3.15 pm

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I want to make a few general points. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) on initiating this important debate. If I was in his situation and had in my constituency two major coal plants that would shut if they were not converted to biomass, I would take exactly his position.

I want to take a step back and give a slightly wider perspective on what is happening, in line with what the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) said about energy and climate change. I can think of no country in history that remained competitive while it had higher energy costs than its competitors. At the base of our present energy policy is a huge gamble that gas prices will increase and that therefore the investment that the Government are making will make alternative energy competitive. At the moment, however, it is not competitive, and we need to bear that in mind, particularly given the worldwide increase in shale gas.

The second point I would make about the conversion to biogas is that it has two drivers: one is bonkers and counter-productive, while the other should not be implemented. One is the 2020 directive from Europe, which is an attempt to achieve a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. On one level, that would be fine, but the measure deals with only one side of the equation—emissions. It does not deal with consumption, and the reason why the carbon budget in Europe and this country is going up is that we are importing machines and other products from elsewhere, which is why the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing generally. The policy is not working and it is counter-productive—it is a deindustrialisation policy disguised as an environmental policy.

The other problem, which the hon. Lady mentioned, is the large combustion plant directive. I do not understand why this country must implement the directive by a particular date. In that respect, the Minister, who I think is excellent—I rather prefer his interpretation of the country’s energy policy to the Secretary of State’s—owes me, unusually, a letter. I asked him why we had not applied to extend the deadline for implementing the directive, which is allowable under its provisions. Perhaps he will tell us in his response.

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There is a subsidy and a cost to biomass. The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty made a good case, and he gave two reasons for using biomass. One was jobs; as I said, I would make the same argument if I was in his situation. However, when we give an industry a subsidy, as is the case for biomass and the rest of the alternative energy industry, there is a cost elsewhere, as the hon. Member for Thurrock said. That subsidy could be costing jobs elsewhere, even though it may not be necessary.

The second reason that was cited related to security of energy supply, which I would always put at the apex of energy policy. One can argue about price and how energy is made, but if we do not have any, we have nothing to argue about. I remind the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty that, in times of difficulty, whether that is to do with energy or anything else, an energy supply that comes across the north Atlantic is not totally secure.

Nigel Adams: The hon. Gentleman should consider where the fuel comes from now. We buy millions of tonnes of coal to fuel our power stations. It comes across in ships, and I imagine it is extracted through open-cast mining. That has been going on for years, so this is not a new phenomenon. Of course we must get the biomass from somewhere.

Graham Stringer: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The trees and forests of this country certainly could not be a sustainable supply, given the level of burn that there would be.

I am reminded a bit of Aneurin Bevan’s comment that we live on an island made out of coal and surrounded by fish, and it would take fools to damage our food or energy supply. I do not know what has happened in the past 30 or 40 years.

Ian Swales: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting counter-argument. Previous speakers in the debate have cited north America as an example, but he will be aware that the paper and pulp industry has long imported biomass, mainly from Scandinavia. The power project to which I referred in my speech is in detailed talks with the Finnish industry as one of its main suppliers.

Graham Stringer: In a stable world economy, crossing the Atlantic or the North sea is not a problem, but a secure energy supply really means being able to do things here, and there is a risk to our energy security from moving from fossil fuels, of which we have hundreds of years’ supply, to biofuels. I just want to make that simple point.

Another point that has not come out much in the debate is the problem of toxicity. I have tabled several parliamentary questions on the matter in the past year or so. According to an answer of 23 May 2012, at column 701W, the burn of biomass in 2010 added to the atmosphere 160 tonnes of chromium, 130 tonnes of arsenic and 16 tonnes of hexavalent chromium, all of which are damaging to health and likely to reduce people’s life expectancy, although the figures are not completely available.

Kate Green: My hon. Friend puts his finger on the concerns of people in my constituency. Does he agree that in addition to the emissions and their possible

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impact on air quality, there is concern about incinerator ash and a sense that that, too, should be treated as hazardous waste?

Graham Stringer: I know from my hon. Friend’s constituents, who have written to me, that there is great concern about these problems in Stretford and Trafford, so I wanted to bring that to hon. Members’ attention, because it has not yet been discussed.

Finally, I think that the carbon debt is slightly greater than the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty said, partly because some new trees will be used. Interestingly, to hit the European 2020 targets, the carbon must be back in a tree by 2020, so if we are dealing with trees that take 10 or 20 years to grow, biofuels should not count towards the target, because that will not have happened. I think there is a bit of a fiddle going on.

Ian Swales: The hon. Gentleman is repeating one of the great fallacies about the industry, on which I think that the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) touched. Let us say that there is 20-year cropping of a stand of trees, with a 20th taken out and replanted. All the evidence shows that the overall carbon in that stand of trees at the end of the year will be the same, or will even have increased, despite the cropping, because all the other trees will have become bigger. The idea that when one tree is taken out—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I ask for brief interventions because we are short of time.

Ian Swales: Thank you, Mrs Main.

Graham Stringer: It is a complicated equation, although I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. There is also the question of the carbon that comes out of the earth, however, and the black carbon, which is a product of the combustion and also leads to global warming. It is a very complicated equation, so it is simply wrong to say that the process is carbon-neutral.

Although I have the greatest respect for the case made by the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty, we are dealing with a subsidised industry that would not have been established without two European directives, one of which is counter-productive, while the other is deindustrialising the country. People’s health is being damaged and, in the round, the policy is not a good one.

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I remind the two hon. Members who wish to speak that the winding-up speeches will start at 3.40 pm. I hope that that will be taken into account so that they both can be accommodated. I call Glyn Davies.

3.25 pm

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I shall try to limit my speech to five minutes, Mrs Main. Will that be within the time limit?

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to say all he wants to say.

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Glyn Davies: Perhaps I will take even less time.

Whenever I hear that there is to be a debate about energy, I feel an almost irresistible force within me demanding that I rant about the desecration that onshore wind will cause in my constituency. I am sure that you, Mrs Main, and the Minister will be pleased to hear that I do not really want to do that today, although I will say that that power forces me to take a great interest in all other forms of energy, because one cannot be just against things.

I want to raise two constituency concerns about biomass, but that is in the context of my huge support for it in general. The first matter has a great constituency impact and comes into the category of unintended consequences. There are two anaerobic digestion plants in Shropshire that use maize, and they are devastating Montgomeryshire dairy farmers’ ability to access maize land, so their traditional way of farming will have to change. Those farmers have dairy herds and have either rented land to grow the maize, or have bought the crop wholesale to feed their stock. They can no longer afford that, because they are being driven out of the market by plants that burn maize crops in England. When we consider biomass use, we must be careful about the unintended consequences for other important industries. Of course, the ability to feed the nation is a huge part of what must always be Government policy in Britain—indeed, the same thing would apply throughout the world.

My second point relates to a constituent, Mr Clive Pugh, of Bank farm in Mellington, who is a huge enthusiast for biomass. Twenty years ago, he built an anaerobic digestion plant on his farm. It uses waste, and for 20 years it has been profitable and successful, but now he finds that because he has a payment subsidy through renewables obligation certificates, the support he gets is nothing like what it would be under the feed-in tariff regime. There are competitors all over Shropshire, in brand new plants, who probably get 11p or 12p a kilowatt-hour for the energy that they produce. Many of them are producing that energy from products that can be used for other purposes, but Mr Pugh simply uses waste products—and nothing but waste products. That helps the fertility of his land, which does not need so much fertiliser, and it does not even need so much weed killer because the process kills the weeds. However, he is being driven out of business.

