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Westminster Hall

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2013

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 8 October 2013

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

UK-US Bilateral Relations

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

It is a pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to be here under your chairmanship. My previous debate was on High Speed 2 and ancient woodlands, and was a little controversial; I hope that this one will be more of a love-in. Its title is “UK-US Bilateral Relations”, but the context is: “Whither goest the special relationship between the UK and the US?” Having said that, I share the view held by a friend in the US Department of State, Daniel McNicholas, that the special relationship is a given, and that it is pointless to worry about its ebbs and flows over days and weeks. I do not feel guilty about mentioning Daniel McNicholas, because back in the days when I was in opposition and he served in the US embassy in London, he and I used to meet up. A few months after I had spoken to him about various issues concerning the Conservative party in opposition, I got an urgent phone call from him to say that everything I had told him had appeared in WikiLeaks. Daniel McNicholas, you have been named.

I want to name someone else: may I say what a pleasure it is that the US ambassador is in the Chamber for this debate? I believe that it is the first time that the ambassador has visited the United Kingdom Parliament.

In recent weeks, the special relationship has been put under scrutiny following the House of Commons vote on action in Syria. The Sun ran the dramatic headline, “Death Notice: The Special Relationship”. At the time, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic saw the vote as a turning point with regard to the United Kingdom’s place in the world. Some even saw Secretary Kerry’s remarks about France being the United States’ oldest ally—technically, it is—as a public kick in the teeth from the Obama Administration, but it is not. Let us be clear: the special relationship is special because of the one fact that there is no other international relationship like it in the world.

Some people in the UK may panic at anything that can be even remotely taken as a slight from the Americans. A few weeks ago, it was Secretary of State Kerry’s remarks about France. Before that, it was President Obama’s populist remarks about BP and the spill in the gulf of Mexico. Some years ago, it was Gordon Brown’s bungled meeting with President Obama in a New York kitchen—let me say to my friend, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), that that is the only party political point I will make today. Before that, it was Tony Blair’s so-called poodle-like behaviour—I did not think it was poodle-like—towards the Bush Administration.

Some people in our media revel, whenever a press conference is called, in analysing the language used, dissecting every comma, and looking for even the remotest possibility that we are no longer America’s golden ally. It is all nonsense, of course. American officials know the facts, and the British should be a bit braver in accepting them. As someone once said, “It’s the economy, stupid”, so let us follow the money: British businesses employ around 1 million people in the United States, and American companies employ around 1 million people in the UK, making our two countries by far each other’s largest foreign job supporters. The United Kingdom and the United States have almost $1 trillion invested in each other’s economies. British-American trade was worth $214 billion in 2012. That is the biggest bilateral trade relationship between any two countries on the planet.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing the issue of the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States to the House for consideration. The Minister will be aware that in Northern Ireland, that relationship is worth £1.06 billion in investment commitments, with 7,700 new jobs having been secured by Invest Northern Ireland from US companies. That represents one third of all inward investment secured by Invest Northern Ireland. The US is the largest export market for Northern Ireland manufacturing companies after the Republic of Ireland, with more than $750 million of export business secured by Northern Ireland companies in the market in 2011-12. Its importance to the United Kingdom is great, but I suggest that its importance for Northern Ireland is even greater.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which reinforces my point. Having worked with the BBC in Northern Ireland many years ago, I well understand his points. At state level, New York trades more with the United Kingdom than with any other US state. New York and the UK are inextricably bound together. If we believe that that is important for our economy, the Americans know how important it is for theirs, too. Let us not forget that the United States is the world’s largest economy, even after the economic crisis, and that British business is its biggest investor. UK investment in the US is 116 times greater than China’s investment in the US, 90 times greater than India’s, and 88 times greater than Brazil’s. We are almost back to 2008 levels, having suffered a global economic crisis, and we have overtaken Germany to become the US’s fifth largest trading partner.

If a special relationship were based on trade alone, the relationship between the UK and the US would be more than special, given those figures, but we know that the relationship enjoyed by our two countries is about more than just trade. Something pushes that trade. The figures I quoted should be shouted from the rooftops. We are not some minor mid-Atlantic island, as President Putin’s spokesman said, that the US flatters occasionally; we are its biggest investor and it is our biggest investor. That has happened not by accident, but because we are friends, because business and entrepreneurial endeavour thrive in our shared culture, and because we use a shared language, have a shared history, and use a shared common law. Those are not bygone assets of a long-forgotten empire or age, but real assets that we share, and which our people use to their advantage every second of every day.

Throughout the US, local radio stations and national public radio rebroadcast live BBC news for US listeners. The BBC’s news is considered to be as reliable, if not more reliable, than that of some domestic news broadcasters. Where else in the world would a nation routinely rebroadcast live news, which cannot be edited, from a so-called foreign power? Only the US does that with the BBC news.

Even the US national anthem owes much to Britain—perhaps more to Britain than to the US. That is not just because the words were written by an American, Francis Scott Key, as he witnessed, from the deck of a Royal Navy ship, the British bombardment of Baltimore—we all know that—but because the very tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner” was, in fact, a bawdy and popular London drinking song written by a Brit, John Stafford Smith, from Gloucester, and I mean Gloucester, England, not Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Here in the UK Parliament, we have tiles made by Minton in Stoke-on-Trent, and the US Congress has identical tiles. I was told that 20 or 30 years ago, when the tiles in the US Congress needed to be replaced, it contacted Minton. The people there said, “The order is not big enough for us to set up a manufacturing plant for the special manufacturing needed for the tiles,” so the Serjeants at Arms of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the US Congress contacted the Serjeant at Arms in the House of Commons and Black Rod, as we archaically call him, in the House of Lords, and said, “Can we place a joint order for the tiles?” That was duly done. Of course, we must not forget that the US Congress and the new Palace of Westminster, as it is officially known, were built roughly at the same time, although in rather different styles.

As I say, the relationship is not only about history; there is the travel between the two countries. The routes between London Heathrow and John F. Kennedy international airport and Newark, serving New York, are the busiest air links between any two cities in the world, with close to 3 million people a year travelling between the two.

The alliance, however, goes way beyond being just financial and cultural: it extends to the protection of British and American citizens. The United Kingdom and the United States are the closest of allies militarily. Where else in the world would a country allow another to test its nuclear weapons on its territory? I am not talking about the UK allowing the United States to do so, but about the United States allowing Britain to test its Trident missiles in the Nevada desert.

British and American troops have fought side by side in almost every theatre for the past century, for the same cause and in the same spirit. British territory welcomes American servicemen as though they are our own—not as foreign soldiers, but as kindred spirits. When foot and mouth disease prevented the Royal Marine Corps performing exercises in the United Kingdom, the US Marine Corps invited its counterparts to train in Virginia. Those regular visits continue, and I am told that the Post Exchange is a darn sight cheaper than the NAAFI. Our network of intelligence sharing, military co-operation and joint diplomacy in the United Nations and elsewhere never ceases.

Perhaps the vote on Syria was surprising for those who question whether the special relationship is right, but the vote demonstrated, actually, just how close we are, and that we do not often take different decisions, because we have similar goals and a similar global view and aspirations. In the end, what did President Obama do? He followed in the footsteps of David Cameron and referred the matter to the US Congress. Despite the US having the constitution that Britain did in the 18th century, in which the President is Head of State, with what we would call the royal prerogative—the right to wage war—he, too, went to Congress seeking a vote, and he delayed it when he saw that Congress might well echo the will of Parliament across the ocean.

In conclusion, at every level of co-operation, the relationship that the United Kingdom shares with the United States is unprecedented between two countries. President Obama remarked, on a visit to Britain, that the relationship is the “essential” one, and do you know something? He is right. A million jobs on both sides of the Atlantic depend on it. The special relationship is economically, socially and historically beyond single events.

What I have aimed to do today is demonstrate that our two countries are as interlinked and as co-dependent as any the world has ever seen. Both countries benefit from that, and we should aim to build on that. The Prime Minister has shown his dedication to pushing for an EU-US free trade deal as soon as possible. That would increase trade by at least a further $100 billion, and even the US Congress has speculated on the many benefits to the United States if the UK were to enter the North American Free Trade Agreement—even if it meant that the UK would have to leave the EU. Sometimes, when people talk about these things, they think it is just madness on the British side. Actually, I do not think it is madness at all; I think it is a view of the future.

As a prop, Mr Dobbin, I raise this weighty document, which was published by the US Treasury in 2000, outlining the benefits to NAFTA if the United Kingdom were to join, and the effect on the UK if it meant that the UK would have to leave the EU.

Has the United States not clearly indicated that its primary interest in trade negotiations—rightly so, given that it represents some 40% to 45% of world gross domestic product in aggregate—is the transatlantic trade and investment partnership, or TTIP? The US has indicated that it wants that to be a partnership with the EU as a whole, rather than having 28 separate negotiations. Does that not show the real direction that trade talks will take?

Indeed, as long as the UK is part of the EU. Of course, as the right hon. Gentleman says, it is much easier to negotiate with one body than with many different bodies. Nevertheless, it is a fact that this document was produced by the US Treasury. I might even add to his argument by saying that the US is very keen for us to remain in the European Union. However, that is partly because, as some US diplomats have said privately, they think that the United Kingdom is the only sane voice in the EU on some issues. I rather suspect that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), may have a view on that.

I profoundly believe that Britain’s place in the world is as an outward-looking global trading nation, doing what it does best: being open to the world and building alliances with those who believe in freedom and the advancement of its people. Our alliance with the United States has done that for centuries, and it will continue to do so, for the benefit of the United States, the United Kingdom, and, I believe, the peace and prosperity of the world.

Order. Before I call Julian Lewis, may I ask you, Michael, to repeat the title of the document for the record?

I am very happy to do so. It is “The Impact on the US Economy of Including the United Kingdom in a Free Trade Arrangement with the United States, Canada, and Mexico”. It is Publication 3339 of August 2000, from the United States International Trade Commission, an arm of the US Treasury.

It is a great pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and it is an even greater pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). He has been in the House longer than I have, so over my entire parliamentary career, I have heard him make many contributions—albeit that when he served as a Whip, he was silent for a while. He has now come back into the fold and has more than made up for that silence today. I can truly say that he has just made probably the best speech I have heard him make, although it is highly probable that he will exceed even that in the future.

However, I wish to concentrate my remarks—this will come as no surprise to those hon. Members who know me—on a certain aspect of the relationship with the United States that my hon. Friend touched on: the military and intelligence relationship. As he rightly said, that is of supreme mutual interest, and it has paid enormous dividends to both sides over at least the past century.

Only last night, I watched the rather splendid American film, “Argo”, which picked up a number of academy awards. It is about the amazing rescue, courtesy of the CIA, on the one hand, and the Canadians, on the other, of half a dozen American diplomats who had escaped being taken hostage in 1980 at the time of the Iranian revolution.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that “Argo” was shown in the refectory of the US embassy recently, and people had the opportunity, in London, in a teleconference, to interview people involved with the real event—I wish I had been invited!

That neatly anticipates the point that I wanted to make, because it shows up one of the slight weaknesses that tend to crop up from time to time in the Hollywood view of the Anglo-American relationship. Quite unnecessarily, quite gratuitously, in the course of the film’s dialogue, there is a throwaway line, “Well, this country turned them away, that country turned them away, and the Brits turned them away.” At the time of the academy awards, I remember that they interviewed the British diplomats who had, at huge risk to themselves, taken the six escapees in and transported them hazardously to the Canadian ambassador’s residence. That enabled the whole story, which was eventually unpacked in this hugely adventurous tale, to transpire.

I do not know why Hollywood sometimes does that sort of thing. It is not the first time that it has done it. Something similar happened a few years ago when there was a rather splendid film called “U-571” about the American seizure of an Enigma machine from a U-boat in the course of the battle of the Atlantic. It was perfectly true that that had happened in 1944 with an American operation, but it had happened twice previously through the good offices of the Royal Navy. I had particular reason to know that, because my esteemed constituent Lieutenant-Commander David Balme was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for descending into the depths of U-110 on the first occasion on which such a seizure was made. When a bit of a fuss was made in the media, the film company backed down. It took him on as an adviser and put in a tribute at the end of the film, pointing out that there had been two earlier seizures.

One must not extrapolate too much from that, because of course the Hollywood view of the Anglo-American relationship should not be relied on any more than, shall we say, the more partisan, chattering-class, luvvie views of politics in certain sections of British society should be relied on. The truth is that the United States and the United Kingdom are at their best when the chips are down. Like people in all sorts of good, valuable and, indeed, invaluable relationships, they bicker and disagree, but when it really matters, they are always there for each other.

I mentioned that I would say a word or two about the intelligence relationship, and I will after giving way to the right hon. Gentleman.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman also wanted to quote Winston Churchill’s apposite phrase that the United States would always do the right thing, having exhausted all the other possibilities.

Yes indeed, and that puts me in mind, of course, of another thing that the two countries have in common, which was also encapsulated by Winston Churchill when he said that

“democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others”.

I see something common there because the United States is a great democracy and the United Kingdom is a great democracy and, as I said, when we get to what really matters, we can always count on each other.

The intelligence relationship no doubt goes back a good deal further than the first world war, but the period that I know something about is the 20th century, and of course in the first world war we had a classic example of the work of the intelligence services in this country with the discovery of something called the Zimmermann telegram. This was a revelation of a conspiracy in which the Germans had offered, if I remember correctly, the Mexicans some great tranche of US territory if they would co-operate with them in hostilities against the United States. It was the discovery by the British intelligence services of that correspondence that finally showed the Americans where their interests lay and helped to precipitate their entry into the first world war, from which time the outcome of the conflict could no longer be in doubt, because arguably—I would say that it is probably beyond argument—it was the entry of the United States that forced the Germans to embark on their last-ditch attempt in March 1918 to break the stalemate on the western front, and that led to the sequence of events, including the battle of Amiens later in the year, that ultimately led to the allied victory.

Similarly, with regard to the military relationship in the second world war, it is well known that the Americans helped us with lend-lease. The “Destroyers for Bases” deal is also well known. These were all methods of helping the British war effort while the United States itself was still not a belligerent. Less well known is the “Shoot at Sight” policy whereby the Americans undertook, if there were any interference on the high seas by Hitler’s U-boats, to engage them militarily if they sought to attack convoys going from the United States to the United Kingdom.

In other words, the Americans did, given the limitations of their constitutional system, everything that they possibly could do to help Britain in its hour of need until such time as the political situation in the United States—because it was no easy decision for them—facilitated the entry of the United States into the war; and of course to that, the contribution of the Japanese in their treacherous attack at Pearl Harbor was decisive. Again, once America had entered the conflict, the outcome could not be in doubt, even though many months—indeed, several years—of desperate conflict had to ensue before victory was obtained.

Scrolling forward rapidly into the post-war years, we see the occasions on which Britain backed the American initiative—unusually, for once, with the support of the United Nations, because the Russians at that time were not participating in the Security Council—in the Korean war; but there have been hiccups as well, and this is germane to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield made about not reading too much into the vote on Syria and the divergence of policy between the two countries. If people forget everything else in my contribution, I hope that they will seek to remember this one point. Even among the closest of allies, there may be genuine disagreements from time to time. The Americans genuinely disagreed with British action and French action in Suez in 1956. Harold Wilson genuinely disagreed with the Americans, and most people think that history has vindicated him in not joining with the Americans to participate in the conduct of the Vietnam war.

As my hon. Friend eloquently pointed out, there was a genuine disagreement in this country with the proposal to take military action against the Assad regime a few weeks ago. So far, although it is far too early to tell, if the objective of our Government and the American Government was, as stated, to stop chemical weapons attacks, as things are unfolding, we are in a better position at the moment to stop chemical weapons attacks than anyone might have dreamed possible. So at the moment, it looks as though the system has worked.

