Christianity is no longer a predominantly Western religion. Since 1900, there has been a startling growth of Christianity in Latin America, Africa and Asia, to the point that now, 65 percent of the world’s 2 billion Christians live on one of those three continents. Christians now constitute the largest single religious group in Africa. Close to 350 million Christians live in Asia.”

Clearly, the Church is growing, but as it does, persecution grows with it.

If we go over a map of the world, we see that persecution is rife in many countries. It has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seat of the Church, and that certainly applies to the Church in China, where churches have flourished despite opposition and years of underground worship. Although the Chinese Government now allow churches in homes, they are strictly regulated, and I recently read that the Chinese Government had enacted new regulations in a further attempt to control the growing Christian population.

According to some sources, pastors at some of China’s house churches face new reporting regulations. They must provide police with weekly reports detailing their whereabouts and how many people attend church meetings. If pastors leave a city, they must report their travel plans, and they are restricted to short trips. Clearly, persecution continues. The Chinese Government do not want the Church to grow any more than it has done, because they know that it has been growing in great leaps and bounds, and from the Chinese point of view, it is important that it is controlled.

If pastors fail to report, they are arrested. Churches must also organise under a specific name and advertise and meet publicly. That is hard to deal with, but the Church in China grows every week. The question is what we can do, and perhaps the Minister can enlighten us about what the Government are doing. We must ensure that our foreign ambassadors continue to exert pressure so that the Chinese Church has true religious freedom. We should raise the issue of religious persecution in all the churches we help with our aid across the world.

Christians in India continue to face systematic persecution at the hands of radical Hindus. Indeed, a couple of years ago, my hon. Friends the Members for Upper Bann and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and I spoke in a Northern Ireland Assembly debate about Christians in Orissa. Some Christians in India were doing some films outdoors, when extremists beat up the

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pastor and his son. The police arrested them and kept them in custody until the early hours of the morning. No police complaint was filed.

As the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, extremists seem to be very active in other parts of India, and they are not averse to dealing out physical abuse to Christians. A Christian professor’s hands were cut off after he was accused of blasphemy. In some countries, people do not actually have to commit blasphemy; they just have to be accused of it, and the story grows legs. Retribution then takes place.

In Nigeria, as the hon. Member for Banbury made clear, deadly religious violence occurs with regularity, with the result that hundreds of people are killed at a time. In the early hours of 7 March 2010, 500 Christians, most of whom were women and children, were murdered in their beds. That was not the end of it, however, and the village raids continued. On 17 March, another 12 Christians were massacred, including a pregnant woman, in a village in Plateau state. Other atrocities were also carried out against Christians. Thirteen Christians were murdered by a Muslim mob in Bei on 13 April and seven were murdered in Rikwe Chengu on 2 December.

Little information escapes North Korea’s borders, but the information that does indicates that Christians suffer harsher penalties than most criminals. An estimated 100,000 Christians are thought to be in labour camps, where they are being worked to death.

Our Government give substantial aid each and every year to Pakistan, where religious violence and anti-blasphemy laws are used to suppress Christians, and prominent Christian politicians and their defenders are clearly assassinated. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws authorise Government and societal persecution of Christians. Indeed, Pakistan absolutely refuses to progress towards being a religiously free society. According to Pakistani law, blasphemy against the name of Mohammed is a crime punishable by death, and desecrating the Koran warrants life imprisonment. Again, Christians do not actually have to do those things; they just have to be accused, and the retribution comes right away. Several Christians were killed in 2010 as a direct consequence of such laws, and many more people been imprisoned.

I am conscious of the time, so I will conclude shortly. I subscribe to a number of organisations that deal with these issues, as I am sure other Members here do, and Open Doors and Release International are two examples. Persecution is rife in many countries, and we should be grateful for our religious freedom in this country, but it cannot be taken for granted. Let me leave Members with an example of something that happened in our free, democratic and open country. A doctor who discussed with a patient the fact that Jesus helped him was reported to the General Medical Council. That is an indication of the fact that we in the United Kingdom must also make every effort to protect our freedom.

Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann on introducing the debate. The call that now goes out to everyone inside and outside this Room, as well as to everyone who reads the report of our proceedings, is this: what will we do about this?

3.15 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): It is an honour to take part in the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). Although

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we are on opposite sides of the Chamber, I agreed with much of what he said on numerous policy areas. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who is an outstanding representative of the Church in the House of Commons and who has been of enormous help to me in my constituency over a Church issue. Equally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his excellent speech.

Wherever there is tyranny and oppression in the world, the persecution of religious groups is never far behind. That is why this debate is important. We are always focused on persecution, but because Christianity is a mainstream western religion, its members do not always get the same attention as other minorities, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann highlighted. Outside the western world, however, Christians face a constant barrage of murder, imprisonment and persecution.

I have heard the Secretary of State for Education say that we can judge a country by how it treats its Jews, and the more democratic a country, the more equally the Jewish people are treated. The same goes for Christians in the developing world. I am here, not as a Christian, but as a Jewish person. However, because of what happened to many members of the Jewish people, it is my duty as a politician to help other peoples who suffer genocide and persecution. It gives me enormous pleasure to be standing next to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who is a former school friend. He attended many Friday nights at my house, just as I attended many Church services with him and learned about Christianity as we grew up.

We have talked a little about China. Six weeks ago, 100 peaceful members of the Shouwang Catholic church were arrested by the People’s Republic just for holding an outdoor service. In Uzbekistan, armed officers from the Government’s national security service raided the home of a Christian pastor and confiscated 250 Bibles. A few days later, he was convicted of illegally owning Bibles, organising Christian worship and preaching the gospel. He was fined more than 80 times the minimum monthly wage. We have also heard about Nigeria, where a church was burned to the ground. I could mention other nations, such as Sri Lanka, which has a particularly evil Government; indeed, I attended a memorial service for the Tamils last week in Trafalgar square. Sri Lanka has a tough anti-conversion law, and people there are not allowed to convert others to Christianity.

The tragedy of such stories is not how isolated they are, but how common they are. Nowhere is that truer than in the middle east. I am a senior officer of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. Earlier in the year, I went to Kurdistan, and I am going back there for three days next week. The all-party group’s latest report on Kurdistan, which I helped to publish in March, states:

“Iraq’s Christians once numbered about 1.5 million. There are now just 850,000. Many families have fled to Kurdistan from Baghdad, Mosul and other areas, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The Kurds know much themselves about being a persecuted minority and have opened Kurdistan to Christians fleeing from the rest of Iraq. For example, their universities have offered free places to Christians fleeing Mosul.”

I met many Christians in Kurdistan. It has become a progressive Muslim nation that has provided sanctuary for Christians in Iraq who are being treated brutally.

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That was confirmed to me by the Archbishop of Erbil and the other Christians I met, and I hope to meet some more next week.

Kurdistan is one of the beacons of hope in a troubled region, but it is doing what it can with limited resources. I urge the Government to do more to support Kurdistan because of how it has offered sanctuary to Christians from Iraq.

Mr Burrowes: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s contribution to this important debate. Is it not a tragedy that Christians are fleeing for sanctuary from an area where they have historically had a presence? They do not simply want an enclave to practise their religion, but want to express it freely, which has historically involved being part of a community, for example, in Pakistan where Christian schools have Jewish, Hindu and Muslim pupils. There are shafts of light, for example, in Baghdad, where fantastic vicars such as Andrew White do what they can to open their church to all communities and to support them, despite war, repression and fear.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is right. Why should Christians have to flee from one part of Iraq to another for safe haven, when they should be able to practise their religion wherever they are?

