Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 48



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Taken before the Backbench Business

on Tuesday 29 January 2013

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

David Amess

Mr David Anderson

Bob Blackman

Jane Ellison

John Hemming

Mr Marcus Jones

Nicola Blackwood, Fiona Bruce, Mr Brooks Newmark and Fiona O'Donnell made representations.

Q1 Chair: We have an important vote at some point today, so I propose that we try to bang through this as quickly as possible. I have the order in which people wrote to us; that is generally how we work it, but we have called Nicola Blackwood first because one of her supporters, Brooks Newmark, needs to leave early.

Before we start, we have very limited time available in our allocation. We have an end-of-the-day slot on Monday 11 February. That is two to three hours at the end of business. We also have a half day on 14 February. We then go into half-term recess so we will not have anything until we get back after that, but we don’t know anything about that yet. At the moment, if you are bidding for something specific, the two slots would be those in the Chamber. We have no Westminster Hall. If you want to put it down for the future we can put that on our form as well.

Nicola Blackwood: This application is for three hours general debate on preventing sexual violence in conflict. It is particularly topical, obviously, because of the current situation in Mali, but the ongoing situations in Syria, difficulties still in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan. I think it would be better if we did this sooner rather than later, because the Foreign Secretary has made one of his priorities for the G8 a preventing sexual violence initiative. It would be appropriate for the House to be able to debate that.

Q2 John Hemming: Would you want the end of the day on the 11th that may be only two hours? It may be very short; a couple of hours on the 11th at the end of the day in the Chamber.

Nicola Blackwood: I think a little longer would be better.

Q3 Chair: Are you looking for three hours?

Nicola Blackwood: Three hours would be better.

Q4 Chair: Whether it is Chamber or Westminster Hall is not such a great issue, but it is urgent, and you want to have it sooner rather than later.

Nicola Blackwood: As you can see, we have quite widespread support, including former Secretaries of State, Defence Ministers and so on. I think we would need three hours in order to discuss it properly. Do you not think so?

Mr Newmark: Given everything that is going on, particularly in Syria, DRC, Afghanistan-all countries I have visited-Rwanda and Bosnia, where I have spent time, it is a very topical issue. It would be nice if possible to have it in the main Chamber but I appreciate the constraints you are under.

Fiona O'Donnell: If I could add, Chair, that it is also the subject of an inquiry by the Select Committee on International Development, so it would help inform that, too.

Q5 Chair: Do you know when that Select Committee is reporting?

Fiona O'Donnell: A good couple of months away, I would say. It is an ongoing report, run over several countries.

Nicola Blackwood: It has only just made its call for evidence.

Q6 Chair: Brilliant. Did you want to add anything, Fiona?

Fiona Bruce: I am just here as a Member of the International Development Committee to make that point.

Q7 Chair: Thank you very much for being so succinct.

Mr Newmark: By the way, Chair, I am adding my support because it is important. It is as much a man’s issue as a woman’s, which is why it is not all women here.

Nicola Blackwood: It is also, I believe, the only debate that has got the support of all three Fionas in the House.

Fiona O'Donnell: It is the first time ever.

Chair: We will take that into consideration.

Neil Parish, Sir James Paice, Mr Graham Stuart, Andrew Bingham, Dan Rogerson and Fiona Bruce made representations.

Neil Parish: We are particularly interested in a debate on the share of local government grant for rural authorities. We are not here to steal from urban authorities, but we want to have a debate to put pressure on Ministers to look again, the sooner the better.

Q8 Chair: You want three hours. Is it a general debate?

Neil Parish: What do we want?

Mr Stuart: A general debate.

Q9 Chair: You just want a general debate. I cannot see many Labour Members on your supporting list.

Neil Parish: It is probably the breakdown of who represents which seats. It is not a party political thing; it is just a matter of where the MPs are. We have got coalition partners here, and what have you.

Dan Rogerson: Tony Cunningham has been very supportive and has been along to the meetings we have had. In some of the rural areas we are talking about, it is just a fact of the politics.

Q10 John Hemming: Would you accept the end of the day on 11 February?

Sir James Paice: Would that be a half hour?

Q11 Chair: No, it is the end of the day, so it will be two to three hours.