As my hon. Friend rightly stated, it was fascinating and entirely praiseworthy that having seen what the British Government had done in putting the matter to Parliament, and knowing that there was just as much disquiet in American public opinion as there was in British public opinion, President Obama decided to do the same thing by putting the matter to Congress. That is where it would have lain, but for the—what shall we say?—fortunate slip of the tongue by Secretary of State Kerry when he said, “Well, of course, if Assad doesn’t wish to be attacked, he could always offer to give up his chemical arsenal.” Never have words made off the cuff and in such an offhand fashion borne such fruit. Perhaps our diplomats and Foreign Ministers should throw away the prepared script a little more often in the future.

I just wonder whether Hansard will put the words “off the cuff” and “offhand” in quotes or inverted commas to convey the sense of what the hon. Gentleman was saying—what he was trying to get across.

I am sure that Hansard will be equal to the occasion. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman meant that Hansard would convey the good sense of my somewhat convoluted prose. Sometimes it is better to be right than simply to be tidy.

During the Falklands conflict, we saw the constructive tension in the relationship between the UK and the US at its most interesting. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was wholly hostile to the British position over the Falkland Islands, while Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger was very sympathetic. In the end, the Weinberger view prevailed with President Reagan. It is now widely acknowledged that the covert assistance that the Americans supplied to the British, particularly in the field of intelligence, was of great value to the country and to our campaign, notwithstanding the competing attractions and incentives that the United States experienced at that difficult time, which might have encouraged them not to assist us.

Although my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield has done the House a service by securing the debate, the House has not done him a service in that, unusually for a Tuesday, it will sit only at 2.30 pm, so many people who would otherwise have contributed to the debate are sadly not here. In other circumstances, I am sure that there would have been many more participants. The best laid plans always suffer the occasional hiccup, however.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Several people have told me that they would have liked to take part in the debate, but they are still travelling from their constituencies, and I am pleased that that has been put on the record.

We will have to do the best we can in the extra time available. I am sure that the Front Benchers will rise to the occasion and give us so many good reasons for the support, pursuit, development and continuation of the Anglo-American relationship that the time will simply fly by.

I turn, finally, to the Trident missile system. As my hon. and right hon. colleagues know, the Trident missile bodies in the UK nuclear deterrent force are supplied by the Americans. We and the Americans have a common pool of such missile bodies, although the British, under the terms of international treaties, manufacture the warheads ourselves. The design of the successor submarines that will carry the next generation of the British strategic nuclear deterrent is at an advanced stage, and it is interesting to learn that co-operation in the matter is so close that there will be an identical common missile compartment in American ballistic missile submarines and future British ballistic missile submarines.

It is occasionally suggested that certain officials in the American Administration are not enthusiastic supporters of Britain’s continuing to have a strategic minimum nuclear deterrent. Such individuals, who are seldom named—I have seen one or two names occasionally bandied about—are very much in the minority, however. Overwhelmingly, our American allies see the benefit of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, assigned as it is to duties in NATO but ultimately under the entire control of the British Government. It is beyond dispute that the Americans welcome the existence of that force and do everything they can to facilitate it and to ensure that it is replaced as each generation reaches the end of its life.

I began by saying that the relationship between the UK and the US occasionally has scratchy, ungrateful or divergent moments. As I have said, however, when things really matter, we know that we can always count on each other. I believe that we have done the US a favour over Syria. Time will tell whether I am right, but I suspect that it will not be too long before the American Administration agree that things have worked out for the better. For many years, the Americans have done us a favour by making it possible for us to maintain an ultimate minimum strategic deterrent as a final insurance policy to ensure that our country can never be blackmailed by people armed with nuclear weapons. The benefits for both sides are beyond question. Long may the relationship flourish, long may it continue and long may it survive attempts to undermine it by people who wish neither country much good.

I had not intended to speak, but I was greatly encouraged by the comments of the hon. Members for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), and I felt that I should at least make a contribution. I want to refer to my constituency and to the special relationship that we have with the United States of America by being part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which makes us part of the debate.

When President Obama came to Northern Ireland for the G8 conference, I took note of some of his comments. The G8 conference was a showpiece for Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom. President Obama was proud to pinpoint his roots in the Republic of Ireland via his eighth cousin, and I believe that Northern Ireland has an important role to play as well. At the Waterfront hall in Belfast, President Obama spoke the following inspirational words, which emphasised the feeling of relationship between Northern Ireland and the United States of America:

“So our histories are bound by blood and belief, by culture and by commerce. And our futures are equally, inextricably linked.”

The Minister must have read my notes. That is absolutely true: 17 of the 44 presidents of the United States of America can trace their ancestry to Northern Ireland, and four presidents who have Ulster Scots ancestry are still living. I am proud to be able to reiterate that fact.

As an Ulster Scot, I am proud of my ancestry and history. The hon. Member for Lichfield referred to culture, and I would like to touch on that point. I have visited the United States several times on holiday, but this year I visited in a different capacity, namely to speak at the Milwaukee Irish Fest. What is an Ulster Scot doing at Irish Fest? The event brings together different cultures and traditions, and Ulster Scots is very much part of that. I had the opportunity to advance the Unionist viewpoint and the Ulster Scots viewpoint.

When we look through the whole history of the United States, we in that wee province of ours within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can make that proud ancestral claim to 17 of the 44 presidents. Through the history of our relationship with the United States, we can claim many things, such as that some US musical interests largely came from Northern Ireland. The ancestors of Elvis Presley were Ulster Scots, so we as Ulster Scots can claim part of the musical cultural history in the United States. The NASCAR—National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing—car championships that we can sometimes watch on television was started by another Ulster Scot, although it probably began at a certain whisky-running time, which might be why the cars were so fast. Ulster Scots therefore have that ancestry and historical contact with the United States.

Some of the greatest US writers can also claim to be Ulster Scots and therefore part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as can be shown by their ancestry and history. The Ulster Scots—or the Scots-Irish, as they are often known in America—had generals in the armies of both sides in the American civil war. Ulster Scots, who are very much a fighting breed, contributed greatly to the United States through their pioneering traits, such as exploring and setting up cities and towns across the US. The relationship is therefore very strong.

The hon. Member for New Forest East commented that there was a difference in strategy on Syria, but that there was no difference on the need to do something. It is on record that I voted against going to war, because I felt that people were not ready for it and no longer had any appetite for it, but also that the best approach was what we are now doing. As the hon. Member for Lichfield said, it is interesting that what the Prime Minister decided to do is what the United States Government and the United Nations are doing. It is important that, in a way, we have arrived at the right place, although perhaps by taking a wee bit longer to get there.

As I said earlier, trade links with Northern Ireland and the United States have produced some 7,700 jobs for Northern Ireland in the past 10 years and are worth $750 million to our economy, so Northern Ireland’s industrial dependence and economic relationship with the United States is very important.

Other Members have mentioned the special relationship from having fought wars together. I never fail to put on the record my thanks to the United States of America, and its Government and people, for its contribution as, dare I say, the world’s policeman, taking its stand on many issues. On many occasions—indeed, on almost every occasion—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has stood alongside it in those battles, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past couple of years, I have had opportunities to meet some American soldiers, and I always thank them, as well as our British soldiers, for what they do and have done all over the world, with their sacrifices in terms of life and energy, including by those physically and mentally injured and those traumatised by what they have seen. We thank the United States of America and its Government for taking such a stand and fighting on those issues.

John Kerry, the Secretary of State, has been referred to, but I think it is important to conclude with one of his comments:

“At its heart, the UK/US special relationship is an alliance of values of freedom and maintaining international peace and security, of making sure that we live in a rules-based world.”

He has therefore clearly put the special relationship on the record. He has also said that the

“US has no better partner than UK”.

We, too, should say that and put it on the record. It has been a pleasure to speak in the debate and to put on the record our thanks for the special relationship. We in Northern Ireland are very pleased to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to have that special relationship with the United States.

Not to be left out of the debate, I want to say that I, too, have some American cousins who live in Los Angeles.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am not sure whether we are supposed to declare our relatives living in Los Angeles, let alone those living in Toronto, Sydney and so on, which tells a story in itself.

May I welcome the Minister if not to the Department, then to this portfolio? I cast no reflection on him when I say how much we will miss the previous Minister with responsibility for dealing with the United States, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). He impressed colleagues throughout the House and in the wider world with his diligent attention to his portfolio, and with how he engaged with Members of Parliament to ensure that we were kept updated on current developments and to facilitate contact with Foreign Office officials to enable us to have well-informed debates in this House and the wider public domain. I do not intrude on the affairs of the reshuffle, but I think that his contribution will be greatly missed in this House.

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting that comment on the record. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) did an excellent job in the Foreign Office in relation to many parts of the world. For the record, I will reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on behalf of the Government, but the United States has not been added to my rather wide portfolio. It will be handled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), but, given that he was appointed only last night, it was thought better that an almost vintage Foreign Office Minister—of just over a year’s standing—should handle this debate in his stead.

I thank the Minister. From my knowledge of the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), I think that he will be in the mould of Ministers who see that there is a British national interest running across party lines and, indeed, across Parliaments.

I know that we are not supposed to mention people in the Gallery, Mr Dobbin, but if the American ambassador is listening to the debate, I am sure that he will very much welcome the bipartisan support for the long-term depth, and the understanding of the importance, of the relationship to both our countries.

I declare an interest as the joint-treasurer of the British-American Parliamentary Group, which is one of the few groups to be established, in effect, as a statutory body in Parliament. It does an enormous amount of work to foster Anglo-American understanding. Indeed, only last month, we had an extremely good conference, in Winchester, which is pretty close to the constituency of the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). We had good exchanges with Senators led by the estimable and formidable Senator Leahy, and that debate showed that there is a huge degree of common understanding and interest; if there is not necessarily common agreement on all the issues, there is much shared ground.

When the debate was chosen, I was a little uncertain what direction it would take. I am sure that colleagues would agree that, with its being introduced by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), that was perfectly understandable. May I, however, congratulate him not only on securing the debate, but on the main thrust of his argument?

I was interested in how the hon. Gentleman introduced the Syria vote. Some ill-informed and ill-intentioned media comment has sought to take partisan advantage, which has sometimes been a feature of our debates, and to try to undermine the relationship with the US. That has come from various strands, as we all know: although there is broad agreement on and widespread appreciation of the relationship’s values, there are hostile strands in both parties. There is what I describe as the post-imperial League of Empire Loyalists tendency—it is now less strong in the Conservative party, but it still exists—who really resent the change in the balance of forces, although that change is inevitable, given the size and strength of the United States. In some cases, there is also an elitist snobbishness towards the United States, which, by the way, appears on the left of the political spectrum as well. There are also those who still hanker after the times when they supported the losing side in the cold war.

May I put it on the record that even at the time of the most anti-American phase of the Labour party, the right hon. Gentleman, the shadow Minister, never signed up to that point of view?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. However, people often talk about a party taking one position or another, but, in reality, there is always a balance of opinion within a party. The difference is that the balance shifts. The Labour party did not overwhelmingly go from being unilateralist to multilateralist. The balance shifted from being 55:45 one way to 55:45 the other way, so there were always many colleagues on both sides of the argument still holding those views. Indeed, as we saw recently in the debate on Trident, there was a strong level of agreement between the two serious parties in this Parliament on the importance of maintaining a nuclear deterrent at the minimum level necessary. Furthermore, as he rightly stressed, there was an understanding of the importance of our transatlantic relationship in ensuring the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of that deterrent.

I welcome the suggestion by the shadow defence team, which I hope will remain its position under its new head, that given that even the Liberal Democrats now claim to want to have two replacement Trident submarines, we should get on with making that decision irreversible as soon as possible so that Trident does not become a political football in coalition negotiations after the next election, as, regrettably, it was after the last one.

That is a matter for the hon. Gentleman to discuss with his own party. He is right to allude to the fact that the Liberal Democrats want a deterrent as long as it is not one that actually works.

All those views that I have just described are the flotsam and jetsam of this debate, because the deep tides in British public and political opinion run strongly in the direction of the relationship between our countries. The hon. Member for Lichfield rightly stressed the real strength and depth of that relationship.

It is important that, in such difficult times, we focus on not just current issues and interests, but values, culture and language that have bound us over generations. Of course such a discussion will focus to some extent on our joint military actions, especially in two world wars, and the vital role played by our shared intelligence capabilities, which are crucial to the security of this country, especially in a world where all of us face threats from international and internal terrorism. We should also focus on the way in which we have drawn on each other on constitutional issues, our legal framework, common law and political issues. Sometimes such issues start in one state in the United States or in the UK and then become part of a common dialogue, driven even more now by the advent of the internet, which allows people readily to access such arguments. Furthermore, both of our countries have, separately and in international forums, campaigned round the world for freedom of the seas, free trade, free speech and free communications.

The hon. Gentleman stressed the enormous depth of our financial relationship and of the joint investments in each of our countries, which, interestingly, are followed only in the UK’s case by the joint relationship with Australia and the substantial investment there. Australia is a deep ally of both countries, and, as the hon. Member for the New Forest East said, it has always been there for us, and we, I hope, have always been there for them.

Yes. Even in today’s newspaper, we read about Britain’s cultural export of television programmes. Some £450 million is coming into this country, which is probably balanced, and rightly so, by quite a lot going in the other direction, from TV shows being taken by the United States. There is no need to recite and revisit all the statistics that were quoted by the hon. Member for Lichfield, as we can all see them in everyday business. Again, such trade is not a recent phenomenon. Look at the firms that are seen to be long-standing British companies. Vauxhall, for example, which is actually expanding its production in Ellesmere Port and bringing in new models, has been under the ownership of General Motors for nearly a century now. It is a significant long-term interest, not just a recent phenomenon.

Of course that does not mean that there is always complete concurrence of views or interests between the UK and the US. Geography determines history and influences politics. Sometimes, though, individuals and groups on both sides of the Atlantic seek to exaggerate such differences, but those differences have been there all the way through the relationship. Read the masterly work of Alan Bullock on the life of Ernest Bevin and his period as Foreign Secretary. Huge amounts have been done between our countries, such as the Marshall plan and the foundation of NATO. The Marshall plan, which might have been a casual remark by a US Secretary of State and then picked up very effectively by the British Foreign Secretary, transformed the economic outlook for Europe and highlighted graphically the whole difference of approach between the United States and the Soviet Union in their views on how Europe could develop at the end of the cold war. It was an argument that the Anglo-American alliance clearly won. In those discussions, there were some significant differences and real arguments. The fact that one is a long-term ally and friend does not mean that one does not fight one’s corner. Indeed it is a derogation of duty not to fight for one’s own interest, but it should be done within the right framework and context. Such a stance can be seen in a number of international forums, such as in the permanent five of the United Nations, where we work enormously effectively together, the G8, the G20 and NATO. We are seeing it in the discussions that are taking place over the transatlantic trade and investment partnership and also in the discussions on the trade in services agreement.

There will be areas in which domestic interest lobbies will want to push a particular point of view. In some cases, they will need to be fought for strongly and in other cases there will need to be trade-offs. None the less, they indicate strongly the main thrust, which is to try to bring about the reduction of trade barriers across the world, the increase in world trade and the growth that arises from the ability of companies and individuals to exploit their talents, innovations and improvements to sell in a wider market. That is an enormously important role. There is the question of whether those trade negotiations will, to some extent, undermine the World Trade Organisation. There is a wider agreement that, if agreement cannot be brought to a conclusion, as was the case after the Doha rounds, it would be extremely welcome if there could be this development in freeing up world trade, taking into account the interests and views of other countries—a development in which the roles of the United Kingdom and the United States are not only consistent but working well together.

There are some—the hon. Member for Lichfield veered towards this, or tiptoed towards it—who will try to pose this issue as a dichotomy; they will say that Britain must either be allied with the United States or be part of the EU. In Winston Churchill’s words, we must either look to “Europe” or to “the open sea”. Of course, it was quite interesting that in that quote Churchill said:

“If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea”.

