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12.24 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Justine Greening): With permission, Mr Speaker, I will present a quarterly review of our progress in Afghanistan, following the Prime Minister’s statement after the G8 and NATO summits in May. This statement represents the combined assessment of the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence.

I begin by paying tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces. As of today, 427 British troops have lost their lives since the conflict began in 2001, including 33 since the beginning of this year. They have made sacrifices that the House and the British people acknowledge with the utmost gratitude and admiration. We all recognise the considerable challenges that they continue to face in protecting Britain’s national security and that of the Afghan people.

I also join the Foreign Secretary in condemning the brutal and senseless attack on the US consulate in Benghazi yesterday. It only serves to highlight the risks that personnel face as they work for peace and stability in countries in transition. In Afghanistan, we have strict security regimes in place to keep UK officials safe, and of course our arrangements are kept under constant review.

We are in Afghanistan to protect our own national security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs. Our objectives in Afghanistan, which are shared by our international partners, the Afghan Government and the Afghan people, remain the same—an Afghan state that is able to maintain its own security and prevent the country from being used as a safe haven by international terrorists. In pursuit of that aim, we are helping the Afghans develop their national security forces, make progress towards a sustainable political settlement and build a viable Afghan state that can provide for its people.

Security transition remains on track, and in May the Afghan Government announced the third of five tranches of areas that will start the process. Once fully implemented, it will mean that all 34 provinces will have areas that have begun transition. Significantly, in tranche 3, Afghans will be taking lead security responsibility for 75% of the population, including in all three districts that make up Task Force Helmand, the UK’s area of operations.

Our training efforts are delivering tangible results. The Afghan national security forces are increasingly moving to the fore in delivering security, and their capability and confidence continues to improve. By mid-2013 we expect the Afghans to be in the security lead across the country. They are deploying in formed units, carrying out their own operations and planning complex security arrangements. After 2014 any residual insurgent threat will be tackled by capable Afghan forces trained and equipped to manage their own security effectively. Although the international security assistance force coalition continues to play a key role, it is right that it is increasingly a supporting one.

The increase in so-called insider threat attacks is of course concerning. We routinely assess and refine our force protection to meet mission requirements and to best ensure the personal safety of our forces. We are

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also working closely with ISAF and the Afghan Government to take concrete action to reduce as far as possible the potential for such incidents in the future. Developing the Afghan national security forces is a key part of our strategy. They have an essential role in providing long-term security and governance in Afghanistan. Partnering is not without risk, but it is essential to success. The incidents in question are not representative of the overwhelming majority of Afghan security forces, and in fact every day tens of thousands of coalition forces work successfully alongside their Afghan partners in a trusting relationship, without incident.

We continue to support an Afghan-led political process as the means to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. We recognise that the way forward will be challenging, but we remain committed to supporting the Afghan Government’s efforts. We also recognise that security and stability in Afghanistan are in the mutual interest of all its neighbours, who have, in different ways, suffered as a result of Afghanistan’s instability during the past 20 years.

In November 2011, Afghanistan and its neighbours agreed to take forward regional dialogue and co-operation through the Istanbul process. As part of that process, the Foreign Secretary attended the Heart of Asia ministerial conference in Kabul on 14 June together with Foreign Ministers from the region and supporting countries. The final declaration reaffirmed participants’ support for sovereignty and regional co-operation. Participants also agreed to implement key confidence-building measures and the UK has offered to provide assistance to develop chambers of commerce, tackle the narcotics trade and support counter-terrorism and disaster management activities. We will continue to engage with that process and the lead regional countries.

Further highlighting the UK’s commitment to Afghanistan, the Prime Minister visited Kabul and Camp Bastion in mid-July. In Kabul, the Prime Minister participated in a trilateral meeting with President Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Ashraf on the common goal of security and stability in the region. Nevertheless, we know that transition to a stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan will require significant economic growth and development as well as progress on security and an Afghan-led political settlement supported by its neighbours.

With that in mind, we continue to promote growth and to help to build up the private sector to provide opportunities for the Afghan people. For example, since the beginning of this year our assistance has provided more than 7,000 men and women in Helmand province with technical and vocational education and training, tailored to the needs of the local private sector, enabling them to get the jobs they need and to start their own businesses. More than 80% of those graduates are now employed, providing a better life for their families.

At the same time we continue to help the Afghan Government to increase tax revenues. In May, domestic revenue tax collection had increased to more than $2 billion, a 23% year-on-year increase and more than eight times the level of revenue collected in 2004-05 when UK support began. As the Select Committee on International Development’s recent report on tax in developing countries has rightly highlighted, increasing

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revenue generation is absolutely vital for countries such as Afghanistan to help to reduce their dependence on international assistance over time.

UK aid is helping Afghan civil society organisations and local communities to hold their Government to account. For example, through the Tawanmandi civil society programme, Afghan women’s organisations are raising awareness of the elimination of violence against women law, holding Government bodies to account for its implementation and supporting female victims. In addition, thanks to UK support, by the end of the year about 470 communities will be able to monitor Afghan Government public works programmes to ensure they deliver what they have promised.

As we progress towards full security transition at the end of 2014 it is vital that international assistance, including from the UK, continues to deliver such results so that ordinary Afghans can have faith in their Government to provide an alternative to the insurgency and a better life for their families. In previous statements, Members of this House have pointed out that Afghanistan faces an uncertain financial future that could put future peace and stability at risk. With that in mind, my predecessor led the UK delegation at the Tokyo conference in July. Partners committed $16 billion, or $4 billion per annum, through to 2015 to meet Afghanistan’s essential development needs. At that conference, the UK announced that we will provide development assistance to Afghanistan at the current levels of £178 million per annum up to 2017 and will continue to support Afghanistan right through the “transformation decade” from 2015 to 2024. Many other partners followed our lead and thanks to the efforts of the UK Government, the conference declaration commits the international community to meeting Afghanistan’s budget shortfall until at least 2017.

Our continued support, however, will require the Government of Afghanistan to implement the reform commitments set out in the Tokyo mutual accountability framework. The framework acknowledges the importance of better governance, economic growth and regional co-operation and calls on the Government of Afghanistan to deliver progress on elections, corruption, economic management and human rights. It includes a strong and specific focus on the rights of women as a prerequisite for peace and prosperity. At the request of the Afghan Government, the UK agreed to co-chair the first ministerial review of progress against the Tokyo commitments in 2014. We therefore intend to play a major role in holding the Afghan Government and partners to account for their commitments to each other.

Since Tokyo, the Afghan Government have taken steps to demonstrate their intent. On 26 July, President Karzai issued a far-reaching decree on tackling corruption. The decree sets out 164 specific and time-bound instructions for almost all Government ministries. We welcome the vision outlined in the decree and President Karzai’s personal commitment to the agenda. We now need to see the Government deliver and we will continue to support them as they take forward those reforms.

Taken as a package, the commitments made at Tokyo and NATO’s security-focused summit at Chicago in May send a powerful message to the Afghan people and the region that we are there for the long haul. They also

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send a clear message to the Taliban that they cannot wait us out and that now is the time to participate in a peaceful political process.

Afghanistan has enormous potential. The country’s vast mineral wealth could transform its long-term economic prospects and the UK Government are helping the Afghans to capitalise on that, accountably and transparently, for the benefit of their people. Local government institutions are beginning to have a transformative effect on the lives of urban and rural communities by delivering better public services and strengthening infrastructure, again supported by UK aid. With the right amount of international support in place and the commitment of the Afghan Government to take forward essential reforms, the Afghan people aspire to a peaceful and prosperous future, which will support the UK’s national security interests, too. I look forward to taking forward that work alongside my right hon. Friends from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence in the months and years ahead.

12.36 pm

Mr Ivan Lewis (Bury South) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for sending me a copy of her statement in advance. Let me take this opportunity to welcome her to one of the best jobs in government. I hope that she has had time to reflect on how privileged she is to lead a Government development agency that is a global leader in reducing poverty and earns widespread respect for our country around the world.

I also welcome the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) to this excellent Department and place on the record my appreciation and respect for the contribution the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr O'Brien) made to the Department for International Development—his is one of the sackings that will raise many questions among Members on the Government Benches.

Whatever political differences I have had with the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), nobody disputes his commitment to international development or the respect he earned across the sector during his period as Secretary of State. He is sitting next to the former Secretary of State for Health—the Government Front Bench today could be called “detox and retox”, as while the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield was detoxifying the Conservative brand, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) was retoxifying it—[Interruption.] I shall have plenty of time to mention the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan). I am sure that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green has been sent to the Department in part to keep an eye on him.

I join the Secretary of State in condemning the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi yesterday and welcome her assurances about ensuring the necessary protection for UK personnel serving in Libya. This House overwhelmingly supports ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan and we are tremendously proud of the dedication and courage of our armed forces, aid workers and diplomats. We must always remember and pay tribute to those who have fallen and provide all necessary support to their loved ones left to grieve.

It is important to recognise on such occasions the significant progress being made in Afghanistan, where more children are attending school, access to health

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care is improving and the economy is growing, yet tremendous challenges remain. Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most fragile countries in the world, and progress on the millennium development goals is slow. There is serious concern at the escalation of “green-on-blue” attacks, which have led to too many fatalities, raise serious questions about the safety of our troops, and hamper the essential work that is being done to strengthen the capacity and professionalism of the Afghan national security forces.

As the Government have rightly said, the draw-down of troops must be gradual so that we do not have a cliff-edge withdrawal in 2014, and we must ensure that there is no erosion of the international community’s commitment to stability in Afghanistan when our forces depart. We have a long-term responsibility to ensure that the Afghan people shape the destiny of their country with the greater stability that is essential for much needed economic growth and the fight against poverty.

I have a number of questions for the Secretary of State. Political and institutional development in any country is a slow, long-term project, and a steady—rather than sharp—decline in funding is needed to avoid triggering a worse economic crisis than that already likely. The Tokyo conference in July this year was essential, and we welcome the $16 billion post-2014 funding agreement.

In that context, will the Secretary of State confirm that it remains Government policy that by next year 0.7% of gross national income will be spent on official development assistance, and that the Government will support the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick), which would enshrine that commitment in law?

Will the Secretary of State expand on the specific mechanism used to ensure that the contribution of the international community is not lost through corruption but spent on the priorities outlined in Tokyo and at the NATO Chicago summit? Will she comment on the political process? The Afghan peace and reintegration programme was bolstered in June when the Helmand provincial peace council and representatives of the Afghan national security forces held a shura—the first of its kind in Helmand. As the Secretary of State will agree, a political settlement that brings together local populations with new authority structures is essential to guarantee lasting and local stability across Afghanistan. Will she provide an update on how and where the Government expect the Afghan peace and reintegration programme to develop?

