Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Carmarthenshire has a very proud history. Some say it has a claim to be the birthplace of Welsh democracy, which is a reference to Carmarthenshire’s role in delivering a yes vote for the National Assembly in the successful 1997 referendum. However, a dark cloud has been hanging over local democracy in Carmarthenshire for far too long, with a ruling cabal of senior officials and executive board members repressively running the council, stopping democratic debate by the full council, pressurising local journalists, smearing opposition politicians, coercing a council chair who dared defy instruction and making financial arrangements to enable the chief executive, a man who earns almost £4,000 a week, to avoid paying

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his fair share of tax. A seemingly permanent back-room deal between Labour and so-called independent councillors—or the closet Tories as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) describes them—means elections are unlikely to lead to political change. At the last local authority elections, my party won the largest number of seats convincingly, achieving over 10,000 more votes than our Labour opponents. It is the same discredited personnel at the helm, however.

Given the number of mentions that Carmarthenshire has had in the Private Eye “Rotten Boroughs” column, one might think that the executive board members would have got the message. However, unrepentant, the council and the executive board are moving towards darker waters. That is what happens when we have a toxic combination of weak executive board councillors and powerful senior officers. The warnings relating to recent events could not have been clearer. Local papers have lost advertising revenue, which could bankrupt their businesses, for daring to criticise executive board decisions. We have seen the steady erosion of the democratic process, with powers being taken away from councillors and put into the hands of unelected officers, and with the executive board rubber-stamping decisions and, to all intents and purposes, operating as the political wing of those senior officers.

In the past month, a report from the independent Wales Audit Office has found that the executive board was guilty of sanctioning two unlawful payments for the benefit of the chief executive. Those payments totalled more than £50,000. One relates to the granting of a legal indemnity which enabled the chief executive to counter-sue a local blogger. The second relates to a tax dodge involving the redirection of pension contributions into the pocket of the chief executive. The report was damning, and any politician with a sense of integrity would have done the honourable thing and instigated an urgent investigation into the implicated officers before resigning on the spot themselves. Instead, we got a deliberate propaganda campaign from the publicly financed press department of the council to discredit the Wales Audit Office, and threats and smears against opposition politicians.

Last week, the people of Carmarthenshire were subjected to a farcical extraordinary meeting to discuss the Wales Audit Office report. The executive board commissioned a QC, at a potential cost of thousands of pounds to Carmarthenshire ratepayers, to discredit the Wales Audit Office’s findings and protect its leaders from votes of no confidence.

This has all been happening at a time when the executive board is pushing through huge cuts to council services and increasing council tax by almost 5%. The Labour party in Carmarthenshire is pushing through the privatisation of care services, increasing charges for school meals, reducing assessments for children with special needs, making financial cuts to welfare advice services and extending and increasing charges for social care, as well as introducing a range of other regressive measures.

It is a matter of pressing concern that, despite being relieved of his duties, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire county council will continue to be the local returning officer for the forthcoming European elections. The Electoral Commission has confirmed that position. I fail to understand how an individual who is no longer at

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his desk due to a police investigation can be responsible for the democratic processes in my county. The same applies in Pembrokeshire, unless events in that great county have changed the situation today, and I ask for immediate ministerial intervention.

4.32 pm

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this debate, and I fully endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) has just said.

My party wants Wales to be an independent country. We know that will take time—we just have to accept that—but that is no reason to abandon the aim. Some Members will be familiar with the Welsh saying, “Ara’ deg mae dal iâr”, which means “You catch hens slowly.” We, the Welsh, have been here on these islands for a very long time—independent for most of the centuries, incorporated for the rest—and we are not going anywhere any time soon. We therefore need to discuss this among ourselves, as a self-aware nation, and agree on what power we want.

In this context, the examples from the mainland of Europe and from Scotland are useful and instructive. Last night, I was talking to the Catalan counsel general. The Catalans have been told by Madrid that they cannot hold a referendum on independence. One Spanish politician went so far as to threaten them with military occupation if they dared to press for their freedom. So hundreds of individual communes have instead held local referendums, which demonstrated overwhelming support for independence. We also saw the extraordinary demonstration in Barcelona last year, when more than 1 million people crowded the streets of the capital to call for independence. A national referendum is due there in the autumn, and we will watch the outcome with interest. I have also been talking to the Basques. There, the peace process has made great strides, but the Government in Madrid are now dragging their heels. Getting the peace process on track there is vital to greater autonomy, which is perhaps why the Madrid Government are acting in that way.

