There is a splendid exhibition of the papers and about Turing more generally at Bletchley Park. Putting on my “tourist information” hat, I encourage Members to visit. If they go to the constituency of my hon. Friend to look at the King’s college library, they can

27 Jun 2012 : Column 116WH

quickly pop over to Milton Keynes to visit Bletchley Park. When we get our east-west rail link, they will be able to do so in double-quick time, but that is another matter.

I want to remind the House about the significance of the work that Turing did at Bletchley Park with his code-breaking team. The German Enigma codes were the backbone of the German military intelligence system. It was thought that they were unbreakable. The odds against anyone who did not know the settings for the Enigma machines cracking the codes were 150 million million million to one, but Turing managed it through his own brilliance, that of his team and his construction of the Turing bombe, the machine that helped to speed up the deciphering process and that substantially reduced the odds against breaking the codes.

It is well documented and argued by historians that Turing’s work in cracking the Enigma codes, and thus understanding German military movements, certainly shortened the war by up to two years. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the outcome of the war might have been very different if that information had not been gathered. How many lives did that information save, both among the armed forces—Army, Air Force and Navy people in combat—and among the citizens in British cities that were being bombed? For all the people who were butchered in the Nazi extermination camps, how many more hundreds of thousands of people would have perished if the war had been lengthened or the Germans had won? That is the significance of Alan Turing’s work. He was a hero and it is absolutely right that we pay tribute to his work.

My hon. Friend has said that there are conferences up and down the country in honour of Turing; there is one at Bletchley Park this weekend. There are statues and parks named after him, and scientific buildings may be renamed after him. All these things can be done.

I also want to echo the campaign to have Turing recognised on the new £10 note. I know that it is not quite within the Minister’s gift to do that, but I want to put my support for that campaign on the record. There is an e-petition in support of the campaign and I understand that it has more than 16,000 signatures at the moment; even more may have been added since I last looked, but 16,000 is itself a substantial number.

As well as being a very visual commemoration of Turing and his achievements, putting his image on a bank note would be quite a neat way to pay tribute to him. That is because modern bank notes are designed in such a way that they cannot be forged; their code has to be unbreakable. It would be very neat that a code-breaker should lend his face to a bank note. It might be a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, but it would be a neat way of paying tribute.

As my hon. Friend also mentioned, the biggest thing that we can do as a country to honour Turing’s name and his achievements is to clear his name of the so-called “crime” for which he was convicted. I echo the praise for the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), for giving an apology to Turing; that was absolutely the right thing to do. But it was only a step in the right direction. There is certainly an appetite among the public to do more. There is another e-petition to clear Turing’s name, which at the last count had more than 35,000 signatures.

27 Jun 2012 : Column 117WH

Since raising this matter in the House on a number of occasions, I have received many letters and e-mails, from people locally and across the country, expressing support for clearing Turing’s name. I have not received one letter or representation saying that his name should not be cleared. If the House will indulge me for a minute, I will read out a small paragraph from one of the letters that I received, from a couple—Mary and Alan Preen. They wrote:

“At one of the most difficult times in this country’s history, Alan Turing did not shirk or fail his country when asked to serve. However, the same cannot be said of his country, for at the hour of Turing’s need we failed him totally. We are utterly ashamed of the attitude and actions of our country to hound a hero of the free world to his death.”

That is very profound and absolutely right, and most of the other letters that I have received about Turing have expressed similar sentiments.

I have raised the issue of a pardon for Turing or clearing his name in some way in the House on a number of occasions. Thus far, it has been resisted by the Government, on two grounds: first, that it would create a precedent in law; and secondly, that however much we now dislike the reason for which he was convicted, it was according to the law of the land at the time, he was fairly tried and there was no accusation of a mistrial or anything like that. I understand those arguments, but I do not accept them. I will make three points briefly to explain why.

First, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the Government have made welcome steps in this area, through the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, whereby a person who has been convicted of or received a caution for an offence under section 22 or section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, or earlier corresponding Acts, can apply to have that conviction or caution disregarded. That is absolutely right, and I would argue that it is a logical step to extend that legislation and allow it to be applied posthumously.

Secondly, there is precedent for taking steps to clear the names of people who have been convicted in the past. In 2006, more than 300 soldiers who were shot for military offences in world war one received a group pardon. I do not want to debate today whether the proposed pardon for Turing should apply to all people posthumously who were convicted of a similar crime; that is a debate for another occasion. But the fact that a wrong done to those who were serving their country has been righted surely creates a precedent for pardoning Alan Turing.

Thirdly and finally, and I hope the House will forgive me for making this point, even if there is a fear about setting a legal precedent, surely it is not beyond our ingenuity to create some law that clears Alan Turing’s name, and his only. If the fear of setting a legal precedent is a real and genuine one, surely our collective wisdom can overcome it. I am not a lawyer, but there are many lawyers in Parliament; my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), who is sitting very close by in Westminster Hall today, is a lawyer. Surely he and his legal colleagues could devise some wording in law to clear Alan Turing’s name.

27 Jun 2012 : Column 118WH

I also want to point out that in the other place Lord Sharkey is preparing a Bill on this issue. I wish him every success in getting it through and if it proceeds to the Commons, I will certainly heartily support it. I urge the Government at least to find the time so that his Bill may be fully debated in both Houses. That is within the Government’s gift, and it would give Parliament a chance to express its view on this matter.

The debate about clearing Alan Turing’s name will go on, but for now I will conclude by remembering and paying tribute to his life and work. He was a national hero; he saved thousands, if not millions, of lives; and he pioneered the computing age, on which we all now rely.

3.8 pm

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I begin by adding my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this important debate at this particular time, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth. The level of detail about Alan Turing’s life that he went into suggests to me that schools could do worse than look at today’s Hansard and use it as a history lesson on the life of one of our greatest ever scientists.

I also pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Sharkey, for his work in the other place, and to my colleague on the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who has done an awful lot and was trying to push the debate as well. I should pay tribute, too, to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who did an awful lot in his time as leader of Manchester city council to push the case of Alan Turing.

Interestingly, at a 100th birthday celebration at the weekend, the lord mayor, who lives close to the road that was renamed Alan Turing way when the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton was council leader, recalled that, when it was renamed, many people in the area asked, “Who is Alan Turing?” Over time, however, the simple fact of renaming it meant people got to know about him. We may think that something is trivial and does not matter; but just renaming a road led to many Mancunians getting to know much more about Alan Turing and his life.

