Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): We must all pray that there will be an international agreement ensuring the peaceful removal of these weapons from

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Syria. The Foreign Secretary has referred to practical difficulties, one of which is safe access and egress, not only for the inspectors, but for the weapons themselves. Will the British Government argue very strongly that if such safe routes are set in place they can be used for the delivery of humanitarian aid to the 6 million people in Syria, who the most recent report states are dying at a rate of 80 to 150 a day from conventional weapons?

Mr Hague: That is a good point. It will be very important, exactly as the hon. Lady says, for there to be safe access. That might open up other opportunities, but it remains to be seen. It is very important that all our work to improve humanitarian access continues in parallel with that to deal with the chemical weapons. We do not yet have an agreement—we are still some way away from one—on how and whether this can be done, so I think the hon. Lady is getting ahead of where we are in negotiations, but this is a question that we will certainly keep in mind.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Whatever side of the argument we are on, I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that things have moved on substantially since the debate a couple of weeks ago, not least with the emergence of Russia as an active player, rather than a constant blocker of any settlement. What does he think has brought about Russia’s change of heart, although we are yet to see the genuineness of its actions as opposed to its words?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is right that Russia’s proposals on Monday were a very important change of approach. That is particularly apparent to me, given that I have on several occasions over the past couple of years discussed with Russian representatives whether there is a way of working together on the chemical weapons in Syria. It has always been the Russian position hitherto that the Assad regime would not use its chemical weapons—it did not expect it to use them. I think that the mounting evidence that the regime has used those weapons and the discussions, particularly those in the United States, about whether to take military action have produced a change in the Russian position. Whatever the motives and reasons for that, we should nevertheless welcome it and work with it, which is what we are now seeking to do.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Foreign Secretary has said that under the Geneva agreement, there should be a transitional Government

“drawn from regime and opposition by mutual consent”.

It has been reported that the Syrian National Coalition has said that it will not deal with some figures in the regime. Will there be any preconditions on who may attend a second Geneva convention to try to establish such a transitional Government?

Mr Hague: The mutual consent clause refers to the outcome of the creation of a transitional Government. In our view, it should not refer to who comes to a second Geneva conference. It will be up to the regime and the opposition—the national coalition—to nominate their representatives for the conference. They will need a significant degree of freedom in doing that, but they will have to bear it in mind, when nominating their

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representatives, that they want a successful outcome. Mutual consent is about the outcome, not about setting preconditions on who can come.

Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) (Con): With reference to our ongoing humanitarian response, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the creation of a Department for International Development-funded, land-based British mobile army surgical hospital capability could play a significant part in our response to the Syrian crisis and to any future civil war that might afflict the middle east?

Mr Hague: Through DFID’s work, we make a huge contribution to people’s medical welfare. DFID already provides money for about 300,000 medical consultations and a wide range of medical supplies. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is constantly reviewing and updating how best we can help. She will have heard my hon. Friend’s question.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Can the Foreign Secretary explain why in 2012, a year after the civil war in Syria started, a UK firm was granted a licence to sell industrial chemical products that, according to the Defence Secretary, could be used in processes to produce poisonous gases? According to the Business Secretary, although the EU sanctions were fortunately tightened, some of those products had already been sent to Syria, despite what the Defence Secretary told me on 2 September. Perhaps I could have an explanation and an apology from the Defence Secretary.

Mr Hague: I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that no such apology is needed. He knows the position on this matter. The licences were revoked before the chemicals were exported. There is no evidence that the chemicals concerned in those licences were exported to Syria. Licences were granted in earlier years under the previous Government, whom he supported. In fairness to them, there is no evidence that those goods, if they were exported, were used for anything other than their declared commercial purpose. When those two things are taken together, there is no evidence that any such exports have contributed to Syria’s chemical weapons programme.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): We all want to see chemical weapons removed from Syria’s civil war. However, does the Foreign Secretary agree that if the chemical weapons attacks were unleashed without the authority of the Assad regime, it cannot be credible that the regime can put all of Syria’s chemical weapons beyond use?

Mr Hague: That is a good point. That is the test. As I set out in my statement, to make this idea work, we need the genuine co-operation of a regime that has denied that it has chemical weapons and that has used them against its own people. We are looking for its genuine co-operation in ensuring that the chemical stocks are placed under international control for destruction. We have to approach that with great caution. The situation has changed for the many reasons that we have

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just discussed and particularly because of the threat of military action by the United States. We now have to test to the full whether the Syrian regime means what it says on this issue.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): I thank the Foreign Secretary for coming so promptly, as he regularly does on these matters, to report to the House. I congratulate the Government on increasing and sustaining their large humanitarian effort to relieve the terrible suffering of the 6 million homeless people who are effectively refugees in their own country and in the surrounding area. I do not want to dwell on the problems—they are nothing compared with what would happen if military action went ahead, let me remind him—but is he aware that one of the problems is the composition and attitude of the Syrian national opposition alliance? Can he tell us, on a narrow front, who, to the best of our knowledge, was responsible for the terrible atrocity and pillaging that took place in the Christian communities, where some of the remaining people still speak a form of Aramaic? Who, in his best judgment, was responsible for that?

Mr Hague: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his earlier remarks. On his specific question, it is very hard for us to know, from outside the country, who is responsible for each terrible atrocity. The UN commission of inquiry is clear that atrocities have been committed on both sides—by both pro-regime and anti-regime forces. It is clear that they are predominantly committed by regime forces, and we must not lose sight of that. Are there extremist anti-regime forces that also commit atrocities? Yes, there are. In our judgment, that reinforces the need to support the National Coalition and its allies, who are committed to a non-sectarian, secular, democratic pluralist Syria. That is why we have to bolster them, given the terrible actions carried out by others.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Following the question from the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), it is worth remembering that between 2004 and 2010 the previous Government allowed chemical weapons to go to Syria with chemical weapons licences, and invited President Assad to Britain in 2002 to see the Queen. I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work he is doing on the humanitarian aid going into Syria, and for the work by organisations such as Save the Children. If all the measures he has set out today do not work, and, God forbid, there is another serious chemical attack by the Syrian Government on their citizens, what will be the British Government’s response?

Mr Hague: To be clear about licences in previous years that pre-date the current conflict and were granted under the previous Government, they were for cosmetics and health care products with legitimate commercial use. As I said, there is no evidence that they were misused, and the licences were rigorously assessed against the relevant criteria. The fact that they were granted under the previous Government is something that the hon. Gentleman and others should bear in mind, as my hon. Friend says. We have to try to ensure that the full range of policies I outlined succeed. Of course, there are many disturbing scenarios by which the crisis in Syria could become even worse than it is today, but if it

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does so, the international community and this House will have to consider our response. Our emphasis now is on making these policies succeed.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): If diplomacy and the threat of military action fails, does the Foreign Secretary agree that air strikes, a no-fly zone and sending missiles to various sites in Syria will not, on their own, secure or remove chemical weapons? They could, in fact, give an advantage to the opposition and subsequently fall into the hands of extremists. Is it not the case that to secure the chemical weapons sites, any strike has to go along with a significant ground force?

Mr Hague: No, I would not agree with that, and President Obama made it clear in his address to the United States on Tuesday that he is not now, or at any stage, proposing the deployment of ground forces in Syria. That is not something we have proposed or considered at any stage. I think it is possible to deter the use of chemical weapons without the deployment of ground forces, but the House made its decision and we respect that decision. The shadow Foreign Secretary asked about the Prime Minister’s statement in response to that. I can assure him that it was agreed collectively by the Government, including by the Foreign Secretary.

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary expand on what role British diplomats, particularly UK representatives at the UN, are currently playing?

Mr Hague: They are playing a very energetic role. We are fortunate to have an outstanding team at the UN, which has often succeeded against the odds in a whole series of negotiations on UN Security Council resolutions. On this issue, they have, depressingly, often been blocked, including by actual vetoes, by Russia and China, but they are working hard with the other permanent members of the Security Council. A meeting took place in New York yesterday afternoon, and there will of course be further meetings in which they will be intensively involved in the coming days.

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Given the contradictory statements from the Government on the issue of chemicals being exported to Syria—seen in responses to parliamentary questions and in the correspondence between the Business Secretary and the Committee on Arms Export Controls—will the Foreign Secretary undertake to do everything he can to ensure that there is full transparency, including over the naming of the British and the Syrian companies involved and the quantities and particular form of chemicals exported, so that we can learn lessons for the future?

Mr Hague: The Business Secretary and I are always very much in favour of tremendous transparency on these things, and we make an annual appearance at the Committee on Arms Export Controls. As the hon. Lady knows, the Government also regularly publish the details of such licences and exports. Let me reiterate that the licences granted in the most recent period were revoked, and there is no evidence that exports took place. In the earlier period when licences were granted under the previous Government, they related to cosmetics and health care products for legitimate commercial use,

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and we have no evidence that they were not used for that purpose. That is the position. All the normal transparency about these issues will apply. The record shows that the system works, that we have strong export controls in this country, and that when licences are revoked, the system works, too. Our strong system should be supported across the House.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The Foreign Secretary said in his statement that Syria has “possibly the largest stock of chemical weapons possessed by any nation in the world”. Given the size of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, its geographic dispersal and the highly mobile nature of most of it, and given the difficulties of identifying and verifying it, what capability does the UN have to dismantle such a large stockpile of weaponry, and will it not inevitably involve the deployment of a very large number of civilian personnel in-country?

Mr Hague: It is a big task, and my hon. Friend is quite right to point to it. There are no reliable or precise estimates of the quantities—some estimates have suggested 1,000 tonnes—and these chemical stocks are likely to be held in very different states. Some may be completely mixed and ready for use, while others may be precursors that could be mixed at a later stage, so it is a very complex matter. There is considerable expertise in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—expertise does exist in the world—but he is quite right that this would be a big exercise, involving a lot of people. That is why, as I have suggested, there are many difficulties in our way, but we are determined to test to the full whether this can work.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary’s capacity for self-delusion seems almost infinite. Is he not proud that we, this House, led the world—including American popular opinion—in our decision to take not the easy course of an instant military strike, but the difficult and painstaking course of diplomacy and peace building? Did not Iraq and Helmand teach us that thoughtlessly taking the military course leads to great suffering and the loss of soldiers’ and civilian lives?

Mr Hague: If the hon. Gentleman thinks that he was opposing an immediate military strike when he voted against the Government’s motion, he is deluding himself to the most extraordinary extent. That motion called for a second vote, for the House to await the findings of the United Nations inspectors, and for an attempt to be made to raise the matter strongly at the United Nations Security Council. I think that the self-delusion lies with him.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): It has often been said that the international community will hold the Assad regime accountable for the massacre on 21 August in which than 1,400 people were killed. Is that still the case, and, if so, how will the international community hold the regime accountable?

I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to Sir Mark Lyall Grant, our fantastic ambassador to the United Nations, whom I know well, and who does a great job.

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Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is right: Sir Mark Lyall Grant does a terrific job at the UN, and is working hard on this issue now.