John Hemming: It may be longer. You never know. You are not sure how long it is; you are just sure that it is the end of that day.

Neil Parish: I think the sooner we can get it, the better, really. Of course, the longer we can have, the better.

Q12 Chair: Have you got any deadlines by which this has to have taken place?

Neil Parish: Yes, because the consultation on the settlement is already closed, so we need to keep pressure on Ministers as a matter of urgency if we are going to get it re-looked at. I think it is urgent.

Mr Stuart: The context was that last summer there was a consultation because, per head, the central Government grant to urban areas is 50% higher than it is to rural areas, despite an ageing population concentrated in rural areas and the higher cost of delivering many services in that context. The Government said it would look at sparsity, and having done the work, it said it recognised that sparsity. Obviously, with domiciliary care, you have got to think about the cost of delivery. It recognised that and came out with a closing of the 50% gap, but then damped 75% of that away. In the December settlement, that disappeared altogether. The point very much is to say, "The suggestion had been that you were going to close the gap, that you had recognised the additional costs of delivery. It is inequitable."

Q13 Mr Anderson: The consultation is closed. When will this be finally put to bed? Is it already put to bed? Is this for the future?

Neil Parish: It is not put to bed. I think they will announce it at the end of February. That is why 11 February would be ideal if we could do it. Either they might be able to find us the odd little pocket of extra cash, or it is a case of just looking at the figures again. Either way, we need to get this debate.

Chair: We appreciate that. It is just about determining whether it is a matter of urgency. When we go into private session, we will schedule the most urgent first.

Q14 Mr Jones: May I just ask one further question about the collective Members who have come to the Committee? Since I have been on the Committee, virtually every debate has had cross-party support. It was mentioned that there may be some cross-party support from the Labour Benches on this. It would probably be very helpful if you could find out who those people were.

Mr Stuart: The Rural Fair Share Campaign is chaired by myself as a Conservative, Dan Rogerson, Liberal Democrat, and Tony Cunningham for Labour. It is a cross-party campaigning group within Parliament and we have Labour MPs as well.

Neil Parish: We will make sure you get those names.

Chair: The sooner, the better. That would fantastic. Thank you.

Gordon Birtwistle, Jason McCartney and Jonathan Reynolds made representations.

Q15 Chair: Have you been to the Committee before?

Gordon Birtwistle: I have, yes.

Q16 Chair: So you know the drill.

Gordon Birtwistle: Hopefully. We would like to ask for a three-hour main Chamber debate on careers advice for 12 to 16-year-olds in our secondary schools. We all feel that careers advice at the moment is, to say the least, poor, and to say the worst, pathetic and non-existent. We obviously have a large youth unemployment problem. A lot of young people are not aware of the jobs available outside school because the majority of careers advice is given by a teacher, under sufferance, who has only ever been a teacher. I don’t think they have the experience of the real world outside to explain to the young people in school what careers are available.

Q17 Chair: Gordon, that is all very important to explore in the debate itself. Could you just run through specifically what kind of deadlines you have? Is there any urgency to this debate? I mentioned earlier that we have the end of the day on 11 February. We also have a half-day on 14 February. There is nothing really looming until after the half-term recess. Is there a specific urgency why the debate has to take place now and why it has to take place in the Chamber?

Gordon Birtwistle: The situation will just carry on as it is unless we do something about it. We need to force this through. There is no urgency to have the debate before 14 February, provided that it stays on your radar and we get a debate after 14 February in the Chamber for three hours.

Q18Chair: Of course. The only reason I ask-it is not a reflection of the importance of the debate, which clearly is very important-it was whether a report was being produced or anything like that.

Q19John Hemming: If you were offered the end of the day on 11 February, would you prefer to wait for a longer debate later?

Gordon Birtwistle: Yes. There has been a report from the Education Committee more or less saying what we have been saying and virtually everybody in this House has been saying: we need to do something about it. But we are not stuck for a couple of weeks, no.

Chair: Thank you, that is really useful.

Gordon Birtwistle: But we don’t need to reapply do we?

Chair: No, no. What happens now-

Q20 Jane Ellison: It is just the Westminster Hall question, I suppose. Why do you want the main Chamber?

Gordon Birtwistle: There is so much interest in it from the number of people I have spoken to that I doubt whether you could get them all into Westminster Hall to debate it.

