I am cautious, however, about what the outcome of the release of papers by the Hillsborough independent panel might be and about the likely outcome of the Attorney-General’s consideration of new evidence. I agree

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with the call for a new inquest, but I understand that that is a highly unusual step. In his response, perhaps the Attorney-General will explain any potential difficulties that he might have in agreeing to a new inquest and explore how new information might be addressed and what he has in mind when he says that he wishes to consider the evidence afresh.

Kevin was one of 19 people from the borough of Sefton who died at Hillsborough, and I would like to discuss the evidence that relates to what happened to Kevin on that day. I will concentrate on the medical evidence—some of which is similar to that already mentioned by the hon. Member for City of Chester—and on the views of a number of experts who have examined what was said at the inquest into Kevin’s death.

The inquest into Kevin’s death decided that those who died at Hillsborough were irreparable damaged by 3.15 pm, and that therefore the actions—or lack of actions—of those who might have helped, or given instructions to help, were irrelevant. That is one of the reasons why some of the other evidence was not considered. Such a decision implied that none of the 96 people who died could have been saved by medical attention or by being rescued from the pens at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium after 3.15 pm. As we have heard, however, a number of reliable witnesses say that they were with Kevin until nearly 4 pm, and that they tried to save his life but were unable to do so as they lacked the necessary medical training. Those who tried to help Kevin included at least one police officer, yet their testimony was not accepted by the coroner.

The suspicion held by families, friends and supporters is that the 3.15 pm cut-off point was a convenient way of avoiding evidence that showed that lives could have been saved if ambulances had been allowed on the pitch and if police officers had been told to help people out of the Leppings Lane pens. Many thousands of people believe that a new coroner’s inquest would allow the presentation of evidence to show that Kevin was still alive after 3.15 pm and that his life might have been saved had different decisions been taken.

A different coroner’s verdict for Kevin might also provide a recognition for the families of some of those who died that decisions were taken that denied their loved ones medical care or rescue—decisions that cost lives. Many people believe that even after all these years, those who took such decisions could be held accountable for causing the deaths of the 96 people who died—deaths that could have been prevented had action been taken as soon as it became clear that there was a problem. Kevin’s mother, Anne, is one of many people who have fought since that day in 1989 to get official recognition for the truth about what happened at Hillsborough, and that is what lies at the heart of the debate today.

Let me examine some of the evidence and compare the views of Dr Slater with those of Dr West. Dr Slater gave evidence that Kevin died of traumatic asphyxia and that he died quickly from injuries to his chest and neck. He also said at the inquest that Kevin’s voice box had been badly damaged, that he had suffered extensive brain damage and that he would not have been able to speak. Dr Slater’s evidence suggested that Kevin was not alive and did not speak to his prospective rescuers and that those who claimed that Kevin was alive much later than 3.15 pm were mistaken.

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Dr West disagrees with Dr Slater and could not confirm that Kevin died quickly. The photographic evidence seen by Dr West showed evidence not of extensive injuries to Kevin’s chest but of injuries to his neck. Dr West says that there was no swelling of the face, which is different to the view provided by Dr Slater. In Dr West’s view, the injuries shown in the photographs would have led to a swelling of the voice box, which would then have reduced the flow of air to the lungs. He says that such an injury would not have been fatal straight away and that it could have been treated by an emergency tracheotomy with a rubber tube. The suggestion is that a trained paramedic could have saved Kevin’s life if ambulances had been allowed on to the pitch.

Dr West has told Anne Williams that the injuries shown in the photographs suggest that Kevin’s chest was not damaged although his neck was. Traumatic asphyxia is not caused by neck injuries alone, and Mrs Williams told me that she challenged what the coroner put on form 99, the coroner’s certificate. Dr Slater said that Kevin had a chest injury and a neck injury; Dr West said that the injury was only to the neck. After Mrs Williams challenged the certificate, Dr Slater agreed that the injury was confined to the neck.

Anne Williams has been advised that the injuries to Kevin’s neck could have taken up to 45 minutes to swell up enough to close his airways. The comments made by Debra Martin, the police constable who says that Kevin died in her arms just before 4 pm, are consistent with that medical advice.

Anne Williams would like recognition that Kevin did not die from traumatic asphyxia, given the confirmation that his injuries were not consistent with that cause of death. She was also advised that Kevin may have been able to speak because the injury to his voice box would not have prevented speech straight away. Dr West believes that Kevin may have been able to say a word or two, even if he had suffered some brain damage.

The evidence that Kevin was alive up to 4 pm and that his injuries may well have meant that he could have been saved is the reason why Anne Williams and many thousands of others believe that there should be a further inquest. There is evidence that Kevin was still breathing at 3.37 and died only just before 4 pm. The family and thousands of others believe that his death has not been properly investigated. They are backed up by Debra Martin, who was at Hillsborough as a special constable. Debra held Kevin in her arms as he died, but found out that her statement was never given at the inquest. Instead, a statement was made up without her knowledge.

I hope that the Attorney-General will explain in his response to the debate just what process he plans to follow in reviewing the evidence. Many people want a new inquest for a number of the victims, so that evidence about decisions taken can be considered at such an inquest and so that the impact of not allowing ambulances on the pitch or preventing escape from the pens can be considered. Many people want public recognition that those in authority took decisions that may have caused some of the deaths after 3.15 pm. Perhaps the Attorney-General can explain whether a new inquest would contribute to meeting that request. Will he explain whether it is possible to have a new inquest? Over the years, expectations

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have been raised and dashed many times. Today might be an opportunity for the Attorney-General to give an honest assessment of the likelihood of a new inquest.

Anne Williams and her family want public recognition of what happened to Kevin. They want to hear the truth acknowledged. After all the years of knock-backs, the family want justice for Kevin and for themselves, so that they can feel that they have done right by Kevin and for themselves and so that they can finally move on.

3.1 pm

Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) for bringing this much-needed debate to the House today. I also praise Mrs Anne Williams, her family and friends and the extended family of the Hillsborough 96 and supporters for fighting so hard to bring the debate here today to get justice for her son, Kevin.

I will not speak for long, as many other Members want to speak. It is important that they are all heard, because that will add weight and credence to the argument for a new inquest. However, I do want to highlight the fact that through a mother’s love and determination and through the efforts of the public, more than 116,000 people have come together in an e-petition. They all see the force of the argument and the need for a new inquest. That needs to be put on record. Powerfully and forcefully, we are all calling for a new inquest into the death of Kevin Williams.

The Coroners Act 1988 requires a coroner to hold an inquest where

“there is reasonable cause to suspect that the deceased…died a violent or an unnatural death”


“a sudden death of which the cause is unknown”.

If a person is dissatisfied with the outcome of the inquest, they can take further action to reopen the case. The Ministry of Justice states in “A guide to Coroners and Inquests”:

“It is possible to challenge coroners’ decisions and inquest verdicts”.

One way of doing that is by making an application to the High Court for judicial review, but we are seeking use of the

“separate power under which the Attorney-General may initiate an application to the High Court…for another inquest to be held on the grounds that it is necessary or desirable…because new evidence has come to light”.

That is precisely what we are calling for here today in respect of Kevin Williams.

Since the Hillsborough disaster, which took place almost 23 years ago, Mrs Williams has always disputed the claim that all 96 victims died of traumatic asphyxia, especially because she has evidence that her son showed signs of life as late as 4 pm. I do not want to cover what has already been stated by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester and by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). The situation was well and ably described by both of them. However, we have heard from very credible witnesses, an off-duty police officer and a special constable, who have said that they believed

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that Kevin was alive and that he opened his eyes and said “Mum” just before 4 pm. Mrs Williams also sought advice from three separate medical experts, who all stated that Kevin did not die of traumatic asphyxiation or he would not have shown signs of life as late as that.

However, the coroner who was in charge of the case, Dr Stefan Popper, stated that he would not take any evidence from after the 3.15 pm cut-off point—a cut-off point that I would say was imposed unnecessarily. He stated that all the victims would have died or been brain-dead within five minutes because of the surge of the crowd and the crush, but in the words of Mrs Williams:

“Kevin did not die from Traumatic Asphyxia or in an accident. I will not pick up his death certificate until we get the cause of death put right and the accidental death verdict struck down.”

I believe that in the light of the witnesses’ statements and the information given by other medical experts, all of which shows that Kevin was alive after the 3.15 cut-off point, it is imperative that a new inquest be granted for Kevin Williams.

3.5 pm

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. For many people attending Westminster Hall today and for those watching at home, there may be confusion that after 118,000 people signed a Government e-petition, today’s proceedings are not being heard in the main Chamber of the House. People recognise the green Benches of the Commons, but understandably will be less familiar with today’s surroundings. The Government need to address that when public expectations are raised owing to a petition reaching 100,000 signatures. This debate could have happened in the exact same location and in the exact same format without a single person having signed the online petition. I feel some sympathy for the Backbench Business Committee because of the dilemma that it faces in looking for parliamentary time to debate such important issues—this is an important issue to hundreds of thousands of our constituents—but here, in the mother of Parliaments, what could be more important than justice? That is what we are trying to achieve today.

