Wednesday 23 October 2013
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
Greenpeace Activists in the Russian Federation
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Gyimah.)
I should start by making a slight correction to my own title for the debate, because this incident did not happen “in” the Russian Federation—a point that I shall come on to.
I shall say first what I am not saying in the debate. I am not saying that Greenpeace activists should have immunity from prosecution wherever they engage in their activities in the world. I am not calling for impunity for people when they take on such activities and, indeed, I do not think that Greenpeace would, either. Part of civil disobedience is that people expect that at some point they will face the criminal law, and I do not think that anybody resiles from that or wants to hide from it.
I am also not saying that Greenpeace is right in its assertions on polar drilling or what the Russians should or should not be doing in the Arctic. I personally have a set of concerns about whether it is possible to drill in heavily icy water—whether it would be possible to clear up a spill—but that is not my argument today at all. I am also not saying anything about the criminal justice system in the Russian Federation, respect for human rights in the Russian Federation or its membership of the Council of Europe and its adherence to the European convention on human rights, although I have said many things on all those matters on many other occasions. That is not the issue before us today.
Let me run through the facts. The first is that, on 18 September, several Greenpeace activists attempted to climb a Russian oil rig owned by Gazprom, the state operator—they had also done that the previous year—so as to be able to hang a great big banner proclaiming their views on drilling in the Arctic. The Prirazlomnaya rig has been there for some time, and Greenpeace has been running a campaign against its presence there. Not immediately but 24 hours later, FSB—the federal security service—operatives, presumably on the command of the Russian state, stormed the Greenpeace ship and seized it, along with the captain and all the crew members, the activists and the two journalists who were on board, and took them all off to Murmansk.
The 28 activists and two journalists were subsequently charged with piracy, which in Russian state law carries a term of imprisonment of up to 15 years. Every one of them was refused bail and, as I am sure right hon. and hon. Members—I note that this debate is very well attended—will know, there are six British people involved. They are Phil Ball, who is a Greenpeace activist and a constituent of the Prime Minister; Kieron Bryan, who is a freelance videographer and a constituent of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is sitting on my right; Frank Hewetson, a Greenpeace activist; Alex Harris; Anthony Perrett; and Iain Rogers, who was the second engineer on the Greenpeace ship.
I think there are some very significant problems with the actions of the Russian authorities. The first is that, as I said, the ship was not seized in the Russian Federation. It was not in Russian Federation state waters. It was in international waters. I know that Russia has sought to declare a 3-nautical mile exclusive economic zone around the rig, but I believe that is not within international law. Quite explicitly, article 60.5 of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea specifies, I believe, that that 3-nautical mile exclusion zone is illegal. But even if it is legal, that does not give the Russian authorities the right to operate in the way that they did, using the level of force that they did, 24 hours after the demonstration on the rig had ended, let alone to seize a ship that is flagged under the Dutch authorities, which is why the Dutch authorities have now made a claim on the ship. Therefore, I think there are significant areas in which, even against their own Russian law, the Russian authorities have not operated correctly.
There is also the matter of the charges that have been brought against the activists. They have been charged with piracy. This country takes piracy extremely seriously. The situation off Somalia has seen the British Navy and British troops engaged in a European effort to root out the significant problems there, and British people have been seized by pirates, so we do not take piracy lightly at all. But even President Putin says that it is completely obvious that the activists are not pirates. I am quoting his direct words. He said that
“it’s completely obvious they aren’t pirates.”
Mikhail Fedotov, the chair of the presidential human rights council, which advises the President on human rights issues in Russia, has also said that they should not be prosecuted for piracy.
I believe there is a very good reason why these people should not be prosecuted for piracy. It is not only that we undermine the law on piracy around the world and the efforts to tackle piracy if we call people pirates when they are not in any sense pirates. It is also that we have only to look at the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, which says specifically in article 101:
“Piracy consists of…any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft”.
The key element in that is “for private ends”. That does not mean prosecuting a campaign. It means “for personal, private, financial or monetary gain”. There is no allegation that that is the situation in this case. For that matter, the article says that there has to be an illegal act “of violence or detention”. Greenpeace engaged in no such act of violence or detention.
The hon. Gentleman, as so often, foreshadows what I was about to say next, because I was going to move on to the next bit of article 101. He has made the point for me, and I know that many other right hon. and hon. Members want to speak, so I will not bother to labour the point, but even within Russian law—many countries have specific laws in relation to how the United Nations convention should be interpreted into their own law—I cannot see how it could possibly be thought that these people were pirates.
Article 227 of Federal Act No. 162-FZ of 8 December 2003, which was adopted by the state Duma in 1996, says that piracy is an
“Assault against a maritime or other vessel with intent to capture the property of others and with the use of force or the threat of force.”
Nobody thus far, I think, has alleged that Greenpeace was seeking to seize the rig. Nobody has said so. For that matter, nobody has yet maintained that the rig—this goes back to what the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) said—is a maritime or other vessel. I therefore find it inconceivable, either within Russian law or within international law, that they should be prosecuted in this way.
That brings me to what has happened since the activists were seized and taken to Murmansk, which is not a particularly hospitable region for people to be imprisoned in—I think all right hon. and hon. Members understand that—and is a considerable distance from most consular support. That has brought up a series of questions, which I hope the Minister will be able to answer later, but I do have concerns about the conditions in which each of the activists has been held. I think it bizarre that bail has been denied in every single instance. It feels as if proper criminal justice procedures have not been followed. Frequently, if not invariably, the activists have been held in solitary confinement, and I cannot conceive why that would be necessary. It is not because I am a socialist, although perhaps it helps—[Interruption.] I am sorry to have lost all the Conservatives in the room, and half the Liberal Democrats. I believe that the worst thing we can do to a human being is put them in solitary confinement, because we are by nature social beings. To deny someone the opportunity to engage with anybody, even somebody who cannot speak the same language, is a cruel act, which is why I have concerns about how people are being treated.
It is clear to me that consular access has not been as easy as it should have been under all the conventions to which the Russian Federation is a signatory. There has been uncertain access to lawyers and translators of the individuals’ choosing. That access is important in international legal situations, because someone might be given a lawyer, but it might be one who has no intention of prosecuting the case in the interests of the detained person. I hope that the Minister can reply on the issues of consular access and support. Being in a country where one does not speak the language is particularly solitary. When Greenpeace activists engage in such activities elsewhere in the world, nobody expects everything to be roses, but basic levels of treatment are expected in international law.
I hope that the Russian ambassador will be following the debate, and that it will be followed closely in Russia. As we come to the winter Olympics in Sochi, the eyes of the world will be on Russia. People will be deeply troubled, not only in this country, but in many of the other countries concerned, including Argentina, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine, if a sledgehammer has been used to crack a nut, which is what this situation feels like. An entirely peaceful demonstration was disrupted by armed force—people in balaclavas working in the FSB. Dirigible boats were slashed and sunk, shots were fired, ships were seized and people were charged with offences way in exaggeration of the facts.
I am in the middle of a Select Committee inquiry, so I hope hon. Members will bear with my intervention. I learnt to speak Russian at school. I revived twinning links between Zamoskvorechye and Lambeth to bring about peaceful dialogue between the two countries. I am also Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, which recently published the report, “Protecting the Arctic”. Two weeks ago, I was with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) at a conference on the Arctic circle, looking at ways to achieve peaceful dialogue over the issues that the Committee identified in the report on the future of the region. I would like to put that on record.
In making the case for the journalists, as well as those on the Greenpeace ship, has my hon. Friend any sense of the Russians engaging with us in peaceful dialogue to address the environmental issues? Does he have any knowledge of whether Shell or BP, which are closely linked with Gazprom, have been involved in seeking a solution to this international situation?
The answer to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) is yes. I hope that the Minister will reply on the issue of how the British Government can work with Russia, because the British Government’s relationship with the Russian Government is not always at its best, and whether it might be possible to work with other countries and some other agents, such as Shell and BP, to ensure a successful outcome. In my view, a successful outcome means that all the activists are out of Murmansk, out of the Russian Federation and home before Christmas, preferably in the next couple of weeks.
I will speak fast, so I will be extremely brief. I agree with the points that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) made a moment ago. She and I attended the Arctic conference. The point she made was not so much about the consular issues, which the hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct to raise—I strongly agree with every word he has said so far—but that we must find a way for the future of bringing the two sides together in a way that does not involve raiding oil rigs and taking action. It should involve talking and sitting down to discuss the issues among ourselves.
I agree. When I was Minister for Europe, I also had responsibility for the Arctic region, and a successful discussion between all the countries that have an interest was one of the things we were trying to prosecute. Incidentally, those countries are not only the ones that abut the Arctic, but all the countries in the world, due to the environmental issues that pertain.
I say to our Russian friends and colleagues that peaceful demonstration is always a challenge. Greenpeace is irritating; in a way, that is the point of Greenpeace. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) is irritating. He has been irritating since we were at school together. He probably thinks that I am irritating. How do we deal with extremely irritating people who want to make a point? That is the challenge for the international community, and for every country that seeks to be a democracy and prosper in the modern world. That is why the eyes of the world will be on Russia and why the Nobel laureates have written to say, “Look, you have to honour your treaty obligations and make sure that you are not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
We know people are watching, because there have been demonstrations around the world—in Hong Kong and South Africa—and the Nobel laureates have referred to the situation. I am sure that Greenpeace will engage in many more demonstrations in future, and not only in Russia. Over the past weeks, there have been demonstrations at the pumps in Germany and a massive banner was unveiled by Greenpeace at a football stadium in Switzerland. We all seek to manage such challenging confrontations calmly, and not in the way the Russians have.
I shall end with two quotes. The first is not from a Brit, but a Swiss activist—he apologises for his bad English—Marco Weber:
“I am now for about 12 days alone in a cell, I don’t have books, newspapers, TV, or someone to talk to. At the daily walk I am also isolated. The 4x5 metre ‘walkyard’ is surrounded by concrete walls and covered with iron bars. On top is a roof, which doesn’t allow the sunshine in. The only sky I can see is out of my cell window, which is placed in the northern wall of the building. This means no sun at all. Days are long!”
Alex Harris writes:
“Surely my future isn’t rotting in prison in Murmansk?!...Being in prison is like slowly dying. You literally wish your life away and mark off the days.”
I am not saying that the Russians should declare some kind of legal immunity for Greenpeace activists—no one is saying that. Greenpeace is not saying that. Its activists know the risks they take when they engage in such activities. All I say to the Russians is “Slona iz mukhi,” a short Russian proverb that means, “Don’t make an elephant out of a fly”—a mountain out of a molehill.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on his speech and on securing the debate and I applaud the approach with which he commenced. It does not help those who are currently incarcerated in Murmansk to insult or offend their custodians. What we must do—I apprehend it was the approach intended by the hon. Gentleman—is to appeal to the Russian authorities, to His Excellency the Russian ambassador, who I know is taking an interest in the proceedings this morning, and to the President of Russia. I hope that speakers in the House today will base their appeal not only upon an analysis of what occurred that day and during those days in which the Arctic Sunrise was pursued and seized, but upon the compelling compassionate grounds, which are represented in part by the attendance of the families of some of those who are in custody today.
In my constituency, I have the families of Alexandra Harris and Kieron Bryan. Both families are suffering the inevitable shocking anxiety and anguish of knowing that those whom they love are isolated and segregated in a faraway place and accused of something that they are convinced, as I am, they did not do, and they are anxiously awaiting their return. It is in that spirit that I hope those who are listening, particularly the Russian ambassador, will interpret all the remarks that we make this morning.
Kieron Bryan is 29. He was a videographer on the Arctic Sunrise. He was nominated for an award. He is a talented, young and idealistic man. He was not there to break the law; he was on board the ship merely to record what happened and to keep a record. Alex Harris is 27—my own daughter’s age—and was on board as a digital communications officer, in charge of the Twitter account. She was fresh from joining Greenpeace in Sydney, and has been a volunteer in Vietnamese orphanages. She is, again, an idealistic young person who was not there to break the law—far from it—and to whom the idea of illegal violence would have been anathema, as it would to Kieron Bryan.
We all in this country can be proud of such young people. They were not intending to threaten the Russian state. They were intending to make a point about drilling in the Arctic. We all know, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has said, that drilling in Arctic conditions is a dangerous, arduous task, and it is inevitable that there will be sensitivities among those whose task it is to protect such installations, but those sensitivities should not lead to disproportionate reactions. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, but, on reflection, I hope that the Russian ambassador, the President and the authorities currently conducting the proceedings in Murmansk will reflect that there is an important principle of law: proportionality.
Proportionality must be applied in all circumstances to all the actions of a sovereign state and its court system. The actions currently being taken against Alex Harris, Kieron Bryan and others who are under the custody of the Russian authorities are not proportionate.
As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, article 101 of the UN convention on the law of the sea interdicts illegal acts of violence for private ends on the high seas. The hon. Gentleman is completely right. Even if there was an illegal act of violence, which is doubtful, in the mere ascension of the rig with the intention of placing a banner upon it, it cannot be said that it was for private ends in the ordinary sense in which international lawyers mean it. Private ends must mean some form of deliberate attempt to secure a gain. In such circumstances, I would urge the Russian authorities to reflect on whether the charge of piracy is proportionate.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, to charge those young idealistic people—whose interest is not in violence but in peace, and, while some may think it misguided, is in preservation and creation, not destruction—with piracy is to bring into disrepute the very law that prohibits it. That is why I urge the Russian authorities, His Excellency the ambassador, who is listening to this debate, and those who may be listening in Russia itself to feel that the proportionality of their actions is under severe question.
There is another point that the hon. Gentleman did not mention: the United Nations convention prohibits actions of this type only on the high seas. The fact is that the oil rig was within the territorial waters of Russia, so any act against it would not necessarily be an act under the UN convention, and the action that was taken is not prohibited by the UN convention. The Arctic Sunrise was three nautical miles from the oil rig at the time—plainly, as the hon. Gentleman said, in international waters. In such circumstances, the exercise of power under the convention is questionable at least.
However, I do not wish to dwell upon the steps that were taken by the Russian authorities and whether or not they were lawful. I wish to dwell upon the plight of the individuals themselves. In the grim conditions of the Murmansk jail in which they reside are two young people whose families I represent. Kieron Bryan is a constituent of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who will speak eloquently on his behalf, but I hope she will forgive me if I say that I feel a powerful connection to the families of both Alexandra Harris and Kieron Bryan. They are Devonshire people from the area of Torridge that I have the privilege to represent. Alexandra Harris was brought up in a farming family of generations. She went to Dolton and then Great Torrington school. She attended that school with a constituent who works for me in my constituency.
Kieron Bryan was brought up in Shebbear, a great village in Torridge that I know well, so I feel particularly close to those two young people at this particular time. I urge the Russian authorities to understand that those two people, as well as all their colleagues at the time, were not there in any destructive, illegal or lawbreaking spirit. It is ironic that they are incarcerated in Murmansk, the port to which many convoys sailed through the Atlantic to bring to the Russians succour in a time of great need. I ask the President of Russia, the Russian ambassador and the Russian authorities to think again. The human reality of Alexandra Harris’s, Kieron Bryan’s and others’ plight is brought home, as the hon. Gentleman said, by the letter that Alexandra’s mother published only recently and which she has asked me to draw to the attention of the House and the Minister. The letter said:
“I’m worried about what’s going to happen. I have moments of feeling panicky, but then I try to tell myself that there’s nothing I can do from in here and what will be will be so it’s pointless worrying. But it’s hard. Surely my future isn’t rotting in prison in Murmansk?! Well, I really hope it isn’t.”
It is our job—the job of the Minister, the Prime Minister and all those who care for justice and for freedom—to see that it is not.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on the balanced presentation that he gave to the House and also the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) on his impassioned plea to the House. I want to add my and my party’s support to the joint approach of all the parties here. Although I do not have a constituent involved in the affair, I want to convey my support to the Members of Parliament who represent the people who are in jail at present.
I believe that we need to drill for oil; it is important that we do so. I would like to get away from relying on fossil fuels—we all know that—but when we produce and use oil, there is a tremendous burden on us to ensure that we do so as environmentally safely as possible. It is incumbent on us all to make sure that every possible measure is taken to ensure that oil is drilled safely and that measures are taken to protect the unique and fragile environment of such areas. Greenpeace, as the hon. Member for Rhondda said, might be a pain at times, but it highlights vital issues. That is why its members were on the Russian oil rig, and accusing them of piracy is absurd and wrong.
I understand why Greenpeace was highlighting Russian oil-drilling techniques. The director of Greenpeace, John Sauven, claims that half the world’s oil spills occur in Russia. He estimated that some 30 million barrels of oil a year are spilt there—six times the 4.9 million barrels thought to have been spilled in the gulf of Mexico. Considering the environment and what Greenpeace was highlighting, that is the issue. For me, that is, in a way, also the injustice of what has happened.
Greenpeace’s thought process behind boarding the rig was clearly to highlight the actions in the Arctic, not to carry out an act of piracy, which is an absurd accusation. Certainly, the fact that the entire ship was seized and everyone on board arrested, including two journalists, shows that the response is less to do with their actions and more to do with the Russian Government making a statement—or, as some suspect, trying to hide the truth. I make those comments as well because I think it is important to do so.
That statement has been made and the world is in no doubt as to the current stance of the Russians. It is past time that the people were released. That is why it is right and proper to highlight the issue in Westminster today. The six UK residents who have been arrested and held—not, according to media outlets, in the most pleasant of conditions, as the two previous speakers have mentioned—are an indication of Russia’s stance. The way in which they have been treated in prison demands that a message is sent from this place, making it clear that we want our citizens released along with the other people on that boat. It is absurd to hold off a trial until November. To deny bail to such people and to hold them, on trumped-up charges, far from their families and from access to loved ones is cruel and must be stopped.
Europe as a whole—indeed, the world—has a role to play. Hillary Clinton, the former US Secretary of State, has made a statement. She said last week that there should be a greater international outcry. The issue goes beyond Europe and as far as the United States.
I am aware that the Netherlands has determined to bring the matter to the international maritime court and that others are considering the same course of action. The situation is more than just arresting people and letting them think about what they are going to do for a night or two; it is an infringement of their rights. As upholder of democracy, this place must make it abundantly clear that we will join other nations and demand that Russia releases those innocent people and puts a stop to whatever statement it is trying to make.
