Other hon. Members have referred to the level of subsidy in relation to solar panels, but the same money will produce an awful lot more solar panels. There was a shock to the system when the new levels were brought

19 Mar 2013 : Column 233WH

in. There was what we hoped was a temporary slowdown in the number of solar developments that went forward. My sense is that that is recovering. I think we are now getting a lot more development for the same money.

The trouble with onshore wind is that it hits people in two ways. One is fuel poverty. Onshore wind hits the poorest people; indeed, it hits everybody. The Government force them to hand over money that is then given to mega foreign companies, which can bribe their way, through community benefit, into the hearts of local people. Well, in mid-Wales, that has not been successful; it is having no impact at all.

The other aspect is that energy prices are driving jobs overseas. More and more companies find that the cost of the energy they need to run their businesses is just too high. We talk about all the jobs that renewable energy and onshore wind will create, but the truth is they will drive jobs and business overseas—not just to Europe, but outside Europe, and that will be devastating.

In general, however, today’s debate is about fuel poverty. I am very supportive of what the hon. Member for Clwyd West—

Chris Ruane: Vale of Clwyd.

Glyn Davies: Perhaps we should settle on Rhyl. This is a right issue, and it is hugely important. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising it, and I think we will return to it.

3.10 pm

Mrs Siân C. James (Swansea East) (Lab): Fuel Poverty in Wales has reached an unacceptably high level, and despite much intervention by the UK and Welsh Governments, the problem is not improving; indeed, it is increasing at an alarming rate. We have heard some of the facts and figures, but according to Fuel Poverty Charter in Wales, 33.5% of the population or, in numerical terms, 425,161 Welsh households spend more than 10% of their income on heating bills. That figure grows daily, and Transform UK predicts that more than 9 million households across the UK will be in fuel poverty by 2016. What we really need in Wales is energy-efficient homes, decent incomes and affordable, reasonably priced utility bills. If we address those three issues, we will have a fighting chance of reducing fuel poverty for many of our constituents.

Fuel poverty is nothing new to us, because we have a legacy of poor housing stock. The quality of housing can be improved only if there is investment now to enable public and private landlords to drive up standards and ensure that all housing stock is dry and safe and meets basic needs. It is depressing to hear people in our surgeries talk about living in damp, poorly insulated homes. The excuse they are always given is that the damp is the result of condensation. I am sad when that happens, and it happens with alarming regularity.

Year on year, housing is getting damper and more run-down, and energy is disappearing out of poorly insulated homes and inefficient heating systems, which means that costs are rising. We should seriously consider giving further support to the Energy Bill Revolution campaign, which comprises more than 100 charities,

19 Mar 2013 : Column 234WH

organisations, private businesses and unions that are calling on the Government to use money raised from the carbon tax to fit all houses with effective insulation to stop heat being lost through roofs and walls. The group says a nationwide programme, insulating all homes across the country, could save the average family £310 a year on its fuel bill.

However, improving housing stock alone will not be enough. The Government need to work harder at bringing down the everyday costs of running our homes, cooking our meals and keeping warm. National Energy Action says that, as of March 2012, the average gas and electricity bill for households in Wales was more than a massive £1,250 per year. Many consumers could get better deals if they changed tariffs. Many of my constituents are adept at switching, which they do with a regularity that amazes me, but I am one of those people who rarely changes supplier. I have been with the same energy provider since the day I got married, and, for better or worse, I have stuck it out with that company because I know it. However, even I am seriously thinking about swapping. None the less, that is a big step, and many people cannot comprehend the bewildering number of tariffs and offers available. As I say, switching is often the most difficult step to take.

Mr Mark Williams: I know how much work the hon. Lady does on this important issue in her constituency. Does she accept that we have a particular problem in rural areas? We have no choice of energy sources, and most of my constituency is not gas-enabled, so we still rely on oil companies and suffer from what are sometimes their monopolistic practices.

Mrs James: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Yes, it is clear that there is no choice. In Wales, 264,000 households—more than a quarter of a million homes—have no access to mains gas, so they have no option. I take on board his point.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs James: I will carry on.

Although I welcome the Government’s plan to introduce a scheme in 2014 under which utility companies must automatically swap people on to their cheapest tariff, I am concerned that that will be a price too far for some. Once the scheme is introduced, energy companies will remove the discounted tariffs available to those who can swap at will, and I fear that those people will then pay even more for their energy.

The problem of fuel poverty is exacerbated in Wales because we are also dealing with lower incomes and a higher prevalence of part-time work. Both factors make it difficult for families to pay their bills and have money left over to put food on the table. According to the Office for National Statistics, wages in Wales in 2013 have sunk back to 2003 levels. If the Government put more focus on the economy and created more full-time jobs, they would help my constituents and those of every Member in the room enormously. Only by providing full-time jobs with decent wages can we help ensure that people in Wales can afford to meet their heating costs.

The green deal does not go far enough. It is far from perfect, and it is not doing enough to address the problem of fuel poverty. It might be useful for households to take out a loan to carry out home improvements, but

19 Mar 2013 : Column 235WH

the interest rate is set far too high, at 7%. It is odd to expect a home owner to pay up front for an assessment of their home, typically at a cost of £80 to £150. How does that help someone who is already struggling with their bills? The short answer, of course, is that it does not.

The Welsh Government have set a target of ending fuel poverty by 2018, and they have implemented the Nest scheme. Although I am pleased with the scheme overall, and I am pleased they are investing £100 million in it over five years, there needs to be better reviewing and measurement of fuel poverty in Wales. We need to see the statistics to judge for ourselves whether energy efficiency improvements are successful and result in cheaper bills. As far as I am aware, the last measurement of fuel poverty was carried out as part of the Living in Wales survey in 2008. If any Member knows differently, or knows of more up-to-date information, I would be grateful to receive information from them.

We should not forget that the impact of fuel poverty on a household is enormous and potentially fatal. In winter 2010-11, there were an estimated 1,900 excess winter deaths in Wales and England—an increase on the five-year average of 1,786 excess winter deaths a year. I am sure a number of facts contributed to that increase, but the Hills review estimated that 10% of winter deaths can be attributed to fuel poverty. If the Government had acted sooner, they could have prevented 190 deaths.

Fuel poverty inflicts much misery on too many people in Wales. To use an old pun, it is time to give it the cold shoulder.

3.18 pm

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing the debate.

This is the third fuel poverty debate I have spoken in since I came to the House. The first was quite early on, and I had not been a Member very long—I was green behind the ears. Constituents who had come to my surgery had told me anecdotes about sitting in front of the television wearing coats because they were cold and about being unable to afford to heat their houses or turn on an extra bar on their fires. I was deeply concerned because constituencies such as mine have large numbers of former miners with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other illnesses who need to heat their homes.

Two years before that, I was working for my predecessor, now Lord Touhig. I was doing some research for his speech at the time, and I spoke to the president of the National Old Aged Pensioners Association of Wales and asked him for some examples. He said that many members do not know they are in fuel poverty and simply put on an extra pullover or go to bed early. I was quite struck that the problem was still going on.

The second fuel poverty debate that I spoke in was on the effect on vulnerable people and, in particular, those suffering from cancer. I discovered from Macmillan that 70% of cancer patients lose, on average, 50% of their household income during treatment. One in four cancer sufferers also suffers from fuel poverty. I was disappointed with the response of the Minister at the time. Rather than talking about positive action, he

19 Mar 2013 : Column 236WH

mentioned the example of Her Majesty the Queen being in fuel poverty, because it was being measured wrongly. That is all very well and warm words, but to someone who is suffering and choosing between heating and eating, it does not matter whether the Queen or anyone else who can easily pay their fuel bill is in fuel poverty. When I listen to debates such as this, I am seriously concerned, because every time we come back to the issue and receive promises from the Government, nothing happens.

Fuel poverty hits Wales harder than anywhere else, as it has more people off-grid. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd mentioned, we have the highest bills in the country, yet we export more electricity than any other region. We have more people on coin-operated meters than anywhere else in the country. More people have to press the button that disconnects them from electricity bills. More than a third of Welsh households are in fuel poverty, which is higher than the UK average and higher than any other UK region. By 2015—the time of the next general election, which is when we will go before our constituents—the average household in Wales will have £1,470 less than in 2010. At the same time, energy bills are going up and up. What are the Government doing?

