Wednesday 15 January 2014
[Sandra Osborne in the Chair]
Bilateral Relations: Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Gyimah.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Osborne.
Twenty years ago, I was an officer in the Royal Air Force, and I helped to police the no-fly zone over the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Operation Warden operated from Incirlik airbase in Turkey. Aircraft from the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Turkey prevented Saddam Hussein from waging his war against Iraq’s 5 million Kurds. During my tour, I joined coalition officers from the military co-ordination centre in Zakho, northern Iraq. We toured Kurdish villages in that spectacularly beautiful part of the world. We met village elders, and spread the word that the aircraft flying above them were friends, not foes. Of course, we were given a very warm welcome.
The no-fly zone saved lives and has meant that Iraq’s 5 million Kurds have experienced relative stability and peace since the end of the 1991 Gulf war, but the Kurds had suffered abysmally at the hands of Saddam Hussein, who carried out genocide against them, most notoriously at Halabja in 1988. That slaughter of 5,000 men, women and children remains the worst single incident of the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Saddam Hussein destroyed the Kurds’ agricultural base, razed thousands of villages and rounded up the Kurds into concentration camps; it is estimated that about 200,000 people were killed.
When Saddam Hussein’s forces were defeated in Kuwait in 1991, the Kurds rose up, but they were set to be annihilated. One million people fled to the mountains—at that point, they called the mountains their only friends—and the sight of people freezing to death during the winter months prompted the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, John Major, to work incredibly hard to initiate a no-fly zone with other allied forces. It saved the Kurds, and enabled them to rebuild their economy and society into what it is today: a dynamic, prosperous, pluralistic, tolerant and democratic part of a federal Iraq.
Britain has a mixed historical record in Kurdistan, but when I returned there recently I was left in no doubt about the deep affection and respect felt there for the British and for the United Kingdom. I was back in the region last summer as a guest of the Kurdistan Regional Government, via the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq—it is good to see colleagues from that group here this morning. I saw at first hand the peaceful and increasingly prosperous city of Erbil and its surrounding areas, a fairly secular region in which Christians, Jews and Muslims live side by side—we even met a local bishop. Over 2 million tourists visited the region last year. The Erbil citadel, 6,000 years old, is a fantastic building. The world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement, it is set to be a huge tourist attraction. Again, the welcome was warm and friendly.
I also saw first hand that the Kurds are looking west. English is their second language, and they speak it very well indeed. Two universities operate in English and most of the Kurds who go overseas for their studies and postgraduate courses choose to come to the United Kingdom.
The Kurdistan of two decades ago lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Today’s Kurdistan is becoming a wealthy and cosmopolitan society, with an active civil society; but it is still in a transition phase from genocide, dictatorship and its own civil war. It has many bright community leaders and public servants—we met many of them, and they were impressive people—but the practice of politics, administration and civil society is still fairly new to the region, and the Kurds are having to learn new skills. They seek to soak up as much experience, advice and expertise as they can from various bodies, including the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
There is a deepening détente with Turkey. We have to admit that that is based on hard-headed self-interest: the export of Kurdistan’s newly explored and vast reserves of oil and gas has overcome decades of hostility and conflict. That trade is set to be a major gain for Turkey, with a potentially positive impact on resolving the conflict with Turkish Kurds—something that is important for the region—and could also have great positives for European and British energy security, which we have been discussing so much in the House in recent months.
The Kurds want British trade and investment because they value our skills and the quality of our goods and services, but until now we have been too slow to respond. Many Members here today have seen the Kurdish success story for themselves at first hand, and we talk about it regularly. Small and large companies, universities and health bodies should go over to the region and get stuck in.
We have a number of asks of the Minister based on increasing such close co-operation. There should be direct flights from the United Kingdom to the Kurdistan region. When we went there last year, we had to fly with Austrian Airlines via Vienna, which ended up taking seven or eight hours. Direct flights would help massively. We also need a British trade envoy to the region. It would be great if our leaders visited Kurdistan, and even better if we could invite their leaders to come here. It is important that we are bolder and more positive in recognising who our friends are, and we have a great opportunity to make new friends in the Kurdistan region.
Having been helped themselves, the Iraqi Kurds are now helping others. On my trip there in the summer, we spent an emotional day at the Domiz refugee camp near the Iraq-Syria border. At that stage—I have no doubt that the figure has since grown—some 130,000 Syrian Kurds had fled the fighting in Syria. I spoke with many refugees, including many children who are continuing their education in specially constructed schools. The Kurdistan Regional Government deserve praise for funding and arranging that, after the crisis the Kurds went through two decades ago.
That ability to help others now is a far cry from the poverty and despair I saw on the border with Turkey 20 years ago. It has been a remarkable journey from genocide to prosperity. I urge the Minister to help efforts to achieve greatly increased co-operation with the Kurds, not just for our sake but for theirs, and I have five specific requests to put to him.
First, I suggest that the UK Government invite the President and Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region on an official visit to London to meet the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Secondly, I suggest that the British Government consider the possibility of a visit by the Foreign Secretary to the Kurdistan region. I have no doubt that he would receive a very warm welcome.
Thirdly, at a time when the Government are stressing the importance of overseas exports and finding new markets, I urge them to appoint a UK trade envoy to the Kurdistan region. I saw an area that is becoming increasingly prosperous, and met the Erbil chamber of commerce where many deals were being done. There are great opportunities for British companies and business people, and having a UK trade envoy would be helpful.
Fourthly, we would like a meeting with the Home Office to discuss the visa regime and how to remove the obstacles to increased cultural and commercial activities with Kurdistan. I referred to students who are choosing the United Kingdom for their university and postgraduate studies, and we should ensure that they are encouraged to come to our wonderful universities, including my local Huddersfield university, which has students from 130 nations. Fifthly, with Holocaust memorial day coming up, I urge the Government to recognise formally the genocide against the Kurds and to take a full part in marking the annual Anfal day on 14 April.
I will conclude my comments because other hon. Members who have experienced the Kurdistan region first hand have some positive and well-informed input to make to the debate. The Iraqi Kurds are back from the brink and making real and positive progress. They are helping their neighbours, and it is important that the United Kingdom does not neglect that renaissance in the Kurdistan region.
I refer to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), who in this debate is my hon. Friend, as well as being my colleague on the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, which I have the honour to co-chair with the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is also my hon. Friend in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley on securing the debate. It is good that we have been able to secure a second debate on the Kurdistan region in less than a year, and a sign of the area’s growing potential.
In November, together with some hon. Members here, I visited the Kurdistan region as part of a delegation from the all-party group, and we saw some of the issues affecting the area. The contrast between that visit, which was my sixth, and my first visit four years ago was astonishing and heartening. During my first few visits, it was easy to feel like a pioneer, as there were few western faces about, but today there is a modern airport terminal and several new hotels, each with lobbies full of local and western business people discussing deals and developments. It is truly a transformation.
During the visit in November 2013, we went to the Domiz refugee camp near Dohuk, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley in the summer. The impact on hon. Members who were visiting for the first time, and on me, was such that I want to spend a little longer talking about the situation there. It is the new home, working place and school for 75,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict, of which 13,000 are children. It is just one of 13 refugee camps in the Kurdistan region and the largest of the four in the Dohuk province. In a prominent location near the camp entrance is the child protection unit, which is funded by the UK Government and run by UNICEF. With my previous working experience of child protection, I was pleased that we spent considerable time addressing the issue of children and their welfare.
The Kurdistan region has been at pains to welcome Syrian refugees, and Dohuk’s governor told me that another 75,000 refugees are living in the province among the host community. Two months ago, there were 150,000 refugees, up from the number that my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley mentioned. Many of the refugees living in the region have family connections in the area, and highly-qualified refugees have found jobs and been able to move their families into permanent accommodation within the community. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described that hospitality and support as extraordinary. The Kurdistan region has supplied much of the finance itself, which is a huge burden for a region that is still developing its services. For example, many of the local Kurdish schools have double shifts to accommodate all the children who want to attend. The region is not in a good place in terms of being able to welcome refugees, but it is opening its arms to those in desperate need.
I want to emphasise the importance of the Government remembering that the Kurdistan region of Iraq is hosting refugees. In his statement to the House on Monday, the Foreign Secretary referred to refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, but did not mention Iraq; refugees are also flooding over that border and being welcomed there. The Government should recognise that.
I pay tribute to the Government, who have committed £500 million of their aid budget to Syrian refugees. The Foreign Secretary made it clear that further funds will be made available, and I fear that that will be necessary well before the end of the conflict. As the fighting in Syria continues, we must ensure that the people in the refugee camps are not forgotten.
During our visit, I met representatives of Syrian Kurdish groups who are members of the Syrian Opposition coalition. The majority of Kurdish groups oppose the Assad regime, and the representatives we met were clear that they wanted the British people and Government to have a better understanding of the situation in relation to the Syrian Kurdish Opposition. They stressed that the organised Opposition in Syria is different from the al-Qaeda groups that grab the headlines. Those groups were asking for greater representation in the Geneva II talks, and I urge the Foreign Secretary to help to accommodate that.
Turning to economic development and relationships with the UK, I had the opportunity to visit the Taq Taq oilfield, run by the Taq Taq Operating Company and the Turkish-British oil company Genel Energy. The oilfield is a large local employer, employing 400 people from local villages. I understand that the first oil exported to Turkey will be sold by the end of this month, although all of us in contact with the region know that there is some controversy about that. I will not go into that today, but the Kurdistan region has a target of producing 2 million barrels of oil per day by the end of 2019.
Unlike in many post-conflict situations, this region of Iraq is not having to rely on international aid to rebuild its economy. Instead, it is developing the oilfields to ensure a strong source of revenue for decades and generations to come. That foresight and enterprise should be applauded. It was good to meet British citizens working in the oil industry and clearly enjoying working in Kurdistan with local people.
The region is growing quickly, and the regional Government have been strengthening their relationship with Turkey. Not long ago, 200,000 troops were on the border of Turkey, but 200,000 people from Turkey now work in the region. That stability provides a great opportunity to strengthen the commercial and cultural links between the UK and the Kurdistan region.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley said, the all-party parliamentary group has long supported improved trade links between the UK and Kurdistan. Since we began lobbying on the issue of visas, the capacity to receive applications for visas and to take biometrics in Erbil has dramatically increased, which we are pleased to see. However, we know, having spoken earlier this month to the consul general from Erbil, that more could be done, if the capacity were there. I urge the Government to look again at the issue and consider providing even more capability. As has been said, our all-party group would like to have a further meeting with the Home Office to explore what more can be done.
We have long campaigned, as has also been mentioned, on the importance of direct flights from Kurdistan to the UK. It is good to note that progress is being made with the recent visit by officials to Erbil. However, it would be remiss of me not to press the Minister further on maintaining the pressure for a positive outcome as soon as possible. The UK is the country of choice for trade for many in Kurdistan, and we should do all we can to facilitate those contacts. Compared with other European countries, there is a lack of ministerial support from the UK to British companies in Kurdistan. Trade and Industry Ministers in Italy, Germany and other countries tend to visit Kurdistan, often with big trade missions, and they are all well received by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Although it was a great pleasure, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, to lead a trade delegation as a Back-Bench Member of the UK Parliament in 2010, so much more could be done if Ministers were to go out with trade delegations and the companies that really want to do trade in Kurdistan, to make those contacts. It is clear that the countries that are giving that priority are benefiting, through positive contacts with their companies, and through gaining contracts.
Similarly, it is good to see that the UK remains the country of choice for the majority of students who are funded by the Kurdistan Regional Government on placements overseas as part of their human capacity development programme. Many universities across the UK are welcoming students, including Sheffield Hallam university. That is a real benefit for all concerned and is likely to have long-term benefits. The university of Huddersfield, which has already had a mention this morning, has even formed an alumni association in Kurdistan, with more than 70 former students and their families attending the recent launch. We know that many students who have spent time in the UK carry positive attitudes for the rest of their lives, which can lead to ongoing relationships in a wide range of walks of life, including business, academia, and even politics.
The willingness of the people of the region to help and support people from other areas of Iraq who have faced persecution, particularly the Christian community, has been impressive. They have again shown their good will in providing help to the refugees from Syria. They are a beacon in the middle east of a stable, democratic and welcoming people and Administration. It is time for more MPs and Ministers to take seriously our relationships with the Kurdistan region, and it would be good to see the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, for example, doing an investigation into the prospects for the Kurdistan region of Iraq and the issues facing the Kurds across Syria, Turkey and Iran; that is just a suggestion. I am sure that other hon. Members will cover security, but we stress the importance of the Government providing non-lethal security equipment to help the KRG. The UK must do all that it can to support the ongoing work of the KRG to develop the resources in the area and the skills and enterprise of the people.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on initiating the debate. He displayed extraordinary knowledge, and we respect his service in the armed forces. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), whom I call my hon. Friend; I hope she will not mind me saying that she represents the liberal interventionist wing in her party—something I strongly support.
My interests are on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq and chairman of the Kurdish genocide task force. I am privileged to have been to Kurdistan a significant number of times over the past few years, and every time I have been, I have seen the region go from strength to strength. Until the 1990s, Kurdistan faced constant threats to its very existence through war, internal unrest and genocide, and yet incredibly, it is now a progressive, democratic Muslim nation, where the rule of law is well established. For Kurdistan, freedom is not only about elections, but about being a place where women have equality, all religions are respected, property rights are manifest, and where a free press is unshackled. It is early days, and of course there are problems, but the direction is positive.