The question of accountability is very important, not just in relation to chemical weapons, but in relation to so much of what has happened in Syria over the past two and a half years. I think that, in the United Kingdom, we would generally be able to agree that the International Criminal Court should address it in due course, or that the Syrians should be able to address it themselves in their own country, with adequate procedures, in the future. However, we cannot get that option through the Security Council at present, because, again, it would be blocked by Russia.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): The Prime Minister said that he “got it” two weeks ago when the House of Commons voted, but, following the Foreign Secretary’s remarks today, I am not sure what message he received from that vote. Does he think that it was irrelevant in relation to subsequent events?

Mr Hague: I think we are very clear about what we are doing here, and I hope the whole House is united on it. In the last few days circumstances have changed significantly, with the Russian position changing. I take it from what was said by the shadow Foreign Secretary that we are agreed in the House—and there should be strong unity on this—that we should test to establish whether what we are proposing can be successfully brought about. It needs to be credible, it needs to be reliable, and it needs to be prompt. The change in the position has come about because of the international pressure over this issue—because of the pressure on the Assad regime—which includes the debate about military action in the United States. That is what has brought about the change in the Russian position.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): While I welcome the fact that the Russians have come to the table as far as a diplomatic solution is concerned, and their donation of—I understand— £20 million in overseas aid, we cannot forget that they have been partly responsible for the arming of the Assad regime. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how much money we are putting in, and what it is being used for?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the arming of the regime. If he is asking about the money that we are giving to the opposition—to the National Coalition—I can tell him that it amounts to more than £20 million so far, for non-lethal equipment. It is predominantly equipment that saves lives: for instance, water purification kits, generators, communications equipment that makes it easier for people to find out about regime attacks, and body armour. I think that, together with our humanitarian work, shows that the United Kingdom is at the forefront of the attempt to save lives and alleviate suffering in Syria.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): It is the duty of every Member of Parliament to ensure that every diplomatic avenue has been exhausted before we put our service people in harm’s way, or put civilians at risk. It is disingenuous of the Foreign Secretary to suggest that Parliament was recalled with the intention of our taking

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military action within days, and to dismiss the vote in the House of Commons and its significance. There is now an opportunity for diplomatic discussions to take place, but is the Foreign Secretary concerned about the possibility that talk of military action will give one side or the other the impression that it may gain an advantage if military action goes ahead? Has he considered what the implications of that are for the success of the diplomatic discussions?

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman needs to catch up with events. There was no proposition about military action in my statement today. That is not what the Government are proposing. All our efforts are aimed at relieving humanitarian suffering and pursuing a diplomatic track. Nor have I suggested at any moment that the vote of the House of Commons was insignificant. I said that the Government fully respected the vote of the House of Commons. He should not put words into my mouth, and he should catch up with what is going on in the world.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more powerful the extremist elements of the opposition become. We heard from the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) about attacks on the Syrian Christian community. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary says that we want to support the Syrian National Coalition to make sure that more moderate voices are heard and remain dominant. May I push him to say what we are doing to make sure that those moderate voices remain dominant?

Mr Hague: We do that through the support that we give to the Syrian National Coalition. I set out to other hon. Friends a moment ago the range of the assistance that we give to the National Coalition, which is to save lives, to help it to function and operate, and to give it every possible diplomatic support in pursuing a course that is moderate, democratic, non-sectarian and pluralistic with respect to the future of Syria, and those are things which it greatly values and for which it is very grateful to the United Kingdom. Of course, it has often asked for additional support, including for lethal support from other countries. We have taken no decision to provide that, but we will continue to look at the additional support that we can give it.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Is the Foreign Secretary concerned that despite ongoing efforts, chemical weapons could be moved to Hezbollah in Lebanon?

Mr Hague: It is one of the great dangers of any country possessing chemical weapons that they could be moved to somebody else, including organisations that might be prepared to use them. I have no evidence that that has happened, so for the moment I think we can be reassuring about that, but any programme for the destruction of the chemical weapons or for securing the chemical weapons of Syria must bear in mind the risk of them falling into the wrong hands along the way. That therefore places the great premium that all of us in the House are placing on this process if it can be agreed and be credible, reliable and enforceable.

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Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): I am relatively new here and I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary can explain something to me because I am puzzled. We were called back some weeks ago. If military action was not imminent, why on earth were we called back?

Mr Hague: As the Prime Minister made very clear at the time, because we wanted to consult the House at the earliest opportunity about a huge crisis. We did consult the House and the House gave an answer to that in not approving the Government motion, but that is why the House was recalled. Hon. Members have often advocated recalling the House in order to debate something at an early opportunity. Despite being new, the hon. Gentleman might find that he is doing that at some stage in the future.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Prior to any action taking place, what discussion has he had with other Governments in the region, in particular Israel, who have serious concerns about chemical weapons?

Mr Hague: We will want to consult all nations in the region. Israel has long-standing concerns, of course, about Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, and for very good reason. I believe that it and, I hope, all nations in the region would be supportive of a reliable, credible agreement for the securing and destruction of those weapons stocks, but it will be important for the permanent members of the Security Council and others to consult all the nations in the region.

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Royal Mail

12.3 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the future of Royal Mail.

This is an important day for Royal Mail, its employees and its customers. This morning my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State laid a written ministerial statement before the House reporting that the Government have made a formal announcement of our intention to float Royal Mail on the premium segment of the London stock exchange. This follows the report and the statement by my right hon. Friend to the House on 10 July setting out our plans to conduct an initial public offering of Royal Mail shares during this financial year.

The sale of shares will complete the final part of the Government’s reform of the postal sector, which Parliament debated and decided over two years ago. The overall objective of our reform is to continue to secure the universal postal service—the six-days-a-week, same-price-goes-anywhere service—which is vital to our economy. We have already put in place a proper regulatory framework and given Ofcom stronger powers to take the action necessary to protect the universal service. We have taken on Royal Mail’s historical pension liabilities, which were crippling the company’s financial position.

Our reforms, together with the hard work of employees in modernising the business, have put Royal Mail on the road to sustainable health. But under the restrictions of public ownership, its core mail business has lurched between profit and loss and has made a loss in five of the past 12 years. It has lost more than £1 billion, and during that period some 50,000 jobs were lost.

The sale of shares will give Royal Mail the commercial freedom it needs to succeed in a fully liberalised, competitive market. It will give the company future access to the private sector capital it needs for investment and to seize the opportunities for growth, such as increasing parcel volumes arising from the boom in online shopping, a market now estimated to be worth £76 billion. It will give Royal Mail commercial confidence, free from Whitehall interference.

As set out in this morning’s announcement of the intention to float, shares will be made available to institutions and members of the public through intermediaries or via direct application to the Government. When the public offering goes ahead, 10% of the shares will be allocated to around 150,000 eligible Royal Mail employees for free through an employee share scheme. Through that scheme, the Government will be delivering in full on the commitment to employees that Parliament made two years ago. It will be the largest employee share scheme of any major privatisation for 30 years.

The Government will take forward the sale and Royal Mail will publish its prospectus in the coming weeks. We will retain flexibility on the precise timetable, which will be announced at a later stage, just as we will retain flexibility around the size of the stake to be sold, but we intend to dispose of a majority of the shares in the company, taking into account shares sold and the 10% of shares that will be made available to employees through the share scheme. The final size of the stake sold through the public offering will be influenced by

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market conditions, investor demand and our objective of ensuring that value for money for the taxpayer is achieved.

I and Royal Mail’s management fully recognise and understand the work force’s natural apprehensions about the sale. I have continued to meet the union regularly over the past year to discuss those concerns. I want to reassure employees that a change of Royal Mail’s ownership will not trigger any change in their terms and conditions. The Communication Workers Union will continue to be their recognised representative and their pensions will continue to be governed by the trustees.

As part of a three-year agreement, Royal Mail is also prepared to give legally binding assurances on: the continuation of a predominantly full-time work force; a commitment to provide and enhance existing services to customers using the current work force, with no change to the current structure of the company in relation to those services; and no additional outsourcing of services. Royal Mail and the union are discussing those assurances, along with a new pay deal and reform proposals on the pension fund. I do not believe that industrial action will help the situation, and it will certainly not prevent the sale going forward.

Following last week’s debate on the postal services in rural areas, I want to reassure the House once again that a change in Royal Mail’s ownership does not, and cannot, trigger any change in the provision of the universal postal service.

As universal service provider, Royal Mail will continue to be obliged to deliver to urban and rural areas alike, six days a week, at the same affordable prices. Changes to the uniform nature of that service would require new primary legislation. The Government have no plans for any such changes. Changes to the universal service’s minimum requirements, which include free services for the blind and services to urban and rural areas alike, can be made only by affirmative resolutions in both Houses. The Government have no plans for such changes. Any suggestion that the privatisation of Royal Mail will lead to changes in the universal service are therefore completely unfounded.

I also want to reassure the House about the Post Office—the company that operates the network of post offices. The Post Office is now separate from Royal Mail, and it is not for sale. There will be no repeat by this Government of the closure programme that the Labour party implemented. Far from it; this Government are committed to ensuring a sustainable future for the Post Office. We are providing funding of £1.34 billion over four years to maintain a network of at least 11,500 branches and to ensure that 90% of the population live within 1 mile of a Post Office outlet. That is the largest investment in the Post Office’s history, and it will also enable the modernisation of up to 6,000 branches.

This is a significant day for Royal Mail, and the sale of shares will complete our reform of the postal sector. We want Royal Mail to have the real commercial freedom that it needs to compete and to ensure the universal service that consumers and businesses rightly value. That is what our reform will deliver, and I commend this statement to the House.

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12.11 pm

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I thank the Minister for his statement and for coming to the House today, following his intention-to-float announcement to the stock exchange this morning. Let us start by putting on record our thanks to all the staff at Royal Mail for all that they do, and for their dedication to delivering the mail, come rain or shine, to all parts of the country. Royal Mail is a much-cherished national institution.

The case for the privatisation of Royal Mail has not been made. Its recent annual profits were more than £400 million and we should be allowing it to flourish in the public sector, but the Minister has told the stock exchange today that he will sell a majority stake in the company, on a shortened timetable. He is pushing ahead with this politically motivated fire sale to fill the hole in the Treasury created by George Osborne’s failed economic plan.

This decision will have significant impacts on consumers, businesses and communities up and down the country. The Government are pressing ahead with the fire sale of Royal Mail despite having failed to answer critical questions on the six-days-a-week, one-price-goes-anywhere universal service obligation. The Minister has failed to ensure the long-term maintenance of the USO. He claims that it is written in legislation, but I am sure that he can envisage a scenario in which a privatised Royal Mail comes to the Government and asks for alterations to that legislation.

Why is that a realistic scenario? It is because the regulatory environment does not prevent the cherry-picking of the most profitable parts of Royal Mail by rival companies that operate under much lower service standards than Royal Mail. If the USO becomes unsustainable, the Government will have no choice but to alter it. Royal Mail will still have to deliver daily to Shetland while its rivals enjoy providing services in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and other profitable centres. Pressure will be put on the Government to respond to such requests to alter the USO; otherwise, what is there to prevent the privatised Royal Mail from handing back the USO keys, just as we have witnessed with the east coast main line? The result will be that the taxpayer will, ultimately, pick up the costs.