My final tribute is to Andy, in my office, who has done hours of work on the subject of pushing for a pardon or disregarded conviction. Often we do not give credit to the people who work for us and do research behind the scenes, in this place or our constituency offices.

I first got involved in the campaign in the previous Session, when I was contacted to support the e-petition calling for a pardon for Alan Turing, submitted by William Jones in Manchester in November. In the first two months, the petition got more than 20,000 signatures, and I agreed to take up the issue in Parliament, tabling an early-day motion. In February the campaign went to the Lords, when Lord Sharkey questioned the Minister about whether Alan Turing would be pardoned. He was informed that it would be inappropriate, because Alan Turing was fairly convicted under the laws of the time. Further parliamentary questions uncovered the fact that more than 75,000 people were convicted under the same laws between 1894 and 2004.

27 Jun 2012 : Column 119WH

A pardon is the forgiveness of a crime and the cancellation of the relevant penalty. It does not mean that the conviction is quashed. I understand that two conditions are needed for a pardon: moral innocence and legal innocence. The view of the Government has been that since Turing was fairly convicted of what was a crime at the time, legal innocence cannot be justified.

Having failed to persuade the Government to issue a pardon, we considered the possibility of getting justice for Alan Turing through a disregarded conviction. That is probably what most people think of as a pardon, because it wipes the slate clean. It means that the records are changed, so that it is as though the person did not commit the offence, and was not charged, prosecuted or sentenced.

The original campaign was for a pardon, but actually a disregarded conviction would be better. That might have been possible—and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South talked about this—through amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. However, it proved impossible, partly because the slow workings of Government meant that we were unable to get agreement, with i’s dotted and t’s crossed, to including it in existing measures.

We have not given up. There are plans, as my hon. Friend mentioned, to introduce a private Member’s Bill in the Lords. I understand that that is due to be presented in the next few days, and we hope to get Government support for it. In the meantime, in the Commons, I have submitted a further early-day motion in this Session, to commemorate Turing’s birth 100 years ago:

“That this House commemorates Alan Turing on his birthday, 23 June, for his many mathematical and scientific breakthroughs including the vital contribution he made to Britain's war effort by inventing the machine that broke the Enigma code; regrets that following his years of national service, he received a criminal conviction for having a sexual relationship with another man; deplores the fact that he was forced to take oestrogen therapy or be sent to prison if he did not comply; expresses profound sorrow that he went on to take his own life on 8 June 1954 at the age of just 41 years; recognises that so far over 34,000 people have signed the e-petition on the 10 Downing Street website calling for Alan Turing to be pardoned; calls therefore for a posthumous or disregarded conviction to be granted; and acknowledges the huge and unnecessary suffering that he and so many other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have had to endure.”

I hope that colleagues on both sides of the House will support the motion—in spirit if not by signing it, if they do not or cannot sign EDMs. I hope that the motion will help to ensure that in 2012 we can put right the wrong that was done. That is very long overdue.

3.15 pm

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this important debate, which provides us with a forum in which to consider the past, draw lessons for the future, and, most importantly, pay tribute to one of the world’s finest minds.

For eight years, I served as a councillor for the ward of Little Venice in the city of Westminster. In that capacity, albeit in a small way, I was first able to pay tribute to the remarkable work and life of Alan Turing. On 23 June 1998, I was involved in the unveiling ceremony

27 Jun 2012 : Column 120WH

of a blue plaque on the Colonnade hotel in London, just off Warwick avenue, which denotes the house where Turing was born.

That day, appropriately, marked the 50th anniversary of the world’s first working computer, which ran in Manchester on 21 June 1948. Having undertaken a reasonable amount of research, I was stunned to learn that at the tender age of 22, while at King’s college Cambridge, Turing had developed a hypothetical mathematical device, which is commonly referred to as the Turing machine. His calculations, in turn, provided the foundation for modern computer science. His genius is unquestionable, and one can only speculate about what more, in the absence of bigotry and prejudice, that great man might have gone on to achieve.

On the day after the ceremony, 22 June 1998, the House of Commons voted to equalise the age of consent at 16. The modest ceremony at a central London hotel to mark Turing’s life and scientific prowess occurred virtually in tandem with cross-party efforts to ensure equality before the law, and equality of esteem. I hope that those two events will serve as a reminder that, whatever our political differences, we can and should agree that councils, Parliaments and Governments must seek to liberate talents and never oppress them.

In his maiden speech in June 2010, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) rightly paid tribute to the extraordinary work of Turing and the teams of code breakers at Bletchley Park, in his constituency. He did so again today, with great eloquence. It is not an overstatement to assert that the efforts and expertise engaged in cracking the German Enigma code fundamentally changed the duration, and possibly even the outcome, of the second world war.

My hon. Friend also welcomed the national apology from the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), which sought to

“right the wrong against the brilliant code breaker and mathematician”. —[Official Report, 17 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 1082.]

In 1952, as we all know, Turing was convicted of gross indecency. The courts presented him with a terrible choice: imprisonment or probation with awful conditions attached. The conviction was also to bring about a lifetime restriction on Turing. Post-war, he had an extremely high level of security clearance, as he continued to work for the Government and their agencies. The conviction was to prohibit him from working for the Government—effectively, for our country—ever again.

To avoid prison, and no doubt with the desire to continue some of his work, Turing chose probation. The probation was, however, conditional on his subjection to a course of hormonal treatments that were designed to reduce libido. He underwent a chemical castration via oestrogen hormone injections, and within two years he was dead. On 12 June 1954, he was cremated at Woking crematorium in my constituency. What a terrible waste. What a ghastly last two years, in the life of a man who had given so much to this country.

We have had a fitting debate to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, godfather of computer science and pioneer of artificial intelligence, whose wartime efforts at Bletchley Park were responsible for saving countless lives. He is a national hero. He

27 Jun 2012 : Column 121WH

deserves to be in the pantheon of national heroes. I regard it a great honour to add my voice, again, to the tributes that we have all paid him.

3.21 pm

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing the debate. I hope that Members will bear with my voice; I am a little croaky this afternoon.

The hon. Gentleman gave a very good overview of the life and work of Alan Turing, including the infamous and famous Turing test, which we all love when we log on to websites and have to type the characters. It is a nice testimony to Alan Turing that every part of our lives these days is touched by his influence. We also heard very good contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) and the hon. Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and for Woking (Jonathan Lord).

The word “genius” is overused—it is a little clichéd, as is “hero”. Nevertheless, it is correct to use them when talking about Alan Turing, and the millions of lives that have been saved as a result of his work. Sadly, the state’s behaviour towards him is, to say the least, shameful and needs to be put right.

