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On support for the skills agenda, in addition to four new primary schools in Pendle, a major investment at West Craven high school and a new university technical college in Burnley, the outstanding Nelson and Colne college continues to go from strength to strength. Nelson and Colne college recently benefited from a £3.6 million investment in its facilities and has been pivotal in delivering the Government’s ambition of a record number of apprenticeships—the number of apprenticeship starts locally has more than doubled.

In my part of the country, we have some of the lowest property prices. Even with many more people in work, regeneration and private sector housing schemes can be tricky to stack up financially. In September 2013, I led a debate here in Westminster Hall on regeneration in Brierfield and Nelson. I talked about the Brierfield Mill development in my constituency. It was the largest redundant mill complex in Lancashire, and in March 2012 the Government gave Pendle council a £1.5 million grant via the Homes and Communities Agency to buy it.

Under the previous Government, the mill complex had been bought by a Birmingham-based Islamic charity, which planned to convert the site into a 5,000-place boarding school for girls. Now in public ownership, the 380,000-square-foot complex of buildings on a seven-acre site is located next to the M65 motorway and Brierfield railway station. The site has the potential to be a key driver of jobs and growth.

Bringing such a large grade II listed building back into use in such a deprived part of the north of England, however, will require some public funding in addition to private sector investment. Architects have come up with an impressive vision for the site, which will be renamed Northlight and include 71 retirement flats, a 78-bed hotel and spa, leisure facilities, business units, a new marina on the canal and a family pub. Using the Government’s business premises renovation allowance or BPRA scheme, now available thanks to the new assisted area status that I mentioned earlier, private sector investors are lined up for almost every part of the project, but they still need some more support to make the whole thing viable. The Lancashire LEP has bid for some of the funding in the second phase of the growth deals.

In advance of the decision being announced, I am delighted that the Minister responsible for the deals, who also happens to be responding to today’s debate, has kindly accepted my invitation to visit the site this Friday. I am hoping that, after visits to Brierfield Mill by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and two successive Ministers of State for Housing and Local Government, my hon. Friend can finally move forward the £34 million landmark regeneration scheme, which I have been working to resolve since my election.

Brierfield Mill is by far the largest regeneration project the local business community and the council are trying to undertake, but it also links in to the need for more Government support for developers in the north who want to redevelop brownfield sites. It is great that figures show that house building has increased by 20% over the last year, but in some parts on the north, such as Pendle, property prices are so low that developers struggle to

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make any money redeveloping ex-industrial brownfield sites. They therefore focus on easier-to-develop greenfield sites. That is especially the case in Pendle, where we still have about 1,200 empty homes, down from about 2,000 in 2010.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. Could the hon. Gentleman start to bring his remarks to a close in the interests of colleagues who also wish to participate?

Andrew Stephenson: Yes, definitely.

We have a real challenge with brownfield sites, and we need funding for them. I am delighted that the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, who is responsible for housing and planning, announced last week that east Lancashire has been shortlisted as a brownfield housing zone. I am keen to see that go forward, but we still need more support.

I could go on longer, but many Members want to speak, so I will conclude by saying that significant progress has been made, but I look forward to more being made over the coming weeks and months.

3.10 pm

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mrs Main, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), a fellow Lancastrian. It is great to see so much support for the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing it.

The issue before us is the diversity of the north and why the north is different. I was going to say that it is different from other regions because all of us there have to cope with Yorkshire, but I will not say that. What I will say is that a feature of our region going back over different Governments over the years has been its distance, in a sense, from this country’s powerhouse—Greater London. One of the oddest things for many of us who were new Members of Parliament in 2010 was that, for the 13 years of the previous Government, and indeed before, to be fair, the divide between the London powerhouse and the rest of the country, particularly the north-west region, had simply got wider and wider.

When I looked around my constituency as a new Member of Parliament in 2010, I saw its huge strengths. The Lancaster part had its university in the top 10, and it was spewing out businesses. Fleetwood perhaps felt that it was somewhat in decline because of the state of its fishing, but there were still incredible businesses there, such as Fisherman’s Friend, a family business that exports to more than 100 countries and reinvests in the town. The rural parts—other Members have mentioned rural areas—also had huge strengths in terms of their businesses and farming businesses, which had been through bad times and good times.

As the Member of Parliament, I was told that there was lots of potential, but there was a feeling that, “We can’t do anything unless London tells us what to do.” In 2010, businesses told me that banks wanted loans paid off quickly. There was a lack of confidence, and banks wondered whether they should invest their money. People were trying to get together, including with the county, to look at some kind of north-west or Lancashire investment

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bank or, indeed, at having a stock exchange in the north again—in 1914, there were 64 stock exchanges across the country.

There is potential in the region, but how do we open it up? To give the Government great credit, the single biggest thing they did to finally convince businesses in my area that it was worth investing again was committing to building the M6 link road to Heysham, with funding of £111 million. That was a difficult decision in 2010-11, in the midst of our worries about recession and of cutting back on the deficit. A plan for a motorway had been on the drawing board since 1938, so the Government’s commitment to implement it—it is nearly finished—was a massive statement of confidence in the area.

There is also the investment in the coastal communities fund, with £67 million going into Fleetwood’s flood defences. That was a Government commitment. The biggest commitment, however, as Members have mentioned, has been in infrastructure—in our connections with the rest of the country and, yes, with Yorkshire, which will allow people from Yorkshire to visit Lancashire to see how great it is. In particular, there are the connections with London, and High Speed 2 is vital, but we should not forget the investment in electrification from Preston all the way through to Blackpool, something the previous Government did nothing about. There is also the electrification from Manchester to Liverpool, something the previous Government, again, did nothing about.

The incredible thing for a new Conservative Member of Parliament in a north-west seat was the view that nothing seemed to have happened before and that we could not do anything without asking the Government. The Government tended to ignore the north-west, except, perhaps, what we in north Lancashire used to refer to as Greater Manchester and Merseyside. We need to get that balance right.

Simon Danczuk: I have been enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but I just want to correct him on one or two points. The truth is that the previous Labour Government put a lot of investment into the north-west, not least through the regional development agency, which did an excellent job of sharing out the money. That money went not least to Lancaster university, which had an absolute fortune spent on it under the Labour Government, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others benefit from that.

Eric Ollerenshaw: I hate to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I agreed with a great deal of what he said in his speech, but the absurdity of the previous economic strategy—the regional development agencies—was that London, which is the richest part of the country, had its own agency. I know something about that, having been a member of it. What the hon. Gentleman says was not the message I got from Lancaster university, Lancaster council or Lancashire county council when I was elected in 2010. As I said, the regional development agency for the north-west concentrated wholly and utterly on Merseyside and Greater Manchester, and we got precious little.

Andrew Percy: The point raised earlier about regional development agencies is one of the big myths still perpetuated by some. The reality is that, during the period they existed, and for all the work they may have done, the north became relatively less well off and relatively poorer compared with the south.

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Eric Ollerenshaw: My hon. Friend is exactly right. We only have to look at the figures: the north-west’s contribution to GDP in the 13 years before 2010 was falling and falling as Greater London expanded. I am not particularly blaming the previous Labour Government, because this was a continuation from previous Governments. Governments made huge attempts to address these issues, and I am old enough to remember the ’60s, when Governments would suddenly announce they were going to provide money to put a car factory here or an agency there, but there was no follow-through.

The Government’s priority should be to get the fiscal thing right, and what we have seen on corporation tax is all very welcome. However, the infrastructure thing is massive in enabling the north-west to contribute to rebalancing the economy. That is important, and the Government have followed through on it, for which I am grateful.

I would add, because the Minister is here, that we are still looking to bids to remodel junction 33 on the M6, and there is still a bid under the regional growth fund for a Fleetwood fish park, which is for a minor £3 million, although it would generate £20 million-odd of further investment.

There is a challenge for all of us as Members from the north to galvanise the region to start doing things off its own bat, without asking central Government what should happen. I give due credit to the metropolitan leaders who have come together. Bringing Yorkshire metropolitan leaders together with Lancashire metropolitan leaders—Manchester and Liverpool are still part of the old County Palatine of Lancashire—is fantastic, and we should do that more. We should be thinking about these things, and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) talked about Cumbria.

The north could generate investment potential, and I want to lay down markers now. As northern MPs, we should perhaps look together, across parties, at a northern investment bank or a northern stock exchange—all these things are possible. The Government have laid down a marker and given us the best chance of realising them, but we have to put our bit in as well.