We are here to argue the case for the Attorney-General to review the overwhelming evidence relating to the unlawful killing of a young man—Kevin Williams. Some people have asked why we are back here again, following the success of the absolutely enthralling debate in the House on 17 October. It is simply because there are specific questions that still require specific answers. If there was a case in any other walk of life in which the police and members of the emergency services had altered statements, fabricated stories and covered their own backs, there would quite rightly be public outrage. Well, there is public outrage. The public of Merseyside and far beyond have been outraged for 22 and a half years, and it is time that the cynics who believe that we are

“like a blind man in a darkened room looking for a black cat that isn’t there”

woke up to what happened with the Hillsborough cover-up. For Anne Williams and her family, the backdrop to their individual tragedy is the same as that for the other 95 families—it is the dignified pursuit of justice.

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In the limited time available, I will not repeat the sequence of events as laid out by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley).He has provided the necessary detail to illustrate the specific circumstances of young Kevin’s death, and I congratulate him on the way he went about that during his contribution. Despite successive Attorney-Generals and Home Secretaries dismally and consistently failing to act on this issue, there may be light at the end of a very long tunnel. Credit where it is due: I have to thank the current Home Secretary for her contribution, commitment and forthright action back in October. The Hillsborough independent panel is now accessing all the unrestricted and unredacted documentation that our cross-party consensus on that night secured. My hope is that the current Attorney-General will look afresh at the evidence in this case, as he has suggested that he will.

There are options for us as parliamentarians. We can go down the path of hyperbole and trying to hide behind complex legal argument and archaic parliamentary conventions, or we can adopt a simpler approach based on the elementary principle of right and wrong.

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that this case, of the many cases involved, illustrates just how appallingly inadequate the original inquests were in doing the job inquests are supposed to do: establishing the cause of death in each individual case and bringing a sense of closure to the relatives left behind? Does he agree that the 3.15 pm cut-off point and the accidental death verdicts were instrumental in creating the ongoing sense of deep injustice felt by families such as that of Anne Williams? That needs to be put right to put a stop to the suffering of people such as Anne Williams whose relatives died at Hillsborough.

Steve Rotheram: My hon. Friend is once again spot on with her forensic understanding of the issues. Her contribution in the debate on the Floor of the House highlighted her comprehensive appreciation of what happened at Hillsborough. She touches on two important issues. The first is that the original inquest was inadequate, and the hon. Member for City of Chester made absolutely clear why that is so. The second is the ongoing sense of injustice, which has resonated not only in Liverpool. The people who signed the online petition come from right across this country and from different political persuasions. They include football fans and people who are not interested in sport. People are beginning to understand what the people of Merseyside have fought for for 22 and a half years.

As a result of the overwhelming evidence, Kevin’s case proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the 3.15 pm cut-off point was simply wrong. It is fundamentally flawed and it does not stand up to scrutiny. For those who failed in their duty on that day, it has, quite literally, been their get-out-of-jail-free card. They point to the 3.15 pm cut-off and claim there was nothing they could do. How wrong they are. They could and should have saved Kevin Williams.

Since becoming an MP, I have wrestled with how best to explain to people who are not necessarily familiar with the Hillsborough tragedy exactly why it still matters.

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Twenty-two and a half years on from the disaster, some might wonder why their MPs are in this Chamber debating it. They could be forgiven for asking that, and many were not even born in 1989. As human beings, however, they must surely understand that this debate, this campaign and this dark chapter in British history are, and always have been, about broken-hearted mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters fighting for loved ones who went to a football match and did not come home.

All deaths are tragic, especially when they involve children. It is also true that Britain has experienced other national tragedies over the past three decades, but has there ever been a national tragedy in which no one has been held to account?

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on his excellent speech. I also support Anne Williams’s campaign, which proves nothing is stronger than a mother’s love for her child. One point has never really been brought out to the extent that it should be. Not only was this disaster caused by incompetence and a complete disregard for people’s safety, but some of the people alive after 3.15 pm could have survived, and did not. A lot of people do not understand that. Not only was there a disaster because the crushing resulted in people being injured and killed, but others could have survived afterwards had they been looked after properly—it was a double disaster.

Steve Rotheram: My hon. Friend makes an important contribution. If we look not just at Kevin’s case, but at the disaster that took place that day, it is clear that had it not been for the quick action of Liverpool fans, the tragedy would have involved way more than 96 deaths and could have involved many hundreds of deaths. Liverpool fans acted, while those charged with our safety that day froze, and that should never be forgotten.

Today, we have heard that the cause of Kevin’s death should be re-examined. As we have heard, his mother is yet to pick up his death certificate, because the cause of death is wrong. Imagine a country that has so far allowed a broken-hearted mother to wait 23 years to find out the reasons why her young son died at a football match, when she knows it was not the result of traumatic asphyxia.

The e-petition stated that the overwhelming evidence makes it quite clear that the Attorney-General needs to look afresh at this issue to reach the logical conclusion that Kevin was not dead at 3.15 pm, but died subsequently, so that he can deem that it is right to grant a new coroner’s inquest.

The families have fought their dignified campaign for more than two decades, with an eternal flame burning bright—the flame of hope. Kevin’s mother, Anne, has hope in her heart today. She has been joined on her heart-breaking journey by the families of the other 95 victims of Hillsborough, some of whom I left earlier at a different venue. My hope is that we can finally get justice for those who lost their lives and the families who continue to mourn them. Only then will the families of the 96 be able to put their loved ones to rest.

Several hon. Members rose

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Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. Some Members have spoken for considerably longer than others, and I am minded to try to include all Members. I will call Mr Tom Brake, but I hope Members will be generous to others in making use of their time allocation.

3.16 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Thank you, Mrs Main. I will do exactly that. I intend to make a very brief contribution.

I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on opening the debate and bringing his expertise and his knowledge of the family to the Chamber. We have also heard passionate contributions from other Members.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Hillsborough tragedy further and specifically the tragedy that befell the Williams family and Kevin Williams. I also welcome the fact that the Attorney-General is here to respond to the debate. We have heard of his very positive letter, which I hope gives Members and the families some comfort that a resolution may be in sight.

The hon. Member for City of Chester clearly set out what did and did not happen to Kevin Williams and the time line over which those things happened. He also set out the way in which those involved in trying to save his life were, rather alarmingly, subsequently encouraged—one Member used the word “bullied”—to see events differently from the way they experienced them.

The family are clearly entitled to have an accurate record of how and when their son died. If we, as parents, were in their situation, we would want an accurate record; we would want to know that the truth had come out so that we could have some sense of closure. The medical evidence to which Members have referred clearly points to a cause of death other than traumatic asphyxia. The family are also entitled to a detailed account of the emergency response and to be told whether lives could have been saved if that response had been different.

I hope that the Attorney-General will be able to give Members an undertaking that the inquest they seek is possible. I also hope that he will be able to update Members on any discussions he has had with the Hillsborough independent panel and on whether he expects its report, which is due quite soon, to give some comfort by providing information that might help clarify exactly what happened on that tragic day.

To conclude, the Attorney-General has the opportunity to help the family obtain closure, and I hope he will take it.

3.19 pm

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on his important presentation and on securing this debate with other Members. I pay tribute to the dedication and determination of Anne Williams in seeking out the truth and trying to secure justice.

The debate on Hillsborough called by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on 17 October demonstrated the continuing strength of feeling—the distress, concern and outrage—at the absence of the full information about what happened to the people who died. The deaths and the tragedy may have

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happened some years ago, but many people have said to me that it is as if it had happened today: the grief and anger are still there, and the determination to get to the truth of what happened remains. The highly respected Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, is chairing the panel that we hope will bring full disclosure of all the documentation available. I hope that that will go further towards establishing the truth of the dreadful tragedy.

Today’s debate, however, is about securing a new inquest on the death of Kevin Williams. That means challenging the ruling of the coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, who imposed the cut-off time of 3.15 on the day of the disaster, his statement that Kevin must have died by 3.15 and his verdict on the cause of death. In the debate this afternoon we have heard compelling evidence from several contributors about why all those aspects of the matter are challengeable and, indeed, wrong. We have heard in graphic and traumatic detail why a new inquest is a justified request. It can only be incomprehensible, and a matter of outrage, that that request has not been granted before.

A new inquest was requested previously in this House. On 26 October 1994 the then Member for Crosby, Sir Malcolm Thornton, spoke at length, imploring the Attorney-General to agree to a new inquest. He quoted Anne Williams, whose words are now recorded for all time in Hansard:

“He was just a little boy that went to watch a football match and never came home. There is nothing that I can be told now that will make the agony any worse. I just want to know the truth.”—[Official Report, 26 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 979.]

I hope that today the Attorney-General will be able to give us information that will take us nearer to establishing that long-sought-after truth.

3.22 pm

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your Chairmanship, Mrs Main, on what is a busy day for you. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on the forensic way in which he went through the detail.