Concerns have been expressed about higher prices. Other privatised companies have already set precedents in that area. One of the questions posed in the Government’s documents today is whether the Post Office will be affected. The Minister says no, but the 10-year inter-business agreement can be reviewed in four years, and it can be altered if there are material adverse effects on either of the two companies. How can the Minister say that this privatisation does not affect the post office network? A privatised Royal Mail will want to look closely at costs, and that £380 million annual contract could be a good place to start.

The National Federation of SubPostmasters tells us that the privatisation of Royal mail threatens the future of the post office network and, as a result, it now opposes the privatisation. It has called it a “reckless gamble”, and we should listen to what it says. It is not only the NFSP that is against the move. Despite the £2,000 shares bribe to the staff of Royal Mail, a massive 96% of them voted against the privatisation, on a turnout of over 75%. Moreover, they already own the company. A poll in The Sunday Times last week showed 70% of the public to be against it, and former

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Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher, the architect of privatisation, said that it was a step too far. The Bow Group, a right-wing Tory think-tank, said that it would be deeply unpopular and should not be considered. A vast coalition of groups and organisations echo the concerns about prices, the maintenance of the USO and the impact on the Post Office. And the Minister himself said in a letter in 2009 that he was against the privatisation of Royal Mail. The problem is that the Government cannot see the wood for the ideological trees.

Let me ask the Minister four questions. He said in his statement: “Changes to the universal service’s minimum requirements, which include free services for the blind and services to urban and rural areas alike, can be made only by affirmative resolutions in both Houses.” Would that involve primary or secondary legislation, and would such legislation be dealt with on the Floor of the House or in Committee? Secondly, in what circumstances can he envisage the USO being revised? Thirdly, what assurances can he give us that the inter-business agreement with the Post Office will not be removed or revised? Fourthly, when will the prospectus be drawn up and made available? This is the largest privatisation since that of British Gas. The Government are playing politics with the Queen’s head, and they should think again before it is too late.

Michael Fallon: I do not think that we can legitimately be accused of conducting a fire sale, given that the previous Government were proposing to privatise the company four years ago. The process has hardly been rushed. A lot of people were against that sale; it was a half-baked sale and almost every Labour MP was against it, which is why it was abandoned.

I have already made it clear to the House that the universal service obligation is laid down in statute. It can be changed only by Parliament, and we have no plans to ask Parliament to change it. I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance in that respect. He asked me about the minimum requirements of the service. They can be changed by affirmative resolution, which would involve secondary legislation. We have no plans to alter those requirements. They will be properly policed by the regulator and will apply irrespective of any change in ownership. The price of stamps is also regulated. The price of a second-class stamp is capped by the regulator, and we have no plans to change that position either.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the relationship between the Post Office and Royal Mail. They are natural partners in the delivery business, and it is unthinkable that they would not seek to work closely together. They have done more than that, however. Last April, they signed a 10-year commercial agreement to provide for the two businesses to work more closely together.

We heard nothing from the hon. Gentleman about what a future Labour Government would do. It seems extraordinary that, four years on, the Opposition still have not worked out a policy. Even now, they cannot say whether Royal Mail should be public or private; they cannot make up their mind whether they would renationalise the company if there were ever to be a Labour Government again.

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Does the Minister not accept that bringing companies such as TNT—which uses zero-hours contracts and sends people

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home every day because there is not enough work for them—into the most profitable areas will put pressure on a privatised Royal Mail to cut the terms and conditions of its work force and to cut the service for customers?

Michael Fallon: There is already competition in the postal market from companies such as TNT, but Royal Mail management have made it clear in their discussions with the union that there will be no change to the work force’s current terms and conditions, and they are prepared to sign an agreement with the union on that basis.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend believe that the union is opposed because that is Labour policy or that Labour is opposed because that is the union’s policy? Will anything in the announcement stop the Communication Workers Union continuing to support Labour’s constituency party development plans, which strike me as rather political?

Michael Fallon: No, I do not think that anything in the agreement will stop that continuing relationship, but we are still waiting for an answer from the Labour party on whether it will respond to the union’s call to renationalise this company, should we ever be unfortunate enough to have Labour in government again.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Given that we started this process in the old Department of Trade and Industry 21 years ago, this must be the longest fire sale in history. It was apparent then, as it is apparent now, that if Royal Mail is to grow it must have commercial freedom. At the same time, it is possible through primary legislation to protect the universal service—the stamp costs the same in rural Lincolnshire as in London. We said that 21 years ago and we have been saying it ever since. When will Labour Members start to listen?

Michael Fallon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who played a part at an earlier stage of the story. A lot of progress has been made since then in tackling the pension deficit, setting up a proper regulatory framework and separating Royal Mail from the Post Office, but he is right to emphasise the key point: Royal Mail needs commercial freedom to invest in its future. The private post in Germany, Deutsche Post, is spending about £600 million a year in modernising its network and in automating, and Royal Mail needs the freedom to invest similarly.

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): What credibility can we attach to the Minister’s promises on the universal service when The Daily Telegraph reported last December that Ministers were pressing for a reduction in the commitment to first-class deliveries being provided universally? Is not that the beginning of a slippery slope that the public fear over privatisation, and why is he not imposing the same obligation on competitors to Royal Mail, such as TNT, to deliver to every house in the land, which Royal Mail has and which is costly to it while competitors cream off the most profitable business?

Michael Fallon: This is not a promise or pledge from me that the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents need to rely on; it is a law—an Act of Parliament—that the universal service has to continue to be provided. That law can be changed only by the House. We have

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absolutely no plans to change it. It is up to the regulator to ensure that competition is proper in that market and that the universal service provision is properly provided by Royal Mail.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Yesterday morning, I met some RAF personnel who have just returned from six-month tours in Afghanistan, and I know the importance they put on the mail and parcels that they receive while serving our country overseas. Will my right hon. Friend say what arrangements are in place for armed forces personnel serving overseas?

Michael Fallon: The postal service will continue. It is funded by the Ministry of Defence in agreement with Royal Mail.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): As organising secretary of the communications group in this place for the 20 years I have been here, I am not surprised that the Minister is the person bringing this forward—domesday for Royal Mail is reality—but when someone gets old they will do anything to get into a ministerial car, I suppose.

The point is that the Postal Services Act 2011 is deeply flawed, because it will allow a Minister in a future Government—or even this Minister, although he will not do it before 2014—to go to a Statutory Instrument Committee, not the Floor of the House, and destroy all the things that are guaranteed at the moment. Is it not true that, although there might not be enough money to renationalise the industry after it is given to the private sector, only a Labour vote will guarantee that the universal service and the terms and conditions of employment in the Act will be sustained by a future Government?

Michael Fallon: This Government have put the protection in place that the universal service has to continue and be provided irrespective of the ownership of Royal Mail.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The employee share percentage is not as high as originally advocated by the Liberal Democrats, but it is nevertheless the most significant in many decades. Has the Minister heard from the Communication Workers Union that it welcomes that significant advance in worker ownership?

Michael Fallon: I have had discussions with the union about the details of the employee share scheme. At the moment, the union is opposing privatisation, but my hon. Friend will recall that the unions have opposed previous privatisations, yet their own members have taken the schemes up. I will be interested to see how many members of the Communication Workers Union opt out of the free shares that are being made available.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does the Minister recall—he probably does—that in the late ’80s we had a wholesale privatisation of almost all the public utilities, with the exception of this one? That was under what Mrs Thatcher called the share-owning democracy. It is almost as if I can hear the same words from the Dispatch Box today. What happened to that share-owning democracy? Almost without exception, the public utilities are now owned abroad and are ripping off the British

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consumer. The only difference between now and then is that those lickspittle Lib Dems have joined the Tories to privatise this one. What an utter disgrace.

Michael Fallon: I do recall hearing roughly the same sentiments from the hon. Gentleman back in the 1980s, but I do not want to return to a world where people waited weeks and months for a phone to be installed. Is he really suggesting that we go back to the days when the state owned car companies, electricity, gas, water and all the rest? Let me be clear about his allegation that the consumer could be ripped off: the price of the second-class stamp will continue to be regulated and will be set by the regulator. It will not be possible for Royal Mail to increase prices in the way he suggests.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I welcome the transfer of shares from Royal Mail to the Royal Mail workers, but will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents in Harlow that we will not go the way of the water companies, where the directors paid themselves huge wages and increased prices for consumers? Will he set out the consumer protection?

Michael Fallon: Let me reassure my hon. Friend absolutely that there are no deal bonuses for the senior management as part of the share sale. The protection for the consumer has been laid down by the House in the Postal Services Act 2011, which he will recall—I hope—voting for two years ago. The regulation is set out there and the price of the stamp will continue to be capped by the regulator.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Does not the Government’s insistence on flogging off Royal Mail demonstrate their pursuit of ideology rather than evidence, given that Royal Mail is doing pretty well and is in profit? Will the Minister guarantee that profits following the sell-off will be invested in what is good for Britain, rather than what is good for a handful of shareholders?

Michael Fallon: There will be many more than a handful of shareholders; I hope that Royal Mail will have millions of owners in the future. Let me absolutely reassure the hon. Lady on one part of her question: there will be continuing regulation of the price of the stamp by the regulator and the universal service will continue to be protected. Neither will change with the change in ownership.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): It is true that privatisation is not always the right way forward for public services, and as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group for post offices I am clear that it is not the way forward for post offices. Therefore, I welcome the Minister’s complete reassurance today that post offices are separate and will remain in public service.

However, I believe that the only way for the business of Royal Mail to grow is to have that chance to invest in new technology, so that it can track parcels, compete with its competitors, win business, grow, employ more people in Britain and export its services abroad so that it can become a global brand and a great British success. Does the Minister agree that this is the right way forward for a successful Royal Mail?

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Michael Fallon: Yes, this is one of Britain’s biggest businesses and the biggest delivery company in Britain, and it is a profitable company in a fast-growing market, particularly the parcels market. There are huge opportunities as online shopping develops—it is more developed in this country than in some European countries, so there are huge opportunities at home and in Europe for Royal Mail. It needs, however, commercial freedom and access to capital markets to take full advantage of those opportunities.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Members must ask questions and leave short speeches for another day if we are to allow everybody to contribute to the statement. Quick questions and short answers will help us enormously.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): The Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot have a regulatory regime that allows services to be cherry-picked where profitable by the jackals that will buy Royal Mail, and then say they will protect the universal service. We all know it will be broken up, but will the Minister say whether his description of the universal service requires people to collect their mail from a central collection point, rather than its being delivered door to door?

Michael Fallon: The universal obligation is set out by the regulator and is not—and cannot be—affected by the change in ownership. Any change to the universal obligation would be made by this House, and as I have said, we have no plans to change that. On cherry-picking and so on, it is for the regulator to police the market and ensure there are no unfair practices.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): May I congratulate the Minister on delivering a deal that many other Governments failed to deliver? Even the prince of darkness failed on this one. Instead, the Minister is giving Royal Mail hope and a vision for the future. Does he agree that for my rural constituents in north Yorkshire, innovation from the private sector, combined with the service obligation guarantee, could mean better services in the future?

