Tuesday 27 March 2012
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
Illegal Alcohol and Tobacco Sales
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela Watkinson.)
It is a pleasure, as always, Ms Dorries, to serve under your chairladyship today.
I am grateful to colleagues from across the House for their support in this debate, and to the Economic Secretary and shadow Economic Secretary, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), for attending. Many issues will be raised in this debate—including, I am sure, the issue of duty and minimum alcohol pricing. I will restrict myself to describing and discussing the core issue of the illegal smuggling of tobacco and alcohol.
Such smuggling is becoming a serious issue in Herefordshire, particularly in Hereford city itself. My investigations have made clear to me what will already be apparent to many Members—namely, that such smuggling is only the tip of an iceberg and only the beginning of a much bigger problem nationwide. In that context, I especially want to pay tribute to PC John Yarwood, who is the Hereford city beat manager; to Councillor Mark Hubbard, who first brought this issue to my attention; and to the trading standards team at Herefordshire council, who have been fighting to keep the smuggling under control.
The problem is easily stated. A number of shops in my constituency persistently sell illegal tobacco and alcohol under the counter. A regular pattern is emerging: the shops are raided by the police and HM Revenue and Customs, goods are seized and fines are imposed. But weeks later, exactly the same thing happens again—the shops are raided, goods are seized and fines are imposed. And so it goes on. In the past 18 months, some 360,000 cigarettes have been seized in Herefordshire alone.
That pattern does not happen by accident. There is a simple explanation—the profits to be made from illicit sales far exceed the losses from fines and seizures. A single lorry-load of cigarettes can be worth £1.5 million in profits to the smugglers. Costing just 9p, a pack of 20 cigarettes has something like a 4,000% mark-up when it is sold on the street.
It has been reported that HM Revenue and Customs seizes some 1.7 billion illegal cigarettes every year. As a whole, tobacco trafficking is estimated to cost the taxpayer £2 billion a year and alcohol trafficking £1.2 billion a year so this is very big business. In effect, the fines and seizures have become just another cost of doing business—literally, a licence to smuggle. It appears that they have little or no deterrent effect. Many of these shops have had their alcohol licences revoked, but that has proven to be little or no deterrent against illegal sales.
These actions make a mockery of the law and our law enforcement agencies, and they need to be stopped. They cause a huge loss of tobacco and alcohol duty to the taxpayer, they undermine the sales of law-abiding businesses on the high street and of distributors, and there is nothing to prevent under-age sales and illegal working in these shops; one man arrested in a raid in Hereford last year had been awaiting deportation since 2008. They also create serious additional hazards to health.
Someone smoking a smuggled cigarette could be smoking anything, just as someone drinking a smuggled bottle of spirits could be drinking anything. These products are not subject to the same rigorous controls as the legal products. Generally, they are made in backstreet premises in countries far distant from the UK, and they are specifically made to be smuggled. Moreover, there is evidence that illegal tobacco and alcohol outlets are often used to fund organised crime on a far wider scale.
However, the problem goes much deeper than that. There appears to be no way in law to prevent these shops from reopening and no clear line of accountability within Government. The issue sits unhappily poised between HM Revenue and Customs, which reports to the Treasury; the UK Border Agency and the police, which report to the Home Office; and licensing policy and trading standards officers, which report to local councils. I am extraordinarily grateful to the Economic Secretary for coming today, but she cannot be expected to answer questions about policing or border controls. Those topics are for the Home Office, not the Treasury.
I am aware that the Government have taken important steps to address the issue in recent years—providing extra resources during the next four years to increase investigations, intelligence and enforcement; expanding the work of HMRC overseas to tackle importation into the UK at source; and developing new technology and resources to strengthen our borders. I am also aware that, at least in theory, HMRC has a range of penalties at its disposal, including the seizure of goods, civil penalties, fines of up to £5,000, criminal prosecution and the recovery of criminal assets. However, those penalties are not anything like enough. I repeat that a single lorry-load of cigarettes can be worth £1.5 million in profits to the criminal rings behind it.
Furthermore, recent history has not been encouraging. Far from raising their game during the past 10 years, I understand that HMRC and the UK Border Agency have been doing worse over that time: they seized fewer cigarettes and less rolling tobacco in 2008-09 than in 2000-01; they have seized fewer vehicles; and fewer people have been sentenced for tobacco smuggling.
What can we do? I suggest three things. First, we need more information. Is it true that HMRC has been less effective and not more effective during the past few years? How many prosecutions have there been? We need regular and detailed data on prosecutions and seizures. Secondly, it is not enough for the police and HMRC just to be able to seize goods and impose these relatively modest fines. They need to be able to close down premises for significant periods when there have been repeated violations of the law. That may require new law-making.
Finally, there is a clear case for having a Minister who is specifically charged with dealing with the issue and able to work across Departments to be as effective as possible. I note that the Minister with responsibility for broadband, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), works across both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Perhaps there is scope for similar joint-reporting lines across HMRC, the Treasury and the Home Office in this area.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. As the chair of the all-party group on beer, I recognise his commitment to the brewing industry; he has been a great supporter of it since he has been in this place. Does he share my concern about the Government’s recent estimate of alcohol smuggling into this country? They estimated that the equivalent of 28,000 lorry-loads of alcohol come into this country every year, which is about 538 illicit movements per week. If so, does he also share my view that if such a massive amount of alcohol is being smuggled into this country, the problem lies with the customs authorities, which are not policing our borders efficiently and effectively?
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for his intervention and questions. He puts his finger on the scale of the problem and he must also be right that the UK Border Agency is not being as effective as it should be in preventing this illegal importation of goods. That is a further element to be addressed by a Minister with the kind of joint-reporting lines that I described earlier.
Let me sum up my argument. Better information, new powers and better co-ordination between Government agencies are all required. Those three steps could make a crucial contribution to tackling the scourge of alcohol and tobacco trafficking, and I am sure that I speak for all Members in Westminster Hall today when I urge the Government to consider those steps carefully as they develop their thinking in this area.
Thank you, Ms Dorries, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing this debate on a hugely important issue that is particularly timely, following the Budget. I will focus my remarks specifically on the Treasury-covered area of duty stamping. In itself, it could do a great deal to help prevent some of the illegal sales that we have discussed—certainly the illegal sale of alcohol.
One of the questions about smuggling, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), is that there is some debate—even within the alcohol industry—about how much is actually smuggled in. There is a debate about the amount that is physically smuggled in as opposed to paper movements, whereby the product never actually leaves the country and the paperwork is simply moved between countries to avoid duty. That can create a huge issue that is impossible for the UK Border Agency, or indeed any form of border control, to manage, as it is basically a paper shift.
Excise duties on alcohol generate about £9.5 billion a year; they certainly did in 2010-11. However, there is also a Treasury estimate of a tax gap of up to £1.2 billion each year due to duty evasion, principally through fraud. As has already been mentioned, about 10% of the beer sold in this country in 2009-10 was estimated to have been sold illegally. Data from wholesalers show that beer and wine sales have fallen, while those of spirits, which are now duty stamped, have increased. Those are more likely to be legal sales, as duty stamping has reduced illegal sales. Duty stamping brings an increase in duty for the Treasury; at a time when we are looking to plug an economic gap, such an increase could be hugely beneficial.
I have talked to wholesalers and retailers. In particular, the Federation of Wholesaler Distributors has done a lot of work in this area, and it is clear that there is now a correlation between beer and wine. If the Government are considering introducing duty stamping—I welcome the measure in the Budget to consult on it—I hope that they look at beer and wine together, as it is becoming clearer and clearer that those are now direct competitors, certainly where choosing whether to drink beer or wine at home is concerned. Of what men drink, it is estimated that about 60% is beer and cider and 25% is wine. The figures for women are more like 57% wine and 19% beer and cider, so a significant amount of alcohol can be covered through duty stamping.
The retail industry has experienced a significant loss in beer sales over recent years—particularly of products, such as Stella Artois, which are more subject to illegal smuggling and fraud. There is an opportunity to have a huge impact through the health service: a reduction in the amount of cheap beer available through the small outlets that get it through the grey market would be beneficial to the Department of Health through reduced alcohol-related illness. The increased revenue from duty stamping could be used by the Department to increase awareness of alcohol. I hope that, in the consultation on duty stamping, we look not so much at whether it is taken forward by the Government, but at how.
Multi-packs are a particular issue for the beer industry. How can duty stamping be done cost-efficiently and effectively and deliver what we want without it preventing the industry from exporting its product? I appreciate that there are some technical issues and I hope that, working with the industry, the Government will be able to deal with them, so that we can have increased revenue for the Treasury of about £1 billion and also a beneficial impact on health.
The measure may well go some way towards dealing with the issue that police in Norfolk have outlined to me. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire mentioned it, and I know that the Economic Secretary reads about such things. The huge number of issues that the police deal with on a weekend evening, when people are out and about, are not due to alcohol consumed in public houses and clubs, where people are generally more responsible—certainly the landlords and owners are—but to preloading with cheap alcohol, much of which is bought on the grey market at a lower price than should be allowed. I hope that the Government will move forward with duty stamping. It is something that could be welcomed, and it would help not just the Treasury but the health of our nation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Dorries, and I apologise for being a couple of minutes late. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing this important debate, which ensures that the Government and the world at large continue to see that parliamentarians across the political divide are determined to do more to discourage smoking in our society and to act on the illegal trade in both alcohol and tobacco. I want to concentrate entirely on tobacco.
I am proud to say that the Labour Government did a great deal to reduce the illicit trade in tobacco. Better enforcement by Government agencies and strict curbs on the tobacco industry’s activities paid dividends but, as the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire has outlined, more action is needed. Although all tobacco is harmful and costs lives, illegal tobacco makes it easier for children to start smoking, and brings crime into our neighbourhoods.
As a school nurse, my wife Evaline gave talks to children about the dangers posed by smoking. I remember her telling me about deploying an economic argument, highlighting the money that would be available for other things if a person did not smoke. I was surprised to hear that the children told her she had her figures wrong. She quoted retail prices, but they quoted “local” ones, which were considerably lower. Therefore, we know where they were getting the cigarettes from.
I am pleased to say that north-east England is leading the way in taking a stand against this blight on our society. In 2007, Fresh, the UK’s first dedicated regional programme, which was set up in the north-east to tackle the worst rates of smoking-related illness and death in the country, hosted the UK’s first summit on illicit tobacco, and in 2009 the three north of England regions introduced the world’s first pan-regional tobacco action plan: the north of England tackling illicit tobacco for better health programme. The programme aims to improve the health of the population by reducing the supply of and the demand for illicit tobacco, much of which is more poisonous than retail products, which are bad enough.
The innovative partnership approach aims to break the intergenerational cycle of health inequalities, which is caused by our poorest young people’s early addiction to freely available cheap tobacco. In some parts of the north-east of England, the sale of illegal cigarettes from tab houses, car boot sales and workplaces has threatened to undermine efforts to tackle smoking, and most people—even smokers—want something done about it. The 2010 “smokefree” survey by YouGov found that 89% of adults in the north-east wanted tougher sentences for tobacco smugglers, while a major survey of 6,000 adults in every local authority in the north of England found that nine out of 10 people believe that illegal tobacco is a danger to children. That is not surprising, given that I am told that some tab houses in the region specialise in selling to children.
However, good progress in tackling the problem is being made in many areas. The north of England tackling illegal tobacco for better health programme has resulted in less illegal tobacco being bought and sold on estates in our areas, fewer people turning a blind eye and more action aimed at bringing sellers to justice. The volume of illegal tobacco bought has gone down by 39% in the north-east. The percentage of smokers buying illegal tobacco has fallen from 20% to 18%, and the number of 16 to 34-year-olds buying it has reduced by between 5% and 6%, but 23% of 16 to 24-year-old smokers say that they still buy it. It is vital that the kind of partnership that we have in the north-east of England is replicated around the country, as it demonstrates that the illicit trade can and will be beaten.
What makes me angry is the idea propagated by the tobacco industry that introducing plain packaging for cigarettes, which would do so much to stop young people starting to smoke in the first place, will somehow increase the illicit trade in tobacco. That is simply untrue. The existing packs are already so easy to forge that they have covert markings to enable enforcement officials to distinguish illegal cigarettes. With those markings and large pictorial warnings, the so-called plain packs—we all know that they will be multicoloured—will not be easy to forge. What plain packs will do is reduce the attractiveness of tobacco products to children, thereby curbing demand, which I am sure everyone here will agree is key to stopping the illicit trade in tobacco.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing this debate. I want to make some brief remarks as chairman of the all-party group on smoking and health. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) is chairman of the all-party group on beer, and I want to make it absolutely clear that my group is against smoking whereas his, I believe, is in favour of the consumption of beer.
Absolutely. I saw my hon. Friend just last night responsibly consuming beer in the Strangers Bar downstairs.
The UK is a leader in tobacco control, and I want our country and the coalition Government to remain at the forefront in that area. We have seen huge progress over the past couple of decades in the limitation of tobacco companies’ opportunities to market their products. Checking carefully around the room, I think that all of us, perhaps with the exception of the Economic Secretary, remember popular television tobacco advertising, with catchy tunes. They are now a thing of distant memory, and we will see further changes shortly. I am sure that many of us will visit supermarkets in our constituencies during the Easter recess, and we will no longer be able to see displays of tobacco products because all large shops will have to cover them up. Some shops in my constituency have already pressed ahead with doing so, including the Tesco superstore in Eastville on the edge of my constituency.
The next necessary stage in tobacco control is introducing what has been called plain packaging for cigarettes, although that is to some extent a misnomer. The design of plain packs shows that they are anything but plain, but they would be of a standardised design in order to remove what is essentially the last opportunity available to tobacco companies to promote their products: the design of packs, of packaging within the cardboard pack and of cigarettes, which now come in many shapes, sizes and colours to attract the next generation of gullible young people attracted by glitzy products that they think it is cool to consume. Of course, it is anything but.
I am sure that tobacco companies will fight tooth and nail to prevent standardised packaging from being introduced in the United Kingdom. The Department of Health is about to start a consultation exercise on plain packaging on behalf not only of central Government but of the devolved Administrations. I am sure that tobacco companies will come up with all sorts of reasons why plain and standardised packaging should not be introduced. One reason will be that it could increase the opportunity for the sale of illicit and counterfeit cigarettes, which is the topic of this welcome debate.
I doubt whether the introduction of plain packaging will increase the opportunity for counterfeiting. If it does, it will only do so because the tobacco industry inflicts that problem on itself. Most or all tobacco companies already put covert markings on their packs to protect their legal sales from illicit sales in a market where their brands are clearly visible. Their brands will no longer be clearly visible on packs if plain packaging is introduced, as I hope it is. Instead, the packs will have prominent health warnings and standardised colours and fonts. The fact that they will still have covert markings, bar codes and other measures to counteract the best efforts of those who wish to smuggle cigarettes into our country should mean that moving from branded packs to standardised plain packs will not increase the opportunity for illicit sales.
I am not a cigarette smoker, but surely one potential problem with plain packaging is not whether experts and officials can check a code to see whether the product is illegal but whether the public who buy the packs can spot it easily. With plain packaging, the codes will be less easy for the public to spot. Therefore, it will be less easy for them to report counterfeit packs, increasing the opportunities for illegal and counterfeit sales.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. As I mentioned, the Government are about to embark on a consultation exercise about the various issues that must be considered before we move ahead to a plain packaging regime for the sale of cigarettes. I am sure that that point will be tested with all the current enforcement agencies to see whether it is indeed a legitimate worry and concern. If so, we will have to take measures to ensure that the design of standardised packs makes it easy for the public to distinguish a bona fide, legally sold product of a tobacco company from a bootleg or imported product that does not meet UK standards.
I have just thought of a direct answer to my hon. Friend’s point. At the moment, there are few regimes in the world where plain packaging is the norm. To the extent that the UK follows Australia’s lead, we will be the first in the European Union to adopt it. People who currently import lorry loads or white van loads of tobacco and other products, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire mentioned, and who make enormous profits as a result, will not be able to import branded products from the rest of the European Union, because those products will not be legally saleable in this country unless they have a standardised pack design. It could be argued that standardised packaging will limit the opportunities for people to import van loads of material supposedly for their own personal consumption, much of which we must suspect is diverted into the illicit market.
It would be wrong of us to assume that the trade is rampant at the moment. It is certainly highly profitable, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire said, but the various Government agencies, working together, have driven down the share of illicit tobacco over the past decade. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimates that 10 years ago, in 2000-01, the share of tobacco packs sold on the illicit market was just over one fifth, at 21%, but by 2009-10, that market share had been halved to 10%. Unfortunately, the market share of hand-rolling tobacco, which is easier to counterfeit, is still shocking. Some 46% is sold on the illicit market, without any control and at a tax revenue loss to the Treasury.
In closing, I urge the Government, as well as moving to standardised and plain packs, to adopt some other measures. First, all the various agencies that wish to control illicit tobacco should work effectively together. HMRC has a responsibility. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is with us today, has a direct responsibility to work more closely with the UK Border Agency, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire mentioned, also has a key role.
The Government should also work with local authorities. I am all in favour of localism—I have been an evangelist for localism for a long time, and I am pleased that our coalition Government are pressing ahead with it—but we must make it clear as part of the Government’s national public health strategy that local authorities have a duty to use Government public protection officers more effectively in areas of tobacco control. Of course, the police have a role as well. Police and crime commissioner elections are being held in November, and I will certainly ask all the candidates in Avon and Somerset what they will do to stop the sale of cigarettes to underage people and the sale of illicit cigarettes to anybody.
Secondly, there should be a more effective registration scheme for retailers, so that we can separate rogue from responsible retailers. Thirdly, the Government should work with the World Health Organisation to develop more effective tracing of tobacco packs as they travel around the world. The tobacco industry is now global, and many of the cigarettes sold in this country are manufactured elsewhere.
I thank my hon. Friend again for giving us the opportunity to discuss these important issues. Driving down the smoking rate is good for public health outcomes in our country, and driving down illicit cigarette smoking while a legal trade still exists will be good for the public finances.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing this important and timely debate.
The House should face up to the reality that the smuggling of and trade in illicit cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol is a multi-million-pound criminal enterprise. It is not some car boot sale nonsense; it is a significant endeavour. The House will have its head in the sand if it does not recognise that fact. It loses the Treasury tens of millions of pounds in revenue, which could be spent on our schools, roads, hospitals and other areas, and we must recognise that.
I serve on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which recently took evidence on the trade in smuggled tobacco and alcohol. One company supplied evidence to show that, in Northern Ireland alone, 170 million illegally gotten cigarettes are smoked every year. That loses the Treasury £42 million every year and has lost the company whose product has been counterfeited £12.5 million. That is a staggering loss in one little part of the United Kingdom.