I am proud that in Wales we have a Labour-led Assembly that has a target of ending fuel poverty by 2018. It is taking action through energy efficiency schemes. The Westminster Government could take that on. The work being done by the Welsh Assembly follows on from that done by the previous Labour Government. It is in vogue and fashionable among Government Members to attack the Labour Government. They say that we should apologise for everything we did, but I am not apologising for winter fuel payments. I am not apologising for central heating programmes, and I am not apologising for energy efficiency commitments that improved the lives of so many people in this country.

What have we seen in comparison? Since Labour left office, it is the shame of this coalition Government that they cut the winter fuel payment. They have overseen rising energy bills and there has been no reduction in the number of households struggling to heat their homes. I have spoken before about the better targeting of support for vulnerable groups. It is all very well targeting it and it is all very well having the winter fuel payment, but it is eaten up by constantly rising energy bills. It is perverse that every time we hear of rising energy bills we also hear of record profits by the same energy companies that are pleading poverty. It is up to us in this House and this Government to stand up to those energy companies. It is no good inviting them round to Downing street for tea and biscuits and begging them, “Please, please will you reduce your energy bills. It is making us look bad.” We need real action and we need a regulator that will fine the companies when it finds that they are colluding to put prices up.

Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman is making a typically powerful speech. Both he and the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) alluded to the fact that Wales is a net exporter of electricity, yet we have the highest levels of fuel poverty. Can I take it therefore that the next Labour manifesto will include a promise that Wales gets control of its natural resources?

19 Mar 2013 : Column 237WH

Chris Evans: If I am ever lucky enough to be involved in writing the Labour party manifesto, I will take that on board.

The point I want to make on energy companies is that energy bills are complicated. There are 100 different tariffs for energy bills and the most basic argument—I have said it before, both here and in the House—is that we do not have luxury energy. People cannot have electricity or gas coming faster to them, like they can with the internet. Someone can go into Currys and say, “I want a luxury LCD or LED television”, and pay the price for whatever they want, but energy is energy; there is no luxury system. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) talked about energy companies saying, “You can go on the internet and start switching.” My problem with that is that the vast majority of my constituents are elderly and do not have internet access. They do not know how to use it, so they are not going to go around looking for different prices.

I do not expect the Minister to come up with radical plans for reforming the energy market, even though we need to have that debate. We are approaching a tipping point where rising energy prices, and the need for energy security, will be a way of life. There is no magic bullet to end fuel poverty.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share my concern about companies allowing people on very limited incomes to run up bills of £3,000 or even more? I am sure he has had constituents come to see him about that, as I have. Those companies are now demanding that money, without any reference to income level.

Chris Evans: I entirely agree. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) shouted earlier “Mention Margaret Thatcher”, and I will mention her. When she privatised the energy companies, I bet she did not expect that she would remove one energy company to get just six. She would not have thought that we would be talking about a market that has moved from a monopoly to an oligopoly. I am sure she would be ashamed of that. That would not have been her intention. The problem is that there is no competition in the market.

Chris Ruane: While we are on the Thatcher era, does my hon. Friend remember the Tory Minister who said that pensioners who were freezing to death in their homes should go to a charity shop and buy an extra second-hand cardigan? That was her solution. Let us hope that we are not going back to those dark Tory days.

Chris Evans: I very much remember that, which says a lot about my childhood and my interest in politics. It was a shameful thing to say. We are in a situation where there is a lack of competition and people have nowhere else to go. They have to go to those six energy companies, and that is why we need the debate.

There are a few things that the Government can do. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd has already said that we could ensure that everyone over the age of 75 is on the cheapest tariff and that 250,000 pensioners would be up to £200 better off through that. We could have targeted support through the winter fuel

19 Mar 2013 : Column 238WH

payment for those suffering from cancer and for the disabled and those with conditions such as multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy. We need some political will. We cannot afford to sit idly by and watch energy companies pile up profit upon profit. We need to show people that we are on their side. It is no good standing back and allowing people to die. We have a moral obligation to end fuel poverty. James Maxton said that poverty is man-made and therefore open to change. We have a chance to change fuel poverty.

3.28 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): I am reminded of a debate that took place when I was the Opposition spokesman on pensions—if hon. Members can remember that; it was in the dark age of Thatcherism—in which the then Minister suggested that elderly people should go to jumble sales and buy coats to put on, saying that they would get good value. That was only a few months after Edwina Currie suggested that the elderly should go to bed with bobble hats on—that was the then Government’s Dickensian approach. It was a happy occasion, because a group of Welsh MPs had the only fax machine in the House at that time, because faxes were suspect and not allowed—all that could be attached to a telephone line was a telephone. A group of officials came to inspect the installation of our wood-burning fax machine, which cost an enormous amount and was built like a steam engine. However, that meant that we could ensure that news of the Tories’ answer to fuel poverty—jumble sales—went out to the nation so that people would realise what it was.

I was struck by what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) said in his speech. I welcome the fact that he is acquiring the same reputation for wisdom and restraint as his predecessor in the House, and we look forward to further improvement. He drew attention to, but did not dwell on, the fact that fuel prices are crucial. Something extraordinary has happened, which nobody forecast: America has had a huge boost to its economy because it has low fuel prices, mainly as the result of fracking.

A new gas-fuelled power station recently opened in my constituency, the gas for which comes from Scandinavia.It is situated precisely on the confluence of the River Usk, through one window, and the River Severn, through the other window. Fuel comes all the way across to Wales, but twice a day a huge cliff of water comes up the Severn and down the Severn, and up the Usk and down the Usk, wasted and unused. The cheapest electricity in the world comes from the tidal power station at La Rance in Brittany, which has been going for 47 years. The capital costs were paid 27 years ago, so the fuel is of course free. The turbines are in pristine condition and it produces electricity regularly and cleanly from a non-carbon, eternal fuel source, and no one takes a cut. There is a similar, slightly bigger, power station in South Korea.

In Wales, the tides washing around our coast 24 hours a day are our North sea oil, but we neglect them. There are serious problems with the barrage—building a wall across the channel—because it is open to so many environmental objections and has a huge cost, but a very acceptable alternative, which would be equally rich in providing power, would be a series of turbines in the water, perhaps in lagoons, linked to a pump storage

19 Mar 2013 : Column 239WH

system such as the one in Dinorwig, meaning that when pulses of energy arrive at 3 am, we can store that, as with a large battery, for use later in the day. That is the cleanest, cheapest, most sophisticated and best way to produce energy.

We have heard about the dearest way to produce energy this afternoon, as we are going ahead with a nuclear power station. While it is not in Wales, a large part of Wales is within a radius from it that is the size of the uninhabitable area around Fukushima. What if there was a disaster? There have been tsunamis in the Severn channel—they were many years ago, but they have taken place. We did not get much information about that from the Secretary of State, who had said, when he was a Liberal Democrat, that nuclear power could come only through either a rigged market or a “vast”—his word—subsidy from the taxpayer, yet he has managed to get both in the proposal. The current negotiations started with a strike price of £50 per megawatt-hour, but The Times and The Daily Telegraph now tell us that the price being negotiated on is £97 per megawatt-hour—nearly double.

Simon Hart: One or two of my constituents who are watching the debate would be interested to know when the hon. Gentleman might make some points about fuel poverty as it affects constituents in Wales.

Paul Flynn: Fuel poverty is about the cost of the fuel. I am sure that there will be great cheers in the main Chamber tomorrow if we hear the expected announcement that the price of petrol and diesel will be frozen—[Interruption.] Hon. Members will be cheering and it will be welcomed. The consequence, however, is that fuel will be cheaper, so there will greater congestion, more pollution and more accidents. The more the price of fuel goes down, the more unnecessary journeys are made. We have less congestion now, fewer accidents and less pollution. Many people—almost half the population—are directly involved in that, but everyone is involved in paying for gas and electricity. They should be the first consideration, but there is no attempt to freeze those prices.

