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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 31 January 2012

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

Falkland Islands

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Michael Fabricant.)

9.30 am

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank colleagues for attending the debate, given Select Committees and various other activities; I will take interventions.

In 1982, the Falkland Islands war saw the loss of 255 British troops; also lost were 650 Argentine troops and three female islanders. Today is a good day to begin with remembering each and every one whose lives were lost. We remember the families who lost their husbands, the children who lost their fathers and those who were left with severe disabilities because of their wounds. There is no such thing as a good war, and people died in 1982 because politics, Governments and individual people failed them. Our job in this House is to ensure that that does not happen again. I also welcome the efforts made on behalf of the islanders by the various Foreign Office departments to improve the lot of the islanders.

The purpose of the debate is fundamentally fourfold. First, we need to reiterate the House’s united position that the Falkland Islands has our full support in every way. Secondly, I wish to see a self-determination law, confirming that all overseas territories with a settled population have an unambiguous right to remain British. Thirdly, I wish the Minister to update the House on the efforts of our diplomats who are fighting the trade blockade that has been ongoing for some time. Finally, I will attempt a brief analysis of the legitimacy of the Argentine arguments under the various United Nations conventions and the agreements between the countries.

Many would argue that the 1982 conflict happened because a weak Argentine junta decided to try and regain popularity at home. The junta lost the war and power. The underequipped and poorly trained Argentines were clearly men governed by lambs.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Actually, some of the Argentines were not that poorly trained. The Mirage pilots who flew in across San Carlos water and took out our ships were, in everyone’s estimation, not only brave but well trained. The Argentines, therefore, were not entirely poorly trained—some of the marines were not bad either.

Guy Opperman: It is a brave man who tells the colonel whether troops were good or indifferent at a particular time, and I bow to my hon. Friend’s greater knowledge.

Thomas Mann, however, was right when he said:

“War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.”

Among the almost 3,000 inhabitants of the Falklands, there is an overwhelming desire to remain a British overseas territory. It is not up to Great Britain to decide

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on the fate of the Falkland Islanders; it is their own right to decide where their sovereignty lies, and that will not change.

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): After all that has gone on in our recent history, does my hon. Friend agree that it is regrettable that the US State Department wants to classify the Falkland Islands as the Malvinas Islands?

Guy Opperman: I have great respect for President Obama, and he is truly a groundbreaking politician and a leader of men; he is taking things forward tremendously in America. On this particular issue, however, I do not respect his decision, and am most concerned that it appears to have been made without full assessment of the UN rules on self-determination.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Britain asserted her sovereignty over the Falklands in the 1830s, about 50 years after she had been forced out of her sovereign territory in certain parts of north America. Despite the US stance on the Falklands, one very much doubts whether the US Government regard their administration of the east coast of America as simply de facto.

Guy Opperman: One could ask whether the Americans will return Hawaii or other places such as Diego Garcia to the original occupants. Ongoing, I do not believe that President Obama’s holiday home will stop being part of America.

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): My hon. Friend referred to Hawaii and its original occupants, but one of the differences that I am sure he will confirm is that, in the Falkland Islands, the original occupants were not Argentine. In fact, throughout the whole history of the islands, only about three people from mainland Argentina have lived there. Does that not prove the point, but from a different angle?

Guy Opperman: I entirely agree, of course. We could get into a detailed and lengthy historical analysis of the origins of Argentina and its various provinces, as well as of the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. It is worth remarking, however, that the ninth generation of the people of the Falkland Islands was recently born on the islands. Although the population is immigrant, that is also true in Argentina, and I will come to that at a later stage.

Returning to my point about sovereignty, it is not up to the House of Commons or Great Britain to give the Falklands away; it is the inalienable right of the Falkland Islanders to decide where sovereignty lies. That will not change today, tomorrow or for however long they choose to remain part of Great Britain.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Would my hon. Friend agree that, if there were greater and less aggressive integration between the Argentine and Falkland Islands populations, whether at the education or business level and over a period of 30 to 40 years, or perhaps longer, the hostilities would dissipate to some extent?

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Guy Opperman: All of us would like to see the individual countries getting on to a greater degree, and one of my themes in the debate is to make it crystal clear that we regard Argentina, fundamentally, as a potential friend. It would be good if trade relations were better, fishing were better harmonised or hydrocarbons work was done together. At present, however, the Argentine stance is blocking that route. If the Argentine President is claiming a “hearts and minds” approach, I am sad to say that her argument is deeply flawed.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): We have said that there is a need to increase and improve trade relations, but what about the 13,000 people who were murdered and disappeared in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, under the regime that fought the Falklands war? Is it not time for a human rights inquiry into that? Let us look at the bad things as well as the good things.

Guy Opperman: With no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, I will not go down that route. One of the few good things to emerge from the Falklands war was the return of democracy to Argentina in 1983. It is entirely right that there have been various analyses of the history of Argentina but, with respect, it is not for me to lecture the Argentines on that history and on what they were involved with. Instead of looking to the past, I hope that we can look to a future of co-operation between these two countries, which already have plenty of trade and many common grounds. The Foreign Secretary, 10 days ago, wrote:

“There are many areas on which we can cooperate—on joint management of fish stocks, on hydrocarbon exploration, and on strengthening air and sea links between the Falklands and South America, as we used to do in the 1990s and ought to be able to be able to so again.”

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and a good case, but does he agree that one of the problems with the uncertainty currently surrounding the Falkland Islands is that it is extraordinarily difficult for business people to get on and make sensible business decisions? I draw his attention to a British oil exploration company, which I know, that wants to invest but is unwilling to do so until the political uncertainty has been clarified.

Guy Opperman: I accept that there is a need for greater economic certainty, but we must understand that the islands have a strong economy and a profitable business community, and that they are effectively self-sustaining. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the 1995 agreement between the Argentine and British Governments on oil exploration. In 1995, they signed a deal that identified a discrete area where there was to be joint hydrocarbon exploration. In 2007, the Argentines scrapped that deal to share oil found in that area. They effectively ripped it up, and there has been some uncertainty on development of the way forward on hydrocarbons and oil, but I believe that a robust approach from our Government will provide a better future for companies that want to invest there.

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that we are in a superb position to work jointly with Argentina on fisheries around the Falkland Islands because it does not have the complicated

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interference of the common fisheries policy? We can work jointly with such nations, when we cannot do so around our own waters.

Guy Opperman: I never thought that in a debate about the Falkland Islands I would become such an expert on squid and European fish embargoes, or that I would be trying to respond to an acknowledged expert on all fish matters, but I agree with my hon. Friend and accept entirely that there is great scope for the two countries to work together. If they do not, the story of some European waters will, sadly, be repeated in the south Atlantic, because fish stocks will decline.

Argentina claims sovereignty of the islands on an ongoing basis. Others may discuss in detail the historical argument, which is weak, but what would happen if Argentina retook the islands? Does it propose to throw the native islanders out? Does it propose to expel them by force from their homes and the land that they have tended and harvested, or to move them to a distant corner of one island? Let us be in no doubt that annexation of any small, peaceful and prosperous neighbour has no place in the 21st century. Whether that is done by negotiation or conquest, it equals colonisation, and occupation by a foreign power.

Many islanders trace their history, as others have said, back to the 1840s. They are men and women who were born on the Falkland Islands and have lived there for generations, had children there and made their lives there. Like most countries in Latin America, including Argentina, the population has grown through a natural flow of migration. The Falkland Islands now constitutes a nation of immigrants who have developed their own distinctive culture and identity. For Argentina to deny its right to self-determination is to question its claim to that self-same right. It would be surprising if the Argentines handed their land back to the Indian tribes who lived in the country before they arrived, and I doubt that that will happen. I will not attempt to pronounce the names of the Indian tribes who lived in Argentina before the immigrants settled there.

On the legal argument, the Falkland Islanders’ rights are recognised by international law. I never thought that I would cite favourably and support the Lisbon treaty, but I am pleased that it confirms that the European Union recognises the islands as a “full” associated territory, just like our other overseas territories, in part 4 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. Apparently, our decision to sign the Lisbon treaty upset the Argentines, and some would argue that they joined a large club. On this issue, I am a confirmed Europhile—I knew that the Lisbon treaty was good for something. The truth is that we should be proud that a group of islands thousands of miles from our shores, and fully 700 km from Argentina’s, wants to remain part of our great nation, and shares our values and culture.

James Wharton: As my hon. Friend has touched on the European dimension and with the Minister in his place, is this an appropriate opportunity to reinforce the view of many hon. Members that our consistent approach to the people of the Falkland Islands should apply to the people of Gibraltar, who must not see their sovereignty negotiated behind their backs?

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Guy Opperman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. We are no longer a colonial power. Those days are, rightly, distant history. As such, we will never force any dependent territory to remain part of our country, but we will also not let down a dependent territory. Let us take Scotland as an example. I would not, of course, call Scotland a dependent territory, notwithstanding the subsidy and the inequity of the Barnett formula, but the Scottish referendum is a prime example of the fundamental principle that it is for the native people to decide their fate. Rightly, we will always welcome and defend those who wish to remain part of Great Britain.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is being generous. Is it not vital that Argentina recognises the determination of this Government and this Parliament to defend the right of the Falklands people to remain British?

Guy Opperman: I am pleased that there is a cross-party selection of Members in the Chamber early on this Tuesday morning when they have many other matters to attend to. We are presenting a united front across parties and throughout the House to show adamant support for the individual rights of people who live in the Falkland Islands. I welcome my hon. Friend’s comment, and the support from his party.

I want a self-determination law. It is well known that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to be fair, it has done excellent work in support of the Falkland Islands—is planning to introduce a White Paper in 2012 covering all aspects of the Government’s policies on the overseas territories. That is pending. I want all overseas territories with a settled population to have an unambiguous right to remain British, and to be defended from oppression in the absence of a majority voting for secession. All the 293,000 people in the Caribbean islands of Anguilla, Bermuda and Montserrat and the south Atlantic islands of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, and the plucky 48 people who live a precarious existence on Pitcairn Island, need to know that self-determination will always be recognised by this country.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): My hon. Friend is right to put self-determination at the centre of his speech. Some 255 British personnel died when trying to ensure that self-determination prevailed for the Falkland Islanders. Does he agree that anything other than self-determination would be an affront to the memory of those men and women?

Guy Opperman: My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently. I pay tribute to all our servicemen and women who are serving overseas, protecting our interests and striving to preserve other people’s freedoms. Most importantly, I pay tribute to the thousands of troops, led by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, who are working on the Islands at this time. I know that many hon. Members here today represent constituencies with regiments that served or are still serving in the Falkland Islands.

Penny Mordaunt: People in Portsmouth whom I represent would want no hesitation in marking the 30th anniversary of the British victory in the Falklands war, and the posting of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge to the Falkland Islands should not be underplayed. He

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will be there to do a job, but his destiny as a future king and the man to whom the Islanders will one day owe their allegiance, should not go unacknowledged in Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee year.

Guy Opperman: Argentina has described the royal visit as an inflammatory act, which is ridiculous. The gentleman involved, who happens to be the future king, is going as a search and rescue pilot. Were he to save the life of some hapless Argentine sailor, I hope that Argentina would be equally as grateful as, I am sure, the individual saved by the presence of the Duke would be. I support the fact that the Duke of Cambridge has been asked to go and that he intends to do just that.