Notice, as always with Churchill, the careful use of words: “If Britain must choose”. However, this is not a choice that we have to make, because it has never been the view of the US that it should just have a bilateral relationship with Britain to the exclusion of its relationships with Europe. Right the way through—indeed, it goes back to the Bevin discussions—there has always been an encouragement from the US for Britain to be involved in and to have a beneficial effect on debates in Europe. Also, at the time of the Marshall plan, when the future of Europe was in the balance, it was absolutely vital that Britain was part of that European economic revival and not standing outside Europe while the future of Europe fell to the Soviet Union to decide.

The right hon. Gentleman refers to that period in the immediate post-war years, and I do not think that the harshest Eurosceptic would dispute the fact that Britain needed to be involved then. However, surely that period also shows that it is possible to be heavily involved in shaping the future of Europe without being a member of a European Union.

Actually, at the time that those discussions were taking place, there was not a European Union; there was not even a European Coal and Steel Community. When President Obama launched the transatlantic trade and investment partnership talks—unfortunately, the latest discussion this week had to be postponed because of events in Washington—he made it clear that the likely time scale for securing a trade agreement would not be possible with a multiplicity of individual countries. Therefore, in bringing together the two major trading areas of the world, it is not in the interests of the United States for one of them to be broken up and divided.

Interestingly enough, that is the view not only of the United States but of Japan, another major trading partner of ours and a massive investor in this country. The Japanese also see our engagement in Europe as part of their investment in the UK; they use the UK as their base within Europe. Also, earlier I mentioned Australian business, and the Japanese view is exactly the view of the Australian business community too. Therefore, the attempt to create a sharp dichotomy between the two and to make it a binary choice between them—either involvement with the United States or with Europe—is not only a false choice but a choice that is not welcomed by our partners.

Just for clarity, I want to make it clear that I have never said, nor do I think that others think, that there is mutual exclusivity. I was referring to the document produced by the United States International Trade Commission, which investigated whether it would be beneficial for the North American Free Trade Agreement if the UK was a member. It took the view that the UK could be a member only if we were to leave the EU. We may or may not have a referendum on this issue in 2017; I hope that we will. But the UK is a global trading nation, and that includes trading with Europe as well as with the United States and Australia. The US and the EU are not mutually exclusive. And while we are bandying around Churchill quotes, I will just throw this one in. He said that the UK is in Europe “not of it”.

As I was saying, I am not sure whether that quote undermines my argument or even contradicts it. However, I am sure that if the Government Whip—the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne)—was still here, he would be very pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman is committed to 2017 rather than to 2014. I am sure that a note has been taken for him.

Finally, I want to look a little more widely, because, as I have alluded to before, some consider it fashionable to blame America for much of the world’s ills. I counsel them to beware of what they wish for. It was very well summed up by President Obama in his address to the UN, in which he said:

“The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”

I believe that our relationship with the US helps to secure, facilitate and support that US engagement with the rest of the world, which is in the interests of Britain, Europe and the wider world.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing this debate on our bilateral relationship with the United States. It is an excellent topic, and one that is particularly relevant to me, as I have just returned from New York, where the world gathered the week before last for the UN General Assembly.

Mr Dobbin, I know that it is not customary to draw attention to those who may be in the Chamber’s Public Gallery, but I hope that you will indulge me and allow me to welcome His Excellency Matthew Barzun, if he is present, to the House of Commons; I understand that it is the first time he has been here. As my hon. Friends the Members for Lichfield and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), have pointed out, this is a morning debate, held on the day on which the House is returning from a lengthy recess for the party conferences, and the main Chamber does not sit until this afternoon, hence the poor attendance at this debate. I just say to the American ambassador, if he is attending this debate or listening to it in any way, that that is no reflection of parliamentarians’ interest in the US; nor is it an indication of complacency about the relationship. It is purely a question of timing and logistics. My hon. Friends were absolutely right to say that if the debate had taken place this afternoon, the chairs in Westminster Hall would have been filled, with Members making points that ranged far more widely than those that we have covered this morning.

Attendance or non-attendance by colleagues notwithstanding, it is true to say that the US remains our single most important bilateral ally. As we have heard this morning, we work as essential and valued partners in taking forward our shared objectives on a vast range of issues around the world. The relationship is crucial to our national security, our prosperity and our defence capability. It is a relationship from which the UK continues to benefit. We have heard historical allusions to the pre-war, first-world-war and post-war periods—my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East can always be relied on to educate and illuminate—and to Bevin. This alliance has been built up over a time stretching way beyond those periods, over generations.

There are few areas of activity in our national lives where we are not beneficially influenced by each other. Our histories are intertwined, and time and again, we have worked together in facing some of the world’s greatest challenges. We have stood side by side over the years, in good times and bad. Our diplomats and intelligence agencies are working together; our soldiers are serving together; our scientists are collaborating; and our businesses are trading together. The values of democracy, the rule of law and free markets have shaped our approach, and we continue to defend those values and advance our shared interests.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has previously characterised the relationship between the US and the UK as “solid but not slavish”. At its heart, the US-UK relationship is based on extensive historical, cultural and people-to-people links through our common language, our shared spirit of innovation and creativity and our popular culture and sport. Indeed, we have even heard about the increased exchange of television programmes. We have sent them “Downton Abbey” and, personally, I think we benefit from “Homeland”, but that is just my view. For followers of parliamentary proceedings I recommend the American version of “House of Cards” with Kevin Spacey, which I saw on a plane the other day; it is absolutely fantastic. The UK and US share much popular culture and sport, and our nations have always had a special affinity, which continues to grow.

An estimated 829,000 British citizens live in the United States, with some 180,000 US citizens living in the UK. More than 3.7 million Britons visited the US last year, and an estimated 2.8 million Americans visited the UK. Those incredible figures underline how ingrained the bond between our two countries is.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on his visit to Washington in May this year, the US-UK relationship is a “partnership without parallel.” During the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Washington in June, the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, characterised the bond between our countries as

“without question, an essential, if not the essential relationship”.

I am somewhat surprised that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) did not allude to the no doubt Irish antecedence of Secretary Kerry.

Our objectives have always been closely aligned, but as we have heard this morning, there will inevitably be occasions when the UK and the US do not agree. That does not mean that we defer to the US in a slavish, poodle-type way, though that is sometimes the charge. Indeed, the key to our relationship is our ability to maintain frank and open dialogue even when we disagree. That is rare among international partners, and I believe it is valued by both sides.

We work closely with the United States on the full spectrum of our foreign, defence and prosperity priorities. It would be impossible to list all the areas where we are working together, but I will highlight a few of them. On foreign policy, the United States and the United Kingdom have been at the forefront of international efforts to address the crisis in Syria. We are focused on getting the international community to unite to bring all sides together to achieve the political solution that is needed to end the conflict. We worked closely with the United States and others to ensure the passage of the recent groundbreaking Security Council resolution. Both the United Kingdom and the United States are also at the forefront of international efforts to alleviate the human suffering in Syria and the wider region in response to the more than 6 million people who have been displaced.

On the middle east peace process, negotiating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an urgent foreign policy priority for both the United Kingdom and the United States. We welcome the United States-led efforts to revive the peace process, and particularly the focus that Secretary Kerry has brought to bear on the issues in recent months. We very much welcome his knowledge of and commitment to the area. We have given our full backing to those efforts, including through support for the economic package that will form part of any solution.

More broadly, we continue to work with the United States to play a leading role in international institutions. We co-ordinate positions at every level, including in the United Nations Security Council as members of the P5 group of permanent members, and within the G8, the G20 and NATO. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has recently announced that the United Kingdom will host the NATO summit in 2014—incidentally, a year when the people of Scotland will have a chance to vote on whether they wish to stay part of the United Kingdom, a decision that will have huge implications for the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent and the location thereof. The Scottish people need to be apprised of the implications of that vote, and they need to think very carefully about them when they vote in the referendum.

Earlier this year, we worked closely on the outcomes of our presidency of the G8, which I am glad to say was down on the beautiful shores in Fermanagh. We focused on the “three Ts” agenda—trade, tax and transparency. The United States was particularly supportive of the transparency element, and vocally backed the UK’s proposal in G8 discussions at official and political level. Within the G20, there is also excellent contact between the UK and US sherpa offices.

As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East concentrated the majority of his speech on intelligence and defence matters—subjects on which he has an almost unequalled reputation in this House. As he said, the defence relationship has for decades been one of the foundations of the UK-US partnership. We have fought together in six major campaigns over the past 20 years. Much has been made of Winston Churchill, and I suppose it does not need to be said that if there was ever an embodiment of the special relationship it is he, not least because half of him was most decidedly American. He brought to British politics an American angle and perspective that other politicians at the time certainly lacked, and we were the beneficiaries.

The strategies, policies and plans of the United Kingdom and the United States are well aligned. UK and US forces are now more interoperable than ever, and we have worked effectively together to find solutions to the challenges that we face in our operational environments. We are focused on sustaining that close bilateral defence relationship as we plan the draw-down in Afghanistan.

The threats we face today require a much broader security relationship. Through our unique and indispensible relationship in the fields of intelligence, cyber and counter-terrorism, we work together to protect the people of our countries and their prosperity. The counter-terrorism relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States is vital to the protection of UK interests at home and overseas from the threats posed by al-Qaeda and allied terrorist groups. The United States remains our most important partner in that field.

On prosperity, I am grateful for the fact that the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) has established an all-party group on European Union-United States trade and investment. He led a Back-Bench debate on the importance of the transatlantic trade and investment partnership back in July. Simply, the US is our primary partner on prosperity; we have heard various figures bandied around this morning. Our close collaboration in the wake of the financial crisis has been important in supporting the progress we have made since 2010 to address the deficit and debt and to support economic recovery, jobs and growth. As we have heard, the United States remains the largest investor in the UK, and the UK is the US’s No. 1 investment destination in Europe.

The relationship will be further strengthened as the EU and the US embark on the largest and most significant free-trade deal in history—the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. A comprehensive deal could be worth up to £10 billion to the UK economy and will reinvigorate the global free-trade agenda. A deal that boosts the economies of both the EU and the US, as our biggest trading network, is strongly in our interests. As announced by the Deputy Prime Minister when he was in Washington on 24 September, a recent study shows that every US state, including New York, would benefit from EU-US free-trade agreements, and that is not to be dismissed lightly.

The hon. Member for Shannon—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Strangford talked about US investment in Northern Ireland.

I am happy to be the Member for Strangford, and I have no wish to be the Member for Shannon in the Republic of Ireland.

Indeed. We were having a cross-border discussion earlier, so I got confused between Strangford, Shannon and the hon. Gentleman’s name. He knows me well and I know him well, as I served as the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office for two and a half years.

I am glad to say that I understand that His Excellency the American ambassador has already visited Northern Ireland. We very much welcome the interest shown in the Northern Ireland peace process by successive American Presidents alongside British Prime Ministers. Equally, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister not long ago had a successful trip to the United States to attract inward investment. That relationship is incredibly important, too.

Achieving all those objectives in and with the United States is important. We have a high-performing network of posts across the United States. As well as the embassy in Washington, we have nine consulates-general, one consulate and a UK Government office in Seattle.

I want to reinforce what the Minister said about the excellent work performed by our representatives in not only Washington but other parts of the US, which, although less visited, are enormously important to our economic and political relationship.

The shadow Minister is entirely correct. Too often when we think of countries, we think of the capital and a few other cities, but the United States is absolutely huge. British businesses do business right across the United States, and I was attempting to illustrate that our footprint is well extended to reflect those interests.

Recently, I saw for myself the work of our incredibly dynamic consul general in New York, Danny Lopez. That included the promotion of British menswear at Bloomingdale’s the week before last, which was themed around the GREAT campaign. I also met the brilliant finalists from the GREAT tech awards. My brief says they were brilliant, and they were: they spoke a language completely unknown to me, although my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, who is tremendously technical, would have understood everything they were talking about. However, I understood absolutely nothing, and I felt extremely old talking to them. The finalists were all from incredibly dynamic start-up companies. Five innovative US companies have won prizes, including a visit to the UK and custom support to help them establish themselves in Tech City, in London. One UK tech company was recognised for the impact it has had since establishing a US presence.

There was some discussion when the GREAT brand was introduced, because Northern Ireland was left off the posters, but I am glad to say that the majority now refer to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. GREAT continues to be an incredibly good marketing brand, showcasing the best of what is on offer from the UK, and it continues to have a strong identity across the world, particularly in the United States. Our embassies and high commissions around the world are still doing a lot of work to support the campaign.

I was not sure that we would fill the time allotted for this debate, and we might have had to look to our American cousins for a refresher on how to extend debates. I would not use the word “filibuster” to describe what happened in Washington the other day, because I was told it was not a filibuster, although it was certainly what I understood to be one. Unfortunately, the days of filibustering are over in this place, as we have all been drilled into speaking for limited amounts of time, and our terrible fixed hours do not allow us to recount our life stories, or talk about our favourite foods and bands and our travel itineraries, to extend debates.

I would not, however, call this a debate, because that suggests that there is some disagreement, confrontation or contrary view. I hope everyone would agree that we have been as one this morning in recognising the enduring importance of our American friends and allies, and in recognising that the relationship has to be balanced, rather than being one of slavish obedience, because we need to respect each other’s differences, as I believe we do. At the end of the day, ours is the most enduring relationship, although it may not be the United States’ oldest relationship, which may well be with France. France is a great country, but it is not, I believe, as important to the United States as the United Kingdom is.

In conclusion, I want to take right hon. and hon. Members back to May 2011. Next door in Westminster Hall, during his state visit to London—not Paris—President Obama addressed Members of Parliament and Peers. He described the US-UK relationship as

“one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known.”

I believe unequivocally that that is still the case, and this Government will continue to ensure—with the support of the Opposition, I am sure—that the relationship remains strong, close and frank, so that both our countries and their peoples continue to benefit from our shared partnership.

Sitting suspended.

Bow Match Women’s Strike

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and to welcome the colleagues who are here to support the debate. I am delighted at the opportunity to talk about and commemorate the strike and consequent achievements of the match women of the Bow Bryant & May factory in July 1888, 125 years ago. I grew up with their story, living, as I did, in a working-class home within walking distance of the factory in east London.

In my research in preparation for the debate, and in thinking about why we should mark that defining event in the history of the women’s and trade union movements, I was interested to note a recent publication by Kate Adie, the former BBC chief news correspondent, “Fighting on the Home Front”. It is a challenge to what has been conventional and acceptable in the recording of women’s roles in wartime, and it represents Ms Adie’s determination that women should not be written out of the history of the first world war. She records that the munitions industry depended on nearly 1 million women workers, and that others toiled as welders, locomotive engine cleaners, policewomen and taxi drivers, and in many other roles traditionally reserved for men. Those women and the jobs they did were visible then, but they are invisible now. Their stories have faded from the chronicles and histories of that most terrible of wars, the centenary of the start of which will be marked next year. My purpose in seeking today’s debate is to help to ensure that the role of the match women will not be similarly overlooked when we recount the history of the fight for women’s rights, the struggle to establish trade unions, and the story of the communities in east London.

I want first to deal with a matter of language. Much of the telling of events at Bryant & May’s factory has referred to match “girls” and has presented a sentimentalised vision of young, helpless souls, dependent on the protection of others—who are, of course, older, wiser and “better” men, as, in the main, are the historians who tell their stories. So today let us tell it as it was. Those workers were women with a fight on their hands to determine their own fate. Yes, some were young; all were working-class; many were, like my family, of Irish extraction; but they were women, not girls, and that is how we should see them and talk about them.

Secondly, I want to talk about leadership. Many versions of the match women’s story attribute leadership of the strike to Annie Besant, whose name is inextricably linked to it. Indeed, the memorial plaque on the former Bryant & May factory—now converted to housing known as the Bow quarter—confidently

“commemorates the role of social pioneer and feminist Annie Besant in leading the demands for better pay and conditions”.