When I wrote to the Minister about that, I received the reply that someone such as Mr Pugh really should have asked for his payment regime to be transferred before 2011. However, small business people such as Mr Pugh do not realise that, and now he finds that he is no longer able to transfer—there was a cut-off date. New plants are going ahead elsewhere, and Mr Pugh will be driven out of business, but he is the pioneer. He was the man who established the examples and showed us how the process could work, yet he is the one who will be driven out of business.

Mr Hayes: I shall deal with this matter through an intervention now, if I may, to save time later. I will ask my Department to look at the particular case of Mr Pugh, which my hon. Friend has done a great service to the House by raising, and that of others like him. Clearly we need to do something that is consistent and coherent. None the less, my hon. Friend has raised an important matter and I will ask for it to be dealt with.

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Glyn Davies: I had reached the conclusion of my speech, but I am very glad that I took that helpful intervention.

3.30 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): Everyone here would agree that the fundamental concept of biomass is a good thing. There can be no objection by any Member of Parliament or any constituent to the fundamental principle and support for it. However, as always with Government policy, including in the three years that I have been in the House, the consequences are not always what we would wish to see. I am faced with a situation—this is the third Minister in three years whom I have addressed in relation to biomass subsidy—whereby, on the one hand, the standard person who is buying timber, whether it is a furniture maker, someone doing wood panelling, a caravan maker or any other person using timber in any way, shape or form in this country to run any kind of business whatever, buys at a price that is unsubsidised by the Government. On the other hand, energy companies that wish to purchase timber in this country for use in a biomass energy plant are subsidised to a large and significant degree by the Government.

The consequences are very clear. First, the timber price goes up. Secondly, the energy companies have a competitive price advantage, which allows them to purchase timber at a cheaper rate than all other purchasers in the country. Every single person, save for an energy company, gets a different price. That, from a Conservative coalition, I find illogical and hard to believe, given that we are meant to be a free-market-based organisation. The reality is that the subsidy is distorting the market, raising the price of timber and, I regret to say to my hon. Friend the Minister, posing a severe threat not just to the wood panel industries, but to any utiliser of wood in this country.

Nigel Adams: I have the utmost respect for my hon. Friend. I just wonder whether he can tell me of a significant power generator in the country that is buying its timber to be pelletised from sources within this country.

Guy Opperman: In accordance with the time-honoured traditions of the House, I shall be delighted to write to my hon. Friend and give him chapter and verse. The honest reality is this: I cannot give him chapter and verse right now. However, he will be fully aware that there are only two places where a biomass energy company can purchase its timber product. It can come from this country—we have 12 million tonnes of timber, and a large proportion is going to British-based energy companies—or it can be obtained from overseas. My hon. Friend is making faces from a sedentary position along the lines that he disagrees with me. I manifestly do not accept that. In fact, I will definitely make the case—I would be interested if the Minister could comment, because he is very informed—that if there is in reality no energy company in this country creating biomass that is utilising—

Nigel Adams rose

Guy Opperman: I will not give way any more. The situation surely is this. On any interpretation, if there is no energy company in this country that is utilising domestic wood—

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Nigel Adams: Significant.

Guy Opperman: If there is none or no significant one, why is a subsidy needed? If there is no utilisation, that is all the more reason why the Minister should take the dramatic point of view that we should get rid of the subsidy. With no disrespect, the energy companies cannot have it both ways. They cannot say, “We need a subsidy to buy timber in this country; that subsidy is to help us,” and, alternatively, “We don’t use it, so we don’t need the subsidy.”

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

Guy Opperman: On this occasion, I will.

Julian Sturdy: Can my hon. Friend say where this Government energy policy or renewable energy policy generally would be without subsidy? I am struggling to understand, because surely all energy policies attract subsidy. The question is whether it is good or bad and how far it goes. Renewable energy policy attracts subsidy across the board.

Guy Opperman: I accept that. We all understand that to kick-start energy policy, there must be subsidy—no one disputes that—and there has been, in a multitude of different energy fields over a long time, under successive Governments, that process. However, just as the Government have reviewed the subsidy that exists in relation to solar or other types of energy production, so the Government have an obligation to review the extent to which they subsidise domestic wood. I shall go further than that and say this. In this context, it is having an impact on jobs. There is no question in my mind about that. It is also having an impact on the consumer, because as with all energy, there is a degree of subsidy, and that subsidy is coming from the consumer. The consumer is paying, through Government subsidy, for the consequences of the energy production. Therefore, to say that it is without any adverse consequences whatever would be simply wrong.

Jackie Doyle-Price: The area that my hon. Friend is opening up now—the impact on consumers—is a very important one across the wider perspective of energy policy. The reality is that we need to invest in generating capacity, and biomass will be an important ingredient of that. If we do not do that, the price of energy for consumers will go up, because we will be having to buy that power on the open market.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the winding-up speeches will start in just under four minutes.

Guy Opperman: Mrs Main, I take everything that you say very seriously and most particularly the fact that I have two minutes and 54 seconds in which to finish. It comes down to this. The Minister is a free-market economics guru. He is a robust embracer of his brief. However, I remain to be convinced of why we subsidise one item for one particular organisation, while we do not subsidise on the other hand. I am told by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), who is both a friend of mine and very eloquent in the

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way he puts his case, that there is no effectual usage of domestic wood in this country—yet we still subsidise it. With respect, that is totally illogical. Either the subsidy is required to continue for domestic wood, or it is not. Mrs Main, I thank you.

3.37 pm

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) not just on securing the debate, but on the comprehensive way in which he dealt with the issues in relation to biomass. To start with, he is right to make the distinction between biomass and biofuels. The Minister, I am sure, will recall that on 6 March we engaged in the discussion on the Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order 2013. Certainly the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) was present as well. I do not know whether anyone else here was. Possibly the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) was; I am not sure. The debate touched on a range of issues, but it focused particularly on biomass and biofuels, and I did reflect that there was sometimes in that discussion a degree of confusion and overlap between what people were talking about, so the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty was right to make the distinction between the two at the outset of today’s debate.

This debate is important. I am conscious of the time and I do want to give the Minister time to respond to the wide range of points that have been made during the debate—some specifically on biomass and some slightly more wide-ranging—but I just want to reflect on the point that the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty made in relation to the perhaps liberated comments made by the soon-to-be former chief executive of Ofgem when he talked about the capacity crunch recently. While not wishing to disrespect that opinion, I am sure that he will be aware that there are a number of different views about what the level of capacity will and will not be. That is one scenario, but it is important to highlight that similarly expert commentators have painted other scenarios. We need to reflect on them all, to see where we are going with our wider energy policy.

The hon. Member for Redcar referred to the decisions announced today on carbon capture and storage. I was interested to hear the Minister’s response, particularly on the two projects that were not included in the announcement in the Budget today. If we are serious about CCS, we need to ensure that we get the long-term support regimes—such as those we are discussing in the Energy Bill, which is awaiting its Report stage—right. That will ensure that those two projects—and the Hatfield project, which was not successful in the New Entrants Reserve 300 funding scheme, because it did not get the go-ahead for match funding from the Treasury—are not completely lost and that we do not lose opportunities in those areas and in the export potential of our technological and academic lead in the industry.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) talked about the power station at Tilbury, the impact it has had and its contribution to the national grid since its very recent conversion. She also made an important point about the cost of grid connections. It is about not only the financial cost, but the time it takes energy sources to be connected to the grid, particularly in the

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less populous parts of the British isles. There are complications, and concerns about the time some sources take. Her important points add to the case for making biomass part of the balanced mix, particularly because, as is sometimes described, it can be used during a transitional phase, while other sources are developed further. I do not think that biomass is completely ideal, but we do not live in a completely ideal world and we have a significant energy challenge to meet over the next few years.

