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Jim Shannon: I agree with everything that the hon. Lady has said. Does she also agree that the power of prayer is very important?

Fiona Bruce: I do, and in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question that I referred to earlier, one way we can also provide support is through some of the organisations that go into North Korea; many of them are Christian organisations, such as Open Doors or Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The commission heard from Amnesty International, in a witness session, that support for them by means of food aid will get through to people in North Korea. There are means of reaching North Koreans and those organisations are providing tremendous strength and support for people in North Korea as they travel about and provide aid and information.

I turn back to the commission’s report. It was not its intention to repeat in detail evidence of the human rights violations, because they were already extremely well documented in the UN commission’s report, published earlier this year, by Mr Justice Kirby. As the Conservative party human rights commission’s report states:

“Instead, this brief report aims to serve as a policy document for the Conservative Party, summarising the scale of the challenge”

faced by the international community

“and then focusing on possible ways forward for the United Kingdom in helping to lead the international community’s effort to end the climate of impunity in North Korea, enhance mechanisms for accountability and justice, break the regime’s information blockade, and bring an end to more than half a century of horrific suffering endured by the North Korean people.”

Breaking that information blockade is, as my colleagues have mentioned, one way in which we can provide support. Mr Jang said, interestingly, that,

“this is not just a humane thing it is also a pragmatic thing to do”.

The commission urges the UK Government to continue their efforts while pursuing a critical engagement in the DPRK on questions of human rights on every level. We are also pressing them to continue to invest in academic and cultural exchanges, such as sponsoring the British Council’s English teaching in North Korea. Many escapees have told us they benefited directly from that. Although the British Council has only four people teaching there, it has taught hundreds of North Koreans over the years. In many cases, that has been extremely helpful when people have sought to move on.

Similarly, the report encourages increased investment in developing the skills and education of North Korean refugees in the UK. The country will need leaders who can go back to it when change happens; it will need men and women of courage, insight and vision who have experienced life in a free nation. I think, for example, of one young refugee, Timothy, who has done a little work experience in my office. He grew up in North Korea, but he was orphaned. From the ages of about eight to 14, he virtually lived on the streets. He then managed to escape to China, but unfortunately he was caught, repatriated and tortured. He managed to escape again, and he finally reached this country. He is now studying politics at Salford university.

We need to take care of such people. The UK has about 600 North Korean refugees—the largest diaspora in the world, outside South Korea. We really should increase engagement with them and draw on their knowledge and experience. We could then send communications from them into North Korea, using some of the technology we have these days—smuggled

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USB sticks, DVDs and other portable devices. Such things can also be used to send over films, newspaper articles and reports from the human rights organisations I mentioned, and information can also be brought back. If we can work more closely with the North Korean diaspora here, we can find another way of breaking the information blockade.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a typically insightful speech. However, the concern most people have when thinking of North Korea is about the lack of hope. Individuals in the regime may be inclined to distance themselves in some way from the leader, but there is a fear of the risks associated with doing anything differently. My hon. Friend speaks positively about the wedge of hope and the things we can do to support the diaspora in this country, but what can we do to support those who are inclined to resist the pressure to conform to the leader’s direction?

Fiona Bruce: I entirely agree that lives are lived in permanent fear. Even before they can read or write, children are taught to fear and worship the regime—that is a terrible mixture in people’s mindset. However, sending information will gradually free their minds. I accept that that is an extremely slow process, but if we do not try, how will these things happen? That is my question. If we do not do these things, people will never know the truth. However, we cannot say we do not know the truth, because the 400-page report from Mr Justice Kirby has told the world of the horrors of this regime, and we must act—we must take what steps we can to address the situation.

I turn now to the many calls made in this debate, and in several others, for the BBC to broadcast into North Korea and, indeed, South Korea. Again, I ask the BBC to consider the issue. A large percentage of North Koreans can now access media devices capable of receiving foreign media, and DVD players, televisions and radios are smuggled into the country. Under the remit of the BBC Trust, one specific purpose of the BBC World Service is to enable

“individuals to participate in the global debate on significant international issues.”

Under the BBC strategy “Delivering Creative Future in Global News”, a priority for the World Service is to access

“a number of information-poor language markets with a clear need for independent information”.

The World Service operating agreement also prioritises audiences

“which have the least access to news”.

Surely, nowhere qualifies more under that criterion than North Korea.

The two objections we have had from the BBC are, first, that

“an insignificant percentage of the population”

would be reached, but that can be discounted. In 2005, 18% of people had listened to a foreign radio. In 2009, the Asia Foundation collated information suggesting that 20% were listening to one. In 2012, InterMedia found that nearly half the respondents from a North Korean defector community owned radios and that,

“many radio listeners…modify fixed-dial radios in order to receive unsanctioned channels.”

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The second concern raised about the BBC broadcasting into North Korea was that South Korean regulations would prevent broadcasting from South Korea. However, Voice of America broadcasts its Korean language service from a transmitter in South Korea, and there are other options involving transmitters elsewhere in Asia. Therefore, the commission—this is one of our strongest recommendations—urges the Government and the BBC to reconsider the issue and to invest in establishing a BBC Korean service and in training exiled North Koreans as reporters and producers, as well as to take on other staff positions in such a service.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Lady has made a fantastic plea for the BBC to be involved, and there is not a dissenting voice anywhere in the room and probably not in Parliament. It is incumbent on people in the BBC to listen to her words and to read them again.

Fiona Bruce: Absolutely. It is incumbent on them to do that. I will close now—you have been extremely indulgent, Mr Streeter—by saying that if the BBC persists in being unwilling to broadcast into Korea, a solution will be found elsewhere. The option of another organisation broadcasting into Korea is being actively discussed. That would involve an independent radio station broadcasting from the UK into the DPRK.

It would be to the BBC’s shame if it did not take a role in righting the injustices experienced by the North Korean people—the injustices experienced by this generation, which are comparable only to the holocaust experienced by our forebears’ generation—and if it did not rise to the challenge that we are putting before it.

3.17 pm

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I am grateful to have caught your eye in this important debate, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). I also pay sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who clearly showed her passion for this subject in the way she spoke about it. With the Conservative party human rights commission, she has produced a comprehensive report. I participated in some of the hearings, and I congratulate her on the report. I have read every word of it, and it would repay any Member of the House to read from it.

I want to concentrate on human rights in North Korea. Before I do, however, I want to put on record that North Korea is one of the world’s putative nuclear states. It carried out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013. Whenever my right hon. Friend the Minister has dealings with any of the five powers in the six-party talks, I would urge him to see whether we can get the talks back on track. In my recent discussions with the Chinese—I was in Beijing last week and met Foreign Office Ministers at Minister of State level—it was clear that they, too, do not want a rogue nuclear state on their doorstep. There is, therefore, good cause to hope that China, which has the most influence of any country on the DPRK, can put some pressure on it to at least prevent it from becoming a nuclear power and deploying ever longer range ballistic missiles, potentially carrying nuclear warheads.

The UN commission of inquiry has been widely quoted today; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton quoted widely from it. One of the most

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telling quotes from it was from Mr Justice Kirby, the retired and very respected Australian judge who wrote it. Let me quote just one sentence of what he said:

“The gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed in the country reveal a totalitarian state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

That is a pretty damning indictment, if ever there was one, of the inhuman treatment that the country metes out. The ordinary citizens of North Korea are sentenced to a slow death, because they do not have enough food. Their life expectancy is probably not beyond their thirties. If they go into one of the camps—and there are between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners—they face a quick death sentence, because they are starved there, and work harder; but it is not only that. The appalling thing about North Korea is that if someone commits a crime it is often not only that person, but their children and their children’s children, who are imprisoned. That often applies to those poor people who try to escape the misery across the Chinese border. They are sent back, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has said, to appalling conditions in the prison camps. They are routinely tortured and forced to have abortions. People’s babies are routinely slaughtered in front of them and the other inmates of the camp. The regime is truly inhuman.

In an article in the Korea Times the other day Kim Mikyoung said that

“the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is one of the poorest nations, yet one of the proudest; it is one of the most sanctioned states, yet one of the most defiant; it is one of the weakest, yet one of the most resilient.”

