28 Nov 2012 : Column 110WH

Back in October, I launched a report with the London Mining Network and a number of non-governmental organisations. It was part of a campaign to try to persuade the Government at that stage, while the Financial Services Bill was going through the House, to ensure that a duty was placed on the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority—the new architecture for regulation of the City—so that when companies were listed, there would be a commitment to monitoring their adherence to certain basic elements of corporate responsibility. That included ethical corporate responsibility, and in particular their operations in the developing world with regard to the protection of human rights, tackling climate change, and their adherence to international law and conventions—and, importantly, the convention on protecting indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, we never secured those amendments to the legislation, but I hope that in dialogue with the FCA, we can move forward and at least ensure that there is not only openness and transparency but action by the FCA. Being listed on the London stock exchange is critical for such companies. It demonstrates—or should demonstrate—to the world that there is financial probity and good governance. It should also demonstrate a commitment to ethical corporate responsibility and behaviour standards, but at the moment I do not think that is the case.

I will name individual company names, because I think it is important that we know what has gone on, and part of our role in the House is to help people to bear witness to what has happened in recent years. When we launched the report, I said:

“We cannot stand by and witness these global mining companies brutally impoverishing and destroying the lives and environments of whole communities. We need not only to expose this exploitation but also to demand that a firm system of…regulation”—

both national and international—

“control and accountability is put in place that halts the destructive activities.”

Those activities are not just destructive in the developing world and of the long-term interests of those individual companies and their employees; they are destructive of London’s standing in international markets, because the reputational damage that such companies are doing to London will undermine the long-term future of our economy.

At the launch of the report, Peter Frankental from Amnesty International said:

“This report…presents a challenge to the Government to ensure that the proposed regulatory body has the powers to require mining companies to meet acceptable human rights and environmental standards as a condition for listing on the London Stock Exchange”.

That is exactly what we were arguing for. I pay tribute to people such as Richard Solly, who has co-ordinated the London Mining Network over the years, for the effective work that they have done.

Let us consider a few examples; I want to do a quick ABC of some companies and their impact. They have been outrageous in their behaviour—abroad and, in some instances, in this country.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He and I have sat through a number of meetings with groups from the Congo, Colombia and a number of other countries, where the most appalling damage has been suffered because of the irresponsible behaviour

28 Nov 2012 : Column 111WH

of mining companies. Many of the mining companies claim in their defence that the actual mining work is done by some mysterious subsidiary—another supplier, another contractor—in order to evade their corporate responsibilities and the law of the country. Does he agree that we need to frame responsibility in law that guarantees the whole supply chain and not just the convenient end-part of it, where the large profits are made?

John McDonnell: That is one of the important issues, and my hon. Friend has raised it before with regard to the extractive industries transparency initiative. It is important that we have full transparency, particularly with regard to subsidiaries.

Let me cite some examples that relate to my hon. Friend’s point. I shall start with Anglo American. At its AGM this year I met a number of people lobbying there. In particular, the company has come under fire for its involvement in the Cerrejon coal mine in northern Colombia. I met a number of local people who live near the mine and have been forced out of their communities. There has been forced relocation of farming communities, without any adequate compensation. It has taken years of campaigning just to get some dialogue going with the company. It was involved, with Rio Tinto, in the Pebble mine copper and gold project in Alaska, which has threatened vast swathes of the caribou calving grounds, the ecological integrity of Bristol bay, and the fisheries.

The company promised to create 100 jobs, but it has actually destroyed 600. Its Anglo American Platinum division continues to attract heavy criticism from farming communities in South Africa for its handling of community resettlement and for polluting water supplies. AngloGold Ashanti, which is also owned by Anglo American—as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, these companies are subsidiaries—retains a standard listing on the London stock exchange, and it has been accused of profiteering from paramilitary intimidation of mining opponents in Colombia. De Beers, which Anglo American controls, has been criticised for potentially benefiting from the forced removal of indigenous bushmen from their ancestral territory in Botswana.

It goes on. BHP Billiton, in addition to its role in the Cerrejon mine, is in dispute with the Colombian Government over the derisory royalties it has paid at its Cerro Matoso nickel mine. It is under fire for toxic spills and health impacts at its Antamina copper, zinc and molybdenum mine in Peru. It is accused of providing poor conditions for workers at its Escondida mine in Chile, ignoring native American sacred sites at the Resolution Copper project in Arizona, and leaving a toxic legacy at the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea.

I will not go into Glencore, because my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk has dealt with it in previous debates, but it is well known for its role, particularly in Africa. Let me come on instead to Global Coal Management Resources plc and its responsibility for the open-cast mine at Phulbari in Bangladesh. According to the Bank Information Centre in Washington, the project is acquiring almost 6,000 hectares of land and displacing anything between 50,000 and 200,000 people.

28 Nov 2012 : Column 112WH

It is destroying ponds, fruit and timber trees, businesses, homes, barns, boundary walls, schools, health facilities, mosques, temples, churches and archaeological sites. This displacement is taking place in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and it is destroying a critical agricultural region, threatening Bangladesh’s food supply. More than 80% of the land that is being threatened is fertile agricultural land, which cannot be replaced. That leaves farmers and families with few options for employment, and it risks impoverishing a massive number of people, turning hundreds of thousands of farmers into landless wage earners who will be competing for jobs in entirely different sectors.

What is interesting is that the company is one of those that have been promoted by this Government, as it was by the previous Government. Despite receiving a series of freedom of information requests recently, the Government have refused to provide information about their relationship with the company and about the support they have given it and its operation in Bangladesh. In its response, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office explains it will not provide the information

“because we consider that the disclosure of this information would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and Bangladesh”

and because it would

“prejudice the UK Government's internal relations with the Bangladesh Government”.

In other words, the Government would be ashamed of the support they have given this company if it came to light, and the Bangladeshi Government would be furious—understandably so, from the sound of the work that has been undertaken to promote the devastation of the region.

Monterrico Metals was originally linked to the Phulbari project through the company’s previous chairman. Monterrico has also received help from the British Government. In fact, the former British ambassador to Peru, Richard Ralph, spent part of his ambassadorial time talking up the advantages of Monterrico’s Rio Blanco copper project in the Andes. He tried to reassure local organic farmers, most of whom are vehemently opposed to the project, which threatens their livelihoods, that the production of large amounts of toxic waste and the pollution of local water supplies would be good for them. What an extraordinary coincidence it is that when the ambassador retired, he became chairman of Monterrico Metals. Later, he was prosecuted as a result of insider trading. Again, a huge majority of local people rejected the company’s proposals for the Rio Blanco mining project, and there were protests, during which people were killed.

Rio Tinto is also listed on the London stock exchange. It has been the subject of one of the longest running anti-corporate campaigns in the world by Partisans—People Against Rio Tinto and Subsidiaries. It is accused of anti-union activities and of ignoring aboriginal rights in Australia. Its nickel-copper mine on the Yellow Dog plains near Lake Superior has been criticised. I have met representatives from Mongolian organisations concerned about the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in the Gobi desert.

Guy Opperman: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the individual who was monitoring and then went to work as the chairman. I used the example of someone who

28 Nov 2012 : Column 113WH

worked for the local authority and turned from gamekeeper into poacher straightaway thereafter. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, just as we require Members of the House not to do business connected to matters they have dealt with as a Minister, we should encourage companies set up in this country to ensure, through the shareholders’ action, that such persons, with whom the companies have dealt, are not then immediately hired on to their boards?

John McDonnell: I fully agree, but it needs more than shareholder action. I think it is the responsibility of the Financial Conduct Authority, under the auspices of the Bank of England, to introduce specific regulation to prevent some of these things from taking place. That will give confidence to those who want to invest in these companies and who want to look on London as a place where companies operate properly, legally, with probity and with a commitment to ethical corporate behaviour.

Let me give two last examples. I protested at the Vedanta annual general meeting this year because I was so angry about the company’s behaviour. Vedanta has been criticised for its behaviour in Armenia and Zambia, but it is in India where it has come in for the heaviest criticism, for the manner in which it ignored environmental legislation and literally bulldozed its way into tribal land in Orissa, in the hope of constructing a huge bauxite mine on land sacred to the Dongria Kondh people to feed its illegally constructed alumina refinery.

I have also been dealing with the company in Goa. I met representatives of the Save Goa Campaign recently. I congratulate the Indian Government on setting up the Shah commission, which ruled in September that all the mines in Goa were operating illegally because they were not abiding by environmental standards. All the mines were shut overnight, and a court case is going on this week to see which ones can reopen if they have abided by basic environmental standards. Vedanta and others have undermined the agricultural base of the Goan economy, polluted the water and threatened the tourism industry. I commend the Save Goa Campaign: local people and the Goan diaspora have exposed what has gone on. I also commend the Indian Government for taking decisive action. However, Vedanta, as the main company involved, has made fortunes from exploiting the Indian subcontinent.

Finally, there is Xstrata. It is involved with the Cerrejon mine in Colombia; it is involved in the hugely controversial Tintaya mine in Peru, which has been a focus of fierce conflict over the years as a result of the pollution; and it is involved in the Philippines, where its Tampakan project is strongly opposed by indigenous people. The Argentine federal appeals court has also upheld criminal charges against Xstrata general managers in the past.