I pay tribute to Able Seaman Derek Armstrong from my constituency who was a pupil at Prudhoe community high school. At 9 o’clock this morning I met with students from that school who are visiting the House of Commons today—all hon. Members know of schools that visit the House in order to understand its history. On 22 May 1982, Derek Armstrong was 22 years old and serving on HMS Ardent. He was sadly killed in the attack that sunk that ship, and Prudhoe community high school now presents a Derek Armstrong memorial award each year to the best sportsperson at that school. It was amazing to see the students this morning as that living history, and the relevance of the Falklands war to individuals and to their school, was explained to them.

When the Duke of Cambridge goes to the Falkland Islands later this year, I regret that he will find an island that is under a degree of trade blockade. The Argentine President has upped that blockade by taking the slightly unbelievable step of blocking ships that are flying the Falkland Islands flag from their ports, and she has persuaded other members of the south American trading bloc, which includes Brazil and Uruguay, to do the same. A ship is not allowed access if it shows the so-called “defaced” Falkland Islands red ensign. Provided it removes its flag, however, and denies its true origins, it is given access. Such denying of a recognised international ship that is carrying a recognised international flag runs contrary to international law and is, I suggest, a protectionist and retrograde step. There is no justification for such petty actions that are done only to intimidate a small civilian population and, with respect, such things are beneath the Argentine people. Let us be blunt: such actions merely harden the resolve of this House, strengthen that of the Islanders, and do nothing to endear the Argentines to the Islanders. It is hardly about hearts and minds.

Are we in 2012 really going down a route that sees civilised countries make ever increasing efforts to block free trade? This is about protectionism. Will the Minister update the House on the efforts made by our diplomats to end the trade blockade? I accept that the Foreign Office has done—and continues to do—a great deal to support the Falkland Islands over the past few years, but I hope that it will do yet more to increase support, both financially and in terms of manpower, in the Foreign Office itself and on the Falkland Islands.

I will attempt to address the principle of self-determination, which is set out in article 1.2 of the charter of the United Nations, and article 1 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. The Argentines continue to say that we should negotiate on sovereignty, but about what?

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Let us analyse the claims. In 1965, UN resolution 2065 noted

“the existence of a dispute between the Governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning sovereignty over the said Islands.”

It invited the Governments involved

“to proceed without delay with the negotiations...with a view to finding a peaceful solution to the problem, bearing in mind the provisions and objectives of the Charter of the United Nations and of General Assembly UN Resolution 1514 (XV) and the interests of the population of the Falkland Islands.”

UN resolution 2065 must therefore be read in line with UN resolution 1514, which states:

“The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.”

It adds—and this is key—that all peoples have

“the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

The argument that anything other than self-determination is supported by the UN agreements is completely wrong. Self-determination is enshrined within the resolutions and supports our case.

UN resolution 1514 continues:

“All armed action or repressive measures of all kinds directed against dependent peoples shall cease in order to enable them to exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence, and the integrity of their national territory shall be respected…Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

I could continue with an analysis of the various UN conventions and protocols, but under any interpretation, the argument supports the right to self-determination for the Falkland Islanders.

Thirty years after the Falklands war, we should be celebrating the culture of those special islands and investing in them in a variety of ways. We should also be promoting the fantastic tourism opportunities they could provide. The Mercosur countries of the south American bloc are our friends, just as we would like Argentina to be. We wish President Fernandez a full recovery from her operation. I am an MP from the north-east and my local football team, Newcastle United, is led by one Argentine and includes another, and those players are revered by thousands of people who support that team. In no way is Argentina our enemy; we wish to be trading partners and friends, and to take the relationship forward. This world has so much strife, but I say to the Argentines: let us work together for prosperity, not fall apart as fools.

The Argentine Government must understand that the future of the islanders does not lie with Argentina.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says about the right to self-determination, and his analysis of how those rights are enshrined by the UN. I understood, however, that he was calling for such a measure to be encapsulated in British law. He has said that we need a law of self-determination for the overseas territories, but he has not explained why he feels that that is needed as an add-on measure.

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Guy Opperman: Such a measure would confirm the rights of those individual islanders who live in overseas territories that have a settled population, and show the United Kingdom’s strong intention to recognise self-determination. There are references to that in the various United Nations conventions that have considered such matters repeatedly, and in what are called colonisation committees that sit from time to time. Such a measure would send out a strong message and signal from this country that the self-determination of individual peoples, where they choose to remain part of Great Britain, is paramount.

As I was saying, the future of the Falkland Islands does not lie with Argentina or with Britain as such, and such arguments are a futile war of words. The decision rests, and will always rest, with the settled inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. Gone are the days when colonial possessions could be disposed of by giving away power, regardless of the views of the inhabitants. Instead, let us celebrate the unique history and culture of a small island people that still choose to remain British—and so they shall, suitably supported by this country. That position, and their choice in the matter, is non-negotiable.

9.59 am

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in a debate under your stewardship, Mr Crausby. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for securing this important debate at this critical juncture for the Falkland Islands. I could not reasonably expect to be allowed to set foot back in my Gosport constituency if I did not take part in the debate, because the history of my town is indelibly linked in many ways with that of the Falkland Islands. We have many veterans of the Falklands war. Indeed, I share my constituency office with the indomitable Derek “Smokey” Cole, who runs the Falklands Veterans Foundation and who was responsible in part for raising the money to build Liberty lodge in the Falkland Islands. Even the iconic Gosport ferry is operated by Falkland Islands Holdings. We therefore have a very strong link to the Falklands.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Falklands war, there should be cause for joy in many ways. The Islanders should be able to celebrate their freedom, safe in the knowledge that their right to self-determination was protected by this country and always will be. The servicemen, many of whom lost so much, should remember the conflict secure in the belief that their sacrifices were not in vain.

This commemoration is marred by disappointment, given that it is taking place in the face of Argentine aggression. The islanders are suffering increased hostility and blocks on trade from neighbouring countries, while Argentina continues to misrepresent the situation on the world stage. I do not intend to recount again the challenges that Britain and the islanders face and that my hon. Friend so eloquently and fully outlined. Instead, I want to underline what I see as the most vital point in today’s debate—the islanders’ right to determine their own future should be absolutely respected by Britain, Argentina and the rest of the international community.

Bob Stewart: I intervene at this stage just to make one point. The Falkland Islands are defended by hugely capable royal naval assets at the moment. It is no secret that the Typhoon, one of the best multi-role aircraft in

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the world, operates from the all-weather airstrip. I will not go into the Army assets deployed. Let us be clear and send a message from this Chamber today—keep your hands off the Falklands; they are British and they will remain British.

Caroline Dinenage: My hon. Friend, as always, makes a very strong and valid point. A number of us in the Chamber were in the Falklands last year and got to meet many of our brave service personnel who work daily to keep the Falklands safe and independent.

The sacrifices and memories of the war are indelibly marked on the fabric of my constituency. Gosport’s role in the conflict was significant, with a great number of sailors and submariners coming from the town. Indeed, the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Fieldhouse, is a local boy. The town proudly commemorates that in the Falklands memorial garden.

This year, we will again pay tribute in Gosport to those who served and, in 2005, were honoured with the freedom of the borough. As their Member of Parliament, I feel immense pride for what my constituents sacrificed for people living thousands of miles away from them. They were brought together by their desire to be British. Ultimately, both then and now, the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands want to be British. With not a single islander fighting to renounce its status as a British dependent territory, neither the British nor the Argentines have any right to dictate their fate.

As I have mentioned, I was fortunate enough to witness for myself the powerful connection that the islanders feel with Britain last year, when I visited the Falklands with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is a remarkably beautiful place, yet one in which the scars of war are still very apparent. Minefields are still cordoned off. On Mount Tumbledown, where some of the battle took place, there is an Argentine bunker with personal belongings still in it.

Unquestionably, however, the most striking aspect of the trip was the regard in which the Islanders held those British who fought for them. At the memorial site at Bluff cove for the 48 people killed when Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Galahad was attacked, I bumped into veterans from HMS Fearless, two of whom were from my constituency. When I got over the shock of meeting so far away from home people who were my neighbours, they told me of the experiences that they had had during their visit to the Falklands. When they had gone to pay in restaurants, their bills were waived. When they had gone to hand over their fare in a taxi, the taxi driver had said, “No charge.” Everywhere they went, the ongoing gratitude of the Islanders 30 years later for their role in securing freedom was indelibly marked in every aspect of what they did.

It is that freedom that we are again called upon to safeguard today. I reiterate the desire expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham to see the House united in full support of the islanders and I urge the Minister to commit to a self-determination law confirming the right of all our overseas territories to remain British for as long as they want to.

10.5 am

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing the debate so well. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who never misses an opportunity

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to speak up for the Royal Navy and for Gosport. I am delighted that she is serving as chairman of the sub-committee of the all-party group on the armed forces, of which I am chairman. In that capacity, she is looking after the Royal Navy and doing a very good job, too. I thank her for that.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who has laid out with barristeresque detail and clarity the case for the continuing independence and right to self-determination of the Falkland Islands. I will not attempt to repeat or to disagree with anything that he said, which was absolutely right. I will expand on it a little, but without the learned qualities that he was able to bring to his contribution.

My hon. Friend was right to start by paying tribute to the 255 British servicemen whose bodies lie in cemeteries in the Falklands to this day. I think that that was the last war in which the bodies of servicemen were not returned to the United Kingdom. In remembering them and the sacrifice that they made for the freedom and independence of the Falklands Islands, one should also remember the very many servicemen who came home but who suffer, because of the terrible injuries that they sustained as a result of their service, to this day. It was a great pleasure recently to welcome Simon Weston to Wootton Bassett town hall to turn on the Christmas lights in the high street. One need only think of the sacrifice and the efforts that Simon Weston and others have made to help servicemen like themselves.

Of course, in Wiltshire, we are very fortunate to have the home of Help for Heroes and, in Tedworth, the excellent home for servicemen injured in war, which is in the process of being completed and which I visited last week. At a time such as this, it is terribly important not only that we remember the 255 servicemen who gave their lives for the freedom of the Falkland Islanders, but that we think about and make efforts to help the very many servicemen—52,000 altogether in the United Kingdom—who will suffer for the rest of the lives as a result of the service that they have given.

In that context, I will, if I may, make a slight deviation to my own constituency. I am thinking particularly of the servicemen from RAF Lyneham, as it was. Sadly, thanks to the previous Government, it is no longer RAF Lyneham; it is to become a cross-service training depot. In those days, the Hercules fleet was based at RAF Lyneham and performed a magnificent service in ferrying people up and down to Ascension Island and onwards to the Falklands.

Also in my constituency, we were delighted last Thursday to give the freedom of the town of Chippenham to 9 Supply Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps, which is the largest regiment in the British Army. Colonel Bob, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), might be interested to hear that 9 Supply Regiment, based at Hullavington, was given the freedom of Chippenham. Its predecessor also made significant contributions in supplying all that was needed during the great conflict 30 years ago this year.

The thrust of the debate today is plain. People in dependent territories and, indeed, elsewhere according to the United Nations, must have the right of self-determination. There can no question about that whatever. Most of the wars that we have fought in the past 100 years have been in the interests of freedom and of self-determination. It is right that people should be

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able to say for themselves whom they wish to run their country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham mentioned, that principle lies behind the current debate about a referendum in Scotland, although that is beyond the scope of this debate.