I thought that it was significantly bad that 17% of all cigarettes smoked in Northern Ireland had been illicitly traded, but in parts of England and the border counties the figure is 24%. In Devon and Cornwall, it is 13%, and in London, it is 20%. This is a massive criminal endeavour and some of the people who make money out of it are the worst, most cantankerous, nasty and evil people imaginable: as quick as they would sell people cigarettes, they would slit their throats. The House has to wake up to the fact that they are engaged in a serious, criminal endeavour. The Government should exercise the most serious measures against them, and we should encourage the Treasury and the Government in that regard.
As I have said, the timing of the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire in securing the debate could not be better. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee today published its report on the smuggling of counterfeit cigarettes, tobacco products and alcohol and on the illicit fuel trade. This massive trade is central, so we need to take off our gloves and get stuck into countering it.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that evidence from around the world shows that increasing regulation, whether via plain packaging or by putting up duty on cigarettes and tobacco, can simply increase the illegal trade? Ireland’s budget of 2010 recognised that by not putting up duty. Rather than increase duty or introduce plain packaging, the Government should follow the model suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire and use the UK Border Agency and other agencies to crack down properly on the illicit trade itself.
The hon. Gentleman will find that I am not arguing against his views—he is right—but we need to set out clearly how significant the problem is. Do we tax the product to the extent that it makes the smuggler’s job all the more easy, or do we recognise that there are things that the Government and we as a nation can do to address the problem?
The problem is not helped by the fact that I can drive my car to France or Belgium, fill it to the gills with cigarettes or alcohol and bring it back to this island and sell those products illegally. There should be a complete stop on a person being able to bring back a boot full of wine, alcohol and cigarettes and claim, “These are for me.” That is utter nonsense. Everyone knows that they are being brought back to be sold either on the street illegally or to their friends and neighbours. We have to make sure that such activity is stamped out.
The Government should be rigorous and ensure that, if people buy cigarettes and alcohol, they should buy them in this nation, pay tax on them in this nation and smoke and drink them in this nation, rather than allowing them to circumvent tax policies. It makes sense that I can probably buy twice as much legally in every other part of Europe than I can buy here because our tax policies are so severe. If they are severe, we need to make them work on this island.
I apologise, Ms Dorries, for my late arrival—cable theft means that the railways are in chaos.
I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that, if hundreds more staff were employed by Customs to seal our borders properly and ensure that such smuggling did not take place, they would not just stop criminality, but make many times their own salary for the Treasury?
I would have no difficulty with the deployment of more people in the worthwhile work of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and other customs and border agencies, but our Committee took evidence from HMRC officials who said that they were satisfied with the money given to them by the Treasury and that they probably have enough people. If HMRC wants more people, it can argue its case, and it will not lack any support from me.
Some people argue that the plain or uniform packaging of cigarettes would solve the problem, but that is utter, total baloney. If people think that by simply uniformly packaging all cigarettes they will suddenly meet a public health objective, they are losing the plot. Plain or uniform packaging will not affect the problem. Every survey tells us that adults do not care if the package is gold, has a camel on it, or if it is red, white and blue. They care about price and taste. A person will smoke Camel lights because they prefer their taste to that of Marlboro. The colour of the stupid package does not matter—that goes in the bin. A person will smoke Benson and Hedges not because the box is beautifully gold with a pair of lungs on it, but because of the product’s taste and availability.
We have to wipe out the nonsense that plain packaging is the panacea to achieving a public health goal and to preventing smuggling. Plain or uniform packaging will just make it much easier for the smuggler, no matter what people say. Smugglers are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect that someone would be so daft as to uniformly package all cigarettes in the same year as we are implementing a display ban so that we cannot see the daft things. We have to recognise that, if we are to have a display ban, we do not need plain packaging. It would infringe people’s rights and on trade laws, and it would jeopardise many legitimate businesses.
I do not hear the same lobby group arguing for the plain packaging of tins of beer, or for the uniform packaging of bottles of wine or spirits. We should remember that diseases as a result of drinking alcohol cause far more damage and create far more costs for our health system than those that result from smoking cigarettes. Moreover, on antisocial behaviour, there are far more fights on the streets of this city on a Friday night, not because someone has had too many fags, but because they have had too much to drink. We have to recognise that the plain packaging argument is, frankly, nonsense. It is not a panacea to solving the problems of counterfeit crime.
The hon. Gentleman has made several points that need to be knocked down, but I shall address only one. If he thinks that the introduction of plain, standardised packs is pointless, why does he think that the tobacco industry is going to fight it with all the resources at its disposal, and why does it put so much effort into providing attractive packs, colourful cigarettes, gold wrapping and all the other paraphernalia that goes with the marketing of cigarettes? Surely, it is wasting its money if that has no effect.
The tobacco industry is able to speak for itself, but one of the reasons why it is annoyed is that this is an infringement on its trading rights, its branding and all the things in which it has invested over the years. It would be wrong to turn around and say that we can just remove those things overnight.
The industry argues that it would damage the actual trade, so let us look at that and what it costs. In my constituency, more than 1,000 people are directly employed in the tobacco industry. In Manchester, another 800 people are directly employed in the manufacturing of cigarettes. If we are not careful, those jobs will go to eastern bloc countries and to Europe—they will move out of this country. Will that affect the number of people who smoke cigarettes? Not one jot. The same number of people will continue to smoke cigarettes, but they will be manufactured elsewhere. We will be the biggest losers, because we will have lost the jobs, the tax and the pay-as-you-earn tax.
Again, I fully support what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The point that he has just made is backed up if we consider the packaging issue. A lot of the cigarette packaging around Europe is produced in this country, and therefore a huge number of jobs would be at risk if plain packaging were introduced. One of the reasons why companies are so protective of their packaging is brand protection. Bearing in mind that cigarette sales are legal and it is a legal product, unless the Government make cigarette sales illegal, companies feel that they have a right to protect their brand, as that is what protects sales and jobs. Companies argue that a clear definition of brand prevents some of the illegal trade that we are trying to stop.
The trading issues are very clear. For example, the value of the wage bill paid in my constituency alone to the people who manufacture cigarettes is £60 million a year. That is the figure paid in wages to engineers in the company. People might snigger at that, but if we remove those jobs from the economy, houses will not be sold and people will not buy food in Tesco and Sainsbury’s. The bottom line is that people will move out of the area. I am talking about high-paid, valuable jobs in my constituency that I am delighted about. Anyone would be envious of them and would try to achieve them in their own constituency. We need to recognise the importance of such jobs.
The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire made some very important points about how we should start to address the matter, and I want to pick up on one of them. He said that a cross-cutting Minister should try to take the lead on this. How should the Government go about doing that? If they have to put in place a specific cross-cutting Minister—I hate the word “tsar”—so be it. That is an excellent idea. There needs to be a joined-up golden thread running through all divisions, and we need to recognise that the issue must be tackled head on.
Although hon. Members from all parties have different views on the matter, the fact is that the problem is damaging our country in terms of loss of trade and loss of revenue. The people who lose out are those we all care most about: the ordinary citizens who could have that tax revenue spent on them and their needs. I am more than happy to support the need to deal with the matter.
This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and it is an absolute pleasure. I was not intending to speak in today’s debate, but I thought I would take the opportunity as there is a bit of time. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) who, as always, made a passionate speech. Everybody who has contributed to the debate wants the level of illegal tobacco and illegal alcohol to be reduced. We all recognise the damage to British business, the cost to the Treasury and the cost to companies in all our constituencies. We are united in that view.
However, coming from a brewing constituency and being the chairman of the all-party group on beer, I have some major concerns about the Government’s proposals on duty stamping. Of course, such concerns come on the back of last week’s Budget, which continued the duty escalator on beer and resulted in a 5% increase in duty on a pint of beer.
We need to consider the impact that any measure we introduce on fraud will have on the industry. We already pay more duty on British beer than people in any other European country. The facts are that we pay 40% of all of Europe’s beer duty, yet we drink only 13% of Europe’s beer. Our British brewing industry is being penalised by the duty regime. In France, 7p in duty is paid on a pint; yet, in this country, we pay 49p in duty. Hon. Members can see the impact that the duty regime is having on our industry.
I urge the Minister to think carefully about the effect that such a policy will have on an industry that is already reeling as a result of the duty regime. We are talking about requiring British brewers to duty stamp 5.5 billion bottles and cans every year. We recognise that there is fraud and smuggling in relation to beer, cider and wine, but the Government are not proposing to introduce duty stamps for cider or wine. Why is it that yet again the British brewing industry is being penalised in this way?
I agree wholeheartedly that the duty regime is encouraging imports into this country. The fact that the British beer industry pays up to four times the duty paid by the British cider industry is encouraging companies such as Stella Artois to produce cider—or cidre, as it calls its brand—and import it into the UK. We are exporting jobs as a result of our duty regime.
I would like to put it on the record that, as well as being a great supporter of the British brewing industry, my hon. Friend is a magnificent spokesman for the cider industry. We regularly do battle over whether beer or cider is best.
Let us consider the Government’s alcohol fraud strategy. In 2010, we introduced a new strategy, which has been successful. We have seen the number of illegal goods being impounded and seized increase dramatically: a 71% increase in beer, a 50% increase in wine and a 67% increase in cider. Those figures clearly demonstrate that the smuggling problem is just as prevalent with wine and cider, yet the Government do not propose to put a duty stamp on them. I struggle to understand why beer is being singled out in such a way.
Let us consider the estimated amount of illegal beer that the Government believe is coming into this country. They estimate that 28,000 articulated lorry loads of beer come into this country every year. That is the equivalent of 538 articulated lorry loads of beer every week, with an estimated profit to the smugglers of £18,000 per lorry. That is the equivalent of £9.6 million of profit to the smugglers per week. Of course, we want to stop that profit and that illegal trade. However, are we honestly suggesting that if our border controls have 28,000 articulated lorries going through them every year, the answer is to bring in duty stamps, rather than to tighten up our border controls?
My hon. Friend and I have discussed this issue on a number of occasions. Is it not true that the industry feels that a lot of the trade that is, in theory, coming in on those trucks is not physically coming in, but is merely a paper movement? The product never actually leaves the UK in the first place. We need to overcome that problem as well.
I agree that that has been suggested. If we are saying that there is a problem with smuggling—importing bottles and cans of beer into the country—let us deal with that. If we are saying that there is a fraud going on in relation to some grand paper chase of virtual bottles of beer leaving the country and coming back in, let us tackle that. We need the industry and the wholesalers to work with us on that. The answer is not to implement a duty stamping of 5.5 billion bottles of beer at a massive cost to the brewing industry, because that may not solve the problem to which my hon. Friend refers. There is the phrase, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they haven’t got it in for you”. From the brewers’ perspective, it seems as if the Government have a desire to ruin the British beer industry, and I ask the Government why.
The all-party parliamentary beer group—I urge those in the Chamber who are not members to join as a matter of urgency—held a hearing recently, in which, I think, Andy Leggett gave evidence to us. He said, at that stage, that duty stamps were not the number one option for the Treasury and Customs in relation to smuggling and fraud. We are therefore concerned to see that proposal in the Budget.
Does the Minister have any idea what cost this will add to the beleaguered British beer industry? Why single out beer? Why not cider? Why not wine? Does she have any estimate of the cumulative effect of the extra burden and red tape on the brewing industry, when adding in the beer duty escalator and this unnecessary extra cost? I ask the Minister to think about British beer. Some 80% of all beer drunk in this country is brewed in this country. The beer industry employs tens of thousands of people in all our constituencies. It is a great British product of which we should be proud. Let us not ruin it with an over-bureaucratic system that is costly and damages the future of British beer.
It is a pleasure to have you as Chair this morning, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing the debate, and on giving a very good outline of some of the issues.
We have heard a wide-ranging debate covering the amount of money lost to the Treasury through illegal sales of alcohol and cigarettes, and also issues relating to health, smoking, alcohol and so on. I will not stray too much into that territory. However, I was a member of the Scottish Government when Scotland was the first part of the UK to introduce a ban on smoking in public places. That ban was not universally popular at the outset, but I think it has been proved to be the right thing to do. The idea that some policies on health are unpopular but ultimately turn out to be the right thing to do has run through the debate, and I may return to it.
The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire made the point that this is the tip of the iceberg. People try to avoid paying their fair share of tax in a whole range of areas. Illegal alcohol and tobacco sales are an important part of that, but not the only part. I think the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned that people try to avoid the appropriate duty on fuel, as well as on tobacco and alcohol. The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire talked about shops selling under the counter and the amount of goods seized, and how those shops and premises are back in operation a few weeks later. That not only results in a loss to the taxpayer, but has very little deterrent effect. It almost sends a message to people that they can pretty much do what they like—they can take it as a business loss and simply get back up and running again, rather than changing behaviour. I think that the hon. Gentleman felt that there needs to be a change in legislation.
I was surprised that the issue was seen as one for the Treasury Minister only. Tie-ups happen between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the UK Border Agency, police and local authorities in terms of licensing and trading standards, which indicates that this is a wider issue than just money lost to the Treasury. Many hon. Members have talked about a cross-cutting approach, and that is worth considering.
The hon. Member for North Antrim gave a very powerful description of this serious multi-million pound organised crime industry, if I can call it that. Of course, we will always see situations where some people will try to make a few extra pounds for themselves at a local level by bringing back a quantity of cigarettes or alcohol products if they have been in another country. However, it is absolutely right to focus on those who are seriously involved.
As the hon. Member for North Antrim will be aware, when businesses are shut down as a result of effective action, product substitution occurs: they move on to another product to make money to fund whatever other activities they wish to fund from the illicit gains. Therefore, these issues sit across Departments. I hope that the Minister will say how she will ensure that the Government are able to deal with issues that relate not just to the Treasury—of course, such issues are very important—but that they will begin to consider the deterrent effect of appropriate sentencing for those who persist in breaking the law.
Closure orders were considered in Scotland, particularly in relation to alcohol. For premises that persistently sold to underage drinkers or persistently broke the licensing laws, legislation was introduced to provide the opportunity to shut them down—a message to the retailer and to the local community.
To be clear, that would close down retailers who have breached the law by selling to underage drinkers, but are otherwise legal in their operations. I also have it in mind to target retail outlets that are not doing any legal trading—they have been set up simply for the purposes of the illegal sale of alcohol and cigarettes.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, which is very important because there are two separate issues. If an operation is set up simply for the purposes of selling illegal products or trading illegally, that should be taken very seriously with the full force of the law, not only with an appropriate sentence when it is brought to court, but with the ability to act quickly to stop these activities. That needs to be considered.
The hon. Member for North Antrim talked about the report published by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I will certainly read that with interest, as I am sure other hon. Members will. His contribution, and the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), highlighted the consideration of smoking policies more generally as they relate to health, as well as to business and trade.
There was a fairly lively debate on the issue of plain packaging. I am not a smoker. I have never been a smoker, and in my former careers I took a fairly dim view of smoking generally. Therefore, I think that the Government should take an interest in anything that can be done to deal with health issues, but it must be done in a way that makes sense and is enforceable. I take the point that many people who work in the industry are worried about their jobs. We have to have some cognisance of that in our discussions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North mentioned some of the work that was done by the Labour Government. I had no wish to make this a party political debate—that is not a criticism of my hon. Friend—because I think all hon. Members share common ground in trying to deal with these important issues.
My hon. Friend also raised one of the more serious issues: the so-called tab houses, which have been the subject of responses to parliamentary questions and on which work has been done previously, with a particular focus on the introduction of children to smoking. We are also concerned about whether children and young people are being introduced not just to smoking, but to crime, drug misuse and other activities in which they should not be involved.
In debating these issues, it is important that we do not focus simply on packaging. There will be different views about how much packaging and branding impact on consumer behaviour—I am sure that there are plenty of PhD theses about that, even if they are not in this room—and that debate will continue. One important point, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is how we deal with the problems of criminality relating to these issues. Again, I do not wish to make this a party political point, but the appropriate number of people must be involved in intelligence-led policing and the joined-up approach between policing, trading standards, licensing authorities and the UK Border Agency. There would be concern that elements of that approach rely on many people who are sometimes described as the backroom staff in police forces. None the less, they are the ones who gather the intelligence, analyse the data and information and do the forensic work to track down some of those involved in serious and organised crime. That will be important as we consider a way forward.
As well as discussions on smoking and the impact on health, we also heard from the hon. Members for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), the chair of the all-party parliamentary beer group, particularly about duty stamping. Again, that is controversial and both hon. Gentlemen are putting forward viewpoints on how this would work in practice and what the impact on the industry would be. Will the Minister reply to the hon. Gentlemen’s questions, which I should also like to pose?
We heard about some technical issues in respect of duty stamping and whether it would be the correct option. Have the Minister and her colleagues considered forming a working group, bringing together different industry interests to look at what is technically the best way to work on avoidance of duty and whether duty stamping is the correct way to take this forward? If other options are being considered, perhaps the Minister could lay those out for us today, because we will have to consider this matter in more detail as we debate it, following on from the Budget.
Overall, we have had a useful debate. It is clear that there are different interests and views across the political parties, and within them, particularly on plain packaging on cigarettes. I should like briefly to highlight another issue relating to tobacco. Work done by HMRC on avoidance considered what it called the tax gap. In 2009-10, the spirits duty gap was 3.4%, the beer duty gap was 14%, the gap in cigarette duty was 10% and in respect of hand-rolling tobacco the duty gap was estimated at 46% and had reached a high point of 50% in 2008-09. We have not looked at that in detail this morning. None the less, there could be greater focus on that area as we move forward.
In conclusion, we have had a good debate. We have covered smoking and issues to do with the duty stamp, about which, I hope, we will get more information. We have heard about enforcement issues and about how we have to take health policy into account. We have heard how important this matter is for the Revenue and for business. But the important message that must be taken away by the Government is that we have to find solutions to all the problems that have been identified. I reiterate the point that has been made: having a lead Minister or someone identified to work on the cross-cutting agenda and take this forward would assist the process. I hope that the Minister addresses that point as well as the other questions that have been raised this morning.
It is a pleasure for me, as it is for every hon. Member, Ms Dorries, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.
I am grateful to have—I hope—a relaxed amount of time to respond in detail to the many points that have been raised today, beginning with those presented so well at the outset by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who secured the debate, and then those of other hon. Members who have contributed. I welcome, as my opposite number did, a fairly consensual, constructive debate—if I blur some questions about tobacco packaging—in which hon. Members have sought answers rather than conflict.
I begin by reassuring hon. Members that the Government share the recognition that alcohol and tobacco fraud is serious. We are committed to bringing it down in the ways that I shall describe. Fraud of the kind that we have discussed this morning clearly affects not only public revenues and all the uses we put them to, but the livelihoods of honest businesses, as many hon. Members have said.
Questions have been asked about HMRC’s performance, for which I am one of two Ministers with departmental responsibility. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire asked whether we could do better in publishing numbers of seizures and other such data. Such statistics are available on demand. I should be happy to enter into conversation with him about what he is seeking. In brief, detailed statistics on both seizures and prosecutions are no longer published. There was little evidence that such data were put to any use by those outside HMRC. However, I am happy to assist my hon. Friend if he has particular questions.
