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Setting numerous and competing missions, with sub-optimal command and control structures in the UK taskforce, ISAF and the London headquarters, nearly resulted in the campaign failing within the first six months. Those fundamental issues were addressed only following the implementation of a campaign that was redefined with achievable objectives and that saw a surge in Helmand, resulting in a tenfold increase in force levels by 2010. That was supported by structured command and control mechanisms.

Von Clausewitz said war is the continuation of politics by other means. That makes the cessation of war a resumption of politics by normal means. However, nothing is normal in Afghanistan. I supported the Prime Minister’s determination to end our combat role by 2014, for a variety of reasons I will not go into. However, although pulling out by a precisely flagged date may have been a triumph of logistics—I hope those involved in that remarkable piece of logistics are being rewarded—it is questionable whether Afghanistan is ready to survive and progress.

So what are the lessons? Some of the revisionism centres on perceived or actual failings in the chain of command, which meant that commanders on the ground took the wrong tactical decisions, but that is not, in the main, backed up by evidence. Judging by the evidence I have seen and that we in the Defence Committee have seen, the truth is that issues including insufficient resources, ill-thought-through time lines, mission deliverability and the move north were raised from as early as 2005. All politicians and senior military personnel who visited the Helmand taskforce in 2006 received the same briefing with regard to the situation and the huge challenges facing the mission at that time.

The war cannot be viewed in isolation, given the events that unfolded in Iraq, which proved a major distraction with respect to both resources and intellectual analysis—political and military. The hypothesis that the military could deliver its objectives of deploying two medium-sized commitments simultaneously was evidently incorrect.

So what is the main lesson from Afghanistan, besides the obvious one never to be tempted to go there a fifth time? By late 2005, those at the highest levels of government and the military should have asked the strategic question about what we wanted to achieve in Helmand province. They should have had the courage to pause the deployment in advance of the unstoppable momentum, to ensure sufficient resources and appropriate command-and-control structures and measures were in place to achieve deliverable successes. The simple implementation of common sense would have highlighted the fact that better governance, some development objectives and sustainable security were always highly unlikely to be achieved in southern Afghanistan, and that they were never going to be achieved within a set three-year time scale. We forget that that was the time scale.

I look with interest at developing thinking in our armed forces about a smarter, more subtle type of intervention. I think that that is what my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East was referring to in his excellent speech. I applaud the creation of the new 77 Brigade, which I have visited; it is in my constituency. Organisations of that kind will change the way we do

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warfare—in a way that might actually mean we do not do warfare, because we will achieve different results without using kinetic forces. That is an interesting new development.

I met a young Army officer at a Remembrance day parade. He had a chest full of medals. I said, “You have been busy,” and he replied, “Yes, I have done all of Blair’s wars.” Whether one may refer to them in that way or not, that is the lexicon in the armed forces today. Perhaps we have learned the lessons of “Blair’s wars” and perhaps we have not, but we know that in Afghanistan we undoubtedly paid a heavy price in both blood and treasure.

3.22 pm

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on obtaining the debate. It is a pleasure to follow his speech and the thoughtful contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I shall be tempted briefly along the road of contributing my view on why lessons need to be learned and what some of them may be. However, my central point is that the lessons to be learned from Afghanistan are not done justice by an hour and a half in Westminster Hall—or, frankly, by the combat analysis, if that is what has been undertaken, inside the Ministry of Defence on its own.

That combat analysis may be splendid for people serving in the armed forces—I do not know; I have not had access to it. It might even be able to contribute something towards telling the parents of Corporal James Hill why he was killed on the outskirts of Camp Bastion a couple of days after arriving in Afghanistan, and how the Taliban could get so close to what was supposed to be a safe area. I do not know. However, it will not tell Mr and Mrs Hill why their son was there in the first place. It will not look properly at the story of how we got into Afghanistan, taking in everything from the attack on the twin towers, which is probably the appropriate starting point, and examining the western response all the way through, including the mismanagement in 2001 and 2002 of our reaction to and relationship with Iran.

Iran initially was on our side in helping to take out the Taliban Government. How far should our objectives have gone at that point? In my view, our objective should simply have been to do our best to eliminate a Government who were responsible for harbouring our enemies. The lesson that should have been meted out to the people of Afghanistan was: “If you are going to support a Government who will harbour people who directly attack us, you cannot expect us to accept that Government continuing.” That is what happened in 2001 and 2002. It was highly effective and was achieved with assistance from previously hostile countries such as Iran, because our interests elided.

The opportunity to recast a wider relationship with Iran at that point was blown away in President Bush’s speech when it was described as part of the “axis of evil”. That destroyed the reformers’ position in the conversation that was happening inside the Iranian Government at the time. Such lessons should be part of any comprehensive examination of the subject.

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Jack Lopresti: Does my hon. Friend accept that Iran was then and now remains one of the biggest world sponsors of terrorism, and that its weapons and money cause chaos around the world to our strategic interests and peaceful nations?

Crispin Blunt: We should take the trouble to understand why Iran behaves as it does. Why does it have the relationship it does with Hezbollah? What interests are served by its supporting what we have proscribed as a terrorist group in Lebanon? What is its relationship with the Assad regime, its neighbours in Afghanistan, and the rest? We must add to that the complexity of the whole existing Iranian political set-up. We ought not simply to deal with things in black and white. The world is all shades of grey, and all the actors playing into the drama that led into Afghanistan had their interests.

Our failure in all instances to turn the board around and understand the perspective of the other players in the drama led us into a series of decisions that were, overall, catastrophic for the British national interest, with 453 dead soldiers as a consequence and al-Qaeda replaced in Afghanistan by the forces of Islamic State. Those are beginning to emerge in Helmand, as parts of what was the Taliban appear to be changing sides and declaring allegiance to it. Goodness knows what that will mean for the future of Afghanistan.

From the decisions of 2001 through to those leading to the military campaign in Helmand, what was Dr Reid —now Lord Reid—doing as Defence Secretary, along with the Prime Minister, at the NATO summit in 2005? Who was trying to drive a new role for NATO—some new justification for NATO’s role? When the United Kingdom picked up responsibility for drugs policy in Afghanistan at the 2002 conference, that was the moment at which the west decided we were going to try to create Switzerland in the Hindu Kush, and the nations of the west took up differing responsibilities for helping Afghanistan in various ways. Why did people not properly understand what happened to poppy cultivation in Helmand between 2001 and 2004, which led to our feeling that there was a role for the United Kingdom there? Then, with all the tragic military mis-appreciation that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred to, we went in with a wholly inadequate military force, with an objective that frankly could not in the end be achieved with 10 times as many troops.

There are so many issues to examine from the Afghan disaster that it can only be right, even though one trembles at the expense and time that it would take, to hold a proper inquiry. Its terms of reference should give it enough resources to do the job in reasonable order. It would cost a lot of money, but we owe it to 453 of our servicemen who did not return alive from Afghanistan, as well as all those who served there and were grievously injured in the process. Because of the fantastic medical contribution that was made there, there are many more such people than would have been associated with other conflicts.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that after the endless Chilcot inquiry, which has been delayed and delayed, and the Saville inquiry, which took 10 years to report on the events of a single afternoon, it is a matter of urgency that we look at an inquiry into the decision to go into Helmand,

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made in the hope that not a shot would be fired? That decision changed the situation from one in which just half a dozen of our soldiers died in combat to one in which 453 died. Should we not be urgently told the truth of what happened, so that we will be informed in respect of future decisions to go to war?