3.18 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Some of the most exciting and innovative developments in this country today are along the science corridor, which a number of Members have mentioned. It crosses several constituencies, including mine and that of my immediate neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), to whom I pay tribute for calling the debate. The Government have rightly committed many millions of pounds of national funding to supporting the corridor and adjacent infrastructure—not least in my constituency, where £45 million of growth deal funding has gone towards the Congleton link road, about which I have spoken in the House on a number of occasions; I am grateful to Ministers for listening and responding to my points. It is of great importance to businesses in my constituency, such as Reliance Medical, Senior Aerospace Bird Bellows and Airbags International. However, that is not what I want chiefly to speak about today. I want to focus on Jodrell Bank.

The world famous dish of Jodrell Bank lies within my constituency, although I must confess that the controls are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member

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for Macclesfield, so we share an interest. Jodrell Bank is important locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. I want to highlight that importance and express concern about a threat to its work and to recent Government investment in it.

To provide some context, I should say that Jodrell Bank has been at the forefront of radar technology since it became world famous in 1957, as the Lovell telescope emerged as the only instrument capable of using radar to detect the Russian satellite Sputnik. It now hosts the e-MERLIN national facility as well as the Lovell telescope. It continues to produce world-class science. It also hosts the outstanding Discovery centre, which has done much to increase public awareness of science in the UK. That has more than 140,000 visitors a year, including about 16,000 schoolchildren taking part in its education programme, and it has received numerous awards. The BBC transmitted its “Stargazing Live” programme from Jodrell Bank from 2011 to 2014.

As we heard, the Square Kilometre Array is at the leading edge of astrophysics research, and continues to receive the full support of universities, businesses and public sector agencies across the north and beyond, which work together to underpin its activities. It is a very important area—a national and global network of telescopes, with Jodrell Bank at the centre, carrying out unique, world-leading science, across a wide range of astrophysics and cosmology. The facilities at Jodrell Bank are used by almost every university astrophysics group in the country and hundreds of scientists in the UK and Europe, and across the globe. The developments being undertaken by Jodrell Bank, and its potential developments, are of huge importance to jobs and the economy.

In 2013, the Minister’s predecessor as Science Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), opened the SKA and Jodrell Bank as its centre. The SKA is a project that joins thousands of receivers across the globe to create the largest, most sensitive radio telescope ever built. Members of the SKA include Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Germany and Sweden; and the UK leads it. At the opening Dame Nancy Rothwell, of the university of Manchester, called it a “cutting edge science project” and said that it would

“become a real science and engineering hub”.

The Minister’s predecessor said:

“This project is pushing the frontiers and that is why the Chancellor has awarded some of the extra £600 m towards science development”

to it. He said it was

“a global strategic project but one that Great Britain is a major player in.”

The economic benefits of that work for the national economy cannot be over-estimated. However—and it is a big “however”—it is threatened. Professor Simon Garrington of the university of Manchester has spoken of the detrimental effect of radio interference from surrounding developments on the work at Jodrell Bank:

“Radio interference has an impact on almost all the experiments that are carried out at Jodrell Bank.”

He explains that in many observations radio interference is the main factor limiting the quality of the data and that

“every increase in interference...reduces the amount of useful data that are left”.

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He adds that

“when there are lots of these…as might be the case for emission from housing developments then it has a significant impact on the data.”

Even a domestic microwave in someone’s home can have an impact on the work at Jodrell Bank. It is important to remember that decades ago Professor Lovell moved his work at the university from the centre of Manchester to Cheshire, to avoid such interference.

Professor Garrington says that the work of Jodrell Bank has already been hampered by local development, explaining that the

“discovery of pulsars was led by Jodrell Bank for many years”

but that

“now…we can no longer find new pulsars and our experiments are limited to timing the pulsars which are already known. We do make the most precise measurements...but really interference limits the extent to which we can search for new pulsars.”

He explains how researchers at Jodrell Bank have done the most extensive analysis anywhere, to understand how towns, developments and roads affect the work. He has given evidence to a planning committee in Cheshire in the past month, and says:

“We have in the last few months constructed a detailed map which quantifies this loss due to distance and terrain...What this model shows is that the largest potential contribution is often from local villages such as Goostrey”.

Goostrey is a village in my constituency, between 1 mile and 2 miles from Jodrell Bank. Professor Garrington adds that modelling of the proposed development in Goostrey

“shows that it will add significantly to what is a present and growing problem...We believe this continued development at this rate so close to Jodrell Bank poses a significant impact on the science that can be carried out at this international institution.”

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. Can I ask the hon. Lady to bring her remarks to a close, as we have winding-up speeches at 20 to four?

Fiona Bruce: I will, Mrs Main. I am raising this concern because the village of Goostrey has 900 houses and there are now plans to build up to 250 additional houses. Applications have been put in and some have been agreed. The latest one is for a development of 119. A public meeting was held in the village only last Friday, attended by 250 people, asking for consideration of an exclusion zone for further housing development around Jodrell Bank of up to, say, 2 miles; no doubt the parameters could be established by discussion with Jodrell Bank, which I understand supports the proposals. I am keen that the Science Minister should be aware of the request, and I hope that he will consider it.

3.26 pm

Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) for securing the debate.

In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan was “It’s the economy, stupid.” That is still apt today, after 23 years. This last year, the UK economy had the highest growth rate of any western nation, and I happily report that businesses in Calder Valley, where 20% of my constituents work in manufacturing and 40% in the banking and

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financial sector, are all punching well above their weight in contributing to economic growth. The majority just get on and do—and make no mistake, they always do it with sheer Yorkshire grit, bucketloads of innovation, fabulous Yorkshire canniness that creates an eye for fabulous future leaders, and reinvestment into businesses, which sustains them through bad times as well as good.

I am not going to mention the Government’s advertised 636 schemes of finance and support for business, because like most northerners I am a little sceptical about what real help some of those schemes offer. However, I will talk about the schemes that Calder Valley businesses tell me about, which they feel are incredibly helpful to them. Those schemes give hard-working Calder Valley businesses relief and help them on their way, allowing them to get on and build the local and national economy further.

The huge success story is, without question, apprenticeships, of which there have been more than 1.5 million in the past four years. They have massively reduced youth unemployment and trained future engineers, manufacturers, bankers, retailers and administrators, to name a few. In Calder Valley more than 2,100 apprenticeships have started in the past two years: 490 in engineering and manufacturing; 350 in retail trades; 610 in banking and financial services; and 110 in construction.

Small business rate relief has been a huge relief to small start-ups. It has been helpful in particular to hard-pressed high street retailers, helping small retailers to compete with blue chip retailers, but it has also given a helping hand to dozens of start-up businesses. Small business loans have been a huge hit locally; 43 individuals have applied for and received a small business loan and mentoring in the past year, of whom 40% were female and 40% were under 30. They are a great way to promote self-worth and entrepreneurial spirit.

Many Calder Valley businesses have benefited from the regional growth fund, helping to boost job growth. Unemployment is down to just 1.8%, and we have the highest number of women in employment and the highest average earnings in west Yorkshire. Companies such as AD Plastic Solutions in Hebden Bridge, Archway Engineering in Elland, Kavia Tooling in Todmorden, Microsearch Laboratories in Mytholmroyd, F. Crowther and Son in Brighouse and Calder Valley Skip Hire in Ripponden are great Calder Valley businesses punching above their weight with a helping hand from Government.

On the national infrastructure level, Calder Valley businesses are really excited about High Speed 2 coming to Leeds, bringing much needed capacity on our overcrowded east coast main line. Hon. Members can imagine how excited those businesses are about the announcement of High Speed 3, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield mentioned. That vital infrastructure investment will enable our national economy to grow, flourish and compete on a global level.

It is not all about rail, either. Money spent on widening the trans-Pennine M62 route has enabled easier commutes and passageway to markets for our businesses. That has been vital for keeping the cogs and gears of our great northern powerhouse well oiled, so as to contribute towards the great economic recovery of our nation. So it is not just the economy, stupid—we should add, “With a welcome hand from Government where that is needed and wanted.”

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Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues will thank him for his consideration in keeping his speech brief.

3.31 pm

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I will also try to be brief, Mrs Main, as I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) wishes to speak. It is always a delight to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing this debate.

I am incredibly fortunate in the Ribble Valley to have businesses both small and large. Between Salmesbury in my patch and Warton in a neighbouring patch, BAE Systems employs 11,000 people, and it is well known that for every job created at BAE Systems, about three are created in smaller businesses down the pipeline. The Consortium of Lancashire Aerospace has firms in a number of my hon. Friends’ constituencies, which do rather well from having BAE Systems nearby—and more power to their elbow.

