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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 10 September 2014

[Annette Brooke in the Chair]

Western Balkans

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Damian Hinds.)

9.30 am

Sir John Randall (Uxbridge and South Ruislip) (Con): It is a delight, Mrs Brooke, to see you in the Chair today. Coming back to Committee Room 10 reminds me of a few years ago, when I raised this same subject in a Westminster Hall debate. At that time, we were also in this room. The then Minister for Europe was one Geoff Hoon. Some of the themes have moved on since then, but I will return to others. It is also a delight to see the Minister. I know that this subject is not his area of expertise—the Minister for Europe is busy elsewhere—but as we are former colleagues at the Whips Office, he will remember my discussions on various subjects, which included the region we are talking about.

Almost exactly 40 years ago, I started at London university studying Serbo-Croat language and literature, and so started my knowledge of and relationship with the region. Today reminds me a little of my student days, because, due to a whole load of work that has come in my constituency in the past couple of days, I have not prepared my essay properly. As so often in the past, I will try to wing it by bluffing my way through. After 40 years, I think I have a reasonable amount of knowledge, but I have no set speech. I would have loved to have given the Minister an advance copy, but no such copy exists. Anyway—here we go.

The current fashion is for people to have a bucket list of things they want to do. For me, it is a list of things I want to get off my chest before I stand down from Parliament at the next general election. The western Balkans is an area that I feel strongly about, because it is of great interest and great importance to the European situation. As we know, it was, sadly, one of the biggest problems in Europe during the latter half of the 20th century.

History in the Balkan area is very important. Here we are, 100 years after the start of the first world war—and we know that the trigger for that was the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip. Interestingly, even now that history has an impact; a lot of people are almost trying to rewrite history or analyse it. The Serbs feel that there is almost an attempt to rewrite it as a Serbian movement when, in fact, Gavrilo Princip was a member of the Young Bosnia, or Mlada Bosna, movement. Members of his team—it was not a very experienced team—included a Bosnian Muslim and others, so it was not just a Serbian thing.

We have to be careful when we remember such events. In fact, there are echoes today, because all through what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire were groups of young people—mostly men and often students—who

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were dissatisfied and frustrated with the system. They resorted to violence, and we can see where else that is happening in the world.

Next year marks an important year in Serbian history. I will not confine my comments to Serbia; I am just starting off with it. In 1915, the Serbian nation retreated. It did quite well initially against the forces of the Austro-Hungarian empire,but it was beaten back. Bulgaria joined the war and there was a pincer movement, so the Serbs had to retreat. They did not want to be occupied, so the Serbian army, the Serbian Parliament, the Serbian King and the church—they even dug up some of their saints—moved in the middle of winter across the Albanian mountains and went on eventually, with massive sacrifice and massive numbers of deaths, to Corfu. There the British and French reclothed them and so forth and helped get them back to the Salonika front, where they fought their way up.

That was an important moment in Serbian history. It is interesting, in the context of the Balkans, that the Albanians allowed the Serbian army to come through and said that it must be unhindered. Although we sometimes hear of the rivalries today—I say “rivalries”, but they obviously go past that in some respects—these things are not always as deep-seated as people think.

I have a particular interest in this issue and, as Members will know, I am a natural retailer, so I should mention that I am helping with a play. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is also helping with it. The play, which will tour in the UK and Serbia, is about a British nurse called Flora Sandes, who went out as a nurse and ended up serving in the Serbian army. She was the only British woman who served on the front line as a woman, although there might have been some who disguised themselves.

The play will be about Flora, but also about a Serbian woman called Milunka Savic, and there will be a comparison between the two. Milunka is fascinating, because she was one of the top throwers of grenades. I do not know whether she would be called a grenadier or a bomber. The reason for her skill was that she was a shepherd. She was so used to throwing stones to frighten away wolves and things, she could pinpoint grenades with remarkable accuracy. She was one of the top marksmen with grenades.

The play is coming up, and one reason why I mention it is that it is important to realise the historical link between our nation and the Serbs in that period. We were great allies, and that has continued, except for the latter half of the 20th century and the particular period when we had the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Despite that recent history, the Serbian national view is that they want to renew that alliance with Britain, and that is something we can do in encouraging their EU aspirations.

Another point on the Salonika front is that I recently went to an exhibition at the School of Oriental and African Studies, which was just next to my old college, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. There was an exhibition on Sikhs in the Indian army in the first world war and the large number of Muslims who fought for the British—it was the British Indian army—on the Salonika front. Many of them lost their lives. We should highlight that the divides between nations and religions and everything else are not clear-cut. Sometimes, things are polarised in today’s world.

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Obviously, the history of close co-operation carried on into the second world war. History must always be in our minds in the Balkan region. I am delighted to see two hon. Members from Northern Ireland here. That region is another example of where we should never forget history, but that does not mean we have to be a slave to it. Northern Ireland is a good example of how we can move on. Some of these regions with divides in their communities can learn from the example of Northern Ireland, and that is why I am particularly delighted to see the two hon. Members.

The history is deeply rooted and for the Serbs it goes back a long way—to the mediaeval period. We all know about Kosovo and all that. There is a sense of being a victim, which was further accentuated in the last part of the 20th century. We must also be aware of some of the terrible things that occurred in Europe in the latter half of the 20th century. Srebrenica, for example, is probably the most obvious and highlighted of the appalling things that happened. I do not think that I will have time during the remainder of my parliamentary career to visit the area, but I hope to be able to, because one has to understand exactly what went on.

Other things went on, however, and one side was certainly not responsible for them all. There are no definite goodies and baddies in such situations; there are lots of both. I recently discovered that the Special Investigative Task Force under lead prosecutor John Clint Williamson has been examining the claims of atrocities—I should perhaps say “alleged atrocities”, but I think we have got past that and that he said that there were atrocities—committed in Kosovo by alleged members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. That has gone a long way to helping people in the region realise that it is not only the victors who say that everything was done against them and that investigations will happen for all concerned.

The problem for so much of central and south-eastern Europe—we are seeing it even further east in Ukraine—lies with realising that the countries are not homogeneous. The peoples who live in those countries are from a wide range of ethnic groupings. One village might speak Serbian while the next might speak Slovak. That is what makes the whole thing so complicated and is a common theme when minorities and their rights are being sorted out.

I want to move briefly on to the use of depleted uranium during bombing and the related health consequences, which are always somewhere at the back of Serb minds, and not only theirs. I do not think the issue has been properly investigated. In 1999, there was a report by someone called Bakary Kante from the UN Environment Programme, but I am not sure whether it has been properly published. We must get such things out into the open.

I am no expert on the south-west of England, but I believe that the recent severe flooding did not greatly affect the East Devon constituency of the Minister—I imagine that it was not very good, but it probably was not appalling. However, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular have experienced extreme flooding. We only heard a little about it, but I was delighted that Britain, as part of a European-wide aid programme, did an awful lot to help. We are possibly victims of not

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blowing our trumpet and of not letting the Serbs and Bosnians understand how much we sympathise and how much practical help we gave.

There have been many instances throughout the country of individuals and organisations—not national Governments and not even necessarily non-governmental organisations—helping mutually and I found an interesting case the other day. If the Minister for Europe had been here, he would have been particularly interested, because it revolves around his old school. I have discovered that Northwood prep, among other projects around the world including Africa and India through something called the Francis Terry Foundation, has been helping to build kindergartens and play areas in a couple of villages—I think they are villages, but one must be careful—in the Nish area called Toponica and Matejevac. The facilities are allowing people who may otherwise have had to move to the cities, which is a problem in such areas, to have their kids looked after at home. The school has also been visited by the Crown Prince of Serbia and, I think, will be making a trip to a concert in Serbia. That is just one example. An advantage of the internet is that we can link schools and organisations much more easily when compared with the old town-twinning process, which was clunky and involved people going over there and all the related expenses. It is a great way to learn about other peoples.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The right hon. Gentleman said that he was bluffing his way through his speech, so I commend him, based on the past 15 minutes, on perfecting the art. Does he agree that many UK faith organisations also get involved with offers of help and assistance to the Balkans, particularly through the internet? Given the extent of the deprivation, particularly among young children in some areas, considerable help is being offered, and that should be promoted.

Sir John Randall: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. In fact, some years ago—as I became lost into the Whips Office, some of the dates have passed me by and have been put to one side, like all the memories I have of who did what to whom and when—I remember being closely involved with a faith organisation that was working in several areas of the Balkans. It still does tremendous work, because there is still incredible deprivation among some Roma populations and in some rural areas.

Since being released from the Whips Office, human trafficking and modern slavery have been of great interest to me. In that context, I visited Albania, which was the only country in the region that I had not visited. When I was a student, I would not have been allowed to go to Albania, because I had a beard and in the days of Enver Hoxha that might have made one appear to be an orthodox priest or something, although I am not sure that I resembled such a priest in any other way. However, I was encouraged, because I suppose that I listened over the years to a lot of the propaganda about what was going on in Albania. It is a poor country, but it is making efforts. However, modern slavery and human trafficking must really be considered across the whole region. I say to all those countries that aspire to join the EU, which may be some way off, that that is something

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on which they can really show leadership by trying to sort it out. Albania is doing what it can, but they all have a long way to go.

Kosovo is obviously probably the thorniest problem in the area, and some countries within the EU still have not recognised an independent Kosovo. The Serbs and the Kosovans have some form of agreement. It will never be far away from becoming a problem, but Baroness Ashton brought people together in a positive move, which should be encouraged. I do not expect an answer today, as this is not the Minister’s area of responsibility, but he could perhaps look into a question for me. When I last visited Kosovo a few years ago, people were still living in containers in some of the enclaves after being displaced from their homes. I am not sure whether that is the current situation, but I was appalled at the time that people in Europe should still be living like that after many years. Perhaps he could look into the matter. Also, some sacred monuments were still having to be guarded by NATO troops, because, even though they are centuries old, they were seen as indicating that Serbian culture had been on that territory, so I would welcome a note at some stage from his colleagues at the Foreign Office on the current situation.

Macedonia, as I am sure people realise, suffers not only from similar problems, but from a problem that I find incredible in today’s world: an EU country is resisting things because it does not think that Macedonia should use the name “Macedonia”. Now that I have raised that in Parliament, I will get e-mails and hate letters from Greek nationalists, as I did the last time that I mentioned it. I remember that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited Macedonia when he was an Opposition shadow Minister. When he came back, he wrote an article in The Guardian—one of his favoured organs, I am sure—asking how people in Greece would like to referred to as living in the “former Ottoman province of Greece”.

That such objections go on these days is incredible, but I am aware of the sensitivities. Greece thinks that Macedonia, by having that name, has its sights on territory further down in Thrace and so forth. If we cannot sort out an agreement on a name in the EU, however, our chance of sorting out some of the finer points is a little worrying. Macedonia still has huge problems, not only between the Macedonians and the Macedonian Albanians, but with a large number of other peoples there.

Montenegro I used to know well. Members may know it still, because it has a beautiful coastline, although it is not all coastline; a lot of it is harsh karst scenery and a tough place to live. Montenegro got its independence, but has a huge problem with law and order. It also has a huge problem with smuggling and has a large amount of Russian investment, although perhaps the Russians are moving that to the Crimea at the moment, who knows, because Montenegro has EU aspirations and will be trying to untie slightly the close links that most of the Slavic countries in the area have with Russia. We need to help, because what is going on in Montenegro is a bit of a blot on the whole process.

Serbia I have spoken about, but I will return to it briefly, because I feel that it is moving forward. A lot is still to be done and the British and the EU can encourage the Serbs. We in the UK have a role to play, because of the traditional alliance that we had with them. The

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more that we can say that is where we are coming from, the better. I am not always simply being charitable; there is a huge opportunity for British trade in the area. Unfortunately, some of the practices in some of those countries do not encourage British trade. In fact, those who are in the diaspora tend to be the pioneers in the area. I commend an organisation, which I know quite well: the Serbian City Club. Young professionals in the UK of Serbian origin are doing an awful lot to encourage people.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. As he says, there is an opportunity in the area for business and investment. My understanding is that the Germans have invested fairly heavily in the agri-foods sector. What more can we do to encourage British businesses to invest there, and what conditions do we need to make it feasible for them to do so?