My hon. Friend also asked whether it is true that fewer cigarettes are seized today than in 2001-02. On that point, I will open up my description of the work that we have been doing to combat fraud. I assure him that between 2002 and 2011, between 1.7 billion and 2 billion cigarettes were seized every year. In this year, 2011-12, to the end of February—the period for which figures are available—1.7 billion have already been seized.
On HMRC’s broader strategy, starting with alcohol fraud, hon. Friends and other hon. Members will be aware that, in 2005, HMRC first launched its strategy to tackle alcohol fraud, focusing on fraud in the spirits sector. I am pleased to report notable success in halving the size of the illicit spirits market since 2005-06. In 2009, HMRC launched a refreshed alcohol strategy, which aimed at expanding the scope and reach of its compliance work and tackling all forms of alcohol fraud. Since then, its enforcement activity targeting alcohol fraud has been stepped up by more than 50%, which, again, I am sure that hon. Members welcome. However, the battle is not yet won, as all hon. Members have highlighted. We have a way to go. Our commitment to tackling alcohol fraud in all its forms remains strong.
Hon. Members will be aware that, only last Friday, the Home Secretary announced a new alcohol strategy, for which I welcome the support shown here today. That initiative, which is cross-Government work at its finest—I shall come on to the concept of cross-Government work—sets out a wide range of Government action to tackle excessive alcohol consumption and to turn the tide against irresponsible drinking, which, to put figures on it, costs the UK taxpayer £21 billion a year and led to almost 1 million alcohol-related violent crimes and 1.2 million alcohol-related hospital admissions last year alone.
The strategy sets out how local areas will be given more power to tackle local problems, including the ability to restrict opening and closing hours, to control the density of licensed premises and to charge a late-night levy to support policing. I am confident that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) will support that kind of local approach—he nods to indicate that he does, which is excellent. Such a strategy clearly has the benefit of giving people the information and support that they need to make the right choices—in particular, through the health arena, for example, by asking the chief medical officer to review the alcohol guidelines for adults and by working with industry to take 1 billion units out of the market by 2015.
The strategy also reveals the Government’s determination to get to grips with one of the root causes of the problem by stemming the tide of cheap alcohol. We are doing so through methods such as the introduction of a minimum unit price, which will ensure for the first time that alcohol can only be sold at a sensible and appropriate price. Relevant to the debate, the strategy acknowledges the Government’s role in responding to emerging threats or issues, some health-related, such as the rising incidence of liver disease.
Does the Minister agree that the new proposal for minimum pricing will not only tackle the problems of binge drinking and preloading and the cost of policing and accidents and emergencies, but will support our community pubs and be good for the pub trade?
My hon. Friend makes precisely the point that I have made myself several times in recent days. Our proposed pricing, which we are consulting on, will not affect the price of a pint in a pub—I am proud to put that on the record today. For good measure, I note that last week’s Budget added only 3p to the price of a pint in a pub, several of which I enjoyed over the weekend after all the hard work. Perhaps that returns me to the rising incidence of liver disease on a note of bad taste.
Some of the other threats and issues for the Government to look at in their alcohol strategy might be crime-related, such as the increase in alcohol duty fraud, which I am about to go on to, and some might be both health and crime-related, such as the growing availability of counterfeit alcohol, which can be dangerous for consumers. The strategy is targeted explicitly at harmful drinkers and at places such as problem pubs and irresponsible shops, including those that sell cheap or counterfeit alcohol. Over the forthcoming months, the Government will run a number of public consultations on the strategy’s proposals.
Alcohol duties are an important source of Government revenue, raising approximately £9 billion a year in public funds. Alcohol duty fraud, by contrast, costs the country as much as £1.2 billion every year, which takes money away from public services such as schools and hospitals. As has been mentioned, community pubs are facing difficult circumstances in tough economic times, as we are all aware in our constituencies. The Government want to protect community pubs and the tens of thousands of UK jobs provided by the food and drinks sector. Such jobs ought not to be put under even greater threat by the growing availability of illicit alcohol. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of law-abiding businesses throughout the industry, from small brewers to corner shops, that sell alcohol legally are put at a grossly unfair competitive disadvantage as a direct result of alcohol fraud.
Latest estimates show that beer fraud in particular is an acute problem, with losses to the public purse estimated at as much as £800 million in 2009-10. That is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue.
My hon. Friend might want to ask about cider and wine, and I shall come to them in a moment. I would not dream of failing to answer that question for him, but I will work through a few more points before coming to that strand.
Ensuring that honest businesses can compete fairly is a Government priority. Another priority brings me on to joint working, as mentioned by several hon. Members, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire and the hon. Members for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson). I hear the calls for a single Minister in this respect, but let me first outline what we already do, which I hope will assist and which, I am sure hon. Members will agree, takes us fairly close to having accountability in the right places.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a seat on the board of the UK border force and works closely with it, not only in designing and developing fraud strategies but in operational activity, such as sharing intelligence, tackling the organised criminals who have been rightly attacked in today’s debate and conducting joint exercises. The director of border revenue is accountable to the Treasury through me, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, so hon. Members can see HMRC, the Home Office and the Treasury coming together. The border force was introduced recently, as announced by the Home Secretary; its responsibilities are explained on the website. I have regular meetings with the chief executive and others in that organisation, so that we work effectively together.
I hope that begins to reassure hon. Members that the right parts of Government are working together. Moving on to what we can do together, with the UK border force, HMRC already carries out substantial enforcement activity against all forms of alcohol fraud, successfully disrupting illicit supply chains and penalising those involved in the fraud. However, given the scale of the problem, enforcement alone is not enough to provide the level playing field that we all seek for our legitimate businesses, so I come to the Budget proposals for further ways to bust fraud and to explore all potential enforcement and legislative measures, which include restricting criminals’ access to stocks of illicit alcohol in the first place and tackling the illicit supply of alcohol to wholesalers and retailers. On the table are options including the introduction of fiscal marks for beer, supply chain legislation and a licensing scheme for wholesale alcohol dealers. I heard the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire on licensing more broadly and on the closure of premises, which is definitely one weapon in the arsenal.
I can clarify something for my hon. Friend at this point. HMRC can refer cases to other regulatory authorities for consideration of the revocation of a retailer’s licence to sell alcohol. I am aware of at least one case—from the Hereford and Worcester BBC news, no less, in 2011—in which a shop in Hereford lost its licence after smuggled cigarettes and alcohol were found during two raids.
As I mentioned to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, some premises are not licensed at all and therefore not subject to the loss of a licence. In many cases, such premises are not controlled by the people in them, so raiding them, fining them and impounding the goods may deter the individual but does not deter the criminal ring behind the business. What is required is some method of closing the premises for a period.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely valuable point. That will require joint discussion and consideration, but I hope that local authorities will seek to take a role in it under the powers that we wish to allow them through the alcohol strategy and other means.
Questions were asked about fiscal marking. The consultation document was launched yesterday and is available on the HMRC website. In response to the point about how we are conducting the consultation, I welcome the continued engagement of the alcohol industry. There is already a joint HMRC and industry group on fraud and other matters of concern, which I hope satisfies the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun.
Turning to wine and cider specifically, cider revenue losses are not believed to be as substantial as losses elsewhere. On wine, I am well aware of the points about equivalence not only of wine, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) referred, but of cider. Most wine comes from outside the UK, so fiscal marks are less practical than for beer. The consultation refers to how to mark bottles and cans that move through the UK.
First, I am intrigued that the Minister says that because wine is imported, it is less likely to be controlled. Surely, it is more likely to be smuggled because it is being imported. Secondly, why is there is no publishable estimate of wine fraud? Why does her Department have no estimate of the value and cost of wine fraud into this country?
I think that I had better come back to my hon. Friend in slightly more detail than I can in the time remaining now. I urge him and anyone else who is interested to take a close look at the consultation paper and the information contained within it, and to reply. I reiterate that I am keen to work with industries of all shapes and sizes, whatever their products, to understand the impact on them and the available data. One of the key efforts that I and my officials have made to date has been to work with several key industry groups, including the British Beer and Pub Association and independent brewers in advance of publishing the consultation document to understand the available data that can be acted on.
We are aware of course that any new measures might attract costs during implementation. The Government are sensitive to that and keen to be on the side of legitimate businesses in drawing out issues of cost and practicality and moving to a solution that safeguards them and jobs.
On tobacco fraud, it is a sad fact that although tobacco duty raises around £9 billion a year, duty fraud costs the UK more than £2 billion a year and undermines the efforts by the Department of Health to reduce smoking prevalence. Trade in illicit tobacco makes cheaper tobacco more readily available to the youngest and most vulnerable people in society, as the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) ably described. As with alcohol fraud, tobacco fraud takes trade away from honest businesses, so it is a matter of pride that HMRC has halved the illicit cigarette market in the UK since 2000.
I want briefly to introduce minimum indicative levels, which some hon. Members will be aware of. The hon. Member for North Antrim made a point about how to stop and search what is coming in. Since October last year, the Government have reduced the MILs for personal import of cigarettes and tobacco into this country, which reduces the opportunity for fraud and brings us into line with the rest of the European Union. MILs are a guide to personal use, so if someone has more than the level, having already been stopped, they will be more likely to be challenged further on their assertion that the goods are for personal use. There are, of course, points to be made, perhaps in another debate, about the free movement of goods and the fact that all goods imported for commercial purposes must have their excise duty paid.
I turn to what HMRC must do further to avoid complacency and, with the border force, to maintain a strategy to address the source, supply and demand for illicit tobacco in this county. The aim of the tobacco strategy is to intercept as much illicit product as possible before it crosses the border into the UK. The Government are providing more than £25 million in additional funding over the next four years in direct support of that strategy. That is part of the extra £917 million reinvestment in HMRC specifically to tackle organised crime, tax evasion and avoidance, all of which contribute to the delivery of an additional £7 billion per year in tax revenue by 2014-15. That is a sign of our intention, commitment and confidence on reducing fraud.
Details of the strategy and what our increased investment will provide that might be of interest include additional criminal investigators to target criminal gangs and to prosecute more offenders involved in tobacco fraud at all levels, additional intelligence and enforcement staff to tackle smuggling and an expansion of HMRC’s intelligence and enforcement work overseas, to target supply-chain activity in high-risk source and transit countries for illicit tobacco.
I heard the call by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West for better registration and to work with the World Health Organisation to trace the movement of tobacco products. He will know that the UK is a partner and a signatory to the WHO. The agreement is worldwide and in the form of the framework convention on tobacco control. During the next few weeks, a UK representative will attend a meeting in Geneva, where we hope to obtain agreements to that framework convention, which will provide a wide range of control measures. I shall be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about that later if he wishes.
The hon. Member for North Antrim referred to organised crime. I have joined him at a Select Committee evidence session covering some of the issues. In addition to duty losses that we have discussed—illicit production, counterfeiting and the abuse of cross-border shopping rules—the most significant threat that we face in relation to alcohol and tobacco fraud today comes from organised criminal gangs, which smuggle alcohol products into the UK in large commercial quantities, duty unpaid. HMRC is working closely with key partners to tackle organised crime in line with the Government’s strategic approach, which was set out in a paper published in July 2011.
That strategy outlines a comprehensive approach to reduce the risk to the UK and its interests from organised crime by reducing the threat from organised criminals, vulnerabilities to the UK and criminal opportunities. The key players in that work include HMRC, the UK Border Agency, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and, of course, the police. They are overseen in their work by the organised crime partnership board. I hope that that reassures hon. Members that we have a truly multi-agency response to organised crime. All four bodies are represented, for example, in the establishment of the new organised crime co-ordination centre. They are all closely involved in the design and build of the new National Crime Agency.
In conclusion, the Government’s response to alcohol and tobacco fraud is articulated in HMRC’s alcohol fraud and tobacco strategies and was reaffirmed in last week’s cross-Government alcohol strategy. It represents a coherent package of measures to hit back hard against these types of fraud from several directions. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire and other hon. Members who have contributed to today’s lively but well-informed and wide-ranging debate. I am sure that my colleagues in other Departments who have been mentioned today will be grateful for the comments and insight provided and will take the points made into account in the further development of their work in this area and with industry when appropriate.
16-to-18 Mathematics Education
Last week, the Secretary of State for Education told the Association of School and College Leaders:
“Lest anyone think we have reached a point where we should slacken the pace of reform—let me reassure them—we have to accelerate.”
I completely agree, and one critical area for reform must be sixth-form provision, especially in maths where we have our largest issues.
Britain’s poor performance in maths is well documented. According to the OECD programme for international student assessment—the PISA study—the UK is ranked in 28th place for maths, although it is in 25th place for reading and 16th place for science. Too often, maths in Britain is seen as something that is nice to have, rather than as the vital tool that it ought to be in our modern society.
Perhaps our weakest area concerns our take-up of mathematics between the ages of 16 and 18. A study by the Nuffield Foundation found that Britain had the smallest proportion—below 20%—of students studying maths between the ages of 16 and 18, when compared with places such as Russia, Japan and Korea where virtually all students in that age group study maths, Canada where the figure is 80%, or France where it is almost 90%. Britain is a massive outlier in terms of maths education for that age group, and that runs contrary to our economic interests and to the interests of individual students who are taking A-levels or a vocational equivalent. A study by Professor Alison Wolf showed that maths A-level has the highest earnings premium of any subject, adding up to 10% extra to the earnings of a maths graduate.
I am following closely my hon. Friend’s important argument. As well as the earnings premiums for A-levels, Professor Wolf also identified the huge premiums obtained by maths and English GCSE. Will my hon. Friend go on to talk about the importance of GCSE maths retakes, as well as the A-level?
I will come to that point. It is important to give those who do not achieve maths at GCSE the option to retake that course in a different way between the ages of 16 and 18, so that they obtain a good qualification that will be useful for the rest of their lives. The 16-to-18 age group is particularly important, yet it is where this country has a gap. Those are the people who will go on to study maths, physics, information technology and engineering at university, yet we all know from speaking to businesses in our constituencies about the great skills gap in that area.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend; she makes an important point. Not only does this issue affect those young people who are effectively devoid of an appropriate education, but it is a serious problem for our competitiveness and business. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that schools and colleges engage more with businesses to understand that gap?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is a huge shame when businesses have to look overseas to recruit quantitative staff, engineers or people to carry out numerical analysis, when this country has so many students who could fulfil those roles if they received appropriate training and qualifications.
Even for those who do not go on to study maths and science at university, a good background in maths is vital. The next generation of primary school teachers, journalists and politicians must ensure that they know the basics of that subject, because if their maths is not up to scratch, we will have a damaged ecosystem. The next generation of children will not get a proper maths education at school, and that will lead to poor quality numerical analysis in our press and media and poor quality statistics in public life.
I am a former A-level maths student and my hon. Friend has my full support. I am determined to see more young people start up their own businesses, and strong mental arithmetic and mathematical skills are an essential component of that. I hope that my hon. Friend will add new businesses to her list.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Our massive problem with maths causes a lack of social mobility and problems with university access. Students who attend comprehensive schools are half as likely to study maths as their private school counterparts and one third as likely to study further maths, but they are equally likely to study history or English. The problems of social mobility in mathematics and science do not exist in arts subjects, and the Government should consider that when looking at how to improve social mobility and access to university. Many students do not have the choice to study further maths, because only 50% of comprehensive schools offer that option. Given that further maths is needed to study maths or physics at top universities, many people are therefore put out of contention for the opportunities that we would wish them to have.
I am pleased that the Government are taking action. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor recognised the existing problems with maths education for 16 to 18-year-olds and announced that new free maths schools would be set up across the country. I am pleased to be backing one of those schools, the proposed Sir Isaac Newton school in Norfolk, which will take those students who are most talented in maths and science and educate them not only in A-level maths and further maths, but beyond that to pre-U level. Academics will support that school and ensure that students learn the cutting-edge mathematic and scientific techniques that will help them get to the top universities.
My county of Norfolk has a particular problem with maths. Nationwide, 33% of students who obtain a grade of A* to B at GCSE maths go on to study the subject at A-level. In Norfolk, that figure is 25%—a massive gap. We want to improve that situation and get more people studying A-level maths.
The development of the new maths schools is positive, and I applaud the Government for that innovation, which has already been seen in many other countries. However, we need further reform in two key areas. First, we must overhaul the sixth-form funding regime, and secondly—one of my hon. Friends alluded to this—we need more varied maths qualifications post-16.
Unbelievably, for post-16-year-olds, the Young People’s Learning Agency currently awards more money per capita for students studying psychology and media studies than to those studying mathematics. It also awards more money to science subjects—there is a 12% funding premium for all those subjects on top of the amount that is given to the school for maths. The justification for that 12% funding premium is that those other subjects need additional equipment. However, as anyone who has been involved with schools will know, the greatest cost is in teaching resources, rather than equipment.
At the moment, our funding formula is based purely on the amount of equipment needed, rather than the cost of recruiting teachers. Maths is the most difficult subject for which to recruit teachers; there are more vacancies for high-school maths teachers than for any other subject, and schools often end up paying a premium. One school in my constituency advertised for a newly qualified maths teacher. It offered £44,000, but received just one application.
Another school has flown in maths teachers from Canada to fill the shortfall in available teachers. Fewer than half of secondary maths teachers in this country hold a maths degree. We have a massive problem with the recruitment of maths teachers, yet the funding formula means that maths is disadvantaged when compared with science subjects and courses such as media studies, psychology and film studies. Furthermore, because the funding system is weighted towards deprived students, there is an even greater funding differential for deprived students doing media studies, as opposed to deprived students doing maths.
We have a completely topsy-turvy system in which the underlying financial incentives are asking schools to get lower-income students to do subjects such as psychology and media studies, rather than subjects such as maths, which has the highest earnings premiums and is known to result in greater lifetime earnings. We need to turn that system upside down. We need a subject premium based on the value of mathematics. I have illustrated why mathematics is a particular case and why reform is needed urgently. We are seriously suffering in terms of international competitiveness because we are not delivering enough mathematics capability.
I suggest that through the YPLA mechanism that I mentioned, mathematics should be given a 30% uplift. That would deal with some of the teacher recruitment issues. I would like further mathematics to receive a 50% premium, so that we can increase the number of state schools that offer further maths from the currently very low 50% and so that all sixth forms eventually offer that important option. That will ensure that every child in this country has the chance to go on to study maths or physics at a top university or, indeed, subjects such as computer science—we also need more people in those areas. What I have suggested would give schools a strong incentive to offer those subjects, and I do not think that it would cost anything additional from the education budget.
At the moment, under the YPLA funding regime, we have a huge range of weightings. Some subjects are rated up to 1.7. Those are not A-level subjects but some of the vocational subjects. We are talking about rebalancing the incentives in the system, so that those subjects that will deliver most for our economy and for the students and in which teacher recruitment is hardest get a premium. At the moment, we have the opposite situation.
I would also like to see a greater number of maths options post-16. Current participation in A-level maths and further maths is heavily weighted towards those gaining an A* at GCSE: 73% of students who get an A* in maths take an A-level in it, but only 6% of those who get a B do so. The number is much lower than for other subjects. One quarter of those who get a B in English and one fifth of those who get a B in history go on to do those subjects at A-level. The reason is that we have a one-size-fits-all maths and further maths course, rather than having different options for young people who will go on to study different subjects.