In Scotland, to the disgust and dismay of some politicians in this place and commentators in the City, and to the delight of others, our colleagues in the Scottish National party are defining what it means to rule themselves while retaining an inter-dependence of equals in these islands and on this continent. The SNP’s opponents cry, “Foul! Not fair! If you want independence it must be on our terms.” Politics and international politics are about negotiation, as we are seeing in Paris and Brussels today. In Wales, we have a problem with taking responsibility—some of us are too resigned to being victims. I will say this for now: power to spend without the responsibility of raising the money is corrosive, as we have seen in Wales, and to the extent that the draft Wales Bill leads us to take responsibility for ourselves it is much to be welcomed.

The shadow Secretary of State, speaking as a historian, said of the decline of Wales:

“I attribute it to 150 years of history, industry, the legacy of change, the demographics of our country, the distance from London and the simple truth that Wales has a greater relative

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need than many parts of England, which requires a greater degree of expenditure.”—[

Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee,

23 January 2013; c.21.]

That is all very germane, but hon. Members will have noted immediately that this statement contains no agency. These woes appear have been visited upon us passively— by accident almost. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) is not unsophisticated; he knows full well that historical events do not just happen. So I look forward to our debates on the Wales Bill and perhaps a more piercing analysis of our predicament from those on the Opposition Front Bench. Who knows, a clearer analysis might even lead them to change their stance, which is seen by many here and in Wales as one of delay at all costs.

4.36 pm

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): This is the Welsh affairs debate, but we are also today considering the role of women, so I wish to spend time looking at the role of women in Wales. MPs had the opportunity today to invite a young person—a young girl—from our constituency to join us, to shadow politicians and to see how we worked. That is very important and Amy Edwards, a young girl from Bryntiriion comprehensive school in Bridgend, spent the day with me. I asked that school to send someone because I was particularly impressed by the young girls there and their eagerness to participate in political discussion and debate, and to ask for more information and to gain greater understanding.

I was horrified when I saw the Equality and Human Rights Commission report “Who runs Wales?” I do not know how many hon. Members have seen it, but it sets out a clear message that Wales remains a country where those taking the major decisions that have an impact on all of us remain, overwhelmingly, men. We need to set clear targets for public and private sector board appointments. We need to make sure that our women are educated so that they can take on the positions; so that different issues will be discussed and different viewpoints heard; so that we reflect the whole of the population of Wales; and so that politicians are in tune with the population we serve. We have a wealth of talent in Wales, but sadly we are still neglecting nearly 50% of it.

In Wales, only 28% of police officers are women, but it gets worse at the top, where only 12% of chief constables are women; 77% of those working in health are women, but only 10% of health chief executives are women; 72% of people in local authorities are women, but only 18% of local authority chief executives are women. Teaching is no way to the top for women either, because 75% of all schoolteachers are women, but only 57% of head teachers are women. Even in the third sector only 36% of the leadership are women. The media are no better, with only 33% of senior management teams being women and only 22% of the editors of our daily newspapers and weekly nationals being women. The figure for the trade unions is only 36%. We must recognise that in the history of Welsh politics—since 1536—there have been only 13 female MPs. It is only because the Labour party used all-women shortlists that Labour has now increased its number of female MPs. Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives, from whom we have heard a great deal today about their aspirations for Wales, have never had a woman MP for Wales.

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We are about to lose two important women MPs from the Labour Benches. I look forward to having two, if not more, female MPs representing Wales, so that the voice of the women in Wales can be heard from these Benches and we can clearly represent the whole of Wales.

4.40 pm

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this debate today. It has been an extraordinarily wide-ranging debate, as is traditionally the case with St David’s day debates. Many Members rightly highlighted the importance of having time in this House to debate the issues of Wales. I think that we can all agree that in the past three years, insufficient time has been spent on debating Welsh matters. Ignorance of the realities in Wales has perhaps grown in this House as a result. I hope that we have done something today to redress that imbalance and to shed some light on the issues, as I hope to do in my short remarks.

My hon. Friend made a particularly enlightening and topical opening to today’s debate. He talked about the need to reflect the fact that people in Wales have shared identities in that they are both Welsh citizens and British citizens. Indeed, they can play rugby for Wales and for the British Lions—they can captain either team and still feel themselves to be British and Welsh. That is something that I feel very strongly about and that I hope everyone in this House supports. My hon. Friend also said that we need to capitalise on the great economic strengths of our country, and especially on the energy and tourism potential of Wales. I entirely endorse all that he said in that regard.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) reminded us of the history of the St David’s day debate. He even told us that this was the day of St Colette, the patron saint of pregnant women. At this point, I cannot help but congratulate Kate Groucutt, who is pregnant and leaving my office. She has been the special adviser to the Welsh Affairs team over the past few years.