Crispin Blunt: Frankly, I would support a very narrow inquiry into the Helmand decision, but that would not do justice to the entire sweep of events and exactly what happened. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, that is the key moment, but there is a strategic analysis that then has to join up with all the other elements of defence policy that have gone on.

We owe it to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who have been sent into combat on our behalf, and to their families, to have a proper understanding of how we got into this and of the circumstances in which we are getting out, and properly to learn the lessons from what, frankly, has been an unqualified disaster for the United Kingdom.

Several hon. Members rose

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. This debate is due to end at 4 o’clock. We expect a Division at 4 o’clock. I will expect to start calling the Front Benchers at 20 to 4. I am sure, Paul Flynn, that you will be mindful of that in your remarks.

3.31 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): I am very grateful to have been called, because for reasons that people know about—other demands in the House—I could not be here earlier. I am very grateful to have the chance to talk about this issue. I recall speaking in virtually every debate on it in the last few years. In one speech, I threw away all the rhetoric that I had intended to use and just read out the names of the soldiers who had died in Afghanistan. There is a splendid group active on this issue just a few miles from my constituency.

The last time I read out the names was the day when the 200th victim of the Afghan conflict was announced. He lived in Abergavenny. It is extraordinary that it is now forbidden, under the rules of the House, to read out the lists of the names of the fallen. The decision was taken at that time, but it is much more powerful to read out those names so that we, as Members of Parliament, can be confronted with the terrible reality of the deaths of these young, brave warriors that we have caused. We took the decisions that led to that, but we are frightened against doing what I have mentioned.

I was once expelled from the House for suggesting that politicians lied and soldiers died, but I do not think that any of the politicians, of all parties, who said to our young soldiers, “You are going to Afghanistan to ensure that there isn’t terrorism on the streets of Britain,” were so stupid as to believe that. There was no threat from the Taliban that they would commit terrorism on the streets of Britain. There might have been from al-Qaeda, but those two groups were conflated. The reason why the Taliban were killing our soldiers was that we were in their country and it was part of their religious duty to expel us from there, but none the less the lie was used by Ministers of all parties to send our troops to their deaths in an utterly futile war.

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We must examine the issue. We must have a full inquiry into it as soon as possible, because we must inform ourselves about why we took that decision. I think it is to do with the hubris of Prime Ministers. Prime Ministers, of all parties, behave in a special way when the war drums start beating. They talk in a different way. They get the rhetoric of Churchill. They drag it out, because here they are, having their big moment in history. They are writing their page in history—it is usually, sadly, a bloody page. The situation is not to do with the ramshackle things that Prime Ministers do every day, the boring details of law-making. It is a chance for them to be there and to be recorded, and they behave in a different way. They are hardly entirely sane on these occasions.

I have seen four Prime Ministers behave in that way. They strut like Napoleon here. At least we have the good sense of 650 MPs, as we had on 29 August 2013, when the present Prime Minister was urging the House of Commons, urging the nation, to go into Syria to attack Assad, who is the deadly enemy of ISIL. Now, we are in the same country and attacking ISIL, which is the deadly enemy of Assad. Even today, we hear the conflicting views on the conflict there. Why on earth should we go into a conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi’as that is ancient, deep, incomprehensible to us and nothing to do with us?

Dr Julian Lewis: I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point, about the 1,000-year conflict between those groups. He may remember that I was one of the 39 rebels whose votes were decisive in preventing the attack on Assad. However, could I ask him not to overstate the case, in this sense? Even he admitted that it would have been right to take military action to expel al-Qaeda. Surely the key point is how and why the campaign changed its nature after al-Qaeda was expelled.

Paul Flynn: Indeed. We have an honourable history in which we have intervened in various conflicts in the world on a humanitarian basis. We have done that in Sierra Leone, East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo. It is something that we do very well. It is part of our history, and we are very good at it. We have all the skills and the bravery of our soldiers to do it. That is entirely honourable.

Where we have gone wrong is when we have gone into conflicts in which we have attempted to be masters of the universe. We are not. We are not a superstate—far from it—and we have not been for a long time. I believe that if we change our priorities and become an independent country, we have an independent foreign policy. We do not have that. Canada does. Holland does. Both those countries were involved in Afghanistan and they made honourable contributions above what could be expected of nations of their size, but they pulled out at an early stage when they saw the futility of the mission—that we could not succeed, we were not going to reduce the amount of heroin that was being grown there and we were not going to have an effect in terms of nation building.

It was mission impossible to move a nation from the 13th century to the 20th century, but we kept on because we have this link with the United States. I believe that if we are to have a defensible policy in the future on this area, where we have spent huge sums of money, we have

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to do it as an independent country and not be tied to the United States. I believe that we have not had that since the Vietnam war. Harold Wilson rightly said that we were not going to be involved in another mission impossible.

We must learn from this decision before we take any other decision. I believe that very strongly influencing the decision that we took on 29 August 2013 not to go to war, not to follow the Prime Minister into attacking Assad, was the fact that the House of Commons and the nation have lost faith in prime ministerial edicts that come out and say that we act as leaders of the universe, leaders of the world, setting world policies. We are not in that position.

We all pay tribute—tribute has been paid this afternoon —to the extraordinary bravery of our soldiers. How much we owe them! They are as professional and courageous as any of the soldiers in our proud military history, but I believe that we, as politicians, have let them down through our decisions on the Iraq war and the decision to go into Helmand.

3.39 pm

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on initiating the debate. I am sure that we could have listened to him speak for a lot longer on the subject. His knowledge of present conflicts and others is well known in the House.

It would be wrong not to start the debate by remembering those who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who have been wounded in the service of our country. I was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence during the previous Labour Government, and I do not think that anyone takes decisions easily on the things that happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said that we should be reminded of the individuals who died. I say to him that if a duty Minister is rung late at night on a dark weekend to be informed that there have been nine casualties, it never leaves them. Irrespective of political party, no one can detach themselves from the individuals, the sacrifice that their families have made, or the circumstances in which they died.

The debate is about Afghanistan, but the hon. Member for Broadland drew out broader questions of strategy. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) talked about where we started with Afghanistan, and, of course, it leads back to the response to 9/11. I believe that it all started with the use of the terminology of a war on terror. I thought that that expression was wrong, and I never used it. It gave the impression that the only possible response was a military solution. We all know that the fight against terrorism involved not only the military, but law enforcement and politics, as has been made clear in several contributions today.

The initial invasion of Afghanistan was about dealing with the Taliban, who were the hosts for al-Qaeda. A lot of people forget the attempts that had previously been made by the Clinton Administration and the very early Bush Administration to get the Taliban to give up bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, but that did not happen. I think that there was confusion over policy. Members of special forces who went into Afghanistan in the early days have told me that their

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first remit was to expel the Taliban, and that there was no notion of nation building. I think that is where the confusion and mission creep came into being. From my dealings with the Bush Administration and senior figures, and as a member of the Defence Committee, prior to the invasion of Iraq the message was quite clear that they did not do nation building; they did war fighting. I do not think that they were committed from an early stage to nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) has said that he met someone who called the recent wars “Blair’s wars”, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West has just described them as Prime Ministers’ wars. However, we must not forget that Parliament took the decision that we should be part of the invasion of Iraq, and there was cross-party support for our mission in Afghanistan. It would be wrong, therefore, to try to apportion blame to an individual or a political party. Should we have questioned some things more? Yes, on some occasions we should have done, and that goes back to the strategic points that the hon. Member for Broadland made. One question we have to ask is about the relationship between politics and the military. The notion of the public, and perhaps the media, is that politicians are bad and the military is good, but we all know that life is not as simplistic as that. That relationship is one of the serious issues that we need to address.