Michael Fallon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. Today’s announcement builds on work done by the House in passing postal service legislation, and by my two Liberal Democrat predecessors in getting us to the position we are in today. Yes, there is every opportunity for Royal Mail to face its future with confidence, access to capital markets and new commercial freedoms, and every reason to expect the service to continue to improve.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Given that the minimum purchase of shares is £750, will the Minister explain how my low-paid constituents such as pensioners or the unemployed will retain a stake in what they already own? Is this a transfer from us all to the richest in society?

Michael Fallon: I thought the Labour party opposed this privatisation, but if there are ways we can help the right hon. Gentleman make it more accessible to his

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constituents, we will certainly let him have details of the website and so on. It is fairly standard to set a minimum threshold—for example, it was £1,000 in the recent Direct Line public offering—and the amount simply reflects standard practice. We hope there will be sufficient opportunity for retail participation, as I would not like members of the public who wish to subscribe to miss out.

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): To build on a previous question by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), will the Minister confirm what protections will be in place to protect the excellent discounted delivery service for armed forces personnel serving overseas?

Michael Fallon: Those arrangements will continue. That is an arrangement between the Ministry of Defence and Royal Mail, and both parties have every interest in ensuring it continues. There will be no change for members of the armed forces.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister makes much of the protection for consumers, but Ofcom has already shown its true colours by abandoning all price caps other than that for second-class mail. Does the Minister realise that experience of previous privatisations means that no one outside his Government believes that the regulator will give consumers protection on either services or prices?

Michael Fallon: The regulator is independent of the Government, Ministers and this House, and it is not possible for it to change legislation that we have passed. The cap remains in place.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): My constituents in Northumberland want a six-days-a-week universal service, but with incentives and shares for staff, and want Royal Mail to have the commercial freedom to invest, innovate and compete with online and other providers. Will the proposal address the problems that successive Governments have failed to address over successive decades?

Michael Fallon: Yes, I believe it will. It will give Royal Mail the chance to face its future not just with confidence but with access to capital markets and the commercial freedoms it needs to respond to new opportunities, particularly in a rapidly growing parcels market.

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister has repeatedly mentioned the cap on the cost of a stamp. Will he confirm that that relates only to second-class mail? Does he understand the concerns of many small businesses that rely on first-class mail, and what assurances can he give them?

Michael Fallon: There is a cap on the second-class stamp, and a provision that the first-class stamp must be affordable—something the regulator must keep a close eye on. It is not simply the second-class stamp.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Has the Minister read the statement on

“If the Royal Mail is sold off affordable prices, rural services and free postal services for our service men and women as well as vulnerable groups will disappear”?

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Will he confirm whether that statement is true or whether it is so false and misleading that the Advertising Standards Authority might intervene?

Michael Fallon: A number of unfortunate scare stories have been put about in connection with this sale, but I emphasise that there is no threat to existing arrangements for the blind or the armed forces. Those arrangements are not being changed by this announcement.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that in Coventry, particularly in my constituency, there will be widespread relief that post offices are being left out of this privatisation? Just a few weeks ago I had the honour of opening a newly modernised and already highly successful post office facility, which shows that companies in public ownership can do well and services can be maintained.

Michael Fallon: I am glad the hon. Gentleman was able to take some credit for Government investment in his local post office, and I am sure he drew the attention of his constituents to the fact that it was due to this Government’s money and commitment to modernising the network. I did the same when I had the honour of opening a newly modernised post office in my constituency a few weeks ago. Let me be clear: the Government are not privatising the Post Office. What is being put up for sale is Royal Mail—the delivery part of the business. The Post Office will remain in public ownership.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): Post offices in Plymouth and rural Devon are a vital resource. Will the Minister say whether a mechanism exists so that if the private company decides to break the link with the Post Office post-2022, Parliament and the Government will have some say in the matter to protect the public interest?

Michael Fallon: The agreement is, I think, the longest possible under European Union law—as the hon. Lady said, it is a 10-year agreement taking us to 2022. As I said in an earlier answer, it is pretty unthinkable that Royal Mail and the Post Office would not want to continue a close working relationship, but it is, of course, up to the House to scrutinise that agreement any way it wants.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): The Labour party in my constituency is so committed to Royal Mail that on the rare occasions it delivers literature, it chooses to use Royal Mail’s private sector competitors to do so. Those same people have being saying publicly that the Government are selling off the Post Office. Will the Minister confirm for their benefit that the Post Office will not be sold off, and may I urge him to go further and demand an apology from the Labour party for the vast number of post offices it closed in communities in my constituency?

Michael Fallon: I do not think we are likely to get an apology for the extensive and damaging closure programme for which the previous Government were responsible, but at the very least the work force of the Royal Mail is entitled to some statement from the Labour party as to

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whether it would renationalise the business. I hope that someone from that party will make its position clear before we go much further into this statement.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I declare an interest in that I worked for Ofcom before entering the House. From that experience, I know that the only way that natural monopoly networks of this type work in the private sector is when we have real competition at the infrastructure level on the ground, as in telecoms. Is the Minister truly proposing that we will have multiple posties delivering to doorsteps from North Devon to Newcastle, or will we end up with another bloated private sector monopoly vested interest, as we have seen in water, energy and rail?

Michael Fallon: This is not a monopoly market at the moment. There are companies competing in the marketplace, as they have to do under European law. This House has decided that there should be that competition in that particular way and has established Ofcom, for which the hon. Lady used to work, to supervise that competition.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Residents in the borough of Kettering and across Northamptonshire very much value their local post offices. Can the Minister confirm that those post offices will not form part of the Royal Mail privatisation, and indeed will be subject to record additional new investment? Can he also assure the posties who work in the Kettering delivery office that their terms and conditions will not change, and they will be entitled to free shares in up to 10% of Royal Mail?

Michael Fallon: I confirm that the Government are committing more than £1.3 billion to modernise the post office network and I can also confirm that all those eligible for Royal Mail shares—those employed by Royal Mail at the time of the statement on 10 July—will be eligible for free shares. More details will be published with the final share offer.

Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): Can the Minister help the House with an urgent missing persons case? Where is the Minister with responsibility for postal affairs? Is she in hiding because it is only with the help of Liberal Democrat votes that a privatisation that even Mrs Thatcher thought was beyond the pale can go ahead?

Michael Fallon: This is a statement about Royal Mail, although I have also given assurances about the future of the Post Office. This is a coalition policy that was in the coalition agreement and Ministers across the coalition have worked on it. My two immediate predecessors with responsibility for Royal Mail were Liberal Democrat Ministers, and I have had support throughout this process from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): In the fattening up for privatisation we have already seen price hikes and the ending of 7 pm collections in many towns. What guarantees can the Minister give that there will be no further erosion of collection, such as the getting rid of post boxes, fewer collections later in the day and some rural

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post offices not even having collections every day? What guarantees can he give about the delivery of parcels six days a week? None of those issues are fully covered by the legislation.

Michael Fallon: I reassure the hon. Lady that all those matters are covered by the licence conditions under which the Royal Mail operates. The licence is given by Ofcom, and it is for that body to ensure that the licence conditions are adhered to.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): What Royal Mail needs is new investment, upgrading and modernisation within continuity of service. Can the Minister give an indication of the additional investment that will take place as a result of the sale of shares in Royal Mail?

Michael Fallon: I told the House of the scale of investment now being made by the privatised German postal service, Deutsche Post. That £600 million of investment gives us an idea of the scale of investment that may be needed to help to modernise the Royal Mail. It has to modernise its network, invest in its infrastructure and automate more of its parcels business. It can no longer compete for scarce public resources with schools and hospitals that will always have priority over such investment. It is absurd to have a company of that size as the only really big British business that cannot access the private capital that it needs. That will end.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): Many of my constituents have contacted me to say that they oppose this privatisation. They recall similar promises of improved services made when the utilities were privatised, and few people could be found today who believe that happened. Why does the Minister think that a majority of the British people are opposed to his policy?

Michael Fallon: There are members of the public who do not yet fully understand how Royal Mail has been separated from the Post Office and who have chosen to believe some of the untrue scare stories that have been put around. The hon. Gentleman will also recall that almost every privatisation that I can remember has initially been opposed—or failed to command universal support—but nobody now suggests that we reverse those privatisations of the 1980s.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): My constituents are concerned that a national asset—our Royal Mail—will end up in foreign ownership. What guarantee can the Minister give that that will not happen?

Michael Fallon: By the end of the privatisation process, the Royal Mail will have multiple owners, including the work force itself, which will own 10% of the business. We have chosen not to sell Royal Mail to another mail operator or a single private equity owner, but to make this a public offering so that Royal Mail will have millions of new owners. The hon. Lady should also consider the opportunities for Royal Mail in international markets. Royal Mail already has a subsidiary, GLS, and there will be huge opportunities for it to win more business overseas and across Europe.

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): The hard-working staff of Scotland’s largest sorting office, based in my constituency, are very much against these

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plans. Is the Minister aware that they have been joined this morning by TNT, which described his plans in

The Daily Telegraph


“preposterous…bad for consumers, bad for business”?

Is he not increasingly isolated from what is in the best interests of the industry and of the country?

Michael Fallon: It sounds as though TNT is a little nervous about a more competitive and better financed Royal Mail. We will see how many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents working at that sorting office choose to opt out of the share scheme in the next few weeks.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): The Minister continues to refute the allegation that this is a fire sale, but as 70% of people in this country are totally opposed to such privatisation, will not the flotation occur in an atmosphere in which the basic share price will automatically be reduced, so the taxpayer will have been cheated?

Michael Fallon: It is one of the primary objectives of the sale to secure maximum value for money for the taxpayer, and of course it will be subject to scrutiny in this House, as previous sales have been, and by the National Audit Office.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): The Minister can say what he wants about the work force having a say because it owns 10% of the company, but within a couple of years those shares will be sold. That is what happened at Rolls-Royce. The public will be the loser because they will not get any benefit from the billions of pounds that have been invested in the service. It should remain where it is, and the public should get the benefit of its profitability.

Michael Fallon: One point of agreement between the union and me has been the need to ensure longevity so that the shares are held, not sold off the next day, by the work force. They will have to hold the shares for a minimum of three years before they are able to sell. During that time, they will receive dividends and be able to vote on the future policy of the company, and day by day they will see the actual share price.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): The Minister struggled to answer the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), so I will give him another go. Can he guarantee that the Royal Mail, with the Queen’s head on its stamps, will continue to remain UK-owned and UK-headquartered?

Michael Fallon: It will of course be UK-headquartered. It will have multiple owners after privatisation. Those who are located in the UK are able to apply for shares on the issue. We are not restricting the issue to UK citizens or UK nationals. Anybody located here can invest in the business through the retail offer. Having a multiple ownership is the best possible protection for the company. I repeat that we deliberately decided not to sell the company to a single owner or single private equity company.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): TNT, one of Royal Mail’s competitors, provides the core service in Holland on a similar basis to the Royal Mail, with VAT exemptions. However, the universal service obligation in Holland and across much of the EU is very different from the UK USO—it is on a

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five-day basis. The Minister knows that his Government’s Postal Services Act 2011 allows him to go upstairs and, through a statutory instrument, change the USO from six days to five days. Will he do that in the future?