It is right that people should be able to say that they wish to remain one way or another. I suggest that if we challenged the 3,000 people who currently live in the Falklands to do so, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would receive 3,000 letters tomorrow morning indicating that every single one of them wished to remain British, to retain the British passport, to be part of Great Britain and to be a dependent territory of the United Kingdom. There is no question whatever about the unanimity and strength of desire of the people of the Falklands to do that.

With that background, it is only right that our nation should send the clearest possible messages to the Argentine Government that in no circumstances will we countenance anything like military action towards the Falklands. I must say in passing that military action against the Falklands is extraordinarily unlikely. There is not the remotest possibility that the Argentines will consider a replay of the war. None the less, they are choosing at this time for political reasons to make sabre-rattling noises, suggesting that they might do so. We should say that we will defend the Falklands to the last man—of course we would; there is no question about it, and it is impossible to imagine we would not. However, what is more important than that is what lies behind it, which is that we should be ready to say firmly and clearly to the Argentines—in saying this, we should echo it with messages to other parts of the world—that we do not believe it is right to say that the Falklands are part of Argentina, or to use the name the Malvinas. Just saying that and just making those noises undermines the right to self-determination of the people of the Falklands. It should not be allowed under international law. We should make it plain to them that we will not allow them to continue to do it.

Of course there are all sorts of ways in which we could persuade the Argentine Government of the wisdom of that view. They depend on us for all kinds of things. They want a sensible relationship with the rest of the world. The rude noises that they make about the Falklands should form an important part of negotiations that they might have with us about other things. It is outside the scope of this debate, but we heard this morning about strange remarks from Spain about Gibraltar’s independence and freedom. What we say in this debate about the Falklands is exactly mirrored in our approach to the independence and freedom of the people of Gibraltar, who have the right to decide whether they want to remain British—I am certain, having visited recently, that they do, to a gigantic extent. We must say to the Government of Spain, no matter what our relationship may be, that precisely what we did in the Falklands we would do with regard to Gibraltar, if they were to be foolish enough to tread on our toes in that way. We should reiterate the principle of independence and self-determination.

In congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham on calling the debate, I have only one slight regret. He may not realise that to this day 10 January is celebrated in the Falkland Islands as Thatcher day—and

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a good thing, too. It is a shame we could not have this debate on Thatcher day, the day on which she visited the Falkland Islands six months or so after the war was over. We should remember the part that she—a great woman—played in maintaining the freedom and independence of the Falkland Islands. Let us not forget it. I do not like “The Iron Lady”. It is not a particularly tasteful thing to have done. On an occasion such as this it is right that we should pay tribute to the great Margaret Thatcher for the wonderful work that she did in preserving the freedom and independence of the people of the Falkland Islands.

The question whether there is a risk of military intervention in the Falklands has already been touched on. I do not believe that there is a risk, or that the Argentines are foolish enough even to contemplate doing anything of the sort. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham that the quality and strength of the defence that we have in the Falklands—my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport saw the evidence when she visited with the armed forces parliamentary scheme last year—is such that no one, whether the Argentines or anyone else, would possibly consider it.

I have a couple of minor concerns about the outlying islands. I am very much involved with South Georgia, which is of course the place where the Argentines first landed all those years ago. To this day, it remains exposed to some degree. It is of course a quite remote place, entirely populated by rats, which we are doing our best to eradicate at the moment. It is a place that we have to keep our eye on to ensure that no intervention is possible there. The Argentines have also made some foolish remarks about Antarctica. It is covered by the treaty and is no part of Argentina. We should preserve the international nature of Antarctica from any possible encroachment by the Argentines or anyone else. There are not only diplomatic reasons, but important commercial reasons for that. Mention has been made of oil, and Rockhopper is a fine Wiltshire oil company, which is currently considering what it can do in the south Atlantic. I am delighted to help in any way that I can to ensure that its rights of exploration—if, indeed, it decides to use them—are preserved against a possible commercial objection by the Argentines or anyone else.

Our forces in the Falklands, as has been said, are second to none. They are ready to repel any boarder. However, I have one concern. This matter was raised in the Chamber on Thursday, during the defence debate. By the end of the current strategic defence review, we shall have an Army of 82,000 people. In many parts of the world, and under many definitions, that is not an army but a defence force. The number above which a force is considered to be an army is normally 100,000. Our Army is now the smallest that we have had since the Crimean war. Our Navy has been decimated and the RAF has been cut in half. If there were to be an encroachment today of the kind that happened before, we would not be able to produce a taskforce as we did then, because we simply do not have the resources. As I said in Thursday’s debate, that is entirely wrong. If we have a moral duty as a nation, whether in the Falklands, Gibraltar or elsewhere in the world, we must have the resources to carry it out. I fear that the strategic defence and security review has resulted in a defence force for this country that is not sufficient to carry out the tasks

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that the Foreign Office requires. The Minister may want to consider whether the Foreign Office could make stronger representations to the Treasury about the amount of money available for the defence of the realm, so that if we ever have to, we can once again send a taskforce of the kind that we are remembering today.

We are sending a clear message to the people of the Falklands, and to the United Nations, the United States and the rest of the world, that we believe that the people of the Falklands have every right to self-determination. The people of the Falklands must be allowed to decide their future, and we will use military force if necessary—certainly military defensive force—to ensure that that happens. However, we should send a stronger message that we are determined to do the same elsewhere in the world. We are determined that people’s right to make up their minds about their future, a free and independent liberal economy and democracy are the things that our nation stands for. We demonstrated that we stood for them during the Falklands war, and we stand for them elsewhere in the world; but to do so we need sufficient defence forces and investment.

10.17 am

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): It is a privilege to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I want to thank my room mate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for this important debate. As I take every opportunity to say, I like to think I taught him everything he knows.

Many of today’s speeches have been poignant to me. I want to convey a feeling of what it was like in 1982, when I was 15—nearly 16—years old. My father, Captain Alan Lewis Morris, who retired many years ago, was then the age I am now. He was in the reserves and was due to command a minesweeper that was stationed in Liverpool, out to the Falkland Islands. As it happened, it was his 25th wedding anniversary year, and he had already booked a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2; we all know what happened there. As a young man at that time, watching what was happening on television, with both excitement and apprehension at what was unfolding before my eyes, I had a bit of a moral and patriotic insight, which was part of my wanting to be here in the House of Commons today. My father never went in the end, because the day he was called up was the day the conflict ended. However, I remember wondering whether, if he went away, he would come back. The conflict was very hard on both sides. The fact that we travelled to the other side of the world and fought off an aggressor on a small outpost speaks volumes about the spirit of the British people.

Bob Stewart: Such action also speaks volumes for the spirit and the quality of our armed forces who always multiply up their small numbers when they go into combat. In Afghanistan, their morale is outstanding despite what is happening out there. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) outlined the situation in his admirable plea for more money for defence. If necessary, our forces will fight a superior force and retake the Falklands, because of the quality of the people that we have in our armed forces.

David Morris: I thank my hon. Friend for that eloquent and powerful statement. I agree with everything that he says.

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Thirty years on, the Falklands Islands is still, quite rightly, being protected by British troops. It is regrettable that the US State Department referred to the Falklands as the Malvinas. Coming from a shipping family, I was enlightened to learn that racketeering in world trade is still going on against Britain in that sphere of the globe. We have even had to drop the red ensign, which I find insulting as an English man, never mind as a Member of Parliament.

We must look to the future. There is oil in the region, although I have no idea whether that has anything to do with the fact that Argentina has started rattling sabres again. The oil, which might explain this reawakening of interest in the Falklands Islands, is hard to get at and extremely difficult to drill and mine for. The nitty gritty of this debate is people. Nine generations of people who have settled and lived in the Falklands want to be part of the British people; they are the British people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) so powerfully stated, the Falkland Islands is British. We shall defend the Falkland Islands just as we shall defend any other area of the globe that we represent. The islanders want to stay with us. We protect them and we are trading prosperously from their islands. Such facts speak more about our people, our sovereignty, their sovereignty and this Parliament.

I would like to have powerfully summed up this speech by saying how we would defend the Falkland Islands, but my hon. Friend, the colonel, has already said it for me and in a better way than I ever could. It is absolutely imperative that we protect our interests in the Falklands. We must protect the Falkland Islanders because the Falklands will always, and should always, remain British.

10.23 am

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on securing this debate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) said, she and I went to the Falklands earlier this year with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. For the avoidance of doubt, I hasten to add that, unlike my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham and for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), we were not room mates on this trip.

The excellent armed forces parliamentary scheme enables Members such as me who have no military experience or history to get a feel for what life is like in the forces. When we were in the Falklands, we visited the RAF, the Army and the Navy and we did exercises with them all. We also met the islanders, whose message to us was clear and consistent. Everywhere we went, they said, “We are British and we want to stay British for ever.” We must defend the rights of those islanders and send a clear message back to Argentina.

At one point on the visit, we spent the night on HMS York, which was an experience in itself. We were with the sailors, and not in the officers’ mess. I was with the stokers. [Interruption.] Yes, it was quite appropriate. It was an interesting experience. The ship was due to leave the Falklands and sail up the west coast of South America. As part of that detail, HMS York was due to dock in Chile to refuel and to give the guys some shore leave. While we were on the ship, though, the crew

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received notice that their shore leave had been cancelled because Chile would not allow them to dock or to go ashore. We can only surmise the reasons for that, but I suspect that it was due to the pressure that Argentina has been applying on the nations in South America. In particular, it has been using economic pressure. It has realised that military pressure will not work and so it has now turned to economic means. We were told that taxes are now being levied on companies that operate in and around the Falkland Islands if they want to operate in Argentina. Again, it is more economic pressure on the economic community that could help the Falkland Islands to survive and grow.

We have heard about the claims of inflammatory acts. The Argentines say that sending Prince William to the Falklands was an inflammatory act, but what about the pressures that it is applying to the other nations in South America? As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) said, we need to send a clear message to the Argentines. This is a case not of posturing but of being clear and firm. The Falkland Islanders are British and they want to remain so. For as long as they wish to remain British, we will defend them and we will not sit back while Argentina gets up to its old games. At the risk of being controversial, I ask the Minister to take a look at our foreign aid budget and see how much is given to Argentina, because there is a tool by which we may exercise a little bit of extra pressure.

It is 30 years since the Falklands war. Simon Weston has been mentioned previously. By complete fluke, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Simon many years ago and I found his tales of the Falklands war both fascinating and harrowing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport said, while we were in the Falklands, we visited the Argentine outpost on Mount Tumbledown, which was remarkably well preserved and still carries personal artefacts. I saw a training shoe and other such things. It was a very sobering experience. We must remember that war 30 years ago. I was 19 when it happened; slightly older than my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale. Thirty years seems a long time ago, but we must never forget that many British soldiers gave their lives for the Falklands. The islanders respect, remember and appreciate that. We must maintain our level of defence for them. It is their right to remain British and we must defend them.

10.28 am

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on securing this debate. The good turnout today is a testament to the desire in this House to reiterate our support for the people of the Falkland Islands. As we mark the 30 years since the Falklands war, it is important to remember not only those who fought but the sacrifice of the 255 Britons who lost their lives. As we approach the anniversary, the increasing tension and the greater focus on the Falkland Islands must be particularly difficult for the families of those who died during the conflict. It is important that we use occasions such as this to reiterate our gratitude to them for their sacrifice and our commitment to protecting the Falkland Islands.