Across the Kurdistan region, business is flourishing, as has been described, and people are keen on British and foreign investment. Privatisation continues apace and huge property complexes are being built. There are significant oil and gas reserves, which, unusually in these parts, are used for the benefit of the country, not salted away in corruption. As I pointed out in an early-day motion, which I tabled just before my visit to the region in November with my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, the KRG can become an important ally in guaranteeing the UK’s future energy security, but we must be aware of the legacy of the Ba’athist regime. I know from questions tabled by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) that there are questions and reservations about the closeness of Crescent Petroleum to Saddam Hussein’s genocidal regime, and therefore its current status as operator in the Kurdistan region. That needs to be examined.
Three significant challenges face the KRG, some of which threaten its survival as an autonomous region in Iraq, as well as all its social and economic achievements since 1992. I shall describe each in turn. They are terrorism, the situation in Syria, and as has been mentioned, the recognition of the genocide.
Since its founding, the KRG has faced significant terrorism threats, mainly from Iran and al-Qaeda, but there have been very few attacks, thanks to tight security. Similar to what people see when visiting the state of Israel, outside every major building, there are guards checking for suicide bombers and armed checkpoints are on all the major roads. Sadly last September, one day after the results of the fourth democratic elections in the region, there were two linked suicide bomb attacks in Erbil, one on the Interior Ministry and the other on the next-door security directorate. I visited the site with my hon. Friends. Seven security guards died, with more injured. The atrocity was linked to al-Qaeda, which is thought to control vast swathes of Mosul, an Iraqi province next to Kurdistan where a strong Salafist movement has been established. On visiting the site of the attack, one Minister warned that if action was not taken, Mosul could become a second Afghanistan in one year, with significant implications not only for Kurdistan, but for the whole of Iraq. The British Government should take that seriously.
Secondly, there is Syria. The unstable situation in Syria is a threat to the KRG’s security and stability. It is thought that the terrorism I have described is being aided and abetted by terrorists passing through Syria, trained by al-Qaeda and funded in part from Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Sudan. In addition to the exploitation of the Syrian crisis by extreme Islamists, large numbers of refugees are seeking safety in Kurdistan. Many of the refugees accepted by Kurdistan are Syrian Kurds, who represent 9%—1.9 million—of the Syrian population.
During my recent trip to the KRG, I, like the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, visited the Domiz camp, just 40 miles from the Syrian border, where there were 75,000 refugees, including 15,000 children. The Kurds, having experienced centuries of persecution, have welcomed the refugees and assisted them by providing residence permits and work opportunities. Nevertheless, the number of refugees, already at 250,000, is due to increase and that will inevitably put the KRG’s society under strain. In addition to the pragmatic challenges of hosting such large numbers, the geopolitical consequences are also of extreme importance. What happens if Syria breaks up post-Assad? Does the Kurdistan region extend into Syria, with the risk of a domino effect on the millions of Kurds who live in Iran and Turkey?
The third challenge is the genocide. Inexplicably, the genocide against the Kurds, described earlier, has not been recognised internationally, causing a deep sense of grievance among the Kurds. I have said in previous debates in the House on Kurdistan that I have seen there some of the worst places that I have ever seen in my life. When we go to the prisons and to Halabja, we see how the Kurds suffered. Major perpetrators of the chemical gas attacks have not been brought to justice, and some are thought to live freely in Europe. Many of the companies, also from the west, that sold Saddam the materials used to make chemical weapons have not yet faced the criminal courts. In Iraq, the Ba’athist Arab hatred of the Kurds remains strong in some areas, even though in 2008 the Iraqi Parliament recognised the genocide.
In 2013, the Netherlands courts and the House of Commons recognised the genocide. Despite that, it remains incumbent on western Governments to push through a relevant resolution in the United Nations. Recognition would mean that those responsible for war crimes could appear before the international court and compensation and reparation would be given to the KRG. The Kurds are a nation that does not live in the past, but learns from the past. Recognition would help to heal the wounds from many years.
Following last year’s debate, the former Minister for the middle east, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), said:
“I am greatly sympathetic to the motion. The Government do not in any way oppose it and I have no doubt that Parliament will respond to the views expressed in the motion by my hon. Friend”—
that was our hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon—
“I have listened carefully, with whatever compassion I may possess, to the case that has been made. I do not doubt that the Foreign Secretary will read the debate with exactly the same sense. I am sure the Government will find the vote of Parliament helpful when further representations are made, as they will be.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2013; Vol. 559, c. 562-63.]
I believe that our country has made a significant step towards recognition of the genocide of the Kurds and I urge the new Minister in that post to carry that forward.
I said at the beginning that western intervention in Iraq saved a nation from being exterminated, but that is not enough. The free world has a real chance of a new, prosperous, democratic and forward-looking Muslim nation forging ahead. The UK can and must assist the Kurdistan Regional Government in reinforcing their democratic institutions and fulfilling their potential. In the short to medium term, we should enter negotiations with the KRG about the supply of non-lethal security equipment to be used in the fight against terrorism. Kurdistan and the geopolitical challenges that it faces because of the instability in Syria should be considered in any solution that the Government put on the table at the Geneva talks.
In the long term, our efforts should focus on strengthening civil society and the people’s participation in political life. There are already two organisations that run projects in Kurdistan—the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the National School of Government—but much more can be done. As has been suggested, Members of Parliament can lead on that by visiting the region, meeting our Kurdish colleagues and sharing best practice. If the Government invited the President and Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region on an official visit, that would send a strong signal to the Kurds.
Kurdistan has the potential to act as a beacon for the rest of Iraq, to be a force for good in the middle east and to spread these values across the region. Muscular enlightenment means more than deposing dictatorships and stopping mass murder. It means helping to embed the conditions necessary for those evils never to return.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on securing this very important debate. I place on the record my appreciation of all the work that my co-chairman of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), did before my time in this place. The moment I arrived here in 2010, she made a beeline for me to ask me to join the group and, soon after, very generously asked me to co-chair it with her.
It will come as no surprise that I declare a significant interest in the relations between the UK and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am immensely proud to be the first British MP of Kurdish descent. The UK provided a safe haven to my family when Iraq was a dangerous place to be a Kurd.
In the relationships between countries, the past will always have an influence on the present, and although memories of British policies may cause suspicions to linger in some parts of the middle east, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq the UK has generated a huge amount of good will over the past 20 years. From implementing a no-fly zone in 1991 to recognising the Kurdish genocide in this place just last year, the UK has been a long-term friend of the Kurdish people, but we cannot be complacent. As a region with a burgeoning economy and even more potential, it is important that we continue to foster this friendship and the great benefits that it can bring to us both.
Politically, the region is not an easy one to operate in, but Kurdistan has made great strides in cementing democracy and is gradually finding its way in the post-Saddam era, as so eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). The success of recent elections serves as a model for the rest of Iraq in the run-up to the national polls in April.
One of the most prominent, if slightly controversial, diplomatic developments for the Kurdish region in recent years has been its improved relationship with Turkey. As Turkey is one of the UK’s most important trading partners, the benefits of increased understanding between the two should not be underestimated. Not only has the new-found friendship between Turkey and Kurdistan brought increased stability to the region, but the recently completed oil pipeline will, in time, also help to strengthen the security and diversity of European energy supplies. Although the pipeline has been the cause of some tension with Baghdad, its success should not be viewed on a zero-sum basis. KRG Ministers have assured me that they are proactively engaging with Baghdad to establish a new, reliable and robust revenue-sharing agreement through which the whole country can benefit from the Kurdish success.
Equally, although I recognise that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is beginning to take a more proactive approach towards the KRG, he could go further. I hope that the national elections this year will incorporate all groups in governance and further cement federalism. Such progress in resolving these kinds of disputes will not only enhance stability in Iraq, but enable the region to expand as a gateway to the whole country for trade and investment.
Natural resources are not the whole story of Kurdistan. The pipeline is just one area of progress in a region with a fantastic appetite to work with the United Kingdom. As the economy grows, KRG Ministers are actively encouraging British investment and expertise, creating widespread opportunities for British businesses throughout Kurdistan. On my most recent visit to the region, with a number of colleagues who are here, I met the Prime Minister of the region, Nechirvan Barzani. He reiterated his desire to engage with the UK at governmental and corporate levels to help him deliver the next steps in capacity building and infrastructure development.
Education, health and tourism are all sectors in which British expertise is flourishing and can go further. Our British universities, as we have heard today, are already having major success. We are fortunate enough to host a disproportionate number of the KRG’s international scholarship students, who come to the UK to take advantage of our world-class universities. I urge the Minister to look into what more can be done to help British universities attract such students, and to consider what the Government can do to help establish campuses in the Kurdistan region.
Bringing in companies is only one side of a successful commercial relationship. The KRG must play its part in strengthening efficiency, transparency and dispute resolution.
I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on securing this important debate. Does the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) agree that engagement in developing relations with Kurdistan is important not only at national level but among the regions of the UK? Does he agree that the recent visit of KRG representatives to Northern Ireland, where they met the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Invest Northern Ireland, following on from the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Northern Ireland and the KRG, is significant? Local relationships and opportunities for trade and investment co-operation are extremely important and should be encouraged throughout the UK.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The feedback I have had since those significant visits and meetings is that the level of knowledge sharing, especially with Invest Northern Ireland, and the best practices that the Kurdish delegations observed have been incredibly important in helping them to design their investment packages as part of their investment body, which will visit the UK in the coming weeks. The relationship with the regions of the United Kingdom is also flourishing.
In consolidating our position as the partner of choice to this emerging region, the enhancement of our representation in Irbil was vital. I was pleased to hear last week from our consul general in Irbil that real progress is being made in securing our new consulate. We currently operate out of a hotel in Kurdistan, but the new consulate will be built on land provided by the KRG. I would like to take this opportunity to commend my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on all the progress he made in advancing British relations with the Kurdistan region. I am delighted that he has become the vice-chair of the all-party group on Kurdistan. The Foreign Office’s loss is most certainly our gain.
The UK should be rightly proud of the close friendship that it has forged with the Kurdistan region, but as we have heard, we must not get left behind. From France and Germany to Russia and the United Arab Emirates, other countries are realising the opportunities that exist in the region and participating in state visits at the highest level. I add my voice to those of my colleagues who urge the Minister and the Foreign Secretary to visit this wonderful part of Iraq and see the mutual opportunities for themselves. The Kurdistan region is not resting on its laurels, and nor should we.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), and I commend not only the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on securing this timely and appropriate debate, but all the members of the all-party group who have spoken. It is clearly an active and effective group.
The division of Kurdistan, fixed almost by historical accident after the first world war, has posed enormous challenges for the Kurdish people. However, the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war in 1991, which paved the way for the no-fly zone and the autonomy and self-government of the region of Iraqi Kurdistan, delivered to the Kurdish people an enormous opportunity that they have made good use of. They have built a democratic, peaceful and stable society—a nation, really—in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is an example to many other parts of the middle east.
The situation might not have been that way. In the 1990s, the PUK and the KDP were virtually fighting a civil war between different armed peshmerga groups. If we, as Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, think that our coalition is a little bumpy and was difficult to put together, imagine if one of us had been drawing support from Saddam Hussein and the other had been drawing support from Iran, and we had been at war only a few years before. Even so, the PUK and the KDP, for many years, put together a successful coalition. They put aside their differences. They built strong institutions in Iraqi Kurdistan, with help and input from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which assists with institution-building in Kurdistan. The two parties encouraged significant investment in the region, even from investors such as Turkey that might once have been its enemies—as hon. Members have said, Turkey has now become very engaged. The governing coalition also invested significantly in infrastructure. In many ways, the approach was a model one. The two parties managed to achieve all that while respecting the rights of minorities, both religious and ethnic.
When the PUK suffered a setback in recent parliamentary elections in Kurdistan, its supporters did not take to the streets or challenge the results. They did the traditional democratic thing of having a go at their own leaders and looking to their own resources to do better next time. That is a real example to other areas of the middle east. An independence referendum was even held in Kurdistan that garnered virtually 99% support for independence, but Kurdish politicians saw the bigger picture and stepped back from the brink of pressing that case, which is perhaps an example to another political party not a million miles from here.
We should not look at the region through rose-tinted spectacles, however, because there are problems. It might be better for Kurdistan’s image if the Prime Minister were not the nephew of the President. The dominance of the Barzani family is something of a cause for concern, although I stress that both the President and the Prime Minister are respected figures who have attracted a great deal of praise for the way in which they have behaved in office. There are concerns about the human rights situation, particularly the treatment of journalists. I heard what the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said about the movement towards freedom of expression going in the right direction, but there are some real causes for concern, which have been highlighted by Reporters without Borders. In December, for example, Kawa Germyani, editor of Rayal magazine, was murdered. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the British Government will take that matter up with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Female genital mutilation is prevalent, and I know that tackling it is a big priority for the Department for International Development. The Kurdistan National Assembly has made great efforts to tackle violence against women in all its forms.
Another problem, to which hon. Members have referred, is the refugee situation. I believe that DFID has committed some £18 million from its large budget to help refugees and host communities in the region, and it is doing fantastic work with organisations such as UNICEF and Save the Children, but the situation is complicated. Most refugees from Syria who enter Iraq are going into the Kurdistan region. There are even refugees from Iraq in Syria who are trying to return to their homes in Iraq; they have become secondarily displaced because they have not been able to return to their home regions. In camps, settlements and urban areas across Iraq, but mainly in the Kurdistan region, there are still Palestinian refugees who were granted asylum by the previous regime. We can do only so much through aid budgets and assistance. In a sense, the ultimate solution to all these problems is to press the peace processes for Syria, for Israel and Palestine, and across the region.
