As I said, police and local state committee officials raided a church in Sumgait, near the capital, Baku, on 12 June, and they raided the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the

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same time. They were clear that they did not need the law of the land—they had permission and the warrant. Following both raids, fines are expected under the code of administrative offences for meeting for religious worship without state registration. The raids—the latest in a series on religious communities—came two days after Azerbaijan’s Parliament had adopted further restrictive amendments to the religious law. The Government are continuously moving the goalposts, and I am quite concerned about that.

A spokesperson said the law enforcement officers conducted these operations in accordance with the law, but he refused to give his name. When he was asked how raiding worship services was in accordance with religious freedom commitments enshrined in Azerbaijan’s constitution and the country’s international human rights commitments, he put the phone down—in other words, he had made his mind up about that.

Controversial and restrictive new amendments to the religious law have gone to the President, and this will be the 13th time that it has been amended since it was adopted in 1992. The amendments, which were given preliminary approval in a matter of weeks, on 31 May, raise the number of adult founders required for a religious community from 10 to 50, introduce new controls on religious education and increase the controls that the state requires religious headquarter bodies or centres to have over all communities under their jurisdiction. The amendments apply especially to the state-controlled Caucasian Muslim board, to which all Muslim communities must belong. Although I have outlined the raids on the Baptist church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there are also restrictions on those of a Muslim persuasion, so three religious groups are having problems in Azerbaijan.

Even before their adoption by the Parliament, the amendments have aroused concern among religious communities. In particular, those that had lodged re-registration applications in 2009, but which are still waiting for a response, fear that the new requirement for 50 adult founders will allow the state committee to reject their current applications. Potentially, churches that have been in operation for 20-plus years could have their activities restricted, and that would concern me.

In the Sumgait raid on 12 June, about 100 Baptists were at their Sunday morning worship service when about 20 police officers and men in civilian clothes broke in. The people in the church had been praying for about half an hour when the police burst in and they asked the police to wait until the end of the service before doing anything. Everyone present was told that it was up to each individual’s conscience whether they gave their name, as the police demanded. The police blocked all the exits out of the church and would not let anyone through without giving a name and address so, clearly, what they had said earlier meant nothing because they already had the details. Furthermore, police filmed the premises and the people attending on mobile phones and later on cameras. They confiscated all the religious books they could find—4,645 booklets, 9,229 individual books, 152 religious textbooks and 2,470 religious invitations—to have a wee look, to see if they were acceptable under Azerbaijan’s tight censorship of religious literature of all faiths.

Those raiding the Sumgait Baptist church refused to give their names, but the raid seems to have been led by state officials. Despite a number of phone calls, which

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went unanswered or were put down, there seemed to be a refusal to help those of a Baptist persuasion who wished to worship God in their church, their right to do so being enshrined in the constitution. Article 299 includes a wide range of offences, including meeting for worship without state permission. In December 2010, sharp increases in fines were introduced for all violations of article 299. Again, that will hit those who wish to worship God in their chosen way, and I am concerned that it has not been carried out as it should be. Hopefully, the Minister will be able to indicate what he can do to help those people.

The police were told that the church has no intention of applying for state registration because it believes that it does not need it and because it regards enforced state registration as an unwarranted intrusion into its internal affairs. Officers told the church that it would be fined. The Baptist pastor believes—as I do—that he has done nothing wrong. He adhered to the law of the land and to the wishes of a congregation who wanted to worship God on a Sunday morning and who have been worshipping in that building for a long time—some 20 years.

I am conscious of the time, so I will run through my remaining points quickly. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had a similar experience; 37 people were present during one raid, some of whom were taken away by the police for questioning for a number of hours and the rest given verbal warnings. Some were punished under the administrative offences code.

Earlier raids included three on Protestant churches in Sumgait over a three-day period in mid-May just past. Religious books were confiscated and two members of one congregation, a husband and wife, were each fined the equivalent of two weeks’ average wages. Other raids took place in Gyanja, where the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been raided, and those groups were banned from meeting for worship because they had not registered. At least one Star of the East Pentecostal church had a visit from the police and riot police to prevent worship. Even though the constitution says that such worshippers have rights, they do not. All the evidence points in a certain direction, and I am concerned about that. The state committee rejected the findings of a Council of Europe report, stating that

“it did not reflect the real situation in the country and bears a superficial character.”

However, I have talked about the evidence, which says something completely different.

In conclusion, Azerbaijan is a country rich in natural resources with which Britain has a special relationship. It has a wonderful people who are admired by those who have met them. At the same time, it has repressive laws that discriminate against those who want to practise their religious beliefs and against those of a certain racial persuasion. The Minister has an opportunity today, and I ask him and the all-party group to use their influence to ensure that those who want to practise their religious beliefs can do so without fear or discrimination.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): We have 18 minutes left until I call the winding-up speeches at 3.40 pm. I will call Karen Lumley, then Martin Horwood and Stephen Hammond.

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3.24 pm

Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing an important debate.

I visited Azerbaijan before I came to this House, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, which was a major eye-opener for me. Baku is a fantastic city, which is growing month by month, and the opportunities for us in the UK are enormous. It is certainly a change from 20 years ago when my husband worked in the country as a geologist discovering oil. When I returned, it was apparent how much Azerbaijan had been transformed. What could happen in the next 20 years?

We must, vitally, get more involved in this important market. The UK is Azerbaijan’s largest foreign investor, and as the country develops, so must its infrastructure, bringing an exciting array of prospects for UK investors. UK investment has had an impressive start, but we can get involved in so much more. If more British companies are to be encouraged to invest in Azerbaijan, the Government must impress on the Azerbaijanis the importance of stability and of open and transparent government. Corruption is widely reported to be a big problem. Transparency International, in its corruption perceptions index, ranks Azerbaijan 134th. Tackling the general problem of how the country is perceived is critical for Azerbaijan’s development. It has a fantastic, growing economy, but that does not mean there is not considerable room for improvement or space for UK investment to expand further.

For the moment, the population appears relatively content with the regime. That is to say, there are not currently scenes of revolt, such as we have seen in other parts of Asia and north Africa, but let us remember that in the 2010 elections, Opposition rallies were forbidden. That, combined with reports of corruption and of violence in and along the borders, will not encourage new and perhaps nervous investors, especially those without experience of operating in countries with security challenges. BP was taken into Azerbaijan by the oil and gas, but financial services are not so fixed in where they can invest and so could look at other countries. We must emphasise Azerbaijan’s advantages.

Openness will improve when journalists are free to report and Opposition parties to protest. Azerbaijan is part of the Council of Europe, and that the country must not continue to disregard human rights law has to be made clear. Industry is not totally separate from such issues—we must look at Azerbaijan as a whole. I hope that the Azerbaijan all-party parliamentary group, of which I am a member, will raise this country’s profile as much as possible in the UK and that the Government will be more specific when outlining their objectives for their involvement in Azerbaijan. We look forward to hearing from the Minister.

Financial services, business services, engineering projects and project management are all areas that will grow with the Azerbaijani economy. We might not be able to compete with the cheap labour within the country or in neighbouring Turkey and Russia, but the UK’s expertise in business and financial services could benefit the Azerbaijani economy considerably. There are huge opportunities for Britain and it is up to us—the UK Government and UK industry—to lead the way. BP

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Azerbaijan comprises a large part of our financial presence and, as a company, has made a concerted effort to increase interaction between local companies and foreign investors with a scheme to introduce the two and under which they can interact and discuss how to do ventures together. We must support such schemes.

We have already heard about the UK education sector. English is used more and more in the country, especially by young people because it is seen as a language of business. UK education is increasingly looked at as offering international status and opportunity. The British Council has been encouraging cultural exchanges and we should be looking at that sort of thing on a much larger scale, with students from our country also going to Azerbaijan. We must encourage our universities to explore such programmes. It would be good to see some of our universities providing satellite centres in places such as Baku to educate the young people in their own country.