My hon. Friend is making excellent points, but I want to probe the question of further education colleges. They, too, need to have appropriate provision in maths, because a large proportion—almost 50%—of all post-16s go to FE colleges, and we do not want them to miss out, either.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. To clarify, the funding to which I am referring applies to both FE colleges and sixth forms. It is a single funding pot that applies to the whole lot. Indeed, recently the Government levelled the playing field between FE and sixth forms. The plans that I am talking about would apply to both FE colleges and sixth forms.
For 16-to-18 maths, we need a range of tiers in which some options are harder than others. The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that Sir John Holman is drawing up plans for what those options would look like. When we are drawing up the options, we need to consider the failings of previous attempts to create different maths options for those aged 16 to 18. I am referring specifically to the use of maths A-level. It purported to provide real-world experience, but leading Fields medallist and Cambridge maths professor Tim Gowers said:
“it is blindingly obvious from the sample papers that it is not testing different skills…and is deeply boring, and not even all that relevant to the people who are actually taking the exam”.
The problem with use of maths was that, first, it was laid out as equivalent to A-level maths, which it simply was not. Secondly, it attempted to be relevant, but not in a way that could be applied to the real world.
What is needed is a decent set of qualifications, all of which are rigorous. They need to be on a scale, so that people know exactly where they fit in the qualifications framework. I suggest that that would involve, first, an option whereby students learn the basics of maths. Secondly, they learn the intermediate techniques that support arts and social science subjects. Finally, they get the advanced maths that can lead right through to a technical career.
One of the important elements is that further maths needs to be more advanced than A-level maths. Under the previous Government, there was an effort to make those two subjects equivalent on the ground that all A-levels had to be equal. That is clearly nonsense. We clearly need an option for more advanced students to study, so that those going on to do sciences and social sciences have a mainstream A-level option. Let me suggest an outline for the framework. A-level maths should be a strong preparation for university. We should have a slimline version for those who are majoring in social sciences. Maths should be a core part of the apprenticeship programme. I have recently met apprentices in my constituency who have told me how useful they find studying top-up maths to be in completing their courses and gaining skills on the job. There should also be a new course that provides a fresh approach to the basics for those who have failed to get a GCSE grade C in maths.
All that needs to happen fast; there is a case for dealing with it urgently. We need a sixth-form funding formula that puts a subject premium on maths, rather than the subject discount that we have at present, which has caused a very low take-up of A-level maths. We also need to ensure that there is a full offer for 16 to 18-year-olds. That would have a dramatic effect on take-up, and I urge the Government to act on it as soon as possible.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on raising this subject, which is of great importance to us. She is right to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. Indeed, she has form on that in this and other areas of education. I congratulate her on a very well argued and cogent case.
Secondly, I apologise because I am not the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who is the Minister responsible for schools. That is not something that I find myself doing often, but my hon. Friend had to visit a school elsewhere in the country today; otherwise he would be responding to the debate.
Thirdly, I should declare an interest, as my son has just passed his A-level in mathematics rather well, outpacing my own meagre grade B O-level from all those years ago when we had O-levels.
All of us would agree that mastery of mathematics empowers people. In a world that requires higher-level mathematical skills than ever before, we all want young people to have the chance to develop the mathematical fluency and confidence that they need for study, for work and for their personal lives. That fluency can be achieved only by using mathematics regularly over a sustained period—getting used to it. The reality is that far too many pupils do not achieve the required standard in maths by the time that they leave school, as my hon. Friend pointed out.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk that there is a pressing need to improve social mobility and that an education system that demands high quality and rigour will help us to achieve that. We know that, too often, pupils from low-income backgrounds are steered away from rigorous academic subjects, such as mathematics, in a way that hinders their later success in higher education and employment. England, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, has an exceptionally low rate of participation in mathematics beyond the age of 16, as she said. Fewer than 20% of pupils go on to study mathematics in any form. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Nuffield Foundation has shown that to be the lowest level of participation of any of the 24 developed countries included in its survey. Worse still, only 15% of pupils go on to study mathematics at an advanced level. In addition, about half of young people start post 16-education having failed to achieve a good grade in mathematics.
As my hon. Friend made clear, there is a great deal of evidence that school leavers do not have the mathematical skills that they need to function properly in the workplace and for further study. Lack of good numeracy competence is a frequent complaint from employers; I have heard it in my constituency time and again. There is emerging evidence from universities that students studying non-mathematical subjects, including the sciences and social sciences, often lack the basic numeracy and statistical skills needed to succeed in their undergraduate courses. Skills that could have been developed during sixth-form studies have not been. In some cases, universities have found it necessary to provide additional maths courses to address that knowledge gap and to bring students up to speed. That cannot be right. We must have a system in which all our school leavers have the necessary skills before they start university courses or move into employment.
The low rate of participation in maths is all the more worrying given what we know about the impact of maths achievement on a young person’s life chances. The Centre for Economic Performance found that those who took mathematics to A-level ended up earning 10% more on average than those with similar ability and similar backgrounds who did not.
In its “Mathematical Needs” report, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education noted:
“Not only are university courses in many disciplines increasingly quantitative in content, but there is also a steady shift in the employment market away from manual and low skills jobs and toward those requiring higher levels of management expertise and problem solving-skills, many of which are mathematical in nature.”
That is why the Secretary of State last year set out his ambition that, within 10 years, the vast majority of young people should be studying maths from 16 to 19, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging some of the progress the Department is making.
Of course, we must focus on ensuring all young people have a basic level of knowledge and understanding in mathematics. However, even when students gain a good grade—A* to C—at GCSE, there is no guarantee that they have the numeracy skills needed in the workplace and particularly ones that are portable from one workplace to the next. The CBI report “Working on the Three R’s: Employers’ Priorities for Functional Skills in Maths and English” showed that 32% of employers would like to see school leavers’ ability to do mental arithmetic improve.
For many entering further education, apprenticeships or employment in craft and technical areas, the break in their maths education from 16 to 18 is very damaging. The same is true for nurses and primary school teachers, who must go on to use and develop mathematics. It is essential that the mathematical skills developed to age 16 continue to be practised throughout sixth-form study to maintain fluency.
In addition, 25% to 30% of students reach university without the maths skills our universities need—I apologise if my speech seems overly littered with statistics, but it is about maths, so I suppose I can get away with it. Many students go to university to study a subject in which studying maths at a level above GCSE would be advantageous. That includes those who study economics and other social sciences, as well as sciences such as biology and health sciences. However, even students taking fine art may benefit from further mathematical knowledge in their future employment. It is important that such students not only maintain fluency in pure mathematical skills such as algebra, but complement those skills by studying statistics, modelling and the application of mathematics to complex systems.
It is encouraging that the number of pupils choosing to study A-level mathematics and further mathematics is increasing. In 2011, A-level maths had more than 75,000 entries, compared with just under 50,000 in 2006. The numbers entering further mathematics increased from about 6,500 to nearly 11,500 over the same period. However, many more pupils do not continue with their study of mathematics between 16 and 19. Getting more young people to study maths must be our first priority. That means ensuring that young people who have not achieved a grade C in GCSE maths are supported to achieve a good maths qualification post-16. We have been consulting on new study programmes for 16-to-19 year olds, which will include mathematics courses for all such students.
Our second priority is to ensure that all young people can take challenging, rigorous maths qualifications that give them the skills to progress. We are working with mathematics subject experts and universities to make that a reality, because it is clear that their support and engagement are essential if the take-up of advanced mathematics is to increase.
The ACME is calling for evidence from those with an interest in mathematics so that it can advise on appropriate post-16 pathways for pupils who have achieved grade A* to C at GCSE, but who do not currently continue to study mathematics. The ACME is expected to report its findings and propose new pathways at its conference in July. We await its report with interest, and I am sure my hon. Friend will want to see its findings, too.
If all young people are to study mathematics to 18, it is essential that they benefit from excellent mathematics teaching. My hon. Friend is right about the difficulties in recruiting mathematics teachers in some areas. I am glad to say, however, that we are seeing increased recruitment of mathematics trainees. Recruitment targets were met for the first time in 2010-11 and 2011-12, while the quality of trainees, as measured by degree class, increased in both those years.
We know we need to do a lot more. That is why we have launched bursaries of up to £20,000 to attract the best graduates to train as mathematics teachers. By the end of this Parliament, we will at least double the size of Teach First, which has an excellent record in attracting outstanding mathematics graduates. We are also improving the quality of teaching through support for professional development.
We have expanded the further mathematics support programme delivered by Mathematics in Education and Industry. The programme will continue to provide universal support to schools and colleges that want to provide further mathematics. It will focus on those centres that are not currently offering that A-level option, ensuring that more students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the opportunity to study it. I think my hon. Friend will very much appreciate that.
Expanding the programme will allow it to do more to inspire key stage 4 pupils to study further mathematics at A-level, and it will help to ensure that they are better prepared to do so. The programme will focus on equipping teachers with the skills needed to stretch and enrich their pupils’ mathematical education during key stage 4. It will provide more than 2,000 teacher days of development opportunities, enabling it to reach more teachers than previously.
That aspect of the programme will put in place a coherent route for mathematics teachers to progress from teaching GCSE maths, to teaching A-level maths and then to teaching further maths. It will also enable teachers to prepare students for the sixth term examination paper or advanced extension award examinations, which will improve their prospects of getting on to the most competitive maths and science courses at top universities.
We are investing £6 million over three years to fund the activities of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics. The centre will co-ordinate and quality-assure the training of mathematics teachers across all phases of education, including those delivering new courses developed to achieve the aim of mathematics for all to age 18.
My hon. Friend mentioned free schools. As she said, the Chancellor announced funding in the autumn statement for specialist maths free schools for 16 to 18 year olds, which is a particularly exciting development. She has been generous in her support of the free schools programme, and I am encouraged to hear about her proposals for a free school in Norfolk with a strong focus on science and mathematics education.
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a need to ensure that pupils, parents and schools are aware of the demand for people with high-level mathematical skills and that our funding systems do not encourage schools and pupils to go for the easier options. Currently, schools and colleges receive the same basic level of funding for all students who pass an A-level, regardless of the grade they achieve or the subject taken. As my hon. Friend noted, however, funding for post-16 courses is subject to programme weighting, which is intended to reflect the relative cost of teaching particular subjects. Subjects that are wholly classroom-based, such as mathematics, receive a lower weighting than others, such as science subjects, which have a greater lab-based element, and she gave other examples.
I note with interest my hon. Friend’s proposal that we should establish a subject premium for mathematics and further mathematics. We consulted recently on changes to 16-to-19 funding, and we are currently considering the responses to the consultation. My hon. Friend may hear more about that later.
My hon. Friend will recognise that the funding system is not always the best means of incentivising take-up of one subject above another. We are working with mathematics subject experts to consider the measures that will be necessary to realise our ambition that all young people should continue to study mathematics up to 18.
The A-level system must meet the needs of universities and employers. For far too long, the design of A-levels has been in the hands of officials and bureaucrats, with their range of committees and advisory panels. That has led to a focus on exam structure, at the expense of content and need, and at the expense of young people enjoying and being inspired by maths and wanting to carry it forward. Addressing that issue is part or the challenge.
It is clear that existing A-level maths courses may not develop the full range of mathematical skills required to meet the needs of all students and the wide range of further study and career options they will pursue. As we set out in the White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”, we are working with Ofqual, the awarding organisations and higher education institutions to ensure that universities and learning bodies can be fully involved in the development of A-levels.
The evidence from around the world clearly shows that high-performing nations ensure that children receive a first-class maths education. Head teachers, parents and pupils need to hear a clear demand for mathematics and mathematical qualifications from universities and employers, and we need to support expert mathematicians in their endeavour to ensure that the right range of demanding and rigorous qualifications is available to meet the needs of pupils and the demands of universities and employers.
My hon. Friend has long been one of the most vocal champions of excellence in mathematics education, and my ministerial colleagues are looking forward to working with her in the months ahead. Let me once again express my gratitude to her for raising this important subject with her customary energy and enthusiasm.
Israel and the Peace Process
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
May I say what an unexpected pleasure it is, Mr Walker, to be serving under your chairmanship for the first time today and how delighted I am to have secured this important debate? It is pleasing to see such a good attendance today, especially as the House is about to rise for the Easter recess. I will try to be brief, as many Members wish to speak.
The best political debates are often driven by simple arguments. The Member whose debate it is rises and cuts through a confusing mass of factors and statistics, and then sits down. Everyone then wonders why they have not considered such an obvious and compelling solution before. I am afraid that we will not have one of those debates today.
A false sense of clarity and simplicity risks holding back the international community from making the most positive contribution that it can to the middle east. Over the next 90 minutes, I hope that we can draw out some of the hidden complexity of a situation that is all too often portrayed in black and white terms over here. Many Members will want to set out their own experiences of visiting the region and give their own perspective on the prospects for peace. That was one of the principal reasons that drove me and my hon. Friends to call for this debate today.
First, it is important to set Israel’s place in the middle east, and thus the importance of the peace process, in its proper context. We often hear two polar positions, often simultaneously, and they are both wrong. Both are fuelled by a two-dimensional view of the region that gets filtered through the media here.
On the one hand, we hear that the lack of lasting peace in Israel is inextricably linked to everything else in the middle east and has been the central catalyst of all the unrest in the region for decades. That view has led to the belief that if only the Israelis and Palestinians could agree, all other troubles in the region would melt away. That view was always hard to justify in a region that saw an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq and where regional minorities such as the Kurds have been consistently marginalised and oppressed. The Arab spring surely, finally, explodes the myth of the ubiquity and centrality of Israel in middle east affairs.
On the other hand, there is the view that Israel is an impregnable island that is prosperous, supported by the west and secure in its own borders. It is the plucky hard man to its sympathisers and the oppressor state to its detractors.
However, after a visit to the region, we can appreciate that this is a tiny nation that is bordered on all sides by states that are at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to its very existence. The existential threat to Israel consists not only of the rockets that are fired daily across its southern borders, but of the nuclear ambitions of Iran. It is not a country that is secure within its own borders. Certainly, if that level of threat were posed to the UK, we would not ignore it.
Israel has reached out to its neighbours where it could. Anxiety over the events of the Arab spring led not to a reaction against the welcome prospect of greater democracy across the middle east, but to an uneasiness that the fragile accommodation with its neighbours could be lost in the chaos and uncertainty of those months. It is a country that is focused on reaching out now. In 2011, Israel exported goods worth some $6 billion to its neighbours in the middle east and north Africa. It joined in a campaign with the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian Government to have the Dead sea declared as one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Such examples show that, at its best, it can work constructively with its neighbours.
Conversely, although Israel is acutely aware of its deep connection to the countries that surround it, it is not prepared to subcontract its basic need for security to anyone. Above all, its innate quest for security has gone hand in hand—from its inception to the present day—with a deep commitment to the progressive values that we hold dear in this country, especially on the Opposition Benches. It is a country where women enjoy equality; the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community flourishes; there is a free press; the powerless are protected from the powerful by an independent judiciary; trade unions are well-organised and strong; educational excellence and scientific innovation are pursued; religious minorities are free to practise their creeds; a welfare state supports the poor and marginalised; and there is a fully functioning, vibrant, participatory democracy.
It would be absurd to suggest that Israel is loved across the middle east. Yet as we look at the hope and uncertainty generated by the Arab spring, the freedoms enjoyed by Israelis are inescapable to anyone in the region with access to the internet and social media. When millions across the middle east are desperate for leaders they can hold to account, Israel’s robust media and the tough stance it regularly takes to senior figures is a genuine beacon for those values.
Alongside the threat of rocket attacks still experienced by Israeli citizens, there is, of course, a real sense of injustice among many Palestinians in Gaza and the west bank. There is grinding economic hardship and rampant unemployment across huge swathes of the population. The genuine fear that the advancing settlements could prove permanent, the claims to return and concerns about integration for Israeli Arabs fuel the frustration at the lack of progress in the peace process. The Palestinians’ suffering and sense of injustice are prolonged with every passing month in which their dream of statehood is not realised.
In my hon. Friend’s discussion about the injustices towards the Palestinians, what does he say to the accusation against Israel of the imprisonment of Palestinian elected parliamentarians and the continued denial of their right to travel to the west bank to take part in the parliamentary democracy of Palestine?
My hon. Friend raises a valid point. Israel has taken measures to protect its security in several areas, which has caused deep discomfort to many people in Israel and here. What I am trying to set out in this speech is the context in which some of these decisions are taken.
Viewing from a distance often gives the impression that the principal blockage to lasting justice for both Palestinians and Israelis has been the intransigence of a dominant state, secure in its borders and willing to let every opportunity for peace limp by. If we are to promote peace effectively rather than act as a drag on it, we need to expose that analysis as flawed on every count.
Does my hon. Friend wish me to pronounce them? If only it were that simple. Of course, his question underlines the primacy of negotiations, which I will expand on later in my speech. If colleagues do not mind, I will rattle through the rest of my speech, so that I give other people the chance to contribute.
We must not underplay or be seen to underplay the toll on Israel from the terror and threats from its neighbours, which have been endured by Israelis for decades and up to the present day. Equally, we should not overlook the fact that weighing on the whole of Israel and its politics is the threat that Iran, whose leader vowed to wipe Israel off the map, could acquire the means to do just that.
The fact that Iran continues to channel funding and arms to Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, gives a wider context to Israel’s determination to maintain its security, if one were needed beyond the sustained campaign of terror that has claimed so many Israeli lives over the years. And let us never hold back from pointing out that the lives lost to Hamas are also counted among Palestinian families in Gaza, where the terrorists maintain their yoke of oppression by murdering political rivals and cruelly using civilians as human shields.
Although times remain far too hard, we should continue to trumpet the economic progress being made on the west bank and recognise the contributions that have been made not only by progressives in Israel but by the Quartet, led by Tony Blair. Most of all, we need to give full consideration and exposure to the complexities of the peace process, which are so rarely reflected in reporting over here.
A peace process capable of lasting success will be achieved only if the realities on both sides are understood and addressed. During the past few years, there has been pessimism on all sides about the peace process, particularly from the Palestinian leadership about the progress of negotiations. However, the international pressure needed for both the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table must be applied to both sides alike. That includes pressing the Palestinians to put to one side past failures at the negotiating table, so that they can seek to make some headway now. For all the justified international condemnation of continued settlement building, the fact remains that there is only one side at the table at present, and that is Israel.
Fundamentally, everything we do must underline the message that there is no alternative to returning to talks, in order to make the difficult compromises that are necessary to achieve peace. So I ask the Minister to say in his response to the debate what his Government are doing to persuade both Israelis and Palestinians that peace talks are the only thing that will bring them dignity, prosperity and their own state, which they deserve.
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will not give way, as I want to get through my speech and allow other people to make a contribution.