My view is straightforward. I have read out that list of examples because they are shocking. These companies are all listed on the London stock exchange. We need to take responsibility in this country, and I wish this had been more decisively dealt with when the Financial Services Act 2012 was before us. If these companies wish to be listed on the London stock exchange, they must first show complete openness and transparency; they must ensure that there is financial probity; and, above all else, they must be prevented from doing London reputational damage. We will achieve that by making sure that they abide by corporate ethical standards, and

28 Nov 2012 : Column 114WH

that means ensuring that the FCA and the Bank of England have a role, including in delisting companies, if necessary, because of their behaviour in the developing world.

One day we will depend on the developing world for a whole range of relationships and for the distribution of a whole range of raw materials and national assets, which will benefit the whole globe. We are alienating people now we will want to co-operate with in the future, because we are not controlling these mining companies, which are doing so much damage to our reputation abroad. In addition, we are doing long-term damage to our economy. That is why I urge the Government to act.

In conclusion, it should not take freedom of information requests to this Government or any Government to get real information about the relationship between the Government, their Departments and individual companies. Even when freedom of information requests come back, they are heavily redacted to keep secret the malevolent role that Governments have played over the years in supporting these companies.

3.19 pm

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who raises some serious concerns about London-listed companies, and to speak in this debate. The hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) gave an excellent introduction and spoke about the importance of overseas issues. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and in particular to the fact that before I came to this House, I advised a number of international mining companies on their financial communications. I no longer have any such financial relationship although, like my hon. Friend, I own a very small number of shares in the company BHP Billiton. I also want to mention a constituency interest: a mining supplies and parts business called Joy Mining Machinery, which employs a number of people and supplies mining companies around the world, including UK Coal. I appreciate the concerns about that that my hon. Friend raised, and I shall point them out to the company in my constituency.

The hon. Member for Falkirk is, like me, a member of the all-party trade out of poverty group, and he pointed out that the work of London-listed mining companies in developing countries can help with that, as long as governance is good and clear regimes are in place to ensure that royalties are paid. There are several countries where that has happened, such as Chile, Botswana and, from time to time, Zambia, and there have been substantial benefits. Good governance and transparency are vital. The hon. Gentleman also brought up two initiatives, which, I think, started in London: the extractive industries transparency initiative, and the International Council on Mining and Metals. Both were supported in their beginnings by the UK, and UK-listed companies have played an important part in setting them up. It is a great shame that although the EITI is embraced by countries around the world—even the likes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are looking to sign up to it—this country is not yet a signatory. I encourage the Minister to consider whether the UK can become a signatory to the EITI, because that would encourage every listed

28 Nov 2012 : Column 115WH

UK company to maintain the degree of transparency that we would expect about where payments go in the countries where they operate. It would also send a powerful message to other countries that we might wish to encourage to join. They would include countries such as Brazil that have arrived on the international economic scene and consider themselves as no longer developing countries but developed countries, as well as other developed countries. Norway has signed up, as the UK should.

Most of the mining companies that I dealt with in my career understood that corporate social responsibility was crucial to their licence to operate, and most would embrace improved UK listing requirements. Indeed, in my previous career, I heard concerns that the listing requirements in Hong Kong are, in theory, tighter than those in the UK. For the sake of our international competitiveness, we should ensure that ours are just as strong.

We have heard much about the amount of tax paid by international companies. Of course it is right that companies operating elsewhere in the world and listed in the UK should pay most of their tax in the jurisdictions where they operate, especially when that can help a developing country. However, I will be interested to know whether the UK Government or the Treasury have ever carried out an analysis of the benefits to the UK economy and taxpayer of having so many international companies listed in London, and therefore employing people at headquarters for investor relations and as consultants in the London market. Such a piece of work would be interesting.

Wherever mining companies operate, they need to balance the environmental and social concerns that are rightly raised by many UK NGOs with the benefit that can be brought through employment and investment in infrastructure. One aspect of the debate that we should consider is the fact that it is not only UK-listed mining companies that carry out work in developing parts of the world—with the potential to do good or damage. We have enormous competition, not just from other areas of the world where companies are publicly listed, but from the likes of China, which are investing huge amounts in projects and may not necessarily hold businesses to account as we would like on the way in which they benefit the economies in question. We should champion greater transparency and more listing of international companies in London so that we can ensure that they are held to account. A challenge for this country is to ensure that the whole industry understands the importance of acting responsibly and the benefits of greater transparency, and for the UK to show that the EITI, which we helped to launch, is not just for developing economies, but something to be embraced across the board by all economies.

The hon. Member for Falkirk pointed out that, in the developing world, mining can encourage development. We should examine the UK’s position as a leading destination for listings and see how we can take the most advantage from that to encourage best practice in the industry and responsible development around the world.

28 Nov 2012 : Column 116WH

3.25 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I still have fond memories of the Committee that considered the Bill that became the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, which we endured together.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) on securing the debate, and my hon. Friends the Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and the hon. Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for Worcester (Mr Walker), on speaking so eloquently on such an important matter.

Hon. Members have spoken with one voice in the debate. The hon. Member for Hexham mentioned UK open-cast mining—I shall come on to that in a moment—and also talked about the importance of increased transparency and better corporate governance, because that improves accountability. There is a strong argument that if mining companies disclosed their payments to Governments on a country-by-country and project-by-project basis, it would be easier to see which companies were paying tax—and in which countries they pay it—who was paying bribes, the circumstances in which local officials or representatives were accepting bribes, and which projects were being waved through. That, in many respects, is the most striking example of what has in the past few years been called responsible capitalism—ensuring that big companies do not pillage and exploit the developing world’s natural resources, but provide mutually acceptable terms of trade, in the interests of all, that can benefit all the populations of mineral-rich nations, rather than just a narrow, privileged elite.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend must be aware that high-value rare earths and minerals—coltan, diamonds and so on—are often smuggled out of countries such as the Congo, which is possible because they are dealt with in relatively small volumes. Neighbouring countries re-export them and then they are bought by dealers around the world. We will find that the traceable line almost disappears unless we force the countries that host the headquarters of a number of the dealing companies, such as Switzerland, to be part of the transparency process.

Mr Wright: I agree with my hon. Friend. A balance needs to be struck, with the UK being the centre of the world’s financial operations through the City of London, between moving unilaterally and providing for a multilateral approach to ensure that we can adopt my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk mentioned something in which I am particularly interested: ensuring that valuable resources such as rare earths, or minerals in general, are not sold for a fraction of their real market value. There is an argument, as we heard, that if developing nations received the fair market share for those important and valuable resources, the international aid budget could be reduced, because those mineral and resource-rich nations could develop their own economies and societies, and make progress along the value-added chain.

When dealing with reporting and regulatory requirements, critics often say that any additional requirements would be too onerous and would impose additional costs. It is often argued that it would be

28 Nov 2012 : Column 117WH

wrong to increase costs for mining companies at a time when the long-term global boom in commodities is coming to an end. However, an interesting article in

The Economist

earlier in the year stated that, in 2011, Angola awarded several new deep-water oil concessions to firms covered by the Dodd-Frank requirements with no apparent difficulty. It said that no oil company had cited increased openness as a material risk in its Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk talked about how hedge funds want improved transparency and reporting requirements because they want, to use his vivid phrase, to know where the money is going. Paul Bugala, a senior analyst for extractive industries at Calvert Instruments, which manages a $13 billion fund, states that such improved disclosure and reporting requirements would help him and the market better to assess political and regulatory risk, and would therefore allow for better investment and stock selection, improving share prices in the sector in the long term.

Companies already collect such data for internal use, so there is a strong argument that such a process would merely make the data public. The additional costs that are often cited would therefore be minimal, if not non-existent. If all companies had to fulfil this additional requirement, no competitive advantage would be lost. The article in The Economist concluded by saying:

“'The expense has been minimal for the few, such as America’s Newmont Mining, that already provide country-level reporting.”

In July 2011, in a speech in Nigeria, the Prime Minister said:

“It is not enough to import labour, extract Africa’s resources and move on. It’s vital that when foreign companies invest in a country, the benefits of that investment reach the African people, so they become less reliant on aid.”

The Prime Minister complimented the United States for introducing legally binding measures to require oil, gas and mining companies to publish key financial information for each country and project they work on. He said in the same speech:

“I'm calling on Europe to do the same. We want to disclose the payments our companies make to your Governments so you can hold your Governments to account for the money they receive.”

Although the Prime Minister made that speech and that pledge 16 months ago, there has been slow progress at a domestic or European level. One of the first replies that the Minister gave in her new job, with her shiny red box, was to state in mid-October that the Government are engaged in EU-level negotiations on transparency laws. She added that the European presidency would soon begin discussions with the European Parliament and the Commission to try to achieve some agreement on improved transparency in the payments that extractive industries make to foreign Governments. I will support her in that.

I appreciate that the Minister is relatively new to her post and her response was made only six weeks ago. However, there had been some movement in the month prior to her appointment. I am not suggesting for one moment that the Minister’s appointment has stalled progress—I hope she will not take offence; it genuinely was not intended—but a Committee of the European Parliament passed a vote in September requiring a European version of the US system through which oil, gas, mining and timber companies should publish their payments to foreign Governments. Will the Minister

28 Nov 2012 : Column 118WH

outline any progress that has been made in the six weeks or so since she answered that parliamentary question, together with any time scales that she is pressing on her European counterparts to reach European-wide agreement?