Although our economy is becoming stronger every day, we must not be complacent about our recovery. Abroad, in counties such as Azerbaijan, there is money to be made, which could benefit all our constituents. The Government are doing everything they can to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit in the UK, and must do so in UK companies looking abroad. New, expanding economies provide an exciting environment and we should take full advantage of each opportunity to help the UK to prosper.

Finally, as mentioned by my colleagues, we wish Azerbaijan every success in hosting the Eurovision song contest next year. Who knows, some of us might even be there—including Richard, from the Strangers Bar.

3.29 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Thank you for calling me, Mr Hollobone. I will try to keep an eye on the time. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate, and for resisting the impulse to give a rendition of the Eurovision song contest’s winning song. That is a mercy to all of us.

The debate is very important because although the region is ostensibly stable at the moment, it clearly has potential for a lot of volatility. As well as the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, there was the war only a few years ago between Russia and Georgia, there is unresolved conflict over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and we now have other regional powers, such as Iran, taking an interest, although apparently in the unlikely role of peacemaker at the moment. That all underlines how such a potentially volatile region could deteriorate quite fast. If we have learned anything from events in the middle east and north Africa, it is that one cannot take one’s eye off the ball and expect stable regions to remain stable just because they are at the moment.

Reference has been made to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and in fact it has been called the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Clearly, one person’s occupation is another person’s liberation, and the origins of the dispute started with a regional soviet voting to attach itself to Armenia in 1988 under the USSR. It is important that while emphasising many other universal values such as human rights, the rule of law and democracy, we remember the important right to self-determination. That will clearly be a live issue in this country for the

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next couple of years. Should the people of Scotland, however unwisely, decide to vote for independence or a different constitutional arrangement with the United Kingdom, we would of course respect that, just as Czechoslovakia respected the right of Slovakia to separate from the Czech Republic some years ago.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): My hon. Friend’s point about self-determination is of course right, but if the indigenous population has been expelled, self-determination and its result will be rather different from what might otherwise be expected.

Martin Horwood: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Perhaps the way forward is that suggested by the European Parliament in its 2008 resolution, which recognised the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan but referred specifically to rights to self-determination, whether in the form of home rule, devolution, confederation or whatever. It is crucial that popular consent is part of the process.

I agree that progress towards a peaceful resolution seems to be frustratingly slow, although it is positive that all parties now seem to have committed themselves to peaceful resolution of the dispute. I gather that the South Caucasus security and co-operation conference has now resolved that all outstanding issues in the region should be tackled by 2014, and I would be interested to hear from the Minister—his enormous portfolio now also includes that troublesome region—what pressure Her Majesty’s Government will put on the Governments of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia to make that process a success.

I want to mention briefly two wider issues. One is the role of western foreign policy in the post-Soviet space in the world. Clearly, discussions are continuing between NATO and Azerbaijan, which is interesting. It is probably right and wise that those negotiations are concentrating not so much on Azerbaijani membership, but on building stability and ensuring that Azerbaijan is a barrier to the spread of weapons of mass destruction and other things that contribute to the stability of the region and the rest of the world.

The other issue, which other hon. Members have mentioned, is human rights. The Arab spring or awakening has underlined the importance of what President Obama called

“the false promise of stability”

sometimes enforced by repressive tactics. Azerbaijan is not Libya; it is not Syria; it is not Iran. It has many of the characteristics of an increasingly prosperous multi-party democracy, yet there serious concerns. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe described the 2010 parliamentary elections as “peaceful”, but

“not sufficient to constitute meaningful progress in the democratic development of the country.”

Amnesty International reports:

“Threats, harassment, and acts of violence against journalists, civil society activists and opposition activists continue with impunity, leading to an increase in self-censorship. Criminal and civil defamation laws are used to silence criticism, resulting in prison sentences and heavy fines against journalists.”

If I had more time, I would highlight the cases of Jabbar Savalan, Eynulla Fatullayev, Adnan Hajizade and Emin Abdullayev. I hope that the Minister will be able to take up those cases in particular with the Azerbaijani Government.

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If Azerbaijan is to take its place in the democratic family of nations—I agree with hon. Members who have said that it is important to have examples of Muslim countries that are emerging as stable and free democracies—it must recognise the importance of tackling the human rights issues that still exist there. I hope that the good offices of the Minister, the Conservative Friends of Azerbaijan, and the all-party Azerbaijan group will be utilised in that effort. That would be extremely positive for Azerbaijan.

3.35 pm

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): As befits the importance of this debate and of your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, I have prepared 25 minutes of eloquent speech, but as only five minutes are available to me, I shall cut to the quick and not discuss issues that colleagues have already mentioned this afternoon. I also refer hon. Members to my declaration of interests.

Some hon. Members have discussed the petroboom in Baku. Clearly, there is a wide spread of economic prosperity in that country, and I want to concentrate on two issues. The first is the prospects for UK industry. Wherever we look across the globe, instead of being cautious and concerned, we in the UK should be embracing some of the opportunities. Notwithstanding some of the issues that hon. Members have raised, it seems to me that beyond the fact that BP has its biggest European plant and refinery in Baku, and that we are already the largest foreign direct investor into that country and the largest exporter in that region, this country is missing some significant interests and opportunities.

It has been said that the construction boom is being driven by the petrodollar, but the construction boom is there, and yet another concert hall for the Eurovision song contest is being built. Where UK industry is missing out, I encourage the Minister to chide UK Trade and Investment, which is not doing enough in that and other regions of the world. UK civil contracting still has a global competitive advantage, so why is it not taking this opportunity?

The infrastructure boom is driven by the needs of agriculture, industry and increasingly tourism, and some providers in the UK have international advantage and strength, but yet again some of the opportunities are not being seized. That point was made to us by the ambassador, and our commercial interest is being neglected in our relationship with Azerbaijan.

I was particularly struck by our meeting with the Tourism Minister. Many of us will remember it for all sorts of reasons, not least for the most stylish carpet I have ever walked across. None the less, one of his points was that on the back of the Eurovision song contest, Azerbaijan’s historic importance, its historic attractions—Baku’s importance has been attended to by a number of nations in world wars—and its natural features, the tourist industry is likely to expand. We have seen tourism in our country move slowly eastwards across the continent, and it is now moving even further eastwards from Croatia. The point that the Tourism Minister made to us was, “What is the UK going to do to grasp this opportunity? Who should we tie up with?” He was asking us to do something about it, and UK plc should grab that opportunity.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) has discussed financial services. One of the most impressive people we met was the gentleman running the sovereign wealth fund, which is putting on $1 billion a month. When that fund moves from debt instruments into equities, private equity and property, we want to make sure that we are in there ensuring that our opportunity is taken. My hon. Friend has also discussed education, as I was going to, but I will not.

I want to challenge the Minister on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Can we put this on the record today or not? Whatever has been said about self-determination, there are 700,000 internally displaced people—three times the number of Sri Lankan internally displaced people, which I know the Minister is acutely aware of as well. If those people were back in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the seven surrounding satellites, self-determination would be a relevant issue and the right to it would be important. At that stage, it would be important for the UK Government to take notice. Will the Minister comment on that point? And will he comment on the outstanding UN Security Council resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884? Does he accept that we should put pressure on Armenia to accept those resolutions? Do the UK Government believe that they should support the Azerbaijanis in the settlement of the resolutions? My five minutes are now well and truly up.

3.40 pm

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I have been in a number of debates with you, but never with you in the role of a mute, so this is a new experience.

This debate, apart from being very interesting, has shown the value of delegations of Members of Parliament. If I may say so to the Minister, that is a message that needs to be heard both by the Foreign Office and by the House authorities. Participation in such delegations enables hon. Members to expand their horizons and brings a much more well informed atmosphere to the debates in the House in their various venues.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate on a country and region—the wider subject of the debate—that receives too little attention considering its crucial location, importance and, as we have heard, potential for conflict. It is also significant in terms of European energy supplies. I make no apology for highlighting that fact. When President Obama was speaking just outside this Chamber in Westminster Hall recently, he dealt head-on with the issue of the importance of energy supplies to countries when he observed of the middle east that the west squarely acknowledges that

“yes, we have enduring interests in the region—to fight terror, sometimes with partners who may not be perfect; to protect against disruptions of the world’s energy supply.”