The hon. Member for Newbury mentioned Lord Reid. I have spoken to him on several occasions about the deployment to Helmand, and he was the one who held it up for quite a while. The enthusiasm for going to Helmand clearly came from parts of the military. There is a saying in the Army: “We will crack on.” The military must give clear advice to Ministers, and if things are not doable, Ministers should be told that they are not. In my experience of the military, however, that does not happen, and there is a notion that everything can be achieved.

The hon. Member for Broadland referred to military structures. I would like to reflect a little on that, and especially on the way in which the military operate within the MOD. The hon. Gentleman accepts that there is a difference between the military, the political and the civil service: I used to refer to it as a three-legged stool. The situation in the military is even more complex, because of inter-service rivalry, as I have seen. On one occasion, I attended a meeting of Ministers and chiefs, at which the senior naval officer and the head of the Army shouted and swore at each other across the table. The relationship is not always unanimous or harmonious. Senior military must be joined up and speak with one voice, and I think that they are getting better at that. The movement towards the joint command under this Government is a move in the right direction to try to achieve more joined-up thinking.

Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The concern is often expressed that the senior military were speaking with one voice, under pressure from the then Government. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify which senior military generals spoke against the previous Government’s policy and were promoted under that Government?

Mr Jones: This is where the nonsense comes in—where the political line that was taken and the party politics of that line cause confusion. The problem we had was that

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there was disagreement between the service chiefs at the time on different strategies. If politicians ask the military whether it is possible to do something, there is an in-built response of “Yes, we can,” but I am saying that there has to be a grown-up relationship. When Ministers ask for advice, they must sometimes be told by the military, “No, that cannot be done.”




The hon. Gentlemanhas asked me to give an example. At the tail end of the last Government, certain senior generals acted completely outside their remit by being political, which was not a helpful stance and did not ensure that they were above the party political debate. That was unfortunate.

I return to Helmand and the deployment south, about which the hon. Member for Broadland raised an important issue. Corporate knowledge in an organisation is important, and, like the hon. Gentleman, I fear that we are losing a lot of that. In addition, in our approach to deployment we must not look solely at the military kinetic effects. We should consider, for example, employing anthropologists to inform the debate about what will happen when we deploy somewhere, to ensure that when people are deployed, they have the fullest possible knowledge about the situation.

I have to disagree with what the hon. Member for Reigate said about Iran. I accept his point about the Iranians being against the Taliban, although I think that that was mainly to do with the Taliban murdering Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998. It was a maligned force in Basra and, in the latter days, in Herat in Afghanistan, where it was used in the proxy war against the United States and ourselves. Should we actually engage with them in negotiations? Yes, I think we could.

Finally, one major strategic failing in Afghanistan was the issue of Pakistan. All the emphasis was on rebuilding, and on occasion we treated Afghanistan in isolation, but the real problem was related to Pakistan. When the history books are written, they will say that the Musharraf Government, by speaking both ways, made our job much more difficult in Afghanistan.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. I encourage the shadow Minister to bring his remarks to a close so that the Minister can respond.

Mr Jones: I was just about to sit down; I have had my 10 minutes.

3.50 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Mark Francois): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this debate, which gives us an opportunity to discuss what we all realise is a very important subject. He said that he wanted a good debate, and he has succeeded. By my count, 19 Members have been present for either all or part of this debate, including you, Mr Pritchard. That figure includes a number of members of the Defence Committee and, indeed, former Defence Ministers.

This debate takes place a short time after our combat mission in Afghanistan concluded. At the height of our involvement, the United Kingdom had the second largest fighting force in Afghanistan, and our troops undertook

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some of the heaviest fighting. At one time we had more than 9,000 troops and some 137 bases in Afghanistan, but the increasing capability of the Afghan security forces has enabled us to bring our combat troops home. Our troops left Camp Bastion, our final base in Helmand, on 27 October 2014, and on 24 November 2014 the final UK service personnel left Kandahar airfield, marking the UK’s departure from southern Afghanistan. Although our combat mission is over, we are continuing to help the Afghan people and have made an enduring commitment to Afghanistan.

Jack Lopresti: What would have been the impact on the deployment if we had had longer tours of duty like our friends and comrades, the US?

Mr Francois: My hon. Friend asks a good question. In simple terms, our normal, standard tour was six months with a two-week break in the middle; the Americans, for instance, tended to go for 12 months. There are advantages and disadvantages with both ways of doing it, and we continue to discuss that with the Americans. We will look at that in future to see whether there are lessons to be learned. They are two different ways of doing it, and they both have pluses and minuses.

We now have around 470 troops contributing to the NATO “train, advise and assist” resolute support mission, our element of which is called Op Toral. The UK is leading international support to the Afghan national army officer academy near Kabul to help to develop the next generation of Afghan military leaders. Just last week, the second graduation of Afghan cadets trained at the academy took place. The United Kingdom has also committed £70 million a year to help sustain Afghan security forces, as well as £178 million a year in development aid.

I have visited Afghanistan twice and have seen for myself the progress that has been made. We have given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a safer future. As part of a coalition of 51 nations, the UK helped to build the Afghan security forces from scratch to an effective force of more than 330,000 personnel. The Afghan security forces now have lead responsibility for delivering security across the country, and they are performing well against a capable and determined enemy. Last year, despite prolonged fighting over the summer, the Taliban failed to take and hold any district centres. Country-wide, Afghan security forces successfully secured the presidential elections last year, with more than 7 million people voting.

The inauguration of President Ghani last September was an historic moment for Afghanistan. It was the first democratic transfer of power from one President to another in the country’s history. We welcome the formation of a Government of national unity, the recent appointment of a number of key Cabinet Ministers and, indeed, the approval of a budget for the country by the Afghan Parliament. In December 2014, the UK worked with the Afghan Government and international partners to deliver the co-hosted London conference on Afghanistan, during which President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah set out an ambitious reform programme that focused on addressing corruption and reconnecting Afghan citizens to their Government.

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President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah continue to have the UK’s full support in making those and other important reforms.

Mr Keith Simpson: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Francois: Just briefly.

Mr Simpson: My right hon. Friend has only six minutes left, but will he address some of the questions that we have all raised?

Mr Francois: I will attempt to do that now. I will make a point about the number of children educated in schools and then I will come straight to my hon. Friend’s questions. In 2001, some 1 million children went to school in Afghanistan; now, more than 6 million children, including 2 million girls, are in school. Sixty per cent. of the population is within walking distance of a public health facility. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is at its highest ever level.

Several lessons have been learned. On the medical front, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said that our personnel had done a fantastic job. I did not agree with everything in his speech, but I agreed with that point. The contribution of the role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion was remarkable. It was the busiest military medical facility in Afghanistan, treating in excess of 7,000 UK casualties, with a survival rate of more than 95%, before its closure in September 2014. The hospital was world leading and pioneered new medical treatments and techniques that have led directly to improvements in NHS—

Paul Flynn: On a point of order, Mr Pritchard. The Minister has just informed us that he is going to deal with the very serious issues raised in this debate. He is not doing it, and there are only three and a half minutes left.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): You have made your point. We are running out of time, and I know that you will want to hear the Minister.