It seemed to me that the Prime Minister’s speech in Nigeria suggested that he wanted country-by-country reporting. The Minister’s parliamentary answer of six weeks ago seemed to confirm that stance. When the International Development Committee investigated tax in developing countries, it recommended:

“The Government should enact legislation requiring each UK-based multinational corporation to report its financial information on a country-by-country basis.”

In their response to that recommendation, the Government dismissed the idea of unilateral positioning on this matter, stating that they merely support mandatory reporting requirements at the EU level. I can understand that approach but, as I said in response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North, what is the correct balance between moving in a unilateral fashion—given our financial importance in the world with the City of London—and moving at a European level? Is there anything that the UK and the Minister can do outside the EU? I would be interested to hear her opinion of the appropriate policy balance.

One of the areas of today’s debate has been the extractive industries transparency initiative, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk and the hon. Member for Worcester spoke particularly eloquently. As we have heard, the EITI was established a decade ago by the UK Government with the clear and specific aim of addressing corruption in the extractive industries. As the hon. Member for Worcester said, the UK has never signed up to EITI, despite being at the forefront of founding the organisation, so that seems to be a mismatch.

When the then Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr O'Brien), gave evidence to the International Development Committee investigation that I mentioned, he said that the UK’s reason for not signing up to the EITI was that we as a country are not “resource-rich”. I have looked at statistics from the Office for National Statistics, and disregarding the City of London’s position in terms of UK-listed mining companies, 16.4% of the UK total economic production constitutes mining and quarrying. That seems fairly resource-rich to me, given that we also have North sea oil. Will the Minister comment on that? Does she agree with the then DFID Minister? Does she not agree with the suggestion made today that the UK, as the founder of EITI, should lead by example? Does she agree that the UK’s joining would encourage other countries to join? Does she also agree that as this country is the world’s acknowledged centre for financial services and accountancy standards, and at the forefront of world-class corporate governance, and given that the City of London is the headquarters for so many multinational mining corporations, the UK should and could send out a powerful message by joining the EITI?

In response to the investigation, the Government said that they welcomed the strategy review of the EITI, which is looking at developing a broader standard for consideration by the EITI board, with a view to possible introduction in 2014. Has the Minister any thoughts on the criteria that would need to be met as part of the

28 Nov 2012 : Column 119WH

strategy review that would satisfy her enough to recommend to her DFID counterparts that EITI membership should be sought?

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned the London Mining Network. Has the Minister seen the network’s report on UK-listed mining companies and the case for stricter oversight? It is incredibly interesting reading. Will she comment on whether the Government would be amenable to the eight recommendations put forward in the report on such matters as the reporting of non-compliance with IFC and OECD standards, as well as ensuring—we have heard about this many times in the debate—that the FCA has powers to enforce section 172 of the Companies Act 2006 with regard to corporate reporting requirements relating to environmental and social impacts?

That report also raises interesting points about the reporting requirements of companies listed on the alternative investment market. I fully accept the differing reporting and regulatory requirements between AIM-listed companies and those listed on the FTSE 100, but it would be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts on the Government’s policy on whether AIM requirements for mining companies should be changed.

The hon. Member for Hexham talked about open-cast mining in his constituency and made the important point that the north-east was at the centre of mining. It has a rich heritage and helped the industrial revolution to come about. He mentioned two important points that I hope the Minister will address, including about individuals who want to sue mining companies because of what might be happening in their communities. Is the Minister concerned about the effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which makes it virtually impossible for any UK citizen to seek redress in such a respect?

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned planning and, quite rightly, the importance of the green belt in the planning system, and he cited what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said in a speech in September. Will the Minister address the comments made by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), in the past 24 hours, when he said—I paraphrase—“Let’s just build over the green belt”?

Guy Opperman: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the planning Minister did not say, “Let’s build over the green belt.” He specifically said that we should not build on the green belt, but look at other land, which is a perfectly reasonable proposal.

May I briefly ask about one of the hon. Gentleman’s points? The legal aid changes would not have affected the several cases that I brought as a lawyer against such planning applications. Such action would still be available and, because of what we did, there is now a protective costs order to protect litigants bringing such actions. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that successive Governments have allowed applications for developments to be made by companies that are UK-based, but ultimately hiding behind a parent company? That cannot be right.

28 Nov 2012 : Column 120WH

Mr Wright: The hon. Gentleman has brought to the debate his impressive forensic skills, which he has honed as a barrister. He is right that the planning Minister did not say, “Let’s build all over the green belt,” but, “Let’s build on green land.” I was a planning Minister, and green belt regulation is important. Brownfield development, as opposed to greenfield development, is always the most appropriate approach.

The hon. Gentleman gave us his experience of the importance of legal aid and asked an important question to which I hope the Minister will respond. In different areas of public policy in the past month, we have seen companies using their power and breadth of scope in a globalised world to make profits in the UK despite having no corporate responsibility whatsoever, particularly over paying tax. I am interested in the Minister’s comments on any proposals to make companies to pay tax where they earn their turnover, as opposed to allowing them to move their responsibilities elsewhere through transfer pricing.

This has been an important debate in which many serious points have been made. I am a big believer in the notion that improved transparency and reporting requirements, and better corporate governance, can benefit all society, and indeed the economy. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response.

3.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Benton, and for drawing our attention to the new clock regime, which is a very good innovation, particularly the advent of seconds. We can feel the anticipation of the countdown in the closing seconds of our speeches. I congratulate the hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) on securing the debate. It has been an important opportunity to highlight what we are doing to increase transparency. I pay tribute to his hard work, particularly in his role on the all-party group on the African great lakes region.

I would also like to thank the hon. Gentleman for his kindness and understanding. When the debate was initially scheduled for a few weeks ago, I was suffering from the cold that was going round and had entirely lost my voice. It would not have been a particularly instructive debate in which to hear the Government’s view, because I would have been very much in listening mode only. I am glad we were able to reschedule. In doing so, it has changed from a half-hour to a 90-minute debate. I do not know whether that is pure good luck in the ballot or karma from the powers-that-be for the hon. Gentleman’s understanding. I am sure that we all appreciate having this opportunity, because we have been able to hear not only his views but contributions from other hon. Members.

In my summation, I shall outline the Government’s position and our commitment to transparency, in particular. I shall go through the latest developments on the EU rules and talk about corporate governance, with particular reference to reporting requirements and the composition of boards. I will also talk about the extractive industries transparency initiative, which several hon. Members mentioned. I will then deal with the impact of mining on the UK economy.

For far too long, the world’s poorest people have struggled to benefit from the vast natural resources in their countries. Millions of people in developing countries

28 Nov 2012 : Column 121WH

languish in poverty while their corrupt Governments squander or hide large payments from foreign companies. Strong EU action to create a new global standard for transparency in the extractive industries is vital to help those citizens to hold their Governments to account. I am determined that the UK will play a leading role within the EU to make the most of opportunities.

The Government are keen that the mining industry, as well as other extractive industries, provides more information on the payments it makes. Countries rich in natural resources—the minerals that industrialised nations need—can use that wealth to boost economic growth and improve social conditions for some of the poorest people in the world, who badly need that. International mining developments have the potential to boost economic growth dramatically and provide a route out of poverty for resource-rich developing countries. All too often, however, such resources act as a curse, owing to the temptations of corruption that tend to go with them.

To provide some context, the value of exports of oil, gas and minerals from sub-Saharan Africa in 2009 was five times greater than the aid it received, and prices have risen since then. There is huge potential to unlock positive development. Botswana, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo top the global chart of mineral-dependent countries—those that depend on minerals for more than a quarter of their tangible exports. Well managed extractive resources can provide a big economic jolt, but citizens of such countries are too often unable to find out how much their Governments are paid for access to the resources or how the payments are reinvested, so there is no way to hold them to account.

The Prime Minister has expressed his strong support for the transparency agenda. When he spoke in Lagos in July 2011, he made clear his support for EU action to improve the information available at both country and project level. More recently, he reaffirmed his commitment to the UK leading efforts in the EU to require oil, gas and mining companies to publish details of the payments they make to Governments. The Deputy Prime Minister has also been active in this regard, and last month he and I met campaigners, including that rather well known supporter, Bono. The Deputy Prime Minister has been a strong advocate of transparency and in particular of ensuring that the agenda is driven forward at the centre of Government with the important support of the Prime Minister.

The hon. Member for Falkirk and others talked about the accountancy and transparency directives and where we are with them, and I hope to update the House today. The Government are keen that the EU agrees strong reporting requirements—rules that could improve the lives of millions of people around the world. For the first time, the extractive industries will have to report the payments that they make in all countries in which they operate. It is proposed that such companies, whether listed or not, publish details of what they pay to each level of government—nationally, regionally and locally. Crucially, they will also have to report payments to state-owned organisations, such as energy providers. That will give citizens the information that they need on, for example, the taxes, royalties and other payments made in host countries. If we get the measures right, it will have a huge impact in helping to

28 Nov 2012 : Column 122WH

combat corruption in developing countries and ensure that natural resources benefit all the citizens of the countries where they are mined.