An extraordinary deal is on offer. We have seen fuel prices drop in the US. We are, however, in a position whereby Centrica, E.ON and RWE—all of them—have left the proposed deal, so the only people in the negotiations at the moment are Électricité de France, which has a €33 billion debt. If it was not nationalised, it would be bankrupt. It wishes to do a deal in the short term in which British taxpayers pay it £30 billion in subsidy. According to Tom Burke, an expert in nuclear power, the subsidy will be £150 billion over 35 years, and a Liberal Democrat spokesperson today suggested that it would be £99 billion. That is from a coalition that said that there would be no subsidy on nuclear power. We will be told the result only when it has been negotiated, but the deal will burden those in fuel poverty for 35 years. We are betting for that period. Who will benefit? Not British industry, but French industry, so the advantages will go there.

The Government seem to be hellbent on producing fuel that will be increasingly dear. Fuel poverty will not go away if we irresponsibly decide on the dearest means of producing energy in the world. If hon. Members want another example of that, they can look at the two

19 Mar 2013 : Column 240WH

other Électricité de France new nuclear power stations at Flamanville and in Finland. One is four years late and the other is six years late; one is €5 billion over budget and the other is €7 billion over budget. Who can suggest that the one at Hinkley Point is going to be any different? It will cause anxiety throughout the area, because every 10 years we have a nuclear disaster, and there is likely to be another one, either due to terrorism, an accident or—

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): Order.

3.37 pm

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on not only securing the debate, but his excellent speech on behalf of his constituents and the people of Wales. I extend those congratulations to all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. It is clear from the contributions of Members of all parties that fuel poverty is a serious problem in Wales and a subject on which many have campaigned on behalf of their constituents. We heard excellent contributions, and I want to use my time to pick up on a few of the themes that have emerged over the course of the past hour.

Despite falling by 1.75 million people under the previous Labour Government, it is clear that fuel poverty in Wales and across the UK is now increasing rapidly. The Hills fuel poverty review, which was commissioned by the Government, estimates that 8.5 million homes will be in fuel poverty by 2016, which is up from the 4.75 million homes that were in fuel poverty in 2010, according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change website. With the average energy bill going up by more than £300 since the coalition came to power and Government help to support the fuel-poor being cut, it is hardly surprising that fewer and fewer households can afford to keep warm.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) told us the cost of a dual fuel bill, but I am sorry to say that the figure is even worse. I read on Sunday that the average dual electricity and gas bill is now £1,410 a year, although I appreciate that many customers in Wales are off-grid. My hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) spoke about the challenges of switching, particularly for vulnerable customers and those who do not have a bank account, or who do not have access to the internet or know how to use it, particularly where there is a digital divide. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoken eloquently and in detail about the particular challenges that people with cancer face in paying their fuel bills.

Although there are many people who are struggling with the impact of rising prices, today’s debate has highlighted that the impact is felt nowhere more severely than in Wales. Many Members referred to the double whammy of rising bills and falling living standards that is hitting households in Wales right now. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) eloquently presented the issue: in 2013, it is a shocking indictment that people have to choose between eating and heating. We are the seventh most industrialised nation in the world, and the Government should urgently consider the fact that 250,000 people in our country have accessed emergency food aid.

19 Mar 2013 : Column 241WH

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) rightly pointed out, not only are Welsh consumers paying the highest energy prices of anyone in the UK, but they are hit disproportionately hard by the Government’s tax and benefit changes. We heard reference to the TUC report published last week, which showed a 7% reduction in household income in Wales since 2010. The effect is clear: higher fuel poverty in Wales. The 2012 DECC annual report on fuel poverty statistics shows that the proportion of households in fuel poverty across the UK is 18.6%, but the figure in Wales is 26.2%—more than a quarter of households. Consumer Focus estimates that about 420,000 households in Wales are in fuel poverty, which is more than a third of the population and a higher proportion than in any region of England.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn about how the Welsh Labour Government are acting in response to the standard of living crisis. They are providing help for low-income and vulnerable households to reduce their energy bills and heat their homes through something that I learned about recently—the Nest scheme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli told us that many homes in Wales are not on mains gas, or require urgent improvements to their energy efficiency, and it is Labour in Wales that is investing £100 million over five years through the Nest scheme to improve the energy efficiency of about 4,000 eligible homes each year. It is estimated that the energy improvement packages will deliver annual benefits averaging £550 per household, and 6,700 of them have been installed since April 2011.

The Labour Government in Wales are helping the fuel poor and endeavouring to eradicate fuel poverty, and they have a target that they take very seriously. I am sorry to say that the same cannot be said for the coalition Government here in Westminster. Sadly, the Minister admitted when the Energy Bill was in Committee that we are not going to meet our targets to eradicate fuel poverty.

Unfortunately, as we have already heard, the Government have gutted support for the fuel-poor since coming to power. The Warm Front scheme, which helped more than 2 million households over 10 years to improve their heating and insulation, was scrapped, and lower-cost social tariffs have replaced the warm home discount, offering far less help to far fewer people. We have also seen the end of the carbon emissions reduction target scheme and the community energy saving programme, which together insulated more than 4.2 million lofts and 2.1 million cavity walls across the UK, lowering carbon emissions and reducing energy bills for millions. This is the first time since the 1970s that we do not have a Treasury-funded scheme to tackle fuel poverty across the UK, and according to analysis by National Energy Action, the net result of the Government’s cuts is that funding this year for the fuel-poor and for low-income and vulnerable households will be half what it was last year.

Nia Griffith: Does my hon. Friend share the very real concerns about the green deal? Even for better-off consumers, it does not provide a very attractive deal, and it does absolutely nothing for those who struggle to make ends meet.

19 Mar 2013 : Column 242WH

Luciana Berger: I am about to get on to the green deal, and if my hon. Friend will wait just one moment, I will make several points about it.

When the Minister gets to his feet, I am sure that he will tell us in great detail what he believes his Government are doing through the introduction of the green deal and the ECO, after scrapping the three schemes I mentioned. Will those new schemes do anything to help the fuel-poor in Wales or anywhere else in the UK?

I ask the Minister to respond directly to the important points about cold weather payments that were made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. I also ask him to listen carefully to his hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who raised a concern about new homes. We know that the green deal addresses the energy efficiency of existing homes, but the hon. Gentleman was keen to ensure that we have energy-efficient new homes. I hope that the Minister will tell us what he thinks the coalition Government should be doing, specifically regarding their commitment to zero-carbon homes. He will know that Opposition Members have many concerns about the Government’s intention to scrap the zero-carbon homes policy for new homes.

On existing homes and the green deal, I share many of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, and I want to respond to the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli. According to the Government’s own predictions, the number of homes getting insulation under the green deal will fall this year. The Department’s impact assessment shows that the number of loft insulations will fall from 900,000 last year to just 150,000 this year—a decrease of 83%—while the number of cavity walls being insulated will also go down from about 700,000 last year to just 400,000 this year—a fall of 43%. We understand that the number of solid wall insulations will stay largely the same.

By the Government’s own admission, the way in which the green deal is designed means that most fuel-poor households will not benefit from it, because they are unlikely to meet the golden rule. They currently under-heat their homes, so a more energy-efficient property would ensure only that they lived in a warm home rather than a cold one. I heard the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli about the cost to households, and we have had many a discussion on the Floor of the House about the interest rate and whether the green deal will present a good deal for households.

Perhaps we can be more hopeful, however, about the ECO. After all, the Minister told me during DECC questions in May 2011 that the ECO

“is going to be much more effective than any measure that the Labour party introduced.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 478.]

However, according to the Government’s own impact assessment, by 2023—in 10 years’ time—the ECO will have reduced the number of homes in fuel poverty by only 250,000. That is fewer than the 300,000 households that were put into fuel poverty this winter alone, and a fraction of the millions of homes that were helped under the CERT programme that the ECO replaces. Again, the Minister’s claims to be supporting fuel-poor households simply do not stack up.

Perhaps the Minister will want to mention the £46 million boost for 132 local energy schemes that was announced by his Department on 15 January. If so, perhaps he will tell us why none of that money, which was designed to

19 Mar 2013 : Column 243WH

help to reduce fuel poverty and boost energy efficiency, was awarded to a project in Wales. That is further evidence of the double whammy I mentioned earlier and the Government’s lack of support for Wales.