It is a perfectly proper aspect of foreign policy that we should be concerned about that.

As has been mentioned, both Britain and the EU have considerable interests in that regard. The EU countries are considerably helped by the diversity of supply, both from the existing pipelines and, potentially, from the Nabucco pipeline providing a route for gas, not only from Azerbaijan but from the Caspian region as a

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whole. That gives the promise of a more balanced and diverse gas supply for western Europe and, we hope, will avoid some of the problems that Europe has experienced with interruption of supply, which has periodically caused such difficulties, particularly in the accession states. That problem will potentially be exacerbated by the recent decision of Germany to shut down its nuclear reactors, with the inevitable and immediate impact on gas demand in Europe.

Therefore, the situation that I have described is good news for those countries and for us. The hope is that as the European region gets more competitive sources of supply and more diverse sources of supply, we will also start to see more stabilisation of prices, rather than some of the spikes in prices that we are seeing and the way in which, bluntly, those are exploited by the ever-greedy utility companies to introduce substantial increases in the charges for domestic gas supplies in particular. That will be important for us all. It is therefore encouraging that the EU will be supporting the Azerbaijan Government to move the Nabucco project ahead.

In that context, it was pleasing to see the report this month that the EU Energy Commissioner had characterised Azerbaijan as “the EU’s key partner” on regional energy projects, while delivering endorsements of the Nabucco project. It was also reported earlier this month that the legal framework for the pipeline had been finalised, with the support of the relevant Ministries of the transit countries: Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Turkey. All that is extremely welcome news.

Britain, of course, also has a significant role. I partly take issue with the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) on project management. AMEC, for example, has been a major presence in Azerbaijan for some time, operating out of Baku. Perhaps it has been there so long that he does not look on what it is doing as a recent innovation, but it has been immensely successful and is seen as a major partner by the Azerbaijanis.

Stephen Hammond: I recognise that there are 175 companies beyond BP in Azerbaijan. My point was not about those that are there already, but that there are significant opportunities, particularly in areas where we have a worldwide competitive advantage.

Mr Spellar: There is always opportunity, but we should equally recognise when people are taking advantage of that opportunity. The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that BP is a major supplier, but this is about more than being first among equals. The UK accounts for some 52% of all foreign investment in Azerbaijan. BP’s stake is enormous. It will be one of the largest terminals that it will be operating on behalf of the Azerbaijanis.

Reference has rightly been made to the very significant presence in British tertiary education institutions from Azerbaijan. I have seen an estimate that some 80% of Azerbaijani students who study abroad study in the UK. That was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe). In the strategic context, we must remember the importance of Azerbaijan as a route for supplies and forces going into Afghanistan. That is not insignificant in terms of Britain’s interest.

We must also consider the broader security situation. Nagorno-Karabakh has been mentioned. In many ways, that is a synonym for many of the difficulties faced right across the south Caucasus. We are aware of the recent history. What was said about the end of the cold war? It

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led to a period of less threat and less peace. Certainly the region that we are discussing experienced that. I am thinking of the two wars in Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the considerable number of displaced persons. The hon. Member for Harrow East rightly drew attention to the UN resolutions. He also mentioned the Minsk group, which is currently the main forum for resolution of the conflict, although we have to recognise that, unfortunately, progress has been fairly limited in that context.

This debate is particularly timely, in that the meeting on Nagorno-Karabakh has been taking place in Kazan, I think, yesterday and today, with Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia. I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten us on that. We obviously hope that there has been progress, but it would be interesting to be updated on whether there has been any progress or developments at that meeting.

Before I yield to the Minister—I want him to have the full amount of time to deal with the many points that have been made—I want to sound a cautionary note. We should accept that in the Caucasus, progress will quite often take more time than we would hope. It will be slow—certainly slower than we would hope— and evolutionary. Russia may no longer be one of the two superpowers, but it is still, not only in its own estimation but objectively, a major and very significant power, a P5 member and a nuclear power. It is also clearly the regional power and has very clear interests in what it would regard as the near abroad. Therefore, its views, interests and perspectives have to be taken fully into account. That is the reality not only for the countries of the south Caucasus, but for those countries that are engaged there diplomatically or economically. It is therefore crucial that we have full engagement with Russia, recognising its legitimate interests but also representing ours, as well as the understandable concerns of other countries in the region. I hope that the Minister will be able to report the Government’s actions in this regard.

The debate has demonstrated the considerable interest that Members of Parliament take in Azerbaijan, and they are very well informed about it. We look forward to the Minister’s reply.

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): Like others, Mr Hollobone, I welcome you to the Chair. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate.

I thank the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) for his usual well-grounded and thoughtful contribution. I shall do my best to respond to as many of the issues that have been raised this afternoon as I can. Nagorno-Karabakh was mentioned by many. The economy and investment matters were raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Redditch (Karen Lumley) and for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). Students were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field). A number of colleagues spoke about sport and Eurovision, but particularly the hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe). The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) raised the matter of religious freedom and human rights.

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I begin with an apology. My already exciting portfolio of north Africa, the Gulf, the middle east and south Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran, now includes Azerbaijan—but only for today. I apologise for the fact that the Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), is not able to attend this debate. It is his region, however, and I shall faithfully report to him what has been said today. I hope that colleagues will excuse me if I am not able to deal with every question, but information will go back to my right hon. Friend.

We have a good bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan, which has a growing economy. We are a little worried about a slippage in transparency in recent years, but there is no doubt that a strong relationship has been built on a variety of factors, many of which I shall touch upon. I shall deal first with two of the lighter ones. The disproportionate impact of Eurovision could not be better demonstrated than by the fact that everybody in this debate has mentioned it. I share the excitement that must have been generated by it. There is no doubt that, as a focus of attention and as an opportunity, it will offer a terrific chance. We hope for its great success next year.

I should also mention the importance of sport, especially as football is the most popular game in Azerbaijan. Whatever Azerbaijan’s activities on the playing field, the hon. Member for Bradford South and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, who share my devotion to Bury football club, will know that Azerbaijan’s greatest contribution to football was to provide the most clear-sighted linesman in the history of World cup finals. It was Tofik Bahramov whose eyesight distinguished Geoff Hurst’s goal in the 1966 World cup final—for ever an honoured gentleman in this country.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has clearly outlined his vision for our foreign policy. Our focus on building Britain’s prosperity and security provides an effective framework for today’s debate. Supporting Britain’s prosperity is one of the central themes of our foreign policy, and Azerbaijan is an increasingly important partner. There are shared benefits in co-operation; at a time when global economic recovery is still fragile, Azerbaijan’s economy is a driver for growth for a wide range of British businesses.

British expertise and industry has helped modernise and develop many sectors in the south Caucasus, including oil and gas, the development of infrastructure and information technology. The UK is well-placed in Azerbaijan, as a number of colleagues have said. We are the largest foreign investor, with 50% of direct foreign investment. Led by BP, British companies have invested more than $23 billion in Azerbaijan. Although the energy sector is the main focus for British companies, as was emphasised this afternoon, it is far from being the only one.

Azerbaijan and the south Caucasus region as a whole have increasingly dynamic and diversified economies that offer significant opportunities for UK business in financial services, retail, infrastructure, law, tourism and construction, among others. However, we need to do more to take full advantage of the opportunities that are available. I am therefore pleased to say that the

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Government and the private sector have increased activity there. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe led a successful UK trade delegation on a visit to Baku last year; and Lord Howell, a Minister of State, spoke at the launch of the Central Asia and South Caucasus Association. I shall take back to them the fact that Members have mentioned the increasing importance of trade.

The right hon. Member for Warley was right to mention European energy security. With its natural wealth of oil and gas resources, the region will play a vital role in ensuring Europe’s energy security. The transit of hydrocarbons to Europe via a southern energy corridor would give the EU a new and important source of energy. That would benefit not only the EU but the region itself, as it seeks to diversify its export routes. There are other opportunities for co-operation in the energy field. Working together on energy efficiency, creating more effective and more open markets, and addressing climate change are all areas on which we wish to engage more.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned the importance of students. It is not the Government’s policy to discourage the brightest and best from coming here. There are numerical issues, which we all understand, but part of the process is to identify those whose future relationship with us will benefit not only ourselves but, importantly, the countries to which they will return. We all recognise that long-term relationships can be created, and my hon. Friend was right to raise the matter.