Its people are incredibly resilient, considering the treatment that the state metes out to its poor citizens. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, the little known Organization and Guidance Department for the Workers Party of Korea is responsible for many aspects of ordinary Koreans’ lives—the prison camps and the re-education that happens in them, the “dear leader’s” guard and the watching of that guard to see who adulates the leader. Such is a state where the citizens spy on each other.

The recommendations of the UN commission are comprehensive and should be implemented in full, including by taking the report to the UN Security Council and referring the DPRK to the International Criminal Court. Along with the report of the commission of inquiry, the report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton produced a number of excellent findings, and I encourage everyone to read it.

I put a question to my hon. Friend the Minister during the urgent question debate obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton on 16 December.

3.22 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.36 pm

On resuming—

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Before the break, I was about to draw attention to the Minister, because in response to a question that I put to him in the debate on 16 December 2013 on the urgent question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, he said:

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“It is important that whenever we see a chink of light, we try to widen it to expose to the people of North Korea that there is a better world out there.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 482.]

I entirely agree. The report prepared by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has shone a strong light on North Korea, and we must continue to try to change the situation there. The leadership are aware of the current attention. They know that we are on their case. We must now use the report to show the people that there is a better world out there. Knowledge is power. People need knowledge so that they, and we, have the power to change things.

Andrew Selous: On the “knowledge is power” point, does my hon. Friend share my concern that apparently the number of defectors getting out of North Korea has dropped by some 40% since Kim Jong-un became leader? He has increased the number of troops on the Korean-Chinese border, as have the Chinese on the other side, because they understand that knowledge getting out is harmful to them.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is clear that the new, younger leader, Kim Jong-un, is more unpredictable than his predecessors. He is more ruthless. He is stationing more troops on the border to prevent people from getting out. Unfortunately another factor in the figure that my hon. Friend has just given the House is the hardening attitude of the Chinese towards sending people back, which is completely inhuman. We need to say to the Chinese that it is not acceptable.

We have certain tools that allow us to shine this light on the regime, and I would like to discuss briefly three of them. The World Service has been mentioned several times in the debate, and figures have been given for the number of people who could potentially receive it in the DPRK. I have no way of knowing whether those figures are true—perhaps the Minister has reliable figures—but as I said in the debate on the urgent question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, I do not think that the Government can leave the matter completely to the BBC.

As my hon. Friend’s report makes clear on page 19,

“another argument used by the Government is that the BBC is independent and the Government cannot ‘interfere’ or make a decision on this. Yet under the new 2014 Operating Licence for the BBC World Service, the Foreign Secretary retains his decision-making authority over where, why, how and to whom the World Service is broadcast. The Foreign Office is required to agree to the objectives and priorities of the World Service, and thus can influence where, why and to whom to broadcast. Furthermore, in a letter to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee in February 2013, the Foreign Secretary states: ‘I…provide final agreement to any BBC proposal to open a new service.’”

The current operating licence for the BBC World Service, the new 2014 operating licence, a BBC Trust paper in June 2013 and the Foreign Secretary’s own words confirm that any new language service must be agreed between the BBC Trust and the Foreign Secretary. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister not to stand aside and say that that is a matter for the BBC, because I do not believe that it is. I believe that the Foreign Secretary could intervene, and I hope that my right hon. Friend has heard enough pleas this afternoon to convince him to ask his boss, the Foreign Secretary, to do so.

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Fiona Bruce: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does he agree that it is important that the Government take note of the increasing number of Members of Parliament who are calling for that and expressing concern about the human rights atrocities in North Korea? The considerable number of Members in this debate has reflected that, and others regularly join our all-party group. No less than 34 Members came to an open-doors meeting recently, many prompted by cards from their constituents, and 68 have signed early-day motion 1184, which calls on the Government to consider every possible mechanism for accountability for the human rights atrocities in North Korea. Surely that should include consideration of the BBC broadcasting into the country.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is entirely right. A number of known voices in Parliament have made the case for North Korea for a long time, including Lord Alton, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has referred. I have visited South Korea and looked across the demilitarised zone into North Korea, where I had my photograph taken. The ambassador said, “There you are; you will now be on the files of the North Korean authorities for evermore, and they will know who you are.” That is the sort of regime that we are dealing with. Those of us who have been campaigning on the matter for a long time—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton referred to Ben Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who has done superb work on this subject—are beginning to find a wider camaraderie with people in both Houses of Parliament who want to campaign on this horrendous issue.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I pay tribute to the fantastic speeches that we have heard today. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) referred to the number of people who have signed early-day motions. I am not able to sign early-day motions, but I have been urged by a number of constituents to come here and express my concerns and theirs about human rights in North Korea. Will my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) pay tribute to the many Church groups that have campaigned on the matter, which have encouraged MPs to attend debates such as this and encouraged engagement in the issue?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: There is no doubt about it; the increased interest by a number of Members of Parliament, which has been emphasised by the strong attendance at today’s debate, is in no small part attributable to the work that the Churches are doing. I have already referred to Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the work that it has done.

The second tool that we have in our armoury is the British Council, which my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has referred to. The British Council had an excellent programme of training English teachers, but unfortunately when Kim Jong-un and his regime threatened the Foreign Office with the closure of our embassy last year, it had to stop its activities. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister could, in his summing up, say something about the British Council and tell us if and when it is likely to be able to resume its activities.

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The third tool in our locker is Kaesong. When I stood on the demilitarised zone and looked through the telescope into North Korea, I could see the industrial zone of Kaesong quite clearly. Working in the Kaesong industrial complex is one of the very few activities where both North Korean and South Korean workers can get together. The factories manufacture things that are needed in the south. The North Koreans who work there receive much-needed hard currency from the south, but, more than that, they are able to interact with South Koreans and encounter their ideas about what is going on in South Korea and the rest of the world. The hope is that they will spread those ideas by word of mouth into the rest of North Korea. That is an important tool in our armoury.

Another important tool in our armoury is the fact that there are an increasing number of electronic devices such as radios and mobile phones. Villages on either side of a valley that were previously unable to communicate with each other suddenly find that through the odd one or two people who have mobile phones, they can communicate with each other. That combined with the internet will probably bring down the regime more quickly than almost anything else.

Finally, in the very few minutes that I have left, I would like to say a word or two about China. As I said, I was in China last week with quite senior members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although they are not prepared at the moment to intervene in condemning the DPRK for its human rights record, it is quite clear that they do not want to see it becoming a nuclear state.

Jim Shannon: One of the things that China could do today, which would not be a big thing for them but would be a big thing for North Koreans, would be to give North Koreans who leave their country safe passage through China. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would be a massive step forward?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I agree with my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I think that is a very valid point. We made the point to the Chinese that when people had gone to all the difficulties of escaping across the border—by golly, it is difficult, particularly with the number of soldiers now deployed on the rivers along which people escape in winter when they ice over—it is particularly unfortunate that China return those people to the DPRK where they face certain torture and probable death, as well as forced abortions and infanticide. We must continue to discuss those matters with China.

I end where I began. We are talking about one of the most terrible regimes in the world, which commits some of the worst human rights atrocities in the world. It starves its people, and it commits against them all sorts of crimes against humanity, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has said. That is completely unacceptable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has demonstrated, increasing numbers of parliamentarians in both Houses of Parliament are paying attention to the issue, and I expect yet more to do so. Let us all work, wherever we can and in our individual ways, to shine a light on this dreadful situation in the hope that we can bring about an improvement in the standard of living and quality of life for the people of North Korea.

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3.46 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing the debate. It is difficult to know where to begin talking about the horrors and atrocities in North Korea; as the hon. Gentleman said, the country is certainly in a category of its own. Although we can all unite in condemning the horrors in the country, we are, in fact, trying to identify ways to do something about the situation. I am sure that I am not alone in sometimes feeling a sense of impotence. There is only so much work that can be done in identifying the horrors, and the next step is to see what action can be taken.

We are in a stronger position than previously following the report of the UN commission of inquiry and the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution. I joined organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in supporting calls for the inquiry, not only on a personal level but on behalf of the Labour Front-Bench team, and I welcomed Foreign Office support for international action last year.

Fiona Bruce: I thank the hon. Lady for what she is doing. Does she agree that now that the UN commission of inquiry has been received, and it is so devastating, we should press for it to be forwarded to the UN Security Council and call on the Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court?

Kerry McCarthy: I also congratulate the hon. Lady because she has done a huge amount of work on the matter through the all-party group on North Korea, and she made a powerful speech a moment ago. I will come to her point in a moment; that is one of the steps that should be considered.