The hon. Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who do not necessarily have negative perspectives, drew attention to some areas of concern with biomass. They both pointed out that they are not opponents of biomass, but they wanted to draw the House’s attention to some of its consequences. I shall pick up from where the hon. Member for Hexham left off. I do not do so as some sort of “bourgeois liberal”, “chi-chi” commentator or whatever other phraseology the Minister uses to keep those behind him happy in debates, but from the serious perspective of the potential consequences for other industries. I am sure that the Minister will recall that I touched on the specifics when we discussed the topic in Committee.

I discussed some of the consequences with my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), who is a colleague of the hon. Member for Hexham on the all-party group on the wood panel industry. The issue is what is, and is not, waste. We hear a different interpretation of waste when we talk to the wood panel industry, as opposed to when we talk to other industries, such as the furniture industry. There needs to be a decent level of engagement between the Government and the industry, because they have different data that show very different things—the impact on price is just one factor that needs to be explored properly. The Minister said earlier this afternoon that he intended to ensure that there was that level of engagement. It is important because anyone’s starting point with biomass is that it needs to be sustainable and focused on genuine waste products—products that cannot be used in any other meaningful way, such as in furniture or in the wood panel industry, which can use lower-grade wood than the furniture industry. I am sure that he is well aware of those points.

Ian Swales: The hon. Gentleman is right to flag up the differences in data. Is he aware that the Renewable Energy Association says that there has been a 15% fall in wood prices in real terms since 1996?

Tom Greatrex: Indeed, and I was about to quote from its figures. The hon. Gentleman is right and he makes the point about the different interpretations. In debates about different aspects of energy policy, sometimes differences of view are over-interpreted and elaborated on by people with an ideological objection, which is regrettable. In this case, if we go into the detail of the different sets of data, to establish exactly what the impact is, it would be good for the industry and good for the energy supply going forward.

The last time we discussed this, in a Committee, I asked the Minister some questions. He gave a commitment, but he did not answer other questions precisely or completely, so I would like to give him the chance to do

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so, because there is a slightly different audience this afternoon. When he met the all-party group, he agreed to write to generators requesting information on their biomass sourcing intentions for the next five years. I want to press him again on whether the correspondence has begun and whether the information is back from the generators. They are important data, particularly, as he knows, in relation to the differentiation between imported and indigenous supply, which brings us back to the points the hon. Member for Hexham made about the industry.

The Minister said that he will look again at the option of differentiating support for imported and indigenous products. Will he come back to that point? He also said that he would establish a working group with the wood panel industry and that the letters would go out before the end of the month. We are not quite, but almost at the end of the month, and he made the commitment at the beginning of the month. Has he been able to do it yet?

Mr Hayes: I have indeed written to the large-scale users of biomass for information about the kind of product they use. My Department is analysing that information and will follow it up in the way I said I would. In addition, my Department has been in touch with the wood panel industry to arrange a date for the workshop I want to put on, to ensure that we are comparing like with like and that the data we have received are in line with the industry’s data. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about mismatch and the difficulties of definition.

Tom Greatrex: I thank the Minister for that response. I am sure that those who have expressed concerns will welcome his clarification. I do not have an objection to biomass, but it needs to be employed properly, which is about sustainability and transparency in sourcing.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I have listened carefully to the discussion today, most of which has been about large-scale operations. The BSW Timber sawmill in my constituency uses waste to kiln-dry material for use in gardens and other facilities. With no transport costs, keeping it local adds to the sustainability of biomass and carbon reduction.

Tom Greatrex: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point, which I neglected to make in the time I have available. I shall finish my speech shortly. The use of biomass in combined heat and power and the links with industry are important aspects of it being able to be used.

In conclusion, biomass should be sustainable and focused on waste. If we can get those things right, I do not think there will be any genuine objections to biomass, because it will deal with some of the genuine, as opposed to ideological, concerns. In the energy debate, although people have the right to hold a completely different view, we should always differentiate between addressing genuine, legitimate concerns and accepting an ideological difference for what it is, rather than getting too hung up on it.

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3.49 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Mr John Hayes): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) on securing this important debate on a topic that, as we move to a large proportion of our energy needs being met by renewables, is vital. John Ruskin said that it was always

“more difficult to be simple than to be complicated”.

An aim of the debate on energy strategy and policy is to make it more straightforward, for when we make it esoteric, we not only confuse most of the public, but I suspect we may confuse ourselves.

My mission is to bring a straightforwardness to energy policy, and at the heart of that straightforwardness, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said, is that there is no imperative more significant than that of energy security—ensuring that supply meets demand. All the other considerations may have value, and some may have great significance, but unless a Government, though Governments do not do it all themselves, of course, can bring about a set of conditions and establish a framework in which that can be assured, they are failing, which is why biomass, and particularly coal conversion, is so important. It is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) argued, a reliable, predictable and secure means of helping to ensure energy security. It is as plain—in Ruskin’s terms—and simple as that, but the debate deserves more than that, and I want to talk a bit more about the detail.

I recognise that there are many pros and cons involved, and to balance them the Department has set out four guiding principles for our biomass energy policy. They are that biomass must be sustainable, that it delivers genuine greenhouse gas savings, that it is cost-effective and that its unintended consequences on other industries are minimised. All those issues have been mentioned during the debate. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) talked about sustainability, the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton raised the issue of greenhouse gas savings, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and others mentioned cost-effectiveness. I see my role as ensuring that the principles are applied pragmatically and consistently.

I would like to set out why I believe biomass is an important part of the energy mix.

Kate Green: Does the Minister agree that it is important that there is absolute transparency about whether the principles are being complied with, particularly when there are anxieties about the environmental impact of plants?

Mr Hayes: We should not underestimate that. It is important that it is properly considered. The hon. Lady will know that the Government are committed to sustainability in those terms. If I have time, I will say more about that, but if I do not, I would be more than happy to write to her with the detail.

The hon. Lady is right that it would be wrong to be cavalier about that, just as it would be wrong—and I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is a great champion of the wood panel

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industry, and rightly so—for us not to take into account unintended consequences. The unintended consequence for farmers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) mentioned, can also be profound, and it is about straw too. Pigmeat farmers, for example, are concerned about the effect on straw prices of its use in biomass. My hon. Friend raised the issue of dairy farmers. I take that point, and we will consider the matters. It is important that there is no displacement effect. The unintended consequence is as significant as the virtue of what we are trying to achieve.

But the virtue is a profound one. We are talking about a proven source of energy. At the end of the third quarter of 2012, the total electricity generating capacity of biomass electricity generating stations was 3.5 GW, which was an increase of more than 900 MW over the previous year. It may not be known that landfill gas is 1 GW of that capacity. For many years it has been an important source of energy, predating some other technologies that get more airtime, perhaps because they are perceived to have greater glamour.

With the right criteria in place, by 2020 as much as 11% of the UK’s total primary energy demand—for heat, transport and electricity—could be met from sustainably sourced, biologically derived biomass. Most of it would be from wood, and our analysis indicates that that can be done without significant effects on food production or the environment. Biomass can, therefore, play a greater role, but I am mindful of displacement and sustainability. Biomass also offers controllability and predictability, as I suggested earlier, so it can provide both base-load generating resource and peak power energy as required.