The hon. Member for Falkirk mentioned the action in the United States, which has already agreed new rules, as we know. The US Dodd-Frank Act requires listed companies to report to the Securities and Exchange Commission each year. That means giving details of the payments, whether in money or in kind, that they make to Governments. The new legislation, published in August, raised the bar on global transparency standards, which I warmly welcome. US-listed companies will have to comply with a set of strict rules that will considerably increase the amount of information available to citizens. Although the EU has been discussing the issue for a long time—things tend to take a long time with the EU—the publication of the US rules has given us an opportunity to go further than we had thought possible in the EU, because, on exemptions, project-level reporting and the threshold for reporting, the rules are more ambitious than many had expected.

In response to that bold move by the US, the coalition Government are pushing for the EU to match the US approach, on, in particular, project-level reporting and setting a low threshold above which payments must be disclosed. The threshold is $100,000 under the US rules, and it would be helpful if the EU agreed to a similar amount in negotiations. It is worth mentioning in passing that if standards in the EU and US were, as far as possible, shared, it would help companies complying with the transparency rules, because it would mean one set of requirements to comply with, rather than extra complexity and therefore extra cost. In America, there will be no exemptions from reporting, which has been a real bone of contention.

Concerns have been raised with my predecessors and me that the disclosure of payments made to a Government might be prohibited by the criminal law in some countries. I have yet to see the titles of specific Acts of Parliament in specific countries that would prohibit that type of transparency. I encourage anyone reading the debate in Hansard who strongly believes that exemptions are absolutely necessary to furnish me with the titles of the Acts that people would be unable to comply with, in whatever foreign country. I will happily receive and respond to such information, if it exists, as I expect it does not. When mining companies based in the United States and Europe have to provide the information, that will cover a large proportion of the extractive industries operating in the developing world.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) raised the challenge of the EU process. I am glad that he did not say it was my fault that things were taking a while in Europe; I assure him that it is not. I may have been in this role for only two and a half months, but my predecessors were very active, as am I, on the issue. Since January, there have been 16 meetings of the Department, campaigners and the industry, five of which included Ministers. Since I took on this role, I met members of the Publish What You Pay coalition and representatives from the extractive industries on 12 September, and I again met members of Publish What You Pay on 25 October. We are therefore in close contact on the issues, because it is important to make progress. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State

28 Nov 2012 : Column 123WH

for Business, Innovation and Skills had an article in the weekend newspapers on this issue, and we are determined to keep up the pressure.

John McDonnell: It is impressive that the Minister has met such a range of organisations. Is she now willing to meet the London Mining Network?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman encourages me to fill my diary with more meetings—I am sure that my private office will be delighted. I will certainly look at whether it is possible to undertake that commitment. If he writes to me with more details, I will see what can be done.

Mr Iain Wright: Will the Minister give way?

Jo Swinson: I will. If it is another request for a meeting, the hon. Gentleman should note that I may be less minded to give way on other occasions.

Mr Wright: I, too, think it is impressive that, in such a short time, the Minister has met so many organisations, but the key point is action. What was the actual outcome of those 16 meetings?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman asks a genuinely interesting question. One thing that became clear to me at the first round table I held on this issue was that the industry and the campaigners started in quite contradictory positions. Getting people to a position where they have agreed to make progress has been a rather long and perhaps slightly tortuous process, which has required a great deal of engagement. Both sides have had concerns, but, to their credit, they have both recognised that tweaks to their proposals might be needed, and genuine points have been made that ultimately led to concessions. Certainly when I joined those discussions, we were getting to a much clearer position, particularly with the catalyst of the strong US rules, and that is very welcome. It is important to have strong rules on transparency, but the industry recognises that it must comply with the US rules, and it wants to make sure that it is not a bad neighbour, as it were, in the countries in which it operates. There is therefore a recognition that change is necessary.

The EU negotiations are in the trialogue process, the delights of which are not always as swift as we would like. We are keen to make sure that, if possible, that agreement is reached through the First Reading process, because that would allow us to implement the rules. I understand that there have been three sets of meetings so far. They are practically weekly at the moment, and I think the dates were 7, 9 and 14 November, but do not quote me on that. Things are prone to change in the EU—for example, there was due to be a meeting on Friday, but I heard it was off and then that it was possibly on again. None the less, whatever the specific dates, there are very regular meetings of COREPER—and other lovely EU acronyms—to ensure we get some progress.

On a range of issues, particularly the three I mentioned—exemptions, and threshold-level and project-level reporting—we are getting a greater degree of consensus. The European Parliament is still pushing

28 Nov 2012 : Column 124WH

some elements, in relation to the involvement of other parts of industry, on which it wants to go beyond what the US does. That runs the risk of just delaying or preventing the process, when there is a lot of consensus on extractives, so there will be further discussions.

As the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) explained, he has unfortunately had to leave for another engagement. He made a point about outsourcing parts of the mining industry to avoid transparency. It is worth putting it on the record that the project definition is likely to tie in contracts and licences in such a way that avoidance will not be straightforward and that subcontracting will still be captured. The hon. Member for Falkirk talked about how listing companies in London might be a positive step, even when they were not UK-based. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) was characteristically forthright and passionate about some of the failings that he has identified. I am sure that he appreciates why I cannot go into the individual cases that he mentioned.

On the overarching issue of corporate governance, it is important that investors have information to hold companies to account. The London stock exchange has four of the top five mining exploration and extraction companies by market capitalisation—BHP, Rio Tinto, Xstrata and Anglo American. There are 119 extractive and mining companies listed on the London exchanges, of which 12 are UK companies. We want to ensure that investors can hold boards to account and encourage responsible business behaviour. We have high standards of corporate governance, but it is important that we are not complacent. Further strengthening those standards will help London stock markets, because it will give major investors more confidence.

John McDonnell: It is important that companies are held to account, and it is also important that Governments are held to account. Will the Minister personally examine the information that has flowed between the Government—that is, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—and other Government agencies with regard to GCM and its operation at the Phulbari project in Bangladesh? A freedom of information request for the release of that information has been denied.

Jo Swinson: I will endeavour to look at the issue the hon. Gentleman raises, and write to him. I want to conclude my remarks, as there are a couple of points I want to pick up.

The tax issue is one for the Treasury, but it is important that companies pay the tax that they owe. If some of that needs discussion with other OECD countries, to make sure we have a regime that works, we should do that.

We have recently published draft regulations for narrative reporting. It is important that we make sure that it is explicit that relevant social and community issues in such reports should include a consideration of human rights. It is absolutely appropriate that investors should want to assess that in making their decisions.

Diversity on boards is also relevant to the extractive and mining industries. In the FTSE 100, there are currently 12 mining companies, half of which have no women on their boards. That means that, of the only eight companies in the FTSE 100 that have no women

28 Nov 2012 : Column 125WH

on their boards, three quarters are mining companies. I hope that those companies look at that in detail, because the rest of the FTSE 100 companies seem to be taking significant action, so they are lagging significantly behind.




The hon. Member for Hartlepool mentions Cynthia Carroll, whose departure shortly from Anglo American, will leave only two female bosses in the FTSE 100.

Various hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), raised the issue of the extractive industries transparency initiative, although, as the hon. Member for Islington North pointed out, it has limited effectiveness. There are 16 compliant countries so far, and another 20 are in the process. The rules that we want to agree in the EU will go much further, so it is important to get them right. However, with my colleagues in the Department for International Development, I will look at that issue. We are trying to assess the impact of any such additional burden on small UK companies that operate exclusively in the UK. However, I hear the views expressed.

Mining is, of course, important to the UK economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) spoke as a passionate advocate for his constituency. Some of the issues he raised relate to other Departments, but it is the responsibility of local authorities to establish local development and local mineral plans so that it is clear how their areas will be developed. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has made it clear that the green belt will be protected. He recently said in the House:

“Inappropriate development should not be approved in the green belt”.—[Official Report, 17 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 619-20.]

That is clear. It is up to local authorities to implement conditions that are put in place, including those from the Planning Inspectorate.

In conclusion, the issue is important, and the Government are very committed to transparency. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate.

28 Nov 2012 : Column 126WH

Police Pensions

4 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Let me begin this important debate by paying tribute to the bravery and dedication of police officers across the United Kingdom. They do a unique job that is without parallel in the public sector. We are rightly proud that our police service is the best of the best. The Minister and I saw for ourselves very recently such acts of bravery when we attended the police bravery awards evening, organised by the Police Federation.

The whole country saw the danger that officers put themselves in every day to keep our community safe when two young unarmed and exceptionally courageous officers, Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, lost their lives in the line of duty. Thanks to the police and other stakeholders, there has been a 40% reduction in crime over the past 15 years. It was police officers who, along with the Army, were responsible for the safety and security of the magnificent Olympic games this summer after we were all let down by G4S. As we hold this debate in the warmth of Westminster Hall, police officers are out saving lives, helping people in towns and villages to escape the rising floodwaters.

As this is the first debate with the Minister since he has taken over his new portfolio, may I congratulate him on winning his asylum appeal and moving, after seven long years with the immigration brief, into policing? He must be missing the UK Border Agency terribly, but I can assure him that we will keep him very busy with policing issues.

I am also pleased to see so many right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House here today. They will forgive me if I take a limited number of interventions because time is short, but I promise that I will acknowledge their presence at the end of my speech.