I first came across Alan Turing’s work when, many years ago, I moved to a place called Milton Keynes—more specifically, to Bletchley—to take up a job with the Inland Revenue. Every morning, I walked past this huge expanse of an estate, with a high fence around it. It all seemed very strange. Curiosity being what it is, I started to inquire about what the place, Bletchley Park, was and, as Members will know, once one starts to inquire about such places, one soon develops a bookshelf lined with every book going on the subject—code breakers, Enigma and so on. It is a fascinating story, and a testimony to the incredible work done by many people, but especially by Alan Turing.

We have heard that the mission to decrypt the coded messages from the Enigma—the German military typewriter-like cipher machine—was hugely important. Turing had the ability to pit machine against machine. He produced the prototype anti-Enigma bombe, which he called Victory—I think that began in the spring of 1940—and the bombe machines effectively turned Bletchley Park into a cipher-breaking factory.

As early as 1943, Turing’s machines were cracking an estimated 84,000 Enigma messages each month—two a minute. No wonder the Prime Minister of the day called the information that came from them, “ultra”. It was ultra-important and, as I shall explain, ultra-significant.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I apologise for joining the debate late. I want to mention Alan Turing’s partner, Tommy Flowers, who made a massive contribution to the Enigma work. He was a General Post Office engineer, who put electronics into telephone exchanges. I had the privilege of meeting him in the last year of his life. We were trying to get him an honour, but he died too soon. He was the person who used the electronics

27 Jun 2012 : Column 122WH

and the valves. I give all credit to Alan Turing, genius that he was, but the beginning of computing would not have happened without Tommy Flowers either.

Robert Flello: I was going to mention the Colossus machine that Tommy Flowers worked on, and I will come on to it in a moment.

Turing personally broke the form of Enigma used by the U-boats that were preying on the crucial north Atlantic merchant convoys, which were full of essential supplies for Britain. Churchill’s analysts stated that Britain would soon be starving if the supplies could not get through. Turing also searched for a way to break into the torrent of messages suddenly emanating from a new, and much more sophisticated, German cipher machine. The British code-named the new machine “Tunny”, and many people have said that the Tunny teleprinter was the forerunner of the mobile phone networks that we all enjoy today.

It is probably worth pausing here. The computing power of the mobile phones that many of us have on silent in our pockets or squirreled away somewhere, is much more advanced than that of the machinery that Alan Turing, and indeed Tommy Flowers, were putting together. Even more remarkable is the fact that the likes of Tommy Flowers used GPO telephony valves, wiring and systems deliberately because they did not want to draw attention to the fact that they were building the code-breaking machines. They were constrained, therefore, because they had to base their work on the sort of equipment that was available in any telephone operating system, and that is testimony to the importance of what they did.

Turing’s breakthrough in 1942 yielded the first systematic method for cracking the “Tunny” messages, which enabled the allies to get detailed knowledge of the German strategy—and that, without doubt, changed the course of the war. It was also the seed for the sophisticated Tunny-cracking algorithms that were incorporated into Tommy Flowers’s Colossus, which was the first large-scale electronic computer. With the installation of 10 Colossus machines by the end of the war, Bletchley Park became the world’s first electronic computer facility.

Turing’s work on Tunny was the third of three strokes of genius that he contributed to the attack on Germany’s codes, along with designing the bombe and unravelling the U-boat Enigma. It has been argued that his work shortened the war by not up to two years, but anything up to four. If Turing and his group had not weakened the U-boats’ hold on the north Atlantic, the D-day landings could have been delayed by a year or longer, because the north Atlantic was the route that ammunition, fuel, food and troops had to travel to reach Britain from America.

Any such delay, of course, would have put Hitler in a stronger position to withstand the allied assault. Fortifications along the French coastline would no doubt have been stronger, Panzer armies would have been moved into place, more V2 missiles would have rained down on southern England, and on the ports and airfields, thereby supporting the invading troops. Each year of fighting in Europe is estimated to have cost an average of 7 million lives, so it would not be far off the mark to quantify Turing’s contribution as 21 million lives saved. That gives an indication of the magnitude of his work.

27 Jun 2012 : Column 123WH

The hon. Member for Cambridge helpfully detailed the post-war work that Alan Turing did, and I will not delay Members by rehearsing it, but it does bring me on to the appalling circumstances of his arrest, prosecution and sentencing. One has to take stock and question why a man who had done so much to save lives—possibly 21 million, perhaps more—was treated in such a way. When one reads the books, it feels like an underhand way of investigating Alan’s life. Reading them, despite the benefit of history, I started to wonder why he was treated in such a way.

As has been mentioned, the former Prime Minister officially apologised in 2009 for how Alan Turing had been treated—I draw right hon. and hon. Members’ attention to that apology; it is worth looking at—but the campaign has rightly continued since then. Numerous commemorations and international events have been held throughout the centenary year. The Google doodle was mentioned, Royal Mail has issued a commemorative stamp and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) drew attention to the work done with Manchester city council involving the Olympic torch and so on. Many events have taken place to recognise the fantastic work done by Alan Turing.

However, we are always brought back to the cul-de-sac that is the 1952 conviction. Hon. Members have given it a lot of thought, and work is going on in the other place on a private Member’s Bill. On legal precedent, are we as a Parliament not about setting legal precedent? Is that not our job? Is it not what we do every day in this place? We come up with new laws, improve laws, change laws and, where they are wrong, correct them. The posthumous conditional pardon in November 2006 of the soldiers shot at dawn was the right thing to do. It was absolutely correct. I am sure that even if that does not set a precedent, it might give us a clue about how to get around the issue.

I hope that Lord Sharkey’s Bill in the other place will find its way through Government time to be considered. I also hope that when the Minister replies, he will confirm that when a private Member’s Bill comes forward in this House, it will be looked on favourably by the Government. I certainly hope so. Whatever we do after this debate, one thing is certain: we must find a way to recognise and in some way pardon Alan Turing for what happened, so that we can hold him up as the hero he was.

3.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this wholly appropriate debate during the centenary of one of the greatest Britons. I apologise if I cover a little of the same ground about Turing’s achievements. Such is their scale that, like my hon. Friend, I will be giving only headlines in the time available. I am also grateful to Alan Turing’s biographer, Andrew Hodges, for helping my officials and me to get it right. Any mistakes will be entirely mine.