It is important to recognise that biomass conversion is a cost-effective and quick means of decarbonising our electricity supply. In July last year we announced our revised levels of support for biomass under the renewables obligation and set out new bands to support the conversion of coal-powered stations, as we have heard. I recognise the challenge of Tilbury and I am happy to work, along with my officials, with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock to ensure that we do what we can to facilitate the process. There is, of course, a commercial decision at the heart of that, as my hon. Friend well knows, but the Government will do what they can to ensure that the process is as equitable as possible. I appreciate that my hon. Friend has been a great champion of Tilbury because she knows that the issue is not only about energy; as so many hon. Members have reported, it is about jobs and skills too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty made that perfectly clear in respect of his constituency. My goodness, I have met him a number of times to talk about this subject, including about Eggborough and Drax. I am pleased to say that my Department has recently written to Eggborough power station, as he knows, and set out the process by which it can take its ambitions further forward. I hope that that has been helpful; it has certainly added clarity to the circumstances the station is in. There are further steps to be made, and I assure my hon. Friend that they will not be unduly lengthy and that they will be clear to Eggborough. We

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will advise and support the process that he is so passionate about ensuring comes to a happy outcome. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to put all that on the record.

I am also grateful to other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), for allowing me to say a brief word about carbon capture and storage. I want to affirm what I said in an intervention, which is that taking forward the CCS projects, with the £1 billion competition, will do so much to change our assumptions about future energy—CCS can give a long-term future to gas, of course, and to coal I hasten to add. I want to make it clear that the projects that have not made the final two are of considerable interest to us and that we will maintain a dialogue. I will speak to my hon. Friend personally about some of the details later today.

Sustainability matters too though, and we have put in place demanding criteria for the supply of fuel. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston has emphasised sustainability a number of times and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), was right to draw it to our attention in reference to the renewables obligation statutory instrument that we debated a week or two ago. It is right that we look at the supply of wood and that we take account of the definitions of what waste wood really is. I have already said that that work is ongoing, but I am very happy to share it with the House at all opportunities and to continue to an outcome with which the wood panel industry, in particular, is happy.

The work we are doing on sustainability requires ongoing consultation. The sustainability controls that we have put in place are still the subject of further discussion. Many hon. Members have raised that matter with me when we have debated such things in the House, and I can confirm that we are tightening our thinking in this area. We intend to ensure that we can move ahead with confidence, because we think that biomass is so important.

Biomass must, however, also be cost-effective. We make no apologies for insisting that we must deliver value for money for the energy bill payer, maximising the amount of renewable energy and carbon reduction we receive for our investment. Coal conversions offer, perhaps, the best means of ensuring that value for money, and using waste to generate electricity also provides a cost-effective route, as long as we can accurately define what waste is. Let me just say this on waste: it seems that the location of this kind of biomass plant should be close to the source of supply, and ideally close to the source of demand, too. They are industrial plants with an industrial purpose, and I want to emphasise that.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty again for drawing this matter to the House’s attention. I confirm that the Government are entirely committed to biomass and to its role in our energy mix. I am glad that we have had the opportunity to talk about this, and while I am the Minister, and while I am driving the policy, Ruskin’s advice, about being straightforward about our objectives, will be not only my view, but the Government’s view.

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Rail Disruption (Cleethorpes and Doncaster)

4 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

The reason why I asked for this debate is the closure of the main rail line out of my constituency—the line from Cleethorpes to Doncaster, Sheffield and on to Manchester—as the result of a landslip at Hatfield, between Scunthorpe and Doncaster, early last month. I welcome the Minister to his place and thank him for the help that he and his colleagues in the Department have given to date, through the influence that they have brought to bear.

I should set the scene by pointing out that the main Cleethorpes to Manchester line is the main route out of Cleethorpes and, importantly for the tourist trade, it is the main route into Cleethorpes—[Interruption.] It is the premier resort of the east coast, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) reminds me. The alternatives are less than adequate, it has to be said. There are three lines out of Barnetby, the junction about 15 miles west of Cleethorpes, all of which go to Doncaster, Sheffield and Manchester, but the line through my hon. Friend’s constituency—through Brigg, Kirton Lindsey and Gainsborough to Sheffield—is, in part, a single track and passenger services are provided only on Saturdays. There is an alternative route to the east coast main line, with a connection at Newark, via Lincoln, but the service on that route is intermittent to say the least, and it is not a reasonable alternative.

The main operator on the Cleethorpes to Manchester line is First TransPennine. I have to say that it provides an excellent service and has done an excellent job in recent years to build up the patronage on that service. Of course, First TransPennine is also suffering, although there are compensation arrangements such as from Network Rail. As it pointed out in an e-mail to me, it is losing 25% to 30% of its customers from Grimsby and Cleethorpes, which equates to 2,500 a week. Clearly, many of those people might be permanently lost to First TransPennine.

Those people who wanted to come to Cleethorpes at Easter and into the summer season, for a day or a few days in the resort, will be completely lost to the tourist trade. The inconvenience is not only to individual travellers, including Members of Parliament I have to say, but more importantly to people accessing leisure services. It has a real impact on the local economy, and that is particularly relevant with the approach of the Easter weekend, which is the traditional start of the tourist season.

I met Network Rail and First TransPennine on Friday, and I acknowledge the difficulties that they face. The first priority is to get the line clear and to get at least a limited service up and running. At a conservative estimate, that will take another 12 to 16 weeks. As Network Rail pointed out to me, there are still considerable unknowns. I understand that Network Rail needs only three to four weeks to replace the track, but it does not yet have access to the track, because it has to move the slag heap that caused the slip and ensure that it is safe for the workmen.

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I have already mentioned alternative routes. I accept that one priority must be getting freight from Immingham docks to the power stations. In the main, that uses the alternative Brigg and Gainsborough line, but there is some limited access and First TransPennine is training its drivers with the necessary route knowledge to run on that line. That is proving difficult, but I understand that it is ongoing, although it will take six weeks. First TransPennine is halfway through that process, so there is hope that a skeleton service might be provided on that line by mid to late April. As I have mentioned, Northern Rail operates a Saturday-only service. It would surely not be beyond the wit of man to use those particular slots, at least on Saturdays, and those available on Sundays, when there is less freight traffic, to provide direct services. At least getting people there for the weekend would be a boost to the tourist trade.

It is worth pointing out that one of the alternatives is the East Midlands route via Newark, which, as I have said, is an intermittent service. It is one of the faults of the present franchising system that there does not seem to be an incentive for East Midlands to take advantage of the lack of trains on the other route by providing additional trains. I recognise that, as I know from correspondence about its normal daily services, there are problems. Anyone who has travelled on peak-hour services—most noticeably, for example, the 17.23 from Lincoln, via Market Rasen, through to Grimsby—will know that the rolling stock is totally inadequate, being provided by a single unit. East Midlands readily says—I have quite a bit of correspondence about this—that the rolling stock is simply not available. Clearly, if rolling stock is not available to provide existing services, there is very little scope for it to provide additional services.

Through First TransPennine, I have asked whether East Coast, which provides most east coast main line services, would consider deregulating some of the ticket restrictions that currently operate, at least to allow people to leave London and get back to Cleethorpes by train, by changing at Newark. In the evening, that unfortunately means having to leave before the 7 pm cut-off at which cheaper tickets begin. East Coast told First TransPennine that it was not prepared, in more or less any circumstances, to do that. I subsequently wrote to East Coast, but, sadly, it has not as yet bothered to reply. It does not seem unreasonable to request that, for the 18.03 from King’s Cross to Newark, which has a good connection through to Grimsby—not to Cleethorpes, unfortunately, but at least people can get to Grimsby—it could provide a derestriction to allow passengers to Barnetby, Habrough and Grimsby to use that service.

The main concern now is clearly to get services up and running, but I think questions need to be asked, although the Minister does not have direct responsibility for most such areas.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, who is my parliamentary neighbour, on securing this important debate about a significant event in our part of the world. Does he agree that, at the same time as addressing the issues that he quite properly raises, Network Rail has an opportunity to look at bringing forward its upgrades to the line? My constituents in Scunthorpe, who are being significantly disadvantaged, would then get a future advantage through improvements to the railway.