The Government’s proposal to increase the pension age to 60 is wrong. The Winsor review found that the average age at which police officers currently retire is around 50 to 51. Some police officers may want to continue to serve and work beyond that age, but it is unfair and unjust to mandate them to serve until the age of 60.

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate. May I make two brief points? First, is it not distasteful to change a contract of employment halfway through and, secondly, given the special nature of the work that these brave men and women do, should we not be careful about expecting them to defend us on the streets at the age of 60 plus?

Keith Vaz: I have a quick answer to both questions, which is yes and yes, and I cover them both in my speech. If we expect police officers to stay on until the age of 60, it is a matter of fact that some will find their roles harder as they become older, as people like me know. Those officers will have to be relocated to back-office positions, which are precisely the functions that the Government are urging forces to cut while maintaining front-line numbers. The consequence of these proposals for police officers and forces will be seriously damaging.

28 Nov 2012 : Column 127WH

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene and for the time he spent with me recently meeting people in Corby. He will know that this is an issue not just for police officers and their families, but for all of us who want to show our hard-working police officers that they are valued. Does he agree that, at a time when there are 20% policing cuts and, now, a steep rise in pension age, morale in the police force is really being undermined, and we must not let that happen?

Keith Vaz: I agree with my hon. Friend. May I welcome him most warmly to the House and congratulate him on his election? I will be turning to police morale later in my speech, but he is right—it is a crucial issue in respect of these proposals.

4.4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.16 pm

On resuming

Keith Vaz: Among the Government’s proposals are changes to the contribution rate. At the moment, a contribution rate of 10.5% of gross pay secures a contribution with a value of 24.2%. Under the proposed changes, a much higher contribution rate of 13.7% of gross pay will secure a contribution with a value of just 14.3%.

Police officers have told me that the proposed rate of 13.7% is simply too high and is not even-handed when compared with other public service workers. In fact, the rate is so high that there is a significant risk of opt-outs, including by new recruits who will not be able to afford to join the pension scheme. The Winsor review, upon which these proposals are based, also proposed lower starting rates of pay. Taken together, the two elements will have a devastating effect on recruitment. In addition, current pension contribution rates are already increasing. They increased in April and future increases are expected in 2013-14 and 2014-15, to meet Lord Hutton’s recommendations of an average contribution increase of 3.2%, which effectively means a 3% pay cut for officers.

Every single police officer in the 134,000-strong force will be affected by these changes. I have spoken to many officers, both in my constituency and here at Westminster, who are extremely anxious about them. When this debate was announced, I asked officers to contact me with their stories. I expected one or two to reply. In just seven days, I have received upwards of 120 e-mails, phone calls and letters from concerned officers across the country. Not one of them agrees with what the Government have suggested.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I know that this is a very short debate. My police officers have shared similar views with me, but a particular issue that has been raised is the disproportionate effect of these proposals on women police officers—the right hon. Gentleman named two brave women police officers earlier—who have had career breaks, and on coming back they will find that, under the new system, the years

28 Nov 2012 : Column 128WH

they have served will not add up to the pension that they hoped for when they started in the police.

Keith Vaz: The hon. Lady is absolutely right and she is also right to raise the specific issue of women police officers, which has not been raised in the debate so far. I agree with what she said.

Apart from all those representations that I have received, the e-petition for a debate on this issue was started by Sergeant Nigel Tompsett of the Suffolk force, and it now has more than 100,000 signatures. This debate today in Westminster Hall is not an alternative to a debate on the Floor of the House on this issue; I hope that it is a curtain-raiser for such a debate.

The pension reforms need to be seen in context. They are part of a wider picture of sweeping reforms to the landscape of policing. In comes the National Crime Agency and out goes the Serious Organised Crime Agency; in comes the college of policing and out go the police authorities; and then in come 41 newly elected police and crime commissioners as well. Those are, in my view, the most significant changes to be undertaken since Sir Robert Peel laid the foundations for modern policing nearly two centuries ago. At this moment of seismic change, it is clearly wrong to destabilise the very people we expect to implement the changes.

Morale in the police force, as we have heard, is at an all-time low. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, told the Home Affairs Committee yesterday that this was a very difficult time for many in the service. His predecessor, Lord Stevens, through a survey of 14,000 officers and superintendents conducted by the London School of Economics, found that 95% of police officers do not feel that they have the support of the Government, and that 56% of those surveyed had recently contemplated leaving the force. It is because of measures such as these that officers who risk their lives for our communities feel short-changed and undervalued. The proposals will drive gifted and experienced officers out of the service.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Keith Vaz: I will give way for the last time.

Mr MacNeil: The right hon. Gentleman is very kind. Does he agree with the Scottish Police Federation, which feels that control over the pensions of police in Scotland should be given to the Scottish Government, rather than be under the control of Westminster? The police in Scotland fully fund their own pension anyway.

Keith Vaz: I have not spoken to any Scottish officers and none have made such representations to me, but the Minister has heard what the hon. Gentleman said and I am certainly happy to talk to them after the debate.

We have to recognise the unique role, responsibilities and restrictions that apply to police officers. Each sworn constable is an independent legal official, not an employee. Police officers are required to deploy force, put themselves in the way of harm and make discretionary ethical judgments. Failing to carry out their duties, whether

28 Nov 2012 : Column 129WH

on or off duty, leaves officers open to the charge of misconduct in public office. As Nathan McLean, a police officer in Greater Manchester, put it to me:

“Each day when I go to work I understand that I may not return—yet I, like thousands of other police officers across the country, wear the uniform with pride and just get on with it in order to protect the public.”

Regulations provide for restrictions on the private lives of police officers, and despite being faced with the most wide-ranging reforms to pay and conditions in 30 years, police officers, unlike other professionals, do not have the right to strike or take industrial action. Police officers joined the force, and accepted these unique restrictions and limitations, on the understanding that they would be fairly provided for in retirement.

All those who represent our police service need to be consulted on the changes, and listened to very carefully. We are fortunate in this country to have robust representative organisations in the form of the Police Federation, led by Paul McKeever, and the Police Superintendents Organisation, led by Derek Barnett, along with people of outstanding ability, such as Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and the recently retired chief inspector of constabulary, Sir Denis O’Connor. I urge the Minister to ask them questions, to talk to them, to listen to them and to act on their advice.

Before I conclude, I would like to leave the House with some of the individual concerns of ordinary policemen and women who have contacted me. PC Gareth Spargo of South Wales police said:

“I increased my mortgage to pay for treatment so my wife and I could have children. Now my pay has been frozen for 2 years and I am paying an extra £100 a month in contributions....I love being a police officer and I joined in the knowledge that I was never going to be a rich man. I did however expect the terms that I joined under to remain constant for the duration of my service”.

PC Jason Ford told me:

“I have been spat at, punched, kicked, beaten with a wooden bat, been confronted with knives, swords and guns...my police pension has kept me going through some very difficult times, it is a little bit of light at the end of a very long tunnel”.

PC Matthew Ransom, of Kent police, contacted me to say:

“My mortgage was to be paid off in the last month in the job, leaving my lump sum to be used for university fees, or assistance in getting my boys on the property ladder. I cannot do those things now I have to do another 10 years’ service, contributing more and receiving the same or less in pension. How can this be fair?”

In addition, PC Turnbull from Bolton has made representations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi).

In conclusion, I want to acknowledge the colleagues who have come here today to participate in the debate. They include the hon. Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for St Albans (Mrs Main). We have heard from the leader of the Welsh National party, the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), and from my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford). My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) is here, as are my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), the hon. Members for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth

28 Nov 2012 : Column 130WH

(Debbie Abrahams), the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), my own Member of Parliament the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). If I have left anyone out I am sorry. I did leave out the two Parliamentary Private Secretaries because I did not know which side they were on and I would not want to drag them into my side of the argument. And, of course, there is the Scottish National Member, whose constituency I cannot pronounce, who also spoke.

These are, of course, times of austerity, and the police are not the only organisation being asked to deliver more for less, but the reforms are wholly disproportionate. There is an alternative lower contribution rate within the Government’s 28% cost ceiling but, very disappointingly, it was rejected not by the Home Office but by the Treasury. I ask the Minister to reconsider that decision.

Finally, the Government must honour the existing pension arrangements of serving police officers, under section 2 of the Police Pensions Act 1976, and any new pension scheme should be applicable only to those who join for the first time. It is time for action to back up the words of praise we lavish on the police service whenever our communities are under threat. We need to act now and change the proposals before it is too late.

4.26 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for initiating the debate and for the kind remarks he made about me at the start of his speech. I can confirm that I am already nostalgic for the UK Border Agency. I entirely echo his remarks about the tremendous service that police officers give to their communities and the whole country. As he said, he and I attended the police bravery awards a few weeks ago. It was the first time I had attended, and I was struck dumb by the courage and heroism shown by all the winners. Even more importantly, I know from my own experience as a constituency MP, as well as from other experiences I have had as police Minister, how that kind of service is provided on a daily basis across the country.

This afternoon, I would like to clarify the Government’s approach to public service pension reform as a whole, as well as what it means for police officers. As the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, these are difficult economic times and we have to take difficult decisions, but we have equally made it clear that we are committed to reaching a fair outcome for police officers, and I hope to explain why I believe that that has been achieved. In the course of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman enjoined me to listen to the comments made by a number of organisations.