In Gaza, there were lots of reports of Christians disappearing or being shot dead if they were caught trying to preach the gospel. Although Hamas officially condemns the attacks, it very rarely makes arrests. During the elections a few years ago, Hamas forces were linked with an attack on the Catholic Rosary Sisters’ school and church, which were assaulted with rocket-propelled grenades and then burnt down. The ancient seafront of Gaza once had a thriving Christian community, but that community has now shrunk to 2,500 people.

Britain has a stake not only in the economic wealth of our neighbours, but in their freedom and self-determination. The question before us is, what role will Britain play before this story unfolds? Psalm 102 encourages us to

“hear the groaning of the prisoner, and set free those who are condemned to death.”

I am sure that hon. Members present will not mind me quoting the Old Testament as opposed to the New. I accept that the Prime Minister confronted human rights issues with the Chinese authorities during the trade mission to China last year and I am glad that the Foreign Secretary has continued to uphold the export restrictions that prevent lethal weapons being sold to China, but the problem is not just about selling guns. Britain and its NATO allies have an array of soft powers that they could use to bargain with states that are dependent on western imports. One key factor in the fall of Soviet communism was not the atom bomb or the space race, but the fact that Ronald Reagan refused to export wheat to Russia. That is a lesson for us today, as we confront the persecution of Christians and religious minorities around the world.

Intolerance towards religious minorities does not happen by itself, but is propagated by vested interests and evil regimes. In the middle east, the worst examples of that are Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the face of rising commodity prices and recession, many despotic Governments have tried to deflect their country’s grievances. That lies behind much of the extremist propaganda against the Christian west and the antagonism towards Israel in Arab League countries, but we have an opportunity to

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demand change. Saudi Arabia is apparently our ally and it depends on western imports, but it is also a despotism in which honour killing is legal, homosexuality is punishable by death and Wahhabist textbooks in state schools preach hatred of Christians, Jews and other religious minorities. As was recently reported in the papers, women are not even allowed to drive cars.

From Ethiopia to Indonesia, Saudi Arabia’s oil money is fuelling the persecution of Christians and other minorities, and the destruction of their property. Only last Wednesday, Christians protested outside the US Saudi embassy, demanding that Saudi Arabia stop financing radical Islamists, including the Salafis, who have been largely responsible for attacks on Christians in Egypt. Surely we can do more to ask the Saudis to give their people the freedom and security for which they are crying out? In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia produced more than 4 megatonnes of wheat a year—more than enough to be self-sufficient—but now it has exhausted its water supply and by 2016 it could produce no wheat at all. Nearly 50% of all Saudi Arabia’s imports—primarily, machines, cars, textiles, chemicals and foodstuffs—now come from the US, the EU and close allies, such as Japan and South Korea. In short, it cannot live without us.

If we believe that ethics is as important as economics, we must demand a higher price for trade with the western world, and that price must be free speech, democratic reforms, property rights, freedom of association, freedom of movement, respect for women and, most importantly, religious tolerance. Those are the foundations of a free society on which our hopes for peace in the middle east depend.

In conclusion, intervention—and I am an interventionist—does not have to mean war. I accept that military action is sometimes unavoidable, but I urge the Government towards a policy of fair trade. If a regime kills its citizens for their faith, Britain should not do business with it. We already refuse to sell most of those countries guns, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, but we should not sell those countries butter either. If a state imprisons minority groups without charge or trial, it should become a pariah state and be excluded from the world economy.

In the middle east, 10,000 children are born every single day. Unless the Arab spring leads to lasting economic and social reforms and protection for minority groups—including minority Muslim groups, such as those in Kurdistan—then the 10,000 children born today are more likely than ever to grow up in a barren region, which has no jobs, no bread and no security. We have to act now with fair trade to pressure those countries into change. That would transform the treatment of Christians and religious minorities around the world and it would be in our national interest as well.

3.27 pm

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing the debate and I congratulate those who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). That was the second speech of his I have heard today, because like him I was torn between this and the debate on the eurozone. Even though that

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debate is about billions of pounds, this debate is actually more important, although it is in Westminster Hall and the other debate is in the main Chamber. Why? Because lives are at risk and people all over the world are dying.

It is a bit depressing for me, because I have taken part in so many of these debates over the past 28 years and have written scores of letters to Ministers. I claim no credit for that because I, like other hon. Members, have been supported by campaign groups, particularly the Jubilee Campaign. I pay tribute to Mr Wilfred Wong, who for 20 years has helped MPs to raise the plight of persecuted Christians in numerous letters to the Foreign Office, but it is, frankly, a bit of a depressing exercise.

I do not blame the Minister—he has his brief, which he must read out—but so often the answer is much the same. Of course, there are soothing words and of course the Government condemn brutality in any shape or form and believe in freedom of expression and freedom of religion. However, over the years, as the problem has got so much worse, I am not convinced, frankly, that the Government have spoken up enough—I am sorry to have to say that to the Minister. We have real influence in the world. I was very moved by what my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said as a Jewish person. There is no real comparison, I suppose, between what was happening in the 1930s and what is happening now, and if I am overstating my case, I apologise, but there was the famous case of some Foreign Office diplomat who, when evidence was coming out of Nazi Germany of the persecution of Jews, wrote in the margin of one of the papers, “Save us from wailing Jews.” That was an outrageous comment.

I know that the Foreign Office is not like that now; it is not quite the same. Sometimes, however, when one reads replies from our Foreign Office, one gets the impression that there is rather a light touch, and that it does not really want to get heavily involved. I noticed that recently, when speaking to a very senior diplomat who had served at the top level in Iraq and is now an ambassador in Europe. I mentioned the figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow has cited, that the Iraqi Christian population has declined from 1.5 million to 800,000. He immediately said, “No, no, that’s not right. It hasn’t declined by that much. It’s declined from 1.5 million to 1 million, or something.” In other words, he was not fully engaged, and I did not get the impression that that had been a priority for him as a top diplomat in Iraq.

I know that the situation in Iraq was appalling; I have been there. I went to northern Iraq and wandered around the Christian villages, something so few of our top people who instituted the invasion have done. I went twice; the first time was to Kurdistan during Saddam Hussein’s time. That was a brutal, horrible regime, and I make no apology for it, but at least the Christians had some degree of safety; they were protected. I also went after the end of the regime, and had to listen to harrowing stories. Women, with tears streaming down their faces, sat in a room and recounted how their son and their husband, a church warden in the suburbs of Baghdad, had left home one day to go to church and had been killed in a brutal, senseless, sectarian attack, just because of their religion. What was even more horrific, and absolutely traumatising to listen to, was that some mothers’ children had simply disappeared. Can Members imagine that—a child, an 18-year-old

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daughter, going off to church and never being seen again? That is why I am passionate about the issue, and I make no apology for being so. We should be doing so much more, and our Government should be speaking much more forcefully.

Pakistan has been mentioned. It is our largest recipient of aid. It is a nuclear state and has an elite that massively evades paying taxes. The Pakistani military establishment was probably complicit in harbouring Osama bin Laden, a terrorist who was targeting our people. We are now giving hundreds of millions of pounds to Pakistan’s education service. The country has an appalling human rights record, and a dreadful system of blasphemy laws. I just wonder, in all the hours of discussion that will go on between President Obama and our Prime Minister during the two-day visit, in all the hours that will be spent talking about Iraq and Libya, how many minutes will be devoted to the brutal persecution of Christians around the world. None at all, I suspect. Through their aid programmes and their moral force, these people—our Prime Minister, the President of France, the President of the United States of America—have enormous influence.