The House will be aware that presidential elections will be held in Afghanistan in 2014, the conduct of which will be a significant measure of how far the country has come. What work is the Department doing with the Afghan authorities and the international community to ensure that the elections are safe, free and fair?

Although it was stated at the Bonn conference that the peace process would be “inclusive...regardless of gender”, there have been no specific commitments to involve women. What is being done to bring more women into the political process, and ensure that the voice of Afghan women and civil society is heard when

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shaping the country’s future? Members on both sides of the House will agree that there will be no peace and security in Afghanistan without a leading role for women.

Finally, in 34 “green-on-blue” attacks this year, 45 soldiers have been killed and 69 wounded. In the most recent incident on 29 August, an Afghan soldier shot dead three Australian soldiers at a base in the south-central province of Uruzgan. What protections have the Government put in place to protect our forces from such attacks, and what analysis has been done of their cause and potential solutions?

Justine Greening: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about my new role. He was right to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O’Brien) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). In their many years at the Department, they made a huge difference to the importance of UK policy, and that was recognised by the many people with whom I have already spoken about our agenda, including Dr Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank, whom I met yesterday for the first time.

The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) mentioned funding and corruption,. If the international community is to match reform in Afghanistan with funding, as part of the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, we must ensure that every pound goes where it is intended. That effort, however, must be led by the Afghan Government, and President Karzai was right to announce wide-ranging steps to ensure that members of the Government, judiciary and Executive are transparent about their interests, and to ensure accountability for the delivery of public services at a local level. The Department supports such measures, and we are funding 35 advisers to work in 17 different departments to ensure effective delivery and so that the skills needed for successful delivery are developed over time.

I understand the rationale behind the hon. Gentleman’s question about the Afghan peace and reintegration process. It is an important issue, and if we are to achieve a sustainable political solution in Afghanistan all elements of Afghan society must join the dialogue on that. Early signs are encouraging, but there is a long way to go. The peace and reintegration process is a key part of that but, as the hon. Gentleman said, a start has been made. I will write to him with further details about anticipated further steps.

On the 2014 election, we are supporting the work of the Independent Election Commission, which has a vital role. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the challenges faced during the 2010 election, but that was the first democratic election in Afghanistan for 30 years, so of course there were challenges. From that base, however, I believe that real improvements have been made, and it is right for the Independent Election Commission to oversee the process of electoral reform. In 2014 I expect that elections will be better run, and I hope that a higher proportion of women will participate than in the first set of elections.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of women in Afghanistan, and in spite of the progress that has been made, women in Afghanistan still face huge challenges every day. It was heartening to see women’s rights explicitly mentioned as part of the Tokyo agreement, and they are now enshrined in the Afghan constitution,

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which we wanted to see. The challenge, however, is in implementation and ensuring that those rights for women exist in reality. It was correct for the Tokyo agreement to refer specifically to women’s rights, and we must look to the medium and long term. For example, nearly half of children entering education are now female, and such key building blocks will enable women to take a more prominent role. Just under 30% of Members of the Afghan Parliament are women, and we must ensure that in the future, women have the education and training that will enable them to participate more fully in Afghan society than in the past.

I will conclude my comments—[Interruption.] How could I forget? I will not sit down without referring to our important 0.7% commitment. Britain has played a leading role in meeting that goal. The coalition agreement is explicit about that and about our intention to legislate, and we will stick to it.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. A large number of Members wish to comment on the statement, which means that questions have to be brief. I will cut hon. Members off if they are not brief, and I will not be able to call anybody who arrived late to the statement.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): May I welcome the Secretary of State to her position? Is she satisfied that the Government of Afghanistan are doing everything necessary to deal with the Kabul bank corruption scandal?

Justine Greening: I believe that a lot of progress has been made. As my hon. Friend will be aware, prosecutions will take place, and the United Kingdom—together with Canada—is funding a forensic order that will provide an evidence base so that action can be taken.

Fiona O’Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): Eighty-seven per cent. of Afghan women experience at least one form of domestic abuse. In evidence to the Select Committee on International Development, we have heard calls for funding for counselling, hostels and legal services. Will the Secretary of State commit to funding those services directly so that UK aid can improve the lives of Afghan women?

Justine Greening: I have two things to say in reply to the hon. Lady. First, much of our support is delivered through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which supports women in the ways to which she referred. Secondly, women are playing more of a role in supporting women—for example, the number of women defence lawyers has risen from about three to 400. Those are the key ingredients we need if women’s rights are to be not just enshrined in the Afghanistan constitution but delivered on the ground. I recognise, as she does, that a huge amount of progress is still to be made. Afghanistan has come a long way, but it started from a low base, and we should be under no illusion—it has a long way to go. The role of our country, working with our international partners, and, critically, the Afghanistan Government, is key in ensuring that progress continues.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): There is widespread agreement that a political surge is needed, with regional talks involving the Taliban and regional countries such as Pakistan, India and Russia, but, sadly,

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progress is very slow. With that in mind, has the Secretary of State had a chance to form a view on the Royal United Services Institute report that members of the Taliban are prepared to engage in talks?

Justine Greening: I shall certainly look closely at that report. On the Taliban, I refer my hon. Friend to my earlier comments that a sustainable political solution will involve the participation of all members of Afghan society. President Karzai has been very clear that he wants to engage with the Taliban, but he has three conditions: first, they must renounce violence; secondly, they must break their links with al-Qaeda; and, thirdly, they must recognise democracy and the fact that they should be part of the Afghanistan constitution.

The broader regional talks to which my hon. Friend refers are absolutely right. A safe and secure Afghanistan is absolutely in the interests of Pakistan. He mentioned Russia, but Iran was also at the Istanbul conference. That shows that regional countries understand that working towards a secure and stable Afghanistan is in everybody’s interests, including the UK’s.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role and wish her the best of luck in it.

Hon. Members have spoken a lot about women in Afghanistan in the past few years, but we need more detail on what talks are going on to protect the considerable gains that have been achieved for them. I meet Afghan women MPs twice a year in Inter-Parliamentary Union delegations. I find it amazing that they feel too constrained to be able to speak freely with us because of the person leading the delegation, who is, of course, usually a man. We therefore need to know the detail of what is happening to ensure that the gains made for women are and will be protected. That is extremely important.

Justine Greening: I ask the right hon. Lady to take a careful look at the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, which includes discussions specifically on protecting women’s rights and, critically, delivering them on the ground—I will take a close personal interest in the matter.

The right hon. Lady asks for specifics. The mutual accountability framework includes ensuring the proper implementation of the elimination of violence against women law, which has been passed, and the national action plan for the women of Afghanistan. I understand that many people will listen to me and think, “Those are fine words, but what will actually happen on the ground?” The key point is that this is a process. The Tokyo conference was important because, for the very first time, it solidified in writing many of the reforms that we want the Afghan Government to take forward in return for the financing settlement, which sits alongside the reforms, and which will be delivered by the international community.

Monitoring and reviews will take place, and the UK will play a key role in them. We were asked by the Afghan Government to co-chair the first ministerial review in 2014, but, as I am sure the right hon. Lady knows, an officials’ review will take place next year. We will pay very close attention to the whole agenda.

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Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Secretary of State’s appreciation of Her Majesty’s armed forces will be welcomed in the garrison town of Colchester, home of 16 Air Assault Brigade. Will she give a progress report on the huge logistic achievement of the summer of 2008, when soldiers from Colchester were involved in the transportation of turbines to the Kajaki dam? What has happened since?

Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman asks a very specific question and it might be better if I reply to him in writing after the statement. Suffice it to say that he is right to point out that our troops have played a critical role not just in combat but in supporting the Afghanistan Government to rebuild some of the infrastructure that the country will need. He mentioned a project in Helmand province. Alongside that, our troops have played key roles in helping with schools, health care and roads—if we are to have a thriving agriculture sector, farmers need to get their produce to market. All that work provided by our troops will be immensely powerful not just in protecting Afghanistan and in working with Afghanistan forces today, but in building the country we hope can be successful tomorrow.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I welcome the Secretary of State to her post. I also welcome her commitment to working with women in Afghanistan and her reflection on the importance of the role of women in peace-building and stability. Will she expand on what specific role the UK Government can play in supporting rural women in Afghanistan to ensure that they have access to education and financial independence, and to ensure that they are not only aware of their rights but able to exercise them?

Justine Greening: The hon. Lady will no doubt understand that a huge range of different activities are happening, and not just at national level—provincial and district plans are also in place. The district plans are very much locally driven, but we are providing assistance. As I have said, we are providing assistance at national level in Ministries to ensure that they are better placed in terms of their skills and capability to deliver at local level, but we need to see further progress. The Tokyo mutual accountability framework is the right one to enable us not only to agree what needs to be done, but to track it to ensure that it happens.

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position. I am sure she welcomes the fact that the representation of women in the Afghan National Assembly is 27%—it is 22% in the UK House of Commons—but there is only one female governor in Afghanistan. In addition, through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I have met several Afghani women National Assembly Members who are concerned about their future, and who feel that they will go backwards when our support and troops come out. What will she do to ensure that they retain their position and that level of representation?

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right to flag up those understandable concerns. The NATO-led combat mission will come to an end by the end of 2014. One key outcome of the Chicago conference was that NATO now needs to consider post-2014 support. We need to

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ensure that the constitution, which enshrines women’s rights, works on the ground as well as on paper. That is incredibly important, and as I have said, I take a close personal interest in it.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): I notice that a motion contains the names of 425 of our brave soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Although it was put down last week, it is already out of date—it does not contain the names of the two fatalities since then or the names of the 2,000 of our soldiers who have returned broken in mind or body, and it cannot contain the names of the almost certain future deaths, such as those that followed the Falklands and Vietnam wars, when more soldiers took their lives after the war than died in combat. One Welsh soldier took his life this January. He is not recorded. How can we respect the self-deluding fiction in the report? It is another case of our brave soldiers—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but I said that questions should be brief, however important.

Justine Greening: I think that many people across the country and the House believe that our troops are performing a vital role. It is the right thing to do not only for Afghanistan but for our country. The number of terrorist threats to the UK coming out of Afghanistan has already reduced substantially in recent years.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on another point. He referred to servicemen and women coming back battered and broken; I cannot remember the exact phrase.

Paul Flynn: Broken in mind and spirit.