I should start by reminding the House of the context for pension reform. From the outset, we have been candid about the need for a fundamental review of public service pensions and of how they are funded and maintained. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor invited Lord Hutton to chair the independent public service pensions commission. As a member of

28 Nov 2012 : Column 131WH

the previous Government and a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Lord Hutton was well placed to undertake an independent and comprehensive review. He did a thorough job and made a compelling case for change. As he set out in his findings, the costs of public service pensions have increased over recent years, mainly because people are living longer, and the increasing costs have fallen largely to the taxpayer.

The Government are committed to providing good occupational pensions for public servants, but we must do so in a way that is affordable, sustainable and fair both to those workers and other taxpayers. That means, across the public services, moving to the career-average pension model in place of final-salary schemes. That also involves increasing the contributions that workers pay for their own pensions and raising the retirement age. The Public Service Pensions Bill, which is currently before the House, sets out the high-level framework for those reforms, with work force and scheme-specific details to be implemented through regulations in due course.

To put all that in context, the latest figures from police forces show that, in the 2011-12 financial year, across England and Wales more than £2.8 billion was paid out in police pensions. Such pensions are paid to retired officers who have a legal entitlement to receive them. I hope that gives Members a sense of the scale of the issues and finances involved.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a specific point about police pension contributions. It is true that police officers pay among the highest contributions in the public services. That is because the pension is significantly more valuable than most others, as it should be.

As part of his report, Lord Hutton commissioned a comparative analysis of the benefits that workers get out of pension schemes based on what they contribute themselves. He found that, aside from those in the armed forces, who do not contribute to their pensions, police pensions are more valuable than most, as they are generally drawn from an early age and paid for longer in retirement. That is even taking into account the relatively high contributions paid by police officers.

I was struck by the verdict of Police Mutual, an independent financial adviser that specialises in services for the police. Its assessment, in response to the increased contribution rate, states that

“the Police Pension Scheme remains one of the best financial investments you are ever likely to make.”

People should listen to Police Mutual, because it knows whereof it speaks.

While I am on that subject, I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) that the new scheme does not have a service requirement, so female officers will not be disadvantaged for taking career breaks.

Keith Vaz: I thank the Minister for bringing that information to the House’s attention. Police Mutual may have a vested interest, because it deals with such financial affairs and might benefit in some way. I do not know the organisation’s position, but the organisations that have spoken to us are clear that their members will be affected. The Minister is new to his position, and he

28 Nov 2012 : Column 132WH

is not responsible for this. He did not write the Winsor review. He has just become the Police Minister, and he has to work with the police for the two-and-a-half years at least that he has this job. Will he agree to meet the representatives—the Police Federation, the Police Superintendents Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers and others—again to discuss one more time the effects that the changes will have on their members? If he agrees to do that, he will get a better impression of what is going on.

Damian Green: I constantly meet not only police officers in my constituency who wish to discuss this but, as the right hon. Gentleman would expect, the fed and the supers. This item is clearly on that agenda, and I am happy to reassure him that I will continue to discuss it. I will come on to what the federation said in a second.

We have maintained throughout the process that police officers deserve to be treated with respect and even-handedness. We have worked hard with partners in policing to reach a fair outcome that recognises the particular nature of a police officer’s work. That is why we asked Tom Winsor to reflect on Lord Hutton’s findings and consider some of the issues in the context of his independent review.

Mr MacNeil: The Minister speaks about fairness and even-handedness, but does he agree that, to give fairness and even-handedness, full flexibility on pensions should be given to the Scottish Government, as the Scottish Police Federation wants?

Damian Green: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth has this afternoon made a statement on his intention to take forward such issues in Scotland. I hope the hon. Gentleman will go away and reflect on what the Scottish Cabinet Secretary said.

Mrs Main: The Minister was helpfully explaining why female police officers will not be disadvantaged, but female police officers have told me that the career-average scheme will disadvantage them, and I am concerned about that. Will the Minister explain that point a little more fully?

Damian Green: There is no service requirement, but we could discuss that for the rest of the time available. I would more than happily have that conversation with my hon. Friend offline.

Tom Winsor agreed with Lord Hutton that a normal pension age of 60 is appropriate for police officers. Given the findings of the two independent reviews, the Government believe there is a strong and coherent case for the framework, which will be in place from April 2015.

The Police Federation has been mentioned a lot, and having engaged in the process that followed those reviews, it confirmed that it accepts the outcome as the “best deal possible” for police officers in the context of the reform across public service pensions. Paul McKeever, chair of the Police Federation and the staff side of the Police Negotiating Board said, and I will quote him in full for balance:

28 Nov 2012 : Column 133WH

“Despite being disappointed with aspects of this announcement, Staff Side accepts it within the context of the Government’s wider public service pensions reform agenda. It is clear from our discussions with the Home Office that, compared to the reference scheme offered by the Home Secretary of 27 March, this was the best deal possible to protect the unique position of police officers.”

The right hon. Member for Leicester East asked me to listen to the Police Federation, and I do in that regard.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me to listen to ACPO. The ACPO lead for reward and recognition, Chief Constable Simon Ash, said:

“The changes to the Police Pension Regulations by the Home Office are broadly supported by ACPO, who have worked constructively with other stakeholders since March to ensure that the best possible balance is achieved for longer term reform whilst providing sufficient transitional arrangements.”

The degree of consensus is often under-recognised. The right hon. Gentleman set out the general picture, but nevertheless both ACPO and the Police Federation have accepted the proposal. There is much of the detail still to arrange for new pension arrangements to be in place for 2015. Obviously, we will maintain the dialogue to make those arrangements work.

The deal means that the normal pension age for police officers will be 60. Aside from the armed forces and firefighters, other public service workers will have a higher normal pension age linked to the state pension age, which is 65 rising over time to 68. That means that police officers will continue to retire earlier than most others, reflecting the nature of the work they do.

We have heard today that some officers are concerned about the prospect of working to 60, but the evidence shows that the average age of those joining the police in recent years is 26. The current open pension scheme—the 2006 scheme—has a 35-year accrual period, so many officers will already be working beyond 60 to accrue a full pension. I recognise that that is a genuine concern for some officers. The framework, therefore, includes flexibility for officers to retire from 55 with an immediate pension and an actuarial reduction linked to the normal pension age of 60.

The increased flexibility of the career-average model also means that there is no cap on the amount of benefits that can be accrued. Under current arrangements for police officers, benefits are capped after 30 or 35 years, depending on the pension scheme. Under the reform framework, there is no cap, so years worked beyond age 60 would provide an enhanced pension.

We are protecting accrued rights for police officers for pension built up by 2015, as we are for all public servants. Most police officers are members of the 1987 scheme, which is a complex scheme that includes uneven periods of pension accrual, so we have developed tailored arrangements to reflect that, thus honouring the Government’s commitment to protect accrued rights and to give police officers a fair outcome.

28 Nov 2012 : Column 134WH

The Government also made a commitment to give transitional protection to those who were within 10 years of their current normal pension age on 1 April 2012. That applies across the public services, recognising that those nearest to retirement are likely to have least time to plan for that retirement. Again, the complex design of the 1987 scheme has led us to create specific arrangements. As there is no set pension age under that scheme, we have decided to give protection based on age and length of service. All officers aged 45 at 1 April 2012 will be able to remain in their current scheme rather than moving to the new pension arrangements in 2015. We are also giving protection to those who, at 1 April 2012, were within 10 years of retiring on a full police pension. That will give full protection to a further group of officers, including some who were as young as 38 or 39 at 1 April this year. On top of all that, there is also further tapered protection for those who were within four years of qualifying for full protection, in order to smooth the cliff-edge effect that often happens with pension reforms. That tapering again demonstrates, I hope, that the Government have entered into the process in good faith with a view to finding a fair outcome.

I am conscious that going through the details of pension reform does not make for great parliamentary rhetoric, but it is such a serious issue that detailing it is important. I appreciate as well as anyone the degree of understandable emotion caused by the issue, but the underlying point is that, under the new arrangements, the police pension deal is still one of the best deals on offer. I do not underestimate the level of concern among police officers about pension reform, and it is right that they should have clarity at the earliest opportunity about what it means. Many details of how the reforms will be implemented have still to be decided. I repeat the commitment that the right hon. Gentleman wished me to make: the Government will continue to work with our partners in policing on the issue, including specifically those who represent rank-and-file officers.

Throughout the discussions, we have been committed to reaching a fair outcome for police officers. We have done all that we can to achieve a fair pensions package for police officers that reflects the front-line nature of policing work and protects those closest to retirement. Police officers will continue to retire earlier than most public servants, and will continue to benefit from significant employer contributions on top of their own.

I am grateful to the Police Federation for making it clear that they encourage their members to remain in the scheme and will continue to do so after the proposed reforms. I hope that police officers will be reassured by that eminently sensible advice. It is difficult to envisage another investment that would provide the same guaranteed level of income—

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

28 Nov 2012 : Column 135WH

National Park Authorities (Elections)

4.43 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Benton. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of accountability in relation to Britain’s national parks. The matter is raised with me almost daily by local businesses and residents of the Lake district and the Cumbrian part of the Yorkshire dales, not because local people are desperate for more elections or because we are constitutional obsessives but because decisions made by people who are not accountable to those affected tend to be bad decisions.