I want to talk particularly about Nagorno-Karabakh, as so many Members concentrated on it. The right hon. Member for Warley was right to speak of it in the general context of security in the area. I hope that colleagues will forgive me if I concentrate on that region for the moment. It is a complex matter. The conflict has left many dead and thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijani people displaced. Sadly, as colleagues reported, deaths still regularly occur along the line of contact. It is a human tragedy and a tragedy for the region. We are clear that there can be no resolution of this conflict through the use or threat of force; nor does continuation of the status quo offer an acceptable long-term prospect for the region. I assure the House on behalf of the Government that it is a conflict to which the UK and others in the international community pay close attention.

France, the United States and Russia are the co-chairs of the Minsk Group peace process, who lead on negotiating a settlement to the conflict. The UK fully supports that work. This coming weekend, the Presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia will meet in Kazan further to discuss the Madrid basic principles document, which aims to agree a starting point for eventual peace negotiations. In that regard, I fully support the recent statement of the co-chairs that urged the parties to avoid provocative actions or statements that might undermine the negotiating process during this critical period.

The line of contact has become the front line of this protracted conflict, and people tragically continue to die along it. The Minsk co-chairs have taken a significant, albeit symbolic, step towards opening up communication by crossing the line and travelling across no man’s land. They did this most recently earlier this month, as they did when they conducted a field assessment study in

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October not only in Nagorno-Karabakh but in the occupied territories that surround Nagorno-Karabakh. The parties have seen this report, and the Minsk Group’s assessment of the situation on the ground, but have agreed to keep the detailed contents to themselves in order to avoid heated media allegations of blame.

Does the process go far enough? Is it quick enough? These are always difficult questions, and in the circumstances everybody would like to push for more. However, the UK believes firmly that the process is making progress, albeit slowly, and it is important to back it as the most likely opportunity for peace. The peace process will need to address a number of sensitive issues. As was mentioned earlier, they include a mechanism for investigating any allegations of war crimes from both sides, a system for the return of displaced persons, and other issues. It will be no easy task, but it is right that we support Armenia and Azerbaijan in making the difficult decisions that are needed and in helping to create a conducive atmosphere to achieve peace.

I turn to the question of human rights. The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the problems that he has discerned in that regard, and the hon. Member for Cheltenham made the connection with the Arab spring. Human rights are not the same as they used to be. It is not possible for any society to believe that these are purely internal matters in which the rest of the world is not concerned. They must address these matters on their own—they are sovereign issues—but regardless of whether it is about religious or media freedoms, the fact that the world pays interest is likely to be a fact of life. I am sure that the comments of the hon. Gentleman will have been noted. We raise these issues in our bilateral conversations, and we will continue to do so. The particular issues picked up by the hon. Gentlemen will form part of our next discussion with them.

Much more could be said; however, as the right hon. Member for Warley said, the fact that a delegation is able to go to Azerbaijan and come back well informed is of immense importance to Parliament—and to Ministers, who cannot be everywhere. The debate will be reported to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who I know cares about the area very much. I am indebted to colleagues for their advice and views, and I hope that I have answered some of their questions. I know that my right hon. Friend will pick up others in due course.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate, and I thank all who have taken part. Their contributions were most interesting and informative, and the debate was a real credit to the House.

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Hadrian’s Wall

4 pm

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I want to talk about Hadrian’s Wall, its ownership and the future management and marketing of it.

Hadrian’s Wall is of great importance to the economy not just of my constituency of Carlisle but of the north of England from Wallsend to the Solway. The future arrangements for this world heritage tourist attraction could have significant implications for the area. The beauty of Hadrian’s Wall is that it combines educational and economic benefits into one attraction.

Let me focus first on the educational benefits. Our country has an important link with Roman history. The Roman occupation of Britain is very much part of our heritage. Hadrian’s Wall gives schools and colleges the opportunity to educate their students in a very real way. Instead of using just textbooks to study the period, students can see the physical evidence of the Roman occupation. In addition, people visiting the area can also benefit from the various educational and visitor centres along the wall, giving them a much better insight into Roman history and culture.

We often talk about the impact that the Roman empire had on world history, but it also had an impact on the social and economic life of small communities in the north of England. The physical presence of some of our Roman heritage truly helps to bring this history to life. Many people have had the opportunity to visit Hadrian’s Wall and learn about the way in which the Romans lived nearly 2,000 years ago. The best demonstration of that are the educational facilities along the wall, which will be hugely enhanced by the opening on Friday this week of the Roman Frontier Gallery at Tullie House museum and art gallery in Carlisle. This gallery will enable schools, colleges and the general public to discover more about our Roman ancestors.

There are also vital economic benefits. In the past, following the demise of the Roman empire, the physical structure of the wall provided building materials for locals to construct houses, steadings and much else. In modern times, Hadrian’s Wall has become a significant tourist attraction, bringing thousands of people to the area. Those tourists may come to view the wall and its remains or to visit the different forts and steadings. Alternatively, others have come to walk or cycle the length of the wall. Indeed, my colleagues and I are hoping to walk across the wall this summer to see what it has to offer. All such visits bring much-needed investment to the area, which helps to support existing businesses as well as creating new ones. On my own trip this summer, there will be six of us who will need accommodation, food and transport, all of which adds to the economy of the area. It may be a small contribution, but if we multiply it by the many tourists who visit the area over the summer, it is a substantial boost to the local economy. I want to concentrate on how we maintain and develop the two benefits of education and economics. Before I do, let me give a bit of background on Hadrian’s Wall so that we get some idea of its worth and potential.

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Work on Hadrian’s Wall began in 122 AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. At the time, it was one of the most fortified borders in Europe, taking around 16 years to complete. The wall is more than 75 miles long from east to west and a further 75 miles down the west coast. The first 45 miles of the wall, from Newcastle to the River Irthing, was constructed of stone, and the 31 miles from the Irthing to the Solway coast was initially of turf. Along the wall, there were 16 forts. Castles were built at intervals of 1 mile with two watchtower turrets between each one. The precise reason for building the wall is not known, although it is reasonable to assume that it was to secure the northern frontier of the Roman empire. Undoubtedly, it was a major undertaking at the time. The numbers who garrisoned the wall fluctuated throughout the life of the Roman occupation but it was usually around 9,000. The impact of the wall on the local population would have been considerable. Fortunately, there are remains from the original wall, forts and steadings that have allowed academics and archaeologists to study the wall, the Roman way of life and the effect it had on the local community.

With the decline of the Roman empire, the wall was abandoned as a military outpost for the Roman army, though it is believed that the local population continued to live and farm around the wall until the 8th century after which the wall was effectively abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin. Much of the wall has disappeared, but in the 19th century, John Clayton, the town clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne, began taking an interest in preserving as much of it as possible. Indeed, he acquired some sections of the wall in an effort to stop farmers using the stones. Anyone who visits the place will find a number of steadings and houses that were clearly built from the remains of the Roman wall.

It is hard to believe that it was not until the later part of the 20th century that a real interest in Hadrian’s Wall started to take hold. It hit real prominence when it was declared a world heritage site in 1987. It achieved that status because of its uniqueness as the most complex and best preserved frontier of the Roman empire. However, even then the full potential of the wall was not realised, not just as a source of education but as a major tourist attraction with the potential to give a significant boost to the local economies along the wall.

Although Hadrian’s Wall was now recognised as a site of international importance, it was not managed in any meaningful way. It took until the early part of this century before an attempt to co-ordinate the management of the wall was made. That came in the form of Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd, which was set up in 2006 as a company limited by guarantee. It was set up following a study in 2004 that identified the fact that the heritage site was failing to achieve its potential.