Sir John Randall: That is a good question. We have to think of ways to give confidence to UK businesses. There have been examples of rather strange practices, such as someone who has signed up an agreement, only to find that the mayor of the local town has changed and that that is no longer the case—company law is not well recognised. Northern Ireland could have huge agricultural possibilities in the Balkans. One of the things that I was looking at with someone, which is still possible, was the organic market and for us to import organic. Given the nature of the situation in those countries over the years, they did not get around to putting all the fertilisers and other things down, so there is huge potential. There are other needs—for example, Serbia would have to get goods through Montenegro on to the coast overland—and such matters would need to be sorted out, because a lot of food, especially fresh food, has to be got out quickly.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is not an area I know well now, although I used to know it well. That is one of the tragedies for me. When I was a student going around Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina seemed to me to be the place where everyone got along together. There was rivalry between Serbia and Croatia, and I could feel the tension in Kosovo between the native Kosovan Albanians and the Serbs living there, but in Bosnia, in spite of the presence of all the different mixes, everyone seemed to get along. The complete and utter tragedy of what happened indicates that we are never far away from disaster—we should never take things for granted. From what I understand, Bosnia still has a long way to go. As someone astutely observed to me, Dayton was a good peace agreement and ceasefire, but it is not a settlement for the country. That is a huge problem, but one we have to deal with.

I have certainly taken up enough time. I can see the relief coming in from Ulster in the Chamber, as always—

David Simpson: Coalition!

Sir John Randall: We will talk about that later. [Laughter.] I am demonstrating the strength of the Union.

As I might not have the opportunity to raise the subject of the western Balkans again, certainly given the length of time I have left in my parliamentary

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career, may I say that I was delighted to see that Arminka Helic, a former special adviser to the now Leader of the House, has been elevated to the Lords? She originates from Bosnia and knows much about the area. I am sure that the House of Lords will hear a lot of informed views over the coming years.

I thank Mr Speaker for giving me the opportunity of the debate. Even when I am no longer in Parliament, I will raise the subject of the Balkans, because like so many things—similar to the modern slavery issue, but going back a long way for me, 40 years—once it gets under your skin, however frustrating the Balkans is, it is one of the most fascinating areas of Europe. We should be delighted to have an opportunity to do what we can for it.

9.57 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke, and to make a contribution to the debate.

Last week, when my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) was in this Chamber, we were the second largest party; today, we are equal first—numerically, there is a coalition today between the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party. The Labour party is here in third place, but there we are, and that will probably change as well—

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): He who is last shall be first.

Jim Shannon: Absolutely. As the good book says, and we adhere to it.

I thank the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) for securing this important debate. Again, I am glad to have the opportunity to make a contribution.

For many of us the Balkans is an area that we know because of the war that took place there, or because we have had holidays there—in parts, it has become a tourist destination. At the end of the day, we have an interest in it, because we want to see it succeed, its people return to prosperity and an end to the conflict and wars. The right hon. Gentleman, in his introduction, referred to the position there. In Northern Ireland, we have come through a fairly horrific war as well; the terrorist campaign left more than 3,000 dead. As a country, we have moved forward, because we felt that that was the way to do it. There had to be a partnership Government, based on all parties. Perhaps there is a lesson there for the Balkans—indeed there is—to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

The aim of the Berlin conference was to send a message of support for the Balkan countries’ European ambitions and to bolster the promises that the European Union made to those countries in more self-confident days. Those promises now seem uncertain, particularly as tensions and security concerns within the region remain. There is a clear need to help the economies in those countries to create jobs—creating jobs will create prosperity and, we hope, stability. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) made a salient intervention on the agri-food industry. The Balkans

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are ripe for modernisation and new agricultural ideas. Jobs will come off the back of that, as well as self-sufficiency. We should aim to make that happen.

Even in the midst of its own internal crisis and the worsening global crises from Ukraine to Iraq, Europe can ill afford to neglect the one region in which the EU has assumed full leadership as a foreign and security policy actor. Negative developments in the Balkans could reverse gains in the region, such as those made in Serbia and Kosovo, increase instability in other countries on the EU’s immediate borders and further weaken Europe’s credibility and cohesion. As the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip said, the Balkans are a vital region; the area is as important now as it was historically and the concerns are just as great today.

It should be acknowledged that the nations of the western Balkans face significant economic difficulties that are not of their own making. Their relative distance from the EU’s largest and wealthiest markets and their proximity to Greece mean that they have felt the impact of Europe’s economic crisis more than most, which is no doubt part of the reason for their enthusiasm about joining a group of economically friendly states. All member states have been hit hard by the recession, but have had one another to depend on, trade with and, in some cases, even borrow from; there has been real deprivation in many parts of the Balkans, and putting food on the table has been a problem for many people. Some people have been unable to do so: the Library information pack says that in some areas of the Balkans, up to 90% of the population are unable to get food on a regular basis. That is the reality for many people there.

At the same time, there is some confidence, because many people in the Balkans felt that 2014 was a year in which things were going to get better; in a way, they have, although not really to the extent that people had hoped. We still hope that that will happen. The first aim should be to reduce the political risk factors involved in doing business in the region. The Balkan wars are a fading memory for most of us, but there has been little in the way of real reconciliation. The different ethnic communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina continue to live separate lives. Serbia has normalised relations with Kosovo, but does not really recognise it. Even Greece’s unresolved objection to describing the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as Macedonia damages the politics of the region. The fight over words and the historical issues are important. While those dividing lines and hostilities remain, investment will look like a risk, rather than a sure thing. Those who want to invest need to be reassured by the people in the area that things are moving forward.

Countries in the region are already members of various regional European groupings such as the Organisation of the Black Sea Economic Co-operation, the Central European Initiative and the Central European Free Trade Agreement. More importantly, their shared will to become members of international organisations, such as the EU, NATO or the Council of Europe, denotes common political interests and similar attitudes towards the international environment.

While all that is happening, we have the Russian bear, in the shape of Putin, looking towards eastern states and the Balkans, where Russia once had influence. It is with some concern that we look from afar at Putin’s expansionist policies and wonder where they will end.

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The western Balkan countries have made significant progress in improving regional security and moving towards EU integration, especially in the bilateral relations between Serbia and Kosovo, internally in Bosnia and Herzegovina and with regard to the EU integration of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The biggest contribution to regional security co-operation has been the signing of the framework agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, which launched the basis for peaceful and regular communication between the two. That agreement should work as a benchmark for other regions in the Balkans. It may only be small at the moment, but there is a foundation in place, which I believe could serve as a marker for the future.

Despite all the positive developments in regional security co-operation, there are still security challenges that require attention from all, and dealing with those challenges needs to be the second aim for the region. We need to see advancements in the fight against organised crime, for example: there are groups in the area that are clearly real organised crime groups; it is not just what we see in the films. My colleague in the other place, Lord Morrow, has brought forward a Bill on human trafficking for Northern Ireland, which I believe would set a precedent for the whole United Kingdom. My hon. Friends agree, and we have suggested to the UK Government that they should look at that Bill as a precedent for other measures for the United Kingdom. We all recognise, as Lord Morrow does, that human trafficking is an issue we face. It is an issue in the Balkans and is part of the organised crime there.

Dealing with political extremism and radical structures is also crucial for the Balkans to achieve long-term security and stability. There has been a significant decline in ordinary crime in the western Balkans, but organised crime and corruption—mainly drug trafficking, money laundering and human trafficking—are still present and have a great impact, facilitated by poor law enforcement.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned the work of faith groups. The Minister and I have talked about that on many occasions—I am pleased to see him in his place today, because I know his response will be helpful—and he knows about the good work the faith groups in the area do. I am aware of it from not just a spiritual but a practical point of view: those church groups help people to realise their ambitions and potential, and do fantastic work.

In conclusion, to reduce the risk of escalating outbursts of violence, the international community’s engagement and presence in the region continue to be necessary. Accountability, currently the weakest element in security sector governance in the western Balkan countries, needs further support.

I have already asked your permission to leave early, Mrs Brooke, as I have a meeting with the Thalidomide Trust. I have spoken to the Minister and the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip as well. If I leave at about 10.25 am, I hope you know that I will have done so for no other reason than that I have to be somewhere else.

10.7 am

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I am sorry I did not put in a note to ask to speak, Mrs Brooke: I was inspired to speak partly by the speech of

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my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) and partly because I have just returned from Bosnia and Herzegovina. That trip was my third visit since 2009. My right hon. Friend said he did not have much experience of Bosnia and Herzegovina; perhaps those three trips have given me a little experience. Also, in the past I was a history teacher—and not a bad one—so I can claim some knowledge from that.

I want to give hon. Members a flavour of those visits. I first went out in 2009, before the election, as part of a project called Project Maja, set up by Baroness Warsi to get politicians to go out to places and do some work there. We raised some money over here, working with another charity, the Fund for Refugees in Slovenia, which is led by a remarkable lady who I think is well known to the Minister—Lady Nott, the wife of Sir John Nott, the former Secretary of State for Defence. She set up that charity, which is still going, and she still works tirelessly to help mainly refugees from the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s. She had incredible support from Baroness Thatcher on the quiet, and the charity has raised millions over the years to rebuild homes and villages that had been destroyed.

We raised money to help Lady Nott’s efforts to rebuild two more houses up in the villages above Srebrenica. I am sure hon. Members can imagine what it was like going to Srebrenica in 2009. I went again this year, and the divisions are still palpable. Hon. Members from Northern Ireland may know more about that than I do: the only division I really know and understand is the one between Lancashire and Yorkshire—and long may it remain. We felt the tension on the streets when we were living in Srebrenica. We went up into the hills to finish rebuilding these buildings using the money we had raised with the help of Lady Nott. I never managed to congratulate her formally on being awarded the OBE in 2013, which was some recognition for the tireless work she has undertaken in that region.

We were stood in this village with a lady—we had managed to raise some money to help repair her house—in this incredibly beautiful country, almost like Switzerland up in the hills. We asked her why she had come back. This lady had lost three sons, a husband and two of her brothers-in-law. They were all killed. She was a Bosniak—a Bosnian Muslim—and had had to flee. Her house had been burned down. She came back with her daughter-in-law and her little grandchild. That was all that was left of her family.

This lady said—through a translator, of course, and a lot more was perhaps lost in the translation—“They will not win” and that they had come back for the sake of the family who were killed. We could see Serbia—we could almost touch it across the valley—yet they had come back with the immense support of the charity set up by Lady Nott.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) on introducing the debate. I know something of the feeling that has just been expressed: that we will not allow them to win. That has carried many people in Northern Ireland through very difficult days with the IRA. However, the scars of war last a very long time. With war come deprivation, poverty, grief and division.

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How does the hon. Gentleman feel the international community has helped the area he is speaking about to heal those scars of war?

Eric Ollerenshaw: The people in that particular incident are aware of the international community and of the Dayton agreement, which I will say something about. However, it is even more important for them to see British politicians, such as ourselves. I was out there with my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is now a Minister in the Foreign Office. He laid out a football pitch in this village—and, of course, given his military training, was ordering the rest of us around, but that is another story.

We felt that it was at least something tangible for those people to see politicians from what they regard as the other end of the world trying to help them, aside from the high-ranking meetings that had gone on, the treaties and all the rest of it. I do not know whether that is the case in Northern Ireland. The human dimension and human contact are one of the greatest touchstones. We were from mixed religions, of course.

The lady we met told us that people had grown up in these villages as a mix of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Bosniak Muslims. They had grown up and played together. They had gone to church or to mosque on high days and holidays. This terrible thing then happened that divided them. Srebrenica is actually in Republika Srpska, which is part of Bosnia. I have been to Bosnia three times and I still find it really difficult to work out how that country is managed politically.