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Martin Vickers: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. At our meeting on Monday, Network Rail told me that it intends to schedule some of the works on other parts of the line while it is closed, which is obviously a sensible move. There is therefore some hope in that respect.

I want to move on to the actual incident, why it happened and who, if anyone, was responsible. The slippage of the slag heap may have simply been the result of movement in the earth—one of those terrible things that, although it blocked a railway line, thankfully did not cause any loss of life. However, I know from Network Rail that it has had discussions with the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the mines inspectorate. I am in the process of corresponding with those agencies to see what their response is. It is worth mentioning in this debate—I hope the Minister will convey this to other Departments—who, if anyone, is responsible for monitoring the safety of the slag heaps. Agencies such as the HSE moved in after the event, but was anyone other than the operator of the site responsible? The operator, which was Hargreaves Services, only owned 10% of the operation; the rest was owned by foreign investors. Do the HSE, the Environment Agency and the mines inspectorate have responsibility—

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Simon Burns): If it helps, it is the HSE.

Martin Vickers: I thank the Minister for that and I look forward to hearing from the agency. It is important that it is able to confirm what, if any, responsibility it had before the incident and whether it discharged those responsibilities in the proper manner. I do not want to indulge in scare stories, but a train could have been on that section of track when the incident took place. I hope that the matter is taken extremely seriously.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has made a fantastic case for all our constituents and commuters on the south bank of the Humber, but my constituency will experience a double whammy in that the Hull, Goole and Doncaster line is also affected. I had to use the bus replacement this week. [Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is a risk of a triple whammy coming our way, because there will be closures on the Hull, Selby and Doncaster line in a few weeks, and we need an assurance from the Minister that that will not be allowed to happen until the works have been completed?

Martin Vickers: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I know that both his constituency and other constituencies on the north bank of the Humber are extremely concerned that they may be effectively cut off from the rail network.

Nic Dakin: The hon. Gentleman has said a lot about passenger services, but he will know that 20% of the freight coming into the UK goes through Immingham. Will he say something about the impact on freight services?

Martin Vickers: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. In fact, it is more than 20%; 25% of freight tonnage moved by rail starts or ends in Immingham. It is a vital hub, especially for the movement of coal to power stations.

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I understand from the train operators and Network Rail that they are able to manage the freight operations using alternative routes, but it is a particular concern, and the hon. Gentleman is right to mention it. His own constituency, which encompasses Scunthorpe and the steel works, is a vital part of that freight network.

In conclusion, will the Minister address my key points in relation to alternative TransPennine routes via Brigg or Lincoln, and an improved rail service on East Midlands Trains, perhaps with some joint working with TransPennine? I presume there are surplus units at the moment that we might be able to use.

The Minister will know that my neighbouring colleagues and I are pushing hard for a direct rail service between Grimsby, Cleethorpes and London. At the moment, there is an East Midlands train that goes from Lincoln to King’s Cross in the morning and King’s Cross to Lincoln in the evening. It would be a golden opportunity to test the market for a future service if that route could be extended to Cleethorpes for a short time. Let us see some entrepreneurial activity by East Midlands Trains pushed on by the famous entrepreneurial Minister. I hope for a positive response in that respect. One final matter for the Minister is the ticketing regulations on the main line, which must be a simple thing to deal with. I look forward to hearing his response.

4.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Simon Burns): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. It is a particular pleasure for me because it is of course the first time that I have had that privilege and honour. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on an important and pertinent speech concerning the response to the natural disaster that has so adversely affected the railway lines and his constituents, and also the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). I fully appreciate the importance of rail services to people in Cleethorpes, Grimsby and Scunthorpe and the significant inconvenience that the collapse of the spoil heap is causing to people wanting to travel from those towns and others wanting to travel to them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes on the efforts that he has taken with meetings and lobbying to secure the best services for his constituents in respect of the disruption. I welcome the work that the industry has done to mitigate the disruption caused to both passengers and freight operators following the incident, which, as all hon. Members will accept, is beyond the control of the railway.

First TransPennine Express operates an hourly service from Cleethorpes to Manchester airport via Scunthorpe, Doncaster and Sheffield. Northern Rail provides local services between Doncaster and Scunthorpe and between Doncaster and Goole. The collapse of a spoil heap at Hatfield colliery, which was initially noted on 9 February, destroyed the adjacent railway line that links Doncaster with Scunthorpe and Goole. The subsidence did not cease until the end of February, which has compounded the problem. The collapse was not just a one-off incident on 9 February; it continued for almost another three weeks, resulting in a clear-up problem of enormous size and magnitude.

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On 15 March, Network Rail advised that clearance of the spoil had commenced. However, it now anticipates that the reinstatement of the railway will be in early July rather than in June, as it had previously advised. Network Rail hopes that there is no further slippage and that it will continue to make progress to achieving restoration. Network Rail cautions that any date is subject to revision in the light of uncovering further problems as the work progresses, or the recurrence of movement in the spoil heap.

Train services have been replaced by buses. Buses between Scunthorpe and Doncaster are running every 30 minutes. Additional buses serving local stations are operating each hour. Northern Rail is providing limited stop buses and rail replacement buses serving all stations between Doncaster and Goole. Northern Rail express trains linking Sheffield, Doncaster, Hull and Bridlington have been re-routed via the east coast main line and Selby.

Northern continues to provide three trains between Sheffield and Cleethorpes via Brigg on Saturdays as required by its franchise agreement. Those services offer people the opportunity of a day out in Cleethorpes, and therefore are maintaining a direct rail service in support of the local tourism industry in Cleethorpes. East Midlands Trains provides seven trains on weekdays between Grimsby Town and Newark North Gate. Those trains connect with East Coast trains for passengers travelling to London. To extend the existing service to Cleethorpes would require additional resources, including additional rolling stock, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes mentioned in his remarks. It would be for EMT to determine the business case for sourcing any additional rolling stock. I know that EMT has increased the capacity on trains between Grimsby and Newark North Gate on Saturdays, when it has rolling stock available to do so, so as to meet this short-term problem.

As my hon. Friend is also aware, management responsibility for the removal of the spoil falls to the colliery operators, Hargreaves. Network Rail is responsible for rebuilding the railway once the spoil has been removed. During the period that the railway is closed for reconstruction, Network Rail is investigating options for bringing forward investment work that is due in 2014. The removal of lineside vegetation has already commenced. Further options for expediting future improvements are also being considered. This may help to reduce the number of times that engineering work causes future disruption to passengers.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, it is estimated that it will take between 16 and 18 weeks to reopen the railway. Around 1 million cubic metres of spoil will have to be removed before Network Rail can commence reconstruction. Work has started to remove the considerable amount of spoil and to restore the railway, and I welcome the considerable effort that Network Rail and others are making to expedite the task. Network Rail’s mining team is carrying out a review of other sites around the network with built spoil heaps, and no cause for concern has been identified.

My hon. Friend mentioned Selby swing bridge; I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole also mentioned it. The bridge is due for renewal between 28 July and 9 September. Network Rail is currently

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planning that the investment in that historic bridge will go ahead as scheduled. In the event that the work at Stainforth is still under way, that will limit the diversionary routes available to passenger services. Network Rail is working with the train operators to identify alternative arrangements if they are required.