Annie Besant was a controversial character and a writer, journalist and social activist in a variety of causes including women’s rights and secularism. It is true that her journalism and political activity played a pivotal role in the tale of the match women and the events that they precipitated. However, to present her role as one of leadership of the strike is to fall into the trap of seeing history solely from the perspective of the middle-class storyteller, and it frankly does not reflect the reality of the events as they unfolded. The women went against the advice of Annie Besant, who felt that they should not strike.

I am most grateful to Louise Raw, whose outstanding work first published in 2009 documents in fine detail the strike and the events leading up to it. In “Striking a Light: the Bryant & May Matchwomen and their Place in History”, she meticulously describes the life and times of the women who worked at the match factory, and the events that led 1,400 women to walk out on strike in July 1888 and stay on strike for more than two weeks, until their demands were met. Ms Raw shows not only that Annie Besant was not the strike leader, but that she favoured a boycott by match purchasers rather than direct action. It was the women themselves who were in charge and who determined that a strike was necessary. Ms Raw’s work demonstrates clearly that the women were the leaders of the strike, and her research in the Bryant & May archive suggests that the names of the strike leaders were Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin.

At the time of the strike, Bryant & May was a household name. It had become the largest British employer of match workers. The factory was the largest employer of female casual labour in the east end. Bryant & May had established a powerful monopoly, taking over rival factories, so that by 1888 it could pay its workers less than it had 12 years earlier. It claimed to be paying 10 to 12 shillings a week to “steady” workers in 1876, but in 1888 the strike register showed women earning just 2 shillings a week, or about £12 in today’s money.

Before considering the strike itself I will remind the House of the inhumane and dangerous working conditions prevalent at the time, which were experienced in extreme form by the women working for Bryant & May. The women worked with white phosphorus, which was known to be extremely toxic and the cause of phosphorus necrosis or “phossy jaw”. It caused the development of abscesses filled with stinking pus in the lower jaw, gums and cheeks with affected tissue fluorescing with a whitish-green glow. White phosphorus was banned in Finland in 1872 and in Denmark in 1874. It was still in use in Britain until it was banned following the Berne convention of 1906, despite the existence of a safer alternative—red phosphorus.

One of the key but relatively small demands of the match women, which the management would not sanction, was that they should not be required to eat their food in the factory, in rooms made toxic by the white phosphorus fumes. However, the injury caused to health through the dangerous conditions of the factory was compounded by the insult of the management’s behaviour towards the workers. Low pay, very long hours, dangerous machinery, arbitrary fines and even physical abuse were commonplace. Hearing the grim news of the conditions, Annie Besant investigated and published a story about them in her weekly newspaper The Link, headlined “White Slavery in London”, prompting Bryant & May to threaten her with libel. The company instigated a witch hunt among the work force and tried to pressure workers to reveal who had spoken to Besant. It bullied them, depriving them of work and wages. It was the sacking of one of the workers who the company believed had spoken to Annie Besant that provoked the women and led to a mass walkout, with 1,400 women on strike.

Bryant & May had not expected that. It immediately offered to reinstate the women it had fired, but it was too late. By the morning of 3 July, the workers had formed a picket line, which continued for two weeks, along with mass meetings, marches in the east end, a lobby of Parliament, pressure from shareholders and much coverage in the local and national press. Bryant & May was finally under pressure.

Let us remember that the decision to strike would not have been taken lightly, as a strike must have been extraordinarily difficult to sustain. The women and their families would have experienced considerable hardship. Without their pittance wages or any savings on which to fall back for rent and food, they would have been destitute. Contemporary observers record that exceptionally high levels of mutual support among the women kept the strike going.

The company was forced to settle the dispute. Arbitrary fines were abolished, a grievance process was established for working disputes and a separate room was made available where the women could eat their meals away from phosphorus fumes. The Star newspaper reported:

“The victory of the girls…is complete. It was won without preparation—without organisation—without funds. It is a turning point in the history of our industrial development”,

and truly it was. Crucially, the women were allowed to form a trade union so that future disputes, if any, might be laid officially in front of the firm: the Union of Women Match Workers, the largest union of women and girls in the country, with Annie Besant as secretary.

Unarguably, those match women did something amazing: they brought to account a great power of industry, established greater control over their working lives and made a huge contribution to the development of the organised labour movement and the Labour party. Yet their proper place in the beginning of the labour movement seems to have been ceded to the great dock strike of 1889, which took place just down the road. Why is that? Is it because they were girls, women, majority Irish, unskilled or working class?

It was not always thus. At the time of the great dock strike, its leader, John Burns, urged a mass meeting of tens of thousands of strikers to

“stand shoulder to shoulder. Remember the match women who won their fight and formed a union”.

The women’s victory was a touchstone—a landmark in the history of the labour movement—and it should be recognised as such in our conversations, our considerations and our curriculum. We should give thought to the relevance of the match women’s achievements to industrial relations and community organisation today.

Let us take a little time to reflect on the role of women in the modern trade union movement in this country. The Government’s labour force survey tells us that in 2012, 6.5 million workers were trade union members, up by 59,000 from 2011, and that 55% of trade union members are women, forming a clear majority of the country’s trade union membership. Women employees are more likely to be in a union—29% of women, compared with 23% of men, a trend seen in each of the last 11 years of the survey.

Women are as pivotal to the modern trade union movement as they were in the fight for rights in the 1880s. The year 2013 marks the first time that two women have led the TUC at the same time: Frances O’Grady as general secretary and Lesley Mercer as president. I commend them, as I commend the TUC for its role in co-ordinating the trade unions and promoting the work that they do collectively to protect the interests of workers and the communities in which they live.

There are modern parallels to the match women’s organisation and mutual support against oppressive behaviour by employers. In the contract cleaning sector, porters, cleaners and domestic staff went on strike in 2012 at Swindon’s Great Western hospital over allegations of bullying and harassment by their employer, Carillion, followed by allegations that non-white employees had been asked by their white managers to hand over gifts, including jewellery, in order to get time off work. Strike action, supported by the GMB, was successful in exposing such practices and ensuring that Carillion, a massive outsourcing company, took its workers’ concerns seriously. The spirit of the match women was alive and well on the Swindon picket lines as the workers cooked and brought food for each other, showing mutual support and solidarity in the face of alleged dubious employment practices.

For me, the story involves deep personal memories. My late mother was a working-class woman from a very poor family in east London, within walking distance of the Bryant & May factory in Bow. Her education was disrupted by the second world war, and she left school at 14. When I was seven, she went to work stacking sugar at the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery at Silvertown. She joined the union in her first days there as a matter of course; it was what workers did to protect themselves and each other. There was never any doubt about it. She was the daughter of a man who had had to stand on cobblestones begging for work day after day, week after week and month after month. She understood what trade unions did to protect workers.

Later in her working life, my mother became a shop steward and fought hard for the rights of her sisters and fellow workers. I am told that she is remembered by Tate’s management for her audacity and strength of purpose. It was she who told me of the inspiration of the Bow match women. She used their story in her own way to make the point that leadership in working communities comes from within, which is as true now as it was then.

I hope that I have helped in some small way to preserve the place that those women’s story should have in our collective history. I pay tribute to the bravery of the women who fought so bravely and so well 125 years ago. We owe them so much.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on her excellent and moving speech. I am feeling emotional after her final words. This is an important debate on the history of women in the trade union movement and politics more generally. My hon. Friend’s case for greater recognition of such trailblazers by the Government was extremely well argued.

The story of the match girls and women played a formative part in the development of my political beliefs and eventual political engagement, both as a trade unionist and later as a politician. At school, during my history O-level, I remember learning about the terrible conditions endured by the young women of the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, some of whom were a lot younger than I was at the time. Those conditions involved 14-hour days and harsh fines for missed work days, and there were the terrible health implications of working with white phosphorus, which led to phossy jaw and blindness, as we heard from my hon. Friend.

While learning about those extraordinary women and girls and relating their struggle to my own experience as a working-class girl living and working in north-east England, I began to understand and appreciate the necessity for collective action and a strong trade union movement. I felt that it was a case of “There but for the grace of God go I”, and I appreciated what they and others had achieved for people like me. I was poor, but I could still get a good education and a good job with safe working conditions. My first job was in the office at a Tyneside glass factory, so the comparison is not so far-fetched.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should recognise the significant help of Fabian socialists such as Annie Besant. Ultimately, however, as my hon. Friend said, that event in our labour history was one of ordinary working-class women collectively organising and acting to change their pay and working conditions. History is written by the victors, so working-class women have been written out of it regularly, but this was a momentous victory, although it is still not featured as a significant moment in our industrial and political history. The match women and girls simply do not receive the recognition that they deserve.

The late 19th century was a period of fervent political action by workers: there was the rebirth of the trade union movement that we know today, following the actions of the Tolpuddle martyrs; the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement; and the formation of the British Labour party. Yet the match women of the east end of London are regularly overlooked in the history of the period, and their significance is ignored. Trade unions were not decriminalised in Britain until 1871, after decades of repression by the political and industrial elites, but it was the match women and their collective action in Bow that encouraged other workers in the east end and the wider country to collectivise and to create trade unions.

Working-class women standing up to powerful factory owners during a period when women were largely excluded from public life, and reigniting an appetite for collective action and trade unionism, is such a significant and extraordinary feat that we should certainly recognise it. Henry Snell, a supporter of the match girls and former MP for Woolwich, said:

“The number affected was quite small, but the matchgirls’ strike had an influence upon the minds of the workers which entitles it to be regarded as one of the most important events in the history of labour organisation in any country”.

It certainly had a huge influence on me, and is definitely one of the reasons why I am standing here today. As we all know, it is important to understand and recognise our history so that it does not repeat itself, and the story of the match girls is a part of that tradition. It is a story that reverberates with us today, both here and abroad.

We hear regular jokes and stories, some emanating from Government, about health and safety regulations “gone mad”, or the need to cut the “red tape” put in place to improve and protect the working conditions of British workers, but that prompts the question: where would we be without that much-maligned red tape, the vast majority of which has been so hard fought for over the past 100 years? The answer can be seen in developing countries such as Bangladesh, where, earlier this year, we saw thousands of women and men dragged, dead and injured, from the rubble of a collapsed factory used by well-known high street retailers. A report commissioned by the Bangladesh Government found that there had been more than 400 violations of work practices and safety standards. It is not too much of a stretch to say that, were it not for the trade union movement in this country, the health and safety of British workers would be similarly ignored.

Factory life in Britain during the industrial revolution was arduous and back-breaking, but for the men and women working in the coal mines of the north-east, the cotton mills of Yorkshire, or the matchstick factories of Bow, trade unions and collective action gave them a voice when previously they had been voiceless, and that voice won them better working conditions and a fairer share of the wealth that they were creating. Whether workers and trade unions in Britain who continue to fight to improve and maintain those conditions in this country, or those abroad who are struggling to improve conditions, everyone can glean inspiration from the match women and girls, who taught us about the positive impact that collective action, a little tenacity and a lot of bravery can have. I for one honour their memory, and thank them for being my inspiration. It is only right that the Government should also recognise their contribution, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing the debate and on setting out with great passion the facts about the match women’s strike. She also set the record straight on a number of issues. Furthermore, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on her personal account of how important the match women’s strike was for the trade union movement, not only in this country, but because of its wider ramifications abroad.

Most of my time is spent grappling with present-day issues in my constituency, and focusing on the future for that area. Occasionally, however, we are reminded of how key moments in our history can shine a bright light on the present and on the future. Pausing to think about the past does not mean that we are living in it; it helps us to understand where we come from, as well as the road ahead.

How did I become interested in a strike that happened in east London 125 years ago, involving mostly women, many of whom were from the Irish immigrant community? Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, I am not a native of the east end of London. Originally, I am from the north-west, and I represent a constituency in east Yorkshire—all up north—but in 1985 I came to east London to study at Queen Mary and Westfield college in Mile End, at the other end of Bow road from the Bryant & May factory site. In addition, I served as a Poplar councillor, for Lansbury ward, its name another echo of the proud Labour history of the east end of London.

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of reading historian Louise Raw’s book on the match women, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has already mentioned. Louise spent 15 years studying the events of the 1880s and their historical significance. Her book, “Striking a Light”, sets the record straight on what really happened, what it led to and why the strike is so relevant today. I was also honoured to attend the first match women’s festival, on 6 July this year.

The match women’s strike has never been given the prominence that it deserves. Their self-organisation has been overlooked and their bravery has never been properly recognised, but if it had not been for them winning their strike in 1888, it is possible that many of us here today, especially the Labour women MPs, would not be Members of Parliament and speaking in the House of Commons.

In 1888, the match women had few rights at work and even weaker rights as citizens—the right to vote was still 30 years away for the first women, and parliamentary democracy as a means of improving the lot of working people was at a far less advanced stage. As women, the match women were frowned on for working at all, even though doing so was a matter of survival. I understand that there was even a sense of shame about working for Bryant & May, which is ironic and poignant, considering how proud of those workers many of us are today. The material poverty and exploitation experienced in everyday life by the match women was truly shocking. Bryant & May in the late 19th century was a prime example of what today would be called a flexible labour market, taken to its ultimate extreme. Today, I am sure that Bryant & May would be misusing zero-hours contracts to the hilt, and the concept of a living wage would be utterly alien to it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said, Fabian journalist Annie Besant, whom I like to describe as the Polly Toynbee of her day, supported a consumer boycott of Bryant & May, not a strike. As has been asked in this debate, how therefore can she be said to have led the strike? Annie Besant, however, did write in The Link on 23 June 1888 some of the most moving words about the match women—words that led to the strike, if only by accident:

“But who cares for the fate of these white wage slaves? Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because under-fed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on to the streets provided only that Bryant & May shareholders get their 23 per cent and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statutes and buy parks?”

The words written by one of the match women in response to management bullying, which my hon. Friend mentioned, received by Annie Besant on 4 July 1888, were similarly moving:

“Dear Lady they have been trying to get the poor girls to say that it is all lies that has been printed and trying to make us sign papers that it is all lies; dear Lady nobody knows what it is we have put up with and we will not sign them. We thank you very much for the kindness you have shown to us. My dear Lady we hope you will not get into any trouble on our behalf as what you have spoken is quite true.”

A number of Lib Dem MPs signed my recent early-day motion 337 about the match women. I wondered at the time whether any of them had studied their own party’s history, considering how badly the match women were treated in the years leading up to the 1888 strike at the hands of a company owned and run by prominent supporters of the Liberal party. Those Liberals imposed low and falling pay, dangerous working conditions, covered up the horrendous phossy jaw disease, and had a draconian system of fines. Their bullying led to the 1888 strike, after they tried to force workers to denounce Annie Besant’s article. Those were the employers who docked 1 shilling from the pay of the match women to fund the statue of Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone that still stands today in Bow road.

This episode is heavy with irony. The director running Bryant & May when the statue was commissioned by Theodore Bryant was one Wilberforce Bryant, who took over from his Quaker father. As a Hull MP, I am proud of Hull’s William Wilberforce and his anti-slavery campaign. The irony of this worst of employers carrying the name Wilberforce is not lost on me.

It is even more ironic that the poverty pay of the match women was docked to put up a statute in tribute to William Gladstone. After all, the Gladstones could easily have financed the statue from the £93,526 compensation that they received for losing their 2,039 slaves when slavery was abolished. Annie Besant’s famous “White slavery in London” article in The Link reported that the match women, given half a day’s unpaid holiday to attend the unveiling, threw blood on the statue, protesting, “We paid for it!” If people go down Bow road this morning, they will see that the hands of that statute are still red—a great tradition that has been kept up.

These events go some way to explaining the political climate in which the Labour party was created a little more than a decade later, and why the Liberal party could not and would not stand up for ordinary people, especially women. During the suffragette campaign of 100 years ago, the Liberal Government introduced the “cat and mouse” Act to force-feed suffragette political prisoners, including Emily Wilding Davison. I cannot help but notice that the Liberal Democrats still seem to have a problem with women. There are still no women Lib Dems in the coalition Cabinet, and there are more male Lib Dem MPs with knighthoods and similar titles than Lib Dem women MPs.

