Paul Burstow: If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I want to ensure that I answer two or three of the key points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. One key issue concerned the role of a Minister for older people. I certainly share my hon. Friend’s view that we must ensure cross-governmental dialogue and

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gain a much clearer understanding of the interdependencies between different policies and actions across the Government as they affect older people. The Government are not currently minded to appoint a Minister with specific responsibility for older people, but my hon. Friend has made a number of suggestions that could be a way to look at the issue. I undertake to take the point away and discuss with colleagues how we might join up services in a better way. A number of colleagues across Government have various responsibilities and we must find ways to ensure a clear articulation of the Government’s approach to ageing and an ageing society. We must ensure that that happens not only nationally but locally.

It would be remiss of me not to pick up on the comments about Southern Cross. I did not quite catch the second question, so the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury may wish to remind me of it so that I can answer. She asked about landlords, and the answer is that work to ensure that the transfers could take place required that measure to be concluded. As I understand, all landlords involved have now been identified, but if I am misinformed I will write to the hon. Lady and give her the details.

The hon. Lady also asked about home closures. In the past, I have said that when Southern Cross first made its proposals for restructuring the organisation, it suggested that the medium-term future—the next three or four years—would involve a limited closure programme. It did not specify a number and has not done so since. In some ways that programme is no longer the programme being followed; Southern Cross is effectively managing its own demise and passing homes on to new operators, which will have to make judgments about the economic efficiency of those businesses and the welfare of the people living in the homes, and decide whether they can carry on. We must have good advice and support to manage any closures that take place, which is why I have said on a number of occasions that I welcome the work done by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services.

The hon. Member for Dartford raised an important point about tenure to which we must give serious consideration. I do not want to make a policy announcement about that today because the issue is complicated. We do, however, need to look at how we can give people a greater sense of confidence in the place they consider their home, and ensure that in the future they cannot be lightly tipped out to find a new care home. I will write to the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury about the second question to ensure that she gets an answer.

I appreciate the warm words of support—broadly speaking—that have come from all parties about the Dilnot inquiry and the appetite to get on with action. I will ensure that that appetite is well understood across Government. We are clear that the report submitted by Dilnot in July makes an excellent contribution to providing a framework or scaffold around which we can take forward a wider reform of social care for the future. We will soon set out a further process of consultation not only about the details of implementing the Dilnot inquiry—he sets out a number of parameters in his report that are up for further discussion, not least the one mentioned earlier in an intervention—but about the wider issues of quality in social care that were referred to by the hon. Members for Wirral South

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(Alison McGovern) and for Newton Abbot. We will approach all those issues in a combined way that will lead to a White Paper next April—that answers the question raised by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford.

It is above my pay grade to announce what is in the Queen’s Speech; that has to be someone else’s job—probably Her Majesty, when she sets it out in detail, and the Prime Minister and the Cabinet who make those decisions. The Government remain committed to legislating at the earliest opportunity to bring in the Law Commission’s reforms and address the question of funding reform. I hope that answers the points of concern that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford also mentioned housing, and she was right to talk about choice. That underscores the need for a cross-departmental approach to ageing and an ageing society, and I will raise her comments with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government. Given his responsibilities for supporting people, it is important that I do that.

Prevention underlies many points that have been raised today and there is much we can do both to prevent admissions into hospital appropriately and to manage hospital discharges better. The increased roll-out and use of personal budgets will play a part in that, and will provide people with more control over the packages and nature of the care they receive.

The contribution made by the voluntary sector and charities has rightly been highlighted in this debate, in particular the role that such organisations can and do play in tackling social isolation. They also provide practical, low-level help—for example, helping to change a light bulb, which sometimes seems to take for ever. We must ensure that communities feel confident to give that help and are given support to provide mutual aid. Through our work on the big society we are determined to see that through. Local councils have an important role in improving health and well-being through commissioning those low-level services, and that has been well described in the debate.

The hon. Member for Newton Abbot expressed some concern about the role of the CQC. Like her, I met representatives from the care sector to discuss their views about what will soon be the first full year of operation for the CQC. The CQC was established in 2009 but has been fully operational only since October last year. Not all of what it does and will do has been explained to care providers as clearly as it should have been, but some of those defects are now being remedied. Just last week I had the opportunity to visit the CQC and see the work it is doing to establish a new, much simpler website. That website will provide a lot more information to providers about how issues of compliance with essential standards are being addressed.

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Energy Powers (Wales)

12.30 pm

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Prynhawn da, Mrs Main. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I appreciate the opportunity to open this debate on the Government’s policy on devolution of energy planning powers to Wales, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I wished to give this speech in the report stage of the Localism Bill in May, when my new clause 11, relating to the transfer of powers to grant consent for electricity generating stations in Wales, was selected for debate. However, I was not called, as almost 50 amendments were selected for debate within two hours, and the guillotine prevented me from making a contribution. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to make points today that I wished to make then.

That new clause related to schedule 13 of the Localism Bill, which scraps the Infrastructure Planning Commission, transferring its power to the Secretary of State. During my 2010 general election campaign—as my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), will be aware—I stood on a specific pledge to scrap the IPC. I am therefore delighted that Ministers in London have delivered for me to a certain degree on that point. At the time of the Planning Act 2008, my party, Plaid Cymru, along with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, opposed the creation of the IPC by the then Labour Government as undemocratic and taking political responsibility and scrutiny away from Ministers. We therefore welcome the Government’s decision to pull the plug on the organisation. The question, as it was in those debates in 2008, is where those powers should now reside. I fear that is where the coalition Government are undermining the second half of my election pledge, and where there is clearly some convincing work left to do.

The successful referendum in Wales earlier this year showed support and an appetite for devolution among the Welsh public, with around two-thirds voting in favour. The topics included in that referendum did not come from a wider discussion on the whole issue of the devolution settlement, but were chosen by the former Labour Government and included in the Government of Wales Act 2006. The referendum was fought within the narrow confines of the 1997 settlement regarding devolved policy fields. The key point about the referendum was that the yes campaign—which secured an overwhelming victory, far beyond anything I envisaged—used parity with Scotland as its battering ram. Equality with our Celtic cousins is a powerful message in my country, and it is a very dangerous political game for those who underplay that fact.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He will be relieved to know that at the time of the Government of Wales Act 2006, Liberal Democrats tabled amendments to seek the devolution he seeks on energy matters.

There is another inconsistency—not just the territorial one between Scotland and Wales—which is felt by many local people. On the one hand, in TAN8—technical advice note 8—strategic areas are defined by the National Assembly, yet the ultimate planning decisions for power installations over 50 MW rest in Westminster. Many people find it difficult to grapple with that inconsistency.

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Jonathan Edwards: I am grateful for that intervention, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman takes a consistent position. I will address some of those concerns later and will allow him to intervene if he wishes to do so. I am glad to hear the thrust of his comments.

We believe that unfinished business with the devolution settlement remains, which will come as no surprise to colleagues. Polls in Wales agree with us that criminal justice and policing should be devolved, as should broadcasting and financial powers. Natural resources and energy are other areas that we believe should be devolved to the National Assembly and our own democratic institutions in Wales. That is not a new discussion point. Indeed, the first bids in relation to the devolution of powers in the area of energy and natural resources were made in 2003, and a not particularly successful working group from the Wales Office, the Welsh Government and the UK Government tried to resolve the situation. The issue was raised again in discussions on the 2007 White Paper which preceded the Planning Act 2008, which created the IPC.

