[ Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]

Tom Blenkinsop: The hon. Gentleman is very generous with his time, and although we disagree, he is obviously fighting hard for his local patch. The only point I will make is about the regional growth fund and its significance in the north-south divide. I will go back to the nominal figures for how much was put into the north-east, for example. More, nominally, was going into the north-east. If the regional growth fund is such a great regional pot of cash, why is it less than the money that the Government are spending on mutualising the Post Office?

Eric Ollerenshaw: Yet again, because of the circumstance that we were left with by the previous Government. It seems we must go on repeating those figures. I think everyone understands—and that the hon. Gentleman knows it. I was not going to go into this—other hon. Members have mentioned it—but it is not just the regional growth fund that is relevant. There is also the national insurance contribution holiday for new start-ups, and the Localism Bill. Many Government Members believe that the Bill will equip local authorities to do a great deal more for themselves, and get through the sub-regional bureaucracy, which we have abolished, and do something for their areas. They are far more in the picture as to what is successful.

James Wharton: Opposition Members seem to think that the only money is Government money. Is not it the case that, because of careful targeting, funding through the regional growth fund is leveraging almost six times its own value in private investment, which is delivering the growth and investment that we need in our regional economies?

Eric Ollerenshaw: My hon. Friend makes the point about what we hope to get from the measures far better than me. All that I wanted to say to Opposition Members was what we have learned from the regional development agencies’ mistakes, their excessive bureaucracy and, in their last years, their failure to deal straightforwardly with business as business deals with things. Instead—

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab) rose

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab) rose

Eric Ollerenshaw: I am sorry; I must finish. I have only got a couple of minutes. Perhaps the hon. Gentlemen can intervene on other hon. Members.

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Opposition Members talked about instructions from Whitehall, but I think, as a member of an RDA board, we got new instructions every month from Whitehall about where the money should go and on what it should be spent. There was no real discussion with straightforward business about what it wanted to do. I hope that what is happening now is the beginning of that approach.

I want to finish with certain questions to Ministers, as other hon. Members have done. We see what we are doing as a beginning. There is a huge north-south divide, and the Government seem to be learning while they are doing; but we have questions about where we go from here with growth funds, and in continuing to deal with the north-south divide, which has got worse in the past 13 years.

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): I will call the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) next, but perhaps he will keep his comments short, because I intend to call the shadow Minister at 12.10.

12.4 pm

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Thank you for calling me, Mrs Riordan. I will be as brief and as quick as I can. I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing the debate, which has been interesting, not to say feisty.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving some grant to Princess Yachts, which does not appear on the list. It is a very big, important manufacturer of luxury boats in my constituency. To give some context, Plymouth is the largest conurbation west of Bristol, and 38% of people in work there are employed in the public sector. There is a desperate need to rebalance the economy. I am delighted that the application was made with cross-party support. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) and I were very supportive of the application, and we are delighted that it came forward. It is the second of the Plymouth applications to have been granted; the Western Morning News and Plymouth university gained some funding in the first round.

Plymouth has a fine reputation. It is a global centre for marine science and engineering, and the decision made by my hon. Friend the Minister to put moneys into a significant cluster of economic activity will pay significant dividends much further down the line. We need—most certainly in Plymouth, which is a low-skill and low-wage economy—to develop the business of understanding, so that we can compete with countries such as China and India.

The help to Princess Yachts has been a real fillip. There was a threat of the company—which is no longer British-owned, but owned by people in France—relocating. The owners were considering sites in eastern Europe, and had identified a place. We can now try to ensure something like 300 new jobs that might otherwise have gone abroad.

This has been a very useful debate, and I am grateful to the Minister for listening to the issues. However, I would argue that the south-west, which is never the sexiest of places economically, needs help. I encourage my hon. Friend to visit us, and see for himself some of the excellent work in the burgeoning private sector.

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12.7 pm

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan, as it was to serve under that of Mr Gray. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), not just on her timing, but on the excellence of the arguments that she put forward. Indeed, I welcome all the interventions and comments made by Labour Members, because we have been trying to address the issue in the round.

It is always important for hon. Members to speak up for their constituencies, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and others on both sides of the Chamber have done. However, the debate is about the overall effectiveness of the regional growth fund, and it is on its overall effectiveness, compared with previous funding streams, that it should be judged. It is relevant in that context to say a little about the comparison between the regional development agencies and the regional growth fund.

I am sorry that the Government do not like the repetition, but I repeat that it is a fact that the regional growth fund will have only a third of the money that the RDAs would have had over the same period. It is not surprising, therefore, that both rounds were massively over-subscribed. More than £6 billion-worth of bids were submitted for the two rounds, with only £1.4 billion up for grabs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge pointed out, in the second round, three out of every four bids put forward were—I will be charitable—not able to receive funding under the RGF. The Government have now rather slyly confirmed that there will not be a third round. The Minister might want to comment further on that, because it was certainly indicated previously that there would be. We must realise that the bids that have not succeeded face 18 months without the prospect of support from the regional growth fund, in what is probably the grimmest economic climate for many years.

Having said that, I should be charitable to the Government. It is perhaps not surprising that the regional growth fund has been so slow to get off the ground, and that the funding has been so slow to be allocated. Ministers from a number of Departments have spent months suggesting that the regional growth fund could be the cure for all ills. They are on record in Hansard as suggesting that the fund could pay for housing pathfinder projects, the York railway museum, and even the “silicon city” proposal in east London. Those plans were all lauded by Ministers as worthy bidders for the fund. Ministers have obviously been taking inspiration from the parable of the loaves and the fish in the Bible, but I have not seen either the Minister or the Secretary of State walk on water recently.

On 12 April, the Government announced the 45 winning bids, but well over six months later, nearly 90% of first-round bidders still had not received their cash from the Government. Doubtless that was why, on “The Daily Politics” show a couple of weeks ago, Andrew Neil rather unkindly, in his crisp fashion, asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a question to which she did not have a good answer. He said that:

“your coalition government, citing bureaucratic snags, has conceded that the £1.4 billion Regional Growth Fund has so far disbursed £5.8 million, why is government so useless?”

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James Wharton: Earlier in this informative debate, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) said that two and a half years of due diligence were conducted on the Sheffield Forgemasters loan, yet no money was given at that point. It is important that due diligence is conducted when Government money is given out. Regional growth fund money is often tied up with private investment, which can come first to allow projects to go ahead. Does the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) acknowledge that?

Mr Marsden: It is important that there is due diligence. I will come on to explain why that is, and why the Government do not seem to have done it well.

As I was saying, nearly 90% of first-round bidders had not received their money. It is not only the Opposition saying that. In yesterday’s “Today” programme, the chief executive of the North East chamber of commerce, James Ramsbotham, was asked whether the money will help. Referring to the second round, he said:

“It’s…difficult to say, because of…the first tranche of the RGF…not a penny has been paid”.

I assume that he was referring to the north-east. He also said that

“the businesses that it’s going to are…already doing incredibly well…I do believe that it’s worth investing in success…although there is clearly a lot of debate about whether there should be more investment in jobs and in infrastructure”.

He said that the delay was serious and needed to be addressed. When asked about whether the Government should have scrapped the regional development agencies, he said that One North East had worked rather well to promote the area for tourism and business, that nobody would be doing that now, and that it would be a loss.

That brings us on to a broader point about the way in which the Government got rid of the RDAs and the impact on the regional growth fund. One of our criticisms is that the process of filtering the bids has had little regional input. The RDAs had good expert advisers, who could have been used either directly in the regional growth fund bids or in local enterprise partnerships. However, because the process has been driven by two of the horses of the apocalypse, in the shape of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who wanted the mention of anything regional blotted out, those people have been lost. That is a great loss.

The Government have tried to hide behind excuses for the delays. Lord Heseltine stated last month that RGF money was never expected to come first, and that businesses would proceed with other sources of cash first. Yet the guidance on the RGF’s bidding criteria, as Opposition Members have already said, states that bidders would usually expect to receive the cash in line with other payments.

In the article in The Times that has already been referred to, the Minister made precisely that point. He talked about the problems that there had been with certain bidders not being able to draw down private sector funds, which was holding up the Government’s release of cash. The Government cannot have it both ways—they cannot on the one hand say that it is perfectly all right for the money to come at the end of the process, and on the other concede to The Times that the fact that the money has not been forthcoming is a

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serious part of the problem. That is part and parcel of the blurred and confusing way in which the Government have proceeded.

The Minister said in the article that due diligence should take about six weeks on average, but clearly that has not been the case; 40 bidders were still waiting six months later. Sometimes the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills seems to resemble the Spanish empire of Philip II, where the bureaucracy was so labyrinthine and took so long that a famous quote said, “If death came from Madrid, I would be immortal”. We all know what happened to the Spanish armada, and I hope that its fate will not befall the Minister, the Department or its officials. There is a serious point about how the Government have handled the process. I would like to hear from the Minister what will happen to the money that he says may not be distributed under due diligence.