It is right that we should accentuate the positive in a debate such as this, and I would entirely endorse the requests made by the hon. Member for Colne Valley for greater diplomatic links, reciprocal visits, better trade links, and visa relaxation, particularly in respect of student visas. Of course, I must add to the chorus by recommending the university of Gloucestershire as a potential destination. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who is in the Chamber, would endorse that.
The security situation must be addressed, as the hon. Member for Harlow mentioned. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is already helping the Kurdistan Regional Government to address that, but more can be done. We should do as much as we can to help with the refugee situation on the ground, but there are many things happening in Kurdistan to praise and applaud. It is now an example of what many nations and communities in the middle east could achieve, given peace, democracy, and self-determination.
It has been a pleasure to listen to this extremely well-informed debate on the Kurdistan region. It is testament to the work of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq that so many Members who have taken part in the debate have actually visited the region, learned so much about it and can speak with such breadth of knowledge. It is also interesting that Members have forged relationships with the region through the universities that they represent. We do not always sufficiently appreciate the importance of MPs building relationships with different parts of the world through local contacts and visits.
Before he had to leave, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) made an important point about the regions of the UK. We have here Members from right across the UK. We must deal with Kurdish matters not just at the UK Government level in Whitehall; we MPs must make efforts in our communities and build personal connections. There are Kurds right across the UK, often studying. As we know from the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), in the long term, building strong links over a sustained period will help to create prosperity in Kurdish communities.
I must pay tribute to the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) for securing this debate. It is important that we recognise his service in the Royal Air Force in the 1990s. We must also pay tribute to the people of Kurdistan, who are so grateful for the commitment of the United Kingdom over the past 25 years. When I visited the region last June—I refer to my record in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I found that people were particularly grateful to former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair. The latter has not been mentioned today, but he is extremely highly regarded in the region because of the part he played in safeguarding the role of Kurds in Iraq throughout an extremely difficult period.
We have heard about the progress made in the region. It must have been an extraordinary experience for the hon. Member for Colne Valley to visit a peaceful Kurdistan, after previously making a flying visit, if I may use that phrase. He will have seen the extraordinary progress in the country that I saw, and the appetite there for all things British. I must say to the Minister that the impression that I got—I am sure the Government will agree—is that the door is open and needs only a gentle push as far as UK universities, trade and cultural links are concerned. There can be a strong, vibrant relationship to the benefit of Kurdistan and the UK, if only we give that door a gentle push.
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting the consul general to talk about the progress made even since I visited last June. It was good to hear that we are building better links. We must be conscious of issues such as immigration caps when we are talking about student visas. We can talk consensually about the importance of bringing Kurdish students to the UK, but we must recognise that if we are to impose rough caps, that might affect the ability of our universities to build close contacts with regions such as Kurdistan.
The co-chair of the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), has contributed an enormous amount to the strong relationship between Parliament and the Kurdistan region, and we heard her depth of knowledge on the issue. I would like to pick up on what she said about the Domiz refugee camp, which I visited, as did a number of other Members, and where 75,000 people are living. When I visited, the environment was extraordinarily calm. I had a haircut there, which was very high quality indeed. A meticulous gentleman applied to my hair a strange substance that is not normally applied to it. The community there is working extremely hard in very difficult circumstances, and the UK Government are giving it a great deal of financial support, for which I pay tribute to them. Our consul general is playing an important role in assisting with that support, alongside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Kurdistan Regional Government are also working hard to provide a strong base to support the huge number of refugees that are going into not just the camp but the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about the refugee camp. I am greatly concerned about the 13,000 children there, and the fact that there are only four schools. There are efforts to increase the number of schools so that these children, who have already suffered displaced lives and a great deal of trauma, can continue their education. Does he support my call for the Government to look specifically at supporting the provision of schools for those children?
Absolutely; I would certainly support that call. I visited a school in the camp and spoke to the head teacher. It was quite extraordinary to see the enthusiasm and interest that the children attending the school showed to visitors to the site. We are doing a good job on site, but because of the continuing pressure from the appalling events in Syria, I am afraid that the pressures on Iraqi Kurds in the camps also continue.
I echo my hon. Friend’s point about the fact that Iraq is housing huge numbers of refugees. For reasons I do not really understand, Iraq is not generally referred to as providing support for refugees from Syria, but there is huge pressure on Iraqi Kurdistan from Syrian refugees, and we are doing a lot there. We must recognise that whenever a statement is made.
I ask the Government, as the Labour party has done previously, to consider whether, in a very limited number of cases, they should offer refuge to individuals who have fled Syria and are now in places such as Iraq. There are people who have serious medical difficulties or particularly close family contacts here, and they could be offered direct refuge in the UK. We have pressed the Government previously on this issue. In a limited number of cases that option should be considered, because at present we are not offering any places to those individuals. We should consider doing so, and I ask the Minister to reflect on that.
We heard from the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) about the Anfal, which I heard about on my visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, when I met relatives of individuals who had disappeared in 1988. As I have said before in the House, I remember seeing a TV programme—I think it was “Newsnight”—on the Halabja attacks in the late 1980s, which has stayed with me for ever; it was very powerful indeed. I think we made a lot of progress in our discussions on this subject in the debates that we have had during the last year. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the work that he did. I can report to Members here that after a debate that took place last year, I had some private discussions with him about trying to take this issue forward on a consensual basis—it is clearly not a partisan matter—and we would like to try to continue that process with the new Minister, who is here today.
I know that, as far as the Kurdistan Regional Government are concerned, the recognition of the genocide is a major issue and that there is a strong feeling in the country that there is not the level of international recognition that there should be, so the steps taken by the UK Parliament last year were welcome. They helped to inform the debate, which we need to take further at Governmental level. I am happy to continue the discussions in which the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire played such a positive role.
Of course, the co-chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, does not need any lectures from me about Kurdistan. I simply say to him that as a visitor to Kurdistan—I visited it for a limited period—I was fascinated by the region. It is such an important region, because it has played such an important role in the past 25 years in UK politics. In the context of current events in the middle east, it would be very valuable for all Members to visit Iraqi Kurdistan, whatever their position on it has been in votes in the past 10 years; I know that we have a number of different positions represented in Westminster Hall today. Visiting Iraqi Kurdistan makes a valuable contribution to one’s knowledge of the region, and visiting it would help to inform Members who have not been there about the progress of democracy in the middle east, because it is an important example of a place where progress has been made.
After all, when I was in Erbil, I had the longest political interview that I have ever had on the Rudaw television channel. It was a wide-ranging interrogation on policy across the middle east. I would love to have that on the BBC, but unfortunately the interview went on for longer than “Newsnight”; I think my interview lasted 50 minutes, whereas “Newsnight” has a 45-minute running time. As I say, there is progress in the region on democratic debate.
The citadel referred to by the hon. Member for Colne Valley is an extraordinary historic site. When one says to one’s constituents, “You should go to Iraq for a holiday”, there might be a certain amount of scepticism initially, but that citadel is the longest-occupied site on earth and it is an extraordinary place to visit. I am quite sure that in the future people will go to Erbil, and there is a strong view—is there not?—that we need to work towards introducing direct flights from the UK to the region, so as to facilitate that type of visit for our constituents. I am sure that that would be widely appreciated across the House, both for tourism and for business.
I am afraid that I will have to refer to my university in Wrexham, Glyndwr university, which as we speak is holding discussions with the university in Erbil about possible relationships between them. Again, that shows the appetite in the UK for building relationships with the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. There will be more contact between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the world in the future. The region wants contact with the UK and its different regions. We really need to seize that opportunity and do the best that we can to ensure that we are right at the forefront in pushing at that open door that I referred to earlier.
The Iraqi region of Kurdistan is a very tough neighbourhood indeed. We must remember that it is bordered by Iran on one side and Syria on another, and that Turkey is to the north. Notwithstanding that difficult environment—it is such a difficult political environment, with so much violence, including the violence in the rest of Iraq—there has been real progress in the region, and that is quite extraordinary.
We need to help the Kurdistan Regional Government to build better relations with the Government in Iraq; relations between the two have been the source of some tension. It is also important that we recognise that those tensions continue, particularly over the pipelines that deliver oil from northern Iraq to Turkey. There is a continuing debate over that issue, and I hope that the UK Government will play a positive role in trying to build relations, especially in the context of the election later this year.
We have heard a great deal about the positive nature of the relationship between the region and the UK. I would like to flag up the issue of female genital mutilation, which is still an issue in Kurdistan. We can play a positive role in engaging on that issue with the Kurdistan Regional Government. I think that they would accept that it is an issue on which progress needs to be made. This is a country that is developing a democratic tradition. That has happened there very recently, and it is very important that difficult issues such as this one are addressed in their cultural context.
One of the important players in that process will be the Kurdistan diaspora community in the UK. That community is very important indeed, and they are very active and willing to engage with UK political representatives. I hope that they will engage with more and more MPs to try to get them to recognise the importance of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, and to get more of them involved in the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. That group has achieved a great deal. We have heard about the work being done with universities and businesses locally as a result of the group’s work, and that can only be further developed by having more MPs involved with the group. I am not sure how many of my colleagues in the House will welcome this, but I encourage members of the Kurdish diaspora here to contact their local MP to try to get them involved in the group, because they will then learn about the progress made in the northern region of Iraq, and will also build better links between the UK and the region.
The positive picture that Members and I have painted this morning is testament to our good relations with the region, both under the previous Government and this Government. That picture is one of extraordinary progress. There are still opportunities there, and we need to build on them further. I think that this is an issue that there is not a big political divide over, and the positive picture of the UK in the Kurdistan region provides a massive opportunity for the UK. It is an opportunity that we need to seize.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on securing this debate. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), would have been delighted to respond, but he is travelling on ministerial duties. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) referred to me as the new Minister and this was compounded by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) doing so. I have been Minister of State in the Foreign Office since September 2012, but this part of the world is not my responsibility particularly, which is why there may have been some confusion. It is none the less my pleasure to respond on the Government’s behalf.
The knowledge and insight with which hon. Members have spoken today says much about the strength of our relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, the reasons for which and the significant advantages it brings I will come on to discuss. I pay tribute to hon. and right hon. Members from all parties—and in both Houses—for their work over many years to build relations with the Kurdistan region, not least to the great efforts made by the all-party group.
The hon. Member for Wrexham said that it was up to hon. Members to familiarise themselves with the region. I have not had the advantage of travelling to the region, but having done extensive research for today’s debate, including reading the previous, extraordinarily distinguished debate in the House, I should love to go there and see it for myself—and perhaps even have a similar haircut to the hon. Member for Wrexham, not that the creator of his hairstyle will receive an MBE any time soon. You never know.
APG members have observed great changes—because there have been great changes—in Iraqi Kurdistan, including in its relationship with the UK, and they have made a significant contribution to realising them, which I acknowledge and for which I thank them. It does our Parliament great credit and their efforts do not go unrecognised. We welcome the group’s latest report, which is launched today.
The links between Britain and Iraqi Kurdistan are historic and deep, as we have heard. The recent strength of those links is founded in no small measure on our country’s role in establishing the no-fly zone in 1991, which helped to protect the population from Saddam’s murderous threat. The region is now a stable and prosperous area within a volatile region. I will return to that point, but first I shall say a little more about opportunities to strengthen our relations further, echoing many comments made hon. and right hon. Members.
The people of Iraqi Kurdistan and its Regional Government are ambitious, and opportunities in the region are, as we have heard, striking. Its economy continues to grow impressively. More companies from Britain than from any other EU country are registered in the region and we hope more will follow. British companies are helping to realise its potential in the energy sector. In recent months, two major trade missions have visited the region, led by my noble Friend Lord Marland and by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne respectively.
We recently welcomed the first inward investment mission from the region to London and another will follow this month. As ever, these links benefit from the contribution of the Kurdish community resident in the UK, which now numbers many thousands, and the Kurdistan Regional Government representation here in London.
We have only just begun to realise the commercial potential for the UK and the Kurdistan region, and we cannot take success for granted. That is why we have increased staffing at our consulate general in Erbil and will move to a new permanent building, which, I am glad to report to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), we plan to open in the second half of 2015.
We continue to look for new opportunities in the region. UK Trade and Investment worked with the London office of the Kurdistan Regional Government to host a conference in July 2013 dedicated to tourism in the region. We continue to build strong links in higher education. On her recent trip, Baroness Nicholson took representatives from a range of UK universities to that part of the world.
Some 1,600 postgraduate students came to the UK last year, supported by the Kurdistan Regional Government. As Minister responsible for the Chevening scholarship programme, I am delighted that one of its scholars, Minister Falah Mustafa, is now the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Department of Foreign Relations and recently met my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent.
Recognising the relative safety and security of this region, our travel advice makes a distinction from the rest of Iraq. We are one of the few countries that do not advise against travel to the Kurdistan region. We have also taken steps to make it easier to obtain a UK visa. During his visit in September last year, my noble Friend Lord Marland opened a visa application centre in Erbil, so that applicants no longer have to travel to Baghdad or outside Iraq to submit their applications, although I accept that it is still relatively expensive to submit applications.