I believe that there should have been zero tolerance of the persecution of the Jewish people before the second world war, and that now, in the 21st century, there should be zero tolerance of the persecution of anyone. It is not just outright persecution that we are talking about, not just the appalling genocidal attacks that have taken place in Iraq and Nigeria. Nigeria is—as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has pointed out—a Commonwealth country and a large recipient of aid, both now and in the past. It is not just these horrific physical attacks; in so many countries there is the absurd situation of a kind of quiet persecution, and I am afraid that that applies to Egypt. I have been involved in numerous campaigns to support the Copts. No one can go out—has ever been able to go out—in Egypt and build a new church. There are all sorts of planning restrictions. The Copts are at the bottom of the economic heap and it is very difficult for them to rise up from there. Mention has been made of Saudi Arabia, which is a so-called key ally, but that country is back where we were in the 18th century, when people were allowed to engage in a minority religion but only in private. Frankly, the situation in Saudi Arabia is scandalous.

In conclusion, I congratulate Members on what they have said today, and I urge the Minister, when he goes back to his Department, to really get a grip of his diplomats around the globe and to use our powerful voice to speak out for the oppressed of the world.

3.35 pm

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I join other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing this timely and very important debate, and extend support from the Labour Benches for the principles that he set out so powerfully and eloquently in his opening speech.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the impact, throughout history, of various forms of fundamentalism, the horrors of which have been touched upon in the debate. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) reminded us

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of the articles on religious freedom in the United Nations declaration of human rights, and that issue lies at the heart of the debate. We are still learning lessons from events of the past four or five months in north Africa and the middle east, but a lesson for our own policy surely must be that we need a clear consistency of approach to the defence of human rights, including religious freedom, and that favouritism towards certain regimes has undermined our moral credibility on some of these issues, in ways that Members have set out today.

A depressingly large number of countries have been mentioned, and it is difficult in 10 minutes to do justice to all the different horrors that we have heard about. All I can really do is echo some of the things that Members have said about Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, China, North Korea and Sri Lanka, for example, and say a bit more.

Regarding Iraq, I think that we are all deeply alarmed at the incidents of sectarian violence that have been described today. As a country, we need to use the influence that for obvious reasons we have in Iraq, to promote tolerance and interfaith dialogue. I would like to take this opportunity to echo what the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said about the Kurdish regional government. The Kurdish part of Iraq provides us with some important human rights lessons, and we should especially pay tribute to it for providing a refuge for Christians escaping from other parts of Iraq. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) rightly said that those people should not be displaced but be able to stay in their family homes and practise their religion freely, and we should seek to achieve that. I echo what he said about Andrew White—“the vicar of Baghdad” at St George’s Anglican church—who has done such amazing, heroic, courageous work in standing up for the principle of religious freedom for people of all faiths in that city. I also draw Members’ attention to the work of the House of Love run by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity in Baghdad. The house was initially set up to serve orphans left disabled by Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, and the sisters, who typically come from India and Bangladesh, provide their services to acutely vulnerable children. That is a moving example of the very positive role that religion can play in conflict situations.

A number of Members have talked about Pakistan. I absolutely share their anger at the blasphemy laws and at how they are used and abused, and I pay tribute, as have other Members, to Shahbaz Bhatti, who was the only Christian serving in the Pakistani Government. As such a major donor to Pakistan, we clearly have a responsibility to do more to stand up for human rights in general in that country, and in particular to use our aid and our political and diplomatic relationships to put pressure on Pakistan to defend religious freedom.

The same applies to India. We heard again today about the appalling catalogue of horrors in Orissa. Several hon. Members referred to Iran, a country that we know abuses the human rights of large sections of its population, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, women and minority ethnic communities, including Kurds. The treatment of the Baha’i community in that country is also appalling. Iran targets Christians in the same way that it targets other minorities.

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I mentioned the Arab spring. Several hon. Members have expressed concern that one consequence of an opening up in some north African and middle eastern countries is that it is easier for extremists to target Christian minorities. I agree with those who have said that the situation in Egypt is of particular concern, as is the role of Salafists and others in attacking Coptic Christians and other Christian communities in that country. I ask the Minister to update the House on the situation in Egypt. What are the UK Government doing to assist the promotion and consolidation of human rights in that country, including the right to religious freedom?

Tunisia might offer a more positive example. I was in Tunisia relatively recently, and it seemed to have a strong commitment to protecting minority rights, including religious freedom, as the country moves towards writing a new constitution and elections to the Constituent Assembly in July. However, it is vital that we maintain a clear watching brief on the Tunisian situation as it develops.

I take this opportunity to draw the House’s attention to some organisations doing positive work in the field, both here in the UK and internationally. I am pleased to be acting as a mentor to three students who are part of an interfaith dialogue programme being run by the Three Faiths Forum. Talia, Philip and Sultana are Jewish, Christian and Muslim respectively, and they recently organised a thought-provoking photographic exhibition at University college London on the awful practice and prevalence of human trafficking. I hope that we can showcase the exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall of the House later this year. It demonstrates that interfaith dialogue can promote the positive values associated with religion and a commitment to universal human rights.

Last week, I returned from a visit, with Christian Aid and the all-party group on the great lakes region of Africa, to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I put on record the positive role played by the Churches and Christian charities such as Christian Aid and CAFOD in those countries, where such horrors have been committed over the past decade or so.

The hon. Member for Harlow asked what role the United Kingdom would play. We must use every lever to promote religious freedom and protect Christians from the increasing violence that we have heard described in this debate. Will the Minister inform us what progress the human rights advisory group established by the Foreign Secretary last year has made on addressing the human rights of Christians and other religious minority and majority groups around the world?

Will the Minister also update the House on the work that the British Government are doing through a range of multilateral institutions to voice the concerns raised in this debate? It strikes me, given that north Africa is part of the Mediterranean region, that Europe has a responsibility to fulfil the values for which it stands by protecting minority rights. The United Nations clearly has a role to play, and we must address the Commonwealth’s potential to be much more proactive in promoting the rights of Christians and other religious groups. Many of the countries whose appalling records have been highlighted today, such as Nigeria and Pakistan, are

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Commonwealth members, and the Commonwealth could do more. The Department for International Development also has an increasingly influential role in many such countries as British aid increases, at a time when many other countries’ aid programmes are being cut. What more can DFID do to use its influence to ensure that human rights and religious freedom are protected?

I think that all of us in the House, across parties, have a responsibility to use the institutions of Parliament—the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Select Committees, all-party parliamentary groups—to promote religious freedom. This debate has been an excellent opportunity to demonstrate our strong cross-party commitment to religious freedom. As the hon. Member for Upper Bann said, we must not pass by on the other side. I congratulate him on securing this debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

3.45 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): Thank you, Mr Benton, for calling me to conclude this debate. It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing this debate on an extremely important and regrettably topical subject. I thank the hon. Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for their speeches, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) for a typically impassioned and powerful speech and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for a typically thorough and thoughtful contribution. The treatment of Christians worldwide and, more broadly, individuals’ freedom to worship or practise their own religion or belief without discrimination or persecution is an important topic and of increasing concern given the problems faced by religious minorities, including Christians, in many parts of the world in recent years.

I will start by setting out the Government’s policy in this area, for the avoidance of doubt. The Government strongly support the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief and the right to freedom of opinion and expression as set out in those key international human rights instruments the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights and the relevant 1981 United Nations declaration. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear on many occasions, the effective promotion of human rights, including religious freedom, is at the heart and core of our foreign policy. All Foreign and Commonwealth Office embassies and high commissions have a responsibility, which is made clear to the heads of mission in every post, to monitor and raise human rights in their host countries. We continue to raise freedom of religion or belief with other Governments whenever necessary. I reassure the hon. Member for Upper Bann and other Members that we are aware of the difficulties faced by Christian minorities around the world, and particularly in middle eastern and western Asian countries. I will deal with those countries with the greatest attention.