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As I made clear earlier, Labour continues to support the islanders’ right to self-determination. It is a long-established principle that has been recognised by successive Governments and by the Falkland Islands constitution. Moreover, as we have discussed, it is set out in article 1.2 of the UN charter and in article 1 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. As the hon. Member for Hexham said, it has been reinforced by UN resolutions that deal specifically with the Falkland Islands and by the many other UN resolutions that reaffirm the commitment to the right of people to determine for themselves what their future should be. Therefore, I am not persuaded by him that there is a need to enshrine that principle in UK law. He has said that it would send out a signal that we are absolutely committed to upholding the right to self-determination, but I do not think that the purpose of legislation is simply to send out signals when the position is already clear. Indeed, I thought that the ideology that underpins his Government is that we should not go down the path of unnecessary legislation; that we should legislate only when there is an absolute need for it. Also, I am concerned that, if there were an attempt to enshrine that principle in UK law, it could be seen to undermine other principles of international and UN law that are not enshrined in UK law; it could seem that the principle were of a different status.

Mr Gray: I agree with the hon. Lady about small government, but does she recall the occasion when her right hon. Friend, the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) entered into negotiations with the Government of Spain on the future of Gibraltar without consulting the people of Gibraltar? That shows that, on occasion, such things can slip. Is that not a reason for writing the principle into law?

Kerry McCarthy: I do not think that entering into negotiations or discussions with another country necessarily thwarts or flouts the right to self-determination. It is fairly well established that we will respect the right of the people in the overseas territories to determine their fate, and we have reiterated that over and again.

Mr Gray: Will the hon. Lady give way again?

Kerry McCarthy: We are not here to discuss Gibraltar.

Mr Gray: If the hon. Lady is saying that she could see no reason why the right hon. Member for Blackburn should not have discussed with Spain the future of Gibraltar without consulting the people of Gibraltar, is she saying that it would be perfectly reasonable for any other Foreign Secretary to enter into discussions with the Government of Argentina about the future of the Falklands without consulting the people there?

Kerry McCarthy: I am obviously not saying that at all. If we were having bilateral meetings with Argentina, or if there were a state visit to Argentina, and the issue of the future of the Falkland Islands were raised by the Argentine Government, we would of course have discussions with them about that. That is not the same as entering into negotiations or in any way at all committing to signing away the rights of the Falklands Islands without respecting its residents’ right to self-determination. As has already been mentioned, given that the Falkland Islanders are unanimous in their desire to remain British,

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I cannot see that as something that would in any way, shape or form be on the table in a serious way at any such discussions.

Guy Opperman: For the avoidance of doubt, I shall try to clarify the point that I was seeking to make, which I believe was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray).

There have, down the generations, been examples—whether it is Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands in the late 1960s—where successive Governments have sought to negotiate on sovereignty in circumstances where that has palpably not been the will of the people. My proposal would allow the House of Commons and Parliament to send out a crystal-clear message that self-determination is part of the law of this country, and negotiations cannot be entered into without observation of the individual rights of those persons. That does not currently exist, and that is the right reason why we seek a law on self-determination out of the Foreign Office White Paper that will be discussed in the House this year.

Kerry McCarthy: Perhaps we can agree to differ on that matter, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and whether he feels there is a need for the principle to be enshrined in UK law.

We share the Foreign Office’s disappointment about the decision to block ships that carry the Falklands flag. Developments since December have been particularly troubling, and we welcome the robust response from the Foreign Office. Although it is reassuring that ships have been able to get around that policy and continue to enter ports by carrying the British flag, it is obviously not acceptable for the Argentine Government, because they object to the Falkland Islanders’ choice to remain British, to seek to impose an economic blockade or to inhibit the Islanders’ way of carrying on their economic life.

It is also worrying that other south American countries have been brought on board in that decision. Will the Minister confirm which countries and representatives from south America have had direct discussions with the Foreign Secretary, who visited Latin America earlier this month, about the Falkland Islands? Was the blockade discussed with other countries? What was the outcome of the talks? Will the Minister assure us that the Foreign Office is using all diplomatic options to encourage Latin America to respect the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination? What assessment has the Foreign Office made of the impact of the tension with Argentina over the Falkland Islands on the UK Government’s efforts to strengthen the relationship with the rest of south America? Will the Minister explain to us what representations the Government have made to counterparts in Chile about protecting the one flight a week from Chile to the Falkland Islands, which President Fernandez has sought to stop?

We appreciate—I have reiterated this today—the need for a robust and unambiguous stance from the UK Government on our determination to protect the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination and, consequential to that, their British status. Is the Foreign Office concerned, however, that the Prime Minister’s choice of language might have unnecessarily inflamed the situation? I welcome the Prime Minister’s clear assertion in the House that the future of the Falkland Islands is a matter for the

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people themselves and that they will remain British for as long as they choose to do so, and we also agree that Argentina cannot disregard the Falkland Islanders’ right to choose. However, accusing the Argentine Government of colonialism, which was clearly an emotive choice of words, provoked a strong reaction from the Government and the Argentine people. Does the Minister think, with hindsight, that that was a wise choice of words? We are also concerned about the march on the embassy in Buenos Aires, in which protestors burned the Union flag. Will the Minister assure us that the welfare of the embassy staff is being protected?

Some suggestions have been made, not in this Chamber, but in the media, that the defence of the Falkland Islands would not be secure if there were attempts by Argentina to invade—although we note that the Argentine President has ruled out any military action. For example, in a recent piece in The Daily Telegraph, General Sir Michael Jackson said that Britain would not be able to reclaim the Falklands if Argentina invaded. I note that earlier in the debate the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is well informed on such matters, assured us that that was not the case and that there was no threat, but I would be grateful to receive some reassurance.

Mr Gray: It is absolutely the case that we would not be able to send a taskforce tomorrow in the way that we did 30 years ago; we simply do not have the resources to do that. That is quite different from saying that we have no resources to defend the Falklands—of course we do. In particular, the building of a runway at the airport has made defending the Falklands an entirely different matter from what it was 30 years ago, when that did not exist. Of course we can do it today, but we would not be able to lay on a task force as we did then.

Kerry McCarthy: Indeed.

Argentina has now named an ambassador to the UK, which is a step in the right direction. Will the Minister tell us whether he has had any contact with Alicia Castro since her appointment? Does he intend to meet her soon? Have his officials in the Foreign Office had any contact with her? We are all keen to hear from the Minister his response to the various points that have been raised in the debate, so I will hand over to him.

10.38 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): Thank you, Mr Crausby, for presiding effectively over this morning’s important debate. I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for giving the House the opportunity to discuss in detail what is not only a topical issue, but a core issue of national importance, which has been receiving considerable media attention recently. It is quite right that we are discussing the matter in the House, and I pay tribute to all Members who have contributed to our deliberations.

In addition, Mr Crausby, I do not know whether this is improper in procedural terms, but I want to welcome Dick Sawle, a Member of the Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly, who is in Westminster Hall to witness our debate today. Other Members have quite rightly paid tribute to the British soldiers and Falkland Islanders who died almost 30 years ago in the Falkland Islands

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war, as well as to those who suffered lifelong physical and mental trauma as a result of the war. And as we approach the 30th anniversary of the war, it is also appropriate to reflect, as others have already done, on the deaths of Argentines during the conflict.

The Falkland Islanders have faced successive challenges from Argentina to their democratic right to decide how and by whom they are governed, but the British Government’s support for the Falkland Islands is unequivocal. So, for the avoidance of doubt, I say to the House today that we—the British Government—believe in the principle of self-determination for the Falkland Islanders, and our position has not changed and will not change. Our strong response to the statement by the Latin American bloc, Mercosur, last month, a statement which purportedly banned vessels that fly the Falkland Islands flag, was a clear demonstration of our position, and to Argentina itself we expressed our deep disappointment at its attempts to intimidate the Falkland Islanders. We condemned Argentina’s actions both in London and through our ambassador in Buenos Aires. From Argentina’s attempts to harass Falklands-bound shipping or its attempts to close south American ports to Falklands vessels, to its threats to cut off the air links between Chile and the Falklands or to damage companies that do legitimate business in the Falklands, there is a pattern of behaviour designed to blockade the Falklands economically, which is unacceptable and utterly counter-productive if the objective is to make the Falkland Islands part of Argentina.

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I visited the Falklands in November, and I have been listening to the debate this morning with interest. I am slightly concerned that in this debate we are perhaps giving too much merit to the present-day posturing of the Argentines. I welcome the Government’s actions, which the Minister has been setting out, but does he recognise that it is important that we ourselves do not fall back on posturing or indeed on inflammatory statements?

Mr Browne: I want to start my response to the hon. Lady by thanking her for going to the Falklands; we had a good meeting on her return to discuss her experiences and what she learned from that visit. I take her point that we should not exaggerate the effectiveness of the Argentines’ actions, and I will discuss that point later in my speech. At the same time, however, it is important that, without being inflammatory in our language, we are very clear and unequivocal in this debate about the position of the British Government and, I believe, the British Parliament, and do not leave any room for misinterpretation.

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Hexham and others who have contributed to the debate that the Government have been extremely active in condemning any attempts by Argentina to erect an economic blockade of the Falklands, and it is right that we call it what it is, which is an economic blockade. It is designed to try to hurt the Falkland Islanders economically, to disadvantage them and to reduce their standard of living. As I have already said, we have been very clear that we regard that course of action by Argentina as wrong. We want vital trade links to be maintained.

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We are not in any way complacent about what is happening at the moment. We understand the tactics being adopted by the Argentine Government, and they may yet seek in the months ahead to intensify the pressure that they are applying. However, to expand on the point that I was just making to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), we should not exaggerate the success that Argentina has had. The Falklands economy continues to grow strongly, with a budget surplus and very healthy reserves. If the objective of the Argentine Government is to weaken the resolve of the Falkland Islanders through economic means, it is not an objective that they have achieved.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who speaks for the Opposition, asked what representations the British Government are making to countries across south America. The answer is that we make frequent representations at a very high level. As she said, the Foreign Secretary has just been to Brazil, where he specifically raised the issue of the Falklands at the highest levels of the Brazilian Government. We have also made unambiguous representations to the other Mercosur countries, Uruguay and Paraguay, and to Chile, which is associated with Mercosur. Indeed, right across Latin America, we have made our position clear, and I have made direct representations to Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and other countries right across Latin America, some of which instinctively support the Argentine position however many representations we make. Nevertheless, it is still important for us to make our position clear and unambiguous, and I think that other Latin American countries are more susceptible to reasoned argument than those that instinctively support the Argentine position.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I apologise for coming in late; I was detained, but I have been watching the debate downstairs. The Foreign Secretary was in Brazil, which is not a natural ally of Argentina, and yet Brazil is lining up with Argentina on the Falklands question. Did the Foreign Secretary obtain any reassurance that Brazil, which is now a major world power, is going to distance itself from what is, frankly, the very wrong position that Argentina is taking and that it would line up with the world’s democracies, including our own, or did he return empty-handed?

Mr Browne: Oh, dear. It is a shame that the right hon. Gentleman should come into Westminster Hall right at the end of the debate and that he seeks to put the matter in those terms.

Mr MacShane: It is a question.