Q21 Jane Ellison: We have three-hour slots in Westminster Hall, so it is longer than normal.

Gordon Birtwistle: I am just saying that there is so much cross-party interest across the whole range of the House of Commons. People are extremely interested in this and I feel that to give it real substance we need to do it in the full House and we expect a lot of people to turn up.

Q22 Chair: If all we had available was Westminster Hall and we had nothing else, would you be prepared to take Westminster Hall?

Gordon Birtwistle: Obviously we would, but we are not in a rush. We can do it in the main Chamber after 14 February at the first available time that you can give us.

Chair: That is really helpful to know. Thank you.

Jason McCartney: Classic cross-party support as well.

Chair: Absolutely.

Steve Brine, Annette Brook and Jim Dobbin made representations.

Q23 Chair: You heard me say to the others that the only times that we have available to us at the moment are the end of the day on Monday 11 February and half a day on 14 February. That is not to say that we don’t have more coming but that is all we have definitely allocated to us at the moment. With that in mind, would you like to make your pitch for this?

Steve Brine: On timings-not many people probably say this-we are not urgent. Sadly, this issue is not going away. Annette and I chair the all-party group with Sharon Hodgson, who is not a Back Bencher, so she cannot come, but Jim is an active member of the group and that is why he is here. We are holding a big inquiry into older people and breast cancer which is not imminent. It is more likely to be at the end of March, the start of April. So after the half-term recess would be perfectly acceptable to us.

Q24 Chair: Breast cancer awareness day is when did you say?

Steve Brine: No, we are having an inquiry, as the all-party group, into breast cancer and specifically older people and breast cancer, but that is not happening imminently. It is not until later March and April.

What else would you like to know? Obviously, you have a rather full application from me, but-

Chair: It is very full. That is fine.

Q25 Mr Anderson: Are you looking for the week before the inquiry or after it?

Steve Brine: Before.

Q26 Mr Anderson: When are you going to start it?

Steve Brine: The inquiry does not start until April, so it runs throughout April and into the start of May. After half-term recess would actually be better for us and clearly for you.

Q27 Chair: To follow up on what Dave said, you would effectively want to use the debate as a sort of evidence-gathering opportunity.

Steve Brine: There are other reasons than that and that is probably only third or fourth on my list. In the last few months, we have had the results of an enormous screening review, which was very controversial and, as far as I know, health topical questions is about the only time I have heard that mentioned in the Chamber. We have had a huge piece of news on familial breast cancer research, which was called chemo prevention. Despite my best efforts, that has not yet been raised at PMQs-I might try again tomorrow-and it has had one passing mention by the Secretary of State in heath questions. The all-party group went to see the Prime Minister at the start of this year, which is now becoming an annual meeting, and he has a deep personal commitment to the issue-I do not know the reason-and then we have the inquiry. They are the four rather big reasons why this is highly due a debate on the Floor of the House.

Q28 Chair: That is great. It is helpful to know that it is not urgent, but we have some kind of sense of the timing that you are looking for. We do put these things on the list and, when the times come up, we take note of that.

Jim Dobbin: May I just add to all of that? There is great interest out there in the community, because most constituencies will have a support group somewhere that will link into the parliamentary system and watch what is going on.

Chair: That is really useful.

Steve Brine: On the screening review, every single MP will have constituents affected by it. I have never known anything like the response that we get to our group, so constituency by constituency the interest of MPs to raise the switch to digital screening, etc. is enormous, and I put in my application the 60 names of cross-party MPs who support merely the expression of interest in the debate. That was very easy to get. I could probably have got a lot more.

Annette Brooke: I should like to add that, as a Chair of Westminster Hall debates, this just would not slot into an hour and a half under any circumstances. As we have not had a debate on this issue for a long time, I think it would be very good for the reputation of the House to have a long debate on the issue.

Q29 Bob Blackman: I am very sympathetic to what you are trying to do, but one thing is that there is a large number of different all-party groups for different cancers and cancer obviously affects different people in different ways. Have you considered applying together with other colleagues for a more general debate on the Floor of the House, so that a number of issues could be raised at the same time, rather than just being specific on breast cancer?