My hon. Friend is following through a train of thought about the sequence of events that needs to happen internationally. Does he agree that urgent action is needed? The Minister present and the Prime Minister need to make immediate contacts, so that whatever needs to be done is done in a matter of days rather than months.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I hope that the Minister will respond positively. We also need the Prime Minister to action it right away. The statement that will come clearly from Westminster Hall and from all hon. Members present will sincerely say that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda on raising the issue. I look forward to hearing other input and even more so to hearing the input and response from the Minister and, ultimately, the Prime Minister. If there is a chance to bring the matter up in Prime Minister’s Question Time today, it should be brought up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate. He was, to some extent, tactful in what he said about Russia, and he did not mention some of the other significant human rights cases, such as those of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev and the late Sergei Magnitsky, and the disproportionate treatment meted out to members of Pussy Riot. I understand his reasons for being tactful, but there is an issue for Russia to take notice of: its reputation for human rights abuses, and the damage being done in that regard, is significant and cumulative. It is doing more and more damage to its international reputation through disproportionate responses to events such as those that we are discussing.
Russia’s response is disproportionate, as the hon. Gentleman also, less tactfully, said. There is a level of irritation that comes with politics; he conceded that he is sometimes irritating to me. His ability to remind everyone that we went to school together is one of his more irritating habits, although I suspect that the fact that he went to Cheltenham college does him more political damage in Rhondda than it does me in Cheltenham.
We in this Parliament have been subject to Greenpeace actions. Members of Greenpeace were on our roof in 2009, unfurling banners about climate change. They climbed Big Ben—or the clock tower, in deference to the hon. Gentleman’s reputation for pedantry—in 2004.
Indeed, but then it was still the clock tower. Those protests were met, in large part, with good humour, even though they were probably more significant security breaches in one sense than anything that the Arctic 30 have done in the waters close to Russia. However, they were met with good humour and a proportionate response by the authorities. People were arrested, but they were not charged as terrorists. It was understood that they were peaceful political protests. That is what the Arctic 30 were also engaged in.
The hon. Member for Rhondda was absolutely right to draw attention to the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. Article 101 has two fundamental aspects to its definition of piracy. The first is use of violence, and the other is, as he quite rightly pointed out, the fact that it is done for private means. Piracy is a criminally violent act, and that, as even President Putin clearly said, is quite clearly not what the Arctic 30 were involved in.
I will go a little further than some other hon. Members and say that there is an environmental issue in addition to a human rights one. That is, after all, what Greenpeace was seeking to highlight. As we turn to more and more novel means of extracting fossil fuels, and go into more and more extreme environments in our pursuit of them, we are taking higher and higher risks with the environment. The lessons from the gulf of Mexico are clear, and there are lessons to be learned not only by Russia, but by this and other western countries, about novel means of extracting fossil fuels. My comments are therefore not directed solely at Russia. If the Arctic 30—certainly those placed under arrest—have inspired future generations of environmental activists to highlight such issues, and if they have helped to generate a debate about the risks of more extreme extraction of fossil fuels, their action will not have been in vain.
The Minister made a written ministerial statement on 9 October, which was welcome. However, it had the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s traditional consular emphasis; the FCO is diplomatic, but I think it is occasionally diplomatic to a fault. There seemed to be, in the statement, something of a reluctance to pass judgment on whether it was appropriate to prosecute these people for the act of piracy. There seemed to be great reluctance, as there was in other cases, to contemplate any kind of sanctions against Russia for its actions. There was the rather significant inclusion of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in lobbying the Russian Government, but not of the Prime Minister. When British citizens are involved, I think it is appropriate for the Prime Minister to have some personal involvement.
The FCO always puts a great premium on discreet persuasion, but there are limits to that. At some point, we need to hear from the Government what further concrete and proactive steps they are taking to make progress on the issue—most obviously in partnership with our European Union friends and other like-minded democracies—and how they will try more strongly to encourage Russia to take a different path.
Many hon. Members and people involved in politics the world over were deeply inspired by Russia’s transition from communist dictatorship in the 1980s and ’90s. It is a matter of immense sadness that Russia’s reputation, particularly in human rights, seems to be slipping backwards towards that era. I hope that, collectively, we and supporting organisations such as Greenpeace can encourage Russia to make this issue a turning point, and not to carry on treading this dangerous path.
My comments—I shall keep them brief, because I know that many Members want to speak—follow on nicely from those of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). I want to press the Government on what exactly they have been doing for the past month, and to question the “softly, softly” approach that they appear to have adopted.
I wrote to the Foreign Secretary a month ago, and I still have not received a reply to my questions. It has not escaped my notice that the Governments of other nationals held captive in Murmansk have been much tougher. The Dutch are taking legal action; Hillary Clinton, who has been mentioned, has spoken out very strongly; and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who does not even have any nationals held in Murmansk, has picked up the phone to President Putin and made it clear that what has happened is unacceptable and should be resolved quickly. Yet when the Prime Minister was asked at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday what he has been doing, he said that he has simply been asking for updates. I am afraid that that is not good enough.
I want to put it on the record that my right hon. Friend’s point is supported by constituents of mine who are friends of Kieron’s. They have written to me to say that our Prime Minister really should get involved. I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees.
I absolutely agree, not least because more Britons are being held by the Russians in Murmansk than people from any other country. As has already been said, there are six of them, of whom three are from Devon.
In a letter to me from his jail in Murmansk, the marine engineer from Exeter, Iain Rogers, has complained bitterly about what he sees as the British Government’s lack of action, compared with what is being done by his fellow captives’ Governments. He makes this direct appeal to the Prime Minister:
“I find it hard to believe that you are not outraged that British subjects have been kidnapped at gunpoint, detained and abused and yet so far you have done nothing except sit on your hands. It is time to act Mr Cameron. You have a duty to protect UK citizens and international law.”
Iain’s mum, Sue Turner, visited the Foreign Office last week. I understand that she did not get to see a Minister, which is regrettable, but she did see an official. At a vigil held for the Arctic 30 in Exeter on Sunday, she told me that she and the rest of the relatives share a concern that they are not being given enough information. She said that when they asked why more was not being done and said publicly, she was told by the Foreign Office official that Russia had not responded well to criticism from abroad in the past. We all know that, and it may well be the case, but this has been going on for more than a month.
Many of us do not have a great deal of faith in the Russian judicial system, and other Members have already referred to the prosecution of Pussy Riot and the state- sponsored persecution of gay and lesbian people in Russia. The British Government should make it absolutely clear to the Russians—yes, privately if necessary—that the situation is unacceptable, and that severe damage will be done to our bilateral relations and Russia’s already battered international image unless the hostages are freed forthwith. The Government also need to tell the relatives and the British public what they are doing to help.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has quite rightly said that it would be inconceivable for the Sochi winter Olympics to go ahead unaffected if these 30 people from all over the world are still held illegally in a Russian jail. Does any hon. Member think that that would be an acceptable backdrop to an international sporting event? I hope that the Minister will reassure us by telling us what the Government are doing, and what representations he, and the Prime Minister personally, have been making. Are they supporting or are they a party to the Dutch legal action, and if not, why not?
On the Dutch legal action, it is important to remember that only the Dutch have the standing to bring such an action: it was their sovereign-flagged ship, and they therefore have that status under the convention. We could not bring that action. Of course, we can support it morally, but we cannot be a party to it.
I defer to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s superior legal knowledge, but I hope that the Minister will at least tell us that we are supporting the Dutch legal action politically and morally.
Finally, what conversations have there been between the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary and Cathy Ashton? I would have thought that—given her very good reputation in recent months for bringing together parties, including the Russians, over Iran and Syria—the European Union’s foreign policy representative would be well placed to organise a co-ordinated European Union response to this intolerable behaviour by the Russian authorities.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for securing the debate. He spoke very eloquently, as have other hon. Members, about the seizure of the boat, the charge of piracy and the issue of proportionality. I very much support those comments, and those made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw).
I want to say a few words in support of Anthony Perrett from Newport, whom I share with my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). He is one of the Greenpeace activists detained in Russia, and his family live in my constituency. May I say to the Minister that we are grateful for the very helpful and practical meeting with hon. Members the week before last, and the subsequent meeting with the families, although the Minister was not able to be at that one? The family have certainly requested a meeting with the Minister in person as soon as possible. Greenpeace’s constructive engagement in the case is also heartening, not least its steps to give daily updates to the families, including Anthony’s family and partner, about what is happening.
Anthony Perrett is a tree surgeon, a former member of Caldicot town council in my constituency and a volunteer for the Severn Area Rescue Association. He undoubtedly has strong and passionate views about the environment, and campaigns proactively. He would probably have been aware of what the consequences of his actions might be, but being charged with piracy is clearly excessive, given that the maximum sentence is 15 years. More than a month on, the Russian authorities have sent a loud and clear message to Greenpeace—the point has been made—but we all hope that reason prevails, and that Anthony and his fellow protesters can be set free and reunited with their families as soon as possible.
The debate has touched on what is happening to those detained in a Russian prison, and on our not having enough information on the circumstances in which they are detained. I want to speak about the stress placed on the family and Anthony’s partner, Zaharah, who have to watch and wait while events in Russia unfold. They are struggling to cope with the impact of his detention on their lives at home in Newport. Zaharah is obviously unable to talk to Anthony. She is unsure about how the Russian legal process works and how long it will take, and about when this trauma will end. She is obviously concerned about his welfare, and wants to know more about the conditions in which he is detained, so it would be helpful to know more about that.
The speed at which the protesters have been charged with piracy is clearly an immense shock, especially given President Putin’s remark about the Greenpeace protesters on 25 September that
“it’s completely obvious they aren’t pirates.”
On a practical level, Zaharah has told me that she would like to send Anthony some personal items at the jail where he is held, but that has so far proved impossible. Parcel couriers have not been able to get help, and people are still trying to find a way to get parcels through. She is asking the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to look at that practical matter and help to find a resolution, which would be a small comfort for my constituent’s family and friends.
Does my hon. Friend think that it is worth reminding our Russian friends that Newport is probably unique in commemorating the role of the merchant navy—it lost more of its representatives in warfare than any other service—with a special memorial and a special commemoration every year, and that it is worth saying that many of those who died were on the route to Murmansk, under terrible conditions of weather and danger? Can we build on the solidarity and comradeship that existed during the war to ensure that the Russians respond generously now?
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that worthy intervention, which is timely given the commemoration that is about to take place in Newport. His point was well made. It would be helpful if we could look at some of the practical issues, including the provision of more information on visits. Such help would make a really big difference on a day-to-day basis to both those detained and their families.
As we do not have much time and other Members wish to speak, may I thank the Government for the representations that they have made so far? We look forward to hearing from them about what more can be done. I just ask that they do all they can to secure the release of the Greenpeace activists and to urge the Russian authorities to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for his contribution and congratulate him on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute.
I want to set out my concern for the 30 individuals who remain incarcerated in a Russian jail, and add my voice to those calling for the charges of piracy to be dropped and for the activists and journalists to be released. I also want to recall why these brave individuals were prepared to take peaceful direct action at the oil drilling platform operated by Gazprom in Arctic waters. The threat that oil drilling poses to the Arctic region is immense. The current failure of global leaders, both here and elsewhere, to respond with sufficient urgency to the threat of climate change is overwhelming.
It is difficult to imagine what it must be like being detained in a Russian jail for more than a month. The reports in the media of letters from the activists and the concerns and feelings of their families and loved ones pierce through sharply into normal life. Phil Ball is one of those being held. He is a nature photographer and film maker who has been credited on David Attenborough’s films, and a father to sons aged eight and seven and a three-year-old daughter. His brother has spoken of the contact he has had with him. He said:
“While Phil seemed quite ‘down’ in his earlier letters, he seemed stronger in this one to me and is very keen we don’t just get them back and forget why they all went out there—to highlight the damage which is being wreaked on the Arctic.”
1 know that all the UK citizens are being well represented by their own MPs and am told that the FCO is making every effort on their behalf. I am sure that all of us will want to keep up the pressure on the FCO publicly and behind the scenes and to work closely with Greenpeace to secure the release of all those detained.
I want to focus my remaining comments on the concerns that motivated those men and women to board the Arctic Sunrise, and that they continue to want to highlight. The Greenpeace ship, crew, volunteers, campaigners and journalists were there to highlight the Arctic oil rush. Fronted by companies such as Gazprom and Shell, the rush for oil is bringing unprecedented risks to the area and to us all in terms of climate change. The activists are playing a key role in letting the world know about the catastrophic consequences of any potential oil spill for the many people living in the Arctic who rely on their natural environment for prosperity, both directly and through tourism, and for marine wildlife and ecosystems.
The activities of the oil companies do not tend to attract much attention here in the UK. The investigative work and the non-violent direct action of Greenpeace and other organisations are helping to shine a light on what is taking place. Every 18 months, more than 4 million barrels of oil spew into the Arctic ocean, where it becomes everyone’s problem. For decades, Russia’s oil giants have been polluting parts of the country’s once thriving landscape, often in secret, spilling oil on to the land and into the Arctic ocean, poisoning the water and destroying the livelihood of local communities and indigenous peoples.
Greenpeace has investigated and documented the ongoing disaster, revealing how the oil seeps into rivers and farmland and how it spreads and becomes a thick, heavy mire, suffocating plants and animals and forcing people to abandon the area. The oil contaminates food and water supplies, and people live with the knowledge that their once clean rivers, forests and air now pose serious health risks.
Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, carried out an inquiry into the risks of drilling in the Arctic, and the future of the region more generally. The inquiry concluded by calling for a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic region, at least until we have put in place stronger safeguards, such as a pan-Arctic oil spill response standard and a stricter financial liability regime for oil and gas operations, requiring companies to prove that they can meet the costs of a clean up.
The peaceful activists on the Arctic Sunrise put their freedom on the line to highlight issues not just around oil spills but around climate change. Last week, 11 Nobel peace prize laureates including Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to President Putin offering their support for the Arctic 30. Describing the Arctic as a “precious treasure of humanity”, the signatories are all supporting efforts to protect the high north from oil exploration and climate change.
On Friday 27 September, the Arctic 30 woke up in their freezing jail cells after a whole week of incarceration. On the same day, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on the science of climate change. Scientists are more certain than ever that human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, is driving a powerful underlying trend of rising global temperatures. The IPCC report also underlines the need for substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to limit climate change. For the first time, it talks about the need for a global carbon budget—the amount of carbon that it is safe to release into the atmosphere. That view echoes recent reports from organisations such as Carbon Tracker. There is a stark choice. If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to leave at least two thirds of existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground, unburned. It does not matter whether we are talking about Arctic oil, tar sands from Canada or Madagascar, or shale gas from Sussex; we just need to leave unconventional fossil fuels in the ground.
One of my constituents wrote to me recently about her concern for the Arctic 30. Summarising the situation, she said:
“I don’t agree with the exploitation big oil companies like Shell are wanting to pursue, drilling in this delicate environment for profit. Climate change is a threat to us all and I strongly believe that a new direction and other alternatives should be considered and more researched.”
She went on to say:
“I tune into BBC Parliament regularly and often find myself disappointed by the lack of interest and low seat count MPs have in debates discussing”—
climate change and—
“similar matters concerning wildlife and the environment.”
Across the world, citizens are increasingly taking non-violent direct action against fossil fuel companies because of the failure of democratically elected representatives to act in the public interest, to stand up to the small number of fossil fuel giants whose business models are fundamentally incompatible with a safe climate and to direct their attention to keeping the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground instead. The latest IPCC report confirms that the ground is where fossil fuels must remain if we are to keep climate change below the “dangerous” threshold of 2°.
Earlier this year, the UK and other G8 nations reiterated that commitment. They said:
“Action needs to continue and intensify as a matter of urgency. Ministers remain committed to long term efforts with a view to limiting the increase in global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius.”
That is what they said, but it is “deeds not words” that matter.
Four years ago, climate scientist James Hansen was first arrested when taking part in a protest against coal mining in West Virginia. In Canada and elsewhere, civil society resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline is diverse and growing. That is because the exploitation of tar sands is devastating First Nation communities and the local environment, and spells game over for our climate.
The resolve and courage of the Arctic 30 is truly humbling. Today’s debate is an important opportunity to call for their release, and also to put on the parliamentary record the contribution they are making to the fight to protect the Arctic and to create a safe climate and a better future for our children and grandchildren.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for securing this debate and for the tone of his contribution. I share with him the view that Greenpeace activists are not innocents abroad. Their position is part and parcel of being Greenpeace activists. That is certainly the case of my constituent, Frank Hewetson. He has been a very active campaigner for many years. It is important that we not only raise our concerns about the treatment of our constituents in the hands of the Russian authorities but point out that Greenpeace is active on behalf of the whole world, and no more so than in its actions in the Arctic. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) pointed out, changes to the Arctic could have the most deleterious and terrible effect on the rest of the world.
I share with everyone who has spoken today a sense of disbelief that the Russian authorities have chosen, as someone so aptly said, to take this great hammer to crack a nut. The charge of piracy, as those who have comprehensive backgrounds in international law know, is an absurdity. The Russian authorities are determined to hang on to the charge of piracy, and are obdurate in not granting bail to the Arctic 30. What possible harm can they do if they are given bail?
I am in two minds as to whether to argue that one should put forward the need for a compassionate approach to the prisoners, because of course we are talking about a society that even the slightest contact with its culture and literature—I presume that we have all read “The Gulag Archipelago”, so we know that Russian treatment of prisoners, whether the charges against them were justified or not, is surely one of the blackest stories in the history of humankind. I am amazed that Russia, which seems to want to go back to the old, desperate and surely discredited tradition, seems to want to replicate it yet again, so soon after we have seen it take a major step forward in international affairs by being so central and essential in ensuring that the inspectors were allowed into Syria, and the chemical weapons will be destroyed and brought out. Far from arguing on the level of Russia suddenly discovering a compassionate nature, we should argue with Russia that that is really good public relations for it.
Russia is somewhat paradoxical, in that it is clearly a very proud nation and yet sometimes it feels that it is not given sufficient credit for its standing in the international community. Sometimes it is Russia’s fault, and on many occasions it could be argued that it is the fault of the international community, that this great nation is not given sufficient credit for being great, but actions such as charging these activists with piracy tend to push Russia even further into the background, when it so clearly wants to be at the forefront.