It is also important to ask what input there is into the process within BIS. How many people are working on it? The Minister needs to answer the questions raised by the Opposition about external factors and costs, but I know from his answer to a question of mine on 8 September that only 11 full-time officials in the Department were working on the regional growth fund at that time. I leave Members to consider whether that is reasonable. Given that it has taken the Department a long time to deal with only five bids from round 1, how long do Members think it will take to deal with 119?

Although the scheme is called a regional growth fund, there appears to have been little or no regional input in the process, with decisions taken in Whitehall. Taking the panel as an example, we know who is on it, but 15 months after the process was launched, we still do not know clearly what the panel does and how it does it. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain precisely the link between the panel’s advice and the decisions made. That is extremely important, particularly in light of two articles in The Times and the Financial Timestoday. The FT article dealt with an issue that the Opposition have already raised—the interests of one of the members on the panel. The article in The Times drew some conclusions on how there seemed to be a relationship between the distribution of bids, political areas in the country, and companies that are significant backers of the Conservative party. That is for The Times to say; it is not for me to comment on. I prefer to take up what is said at the end of the article. The Minister has to listen to this. The article states that the process is getting a lukewarm welcome from the CBI and from the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, who said:

“The speed at which this funding is delivered will be fundamental to the success of the Regional Growth Fund.”

The Government must move faster. The deputy director general of the CBI said:

“Despite its size, this fund does not have the capacity to plug the finance gap. The Government needs to look at other funding options to help these firms grow.”

Those are exactly the points that the Opposition have made throughout the process. We believe in the principle that money that is meant for the regions should stay in the regions.

There are three key criteria regarding regional growth policy on which the Government should be judged: the conduct of the RGF and how adequate it is as a replacement for RDA funding; how adequate LEPs are

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to take over the RDA structures—I have already referred to the failings in the system—and mechanisms for releasing European funding to the regions. The Minister needs to address all those issues, particularly the role of investment in transport infrastructure.

The Minister and the Secretary of State preside over a fund into which they do not put any money—the money comes from the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport. That showed in the first few months, when, as I said, those Departments steamrollered the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and pushed it out of the way. It is now trying to claw back the role, but too much time has been lost in that process, and too much time is still being lost because of the incompetence of the process of due diligence.

12.19 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this debate. She will not be surprised to hear that I accept neither her analysis nor her arguments. One of the points that has come from the many excellent contributions, to which I will respond if I can in my reply, is the issue of confidence. The official Opposition will want to raise issues because good scrutiny is part of Parliament, but they should remember that confidence is important for business. Labour needs to be careful not to talk down the economy. I absolutely agree with balanced scrutiny, but point-scoring does not help our constituents, and we should bear that in mind.

The Government believe that if we are to have a sustained recovery, we need a resilient economy—an economy that is balanced between public and private, and between industries. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) made a good point when he mentioned the significant drop in employment in manufacturing during the 13 years of Labour Government.

We are also well aware that we need an economy that is balanced across the whole country, which is why we have set out a comprehensive approach to local growth to replace the old RDA system. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) was absolutely spot on: whatever individual cases may be made about specific projects, the sad reality is that after £16 billion and 10 years of an RDA system that was expressly established to close the gap between north and south, the gap got bigger. A responsible Government cannot ignore that simple fact.

Our strategy incorporates a range of elements, including the regional growth fund. It includes the local enterprise partnerships. The 38 in place cover 99% of the English economy. Local business and civic leaders set what they believe are the right priorities for their local area. We also have 24 enterprise zones, which will accelerate growth in key areas. In Yorkshire and Humber, the area of which the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge is a part, we see three specific enterprise zones—one in the Sheffield city region, one in the Leeds city region and one in the Hull and Humber area. With those programmes, we have ensured that where we are able to, given the difficult circumstances that we have inherited, we have put money into key infrastructure. For example,

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we have pressed on with the controversial high-speed rail investment, which is very important for the midlands and Birmingham and the whole north-east.

Tom Blenkinsop rose—

Mr Prisk: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to get on to the regional growth fund, I will let him come in at that stage.

The regional growth fund complements our other growth policies. Worth up to £1.4 billion of public money, it has two crucial objectives: to unlock the private sector investment to enable key projects to proceed, and to support areas that are especially dependent on the public sector, to enable them to have more balanced and resilient economies in the future.

We have had two popular bidding rounds, and the results of the second were announced yesterday. I am sorry that the Labour party is upset that not everyone won. Well, that is life. The reality is that it is a competitive fund, and it seems peculiar that Labour does not understand that rather obvious principle.

Let us look at round 1, which was the subject of Labour’s criticisms. We invited bids up to 21 January this year. We received 464 bids, the total value of which would have been something like £2.78 billion. In April, we were able to confirm the 50 conditional allocations, totalling in the region of £450 million of public money. Importantly, that £450 million of taxpayers’ money was offered up in the knowledge that having looked at those schemes, we could lever in investment from the private sector of £2.5 billion—a balance of five to one. I am pleased to confirm to the Chamber that more than half of the successful projects that we identified in April are already under way. When complete, the schemes in round 1 are expected to create or safeguard 27,000 direct jobs, or a further 100,000 indirect jobs. There are very good quotes from General Motors about how it that is already under way with the Vivaro van project in Luton. We have also heard about Bridon in Tyneside and Bentley in the north-west. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) mentioned Stobart, and up in Teesside, the restart project is under way.

What worries me about this debate—Opposition Members seem or choose not to understand this—is that the whole point about the programme is that the regional growth fund is designed to unlock private sector investment and lever it into schemes, and as anyone who has been in business knows, that means that payments made by Government will often come in the latter stages of development.

Tom Blenkinsop: Labour Members fully understand that public-led investment attracts private-led investment. Will the Minister confirm how many RGF projects have European regional development fund match funding, and whether the Treasury is retaining those ERDF funds from the regions?

Mr Prisk: There is a very small proportion of funds related to ERDF in round 1, and even fewer in round 2. My point, which the Opposition do not want to accept, is that when the public sector seeks to invest money, it is

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doing so to unlock the private sector investment. If we do not get that private sector investment, there will be a problem. The Opposition seem to believe that everything that we do should be measured solely and entirely by how much Government spend. Have they not learned from 13 years that it is how we spend the money that is important?

Angela Smith: There is the other issue of the assets that belonged to the RDAs, which could be used to help unlock private sector investment. What will the Government do with those assets? Are we going to have a fire sale, or will we use those assets to invest in infrastructure and private sector growth?

Mr Prisk: It is self-evidently the latter, which is why we established the local stewardship model. It is why in July we offered Members of this House the opportunity to meet Ministers, and why we are repeating that exercise on Thursday. We are determined to ensure that the assets are used for the benefit of the local economy. I hope that the hon. Lady will come to that meeting so that she can understand that.

Richard Burden: The Minister has talked about confidence and about unlocking and levering in investment from the private sector. Does he not accept that the performance of the RGF is important in maintaining confidence? Let me give him an example. As far as Longbridge is concerned, it is difficult to get the confidence from the private sector to unlock investment when the Government are not clear about what is going on. We can only point for so long to the investment that the previous Labour Government made by way of a new college and a new innovation centre. The private sector wants to know whether this Government back the Longbridge project as well. It really needs answers pretty soon.

Mr Prisk: After the dithering by the Labour party over Longbridge and that site, the hon. Gentleman should be a little careful about what he says. We made the situation crystal clear to the owners, the local enterprise partnership and the city council. Those discussions are in hand, and I am confident that they will be concluded successfully.

Jason McCartney: I thank the Minister for coming to the royal armouries in Leeds just a few weeks ago to speak to the Leeds city region LEP. Some 600 energetic, enthusiastic and positive business leaders are really moving forward with this. I take on board his point about business confidence. Camira Fabrics, Thornton & Ross Pharmaceuticals, Newsholme Food Group and Equi-Trek horse boxes in my patch are all going out there and making it happen. Does the Minister not agree that the regional growth fund is just part of the package for growth? We also have the enterprise zones, the LEPs and 450,000 apprenticeships; that is up 50%. Yesterday, a young entrepreneur got in contact with me about the enterprise allowance. The regional growth fund is just part of our package, while the Opposition only have an unfunded cut in VAT.

Mr Prisk: I could not have put it better myself.

Mr Marsden: Oh, yes, you could.

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Mr Prisk: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that flattering remark. May I return to the issue of due diligence? The Opposition tell us that the situation is disgraceful and has been going on for months and months. The reality is that the average time for due diligence is three to six weeks. That contrasts sharply with the performance of the Labour party when in government. It established the automotive assistance programme. It took 15 months for that to deliver a single penny. Why will the Opposition not accept their own failings?