Steve Brine: No, and for the reasons that I outlined, from the screening review through to chemo prevention and the inquiry. There is so much going on in this particular fight. Just to be clear, 12,000 women a year die of this disease. It is one of the big killers and the message that I would convey to you and will convey to the debate is that breast cancer is so high profile sadly because of some of the very high-profile people who have either contracted it or have died of it. People think that it is a battle fought and a battle won, but that is wrong, wrong, wrong. Breast cancer is not done by a long stretch. It is still huge and will affect every single MP in this House, which is why we want it to stand alone.

Chair: Thank you.

John McDonnell and Fabian Hamilton made representations.

John McDonnell: We have not dragged along large numbers of people, because we are not arguing urgency as such. You know the background to this. The Kesri Lehar petition is for the abolition of the death penalty in India, because last year, after a decade-long moratorium on the implementation of the death penalty, the Indian Government revisited it, and we have had one execution since. Some of those on death row are members of the Sikh faith and there is therefore real concern among members of the Punjabi community here. The petition has been signed by over 100,000 people.

We had a lobby of Parliament before Christmas of 300 people and we are looking to see whether we can organise a delegation to India in April. This matter is of immense interest to our community. We are not asking for a long debate-two hours maximum-within the Chamber, because I think there is no opposition to our campaign but people want to express their views. People expect us to express views on constituents’ behalf. The reason we are going for the Chamber is to give the campaign status that will present an expression of seriousness to the Indian Government.

Successive Governments have supported us in this campaign. We thought we had won it but we have not. Deaths are occurring, so that is why we want a debate. We suggest to you that we might have an allocation some time in March, but we could have early indication of that so that we can advise our constituents that it is taking place. There is immense interest in this matter. You have seen the list of names on a cross-party basis in support. In fact, that has doubled, if not trebled, in the past fortnight as people have been lobbied.

Q30 Chair: We once had a representation on assisted dying. The issue with that was about giving very early notice. They wanted something a bit further ahead. Is that what you are specifically asking for, some advanced notice?

John McDonnell: Ideally, we would like something in March that we could give people advanced notice of. It would also ensure that we can get our constituents here, to be frank, to watch the debate and know that we are taking it seriously.

Q31 Chair: Before I bring others in, I should mention that we have had this situation in the past, where people come from far and wide, and then for whatever reason, as you know, parliamentary things change and suddenly the debate goes three hours early or late, changes days or whatever. That is just a warning because people book their train tickets.

John McDonnell: It is always a risk.

Chair: As long as you are aware of that.

Fabian Hamilton: I wanted to add that I chair the all-party parliamentary group for British Sikhs and this has massive cross-party support. The petition we presented to Downing street a few weeks ago included the names of MPs from all parties, including the minor ones. It has a resonance throughout the country. Many of us have people from Sikh backgrounds, and even people who are not from a Sikh background support this Kesri Lehar petition.

Q32 Jane Ellison: I am against the death penalty and support your cause. I suppose I am slightly curious as to how you are going to get the balance of debate. Clearly, the fact that it has started again in India means that there are people who support it. I wonder how that voice will be represented. I guess to get a debate and tease the issues out you are going to need to do that. The other thing is that I take it that it is an issue not just because there are Sikhs on death row. Presumably, constituents would be as bothered whoever was on death row.

John McDonnell: The lobby has largely come from the Punjabi community and they are not all Sikhs. It has now spread right across India. What is interesting is that the Dalit campaigns have now joined us. Other issues have been raised about deaths in custody and so on. There is quite a wide-ranging debate. I hope the opinion will be unanimous on the Floor of the Chamber, to be frank. I think we can tease out the arguments. Successive Governments have tried to put pressure on the Indian Government to demonstrate our seriousness for them to sign up to the international treaties. Again, if there are people who are in favour of the death penalty, let us have that debate. I do not want to deceive you. I think it will be unanimous that we go forward in that way. It is to try to see what we can do as a parliamentary Chamber and working with Government at this key stage, to pull the Indian Government back from the implementation of the death penalty.

Fabian Hamilton: Last Thursday we had a debate on Holocaust memorial day. Nobody was opposed to that but it was a very good debate.