I hope that our diplomatic associations and contacts with the Russian authorities will help. I also have to thank the Minister for being so available to the families of the activists; he has certainly been available to the family of my constituent and to the families of other Members’ constituents. Possibly, the best way forward is diplomacy behind closed doors. Perhaps that will at least achieve the first step that I am sure all of us here in Westminster Hall today wish to see, which is affording the Arctic 30 bail, improving contacts with their families and providing items such as books to read, more time on the phone or at least a clear line when they do have time on the phone.
As I have said, these people are not innocents abroad, but what they are doing on behalf of the entire world is entirely admirable, and Russia is a part of that world. Her people can be destroyed just as easily as anybody else’s if climate change is allowed to run unchallenged.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for securing this debate. I know that he is very involved in relations with Russia through his work in the all-party group on Russia.
I would particularly like to identify myself with the comments of the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), in whose constituency Kieron Bryan’s parents live; Kieron Bryan is my constituent. I want to speak about Kieron Bryan today and to say that he is detained in Murmansk, and that it has been a long time since 19 September; here we are on 23 October. It is a long time to be detained in Murmansk. He is not a criminal, he is not a threat to the Russian state, he is not a pirate and I say very strongly that I hope the Russian authorities will listen to what is being said in this debate and allow Kieron Bryan to come home.
Kieron Bryan was on a contract with Greenpeace as a journalist. He had worked for The Times, the Daily Mirror and in broadcasting; he had really done well in his professional career. Aged 29, he had already made great strides in that career, and had taken up a short-term contract with Greenpeace to be on the Arctic Sunrise to record the crew’s activities. Now he is in solitary confinement in Murmansk.
None of us makes a habit of lightly second-guessing other countries’ criminal justice systems, and I certainly do not do so. There are many British citizens who are in prisons all around the world, but I say to the Russian authorities that Kieron Bryan is not a criminal, much less a pirate, and I hope that they will release him and allow him to return home.
I will also say something about the facilities in which Kieron has been detained. As has been said, to be in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, having been refused bail, is very hard indeed. Regarding his access to the outside world, I understand that his letters are brought in and he is allowed to read them, but then they are taken away. So he cannot even keep his letters and see what his friends and family are writing to him. He has only been allowed one book and he has now finished that. He was allowed one phone call to his family when he was on the way to detention. Since then, he has only had access to the phone last weekend, which is not acceptable.
I have asked the Russian authorities for Kieron’s brother, Russell, to be able to go out to Murmansk to visit him. A Russian prisoner on remand is allowed a visit from their family, but how much more does someone need a visit from their family if they are detained thousands of miles away from their home in a cell in a prison where they do not speak the language?
I hope that the Russian authorities will listen to what is being said. I thank the Foreign Office for the work that it has already done. I want it to do absolutely everything it can and to leave no stone unturned to get Kieron Bryan back home. I know that the Foreign Secretary is aware of and engaged on this issue, as is the Prime Minister. I thank the Foreign Office Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today for having a meeting with myself and other colleagues, and for the consular team and the team in the Foreign Office here who are working on this issue.
For my part, I will seek a meeting with Baroness Ashton of Upholland. Perhaps she can meet a number of us and can hear from us all how much we are concerned about this issue and how grateful we would be if she could do what she can to help.
I have asked for a meeting with the Russian ambassador, but he has not been prepared to meet me. Perhaps the Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today might encourage him to meet me, and perhaps I could go along with the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon. If a country has an embassy in this country, it is so that it can hear from people in this country what is going on, and to refuse to hear—as a matter of courtesy—what I have to say about my constituent, who is in detention, is wrong. I hope Russia will allow that meeting to happen.
I want Russia to allow visits; to allow Russell a visa; to allow books and phone calls—
Excellent. I will definitely attend that meeting, and I look forward to seeing the ambassador. I hope that he will take this issue very seriously and will listen to our concerns, particularly regarding the different situation of Kieron Bryan, who is a journalist. It is hard to know how much information Kieron is able to get, so many thousands of miles away as he faces a winter in a prison cell in Murmansk, but I hope he knows that for his family—his parents, Ann and Andy, and his brother, Russell—not a day goes by without their using every effort to help to bring his plight to the attention of the Government and the Russian authorities. His family will leave no stone unturned until he is back with them, and I will certainly do absolutely everything I can to help them too.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate. It is clear from the attendance here in Westminster Hall today, and from the correspondence that I am sure we have all had, that there is considerable concern across the House and among the wider public about the plight of the Arctic 30, as they have become known, and in particular about the six Britons who were arrested: Kieron Bryan, Philip Ball, Frank Hewetson, Anthony Perrett, Alexandra Harris and Iain Rogers.
As we have heard, 28 Greenpeace activists and two freelance journalists were detained last month after armed Russian security forces descended upon the Arctic Sunrise. They have been charged with piracy and are being held in prison in Murmansk, after the courts denied them bail.
I will come later to the issue of opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic, which is, after all, why Greenpeace activists were off the coast of Russia carrying out this action. The immediate priority must, of course, be the safety and welfare of the 30 detainees, who face at least two months’ pre-trial detention and possible prison sentences of up to 15 years. Other speakers have spoken of concern about the conditions in which they are held. Some are held in solitary confinement or are unable to converse with cell mates. They have limited contact with the outside world, they cannot receive telephone calls or have visits from their family, and their letters are confiscated when they have read them.
Alexandra Harris has said that she suffered serious stomach pains and asked both a Russian human rights official and a British diplomat about seeing a doctor, but she was not able to see one. Earlier today, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and I met Kieron Bryan’s family and heard some of their concerns about the fact that he is unable to converse with his cell mate, and that if his brother went to Murmansk to visit him he would be questioned at length and would not necessarily have the right to talk to Kieron when he arrived there. I hope very much that the Foreign Office officials in our embassy in Moscow can help to facilitate a trip and ensure that if he goes to Russia he will be allowed access to his brother. That is the least they could do.
I understand that Kieron has had three visits from our diplomats in Russia. Can the Minister assure us that consular staff have unimpeded access to the six British citizens? How satisfied is he about the conditions in which they are held and their access to medical assistance and legal counsel? Whenever our officials in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia want to see those six Britons they should be able to do so, and I am worried that that is not the case. Have the Government been able to secure visas, visitation rights and telephone contact for all the families?
We have heard about the somewhat dubious nature of the charges. Even President Putin has said that the six Britons are obviously not pirates, yet they are being charged with piracy. What representations have been made about the legal situation, the legal basis on which the Russian authorities boarded the Arctic Sunrise and the legality of the charges?
As has been said, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has raised her concerns directly with President Putin, but when the Prime Minister—one of his Witney constituents is among those held in Murmansk—was asked about the matter at Prime Minister’s questions, he merely said:
“We need to follow this case extremely closely, and that is exactly what the Foreign Office is doing…we are daily seeking updates from the Russian Government”.—[Official Report, 16 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 736.]
That implies that the Prime Minister is not personally involved although one of his constituents is among the detainees. Will the Minister tell us to what extent the Prime Minister is involved, both as Prime Minister and as a constituency MP? The implication of
“daily seeking updates from the Russian Government”
is that not a lot of lobbying is going on. Surely, instead of just waiting to hear what is going on, we should exert pressure and do all we can behind the scenes to ensure that the case for releasing the six Britons and the other activists is made as swiftly as possible.
Oil drilling in the Arctic is deeply contentious and it is right that we discuss not just the plight of the people held in jail in Murmansk but why the Greenpeace activists felt compelled to take the personal risk of protesting at the Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the harsh Arctic climate. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. Last September, the extent of the ice cap was at a record low and the Environmental Audit Committee advised in its excellent report that we need to re-examine the risk of a summer collapse. It also warned that a number of tipping points are approaching “with potentially disastrous consequences”. The tragic irony is that melting of the ice caps provides greater opportunities for oil and gas exploration, which will then further accelerate climate change.
The Environmental Audit Committee argued that the Arctic is one of the least well understood places on earth and highly sensitive to environmental damage, and that any response to an oil spill would be ineffectual. It called for a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic. As the shadow Minister for the Arctic, I was happy to support that during the debate in February on the Committee’s report. There was common agreement that such issues are not just for the Arctic states and members of the Arctic Council, on which the UK has observer status. In that debate, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), assured us that the UK is
“leading the fight on tackling the underlying cause of the threats facing the Arctic.”
He also said that the possibility of an oil spillage in the Arctic
“is absolutely abhorrent and has terrifying consequences for the environment”.—[Official Report, 7 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 159WH, 161WH.]
That suggests that the Government would be sympathetic towards the Arctic 30 protest.
What discussions have the Government had with their Russian counterparts about the implications for both the Arctic specifically and the wider environment of Gazprom proceeding with its plans to drill there? During the debate in February, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for East Devon, assured us that
“It is wrong to say that the UK should not, and does not show leadership on issues affecting the Arctic.”— [Official Report, 7 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 159WH.]
However, I suggest that the extent of the UK’s leadership is in doubt. Indeed, in July the Environmental Audit Committee concluded that the Government
“failed to grasp the urgency of action needed”
“failed to offer a coherent argument for its view that future Arctic oil and gas exploration is compatible with efforts to contain global warming to 2°C.”
The UK accounts for the largest contingent on board the Arctic Sunrise, so does the Minister agree that now is the time for leadership from the Government? What conversations has the Foreign Office had with representatives from the 17 nations represented on the ship? Canada, Brazil, Denmark, Argentina, Australia, Italy, Sweden, the USA, the Netherlands, France, Turkey, New Zealand, Switzerland, Ukraine, Finland and Poland all had citizens detained. Have the Government had conversations with representatives of those Governments, and have they sought to raise the arrests and the reasons for the protest with the Arctic Council?
I understand that today the Russian Foreign Ministry has said it will not accept the international arbitration process in relation to the Netherlands’ application to the UN Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in an attempt to secure the return of the Arctic Sunrise and the release of the activists. What support are the Government giving to the Netherlands’ bid to deal with the matter under the auspices of the UN tribunal?
Last week, the Foreign Office published a policy framework on the Arctic, and the Government have pledged to
“work towards an Arctic that is safe and secure; well-governed in conjunction with indigenous peoples and”
in line with international law and where
“policies…are developed on the basis of sound science”
“full regard to the environment.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 October 2013; Vol. 748, c. 77.]
The compatibility of that statement with the Government’s support for Arctic drilling is a matter for another debate, but will the Minister elaborate on the Government’s vision for “well governed”, how he sees international law being enforced, and how they plan to work with other states to achieve a “safe and secure” Arctic? Is that something they plan to discuss with Gazprom and other companies such as Shell or British-based insurers?
I want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond, particularly as I have asked many questions. There are real concerns about the human rights situation in Russia and the deterioration of freedom of expression, which the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) raised. This is not the time or place to go into the details of that. However, I will check my diary to see if I can make the 4 o’clock meeting with the Russian ambassador. It is important that we go along and express our concerns on those fronts.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate. The attendance this morning and the passion with which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have spoken indicate clearly to anyone studying our proceedings, in this country or Russia, that there are extremely strong feelings in Parliament and among the wider British public about what has happened offshore and in Murmansk.
In the 11 or 12 minutes remaining, I will focus on the British nationals who have been detained. That is not to dismiss the importance of wider issues of Arctic policy that the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), raised. The Government published a new policy framework document on the Arctic last week, and there may be opportunities for a wider debate on those matters in the House.
The arrest of the six British nationals who were on board the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise was, and remains, of great concern to the British Government. We hope that there will be a resolution to the incident that is acceptable to all parties. The priorities that govern our approach at the moment are, first, to try to do everything we can to ensure the proper welfare of the British citizens and the two New Zealanders detained—the New Zealand Government have asked us to take responsibility for providing consular support—and, secondly, to find an outcome to the affair that is acceptable to all parties concerned.
We learned of the arrest of those aboard the Greenpeace vessel on 19 September, and on the same day we decided to deploy a consular team to Murmansk before the vessel got into port. We contacted the Russian authorities to secure access rights, and on 24 September, consular officials were able to meet the British nationals when they arrived in Murmansk to check their welfare and collect messages to pass back to their families.
Murmansk is some 1,000 miles from Moscow, and we do not have a permanent British consulate there, but because of the seriousness of the incident and the number of people involved, each week we have dispatched a team of officials to Murmansk from our missions in Moscow and St Petersburg. Our consular officials attended the preliminary court hearings for all British nationals between 26 and 29 September. As the House knows, all 30 detainees were remanded for up to two months and transferred to pre-trial detention facilities while the authorities investigated further. Both before and after the hearings, our consular officials were allowed to talk to the British citizens and take messages from them to pass to concerned relatives in the United Kingdom.
Our officials carried out further consular visits to all six British detainees on 3 and 4 October. We were able to check on their welfare and address any concerns; this included helping to ensure that one British national who had earlier collapsed in court received appropriate support. We have since continued to visit the British nationals regularly, and our officials were present during the appeal hearings that concluded this week. As the House knows, the court dismissed all the appeals and upheld detention. Due to our lobbying efforts, at present all the British nationals are being held in the same detention facility, and have had regular access to Greenpeace lawyers.
Briefly, on the points raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda, our understanding is that all the detainees have access to lawyers, who were provided by Greenpeace in the first instance. We have also provided lists of local lawyers who we understand are able to do business in English—clearly, the FCO cannot vouch for the quality of any particular legal representative. We take up with the Russian authorities any concerns about prison conditions and access to appropriate medical treatment, as well as other concerns that detainees may have. Our latest information is that some of the detainees are sharing cells and others are in a cell on their own. We have raised any concerns expressed to us by the detainees with the prison authorities. The detainees are telling us at the moment that the conditions are what they term “broadly acceptable.” I am not saying that the conditions are comfortable in the remotest, but the detainees themselves describe the conditions as “broadly acceptable.”
Our priority is to ensure that we continue to provide consular assistance to the British nationals in Murmansk and to maintain contact with their families here in the UK. I have made it clear to my officials that when it comes to prison conditions and access to visits of any kind, I want to ensure that we hold the Russians to the letter of what they offer under their own prison rules, law and constitution.
On 2 October, the Russian investigative authority charged all 30 detainees with acts of piracy. Bearing in mind the clearly stated view of President Putin, many hon. Members will have been surprised that piracy charges were brought. The UN definition of piracy in the convention on the law of the sea does not appear to uphold the charges. The charges, however, are being brought under a particular provision of the Russian criminal code. I agree with those who have said during this debate that the key issue is the proportionality of the charges. We are in regular touch with Greenpeace lawyers on that issue, but the legal picture is complicated by the Russians arguing that the action comes under their domestic law.
As some hon. Members have commented, the Dutch have taken the ship’s detention to international arbitration. That is a legal matter for the Dutch as flag nation, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) said, but we remain in close contact with the Dutch authorities on that aspect of the case.
With respect to my hon. and learned Friend, I am not here to comment on the Russian legal case. I am certainly not saying that we agree with the case, but the Russian argument is that the Russian domestic criminal code applies to the rig, and that the small boats from the main vessel that approached close to the rig were in breach of that criminal code. That is the Russian argument, and it may be something to take up in more detail with the Russian ambassador when hon. Members meet him.
It is not only in Murmansk that we have taken action. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue with the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New York on 25 September, and he followed that with a letter to him on 6 October. Senior FCO officials raised the case with the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom on 26 September. Our ambassador in Moscow raised the case with deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov on 2 October and met deputy Foreign Minister Titov yesterday to discuss the case further. We will maintain that senior-level engagement. We continue to use working-level contacts with the Russian Government, and to explore other options to raise the issue with senior Russian interlocutors.
We continue to keep under review at what level and with what sort of approach it is right to make approaches to the Russian Government. Our priority is to try to get the best possible outcome for the British nationals who have been detained. The Prime Minister is taking the very close interest that the House would expect, both as Head of Government and as a constituency Member of Parliament. As the Foreign Office Minister dealing with the case, I can testify that the Prime Minister’s involvement and interest are continuous and intense. He has also been in personal touch with other European Heads of Government—in particular, he has been in touch with Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands—and he will continue to be so.
It would be a good idea if the Prime Minister were to get in touch directly with Putin. Specifically, the Prime Minister should be saying that using piracy charges undermines the law of piracy across the rest of the world. That is why those charges are like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point with the courtesy with which he has addressed the subject throughout the debate. We have been in touch with the Governments whose citizens are being detained, and we have taken a lead at local level in Russia on co-ordinating the efforts of other nations with detained nationals.
I will look further into the question that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) raised about his letter, because I am concerned to hear him say that he has been waiting for more than a month. We will get back to him as quickly as possible.
We have not forgotten the families here in the United Kingdom and what they are obviously going through. On 10 October, I met parliamentarians representing the detained nationals and representatives from the constituency offices of MPs. My officials met the families themselves on 16 October, and I hope to agree a date next month when I can meet the families and hon. Members representing them, so that I can hear directly from the families any concerns that they have, and so that I can talk to them about the work being done on the case by the FCO and the British Government generally. One issue raised by the families is the chance to talk to their relatives by telephone.
I am conscious that time is running out, so I propose to address the issues that I have been unable to address today in writing to the hon. Member for Rhondda, and I will place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House so that it may be circulated to the families concerned.
It gives me pleasure, or a level of pleasure, to introduce this debate on policing in Bassetlaw. However, that pleasure is tempered by what I have to say about the crisis in policing that is beginning to unveil itself in Bassetlaw. Other parts of the country are suffering a similar crisis, and they will continue to suffer it in the future.
A few years ago, I spent time with the police. I went around on the beat at night, at weekends and in the daytime, and I sampled the work of the local police. One sergeant told me, “The way we police in Nottinghamshire is that we know the criminals.” That approach raises two questions. First, if we know the criminals, why are they at large? Secondly, and more seriously, if “we know the criminals” has been the culture in the Nottinghamshire police over the years, what about the crimes that were not just undetected but unreported, because they were not known to be crimes at the time?
The classic, very real examples are historic sex and child abuse, along with domestic violence. Those problems were not recognised as existing, but in the aftermath of the publicity about Savile and others, case after case was raised in my constituency surgeries. I heard an extraordinary number of historic allegations. It is not for me to judge whether they are true, but, on the balance of probabilities, if a lot of people come forward with entirely unconnected allegations, confident that something will happen, some, if not all, of those allegations must be true. If a constituent comes to me with such allegations or other serious allegations, I take the approach, as I am sure other Members do, that we should take a rational approach and ensure that our constituent’s voice is heard.