The perspective of history can be a wonderful thing. Decades later, the profound legacy of a brilliant and original mind largely unknown to his contemporaries can be referenced by the President of the United States

27 Jun 2012 : Column 124WH

in Westminster Hall, as Alan Turing was by President Obama last year. Year by year, our understanding grows of how important his contribution has been to our society. It is an astonishing legacy of global importance. One can only feel awe at the brilliance of his intellect and admiration for the magnitude of his achievements. They throw into the sharpest relief the appalling way he was treated by his own contemporary society, a fate he shared with tens of thousands of other gay men of his era. However, the shame, anger and embarrassment properly felt by today’s society at the extreme contrast between his service and his oppression, recorded in the previous Prime Minister’s unprecedented formal apology, still leaves us wanting to find ways to atone and to recognise his awesome achievements. A number of hon. Members have expressed their desire to do so in different ways. I was delighted to learn that the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) has been able to do so by naming Alan Turing way. I am delighted that when the opportunity presented itself, it was Alan Turing whom he chose to honour.

Turing was one of the top mathematical minds of all time. He successfully applied his mathematical genius to numerous other scientific disciplines while throwing in the unique ability to combine successful practical application with brilliant theoretical understanding. Turing was a fellow of King’s college, Cambridge in 1935, and his time at Princeton from 1936 to 1938 has been appreciated properly by our American cousins. His 1936 paper invented the concept of the universal machine, which underpins the computing revolution. Turing’s success in America makes all the more impressive his decision to return to England in 1938. He understood the threat that his country faced and, critically, the contribution that he could make to our defence through encryption and code-breaking.

From 1939 to 1944, Turing was almost totally engaged in the mastery of the German enciphering machine Enigma and other cryptological investigations at Bletchley Park. Turing made a unique logical contribution to the decryption of Enigma and became the chief scientific figure, with a particular responsibility for reading U-boat communications. Turing’s contribution was undoubtedly crucial. I endorse the analysis of his importance made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart); the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) made similar points. I do not demur from any of them.

In March 1944, Turing’s principal focus moved to encryption and voice scrambling with the Foreign Office at Hanslope Park, enabling secure communications between the Heads of Government directing the war. That work contributed directly to his development of electronic computing at the National Physical Laboratory and the university of Manchester, including the design of the Pilot ACE, the first modern computer in this country, delivered in parallel with computer development in the United States.

In his free time, Turing became a notable marathon runner, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge mentioned. But for an injury, he would probably have been invited to be a member of the British team for the London-based Olympics in 1948. His personal time of two hours and 46 minutes was barely 11 minutes slower than that of that year’s gold medallist. That rather lesser-known achievement is particularly apposite, as

27 Jun 2012 : Column 125WH

we are holding this debate in a year when the Olympics return to London for the first time since 1948.

Alan Turing continued to serve his country at what had become GCHQ, but after his conviction for gross indecency, he was categorised as a security risk and excluded from doing the nationally important work that must have given him great satisfaction. It is difficult to imagine the devastation that he would have experienced as his country switched from seeing him as a profound national asset to seeing him as a serious liability. By today’s standards, the security policy applied to Alan Turing seems criminally stupid, but in the atmosphere of the time—there was the defection of Maclean and Burgess, and the McCarthy witch hunts in the United States of America—it was tragically unexceptional. The atmosphere in both countries is relevant, as Turing had been an emissary to the United States in November 1942, possibly charged with assisting the Americans to address their cipher challenges and the U-boat menace then threatening their coastline. He was probably also involved in the security of transatlantic communications between Roosevelt and Churchill. That Britain possessed such impressive skills was due not least to Turing’s own efforts. Given that such extraordinary abilities existed in one man, one can but imagine the hysterics of the security apparat on both sides of the Atlantic, reinforced by the profound, ignorant and accepted commonplace prejudice of the time.

In what were to prove the final years of his life, Alan Turing used his understanding of mathematics and interest in process to develop a new and ground-breaking theory, the mathematical theory of morphogenesis: the theory of growth and form in biology. His writing on this, published in 1951, is regarded as the founding paper of modern non-linear dynamical theory. My hon. Friend might have been able to elucidate that if he had the time, but I am certainly not able to do so. Some of the theories the publication contained about the occurrence of the Fibonacci sequence in sunflowers are now being tested on a huge scale in the Manchester Turing sunflower project.

Alan Turing’s achievements have rightly earned him the description of the father of computing and artificial intelligence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South and others have said, we have no way of knowing what further advances he might have made had his life not been cut short. His achievements make him utterly unique and, as such, he warrants singling out in the way that we are doing in this debate.

That his exceptional public service should have been rewarded with what appears to us to be a grotesquely unjust conviction for gross indecency has led to the question of whether our sympathy should take the form of a retrospective, posthumous pardon. I will discuss that in more detail in a moment.

That the then offence was in private, consensual and revealed to the police by Turing himself, who had been a victim of real crime, reinforces the appalling unfairness he suffered. The only victim of Turing’s “crime” was Turing himself. The first point is that the law has been changed—indeed, it was first changed 45 years ago—but the conduct that led to Alan Turing’s conviction was only deemed to no longer be an offence after Edwina

27 Jun 2012 : Column 126WH

Currie’s amendment became law in 1994. When Alan Turing was arrested, he is said to have stated that he expected a

“Royal Commission to legalise it”.

It has taken a very long time. Progress over the past two decades has been immense, but more remains to be done.

In fulfilment of our coalition agreement, the Government introduced the disregard provisions in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. They are designed to let individuals get on with their lives, free from having to disclose convictions for homosexual activity where it was consensual and the other person was over 16. There are certain other circumstances in which convictions for those offences have to be disclosed under vetting checks, even though the activity is no longer a criminal offence. The Act allows individuals who have such convictions or cautions to apply to the Home Office for them to be disregarded, thus removing their practical effects from their lives and allowing them to move forward without the burden that the records currently impose.

The provisions are specifically designed to give practical assistance to the living, whose daily lives and, indeed, employment prospects may be affected by the record of a conviction on the police national computer. Extending them to the deceased would be impractical and serve no purpose. In truth, we could be looking for records going back to the 1800s. In many cases, those records may not be held, or may not provide enough information to make sure that the person in question would qualify for a disregard. There is also the question of the impact that disregarding posthumous convictions would have. It would be an attempt to rewrite history. Would it involve changing officially held records? Should we destroy historical evidence of the unjust suffering that many underwent, which would hinder academic research? Those concerns apply to a general pardon of all those, living and dead, who have such convictions. That is why the Government followed the path of a disregard in the Protection of Freedoms Act.