Justine Greening: Broken in mind and spirit. The hon. Gentleman only had to watch some of the competitors at the Paralympics in recent weeks to see that they were amazing people who had done amazing things in the past and would continue to do amazing things in the future. We owe them our wholehearted support.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): For those of us who opposed our involvement in Afghanistan, it was obvious from the start that the Taliban would not be beaten, given the available resources, and that we were fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country, given the differences between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet the key stumbling block to a diplomatic solution remains the American refusal to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban. They will talk only if the Taliban lay down their arms and accept the constitution. This will not happen. Should the UK Government not be doing more to get the Americans to change their position? After all, we showed in Northern Ireland that it is possible to talk and fight at the same time.

Justine Greening: As we have made clear, we believe that the political process towards a sustainable peace should ultimately be led by the Afghan Government. I take my hon. Friend’s point about the Taliban, but it is worth reflecting that increasingly their attacks have been pushed to the fringes of Afghanistan society. In fact, 80% now take place in parts of Afghanistan where just 20% of the population live. So I believe that we are making progress, and I hope that over time growing

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numbers of Taliban fighters will choose to join the peaceful discussion on how to reach a political settlement and lay down their arms. Steps are being taken in Afghanistan to encourage that process to continue.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on her new role and welcome the commitment to women’s rights that she has articulated in her statement and answers. When the international troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the role of the Afghan national army and police force will take on increasing importance. What are she and her ministerial colleagues doing to ensure that the police and army are alive to issues of women’s rights and can enforce the law to which she referred many times, so that it becomes a reality on the ground, not just in the constitution?

Justine Greening: A lot of our work concerns not only combat but training, assistance and advice for the Afghan security forces and local police. That is one of the key routes to maintaining women’s rights. Although we often talk about the departure of British troops in the coming months, I should emphasise that we will retain a presence so that we can support and train the Afghan national security force to maintain security. As the hon. Lady will know, an academy will be set up next year to continue training the best and brightest Afghan soldiers to play that leadership role. That is one of the key things happening next year. Those building blocks will help maintain women’s rights. There is not one thing alone we can do to make the ultimate difference. It will involve a series of actions at all levels in Afghan society delivered by many different stakeholders. Over time, that will start to bring a change for the better. I believe that that change has already begun, however, as can be seen, for example, by the number of women elected to the Afghan Parliament in its first elections.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): As a trustee of a UK-based non-governmental organisation, Afghan Action, I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Would she be minded at a time convenient to her to meet representatives of UK-based NGOs, such as Afghan Action, Afghanaid and Turquoise Mountain, to discuss how, with our partners in Afghanistan, we can maximise our contribution to continued development there?

Justine Greening: I am pleased that my hon. Friend raises that point. In such a statement, it is often easy to fail to mention the huge amount of very important work done by NGOs, including some of those to which he referred. I have had the privilege of meeting some of the key NGOs involved in international aid, and I would be delighted to meet some of the organisations he has talked about. I will ensure that my office gets in touch with him to make that happen.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role and express my disappointment that she has left the position of Secretary of State for Transport, where she did such a sterling job. The AFP news agency reported this week that President Karzai had criticised the war on terror. He said that the war

“was not conducted and pursued as it should have been”

and that

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“Afghan villages and homes were once again turned into a battlefield of a ruthless war inflicting irrecoverable losses in both human and material”

terms. Does she agree?

Justine Greening: We have made it clear why we believe it important to work with the Afghanistan Government to create a stable and secure Afghanistan. Obviously, people will have opinions on how action there is progressing, but the important thing is that we now look forward.

Finally, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s opening comments. I was proud of what I achieved with my previous Department. And one of the most important bits of that, of course, was the electrification of the Welsh railways.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Secretary of State was right to emphasise the concern in this country about the so-called insider threats, or “green-on-blue” attacks. As ISAF troops withdraw from combat action, what can be done to ensure the safety of our development workers and those of other nations?

Justine Greening: It is about ensuring that Afghanistan as a whole has a secure and orderly society, whether that involves helping to develop local Afghan police forces, supporting the Afghan national security forces nationally so that they have the capacity and capability to deliver security, or DFID working with departments, for example, to deliver a system of justice and rule of law on which people can rely. All those things will create an environment in which positive work can be best achieved. It is an overall support package that will make a difference. The work done by the organisations mentioned has been critical in supporting Afghan people on the ground as we go through the complex and huge process of helping to build a state that benefits everyone.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State to her position and thank her for the work she did on the reduction of the Humber bridge tolls in her previous role.

In her statement, the Secretary of State talked about promoting growth and building up the private sector. What is being done to help women get into the workplace and perhaps start their own businesses?

Justine Greening: We are seeing an improvement, with more women going into employment, although there are still clear differences between men and women in Afghanistan in terms of pay and wages earned. A lot of support is being given, not just to get investment into Afghanistan at both the private sector and national levels, but to ensure help and advice in developing small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly in rural areas. Those are the sorts of routes that will ensure that more opportunities are opened up for women to participate.

In answer to the hon. Lady’s point about the Humber bridge, let me tell her that the very first picture I put up in my office was of the Greening toll buster beer that was brewed in my name after we reduced the tolls. I hope that I can deliver in this role as well as I hope I did in my last.

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her new position and thank her for her warm support for women’s rights. Afghan women are not just victims; they, too, are

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brave campaigners for women’s rights, but that position comes at a cost. Many, such as Hanifa Safi, who was assassinated this summer, pay the ultimate price. Can my right hon. Friend say what steps she is taking to develop a plan to support women human rights defenders and assist the Afghan Government in protecting their female representatives, who face increasing threats?

Justine Greening: Clearly this is a real issue, and it has been raised by many parliamentarians across the House today. For the first time, women’s rights are now enshrined in the Afghan constitution. We are supporting many of the departments in Afghanistan that will play a key role in ensuring that those rights are respected and implemented on the ground. Having listened to the many questions asked today, I think this is an issue that I will want to pursue with perhaps a number of colleagues across the House, in order to tap into their clear knowledge and experience in this area over recent months and years. Indeed, I shall ensure that I get such a meeting organised.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): I met a delegation of Afghan MPs this summer, and I think the Secretary of State is absolutely right to focus on women’s rights and the protection of women. Can she say what targets have been set, and what progress has been made towards meeting them, for reducing deaths in childbirth and infant mortality?

Justine Greening: I do not have those precise statistics with me, but clearly improving health care is critical. For example, we have moved from a position where very few children under the age of one had any kind of vaccine to one where a quarter are now vaccinated. There is now also much more support for women to ensure fewer deaths in childbirth. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for the kind note he sent me on taking up this role. This is an area that I hope we can all focus on together.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her new role. What steps can the Government take to ensure that those nations that committed to supporting the future of Afghanistan, in Tokyo and in Chicago, stick to that commitment?

Justine Greening: We can make sure that we review progress against the Tokyo mutual accountability framework. The progress review will happen regularly. There are already a number of countries that, alongside Britain, have made clear financial commitments to continue to support Afghanistan, while a number of others are yet to confirm exactly what their contributions will be. We secured an overall agreement that £16 billion would be made available to support the Afghanistan Government as they go through their period of reform, and that is just between now and 2016. That is a substantial investment. There was also clear support for the sense that the next decade needs to be one in which Afghanistan will be truly transformed. I am sure that there will be further discussions about the funding needed beyond 2016 to support that.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): May I also congratulate the Secretary of State on her new role and thank her for the tribute she paid to our armed

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forces? That includes not just those who have lost their lives, but the many who have been injured. Does she agree that their sacrifice not only has enabled capacity building in law and order, democracy and governance to take place, but for the first time has enabled millions of children to access an education? That should give us great pride, as well as optimism for Afghanistan’s long-term future.

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the things that struck me in my first few days in this role is just how common some of the challenges we all face are. Education is the route for all of us to make the most of ourselves. That is why it is so important that children in Afghanistan should also have the chance to develop into the people they can be. Some 5.9 million children—nearly 6 million—are now attending school in Afghanistan, which is a huge, dramatic increase. Nearly 40% or so are now girls. Let us remember that under the Taliban none of them were girls and there were also far fewer children in school. If we are to see long-term progress, we have to enable people in Afghanistan, particularly children, to get the knowledge and skills to develop their country themselves. That is one of the most important things we are doing.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. Please can she explain what role the UK is playing in improving governance in Afghanistan?

Justine Greening: Obviously we are playing a leading role in this area. The most important thing we are doing is supporting Afghan departments to be effective. We have funded advisers helping them not just to work on policy, but to do very straightforward tasks such as planning budgets, executing budgets and monitoring financial spend. All those things are relatively straightforward, but they are the key ingredients that need to be in place for public services to be delivered well. When public services are delivered well in Afghanistan, that will lead to increasing buy-in among the Afghan people, as they see their country moving in the right direction. If we can do that, it will create, I hope, a more virtuous circle, so that we see more and more development continuing in future.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Post-2014 there are likely to be diplomats, military personnel and British contractors left in Afghanistan to help the country. When the planning is done, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State ensure that the post-2014 medical arrangements are good, particularly for casualty evacuation? It does not end when the military leave.

Justine Greening: I hope that I will be able to provide my hon. Friend with that assurance. I will pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, and perhaps he will then receive a fuller reply about the work that the Ministry of Defence is doing in that regard. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have to ensure that the safety of troops is paramount. That has been a focus for this Government, and that will continue going forward.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that the excellent work done to win over hearts and minds is undermined by the use of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

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Does she agree that that needs to change if we are to continue winning over the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan?

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend asks a complex question in many respects. Ultimately, the focus for this Government has principally been to provide support for security on the ground, in terms of both combat operations and helping the Afghan national security force build up capacity and capability. We are one of a number of international partners operating in Afghanistan, and we will continue those operations. NATO is looking at what the nature of those operations should be post combat, after 2014. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend’s question is an important one and that it will be reflected on by many people.