We should apply pressure with hope gained from the knowledge that this is not year zero. In fact, at key points in the past it has been Israel that has been prepared to offer up a great amount for peace, only to find that the Palestinian leadership were unwilling or unable to reciprocate. The current Palestinian Authority leadership are a moderate Administration who have achieved much in terms of state-building and reform, but they often say that 20 years of negotiations have brought them nothing. However, that view is fundamentally undermined by the facts, and it also risks undermining what little faith remains in the prospects for a peace process.
There have been huge disappointments for both peoples, and the rapid progress envisaged in the 1993 Oslo accords has certainly not been realised. However, we must also be clear that every time that substantive negotiations have taken place, progress has been made and substantial Israeli offers have been given.
Let us not forget what Oslo achieved and what remains from that agreement today. Oslo was the beginning of a working relationship between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, a relationship that has now been successfully restored despite the violence of the second intifada. Oslo was also the beginning of Palestinian self-governance over the vast majority of the Palestinian population living in the west bank and Gaza strip. And at Camp David, although the final status agreement that had been hoped for was not realised, the offers given and the understandings that were later expressed in the Clinton parameters demonstrated a seriousness about achieving peace.
The details of Israel’s offer to the Palestinians at Camp David were never officially released and there are differing accounts of what happened. According to numerous reports, however, the proposal to the Palestinians by Ehud Barak, the then Israeli Prime Minister, included an Israeli withdrawal from more than 90% of the west bank and 100% of the Gaza strip. However, after the second intifada and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, no serious Israeli politician can assert that offering land for peace will, on its own, bring peace.
To get back to the table, Israeli Governments have understandably had to take additional robust and sometimes very controversial measures to protect their people from terrorism. There is currently a dangerous pause in the negotiations and pressure is building up to explore alternatives, such as the one-state solution. Let us be clear—that solution would mean both the end of the only Jewish state and the end of Palestinian dreams for their own sovereign state.
In that light, I want to express my support for the universal jurisdiction reforms that have now been completed; they were begun by the previous Labour Government and are still backed by Labour in opposition. Those reforms are vital to ensure that bogus arrest warrants are not issued against visiting Israelis, so that the UK can remain involved in efforts to break the impasse and can continue strengthening bilateral relations.
There are real barriers to a new peace process. Ultimately, there will have to be huge and difficult compromises on both sides. That will require trust, which is thin on the ground at present.
It is wrong, unhelpful and should not happen, but it is the responsibility of all sides. Ultimately, the Palestinian leadership are refusing to come to the table to make sure that that is not a fundamental barrier to the resumption of talks, which absolutely has to happen.
If the international community is to help engender the trust that is needed, it must approach both sides equally. That means eschewing the flawed caricature of, on the one side, plucky underdogs desperate for peace but systematically robbed in each negotiation and denied, on the other side, by an intransigent state that is happy to sit tight. The true picture is much more complicated than that and if Britain remains determined to recognise that basic fact, it can be a real force for good in the difficult months ahead.
As we encourage the movements for democracy in the middle east, we should celebrate Israel as a progressive beacon in the region. For all the optimism generated by the Arab spring, it remains beyond our wildest hopes that every country affected will emerge with the kind of liberal constitution that enshrines the progressive values that Israel has upheld since its inception.
However, Labour Friends of Israel is avowedly pro-Palestinian. It is because we want a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure and progressive Israel that we are so determined to remove the blinkers that risk holding back the international push for peace in the middle east. Let us use the ties of history, trade and diplomacy, and the reserves of good will where they continue to exist, to play our full part in seeking a process that will lead to a sustainable two-state solution. For the good of the people of both Israel and Palestine, we cannot afford to let pessimism rule the day.
This is the first time that I have spoken under your chairmanship in one of these debates, Mr Walker. I thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for securing the debate. I must apologise; I cannot stay for the full debate because of other appointments.
This debate is an important step in rebalancing some of the discussions that Members have had in the House. The debate outside the House is fraught with difficulty and nuances, and it is important that both sides here get a fair hearing. Peace and the two-state solution can be achieved only by direct peace talks. I doubt whether any hon. Member would argue for a single-state solution—Palestinian or Jewish. One of the fundamental barriers to such talks is that Hamas, as part of the coalition that forms the Palestinian Authority, refuses to accept the Quartet principles, which are that the state of Israel be recognised, previous diplomatic agreements be abided by and parties renounce violence. Until Hamas accepts those principles, there can be no lasting peace in the region. There cannot be negotiation when one side at the table seeks to wipe the other off the map.
Before Sinn Fein was admitted to the talks in Northern Ireland, it had to sign up to the Mitchell principles, which were about decommissioning commitments, peaceful activities and a political way forward, so it was clear that it could not come to the table while still avowing terrorism.
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. It is difficult to negotiate when one side simply wants to wipe the other off the face of the earth. Both sides will have to make difficult compromises. We have seen that in this country. In any conflict resolution, both sides have to make compromises, but so far the emphasis seems to be on asking Israel to make all the concessions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly called for an immediate return to direct peace talks and has made a series of significant compromises and unprecedented gestures to the Palestinian Authority to encourage them to return to the table, but to no avail?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Prime Minister Netanyahu is often demonised. I have no doubt that he can be a forceful and difficult character, but would people not want their Prime Minister to be forceful and to stand up for their security when their country was in an almost permanent state of war and they were fielding suicide bombers and missiles fired into their territory?
The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness made the good point that we have to remember that Israel is a beacon of democracy in a part of the world where democracy is in short supply. Religious minorities of whatever shape or flavour have freedoms. Minorities have freedoms, to pursue their religion or their sexuality, and even to stand for Parliament. It does not really matter what shape, colour or religion someone is; they have the ability to follow their beliefs, and that is not seen elsewhere.
It is important to acknowledge that no democracy is flawless. Democracies always find unilateral concessions more difficult because public opinion must be taken into account; a dictatorship does not have to deal with a free press, a democracy or opinion polls. It is important to remember that Israel has a record of making concessions on land swaps for peace. I repeat: if peace and a two-state solution are to happen, concessions on both sides will be essential.
An independent Palestine can happen only through direct negotiations, with mutual respect, agreed borders and an agreement to end the conflict. The right hon. Member for Belfast North made a good point: negotiations cannot be entered into without the renunciation of violence in some shape or form. A deal is on the table, but the UK Government must ensure that both sides are asked to return to it without conditions and without one side being asked to concede all its leverage in advance. It takes two sides to negotiate, and Her Majesty’s Government must ensure that both sides return to the table and that both sides are treated equally.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing this debate. Given the number of hon. Members who want to speak, there will inevitably be a shortage of time, so although we might disagree on some things today, perhaps we can all agree that it might be appropriate to approach the Backbench Business Committee to request a full debate in the main Chamber on Israel and Palestine.
I had a sneak preview of what my hon. Friend was going to say, because it appeared on epolitix.com earlier today. He called for people to avoid black and white analyses and to recognise the hidden complexities of this part of the world. I agree with him about that. He said:
“But most importantly, the international pressure that is needed for both the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table needs to be applied to both sides alike.”
I struggled to understand, or to hear from him, exactly what pressure he felt should be applied to Israel, but perhaps he can clarify that in due course.
My hon. Friend went on to say that this is not year zero and that
“at key points in the past, it has been Israel that has been prepared to offer up a great amount for peace and has found the Palestinian leadership unwilling or unable to reciprocate.”
That is not my understanding, and an awful lot of people around the world would dispute it. He mentioned Camp David, but not Taba, which came afterwards, when the Palestinians did not walk away. What ended those negotiations was the change of Government in Israel. Surprisingly, he did not mention the Arab peace initiative either. It is the 10th anniversary of that initiative, which offered full recognition of Israel and full peace in return for full withdrawal and a just and agreed solution to the refugee problem on the basis of UN resolution 194. This week, Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper, described that as Israel’s worst missed opportunity, and that is the view of many around the world.
Does my hon. Friend support the Palestine Solidarity Campaign? If so, can he tell us why there is no mention of a two-state solution in the campaign’s objectives and why its logo shows a land without the state of Israel?
I like my hon. Friend a great deal, but that is nonsense. It would be a bit like my standing up and asking whether he would condemn the Israeli tourist board, which was done over by the Advertising Standards Authority only last week because it published a map of what it described as northern Israel, but which included part of the west bank. We should have a better level of debate than that.
More recently, Israel has called for talks without preconditions. Let us remember what provoked the current round of stalled talks: the Palestinians applied for membership of the United Nations, which Israel claims for itself not as something negotiable but as a matter of right. If anybody questions Israel’s right to membership of the United Nations, they are regarded as delegitimising Israel, which is one stage short of anti-Semitism. I fully accept that Israel should be a member of the United Nations and should be recognised within its internationally recognised borders, which are not difficult; they are the pre-1967 borders laid down in numerous UN resolutions. However, if Palestine applies to the United Nations, that is seen as provocative. It is sometimes called a unilateral act. I cannot think of much that is more multilateral than going to the United Nations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness says that there are complexities, but
“viewing from a distance often gives the impression that the principal blockage to lasting justice for both Palestinians and Israelis has been the intransigence of a dominant state, secure in its borders and willing to let every opportunity for peace limp by.”
He is right that it is important that we do not view the issue from a distance, but that we all go to see what is happening on the ground. I do not mean just visiting offices in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or even Ramallah; I mean going to Sderot and talking to people there about how they live in fear of rockets. It is important to do so, and we do. It is also important to go to Gaza, where 38% of people live in poverty, 85% of schools must run on double shifts and 80 million litres of sewage are dumped into the sea every single day.
It is important to go to the west bank, and not simply to say that settlements are bad without working out the results or to talk to people like me about it. We should talk to Israelis themselves: people in Peace Now who talk about how continuing to build settlements is torpedoing the two-state solution, as its website says. It is important to look at Jerusalem. People talk about the settlement freeze offered and maintained by Netanyahu a few years ago. It is important to understand that it was not a settlement freeze; it was a freeze of some settlements, and it did not apply to Jerusalem.
If hon. Members do not believe me, they should talk to Israeli organisations such as Ir Amim, which says:
“Since the Six-Day War and the change in the boundaries of Jerusalem, Israel’s Governments have tried to maintain the Jewish demographic advantage in Jerusalem. They have done this by controlling the physical space of the east part of the city and increasing attempts to ‘Judaize’ East Jerusalem.”
Ir Amim says that the continuation of settlement building and the restriction of residency rights in East Jerusalem is destroying the two-state solution.
Hon. Members should go to see what is happening in the Jordan valley and Area C. They should not take my word for it; they should talk to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or go there with the Israeli organisation B’Tselem and see what it says about the dispossession of Palestinians, including the Bedouin, in Area C.
Perhaps we should ask a reputable body to investigate, such as the United Nations. It is doing so. It has declared an investigation of settlement building in the west bank, to see what should be made of it. As a result, Israel has cut off contact with the United Nations Human Rights Council and threatened sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. About the initiative to investigate settlements, this was said not by some strange marginal figure but by Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman:
“We are dealing with al-Qaeda terror on the one hand and diplomatic terror by Abu Mazen on the other”.
So now referring something to the UN Human Rights Council is regarded as diplomatic terror.
Freezing settlements is not about imposing unreasonable preconditions. Without it, I do not see how the peace process can go forward. A Palestinian by the name of Husam Zomlot, who is known to many of us—he used to work over here—gave a good analogy: “It’s a bit like saying you should negotiate who gets which bit of the pizza, but while that’s going on, one of the parties is eating the pizza anyway.” That is what is going on at the moment.
In conclusion, I have deliberately used sources that are not Palestinian. Some of them are United Nations sources; in the main, they are Israeli sources, including the newspaper Ha’aretz and groups such as Peace Now, Ir Amim and B’Tselem. Those organisations are not looking at things from afar; they are there, and they are Israeli. Most of their members would say that they are Zionist. They, too, would like friends of Israel abroad, but what they know and say to us is that true friends are not simply cheerleaders. True friends tell home truths every now and again, and they might like friends of Israel groups in the outside world to do a little more of that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Walker. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on initiating this important debate. It is apposite that we consider the issue shortly before Passover and Easter, when the Holy Land will be at its peak in terms of individuals choosing to go and see the holy places of three of the world’s great religions. That must be recognised when we consider that part of the world.
I first visited Israel some 15 years ago as a tourist and went around on buses seeing at first hand how ordinary Israelis live, as well as the tourist sights. Equally, I saw how Palestinians lived alongside Israelis. It is clear that there is an appetite on all sides for a proper and full peace process. I always challenge people by saying that they should not discuss places such as Israel, the west bank or Gaza unless they have been to see them. It is the only country in the world that I know of—I have visited a few, but not all of them—where a person can stand on one side of the country, see the other and know that they are surrounded by hostile neighbours, many of whom wish to wipe them off the face of the map. Unless we appreciate that, it is difficult to understand the security position in which Israel finds itself.
Israel is a special place in the world. It has been under threat, and its borders have been formed by wars, whether in 1948, 1967, 1971 or at any other time in the recent history of that part of the world. It is therefore difficult to know what the settled borders of the state of Israel are, and what the proper borders of a fledgling Palestinian state would be.
I have had the opportunity to visit Israel with Conservative Friends of Israel and to see the security position at various points in the country, and that is terribly important. We must consider the border with Syria. In many ways, the tension has decreased over the years as a peace process has evolved with Syria. Equally, on the borders with Egypt, friendly relations have been built up over a consistent period. On the border with Lebanon, however, the view is that it is just a question of when a war starts, not if, and how bloody it will be. That brings home the problems.
I have also had the opportunity to go via Jordan to see the west bank with Palestinians, meeting many people from the Palestinian community. I believe that it is right to see things from both sides in order to get a balanced view of the issues. Interestingly, when I went via the Allenby bridge from Jordan into the west bank and Jerusalem, there was a huge queue, huge security and huge problems for anyone accessing the bridge, irrespective of their status. We went the day after Yom Kippur last year, and the queues to get in were horrendous. That is important.
Undoubtedly, Palestinian leaders echo the universal condemnation of Tony Blair and his so-called peace mission. They regard it as a total waste of time and money, and would welcome an alternative set of means for promoting peace. They do not see it as a way forward. The interesting thing is that Britain is engaged in assisting the Palestinians and in ensuring that the security forces in the west bank are given the opportunity to have full and proper training so that they can enforce security. That is helping considerably.
The concern is that the mood among members of the Palestinian community is that time is somehow on their side and that the longer they leave things, the better the position that will emerge for Palestine in the long run. That is a very short-sighted view, because the progress of settlements in East Jerusalem will shortly—I would say within the six months—render a Jerusalem that is the capital of Israel and a Palestinian state almost impossible. Those settlements and the motorways—effectively—that link them are proceeding rapidly, which will make a two-state solution difficult.
I, too, have visited many of the areas the hon. Gentleman speaks of. Has he been to Gaza and seen the economic and humanitarian results of the blockade? I can assure him the people of Gaza do not think time is on their side—quite the opposite, in fact.
I thank the hon. Lady. I say quite openly that I have not visited Gaza. That is why I am speaking instead about the west bank and why I made the point I did.
The problem that has emerged with the peace process is that we have, for far too long, had talks about talks about negotiations. We need to get both sides round the table to ensure that there are proper, face-to-face negotiations. In that regard, there is a duty on the Government of this country, which is widely respected in the region, where it has deep historical ties, and which is, in many ways, trusted by both sides.
The fact of the matter is that good people have been trying since 1967 to bring the two parties together, but all attempts have failed. We can all sit here piously saying that people should get round the table and negotiate, but some Methuselah, perhaps, has to come along and devise a way to bring that about. Until that happens, we will not have progress. That is what we must achieve somehow.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is clear that we need to break the logjam. Mention was made of the peace process in Ireland, and I certainly never thought we would see a peace process there in my lifetime. I welcome what has been done there so that we can have a proper democracy and a proper arrangement between people on that island.
Similarly, we have to break the logjam between Israel and Palestine, but there has to be good faith on both sides. As my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) rightly reminded us, Israel has, over the years, agreed to put the issue of settlements on the table. To get peace with Egypt, there was an agreement to remove settlements, and they were removed; to get peace with Gaza, settlements were removed; and to get peace with the west bank, settlements were removed. The Egyptian peace treaty was highly successful, but such success has not, sadly, been the case in Gaza, and that is a problem for the Israeli Government.
I do not know how anybody can say that the issue of the settlements in the west bank was somehow solved by a treaty. When was the hon. Gentleman actually in the west bank? Every time I have been there, the settlements have increased, and the settlers’ violence against innocent Palestinians has increased exponentially. What land is the hon. Gentleman talking about? It is not the one I visit.
I saw many settlements. I also saw how the Palestinian people have been sold out by their own lawyers—their own people. Palestinians have sold land to the Israelis and given them the opportunity to build houses on it. They had claims over that land, but, unfortunately, they sold them. They went through the courts, and their lawyers sold them out. It is difficult for someone who has been through a legal process to complain when it has gone against them.
Where we go now is quite clear. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups oppose Israel’s right to exist and they refuse to accept the Quartet principles. Until such time as they openly say, “We accept Israel’s right to exist”, no meaningful peace talks can take place. That is where the British Government have a clear duty. They must ensure that pressure is put on the state of Israel and the Palestinians to enter negotiations in line with President Obama’s excellent speech setting out how the peace process could proceed. The Israeli Government were quite keen to commit to that up front, but the Palestinians seem to want to delay; they do not seem to want to enter talks. They must understand that unless they enter talks rapidly, the prospects for a two-state solution will diminish by the day, and we could end up with a three-state solution—the state of Israel, a Palestinian state in Gaza and a Palestinian state on the west bank.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. His premise is that the situation can be solved by dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians, but is not the real problem that the bigger split in the middle east is between Iranian-led Shi’as and the rest of the Arab world? Until that issue is solved, Israel and the Palestinians will remain proxies for that debate, and it will not be solved locally.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Clearly, the elephant in the room is Iran, and the United Nations will have to resolve that issue.
I end with the hope that this process will see our Government operating a more level playing field, putting pressure on the state of Israel to negotiate, but, equally, putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians and emphasising to them that the need to have urgent talks is paramount. Those talks need to be without preconditions and need to come with an expectation that they will result in a lasting peace and a just settlement for everyone. In that way, the issues in this part of the world can be settled in a manner we would all like, and everyone can live in peace and harmony, religions can be respected and people can promote the economic prosperity they want.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing this important debate.
Until the events of the Arab spring, it was generally suggested that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the key issue—indeed, the only issue—in the middle east. It is now abundantly clear to everyone that that is not, and never was, the case. Despite that, it is vital that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is resolved. Both peoples have the right to self-determination, and it is a tragedy that Arab and Jewish nationalisms came forward at the same time and became embroiled in such conflict.
Israel, of course, has been under threat since it was set up in 1948. The issue since then has been not its borders, but its existence. In 1948—1947, to be more precise—the United Nations made one of a number of offers of a state to the Palestinians. However, Arab states invaded the new state of Israel and rejected the concept of a Palestinian state at that time.
