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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 25 April 2012

[Martin Caton in the Chair]

Anglo-Vietnamese Relations

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

9.30 am

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): I begin by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As chair of the all-party group on Vietnam, it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to speak on the importance of Anglo-Vietnamese relations. Indeed, given that the Foreign Secretary is currently on a visit to Vietnam, which is the first such visit for a long time, it is timely that we have this opportunity to celebrate the strong and growing ties between our two countries. I should add that my views do not necessarily represent all those of the all-party group, which has more than 50 members from both Houses and all parties.

Initially, I would like to say a few words about some of the areas of importance, such as civil society and political reform. The Government rightly have concerns about those matters that many of us share. Of course, Vietnam has a very different political system from our own, but I am aware that there is an appetite in Vietnam for further reform of those important areas, particularly civil society and political reform. Ongoing exchanges between members of the National Assembly and our own Parliament have demonstrated a desire to improve things such as the legislative process, scrutiny and accountability.

The Government and their Vietnamese counterparts are justifiably proud of the strategic partnership between our two countries, which sets out important areas of co-operation, to which I shall refer briefly. First, importantly, it highlights the importance of political and diplomatic co-operation, including regular dialogue between leaders of both countries and enhanced parliamentary co-operation through bilateral visits, of which there have been several in recent years, including by the chairman of the National Assembly last year. Such co-operation leads to the promotion of trade and educational links, and I am sure that the Foreign Secretary’s current visit will do much to further those aims.

The strategic partnership between the two countries envisages co-operation on global and regional issues, particularly given the role of both countries in the United Nations, Vietnam’s important and leading role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the UK’s role in the European Union, to which I will refer later in my speech.

On trade and investment, the agreement recognises a joint commitment to free trade and open markets, which is vital given current world economic circumstances. As an aspiration when it was agreed, but now as a reality, the agreement also refers to the importance of direct flights between London and Vietnam, which commenced

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last year. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to travel on the inaugural flight from London to Ho Chi Minh City.

On sustainable socio-economic development, the agreement states:

“the UK will work with Vietnam bilaterally and via the EU and other development partners to help create the necessary environment for continued economic growth and prosperity as Vietnam looks to progress beyond middle income status”.

Importantly, the strategic partnership commits both sides to the fight against corruption.

Other headings refer to the importance of links and co-operation on education, training, science and technology, security and defence, and on people-to-people links. On education, it is worth noting that the new university of Da Nang has very strong involvement from the United Kingdom. I think that four different UK universities are involved, which is a very welcome development. It is also worth noting that there are about 7,000 Vietnamese students studying in the UK. They are very important both to Vietnam and to the future of our own university system.

The closer co-operation that exists between Vietnam and the UK, particularly on important things such as trade, creates new opportunities for both countries to use our influence on each other’s behalf in our respective regions. For example, in the UK we can, in appropriate circumstances, act as good friends on behalf of Vietnam in the European Union. A couple of years ago, we gave important support in the European Union regarding the importing of shoes, for which Vietnam is very grateful. That was an important demonstration of our friendship.

Correspondingly, given its important role in ASEAN, Vietnam can in the same way be helpful to the UK. A recent report from UK Trade & Investment on the development of emerging markets over the next two years concluded that Vietnam was in the top three emerging markets, ahead of India and just behind China. Given the economic dynamism of Vietnam, it is clearly of great advantage to the UK that we have that relationship and develop it still further.

The Minister will be aware that one of the important areas of concern in Vietnam is the long-standing dispute between China, Vietnam and many of her neighbours in the region about the South China sea. There have been a number of deeply worrying incidents in relation to which the Chinese have allegedly been in contravention of the UN convention on the law of the sea. All those incidents seem to be aimed at China creating the impression that large parts of the South China sea are disputed areas. However, there is good reason to say that that is not the case.

Reported incidents have included Chinese fishing vessels supported by fishery control ships ramming survey vessels in the area and cutting underwater cables. As recently as March this year, the Chinese authorities arrested 21 Vietnamese fishermen and confiscated two fishing vessels that were carrying out legitimate fishing in the Hoang Sa archipelago. Since early 2011, tension has escalated in the region as a result of military exercises carried out by the Chinese in the Paracel and Spratly islands.

A report by the International Crisis Group published as recently as this week referred to the wider dispute in the South China sea and concluded:

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“clashes on the South China Sea—3.5 million square km of water contested by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—are plentiful”.

The report goes on to say:

“escalating tensions since 2009 have dealt a severe blow to China’s relations with its South East Asian neighbours and significantly tarnished its image”.

That is a fair assessment of what has gone on and what the problems are. Ominously, this week, three US ships are in Vietnam for a five-day naval exercise—perfectly legitimately, I hasten to add. It is certainly not envisaged that any of the exercises will involve live firepower. This year there is also a US-Philippines military exercise taking place off Palawan, near the disputed Spratly islands, which both Manila and Beijing claim as their own. The exercises have involved 7,000 troops, of which 4,000, according to BBC News Asia, are from the US. There is a clear build-up of tension and a lot of interest concentrating on the South China sea.

It is in the interest of keeping international trade flowing that the South China sea not be a continual source of conflict. It is of course a matter for Vietnam and those in the region who are involved in the dispute to resolve the issues by whatever multilateral and bilateral means are appropriate. However, I hope that our Government, consistent with the aims of the strategic partnership, will provide advice to Vietnam and her neighbours through appropriate means, drawing on our long experience of maritime matters and international maritime law. The Vietnamese are very keen for an appropriate dialogue with the UK on these issues.

I would like to say a few words about a specific legacy of the American-Vietnamese conflict. On a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City, I visited a hospital caring for young people who are victims of the use of the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. Shockingly, babies are still being born with severe disabilities as a result of that use, despite the passage of time since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. The severity of those disabilities is so alarming and distressing that several members of the party that I was with experienced physical effects. The staff who care for these young people are deserving of the highest praise for the commitment and kindness they show. Other Members have made the same visit and share the same strong concerns. At this point, I would like to say a word of praise for the Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society, and in particular its secretary Len Aldis; it has done so much to highlight the effects of Agent Orange and to raise funds for many years on behalf of victims. The all-party parliamentary group on Vietnam, which I chair, has made a commitment to hold an event in June to raise funds to provide additional staff and other support for victims living in communities associated with the hospital that we visited.

The all-party group, which met this week, feels that the Government could use their diplomatic means to encourage the United States to recognise its obligations regarding compensation for all of those affected by Agent Orange. Whether that would involve the companies responsible for providing the chemicals, or the US Government making a gesture, is not important; the important thing is that somebody do something about it. I hope the Government, perhaps through quiet diplomacy, can promote that cause. I do not raise that

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issue in any anti-US spirit, but as an appeal from one close ally to another to recognise that there is a debt of honour that now needs to be redeemed.

One final point also covered in the strategic partnership is the UK’s support in combating poverty in Vietnam, which, as anybody who has looked at what is happening in Vietnam knows, is still an important issue. The UK has a good record in this respect and I urge the Government to maintain and, if possible, even improve our important contribution to programmes used for that purpose. It is important to highlight the role that charities play—some of which are based in the UK, such as Save the Children—in helping specific families find routes out of poverty. I recently visited one such programme. It is not dramatic and is not likely to make the newspaper headlines, but it supported a family, whose head had severe disabilities, by providing it with chickens. Despite his disabilities, he was able to cope with the work load of keeping the chickens and was then able to sell them at market, breed them and produce eggs. That produced an income that was otherwise not available to the family. They do not live in the lap of luxury; they lead a Spartan existence by the standards that most of us would recognise, but that support is so important. Charities often carry out such programmes in a way that is not always open to Governments.

I will conclude as I started, by stressing the importance of the growing links and friendship between our two countries. I encourage the Minister, whom I am sure will have a great deal of sympathy for much of what I have said, and his colleagues to maintain our positive input into this important relationship.

9.46 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I apologise for being late. I was at an event elsewhere in Parliament, meeting children with type 1 diabetes and listening to their experiences, when I suddenly noticed the time and made a mad dash to Westminster Hall.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) on securing the debate, because the relationship between the UK and Vietnam is important. He is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Vietnam and was part of a delegation that visited Vietnam at the end of last year. It is always welcome for the House to hear the first-hand thoughts, considerations and experiences of right hon. and hon. Members who have visited other countries, and listening to the right hon. Member’s words about meeting people with disabilities as a result of Agent Orange re-enforced that feeling. I commend the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Vietnam this week—I understand that he is the first to do so in 17 years—and I hope this signals the UK’s commitment to a strong relationship with Vietnam. I will focus my remarks on trade, human rights, gender equality and climate change.

Strengthening trade and business links with east Asian countries such as Vietnam is important. The Prime Minister visited various countries in the region a few weeks ago, and that is now being followed up by the Foreign Secretary, who is visiting Vietnam and other places this week. Strengthening such links is particularly important in the context of our current domestic economic problems. Looking beyond our borders to promote economic growth and ensure the health of our economy will be increasingly important.

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Vietnam’s economy is expanding quickly, and so is excellent ground for increased bilateral trade. In 2010, its gross domestic product grew by 6.7%—an enviable statistic compared with other countries around the world post-2008. Leading up to 2010, the average was 6.9%. Its GDP has doubled every 10 years since 1986, and its economic growth has been second only to China. UK exports to Vietnam reached £276 million in 2010—a 32% increase on the previous year—but clearly there is more to be done. I welcome UK Trade & Investment’s goal to increase the two-way trade between the countries to $4 billion next year.

More UK companies could see Vietnam as a potential market. There are numerous business opportunities in oil and gas, agriculture, construction, financial services and information technology in that country, but also significant barriers to investment, according to the British business community, such as widespread corruption, red tape, high inflation and a lack of infrastructure in many cases.

As well as highlighting the importance of our trading relationship with Vietnam, it is really important that we do not avert our eyes from the human rights difficulties and abuses there. A Human Rights Watch report this year said that the Government in Vietnam has severely cracked down on political dissent: freedom of expression and public assembly are tightly controlled; religious activists are harassed, intimidated and imprisoned; and there are even reports that state-run drug rehabilitation centres use detainees as forced labourers to make goods for local markets and for export.

On freedom of speech, three bloggers—Nguyen Van Hai, Phan Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan—were jailed recently for allegedly conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code, but effectively they were just expressing their views online. Those bloggers are founding members of the Club for Free Journalists, which exists to promote freedom of expression and independent journalism, which we in this country all hold dear and think is an important principle in a free society. However, in Vietnam, the police have harassed, intimidated and detained the members of that organisation for the past four years. I hope that, in our renewed relationship with the Vietnamese Government, we are also raising our concerns about these issues from a UK point of view.

I hope that we are also pressing firmly on the use of the death penalty, which, as a member of Amnesty, I do not believe is acceptable under any circumstance. The statistics on how many people are put to death by the state in Vietnam were deemed a state secret in 2011, so we have to rely on other sources for statistics, including human rights organisations. Amnesty recorded at least five executions and at least 23 new death sentences imposed in 2011, mostly for drug-related offences. Senior officials quoted by a newspaper have suggested that as many as 100 death sentences may be imposed every year. I hope that the strong record of the UK Government will continue in this regard, that they will ensure that our view that the death penalty is wrong is strongly represented and that this matter will be raised in our meetings with Ministers.

There is a slightly more positive story to be told about women in Vietnam. In fact, many reports say that there has been remarkable progress on gender equality in recent years, addressing disparities in education,

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employment and health. The World Bank gender assessment report says that women’s outcomes have improved significantly. For example, child mortality and maternal mortality have fallen sharply, which is welcome news. Between 1990 and 2004, maternal mortality fell from 233 to 85 deaths per 100,000 live births, and in 2009, it fell further, to 69 per 100,000. In the labour market, women’s participation rates are high—among the highest in the region—and are only behind China, Laos and Cambodia. In fact, bearing in mind the statistics that I quoted earlier about the growth of the Vietnamese economy, it is worth remarking that, of course, when a country properly engages the talents of 100% of its population, rather than just 50%, that has economic benefits as well. I am sure that the two statistics are not entirely unconnected. However, even on gender, there are still issues regarding older women and women living in the rural parts of Vietnam, where poverty is still significant and has a gendered aspect, with women more likely to live in poverty.