Q33 Jane Ellison: No, no, we allocated that time. If you will forgive me a brief follow-up, Chair. Are you equally as convinced that a debate in the British Parliament is not going to have the opposite effect on another Government? Sometimes people react oddly to another Parliament expressing a view on their policy, don’t they?

John McDonnell: It is a tactical judgment. At the moment I think that India is looking for allies across the world. It is looking for Security Council status at the UN. It is looking for support from this Government. I think that, as good friends of India, we can influence this agenda. There is a real fear that if we do not, we will be held responsible for not acting appropriately at the right time, now that the decade-long moratorium has been lifted.

Q34 Chair: Given that there are large numbers of people who originally come from India living in this country, that gives it a degree-

John McDonnell: Yes. It has a resonance right the way across the community.

Chair: That is very useful information for us, so thank you very much.

Nadhim Zahawi, Robert Halfon, Meg Munn, Fabian Hamilton and Jason McCartney made representations.

Nadhim Zahawi: Thank you very much, Chair. I am conscious of the time and that you want to have private deliberations, so I shall crack on. Robert Halfon, Meg Munn and Fabian will speak for one minute each, and Jason will wrap up. Many of my colleagues know that I am of British-Kurdish heritage. My father escaped that country. His only crime was to be Kurdish and not willing to join the Ba’ath party. It is a subject that is very close to my heart.

The UK has been heavily involved with the Kurdish people going back to the Sykes-Picot, but more recently with Sir John Major who saved the Kurdish people with the no-fly zone and Tony Blair who is seen as the liberator of the Kurds. The 25th anniversary of Halabja falls in March, as does the 10th anniversary of the liberation. We are not looking for a date in February for a three-hour main Chamber debate, but to make a pitch for the 7 March slot.

There is a major international conference in the Kurdistan region on 14 March and large civic events in Halabja, which was gassed on the 16th. A British parliamentary delegation will be heading there. I shall leave the Committee with a quote from the High Representative of the Kurdish Regional Government, who said:

"I cannot emphasise enough how welcome a debate would be for the Kurdish people, including those in the UK. It would do so much to reveal the untold story of the genocide but also to advance the warm and mutually beneficial relations between the UK and the Kurdistan Region in Iraq."

I hand over to Robert.

Robert Halfon: I am not just vice-chairman of the all-party Kurdistan group, but chairman of the Committee on Genocide. We have been meeting for many months now with experts. The reason why the debate is so important is not only the anniversary but the fact that, unless the genocide is recognised internationally, people cannot be brought to justice. I believe, as a parliamentarian, that we have a moral duty to help other nations that have suffered from genocide. Other Parliaments have debated the matter, but Britain is the only one that has not yet discussed the genocide in Kurdistan. That is why I am working hard with my colleagues to call for such a debate.

Meg Munn: The issues are not just related to Kurdistan. They also have wider regional implications. They are massive issues now. We look at what is happening in Syria, and minorities in the area. This matter will have wider resonance.

We know that the Services and Reconstruction Committee from the Baghdad Parliament will be visiting on that date. The committee is actually chaired by a Kurdish woman. It would therefore be very good for us to have the debate at that particular time. Obviously, the Iraqi Parliament has already recognised the genocide that occurred, and we would like to follow suit as quickly as possible.

Fabian Hamilton: We have amassed a lot of cross-party support, as you can see from the supporters on the list. We have explored the reality of the genocide in the Kurdistan region through six fact-finding trips with MPs and peers. We have the support of the Democratic Unionist party and the Scottish National party, in addition to the list you have. So far, nearly 30,000 people have signed Nadhim Zahawi’s e-petition, which is the 15th out of 6,290 open e-petitions; 300 people, including Nadhim, Robert Halfon, Meg Munn, Lord Clement-Jones and I, attended the recent international conference in Methodist Central Hall, Westminster with several hundred more watching online. It is also relevant to note that the Norwegian and Swedish Parliaments have recognised the genocide, and that their representatives were at that conference. The Times carried a leading article urging recognition of the genocide, and there was coverage of it in a wide range of other newspapers-both left and right.

Jason McCartney: Having served in the no-fly zone in Iraq, when I was in the Royal Air Force and based in Zakho in the Kurdish area of Iraq, I know how important this issue is. I want to stress what a fitting tribute it would be to have the debate on the 25th anniversary of the genocide.