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Points of Order

1.19 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on the way in which the Home Office parliamentary unit is refusing to deal with Members of Parliament. This week, my office contacted the unit to seek guidance as to which new Minister was dealing with a particular area, so that I could address a letter to the correct person. The unit refused to assist me. I then sought a copy of the Home Secretary’s speech to the Police Superintendents Association conference, as it was not on the website. Again, I was refused assistance. I also have three named-day questions for answer on 4 September that are still outstanding. The Table Office has advised me to contact the Home Office parliamentary unit, but in the light of the unit’s refusal to deal with me or my office this week, would Madam Deputy Speaker care to comment on whether that would be appropriate?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), is in his place, and he will have heard the hon. Lady’s point of order. I will ensure, with him, that the Leader of the House investigates the matter and reports back not only to Mr Speaker but directly to the hon. Lady on the rather strange circumstances that she is experiencing with the Home Office parliamentary unit.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Please could you discuss with Mr Speaker the possibility of the need for a guidance note for Members on the names of deceased persons being used to make a point? I refer to the publication of the names of all the fallen in Afghanistan, many of whom were my constituents. The only communication that I have ever had from the relatives of the deceased has expressed admiration for what their loved ones have done in Afghanistan, and I simply ask whether it is seemly that the names of the fallen should be used to make a point.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I must be frank with the hon. Gentleman on this matter. Rather than giving him a direct response today, I will take the matter to Mr Speaker so that he can reflect on it and decide whether there is a need for further action.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will know that, before the general election, the Prime Minister promised that his Government would cut net migration to the tens of thousands. He used the phrase, “No ifs. No buts”. The former Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), said to the House on 9 July:

“A student who comes here for three years or more is as much of an immigrant as somebody who comes on a work visa for two years or more.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 4.]

Today, the Minister for Universities and Science has announced—not here in the House, but at a conference in Keele—that the Government have told the Office for National Statistics to

“better count students in immigration flows”.

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That is clearly the first step towards statistically removing students from the Government’s net migration target. Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not expect you to comment on the chaos at the heart of the Government, or indeed on the fact that the new Immigration Minister, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has already lost control of his own brief and policy, given that such announcements are being made by the Universities Minister. Can you confirm, however, that all announcements of that nature should be made to this House, so that Members on both sides of the House can criticise the Government if we think that they are doing something wrong? Can you also confirm that an urgent question, if sought, could be taken either tomorrow or on Monday?

Madam Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has put a great deal on the record that was not strictly a point of order. With regard to Ministers making new policy announcements, Mr Speaker has made it absolutely clear that when such announcements are to be made, it is the House of Commons that should hear them first. With regard to what the Government might decide to do in the next few days in relation to the business of the House, I am afraid that I am not able to comment, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will pursue the matter anyway.

Bill presented

Public Service Pensions Bill

Presented and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary Theresa May, Secretary Philip Hammond, Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Secretary Michael Gove, Secretary Eric Pickles, Danny Alexander, Mr Francis Maude, Sajid Javid and Steve Webb, presented a Bill to make provision for public service pension schemes; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 70) with explanatory notes (Bill 70-EN).

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Backbench Business

Select Committee Inquiry (Aviation Strategy)

1.24 pm

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

That this House notes the launch of the Transport Committee’s inquiry into the UK’s aviation strategy.

I should like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for this opportunity to launch the Transport Select Committee’s new inquiry into the Government’s aviation policy and for enabling us to bring our work to the attention of Members and the public.

Aviation is vital to the UK economy. The air transport sector has a turnover of approximately £26 billion and provides around 186,000 direct jobs in the UK. More than 500,000 jobs depend on the sector and an additional 170,000 come as a consequence of visitors arriving by air. Aviation feeds into our manufacturing, tourism and freight sectors. It also connects businesses to international markets and allows people to travel across the UK and abroad. The industry, however, also has an impact on the local environment around airports, and its carbon emissions have a global environmental effect.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I welcome the inquiry. There is an abundance of inquiries at the moment, so we are all going to be busy. In past inquiries, the focus on emissions has centred on carbon dioxide, and not on the nitrogen oxides that are poisoning large numbers of my constituents and, if the third runway goes ahead, will poison 35,000 more. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the inquiry takes that matter into account?

Mrs Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The Committee will certainly be interested to hear representations on the specific issue that he has raised.

The Department for Transport has taken some time in producing its aviation strategy. The coalition rejected plans for a third runway at Heathrow in 2010, but in July this year the Government published their draft aviation policy framework for consultation. The Government say that their draft policy should make the best use of existing aviation capacity in the short term, while other long-term solutions to increase capacity are being developed.

The issue of hub status is particularly contentious. Two years after opposing plans to expand Heathrow, the Government’s draft aviation policy does not include a strategy for maintaining an aviation hub in the UK. Ensuring that the UK has an effective hub airport is important to encourage growth, maintain international connectivity and provide transport services on more marginal routes.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): As a member of the Transport Select Committee, I am very much looking forward to working on this important inquiry. Will the hon. Lady confirm that the inquiry’s terms of reference will allow us to consider the interaction of aviation strategy with a high-speed rail network, so

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that we can explore other hub airport options rather than simply the binary choice between expanding Heathrow and building a Thames estuary airport?

Mrs Ellman: I can confirm that the terms of reference for the inquiry, which are now being published, will include the particular issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): I hear the hon. Lady’s comments on hub airports. I am sure that her inquiry will wish to reflect on the new Secretary of State’s announcement last week that an independent commission was being set up to look at all these proposals. I am sure that that will be within its terms of reference. The Government will very much welcome the Select Committee’s report, and we look forward to reading its findings. She will of course understand that, in welcoming it, we might not necessarily be able to give an unequivocal welcome to its findings.

Mrs Ellman: I welcome the Minister to his new position. My colleagues on the Transport Committee and I look forward to questioning him on this issue. He is correct to point out that the Prime Minister announced last week that an independent commission would be set up to look at these issues. However, that commission is not expected to produce its final report until 2015, so any decision based on its recommendations will be postponed until the next Parliament, at the earliest.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, as some airports have already reported that they are losing long-haul flights to hub airports on mainland Europe, there is some urgency in deciding our future aviation strategy, and that waiting until 2015 to make the decision when we know how long it takes to develop any new infrastructure seems like an enormously long time?

Mrs Ellman: I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, that is why the Transport Committee is about to launch its own inquiry.

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): I, too, welcome the opportunities that come with this inquiry. Will the hon. Lady confirm that her inquiry will look seriously at the long-term best interests of London, which I suggest are not best served by a patch-and-mend attitude towards Heathrow, which, at best, will be able to squeeze in one more half-runway before it is completely out of room? We really need to look at the long-term best interests of London and the south-east.

Mrs Ellman: I hope the hon. Lady will note that the terms of reference of our inquiry make it very clear that the Committee will be interested in looking at all possibilities, so we look forward to hearing her thoughts on the issue.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): The hon. Lady mentioned the commission that is being established by the Government. It will inevitably consider the Heathrow proposal, which is shovel ready, and other proposals such as for the Thames estuary airport, which is much less developed. Is she concerned that this inquiry must not only be objective but be seen to be objective, and that, therefore, it is up to the Government to spend some money on bringing forward the alternative

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proposals that they want considered during the inquiry—otherwise, it will not be an objective inquiry, but a fix for Heathrow?

Mrs Ellman: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and the Government should consider that in setting up their inquiry, as should the Chair and members of the inquiry when conducting their business.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): Does the hon. Lady share my view that timing the review to conclude just a few weeks after the election is an extraordinarily cynical move by the Government? Will she join me in pressuring the Government to bring the review forward so that when it comes to either the local elections in 2014 or the general election in 2015, the voters will know what they are voting for?

Mrs Ellman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, but the responsibility for the decision lies with the Government. The Select Committee is a scrutiny committee, and we have decided that it is important to hold an inquiry now; that is why we are launching it today. We intend to report in the first part of 2013.

We will take a wide-ranging look at Government policy on aviation, including their current draft strategy, airport capacity and the issue of hub status. Although much of the current public discussion has focused on the issues of hub capacity and the south-east, the role of airports outside the south-east and their economic impacts, both nationally and in the region in which they are situated, are also important issues.

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): The hon. Lady is generous with her time. Speaking as an MP who represents a Medway seat—one that will be directly affected by any proposals for a Thames estuary airport—I ask the hon. Lady to confirm that she will be willing to take oral evidence from members of the public who will be directly affected by any of the proposals?

Mrs Ellman: The Committee is calling for the submission of evidence and it will then decide who it sees as appropriate to invite to give oral evidence. We are asking for the most diverse possible evidence to be given, and we will consider it all very carefully.

It is important for Parliament to be involved in the aviation debate and to be able to assess the evidence on these key issues in the public interest. The Select Committee’s work should enable that to happen.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): All Members will welcome an independent inquiry, as I suspect we already know that the Government’s inquiry will opt for the third runway at Heathrow, and the Mayor of London’s inquiry will go for Boris island. We welcome the independence, but will my hon. Friend take on board the dismay felt in west London that after many years of uncertainty all three main parties were against the third runway, but that that consensus has now been overturned? The prospect of a third runway in the middle of London is not conscionable, so will my hon. Friend consider excluding it, as the Mayor’s inquiry does, from her inquiry?

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Mrs Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, but I have to confirm that the Committee has an open mind and that it will be willing—and, indeed, keen—to receive evidence on a diverse range of options, all of which will be considered.

The terms of reference for our inquiry will be published on our website today. We want to hear a wide range of views on the Government’s aviation policy, and we are asking a number of questions. I would like briefly to outline some of the issues on which we would like to receive evidence. I emphasise, however, that this is not an exclusive list.

We will consider what the objectives of Government policy on aviation should be. We want to hear about the benefits aviation brings to the UK economy and how important the issue of international aviation connectivity is to UK industry. We are also interested in hearing about where aviation should fit in the Government’s wider transport strategy, as well as about the impact of air passenger duty. Should there be a step change in aviation capacity? How should we make best use of existing capacity? The Government hope that their current strategy will make the best use of capacity in London, but are their current plans sufficient or appropriate? Are airports situated in the regions outside the south-east sufficiently supported, and do they have a proper place in the Government’s strategy?

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) and I had meetings this morning with representatives of Britain’s regional airports, which are advocating a differential for air passenger duty as a way of stimulating greater use of regional airports, taking the pressure off both London Heathrow and Gatwick. This is an interesting suggestion that has recently come forward. My hon. Friend mentioned air passenger duty; will this be an issue that her inquiry will look at?

Mrs Ellman: That issue will be considered, as the terms of reference for our inquiry specifically include it.

We would like to hear about how we could improve the passenger experience and operational resilience at UK airports. We invite views on the constraints of increasing UK aviation capacity and on environmental concerns.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I thank the hon. Lady for being so generous with her time. Air passenger duty is an issue that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland has looked at in respect of regional aviation. It is important to share that information, as we heard witness after witness presenting evidence on the impact of APD not just on aviation but on the growth of tourism in the UK generally and its impact on the wider economy.