Hon. Members spoke about direct flights. I have ever more calls for direct flights around the world, particularly with my responsibilities in Latin and central America; everybody wants direct flights to the UK, and the Kurdistan region is no exception. We share the ambition to see direct flights between London and Erbil and other destinations in Iraq. That requires work to satisfy our security assessments, but I am pleased to say that officials from the Department for Transport visited Erbil in November and we are making good progress with the authorities. It is our hope that Erbil airport, designed by a British architect, will welcome British carriers in the near future.
As I have noted, the security situation in Iraqi Kurdistan compares favourably with much of Iraq and the wider region, but it is not immune from threats. We recognise the ongoing bravery of the security forces who counter the threats of terrorism, and pay tribute to those who lost their life in September in that deplorable act of terrorism in Erbil—thankfully, the first such atrocity for several years. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) rightly spoke about the complex situation in the region regarding refugees.
If the hon. Lady will allow me, I am about to address the points that she made.
The hon. Lady asked what the British Government were doing for the refugees. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow also commented on that. As a result of the horrors in Syria, Syrian refugees continue to flee across the border. I pay tribute to the Kurdish and federal Iraqi authorities, and to the people of the region, for their support to the many people whose lives have been threatened and who have been left displaced and dispossessed. The Department for International Development has given £14.2 million to international efforts supporting Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan region. The UK will make a major contribution to the new UN appeal for Syria at the pledging conference being held today in Kuwait, and we urge other countries to be equally generous. We also welcome the efforts of the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government to encourage Syrian Kurdish groups to agree on participation in Geneva II.
The hon. Member for Wrexham asked specifically about allowing in refugees from that part of the world. He will know that there has been a lively debate about asylum for Syrian refugees, and I will not change the established Government position. I remind him of our major commitment to alleviating suffering in that part of the world. The UK is right at the forefront of this. Following the pledging conference in Kuwait, I am sure that we will maintain that position.
I want to ask about security, because the Minister moved on a little bit too quickly, hence my agitation at that point. When we visited in November, the Interior Minister responsible for security spoke to us about his difficulty in getting support for help and advice about non-lethal security measures. I should like to press the Minister, if not now then perhaps later, to say what more we could do to help with a difficult security situation and to help a Government who are working hard to keep the region safe and who are successful for most of the time.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, and she and other hon. Members will be aware that sales of non-lethal equipment may be subject to the UK’s export licensing controls. Applications for export licences are considered on a case-by-case basis against the criteria, taking into account the circumstances at the time.
Following on from what the hon. Lady says, Iraqi Kurds have a vital role in the stability of Iraq, where terrorist violence claimed nearly 9,000 lives in 2013. We are extremely concerned about the current violence in Anbar province in western Iraq. This Government will stand alongside the Iraqi Government in combating that threat and other terrorist threats across the region. We have made it clear that addressing the threat of terrorism requires support from the local community and an inclusive political process for all Iraqis. We urge Iraqi Kurds to play a full part in Iraq’s democratic future, ensuring that federal elections take place in April on time, fairly and freely. We also hope that overdue provincial elections for the Kurdish region will be held at that time.
We welcome the efforts in 2013 to improve relations between Erbil and Baghdad, including reciprocal visits, which were asked for by a number of hon. Members, by President Barzani and Prime Minister Maliki. We urge both sides to find agreement on how to administer the country’s energy resources and on how to share oil export revenues, and to finalise the 2014 federal budget. Resolving those issues is vital to unlocking much needed investment throughout Iraq. We also hope that a new Kurdistan Regional Government will continue to make progress on human rights in the region. The recent murder of a journalist was a brutal reminder that journalists continue to be targeted, and we call on authorities to bring those responsible to justice.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham raised the murder of Kawa Germyani, about which we have expressed serious concern. He was the editor-in-chief of Rayal magazine and a correspondent for the Sulaymaniyah-based Awena newspaper. He was assassinated outside his home in Kalar on 5 December, which is a brutal reminder that journalists in the region continue to be targeted for reasons related to their work. It is important that the KRG honour their commitment to investigate the attack and to bring those responsible to justice.
The people of the region know only too well the horror of violence and abuse, having suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Members have spoken eloquently today and in the past about the Anfal campaign against Iraq’s Kurds. I am pleased to hear that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has accepted the vice-chairmanship of the all-party group, and our debate on the subject in February 2013 is an example of the House at its best. As he noted on that occasion, the Government have a long-standing position of following a legal process to ascertain whether such atrocities should be designated as an act of genocide, but I reiterate our sympathy for the victims of the Anfal and confirm that we will work with the Kurdistan Regional Government and representatives here on how we can mark Anfal day on 14 April in an appropriate way.
Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to ensure that the British Government do everything that they can to bring to justice the perpetrators of the genocide if they are living in Europe? Will he do the same for the companies that supplied the chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein? Fortunately, the companies are not British; they are from other parts of Europe.
Indeed, we should and will do everything we can to bring to justice perpetrators of any atrocities anywhere in the world, and the companies that have been supplying them illegally. That is what we do as a Government, and we will certainly continue to do so. Reflecting on those past tragedies only emphasises the progress made by Iraqi Kurdistan. We urge Iraqi Kurds to use the example of their history and progress to become a voice of moderation in Iraq and to show what they have done to address discrimination, to protect minorities and to rejuvenate their economy.
In the closing moments I will address the other questions that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon is a fantastic example of someone from that part of the world. He said that he is the first British Member of Parliament of Kurd ancestry, which is a remarkable achievement. There is a lot more he can do, and I would not be surprised if there were some wonderful opportunities for Erbil in Stratford-on-Avon. If we can export “War Horse,” the Michael Morpurgo play, to China, I am sure he can probably export “Wolf Hall” to Erbil. “Wolf Hall” is a play that runs for eight hours and is on in Stratford-on-Avon as we speak, and I know that my hon. Friend is experiencing considerable difficulty in obtaining tickets.
The hon. Members for Cheltenham and for Wrexham talked about women’s rights, particularly in relation to FGM. Since I have been in the House we have not done enough about FGM, which is one of the most abhorrent, despicable things to happen to women, and the thought that it still continues in the UK is absolutely unacceptable.
The Minister is addressing an important topic. Does he agree that we need to send out a clear message not just in the region but across the developing world that the practice of female genital mutilation is totally and utterly unacceptable to try to move those societies away from such a barbaric practice?
Yes, I absolutely do. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Foreign Secretary’s wider initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict, particularly against women. FGM is different, and there is a big initiative in the House, not before time. We have continued to fund various projects run by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to increase participation by female parliamentarians in the Kurdistan Parliament. We continue to support efforts to improve the position of women in Iraqi society, and we are working closely with the UN, the EU and other international partners, but he is right. I find the practice of FGM absolutely abhorrent wherever it is perpetrated. It seems to me to be an ultimate act of violence against very young women and girls who have no choice, and we should continue to be strong wherever in the world we find the practice.
I do not run the Foreign Secretary’s diary, but I am certain that he will have noted the point on high-level visits. The then Minister with responsibility for the middle east, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, visited Erbil in February 2013, and Lord Marland has also visited. Various hon. Members called for more ministerial visits and trade missions—yes, absolutely. I would point out that Ministers under this Government are travelling much more than ever before, and that part of the world should certainly be on their agenda. I welcome the idea that we should invite President Barzani to the UK, and we will factor that in. We heard from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) about President Barzani’s visit to Northern Ireland at the invitation of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in February 2013 and the signing of the memorandum of understanding, which was a very successful trip.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley asked about a UK trade envoy for Iraqi Kurdistan, which is probably under consideration. Such appointments are made by No. 10, which is aware of the opportunities in Iraqi Kurdistan. We have spoken about visas, Anfal and flights. This is one of those remarkable occasions on which I have addressed every single question raised by hon. Members. This debate has been entirely consensual. There is no party political divide, and we agree that the work of the all-party group has been superb and continues to be so. We agree that we need to do much more in the area on education, cultural links and business opportunities. We need to do a lot to remind the world of the horrendous suffering of the Iraqi Kurds, and we need to do more to raise awareness and to alleviate the suffering of many refugees from Syria. The extraordinarily complicated mix in the area is the fallout from what is going on in Syria. On human rights, we need to ensure the safety and freedom of journalists. We want free and fair elections. We want good relations with all the disparate parts of Iraq, and we want to end barbaric practices such as female genital mutilation. We are in a good place and we are doing a lot, but we can always do a lot more. With such an active all-party group, we are in a pretty good place.
Farmland Bird Populations
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I thank Mr Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise this subject here today.
It may seem slightly strange to the casual observer that a Member whose seat is based firmly in the suburbs should raise the subject of farmland birds, but as some colleagues will know—if the Minister did not know before, he will become aware of it not just today, but over the coming months and years—nature and birds have been a passion of mine for a long time. Of course, all these issues are relevant to us all, wherever we live.
I can remember waking up at home in Uxbridge to the sound of skylarks singing. Today I live in the house next door, but I am afraid that the sound of skylarks singing has been replaced by the rather alien shrieks of the ring-necked parakeet. However, I am pleased to say that one does not need to go too far away in the London borough of Hillingdon to go down to Minet park, where one can still hear and see skylarks.
At this time of year, our fields should be golden and alive, but not with the rapeseed and wheat that were everywhere a few months ago; they should be golden with yellowhammers and alive with flocks of other farmland birds and wildlife, waking up for spring. Yellowhammers are normally pretty solitary, but this time of year, as birders will know, they flock together, and when they lift from the stubble in the sun, it is a remarkable sight. I have secured this debate because yellowhammers, skylarks and many other farmland birds are in trouble.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. In my constituency, there have been three initiatives to increase the numbers of yellowhammers: at Calvert’s on Ballybryan road; Lord Dunleath’s estate in Ballywalter; and Martin Hamilton’s in Newtownards. All three projects to increase the number of yellowhammers have happened not only because of the commitment of farmers but because of the shooting organisations, such as the Countryside Alliance and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that a partnership needs to be achieved between landowners and shooting organisations for such initiatives to succeed?
Those organisations have a strong record on farmland birds. I am sometimes a little bit concerned about some of them regarding birds of prey on uplands, but that subject is for another day.
The farmland bird indicator, which is a scientific record of populations, shows that more than half of the UK’s skylarks, yellowhammers, linnets and lapwings have disappeared since the ’70s. Those birds are not the worst affected, because they can survive in other habitats, but species that live mainly on farmland, such as the grey partridge, turtledove, tree sparrow and corn bunting have declined by 85%.
To any hon. Member who wants to follow the changes in population and range of all those different species, I thoroughly recommend the British Trust for Ornithology’s new “Bird Atlas”, which maps out 40 years of data. It is a fantastic piece of science and a wonderful resource. Unfortunately, it paints a gloomy picture regarding farmland birds.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have a particular fondness, as we all do for particular birds, for lapwings. Is he aware of the extraordinary work being done by people such as Philip Merricks? He has proved that, in order to get more than 0.7 chicks per pair fledged, one has to do a lot of intervention and work hard. He has managed to double the rate through good management of the Elmley reserve on the Isle of Sheppey. There are many lessons that we can learn from people like him. I agree with the gloomy reports of the current status of farmland birds that my right hon. Friend talks about, but we can turn that around over the next few years.
I was not aware of that piece of research, but I am aware of its general nature. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for much of the work he did when he was the Minister responsible for biodiversity. It is not always easy, because one cannot always do the things one really wants to do. I know what he does privately as well for farmland birds and for wildlife in general.
We have an opportunity to turn things around in the coming months. We know what the problem is: the main reason for the decline—there are others—is the intensification of farming methods. Changes in cropping patterns have led to a loss of winter stubbles, so the main feeding habitats for many birds, such as finches and buntings, have disappeared or have been greatly reduced. Greater use of pesticides and herbicides has removed critical food resources, and the loss of hedges and other semi-natural habitats, of which we are all aware, has combined with intensive grassland management to take away vital habitats.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this subject, which has been of huge interest to me all my life. Does he accept that one of the great dangers is the monocultures that are creeping into parts of our country, particularly maize? Huge areas are used to grow maize every year to feed energy plants, and that is probably causing more damage to birds and wildlife in those areas than anything else one could imagine.
I am delighted to hear of my hon. Friend’s great interest in the subject over many years. As a farmer himself, what he says exemplifies the fact that many farmers are keen conservationists and can do an awful lot for us; I will go on to that in a little while.
Many of the changes that I have been talking about have been driven by farm incentives under the common agricultural policy, which paid farmers to produce more, and these days, there is also pressure from competition to produce food ever more cheaply, but we know what some of the answers could be. As several of my hon. Friends present have proved, a farmer’s knowledge of his land is second to none. Many farmers leap at the chance to work their land in a way that provides a good habitat for plants and animals. I pay tribute to the many farmers who work tirelessly to conserve and improve habitats. Working with conservation groups, wildlife-friendly farmers have come up with the big three essential elements for farmland birds to thrive: safe nesting sites; invertebrate food for chicks in the spring and summer; and seed food over the winter.
I noticed with interest that in a recent edition of Country Life, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has urged both farmers and gamekeepers to sign up to its action plan for grey partridges—this goes to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—which will help not only that species but other farmland species, and indeed mammals such as the iconic brown hare, which will be the subject of another debate from me.
The answers can be provided by simple solutions. A skylark plot is a tiny patch mown into the centre of a field. It allows birds to enter the thick crops and nest safely away from predators. Skylark plots have raised breeding success by 50%, but they are small enough to have no significant impact on crop yields. Other actions require a bit more effort, but we know that they work.