One of the points I want to make is that the Dayton agreement ended the bloodshed, but it is as though Bosnia and Herzegovina is frozen in time and cannot move forward. The international community has huge issues to consider in Syria, which we are about to debate in the Chamber, and in the east, but we cannot forget, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip said in his introduction, that we are talking now about where the spark that started the first world war happened. We still have unreconciled issues. Although there is no fighting going on, we should not forget that there is a need to move Bosnia and Herzegovina on. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, Serbia may join the European Community, as Croatia has. That would be a great thing. However, to leave Bosnia and Herzegovina out when they regard themselves as the victims seems to me to be a dangerous miscalculation.

Sir John Randall: My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. I will have to talk to him more about Bosnia after the debate. Although in some respects I am not the greatest fan of the EU for ourselves, these countries’ aspiration to get into the EU at some stage—although it is some way off—will drive them together. They could ultimately be a Balkan bloc in the EU, which could be a uniting factor.

Eric Ollerenshaw: My right hon. Friend is exactly right. He mentioned the floods. We saw the evidence of the floods. That is another thing we should not forget: there are still thousands of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in Serbia, without a roof over their heads. The fact that the floods have gone away and are not on the television, as it were, does not mean that the

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aid should stop and that we should forget about them. My right hon. Friend is exactly right. The point goes back to what I said to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea): the human contact will be a great help to push past the history.

My right hon. Friend spoke about the history. I want to give an anecdote from my first trip in 2009. As an ex-history teacher, I spent the whole trip trying to explain about the Habsburg empire. I will not go into the history curriculum, but a really good thing about this Government is that we are getting back to a proper history curriculum, so people might know what the Habsburg empire was. That is a side issue.

We visited Sarajevo and went to the spot where the archduke and his wife were assassinated. We then went to the biggest mosque in the city to meet the Grand Mufti, the head of the Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One sometimes wishes we had a Grand Mufti in Britain; that might help in certain senses. He was recognised as the leading figure among Muslims. The mosque was in the Ottoman style, and we sat on very low benches. The Grand Mufti came in; he clearly was the Grand Mufti from everything he was wearing: he looked like something from an Ottoman court, a great man. He first words, in English—remember this was 2009—were, “This mosque is the Emperor’s mosque. It was restored by the Emperor Franz Joseph. The last time Bosnia and Herzegovina was run properly was by the Habsburgs.” We could see the shades of the history that my right hon. Friend talked about pouring down on us.

I went back in 2011, again as part of Project Maja, to help redo a special needs school. That was alongside my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart). We were working alongside Bosnian politicians, trying to help out in a special needs school, because that school made no distinction about religion. That was a real opportunity to demonstrate something.

Finally, I went out this year with my hon. Friends the Members for Redditch (Karen Lumley), for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), and also with a Member of the House of Lords, the Earl of Courtown. I remember a remarkable situation. We were discussing with Bosnian politicians how there had been no movement from Dayton and that they were stuck in a tripartite situation. The chairman of the Bosnian party explained how one of the issues they had was trying to move on from what was essentially a feudal system. The Earl of Courtown said that his situation was, of course, feudal as well. The chairman replied that his was also because he was an hereditary Bey from the days of the Ottoman empire. Nothing much changes.

I have been to Srebrenica three times to see the memorial and have taken new Members to it. One of my proudest moments in this Parliament was in July two years ago, when the British Government became the first Government in Europe to have a solemn memorial at Lancaster House in recognition of the Srebrenica massacre. That memorial was held for the second time last year.

On my recent visit, we had a long meeting with the International Commission on Missing Persons, which, if any good can come out of such terrible things, is perhaps a good, because of the training it has provided

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in Bosnia in finding and tracing families and remains through DNA. It should not be forgotten that the graves of many people who were massacred were dug up, and the bones scattered, in a deliberate attempt to prevent families from being traced. The commission has much support, including that of Britain—and long may that continue. Its techniques are now being used across the world.

I want in particular to express my respect for Adam Boys, who has been in the region for 20 years as a commission director; I think he has said that this will be his last year before returning. He has done incredible work. It is funny to discover what a small world it is: when I first met him three years ago he told me that as a boy he spent all his summer holidays in Fleetwood, which is clearly a preparation for becoming a director of the International Commission on Missing Persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Our group went to a room where there were more than 1,000 separate bags of remains—bones—whose DNA was still being tracked. I must admit that I had not thought about this before, but it was explained to us how originally an attempt was made to trace people using their clothing; however, clothing can be misinterpreted, and it rots, in time. Using DNA requires the DNA of living family members, but we can imagine that if someone has survived a massacre, and then some official wants their DNA, they will be extremely suspicious. It has taken years to convince families that it may be a way of tracing people.

We went to Srebrenica and laid flowers—that small but important thing that humans do as a form of recognition. We talked to an old lady there, from Mothers of Srebrenica. She said that at least this year she had something of her 14-year-old son, who had been lost. She had two bones that had been found, which were traceable as his, and she said that at least she had been able to have a burial. Bosnia and Herzegovina have left the television screens, and the events may even be taught as part of modern history—they will be seen as something that happened. However, the situation has not, in fact, moved on a great deal. It is perhaps not a priority for the international community, and that is worrying and dangerous for the long term.

The principal reason for our visit this year was, following what the previous Foreign Secretary did to raise sexual violence in war up the agenda, to assist Medica Zenica—in the town of Zenica. The charity was created after the war to help women scarred by sexual violence in the war, as well as children who resulted from that sexual violence. We had raised some money for an extension to the charity, and being humble Members of Parliament we were put to work painting walls. That was some help, but the real help was perhaps in raising the money and highlighting the charity.

We spent two days doing that work. The children of the sexual violence that happened are now in their 20s. What is a mother to say to their son or daughter about what happened and where they came from—in a society where religious background is critical? I pay tribute to the continued work of Medica Zenica.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip spoke about travelling in Albania. During our visit we were told that one of the next big things to deal with was the trafficking across Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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There were children there; we could not be told where they had come from for reasons of legal protection, but clearly the trade was moving through.

Sir John Randall: I did not want to imply that it was only Albania that had those problems. It is the whole area. Some places are destinations, some are transit areas, and some are where the victims come from, but the whole region is involved.

Eric Ollerenshaw: I understand that. There are boundaries that to some are not boundaries—a Croat in Bosnia can enter Croatia and a Serb in Bosnia Herzegovina can enter Serbia, and so on. The issue that I want to raise is that the Bosniak population, essentially a Muslim population, has nowhere else. They are European Muslims. In one sense, given the way that the world is and the way communities are behaving, they are the Muslim group—European Muslims who have been Muslim for hundreds of years—that should be a force in Europe, showing that there is a form of moderate Islam, which works.

I have given a personal account of three visits to part of the Balkans. I have only once been to the Serbian side, to Belgrade. I suppose that other hon. Members who have made more such trips than I have will have felt as I did before flying home, and wondered how such things could happen in such an incredibly beautiful country. That is the thought that leads us on.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip for raising the issue. Perhaps, although the western Balkans are absent from television screens, this debate will highlight the huge issues that remain for our Government and other European Governments to deal with, so that they do not forget.

10.26 am

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): A Tory MP’s retirement is not always a moment for sadness on the Labour Benches, but I feel that the House will be a little poorer for the departure of the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall), partly because of his good sense of humour, but also—in today’s context—because of his knowledge of and interest in the western Balkans. I congratulate him, in the usual way, on securing the debate and on the way he introduced the subject, despite constituency pressures.

I had the privilege of visiting Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Kosovo as an International Development Minister in the previous Government—in 2004, I believe. I welcome the opportunity to return to some of the issues that I looked at then and to join other Members in assessing the progress, or lack of it, since that time.

The right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip referred in passing to depleted uranium, and I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s response. His comments reminded me of one element of my visit 10 years ago, which was to consider the funding that the Department for International Development was giving to the work of de-mining charities. I suspect that there is still a huge amount of unexploded ordnance in the Balkans as a result of the recent conflicts. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister, although perhaps not now, about the matter that the right hon. Gentleman raised and the more general one of how Britain and the EU might continue to help deal with unexploded ordnance.

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The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an interesting speech and dwelt at one point on the impact of organised crime and human trafficking in the western Balkans, touching on the potential impact on our shores. It would be helpful to hear more from the Minister about how UK Government resources are helping to tackle the continued threat to our borders from organised crime in the western Balkans.

As one history teacher to another, I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). He gave a powerful account of the terrible trauma of the mother who had only just received a small part of the remains of her 14-year-old son. We remember not only those who lost their lives in the conflict, but those families still living who do not know what happened to some of their missing relatives, or have had no remains returned to them and therefore have no closure. That is extremely important.

The 1990s, as hon. Members recognise, saw the violent break-up of former Yugoslavia. As we have touched on, the scars from those conflicts still run very deep in much of the western Balkans. The right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip and the hon. Member Lancaster and Fleetwood alluded to the massacre in Srebrenica, which stands out as probably one of the worst moments of a truly dreadful period in the region’s history.

The period since then has seen a gradual return to basic political stability, but the recent financial crisis and the economic traumas that that ushered in have had a big impact on the lives of many people in the region. Political and economic stability and, crucially, better governance matter very much in the western Balkans and further conflict would inevitably have an impact here in the UK. The central point made by the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip that the House must continue to pay attention to events in that part of Europe’s back garden was extremely well made.

The hon. Member for Strangford alluded to the considerable economic challenges. Unemployment, especially youth unemployment, remains extremely high throughout the western Balkans, while levels of economic growth are low at best, and organised crime and corruption still have too strong a hold.

Croatia joined the European Union recently and membership remains a powerful attraction for other countries in the region, helping to incentivise reform. Important as Britain’s direct relationship is with each individual country and their political leaders in the western Balkans, it is perhaps their relationship with the European Union that matters most in geopolitical terms, although, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, Russia remains a powerful near neighbour.

If the Minister does nothing else in response to my comments, I hope he will dwell on how he sees the relationship between the European Union and the western Balkans developing. For example, how will crucial finance institutions, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development or the European Investment Bank develop their role in the region? What are the priorities for European neighbourhood budget funding for the region? How does the Minister see the political relationship between the countries of the western Balkans and the

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EU developing? Despite the current challenges they all face, are all the western Balkan countries potential candidates for accession to the EU in due course?

I turn to individual countries. Kosovo is particularly poor economically compared with others in the region, with more than half the population living in poverty. The tensions between the ethnic Serb minority and the Albanian majority are still very evident. The EU brokered an important deal in 2013 in an effort to normalise relations between the two communities, with ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo having their own police and appeal court, but they are now voting for the same local government bodies as Albanians. It would be helpful to hear the Minister’s assessment of how those new arrangements are working on the ground.

I understand that Kosovo possesses considerable mineral resources, but agriculture is still its main economic activity. It would be good to hear whether the Minister is aware of any efforts, perhaps encouraged by the EU or specific financial institutions, such as the World Bank, to encourage development of those resources.

Serbia began accession talks with the EU in January. Given its recent history, Serbia’s progress has been remarkable and its political leaders deserve praise for that progress. It became a stand-alone, sovereign republic only in the summer of 2006 after Montenegro voted for independence from the post-Milosevic union of Serbia and Montenegro. The evolution of its relationship with Kosovo has been particularly challenging for the Serbian people and even now, despite the EU-brokered deal with Kosovo, Serbia insists that it does not recognise its former province’s independence.

There has been the challenge of rounding up the former senior political and military figures from Serbia’s most brutal past to face justice in The Hague, a crucial and important part of Serbia’s recent journey. How does the Minister view the EU’s talks with Serbia, and when might accession take place? One thing that Ministers, Back Benchers and the Opposition can do is to visit political leaders in the western Balkans and encourage reform. It would be good to hear whether Ministers have visited Serbia recently to continue to encourage progress towards EU accession.

Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Unemployment remains high at 13%, and poor quality infrastructure and corruption continue to deter significant foreign investment. Transparency International says that Albania remains the most corrupt country in Europe. Clearly, sorting out that corruption and tackling organised crime remain two of the principal elements for Albania’s future progress. I understand that those two issues had originally motivated in part the Government’s opposition to Albania’s candidature for EU membership. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister specifically what changed the Government’s mind in June.

If media reports are to be believed, the Prime Minister has made it clear that any future accessions will have to be subject to new transitional controls. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister a little more about the Government’s thinking about the nature of those new transitional controls that might be imposed on Albania as part of any accession agreement.

Bosnia and Herzegovina faces a particularly challenging future, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South

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Ruislip acknowledged, with ongoing political instability and huge economic challenges, coupled with the remaining deep ethnic divides. There is 40% unemployment at the moment, and almost 60% unemployment among the young. Corruption is a huge issue and includes accusations of a series of privatisation scams that are holding back economic development

The right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip referred to the Dayton peace agreement, which was signed in Ohio in 1995. It forced the two sides in the Bosnian war to form a single country, but with two sets of state institutions, laws and Parliaments, as well as a federal Government. Efforts to reform that system of government—it took almost 16 months to produce a federal Government after the last election—have not been successful, and resentment at the state of politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the economy has produced considerable anger with demonstrations in February, talk of a Bosnian spring and the leadership of the ethnic Serbs in the Republika Srpska arguing for independence from Bosnia. How does the Minister see the future for Bosnia and what further efforts does he expect from, for example, the EU—perhaps the new High Representative—to help to broker a more sustainable political settlement in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Macedonia has emerged, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, from a particularly difficult year in 2001, with agreement recently that it should become a candidate for EU membership. Again, corruption remains a challenge and political tensions remain too, following elections in April. An assessment of Macedonia’s political situation and how quickly progress towards EU accession might happen would be welcome from the Minister.

In summary, the western Balkans remain a politically fragile and very economically challenged part of Europe’s neighbourhood, and it is incumbent on the UK to play a role in continuing to encourage an easing of those political tensions and economic progress. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how he sees the UK’s role in doing exactly that.

10.40 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) on securing the debate. As he said, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe would have been delighted to respond, but he is currently travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip for his long-term interest in and contribution to our relations with the western Balkans. I thank the all-party parliamentary groups for their important role in building links with the region. He said that he had not prepared a speech; clearly, he did not need to. Perhaps if more Members spoke from knowledge and from the heart, as he did this morning, rather than just reading out prepared scripts, this place would be all the better for it. He is steeped in the Serbo-Croat language and literature and knows what he is talking about, which can, in this place, be both dangerous and place him in an almost unique position.

The UK’s relationship with the western Balkans is long and deep, as we have heard from both sides of the House. We reflected on that relationship this summer,

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as we commemorated the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. The fact that, in effect, the first shots of the war rang out in Sarajevo, as we all know, reminds us why the stability and security of that region are so important to our country and the world.

My right hon. Friend has given valuable support to the commemoration activity. He alluded to the role played by Flora Sandes, Britain’s pioneering combatant in the war, and I much enjoyed the reasons he gave for the throwing of grenades, from the previous training as a shepherd. I am particularly pleased that my Department will be involved in touring the play, which I believe is coming over to the UK.

The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), who speaks for the Opposition, mentioned Srebrenica, as did others. How could we debate the western Balkans without mentioning it? I hope that my right hon. Friend, when he has more time, will travel to Srebrenica. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), again, in a very inspiring and knowledgeable speech, alluded to the expertise and knowledge that he had gained from travelling there on a number of occasions. He also mentioned the Fund for Refugees in Slovenia—of which I still, I should declare, remain a trustee—and the work of the founder of the fund, Lady Nott, who he said I know well. Actually, I know Lady Nott so well that she woke me up this morning—before the salacious gossip mongers and writers get too excited about that, I should also confess that she is, in fact, my mother-in-law. She has done a remarkable job and continues to do so.

I also pay tribute to the fact that we now recognise the charity Remembering Srebrenica and we are doing more, on an annual basis, to remember the horrors that went on. The Fund for Refugees still does incredibly good work without any Government resource in rebuilding the shattered communities around Srebrenica. It is all privately funded. I have never quite understood why we do not fund it, but I am not allowed to go down that road really. I urge the shadow Minister and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, when they go to Srebrenica, to see some of the work that the fund has done in trying to plant orchards and rebuild communities, very often without men, because the men are simply not there. It has done a remarkable job and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood for raising it, as I know he has been a stalwart supporter of it.

My hon. Friend mentioned the issue of moderate Muslims in that part of the world, which is a key point. I think that there is evidence of some radicalisation now taking place, and that needs to be looked at and stamped out very quickly indeed.

The need for stability in the western Balkans remains a crucial priority today. The UK has, for two decades, been a providing a significant contribution to that, along with our NATO and EU allies. We demonstrated our commitment with our swift response to the devastating floods in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier this year. The UK provided the team leader for the EU-wide civil protection response, other experts for the broader EU effort and emergency equipment, including radios and vehicles. In addition, at the recent international donors’ conference, the UK pledged an initial £2 million bilaterally for reconstruction work—the sort of work

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that the hon. Member for Harrow West will be familiar with from his time as a Minister of State in the Department for International Development.

It is, however, sadly too soon to say that the western Balkans have achieved the irreversible stability and prosperity that the people of the region deserve. Many challenges remain—we have heard about them this morning—from corruption, weak governance and shaky institutions to a lack of the rule of law in some places. Security is not yet entrenched, and, as is obvious from the nationalist rhetoric and Republika Srpska’s secessionist aspirations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that remains the case there. Those are their challenges but our concerns. The security and stability of the Balkans and the rest of Europe are interdependent. Neither containment nor neglect are the answer. That is why we are proactive in helping the Governments in the region to try to tackle those issues through political and economic reform.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the EU. The EU and NATO accession processes are the best means to drive that reform and are the only source, frankly, of long-term stability in the region. Although we have seen significant progress in the past few years, not least in Croatia’s accession to the EU in 2013, the integration of the region into Euro-Atlantic structures remains unfinished. There is work to be done. The UK is committed to supporting the further enlargement of the EU with all the western Balkans, on the basis of firm but fair conditionality.

The hon. Gentleman talked about future legislation to do with population changes, which is a very topical subject here in the United Kingdom at the moment. The conditionality that I referred to must also help ensure that future enlargements will not lead to mass migrations. It is clear that transitional controls on free movement for future enlargements cannot be done, as was done in the past. We want to start a debate in the EU about what new arrangements might look like, but they must be robust and command public confidence.

Mr Thomas: Will the Minister set out what he or the Government see those new transitional arrangements looking like? I appreciate that he wants a debate, but to have a debate, one needs to have an initial idea. What is the Government’s idea?

Mr Swire: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that he will not agree to any new member state joining the EU until new transitional controls are in place, and that would represent something new and important. We have worked hard with our European partners to ensure that the previous weaknesses of the enlargement processes are addressed with rigorous and early action on rule of law failures. We will sustain and intensify our work to ensure that the principle of freedom of movement is not abused. I hope that, in that work and with that change, we will get the support of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.

Mr Thomas: We would be very interested in supporting the Government, but we would like to know what they are proposing. The Minister has given—I say this gently, as this has been a very good debate up to now—a rather

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general response. It would be helpful to have a little more specific detail on what the Government are proposing to talk about with our European colleagues.

Mr Swire: Of course, the details will be unrolled as we begin our negotiations, but if we can bank it, as a starting point, that the Opposition will agree in principle that new transitional controls must be in place for any new member state to join the EU, that will be something we can take to Europe.

Sir John Randall: Something that we can discuss and that I often hear about is that businesses and important people coming over still have problems getting visas. Although I would be absolutely onside with the arrangements that we hope to have when new countries come into the EU, the existing ones on visas should be smartened up a bit; otherwise it does not say much to those important people we are trying to get to come over. The reason may be cultural; it may be sporting; it is certainly business; and there is a problem.

Mr Swire: Indeed. This issue is raised with us across the Department from all parts of the world; it is not unique to the western Balkans. I think that, on the whole, our visa processes are improving.

Against the background that I have set out, I welcome the start of EU accession negotiations with Serbia earlier this year. Much has been achieved during the past 15 years, but there is much left to do. The UK supports Serbia’s reforms and, in particular, its media reform. Progress has been made in Serbia-Kosovo relations, but there remain major challenges, not least in the economic sphere and in relations with its neighbours.

I pay tribute to the courageous steps taken by both Serbia and Kosovo to improve their relationship. The agreement between the two countries in April 2013 was an historic moment for reconciliation. Both sides must now ensure, though, that the agreement is not just written on paper but turned into practice, so that it can lead to the full normalisation of relations through the EU-facilitated dialogue.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, who sponsored this debate, asked in relation to Kosovo what had been done to address the situation of displaced Serbs, including those still living in containers. We very much agree that that is an important issue, both from a humanitarian point of view and for long-term reconciliation. This Government remain the biggest bilateral donor supporting the Kosovo Serbs. I will write to my right hon. Friend about the specific issue that he raised about whether sacred monuments in Kosovo are still being guarded. That, of course, is a subject close to my heart. We will find out what the latest on that is and write to him.

Before I move on properly to Kosovo, I want to return briefly to Serbia. We must encourage Serbia to continue to play an increasingly positive role in the region, and I urge Belgrade to do more, particularly when it serves as chair of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe next year. That is a real opportunity for it. We strongly urge Serbia to align more closely with EU member states on key foreign policy issues, especially the one that is now very pregnant: relations with Russia and the whole situation in Ukraine.

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I shall revert now to Kosovo. The shadow Minister asked about Kosovo and the EU. We hope that Kosovo will also start on its own EU path shortly, with the signature of a stabilisation and association agreement. That will allow the EU to intensify discussions on reforms, so helping to build a Kosovo with a prosperous future for all its communities and minorities. In the meantime, we will encourage Kosovo to make progress on the normalisation of its relationship with Serbia.

In this tour d’horizon of the region, I now move effortlessly across to Montenegro. I welcome the recent efforts in Montenegro—for example, in aligning itself with EU positions on Ukraine, despite significant pressure from Russia. Montenegro, like Serbia, has responded positively to the incentives of the EU enlargement plan, and we are encouraged by the progress being made as part of the EU accession process. However, let us be in no doubt. There remain many challenges—in particular, progressing Montenegro’s work against organised crime and corruption—but we commend the strong progress that it is making towards joining NATO. Last week’s successful NATO summit in Wales confirmed our intention to initiate focused and intensified talks.

I come now to Albania. I have always been rather fascinated by Albania since I came across a history of Albania written by—I do not know whether he was a kinsman of mine—J. Swire, a big red book, which I have yet to read. In fact, I am meant to be lending it to the former high commissioner to Australia, who has now gone to Rome and who looks after Albania. I promised that I would lend him the book. J. Swire went out to Albania, I think, as a tutor—to a young King Zog, I should imagine. Albania has always held a fascination for me, and I am pleased to say that Albania, too, is making progress now. The new Government are serious about strengthening the rule of law, with a major plan to tackle organised crime, corruption and judicial reform. In the first half of 2014, there were major police operations against drugs and a 70% increase in arrests for human trafficking.

I think that I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip has just been to Albania—

Sir John Randall indicated assent.

Mr Swire: That was with our friend and former colleague, Anthony Steen, who has done so much to help the Government on human trafficking. Some of the Northern Irish MPs spoke earlier about what is going on in Northern Ireland now, and I was pleased, when I was a Northern Ireland Minister, to take Anthony Steen over to Northern Ireland, where an all-party group on trafficking was set up at Stormont. I pay tribute to the work that he continues to do.

Sir John Randall: May I give a little plug for the fact that we are still trying to get human trafficking groups set up around Europe and are always on the lookout for some funding from the Foreign Office?