If the police claim to know the criminals, there is a problem in the culture. I have challenged the approach of the Nottinghamshire police directly on many issues, including in the House, but that culture did begin to be seriously turned around. However, in turning around culture, working practices, attitudes and approaches, there is a huge imperative to ensure that specialism is built up. Yet, in Nottinghamshire, and specifically in my constituency, the wrong kind of cuts are taking place. This debate is not the place to discuss Government economic policy, so I will not go into that, save to say that I have suggested more than 30 alternative cuts that could be made in different areas, but not in policing, because the cuts to policing are the wrong kind of cuts.
In the past three years, the 999 service has been in crisis. However, those wishing to make cuts in Bassetlaw forget the nature of the people of Bassetlaw. We are not averse to standing up and defending our 999 services. When the fire service proposed closing Retford fire station at nights, there was a huge public campaign in 2011. That resulted in not only the reversal of the decision, but a decision to build a brand-new fire station and the shifting of fire training to Retford. We stood up for our public service.
When the ambulance service decided to close our ambulance stations, we did not stand by and have some intellectual argument; the people of Bassetlaw put in more than 90% of the submissions to the consultation, as we did with the fire service proposals, and the decision was reversed. When the hospital tried to close accident and emergency services, our response was, “No, that will not happen.” Last week, the Secretary of State for Health cited Bassetlaw hospital, with its new, seven-day A and E working, as the model for the rest of the country. Yet, in the past three years, the A and E has been under direct threat of overnight closure and a reduction in emergency services.
The same is true of the proposals for the police: we will not accept the prioritisation of the police being reduced to such a level that we lose a critical service. Let me give two precise reasons why. First—I cannot go into much detail, but I will on another occasion, if I am given the opportunity—disaster management planning is in chaos. Mine is one of the areas most at risk, with motorways, the east coast main line, airports and power stations. Disaster management is no longer properly planned. Should there be a major disaster in my area, there will be problems with ambulances and fire engines, given what we have seen already, and so it is with the police. The police cannot respond to a major disaster if they are not working at the time, and there are many times of the week when whole swathes of Bassetlaw are denuded of police.
The second problem—we have not seen many of these closures yet, but there will be more—is the closing of custody suites and police cells. At some stage, there will doubtless be an attempt to close the courts too. What does that mean? Let me give the bare statistics, because they are astonishing. Every local police officer tells me that the police do not make many arrests, because there is nowhere to put the person who has been arrested. If officers make an arrest, they have to take that person miles to Mansfield, which takes police officers off the job, leaving no police officers in Bassetlaw.
Miraculously, public order offences have collapsed in Bassetlaw—they are going off the scale. Clearly, peace and harmony have broken out overnight on the streets of Bassetlaw! No, they have not. The police simply cannot arrest people, because they have nowhere to put the brawlers, the drunks and the fighters on a Friday and a Saturday night; they have to take them to Mansfield and Nottingham.
Shoplifting, however, is booming, and the figures are going up. Why? Because there are no police on the streets deterring the petty, casual repeat offenders from stealing from shops, but people in the shops still have the integrity to report shoplifting. Frankly, people are not bothering to report shed break-ins and such things, because they never get the police to come. Someone attempted to break into my office last week and I am still waiting for the police to attend. What they say in my area is, “If that happens to the local MP”—and I expect no special privilege—“what on earth will they do for the rest of us?”
Since 2010, Nottinghamshire has lost 314 police full-time equivalents—gone. That is on top of the back office people who have gone; and my area takes the brunt of it. The police must concentrate on Nottingham, where there have been a record number, relative to population, of murders in the past decade. Of course, they need a strong and permanent presence there and I would not deny them that. It is a higher police priority than Bassetlaw, which is right, fair and proper; but we become the poor cousins, so that there are times when there are no police, or when the few who are there are so stretched that they cannot do the job.
I and the police can name the streets in my constituency where they have lost control, and the criminals who run those streets because policing has reached such a low level. Those people are not being arrested for the minor offences that it would be easy to arrest them for, which would nip in the bud their attempts to bully and intimidate the community.
I also see what is happening alongside that, with the specialist police. For example, there is a wholesale failure to investigate historic sex abuse cases properly. There are plenty of examples, and it would be unfair and improper to list them, with the possibility of revealing identities; but that is the other side of the coin, and it affects my constituency dramatically.
My hon. Friend makes a strong and passionate case on behalf of his constituents. Does he believe that the establishment of the National Crime Agency will be helpful to Bassetlaw police, or will it take resources away? Alternatively, is the jury still out, because we do not know how things will work in the new landscape?
In my view the jury is out. One of the cases that I have told the police about, on six occasions, has never been prosecuted; but I am certain from the detailed evidence that I have given on six separate occasions, with different witnesses and different forms of evidence, that we have plenty of cases that fall between the national and the local. The problem is that if there are not resources and expertise in the local police force they do not produce the evidence for what, in fact—in the case that I have cited six times to them—is, for my area, very major crime with all sorts of criminal add-ons. Again, I cannot give details, because that would probably identify the person or persons involved. That shows, however, the problem that exists, and the dilemma for the Nottinghamshire police force.
There are have been £35 million of cuts so far, and 314 full-time equivalent front-line officers have been lost. If it is then announced that there must be further cuts in the next three years, which is what is being said, at least 100 more will have to go. We have some great police community support officers, but if all that is done is to replace the police officers with PCSOs, that is not the way to provide a police service in my area.
My demand to the Minister is something that is beyond his powers—to change Government priorities, and to fight for the police service with the Treasury and others. What I have been describing are the wrong kind of cuts. As to the things that he does have the power to do, it is his duty as a Minister of the Crown to stop the situation that means my constituency gets a second-class service compared with other places. It is not an acceptable solution to bring in G4S, with some mobile canteen operation to sling people into, and to privatise the making of arrests in Bassetlaw—as if that is appropriate compared with a well funded professional police resource, with police cells in the police station. On the streets they say—they will be singing it in Bassetlaw—“G4S, you’re having a laugh.”
That is not good enough for my constituents. It is not good enough to close our police cells. It is not good enough that the number of public order offences is going down because local police say they cannot arrest people because cells are not available; and that shoplifting rates are rocketing because there are not police on the streets and Nottinghamshire has been denuded of them. Of course, as I have always argued, Nottinghamshire has, relatively speaking, never had a proper police funding formula; but within that situation the good people of Bassetlaw are being let down. We are not prepared to accept that.
I am looking for vision and courage from the Minister. If he can achieve the reopening of the police cells that were arbitrarily closed and keep them going, he will get a warm and friendly welcome from the people of Bassetlaw, just as the hospital and fire chiefs who reversed their plans now do. Do the right thing, and set the right priorities, and we will be happy. At the moment, the Minister and the Government have a major fight on their hands.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on securing this debate on policing in his constituency. He is always a firm and passionate advocate for his constituents, as he has shown today, even if I may disagree in several respects with the analysis that he has given.
The crime rate remains too high, but the reality is that it is falling, and has fallen. Recorded crime has dropped yet again, by more than 10%, under the present Government, and the recent crime survey reports that crime has more than halved since its peak in 1995. In Bassetlaw recorded crime fell by 4% in the 12 months from June 2012 to June 2013 and it is down 6% in the Nottinghamshire force area over the same period.
That is important, positive news, and shows that police are rising to the challenge of making savings while cutting crime and providing a better service to the public. England and Wales are safer than they have been for decades. However, I agree that the crime rate remains too high. That is why we will continue with measures that keep pace with the changing nature of crime and improve our ability to combat emerging issues. That is why the landscape that we have established is important—to make it possible to respond to those emerging challenges.
On 7 October the National Crime Agency was launched, to deal with the most serious national-level crimes. Just as importantly, it is intended to be a centre of expertise on dealing with specialist crimes such as cybercrime and organised crime, and to use its skills and capabilities to work with the regional organised crime units to provide linkage between the national, the regional and the local. The Government have put that landscape in place to ensure that the right skills are in the right places, and that some of the issues that have been confronted before—the gaps where regional or local criminality meets national capability—are more effectively joined up.
I pay tribute to the work of the Nottinghamshire police, of Chief Constable Chris Eyre and of Paddy Tipping, the police and crime commissioner. Many of the points made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw this morning can be directed at the PCC and the local police, because we have put in place that direct reform of the landscape, central to which has been giving people a direct say in how their communities are policed. The election of police and crime commissioners represented the most significant democratic reform to policing in decades, giving the public a voice at the highest level, holding forces to account and helping to restore trust.
Importantly, PCCs are best placed to understand the needs of victims in their communities and to work with the police to cut crime. Indeed, the commissioner in Nottinghamshire is working closely with the chief constable to find innovative solutions to deliver better and financially sustainable policing to the people of Nottinghamshire. They are looking at ways to increase police visibility and the number of police constables and PCSOs involved in neighbourhood policing, which can only be good news for the people of Nottinghamshire and of Bassetlaw.
As with all parts of the public sector, the police must play their part in helping to tackle the deficit. I understand that this debate is not about economic policy, but the Government are having to take measures to deal with the financial problems that were left by the previous Government.
Unquestionably, the police will still have the resources to do their important work. What matters is how officers are deployed, not necessarily how many there are. All forces need to look at how front-line services are delivered, so that the quality of service provided is maintained and improved. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has made it clear that there is no simple link between officer numbers and crime levels, between numbers and the visibility of police in the community, or between numbers and the quality of service provided. Budgets are falling, but forces are prioritising front-line delivery and crime continues to fall.
The police and crime commissioner is looking at ways to increase police visibility in Nottinghamshire; his work has seen an increase in the number of PCSOs, and there are also ambitious plans to do with the recruitment of special constables, which I strongly endorse. Those are examples of how PCCs can work together with their chief constable to deliver real impacts in the communities that they serve. Moreover, PCCs will become stronger as people become more used to their existence and see their effect locally.
The hon. Gentleman made some sweeping comments on the ability to cope with major disasters. There is, however, detailed planning, led by the Cabinet Office, with exercises and other steps escalating from the local and regional all the way up to Cobra and the national-level response that can be triggered. There is just such a detailed approach—the risks are analysed and assessment is made of whether the right capabilities are in the right place to deal with them. Indeed, joint working is taking place between the police, the ambulance service and the fire service to ensure a strong response to serious terrorist incidents, to take one specific example.
Furthermore, it is right for the Government to continue to reflect on the important role that PCCs have in ensuring good, solid emergency response in their local areas. The hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware of the recommendations contained in the Knight review, which looked at whether police and crime commissioners should have a more direct role in the context of the fire service. The Government are considering that—we are examining the recommendation from the Knight report, to see whether it would be appropriate, and we will be providing a formal response in due course.
It is also important to stress that we have scrapped targets for the police and done away with the myriad types of meaningless and counterproductive box-ticking that the police were subject to for far too long. The Government announced a reducing bureaucracy package in 2012, seeking to save up to 4.5 million officer hours nationally—the equivalent of more than 2,100 additional officers on the beat. A programme of work is being developed, with the aim of further freeing up police time in a context of diminishing resources, so it is about how best to use technology and process modernisation.
We are working towards transformational change, which will be recognised on the front line. The approach of scrapping targets, therefore, is important, as is the use of technology and the work to do with better co-ordination and commissioning of services between forces. Rather than wrapping the police up in bureaucracy, we are driving increased transparency and accountability. Our reforms are making the police more responsive to the public. Thus, the police.uk website—of which the hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware—has had more than 600 million hits since its launch in January 2011. On average, the site receives more than 300,000 hits per day. It strengthens accountability, as well as the information available to the public, so that they can hold policing in their area to account.
Another of our reforms is the College of Policing, which is about driving up standards and developing policing as a profession among officers of all ranks. That is central to a new focus on evidence-based policing—distilling and identifying what works in fighting crime and spreading it throughout all 43 forces. The College of Policing will devise a code of ethics to be issued to every officer, which will equip the police with the leadership skills at every level to ensure that it is followed. Good leadership, like anything else, is born of hard work and professionalism. Leadership can and must be taught, in particular when the ramifications of police decision making can mean the difference between life and death.
As a Minister, it would be wrong of me to comment on that, because that is precisely the role of the police and crime commissioner. In conjunction with the chief constable, the PCC determines such local priorities and what works well in the context of policing in Nottinghamshire, and that is the right place for a response to be provided on the appropriate way to ensure that front-line policing operates effectively within the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in Nottinghamshire more generally.
The hon. Gentleman also commented on getting resources in the right place, and Chief Constable Chris Eyre has led in establishing and supporting the east midlands special operations unit, which represents an important way to draw together the strands of expertise and to share and collaborate with other forces so that the specialist capabilities to support neighbourhood and front-line policing are in the right place. The PCC also continues to explore further options for collaboration, including with the other emergency services, to create even more opportunities to provide a better and more cost-effective service.
Neighbourhood policing can and will be preserved through the innovation and ingenuity of forces in changing how they work to deliver the same or better outcomes with less. We will all see and reap the benefits of a well-managed, self-confident, open, transparent and scrupulously honest police force. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s debate this morning for holding policing to account and for raising the issues that he identified as important to his constituents. It is right and proper that we have had such a debate.
Co-operatives in Education
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Thank you for your kind words, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship in this important debate. I thank the Minister for being here. I know that liberating his time has caused his Department some inconvenience, and I am extremely grateful to him for being here willingly when his Department is so busy.
As the hon. Gentleman says, it is the Minister’s duty, but he has been most generous in the way he has approached the debate.
My reason for calling this debate is to support the Cressex school in my constituency, the young people it serves and the wider community from which they are drawn. It is undoubtedly the most disadvantaged community in my constituency. I want to cover the circumstances and successes of Cressex school, and the wider experience of co-operatives in education, and to ask the Government for action. I hope the Minister will forgive me if I say that although they have said some interesting and good things, they need to follow them through.
In a message of support, Dame Pauline Green, president of the International Co-operative Alliance, has set the definitive context for this debate. She said:
“Co-operatives have been involved in education from the very beginning, and there is an inextricable link between education and co-operative development. That is why we continued to place great emphasis on education when the co-operative principles were last revised in 1995, and why new guidance notes strongly reaffirm the importance of co-operative education.”
When I visited the Rochdale Pioneers museum, I was pleased to discover two things that explained a lot to me: autonomy, which I will return to, and the fact that one of the principles of co-operation has always been to educate, train and inform.
They had very good PR. A couple of things struck me. First, they did not trade on credit, so people did not get into debt to consume, which is an interesting lesson for present times. Secondly, they made a surplus. They did not like to call it a profit, but they realised that they had to make a surplus over time, and doing so enabled them to succeed. A lot of interesting language was involved in that conversation, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his information.
In April 2010, Cressex community school became part of the Cressex Co-operative Learning Trust. I remember my first visit to the school after the election because I encountered a defiant spirit of autonomy and independence. There was a whisper of forced academisation because of its results, but there was fierce determination to remain a co-operative because of the way that the co-operative structure allows all parties to be engaged across the community.
The proper context of the results includes the selective system. As a Conservative in Buckinghamshire, I am expected to support selective education, but a whole tier of students at Cressex has been taken off to another school, which naturally depresses the overall results. There is no denying that Buckinghamshire county council is one of the most affluent in the south-east, but a high proportion of Cressex students and their families experience levels of disadvantage equal to those in northern cities. Nearly half of Cressex students live on estates that are among the most economically disadvantaged in England, with areas of entrenched poverty and low skills. The proportion of families with experience of higher education is below the national average and the proportion of children living in overcrowded households exceeds the national average. More than half of students have been eligible for free school meals in the past six years and are entitled to the pupil premium.
Although Wycombe has an ethnic minority population of around one fifth, 80% of the school’s pupils are from minorities and the school now receives increasing numbers of students from eastern Europe. Crucially, about three quarters of the students do not speak English as their first language. That is the context for Cressex school, and that is the challenge to which it must rise.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Deprivation is found not only in urban areas. There is considerable deprivation in remote rural communities such as Cornwall. In areas such as the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall, we have often found co-operative trusts to be a good way of providing education to deprived remote communities where there are lots of small primary schools that face challenges in delivering high-quality education. Does my hon. Friend agree that the model can work for a broad range of communities throughout the UK?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come to the success of the model elsewhere, but I am aware that it has been a rip-roaring success in Cornwall. I originally come from Cornwall, which reminds me that we tend to focus on our own constituencies. There is rural poverty in Wycombe, but the rural part of my constituency is generally the better-off part. We still live in times of considerable inequality throughout the country and in our constituencies, and that focuses the mind.
Reddish Vale technology college in my constituency was the first co-operative trust school to be established under the Education and Inspections Act 2006. The Reddish part of my constituency is a deprived community and it has used the excellence at that school to engage with the wider community and to spread those co-operative values not just within the school community, but to the wider Reddish community. Is that not an example of co-operation in action?
Absolutely. I think we are in danger of fierce agreement in the Chamber.
Cressex school is keen to support business and enterprise, and that demonstrates its wider commitment. In particular, it hosts the Wycombe business expo. The principles of co-operation and engagement allow a school to reach out more broadly.
I turn to the challenge to which Cressex must rise. Last year, 36.4% of pupils across England who were known to be entitled to free school meals gained five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C, including English and maths, but Cressex did better. At the time, 39.1% of students were receiving free school meals. Over the last six years, the number achieving those GCSEs has risen to 48%. Of course, the school aims higher than 48%, but it represents a dramatic improvement in results and they are the best in the history of the school.
The head teacher, David Hood, recently provided details. Of the students who left year 11 in 2013, 46.5% gained five or more GCSE passes including English and maths, a rise from 27% in the previous year, and 64.8% gained five or more GCSEs in any subject. The overall results represent a considerable increase over the previous year.
To someone who has chaired a Select Committee for many years, that sounds really good, but when such figures are read out I sometimes insist that we ask how many pupils left with no qualifications or barely one GCSE, as 25% of kids at our schools do. It is important to get the balance right when looking at the figures.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is of course right that we sometimes forget to look at such points. It is crucial that no one should be left behind and the ethos of the school, as he will appreciate, is that the co-operators involved are determined to lift everyone up. I appreciate his point and I apologise that I do not have that information to hand.
Mr Hood made the point that performance in all core subjects rose markedly. In particular, Cressex has risen well above the national average in maths for the first time. He said that that is an exceptional achievement and he is right. Cressex is improving itself, which goes back to the point about defiant spirit. Cressex does not wish to have a model imposed on it; it is improving itself.