At the moment, the main tool for improving biodiversity is agri-environment schemes, under which farmers receive money for environmental stewardship. Let me give a couple of examples of the difference they can make. Under such schemes, cirl bunting numbers in south Devon have increased sevenfold, from 118 pairs in 1989 to 862 pairs in 2009. I am certainly showing my age when I say that I can remember going to watch cirl buntings in Buckinghamshire. Now they are completely confined, in England, down in the south-west. That is another example of how species have just disappeared. In Wiltshire and Norfolk, stone curlew numbers have recovered from just 160 pairs in the 1980s to 400 pairs in 2012, thanks to farmers working through agri-environment schemes. When we get the system right, farmers are expert in looking after our natural world.
Other parts of the system have not been quite as effective. The entry level stewardship part of agri-environment has been untargeted—frankly, some farmers have received money for old rope, as far as I, a non-farmer, can see; that is what it looks like to me. There are 65 activities to choose from under the scheme. Many farmers involved in the entry level stewardship have opted for the simplest measures that have the fewest benefits. One example is the low-input grassland option, which entails only modest restrictions on the use of fertiliser and provides few if any benefits to wildlife. The other big problem with environmental stewardship is that it has not been targeted properly. At the top end of the scheme, higher level stewardship has been targeted in 110 areas across England under a set of priority themes, but the entry level has been completely untargeted. That means that farmers can receive money for actions that make no ecological sense for the areas they are farming.
Our money from the common agricultural policy is divided into two parts: pillar one is a direct payment based on land-holding, and pillar two is for rural development, including the agri-environment money. In December, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that it would transfer 12% of CAP funds from direct payments to rural development. The maximum of 15% would have been better, but 12% still provides a hefty £3.5 billion to spend between 2015 and 2020. I would welcome the Minister’s confirmation that the Department seriously intends to increase the transfer to 15% from 2018. Slightly less than £3.1 billion of that money will be spent through the next round of agri-environment spending, known as the new environmental land management scheme. It is a real chance to make good on the two big issues.
The new scheme must be targeted and, when we are talking about farmland birds, farmers need to deliver the big three conservation solutions if they are to receive the money. The Minister will be aware that DEFRA will make its decisions about the design of NELMS over the next few months. It is a great opportunity to design a scheme that will deliver for the environment by supporting farmers in taking the ecological steps that will enhance the value of their land for wildlife and the public at large. I hope that the Minister can assure me that biodiversity will be the top priority of the NELMS scheme. More specifically, I hope he agrees that to deliver the maximum value for money, we need a system that will dish out money only when farmers deliver the core conservation actions along with a system that targets the menu of conservation options to the area involved.
One issue that has not been touched on yet—the right hon. Gentleman might intend to come on to it—is the control of vermin to enhance these projects and help them work. Does he feel that the control of grey-backed crows, magpies and foxes, for example, is an integral part of any programme to help these bird populations grow?
The hon. Gentleman is leading me towards something in which I am not an expert. Obviously there is always a question about vermin, but it is a little more contentious, and I want to keep my comments very much on farmland birds. Like all these actions, vermin control can be a good thing, but it can also be rather contentious and it depends on where one is.
We have to ensure that Natural England has the resources it needs to provide specialist advice to farmers and land managers. Natural England is taking a 26% cut in its overall budget and a 38% cut in the portion of the budget that it manages directly. How will that affect the specialist advice needed to ensure that NELMS is working for our environment?
Finally, I want to touch on the direct payments, as there is an opportunity there as well. The rules for greening direct payments were watered down during the EU negotiations, but the UK can still make a couple of decisions to ensure that the subsidy delivers value for money. Again, we need to see a list of actions for the ecological focus areas that will make a real difference to biodiversity. DEFRA is about to review the cross-compliance rules, which are designed to ensure that farmers abide by the rules before they can make a claim. That includes rules like the retention of hedgerows and protection for sites of special scientific interest. The CAP costs the UK £10.3 billion a year, which is £398 a household. It is only right that we ensure that the money goes to farmers who are sticking by the rules and delivering maximum public benefit. I hope the Minister agrees that the rules need to be strengthened.
If they did not know it before, Members here, and those hopefully reading the debate later, will recognise that I am a committed birder. I have to speak out about biodiversity because it is my passion, but this is about more than a bearded man and his binoculars. Just last week, researchers at the university of Exeter found that moving to a green space had a sustained positive effect on people’s well-being, unlike pay rises or promotions, which only give a short-term boost, however welcome. Connection to nature is vital. Farmers are the stewards of three quarters of our land, so we must ensure that the system helps them deliver a healthy countryside. There are economic implications, too. We know that our farmers need to be competitive to provide affordable food, but we also know that they need help to deliver the wider benefits from their land. We have all heard about the plight of the bumblebee: of the 97 food plants that bumblebees prefer, 76% are in decline. It is not just bees that are vital pollinators. We need to look after the whole of our farmland diversity to help underpin the future of the sector.
This debate is about seizing the opportunities in front of us. Many of the decisions about farm funding have been made—many of them at European level—but the Minister has a chance over the next couple of months to help to create a farming sector that will thrive and fields that are alive with wildlife again. I hope he takes the opportunity to design a system that puts nature at its heart and delivers targeted and efficient support for our nature-friendly farmers. The magical sound of the song flight of the skylark is the quintessential sound of the British countryside, and I sincerely and earnestly want future generations to share in the joy that I and so many others have had in the natural world over the years. It is down to us to ensure that we do everything we can to ensure that that happens.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) on securing this debate. He is passionate about bird life and has been a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for some 50 years, which shows real dedication. I grew up around wildlife on a farm. In Cornwall, we used to get a lot of lapwings, because they often overwintered there. Like him, I have a passion for birds and wildlife, and I want to see the common agricultural policy promoting them.
My right hon. Friend highlighted that the trend in recent decades has been bleak. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs measures how birds fare through the farmland bird index, which is published every year as part of its biodiversity indicator suite. The index looks at 19 widespread species that feed in open farmland during the breeding season, and includes species such as lapwing, grey partridge, greenfinch, wood pigeon, skylark, corn bunting and yellowhammers. The evidence shows that the main decline in the index was from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. While the decline has continued, it has slowed since then.
It should be noted that not all farmland bird species have followed the overall trend. While grey partridge, turtle dove, tree sparrow and corn bunting are among those declining, wood pigeon, jackdaw, goldfinch and stock dove have all shown substantial increases. The wood pigeon, for example, has benefited from the increased availability of food as a result of cropping patterns switching to more oilseed rape, as many farmers could tell us.
The causes for the overall decline are complex and varied, but it is clear that the sharpest rate in decline coincided with major changes in agricultural land management and intensification. First, the switch from spring to autumn sowing of many cereal crops led to a loss of overwinter stubble fields, which has had a major impact on food sources. Secondly, the increased use of agri-chemicals, particularly during the 1970s, played an important part as well. Thirdly, the loss of field margins and hedgerows meant that farmland birds lost not only valuable sources of seed and insect food, particularly over the winter, but suitable nesting habitat. Recently, other natural factors have had an impact, particularly the weather. Many species have been vulnerable to the recent wet summers and cold winters. There is also disease; we know, for example, that trichomonosis has affected the greenfinch.
For some ground-nesting species such as lapwing, and game birds such as grey partridge, we have to acknowledge that predation by foxes and other predators has been a factor. The impact of predation varies between species. For farmland songbirds, for instance, there is little evidence of an effect, perhaps because they often have more than one brood and will re-nest after predation, and are therefore better able to withstand its effects. There is some evidence that predation is likely to have a greater impact on bird populations where habitat is in poor condition, perhaps because it has been degraded through overgrazing; nests may be more exposed and suffer higher loss rates to predators.
Having outlined the causes of the decline and the nature of the problem, I want to say something about what we hope to do, and the possible solutions. Our agri-environment schemes are the principal means of improving habitat for farmland birds in England; they provide funds for farmers to manage the cropped environment and provide additional habitat and food on their farms for farmland birds and other wildlife. Agri-environment measures that benefit birds include providing overwintered stubble, so that there is seed in winter, and wild bird seed mixtures in spring and summer, and the sympathetic management of hedgerows. Today there are about 50,000 farmers in England in agri-environment schemes, representing about 70% of available farmland. As part of the rural development programme for England, we spend about £400 million a year on those schemes.
As I said earlier, although we have stemmed the rate of decline and have turned a corner with respect to some species, we need overall to ask why, having spent a great deal of money in recent years on such countryside stewardship schemes, we have not yet reversed the decline, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), other hon. Members present, and I would want.
The first thing to consider is management options under the stewardship schemes. We would certainly have liked better uptake of management options beneficial to farmland birds. My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip highlighted the weaknesses of the entry-level stewardship scheme in particular. We have looked at ways of encouraging greater uptake of those management options to benefit farmland birds.
In 2013, as a result of the review, we introduced into the schemes specific measures that enable farmers to provide supplementary feeding for birds in winter, to begin to address what is known as the hungry gap between midwinter and early spring, when seed food is depleted and before other food sources become available. That simple measure involves providing seeds on the ground or in hoppers to supplement the seed in stubble and wild bird seed crops. Another new measure that we introduced in 2013 involved leaving the last cut ryegrass silage unharvested, to allow grass to set seed and provide a seed source over winter.
A study by Baker and others published in 2012 for the British Trust for Ornithology showed that there is strong evidence that the provision of winter food resources produces positive effects in relation to the population growth of a number of species. The study results underline the importance of getting farmers to choose those targeted measures that we have already introduced, to deliver the outcomes we need.
Natural England, which administers environmental stewardship, has worked with many conservation bodies to develop farmland bird packages, setting out minimum requirements for the options by which farmers can provide nesting habitat, invertebrate chick food and adult seed food. They have been targeted at areas in England known to hold important populations of farmland birds and have been promoted by Natural England and the RSPB.
The Minister makes a strong argument for the way modern farming can live in harmony with wildlife, and for how environmental schemes can improve bird numbers. All those present for the debate will agree about that. However, he has not touched on habitat destruction through uncontrolled planning and flooding. Is he in conversations with any of his ministerial colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government about whether that aspect of the matter can be tightened up?
It is probably a topic for a separate debate, but my hon. Friend will know that we are considering approaches such as biodiversity offsetting; when planning permission is granted and a habitat is damaged, there would be a process enabling local authorities to put things right somewhere else. There is potential to get that moving and to try to help habitats damaged by development.
Natural England has worked with the RSPB and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to try to improve the working of the ELS scheme. The Campaign for the Farmed Environment has also done a lot to promote good practice. It is a voluntary industry-led initiative, where key industry partners work with environmental groups to encourage farmers to undertake voluntary environmental management. It is funded jointly by the industry and DEFRA, which has committed about £700,000 for this year and next to support its activities. Currently the campaign is promoting skylark and lapwing plots, wild bird seed mix strips, unsprayed overwinter stubbles and winter feeding.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip mentioned the common agricultural policy. As he said, we have gone to a 12% modulation rate. We have also taken the decision to increase the percentage of the pillar two budget spent on agri-environment schemes from 83% to 87%, so increasing the total amount being spent. Between now and 2020 we shall spend well over £3 billion on agri-environment schemes, and I confirm that we intend to review the position in 2016, with a view to moving to a full 15% modulation, subject to sufficient demand for the schemes and to concluding an analysis of the competitiveness of British agriculture.
My right hon. Friend highlighted some of the shortcomings of the ELS, and as he said, we plan for a new environmental land management scheme to replace it. The new scheme will build on the acknowledged successes of the environmental stewardship scheme in a positive way: it will be more targeted and focused. The new proposed mid-tier will identify areas of particular priorities for given objectives and incentivise the right options; we call that the directed option choice.
Biodiversity is among the things that I want to promote as we design NELMS. I want to make sure we have those directed options, so that there must be certain options, from a particular list, that will prioritise the recovery of farmland birds. I want us to look at that closely as we develop the approach. The directed option choice will enable us to encourage farmers to maximise the environmental outcomes on their land, in response to the agreed environmental priorities in their area, rather than simply seeking the lowest-cost or most convenient options. In addition, we shall adopt a landscape-scale approach to establishing NELMS. I hope that that will result in some critical mass and wildlife corridors, and a concentrated improvement in habitats to sustain the recovery of certain bird species.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury and my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, I want to reverse the decline in bird populations, and I do not believe that that is incompatible with continued farming. Many of the measures that can help farmland birds are entirely compatible with modern farming practices. I recently had a meeting with the RSPB, and we discussed some of the good work that they are doing at Hope farm in Cambridgeshire. I hope to visit in the spring; this very morning, my office has been trying to find a date for that.
The number of farmland birds at Hope farm has doubled since 2000, mainly because of land management undertaken through environmental stewardship. A particular success has been the fourfold increase in skylark numbers, which has been achieved simply through skylark plots. The RSPB representatives described to me how during the drilling of a cereal crop the drill is shut off periodically to produce the skylark plots. That is a simple management measure, which does not really affect the profitability of the farm, but has a huge effect on the skylark population. I look forward to my meeting with the RSPB and learning more about that.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend again on obtaining the debate, and reassure him that we shall prioritise biodiversity as we design the new environmental land management scheme.
TfL (Funding and Station Staffing)
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
The subject of this debate is future Government funding for Transport for London and station staffing levels. They are matters of considerable concern to many London MPs, but they do extend beyond the capital. Let me first outline the reasons why we sought this debate.