Mr Swire: A point well made.

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The issues to which I referred have an impact on the UK, and we are a leading supporter of Albania’s efforts to combat them. For example, we have signed memorandums of understanding with Albania on information sharing, and in July of this year our embassy in Tirana funded a border police processing and debriefing facility. That doubled capacity at Tirana airport for returns of failed asylum seekers and other irregular migrants, and it sends a clear message that the UK is serious about cutting back on illegal migration from Albania.

Although there is much progress in the western Balkans, we must ensure that the whole region is moving forward, and worryingly that cannot be said at the moment of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country faces constitutional paralysis and ethnic division through a lack of reforms and economic stagnation. Bosnia’s politicians owe it to their people to provide jobs and prosperity. Instead, they keep them hostage to nationalist rhetoric, which is a cover for their failure to meet ordinary citizens’ aspirations. In addition, the daily challenges to Bosnia’s sovereignty by the openly secessionist leadership in the entity of Republika Srpska are on the increase. We are clear: the redrawing of borders in the western Balkans is finished, so we urge political leaders there to respond fully to the EU’s offer of support and to heed legitimate calls from the Bosnian population. The upcoming elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be an important opportunity for those voices to be heard.

The United Kingdom stands ready, with our EU partners, to support the process. Our contribution to Bosnia’s stability already provides foundations for the country to build on. We play a significant role in the EUFOR peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, increasing UK troop numbers this year in response to violent protests in February.

We also urge further reforms on Macedonia. We continue to be strong supporters of Macedonia’s EU and NATO future, but the country must take urgent, decisive action to address growing shortcomings in its democratic institutions and processes, judicial independence and media freedom. We continue to encourage both sides to work on the issue of the name.

In summary, some western Balkan countries are successfully rising to the many challenges that they face, but others are lagging behind and must do more to ensure that the whole region can move forward together. We want a strong and flourishing region on the EU’s doorstep, not one that fuels crime, corruption or trafficking or is a source of instability and insecurity. Our national interest, historical links with the region and long relationship are there to be built on, and we are determined to do that.

I am genuinely sorry to be losing my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip as a colleague at the next general election. As he said, we served together in the Whips Office. Parliament will lose a valuable Member, but perhaps Parliament’s loss will be Randall of Uxbridge’s gain. I thank him again. I commend the interest and work on both sides of the House, but particularly that done by my right hon. Friend in helping to strengthen those links.

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Discretionary Social Fund (Redcar and Cleveland)

10.59 am

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I rise to speak about a local issue: the discretionary social fund of Redcar and Cleveland borough council. I represent a corner of Yorkshire that has had mixed fortunes over the past few years. We have had a steep decline in employment in traditional industries over the past couple of decades, which has led to some real economic challenges. The restart of the steelworks in 2012 has helped to reverse the fortunes of the region, and with Government support there has been further improvement since then, with unemployment falling by 22% in the past year in my constituency.

My constituency remains 33rd out of 650 for unemployment, however, so there are some real challenges. It contains real pockets of deprivation: South Bank and Grangetown wards are among the most deprived in the whole country, and 80% of pupils at Grangetown primary school receive free school meals. I am particularly concerned to ensure that any help the Government can give on the social side is well targeted and reaches the people who need it.

Under the previous Government, the Department for Work and Pensions administered the discretionary social fund. That continued until the end of March 2013, and on 1 April 2013 responsibility for the social fund passed to local councils. Until that date, I cannot remember having any case work to do with the social fund. Clearly, people have needs, but the DWP seemed to be able to deal with cases on a basis that the people involved found acceptable. It is worth remembering that under the previous Government, the DWP did not have the power to refer people to food banks and other agencies. I am pleased that this Government have changed that, because if people need help, they should get the referrals that they need.

Councils assumed responsibility for the discretionary social fund. Redcar and Cleveland borough council’s cabinet papers contained a short description of the purpose of the fund:

“To provide financial assistance in times of crisis and assistance to customers returning to the community from a previous care arrangement.”

The money was given to the council for such purposes, although it was not ring-fenced; I will return to that point later. The DWP retained responsibility for situations of crisis that had to do with benefit transitions and delays. Will the Minister confirm that that is his reading of the situation? Is he comfortable that the new interface is working effectively? When the DWP had responsibility for the discretionary social fund, there was no interface, but one of the issues now is whether a crisis situation is the responsibility of the local council or the DWP.

The budget for the discretionary social fund was transferred to councils, and for 2013-14 there was programme funding of £631,000 and an allowance for administration costs of £133,000. In 2014-15, the amount of programme funding was the same, but the administration allowance was only £122,000. How were those amounts assessed? Clearly, some work was done in the DWP to

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assess need in the area. I would be interested to know, if the Minister has comparable figures, what the spend was in 2012-13, which led to the DWP’s assessment.

Redcar and Cleveland borough council, having received responsibility for the discretionary social fund, reacted in a constructive fashion and put together a comprehensive policy document. I have to say, however, that that document went way beyond the definitions that I have mentioned of what the money was for, and it contained a huge number of potential exclusions. Although I understand the need for controls and the avoidance of unnecessary claims on the fund, the policy document seemed to be more about setting out circumstances in which the money could not be given out rather than those in which it could.

The council has established an online application system, which raises concerns about exclusion, either because of digital access or literacy. We must remember that we are dealing with those who are in crisis and need. They may not have access to online equipment, or they may not be able to use it. I would be interested in the Minister’s comments on the application process, because I know that the DWP is moving in that direction. The council also established a policy that they would not make cash payments, to avoid the risk of discretionary social fund payments being spent on drugs, alcohol, tobacco or other things that would be unnecessary in a crisis situation.

What actually happened? In 2013-14, the council received 2,100 applications for the fund and it made awards in 195 cases, so less than 10% of applications were awarded. In fairness, the large number of unsuccessful applications—more than 1,900—includes those who were referred onward to the DWP because of the interface question that I have mentioned, so not all were complete rejections. Against the original allowance of £764,000, the spend in 2013-14 was £256,000, so more than £500,000 of the money given to the council was not actually spent. I do not have a breakdown of the £256,000, but assuming that the council spent more or less what was budgeted on administration, and I have no reason to think that that was not the case, the actual assistance given must have been some £120,000 out of the £631,000 that was allowed. That would mean that less than 20% of the money was given out. I also know that the total amount spent included money for section 17 children’s claims, which used to be met from a different budget in the council. The council also put some small amounts from the fund towards dealing with council tax for flooded properties. The amount that went to people in real hardship was a relatively small part of the total allocation.

As I have said, if I worked through the council’s policy document, I could find many ways of saying no to people’s claims. That has resulted in an increased case load for me as the local MP, and we have many examples of people being turned down. For example, someone was turned down because they had an annual mobile phone contract. Quite how they were supposed to turn that into cash to help with their crisis was not explained. That did not seem the right thing to do to someone who was experiencing a short-term problem.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the funds that have not been spent yet, which I believe

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are at about the £465,000 mark. The council has said that it is carrying those funds forward to use for future allocations. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that that is a wise course of action, in light of the fact that on 2 January this year, the Government cancelled discretionary social fund payments to councils for future years? Does he agree that the council could use that balance to help future DSF claimants, given that the Government will not make any further allocations?

Ian Swales: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. I share his concern, which I will mention later. I hope the Minister will respond on the future of the DSF.

There was a £508,000 underspend, which has been added to the £754,000 allocation for the current year, 2014-15, which makes £1.26 million in total. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) mentioned, the council has set out a plan to spend that money over four years, rather than in just the one year that we would have had left under the original allocation, which addresses his point. The council clearly assumes that no further DSF money will be available beyond that period. More than £500,000 was required to be spent on crisis in our area, so will the Minister confirm that, through the various reforms, his Department plans to make that nil from the year 2015-16? If that is the case, I understand why the council might feel the need to spread the money more widely. More than £800,000 of the Department’s allocation for the two years 2013-14 and 2014-15 will actually be spent in three future years beyond the general election, which obviously has implications for spending versus politics.

The council has developed a comprehensive spending plan for the £1.26 million. Over a four-year period the council intends to make grant awards of £190,000 and loans of £300,000, of which it expects £75,000 to be repaid over the period. The citizens advice bureau will get £75,000, including £20,000 to improve financial capability. A carers charity will get £20,000 to help carers and the disabled apply for the funds. £75,000 will go to the local credit union to help make it sustainable. I mentioned the section 17 children’s awards, which will total £200,000. Some £475,000 will be spent on administration, which when added to the administration that happened in the first year, 2013-14, means that some £600,000 will be spent on administration—council processes and staff—as opposed to the £255,000 that was allocated for 2013-14 and 2014-15. The upshot is that over the next four years, of the £1.26 million, only £190,000, or about 15%, is available for straightforward grants to people in crisis. The plan is to spend the rest of the money in the ways that I have outlined. Does the Minister believe that his Department expected such a picture to emerge when it gave those funds?

The original purpose of the discretionary social fund was

“to provide financial assistance in times of crisis and assistance to customers returning to the community from a previous care arrangement.”

That was the council’s original remit for the money, and things have clearly moved on since then. The council’s plans are a bold attempt to address the issues of deprivation and the problems in our area, but my sense is that far less direct help is reaching those who are most in need, and my casework bears that out. I would appreciate it if the Minister responded on the balance of the spending.

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This debate is about the discretionary social fund, but I cannot allow it to be completed without referring to the discretionary housing payment fund, which is associated with the discretionary social fund and is in place to address issues arising from the welfare reform process. In mid-February 2014, it was discovered that only just over half of the DHP money had been paid out for the year ending in March 2014. I understand that, unlike the discretionary social fund, the discretionary housing payment fund would have had to have been repaid if it had not been used within the financial year. Again, I was concerned by the number of rejections about which I was hearing. I wrote to the Minister’s colleague, Lord Freud, a number of times, especially on the issue of disabled adults.

The Minister for Pensions may be aware that it was Redcar and Cleveland borough council that lost a court case involving a disabled adult to whom it had not been prepared to pay a discretionary housing payment. The judgment clearly stated:

“In considering whether there is under-occupation of the appellant’s property, the local authority has not taken into consideration her disabilities and her reasonable requirements, as a result of these, to sleep in a bedroom of her own”.

It is certainly true, as Lord Freud kept writing back to me, that discretionary housing payments were meant to cover such circumstances, and the judgment made that very clear. The council, however, expected people in that situation to apply every three months for the renewal of their discretionary housing payment, and many other councils expect only an annual application, particularly from people who suffer from disability. The Minister for Pensions knows that I have consistently fought on that issue, and I was obviously pleased to support the Affordable Homes Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) last Friday. The anomaly for disabled adults will hopefully be addressed, assuming the Bill is enacted, and such court cases and difficulties for people will no longer be required.

The discretionary housing budget was spent by the council, and one way in which it was spent was that a number of local residents were delighted to receive an unexpected £1,000 cheque through their letterboxes. Some of them had moved up to six months previously because they had been under-occupying. I understand the council’s reluctance to provide the money at the time because it did not know whether the budget would extend and be sufficient for the last month of the year, but it managed to defray the money very quickly when the year end was approaching. Redcar and Cleveland borough council was of course one of the councils that applied for extra money, so not all the money arrived at the start of the year. However, I met a few delighted residents who had suddenly received £1,000 that they were not expecting.

The administration of the two funds raises questions about the competence and attitude of some of the staff involved in the process. Given the stories that I have heard, I believe that, overall, my constituents have suffered more than they need to suffer. I will refrain from saying that this was politically motivated, but there is no doubt that the Labour party has been able to campaign on welfare reform more effectively as a result of some of the issues.

I am obviously not raising this issue today to get a response from the Minister on every detail, so I will summarise. I have already asked a number of questions.