I hope that the Minster will tell us why he is cutting support for the fuel-poor in Wales and around the country. Why have his Government halved support for the fuel-poor this year? Why did he reject Labour’s amendments to the Energy Act 2011 that would have targeted the ECO primarily at the fuel-poor? He will have heard many representations about how our energy market is broken, so why will he not accept our proposals for reform and introduce a pool, breaking open the market and ending the regional monopolies that lead to people in Wales paying more for their energy than people in any other part of the UK, despite Wales being a net exporter of energy? Why will he not introduce a real energy regulator with the power to stand up to the big energy giants and insist that energy companies automatically put the over-75s on to the cheapest tariff and help the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our communities?

3.49 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): I will try to cover as many points as I can; but with barely 10 minutes left, I apologise to any Member, not least the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), whose points I do not cover in full. I congratulate him on calling this debate on fuel poverty in Wales. It will not come as a great surprise that I did not agree all with all his points, which were somewhat theatrical, but what was not theatrical was his real passion for the subject, which is shared by other Members from both sides of the House.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the coalition shares his real determination to end the affront of fuel poverty in 21st-century Britain. The Government are only too aware of the real daily choices that confront too many people—not just in Wales, but across the country—in making decisions about keeping warm, particularly during the winter, and we take that issue extremely seriously. If we are to take it seriously, however, we need a little less party political point scoring.

If we are to address fuel poverty, we need a little less disingenuous analysis and to recognise that every year from 2004 to 2009, with only a slight pause in 2010—every year of the last Parliament—fuel poverty went up in Wales. I do not say that the last Government were entirely to blame, because there is in fact a direct link between the international wholesale gas price and fuel poverty. We can score petty points and selectively choose dates that suit our argument, but the fact is that a bigger issue is at play that has eluded successive Governments, so we need to come together with a much more ambitious, comprehensive and honest way to address the issue.

In Wales, there is a degree of complication in the sense that fuel poverty is largely a devolved issue. Although the Welsh definition of fuel poverty is the same as the English one—namely, 10% of household income, as the hon. Gentleman said—the issue is devolved and is not therefore subject to the Hills review that we commissioned to come up with an accurate definition that will aid our policy making. One reason why we have suffered with ineffectual policies in tackling fuel poverty over successive

19 Mar 2013 : Column 244WH

Governments is the lack of specificity—the fact that our efforts have not been targeted enough on those who really need our help.

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) recognised that cold weather payments have been made permanent, but he made some sensible and informed criticisms of how they are triggered, particularly to the detriment of some of his constituents. I am very happy to meet him and certainly to hear about his discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) highlighted the plight of off-gas grid customers. She particularly raised concern about a liquefied petroleum gas monopoly, which is again a real issue for not only her constituents or Wales, but right across the country. Those who are off the gas grid in rural areas get a raw deal from the market, and we continue to consider that issue. In fact, the coalition Government asked the Office of Fair Trading to look into that very matter, which we are keeping under close scrutiny. She made important points about standing charges, about which we are also concerned. We are looking at their impact, particularly because we are now entering the most radical period of reform of the electricity markets since privatisation in the 1990s.

The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned Mrs Thatcher and asked whether, at the point of privatisation, she anticipated that, far from creating greater competition, she would end up triggering a consolidation. In fact, Margaret Thatcher did not create that consolidation; the big six are the child of new Labour. When Tony Blair came to Downing street in 1997, there were 12 energy companies, and when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) left Downing street, there were six. That massive consolidation occurred on Labour’s watch, and it now falls to this radical, reforming coalition to take the measures that successive Labour Energy Ministers shirked and to reform the energy system.

We are not only reforming the wholesale market, which will drive competition and open up the market to the new entrants who were squeezed out by Labour’s love-in with big business, but reforming tariffs for the consumer and simplifying bills, which are important consumer issues that will make a real difference.

Several colleagues quite rightly referred to tariffs, so I am pleased to say that, far from doing nothing, as the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd suggested, the Government are acting on the Prime Minister’s pledge and not only acting on a substantial review, but introducing legislation this year to sweep away the bewildering thicket of tariffs. That will ensure that everyone in the country—the fuel poor, the pensioner, the low-income household—is put on the best, lowest appropriate tariff for them. People do not need a PhD in internetology to get a good deal out of their energy company. That will be welcomed, as will our simplification of bills.

My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) spoke with genuine compassion and concern about the terrible iniquity of fuel poverty, particularly in Wales. We do not always see eye to eye on issues such as wind, but he is right to say that we must not turn our back on a responsible exploitation of gas, particularly if that delivers greater energy security and brings down or limits energy prices for consumers.

19 Mar 2013 : Column 245WH

The hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) was quite right to point out that there is a bewildering array of tariffs. She said that she had been on the same supplier every since she married, which I am sure was only yesterday, and I hope that, as a result of the Prime Minister’s reforms, she will be having a change—of energy supplier.

Our reforms will bring in real competition. There may be some adjustment to the lowest tariffs, but we know that the big six energy companies use them to tempt 10% or 15% of us to switch, funding those tariffs at the expense of the 85% of the population that do not. Having much greater simplicity and transparency will make it easier for new entrants, who do not have an existing big customer base to milk, to come into the market and give the big six a run for their money.

The feed-in tariff was mentioned, but I have to say that, far from being dead, the feed-in tariff—particularly for solar technology—is alive and kicking. We now have the extraordinary figure of nearly 1.5 GW of small-scale solar having been installed under the coalition, and we are approaching 2 GW of total solar capacity. In fact, solar represents a very good return and a very good deal. I appeal to Opposition Members to stop talking down the solar industry, to talk to their local suppliers and to get behind solar, because it offers a very good deal and great opportunities for the whole supply chain.

Across the board, the Government are taking action to help the fuel poor. The Hills review will help us to do so more accurately, but we are very proud that, taken in total, our policies mean that more money is being directed in a more targeted way at the fuel poor than at any time in our history. We have a lot more to do and there is absolutely no room for complacency, but we are determined to do more.

19 Mar 2013 : Column 246WH

Bangladesh (Escalation of Violence)

4 pm

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Mrs Riordan. I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, which will focus on the recent escalation of violence in Bangladesh and which I know hon. Members from all parties are concerned about. First, I want to take this opportunity to express my deepest condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives in the violence that has taken place over recent weeks, particularly following the International Crimes Tribunal—a domestic court that tries people for alleged international crimes, including the genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed during the 1971 war of independence. The war, as many people will be aware, lasted nine months and cost the lives of some 3 million people.

I deplore the escalation of violence and the recent attacks on places of worship and private property in Bangladesh. Recent developments are of great concern not only to people in Bangladesh, but to the British Bangladeshi community and of course to those who have friends in Bangladesh.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. As she knows, I am chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh. I have been contacted by numerous Members of Parliament, as well as British Bangladeshis, asking for an emergency debate. Sadly, although the high commissioner is here today, we will not be able to facilitate such a debate with him present, so I am glad he is here to listen to the hon. Lady’s comments today.

Rushanara Ali: I thank the hon. Lady and commend her for her work as the chair of the all-party group. I agree that there should be more focus on what is happening. We must ensure that we in the British Parliament play our part in supporting countries such as Bangladesh, so that early action can be taken. We can apply the appropriate pressure as friends of Bangladesh to try to make sure such situations do not escalate and become more grave. I hope that after the Minister has heard today’s discussions he will make the appropriate representations. I have a series of questions that I will come on to.

Many British Bangladeshis have raised concerns about the escalation of violence. A third of my constituents are of British Bangladeshi origin and 500,000 people here in the UK have Bangladeshi heritage. Many have made representations to me, particularly regarding consular issues. For instance, constituents have contacted me about the safety and security of family members who visit Bangladesh. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who is unable to join us today owing to a family funeral, asked me to raise the issue of her constituent. She has been working hard to support her constituent, Sheikh Noor-e-Alom Hamidi—a British national of Bangladeshi origin who unfortunately got caught up in the violence, while attending Friday prayers. He sustained injuries during his arrest and was subsequently taken into custody. There have been particular concerns as Mr Hamidi, the director of a charity, suffers from ill health. Will the Minister update us on the advice and support that his consular department is offering to my

19 Mar 2013 : Column 247WH

hon. Friend’s constituent? There is grave concern across the board for his safety. I want to thank the Minister in advance for any assistance that his officials are providing.