Mrs Ellman: The Committee would be very interested to receive evidence along the lines that the hon. Lady mentions, given the importance of looking at the significance of aviation for economies—regional as well as national.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the hon. Lady and her Committee look into the historic reasons for the congestion in the south-east of England—namely, the signing of bilateral agreements between the UK and other countries that stipulated the

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use of only London airports as a point of access into the UK. It is interesting to note that people in Iceland want to be able to fly to Glasgow rather be forced to fly to London and then north again to Glasgow.

Mrs Ellman: The issues of international agreements and the decision-making powers of the aviation sector itself are highly relevant to our inquiry.

I have referred to environmental concerns, and the inquiry will address environmental issues. The aviation industry has a number of environmental impacts. The issue of noise can be particularly important to local residents, and we want to know whether this is being regulated appropriately. We will also consider the wider environmental impact of aviation and how the industry can reduce carbon emissions so that further growth can be sustainable. We want to consider the full range of options. We will, for instance, consider whether a new airport should be built in the Thames estuary, whether Heathrow should have a third runway, and, indeed, whether there are other options. We will approach those issues with an open mind, and will consider the evidence submitted to us.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): What is interesting about the inquiry is that, in allowing for the possibility of a Thames estuary airport, it seems to be accepting that it is not a given that the only place where we can have a hub airport is Heathrow. On that basis, we should surely consider the possibility of expanding our regional airports, such as Manchester and Birmingham, and creating a further hub in one of the northern airports rather than always concentrating on the south of England.

Mrs Ellman: The Committee will consider the points made by the hon. Gentleman. We should be interested to hear evidence along those lines.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Given the length of time involved in any solution that the Committee considers for the south-east, will the hon. Lady ensure that it hears representations from Birmingham business organisations, and also from Birmingham airport? A £40 million runway extension is expected to be completed at the airport by 2014, which will allow flights to various regional cities in China, Brazil, South Africa and many other countries with growing economies.

Mrs Ellman: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, and, again, look forward to our receiving evidence along those lines.

We want the public to ensure that their voices are heard on this important issue. We aim to influence the Government during their policy development process with sensible but challenging recommendations, and to ensure that aviation policy is high on the agenda.

John McDonnell: To ensure that the public are engaged, will the Committee consider holding local meetings to discuss Heathrow?

Mrs Ellman: The Committee has not yet decided exactly how it will conduct itself, but that may be a possibility.

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Aviation policy may be controversial, but it is a vital issue which must be addressed. I hope that the Committee’s inquiry will assist in the development of an appropriate policy.

Question put and agreed to.

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Fuel Prices

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Before I call the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) to move the motion, I must inform Members that there will be a five-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches. Depending on progress, it may be necessary to review that limit during the debate, but we will begin with a five-minute limit. I hope that the mover of the motion will bear that in mind.

1.43 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House notes the call for evidence by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) on competition in the UK petrol and diesel market; however, believes that the OFT and Financial Services Authority should launch a full investigation into oil firms active in the UK; calls on the Government to consider the emergency steps being taken in other G20 countries to reduce fuel prices; notes, for example, the announcement by President Obama to strengthen federal supervision of the US oil market and to increase penalties for market manipulation, and the move by Germany and Austria to establish a new oil regulator with a remit to help stabilise the price of petrol in those countries; and further urges the OFT to note that the Federal Cartel Office in Germany is now investigating oil firms who are active in the UK following allegations of price fixing.

I want to make three points today. First, petrol and diesel have never been more expensive in real terms; secondly, oil companies are uncompetitive, and are not passing on cheaper fuel to motorists; and, thirdly, there is increasing evidence that dodgy speculators are rigging the market and forcing up the international price of oil.

I should begin by saying that today’s debate is happening partly because of the work of FairFuel UK, the hard work of Peter Carroll and Quentin Willson in giving a voice to thousands of motorists across the country—in the space of two weeks, they secured 27,000 signatures—The Sun’s Keep It Down campaign, and the work of the independent Petrol Retailers Association, led by Brian Madderson. Above all, however, it is happening thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, which has found time for fuel debates that have had a significant influence on Government policy, and the many Back Benchers who are here today and who have supported me, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the leaders of Plaid Cymru and the Social Democratic and Labour party, and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). [Hon. Members: “Western Isles!”] I did practise saying “Na h-Eileanan an Iar” in my office before the debate.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), and many other Members who have been very active. As can be seen on the Order Paper, the motion was signed by more than 80 Members from all parties: this is not a party political issue, but an issue that affects every single one of us and every single one of our constituents.

First, let me say something about the cost of fuel. Of course, much of that cost is tax. We have had many debates on the subject, and I am pleased that the Government not only cut fuel tax last year, but cancelled two planned fuel duty rises. The price of petrol is 10p lower than it would have been if the last Government’s plans had been implemented. However, despite the fuel

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tax freeze, prices are still rising, and the Department for Energy and Climate Change says that in real terms fuel has never been more expensive.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Robert Halfon: Ladies first.

Heather Wheeler: I thank my hon. Friend, and congratulate him and the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate.

My constituents do not understand why fuel prices are still going up, given that we hear so often that the actual quote price has gone down enormously. Perhaps my hon. Friend will say something about that later in his speech.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is a great campaigner against high petrol and diesel prices. Her constituents are very lucky indeed. She will hear me make exactly the same observations later.

Mr Baron: I congratulate my hon. Friend, and support his motion. He mentioned the freezing of fuel tax. May I suggest that the Government should think more about extending the freeze for the foreseeable future and, if necessary, taking funds from areas in which money is being spent unwisely? I am thinking of, for example, aid for India, a country that has its own aid programme. That would help many hard-pressed families and businesses up and down the country.

Robert Halfon: While I strongly believe that we should cut fuel duty as much as possible, I have to say that I am a passionate believer in overseas aid, and I am very proud that we have the overseas aid policies that we have.

Fiona O’Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is a vital debate, but the Minister was not present at the beginning of it. I wonder whether you could rule on whether or not that showed a lack of respect for Members and for the public at large.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Fortunately the Minister is now present to hear the debate, so no further comment is required from me.

Robert Halfon: I must say that I was disappointed by the hon. Lady’s point of order. I made it clear at the outset that this was not a party political issue, and the Minister could not have done more—in his present post, and when he was the Minister responsible for apprenticeships—to show that he cares deeply about issues of this kind.

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my—

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Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): I am sorry, but I could not see who the hon. Gentleman was in order to call him, because he had turned his back to me. May I remind Members that it is important for them to face the Chair? I could not recognise him from the back of his head, but I can now call Mr Lee Scott.

Mr Scott: I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, although some people do feel that that is my best side.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Last weekend, I happened to have to drive up to Manchester, and I noticed on the M1 that there was a difference of some 12p between the price of petrol in Manchester and the price in London, although the dealership was the same. Surely there can be no explanation for that. Does my hon. Friend share my concern?

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is right, and I hope that he will agree with what I shall say later.

I believe that we need to cut taxes on fuel, but given that the oil market makes up nearly half the pump price, oil companies must bear their share of the responsibility. If Members do not believe me, they should listen to what was said by the former head of Tesco, Sir Terry Leahy:

“Filling up the family car has gone up 70% in two years, causing what was a steady recovery to go sideways.”

Yes, the eurozone is a problem, and so is the overhang of debt, but it is expensive energy that is really hurting people on low incomes and crushing our economic recovery.

Secondly, turning to the oil companies, data from the Department of Energy and Climate Change quarterly energy prices release show that there is now a three-week delay between a fall in oil prices and a drop in petrol prices at the pump. However, even accounting for that, a dossier from the website I founded, petrolpromise.com, proves that cheaper oil was not passed on to UK motorists for most of the last two years. That is true of April, July, September, October, November and December 2011, and March, April, and May 2012. That is nine out of the last 18 months.

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) rose—

Claire Perry (Devizes) rose—

Robert Halfon: I shall give way to both my hon. Friends in a moment.

In July 2011, oil prices fell by 5%, but petrol prices were unchanged. Then, in March this year, oil prices fell again by 5%, but petrol prices rose by 10%. Why? I shall now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries).

Nadine Dorries rose—

Hon. Members: Answer the question!

Nadine Dorries: I shall allow my hon. Friend to answer that, as he is doing so well so far. In my constituency, there are students who cannot take their places at Bedford college, in part because their families used to

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be two-car families so there was a second car to transport them around, whereas now lots of families are going down to having just one car, because the cost of petrol has increased so much. That is having a huge negative impact on families.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is right, and I shall make the point in my concluding remarks that this issue is not just about economics. Although the economics of it is important, I have sought a debate on this subject because I believe it is about social justice, too, as high petrol prices are hurting the poorest far more than the rich.

Claire Perry: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. May I point out that in rural constituencies such as mine the situation is particularly difficult because there is not sufficient competition among petrol stations to drive prices down, and we are very dependent on our cars as we do not have public transport options?

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. She is absolutely right, and that is why we need an Office of Fair Trading inquiry.

Several hon. Members rose

Robert Halfon: I shall make a little progress, if I may.

Returning to the point I was making, when the oil price rises, it is a different story. In December last year, oil prices rose by a fraction, and the fuel price at the pumps instantly rose faster and higher. No market is perfect, but the question for oil wholesalers to answer is this: why are they always benefiting, rather than smaller forecourts or the consumer? It is not just motorists who are being crushed; small retailers are being crushed, too.

In January, independent retailers gave the OFT evidence proving that there is anticompetitive pricing, and that 300 smaller forecourts are being forced out of business every year, leading to petrol deserts in some towns. The fact is that most smaller petrol stations are forced to buy from just a few large oil companies, and at massively higher prices than their “own brand” stations down the road.

Mr Marcus Jones: My hon. Friend is making an important point. Does he agree that it is telling that whereas in 1991 there were 19,247 petrol forecourts in this country, as of last year that figure had fallen to 8,480, despite the fact that the number of cars on British roads had risen by 10 million?

Robert Halfon: The situation my hon. Friend describes is tragic, because when rural communities in particular lose their petrol station, they do not just lose a petrol station: they lose a vital community asset. May I give special thanks to my hon. Friend, too, as were it not for him and the Backbench Business Committee, of which he is a member, we would not be debating this issue today?

John Thurso: On two occasions, the OFT has looked into garages in Caithness for precisely the reasons my hon. Friend has set out. On both occasions, it found that it is not the small local garages that are at fault; rather, it is the distribution centre and the link between

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them and the oil companies. I am therefore delighted that my hon. Friend has secured this debate, and I hope we will now finally get to the heart of the problem.