More importantly, but slightly surreally, my right hon. Friend talked about the problems in his constituency of head shops, which sell legal highs. The problem is massive and growing in communities such as his and mine, and we must get to grips with it notwithstanding the difficulties of legislating in this complicated area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) talked about the economy of Wales, and highlighted two issues in her constituency that have wider implications and ramifications across the UK. The first was the loss of steel jobs at the Orb works, due to the inordinately high energy prices that companies in Britain are paying compared with their European competitors. I am sure that we all understand that we need to get to grips with that matter not just for individual consumers of energy in this country but for vital foundational industries.

The second was the problem of offshore jobs. My hon. Friend highlighted the irony of a Government who claim to be seeking to reshore jobs overseeing the offshoring of Government jobs in the Ministry of Justice shared services centre in Newport. You could not make it up, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is what is happening.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) raised the important issue of truancy and called for improvements in the way in which our schools deal with challenging children in Britain, and I entirely agree with him. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) also talked about the economy and threw his weight behind the proposal for a motor sport track and arena in Blaenau Gwent, and I support him on that, as I know the Secretary of State does. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) talked about women in Wales and the need for others to promote the talents of women within Wales. She highlighted the fact that the Labour party has done that in the National Assembly, where women make up almost 45% of all groups, and here in Westminster, where the Labour party stands alone in having a significant proportion of female members—32% of the current parliamentary Labour party. We need more, but it is a good start and better than what we are seeing from the Government.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) talked about local government and the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) talked about devolution and suggested that I should be sophisticated and enlightening when addressing it myself, and I shall seek to do so at an appropriate moment.

Government Members told us that they wanted to be respectful and positive—I think those were the words—about Wales and then failed to offer a single respectful and positive word; that was certainly the case for the Conservative Members. There were a number of positive remarks made by Liberal Democrat Members, such as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who congratulated the Welsh Government on their investment in flood defences in Wales; £4 million has been invested, in distinct contradiction to the direction of travel in Westminster where we have seen £97 million cut from flood defences, as confirmed last week by the Office for National Statistics. Perhaps that is why we did not see the same degree of problems in Wales as we did elsewhere.

The hon. Members for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) were particularly jaundiced in their view of Wales and highlighted the volume of column inches about what they saw as poor public service performance. They bemoaned the fact that Wales was getting such bad press, but they know full well why Wales is getting a bad press and it is not because of the performance of Welsh public services and certainly not a fair representation—

Alun Cairns: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Owen Smith: I am not going to give way—[Interruption.] No, I will not give way, because I—[Interruption.] Okay, I will give way once.

Alun Cairns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but mortality rates, cancer waiting times and A and E access are just three examples; diagnostics in the health service are another. Those are fundamental issues that are dominating the UK newspapers because of poor performance in Wales. Is that not a sad situation?

Owen Smith: If the hon. Gentlemen can point to a hospital in Wales in which there are higher levels of unexpected mortality than he thinks there ought to be, I will listen seriously to him. However, he has not offered that—

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Alun Cairns: The Princess of Wales.

Owen Smith: He says the Princess of Wales, where risk adjusted mortality indices improved by more than 20% over the past three years. We have seen significant improvements in mortality indices in Wales and he will know that people cannot do what he and his colleagues have done—and worse, what the Prime Minister has done on 29 occasions in this House—and take out of context extraordinarily complex mortality statistics and use them as a means to smear the Welsh NHS. Only this week, I was confronted with the reality of that smear campaign when I was contacted by members of the Welsh NHS work force to ask me—

Alun Cairns: The unions.

Owen Smith: No, it was not a union. Somebody working in the NHS contacted me on their own behalf to ask what they could do to stop the Tories’ smear campaign dragging the reputation of the Welsh NHS through the mud. Members do not need to take my word for it; they could take the words of doctors in Wales. The British Medical Association in Wales said very clearly that this was “a wicked”—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary says from a sedentary position that this is about the trade unions, implying that it is somehow connected to the Labour party. He knows that that is not the case; he knows—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. We do not raise matters from a sedentary position. The hon. Gentleman is about to conclude.