This organisation has been extremely successful in turning the site around and helping to raise the profile of Hadrian’s Wall and developing it as a tourist attraction. I would like publicly to acknowledge the hard work of the board, staff and volunteers who have done a terrific job, and continue to do so, in promoting Hadrian’s Wall through the Hadrian’s Wall company and the many other organisations which have an interest along the wall.

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Why are we having this debate today? In one sense it has been an opportunity for me to bring to the attention of the House and the Minister the importance of Hadrian’s Wall and its relevance to us today. Hadrian’s Wall is a major tourist attraction of significant historic and economic importance. It is also a resource for the local communities along the wall, which should be exploited in a responsible way by the Hadrian’s Wall Heritage company. What, therefore, are the problems? It is hard to believe that the wall and land that adjoins it have more than 125 different legal land owners. Some of those owners are private land owners, but many are public and they include councils, the National Trust, English Heritage and the Hadrian’s Wall Heritage company itself. Unfortunately, the company is a very small landowner, yet it is charged with promoting and caring for the wall almost in its entirety. Would it not therefore make sense for much if not all of the ownership of the wall and relevant surrounding land to be transferred into the company’s ownership? I fully accept that that cannot happen overnight, but it would appear to be sensible in the long term. It would allow the company to manage, maintain and promote the wall in a far more efficient and systematic way.

I accept that these are financially difficult times, with little public money available to help boost projects such as this one. However, notwithstanding that reality, why should the various councils or public bodies, such as the National Trust or English Heritage, that own part of the wall not act—by way of setting an example and in the interests of preserving and promoting the wall for environmental as well as economic reasons—and transfer their ownership of parts of the wall into the ownership of the Hadrian’s Wall company? If they think that that is a step too far, there might be the opportunity for them to lease their interests to the company or to pass the direct management responsibility for their section of the wall to the company. Clearly, the company would have to accept the responsibilities that go with ownership or control, but it would be fairer for it to have the responsibility for preserving the wall and at the same time it would have the opportunity to generate some kind of income stream, which could then be reinvested in the preservation and promotion of the wall.

A lot of the wall is not actually in public ownership but in private ownership. Quite simply, I say to those private owners of parts of the wall that those who want to could voluntarily transfer their ownership to the company—hopefully at little cost—and those who do not want to do so could just continue with the present arrangements and retain their ownership.

What, therefore, is the purpose of this debate? First, I want to raise the Minister’s awareness of the international, national and local importance of Hadrian’s Wall. I also want to encourage him to visit the area. I understand that he may well be going to the north-east and may visit part of the wall, but I encourage him to visit the western end of the wall at some point in the future, in particular the new gallery at Tullie House. As I mentioned earlier, that gallery opens on Friday.

Secondly, I want to highlight the various ownership issues to the Minister. Thirdly, I ask him to support the idea of unifying the ownership of as much of the wall as possible, and to help to facilitate the Hadrian’s Wall company in doing so. Having said that, I fully acknowledge and accept that that would be a long-term project.

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Fourthly, I ask the Minister to recognise the importance of Hadrian’s Wall within the national tourism strategy. Will he say what the Government can do to achieve that goal, which would ensure the success of the wall for the country as well as for the region?

Fifthly, I ask the Minister to help to identify sources of funding for the company. That could be funding to invest in the physical aspects of the wall, in its preservation or in the promotion of the wall as a tourist attraction, which would link in with the Government’s growth and tourism strategies.

The Minister will be very aware of the huge economic benefits that flow from tourism. However, there is always a great difficulty in how we finance and market tourism as it involves trying to calculate the benefits of tourism, including how it creates jobs, economic growth and so on. I accept that that is difficult, but I genuinely believe that Hadrian’s Wall is a major tourist attraction and that it has the potential to create huge economic benefits for my region.

We are starting to see a great deal of improvement, in that there are more and more visitors to the wall every year and new businesses are opening up along the wall, such as bed and breakfasts, restaurants and coffee shops. That trend is to be encouraged. However, I fear that, given the economic difficulties that we are in, funding for the marketing of the wall will be reduced and that could have a knock-on effect on the economy of the local area. If we do not promote the wall sufficiently, that will result in a decline in the area’s economic activity.

Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. When I saw that he had secured this debate today, I wanted to come along to Westminster Hall and support him. He said that Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO world heritage site. When I think of other world heritage sites—other fantastic places such as Petra, the pyramids at Giza, Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu—I feel that we should certainly encourage people in this country to go along and see Hadrian’s Wall.

However, will my hon. Friend say a little more about the number of people who visit the Lake district, for example, and perhaps suggest how we can encourage people not only to visit the Lake district but to go a bit further north, to spread the money that they spend across the whole of the county instead of just in the southern and western parts?

John Stevenson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and he raises a very important point. In my part of the country, the Lake district is clearly dominant as a tourist attraction. I think that it is the second most popular tourist attraction in this country, after London, with about 16 million visitors annually. However, because of the dominance of the Lake district locally, Hadrian’s Wall sometimes loses out on visitors and indeed my own constituency, the city of Carlisle, sometimes fails to receive as many visitors as it might.

This debate has raised considerable interest in my local community. That is a good sign, because it means that people in my patch are interested in promoting Hadrian’s Wall. I look to the Minister today, to see how we can build on that to ensure that the wall has a very prosperous and successful future.

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4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (John Penrose): It is always a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I was debating opposite you yesterday with someone else in the Chair, but it is good to see you back in your accustomed place, looking after us today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) on securing the debate and putting the case so strongly. It is always good to see a constituency MP batting hard for an important local asset and industry. It is absolutely clear, as he rightly pointed out, that tourism is one of the most important industries, if not the most important, in the Lake district as a whole, including the area around Carlisle. It is a crucial part of the local economy. The area does not have just beautiful scenery, but one of the country’s—indeed the world’s—pre-eminent heritage assets, in the shape of the wall, running right through the middle of it. There is plenty to be proud of, raise awareness of, and shout about to attract more people to visit both Carlisle and the wall, and my hon. Friend has contributed to that by securing this debate.

My hon. Friend asked me to acknowledge and comment on the importance of the wall to tourism, and I do not think it possible to overstate that importance. The wall is a crucial part of this country’s offer. One of the reasons most frequently given by foreign visitors for coming to the UK is our heritage. Heritage is an incredibly broad term, including everything from Stonehenge, which is plus or minus 4,000 years old depending on the part of the site, right the way up to modern culture such as the Glastonbury and Reading music festivals, and everything in between. There is no doubt that Britain was a very important part of the Roman empire; in fact, the city of York was effectively its administrative capital for decades. The wall is an incredibly visible and solid reminder of that period, and is an iconic example of the kinds of things that people come to Britain to see.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the wall is a very important site, and is part of a world heritage site. I think it was one of the first transnational world heritage sites, because it takes in not just Hadrian’s wall but the Antonine wall, which runs parallel to the north, and goes across into the northern German elements of the old Roman empire. It is part of a project that is, I think, ultimately intended to include the entire borders of the old Roman empire, right the way around through to the coast of north Africa. It was one of the first elements of that project to be put up, and it is of global significance. We are incredibly lucky in this country to have something that is so well-preserved and, importantly, properly looked after to ensure that it remains preserved for not just our generation but future ones. My hon. Friend is also entirely right to say that it is an essential part of rounding out the local tourism offer, so that the area does not have just beautiful countryside and lakes—which it undoubtedly does—but an incredibly impressive heritage offer.

There is, however, the problem that my hon. Friend was right to raise. Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd is struggling, along with a great many other destination management organisations. That is what they are called in the jargon, Mr Hollobone, but you and I would probably call them local tourist boards of one sort or another. They are organisations that are having to make the transition

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from an era when money was a great deal freer and the Government’s budget was a great deal larger, through to an era when regional development agencies no longer exist and everyone has to cut their cloth to fit. I will not try your patience, Mr Hollobone, by going too far off piste by talking about the economic mismanagement that led to that situation. However, for whatever reason, we are faced with a far tighter economic and fiscal situation. Therefore, everyone is having to cut their cloth to fit. Indeed, I am sure that the various business owners, land owners and attraction owners along the whole length of the wall would all understand that it is important for someone not to spend more than they earn, otherwise pretty soon they will go bust. This country is no different. We must ensure that we are living within our means. Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd is faced with precisely the same challenge as many other local tourism bodies around the country: that budgets are smaller. It is therefore trying to find and plug a hole in its budget.