I want to stand back a little, and to be dispassionate. I want to work out, coming from the other end of the question, why the Attorney-General might not support Mrs Williams’s case. The facts according to the coroner were, as we know, first, that the death was accidental; secondly that it resulted from traumatic asphyxia; and, thirdly, that Kevin, along with everyone else, was dead by 3.15. Mrs Williams’s e-petition has asked for the opening of a new inquest under section 16 of the Coroners Act 1988. Her case is that Kevin did not die until 4 o’clock and he did not die from traumatic asphyxia. She has evidence to back up her case, and she claims that people who were helping Kevin well after 3.15 are prepared to testify.

If we are going to be told today by the Attorney-General that he does not accept that case, we can apply three simple tests. Is Mrs Williams simply wrong? Is she misguided? Or, God forbid, is she deliberately misleading us out of her understandable need for justice for her son? If the Attorney-General cannot answer yes to at least one of those questions, how on earth can he justify anything other than agreeing to reopen Kevin’s inquest or some other form of process that will allow her to get justice? Whatever obstructions are put in the way of the

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Attorney-General in trying to reach that justice, he should knock them out of the way. He should also not allow the inbuilt bias that has a long history in this nation, of the establishment closing ranks to protect its own. Why things happened as they did has been mentioned, to an extent, by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram). I do not intend to go into that, but I suggest that if facts come to light as a result of this case that show even more overwhelmingly that people did not do the things they should have done as public servants, it is not too late for them to be called to account. That is something that the nation should pursue.

The Government have made some very positive statements about transparency. As recently as 19 December, the Deputy Prime Minister said in a speech to Demos:

“The third characteristic of an open society is the sharing of knowledge and information. In a closed society the elite think that, for the masses, ignorance is bliss: But in an open society there is no monopoly of wisdom. So transparency is vital.”

I could not agree more. According to the coalition programme for Government of May 2010 the Government believe

“that we need to throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account.”

Today the Attorney-General can show whether his Department will live up to those fine words. He can show the people of this country that justice is more important than secrecy. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton is right. This is about families—dads, mams, brothers and sisters; but it is also about us as a nation, and what sort of country we want to live in.

3.26 pm

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): Like other hon. Members, I shall not detain the Chamber long. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on the way—it was indeed forensic—in which he laid out the case for a new inquest.

I wanted to add once again the voice of the city of Sheffield to the debate. It is an important voice. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) outlined why the debate still matters. It matters primarily because Anne Williams wants to know what really happened to her son and how he died. It matters to all the families of those who died, and who were involved in the tragedy—the other 95. It matters to the people of south Yorkshire, and particularly to those who were involved in dealing with the tragedy that day, and its aftermath. It matters to a city that, alongside Liverpool, is still struggling hard, 23 years on, to come to terms with what happened that day. It matters because even now, every day of every week, as I said in the debate in October, flowers and wreaths are laid outside Hillsborough stadium in memory of those who died. More than anything else, in a sense, it matters because we need to know the truth.

I think the details, showing why we need an inquest to establish some of the truth of what happened, have been laid out clearly. There is the fact that, as has been mentioned several times, the coroner drew the line at 3.15, which we know was wrong. That matters primarily because it meant there was no examination of how the emergency services and police responded to what happened during the afternoon—the simple facts of the case. Also, we need a new inquest because evidence was

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suppressed at the time, through, it appears, the falsification of police statements. That evidence is now emerging clearly. Debra Martin has bravely come out into the open and gone on the record in the media. She was on “Calendar” on ITV Yorkshire last night, laying out clearly what happened that day, as many hon. Members have mentioned: how Kevin died in her arms calling for his mother. She has put that on the record. She has gone on Radio Sheffield today. The city now knows that the truth about what happened to Kevin and the other 95 who died is not entirely out in the open. That is why the case for an inquest is strong.

Whatever the new allegations are, and however serious they are, it is absolutely critical that all the papers relating to the disaster, both public and private, are handed over to the inquiry. Although that commitment has already been made from the Government’s point of view, the case still needs to be reiterated. The allegations made against West Midlands police will need further investigation, as it now appears that there was a deliberate suppression of the facts relating to the case. The inquest will help with that, but it will take more than an inquest to deal with the suppression of the evidence that occurred in 1989 and 1990. The relationship between West Midlands police and South Yorkshire police in the suppression of that evidence also matters. The inquest is just one of the critical elements in helping to deal with what happened and how evidence was recorded after the disaster.

If the allegations are accurate—and there is no reason to believe that the claims made by Debra Martin are anything other than accurate—they alone justify the case for a new inquest. Debra Martin is absolutely clear about events. She looked at her watch when Kevin Williams died; it was four o’clock in the afternoon. She is absolutely crystal clear about that. We need a new inquest. The Attorney-General must respond in clear terms this afternoon. There must be no prevarication; we need that inquest.

Finally, let me thank Yorkshire Television for bringing some of the new evidence to light and for helping Debra Martin clear the record and the air about her role on that day. The role of the media is important in all this, and it is watching what is happening—never mind The Sun, it does not have a part in any of this. We all want an inquest and it is in the public interest that we get it.

3.31 pm

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on the clarity that he has brought to the case. It is difficult to bring all these facts together and make them comprehensible, and he did that very well. I also pay tribute to the dignity and tenacity of Anne Williams and all those who supported her in taking this case so far and for drawing it to the attention of Members of Parliament and the Attorney-General.

In our culture, we are not equipped as parents to deal with the loss of a child. That lack of preparedness is even greater when the circumstances in which the death occurs have never been properly explained or officially put on the face of a verdict from a coroner’s court. We need to recognise that there is a huge burden of honour involved in what we are doing today in relation to what happened to Kevin Williams in the coroner’s court.

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I wanted to take part in this debate because I attended one day of the inquests that took place. At the time, I was with two constituents, Mr and Mrs Joynes. I was appalled at the way in which the proceedings were conducted, and I have two points to make. The first one, which has been mentioned repeatedly this afternoon and on many other occasions, is that the decision to make a cut-off point at 3.15 had the effect of insulating everybody who was responsible for everything that happened after 3.15 from any criticism or any action. People talk about the 3.15 cut-off because it is important. Things happened and people were still alive after that, but the presumption of the inquest was that nothing happened after that, or that anything that did happen was not relevant to the conduct of the inquest. In the Coroners Act 2008, I tried to move an amendment about that in the event of future incidents, but, unfortunately, I was unsuccessful.

My second conclusion after spending a day at the inquest was that the whole thing was set up on a preconceived presumption, which was that those who were killed may have, in some way, been partly responsible for their deaths. It was significant that on the day that I was there—from what I can gather, it happened on all prior and subsequent occasions—one of the issues that was relentlessly pursued was the alcohol content in the blood of the deceased. Obviously, in some cases, that may have been relevant, but the issue was pursued on a presumption. It was as if they were saying, “We know about football fans. We know how they behave and we know that they may have been responsible.” That was the feeling that I left with, and I was outraged at the time and remain so today.

The whole process of conducting mini inquests—from recollection there were eight on the day that I attended—is unacceptable. Again, that makes a presumption about what happened. What we have heard subsequently, and what the inquiry that is being conducted into the paperwork by the Bishop of Liverpool will show, is that every individual’s case was different. What happened to each and every one was different. What caused the events is known, but how individuals were treated and dealt with was specific. As those inquests were so truncated, they could not explore all that in every case.

I welcome the fact that the Attorney-General has made a positive statement about what may happen in the near future. For all the reasons that the hon. Member for City of Chester and others have given, the verdict in the case of Kevin Williams is invalid. Moreover, because of the 3.15 cut-off point, all the verdicts are potentially—I stress “potentially”—invalid. It is possible in a lot of other cases that something could have happened to prevent the death of someone who was still alive beyond 3.15. I have no hard and fast suggestion about how to deal with that, but the Attorney-General, as a very competent lawyer, will recognise the point that I am making. This case may not necessarily be a precedent, but it may well be a model that applies in other cases where people think it is appropriate. I am sure that the Attorney-General will give a great deal of thought to the important points that have been made during the debate.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): I plan to call the shadow Minister at 3.42 and the Attorney-General at 3.50.

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3.39 pm

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I pay tribute to Anne Williams, Kevin’s mother, for the incredible courage and determination that she has shown in the pursuit of justice for her son. All of us here hope that today marks the beginning of the end of what has been a long battle for her and her family. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on securing the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on the important role that he played in ensuring that it took place. I also pay tribute to the 118,000 members of the public who signed the petition. I echo the comments made by some of my hon. Friends; this debate should be taking place in the main Chamber this afternoon.

Much of what I wanted to say has already been said by the hon. Member for City of Chester in his forensic remarks at the beginning of the debate and by many other hon. Members who have spoken before me. Like all of them, I welcome the fact that the Attorney-General has agreed to look at the applications made to his predecessors, and to consider whether to support an application to the High Court for a new inquest into Kevin’s death. I urge him to make that application, please.

To many of us here, the evidence is conclusive. We have heard the chronology of events on 15 April 1989 in detail from the hon. Member for City of Chester, and from the BBC tapes, we have heard from PC Michael Craighill, Mr Bruder and WPC Debra Martin. It is clear that their visual evidence alone contradicts the original verdict, and when it is added to the evidence that discredits Dr Slater’s conclusion at the inquest—evidence that has already been mentioned—the strength of the case is overwhelming. I sincerely hope that the weight of all this evidence, along with the clear inaccuracies of the original inquiry, will convince the Attorney-General to recommend a new inquest.