As a result, businesses are under unnecessary pressure because they cannot expand, farmers are struggling because they cannot diversify, and local people, especially young people, are leaving our communities never to return because of the lack of affordable housing. Meanwhile, the rise in second home ownership has gone unchecked in recent years. A conservative estimate is that one in six properties is now a second home owned by folks wealthy enough to have a property in a national park that they occasionally visit, while locals who are desperate to stay are forced to leave.

That said, Britain’s national parks are stunning countryside protected for the nation. The 1945 to 1951 Attlee Labour Government spent a good six years implementing Liberal policies, among which was the establishment in 1951 of the national parks, including both the Lakes and the Dales. That was good legislation; it was a wise and visionary move. The motivation behind the Act was to preserve Britain’s most spectacular landscape and its environment and to promote the heritage of our national parks for the benefit of all the people of Britain. There was a sense that the national parks were the lungs of Britain’s towns and cities, and that they therefore belonged to the whole country, not just to those who lived, worked or indeed owned property or land there.

Today, those of us who are blessed to call the Lakes or any other national park home are proud to live in such beautiful places. We embrace the fact that our area is cherished by the nation. We are determined to be stewards of our countryside and to share it with all comers. The Lake district has 16 million visitors a year, the tourism economy of Cumbria is worth roughly £3 billion a year and, outside London, the Lake district is Britain’s most important attack brand for overseas tourism, drawing in millions of tourists every year, many of whom then visit other, less famous parts of Britain, adding hugely to the economy of the whole country.

It is vital for our environment, for biodiversity, for our tourism economy and for our fight against climate change that our national parks are protected, and it is vital for our nation’s heritage and for our sense of collective ownership that that heritage is propagated and that decisions taken about our national parks should be taken on behalf of the UK-wide community well as the local community.

I contend that the evidence of recent years shows that the local community’s interests are most likely to be overlooked when the balance of considerations is made. We in Westmorland and Lonsdale are blessed with two

28 Nov 2012 : Column 136WH

national parks: within the constituency are the most populated part of the Yorkshire dales, including Sedbergh, Dent and Garsdale, and the most populated part of the Lake district, including Ambleside, Grasmere, Windermere, Bowness, Hawkshead, Coniston and the Langdales, to name a few. For those towns and villages, the national park acts in many ways like the local authority: it decides on planning, environmental matters, provision of housing, car parking prices, tourist information and a range of other services.

Although I am talking about beautiful countryside, I am not talking about empty spaces. The Lake District is Britain’s most populous national park: 45,000 people live within it, and thousands more who live near it make their living there. The national park boards act almost identically to local district or county councils. There are 22 members on the Lake District national park board and 22 on the Yorkshire Dales national park board. Of those, six are appointed by the Secretary of State and by local district or county councils. A further four are appointed by parish councils.

The idea is that local council appointments tick the box when it comes to demonstrating that local people have a voice, but it is worth pointing out that many local authority representatives see themselves, understandably, as there to represent their local authority’s institutional interests rather than the interests of residents. To underline that point, many of those local authority representatives do not actually live in or represent wards in the national parks. Also, many parish councils that nominate members of national park boards tend be made up of people who, although able, decent and committed, became members of their parish council without being elected, owing to a lack of demand to take up parish council places.

That prompts the question whether there would be any interest in or demand for elections to the national park boards. Hon. Members might be interested to know that South Lakeland had the highest electoral turnout in the country in the police and crime commissioner elections on 15 November, but even then we managed only 23%. Perhaps that underlines the public’s antipathy to those elections. I suspect that one reason why the turnout was so low is that people felt that the post should not be politicised, and that we already have too many elections.

Maybe this is not the best time to be asking the Government—or, more important, local residents—to consider holding more elections, but let us look at it this way: we would not tolerate a district or county council making decisions about housing, planning, economic development, environment and tourism without its members being elected by the residents who had to live with those decisions. In fact we would be outraged, yet to the people who live and work within them, our national parks are effectively unelected and unaccountable local authorities.

That does not mean, however, that the national parks do a dreadful job. In fact, they do a good job. They protect our world-class landscape and environmental heritage to the extent that the lakes are potentially a world heritage site. They have done outstanding work, enhancing biodiversity in the Howgills and the Yorkshire dales, for example. They have performed an almost miraculous clean-up operation in respect of water quality in many of our lakes. They have made massive strides in

28 Nov 2012 : Column 137WH

reducing carbon emissions through improved cycle routes and rail integration. But they make silly decisions—for example, about aggressive car park ticketing prices in Hawkshead and Ambleside, and they choose to develop their main visitor centre at Brockhole in ways that are almost designed to damage local hotels. They throw out exciting, completely appropriate commercial ventures, such as the Honister zip wire, but they put pressure on farmers to reduce their livestock numbers, forcing many of them to abandon farming altogether. I suspect that they do such things because too often they do not listen to what local businesses, residents and farmers want.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): My hon. Friend sets out the importance of national parks and some of the failings. Does he agree that experience in the Scottish national parks, which have had elected members since their formation, proves that the elections can be well contested and of great interest to local people?

Tim Farron: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. That is true. I will mention the Scottish example in a moment. The elections in the Scottish national parks have engaged people and made them take the national parks seriously, providing a sense of ownership rather than a sense that this is a national thing deposited upon them.

It is important that our national park boards are chosen by local people, not simply chosen by others, so that a strand of legitimacy supports their decision making. Of course, that is not to say that people who are elected will make perfect decisions. We hon. Members present are proud to be elected to this place, but there are occasions when we do not get things perfectly right. Decisions made by people who are accountable will tend to be better, because those people have had to listen to those who have put them where they are.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I agree with the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he proposing that all or most of the NPA members should be elected? There are a couple of pilot schemes under way, whereby a proportion—about half a dozen—members will stand for election. I am pleased to say that the New Forest national park authority volunteered to be one of the two authorities to go down this route. The NPA in the New Forest got off to a bad start, cutting across the grain of society, leading to protests, but after a complete reorganisation it now works with the community, which is why it is not afraid to volunteer to have at least some of its members elected.

Tim Farron: My hon. Friend makes a superb point and underlines the case. I envisage a minority of people, rather than a majority—these are national parks—being there as the local voice. It is commendable that the New Forest NPA has put itself forward and it is to be congratulated on that.

If our national park boards were in part elected, they would, as my hon. Friend said, be far more legitimate in the eyes of local communities, residents and businesses, because there would be a far greater sense of collective ownership of decisions. Local communities would be far more willing to accept even difficult decisions, if they felt that they had at least been arrived at with the local case having been made.

28 Nov 2012 : Column 138WH

This is about the quality of decisions, not about the quality of the people. The Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales national parks are led by outstanding chief executives. Cumbria’s two national parks are led by Richard Leafe and David Butterworth, decent people with vision and immense competence. The Lake District national park is chaired by Bill Jefferson and the Yorkshire Dales national park by Carl Lis, both of whom are staggeringly hard-working servants of our local community and who are desperate to do the right thing, both by the nation as a whole and by local residents. All the board members I know—I know most of them—are good, decent people who are dedicated to their roles and selflessly give their time and service.

I return to what I said at the beginning. The national parks are there for the enjoyment of the whole nation. It is right that a proportion of the board membership should be selected nationally, but wrong that none of those members should be elected locally.

I welcome the proposed pilots in the Peak district and the New Forest. I note that Scotland has blazed a trail with national parks, with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs electing many of their board members for some years now. But why are all national parks not required to elect some of their members, and why was the nation’s biggest, highest-profile and most populated national park, the Lake District national park, not first on the list in the selection of the pilot project, whether it volunteered or not?

Is there not a special case for introducing democratic legitimacy in the Yorkshire Dales national park, given the genuinely mixed response received in some quarters to plans to extend its boundaries? Many residents and businesses in and around Barbon and Casterton retain deep concerns about proposals that would bring their communities within the boundaries of the Yorkshire dales, not least because these are Westmorland communities and have never been in Yorkshire. Their concerns mostly focus on their fears that, whereas planning and housing decisions affecting them at the moment are made by the democratically elected and accountable South Lakeland district council, in future they may be made by an unelected and unaccountable national park.

There are, of course, dangers in introducing elections to the national parks. Just as many of us do not want our police service party-politicised, we do not want our national parks to become arenas for party politics. I would advocate for party political labels not being allowed in the contest, for example, to ensure that there was no sense that national parks would simply ape local councils in that respect. Nor would we want vast amounts of public money to be spent on such elections. However, given that every year in Cumbria there are parish, district or county elections, it would be possible to ensure that national park elections coincided on the same day to ensure cost savings and, at the same time, to maximise turnout.

If we thought that electing a proportion of national park board members would ensure decisions that everyone was happy with, we would be deluding ourselves. However, life can be tough in our national parks, because incomes are often low, and housing and the cost of living are high. Businesses need to be able to thrive, communities must be able to hang on to their young people, and farmers must be able to continue to farm. What point

28 Nov 2012 : Column 139WH

is there in attempting to maintain a thriving tourism industry in the lakes and the dales, if the dead hand of restriction kills off expansion and innovation?