The argument is largely one of common sense, to add to the points made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). Local planning authorities in Wales, under Welsh Government policy, currently have the power to consent to new or increased electricity generating stations up to 50 MW, but anything greater on land is dealt with currently by the IPC and—following the introduction of the Localism Bill—by the Minister in London. My key point is that in Scotland planning powers for all energy developments are fully devolved. The 50 MW limit was written into the Electricity Act 1989 and imposed on the National Assembly on its creation in 1999. The 50 MW appears to be an arbitrary figure with no real justification for its existence. It makes little sense that a generating station of 49 MW should be decided upon in Wales, but 51 MW by the IPC in London or by UK Ministers. The issue is one of consistency of approach and of planning.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): This matter relates to discussions we had before the general election, when the Assembly seemed to be looking at changing that level from 50 MW to 100 MW. I have a fairly open mind about these issues and, as we have just had a referendum, I am reluctant to consider a change now, which is a point that the hon. Gentleman addressed earlier. Does he feel it is 100 MW—including everything, in Pembrokeshire as well—for these power stations?

Jonathan Edwards: That would be the difference between me and some of the London parties. I would favour full sovereignty over energy powers. I will address the specific point that the hon. Gentleman raises about the 100 MW level later and will happily allow him to intervene.

The National Assembly’s research service tells us that 39% of applications have been submitted to the IPC, the body that is about to be abolished; 26% of applications are with the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change; and 36% are decided by local planning authorities. Therefore, only a little more than a third of all decisions on applications to do with energy generating stations in Wales are based on planning policy devised in Wales. In my view, that is clearly unsatisfactory, as the purpose of devolution is to reflect Welsh feeling and attitudes. There is no denying that

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Wales wants to be a greener country and wants to specialise in renewables and the green economy. Indeed, sustainable development is written into the constitution of the National Assembly. However, if two thirds of planning applications are decided outside our borders and our jurisdiction, even though they may impact on us on a day-to-day basis, that is not power devolved, but power retained. I would hope that as part of the respect agenda, the UK Government would want to address that enormity.

The Plaid-Labour one Wales Government, to whom we were proud to belong, were very much in favour of transferring further powers to Wales. They were not alone, with environmental and civic organisations such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales and Friends of the Earth indicating their support and including it in their manifestos for this year’s National Assembly elections. The issue was raised during consideration of the Planning Act 2008, when the IPC was first created. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) tabled an amendment in Committee, but it was not moved. The Liberal Democrats then moved a similar amendment on Report.

The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) told the House:

“We have had detailed discussions, not just with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform but with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Wales Office.” —[Official Report, 2 June 2008; Vol. 476, c. 518.]

However, there is no easily available record of what those discussions entailed or what the conclusions were. I can only assume that the Labour Government in London denied their colleagues in Wales the right to have the powers I have set out.

To return to the 2008 Act, the Liberal Democrats pushed their amendment to a vote, seeking specifically to exclude Wales from the remit of the IPC. Labour voted against the amendment, and the Conservatives abstained. The Liberal Democrats, of course, voted in favour of their amendment, as did my colleagues and I. Those who voted for it included the right hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), who is now the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), who is now the Deputy Prime Minister.

Since then, the Welsh Conservatives have published their 2011 National Assembly election manifesto, which commits them to increase the present level from 50 MW to 100 MW. Likewise, Labour in Wales supports raising the bar. Even 100 MW is an arbitrary figure, but it represents a significant improvement on the current situation, specifically in relation to renewable energy-generating developments.

There therefore seems to be cross-party agreement in Wales, and there needs to be progress on the current situation. I can only hope that the London parties’ Welsh colleagues have agreed their proposals with their bosses in London, because there seems to be a divergence between the views of the parties in Wales and what is being said down here in Westminster.

My hope is that the issue can be dealt with in the Localism Bill, and my noble Friend Lord Wigley will table amendments to it in the other place. If the Bill cannot do so, however, I hope that it will be dealt with

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by the new commission that the UK Government have announced will look into further powers for Wales over the next few years.

I would like to highlight a point that makes a mockery of the current system in my constituency. My constituency is home to TAN8 areas. Those are specific strategic zones, which have been designated by the Welsh Government for the location of large onshore wind projects. Where there is a concentration of such developments, there will understandably be a public backlash, and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has been vociferous in setting out his concerns about developments in his constituency.

To mitigate such concerns, councillors in Carmarthenshire have proposed that the local planning authority adopt an enhanced 2 km buffer zone between individual projects and inhabited areas, and the proposal has great support among local people. However, even if Carmarthenshire county council adopts the policy, it will apply only to developments below 50 MW. Clearly, many developments in TAN8 areas will be above 50 MW. It is no wonder local people are confused; to be honest, I am confused myself. It is not only my constituents and me who want clarity. During a recent visit by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs visit to Düsseldorf, we met renewables investors, who informed us that having different planning guidance was a disincentive to invest.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): On that point, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the proposal for the Atlantic array, which will construct 417 turbines 15 miles off the south and west Wales coast and also have an impact on the north Devon coast. How would his plans take effect when two countries and a number of other parties have an interest in such a major offshore development?

Jonathan Edwards: I was going to say something about that in my concluding comments, so if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me—

Simon Hart: I can wait.

Jonathan Edwards: That saves me having to rewrite my speech halfway through.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to continue.

Jonathan Edwards: Thank you, Mrs Main.

Let me return to the new clause that I proposed to the Localism Bill. It would have included generating stations not only on Welsh dry land but in Welsh territorial waters. The intention was once again to ensure consistency between the aims of the Welsh Government and actions around the Welsh coast. Under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, consents for generating stations up to 100 MW are given by the Marine Management Organisation and, for levels above that, by the IPC. I see no reason why those powers should not be wholly transferred to the Welsh Government.

This is not an idle debate about devolving powers. A forward-thinking Welsh Government should look at the significant potential of our waters—the chance to generate clean, green energy and the economic potential that

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arises from it. The most prominent example of that would be the opportunity to develop a tidal lagoon in Swansea bay, which is usually quoted as being able to generate about 60 MW of electricity. The plan has been in the pipeline for decades, but we are still discussing how we can bring it into being. Giving the Welsh Government powers over electricity generating station consents at all levels would allow consistency of approach, add coherence to planning regulations and end the anomaly based on arbitrary figures for megawatt production.

During Third Reading of the Localism Bill, I made an intervention on the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who agreed to meet colleagues and me. It was a constructive session, and I thank him for the manner in which he listened to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and by me. He has since written to me to confirm some of the points raised in that meeting on 13 June.

First, the right hon. Gentleman confirmed the disparity between energy legislation powers in Wales and Scotland. It exists because, before devolution, planning law was devolved to Scotland but not to Wales. Therefore, the energy consenting role was transferred to the Scottish Parliament on its inception, but it was not given to the National Assembly for Wales. That historical precedent suggests that with planning powers now in the hands of the Welsh Government, energy consent functions should also be transferred. Will the Government confirm that they plan to honour that precedent in the long term?