The DPRK rejected the commission of inquiry and refused to grant access, but the commission still provided invaluable evidence of life inside the country and in the prison camps, as we have heard. I pay tribute to the members of the inquiry, its secretariat and the witnesses and experts that it heard from. We should reflect especially on the bravery required from the victims who shared their experience with the inquiry. There were 80 witnesses and experts who testified publicly, while 240 people gave confidential interviews. The commission rightly emphasised the duty to protect their safety and the need for member states to provide additional protection measures where necessary. It is imperative that such efforts continue.

The report, as we have heard, provides a comprehensive account of the complete absence of human rights in North Korea. The illustrations submitted to the inquiry provide a graphic impression of the unimaginable torture meted out in the prison camps. The conclusion that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been, and are being, committed by the DPRK, constituting crimes against humanity, demonstrates the clear need for the international community to respond.

Chillingly, the commission warns:

“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

As we heard, the violations include an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience

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and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association. The commission highlighted how the spread of Christianity is considered a particularly serious threat, underlining why the work of organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Open Doors is so important.

The report details how the North Korean state is an all-encompassing indoctrination machine; how state surveillance permeates the private lives of all citizens; how people are punished for watching and listening to foreign broadcasts; and the pervasive state-sponsored discrimination under the songbun system. The gross violations of the right to food and its manipulation as a means of control mean that North Korean citizens are being left to starve. The commission warned that it was particularly concerned about the long-term effects of ongoing chronic malnutrition among children.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, particularly as I had to attend a Committee during the earlier part of the debate but still wanted to put my concern on the record. She mentioned the control of information. Does that not indicate the importance of taking steps to ensure that people in North Korea have more access to what is happening in the outside world? We must make sure that they have a true picture of what is going on in their country and elsewhere. That also highlights the importance of debates such as this that keep the British public’s attention on the issue.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, debates such as this are important because if we speak out, our voices do get heard, despite the restrictions in North Korea. I would also echo the points made about the BBC World Service, although I am not going to dwell on that because those points were made comprehensively.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): I do not wish to depress the House even more, but does my hon. Friend agree that things are actually getting worse by the day? We now have a situation in which Satan is devouring his children. The regime is slaughtering its own, and there has never been a time when it has been more vital that we promulgate these facts, as we heard at the meeting of the all-party group last week. Who would have thought that matters could get worse? But they have and continue to do so. That is why debates such as this are so vital.

Kerry McCarthy: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I just mentioned the food situation in North Korea—how do we influence a regime that does not seem to care whether its people starve? What sort of leverage do we have when the issue is not just the repression of people’s freedom of expression and religion and their right to challenge the regime, but the fact that North Korea’s leaders seem perfectly happy to sit back and let their people starve? Things have indeed become much worse. I will come to how, as a matter of absolute priority, we must look at what we can do to try to change the situation.

We also heard from the report about how discrimination against women and girls has resulted in their becoming increasingly vulnerable to trafficking and prostitution.

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The punishments associated with transgressions are severe and arbitrary, including summary executions, most notably that of Kim Jong-un’s uncle in December last year.

The prison camps are indicative of the North Korean state’s complete rejection of basic human rights and international law. We hear about people being disappeared because of their connection with the Republic of Korea or Christian Churches—they are taken off to political prison camps. It was, I suppose, a small sign that things were not quite as bad as they have been that the commission found that guilt by association is now less frequent, although that is more than compensated for by some of the other atrocities that occur. Nevertheless, although some relatives are still at risk, the commission found that guilt by association is not quite as prevalent as it was previously.

To use the commission’s words, “unspeakable atrocities” are being committed in the camps, including

“deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide.”

It estimates that hundreds of thousands of people have died in the camps over the past 50 years, and that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are currently detained in four camps and being subjected to horrifying treatment.

The report leaves us in no doubt that action from the wider international community is imperative. As the commission stated,

“The fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as a State Member of the United Nations, has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community.”

It went on to stress:

“The international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity, because the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has manifestly failed to do so.”

We know that that will continue.

The commission’s report must ensure not only that the world’s attention is on the plight of the people of North Korea, but that urgent action is taken. As has already been mentioned, action from China is key because it is one of the few countries that has some leverage on the situation. As the commission stated,

“China pursues a rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating”

North Korean citizens who have managed to flee their country, despite their being refugees in need of, and entitled to, international protection.

China not only fails to respect the principle of non-refoulement; the commission suggests that, in some cases, Chinese officials inform their North Korean counterparts about those they have apprehended. According to the commission, those repatriated are systematically subjected to

“persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases, sexual violence, including during invasive body searches.”

As we have heard, repatriated pregnant women are subjected to forced abortions, while babies born to returned women are often killed. The risk of refoulement,

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and their fate in North Korea, prevents defectors who manage to get to China from registering their children’s birth in China, denying them access to health services and education. It is estimated that there are 20,000 children born to DPRK women in China. In failing such defectors, China is failing in its international responsibilities, so it is imperative that the international community challenges it.

Andrew Selous: Does the hon. Lady agree that China’s policy is particularly unfortunate given that South Korea would accept all the refugees? If China did not want them, they would not be left in China.

Kerry McCarthy: I entirely agree. China provides some humanitarian assistance to North Korea; one would therefore hope that it had some leverage over the Government there and could persuade them to change their ways.

The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned the fact that one action that could be considered is referral to the International Criminal Court and the adoption of targeted sanctions. Resolution 25/25, passed by the UN Human Rights Council in March, was a welcome first step in taking the report forward, in particular by extending the mandate of the special rapporteur and requesting increased support, including establishing a field-based structure to strengthen monitoring and improve engagement with all states.

However, it was disappointing that 11 countries at the Human Rights Council abstained on the resolution vote, while six—Russia, Cuba, Pakistan, Venezuela, Vietnam and China—voted against it. There is more general concern about the composition of the Human Rights Council. The UK is on the council, but many member states have, shall we say, rather poor human rights records. There is concern about such countries’ failure to respect the special procedure or country-specific mandate holders. It would help if the Minister set out more about what he thinks the Human Rights Council can actually achieve—beyond mere condemnation of the DPRK regime—and how that can be done.

Following the recent universal periodic review, it has been reported that North Korea has actually agreed to consider 185 of the 268 recommendations. However, it has rejected some of them outright, including that it should co-operate with the ICC, end guilt by association, implement the commission’s recommendations, close the prison camps and abolish the songbun system. Critically, the Human Rights Council resolution recommended that the General Assembly submit the report to the Security Council for further action. The Human Rights Council called for the consideration of a referral

“to the appropriate international criminal justice mechanism”,

which would presumably be the ICC. On top of that, it called for consideration of the

“scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity”.

Will the Minister update us on the Government’s discussions with Security Council members about formally putting the DPRK on the agenda? What sanctions does he think could possibly be effective in targeting the DPRK leadership? Bearing in mind Russia’s and China’s position on the Security Council, what are the prospects and time scales for action and any referral to the ICC?

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Now that the commission has reported and the Human Rights Council has passed its resolution, it is crucial that we maintain the momentum and keep the spotlight and pressure on North Korea, to try to secure the co-operation of partners in key positions of influence. It would be so much easier to say that solutions are more easily at hand in other countries, where the UK operates more leverage and where we know that we can, perhaps, achieve more good in a shorter time, but to turn our back on what is happening in DPRK, just because it is a difficult case and the solutions do not immediately present themselves, would be morally wrong. We simply should not contemplate that.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she has been generous in giving way.

The approximately 600 people from the North Korean diaspora in this country have not been mentioned so far. Could we not harness them and perhaps ask the BBC to ask them to help with some editorial work on programmes broadcast into Korea? They would surely want to help their families still left in the country.

Kerry McCarthy: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. What always has to be weighed up is whether such a move would make life easier or worse for the people in the country. People in the country know how dreadful the situation is there. People from the diaspora community here would, obviously, need to highlight that to win over international opinion, ensuring that this matter is firmly on the political agenda. I am not so sure, although I have only just heard the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, what the impact would be of such footage being displayed in North Korea. There is a particular danger of measures being taken against people’s relatives who are still in the country. We have to be slightly worried about that.

Stephen Pound rose—

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Lady gives way, she might like to consider that we are eating into the Minister’s time.