Michael Fallon: No, it is not possible to change the six-day service through a statutory instrument. That can only be changed by this House. As I have said, we have absolutely no plans to change that obligation.

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): In his statement, the Minister gave some commitments on the future of the Royal Mail. Will he go one step further and give some guarantees that there will be no job losses, no move to increase part-time working, no closures of sorting offices, and a continuation of the much-loved Saturday delivery?

Michael Fallon: Let us be clear: there have been 50,000 job losses in the last 10 years of public ownership, so public ownership is no guarantee of job security. The best guarantee of job security is to be able to work for a company that is growing and investing in its future, and able to access the finance it needs. The management of Royal Mail have put on the table a series of assurances about future terms and conditions, which they hope the union will come to agree before we get to the point of privatisation.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): The Minister has told us that the price of a second-class stamp will be regulated, but that will not reassure people who pay regulated energy bills. What grounds does he have for his assurance that price control will be effective in the case of Royal Mail?

Michael Fallon: The price control arrangements were set by this House, and they are for Ofcom to regulate. Ofcom has capped the price of a second-class stamp, which cannot rise higher than 55p. It is not at that level yet, but that is the cap imposed by Ofcom. Ministers cannot interfere with that.

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Backbench Business

Child Protection

12.53 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered child protection in the UK.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving Members the opportunity to debate this important subject. As a precautionary measure, I declare my related interests as in the register.

As I have said on many occasions, opportunities to debate and air issues of child protection or of children generally are frustratingly rare, as I found in opposition and as Minister with responsibility for these matters, so today’s debate is welcome. It is particularly important because child protection and child abuse, in its different forms, have probably never had a higher profile, and have never triggered such a response and awareness among the public at large, which is probably the one compensation of the whole sordid Jimmy Savile affair. That is why, a year on from Savile, I and other hon. Members requested a debate on child protection.

The extraordinary turn of events started to unravel almost a year ago when the media heralded a modest but game-changing ITV documentary—produced by Mark Williams-Thomas, to whom I pay tribute for what he has set in motion as a result—which first tentatively suggested that Jimmy Savile had abused teenage girls as young as 13. It seemed incredible that the semi-beatified, spangly shell-suited former Bevin boy, “Top of the Pops” doyen, children’s TV icon and multi-charity philanthropist had so successfully hidden his alter ego as a serious sexual predator, and a pretty prolific and grubby one at that. The rest, of course, is history. The initial Guardian headline about some 10 female victims having come forward was one of its more glaring underestimates. The number of victims was then upgraded to some 300, some of them possibly as young as nine years old, and the figure is now in excess of 600. The ramifications for the BBC, for the rest of the establishment and for the public profile of child abuse, however, have been huge. It is worth briefly reviewing what has come to light over the past year.

There has been Operation Yewtree, which concentrated on the Savile case—600 people have come forward as having been abused by Jimmy Savile over a 60-year period. There are records of people who said that they were turned away when they reported abuse suffered at his hands. Six former police officers admitted that they were aware of Savile’s behaviour, with extensive evidence of cover-ups and withholding of information leading to abuse continuing over such a long period, including against children, teenage fans and kids in hospitals and care homes. We have seen the recent conviction of Stuart Hall for assaults spanning some 18 years on at least 13 girls, and a panoply of assorted comedians, publicists, entertainers, soap stars and childhood icons at various stages of arrest, investigation or facing court. Senior heads have rolled at the BBC, and its inquiry is said to have cost the licence fee payer in excess of £10 million already.

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Operation Pallial has investigated the original claims of historical abuse at children’s homes in north Wales going back to the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There has been a review by Mrs Justice Macur of the terms of the Waterhouse inquiry into the abuse of children in care in Gwynedd and Clwyd council areas. Operation Fernbank was established to focus on claims of sexual abuse and the grooming of children involving parties for men at the former Elm guest house in south-west London in the ’70s and ’80s. Operation Fernbridge has been launched as a result of allegations arising from Operation Fernbank. The Independent revealed on 9 June that seven officers are pursuing more than 300 lines of inquiry.

There are a number of inquiries involving children being abused in schools. Operation Flamborough is investigating alleged assaults on girls with learning difficulties at a Hampshire boarding school. At Carlekemp in North Berwick, a feeder primary school to Fort Augustus Abbey Catholic school has been linked to abuse allegations, as has Fort Augustus Abbey itself. There have been abuse allegations in relation to Kesgrave Hall school, near Ipswich. At Chetham’s music school in Manchester, a former director of music and his wife were found guilty of indecently assaulting Frances Andrade, who, tragically, was driven to take her own life after being subjected to harsh cross-examination during the trial, having been labelled a fantasist and attention seeker and advised not to seek counselling during the trial. There have been allegations of sexual abuse in many other music schools, including the Yehudi Menuhin school in Surrey, and schools in Edinburgh and Somerset. But it does not stop there.

In the diocese of Chichester, in my part of the country, retired priests have been charged with sexual offences. The diocese has had four inquiries into child abuse in the past four years, including a formal visitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury and a report written by the noble Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. The General Synod voted on 7 July this year to issue an unreserved historic apology from the Church of England to victims of clerical sex abuse. We have seen countless examples of child sexual exploitation cases: Operation Retriever; the extraordinary case in Rochdale where 47 girls were identified as victims of child sexual exploitation; the case in Rotherham; Operation Bullfinch in Oxford—there is still more to run on that one; and Operation Chalice, in which seven men were jailed following a police investigation into child sexual exploitation involving young white girls in Telford.

Of course, there were the recent tragic killings of April Jones at the hands of 46-year-old Mark Bridger, and of Tia Sharp at the hands of her grandmother’s boyfriend, Stuart Hazell, which were linked to downloading abuse images of children. The case of Daniel Pelka, who was killed and tortured in an incredibly cruel way, came to court in the last few months: a defenceless four-year-old child was systematically tortured, yet this was on the radar of local authority services. Next week, the Coventry safeguarding children board will undertake a serious case review, during which I think we will hear some familiar stories—a case of déjà vu for those of us who have been around the block so many times with this sort of cruelty. Of course, there was also the serious case review of the Birmingham nursery case.

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I make no apology for what is a grim reading list, involving cases that have been instigated, reopened, proceeded with through the courts or investigated in just the last year, since the Jimmy Savile case hit and maintained the headlines for so many months.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman also include for the record a dreadful case that touches all of us in the House: that of baby Peter, which drew our attention to the need for a systematic, cross-services approach to child protection?

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and we could have taken up this entire debate with the history of some of these cases. And these are only the high-profile cases that we know about and read about. They are only a small sample of what has actually been going on; many more have not reached the headlines or even the courts.

Away from the high-profile stories that make the media headlines, the wider figures show that our various child protection agencies have never been busier. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports that referrals to ChildLine about sexual abuse were nearly twice as high in June and July of this year as in the same period last year, pre-Savile. There have been 2.4 million visits to the ChildLine website in the last year—an increase of some 28% on the previous year. The NSPCC estimates that more than 50,000 children in the UK are known to be at risk of abuse. It calculates that last year, a total of 2,900 rapes or attempted rapes of children under the age of 13 were recorded; that is eight per day. Indeed, 32%—almost a third—of all sexual crimes in this country are against children under the age of 16.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I know that the hon. Gentleman feels very deeply about this issue. Do these figures not show that we have to be more aware of the fact that paedophiles will target professions in which they can get access to children, and that the Government therefore need to do more? Instead of relaxing regulations relating to children and Ofsted child protection inspections, the Government need to be much more cognisant of the issue, target areas where such things are likely to happen, and make people aware that paedophiles will be in these professions. Action must be taken to stop them.

Tim Loughton: I agree with the hon. Lady, who knows a great deal about this issue, having been a practitioner in the field; indeed, she and I have worked together through the all-party group on child protection. We need to be wiser to the professions in which paedophiles and potential paedophiles will inveigle themselves. At the same time, however, training and awareness in some of these professions—an issue I shall return to—have improved enormously, although not enough, yet, and the inspection regime has improved. In too many cases, we were inspecting the wrong thing. I hope that joint agency inspections, which we were promised but which have been put on hold, will still happen, so that we have that cross-disciplinary eye: police looking at children’s services, children’s services looking at education, education looking at health services.

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Too often, there was a silo approach to inspection, which took up a great deal of the time of professionals who would rather spend it looking after the families, and not enough dissemination of information. The best way to bring that about is better multi-agency training, which we have not been good at. That is beginning to happen, however. For example, we have multi-agency safeguarding hubs, through which different agencies are co-located—sitting next to each other in the same room, looking at the same intelligence, discussing cases and coming up with a much better informed and sharper action plan. All those things are improvements, but the point the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) makes is a valid one.

I know that many Members want to contribute to the debate, but there is a bit more I want to say. With the list I have given goes a looming public apprehension about whether we really have cracked child protection, buffeted by almost weekly revelations of the latest scandal involving abuse at the hands of a bishop, a music teacher, a taxi driver or a soap star. To some extent, it matters not whether the perpetrator is dead or alive, or how long ago his alleged misdemeanours took place. The higher profile given by the media to cases linked to celebrities has, however, been deeply unhelpful, as it detracts from the reality that the main perpetrators are common criminals in ordinary jobs.

Of course, the fact that so many cases are now coming to court, however belatedly, is a sign of some success, in that offenders are now being pursued better by police. Victims are being heeded more loudly and sympathetically, prosecutions are sticking and the perpetrators are being made to pay.

However, are our children safer now than they were 50 years ago, when Savile and others started to ply their trade? Have we just replaced celebrity abuse of star-struck teenagers while the establishment turned a blind eye with systematic abuse to order by organised gangs, be they Pakistani-British—high-profile cases of which we have seen—or of whatever culture? Are internet groomers and the recent Oxford and Rochdale abusers just a modern-day version of Savile, armed with mobile phone technology but without shell suits and the lure of the “green room”? In that sense, given the reach of technology as a key tool of the abusers, do they not pose a much more widespread threat now than ever before?

I think that those of us in the know here today can say that children are safer now than back in the 1960s, but that is a tough sell to the public at large. But if that is the case, when did things actually get better? When did child protection come of age and society at large recognise its significance? When did we equip our agencies sufficiently to question the “It’s just Jimmy” mentality and start turning over some rather grubby stones? Was the landmark Children Act 1989 the turning point? Was it the shocking revelations concerning the north Wales care homes, which have of course come full circle, as we now know that the whole story was not properly revealed? It is to answer these questions that I and others have been calling for some time for an overarching inquiry into the whole sordid history of child abuse in this country, going back to the 1960s and traversing the Children Act, into what I call the legitimate legislation tsunami post-Victoria Climbié. Such an inquiry must

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involve a commission, led by respected figures from the law, lawmakers, social services and children’s charities. It must set out to provide the holistic assurance that has been so sapped by the plethora of at one time weekly inquiries and reviews set up by the Home Office, the BBC, the Department of Health and numerous others, and it must go everywhere.