On business and investment, many in the UK Bangladeshi community have business interests. Britain is the top investor in Bangladesh; our economic connections are very strong. If the unrest and instability continues, it will damage business and investment in that country. Many business leaders in my constituency have already made representations to the UK Government and to their counterparts in Bangladesh to convey their concerns and to try to bring the major leaders of the parties towards dialogue, so that they take responsibility and action to bring an end to the unrest.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a debate on the escalation of violence in Bangladesh. Does she agree that more needs to be done to protect the minorities in Bangladesh—the Hindu and Buddhist communities—who have been affected most by the unrest?

Rushanara Ali: I am coming on to that. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There have been reports of attacks on Hindu temples and other minority groups, including Buddhists, and on businesses and homes. That is completely unacceptable. I will come on to that in a moment and refer to discussions in the other place.

Following the International Crimes Tribunal’s recent rulings, there has been violence, as we are all aware. According to Odhikar—a Bangladeshi human rights watchdog—morethan100 people died between 5 February and 7 March; 67 people were killedafter the court delivered its third sentence on 28 February. As the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned, there have also been attacks on minority groups, and they have been highlighted by Lord Avebury in the other place. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide an update on any representations that the UK Government have made about these issues and what action the Bangladesh Government are taking to provide protection to those who feel vulnerable, particularly those in minority communities.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. There was a demonstration outside the Palace of Westminster last Wednesday on behalf of minority groups—Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and others—who put responsibility for the attacks on minority communities directly at the door of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. They claim that it organised the violence as a response to the war crimes tribunal judgments. Has my hon. Friend received similar complaints about Jamaat, and how does she see the role that it is playing in all this? I am sure that the Minister will respond to that in due course.

Rushanara Ali: My hon. Friend will be aware that any attempt to try to understand the deeply complex nature of the politics and political parties of Bangladesh is beyond me. I am concerned that all parties behave responsibly and within the law, whether they are here or in Bangladesh. My job as a constituency MP is to make sure that people behave responsibly and that, whatever their political leanings towards parties in another country, they act peacefully and within the law, whether there or here.

19 Mar 2013 : Column 248WH

I appeal to those who demonstrate in one of the major parks—Altab Ali park—in my constituency every weekend and every Friday to do so peacefully and to relay their concerns peacefully. In the end, they will be doing no favours to their fellow countrymen and women in Bangladesh if they act irresponsibly. I would say that to all the political parties and to all those who have political leanings, whether towards Jamaat, the Awami League or the Bangladesh Nationalist party. Sadly, too often people get into polarised positions and insist that we, as British parliamentarians, should take sides. I do not think that is the responsible thing to do. What is important is that those people themselves exercise responsibility.

The hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), in her capacity as chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh, has also raised concerns about political violence in Bangladesh, particularly among the youth wings of parties. Political leaders—our appeal is to all the political leaders—should take responsibility and ensure that they set the tone, so that the young, impressionable people who are involved in the youth wings of political parties act in a non-violent, peaceful way to highlight their concerns and their unhappiness about whatever may be happening. In the end, that will be the true test of the maturity of where people in Bangladesh and the British Bangladeshi community have got to. We have a responsibility to ensure that we encourage dialogue across the board in all the parties.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. My constituency has the largest number of Bangladeshis in Northern Ireland and therefore this issue is very close to my heart. The attacks on religious organisations and religious beliefs—those of Hindu and Christian people in Bangladesh—have resulted in some 89 people being killed in the past year. Does the hon. Lady feel that perhaps more needs to be done to address the issue of the Hindu and Christian people who have been attacked and murdered because of their beliefs?

Rushanara Ali: Bangladesh is a country that was founded on the idea of standing up for the rights of minorities. The majority Muslim population in Bangladesh is all too aware of what it is like to face persecution; they fought a war of independence for that reason. I am a British Bangladeshi, but I was born in Bangladesh, and it is absolutely right that people are constantly reminded of the values and principles on which Bangladesh was founded. In fact, the nation was founded by Muslims and Hindus, by those with faith and those without faith—by people across the board. That is Bangladesh’s great strength as a country. Where there is rising intolerance, that intolerance must be dealt with.

I would emphasise, however, that there are concerns about religious freedoms across the board. Within a liberal framework—I believe that Bangladesh has a strong liberal tradition—the rights of people to peacefully practise their religious beliefs, whatever religion they practise, should be observed, along with their other civil rights. So I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, but we need to ensure that we encourage the Government of Bangladesh and other political leaders in the country to set the tone and to try to ensure that they stand up not only against any kind of oppression towards any minority

19 Mar 2013 : Column 249WH

group, but for religious freedoms within a peaceful context. The concern is that violence is increasing—some of it sadly through the prism of religion—and that is deeply unhelpful.

Mrs Main: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Rushanara Ali: I want to make a bit more progress.

There have been reports of police officers losing their lives. However, people have raised their concerns about reports of the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. Frequent nationwide strikes have caused considerable volatility and led to businesses suffering and to ordinary people being unable to go about their daily lives in safety, or at least without having concerns about their safety even if they are not directly affected by violence. Of course, the country risks reputational damage in the eyes of the international community, not to mention damage to its economy.

As we look forward to the elections that are set to take place in Bangladesh in 2014, there are of course grave concerns about political violence and unrest ahead of them. So I hope that the Minister will be able to provide an update on what assurances the British Government are seeking from the Bangladesh Government, on what representations they are making ahead of the 2014 elections and on any dialogue that he and his Department are having with the main opposition party in Bangladesh, to ensure that the country can move towards, first, security and safety and then free and fair elections next year.

I remind Members of the progress that Bangladesh has made in its 42 years of history. The country started off facing huge challenges, but the growth rate in Bangladesh is now at 6%, according to the World Bank. According to Goldman Sachs, Bangladesh is projected to be one of the next 11 countries that could reach middle-income status. Bangladesh has made considerable attempts to address poverty, to improve girls’ education and to achieve many of the millennium development goals, particularly those on girls’ education.

Those are important achievements, but Bangladesh still faces grinding poverty and it is the second most vulnerable country to climate change. So I hope that we can work together with our friends in Bangladesh to ensure that people focus on the big challenges facing the country. Only when the governance of the country is genuinely focused on the future needs of its population and on the challenges that it faces will Bangladesh be truly able to meet its aspirations of reaching middle-income status and achieving economic and social prosperity.

We all have a vested interest in seeing countries such as Bangladesh progress, and there is no reason why Bangladesh should not progress if the issues that I have outlined are addressed and if we can encourage the major political parties in the country to work towards peace and stability. However, that requires political will and courage from all sides. I hope that the Minister will highlight what his Department is doing to try to encourage dialogue in Bangladesh.

I will end by asking the Minister a few questions; I will be very quick in doing so. First, can he provide an update on the representation that his Department has

19 Mar 2013 : Column 250WH

made about the rising violence in Bangladesh? What efforts are being made to try to bring an end to that rising violence? Can he update the House on whether he has had discussions with the main political parties in Bangladesh and, if so, what progress has been made? What representations have been made and what consular assistance has been provided to UK nationals in Bangladesh, such as Mr Hamidi, who have found themselves caught up in the current difficulties? Finally, has the Minister discussed with his international colleagues, including his European counterparts, what action we can take together to support Bangladesh in this very difficult period? I very much look forward to hearing his response to the debate, and I thank him for taking the time to respond to my questions.

4.18 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): Mrs Riordan, it is a very great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), whom I congratulate not only on securing this important and timely debate but on approaching what is a difficult matter in such a reasoned and balanced way.

I know that she and other hon. Members, together with their constituents, continue to take a close interest in the situation in Bangladesh. A number of important points have been raised this afternoon, and I hope that I will get round to responding to most of them in the time left to me.