Do we really want national parks that can only be lived in by the wealthy few, or do we want our national parks to be open to people of all income backgrounds? lf we want thriving businesses and thriving communities for people from all income backgrounds in our national parks, we need to ensure that decisions are taken by people chosen by our local communities, who will be responsive to those communities and will answer to them for decisions that they make, both good and bad.

As Winston Churchill said, democracy is not much of a system, but it is infinitely better than all the alternatives. He was right. It is time that that applied to our national parks, too.

4.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this debate. I do not know if any other hon. Members have two national parks in their constituency, but my hon. Friend certainly brings with him real authority on this subject. From contact that he has with me over the past two and a half years, both by letter and through parliamentary questions and other means, I know the extent of his interest in this important subject. I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to the debate.

The Government are committed to breaking down the perceived barriers between local communities and those making decisions on their behalf. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we have introduced directly elected police commissioners. There may be some doubt about the glee with which the electorate crammed themselves into the polling booths to elect them, but I feel sure that things will change over time. We also have directly elected mayors, and we have made other changes to increase local accountability. My hon. Friend is right to say that the issues we are debating today are political, as is the case with policing. They are matters of great concern to our constituents and they are vital to people in such areas who know and care about these landscapes.

Through the Localism Act 2011, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made changes to give more power directly to communities and individuals so that they can challenge local authorities and take over and run the community services that are so vital. This is important to both parties in this coalition Government.

This is a timely debate, as my ministerial colleagues and I are actively considering the results of our consultations on the issue. That is why I should address the points in detail. I should say something about the importance of national parks to our country and this Government. As my hon. Friend rightly said, in 1936 the then Standing Committee on National Parks lobbied the Government for measures to protect and allow access to the countryside for the benefit of the nation. That pre-war world of 1936 might seem a long time ago, and many aspects of our world are unrecognisable from that time, but some constants remain, one of which is what the national

28 Nov 2012 : Column 140WH

parks can offer us. We need a sense of challenge in our lives just as much our forebears did, and we need the uplift that comes from contact with nature, as they did. The parks style themselves as Britain’s breathing spaces, which is exactly what they are for their more than 50 million visitors a year from home and abroad. That is of enormous benefit to our society. Those visitors help to support more than 22,000 businesses, the vast majority of which are small or medium-sized enterprises.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is absolutely right to praise the leadership of his local national parks. Whether we are talking about a parish in our constituencies or a large area such as that covered by the national parks that he knows so well, there will be issues on which there is a divergence of opinion. What might seem good to one of us might not seem so good to another, especially when dealing with something such as planning. He was right to allude to the complexity of these issues at times and to the fact that many good things that are done are not always appreciated by everyone.

The national parks continue to deliver on their two core purposes: to conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; and to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of those national parks by the public. The means we use have, of course, changed over time, and they may change again. For the first 40 years of their lives, national parks were essentially managed by local government.

Roger Williams: The Minister sets out the two purposes of the national parks, but the legislation also includes a duty to take into account the economic and social needs of the communities that the parks serve. Surely at the heart of this demand for democracy is a better understanding of those issues.

Richard Benyon: I will come on to talk about that, but it is important that the three legs of the stool of sustainability are considered at every stage: environmental, yes; economic, absolutely; as well, of course, as the social dimension the parks give to their inhabitants and visitors. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

To turn to the main issue of the debate, the coalition’s programme for government said:

“We will review the governance arrangements of National Parks in order to increase local accountability.”

That commitment was honoured with a public consultation that ran from 9 November 2010 until 1 February 2011. The question of accountability and transparency was central to the consultation. The Government take seriously the improvement of the transparency of decision making and an increase in the accountability of national park authorities. We have made it clear that variety between authorities is possible, which would allow that governance to reflect better the national parks’ individual circumstances and histories as part of our commitment to decentralisation and localism.

Since the original legislation was enacted in 1995, there have been calls for some members of park authorities to be directly elected, which now already happens in the Scottish national parks authorities, as my hon. Friends suggested. I said in September 2011 that I had concluded that the time had come for us to explore that option more thoroughly in England, so I consulted on legislation

28 Nov 2012 : Column 141WH

that would allow for the possibility of elections to the national park authorities and the Broads Authority. Initially, we proposed to apply new legislation on a pilot basis in two parks, namely the New Forest—as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) mentioned—and the Peak District. They provide different contexts in which to assess the effect of directly elected members.

First, I should be clear that although national parks cover some 9% of the country, have a population of more than 320,000 people, encompass in excess of 700 local authorities and parish councils and handle some 9,500 planning cases each year, fewer than 170 responses were received on the question of direct elections, which is a staggeringly low figure. Fewer than 40 of those responses came from individual members of the public. While a majority of responses were generally in favour, there was no clear consensus, even between parks, that direct elections were the answer to improving local accountability. As the Deputy Prime Minister recently made clear, opinion is divided.

Secondly, while much is made of the possible benefits of introducing some elected members into the national park authorities, views are divided and some practicalities need to be taken into account. The legislation required to implement direct elections would be significant, so we would need to identify a suitable opportunity in the parliamentary timetable. I must share with hon. Members the fact that such legislation would not only create a significant call on the time of the House but, as we face the reality of the financial situation, we would be bound to ask if this would really be a good use of public money. Initial estimates indicate that the costs of the proposal could run into many hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds, although obviously there would be a full cost assessment nearer the time.

Thirdly, the consultation proposed holding pilot elections in the New Forest and Peak District national parks during May 2013. Given that we have not yet secured the required legislation, those pilots obviously will not go ahead on time. It is also clear that we cannot and should not commit to any wider programme of direct elections without piloting so that we can fully understanding what impact, if any, the changes would have on the performance of the national parks in question.

Finally, direct elections are not the only mechanism for improving accountability and openness, and some of the suggestions from the governance review are already being taken forward by individual parks. Many avenues could be explored and, in conjunction with the park authorities, we will continue to look at what can be achieved. It is also worth making the point that local authority members of a national park authority are elected members of the local authority, so they are already held accountable through the ballot box, although not to the satisfaction of some. Similarly, parish council members are sometimes elected.

Dr Julian Lewis: I am not entirely happy with the thrust of what the Minister is saying. Are the pilot schemes therefore on hold indefinitely? With the greatest respect to the Government, the legislative pressure on the time of the House of Commons means that it should not be impossible for such relatively uncontentious legislation to be slotted into the timetable, especially if the past few weeks are anything to go by, when we have frequently finished our business earlier than scheduled.

28 Nov 2012 : Column 142WH

Richard Benyon: I am happy to share with my hon. Friend the information that I have been given about the complexity involved. I can give him my absolute solemn commitment that I think that this is something that the Government should do. I do not believe, unlike some colleagues in both our parties, that everyone down to the dog warden should be elected, but I believe in localism and local accountability, so I have been progressing things in a meaningful way.

I was surprised by the complexity of something that initially, I agree, sounds like it should be simple. However, I have been concerned about conversations that we have had with the Boundary Commission about matching boundaries, which sometimes follow more ecologically-based routes than politically-based ones, as well as about the many measures that would need to be included in a Bill. I am happy to go into more detail, but I can absolutely give my hon. Friend my commitment that if the resources were there and if we could find the parliamentary means, we would take this forward, as it is something that the coalition is firmly united in wishing to achieve. I will give him more detail at a later date.

Tim Farron: I am a little concerned about the direction in which the Minister is going, but I am pleased that he thinks the Government should make progress. However, we already effectively have pilots in Scotland, so we have learned what to do constitutionally and about how the impact is felt in the national parks.

There is time to act in this Parliament. When I challenged one of the Minister’s predecessors in the previous Government about this, their view was that as the national park authorities had been asked whether they wanted to be elected, and they said no, they would not be elected. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas, even though I greatly respect the high quality turkeys in the New Forest.

Richard Benyon: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point, and I can only give my commitment that although we remain in favour of direct elections, we must ensure that we achieve that in the necessary time scale and with the resources we have.

It is interesting that Scottish national parks have all-postal ballot elections. When I raise potential complications, it sounds as though I am being negative, but I assure my hon. Friends that I am not. However, we need to mention the fact that there is concern about such elections.

Roger Williams: When I had the pleasure and privilege of going over to monitor the US elections, I was surprised to find that some US states have wholly postal ballots to elect their President.

Richard Benyon: My hon. Friend may like to share his thoughts with colleagues in the Cabinet Office, who are looking at greater participation in elections. After what happened two weeks ago, I want more participation in local elections, and if we could get more people voting by post, that would be good.

I was delighted to hear that the Peak District magazine Park Liferecently published the names, photographs and telephone numbers of all members of that authority.

28 Nov 2012 : Column 143WH

That is the start of real transparency. It does not happen in every national park authority, so we must press them to look at such innovations.

In an ideal world, I would like to devolve decisions to national parks if they can prove that there is local demand, and we can introduce enabling legislation that allows them to take that forward and let a thousand flowers bloom. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that I will keep him in

28 Nov 2012 : Column 144WH

touch with any progress and ensure that what we are doing is affordable for the resources in my Department, feasible in terms of the primary legislation that I am convinced that we will have to introduce, and workable locally. I assure him that the Government remain in favour—

5.13 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).