It is sometimes suggested by some in the media or by those who are not connected with the terrible events of Hillsborough that it is time to draw a line under what happened on that fateful day in April 23 years ago, that it would be better not to rake up the past, or that the families of those who lost their lives that day should he spared from reliving their trauma. However, those of us here today who have met the families of the 96 victims, or who knew people who were at Hillsborough or who were even at the ground themselves, know the deep sense of injustice felt by so many people about what happened then and afterwards. We know that it simply would not be right to draw a line, not while families still have questions that deserve to be answered, not until the full truth of what happened at Hillsborough is known, and not until justice has finally been served.

3.41 pm

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): If I may, I will break with convention by starting my comments by paying tribute to Mrs Anne Williams for the determined campaign that she has undertaken to seek justice for her son, Kevin. The tireless work that she has put in and the unwavering love of a mother that she has shown for her young son who was tragically robbed of his life, must serve as a reminder to us all of why we are in Parliament—to serve our constituents and our nation.

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I thank the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) for securing this debate, all those who have signed the petition and indeed all right hon. and hon. Members who have supported the call over many years—too many years—for justice for the 96 who died and the 766 who were injured as a result of events at Hillsborough on that sad day, 15 April 1989. My heartfelt sympathies are with all the families who were affected.

I also put on record my thanks to those who were with Kevin in his final moments, who revived him, carried him and cradled him. Even just reading what happened to Kevin, and to so many others, profoundly moves me, but I cannot begin to comprehend the pain that losing a child such as Kevin—a 15-year-old lad who was just out to watch a footy match on an afternoon—must be like.

That pain was made so much worse by an inquest that was plainly wrong. The evidence that Anne Williams has uncovered and that we have heard today demonstrates clearly that Kevin was indeed alive after 3.15 pm on that day, and it shows just how unsound the original inquests were.

Quite reasonably, there has been a great deal of criticism about how the coroner conducted those original inquests and about how the 3.15 pm time limit has stopped important evidence being brought forward. Our outdated coroner system needs the reforms that were legislated for in 2009, and more reform. If inquests had been properly conducted in the past, justice could have been achieved years ago and decades of pain could have been tempered.

May I gently suggest to the Attorney-General that he speaks to his colleagues at the Ministry of Justice? That is because the need for a chief coroner, with appropriate powers and an appeals system, was one of the lessons learned from terrible events such as Hillsborough. The Government need to rethink the implications of stripping away the powers of the chief coroner from the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

As we have heard this afternoon and on other occasions, mistakes—some of them genuine errors, others examples of incompetence and even worse behaviour—led to the tragic events at Hillsborough. However, we have also heard that mistakes, incompetence and even worse behaviour happened after the 3.15 pm cut-off time, which have never been examined at inquests. The cover-up that then took place was, to say the least, shameful.

I am pleased that the Attorney-General has said that he will look again at Kevin’s case and I look forward to hearing what he intends to do, as people’s expectations are rightly and understandably high. I hope that he will set out what he can do and, just as importantly, what he feels he is unable to do. If he feels bound by legal constraints, he needs to make those constraints clear and then explain what—if anything—can be done to change those legal barriers. After all, that is what this House is here for; it is here to change legislation if that is what is needed.

I conclude my remarks to give the Attorney-General plenty of time to respond to the debate and if I may I will again break the normal conventions by turning to the Public Gallery and saying that Anne, her family and so many other families need full answers, and inquests that can properly hear testimony about what happened on that profoundly sad day are an important part of

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getting those answers. I hope that before the 25th painful anniversary of Hillsborough we will have had a proper inquest into the tragic death of Kevin Williams and that Anne—through her mother’s love—can get justice for her son.

3.45 pm

The Attorney-General (Mr Dominic Grieve): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on securing this debate and thank those right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so eloquently about the tragedy that was Hillsborough.

Today’s debate has been prompted by the e-petition started by Mrs Anne Williams. She is the mother of Kevin Williams, whose short life was ended that day at Hillsborough. There is no hierarchy of victims; every loss was a tragedy for someone and I express my sympathy to all who lost loved ones on that day. Mrs Williams’s petition asked that her application for a fresh inquest into the death of her son be reconsidered. I have already indicated that I will do so.

It may assist people if I explain what I am being asked to do. After hearing what others have said this afternoon, I recognise that what follows may sound a little dry or legalistic. It is none the less necessary for me to say it, if what is being asked of me is to be understood.

The only way that a second inquest can be held into the death of Kevin Williams, or into the death of anyone else on that day, is if the High Court quashes the original inquest and orders a second inquest to be held. The Court will order a new inquest only if it is satisfied that the test that is set out in section 13 of the Coroners Act 1988 has been met. Essentially, that test is whether a new inquest is

“necessary or desirable in the interests of justice”.

That test implies a wide discretion and it is necessarily fact-sensitive. An inquest determines who the deceased was and how, when and where they came by their death, as was so rightly explained by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester. “How” is not simply the medical cause of death but may include the circumstances in which the death came about. What justice requires in any case is that there has been an effective inquiry into the death and that the conclusions reached are supported by the available evidence.

For example, if it can be shown that an inquest was flawed procedurally or that new evidence has come to light since the inquest was held, and if that flaw or new evidence potentially has a significant impact on the conclusions of the original inquest, then a fresh inquest may be

“necessary or desirable in the interests of justice”.

Mr George Howarth: In the definition of what is a “flaw”, will the Attorney-General consider—I do not ask him to commit himself—including the existence of what many of us believe was an arbitrary 3.15 pm cut-off point?

The Attorney-General: Perhaps the best way that I can put it to the right hon. Gentleman is to say that I fully understand the points that have been cogently made today that raised criticisms about the 3.15 pm cut-off point, but, as he will appreciate, at this stage of

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the proceedings, I have only heard the explanations that have been provided. However, I fully understand the force that lies behind the argument that is being put forward.

An application to the High Court can only be made by me or by another with my consent. My role is to consider the available evidence and to determine whether there are reasonable prospects of the Court ordering a new inquest. I act as a filter, as Parliament has required me to do, and I should make it clear that I perform that role entirely independently of anyone else in Government. I have given some thought to how I should set about this task and I will, of course, consider it further in the light of the points that have been made in this debate today.

Mrs Williams has made four previous applications to my predecessors in office—predecessors in the two major parties that have been in Government. On each occasion, the application was refused as the Attorney-General of the day did not consider there was any reasonable prospect of a court being satisfied that a fresh inquest was necessary. There are undoubtedly difficulties. The matter has already been considered by the divisional court in 1992, which looked at many of the issues that had been put forward as reasons for a new inquest. That court refused to quash the original inquest and indicated that it did not consider it at all likely that the court would reach a different view had it been considering an application made under section 13. There has also been the inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor, as he then was, and the later review by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, whose findings argued against the need for a new inquest.

Later this year, the Hillsborough panel will release the information it has collected about the disaster and publish its report. For the first time, Mrs Williams and the other families of the deceased will have access to all—I stress all—relevant material, including the material held by my own office in respect of the discussions that took place with previous Attorneys-General. I am minded, therefore, to approach the case by awaiting the release of that material rather than simply by reviewing the material evidence that formed the basis of the applications already considered by my predecessors in office. This means that it will be necessary for me to delay reaching any conclusion until such time as the Hillsborough panel has released the collected material and there has been sufficient time for the families to be able to consider it carefully.

If I were to try to reach a decision sooner, I could ask to see the material that the panel holds now, but I will not do that for three reasons. First, I do not want to distract the panel or do anything to delay the completion of its work, which I hope will take place shortly. Secondly, I do not want to go behind the promise given, which I think important, that the families should see the material first. Thirdly, I want to give Mrs Williams, or indeed any other applicant, the time to consider the released material and make any representations that they may wish to make to me in respect of it.

I acknowledge that taking this course will affect the timing of my decision as to whether to make an application for a second inquest, and I am of course prepared to consider any representations that Mrs Williams or any other interested party—or, indeed, their Members of Parliament—may wish to make to me on timing.

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Robert Flello: We have only eight minutes left, but will the Attorney-General consider making a statement to the House once he has had a chance to look at further evidence and what has come from the panel, and will he have discussions with Mrs Williams and others? Will he come to the House and present his thoughts?

The Attorney-General: I will certainly consider doing so, as I have done in the past. If I come to a conclusion, I would certainly want the House to know what that conclusion is, and I would want the House to understand the reasonings. If it were indeed to be the case that I was going to make an application to the High Court, my reasonings would probably be very brief. If for any reason it were to be the case that I was not to be making an application to the High Court, I would want the House to understand, and indeed the public to understand, why I had come to that conclusion. The reality is that I think it would be inescapable, and indeed proper, that the House would require my attendance to answer questions whether I wished to make a statement or not. For that reason, without anticipating where I will be in respect of this matter, I would be rather surprised if I were not coming to make an oral statement to the House. History has shown that it is a better way of proceeding, particularly in terms of giving adequate notice to the Opposition of what I am going to say beforehand so that we can have a reasoned exchange of views based upon it. I promise that I will keep the hon. Gentleman, and indeed my shadow in this matter, informed of how I am proceeding in respect of it.