Kerry McCarthy: I am sorry; I thought we had until a quarter past.

Stephen Pound: As my hon. Friend is aware, the North Korean embassy is in my borough of Ealing. I have tried to work with some of the North Korean diaspora in west London, to mount some sort of protest so that people can hear an alternative voice. I have to say to her that they are terrified. The crime of guilt by association throughout the family is so corrosive that, sadly and tragically, they will not dare to raise their heads above the parapet.

Kerry McCarthy: My hon. Friend obviously speaks from experience, having talked to the diaspora about this point.

I conclude with the words of the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, who has warned that in looking at what was happening in the DPRK,

“insufficient attention was being paid to the kind of horrific and sustained human rights violations”

that were going on there. Her conclusion was that

“there can no longer be any excuses”

for ignoring that.

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4.2 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to his work, and that of the all-party group on North Korea, in raising the profile of human rights issues in DPRK and seeking to give North Koreans, wherever they are, a voice. I also thank the Conservative party human rights commission for the report it released earlier today, called “Unparalleled and Unspeakable”, which makes harrowing reading. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), as I have done before, on her work in this respect.

I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to Church groups, non-governmental organisations and fellow parliamentarians for continuing to raise this issue and shining some light, as I have said before, on this dark, dark place.

The issue of human rights in North Korea has occupied a great deal of my time. I discussed it only yesterday with our ambassador to Pyongyang, who will also meet the all-party group next week. As I have said before to this House, and in two written ministerial statements in February and March respectively, I believe that the situation in North Korea is without equal in its scale and brutality. No one who has read Lord Alton’s book, “Building Bridges”, can fail to be moved by the suffering of North Korea’s people, or to recognise the urgent need to end this suffering.

Of course, the Government also have wider objectives in DPRK. We remain deeply concerned about the development of nuclear and ballistic missile programmes pursued in wilful disregard of UN Security Council resolutions. The DPRK’s behaviour poses a threat to regional stability and to the global non-proliferation regime, and its willingness to sell conventional arms to anyone who will pay fuels conflict around the world. Nevertheless, we have not allowed this to distract us from challenging the DPRK on its human rights record.

The UK played an active role in supporting the commission of inquiry, hosting a visit that allowed DPRK refugees in the UK to provide evidence to it. I myself met Justice Kirby on that visit. It is deeply regrettable that he has been subjected to personal abuse from the regime in Pyongyang. Following the commission’s report in February, I issued a statement welcoming the spotlight it shone on appalling human rights violations and called upon the DPRK Government to address them urgently.

We worked with the EU, Japan and others to ensure that the UN Human Rights Council adopted a strong resolution, recommending that the commission’s report be forwarded to the UN Security Council for consideration of appropriate action, including referral to an appropriate international justice mechanism. I have made it clear that, ultimately, the UK sees the International Criminal Court as the most appropriate option for this.

We took a similarly strong position in New York last month, when the commission gave an informal briefing to UN Security Council members—the first time members of the Security Council have ever considered DPRK human rights—although both China and Russia were notable for their absence. Again, we took a tough line at the DPRK’s universal periodic review on 1 May, using

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our role as a member of the troika to counter any exaggeration of DPRK engagement with the review’s recommendations.

We will continue to keep the spotlight on North Korea: when the DPRK special rapporteur, Marzuki Darusman, presents his report to the Human Rights Council in June; when Ministers meet at the UN General Assembly in September; and through a tough UN General Assembly resolution in the autumn.

With an UNGA resolution behind us, we could work with like-minded partners to gather the nine votes necessary to put DPRK human rights on the Security Council’s agenda, but we are realistic about the prospects for holding individuals to account before an international justice mechanism, at least in the short term, because the DPRK is not a signatory to the Rome statute and a referral to the International Criminal Court requires a UN Security Council resolution, as would the creation of an ad hoc tribunal. We expect both would be blocked by China and Russia. However, that does not mean that we should give up. We will continue to work to change the position of those members of the international community—and there are too many of them—who will not condemn the DPRK’s human rights record. The DPRK’s response to the commission of inquiry’s report shows it is sensitive to international criticism, so we will ensure there is no let-up. We all have a part to play in that.

We will also pursue another of the commission’s recommendations, endorsed by the Human Rights Council, which is the creation of a new body to continue the commission’s work of documenting human rights violations, so that when conditions allow for criminal investigations, as they surely will, there will be up-to-date, credible evidence for prosecutors.

Alongside our efforts to ensure that DPRK human rights remain high on the international agenda, the UK will continue to use our policy of critical engagement to raise our concerns directly with the North Korean authorities. Critical engagement means robust exchanges that leave our DPRK contacts in no doubt about our views, not least about their appalling human rights violations. It means raising specific cases, like the 33 people reportedly sentenced to death for alleged contact with Kim Jong-uk, a South Korean national who entered the DPRK for missionary purposes and has been convicted on charges of espionage. It means reminding the DPRK that, in the modern world, even it cannot keep its misdeeds hidden and that, if the rest of the world really is wrong about its political prison camps—its gulags—it has the means to disprove the claims by providing access to independent observers. Those we speak to may be able to do no more than repeat standard lines, but what we say is repeated up the chain to those with real power. We are expanding our engagement, but we are doing so cautiously, not least because we do not want to give the impression of rewarding the DPRK when there is nothing to reward.

For example, we took an important step earlier this year when we accredited a non-resident defence attaché to Pyongyang and gave the DPRK attaché in Moscow similar status. That process is opening up new opportunities for engagement with a different part of the DPRK system, opaque though that system may be. We have

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also provided training to improve DPRK officials’ understanding of international economic standards. Also, through our contacts with NGOs, the all-party group on North Korea and DPRK refugees, we are ready to consider how we can support others who want to engage directly with the DPRK.

Critical engagement means finding ways to inform DPRK citizens, especially officials and others with influence, about the UK and its values, so that they recognise the benefits of working with the outside world rather than remaining isolated. This is a policy aimed at long-term, incremental change. We are honest enough to acknowledge that nothing the UK says or does will lead to any improvement in the immediate future.

However, we have a responsibility to use our embassy in Pyongyang to do the things that many of our partners cannot do, so as to exploit what the US special envoy for human rights in the DPRK, Ambassador Bob King, described to me in a meeting we had in London last week as our “advantage”, and to take forward the commission of inquiry’s recommendation that states and civil society organisations foster opportunities for dialogue and contact in areas such as culture, good governance and economic development.

For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) said, through the British Council and educational immersion programmes, we have provided thousands of North Koreans with their first access to a foreigner and an understanding of British culture and values. Sustained engagement by the UK and other European countries, and by NGOs, has resulted in modest improvements in the treatment of disabled people, with a particular boost being given by the participation for the first time of a DPRK athlete in the Paralympic games when they were held in London in 2012. I met that athlete myself.

Several Members from all parties have again raised—quite rightly—the introduction of a BBC World Service Korean-language programme, which would be a further way for us to inform DPRK citizens about the outside world. As hon. Members know, and must accept, the BBC World Service is operationally, managerially and editorially independent. Nevertheless, we kept in close contact with it during its review last year, which we believe to have been a thorough consideration of all the options. Although the World Service board concluded that it was not currently possible to offer a meaningful and cost-effective Korean-language service, it has undertaken to keep that decision under review. We have passed on to the BBC the report from the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, “An Unmet Need”. We understand that the BBC will complete its response to the report in the next few weeks. We will continue to engage with the BBC and bring to its attention any changes in circumstances that might affect its assessment of the viability of a Korean-language service. As hon. Members have already said, the Foreign Secretary has to agree to new BBC World Service programmes. However, it is rightly and properly for the BBC itself to make proposals to him in the first instance. That may just sound like a sequencing issue, but it is an important distinction and one that Members must respect.

Many other issues were raised in the debate, but alas, in my remaining minute I do not have time to address them. Let me conclude by reiterating the Government’s desire, which is shared by my hon. Friend the Member

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for South West Bedfordshire, to see concrete progress on alleviating the appalling human rights situation in North Korea, on ending the climate of impunity and on bringing those responsible to account. I would just say that—

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order. I am afraid that our time has gone; we must move on to our next debate.

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Local Plans

4.14 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Streeter.