That brings us to the question of a pardon, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge and addressed in detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech). Free pardons under the royal prerogative of mercy were formerly the usual means of recognising that there had been a miscarriage of justice and that the convicted person was innocent. Over the past century, however, developments in legislative avenues of appeal have significantly reduced the need to resort to the royal prerogative. Generally, applicants or, in the case of the deceased, their families, have the right to appeal to the relevant appeal court and can also ask the Criminal Cases Review Commission to review their case. The grant of pardons under the royal prerogative is now extremely rare.

It is the long-standing policy not to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy where a person was correctly convicted under the laws that existed at the time. The applicant must be technically and morally innocent, as my hon. Friend has said. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South has said that we should clear Alan Turing’s name. A pardon under the royal prerogative of mercy would not actually affect Alan Turing’s conviction; only a court can quash a conviction and, in that sense, clear someone’s name.

27 Jun 2012 : Column 127WH

Much as we now feel it outrageous that Alan Turing’s behaviour was treated as a criminal offence, he was guilty of the contemporary offence. To grant him a pardon under the royal prerogative would change the basis on which such pardons are normally given.

If Alan Turing were pardoned, there would be tens of thousands of other people in respect of whom demands for like treatment could be made. Those persons could include about 16,000 living individuals with convictions for homosexuality, and many times that number of deceased victims. The living can benefit from the Home Office’s recent disregard provisions, but both they and the families of those who are deceased, or others on their behalf, could seek a pardon, too.

Mr Leech: Has the Department made any assessment of how many family members might apply for a pardon for their deceased relatives?

Mr Blunt: The Department’s problem is that it is extremely difficult to make a sensible analysis that could be relied on. The living can apply to have their convictions disregarded, but I would think that more than 100,000 people have been convicted of these crimes over two centuries, so the potential scale of applications is enormous.

There is also the question of justice. The sex offences of which Alan Turing was convicted are still capable of being offences in certain circumstances where the other party was under age or the sex was non-consensual. In such circumstances, a pardon would be not only inappropriate, but wrong. The records for some older cases would no longer be available, and the way such offences were recorded would make it difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether a pardon was in fact justified. It is to avoid that problem that the Government have gone down the route of a disregard by application.

It is also worth noting that the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy has changed over time. Centuries ago it was exercised by the monarch in an unfettered way. In modern times, however, the exercise of the prerogative is not exercised by Her Majesty personally but on the advice and recommendation of a Secretary of State, and it is therefore subject to judicial oversight. Whenever someone makes qualitative judgments on such issues, the prospect of review of the reasonableness of a decision is opened up.

Robert Flello: I appreciate that the Minister is in a difficult position. The advice he received from his officials will have gone through the reasons why it is difficult to follow the routes proposed, but I wonder—I put this to the Minister in a genuine spirit of finding a way through—whether he could instruct his officials to find an alternative way to reach the same conclusion. Turning the issue on

27 Jun 2012 : Column 128WH

its head, perhaps the Minister will consider, at a later date, talking to his officials to ask them to find an alternative route.

Mr Blunt: It may come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman, but Ministers in the Ministry of Justice and a number of other senior Ministers in the Government have given their personal attention to the issue. We share exactly the same desire of every hon. Member present to find a way of making atonement and recognising the unique and singular achievements of Alan Turing. The formula that the previous Administration alighted on was the formal apology from the Prime Minister. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South himself remarked, it is for Parliament to set legal precedent, and opportunities for Members of Parliament in either House to take their own measures were alluded to.

I am trying to make clear to the House the issues that every Administration have had to wrestle with, and the possible consequences of different courses of action. I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members present that the matter has received the closest possible attention from Ministers and officials; it continues to do so and will continue to do so in the light of the debate today and the contributions of hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South drew the parallel with the Armed Forces Act 2006, which pardoned a group of first world war servicemen, but that was itself a carefully considered response to an unusual situation. The legislation expressly leaves conviction and sentence unaffected, and specifically states that the prerogative of mercy is not affected.

It has been a privilege for me to reply on behalf of the Government in the debate. It has been of particular importance to me, because my mother served at Bletchley Park during the war. When she finally felt able to speak of her work—like everyone else of her generation, she took her duty of secrecy seriously, and it was only when watching documentaries on Bletchley Park on television that she felt that she might be able to share with her family some of her own experiences—she bore first-hand testimony to me and other members of my family of Alan Turing’s importance. The truth is, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South and my hon. Friend made clear, that everyone in the Chamber and in this country owes Alan Turing a profound debt of gratitude for our political freedom. In my case, that debt is personal, albeit indirectly.

The debate has been an excellent way in which to pay tribute to the great Alan Turing on his centenary. All of us want to find more ways of marking his enormous achievement and service to our country and of continuing to atone for the disgraceful way in which the society of the time treated him.

3.53 pm

Sitting suspended.

27 Jun 2012 : Column 129WH

Lineside Vegetation (Network Rail Policy)

4.25 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I am pleased to have an extra few minutes for this debate, Mr Betts. A number of colleagues have contacted me who wanted to raise local matters, either through interventions or short contributions. I assume that that is in order.

I was very pleased to have secured this debate. I applied for it because I represent Islington North, an inner city constituency that has very little open space and parkland—so we value what we do have very much indeed. Network Rail runs a number of services through the constituency, both on the north London line and the mainline from King’s Cross to Edinburgh; it is that line that I want to speak about.

A couple of weeks ago, Network Rail arrived to do what was basically some lineside vegetation maintenance work. That work, however, turned out to be quite considerable. Network Rail clear-felled and completely cleared a considerable area of lineside vegetation, including cutting down trees that had nesting birds in them. Rather ominously, the workers also had large supplies of cement and concrete with them. It was not clear what they were for.

The area of track is adjacent to the Emirates stadium and very near to one of our prized local possessions, the Gillespie park nature reserve and ecology centre, which was the result of an effective campaign 20 years ago to have the area made into a park. Local residents were annoyed and alarmed about the work for a number of reasons. First, they value their open space, the vegetation and the ecology of the area. Secondly, they were astonished at the pervasive work that was being carried out. They contacted Network Rail, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Islington borough council and me. I have to say, in praise of them, that they all worked very well together. Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green councillors and local activists held a small demonstration outside Network Rail headquarters. Eventually, after an intervention by the local authority—the police were also fully informed—Network Rail ceased doing its work.