It seems to me at least that the Hillsborough panel’s work provides an opportunity to allow for a more informed examination of the evidence. That is going to be very important. My understanding is that not only will it sift through material and make sure that it is presented, but that there will be an ability to direct attention to areas of material that might be seen to be relevant if there is to be further consideration. For that reason, to explain further my rationale behind wishing to wait for the panel’s report rather than just plunging into this material myself, it seems sensible for me to be informed by the panel’s own deliberations.

I will make another point about my work. It is probably not greatly understood, but my office is a very small one. I have a small and dedicated team of lawyers working with me, and I have one deputy Minister, the Solicitor-General. I am afraid it is not the case in matters of this sort that suddenly dozens of people can be let loose on material and we rapidly come to conclusions. That said, I am perfectly aware that after the length of time that has elapsed, there is a real need to try to bring this matter, if I am reconsidering it, to a conclusion. I will be mindful of that, but I will have to ask hon. Members to bear with my office in terms of our ability to manage our workload in what I anticipate is likely to be the sifting of substantial quantities of material. I think quite a lot will be in existence.

Robert Flello: I understand the constraints that the Attorney-General’s office has upon it, but given the importance of this matter not only to the House but to the nation, if he finds that he is in a position in which he needs more resources to undertake that work, will he come to the House and ask for that provision?

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The Attorney-General: I would certainly do so if I felt it necessary. We seem to manage a pretty heavy workload reasonably well. Some things come in as emergencies and some things we consider at greater leisure. If I felt that I was not able to discharge my responsibilities more generally, I would certainly bring that to the attention of my colleagues in Government. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman about that. I have no reason to suppose that this is going to take an inordinate length of time. I want to make that clear. I simply wanted to stress the point, because people would not necessarily understand that mine is not a large Department with large numbers of people who can suddenly be tasked on to a particular role.

I will make one final point. No one can fail to be moved by what happened on that fateful day in April 1989 that still resonates so powerfully among so many people. That is perfectly apparent to me having listened to the debate today and having read the debate—I was not able to be present—that took place in October. I found it illuminating in helping me to understand the concerns, which have been further voiced today.

I am only too well aware of the strength of feeling that this House holds about the tragic and needless deaths of so many men, women and children. Not only did that day—a day that promised only the entertainment of an FA Cup semi-final—go so badly wrong, the pain was undoubtedly compounded by unforgivable calumnies published about those who tried to help the injured and the dying. As a man and as a Minister, I share those feelings. As Attorney-General, in which role I am here today, I cannot let sympathy alone sway any decision I may reach. As Attorney-General, in performing this function, as I explained earlier, I act wholly independently of Government and must reach my decision based on the evidence alone. What I can promise the House, and do promise, is that I will approach this case with an open mind and, if I conclude that the evidence supports an application to the court, I will ensure that an application is made.

3.58 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Fishing Quotas

4 pm

Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): Southend and the sea enjoy a symbiotic relationship; of that there can be no doubt. It gives us our character, our image, even our name—it is why we are called Southend-on-Sea. For many locals and tourists, the sea offers leisure, providing chances to enjoy our historic seafront, our pier—represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge)—and our arcades, known as the golden mile, which the Queen had the privilege of driving past some years ago.

For others, the sea provides employment and opportunity, and that is the purpose of this debate. Nowhere is that more true than in our historic fishing community at Leigh-on-Sea and Old Leigh. Boats there have been working the waters for centuries. Indeed, boats from the local fishing community were used to rescue injured people from Dunkirk. The fishermen and the wider community have a long history of patriotic support. The utmost respect has always been given to one of mother nature’s most powerful forces, but now the industry, which has adapted and survived through the ages, is facing its greatest ever challenge. The threat comes not from our old friend the sea but from within our ranks, and it threatens to strike at the heart of Britain’s ancient fishing fleet.

Let me say immediately to my hon. Friend the Minister that there is no point in any Member of Parliament having an Adjournment debate for the sake of it, for press releases or for various people to observe. I always see a purpose in an Adjournment debate. However, I understand entirely that for all sorts of reasons, he will be constrained in responding, given matters pending in court. If so, I ask simply that he reflect on what I will share with him and consider whether something can be done in the fullness of time to help.

The Marine Management Organisation is, in its own words, supposed to make a “significant contribution” to the marine area, yet for many fishermen, it has become an increasingly vindictive organisation managed by people with no practical knowledge of the industry that they are regulating. Astoundingly, only one member of the board and executive committee has any physical experience of fishing. I would have thought that that alone would be cause for concern. The MMO’s implementation of law is inconsistent and draconian, particularly in regard to small inshore fishing boats. I refer to the under-10-metre fleet, which is subject to the harshest possible sentences for minor offences. Sentences can be so extreme that some fishermen receive the same punishment as drug dealers and gang members.

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem was created by the last Labour Government when they underestimated the catch of the under-10-metre fleet? The quota available to that fleet is disproportionate compared with the quota for larger vessels, most of which is held by producer organisations.

Mr Amess: I welcome my hon. Friend to the debate. She has much more expertise in the sector than I do. I agree with her point about the last Government’s

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responsibility, which is why I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I understand that he is constrained by current regulations.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The points that he has raised alarm me. It is the proverbial sledgehammer used to crack a nut. It is like sending in the SAS when a bailiff would do. We need to get back to common sense in regulatory matters, on sea or on land.

Mr Amess: I will call the hon. Gentleman my hon. Friend, and I know that I speak for everyone in wishing his father a return to rude health. He must have read my speech, where I have used the expression “a sledgehammer to crack a nut”. I agree completely. The issue centres around what I believe is a complete misuse of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Worryingly, those who speak out against the MMO seem to be dealt with the most severely. That is totally unacceptable.

I will personalise the issue by talking about a constituent of mine whom I regard as a friend. His court hearing was held on Christmas eve, with all the stress that that involves, and he was recently fined £400,000. Although I was not there to hear the judge’s summing up—I am not criticising the judge; he was only interpreting the law as it stands—he apparently said that if not for my constituent’s references, the fine could have been as much as £600,000. The fine was for bureaucratic offences relating to his catch, the majority of which concerned offences relating to sales notes.

The gentleman to whom I am referring is Paul Gilson. Like generations of his family before him, he has fished the waters of Leigh-on-Sea since childhood. He is a highly respected member of the local community. In the late 1990s, I went with him, the gentleman who was then running my office, Lionel Altman, and the then Member of Parliament Bob Spink to do battle with the famous fisheries commissioner Emma Bonino. It was game, set and match to the Paul Gilson contingent. He is skipper of the historic boat Endeavour, which I am delighted to tell the House will be travelling in the flotilla for Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. A seat has been reserved on the boat for me, but as I suffer from seasickness, I will be giving the opportunity to someone else, however flat the River Thames is on that day.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Take pills.

Mr Amess: Unfortunately, pills do not work with me.

Paul Gilson is so highly thought of in Southend that he was awarded the freedom of the borough, which says everything about him. He is an honest, hard-working man, and such a sentence is an outrage, especially given that two other recent sales note offences received sentences of £3,500 and £6,000. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot comment on that or whether the sentence should have been appealed, but how can two people be given sentences of £3,500 and £6,000 when Mr Gilson was given a sentence of £400,000? That is absolutely not acceptable. It is a coincidence that if someone is a critic of the MMO, they seem to be dealt with particularly harshly.

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I am not denying that if an offence has been committed, a punishment should be given. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said earlier, this is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The punishment should fit the crime. The 2002 Act, under the right circumstances, is an effective deterrent, but Paul Gilson is neither a gangster nor a drug dealer. The judge even conceded that there was no evidence at all to suggest that Mr Gilson had enjoyed a lavish lifestyle—indeed, if he had done so, no doubt I, as a friend, would have expected to have benefited from it to an extent—or had been motivated in any sense by greed. There is clearly an abuse of the 2002 Act by the MMO, and Paul Gilson is not the only example.

A number of colleagues have sent me briefings on the matter. In particular, three fishermen who are constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) will appear before Colchester magistrates court on 29 February—obviously, I will not go into the details, as the case is before the courts and the Minister cannot comment on it. Apparently, in a similar case, while a judge recommended a fine of £2,000, the MMO pushed for a prosecution, again under the 2002 Act, to the tune of £156,000. That is absolutely outrageous.

A fisherman from a historic fishing town is being harassed at every opportunity, while three men from the Colchester area are about to appear in court charged with similar offences, and they fear for their livelihood. That is simply vindictiveness beyond belief and a serious waste of taxpayers’ money. As we found out only too well with the Harry Redknapp trial, which cost about £8 million, the money is all coming from the public purse. Money should not be wasted in criminal proceedings unnecessarily, and the case is a waste of taxpayers’ money. Departments are supposed to be making significant cuts, and I respectfully ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reflect on that. Money is being wasted in the pursuit of small-scale fishermen, largely guilty of nothing more than omissions in paperwork. My goodness, if I was to be looked at by how some of my paperwork is dealt with, no doubt I would have something to answer for, so I have tremendous sympathy for Paul Gilson and the other small fishermen.