Such an inquiry must address four main issues. What exactly happened, and why, over all those years? When did things start getting better, and how? Have all practical steps been taken to give victims the confidence to come forward, and for the police to pursue vigorously any remaining offenders? Perhaps most important of all, have all our major institutions that have significant dealings with children and young people instituted child protection policies and practices that are fit for purpose in 2013 to deal with modern-day technology and savvy perpetrators?

Mr Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. May I just put in a caveat? There was a time when a kind of press feeding frenzy went on. Something went very wrong with some of the investigations, a lot of innocent people who had worked with children were falsely accused—for whatever reason—and many good professionals’ lives were destroyed. Please can we make sure that, whatever we do now, we do not start that sort of thing again?

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is right, which is why I referred to what happened with celebrities, which was a sort of feeding frenzy and succeeded in masking the multitude of real crimes—not that the former were not real crimes—that were going on among ordinary people. That is why we need an overarching inquiry to look holistically at what went wrong, what appeared to go wrong, what was a symptom of media frenzy, and who the victims were and are. Most important, we need to give some satisfaction and confidence to the public at large that somebody is looking at this issue properly, and that there is evidence that their children are safer now—despite everything that has come out—than 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I do not think that an unreasonable ask. The former Prime Minister of Australia established a similar royal commission into historic child abuse in November 2012, to look into institutional responses to allegations of sexual abuse in Australia, particularly linked with the Catholic Church. IT has been done it there, and there is a good case for doing it here.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for a public inquiry, which I support. He is right to say that we need to restore confidence not just among the public at large but among victims. It seems that there is confusion in government about which Department is providing the drive and lead to ensure that these issues are tackled. When he was the Minister responsible for child protection, it was inconceivable that he would not lead on these issues in the House. This is the second time is less than a year that we have had a debate on child protection, and the other Department with responsibility has not been represented. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about that?

Tim Loughton rose—

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Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies to the intervention, may I gently remind him that the recommendation is that the mover of the motion speaks for 10 to 15 minutes? He has been on his feet for 18 minutes or more. He has been generous in taking interventions, but that time is supposed to include interventions. It means that there will be a time limit on the rest of the speeches. Therefore, I hope that he will be less generous and draw his remarks to a conclusion. This is not coming out of your time, Mr Loughton.

Tim Loughton: I am gently reminded, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am happy to give up some time—I think I have a right to reply at the end of the debate—so that as many Members as possible can get in. Perhaps if I do not take any more interventions and speak very quickly, it will help. In response to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), I will gently come on to that point in the few minutes remaining to me, but I think that the answer is that I could not possibly comment.

I fear that in the UK the public have become increasingly confused and sceptical about what progress has been made over recent years to ensure that our children are safe. That is not surprising given the tsunami of media reports that I have already listed and the tangled tidal wave of reviews announced by Ministers, the BBC, the NHS, the Church and everyone else. Therefore, the public are confused and parents are understandably worried. They need high-profile, high-octane, high-impact leadership from central Government, working with all the relevant agencies, to convince a sceptical public that we are on top of the situation.

I know that much is going on. Indeed, I instigated quite a lot of what is going on. I know what a champion the Minister from the Home Office is on the issue and welcome his leadership of the National Group on Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People instituted in April. However, to take on the point made by the hon. Member for Wigan, I am concerned about the move to the Home Office, because child abuse is not just about detection and prosecution. It is first and foremost about education, awareness, early intervention and prevention, and I think that that is best co-ordinated in the Department for Education, which retains the lead for children’s social care and for Ofsted inspection, I think. It is particularly concerning, therefore, that, at a time when child abuse has never been more in our consciousness, the assurances and leadership from the DFE have been rather muted over the past year.

I do not understand why, because we have much to be proud of. The Munro reforms provided a fundamental overhaul of child protection and the way in which that is done in this country. They are widely respected and starting to be instituted. Hopefully, the appointment of the chief social worker is raising the profession’s morale and the launch of the Frontline scheme is raising its confidence. The full publication of serious case reviews has cast light on the problems that are going on. There has been a proliferation of multi-agency safeguarding hubs, progress on child sexual exploitation and the action plan. The Children’s Society toolkit was launched just this week and it has also launched its “Say something if you see something” campaign. The Lord Chancellor’s Department has made important announcements about the way in which we treat the 23,000 child witnesses in

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deeply traumatic cases in our courts. There are sermons in mosques about the exploitation of children. In July 2012, children started to be placed far away in residential homes. There will be a report on that later this year. There is also the national action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief.

A lot has happened in the past few years to make our children safer. I think the Government need to shout out much more loudly about it. I hope that the Prime Minister, who has rejected calls for an overarching inquiry, will think again in the light of the tsunami of cases in the past year.

Therefore, in conclusion, child abuse takes many different forms: the harm, neglect and ultimately killing of a vulnerable child by family members; child sexual exploitation and systematic abuse by gangs; internet abuse; opportunistic grooming over the web; cyber-bullying and trolling, on which a campaign was launched in Parliament just this morning. All these things are part of the same problem and we need to show the public how we are protecting our children better. As such, it is a child protection and education and prevention issue, which should be, as it always was, led by the DFE, notwithstanding the talents and dedication of the Minister in his role in the Home Office. Without doing that, we risk giving rise to a new generation of Jimmy Saviles, perhaps without the shell suits and bling but armed with much more powerful—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Mr Loughton, you said “In conclusion”. I would like you to conclude your remarks. Even allowing for my 30-second intervention, you are way over the 15 minutes. Please conclude your remarks.

Tim Loughton: My final sentence is that this is the challenge that faces us all in the post-Savile world: child protection has potentially never been so important to so many, and all of us have a duty to be vigilant.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. A large number of Members wish to speak in the debate. I ask Members to take no more than 10 minutes, including interventions. The clock will not be on, but it will be a sharp time limit if that is not complied with.

1.16 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who as children’s Minister responded positively to the parliamentary inquiry into children who go missing from care, which was conducted by the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults and supported by the Children’s Society. I am pleased to support his call for an overarching inquiry.

Over the past 20 years, we have had numerous high-profile inquiries and serious case reviews after children have been harmed, abused and killed. Almost without exception, those inquiries and reviews have come to the same conclusions—poor inter-agency working, sharing of information and communication were significant factors in failures to prevent the child’s injury or death. There is a public frustration that time and again recommendations point to the same failings in the system.

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It seems that a lot of reviews and inquiries look at the failures of the organisations around the child rather than putting the child’s voice and experience at the centre of the review. I recently looked at a systems review of CSE practice by Stockport’s children’s safeguarding board through the eyes of a victim. I was struck that on a number of occasions her case was closed because she withdrew her co-operation. She would not communicate. Surely a better way would have been to find someone capable of talking to her and winning her trust, which could then have prevented the harm that subsequently happened to her.

Listening to the children who gave evidence to our inquiry, it was clear that children felt that they had not been, and were not being, listened to. One of the key challenges facing agencies charged with safeguarding children is being able to communicate properly with children, so that they feel able to talk about what is happening to them. I agree with the Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, that staff who work with children and young people, from whichever discipline or profession, should experience a common set of training that crosses all boundaries. Unless we can communicate with children, we will not know what is going on in their lives and therefore we will not be able to prevent them from coming to harm.

Sadly, all too often, that essential communication with children does not happen and we find out all too late about the horrors of the experience that those children have been subjected to, which they then have to relive as witnesses in our courts. There is widespread concern about the treatment of child witnesses in the court system. The failures to provide sufficient support to child witnesses are based on an inadequate understanding of how to communicate with children.

No one should be in any doubt about how much children worry about going to court. Many children express those fears to the NSPCC’s ChildLine. I will read out just one example. One girl said:

“I have to go to court this week to give evidence and I really don’t want to. I didn’t want to report the abuse but I was told I had to. It just feels like everything’s my fault and I wish I had never told anyone.”

I welcome the new guidelines issued by Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, on cases involving child sexual abuse, which he said would ensure that the focus was on allegations made by victims, rather than their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. However, I fear that we are a long way from that in the way witnesses are cross-examined in our courts now.

The Government are making progress in piloting section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which will allow pre-recorded cross-examination of young and vulnerable witnesses. That is very welcome.

I recently tabled a series of parliamentary questions which revealed that in the first three months of 2013 registered intermediaries were requested for children in only 16% of cases. This indicates to me that the police, the prosecution, the defence and the courts do not really understand how difficult it is for children to communicate in the current adversarial system and do not understand the need for registered intermediaries to facilitate communication between them and the court.

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Interestingly enough, in spite of all the publicity surrounding witnesses who have been called liars and fantasists and subjected to aggressive cross-questioning by multiple lawyers, I understand that there have been barely any complaints to the Bar Council, which indicates the acceptance and normalisation of aggressive, adversarial cross-examinations.

I have been reading with interest the work done by academic experts such as Professor John Spencer of Cambridge university and Joyce Plotnikoff about the need to reform the rules and conventional practice in the cross-examination of children. I would like the Minister to consider establishing a commission of inquiry made up of expert judges and leading academics into reforming the rules on cross-examination of children after the spate of recent high-profile sex trials in which lawyers branded vulnerable victims liars again and again.

Of course the right of the defendant to a fair trail and to examine fairly the witnesses against him or her must be sacrosanct, but the process has to be about obtaining the best quality of evidence in a way that is robust, reliable and safe for the witness. As Lord Justice Auld said in his review of the criminal courts:

“A criminal trial is not a game under which a guilty defendant should be provided with a sporting chance.”

Currently, the court appears to be set up as a theatre, in which lawyers perform for the benefit of the jury. Sometimes it does not seem like a real cross-examination of evidence, but to be about smearing and breaking down the witness to get defendants off the hook. One senior English barrister told Dr Emily Henderson, a visiting fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge and a criminal barrister herself who is doing a six-month study of the impact of changes to cross-examination, that:

“You are always really playing to the audience. Of course, it is one-on-one in that there is only one person answering questions, but you are constantly aiming everything at the people who are ultimately going to be making the decision. So you are playing to the gallery.”

Another barrister told Dr Henderson:

“I have three speeches: my opening, my closing and my cross-examination.”

Barristers in sex abuse cases must be stopped from manipulating child witnesses like puppets.

As many leading academics, including Spencer and Plotnikoff, have said, 30-plus years of empirical research in this and similar adversarial jurisdictions has shown again and again that conventional cross-examination is more likely to confuse and mislead children than to draw out accurate and reliable evidence. Indeed, research by the NSPCC showed that more than 90% of children under 10 do not understand the questions they are asked in court. The commission that I am proposing could also consider what further measures might be undertaken to improve the safety and reliability of processes for the taking and investigation of children’s evidence by the criminal courts. In addition, it could examine extending the role of registered intermediaries to allow them to cross-examine vulnerable witnesses under the direction of counsel. This idea was first raised more than 20 years ago in the 1989 Pigot committee report, which recommended that advocates’ questions should be relayed through a specialist child examiner, such as a paediatrician, child psychiatrist, social worker or other person who enjoys the child’s confidence.