Vietnam has made a commitment to sustainable development and has said that it will respond to the challenges posed by climate change. The country faces severe threats, so adaptation measures must be a priority. If, as is predicted, the temperature increases by just over 2° C towards the end of this century, the dry season in Vietnam will become drier, with decreased rainfall, and the rainfall in the rainy season will increase, leading to greater risk of extreme weather events, including flooding and problems in the dry season. Sea levels could rise by up to 1 metre. If adaptation is not seriously addressed in Vietnam and sea levels rise, 40% of the Mekong delta, 9% of the Red river delta and 3% of the other provinces in coastal areas could be flooded. More worryingly, more than 20% of Ho Chi Minh City could be flooded.

This is a serious issue affecting Vietnam, and it is a priority for the Vietnamese Government to address. However, there is always a challenge, as with many developing economies, because it is difficult to have the pace of economic growth that is needed—with the additional energy needs and their impact on climate change—while addressing adaptation and mitigation measures.

I hope that, in common with other countries around the world, we ensure that we encourage the Vietnamese Government to take this matter seriously and share the expertise that we have learned, because part of the bilateral relationship, and an important part of our diplomacy, is sharing green technology and measures that could help them adapt and mitigate the difficulties that they will otherwise face.

I thank the right hon. Member for Knowsley again for initiating the debate. I look forward to hearing the contribution from the Opposition Front Bencher and the Minister’s responses.

9.56 am

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) on securing the debate, on his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Vietnam and on having the courtesy to talk to me in the Lobby about some issues that he wanted to raise. It is a

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pleasure to see the Minister. We tend to face each other in this Chamber rather more often than he ought to, given that this is, yet again, not one of the countries that he covers in his brief, but it is always a pleasure to see him here.

As we have heard, Vietnam is fascinating country with great potential that has made great strides in recent years, but it still faces many challenges. It has come a long way over the past decade, achieving middle-income status and improvements in the quality of life for much of its population. I hope that the friendship between Britain and Vietnam is a factor in helping it achieve that progress and will be a factor in helping it achieve much more over coming years.

Vietnam has already met a number of the millennium development goals, not least on infant mortality and eradicating extreme poverty. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned the progress that has been made in raising child and maternal mortality rates. The poverty rate has decreased from 58% in 1992 to 15% in 2008, which is remarkable progress. UK aid, through the Department for International Development, is making an important contribution, totalling over £200 million over the past five years, with £25 million in debt relief since 2006. But with UK aid and the development partnership agreement due to end in 2016, it is crucial that Vietnam is left in a position not only to sustain the impressive improvements that it has made, but to make much further progress.

Of course, neither this Government nor the previous Labour Administration have focused solely on aid. The right way forward is to strengthen political and economic links, particularly trade links, between our two countries. That began in 2004, with the first official visit of a Vietnamese Head of State to the UK, followed by the first visit by a Vietnamese Prime Minister in 2008, on which occasion the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), signed a joint declaration on partnership for progress. Five priority areas were included in that partnership agreement: trade and investment; development, including good governance, accountability and the rule of law; international issues, including Security Council co-operation and climate change; education; and tackling illegal migration and organised crime.

The declaration was a landmark achievement in our bilateral relationship, laying the foundations for the strategic partnership signed by the current Foreign Secretary in 2010, the intention of which is to strengthen the relationship on seven fronts: political and diplomatic co-operation; global and regional issues; trade and investment; sustainable socio-economic development; education, training, science and technology; security and defence; and people-to-people links. Part of the political and diplomatic co-operation includes a biennial strategic dialogue, and I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary pursuing that dialogue in Vietnam as we speak—he is certainly in the far east. The Ministry of Defence subsequently signed a co-operation memorandum of understanding, and the UK is increasing its diplomatic presence in Vietnam.

Members of the law committee of the National Assembly visited London last year to discuss political and constitutional reform with hon. Members at one of a

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number study sessions. It was a good opportunity, and I met some of the delegation on that occasion. Such interchange between the two Parliaments is useful for everyone concerned.

Tourism is a growth sector in Vietnam. People who have perhaps been to Thailand and such places in the past now see Vietnam as the next frontier. The first direct flights from the UK start in December, and it is hoped that they will increase tourism as well as business links.

The partnership with Vietnam is therefore developing on a number of fronts. Strengthening the ties between the UK and Vietnam is of mutual benefit to both our countries, hence the Foreign Secretary’s decision to visit Vietnam this week to meet business leaders and UKTI’s designation of Vietnam as one of its high-growth markets. Vietnam is the second most popular investment destination in the emerging markets after China, and more than 100 UK companies have registered offices in Vietnam. UK-Vietnam trade, as mentioned, was worth more than £1.8 billion last year, with UK imports accounting for the vast majority of that sum, totalling over £1.5 billion, compared with exports of only £295 million. With the strategic partnership specifying a trade volume target of $4 billion by next year, can the Minister in his response set out the progress made and the likely balance of trade over the coming years?

The bilateral relationship not only strengthens co-operation between our two countries, but provides a greater presence for the UK in ASEAN and for Vietnam in the European Union, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley said. The UK was the 13th largest investor in Vietnam last year—we were the third European nation after the Netherlands and France—and the EU is Vietnam’s third largest trading partner after China and the US. With negotiations due to start on a bilateral free trade agreement between the EU and Vietnam, making Vietnam the EU’s third partner in the region after Singapore and Malaysia, it will be important for the UK to maintain a strong position in the market and during the negotiations.

While noting the economic benefits for our countries, however, we cannot overlook the need for ongoing political, economic and social reform in Vietnam, as has been said. Having initiated the “doi moi” reforms, joined ASEAN, been a member of the UN Security Council and made impressive progress on many of the millennium development goals, Vietnam has rightly been commended. It has improved its standing in the international arena, but Vietnam’s partners, such as the UK, have a duty to support further improvements, not least in human rights, and to ensure that economic growth does not leave the poorest behind.

The Foreign Office has stated:

“Corruption in Vietnam remains systemic”,

and in the 2011 corruption perceptions index, Vietnam scored only 2.9, ranking it 112th out of 182 countries. That is of both domestic and international concern, given that the Business Anti-Corruption Portal reports that

“weak enforcement means corruption continues to be cited as one of the most problematic factors for doing business in the country.”

What support, therefore, is the UK offering for the delivery of the anti-corruption strategy?

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Vietnam is to be commended for its development efforts, and it is encouraging that its 10 year socio-economic development strategy connects economic growth to social progress and equality, but the previous UN resident co-ordinator, John Hendra, has expressed concerns about whether the Administration’s efforts would reach the most vulnerable. It is one thing for a country to be lifted to middle-income status, but the benefits are not necessarily felt by everyone in the country. There is concern that, in particular, informal workers, unemployed agricultural workers and ethnic minority groups from remote areas will be left behind; 70% of the population live in the countryside and are not necessarily benefiting from urban growth.

Growth has not brought economic stability, and the country is struggling with high inflation; the Financial Times reported that food prices had risen by 32% in the 10 months to October. The Vietnamese Government have raised the minimum wage in response, but 12 million people are still in poverty, and the poverty rate among ethnic minorities is at 50%. Land ownership is a particularly difficult issue, with confusion and conflicts developing where citizens have land-use rights but the land remains officially owned by the state. It is worth noting, as the EU has, that Vietnam has sought to improve living conditions for ethnic minorities, aiding social and economic integration, including support for education in minority languages, and it is important that the UK, too, supports such efforts. Will the UK Government work to ensure that the benefits of the expanding trade relationship with Vietnam help not only the UK, but more of the Vietnamese population?

Vietnam has attracted investment and overseas business with its cheap labour—wages in China are a third higher. Wages remain low, although, as I said, the Vietnamese Government lifted the minimum wage recently. The strategic partnership declaration referred to increasing Vietnam’s footwear, garment and textile exports, which will, of course, be a pivotal source of income for the country, but will the UK Government monitor workers’ rights and conditions and any implications for Vietnam’s agricultural workers?

As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned, economic growth can come at a high cost to the environment. Vietnam, as she said, is particularly vulnerable to climate change; it is among the top five countries most likely to be affected by rising sea levels. Will the UK continue to provide climate change assistance for adaptation and mitigation measures?

Human trafficking remains a serious concern, which is attributable partly to the uneven economic development to which I referred and to the trend for rural-to-urban migration. Over the past year, Vietnam has developed a national plan of action on human trafficking, and its anti-human trafficking law came into effect in January. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has identified Vietnam as the No. 1 source of potential victims in the UK. Will the UK Government therefore work with the Vietnamese authorities to ensure that their measures to end trafficking are effective and that victims are supported?

On human rights, the bi-annual EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue is an important initiative and a sign of Vietnam’s commitment, as is the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

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Worryingly, though, as mentioned, restrictions on freedom of expression have been tightened over the past couple of years, and the suppression of political dissent has continued. Human rights campaigners this month called for the release of the three bloggers referred to by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire—the founding members of the Club for Free Journalists—who have been accused of conducting propaganda against the state and could face up to 20 years in prison. Can the Minister tell us what representations the UK Government have made on the cases of those three bloggers in particular and on the more general issue of internet freedoms, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and an independent judicial system?

While Vietnam is moving forward, it is worth remembering this morning how the past continues to affect the lives of many in the country. More than 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed or injured by land mines since the Vietnam war and, according to the UN, 6.6 million hectares remain polluted, which Vietnam estimates will take decades to clear. The US ambassador to Vietnam reports that the USA has provided $62 million, but have the UK Government had any discussions with officials in either the USA or Vietnam about efforts to remove the land mines?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley spoke movingly about the effects of Agent Orange, which is another tragic legacy of the conflict. Two years ago, the UN announced a $5 million project to help clean up contamination, after the Vietnam Government had reportedly spent $5 million building landfill for contaminants on one of the three main sites affected. Vietnamese officials, however, estimate that they might need at least another $60 million to decontaminate those three bases. The US Government have contributed, and they have given some funds to help Vietnamese living with disabilities as a result of Agent Orange. Has the Foreign Office recently assessed Vietnam’s ability to clear the contamination and help its victims and what international aid could be given to assist the country?

As I mentioned earlier, the Labour Government signed a memorandum of understanding for UK-Vietnam co-operation by 2013, which included pursuing objectives in ASEAN and the EU, expanding trade, and the pursuance of the “doi moi” agenda. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations next year, it is encouraging that the UK continues to develop a closer relationship with Vietnam and to expand trade opportunities. I urge the Minister to ensure that the UK supports Vietnam in helping to spread such benefits as evenly and as widely as possible. I wish both countries the best success in pursuing their friendship in the years to come.

10.10 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure, Mr Caton, to serve under your chairmanship. I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) in thanking the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) for this debate this morning. One of my happiest memories of the right hon. Gentleman is that I took part in his by-election when I was the Conservative candidate’s parliamentary friend. That by-election in his area gave me the chance to meet all the Conservative voters personally on several occasions

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during the three weeks, so we had a happy time without disturbing the pundits too much with a surprise result. It was the start of a very warm friendship.

Mr George Howarth: All several hundred of them fondly remember the Minister.

Alistair Burt: I am very grateful to them, including the Earl of Derby.

I thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire for her comments, and her engagement with and her usual passionate commitment to human rights. I also thank the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her comments. We cover some similar ground, so I will make some general remarks, but I hope to cover most of the points that hon. Members have made. I begin with an apology on behalf of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) who is not here because he is representing the Foreign Secretary at the Anzac day service at Westminster Abbey. The House will understand why he is not with us, and I will discuss the debate with him to ensure that he is fully aware of the matters raised.

The right hon. Member for Knowsley is chair of the all-party group on Vietnam. He has a close interest in our relations with Vietnam, and his comments reflected that. I thank him for his courtesy in providing me with a copy of his speech, which helped in preparing my response. The debate has raised several topics that are familiar to those who follow issues in Vietnam and comes at a significant time. Vietnam and, indeed, the wider south-east Asian region are becoming increasingly important to the United Kingdom, as evidenced by the policy of the previous Government, and now by that of this Government.