Owen Smith: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The BMA has said that the claims are a “wicked slander”, perpetrated by people in whose interests it is to undermine the NHS, to perpetuate the myth that there is significantly worse performance in the NHS in Wales, compared with England. It is not true, it has not been true in the past and it will not be true in the future. What is true is that Welsh workers and the Welsh people are suffering lower wages, higher job insecurity, higher energy prices and greater difficulties as a result of this Government’s economic mismanagement of this country. In contrast, the Labour Government in Wales have delivered economically. They have delivered a lower unemployment rate in Wales than in the UK as a whole. I conclude by congratulating them on that.

4.50 pm

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr David Jones): May I take this opportunity to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, a belated happy St David’s day? It is, in fact, the end of St David’s week. I commend the Backbench Business Committee and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for recognising the importance of having such a debate and securing it. I echo what he said about the importance of being proud of our dual national identity—being both Welsh and British. It is something he understands, I understand, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) understands and clearly, and most importantly, Sam Warburton understands.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn focused his contribution largely on the economy, and rightly so. One of the joys of this office is that I have the privilege of travelling the length and breadth of Wales, meeting some of our

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world-leading companies, visiting the small and medium-sized enterprises that are very much the backbone of our economy and hearing inspirational stories of lives that have been transformed by securing employment.

Wales has a proud industrial history. At the height of the industrial revolution, Wales was at the forefront of technological advances. It retains many innovative industries, from large multinationals, such as Airbus and Tata Steel, to small but dynamic niche market companies, such as Torquing in Pembroke Dock. We must have a thriving private sector, confident to create employment opportunities, innovate and expand into new markets.

If Wales is to be a country where companies grow, invest and take on new people, the Government must create the right conditions to allow that to happen. That means cutting business taxes, reducing red tape and fixing the banking system. As a consequence of the measures we have put in place, corporation tax in the UK will be down to 20% in 2015, the lowest in the G20, and our red tape challenge means that by the end of this Parliament there will be fewer regulatory burdens on businesses than there were when we came to power in 2010. All that is good for Welsh businesses, but if we are really to succeed, we need the Welsh Government to work with us here in Westminster.

In order to compete in a global market, we must also ensure that Wales has a highly skilled and educated work force. However, the recent PISA results, which my hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) quite properly touched on, show that in education Wales is sadly falling further behind the rest of the UK and is internationally uncompetitive. The First Minister recently admitted that the Welsh Government had taken their eye off the ball on education in Wales. Well, admission of fault is a start, but what parents and employers now want to see, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan said, is an early start on improving educational outcomes in Wales.

Crucial to economic success is infrastructure. This Government recognise the importance of high-quality infrastructure in a modern economy. Despite the difficult economic circumstances we inherited, we have made it a priority to invest in infrastructure upgrade. We have invested in energy, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn kindly acknowledged, in transport infrastructure, with the electrification of the south Wales railway lines, and in first-class broadband, with an announcement of £57 million of investment and, most recently, another £12 million to ensure that the hardest-to-reach locations will be served. Once completed, we will have achieved a truly remarkable transformation. Wales will be part of one of the finest broadband networks in Europe.

Hon. Members made a number of important points that I would like to deal with as far as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth is concerned about more powers for the Welsh Assembly, which I found quite surprising, coming from him. Nevertheless, we will shortly introduce the Wales Bill, which will give additional powers to the Welsh Assembly and, most importantly, will introduce for the first time a degree of accountability on the part of the Welsh Government for the money they spend. That can only be a good thing, and was welcomed by several hon. Members.

The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) raised the important issue of legal highs. It is not new, and I remember raising precisely the same issue with his

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right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) when he was Home Secretary. This is a priority. We are working across Government and with delivery partners to tackle the elicit supply of and demand for legal highs. Legislation is only part of the solution and we are targeting those drugs on all fronts.

We are seeking to reduce demand by raising awareness of their dangers not only among those who take them, but among family members and parents in particular, making it difficult to obtain and supply them, and ensuring that statutory services can provide effective treatment and recovery. I do not in any way seek to downplay the significance of the problem. I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) raised the issue of mid-Wales. He said that it needs better treatment, and that it is a battle to develop awareness of it. As someone who is married to a lady from mid-Wales, I would not seek to overlook that part of the world. I agree with him entirely about cross-border routes which, as he knows, we are working on.

The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) also spoke about legal highs, and raised the important issues of Avana bakeries and the Orb steelworks on which my office is engaged, as she knows. I fully understand the concern she expressed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) raised the issue of the recent storm damage and specifically whether the Assembly Government had made a request for assistance under the EU solidarity fund. Some inquiries were made by the Assembly Government with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but no direct request for assistance was made.