As a result of the Government’s austerity drive, Transport for London’s general grant will, according to its December 2013 business plan, be cut from £1 billion in 2013-14 to £835 million in 2014-15, reaching a low of £629 million in 2015-16 before recovering slightly to £684 million by 2020-21. On 21 November 2013, London Underground, backed by its owner, TfL, and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced a policy called “Fit For The Future—Stations”, which includes closing every ticket office at all 240 stations, cutting 950 of the 5,750 station staff positions, which equates to a 17% cut, and removing supervisors and senior staff from many stations. At the same time as revealing station staffing cuts and ticket office closures, London Underground announced with a big fanfare a separate policy of 24-hour operation at weekends on some tube lines. The timing of that announcement was greeted by the staff of London Underground and others as quite a cynical move designed to distract attention from the plans to close ticket offices and slash station staff numbers.
The reactions of my constituents have been remarkable, and other Members may have seen the same. People cannot understand why they are paying more in fares while station staff and ticket offices are being cut. I can understand their being perplexed.
On 18 December, the Labour transport spokesman on the Greater London authority, Valerie Shawcross, asked the following question of the Mayor:
“Will you guarantee that all LUL stations will be staffed at all times?”
The Mayor responded by saying that officers were drafting a response that would be available shortly. We still have not had that response. The fact that the Mayor has still not been able to provide an unequivocal answer suggests that that guarantee cannot be given. Following the King’s Cross fire, a legal requirement was introduced that there be a minimum of two staff at every station, but that applies to sub-surface stations only, so the others are extremely vulnerable.
The business plan also sets out that London Underground will cut the frequency of essential maintenance checks, still plans to introduce driverless trains at some unidentified point in future, is not filling posts, despite large numbers of Londoners looking for jobs, and seems to be plugging the gaps in staffing with casual workers more frequently. My constituency has a railway estate and I represent a number of London Underground workers. To be told a month before Christmas that they would not have a job not only shocked them, but caused real consternation and, understandably, considerable anger. The two rail unions that represent staff at London Underground—the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association—rightly consulted their members in the light of representations that they received. On Friday 10 January, the RMT issued the following statement:
“RMT members have voted by 77% for strike action and by an even bigger majority for action short of a strike. The results will now be considered by a meeting of the union’s executive.”
Dates will be set and there will be strike action unless meaningful negotiations with the Mayor take place. RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, said:
“RMT members on London Underground have voted by a massive majority for both strike action and action short of a strike in a dispute which is wholly about cash-led cuts”
“plans that would see the axing of nearly a thousand safety critical jobs and the closure of ticket offices at a time when the tube network is under growing pressure from customer demand and needs more staff and not less to ensure safe and efficient operation.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I must register an interest as a former employee of London Transport, where I worked as a booking clerk. I can certainly confirm that security and safety are most important for station staff when looking after passengers. The cuts will create fear in passengers’ minds and they will be reluctant to use the underground, so that they do not have to face criminals. A few weeks ago at Northfields station in my constituency, a staff member was attacked and it was only because other staff were there to assist that he was saved and a disaster was averted.
My hon. Friend is experienced and knows what it is like to deal with customers face to face on the underground. He knows the insecurities of travellers and staff and outlines a recent, concrete example of what can happen.
Let me finish what Bob Crow said:
“Not only are a thousand posts on the line but staff remaining are going to be forced through the humiliating and degrading experience of re-applying for their own jobs—the same staff who have been hailed as heroes when the tube has faced emergency situations”,
which echoes my hon. Friend’s point. Bob Crow continued:
“That is a kick in the teeth for the loyal and experienced tube workforce who have kept services running safely and efficiently under constant pressure from weight of demand and a creaking and under-resourced infrastructure.”
He also said—I add this as it may prevent some carping or questions later—that before anyone starts
“shouting the odds they should take note of the fact that the turn out in this ballot was higher than the last mayoral and GLA elections and the vote in favour massively outstrips anything that those same politicians can even dream of in terms of a popular mandate.”
Those are the views of rank and file tube workers.
On 9 January, the TSSA issued the following press release:
“A strike ballot of front line station staff was called today by the TSSA rail union in protest at plans to close 260 Tube ticket offices and axe nearly 1,000 jobs.
It gave London Underground seven days notice of a ballot which will start next Friday, January 17 and end on January 27. Any subsequent industrial action could start from February 3 in the event of a yes vote.
Manuel Cortes, general secretary, blamed the ballot on the ‘reckless’ behaviour of London Mayor Boris Johnson who he said was refusing to meet the unions over their genuine fears for safety and security with the wholesale closure of every ticket office.
‘It was the Mayor who came into office in 2008 with a firm pledge to keep open every ticket office on the grounds of keeping passengers safe and secure at all times.
‘Now he wants to scrap the lot, claiming there will be no problems because he will keep staff on station platforms, those that keep their jobs, that is.
‘He wants to scrap permanent station supervisors who are in charge of evacuations and replace them with mobile supervisors who will travel from station to station.
‘But he will not answer the question; “How mobile can you be if all lines are in lockdown because of an emergency and nothing is moving whatsoever?”’.
He called on the Mayor to end his six year ban on meeting the rail unions”—
he has refused to meet them for six years!—
“and to sit down with them instead to work out a solution which would guarantee ‘the safety and protection of all passengers at all times’.”
I repeat what the Mayor said in 2008, which was very specific. He said that there was no
“financial, strategic or common sense”
in the closures that were threatened at the time, and promised:
“We will halt all such ticket office closures immediately”—
That is a broken promise. It is a broken promise not only to the staff, but to the travelling passengers.
Passengers and the general public are anxious. A large poll—a face-to-face survey by Survation of 1,027 London underground users in 23 tube stations—showed widespread concern about the threat of ticket office closures: 71% of London Underground passengers interviewed said that they were “quite concerned” or “very concerned” about their station no longer having staffed ticket offices. Concerns were particularly strong among tourists travelling on the underground, with 81% saying that they would be “quite” or “very concerned” in the event of ticket office closures—no doubt because of their reliance on the offices for general information.
My hon. Friend has called a very important debate today on something that is affecting all our constituents who use the underground. Does he share my particular concern for women who are travelling, perhaps to and from work late at night or with their children? They will not have a sense of safety and security in underground stations and on platforms. They need to have that reassurance that it is safe to travel and that they will have support when they need it, should anything happen.
Safety and security is a critical issue. Later, I will come on to some of the statistics that we have looked at, including research specific to women.
Perhaps the Minister will pass back to the Mayor of London that the same Survation survey found that 49% of underground passengers who were resident in Greater London would be “much less likely” or “somewhat less likely” to vote for a candidate for Mayor of London who went back on a promise to keep ticket offices open. That is what Boris Johnson pledged in his 2008 manifesto. That figure increased to 56% among those who voted for Boris Johnson in the previous election. People feel strongly, and they will be willing to express their concerns at the ballot box in due course. There is also a petition; 20,000 people have signed a 38 Degrees e-petition calling on the Mayor to keep his manifesto promise.
Political opposition to the cuts includes Labour and the Greens, and there has been cross-party support, including from some Liberal Democrat MPs, for early-day motion 787 proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). That sets out the detail of the cuts in an objective fashion, but its conclusion is to call on the Mayor of London to reconsider his proposals and to keep the ticket offices open. One Liberal withdrew his name in due course, but that was a tube line to Damascus conversion as a result of promotion to ministerial office. [Interruption.] I cannot believe that others would do that.
For opposition from the wider community, let me run through some of the broad range of groups that have expressed concerns. The cuts have been opposed by the TUC and by disability organisations, in particular Transport for All, which is the voice for disabled people in London on transport issues, and Disabled People Against Cuts. The National Pensioners Convention has now expressed its concern about the implications of the cuts.
Threats to passenger services are real. Let me run through what the cuts mean in concrete terms. Now, every passenger may depend on staffed ticket offices when the machines are out of order or their Oyster card has stopped working. Under the Mayor’s plans, passengers will have nowhere to turn during such everyday situations. They will have to rely on their Oyster card or contactless payment cards to travel, or they will have to pay higher prices for paper tickets. Passengers will have to buy tickets online, if they can, or at shops, and they will have to find the correct ticket on the self-service machines. Experienced tube workers have said clearly that there are real fears that errors or problems with tickets will no longer be resolved at stations, because there will be no ticket office and of course the shops that sell tickets cannot help with such problems—nor is that their role.
The role of the staff at the station is not only to sell the tickets or clean the station, but to assist the passengers, whether children, women, the disabled or visitors who come to the city and do not understand the workings of the underground system, such as moving through the stations from one platform to another. Staff are guiding passengers. Once they are taken away, individuals and groups will be suffering. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that once the cut has been made, visitors and passengers will feel that they are not getting such services.
My hon. Friend is right that certain categories of passengers will be affected the most. To finish on the subject of tickets, however, the Survation survey found that there was little confidence about relying solely on the automatic ticket-vending machines: 52% said that they had been unable to buy tickets in the past, due to the machine being broken. Obtaining information on the correct price and travel advice are also important, as my hon. Friend says.
New forms of ticket retail have become increasingly available, but surveys have shown that passengers value the face-to-face contact with staff, even for simply navigating around the complex ticket pricing system. The Department for Transport’s own review of ticketing acknowledges Passenger Focus research that found that
“passengers are more confident with ticket offices than any other sales channel of obtaining the best value ticket for their journey”.
In response to announcements in recent years about main line railway ticket office closures and reduced opening hours, Passenger Focus stated that
“passengers really value the presence of staff at stations. Any reduction in ticket-office opening hours and the subsequent withdrawal of booking staff often reduces the overall facilities available at stations… We fear that this could lead to passengers feeling less safe at stations and paying more for their tickets than they should.”
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) in praising him for bringing the subject before the House. I also associate myself with my former colleague in London Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma)—he and I were bus conductors together. I speak from a position of some knowledge in this matter.
None of the tube stations in my constituency are fully accessible. It may not be the duty of station staff to assist people up and down stairs, but it is something that they do, and they do it willingly. How in heaven’s name are people struggling with buggies, on walking sticks or with walking aids going to manage without that good will if the people, however willing, simply are not there?
That is the running theme through all the comments we have had.
The Campaign for Better Transport stated:
“Plans to close ticket offices and cut staff in stations will mean passengers are left to fend for themselves when buying a ticket and will result in people paying over the odds for their journey.”
If there are 17% fewer staff to help passengers, then what? As my hon. Friends have said, staff help with incidents, accidents, advice on what route to take, directions to local venues or addresses, disability access needs, lost property and yes, lost children and everything else, as well as service updates and many more issues that passengers cannot deal with on their own or via a machine. The remaining station staff, to be frank, will be less available to help with travel and other inquiries, because they will be busy helping people to use the ticket machines who would have previously have sought help at the ticket office.
Passengers also need some types of help that a station supervisor has to deal with, in particular the more complex issues for a more senior level of staff. Now there is a station supervisor in every station, but under London Underground’s plans, they will be removed from many stations and responsible for a number of stations instead, so that they might have to travel from another station to help passengers. Staff will be expected to work on several stations over a wider area, so they will be less familiar with the area the station is in and they will often be working in isolation.
There will be an impact on efficiency—all the expert evidence that we have collected says exactly that. Station staff play an important role in keeping the trains moving, such as helping the trains to depart promptly, reporting faults and providing information and advice during service disruption. Station staff work with other London Underground staff, such as drivers and service controllers, to keep the tube running. If there are fewer staff in stations, the train service will suffer. The London Underground plans to remove station supervisors from many stations will slow down service recovery during and after disruption.
Station supervisors also play a critical safety role. London Underground plans that such essential staff will be in charge of several stations at the same time, so they will be unable to deal in person with the many safety incidents and issues. It intends to plug some of the gaps in staff coverage with a casualised work force of agency staff, as well as having office staff who occasionally work on stations, away from their normal duties and with minimal training. In many people’s view, that will compromise safety. I agree.
My hon. Friend has obviously focused on the implications for London. I represent a constituency in the midlands, and my real fear is that if Boris Johnson and London Underground get away with these reckless cuts to staffing on stations on the London Underground network today, it will be the midland main line and other surface railway networks around the country tomorrow. Does my hon. Friend share that fear?
My hon. Friend has made a valuable point. What happens in London is usually the example that is then rolled out to the rest of the country. This issue is critical not just for London but nationally. Ministers have a role in this matter, which should not just be left to the Mayor of London.
There are already issues with station staffing as there have been cuts in the past. In outer London, many stations are already neglected and are not well staffed. Transport for London responded to questions from members of the Greater London assembly on this matter by saying that on average stations have to be closed on 120 occasions a year due to staff shortages.
I apologise for arriving only recently and missing the first part of my hon. Friend’s contribution. Is he aware of the situation facing Finsbury Park station? It is almost unique on the network in having no barriers because of its size, and it is grossly overcrowded, with no step-free access. Without staff, the station would turn from being dangerous into being positively lethal because of the number of people crowding on to the platforms every morning trying to get on to very overcrowded trains. The policy is disastrous.
I know the station concerned. My hon. Friend has campaigned on the matter on a number of occasions, and he has liaised with the staff there. Trade unions have raised the issue as well. It is lunacy to start removing staff from stations such as that one.
We have been here before. Some hon. Members might remember previous debates on the issue, because London Underground management in particular do not have a good track record in anticipating passenger need. Members might remember that after axing 800 staff the previous year, in 2010, London Underground was forced to recruit an additional 300 staff as a result of passenger complaints about safety and security and the campaign that a number of Members who are here today waged alongside the trade unions.
My worry is about safety in all its aspects. I am worried about both preventing and tackling terrorist attacks. Adequate staff numbers are absolutely essential both in preventing terror attacks and dealing with the aftermath when they happen.