The victory of the match women inspired the growth of trade union recruitment among the lowest paid unskilled workers, many of them women, who had been ignored by trade union leaders throughout the 19th century. Until then, unions were largely only interested in organising skilled male workers, who were regarded as more respectable. At the recent match women’s festival, I was delighted that Frances O’Grady, the first woman general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, spoke—someone who represents a positive image of trade unions now, just as the match women did in 1888.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham mentioned, by inspiring the 1889 dock strike by male dock workers from the same east end households, streets and communities, the match women changed trade union history. Of course, this was acknowledged by dockers’ leaders at the time, such as John Burns, but then faded from history textbooks until Louise Raw’s recent research. This new unionism led to historic political developments, too, as growing working class alienation from the Liberal establishment set the scene for the creation of the Labour party in 1900. Anyone who understands Labour’s origins is better equipped to answer the current slur about our being the welfare party, because we are the party of work.

Many men and women who have had such an influence on our history have great monuments to them. Winston Churchill stands outside the Palace of Westminster; Emmeline Pankhurst stands next to the House of Lords; and William Wilberforce looks down from a column 90 feet high in Hull. The match women are marked only by an inaccurate blue plaque outside the Bow Quarter in Fairfield road, at the Bryant & May site. Worse still, round the corner on Bow road stands that statue to the Liberal politician admired by their employer and paid for by docking the match women’s pay. Perhaps the Minister for blue plaques, who is here today, will consider what else he can do to ensure that there is an appropriate plaque and appropriate recognition of the role played by these women.

Anyone studying the achievements of the Labour party, such as our national health service, rightly thinks of Nye Bevan and Clement Attlee, but they should also remember those 1,400 brave match women in Bow, especially those at the forefront of organising that strike campaign: Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin. For the Labour party, this is where it all began: with the founding mothers of the party.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on setting out the case for these women workers so well and for placing it in context, then and now. My hon. Friend said that this was a story that she grew up with. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) reminded us that she was taught this story in O-level history lessons. I, too, first met this story doing O-level history in rural Leicestershire. A young woman teacher taught us for just one period a week about the social history of struggle and endeavour across the ages, and the one bit that I really remember is the match girls’ strike. It was taught as the match girls’ strike, and there was a romanticism to it. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham told us the story through the eyes of the people struggling at the time, thanks to the excellent work of Louise Raw, in “Striking a Light”, and others.

It is interesting that the way we view history changes over time. None the less, that story made an impact on me, as a 14-year-old, because it related to my experiences of visiting my aunties and my father, working in the densely populated boot and shoe factories in the village of Sileby, where they all worked and strived to earn the money to bring us all up—me and my cousins—in our family. The story of struggle and endeavour in the 1880s struck a chord in respect of the working conditions of the 1960s.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) reminded us that often we hear pleas for flexible working, but that that can, at its worst, be as it was at Bryant & May in the 1880s. Currently, there are zero-hour contracts and the minimum wage, for example. We have come a long way, but there is still further to go. Visiting factories—steelworks and distribution centres—in my constituency, I see a different working environment enjoyed by workers today, compared with workers of yesteryear.

I, too, have memories to do with the match girls issue, although I will not go into them.

I agree with my hon. Friend that working standards and health and safety in this country have improved, but we have outsourced our manufacturing, through globalisation, to people in Vietnam, Indonesia, China, India and Bangladesh, for example, which my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) mentioned. Women and men are working in appalling conditions, often in authoritarian countries that claim to be communist but actually do not allow free, independent trade unionism.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reminder that, as we make progress in the United Kingdom, some of these difficulties are exported to other parts of the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West reminded us about the recent tragic circumstances in the garment industry in Bangladesh, which had an immediate influence and an impact on the morale and feelings of people in my constituency, which has a large Bangladeshi population. We live in a global world and we need to show leadership and take action, as my hon. Friend has indicated, to get better living and working conditions for everybody.

It is worth looking at how the newspapers reported the case at the time; it is a reminder of how what is written in the press is sometimes not altogether accurate. In an interview with Bartholomew Bryant in The Star newspaper in July 1888, he was asked,

“What is the cause of the strike?”

He responded,

“Why, a girl was dismissed yesterday; it had nothing to do with Mrs Besant. She refused to follow the instructions of the foreman, and as she was irregular anyway, she was dismissed.”

He was then asked,

“Is it not very unusual that all the girls should strike because of one?”

He replied,

“Yes, but I've no doubt they have been influenced by the twaddle of one.”

The Times of June 1888 had a slightly different perspective:

“The pity is that the matchgirls have not been suffered to take their own course but have been egged on to strike by irresponsible advisers. No effort has been spared by those pests of the modern industrialized world to bring this quarrel to a head.”

Ms Raw’s work, “Striking a Light”, shows how wrong such judgments were, and we are reminded that the press does not always report things accurately. Sadly, that even relates to some of the things we read today.

It is important to recognise the role that the match women played in establishing better health and safety and trade union rights. They achieved so much in so little time, but left such a large legacy. I am sure the Minister will recognise that when he speaks today.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing the debate and remembering the match girls’ strike. What the ladies went through and what the strike represented are still pertinent. The issues that affected people then are still relevant in today’s workplace; very many people still suffer bad terms and conditions and work in appalling conditions.

In July, the Daily Mirror had an excellent headline. It claimed that the repercussions of what happened 125 years ago changed workers’ rights across the world. The significance of those young women’s bravery and determination goes far beyond the shores of this country. Their actions echoed across the world, so it is right that they are being honoured and that we are paying tribute to them.

In July this year, the Government passed legislation to abolish a lot of health and safety laws, which was an appalling thing to do. We have already heard about the phosphorus and the health issues that arose, and we still have hazardous workplaces. Abolishing health and safety laws so that employers can have an easy ride is deplorable. The Government’s vilification of the trade unions continues. Again, that is deplorable. Government Members talk about trade unions as though they are ogres fighting for themselves and getting millions of pounds in salaries. I am proud of the Labour party’s historical link with the trade union movement. When I get letters from various trade unions on issues in Parliament, I am proud to represent their views.

For example, I had letters and e-mails about the suggested change in Sunday working hours. What is wrong with a trade union writing to tell us that that is not good, because Sunday is sometimes the only day that their members have a chance to rest and their families to spend time together? There is nothing sinister or murky in such an approach. We have had letters about pay and pensions and employment rights. There is nothing wrong in their writing to us about things that people still need. Pay inequality still massively exists and we still have health and safety issues. With the advent of zero-hours contracts—more and more are being used—workers have no rights whatever. If trade unions write to Labour or other Members of Parliament to ask for provisions to be changed, Members do not need to feel ashamed of raising the issues. There is nothing wrong with trade unions arguing for rights.

If the Government really believe that they govern on behalf of the whole country, they should fight for the trade union movement. Instead of repeatedly condemning, ridiculing and demonising it, they should recognise the fact that the trade union movement is a force for good. It represents millions of people: the people who wash our plates, clean the houses and the streets, and provide the food on our tables. They are the hard-working people who are members of trade unions and we should be proud to represent them. They should not be portrayed —as the Government do, aided by the right-wing media—as bogeymen and an evil influence in this country. They are not; they are a force for good. A democratic society needs them. The Labour party is proud of its historical links with the trade union movement. The party started from that movement, and we will continue to have that wonderful relationship.

I am very proud to mention in Parliament and elsewhere the issues that the trade unions write to me about. All they are asking for is better terms and conditions for their members, who are often paid the minimum wage and have to work long hours. The unions often represent the poorest and most disadvantaged people in our society. We should all be proud of representing them and proud to raise the work of the trade union movement. The Government’s continual removal of workers’ rights and health and safety legislation is doing a disservice. It shows that they are concerned with only one group of people in this country, which is not the poor ordinary working people.

May I begin with a personal reflection, which I find quite difficult? In 2007, my late daughter played the character Louie in “The Matchgirls” play that was put on by a community association. She had to have stitched to her head a piece of cloth to give the impression of an 11-year-old girl whose hair had fallen out because of the work that she was doing in the Bryant & May factory. I have always been struck by that image and the passion in the performance that was put on by those young people. That image has come back to me during this debate. I did not want to refer to it, but I feel I have to.

No, I want to carry on. Anyone who has an image of what that factory was like, whether from photographs or from their imagination from reading the stories, will know about the working conditions of women not just in the Bryant & May factories, but throughout the Victorian era during the industrial revolution. Anyone who reads Friedrich Engels’s work about the conditions of workers in Manchester—it was published not when it was written in 1844, but about 40 years later—will know about the conditions of millions of people in this country who built our great cities and our industrial revolution, which made us the workshop of the world, as was demonstrated in the great exhibition of 1851. Britain grew economically and prospered on the backs of those giants—the men and women who built the industrial revolution—but they did not benefit from it. Their work was casual, erratic and not permanent. They did not have pensions or benefit from health and safety legislation and there was no sick pay. They were on what are now called zero-hours contracts, but in most cases they had no contracts. They were dismissed at will, abused, exploited, sexually harassed and treated appallingly by some more senior workers and their employers.

If we are honest—this is topical—we face today a race to the bottom. The ideology of the Government, including the Liberal Democrats who are in up to their necks, is based on a view that we must compete globally by reducing working conditions in this country so that we can be more competitive with our European neighbours, and that Europe must reduce working and living standards to be competitive with the Asian economies that are rapidly industrialising and taking on manufacturing for the world.

Yesterday, I watched an interesting programme on television about the largest container vessel ever built. It is so large that things must be removed so that it is not too high in the water and can go under bridges. It cannot dock in many places. It comes from China fully laden and goes back three quarters empty because we are exporting only our waste products and some specialised equipment, and I am talking not just about Britain. The programme highlighted our massive trade deficit of billions of pounds every month. We import from countries where men, women and children are exploited. In China today and many of its cities the treatment of workers is comparable with the treatment that men and women in this country experienced in the 19th century.

When we talk about health and safety, and the protection of workers, it is important to take a global perspective. I am an internationalist and a socialist, and I believe in internationalist and universalist values. It is time that we left the parochial debate about the situation in this country and raised issues relating to the rights and duties of global companies that do not pay tax in this country and manufacture goods in other countries. They work cleverly so that certain large global corporations have far more power and influence than individual states, even the most powerful states.

I will not digress, but that is why we need international co-operation and a strong European Union that can defend the European social model, stand up against the global multinationals, and work within the International Labour Organisation, the World Trade Organisation and the treaties that we signed with Korea, the United States and other parts of the world for trade and international co-operation. That should be not a race to the bottom, which is the agenda of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, but a race to protect and raise the living standards of people in the countries that we trade with around the world. That is an argument not for protectionism, but for modern, effective regulation and globalisation. In this century, we cannot live on the basis of total deregulation and a race to the bottom. The values of the women in Bryant & May’s factory 125 years ago are exactly the same that we should argue for today to protect the women in factories in China and elsewhere who are working in conditions that are comparable with what those women were working in.

We have talked about trade unionism in Britain. Trade Unions do not organise enough people in this country. Millions of women work as cleaners and carers in low-paid, casual jobs. On the radio this morning, a lady said that if there is a traffic jam she cannot do her job when she visits the elderly people she cares for because she runs late with resulting pressure. That applies particularly in the care industry. We can do something about that in this country because contractualisation, privatisation, deregulation and zero-hours contracts are a race to the bottom. We must do better, and we must all recognise that that will involve a change in our attitude to the lowest paid people in our country.

We have a national minimum wage. It was a great achievement of the last Labour Government, but it is not high enough. It is impossible to live on the minimum wage in London. We need a London living wage and we need it to be enforced. Let people be prosecuted for failing to pay the minimum wage. Let the Daily Mail and the Daily Express show pictures of those who are guilty of not standing up for British values of fairness, justice and fair pay for men and women. That is what we need in this country today, not the poison that comes from our tabloid press.

It is a great pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship this morning. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who gave us the opportunity to hold what has been an excellent debate. The contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), and the passionate and beautiful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) were fantastic. They have shown why oral history matters and how looking back illuminates the past and the present.

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham began with a thorough exposition of the history, and was absolutely right to say that this was an extremely important episode in the history of women and the trade union movement in this country. It is easy to think that 125 years ago is a long time, but it is not so long ago. My father took some nice film of me when I was a little baby with my great grandmother, who was an exact contemporary of the women who worked in the Bryant & May factory. She was sent to work at the age of nine, and she worked in a Nottingham lace factory. It really is not so long ago that people were working in those horrendous conditions in this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South is right that the subject was written about very clearly by Engels, and in fact, the Nottingham lace factories are described very well in volume I of “Das Kapital”. I was absolutely delighted when I came across that, because I knew the truth from my family history. My tutor was also delighted that he had set a text that resonated so strongly with his student—the irony was that he was Andrew Glyn from the Glyn banking family.

What could the Government do to recognise the strike? We have heard that we could have a revision of the blue plaque in the east end, and perhaps the Minister will say something about that. Perhaps we could have something in the curriculum. Another cultural artefact that many of us would like to be covered in the curriculum and that recognises women’s contributions to the trade union movement is the excellent film, “Made in Dagenham”. All these feisty women come from the east end—it is absolutely clear that the heart of radical feminism is down in the east end.

In the north-east, as everybody knows, we have a big Durham miners’ gala, and this year, one of the primary schools in Spennymoor made a banner to go alongside the banners carried by the former miners. The banner referred to all the progress in the Factory Acts and in children’s legislation. Enabling children to understand those important episodes in British history really makes a significant difference. I hope that the Minister will say something about the conversations he will have with his colleagues in the Department for Education about the curriculum, because that would be another way in which the Government could recognise the match workers’ strike of 125 years ago.

A further thing that the Minister could do in recognition is take a different stance on the conditions of workers in the south. As several of my hon. Friends have mentioned, the horrific collapse of the garment factory in Dhaka, in Bangladesh, is not something about which we can say, “We are not connected. We are not responsible.” We are completely connected and bound up with what is going on in other parts of the world. As a matter of fact, one thing that the European Union has done is to put conditions on Bangladesh that it has to meet if it is to maintain its duty-free access to our clothing markets. One of the conditions is that there should be better trade union recognition rights. The International Labour Organisation is currently working on that to raise standards in Bangladesh, so that is another thing that the Minister could take on. He may say, “Well, that is a matter for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; it is not my responsibility,” but let me bring him to his Department and to another area where labour conditions are on the agenda.

The World cup will be held in Qatar, and as the Minister knows, there is a huge scandal about the workers who will die in the construction of the football stadia there. It would be great if we could hear today what his Department will do about that. What representations has it made to FIFA on labour conditions in Qatar? This is another episode in which we can address the issue squarely. We can ask whether it is acceptable for the World cup to be in Qatar and, if it is to be there, what standards have to be maintained, or we can pretend that it has nothing to do with us. We can turn and walk away.

The Minister is not only the Minister for blue plaques, but the Minister for mobile phones. I do not know whether he has seen the documentary, “Blood in the Mobile”, but we all have these little mobile phones. We all tweet, text and have them in our hands all the time, but many minerals that are used in mobile phones come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mining of those minerals is fuelling the conflict in the Congo, and, of course, the labour conditions are terrible. What transparency is the Minister demanding from mobile phone companies? What will he do to raise standards in the new technology sector? Of course, it is great that we have new technology—

Order. I understand that this has been a wide-ranging debate, but it may well be ranging rather too far from the Minister’s brief for him to be able to give the answers today. I would be grateful if you could get slightly further back towards the topic.

I was trying to give examples of the sorts of things that the Minister could do to demonstrate to us that he has truly taken on board the lessons and understood the importance of the strike in Bow. I was looking for things that were in the bailiwick of his Department, and indeed, in his bailiwick.