On the question of Immingham port, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, he knows as well as I do that it is one of the busiest ports in the country, and both he and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe mentioned it in their contributions. It receives 55 million tonnes of freight annually, including around 20 million tonnes of oil and 10 million tonnes of coal. These considerable fuel supplies are sent by rail, there being more than 250 rail movements at Immingham each week. Coal trains run from Immingham to power stations in the midlands, including West Burton and Ratcliffe power stations, and to Eggborough power station in North Yorkshire. Immingham also supports the UK economy in landing container traffic, animal feed and forestry products.

It has been suggested that passenger trains be rerouted via the Brigg line. Following the loss of the railway via Scunthorpe, Network Rail has rerouted a considerable number of freight trains via Brigg and via Lincoln. Given its strategic importance, Network Rail rebuilt sections of the Brigg line for freight traffic in 2009. The line is currently being used by around 120 freight trains a day, rather than the usual number.

To maintain fuel supplies and other deliveries, freight trains are now running every few minutes in both directions throughout the day along the 12 miles of single track between Gainsborough Central and Kirton Lindsey, and along a further single line between Brigg and Wrawby Junction. Although there are no immediate plans, or ability, to run passenger trains via Brigg, it is for First TransPennine Express and Northern Rail to work with Network Rail to assess whether there are any available train paths for passenger trains via that route, or whether amendments to the times of freight trains might be possible in the future. I certainly urge my hon. Friend, in the light of what I have just said, to go back to the companies and suggest that they contact Network Rail again to discover if there are any opportunities along those lines that might help—up to a point—in alleviating part of the problem that his constituents are facing at the moment. However, I also advise him that operating passenger trains via the Brigg line does not benefit passengers travelling from Cleethorpes and Grimsby to Scunthorpe and Doncaster as it does not serve either place. There are also fewer connection opportunities at Retford.

Around 15% of passengers from Cleethorpes and Grimsby travel to Scunthorpe and Doncaster—more than travel from Cleethorpes to London. Noting previous comments by my hon. Friend, it would be for East Coast to assess any options there may be for extending its Lincoln to London services to serve Grimsby and Cleethorpes. To do so, East Coast would require time to amend train diagrams and crew rosters. It would also have to follow industry processes to assess whether the trains used are suitable to run east of Lincoln. If this were achieved, East Coast would then have to release members of its train crew from other duties to learn the route between Lincoln and Cleethorpes.

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I appreciate the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed about the disruption to rail services in Lincolnshire and the knock-on effect in South Yorkshire, which have been caused by the collapse of the spoil heap near Hatfield and Stainforth. I welcome the efforts that the rail industry has made to reduce disruption to passengers and freight traffic, including advising passengers of changes to train services and taking an opportunity to bring forward maintenance work where that is possible.

However, I also appreciate the impatience of my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes and for Brigg and Goole, and of the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, to have the very best for their constituents. The problem facing us all is that this slippage was an act of God, so to speak, and because of the sheer scale of the slippage the problem cannot be solved overnight, despite everyone’s best intentions to find a solution as quickly as possible. That does not help the hon. Members’ constituents, because obviously they want the service restored as quickly as possible, but I know that their constituents are reasonable people and that they appreciate that we cannot solve a problem of this scale overnight, or with the click of a button. Nevertheless, I hope that they are reassured by the considerable amount of work that has been done and that is still being done, not least by my hon. Friends and the hon. Gentleman in the way that they have engaged with the rail companies and Network Rail to try to limit any potential delays, and in their exploration of all possible avenues to try to find a solution that minimises the disruption to their constituents at the present time.

In conclusion, I can only say—

Martin Vickers: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Burns: I will give way very briefly, because I am almost out of time.

Martin Vickers: I thank the Minister for his response, and I appreciate the work that Network Rail and the operating companies are doing. May I just ask him to see if he could pass on to East Coast my comments about the issue of ending the restrictions on its tickets?

Mr Burns: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I certainly listened very carefully to what he said. As he will appreciate, the rules and regulations governing tickets are a matter for the train operators, but it would give me considerable pleasure to get in touch with them and draw to their attention the comments that he has made during this debate, and I will ask them if they will look at this issue to see if there is some way, and some flexibility, that might help to make life easier for some of his constituents, and for some of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole and of the hon. Member for Scunthorpe.

Before I sit down, I can say that no one is more anxious than I or my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes and for Brigg and Goole and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe to see this matter resolved as quickly as possible, so that normal, effective, efficient services can be restored to the local communities that all three hon. Members represent so well.

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Sri Lanka

4.30 pm

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I pay tribute to the person behind this debate, my late constituent, Khuram Shaikh. Khuram was a Rochdale Red Cross worker who worked in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, helping people who had lost limbs from bombs, land mines and disease. The terrible irony is that he was killed not in the crucible of war, but at a holiday resort in Sri Lanka, where he was supposed to be recuperating before leaving for his next mission in Cambodia. It was not a land mine in Gaza that killed Khuram Shaikh; it was a group of thugs, running amok in the tourist resort of Tangalle.

Khuram spent his working life in harm’s way, but when he was killed, he was sitting in a luxury hotel near a beach in an idyllic setting. I looked at the hotel in a glossy brochure the other day and no one could imagine a safer place to be, but the holiday brochures do not warn people about the depraved gangs that stalk the tourist areas in Sri Lanka, looking for trouble.

My constituent died in appalling circumstances, trying to defend his partner from a horrific attack by a group of political thugs who continue to walk free in Sri Lanka. I want to concentrate on two things today; the failure of the Sri Lankan justice system to properly investigate the killing of a British tourist and the wider failings of that country’s justice system, which is rightly coming under more international scrutiny in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that Sri Lanka is due to host this November.

I want to set out the facts about the failure of the Sri Lankan justice system to investigate the death of my constituent. The nature of Khuram’s death was brought home to me in the most appalling way possible, as I was presented with crime reports by the head of the Sri Lankan criminal investigation department. I am now certain that Khuram died trying unsuccessfully to protect his female partner from a horrific and sustained attack, the details of which would make anyone sick and are simply too distressing to repeat here.

After Khuram was killed on Christmas day 2011, Sri Lankan Ministers moved into overdrive, initially worried at the damage that might be done to the country’s growing tourist sector. The Minister responsible for economic development and tourism at the time said:

“Those who committed this crime will be severely dealt with even if a ruling party politician is involved. The government will not protect those involved in this crime.”

Eight men were immediately detained, including a local politician, who was suspended from the ruling party, and police informed Khuram’s family that they had sufficient evidence to make sure that the case moved swiftly to trial. Then, when the media attention died down, everything ground to a halt. Eventually, the eight suspects were quietly released on bail and the local politician was allowed back into the ruling party. Any pretence of justice went out of the window.

On the anniversary of Khuram’s murder—Christmas day just gone—media attention returned and the Sri Lankan Government went through the same routine of claiming that justice was taking its course and that it was normal for suspects, even those suspected of serious

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crimes, to be out on bail. Inquiries were taking longer than expected, we were told. Khuram’s family was quite right not to be satisfied, and their wish to see justice and experience some sense of closure at a terrible tragedy for them was understandable.

To assist in the process, I agreed to fly out with the brother of Khuram to seek answers. Earlier this month, I spent 40 hours with Naser Shaikh in Sri Lanka, meeting Ministers, senior civil servants, Members of Parliament, journalists, police, diplomats and lawyers to try to find out why the case had stalled and to press for justice.

At this point, let me put on record my thanks to the British high commission in Sri Lanka. Its help and support was extremely good, and it is a credit to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our country.

While out there, I was emphatically told by countless Sri Lankan people that politicians are immune from prosecution in such cases and that the local politician suspected of killing Khuram was protected by the President. I was also told that some politicians were out of control and running riot in many parts of the country. While I was there, it was reported that two more British tourists had been hospitalised after an attack by another local politician. As I boarded the plane to return to the UK, I picked up a copy of The Island, a popular Sri Lankan newspaper. The front page ran a story of our visit and underneath it was a cartoon of a man explaining how “political goons” had killed hundreds of Sri Lankan people.