I have been on a journey, discovering something of the traditions of the left and the co-operative movement, and to me, that was the essential thing to understand. It is about self-help—a difficult term for a Conservative to use—mutuality, self-responsibility, direct democratic control, equality and solidarity. Such terms are perhaps vexed for Conservatives, but separated from state power, they actually just represent values and ideals that any fully formed human being should support. That, to me, explains the defiant spirit of autonomy that I found. Those values are being used by the Cressex school to engage with the community around it, and they are values transforming the lives and prospects of individuals whom we cannot allow to fall into neglect. Those people must be supported with a degree of delicacy if they are to flourish, which, in the end, is what we want for all the people in our constituencies, irrespective of their voting habits.
I turn to what it means to be a co-operative, and how Cressex has applied some of those principles. In the co-operative statement on identity, we find a definition that I think anyone could support and welcome:
“A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”
That crucial element of voluntarism surprised me. I hope that Members on the left will forgive me if I say that I have always misunderstood socialism to mean compulsion, and I was amazed to discover that on the left, there is this great tradition of voluntarism. When I look down through the values—
“ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others”—
who could possibly disagree with them?
I turn to the principles: “Voluntary and Open Membership”—of course, a school should certainly comply with that. When I look at “Democratic Member Control”, I start thinking that the Government need to act, because it seems to me that across the whole suite of policy areas in education, the Government need to ensure that when parents, staff and others in the community are engaged in a school, they have the opportunity for their democratic control to be meaningful. The next principle is “Member Economic Participation”—although I paid £1 to become a member of Cressex co-operative, it does not seem to me, unless an Opposition Member would like to correct me, that anyone is immediately leaping to suggest that there should be economic participation in schools. However, “Autonomy and Independence”—what a marvellous idea, which seems to go directly to the heart of the Government’s policies. We then have “Education, Training and Information”, “Co-operation among Co-operatives”, and “Concern for Community”.
Those are some of the values that the Cressex co-operative trust has implemented, and which I think could allow other schools to follow suit, particularly where they are smaller and need to combine in order to be viable. The partnership with Cressex school has included Buckinghamshire New university, Dr Challoner’s grammar school, Wycombe Abbey school, the local authority and the Co-operative college.
After years of campaigning, the school moved into a new building, which certainly lifted spirits, and I have to say that we are grateful to the previous Government and all those involved locally for giving us those new premises. The community’s values were naturally aligned to those of the co-operative movement, and particularly the notion of being values-driven and faith-neutral, which, in my constituency, is highly relevant. The community engages actively, and as I mentioned in response to an intervention, is a specialist business and enterprise school.
I am particularly pleased that Johnson & Johnson’s Dr Cesar Rodriguez Valdajos, a Spaniard, has engaged with the school and become a governor. At a time when we are challenging how capitalism is working and where it has gone wrong, it is particularly interesting that someone from Johnson & Johnson has engaged with the school. When capitalism previously failed, that company showed, through its credo, how private enterprise could step up. What I find encouraging is that the notion of enterprise being people-centred is actually highly inclusive. Wycombe Abbey school is one of the finest independent girls’ schools in the country, and its engagement with Cressex has been not only crucial but mutual, because it is in those sixth-form pupils’ interests that they engage with the school and help with literacy and numeracy.
Crucially, the pupils share the school’s co-operative vision and values. As a former head boy told the governors recently:
“High achievement for all is certainly our shared responsibility. I can say for a fact that Cressex is a rising star. It’s climbing to the top and I am proud to be head boy.”
I have to say that Cressex has travelled a long way very quickly, since when I first visited the school as a candidate and saw a collection of prefab buildings and some people who were rather long in the face. There were some poor results, but Cressex is transforming itself very rapidly.
I am aware of the time, and that other Members would like to speak, so I shall abridge some of my other remarks on other co-operatives, but I particularly want to point to the experience of Mondragon university from the Library debate pack. Mondragon university is a Spanish institution owned by its staff, and an article, in the course of describing it, interviews a British academic, saying that
“many of the principles on which cooperatives are based are not necessarily that radical in higher education. Cook”—
“points out that the University of Cambridge ‘is already configured as a sort of workers’ co-op’ because every academic is part of the governing body…he adds: ‘I don’t think anyone has told them yet.’”
Therefore, it may well be that co-operatives are more advanced in the United Kingdom at all levels than has generally been believed.
Co-operative schools are now the third largest network of schools in the country, following Church of England and Roman Catholic schools. More than a quarter of a million young people attend a co-op school and more than £4 billion of assets have been transferred from local education authorities to co-operative trusts. In September 2011, co-op trusts ran 63 secondary schools. There are now 94 and the figure is predicted to be 102 by December. In the same period, co-op primary schools increased from 76 to a surprising 389, which is predicted to be 444 by December. Overall, co-operative schools have grown from 188 in September 2011 to a predicted 714 in December this year. That is an astonishing vote in support of autonomy and self-governance in relationship with others. To me, it is an enormous endorsement of liberty and civil society, and I believe that the Government should row in behind it.
The first co-op free school will be in Swanage, which demonstrates that co-ops are not incompatible with the Government’s free school programme. However, I look ahead to 2014, and I must say to the Government that at this time there are real imperatives for action, because about half of secondary schools and almost 90% of primaries still need to determine their long-term structure. There is every likelihood that they could choose to be co-operatives. If co-operation is a necessary requirement to enable small schools to flourish, the Government certainly need to act fast to put in place whatever is necessary to allow co-operation to thrive.
The Government ought not to fear co-operatives. I know that the co-operative movement began with figures such as Robert Owen, who was a utopian socialist, but the values and principles, and the place reached by the co-operative movement today, are not to be feared by people on the Government side of the House of Commons. Co-operatives are, above all, people-centred businesses, and it strikes me that co-operatives can resolve a number of conflicts of interest and ideology.
On markets versus collectivism, we have democratic, collective ownership of property, and yet co-operatives participate—and always have participated—in markets. I observe that one of the crucial reasons why state socialism can never work is that it eliminates markets in capital goods. Co-operation does not do that.
On employer versus worker, the Co-operative party’s website recognises that producer interest can effectively be dealt with through co-operation. I would suggest that some problems that the Government are currently experiencing could be ameliorated if more schools were directly controlled by parents, staff and the community, so that not only were industrial relations easier from the outset, but if difficulties did arise, they would be easier to resolve, because it would be clear who was negotiating with whom, and to what end.
It seems to me that today, sometimes co-operative schools are succeeding despite obstacles. That may well be in the spirit of the co-operative movement, but it seems that the Government ought to do more to ensure a crisp, simple and effective legal framework. I do not wish to pre-empt the remarks of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), but I would like to ask the Government to look closely at the ten-minute rule Bill that she brought forward. She proposed a measure that would enable schools to register as industrial and provident societies and enable nursery schools to be established as school trusts. That seems an extremely good idea, not only to complete that scale of education from nursery through to—it turns out—university level, but to ensure that things are viable and sustainable. I expect the Government to go down that road because of what has been said, and I would like to provide a little detail on what has gone before.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education said:
“First, let me pay tribute to the work of the co-operative movement. Since it started in Rochdale, many of us have been inspired by its achievements. I believe that the academies programme and particularly the free schools programme provide an opportunity for the ideals of the original co-operative movement to be embedded in our schools. The idea that all work together for the good of their community and for the fulfilment of higher ideals is one that Government Members wholeheartedly applaud.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 468.]
Cabinet Office Ministers have been outspoken in support of co-operatives. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General said of mutuals and the Government’s policies:
“The right to provide will challenge traditional public service structures and unleash the pent up ideas and innovation that has been stifled by bureaucracy.”
That chimes directly with the Co-operative party’s message that co-operative models offer the best model for the reform of the public services or public service delivery.
In November 2007, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke of co-operatives in Manchester and developed arguments leading to the tantalising prospect of
“a new generation of co-operative schools in Britain—funded by the taxpayer but owned by parents and the local community.”
In January 2012, he also held out the prospect of a new co-operatives Bill. Without wishing to give succour to Opposition Members, I say gently to the Government that the Prime Minister ought now to find time to bring forward that Bill, encompassing the proposals of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, if we are to avoid the allegation of mere posturing. I want us to get behind co-operative schools, and more broadly co-operatives in education, in the general interest, to transcend some of the partisan debate that has gone to and fro, because I know that, in Wycombe, co-operative principles are transforming Cressex school. Those principles are proving increasingly popular across the country.
Today, a revolution in autonomy for schools is taking place, but it seems to me that it is taking place despite obstacles, so I ask the Government please to work more closely with the co-operative movement in establishing new free schools and helping academies to become co-op trusts. Will they bring forward the co-operatives Bill and will they look closely at the hon. Lady’s proposals? I am sure that Ministers will be welcome at Cressex school if they wish to see how it works in practice.
The Government ought just to do the right thing. Principles of co-operation entrench liberty and civil society. They produce self-esteem, confidence and resilience. They are evidently popular with the public. The Government should now move heaven and earth to liberate the co-operative spirit in education.
Thank you, I think, Mr Hollobone. It is a delight to take part in the debate. Of course, I must start by congratulating the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) not just on having secured the debate and established such good cross-party support for it, but on his speech. He spoke very eloquently of the reasons why some of us in this room have been co-operators for many a decade, not just many a year. I warmly welcome him to the cause of co-operation. It is everything he says it is and should be spread more widely, not least in our schools. I have always been proud to be a Labour Member of Parliament, but I am more proud to be a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament. Some of my colleagues also bear that title. Other Labour Members do not stand as Labour and Co-operative, but are members of the Co-operative party. It is a set of principles and a vision that are widely shared.
I shall not repeat what the values are, as the hon. Gentleman has done justice to that. I shall simply say that I wholeheartedly agree with him that the values of co-operation could not be more appropriate for schools. This is about having all parts of the community—not just the teachers and parents, but people from the community and pupils—involved in the schools. It is about helping them to understand what it means to take on responsibility for themselves, helping them to understand that they have a role in the school and embedding the school firmly where it is—in its local community.
We heard the excellent example from the hon. Gentleman of the school in his constituency that has done so much to persuade him of the values of co-operation, but that is happening up and down our country. We are talking about values such as business and enterprise, and values that are enabling young people to think about going into the world of work, but in a different way—not a competitive way that is unhelpful, but one that focuses on the benefits of co-operation.
Real strength and depth is emerging in parts of the country, including the south-west, my own beloved Yorkshire and Humberside and the north-west, which I am sure we will hear from. Of course, Cornwall, which I am sure the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) will speak about in due course, is looking to become the first county in the country in which the majority of schools work together mutually to pool resources in co-operative ways. This revolution in structures and governance is gaining momentum, and we should all be supporting it. That is why I want the Government to take more seriously the proposals that I made back in April this year in my ten-minute rule Bill.
I support choice in education, but there are barriers that should be removed to allow more schools to follow the successful model of co-operation. As the hon. Member for Wycombe said, the legal forms currently available are industrial and provident societies and co-operative and community benefit societies. There is no specific provision in relevant Acts for co-operative schools, so although they have done well so far and they exist, they are having to work around the existing structures and legislation. They have been helped enormously in that by the relevant parts of the co-operative movement, Co-operatives UK and the Schools Co-operative Society, but that is not enough. We want this to go further.
I am an optimist: I believe that one clause could deal with the issue. Of course, it would be a powerful clause. I have a draft of the Bill that I put forward, and would be delighted to pass it to the Minister later. It suggests that we allow Education Acts to be amended to include the legal forms that I just mentioned and ensure a level playing field with other school structures. Of course, I know that any legislation has to stand up to proper scrutiny. I would warmly welcome the Government looking at what I have proposed and coming to a view on whether it is the right way forward. I would like to press the Minister on taking that forward.
As greater ammunition, is my hon. Friend aware that a change in the tax structure is coming out of the Treasury imminently and will be very helpful to co-operatives, community interest companies and social enterprise generally? Harnessed to that tax change, a change in regulation might be quite easy and simple to do.
I thank my hon. Friend. That is a very good point and will, I hope, add strength to what we would like to see. When I put forward my Bill in April, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who is now the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, was on the ministerial Bench and was kind enough to speak to me afterwards and to indicate that he thought this was something the Government should be looking at. Unfortunately, my letter to him either got lost in his office or disappeared somewhere when there was a transfer of responsibilities, but I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), would take back with him a commitment to come back to me and to the hon. Member for Wycombe on the Government’s view on this issue.
I believe that legislation as simple as the measure that I have described—a simple amendment allowing the Education Acts to be amended to recognise these forms of school—could enable us to move forward relatively quickly and, as the hon. Gentleman said, would firmly put action behind the warm words that we have heard about co-operatives from the Prime Minister and other members of the Government.
However, I have not limited myself to just one clause in my ten-minute rule Bill, because that would mean that part of the change that is needed would be missed out. My second clause focuses on nursery schools, to which the hon. Member for Wycombe referred. Labour Members have to hold their hands up; the Education and Inspections Act 2006, passed by the previous Government, did not allow nursery schools to become school trusts, and so prevented them from becoming co-operatives. We need legislation to change that. It is important because co-operatives, by their nature, are based in a geographical area that serves a group of people, otherwise known as the local community. The idea that a co-operative trust could be a school from nursery through to secondary level, and perhaps through to further education—those are other potential areas for the development of co-operatives that I will not deal with today—is powerful. Allowing it to happen is relatively simple, and we should do it.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. About two years ago, I visited Upper Shirley high school in Southampton, which is part of a co-operative trust with an all-through arrangement that includes a local FE college. There is also a co-operative trust in Tiverton in Devon. If the Government were able to look at the issues with nursery schools, that could be a powerful force to promote such all-through co-operative development trusts.
I entirely agree and am grateful for the example. The important aspect is that parents obviously first become involved with schools as institutions at nursery. They are often more likely to be present in the building, because they bring their children there, and possibly take part in parents’ groups, so if they were introduced to the values of co-operation at that point, they would see it as a normal way to get involved in their child’s education and schooling throughout the age groups.
One of the most powerful aspects of Sure Start, which the previous Government introduced, was that, in a non-threatening, non-stigmatising way, parents from all parts of society were made to feel welcome entering the building where their children were being supported in their education. I know from my constituency and my experience working in social services that many young parents who have had not good experiences in school do not like to cross the threshold, because doing so brings back bad memories. It is enormously powerful to involve, from that early point, the values of co-operation and support, and to say not only, “Come in, because your child is here,” but “Come in and have your say. We are all equal; all have equal membership.” From the first, it creates a different relationship between the parents and the people providing the education and support for children. The Minister should look closely at that second change.
My hon. Friend and I are both Co-operative Members, and she knows that I have set up a few co-operatives myself. Does she agree that being a co-operative is not a panacea? On this sad day of the demise of the Co-operative bank as an independent co-operative, it would be wrong of us, as Co-operative Members, not to put on the record that sometimes people get into co-operatives for reasons of venality, and that through incompetence things can go wrong. Full involvement in a co-operative is needed to stop that happening. Today is a sad day for many co-operators.
My hon. Friend has put his concerns on the record and he is absolutely right. There is strength in the co-operative movement; it is not about co-operative schools managing on their own and being separate academies or free schools, but about their being part of a movement that, as the hon. Member for Wycombe indicated, naturally gives support—there is support from Co-operatives UK and co-operative schools organisations —and sets up mutuality with other schools that can be helpful and supportive.
I want to respond to what the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said about the Co-operative bank—I am glad that is on the record. I would like to offer two points of comfort. First, given the way in which the credit markets were manipulated by central banks over the past few years—Members know that is one of my favourite subjects—no bank was likely to escape, so I am not surprised that the Co-operative bank was one that did not. Secondly, although we may be small in number, our spirit for co-operation is that of tigers. Co-operation’s moment has come. It will be victorious, and in future the co-operative movement will surge away.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. She touches on the power of co-operation outside the schools community. Co-operative schools do not act in isolation. I commend to her the work of Reddish Vale technology college, which has strong co-operative links with its local nurseries and primary schools. It feeds them, as equal members, into the co-operative principles and ideals that apply at the college, and works incredibly closely with them to drive up excellence in standards across all schools, not only those in the co-operative trust.
I apologise for missing the beginning of the debate; it was due to a Delegated Legislation Committee. Hon. Members know that I am a keen supporter of co-operatives. I planned to support the hon. Lady’s remarks with examples of co-operatives in Herefordshire, but as I had to sit through all the discussion and hearings about the Co-operative bank on the Treasury Committee, I cannot resist pointing out that there were specific issues with the bank that were not merely to do with the model it adopted, and a series of catastrophic misjudgments by successive managements. The issues with the bank should not be taken as an indictment of the co-operative model or the co-operative movement.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and welcome him to the debate. I welcome his support for co-operatives. I am moved to call him my fellow co-operator, which is the term those of us in the co-operative movement use. Welcome, fellow co-operator.
I am coming to a conclusion, Mr Hollobone. There is wide support for the changes, which the Government now need to action. The NASUWT, a trade union active in many schools, is supportive of the model. It creates, as has been discussed, a basis on which people come together as equal parts to run schools, try to achieve excellence and work in their communities. Everybody should see co-operation as fundamental to education. It should be part of the process, and is what will help all our children and young people to do their best. I thank all the co-operative movement: the Co-operative party, which produced an excellent briefing, and drafted the clauses for, and supported me in introducing, the ten-minute rule Bill; and the Schools Co-operative Society, which has been enormously important in ensuring that the schools that have taken on the model are supported, and that growth is achievable in a way that does not threaten the model.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate and on his eloquence in furthering the arguments I support. Despite co-operatives and the co-operative movement having a strong association and history with the Labour party, not least through the 32 Labour and Co-operative MPs in this Parliament, of which I am one, it is praiseworthy that the ideas that power them are not owned by a political party. They are represented by a political party, but they are owned by all of us. It is incumbent on us, in each of our political traditions, to uncover those self-sustaining values for the time we are in now, and the hon. Gentleman has been a powerful advocate today.
I want to start by talking about some of the shifts that we have seen in education in recent years and conclude by talking about some of the ways in which the co-operative movement may be able to contribute to and shape that story, rather than merely being subject to it. We have already discussed several excellent co-operative schools across the country. Cressex, to which the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) referred, is a fine and outstanding example of a co-operative school.