My hon. Friend came up with a creative and intriguing potential solution to that. It is not something I have heard before, and interestingly, it is certainly not a solution that has been suggested to me in other parts of the country. It has the merit of being entirely original and certainly very thought-provoking. His suggestion is that public sector bodies along the wall might want to hand ownership of their assets over to Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd. I suspect that the underlying assumption behind that idea is that enough cash will be thrown off to plug all or at least some of the gap in the organisation’s funding.

I am not sure that that underlying assumption is necessarily correct, although my hon. Friend is entirely within his rights to ask me to check it, which is effectively what he has done. We have gone away and done some numbers, and I am not sure that such an approach would fill the gap as it currently stands. The organisation is going through a great many other changes.

John Stevenson: Yes, the Minister is on the right track in terms of what I am thinking. However, I am also thinking that the sole purpose of Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd is to maintain, preserve, look after and promote Hadrian’s Wall. Some of the other organisations have other interests and will have calls on their resources from the other attractions that they may have. If the wall’s assets were transferred into the Hadrian’s Wall company, the focus would be solely on Hadrian’s Wall.

John Penrose: I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying; he gave a capable exposition of his idea. However, the stumbling block for me is simply this: if we consider other destination management organisations—local tourism bodies of one kind or another—he is absolutely right to say that Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd is unusual in that the collection of tourism assets with which it is dealing happen to be stretched out in a long, thin line that cuts through a variety of different villages, towns, steadings and local authorities.

Apart from that geographical oddity, it is entirely normal that Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd has to interact with a breadth and variety of different types of organisation. There are different owners—public, private and in some

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cases third sector—and people from the National Trust as well. Any destination management organisation must deal with a variety of local tourism companies. We could be talking about destination management organisations in York, in my constituency of Weston-super-Mare or in Bristol—it does not matter where someone is in the country; they could be in the Cotswolds or anywhere else. Such organisations have to deal with everything from local hotels to local restaurants, attraction owners and everything else in between, plus local councillors and so on. They are all faced with that precise mixture of stakeholders and interests to match up.

The interesting thing is that there is no instance of such organisations expecting to own the assets that they are helping to promote and manage. In fact, their role is subtly different. They are not quite a trade association, but they are an organisation that helps to promote a particular area. The attraction owners, whether they are private, public or third sector, are key members of that organisation. They come in a variety of different legal wrappers—partnerships, companies limited by guarantee or whatever—but in each case, the various different stakeholders are key members of that organisation and if it is well run, they are the people who dictate terms and set the agenda for what the organisation is trying to do.

It is therefore crucial that although the organisation does not have to own the assets that it is working with, it must have an extremely close and effective relationship with the people whom it is seeking to represent. I am talking about a different kind of relationship, which is a bit more flexible. I would suggest anyway—my hon. Friend was right to point this out—that going down the route of trying to transfer ownership is not necessary, because many other examples of a membership model are being pursued successfully throughout the rest of the country. He was also right to say that it would be an extremely long and slow process.

In the case of private sector owners—from what I can see, some 90% of the wall is in private ownership of one kind or another—I suspect that, persuasive, effective and passionate as my hon. Friend is, he would have to go some in order to persuade most of them to give over voluntarily property that may have been in their family for generations. They may have purchased it recently, but either way, it is private property. I am a huge fan of the Government’s philanthropy agenda, but I suspect that that would be philanthropy on a different scale and that, if my hon. Friend managed to do it, he would go down in history as one of the greatest philanthropic persuaders this country has ever seen.

I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from and why he is making that suggestion. What I would suggest in return is that I think there is an alternative way, which may be a little quicker and simpler, of achieving the goals that he and I both share, and that is to make sure that we have some kind of membership-related approach, whatever kind of legal wrapper it may come in. If we can get to that position—I understand that that is where Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd is trying to move—the company will be able to do precisely the kinds of things that my hon. Friend is talking about and attempt to market and promote the entire wall from one coast to the other, and put across and sell the huge benefits that he has rightly and passionately outlined in his speech. That is precisely what needs to be done and, I think, what everybody wants to see happen.

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The huge advantage that Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd has is that, after many years of trying, it is managing to stitch together an incredibly disparate range of people, simply because of this geographical oddity. The asset, associated companies, attractions and issues that it is trying to deal with stretch from one coast of the country to another. I do not know how many different local authority areas it goes through, but it is a very large number, and it has proven extremely difficult to co-ordinate it in the past. It has started to do it, but as my hon. Friend rightly points out, it has to make this transition.

My hon. Friend has asked about other kinds of funding sources. It will be partly up to local tourism companies and local attraction owners, be they public, private or third sector, to say whether it is in their commercial interest to be part of a collective marketing scheme. I am not suggesting that this should be a piece of corporate philanthropy, but that it should be a natural part of everybody’s corporate marketing plan to say, “If we contribute to a collective marketing plan for Hadrian’s Wall as a whole, it will help my business and my neighbour’s business as well.” This is, therefore, a piece of self-interest as well as collective action, and I think it will be tremendously positive.

It is also worth saying that local authorities may conclude, as is happening in many other parts of the country, that tourism is such an important part of the local economy—my hon. Friend rightly pointed out that it is very important in Carlisle and Cumbria as a whole—that they want to contribute in some way to some of these collective marketing operations through council tax payers’ money. That is happening, as I have said, in many other parts of the country. It depends on the importance of tourism in the local economy, but as my hon. Friend has pointed out, that is a very easy point to make in his part of the world, because it is such a vital part of local job creation. I encourage him to speak to his local council and fellow MPs in the area, to see whether or not they feel that the local authority’s contribution reflects the importance of this crucial part of the economy to local jobs and employment.

I think that we are speaking a similar language in terms of what we want to achieve and that everybody agrees about the importance of Hadrian’s Wall to the nation’s heritage, the world’s heritage and the local tourism industry. I think that we have slightly different recipes for how the issue might be addressed, but a great deal more can be done and I suspect that my hon. Friend and I will look to work with the local authority and local businesses to ensure that that happens.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I congratulate and thank the hon. Members for Carlisle (John Stevenson) and for Hendon (Mr Offord) and the Minister for their participation in a most interesting and informative debate.

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Dangerous Driving Offences (Sentences)

4.30 pm

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): I start by saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, although to be perfectly honest I am not entirely sure yet whether it is, given that this is the first time I have had such an opportunity. I am grateful to be able to debate this issue.

Dangerous driving is a very serious offence, and the maximum sentence available to courts is nowhere near long enough, considering the impact on victims. I welcome the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) to the debate. She is a member of the Bar and a very experienced barrister, who I think spent the majority of her practice defending criminals. However, considering her seniority at the Bar, it was probably a long time ago that she defended someone for dangerous driving.

This debate follows my introduction of a ten-minute rule Bill in the House on 14 May. The Second Reading is on 9 September, and I am happy that many right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House have come to me to say that they support my proposals.

There is a massive disparity in the law. The offence of dangerous driving is worth a maximum of two years’ imprisonment on conviction. The courts have the responsibility of discounting that sentence for an early guilty plea, and I agree that they should have that discretion. I am told that the average sentence is about 11 to 13 months. Sometimes, the injury caused to the victim is truly horrendous.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): I put in a petition on this subject regarding a young constituent of mine, Danny Evans, who was tragically killed. In the end, the driver pleaded guilty to a charge of careless driving, which I understand the police go for in many cases because it is easier to get a conviction. Danny lost his life and the driver got only 100 hours’ community service. The Government responded by telling me that they had no plans to change the law.

Karl Turner: I am very grateful for that intervention, and I am sure that the Minister has taken note of my hon. Friend’s comments. I hope that today’s debate will help the Government to rethink the policy that relates to this offence.