Mr Browne: No, I would not see it in terms of the Foreign Secretary returning “empty-handed”. Brazil is keen to have a constructive relationship with its neighbour, Argentina—the relationship with Argentina is important commercially and politically for Brazil. At the same time, we are very pleased that Brazil is keen to have a growing relationship with the UK. The Foreign Secretary had an extremely valuable and productive visit to Brazil, and he had extensive talks in Brasilia with the Brazilian Foreign Secretary. The subject of the Falklands was not the only subject that was raised in the discussions between the two Foreign Secretaries, but it was raised. Not all of our diplomacy is so visible, because some of

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it is more discreet than that. I assure my hon. Friends and all Members present for this debate that we attach a very high priority to the issue of the Falklands, that the Brazilians and others understand our position and that, like ourselves, the Brazilians and others do not wish to see an economic blockade of the Falklands.

The hon. Member for Bristol East, who speaks for the Opposition, asked whether I thought that the Prime Minister’s position was appropriate. It is right that the Prime Minister is clear in this House—in Parliament—about the strong support that the British Government give to the status of the Falkland Islands. And on the military point that was raised by a number of Members, I assure the House that the Government continue to take necessary steps to maintain the security of the Falkland Islands.

More broadly, Members have talked about our wider relationship with Argentina. We have made it clear to Argentina that we are enthusiastic about having a more productive relationship and about addressing global issues together, including climate change or the global economy. Argentina, of course, is a member of the G20, so we have another opportunity in that forum to raise and discuss issues with it, and to build alliances with it where it is appropriate and in our shared interests to do so.

We want to work with Argentina constructively. There are areas where we share interests. We not only share economic interests, but wider trade issues, energy issues, transport issues, cultural issues, sporting issues and educational issues. There are lots of areas where we want to work more productively with Argentina than we are sometimes able to do at the moment, but only so long as Argentina understands that that process is not in some way part of a negotiation on the Falkland Islands. The status of the Falkland Islands is non-negotiable for us, but in other regards we wish to have a helpful and productive dialogue with Argentina.

I have not yet had the opportunity to meet Argentina’s new ambassador to the UK—I do not think that she has arrived in London yet. However, I certainly will meet her when she arrives and at the moment I have regular and perfectly amicable engagement with the Argentine chargé d’affaires, who will be replaced by the ambassador when she arrives.

Dr McCrea: I accept all that the Minister says concerning the desire of the UK Government to work hand in hand on so many issues with the Argentines. However, does he agree that no threat of conflict from any Argentine Government will pressure the British Government into any negotiations that would undermine the will and determination of the Falklands people to remain British?

Mr Browne: Yes. I hoped that I had made that clear, but I will make the point again for the avoidance of doubt. Our position on the self-determination of the Falkland Islands is and remains non-negotiable. We have secured assurances from countries elsewhere in south America that they have no appetite for joining Argentina in attempts to damage the islands’ economy.

We have asserted our commitment to deepening and broadening Britain’s engagement with Latin America as a whole. To the Falkland Islanders, we have offered reassurance of our enduring commitment to their security and to their well-being. More than that, we have ensured

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that both in south America and in the UK their views are heard and their wishes are, increasingly I hope, respected.

The Prime Minister and others have voiced their support, and our embassies have worked tirelessly across Latin America and more widely in other countries around the world, to support the position of the Falkland Islanders. In some regards, that is already yielding dividends. At the recent UK-Caribbean Forum, for example, the Foreign Secretary and I were personally involved in making the case for the people of the Falkland Islands, and I am pleased that Caribbean Governments gave their unanimous backing to the rights of the islanders to self-determination.

The point has been made in this debate on whether we should have a self-determination law in the UK. The right to self-determination is already enshrined in law, as hon. Members know, via article 1.2 of the UN charter, and article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and it is worth emphasising that it is also written into the Falkland Islands constitution. The British Government already have a legal obligation to uphold both the principle and the practical consequences of self-determination, so we do not see the need for additional work in that area. We believe that point is clearly established.

We will continue all our work throughout 2012 and beyond in all those regards. The cornerstone of our policy will always be the islanders and their clearly expressed wishes. I have had many opportunities to meet representatives of the Falkland Islanders to discuss their concerns and to work closely with them. It is fair to say that I devote as much attention to the Falkland Islands as to any other part of the world. Despite the small population it is a part of the world of extreme importance to the FCO. We work closely with representatives of the Falkland Islands to ensure as best we can that their interests are met.

Indeed, I have been honoured with an invitation from the Falkland Islands Government, and I can announce this morning that I will visit the Falkland Islands in June as it commemorates the 30th anniversary of its liberation. The Government feel it is important to have a Foreign Office Minister present for that anniversary event. I am pleased to attend what will be an important and sombre occasion. I am also looking forward to taking the opportunity to get to know better the islanders and their home.

Mr Gray: The House will welcome the fact that the Minister intends to visit the Falkland Islands in June, which is an important symbol of our support. While he is there, will he take the opportunity to nip down to South Georgia and have a look at the excellent work done by the South Georgia Preservation Trust to eradicate rats?

Mr Browne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. My programme has yet to be finalised, apart from the anniversary date, when I will participate in the commemorations. I am in the Falkland Islands for a number of days, so I will be taking the opportunity to gain a wider understanding of a range of issues that affect the Falkland Islands and possibly other islands in the area. I had in mind more clear-cut economic and social issues, but I am open to any suggestions that my hon. Friend wishes to send to my office.

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Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I thank the Minister for giving way, and I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate. May I second the invitation to South Georgia offered by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) It makes a lovely canoeing trip: perhaps he could take the journey from the Falklands to South Georgia by canoe and see what the way of life is like.

On a more serious point, the Minister has gone through the relationships developed through the Foreign Secretary going to Brazil and through representatives here in the UK. However, will he put on record the contribution that the Falkland Islands representative in Britain, Sukey Cameron, makes to the agenda, and the work that she does through her office to ensure that the Falkland Islands stays at the top of the political agenda in the UK, and to ensure that trips, such as the one the Minister is to make in June, are well-organised and well-informed?

Mr Browne: I am happy to pay tribute to Ms Cameron in the way that the hon. Gentleman asks. I meet her frequently, and she is a great champion of the Falkland Islands and islanders and makes an extremely compelling case for their interests. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who visited the Falkland Islands last year and brings extra knowledge to the debate as a result.

It is understandable that this anniversary year will see much focus on the past. It is right, of course, that we remember and give thanks for the sacrifice of those who fought and died in defence of the islands. Their sacrifice secured the islanders’ future. Now, in 2012, that future looks brighter than ever for the people of the Falkland Islands. The economy of the Falklands is on a secure footing and the islanders will continue to build new enterprises and to explore new markets. Tourism is on the increase—around 65,000 cruise-ship passengers visited the islands last year—and the figure is set to increase in future years.

Oil exploration is continuing apace. Let me be clear, as the issue arose during our deliberations, that the resources around the Falkland Islands belong to the islanders. It is absolutely right that they should develop that aspect of their economy and they enjoy our full

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support in doing so in the future. It is not for us in Westminster to set out what the future holds for the Falkland Islands. That is the preserve of their people. They have that right to self-determination about which we have spoken at length in this debate. Only they can decide how to respond to the opportunities and challenges of the years ahead. The British Government are determined to ensure that they have the right to self-determination but they make their own choices about how to order their affairs. That is quite right and proper.

While is it for the islanders to determine their own future, it is for the UK to enable them to do so in a secure environment and without pressure or interference from others. That is why, apart from a range of wider considerations across Latin America to do with trade, politics and working together on matters such as climate change or cultural exchanges, we are very keen to ensure that the position of the Falkland Islands is understood in Latin America and further afield.

I also pay tribute to the members of the Legislative Assembly, who have been extremely effective in their meetings with other countries at explaining their position, in a way that many countries find compelling when they hear it directly from representatives of the Falkland Islands rather than just the British Government. I know those efforts are intensifying, and I welcome them.

The Falkland Islands will face many challenges in the future, ranging from the economic to the environmental. It is a remote part of the world and has a small population, which can present difficulties. However, one thing will not change: the UK will always be forthright in support of the islanders’ wishes and relentless in upholding their rights.

I finish by drawing attention to what the Foreign Secretary said recently on the matter. It will leave the House completely clear about the Government’s intentions and reassure hon. Members who have spoken before me:

“The future of the Falkland Islands is about people…Thirty years after the Argentine invasion, their right to self-determination remains, and will always remain, the cornerstone of our policy.”

Thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing the debate so effectively, and thank you to all hon. Members who contributed to discussing this important issue in the 30th anniversary year of the Falklands war.

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Policing (North Wales)

11 am

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Crausby, and to see so many colleagues from north Wales here to debate this important issue.

It is not often that I can begin such a debate by saying that we can learn something from the Welsh Conservatives, but today I am privileged to be able to do so. The Welsh Conservatives have cancelled their Llandudno conference this year, apparently because of security costs. I am not sure whether they think extra security is needed to hold back the crowds or to ensure that none of their politicians get out to hear what local people think. Wherever they plan to skulk off to instead, I hope they face the full weight of the law for non-payment of the £20,000 that the Imperial hotel is likely to lose because of their bad business practice in cancelling so late. Leaving aside their cowboy capitalism—I see that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) does not wish to intervene—the Conservatives’ decision has betrayed a fact they have been trying to deny since the general election, which is that good security costs money, and without enough funding, security will suffer.

That principle brings me to today’s debate, ahead of next week’s vote on more cuts to the North Wales police force. The first duty of any Government is to protect their citizens, or to put in place the brave men and women who do that for us. We all rely on our police forces to keep us safe, and we in north Wales are extremely lucky to have an excellent force, which provides a top-class, professional service to our communities. Our police force, however, is being let down, and law and order—cyfraith a threfn—is being woefully let down in the process.

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary was asked to advise the Government on possible efficiency savings in the police force, and said that

“cost cutting and improvements in productivity could, if relentlessly pursued, generate a saving of 12% in central government funding without affecting police availability—but only if there was a fundamental ‘re-design’ of the system”.

Despite that advice, the Government are pursuing a 20% cut in police funding, stripping the police of 8% more of their funding than the experts said could be removed safely.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. Is it not the case that the Labour Welsh Government are cutting funding to police forces by 6.3%, compared with 6.9% from central Government? Would she defend that difference?

Susan Elan Jones: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s crib sheet comment, but I remind him that the Welsh Government, who are dealing with a very difficult situation from the UK Government, are increasing the number of police community support officers by 500. I urge him to reflect on that. I also note his non-comment on his party’s lack of funding in his own constituency, Aberconwy, thanks to the cancellation of its Llandudno conference.

Despite HMIC’s advice, the Government are pursuing a 20% cut in police funding. On the ground, that means that since the last general election, North Wales police

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has lost 85 police officers, or more than 5% of its whole force. By 2015, it is forecast that more than 360 staff could go—179 officers and 186 civilian staff. After years of steadily rising numbers of police officers, so many are now being cut that already we have fewer officers in north Wales than we did a decade ago. Meanwhile, the population of north Wales has increased by over 12,000.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a very powerful case, which exposes the Government’s ludicrous argument that somehow they can cut some mythical back room—and even the middle room, whatever that is—without affecting front-line services. In north Wales, front-line police officers are being cut.