The Prime Minister was in the region at the beginning of April and, as we speak, the Foreign Secretary is, as has been said, in Vietnam as part of a trip that will also take in Singapore and Brunei for the EU-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting. That visit is the first by a Foreign Secretary in 17 years. Included in his programme are talks with his Vietnamese counterpart, Mr Pham Binh Minh, and the Minister of Public Security, Mr Tran Dai Quang, with the aim of progressing UK-Vietnam relations. The trip also includes meetings with representatives from the international business and development communities, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be pleased to catch up with hon. Members on his return.

Vietnam is a dynamic country with a booming economy. It has been recognised by the National Security Council as a tier 3 emerging power, and is the world’s second largest exporter of rice and coffee. It is set to continue on that growth path, with the World Bank predicting 6% average growth in gross domestic product over the next two years. It has a population of more than 90 million, with a median age below 30 and a 90% literacy rate. With that projected economic growth and those demographics, the opportunities for the United Kingdom will continue to grow in conjunction with growth in Vietnam. We have seen a similar pattern in other countries in the Asia Pacific region and recognise that the world’s

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economic and political centre of gravity has shifted south and east. We have responded by implementing what we call the network shift, with a significant increase in resources throughout our missions in the region, including additional staff for our missions in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. That will enable us to strengthen our relations with Vietnam to ensure that there is mutual benefit.

I am sure hon. Members are aware that the UK-Vietnam bilateral relationship is already deep and strong. As part of the National Security Council’s emerging powers initiative, Vietnam is among the six ASEAN countries prioritised as an emerging power. That initiative has enabled us to transform our relationship with Vietnam, using the foundation of the UK-Vietnam strategic partnership, which was signed in 2010. The partnership covers all areas of the bilateral relationship: political and diplomatic co-operation, global and regional issues, education, trade and investment, security and defence, socio-economic development, and people-to-people links.

A key area of opportunity is co-operation on education. There are already more than 7,000 Vietnamese students in the UK, and we are proud that young people in that ambitious country see the standards and opportunities of a British education as key to their success. The right hon. Gentleman referred specifically to education. The British Council there is supporting vocational education, skills training and higher education. UK universities and colleges, as well as the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, are running joint programmes with Vietnamese universities. We are working to establish an international-standard state university in Da Nang. A number of UK private sector players, including British University Vietnam, have set up in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The English language is at the heart of our education offer. Seven thousand children, teens and adults study English at the British Council’s Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City teaching centres every year. The British Council also trains 500 Government officials. It has set up a free website to offer support for English lessons, and ideas and inspiration for educators for more than 5,000 teacher members. Intel has set itself a target of a computer for every Vietnamese household by 2020. Thanks to its work with the British Council and the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training, each will come uploaded with fun, English-learning educational resources in line with Vietnam’s English curriculum.

We can do more. The Prime Minister announced during his visit to Indonesia that the UK has set aside new money to stimulate the expansion of educational links and collaborative programmes across the region, including with Vietnam, with increased student and academic flows in both directions. We are calling that the UK-ASEAN knowledge partnership. We will work with Vietnam and our other regional partners to map the areas of mutual interest. For the 10 ASEAN countries, there is seed money of £200,000, and we can begin to create more opportunities, with a value of up to £3 million, for individuals and institutions.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for being typically generous in giving way. I welcome what he said about the UK’s strategy of engaging with emerging powers. On education, will he say what representations he has made to the Home Office to ensure that the visa regime

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is efficient and does not stop people coming to this country? I know that there have been issues with student visas, and if we are to expand those cultural and educational links, the issuing of visas is important and must run smoothly.

Alistair Burt: I am not as familiar with visa issues affecting Vietnam as I am with those in countries of which I have more intimate knowledge, but I think the problems are common and similar. We are trying to operate a regime that will encourage people to come to the United Kingdom within the limits set by the Home Office on security, numbers, and everything else. The balance is always difficult. I will raise with the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane the issues relating specifically to Vietnam, and I presume that he has already been in close touch with the Home Office. The balance is difficult. It is not easy anywhere, and I will ensure that the hon. Lady’s concerns are reflected back.

Education and its spin-over into the general partnership with the United Kingdom put us in a good position not only to be a leading partner in educational development but, as a result of English language use, in various commercial opportunities. I will speak about trade and investment before coming to human rights and other issues.

Vietnam’s impressive potential makes it attractive to UK businesses, which are already doing well in Vietnam. The UK is already Vietnam’s biggest foreign investor in financial services. Other sectors where there are opportunities include education, which I touched on a moment ago, real estate and retail. Bilateral trade in goods reached almost £2 billion in 2011, up by 33% on the previous year. UK exports grew by 18%, reaching £325 million. As I am sure hon. Members will recall, the strategic partnership includes a joint commitment to double trade by 2013—the hon. Member for Bristol East made the point about where our balance of trade should be heading—and our UKTI team has trade officers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to help UK companies looking to establish or expand their presence in Vietnam. However, in a rapidly growing market it is necessary to take a longer perspective, and we are working with the Vietnamese through the Joint Economic and Trade Committee to identify priority areas and boost our trade and investment relationship. Those bilateral talks include issues of market access and other points of concern to UK companies.

We are well placed to share UK expertise in the financial services, and as I have indicated, the UK is already the biggest investor in that sector in Vietnam. The UK has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Vietnamese Ministry of Finance under which we will co-operate on a financial framework for public-private partnerships, public debt management and sovereign credit ratings.

UK companies are world leaders in managing large infrastructure projects and that will be an important area for Vietnam in coming years. It is estimated that an investment of around $160 billion will be required over the next decade, and given the scale of that investment, new models of funding for those projects will be required. We have actively shared our experiences of the public-private partnership model with the Vietnamese, and we hope that UK companies will continue to contribute their world-class expertise.

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However, despite that background and the UK’s involvement in trade and investment and commercial opportunities, we acknowledge that Vietnam must do more to meet its commitments. Vietnam has reaped the benefits of its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2007, but its obligations must also be prioritised. We regularly encourage Vietnam to liberalise its markets further, and negotiations on an EU-Vietnam free trade agreement will start soon, which will bring additional benefits to the UK and Vietnam.

Bureaucracy and corruption remain major problems; Vietnam is ranked 116th on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index—a long way below China and Thailand. The hon. Member for Bristol East raised that issue and asked what more we can do to help, and the UK remains keen to work with Vietnam to address those problems, including through the anti-corruption dialogue. We believe that tackling corruption has become a priority for the Vietnamese Government. They have developed a comprehensive legal framework on anti-corruption measures, and in 2009 they signed the United Nations convention against corruption. Although there has been good progress, the enforcement and impact of the convention remains patchy at best. Therefore, a joint in-country team from the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been formed to lead our anti-corruption work. Such work is given high priority in Vietnam because it has a direct impact on UK interests and we believe that we can make a difference in a fast-emerging market. Corruption is holding back economic development in too many countries in the region, as well as in other parts of the world. It is an endemic and cultural problem, and needs to be tackled. I am confident, however, that our efforts will assist Vietnam in its attempts to deal with that problem.

Before looking at human rights, I would like to mention one or two regional issues and respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the South China sea. As Vietnam’s economic power grows, so does its political power. Through our bilateral relationship we are encouraging Vietnam to play an active and responsible role on the global stage, and to use its influence in the region and through ASEAN on issues of importance such as Burma, counter-proliferation and climate change.

As the House will be aware, the Government are concerned about tensions in the South China sea, which is a vital global trade artery. The UK has an interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the region, and we hope that all parties can resolve disputes peacefully and in line with international law. The UK continues to call for all parties to show restraint and abide by international norms for the safe conduct of vessels at sea. We hope that the Vietnamese can build on recent discussions with all relevant parties and reach an agreement.

We recognise, however, that the dispute in the South China sea is long-standing and complex. It centres on a maze of overlapping territorial claims and the associated right to exploit maritime resources, by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. Oil and gas reserves in the sea are significant. The South China sea is a vital global trade artery and some 50% of world trade passes through it.

As the right hon. Gentleman made clear, China, Vietnam and the Philippines have been vigorous in stating their claims. Earlier this month, Philippine and

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Chinese naval vessels were involved in a tense stand-off over 12 Chinese fishing vessels that were anchored in disputed waters off the north-west coast of the Philippines. Although such incidents continue to be relatively low level, the UK remains concerned about the potential for a minor skirmish to escalate quickly through a miscalculation on either side.

Our role is to encourage all those involved to seek agreement through international negotiation and existing processes. The right hon. Gentleman asked about advice from the United Kingdom, and as an island nation with a long history and involvement in such matters, our advice on maritime issues and territorial disputes will continue to be available to all parties. It is essential to find a peaceful way forward. We understand that ASEAN and China have agreed to develop a code of conduct for the South China sea, and we continue to support that process.

Let me turn to human rights, and the issue of Agent Orange that was mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. While that remains primarily an issue for the United States and Vietnam, we share a concern about the circumstances of the past. We continue to pay close interest to the issue—I know that during a visit to Vietnam in September last year, members of the all-party group for Vietnam, together with staff from our embassy, visited a number of sites affected by the use of Agent Orange.

Since 2001, the Governments of the US and Vietnam have worked together on the potential environmental and health issues related to Agent Orange and dioxin contamination. The Joint Advisory Committee that advises both the US and Vietnam on activities related to Agent Orange and dioxin contamination, including research and environmental remediation, met for its fourth annual meeting in September 2009. In December 2010, the US and Vietnam signed a memorandum of intent to start work on dioxin clean-up in Da Nang, to be completed in 2013. Although it is primarily a matter between the US and Vietnam, we take a close interest in it and our officials have raised the issue directly with the United States. The right hon. Gentleman can be assured of our sympathy and understanding in relation to those concerns.

Other issues of human rights have been mentioned, including freedom of expression, the blogosphere, freedom of religion and freedom of politics. As the Foreign Secretary has said, human rights are essential to and indivisible from the UK’s foreign policy objectives. As hon. Members will know, the FCO publishes an annual human rights report. The 2010 report, published in April 2011, identified Vietnam as one of 26 countries of concern and highlighted the concern that there were no signs in the short term that the human rights situation there would change. I encourage all colleagues to look at the report for 2011, which is due to be published shortly.

Supporting Vietnam in improving its record on human rights remains a priority for the UK and is very much part of the strategic partnership. We engage Vietnam on human rights bilaterally and through the EU, which holds an annual human rights dialogue with Vietnam. Our overarching objective is to strengthen accountability, which would lead to increased freedom of expression, effective oversight mechanisms and a more robust response

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to corruption. Our efforts are focused on building engagement with the Government and the Communist party of Vietnam on key areas of concern; supporting the development of the media; enhancing openness, transparency and Government accountability; and tackling corruption.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to freedom of expression, which is our main human rights concern in Vietnam. The Vietnamese authorities maintain a tough stance against any political dissent and a firm grip on print, broadcast and online media across the country. We have concerns about the Vietnamese Government’s treatment of peaceful activists, bloggers and land rights campaigners. National security laws are regularly used against political dissidents and human rights defenders and often lead to lengthy prison sentences. We continue to urge the authorities to adopt a more tolerant approach, stressing the links between Vietnam’s future macro-economic development and its willingness to encourage free speech, open debate, innovation and creativity, which are all important in developing a modern, vibrant and industrialised economy.

The hon. Lady mentioned the death penalty, and I can assure her of the UK’s belief that it is wrong in all circumstances. We will continue to raise the issue with nations that do not hold that view.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of freedom of religion. In recent years, the Vietnamese Government have made progress in implementing their legislative framework to protect freedom of religion and belief. However, there are still isolated reports of harassment of religious groups by local government officials, as well as delays in approving the registration of religious groups. We and our partners in the EU continue to encourage the Vietnamese authorities to ensure that religious freedoms are respected consistently across the country and that central Government policy is understood and implemented appropriately by provincial and local authorities. There have been a number of incidents involving Christian and Buddhist sites as part of land disputes between religious groups and local authorities. In such cases, we have always urged all parties to seek a peaceful resolution, and we have urged the Vietnamese authorities to ensure that property registration procedures are applied consistently across the country.