The problems run deeper. The whole issue with the cases of Mr Gilson and others like him results from mismanagement in the industry and archaic, impractical laws regarding quotas, which my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) has brought to the attention of the House. I have been reliably informed that fishermen are losing out on their catches. Fish are being left uncaught but are not being replenished in the quotas for the following year. For example, Dover sole and skate in the North sea are being under-caught by hundreds of tons. There is also inconsistent implementation of quotas in the industry.

Two excellent articles appeared in The Times on 14 February. One of them is titled, “All at sea: historic fleet that can’t catch its own cod”, and I refer to my hon. Friend the Minister the circumstances of the Hastings fishing fleet. The other article was about a cartel on fishing quotas. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), who is the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that it was astounding that the Government

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did not know who owned the quotas that they handed out, while my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) described it as an absolute scandal.

The current system of quota allocation has resulted in fishermen with boats less than 10 metres long being denied access to the seas. Those boats comprise 85% of the UK fleet, yet receive only 4% of the annual quota. That just cannot be acceptable. If owners of smaller boats want a share of the quota, they usually have to rent it, but many cannot afford the price demanded. They claim, rightly, that the system forces them to discard tonnes of fish.

Government figures suggest that larger boats are fishing less than a third of their quota and renting more than half to smaller vessels. That leaves up to a fifth of quotas left uncaught. Why are they not passed on to the struggling under-10s, or at least replenished in the pot? The system forces smaller boat owners to discard tonnes of fish to comply with regulations. Such practice is ludicrous and wasteful.

I read recently about the privatisation of the seas, whereby private producer organisations manipulate the market to boost their profits, despite being given 90% of quotas for free. Those organisations are on the verge of securing personal control of Britain’s fishing rights. Worryingly, it has been confirmed that the Government do not know, as I have already said, who is profiting from the arrangement—an admission echoed by the MMO. The quota cartel hits the under-10-metre boats particularly hard, as I have mentioned. It leaves men and women struggling to make a living. It is well to remember that they are fishermen, not bureaucrats, and it is madness that they spend as much time doing paperwork as they do fishing.

All that is killing our historic fishing industry, overseen by an apparently vindictive organisation that has no experience or understanding of the industry. Fishermen are rapidly and quite rightly losing faith in the MMO. Add on top of that the absurd, restrictive laws on quotas and the anonymous cartel that manipulates the markets for its own gain and it is easy to see the terrible state the under-10-metre fishing industry finds itself in.

Fishing is an art as old as man itself. It has survived everything that mother nature can throw at it, but it seems that it might just be defeated by our own ludicrous legislation and pointless policy-making. Something has to be done, to help not only my constituent Paul Gilson, but the constituents of all Members present and in the rest of the House.

4.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) for speaking with passion about his friend and constituent and about the fishing industry and representing, like many hon. Members, his local fishing community.

I will talk about the Marine Management Organisation, how it works and how we try to regulate fisheries. I will also briefly touch on how I, as the Fisheries Minister, am trying to improve the lot of the under-10-metre fishermen and the entire fleet with different activities that we are taking in the Department, to see a reversal in the decline of a once-noble industry.

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From my conversations with fishermen around the country, one message that they are keen to relay is that those who commit fisheries offences are taking fish from their fellow fishermen; I am making a general comment here about those who land black fish, not a specific one. It is vital that we do all that we can to achieve compliance with the law and to protect fish stocks and the livelihoods of legitimate fishermen from criminal activities that affect them. If fish are landed illegally and sold, they are black fish and their value is stolen from legitimate fisherman. I make that point unashamedly to the whole fishing industry across all the United Kingdom’s waters and all the EU’s waters, for which I take my responsibility as the UK Fisheries Minister seriously.

Decisions on the investigation and prosecution of fisheries offences are not taken by me or my officials, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out. To maintain fish stocks, laws are set at European and national levels. We could have a debate about that, and I would probably start at the position taken by him and many other hon. Members that one would not start from here, and we want to see some changes. However, the MMO has the duty to enforce those laws.

I have spoken before and often about the difficult decisions the MMO has had to make. The MMO is a measured and proportionate organisation in its approach, with a strong commitment to transparency and impartiality. I will explain why. Enforcement action against illegal activity on our seas is one of many activities the MMO undertakes. It may be useful if I provide a brief overview of the legal framework within which those decisions are taken. I urge all hon. Members who have fishing interests in constituencies that are potentially affected by the MMO’s rulings to make contact either with their local MMO officer or to visit its headquarters in Newcastle, as I have done on a number of occasions. I urge them to do that because they will see a committed organisation trying to do its best in a complicated world, where the vast majority of fishermen do good, but some sadly do not.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The Minister had an opportunity to visit Portavogie in my constituency the week before last. He had the chance to meet some of the people who have the 10-metre-and-under boat size. They expressed to him their concerns about the bureaucracy and the system whereby the proceeds of crime are used against them. Was the Minister able to give them some comfort on the days that he met them? If so, what was the outcome?

Richard Benyon: I hope that I will be able to give the hon. Gentleman some comfort when I discuss how the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 is—although it usually is not—involved in the prosecution of fishermen when illegality or bad maladministration has taken place.

For all its faults and vices, the EU fisheries control regulation requires all member states to have an effective, proportionate and dissuasive system of administrative and criminal sanctions, which should effectively deprive those responsible of the economic benefit derived from their infringement.

Sheryll Murray: Will the Minister confirm that the same penalties will apply to a fisherman who is a member of a producer organisation as to a fisherman who is operating under the MMO’s own system with an under-10-metre vessel?

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Richard Benyon: Absolutely. No distinction is made between size of vessel, who owns the vessel or where the fishing opportunity rests.

The regulation goes on to say that sanctions must be capable of producing results proportionate to the seriousness of such infringements, thereby effectively discouraging further offences of the same kind. It also says that member states may apply a system whereby a fine is proportionate to the turnover of the business, or to the financial advantage achieved or envisaged by committing the infringement. That is the background against which the MMO must operate. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West to read the MMO’s compliance and enforcement strategy, which it published on its website last autumn. That demonstrates its practical approach in helping people to achieve compliance.

As I have already said, my officials and I are not involved in operational decisions relating to fisheries investigation cases, and it would not be right for me to offer solutions or direction on the case my hon. Friend has raised or on any other case. However, I will say that the MMO does not take decisions to prosecute fish merchants or fishermen lightly. I have looked into the matter in great detail. The MMO is astute and recognises that the vast majority of the fishing industry is compliant with the rules that govern it and that only a small percentage break the law. The MMO understands that education, guidance and advice is the best approach to achieving compliance in the fishing industry in most cases.

Decisions to prosecute are taken only when all other efforts to achieve compliance have been exhausted, or the nature of offending is on such a scale or is so persistent that prosecution is the only appropriate action available. The MMO will only prosecute fisheries offences after careful and detailed consideration of the relative involvement of individual offenders. In every case, the MMO will scrutinise the seriousness of the alleged offences detected and select the most appropriate course of action. In serious cases, where people are found guilty of criminal offences, their behaviour may warrant a confiscation order, so that the money made from their criminal activity is returned to the public purse. I hope that I am explaining how the system works.

Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): My fishermen believe in the rule of law as much as anyone else and would want those who benefit from criminality to lose the proceeds that they get from that. However, their view is that, in these instances, the response is wholly disproportionate. They are also concerned that education is one thing, but trying to govern law-abiding fishermen through fear is entirely different.

Richard Benyon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I reassure him that I want to make sure that all the sanctions are applied proportionately. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West has asked me to reflect. I always reflect on what he says because he puts it with such force and panache. I will also reflect on what the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) has brought to this debate and ensure that we can reassure his constituents. The MMO should use the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 sparingly. It has done so on only five occasions in the past 12 months of

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its existence. Only two of the cases were fish dealers, who were significantly mis-recording the landing and selling of quota species.

The MMO uses the 2002 Act where a prosecutor who, by law, acts independently of the Government and the MMO considers action under that Act is necessary to remove the unlawful benefit to deter similar offending fishermen. Those two Proceeds of Crime Act cases are unusual, and the MMO’s approach to compliance, as I stated before, is ordinarily via education and guidance. For example, in 2011, the MMO carried out 2,862 vessel inspections, and the majority of infringements detected resulted in the MMO offering oral advice to achieve compliance on 396 separate occasions. Some 83 written warnings were issued and seven financial administrative penalties were levied. Only 22 prosecution cases were brought, only two of which resulted in confiscation orders such as those that we are discussing today.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West says, I cannot go into the details of the case. However, in the case of Mr Gilson, who is both a fisherman and a buyer and seller of fish, the court felt that the financial benefit of almost £425,000 that was omitted should result in a repayment by Mr Gilson of £395,000. That sounds like a lot of money, but it is proportionate in relation to the amount that was admitted.