Susan Elan Jones: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, and I will go on later to mention some aspects of policing, such as forensics, that are covered by the description of back-room policing.

Ministers say repeatedly that police chiefs are the only ones responsible for cutting back on numbers. Despite the inspectorate’s advice, they say:

“By the end of the spending review period, the police will still have the resources to do their important work.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 September 2011; Vol. 730, c. WA28.]

In fact, no fewer than nine times in the past six months, Ministers have given the same answer to various questions in Parliament about falling police numbers. The mantra goes a bit like this:

“we have set a challenging but manageable funding settlement for the police service. It is for the chief constable and the police authority in each force to determine the number of police officers that are deployed given the available resources.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 16.]

Perhaps we will hear that again from the Minister today, to round it off to a nice, even and decimal 10.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): In my constituency, the practical effect of the Government’s policy in terms of reduction is that dedicated community police officers, who have been hugely effective and successful in policing local areas, have been taken away from particular geographical areas, which is causing great concern among councillors and having a huge impact on the ground. Will my hon. Friend urge the Government to look again at the impact, not in the back room but on the streets?

Susan Elan Jones: I agree totally with my hon. Friend and share his concern about the impact in Wrexham county borough.

If the Government know how police chiefs can keep all their people and premises on 20% less money, with a rising population and fewer back-office resources, I hope that the Minister will tell us. North Wales police knows its own organisation’s needs better than anyone, and it has made it clear that it cannot keep all its officers under the budget cut. Our excellent chief constable Mark Polin made his position perfectly clear, saying:

“If I am going to keep the organisation in balance, we are going to have to lose a significant number of staff…I have no wish to reduce any of our staff, but I have got to. I have no choice whatsoever”.

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No choice whatsoever—Ministers know that that is true. Now is the time for them to stop passing the buck and take responsibility for the chaos that they have created.

North Wales’ policing needs will be hit particularly hard because of the rural nature of our area and the loss, on top of the 20% budget cut, of the payment that used to be awarded to help cope with that. One hidden change brought in alongside the headline cuts to budgets is the merging of the rural police grant into the core settlement. It is effectively being abolished for police forces such as North Wales, which used to benefit from it directly.

Our rural communities have specific policing needs, and the rural grant was introduced by the Labour Government to address them. A sparse and scattered population cannot be policed in the same way as an urban centre. Police have to cover huge distances, incurring extra costs in fuel or infrastructure such as buildings that urban police forces need not budget for. That is why the Home Office’s police allocation formula working group considered and rejected the recommendation that the rural grant should be rolled in with other categories of grant and effectively lost. Again, however, that expert opinion was ignored, and north Wales will have to do without.

Why does it matter? Let me give an example. Last year, part of my constituency suffered some worrying arson-related attacks on cars. That kind of crime requires exactly the same kinds of police resources in a rural village as it would if it happened in an inner-city area, but rural police are spread more thinly and need to travel further to reach the trouble when it happens. No amount of so-called efficiency savings can mitigate the geography, unless Ministers would like all of my constituents and others in north Wales to relocate together to one place in order to make things easier. The Countryside Alliance rightly makes the point that the proposed levels of police cuts would be “a free-for-all” for those who would commit crime in the countryside.

I am delighted to see the Labour-led Welsh Government fund an additional 500 community support officers across Wales, but the loss of the rural police grant is a double whammy for us. The official figures show that vehicle crime is up in north Wales by 84% over the past year—from about 130 incidents in November 2010 to 250 in November 2011. Burglary and other crimes, including theft, shoplifting, criminal damage and public disorder have also increased during that time frame.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I am sure that the hon. Lady will acknowledge that crime is a reality in every part of the United Kingdom. She mentions statistics regarding increases of burglaries and robberies in Wales, and sex crime is also an issue. Does she agree that we as Members of Parliament need to remember that behind every one of these crimes are horrifying stories of lives that have been blighted—many of them changed, never to be the same again—and that it is therefore necessary to have the police available to stop crime?

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Susan Elan Jones: I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman that behind each statistic there is often a human tragedy. I am grateful to him for raising that point.

Ian Lucas: My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Throughout the ’90s and the past 10 years, there was a consensus among all the political parties on the need to confront crime by increasing the number of officers. Is it not a profound shame that that consensus has been broken, and that the impact that that will have on individual people’s lives is being ignored by this Government?

Susan Elan Jones: That is correct, and it is especially true of our scattered rural communities.

Mark Tami: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Susan Elan Jones: In a moment—I must make progress. The offences that I have listed are exactly the kinds that tend to increase when police numbers fall. HMIC published research last summer that acknowledged that lots of factors affect crime rates, but it also stated that

“there is relatively strong evidence for the potential of an effect of police numbers on crime, particularly with regard to property and other acquisitive forms of offending.”

It also noted:

“Research suggests that frontline officer numbers are one factor in a force’s ability to fight crime.”

In north Wales, official statistics obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) show that since 2001, crime broadly decreased as officer numbers rose. It is good common sense—more police officers can fight more crime—but, sadly, the Government parties seem determined to ignore the links. Their line is to quote one sentence from last year’s Home Affairs Committee report. I suspect that the Minister may wish to do that today, so I will save him the task. It says that

“there is no simple relationship between numbers of police officers and levels of crime”,

but that line has been carefully cherry-picked. The rest of the report is full of evidence to the contrary. In the same paragraph as the quotation that the Government like, the Committee offers a clarification:

“However, the loss of posts will have an impact on the range of services that the police provide and the way in which they are provided.”

The report also notes the evidence of Mr McKeever, the chairman of the Police Federation, who said in his evidence that

“there is a clear trend in the relationship between police officer numbers and crime.”

The report also references Councillor Burns-Williamson, deputy chair of the Association of Police Authorities, who told the inquiry:

“My guess is that, given the cuts over the four-year period…probably crime levels will start to rise.”

Elsewhere, even the Conservative Mayor of London agrees that “numbers matter”.

Guto Bebb: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way again. On the basis of her argument, I take it that she is against any cuts whatsoever to the police budget, but is that not contrary to the shadow Chancellor’s comments over the past two weeks?

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Susan Elan Jones: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that subject—something told me it would appear. The position is clear. Before the last election, the Labour Government made it plain that, in common with the police, they would agree to 12% cuts in order to reduce back-office costs. I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to what a future Labour Government may have to do with the so-called deficit plans of this Government, which appear to mean total cuts but very little growth. It would be dishonest of me to offer a prediction in such circumstances, but let me be clear: if there was a Labour Government in office now, we would be sticking to 12%. The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in what he says from his central office crib sheet.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Those calculations of 12% were given at a time when the economy was improving—GDP was going up, unemployment was going down and confidence was going up. At that point, things were on the mend. Since this Government have been in power, they have added an extra £158 billion to the bill. We have to recognise that.

Susan Elan Jones: That is absolutely correct. There is no question about what the previous Labour Government did, or about what a Labour Government would do if they were in power now.

The Government speak about back-office costs, but they seem to forget that forensics, family liaison and call-handlers, among others, fall within that definition. Surely no one in the 21st century can define front-line policing as a few Dixon of Dock Greens plodding amiably around the patch. In fact, it seems that everyone, except for the Ministers in charge of the policy, agrees that there is some link between the number of officers available and crime levels. In other words, fewer police officers will find it more difficult to police crime.

If crime increases in the coming months and years, I am sure that it will be blamed on snow, an extra bank holiday, the eurozone or, for all we know, on Britain not quite making it in the Eurovision song contest. The victims of crime, however, will ask why the Government did not listen when the experts told them that a 20% cut was too much. We need to act now to stop that happening.

The only officers whom the Minister seems to think are important are the ones who do not yet exist—the elected police commissioners. There is not one shred of evidence that imposing these outside managers on police forces will cut crime by one iota. The policy is a gimmick, pure and simple. It is totally unfounded on fact or previous best practice. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Police Authorities of Wales has recommended that the establishment of police commissioners—or, in their words, the “bureaucratic web” and a

“poor model of police governance”—

should be deferred. The Government, however, continue to press forward regardless.

The plan will not come free. Incredibly, even though North Wales police, like other police forces, is losing police officers because it has not been given enough funds to pay for them, the Government have still found £100 million—the cost of 600 full-time officers—to pay for these new positions. They argue that the plan will connect the public to the police service, but the idea that the public see more elected officials—bureaucrats by any other name—as the answer to crime, rather than more policemen and women, is totally absurd.

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The creation of the new commissioner posts will bring politics into policing like never before, providing yet another difficulty and distraction for chief constables trying to do their jobs to protect law-abiding citizens in the midst of a funding crisis. Operational independence will be threatened as electioneering takes the place of long-term planning. Collaboration between forces could be threatened as commissioners from different political parties prefer to compete with each other, with an eye on the next election. That is not the way to run a police force. I imagine that most of our political parties will field candidates for the positions and that some of the victors will do the best job they can if they are elected, but that is not the point. The point is that the policy itself is a total shambles.

Next week, Parliament will be asked to vote on the police grant report, which will seek to cut a further 7% from North Wales police’s budget—£3.4 million. I see that the Minister appears to be working his electronic device. Perhaps he could throw this calculation in: £3.4 million. North Wales cannot afford these cuts. If we want to support our police and our communities, we must stand up against the reckless cuts that the Government are trying to push through. It would be totally irresponsible to go ahead when officer numbers have already had to fall and when communities are losing their police stations. Instead, our officers should get the backing they deserve and the funding they need to stay in their jobs and do them without interference.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us why he thinks he knows better than Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, better than the Association of Police Authorities and better than the Police Federation of England and Wales. I hope that he will tell us what he thinks North Wales police should do differently to avoid losing officers, how they can make our large rural areas more efficient to police and what possible reason Members have for voting through a further 7% budget cut next week. However, I hope even more that Ministers will listen to the evidence and hear how it affects north Wales and other parts of the UK, and that they will have the courage to think again.

11.20 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing the debate.

I am still hoping that the debate will be an opportunity not for a display of new Labour, but for a display of new realism. Perhaps the hon. Lady might like to explain why the Welsh Assembly has cut police funding. I understand that the Labour party supports the budget reductions because its economic credibility depends on it and it cannot guarantee to reverse any of the funding cuts that the Government are going to make. Yet, at the same time, Labour opposes every step that the coalition Government take.

In fact, we have heard in the debate today that one of the cuts Labour Members think they can support is a 12% reduction in the police budget. If that is the case, perhaps the hon. Lady or the official spokesman for the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) when he responds, would like to tell hon. Members exactly how many officers that will equate to, because

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the hon. Lady is in cloud cuckoo land if she thinks that a 12% cut does not relate to a reduction in staffing numbers.

Ian Lucas: Just to clarify the position for the right hon. Gentleman, the budget for the Welsh Assembly is provided by the UK Government, who cut the budget. The Welsh Assembly has less money because the UK Government cut the funding. That is why there are cuts taking place in the Welsh Assembly.

Tom Brake: I understand the very simple economics to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, but, of course, the Welsh Assembly has the ability to take decisions and make its own priorities. Clearly, it has chosen not to make policing a priority.