Mr Francois: I was talking about the medical lessons that we have learned from Afghanistan, which flow back into our national health service. To drive my point home, a number of medical helicopters flying in Britain now carry plasma and blood, which is a lesson we learned directly from our experience in Afghanistan. We routinely sought to learn lessons from operational incidents and to adapt our equipment, tactics, training and procedures accordingly. That included, for instance, procuring new equipment quickly through the urgent operational requirement process to address emergent threats. We are considering how the lessons of the UOR process can inform our procurement of equipment more generally.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) mentioned 77 Brigade, which will have the old Chindits badge, and we will consider how we can use capabilities within that brigade more effectively in future, again building on lessons that we have learned about

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the importance of influence operations in Afghanistan. I hope to be able to visit the brigade in his constituency when it is fully stood up.

The redeployment of equipment also presented a massive challenge in terms of both scale and complexity, which my hon. Friend also mentioned. Camp Bastion alone covered an area approximately the size of Reading, and much of the matériel returned from Afghanistan had to be redeployed via a 900 km-long land route. We brought back 3,600 vehicles and 4,700 20-foot ISO container-equivalents of matériel. That was a massive logistical achievement, and we have learned lessons from that, too.

The time I have does not fully allow me to pay tribute to the 453 personnel who died in the service of their country. We will never forget them. The Camp Bastion memorial wall will be established at the national memorial arboretum close to the armed forces memorial. The wall was carefully dismantled and flown back to the UK from Afghanistan, and it is currently being reconstructed so that the families of the soldiers named on it can visit to pay their respects. We hope that the completion of that memorial will be achieved by the summer of this year.

I have two minutes to conclude my speech. We should be proud of what we have achieved in Afghanistan. In 2001, the country was used as a launch pad by international terrorists. Since then, through our actions and the actions of the international coalition, the terror threat to the United Kingdom from the region has substantially reduced. Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorists. We have helped to build effective Afghan national security forces capable of taking the fight to the enemy and of sustaining progress made in the removal of the terrorist threat. The Afghans are now securing their country’s future. They have defended their election and elected a Government of national unity.

Of course, we want to consider broader lessons that can be learned from the campaign, but our recent focus has been on a successful drawdown from the ISAF combat mission and the transition to the NATO resolute support mission. In making a decision on how to learn lessons, the Government want to think through how best to do it in a way that enables us to implement those lessons quickly and practically so that they have a real impact. Several members of the Defence Committee have been here today, and they are undertaking an inquiry into decision making in defence policy. The Secretary of State for Defence gave evidence to that inquiry earlier this month.

There will be challenges ahead for the Afghan people, and there are no guarantees of their future success, but as we continue to support the people of Afghanistan, we should be proud of what we have achieved and confident that we have given that country the best possible chance of a stable future. I believe it was worth while and that we were right to do it.

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NHS Mental Health Care

4 pm

Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (Ind): I am delighted to be able to have this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard; I am sure that on this occasion you will not be disturbed by colleagues making signals to you, trying to stop you from calling me to speak. The debate is very important, and I have been trying to secure it for some time. It is fair to say that there is widespread concern about mental health services in this country, and concern about how things have declined. Promises have been made by successive Governments to take more interest in this issue.

Since 2010, there has been a steep fall in the number of mental health nurses. Up to 4,000 have been lost, leaving a skill gap within the NHS. Nearly 2,000 beds have gone, a drop of 6%, while demand has risen by up to 30%. The Government must ensure equal access to mental health services and that the right treatment is available for people when they need it. The Government and NHS providers must ensure a commitment to parity of esteem that is directly reflected in the funding of commissioning services, work force planning and patient outcomes, and must ensure there are enough local beds to meet demand.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman add to his list of requirements the needs in rural areas, which often compound the problems that he has talked about in relation to the loss of beds in hospitals and lack of alternatives? Often the alternative is a prison cell overnight, which is completely unacceptable.

Mr Hancock: Absolutely. I agree with that entirely and I will come to it when I talk about my own personal experiences of spending a long time in a mental hospital trying to recover from a mental breakdown. I know only too well the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

The urgent action plan that is needed cannot be put off for another five years. It needs to be put in place and direct action needs to be taken. There must be a sustainable and long-term work force planning strategy that acknowledges the current challenges facing the mental health world at the present time. We cannot leave it. You yourself, Minister, stated that only 25% of young people with mental health problems have access to mental health services, which you described as “dysfunctional and fragmented”—

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. May I encourage the hon. Gentleman to address the Chair, rather than the Minister directly?

Mr Hancock: I am sorry. I was quoting the Minister, Mr Chairman. He stated that 25% of young people with mental health problems had access to mental health services, which he described as both “dysfunctional and fragmented”. That cannot persist. That cannot be right in a society that claims to care and aims to try to deliver services that are perfect for it. There are serious problems with mental health services and the way in which young people are treated. So many of them have ended up in prison, because there are simply no beds available.

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If I may, I will talk about my own experiences. I was very fortunate. I will praise my own GP, Dr Chhabda, who was excellent and got me help. I have praise for Talking Change, where I had several sessions, and for Dr Barker and his intermediate crisis team at St James’s hospital. They were of enormous benefit to me. Subsequently, I was under the care of Simon Kelly, the psychiatrist who looked after me when I was in hospital for a long time.

What did I learn during that long period of mental illness? I learned about the stigma. When I was in hospital for several weeks with major heart surgery, the problem was obvious to people—I did not worry about telling them that I had had major heart surgery—but for the last two months of my being in hospital getting over a mental breakdown, I was worried about how I would explain to people where I had been. I was making myself ill with the worry of how I would explain to people that I, this strong person who could fight off most things, was suddenly unable to do so and had to seek help.

But I was not alone. The other people, who have become close friends of mine, were going through the same thing: the GP who did not know how he was going to go back to face his patients, and the dentist who did not know how he was going to work things out. Many other people, from different professions and none, were struggling with the reality of going home to face their immediate families with what had gone wrong with them, and there was little or no help coming from outside the hospital to give them the support that they needed.

In the rest of the time that I have in politics, and in the rest of the time that I am alive, I want to fight to lift once and for all the stigma attached to mental health issues and be proud to say that I was broken but I got fixed, because of the love and skill of the people who were there to help me.

Some of the people whom I met in hospital had travelled long distances. One was from the Minister’s own constituency in Norfolk. There was not a single bed available, from the coast of the North sea, where this person lived, to the waters of Southampton, where a place was available. That was the nearest place. They were transported down there and eventually transported back.

Other people I met in the hospital came from Truro. They had been brought from the furthest edge of our country to the edge of Southampton, because no bed was available. Ironically, when they arrived at the hospital, they came in an ambulance with a driver plus two nurses, and they stayed for four days. Then they were transported all the way back to Exeter, because a bed became available nearer there.

What sort of society are we living in? Somebody at the lowest ebb of their life is transported across the country, away from their family and support networks, because there are no beds available. The way in which people are treated is a national disgrace. We could see in the faces of the people that they knew it would not be possible for their families to come and visit them, because of the enormous distances involved. We have got to do something about that. We cannot allow that situation to persist.