I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), the chairman of the all-party group on Bangladesh, that there is clearly an appetite to debate this matter further, but alas allowing that is not in my gift. However, I am sure that she will make her representations in the usual places, and I hope she will secure a wider debate.

First, I want to make it clear that the United Kingdom and Bangladesh enjoy a strong and long-lasting relationship, which is important to both our countries. As Bangladesh prepares to mark 42 years of independence, we are proud that the UK was the first European country to recognise Bangladesh. Personal ties continue to connect our countries. Nearly 500,000 people of Bangladeshi heritage live in the UK, a good number of them in Bethnal Green and Bow. It is all the more important that we do not shirk our responsibility to highlight our concerns about human rights and respect for the rule of law. Those values are at the heart of British foreign policy, and they are particularly important at a time when Bangladesh is experiencing some of the worst violence it has witnessed in decades. According to human rights organisations, last year there were 15,101 incidents of political violence. That is lower than the 2001 figure of 26,426, but it shows the magnitude of the problem. Indeed, human rights organisations indicate that in January and February alone, there have been approximately 5,000 incidents of political violence.

Since January, the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh has found three men, including two leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, guilty of crimes committed during the 1971 war between Pakistan and Bangladesh. As a result of the verdicts and the ongoing political tensions, Opposition parties, mainly Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist party, have called approximately

19 Mar 2013 : Column 251WH

12 enforced strikes, or hartals, as they are known. The latest verdict issued in the case of Jamaat’s vice-president Delwar Hossain Sayeedi on 28 February led to mass protests across Bangladesh, with media reports of more than 70 deaths, many of which were reported to be the result of action by the law enforcement agencies.

We are also concerned about the media reports that 24 Hindu temples, 122 houses and dozens of shops have also been destroyed. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) raised similar concerns about attacks on religious minorities. We are concerned about the recent attacks, and in a statement on 13 March, my noble Friend Baroness Warsi said that she deplored the attacks and called on all parties to exercise restraint. The British high commission has met the Government of Bangladesh and Opposition parties, and senior officials in Dhaka have met officials from the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make clear the importance that we attach to ending the violence and making peaceful political progress. The British Government have been clear in their condemnation of the senseless attacks and their widespread and debilitating impact on families, communities, religious minorities and businesses—as the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow mentioned—in Bangladesh and the UK.

Hon. Members who have followed the situation in Bangladesh over the years will recognise the many personal and historic events that influence the political climate. For Bangladesh to achieve its potential, its politics should be practised primarily in Parliament, not on the streets. The British Government are strong proponents of freedom of expression and the right of all citizens to hold Government to account, including through legitimate and peaceful protests. That is an essential element of any democracy. As my noble Friend Baroness Warsi said during her visit to Bangladesh last month, however, violence and vandalism have no place in legitimate protests. We hope, therefore, that all parties can resolve differences through dialogue and discussion, and that citizens will be able freely to raise their concerns or grievances through peaceful means, without fear of retaliation or attack.

I would also like to reassure the House and members of the British Bangladeshi diaspora community that the British Government have strongly condemned the recent violence, including the attacks on religious minorities. Those concerns were raised with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, and with the leader of the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party, Khaleda Zia, during my noble Friend Baroness Warsi’s visit to Bangladesh. Last week, she also issued a statement expressing sadness over the senseless loss of life and called on all parties to exercise restraint.

As part of our bilateral relations with Bangladesh, officials at our high commission in Dhaka meet regularly with the Government of Bangladesh and members of the Opposition alliance parties. During the last week, our high commissioner in Dhaka has met Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and other representatives of the main political parties. The high commissioner has urged

“all parties to exercise restraint, moderation and respect for the rule of law”.

19 Mar 2013 : Column 252WH

We were encouraged by Dipu Moni’s statement that an investigation will be conducted into the recent violence, deaths and any use of excessive force by the police. We have urged the Bangladeshi Government to ensure that any investigation be conducted transparently and swiftly.

The United Kingdom remains committed to promoting human rights across the world and is steadfast in its opposition to the death penalty. As a fellow Commonwealth member, we look to Bangladesh to uphold Commonwealth values, which are clearly set out in the Commonwealth charter signed by Her Majesty the Queen on Commonwealth day, 11 March. Bangladesh is a country with more than 150 million people who are deeply passionate about their politics and political parties.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The Minister has been very reassuring about the role that the high commissioner in Dhaka has played in addressing the Government, the Bangladesh Nationalist party and other political parties. Can the Minister tell us what response the high commissioner received from the parties? Have they all issued statements calling for calm in Bangladesh?

Mr Swire: The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. I am not certain what the parties in Bangladesh have done, but, for our part, we will continue to urge all parties to take part in the elections in a fair and transparent way. We believe that the dialogue belongs in Parliament rather than in protest on the street, which has been so unsettling. With parliamentary elections due by January 2014, the UK is committed to working with all parties in Bangladesh to support the development of a stable, prosperous and democratic society. To achieve that, Bangladesh needs to have strong, independent and accountable institutions and a functioning Parliament at the centre of political debate.

Through the Department for International Development, which the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow shadows, and international partners, our programmes focus not only on poverty reduction and achieving the millennium development goals, but on strengthening political participation and promoting democratic institutions. We are helping civil society to track election-related violence and mitigate it through community engagement. Our programmes aim further to strengthen the skills and systems of the election commission and to support the Parliament of Bangladesh to become more open and effective. I hope that all political parties, the election commission and civil society can work together towards credible elections that are inclusive and transparent.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow for securing the debate. The British Government are committed to Bangladesh’s development and to its ambition of achieving middle-income status within the next decade. We remain the largest bilateral aid donor in Bangladesh, with a programme of £1 billion over four years, which will directly help millions of the poorest people in the country. Of course, we are still as keen as ever on human rights, particularly those of British citizens who return to Bangladesh. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow raised the issue of Sheikh Noor-e-Alom Hamidi, who was arrested in Dhaka on 22 February, and I reassure her that we are providing consular assistance. Our consular officials visited Mr Hamidi this month, and we continue to monitor his detention closely.

19 Mar 2013 : Column 253WH

To conclude, I want to send out a clear message that Bangladesh matters to the UK. As a long-standing friend, international partner and fellow Commonwealth member, we hope all political parties and civil society will engage in constructive dialogue. For all those reasons we will continue to monitor the situation in Bangladesh and continue to urge all parties to exercise restraint, moderation and respect for the rule of law.

19 Mar 2013 : Column 254WH

Police Community Support Officers

4.29 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about police community support officers and their powers. PCSOs are an extremely successful product of the previous Labour Government. As a natural progression from provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, they are an effective part of community beat teams across England and Wales. I am proud to say that I served on the Standing Committee that scrutinised the Bill that became the Police Reform Act 2002, which introduced PCSOs.

Offa community council in Wrexham—a community council in Wales is the equivalent of a parish council in England— is an active local council that works hard to address local neighbourhood concerns in a part of Wrexham that is partly residential and partly commercial. The council works closely with its local police community beat team and PCSOs. One of the local PCSOs attended a monthly community council meeting last year at which she explained that she attended the local Victoria primary school at key times when parents dropped off their children in the morning and picked them up in the evening. While she was doing that, some of the parents—I emphasise that it was a minority—were parking on zig-zag lines outside the school and on double-yellow lines in the area. That is a problem across the country with which we are all familiar, but in the context of a primary school with young children, it is a big worry that parents and teachers have to deal with.

The PCSO told the community council that she had asked parents who were flouting traffic regulations to move, because they were causing a danger to children. Everyone, of course, would be fearful that an accident might occur and that someone would be seriously injured. Most parents complied with the PCSO’s wishes, but several refused. She heard one of the drivers comment, “There is nothing they can do about it. They are only police community support officers.”

In preparation for this debate, having been fortunate enough that it was drawn in the ballot, I attended the school last Thursday afternoon to see the situation on the ground. The area was very busy, and some cars were parked dangerously. Young children were moving precariously among traffic, as children of primary age do. In such circumstances, the existing law unfortunately says that even though a PCSO may make the judgment that some vehicles are causing a danger to children in the community, they cannot take appropriate legal steps to deal with the situation.