There are also much smaller businesses in my constituency, such as the paper cup company in Clitheroe that has seen investment of £250,000 and brought jobs back from China to Clitheroe. Lancashire does rather well: in the area of high-end, high-spec jobs, the ability to get access to fast broadband has brought high-tech jobs into Clitheroe. A company called YUDU has created a tremendous number of jobs there. The skills available in Lancashire can lead to jobs for so many young and enterprising people working hard in firms large and small throughout the area.

Although it does not come under the portfolio of the Minister, I want to touch on an issue that, as I represent a rural constituency, worries me greatly. A lot of our small businesses are farms. Recently, a number of farmers have not been able to get paid for the milk they have produced. Indeed, in the month of December alone, 60 farmers went out of business throughout the country. We know how important dairy farming is to the United Kingdom and to the north of England in particular. I hope that the Government will get involved directly to ensure that farmers get their money and that something is done about the insane pricing of milk throughout the country, as it is now cheaper to buy milk than water. Something has to be wrong there. When milk is being sold at 89p for four pints, the contracts between farmers and those buying the milk must be insane, and it is no wonder that those businesses cannot make a go of it.

Tourism is also important to me, and the fact that we have our wonderful countryside is down to our farmers. If we want to attract people from large cities into rural areas, we must ensure that we have viable businesses there. We desperately need to do something about small farming businesses.

When the Minister goes to Pendle, I hope he will also spend some time in the Ribble Valley, where a number of businesses are built on tourism and on hospitality in particular. I went with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) to the Baum, which has won the Campaign for Real Ale’s award for pub of the year. I now have a CAMRA pub of the year next door to me, the Swan with Two Necks. Businesses such as those, and James’s Places, which runs the Emporium, the

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Waddington Arms, the Shireburn Arms and Mitton Hall, are providing lots of extra jobs to the hospitality trade in the area—James’s Places provides over 300—that help young people in particular.

Our farming, hospitality and hostelry industries mean that the Ribble Valley has some of the finest places for people to go. They are backed up by Ribble Valley council, which runs the Ribble Valley Food Trail. People can go to see where a lot of their food is produced and sold. There is a wonderful weekend when people can come into Clitheroe to celebrate what is wonderful about food production, hostelry and beer production. The Bowland Beer Company has been taken over by James’s Places and will be coming into Clitheroe shortly, bringing huge investment. Thwaites Brewery is also coming into Ribble Valley from Blackburn, which will help secure hundreds of jobs for east Lancashire.

The Ribble Valley is a rural area that has seen wonderful investment from small and large businesses over the year thanks to this Government. We now have an unemployment rate of about 1%. I want to see that continue—and with this Government’s policies and support, it will.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): I call Mr Stuart Andrew, who has just under four minutes to make a wonderful speech.

3.36 pm

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): No pressure, then.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, not least because it enables us all to showcase some of the exciting things that are happening in the north. For too long, some have painted a picture of the north that fails to focus on the real positives that are happening there. I have also seen some great partnership across the Pennines today, despite the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy).

During my time in this House, I have been impressed by the real determination of businesses in my constituency to do everything they can to help get the economy out of recession. They have continued to invest and have actively sought new markets to help their businesses to continue. Some are now really reaping the rewards, with many investing in premises expansion, such as Vickers Laboratories in Pudsey, or seeing a growing export market to major economies such as China—that is the experience of Hainsworth Mill in Stanningley, which for generations has been producing quality products, including the cloth for the Woolsack in the House of Lords.

That determination is still there even in businesses that have suffered a major catastrophe. For example, the premises of Airedale International were completely destroyed, but it has shown real commitment to the north by relocating temporarily and rebuilding those premises. I pay tribute to all the businesses, large, medium and small, that have kept going. Their commitment, along with the Government’s long-term economic plan, has seen unemployment in my constituency fall by nearly 50%—it now stands at 1.7%.

My constituency and those businesses make up part of the Leeds City Region LEP. One of the largest outside London, it generates nearly 4% of the UK’s economic

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output. It has a work force of 1.4 million people in over 100,000 businesses, building an economy worth over £55 billion in 2012. It is also now recognised as a national centre for financial and business services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) mentioned, Leeds is the second largest financial centre in the UK.

To date, the LEP has worked to unlock the city region’s potential and develop the economic powerhouse that will create the jobs and prosperity we need. Its ambition is to make the city region a net contributor to the UK economy. To do so, it has provided grant investment to over 336 businesses already, with the potential to create over 3,000 jobs. It has also given loan investments, so that major projects that had stalled in recent years can get under way.

Another sector with real potential for the Leeds area is the creative and digital industry, which is one of the LEP’s priority sectors. CDi Print Yorkshire is an initiative match-funded by the British Printing Industries Federation. Unique to the region, it works across the creative, digital and printing industry, supporting and connecting businesses so that they can really grow. The wider region already has 120,000 employees in this sector, and there are more of the top 100 digital agencies in Leeds city region than anywhere outside London. That is allowing them now to bid to become recognised as a tech city.

I recognise that time is running out fast, but because all those things are going on, and because of the real examples we have heard about today, I believe that the north is vibrant and growing and the potential is there for the taking. With the northern economic powerhouse and the investment that we are seeing, which I hope will include a rail link to Leeds Bradford airport, it is true that it is not grim up north—it’s great!

3.40 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Main, and I agree with what the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) was saying: it is not grim up north—it’s great. It is a fantastic place and I think it has been really interesting in this debate to see how hon. Members can come together and really want to champion the north as an area.

I particularly thank the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley). We have discussed economic development matters before, and he has always provided consistent support for businesses in wanting to champion them in the House. I commend him for that, and he has done it again this afternoon. He said that Macclesfield is famous for silk, but for my generation, Macclesfield is famous for Joy Division and Ian Curtis. I would be more than happy to talk about them for the next 10 minutes, but I think economic development in the north is equally important.

Our past and our industrial legacy have been mentioned time and again. It is certainly true that industrialisation—the industrial revolution—started in the north. Just to keep hon. Members onside, let us be frank: it started in the north-east. The north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber were drivers of innovation, entrepreneurialism and prosperity, and they offered a real counterpoint to the capital of London. Do not forget that London was the capital of the empire—the biggest city in the world—but

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it was not dominating or eclipsing the fantastic powerhouses of the north. We need to have the model that we had in the 19th century back in a modern, innovative 21st century economy, and this is about working together to make sure that happens. We want to see the north thrive and see the creation and expansion of highly skilled, well-paid jobs in businesses and industries that are innovative, highly productive and selling their goods and services to the rest of the world. I hope that the whole House can share that vision.

The hon. Gentleman and others have talked about devolution and governance of the north. All credit to the Minister; he is very knowledgeable and passionate about this matter. A key offer, which has been mentioned several times in the debate, is to ensure that the north can shape its own destiny. Why should we, as hon. Members, be going cap in hand to Whitehall officials—it is usually officials—who have no knowledge, frankly, of the north and no awareness of the nuances of how the dynamics of local economies work? Why can we not have the tools and powers to realise our potential and shape our own destiny?

Successive Governments have moved in that direction. This Government are continuing to do so, and the next Labour Government, in about 113 days, will be continuing it as well. The Leader of the Opposition has said that he wishes to devolve £4 billion of Whitehall spend directly to city and, crucially for the hon. Member for Macclesfield, to county regions, too. That is about double the sum proposed by the present Government. I am interested in what the Minister has to say about further devolution and further governance arrangements.

In many respects, governance can be a very theoretical issue. Something I admire about the hon. Member for Macclesfield and other hon. Members in this Chamber is their practicality. When we consider Government support for businesses, we have to think about practicalities. If I run a company in Macclesfield or Hartlepool, what does Government support actually do? How does it help me to grow my business? Where do I go? We have heard today about 636 different initiatives from the Government. The situation is far too complex. It is difficult to navigate and it changes far too often. All Governments are guilty of rebranding, of initiative-itis, of wanting to announce something. I can understand that, but we have to recognise that we need continuity, stability and long-termism in business policy to ensure that businesses know where to go, how they access support of different types and how they make sure that support grows and thrives.