In the few minutes I have left, I will respond to the other issues. One of the criticisms of the fishing industry is that we are harder on our own fishermen than we are on overseas fishermen. The biggest order under the 2002 Act was for £1,163,000, which related to a foreign fishing vessel that was fishing illegally. Another case of interest was a fishing boat that was unlicensed. It was nicking fish from our fishermen, and it was prosecuted by the MMO, to the applause and gratitude of the fishermen in that area.

I have said that I will reflect on the points that my hon. Friend raised, and I will. I urge him to look at the proposals that we are making to improve the lot of the under-10-metre fleet. That involves taking quota that is unused by other elements of the fleet and using it to supplement the under-10-metre fleet, which, as he rightly says, receives an unfair allocation. The statistically correct figure is 4%. The 96% that the larger sector has includes some stocks that the under-10-metre sector would never access because they are so far away. However, statistically, he is right. I want to correct the unfairness that he has so eloquently pointed out. That is why, in the next few weeks, we will be making proposals that will lead to enhanced fishing opportunities for the under-10-metre fleet in three or four pilot projects around the country.

We have employed people to assist in ensuring that the relevant quota reaches the fishermen who deserve it and that the transfer of unused quota will mean there is a fairer allocation. Quotas that are unused will be accessed by fishermen around our coasts, who will continue to support their vital rural and coastal communities in a law-abiding way.

My hon. Friend asked about the Select Committee report on who owns quotas. I agree with him. It is bizarre that we do not know. That is the product of the bizarre system that we have inherited, and we in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are seeking to correct that by finding out who does own quota and making sure that it is used properly.

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I urge my hon. Friend to have faith in the MMO. It is doing a wide variety of different work and has some good people in it working hard. The compliance work is never easy, but it is important because, speaking generally, when illegal fishing takes place and illegal fish are landed, those fish have been stolen from the law-abiding fishermen whom we must protect. For that reason, we need a good and robust system. It is not just the EU that is doing this; other countries, such as Norway, run very strict sanction systems as well.

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Fuel Duty (Northern Ireland)

4.30 pm

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I am pleased to have secured this important debate and I look forward to contributing under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am also pleased that the Minister is present, and I look forward to her response.

In the run-up to the Budget, it is more important than ever to bring into sharp focus the record high price of vehicle fuel, which has now reached a critical level. The increased cost of fuel, together with the correspondingly steep rise in inflation in the past year, has put individuals, families and businesses under increasing pressure. There is clearly an over-reliance on importing fossil fuels. Until that is cut, we will always be tethered to external forces. I note with great interest that the incoming Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change placed an emphasis on energy production that is clean and green. I welcome him to the role, especially if he follows through with that commitment. My own party is committed to a green new deal in Northern Ireland providing jobs, investment and energy security. However, I recognise that that is a long-term goal and we must tackle directly the problems facing consumers and businesses now.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and say that that is the one green deal that my party would support alongside her party. [ Laughter. ] My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) says, “The only green deal”, but it is a worthwhile point.

The hon. Lady will be aware that since we became Members of Parliament two years ago, the one issue we have debated most is fuel duty and the implications of its constantly rising cost. I am sure that, like me, she understands that the little piece of water between the mainland and Northern Ireland—those 17 miles—is the most expensive stretch of water in these islands, as it inflates prices of fuel disproportionately. For our rural constituencies, the smack is double, because rural areas suffer more. The luxury of car transport is a necessity to get kids to school, and people to work and into employment.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. Will hon. Members please ensure that interventions are brief?

Ms Ritchie: Thank you, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) for his long intervention. I could not agree more—rural communities, particularly in Northern Ireland, are more deeply affected because they rely totally on car transportation. There has been insufficient investment in public means of transportation—a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive—and no doubt the Minister will take care to pass that on. We will no doubt pass that point on as individual Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland.

I will highlight specifically the problems faced by businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland, but those problems do not exist in a vacuum. We must consider the scale of the problem confronting consumers across these islands. The Automobile Association’s latest data, from industry price trackers Experian Catalist, showed that the latest average pump prices for petrol

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are 134p, compared with 128p a year ago, and 111p in mid-January 2010. That is within sight of the record prices witnessed last May. Indeed, the average price of diesel has just hit an all-time high at an average price of 143p. The AA reported that in Northern Ireland the price of diesel is the highest of any region in the European Union.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady share my concerns? The fuel that comes in through the ports of Belfast and Londonderry, and is then dispersed across the whole of Northern Ireland, is the same as the fuel in Great Britain, so why is it so much dearer in Northern Ireland? It is an unfair penalty towards those in the rural community.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that it is the same fuel type, which is imported directly from the middle east and wherever it is refined before it reaches the ports of Belfast and Derry. I also agree that rural communities are more deeply affected as a result of fuel duty increases. We find little reassurance in the current global situation. Just this week, Iran suspended the sale of crude oil to the UK, and the strait of Hormuz, through which 35% of all traded oil travels, is in a state of great uncertainty. It is not my intention to turn this into a debate on Iran and the middle east, but the point remains that while we rely so heavily on imported fossil fuels we will be somewhat captive to external events. Set against that, the Treasury is not doing enough to ameliorate the consequences of these events for consumers and businesses alike.

Consumers and business are caught in a pincer between the volatile price of a critical commodity and an inflexible Treasury duty regime. With the current instability in Iran, combined with the suspension of the refinery at Coryton, we would be naive to think that there will be no more inflationary pressures on the price of petrol. While the Minister has little control over an uncertain world, I would like to know what plans she has to protect people from the worst effects of those circumstances. Put more bluntly, in the short-term the Chancellor must extend the freeze on fuel duty hikes that was announced in the autumn statement. The measures announced in the autumn statement—the deferral of the 3p increase in duty and the cancellation of the escalator—were welcome short-term measures, but they will do little to mitigate the increased long-term rise in fuel prices. According to Consumer Focus back in March 2011, the 1p reduction in fuel duty was wiped out within days by rising oil prices. There is not the feeling that the Treasury is shouldering its share of the rise in the same way that motorists and businesses are.

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I represent a constituency in the north-east of England, which in many ways faces similar economic challenges to Northern Ireland. One issue—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to confine his remarks to Northern Ireland fuel duties.

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James Wharton: Absolutely. As the relative income is lower compared with some English regions, as it is in Northern Ireland, the effect of fuel prices is felt more acutely. Will the hon. Lady clarify whether she is looking for Government measures that are specific to Northern Ireland, or a nationally applicable measure that would benefit everybody in the UK?

Ms Ritchie: Naturally, I will be looking for measures that are specific to Northern Ireland because I represent a constituency in Northern Ireland. I understand the difficulties of other regions. As Mrs Main has directed, this debate is specific to Northern Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman will let me progress a little, I will explain where I am coming from.

While we rely on imported oil, fuel prices will always be vulnerable to exogenous pressures and external shocks, but the Treasury has levers at its disposal with which it could mitigate the worst of those effects for consumers. The 3p increase in fuel duty is still approaching in August and the Chancellor’s remedy would seem to be palliative rather than curative. It is a market in which price rises are passed on with alarming rapidity to the consumer, while decreases are notable mainly by their absence. It is like a seesaw with a very heavy weight at one end—a lot of jumping up and down at the other end seems to make very little difference.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Is the hon. Lady suggesting that it would be helpful if VAT rates were set by the Northern Ireland Assembly? Of course, the reaction to that would be ensuring that the block grant also suffered.

Ms Ritchie: The hon. Gentleman brings me into an interesting debate about the devolution of tax-varying powers to Northern Ireland, which my party supports. He raises the other important issue of the block. No doubt, as with corporation tax, that matter will be decided by the Office for Budget Responsibility. Naturally, we in Northern Ireland would say, collectively across parties, that we are a special region within the UK, notwithstanding our political or identity differences. We are coming out of a legacy of conflict and that needs to be addressed for the people who live there.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): Surely, the point is that Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom with a contiguous land border with another European country. Just as in Europe, there are variable tax rates on borders—between Luxembourg and Belgium, for example—so surely there is a case for recognising that the problem is not solely part of the rural differential, although that is significant. It is a cross-border issue. We must look to that as well. Surely, Her Majesty’s Government should be working in that direction.

Ms Ritchie: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I wish to progress to the issue he mentioned, because we share a land border with the south of Ireland. There are differential tax rates and we in the north of Ireland need to be given a certain degree of comfort.

With specific reference to Northern Ireland, having brought attention to the general problem besetting the market, I now turn to our own constituencies and

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Northern Ireland in particular, where the situation is even more severe. I have already highlighted the general point in relation to Britain, but I emphasise that from January to December last year petrol and diesel prices in Northern Ireland were the most expensive, and in January this year the price of diesel was the most expensive in the European Union. The AA has recently demonstrated that Northern Ireland has higher fuel prices than any other region and that on average we pay 134.6p at the pump, while the average price in the UK is 133.5p.

Prices continue to rise in Northern Ireland. In December 2011, it cost £66 to fill a standard 50-litre engine—£70 for diesel—and within a year this has gone up to £70, a 6% increase. A family in my constituency that owned a Ford Galaxy car with a 70-litre engine recently told me they are faced with a £100 bill every time they refill their car. Such families will be faced with paying hundreds of pounds more than they used to every year, an amount that I guarantee the Minister is not insignificant for the vast proportion of people, at a time when they are already suffering, with welfare reform proposals coming down the line and with the cost of motor car insurance much higher in Northern Ireland, particularly in rural areas, compared with comparable regions in Britain.