Take the trade credit insurance scheme, which was launched as a £5 billion package. Thousands of people were supposed to benefit from it. In the end, one company benefited, at a cost of £81,500. When the Opposition talk about due diligence, they need to be a little careful about how they make their arguments. In particular, they should be careful about the reference to allegations in newspapers concerning individuals. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) referred to allegations about one of the panel members, Mr Moulton. Let me make it clear that Mr Moulton took no part in decisions on any areas in which he had an interest, and that includes in the decision on Redx.

Let me turn to the second round. That round has improved in leverage on the first round. It is not £5 of private money to £1, but £6 to £1. When we look at the scheme as a whole, we will see that a third of a million jobs are being safeguarded, and £8.5 billion is being levered in from the private sector to help many of the jobs and businesses to which many hon. Members have referred. I hope that the Labour party can look, just for once, at the facts rather than engaging in cheap point-scoring. This is an important debate. We all want jobs to be created; I hope that Labour will share in that debate.

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Alcohol (Under-18s)

12.30 pm

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): Thank you very much, Mrs Riordan, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in a Westminster Hall debate. I suspect that it is not what I am about to say that is causing colleagues to leave Westminster Hall so quickly.

At the outset, I declare an interest, in that the father of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is the Minister responding to the debate, is a constituent of mine. I hope that that fact might sway the Minister when he makes his remarks.

This debate has been prompted by continuing concerns in Newquay, which is in my constituency, about under-age drinking, including its health impacts, its role in causing antisocial behaviour and the part that parents can play in providing children with alcohol for consumption in an unsupervised setting.

The Chamber will be aware that, like many other seaside towns and many of our city centres, Newquay has had its share of problems associated with binge drinking. The Chamber may be interested to know that 5,000 unaccompanied 16 and 17-year-olds arrive in Newquay every year during a four-week period, mostly to celebrate the end of their GCSEs. Sadly, this annual pilgrimage—some might call it a rite of passage—has become associated with drink-related antisocial behaviour.

The tragic deaths of 16-year-old Paddy Higgins and 18-year-old Andrew Curwell in 2009 served as a wake-up call to the local community in Newquay that action needed to be taken to protect children and young people when they visit Newquay to prevent similar accidents occurring in the future. Newquay has risen to that challenge. The formation of the Newquay Safe Partnership has seen organisations and individuals including Devon and Cornwall police, Cornwall county council, residents, local businesses and organisations representing pubs and clubs, the off-licence trade and providers of accommodation working together to tackle alcohol misuse and irresponsible behaviour.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as has been stated in a recent report by the think-tank Demos, parental involvement is vital? That report shows that, if income, education, ethnicity and gender are discounted, styles of parenting are very influential, and it also showed that a combination of discipline, affection and parental involvement ensure that 16-year-olds are less likely to engage in dangerous drinking.

Stephen Gilbert: The hon. Lady has pre-empted a point that I was going to make later, namely that in many cases parents underestimate their influence on their children. She is right to quote the Demos research.

Public services in Newquay have risen to the challenge of dealing with under-age drinking. We have seen the introduction of Challenge 25, with staff being given training to spot fake identity cards; there is a confidential phone number to report proxy buying, which is the buying of alcohol by adults for children; and a code of conduct has been introduced for bar crawls. The police

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have introduced a “follow you home” scheme, which sees the local Newquay force inform parents and local authorities in an individual’s home town about instances of antisocial behaviour that take place on holiday. There are also new minimum safety standards for local providers of accommodation, and there is concerted police action to seize alcohol in the streets and on public transport. Coast Safe, an alcohol awareness and seaside safety lesson package for teenagers, was launched yesterday. It was put together with the help of Newquay schoolchildren, and it is sponsored by St Austell Brewery. It aims to provide a resource for schools across the country to reduce loss of life and serious injury among young people by encouraging sensible drinking and responsible enjoyment in seaside towns.

The cost of crime in Newquay in 2008-09 was more than £9 million. The success of the Newquay Safe Partnership is that it has reduced that cost by more than £250,000. Nuisance behaviour is down by 22%; violence is down by 7%; and drug offences are down by 14%. I commend all the people who are involved in the Newquay Safe Partnership scheme.

Although most parents want to introduce their children to alcohol in a responsible and measured way, one contributory factor to the binge drinking and antisocial behaviour that we see in Newquay, and indeed in other seaside towns, and it is a factor that the police remain concerned about, is the way in which some parents send their children to Newquay with huge amounts of alcohol. I will give some examples of this parental behaviour supplied by Devon and Cornwall police, which put the issue into context and which may benefit the Chamber.

One Newquay guest house has reported that parents regularly turn up with their children and a car boot full of booze. When told by the management that that is unacceptable, parents seek to meet their children elsewhere in the town to pass the alcohol to them. In one case, 67 cans of Special Brew were seized from four children who were visiting Newquay for a weekend. Another guest house reported finding 350 items of alcohol in one room that had been let out to just six children who were visiting Newquay. A local caravan site seized more than 353 cans and bottles containing alcohol from 16-year-olds during a 10-day period, including 117 cans of Stella and 5 litres of vodka. On one day in July this year, police confiscated 443 cans and bottles containing alcohol from children arriving in Newquay on public transport. One 16-year-old girl arrived in the town for a four-day break with £300 in her wallet, and later that same day she was found incapacitated by alcohol and her parents were asked to come to Newquay to collect her. A youth mentoring scheme reports that 70% of young people have been given alcohol by their parents.

As I have said, the vast majority of parents want to introduce their children to alcohol in a responsible and supervised way, but it seems that some parents are not considering the impact of leaving their children unsupervised in an unfamiliar town with large amounts of alcohol. When police and other local authorities or local people, such as the managers of hotels or guest houses, try to reproach parents about their behaviour, they are often met with hostility. Police were told by the

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parents of one 16-year-old boy, who had 64 cans of Special Brew seized from him, that they were “spoiling his fun”.

In Newquay, as in other seaside towns, local public authorities effectively adopt young people when they are in the town.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is making a fantastically positive speech about what has been happening in Newquay to tackle these very difficult problems. In case that people think that under-age drinking is a particular problem for Newquay, I want to back up my hon. Friend by saying that it is a problem all over the country and certainly in other seaside towns around Cornwall. It is important that we see this as a national issue and not just a problem in Newquay. It is also important that we learn from the fantastic work in Newquay.

Stephen Gilbert: My hon. Friend is exactly right that this is not a problem that is unique to Newquay. It is a problem that Newquay perhaps now has expertise in tackling, but I hope that the lessons that we have learned, the successes of schemes such as the Newquay Safe Partnership and the way in which we are now moving forward to tackle the parental supply of alcohol can be instructive to all parts of the country.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Should we not address not only the issue of parents sending children away to places such as Newquay with alcohol but the supply of alcohol that is routinely provided in children’s own homes? Indeed, should we consider making it an offence for parents knowingly to supply other people’s children with alcohol at parties on their own premises, which we would otherwise call proxy buying?

Stephen Gilbert: My hon. Friend has opened a can of worms by raising the responsibilities that parents have to not only their own children but other people’s children in their homes. Parents often underestimate their influence over their children, whether it involves setting an example or supplying alcohol for parties. She has made an excellent point, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it when he winds up the debate.

We know from research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which published a paper on this issue in June, that if a young person finds alcohol easy to obtain their chances of drinking excessively increase fourfold. Equally, if a young person sees their parents drunk, it doubles the chance that they themselves will get drunk. In that report, parents emerge as one of the crucial influences on teenage drinking. Shockingly, that research, which was based on a survey of 5,700 children, found that one in five children claim to have been drunk for the first time by the age of 14 and that half of all 16-year-olds report having been drunk.

Last weekend, further research from the schools health education unit showed that children as young as 12 say that they drink the equivalent of 19 glasses of wine per week. In that survey, 83,000 school pupils were questioned, and 4% of 12 and 13-year-olds said that they consume 28 or more units of alcohol a week, which is more than the maximum amount suggested in the adult weekly guidelines for alcohol. Clearly, it might not be possible or appropriate to use legislation to solve this widespread

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cultural problem, but we must ensure that legislation passed by this House does not create an opportunity for the problem to get worse. I welcome the steps that the Government are taking to crack down on people who sell alcohol to children, including the doubling to £20,000 of the fine for under-age alcohol sales and the extension of the period of closure that can be given as an alternative to prosecution when premises are found to have been involved in supplying alcohol to children.