Let me put my party political hat on now. The Government are particularly bad at tinkering. We have heard about the abolition of the regional development agencies early on in this Parliament, and a number of reasons were given for that abolition. Chiefly, one of them seemed to be, “The last lot brought them in. We have to get rid of them to effect change.” I do not think that is right, and it has been detrimental to the northern economy. There could be some great debate here, but I think it is recognised that the three RDAs of the north—One North East, Yorkshire Forward and the Northwest Regional Development Agency—worked pretty effectively in trying to regenerate their areas and provide economic development and support to businesses in the regions. The setting-up of their replacements—the LEPs—took a couple of years, and businesses were uncertain about

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what to do. A gap was left in support, so we have lost two or three years in which we could have really chased ahead in respect of economic growth in the regions.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): It is really unfair to say that the reason why the RDAs were abolished was that they were not invented by this Government. They were abolished because they were not focused enough on the north. We have heard that there was one in the south-east and one in London—that is not very regional. The fact remains that the Centre for Cities report states that between 1997 and 2008, for every 10 jobs generated in London, one was generated in the north. That is why the RDAs had to go.

Mr Wright: But why outright abolition rather than reform? I certainly could not justify the idea of a south-east regional development agency, but making sure that there could be reform while trying to have as much continuity as possible would have been best for business and providing Government support.

Andrew Percy: I have to correct the hon. Gentleman on the idea of a consensus that the RDAs were performing well. In the Humber, we felt strongly that the Yorkshire regional development agency was very much Leeds-focused, and it is fair to say that since the introduction of the Humber LEP, we have a real vision of what we want for our economy in terms of new renewable energies and a real drive to get to that. We did not have that under Yorkshire Forward.

Mr Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If we are going to have true devolution to the north and a recognition that city regions can really power local economies, how do we ensure that areas that are peripheral to the centre of cities—[Interruption.]Let me finish, because this is an important point that affects my constituency, too. How do we ensure that those areas can really have change as well? For example, Newcastle will help to drive forward the north-east economy, and Middlesbrough, to some extent, will drive forward the north-east economy when it comes to Teesside. In Hartlepool, we have fantastic areas of specialism in respect of high-value manufacturing. The idea that we could be left behind is absolutely ridiculous, and other areas—other towns and rural villages—will have the same approach. Will the Minister respond to that? Given the city region model, how do we ensure that places such as Rochdale, Hartlepool and areas in the Peak district are not left behind? That is very important.

I want to mention a number of other things briefly in the time I have available. The hon. Member for Macclesfield and other hon. Members have mentioned connectivity, which is a really pressing point for the north. A couple of years ago, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research showed that the gap in spending on transport in particular is very acute. On a per-capita basis, the spend in London is 500 times as much as for the north-east, 20 times as much as for the north-west and over 16 times as much as in Yorkshire and the Humber. If we are talking about the link between city regions and other outlying areas, connectivity—being able to get to the jobs and businesses of the future—is absolutely crucial. How will the Minister deal with that?

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My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) mentioned business rates, which is a really important matter that disproportionately affects businesses in the north. The situation needs to change. We welcome the Chancellor’s review of business rates and hope that recommendations will be brought forward. I hope that the Minister, in turn, will support what the Labour party has been doing in calling for a cut to business rates in 2015 and a freeze on them in 2016 to ensure that there is an absolute requirement and a recognition that business rates are a major cost for businesses and detracting from further growth and prosperity.

Access to finance was also mentioned and the attitude of the banks when it came to my hon. Friend. There is still a problem with access to finance, in having that transactional, often confrontational relationship between a bank and a business. Is the British Business Bank doing as much as it should? Do we have proper local knowledge to ensure that regional banks have the understanding and recognition of what a local economy requires? That is very important, and I hope that the Minister will have time to say something about how we ensure that we have responsive banking systems and financial arrangements in local areas.

I want to mention some hon. Members’ favourite subject—Europe. Is the Minister concerned about—

Mr Nigel Evans: Did we mention it?

Mr Wright: No, but it is hon. Members’ interest in certain areas. There is a concern that because the Commission does not recognise the governance arrangements of LEPs, millions of pounds are being lost or certainly delayed on their way to the regions. My own area of the north-east has the potential to be delayed to the tune of £724 million, and for the north-west the figure is £895 million.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I ask Mr Wright to let the Minister respond.

Mr Wright: Will the Minister respond—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order.

Mr Wright: And does he appreciate that the north is a fantastic place that has the potential to grow further?

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order.

3.50 pm

The Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (Greg Clark): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, in what has been an excellent debate. Some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) were excellent, but some were not. Let me pick up the point about RDAs. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) was right. The RDAs were not abolished because they were not invented by us; they were abolished because they did not work. During their existence, the north’s share—I am talking about the north-east, the north-west and the administrative region of Yorkshire and the Humber—shrank as a percentage of the national economy. The hon. Member for Hartlepool will know,

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having grown up on Teesside, as I did, that there was an accurate perception during all the years of the 1970s and into the ’80s that the strength of the Tees valley was often under the shadow of Newcastle, to the north. One of the great successes in the north-east has been the revival of the identity of the Tees valley through its very successful LEP, which is making great progress.

I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on giving us the opportunity to have the debate, on his excellent speech and on his very kind words to me at the beginning.

The Government are committed to the creation of a northern powerhouse, and we have had an expression of the northern powerhouse in the number of Members at this debate: 17 Conservative Members with constituencies or affiliations with the north. I speak as a proud northerner, born and bred in Middlesbrough. I sometimes carry around with me a medallion that was struck in 1881 to commemorate the unveiling of a statue in Middlesbrough, erected by public subscription, to the first mayor of Middlesbrough and first Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough. He was an industrialist, an ironmaster; Bolckow was his name.

The reason why I often refer, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool did, to those times is that, as he will agree, there was no distinction then between industrial leadership and local leadership. There was an expectation that the people who would drive forward the local economy through their businesses would give of themselves, their time and their investments in helping to make those places successful. I hope that we will get back to the time when mayors of Middlesbrough and other great towns and cities around the country had statues erected to them by public subscription to thank them for their achievements. Certainly, that is the direction in which we are going; we need to give more power to the north.

What are the elements of what we need to do? One element is raising the long-term growth rate of the constituencies and communities in the north. As the hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members said, the north drove the British economy at various times in our history. There is no reason why its growth rate should be below the national average. Our ambition must be to have it pulling the national average up, rather than being below it.

We need to continue the progress on raising the employment rate. We need to continue to address the need for investment in long-term transport infrastructure. One thing that has excited colleagues and constituents and representatives of all parties across the north is the vision for transport improvements, whether through the HS2 or HS3 connections that are being made.

The north-west is already, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield said, a global centre for outstanding scientific innovation. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) made that point as well. It is also, as many hon. Members mentioned, a good place to live in, to work in and to visit. We need to celebrate and build on the quality of life in the north.

We need to ensure that the voices of people in the north acquire greater power and influence. It seems to me that the influence and the ability that Teesside has, and Middlesbrough in particular, to shape its own destiny was rather greater when decisions were made on

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the banks of the River Tees than when they came to be made on the banks of the Thames. I think that we need to revive that tradition.

Let me deal with some of the points that hon. Members made. Both Cheshire Members referred to the Square Kilometre Array. We are very proud of this asset. The heritage of Jodrell Bank in being at the leading edge of science is very important to us. I am due to meet the review panel for the SKA next month, and I will signal our wholehearted commitment to the project and to promoting Jodrell Bank as the rightful location for the SKA’s headquarters. I will take up with my ministerial colleagues the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton.

In the few minutes that I have in which to speak, I want to pay tribute to the leadership that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield has given on the Alderley Park taskforce, which has been a phenomenal success. He will, I know, share the credit with the many local leaders, both in industry and in the local authority, who have worked together in just the way that he has described to create a prospering park with a great future. I am informed that, to date, the BioHub has attracted more than 70 biopharmaceutical companies, employing 281 staff. It is home to businesses that have been supported by some of the initiatives that many hon. Members have mentioned today. I place on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend and to all the other members of the Alderley Park taskforce for their efforts in building on this opportunity.

The common denominator of the remarks that have been made by hon. Members from right across the area —the 17 Conservative colleagues and our two Labour colleagues, who made important contributions, is that—

Mr Iain Wright: What about the Lib Dems?

Greg Clark: Well, at least two parties were represented here. We need to recognise that the prosperity of the country requires every part of the country to be firing on all cylinders. That is the common denominator of all the points that were made.

Local rivalries were on display in some of the remarks. Some rivalries are more friendly than others. I dare say that Middlesbrough and Hartlepool have also had their moments over the years.

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Mr Wright: And still do.