The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) raised the important issue of exclusions. I refer him to a constituent of mine, Colette Ryan, a teacher at ysgol Emrys ap Iwan in Abergele and an inspirational lady. I would be pleased to discuss the matter with him at a later time.

There were other important contributions and I apologise to hon. Members for not dealing with them specifically

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because of shortage of time. I am sure that hon. Members across the House are united in their desire that Wales should become more prosperous, more successful and, most of all, that we should continue to be proud to be Welsh.

4.58 pm

Albert Owen: May I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, a canny Scot with an English constituency, for impartially overseeing our debate on Welsh affairs? I was proud to move the debate and to be a co-sponsor with the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who could not be with us today because of a pre-arranged engagement.

We had 12 Back-Bench contributions and two Front-Bench winding-up speeches, all of them valuable. The debate was over-subscribed, which is proof that we need an annual full-day Welsh debate in the House. The Leader of the House is in his place and taking the issues on board.

I teased the Chamber about the anti-European views of Conservative Back Benchers and the pro-independence view of Plaid Cymru. The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) did not disappoint in his contribution. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) suggested that Welsh Members are victims. I see us as full participants, not victims in any way.

When the Secretary of State talked about broadband in Wales, he gave a great example of where the Welsh Government are leading on such matters, working with the UK Government, with funds from the European Union, and with the private sector. We are all working together for the good of Wales. We in this House must be proud of our Welshness and of the fact that we are an integral part of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, as well as pro-Europeans. In May, if you want a pro-Welsh, pro-British, pro-European party, vote Labour.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Welsh affairs.

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Carpet Waste Fire (Thrunton)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amber Rudd.)

5 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The story I have to put to the Minister this afternoon is one of gross disregard for the environment and for my constituents, inadequate regulation by the Environment Agency, and deplorable political pressure on the authorities not to act to protect my constituents. In raising this issue, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for the personal interest they have taken in it since I raised it with them.

A fire of carpet waste has burned for almost six months on the site of an old brickworks at Thrunton in my constituency. The site is alongside the busy A697, and adjoining or close to it are 26 houses, some of them built for the brickworks’ staff. Some time after it closed in 2010, the owner, Mr Blythe, who has done everything he could to help deal with the situation, made it available to Blackwater (North East) Ltd for waste carpet storage, relying on the company to obtain and comply with the necessary approvals.

During the afternoon of 3 September 2013, the waste carpet at Thrunton caught fire. Fire crews rushed to the scene and started trying to tackle the fire. There was an enormous amount of smoke from the fire, completely blocking the adjacent A697. Traffic was diverted. The stench could be smelled up to 15 miles away, beyond Alnwick and Rothbury. Local residents shut their windows and doors and were told to stay inside. The fire quickly spread to bales of carpet both inside and outside the buildings where they were stored. Pouring water on the fire was cooling the outer surface of the burning carpet, but then a hard crust was forming and the water was running off, leaving the fire alight inside the bales. The building that housed some of the bales, part of the former brickworks, partly collapsed. Due to the volume of water and the lie of the land, the water running off from the fire crews’ efforts was also threatening the neighbouring watercourses and fishing lake.

The bales of carpet had been stored outside the area where they were permitted to be kept, which meant that instead of being on a hard concrete area, they were on porous ground that could soak up the contaminated run-off water. That ground covers the natural aquifer where water collects and feeds the local spring, which supplies water to the properties at Thrunton. Such was the danger to this supply that the control team decided that the fire could not be put out and would have to be managed while it burned itself out. The fire was finally judged to be out in the second week of February 2014.

There have been regular inspections of the site by officers from Northumberland’s fire and rescue service, the Environment Agency, the environmental health department, and Public Health England, as well as my own staff. A misting system was installed to damp down the fire, but that was problematic, and there had been several attempts to get it in place before November.

The landowner, Mr Blythe, has been proactively managing the fire himself throughout. Wearing breathing apparatus and using a digger, he has, with the agreement of the fire service, removed the burnt material from the fire that is outside the building and dampened it in

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the pools of water which had run off from the fire. Paying a contractor to do this work would have cost tens of thousands of pounds. Without Mr Blythe’s efforts, it is thought that the fire could have burned for two years longer. The operating company did nothing. The fire inside the building continues to burn. A multi-agency incident control team was set up involving Northumberland’s environmental health department, the fire service, the Environment Agency, and Public Health England.