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There is the situation of somebody whom the NHS sends into a hospital for a detox programme. They are given a six-day detox programme, probably costing several thousand pounds, and then, on a Friday night, they are told that they have to go 50 miles up the road to spend two nights in a Premier Inn, with no support available over the weekend to help them. For anybody going on a full-time detox programme, the minimum time is 28 days. The NHS will spend a lot of money several times, but limit it to six days and then give the person little or no support when they are out. That cannot be right. No Government should be proud of the record that we have on mental health issues.

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am pleased to stand alongside my hon. Friend and I congratulate him on the debate that he has secured today. Mental health is one of the Cinderella conditions that people tend not to want to talk about, because of the stigma that my hon. Friend talked about earlier on. If someone has a broken leg, it is fine, but if someone’s mind is broken or there is a mental health issue, nobody wants to talk about it. It is easier to sweep it under the carpet.

Will the Minister understand that we really need to get to a situation in which the stigma is no longer there? All we need to do is to give people the help that they need—and, indeed, the hope that they need—as if they had a broken leg or a broken arm, so that they can get back to normal living.

Mr Hancock: I agree entirely. We lucky ones who are privileged and proud to be in this House of Commons must use whatever elements are available to us, whether in speeches here or outside this House, to do more to expose this issue.

I was fortunate because the people I was in contact with were able to put me through a series of different things. They saved my life—I have no doubt whatever about that. I could not stand my life any more and, like so many people, I realised that far too late. I had probably left it six months too late, and because of that my recovery took much longer.

There are others outside the system—people and organisations that try to help. They include Talking Change, which is in my constituency. However, I say to the Minister—through you, Mr Pritchard—that the crisis care service is at breaking point. Services are understaffed and under-resourced; they are overstretched. As for talking therapies, which a lot of people mention and which I have heard the Minister himself praise in the past, 40% of the people who want to use them have to wait more than three months just for an assessment, and that assessment is normally carried out on the telephone. I urge the Minister to try that interview over the telephone. Then, if they are lucky, they will receive some treatment, but one in 10 people wait more than a year to get even the chance to talk about the problems that have driven them to the edge of the abyss, so that they are living in total despair. In addition, a third of the people who are assessed have to wait more than three months to start the therapy.

I ask this Government and whoever is in power after 7 May to really mean what they say about mental health services. There is a crying need for that. When I heard the Deputy Prime Minister talk about mental health services, I thought, “Oh! Maybe we’ll get somewhere

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and something might happen.” I live in hope, but my experience—having looked into this issue in quite some detail—tells me that the same promises have been made many times during the past 20 years.

I was someone who felt that he could tough out most things, but in the end I had to succumb to the stress and strain I was under, to such an extent that I had no alternative but to seek real help. However, there are literally thousands of people out there who are affected. A quarter of the population of this country will come into contact with mental health problems at some time during their life. Unfortunately, so many of them are disappointed by what they get in the way of treatment from the NHS.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I apologise, Mr Pritchard, for not being here earlier; I was on the Heathrow Express and just could not get here any quicker, unfortunately.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the House for consideration. One in five elderly people will suffer from a mental or emotional breakdown. Such breakdowns are more prevalent among women, but the suicide rate among men is three times higher than among women. Given how we are, men, unfortunately, do not tell our stories in the way that we perhaps should.

The hon. Gentleman is putting forward a very strong argument as to why we need to focus within the NHS on those men who have difficulty addressing the issues of depression, anxiety and emotional breakdown. Does he feel that the Government need to have an educational strategy, one that encourages people and helps families and GPs in particular, so that men will discuss these matters with someone who will listen?

Mr Hancock: I could not agree more; it would make such sense for that to happen. The hon. Gentleman is dead right. It is vital for people just to have someone outside the family circle to talk to and open up to, and then later they can develop the inner strength to tell people, “Oh, by the way, it happened to me.”

I have no hesitation in believing and saying that we have got to do more, because a lot of the elderly people who the hon. Gentleman just mentioned were in a stressful situation long before they got to that age. I know, because I have met such people, both before my illness and subsequently.

We have to do all we can in this place not only to keep this Minister and this Government focused on this issue but to commit ourselves—as a Parliament—to fight this issue, on and on and on. There should be no neglect of people who suffer from a mental illness. If they receive help early enough, it will save the NHS a fortune, and if the treatment is thought through properly, which might include the NHS talking to people such as myself who have been through the system and seen the good and bad of it, maybe, just maybe, we might start to get things right.

4.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Norman Lamb): Thank you very much indeed, Mr Pritchard, for calling me to speak. It is good to serve under your chairmanship.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) on securing this debate; I know that he has been trying to secure such a debate for some time. I particularly congratulate him for speaking out about his own mental ill health, because it is at the heart of changing attitudes and addressing the stigma that he and other hon. Members have talked about that people who have been successful in life should speak out and explain that they themselves have suffered mental ill health. Every time someone speaks out about their own mental ill health, that makes it easier for a youngster to be open about their own issues and seek help. That is the critical change that is needed, so that mental health comes out of the shadows and we lose the embarrassment about discussing it.

I commend to hon. Members the brilliant campaign, Time to Change, which this Government have funded, along with Comic Relief. It is all about tackling stigma. Interestingly, attitudes are changing. They are being measured on a regular basis and the dial is moving; people feel more able to talk about their mental ill health.

Mr Nigel Evans: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for what he has just said. When I was 27, I had depression for a year. I did not know where I was; I did not know whether I was going to come through it. It was awful. I received support from a lot of people who loved me and who got me through that particular period. Then I became an MP and eventually Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons.

The one thing that we must give people is hope, and I hope that the Minister’s response to this debate will be one not only of understanding—he has already expressed that—but of hope for people out there and their families, who look on, feel dejected and want support.

Norman Lamb: I totally agree. I hope to be able to convey some sense of optimism, actually, because, despite all the challenges that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South referred to, there are very some exciting things happening, which are laying the foundations for genuine equality for mental health. We have legislated in this Parliament for parity of esteem, but to be honest I am not interested in empty rhetoric—our words must mean something for people in need of help.

My hon. Friend referred to many aspects of the system that need to improve significantly. I will deal briefly with one—the issue of beds. We must be a bit nuanced here. It is absolutely clear that when there is a moment of crisis a bed must be available, and available locally. Incidentally, we should also look at places such as recovery houses. Increasingly, there are lots of third sector organisations that provide recovery houses around the country and it is often better for people to go into a place such as that than to be an in-patient admission, which might not be the best thing therapeutically for them. But the idea that in a middle of a crisis someone is shunted somewhere else in the country, or even put into a police cell, is really an outrage in a civilised society.

The interesting thing is that when I came into this job I realised more and more that I was operating in a fog. The data that we are absolutely used to when it comes to physical health, and the scrutiny of that data and evidence, have simply been lacking when it comes to

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mental health. Traditionally, we have not collected the information about access to services and what is happening to people on the ground, and that has been a fundamental issue that I have sought to address.

On out-of-area placements, I had no idea from the data that came to me about what actually happens around the country. Last week, we finally got the first sight of real data, which will now be provided on a regular basis, so that we can hold trusts to account if they fail to meet local need. The fascinating thing is that there are many trusts around the country that have no out-of-area placements at all under existing financial circumstances, while there are others that completely fail and are sending many people out of area. We need to understand why that is happening and address the causes, whether they are in commissioning, in the provider organisation or because of lack of funds, because some areas have demonstrated that that is not necessary.