The Opposition spokesman mentioned Egypt in particular. In Egypt, where tensions between Christians and Muslims eased initially during the revolution in

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February, a number of extremely alarming incidents have recently occurred. Violent clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Cairo on 7 and 9 May left 15 people dead and more than 250 injured. Peaceful demonstrations about those events on 15 May were attacked by unidentified gunmen. The Foreign Secretary condemned the violence in a statement to Parliament on 16 May and called on both sides to resolve their differences peacefully. He welcomed the fact that many in Egypt were appalled by the violence. The EU High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Baroness Ashton, also issued a statement on behalf of the European Union on 7 May condemning the clashes.

The UK remains in close contact with the Egyptian Government on the issue and has made absolutely clear the importance that we place on religious tolerance. The Foreign Secretary was in Egypt on 1 and 2 May, raising our concerns about the dangers of extremism and sectarianism in Egypt directly with the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Prime Minister.

The Egyptian Government have shown their intention to punish those who incite sectarianism by announcing on 8 May plans for new laws to criminalise attempts to jeopardise the freedom of faith and attacks on places of worship. We will make sure that we are vigilant in seeking to hold them to account for those commitments.

In Iraq, we remain concerned about the treatment of Christian minorities, and were appalled by the attack on Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad on 31 October 2010, which killed more than 50 people, and the further attacks on 10 November 2010, which targeted mainly Christian areas across Baghdad. The United Kingdom remains in close contact with the Iraqi Government on this issue and is committed to doing all that it can to protect the rights and freedoms of all minorities in Iraq. On 10 November 2010, the Foreign Secretary met the visiting Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zebari, and raised with him directly the issue of Iraqi Christians. Mr Zebari acknowledged that the protection of Christians was the Iraqi Government’s responsibility.

More recently, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who has responsibility for the middle east, visited Iraq from 22 to 25 November. He met a number of senior Christian figures and raised the plight of the Christian community with the Foreign Minister, the new Speaker of the Council of Representatives, and the President and the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan regional government.

Pakistan has, regrettably, featured prominently in this afternoon’s debate. I pay tribute to the only Christian Minister in Pakistan, who was assassinated recently, and join everyone who has expressed regret about that.

Mr Leigh: Are the Government prepared to threaten to cut aid unless there is real progress on the blasphemy laws?

Mr Browne: I share my hon. Friend’s despair about some of the abuses of individual freedom and the right to expression, including religious expression, and, specifically, freedom of Christian expression in Pakistan. The Government, however, need to tread carefully, because the reason why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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was separated from the Department for International Development in the late 1990s was to try to decouple considerations about the alleviation of poverty from the Government’s overall foreign policy goals. I appreciate that those two may overlap at times, but we need to be cautious about judging the suitability of a desperately needy person to receive aid based on their Government’s behaviour in relation to religious subjects.

3.53 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.8 pm

On resuming—

Mr Browne: Before we broke for a Division in the main Chamber, hon. Members will recall that I was talking about the appalling murder of Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan on 2 March. Over recent months, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, who covers Pakistan, had engaged regularly with the former Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, on the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of speech in Pakistan. Mr Bhatti was a tireless and vocal proponent of those beliefs, and his appalling murder is a blow to those in Pakistan who share his beliefs and to all of us who believe in religious freedom and tolerance.

Following Mr Bhatti’s untimely and violent death, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written to express his condolences to President Zardari, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, my noble Friend Baroness Warsi and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, have all made statements condemning his killing. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who deals with Pakistan, is regularly in touch with his counterparts in the Pakistani Government on human rights issues. He will continue to engage with the authorities in Pakistan on these important issues and will raise them with the new Minister for Minorities.

My hon. Friend recently visited Pakistan, where he was able to engage on the issue of religious tolerance with Shahbaz Bhatti’s brother, Paul Bhatti, who has been appointed as the Pakistani Prime Minister’s adviser on inter-faith harmony and minority affairs. He also had the opportunity to meet religious leaders from across Pakistan as part of the Ministry’s inter-faith council. That highlighted how leading political and religious figures in Pakistan feel about religious tolerance, and the need to ensure that all of Pakistan’s citizens are accorded their rights under the Pakistani constitution. We will continue to support the Pakistani Government on this subject.

Jim Shannon: Will the Minister cast his mind back to the time of the floods in Pakistan, when the people of Great Britain, through their Churches and through aid, gave a lot of money to help overcome the difficulties in Pakistan? At that time, Christians sent word out of Pakistan back to the United Kingdom to indicate that they were not receiving some of that aid. Will the Minister pursue that matter? It is very clear to me as an elected representative, and to many others, that there is

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deep-rooted discrimination against Christians in Pakistan, which reaches as far as the UK aid that was given to help them as well.

Mr Browne: There were a number of points in that intervention. I pay tribute to all the British people who were extremely generous in their contributions to the victims of the natural disaster in Pakistan. Many of them were Christians or were involved with Christian groups that co-ordinated and led that charitable activity. I share the hon. Gentleman’s deep alarm—perhaps the word “alarm” is not strong enough—and profound anxiety about the circumstances of some Christians in Pakistan, and the fact that they cannot worship as freely as they would wish. I will certainly convey to the Minister with geographical responsibility for Pakistan, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. As I was explaining to the Chamber, my hon. Friend is extremely committed, on a personal basis, to the issue of religious freedom of practice for Christians and others. I know that he will, with great sincerity, want to take forward the exact agenda advised by the hon. Member for Strangford.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Also in Pakistan, Governor Salman Taseer was shot dead for raising the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian caught up in these draconian laws. Will the Minister urge the Government of Pakistan to release Asia Bibi and all the others imprisoned under those laws, so that they can practise their faith?

Mr Browne: I cannot give my hon. Friend that commitment, not because I necessarily disapprove of the view that he expressed, but because that is not a commitment that I am in a position to give this afternoon. All I can undertake to do is ensure that his views are

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heard clearly in the Foreign Office, and that they are taken seriously by those who are in a position to make the relevant decision.

Other countries have been brought to our attention this afternoon. Nigeria continues to experience significant inter-communal violence, particularly following the presidential elections last month. Both Christian and Muslim communities have suffered terrible loss of life in recent years as a result of violence driven by underlying social, political, economic and religious factors. We have made it clear to the Nigerian Government at ministerial level that the perpetrators of those crimes must be brought to justice. The Minister with responsibility for sub-Saharan Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), has raised this issue directly with the vice-president. Our high commissioner has raised it and related subjects on several occasions.

Iran has come up as a subject, rightly and understandably. There is significant cause for concern about the treatment of Christians and other minority religious groups in Iran. That continues to be a country of high concern to the Foreign Office. We express that view whenever and wherever we can.

Briefly, before I draw my remarks to a conclusion, I was asked by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby to talk about the Foreign Secretary’s advisory group on human rights, which identified religious freedom as a key human rights issue at its first meeting in December. Following on from that, a programme of work based on freedom of religion has been agreed, including a Wilton Park conference in July, to discuss promoting religious freedom around the world. That will be attended by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, along with a range of senior religious leaders. The conference will identify how the international community can strengthen its ability to protect religious freedom. It will also seek to build new partnerships between Governments, NGOs and faith groups.

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Tees Valley Rail Transport

4.15 pm

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Tees Valley is a distinct area of the country with a population of more than 750,000 people. It is well defined, with the sea to the east, 20 to 30 miles of open County Durham countryside to the north, the dales and Pennines to the west, and a vast area of sparsely populated north Yorkshire to the south. It has long been defined as a coherent economic area. It was no accident that the Tees Valley local enterprise partnership was quickly established, as a similar body already existed. Despite the substantial population, the area has a slight identity crisis. It is often referred to as a city region by policy makers, but it contains no cities or even one dominant town. Middlesbrough is currently applying for city status.