I want the Minister to touch on a number of issues that continue to cause me and the police concern. The first is section 149 of the Licensing Act 2003, which prohibits the proxy purchase of alcohol by adults for children. The section has been successfully used in Newquay in a campaign supported by Crimestoppers, with a number of individuals being prosecuted when there was evidence that alcohol has been bought by an adult and supplied to a child. There is a clear problem, however, with parent dealers, who when questioned by the police often say that they did not buy the alcohol for their children—they just happened to have it and handed to them. Any well-prepared brief could drive a coach and horses through the attempted prosecution of a parent under that legislation.

Another legal avenue at our disposal are child neglect provisions, but they would apply only to under-16s, leaving a hole where the slightly older, but still vulnerable, 17 and 18-year-olds are. Will the Minister, therefore, undertake to review section 149, and look at tightening up rules on parental supply, perhaps stipulating that parents must be on hand to supervise the drinking of any alcohol that they supply to their children?

A second legislative hole is in the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997, which provides the police with the power to confiscate but to make an arrest only if the request to hand over the alcohol is not complied with. Because of the significant pressure on local police forces, it is often not possible for them to make an arrest even if such action is desirable, and their power in that regard must be strengthened.

I firmly believe that we must look again at alcohol pricing, and I have raised the issue in the House. Even with the changes recently announced by the Government, supermarkets’ ability to sell alcohol at prices that are so much cheaper than in pubs and clubs causes genuine concern to many people.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating this important debate. He has painted a powerful picture of the effect of alcohol misuse in his constituency. Does he agree that we must have a minimum price of at least 50p, as recommended by the British Medical Association, if we are to make a difference?

Stephen Gilbert: I am not expert enough to say where the price should be set, but I agree that the Government need to take a concerted look at minimum alcohol pricing, because what has been done to date does not go far enough. I firmly agree that minimum pricing is the only real way forward. The hon. Gentleman’s point is backed up by a 2008 report by the university of Sheffield, which showed that minimum pricing is the best way to reduce alcohol harm, and the report forms the basis of

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a handbook being produced by the World Health Organisation on its approach to dealing with alcohol-related harm.

The Minister will be aware, as early-day motion 2264 makes clear, that of the 4,000 price promotions under way in February, only one would have been affected by the current Government policy to prevent the sale of alcohol at a cost below duty plus VAT. Will the Minister undertake to meet me and representatives of Devon and Cornwall police to discuss minimum alcohol pricing and the further steps that the Government can take? Will he also look, with colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, at the ubiquity of alcohol in supermarkets? If a licensing regime and hours are felt appropriate for clubs and pubs, should they not also apply to supermarkets and other outlets? The Minister will be aware that the Association of Chief Police Officers is considering a national policing alcohol harm reduction strategy, which covers the role of parental control and supply. Will he engage with officers who face this problem across the country, and take concrete steps to help the police to keep children safe?

The problem of alcohol abuse requires a deep-seated cultural change. A single debate here today will not achieve that, but I hope that it will help to promote discussion about parents’ role in supplying children with alcohol for unsupervised consumption. As well as ensuring that the police have the necessary powers to combat under-age drinking, we need a greater emphasis on education. The charity Drinkaware has recently launched a “Your kids and alcohol” campaign, which emphasises the importance of parents talking to their children from an early age about drink, ideally in their pre-teens before the influence of peers increases. Drinkaware’s advice to parents is clear, “You have more influence than you think.” Most parents assume that they are the last people their children would turn to to talk about alcohol, but research shows that children between the ages of nine and 17 would go to their parents first. Parents need to talk to their children, and keep talking, before their friends do. Giving children the facts earlier ensures that they get accurate information with which to challenge what their friends tell them and make responsible choices.

We all enjoy a drink, but we must recognise the dangers that unsupervised drinking can present to children and the need for parents to help educate and protect them. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) on securing this debate, and on his approach in advancing the case about parents’ responsibility in respect of their children. I also congratulate him on representing such a wonderful constituency. Many of my family members hail from the area around St Austell, and I have very happy memories of spending lots of time there during my childhood and thereafter. He is a very lucky Member of Parliament to represent such a fantastic area, with so many wonderful people, sights and places to visit.

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I always encourage people to flock to the wonderful coastal resorts in Cornwall, such as Newquay, for their sheer beauty and wonderful landscape. However, I would not want their enjoyment to be interrupted or hindered by the wanton and yobbish behaviour of people who are there just to get drunk and cause mayhem in communities that have so much to offer. That behaviour must be challenged and addressed. I pay tribute to the work of the agencies in Newquay for the steps that they have taken and continue to take to ensure that the town is a very special place, the benefits of which can be enjoyed by both young and old. For many years, I have enjoyed the wonderful north Cornish coast, and I hope to continue to do so with my children.

I have heard what my hon. Friend has said and have first-hand experience of the context. He knows that I visited Newquay the summer before last, as Minister with responsibility for alcohol policy, and that I was lucky enough to spend an evening with some of the partners and agencies involved in the Newquay Safe Partnership, including Superintendent Julie Whitmarsh. I also visited the Central Inn to get a sense of the challenges and problems that the town had been experiencing. I pay tribute to what the local police, the local authority, the Newquay Safe Partnership and others have achieved in the face of the challenges involved in tackling alcohol-fuelled crime and disorder. I was shocked and disturbed by the accounts of some the worst excesses of irresponsible drinking by young people, and I was outraged to hear about the actions of irresponsible parents in, essentially, assisting that behaviour.

I have looked back at the press commentary that followed my visit to Newquay in July 2010, when I said to the Western Morning News:

“I was just astounded by this virtual mountain of alcohol that had been taken after being supplied by parents. I think it is utterly irresponsible. As a parent you have the ultimate responsibility towards your child, and thinking that they are going to be safe when they are loaded up with booze is unbelievable.”

That was my view then, and it is my view today. I endorse my hon. Friend’s approach in underlining this important issue.

I realise that the issue is complex. My hon. Friend and others have made some thoughtful and interesting points in the debate. They have scoped out the relevant challenges in this sphere for agencies and the Government, and they have underlined the responsibility that all parents have to their children. I shall try to respond to as many concerns as I can in the time allotted.

Along with other towns, Newquay faces particular problems every year. Hon. Members were right to say that those problems should not be regarded as specific to Newquay, and it would be wrong to characterise the town in that way. Alcohol misuse affects many communities—we see it in our town centres, in rural and seaside towns and in other leisure areas, too. The holiday season is particularly challenging for the west country and other coastal resorts, which have become a destination of choice for young people who want to celebrate the end of their exams or generally have a good time. Sadly, dangerous levels of binge drinking too often become synonymous with such celebrations. My hon. Friend has referred to the tragic cases of Andrew Curwell and Paddy Higgins, the teenagers who

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lost their lives two years ago as a consequence of alcohol misuse. Many other young people have suffered life-changing injuries or circumstances as a result of accidents.

In a broader, national context, more than 1 million hospital admissions are alcohol-related, which is twice the number of admissions in 2003. Statistics also suggest that more than 40% of violent crime is alcohol-related. With that in mind, I am not surprised by the latest statistics relating to Newquay, which show that seven out of 10 drunk youngsters in Newquay were supplied with alcohol by their parents. Like my hon. Friend, I saw some outrageous examples of parental irresponsibility during my visit to the town last summer, when parents were providing their children with excessive supplies of alcohol. In one incident, the police confiscated 370 bottles and cans from a small group of teenagers, including a bottle of 63% rum, which was believed to have been supplied by a parent. I was astounded by the virtual mountain of alcohol that I saw seized by police in Newquay and the stories that I was told about parents abusing the police simply for trying to protect their children from harm.

What can we do to tackle the problem and change such behaviour? To start, the Government take a tough stance on alcohol. We are clear that we will not tolerate the scale of alcohol-related harms that have been experienced over the past decade. That is why we passed the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which introduces a package of new measures to rebalance the Licensing Act 2003 in favour of local communities. It gives local community leaders greater tools and powers to shape the type of night-time economy that they and their communities want to see.

We also take under-age drinking very seriously indeed and have used powers under the new 2011 Act to send out a strong signal. We have doubled the maximum fine available to the courts when sentencing irresponsible businesses that persistently sell alcohol to under-18s. However, my hon. Friend will be quick to point out that we are talking about not children who buy alcohol illegally themselves, but our response to parents who are prepared to give their children large quantities of alcohol.

As my hon. Friend has said, the law already enables the police to charge an adult with the criminal offence of buying alcohol on behalf of a child who is aged under 18. That offence carries a maximum £5,000 fine. In addition, the police can issue a penalty notice for disorder for the offence. Those powers give them an option to impose a swift financial punishment to deal with misbehaviour and provide a practical deterrent to future reoffending. The law also allows for the punishment of parents who are wilfully negligent towards their children, although, as my hon. Friend has said, only in relation to those aged under 16.