The reason why I was concerned about the work is that London, like all major cities, has limited numbers of open spaces. We value our open spaces. We also value the ecological diversity of our city and of the United Kingdom. Railways—and there are 2,000 hectares of railway land in London—represent a very important source of biodiversity. They are a very important means by which migratory birds, animals, foxes and others travel in and out of the city, enhancing the general ecology for all of us.

If we plant a tree, it is a good thing, but a tree on its own has a rather limited benefit. Two trees together have a much greater benefit, and a string of trees form the possibility of a migratory route. Railways form that migratory route. Clearing that piece of land and breaking up that route is damaging to the ecology not just of the immediate neighbourhood but of London as a whole.

I hope that Network Rail understands that. I hope that it will also understand that we are all responsible citizens who use the railways and want them to be run safely. I recognise that leaves on the line, overhanging branches and all such vegetative growth can be damaging to the railway system and must be controlled, but that

27 Jun 2012 : Column 130WH

control is meant for the area immediately adjacent to the lines, not way back on the embankments. In fact, railway embankments are made more stable by the vegetation on them, and less so if they are cleared.

I wrote to Network Rail concerning the local issue. I shall quote from my own letter to the community relations adviser:

“I have today received rather alarming reports of works by Network Rail around the tracks by Ashburton Triangle, close to the Emirates Stadium. I am told that trees and other vegetation have been stripped, displacing insects, small mammals and nesting birds. This operation appears to be similar to the destruction that took place on the Drayton Park sidings last July.

I should not need to remind Network Rail that these strips of land provide a vital wildlife corridor linking the Borough’s few green spaces—

I cite some of them, before continuing:

“Whilst I appreciate that Network Rail has to manage rail sidings and needs access points to the tracks, I consider such wanton devastation without reference to the local community to be quite unforgivable.”

I referred in my letter to an incident that happened last year. After that, there were discussions and meetings between the local authority, local environmental activists and the ecology sector, and an agreement was reached with Network Rail that it would in future inform the council and appropriate local agencies when it planned to do work and that it would plan its work in a way that did not destroy nesting habitats and sites. June is still clearly the bird-nesting season—someone only needs to watch the excellent “Springwatch” on the BBC to know that.

I got a reply—very rapidly, I have to say—from the route managing director for LNE, the London north-eastern line:

“We removed vegetation in the Drayton Park area (consisting of buddleia, brambles, shrubs and young trees) up to 10 metres from the railway line”—

that is a considerable distance.

“In addition, we cleared vegetation from the top of the embankment, including the area surrounding the substation. These works were part of operating a safe and efficient railway. A daily visual check for nesting birds was undertaken”—

it was not undertaken efficiently, because there is photographic evidence of nests being destroyed.

“The work at Holloway involved the removal of vegetation up to 15 metres from the railway”—

that is nearly 50 feet from the line.

“I understand this involved the removal of shrubs and a number of trees”—

I went to visit the site last weekend, and the trees removed were pretty substantial.

“We also cleared some vegetation to the boundary line and behind the overhead line foundations…Clearly there was no intent here to do anything other than manage our railway requirements. Given the concerns expressed, I have postponed all the current vegetation clearance in this area with immediate effect.”

I am pleased that Network Rail has postponed the clearance with immediate effect, and thank it for doing so, but it should never have done such work in the first place. It should have operated in a way that is synonymous with looking after our local environment.

I want an undertaking from Network Rail, and I look forward to the Minister’s being able to get that undertaking. Network Rail should understand the terms of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which protects nesting birds

27 Jun 2012 : Column 131WH

and sites of special environmental and scientific interest, one of which is included in where we are discussing. Network Rail should be fully aware of the need to work with and not against local authorities and local people, because we value such sites.

When I raised the issue, I was surprised at the number of people who contacted me from all over the country who have had similar experiences. Colleagues present today have been told of similar experiences in their own constituencies, and their own experiences were then broadly similar to mine.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate, which could be packed out because, sadly, there is an “A to Z” of victims throughout the country. In my patch, Winchmore Hill was among the first victims. After an experience similar to his, we were assured of notice, but notice was not given, so Grange Park has become one of the most unfortunate victims of what I call Network Rail’s environmental vandalism and neglect of the local environment, with the destruction of a great swathe of trees and natural habitat—way beyond the immediate area concerned with mitigating safety risks.

I understand that there is no legal requirement on Network Rail to consult with residents on maintenance work, because it is just part of the operational licence to mitigate safety risks. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need properly to protect the local environment and to ask the Minister how we can ensure that Network Rail is held properly to account, and is open and honest about its plans? It is a prolific and persistent offender that needs to be brought to account. We must ensure that its responsibilities are, yes, to mitigate safety, but also to protect the wider local environment.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I understand his concern. I have seen the railside areas in Winchmore Hill, which are a fantastic reserve for natural life and should be protected and preserved.

In January, the London Assembly’s environment committee produced an interesting document, “On the right lines? Vegetation Management on London’s Railway Embankments”. It is an all-party document. The chair of the committee was Murad Qureshi, and it included contributions from Green, Conservative and Liberal Democrat members. It made some good and helpful proposals, pointing out:

“Local people…contacted the Committee about the level of information and communication provided by line operators”,

which is an ongoing problem. It also said—it rather surprised me—that

“Both Network Rail and Transport for London seek to give at least one month’s advance warning…but apply two weeks as minimum. However, they don’t monitor complaints specifically relating to prior notification of works.”

I think they should do that. I suspect that what I have picked up from active and responsible people in my constituency has been picked up all over the country by people in a similar situation, such as the constituents of the hon. Gentleman.

The committee is also calling for a

“standardised written engagement processes with local communities”

to be improved to

27 Jun 2012 : Column 132WH

“give more detail and a clearer rationale to help the general public…understand and accept the operators’ proposals of line-side work.”

Furthermore, it says:

“Several residents and boroughs have reported concern about the level of communication and information offered by the helplines run by Transport for London and Network Rail. Managing line-side land is usually beyond the scope of local authority guidelines or strategies; as a result, boroughs often refer residents with enquiries or complaints to these helplines”.

That is not the case in Islington, because the council engages very much with local residents, Network Rail and Transport for London on those matters.

In summary—I want others to be able to contribute to the debate—I put on the record my thanks to the local people who live in the Drayton Park area of Islington for their assiduous work in ensuring that, in addition to having Gillespie park, we protect the natural environment alongside the railways.