Much discussion centres around the significance of Israeli settlements. The origins of that settling movement were in the 1967 defensive war, when Israel, whose existence was threatened by all its neighbours, went to war, won that war, survived and as a result ended up occupying lands beyond the boundaries that it had had before. I do not want to go into any long, historical debate, but it is significant for everyone to remember that at the Khartoum conference after the ’67 war the Arab states came together and uttered the “three nos”—no peace, no recognition, no negotiation. It was after that that the settler movement went forward so that we are in today’s situation.
That interpretation of settlements is, of course, valid only for people who accept the existence of a state of Israel, and look at settlements as land occupied as a result of war, which was then not negotiated on. The people who do not think Israel should exist at all use the word “settlements” in a rather different way when they talk about Israel being occupied Palestine. When I listen carefully to people who criticise the state of Israel, it is sometimes clear, sometimes less so, on what basis they are speaking.
We are told that the current major impediment to peace is the existence of the Israeli settlements. The obvious question that must be raised when they are described in that way—not as undesirable but as the major, or only, obstacle to peace—is why Israel’s forcible withdrawal of 8,000 settlers, and its soldiers, from Gaza in 2005 was followed not by peace in Gaza but by the election of Hamas, which declared that it would fight for ever to get rid of all the state of Israel, and by the continuation of rockets being fired from Gaza to Israel—to Sderot and other places.
Hamas has a charter that is blatantly anti-Semitic and talks about Jews ruling the world and being responsible for the Russian and French revolutions—events that I seem to remember took place before the state of Israel was set up. Of course, Hamas was and still is supported and armed by Iran, which also armed Hezbollah in Lebanon and has been moving missiles and arms to Hezbollah there in recent weeks. The forcible removal of 8,000 Israeli settlers from Gaza by the Israeli army did not result in peace at all, so the settlements are not the only obstacle to peace. I support what the Israeli Government of the time did. It was the right thing to do, but it is clear that settlements are not the sole obstacle to peace.
Peace—recognition of the rights of Palestinians and Israelis in two states—can come about only through negotiations, and anyone who wants that end knows that negotiations must be about borders, the status of Jerusalem and refugees. A number of very detailed and protracted negotiations, involving international support, have taken place and come fairly close to resolving some of those difficult issues, but they have never quite been concluded.
Each side will have its explanation of who is at fault. Gilead Sher, a senior negotiator on the Israeli side who has worked extensively with Palestinians, and who to this day is working on the west bank persuading Israeli settlers to prepare to leave, has said clearly that a solution was never reached in the negotiations in which he was involved, because the Palestinians were not willing to signal an end to conflict. They could not or would not do it. That view was echoed by President Clinton who tried so hard to bring about a solution.
What is happening now, and what is there for the future? The past is relevant and important in this protracted and difficult conflict, but people must look to the future if a solution is to be found. In recent years, major progress has been made by the Palestinian Authority on the west bank, working with Tony Blair and the Quartet in developing the economy of the west bank and instruments of government for a future Palestinian state.
That work has been done effectively, but it is extremely disturbing that at this moment, as the Palestinian Authority is talking to Hamas about a unity agreement, the architect of those substantial improvements in security and in Palestine’s economy and autonomy, Prime Minister Fayyad, is being told that as a result of the unity negotiations he should go. There is intense pressure on him. Last week he was going; this week it is a little less clear. That is an ominous sign. The Palestinian who has worked to develop a Palestinian state and economy is now told by Hamas that his services are no longer required.
I respect my hon. Friend’s strongly held views on these matters, but she has spent all her time talking about the Palestinians. As we heard from Opposition speakers, at the moment the Israeli state is demolishing houses, surrounding and crushing East Jerusalem, moving large numbers of people out of their homes and, it would appear, condoning an attempt to emasculate the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem. Surely she should talk about what the Israeli Government are doing, because they are obviously not aiding the peace process.
I certainly do not support every move of the current Israeli Government, but I have to remember that under previous Israeli Governments, whom I did support, it was the Palestinians who were the block to peace; whatever policies may be going on that people may disagree with, the fundamental point here is that it is the Palestinians who at this moment are refusing to go to the negotiating table and settle the conflict, when there is an opportunity to do so on the basis of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The only way forward is a return to negotiations on the basis of two states living in co-operation and peace. I hope supporters of all the parties involved will do their best to bring those negotiations forward, so that there can indeed be an agreement leading to a peaceful future.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and I thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for securing the debate.
Ever since the state of Israel was set up it has been under attack, and all of us in the Chamber can agree that there should be a state of Israel. We represent constituencies all over the country, but I suggest that someone who represented a constituency into which rockets were fired daily would want to take pretty strong action.
We all accept that there are faults on both sides. However, given the constant pressure from virtually all Israel’s neighbours, and the fact that the Iranians say that Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth, it is necessary to keep a strong, powerful Israeli Government, to try to contain what could happen. Iran is a huge threat not only to the Israelis but to the whole region. I suspect that many of its Arab neighbours are just as frightened of Iran as Israel is. That key matter will need to be sorted out in the future, but I will not go into it now.
It is right for us to have this debate, but we must deal with it in a commensurate manner. We must accept that Israel will retaliate when it is attacked. We may sometimes believe that it over-reacts, but if we were facing such attacks we would probably react in a similar way. In the end, the only way peace will break out in that part of the world is through prosperity and trade. While hostile acts take place, that will not happen. I know that the Israeli President is keen on creating greater trade in the region, but that is a huge problem with the security situation as it is.
We believe in a two-state solution, but that will be difficult to achieve if Hamas and other organisations will not come to the negotiating table. I ask our Ministers and Government not only to take a strong position in the region and to give Israel good advice when she needs it, but to make sure that they are fair in their dealings with Israel and the whole region and that there is a two-state solution and a state of Israel.
I will be brief, Mr Walker, so that the Front-Bench representatives have time to respond. I am grateful for this debate and hope that it will lead to a full day’s debate on the Floor of the main Chamber, because enormous issues are involved.
I have visited Palestine and Israel on many occasions and would characterise Palestinians as under occupation, under siege or in exile. Having visited many Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, I have felt the sense of anger, hopelessness and depression that people who, along with their grandparents, parents and now their own children—great-great grandchildren—have spent 60 years in refugee camps thirsting for the right to go home. They have been living in poverty, under oppression and with a sense that, for many generations, whole lives have been lived in limbo.
I recall meeting those who were removed from Palestine in 1948 and who went to the Gulf states and Iraq. They were eventually moved out of Iraq into Syria, and I met them languishing on the border between Iraq and Syria. Have a thought for how they feel, think and look at the world. Have a thought for the plight of the 1.5 million people in Gaza who are effectively in imprisonment and cannot travel to the west bank or Jerusalem. Some are elected parliamentarians who cannot go anywhere. Have a think about them and about what the situation does to the psyche of young people growing up in imprisonment, unable to do anything other than watch the world on TV and computer screens. That is the reality for many Palestinians.
Some talk blithely about the need for negotiations and for promoting a two-state solution, which is fine, but look at the criss-cross roads all over the west bank, and look at the settlements and at the water that has gone. I applaud what my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) has said about the need for an ecological approach to the River Jordan. We could start by not abstracting all the water from it, a practice that is leading to the Dead sea disappearing, literally, before our very eyes.
The march for Jerusalem will take place this month. The campaign is calling on the British Government to do a number of things and I would be grateful if the Minister said what support they can give it. The campaign wants to stop the systematic demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem; stop the building of illegal settlements and their structures; stop the granting of discriminatory and insecure residency rights to Palestinians and their arbitrary expulsion from that city; and stop the expulsion of many from Jerusalem. Homes in Silwan have been destroyed to make way for the city of David.
I have never supported anybody who fires rockets at someone, but I ask my hon. Friend to get a sense of reality and to compare rockets with the 1,500 people who were killed during Operation Cast Lead, when F16 jets using phosphorous bombs killed innocent women and children. I am not in favour of rockets or bombing. We will achieve peace only if there is real recognition of the rights of and injustices suffered by the Palestinian people. That includes ending the settlement policy, ending the occupation of East Jerusalem, and ending the whole policy of the expulsion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.
Israel is a very rich and very powerful nuclear-armed state situated in a region where it is in a position to threaten any of its neighbours at any time. I suggest that the way forward in the region is to end the injustice suffered by the Palestinian people, end the occupation of the west bank and the imprisonment of the people of Gaza, and allow those who have been stuck in refugee camps for so long to return home.
No, I will not.
Britain was involved in the original partition and in the Balfour declaration, so we have a duty to help promote peace. That means suggesting to Israel that leaving the United Nations Human Rights Council, running away from international institutions and opposing Palestinian membership of the UN are hardly an indication of a process of peace, or of recognition of or respect for international law. They are very much the opposite.
If Israel cannot abide by international law and if it continues to abuse human rights and imprison Palestinians, why is the European Union-Israel trade agreement carrying on as normal, as though there is nothing wrong? That agreement has a human rights clause and that clause should be respected. We should, therefore, enter negotiations and tell Israel that if it cannot abide by the trade agreement’s human rights clause, the agreement itself will be suspended.
Thank you, Mr Walker. In the few minutes that I have, I will first declare an interest. My entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests notes that I went to Egypt last March with the Council for European Palestinian Relations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) has usefully introduced the debate and I hope that we will have an opportunity to discuss the issue at greater length on the Floor of the House. The picture painted by my hon. Friend and Government Members, however, is not one that those of us who regularly visit Gaza, the west bank and Israeli Arabs in Israel would recognise. The actual picture is one of occupation.
I am not sure that that is relevant; I wish I had not given way.
The Palestinian people experience occupation, persecution and discrimination. I wish that some of the rights that Israelis give to their own citizens—some hon. Members have rightly mentioned them—were also provided for the Palestinian people. When considering this issue, the judgment of some hon. Members seems to lapse in a way that it would not in relation to other issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) has given the example of Operation Cast Lead, in which 1,500 people, the majority of them civilians—many of them women and children—were massacred by bombardment from sea, land and air. I visited Gaza two to three weeks after that happened and saw the devastation that it wrought.
Over the 20 years since Oslo, the number of settlements has doubled from 250,000 to 500,000, irrespective of how the Palestinians were negotiating or of which parties were in government.
No, I will not give way again.
Israel is portrayed as the victim when it is, in fact, a regional superpower, a nuclear-armed state and, above all, an occupying power. It is a power that has occupied a people for longer than anywhere else in the world.
The Minister did not have a chance to answer a question that I asked him during last night’s debate in the House on Jerusalem, so I will ask it again. What stance will the Government take when the Palestinians go to the United Nations, again, in April for recognition? Could the British Government please take a different attitude?
We cannot expect the Palestinians to negotiate while settlements are being built at their current rate. On 18 December, the Israeli housing Minister announced that another 1,000 new settler homes would be built in East Jerusalem. That was a punitive response to Palestine’s admission to UNESCO. How can there be any basis for negotiation when settler violence has gone up by 150% in two years; when Jerusalem is being ethnically cleansed; when there are 5,000 Palestinian prisoners—more than 300 of them in military detention; and when a report, published just last week, said that child prisoners were being tortured and ill-treated in Israeli prisons?
Those are the offences that have to be addressed. It is time that those who rightly support the state of Israel’s being able to live in peace and security, as we all do, opened their eyes to the crimes being committed against the Palestinian people on a daily basis throughout Gaza, the west bank and, indeed, in Israel. Until we have that—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing this important and valuable debate. I wholeheartedly support the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) that we should have a longer debate.
As we have touched on in this brief debate, the question of Israel and the peace process has been of immense—possibly unique—importance as a political issue for 60 or 70 years and longer. We are, of course, in a very novel situation because of the democratic developments that have taken place in the middle east since the Arab spring. Although I accept that Israel-Palestine is not the only political issue in the middle east, my discussions with new parliamentarians who will be engaged in the issue in countries such as Morocco and Tunisia have shown that it is very important to them. When I have spoken to them, they have asked for Britain to play its role in making progress in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. It is important to recognise that Britain has a role to play in this changed world.
At the moment, the situation in Israel is very fluid. Israeli elections are likely within the next year, and elections to the Palestinian Authority are also due. We know that negotiations are going on politically between Fatah and Hamas that will have a major impact on Israel and its perception of working with Palestinian representatives.
From the discussions that I have had, I am very aware of the importance of Iran in terms of the perceptions of Israel. When I speak to Israeli representatives both in Israel and here, I hear about the sense of insecurity that exists within the minds of Israelis in relation to that very important issue. I accept that Iran is not simply an issue for Israel. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in breach of agreements is an issue for the world and for the United Nations. That is an extremely important matter.
Of course, I have had the benefit of visiting Palestine and Israel on two separate occasions: first, in 2007, and secondly, last November in the company of my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), the shadow Foreign Secretary, when I was privileged to have discussions in not only Israel, but Ramallah. On that occasion, I was visiting as a guest of Labour Friends of Israel, and I intend to visit as a guest of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. I hope to visit places such as Gaza later this year.
I thank hon. Members who are here today and who have been engaged with the issue for many years. It is important that the breadth of view that we have heard expressed in the debate today is reflected in the positions that are adopted by the Opposition and by Her Majesty’s Government. Britain has an important role to play in the middle east peace process. We are respected. I do not know to whom the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) spoke, but Tony Blair is respected. I have had important disagreements with the former Prime Minister on middle east policy at different times, but I have spoken to representatives of both the Palestinian Authority and Israel who appreciate the work that Tony Blair continues to do in the region. It is unfortunate that that partisan point was made in what has been a good debate.
What struck me on my two visits to Israel was that there has been progress in the west bank between 2007 and 2011. Economic progress has taken place, which is welcome and is part of the process of Israel and the Palestinian authority being able to work together. That will change individuals’ lives. We touched on the issue relating to Northern Ireland, which sometimes casts a fog but sometimes sheds light on the middle east peace process. Unless people see that, individually, their lives will be changed by progress in the peace process, they will not buy into that process. There are areas where progress has been made.
Does my hon. Friend recognise the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court to instruct the Government to clear the settlement area of Migron? That is one of the largest settlement areas in the west bank and it has very clearly been identified as land owned by the Palestinians. That decision was endorsed on Sunday.
It is very important to recognise that Israel is a democracy and that it has an independent judiciary. We applaud those types of decisions and the fact that, within Israel, those decisions are being taken. However, pressures are coming from the Israeli Government. In the past year, they have talked about withdrawing funding from non-governmental organisations that do not support Israeli Government policy. That sort of thing does not help Israel, but the independent judiciary, to which my right hon. Friend refers, does. It is important that that is preserved. We have a situation in which some progress is being made, but that progress is not within the peace process at the present time. That is intensely frustrating.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry, but I must make some progress. I apologise to my hon. Friend.
From my observations, the position of the peace process on the ground is intensely difficult. It is true that there had not been negotiations for a long time when I visited in November and that some meetings have occurred this year. We must, of course, welcome the fact that those meetings are taking place, but the settlements are a major barrier to any progress on securing peace. I should like to ask the Minister what efforts we are making to convey to the Israeli Government the importance of stopping settlement building. Unless that happens, the prospects for progress in the peace process are very limited.
I should also like to highlight the issue of UN recognition, because although the Labour party agrees with the Government position on many areas, we fundamentally disagree with their position to date on UN recognition. That is a matter of principle. If we really support a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, we should establish the relevant mechanism in the United Nations. It is very disappointing that the Government took the view that that was not the correct approach.
As no real negotiations were going on, should we not have made an approach to the United Nations, which is a multilateral and respected organisation that had a major role in the establishment of the state of Israel? The state of Israel was, of course, granted recognition in 1947 and 1948 by UN resolutions on which the United Kingdom abstained. Should we not have gone to the UN to try to secure progress? It seems extraordinary that, when progress was not being made, the UK Government were resistant to using multilateral agencies and the most important multilateral agency of all—the United Nations—to secure progress.
I have been privileged to meet some hugely impressive individuals: Dan Meridor, the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, who was in the Palace only last week, and Salam Fayyad, who has been mentioned. Anyone can do business with them and, most importantly, they can do business with each other. Those individuals are clearly people who can bring and achieve peace in the right circumstances, with pressure brought to bear by the international community.
We all want to see progress in the middle east. It is one of the great political issues of our lifetimes. Progress can be achieved only through a two-state solution. We need to exert pressure from the international community to get the two parties to the negotiating table to seek a solution. If a solution is reached in the Israel-Palestine conflict, we will have a more secure and stable middle east, and an Arab spring that will bring wider democracy to us all.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to conclude this short but important debate, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing this important debate. I strongly agree with him that Israel, certainly by the standards of the middle east, is a force for social progress. He lost me a little bit when he argued that socialism had proven to be the greatest international guarantor of religious freedom, but let us move on to wider issues that are specific to the debate.
Israel is an important ally of the UK and a valued friend. I am pleased to note that our bilateral trade increased by 34% last year. I am also pleased to note the continued high-level exchanges on issues of national security, including the current threats from Iran and Syria, and instability elsewhere in the region. We are also expanding our ties in the fields of science, education and cyber issues. These are signs of a strong relationship being made stronger yet between Israel and the UK.
Our relationship with Israel is crucial for our national security and prosperity objectives. However, just as we are building a strong partnership with Israel, we are continuing to enhance our relationship with the Palestinians. That is reflected in high-level visits, including by President Abbas to the UK in January, our flourishing education links, and in parliamentary and cultural exchanges, some of which we have heard about this afternoon. Our open relationship with both Israel and the Palestinians allows us to have frank discussions with both. We do not always agree with each other, but, by ensuring robust partnerships, we will be more able to find ways to address each other’s concerns. I agree with the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas): the UK is a voice that is heard loudly and clearly in this debate.
Hon. Members will be pleased to note that our recent changes to legislation on universal jurisdiction have been welcomed. We know the Israeli Government felt that this had previously been used inappropriately to target Israeli nationals. Where we identify such issues and can act on them, we will. We will continue to raise UK concerns strongly with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
This afternoon’s debate has demonstrated the high levels of interest, which rightly exist in the House, in the middle east peace process. The goal of the UK Government remains a two-state solution. We believe firmly that it should be based on 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps, incorporate a fair and realistic solution for refugees, include security arrangements respecting Palestinian sovereignty and protecting Israeli security, and be based on Jerusalem as a joint capital for both states. We remain fully committed to this strategic goal.
I do not think that anyone would object to, or oppose, the statement the Minister has just made. Each one of those issues is so intractable that it prevents progress on any of the others. Is there any scope to try to make an intervention on just one of those issues—perhaps refugees or settlements—to at least push the peace process forward in a way that has not happened for quite a few years?
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. In the remaining time available, I will try to illustrate precisely how we are advancing those objectives.
We are clear that a solution cannot be imposed from outside. Our current priority remains bringing the parties back to negotiations. We believe that it is only through negotiation and agreement that a sustainable two-state solution can be achieved. The UK will continue to be one of the principal supporters of Palestinian state-building efforts, assisting them to tackle poverty, build institutions and boost their economy. We will also continue, however, to emphasise to all parties the importance we place on direct negotiations, without preconditions.