The hon. Lady mentioned migration and trafficking, about which we are very concerned. The Vietnamese are one of the top three nationalities encountered in the UK as potential victims of trafficking. None the less, the scale of the problem is small compared with illegal migration from Vietnam. Many people are complicit in their illegal entry, but once they are in the UK, organised crime groups target those who are vulnerable and traffic them internally within the country. Sadly, Vietnamese adults are almost as likely to be trafficked for sexual exploitation as they are for labour exploitation. The key to tackling trafficking is to decrease the smuggling of Vietnamese nationals to the UK.

We are also concerned about Vietnamese minors. Between April 2009 and February 2011, 75 out of 96 victims were identified as minors. The majority arrive in the UK as clandestine entrants and are then targeted for labour exploitation, especially cannabis cultivation.

To reduce such threats, we have developed an excellent relationship with the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security on migration issues. That is particularly significant,

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given that the UK is clearly the demandeur in the relationship. We are increasing work on organised crime through the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which will post a full-time officer to Vietnam in 2013. For the time being, the work is covered by a Bangkok-based officer, who visits Vietnam twice a month. Through the risk and liaison overseas network, the UK Border Agency is increasingly active in Vietnam, and it will become still more active following the agreement of the memorandum of understanding on immigration information exchange.

Colleagues raised a couple of issues about climate change. Across the Government, we will launch a new trilateral relationship with the Government of Vietnam and the World Bank, and we have been working closely with Vietnam on that. As part of the strategic partnership, the Department for International Development will fund a £3 million project covering key gaps in capacity in five Vietnamese partner Ministries, and that will include adaptation and low-carbon growth analysis.

On adaptation, DFID is developing a project on coastal adaptation in the Red river delta. We hope that will be funded by the international climate fund, which is designed to address climate change internationally. The hon. Lady was right to recognise the particular geography of Vietnam, whose river deltas put it at maximum threat from climate change. That is a further reason why we should act bilaterally with Vietnam, as well as acting on our international obligations.

The right hon. Member for Knowsley mentioned development and poverty, and I am keen to respond. On development, we recognise that economic and commercial growth and opportunities in Vietnam are perhaps the biggest drivers in raising living standards and dealing with poverty. Vietnam has made considerable progress against key development indicators and is seen as something of a success story in reducing poverty. In 2011, it ranked 128th out of 187 countries on the human development index, which is well above what could be expected, given the country’s current national income. However, challenges still remain. Some 12 million people still live in poverty, and the poverty rate among ethnic minorities is particularly high, at 52%.

Since 2006, we have granted Vietnam more than £25 million in debt relief through our DFID office in-country. Based on a 10-year development partnership agreement, the UK has provided more than £448 million in grand-aid to Vietnam. When the development partnership agreement concludes in 2016, DFID will graduate from its programme in Vietnam. As part of that transition plan, DFID will focus on ensuring that interventions are sustainable beyond the period of its presence. Long-term activities on issues such as governance, climate change,

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and trade and investment are increasingly taken forward as part of the strategic partnership. We are also working on that with multilateral organisations.

The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned labour conditions and wages. As part of Vietnam’s work with the UK Government, we are discussing capacity building and sharing our experience on labour laws, union participation and economic development in conversations with partners in Vietnam.

Kerry McCarthy: Will UK trade unions be involved in that, perhaps under the umbrella of the TUC? Will they work with labour organisations in Vietnam on these issues?

Alistair Burt: If I may, I will raise that with the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane. However, I saw Brendan Barber quite recently regarding trade union activity in countries in transition in north Africa, and we have a good relationship with the TUC in taking forward work on trade unions in places where that may have been difficult historically. I am sure the same partnership opportunities will exist in Vietnam.

I hope that covers the issues colleagues have raised. If anything has been left untouched, I will, of course, ensure that it is dealt with by letter. I hope the time we have spent on the debate and the points that have been raised confirm that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Vietnam today is timely and builds on the good relationship between the UK and Vietnam, which has been built up over a number of years. The strategic partnership between us, as well as our common concern to use the opportunities provided by trade and investment and to recognise Vietnam’s growing political power and responsibilities in the region, are all good reasons why my right hon. Friend should be there today building our relationship and looking to the future.

I also hope that what I have said about the UK’s commitments and engagement—whether on commerce, poverty or human rights—shows that we have the right balance in our relationship. We want to encourage development right across the board in Vietnam, while not holding back on addressing issues that may be detrimental to its development, as well as those issues that any country, on an international basis, will want to put right over a period of time. In the UK, Vietnam has a good partner on those issues. We will offer advice and support as Vietnam continues its progress through the century.

10.40 am

Sitting suspended.

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Sexting and Sexual Grooming

10.58 am

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I welcome the Minister to this debate; he has a very strong commitment to safeguarding children.

I want to begin by supporting the excellent recommendations to protect children from online pornography that were contained in last week’s report on the independent parliamentary inquiry into online child protection, led by the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry). Today, I want to focus on one aspect that the online inquiry mentioned was of great concern to parents: the growing phenomenon of sexting.

Sexting involves the sharing of sexually suggestive messages or images electronically, primarily between mobile phones. According to Ofcom, about 50% of eight to 11-year-olds and 88% of 12 to 15-year-olds own a mobile phone. The speed with which children and young people are gaining access to the internet—accelerated with the advent of smartphones, enabling children to access the internet from their mobile phones—is unprecedented.

The problem is growing, according to the children’s charity Beat Bullying, which is very concerned that there is increasing peer pressure to send sexting images; and the age is getting younger. Its research, carried out in 2009, showed that 38% of children aged 11 to 18 had received a sexually explicit or distressing text or e-mail. Those figures are backed up by research from Plymouth university, which found that 40% of 14 to 16-year-olds said their friends engaged in sexting. In addition, a survey by Beat Bullying in 2010 revealed that more than 54% of teachers were aware of pupils creating and sharing sexually suggestive messages and images via mobile phones or the internet. In Manchester, each week two schools are turning to e-safety groups for help about sexting incidents.

I congratulate the Manchester Evening News and its reporter Amy Glendinning on recognising this issue. The newspaper’s excellent series about internet safety has examined the dangers that lurk online and the traps that children fall into, including sexting. The coverage included recommendations and advice from local police and schools. That is another example of public service journalism at its best from the Manchester Evening News and follows its groundbreaking campaign last year about children missing from home, which was of great interest to me as the chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults. In many ways, the missing people and sexting issues are linked, and charities such as the Children’s Society feel that sexting should be recognised as part of the sexual grooming process that many vulnerable, runaway or missing children fall victim to.

Our children’s lives, including their experiences at school, are very different from our childhood and experiences of school, but one aspect of childhood remains the same. Throughout the ages, as children have grown up, they have wanted to push boundaries at an age when they are more sexually and socially aware; they want to experiment and tread their own path to independence. That is normal. But what is different

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today is that, with new technology, the risk that children and young people are exposed to as part of that process has risen dramatically.

Today’s phenomenon of sexting involves children and young people taking pictures of themselves, perhaps to send to established boyfriends or girlfriends, to create romantic interest or for reasons such as attention seeking. There is often no criminal behaviour beyond the creation or sending of images, no apparent malice and no lack of willing participation by young people who are pictured. The problem is that, once the pictures are taken and sent, the sender loses control of them and they could end up anywhere, from being passed all around school to being viewed and passed on by paedophiles. In addition, children’s charities fear that young people are being coerced into providing explicit images online, which are then shared without their consent via phones and social networking sites—a process known as doxing.

According to Sherry Adhami of Beat Bullying, sexting has become an epidemic. She says:

“We are seeing it more and more—we’ve even seen it in primary schools. It is 100 per cent classless and this affects children whether they are in deprived or affluent areas.”

Beat Bullying says that sexting can be used as a form of cyber-bulling, when an individual or a group of people deliberately attempts to hurt, upset, threaten or humiliate someone else. That includes situations when a recipient of images or text is made to feel uncomfortable as a direct result of that content or is asked to do something that makes them feel distressed.

Sexting becomes problematic when it leads to criminal or abusive behaviour, such as sexual abuse, extortion, threats, malicious conduct arising from interpersonal conflicts, or the creation, sending or showing of images without the knowledge or against the will of the person who is pictured, or if it becomes a tool for sexual grooming. Such grooming involves not just adults grooming children, but increasingly children grooming other children.

A Beat Bullying survey of 11 to 18-year-olds found that 45% of text messages were from their peers, but the problem is that young people are very vulnerable to suggestions from their peers. There is a fine line between young people voluntarily sharing images and their feeling under pressure to do so. The recognition that children and young people can be sexually victimised by other young people is reshaping our understanding of the issue.

It is part of the growing-up process for both girls and boys to decide what sexual behaviour they feel comfortable with. However, some young girls are particularly vulnerable to pressure—for example, girls with low self-esteem, those from dysfunctional families or those living in care. Such girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, both by adults and their peers.

Sexual grooming happens when someone is enticed to do something that they do not want to do, and the link between sexual grooming and sexting is becoming increasingly apparent. The Children’s Society has told me that its practitioners around the country are finding that sexting is a growing method of sexually grooming young people. It has said of sexting:

“It becomes a tool of coercion, threat and power, as young people are encouraged to take pictures or videos of themselves, initially often for a financial reward or because they are groomed into thinking the person is their boyfriend. The sexting then becomes a tool of manipulation and the young person is threatened

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that the images will be shared with their friends and teachers. A key problem is that young people see these texts as harmless fun but they quickly lead to sexualised conversations and grooming.”

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, which is very timely. She has hit on an important point. Young people, particularly vulnerable young females, quite often look at sexting as a fairly innocent, normal exchange of either messages or images, and they do not realise the seriousness of what they are doing and how others could use that material. That is what we have to concentrate on today, and I am glad that the hon. Lady is making that point. Does she agree?

Ann Coffey: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am very pleased that there is a growing body of support among parliamentarians about the fact that we must address this important issue.

The Children’s Society has also said of sexting:

“Because it is not face to face interaction, young people will also behave in a different way without realising the risks that they are exposing themselves to, until it is too late.”

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children will publish further research into sexting next month. It gave me an extract from a ChildLine call from a girl aged 16, which demonstrated the risk and potential harm to young people from sexting. She said:

“I have been in contact with a man who is a lot older than me. At first, he was nice, complimented my pictures and we became friends on a social network site. I forgot my phone number was on there and he started texting and calling me, saying explicit things and sending me sexual photos. He wants me to…have sex and I’m scared. I really don’t want to, but what do I do?”

As I have said, today’s young people live in a very different world due to the rapid pace of technological change that we have seen during the past 20 years. It has given them unprecedented access to global communication and information. However, as I have outlined, there are accompanying risks as a result. Those risks range from private photos shared between two young people becoming public property and leading to humiliation, bullying and blackmail to the use of those images for sophisticated online sexual grooming.

I reiterate that I support the recommendations in the online child protection inquiry as a step forward in protecting children, and I welcome the child sexual exploitation action plan that the Minister published last year. Local safeguarding children’s boards need to be aware of sexting as a tool for sexual grooming, so that they develop strategies in their areas to help them to safeguard children.

What more can be done? Of course sending sexual images is a criminal offence. However, I support the guidance of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which says:

“ACPO does not support the prosecution or criminalisation of children for taking indecent images of themselves and sharing them. Being prosecuted through the criminal justice system is likely to be distressing and upsetting for children, especially if they are convicted and punished. The label of ‘sex offender’ that would be applied to a child or young person convicted of such offences is regrettable, unjust and clearly detrimental to their future health and wellbeing.”

I agree that, in most instances and depending on the circumstances, sexting should be dealt with under general safeguarding.

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Children and young people need to be supported by their parents, teachers and peers to ensure that they are empowered to manage new technology. Charities such as Family Lives offer valuable advice and help to parents who are concerned about their children’s sexual behaviour. A lot of good work is going on in schools and police forces to raise awareness and to recognise sexting as part of the grooming process. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre provides an excellent education campaign called Thinkuknow and has produced a film about sexting. It is important that education and awareness-raising programmes focus on children who send images or exert pressure on other children to produce images without realising the extent of the damage that they can cause. Charities such as Beat Bullying have a great deal of expertise in that respect.