Greg Clark: Indeed. That just underlines the point that no two places are alike. They may be close geographically, but they have different histories, different traditions, often different industries and different politics. If we try to subsume them all into an approach that gets them to fit in with a central Government view of how the world should be, we will suppress the very individuality and difference that gives them their energy and creative spark, so one thing that we have tried to do—with success, I think—is to work through, first, the city deals and then the growth deals, and we have replaced the regional development agencies, in which great cities such as Manchester and Liverpool lost their identity, as did counties such as Cumbria and Lancashire. By taking the RDAs away and giving voice to representatives of real places rather than administratively concocted places, we have begun to empower those places and, in addition, the various deals that we have done have all been proposed and made in the areas that they represent, and they gather strength from that.

This is the beginning of a process that will continue. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) has displayed his tenacity in the number of Ministers he has lured to his constituency. I need to declare in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that a pint of Pride of Pendle might be waiting for me when I make—

Andrew Stephenson: Several.

Greg Clark: Indeed. I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend. His tenacity and commitment to his constituency are shared by Members right across the Chamber. I have set out what we are trying to do. I think that it does enjoy some cross-party consensus, and that is all to the good. The relationships between authorities have crossed party lines, and we have enjoyed in this debate a fair degree of political consensus. I hope that we will continue to do so.

I end by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield on bringing us together to affirm, in ringing tones, our commitment to continuing the revival of the north that is proceeding apace under this Government.

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Shrewsbury Railway Station

4 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): We had the great honour and pleasure of hosting my hon. Friend the Minister in Shrewsbury not so long ago. As she knows, the beautiful, historic nature of our town has ensured that tourism is an extremely important contributor to our local economy. Shrewsbury has more listed buildings than any other town in England, so tourism is very important for us.

Many people come to our town by rail. Shrewsbury station was built in 1848 and was designated a grade II listed building in 1969. When I was elected to office in 2005, the station had slightly more than 1.3 million users a year. Last year, that figure had exceeded 1.8 million, which represents a 39% increase over the past nine years. Shrewsbury station is an important one. It caters to and accommodates ever larger numbers of users, which we should celebrate and be proud of.

Recently, we secured a direct train service from Shrewsbury to London, and I want to take this opportunity to thank the Minister and her Department. After a huge number of meetings with the Office of the Rail Regulator, Network Rail, Virgin Trains and the Department for Transport, we finally secured that link connecting Shrewsbury to London. We have a service twice a day, and just one service on Sunday. I use it, and I am happy to report to the Minister that it is very popular and really taking off. If I am re-elected in May, however, I will be pressing her and Virgin Trains to try to increase the frequency of that important service, which links us up with our capital city. If we can attract more national and international tourists from our capital city to Shropshire, it can only be good for our local economy.

Last week, I accompanied a senior officer from Shropshire council—Tim Sneddon, who does an excellent job—around the station, so that I could become better acquainted with the exact demarcation of the responsibility for its maintenance. Some parts of the station are the responsibility of the unitary authority, others of Network Rail and others of Arriva Trains Wales. I also had the opportunity to meet the manager of the station from Arriva Trains Wales.

I want to highlight a couple of issues that I saw at first hand, because my constituents have repeatedly raised them with me. One of the most important things I saw was the Dana steps, about which I will write formally to Network Rail, because it is responsible for the area. Next to the station is a large expanse of land that is, essentially, scrubland, which is overgrown and contains many bushes, and there are some steps leading down to the River Severn. Constituents have repeatedly raised concerns about the fact that the Dana steps are not safe late at night, because the lighting is insufficient and there are no CCTV cameras. Constituents tell me that they feel vulnerable and unsafe walking in that part of the station towards the river using the Dana steps.

The land is festooned with rubbish, litter and broken glass, and it has all sorts of other problems. It needs to be properly maintained by Network Rail. It should be cleared out and perhaps put to good use. As things stand, I am not satisfied with Network Rail’s management of that plot of land. Interestingly, the Victorian Dana prison on that site has been sold to the Osborne group

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for redevelopment as office and residential accommodation, and I am sure that those investors will be very interested to know how Network Rail will manage that site next to the station. We want an ever safer and cleaner environment in this important site in Shrewsbury town centre.

I also want to raise with the Minister the Dana bridge, which is a large bridge that straddles Shrewsbury station. I highlighted it to the Secretary of State when he came to Shrewsbury station a few weeks ago for the launch of the train service from Shrewsbury to London. The bridge is an historic structure, primarily made of wood, but all the wood is crumbling and falling apart, and it gives a very bad impression. I have tweeted the Minister about it and sent her photographs of the bridge, which looks dirty and dilapidated. I hope her officials have managed to look at the state of it. We walked along the bridge, which was very dirty and not properly lit. I have been told that it is the responsibility of Network Rail to maintain the bridge and ensure that it is properly looked after and modernised.

In parts of the station—bear in mind that it is a grade II listed building—including the sidings, there are huge amounts of what I would term industrial waste. Redundant metal structures just sit there, rusting away, in addition to copious quantities of weeds and litter. I particularly object to the metal and the industrial waste, which just stands in the yards, clearly visible to members of the public who are visiting Shrewsbury for the first time.

Network Rail and Arriva Trains Wales are meant to work collaboratively to ensure that the station is well looked after. The manager told me that the toilets are in need of major redevelopment, and he assured me that Arriva Trains Wales has a programme in place to modernise and update them. Another issue, which must affect railway stations all over the country, is the netting to stop birds getting into the eaves of the buildings. I do not know whether anyone has yet come up with a credible solution to the problem, but we need to do something. The nets always get broken, the birds get trapped and the result is a huge amount of dirt and waste. I hope Arriva and Network Rail will look at that.

Arriva Trains Wales has done some good work at the station. A new modern, clean and efficient ticket office has been built, and a new waiting room has been created. I have called for those things for many years, and I am pleased to announce to the Minister that those brand-new facilities have gone down extremely well with my constituents.

How are companies such as Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail incentivised to go the extra mile to maintain, upgrade and modernise train stations across the country? Are we incentivising them in innovative ways to go the extra mile, to compete and to learn from other European Union countries? How are they incentivised to go the extra mile to show the Minister that they are serious about upgrading and modernising our stations? What steps is she taking to bring together Network Rail and Arriva Trains Wales, and their equivalents in other parts of the country? How is the Department bringing together different operators to ensure an ongoing collaborative approach to managing and looking after stations? I am sure the Minister will accept that, following the privatisation of the rail network, quite a few partners are now involved in maintaining a railway station. It is important that she and her Department do everything possible to incentivise them and ensure that they are

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doing everything possible to invest—that is the critical word—in those important buildings that, ultimately, should be paying for themselves.

What penalties is the Minister putting in place where companies such as Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail do not invest sufficiently in train stations and do not meet the expectations of constituents and Members of Parliament? I have been assured that a modernisation plan for the station has been put in place, and some people say to me, “Why are you raising this issue now when they are telling you that they have plans?” I am raising the issue because I have been told that the station is about to be upgraded and modernised for the past six or seven years. It has got to the point where I am no longer prepared to accept that there will be jam tomorrow or that improvements will start at the end of the year. Will the Minister assure me on the record that her Department and her officials are in discussions with both companies and have had concrete assurances about this important station? I am meeting Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail at the station in February, and I will spend a morning showing them around every aspect of the station, from the toilets to the side yard where all the rubbish is currently held. I will write to the Minister and keep her informed of how those discussions go.

Lastly—this is a small issue, but it is an issue of pride —we are all proud of our national flag. Some years ago I had to write to Arriva Trains Wales to complain about the size of the Union Jack above the station. The flag was very small, tatty and ripped. It was falling apart. Arriva Trains Wales replaced the flag, but it is happening again. The flag is once again ripped, tatty and dirty. What sort of impression does it give to visitors to our railway station if we cannot even get the simple things right? Some people may accuse me of being a bit petty in mentioning the appearance of the national flag above the railway station, but it should not have to be for the Member of Parliament to keep chivvying the companies about such things; the companies should take pride in their stations, and they should be doing everything possible to ensure that their customers—that is what it ultimately boils down to—are happy, feel safe and have a good experience of using Shrewsbury railway station.

4.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate on the maintenance and upgrading of Shrewsbury railway station. He has been an assiduous campaigner for better services from the station. We are delighted to have finally been able to provide a vital direct link to Shrewsbury station via Virgin train services after many years of lobbying from him and his colleagues. The link is far more convenient than changing trains halfway down to London, and I hope his constituents will recognise the vital role he played in bringing those services to his local station. I am delighted to hear that he is using the services and that they are well used. If it is not tempting fate, I hope he will be able to lobby me on further improvements to the service post-May.