As I was saying, there is a large disparity in the law. Most of the time the victims suffer horrendous injuries, and the experience of being a victim is truly tragic in every conceivable way. The offence of death by dangerous driving carries, I think, a maximum 14-year sentence.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing this debate but on the other work that he is doing in this place to push this issue. Does he recognise the association between the unwillingness of people who commit this type of offence to secure insurance for their vehicles and the impact on the victims?

Karl Turner: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. It is true that people who tend to commit this type of offence are often not insured, and that says something about the standard of their driving. I am

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keen to explain that my proposal is not to lock up everyone for poor driving—careless driving is very different from dangerous driving. In my experience, dangerous drivers have very little regard for themselves and other road users, and often do not bother to take out insurance.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I want to refer him to the case of a constituent of mine who came into my constituency office last Friday to show me some absolutely horrendous photographs of a car that had gone straight out at a junction and into somebody’s wall, before demolishing my constituent’s car and sending bricks flying into their living room. Fortunately, it happened at an hour when the people in the house had retired to bed, so nobody was harmed. The driver was found to be driving under the influence of excess alcohol. The community order that was given to him was for 18 months for driving under the influence of excess alcohol, and he was disqualified from driving. However, for dangerous driving he received a community order for 18 months with costs of £80, and again he was disqualified from driving. My constituent’s mother wrote to me. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with her, when she asks:

“What kind of message are we giving to deliberately drunken drivers if we let them get away with such piffling sentences?”

Karl Turner: I agree entirely with those remarks, which are absolutely right.

For me, this issue is about redressing the balance for victims of these horrendous offences. The standard of driving required for dangerous driving is that the driver needs to drive far below the standard of an ordinary competent driver. I am not talking about pulling out of a driveway, failing to look right and having an accident. I am talking about getting into a car and driving like an absolute lunatic—very often, that is the case—including driving around roundabouts the wrong way or even over roundabouts. We have seen the CCTV footage of such driving on numerous occasions. The standard of driving is absolutely horrendous in every possible way.

I suggest that the maximum sentence for dangerous driving should be seven years, rather than what was suggested in the previous Government by a colleague of mine—I think that there was talk of increasing the maximum sentence from two years to five years. The offence of causing death by careless driving has a maximum sentence of five years. I am sure that the families of the victims of that offence would feel dreadful about that sentence. I am sure that the families of victims are absolutely outraged at what has been described to me as such a “paltry” sentence. But the culpability for that offence, in my view, is much less than for dangerous driving per se. I want to emphasise that point.

Members of all parties in the House will have constituents who have raised this issue with them; I suspect that the issue has been raised with them on more than one occasion. I have a constituent, Katie Harper. She was the victim of dangerous driving. Unfortunately, for whatever reason—I make no criticism of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service—the offender was not brought to justice. He was charged with dangerous

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driving but the case was dropped. When I spoke to Katie’s father, he said that that was an absolute travesty and that that driver should have gone to prison for a long, long time. So I put the question to him, “How long do people think he would have got if he had been convicted?” He said, “Nine years?” I said, “No.” He said, “Ten years?” I said, “No.” He said, “Twelve years?” I said, “Absolutely not.” His daughter had been studying English at the university of Hull, but she is no longer studying English and she has been told that she may never walk properly again. Her father was absolutely horrified to learn that, in my opinion, the sentence for the driver—if he had gone to prison at all—would have been something like nine months, if he had no previous convictions.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on identifying this anomaly. I used to specialise in road traffic law, and this is not the only anomaly that exists within current road traffic legislation. I wonder whether he is aware that if, for example, a new driver gets more than six penalty points, they have to retake their test, but if they are disqualified from driving they do not have to retake their test. Also, if someone commits the offence of failing to stop after an accident in which they have killed someone, the maximum sentence available at the moment is six months’ imprisonment. Is he aware of those anomalies, in addition to the one he has so creditably identified?

Karl Turner: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I mitigated a case before a magistrate when I was representing a defendant, who was effectively a probationary driver, for a driving offence. I suggested to the bench that, instead of throwing the book at him, he should be banned for a short period, so that he did not have to start from scratch, taking his test and so on.

I am assisted to some extent by some recent publicity. The Sun ran a story last Saturday about the victim of a driving offence, who was tragically paralysed. I have had the opportunity to speak with her father, Dr Robert Carver. The offence was different—careless driving—but the victim’s injuries were dreadful. I am sure that the family feel outraged, but her father has asked me to make it clear that he makes no criticism of the district judge, Judge Stobart, who passed sentence in that case, saying that the judge was working within the constraints of the law.

I mention that case for two reasons. It is tragic for the victim—absolutely dreadful—but, for whatever reason, the offender was charged with careless driving, not dangerous driving. The sentence of 150 days in such circumstances was appropriate. However, an offence of dangerous driving, which is much worse in my view, must require a much harsher sentence.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on his efforts to reform the law. He clearly has considerable support from all parties, and we wish him absolute success.

The two-year sentence means that judges cannot reflect the serious consequences that often flow from someone who has committed the offence of dangerous driving, notably if causing injury. For what it is worth, I remember prosecuting a similar case in Derbyshire.

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Someone had suffered permanent damage to the legs, but the judge’s hands were tied in the sentence he passed. We really need reform in this area, do we not?

Karl Turner: Absolutely. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady, and welcome her remarks, which are right.

Before the election, I was defending a case of dangerous driving before the Crown Court—I was a pupil barrister in my local chambers, the Wilberforce chambers, which I mention because I hope for extra support from my head of chambers. I was enthusiastic, preparing the mitigation the night before, because I was excited to be appearing before a Crown Court judge—I had spent some years before that working for a firm of solicitors. I remember standing up with all that enthusiasm, beginning the mitigation and then seeing the expression on the judge’s face. I had seen the CCTV, because it was played in court, but the judge was looking at me and saying, “Stop there, please, because the maximum sentence is two years. He pleaded, with good advice, in the magistrates court, so I must reduce the sentence to 16 months as a starting point. I then have to reduce it further because it is not the worst case of dangerous driving that I have judged.”

I decided to stand up and have another go but, with the clear expression on the judge’s face, I gave in pretty swiftly. The maximum sentence was indeed 16 months in such circumstances, and the offender received 11 months. When I went down to see him in the cell, I did the usual thing and told him how absolutely brilliant I was, but then I began thinking about the seriousness of the case. His driving had been truly horrendous. The offender had smashed into police cars to evade detection by the police. He was risking not only his own life but the lives of everyone on that road. This incident happened in broad daylight. He drove past a school at 70 miles per hour. The serious nature of that made me understand why the judge was looking at me as though I was the lunatic rather than the defendant.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I am concerned about the driving that causes death but is not classified as dangerous. Does my hon. Friend agree that the law needs serious revision? There was a case in my constituency in March 2009 when nine-year-old Robert Gaunt died of multiple injuries after being hit by a car while crossing the road in Overton. The driver of that car was unlicensed, uninsured and failed to stop. He did not report the incident, and he even tried to cover up the crime by having his car repainted and re-sprayed. He was handed a sentence right at the top of what was legally possible—a grand total of 22 months. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that was wrong?

Karl Turner: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s points. All Members will be able to raise similar cases. The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) was right in his comments. I know that he was an expert in road traffic cases before his election to this House, and perhaps he still is.

The offence of aggravated vehicle taking is another area that needs to be addressed. It currently carries a maximum sentence of two years. However, I should not digress, because it will cause some confusion not only to hon. Members in the Chamber but to my constituents.

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My argument for increasing the sentence is to provide judges with discretion. I have spoken to senior judges and to my own Crown court judge, his honour Judge Mettyear, who said that an increase would be welcomed by every judge in the land. I trust judges. Sometimes I am not very happy with them, especially if I have had a bad result for a client, or if I have been prosecuting and I disagree with their judgment. None the less, I trust them, and they should have the discretion to redress the balance in these cases. The victims are truly shocked. They and their family have had the trauma of this horrendous incident, and then they see that justice has not been done. I hope that the Minister will take on board the points that I have made. I tabled early-day motion 1969 today, which I encourage all right hon. and hon. Members to sign.