In Luton South we do not have a co-operative school, but we are keen to have one. Co-operative schools, and co-operative education in general, empower local people to take responsibility for the education that they best understand. Co-operative education avoids many of the traps inherent in the fragmentation of education that has occurred in recent years, particularly when it comes to the dispersal of power, which is abused in the education system more often than we tend to admit.
In the past 10 or 20 years, under successive Governments, control and responsibility for education has shifted from local authorities to individual schools. As many Opposition Members have argued in recent years, however, I believe that under the coalition Government we have seen an expression not of localism but of centralism. In other words, the Secretary of State has been given direct responsibility over individual schools. In Luton, we have real issues around community cohesion, we are a good size to allow democratic control to be exercised across all our schools, and schools working in partnership are a key part of where we hope to be in future and the kind of community that we seek to shape. Many of the Government’s choices and decisions have, therefore, been unfortunate for our attempts to pursue our ends.
Whatever we feel about the shift, under either of the previous two Governments, towards more individual schools taking responsibility, taking ownership and taking governance, the change has happened. We see that in the statistics on the adoption of the academy and free school models. Co-operative education provides a powerful mechanism for harnessing some of the positives of that shift, such as the exercise of leadership and good teaching quality, which we understand to be most crucial for raising standards in schools and the provision of education.
May I suggest to my hon. Friend that if he wants to be slightly subversive, the best example I have seen of a co-operative is one in which the pupils are empowered to help run the school through Learning to Lead? That combination is liberating and amazing, and it provides a revolutionary structure of governance. It now exists in more than 100 schools.
My hon. Friend does not anticipate my remarks, as is often said when someone makes a good point that we would like to adopt. He does, however, pre-empt my central argument about the distribution of power in the education system. How do we reap the benefits of allowing people to get on and lead in their own context, while sharing the responsibilities and ensuring that abuses of power do not take place, without sidestepping effective governance? That is where I believe that co-operative schools can be truly helpful.
In my own experience of mixed provision of education, public interest units can sometimes run schools autonomously, which can be good for local authorities. In Luton, two of our high schools became academies under the previous Government’s academies programme, which was designed for schools that were struggling to keep up with others. A further education provider came in and ran those schools. There has been, and continues to be, a strand of scepticism and concern in the community when schools are taken over, which we must acknowledge, but the education provider had a trusted relationship with the local authority and was able to step in and improve results.
A free school has opened in the centre of my constituency. It seemed bizarre to me that the only way in which we could get the basic primary school allocation of places was to bar the local authority from running the school, but we had to find a way to get that allocation, because there is a massive push on places. We found an arm’s-length council body to run the free school. It was a good example of how to use the existing system and to link it back into the community, and I believe that it is a really positive development.
In the mix of those different models, I believe that the co-operative model presents one of the best ways in which to harness elements of the co-operative tradition, even now, when the Labour party does not control but seeks to shape education policy in opposition. We should encourage local authorities and others to adopt the co-operative model to ensure that we reap the benefits of choice and autonomy in the education system. I note the comment of Peter Laurence, who is development director in the Brigshaw Federation, one of the first co-operative trusts in Leeds:
“We could all see the direction of travel of Government policy and the rapidly changing role of the LA. To us self-help is a natural solution.”
Is that not exactly the point? From the rich traditions of the co-operative movement, we find mechanisms that are appropriate to us today.
I am reluctant to introduce a note of discord into a debate that has been remarkably harmonious and valuable, but does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a potential conflict between the co-operative nature of a school and the demands of the unions, which may sometimes find themselves in opposition, as they have been in other areas of public service?
Brilliant as it is. I was going to say that if we look at the record of co-operative schools’ relationships with other partners, such as trade unions, we see that they perform incredibly well. I point to the Schools Co-operative Society, which has been able to establish nationwide a package of terms and conditions with the network of schools to ensure that that kind of strife does not occur.
I have seen several schools in my constituency convert either to trusts or to academies, and I know some of the fraught discussions that take place with staff at the schools during the conversions. May I highlight to my hon. Friend the fact that by converting first to a co-operative trust and subsequently to a co-operative academy, Reddish Vale technology college helped to ease some of the concerns of the staff because they had buy-in to the co-operative principle?
That makes the point entirely that the best way to harness leadership is not usually to parachute it in from outside—sometimes that has to be done if a school has failed the community consistently over a period of time, which usually comes down to school leadership—but to empower members of the community who, day in and day out, serve young people and families to get on and lead. That goes right to the heart of how the co-operative governance model works. Those are not simply structures; they are values. It is not about looking to see how we could design an over-engineered, so-called democratic arrangement. It is about saying that certain values of the co-operative movement, in particular the fair distribution of power, can be applied in education extremely well.
In the past few weeks questions, at least, have been raised, or investigations carried out, across the country, about the alleged misuse of power in a number of schools—and a DFE investigation is under way into several schools in my constituency that converted to academies and continued rapidly to adopt other schools. In my region the transition into academies or other types of governance, and the results of that, has been questioned. That has happened in Basildon, Thurrock and Luton; but a previous example in Derby at least raised the question of the fair exercise of power.
The advantage of the co-operative movement is not just the structure, but the ethos. However, the structure is a key factor: the idea that all of us with an interest in education locally can shape it locally and question the authority that is exercised, instead of constantly looking up and across to centralised power in Whitehall and Westminster, or to the immediate leadership of the school. In that way, the co-operative model can present a powerful, positive argument for allowing schools and communities to exercise their own power.
I was proud to grow up in a comprehensive system, with local democratic accountability through voting for and selecting councillors, portfolio holders and leaders, because the link with the community was not broken. Co-operative schools go right to the heart of that issue, and they present a different and powerful model for achieving such democratic control, in which the people who care most passionately about education—the parents, children, teachers, school leaders and governors—come together to share responsibility and power.
I want to ask the Minister about the level of capacity building that DFE is engaged in, particularly in local authorities, to encourage them to examine the co-operative model and consider it as an alternative route, alongside the many others that the Department provides. I understand from speaking to people in local authorities that there is still some misunderstanding about what a co-operative is. That should not surprise us, because we sometimes encounter the same degree of misunderstanding in Parliament, and such things may be difficult for people to get their head around. However, if we are to have genuine choice and to move away from one-size-fits-all comprehensive education, which I have talked about already, it is important to put all the options on the table, and not just some of them. If the Government were to do that they would have more supporters from across the House for their reform of education.
I have been called to speak earlier than I anticipated, and it is great to have this opportunity. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate and on his speech, which came across as genuine and sincere. He captured the values of the co-operative movement very well, and I welcomed his remarks, on which hon. Members can build in debate. He was very polite and thanked the Minister for turning up. I said that it was his duty, and I know that he would agree, but the hon. Gentleman should never apologise for making Ministers come to the House of Commons. When I was a Minister, that was a priority, and I know that the Minister who is present today thinks so too. The debate is important, and the hon. Member for Wycombe kicked it off extremely well.
I congratulate, too, someone whom I was going to call my old friend—but she might take that the wrong way, so I will call her my long-standing friend: that is my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). We cut our teeth together, when we first came into Parliament, on the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and she has a long—not that long, but longish—history of involvement in the co-operative movement. She spoke with passion, sincerity and knowledge on that subject.
I also want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), who made the important point about the co-operative movement and co-operative schools that although structures are important it is the values underpinning the movement that make it a suitable model for the education system.
I apologise for missing part of the proceedings. Lipson community college in Plymouth is a co-operative academy. It was set up in 2009 and is outstanding. It encourages pupils to follow up and become co-operators. In fact, they are very involved in the young co-operative movement, and the Ruptors street dance co-op is an example of that. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many offshoots from the education of young people in co-operative schools? I do not think that anyone puts a value on that, and we need a better understanding of what co-op schools can offer. I think many colleagues in this place do not really understand that.
I strongly agree. I should like to talk more later about knowledge and understanding of co-operative schools. I should say at the outset that the Labour Front Bench is strongly supportive of the movement and of the rapid development and spread of co-operative schools that has happened in recent years, since legislation was amended to make it a little easier to form them. There is still work to be done, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley pointed out. There is a good quotation on the Schools Co-operative Society website:
“Essentially they are just what schools should be and what people thought they really were about already!”
That is a good way to put it. There is nothing about co-operative schools that would not be familiar to people, as far as values or ideas of what a good school should be are concerned. Yet, as we know, there is sometimes misunderstanding about co-operatives and co-operative schools.
Values in education are one reason why Labour supports the movement. It is time that we had more of a debate about those. There is much debate about structures and the idea that opening a free school or an academy will solve everyone’s problems. However, we all know that what really counts is good teaching, great leadership and the values underpinning a school and education system. It is interesting that the process that has been going on, which is a quiet revolution in the system—and people talked about a revolution in the debate—has received hardly any media coverage. Yes, the Government have a flagship policy for free schools, but there are far more co-operative schools than free schools. No one would think that from reading the papers and following the news. Certainly, a lot more Department for Education staff are devoted to free schools than to co-operatives. There are more than 100, are there not? I did not realise there were that many left in the Department. It is an awful lot of staff, but very little in the way of resources is devoted to helping co-operative schools to develop.
I welcome the remarks of the Secretary of State about the co-operative movement and co-operative schools in general, which the hon. Member for Wycombe quoted. No one would ever accuse him of not talking a good game, but in relation to actual delivery and policy, it would be good to see more resources within the Department being devoted to co-operative schools, since the Secretary of State has made it so clear that he is powerfully in favour of their development. That is important because it provides a bulwark against what some people fear—that the current upheaval in the structure of the schools system could lead to the idea that the Secretary of State has entertained from time to time: a system of taxpayer-funded, profit-making schools. That idea was tried in Sweden under its free school system, but it has not worked out too well.
The Swedish system was a model. The Secretary of State was infatuated with Swedish models, but he does not talk about them much any more. Sweden had profit-making free schools, but what happened was perhaps predictable. There are two ways to make a profit: increase revenue or cut costs. Of course, there are limited opportunities for taxpayer-funded schools to increase revenue. In Sweden, once hedge funds and the like invested in the schools, it led to the cutting of costs.
Since there is no requirement for qualified teachers, an obvious way to cut costs is to employ people who do not have to be paid qualified teacher rates. As a result, some of the schools went bust, with consequences for the education of the children, and also with the consequence ultimately that the legislation was overturned and a requirement was reintroduced for qualified teachers in the schools. There were no real educational or co-operative values underpinning the schools, which left them as the prey of hedge fund managers and the like. [Interruption.] If there are co-operative schools—would the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) like to intervene?
The hon. Gentleman does not want to intervene. He is chuntering away from a sedentary position, but he is not prepared to share his views with us.
If there is a co-operative schools system underpinned by the values described so eloquently by the hon. Member for Wycombe at the start of the debate, we overcome such problems. The schools can have autonomy. They can be run by local people according to a set of values that do not put profit before the education of local children and the views of local people.
I have had the opportunity to visit co-operative schools around the country. I mentioned earlier the visits that I made to Upper Shirley high school in Southampton and the Tiverton co-operative learning development trust in Devon. I talked to the teachers and the leaders in those co-operative schools and I put the hard questions to them. It is not enough simply to have a structure and values in place. It has to be absolutely the case that everybody involved in the school is focused on raising standards and making sure that every child matters and that every child is given an opportunity to fulfil their potential.
I have no doubt that from time to time some co-operative schools will go off the rails, as do other schools, but it is surely right that a model based on co-operative principles, whereby everybody knows the values that they should be working to, stands a better chance of success than one that is based on ultimately making a profit. That is a road down which I understand the Secretary of State is interested in travelling.
I do not want to break up the spirit of consensus that we have engendered, but I am not against profit. I simply want to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention back to the third principle of co-operatives, which I am sure he knows better than I do: member economic participation. We know—we discussed it earlier—that one reason why the Rochdale pioneers succeeded is because they made a surplus, and surpluses are paid as dividends to members. I am a little cautious when talking about co-operatives. I would not want the debate to be shut down too far, because there is an honourable tradition, clearly articulated by the co-operative movement, of member economic participation. I would not want to exclude it from the future of co-operative schools.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and the opportunity to make it clear that I am not against profit, either. We live in a mixed economy and the market is a wonderful thing. In the case of education, occasionally it can be a good servant, but it is a very, very poor master. Opposition Members will never support profit-making schools. Yes, there is a role for a profit-making business in education—publishers, for instance—but Opposition Members will not support profit making in taxpayer-funded schools.
Indeed. My hon. Friend makes that point very well and she is absolutely right to do so.
Some people in teachers’ associations and trade unions have been suspicious of co-operative schools, but the partnership that is developing between teachers’ associations and trade unions and some co-operative schools around the country is to be welcomed. The agreement between the NASUWT and the co-operative schools movement is a welcome development. I hope other teachers’ associations and unions will also engage in a positive manner with the co-operative schools movement. As was pointed out earlier in the debate, teachers should very much welcome such a development and the opportunity to be a part of running their schools and playing their role within co-operative schools and co-operative trusts.
On the ten-minute rule Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley earlier this year, I hope the Minister will encourage the Department—it might have been another Department—to answer the letter that she sent earlier in the year. If it has been lost, perhaps she can provide a further copy. The Minister’s hon. Friends welcomed her remarks on the Bill, and I would welcome an opportunity for us to co-operate in a parliamentary way on the provisions of her Bill, albeit after they have been appropriately stress-tested by the civil service and Parliament and properly scrutinised before we do so. May I make that offer to him?
If the Government feel that that is something they would like to do to make it possible for my hon. Friend’s Bill, or the spirit of her Bill, to become law, the Minister would have our co-operation. I completely understand that he cannot commit to that today in a debate of this kind, but perhaps he will take away that offer and consider my hon. Friend’s remarks. Will he ensure that it is possible for co-operative structures to be incorporated into the legislation, as in clause 1 of her Bill, and also make it possible for nurseries to become co-operatives? Will it be possible for them to form part of a co-operative trust that, as she rightly pointed out, might form an all-through education service for an area, which is an ambition of many co-operative trusts around the country? I hope he will be able to say something positive and take that away and consider it, even if he cannot make a commitment now.
I welcome this debate and the way it was kicked off by the hon. Member for Wycombe. I welcome the Government’s professed support for co-operative schools, and I hope the Minister will talk about that. What counts is what works, and we can see that co-operative schools do work. They work because they can generate the kind of leadership and teaching that we want, where everybody understands the values under which they are working—the values of sharing and of working together in the interests of children and young people. Finally, I once again thank and congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this debate.
May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this important debate, and on his passionate contribution, demonstrating his commitment to raising educational standards in his constituency? As he knows, this Government want to be champions of diversity, of high standards and of closer working-together in the education system.
It is always hugely encouraging to hear examples of where standards are being raised. We are seeing improvement, including in the recent results in the Cressex community school in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Like him, I want to pay tribute to the head teacher—David Hood—the governors, the staff, pupils and the whole community, which has played its part in helping to drive up standards. They are to be commended for their efforts.
I assure hon. Members that the Government are wholeheartedly supportive of the role that school partnerships and co-operation play in achieving our shared goal of a high-performing and self-improving education system. As my hon. Friend said, we are in danger of fierce agreement. Politics is not always as black and white as people think it is. Shared values can surface, and this is one such occasion. There is an underlying cause to which we all want to contribute, which is ensuring that every child, whatever their start in life, gets the best possible chance to reach their full potential, as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said. The community has a huge role in making that happen.
We have had excellent contributions from the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) and for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). I welcome this opportunity to discuss on behalf of the Government the contribution that diversity partnerships and collaboration are making to improving standards in education, performance and teaching through the co-operative movement and other things in our education system.
The evidence is stark. It shows that schools working together leads to an increase in performance for all schools involved in that partnership, even—this should be noted—for high-performing schools that support weaker schools. As Dr Chris Tomlinson, the phenomenally successful executive principal of the Harris academy Greenwich, Harris academy Chafford Hundred and the primary attached to that in the Harris federation of schools, said:
“Working together improves our knowledge about how to get the best out of pupils and staff. It helps us to fine-tune and understand those occasionally small changes that make a real difference”.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has set out, one of the interesting things about the example of Cressex community school is that it is a maintained school in partnership with a successful converter academy and an independent school, among other partners. That is exactly the sort of partnership that we are developing through our academies programme and in other education reforms.
We should, and do, cherish the values of co-operative trust schools, in particular the importance of shared responsibility for problems and for designing solutions, and the importance of those involved in a child’s learning having a stake in that learning. As we have heard, since the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which introduced trust school status—the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish reminded us that the first was in his constituency—we have seen a steady and increased pace of such schools being set up. Their number is up from 188 in September 2011, as we have heard, to more than 700 by the end of this year. That in itself demonstrates that the permissive nature of the establishment of such schools is doing nothing to prevent schools from starting to form trusts and relationships. Cornwall is perhaps the most acute example of where that is happening right across a county.
The co-operative trust model is one of many that can facilitate effective partnership working. In an increasingly diverse education system, many different models are emerging, which is increasing choice for parents, which we want to see more of, as well as increasing support for schools. We now have academy chains, where schools formally work together, often sharing governance and leadership while benefiting from the autonomy of academy status.
We also have sponsored academies, with more and more outstanding schools now formally sponsoring weaker schools so as to bring about improvement. Six such sponsored academies are co-operative trust academies. We also have federations, where maintained schools formally share governance and expertise. There is also the sharing of head teachers and senior leadership teams; teaching schools; national or local leaders of education; the independent and state schools partnership; and other formal partnerships, such as the Bradford partnership, a not-for-profit organisation consisting of schools from that city working together to improve outcomes for young people.
In that eclectic mix of different models, it will come as no surprise to hon. Members that the Government’s view is that academy status is effective in driving improvement and collaboration. That status is now enjoyed by close to 3,400 schools in England. We believe that teachers and head teachers, not politicians and bureaucrats, should control schools and have more power over how they are run in the best interests of students. With well over half of secondary schools now being academies, and primary schools joining the programme at an increasing rate, research has found that more than a quarter of academies have seen their relationship with other schools improve since they became academies.
The evidence is clear that the freedom that academies have has led to an increase in standards, and that the highest-performing institutions are helping to improve the weakest. As Mary Speakman, head teacher of Altrincham grammar school for girls, one of the lead schools in the Bright Futures educational trust, said:
“The pupils at AGGS get a really privileged education. They do well and our standards are high. We want to share that experience and develop other schools, so that every young person has those chances”.