I went to see the people who made that documentary last week, and while I was there, I saw the ship to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South referred. He is absolutely right: instead of addressing the issues, Ministers are engaging in a race to the bottom. That is why the struggles of the women whom we are talking about—for free trade unions, for better health and safety, for better maternity rights, and all those things—are absolutely relevant, because in this country today, it is women’s unemployment that has gone up the most. We now have 1 million women unemployed in this country. We have a massive gender pay gap. In the private sector, the gap between men’s and women’s pay is 14%, and in the public sector it is 25%. However, if there is one thing I would like the Minister to do to recognise this strike—one thing that I think would make a massive difference and bring us bang up to date—it would be to ensure that the Government do not go ahead with the 70% cut to funding for the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Without the proper resources, we cannot enable women to defend their rights at work as they should be able to.

I would like to end as I began: by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham. This has been an excellent, quite extraordinary, debate. I am grateful to her for bringing the issue to the attention of the House, and I am pleased that I have personally been able to contribute. The lessons of the strike are extremely important, and I salute the women of Bow.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I was preparing to stand up and thank Mr Dobbin for chairing the debate excellently, but I noticed that a change had taken place while I was in thrall to the speech by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). It was a seamless transfer, but I thank you and Mr Dobbin for your excellent co-chairmanship of this passionate and important debate.

I thank the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing the debate and for expounding on the match girls’ strike in such detail. I also pay tribute to the excellent speeches that we heard from the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Ilford South (Mike Gapes)—I noted the mention of his late daughter, Rebecca, and I found his speech to be particularly moving in that regard—and, of course, from the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, who expounded in her usual, passionate fashion.

It is also important to note, Mrs Main—I am not sure whether you were in the room—the brief presence of the new shadow Education Secretary, who entered the Chamber, stood, and gazed around him—it seemed to be a laying-on of hands on this debate by him. I would like to take this moment to congratulate him on his appointment and to note the perspicacious tweet that was put out yesterday, saying that when the Labour party

“is ready to be led by a man called Tristram”,

it is ready for government.

I thank the Minister, certainly for the beginning of his speech, which, as always, is entertaining. No one was more delighted than I was when I saw that the new shadow Secretary of State for Education had been elevated to such a position, but then I realised that he would no longer be able to speak in this morning’s debate, in which he had promised me a good 20 minutes. It was for that reason, I believe, that he popped in—to ensure that I was not without friends.

I very much hope that the shadow Education Secretary will publish the speech that he was due to make. There is no reason, in my view, why he could not have spoken in the debate, but that would be a matter for the parliamentary authorities. I remember speaking with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he was Leader of the Opposition and chose to lead a Westminster Hall debate. I hope, therefore, that we will have an opportunity to read the hon. Gentleman’s words of wisdom, because he is a most excellent historian, as of course is Louise Raw, who I think may be in the Chamber watching this debate and to whose excellent book there has been much reference.

Of course, the match girls’ strike was a seminal moment in trade union history and the history of industrial disputes. It was a cause célèbre at the time. It was supported by celebrities on the left. The strike fund was donated to by the Fabian Society and by luminaries such as George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Graham Wallas. It was also supported by the Richard Dawkins of his day, Charles Bradlaugh, the overtly atheist Member of Parliament, who fought so hard for his atheist beliefs—if I can put it that way—that he was imprisoned in the cell in the Houses of Parliament when he tried, time and again, to affirm rather than to take the oath. Of course, he was an avowed trade unionist and an avowed anti-socialist, but I do not think that those two beliefs are necessarily connected. It is interesting that in the same year in which he supported the match girls’ strike, he achieved his own victory by securing the passing of the Oaths Act 1888, which allows some Members of Parliament to affirm the oath if they so choose.

The hon. Member for Ilford South referred to the performance of “The Match Girls”. Of course, the match girls’ strike was commemorated in a musical produced by Bill Owen and Tony Russell in 1966. I am sad to hear that it has not been put on since. I hope that all hon. Members will unite in sending a message to the musical theatre community that “The Match Girls” perhaps could be performed again. Perhaps there could be one gala performance to raise money for our hard-pressed trade unions, which we have heard about, this year to coincide with the 125th anniversary.

A number of points were raised about what I should do as a Minister. I have really come to this debate wearing my heritage hat rather than my health and safety hat, my equal pay hat or any of the many other hats that I might wear at a particular moment, so let me just deal with the heritage aspect. Certainly if there is the problem of an inaccurate blue plaque commemorating the match girls’ strike, that should be remedied as swiftly as possible. I am very happy to contact English Heritage if indeed it is one of its plaques. I am not sure that it is, but I am certainly happy to discuss with English Heritage in what ways the strike could be commemorated. Of course, English Heritage runs the blue plaque scheme independently of Government—it would be wrong of politicians to dictate which of their particular heroes should be commemorated in a blue plaque—but certainly this is a matter that I could bring to its attention.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland talked about ensuring that the match girls’ strike is properly portrayed in the school curriculum. As she knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is trying to simplify the curriculum, but he is trying to do so to give teachers more freedom to teach in the ways they see fit. Certainly, teaching about the match girls’ strike in schools is not banned. Any school and, in particular, local schools—schools in the area in which the strike took place—should feel free to educate their pupils on this important event.

I am grateful to the Minister for being so generous with his time. I am not one to malign the Secretary of State for Education, but during one discourse he was holding forth about the nature of history and I believe that he may have inadvertently got a reference to the match women’s strike wrong himself by mentioning Annie Besant as the leader of the strike. The Minister, when he is having lunch with the right hon. Gentleman at some point, might want to point that out to him to rectify any future possible transgressions.

I hope that the hon. Lady will supply me with the appropriate quote so that I can make that point to my right hon. Friend. He is obviously extremely busy, because he is trying to put forward very important reforms to our education system to help, funnily enough, the very poorest in our society, which is his passion. The fact that too many children are written off at a very young age and told that they cannot achieve is what he wants to change. It may not be possible for me to have a meeting with him, but certainly I might write to him and perhaps the official history of the match girls’ strike, written by Louise Raw, could be made available to him. He is an assiduous reader. Even in a digital age, if someone stops my right hon. Friend in the street—as I am sure you know, Mrs Main—they will find at least 10 and possibly 20 books in his satchel. He is also a keen historian, although perhaps not in the same league as his new shadow.

Let me talk more generally about some of the issues to do with heritage, because this is a timely debate in terms of what the Government want to do to recognise heritage. I have been given a list of some of the small grants that have been made to relevant projects by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Interestingly, we increased the share of the national lottery money going to the Heritage Lottery Fund from 16% to 20%, so there is now substantially more funding available for these schemes. Last year, almost £10,000 was given to Maximal Learning for a seven-month project to explore the history of the Bryant & May building in Bow, east London. We have also got a huge sum—up to £28 million—for projects to commemorate the first world war. We have recently given some money to the Charles Dickens museum, the author’s former Bloomsbury home, as well.

Most importantly of all, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced earlier this month the creation of an anniversaries fund. That is a fund of £10 million, to which people who wish to commemorate a significant anniversary can apply. That is something that is very close to my heart and that I have long wanted to see come about. Obviously, I was thinking about some of the big anniversaries that are coming up, such as the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, but there is a general point that is relevant to this commemoration in Parliament of the match girls’ strike, which is that, as part of our society and as part of community cohesion, it is important that as many people as possible know our history and know the significance of great events. That includes Magna Carta. It includes the match girls’ strike. These are events that have shaped our history and continue to have a resonance.

Perhaps it is too late for a group to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding to commemorate the match girls’ strike, but it may be possible to find a suitable anniversary further down the line to which that would apply. Obviously, the anniversaries fund should certainly not exclude anything that commemorates the important industrial and labour history of our nation.

Let me move on to the subject of health and safety. There were impassioned speeches from Opposition Members about the importance of maintaining heath and safety legislation. Again, this subject is close to my heart. I was struck when I went round the Olympic village before the opening of the Olympics and was told that it was the first such stadium to be built without a single fatality. I certainly do not and nor, I hasten to add, do any of my fellow Ministers come from the school that sees health and safety as a burden and that does not understand the importance of health and safety in keeping people safe. However, it is important that we review regulations and that we strike a balance between the need to protect people at work and the need not to burden business unduly.

We have conducted some key reviews. Professor Löfstedt carried out an independent review, and of course Lord Young of Graffham carried out his own review. They found that there was an over-implementation of health and safety regulation, driven by a fear of the civil law—a fear of lawyers, who can see an opportunity presenting itself. There was an opportunity to simplify health and safety legislation, and by doing so we can improve health and safety. We are, for example, introducing a register of occupational safety and health specialists, which will mean that small employers no longer have to waste time searching for the right person; they will be able to consult the register to find a specialist. A teacher now has to fill out only one form when they organise a school trip, so the process is much easier. We hope that that will encourage more schools to take school trips. We have also made it easier to make a personal injury claim through a simplified three-stage process.

Although it sounds contradictory, the simplification of health and safety legislation can improve health and safety by encouraging small businesses to apply health and safety law. We have also made it absolutely clear that we will not stint on health and safety inspections of dangerous occupations or workplaces. We will name and shame those who breach health and safety law, and we will make them pay for follow-up inspections if they are found to be in breach of the law.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is also the Minister for Women and Equalities, and equality in the workplace was mentioned with some vigour.

The Minister mentioned, rightly, the excellent health and safety record in the Olympic stadium. Has his Department made—and if not, does it intend to make—representations to FIFA and to Qatar about the health and safety standards surrounding construction for the World cup?

I thank the hon. Lady for presenting me with the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), whom the Prime Minister yesterday appointed Minister for Sport. With your indulgence, Mrs Main, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson) for his extraordinary service in that role—service that, if we include his time as Opposition spokesman, spans almost a decade. He will be a sad loss to the Department. Our new Minister for Sport will read what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has said and will respond appropriately regarding the Government’s position.

I return to the question of equality in the workplace. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland referred to “Made in Dagenham”, a film about equal pay by the brilliant British producer Stephen Woolley, which I would commend to anyone. The soundtrack to the film was sung by Sandie Shaw, who was a Dagenham Ford clerk but has moved on to greater things and is now my constituent. [Laughter.] It does not get any better than that. The hon. Lady mentioned that a period of more than a century did not seem like a long time, and it is interesting to note that 80 years after the match girls’ strike, it was still perfectly legal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same work. The Equal Pay Act 1970 was introduced to tackle that discrepancy, but such inequalities still exist. Women now make up half of the work force in Britain, but they are under-represented in senior positions. If we want to harness the country’s full potential, we must remedy that imbalance and waste of talent. That is why the Government are committed to making Britain fairer.

On that point, does the Minister agree with the statements made in the past few days by Ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about the lack of transparency in pay structures? Does he agree that we need to do far more to tackle the problem, and that we should consider, for example, mandatory equal pay audits and mandatory publication of information about pay scales so that we can see where people are still not being paid equally?

I have not read those statements in detail; I have only read about them in the newspapers, and I hesitate to stray on to another Department’s policy area by expressing an opinion about whether new regulations should be introduced concerning transparency and mandatory reporting. As the hon. Lady knows, the Consumer Affairs Minister, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), is passionately committed to tackling the problem, which is why she spoke so vociferously about it. That goes to the heart of the point that I was making. The Government are committed to making Britain fairer and tackling the barriers to equal opportunities that hold so many people back.

We have launched a voluntary initiative on gender equality transparency called “Think, Act, Report”, which asks private sector and voluntary sector employers to make workplaces fairer for women through greater transparency on pay and other workplace issues. More than 120 leading businesses have signed up, and the initiative covers nearly 2 million employees, which is 16% of the targeted work force. We are also using a voluntary approach to increase the number of women on boards. Women now account for almost one in five of FTSE 100 board directorships, which is a significant increase from 12.5% in February 2011. Only six FTSE 100 companies still have all-male boards.

We want to strengthen the economy, so we are supporting more businesses to start up and employ more people. That is why we have set up the Work programme, announced 24 new enterprise zones and introduced the regional growth fund. The Government have created 1.4 million jobs in the private sector during the past three years. We have established the Women’s Business Council, which published its recommendations in June. We responded to the recommendations by welcoming them and announcing a series of actions. We have announced funding of £1.6 million over the next three years to support rural women’s enterprise, the introduction of 15,000 new mentors to support those setting up and growing their businesses—including 5,000 specifically targeted to women—and a new scheme that will make £2 million available in small grants of up to £500 to those who wish to set up new child care businesses.

The debate has been important and memorable, and it has commemorated an important event in our history. The quality of the speeches from Opposition Members demonstrates that that event raises many important issues on which people feel passionately—equal pay, employment rights and health and safety—and teaches us that events in our history still resonate today.

Before the Minister sits down, will he undertake to ensure that in the first world war commemorations that begin next year, women will not be hidden from that history and that herstory will be told as well?

I was about to say that I hesitated to give any undertaking, but the hon. Lady has raised an important point. I am not responsible for running the first world war celebrations—the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport takes the lead on that, along with the new Minister for Sport—but I feel strongly that we must ensure that the role of women in the first world war is suitably recognised throughout the four years of our first world war commemorations. I conclude on a positive note by agreeing with the hon. Lady and thanking her for calling this important debate.

School Governors and School Improvement

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—not for the first time, Mrs Main. It has always proved a success, and I expect it will do so today. It is great to see that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools survived yesterday’s activities, as we would expect. I am wondering where the reshuffled Opposition education team are. They will now be led by an historian, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), which will certainly be interesting.

I want to talk about the importance of governors and governance, and to say that I enormously appreciate all that governors do. It is a tribute to our national life that 200,000 people are able and willing to serve as governors on our school and college governing bodies, and we should all thank them enormously. I have been a governor of several schools and colleges, so I know about the stresses and strains, the sometimes unsocial hours and the sense of accountability and responsibility that they normally feel: I have been there and done that.

I am pleased that there is an appetite for debate about school governors and governance. I was particularly glad that the Select Committee on Education, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), agreed to hold an inquiry on school governance. That inquiry exposed some interesting issues that I want to discuss, although I will not do so in a detailed or completely comprehensive way. The inquiry certainly raised a few interesting issues, and the Government have responded. They were sometimes in agreement with the Committee, and sometimes less so, but they always considered what we said, which is a tribute to the Select Committee process.

The context of this debate is straightforward, in that we are experiencing and will continue to experience a changing structure of education, because more and more academies are coming on stream and there is more competition. Of course, the arrival of free schools will be a key factor in accountability as regards the role of governors and school governance.

Another key issue that informs the debate is the need to focus on performance and outcomes. Never before has the education system been in a situation where performance and outcomes are so pivotal to the debate, which is quite right, because it is absolutely essential to give every child a proper chance and a fair opportunity to perform as best he or she can. Nothing less than that will do.

The changing role of local authorities is another factor, on which we will touch throughout this debate. That factor should be recognised, because schools often used to have the local authority to help them along or to deal with issues, but schools are now more autonomous, and with that autonomy comes more responsibility.

There are also challenges, including the issue of children who are not necessarily best dealt with or given the best chances in their schools. That was brought out extraordinarily well by the chief inspector of schools and colleges, Sir Michael Wilshaw, in his report, “Unseen children”. We cannot allow that to happen. As people interested in education, we must drive forward the highest standards across our whole country, not just where something happens to be relevant to an individual MP. We must ensure that delivery is good all over.

That point is reinforced by the chief inspector’s focus on leadership and management in schools. I will not talk about individual schools—that would be inappropriate—but I will say that where we have good leadership and management in schools, we have a good chance of having schools that are good and have high standards of teaching and learning. That is what we should talk about in the context of school governors and governance.

I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Education Committee, first for agreeing to do a report on school governance and secondly for contributing to that report, because we had some lively debates—quite rightly. The report was important as another way of keeping the question of school governance and governors on the agenda, which we must do. As I have said, the structure of education is evolving, and one question that we must tease out is how we deal with accountability, in which school governors of course have a role to play.

In the Select Committee, we discussed in detail some issues that are relevant to this debate—for example, the size of school governing bodies. It is generally accepted that smaller committees sometimes achieve more than larger ones, partly because they are more dynamic and tend to rely more on individuals with specific gifts. We should therefore try to streamline governing bodies into smaller ones, so that they can be more dynamic, flexible and innovative. The Government agree, but it is important to make it absolutely clear why smaller governing bodies will improve performance and, to underpin that, the Government must be strong in making sure that governing bodies get that message.