I want Network Rail to understand that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 means something. It is there for a purpose. It is there because, as a nation, we value nesting birds, our biological diversity and the ecology in London that is improved by the natural corridor of linesides. Network Rail must manage the railway, and they must do so safely, but there is no need to clear 10, 15 or 20 metres back from the line to do that. If it is cheaper for it to clear-fell once every five years, that is a wrong policy. It should carry out annual maintenance and annual maintenance checks. That is what I want it to do.

When the Minister responds, I hope that she will acknowledge the work that has been done by many local authorities, including mine. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds drew the matter to our attention, and I hope that she will seek a meeting with Network Rail so that it can be acquainted with the strong views that we in the House hold about the preservation of our natural environment and our belief that railways have a part to play in that.

I say all that as someone who is passionately pro-railway. I am not making a criticism of the railways; my criticism is of a specific management decision and a specific management method that Network Rail has used when it should be doing something much more environmentally sensitive.

4.39 pm

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I thank the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing this important debate because, like many others, this is a big issue in my constituency. Many people are deeply concerned about the fact that there seems to be no way of getting real dialogue with Network Rail, or proper redress when things go wrong.

I want to raise two points. First, the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have stressed the importance of Network Rail’s consulting residents, and it is important that they do so in an up-front way. A problem in Brighton was that it circulated a letter to some, but not all, residents, the headline of which was something like “Vegetation Management”. That sounds like a nice bit of pruning from time to time; it does not sound like clear-felling trees, which is what it ended up being. The

27 Jun 2012 : Column 133WH

letter was rather misleading for people when they first saw it, and the consultation must be very clear in its intent.

Secondly, I have a question for the Minister. Where is the real oversight of the impact of Network Rail’s policies? A few weeks ago, I submitted a parliamentary question to the Department for Transport, asking what information the Department holds in relation to things such as environmental assessments and community consultations. I also asked what estimate there was of the number of trees that had been felled in the past five years, and during bird breeding seasons; on how many occasions British Transport police had investigated complaints about tree-felling; and what estimate had been made of the total area of trees to be felled in the coming five years. I had a very short reply, which essentially said that the Department does not keep that kind of information because it is the business of a private company.

I then asked similar questions of Network Rail and received a very unhelpful letter, which pointed out things such as:

“trees grow in soil, which is the naturally occurring residue from thousands of years of weathering of the underlying strata.”

Most of us know that trees grow in soil and that, from time to time, for serious safety reasons, they need to be felled, but the letter did not answer the underlying questions about when and why Network Rail takes decisions on whether to prune or cut down, how often it plans to do that in the future and the level of consultation it plans to hold with local residents. For many people, particularly in urban areas, the trees around the railway are a vital part of the green space, and they care about them deeply.

Notwithstanding the fact that safety must take priority, I am concerned that Network Rail is acting far too swiftly—from a cost perspective and not from a genuine safety perspective in many cases. I would like to hear from the Minister what action we can take to try to hold Network Rail to greater account.

4.41 pm

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I want to make just a few comments. This is very much the debate of the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and we want to hear from the Minister.

People up and down the country have been asking that very same thing: how can we properly hold Network Rail to account? In my constituency, vegetation management—a euphemism employed in relation to the Winchmore Hill embankment—was used to fell trees and habitat. Network Rail was only really cajoled into doing any assessment in relation to the bats in one of the trees. That was the only statutory obligation to do any kind of formal environmental assessment. That happened repeatedly.

I got assurances that the company would consult, and notify me of any further works on the lines, and then—lo and behold—Grange Park suffered huge environmental destruction. The area is called Grange Park, but the word “park” might as well be taken away considering what happened. It is extraordinary and desperate how ancient trees were felled, never to be

27 Jun 2012 : Column 134WH

replaced. One can see only the visible destruction of the trees, but natural habitat was also lost. People’s view was completely destroyed by Network Rail’s actions.

After public meetings and a lot of cajoling and hard work on the part of active residents and myself, the new Network Rail chief executive, David Higgins, took his responsibility seriously and met with me for a long time. It is a credit to him that he showed respect and concern, accepted what had happened and apologised. He stated in a letter to me in June 2011:

“Network Rail takes its social responsibilities seriously. Clearly there are lessons we can learn about how we engage with communities when we need to undertake intrusive works. Although consultation in formal terms is not practicable as we will often have little room to digress from the engineering solution being proposed, many misunderstandings can be obviated through early community engagement.”

Those are good words, but sadly we have seen since that lessons have not been learned. That continues up and down the line, in London and beyond. Whitstable is a recent example. There has been great concern about what has happened there.

My concern is that Network Rail is hiding behind its statutory responsibilities—its operational licence responsibility—to mitigate safety risks. In earlier correspondence from the community relationships manager, it stated:

“we have to mitigate safety risks. Therefore most of the work we undertake does not require consultation. However, we consult with local authorities and statutory bodies when working within or near particular sites; such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”

The company can hide behind such words and not accept its duty of care to local residents and the local environment. That is what happened in the case of Grange Park, Winchmore Hill and other places.

We need to do better. Network Rail has responsibilities to the public, the taxpayers and, yes, to rail passengers, as well as to the local environment, but it has not taken those responsibilities seriously. It has mitigated some of the issues in Grange Park and it has helped to plant some native shrubs, but it cannot undo what has happened and it cannot provide true restoration and restitution. It has come grudgingly to the table but it needs to do a whole lot more. We need to see it being held to account.

We also want to see whether Network Rail should be subject to environmental impact assessments, because of what my constituents had to suffer. There was a major infrastructure project, so I ask the Minister the following question: please can we bring it out into the open, to ensure that we have a proper process of consultation, information and care for the environment?

4.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): It is unusual for a half-hour Westminster Hall debate to get trailed on the “Today” programme, but the media interest does not surprise me because this is an issue of real importance for our railways and our environment. Therefore I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. He asked me to pay tribute to the residents and the organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, that have fought campaigns on this issue. I am happy to do so. It is very important that we get this issue right.

27 Jun 2012 : Column 135WH

I must start by acknowledging that Network Rail, as a private sector company, is not owned by the Government and therefore Ministers have no power to instruct or direct it. Consequently, although I am happy to respond to the points that have been made in this debate, I should emphasise that tree and vegetation management policy is an operational matter for Network Rail, over which we—as Ministers—do not have any power. Nevertheless, I fully appreciate how important this issue is and the concern that communities feel about Network Rail’s treatment of lineside vegetation.