Chair: Top marks for presentation. Thank you very much, that was fantastic.

Q35 Mr Anderson: May I express an interest that I am a member of the group as well as someone who has been to Kurdistan a couple of times? I am very supportive of what they are putting forward. When you said 7 March at lunchtime would be the best date, can we be clear that you are not saying no to dates before then, if we cannot get you in then? At the minute we have little scope.

Nadhim Zahawi: Beggars can’t be choosers. We will take whatever we can.

Q36 Mr Anderson: You said that week, but if we can get a different date, it would need to be before the first week in March?

Robert Halfon: The principle is to get the support of Parliament before the anniversary.

Q37 Chair: That is very clear, thank you very much.

David Mowat and Sheila Gilmore made representations.

David Mowat: Thank you for seeing us. This is an issue which affects all our constituencies. I would say there are thousands of people in each of our constituencies that are impacted by the failure of the private pension industry. It is becoming increasingly topical as we move ahead with auto-enrolment and other changes, such as the national pension system coming in, NEST. Broadly speaking, 30% of UK residents have no pension at all, 30% have a private sector pension and 30% have a public sector pension.

Even of those that have a private sector pension, it is vastly inadequate, not just due to lack of savings, but to the high level of charges and increasing evidence of market abuse. We would like a debate to discuss that, if possible in the Chamber. We have had a Westminster Hall debate and I have had an Adjournment debate on this. Does Sheila want to add to that?

Sheila Gilmore: Yes. It is of interest across the Chamber. It is the kind of subject where there are widespread concerns. There are not necessarily clear solutions and it would be useful to get some of the ideas out. There are a lot of ideas in the industry and among some of the commentariat on pensions. There is a risk that sometimes it stays there and becomes very technical. One of the good things about a debate is that it could relate all that to people’s own experience and to that of their constituents.

David mentioned auto-enrolment, which will mean an awful lot of people who were not previously in pension schemes are going to be in them. We have also got the flat-rate pension proposals which will probably be put forward formally in the next session, but this is complementary to that. It would be useful to get some of that debate out before a new pensions Bill comes forward because there is a possibility that we could influence the shape of that new pensions Bill.

Q38 Chair: You said that you have had an Adjournment debate and a Westminster Hall debate. How well attended were those?

David Mowat: The Adjournment debate was not that well attended. I did not try to get many people for that. The Westminster Hall debate was about 18 months ago and there were about a dozen members there, I would say.

Q39 Chair: It is not a substantive motion, so if we had some time in Westminster Hall and did not have anything in the Chamber, because we have three hours available in Westminster Hall?

David Mowat: I understand that issue. We have had discussions about petrol tax, beer duty and those sort of things. In terms of the living standards of many millions of people this is a very large issue. Because it is a technical issue, as Sheila said, it does not tend to get the time that it perhaps deserves. It is very important in terms of the impact on living standards.

Q40 Chair: I just wanted to say the reason why we allocate things. We see Westminster Hall and the Chamber as absolutely equal, other than in the Chamber you can have a vote and in Westminster Hall you cannot. So it is really about the availability of time. As you have seen, we have very little availability. It is absolutely not about saying that we think this is a lesser issue. It is just about saying that if it is a general debate it does not have to be in the Chamber because it does not have a votable motion. When we have really serious time pressure, then obviously the question is whether you would take Westminster Hall?

David Mowat: I understand. We will be guided by you on that.

Chair: Fantastic.

Q41 Jane Ellison: My question is directed at Sheila because she and I are both on the Work and Pensions Select Committee and of course we are doing work on pensions at the moment. Do you see any opportunity to link this debate to the timing of the release of the piece that is being done on the governance of workplace pension schemes? Do you think that would be a useful tie-in?

Sheila Gilmore: I think it would be a useful tie-in, although, equally well, one debate could inform the other. It is very important to get this issue aired outwith some obvious places, because if we get it wrong with this kind of subject, an awful lot of people three, four or even 10 years down the track will say, "Why did nobody notice what was going on?" Governments of both parties took the decision that they would bring far more people into the ambit of pensions, so that everybody is in the fold. Arising from that, there is a duty to get a lot more people, I hope, to take part and think about what we are doing.