Residents naturally wanted to know what substances they were being exposed to, and what the short, medium and long-term effects could be. The assurances they were given were hard to accept when they were having to keep their windows and doors shut at all times, turn off ventilation systems, and make alternative arrangements for drying their washing. We repeatedly asked for smoke testing but did not get it until January, nearly five months after the fire broke out. This lengthy battle over different issues has added unnecessarily to the stress and worry for my constituents.

The burnt material remains on site, and there is a continuing risk of contamination of local watercourses. One of the ongoing issues throughout this sorry saga has been who takes responsibility for removing the burnt material. Throughout the process, residents have been assured that it would be removed. At one point the Environment Agency proposed that the cost of waste removal could be shared with the county council, but the county council argued that responsibility for issuing the permits and for monitoring and enforcing them was held by the Environment Agency and so it should act to deal with the consequences.

The landlord has been left with about 3,000 tonnes of burnt material. To clear the site would cost at least £200,000. It will cost £500,000 if the waste analysis code requires it to be treated as hazardous, which is not yet clear.

The Environment Agency has resisted all calls for it to take action to clear the site and charge Blackwater, the operator, with the cost. It argues that the site operator should be given the opportunity to rectify the situation. I fear there is little hope of that happening. What confidence can we have that Blackwater will do anything? It has done nothing at all to deal with the fire or the pollution it has caused.

I turn now to the Environment Agency’s lack of enforcement of permit conditions. Blackwater’s business model involves taking waste carpet from a number of sources to be shredded and baled and then reused to surface equestrian arenas. It had a further plan, which never got anywhere, to make briquettes from a blend of carpet and wood bound with paraffin wax for biomass power stations.

On 21 June 2011, Blackwater was awarded a permit to operate as a

“Household, commercial and industrial waste transfer station with treatment”.

The first breaches of the permit were identified when the Environment Agency inspected the site in July 2011. It gave advice and guidance. There were subsequent breaches in September and December 2011 and March 2012. In fact, the first time there was an inspection that did not record any breaches was on 6 July 2012—but actually there was a breach. Material previously stored

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outside had been moved to storage bays, but those bays had been put up on part of the site that was outside the area covered by the permit—yet the agency accepted that.

From February 2013, the situation at the site deteriorated quickly, and the landlord became increasingly concerned about the breaches. In early February 2013, when he complained to the Environment Agency, it said that the site would be inspected in the next few weeks and that

“the landlord’s patience would be appreciated”.

At a site visit in March 2013, officials saw the waste being stored outside the shed in excess of the permitted tonnage by a large amount. On 20 March, they asked the operator for an action plan with a deadline of 3 April 2013 to deal with the issue. On 17 April, they agreed a new deadline. Blackwater then advised the Environment Agency that it would be relocating, but it did not. An action plan was received on 23 May, more than seven weeks after the original deadline. There is no approved management system in place for the site.

Too often it seems that the Environment Agency has accepted at face value information given to it by Blackwater. Deadlines passed and seem simply to have been revised. Storage bays were in place, but they were not within the area covered by the permit. The business was going to move, but it did not. Breaches of permit conditions were also identified at the business’s other site at Milfield, near Wooler in my constituency.

This company has been paid about £60 a tonne to take waste carpet, which has been stockpiled in amounts far greater than allowed and outside the areas for which the permit was given. There was only a very limited end-of-waste agreement. Complaints were made to the Environment Agency by Mr Blythe, his solicitors and neighbouring residents about Blackwater’s operations. The Environment Agency has now told me that it is pursuing enforcement action against Blackwater, but what was it doing before? Was it under any pressure to go easy on Blackwater?

It took a parliamentary question to establish that only one representation called on the Environment Agency not to take enforcement action, and it took a freedom of information request to get sight of the e-mail and careful study of the documents to establish who had sent it, because names are redacted. The e-mail reads:

“Hi Owen…See below from the excellent business which I sent you the EA papers for after your trip to Northumberland.

As you can see below the EA are trying to shut the business down even though its their non-processing of the licences which is the cause.

Time is of the essence now for financial reasons—please can you update me on any progress with EA? I am in London on tuesday and wednesday morning next week if we needed to meet.

Your urgent assistance in this is much appreciated.”