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Is he satisfied that the interface is clear on the Department’s responsibility for benefit transitions and delays, and on the council’s responsibility for the discretionary social fund? How was the discretionary social fund money given to the council for 2013-14 and 2014-15 assessed, and how did it compare with previous years, particularly 2012-13? Is it true that the Department expects the amount to be nil for 2015-16 and beyond? Is he happy that, over the next four years, only 15% of the discretionary social fund is budgeted for direct grants to individuals and that more than twice as much money is earmarked for council administration?

The Department has embarked on many challenging reforms, and any Government would have made quite a lot of those reforms. The Government have provided help, and the Department’s reputation depends on that help being used effectively. Clearly we support localism, but is he happy that the money is not ring-fenced? Should the Department say more about the criteria for the awards? Are local councils the right recipients of the funds? These are challenging times for many of my constituents, and the Government are carrying on the work of the previous Government in balancing taxpayers’ money and welfare and trying to mitigate the consequent effects. I look forward to the Minister’s response on how that has been happening in my local area.

11.19 am

The Minister for Pensions (Steve Webb): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing the debate and on representing his constituents’ concerns in such a measured, thoughtful and well-informed way.

In the brief time available to me, I hope to answer my hon. Friend’s questions and make some observations about how Redcar and Cleveland council’s performance compares with that of other local authorities. Some of the things he observed are, to a greater or lesser extent, common across local authorities, but some suggest that there are particular issues in Redcar that I should address.

My hon. Friend asked about the allocations for 2013-14 and beyond. Nationally, we are roughly spending the money that we would have spent on community care grants and certain crisis loans, plus an amount for administration, had we continued the schemes. The transition to local provision was not a cut, but broadly a transfer of the money we would have spent.

My hon. Friend asked how the specific allocations were made. They were based on historical spend and demand. In other words, we looked at where community care grants were paid and where crisis loans were bid for. It is never quite as simple as that, but that is the basis for the allocations. He asked for the figure for 2012-13. In his area, the Department for Work and Pensions spent £717,000 on the things that the council is now responsible for.

I will briefly recap what happened. My hon. Friend spoke about localism, and we took the view that, although it is right that DWP does certain things nationally, it is important that the national Government do not overlap, duplicate and interact unhelpfully with what local authorities

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do. We looked at what DWP was doing, and it became apparent that community care grants and, to some extent, crisis loans overlapped with things that local authorities were already doing for vulnerable people, people coming out of care and people in crisis. The point of the reforms was to give local authorities the money that we would have spent and enable them to co-ordinate it, so people have to deal with only one authority, not two, and get better results.

It is fair to say that all local authorities in 2013-14 took a while to get going on local welfare provision, which was not surprising given that it was new money and that new processes had to be set up. We estimate that in the first year, 2013-14, about 60% of the funding that was available across the country was spent. We think the corresponding figure for Redcar and Cleveland is 40%—that is programme funding, not administration.

Although we accept that there is a general issue about setting up new systems because it is costly and takes time, Redcar and Cleveland council seems to have struggled more than many others in getting the money out to its citizens. As my hon. Friend said, the unspent money was carried forward, so it will get into the system at some point. Nevertheless, in 2013-14 many people in need did not get the money when they needed it, and the fact that the council will spend the money in 2017-18 or 2018-19 does not address those people’s needs, which is regrettable.

My hon. Friend asked about ring-fencing, which is a constant dilemma. Philosophically, he and I are both localists, so we think that, in general, local authorities are best placed to determine local need. There is a risk if we tell councils in every specific case that they absolutely have to spend so much money on a certain thing because we think it is important. There is a tension between those things, and judgments must constantly be made. The philosophy behind the localisation was to merge the funding with other council funding in an integrated way to make funding for one person part of the big pot, so we felt particularly uncomfortable about creating a hard ring fence, although we thought hard about it. In the end, we said to local authorities, “This is your money.” The two things my hon. Friend referred to—crisis loans for people in immediate crisis and community care grants for people who are coming back into the community—are where we would have spent the money, and they mirror where the money was previously spent.

We asked local authorities to report back to us. As there was an underspend in 2013-14, I wrote to local authorities in January and July 2014 to tell them that in 2014-15 we would like to know what was happening on a quarterly basis. The majority of local authorities replied to that letter, but Redcar and Cleveland did not, which puts us in a difficult position. In the letter on 2014-15 spending, I said:

“Whilst we do not intend to withhold money, if evidence comes to light that the money is not being spent we will have to revisit that decision during the course of the year… Providing a return is a crucial part of monitoring this spend”.

I urge my hon. Friend’s local authority to let us know what it has been spending the money on in 2014-15. As custodians of more than £170 million a year of public money, we have a duty to seek assurance, in the context of localism, that the money is being well spent, so we need to hear back from the local authorities.

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My hon. Friend also raised an important issue about the proportion of people being turned down, which is concerning. Not everybody used to get social fund loans or community care grants, but, roughly, more than two thirds of people who applied for crisis loans and more than a third of people who applied for community care grants were successful. Although my hon. Friend said that the one in 10 figure might not be what it seems, one must ask whether we have the balance right if the vast majority of people who have gone through the expense and difficulty of claiming are turned down. Obviously, it is for local authorities to decide how to carve up the pot, but if so many people are being turned down, the local authority probably should look again at whether is has the balance right.

Tom Blenkinsop: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: As I have got only a few minutes, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not giving way.

My hon. Friend asked what happens in a crisis and whose responsibility it is. In general, if it has been agreed that somebody is entitled to a DWP benefit, but they have not yet got the money, they can get an advance payment of benefit. That is a matter for the DWP. If a person has applied to us and there has been a bureaucratic problem at our end, that is a matter for us, but financial crises per se are a matter for the local authority; that is the split. If a person has an issue with DWP, we expect them to go to DWP, but people have financial crises for a whole raft of reasons.

My hon. Friend asked about the position in 2015-16. DWP receives funding from the Treasury, which it allocates in full to local authorities for local welfare provision for 2013-14 and 2014-15. The intention was always that, post 2015-16, it would be one of the things that fell within local authority responsibilities funded

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by the Department for Communities and Local Government. As non-ring-fenced activity, there is no separate sum in the total local government settlement for that item, but the local government settlement for 2015-16 was set in the knowledge that this matter is a responsibility of local government. It is fair to say that local government gets significant sums for people in need. For example, it receives £200 million for a troubled families initiative, and £3.8 billion for adult health and social care funding. Therefore, large sums of money go to local government for people in need, and it will have that responsibility from 2015-16. The issue that my hon. Friend raised is currently the subject of a judicial review. I hope the matter will be resolved before too long, but, as it is currently before the courts, I am constrained about saying any more about it.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked whether I think that the council got it right and whether that is how we expected money to be paid out. I hesitate to second-guess local authorities because the point of localism is to let them decide how best to use the money in the interests of their citizens. I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the amount of money in kind available—as he said, we are not talking about cash—and about the fact that in the past people would have been able to get significant help in a crisis. Money is going to other things that are worthy in their own right—nobody objects to funding a credit union or a carers group—but there is a risk, and local authorities that have had spending power transferred to them must look after people in crisis. Improved infrastructure and general financial capability are great, but people in crisis and those who come out of institutions need provision. Every local authority, including my hon. Friend’s, must meet those urgent, immediate needs, not only their wider strategic goals. I hope that response helps my hon. Friend.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Outdoor Sport and Recreation

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): It is good to be under your stewardship this afternoon, Mrs Main, for this debate. It is wonderful to see so many people turning out for it. There has been a great deal of interest in the topic of Government policy on sport, outdoor activities and recreation. It is really good to see that so many Members want to speak, so I will keep my remarks fairly short, although given the nature of what I will say, they will be slightly rambling. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Sorry—that is my only joke of the afternoon.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): He is Welsh.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed.

I am an absolute evangelist for the great outdoors, which may come as a bit of a surprise because earlier in my career I was a sports facility and arts facility manager. My job then was to encourage people to come indoors, into sports centres, to get the gym mats out, do the aerobics sessions, get into the gym itself and so on; I was bringing people indoors. However, the greatest free gym that we have is when we step outside of our homes; we do not even need to get in a car. It is what we do when we step out into London or elsewhere, leaving our homes and turning left or right, before going up into the hills, as I am fortunate enough to be able to do when I walk out into the uplands of south Wales.

The great outdoors is a tremendous asset and I guess that my argument today is that we parliamentarians, the Government and the organisations that are involved with the great outdoors—of which there are many—all need to do our utmost to encourage people to get out there, because of the wide range of benefits of going outdoors. There are definitely health benefits, not only physical health benefits but benefits for people’s mental well-being. Encouraging people to go outdoors can also help to drive activities such as GP exercise on prescription, or GP referrals as they are sometimes called. Such methods are not appropriate for every individual who sits in front of a GP, but increasingly the evidence shows that a very good prescription for many people, whether they have mental health issues or physical health issues, is to do what they can within their abilities to go out and walk or cycle, and enjoy the great outdoors beyond them.

I really am an evangelist for this: in fact, I am a walking testament to it. As I said, early in my career I was in sports facility management, but later I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, which for many people is a severe condition that will progressively get worse, eventually confining them to very restricted mobility, and so on. Yet the fact is that I simply walk out from my house on a Sunday afternoon, stretch my legs, go with the children and the rest of my family in my immediate neighbourhood; I cycle to work, even though it is only five minutes back and forth; and occasionally I go and do what I love, which is to get away from this place and get into the wide open spaces. That is the gospel I want to sing to a lot of people, and in a moment I will give

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some examples of where these recreational activities are happening and talk about areas where we can perhaps do more.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member on securing an important debate. I, too, am a very enthusiastic walker and I noticed the way he was going when he talked about a “rambling” speech and being a “walking testament”; I could see the direction he is taking.

About a year ago, I secured a debate on childhood obesity. This approach—getting people outdoors—is the biggest way to combat childhood obesity in our times. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we, as a society, and the Government need to address that issue for the sake of this and future generations?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I entirely agree, and perhaps the most cost-effective way that we can do that is through a coherent strategy, involving the Welsh Government, the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and so on, that makes use of this great asset that we have literally outside our doors.

Such a strategy could certainly have a major effect on combating childhood obesity. Studies that have come out only this year, building on studies going back to the 1960s, show that if someone gets out of their car and walks or cycles to work, it has a major impact on their mortality, their length of life and their likelihood of developing serious medical conditions later in life. It is as clear as day now; there is no scientific argument about it. So let us make sure that we have such a strategy, which percolates from the national level right down to the local level, and into the voluntary sector as well; we should use the groups that are already in place to get people up and going.

Mr Sheerman: I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said so far. I made a jibe about his being Welsh, but he knows that I started out as a Welsh politician in his very own village of Gowerton, and he knows that my father also suffered from ankylosing spondylitis.

Will my hon. Friend concentrate a little bit of his speech on the importance of getting children into the countryside? He knows that I am the chairman of the John Clare Trust, which has a campaign, Every Child’s Right to the Countryside. In this country, 35% to 40% of kids do not see the countryside at all, and if they do see it, they only see it on a school trip. So please let us do something to get schoolchildren into the countryside.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Interventions should be quite short. They are becoming mini-speeches.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Thank you, Mrs Main.

My hon. Friend is right, and the John Clare Trust and so many other organisations do such good work. When I was an Environment Minister, one of the most inspiring projects that I saw in the national parks was the Mosaic programme, which dealt not only with children but with people from different ethnic backgrounds—people who typically did not go out, and felt that there was some sort of psycho-perceptual barrier that stopped them going out into the countryside—and encouraged

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them to go out. Then what we saw was the intra-generational effect of children taking their parents and grandparents into the great outdoors.

I am focusing on strolling, but I have enjoyed some of the most adrenaline-filled times in my life outdoors, including hanging by my fingertips from cliffs in north-west Wales, which was scary and exhilarating at the same time. I have broken bones on mountain bike paths; I do not do that anymore, as I am getting on now and have a more sedate approach. I have thrown myself off the cliffs in west Wales and swung from them, while coasteering, which is a tremendous activity. And I have swum in the sea off west Wales, through waters full of jellyfish, bottlenose dolphins and so on, which was absolutely phenomenal.