My hon. Friend, like the Government, seems intrinsically to believe that smaller governing bodies are necessarily more effective. Will he share with the House the evidence to back that up?

I can do so, because the Education Committee looked into that issue, and if people read the report, they will see that answers to many of the questions I asked yield such evidence. We need to look at that evidence when we consider questions like the one asked by my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Committee. That dynamic can be seen at work not just in school governing bodies, but often on company boards and in other organisations. It works, and it should be considered.

The role of business is very important. That arises in relation to the question of why we do not have the best interface between business and education, which is a general problem. For example, it is certainly a worry that only 28% of A-levels are in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—when the business community is seeking a bigger pool of STEM-educated children and students.

Another issue is why more businessmen are not on school governing bodies, increasing that interface and bringing in leadership and management expertise. The Government have recognised that the Select Committee is right on that count, and we must ensure that we start to break down some of the barriers. The Government are right, and I hope that they will persist with the idea of creating a legal requirement to give people time off for service on a governing body.

I will finish by raising several points. The first is that we must strengthen the mechanism for imposing interim executive boards—IEBs—when schools are identified as failing. I believe that if an Ofsted inspection finds that a school is in serious trouble, there may well be a case for having an IEB, and the Select Committee suggested that Ofsted should be able to use its powers to impose one. The Government have said that there are other ways of solving the problems. If a school is in a federation or some other structure, they might get some assistance. None the less, we need to send a signal that setting up an IEB might just be the right option. It will not be right in every case or in every situation—for example, when a primary school is allied to another school—but it is certainly right for a secondary school that is failing in an obvious way.

There needs to be a pool of governors on those IEBs. Too many areas of the country do not have a sufficiently large pool of good people to be on IEBs. We need to redouble our efforts to find and properly train people. One structure that could solve that problem is the National College for Teaching and Leadership.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I support much of what he is saying, but I recommend that he looks at other models that promote collaboration between governing bodies. The experience from Darlington shows that a school can be turned around quickly by encouraging better collaboration, even when, as in Darlington, almost all the schools are academies.

I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention. That was one of my points. She is absolutely right, and I thank her for her support.

I want to touch on sub-regional structures, academy chains and other such structures that one might expect to find when schools collaborate. Collaboration certainly does make a difference. I suggest that some formal federal structure might be the answer in many situations. Mutual help, by which I mean learning best practice from others, getting support when there is a problem and being able to reach out for expert help, is really important. I accept the point that has just been made. I would even go further and say that the Government might want to consider making sub-regional structures more formal where that is appropriate. A horizontal or vertical structure, or a combination of both, is a good way of ensuring that the best leadership is available to schools. That applies to rural areas where there is a variety of smaller schools, or to a secondary school with a number of feeder schools.

Another point relates to the question of skills versus stakeholders. The Select Committee talked about that in some detail. It was right to do so, not least because I encouraged it to take on the issue. It has always concerned me that if schools are boxed in with certain stakeholders on their governing bodies, they might not be able to reach out for the appropriate skills. I have never been completely satisfied that all stakeholders are accountable to the body that appointed them or that they represent, so calling them stakeholders is, in some cases, an exaggeration. The Government need to focus on getting the right skills, and all barriers to that should be removed, which means that there should be considerably less focus on stakeholders and more focus on skills. I call on the Government to consider that point.

My hon. Friend is making some powerful points. I expected as much, given his strong personal experience of both a further education college and a secondary school in Stroud. On the point he was making, does he agree that governors in constituencies such as Stroud and Gloucester are by definition volunteers and community-minded, and that given the right experience, training and help they can play an invaluable role in the success of a school? What more does he think the Government can do to help on the training side?

My hon. Friend, whose constituency neighbours mine, is absolutely right. Of course we need to encourage people to become governors. We do not want to frighten them off, and good training is critical. The Education Committee has made some powerful recommendations on training, which the Government have largely accepted. The National Governors Association has constantly talked about the importance of training. I want also to highlight the work of the all-party group on education governance and leadership, which has produced 20 questions that feature in a number of reports, including those of the Wellcome Trust and our Select Committee. Those 20 questions include a reminder that we should focus on the training of governors. We must ensure that those training packages are up to scratch and relevant to the challenges of governance now, and not to what we think it was. The Government are right to talk about setting up memorandums describing what academies turn into and how governors should respond.

Order. This is a 30-minute debate, and the hon. Gentleman who called the debate has graciously allowed another colleague to speak for a minute or two. The Minister also needs to make a full reply. I therefore ask for any interventions to be brief.

I am grateful for your guidance, Mrs Main. I shall be brief. In my experience, local authorities have always put on a great deal of training, but it was not well attended and its quality was questionable. How can we ensure that the quality of training is improved now that schools are far more independent?

I have already mentioned the National College of Leadership and Training, and that is one way forward, but there are other organisations that are independent of local authorities that should be doing the training.

Finally, we all rely on good school governors and on volunteers to be school governors. The question of payment has been discussed by the Education Committee. There is a possibility of paying chairs of governing bodies because of their exalted status and their great responsibilities. That should remain on the table to encourage a kind of progression of governorship—from governor to chair. That might be part of the answer to the question of federations, structures, academy chains and so on.

My contribution might come in at under two minutes, Mrs Main. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, to follow my distinguished colleague on the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), and to see the Minister in his place and other colleagues in the Chamber. The Government recently produced their response to our inquiry and report. In the brief time I have, I want to focus on the opportunities for getting greater business involvement with school governing bodies. The CBI has offered to work with the Government, and the Government have taken that up, and are looking to work with other business organisations. We have a real problem with careers advice and guidance in schools. We know that we need to ensure that careers understanding is embedded across the curriculum. What better way to do that than by having governors from business bringing their understanding of local and national business to the governing body? There is a real opportunity for business organisations to stand behind those individual governors, and to provide them with resources, tools and a template to ensure that their school provides a curriculum and an experience that provides young people with the skills—soft as well as academic—that they need. There is a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our governing bodies and better to align our education system with the world of work that follows.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing a debate on this very important topic; on the work that he has done in founding and chairing the all-party group on education governance and leadership; and, of course, on the contribution that he and his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who is the Chairman of the Education Committee, have made to the Select Committee’s report on this issue, which came out earlier this year and which we, as a Department, have looked at very closely indeed.

Our Department believes that school governance has a vital role to play in driving up school standards and pupil performance, and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud himself mentioned—we recognise the dedication of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who serve as school governors and who are passionate about supporting and improving their schools. The success of our education system relies upon the expertise and hard work of those governors, and we need more skilled governors to help schools to improve, particularly in many of the disadvantaged areas where school performance is, at most, inadequate.

Every school needs a high-performing governing body that understands its responsibilities and that focuses on its core strategic functions; that is made up of people with the relevant skills and experience; that operates efficiently and effectively through appropriate structures and procedures; and that strives for continuous improvement, in order to perform to its full potential.

We need governing bodies that think innovatively and strategically to create robust governance arrangements, including across groups of schools, which is a point my hon. Friend mentioned in his contribution. It is this Government’s ambition that that is true of all governing bodies in terms of their quality standards, and I will say more about each of the key critical areas that we expect governing bodies to be able to address.

To begin, let me consider the core functions of governing bodies. In our view, high-quality governance is characterised by a relentless focus on three core strategic functions: first, setting the vision of the school; secondly, holding the head teacher and senior managers of the school to account for their educational performance; and thirdly, ensuring—of course—that the school’s money is well and properly spent.

Those functions reflect the criteria that Ofsted inspectors use when considering the effectiveness of governing bodies. All governing bodies, in both maintained schools and academies, should focus on these functions, leaving the senior leadership team responsible and accountable for the day-to-day management of the school. They should stay focused on these big issues and other specific statutory duties, and avoid being distracted by the myriad other things that might compete for their attention.

We believe that governing bodies are best placed to determine how to carry out their strategic functions, and their approach needs to reflect their own specific local circumstances and should be guided by Government only when that is genuinely necessary. That is why we have already reduced prescription and cut back on some of the unnecessary regulations that exist. Our ambition is that all governing bodies are made up of people who have the necessary skills and competencies to carry out effectively the demanding strategic functions that I have just outlined.

As my colleague in the Department, the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for schools, Lord Nash, has said on previous occasions, in our view it is right that governors should be volunteers but they cannot afford to be amateurs in an area that is so critically important. We need to professionalise the quality of school governance, so that sitting on a board of governors is seen as being akin to the strategic responsibility of sitting on the board of a company or of a charity.

The best governing bodies identify explicitly the skills and competencies they need, and regularly audit the skills of their current members. They actively seek to recruit new governors and to invest in the professional development of their existing members, to address any gaps that might exist. Because governing bodies are best placed to determine the types of skills and people they need, we have given them more flexibility to decide for themselves the number and mix of governors that they need. Maintained school governing bodies can opt to reconstitute under new regulations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud will know we introduced last year. Those new regulations allow the governing bodies to be smaller and more skills-focused, which is something I think my hon. Friend supports and which he has raised with my colleague, Lord Nash, on previous occasions.

We have also updated our model documentation, to give academies themselves much greater freedom in how they constitute their governing bodies. While our priority is to give governing bodies the freedom to decide their size for themselves, our view is that governing bodies should be no bigger than they need to be to secure all the crucial skills necessary for effective governance. In our view, it is not helpful to have anyone on a governing body who is in a passive or inactive role. In general, we think that smaller governing bodies are likely to be more dynamic and effective, as shown by the success of many of the tightly focused interim executive boards and by the testimony of many academy sponsors who need to reform the unwieldy governance in the schools they inherit. However, I will also accept the challenge put by the Chairman of the Education Committee, and the view taken by the Committee in its report, when I acknowledge that ultimately it is the quality of these individuals, rather than counting heads, that is particularly important.

In line with the core functions that I have outlined, governing bodies should not necessarily see themselves as the primary vehicle for ensuring meaningful engagement with parents and other stakeholders. It is vital that the governance of the school is informed by the views of parents, and for that to be done well it requires dedicated and appropriate arrangements. So, while there are still rules that governing bodies need to follow on how they are constituted, the emphasis should be on recruiting governors for the skills that they can individually contribute. After all, all governors—no matter what constituency they are drawn from—are there, once they are around the table, to govern in the interests of pupils and not primarily to play a representative role.

People from the world of work can bring a particular range of transferrable and relevant skills, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned in his contribution. That is why we plan to work more closely with the CBI and other business partners to engage more businesses in actively promoting governance to their employees. Forging links with business can be of huge value to schools, but the strategic nature of school governance also means that employees develop key skills that are often of benefit to them and indeed to their own employers.

The Government already fund the School Governor’s One Stop Shop to offer a free service to schools and local authorities, in order to help them to find new and highly skilled governors. The number of governors that SGOSS has recruited has risen year-on-year to nearly 1,600 volunteers in the financial year to date, compared with 1,400 for the same period last year. I hope that my hon. Friends will promote the work of SGOSS to local authorities and schools in their constituencies.

Governing groups of schools can be highly effective, and it can also bring many benefits. In particular, it can help to drive up standards by enabling governing bodies to compare and contrast across schools, thereby creating more robust accountability. It can also enable highly skilled governing bodies to have an impact in more schools. We in the Department encourage governing bodies to put aside any issues of territorialism, and to consider—where it is appropriate—forming a single governing body across a federation of schools. Alternatively they can, of course, consider a multi-academy trust or an umbrella trust, which benefit from the greater freedoms of academy status.

Before I talk about what happens when there are issues or problems, I need to address the importance of governing bodies striving for continuous improvement, and the ways that we are helping them to improve. To achieve the very best for the children in their school, every governing body needs to reflect regularly on its effectiveness and performance, and governing bodies should not be shy of paying for high-quality training and development to help improve their skills and effectiveness. There are many options, including the expanding offer from the National College for Teaching and Leadership. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud will know, the NCTL has also developed the national leaders of governance programme to provide free peer mentoring support for chairs. We are looking to develop the number of NLGs, with another 150 being selected this year.

I now come to the crucial role of Ofsted. It is a sad fact that in too many schools governance is still weak and does not create enough robust local accountability for standards in schools. When Ofsted identifies underperformance, we share the view expressed by both its chief inspector and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that there is a need for urgent and timely action.

In each particular case, there will be various considerations in determining the appropriate response, which will not always be the need for an interim executive board; for example, some governing bodies may themselves decide to seek a sponsored-academy solution. For that reason, we do not envisage this sort of recommendation being made in the inspection report before the various contextual factors have been taken into account. However, good, clear reporting by Ofsted on the weaknesses in governance will help to inform decisions on what action would be appropriate.

This Government recognise and celebrate the role of governors, and we are committed to improving the quality of governance in the ways that my hon. Friend has indicated today.

Women’s Pensions

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I was delighted to be granted this debate, which is extremely relevant and important to many thousands of households across the country, including in my constituency of Inverclyde. I also thank the Minister for his time today.

In these uncertain times, when it can be difficult to find a good employer, and a good employee pension is even more difficult to find, many could be forgiven, as in the past, for counting on their state pension—an agreement they believe will deliver on their regular contributions. “Thank goodness,” they might think, trusting that all those deductions from their pay over the years will finally secure a reasoned and equal pension in retirement. They could never have foreseen or taken into account the Government’s recent pension reforms, which many believe to be unfair. I am, of course, talking about the reforms to the state pension age, and particularly how those reforms have disproportionately affected women born in the early 1950s.

The Government’s intention was to introduce a single-tier state pension from April 2017, but as the Minister will be aware, in this year’s Budget that date was brought forward to April 2016. I accept that that is good news for thousands of women, but it still excludes the group on which I am focusing. I believe we all welcome the single-tier pension, but there is one major injustice that can be identified within that new system. Implementing the single-tier pension on 6 April 2016 means that there is a group of women born between 6 April 1951 and 5 April 1953 who will not be eligible for the single-tier pension, even though a man born on the same day will qualify, because the pension age will be unequal on implementation day in April 2016.

The Government’s changes to the state pension have consistently hit hard-working women, and now the single-tier pension will let down 700,000 women across the UK. That is simply not good enough, and it is unacceptable to that group of women. For the single-tier pension to be successful and to achieve its designated goal of equality, it should treat women and men of the same age equally. When the Government’s White Paper was originally published, my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) was quick to spot the issue. He identified that, as a result of the 2017 implementation date, 429,000 women will not receive the flat-rate state pension, even though a man of the same age will.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the House, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern, as I suspect that he and many others do, that some ladies will have to work to the age of 72, or possibly 73, thereby holding back a job from an 18-year-old, who will be put on jobseeker’s allowance? Is there not a better way of balancing the issue?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The age to which such women are being asked to work will affect not only them but younger generations who are looking for jobs. I will expand on how working longer affects longevity, and how the argument about longevity does not apply to all of those women.

It is important to note that 80,000 women born in the early 1950s have already had their state pension arrangements changed by the Pensions Act 2011. Surely the Government cannot continue to claim that the new Pensions Bill is fair. What is the Government’s justification for making a change that is unfair and unjust for hundreds of thousands of hard-working women across the UK?

In my constituency alone more than 600 women born on or after 6 April 1951 and before 6 April 1953 will be deprived of, on average, £884 a year, which I think we can agree is not an insignificant sum to lose out on in these tough financial times. Those women are rightly angry at what they see as the dual adverse impact of an increase in their pension age and their non-eligibility for the single-tier pension. I have met many of the affected women in my constituency, and they have expressed their dismay and disgust at the policy. Possibly the phrase that best describes the fate of those women is “So near, yet so far away.” How would the Minister and his Government colleagues feel if, after planning for their retirement date and making what savings and plans they could, they were told they had to work for longer and would be excluded from the new single-tier pension scheme? I suspect they would agree that it is simply not fair.