The right hon. Gentleman’s letter also confirmed that there were more recent discussions with the Welsh Government in September and October last year. At the time, the relevant Welsh Government Minister argued that renewable energy consents in Wales should be increased from 50 MW to 100 MW, a position that has since become the official Labour line and has been taken up by the new Government in Wales. It was rejected by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who said that UK Ministers are responsible for meeting the UK’s renewable energy target and therefore best placed to take decisions on applications for larger renewable projects, and that UK Ministers are responsible for drawing up and designating national policy statements. I hope the Minister can explain why the Secretary of State has changed his mind and why he has performed a 180° turn on the position he voted for in opposition during consideration of the Planning Act 2008. I am sure the hon. Member for Ceredigion would like that clarification, as would I.

The argument seems to be that UK Ministers have decided the rules, so only they can participate in the game. That does not make for a coherent argument in a devolved United Kingdom, and it makes for even less of a coherent argument on energy, which is an international issue. On an issue where there is agreement across the board on the need for change in Wales, I would welcome an indication from the Minister that there will be proper bilateral discussion and debate, and that would probably best take place during the proposed Welsh Calman process, which will happen in the next few years.

It is clear that on energy, as on other devolved issues, communication is paramount. The hurdles can be overcome if the UK and Welsh Governments wish to overcome

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them. To address the point raised by the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), my colleague Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas told the National Assembly in a similar debate on 6 July:

“There is no reason why there should not be a renewable policy that could be co-ordinated between the nations of the UK. It is not for the United Kingdom to keep responsibility for itself in taking actions on behalf of Wales and Scotland, but a matter on which we should work together.

To finish, Wales should have the same responsibility as Scotland over the utilisation of its natural resources. Diolch yn fawr.

12.49 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing this important debate. I think I am going to disappoint him to a certain degree in not being able to agree with him on several matters of substance, but I am glad that we were able to start on a strong degree of consensus, by agreeing that scrapping the Infrastructure Planning Commission is important—not least to help him to deliver on his own manifesto commitments. He raised important issues to do with how major energy infrastructure projects in Wales should be determined in future. I congratulate him on the cogent and articulate way in which he did so.

I have 10 minutes to reply. I will write to the hon. Gentleman to make clearer any points that I am unable to cover in detail. He raised the Localism Bill, the abolition of the IPC, the referendum in May, inconsistencies between devolution settlements in Scotland and Wales, applications for consent under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989, and recent discussions on devolution of major energy infrastructure. He also raised cross-party agreement in the National Assembly about devolution in Wales, several issues to do with technical advice note 8 strategic search areas, the impact on wind farm developments, particularly in his constituency and the wider area, and the different bodies making decisions on energy developments of different sizes in the same area; I agree that that can seem confusing, but we think that it has some strong underlying logic.

Overall, the Government’s policy on the area in question is clear: subject to the Localism Bill receiving Royal Assent, we believe that the right decision maker for major strategic energy infrastructure in England and Wales is the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. We believe that a streamlined planning system that minimises delay and unpredictability and, importantly, ensures investor confidence, is best delivered through a unified strategic planning system for major energy projects in England and Wales. Some may argue that it is not appropriate for UK Ministers to make decisions on major infrastructure applications in Wales. We would strongly disagree. UK Ministers are as accountable to Welsh voters as they are to English voters and, in the absence of any compelling evidence to support a change, we vehemently believe that it is appropriate for UK Ministers to take those important decisions on major infrastructure of national significance.

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A number of reasons have been set out to show why Welsh Ministers should make major energy infrastructure decisions, and I appreciate the points that the hon. Gentleman made, but the Government see no evidence for reconsidering our strongly held position. The coalition Government’s policy on the matter is exactly the same as that of the previous Labour Administration. It is important to consider the referendum on further Welsh devolution that was held on 3 March. There was a 63.5% vote in favour of the Assembly being able to legislate in a further 20 areas. I take this opportunity to wish the Assembly every success as it takes on that large tranche of new responsibilities. However, so soon after an important referendum on the scope of the Assembly’s powers, now is not the time to start to unpick things and revisit the question; it is not an appropriate moment to consider substantive changes to the devolution settlement as it affects energy consents. We need to leave the settlement as it is.

Jonathan Edwards: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that his party fought the recent National Assembly elections, after the referendum, on the basis of increasing the threshold to 100 MW? Is he saying that those manifesto commitments were not worth the paper they were written on?

Gregory Barker: No. What I am saying is that the overarching decisions in the area are informed by the coalition agreement of the Government. That is the basis on which we make our important decisions, and we stand by those.

In Wales, the Holtham report suggested that Wales is underfunded, and recommended borrowing powers and devolution of some taxes. The Government have said that they will consider the Holtham report with the Welsh Government and, following the commitment in the coalition agreement, will establish a commission to consider funding and finance for Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales has announced the outline of that, and there will be further announcements to follow.

The Localism Bill is currently going through Parliament. The Bill would amend the Planning Act 2008, abolishing the Infrastructure Planning Commission and returning decisions to democratically elected and accountable Ministers. The Government believe that the Planning Act regime and the changes proposed in the Localism Bill need time to bed in to ensure that important matter of investor certainty. That is another reason why we do not believe we should take the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions forward. It is important to note that the impact of the abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission for Wales is minimal, and no different from the impact for England. The pre-application and examination procedures will remain the same and they will be handled by the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit, the IPC’s successor. However, final decisions will be made by Ministers accountable to Parliament.

It has been pointed out by the hon. Gentleman that the current planning system is confusing, as different authorities determine different-sized energy projects. That was an important part of his argument. We acknowledge that, for example, wind farms of different sizes in the same area are given consent by different bodies in both England and Wales: so a wind farm of 50 MW or less would be given consent by a local

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authority, while a neighbouring wind farm with a generating capacity over the 50 MW threshold would be determined by the Infrastructure Planning Commission, or, following its abolition, by Ministers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. We believe that thresholds must be set somewhere, and that on balance those I have outlined are the right ones for the national interest. There is still significant scope for smaller projects to be determined by the local authority. Major energy infrastructure, given its national significance, should be determined at a national level.

On whether there is already enough planned energy infrastructure capacity, it is sometimes argued that there is enough in the pipeline. However, projects under construction or with planning consent would only replace the capacity lost through closures, which is currently expected to be about 22 GW. That does not take account of the need to move to low-carbon sources of generation, or of the need to increase the amount of capacity available to take account of the switching that we will need from fossil fuel to low- carbon electricity in domestic heating and transport. There is no guarantee that any given project will receive consent, or, having received it, will be built. When projects have been registered with the IPC those are not applications for consent; the companies have registered their interest in the application process. Projects in the pre-construction phase are not guaranteed to be built. The Department’s White Paper on market reform shows that up to £110 billion of investment in electricity generation and transmission is likely to be required within the next decade.

We also acknowledge that Welsh issues should be taken into careful consideration for major energy infrastructure applications within the Principality, and, of course, they already are. Currently, IPC commissioners with expertise in Welsh issues are appointed to panels

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for Welsh applications. It is very important that, following the abolition of the IPC, Welsh issues should continue to be considered in major infrastructure applications.