Steam-powered passenger rail transport actually started in Tees Valley between Stockton and Darlington in 1825, hauled by George Stephenson’s engine, “Locomotion”. Some 185 years later, we cannot even go directly from Stockton to Darlington on a train. There is a passenger rail system, but it is poorly co-ordinated, has insufficient trains and badly needs investment. New station stops are needed to reflect developments since the lines were built. This has been recognised for many years by the local and regional planning authorities. Finally, in 2009, a first tranche of investment in a Tees Valley metro system was approved. However, after less than £5 million was drawn down, the remaining £24 million was postponed by the present Government. The importance of the project to the area was shown by the fact that a first phase was resubmitted to round 1 of the regional growth fund. Unfortunately, the bid was unsuccessful.

My speech today will cover three main areas: the need to get a good passenger metro system in Tees Valley; the importance of freight investment; and the need for a long-term vision, including further use of existing lines and possible new lines. Settlements in Tees Valley are there mainly due to manufacturing industry. Decline of industry in the last few decades has left much of the area at the wrong end of all the socio-economic league tables. For example, a study by the BBC and Experian in 2010 looked at 324 areas of the UK in terms of economic strength. It placed Hartlepool borough 314th, Redcar and Cleveland 319th and Middlesbrough, arguably the largest town in England, in last place at 324th. Middlesbrough also has the third lowest number of businesses per thousand residents in the country. It is precisely because the area has been performing badly in recent years in respect of socio-economic indicators that there is a need for a modern, long-lasting rail network to aid regeneration.

There are many promising signals. Teesside university was UK university of the year for 2009-10, and that has helped fuel a rapid growth in digital and media industries. Teesside remains a key UK centre for process industries and is emerging as a major centre of green technology research and manufacturing. Teesport is a thriving, growing port. Darlington is a growing commercial centre, aided by the presence of the Student Loans Company and Teachers’ Pensions. If we are to restore the north-east to the economic hub it once was and can be again, improving rail infrastructure is vital.

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Existing passenger rail in the core area is in the shape of a cross, with a north-south Hartlepool to Nunthorpe line intersecting the east-west Darlington to Saltburn line at both Thornaby and Middlesbrough. This area should be the first target of a metro system. There are 21 stations in the core area. Some are very poorly served, including the one near the airport at which only one train stops every week. Despite the patchy service, usage has grown over the past 10 years. More than 2 million people a year use Darlington station, which gives access to the east coast main line and other national services.

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): My fellow Teesside MP—I still do not like “Tees Valley”—has already touched on a key concern for our part of the north-east, which is the future viability of our airport. An effective rail transport system, making proper use of the station at the airport, would be an important piece of the puzzle in bringing Teesside airport—as I still insist on calling it—back into use and making it successful once again. The airport, which is on the boundary of my constituency, has a new owner, looking to do exciting things. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I hope that the Minister will consider that, as part of an integrated package, rail transport could also revive our air transport links.

Ian Swales: My hon. Friend’s intervention is timely, because I am about to talk more about the airport. I fully support his comments. It is essential that the airport is better served, and a frequent light rail service operating in the core area would help to change the economic fortunes of Tees Valley.

The use of rail services has continued to grow, despite the patchy service: last year, footfall increased by just less than 50,000; and in the past 10 years, the average increase in footfall overall has been 58%. Refurbished stations have shown the biggest increases, some in excess of 100%. The increase in passengers, along with huge further potential demand, means that new lines, trains and infrastructure are needed to meet the needs of residents and businesses.

Investment in existing stations is vital. For example, establishing a proper link to the airport is vital: Durham Tees Valley airport, or Teesside as it is still shown on departure boards all over the world, must be the passenger airport in Britain worst served by public transport, but the train line passes just half a mile from the terminal. Eaglescliffe station now has a main line service to London, but no information displays and only two small bus shelters for passengers. Redcar station needs investment as a gateway to the town and the new college and civic developments, and Darlington station needs investment to improve access to new educational and economic developments. The Redcar and Darlington schemes were included in the regional growth fund round 1 bid. The last new station in the area was Longbeck near Marske-by-the-Sea in 1985.

There are clear possibilities for further new stops on the existing lines. Some examples include Teesside park, for access to the new shopping area and the Tees barrage leisure facilities; Middlehaven, for the major new commercial developments and the Riverside stadium, home of Middlesbrough football club; and the James Cook university hospital, which is the major acute

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hospital for the area. Traffic to and from the hospital is a big source of congestion on one of the main access roads to Middlesbrough, and there are chronic parking problems at the site. Providing a good rail service would help to reduce such problems. The existing lines run close by, and a new station for the hospital was also part of the initial regional growth fund bid.

A number of other residential and commercial developments are current or planned along those routes, opening further possibilities for new stations, such as at Morton Palms, Darlington, and The Ings, Redcar. A further key need is to ensure that the new enterprise zone recently announced by the Government is well served by public transport. It is almost certain to be close to those rail routes.

I will now move on to freight. Teesport has recently been ranked variously as between the second and fourth largest port in the country, depending on the amount of industrial activity in the area. As well as serving the bulk process industries and being an import terminal for cars, Teesport has a rapidly growing container business, with giant new warehouses serving Tesco and Asda. The excellent facilities at Teesport mean that process industries inland also use the import/export facilities, and such industrial materials normally require shipment by rail.

The port has been successfully driving economic and employment growth. For example, 1,100 jobs have been created since 2007 and further exciting developments are planned. However, the existing connecting rail facilities need upgrading—for example, to provide clearance for modern 9-foot 6-inch containers—which is strategically important for the country. A successful Teesport backed by good rail facilities will help to reduce lorry use by millions of miles, bringing economic and environmental benefits. As part of the regional growth fund round 1, a gauge clearance project was submitted, which is vital to continuing the rapid, port-based economic growth. I hope that the Minister will recognise the importance of getting more bulk freight off the roads and on to the railways.

The longer term vision includes more use of lines joining the core area and possible new lines. To the west, Darlington connects to Bishop Auckland via four other stations, including the former rolling stock manufacturing town of Shildon and, following the Hitachi announcement, the new rolling stock manufacturing town of Newton Aycliffe. The line from Eaglescliffe to Northallerton passes through the large population centre of Yarm-on-Tees, which I believe is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). Beyond Nunthorpe, the line passes into the north Yorkshire moors and on to Whitby. Services on that line are always likely to be more of a leisure activity, but the first station is Great Ayton and most people in that area work in Tees Valley.

Finally, beyond Saltburn, part of the old Yorkshire coast line to Scarborough still exists as a freight-only line as far as the Boulby potash mine. The potash mine received money to expand in the regional growth fund round 1 and is a major local employer. I have recently been approached by an operator who is considering restoring a passenger service along the line to include the east Cleveland settlements it passes through, including North Skelton, Brotton, Skinningrove and Loftus. Use

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of all such existing lines to better connect people to the core Tees Valley services and opportunities should be part of our vision.

Serious discussion is also going on about reopening the old Nunthorpe to Guisborough branch line. Although the track has been lifted, the route is virtually intact as a walkway, and Guisborough has expanded to be a large centre of population, with most of the people working in Tees Valley. They are a large contributor to the heavy south-to-north road congestion at peak times. A rail service would reduce the current pressure to invest in new road solutions—some road-building proposals even involve taking land from the National Trust at Orenby hall.

More speculative would be the construction of other new lines and a Tees crossing nearer the river mouth. Redcar to Hartlepool is only seven miles as the crow flies, but the need to go a long way upriver to cross by road or rail means that their local economies are largely disconnected. A Tees crossing remains a dream for many in the long term. Where new lines are not economical, better co-ordinated bus services are needed to link centres of population to the rail network, for example from the Greater Eston area.