If this was not horrifying enough, the lax attitude towards the case by senior Sri Lankan civil servants was even more worrying. The permanent secretary at the Foreign Office told me that, if politicians had good lawyers, they could find a way to escape justice. When I put it to him that he could not guarantee the safety of British tourists, he shrugged and said their system needed more teeth. The permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice told me that they could not take foreign witness statements regarding the case, because it would be too much trouble to get them to travel to Sri Lanka for the trial. When I suggested they use video evidence, she said Sri Lanka was unable to use such sophisticated technology. Later, the head of police investigating the case directly contradicted her and said that they should use video link technology.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman is giving an impassioned account of what took place. Does he feel that the fall-down in this has been the police investigation, or has it been political influence? Does he feel that the assistance of police in this country might help the police out there to do a full investigation, so enabling the right people to be tried, convicted and put in prison?

Simon Danczuk: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I am convinced that it is about political interference. The police out there have done a relatively reasonable—quite a good—job investigating. I will come back to some of those points in my speech.

Worse still, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice added that the accused would be able to choose the trial that he wished. It would be unlikely that

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he would want a trial at bar in Colombo, and the likelihood is that it would be a trial by jury in Tangalle, where he has a fearful reputation and where jury members are likely to be easily intimidated. With most of the country’s media in Colombo, the trial would pass without a great deal of scrutiny. This case has reached a sorry pass when it seems the best that we can hope for is a sham trial.

Police have told us that they have 12 witness statements identifying the main suspect and that they are only awaiting DNA tests, which have been delayed for the best part of a year. Whenever we question the delay, we get the same response: “the tests will be ready in a few more months.” Although I accept that the Sri Lankan justice system moves slower than ours, I remain convinced that political interference is putting the brake on any efforts to move things forward. In a country that can impeach its chief justice in a matter of weeks but see little progress in 15 months on the death of a British tourist, serious questions need to be asked about not just the independence of Sri Lanka’s judiciary, but also its ability to stop further crimes like this happening.

The Minister will be aware that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel guidance on Sri Lanka warns of an increasing number of sexual offences being committed and gangs being known to operate in tourist areas. My concern is that although British Airways promotes Sri Lanka as its No. 1 destination for 2013, many tourists do not know of the potential dangers that they face.

We all know of the vast Chinese investment in Sri Lanka’s tourism sector, but making Sri Lanka open to the world requires a lot more than just hotels; it requires a commitment to the shared international values of democracy, human rights and justice. More than ever, that commitment should be on display to the world right now, as Sri Lanka gears up for the CHOGM.

President Rajapaksa has talked of the “true Commonwealth spirit” that the summit will embody, but against a backdrop of the continued denials of human rights abuses, the sacking of its chief justice for daring to make a decision that the Government found inconvenient and the abandonment of the rule of law, it is hard to see where the true Commonwealth spirit is in Sri Lanka. For Rajapaksa’s regime to continue flagrantly to ignore key Commonwealth values, while assuming the position of chair-in-office of the Commonwealth later this year, makes a mockery of the Commonwealth and winds back the clock on 60 years of progress.

There is a growing chorus of opposition to Sri Lanka hosting such a prestigious event, and I hope the Minister is attentive to those legitimate concerns. Geoffrey Robertson, QC, has argued:

“A visit to Sri Lanka by the Queen, as the head of the Commonwealth, would provide a propaganda windfall—a royal seal of approval—to the host president after his destruction of the country’s judicial independence.”

A former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), has said that it would be a mistake for Sri Lanka to host the meeting, which he likened to Pretoria hosting a Commonwealth summit while South Africa was under apartheid. Another former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), has said that the notion of the Queen attending the meeting in Sri Lanka is “grotesque”. Although I

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share his sentiment, I would use even stronger language to describe my reaction to the possibility of Her Majesty coming face to face with the chief suspect of the cold-blooded and cowardly murder of my constituent.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating this debate. I share his view that Sri Lanka ought not to host the CHOGM. Will he join me in asking the Minister to consider whether it might be reasonable to set up an organisation under the auspices of the Commonwealth, or to commission a body such as Justice or the International Commission of Jurists, to go to Sri Lanka to carry out an objective report on the country’s legal situation? Not only is there the hon. Gentleman’s case, but many others that need investigation where Sri Lanka has fallen far short of any acceptable Commonwealth standard.

Simon Danczuk: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Any suggestions or proposals that would improve the situation in Sri Lanka are welcome. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response.

It has been reported that the main suspect, Sampath Chandra Pushpa, is to be invited to the CHOGM in an official capacity, which makes an absolute mockery of the Commonwealth secretary-general’s statement that the meeting is an opportunity to find “paths to peace”. Values, as we all know, can only be demonstrated by action, or as Gandhi put it:

“Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

In Sri Lanka’s case, we are yet to get beyond warm words. Ministers seem to think that soothing rhetoric will be enough to reassure us that justice will happen one day.

My point is that paying lip service to the key principles of human rights and the rule of law is neither here nor there. The leaders of 54 countries will not be heading to a country that embodies the shared values and principles of the Commonwealth this November; they will be travelling to what is fast becoming a pariah state that embodies neither Commonwealth values nor Commonwealth goals.

Of course, some people will say that the attack on my constituent and his partner is an isolated incident, but that is not true. Attacks on European tourists are increasing and there is grave concern among diplomats about the safety of foreign nationals, particularly women travelling alone. Equally disturbing are the attacks on journalists. In the past month, the British journalist Faraz Shauketaly, who works for The Sunday Leader, was shot in his own house by unidentified gunmen. A few years before, the editor of that newspaper, which is known for its exposés of corruption in the country, was killed. Too many Sri Lankan journalists have been killed or have gone into exile, and the country has a terrible press freedom record, languishing near the bottom of the press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

The purpose of the debate is not only to shine a light on how the Sri Lankan justice system is failing properly to investigate the murder of a British tourist, but to honour the memory of Khuram Shaikh, who was a well respected member of our community and a valuable and committed member of the International Red Cross

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and Red Crescent Movement. Understandably, his death has caused untold grief for his family, and I know that his father makes the trip to his grave every day.

Although Khuram achieved a lot in his life and tributes have been paid to him from across the world, he was only 32 when he was killed, and he should have had many years ahead of him. His death has left a huge gap in the lives of those who knew him, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to introduce a debate that adds to the tributes for Khuram. I am sure the Minister will agree that every necessary step must now be taken by the British Government and others to press Sri Lanka to do more to protect tourists, so that others do not meet the same fate.

4.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this debate and on conveying to us the human tragedy and agony behind the statistic of the murder of a UK national abroad. I also pay tribute to the force and the manner of his description of the case, the circumstances of which make for powerful listening and reading. I hope his speech gets wide distribution. I am also grateful for the contributions of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes).

I applaud the long-standing commitment of the hon. Member for Rochdale to securing justice following the brutal murder of his constituent, Khuram Shaikh, in 2011, and I welcome the opportunity to bring attention not only to that tragic case but to the wider circumstances that have been described. It is no secret that the United Kingdom has a number of concerns about progress in Sri Lanka, a country with which we have long and very strong ties but about which we have everyday worries that are shared by a number of other nations. One of our dearest wishes is that balance and equilibrium are restored to our relationship with Sri Lanka by those issues’ being addressed, but that is not what we currently see.