Such activity is an education as well as being good for people’s health, and it is good for the economy. Locally, we have some amazing initiatives along that line. We have a striders group—the Ogmore Valley Striders. What does it do? It works with existing groups on the ground that bring together older people—third-age people—and it says to them, “Come out. Let’s do some mild walking along the cycle paths that we have. Then maybe one day, we’ll go a bit higher,” and so on. I now see people from those groups sitting in the café halfway up that cycle path, and there will be 20 of them together. They are also spending money in that café, while they have a sit-down and a chat, before they go out and get the health benefits of walking as well.

We also have the Love 2 Walk festival. Labour-run Bridgend county borough council supports it every year, and it is growing every year, with a long list of places for people to go and walk to, ranging from easy walks to very challenging and rigorous walks in the south Wales valleys. Recently, we have had an Elvis walk in Porthcawl, which broke the record for the number of Elvises walking along the all-Wales coastal path—who can say more than that?

Mr Sheerman: There is nothing to say about that.

Huw Irranca-Davies: However, there is not only walking. I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) does in this area with several all-party groups, including an event that he pulled together in June last year where a range of organisations came together, which deal with canoeing, mountaineering, open access, open spaces, national parks, walking in London and other cities—all of that activity. Out of that event came a very good piece of work called “Reconomics”, which pulled together in a comprehensive way all the data—a mountain of data—that show just how beneficial outdoor recreation is; not just walking, but all the types of outdoor recreation. It showed that outdoor recreation is the UK’s favourite pastime, with all these diverse activities from potholing to caving, to simply strolling outside or going on a bike with the family.

Interestingly, women are just as likely as men to take part in outdoor recreation. As a former sports facility manager, I can tell hon. Members that, in terms of women’s participation in sports centres, we still have to break down some of the barriers to people doing indoors activities. We work hard on that. Outdoors, there is no differentiation; people do outdoor activities regardless of gender, and that is great.

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More female than male staff are employed in outdoor activities. How many sectors can say that? Some 55% of employees in outdoor recreation and sport are women, not men. That is a great thing to celebrate. I know from my background that the industry employees a higher proportion of young people aged 16 to 24, giving them great opportunities.

Let us go for the hard cash and the hard sell. We see time and again, as reports come out, just how much this does for local economies and the national economy. The “Reconomics” report said that walking tourism alone was estimated to generate up to £2.76 billion for the English economy; that is quite staggering.

Let me turn for a moment to Wales and go back home to the Wales coast path—the first, the landmark and ground-breaking all-Wales coastal path. In its first 12 months, up to September 2013, the path generated 2.82 million visits and added £32 million to Wales’s economy. Some 94% of those visitors were walking for leisure, with around 40% of them visiting the path as part of a longer holiday. The impact of the path on the local economy helped 5,400 tourism-related businesses and led to an extra 120, and more, jobs created within 2 km of the route. I can see this for myself in my own area. Going down to the Glamorgan heritage coast, a tremendous piece of coastline—around Southerndown and so on—people will see the new businesses springing up. I particularly recommend the Barn at West Farm, just outside Southerndown, which is a fantastic place to stop when on a walk, have a nice coffee and listen to the guitar music being played—and on you go then.

The coast path has led to exposure for Wales on the BBC and ITV, in The New York Times and USA Today, and on Fox News, because it is an all-country, all-nation coastal path. People can hit the coast in Wales and turn left or right without stopping; it is phenomenal. The Wales coast path was included as one of the nominees in VirtualTourist’s campaign to find the “8th Wonder of the World”, alongside spots such as Yellowstone national park in the United States of America. National Geographic magazine named the Pembrokeshire coast section of the path in its top 10 places in the world to visit. In Lonely Planet’s 2012 “Best in Travel” guide, the Wales coast path was voted the greatest region on earth.

It is brilliant that recently, within the past few days, we have heard that the England coastal path will now be delivered by 2020. We were previously lacking a timetable for that. As the Minister who took the Marine and Coastal Access Bill through Committee, I can say that we were a little bit worried that the path was going to get kicked into the long grass, but it has now been said that there will be an all-England coastal path by 2020. People will be able to walk from the top north-east of England, all the way round England, through Wales, all around the coastal path, and right up the other side, then they can carry on up into Scotland, as part of a Great Britain walk.

Mr Sheerman: I am being carried away with nostalgia as my hon. Friend talks about coastal paths in Wales and elsewhere, but we in Yorkshire—in Huddersfield—have wonderful countryside, although we are bit far from the coastline. In terms of his Clare Balding tours, will he think about coming to Huddersfield and Yorkshire for wonderful walks with us, too?

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Huw Irranca-Davies: Definitely. I would love to visit and walk there with my hon. Friend and, as time allows, visit the whole of these paths. Of course, I am only talking about coastal paths; we now have a long distance trails network in the UK, which is tremendous. Two years ago, I walked with my whole family, carrying rucksacks, along the Hadrian’s Wall path in seven days. It was brilliant. What an experience. We need to encourage more of this.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield held a brilliant reception at which a six-point strategy was launched, and it is not just to do with walking. Organisations including the Wild Network, the Sport and Recreational Alliance, the Youth Hostel Association—I am a member of that association, so my apologies because I should have declared that at the outset; I am also vice-president of Ramblers Cymru and president of the Glamorgan Area Ramblers—Living Streets, Putting People First, the British Mountaineering Council, Britain on Foot, Ramblers GB, the Open Spaces Society, the Campaign for National Parks and the English Outdoor Council were pulled together.

Those organisations are asking the Minister for six things that I will mention in headlines, because I am sure that other hon. Members will speak to them in detail. They would like cross-government support for a long-term strategy on outdoor recreation and improvement of access to coast and countryside, because of the challenges for local authorities in maintaining simple rights of access that allow people to get up on to the high hills or to long-distance paths. We need to find a way to keep those routes open for cyclists and people on horseback and on bikes, and so on.

Those organisations want to increase opportunities for young people to get outside—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman)—because young people will drag their whole families and the generations with them. They want to maximise the economic contribution of outdoor recreation. Some people pooh-poohed the idea that the England coastal path would provide economic benefits, but the evidence from Wales is that it certainly will; businesses will shoot up along that path and make the most of it.

Those organisations want to strengthen planning guidance and protect the outdoors. We know about the pressures and that we have to ensure that this is a living countryside, but we also need to make sure that what people go to the countryside to enjoy is still there as well; getting that balance right is critical.

The sixth ask is for better public transport in rural areas, for a number of reasons, and not only for cross-modular approaches to transport so that people can get to where they want to go. For example, people might want to do the Taff trail on their bike, so on a Sunday they go on a bus that will drop them in Brecon and then they can cycle all the way back to Cardiff. However, it is not just about that. Study after study is now showing that better public transport in rural areas—in Wales, England and everywhere else—encourages people to walk more. They take the bus and then walk and stroll, and the pounds fall off and they feel better in themselves, and so on.

That is all I am going to say, because so many hon. Members want to contribute. I welcome the chance to have this debate. This is far from being an attack on the Government; this is positive and encouraging. Let us do

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our utmost to make the most of our country’s great outdoors. We are a beautiful island nation and sometimes we forget it too easily. Let us get out there and use it a heck of a lot more.

2.47 pm

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. Having lived in St Albans, I know that there are some wonderful walks around the city and elsewhere in Hertfordshire.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)—my hon. Friend—on securing this debate and making a terrific speech, with real enthusiasm and a clear sense of purpose and direction. It was clearly grounded in his experience in the world of work before coming to the House and as a Minister. I congratulate him on what he said and agree with just about all of it, except for his comment that Pembrokeshire and that part of the world is the best, when, clearly, other hon. Members would feel that Yorkshire or Cheshire, or other parts of the country, were better. But there we go.

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): And Kent.

David Rutley: Kent, I hear, too. However, we will see. Hon. Members will have their chance to make those points in due course.

I declare an interest up front, as the co-chair of the all-party group on mountaineering. I refer hon. Members to the register of all-party groups. I am also a vice-chair of the all-party group on mountain rescue and a secretary of the all-party group on national parks. Most importantly, I am the Member of Parliament for Macclesfield, one of the great constituencies of this country. It is a beautiful constituency where the Cheshire peak comes together with the Peak district. It is well worth a visit, and I encourage everybody to come along.

I thank the Sports Minister for attending. She is passionate about sport, having been a prolific sportsperson herself in the past, and appreciates the importance of outdoor activities. We were fortunate enough to meet Andrew Denton, the chairman of the Outdoor Industries Association, to talk about many of the things we are discussing today. I hope that, given that enthusiasm, at a future meeting the Minister will change her title from Minister for Sport to Minister for Sport and Outdoor Activities. That would only be appropriate.

Positive progress has been made in recent weeks and months. The creation of the England coast path is a major step forward and positive development and there is a clear timetable to make that happen. I am delighted that that is moving forward; it is a key element of the six key proposals that have been put together by the outdoor organisations, which the hon. Member for Ogmore has already discussed. Furthermore, it is good news for walkers across the country and for climbers.

I know that representatives from the British Mountaineering Council are here. It is important to recognise that the spreading room—the margin between the path and the sea itself—is vital for outdoor activities and, in particular, climbers. The important thing for the communities on that route is that footfall will increase, which will help boost the rural economy in those areas. The key ask today is for an overarching strategy for the

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outdoors—a sense of direction and a clear plan of action, co-ordinated by a body that can not only fine-tune the shaping of that, but go out and work with the Minister and Sport England to deliver it. There are many other things that we will talk about today, but that is the key ask.

I will put things into context, because the issues we are discussing are vital for our nation and critical for the rural economy in several ways. First, on participation, the Olympic legacy is absolutely critical to this country, and there is more we can do—perhaps in ways that the originators of the Olympic bid did not envisage. There are other ways of getting people to be physically active. We have to tackle physical inactivity; it is putting pressure on our health services and threatens the health of multiple generations. Secondly, as we have already said, there is the importance of tourism, particularly to these rural areas.

I am co-chairman of the all-party group on mountaineering, and we have been working hard with a wide range of MPs and, for that matter, peers in taking the agenda forward. As we look for how to bring about greater success, it is important to reflect on the success that cycling has seen in recent years. It has been an incredibly well articulated campaign that has engaged the public, not just with the elite sport itself, but with mass participation.

I saw that this Sunday at the Bollington BikeFest. Some 300 people turned up to do cycling events, which ranged in length from 20 miles to 75 miles. It was organised by Macclesfield Lions club. We have to build on the success of cycling, because organised sport, as far as I can see, is only one element of the equation, and we have to go beyond that. The focus should not just be on sports, but on a much wider range of outdoor activities. As the hon. Member for Ogmore said, it is often easier and cheaper to participate in outdoor activities, so we should promote them. Walking is a great example. In east Cheshire, our ramblers group has 700 members, and we can do even better in building that membership base.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): First, I apologise to you, Mrs Main, for being late; I forgot that the debate was in this Committee Room. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on his work on the APPG, of which I am proud to be an active member. Does he share my concern about how the participation figures are calculated by Sport England? That has a big effect on funding. We know that there are thousands and thousands of people out walking, yet that is not reflected in the figures or the funding.

David Rutley: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to capture robustly the activity levels that are already there and then build on that success. It is clear that more people are getting involved. The increases in outdoor activities are far greater than in other organised sports. Let us capture that and then get what funding we need—we do not need the same as many organised sports—to help move things forward.

I recognise the great work that my hon. Friend has done, notably in highlighting some of the well-being issues involved in outdoor activities, not least his work

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with veterans groups in the sponsored event that went up Cotopaxi earlier this year. Other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), went too. That set a high standard. She did a fantastic job, and I hope we will hear more about that later.