David Mowat: As a related issue, the Government spend £30 billion a year on this. If that money does not end up in people’s pensions pots, but is diverted to other places, that is an issue for public concern.

Q42 Jane Ellison: I am well aware of the issues, but all am I thinking is that it is possible that we will get another bid, because at least on two occasions, if not more, the Chair of the Select Committee, Dame Anne Begg, has actually made use of our facility to allocate 20 minutes on the Floor of the House to launch a Select Committee report. It might be worth your reporting back to the Chair about when that might happen, because, given how difficult it is to get cut through on pensions in the media, were we to time a debate on the same day as the Select Committee report is launched, that might be quite neat. I understand that the launch is relatively imminent, so I am thinking more about what might help you to maximise cut through.

Sheila Gilmore: I am not quite sure when we are-

Jane Ellison: It is relatively imminent, because we have just had the Minister before the Select Committee and he said that it was the last session.

Chair: We will find out. That is a good idea.

Q43 Bob Blackman: Can you just be clear about what you are trying to achieve, because this is obviously a general debate? Is the purpose to get the Government to do something? Is it to create greater awareness among the public? Is the purpose to get colleagues to wake up to the facts? If that is clear, it might help us to frame where the debate should be held.

David Mowat: The debate would partly inform legislation. The debates that we have had so far have attracted a lot of attention from the industry, because it understands some of issues out there and that it has not been very quick to pick them up. Such a debate would give strength to Ministers who have to negotiate with the industry because it would identify an issue that Parliament felt strongly about, which has not been sorted out and will not go away. I can think of few other things that would have an impact on people’s living standards than if we could make some progress on pensions. Some of the things that go on are quite abusive.

Chair: That is really helpful. We will find out when the Select Committee is reporting, and then it just comes down to what time slots we have available to us. Thank you for your patience.

Mrs. Anne Main made representations.

Mrs Main: I am sorry that I did not bring a cohort of supporters with me. I did not realise that was preferable, but please do not judge my bid on the fact that you just have me before you.

Chair: We have a long list of supporters here.

Mrs Main: Quality, not quantity. As you can see, I have a list of cross-party supporters, and this was compiled quite quickly. I am very concerned, as are other Members, that there seems to be a move, particularly on the part of the Treasury, to ride roughshod over local communities, and community Members of Parliament, who wish to ensure that there is a strong voice at a local level for people involved in the planning process.

The issue is topical because the Growth and Infrastructure Bill is currently going the House of Lords, and deliberation on the original amendment 1 is causing a lot of stress and strain because that amendment basically says that any developer with a large development, can, if he so chooses, go direct to the Secretary of State. That would leap-frog over many communities. Those who may be affected by HS2, wind farms, incinerators, or in my case, a proposed rail freight depot in my constituency, are suffering from that lack of democratic accountability. I find it particularly unappealing that local councillors and the local Member may not have a say. It is that community engagement that we need to discuss. There are also worrying statements coming out and I am concerned there is a shift in our robust planning policies. Recently, the Chancellor, when discussing the new HS2 extension, said:

"As with all of these things, unfortunately, somebody is going to be affected, but that’s life".

I am sure some of you will have been reading today in national papers that houses have suddenly plummeted in value within 500 yards of HS2. I have houses 100 yards from the rail freight, so I do not know what will happen there. It has not been tested yet. Suddenly, we find communities blighted and not sure where they can go and what they can say.

I feel strongly that there will be people right across the Chamber with their own particular large planning permissions coming down the line who will feel robustly that local communities should always be kept engaged.

Q44 Chair: You are talking about the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. This is an extreme example, but when the health e-petition reached 100,000 signatures, we had a representation from people to have a debate on what was basically a "kill the Bill" e-petition. We decided against it, simply because there was a Health Bill going through Parliament at the time, so we made a decision that it would be inappropriate for us to schedule a debate when legislation was going through.

What is there about this issue that has not been debated within the parameters of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill?

Mrs Main: Given the huge number of clauses in the Bill, the community engagement aspect of it is particularly important. It is not just the Growth and Infrastructure Bill that I want to address. I had a debate this morning on my application, where the Minister said: "We should be working with communities rather than seemingly riding roughshod over their concerns".