We all feel under assault as Londoners at the moment because of what is happening to our emergency services. Through the combination of losing staff from stations and the cuts to the fire service and to policing, we feel as if our emergency services are being stretched to breaking point. If we asked the front-line staff, who are the real experts, they would tell us that as well.
Staff on stations play a role in the prevention of terrorist attacks as well as dealing with the aftermath. It is absolutely ironic that the tube staff who were applauded for their heroism during the London bombings are the ones whose jobs are being cut by the Mayor and who are being treated shabbily in the way in which the announcements are being made. I remember the statement from the Transport for London board in July 2005. I will quote from it now:
“The Board would like to express its heartfelt thanks to all TfL staff who worked so professionally and tirelessly in extremely challenging conditions immediately following the attacks. Their selfless actions to help those who had been injured is a testament to the quality and calibre of public transport workers in London.”
It is those staff whose jobs are now at risk or are to be cut. Their bravery was also praised in the official inquiry into the bombings. I will quote an extract from The Independent in 2010:
“London Underground staff ignored concerns for their own safety and rushed to help victims of the 7/7 bombings, the inquest into the deaths of the 52 people killed heard”.
I will quote a citation for one member of staff, Mr Falayi, who was at Aldgate station, and was told at the inquest:
“You were very brave and I’m sure the efforts you made, despite the risk to yourself, to save and help people there at that dreadful scene will provide some comfort to those who have either lost people or who themselves were dreadfully injured.”
It is those workers who are now going to lose their jobs, and when those jobs go, it will undermine the safety of the travelling public.
It is not just a question of terrorist attacks; there are also operational accidents. One example is people who go on to the line: in September 2012, a member of station staff jumped on to the line to save a child. During the Notting Hill carnival there was an incident in which the car barriers had broken, but as a result of cuts there were no staff to try to ensure that passengers did not go on to a live line. That demonstrates to management that there are heightened risks of that type of accident once staff are removed from stations.
Turning to the issue of security raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), in 2012-13, there were 1,897 incidents of violence on the tube. That number is rising. People have commented on the problems caused by cuts to mainline stations. For example, Anthony Smith, the chief executive of Passenger Focus, has said that
“all our research indicates passengers really like the reassurance only the presence of staff can bring. Taking staff away from stations would represent a very short-term, short-sighted saving.”
The Independent Social Research report of 2009, “Passengers’ Perceptions of Personal Security on Public Transport”, said:
“The presence of uniformed staff provided a sense of order and authority, and gave passengers confidence that anti-social behaviour would be challenged. Women and older people in particular were reassured by staffing initiatives, and often commented that seeing staff on trains, stations and at bus stations made them feel safer.”
I will quote another source, the work done by Kerry Hamilton of the university of East London on women and transport in 2005. Many of us have complimented her on that work, and she said that
“women feel more vulnerable to attack and harassment than men and their greater concern with personal security...This deep concern about personal security has important implications for the design of transport interchanges and waiting areas and for staffing levels...Therefore the quality and level of staffing on vehicles and at bus and rail stations is of vital importance.”
A former colleague, Vera Baird QC, was commissioned by the Labour party to write a report called “Everywoman Safe Everywhere”. That report states:
“A significant number of respondents to the consultation raised concerns about cuts to travel budgets and services and the corresponding impact on that could have on women’s perceptions of safety.”
Removal of station and train staff and the closure of ticket offices were chief among those concerns. A 2012 survey showed that 28% of women and 15% of men do not feel safe using London public transport at all times of the day and night. We have to get that message across somehow to Government Ministers and to the Mayor.
There is also an issue with access. I am worried about the increased problems with accessibility that have been mentioned. Ultimately, a station that is accessible for someone with a disability means a station with staff. There is no cheap and staff-free alternative that protects accessibility. Stations must keep their ticket offices open to facilitate information provision and assistance. That was confirmed by a report into the usability of ticket vending machines by Passenger Focus in 2010, which stated:
“Unsurprisingly, passengers with disabilities can find TVMs difficult and frustrating to use and reported various barriers during the interviews”.
A whole series of people came forward to express their concerns. For example, on people with vision impairments, the report said:
“Using TVMs can present a significant challenge for vision-impaired passengers as the nature of their disability can vary significantly…Vision impairments are all different; some people can see better in less light, some can see better in more light, so it’s difficult.”
People need assistance.
Wheelchair users are extremely worried now about what is going to happen. The overriding issue for them is the lack of accessibility of ticket vending machines. The Passenger Focus report on ticket vending machines stated that even machines that are compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995
“can be difficult for some wheelchair users, particularly those who are elderly or lack the upper body strength or mobility to reach the touch screen. Neither of the wheelchair users was able to position themselves close enough to the TVM to use the touch screen in the same way as other respondents. One attempted a side-on approach which got her closer, but she found the twisting motion required to touch the screen awkward and uncomfortable and she still experienced problems with the reach distance.”
There is a threat to the safety of disabled and older people. I bitterly regret to say that many disabled people have experienced hate crimes at stations, and staff are the key to deterring that abuse.
A Survation survey of 1,031 disabled and older people in April 2013 showed that enhancing personal security and safety was ranked consistently as the most important benefit that staff provide to disabled passengers. The response on CCTV is interesting:
“CCTV cameras can never replace the staff in making passengers feel safe.”
I fully agree. In that survey, 27% of respondents claim to have suffered hate crimes or abuse at railway stations, and 25% said they sometimes or often feel unsafe; nine out of 10 passengers thought station staff were generally polite and helpful. Enhancing personal security and safety was consistently ranked top of the range of benefits that station and train staff provide, and 81% of disabled passengers said that reduced staff numbers would make train travel more difficult for them.
I will not labour the point much longer because other hon. Members want to speak, but let me list some organisations that represent disabled people and to which we should listen. The London Visual Impairment Forum said that staff on London
“underground trains are…excellent…If there are cuts to underground station and ticket office staff this could reduce the assistance offered to blind and partially sighted and other disabled passengers.”
Transport For All expressed its opposition, and cited example after example of different forms of disability requiring a personal touch and understanding by another human being, rather than a machine.
The issue is not only about people with disabilities. People with chronic illnesses could previously have got a black cab or even an ambulance to take them to regular appointments, but that has virtually gone. A constituent who had just come out of hospital collapsed on the platform at Swiss Cottage station, and if there had been no staff there, he would have been left entirely without assistance.
Example after example has been given. Thoughtistic, which represents people on the autistic spectrum, says that some people on that spectrum are not capable of using, or willing to use, automated systems, and respond better to personal intervention.
Example after example has been given and submitted to the Mayor for consideration, but he has ploughed ahead. The argument that has come back is that gateway stations—King’s Cross, St Pancras and Victoria—will have one third more staff, but that means that staff will be cut at another 125 smaller tube stations, with just one member of staff at certain stations at certain times of day.
At the moment, London Underground offers disabled and older passengers a turn-up-and-go assistance service, in which it provides help with buying tickets, planning routes and getting to the right platform, without passengers having to book in advance. That assistance gives thousands of disabled Londoners the confidence to travel. Many believe that that will be lost.
The recent introduction of manual boarding ramps at 35 stations opened up many more routes to wheelchair users, but those ramps depend on a member of staff operating them. If the staff cuts go ahead, fewer staff will be able to operate the ramps on top of other tasks. The cuts will be a nightmare for many people who suddenly saw their world opening up as a result of increased accessibility following investment over the past 15 or 16 years. Now, we are denying them that.
There is a fear that without the fixed point of a staffed ticket office, visually impaired people will find it harder to locate staff to assist them. Passengers at stations other than mainline stations will have to find a member of staff somewhere on the platform, if they can find one at all.
There have been contradictory answers to questions tabled in the London assembly and in Parliament. On 18 December 2013, Labour members of the London assembly tabled written questions asking the Mayor what assessment he had made of the impact of the cuts on women, disabled people and older passengers. The answer on 7 January was that officers are drafting a response that will be sent shortly. That was despite the fact that parliamentary questions had been answered by Ministers; they said that London Underground had carried out a quality impact assessment to identify the impact of the Mayor’s proposals, and that it showed that the changes will be positive or neutral for all equality target groups. Either Ministers have got it right, or the Mayor has. Someone should tell us the truth of what has happened with the Mayor’s overall assessment.
There will be dangers to staff and we should not underestimate that. The cuts pose a significant threat to staff safety and morale. The official documentation presented to the unions on the day when the cuts were announced was pretty damning. It said that not only would 1,000 posts be on the line, but the remaining staff would be forced to reapply for their jobs, and in addition would have to work in conditions that even on London Underground’s own assessment will carry a medium risk to their safety. It also said that employees will be
“confused, demoralized or distracted due to uncertainty…during”
the HR process. It continued:
“Although there are lone supervisors today this proposal would mean employees at a lower grade would be working alone and may increase employee perception of vulnerability, especially for minority groups at particular risk of abuse.”
That is where we are at. The level of cuts will put passengers at risk, demoralise staff and undermine the overall service.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the conversation about cuts, it has been hugely disappointing that the Mayor has had nothing to say about how alternative revenue might be found? He could lift the borrowing requirements for TfL. He could allow local authorities and the Greater London authority to keep 100% of London property taxes; that might be a way of supporting Transport for London. There are alternatives, and we have not heard enough about them. Does he agree?
Not completely. The alternative, as my right hon. Friend said, is investment, growth, and tax collection. Interestingly, today we received a brief from the London assembly arguing for that specifically. My right hon. Friend’s proposal is supported by the London assembly, and the Mayor should listen, as should the Government.
There is an alternative if we invest, but the growth in the number of passengers must be recognised. London Underground faces cuts not because of falling demand, but the opposite. Since 1996, there has been a 60% increase in passenger numbers. Transport for London’s business plan predicts that passenger journeys will rise by 13.7% from 1.273 billion in 2013-14 to 1.448 billion in 2020-21. The same plan predicts that the population growth in London will be to 10 million in 2030. The alternative to cuts is to accept reality, and that sheer passenger demand will require London Underground to take on more staff, not fewer.
In recent decades, various London Underground contracts were taken over by private companies. That has caused public money to leave the system while bureaucracy and inefficiency has increased. Some of those contracts have since returned to the public sector, as hon. Members know, including those relating to Metronet, Jubilee line train maintenance and London Underground’s power supply. TfL saved £56 million by bringing power supply back into London Underground at a lower than expected cost. It expects that to bring significant savings in future years that will more than offset the initial cost.
Re-integrating Metronet has provided London Underground with an ongoing year-on-year saving; it was £53 million in 2012-13. If TfL re-integrated other elements of London Underground that were previously privatised, it would save significant sums of money. That could include tube lines that are in public ownership but not integrated with the rest of the tube. I am talking about cleaning, catering, ticket machine maintenance, engineering contracts, Northern line train maintenance and recruitment.
Let me finally counter some of the arguments that TfL put forward, some of which are bizarre. TfL has said that only 3% of journeys involve a visit to a ticket office, but that is 100,000 people a day. Even if the majority do not visit ticket offices, it is essential that there is a service for those passengers who do. TfL has said that London Underground’s plan will make its staff more visible around the stations. I find that difficult to believe when 950 staff—17% of existing staff—will be removed. Staff will be scattered around the station, rather than at one location.
On redeploying staff from ticket offices, the crux of the matter is that increasing visibility is incompatible with losing the best part of 1,000 front-line jobs that deal with the London travelling public. It is not just those with special needs and disabilities who will be affected by this proposal; every person travelling on the London underground will suffer a degraded level of service as a result of these proposals.
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that others wish to speak in this debate. The Front-Bench spokesmen will begin speaking at 3.40 pm. That leaves us with only half an hour for other Members to participate, so will he please draw his comments to a close?
I will conclude by quickly refuting some more of TfL’s arguments. TfL said that other countries’ underground systems manage without staff or ticket offices. The London underground has won international recognition and awards largely due to having station staff and a good service; many other metros do not. If we level the service down, it will undermine the whole level of service. In Washington, which removed all staff and moved to a fully automated system, the press, after another accident, called the lack of safety the “price of parsimony”. TfL said that new technology means that the London underground needs fewer staff. New technology can improve the London underground, but only if it is used alongside, not instead of, staffing. Too often, TfL uses increased mechanisation as an excuse for getting rid of jobs.
Frankly, we need some clarity on all this. The Minister has a role to play in what goes on in London. This debate is an opportunity for us to ask him to intervene. Will he clarify exactly what the discussions were between the Government and the Mayor that led to the decision to make these cuts in this way? Ministers have a role to play and one thing the Minister could do is impress on the Mayor that there has been no public consultation to date on these cuts. It would be helpful if he joined us and urged the Mayor to consult Londoners. We are making a simple request: listen to Londoners. The Minister might be able to help us get some clarity on the contradictory statements by Ministers and the Mayor on the equality impact assessment.
I am really worried about safety. The Minister has a role to play in meeting the Mayor to look at what assessment has been made of safety in light of the threats of terrorist attacks and the potential for accidents. The Mayor has not met the unions for six years. Will the Minister join us in urging the Mayor to meet the unions? Secretaries of State and Ministers of this Government meet trade unions almost daily, including the TUC, the general secretaries, and others from other unions. The Mayor should at least do that, too. He owes that debt to the unions that represent these staff. The Minister could play a valuable role here. If he does not, London MPs will have to play it. We will join in with those campaigns, with passengers and with trade unions, to try to ensure that the staff are protected and our ticket offices stay open.