Everyone is aware of the huge benefits that good railway services and, importantly, stations bring to the

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passengers, businesses and communities that we represent. Stations can and should be the heart of local communities, and my hon. Friend made a valid case, focusing on all the small details that are perhaps overlooked when one is designing an engineering plan for the network, but that are so vital to people who use the station. He is right about the importance of maintaining and upgrading Shrewsbury railway station in his constituency.

I will step through some of my hon. Friend’s concerns and try to address them directly. First, he asked who has responsibility for and takes pride in the station. I assure him that Network Rail and Arriva Trains Wales have joint responsibility, and they both feel a responsibility to passengers. I clarify that Arriva Trains Wales is the leaseholder for the station and, under the terms of the lease arrangement, is responsible for all works that do not require an operational shutdown at the station to be delivered. Arriva Trains Wales is responsible for cleanliness, decorating and the improvements to which he referred, whereas Network Rail is responsible for things such as changes to the canopies and broader upgrades. It is important that both companies are held to account for delivering those improvements and upgrades. I will go on to outline the planned improvements and who is taking responsibility for them.

My hon. Friend asked about cleanliness and organisation. Arriva Trains Wales has confirmed that a cleaning team is based at the station and operates every day. Station duty managers encourage their staff to report anything that is broken or faulty. I do not know whether this is in order, but I commend the team within the Department for Transport that has responsibility for this. One of my team, Mr Ochei, took it upon himself to go up to the station to investigate clearly and carefully some of the concerns. He illustrated the situation to me with clear photographs of the problems that my hon. Friend raises, such as the semi-industrial units, litter and vegetation. Following this debate, I will write to Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail, citing the photographic evidence, to say, “Between you, you are responsible. I hope this can be raised at my hon. Friend’s meeting in February, but who is going to do this and by when?”

Daniel Kawczynski: I thank the Minister for the sterling work of her officials. It is testimony to the way she runs the Department and to the enthusiasm of her officials that they have taken the time and effort to go to Shrewsbury station. That is a great credit to her officials, whom I would like to thank.

Claire Perry: I thank my hon. Friend for thanking me and my officials. He will agree that a photograph tells a thousand words. The photographs were extremely helpful.

It is clear from my team’s visit that the station officials take pride in their station and are aware of the concerns. We were told again, and it has been reaffirmed, that Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail have a positive and proactive working relationship in improving, identifying and fixing repairs, and they are delighted to have secured a meeting with my hon. Friend. I hope the meeting will cover the concerns and issues such as the Dana steps and the Dana passage.

My hon. Friend raised an important question about investment and the incentives for train operating companies to improve stations. Under the terms of their franchise, train operating companies have specific obligations against

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their leasehold requirements to maintain, upgrade and incentivise their stations. It is important always to be prepared to revisit such arrangements. If improvements are required, or if specific changes are needed, we are very happy to deal with them. Some £2 million of investment has been spent on the station over the past nine years, but I am sure that, like me, he is delighted that as much again is being spent over the current five-year capital period, including on the refurbishment of the existing toilets and the introduction of a disability toilet—I am told that work is ongoing and should be finished soon. Money is also being spent on refurbishing the station canopies, which he said are in rather poor order, decorating the external platform areas and resurfacing the station car park. Outside the terms of the lease, although it is appropriate that we discuss it, the Dana footbridge refurbishment has been costed at £800,000, and it should be delivered in 2015-16. I hope that between the two of us, we can secure delivery dates for those improvements so my hon. Friend can reassure his constituents about when they will happen.

It is important to acknowledge that money has been spent on a brand spanking new waiting room, as my hon. Friend said—I have pictures of it—and a new ticket hall. Those are important improvements. The Access for All programme is delivering a lift on platform 3, which is important for passengers who suffer from disabilities. We are delighted that Shrewsbury is now a step-free station. It also has additional help points and CCTV cameras to assist with safety issues.

A lot of improvement is going on, and there is more to come. There is clear accountability, but we are always willing to do more and listen to hon. Members who have concerns about their stations. I hate to use this phrase, but we are getting there with some parts of the railways. We are benefiting from an unprecedented level of investment in the trains, the stations and the track.

We are prepared to continue to look at the contractual relationship between Network Rail, the regulator and the operators, and will continue to improve it. We will also look at the penalties, which my hon. Friend mentioned. The ultimate penalty is to be penalised under the franchise. I am not aware that a situation has ever been so serious that that has happened, but we will look at the penalties to ensure we have the right regime. In my experience, if there is an assiduous MP, a committed Network Rail local management team and a strong station team, improvements can be ironed out and delivered, but it is important that we continue to focus on those issues.

My hon. Friend asked whether the work is being delivered on time. I can confirm that two areas have been delayed: the toilets and the canopy works. All other works have gone as planned and have been completed on time. There is, unfortunately, a large hole on platform 3, which is not a danger to passengers, although it is unsightly. It is a Network Rail responsibility. It is due to larger engineering issues coming to light once the initial works were started. It would be helpful to focus on getting it fixed as soon as possible. Scaffolding is still in place on the river bridge due to engineering issues that Network Rail uncovered.

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Part of the problem, as I have discovered in my few months in the job, is that many parts of the network have not been touched in decades—sometimes in hundreds of years. Although an unprecedented amount of money is being spent, problems are sometimes uncovered in the process. It is absolutely right that those symptoms of decades of underinvestment are now being addressed, but we must ensure that they are dealt with quickly and appropriately for passengers. I will write to Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail after the debate to ask for clarity about the completion dates for those works, and I will mention the Dana steps and the Dana bridge.

My hon. Friend made an important point about safety and antisocial behaviour, about which I am particularly concerned. I am disappointed to hear that that tract of land is proving a draw for antisocial elements in the community. I have visited the town, and it is the most wonderful place. It should be visited by tourists, not people determined to commit crime. Neither Network Rail nor Arriva Trains Wales has received complaints about antisocial behaviour, although that is not to say that it is not happening. We have been alerted to the problem, and Network Rail will continue to engage with the local council and, crucially, the British Transport police, who have a long history of working with local police forces, to deal with antisocial behaviour in and around stations. Network Rail also informed me that it is investigating improvements to toilets on the platforms and to the passenger subway.

An additional £2 million is being spent on improvements at Shrewsbury station. Issues such as the canopy and the netting will be addressed, and the Dana footbridge will certainly be dealt with. Passengers will perhaps most notice that Arriva Trains Wales has redecorated all the platforms in 2015-16.

I second my hon. Friend’s point about flying the Union flag. I am proud to be introducing Union flags on our driving licences, and it is right that all parts of our great country share pride in the flag. I urge him to raise that issue at his meeting and suggest that a brand spanking new flag be flown at the station in time for the tourist season this summer.

In conclusion, this is an exciting time for the railways. The Government’s ambition to invest in the railway network is unprecedented. Improvements are being delivered, and there are more to come. If anyone has a sense that there is any complacency about the disruption that passengers are suffering across all parts of the network as a result of the upgrade works, they should be in no doubt that the Department takes it incredibly seriously. Unless passengers see the benefits and feel that the investment is being made for them, the money is frankly not being well spent. We are moving not boxes, but people.

I hope my hon. Friend has a productive meeting in February. I look forward to receiving his feedback, and I hope he manages to persuade Arriva Trains Wales to fly the Union flag with pride.

4.25 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Rohingya Community (Burma)

4.29 pm

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main, not least because I know that you take a particular interest in matters affecting the part of the world on which I am about to speak through your work with the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. I am grateful for the opportunity to put some issues on the record. In September 2012, I introduced a very good debate in this Chamber, to which the Minister responded. I wanted this opportunity to invite the Minister to update the House on the progress made by the Foreign Office, and to reiterate some of the points I made previously and make some new ones.

Back in September 2012, I said:

“This is an issue of human rights, justice and desperate humanitarian need, to which we must respond.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 1WH.]

In the two and a half years since that debate, I would have hoped to have seen significant progress. Sadly, I do not believe that we have seen such progress. As I am sure the Minister will recall, the debate in 2012 came on the back of deeply ugly sectarian violence that had broken out between the Buddhist Rakhine community—

4.30 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.40 pm

On resuming—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): The hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) is in his position and the Minister has also returned from the Division, so we will go ahead with the debate, which will now finish at five minutes past 10—10 minutes past 5. Oh dear, it has been a long day.

Jonathan Ashworth: As I was saying, when I last secured a debate on this subject in Westminster Hall in September 2012, it was on the back of ugly sectarian violence in Rakhine between the Buddhist community and the Muslim Rohingya people. At that time, tens of thousands of the Rohingya community were being displaced. In Sittwe, for example, the Rohingya people were driven out of their homes, and there were reports at the time of mobs burning down houses. Indeed, various non-governmental organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, reported that the police and other paramilitary forces had opened fire with live ammunition on members of the Rohingya community.