I appreciate that investment requires funds, but I urge the Minister to consider carefully the issue of fares. The UK already has some of the highest fares in the world. I live close to Redcar East station and, to travel one stop to the centre of town, the fare is only slightly less than a taxi fare—for just two people, a taxi would be the cheaper option for most short journeys locally. For long trips, we risk incentivising people to do the wrong thing. For my trip to Parliament each week, it is already cheaper to drive at 40p a mile than to buy a standard class open return train ticket. I hope that the Minister will recognise that fares must remain reasonable, as mentioned in the coalition agreement, and that continued public investment in the railways is in the country’s interest. That is the view taken by Governments in almost every developed country.

As I hope that I have illustrated, it is vital that Tees Valley receives the short-term investment it desperately needs to improve passenger and freight rail transport. Investment without a long-term vision, however, will not deliver the results that the people throughout the region want, so it is important that a long-term strategy is put in place to manage investment over time and to build the infrastructure needed. Tees Valley is an area with enormous potential to drive major growth in the UK economy. I hope that this debate has helped further the cause for improving Tees Valley rail transport, and I strongly urge the Minister to support the upgrades that are so badly needed.

4.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) for securing this important debate. Having a debate on the day before a recess is always dangerous, but he managed to encourage some of his colleagues to attend.

I was in Teesside only recently. I went there by train from London to visit Teesport, which comes within my portfolio. I have been asked to respond to the debate

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because my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), whose portfolio covers regional and local transport, is not here. He has asked me to apologise for his absence.

The points that my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar raised cover myriad modal shifts in how to get passengers and freight off the roads, and how better to use available facilities. It was fantastic news for the region when the Tees furnace was reopened, and certainly the new owners, whom I had the privilege of meeting, were thrilled. What was obvious when coming in by train was the unbelievable number of sidings that have not been used for a considerable time. I am the Minister with responsibility for freight, on whatever mode, and it always hurts to see that investment sitting there unused. It may have been made many years ago, but the concept was right.

The port, which is under new ownership, has a huge footprint, and not all of it has been used as well as we would like. There are contamination issues, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware—the new owners of Teesport, however, have good and imaginative ideas, especially in some of the areas to which my hon. Friend alluded—such as problems relating to moving larger containers around. A particular issue in this country is that we cannot move many of them on our canals, which are a great asset, but difficult to use.

My officials have written a brilliant speech for me, but if I read it out, which I am sure is what they would like me to do, I would fail to pay tribute to the contributions that we have heard this afternoon. Investment for the area was planned before the new coalition Administration came to power, and before we realised how bad the economic situation is. I will not go through how bad it is, because everyone knows the situation. The £4.9 million that was drawn down has been well spent, and the stations at Hartlepool, Eaglescliffe and Thornaby have benefited.

I am pleased to hear that the new owners of the airport have sensible ideas for expansion, and how to increase their market share and put the airport on the map in the UK, but that will require investment. They will have to look at their business plans, and create a market that drives people to use it. I was fascinated to hear private companies saying that they would like to put passengers back on that line. They are obviously thinking of doing that because there is a need. The Government may help and, as my hon. Friend knows, two funds have been drawn down.

Sadly, Tees Valley Unlimited was not successful in the first tranche, because it needed to be much better at proving what the economic benefits in terms of jobs would be from drawing down from that fund. Tees Valley Unlimited has discussed the matter extensively with my officials. They have met eight or nine times recently, and I urge them to have further meetings, because the key to both funding plans is that the community comes together, and that a proper business plan is drawn up to create the right climate for further investment in the area. I will not go into the semantics of what it should be called. I have enough problems deciding when to call my football team Spurs or Tottenham Hotspur, and my town Hemel or Hemel Hempstead. It is for local politicians to discuss the matter over a pint on another occasion.

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However, it is important—I am sure that this has been discussed—that the area is branded in the right way so that investment comes to the area, and there is no confusion about that brand. The first time I flew to what was Speke airport in Liverpool, I looked for Speke on the departure board, but it had been renamed John Lennon. I had no idea that I was going to Liverpool. When a brand name is used for a community, it must be what the community is looking for. I am sure that the new name was discussed in great depth before it was introduced, but whenever I spoke to people in that part of the world, and especially when I was at Teesport, there was confusion. When I quoted my brief, they did not understand what I was talking about until I talked about Teesport, the Tees area and so on.

There is real scope for local authorities to come together, and to consider joint bids. It is crucial as we go forward with the localism agenda, to which the Department for Transport is fully committed, that local authorities are not parochial and say, “This is our borough, and we won’t join together.” They must have confidence in their area and say, “We know what’s best for our community, and exactly how to generate jobs and go forward.” Four local authorities would probably need to join together to formulate a plan and to give them confidence to return to the Department for Transport, as well as to other Departments, because transport will not be the only issue.

Ian Swales: I want to pick up the point about local authorities. Five are involved: Stockton, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar, Cleveland, and Darlington. The Minister can be confident that they are speaking with one voice on such issues, because Tees Valley issues and transport infrastructure cross all five. One reason why the local enterprise partnership got going so quickly was that it was heavily backed by those five local authorities.

Mike Penning: I am new to this area, and I may not be back if I make a mess of it, but my brief refers to the four Tees Valley local authorities. If that is wrong, I will arrange for my Department to write and apologise. When talking about local areas, branding is important.

In the next six months, passenger transport executives, groups of local authorities, and local enterprise partnerships should come together to discuss whether they want to take greater responsibility for such services. That is crucial when discussing where they are going, and how. There will be some central Government funding, but not as much as we probably all want, but local communities, especially through local enterprise partnerships and so on, will have much more say in what is done, and there will be an early opportunity to shape the future and destiny of local rail services. We have been discussing bits and bobs, but the discussion should be formalised with a shopping list of what should be done first, what should be done second, and what should be done third.

If we read my hon. Friend’s speech tomorrow morning, and the points that he made—I apologise for this and I am not being critical—will we know what the priorities are, and what needs to be done in the short term, the mid term and the long term? Communities and LEPs must come together to decide that. I am not being critical, but that must be done.

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On cost, the McNulty report, which was commissioned by the previous Administration, addresses fares, and the fact that, if we are not careful we may jeopardise the great success—this is not party politics—of the railways today. There are issues about capacity and cost, and whether we are driving people off the railways and into their cars. That is important: we must address it in the franchise agreements and remove bureaucracy. McNulty acknowledged that the way in which the railways operate involves a huge amount of bureaucracy and cost, and in international terms they are very expensive. He estimated that £1 billion of savings could be made without damaging infrastructure, while at the same time encouraging people to use the railways. That will be a difficult task, but anyone who has had anything to do with railways—I am involved purely in freight, which is more successful now than it was—must address the fact that the state can provide only a certain amount of money for new lines. There is only a certain amount of railway capacity for the freight industry, and we must look carefully at how we can encourage a better modal shift and not have so much long-haul freight on the railways.

On today’s network—without High Speed 2 and the lines to the north-east and north-west, which would release more rail capacity—even if we increased rail freight to full capacity we would still struggle to get freight off the road. One of the huge successes in the Teesport region has been made by Asda and other supermarkets that are building what I consider to be the beginning of a renaissance in coastal shipping facilities—I apologise for naming Asda, but it is the store I visited. Bigger and bigger box ships are coming into big, deep-water wharves, but our roads do not have the capacity to move those goods around.