I am delighted to have secured this debate today on a vital issue for my constituents. As I will discuss shortly, the proposed allocation of safeguarded land by the local authority in my area is causing profound concern among many of my constituents.

Despite the transformative impact that it has on the nation’s countryside, the term “safeguarded land” appears only three times in the national planning policy framework; all three references are in paragraph 85. This somewhat confusing phrase is first used when the boundaries of a green belt are defined. Local planning authorities should

“where necessary, identify in their plans areas of ‘safeguarded land’ between the urban area and the Green Belt, in order to meet longer-term development needs stretching well beyond the plan period”.

Crucially, the NPPF states that local authorities should safeguard land only “where necessary”. Therefore, it is clearly not a requirement that land should be safeguarded for development, despite some local authorities being convinced otherwise.

I myself could not make that point any better than the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), did in a previous Westminster Hall debate. He said that,

“there is nothing in the Localism Act 2011, in the NPPF or in any aspect of Government planning policy that requires someone to plan beyond 15 years. So, anybody who is suggesting that there is any requirement to safeguard land or wrap it up in wrapping paper and ribbons for the future development between 2030 and 2050 is getting it wrong. There is no reason for it and my hon. Friend can knock that suggestion straight back to wherever it came from.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 193WH.]

I can entirely appreciate the rationale behind allowing local authorities the option—I stress the word “option”—to “safeguard land”. However, I am deeply concerned that this policy is being abused by certain local authorities in an effort to undermine the permanence of the green belt, which, as we all know, underpins this country’s entire planning system.

In order to illustrate that point, I will refer to a specific example of what is currently happening in my constituency. The City of York council is now just over a year into the process of formulating and adopting a local plan. When the council announced its initial proposals this time last year, I was contacted by hundreds of constituents who were horrified at the sheer scale of the development being proposed, and at the amount of green-belt land that would be lost for ever as a result. The initial draft of the local plan proposed 22,000 new homes during the 15-year life of the plan, including 16,000 new homes on approximately 1,400 acres of what is currently York’s established green belt. Not content with fundamentally altering the nature of York, which is a historic cathedral city, the council proposed to encircle the city with up to 40 wind farms and 80 pitches for Travellers and show people, all of which would be constructed on the green belt.

For good measure, the council then decided to safeguard a further 1,000 acres of green-belt land for future development. In the past few weeks, it has moved to the

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next stage of adopting its local plan and it has published a “Further Sites” document that contains proposals for new developments and revised boundaries. While the council’s revisions have resulted in recommendations to decrease some of the existing safeguarded allocations, the new safeguarded sites mean that the council is proposing a net increase of 162 acres of safeguarded land, which is land taken out of the green belt. That flies in the face of opposition from the rural communities surrounding York in my constituency which, quite frankly, are being ignored.

Some may wonder why that is of such concern to many of my constituents, given that safeguarded land is not intended for development in the immediate future. Indeed, paragraph 85 of the national planning policy framework states that local authorities should

“make clear that the safeguarded land is not allocated for development at the present time.”

My concern, however, is that once land has been removed from the green belt, it is effectively lost, gone for ever as development is practically guaranteed to occur on the site at some point in future. Although local authorities are encouraged to make it clear that safeguarded land is not currently available for development, I fear that, sadly, some weak-willed local authorities may sacrifice the long-term interests of local residents for short-term gain by permitting development ahead of schedule.

Again, there is an example in my constituency. I need only point to one of the council’s most recent proposals that is causing anxiety among constituents in the village of Earswick. In the new proposal for a 220-acre block of safeguarded land to the east of the village, which would see the village triple in size, the council recommends:

“To include this site as safeguarded land within the Local Plan. This reflects concerns over access and the creation of a sustainable neighbourhood.”

That seems innocent, but the local plan goes on to state:

“If these concerns can be overcome part of this land could potentially be considered as an allocation for years 1-15 of the Plan.”

The proposal has only just been announced, and already the council is trying to work out how it can develop the land ahead of schedule. It is inexplicable how, if there are already concerns on sustainability and access, the site can be proposed for long-term future development, let alone for construction within the 15-year plan period.

The crux of the problem is contained in paragraph 85 of the national planning policy framework:

“Planning permission for the permanent development of safeguarded land should only be granted following a Local Plan review which proposes the development”.

My understanding is that, once adopted, a local plan must be reviewed every five years. Such reviews provide local authorities with endless opportunities to revise existing site boundaries, propose safeguarded land for development and allocate further land for future expansion.

In short, promises to local residents can easily be broken. The five-year local plan review also effectively removes the local authority’s need to safeguard land in the first place. Why should local authorities plan for development beyond the 15-year life of the plan when there is no means of accurately identifying the community’s needs that far in the future? After all, local plans are

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supposed to be supported by a robust evidence base. I fail to see how cast-iron evidence detailing the housing and employment needs in 20 to 30 years’ time can be achieved. A far more appropriate course of action is to continue reassessing the housing requirements of our local communities throughout the plan’s life and address additional need as and when it arises. That pragmatic and common-sense alternative avoids the risk of unnecessarily concreting over thousands of acres of green-belt land.

I call on City of York council to remove the completely pointless allocations of safeguarded land from its draft local plan before it progresses any further. I strongly believe that my constituents should not be forced to live under the shadow of these needless development proposals on their doorstep. It is only right and proper that the council should reflect on the concern it has caused in so many communities on the outskirts of York.

If it is the case that safeguarded land is not a requirement for any local authority, the Government should be doing more to communicate that message to local authorities. There clearly remains some confusion about the nature of safeguarded land, what it is for and what its position within the local plan process should be. If we are to achieve a coherent and joined-up series of local plans across the country that promotes sustainable development while protecting green-belt land, there must be absolutely no confusion about what is required in the plans.

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): My hon. Friend is doing an excellent job of highlighting the concerns in his local area, where the Labour-run City of York council is using the neighbourhood plan possibly to build on green-belt land. Does he agree that it may be a good idea to name and shame councils nationally by publishing what they are doing with their plans and highlighting the councils that are putting green-belt land at risk?

Julian Sturdy: I thank my hon. Friend for his timely intervention. He is right that this is of such public importance that there is no harm in putting such information into the public domain. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. For anything such as this, having more information out there means that people can make informed decisions. That is part of the problem with safeguarded land, because people do not fully understand it. The confusion means that people are not participating in the consultation process of my local authority in York.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I, too, thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of safeguarded land. In my area, Labour-run Kirklees council has provisional open land, and our local plan is probably two years from completion. I have communities in Upperthong, Meltham, Linthwaite, Netherthong and Lindley whose local wishes are being steamrollered by housing developments in areas that, to all intents and purposes, are green belt. I agree with the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore). Does my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) agree that councils need to provide more detail on where their local plans are and to use more accurate designations so that things such as safeguarded land and provisional open land are either green-belt or development land? Such land is currently between the two.

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Julian Sturdy: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who I know is a sturdy campaigner in his constituency. As I said earlier, it is about having clear definitions so that the public at large are aware of what local authorities propose. Different local authorities propose different things in their local plans. My local authority in York proposes something that I think is fundamentally wrong for our great city. We need to ensure that there is clarity in the process so that everyone can make an informed choice and decision and take part in this important public consultation period as local authorities put together their local plans for the next 15 years.

The Minister may recall that in a debate I secured on York’s green belt this time last year, I called on the Government to reconsider the terminology used for safeguarded land due to the confusion it causes. When the council’s local plan was first announced, many of my constituents were wrongly under the impression that these massive blocks of land were safeguarded from development, rather than safeguarded for development. The problem clearly still exists in many parts of my constituency, where the reality of the proposals has yet to sink in fully. Although I will continue to do my best to ensure that no one is under any illusion as to what “safeguarded land” really is and what City of York council intends to do with it, I urge the Government to review the terminology to prevent such confusion limiting community involvement in challenging unsustainable development proposals.

If we truly want our local communities to have a greater say on planning and development policies as part of the Government’s wider commitment to localism, we must ensure that our constituents are equipped with the information they need to take on that role, rather than isolating them from the process by using unhelpful jargon. My understanding is that, before the introduction of the national planning policy framework, safeguarded land was known as reserved land, which is a much more appropriate name. I hope the Minister will reconsider the terminology.