Mr Mike Hancock: I entirely accept the idea that, when a bed is needed, a bed needs to be found. However, that person is at the very start of the crisis that made them seek help. They are shifted several hundred miles across the country, settled in and then, because the NHS suddenly finds a bed available half way back to their home, they are moved there without being given a chance to get used to the idea that they are getting help.

Norman Lamb: My hon. Friend does not need to convince me of that. I am completely with him and I am determined that we should eradicate this practice, which is unacceptable for people in a moment of crisis.

The use of police cells is a practice that has always gone on. Actually, because of the crisis care concordat that we published last February, for which 20 national organisations came together to set standards for crisis care in mental health for the first time ever, this year we will see a 50% reduction compared with two years ago in the number of people going into police cells. That is a real advance. We must go further and completely eradicate under-18s going into police cells. We have said that we want to ban the use of police cells for under-18s and to make such use an exceptional event for anyone else.

I want to try to deal with what we are doing to convey a sense of optimism, because I think that we are now on the right track. My hon. Friend painted a picture of the situation. There is, in my view, discrimination at the heart of the NHS, where people who suffer from mental ill health are disadvantaged compared with those with physical health problems. That must end. Access and waiting time standards were introduced in the past decade, so those who are thought to be suffering from cancer get to see a specialist within two weeks. Why does a youngster who suffers a first episode of psychosis not get that right? We cannot begin to justify that. We are therefore introducing, for the first time ever, access and waiting time standards in mental health from April so that, for a youngster suffering a first episode of psychosis, the standard will be to start treatment within two weeks. We will start with 50% of people and progressively increase that.

My hon. Friend talked about psychological therapies. There will be a standard of access within six weeks for 75% of people, with a 95% backstop to start of treatment

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within 18 weeks. That is what transformed care in physical health in the past decade. As Sir Mike Richards, who was the cancer tsar in the last decade, said to me, we can achieve the same transformation in mental health by applying the same rights of access that we have had in physical health for some considerable time. That complete imbalance of rights between mental and physical health dictates where the money goes, and that must end.

Mr Hancock: I will be very quick. This issue is made worse: Mind carried out a survey of all local authorities in England and found that, on average, they allocated just 1.36% of their public health budget to help people avoid developing mental health problems. Some planned to spend nothing at all. I want to see the Minister put pressure on local authorities to have such programmes that may, just may, keep people alive.

Norman Lamb: Indeed, I have done exactly that. The sense is that this issue is hidden away from public view. It is not recognised that there is an extraordinarily powerful invest-to-save argument to be made, as my hon. Friend said. If we invest in public mental health and early access to therapies, whether psychological therapy or therapy for eating disorders or psychosis, there will be a return on that investment, but, critically, the individual will be helped to recover and to be able to lead a good life again. That is the challenge that we face.

Alongside announcing the first ever waiting time standards, we published a vision for making them comprehensive throughout mental health in the next five years. I want all parties to commit to implement those standards through the next Parliament so that, just as Sir Mike Richards suggested, we can achieve genuine equality for those who suffer mental ill health.

The crisis care concordat set standards for what should happen in a crisis. Across the country, we are seeing a dramatic reduction in the use of police cells, which is a very good thing. We are investing more in liaison psychiatry so that for the first time those who turn up in A and E suffering from mental ill health get access to someone who knows something about it. At the moment, people often turn up in A and E and find that they cannot see anyone with the relevant specialism. That must end, so we are investing in liaison psychiatry.

On children and young people, which my hon. Friend raised in particular, I set up a taskforce last summer, bringing in experts from outside Whitehall such as YoungMinds, the campaigning organisation. We have engaged with young people. The taskforce will publish a report soon. That is the opportunity to fundamentally modernise children’s and young people’s mental health services.

There is a funding issue. More funding is needed—some areas of the country have cut investment ridiculously in young people’s and children’s mental health services—but there is also the question of how the money is spent. Such services are commissioned in a horribly fragmented way and there is not nearly enough focus on what can be done in schools to build resilience and focus on mental well-being. If we were to do that much more effectively, we could stop the deterioration of health.

On liaison and diversion, it is a scandal of our time that so many people suffering from mental ill health end up in prison, largely because their illness drives offending

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behaviour. Yet so many of those people have never had access to the sorts of therapies that could help them to recover. When someone who is suffering from mental ill health turns up at a police station or a court, liaison and diversion is all about diverting them into treatment. We have 25% of the country covered now and we will cover more than 50% from April with a view to covering the whole country by 2017. No other country in the world is doing that on such an industrial scale, and we should be proud of that.

On access to psychological therapies, which my hon. Friend talked about, waiting times are far too long; that is why we are introducing a maximum waiting time standard. However, in 2010 about 300,000 people got access to psychological therapies. This year that figure will hit about 900,000—a tripling of that number.

Mr Hancock: That shows the size of the problem.

Norman Lamb: It does, absolutely. The next challenge is to bring the improving access to psychological therapies programme into line with Jobcentre Plus. We are working on that, with pilots around the country. It is ridiculous that there are so many people out of work, languishing on benefits through no fault of their own because of their mental ill health and not getting access to the therapies that could help them recover. That has to change. We must link mental health services much more closely with employment services, schools and the criminal justice programme.

There are significant areas where mental health services fall short and, as my hon. Friend rightly said, they have always done so. However, as the Minister responsible, I am on a mission—[Interruption.]

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. We have a Division, so will the Minister bring his remarks to a conclusion, please?

Norman Lamb: I congratulate my hon. Friend and I think that we are on the way to achieving genuine equality for mental health.

4.28 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Commercial Waste Recycling (Eccles)

4.43 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

This debate is about issues that have caused considerable concern and distress to a number of my constituents, and relates to a waste recycling site in Eccles that was run by White Recycling Ltd until January this year, when the firm went into liquidation. The way in which the site has been operated and the persistent failure of the operator to comply with regulations have had a significant effect on my constituents who live near the site. I want to discuss the weakness of the response of the Environment Agency, which has failed on numerous occasions to provide the swift and robust response required to address the environmental problems caused by the operation of the site. I also want to question whether the existing regulation and monitoring regime is robust enough to deal with the many failures to comply with regulations at the site. Does the Minister believe that the Environment Agency’s powers need strengthening to make them sufficient to the task of regulating this and other similar waste recycling sites?

I will begin by discussing how the running of the site has affected my constituents. Residents have experienced problems with the site for several years. Indeed, local ward councillors David Jolley and John Mullen have been bringing the problems reported by local residents to the attention of the relevant agencies since 2008, including problems with dust, flies, odour and vermin. Old food waste was held in stacks and not disposed of correctly. The site was found to be accepting excess quantities of waste, which exacerbated many of the problems. Infestations of flies caused serious problems during hot weather over a number of summers, particularly the past two. A constituent who contacted me last year told me that they were unable to open their windows in warmer weather because they wanted to avoid swarms of flies coming in. It is totally unacceptable that people living around the site had to endure such conditions, year after year and summer after summer.

In addition to the unhygienic conditions and the possible associated health risks, residents experienced disruptions from the site in other ways. There were reports of heavy goods vehicles entering and exiting the site with no covering, so that the waste materials being carried were blown out of the vehicles, littering the surrounding roads. The site also caused unnecessary noise issues by operating outside of its specified hours—for example, it was operating from 7 am on a Saturday morning, instead of 8 am. Basic regulations restricting the height of waste stacks were often ignored, with stacks becoming dangerously high and at risk of falling over the fences at the site. On at least one occasion, the stacks of waste did collapse and fall through the fence, polluting a brook that runs next to the site.