In closing, let me make it clear that I am not looking to lock up people for poor driving. Sometimes people drive badly. My wife tells me that occasionally my driving is not very good. I hope that people do not think that I want to send people to prison. There are 30 million drivers out there, some of whom drive poorly, but this is not about that. This is about dangerous driving, which is an horrendous offence. I hope that the Government have listened carefully to the arguments that I have submitted today.

4.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): It is extremely pleasurable to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, particularly as it means that you are in the Chair and not behind me on the Back Benches. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) on securing the debate and on his tenacity in bringing this issue to the attention of Parliament. I congratulate him on whipping in, if I may put it that way, other hon. Members’ support with the notice he gave of his debate and on the generous way in which he gave them some time and some of my time. It is entirely his debate and it is all his time to give up to interventions. The hon. Gentleman made it clear in that message that he was going to end before 15 minutes of the debate was left, so I may be slightly over-prepared. However, I will attempt to get through the key messages I want to get across in responding to the debate.

As the hon. Gentleman made clear, the subject of dangerous driving is extremely serious, with potentially very grave consequences for innocent victims and their families. The Government are currently considering recent representations on the subject made by His Honour Judge Everett of Bolton Crown court following a particularly serious local case. They are also considering representations made by the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby), my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and the points raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East not only in this debate, but in the speech he gave to his ten-minute rule Bill.

Road traffic cases present particular difficulties for the courts because it is not always the worst transgression by a driver that has the most tragic consequences. Sometimes the consequences of a collision may be entirely disproportionate to the culpability of the offender. A relatively minor misdemeanour by a driver may have very tragic consequences, whereas thoroughly reckless

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behaviour on the road may fortuitously result in little, if any, harm. The law therefore seeks to punish those who cause death or injury on the road in a way that is appropriate to the degree of blameworthiness of the driver.

Hon. Members will be aware that a range of offences relate to bad driving. Ultimately, it is for the prosecuting authorities to decide upon the appropriate charge in each individual case. The charges brought against an individual following a road traffic incident are dependent upon the Crown Prosecution Service’s assessment of the quality of the defendant’s driving both preceding and at the time of the impact. When considering the appropriate charge, it is the driving behaviour that is the deciding factor. There are charging standards agreed with the police for prosecuting road traffic offences.

Our current law provides a framework of offences to deal with bad driving at every level. Fatality holds a special place in that framework, which is why, where a death is caused by bad driving, particularly robust penalties are available. Where drivers cause death by dangerous driving or by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, judges are able to sentence them to a maximum of 14 years in prison. Other measures include an unlimited fine and a minimum two-year driving disqualification. Where death is caused and there is sufficient evidence of gross negligence, drivers can be charged with the offence of manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Following the 2005 review of road traffic offences, since 2008 two new offences have been available to prosecutors: causing death by careless driving and causing death where a driver is unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured. The maximum penalties for those are five years and two years respectively. Those offences attract a minimum disqualification period of one year, and can be punished by an unlimited fine. As the hon. Gentleman made clear, dangerous driving has a maximum penalty of two years custody. Careless driving, by comparison, has a maximum penalty of a fine.

As regards dangerous driving, within the maximum penalty set out in legislation, judges and magistrates have discretion to sentence based on the details of the individual case and the circumstances of the offender, taking into account sentencing guidelines. Moreover, the courts are obliged to endorse a driver’s licence and impose at least a 12-month driving disqualification, together with an extended re-test. Of course, if deemed necessary and proportionate to the seriousness of the offence, there is no limit to the length of driving ban that a court can impose. The court may also impose a fine.

The magistrates courts’ sentencing guidelines provide some guidance on dangerous driving. The most serious examples of the offence—such as prolonged bad driving involving deliberate disregard for the safety of others; incidents involving excessive speed or showing off, especially in built up areas, by a disqualified driver; and driving in such a fashion while being pursued by police—would be referred to the Crown court. Serious injuries are taken into account within the dangerous driving offence and, at the most severe end of that scale, we would expect judges to sentence close to or at the maximum penalty of two years custody.

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I now want to set out some of the wider context for the debate. Generally, Britain has a good road safety record, but we cannot afford to be complacent. Deaths and serious injuries on the roads are a tragedy for all those who are affected. It is of course to be welcomed that road fatalities and casualties have continued to fall, but every such case is one too many. I will give the background with figures.

Since 1994, road casualties have been falling against a backdrop of increasing traffic and population. In 2009, there were a total of 222,146 reported casualties of all severities, 4% lower than in 2008; there were 2,222 deaths, 12% lower than in 2008; 24,690 were seriously injured, down 5%; and 195,234 were slightly injured, down 4%. The number of fatalities fell for almost all types of road user, with a fall of 16% for car occupants, 13% for pedestrians, 10% for pedal cyclists and 4% for motorcyclists.

If we compare not just one year, but the average trend over 15 years between 1994-98 and 2009, the number killed was 38% lower, and the number of those killed or seriously injured was 44% lower. Welcomingly, the number of children killed or seriously injured was 61%. Car occupants, pedestrians and motorcyclists accounted for the vast majority of deaths at 48%, 23% and 21% respectively in 2009, when pedestrian fatalities were 50% below the 1994-98 average and car occupant fatalities were 40% below the average.

We want to ensure that Britain remains a world leader in road safety, and to continue the downward trend in road casualties. We are determined to crack down on the antisocial and dangerous driving that still leads to far too many fatalities and serious injuries on our roads. It is with that aim that last month colleagues in the Department for Transport published a new strategic framework for road safety. Its focus is on supporting road users who have weak driving skills or display a lapse of judgment to improve their driving through a greater range of educational courses to help to deliver safer skills and attitudes, while focusing enforcement resources on those who deliberately decide to undertake antisocial and dangerous driving behaviour, and that covers all careless and dangerous driving offences. This is the Government’s twin approach to improving road safety.

The new strategic framework for road safety sets out the Government’s plans. Among other measures, they are: to require offenders to pass a test before they regain their licence after a serious disqualification; to make greater use of powers to seize vehicles to keep the most dangerous drivers off the road; to improve enforcement against drink and drug driving as announced in the response to the North report in March; to increase the use of police-approved educational courses that can be offered in place of fixed penalty notices to encourage safer driving behaviour; to launch a new post-test qualification for new drivers, including an assessment process, and to continue to improve the driving and motorcycling training processes. The framework, in harmony with the coalition’s commitment to localism, also aims to give greater clarity to local authorities and road safety professionals, and to free up local authorities to assess and to act on their own priorities to improve road safety.

Returning to sentencing, I want to make it clear that the courts take dangerous driving seriously. The 2010 figures show that around 3,200 offenders were sentenced,

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of whom about 1,100 were given immediate custodial sentences. The average custodial sentence length has increased consistently over recent years from 7.7 months in 2000 to 9.7 months in 2010. In his speech on his ten-minute rule Bill, the hon. Gentleman argued that the courts could not sufficiently punish instances of dangerous driving when very serious harm is caused. He then argued, as he did today, that the maximum penalty of two years for this offence does not give the courts enough scope, and that it should be raised to seven years. He will recall that I was on the Front Bench and that I sat and listened to his speech. I have, of course, given thought to the issues that he raised.

Maximum penalties are not necessarily the only way of addressing issues of appropriate punishment within the criminal justice system. As will be clear from what I have said, there is a complex legacy of maximum penalties relating to traffic offences, and we should not regard making changes to them as the answer to every issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth

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Johnson) said that there are other penalties that are apparently logically inconsistent. The challenge of ensuring a completely consistent range of offences and penalties against a backdrop of ever-changing social problems and priorities will be well understood by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East, who knows that the Law Commission has given that some thought. The alternative legislative answer to a major one-off overhaul of our criminal law to deliver the coherence that he seeks would be to legislate on a case-by-case basis to address identifiable gaps. That approach would not necessarily improve the overall coherence of our system

The Government have said that they do not want to pursue a pattern of constantly tinkering with legislation if we can possibly avoid it, so we must consider other possible solutions if they are available.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).