There is growing evidence that more has to be done. A Government-sponsored paper, “Moving More, Living More”, sets out that the costs associated with inactivity in the UK are some £20 billion. It is clear that those involved in a lot of physical activity reduce their risk of dying early by 30%. It is astounding that 30% of the UK population are physically inactive, compared with 8% in the Scandinavian countries. Quite simply, something more needs to be done.

This is a clear spur and a clear call of action for Public Health England, our local health and wellbeing boards across the country and all public bodies. We have to wake up and take clear action to ensure that we move the agenda further forward. Let us not try to reinvent the wheel and come up with fancy options. It is straightforward—walking works and many of these outdoor pursuits work; we just have to get more people active outdoors.

We have already heard about the important report “Reconomics”, which is being taken forward by the Sport and Recreation Alliance. Figures have already been put forward, but one thing that amazed me was that the visitor spend associated with outdoor activities is £21 billion across the nation. That is a huge opportunity and more can follow, if we get it right. One tremendous quote from that incredible report states that the outdoors are

“a vast blue and green gym with no membership fee, and a sporting arena like no other.”

How true!

Locally in Macclesfield, as in Ogmore and other parts of the country, we are seeing such events as the Bollington walking festival move forward and countless fell races. I was able to survive the Wincle Trout race last year. We have the “Walkers are Welcome” scheme and other initiatives, and with all these things, people are seeing that we need to move further forward.

In the Peak district, they are taking forward fantastic activity in promoting cycling. Quite simply, the ambition is clear. We want a step change in participation in physical activity. We want to take 1 million-plus people out of physical inactivity so that lives can be saved. We want to see a real boost to the rural economy, too.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): There is absolutely a desire to create more trail, walkways and bridleways. In my area of north Lincolnshire, our local council is investing millions in the River Ancholme trail, the Isle of Axholme greenway and the Crowle to Gunness cycleway, among many other schemes.

One problem we have in trying to open up such trails is land ownership. There are supportive landowners who see the benefit to the economy and the population generally, but others, unfortunately—generally those who own the land in the middle of the trail—are not quite so supportive—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I think the speaker, who has a limited amount of time, has got the point you were making, Mr Percy. A lot of Members wish to speak.

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David Rutley: I thank my hon. Friend; I know that he is keen and passionate about these issues. Access can be a challenge, but the way to deal with such things—we saw evidence of this with the Deregulation Bill—is through collaborative coalition building among landowners, ramblers and other outdoor organisations and local councils putting forward the case positively and providing the right levels of support.

Progress is being made, and it is not just the English coast path that is going forward. It is good to see No. 10, as well as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Health, getting behind the great outdoors campaign. Recently, my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) and I were able to welcome the Minister responsible for public health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), to the Goyt valley, in the wonderful constituency of High Peak but close to the border with Macclesfield. We were able to walk and talk. We discussed the importance of getting people out from their community and into the countryside. As we arrived at the trig point at the summit of Shining Tor, we met a huge church group out for a walk. With their actions, they were making the point that we have been trying to make in words. It was a memorable summit meeting.

We are looking to build on the work done so far by building awareness through parliamentary away days in the hills and through working with such outdoor legends as Alan Hinkes and Sir Chris Bonington. We should ensure that we build on the great campaign we launched last year, “Britain on Foot”. Its aim is to help more people get off the sofa and get outdoors.

Given what happened with cycling, what was coming ahead with the general election and the need to get all parties involved in this debate, 10 leading outdoor organisations came together to create six key proposals for Government action on the outdoors, which have already been referenced. That coalition was, in itself, a landmark activity, and a wide range of interests are represented within it. The fact that those organisations have come together highlights the need for change and action, and I hope that that agenda is taken seriously. I am sure that Opposition Members are busy getting those proposals to their manifesto-creating groups. I am doing the same with other Members here in the Conservative party. However, seeing this agenda shaping up and getting so much support from so many different outdoor organisations is a landmark.

We can learn from other countries that are doing a good job, such as the United States and its work with its national parks. There is a Cabinet-ranking Secretary of the Interior whose job it is to ensure that the agenda is furthered. The Scandinavians have also clearly done a fantastic job in improving physical activity levels. Within the United Kingdom, Scotland and Northern Ireland already have clearly articulated outdoor strategies, so we are asking today that the Minister consider creating a strategy for the outdoors for the entire United Kingdom. We also hope that, following Thursday’s referendum, it will continue to include Scotland for many years to come.

Last year, we had an Adjournment debate, attended by many of the Members present today, that led to three small requests: to recognise outdoor activities; to meet outdoor organisations; and to support the “Britain on Foot” campaign. I am delighted that the then Sports

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Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Sir Hugh Robertson), took that agenda seriously and that all those things have been achieved.

Now, we are asking for just six things and have a much clearer agenda of what we want to accomplish. I hope that we will see the same impact and enthusiasm from this Minister and others to move the process forward. I will not go through all six points as time is limited with others wanting to speak, but they are clear and set out a long-term strategy and a clear economic contribution. The point about access, inclusion and getting young people involved is key, but this is cross-generational and young and old alike should be considered.

Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): I have come to this debate because I am deeply worried about a specific matter. Although people should be outside enjoying the countryside and the fresh air, more than 600 people have been hurt or worse by cattle. Does my hon. Friend agree that until we get a proper understanding of how to handle access and farming of large, potentially dangerous animals, ramblers will continue to be hurt? We need to do something about that and cannot pretend, as ramblers have done to date, that it is not a problem.

David Rutley: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Public safety is paramount. We must educate about the benefits and the associate risks, but that is what makes opportunities in the outdoors so exciting. It is that mix of learning and new experiences while also being aware of the risks and working out how to deal with them. My hon. Friend makes an important point that I am sure will be noted by the outdoors organisations represented here.

In conclusion, the debate has been positive. On a day when many minds are concerned with the state of our Union and with conflicts in other parts of the world, it is tremendous to see so many people here to take this agenda further forward. I know that the Minister is a keen walker and has been to Cumbria, so I ask her to reflect on the amazing, stunning views from the tops of Blencathra and Skiddaw. They are worth the climb and the hard work, and the same is true for promoting the activities that we are discussing today. I hope that the Minister agrees that it is time to get more people moving outdoors.

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I will call the wind-ups at 20 minutes to 4, so each speaker has around six minutes if there are not too many interventions.

3.3 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) on securing a debate on this important subject today.

In 2012, London successfully hosted the Olympic games and Glasgow successfully hosted the Commonwealth games this summer. I was in Glasgow for a week and have to say that the fans in places such as Hampden Park were not partisan. It was good to see crowds, containing many Scottish people, cheering on athletes from all the home countries, which says something

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about sport as a unifying force for the Union. Those events helped to showcase a great variety of outdoor sports. This summer, Yorkshire proudly hosted the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, and the success of that event provided a boost to the sport of cycling. We can take pride in recent successes, but we must also explore new ways to encourage people to participate in sport throughout the UK.

I am co-chair of the all-party group on women’s sport and fitness and want to talk about the issues and the barriers to the participation of girls and women in sport, to which my hon. Friend has already referred. Last week, along with other Members present, I went to an event in Parliament on women and girls in rugby. The event also celebrated the success of the England women’s team in winning the International Rugby Board world cup. It was wonderful to talk to some members of the team, who are still elated at their victory. Their win was even more remarkable given that the women held down various jobs, including plumbing, working for a vet, lifeguarding and teaching, at the same time as training for their national team. A squad of 20 of the women’s team have now been put on professional contracts in the run-up to the rugby sevens at the Rio Olympics. The women told us that the contracts will mean that they can train each day and have some rest and recovery time between training sessions and matches. At Rio, the teams they will be competing against have been training and playing full-time for a year or more. I wish the team well, because they are remarkable role models.

The situation of our elite women athletes still having to hold down jobs while trying to train to the highest level that they can achieve is not always well understood. The recent inquiry by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport into women in sport highlighted that as one of the problems that have remained since the Olympics. At the elite level, women’s sport gains much less sponsorship and media coverage, and the pay and prize money is lower. A report published this year by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation found that women’s sport accounts for less than 0.5% of all commercial investment and only 7% of sports media coverage. When women are not paid for their achievements in sport, it is extremely difficult to encourage girls and young women to aspire to a career as an athlete.

The other issue, perhaps of more relevance to today’s debate, highlighted by the Select Committee inquiry was that women’s participation in grass-roots sport is still much lower than men’s. The most recent figures from the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation show that only just over 30% of women in England aged 16-plus take part in sport or fitness once a week, compared with over 40% of men, which is a difference of 2 million. Worryingly, in my local authority area of Salford the gap is even greater with 39% of men participating in weekly sporting activity but only 24% of women. I find that really concerning. Members have already discussed the health benefits of activity, and I am impressed by the range of activities that hon. Members take part in, although I must say that mine is limited to running. It is concerning that 76% of women in Salford are not active at such a level.

Research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation found that 12 million women wanted to play more sport, half of whom were inactive at the time of the survey. The participation gap persists because of practical,

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personal and social barriers for women and girls. The Government, together with the sport sector, local communities and the media, must do more work on removing the gap. We must ensure that any Government policy on outdoor sport and recreation helps to address the barriers that currently prevent girls and women from participating in sporting and other physical activities.

While the overall gender gap in participation is of great concern, the lack of growth in participation rates among young women aged 16 to 25 is also worrying. It is clear from many surveys and reports that young girls see sport as not for them. That perception often stems from negative experiences with PE and sport at school, which is a point that is supported by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report. A survey carried out by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation found that 51% of girls were deterred from physical activity by their experiences of school sport and PE. Many girls described it negatively, citing a lack of choice, overly competitive environments, a lack of confidence in their ability and a concern about body image. Changing young girls’ perceptions of sport and being active is essential if we want them to take up sport at school and get the health benefits. As has already been discussed, we should be concerned that girls and young people more generally are not taking up sport and activity at a young age. Government should do more to ensure that pupils are given the opportunity to participate from a young age in a wide range of sports and activities—wider than they are currently—to try to suit all interests.

There is an issue with funding. In the United States there is gender balance in sports funding due to title IX legislation, which requires schools and other bodies receiving public funding to ensure that expenditure on sport benefits boys and girls equally. Since this legislation was passed, the number of girls participating in secondary school athletics in the US has gone from 7% to 41%. I argue that we should adopt similar legislation, because I feel that change here will be minor until there is more equality in funding.

We must consider how we can inspire women to participate in sport throughout their lives. If we look at the figures, it is interesting that many of the sports that are most popular with women are done informally, such as running and swimming, and are therefore outside the formal funding structures. Women take part in running events such as Race for Life and will train up to run 5 km or 10 km, but then, sadly, not enough people persist in taking part in the activity after the event is completed. I did the Salford 10 km last Sunday. There were 3,500 participants. Very impressively, 1,500 were women and 2,000 were men. That is a very good balance, as we tend to see more men than women jogging on the street.

Some good work has been done by sports organisations to encourage more women to participate. Since 2008, British Cycling has led a highly successful campaign to get more women cycling. It wants to inspire 1 million more women to ride, to race and to be part of British cycling by 2020. In the first five years of its campaign, it has achieved significant gains, because it has given guidance on routes, which is important when people are starting, and on safety. It has also created clubs to introduce young people to cycling. That type of guidance and support is vital. I commend British Cycling on its campaign. I look forward to seeing and hearing more

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progress on that in the future. Given the facts I have touched on, Government and other sports organisations must do more to ensure there is a similar push to help increase women’s participation in other sports and fitness activities.

These campaigns will not work unless we tackle issues such as the funding imbalance, which I touched on, and the lack of coverage of women’s sport. Hon. Members have talked about people getting involved in the outdoors, particularly women. If women are taking part in activities in informal ways, but not in sport, then we have to change the perception that sport is the preserve of men. I am afraid it is not surprising that girls and young women see things that way while elite male sports take up the vast majority of media coverage, sponsorship and funding. To ensure outdoor sports and all sports thrive, we must push for women’s sport to be more adequately represented in the media and to be better funded.