The Secretary of State did not reply until 5 August. His letter was headed by hand, “Dear Anne-Marie”, which somebody forgot to redact, which made it quite clear that the Conservative prospective candidate for the Berwick constituency had called on the Environment Agency to go easy on the company, which she thought was “excellent”, but was engaged in a serial failure to comply with environmental requirements. In fact, the Secretary of State detailed some of the failures in his letter, and urged that the company should work closely with the Environment Agency. It was an appalling

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failure of judgment for a political candidate to attempt to put pressure on the Environment Agency to go easy on a company flouting permit conditions, which are there to protect my constituents. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Department did nothing as a result of that representation to pressure the Environment Agency not to carry out its enforcement responsibilities.

The fact remains that the Environment Agency was, through its lack of enforcement, allowing the company to store combustible waste in ways which were bound to make a fire much more serious. I have asked the Environment Agency to clear the site and then claim against Blackwater’s public liability insurance, but it is not willing to attempt that course. Apparently, the Environment Agency would be happy to advise Mr Blythe on how best he could clear the site, but that would mean Mr Blythe having to find the funds to do so—up to £500,000—and then making a claim against Blackwater’s insurance, which might take years to settle.

If Blackwater fails to clear the site, its permit may well be revoked, but in that case, the problem would become one of contaminated land. The liability for restoring the land—in other words, for removing the burnt waste—might fall on Mr Blythe, as the landowner, and enforcement action could be taken against him for failing to deal with the contamination, despite all his work to try to deal with it. Is that fair? Of course it is not. I therefore ask the Minister to discuss that aspect of the problem with the Environment Agency.

Blackwater has apparently shown its bank statements to the Environment Agency, and has said that the business has no money to fund a clean-up operation. The company should have received well over £600,000 for taking carpet for recycling, yet no funds were set aside for dealing with the aftermath of potential disasters. Should there not be a bond system, such as existed until 2003, so that money is available for emergency clean-ups, given the increasing number of waste fires around the country? All the Environment Agency now does is to check the financial competence of the operator, a system which completely failed in this case. If something is not done, many more people will suffer as my constituents have done. I ask the Minister to see what he can do to get a happier outcome from this sorry story.

5.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): Following our Welsh colleagues’ deliberations to mark St David’s day, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you and the House gool Peran lowen—a happy St Piran’s day—for yesterday, on behalf of Cornish colleagues.

I was horrified to hear the story that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has shared with us. He has raised it several times in this place and elsewhere, and he is absolutely right to do so. The issues are very serious, and his points about the regulation of the Blackwater (North East) Ltd waste site are crucial ones for us to bear in mind as we consider the regulatory framework across the country.

I recognise how diligently my right hon. Friend has represented the interests of his constituents, many of whom have endured significant disruption to their lives and have had to contend with fears about the health effects of the fumes from the fire. I also recognise and commend the work of the site’s landowners, Mr and

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Mrs Blythe, in helping to extinguish the fire and to prevent pollution from the extinguished waste, as my right hon. Friend set out.

I welcome reports that the firefighting strategy and actions taken to control the run-off of firewater have so far proved effective and have prevented the contamination of both surface water and groundwater. I understand that Public Health England has advised that it does not expect there to be any long-term health effects from the fire.

My right hon. Friend rightly wants to know when his constituents will be rid of the waste operation, and when the stored waste will be removed. The site must now be returned to a condition that does not pose a continuing risk to the local community and the environment. The primary legal responsibility for that sits firmly with Blackwater, as the holder of the environmental permit. The site operator must meet his responsibility to clear the site and make it safe. As my right hon. Friend said, the landowners, Mr and Mrs Blythe, are calling for the Environment Agency to remove the residual waste from the site. The full cost of removing and disposing of the waste is estimated to be in the region of £635,000. Clearly, the removal of the stored waste must be a priority for all concerned.

I understand that there were early signs that the operator of the site was co-operating with the Environment Agency to address the breaches of his permit. However, as my right hon. Friend will be aware, the agency found it necessary to serve an enforcement notice on Blackwater on 10 January 2014. The notice required the company to comply with its environmental permit by removing all the extinguished waste by 24 February.

The site operator has utterly failed to comply with the notice. As a result, the Environment Agency is gathering evidence and has called the operator to a formal interview under caution to answer allegations of non-compliance, which could lead to prosecution or other enforcement action, including a court order to clear the site. If the operator is prosecuted, he should face the full consequences of his failings.

The seriousness of environmental offences and their environmental and economic impact has been recognised and embodied in the Sentencing Council’s definitive guideline on environmental offences, which was published last week. In following the guideline, it is hoped that courts will reflect the true cost of breaches of environmental legislation when sentencing offenders and that that will act as a strong deterrent.

As my right hon. Friend has indicated, the Environment Agency has discretionary powers that enable it to take action and recover costs.