Chief constables can designate PCSOs as having various powers, as specified in part 1 of schedule 4 to the Police Reform Act. However, PCSOs do not currently have the power to prevent dangerous parking or parking that causes an obstruction. As far as I am aware, and I am grateful for the Library’s assistance on this point, primary legislation would be required to allow them to exercise such a power. Such provision would address a community danger that has been identified on the ground by a local PCSO who wants to do her best to resolve the difficulty but, as the law currently stands, cannot do so.

19 Mar 2013 : Column 255WH

I am pleased that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice will be responding to the debate, because I have written to him about the situation. I am sure that his assiduous civil servants will have dug out the file. I was not expecting him to be present, but it is good that he is. I had suggested, at the instigation of the community council, that the Government might consider amending the law to allow PCSOs to deal with such problems by giving them the powers so to do. Unfortunately, the Minister’s reply last November stated:

“the principal role for PCSOs is part of neighbourhood policing teams, connecting and engaging with their local community, as opposed to managing parking restrictions which is a matter for the Local Authority.”

I was very disappointed with that reply, and I was even more disappointed that the local community council and PCSO, both of whom wanted to try to resolve a practical difficulty in their neighbourhood, were being let down by the Government’s response. Such responses give this place, and politicians generally, a bad name.

As I have explained, the case arose from a specific request that was made by an officer on the ground in response to a danger to young children. It is patently clear that the request for an additional power is neither unreasonable nor excessive. In the spirit of localism, I am content for the local chief constable to be granted a power, which he may or may not exercise, to allow PCSOs to issue tickets in such circumstances. At present, the PCSO has no power to issue a fixed penalty notice and has to call in a community beat manager—a police officer—from the town centre to take the necessary action, which is a waste of valuable police time. That deficiency can be easily remedied.

The clerk of the community council, Karen Benfield, reports to me that there is increasing reliance on PCSOs to undertake community policing. In the immediate vicinity of Wrexham, the number of community beat managers, who are police officers, is falling because of the Government’s budget cuts. The area used to have one community beat manager for each of the four wards served by Offa community council, but now there is only one community beat manager in charge of a PCSO team of five.

PCSOs in north Wales are already given the full range of discretionary powers that the chief constable can grant, which include the power to issue fixed penalty notices for disorder, truancy, graffiti, littering and dog fouling, but not for dangerous parking. Additionally, 25% of the cost of PCSOs in Wrexham is paid for by Wrexham county borough council to encourage the police and the local authority to work together to address the needs of the local community. PCSOs are seen to be working closely with the local authority to address all sorts of community issues, and dangerous parking is clearly a community issue that is upsetting the local community council.

The community council does not want PCSOs to take on the role of traffic wardens. It is as anxious as anyone to ensure that PCSOs carry out their role in the community and have a balanced, discretionary approach. Parking is a matter for the local authority, but the community council wants the PCSO to have the power to act when she sees a vehicle parked in the community in a dangerous situation. At present, only police officers

19 Mar 2013 : Column 256WH

can deal with such situations, but that suggestion is entirely reasonable at a time when the number of police officers is being reduced because of budget cuts.

I ask the Minister to consult on allowing PCSOs to have that power, which would not be controversial. The power would be at the discretion of the chief constable, and it has been requested by a PCSO on the ground because she is worried about young children in her community. How can the Minister possibly say no?

4.39 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on securing the debate. I am happy to discuss the powers of police community support officers with him and to deal with some of the issues he raised. He started with the particular and moved out to the general. In the interests of symmetry, I will start with the general and move to the particular, and end by addressing the issues at the school. As the hon. Gentleman said, he and I have corresponded on the matter. In believing that PCSOs do an important job very well, there will be not a jot of difference between us.

I will put the debate in the context of the Government’s wider police reform agenda. On entering office, the Government set the police a challenge: we asked forces to cut crime and at the same time undergo a radical programme of reform. The central objective of the reform is to re-establish the link between the police and the public, reflecting Sir Robert Peel’s principle that the police must answer to the people they serve. The reform of the crime and policing landscape is to ensure that policing is reconnected to the public and is sustainable, stronger and successful in pursuit of its core mission.

We have achieved that in a number of ways. First, we scrapped national targets, as the Government believe that policing must be responsive to local concerns. Priorities are now set by police and crime commissioners in consultation with the public who elect them. That approach is the embodiment of democratic accountability. The hon. Gentleman correctly talked about localism, which that approach embodies in that Whitehall is withdrawing from interfering in matters that should be determined locally.

Secondly, we have provided the public with better information about crime in their area. There is now clear, transparent and accessible information for the public. I am sure the hon. Gentleman has heard of police.uk, which I hope he is an avid user of. That website is a phenomenal success: it has received more than 548 million hits since its launch, equating to a daily average of more than 200,000. That demonstrates the public’s appetite to know what is happening in their communities and on their streets.

Thirdly, we have changed how forces are held to account, through police and crime commissioners. The Government have ensured that the public, not bureaucrats, are the judges of police success. The PCC will be held to account by the public for the delivery of effective policing. Alongside that, new roles for key policing partners have been carved out. In the new landscape we have legislated to make Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary more robustly independent, so that it acts directly in the

19 Mar 2013 : Column 257WH

public interest. The Independent Police Complaints Commission will continue to be responsible for ensuring that complaints against the police are dealt with effectively.

Hon. Members will be aware of the Home Secretary’s commitment to strengthen the IPCC’s ability to investigate serious complaints. That is a complex piece of work involving the transfer of resources from force professional standards units to the IPCC, but it will bolster the public’s confidence in the complaints system.

Lastly, the Government are supporting the professional development of police officers and staff. The College of Policing is independent of the Government and will not focus solely on supporting warranted police officers. Its remit will include setting standards for the professionalisation of all officers and staff.

The reform programme prioritises local communities. It places the public at the heart of policing. Neighbourhood policing is, therefore, a core part of the programme. Every neighbourhood in the country has a local policing team designed to work openly and in partnership with all members of their community. Every Member of this House understands the importance of ensuring that the public have a visible uniformed police presence in their community, working alongside them to identify and tackle the issues that matter to them.

The Government have supported that approach by introducing the locally elected PCCs, by ensuring that the police engage directly with their local communities through regular beat meetings, and by publishing street-level crime and antisocial behaviour information through police.uk. That focus on local accessibility, transparency, accountability and engagement will enable the public to support, and challenge, local police activity.

That brings me specifically to PCSOs. Neighbourhood policing has transformed how communities experience and relate to policing, and PCSOs are a vital component of that approach. They are now key to the public face of policing. I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman served on the Committee that scrutinised the legislation. PCSOs were a good idea and it is now acknowledged on all sides that they are an integral part of the neighbourhood policing landscape that we want to see. They provide a valuable uniformed presence in communities. Their ability to spend time getting to know their local area means that they can understand and identify local priorities, solve local problems and low-level crime, and engage with local communities. They bring key skills, values and diversity to policing.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) mentioned the powers of PCSOs and it seems that the Minister is moving towards agreement with him. My hon. Friend agrees that it is important that PCSOs are very representative of the communities they serve. Therefore, does the Minister welcome the approach of Gwent police in appointing more part-time PCSOs, allowing more women with child care responsibilities, for example, to work flexibly? That has meant that a different kind of person can become a PCSO.

Damian Green: I welcome that for two reasons. First, I am committed to trying to improve the diversity, not just of warranted police officers but of PCSOs. I think

19 Mar 2013 : Column 258WH

it was the new president of the Police Superintendents Association who made that point; the police have not moved as far as some other institutions in developing diversity and they need to do better. I am extremely supportive of practical steps to make that happen.

Secondly, the kind of local initiative that the hon. Lady describes is precisely what I want to see. I do not want to sit here—nor have any other policing Minister—dictating to different forces around the country what their priorities must be. Initiatives that come from the bottom up through the forces themselves at the behest of the PCCs will be the best way to ensure that each force is responsive to the local needs of its community. I am happy to welcome that initiative of the Gwent police. I had a good visit there a few months ago, seeing what they were doing to engage with the community in Newport. It is clearly an innovative force.