Finally, I will reflect on the Opposition’s deeply flawed planning policy and what it might mean for our countryside if they were ever to put that policy into practice. My fear is that the Labour-run City of York council’s draft local plan and its emphasis on construction at the expense of any other considerations, such as the green belt and sustainability—perfectly illustrated by the vast amount of safeguarded land put aside in that plan—is a clear indication of what is to come nationally if Labour is elected to power in 2015. I was absolutely aghast to learn that York council has signed up our historic cathedral city to be one of Labour’s “right to grow” cities. We can be in little doubt that under a Labour Government the beautiful countryside surrounding York will be swallowed up by unrestricted development, and the legitimate concerns and protests of the surrounding communities will, I fear, be cast aside. I have no qualms in saying that localism, which has been one of the Government’s defining principles and has provided the inspiration behind an incredibly successful programme of reforms, is under great threat.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these important issues on safeguarded land in local plans on behalf of my constituents. I reiterate my calls for the withdrawal of safeguarded allocations from York’s draft plan and for a more pragmatic approach to long-term development

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in York. I also call on the Government to do all they can to ensure that all local authorities are fully aware that safeguarded land is not a requirement under the NPPF. At the same time, I would be pleased to hear the Minister comment on whether the Government will reconsider the terminology used for safeguarded land. That terminology is so important, and it is misleading.

4.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I fear that we might be interrupted by the Division bell, so I will try to address the points raised so quickly that we might sneak in under the wire, although I am not entirely confident that I can achieve that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate on a matter of intense importance to his constituents. He has raised the matter with me in debates such as this, in the Division Lobby, in the cafeterias, in the Tea Room and on every opportunity he has had. I have absolutely no doubt of the importance of the matter to his constituents or of his desire to represent them fully in the process of producing an acceptable local plan for York. If I may—I hope he will understand—I will not make any reference to the York plan or the particular issues relating to York, because it would be improper for me to do so. I hope that by talking about the general policy issues, it might be possible for him to take some comfort and some information for the benefit of his communities.

The green belt and the protection of green-belt land are of enormous importance to the Government. That is why the national planning policy framework has repeated in very clear terms the very high levels of protection that apply to green-belt land. I can state clearly that there has never been a time when the protections of green-belt land have been clearer or more explicit in national policy than now.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I want to ask the Minister about the best and most versatile agricultural land being specifically singled out for extra protection. We have a big issue in Bristol with the plans to tarmac over grade 1 agricultural land. Is it not important that we protect the best soil for growing food, rather than use it for other purposes? It simply cannot be replaced elsewhere.

Nick Boles: The hon. Lady has singled out another category of land where the preservation of current use is given great priority—the highest quality agricultural land. The national planning policy framework is clear that, to the extent that greenfield land has to be allocated for development—unfortunately, some does—less high quality agricultural land should be preferred and that grade 1 agricultural land, which is the highest quality, should be preserved for agriculture where at all possible.

To return to green-belt protections, the national planning policy framework is clear on the importance of those protections, the permanence of green-belt land and its role in preserving the openness of the countryside and in preventing settlements from merging.

Chris Skidmore: I want to reiterate what the Minister is saying about the green belt for my constituency of Kingswood. Before the 2010 general election, there

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were several applications to build on green-belt land. Since 2010, there has not been a single application to build on the green belt in Kingswood. It is clear that the NPPF is working well. I would, however, like the Minister’s comments on the possibility of a future Government’s “right to grow” policy, which would be disastrous for our local area. It would be the greatest threat to the green belt in 30 years if Bristol was allowed to ride roughshod over the wishes of south Gloucestershire residents.

Nick Boles: This Government’s policy is clear: we want to achieve locally arrived at, co-operative solutions to difficult problems, rather than having top-down Government imposition of solutions or one authority being able to ride roughshod over another. Everyone in our communities has a right to a voice, but that does not mean that any of us can entirely abdicate responsibility for difficult decisions, such as fulfilling the housing needs of future generations. We all deserve to have our voices heard and we all deserve to be part of that solution. We are keen to ensure that, so far as possible, the future development needs of our country are met without threatening the protection of the green belt, of grade 1 agricultural land and of our most beautiful countryside with other designations.

That said, it has always been the case—there is no change in this—that local authorities can revise their green-belt boundaries through a local plan process involving intense consultation with local people. There are a number of communities around the country that are doing just that. It is painful and difficult, and it is right that it happens through an intensely transparent, open and democratic process that takes into account all the opinions expressed by all the different communities affected.

When it does that exercise, the local authority has to pass a very high test: it has to be able to demonstrate that exceptional circumstances justify taking a particular site out of the green belt or redrawing a green-belt boundary, perhaps to swap land currently in the green belt for land that is not, but is of greater environmental importance. Those are the kinds of arguments that local authorities need to bring forward and the kinds of evidence they need to provide to satisfy a planning inspector that any such proposal is reasonable. I do not criticise any council that is going down that road, because it is right that it, as the duly elected local authority, should be able to. The local authority must, however, go openly and transparently into that process with evidence and after a great deal of consultation.

I turn to the particular issue of safeguarded land. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer that it is an often misunderstood concept. I have to confess that for several months at the beginning

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of my time in this post, I, too, was somewhat confused about whether it was “safeguarded for” or “safeguarded from”. He makes a good point about the terminology being—it is not deliberate—rather baffling to people. “Safeguarded” seems to suggest protection, rather than an allocation for future development needs.

I commit to my hon. Friend that we will go away and look at the simple question of the terminology and whether there could be better wording. When the national planning policy framework is reviewed, whether we can better clarify that wording will be on the agenda. The concept of safeguarded land as land that is reserved, as he put it, for the possibility of future development needs beyond the life of the plan being laid out has a good justification in some cases. It has a good justification for the following reason: if future development needs are likely to require further difficult choices about some sites in the green belt, it is better to be clear that certain sites might some day have to have their status reviewed, than to have the entire green belt under some abstract possible future threat.

The reason behind the safeguarding terminology is the idea that by clarifying where the future might lead it is made clear that there are some permanently protected places. In some sense, therefore, more reassurance is gained than uncertainty created about what is being protected for ever.

My hon. Friend is completely right, however, that safeguarding is not a requirement for every local authority with green-belt land. It is something that it can choose to do, but only if necessary. If the plan that it puts forward has provisions to meet housing needs in full and if other sites are available for potential future development beyond the life of the plan, it may well be that safeguarding land is unnecessary. He has asked me before, and I have been happy to confirm, that while we want all communities to embrace growth, a vaulting ambition is not a sufficient justification for threatening protected land. Need is an important factor and can be a contributor to the exceptional circumstances that might justify some potential revision of a site’s protected status. Ambition and the desire to grow faster than one’s neighbours or perhaps to build a small empire is not a sufficient justification for putting protections at risk. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is only if it is necessary that an authority should consider the possibility of designating some safeguarded land.

Given that local authorities must act carefully and with evidence; that safeguarding is not mandatory and authorities should use it only if necessary; that we are happy to examine the terminology to clarify that such land is not safeguarded for ever and is reserved because of an evidence base for potential future need; and that the rest of the green belt is not subject to such possibilities, I hope that my hon. Friend will have something to take back to his constituents.

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GP Services (Tower Hamlets)

4.42 pm

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Streeter. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for affording me the opportunity to hold this debate, to the Minister for being here to listen and respond and to my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), for taking an interest and supporting the debate.

My remarks are designed to defend Tower Hamlets GP services. I am a great admirer of all that they have achieved, especially over the past 15 years. I called for this debate for three reasons. The first is to find out more about the nature of the problem facing GP services in Tower Hamlets. The second is to determine whether the Government accept that there is a problem. The third is, hopefully, to identify a solution.

The picture is confused and many aspects must be considered, but the real concern is that primary care budgets are being cut, and not only in Tower Hamlets. In response to my written question about average annual changes to GP income in Tower Hamlets, the Minister stated that there would be

“a decrease of £184,000 spread across 21 GMS practices.”—[Official Report, 6 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 126W.]

However, The Guardian has reported that the Jubilee Street practice alone

“will be down £77,263 by the end of 2014-15”

and that it had “already lost £30,000 QOF”—quality and outcomes framework—

“income last year and will lose its £219,508 a year MPIG allocation incrementally over the next seven years—the accumulated loss due to MPIG alone amounting to over £903,000.”