Sir Alan Beith: I took part in the framing of the sentencing guidelines and hope that they will provide strong guidance if the matter comes to court. The Minister has referred to the recent decision to take enforcement action. Will he deal later in his remarks with the extraordinarily long period of inaction between 2011 and 2013?

Dan Rogerson: I assure my right hon. Friend that I will talk about the discussions that I have had with the Environment Agency on earlier intervention in sites that may cause a problem or that are causing alarm.

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In the first instance, the Environment Agency is encouraging the operator and the landowner to liaise with their respective insurers so that the cost of clearing and disposing of the waste does not add to the significant costs that have been incurred by the public purse in responding to the incident and in the subsequent pollution monitoring. Given the potential cost that I have set out, we must do everything that we can to avoid it being borne by the public purse. We face many challenges and the Environment Agency is doing a great deal of work across a range of issues, not least as a result of the recent extreme weather events. We must not leap up to incur these costs because they would have an impact on the budget of the Environment Agency or the local authority that intervened.

More generally, I hope that it will reassure my right hon. Friend to hear that I have been working with the Environment Agency and others to consider how we might prevent problems like those at Thrunton from arising, so that we do not have to take lengthy and costly remedial action. I met the chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith of Finsbury, and its chief executive, Dr Paul Leinster, late last year to discuss these matters, following my appointment as Minister in October. I will do so again shortly.

The agency is under a duty to ensure that site operators are in a position to meet the obligations under their permits. I have challenged the agency to come to me with proposals on this issue. I am pleased to say that it is exploring, with representatives of the waste management industry, how operators can ensure that they are in a position to fund their obligations, including any potential clear-up and reducing the risk of the abandonment of waste and waste fires.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency are working with the waste industry and the fire and rescue service to identify the root cause of fire incidents. We will assess the lessons that can be learned and the longer-term interventions that may be needed. The Environment Agency is reviewing what it can do to reduce the risk of fires, reduce the drivers of non-compliant behaviour and tackle the problem swiftly.

My right hon. Friend rightly focused on the agency’s approach to the enforcement of the permit conditions at the site. The Environment Agency has a statutory duty to carry out appropriate periodic inspections of regulated facilities to check their compliance with the terms and conditions of the environmental permits that it grants.

The agency has my full backing to take tough and timely enforcement action against those who repeatedly flout the law, undermine the legitimate waste management industry, and cause suffering to local communities. As part of the lessons to be learned from the handling of this case, I will ask the agency to consider whether its enforcement action could have been swifter.

I acknowledge that there have been several recent fires at regulated waste sites, with impacts on local communities that are similar to this case. Some 97% of waste management operators are good performers, so the emphasis must be on how best to intervene early to deal with the non-compliance of the poorest performers in a way that prevents harm to human health and damage to the environment.

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The impact of poor performance and waste fires is one topic in the report, “Waste Crime: Tackling Britain’s Dirty Secret”, which was published on Tuesday this week by the Environmental Services Association Education Trust. I made it clear at the launch of that report that the Government want legitimate waste businesses to prosper and grow. Effective compliance and enforcement are needed to ensure that the market operates as we want, and that serious environmental damage is avoided. My right hon. Friend can be assured that I will continue to monitor the outcome of the incident, and work with the agency to ensure that lessons are learned. I will write to inform him of the actions to be taken as a result.

Sir Alan Beith: I would like to be sure of two things from the Minister. First, does he believe that an atmosphere was created in which the agency did not feel that it could or should use its powers, and that that was perhaps contributed to by inappropriate political pressures such as those I have described? Secondly, is he prepared to talk further with the Environment Agency about how we can avoid a situation in which a landowner who has done so much to deal with the problem is landed with the quite impossible total cost of the clear up?

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Dan Rogerson: I am happy to make such an undertaking on my right hon. Friend’s latter point, and in my discussions on the more general points I will look at the specifics of this case and at how Mr Blythe might be affected and what can be done, given the helpful attitude he has shown and the effort he has put into tackling the incident.

On the point about interference, I have made it clear that we expect the agency to intervene early. It is not my understanding that anything resulted from any contact there may have been with the Department on issues such as this, and in discussions with the agency I have made it clear that I expect it to tackle such problems early. I hope my right hon. Friend will feel that that is the correct way to deal with this and that that is the attitude we should be showing when tackling operators who are not managing resources effectively or moving towards the circular economy we want to see, but who are profiting at the expense of the local environment and local communities.

Question put and agreed to.

5.22 pm

House adjourned.