Options are still being considered for how the new unit will work within the Planning Inspectorate. Welsh Government officials are significantly involved in that integration work. The national planning statements require decision makers to take into account where appropriate the technical advice notes in Wales, which have been mentioned at length in the debate. So Welsh policy issues have significance and will be taken into account when an important planning decision is made. We certainly regard the views of local people as important. All major applications for energy infrastructure in Wales are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, after the views of local people have been taken into account. There are two opportunities for local people to have their say: first, when applications are being prepared for the submission to the IPC, the developer must consult widely with the local community; secondly, during the IPC’s examination of an application, any member of the public can submit evidence to the IPC.

The review of TAN8 is a matter for the Welsh Government. If there is a review, we shall take due account of its progress while considering individual applications in respect of which it is a material consideration, but we would not expect to suspend our consideration of applications while any review of TAN8 is being carried out, unless requested to do so by the developers concerned.

I am sorry that, because of limited time, I have not had the opportunity to reply at length to the questions posed by the hon. Gentleman but, as I said at the outset, I shall be happy to write to him on further specific points.

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Special Needs Education

1 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I shall begin by declaring an interest. I am patron of Diverse Abilities Plus, a Dorset charity that, among a range of activities, runs Langside school. I have a long acquaintance with the charity, which was formerly known as Dorset Scope, and with the school. I have seen the school’s intake change over many years; the children now have extremely complex needs. It is a fantastic school. Sadly, since the last boundary changes, it is no longer in my constituency, but I share its concerns about the future. The Minister will be aware that I have an equal passion for Montacute school, a maintained school that I expect to gain academy status; the children there also have complex needs. I believe that the schools complement one another, and that both should be allowed to thrive to ensure that we give children with disabilities the very best start in life. The charity’s name change reflects well on the positive outcomes that can be achieved with the right support.

I welcome the Government’s recent Green Paper on special educational needs, and its vision to improve outcomes for children and young people who are disabled or who have special educational needs. In particular, I believe that there is widespread support for a joint education, health and care plan, and I share the Minister’s aim to minimise the adversarial nature of the system for families. The role of special schools in providing specialist expertise is also recognised. However, concerns have been expressed about the provision of special needs education by non-maintained and independent special schools, which cater for around 13,000 of the most vulnerable children in the country who have wide-ranging but complex needs.

As well as Langside School, I have been contacted by the National Association of Independent and Non-Maintained Schools—NASS—which reminds me that I know well and value highly another of its members, the Victoria centre in Poole. I have also heard from I CAN, the National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism. I CAN has two special schools, Meath school in Surrey and Dawn House school in Nottingham, which specialise in providing intensive support for pupils aged four to 19 who have severe or complex language and communication needs. As well as supporting children directly in their settings, I CAN schools provide outreach to the mainstream, facilitate academic research and provide an assessment service for local authorities and parents. Both schools were rated as outstanding in the 2011 Ofsted inspection care reports.

The National Autistic Society provides six specialist schools for children with autism and complex needs. Inspectors recognise that those schools are excellent and provide good out-of-school services. Ambitious about Autism runs the TreeHouse school, with its outstanding provision; I am proud to have visited it. I mention those schools to give a flavour of the type of school that I wish talk about today.

I thank the Minister for generously allocating time to meet representatives from NASS earlier this year. However, its concerns remain and I am pleased to have secured this debate so that I can seek further clarification about the future of the sector in the Government’s vision for

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provision for children with special educational needs. There is deep concern that non-maintained and independent special schools are misunderstood or have been overlooked by policy makers. As a result, the sector faces a number of challenges in connection with its funding arrangements and the policy environment in which it must operate.

Ambitious for Autism has written to me, and I would like to share what it says with the Chamber. The Minister will be aware there are over 70 non-maintained special schools; they are approved by the Secretary of State for Education under section 342 of the Education Act 1996. To become approved, the schools have to be non-profit making and have demonstrated that they operate to a level at least equivalent to state maintained special schools. Their day-to-day running must be controlled by a governing body, the articles and instruments of which are to be agreed by the Secretary of State. To keep that status, schools must comply with the non-maintained special school regulations. Local authorities fund pupils to attend them. The schools cater for pupils with extreme and/or low incidence difficulties, and they provide specialist schooling.

The charity writes:

“While we welcome the diversification of provision for children with special educational needs, the creation of special academies and special free schools has created additional complexities and uncertainties for the special school sector.

Non-maintained special schools share many key characteristics with special academies and free schools, in that they are effectively special schools with freedom from local authority control but are not independent schools. However, the funding systems for these types of schools are all different, which creates unnecessary complexity and confusion in the system, as well as the potential for an unfair playing field.

Furthermore, special schools are being asked to apply to become special academies and special free schools without adequate information about the funding implications. This information is essential if the Government is asking schools to consider these options and make informed decisions.

Ambitious about Autism is increasingly concerned that a new and separate model is being developed with very little regard for the impact that this may have on a large number of highly successful schools that continue to provide an excellent education to some of the most complex children in England. We would welcome the opportunity to further engage with Ministers about new funding arrangements.”

For the purposes of this debate, I turn to the Green Paper on SEN, and specifically to page 52, which clearly states that parents will have the right to express a preference for any state funded school, including academies and free schools, but that does not seem to extend to non-maintained and independent special schools. That is despite the Government’s commitment to develop a national banded framework for funding provision for children and young people with SEN that has the potential to create greater transparency of funding. That needs clarification, as both non-maintained and independent special schools are usually funded by local authorities rather than parental placements, which means that in legal terms they are similar to academies and free schools and have less in common with the mainstream independent sector.

NASS is concerned about a response given by the Minister to the Select Committee on Education, which it says implies that parents will get the choice of a non-maintained and independent special school only after other local options have been considered. The association believes that this exclusion is based on untested

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assumptions that non-maintained and independent special school placements are always more expensive than similar placements in the maintained sector, and it calls on the Government to give parents the right to express a preference for a non-maintained or independent special school.

I hope that the Minister recognises those concerns and that she will give a clear answer on whether parents will be able to choose non-maintained or independent special schools. We also need to know why parents are given the choice of free schools but not schools from the non-maintained or independent sector.

The perception is that places at non-maintained special schools are consistently more expensive than local authority provided packages of support for children with the same level of need. NASS quotes the Minister as speaking of parents pressurising local authorities for expensive independent school places, but that should not be needed if the Government get early intervention right. There are two issues here: is provision more expensive, and will early intervention obviate the need for highly specialist provision?

On the first, as a former chair of education for a small local authority, I understand only too well the financial pressures of providing expensive placements. The costs of providing the right services for a child with complex needs are high. However, a local authority should not have to fund entirely these low-incidence cases, as such highly specialised provision is likely to be provided over a wide area.