What we believe is most needed is not a push for Palestinian statehood within the UN or its specialised agencies—that could push Israel and the Palestinians further apart—but a renewed commitment to the peace process. That must involve a demonstration of political will and leadership from both sides to break the current impasse.
No, because lots of hon. Members have made contributions and I wish to try to respond to all of them if I can.
We remain deeply concerned by ongoing settlement activity, an issue raised by many hon. Members. Settlements are illegal under international law, and in direct contravention of Israel’s commitments under the Quartet road map. They make a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, physically harder to achieve. This is made worse by the Israeli Government’s policy of connecting settlements to already stretched water supplies, and of restricting Palestinian movement and access in the occupied territories, including establishing a secondary road system to separate Palestinian and Israeli traffic. The Government have consistently called on Israel to halt all settlement activity and to reverse its recent announcements about expanding existing settlements.
We urge all sides to exercise restraint and avoid civilian casualties. It is unacceptable that Palestinian militant groups continue to threaten ordinary Israeli citizens—a point powerfully made by many contributors to our deliberations. It is also unacceptable that Israel continues to launch strikes that affect, and on occasions kill, ordinary Palestinians. We remain concerned by conditions in Gaza. It is deeply troubling that Gaza, which should have a thriving economy, is currently one of the highest per capita recipients of aid funding in the world. We will continue to press the Israeli Government to ease the movement and access restrictions that make life so difficult for the people of Gaza and are doing ongoing damage to its economy. Such restrictions do not help the peace process.
The UK has been providing valuable support to Palestinians through our programmes. In Gaza and the west bank, we help to support 5,700 children through primary school, and immunise 2,000 children under five against measles. This type of work—there is much more I could put before the House—is vital to the Palestinian people and helps to keep the prospects of a two-state solution alive, and we will continue to do it.
We continue to follow developments on Palestinian reconciliation closely, including recent meetings between Hamas and Fatah officials. We have been clear that any new Palestinian authority, including any technocratic Government formed to prepare for elections, must be composed of figures committed to the principles set by President Abbas in Cairo in May 2011; must uphold the principle of non-violence; be committed to a negotiated two-state solution; and accept previous agreements of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. We will judge any future Palestinian Government by their actions and their readiness to work for peace.
In the context of the dramatic changes in the wider middle east, we continue to encourage all groups to espouse the principle of non-violence and to join mainstream democratic politics, thereby contributing to peace and stability in the region. Hon. Members have spoken about the significance to Israel, and to the peace process, of changes in the wider middle east in the past year or so. The encouraging aspects of the Arab spring highlight the enormous benefits that could follow for Israelis and for Palestinians, and for the region as a whole, were lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians achieved. The opportunity to conclude an agreement based on a two-state solution that is acceptable and beneficial to all parties will not exist indefinitely. It is of the utmost importance to all parties that this chance is taken while it exists. As a result, the UK Government recognise that there is a degree of urgency involved in the process.
I assure hon. Members from all parts of the House that the UK remains fully committed to developing our partnerships with both Israel and the Palestinians. We will continue to work tirelessly in support of the effort to achieve a long-term, durable solution to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long as we judge that a two-state solution remains obtainable, we will do all we can to encourage all parties to obtain it. That remains our objective. I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate, and the wide interest shown in this vital issue of our times.
EU Directive on Animal Experimentation
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
The transposition of the European Union directive on animal experimentation into United Kingdom law provides an opportunity to celebrate and protect the UK’s proud record of pursuing the best standards of animal welfare. It was initially thought that the new directive would have little effect on the operation of the seminal Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. However, the process has turned out to be much more comprehensive and complicated than expected.
In response to a call for comments issued in 2011, the Home Office received more than 10,000 responses from individuals and almost 100 from organisations, illustrating the high level of interest in this issue.
In October 2011, the Home Office said that a report on the outcome of the consultation would be published early in 2012, as would a draft code of practice and draft guidance on the application of the revised UK legislation, and that these documents would be accompanied by an indication of the Government’s intentions in making the transposition of the requirements of the directive into UK law. It later became clear that Parliament would have to consider the Government’s proposals in yes/no votes, without the opportunity to make amendments, before the summer recess in July 2012. It is now expected that regulations to transpose the provisions of the directive will be published in May, giving little time for meaningful, effective consultation.
It must be recognised that there was a need to harmonise protection of laboratory animals within the EU member states. The new directive has a number of positive, welcome provisions. For example, it requires that upper limits of pain and distress should be laid down and should not be surpassed; that the weighing of likely benefit and likely suffering should be conducted before any project work begins; that there should be retrospective assessments to evaluate whether the stated objectives were achieved and what harm was inflicted on the animals used; that there should be personal records from birth for individual cats, dogs and non-human primates; and that all personnel involved should be adequately educated and trained.
The Government have attempted to reassure interested parties that high standards of laboratory animal protection, which have operated in the UK for many years, will not be relaxed. However, there is concern that the UK legislation might be watered down to harmonise with an EU minimum. This concern is not expressed only by animal welfare groups. Comments published in February’s edition of the British Medical Journal indicated that organisations representing some of the main users of laboratory animals, including the UK Bioscience Coalition, the Association of Medical Research Charities and the Institute of Animal Technology, are also apprehensive.
The fear expressed in the BMJ article was that the Government will not take advantage of article 2 of the directive, which permits member states to maintain higher standards than those required by the directive, but will merely copy out those standards word for word into UK law. Recent experience indicates these concerns may be justified.
The use of great apes as laboratory animals in the UK has been banned since 1997, but it is not in UK law. I wrote to the Minister earlier this year, on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group for the replacement of animals in medical experimentation, which I chair, suggesting that there were compelling ethical, scientific, logistical and economic reasons for making the ban a legal stipulation in the UK. Unfortunately, the reply was disappointing, saying the intention was indeed to copy out the paragraphs in the directive that allow member states to apply to permit the use of great apes in certain circumstances.
The case against using chimpanzees is unanswerable, since, even if their use were ethically acceptable, scientifically justifiable and affordable, where would animals be obtained from in the necessary numbers, if an unforeseen threat to humans arose that could not be dealt with in any other way? Surely the Government should seize the opportunity to put protections into this legislation.
The Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments, which provides the secretariat to the all-party group, and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection presented a joint submission to the Minister, which spelled out the case for making the ban on using great apes in the UK permanent and legally binding. The answer they received again repeated the Government’s view that they did not envisage any circumstances in which the UK would claim that there was a compelling need to use great apes. So why not make it clear in this legislation?
Unfortunately, the Government’s approach to great apes fuels concerns about their overall approach to the transposition, giving credence to concerns expressed by bodies such as FRAME, the BUAV, Animal Defenders International and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as well as those listed in the BMJ article, which I mentioned earlier.
The Minister knows that there is particular public concern about the use of any primates, highlighted by the recent Bateson report, showing that at least 9% of experiments, and probably more, have no discernible potential benefit for humans. In transposing article 8, will the Government clarify the meaning of “debilitating clinical condition” to make it clear that the use of primates can only be considered where a serious human disease is involved, not simply a mild or temporary deterioration, such as baldness or the common cold?
I am particularly concerned that we take the opportunity to put animal experiments on a more transparent footing. I welcome the Government’s acknowledgement that section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act needs to be reconsidered to meet the transparency requirement of the directive. The simplest way to do that would be just to remove it, while leaving in place the protection of personal data, safety and commercial confidentiality provided for in the Freedom of Information Act 2000. In fact, if the Government published anonymised project licences centrally, together with the findings, whether positive or negative, that would remove any remaining risk of individual researchers being harassed, while allowing a mature public discussion of the costs and societal and scientific benefits of experiments, as well as enabling researchers to check that they are not duplicating previous research. Will the Minister confirm that university research will still be open to freedom of information requests, within the existing FOIA safeguards?
Of grave concern is the possibility that the current financial situation could be used to reduce the effort put into the administration of the UK legislation, including the licensing system and the work of the Home Office inspectorate. The system of licensing, consultation between licensees and inspectors, unannounced visits and regional administration has worked well for many years and is strongly supported by the scientific community. However, there are fears the number of inspectors will be allowed to dwindle, that inspectors will interact less with licensees, as advisers and unannounced visitors, and that the whole system will be run electronically from one site, probably at the Home Office in London.
Such changes could undoubtedly be made to fit with the requirements of the directive, but they would have a serious, deleterious effect on the standard of protection of laboratory animals in the UK, which, we are regularly informed, is currently the highest in the world and is something that we in the UK can rightly be proud of.
Given the high regard in which it is held and the key function it plays in ensuring compliance with the law, the implementation of the three R’s—replacement, reduction, refinement—and the maintenance of best possible practice, the Home Office inspectorate should be maintained at its current capacity and its advisory role should be kept intact.
Furthermore, there are concerns that UK housing and husbandry standards might be reduced to the lower EU standards, including for the floor area of cages for dogs or the height of cages for rats, which are greater in the UK than would be required under the directive. Many in the scientific community would find that undesirable. In order to maintain good public relations and perceptions of research and to ensure the continuation of the UK’s established reputation for high standards of animal welfare, lower standards should be avoided, by recourse to article 2 if necessary.
In addition to possibly lowering technical standards, the transposition could weaken the current, successful ethical review process, by substituting it with the “animal-welfare body” stipulated in the directive. Although the Home Office indicated in the consultation that the two were similar, there are important differences in function and emphasis. For instance, it is important to retain the “ethical” aspect of the name, as that more accurately reflects what the role of the body should be. A great deal of effort has been invested in improving the effectiveness of the process, and the general consensus is that it is useful and desirable, and that, where there are problems, they are about effective implementation, rather than with the process per se. There are strong arguments, therefore, for retaining function 2 of the process, namely project evaluation, which would be lost in purely animal welfare considerations. That is particularly important in considering local factors that impact on projects, and in facilitating communication and dissemination of information to the various people involved.
In summary, the recent media coverage concerning the unwillingness of internal transport companies to carry laboratory animals shows that animal experimentation remains high on the public and scientific agenda. Therefore, very great care should be taken to ensure the transposition of the directive does not in any way weaken the UK’s hard-fought reputation for maintaining the highest standards in preserving the essential fine balance between science and animal welfare. In a joint response, the British Veterinary Association and the Laboratory Animals Veterinary Association emphasised that the responsible use of animals in research has improved human and animal welfare through the advancement of scientific knowledge and the development of safer and more effective medicines. They went on to say:
“animals should only be used in research when no alternative is available and the work is justified through independent ethical scrutiny, and we continue to support the traditional principles of the ‘Three Rs’. We strongly believe that higher standards should be retained under Article 2 of the Directive even without clear evidence of benefit to animal welfare, unless there is evidence to show that no reduction in welfare will result.”
That is a clear message from the professional bodies. They conclude:
“The high level of public confidence in the robust regulation of scientific procedures using animals in the UK should not be compromised by the reduction of requirements without this evidence.”
I will be grateful if the Minister could clarify a number of issues in his response. How will he ensure sufficient parliamentary time to scrutinise the proposals when they are brought forward? Will he take the opportunity to put the protection of great apes in legislation? Will he clarify the meaning of “debilitating clinical condition”? Will he clarify how the transparency of access to information will work, so that researchers do not duplicate their research? Will he give reassurances that the current successful approach to licensing and inspection will not be weakened? Finally, will he commit to retaining a robust ethical review process?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing the debate and on his energetic chairmanship of the all-party group. I may not be able to give him as much detail as he might like because, as he will appreciate, I am standing in—no doubt inadequately—for the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), and because she and the Home Office more widely are still looking at the details of the transposition, but I will try to answer as many of his detailed questions as I can.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government recognise that the regulation of animal experiments is of significant public interest. We are strongly committed to ensuring the best possible standards of animal welfare and protection for animals used for scientific purposes.
My last report in the European Parliament, before I retired from it, took the directive through to First Reading. One of the problems in getting the agreement of 27 countries is that the regulations often have to be reduced in order to get them agreed by all member states. I would like to put it on record that I believe that we have some of the best research, done under the best welfare requirements in the world, and I do not want to see that watered down. In many cases I like to see the reduction of regulation, but on this occasion it is essential to keep our strong rules in place, because we are dealing with animal welfare and the quality of the science. I want that reassurance from the Government.
By the time I sit down, I hope that I will have provided my hon. Friend with that reassurance. He, too, deserves congratulations, on taking legislation to that stage in the European Parliament, which I suspect is more complex and difficult than anything we try to do in this Parliament.
The Government are strongly committed to ensuring the best possible standards of animal welfare. Current legislation, as was rightly acknowledged by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, provides that high level of protection: work cannot be licensed if it could be carried out without using animals, and the procedures must cause the minimum possible suffering to the smallest number of animals of the lowest sensitivity. That approach reflects closely what the public want. At the same time, animal experimentation continues to be a vital tool in developing health care improvements and in protecting man and the environment. The potential health and economic benefits from new and innovative treatments are dependent on providing the right framework for the UK’s life sciences sector and university research base, which are vital national assets and critical to our long-term economic growth, so we are determined to provide the right framework.
The transposition of the new European directive for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes provides us with a valuable and timely opportunity to review our own legislation governing experiments on animals. As has been pointed out, many requirements of the directive are similar to current UK legislation and practice. For example, it places a strong emphasis on minimising the use of animals and the promotion of alternatives. Some requirements go further than current UK legislation, most notably the introduction of mandatory minimum standards of care and accommodation for animals. Other requirements are potentially less stringent; the directive does not, as UK legislation does, provide special protection for cats, dogs and horses. Article 2 of the directive allows us to retain current stricter UK provisions as long as they do not inhibit the free market. The directive thus provides us with an opportunity to confirm the best aspects of current UK regulation and to make improvements where we can do better.
During 2011 we held a public consultation on options for transposition. I have slightly different figures from the hon. Gentleman, so I hope they are accurate. More than 13,000 individuals and 100 organisations responded, which clearly confirms a very strong interest in the topic. We are currently completing our analysis of the responses and will announce our decisions shortly—I hope shortly enough to leave proper time for parliamentary scrutiny, which the hon. Gentleman reasonably mentioned.
The directive clearly offers some opportunities, such as helping the work that we are already doing to promote the development of alternatives. The programme for government includes commitments to end the testing of household products on animals, and to work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research. The new directive assists with those objectives by strengthening the protection of animals used in scientific procedures, and promoting the three R’s: the development, validation, acceptance and implementation of methods and strategies that “replace, reduce and refine” the scientific use of animals.
The directive will also allow us to remove unnecessary bureaucracy where it still exists, and to build on the significant improvements we have already made in our day-to-day implementation of current legislation. We are planning to focus on simplifying the details of personal licences, and making further improvements to the project licence application process and to the format of the project licence. The directive requires member states to inspect animal research laboratories and breeders, but the minimum frequency of inspection is less than we currently practise. Many of the responses to our consultation commented on the strengths of our current inspection system, and clearly that is an issue of great interest to the hon. Gentleman.
We are committed to maintaining a strong and properly resourced inspectorate, and a full, risk-based programme of inspections. The relationship between inspectors, licence holders and animal care staff is crucial to the effective implementation of the regulatory framework, and we will not jeopardise that relationship. The hon. Gentleman referred to the current move to centralise the operation of the administrative part of the legislation in London. That does not apply to inspectors. Indeed, it has been confirmed that inspectors will continue to be located close to those they inspect. I hope that that provides the hon. Gentleman with some reassurance.
We are aware of the concerns that have been expressed that transposition will lead to a lowering of welfare standards for laboratory animals in the UK. That is not our intention, and we are determined not to weaken UK standards, but that does not mean retaining stricter UK standards when there is no clear evidence that they translate into better welfare, nor does it mean that we must put everything into the legislation if we can achieve the right outcomes by encouraging good practice. What we are looking for is the right balance. We must ensure that we can maintain and further enhance our high standards, but at the same time we must avoid putting UK research at a competitive disadvantage compared with our counterparts in other member states. For the Government, both are objectives for the transposition of the new directive.
I shall give some specific examples of our approach to transposition. We intend to retain higher UK standards when there is strong and broadly-based support or good evidence for their retention. I mentioned some of those earlier, but it is important to put them on the record, not least to reassure the hon. Gentleman. One example is that we propose to continue to provide special protection for cats, dogs and horses, as well as non-human primates, and will allow their use only when no other species is suitable or available. That was widely supported in our public consultation.
I turn to the specific subject of great apes. We will continue to prohibit the use of great apes. There has been concern—the hon. Gentleman expressed it earlier— that the directive weakens the protection of those animals by providing a derogation allowing their use in exceptional circumstances. I can assure him and the House that we foresee no circumstances in which we would use that derogation, and we will put the ban in the legislation, as he asked. That is a full assurance such as he sought.
We propose to retain protection for foetal and embryonic forms of birds and reptiles during the last third of their development. That is not a requirement of the directive, but we received persuasive evidence from the public consultation of the welfare benefits of giving the same protection to those species as will be given to mammals during their development stages. I hope that that will also be welcome. We were persuaded that the burden of providing that additional protection is proportionate to the benefit. That is the test we are operating. We also propose to retain a system of personal licences as a means of monitoring and ensuring the competence of those working with research animals.
The directive lists methods of humane killing that may be used without project authorisation. Our current UK legislation takes a similar approach to that of the directive in this area, but there are significant differences between the UK list of methods and that in the directive. Some methods listed in the directive are not currently permitted in the UK without specific authorisation. The differences have caused widespread concern, and we are minded to maintain the best of our current approach to humane killing. To take that forward, we have recently published a revised list of humane killing methods for consultation, and will incorporate only the best methods in our updated legislation. Again, I hope that that provides reassurance to the many people who are particularly concerned about this part of the directive.
Another issue of particular concern to many people is animal care and accommodation standards, specifically those examples in which current UK cage and enclosure sizes are greater than those required under the directive. For some, when there is good supportive evidence, we are minded to continue to mandate the UK dimensions. For others, the difference in dimensions may be so small as to make little difference to the welfare of the animals, but sufficient to add significantly to the costs for the life sciences community if they were retained, which would risk making the UK less competitive than other countries in Europe and beyond. Instead, we are considering ways of using the revision of our current UK code of practice on care and accommodation to encourage voluntary improvements in standards of housing.
The UK has a long tradition of housing animals in conditions that are better than those mandated in regulations—for example, the housing of non-human primates in the UK has significantly exceeded the minimum requirements for many years. Our approach has been driven by sound evidence from our welfare scientists, together with a willingness on the part of both the academic sector and industry to provide the best environment for our animals. We want to support that approach by encouraging the work of welfare scientists and the research community. As scientific evidence for higher standards emerges, we will expect our research community to respond.
On freedom of information, which the hon. Gentleman brought up at the start of the debate, most responders to the consultation recognise that section 24 in its current form is not compatible with the directive’s commitment to transparency, and many also recognise that it may be a barrier to the sharing of best practice and information on the three R’s. At the same time, personal details, intellectual property and commercial information will continue to require protection. We will consider how best to provide that protection under the new legislation, at the same time as meeting the aspiration to greater transparency.