The use of such powers may not be relevant or appropriate in all circumstances, and it will depend on the facts of the case and on whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction based on the available evidence. However, those powers provide the police with an option in criminal law. It is for local police to decide their response to local crime priorities.

I hear clearly the points made by my hon. Friend about the practical application of the law and certain offences. We will continue to listen and be guided by the

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Association of Chief Police Officers in connection with law enforcement. He makes an important point about ensuring that the law is used effectively and robustly. However, we do not want to legislate unnecessarily or be overly prescriptive. This is a difficult problem that needs careful consideration.

Parents are well placed to introduce alcohol to their children sensibly. The answer lies in educating them and their children. That is why we endorse initiatives such as Coast Safe and why the new alcohol strategy, which I shall discuss shortly, will address advertising and so on, a concern which several hon. Members have raised. Newquay Safe Partnership has introduced innovative schemes to address the town’s problems and has worked in conjunction with Drinkaware. Some have said that the Government should go further in reflecting good local practice that works well, which was great to hear. The success of such schemes results from good partnership work such as in Newquay, which involves not only the police but trading standards, the local authority and some responsible businesses. Many hoteliers in Newquay closely co-operate with the police, and we should not lose sight of the strong partnership links that have helped to make a difference.

People argue that we should consider the raising the age limit for consuming alcohol to 21, for example, as it is in parts of the United States. We have not gone down that route, however, because many of the problems that we have alluded to relate to much younger children. It is important, therefore, to focus our attention differently, which is why the Government have not been attracted to that route.

My hon. Friend has highlighted particular sections of the 2003 Act. I will consider closely his comments on proxy purchasing to find out what advice or guidance can be provided and how to work proactively with the police in that context. I highlight the ongoing work with other Departments. The Government are working on an alcohol strategy, and Department of Health Ministers have been playing a leading role. The strategy will consider the culture of drinking in our society and how commercial alcohol advertising and social networking play a role in that culture.

The chief medical officer has published guidance for parents, health professionals and young people emphasising the importance of parents in shaping behaviour. I agree that schools have a clear responsibility to prevent drug and alcohol use as part of their wider pastoral role, which will be supported by the revised, simplified schools guidance that the Department for Education is working on.

I am conscious that time is defeating us. I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. The Government are conscious of the issue, and the new Department of Health-led strategy, which will emerge soon, will touch on a number of the themes that he has rightly brought to the attention of the House. This is work in progress and more remains to be done, but the Government are taking things forward.

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1 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this lunch time, Mrs Riordan. I am extremely grateful to Mr Speaker for agreeing to let me have this debate on our relations with Ukraine at what is obviously a crucial time for that country. The trial and subsequent jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko, who was the Prime Minister of Ukraine and one of the key leaders during the orange revolution, has put Ukraine back on the front pages, and, unfortunately, not for a happy reason. It is important that we have this opportunity to consider what is going on and to ask the Government how they intend to respond to the situation.

We need to be clear that Ukraine is not a far-away country about which we know little. What happens in Ukraine matters very much indeed. It is the largest country in Europe and has a population of 40 million people. It achieved independent national status in 1991, and in 2004, during the orange revolution, the people of Ukraine demonstrated their commitment to and desire for a fully open liberal democracy. We should support all those people who have been campaigning for political reform in Ukraine and demonstrate, at what is clearly a difficult time for them, that we are concerned about what is going on in their country.

Ukraine also has a strategic significance for us and the rest of Europe. It is on the crossroads between Europe, Russia and the Caucasus, and has become one of the major corridors for oil and gas from east to west. That role as a corridor for energy transmission has provoked the recent crisis, because Mrs Tymoshenko was prosecuted for exceeding her powers in signing the deal with the Russians. Many in Ukraine feel that it has severely disadvantaged them, because it agreed too high a price for the gas. The situation is surrounded by many claims of corruption in Ukraine. I do not believe that many people outside Ukraine see this as anything other than a ham-fisted attempt by the current Ukraine Government to settle political scores and to exclude Mrs Tymoshenko from the political scene. Neutral observers from Denmark who are expert in looking at judicial processes have also made some serious criticisms about the way in which the trial was undertaken.

I was fortunate to be able to visit Ukraine in the first week of October. I am a member of the all-party group on Ukraine and I apologise on behalf of its chair, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who cannot attend the debate. I visited Ukraine after the trial, but just before the sentence was announced, and met a lot of people. During that week, I did not meet anyone who thought that the trial was legally valid or morally or politically justified. I met people who were critical of Mrs Tymoshenko’s period in office and who had opposed her politically, but those self-same people were, none the less, critical of the trial and what had gone on. My impression is that the Ukraine Government embarked on that course of action without fully understanding the implications for their reputation either at home or abroad.

I do not think that it would be right for us to become completely fixated with the trial of one person, but unfortunately it seems to be part of a pattern of developments that has led from an open situation to an

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illiberal one. Other politicians in Ukraine, on both a regional and national level, have been put on trial on charges that some people think are trumped up. The judiciary is appointed by the Executive, so there must be question marks about how independent it is. A survey of the content of the state-owned television channel found that 97% of its broadcasts were supportive of the Government, which is a completely unbalanced situation. Moreover, although the presidential election of 2010 was felt to have been run on a free and fair process, there were more question marks about the way in which recent local elections were run. There are important parliamentary elections to come in a year’s time, so we need to look at the overall political situation in Ukraine. The Tymoshenko trial and sentencing highlight the issues.

Ukraine faces a major strategic choice. Negotiations have been ongoing for an association agreement with the European Union, and the Ukraine Government have repeatedly said that they want to go ahead with it. On the other hand, however, for historical reasons they are pulled towards Russia. I think that some people in Ukraine think that, as an alternative to going along with the EU association agreement, it might be desirable to join the customs union, which Mr Putin is putting together, between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The Ukraine Government need to find a way forward that maintains good relations with all their neighbours.

We in this country have a long democratic tradition. Our democracy goes through positive phases and phases whereby we may be a little concerned about what is happening, but we know that it takes a long time to build a democratic society. It is partly about institutions, formal arrangements and the law, but it is also about practices, behaviour, common and shared understandings, and the give and take required for a well-functioning democracy. Ukrainians face trying to achieve that with two significant handicaps. The first is the role that some of the oligarchs seem to play in their democracy, and the second is the economic crisis that they face. I was shocked to learn that the Ukrainian economy is 30% smaller now than when the country achieved independence in 1991. Not only is the economy smaller, but there is far greater inequality in the country. It is not therefore surprising that some people are not entirely enamoured of the new politics. High unemployment has led to high levels of emigration. It is unclear, but perhaps 3 million or 4 million people have left Ukraine. They will, by and large, be people in their 20s and 30s. Such a situation has left behind a number of social problems, for example, abandoned children and old people not cared for. Ukrainians really do have a lot on their plate.

We should not be too sanctimonious about the matter because it was advisers from Britain, the European Union and America who rushed over to Ukraine and the other countries of the near east in the 1990s and enjoined on them a process of privatisation. In retrospect, that process was too far, too fast. Major industries were sold at knock-down prices into monopolistic markets. Therefore, the people who bought them were able to exploit market positions and make speedy fortunes. That is particularly problematic at the moment because people are sending their profits out of the country to Cyprus, which is an offshore tax haven. That has created

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a situation in which economic decisions are politicised and political decisions are subject to economic pressures. There are many reports of corruption in the country. Furthermore, at the moment, Ukraine is vulnerable to the crisis in the eurozone because obviously those countries are part of its major export markets.

Having tried to set out some of the context, I would like to ask the Minister what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will do about the negotiations for the EU association agreement. Over the past month or so, Ministers have made several statements. I hope that the Minister will tell us that our message is that the trial and sentencing of Mrs Tymoshenko is unacceptable. Is it his intention to halt the negotiations? Is that the position the British Government want to take?

While we are making clear what we find unacceptable, I would also like to ask the Minister what we are doing to strengthen civil society. When I was in Ukraine, I was disappointed to discover that the technical assistance programme has been halved in the past 18 months and that no Minister has found time to visit Ukraine since the general election. I encourage the Minister or his colleagues to visit Ukraine. It is very beautiful, very fascinating and also extremely important.

We need to make it absolutely clear that we expect Ukraine to be a country that respects civil liberties, where the judiciary is independent and the media are free. As well as setting some standards, we also need to offer some support to the Ukrainians.

1.12 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): Thank you, Mrs Riordan, for giving me the opportunity to wind up this brief but important debate. I am also pleased to have my first chance to speak under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing the important debate at a time when there is deep concern in Europe about recent developments in Ukraine. More generally, there is a tendency for many hon. Members to use Westminster Hall to raise constituency issues, which is quite appropriate. However, it is nice to have wider debates that affect our national interest and broader values as a country, and for hon. Members to be able to come to Westminster Hall and discuss such topics.