I am pleased to see that, so far, 173 converter academies are sponsoring 192 academies, and a further 106 projects are approved to open. In the spirit of this debate, I am also pleased to note, as has been said, that the role of the co-operative movement as a sponsor of schools that need extra support is increasing, and to note the increasing number of co-operative schools choosing academy status and becoming co-operative academies. I do not think that the schools have to live in isolation from one another. They share many of the values that, as has been rightly pointed out, exist in the co-operative movement.
It is worth noting what David Wootton, chair of the Independent Academies Association, has said on the issue:
“The academy movement, and sponsored academies in particular, have a strong commitment to social justice and moral purpose. This means a dedication to the communities they serve and a deep desire to improve outcomes and ‘close the gap’ for students in some of the most challenged communities. Many academies have very strong community routes…We in the academy movement welcome the support of the Co-operative movement, who are now actively involved supporting academies, and believe there is room for a diversity of providers.”
I thank the Minister for his warm words about co-operatives. Will he say a few words about the Department’s approach to making the benefits of co-operative governance known to schools that are looking to change their governance arrangements? Is there any literature that goes out? Does he have any officials working on the project? What discussions has he had with the co-operative movement on that?
I will talk about that in relation to some of the proposals regarding the ten-minute rule Bill and other measures to try to open that up to a wider aspect of the education system. As I have set out, there has been a huge increase in the number of co-operatives over the past two years alone, which shows that they are not being prevented from doing so.
On the matters raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, I am happy to take back the issue of the messages that the Department and other parts of Government are sending out about the benefit that the movement brings to communities around the country. Our having this debate, and my sending out a strong message of support on behalf of the Government, demonstrates our desire to see diversity in the education system that meets the needs of individual communities.
Is it not one of the benefits of co-operative education that there is no one-size-fits-all approach? Every co-operative school is different in its make-up and outlook, but the one thing that bridges all co-operative schools, whether they are academies, trusts or free schools, is the values that underpin the co-operative principle.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. No one size fits all and, as we know from schools in our constituencies, there is no blueprint that will make every school successful. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe reminded us earlier that the first co-operative free school will open next year in Swanage, and the first co-operative alternative provision free school will open in Harlow in 2014. Those are two examples of how different types of model can be nurtured to meet the needs of particular areas.
Collaboration, which is a feature of the values we have been discussing, manifests itself in several different ways, one of which is the academies programme. Other formal partnership arrangements may work for different communities in relation to both academies and maintained schools, so long as they provide a framework for joint working, with clear lines of accountability, and preserve the intrinsic values of autonomy and liberty that my hon. Friend spoke about.
May I correct an error that I made earlier? I should have paid tribute to Katy Simmons, the chair of the governors of Cressex community school, and Mervyn Wilson, the principal of the Co-operative College, who have helped me to understand that the co-operative movement is striving for autonomy and self-government. While I do not wish to argue about party, it seems to me that the Government are trying to drive people to make the most of their in-built, inherent talents and to exercise freedom and responsibility in relationships, which is all moving in the direction of co-operatives. I am grateful to the Minister for his approach to the subject, but I hope that he will go back to the Department and ask it to produce the Bills that will make that a reality.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. At this juncture, I should perhaps talk about the ten-minute rule Bill introduced back in April by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley. Some of its provisions related to the status of industrial provident societies and the existing legal barriers that she has identified, as well as to the role that nurseries may play in the co-operative movement.
As the hon. Lady will know, by virtue of having brought in the Bill, some elements of the 2006 Act preclude nurseries from inclusion in such co-operative trust arrangements. We are currently consulting on measures to make it easier for schools to extend their age range downwards—for example, from five to 11 for primary schools, to three to 11—so nursery classes in those schools would be able to adopt co-operative ideals. I anticipate that she will understand that some nurseries will therefore still exist outside the extended school system and that it is not possible for them to be trusts.
I will undertake, first, to ensure that the hon. Lady receives a full and proper reply from my Department and, I assume, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) is a Minister in both Departments—to her inquiry in relation to her Bill. Secondly, I will consider whether it would be of assistance to have a meeting with her and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe to discuss both how we measure the success of the co-operative movement as it has begun to grow over the past few years, and where it fits into the jigsaw of educational provision that is now available. I am happy to take that back and ensure that it is given full attention.
I am grateful to the Minister for that offer, which saves my having to press him for exactly that. It would be most effective to have a meeting—I would certainly want it to be a cross-party one, with hon. Members from both sides of the House who have spoken in this debate—to see how we can take forward both the need for legislation and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) has said, the need to publicise more widely to schools the benefits of co-operation, of which they may be unaware.
I am glad that we have managed to come to another co-operative consensus in this debate. Given the steep rise in the number of co-operative trusts in England, it is important to look seriously at their impact and where they fit into our attempts to establish the most effective education for all our children. As the hon. Lady rightly points out, much of that involves good joint working relationships that should provide incentives for schools to develop higher educational standards.
Doing so has several other advantages. The biggest contribution to school leadership development lies in providing the rich and varied opportunities that will lead to the innovation and responsibility that we want schools to show. Collaborative working can, therefore, provide a broader base for developing leaders, and a greater opportunity for leaders to learn from one another. As I have seen in my constituency, it gives such leaders a greater experience of what is going on not only in their schools, but in surrounding ones and at different levels or key stages.
Working more closely together increases the scope for shared learning and continuous professional development, and helps to improve the capacity of small schools—another important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe—by creating a greater pool of resources and expertise that can be shared more flexibly between schools. School leaders tell us that they can recruit and retain the best staff by providing them with professional challenge and support in working with other schools.
One major advantage of shared arrangements has been the improvement in the governance of weaker schools. It is typical for governing bodies of sponsored chains to be supported in their monitoring role not only by training, but by receiving data that are collated and presented to main boards and local governors in a standard format. The format will normally report on progress against targets and previous performance, comparisons with national benchmarks and the performance of other academies in the chain.
Another advantage is that central costs can be shared across more schools, giving them greater purchasing power in partnership than they would have as stand-alone schools. They can also benefit from economies of scale and from the pooling of resources. The use of shared business management as a resource across schools has been shown to lead to improved efficiencies and the more effective use of resources across schools. Collaborative working also opens up new opportunities to adapt the primary and secondary curriculums to meet local needs, and it allows schools to put in place stronger academic transition procedures between different phases of school.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) raised the issue of the Treasury’s proposed tax changes. Obviously I need to look carefully at that to establish exactly whether they will play out as he suggested. On ensuring that we have a crisper, clearer legislative framework, that builds on the matters raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley. Whatever we do in education, we must ensure that it raises standards and that it is sustainable, which is another reason it is important to look at the impact of co-operative trusts on our educational system.
We have managed to transcend a partisan debate, mainly because, as I said at the outset, we have many shared values that do not always have an opportunity to rise to the surface in political debate or in our efforts to make our wider political points as we think is most effective. We do not, however, have anything to fear from co-operatives. Whatever side of the political spectrum we are on, we should embrace the values they offer.
The debate has been an opportunity to celebrate the success and the growing involvement of the co-operative movement in our schools, and to acknowledge that at its core are values that we all hold dear, wherever we sit on the political spectrum—a commitment to social justice and moral purpose, a combined spirit of autonomy, a deep desire to help ensure that children and young people across our communities, but especially in the most challenging areas, get every opportunity to make the most of their education and, wrapping around those values, strong community roots that bind in a joint sense of responsibility and, perhaps most importantly, of caring for others. We all have some compassionate bones in our body, and such values have risen to the surface today, which is a testament to the fact that the co-operative movement does much to enrich our communities, as it does more and more within our schools.
I hope that I have given a forceful indication that this Government hugely value the co-operative movement’s work in our schools. We want to learn more about the effect that it is having, what it is achieving and how it can do more in the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, many schools are still deciding and choosing, as are parents, what sort of schools they want their children to be in. This excellent and informative debate will have encouraged us all to continue to push for higher educational standards in whatever form, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this subject to the House.
Royal British Legion (Norwich)
I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for chairing this debate. This is an important topic, even though we have not yet been joined by too many other colleagues. I have had the pleasure of working with constituents in Norwich for the Royal British Legion since I was first elected. On Saturday, I will be doing what I have done for many years: joining Roy and Val Hill of the Sprowston Royal British Legion branch in their well-regimented but good-natured poppy appeal at the largest local branch of Tesco. I am sure that other hon. Members will have similar engagements in their constituency.
On Remembrance Sunday, I usually join hundreds of my constituents at Norwich city hall for wreath-laying and the “Last Post”, and then in Norwich cathedral. In the afternoon, I usually take part in a parade down Yarmouth road with the Thorpe St Andrew branch, led by the indefatigable Roy Robson and the town mayor. However, this year I unwisely chose the day before Remembrance Sunday on which to get married. I hope my constituents will forgive my absence this time.
In Norwich, the work of the legion is coming to the fore in an unfortunate way, which is poor timing, as this is the month before November. I want to use this debate to discuss the ways that we can best support this long-lived and courageous organisation. The Royal British Legion is of course the UK’s leading armed forces charity. It provides practical, emotional and financial support to all members of the British armed forces, past and present, and their families. Secondly, it actively campaigns to improve lives, and it safeguards the military covenant between the nation and its armed forces. By the bye, I am pleased that the Government have published that covenant, setting out the relationship between the nation, the state and the armed forces. It recognises that the whole nation has a moral obligation to members of the armed forces and to their families, and it establishes how they can expect to be treated. Community covenants are also being signed across the country, bringing military and civilian communities together.
Armed forces have long been based in Norfolk. RAF Marham, for example, has recently been the focus of an enormous community campaign, orchestrated by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss). The Norfolk covenant builds on those relationships and local support and rightly aims to provide a more consistent approach.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The Royal British Legion operates in Ilford North as well as Norwich North. Does she agree that the work it does for the people who have served our country so well, and who should always be remembered, is irreplaceable, and that we should cherish such a great organisation and help it in every way we can?
I certainly do. I am confident that my hon. Friend, like me and many other Members, wants to see the Royal British Legion succeed in Ilford, Norwich and across the country. I will come on to that, as well as how we might mark the centenary of world war one next year. Perhaps my hon. Friend will tell us how his region will mark that event.
Let me return to the legion’s purposes. It also organises the poppy appeal. It runs one of the UK’s largest membership organisations, and it is recognised as the nation’s custodian of remembrance. In summary, its mission is to provide welfare, comradeship, representation and remembrance for the armed forces community. We all pay tribute to this impressive and durable organisation. We are talking about a crucial cause, and it is given voice and action by many members and volunteers who have shown the highest courage in their service to this country.
We all want the Royal British Legion to be a strong organisation. As I have mentioned, next year sees the beginning of the world war one centenary commemoration. Another important event is the Normandy Veterans Association’s 70 years commemoration, which is championed in my constituency by some most wonderful veterans who are passionate about seeing it done well. All that is important work that we want the legion to sustain for today’s and tomorrow’s service people and their friends.
It is clear, however, that the legion faces challenges. Its accounts suggest that it runs at a deficit, and it has embarked on a major programme of modernisation and change called the “pathway for growth”. Its aim is to make the legion more visible, more relevant and more accessible to those members of the armed forces community who may require help, advice and support at any stage of their lives. I suspect that this is where the rubber hits the road. The Jubilee hall, which serves the Norwich branch and is a fine community hall, faces closure. The head of clubs and trusts at the headquarters says:
“The primary duty of the trustees in this case is to ensure that the best value is obtained from the assets placed in their trust in order that they can provide the maximum support to the objects of their trust. It was accordingly decided that the better option was to seek to sell the property for the best value which can be obtained from the open market.”
The local branch heard that news in August, and I sombrely noted that in one of their first phone calls afterwards, they contacted me as the local Member of Parliament. After two months, several public meetings, a local newspaper campaign by the Norwich Evening News, a generous underwriting offer from a local businessman, and some initial commercial negotiations, I am raising the story in Parliament, and I also have a petition from 617 local residents, which I shall present next week to the director-general of the Royal British Legion. I will explain to him the love that we in Norwich have for our Jubilee hall. First, it is the most visible base of the legion in the area. It is the size of a sports hall and it is emblazoned with the wording “the Royal British Legion” in brass letters a foot high. It is terrible to lose such an emblem.
Secondly, it is more terrible to lose a supportive and friendly establishment for many legion members who depend on it. It provides a warm drop-in for those who want it. Every table is neatly decorated with tinsel or flowers, depending on the season, and it provides a fuller space when that is wanted as well. Thirdly, it is the kind of community hall that already has 500 bookings for next year. I would be interested to know of any community venue that can rival that. In fact, now I know where all the zumba classes in this country are taking place; they are taking place in the Jubilee hall in Norwich, if not in Ilford.
That wide spectrum of activities taking place in the hall is something of which we can be proud. The acting chairman and his team of volunteers at the Norwich city Royal British Legion branch are doing their utmost to achieve a sustainable business after some instability in recent years.
Last Thursday, a “save Jubilee hall” public meeting passed a unanimous vote to keep the hall open, supporting the setting up of a charitable organisation to take on the building. Members and non-members alike of all generations expressed great anxiety about the danger of closure, and wanted to bring back the building to its former glory. Local man Martin Wyatt has offered to underwrite the finances required for such work, and deserves thanks for his generosity. He and the legion committee are working hard to make the transformation a reality. They have secured free legal advice through a local law firm, so they plan to lodge charitable status as soon as possible.
I am pleased—I am sure that the Minister will join me in my pleasure—that the local Labour councillors see the value in the Localism Act 2011, and we all encourage the local authority to list the hall as an asset of community value; that could give us six months’ grace before any sale. Volunteers are delighted to have received a kind letter from the secretary of Her Majesty the Queen, who is of course the patron of the Royal British Legion.
Naturally, the next step is more commercial negotiations, which are not the business of Parliament. However, the hall was built with local funds, and the committee intends to maintain it for its original purpose, though it will broaden its remit to encompass fully the local community. As Mr Wyatt has said,
“we look forward to a completion of this transfer, whether by lease or sale, as soon as possible, and for a stress-free and happy running of Jubilee Hall for years to come”.
It is my hope that by raising this issue today, I have done a little bit to remind us in this great institution of Parliament about the work and the standing of that other great institution, the Royal British Legion.
Here comes the crunch, however. The legion must not leave its members behind; it must not neglect the people who make it a great institution. Now is the time for the legion to listen to its members and to its friends in the wider community. If its aim is to make the legion more visible, more relevant and more accessible, then it should listen and be visible in the Norwich community, and work constructively with local volunteers. We are all behind the legion and its wonderful volunteers, and we do not want the legion to waste that good will.
I said earlier that I would return to the topic of the year ahead. As you know, Mr Hollobone, 2014 will mark a momentous milestone in British history—100 years since the outbreak of world war one. The centenary offers a special opportunity to commemorate not the war and the bloodshed, but the dedicated men and women who sacrificed so much to protect the United Kingdom. It also presents a very important chance to educate a new generation of young people about the war, to ensure that the lessons of that extraordinary time are not lost.
As the Minister will no doubt remind us, the Prime Minister has laid out the Government’s plans to mark the centenary. He has announced that support will be available for projects and initiatives, large and small, in local communities across the UK, in the form of Heritage Lottery Fund grants. I hope to work with councils, heritage groups and charities such as the Royal British Legion to mark the centenary locally. It is a matter of shame, I am afraid to say, that the Labour administration at Norfolk county council has rejected that idea, telling me that it has a rather full diary at the moment. It would be a matter of sadness, and downright discourteous to veterans and serving members of the armed forces, if the Labour administration at county hall did not have the time, inclination or gumption to do this job properly.
I turn back to the matter at hand. I will leave time today for colleagues to express, perhaps, their interest in the work of the legion, and for the Minister perhaps to tell us a little more not only about the commemoration plans but about the way that he works incredibly hard in his brief to support charities. Perhaps he can suggest further ways in which the Royal British Legion can do its job and be supported strongly from inside this great Parliament.
In conclusion, I support the Royal British Legion in Norwich. I passionately want it to succeed for those whom the charity serves: veterans of past campaigns; those yet to fight; and, of course, those whom we remember as fallen, and of whom we will say again in November,
“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.”
We all are friends and supporters of the Royal British Legion. My final message today is to those at the legion’s headquarters, if they are listening. I say to them, “Please remember your local members and friends, and save the Jubilee hall in Norwich.”
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. At the start of my few words, I ask you for a little latitude, as I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), on behalf of all parties in the House of Commons, on her forthcoming marriage, whatever date it may be on. I am sure that she will be fully occupied over the Remembrance Sunday weekend.
The work of the Royal British Legion takes place not only in my area of Redbridge but across our great country. If we forget our past, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. If we do not honour the people who have given their lives, and who are no longer with us because of the passing of time, we risk history repeating itself.
Throughout many conflicts, members of our great Army, Air Force and Navy have given up their lives so that we can enjoy our freedom, and so that we can debate, as a democracy, in this Parliament. I think that members of all parties in this House will agree that the work that the Royal British Legion has done, is doing, and I am sure will continue to do benefits many veterans of many campaigns.
Sadly, it will not surprise you to know, Mr Hollobone, that I have never been in the armed services, but I am a member of the Royal British Legion, because I think that it is important. It is important that when we lay our wreaths, as most colleagues from all parties in this House will, on Remembrance day—in my area, we lay one on the Saturday and one on the Sunday; I will also lay one at a former Air Force base on the Monday—we genuinely remember, respect and honour the people who have given their lives for us. My only point today is that whether we are talking about Norwich North, Ilford North or any other “north” in this great country, we should honour all those people. May God bless the Royal British Legion.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone; I think it is for the first time.
I miss my former ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), so I am absolutely delighted to be in a position to respond to her debate, which brings home very clearly just why she is so respected and loved as a champion of Norwich North and of the things that the people there hold dear. I warmly congratulate her on securing this debate and on drawing the attention of the House to the incredibly important work of the Royal British Legion, as well as to concerns about the closure of the Jubilee hall in Norwich.
Just as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) skilfully intervened to place on record his huge admiration for the work of the Royal British Legion in his constituency, I must also take the opportunity to place on record my recognition of the incredible work done in the “third North”, which is my constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, in particular the work of the legion’s branch at Eastcote, which managed to get a cheque out of me and which looks after me incredibly well during the remembrance services there.