More needs to be done, however. I want the mobile phone industry to do more to highlight some of the dangers of its products, in the same way as the gambling and alcohol industries provide help for people who encounter problems arising from their products. The gambling industry provides funding for education and the treatment of problem gambling and the drinks industry funds the charity Drinkaware.

The mobile phone industry has a great responsibility, given the profits that it makes and its targeting of young people to buy its products, to set aside money to inform young people of the dangers of sexting. The industry should provide an information and advice leaflet with each new mobile phone, warning of the dangers of sexting. It should also pay for advertising on TV and in the press and for the promotion of helplines, such as the NSPCC’s ChildLine. The leaflet with each new mobile phone should explain how, at the click of a button, an image intended for private use can lead to public humiliation and even fall into the hands of sophisticated sexual predators. I should like retail sales people to be trained to discuss the risks of sexting when selling phones to young people or to adults buying them on their behalf.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which the Minister jointly chairs and on which charities and some mobile phone operators sit, has been involved in debates about online safety for some time, so I am sure that something is being done to make progress. However, I hope the Minister will take my specific ideas about how mobile phone industries can do more and raise them at his next meeting with those industries.

As I have said, what can be seen by young people as the relatively harmless activity of sexting can lead to quite serious consequences for the young person involved. It is important to prevent that, and I feel strongly that by giving more information and increasing awareness among children and young people, we may prevent further harm coming to them, whether from bullying, blackmail or sexual exploitation or grooming. We must do what we can to educate and inform children and young people about the risks of sexting, so that their choices are based on an understanding of the consequences of their actions. The mobile phone companies must take their share of responsibility to help safeguard children and young people.

11.12 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): Mr Caton, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and to congratulate the hon.

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Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing the debate—not just because it is traditional to do so, but because of her continuing work on child safeguarding, whether online or in relation to more conventional forms of abuse of children, if I can call put it like that. She has helped me and the Department with work on child sexual exploitation. The debate is part of raising awareness of the whole subject, and her work has also given rise to a useful article in

The Independent


As the hon. Lady knows, there is no silver bullet to deal with the issues. She was right about the unprecedented access to global communications that is now available— stuff that she and I were never used to as children. It is a good thing, but it brings risks. That is why the UK Council for Child Internet Safety and others are working to bring about a big, joined-up approach. Technology will always be one step ahead, and we must make sure that there are as many safeguards as possible, at as many danger points as possible. I am therefore very grateful to the hon. Lady for her part in that work, and her kind comments about what we are trying to achieve. We share the same goals.

The debate is topical, as the press has been full of headlines about child online safety, and I reiterate the welcome to last week’s report headed up by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry). I am sure that the debate will help us to keep the issue on the radar and provide an opportunity to show what progress is being made—and there is progress, even though it may not be as visible as the hon. Member for Stockport and I might want. However, the use of technology to groom children, not least through the internet—and through social networking in particular—has become an increasing cause for concern in recent years. As we are all beginning to recognise, there are close links between the issue of missing children—on which, again, the hon. Lady is something of a House expert—and the grooming of young people for sexual exploitation.

The Government have understood those links, as the hon. Lady said, and recognise that this must be treated as a strong priority. That is reflected in our new missing children and adults strategy, and the Government’s action plan on tackling child sexual exploitation, both of which highlight the vulnerabilities of missing children and young people. It is important that there is a joined-up Government approach. Perhaps I should have pointed out earlier that normally one of my colleagues from the Home Office would have replied to the debate today. They were not able to do that, but I am rather happier that I could do it, because the Home Office and the Department for Education in particular work closely together. We co-chair UKCCIS, as the hon. Lady knows, to make sure that we have a joined-up approach, and the present situation shows how interchangeable the arrangement is.

In addition, the concept of peer-to-peer sexting is now raising its head and can have far-reaching consequences that need to be addressed. The hon. Lady mentioned sexting, doxing and all sorts of other terms that I am somewhat familiar with as the father to three teenage children who regularly have to be surgically removed from their mobile and other IT devices. I see the situation first-hand, and I am sure that the hon. Lady does, too. I assure her and all hon. Members that the Government take seriously our responsibility to ensure that the response

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in all areas of child protection and safeguarding is as effective as possible, and that it will always be a priority for the Government.

The hon. Lady mentioned the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which is a beacon. CEOP continues to play a crucial role in ensuring that children are safeguarded, and I pay tribute to its head, Peter Davies. Of course, we should encourage young people to use technology, but it is important that they are made aware of the dangers involved—as should their parents, teachers and others around them. We need to continue to raise awareness of the risks and to educate young people about staying safe online and offline, and about the use of mobile technology—particularly the sharing of images of themselves and others.

Young people increasingly use technology not only to stay in touch but to explore things such as sex and to push the boundaries in what they send and to whom they send it. Early intervention needs to be part of the solution if we are to educate young people, teachers and families about the consequences of their actions and how to keep children and young people safe. It is now so easy to send pictures instantly, via e-mails and texts, and on Twitter and through other social networking sites, that there are instances of boys or girls sending sexual images of themselves to others without any regard for the consequences. Those behaviours are often implicated in patterns of bullying, as the hon. Lady said, with messages and images being elicited in a coercive context, used as blackmail or circulated beyond the intended recipient. Just because that is technologically easy to do, and the victim may not be standing in front of the person concerned at the time, does not mean it is the right thing to do.

Sexting is becoming increasingly part of the mobile phone-related child protection context, with many children on the receiving end of sexting or sexual bullying. The trend of sharing sexual content by mobile phone can also be extremely abusive, and can have a devastating impact on the children affected. The use of technology has facilitated that exchange, which can make a young person feel very uncomfortable and potentially lead to harassment. Such young people often find out later that the image has been passed on to others and, as a result, they leave themselves open to the risk of becoming the victims of bullying, harassment or, worse still, sexual exploitation. There is a clear link there. The CEOP threat assessment for 2011-12 sets out six high-priority threats to children and young people, and includes a focus on addressing behaviours by which children put themselves at risk.

I have found the hon. Lady’s remarks helpful. There is little to disagree with. Having listened to her, I am no less convinced that this issue, like that of missing children and child sexual exploitation in general, is one where greater co-operation and collaboration between all the agencies involved is vital. I am dedicated to promoting that. I recognise her concerns about sexting; we know from a recent Beat Bullying report that more and more children and young people are receiving sexually explicit texts or e-mails and offensive sexual images and that a high percentage of them know the identity of the aggressors, the majority of whom are their peers.

I agree wholeheartedly with what the hon. Lady said about the criminalisation of children. A child may be committing a criminal offence if they share photographs

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of the type in question, but they would not be automatically criminalised. The prosecuting authorities would take the circumstances of each case into account, including in particular the nature of the photographs, the age and maturity of the children involved and any evidence of coercion or exploitation. However, if a person is over 16 and is sending a picture of someone who is under the age of 16, they are breaking the law and will be prosecuted on that basis.

Generally, internet service providers take a responsible approach to the content they host, both of their own volition and in co-operation with law enforcement and Government agencies. Where the industry is advised that the content it hosts in the UK contravenes legislation, it will readily remove it. We need to do more to ensure that it is more immediately removed. There is a clear line of communication between the offended party—parents or others—who sees this material and the people with responsibility for controlling and eliminating it.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has, through its education awareness and skills work stream, developed a specific educational resource to tackle this very issue. The hon. Lady mentioned this resource, which is for use in the classroom by teachers and forms part of CEOP’s Thinkuknow campaign. This is designed to reduce the harm caused to children through the misuse of technology to sexually abuse or exploit them. The resource includes the video “Exposed”, a 10-minute drama dealing with sexting and cyber-bullying designed for 14 to 18-year-olds. Its messages include, “Always think before you send or share. Think about how it will affect others and yourself. Remember that pictures you take and send may become public and permanent and the police may get involved.” Once something is on the internet, it may be there indefinitely. It may come back to haunt the person involved.

The messages continue, “If you need someone to talk to, you can call ChildLine.” I take the hon. Lady’s point about the importance of some of our helplines, especially ChildLine, in which the Government invest a lot of taxpayers’ money. There is also the opportunity for commercial companies to make their contribution, which will be greatly welcomed—The messages continue, whether with or without tax relief is another matter. “Thinkuknow and the Safer Internet Centre can also offer tips and advice. If you need to make a report, report directly to ClickCeop.”

The UK Council on Child Internet Safety, which I co-chair, works to improve the awareness and understanding of parents, children and teachers regarding online safety. That includes educating children and young people about the implications of their online behaviour and the digital footprint that they leave, particularly where information or images of an extremely personal nature are concerned.

Important work was undertaken earlier this year: CEOP led in the creation of UKCCIS advice. That advice is designed for use by those who provide internet services used by children, for example Facebook and Microsoft. The advice has a section on sharing information, which explains the impact that sharing an image can have, such as losing control and ownership of it. Organisations such as Facebook and Microsoft, which are engaged with UKCCIS, ensure that the messages that they carry on their services are in line with this advice, so that whichever service young people use, they receive clear and consistent messages about positive online behaviour and what to do if they need help.

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Ofcom’s children’s media literacy tracker data reveal that one third of children aged between 12 and 15 have a smartphone that can access the internet; and 38% of nine to 12-year-olds have a social networking profile. People know that to have a Facebook page, a child must be at least 13, but that cannot be legally enforced. We know—and I know from personal experience—that younger children are tempted to set up a Facebook site and get involved with social media. I also know that in too many cases they do that aided and abetted by parents. It is not just a question of giving the information to parents, but making sure that parents are acting responsibly on behalf of their children. That is why education is such a joined-up exercise. To educate the parents, we need to say, “Would you really want your child having access to this sort of dangerous content or the ability to be the victim of sexting and other such things?” We also need to teach children at school and at other places about the hazards of all this and ensure that teachers are fully engaged, too.

UKCCIS is aware that children are using the internet at an earlier age and that the internet is increasingly mobile. Children use their mobile phones not only to text but to access the internet and social networks. Mobiles are a particular focus of current UKCCIS work.

Later today, I am chairing a round-table meeting of mobile phone manufacturers, retailers, network operators and software manufacturers to discuss how they can offer better parental controls and choices to parents and give clear online safety information to parents and children. Good practice is happening already. I have here a selection of leaflets that are issued by some of the mobile operators and retailers, and I want to see more of this. I want them to be more child and parent-friendly, and for them to be standard and unavoidably attached to mobile phones before they are switched on. That is not rocket science. We are moving in the right direction, but I want it to move faster and in a more comprehensive manner.

The mobile phone sector is aware of the need to signpost to ChildLine if a child is upset. For example, Carphone Warehouse has a leaflet about safe internet use that is given to parents. It includes reference to sexting and signposts to ChildLine. Everything Everywhere has produced an internet safety leaflet distributed via Orange. “Orange, a guide for parents” warns against sending bullying images. More is also being done to encourage retail environments to highlight internet safety issues: Tesco is looking to train phone shop staff; Dixons carries internet safety messages on receipt wallets; and John Lewis is also engaged in this area.

On the board of UKCCIS are BT, 02, BlackBerry and Samsung. None the less, I agree that there is scope for stepping up our efforts through UKCCIS to encourage mobile phone operators and the retail industry to play a greater part in publicising the dangers of sexting. The hon. Lady mentioned the idea of having adverts, which is a perfectly reasonable way of communicating that message. I will use many of her points to challenge the people at the round-table discussion later today and will happily report back to her later.

I am clear that more can and should be done to address this issue and to educate our children about the risks they face if they get involved in or receive this type of communication. Work continues across the Government

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and national and local agencies to improve and ensure that our response is robust, and that includes more generally on tackling child sexual exploitation. At the local level, agencies who work with children and young people need to be aware of the signs that show that young people are being groomed for sexual exploitation and to know how to intervene in an appropriate way. Such agencies include the police, children’s services, parents and voluntary groups. The hon. Lady mentioned the local safeguarding children’s boards, and yes, this issue should be on their radar as well as other safeguarding against sexual exploitation issues.