I have raised this issue on a number of occasions with Network Rail, including with those at the very top of the company; I have raised it with Network Rail’s chief executive, Sir David Higgins, and its director of operations, Robin Gisby. I have raised the specific case of Grange Park; I fully acknowledge the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) in that regard. The pictures on the internet of Grange Park are more like the pictures that one would associate with rain forests being devastated by illegal logging than pictures of a leafy suburb. I therefore fully understand the concerns of local residents. In response to the points made by all hon. Members in Westminster Hall today, I am happy to raise this matter again with Network Rail and I will keep up the pressure in relation to it, as I do on a regular basis. I should also point out that some of my constituents have had similar concerns about lineside tree clearance by London Underground. That is a different organisation, but the concerns of the people affected are similar to those of the people affected by Network Rail.

To be honest, I always face a dilemma in this regard, since I care very much about both the provision of safe, reliable and affordable railways, and trees and the conservation of the natural environment. Of course, that is a dilemma that Network Rail faces on a daily basis. I fully agree with everything that has been said today about how important it is that Network Rail exercises care and good judgment when balancing those competing concerns. Efficiency and cost are a consideration, but environmental concerns also have to be taken seriously too. It is also very important that Network Rail engages effectively with the communities and local authorities that are affected by vegetation management, and of course it is essential that it complies with the relevant regulations relating to conservation and wildlife habitats.

Regarding the specific points that were made about the works adjacent to lines in north Islington, near the Arsenal stadium and the Gillespie park nature reserve, I am concerned to hear that the hon. Member for Islington North felt that Network Rail’s actions were so disproportionate and destructive in that area. Department for Transport officials have raised this case with Network Rail. As we have heard, in response to the concerns expressed by residents, Network Rail’s route director, Mr Phil Verster, suspended vegetation clearance in the area. I gather that he has asked a senior member of his team to contact Islington council to discuss what has happened and what went wrong. The aim is to agree a mutually acceptable method for sharing Network Rail’s work plans in the future.

As regards work during the bird nesting season, I can confirm that the company is bound by the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended. Network Rail must ensure that it does not contravene the legislation put in place to protect birds while they

27 Jun 2012 : Column 136WH

are nesting. It should be noted that the legislation allows work to be undertaken where needed for safety reasons.

Turning to the more general issues raised today, Network Rail is tasked with managing over 30,000 hectares of lineside vegetation along 20,000 miles of track. That makes the railway a major natural resource, which needs to be managed at all times of the year to keep it safe. Trees growing within the railway corridor between the railway boundary fences are the responsibility of Network Rail. I am afraid that there is no escaping the fact that trees next to the railway, especially if they are relatively tall, can be a potential risk to train operations and public safety. If they fall over the track or into the overhead wires and cables on electrified railway lines, it can lead to severe train disruption, with major delays and service cancellations. There is also the risk that falling trees could cause accidents.

Factors, such as the steepness of cutting slopes, soil conditions and the nature of the vegetation, can all be relevant to the degree of risk at particular locations. In certain circumstances, trees and bushes need to be cut back in certain areas, because low branches and foliage can impair train drivers’ views of signals. For safety reasons, track workers need to be able to see and be seen by trains, to be able to move to a safe place when a train approaches.

Reliability issues are not confined to instances of falling trees, of course. Delays caused by leaves on the line lead to understandable annoyance and frustration for the commuters and passengers affected, not to mention the economic damage of transport delays. Leaf fall can have a significant effect on train performance and is a significant cause of delay in the autumn, generating public pressure for preventive action. The rail regulator highlighted the contribution of vegetation management to the industry’s successful management of train delays last autumn.

In developing its vegetation management policy, Network Rail tells me that it has worked with organisations such as the RSPB, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage. Its priority is to operate a safe and reliable railway, and tree clearance must be a part of that. It has a duty to provide, as far as is reasonably practical, a railway free from danger and obstruction from falling trees.

Recognising public concern on the issue, I have emphasised to Network Rail how important it is that it strikes the right balance between providing a safe, reliable and affordable network and addressing local community and environmental concerns. Although the majority of work is carried out responsibly, the company acknowledged again today that in some instances it has fallen short of the standards it sets itself. It accepts that there are lessons to be learned.

In particular, the Government urge Network Rail to engage proactively and effectively with local residents, local authorities and MPs in advance of carrying out works. It has recently revised its consultation process—no doubt seeking to learn lessons from the experiences that hon. Members mentioned—to enable key stakeholders to be informed of intended maintenance operations in good time.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am pleased with the Minister’s response and I am grateful that she will raise our issues with Network Rail. We had exactly those undertakings

27 Jun 2012 : Column 137WH

from it less than a year ago in Islington, and we assumed that it was acting in good faith and would mend its ways in future, because it did similar things on the North London line. Will she tell it in clear terms to please be straight with communities and tell them what is going on? That way, they will understand what is happening, without the kind of double dealing that we had before.

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It has been raised with Network Rail on various occasions over a period of years. I was trying to remember the first time that I raised it—it was certainly over a year ago. It is important that Network Rail focuses and that we see real change.

There is progress. Network Rail has advised that the number of complaints about vegetation management has fallen. The hon. Gentleman thought that it did not collect that information; I think that it does, but I will check. I was given to understand that it did. Requests to cut back overgrown trees and vegetation now exceed complaints about vegetation management.

However, there are undoubtedly remaining instances in which Network Rail has failed to provide anything like comprehensive advance notice of the nature and timing of its intended work programmes. Network Rail acknowledges the shortcomings that have occurred. For example, it accepts the point made by the hon. Member

27 Jun 2012 : Column 138WH

for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that when it does communicate with residents, it sometimes fails to convey the scale of the works that will be undertaken. It is reviewing its communications strategy and working with the Tree Council to improve its lineside vegetation management, and with a view to developing more sustainable solutions to the challenges that it faces in reconciling environmental concerns with keeping the railways running safely. Network Rail has acknowledged that it needs to do better, and I will be urging it to do so.

As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, there are important ecological issues to be considered. Network Rail needs to take care to avoid unnecessary tree felling. I recognise fully the concern that people feel when they see trees being cut down next to railway tracks. Network Rail’s first duty is to ensure the safe running of the railway, but it must also have regard to the environmental, social and quality-of-life importance of the conservation of trees and wildlife corridors. This debate will provide a timely reminder of the importance of engaging with MPs, local communities affected by vegetation management and local authorities. I will ensure that all the points made in this debate are conveyed to Network Rail at the earliest possible opportunity. I have enjoyed the chance to debate an important issue with hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.

4.57 pm

Sitting adjourned.