This debate has opened my eyes to some other work that the Royal British Legion is doing that I was not aware of—work that is frankly magnificent. For example, there was the recent opening of its centre for blast injury studies at Imperial college London, which is the first collaboration of its kind in the United Kingdom and where civilian engineers and scientists work alongside military doctors to reduce the effect of roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices. The legion has also teamed up with Help for Heroes to officially open the Phoenix House recovery centre in Yorkshire, where injured and sick service personnel from across north England and Scotland can recover and access key services. The legion is an enormously important institution, and I am sure, Mr Hollobone, that it does wonderful work in Kettering too.
Regarding the specific issue of the Jubilee hall in Norwich, I quite understand the passion underpinning that project; I have similar situations in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North will know that it is not for the Government to intervene in a charity’s decisions, however unpopular they are, but I am absolutely sure that the Royal British Legion will listen very carefully to this debate and will have heard her message about the community’s desire to save Jubilee hall.
My hon. Friend will also know that the Government are very keen to support this kind of community-led response. She mentioned the Localism Act 2011. That Act introduced the community right to bid, which, as she said, allows communities and parish councils to nominate buildings or land for listing by the local authority as an asset of community value. Exploring this option—asking the local authority to list the hall as an asset of community value, in line with the Act—seems eminently sensible.
What my hon. Friend may or may not be aware of is that, at a time when there is not a lot of money around, significant funding is being made available to support communities that want to take over buildings and assets. In June, I was proud to hear the Prime Minister announce a quarter of a billion pounds of funding at an event at the G8, which will be dedicated over the next 10 years by Big Society Capital and the Big Lottery Fund, to help communities own local assets, such as pubs, shops, community centres and sports facilities. More details of that programme will be announced shortly.
My hon. Friend may also be aware that the My Community Rights support programme provides advice and help to eligible community groups to develop business cases and get “investment-ready” to seek support from other sources. Information is readily available on the programme’s website.
I genuinely wish my hon. Friend and her local campaigning group every success and I hope that the Royal British Legion will go the extra mile in helping the community to safeguard what is clearly a very valuable asset.
My hon. Friend also asked me to talk a little about the commemoration plans to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, which all the speakers today have talked passionately about. They will know that the first world war was a period of almost unparalleled importance in our country’s history. I am proud to say that the Government are taking a strong lead in commemorating the centenary in a way that I hope is appropriate. The centenary will not only focus on military history but on the social and cultural changes that the war brought about, telling not just soldiers’ stories but those of men and women on the home front. We should remember that there were almost 900,000 deaths of British service personnel during the first world war, so it is entirely appropriate that remembrance lies at the heart of the commemoration.
We are working hard to encourage public interest and engagement, showing why the first world war still matters in the 21st century and is relevant to people today—including myself—through their family histories. My hon. Friend will know that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is the co-ordinating Department, but several Departments are working together to deliver what I hope will be a strong, diverse and inclusive programme. There is strong support from bodies such as the Imperial War museum, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the BBC and the Heritage Lottery Fund, all of which have a big role to play in securing public engagement and all of which are represented in the programme’s governance structure.
There will be £53 million of funded activity across a range of undertakings, including a major capital project at the Imperial War museum, Heritage Lottery Fund grants for community projects and moneys for other cultural activity. For example, the first world war centenary battlefield tours project is offering students and teachers from every state-funded secondary school in England the opportunity to visit battlefields and other notable sites and to take part in remembrance ceremonies on the western front. That will be an enormously powerful experience for them. The tours start in spring next year and will run until 2019. Schools, including those in Norfolk, have been piloting the scheme, with pupils visiting battlefields at Ypres and the Somme. More than 1,000 schools have already registered for the tours from next spring, which is well ahead of the planned target. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North said so powerfully, the bravery and suffering of the heroic men and women who gave their lives so selflessly in the great war—including my great uncle—must never be forgotten.
To conclude, the Government recognise the massive contribution that is made by our servicemen and women. The words trip easily enough, but it is important to convey what underlies them with sincerity. The armed forces covenant ensures that we are doing all we can for our armed forces in return for asking them to do dangerous jobs in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Government take it extremely seriously.
I am proud that the Chancellor was in a position to announce that the LIBOR fines collected from banks for their shockingly bad behaviour and their distortion of British values are being used to provide permanent funding of £10 million per annum to charities working to support military personnel. That money was taken in fines on the worst of values to support organisations working with the best of British values.
On that note, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North on her championing of her constituents, the campaign to safeguard the hall and this opportunity for us all to place on record our recognition of the enormously valuable work that the Royal British Legion does. It would be wrong of me to conclude my remarks without congratulating my hon. Friend on her forthcoming marriage to Sandy, who is, I believe, a former paratroop officer. I am sure that her constituents will forgive her for her absence from Remembrance day services and for getting married, even if there are many colleagues in this place who never will.
UK-Colombia Bilateral Investment Treaty
I am grateful to Mr Speaker for selecting this debate.
Bilateral investment treaties are a long-standing mechanism to protect foreign firms and investors undertaking risky overseas investment from the danger of expropriation or policy changes in the destination country that could reduce the financial return from those investments. Bilateral investment treaties have generally been seen as benign, technical instruments, but developments in their use in the past 10 years or so have raised doubts about their benign character. Those doubts certainly arise in the case of the UK-Colombia bilateral investment treaty, which I understand is due to be ratified in the next few weeks. I will air some of those doubts in this debate and press the Minister to clarify the Government’s thinking in response to some of the concerns that are being raised.
Bilateral investment treaties allow investors to sue elected Governments if policy changes adversely affect their profits, but neither the host Government nor the communities affected by the investment have reciprocal rights. There is at least a question on whether that balance is correct.
Last October, under a bilateral investment treaty, a tribunal established by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, which is part of the World Bank, fined Ecuador $1.8 billion—a sum equal to Ecuador’s entire annual education budget—for terminating a contract with Occidental Petroleum Corporation after reaching the view that Occidental broke Ecuadorian law when selling its production rights. I notice that on 30 September 2013, the tribunal decided to stay the enforcement of that fine for the time being, but it is not clear that handing a technocratic tribunal the power to impose fines in that way is necessarily the right thing to do.
By the end of 2012, corporations had launched more than 500 cases under bilateral investment treaties against 95 Governments. Compared with the preceding three decades, the number of disputes since the year 2000 has risen two-and-a-half-fold. The treaties seem to be evolving into something rather different from what they were originally intended to be. We need to reflect on how we want the treaties to be used, on what is appropriate to put into them and, indeed, on when it is appropriate to enter into such a treaty.
Governments across the world are now reviewing their policy on bilateral investment treaties. I understand that Norway and South Africa are terminating their treaty, and Australia and the US have decided to restrict the scope of their treaty. I am delighted to see the Minister in his place this afternoon as I know he has other pressing business, and I hope he will use this debate to set out the British Government’s thinking. I would welcome a review in the UK along the same lines as we are seeing elsewhere.
The UK-Colombia bilateral investment treaty will be laid before Parliament shortly and will provide far-reaching rights to foreign investors in Colombia. I am worried that the treaty might not take into account the potential risks it poses to securing human rights in Colombia. The Minister knows very well the human rights position in that country. In the first six months of this year, 11 trade unionists and 37 human rights activists were killed—nobody has been charged in relation to any of those killings. Over the summer there were strikes and protests across Colombia, and 16 demonstrators were killed by the police and the army, with more than 90 people imprisoned. Paramilitary groups continue to operate widely. There is already substantial opposition on human rights grounds to the ratification of the EU-Colombia free trade agreement.
I ask the Minister to take the opportunity presented by the forthcoming ratification, and indeed by other negotiations for new investment treaties at EU level, to consider whether it is appropriate to have a general review of UK policy towards bilateral investment treaties.
I have three areas of concern about the current use of bilateral investment treaties that I think make a review necessary. First, it is not clear that the human rights impact of such treaties is in line with the UK Government’s policy. That is a particularly pressing concern in the case of Colombia, where the human rights situation is so precarious, particularly in relation to workers’ rights and land rights.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Colombia has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world after Sudan—there were 5.7 million internally displaced people in Colombia by the end of the 2012—largely due to land-grabbing around mineral and resource-rich sites. Colombia has enacted a land restitution law to restore more than 2 million hectares of land to people from whom it had been wrongly taken, but that restoration has not yet taken place. Human Rights Watch reported last month that only one family have to date had their land returned.
There is serious concern that a bilateral investment treaty could make the implementation of land reform even more difficult; it could trigger demands from foreign investors for compensation if, for example, cases were brought forward in which land occupied by an investor that had previously been appropriated from someone else and then sold to the investor was restored to its original and rightful owners. Such processes could potentially scupper the prospects for land restitution, which is widely recognised as key to Colombia’s future stability.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, for the powerful case he is making and for bringing this debate to the House. The recent UK action plan on business and human rights was strongly welcomed because of some of the difficulties that he raises, but it is unfortunately silent on remedy and redress for victims of such abuses. Indeed, recent legislation has restricted the ability of victims of actions by UK companies overseas to access justice through the UK courts. Does he agree that it is essential that we build on the momentum that the Government and others have created to ensure adequate redress when bilateral investment treaties are breached, and that otherwise we risk undermining the host country’s ability to meet its international human rights obligations? Would he also welcome a response from the Minister on that, either today or at a later date?
I will address the action plan on business and human rights in a couple of moments. My hon. Friend is absolutely right on the need for people to be able to obtain redress, and I would certainly welcome a comment from the Minister on that topic.
ABColombia, the consortium comprising Christian Aid, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Oxfam and others, is particularly worried about the potential threat to land restitution. The UK-Colombia treaty risks making it impossible for Colombia to restore land that has been stolen from its previous owners, thereby potentially restricting the implementation of future peace agreements with the guerrillas and limiting reparations to victims of human rights violations. Land injustices have been at the centre of the long-running conflict in Colombia, as the Minister knows. I gather that a treaty with Ethiopia is likely to come up next, which raises a similar set of issues on land and rights, so there is a pressing case for carrying out a policy review.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) has reminded the Chamber of the action plan on business and human rights, which the Government published last month and which, as she says, has been widely welcomed. The action plan makes the point that investment agreements should,
“incorporate the business responsibility to respect human rights, and…not undermine the host country’s ability to…meet its international human rights obligations or to impose the same environmental and social regulation on foreign investors as it does on domestic firms.”
That is welcome reassurance. The review that I am suggesting would enable the Government to make good on that commitment in the specific context of bilateral investment treaties.
Secondly, there is a worry that investment rules in bilateral investment treaties could restrict the ability of Governments to set policies in the interests of their public. The investor-state dispute settlement mechanism allows foreign firms to sue Governments when and if they feel that their interests have been violated by a new law or policy. That is a pretty big limitation on the right of citizens to elect a Government to change the policy of the preceding Government.
I am chair of the trustees of Traidcraft, the fair trade organisation, which has drawn the issue to my attention—I declare that interest, although the role is unpaid. I share that concern about the restriction on the ability of developing country Governments to pursue policies that have worked elsewhere—such as land reform or requiring investors to give preference to local suppliers.
The concern, however, does not apply only in developing countries. The US tobacco firm, Philip Morris, is suing Uruguay and Australia over their anti-smoking laws. The company argues that warning labels on cigarette packs or plain packaging prevent it from displaying its trade mark effectively, causing a loss in market share. The threat of legal action against the UK under a bilateral investment treaty might be a factor in thinking about the introduction of plain packaging proposals here, so developing countries are certainly not the only ones in the frame. The US company Lone Pine Resources Inc. is demanding US $250 million in compensation from Canada for introducing a moratorium on fracking, because of environmental risk concerns. Corporations have used investor-state settlement provisions to challenge environmental, land use, energy and other laws.
Thirdly, I am worried that such claims bypass domestic courts and are heard in private—behind closed doors—in tribunals made up of three arbitrators, behind closed doors at the International Centre for Settlement of Investor Disputes. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan reminded the House that any such decision is extremely difficult to change. In some instances, the existence of the cases is barely known at all; even when they are known, the reasons for decisions or the level of awards by a tribunal are not always disclosed.
There is concern that the system has led to bad decisions, which is particularly important given that an arbitration tribunal can make unlimited monetary awards. In 2012, dispute settlement compensations awarded to corporations ranged from US $2 million to, in the Ecuadorean case that I mentioned, nearly $1.8 billion; lots of pending claims total billions of US dollars. Disputes between multinational companies and Colombia under the UK-Colombia treaty would be confidential and heard by the international tribunal, despite the growing recognition worldwide, not least on the part of the UK Government, that transparency is vital to democratic processes, good governance and the rule of law.
Finally, there is at least a question mark about whether the treaties do, in fact, succeed in attracting additional foreign investment into signatory countries. A number of studies suggest no significant correlation between a country’s level of foreign direct investment—we all want to increase such levels in developing countries—and the decision to adopt treaties that include those broad investor protections.
I hope, therefore, that the Government will review their policy on bilateral investment treaties, in view of the lack of transparency, the use of the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, the imbalance of rights and responsibilities, and the potential to undermine human rights in countries where investment is taking place. I am grateful to the Minister for his readiness to respond. I accept that part of the responsibility on the subject rests with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office clearly has a key role as well. I look forward to what he has to say in response.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing the debate. The right hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in such issues, as evidenced in his declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests about his activities with Traidcraft, to which he alluded.
The Government’s aim in developing bilateral investment treaties is to provide a high level of protection for companies from one country that invest in the other country. In particular, we aim to ensure that British investors in a country with which we have a bilateral investment treaty will receive equal treatment compared with other foreign and domestic investors.
In general, the UK Government believe that such treaties have a positive impact, protecting investors against unfair expropriation and mistreatment, and encouraging investment. As the right hon. Gentleman said, however, bilateral investment treaties need to strike the right balance between providing protection for investors and giving Governments the space that they need to regulate in the public interest. The UK aims to achieve that balance in its treaties and, now that competence for foreign direct investment has transferred to the European Union, in treaties concluded by the EU.
To begin addressing some of the comments and questions of the right hon. Gentleman, increasing transparency in governance at home and internationally is a priority for the Government. Next week, I am pleased to say, we will be hosting the Open Government Partnership summit here in London, and that will be a key theme. We have also pushed for greater openness in investment arbitration, and I am pleased that new UN rules on transparency will enter into force next year. The hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) made an intervention about redress in particular, but we will write to her with a fuller answer.
In response to the related concern about giving away privileges to distant tribunals, while the system is clearly not perfect—hence, for example, our work on transparency—overall we see such tribunals as positive. They have long been a feature of the international system and are considered generally to provide a dependable way for investors to achieve justice, where it cannot be achieved through the domestic legal system of the country in which they have invested. The tribunals are, therefore, important to guaranteeing investors’ rights and to preserving stable investment climates, which, in turn, help to encourage economic development. Without access to an international tribunal, such benefits would be lost. Furthermore, if we did not have tribunals, what should replace them? The right hon. Gentleman did not answer that question in his speech—I am happy to accept an intervention, should he wish to make one.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government intend to review their policy on investment protection. As I have mentioned, competence for foreign direct investment has now transferred to the EU. Since that transfer in 2009, the UK has not negotiated any new treaties. It retains the right to do so, but it has no immediate plans to negotiate new treaties. It does not, therefore, make sense for the UK to launch a full-scale review of our policy on such matters at present. That said, I reassure him that, in ongoing EU negotiations, we are pushing hard to achieve that important balance—guaranteeing fair treatment for investors, without an adverse impact on Governments’ rights to regulate in the public interest. That is also a principle that we will apply in any new treaties that the UK negotiates.
Our intention is to place before Parliament shortly a ratification instrument that will bring the UK-Colombia bilateral investment treaty into force. We believe that the treaty broadly achieves the right balance. Indeed, it includes specific provisions designed to preserve the right of the UK and Colombia to regulate for “reasons of public purpose”.
I am grateful for the way in which the Minister is responding to the debate. Will he explain the significance of the timing, given that he said that competence has moved to the European Union? I am told that the Colombia treaty was drafted almost 20 years ago. What is the significance of the timing, given that ratification will take place shortly?
The right hon. Gentleman has more confidence in these matters than me. He referred to the next few weeks. I am reliably informed that it will be shortly, which is not necessarily in the next few weeks, but no doubt my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will bring the matter to the House at the appropriate time and will be able to explain exactly, if I cannot. It is worth saying that the UK received authorisation from the European Commission to enter the Colombia treaty into force, as the right hon. Gentleman said, in spring 2013 and the Colombian note confirming its ratification in the summer.
The treaty is an important symbol of the close relationship that the UK has enjoyed with Colombia in recent years. To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of such treaties to the countries with which they are contracted, it is worth saying that the Government of Colombia is actively looking forward to the treaty being ratified. I believe that it is a positive move. It will cover all existing British investments in Colombia, which currently total £2.5 billion. The Government hope that when the treaty enters into force it will provide a further incentive for additional investment in Colombia by increasing the level of legal protection.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly raised a concern about the human rights situation in Colombia, including land rights. I assure him, as I have the House on a number of occasions when we debated the matter, that progress has been made, as noted in our 2012 human rights report. Around 170,000 victims have been provided with reparations under its victims and land restitution law and the Colombian Government are taking steps to reform the judicial system. We continue to press them to speed up the processing of cases and to eliminate impunity.
In 2012, experts from the Land Registry provided technical advice to the agriculture Ministry on land registration issues. Security for claimants and those returning to their land is a key concern, and our embassy in Bogota has funded a security risk analysis in potential restitution zones. However, almost five decades of conflict have caused many people to be displaced, as the right hon. Gentleman said. We welcome the significant progress made to date in the peace negotiations, in which provisional agreement on land reform has been reached.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the concerns. The Government want bilateral investment treaties to provide a high level of protection for British companies investing in Colombia, but we also want to strike the right balance between providing protection for investors and giving Governments the space they need to regulate in the public interest. We are committed to supporting international efforts to increase transparency. We recognise that the current system of tribunals is not perfect, but it generally provides a dependable way for investors to achieve justice.
Competence for foreign direct investment has now transferred to the EU and the UK has not negotiated any new treaties since 2009, so we have no plans to review our policy on investment protection. However, in ongoing EU negotiations and any new treaties the UK negotiates, we will push for the right balance between investors and the public interest.
Question put and agreed to.