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

The site has also had two fires in the past two years. In April 2013, 20 firefighters had to be called to the site after a shredding machine caught fire. In October 2014, a large amount of waste in a skip caught fire. It took fire crews six days to get the most recent fire under control, and it generated a large amount of smoke that

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affected people living in nearby streets. Indeed, I understand that the waste stacks still give off steam and smoke four months later, which is a further concern for local residents. At the time of the fire, Public Health England had to issue a health warning advising people to stay indoors. White Recycling had two fires at the site in Eccles, and in January 2014 there was another at a site that the firm ran in Burnley, which reportedly required the attendance of five fire engines to bring under control.

On 3 September 2014, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) led a debate in this Chamber on the issue of fires at waste management sites in which he said:

“A total of 600 fires occurred at waste management sites in England between 2012 and 2013, with 61 additional fires occurring in Wales. Despite waste management sites being monitored and requiring licences, we are getting nearly one fire a day across England and Wales.”—[Official Report, 3 September 2014; Vol. 585, c. 137WH.]

He also explored the cost to the fire service of dealing with fires at waste management sites, citing a figure of £49,000 per fire. The annual cost of managing fires at waste management sites could therefore amount to £14.5 million in England and a further £1.5 million in Wales.

My hon. Friend cited answers to parliamentary questions that reveal that, of the 600 fires at sites in England, 595 were at private sites, compared with just five at local authority sites. One in every 18 private sites suffered a fire, compared with just one in every 110 local authority-run sites. It is a similar story in Wales, where only three out of 61 fires have been at local authority-run sites—a similar proportion. It appears that fires are much more likely to occur at privately run waste management sites than at local authority-run sites, even though both are subject to the same regulations and standards. That tells us something about how those privately run sites are being operated and points to a failure of regulation that could be costing the fire services of England and Wales some £16 million a year.

On 16 January, SalfordOnline reported that the Environment Agency had suspended White Recycling’s waste permit, meaning that the firm could no longer take new waste into the site. In my view, that action was too little, too late; the reported licence suspension actually coincided with the day that the firm called in liquidators. I trust that the Minister agrees with me that it is unacceptable for any business to fail to comply with regulations on so many occasions, particularly when there is such an impact on the lives of those living close to the site operated by that business. The Environment Agency has failed to respond to complaints with the urgency and robustness that is required in the face of the numerous environmental and health concerns I have mentioned.

The very few steps taken by the Environment Agency to bring White Recycling into compliance with regulations at the Eccles site were not proportionate to the scale of the problems it was causing to local people. The agency also failed to require the company to make improvements within time limits acceptable to the local community.

For example, after a visit from the fire service in August 2013 a regulation 37 notice was served due to the risk of serious pollution from the site. Having

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accepted small improvements and having been provided with reassurances, the Environment Agency removed the suspension in December that year, claiming that its aim was for the site to be fully compliant with all permit conditions by summer 2014. So that is one year, from August 2013 to summer 2014, to become fully compliant after offences had been committed. It is not acceptable for a site causing such immediate problems to nearby residents to be given a whole year in which to improve performance when the permit conditions should have been met all along.

In 2014 I asked the Environment Agency to take swift and robust action to address the problems of excess waste, dust and flies—the same old problems that we had had for years. In reply, the agency agreed to allow the company 13 weeks further to sort out the problems. White Recycling had already had a year to come into compliance and when I complained it was given another 13 weeks. The agency said that that was because the financial situation of the operator had to be taken into account. Too often the Environment Agency seems to have used a light-touch approach to enforcement, failing to consider the impact that operations at such sites have on nearby communities.

In spite of the history of persistent non-compliance by the firm, White Recycling was able to challenge and overturn agency decisions. On 1 December 2014 local media reported that the agency had issued a revocation notice to shut down the site entirely. It was also reported that White Recycling successfully appealed the revocation decision on 30 December, less than three weeks before the company called in liquidators.

The issues raised by the case in my constituency raise significant concerns about the ability of the Environment Agency to carry out effective regulation. When I talked to agency staff recently, I was given a string of excuses such as, “We cannot monitor the site 24 hours a day,” and they also talked about cuts in staffing at the agency affecting what they could do.

When I raised the issues with the Secretary of State in August 2014, I received a response from the Minister present in the debate today, of which I want to remind him:

“I agree it is totally unacceptable for residents and businesses to be affected by fly infestation and dust from waste management activities”.

He also said:

“The Environment Agency has a duty to inspect waste management sites and has a wide range of enforcement powers. I have made it clear to the Environment Agency that it has my full support in taking a tougher approach against those who, by their actions or omissions, demonstrate a deliberate and often repeated disregard for the law and the environment”.

I have not seen the Environment Agency taking a tough approach against those who demonstrate a deliberate and often repeated disregard for the law and the environment, nor have I seen the agency using a wide range of enforcement powers against a firm that persistently evaded compliance with environmental regulations.

After the experience of the site in my constituency, I do not think that the existing regulatory framework addresses the problem of companies such as White Recycling that show such an apparent disregard for the community in which they operate. Will the Minister in his response tell me and the House what additional steps he will take to ensure that the Environment Agency

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acts much more swiftly to prevent such waste management operators that fail repeatedly to operate in compliance with regulations?

A similar point came up in a discussion earlier about health issues. A former Health Secretary said to the current Health Secretary that just because he sends out a note or a circular about how he would like something to operate, it does not mean that it happens. I appreciate the words of the Minister in the note that he sent to me, but he was clearly ignored. We need to bear that in mind. We need a much more robust way of ensuring that directions from Ministers are followed.

I firmly believe that more must be done to protect the health and quality of life of local people and, more generally, the environment. Sites such as the one in Eccles should not be permitted to operate in an area surrounded by houses. If they are, residents are left to suffer the unacceptable consequences. Furthermore, as I said, the Environment Agency clearly does not use

“the wide range of enforcement powers”

referred to by the Minister in his letter to me, nor does it adopt the “tougher approach” that he urged on it last year.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister three questions. First, does the Environment Agency need to apply different tests to the way in which it issues permits for waste management sites, so that the lives of residents are not blighted as the lives of my constituents have been? I have talked about my constituents contacting me and about letters being written, but even people I know have simply moved away and out of the area because they could not stand the continuing issues. The site has been a serious blight on people’s lives.

Secondly, does the Environment Agency need tougher enforcement powers and a different approach to using powers to ensure compliance? Thirdly, my constituents having suffered from the operation of the site as described, what assurances can he offer them that the Environment Agency will require both that the hazards be removed from the site—I understand that there are now hazardous materials there—and that the site be cleared as speedily as possible?

4.56 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on securing the debate. I also thank her for bringing these issues to my attention, via a letter last summer and in the Chamber today, so that we can discuss things in detail. What I said in the letter—I will return to some of those issues—about the situation being unacceptable is absolutely true.

The hon. Lady is quite right in her determination that her residents should not have to suffer nuisance and potential health risks, as well as environmental risks to the local area. I have huge sympathy for them, given what they have been through. It might seem sometimes that it is all very for a Minister to stand here and say that when people have experienced something like this, but I very much sympathise with them, because in this role I have had the opportunity to visit places where there are such issues.