To assess the implications of the conviction of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko, we need to look at the wider picture and broader erosion of democratic standards in Ukraine during the past 18 months. The hon. Lady said that she regretted that no Minister had recently been to Ukraine. The Minister for Europe would have responded to the debate if he had not been travelling. He is not in Ukraine—I cannot remember which country he is in at the moment—but he travels frequently. I am sure he would welcome the chance to visit Ukraine at the earliest opportunity.

We need to consider the erosion of democratic standards in Ukraine and to answer the following question: why does Ukraine and what happens there matter to us in the United Kingdom? A stable, prosperous and democratic Ukraine that is anchored to European and Euro-Atlantic institutions is in the United Kingdom’s national interest for several reasons.

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As the hon. Lady said, first, Ukraine is of immense geo-strategic importance, as it borders four European Union member states and, of course, Russia. We must also consider the size of the Ukrainian market, coupled with its near double-digit gross domestic product growth potential. That might not be the same as having double-digit growth but, if political and other institutions were put on the necessary footing, there is clearly the prospect for Ukraine to become an increasingly economically prosperous country. Obviously, that would offer significant opportunities to UK exporters and investors, as well as being of more immediate benefit to the people of Ukraine. Ukraine is also making a significant contribution to safeguarding international security. For example, it is the only non-NATO partner that regularly contributes to NATO missions.

Finally, Ukraine is a major part of the European energy security jigsaw. It is an important transit route from the east to Europe, with 80% of Russian gas sold to EU customers transiting through Ukraine. Of course, that matter is the nub of the issue, but it is also hugely important to the Ukrainian economy and makes the country more widely important in terms of the energy requirements of countries elsewhere in Europe. Ukraine’s closer integration with the EU offers the surest way of ensuring that not only Ukraine’s long-term interests, but ours and those of our European partners are met. If developments in Ukraine are damaging its prospects for EU integration, it is a matter of concern for the UK and our EU partners, as well as being of more narrow and immediate concern to the people of Ukraine.

Ms Tymoshenko’s conviction and the ongoing cases against a number of her former Ministers and officials give rise to serious concerns about where Ukraine is heading. Those concerns are a symptom of broader problems in Ukraine. We also have worries about blurring divisions between the three branches of power—the judiciary, the legislature and the Executive—and about the erosion of media freedoms and a worsening of the business climate as corruption becomes more prevalent. There is an unhappy cocktail of transgressions of liberalism. It is not simply a matter of considering the trial in isolation or how politicians are treated by the courts. There is a wider issue about civic society and its ability to debate and consider issues through the media and elsewhere, and the overall atmosphere in which business is conducted.

In the case of Ms Tymoshenko, it is worth stressing that it is not for the UK to comment on the guilt or innocence of any individual in a court case. Our concerns, which are supported by the views of international experts, relate to processes and principles. In this case, we are specifically concerned about the political motives behind the prosecution without sound legal grounds of Opposition figures, and the way in which any trials are conducted.

The Danish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, which has been following several trials including Ms Tymoshenko’s, recorded several serious violations of fundamental legal principles in direct contradiction of common European values. Such a damning conclusion by such an esteemed observer should give us pause for thought and concern. Moreover, as friends of the Ukrainian authorities and as advocates of their EU integration, we have an obligation to tell them when their actions are incompatible with their ambitions. It is regrettable that, so far, our clear and repeated expressions of concern appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

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It is worth stressing that point: the Government wish Ukraine well. We wish to see the country develop, play a full part in Europe and have a positive relationship with the European Union on many different bases—culture, commerce, educational collaboration and politics. However, all that depends on Ukraine’s improving its basic civic processes. We are keen to make those points clear to Ukraine. We are frustrated that, given those points were made in a spirit of friendship and in wishing the best for Ukraine, we have not so far managed to make more progress in convincing many people in Ukraine that that is the best way forward for their country.

There can be no doubt about the UK’s position. Only a few weeks ago, on 12 October, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House that

“the treatment of Miss Tymoshenko…is absolutely disgraceful. The Ukrainians need to know that if they leave the situation as it is, it will severely affect their relationship not only with the UK, but with the European Union and NATO.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 329.]

Ukraine tells us that it wants to join the European Union one day. The UK continues to support that objective. We remain enthusiastic about further enlargement of the EU to the east, if the criteria are right and the circumstances are correct. However, that cannot happen until Ukraine shows that it adheres to the highest democratic standards, including respect for human rights, the rule of law and an independent, transparent and fair judicial process. The conviction of Ms Tymoshenko and the ongoing cases against other former members of the Government call into question Ukraine’s commitment to those values, and could pose a major obstacle to the signature and ratification of the association agreement, and the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU.

It is right to stress, not least because the EU has been the subject of some debate here in the UK in recent weeks, that those core values, to which member states are required to subscribe as a condition of membership of the EU, offer us and others a powerful lever for raising standards across the continent as a whole and persuading aspirant members of the desirability of advancing in a way that means that they meet the standards that we, in this country, often take for granted.

What exactly has to happen for us to be able to continue to support Ukraine’s integration with the EU? The UK, along with our EU partners, wants to see all Opposition leaders, who have been detained on the basis of flawed trials, freed and able to participate in the political process, including in next year’s parliamentary elections. Ukraine needs to show the political will to move towards joining the European club by embracing—not just in words, but deeds—the EU’s values. The challenge facing the Ukrainian authorities is therefore clear, and we very much want to make that explicit to them.

Arising from this debate and from our wider diplomacy, I hope that there will be no ambiguity about the position of not just the British Government, but the British Parliament and British society. In these debates, I am always struck by how much agreement there is and how much all of us in this House, who may have differences of opinion on domestic political issues and occasionally on international political issues, nevertheless share the core principles and values of democracy and civic society that are embodied in how we practise politics in this

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country, and are happily embodied in European Union. We wish to see them practised more widely still, including in other European countries that are not—or at least not yet, in some cases—in the European Union.

Some might ask why we should remain so open to Ukraine when we have imposed sanctions on Belarus, for example, for detaining Opposition leaders. The Government’s view is that Ukraine is in a very different category from Belarus. While we are bitterly disappointed by recent developments, Ukraine remains among the most democratic states in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Belarus, by contrast, is one of the most repressive countries not just in Europe, but in the world. We remain convinced that the association agreement and the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement represent the best opportunity to embed democracy in Ukraine, transform its economy and contribute to long-term stability and prosperity in Europe. It is the Government’s strategy to have that engagement—not to regard Ukraine as beyond the pale, but to demonstrate the criteria it needs to fulfil and the progress it needs to make to become a mainstream and successful European country.

We are making those points in concert with our EU partners. The Government’s main objective is to encourage Ukraine to take the steps necessary for European integration, and to speak frankly and critically when necessary while underlining that adhering to the core EU values of democracy, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law is a prerequisite for closer association. Let me emphasise the next point so that there is no mistake either here, or for anybody in Ukraine who chooses to read the transcript of this debate: as far as the UK is concerned, the core principles of democracy, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are non-negotiable. They are not a point on which we can seek to reach a halfway house with Ukraine. The EU-Ukraine summit in December will be an important opportunity for the Government to make that position clear, and we intend to do so.

We firmly believe that we should proceed with the initialisation of the association agreement, indicating that negotiations have been concluded and locking in

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almost four years of hard work. However, we should make it clear that formal signature by the EU and member state Governments, followed by ratification by the European and member state Parliaments, will be jeopardised without a satisfactory resolution of politically motivated trials and convictions. I urge the Ukrainian authorities to reflect on that point.

Helen Goodman: Why should the association agreement be initialised? One way to proceed would be for us to say, “Well, this has happened; now we are going to put the brakes on”, rather than saying, “Well, we will sign this thing in a month’s time and then there is a whole year for Ukraine to make adjustments”. Why is the Minister not going down that route?

Mr Browne: My understanding is that the judgment being made is, given that four years has been spent in trying to bring to a head this body of work, it would make sense to consolidate it at this stage. However, that does not commit us, as a Government or as a country, to proceeding through to ratification either here in Parliament or at European level. There is no commitment with which we are then obliged to follow through, if that initialisation is completed.

This is not about backing Ukraine into a corner; it is about reiterating those core democratic EU values that Ukraine has adopted in part, and which underpin integration with the EU. That is the same process of integration that the Ukrainian authorities tell us is their strategic objective. President Yanukovych came to power promising to make Ukraine

“a modern and dynamic country”—

and he has consistently identified EU integration as his No.1 priority. The majority of his people support him in that ambition. The UK and our EU partners have explained to Ukraine what it needs to do to make integration with the EU a reality. The door remains open. We wish to make it clear to Ukraine that the door remains open and we will not slam it at this stage in proceedings, to answer the hon. Lady’s question further. It is for Ukraine to decide whether it wishes to commit to EU standards and cross the threshold. The Government hope that it will decide to do precisely that.

