albeit nominal, masters or bosses:

“By 1963, a corpus of diplomats was present in and around the Foreign Office who saw the future for both themselves and their country inside Europe. The interests of their country and their careers coincided. It was an appealing symbiosis.”

Sir Oliver Wright, who served as ambassador to Germany and the United States, describes the phenomenon as “déformation professionelle”—the skewing of someone’s outlook by his career imperatives. It happens to Whitehall officials as much as to us politicians. The Europeanism of the Whitehall grandee is just one manifestation of his déformation professionelle.

Unchecked by the people’s tribunes, our salaried officials negotiating with Brussels have brought home a succession of dreadful deals. If Sir Jon is to get the role of chief deal maker with Brussels, he must come before this House to explain why he is the best man for the job. In doing so, he might at last start to realign the policy that officials pursue in our name with the kind of Europe policy that the rest of the country would like to see.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con) rose—

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con) rose—

Mr Edward Leigh (in the Chair): The hon. Gentlemen may speak if they have had the permission of the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell).

1.41 pm

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con) I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) on securing this 30-minute debate. I come at the subject from a slightly different perspective because, in my former life, I was a Member of the European Parliament and spent 10 years working with some of the officials who performed in the role of the permanent representative.

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I have a relatively close friendship with the current incumbent, Sir Kim Darroch, who is a brilliant diplomat. We should not underestimate the brilliance and intellect of some of the top mandarins who have pushed themselves forward and have gone into such roles. Nor should we underestimate their independence. We can, however, take something from the European institutions. When we appoint European Commissioners, they must go through a confirmation process in the European Parliament, to which they supposedly answer. The United States, too, has confirmation processes for all the top appointments.

My hon. Friend is not going as far as he should: when we have a change of Government, we need a change in the Administration at the same time. We need to bring in people who truly believe in what that newly elected Government will do, and we need to have proper appointment and confirmation processes for all our top officials. We should not be so timid as to look only at the head of the UK Permanent Representation to the EU, important as it is. We should expand our view to include most top appointments. I have been in trialogues and all sorts of exciting meetings in European institutions; I have seen British representation at its best and at its worst, and I have seen deals done behind the scenes and in front of people.

During the current passage of the European Union Bill through the House of Lords, I noticed a funny noise—the opening of the tombs of the Cross Benchers and all those who had served in our diplomatic service before they reached that place. I then noticed the amazing energy and dislike for the number of referendums placed into the proposed legislation—a distrust of the people and, indeed, of their elected Government—and the desperate attempts to change the legislation passed in this House.

Those people were exhibiting the problem identified by my hon. Friend. They do not like the subtle change going on, with the European Union Bill providing a lot of referendum locks on transfers of competence from Britain to Europe in many policy areas. They are the Hugo Young college of Europe-type persons: they have been through the process, might rely on a European pension and enjoy going out with fellow diplomats everywhere. I worry about the influence of our current top civil servants, so I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s ideas.

Mr Edward Leigh (in the Chair): Another hon. Member wishes to speak and I intend to give the Minister at least 10 minutes to reply, which is only fair, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bring his remarks to a close shortly.

Chris Heaton-Harris: I had just done so.

1.45 pm

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I am conscious of your comment, Mr Leigh, and will leave the Minister time to make a full contribution. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) on securing this debate. It is absolutely right that the United Kingdom permanent representative to the European Union should be subject to a confirmation hearing before either the Foreign Affairs Committee, as was suggested, or some other appropriate Committee of the House. There are many arguments for holding such a hearing and for

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having a confirmation process, but no convincing arguments against the idea. I pray in aid none other than the Prime Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton mentioned that the Prime Minister supported such an idea when Leader of the Opposition, in an article for The Guardian, published on 25 May 2009:

“I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: from the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from the EU to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power from the elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street.”

Politicians and the senior civil servants and advisers who work for them instinctively hoard power, because they think that that is the way to get things done. We have to kill that instinct, and I know how hard that will be, requiring a serious culture change among Ministers and Whitehall officials, and beyond.