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In most other continental jurisdictions, including France, Germany, Austria, Norway and Italy, young child witnesses are questioned by a neutral specialist. The interviewer investigates issues that the defence wants raised and consults the defence in the process.

I was heartened that in 2010 and 2011 the Court of Appeal released several judgments designed to clean up poor cross-examination techniques. The court was very clear that cross-examiners must use language appropriate to the developmental stage of the witness. However, despite these encouraging comments from the Court of Appeal, how we treat children in court is still a massive problem. In the last couple of weeks, we had the judge who described a 13-year-old victim of abuse as predatory. This was in addition to one of the barristers in the Oxford case accusing one of the girls of being a serial liar and fantasist who had fabricated the allegations, and a witness in the Stafford trial had to endure being called a liar day after day.

Meg Munn: There was a lot of condemnation of that at the time, with the Prime Minister and others saying that those remarks should not have been made, but does my hon. Friend agree that we should be worried not that such remarks are being made but that people in these positions believe these things in the first place about children?

Ann Coffey: I agree. Attitudes to children in our society are quite awful sometimes. That manifests itself in various ways.

Children’s charities and victim support groups said that the Staffordshire trial shamed British justice. These cases demonstrate the urgent need for reform. I hope that the Minister will agree with me that a commission to look into further reforms of the practice of cross-examination is the only way to ensure that in the future we get the best possible evidence, without which the courts cannot do justice to the victim or the defendant.

1.26 pm

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on assigning time to it, and I am pleased to follow two such powerful speeches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing the debate.

Over the summer we saw more tragic evidence, if it were needed, of how important it is that the child protection system works swiftly and effectively. Last November the Education Committee published a report “Children first: the child protection system in England.” We agreed that we should focus our attention on three separate but linked themes that were emerging strongly from all that we had heard and read—neglect, older children, and the thresholds for interventions. What drew them together was the recognition that in each case the child should be the priority.

I will start with neglect. No one should underestimate the scale of this problem. A major study by the NSPCC last year found that severe neglect was experienced by 3.7% of children under 11 and 9.8% of 11 to 17-year-olds

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at some time in their childhood; and 43% of child protection plans are in place as a result of neglect. During our inquiry we learnt that it can be difficult to pin down what is meant by the term “neglect”. It can mean different things for different age groups and in different situations, which can make it difficult for professionals and the public to recognise.

We were particularly concerned by the variation in rates of neglect between local authorities. We recommended that the Government commission research to see whether similar situations and behaviours were classified as neglect in different local authorities in different ways. We concluded from the evidence that the needs of children and the importance of acting quickly to secure early intervention for children experiencing neglect are all too often not given sufficient priority. I hope that the Government will be prepared to intervene if the responsiveness of local authorities to neglect does not improve.

We also learned from witnesses that older children are often reluctant to disclose information about abuse or neglect. Potential causes of this include mistrust of the authorities, embarrassment and fear of what is going to happen, including the fear of not being believed. That leads on to another of the three main areas that the Education Committee examined—namely, the support given to older children. Ofsted figures reveal that 24% of the serious case reviews conducted between April 2007 and March 2011 involved children aged 14 or older. That means that children in that group are second only to babies under one in terms of risk of serious harm.

Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): On the point about older children, does my hon. Friend share my concern that we do not yet seem to be responding adequately and quickly enough to the growing issue of grooming by gangs? We see it in many of our towns and cities across the country, yet we do not seem to have an adequate response.

Mr Stuart: My hon. Friend is right. However, it is being taken seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about the use of modern technology and how those who are predatory towards children can use it to co-ordinate and be more effective. As in every area of crime, it is essential that those on the side of law and order, particularly those involved in the protection of children, should keep up and be ahead of the curve in relation to the abusers.

ChildLine told us that provision for 16 to 18-year-olds, in particular, represents a massive gap in the system. We concluded that the position was so serious that the Government should undertake a complete review of the support offered to older children by the child protection system, with proposals to reshape services to meet their needs. In their response to our report, Ministers said:

“We expect local leaders to consider whether their child and family social work services are appropriately configured to meet the needs of all vulnerable children and families.”

I appreciate the key role played by local authorities in delivering children’s services and the need to respect a certain amount of local discretion as to how they discharge this responsibility, but I hope the Government will act if evidence continues to show that older children are still being overlooked by our child protection system.

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One element of the support on offer to older children has shown a marked improvement in recent months. I was delighted by the package of support for young people leaving care that was unveiled by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), earlier this year. I am pleased to see him in his seat. This includes new rules to ensure that more 16 and 17-year-olds remain in care unless signed off by a director of children’s services. For too long, young care leavers for whom the state is, in effect, the parent have been cast off at 16 or 17 with no support network in place. The new arrangements mark a real step forward, but there is still much more to be done.

The third aspect of my Committee’s work involved the thresholds for intervention and whether they are set at the right level and applied consistently. We found variation between local authorities in how these thresholds are applied. We recommended that the Government commission research to understand the impact of varying thresholds in different areas, and whether they are too high or rising in some places. Undoubtedly part of the solution is having a common understanding of thresholds as between different agencies and ensuring that information is shared. We found particular concerns about the health sector, as one always does in relation to information sharing.

We commended, as did my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the example set by authorities that have brought different agencies together into multi-agency hubs to ensure better co-ordination and information sharing between all the professionals involved in child protection. During the inquiry we went to York, where there was the principle that there should be a response to every need. Rather than having a threshold, the aim was to co-ordinate and to ensure that where a need was expressed people could, at the very least, signpost someone to where they could get help and support.

The American social reformer Frederick Douglass said:

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

He was exactly right. As a political class, we must take the hard lessons of recent years to heart as Britain is confronted by a very 21st-century picture of abuse. As well as the themes that I have mentioned, my Committee heard about threats to the welfare of children from new forms of abuse resulting from technology, as well as older forms of abuse newly present in this country such as the evils of human trafficking and female genital mutilation. The challenge of protecting children is constantly changing, and our response needs to be sure-footed and robust.

There are clear signs that Ministers have turned their attention to where the child protection system is failing children, but in our inquiry we were concerned about where the responsibility lies. I hope to hear from Ministers whether there has been a change in responsibility as between the Department for Education and the Home Office. Who exactly is in charge? If there has been a change, how could it have occurred without the Education

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Committee being informed about it? Do we have clarity as to who is responsible, and without that clarity can our children really be safe?

Speaking for myself, not for the Committee, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a strong case for a public inquiry. Such is the level of public disquiet, such are the complexities and challenges of these issues, and such is the need not only to reassure the public but to allow for a public examination of the issues, that nothing short of a public inquiry is required, and it would carry cross-party support. My Committee will undertake follow-up work in connection with our inquiry to assess where we are and what else needs to be done.

1.34 pm

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart). I agree with the points that he and, indeed, previous speakers made—this is a vital debate.

I want to focus on the lessons and the aftermath of the awful crimes uncovered in Oxford in the Bullfinch investigation. We were all shocked and horrified by those crimes, and it is right that those who are guilty are punished and feel the full force of the law. It has to be said, though, that the convictions were just the beginning of the action that needs to be taken.

I welcome the steps that are being taken by the National Group on Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People. No one should underestimate the challenge of pulling together all the Government Departments, agencies, local authorities and outside organisations, including in the private sector, whose commitment, resources and action are needed to provide real focus and drive to this vital work. I hope that this debate can support the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice in having the clout and reach that he will need to force the pace of progress and deliver real change on the ground. I also support the further steps called for in the “Childhood Lost” petition to the Prime Minister by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), which calls for more sensitive court procedures, the publication of serious case reviews, and consistent support across the country for victims of child sexual exploitation.

The Oxford victims, who, as children, should have been protected and cared for, suffered so much and were very brave in giving their evidence. We owe it to them and to all who are at risk to make a mighty effort to prevent such abuse in future.

I have three key points to make. First, the victims and their families are owed a clear explanation of what went wrong; why they were failed; and, where there was fault, who was responsible and what action will be taken about that. It is terrible to think that this went on so long, for years and years, before the hideous reality was uncovered, thanks eventually to police and social services action. It is right that the Thames Valley chief constable and the county council chief executive have apologised for the time it took and are committed to uncover any shortcomings within their organisations.

We have to look to the serious case review as the first step, but, as the independent chair of the Oxfordshire safeguarding board has made clear to me, the prime

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purpose of serious case reviews is to learn lessons to improve work to safeguard and promote children’s welfare. She wrote to me:

“SCRs are not inquiries into how a child died or was seriously harmed, or into who is culpable…Nor are SCRs part of any disciplinary inquiry or process relating to individual practitioners”.

Such action is the responsibility of the relevant organisation, be it the county council, the police, the health service, or whoever. The abuse in these cases went on for a very long time, and some of the staff involved, and those responsible for them, will have retired or otherwise moved on. In its briefing for this debate, Oxfordshire county council says:

“Staff previously employed by the County Council will be interviewed by the Serious Case Review author and will be a matter for the Serious Case Review.”

It seems to me that there may well be a gap in accountability between the ambit of the serious case review and the internal enquiries undertaken by the county council and the police.

I will of course look very carefully at the serious case review and the outcome of the internal reviews. It is crucial that this is all fully transparent and covers every angle. I am sure that the public will want to know what independent involvement and oversight there is of these reviews. We might well, though, need a public inquiry to get to the bottom of how children in care were left so vulnerable and what can be done to take good care of those at risk in future. The police and crime commissioner for Thames valley has already called for a more general public inquiry into how we safeguard children nationally, reflecting remarks, which I support, that have already been made in this debate. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to that.

My second key point is that it is vital that we put in place effective measures to protect children. Children and parents must be educated in the risks and tell-tale signs and have someone to go to for support and advice. We all have a responsibility to report suspicious activity to the police. I welcome the “Say Something If You See Something” toolkit produced by the NWG Network and the Children’s Society to help businesses, as well as the wider community, to play their part.

One good thing to come out of Operation Bullfinch in Oxfordshire is the joint team, the Kingfisher unit, bringing together police, social services, drug and alcohol specialists and the health service in combating child sexual abuse. Another is the work being undertaken with schools to alert children to the dangers of grooming. Steps are also being taken to develop a multi-agency safeguarding hub. I urge colleagues from other areas to find out what is being done in their constituencies. Such initiatives are urgently needed everywhere because, sadly, as is becoming more evident as more cases come to light, grooming and abuse are a significant risk everywhere. Do not let the councils, police, schools and other agencies wait until they have a horror on the scale of Operation Bullfinch to deal with.

My third key point is the question of whether, in social care practice and law, the balance is right between the rights of the child and the duties of parents or those with responsibility for care to safeguard that child. I asked the Library for a briefing on this, because one of the issues of public concern material to the Operation Bullfinch cases is how on earth children can go missing time after time from what supposedly is a place of care,

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even when staff suspect those children are victims of grooming. The Library dug out for me the statutory guidance under the Children Act 1989. Volume 5, which is on care homes, states:

“Staff in children’s homes that are not approved as secure children’s homes should not try to restrain the child or young person simply to stop them from leaving the home.”