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Cruise Ship Safety

1.29 pm

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): In March this year, a constituent of mine, 24-year-old Rebecca Coriam, disappeared while working for a British employment agency on a Bahamian-registered, American-based, Disney cruise ship in international waters off the coast of Mexico. Rebecca was living her dream, working as a member of the youth staff on the cruise ship, Disney Wonder, which was cruising out of Los Angeles on a seven-day cruise along the Mexican coast. Rebecca was last seen shortly before dawn on 22 March. She failed to report to work at 9 am and the alarm was raised shortly afterwards. The crew initiated a search of the ship, and she was listed as missing at sea. While the Disney Wonder sailed on to her next destination, the Mexican coastguard searched the waters behind the ship and found nothing. The Disney Wonder is registered in the Bahamas and, under international maritime law, it is the responsibility of the Bahamas Maritime Authority to investigate Rebecca’s disappearance. Despite an ongoing investigation of more than seven months, Rebecca’s family are still awaiting news of what happened to their daughter.

The reason for calling the debate is the recognition that while international maritime law requires cruise ships to take every possible measure to provide safe passage, those measures are often ambiguous and are incorporated into UK and international law through a variety of legislation. When something goes wrong at sea, it is frequently impossible to establish responsibility and to ensure a thorough investigation. Victims are often left without protection, without support and with little prospect of securing justice.

Cruising is now one of Britain’s favourite holidays, with around one in nine package holidays being cruise vacations. The number of people cruising has doubled in the past 10 years, including around 1.62 million British people last year. Despite the global recession, the UK cruise industry expects to reach a total of 2 million passengers by 2014. Cruising also has the massively beneficial effect of bringing tourists to the UK. In 2010, a record 116 ships visited 47 UK ports from 53 different cruise lines, bringing 541,000 visitors to the UK. Those figures are more than double those recorded as recently as for 2003. Yet how many of those holidaymakers, passengers and crew realise that, if something goes wrong on their ship, they may be almost totally unprotected?

The first issue with incidents at sea is that national jurisdiction extends only so far beyond a nation’s border. Once a ship is more than 24 miles from any coastline, it is on the high seas, in international waters, and the law of that ship is then the law of the country whose flag it flies and responsibility for crimes on board the ship lies with the legal authority of that country. That in itself creates a number of problems, because, to avoid stringent safety rules and regulations and for tax purposes, many cruise companies register their ships in countries with little affiliation to the actual operation of their company. For example, nine of the largest cruise companies operating in the UK, which regularly carry hundreds of thousands of British citizens every year, have a total fleet of 93 cruise ships: 42 are registered in the Bahamas, 25 in

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Bermuda, 15 in Panama, four in Malta and one each in Cyprus, Italy, Ecuador and Liberia. As for the three remaining ships, when preparing for the debate, I could not track down in which country they were registered.

In Rebecca’s case, the Disney Wonder cruise ship was registered in the Bahamas. If I briefly describe the investigation that took place into Rebecca’s disappearance, it will become obvious why I have serious concerns about the protection of British citizens while at sea. One officer from the Bahamas Maritime Authority boarded the ship—one officer, three days after Rebecca’s disappearance, for a ship with a capacity of 2,700 passengers and 950 crew. Little formal questioning of the ship’s crew or passengers occurred, little effort was made to gather or secure evidence and little if any forensic investigation took place on board. After seven months, Rebecca’s family are still awaiting news of what happened to their daughter. How could we have allowed that to happen to a British citizen? We have the disappearance of a young Englishwoman, hired by an English corporation to sail on a cruise ship out of a US port, and yet not a single British or American police or forensic team went on board the cruise ship in the days following her disappearance.

Contrary to that pitiful investigation, however, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, under “Travel & living abroad” then “Cruise ship passengers”, states:

“Significant crimes against British nationals on any ship can in certain circumstances be reported to UK police and may be investigated even though they occurred outside the territory of the UK.

A crime may also be reported to the authorities in the port/country in which the ship was docked (or was headed) when the crime was committed with the result that local law enforcement agencies may also be involved in the investigation”,

yet only one officer from an authority that is internationally recognised as almost toothless investigated the disappearance of a British citizen. In my opinion, that is appalling.

I myself am an enthusiastic cruiser, and I do not intend to berate the British cruise industry. I like to think of myself as someone who pays attention to detail when taking my family abroad, and yet before I was approached by the Coriam family in March of this year, I had no idea, if anything happened to me or my family on board a cruise ship, that the UK authorities or even the authorities in the countries that we were visiting would be impotent to help me seek justice. The Minister must acknowledge that the risks associated with the practice of flagging ships in obscure countries, such as the Bahamas, Panama, Liberia or Ecuador, are unknown to the vast majority of those 1.6 million British citizens who cruise each year. Passengers must be made aware of the jurisdiction that they will be sailing under before they book a cruise holiday and of the potential downsides of sailing under a flag of convenience.

If people go on holiday to the Bahamas and something happens to them, they expect it to be investigated by the Bahamian police. If people were to fly from London to Hong Kong in an aircraft, they would quite rightly not expect the Bahamian police to investigate a crime that happened on board. For crimes in the air, because of the Tokyo convention of 1963, the country of landing has jurisdiction. Similarly, if people go on a cruise ship owned by a US company sailing off the coast of Mexico, they do not expect to be totally reliant on the Bahamian

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police. If airlines can sort out the problem of jurisdiction through the Tokyo convention, why cannot cruise ships? Rebecca’s case highlights the urgent need for greater clarity of jurisdiction if we are to sufficiently and swiftly seek justice on behalf of British citizens.

I want to make it clear that not only cases of missing people must be considered when discussing crimes at sea. Violence, theft and sexual assault also occur on cruise liners, and investigations are often as fruitless as in the cases of missing persons. There are no centrally collated records of crimes at sea. In fact, many cruise ships are not even required to keep their own logbook of incidents on board. It is not unsurprising that cruise ships and cruise companies do not publish the number of offences that occur on board, and only by trawling through international records and news reports and through contacts with victims and their families can campaign groups such as the International Cruise Victims association and Victim Support collate figures. International Cruise Victims states that at least 165 people have gone missing at sea since 1995, with at least 19 so far this year alone.

Sexual crime on board cruise ships is also a problem. Incidents of sexual assault and sexual victimisation are significantly more common on board cruise ships than on land. The south Florida newspaper, the Sun Sentinel, obtained copies of FBI reports of serious crimes on board cruise ships between December 2007 and October 2008. The sexual assault and sexual contact reports from just one ship, the Carnival Valor, which is registered in Panama, indicates the possible scale of the problem: 15 January 2008, female passenger victim; 21 January, female passenger victim; 6 March, female passenger victim; 21 March, 16-year-old female victim; 24 March, female crew victim; 8 June, female crew victim; 13 June, 16-year-old female victim; 9 September, female crew victim; 17 September, female passenger victim. Just one ship in less than one year reported nine sexual assaults and sexual contacts to the FBI.

Improving the prevention and investigation of crimes at sea needs a twofold approach, which includes tightening safety regulations governing cruise ships and clarifying international co-operation when investigating crimes. Last year in the United States, President Obama signed into law the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act 2010, which is designed to increase security, law enforcement and accountability on cruise ships in international waters and for ships that visit US ports. I urge the Minister to consider implementing a similar Act in the UK. Bringing together the variety of laws that currently govern cruise ships into one concise and comprehensive set of regulations would go some way to improving the safety of cruise ships. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Minister will doubtless tell us about the extremely high standards that pertain to ships flying the red ensign, and he will be totally right. However, by the end of this year there will be no cruise ships registered in the UK. The last three ships—the three Cunard Queens—have re-registered in Bermuda in the past few days. He will also tell us about the high standards imposed on ships registered in Crown dependencies, and he will be right about that, too. I am sure that he will also tell us about the high standards that the UK imposes on cruise ships that dock in the UK, about which he will also be right.

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However, the vast majority of British cruise passengers sail ships registered in different jurisdictions, which might be the Bahamas, Panama or Liberia. The majority of British cruises now sail from ports outside the UK, of which there were almost 1 million in the past year alone.

When it comes to crime against British subjects on ships registered with a flag of convenience from ports outside the UK, British nationals such as Rebecca can be almost alone and unprotected if they are the victim of crime. They may not even be aware of that until it is too late. It is vital that passengers be made aware of the jurisdiction they will be sailing under before they book a cruise holiday, and they must be made aware of the potential downsides of sailing under a flag of convenience.