Providing visibility on the streets is also a key strength of the role of PCSOs. According to the results of the recent crime survey for England and Wales, over half of all adults say that they see the police or PCSOs on foot patrol in their local area at least every month. There are some very inspiring stories of what individual PCSOs are doing to engage with and respond to the individual needs of their communities.

In the Isles of Scilly, PCSO Bev Faull has been awarded a citation for her work with migrant workers. For the past three years, she has focused on helping the county’s eastern European migrants, effectively planning and running multi-agency operations to tackle exploitation of workers in west Cornwall.

In Shinfield, near Reading in Berkshire, Suzie Carr was awarded Thames Valley’s PCSO of the year, in recognition of the excellent community relationships she built while launching her “Wrong place, wrong time” youth project. It is interesting to note that the award scheme is by public vote, so she was praised by the local residents of the community in which she patrols for the positive impact of her work.

I have one final example from Solihull. Riccardo Gambino was named the region’s PCSO of the year for setting up 13 neighbourhood watch schemes during 2012. What is interesting about Mr Gambino is that he was a police officer for 11 years but gave up his warrant to become a PCSO because he thought that he could better serve his community as a PCSO, specifically because what was most important to him was the emphasis on engagement.

Those are three very good examples of the work undertaken by PCSOs. As of September 2012, there were nearly 14,500 PCSOs, and I am confident that each of them is taking positive steps to engage with their community, having an impact on people’s lives. It is a back-to-roots role, unique within the police service for its emphasis on accessibility and engagement, acting as a complement to, not a replacement for, the enforcement role of sworn warranted officers. That gets to the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s point, because we are determined to maintain the difference of the role.

Of course, there might well be changes and there have been changes in the past. We believe strongly in delegating local funding decisions, for example, to PCCs, which is why the neighbourhood policing fund, which historically funded such officers, is subsumed into the police main grant from next month. It will then be for police and

19 Mar 2013 : Column 259WH

crime commissioners, in consultation with individual chief constables, to take decisions on resourcing and deployment of PCSOs based on local assessments of need and risk. That is right, and I anticipate that this will make forces even more responsive to local concerns and priorities.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): The Minister says that it will be up to police and crime commissioners to make decisions about the needs of their communities. Will he pay tribute to the Kent police and crime commissioner, Ann Barnes, who is increasing PCSOs by 60 as well as having an extra 20 police constables on the streets of Kent?

Damian Green: As a fellow Kent MP, I am delighted that we will have more PCSOs and police officers on the streets of Kent in the coming years. I am happy to join my hon. Friend in his remarks.

I will now move on to the powers available to PCSOs, which are, as the hon. Member for Wrexham said, set out in the Police Reform Act 2002. All PCSOs are issued with 20 standard powers that enable them to deal with antisocial and nuisance behaviour in neighbourhoods. In addition, there is a list of discretionary powers that can be designated to PCSOs by chief constables in response to local requirements. The discretionary nature of the additional powers is important and goes to the heart of the notion of neighbourhood policing, which, at its core, is to ensure that policing responds to the needs of local communities. Discretionary powers ensure that PCSOs are flexible, as they bestow on chief constables the authority to take the necessary steps to ensure that their PCSOs are suitably empowered to deal with the issues that are of most concern to local residents. The Government believe that these limited and flexible powers are one of the key strengths of PCSOs, providing them with the time and space necessary to get to know their local area and actively to engage and build relationships with communities.

I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that the powers available to PCSOs remain under constant review, and we are always willing to look at ideas, but we need to ensure we strike the right balance and do not overburden them. The Government welcome consideration of revisions to the powers where it is clear that they will enhance, rather than undermine, this important role. The draft Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, for example, proposes the introduction of a new dispersal power for PCSOs. That will replace two existing powers and will allow uniformed police officers and PCSOs to direct a person who has committed, or is likely to commit, antisocial behaviour to leave a specified area and not return for a specified period of up to 48 hours.

We must be cautious not to overburden PCSOs with powers that could introduce bureaucracy to the role, taking them away from providing the visible presence on the streets that we want. Extending the scope of existing PCSO powers could introduce to the role an unwelcome element of confrontation that is associated with the power of arrest and is outside the PCSO’s unique role. Many, in fact, see the power of arrest as a last—not a first—resort, preferring instead to focus on being proactive and preventive. Therefore, we need to ensure that we give full consideration to the issues around extending PCSO powers.

19 Mar 2013 : Column 260WH

That lies at the heart of what might fall between the hon. Member for Wrexham and me. He quoted selectively from part of the letter that I wrote to him last November, so it falls to me to read the rest of it. He is right that I said that

“the principal role for PCSOs is as part of neighbourhood policing teams, connecting and engaging with their local community, as opposed to managing parking restrictions which is a matter for the Local Authority.”

He generously acknowledged that that is indeed the role of the local authority. I continued by saying that extending PCSO powers risks undermining that central role. From the letter he wrote on its behalf, I appreciate that Offa community council would want that power, but I said in my letter that that

“may not be true for all communities and legislating for such a change at a national level would not necessarily be uncontroversial.”

Ian Lucas: I accept that the move would not necessarily be uncontroversial, but I was clear about ensuring that it was a discretionary power that would be given to the chief constable. Will the Minister accept, therefore, that it is entirely appropriate for the Government to consult on whether to do that?

Damian Green: As I said, we published the draft Anti-Social Behaviour Bill. I know that antisocial behaviour is a term of art, but I am sure that parking dangerously outside a school can be regarded, certainly in non-legal terms, as antisocial behaviour, so the community council may want to contribute to the debate on that. The hon. Gentleman has already said that the extension of PCSO powers would require primary legislation, so, by definition, there will be no quick fix. He said that not having national legislation on this matter is the sort of thing that brings politics into disrepute, but I beg to differ. What brings politics into disrepute is insisting that every problem has to have a national legislative solution. This is clearly a local problem, although one that I dare say is replicated in various parts of each of our constituencies. Each local solution will be different.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that being confronted by someone who has powers and then finding that someone in a similar uniform does not have powers elsewhere is confusing for motorists? That could lead to unpleasant situations with motorists being unnecessarily rude. There is no excuse for rudeness, but it will be more confusing. People should never do the wrong thing in the first place, but we do not want to set up confrontation.

Damian Green: That is a fair point. There is clearly a balance to be struck between national and local powers, but we hold PCSOs in high regard precisely because they might well have different powers in different areas. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that people—motorists in this case—behaving in an antisocial way lies at the root of all this.

4.57 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.8 pm

On resuming

19 Mar 2013 : Column 261WH

Damian Green: Let me make a specific point about the situation that the hon. Member for Wrexham described at the start of the debate, and then conclude with a general point. Pondering it in our interregnum, it occurred to me that of all the parking issues, parking outside schools is probably the easiest to solve. It is overwhelmingly likely to involve parents, so if the PCSO turned up with a traffic warden or police officer and ticketed everyone, they probably would not do it again. If they turned up twice over the course of a couple of weeks, they certainly would not do it again. Therefore, it is a prime example of where we can use the PCSO’s power and detailed local knowledge to bring to bear the forces of law and order in a way that would prevent future crime. As I said, that would be a good example of how to use the specific virtues of PCSOs, with the powers that they have, and also, their ability to relate to local conditions.

We continue to look for opportunities to enable PCSOs to be used to their full potential.

Ian Lucas: Does the Minister not see that he is preventing a local solution that all parties want to implement in this particular case?

19 Mar 2013 : Column 262WH

Damian Green: I do not think that I am. The solution that I have just suggested could be operated tomorrow, whereas the hon. Gentleman’s solution is to have primary legislation, which he knows would take months or years, and might well be opposed by many people around the country. There would also be practical issues if, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)said, people got violent. A PCSO does not have powers of arrest, so in such a situation, it would not be suitable for a PCSO to become engaged.

Often, we should look for the simplest, most practical solutions, but the overall PCSO role reflects a core aim of the Government’s police reform programme—that of reconnecting policing with the public—and I am confident that the value of PCSOs will continue to be recognised by PCCs, chief constables, and most of all, by the public, because they do an enormously good job in all our local communities.

Question put and agreed to.

5.10 pm

Sitting adjourned.