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As the hon. Lady said, she wrote to me last August to express her concerns about the impacts on residents, in particular from the flies, odour and dust generated by the site. I made it clear in my response, which she read out, that it is unacceptable for residents and businesses to be affected by such poor practice at a waste management site. Today she set out a history of the site, which dates back many years, but the agency heard about the issues raised more recently in July 2014. The action it took to follow up on that was as follows. On 12 August, the agency served a formal notice requiring White Recycling Ltd, the operator, to reduce the volume of waste on site and to control pests and vermin. Waste volumes continued to increase on the site and at the beginning of October there was a significant fire—which she mentioned—which resulted in the fire and rescue service being on site for a protracted incident lasting six days.

On 22 October last year, the agency served a suspension notice on the operator, with suspension taking effect from 28 October. On 3 November, an inspection was carried out and the amount of waste stored at the site was found to be compliant with the permit. The suspension notice was withdrawn, as the enforcement notice had been complied with. Nevertheless, given the history of repeated non-compliance and permit breaches on the site, the Environment Agency decided to revoke the site’s permit on 1 December. The revocation notice was subsequently appealed; as such, the company was able to continue to operate while awaiting the results of the appeal.

On 15 January, the agency undertook a joint inspection with the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, which deemed the site to pose a significant risk of fire. The agency therefore served the company with a second suspension notice, which was effective from 6 o’clock that evening. That prevented the operator from accepting further waste at the site, but allowed it to remove waste in order to reduce the risk of fire. On 21 January, the operator, White Recycling Ltd, entered into administration.

The Environment Agency sometimes faces a difficult challenge of striking the right balance between encouraging businesses to comply and supporting growth while coming down firmly on those who flout the law or cause harm to local communities and the environment. In common with other regulators, the agency has a duty to give regard to the regulators’ code. The first principle of the code emphasises the need for regulators to carry out their activities in a way that supports those that they regulate to comply and to grow.

The Environment Agency took enforcement action against White Recycling Ltd to tackle the non-compliance. I accept that the hon. Lady might consider that the agency action was not speedy enough. As I said in my letter to her, I made it clear to the agency that it has my full support in taking a speedier and tougher approach against those who by their actions or omissions demonstrate a deliberate and often repeated disregard for the law and the environment. In the first oral questions to the Department after my appointment as Minister, I answered a question on a similar site in another part of the country and it became clear to me that we needed to examine and discuss this issue.

Persistent and entrenched poor performance at waste management sites causes nuisance to local communities, pollutes the environment and undermines the legitimate waste management sector, which is working hard to

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deliver a much better service. There is anecdotal evidence of a growing trend in such behaviour, and tackling it is a priority for Government and for the agency. I strongly support action by the agency to tackle these problems and I am pleased it is taking a tougher approach to regulation and enforcement at waste sites. Since September, it has increased its interventions to reduce the risk of serious fires. In that month, 76 high-risk sites were identified, 88% of which—including White Recycling—are now subject to enforcement action, including investigation for prosecution. The remaining 12% have improved and are now compliant.

Barbara Keeley: The Minister has talked about tougher responses and coming down firmly. I do not know whether he is going to come to this point—I do not want to labour it, but I want him to address it, as is it quite important—but I gave him an example in which the agency appeared to take a year to act following a non-compliance notice. When I complained—the complaint in which he was involved last year—it gave the company another 13 weeks, taking into account its financial situation. All of that seems to have been entirely concerned with letting the business carry on, and not at all concerned with the residents who suffered all that summer, the second in which they had a particular problem with flies. That is what is unacceptable.

Dan Rogerson: I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. It is clearly her firm view that action could have been taken more quickly. I understand that view and am pleased she has had the opportunity to express it today. As I have said, I have made it clear in my discussions with the agency that I want it to take action swiftly and to use all its powers to bear down on poor practice. That is also the strong wish of the industry—the legitimate operators that are concerned that they might lose business to those who have far poorer practices, with poorer safeguards for the local community and environment.

The agency recently launched a consultation on changes to its standard rules for environmental permits—the sorts of issues on which the hon. Lady is keen to see progress. The proposed changes include the introduction of a new requirement for a fire prevention plan for those sites with permits that are allowed to store combustible waste material. Additional amendments cover storage periods for combustible waste and clarification about the maximum amounts of waste that can be stored. The agency has closed 255 illegal waste sites during the first half of this financial year. It stopped 116 of the 225 new illegal waste sites found since 1 April in under 90 days, and agency action has resulted in 86 illegal waste sites being cleared, with waste totalling 133,310 cubic metres diverted into the legitimate industry.

We want to do more, however. We will consult shortly on strengthening further Environment Agency enforcement powers, including ensuring that the agency can physically prevent waste from coming on to sites that are in breach of their permits—again, the sort of matter on which the hon. Lady is keen to see progress. We will also seek views on further changes to strengthen the law, including a requirement for greater financial provision from operators of waste management sites through bonds, insurance or other mechanisms. That will reduce the opportunities

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for rogue operators to obtain permits. One concern has been that if we tackle an operator that then goes out of business and into administration, we are left with the clean-up costs. If there is some sort of financial arrangement providing a guarantee, the money can be used to remediate any problems.

Barbara Keeley: I understand that that issue was touched on in the debate on 3 September led by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent. I believe that he expressed the view that insurance companies were pulling out of that market because the risk was substantial.

Dan Rogerson: In the consultation there will be the opportunity to put forward options for that idea. The main focus is on giving the agency the tools that it needs to tackle poor performance.

The Environment Agency has a duty to inspect waste management sites and a wide range of enforcement powers, which the Government plan to expand. Entrenched and persistent poor performance by the rogues and chancers in the waste management industry is not acceptable to the public or the responsible and compliant waste management industry. That is why the Government are taking action in partnership with the agency.

The hon. Lady will rightly want to know when the particular site she has discussed will be returned to a condition that does not pose a continuing nuisance to the local community and the environment. Liquidators acting for White Recycling formally advised the Environment Agency that they disclaim all the company’s interest at the site, and the agency understands that the operator has disclaimed the permit, so the primary legal responsibility for the site now sits with the landowner, Peel. I understand that the agency has been in regular discussions with the landowner for over a year. It is meeting the landowner on Friday, along with the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, to discuss the potential fire risk and will provide her with an update following the meeting.

The agency has confirmed to me that it will take all necessary action to ensure that there is no immediate danger to human health and the environment from the waste stored on the site and that it is considering all possible forms of enforcement action against the individuals responsible for White Recycling Ltd.

Barbara Keeley: Will the Minister say whether that involves criminal sanctions? People’s lives have been made miserable and, as I said, some have moved away because of the situation. I do not want people to have to move away from the area.

Dan Rogerson: The agency is looking at all forms of enforcement action, which would include the sorts of things that the hon. Lady is considering.

I understand that the agency has been advising Peel of its responsibilities as a landowner; I trust that it will take steps to work with the various agencies to achieve satisfactory resolution of the situation.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising her concerns. She has rightly raised these issues in the interests of her constituents, and today’s debate has given me the opportunity to provide some reassurance that the Government take the matter seriously. I hope that she will look at the consultation; perhaps the constituents of hers who were affected

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might want to add their thoughts on the powers and changes proposed, to make sure that we have a well functioning, well regulated industry that takes account of local circumstances and that where poor performance is identified, it is dealt with swiftly.

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Question put and agreed to.

5.7 pm

Sitting adjourned.