It is important to note that we have a long-standing and strong relationship with Sri Lanka. Our close ties are formed through history, educational links and culture, as well as the Sri Lankan community in the United Kingdom, which contributes so much to our rich and diverse culture. We value those links, which we are determined to maintain.

A key link, of course, is tourism. UK citizens accounted for more than 10% of tourists visiting Sri Lanka last year. Even in these tough times, tourists are making a significant contribution to the Sri Lankan economy. Together with Sri Lankan citizens, they deserve to know that they can rely on the Sri Lankan authorities to keep them as safe as tourists in any other part of the world. They also deserve a swift investigation, with the perpetrators being apprehended and brought swiftly to justice in a fair and transparent trial, should any crime be committed against them.

Unfortunately, the events highlighted by the hon. Gentleman today have served to undermine that trust. The horrific murder of Khuram Shaikh has gone untried

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for 15 months, bringing further grief and frustration to those closest to him. Of course, justice can take time, which we all understand, but in this case we were encouraged by the quick arrest of the suspects and the Sri Lankan Government’s early assurances that such a brutal crime would be investigated quickly and thoroughly, and that all guilty parties would be sentenced appropriately.

No trial has yet started, and the suspects, the most prominent of whom is a local politician, have been released on bail, which is extremely disappointing. There is a growing perception that the guilty parties may escape justice due to political connections, despite repeated pleas from Khuram Shaikh’s family and the British high commission in Colombo. I welcome the recognition of the work of our high commissioner and his team. It will be reported back to him. There is a sense, 15 months after this heinous crime, that those who deserve to be put on fair trial for their actions might escape justice. We sincerely hope that that is not the case, and that the accused will soon face a swift trial, free from political interference.

I was able to raise Khuram Shaikh’s case with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister during my visit to the country in January, as well as in a meeting with the Sri Lankan high commissioner in London on 23 January. During my meeting with the high commissioner, I was advised that progress would be made within three months. I trust the high commissioner and the Foreign Minister, and expect to hear soon of progress on the case. The British Government, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, will monitor closely the progress of investigations in the coming weeks, in the hope that those assurances will lead to the justice that the Shaikh family so deserve. It is unfortunate that senior members of the Sri Lankan Government did not meet with the hon. Member for Rochdale or with Khuram Shaikh’s brother, Nasir Shaikh, during their recent visit to Sri Lanka to press the case further.

We are concerned about the possibility of increased attacks on and threats to our tourists abroad. Our travel advice recognises an increase in sexual and gang violence in Sri Lanka. We condemn all instances of violence. They must be investigated, and those responsible brought to justice with a swift and fair trial. We advise any visitor abroad to read the travel advice on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. It is kept up to date. It is accurate, factual and not used for any political purpose; it honestly describes the situation there. It will change to reflect circumstances and the UK Government’s concerns about UK citizens travelling abroad. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to it. We draw the attention of tour operators and others to our travel advice, and we hope that people accept it and understand what it implies.

Turning to wider issues mentioned by hon. Members, Khuram Shaikh’s tragic case is, regrettably, not our only concern about justice in Sri Lanka. Hon. Members have spoken eloquently about other concerns. We are clear that judicial independence should be a principle at the heart of all free countries. Since the impeachment of Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice in January, many feel that that principle has been fatally compromised, which is why we and others, such as the International Commission of Jurists and the UN, have expressed deep concern at the

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impeachment. We are disappointed that the Sri Lankan Government continued with the process despite objections from Sri Lanka’s highest courts and outcry from its own citizens.

The Sri Lankan Government have defended the impeachment, stating that the process was constitutional and followed due procedure, but many eminent legal authorities, in Sri Lanka and overseas, have given a contrary view. We also note that when the legal experts of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute planned to visit Sri Lanka to investigate the impeachment, they were denied visas by the Sri Lankan Government. Such actions do not inspire confidence in the claims that the process would stand up to further scrutiny.

Of course, our concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka do not end with justice issues. The long conflict in Sri Lanka ended in 2009 with the defeat of the brutal Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. After such a devastating period in their history, we believe that all Sri Lankans deserve lasting peace, justice and reconciliation. Following the end of the conflict, the 2011 report by the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka found credible allegations that both sides violated international humanitarian law during the conflict. More recent work such as the Human Rights Watch report and footage from a new documentary about the final days of the conflict have also brought to international attention important information supporting allegations of abuses.

We have consistently called for an independent, thorough and credible investigation into the allegations. Until such an investigation takes place, it will be difficult for the Sri Lankan people to move forward. We are clear that all allegations must be investigated, whether committed by the LTTE or Government forces, and that those responsible must be brought to justice. We believe that fully addressing and condemning events of the past is crucial to ensuring that justice is done and that Sri Lanka can begin to look forward, not back, but so too are wider measures recommended by Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. In order to ensure that the dividend of peace can be enjoyed by all Sri Lankans, it is vital that the Sri Lankan Government make concrete progress in implementing the recommendations, which include investigation of alleged extra-judicial killings and disappearances and implementation of a mechanism to resolve land disputes impartially.

We recognise that the path to justice and reconciliation, particularly after such a bitter conflict spanning generations and affecting so many, will be long. It is also important for us to recognise that the Sri Lankan Government have made some progress. I saw the situation for myself during my visit to Sri Lanka in January. Infrastructure had been rebuilt, and I saw roads being repaved in the northern area. I also heard from non-governmental organisations about extensive de-mining work done in former conflict zones. We recognise and welcome such progress. We also recognise that there are obstacles to progress in some areas, and that the way forward will never be clear of stumbling blocks. Much more work is needed to guarantee a stable future for Sri Lanka and ensure justice for all its citizens. The appropriate application of the rule of law is clearly a key factor.

Simon Hughes: Will my hon. Friend give way?

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Alistair Burt: I am just about to come to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. The United Kingdom has still not made a decision on our attendance at CHOGM. We look to Sri Lanka to demonstrate the Commonwealth principles of good governance, respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law.

The spotlight will be on Sri Lanka, and will inevitably highlight either progress or lack of it. It was decided at CHOGM 2009 that Sri Lanka should host the meeting in 2013. I remind the House that to reopen that decision would require the consensus of all member states. We will look to Sri Lanka to demonstrate its commitment to upholding Commonwealth values. We must also be sure that the emphasis at CHOGM will be on the Commonwealth. That is what it is about. Bearing in mind the location, however, there is a risk that attention will be drawn to other factors. We are working strenuously with other partners to ensure that Sri Lanka recognises its opportunity to demonstrate its values; also, in the run-up to that period, questions are being asked, exemplified by the individual circumstance raised by the hon. Gentleman that is reflective of wider concerns. We have similar questions, as do other members of the Commonwealth, and other concerns are being aired this week at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

As I mentioned at the beginning, our relationship with Sri Lanka is long and deep. We recognise the bitterness and difficulty of the conflict that came to an

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end and the brutality of terrorism and the importance of seeing it ended; if there is to be proper reconciliation and justice, however, there has to be a recognition of accountability for what has happened, as well as looking forward to the opportunities available for all the population in Sri Lanka. All that the friends of Sri Lanka and its people are doing is to draw attention to the need to reconcile the statements of the Government of Sri Lanka about justice and reconciliation with actions on the ground to deliver that. Government statements about implementing the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations are emphasised because that is what Sri Lankans themselves expected to see happen to deliver the justice and reconciliation that the Government talk about.

Those outside are asking for no more than for the Sri Lankans to live up to what they themselves said was needed to ensure reconciliation for the future as well as justice for the past. Adherence to the rule of law and the ability to deal with the sort of issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and others in this Chamber this afternoon are a key part of that process. The United Kingdom is keenly aware of the concern about such issues and of the need to look at them extremely carefully in the months ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.