In a recent constituency case, a young person with autism needed a highly specialised course that entailed residential provision. Some children and young people with autism and many other conditions have extremely complex needs and need highly specialist provision with perhaps a 24-hour curriculum. Obviously, in this period of reduced resources, it is crucial that the Department for Education and local authorities do more to achieve better value for money in the commissioning and delivery of special educational needs. As there is lack of information available in the SEN sector about cost-effectiveness, I urge the Department for Education to commission research on the cost of placements in the non-maintained and maintained special school sectors. The non-maintained sector obviously has accommodation, social care, health and allied therapy costs that will be reflected in direct financial transactions, so we need true costings for both sectors. That would go some way towards ensuring that there is a level playing field between the non-maintained and maintained special school sectors and that value for money is delivered at this time of fiscal restraint.

What evidence can the Minister point to that indicates that places at independent and non-maintained special schools are consistently more expensive than local authority packages of support for children with the same level of need? If there is no evidence on that at the moment, can it be collected?

There cannot be any disagreement about the value of intervention in early childhood for children whose needs can be identified early. In addition, the SEN Green Paper asserts that good early intervention will reduce the need for placements in non-maintained and independent special schools. NASS is concerned that that reinforces the view that placements in its sector are made only as a result of family breakdown or poor early placements. The small group of children who actively benefit from

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residential placements would like the Green Paper to say more about the role of residential provision and how it will be supported or explored further. Will the Minister provide some comment on that matter?

NASS would like greater recognition by the Government of early intervention for emergent special educational needs later in childhood. Although those often relate to early life experiences, some social, emotional and behavioural difficulties are not apparent until later in the child’s life. Often such young people are then subjected to multiple interventions before specialist assessment and support is offered. NASS would like to see this group of children and young people better reflected in the Green Paper.

I have two specific concerns about the treatment of this sector compared with the maintained sector, particularly bearing in mind the fact that 99% of places are funded through the public purse as a result of local authorities making placements. In legal terms, it is very similar to academies and free schools, and it has less in common with the mainstream independent sector.

One concern relates to specialist school funding. NASS discovered by chance that funding for non-maintained special education schools had not been allocated as part of the move to direct school grant funding. It was concerned about that, especially as it seemed that those schools under local authority control had actually received a commitment that money would still be passed on to them. It seems that there was a communication problem within the Department, and the schools will now receive only a proportion of the money they were originally expecting. Clearly, there are some concerns, especially around communication.

At the end of July, NASS was made aware that new non-maintained special school regulations had been laid before Parliament on 8 July—they came into force on 1 September 2011. Neither NASS nor the schools had been made aware that that had happened. By then, schools were on summer holidays and were unaware of the new regulations to which they were returning in September. I am aware that NASS contacted officials at the Department for Education and also wrote to the Secretary of State for Education in August 2011, but it is still awaiting an official response.

Finally, special schools in the independent sector are concerned about Lord Hutton’s recent review of public service pensions. There is great concern that teachers in the independent sector might be excluded from the pension scheme, which would affect movement between the two different sectors quite considerably and could affect the supply of highly qualified and specialised teachers.

In conclusion, will the Minister provide assurances that the excellent specialist provision that the sector provides for some of the most complex children is recognised and is not hindered, and that there will be a level playing field in which such schools can operate?

1.16 pm

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this important debate. May I also say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main?

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I should like to cover three specific points that the independent sector has raised with me. First, will personal budgets proposed in the SEN Green Paper be available to enable parents to purchase provision in the independent sector? Secondly, is there any desire to implement the auxiliary aids and services provisions for education in the Equality Act 2010? That could have a huge impact on independent schools, with schools having to fund additional provision which, historically, individual parents have paid for under their contractual arrangement with independent schools.

Finally, if an independent school does not offer a place to a pupil with special educational needs, the school could be open to a disability discrimination challenge, while mainstream pupils who are refused places have no such rights. Is it right that an independent school should find itself in such a position? The place will have been refused for sustainable reasons yet the schools are “forced” to spend thousands in order to defend their position with no prospect of being awarded costs even if they are successful in defending the claim at a tribunal. I said that I would be brief. Those are the three specific points on which I seek clarification from the Minister.

1.17 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I think it is the first time that I have been in Westminster Hall when you have been in the Chair.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this useful and timely debate. I am aware of her long-standing interest in this issue. She kindly mentioned that I attended a meeting that she called with a number of schools from her area and nationally. I am grateful to have this opportunity to place some issues on the record and to clarify some of the points that she has raised.

Independent and non-maintained special schools play a valuable role in supporting some of our most vulnerable children and young people, many of whom have very complex needs, and they also have considerable expertise to offer other schools. My hon. Friend mentioned a number of schools in her constituency, outlined their particular expertise and what they are able to offer to children and families. I pay tribute to the impressive work that schools in her constituency and across the country do in supporting children and families. They make an invaluable contribution to supporting children and to the sector as a whole. Independent and non-maintained schools are an established part of the landscape of special educational needs provision in this country and they form an integral part of the diverse range of schools that we are seeking to establish, in order to improve choice for parents and support for children and young people.

In the time available to me, I want to try to pick up on the points that were made by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). Both hon. Members will be aware that this debate takes place relatively soon after we published a Green Paper on SEN and disability. We carried out a consultation that received 2,400 responses and we are

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going through all those responses. They were very varied, coming from education professionals, including teachers, families and health workers. Later this year, we will publish a formal response. So I take this debate in the spirit of that consultation. We are still in a period of gathering information and views about our Green Paper before deciding how to work through some of the proposals that we made and to ensure that we get the detail correct. During this period, we are also establishing local pathfinders to test out some of the best ways of delivering the change that we have proposed. We will announce details of those pathfinders later this month.

My hon. Friend made a number of specific points about naming schools and school choice. It is perhaps worth my placing on record what the Green Paper says. We are widening the range of schools from which parents can choose by enabling parents, teachers and others to set up free schools and by allowing existing schools to become academies. The free schools route also provides an opportunity for non-maintained schools to seek academy status if they wish to do so. We intend to change the law so that parents of children who would have an education, health and care plan have the right to express a preference for any state-funded school and to have that preference considered on the same basis, whether it is for a special school, a mainstream school, an academy or a free school.

My hon. Friend asked why we have not made a similar provision for parents to express a formal preference and then for local authorities to name a school if it is a non-maintained school or an independent school. It is about the original purpose of the legislation, which is to ensure that parents get that choice—often when a school may not choose to take the child. As she will be well aware, the process is that parents are able to express a preference and the local authority will then consider whether that is the right placement for that child, subject to the legal provisions about the best use of resources and whether it will have any detrimental effect on the education of other children. At that point, if the local authority agrees—if it does not meet the conditions, it has to agree—to place the child in that school, it formally names that school and the school is forced to take the child.

Of course, non-maintained schools and independent schools do not want to be forced to take a child and, in a sense, that is a point that the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham made when he raised wider issues about disability discrimination legislation. We have a diverse range of schools and there are balances of freedoms and restrictions applied to different schools. If non-maintained schools want to take on slightly different freedoms but also different restrictions, they have the freedom to apply for academy status, and independent schools have the ability to apply for free school status, as I outlined a while ago. In doing so, they trade some of the freedoms that they already have and gain different restrictions. Therefore, it does not make sense in that situation to extend the legislation so that schools would be forced to take a child, and I do not think that that is something that those schools would want to do. However, I stress that parents will continue to have the right to make representations for a place at a school that is not state-funded and the local authority must take those representations into account when it makes its decisions on placements. We are not proposing any change to that process in the Green Paper.