I am sure that Members will recall that the tensions at that time were exacerbated by the suggestion by the Burmese President at the height of the crisis about handing over the Rohingya community to the UN high commissioner for refugees until they could be resettled in some third country.

As I remember, in that earlier debate all Members who contributed spoke out against the Burmese regime and we all would have hoped for some progress. However, today in Rakhine there are still 140,000 Rohingya living in squalid temporary camps, which are routinely described by agencies as being among the worst refugee camps in the world. Basic necessities such as food, clean water

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and health care are scarce; job opportunities for the Rohingya are virtually non-existent; and often the Rohingya are banned from leaving the camps by security services. Those Rohingya who leave those camps illegally often travel to Thailand and Malaysia, but they often end up as the victims of human traffickers. The Arakan Project found that in November alone, nearly 12,000 Rohingyas fled Rakhine state. Since 2012, a total of around 80,000 Rohingyas have fled Burma by boat.

The picture remains depressing for that part of the world. I will cite a few more statistics that I came across while doing my research for this debate. Today, 70% of the Rohingya still have no access to safe water or sanitation services; in some Rohingya districts, there is just one doctor per 160,000 people; only 2% of Rohingya women give birth in a hospital; and 44% of the population of Rakhine state live below the poverty line, which is almost 20% higher than the average figure in most parts of Burma.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that what he is saying tallies with what Tomás Ojea Quintana of the UN said in April last year? He said that

“the deprivation of health care is deliberately targeting the Rohingya population, and…the increasingly permanent segregation of that population is taking place”,

and that

“human rights violations are connected to discriminatory and persecutory policies against the Rohingya Muslim population”

by the Burmese Government.

Jonathan Ashworth: My hon. Friend puts it well. I know that she has spoken out on these issues in the past and I am pleased that she has had the chance to put her views on the record again.

I have spoken to aid agencies that work in this part of the world. Very few of them want to be named for fear of what that would mean for the work they do, but they conclude that there is a systematic approach to oppressing the Rohingya people. International organisations are forced to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Burmese Government, which is more restrictive in that part of the world than in many other parts. The Burmese Government often use “security concerns” to block humanitarian access to certain places. Foreign staff working for aid agencies need special visas to enter Burma and only a limited number of visas are given. Indeed, aid workers are often denied visas. Travel authorisations are needed for Burmese humanitarian staff to go to remote areas.

In addition, staff working for international organisations, particularly Rohingya staff, face additional travel restrictions, which have become much stricter since 2012. Rohingya humanitarian aid workers working for organisations, including the UN, have been subject to arbitrary arrest and detention. Overall, obtaining access for humanitarian purposes has become more difficult, and more restrictions have been put in place since 2012. Aid organisations, including Médecins Sans Frontières, have faced threats of expulsion or have effectively been expelled permanently from Rakhine state.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): As one who campaigned for a long time when the Burmese elected politicians were in jail, does my hon. Friend agree with Aung San Suu Kyi when she suggests that the reforms in

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Burma have stalled during the last two years? It is extremely bad that the Rohingya in particular seem to be targeted. Life is being made as awful as possible for them, with 100,000 of them having gone, including 10,000 in the last two weeks. What is going on?

Jonathan Ashworth: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention; she is absolutely right, as is Aung San Suu Kyi. As an aside, I say to my right hon. Friend that I am delighted that she is standing again at the next election, because she is an eloquent and persuasive voice on matters of international human rights.

The Burmese Government will often deny responsibility and claim that much of the anti-Rohingya sentiment exists at a local level. But of course we all know, as has been discussed in great detail in previous debates, that the flames of anti-Rohingya sentiment are very much fanned by the denial of Burmese citizenship to them. A nasty, bigoted piece of legislation—the 1982 citizenship law—stripped Rohingya Muslims of their legitimacy in the country and officially declared them foreigners. In effect, they ceased to exist legally and were denied any form of citizenship.

I have been very much influenced on this issue by Benedict Rogers of the Christian Solidarity Worldwide network. He writes persuasively and passionately about these matters. I know that in his spare time he is a Conservative activist, so the Conservatives would do well to encourage him to join us all in this place; I hope I have not ruined his chances by saying that. He writes that

“the Rohingyas face restriction in almost every sphere of life. To travel from one village to another, they are required to obtain permission from at least three local authorities...such permission can be difficult to obtain and often takes up to five days.”

He goes on to say that the Rohingya even need

“permission to marry, and approval can take several years”.

He also says:

“Rohingya are not permitted to be employed as government servants, either as teachers, nurses or in other public services”.

In addition, those Rohingya who succeed in education are often refused entry to higher education. Of course, it is the citizenship law that is fuelling much of this anti-Rohingya sentiment in Burma. I accept that there is great debate about how long the Rohingya have been in this part of the world, but I think all of us can agree that they have been there for generations.

Yasmin Qureshi: On the question of citizenship, does my hon. Friend agree that the new rules are harsher than in 2010? Rohingya people were able to cast their vote at the last election, but they cannot do so now because of the new rules.

Jonathan Ashworth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and she is absolutely right. If she will bear with me, I will touch on that issue when I refer to the Rakhine state action plan.

I just wanted to put on the record that even though there is debate about how long the Rohingya people have been part of Burma, everyone can accept that they have been there for some generations; they have certainly been there since Burma gained independence. Indeed, it was the first President of Burma who said:

“Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to the indigenous races of Burma. If they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as an indigenous race”.

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Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Is this situation not compounded and made far worse by the fact that the Rohingya are regarded as stateless not only within Myanmar-Burma, but within Bangladesh? There is nowhere for these people to go.

Jonathan Ashworth: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point; I know that he has spoken out many times on this issue. The focus of this debate is indeed on Burma-Myanmar, but there are questions for the Bangladeshi regime as well; perhaps the Minister could touch on Bangladesh when he responds.

I am sure that many hon. Members welcomed the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of a non-binding resolution in December, which urged the Burmese Government to grant Rohingyas full citizenship and equal access to services. The UN also called for an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to be opened in Burma without delay. Although I especially welcome that move by the UN, I am deeply disappointed that the Burmese Government still refuse, despite that UN resolution, even to acknowledge the Rohingya as an ethnic group and criticise the UN for using the term “Rohingya”. They have suggested that reports of Muslim persecution are a “fabrication”.

I am sure that, because of international pressures, the Burmese Government have tried to make progress in Rakhine state, but I do not accept that it is progress. The Rakhine state action plan was introduced last September, to much fanfare in that part of the world. However, looking into it, we see that it means that the Rohingya can secure citizenship only if they register themselves as Bengali, therefore implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. As the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) intimated, Bangladesh has not exactly been helpful in this situation. Even if the Rohingya conform to that Rakhine state action plan, in reality they are only receiving partial citizenship rights. It is unacceptable that Burma should not give the Rohingya full citizenship, as the UN has called for.

The Minister said in the debate in September 2012—I know that he is committed to this cause—that

“the UK has been and will continue to be one of the most active, vocal members of the international community in raising concerns about the plight of the Rohingya community.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 20WH.]

We were reassured by those words. In this debate, I want to give the Minister the opportunity to update us on the work that he has done, and the work of the Foreign Office, in the last few years. However, I want to put some concerns on the record. The Minister will be familiar with the concerns about citizenship and sectarian violence, but I hope that he will respond to other issues as well.

Campaign groups, for example, have told me that there is a sense that British diplomats have begun to avoid using the term “Rohingya” in meetings with the Burmese Government. They feel that the Burmese Government are putting pressure on diplomats to stop using that word. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that. I did a quick trawl of Hansard; I may be wrong—I do not want to speak out of turn—but I cannot find, for example, the new Foreign Secretary using the word. The previous Foreign Secretary was very committed to the plight of the Rohingya. As I say, I might have just missed it, but I would be grateful if the Minister commented about whether we are getting pressure from the Burmese Government to avoid using that word.

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Humanitarian access has been denied, or the regime has made it more difficult, deliberately, to get humanitarian aid and relief into that part of the world. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that. Does he agree that perhaps it is time for a UN-level initiative to help us get the humanitarian aid and relief that is so desperately needed into that part of the world?

Human rights abuses remain. I would be interested to hear the Minister update us on his view, or the Foreign Office’s view, on human rights abuses in Burma.