The hon. Gentleman also brought up the issue of weighing pain against benefit. UK legislation already requires the Secretary of State to weigh the likely pain against the expected benefit, and in that regard the directive confirms current UK practice.
The hon. Gentleman referred to transport disruption. We have been working actively with the life sciences community and the transport sector to broker a commercial solution to provide a sustainable and resilient supply chain. That will be important to the future of the life sciences industry.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the use of non-human primates, and particularly the definition of a debilitating condition. We do not intend to define further what a debilitating condition is because we believe that that should be done on a case-by-case basis for each project licence application received. Using the current UK code of practice in that way to encourage voluntary improvements, particularly for housing, will lead to better standards. Overall, in addressing these sensitive issues, we believe that good welfare is fundamental to good science.
Animal experimentation is an area in which Government policy must recognise a wide range of opinions. Our current policy is based on the belief that there are real benefits to man, animals and the environment that can, at present, be achieved only with the use of animals, but it reflects the need for all animal use to be fully justified, and for animal suffering to be minimised. Any suffering must be carefully weighed against the potential benefits. Those are the foundations of our current legislation, and the directive provides us with the opportunity to build on them.
As I have said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities and others will consider carefully—
British Expatriates (Punjab)
I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate under your chairmanship and wise guidance, Mr Walker, and I wish to highlight an issue that has important implications for British citizens living and working in India. This debate was inspired by one of my constituents, Mrs Tejinder Soor-Hudson, who contacted me in the summer of 2010 to express her concerns about the death of her mother, Mrs Mohinder Kaur Soor, a British national who owned a house in Jalandhar in the Punjab region of India. Jalandhar is part of the so-called NRI—non-resident Indian—belt of the Doaba region. Many Britons of Indian origin own properties there, and it has become an affluent hub of investment.
I am sorry to intervene at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but this debate concerns not only those who work or live in India, but visitors and people who live in Britain but travel to India, particularly to that region. I must declare an interest because I was originally a resident of Jalandhar, so I know the area well. People and visitors there are afraid for their properties, as well as for other business in the area, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will mention not only people who work there, but also visitors.
As usual, I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. I am not seeking to narrow the confines of this debate; this is clearly a serious and substantive issue that affects those who live in the area and those who travel to it.
My constituent’s mother, Mrs Soor, travelled to India in June 2009 with the intention of selling her home in Jalandhar. Instead, she was found dead later the same month. Mrs Soor-Hudson contacted me because she is convinced that her mother’s death was organised by a criminal gang in order to facilitate the theft of her property. Worse still, she believes that the Indian authorities were complicit in a cover-up of that appalling murder.
The objective evidence is striking. The resulting post-mortem, carried out on tissue samples from Mrs Soor’s body, concluded that she had been the victim of insecticide poisoning. That, however, was in stark contradiction to the official police report, which stated that no poison had been detected in Mrs Soor’s body, which was then cremated before the results of the post-mortem were made available. On top of that, the official police report did not give any indication about what—if any—investigation was carried out at the home where the body was discovered.
The most basic details that one might reasonably expect from the scene of a suspicious death, such as what time the police entered the premises, whether there was evidence of forced entry, and the condition in which the body was found, were not properly recorded. Subsequently, Mrs Soor-Hudson discovered that a key suspect in the case is related by marriage to an officer working under a deputy commissioner, who may well have the means and motivation to influence proceedings.
There is ample evidence to suggest corruption in this case. Mrs Soor-Hudson was told that if she wanted the suspect brought in for questioning, she had the option to pay an unidentified individual to make false statements about that suspect. That individual would then commit perjury if necessary. Unbelievably, that suggestion was even endorsed by my constituent’s then solicitor, although I hasten to add that Mrs Soor-Hudson, of course, rejected any notion of becoming involved in such improper or criminal behaviour. However, it is not difficult to see why she believes that such a dark shadow of suspicion lies across the local police investigation into her mother’s death.
I met Mrs Soor-Hudson at my constituency surgery at the beginning of the year in order to get an update on the case. She is resolute and passionately committed to uncovering the facts about what happened to her mother in June 2009, and after a number of years of bureaucratic frustration, we appear to be making some initial modest progress in the investigation. As the Minister will be aware, over the past 18 months I have written several times to Foreign Office Ministers on behalf of my constituent, and I wish to thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its help and assistance in pursuing Mrs Soor-Hudson’s concerns in this distressing case, and for taking it to the Indian authorities via the high commission.
As I understand it, a fresh inquiry into the matter has now been ordered by the commissioner of police, who will report to the Indian high commission in due course. I am not aware of any progress beyond that initial statement of intent, but belated though that is, it is a welcome development even if it is a point of departure rather than of arrival. Will the Minister undertake to do everything within his power to press the Indian authorities to ensure that a proper, robust, rigorous and independent investigation is carried out into this tragic case?
While particularly distressing to the family, this case is all the more alarming because, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) pointed out, it is by no means an isolated incident. A number of other hon. Members have become involved in similar cases that have affected their own constituents, and there is every reason to believe that those cases are only the tip of the iceberg. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) will soon attest, there was also the horrific murder of Surjit Kaur, a 67-year-old mother of three from Chatham, who was kidnapped and beheaded in March last year while visiting the Punjab region. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tenacity in raising that terrible case with the Prime Minister, and for his support in helping Mrs Kaur’s family get an independent investigation into that appalling crime, and a measure of justice.
Sadly, there are many other cases of similar nature. Mr Mohan Singh Biring, a Leicester businessman who had gone to India to oversee a property deal, was murdered—again in the Punjab—after a vicious and unprovoked attack in August 2005 by a gang wielding baseball bats and iron bars. Two men were jailed for life for his murder, but only after intervention from the local Member of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), and I pay tribute to his efforts. Mr Charanjit Singh ran a business in Plumstead but was shot dead while visiting Jalandhar in 2009, the apparent victim of a financial dispute over a property purchase that had taken place in England.
Those are tragic cases in their own right, but they also tell a wider story and demonstrate a broader trend. A worrying number of murders and other serious crimes are being committed against British citizens of Indian origin, the so-called NRIs, and visitors to the area, particularly in the Punjab region. There are major concerns regarding the allegations of incompetence and—let’s face it—corruption within the Indian authorities, which seems to feature in so many of these cases. I commend the support that the Foreign Office has given to the victims and their families, but I feel that we must do more to protect British citizens, and others, who are travelling to or residing in the Punjab region.
What advice does the FCO offer to British non-resident Indians who are travelling to or living in the Punjab region but who may have real and objective grounds to fear for their safety? What is the FCO’s support mechanism for dealing with cases such as those I have described today? Does the Minister feel that that support mechanism is adequate, or is it time to review the current arrangements?
I am, of course, acutely aware that primary responsibility for investigating crimes committed overseas must rest with the police and the judicial authorities in that country. However, we can work with India on a bilateral basis to keep our citizens in that region safe from harm. What, if any, formal arrangements are currently in place with the Indian Government to facilitate such a co-operative approach? Is any or could any of our bilateral aid be focused on co-operation? How does the Minister think that we can work with the Indian authorities to ensure that we offer our citizens, and others travelling to the region, the same protection when they travel abroad that Indian nationals would rightly expect to receive in this country?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this important debate on an issue that has real ramifications for British nationals who visit India. I also pay tribute to his excellent work in representing the concerns of his constituents.
Like my hon. Friend, I have encountered a tragic and horrific case. It involves the mother of a constituent of mine. Surjit Kaur was a British national who visited India in February and March 2011. I am led to believe from the little information that the family and I, and the Foreign Office, have been provided with by the Indian authorities that Mrs Kaur was murdered on 31 March 2011.
Mrs Kaur’s tragic case was highlighted in The Guardian on Friday 8 April 2011. It is that newspaper’s reporting of the facts of the case to which I will refer. As I said, the Indian authorities have not provided the full facts, which were sought by the family and me in our meeting with the Foreign Office. At this point, I thank the Foreign Office Minister, who was very kind in meeting the family, taking on board their concerns and coming back with a number of points that needed clarification. Despite his best efforts, I was very disappointed with the response of the Indian authorities in not providing that information.
I will set out briefly the facts of the case. The report in The Guardian stated:
“The decapitated remains of a British woman have been recovered by Indian police who claim she was murdered after a bungled attempt to extort money from her children in the UK.
The head and body of Surjit Kaur, who is believed to have been in her 60s, were found separately this week. Two local men, one a relative of the victim, have been arrested and police said they had confessed to the killing. The two arrested men, named by police as Harbhaghan Singh and Gurwinder Singh, visited the home of a close relative of Kaur after her disappearance to express their concern, according to reports.”
The Guardian report goes on to say:
“Sandip Sharma, the deputy superintendent of…police, who is investigating the murder, told the Guardian the attack took place after the two suspects lured her away under false pretences…He said they strangled Kaur, cut off her head and threw it into a river. Her body was dismembered and scattered in nearby fields, he added.”
In the light of that, I asked some specific questions of the Indian authorities in the meeting with the Minister. I have a response from the Foreign Office, dated 21 December 2011; it followed the meeting between the family and the Minister on 23 November. The first question was this: did the two accused plead guilty to the murder of Mrs Kaur? The answer in that letter was yes—they pleaded guilty to the murder of Mrs Kaur. The second question that I asked specifically was whether they were sentenced for the murder of Mrs Kaur. The answer in the letter was that they were not:
“The trial collapsed before it reached a conclusion and so the accused were not sentenced.”
When two people have confessed to a murder, how can a trial collapse? It defies logic to hear that two people have admitted guilt for the murder of an individual and then to be told that the trial has collapsed. But it gets worse than that, which is why I think that there needs to be a full, thorough investigation.
On page 2 of the letter is a question that I asked:
“Why did the case collapse and what can be done now?”
The answer comes back from the Indian authorities that the police have now confirmed that the case is closed. How can it be closed if Mrs Kaur has been murdered and we have two people who admit to the murder? We are told that the case has collapsed. If it has collapsed, the authorities should reopen the inquiry and try to find out who committed the murder, but in this case the Indian authorities are saying, “Sorry—case closed”. That causes me real concern.
I say this to the Minister. We have so many people, including expat nationals, who travel to India and want to be safe. India is a booming economy, but it also has a moral and ethical obligation for the safety of our constituents. Look at the case to which I am referring. If individuals who have accepted that they committed murder are walking away from a court, that leads me—and, indeed, any reasonable person—to come to the following conclusions. The legal system is defunct and illogical; the investigation is incompetent; there are corrupt practices; or there is a combination of all three.
I urge the Indian authorities to reopen this case. They say that the case has collapsed. In any civilised legal system, if a case has collapsed, the authorities reopen it to get the people who have committed murder. In this case, that is even more imperative because the two individuals had previously pleaded guilty to the horrific murder of Mrs Kaur.
The authorities need to carry out an independent and thorough inquiry, so that my constituent and his family can get the one thing that they want—justice for their mother. They want nothing but justice for their mother. I urge the Foreign Office to make the strongest possible representations to the Indian authorities to reopen the case and ensure that those who carried out this horrific murder are brought to justice.
I again pay tribute to the work that the Minister has done and how he dealt with the family. I pay tribute to the work done by the consular staff and all the others involved, including the family liaison officers from Kent police in my constituency who worked with the family. But despite all that, what this comes down to is the will of the Indian authorities. In this case, it is clear that there is no will. If they want the Indian legal system to be taken seriously, they must reopen the inquiry and bring the people responsible to account.
I am grateful for the opportunity to conclude this short but important debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Walker. I start by commending my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for their extremely powerful and persuasive speeches. I hope and believe that those speeches—indeed, the whole debate—will be read by the Indian authorities and that it will be clear to them just how seriously this issue is treated in the House of Commons.
I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton for securing this debate on a subject of great importance to his constituent, Mrs Soor-Hudson, and to him. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to his specific concerns, and I hope that I can go some way towards addressing the issues that Mrs Soor-Hudson has been dealing with during the past three years. My hon. Friend is concerned not just with the difficult situation that faces his constituent, but with the wider issue of the delays in the Indian and Punjabi justice system that can often affect British nationals and that were powerfully articulated a few moments ago by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham as well.
First, I extend my condolences to Mrs Soor-Hudson and to her family for the tragic loss of her mother in Jalandhar three years ago. Mrs Soor-Hudson’s courage and tenacity in taking forward her subsequent campaign to try to establish the facts behind her mother’s death are truly admirable. I hope that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can continue to be of assistance to her during this difficult time.
Let me set out what contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has had with Mrs Soor-Hudson since her mother passed away and what action has been taken to assist her. The consular directorate in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was first contacted by Mrs Soor-Hudson regarding her mother’s death in December 2009. Since then, consular officials in India have contacted the Indian police on numerous occasions, including at senior levels, to seek progress reports and ask for contact details on behalf of the family. The Indian authorities have responded in writing to the British high commissioner in Delhi, as well as directly to Mrs Soor-Hudson.
Consular officials in London also met Mrs Soor-Hudson to discuss the case in February of this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton has written to, and received replies from, two of my ministerial colleagues, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), on this issue.
Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton is aware, Mrs Soor-Hudson’s case is not unique. The British high commission regularly raises issues in relation to a number of cases that involve the deaths of British nationals in India. Many of those cases are complicated. Some of them are concerned with deaths in suspicious circumstances, and others with murders. In some cases, the cause of death remains unknown. In others, the bereaved family have had strong concerns about the investigations into the death of their family member, as in Mrs Soor-Hudson’s case.
Such cases illustrate the fact—this point was powerfully made by my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton and for Gillingham and Rainham—that the Indian authorities need to have a justice system that not only enjoys the confidence of their own population but is seen to perform at standards in which people around the world can feel confident.
In an effort to assist all families affected by the cases, I have, on two occasions, raised these issues with my Indian counterparts. Last July, I spoke to the Union Minister of Home Affairs and passed over a note listing a number of outstanding cases that involve British nationals in India. In February, during a visit to India, I met the Minister of State for External Affairs and passed over another note of outstanding cases. I hope that hon. Members will realise that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the whole British Government attach importance to representing individual cases of British nationals who have been involved in terrible circumstances in India and that the families feel that the justice system has not treated their case with sufficient efficiency or, in some cases, seriousness.
However, as I am sure my hon. Friends are aware, the investigation into the deaths of British nationals in India is the responsibility of the Indian authorities. Unfortunately, just as in the UK, such processes can take a number of years. The British Government will not interfere in an Indian investigation. Similarly, we would not accept the interference of a foreign Government in an investigation in the UK. I know that my hon. Friends will feel frustrated by that, but it is the only basis on which we can reasonably proceed. The country within which the incident took place has the sovereign authority over the investigation and prosecution of the case.
I apologise for not congratulating the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing such a wonderful and important debate. Does the Minister agree that in the light not only of these cases but of the many cases of murder and kidnap in the state, especially of those people from Britain, that the Department should look into providing information detailing the kind of support that can be secured from the British high commission and others before people leave here? While they are in the country, they need security, guidance and adequate legal support. Such help does not directly interfere with the state, but it would be useful for individuals.
I will come to that point later in my speech. Although it is an important intervention, the House and the wider public must understand the limitations that we in the Foreign Office face in our jurisdiction and our staffing and budgetary restraints. Literally millions of British people travel abroad every year, and we provide a service that is as good and as comprehensive as we can within the constraints that exist.
I was talking about the role of the sovereign Government—in this case, the Indian Government—in investigating a case. We recommend to the families involved that it is imperative to retain the services of a local lawyer at the earliest opportunity. That lawyer will be best placed to advise the family on how best to proceed within the existing local legal framework and to address any concerns the family may have about any aspect of the investigation. To that end, each British embassy, high commission or consulate maintains a list of English-speaking local lawyers, to which consular officials will refer family members. However, we do not claim to have an expert knowledge of the legal system of every country in which we operate.
Just to clarify the point about not knowing the exact legal systems of the country, does the Minister agree that in any jurisdiction anywhere in the world common sense would dictate that, if someone pleads guilty to murder and it is an agreed fact, that person should be sentenced rather than walk free from court?
Perhaps I should not be drawn on that specific case. All the cases that have been raised both inside and outside this debate suggest that the Indian justice system is failing to provide satisfactory justice to a number of citizens and that must surely give the Indian authorities cause for reflection.
The Minister is treating this in a serious and methodical way. I understand his point about resources. We know that there was a dumbing down of bilateral relations under the previous Government and that this Government are trying to address that. May I just challenge his strict approach and focus on sovereignty and the idea that the investigation and the approach of the justice system must be left solely to the domestic authorities in India? Under the Vienna convention on consular relations and as a matter of India’s own human rights obligations on torture or fair trials guarantees and given the endemic corruption that he has rather lightly alluded to, we have every right and it is every bit the British Government’s business to raise these issues and to press the Indian authorities to behave properly.
I am grateful for that intervention. I certainly accept that we have a legitimate role, which we exercise with vigour and enthusiasm, to press on countries around the world our desire to see them operate an effective and balanced justice system. Where we feel that improvements can be made, we make that point. However, it is worth pointing out that British police have no jurisdiction to investigate crimes overseas. If a bereaved family suspects that British nationals were involved in the planning or committing of a crime, I urge them to report their concerns to their local UK police force. There may be occasions when it is appropriate for that force to act, but it is not the decisive and final actor, because that responsibility rests with the host country. FCO officials have met their Indian counterparts to discuss the wider issues that we are discussing today, and we will certainly look for opportunities for future co-operation. As the Minister, I give that undertaking personally, but I also make it on behalf of our high commissioner and his team in Delhi and in other posts across India.
Consular officials in India and in London will continue to monitor Mrs Soor-Hudson’s case and will keep her informed as and when we receive updates from the Indian authorities. I am aware that Mrs Soor-Hudson is concerned about the financial implications of continuing to work on her case in India. Although I appreciate the pressure that that concern must bring, I am afraid that the FCO cannot provide her with financial assistance in that regard. It is not our policy and, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) a few moments ago, given that there are literally tens of millions of overseas visits by British nationals each year, it is not financially viable for us to provide that service in all cases where it might be thought desirable.
The FCO’s role in such cases is to ensure that the family receive information about local police and legal procedures. Where there are concerns that the investigation is not being carried out in line with local procedures or there are justified complaints about discrimination against the person who has died or their family, the FCO can make appropriate representations to the local authorities.
To summarise, I am confident that consular officials are doing all that they can, within the remits of our consular assistance policy, to assist Mrs Soor-Hudson in her efforts to establish what happened to her mother. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton and all hon. Members are assured that we will continue to raise her case with the Indian authorities at the appropriate times.
The British Government take our consular responsibilities extremely seriously; consular responsibilities are one of our three foreign policy priorities. Although we have a long-standing and close relationship with India, based on a broad range of mutual interests, we will continue to push our consular interests in support of British citizens in India without fear, because we see this as an important area for the Indian authorities to focus on when British nationals and their MPs feel that a shortcoming needs to be addressed.
Question put and agreed to.