The most efficient way of moving freight anywhere in the world is by sea. We are a maritime nation with over 90 ports in state and trust ownership, yet we do not properly utilise those ports and their capacity. At the Asda hub, all the products that arrive come in by sea. The distribution is then worked out, and followed by what Asda describes as a limited “road bridging” system. That system is beginning to be replicated around the

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country. I was in the north-west the other day at Stobart’s rail hub. Stobart has developed such a system, not because it wanted a rail hub, but because its clients—Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda; we could name all the supermarkets but I probably should not—have said that they want goods to travel shorter distances. That area is developing.

The rail industry is underused. We have spoken about lines that need to be better utilised, and the railways are a huge facility that we could use to create a modal shift in transport locally through the hubs. The Asda scheme has been a great success, and it is looking at expanding it. It is a badge of honour for the local community and local authorities in that part of the world to facilitate the scheme and understand the needs and demands of their communities. We should also use other lines, especially if we can deal with the problem of bridges, and I know that discussions on that are taking place.

At the same time, we must be honest about what is likely to come in and out of the ports. As my hon. Friend said, if a line is working, it is crucial that it is used. It is much cheaper to use that line in a better way than to rebuild a line or put track back down. A lot of residents—I know this from my constituency—will have moved to live close to a railway line after the track was removed, and there will be an interesting debate about whether those lines should be put back. Those people no longer live next to a railway and without doubt, having a railway at the end of the garden or in the community impacts on people’s lives. That debate would be interesting; it would not be wrong to reopen the line, but such matters take time and must be managed correctly in the communities.

The use of Westminster Hall for a debate such as this is important. Concerns and ideas can be bounced into the arena, and Ministers will respond. I am conscious that I have not answered all the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) in his intervention, but the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, will write to them and answer all their questions. If a further meeting with a Minister is needed, the door will be open.

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Land Stability (Ironbridge Gorge)

4.44 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Benton, and to see the Minister in his place. Over the past 12 months he has become used to responding to my Adjournment debates.

The Ironbridge gorge was designated as a world heritage site in 1986 and now ranks in the “Premier League” of heritage sites across the world. It is a living, working community with approximately 4,000 residents, and 200 businesses that employ about 1,500 people. The gorge attracts about 750,000 visitors per year, generating about £60 million of the £110 million annual tourist spend within the borough of Telford and Wrekin. The world heritage site includes 250 listed buildings, seven statutory ancient monuments, including the iconic iron bridge, 10 museums and two sites of special scientific interest. It is an incredibly important asset, not only for this country but for the world.

Telford and Wrekin council has been instrumental in assessing the problems of land instability in the gorge in line with the objectives of the world heritage site management plan, and it has completed a number of studies, ground investigations and stabilisation schemes in the gorge. I commend the council for its work, and I particularly want to place on record my thanks to Neal Rushton, who has worked incredibly hard on the site over recent years.

Approximately £16 million has already been spent on addressing land stability problems in the gorge. The problem is that that is not enough, and a further £80 million of investment is needed. That was identified in a cost-benefit analysis conducted by the local authority in partnership with a number of other players. The Government are aware of those studies, and have supported the approach taken by the council over recent years.

Land instability in the Ironbridge area is not a new phenomenon and dates back to the formation of the Ironbridge gorge. The geologically young valley structure is still developing through natural processes, and both sides of the gorge are gradually slipping down towards the River Severn. The local community has lived with the impact of land instability and the problems it causes for many years. That instability manifests itself in damaged roads and footpaths, collapsed retaining walls, severed services, and occasional major landslides that damage the structure of properties within the gorge.

Numerous documented landslides have occurred in the gorge over the past 250 years, and a review of various records has been carried out to collate information on the magnitude, distribution and frequency of the principal events. Those events have varied widely in location, scale and effect. Landslides have taken place throughout the gorge, from Birches Coppice in the west to Jackfield in the east. The events have occurred within undeveloped and built-up areas alike and they range from local collapses of individual retaining walls or parts of embankment slopes, to wholesale failure of large areas of valley sides. The 1773 landslide led to a total blockage of the River Severn. Where landslides have occurred in open ground, relatively little damage to property or infrastructure has occurred. In built-up areas, however, even medium and small landslides have

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had a significant impact, leading to the demolition of numerous properties throughout the gorge and the loss of roads and other services.

Until recently, our understanding of the nature and extent of instability in the gorge was quite limited. Over the past 10 years, however, a number of significant studies and investigations have been undertaken and have provided a much clearer understanding of the causes and pattern of land instability in the area. The work undertaken to date has included the following elements: the stabilisation of Jiggers Bank, completed in March 2002; the world heritage site land instability study, completed in February 2003; ground investigation work at Jackfield, Lloyds Head and the Lloyds in January 2005; the Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale ground behaviour study in January 2005; and the production in 2004 of an emergency plan in conjunction with the emergency services and other agencies aimed at addressing worst-case scenarios. That plan is regularly reviewed and updated. The latest version was produced in 2010 and was used in a multi-agency exercise in the gorge in November of that year.

An instability pack outlining the issues in relation to the world heritage site was distributed to residents of the area, and part of the council’s webpage is dedicated to redistributing updates about what is happening in the gorge. That has been taking place since February 2005. There was a three-day drop-in session to raise awareness of the issue among members of the public and to provide an opportunity to ask questions. That, too, took place in February 2005.

Ongoing surface and subsurface monitoring is examining the speed, amount and direction of movement. That work has been under way since 2001. Stabilisation of the Lloyds phase 1 site, a 165-metre-long section of Lloyds road in the vicinity of Lloyds cottage, which was the site deemed to be at greatest risk, was completed in August 2007. Stabilisation of the Lloyds phase 2 site, adjacent to Lloyds phase 1, was completed in December 2008, as was stabilisation of the Lloyds Head site, on the opposite side of the river to Lloyds phase 1 and 2, where ground movement in April 2007 led to closure of the road. Stabilisation of a local landslide at the Wynd, Coalport road, following a period of excessive rainfall, was completed in December 2008. Additional ground investigation and the installation of monitoring instruments in the immediate area around the iron bridge and within Jackfield was also carried out at that time.

It is important to understand that we have carried out a comprehensive assessment, involving a range of partner agencies, of what is happening in the gorge and we have taken strategic steps to improve the situation as funding has become available. We now need additional resource to carry out further work to protect the world heritage site and properties on the site and to ensure that we continue to have a strong and vibrant community in the gorge.

I am pleased to say that a dialogue has remained open and positive between Government Departments and the council and that a plan for future work has been developed and an estimate prepared, identifying a need for further works with a total cost of about £80 million. That would address and manage the issue immediately and within the coming 10 to 15 years. The plan reflects the risk assessments and recommendations in the reports completed to date.

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So what do we need to do next? As I said, approximately £16.7 million has already been spent to address instability in the gorge, but there is currently no funding to carry out any further investigation or remedial works. I believe that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that we have investment in the gorge to sustain the world heritage site and the community that lives there. We are signatories to the UNESCO world heritage site convention, which requires the Government to ensure that that site is protected. It falls to the Government, in partnership with the council, to produce proposals to ensure that further ground stabilisation works are undertaken.

I think that, based on the investigations and monitoring carried out to date, and in line with the cost-benefit analysis, the council believes that the Jackfield area and, in particular, Salthouse road needs to be the next area targeted for remedial works. That area is showing the greatest movement. I think that the Minister knows the area. If he drives along the road, he will find that it is more like a rollercoaster than a road, because the movement is so significant. In some areas of the gorge, service pipes must be laid overground rather than underground, because fracturing of service pipes would be so extensive if the pipework were laid underground that it would have to be dug up again and maintained within months. We are talking about serious levels of movement and a serious impact on the gorge and the lives of the people who live there.