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My hon. Friend raised points about whether non-maintained special schools and independent schools are always more expensive. She quoted some things that I had said at a hearing of the Select Committee on Education. I think that they have been taken very slightly out of context. It is true to say that some independent schools and some non-maintained schools are more expensive than state-funded provision, but I have not said at any stage that all non-maintained special schools and all independent schools are always more expensive. It would simply be incorrect to say that. We have spoken to the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools on this point and we have tried to encourage it to submit its own evidence about costs to the review about school funding, which is ongoing. We are out to consultation until about mid-October and we encourage those in the sector to submit what evidence they have about costs and to say whether full costs are being taken into account. Such evidence would be very useful when we are considering what we do with pupils, particularly those high-cost pupils about whom my hon. Friend spoke earlier.

It is also worth saying that local authorities are obliged to make decisions about placements on an individual basis. There is no doubt that for some children attending an independent or non-maintained special school will be absolutely the appropriate and right course of action for them, and the local authority is then required to fund a place for the child at that school. In fact, the number of children who are being educated in the independent sector has risen, not fallen, during the past five years.

My hon. Friend made some points about a local offer and the information that is available to parents. Local authorities already have a statutory duty to give parents information about non-maintained special schools and independent schools in their area. It is up to local authorities to decide whether to include that information in their local offer and that is something that we would like local authorities to develop on a local basis.

My hon. Friend did not mention the issue of the work force, but I wanted to make a couple of points about that because NASS raised it with us in its response to our consultation on the Green Paper. Independent and non-maintained special schools can now apply to become teaching schools if they are rated “outstanding” by Ofsted and have experience of collaborating with other schools. As I said earlier, however, those schools have such a lot of expertise that I want to encourage them to join an alliance with other schools in their area to form a teaching schools partnership, so that we can ensure that we are making use of the expertise that they have.

My hon. Friend very fairly made some criticisms about communication between the Department for Education and other organisations, particularly NASS,

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in the past few months. Those criticisms are absolutely fair and valid. Indeed, I wrote to Claire Dorer of NASS just this week to say that some of the failures of communication have been, in my view, inexcusable and that I am absolutely determined to ensure that they are not repeated. The Department is in regular contact with NASS on many of the points that my hon. Friend has raised. It is not an excuse, but by way of offering an explanation I will say that there has been some reorganisation within the Department about responsibility for some of these issues and unfortunately that has led to some issues of miscommunication.

I will come back to the other points that my hon. Friend made, but first I will address the specific questions that the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham asked. He asked about personal budgets and whether parents would be able to buy provision in the independent sector. The answer is yes, but we think that it is unlikely to apply to the whole school place. That is something that we are testing at the moment through our pathfinder schemes, but we think that it is unlikely to be practical to apply to the whole school place. Of course, as I stated a short time ago, if that provision is correct for a child, local authorities are already bound to fund the whole school place anyway, but they may well be able to pay for some of the extra provision that might be offered in a particular school.

Are we going to implement the auxiliary aids and services regulations? It is our intention to do so. There has been some delay in our doing so. Of course, the regulations will apply to all schools and not just to independent schools; all schools will be bound by them.

The hon. Gentleman also made the point about independent schools being open to disability discrimination challenge if they fail to accept a child. That is the flipside of the other point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole made earlier about naming a school. If a school is state-funded, the local authority can specifically name it and ensure that it is forced to take a child. It is a similar attempt to protect things for families.

In the last minute available to me, I want to respond to the points that my hon. Friend made about the Hutton report. We are, of course, looking at this issue as we consider how to deal with the detail of the recommendations made by the Hutton commission. There will be some issues to balance about what we do and there are, of course, pros and cons attached to private sector bodies’ participation in public sector pension schemes. That is something that we will have to consider with the teaching profession as a whole, but I understand the points that my hon. Friend raised.

In the time available to me today, I have done my best to answer all the points that my hon. Friend has made. There are two other points about funding on which I will respond to her in writing, but I hope that I have responded to all the other points that she has raised.

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Palestinian State (UN Membership)

1.30 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I am very grateful, Mrs Main, to have the opportunity to debate this very important and timely issue. I thank the Minister for being with us today; I realise that since he has been in government, as Minister for Europe, this matter has not been his brief, but I know that he is well versed in it because it was part of his shadow brief. I very much hope that he will be able to give us some idea of the UK Government’s current thinking. I thank also the hon. Friends and hon. Members on both sides who are present; the level of attendance reflects the interest in the subject.

The context of this debate is the early-day motion that was tabled yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). She wished to be with us today but unfortunately could not be. The early-day motion calls on our Government to recognise an independent Palestinian state, alongside Israel, and to support its admission to the United Nations. The early-day motion is already supported by over 40 right hon. and hon. Members, and I am sure that more will add their name in the coming days.

Time is very limited, and before I move on to the issue of Palestinian statehood, I want to say that recent weeks have given us all a timely reminder that this conflict has already claimed far too many lives. We have seen Israeli and Palestinian civilians killed, including children on the Palestinian side. At least 15 Palestinians and nine Israelis have been killed in the past few weeks, and many more have been injured. I am also concerned about reports that the Israeli military is apparently planning to train settlers in the west bank and arm them with tear gas and stun grenades, and that it is talking up confrontation around the possibility of a vote at the United Nations in a few weeks’ time. I would be grateful if the Minister briefly explained what representation the UK Government are making to the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli Government and others, to encourage them to avoid any escalation of violence or confrontation in the run-up to the UN meeting.

Every debate and I think virtually every Foreign Office questions I have attended since I have been in this place in which the subject of Palestine and Israel has come up has returned to the fact that we all support a two-state solution. Based on what we say, I think that few things have a greater degree of consensus in this House, but what the Palestinians are asking of us now, in their initiative at the United Nations, is no more and no less than for us to mean it—to do what we say. The Palestinians are not asking for anything that Israel has not demanded and had recognised by the international community for more than 60 years.

I hear opponents of recognition suggest that the recognition of Palestine as a state and its admission to full membership of the United Nations should be treated differently—that somehow it is a way of avoiding the urgent need for a negotiated settlement. I do not believe that those two things are contradictory.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate at such an important time. I have recently returned from a trip to

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the Gaza strip, where I learnt at first hand about the plight of the Palestinian people. A third of them depend on food aid, which is under threat. From talks with politicians, the United Nations and others, it appears—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): May I ask the hon. Gentleman to keep his remarks brief? A lot of people might make interventions.

Alex Cunningham: Okay. In talks that I was involved in, it was clear that the Palestinians felt that they did not have a voice. Does my hon. Friend agree that the granting of UN membership will provide them not only with that voice but with equality with others on that world stage?

Richard Burden: My hon. Friend makes a very good point about equality, because Israel is recognised as a full member of the United Nations and I am not aware of any state that says it should be derecognised as such. Israel has internationally recognised borders, delineated by the green line, and that has not been seen as an impediment to a negotiated settlement; indeed, in some cases recognition of Israel is seen as a precondition to a negotiated settlement. The Quartet has even suggested that individual political parties should be excluded from peace talks unless they sign up, unilaterally and in advance, to recognition of Israel.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Burden: Before I give way I want to say that I will take as many interventions as I can, but we are limited to half an hour and I want to allow the Minister time to make some remarks.