The then Leader of the Opposition went further in his speech on fixing broken politics two years ago, in which he specifically addressed the issue raised today:

“We should also limit the use of the Royal Prerogative, so Parliament is properly involved in all big national decisions—and expand the use of confirmation hearings for major public appointments.”

We have heard that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs is to hold a confirmation hearing for the boss of the Welsh TV channel. If that post in Wales warrants a confirmation hearing, the post of the UK permanent representative to the EU does as well. We have the perfect opportunity to put the Prime Minister’s idea into action. I look forward to hearing the Minister agree with what the Prime Minister said two years ago.

1.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) on securing this Adjournment debate and bringing the issue before the House today. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who has huge experience in all matters European, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) for their contributions. They have obviously spoken on the issue in the past, but my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton has great expertise, and he always brings his passion to bear.

The position of the UK permanent representative to the European Union is important. He and his team play a crucial role in advising and negotiating on behalf of the Government on a wide range of issues, promoting and protecting UK interests in the EU. In promoting and defending national interests, the permanent representative and the representation, in working groups, negotiate important draft documents ahead of councils and European Council meetings. To do so effectively, they monitor closely and interact with other permanent representations and EU institutions, principally the Commission, the Council secretariat, the European External Action Service and the European Parliament.

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Let me briefly give some recent examples of where our mission, UKRep, has played an invaluable role, so that my hon. Friends get a flavour of the work done in Brussels. In the domestic sphere, UKRep has helped to defend UK interests by preventing disproportionate legislation on, for example, the pregnant workers directive and the soil directive. Under this Government, it is being extra vigilant in taking pre-emptive action against any job-destroying employment and social measures. It has also helped to secure outcomes in the UK interests on cross-border health care, as well as on a range of environmental legislation dealing with industrial emissions, hazardous substances and limiting CO2 from vans.

On foreign policy, UKRep has played an instrumental role in forging and maintaining a strong European political stance towards the recent crisis in Libya. It has taken forward with skill the names of people identified by our bilateral posts by successfully negotiating the detail of the sanctions and travel bans for Egypt, Libya and Syria, as well as for Burma and Zimbabwe—in the latter country in particular, we have specific interests.

Mark Reckless: Would the Minister include in that description of UKRep’s various diplomatic successes negotiation of the euro bail-out funds around the weekend of 10 May last year?

Mr Edward Leigh (in the Chair): Order. This debate is about the appointment process for the UK permanent representative. It is perfectly in order for hon. Members and the Minister to introduce the subject, but we must now return to the appointment process, which is the subject of the debate.

Mr Bellingham: Thank you, Mr Leigh. I will return to the subject of the debate, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) writes to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, I am sure that he will provide a detailed response, which I do not have time to do now.

Work continues with the development of a reformed and effective neighbourhood policy on the back of the Arab spring, which will continue to require skilful and proactive negotiation from UKRep. In the area of economic policy, the permanent representative and his team played a vital role in ensuring that the Prime Minister was able to secure positive and robust language in December for the next financial perspectives. They also developed a broad level of consensus for the Prime Minister’s joint letter on growth ahead of the spring European Council. Similarly, UKRep played a vital role in preparing the ground for a good set of European Council conclusions on the euro-plus pact.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton made various comments and assertions about particular officials and their roles in negotiations on EU issues. The topic for debate today is the appointment process, not the policies, as you rightly pointed out, Mr Leigh, so I will not dwell on the policy issues that my hon. Friend raised, and I will not comment on individual civil servants. However, what is clear to me is the importance of the distinction between the roles of Ministers and officials. Ministers take decisions on policies, and are accountable for them to Parliament. Officials in UKRep then negotiate within the mandates and instructions that Ministers have provided. Those mandates are adjusted and updated

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as the negotiations progress, but it is a myth that UKRep has the freedom to operate outside the negotiating mandates that they receive from Whitehall, or to make independent judgments about compromises or deals.