The figures do not add up.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): As well as the Jubilee Street surgery, four other practices in Tower Hamlets are reported to be part of the 98 surgeries facing closure, but we do not know where they are. Will the Minister commit to publish a list of those surgeries and to place that list in the House of Commons Library?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking the Minister that question and look forward to his response.

The Jubilee Street and St Katharine Docks practices are the two main affected surgeries in my constituency. They are professional, efficient and well-loved and respected by patients. Jubilee Street says that if its proposals to solve the dilemma are not addressed and no agreement is reached, it will have to give notice of closure by October this year.

Today, I accompanied my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), my colleagues in the shadow health team, on a visit to Jubilee Street to see first hand the problem. At the same time, we launched Labour’s NHS pledge on GP appointments within 48 hours, which I am sure the Minister has noted. What is causing the problem? I will be grateful for the Minister’s views. Is it the shift from deprivation indices to age in the new allocation funding formula from 2012? Is it the

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elimination of a percentage of the QOF indicators? Is it the seven-year phase out of the minimum income practice guarantee?

4.46 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.53 pm

On resuming—

Jim Fitzpatrick: I had just asked the Minister three questions relating to what he thinks might be causing the problems confronting our GP practices. The fourth is whether it is because of the range of different contracts negotiated over the past decade, awarding different levels of funding for numbers of patients to different practices; and the fifth is whether it is because there is a shift of funding away from primary care, and, if so, where the money is going. Some 90% of NHS contact with patients is through primary care, but it receives less than 10% of the NHS spend, a point I will come back to later.

I would also be grateful if the Minister indicated who makes the decisions. Practices, in discussion with the local clinical commissioning group and NHS England, have been unable to identify exactly who determines the funding levels. Obviously, it is NHS England that implements ministerial policy, which is why I have an outstanding request to speak to the Minister responsible, who I understand is the noble Earl Howe. I have briefly mentioned that request to the Minister, who kindly said that he would pass on the message and reinforce the request that we have made directly to his office. I would like to have that meeting, and would be accompanied by clinicians and practice managers from Tower Hamlets to put the case.

Tower Hamlets primary care has much to be proud of in the past 15 years; at one point it was the fastest improving primary care trust in the UK. Practices such as Jubilee Street have cupboards full of awards. When I was first elected in 1997, complaints about NHS services and GP practices were numerous and regular, but they disappeared due to the investment by the Labour Government over many years and the dedication and professionalism of clinicians and staff in primary and secondary care.

My own GP practice in Ettrick street on the Aberfeldy estate in E14 is a great example of that first-class service and improvement; I thought that I had better mention it, because if the staff there knew that I was complimenting other practices but left out Dr Phillip Bennett-Richards, Dr Sarah Pitkanen and their colleagues, they would be mightily disappointed.

The local worry is that all that is about to change. Not only have Labour stalwarts such as London assembly member John Biggs—our mayoral candidate—and Councillor Rachael Saunders been on the issue, but local Conservative councillors have been expressing concerns, so the issue is not party political in that sense. I attended a meeting last week at the Mile End hospital with nearly 100 people and many GPs in attendance. I have had numerous e-mails from constituents concerned about what is going on, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow has, too. There are petitions with hundreds and hundreds of signatures springing up all over Tower Hamlets.

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All that is against the background of increased pressure. The British Medical Association has said:

“It is estimated that 340 million consultations are undertaken every year. This is up 40 million since 2008.”

As I mentioned, it also said:

“Over 90% of all contacts with the NHS occur in general practice.”

The then-chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Dr Clare Gerada, called for

“an urgent increase in general practice’s share of the NHS budget from 9% to 10% so that 10,000 more GPs could be hired, in order to make GPs’ work loads sustainable.”

Rushanara Ali: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in a borough such as Tower Hamlets, with high levels of health inequalities, the fact that people cannot get GP appointments for days on end is scandalous? It will devastate people’s lives further and actually cost more, particularly by putting pressure on accident and emergency services while we are having an A and E crisis.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that the Minister also agrees that if we can treat people in general practice and prevent them from going to A and E, that is a much more efficient use of NHS resources. Her point is valid.

The House of Commons Library has produced for me a table of data on GP funding, which

“shows a shift on the share of funding for general practice from 10% in 2005-06 to 8.3% in 2012-13. The real terms change in spending over the past three years shows a fall of £432 million”.

At the same time, there has been an equivalent

“annual percentage decrease of 2.1% per year”

in GPs’ salaries through the same period.

So there we have it. There has been a 40 million increase in appointments but cuts in the share of the NHS budget; a significant real-terms fall in salaries; huge variation in funding at local level; and crises affecting many local practices in my constituency—some looking at closure, which would be a disaster for some of the most vulnerable people in our country.

I want not just to return to the Jubilee Street practice but to take the issue wider. The NHS deputy head of primary care for north central and east London, Rylla Baker, recently wrote:

“The situation has, unfortunately, developed further and we met with the Jubilee street practice earlier this week. Although the situation with the loss of MPIG”—

the minimum practice income guarantee—

“is, for most practices manageable, when the practices take into account other changes in funding that impact on them, the cumulative impact is significantly greater and practices such as Jubilee Street have said that if there is no mitigation against the loss the practice will not be viable… I have copied in Neil Roberts, Head of Primary Care for North Central and East London and Jane Milligan from the CCG as discussions are ongoing about the best way forward. It is also relevant to point out that this is an issue that is not limited to Tower Hamlets.”

We are hearing of numbers of practices in Hackney and Newham, two other impoverished boroughs, that are facing similar problems.

The Royal College of General Practitioners has said:

“In total, the phasing out of a key NHS funding stream called the Minimum Practice Income Guarantee…could affect a total 1,700 practices with the care of 12.2 m patients potentially under serious threat.”

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I know that the Minister is deputising for his colleague Earl Howe—that is why I would like a face-to-face meeting with Earl Howe, or indeed with the Secretary of State—but I am keen to hear his response to the points I have raised. I am sure he has some information and data for us.

In Tower Hamlets, we have some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the United Kingdom. There is the lowest life expectancy, on average, of anywhere in the UK. It is estimated that between 10% and 12% of residents are not registered on GP lists. Now, this crisis is coming to a head. I look forward to the Minister’s response, but I look forward more to a proper meeting with Earl Howe or with the Secretary of State, and I look forward most to arriving at a solution for the patients, the staff and the clinicians, so that we can protect and continue to provide first-class primary care services in Tower Hamlets.

5.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr Daniel Poulter): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, for what I believe is now the third time, and to respond to this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) not only on securing the debate but on his advocacy on behalf of local patients. We have discussed that before during meetings in my office in the Department on other issues. I am sure that my noble Friend Earl Howe will be happy to meet him, and I extend that invitation on my noble Friend’s behalf.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I apologise for intervening so early, but I do not remember having any meetings with the Minister in his office on any subject. I would not want to mislead the House, or for people to think that we had held meetings in which I had not raised this issue.

Dr Poulter: A congregation of MPs from London came to see me and I believed that the hon. Gentleman had been there, but I am obviously mistaken. I apologise for that mistake, but I can recall similar conversations in the past during meetings with other MPs from other parts of the country, in which we talked about not just GP services but other local health care services of a similar nature. During those meetings there was advocacy of similar strength to that which we have heard today.

Indeed, a previous debate in Westminster Hall, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), focused on the impact of the minimum practice income guarantee changes on more rural practices in his constituency. The topic has come to the fore for many hon. Members, who I know will wish to discuss it further with the relevant Minister. I therefore want to put on record a formal invitation to come and see my noble Friend Earl Howe to discuss the subject further at some point after this debate.

It may be helpful if I outline why the minimum practice income guarantee was set up in the first place and why it is important to change the payment structure for general practice. The minimum practice income guarantee is a top-up payment to some general medical services—GMS—practices. It was introduced as part of the 2004 GP contract to smooth transition to what were then new funding arrangements, so it is now 10 years out of date. Last year, we announced that the minimum

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practice income guarantee will start to be phased out from April 2014. We consider minimum practice income guarantee payments to be inequitable because under the system, two surgeries in the same area serving similar populations may be paid different amounts of money per registered patient.

The MPIG will be phased out over a seven-year period, as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse will know. We are phasing it out to make sure that there is more equity between what different practices in comparable areas receive per patient, and that funding follows the patient more accurately, rather than the practice. I am sure we can all sign up to that in principle. The payments will be phased out gradually with the overall intention that the funding for GP practices will be properly matched to the number of patients they serve and the health needs of the local population.