Jack Lopresti: Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that granting the Palestinian Authority UN membership would embolden extremists, who would view it as a reward for refusing to make concessions for peace?

Richard Burden: No, I do not agree. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to talk about the fact that having extremists in government should be an impediment to recognition of the state that that Government represents, he could perhaps look at some members of the Israeli Government, particularly the Foreign Minister.

As I have said, the Quartet has even suggested that some parties should be excluded from peace talks unless they sign up in advance to recognition of Israel, but if recognition is so fundamental in respect of Israel, what is the problem with recognising Palestine as a state, as requested by the Palestinian people, and accepting it as a full member of the same United Nations, with precisely the same borders as those that are recognised for Israel—in other words, the green line?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend not recognise that a big problem is that Israel is occupying large parts of Palestine and, more importantly, that Israel refuses to recognise what its own borders are?

Richard Burden: Israel does appear to have the problem of not being able to decide exactly where its own borders are, but the international community is very clear about where they are, as are successive United Nations resolutions: the green line.

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What the early-day motion simply says, and what I and the Palestinians are saying, is that the same border should apply on both sides, for a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. When the Minister responds, will he give the UK Government’s view on that? Does he see recognition of a Palestinian state as an obstacle to a negotiated settlement, and if so, what impediments has he identified, and why does he believe that they would hinder such a settlement? Why, if they are impediments to the recognition of Palestine, are they not seen to be impediments to the recognition of Israel that we all accept? If the Minister does not agree that recognition is an obstacle, does he agree that recognising Palestine at the United Nations would not prevent the future negotiations, which we all agree are needed to reach a lasting settlement, from taking place?

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I declare an interest as a member of Friends of Israel. Does the hon. Member agree that Palestine should also recognise Israel in every sense of the word, and that part of that recognition should be that terrorist attacks coming from Palestinian lands towards Israel should cease? Does he agree that that would be a gesture that should be done as well?

Richard Burden: I and, as far as I know, everyone in this room is on record as calling on both sides to cease violence against the other. If the hon. Member is active in Friends of Israel he would perhaps already be aware that Israel is recognised: Palestine recognised Israel many years ago. Israel is a member of the United Nations and no one has called for it to be removed, or for its derecognition.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): When we visited Lebanon in January, we were impressed by the offer by that country’s Prime Minister that if the Palestinian Authority or, in fact, a UN-recognised Palestinian state, gave an identity card to the people of Palestine living in Lebanon, those people would be freed up to take up employment and break through all the barriers that do not allow them to have a decent life in that country. Is that not another incentive for the UN to recognise the state of Palestine?

Richard Burden: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am not alone in making the points that I am making in this debate. As the early-day motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley notes, 122 countries, representing nearly 90% of the world’s population, recognise Palestine. Even among Israelis, polls suggest that 48% support recognition and only 41% oppose it.

What is more, last year, President Obama set a target of September 2011 for welcoming the independent sovereign state of Palestine as a new member of the United Nations. That aim was endorsed by the UK last year. The Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, has been congratulated many times by the international community and in this place for the state-building work that he has led, and the Palestinian Authority have been congratulated by many leading international organisations. Recent reports by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the UN have all said that not only is Palestine ready for statehood, it already operates as a state in many ways. Does the Minister share the view of those major institutions that Palestine

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has proved itself ready to function as a state? If not, what more does Palestine need to do either to be recognised as a state or to gain full membership of the United Nations? If the two differ, what must Palestine do to meet each requirement?

Statehood does not solve everything. A negotiated settlement will still be needed, and the parties will still need to come together to agree the many difficult issues that lie at the heart of the conflict in the middle east. However, the Palestinians look at it in this way. The international community’s continuing unwillingness to make recognition of Palestine’s right to statehood more than theoretical means that in practice, Palestine’s chance of achieving a two-state solution shrinks with every month that passes. It shrinks with every settlement built or expanded in the west bank. It shrinks with every roadblock that cuts the west bank into Bantustans. It shrinks with every Palestinian home demolished in east Jerusalem, with every Palestinian farmer cut off from the land that he or she cultivates by the construction of Israel’s barrier within the west bank rather than along the green line and with every olive grove destroyed by Israeli settlers. It shrinks with every Gaza fisherman prevented from fishing in waters off the Gaza coast, with every Palestinian workshop prevented from exporting its goods from Gaza into Israel or the wider world and with every truckload of reconstruction equipment prevented from entering Gaza to rebuild homes shattered by war.

That is why Nabil Abu Rudeina, the spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, said recently:

“As long as Israel’s settlement activities continue and as long as Israel refuses to accept the 1967 borders, after 60 years of occupation, we have no other choice but to turn to the international community. We are not declaring war. We are applying to the United Nations.”

After the Arab spring, at a time when the UK Government have been at the forefront of support for people calling for self-determination across the middle east, are we really saying that the Palestinian people should be different? If not, we return to the essential question. It is not about what we keep saying; it is about deciding what we are going to do.

The EU has said clearly that individual states must make up their own minds on the matter at the UN. When will the UK decide whether it will recognise Palestine and support its admission to full UN membership, if that is the recognition that the Palestinians ask for? In practical terms, what is preventing the UK Government from doing so now?

It is time to help to level the playing field and to support alongside the independent and recognised state of Israel an independent and recognised state of Palestine. Both peoples’ legitimate right to self-determination must be realised. The two states can then enter into negotiations on an equal footing to agree the details of a lasting and peaceful two-state solution and the final borders between those two states based on justice and international law. That is all that the Palestinians ask. Why is it so difficult for us to agree to it?

1.44 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I thank and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) not just for securing this important debate but for the way in which, for many years, he has championed the cause of the Palestinian

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people with commitment, passion and, in my experience, always with immense courtesy to other Members, whether they agree with or differ from him on the issue. The events in the middle east are important to him and to everybody in the House; the attendance at this debate demonstrates the importance that the House gives to the matter.

It is also right for me to say that despite everything else that has been going on the Arab world in the past 12 months—in north Africa, Syria and Lebanon—the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) have consistently held the view that finding a just and peaceful settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians must remain a central part of British and international policy towards that region. I have heard my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary say on many different occasions that what has been happening in the Arab world makes it more urgent, not less, that the international community should use every bit of leverage that it has and every bit of diplomatic energy that it can spare to press for that settlement to be agreed sooner rather than later.

This is the 20th year of the middle east peace process, and it has been 20 years since the Madrid conference was launched, but if we are honest, not much has changed for Palestinians and Israelis in the 20 years since the Oslo accords were signed. Israelis continue to face threats from violent extremists, and Palestinians, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, still have no state. The United Kingdom Government, whatever party has been in office, have long made it clear that peace in the middle east enabling a resolution of that long-running dispute has enormous importance for both global and regional security. The goal of the international community should be to ensure that this is the last year of process and the beginning of a lasting agreement between the parties.

After the events of the past few months, the world can no longer claim that change in the middle east will come slowly and incrementally, nor can we allow the middle east peace process to limp along indefinitely as it has done. If the peace process becomes a casualty of wider regional change, that will feed instability and violence rather than democracy and human development.