At the national level, I am taking the Government lead on tackling child sexual exploitation. I have led in the development of an action plan to safeguard children and young people caught up in this form of child abuse, and the hon. Lady has been a part of that, for which I am grateful.

I hope that I have provided some reassurance that the Government are absolutely committed to protecting children and to tackling the challenges in this area. We are not complacent and recognise that we need to keep under review all aspects of our work to tackle grooming in all its forms. We are all determined to do everything we can to protect children in our communities, while allowing them space and room to develop and enjoy technologies in safe and responsible ways.

I repeat my thanks to the hon. Lady for securing this debate, for further raising the profile of the issue and for her ongoing helpful and constructive engagement with me and the Government to promote the common goal of ensuring that all our children are safer online.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended.

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Mayoral Referendums

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. On looking around this Chamber, I note many familiar faces from a previous debate that took place here in October 2010, when my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) initiated a similar discussion. Things have moved on significantly from that point. I support the Government’s policy to initiate referendums in 10 of our cities, and I also commend Liverpool council for taking the plunge and deciding for itself that elected mayors are the future form of leadership. That is certainly the case for our major cities, and I hope it will be for many more of our local authorities, starting with those currently enjoying unitary status. This must be just the beginning.

By way of background, I should say that I come to the debate as someone who served for 26 years as a councillor. I served for 14 years under the two-tier system when, between 1980 and 1994, I was a member of the former Great Grimsby borough council. At that point, the electorate decided that I needed a rest. I think it was something to do with describing myself as the Conservative candidate that resulted in my enforced absence from the council chamber for five years. At that time, the party was going through a period that comes to all parties: that of unpopularity. Such a time almost always follows a long period in power. Labour Members will know exactly what I mean, as many of their own councillors have gone through a similar process in recent years.

When I returned to council, thankfully, the two-tier system had been swept away. In my area, that had the added bonus of doing away with the unloved—and I would perhaps go as far as to say hated—county of Humberside. How much better the unitary system is. I would create unitary councils headed by elected mayors across the board, but because I support the localist agenda, I would leave councils free to determine the powers they want to give their mayor within a menu set by legislation.

I accept there are geographical difficulties in some of our larger and more rural areas, in the sense that it is more difficult for individuals to become local personalities when a county is 70 or 80 miles wide. In my county, Lincolnshire county council covers the distance from, for example, Gainsborough in the north to Spalding in the south, which is some 70 miles. That presents difficulties in what is inevitably a presidential-style contest where party labels mean less. However, at a time when—let us be honest—the profession of politician is not the highest ranked in the country, that is just one of the plus factors. More independent-minded individuals without that party label may well emerge; or, indeed, there may be individuals with a party label who have a much more independent streak. One has only to look at the current mayoral race in London to appreciate that, although party allegiance is there to indicate to the voter the general direction of travel, it is a far looser allegiance than in a traditional council election.

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We cannot wait for local authorities themselves to decide whether to opt for an elected mayor, as, with perhaps a few rare exceptions, they will not. We need to break down the existing cosy arrangements. Many councils will not even opt for a referendum and let their voters decide.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman is outlining some of the plus points, and I congratulate him on his success in obtaining the debate. The concept of directly elected mayors has been around for some time. Can he explain why, in most of the mayoral referendums, the turnouts have been fairly derisory—in some cases, they have been down to 15% to 20%—and why the majority of those who did participate voted against the concept?

Martin Vickers: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I accept the fact that turnouts have been low—that is an inevitable consequence. The simple fact is that it is a rather techy, anoraky subject in which we politicians, but perhaps few others, love to engage. However, democracy is about having the opportunity to participate in the process. The public are at liberty to engage, or not.

Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that, in many cases, the difficulty in getting people engaged in the mayoral political debate is testament to the kind of political disengagement that has arisen from a council system that people do not feel has served them? In Bristol, we are struggling with voter apathy because people do not feel that the political system is serving them well and they are fed up with party politics. That disengagement is in itself testament to the need for a mayor.

Martin Vickers: I fully endorse what my hon. Friend says. I hope to expand on some of those points in the next few minutes.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from the question of why we should have referendums and the issue of engagement, does he share my puzzlement that on something as real as a mayor, we have a referendum, yet something as unreal and obscure as police commissioners is imposed on us?

Martin Vickers: To be honest, I would have mayors imposed on councils. As I have said, the best form of local government is single-tier authorities headed by an elected mayor. I also favour more directly elected positions within society and fully support the introduction of elected police commissioners.

Returning to my point about councils not choosing to go down this road voluntarily, I would not go as far as Simon Jenkins who said in last week’s Guardian that mayors would replace “shadowy civic mafias.” I also do not agree with him that cities have been held back by party complacency. That may well be true in some cases, but to blame political parties per se is simply wrong. I would argue that bureaucracy and regulation at a national and EU level has had a lot to do with it. Bearing in mind Sir Simon’s recent engagement in arguments about the planning system, I would say that that system itself has something to answer for—at least

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until the Minister with responsibility for planning, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), got to grips with it.

I entirely agree with other parts of Simon Jenkins’ article. He states:

“the London mandate secured more cash for police and transport and spattered central London with lofty towers.”

I am not so sure about that one, but he goes on to state:

“In the past four years…Boris Johnson has subsidised cycling and dug up every road. Like them or loathe them, these men have put city politics on the map. Hustings are packed. London’s civic life has never been so vibrant.”

In some respects, the campaign might not have been all that edifying, but it has certainly grabbed the interest of far more voters than a traditional council election.

It is the political process that energises and gives direction to our system of governance, whether at a national or local level. However, we can do better. We can transform politics by introducing more direct elections. Yes, many of those will be personality contests like the Boris versus Ken show. Whether we like it or not, personalities have always played a major role in politics, and leadership, in part, results from the individual personality of the person. However, from the public’s point of view, that is exactly what should happen. As I say, we must sweep away the existing cosy arrangements.

The petition threshold of 5% that is needed for the electorate to trigger a referendum is too large. If we support localism, as we all purport to, it should be made easier for voters to initiate the process. Obtaining the support of 5% of the people does not sound like a big deal—until one gets out on the streets to try to secure those genuine signatures. In the two unitary authorities that serve my constituency, that equates to more than 6,000 signatures. I can tell hon. Members that getting that number is extremely difficult. About 10 years ago I tried to do so, but local circumstances changed and the momentum was lost.

We need to reduce that threshold significantly. Councils should still have the opportunity to initiate a referendum, but we need to make it much easier for the public. Much is made of the potential downsides of having elected mayors, such as the possibility that extremists will be elected. On the whole, the British people are rather moderate in their political views. On occasion, they may elect an eccentric—some would argue that anyone who enters the political arena qualifies as being eccentric—but there is no real evidence that extremists would be elected. Electing an eccentric might seem rather British; electing an extremist is very un-British.

I welcome the fact that we have 10 referendums taking place next week in some of our major cities. That is a start, but as I have said, let us not restrict them to cities. My constituency straddles two unitary authorities, with two wards in North Lincolnshire and a larger part in North East Lincolnshire. There are three main areas of population: Immingham and Cleethorpes in my constituency; and Great Grimsby, a self-contained former borough seat soon to expand into Cleethorpes if the Boundary Commission gets its way, much to the horror of the locals.

As the Minister found out when he paid his first visit there a few weeks ago, Grimsby and Cleethorpes are joined at the hip, or certainly at the Park street border where we position sentries alongside the passport control

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barriers. More seriously, they are in effect one town, though with distinct identities. It is these provincial towns such as Grimsby and Cleethorpes, and many others—Huddersfield, Halifax and Scunthorpe, to name but a few—that are at risk of being left behind if we concentrate too much on cities. Cleethorpes, Grimsby and similar towns think that big cities get far more than their fair share as it is. We would like another advocate for our communities. Perhaps elected mayors in provincial areas, working in tandem with Members of Parliament, would be more of a thorn in the side of Governments of whatever complexion than a council leader. We must hope that that would be beneficial to such local communities. If, as is the case, the Government believe that elected mayors are desirable, then I say to them: get on with it and do not dawdle. Make it easier for my constituents and others to initiate the process of a referendum and let us see what the people think. I suspect that in many areas, particularly with a local push, they would go for it.

Of course, local councillors are not over-keen. It is a potential threat, a step into the unknown, and it introduces an element of uncertainty into the often predictable world where Labour win when there is a Tory Government and the Tories win when there is a Labour Government. But I say to them: take up the challenge. After all, many candidates for mayor will come from the ranks of existing councillors. I can think of half a dozen or so in my constituency who would be real contenders for the position.

Elected mayors would not be drawn just from the ranks of our existing politicians; representatives of the voluntary sector, business leaders, trade unionists and many more would be drawn in. The attraction of an executive position will have far more appeal to more people than the traditional role of a councillor. We need more individuals to become involved with our local parties, so that they can be considered for candidacy. Open primaries would help to bring more people into the process of selecting candidates. Too often, selection is by a small group—I know, as I have been one of them. Whatever can be said in its favour, it is certainly not open and transparent.

As I have said, we need to reduce dramatically the threshold for initiating a referendum. Let us put real power back into the hands of local people and make it much easier for the population at large to kick-start that referendum. In no way do I wish to play down the role of the traditional councillor—I would not have stuck at it for 26 years otherwise. There will still be an important job to do. Individual wards and communities need their advocates to argue not just in favour of things, but against them, too. With neighbourhood plans to produce and the opportunity for elected members to work more closely with our voluntary and charitable groups, churches and others, public satisfaction would increase.

Importantly, executive mayors need effective scrutiny. Scrutiny in its present form does not work, as I think many who have served on local authorities would agree. It is not sufficiently detached from the decision-making process. Scrutiny is seen as a necessary evil by any administration. Even when serviced by able officers, they will almost certainly be junior to the senior managers

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who are involved in the decision-making process. I have previously proposed that local authorities need an officer at director level who is not a part of the established service, but who is appointed by, and responsible to, a group of chairmen of scrutiny panels.

I digress. To return to my main theme, mayors can be passionate advocates for economic investment, but equally they can be powerful voices against developments that their local communities oppose. That allows me to put forward the thought that, although I favour unitary authorities headed by an elected mayor, that does not preclude smaller towns in that authority area having their own elected head. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) favours that and will no doubt speak on it in a few minutes. Currently, in effect we have a two-tier mayoral system in parts of London, so we should not rule it out elsewhere. The elected mayors in London seem to rub along with the Borises and Kens of this world reasonably well. There will be tensions, of course, and these changes will alter the dynamics between various councils and individuals, just as another constitutional change that I favour, an elected House of Lords, will change the dynamics between the upper and lower Houses.

I will now expand on what I see as the key functions of the mayor. I mentioned economic development and regeneration earlier, and they are certainly vital ingredients. Infrastructure and transport are essential. They are all part of a growing local economy. What is certainly essential is forceful political leadership—someone in charge. As MPs, we are all well aware that we live in a global economy. Business leaders travel from all over the world to consider investment decisions. In many of our overseas competitor towns and cities, they can meet with the top man or woman because they can be decisive and offer clear direction. Here, it is somewhat different—our decision-making process is often tortuous. Our mayors could be as decisive.

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is incumbent on central Government to decentralise further powers to the local authorities, particularly to elected mayors?

Martin Vickers: Yes, I favour my hon. Friend’s suggestion. The process of devolution and localism has only just started, and has a long way to go.

I note that those trying to undermine the elected mayor project have been saying that not enough high-profile potential candidates have come forward. That is perfectly understandable, until we know the outcome of the various votes next week.

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the alleged reasons why high-calibre candidates have not come forward so far is a lack of control over budgets—that they want some kind of budgetary responsibility before they put themselves in that position?

Martin Vickers: I agree. My understanding, from the speeches I have heard the Minister make, is that where we are is only the starting point and there is much further to go. It is understandable that some of the high-profile candidates have not yet come forward. The example of police and crime commissioners seems to indicate that once these positions become a reality,

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people do come forward. In my own police area of Humberside, the former Deputy Prime Minister, no less, has indicated that he hopes to be a candidate. Had a referendum for the post of elected mayor of Hull been approved, he may even have gone for what I suggest would be an even higher profile local position.