The average family sends £680 a year to the Treasury in London just to cover fuel duty. Many families will be affected by the public sector pay freeze enacted by the very same Treasury. The high cost of fuel is particularly problematic for the poorest in society, for whom such an amount represents a significant proportion of income and for whom the use of a car is most important to remain economically active.

There is a discrepancy not just between regions but within them, with rural areas in Northern Ireland, including my constituency, particularly prone to high prices. Indeed, this problem is exacerbated by large retailers operating across many sites, charging different premiums by location, a practice that drives up prices in certain areas, particularly in rural locations, where the dependence on fuel is often the greatest.

The problem in rural areas can be compounded by the absence of large supermarkets to drive down the prices. For example, the AA cited the lack of Asda forecourts in Northern Ireland as a key contributory factor, meaning that price competition is not as keen as in the UK. I urge the Minister to review how location-specific pricing and the absence of large supermarkets distort the market and create an unfair playing field.

We cannot separate this problem from our investment in public transport services. It may interest the Minister to know that, historically, Northern Ireland has received the lowest spend per capita on transport infrastructure, leaving the car as king and often the only viable choice. A perfect example of this is the atrocious management of the rail link between our two biggest cities, Belfast and Derry, which has been compounded by the legacy of blinding ignorance to organising the network on an all-Ireland/island basis.

Simply put, people have no option but to get in their car. Those who are priced out of the market by high fuel prices are often left economically isolated and socially disfranchised. Indeed, there needs to be joined-up thinking on a north-south basis regarding the fuel duty regime to

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avoid striking disparities, particularly around the border, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) mentioned. This problem distorts the local market for fuel and leaves local retailers and consumers at a marked disadvantage.

These problems are faced not only by our people but by our businesses. We hear the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Treasury Ministers talk about rebalancing and growing the Northern Ireland economy. This seems to be rhetoric in search of a policy at the minute. Does the Minister not agree that one of the main things holding back business growth in Northern Ireland is the punitive price of petrol? Action here would be the ideal way for the Treasury to demonstrate its commitment to growing the Northern Ireland economy.

The Minister does not need to tell me the problems faced by small and medium-sized businesses in the current climate. Does she not agree that a cut in fuel duty would act as an immediate stimulus to the economy in Northern Ireland?

I do not want to create the impression, by focusing on these immediate measures, that I am ignoring the big picture. As a society, we must wean ourselves off dependence on oil. Without doing so we will have the same debate in the House year after year. Doing this will take foresight rather than expediency, and ambition rather than an “as you were” mentality, but until we reach that point, the Government must do more to help those in need; they must shoulder a fair share of the burden and not simply pass on price rises to consumers and local businesses. The Government must commit to their pledge to consult on a fuel duty stabiliser and cancel the planned duty increases scheduled for August.

In Northern Ireland this problem is particularly striking. We must address the basic problem, which is that our people pay more at the pump than in any region in the UK and, indeed, in the EU. There are clearly issues surrounding the operation of large retailers, which bring price competition, but not evenly across the board. As other hon. Members have clearly articulated, rural areas are often most vulnerable and often people and businesses in rural areas are most dependent on their cars. If the Treasury is serious about growing our local economy, would this not be an obvious place to start? I acknowledge that the Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont also have a major role to play.

These immediate measures must be buttressed by a sustainable approach to our energy future and transport infrastructure. My party and I are committed to proper investment in new, green energy technologies in Northern Ireland. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

4.49 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Chloe Smith): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) on securing the debate and on presenting her case so eloquently. The debate is clearly well attended, with members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs present, which puts me in mind of an extensive session that we had in the past few weeks discussing fuel fraud in Northern Ireland. I wonder whether that serious economic issue in Northern Ireland, which we all recognise, will also occupy the hon. Lady, if she has any spare time.

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The first issue raised by today’s debate is what the Government have done to assist motorists and businesses in a time of high oil prices. Secondly, I will go on to what we intend to do, before returning, as requested by the hon. Lady, to some details about the fair fuel stabiliser. Before dealing with those two areas, I acknowledge what she said about the difficulties of living, working and running businesses in a rural economy, in particular given the absence of other large businesses whose decisions might be able to bring about cheaper fuel points of purchase. I live in Norwich and am conscious that I can access cheap fuel partly because of the availability of a number of large supermarkets competing with each other on price. She might not be in that position.

I note also what the hon. Lady says about public transport, although I regret that I am not a Transport Minister and cannot assist her directly today, and that she might be floating the idea of co-operation on tax matters between north and south on the whole island of Ireland. I do not know whether she is suggesting that and I hear what she is saying, but that is not something that we think that the British Treasury should necessarily do, and I am not entirely sure that the Republic would wish to do so either.

Ms Ritchie: I was referring to a discussion between the British and Irish Governments about harmonisation on fuel duty and about the problems encountered by people on both sides of the border, living in close proximity and able to travel with great speed from north to south, and vice versa. At the minute, prices in the south are lower than they are in the north. What amelioration can be brought to the people?

Miss Smith: I understand that point. The topic could be on a long list of what the two Governments discuss, and I note positive aspects of those discussions in the realm of transport, such as acknowledgement of the importance of the land border in setting air passenger duty rates, of which the hon. Lady must be aware. We also acknowledge the significance of the land border to fuel fraud—returning to that important subject—but there is a point to stop short of in harmonising tax rates.

I shall plough on swiftly with some helpful points. First, there is absolutely no doubt that the cost of fuel remains difficult for families and businesses up and down the country, as demonstrated in the debate. I am also sure that many of the hon. Lady’s constituents joined the 100,000-signature petition delivered to the Government last autumn and to which we responded in the House. Our response—indeed, I personally responded —recognised that the price of petrol, which is different from the rate of duty, is extraordinarily high in many people’s eyes. The price is the result of a combination of the duty and various global factors, which she has already mentioned, so it is not fully in the control of the Government to say, “The total cost of your litre of fuel shall be this.” What a responsible Government must do, however, is listen, consider and respond.

The Government have eased the burden on motorists by £2.5 billion up to 2012-13. We started by cutting fuel duty by a penny per litre from 6 pm on Budget day. We cancelled the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator

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and introduced the fair fuel stabiliser, which I shall come on to shortly. Our response also includes the deferment of last month’s duty increase to August and the cancellation of the original increase planned for August, ensuring genuine help for motorists through only one inflation increase this year. The fuel duty changes support motorists throughout the country, including Northern Ireland—I do not see a distinction—because any motorist can be approximately 10p per litre better off as a result of our Government’s actions. The hon. Lady asked me to acknowledge businesses. An average haulier will be better off by £4,400 because of our fuel duty and vehicle excise duty actions, which I am sure she will welcome in her part of the world, as everyone else does.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Miss Smith: I am terribly sorry, but I must proceed.

The hon. Lady asked me about how the Government might seek to manage the effect of oil prices in the longer term, and I want to give a few details about the fair fuel stabiliser. The Chancellor has been clear that we cannot take risks with the public finances, although the hon. Lady spoke several times of the Treasury needing to shoulder its share of the difficulties faced by the country. Government coffers, however, are public coffers. The Treasury has employees, but there is no separate entity known as the Treasury that could or could not be shouldering a share. The Treasury simply has a role in managing, as best it can, the public resources to which we all contribute, whether we be citizens, motorists, businesses or any other category that anyone can think of.

My point about the fair fuel stabiliser is that any support we provide to the motorist needs to be paid for. As oil and gas production is more profitable in times of high oil prices, it is fair for companies to make an additional contribution. As part of the stabiliser, therefore, the supplementary charge on oil and gas companies was increased in the Budget, meaning that when oil prices are high, fuel duty will increase by inflation only. If the oil price falls, we will reintroduce the fuel duty escalator and reduce the supplementary charge on a staged and affordable basis.

Coming swiftly to a conclusion to allow us to finish on time, I assure hon. Members that, beyond fuel duties, the Government remain fully committed to working with the Northern Ireland Executive to achieve the common objective of rebalancing the Northern Irish economy, to which the hon. Lady referred. Colleagues are aware of wider work looking at how best to achieve such rebalancing, including the ministerial working group chaired by my colleague the Exchequer Secretary. I understand that the group is making good progress and is due to meet again in early March.

We have recognised the impact of record prices on businesses and families, whether on the mainland or in Northern Ireland. The previous Government had no credible plan to deal with the debts that they created or with motorists, as shown by the escalator that they sought to continue. We, by contrast, have listened and responded: we cut fuel duty, we scrapped the escalator and we have ensured that there will be only one inflation-only increase in fuel duty this year. We continue to have

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a long-term plan for support in the form of the fair fuel stabiliser. I think that the hon. Lady will agree that that is a reasonable position to be in considering the difficulties faced by this whole country, given the resources left to it by the Government represented by the hon. Gentleman sitting to her left, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound).

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Question put and agreed to.

4.58 pm

Sitting adjourned.