Similarly, “Is it legal? A parents’ guide to the law” by the Family and Parenting Institute states:

“A parent cannot stop a child leaving home by locking them in or physically restraining them.”

I told one of our colleagues this and he was shocked that he could not legally ground his teenage daughter.

We have to be careful because, sadly, as other awful cases have shown, abuse sometimes takes place in the family home itself, and no one wants to be in the position of locking the fire escape. Equally, however, it is no good our criticising care workers for their inability to prevent the victims of grooming from going out if we do not give them the power to do so. This needs to be looked at very carefully, to see whether the balance can be shifted more strongly towards allowing those charged with safeguarding to fulfil their responsibilities.

Meg Munn: I am listening carefully to what my right hon. Friend is saying, because this situation is familiar to me from my time working in social services. At that time, secure places were available, which meant that once a child was identified as being at risk, they could be put in secure premises where they were offered support. I am concerned that that provision is not as widely available any more and that that is one of the reasons we find ourselves with the dilemma being described by my right hon. Friend.

Mr Smith: That is precisely the sort of thing I had in mind when I said that we need to look carefully at whether the balance can be shifted towards enabling those with caring responsibilities to fulfil them.

We also need urgently to spread the best practice of those care homes—there are some—that have achieved a lower rate of absconding. The sad reality in many of these grooming cases is that the victims initially want to go out because of the treats and affection, and then later, when they are drugged, abused and threatened, they are too scared not to go out and need protection.

The sad lesson of Operation Bullfinch and similar cases is that while most children can enjoy a childhood free from such horrors, there is a bigger risk of grooming and abuse out there than was previously realised. We know about it now, though, and there is a massive responsibility on us all, both to uncover what has gone wrong and to do our utmost to make sure that every child is safe.

1.44 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I refer the House to my chairmanship of the Justice for Families campaign and of Care Leavers Voice, which is a group of care leavers who are concerned that the voice of care leavers is excluded from the system.

On 14 August Jana Tokolyova, who is the press officer of the Slovak Republic’s equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service, the General Prokuratura, reported that their equivalent of the Director of Public Prosecutions

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had agreed with the deputy director of their national police to appoint a special agent to investigate a criminal complaint by Silivie Maher that relates to care proceedings in the UK.

This is an interesting process, because it is an extra-jurisdictional process. I believe it relates to the Rome statute and, as such, could lead to the end result of members of the Government facing questions about why they have tolerated the amount of malpractice that goes on in care proceedings in England and Wales.

On 5 December 2012 Leicester city council fired a very experienced social worker because she wanted to send a baby home to their mum and dad. Her assessment was that the parents were competent, but Sir Martin Narey and Education Ministers want a rapid movement to adoption—hence, the baby remained in care. This pressure by local authority managers on a social worker to lie to the court is, of course, a criminal offence. However, I think the Slovak Republic is more willing than the police in England to investigate criminality in our courts. Happily, however, on 5 September 2013 the case was set down for a full hearing by an employment tribunal next year.

I have for some time been worried about what I was told by a social worker some years ago, which is that at times the legal aid-funded solicitors for parents conspire with local authority staff in order to ensure that the parents lose. One example where that appears to have happened is that of Jaqcue and John Courtnage, whose two sons were taken into care because one had a lump on his head. The doctors were not sure whether it was because of a fracture or a fissure. The child was neurologically sound, which implies a fissure, but the parents did not see the evidence that it could have been a fissure until after the court had decided in 2010 that it was a fracture, and the question was never considered in any court judgment.

A court order on 30 October 2008 had said that all evidence should be provided to the parents. That did not happen. The hospital provided Derbyshire county council with the information in December 2008, but this did not get to the parents until after the finding of fact hearing of 2010, when they made a subject access request.

The question is whether the council colluded with the parents’ solicitors. Chris Sedgewick of Miles and Cash has been asked about the issue by his client and me. Although he denies the allegation, he has refused to give a detailed response, which confirms to me that Miles and Cash colluded with Derbyshire county council to keep this evidence from the parents.

Additionally, there was a single metaphyseal fracture, but Thomas, Rosenfield, Leventhal and Markowitz found as long ago as 1990 that

“femur fractures often are accidental and that the femur can be fractured when the running child trips and falls.”

Their article can be found on pages 471 to 476 of volume 88, No. 3 of the journal Paediatrics, published on 1 September 1991. Again, here we have an essentially criminal allegation that escapes investigation and prosecution in England, but which could be prosecuted by the Slovak Republic.

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Article 3 of the European convention on human rights was almost certainly engaged with regard to the removal by the police of the newborn baby that appeared in the video that Staffordshire county council failed to injunct last Friday. Interestingly, Mrs Courtnage assisted the father in resisting imprisonment at an earlier stage. Was the action of removing the newborn baby inevitable, and therefore permissible under article 3, or even necessary, under article 8? The risk is future emotional abuse. The authority accepts that the parents are no immediate risk to their child. Why, then, take this action? The Government are moving towards removing such babies and immediately placing them with adoptive families. This does not appear to me to fit with traditional English family law or the European convention on human rights.

I have mentioned Toni McLeod before. She featured in the Sunday Express because Durham wanted to take her unborn baby into care because she went on an English Defence League demonstration. She went to Ireland. Sadly, the Health Service Executive in Ireland is now trying to force back to England all the family court refugees. More recently she returned to England and was refused permission to appeal. The case reference is [2013] EWCA Civ 1007. In paragraph 10, the court said

“Happily, on one basis, this case is not about a mother who is incompetent or unable to provide ordinary, good enough or even good physical and practical care for her children. Unhappily, and frustratingly for all involved, I dare say, particularly the mother and the children, the concern about the mother's ability to parent is more subtle and harder to pinpoint, but it arises from her personality and the potential for the children to be upset by unpredictable actions or words that she may from time to time exhibit.”

There are still parents leaving the UK to escape the system. I know of two pregnant mothers who have done so: one has gone to France and the other to live with a Belgian social worker, who is appalled at what is being done in England and is therefore willing to look after a mother and child at home.

I welcome the work of Sir James Munby. He is a good appointment to the challenging task of president and his initial practice directions have been good. However, the Government remain complacent and Parliament should really look at the individual cases. The care system continues not to be accountable. The independent reviewing officer will never be independent while they are on the payroll of the local authority.

The case of Jimmy Savile have been raised by various people. What is not widely known, although it is in the public domain, is that a journalist, Leah McGrath Goodman, aimed to go to Jersey to investigate what had happened in 2011 before it became public. However, she was banned by the UK Border Agency. With some effort from me, the ban was removed and she received a visa earlier this year. She has now been to Jersey, but the issues are already in the public domain. The CCTV that might explain the basis on which somebody was prevented from investigating a serious case of child abuse that came out at a later stage has still not been provided. The Government need to provide some answers on that issue.

I wrote to all the embassies this year asking whether somebody would like to come to a meeting in the House of Commons to discuss problems with child protection. Fifty-nine people came, representing 30 countries. Although

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not all those countries have complained formally, we should recognise that there are serious concerns about how the system operates.

Child protection is a complex process that covers a wide range of circumstances. There are some very good practitioners and lawyers who work in the area. As I said, Sir James Munby is a very good judge. However, there is also bad practice. If we tolerate the bad practice, we undermine the more competent people. It is therefore important to look at the wider issues.

In a sense, there is a constitutional problem. When hon. Members receive complaints from their constituents and write to the Minister, the Minister says, “We don’t comment on individual cases.” Unless we are able to look at the details of individual cases and see whether there are collective problems, we cannot be certain what is going on. I know that the system does a very good job at times, but it also does a very bad job at times. We are not looking at the process systematically.

Ministers say, “We want more children to be adopted.” That message goes to council leaders who talk to their cabinet member for children’s services. The cabinet member talks to the senior managers and they talk to the more junior managers. The social worker who wants to send a child home then gets fired. I have also heard of a council that, because the expert witness recommended that a child be reunited with their parents, would not pay for the expert witness’s report. That pressure on people to go in a particular direction is driven unintentionally by the Government. I am not saying that the Government intend to achieve that, but that is what is happening on the ground.

Mr Graham Stuart: I am working hard to follow my hon. Friend’s argument. There will undoubtedly be injustice in the system, as there is in any system. However, the case that he talked about in which a social worker in Leicester was fired for wanting to send a child home seems incredible. Will he say more about it?

John Hemming: I have the defence that Leicester city council made to the employment tribunal. I can give the hon. Gentleman a copy of it. The defence was, “We told her not to send the child home, but she wanted to do that, so we fired her.” That went to appeal and the councillors in the authority endorsed the process.

This is a question of the balance in the civil procedure rules for expert witnesses. Social workers are expert witnesses and they provide assessments. If their assessments are driven by management priorities, they are not following their duty to the court. In fact, they are driven by management priorities a lot of the time. Another error that the Government are making is to reduce the use of independent social workers. Although the repeat player prejudice can be a problem, an independent social worker is not necessarily managerially driven to come to certain conclusions, whereas employees of the council often are. Civil servants make the error of assuming that an assessment is the same, whatever the managerial pressure on the person who made it. The Lashin v. Russia case considered the question of expert evidence and concluded clearly that such evidence has to be produced by somebody who has no interest in the outcome or the conclusion of the case, otherwise they are untrustworthy.

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I am coming up to my 10 minutes, so I will draw my remarks to a close. The fundamental issue is the quality of expert evidence. Much of the expert evidence is driven by the management priorities of the local authority. That is why there are many very bad cases. The Education Committee could look at individual cases, as could the Justice Committee. I have made my point, so I shall sit down.

1.55 pm

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for consistently pushing hard to ensure that the House does not forget these important issues and that we make progress on them.

I echo the concern of the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) that the Department for Education is not responding to this debate. However, I am pleased to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), has arrived on the Front Bench and is listening to the debate.

Since the tragic death of Victoria Climbié nearly a decade ago, it has been widely accepted that child protection is everybody’s responsibility and that, necessarily, all central and local government departments have a role in keeping children safe. Child protection policy is fragmented across different Departments including the Department for Education, the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is important that there is a strong lead Department so that a drive comes from somewhere in Government to ensure that the voices, needs and views of children are never forgotten.

I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, who said that child protection is primarily about education, awareness, early intervention and prevention, and that it should therefore sit with the Minister with responsibility for child protection in the Department that is responsible for children. Will the Minister confirm that the Department for Education is still responsible for such children or whether it has abandoned its child protection responsibilities altogether? The confusion is deeply concerning. Is the Home Office now the lead Department or not?

Mr Graham Stuart: Under the heading, “Who is responsible for child protection?” the Education Committee report stated:

“It is everyone’s responsibility…In Government terms, child protection in England is the overall responsibility of the Department for Education, which issues both statutory and non-statutory guidance”.

Would the hon. Lady, like me, welcome an intervention from a Minister to confirm that that is still the case or whether the situation has changed?

Lisa Nandy: I would welcome that.