I do not know how many yes votes will be recorded next week, but even just one will be a step in the right direction. The momentum is with those of us who believe that elected mayors can provide a more determined and dynamic leadership, not because the individuals are better than the many hard-working council leaders, but because the position of mayor will be more prominent and will provide a better platform to give the leadership our towns and cities require in a competitive environment.

Two or three weeks ago, the Prime Minister gave a boost to the campaign with a reception in Downing street. On that occasion, I detected a real buzz about the place, not just from enthusiastic politicians such as myself—the Minister and other hon. Members were present and were equally enthusiastic—but, more noticeably, from the leaders of our business communities. Significantly, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a new mayors’ cabinet, giving mayors better access to Government and the first choice of many funding streams and regeneration initiatives.

Turning to a few comments that I noted from other hon. Members, the Centre for Cities has argued that, although they are no panacea for growth, elected mayors have the potential to support economic growth if they are given the right powers to do so. The 3 May elections are focusing only on local authority mayors, although in reality, as Greater Manchester has recognised, a city’s economy is not restricted by political borders.

Wilson and Game, in their assessment in their book, “Local Government in the United Kingdom” noted that mayors

“may be few in number, but most, if not all, of these elected mayors have, in their own council areas, undoubtedly ‘made a difference’. They are far better known than their predecessor council leaders ever were; they have raised their councils’ profiles, and in several cases stimulated a change in their political complexion; and most are associated with a number of personal policy initiatives and campaigns.”

I am sure the Minister will take the opportunity that this debate offers to urge yes votes. It might be an exaggeration to say that this will be a new dawn for local politics—when politicians use such phrases, it is usually hyperbole—but it is certain that elected mayors are a step in the right direction. I hope that voters in our cities will vote yes, and that there will be a lot more yes votes to follow.

2.51 pm

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). I agree with an awful lot of what he said. However, I most certainly disagree with the most high-profile thing that he said about the Prime Minister’s advocacy. I do not want the Prime Minister to come to Coventry to advocate for an elected mayor. That would not go down nearly as well as it might in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

I cannot boast 26 years in local government as the hon. Gentleman can, but I did eight years as a member of Coventry city council before being elected to this

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place. It has long been my view—after about a year of settling in and getting to understand how the system worked, I became pretty disillusioned with it—that I do not believe that it works. I do not believe that it can be made to work.

In 2001, Labour proposed elected mayors. We set up a system that all hon. Members in this Chamber will know allowed for a petition to be raised, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, to get a referendum. Not many petitions have been raised. If I believed that the reason for those petitions not being raised over that intervening period was a high level of satisfaction with the current system and that nobody really wanted change, I assure the House that my support for the mayoral model would have waned considerably. However, the petitions have not been raised because we face, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) said earlier, almost total apathy in respect of local government. We do not have—we do not enjoy—local democracy in England at all; it does not exist.

On 3 May, a third of the people of Coventry will vote, and they will do so almost overwhelmingly on national issues, not local issues. Political parties and councillors know and understand that. Indeed, I have not studied the Conservative leaflets in Coventry—if they have been put out at all—but my own party’s leaflets cover police and NHS cuts, overwhelmingly. Why? We know that that is how to appeal to the electorate, and we want to win. This is not about council services, development of the manifesto locally or about what the council is or is not going to do. The product of that is a massive increase in apathy about local democracy, the potential for local leadership and the important services that councils provide.

There is also an impact on councillors. In what other walk of life would we consider it good and acceptable—something that we ought to continue with—to have a system where people know that their policies, credible or incredible, make no difference to their success. However, local government elections can be affected organisationally; we have all done it and participated in it.

Councillors and councils fall or stand on the national trend. Councillors know that. In 2004, the Labour party lost control of Coventry city council, not because we as a party lost control of it or because it was a bad council, but because in that year the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was somewhat unpopular in the country. It was as simple as that. We wound up with a Conservative council for six years, which fell in 2010, in large part because the local election was on the same day as the general election and, in an overwhelmingly Labour city, the turnout was well up and the Conservative council was swept away as a result. I do not think that that was a particularly good council—it was worthy of considerable criticism—but it knew, and we knew, that it would lose an election called on 6 May 2010.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that support for local government and more interest in local politics would be helped by never having local elections on the same day as a general election?

Mr Ainsworth: I have not thought about that and I am not dead sure about the degree to which it would, but having a mayoral system in our cities—like the hon.

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Gentleman, I would be interested in the proposition going further than just in cities—would provide some mitigation against the domination of national politics in local affairs. Of course, the national trend would still have an effect; to suggest that it would disappear entirely would be naive.

On the suggestion about replacing local politics with independents, I am sure that we all know people from our parties who share our beliefs but choose to cover their colours in particular parts of the country, because they know that if they wear their rosette and show their colours they will not get elected. Therefore, they stand as independents. That is, to a degree, dishonest.

A mayoral system, such as we are seeing in London and will see elsewhere, would force people to think well beyond the allegiances of their own political party and about the city as a whole: Coventry, for example. That would give people at least a degree of ability to buck the national trend. People would be, to a greater extent than exists at the moment, genuinely accountable to their local populations, surviving on their own abilities, popularity and the policies that they pursued and, therefore, their ability, to some degree only, to get themselves re-elected off the back of their own policies.

The mayoral system would bring those benefits and the potential for leadership. In saying that, I do not denigrate councillors. Many people dedicate themselves to local government over the years, toiling away, trying to make their cities and communities better places for little remuneration, but they are largely—it is not their own fault—unknown within the communities that they represent. Walking the streets of Coventry, the majority of people do not know who the leader of the council is. That is not the fault of the leader of the council. The Conservative leader of the council for six years, up to 2010, was largely unknown as well. The system prevents them from being able to give the leadership that is so necessary in the modern world.

Those of us who have been lucky enough over the years to travel and to mix and converse with leaders of cities in other countries, know that in many countries—those with which we have to compete—there is a far higher degree of self-reliance. People in cities in Germany do not look in much degree to Berlin, or even to Stuttgart or Munich, for leadership. There is a lot of leadership and a lot more powers in the city itself and, as a result, those cities are more successful.

None of the democratic deficit that I have been talking about, however, matters much to our constituents if it does not make a difference.

Charlotte Leslie: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that continuity of leadership is important? In a city such as Bristol, where the council changes colours frequently, there has been a number of council leaders over the past 10 years. Recognising the council leaders is even more difficult, because they change so often, and that makes the long-term, strategic vision for an area far more difficult.

Mr Ainsworth: I am not so sure that I do agree. There are communities that are far more settled—there is more community in existence—and where people will be better known, although in many of our cities that is

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certainly not the case, because there is a turnover of population and a loss of community. It almost does not matter how long some individuals toil away at leading their city, the majority of the population probably do not know who they are.

I was about to move on to the potential benefits of bridging the democratic deficit, because none of it matters greatly to the majority of the people of this country or to the electorate in such places if it is not making a difference. Irrespective of our political views, how many of us believe that our cities are doing as well as they could? None of us believes that, so we ought to be looking for some improvement, not only for democratic reasons but for economic regeneration and performance.

Coventry, the city in which I was born and raised, is the most central city in England; we have excellent transport links, rail and road, to every corner of the country; we enjoy a pleasant environment for the city—the Warwickshire countryside is second to none—and we have an enterprising population. Why therefore are we not doing better than we are? With leadership, we could be doing that little bit better and be pushing that little bit harder. To return to the issue of democracy, in Coventry we would probably be demanding—with credibility—increased powers to be able to lead the city. In recent years, the people of London have managed to get from central Government increased powers over their own local government, under both Ken and Boris. The people of Scotland and Wales have managed the same, but otherwise our local government is so weak in comparison with Whitehall and Westminster that it has been unable to get the powers that it needs to represent properly its constituencies and communities, which deserve so much.

With a mayoral system, over time, local government would get those powers. I know all the arguments about not much being on offer, but that is not how things work. When we set up the London Mayor, there were far fewer powers than now, but the Mayors have been back to the well and asked for more water, as have Scotland and Wales. Would not powerful mayors in English cities ask for exactly the same? They would, and they would be in a far better position to get it.

Mayors would be a big improvement in how cities are run and in how the country is run. Think of the benefit of powerful people from the provinces—from Bristol, from Leeds—talking to this place from outside London and saying, irrespective of party, “Oi, mate! That ain’t how it works in the real world.” They would be listened to. I am afraid that I do not know who the leader of Leeds is, or of Bristol, although I know the leader of Coventry and who the mayor of Leicester is, but if someone like me, steeped in politics, does not know who the leaders of our great cities are, that is an indication that local government is not punching its weight in our country.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is making an interesting argument about giving cities more powers. However, in London, the Mayor represents 32 local authorities, which is very different from a city such as Nottingham, which is too small to take on those extra powers. The opportunity should be on offer for city regions, rather than single local authorities.

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Mr Ainsworth: My own party played with the idea of city regions when we were in power. We thought seriously about them, and they might work in some areas. I do not come from Greater Manchester, but my impression is that that area is a real entity. If so, a metro-mayor or whatever for Greater Manchester might make a lot of sense. The west midlands, however, is not such an area. The proposition that we were toying with was a city region from Telford in the west to Coventry in the east—some 50-odd miles—which is not a real community.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cleethorpes: we should build institutions on real communities—existing, recognisable ones that people already see themselves as part of and buy into—and give them the necessary and relevant powers. Let us have some real local government, not an imposed London template; let us look from the bottom up and not from the top down. What is Coventry capable of doing on its own? Let us empower Coventry to do those things on its own, and if Birmingham is capable of a different set of things, let us empower Birmingham to do those different things. Let us stop thinking from the top and start thinking from the bottom, if we want a revival of our democracy and the potential help to our economy.

Finally, from the point of view of my own little city of Coventry, I fear that, with Leicester already having a mayor, if Birmingham has one and we do not, we will lose a relevant voice and a say. I do not want my city to be any less influential than it is—quite the reverse.

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, I remind those trying to catch my eye that I will be calling the Front Benchers from 3.40 pm.

3.8 pm

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and, in fact, to the three Cs showing the common sense at the heart of local government: Cleethorpes, Coventry and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson).

It is a great privilege to be in the Chamber today, because the debate shows why local government matters. The reason why the debate is good is that it is one of those rare occasions in the House of Commons when one feels that people know what they are talking about. Often in the Chamber of the House, I wonder where the expertise is. In Westminster Hall today, we have more than 20 years’ expertise and all the speakers are talking about something that matters to them and that they know about. That is why we should all support local government, more local government and still more local government.

The past 120 years have seen an astonishing destruction of British local government, resulting in the situation that all of us see day to day in our surgeries: the great sense of ennui. The right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) referred to the anonymity of councillors—the sense that people do not know to whom to speak. We continually encounter citizens’ frustration with the system and their terrible feeling that at any moment, some regulation, law or arbitrary directive from an anonymous and unseen official will

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get in the way of what they want. Whether it is the imposition of a supermarket on a town where nobody wants it, the imposition of a wind turbine on a valley where nobody wants it or the closure of a care home, a community hospital or a school, local communities show again and again that they are desperate to express their desires, but they have no way of doing so.

That, of course, brings local communities to their Members of Parliament, and a great thing that is for us, as Members of Parliament, because we enjoy it enormously; it takes us away from the strange, arbitrary abstractions of the House of Commons and gives us something useful and practical to do. From a selfish point of view, we are grateful that we can deal with such local issues, which are more real than the issues we deal with in the House of Commons most of the time. However, we should not be dealing with such things, which should not, ultimately, rest with the House of Commons. It would be better for us, local communities and Britain, if we located such issues with a directly elected local mayor.

That is true partly because Britain and British identity have changed. Britain is no longer obsessed with projecting national power. The fact that we are, for some bizarre reason, completely obsessed with Scandinavia —watching Danish television or looking earnestly at Finland, wondering whether its educational statistics are better than ours—shows that this country is increasingly interested with the local, not with the projection of grand power.