We had a decision minded to grant, in a completely perverse situation on the border of my constituency in James Clappison’s constituency, just the Friday before Christmas. To say that my community feels completely left out of it would be to put it mildly.

This has been repeated all over. I have had people tell me about the incinerator issue, which has similarly just gone through. Rather than talking about leap-frogging over planning councils, we should be asking if there is anything we could do better to improve how local councils can engage with all communities-including those who are hard to reach-to make sure they engage with the planning process.

If they are not delivering at a local council level, is better training needed or do resources need to be better targeted? We should be looking at what is at fault in the engagement with communities and not just say: "If they don’t perform well, we’ll just leapfrog over them".

Q45 Mr Jones: I just wanted to try and get an understanding of what you are aiming at. For example, whom you would be looking to as a Minister to respond to this, because obviously the agenda you have here cuts across quite a lot of different briefs: the Department for Communities and Local Government, for a start, and obviously the Department of Transport, because there is no democratic accountability for a lot of the stuff that goes on with the railways.

Mrs Main: I think it is a DCLG debate. I would want to give Members across the House the opportunity as community MPs to restate-or state-how important it is that communities are always kept engaged in the planning process and that we do not lose sight of that. Local representatives have close engagement with communities; they understand it as well as possible and should have an input into the planning process, so it would be DCLG.

It also cuts across the local government aspect of whether or not we are empowering councils enough to make sure that councillors are trained well enough and that they are looking at different ways to reach hard to reach communities. The number of times I have met people in my constituency who say, "I didn’t know that was going on. Oh, it was on the council website". It is just not good enough.

We should be talking in the debate about what problems are found in communities. That has not been explored anywhere. Why is it that some people never seem to be able to get involved with planning? Why do the ethnic minority communities never seem to be involved in planning? In my constituency, why do certain groups always feel left out of the loop? Are we not engaging properly?

I think that would be a very valuable part of the debate and I have not seen it happen anywhere, and yet that growth and infrastructure clause is there.

Q46 Chair: That is very interesting and it does distinguish it from the Bill going through. We have very limited time. Is anything looming where this has to happen before? This is an ongoing issue and has been for many years. Is this something that we could schedule ahead or is there an urgency? We have half-days on 11 and 14 February. That is all we are allocating today.

Mrs Main: Well, I suppose it has a topicality rather than an urgency, unless you are going to say that there may be a clash with the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. I was conscious not to want to think, "This is a wrecking thing." I am saying that there is a clause in there that seems to suggest that some councils are not doing a very good job of planning and therefore you may want to consider that development goes straight to the Secretary of State. I want to take it back and say, "How important are communities in planning?" and "Is there anything that we can do to improve that process, so that communities are kept in the loop?" I do not know when the Growth and Infrastructure Bill is coming back to us with the Lords amendments. Does anyone know?

Q47 Chair: No, we will find out.

Mrs Main: I don’t wish to sound as if I am wrecking it, but that is the topicality element of it. Of course, the new HS2 extension has just come out. It is worth reassuring our constituents that we still value them in the planning process. If there is anything we can do to support that, we, as a Parliament, should do it, not leap-frog over it.

Q48 Bob Blackman: I sat on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill Committee. We sat many, many days debating clause 1. One issue to be aware of is that the Minister gave public commitments-if you look at Hansard, you will see-that if an application goes directly to the Secretary of State, then it is routed to the Planning Inspectorate; there will have to be the same level of consultation as if the council were undertaking the planning application and a public hearing for such an application to be heard. One thing I would ask is that this seems to concentrate on larger applications, but of course there is a current consultation, with a decision being made imminently, on greater freedom for permitted developments. We are awaiting an announcement on the Government’s view after that consultation. I wonder whether that could be incorporated into this, and then it becomes a very topical subject.

Mrs Main: I think it certainly could be. We could just leave out "large-scale" and leave in "planning decisions". You are absolutely right; the extension of permitted development rights is a very hot topic in my constituency, as well, with a lot of people arguing over whether it is going to wreck the historical nature of St Albans. I think a lot of colleagues will want to come in on that. I do not think it is for Westminster Hall, because I think it should be votable.

Chair: Thank you very much, and thanks for your patience.

Prepared 1st February 2013