The House of Commons has the opportunity, through its excellent European Scrutiny Committee, which is under the proactive and assiduous chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), to set out its views on European documents ahead of agreement. The Committee has the right to ask for a debate in Standing Committee or on the Floor of the House. This Government value the work done by Parliament on EU work, as it is fundamental to making the Government of the day more accountable to EU decision-making, as well as to making the EU process more transparent.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe made a statement along those lines to the House on 20 January, and encouraged the Government and Parliament to explore ways in which Parliament’s scrutiny role could be further strengthened on EU issues, including on justice and home affairs. That is the right way for Parliament to be satisfied that, through ministerial accountability, officials throughout Whitehall and posts—including the Permanent Representation—are promoting the national interest effectively in the EU.

Mr Carswell: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Bellingham: I do not have long, so I shall carry on. Like other diplomatic service appointments—I am coming to key points about the process—I am clear that the permanent representative’s role is to advise Ministers on how to secure the best results for the UK in the EU, and to negotiate to achieve those results for the Government. Ministers decide and are accountable to Parliament for policies on European issues, and for the positions that the UK Government take in negotiations in the EU. The appointment process for the position—the appointment of an official, not a politician—therefore follows the general principles followed for diplomatic civil service appointments, and the code. It is critical that the appointment be made on merit. The civil service and diplomatic service are founded on the principle of impartiality. Officials must be able to serve with integrity the Government of the day, of whatever political party or parties.

Robert Peel said to this House in 1827:

“I may be a Tory—I may be an illiberal—but…Tory as I am, I have the further satisfaction of knowing, that there is not a single law connected with my name, which has not had for its object some mitigation of the severity of the criminal law; some prevention of abuse in the exercise of it; or some security for its impartial administration.”—[Official Report, 1 May 1827; Vol. 17, c. 411.]

That principle has served successive Governments well, allowing them when they come to office to make use of the continuity of expertise and professionalism of civil servants and diplomats. Indeed, I have seen for myself since I was appointed nearly a year ago that civil servants and diplomats who served the previous Government with great professionalism and integrity now work with Ministers with a different set of priorities. The seamless transition to the new team—the commitment, tireless hard work and dedication—is a huge credit to

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the British civil service. For those reasons, I continue to believe that to introduce a further stage in the appointment process for the permanent representative or for other senior appointments when a selection has been made would not be consistent with the principles of impartiality and appointment on merit, and could indeed be seen to politicise the appointment process.

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton, but I do not intend to propose that Parliament should be offered hearings on senior appointments. That would blur the distinction that I emphasised earlier, by implying that officials in UKRep, however senior, had some sort of independent role, separate from the Whitehall process. As I have said, officials implement the policies and work within negotiating mandates decided on by Ministers, and for which Ministers are rightly always accountable to Parliament.

However, I welcome the House’s interest in the issues raised today. I therefore propose that the Foreign Affairs Committee be informed in writing of appointments to the most senior overseas positions at permanent secretary level—obviously including that of the permanent representative to the EU—when the selection has been made, providing a copy of the successful candidate’s CV and job specification. In the case of the permanent representative to the EU, I propose sending a copy of that letter to the European Scrutiny Committee. I hope that that goes some way—not the whole way, but a small way—in the direction that my hon. Friend wants.

My hon. Friend is concerned that some questions to the Foreign Office have not been properly answered. I have looked at the correspondence and some of the parliamentary questions that he tabled, and I am satisfied that the issues raised by my hon. Friend have been addressed as fully as possible. Both officials and Ministers have addressed the questions about the nature of the contract and the way in which the permanent representative is tasked and appraised.

Similarly, the permanent representative’s personal performance is assessed on a personal basis between him and his line manager. My hon. Friend would like to make the permanent representative more directly accountable to Parliament. I have said that I believe that it is right that Ministers remain accountable to Parliament for policy decisions and for the positions taken and agreed in the EU.

Around 157 years ago, the Northcote-Trevelyan report on the organisation of the permanent civil service stated its principles. It says:

“It may safely be asserted that, as matters now stand, the Government of the country could not be carried on without the aid of an efficient body of permanent officers, occupying a position duly subordinate to that of the Ministers who are directly responsible to the Crown and to Parliament, yet possessing sufficient independence, character, ability and experience to be able to advise, assist, and, to some extent, influence, those who are from time to time set over them.”

Those principles held firm 157 years ago, and still do today.

Question put and agreed to .

1.57 pm

Sitting adjourned.