Susan Elan Jones: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is rather better versed in matters in Carshalton than he is in those in Wales. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) has made clear, the reason for that situation is a reduction in funding from Westminster. I also made it clear that, partly to mitigate what has happened, the Welsh Assembly Government have increased the number of PCSOs by 500. The right hon. Gentleman speaks of wishing for a new realism and a lack of partisanship but, quite honestly, I find his comments totally partisan, totally unhelpful and showing a total lack of knowledge of the people of north Wales.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I think she will have to accept that, in fact, this will be a rather partisan debate. When she opened the debate, she set the tone.

Chris Ruane: On that partisan point, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what happened to the 3,000 extra police officers that his party promised before the last election during the middle of the economic crisis?

Tom Brake: I am very happy to respond to that; indeed, I have responded to similar points in a number of debates since the new Government were elected. The financial circumstances do not allow such pledges to be funded. It is as simple as that. What this discussion has revealed is that we need to have an important debate—perhaps if we set aside partisanship, we could have that debate—about using police officers effectively. For example, if we recruit more police officers and put them in a call centre, it might add to police officer numbers, but it does not necessarily equate to a more effective police force.

Susan Elan Jones: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Tom Brake: If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I need to make a little progress, having taken four or five interventions already.

I hope that this morning’s debate will not be totally partisan. Clearly, there are some very challenging circumstances for the police in north Wales. I understand that, prior to the election, they had lost 85 officers and that, under the previous Government, there were some issues that needed to be addressed. There has since been a further reduction in officer numbers. As the hon.

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Lady said, I acknowledge that, for rural forces, there are clearly bigger challenges than for forces in urban areas, where, for instance, it is easier to call on support from neighbouring forces because the distances are smaller. I acknowledge those points.

In those circumstances, it was right that the chief constable, Mark Polin, undertook the reorganisation proposals that he has instigated in terms of setting up the hubs, reducing senior management numbers and merging three divisions into one. It is perfectly appropriate that, having undertaken that reorganisation, the matter should be looked at again to see what the impact has been. We need to consider whether such an approach has been effective and whether it has perhaps had unintended consequences that the chief constable may be able to address.

In the past, the chief constable has criticised partnerships, so I hope that he will not go down the line of saying that partnerships get in the way of the police working effectively. Certainly, my experience is that partnerships—particularly those with the local authority, the voluntary sector and other partners—are an effective way of reducing crime in an area, not a hindrance. I do not consider officers who are allocated to a partnership role as being officers who are badly allocated in that respect.

Another point that the chief constable’s review may touch on is the issue of overtime payments because, clearly, there has been an increase in north Wales. I accept that there will be circumstances in which overtime payments allow officers to be specially tasked for a particular initiative. However, at the same time, there needs to be a balance between an acceptable reliance on overtime and police officer numbers.

Susan Elan Jones rose—

Tom Brake: I see that the hon. Lady is on the edge of her chair. Perhaps she wants to intervene on me at this point.

Susan Elan Jones: Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us his experience of living in north Wales?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I have no experience of living in north Wales. I am not purporting to have the very local knowledge that she and other Welsh Members here have. Clearly, that is not the case. If she takes part in a debate about London policing matters in the future, I may throw that comment back at her to see what her experience has been and whether she has lived in London, as I have for the past 30 years. She may be able to comment in some detail on that matter.

I want to move on to what might in the longer term present a solution to these problems. I—and I think many hon. Members present—would like the Welsh Assembly to take on greater responsibility for policing and justice issues. I see that some Members are not in agreement with me, but others may well be. In the longer term, if Wales wants to have total control of its policing and therefore have responsibility for deciding what the appropriate level of policing is and what percentage of its budget should be allocated to policing issues, that is an ambition I support.

Clearly, I accept that there would be enormous challenges to achieving that and that we would have to try to unpick the funding arrangements that apply to policing.

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I, and many hon. Members here, know that that is extremely controversial. Depending on which part of the country someone comes from, the funding arrangements either work for or against them. Clearly, that issue would require long and detailed negotiations. However, in the longer term, I cannot see any other solution to providing the policing that Wales feels is acceptable for Wales. As long as the UK Government—in whatever shape or form—continue to provide funding for policing, we will always have rather sterile debates about central Government not allocating enough money, and the Welsh Assembly not being able to deploy the resources that it would like to deploy.

On that final point, which I hope will provide a longer term solution to these funding issues, I conclude my remarks. As I said, I hope that this debate will not be entirely partisan. I had 13 years’ experience in opposition and I always felt that it was clearly my role to attack the previous Government, which I did, hopefully with some vigour. At the same time, I always felt that as an Opposition Member it was incumbent on me to reflect the reality of the circumstances, and deploy some solutions for the Government to consider.

11.30 am

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing time for this important debate.

I know a thing or two about north Wales, as we all do in the Chamber, unlike the previous speaker, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). I begin by quoting that esteemed organ of truth, the Daily Post:

“Overtime spending by North Wales Police rocketed to £3.6m in 2011. The news comes as the force struggles to keep as many front-line positions as possible intact while facing the need to make major budget cuts under the national public spending squeeze.”

It then refers to overtime payment soaring—

“from £3,591 in 2010 to £5,314”—

in one month. It goes on:

“A Freedom of Information request revealed that the force had increased its spending from £2.7m in 2010 to £3.6m in 2011”

on overtime. Perhaps that is an inevitable consequence of having too few officers on the ground. I can understand that fully. I am a huge supporter of the North Wales police. Close members of my family have been police officers and I am not here to detract from the work that they do, which is often dangerous and thankless. Without them, heaven knows where we would be.

Nine months ago, the chief constable of North Wales police announced that there would be a radical shake-up of policing in north Wales. There would be a given number of hubs—nine in all—from which rapid response vehicles and personnel would be dispatched when the need arose. The chief constable vowed that emergency calls to serious crime would not be compromised after the changes, but he warned that it was inevitable that police reaction to some low-level crime would be affected, as they coped with losing 121 uniformed officers and at least the same number of civilian staff. On the nine response hubs, he said:

“These will not improve response times but will keep them the same.”

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That is not even an assurance that there would be an improvement in response times; there would merely be an effort to keep them the same. The hubs may be perfectly acceptable in areas where travelling is reasonably easy. I am sure that those areas bordering the A55 think it is a useful idea, given that a vehicle exhibiting blue lights can travel a long distance on that road in a relatively short time.

Mark Tami: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that Deeside, which is one of the most densely populated areas in north Wales, does not have a hub at all?

Mr Llwyd: That surprises me greatly.

Chris Ruane: Or Rhyl.

Mr Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman refers to Rhyl. That also surprises me. There has been a fairly high crime rate there for some years. Of course, we understand that this policy will be reviewed in the coming weeks. I hope sincerely that those who will be making the decisions will have some regard to what is being argued here today. I support fully what the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman has a deep knowledge of north-west Wales and, indeed, Anglesey. The creation of hubs has actually led to the closure of local police stations, so policing is not even coming nearer to the people; it is moving away from local communities. Does he agree that that is an issue?

Mr Llwyd: I agree fully. My late father was a station officer once on Anglesey, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Clearly, things have changed and the nature of policing has changed, but he is right. There is now a shake-up that has the potential to be very damaging, particularly in rural areas, as the hon. Member for Clwyd South pointed out. Further west, in my constituency of Dwyfor Meirionnydd, this policy does not make a great deal of sense, and there have been complaints about it in the past few months. For example, Pwllheli town council has written to the chief constable about its concerns, and I support fully its contentions. Furthermore, members of Tywyn town council have likewise had cause to complain, and I understand fully their reason for doing so as well.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Llwyd: This will be the last intervention, because other hon. Members wish to speak.

Glyn Davies: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I congratulate him on making a very thoughtful speech about the management of North Wales police, an issue that is hugely important to us all. He is clearly unhappy with the arrangements that have been proposed for north Wales. Does he agree that this is exactly the sort of issue that will feature in the campaign for the election of a police commissioner? The public will then have the chance to express their view in the campaign.

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Mr Llwyd: Indeed, but if there is no money in the kitty, it is a waste of time discussing it. The budget cuts are the problem—the core problem is that we are all meant to do much more with less. If there is no money to pay for it, it does not make any sense, however clever any candidate might be, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.

I referred to Tywyn, which is a town of approximately 2,500 inhabitants. There is now one community officer stationed there. The nearest hub would be Dolgellau, which is some 18 to 19 rather tortuous miles away. I wonder what the result would be if there were a major disturbance in the town, leaving only one officer to deal with it for at least 20 to 30 minutes before back-up arrived—it does not bear thinking about. It is no wonder that the Police Federation in north Wales is gravely concerned about the situation. It is unfair on individual police officers who face a difficult and dangerous job at the best of times, but it is equally unfair on the citizens of Tywyn and Meirionnydd, who pay the same level of taxes as everybody else and can therefore reasonably expect the same level of service.

The same is true of Pwllheli, where there are approximately 2,760 inhabitants. The nearest hub is Porthmadog. Again, it is a difficult drive to get there quickly, but the situation in Dwyfor is possibly even worse when we consider that the hub is meant to service Aberdaron at the tip of the Llyn peninsula. With the best will in the world, I do not know how any rapid response vehicle is possibly expected to reach Aberdaron from Porthmadog in less than 40 minutes. The situation is therefore critical, and we are almost waiting for something drastic to happen before the plan is scrapped. I will also mention the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, which has again been denuded of police officers. Again, a town of 3,600 inhabitants is to be served by the hub in Porthmadog.

This looks like an exercise that has been dreamt up in an office, rather than by anyone who knows the geography of north-west Wales generally, and of Dwyfor Meirionnydd in particular. I am pleased to be able to use this debate to voice deeply held worries and concerns on behalf of my constituents. I understand that the scheme was put in place for a trial period and is now due for review. I urge the chief constable and the police authority to reconsider it urgently in light of the fact that, to my knowledge, on some weekends, the old county of Meirionnydd may have as few as three police officers on duty in the winter months. In the summer months, the population rises eight to tenfold. This is unacceptable and dangerous during the winter. It is dangerous during the summer—I would say scandalous. The authority must go back to the drawing board and reconsider the plans.

11.38 am

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.

This has been an interesting debate, but it did start out in an extremely partisan manner. Indeed, many hoteliers in Llandudno in my constituency would be amazed at the glee with which their loss of business is seen by Labour Opposition Members. To return to the issue that we are debating today, we need to consider the comments made by the right hon. Member for

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Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). The new plans have had teething problems. They are clearly not working in his constituency, and I accept his comments. But it must be stated that the chief constable’s decision to change the way that the service operated in north Wales has been positive in some parts. In my constituency—I have visited the police station in Llandudno and Llanrwst, for example—the response to the changes has been positive, with the view of the officers being that they are spending less time on paperwork and getting more support across north Wales. That is important, because previously north Wales was, for some bizarre reason, split into three almost independent sections—east, central and west—and little or no support passed between them.

The changes have ensured that the police are able to serve north Wales as an entity. From my position, representing Aberconwy in the centre region, there has been an improvement, with support officers coming from Corwen, for example, to support officers from Llanrwst. We should welcome that effort to ensure that we make best use of the resources. I pay tribute to the chief constable, who is doing a difficult task in trying to deal with cuts to the budget, which are not being denied by Labour Members. We have heard the shadow Chancellor comment that he cannot guarantee a reversal of any cuts. Yet in a debate such as this we get opportunistic chants from Opposition Members claiming that things would be significantly different if they were in power.