Robert Halfon: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The point he makes highlights why it is so important that all of us give evidence to the OFT in order to try to force an inquiry.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I am one of the signatories to the hon. Gentleman’s motion. Indeed, last year I raised the oil price issue as I had been down in Cornwall the year before and I noticed that oil tankers were lined up. I am glad we are going to look into these cartels—if there are cartels—and the fixing of oil prices. More importantly, high oil prices feed through in that they lead to people’s cost of living rising, such as through increased bus fares or food prices because of higher transport costs.

Robert Halfon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and for supporting the motion. As he rightly says, this affects every man and woman in the country. Those who do not use cars may well travel on buses, and bus fares have gone up because the price of diesel has gone up. He is precisely right, therefore.

Several hon. Members rose

Robert Halfon: I am going to make a little more progress.

Returning to the point I was making, slowly the smaller firms are squeezed out of business. Then, the “own brand” stations put their prices up. This is exactly the same kind of anticompetitive stranglehold that breweries have over pubs, as we have heard in this House.

In my constituency of Harlow, some garages are charging 140p for petrol and 144p for diesel, which is a full 10p more expensive than the cheapest forecourts in the UK. The same complaint was made in Germany about five oil wholesalers who are active in the UK. Germany’s Federal Cartel Office—Bundeskartellamt—acted quickly, and opened a criminal investigation. Why cannot we do that here in Britain, too? Austria has actively started regulating its fuel markets, and the AA has noted the impact of that in respect of keeping fuel prices down. If the oil companies have nothing to hide, they could opt for open-book accounting, and be much more transparent.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Has he noticed the practice of retail outlets to offer cut-price fuel two days a week, which they sometimes do while also offering fuel at a higher price than only a week ago? This kind of excessive volatility in oil prices seems deliberately designed to confuse motorists so as to make it as hard as possible for them to shop around for the cheapest fuel.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Many Members are trying to intervene, and many of them are not on the list of speakers. There are also lots

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of Members on that list, however, and they may not get to speak if this opening contribution takes too long. I hope the hon. Member for Harlow bears that in mind.

Robert Halfon: May I therefore ask those who want to intervene but who are not on the list of speakers to make brief interventions, and those who are due to speak not to intervene?

We have established that fuel is more expensive than ever, and not only because of tax, but because of anticompetitiveness in the oil market, and we have seen that cheaper oil is not being passed on to motorists. Thirdly, there is the allegation of price-fixing. This means that, even if oil companies were doing the right thing, hedge funds and speculators are rigging the price of oil to keep it artificially high.

Many academics and financial journalists have said that is happening. In a groundbreaking article in The Daily Telegraph, Rowena Mason showed how oil price “benchmarks” are unregulated and—like LIBOR—are vulnerable to manipulation. The petrolpromise.com dossier shows that the Consumer Federation of America has raised the same concerns, as have Deutsche Bank, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Maryland university and the London School of Economics. Bloomberg has investigated how banks are buying up strategic stocks of oil and hoarding them on ships at sea, or in underground silos.

A whistleblower who trades the oil futures market has contacted petrolpromise.com and given us a detailed statement about how the market is rigged. He says:

“I trade the oil market on a daily basis, and every day the price is manipulated—not just the daily benchmark price but the calendar spreads that make up a large part of the daily volume. All through July, for example, there has been a massive buying-pressure on oil futures for August and September 2012. Both were trading at around a $0.5c to $1 dollar premium. This gives a false impression of the market and inflates the price of the nearby oil price”.

He goes on to say:

“One part of the problem is a lack of market transparency. In the oil futures market, huge volumes are offered and then withdrawn without trading…There is no reason for this behaviour other than to distort market prices.”

He also says that

“unlike stocks and shares where large holdings have to be declared, in the oil market nobody knows where the money is coming from”.

He continues:

“Prices are particularly manipulated at the close of business, when ‘markers’ are set on an average of trades in the last three minutes of the trading session. Every day, around these times, I see that the structure of the market is being moved to bring prices in line with the trading books of whoever is manipulating the market…This is in order to fix the price and make sure a profit is shown on their books.”

It is a long statement, but I wanted to put the key parts of it on the record.

Several hon. Members rose

Robert Halfon: Given what Madam Deputy Speaker said, I will take one more intervention.

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Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his long campaign, which I fully support. Residents and businesses in my constituency are bemused by a system that is not a free market, because it is not open and transparent. Until we get that transparency that he is so clearly adumbrating, we will not genuinely achieve success for those we represent.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is exactly right; the key issue is transparency. That is why I am asking, as are all the MPs who have signed today’s motion, for an investigation not just by the OFT, but by the Financial Services Authority as well. Last year, President Obama saw the same problems in America and he took action against rogue traders and banks, bringing in tough penalties, including prison, for people convicted of illegal market manipulation. We should do that in Britain, too.

In conclusion, it would be churlish of me not to welcome the modest steps taken by the OFT. I am grateful that it has agreed to hold an inquiry into whether there should be an inquiry, although I note that when I first wrote to the OFT earlier in the year it was less interested. Its chief executive wrote to me saying that

“even where we are able to investigate an issue, we may not necessarily do so, as we prioritise our work according to available resources”.

That was Sir Humphrey’s way of saying no. However, I am pleased that the OFT is inching towards a full investigation. My hope is that this debate will allow MPs to tell the OFT what is happening in their patch and what problems residents are facing. The FSA has agreed to meet the whistleblowers, so that will happen in due course, and I urge it to take further action.

My questions to the Minister are as follows: will he write to the OFT and the FSA setting out his concerns and reflecting what Members say this afternoon? Will he investigate the issue of anticompetitive pricing and how oil wholesalers are bankrupting retailers? Will he look at why some towns, such as Harlow, seem to be stuck with stubbornly higher fuel prices than everywhere else? Some of this debate is technical, but we should not forget that this is not about the economy; I am here today because I believe in social justice and I believe that the high petrol and diesel prices hurt the poor far more than they do the rich.

Several hon. Members rose

Robert Halfon: I am sorry but I am not going to give way, as I have almost come to the end of my remarks.

Ours is a great car economy, but high petrol prices are creating a poverty trap, adding to Britain’s dole queues. The Office for National Statistics says that fuel prices are regressive, hitting the poorest Brits the hardest. RAC figures show that an ordinary Harlow worker is paying a tenth of their income just to fill up the family car. The Government define fuel poverty as applying to someone who spends a tenth of their income on fuel, so motorists in Harlow and across the country are facing fuel poverty. I urge the House to support the motion, and I shall end by saying that in my constituency, and no doubt across the country, the question is not whether someone can afford to have a car, but whether they can afford not to have one.

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2.3 pm

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I am pleased to be able to participate in today’s debate on this important issue affecting all our constituents. From my perspective it is also timely, because recent reports have confirmed, again, that petrol and diesel prices in Northern Ireland are the highest in the UK and among the highest in Europe. The impact of this on Northern Ireland’s consumers, families and businesses is compounded by the fact that Northern Ireland has a greater dependence on road travel than other regions, because of its high level of rurality—35% compared with the 12% average for the rest of the UK as a whole—and restricted access to public transport outside urban centres. That factor was mentioned by the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry).

The high prices have a significant impact on local households, on businesses and on our national competitiveness. In addition, high prices and high differentials in the level of duty on fuel between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, in particular, provide an additional incentive for fuel laundering, smuggling and stretching, which deny the Exchequer income and carry significant enforcement and policing costs. Therefore, having affordable and transparent fuel pricing is a vital component of tackling those issues.

On the impact on business and growth, I had the opportunity during the recess to meet representatives of the Freight Transport Association in Northern Ireland, and I was able again to hear at first hand about the detrimental impact that the high and rising cost of fuel is having on its members and on the wider economy. One plant hire company in my constituency told me that it was keen to expand its business and take on new staff, and could see opportunities for doing so even in this difficult economic climate, but the effect of inflated fuel prices on its business has meant that fuel has now overtaken wages as a proportion of business costs and that its ability to expand has been constrained.

Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): One of my constituents is following this debate and has just tweeted me to say that they spend £4,600 a year on diesel, £1,000 on insurance and £240 on road tax, so going to work costs them £5,840. She is considering giving up work because of the excessive price of fuel. The lady’s Twitter handle is “knot_weed”. Does the hon. Lady accept that that is difficult both for businesses and their employees?

Naomi Long: It is incredibly difficult and it is one of the stumbling blocks we will face as we try to get people out of unemployment and back into work. The cost of travel to work is a significant factor. In Northern Ireland, where the cost of car insurance is also higher than in the rest of the UK, the problem is further compounded.

I hope that the OFT investigation will particularly examine the elevated price of fuel in Northern Ireland and the reasons behind that, as it is hurting business and families, and it is hindering growth.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): The hon. Lady refers to the OFT investigation. Will she praise its chief executive for his courage in taking on the might of the oil companies in dealing with this very important issue?

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Naomi Long: Courage is always commendable, wherever it is found, and I hope that the OFT is not only courageous but successful in its investigations.

In the limited time available to me today I do not wish to reiterate points that have already been made. I concur with most of what I have heard today, not least what has been said about the immediate response at the pumps when oil prices rise but the tardy response when they fall. That is a matter that frustrates. However, I wish to focus my attention on particular aspects of the market: supermarket pricing policy and its impact on consumers. I wish to state at the outset that my focus on this issue is not to suggest that supermarkets are responsible for all the ills of the market. They are not the worst retailers in all cases; many offer lower prices to consumers than other petrol and diesel retailers. However, the variation in supermarket pricing strategy and the prices on the forecourts are further examples of the lack of transparency in pricing more generally.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the hon. Lady also agree with FairFuelUK’s central campaign that the 3p fuel duty rise, which was deferred from August, should not come into effect on 1 January 2013 as planned? Some of us voted recently for such an approach during consideration of the Finance Bill.

Naomi Long: I do agree with that. I also wish to point out that the price variation between petrol stations in a single constituency can sometimes completely outstrip the fuel duty, yet it often gets less attention. I wish to focus on that in my next remarks.

Over the past year, I have been monitoring the price of fuel in my constituency and in the adjoining constituencies of Strangford and North Down. I have become increasingly concerned that people in my constituency get a poor deal on petrol prices compared with those in surrounding towns such as Newtownards and Bangor, where the price of petrol and diesel can be 6p a litre cheaper. One of the reasons for that differential is the impact of supermarkets on local pricing. Although they account for only 4% of Northern Ireland forecourts, their market share is about 25%. Supermarkets such as Asda operate a quasi-national pricing policy, but others do not and that can lead to significant anomalies in the pricing between stores in the same chain, and also in the prices offered at other local retailers as a consequence.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Naomi Long: No, because I want to finish my point, if I may. Asda does not have a national price policy, but it does have a national cap on prices, with the flexibility to reduce the price by 2p where competition is particularly fierce. However, many of the other supermarket retailers have no such constraint. Although people assume that if they purchase petrol at any Tesco or Sainsbury’s petrol station they will get the same deal—they therefore fail to shop around—that is simply not the case.