There is significant structural damage in the Jackfield area. That has occurred over many decades. I understand that the budget for that first element of work would be about £20 million. It would be very good if we could start to see progress on the first phase of work down at Jackfield. Clearly, we would need to have further discussions with the Government about where we should go over the coming years. I am quite open about this. I have no axe to grind in terms of which Government are in power. I have been campaigning on the issue for a number of years as the local MP. It is the kind of issue that we bring up as a local Member of Parliament, a constituency MP, because it is important to our community.

It is interesting that we have had several ministerial visits over the years. We have had a positive dialogue with Government. That is why we have already seen significant investment in the area. What we need to do now is to work together in partnership. I raise this, and I look directly to the Minister, in a spirit of partnership: we need to get this right not just for the residents of the gorge, but for the future of the nation in terms of protecting its world heritage sites.

Land instability constitutes a major risk to the fabric of the gorge and a risk to the health and safety of inhabitants of the area and visitors alike. Immediate investment is needed to implement a series of stabilisation schemes along with further investigation and monitoring to deal with the problems proactively. The cost-benefit analysis evidences the appropriateness of such an approach and the financial benefit to be gained by being proactive. Further funding is needed now. We have a duty, collectively, to protect that environment not just for the residents who live there now—although clearly that is very important—but for future generations who will want to visit the gorge and live in it in the years to come.

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4.56 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): I thank the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) for raising an important issue and for the manner in which he has done so. He is right to say that he and I have had the pleasure of debating the issue before—and it is a pleasure to be able to do so again this afternoon with you in the Chair, Mr Benton. The only thing that is not a pleasure to me and the only thing on which I will take issue with the hon. Gentleman is his admittedly accurate description of Ironbridge gorge as being in the premier league of world heritage sites. He will know full well that I am a West Ham supporter and that was a particularly painful analogy for him to have drawn, albeit an accurate one in terms of the importance of Ironbridge gorge. It is a huge asset to this country, and the phrase that he used accurately describes its standing. The Government wish to see it preserved as much as anyone, because it is an immensely valuable part of our national heritage.

The hon. Gentleman set out the history and background in a characteristically well informed way. We are on common ground when it comes to the importance of the gorge and of finding a resolution to what is a difficult problem because it is ongoing and arises from geological causes that are not easy for any individual agency to deal with. He rightly set out the significance of the gorge. I will not repeat in detail what he said, but he was absolutely right to refer not only to its world heritage site status, but to its importance to the local and the wider economy in terms of jobs, its status as a significant attraction and its considerable tourism potential. We take that point very seriously.

It is right to observe that the gorge has suffered from and continues to experience land instability. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for setting out in some detail the history of the problems that have arisen. By their very nature, they are the responsibility of a number of Departments and agencies. The landholdings in the world heritage site are diverse. Some are in the public sector—some were originally inherited from the old Telford development corporation, some are with the Homes and Communities Agency and others are with the borough council—and others are privately owned. However, the geological problem that causes the problem is no respecter of who owns the land, nor of the statutory responsibilities of particular agencies. A cross-agency approach is particularly important in this instance, and I concede that it sometimes requires more behind-the-scenes work to get a proper alignment, but the Government are committed to achieving that.

I realise that threats of this kind are sometimes beyond the means of the local communities where such sites are located, and the hon. Gentleman made that point fairly. Equally, one cannot simply say that the whole of the problem should pass to the Government. We have therefore been working constructively, as the hon. Gentleman said, with the local council to find together an achievable solution.

The position is this. We are now at a stage where it is realised that a programme of work needs to be undertaken over a number of years. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is because it is a comparatively new geological feature and ground movement continues all the time. He rightly identified the associated problem of flooding as well as that of land instability. It has therefore been

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necessary to undertake a thorough technical evaluation and stabilisation programme. The scientists advise that it is unlikely that we will find a complete solution because of the geological youth of the area, but we can do much, working together, to mitigate the worst of the risks.

My Department is charged with co-ordinating the Government’s response and has been in regular touch with Telford and Wrekin council. It considers that the risk of land instability and the resultant flooding continues to be serious, particularly the risk of a slip into the Severn and consequent damage to life and property. Initial estimates suggest that some £80 million over a period of years will be required to carry out the stabilisation works that are believed to be necessary. In consequence of that, the previous Government commissioned consultants to study the matter. They concluded that although the risk of an imminent major event was not high the risk nevertheless remained, and it is exacerbated by the continuing ground movement and the heavy rain and flooding to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The scientific conclusion is that, without stabilisation, the gorge would suffer a major slippage, but the complex factors involved make it difficult accurately to predict the timing. It has therefore been recommended that the problem should be addressed through a structured implementation plan, using a risk-based approach; that will be supported by a rolling programme, with a smaller-scale investment of approximately £50 million at a rate of about £2.5 million to £5 million over the next 10 to 20 years. There is a commitment to dealing with the stabilisation programme.

The assessment by the consultants and partners clearly shows that the problem of instability creates a threat to homes and lives, to the local transport infrastructure and to the integrity of the world heritage site and tourism. The designation of the gorge as a world heritage site means that there is a requirement for action to be taken to conserve and protect the site. The range and mix of impacts has required us to adopt a cross-departmental approach. In that respect, one difficulty is intervening to get the appropriate agencies to work together. We seek to bring the various legitimate interests together.

As part of the comprehensive spending review, the interdepartmental working group considered the matter. It recently finalised its assessment, and the Treasury has agreed to contribute to further land stabilisation works in the gorge on behalf of the Government, via my Department. The proposal is that it should be done on a shared funding basis, with the Government funding 60% and the local authority 40%. It is a condition of the funding that it is directed to the highest priority needs, based on independent scientific and technical assessments.

Senior officials from my Department spoke to councillors shortly before the local elections, but because of the local government purdah period there has been a hiatus in activity. There was a meeting between departmental

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officials and the previous leader of the council and its chief executive, which was very constructive. Despite the change of control in Telford and Wrekin, I assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials stand ready to meet the new leader of the council and his team, the chief executive and appropriate officers to continue those discussions. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there is no party interest; we want to see the matter resolved regardless of any party political considerations. So far, the Government and the council have dealt with everything on exactly that basis, and we stand ready to continue in the same manner.

To access the funding, we need to see a proposal from Telford and Wrekin council that meets those conditions. I understand that the annual meeting of the council to form a new administration takes places on 26 May, and I am sure that the new administration will make it a priority to contact the Department. We are happy to progress as swiftly as we can.

David Wright: It is good news to hear that the Government are looking to come forward with a funding package. There are clearly difficulties with local authority expenditure, and there is great pressure on the local authority’s budget. I hope that the Minister will confirm that over the coming months the council can consider how to find matched funding or how it can phase such funding, given the assets that the council controls, to find something that will work. I hope that he is willing to have a dialogue with us about how it might be put together. I welcome the Government’s general commitment that the problem has to be dealt with, but we need to consider the nuts and bolts of paying for it.

Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point. My officials, and I if necessary, will be happy to discuss the details of matched funding. I welcome the willingness that the council has shown in engaging in that discussion. We accept that these are exceptional circumstances, and it is right that the Government should make a contribution; it is obviously sensible to have matched funding, and I am more than happy to talk about the most constructive way forward.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we have endeavoured to respond constructively. It is always frustrating for those involved in such situations that councils and the Department have to go through such lengthy technical appraisals, but they are necessary to ensure the right outcome. The commitment of working together and sharing the objectives and costs can offer a stable and deliverable way forward, and we all wish to see this unique site protected and preserved. We are happy to continue working in a constructive manner with the hon. Gentleman, other local Members of Parliament and local councillors.

Question put and agreed to.

5.8 pm

Sitting adjourned.