The Government believe that there is no alternative to negotiations to address all the fundamental issues at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict. A solution cannot be imposed from outside, although other countries can influence those directly involved. We want the parties themselves to redouble their efforts to break the impasse and resume negotiations for a two-state solution before the window to such a solution closes. Bold leadership is needed on all sides. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can afford to let the opportunity for peace slip further from their grasp. In our view, the two-state solution, however difficult it is and however narrow the remaining window of opportunity, is the only way to realise both the aspiration of Palestinians for a state of their own and the long-term security that Israelis deserve.

This month marks the time frame set out by President Obama for welcoming Palestine as a full member of the United Nations. September also marks an important

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waypoint in the Palestinian Authority’s good work on their state-building programme. I applaud and welcome the progress made by the Palestinian Authority on institution-building and financial management initiatives, which the United Kingdom has supported. We recently signed a memorandum of understanding to continue to support the Palestinian Authority in their work to build up the institutions of the embryonic state and support the Palestinian people. In the current financial year, the Department for International Development expects to provide almost £80 million to this end as part of a total of £275 million allocated to the occupied Palestinian territories for the next four years. We hope that the Palestinian Authority will complement this admirable work on state building with the necessary progress on the political track.

I understand clearly, and remember from the visits that I paid to the occupied territories during my time as shadow spokesman on the middle east, the sense of anger and growing frustration that exists among ordinary Palestinians at the things about which the hon. Gentleman has spoken—the settlement building, the roadblocks, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the construction of a barrier, the reason for which one can understand in terms of Israel’s security needs, but which goes beyond the green line and which, as the hon. Gentleman has said, in too many places separates working rural families from their farmland or makes it more difficult for Palestinian workers to travel to their accustomed place of work in Israeli-administered areas.

The Prime Minister made our position on UN recognition of a Palestinian state clear during President Obama’s visit in May. He agreed with the President that a Palestinian state was a legitimate goal, but the best way of achieving this was through a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

This is an important issue for Britain for four key reasons. First, as I have said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains one of our top priorities. Secondly, there is a sense of growing frustration and pressure among the Palestinian people, which threatens the stability that we have seen over the past year. At a time when we have seen people all around the Arab world fighting for, and realising, their rights to shape the societies and Governments under which they live, it is only just that the Palestinians too should realise their goal of an independent, viable state of Palestine.

Thirdly, the security of Israel and her prosperity matters deeply to the United Kingdom as an important strategic partner and friend. We have long said that Israel’s own need for long-term security can only be assured if there is a comprehensive settlement to the Israel-Palestine dispute, including the creation of an independent, sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that, under international law, Palestine fulfils all the requirements to become a recognised state?

Mr Lidington: I think that one could find different lawyers who would be prepared to argue almost any point of detail on that question. I want to come on to the point about national recognition and the UN position. I make it clear that the Government’s position is that we believe that, whatever we say or vote for in this Chamber and whatever is voted for in the United Nations, whether

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in the Security Council or the General Assembly, a lasting, enduring, peaceful settlement on the ground is something that, in practice, will only be secured through negotiation, not by resolutions passed in a particular place.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): In the context of all the negotiations that have taken place or that have, at times, broken down, we have often heard from Israel that the problem from its perspective is that it does not have a reliable, equivalent partner with which to negotiate. Would not some progress in terms of recognition of statehood remove some of the claimed problem that Israel says it has in the context of this very frustrating negotiating process?

Mr Lidington: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but we also have to accept the political reality that various acts have taken place in the past few years that have made it difficult to keep negotiations going. Direct negotiations of a serious character are not now taking place. In the absence of such negotiations, I think that there is simply going to be greater bitterness, greater difficulty and the narrowing still further of that window of opportunity for the successful creation of a two-state solution. I think that the emphasis for the United Kingdom and the international community should be on trying to get those negotiations back on track.

My fourth and final point about why this matters to Britain is that, of course, the dispute deeply affects the politics of the broader region, and the fluid dynamic resulting from the Arab spring makes the prize of stability that would come from an Israel-Palestine agreement even more significant.

We want to see a return to negotiations on the basis agreed by the Prime Minister and President Obama. The United Kingdom Government want to see borders based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, security for Israel, and the right for Palestinians to govern themselves in a sovereign and contiguous state. We see Jerusalem as being a shared city which will be the capital of both countries, and we also of course accept that there needs to be an agreed and just solution for Palestinian refugees.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being most generous with his time. Can he cast any light on the Government’s views on the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in particular, and what would happen to their status in respect of recognition of a Palestinian state?

Mr Lidington: The detail of that is something that will have to be worked out in negotiations. I think it is fair to say that the negotiations that took place between President Abbas and former Prime Minister Olmert began to address the issue of refugees, even though no final agreement could be reached before Mr Olmert left office. Our view on the humanitarian treatment of those people, particularly in Lebanon where there are some serious problems concerning the treatment of Palestinian refugees, is that we urge the host Governments to treat those Palestinian refugees fairly, humanely and equally.

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Richard Burden: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lidington: I will give way, but I am conscious that I want to respond to the key point of the hon. Gentleman’s speech.

Richard Burden: I hope that the Minister will do that and I will make my question brief. I agree completely with what he has said about the need for a comprehensive settlement to achieve peace, but my question is: do the UK Government see the recognition of a Palestinian state as an impediment to achieving that comprehensive settlement? If not, why do we not do it?

Mr Lidington: We think that the recognition of a Palestinian state is something that needs to be achieved within the framework of negotiations. That is certainly the best way in which to go about it. It now looks as if Palestinian action at the United Nations this month is increasingly likely. We are working closely with partners to build consensus on a way forward that recognises the progress Palestinians have made on their state-building efforts, that meets Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and that avoids confrontation at the UN, which would have a damaging effect on the resumption of negotiations. Whatever action is taken in New York, it is important that that increases and does not diminish the prospects for a return to negotiations. We have reserved our position on the question of recognition of a Palestinian state while we continue to urge all parties back to talks. Recognition is a matter for each Government to decide bilaterally and, if needed—no resolution has yet been tabled—we will take a decision nearer the time, in consultation with the European Union and other partners.

It is important to remember that action in the UN is not an end in itself. September is not the closing date for resolution of this conflict. What happens afterwards is vital, which is why our goal remains ensuring that steps are taken now to pave the way for significant and conclusive talks, and why we believe it is vital that any action in the UN does nothing to endanger the prospect of such talks.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): As co-chair of the Liberal Democrat international affairs committee, I would welcome a British yes vote in September. Is not the irony of the American and Israeli position in opposition to this that both the United States and Israel themselves declared their own statehood in advance of the final resolution of their negotiated borders and many other issues?

Mr Lidington: The hon. Gentleman makes his point tellingly and well, but I will not be drawn into 1776 and all that. We want the new generation of Palestinians to grow up in hope, not despair, believing in a peaceful settlement with Israel, and not impoverished and not susceptible to terrorist recruitment. I want to assure the House that this Government will not cease in our efforts to support the parties in finding a long-term sustainable solution to this conflict that will make that vision a reality.

2 pm

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