I will cite one example. At the Tesco petrol station in east Belfast, the price of petrol can be anything from 4p to 6p a litre more than at a Tesco petrol station in Bangor or Newtownards, which are about 9 miles away. In both those towns, the reduced price offered is almost certainly due to the fact that the Asda supermarkets in

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those towns offer petrol forecourt services, which Tesco responds to. Tesco competes with the local prices in the area but feels under no obligation to offer consumers the best value price for the commodity they are trying to purchase, which I think is wrong. The price differential is significant and has been monitored by the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, following a meeting between my colleagues and the council earlier this year. Two petrol stations owned by the same supermarket chain and less than 9 miles apart, when monitored over four months, showed a variation of 4p to 5p a litre for petrol and 5p to 6p a litre for diesel.

The justification that the petrol stations are responding to local competition is no comfort whatsoever to consumers who might have to pay £3 more to fill up at one when they could fill up for much less at another site owned by the same supermarket down the road, but they would not necessarily be aware of that. I reiterate that the focus on supermarkets is not simply to suggest that they are responsible for the problem, but it shows the lack of transparency—the opaqueness—in how petrol prices on the forecourts are reached and the lack of choice that consumers then have in making their decisions. I want transparency and openness, I support the motion, and I commend the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for bringing the matter before the House.

2.11 pm

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I hope to speak in the dairy industry debate in Westminster Hall later and so apologise to hon. Members if I have to leave this debate early. I would like to say a few words on behalf of rural areas, and, indeed, very rural areas, where fuel prices are of the utmost importance, because not only is there a lack of public transport but access to retail services, health services and education is over long distances and takes a great deal of fuel. I congratulate my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate. He has given me some information indicating that in my constituency petrol is sold at up to 142p a litre and diesel is sold at up to 149p a litre. I am not surprised, because some of our independent retailers operate in very remote areas, and we are very pleased that they have persisted in doing so.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): My hon. Friend’s constituency is very close to mine. Does he share my concern about the pace of closures of small outlets that service local villages, which is obviously putting pressure on local constituents?

Roger Williams: My hon. Friend is quite right, and I will come to that point in a moment. Certainly, petrol stations such as the community shop and petrol station in Llanbadarn Fynydd, which is at least 10 miles away from any other facility, and the one operated by Mr Tay in Ystradfellte are important facilities for very rural communities. A number of supermarkets have recently opened in my constituency; we were Tesco-free for many years, but Tesco has now come to Llandrindod Wells and to Ystradgynlais.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend and colleague from Powys for giving way and allowing me to associate myself with the fantastic

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speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and the work he has done. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) will agree that this has a particular resonance for rural areas not only because of the points he has raised about higher prices and the difficulty in reaching services, but because they are low-wage areas and so the part of the weekly budget that has to go on fuel is much higher. We are talking about social justice, and we want social justice for rural areas as well.

Roger Williams: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the affordability of fuel in rural areas. Indeed, Morrisons has just opened a supermarket and petrol forecourt in Brecon; it has reduced prices, and my constituents welcome that. My main purpose in speaking today is to make the point that we still need independent retailers, because it is only their presence that keeps the supermarkets honest. If the supermarkets had a monopoly in rural areas, they would certainly increase their prices.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Roger Williams: I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way.

I am kept informed of issues relating to petrol distribution, and indeed to retail, by Mr Skinner from Glanusk services in Sennybridge. He is an independent supplier of fuel to his community, and he is fiercely independent. He has provided huge service to his area. I remember that the winter before last, during the very cold period, when tankers were unable to access houses, Mr Skinner was selling heating oil in drums. He is really a saviour for the area. He tells me that the distributors who supply him with petrol and diesel are declining in number as one operator takes over another, which is taking competition out of the distribution system. In those circumstances, the independent supplier of petrol and diesel finds it very hard to get a competitive price so that he can remain in business. When this inquiry takes place, my representations will be on behalf of those independent retailers in very remote areas, because we need them in the countryside in order to maintain competition and ensure that the supermarkets do not take advantage of a monopoly position and make fuel unaffordable for my constituents and those in other rural areas.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. A large number of Members still wish to participate in the debate, which is due to end at 3.30 pm. I am therefore reducing the time limit to four minutes, and if necessary I will reduce it further. The more interventions there are, the slower progress we make. Those wishing to speak who intervene will find themselves moving down the list. I hope that Members will bear that in mind.

2.16 pm

Fiona O’Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): I will bear that in mind, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to begin by thanking the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for giving everyone in the Chamber, on both sides, the opportunity to stand up for hard-pressed

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motorists in our constituencies who are struggling with the increase in fuel prices at the pumps. It is clear to all that there are people who are gaining by manipulating markets and that consumers are not seeing the benefit when oil prices fall. We must also be clear that the OFT has announced not an inquiry at this stage, but a call for evidence. I am sure that everyone in the House will want their constituents and local businesses to get in touch with the OFT and present an overwhelming case for an inquiry so that we can see some progress.

The hon. Member for Harlow said that this is not a party political issue, but I have to say that I do not think we see the issue in isolation. Thanks to the opportunity he has given us today, a large number of my constituents have been in touch, and not many of them said, “The only problem in my life is the price of fuel at the pumps.” We also have the problem of rising food prices.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Fiona O'Donnell: I will not, because I want as many Members as possible to be able to contribute to the debate, as you have suggested, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It is also about rising food prices, which rose by 4.6% between March last year and March this year, and rising energy prices. The Prime Minister promised to take action to stop excessive rises in energy prices. I have asked him questions about both food inflation and energy prices, but we have not seen any action from the Government, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be more successful in convincing the Prime Minister to do something to bring down petrol prices.

Today’s debate is not just about the speculators and the oil companies that are making money off the backs of our constituents; it is about those individuals who are struggling to find work and, increasingly, having to travel further to do so. I want to talk about one of my constituents who has been in touch, a 40-year-old single man. He has been in work all his days, apart from a 16-week period when he could not find work. He is currently having to make a 48-mile round trip each day to get to work. That is taking a third of his salary, which leaves him unable to buy clothes; he told me that he has not bought any new clothes for at least three years. It also means that he is struggling even to put food on the table. The Government have to take some responsibility because their economic policy is hurting people and making it much more difficult to cope with rising prices.

I want to touch briefly on a policy that is also impacting on poorer motorists, who, as the hon. Member for Harlow rightly said, are suffering more than anyone else. I understand why we incentivise people to buy more environmentally friendly cars—that is absolutely the right thing to do—but the poorest motorists struggle to come up with the money to buy a car that allows them to benefit from the policy.

In conclusion, I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman. I hope he will be able to convince the Government to act on fixed pricing.

2.20 pm

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Chancellors of all persuasions have increased tax on fuel for many years, and that is why we have the highest fuel taxes in

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Europe and the second highest in the world. The last Government embraced that tendency with enthusiasm by introducing 12 increases in fuel duty. This Government, however, have done more than any other to help the motorist, by voiding two years’ worth of the last Government’s tax increases. I also welcome the Chancellor’s deferral of the August rise earlier this year, which many of us wanted.

Across the country, businesses and individuals have been hit by fuel costs. When the price of oil goes up time after time, so does the petrol price, yet when the oil price comes down, the petrol price remains steadfastly where it is. This weekend, prices came within about 3p of a record high.

On top of that, there is a discrepancy between rural and urban areas. Fuel is about 133p a litre at the pumps this week; in High Peak, it is as much as 144p a litre—a 10% premium.

Julian Sturdy rose—

Andrew Bingham: I shall take two interventions, and this will be the first.

Julian Sturdy: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Do not oil companies and supermarkets often sell fuel at inflated prices in rural areas to offset the cost of production and the lower prices in urban areas? That is having a huge impact on retailers as well.

Andrew Bingham: Absolutely. Unfortunately, rural residents like me have been beaten into submission and pay high fuel prices.

Furthermore, cars are more vital to people living in rural areas than to those living in urban areas. Many Members will not know the small village of Edale in my constituency, although the walkers and ramblers among them will. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) set off from Edale on his charity walk of the Pennine way earlier this year.

Mr Rob Wilson: Is my hon. Friend as disappointed as I am about the contribution of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O’Donnell)? She complained about the Minister being late, yet few of her colleagues have bothered to turn up for what she described as a very important debate.

Andrew Bingham: I completely agree. A couple of days ago, I was in the Chamber for the Opposition day debate about universal credit. The Opposition made great play of the fact that there were more Members on their Benches than ours, so let us turn it back on them: many Government Members are here because we care about the motorist and the cost of fuel.

I return to the people in the rural areas of High Peak. The residents of Edale face a 14-mile round trip to a post office. They have to go 10 miles for a doctor or dentist. All those journeys have to be made using their own transport. In rural areas, a car is a necessity, not a luxury. If we add all those journeys together over a year, the extra fuel costs can amount to as much as £400 to do the 2,000 miles that people in urban areas do not have to do. Those rural residents travel further and pay higher prices at the pumps.

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Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): Is it not also true that in rural northern England the problem is compounded by the fact that our average salaries are so much lower?

Andrew Bingham: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point with brevity, and I appreciate that.

We hear about deprivation in different parts of society. There is a thing called rural deprivation. Yes, I am lucky to represent and live in a beautiful area, but we pay for that through higher fuel costs and our increased reliance on fuel. Lots of other rural communities up and down the country suffer the same misfortune.

We are lucky that our Government are in power, because we are 10p a litre better off than we would be if the Labour party were still in government. However, we pay more in rural areas. The difference goes to the oil companies, not necessarily the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I believe that the Government are doing everything they can to keep fuel prices down, but it is time that the oil companies started to play their part and did what they could. We need to make motoring affordable. I welcome the call by the Office of Fair Trading for information on the UK petrol and diesel market; I hope that it will shed enough light to inspire a full investigation. We need open and transparent oil trading.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that markets do not work?

Andrew Bingham: Far from it; the market would work perfectly if we could see a little more of how it works. The issue is about ensuring that there are fair petrol prices and that when the oil price comes down, so does the petrol price.