It is also imperative for the UK authorities to take greater responsibility for investigating crimes against UK nationals that occur on the high seas. I urge the Minister to work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to co-ordinate with the International Maritime Organisation and with international law enforcement agencies such as Interpol to help synchronise a more coherent structure for criminal investigations in international waters and on ships flying flags of convenience.

More needs to be done to safeguard British citizens on cruise ships. I hope that the Minister and his Department will take on board these concerns and ensure that action is taken to do just that.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on securing this debate. He will acknowledge that I have met Rebecca’s family, and I have made promises, which I will keep.

I pay tribute to Rebecca’s family. They have had a tragic loss, which has been exacerbated by not knowing what actually happened to her. However, that has not stopped them campaigning for justice for Rebecca and for other victims in not only cruise ships but the whole maritime fleet.

Cruising is a boom industry; it is popular. My hon. Friend mentioned the figures: 1.7 million Brits went on a cruise this year, and the figure is 20 million around the world. The vast majority of them have cruised in safety, although I accept my hon. Friend’s point. The figure of 1.7 million is due to rise to 2 million in the next three to four years. We must not be complacent. There are things that we as a nation have control over and things over which we have no control. Sadly, Cunard has recently announced that the three Queens have been re-flagged outside the UK. Weddings were a particular issue for cruise lines. I got married in an old-fashioned church, but these days people want to get married in myriad different places, including on cruise ships. Under British law, people cannot get married on a British ship, but I will amend the legislation as soon as I can so that people will be able to marry on board a ship. Weddings can be held in many different places in this country, but not on a British ship, which is ludicrous.

There is no doubt that the infraction proceedings and the mess I inherited from the previous Administration on differential pay has meant that we are having some

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ships flag away. That is very sad, and I have done everything possible to help, but the blame lies firmly with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Nautilus union. They took the British Government to the European Commission for not implementing legislation. I hope that they have seen the error of their ways, because we are now seeing British jobs and British ships being flagged abroad.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that crime takes place not only on cruise liners, but in merchant fleets around the world. One of the most serious crimes, rape, has taken place, and has clearly not been investigated properly. Cases of missing persons, as in the case of Rebecca, have also not been properly investigated. The simple truth is that the country in which the vessel was flagged is not capable of doing the sort of investigation that we and Rebecca’s family would like. As far as I can work out, it did hardly anything; it was very half-hearted. I am sure that Disney is conscious of its image, but it was more interested in getting the ship back to sea than in investigating the case of the missing member of their crew.

I pay tribute to Rebecca’s family and the dignity that they have shown. I made promises about what I could do immediately, which included writing to the Bahamian authorities and asking them to inform me exactly where the investigating was going. I also instructed the marine accident investigation branch to register the UK as a substantially interested body. I have instructed the branch to register a substantial interest in every case where there is a British citizen involved on any ship anywhere in the world. That is a significant move. It is not something that we had been planning on doing, but this particular case has opened our eyes as a country. We are using the skills of the marine accident investigation branch, which is world-renowned. If a British citizen happens to be on holiday on a cruise liner—not on a beach—they should get the protection that we would normally expect from a British Government.

We have also been supportive of the Cheshire police, to whom I pay tribute. They have taken on the mantel and been heavily involved, but they have been frustrated by the way the case has been handled. We and the Foreign Office will continue to support them in the ongoing investigations.

Last year, I attended a conference of red ensign Crown dependencies in Jersey—I am the Minister responsible for the red ensign not only in the UK but in other Crown dependencies. I stated that flag states have a detailed, moral and ethical responsibility towards those who travel on their flagged ships; I do not think that point has been highlighted in that way, and I shall continue to emphasise it. At the conference, a senior police officer made exactly the same point as that raised by Rebecca’s family and my hon. Friend. Who takes responsibility for an investigation into something that did not happen on a flagged ship? That is a difficult question, and we have had many meetings to look at where the responsibility lies.

My hon. Friend alluded to the Americans and, like me, President Obama is in an interesting position. Although I have a large number of flagged vessels, I do not have any cruise ships under me, and neither does President Obama. When we talk to the rest of the international community about how to join investigations together and be taken seriously, we must be careful not to preach

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to people about things for which we are not responsible in the same way. As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, the American flagged fleet is small and insignificant in world terms, which is unusual for such a huge nation. That is because many years ago, America flagged off many of its ships to Panama and the Marshall Islands for political reasons. We must not be hypocritical in telling countries what they should do when we do not have responsibility for cruise ships.

As I stated earlier, however, this issue goes beyond cruise liners. It is crucial that people feel safe on a ship, whether they are at work or travelling for leisure, and whether they are on a cruise liner or, speaking more loosely, a cargo freighter going round the coast on a regular basis. The issue is also crucial for women—I will be slightly sexist on this point—because historically women did not serve on ships in the way they do today. I have had the pleasure of presenting the cadet of the year award for the past two years—I have managed to survive that long in this job—and each time the merchant navy cadet of the year was a lady. That shows where the industry is going, and the skills and expertise that women can bring to it. At the same time, however, women need to be protected. Sadly, I have read about an instance of a female crew member who was raped. The incident was not investigated properly and was followed by a suicide. That did not happen in our territorial waters, but that is not the point. Such things do happen.

I promised Rebecca’s family that I would do everything I can to help, and that I would go to the top when looking at international responsibility. The International Maritime Organisation is based just across the river in a Department for Transport building—my colleagues will love my mentioning that—which is the only United Nations establishment in the United Kingdom. As promised, I wrote to the IMO’s outgoing secretary-general detailing not only Rebecca’s case but the other cases that we have heard about. I had a follow-up meeting with the secretary-general and his officials, together with the incoming secretary-general from Japan, who will take over in the new year. That meeting was very positive and unlike in previous attempts by the US, we appear to have started to pull a consensus together.

The IMO safety committee agreed guidelines previously at the 89th committee, and we will table a motion, to which I hope other member states will agree, asking the security council within the committee to look formally at the whole issue on an international basis. That will not, of course, take away from the responsibilities of individual member or flag states within their territorial waters, but it will start to implement a correct procedure for events that occur on what we commonly call the high seas. That is hugely important to Rebecca’s family and others who, in many ways, have had their lives destroyed by events on the sea.

The international community can no longer ignore its responsibility to ask, through the IMO, how we can better deal with such situations. Countries used as flags of convenience—for want of a better word—need to cope with the investigations that are necessary when certain events happen, as sadly we know they will. Some of the ships are like small towns; the largest has 7,000 guests and 2,000 crew members. That is bigger than many of the towns we represent; it is like two wards

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in my constituency, all on one ship. When there is such a cramming together, there will be good and bad people there, just as in any other society.

People go on holiday, just as I did as a young man when I went to Benidorm all those years ago. They want to have a good time, but others spoil it for them. That happens, and there are criminals in our society. If someone rapes, they are a criminal; if they are involved in crime on a ship, no matter where in the world, they are a criminal. It is therefore important to pull together and look at how to address the situation. The crux of my hon. Friend’s argument is that where we do not have responsibility for the ship and the flag nation is not capable of addressing its responsibilities, we must look at how the international community can pull together.

I passionately believe that we have some of the greatest police authorities in the world. The Association of Chief Police Officers has shared guidance on best practice, which is used extensively around the world. My hon. Friend will probably agree that we also need to name and shame some of those cruise operators that do not take their responsibilities—for want of a better word—as carefully as they should.

We must not, however, denigrate all ship companies. I have a cutting in front of me from the Evening Standard. It mentions a P&O-registered ship that had a man overboard the other night in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. A passenger saw what they thought was someone in the water and raised the alarm. The ship dispensed three lifeboats and many lifebuoys, made a complete U-turn and—miracle of miracles—the man was pulled out alive. I think that P&O should be praised, and

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particularly the captain of the ship involved, the Ventura. The ship obviously had a code of best practice and a set of skills in place so that it could respond to such an event.

I have also heard of instances where a ship has hit a trawler in the English channel and a fisherman has died. The ship knew it had hit someone, but carried on. Those are two extremes in an industry that is expanding not only because there are a greater number of cruise ships, but because of the sheer size of the ships to which our ports now have to adapt. The largest ship in the world, the Emma Maersk, can function with a crew of 13 or 14 people. How can they respond to certain situations?

We must also not take away from the responsibilities of the one person who I have not yet mentioned—the captain of the ship. The captain of a ship on the high seas is the sole person responsible for the ship. If the ship is flagged by any country, including the UK, that country also has responsibility, as does the international community.

We have fulfilled the promises I made to Rebecca’s family in my office a few weeks ago, but we will not be complacent in any shape or form. We will push on. There is an IMO conference in London later this month. There are some indications that, as I hope, our proposals will be supported, and we can show the rest of the world that, yet again, the UK is leading in safety on the high seas.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.