The money released by phasing out the MPIG will be reinvested in the basic payments made to all general medical services practices. Those payments are based on numbers of patients and key determinants of practice work load such as patients’ ages and health needs—deprivation is of course a driver of patients’ health needs. We are committed to making sure that patients have access to high-quality GP services wherever they live and ensuring that in the same geographical area similar practices receive effectively the same amount of funding for each patient they look after.

It is also worth highlighting the overall impact for practices, both in the country more generally and in London in particular. NHS England has undertaken analysis regarding the withdrawal of the MPIG. Inevitably, a small number of practices will lose funding, and NHS England has considered the very small number of significant outlier practices for which alternative arrangements may need to be made to ensure appropriate services are maintained for local people.

We appreciate that this is a matter of concern for some practices, including some in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency that he has mentioned today. That is why we have decided to use the next seven years to implement the changes to the MPIG, introducing them gradually through a phased transition to a new funding arrangement, rather than taking a big bang approach. Phasing the changes in over that seven-year period will allow the minority of practices that lose funding to adjust more gradually to the reduction in payments.

As the hon. Gentleman highlighted in his remarks, the changes cannot be seen in isolation but should be looked at together with the changes to the quality and outcomes framework payments for GP practices; those changes need to be set alongside the global sum paid to GMS practices. When all those factors are put together, I understand that practices in London with a GMS contract, of which there are 721, will see an overall funding increase of £731,000 resulting from the net effect of all the changes. I will write to the hon. Gentleman to outline that in detail ahead of his meeting with my noble Friend Earl Howe.

Jim Fitzpatrick: When we have that meeting with Lord Howe, it would be useful if NHS England could provide the Minister and his officials with an accurate breakdown of figures for the practices in Tower Hamlets. Given the order of deprivation, the chronic ailments and conditions, the age profiles of very elderly and very

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young people, and the language problems, even NHS England, as I quoted, is saying that the combination of changes to the minimum practice income guarantee and the quality and outcomes framework reductions is creating specific difficulties in Tower Hamlets that are not generally replicated across the rest of London.

Dr Poulter: I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman after the debate to outline the more general points, and I am sure that we can ensure that more specific details are available for him to discuss in his meeting with my noble Friend Earl Howe. NHS England has made it clear that it has been looking carefully at how it can support the practices that are most affected, through its area teams, and I am sure that it will be happy to continue a dialogue with local practices and with the hon. Gentleman to work out how further local support could be given if some practices are struggling as a result of the changes. That offer has been made to those practices that have already been identified as most affected, but NHS England is continually reviewing the matter as a pathway process for phasing in the changes.

NHS England has also suggested that those practices with very small lists, which may be particularly affected, could collaborate through federating, networking or merging with other practices nearby to provide more cost-effective services. It also suggested that it would be possible to identify other ways in which practices might improve cost efficiency, such as reviewing staffing structures and other commissioning or contracting options—for example, how some patient care services are offered in the area by collaboration. Sometimes, back office costs and inefficiencies can be reduced to free up more money for patient care. We must remember that, on the whole, GP practices are small businesses in their own right. We expect NHS England to work with GPs to support best practice and technology, and to encourage general practices to collaborate and work together, and it is happy to do so. It is expected that general practices will do what they can to help themselves, and that NHS England will work with them to facilitate that for them as small business owners.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I recognise that there is some logic in the Minister’s suggestion about smaller practices. The Jubilee Street practice has 13,000 patients. It is a big practice and is multi-handed with clinicians and staffing, and is considered to be extremely efficiently run.

Dr Poulter: Indeed. I will talk in more detail about Tower Hamlets, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that it has a long history of collaboration, efficiently run practices and good working between GPs and other community health services to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society and to address specific issues of health care and equality. The hon. Gentleman outlined that in his speech and local GPs should be proud of what they have done and their work and efforts in many cases to help deliver greater efficiencies. Nevertheless, the offer is there from NHS England to engage with area teams to see what more support can be provided. It is keen to ensure that if particular practices believe they are disadvantaged, the teams will do what they can to work with the practices to mitigate that.

It is worth talking briefly about the changes in the quality and outcomes framework. In addition to the

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minimum practice income guarantee from April this year, we have also made changes to QOF and reduced it by more than a third to free up space and time for GPs to provide more proactive and personalised care for their patients, particularly the frail elderly. One of the great frustrations that we are all aware of—medical staff, health care staff and particularly GPs—has been the amount of bureaucracy that GPs are sometimes required to undertake, which has got in the way of their being able to deliver front-line patient care and spend time with patients. The changes to QOF were welcomed by the British Medical Association and GPs because they will help reduce the bureaucratic burden and allow GPs to spend more time with patients and focus more on personalised care and more vulnerable patient groups. I think we all believe that to be a good thing and a great achievement from those GP contract negotiations.

As part of the QOF changes, we have retired indicators when they were either duplicating other incentives in the health care system, or were of low clinical value and use—for example, if they were just process measures rather than measures linked directly to patient care. We are ensuring that the payment system is strongly linked to delivering better care and improving care for patients rather than to process measures. That has sometimes been a criticism of QOF payments in the past, not least by GPs. Removal of these indicators will help to reduce bureaucracy, unnecessary patient testing and unnecessary frequency of patient recall and recording.

The money released from the changes to QOF will be reinvested in the basic payments made to all general medical services practices, to which I alluded earlier. The global sum will be reinvested through the GP contract and I understand that practices in London with a general medical services contract will overall be net beneficiaries to the tune of roughly £700,000. We welcome that, and I will give the exact figures in my letter to the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that what I have said in this debate is an accurate reflection of the situation.

I turn to Tower Hamlets and will address some of the concerns that have been raised in the debate today. We understand that some practices have particular concerns about the changes to the minimum practice income guarantee and to QOF funding. I assure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that the Government and NHS England are committed to ensuring that good, high quality primary care for local people, such as his constituents, is a priority. I understand that despite being one of the most deprived boroughs in London, Tower Hamlets has developed some outstanding general practices often as a result of the hard work and dedication of the GPs who want to address health care needs, to look after vulnerable people in society, and to ensure that the health care inequalities that we have discussed are properly addressed. His local GPs and all health care staff delivering care on the ground should be proud of that.

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As the hon. Gentleman outlined, Tower Hamlets is top in the country for blood pressure and cholesterol control for patients with diabetes, resulting in reduced complications of diabetes and reduced admissions for heart attacks. It is also top in London for MMR vaccination and for flu vaccination for the over 65s. That is an example of how, even in one of the most deprived areas with some of the greatest health care needs, local GPs, local primary care and local community care are delivering very good results for patients. It is also one of the 14 national pioneers for integrated care, a programme in which primary care will play an increasingly important role. We want to keep people out of hospital and it is vital that they are supported in their own homes and communities. Integrating primary care with community care and effective adult social services care from the local authority will be key in delivering that.

I understand that NHS England’s area team has set up a task and finish group to look at the support that might be offered to practices with membership drawn from local medical committees and the London office of the clinical commissioning group’s chief officers and the local area primary care commissioning team. I understand that NHS England’s area team in London has been in regular contact with individual practices in Tower Hamlets to offer them ongoing support regarding these changes. I am sure that after this debate, that important input and dialogue will intensify to recognise some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

We also recognise some of the challenges facing small practices in delivering the increasingly wide range of primary care services as more services move from hospital settings into the community. All health services, hospital trusts, community and mental health care providers, as well as GPs, are facing the challenge of meeting increasing demand with small increases in funding. That demand is coming from an ageing population with increasing levels of long-term conditions as well as the costs of new drugs, and patients’ expectations. Those issues are faced throughout the health service, but they are acute in Tower Hamlets. Local GPs recognise the need for flexibility in the way in which future services are provided and we need to support practices to work together to demonstrate how best to use their resources for the benefit of all their patients.

We have announced that NHS England is supporting practices as they phase in the changes to the minimum practice income guarantee and to QOF payments. There is an offer to meet my noble Friend Lord Howe and I know that NHS England will continue to do what it can to support local practices in Tower Hamlets.

Again, I put on the record my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and to the local GPs who deliver some of the best health care outcomes in England for the patients they look after.

Question put and agreed to.

5.18 pm

Sitting adjourned.