I understand why we want to increase trade with Burma; I am a great believer in increasing international trade. Leicester, the city I represent, trades with all parts of the world. However, many people are deeply concerned that we are trying to increase trade with Burma, for understandable economic reasons, yet we still seem to turn a blind eye to some of the human rights abuses. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comment on that.

I end with a piece of good news. Earlier this month, the Pope appointed the first Cardinal in Burma, Cardinal-elect Bo. We were hoping that he would visit Westminster in the next few weeks, but I think he has had to rearrange his visit, which we look forward to. One of the first things that Cardinal-elect Bo did on his appointment was to call for the citizenship of Rohingyas to be recognised. He argued that

“true peace and real freedom hinge on respect for Burma’s ethnic and religious diversity”.

I wholeheartedly agree. I am sure that the Minister does, too, and I look forward to his response to the points I have put on the record.

4.54 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I am grateful to you, Mrs Main, for giving me so long to respond to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth): many hours, if what you said originally was correct and we are not finishing until after 10 o’clock this evening. I shall try to condense my remarks to ensure that we end a little bit sooner than that.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, as I congratulate other hon. Members across the political divide for continuing to keep Burma firmly in the spotlight. This is the second debate on Burma within the last two months, both sponsored by the hon. Gentleman, which shows how interested and concerned the House is, particularly in a year so significant in that country’s transition to democracy.

As I said in the House on 19 November, I, too, take a close personal interest, having visited Rakhine state in 2012, including some camps to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, and Kachin state last year. I was the first western Minister to travel to the former and the first British Minister to visit the latter since Burma’s independence. Since that time, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, visited Rakhine in August. During that visit, he announced an increase in our development funding to Burma up to £82 million in 2015-16. That underscores our commitment to Burma’s future.

As I have said, 2015 is a critical year for Burma. The elections in November will be followed closely by the international community. This will be a chance for the current Burmese Government to show their

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commitment to progress and transition. We remain in close touch with all those involved and continue to assist in any way we can. Of course, as we have said on many occasions, this path will be neither smooth, nor without challenges, nor indeed without setbacks. We have made our concerns extremely clear on numerous occasions. However, I cannot agree with those who are wholly negative about the progress that has been made, or indeed with those who argue that no progress has been made at all. I believe it is naive in the extreme to think that this would have been an easy transition. Praise is due where significant change for the better has taken place. I can only pray in aid what Yanghee Lee, the new UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said—that

“far-reaching reforms have dramatically transformed the political, economic, social and human rights landscape”.

That is not to say that we are in any way complacent. That is why we established, last year, the cross-Government Burma unit, to better co-ordinate our work there, and why we published, I believe for the first time ever, a public paper, “UK Activities in Burma”, which sets out all that the Government are doing.

Of course, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns for the Rohingya. I use that term now and I shall continue to use it as I always have done. Their plight remains one of the greatest challenges Burma faces. I have raised this issue during my visits to Burma and I raised it with the Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister in June, with the Minister for Electric Power in July, and when the Burmese Minister for Immigration and the new Rakhine Chief Minister came to London in October. I have also met Rakhine community and religious leaders, hearing from them directly about the many issues they are facing. Officials at the British embassy in Rangoon remain in close contact with Rohingya representatives and international organisations.

In addition to raising our concerns in private, we comment in public. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual report on human rights, and its quarterly updates, give a frank assessment of Burma’s human rights performance, including in Rakhine. We were instrumental in pushing for the resolutions at the UN—we definitely agree that the UN could take on a greater leadership role here—comprehensively setting out our concerns about the situation in Rakhine state, and calling on the Government of Burma to uphold international human rights standards.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about access and humanitarian aid. In parallel to all those moves, what we have been doing at the UN and our conversations with Ministers, we are helping to alleviate the dire situation on the ground. We are giving £12 million in aid to Rakhine state to support much-needed shelter—some of the shelters I saw when I went there were woefully inadequate and must be even worse now—food, water sanitation and hygiene programmes, and giving a further £4.5 million towards projects that support livelihoods.

The hon. Gentleman is right when he talks about the problems that some of the non-governmental organisations are facing, including access. I discussed Rakhine and humanitarian access with the Burmese Minister for Immigration and the Rakhine Chief Minister in October last year. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, specifically raised with them the difficulty of getting humanitarian assistance to displaced people in Rakhine.

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Yasmin Qureshi: The Minister said that he had been to some of the camps. The assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Kyung-wha Kang, said:

“I witnessed a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before…appalling conditions…wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation.”

What has changed?

Mr Swire: As I said, I was the first western Minister to travel to Rakhine, but that was in 2012. From my conversations with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, who was there in August, I do not imagine that the situation has got better. If anything, it has got worse. I saw inadequate shelter, lack of access to food and much worse things, in a sense, than that, including a real feeling of fear. We insisted at the time that the Burmese Government should ensure that those people were properly secured. They looked as if they were surrounded by the military, but that was to protect themselves. There was also a feeling where new communities were being built that they were away from their traditional communities, and that that was going to entrench segregation, which is completely counter-productive in trying to bring both communities together.

Beyond tackling immediate needs, we are supporting Burma’s transition to a stable, prosperous and democratic country that can play a positive role in the international community. That is why human rights must remain at the heart of the British Government’s efforts to support Burma down the path of reform it embarked on in 2011, why we will continue to be an honest and critical friend to Burma, raising our concerns unapologetically, and why we are helping to create the conditions for credible elections in November this year. It is why we support the peace process in Burma, moving negotiations towards a nationwide ceasefire agreement and a framework for future political dialogue. We will continue to work closely with the Burmese Government, the opposition, civil society, businesses and communities, and the military, to achieve tangible progress.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): Everyone acknowledges the superb work that the Foreign Office has done on the diplomatic front and to support a fledgling democracy, but I have three questions for the Minister. Has he met with the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK? What assessment has he made of the Rohingya not being counted in the census in Burma? Does he agree with some of the organisations that have said that crimes against humanity have been committed?

Mr Swire: Let me deal with the last question first. Some have talked about crimes against humanity and genocide and such things, but that is for international courts to decide. To answer the hon. Lady’s second question, we have made our views clear on the whole census process, the fact that some of the Rohingya were excluded and the process of self-designation. We are extremely unhappy about the census. Her first question was about whether I had met a group. I have met so many that I might have met it, but I do not want to mislead the House. In the interests of accuracy, I will write to her on that subject, if I may.

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Let us be clear: the many challenges faced by all communities in Rakhine are deep-rooted, complex and interrelated. We acknowledge that the Burmese Government have begun to take steps to address those issues, including the appointment of the new Rakhine Chief Minister last year.

In June, the Burmese Government began a pilot citizenship verification process for those in Rakhine whose citizenship status has not been recognised. It was conducted in a camp for internally displaced people. More than 1,200 applications were processed, with many obtaining naturalised citizenship and some obtaining full citizenship, but that falls far short of what the international community expected. We and others have consistently stressed the need for a transparent, consistent and inclusive citizenship verification exercise that adheres to international standards, and we will continue do so. That should include consultation with all communities in Rakhine.

That having been said, we welcome the Burmese Government’s efforts to produce a comprehensive action plan for Rakhine. The hon. Member for Leicester South said he did not like some of the things in that action plan, but it has not, to the best of my knowledge, been published yet. Only a draft has been seen, and we still hope the Burmese Government will amend it before the final version is printed.

I made all those concerns clear to the new Burmese Minister for Immigration and the Rakhine Chief Minister during their visit to London in October. As with the citizen verification exercise, it is vital that all communities within Rakhine are consulted over the action plan. Our ambassador in Rangoon, along with our international partners, has made those concerns clear to the Burmese authorities. While welcoming the steps taken, we will judge progress on action, not words. Many severe challenges remain and the humanitarian situation in particular must be addressed urgently.

I continue to update the House as best I can. On 8 January, two letters written by me and dated 4 January were published on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. One was on Burma’s political reforms, in which I refer, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear, to the rights of the Rohingya. The other was on sexual violence in Burma. The publication of both letters, in response to huge amounts of interest from Members and their constituents, shows that we are not complacent. We take these things extremely seriously and follow events in Burma extremely closely.

To conclude, we know that a great deal remains to be done in Rakhine, and we will not let up in our calls for the human rights of all Burma’s people, not least the Rohingya, to be respected. We believe that the best way to achieve progress is to engage with all parties in Burma to help embed reform, and to encourage its transition towards peaceful, democratic governance. I again thank the hon. Gentleman and all who have contributed to the debate for giving me this and the previous opportunity to set out the Government’s position.

Question put and agreed to.

5.8 pm

Sitting adjourned.