We are therefore interested in making things work well for our own intimate communities, and we have astonishing skills when it comes to delivering such things—skills that did not exist 120 years ago. However much we grumble about education, this country is far more deeply educated, healthy and engaged than it has ever been, and we see that in our performance at local level. Everybody in this room will see the most astonishing things being done in their local communities. In Cumbria, for example, we have seen the creation of affordable housing in Crosby Ravensworth driven entirely by the local community. We have also seen something similar on broadband, and we are now getting fibre-optic cables to the most remote valleys in the whole of England. After perhaps 1,000 hours’ work, communities are signing up 80% of the people in them for broadband, waiving wayleaves and working out how to dig the trenches for the fibre-optic cables.

However, we are not going far enough, and we could do much more. The sad truth behind a lot of these stories is that, in the absence of a local champion, things are not working as quickly or as well as they should. To take the example of broadband, officials are still telling us, despite all the work that local communities have done, that state aid regulations and procurement complications are delaying projects, so they will take 12 months longer than they need to. Communities are being slapped in the face, and despite putting in all that work and energy, they are not getting what they should at the end.

All over the world, we see models showing why local government works. We see them not just in Germany, which the right hon. Member for Coventry North East mentioned, but in France, in places such as Montpellier and Lyons. Thirty years ago those were depressing places, but under strong local leadership they are now

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splendid places. That is not because they have more money, but because the people controlling the money are located in Montpellier and Lyons, not Paris, and understand local needs and local imaginations.

We can also see these things in Scotland. Alex Salmond’s biggest mistake is to believe that his performance is an argument for independence; it is not—it is an argument in favour of decentralisation. Everything that has gone well in Scotland over the past decade has happened because of the tapping of local energies within a national context, which is the precise balance we want. We must use the strengths of a vast country and a vast economy. This country is no Denmark or Norway—it is Great Britain, and our economy is 12 times the size of those countries’. We have sterling, we have our Foreign Office and we have our Army, and within that national context, local things can be done well. That is what the Scottish National party—at its best, when it understands these things—shows locally, not through a push for independence but through a push for autonomy.

Why do we want local mayors? They will harness and tap local energy and the educated, healthy, dynamic population we have created over decades. They will be able to use local knowledge and to understand local issues. In London, I have a big problem explaining exactly what is happening with broadband in Mallerstang, in Cumbria, because it involves complicated local questions. If I take the issue to a Minister, the civil servant will whack it back and say, “No, no, it’s much more complicated than that. There are big issues about state aid and procurement.” It is difficult to get such things across. We therefore need somebody who uses local knowledge.

Finally, we need somebody who uses local trust. Elected local mayors are a way of rebuilding not just local democracy but national democracy. If we can tap the new British genius for the local, create a connection between citizens and elected local mayors and restore faith in politics at the most local level—the politics of the city-state, where every citizen confronts their representative on the street, lives through the practical problems and decisions of politics and understands the messy compromises, the courage and the idealism of politics in their market square—we have a hope of restoring faith in not only the local, but the national.

3.16 pm

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing this important debate.

I want to take part in the debate mainly because my home city of Manchester is one of the local authorities that will hold a referendum on local election day next week. I should start by laying my cards on the table and saying that I have never been a supporter of elected mayors, but if the people of Manchester vote for a mayor next week, I will not lose any sleep over it, because the issue is not massively important to me or people in Manchester. Indeed, apathy has been the big winner so far.

I certainly do not object to holding a referendum on whether local people want an elected mayor, but the nature of mayoral elections means they always end up being about personalities, rather than politics. London

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is a good example, and the debates going on at the moment clearly show that the issue is personalities, not politics. The debate is not about the merits or otherwise of the policies put forward by the two front-runners, but about whether people dislike the fact that Ken Livingstone has not paid his taxes or think that Boris Johnson should have come home early when the riots started. Transport and other issues that should be debated have fallen by the wayside while people look at the personalities of the two front-runners.

There is a question about whether we should force local authorities to have a referendum against their will, given that plenty are considering going down that route or have already gone down it. In Salford, for instance, local residents triggered a referendum, and an election is taking place next week for a mayor. That said, only 18.1% of the 171,000 eligible voters took part in the referendum. None the less, there was a comfortable majority in support of having a mayor. I rather suspect that the turnout in Manchester will be significantly higher than 18.1%, but only because the vote will be on the same day as the local elections. People will want to participate in the local election, rather than the referendum for an elected mayor, so I seriously doubt whether the higher turnout will mean there is more interest in the mayoral referendum or the idea of having an elected mayor; that will not be what pushes people to take part in next Thursday’s election. Certainly, in my experience of knocking on many doors during the election campaign of the past few weeks, I have not seen massive enthusiasm for the referendum. In fact, only one person has raised the issue with me on the doorstep, and that was someone who simply wanted to know my view. She had no particular view, and was not even sure whether she would vote in the referendum.

Lilian Greenwood: The hon. Gentleman’s experience is similar to mine. Does he think that part of the reason is, first, that the Government have not made it clear what extra powers are available, and secondly that they have not consulted local people about the geographic cover needed to reflect what the local community is, and have instead imposed a Whitehall-led model on our core cities?

Mr Leech: There are several reasons for lack of enthusiasm. I suspect that in Manchester it is partly to do with the fact that the political parties are concentrating more on the local elections than on trying to force people out to vote in the referendum. I shall come on to that, but I do not believe that we should have the referendum on the same day as the local election. I think that the crux of the problem is that we are not giving people the opportunity to debate the mayoral referendum, because there are other issues that they want to discuss. People are interested in who will be their local councillor—not in whether we shall have an elected mayor for the city of Manchester.

I understand the Government’s argument for holding the referendum on the same day as the local elections, because clearly that saves an awful lot of money.

Ms Gisela Stuart: I want to endorse what the hon. Gentleman said. It is extraordinary that when there are issues that divide political parties—whether alternative vote, or, as now, the mayor—as polling day gets closer,

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the political parties focus on getting their councillors elected, and there is no debate on the issue. With hindsight, the Minister may want to reflect that, if there are referendums that do not fall along party political lines, combining them with party political elections is not a good idea.

Mr Leech: The hon. Lady makes a fair point, and I have always argued that we should keep individual elections separate—whether local, general or European—so that we can at least try to focus people’s attention on the issues on which they are being asked to have an opinion.

If elected mayors are so worth while—enough to hold a referendum on them—should not we have ensured that we could engage in proper debate, by putting the referendums on separate days? Then the community could have a real debate on the issues, and the merits or otherwise of an elected mayor, instead of seeing it as a bit of an afterthought, which is how it is being viewed in Manchester.

Having said that I am not a fan of elected mayors, I accept that they can be successful. A lot will depend on the calibre of the candidates and the person elected. Because there will be a mayor in Salford, if Manchester votes no that will be a great opportunity for Salford, which will be the only local authority in the area with a mayor. That mayor will be able to raise Salford’s profile. I mean no disrespect to Salford, but it has for many years played second fiddle to Manchester, which is seen as the big city. The danger is that if Manchester votes yes, and we end up with a Manchester mayor, the Salford mayor will become peripheral to the Manchester mayor, who may be a famous person or celebrity, or a high-profile politician, and seem significantly more important than the mayor of Salford. I stress that I am not trying to show disrespect to Salford, but generally Manchester has a high profile and Salford does not.

In my view, if Manchester is going to hold a referendum on a mayor, it would be better if the question was on a mayor for Greater Manchester—a point that was made by the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). There are two reasons for that: first, it would have fitted far better into the model of the joint authority between the 10 Manchester local authorities; secondly, it would have avoided the prospect of a Manchester mayor trumping the mayor of any other local authority and being seen as more significant than the mayors of other local authorities. In future, if we are to have mayors, we should consider the most appropriate area that should be covered. We should not think of basic, single local authorities, but consider what would be best for the area. In Manchester that would probably be Greater Manchester; in the Coventry area it would be Coventry; but it would be different in different parts of the country, depending on the make-up of local authorities.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. There are two hon. Members who want to catch my eye, and 15 minutes left. I hope that they will bear that in mind when they take interventions.

3.26 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I shall concentrate on points that have not been covered yet in the debate, Mrs Main.

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Anyone who visits my constituency will see a large, red brick clock tower, affectionately referred to as Old Joe, which is a reference to Joe Chamberlain, who was said to make the weather. That was a reference to the fact that he was, in the 1870s, a ceremonial mayor, but turned himself within three years into the effective Prime Minister of Birmingham. Any decent mayor will make the weather and take on powers, rather than use what central Government give. However, a word of caution is needed: if powers are given without resources, those concerned may acquire responsibilities that they cannot fulfil, enabling central Government to wash their hands of things for which they would rather not take responsibility.

I urge the Minister to think about that, even if the result in the referendum is much worse than he expects. I have been talking to people on the phone: when I first saw the question I thought it was extremely favourable—but then there is the question of how it appears cold, on the ballot paper, without any real debate. The majority of people know that there is a lord mayor; when the ballot uses the term “mayor” they think, “Is this a different mayor?” and cannot work out what the difference is. We talk about civic mayors, and Ken, and they say, “What is it, then?” We may not get as good an outcome as hoped, and I hope that at that moment the Minister will use the rather nice “get out of jail” card from the Localism Act 2011—the reference to other qualifying authorities, which I assume means that there can be devolution of power to local authorities even if they do not choose to have a directly elected mayor.

The Minister must face up to something very uncomfortable. When, in 1997, the Labour Government started devolving power, it did a good job in dealing with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; but because there was deep division in the Labour Government about whether we wanted regional government or city regions, and we went down the regional government route, which the people, unfortunately, did not particularly like—and given, also, that we have devolved power to London—how we devolve power in England is a big unresolved constitutional issue. It must be dealt with in the context of the outcome of the mayoral elections.

The Minister’s task is not made easier by a measure that I hope we shall somehow manage to lose in the next 12 months—the perpetual review of constituency boundaries. At the moment the Birmingham constituency boundaries are concurrent with those of the city of Birmingham. We have 10 MPs and 40 councillors within those boundaries. If the boundary review goes through we shall be all over the place. I shall have bits of Old Warley; bits of Birmingham will be across the M5; Solihull will come in. A city mayor’s area will not even be concurrent with those of his or her councillors or MPs. That is pretty barking—and that will happen after every general election, so there will be no continuity. Therefore, if we genuinely want to devolve power to units that mean something, we will have to consider the size of cities. The problem is that Birmingham is too big. If we were London, we would be three or four boroughs. Rather than having the local government function of overcoming Whitehall, we neatly duplicate them and perpetuate the problem. Our wards are larger than anywhere else in Europe. Multi-councillor wards have 20,000 electors, so they are not big enough to be strategic, but are far too big to be local. The process of

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having one third up for election every four years with a fallow year, people’s relationship with their councillor, and the large size of councils is not good for localism.

First, I suggest that the Minister consider not holding future referendums on the same day as other elections, because doing so does not allow for proper debate. Secondly, we must knock on the head the notion that so-called independents are the answer. Independents are candidates who cannot rely on local party workers who provide us with a low-cost election machinery. If we want independents and a fair playing field, we must talk about costs, but we do not want to go there either.

Thirdly, if after the elections not enough cities take the opportunity—we do need to devolve power—we must look at the whole of England and the constituencies to see what powers are appropriate. A key one—we will look to the Minister to see what the Government do—is what we do to devolve responsibility and money allocated in relation to public health. If the Government are serious, serious amounts of money must be devolved. If they are not, and if the idea is just a fig leaf, we will not have a proper debate. We must also consider local units. I would expect Birmingham, which for the first time in many years is facing up to deciding what it stands for and what it is, to look at the way it is governed, and the size of its wards, as well as the devolution process to find natural communities.

Elected mayors are good. We have seen them work on the continent. They will be successful only if they work in units that people can relate to. Power must be devolved sufficiently, so that it is meaningful to local people; otherwise, the electorate will see it as a self-indulgent process, when they are far more concerned about how to pay their bills and whether they will still have a job tomorrow.