Mrs Bingham complains that I do not take her anywhere expensive any more, but last week I took her to a petrol station in High Peak. [Laughter.] I spoil her.

In the interests of brevity, I will conclude. I hope that the action of the OFT will lead to an investigation into fuel prices. I hope that it will do it quickly and fairly and that the oil companies will react and do what we are doing as a Government to help to get the prices down. They should do that quickly to help hard-working families in High Peak and across the country and to help get the economy going, enabling people to put fuel in their cars and live their lives as they wish.

2.26 pm

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): We are facing higher fuel prices in real terms, as the hon. Member for Harro—sorry, the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said; I have as much difficulty in pronouncing the name of his constituency as he does in pronouncing the name of mine.

I draw the Chamber’s attention to a debate here on 7 February 2011, when I said that prices in my constituency were a shocking £1.45 a litre. Now they are between £1.52 and £1.59 for diesel, with petrol typically about 4p a litre less. Those prices take into account the 5p rural fuel derogation. I make this plea to the Government: in the modern day, a 5p derogation is not enough. We might have to go to Europe and ask for a larger one.

I point out to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell), who was particularly partisan, that when I asked for a larger derogation in the last Parliament,

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I was told by the Labour Government that the introduction of such a derogation would mean that people travelled to the islands to buy fuel that would still have been more expensive. I did not follow the logic then and I do not now.

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is right. We raised the rural fuel issue with the last Government, but nothing was done. This Government have introduced the rural fuel derogation. Like the hon. Gentleman, I would like it to increase. Will he support a campaign to see the derogation extended to remote parts of the mainland, such as the Kintyre peninsula?

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman makes a great point, and a serious one, about rural places in mainland Scotland. Places such as Argyll, Caithness, Sutherland and Lochaber, which I must not forget as I worked there, would benefit from the extension and increase of the derogation.

It is interesting that, as the motion states, other countries, from the United States of America to Austria and Germany, are regulating. Ultimately, we will have to do the same in the United Kingdom before the economy is totally strangled. Whether it is the fault of the companies, the distributors, the speculators or the retailers, we need to get the issue sorted for the good of the economy. Indeed, retailers would be quite pleased to have greater regulation or transparency, especially as they are sometimes tied to long-term contracts with distributors, which makes it difficult for them to shop around and means that the price of fuel cannot be brought down in marginal areas.

Transparency might be the answer, but we must bear it in mind that in some areas and markets prices can go up if the seller is reluctant to give discounts to certain buyers. For that reason, regulation must be taken seriously before the economy is strangled. We cannot leave the foot pressing harder and harder on the jugular in the neck of the economy.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I apologise for intervening and then leaving, but I am going to meet a group of people with disabilities. This is not just about fuel in the tank but about meeting people’s heating costs. The heating costs of someone who is elderly or has disabilities are always higher. Now, yet again, many people are having to choose between heating and eating. That is why we need to control these prices.

Mr MacNeil: My constituency has the highest rate of fuel poverty in the UK, so I know that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, and I am grateful for his intervention. People are having to make these choices when they get up on a winter’s day, especially the elderly and vulnerable.

This is a poll tax on jobs and on economic activity. The TaxPayers Alliance has produced work that shows that in many places, of £30 paid at the till, £18 goes in tax. That is in line with my own research. In the case of a litre costing £1.50, 58p is tax and 28p is VAT. A total of 83p was paid in tax, but it will be more, and my constituency has the highest tax per litre in the UK.

We must look at what is happening in the supply chain when fuel goes from the refinery to the distributors and then leaves the depot and arrives at the retail forecourts. The best estimate that I can work out from

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rumours is that in my area, having left the depots, it is going to retailers at about £1.20 or £1.25 per litre excluding VAT. With VAT, it comes to about £1.50, and the rest is the retailer’s margin, which is usually 5p, 6p or 7p. My figures are approximate but they give an idea of what is going on. I can best ascertain that the pre-tax cost of a litre is about 65p.

The Government have promised to bring in a fuel duty stabiliser, and I encourage them to do so. That is what the Scottish National party called it; they could call it a fair fuel regulator, or whatever. That would control spikes in fuel prices, alleviating uncertainty and helping businesses to plan in an uncertain world.

High fuel prices hit the poorest most, and they hit jobs and families. They hit rural constituencies and island constituencies. We cannot constantly come back to this Chamber with the same complaints year after year, Government after Government. I could not tell the House how many speeches I have made about this, but there have been many over the past seven years. There has been some progress in recent years with the rural fuel derogation, and I am thankful for that, but more has to be done. It is the job of Parliament and of Government to solve the country’s problems. We need regulation and we need to bring in the fair fuel stabiliser for the hard-pressed motorists, workers and families of this country.

2.32 pm

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): I shall follow your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker, by keeping my foot to the pedal and not taking interventions.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on his dogged, determined and diligent campaigning on social justice issues. Harlow is lucky to have him, and so are we in this House. This is a key issue because it goes to the heart of the cost of living, it undermines growth and economic recovery, and it raises important issues to do with market failure and regulation. I welcome the news that the review will look into the lack of competition at the pumps and strongly support my hon. Friend’s call for an investigation into the oil market.

I want to focus my comments on the pressures facing my constituents and the rural economy generally. Some garages in Mid Norfolk are currently charging £1.40 for fuel, and in the past that has risen to £1.45. The cheapest fuel in Britain today is £1.32 and the average is £1.38. Rural communities are paying more for their fuel. As others have said more eloquently, rural communities are dependent on cars for travel; there is little or no alternative. A car is not a luxury. Many of my constituents, whose average income is £18,000, have to run two cars to maintain a family. This affects the whole community—not only families and commuters but pensioners, those who depend on public transport and have to recoup the cost, and the public sector. As my hon. Friend said, this goes to the heart of social justice in serving the most vulnerable in rural and marginal areas.

Inflation is another factor. The market is not working, and that is deeply inflationary. The rural economy, particularly food and farming—our biggest manufacturing sector—is being damaged, and that is hugely significant in terms of our economic recovery. I draw Members’ attention to the Norfolk food and farming festival that

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is taking place here today. For anyone who has not had a chance to pop over and celebrate our produce, I ask them please to do so.

Recent data show that when the last fuel rise took place, traffic levels generally fell by 1% while in rural areas they fell by 5%. That highlights the degree to which rural areas are particularly sensitive to, and dependent on, fuel prices. There is nothing progressive socially about condemning poor families to live in isolated rural communities unable to play their part in society, and nothing progressive economically about penalising the car usage of those in rural and marginal areas. The rural economy, particularly in East Anglia, has the opportunity to drive and lead a more sustainable model of economic growth, with small businesses back in the countryside and less commuting, but that will not happen unless we support the oil of the economy, which is fuel.

I welcome the many measures that the Government have taken. They have frozen fuel duty, invested more than £4.5 billion in relief and petrol is now 10p cheaper, saving families more than £159 on average every year. I also welcome the fair fuel stabiliser. There are no simple answers. The truth is that the previous Government bequeathed us a horrible legacy of debt and a dependency on the fuel levy, and pennies at the pump in relief cost the Treasury billions, which undermines our effort on the deficit and puts at risk our low interest rates.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the real impact of this pernicious tax on the most vulnerable, particularly in rural and isolated areas; explore all and any options for targeting relief at those who need it most; take this opportunity to confirm the excellent initiative on the fair fuel stabiliser; and put the Government’s and his formidable political weight behind this call for an inquiry into the serious allegations of market rigging that have been highlighted, commendably, by my hon. Friend.

2.35 pm

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I also congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate and will begin where he finished—on the issue of fuel poverty. When we talk about fuel poverty in this House—we have done so for many years—we usually consider it in terms of household energy bills, but from what I have heard this afternoon, many are facing the same problems as those experienced in my constituency, where a low-wage economy in a rural area means that people are having to spend more on fuel for their family car. As has been said, people who have to use their car in a rural area such as mine and elsewhere are being driven into fuel poverty. People are even being driven to the point of wondering—we have heard this once already—whether they can continue to go to work and afford to run their car, because they have a 30, 40 or 50-mile round trip every day to work. That is becoming less viable for some households.

There is no doubt that something is happening in the marketplace. I, like Members from all parties in this House, wrote to the Chancellor to say, “Please do not impose the 3p fuel duty in August,” but what did we witness anyway? A standard note produced by the House of Commons Library shows that the price of fuel at the pumps increased by 3p. Something is happening. No matter what we do—if we reduce the duty, for example—something happens. The hon. Member for

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Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) mentioned the rural fuel derogation. I strongly suspect that, despite the 5p reduction, prices still went up, so the 5p fall was wiped out entirely. Manipulation is going on in the marketplace.

Mr MacNeil: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. The price of fuel went down and up in a certain way, as if to disguise what was happening, so it was difficult to get to the bottom of what was going on because fuel is not tied to a regulator.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. On interventions, it is not fair for Members who have already spoken to use up the time of others. A lot of Members want to get in and we ought not to be so generous.

Mr Brown: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker—I will not let the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar get back in again. The door is closed. He is right, however: whether something is disguised or manipulated, it is happening.

I do not want to have a go at the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham)—he is a decent guy—but let me put the record straight for him. On 11 occasions over nine years, the previous Government either froze or cancelled the fuel duty increase that had been in the Budget. We are all battling to put this right.

As oil prices increase, so do the costs of heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas. The last peak in pump prices was back in the summer of 2008, and at that time the price of fuel at the pumps was driven by crude oil at a price of $140 per barrel. Last week, according to The Daily Telegraph—not my favourite read—the price of crude oil was $113.49 per barrel, so we are a long way off the $140 per barrel that resulted in the peak in prices during the summer of 2008. There is manipulation. I do not think that there is any doubt about that.

I say again to the hon. Member for Harlow and others that I want VAT to be reduced from 20% back to 17.5%. The increase to 20% put fuel prices up by 3p or 3.5p a litre, which is the highest increase under the coalition Government. A reduction in VAT would help, but we must be wary to ensure that the oil companies do not try to squeeze the prices a little more and recover that money.

I am delighted that the Office of Fair Trading will look into this matter. I was surprised when it wrote to me two weeks ago to say that it would do so because of the representations that I and others had made. I say to colleagues in this House, let us not hold our breath, because the OFT’s previous work, especially in the more rural locations in Scotland, came up with nothing. We need answers about what is going on in our communities and about what consumers and our constituents are being faced with. We therefore need the evidence to go to the OFT and for it to have a robust inquiry to put the matter right.

2.41 pm

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate and on his tireless work on this subject.