These women, most of whom left school at 15, have been paying into the system year after year after year. They have made the necessary savings and plans for their retirement, and above all they have spent a lifetime working hard, paying taxes, keeping a home, caring for their families and, naturally, looking forward to their retirement. With all of that, they hoped and expected to receive their state pension at the age they had come to expect. Those women will now be forced to wait longer to retire, and they will miss out on the new £144 a week single-tier pension for the rest of their lives; indeed, they will now receive about £127 a week. Once again, does the Minister find that fair?

Although the coalition Government are fond of quoting a figure of some £4 billion as the overall cost of including these women, the Department for Work and Pensions published an estimate showing that the true cost is closer to £220 million. In his evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, the Minister agreed that those women will be financially worse off than a man of the same age. He also stated that 90% of those women would fare better because women live longer. It is a weak point for the Government to claim that those women may recoup the money they lose out on because women live longer. Life expectancy differs vastly across the country. Life expectancy from boundary to boundary in my constituency varies hugely—by as much as 10 years—which means the policy is extremely unfair and unequal for the women I represent.

Women born in Inverclyde in the 1950s have worked in some of the toughest industries our country has ever seen. Mills, sugar refineries and shipyards are extremely heavy industries that have had a huge impact on the health of women in my constituency, resulting in a much shorter life expectancy than in other parts of the UK. Even late in their employment life many worked in the electronics industries, which are perceived by some to be less demanding and hazardous than the industries of the past. The electronics industries, however, still exact a health toll on my constituents and reduce the longevity of the women who transferred their skills from the mills, sugar refineries and shipyards to the sunrise electronics industries of the 1980s and 1990s. Those women might have worked alongside chemicals, for example, that we have now discovered eat holes in the ozone layer and are thus banned from use even in aerosols. We are yet to acknowledge, accept or see the effects on their health.

The industries of the ’80s have yet to produce their health casualties, but the evidence thus far paints a bleak future for many hard-working women in my constituency. We need only ask the women who are fighting past employers for recognition of responsibility for cancer clusters to know that, for many, catching up on their pensions will not be an option. If that level of inequality in working conditions and life expectancy exists within a community the size of Inverclyde, it beggars belief to imagine the differences facing larger communities throughout the United Kingdom.

Let me tell Members about Mrs Angela Hurrell, who lives in my constituency. Angela was born on 26 March 1953. Her retirement plans have changed drastically, as she will not reach pensionable age until 6 March 2016—four weeks before the introduction of the single-tier pension. Angela will now work until she is 62 years and 11 months old, and she will receive the old pension figure of approximately £127 a week. She will be £884 a year worse off than a woman born just 10 days later. For her, it is truly a case of so near, yet so far away.

Let me also highlight the case of Angela’s friend, Mrs Maureen Hamill, who is also a constituent. Maureen is a hard-working self-employed local business woman. She was born on 27 March 1953, and her retirement plans, like Angela’s, have changed drastically. Maureen is on her feet all day and works long hours. She does not have the luxury of reducing her working hours, which means that if she is unable to work, her business closes. Despite all that, Maureen will also be excluded from the single-tier pension. Again, she seems to have been born too early, to be retiring too late and to be £884 a year worse off. We can see a pattern forming: so near, yet so far away. I hope the Minister will agree that that does not sound like the fairer system his Government promised.

Angela and Maureen are no different from the hundreds of thousands of other women from across the country whom I could have mentioned. As with many women close to retirement age, every pound is important to them in these difficult financial times. They are but two examples of ordinary, hard-working women in my constituency who deserve to be treated fairly. They simply ask to receive the same improved pension a man the same age will receive.

The inclusion of the women I have talked about would allow the Government to fulfil one of their goals: a universal new state pension built on fairness and equality. I accept they have improved the Pensions Bill, but if the parameters have been changed once to include thousands of women, why can they not be changed again, so that we can end the inequality for the women I have talked about? I urge the Minister and the Government to think about the examples of Angela and Maureen and about the 700,000 women across the UK who share their circumstances. I hope the Government will reconsider. Let it not be so near, yet so far away for these 700,000 women.

Good afternoon, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) on securing the debate. He took part in the Second Reading debate on the Pensions Bill.

I want to start by addressing some of the factual errors in what the hon. Gentleman said. I believe that he was speaking in good faith, but some of the central arguments he advanced were factually wrong, and it is important to get the facts on the record. He talked of the 700,000 women who were born between 6 April 1951 and 5 April 1953, and I am pretty sure he said that the Government had put their pension age up; in fact, he probably said it several times. However, this Government have not put their pension age up at all—that is a statement of fact. The Pensions Act 1995 began the process of equalising the pension ages of men and women at 65 over the decade from 2010 to 2020. The increase in pension age beyond 60 for these women was therefore legislated for in 1995. It was not a short-notice change, although I accept that some women did not know about it, and not everybody heard about it at the time. Although it was all over the papers at the time, these women were a long way from pension age and probably turned the page when they saw the word “pension”, so I accept that some women did not know about this. However, the idea that these women have had a short-notice change to their pension is completely factually incorrect; they have not, and their pension age was set 18 years ago. It is important to put that on the record.

The Government have indeed changed some pension ages for women who reach pension age after 6 April 2016, and every woman for whom we have increased the state pension age will get the single-tier pension. There are therefore two sets of women: those who will not get the single tier, but whose pension age has not increased beyond that which was legislated for 18 years ago, and those who have had a further increase, but who will get the single tier.

The hon. Gentleman said that we should treat men and women the same, but he will understand that men and women have different state pension ages. Under the previous plans, that would have continued until 2020, and under our plans, it will continue until 2018. If we treated men and women the same in relation to single tier, it would be hard to argue that we should not treat them the same in relation to state pension age. It would be hard to say that men get single tier but have to wait until they are 65, while these women do not get single tier but can get a pension at 63 or earlier. It would be hard to say that these women should have the good bit of the deal—the single tier—but not the bad bit that the men have.

That goes to the nub of the hon. Gentleman’s point about his constituents. I entirely accept that many of them have worked in physically demanding jobs and may therefore have reduced life expectancy. As a result, however, being treated as a woman and getting a pension at 61 is far better than being treated as a man. If, hypothetically, I accepted the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and we said to every one of these 700,000 women, including his constituents, “It’s not fair. You can have men’s rules, not women’s rules,” we would make those women wait up to an extra four years for their pensions. Given everything the hon. Gentleman has said about their likely life expectancy, that would be absolutely perverse. It is dreadful that these women have a reduced life expectancy to the extent that they do, but given that they do, it is far better for them to have the women’s rather than the men’s state pension regime. The comparison with men does not, therefore, help the hon. Gentleman’s case.

The hon. Gentleman compared someone—he gave the example of Angela—who reaches state pension age just before April 2016 with someone who reaches it just after. He came up with a figure of £884, and it took me a while to work out where he got it from. He compares £127, which is the pension of someone such as Angela, with £144, which is the single tier, and he multiplies the difference by 52—I think that is where he gets his number from. However, that is not the right comparison. The reason someone such as Angela gets £127 is that, on average, women get smaller pensions than men, and they have fewer qualifying years and less from the state earnings-related pension scheme. Even if we apply the single-tier rules to someone with Angela’s contribution history, therefore, she would not get £144 on average, because she would get about another £6 a week, not another £17. The hon. Gentleman therefore trebles the difference that the single-tier calculation would make. That is the second thing to say.

The third thing is that there is an issue about people qualifying just before and just after midnight on 5 April 2016. However, in general, the 700,000 women the hon. Gentleman discusses will, on average, draw their pension—yes, it may be £6 a week less—for anything between two and four years longer than a man born on the same day. Indeed, women who reach pension age after April 2016, who he feels are treated favourably relative to the 700,000 he talks about, will have state pension ages of 63, which will soon rise to 64, then to 65 and then to 66 not longer after that. With their slightly younger sisters, I take the point that there is the “minute to midnight, minute after midnight” issue, as there inevitably is with any change, but the next cohort of 700,000 women and the cohort after that will overwhelmingly have to wait many years longer for their pensions. It is therefore quite hard to argue that the 700,000 women the hon. Gentleman is talking about are in some sense uniquely discriminated against, when another 700,000 who are coming down the track will have to wait years longer for their pensions, and when their older sisters had a tougher regime previously. Let me explain what I mean by that.

The 700,000 women the hon. Gentleman is talking about get a full basic state pension for 30 years of contributions or credits, but a woman who reached state pension age just before 6 April 2010 needed 39 years. Constituents who are just a couple of years older than the women he is speaking for might well be aggrieved that their younger sisters, who he feels have had a rough deal, get a pension after 30 years, when they had to do 39 years. He talked about hard-working women in his constituency, but how does the woman who retired on 5 April 2010, after 39 years, feel about the woman who retires on 6 April 2010 and who gets a full pension after 30 years? She might well be very aggrieved.

I happen to think, broadly speaking, that reducing the number of years required was a move in the right direction. We have balanced things up in the single tier. The reduction from 39 years was a good thing, but that was a cliff edge too—much more of a cliff edge than what we are doing in 2016, because that reduction was pure windfall: from 6 April 2010, it was 30 years, not 39, for a full pension, and there was virtually no transition and no difference in state pension age to speak of. If we put the pre-April 2016 women through the new system, on average they get £6 a week more—we think the figure will be about that. However, on average, those 700,000 women are working fewer years than the post-2016 women, because state pension ages have been going up. That seems broadly fair, in my judgment.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the issue of women’s longer working lives, and asked whether that was bad news for the young unemployed. That is an argument that we hear a lot. This country and other countries have tried pensioning off older workers. In the 1980s we had something called the job release scheme, for example, which tried to do that. All that it did was put lots of men in their early 60s on pension, while it did nothing for youth unemployment. On the whole, young unemployed people are not very good substitutes for the recently retired. They do not slot into the vacancies. I appreciate that it could be argued that everyone would move up, but the evidence is that the older worker, on average, is a highly productive, valuable member of the work force. Pensioning off older workers who still make a contribution means that the economy as a whole suffers. The Institute for Fiscal Studies considered schemes for getting rid of older workers and encouraging younger workers in countries across the developed world, and there is no evidence that the younger workers benefit from pensioning off the older ones. If anything, the evidence is that the economy benefits from older workers, and that young people benefit, too.

I appreciate the Minister’s detailed response, but the idea of someone leaving early and creating a job is that the jobseeker would move into the lower echelons of the job market, and those in the middle rank would move up; it would be a sort of circle.

That is what I meant—I was gesturing, but that will not be in Hansard. It could be argued that the person retires and everyone else moves up a step, and the young unemployed person comes in at the bottom; but what has been lost is the productivity, skills and experience of the older worker. If that worker has not been adding anything to the firm, then fine—get rid of them—but they are. That is the point. On average—not in every case—older workers are, by definition, the most experienced; they are often very productive and less likely to take time off sick than slightly younger people. They contribute a huge amount. The evidence from around the world—not from Government research but from work by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others—is that pensioning them off does not benefit younger workers. There is not a battle between the generations; in many ways they are complementary, because the older, experienced worker can mentor, and use their skills to bring on, younger workers.

I thank the Minister for his detailed response, but I cannot help but think that his argument about elderly workers not retiring to release jobs to younger workers implies that employers should hold on to employees as long as possible, even when they are near retirement age and want to retire.

The hon. Gentleman is putting words into my mouth. I am saying that older workers, on average, are very productive. Clearly there comes a point when our productivity declines, as we get much older. We should bear in mind that the 700,000 women who are the subject of the debate are in their early 60s. I think that many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would be offended at the suggestion that they are not productive, valuable members of the work force. We do not say that employers should be forced to go on employing them if they want to stop working, but the evidence from the IFS has debunked what has been called the lump of labour fallacy—the idea that there is a lump of labour to be done, and so it is possible to knock out an older worker and slot in a younger one. That neglects the valuable contribution of older workers.

Clearly there is a limit. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the age of 72 or 73, although the statute book takes us only to 68 at the moment, so I am not sure where he got that from.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I was going to ask the Minister about the lump of labour, which comes down to the argument that there is a fixed amount of labour in the economy. My view is that it is probably much more complicated; will the Minister expand on that a wee bit? Is there a demand issue as well? I take the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about people moving up a rung, but if we assume it is more complicated and stickier than that, there is a demand issue to do with the goods and services that older, wealthier workers are likely to buy.

The very complexity of the issue is the reason for the IFS examining what happens across the developed world. It looked at different sorts of labour markets and different labour supply and demand conditions. Systematically, it found no evidence for the hypothesis that getting rid of older, more experienced, productive workers benefits the young unemployed.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but as this is the debate of the hon. Member for Inverclyde, I will continue to respond to his speech.

The hon. Member for Inverclyde raised the issue of what it would cost to bring the women in, and he suggested some inconsistency in the figures. To make things clear, typically a woman who reaches state pension age will draw a state pension for more than 20 years. There is a profile to the costs, but on average the extra spending would be a couple of hundred million per year; £200 million times 20 is £4 billion, so there is no inconsistency in the numbers. One is an annual figure and one is cumulative. I hope that that clarifies that point.

The hon. Gentleman asked about bringing forward the single tier. Of course, in an ideal world I would do it tomorrow. It is a good reform, and I am grateful for the Opposition’s support for the principle, but there are many things that need to be sorted out before we bring it in. The biggest of those—apart from programming our computers, which I am advised takes a while—is the impact on company pension funds. Having a single pension means there is nothing for people to contract out of. We have two pensions, at least, at the moment. There is a second state pension that big firms’ employees can contract out of. With a single pension, there is nothing to contract out of, so we abolish contracting out.

That means that the biggest pension funds in the land, which are currently contracted out, will contract back into the state pension scheme, and will face an increase in their national insurance costs—because they will lose the rebate—and then will have the option, under our Bill, of re-jigging their company pension scheme to recoup the cost. So, for example, because people will now be getting more from the state, rather than relying on the company scheme, the company might reduce the accrual rate of its scheme, or something like that. To do that, it will need actuarial valuations and will conduct long consultations with its employees.

We are advised by the Confederation of British Industry, the National Association of Pension Funds and others that even doing it in 2016 is tight. They argued at one point that 2017 was tight. Even if it were reasonable to bring the change forward for the reason that the hon. Gentleman has given, I think that 2016 is as soon as we can reasonably do it, not least because the primary legislation, subject to the will of Parliament, will not be through until Easter 2014. Secondary legislation will then be needed on the abolition of contracting out. We will have to consult on that, and it all takes time. I find it frustrating; there is always far more of a lead time on such reforms than one might imagine.

There is one other thing that I want to deal with. It is not a point that the hon. Gentleman made, but it has been made about the group of women in question. People sometimes ask why they cannot just be allowed to choose—perhaps to retire on the current pension, reach single tier, and then choose the better pension, if it would be better. One of the difficulties is that single tier does not cost any more overall. It is not a windfall. We have not found some money down the back of a sofa, which we want to pump into some pensions but not others. It is the same money, but it is being spent better. As a result, there are bits of the system that are less generous, and an example that I can give relates to widows.

Under the current system, when a woman’s husband dies the widow can claim a state pension based on his contributions and, in many cases, get a full basic state pension of £110 a week or so. Under single tier, the claim will be on the basis of someone’s own contributions, so a woman who, for example, opted into single tier because she would get £133 and not £127, but whose husband died the next day, would find she could not claim quite the same combination of widow’s benefits that she could under the old system; or she would not be able to claim the savings credit, whereas her sister, a few years earlier, could, because she was under the old system. I have no idea—I could not advise a woman on 6 April 2016—what it would be best to choose, because I do not know when her husband will die, or whether the savings credit will come into play, not just on the day when she claims but at any point through her whole retirement. We just do not know. If we gave people that choice and they made the wrong one, would we have to opt them back in again? Would we have to advise them? It would create great complexity.

In sum, we believe that the reform is a good, positive one, spending the planned budget in a better way. The women in the age group in question have had no state pension age increase from the Government. What the Government have given them is the triple lock, which means that they will get a bigger pension under our policies than if those of the previous Government had been carried forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.