It is important that we consider the way that police numbers grew in north Wales during Labour’s time in office. It is true that the number of police numbers in north Wales increased by 13% between 1997 and 2000—I pay tribute to the Labour Government for increasing police numbers—but in the same period the number of civilian officers working for north Wales police increased by 84%, so it is debatable whether resources were put on to the front line.

Chris Ruane: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the increase in resources is a prime reason why north Wales was one of the safest places to live in the whole UK?

Guto Bebb: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman says that the increase in resources is necessarily the reason why North Wales police have performed well. The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) said that higher police numbers equated to falling crime. It is tempting to say that that must be so, but during Labour’s time in office there was a significant period when the number of police officers in north Wales increased but crime increased and a period when the number of police officers declined and crime declined.

There is a perception that more officers working will have an impact on crime levels, but statistics from the Labour party’s period in office do not necessarily support that view. My view is that the use made of those officers is just as important as the number of officers. Similarly, getting rid of waste and double practices, such as having three areas in north Wales that did not work together, is just as important as the numbers.

The number of police officers in north Wales has been reduced by 108, according to statistics that I have seen from North Wales police, but the chief constable has also said that it is looking to recruit an extra 72 officers in the next financial year. There is a tendency

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for the Opposition to portray everything as bad and fragile, when in the year to September 2011 there was a 1% decline in the total number of crimes committed in north Wales.

It is dispiriting for officers in north Wales, who are working hard to try to deal with these issues, to be told that the police service in north Wales is failing, when we have seen a decline in police numbers.

Mark Tami: The hon. Gentleman mentions the morale of front-line officers, but what does he think of the constant attack by the Government on those working in the back office, as if they do no work whatsoever and can be dispensed with just like that?

Guto Bebb: Again, I am surprised by that comment, because throughout this debate I have heard Opposition Members saying that we must put the resources on the front line. There is a choice to be made. If the number of officers increased by 13% in the Labour years, is there a justification for an increase of 84% in non-police officer staff at that point? That question should be asked. This is not an attack, in any way, shape or form, on any individuals working within the system, but we need to ask whether an 84% increase in those numbers was justified, when the number of front-line police officers increased by only 13%.

Albert Owen: The hon. Gentleman is using selective statistics. In addition to the police officers going, the number of police community support officers was increased. People wanted policing in the community. As a consequence of investing in those PCSOs in the communities, crime came down in local communities across north Wales.

Guto Bebb: I accept that comment. But if we include PCSOs and special constables in the totals, North Wales police are better served now than they were during the period the Labour party were in government.

It is important that we discuss the context of this debate, which is that we are facing a severe financial crisis. This Government are willing to get to grips with that issue. The chief constable in north Wales is willing to challenge the way that things worked in the past and to take difficult decisions to try to ensure that the allocated funding goes further.

It is important to mention the unacceptable degree of hypocrisy from Opposition Members on funding. They say that a 6.9% cut from Westminster is unacceptable in this financial year, but that a cut of 6.3% from the Welsh Assembly can be defended on the basis that the Assembly’s funding has also been reduced. This is the crux of the issue. Choices and priorities have to be made by the Government. We see in the Opposition, and in the performance of the Welsh Assembly, a complete and utter abdication of responsibility and willingness to take hard, difficult decisions.

When I get a full explanation from the shadow Chancellor about why and how he can save the North Wales police service, although he will not reverse a single cut that we have made, I will take the arguments of Opposition Members more seriously.

11.46 am

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.

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Two hon. Members have mentioned the Conservative party’s cancellation of the Llandudno conference on security grounds and that, somehow, Labour Members are gleeful about that. I spent Saturday with my mother-in-law in Llandudno, helping the local economy and the local hotels and hostelries. I put my money where my mouth is, in many ways.

I am proud of Labour’s record on policing over the past 13 years. It can be said—hon. Members will know—that I have not always been on message and did not always agree with what the previous Government said, but on law and order they did what the people wanted. Every constituency Member of Parliament was asked about reducing crime and improving resources for policing in their area, and the Labour Government delivered. Those extra resources were funded in the communities. For the first time, we saw police support officers on the beat, making a difference in many areas, including prevention, detection and processing crimes. The whole police family was strengthened and one complemented the other.

I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) tried to pick off civilians versus front-line police officers, because the police family was delivering for communities. The back-room people have an important role to play in processing crimes to ensure that we get criminals into the courts. They are not semi-detached from front-line policing; they complement it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who is not in his seat at the moment, said rightly that under the previous Government—I am proud of this—north-west Wales had the highest detection rates not only in Wales but in the United Kingdom. A large rural area is difficult to police—the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and the hon. Member for Aberconwy know the area that I am talking about—but the police overcame those difficulties and, in a rural area, reduced crime faster and kept it down lower than in many parts of the UK. It was no surprise that that happened because of the increase in resources, which communities were asking for.

High and low-level crimes were increasing and the record of the previous Conservative Government—[Interruption.] The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), said that he was not being partisan, but he made probably the most partisan speech this morning and said that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), whom I congratulate, knew nothing about London policing and that he would take exception if she intervened. She was a London councillor in the borough of Southwark for many years and was involved in the crime and disorder partnership in Peckham, so she knows a little bit more about London policing than the hon. Gentleman knows about north Wales policing. The title of this debate is “Policing in North Wales”, so my hon. Friend is more than qualified to talk about that.

There would have been cuts whichever Government were in office, but they would have been far more selective had there been a Labour Government. Our manifesto commitment was to prioritise policing and to protect its funding—the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington smiles at that, but he wanted an extra 3,000 police officers in his manifesto although, along with student tuition fees, that commitment was dropped

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immediately. The economic climate is difficult, and deficit reduction and bringing down debt are important, but politics is about priorities, and priorities are different between the parties. Before we went into the general election, the priorities of the Liberal Democrats were similar to those of the Labour party. The Labour party in government would have taken different decisions and, I believe, would have strengthened policing and kept the levels of crime down, though, yes, they would have had to get rid of some posts.

I want to talk about north Wales in particular. We have seen a huge reduction in central funds for policing, but I want to remind Members in the Chamber that much of the extra policing that occurred in north Wales between 2001 and 2010 was from the council tax payer. The controversial chief constable, with the police authority, put up the precept in order to have extra police on the beat. The choice of the local police authority was backed by the people, and each of the town and community councils put up their police precept to pay for what was originally known as the 10p bobby. Those extra police have been taken away by central Government, which is an important point.

Mark Tami: Does my hon. Friend also recall that it was the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who at the time were calling for more money from central Government to fund policing?

Albert Owen: Absolutely. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have changed their view. Priorities have to be set, and our priority would have been to keep policing levels high.

We have seen central Government cuts, but that cut has been across the board. We paid for the extra policing, but central Government have robbed it from us. We are seeing a depletion in the police whom we, the council tax payers of north Wales, specifically paid for. We took a decision in that period that other local police authorities in Wales did not, yet the cut across the board of up to 20% will affect north Wales as much as other police authorities in Wales and England. That is grossly unfair to the taxpayers and constituents of north Wales. That important point is often overlooked.

I am pleased that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is present to respond, but I would have liked to see the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who has certain responsibilities. He was a doughty campaigner for increased funding in north Wales, including a prison for north Wales, because he wanted to see more police on the beat and more criminals in jail—in local jails—and he and I stood shoulder to shoulder to get an extra prison in Wales located in north Wales. Now, apparently, he is no longer standing up for north Wales but for the Westminster Government cuts. It is a shame that he is not in the Chamber, because I would have liked to look him in the eye and told him that myself, but I will give way to his spokesperson.

Glyn Davies: I always very much enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s speeches and take great note of them. The one difficulty that I have in listening is the seemingly total blank refusal to accept that there should be a reduction in the cost of policing in north Wales. Is his

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party’s policy that there should be no cuts in the cost of policing? What impact will that have on other budgets, bearing in mind that the shadow Chancellor has accepted that the cuts proposed by the current Government cannot be reversed because of the economic situation?

Albert Owen: I am certainly not saying that there should be no cuts. As the hon. Member for Aberconwy has said, there was without doubt a reduction in police numbers between 2008 and 2010, but that was achieved through efficiency savings. Also, the police authority in my area made it clear what it was doing, and the local people supported it because they understood it. What local people do not accept—if the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is not aware of this, he needs to talk to people in his constituency—is the across-the-board cut to policing just because of the Government deficit reduction plan, coupling the savage cuts with police cuts. People wanted to make a choice, and that is the difficulty.

I will deal with the shadow Chancellor, because obviously the papers from the Conservative Whips keep rolling out that line. What he said was that in 2015 he will be left with higher debts and higher borrowing than we would have had in 2010, which will be a difficult situation and he will have to make difficult choices. However, I assure the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that I will be fighting within my party to ensure that policing has a priority. I ask him and the hon. Member for Aberconwy to do the same, because rather than having this knockabout, they should stand up for policing in their local communities.

Guto Bebb: I wish to correct the hon. Gentleman, because he must have misheard my comments. I actually said that there was a reduction in police numbers between 2006 and 2008, not between 2008 and 2010—those figures are correct.

Albert Owen: Front-line police officers, yes, but the total amount including PCSOs and special constables rose. The police authority made that choice, which the people of north Wales accepted because they saw extra policing on the street. Prevention of crime and reducing the fear of crime are as important as police officers tackling criminals, and the Government have overlooked that with their “one-cap-fits-all” cuts throughout the country.

Opposition politicians are not the only ones whingeing. The Police Federation chairman has said that we are going back to the policing levels of the 1970s, with fewer than “215 officers per 100,000”, which is a difficult level for the future. The reduction in the number of staff in north Wales has been by more than 200 but, even worse, it is projected to be 360 by 2015. It is no use blaming the police authority, as Ministers suggest. The chief constable of Gloucestershire, in many ways a similar area to north Wales and to north-west Wales in particular, has said that policing is on “a cliff-edge”. He is not an Opposition politician, and he cites closed police stations, sold-off vehicles and the departure of senior managers and a third of the police.

What else can go in the future to make the projected cuts that are being talked about? The answer is obviously the front line. However the front, middle and back are

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defined: if we do not have the resource in the first place, we cannot put it on the front line. I worry, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd pointed out, about when there are serious incidents. Since I have been a Member of Parliament, there have unfortunately been a number of murders and serious crimes in my area; I know the amount of police resources used in such circumstances, when they are taken from elsewhere. If we have a thin blue line and then take police away to serious crime or incidents for many months, communities face a difficult period. That is why it is no coincidence that robbery figures have gone up by more than 60% and burglaries by some 12%; there is a link between the number of such opportunist crimes and a time of high unemployment and social deprivation in many areas. Those crimes are worrying to the individual because of the theft and the damage to property, but also because of the damage to people. People’s confidence goes, as does business confidence in towns and communities throughout the country. Those factors cannot be separated out.

Mark Tami: My hon. Friend has mentioned the increase in the burglary rate of 12%. Within that, particularly worrying is the number of first-time offenders—their first offence is burglary, whereas in the past that crime was seen as something people perhaps graduated to, so we are seeing a worrying trend.

Albert Owen: I understand that other people want to speak, so I will draw to a close. Such crimes are serious and they have gone up out of proportion to the others. I accept the figures of an overall reduction in serious crimes, but some figures are worrying, because there are now more victims of crime, who have had their property attacked, burgled and robbed, with theft and fraud going up. Many people are now feeling the effects of the reduction in policing, so one cannot just say that reported crime is down.