I had not planned to speak in this debate, but the picture painted by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) differs in almost every respect from the briefing I have had from London Underground. I hope that the Minister will be able to extract the facts when he responds to the debate.
I am an enormous fan of the London underground. I use the tube all the time and it is by far the easiest way of getting round London. It is quicker than buses and is certainly quicker than a car or taxi. I am someone who gets lost very readily at ground level, but I know exactly where I am on the tube. I have four stations in my constituency. Although they are not underground, they are the last four stations on the District line.
Some 1.2 billion journeys were made on the London underground last year. It is an enormous task to get that many people from A to B efficiently, effectively and safely. There are some 3.5 million journeys every day. I pay tribute to the exceptional standards of customer service provided by London Underground during the London Olympics last year. That was a great success and a feather in its cap. It is planning to introduce a new 24-hour service from 2015, and I know from travelling late at night on the underground that the trains are always full. If someone was not wearing a watch, they would not know that it was late at night; it could be any time of day. There is a demand for the service.
The proposals will see more staff in public areas, which is where the tube customers need them. Several scenarios have been described in which passengers will need personal intervention, help or advice from personnel on the stations—passengers such as women travelling alone at night, of whom I am one. I do not happen to feel unsafe, but some people might. Other scenarios include terrorist attacks, people falling on to the line—it is rare, but unfortunately it does happen from time to time—wheelchair users needing help or advice, someone collapsing or falling ill on a station, and someone who is autistic needing things explained to them if they do not understand. In all those scenarios, what is needed is advice, which is more readily available under these proposals. Staff will be in the ticket hall or on the platforms—in the public areas of the stations—rather than behind glass at the ticket office. In those scenarios, the proposals will be an improvement on the current situation.
As we have heard, there are many ways to buy tickets and only 3% of journeys involve a visit to the ticket office. If there were more staff in the ticket hall who were more accessible and could be spoken to, person to person, passengers’ problems might be resolved without the need to go to the ticket office. London Underground said:
“Our core commitment is that all stations will be staffed and controlled at all times when trains are running and that there will be more staff visible and available to help customers.”
That sounds like the sort of thing that is needed and is an improvement on current circumstances. I am not clear why it is being opposed. The briefing continued:
“The current ‘turn up and go’ assistance service for disabled and visually impaired passengers and the disability training given to staff, will continue.”
One thing puzzles me. I have heard a lot from Opposition Members about staff cuts, but London Underground’s briefing states:
“We have made a firm commitment to the staff affected by these changes that no compulsory redundancies will be made and it is our intention that there will be a job for everyone who wants to stay working with LU and who is willing to embrace change.”
I assume that “embrace change” means transferring from back-office jobs and ticket offices, and being available for passengers in public areas, and that sounds like an improvement to the service. From what I have read, the changes will be an improvement, rather than detrimental. The real point of difference is on whether there will be staff cuts, and the briefing from London Underground says that there will be no compulsory redundancies.
To conclude, I quote the London chamber of commerce and industry, which said:
“London businesses want the Tube to provide the best customer service possible.”
We all want that; everyone would agree on that. It continued:
“In an era where less than three percent of Tube journeys involve a visit to a ticket office, it makes sense that this service is provided by staff at ticket machines and on the gateline, not stuck behind a glass panel. LCCI understands London Underground’s practical reforms will increase the number of staff interacting with the public, no station will be left unstaffed.”
I hope that the Minister will extract the facts from the very different account we have heard, so that we understand exactly what is proposed.
As we have heard, 3.5 million journeys are made on the tube every day. Millions of Londoners use the tube every day, and, next to housing, public transport is one of the most important issues for ordinary Londoners’ health and well-being. Londoners have been fortunate: under the visionary stewardship of Ken Livingstone, first as leader of the Greater London Council and then as Mayor of London, millions were invested in London Underground, to do up stations and for new services—notably the Overground line, of which I am a happy user every day. I pay my respects to the people who staff Haggerston station. I congratulate Sir Peter Hendy, whose stewardship of London Underground in good times and bad has been exemplary. The way he delivered and kept London moving during the Olympics has been noted on all sides. Perhaps one day a statue will be raised to him—by public subscription, of course, not paid for by taxpayers.
Until now, I should have said that Transport for London has been able to withstand the worst that Boris Johnson could try to do to it; but now it is proposed, in one fell swoop and without consultation, to close every single ticket office. I listened to the explanations read from the Transport for London briefing of why that is a good idea; but they sounded like the views of people who do not use the underground. People who use it will have seen the queues outside ticket offices every day, particularly on a Monday morning. What are the people who queue up going to do? People who use the underground will know how often the machines do not work or gobble up money; they will understand that even in a relatively small tube station such as Westminster, there are hundreds of tourists whose first language is not English, who need someone to talk to.
It is all well and good to come to the Chamber and read out the Transport for London briefing; we are talking about the realities of London Underground, and the reality for the people who must use it, whether they are regular commuters, people from out of town or the thousands of tourists who throng through tube stations in zones 1 and 2 every day. As the House has already heard, the millions of London commuters whose fares are being ratcheted up do not understand why they are paying more to travel when the level of service may well come down. It is not enough to say, as Transport for London does, that it is because so many people now use Oyster cards. We need to think about out-of-town business, the elderly and disabled, and tourists, and weigh up the promises that there will be more staff on the stations to help commuters.
The first thing to consider is how commuters see the proposal and how much hostility there is to the closing down of every ticket office on the network. Many members of my family have worked in transport, and I would always argue that London Underground is only as good as its staff. Those staff have in good and bad times shown London Underground exemplary loyalty and a deal of flexibility. On 7/7, they showed how brave and committed they were. What are they being given for all those years of commitment—for building the underground service that still serves Londoners so well? The answer is up to 1,000 job losses and on top of that, and in my view worse, a drive to employ more agency and casualised staff. We are moving away from secure, stable jobs that offer a lifetime career to casualised employment. As a general point, I deplore the hollowing out of London’s economy through the replacement of stable—and, yes, unionised—jobs with casualised agency workers. That cannot be in the interests of a stable society and stable employment in London.
I am a regular user of London Transport services and I bow to no one in my respect for what it has achieved, particularly under a Labour leader and then a Labour Mayor—and I am an admirer of Sir Peter Hendy and all his work. However, passengers and staff oppose the cutting of every ticket office without consultation. All the polling shows that the majority of passengers are unhappy. Boris has yet to explain, certainly to London MPs, how the proposal can possibly improve the service. We know that more and more people are using Oyster cards and that Ken Livingstone introduced a smaller programme of closures when he was the Mayor, but now we face the elimination of every ticket office on the network. That cannot be right. I shall fight the closures on behalf of ordinary Londoners, staff and a London that works—a stable community that offers jobs and life chances to its citizens. That is the only kind of London that has a future in the 21st century.
I repeat my apology for missing the beginning of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I have a brief time to speak, and want to express my admiration for the people who work for London Underground. It carried 4 million passengers in a day during the Olympics, and despite the best advice of the Evening Standard in the run-up to the games the staff performed brilliantly. The service was delivered throughout the Olympic games, as it is every day, by willing staff at all the stations. We should think about that—as should the Mayor.
It is extraordinary for someone to have been the Mayor of a great city such as London for six years but still never to have met the representatives of the people who provide the services for which he is responsible. He has time to meet every banker in the City and to travel to every city in the world, but does not, apparently, have time to invite the union representatives of the people providing TfL services to his office to tell him their views about it. He needs to get a grip on what democratic accountability is about.
I drew attention to Finsbury Park station in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington because it is the one I use the most. Indeed, some of my colleagues in the Chamber today use it too. It is old, busy and getting much busier, and is an interchange between Network Rail and the Piccadilly and Victoria lines. It is not well laid out and was never well designed, and it has no ticket barriers; there is nowhere to put them. There are plans to change the station, but the changes are some years away. That means the station becomes very overcrowded, and frequently in the morning rush hour staff must stand in the street and ask the public not to come in until the numbers on the platform can be reduced. There is no physical way to stop them because of the lack of barriers.
There is a First Capital Connect ticket office and another for London Underground. For reasons that are beyond me, each seems to deal only with its own business. It should be possible for them to deal with each other’s business. The ticket office is very busy, with people making inquiries about Oyster cards, lost Oyster cards, or student travel; there are people using the freedom pass, who may have mislaid it or have a problem using it, and people simply trying to buy tickets or find where to go. They get a good response and good help from the very hard-working staff in that station. If the ticket office is closed, what are they supposed to do? The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) gaily told us that only a small percentage of the total number of travellers will be affected, but as my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said, that is 100,000 people a year, or the equivalent of a bit more than a full Wembley stadium. Would we really have Wembley stadium operating with only ticket machines and no staff? Think about the numbers and the potential for problems by not having fully staffed ticket offices.
When we make this plea, we do so to retain jobs, obviously, and to ensure that the public are properly represented and dealt with in ticket offices. We also do it from the point of view of station safety, because, in the days when not enough staff were at the stations and there were only, quite often, inoperative CCTV cameras inadequately guaranteeing the safety of passengers, the number of assaults went up and the number of passengers at night went down, and the number of people trying to drive in and out of London went up while the number of public transport users went down. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out, if we run a good public transport system that is well staffed and well run, more people use it, our city is less congested, and it has a much better sense of community.
Through the medium of this debate, I make an appeal to the Mayor: think again. Meet the staff representatives, understand what the ticket offices are there for and what they do, and reverse this crazy policy and retain staffed ticket offices on every station, as we have now.
I will be brief, because I appreciate that others want to speak. I make reference not only to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but to my membership of the RMT, TSSA, and ASLEF parliamentary groups— I thank them for the briefings that they have provided for the debate, which are quite different from the briefings from Transport for London, which have been referred to.
I am speaking in this debate because I believe that if the proposals for job cuts and ticket office closures in London go ahead, they will come to areas such as the one I represent next. If those closures are possible in London, where there is massive public opposition and a strong, well organised, trade unionised work force, which, frankly, has a tradition of taking industrial action, that will make it very difficult to fight similar threats in other parts of the country. However, I assure anybody who is listening that we will fight any attempt to reduce staff in other parts of the country, and in Ayrshire in particular.
The reality is that it is in none of our interests to have a transport system that does not have staff and people on it to look after passengers, but that is our current direction of travel, to use a pun. We are talking about approximately 1,000 job losses as a result of the 240 ticket office closures in London, affecting not only ticket office staff but supervisory staff, managerial positions and staff in control rooms. It is happening as part of Government proposals to take staff away from our whole public transport system, and in particular the railways and the tube lines. That is why this debate and this dispute are relevant to every part of the country.
It is common sense that we need people to help us when we use our trains, and we need people on stations to assist us. Whether that involves buying a ticket, finding the appropriate platform, finding a trolley to put a bag on, helping people on to the train or helping them once they are on the train, it is something we all need and something for which I believe there is cross-party support.
I say to everyone in the House that this dispute is not only about London Underground, but about the service that all our constituents receive. We should be sending a very clear message not only to Transport for London and to the Mayor but to Government in this place and throughout these islands that we want a public transport system with people to help us on the platforms, in ticket offices and on trains.
I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that the Minister is a decent man. He regularly uses the District line and is frequently seen on the Wimbledon run, but I fear that he may be seduced by the arguments that we have heard today, which are the same as those used when my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and I were bus conductors. We were told that without conductors, the buses would be safe, but in fact, crime has rocketed on the buses. Does my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) agree that there is real fear, not only about public insecurity and a lack of public safety, but about an increase in crime in unmanned, empty, echoing halls?
I agree with my hon. Friend; I do not think we want to have to deal with machines all the time. We want to have staff to help us in stations and on every part of our transport system. That is why I have spoken today, and I hope that the voice will come very clearly from this place that these proposals are not in anybody’s interests.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on an excellent, powerful and factual contribution, and I shall bear in mind the fact that I have about three minutes.
London underground is not only a London issue—I am a north-east MP and I have great interest in what happens to the underground. This is the nation’s capital. It is where we held the Olympics, and where we have fantastic cultural events, arts and leisure, and international football and rugby games. We have all seen the chaos that often occurs on the underground.
I place on record my thanks to the fantastic work force who work tirelessly 365 days a year to provide the London Underground’s services. They are fantastic. Look at the tourists from across the globe; we want as many people coming to London as possible. We do not want to keep them away for fear of having a dreadful service in London. Look at the people who work on the underground and the valuable contribution that they make to the economy, and yet we think nothing of slashing jobs and stations at the cross of a pen. Millions of ordinary people use the underground as a means of getting across London to work. We have to consider all that.
In the minute or so I have left, I mention that this is not a failing organisation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, passenger journeys on London underground will rise by 13.75%, from 1,273 million to 1,448 million by 2021. London Underground is a flourishing organisation, which needs more staff, better health and safety and a whole new structure to cater for the people who will use the service. I cannot understand how the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) can suggest, even with the best brief in the world, that closing the 240 ticket offices and cutting 950 jobs will be an improvement to the service. Perhaps somebody can explain to me how it will improve it. We need to make sure that the service is top class and stop cutting the jobs, and we need to make sure that the service is there, embracing people from across the globe, and to get to grips with reality.
I have only a minute left to speak, but there are plenty of things that I want to say. I rise to contribute to the debate as a part-time Londoner, even though I represent a constituency 120 miles from the capital. I emphasise that to me this is part of a wider ideological assault on the public sector and on public services. We have heard eloquent testimony today from hon. Members about the contribution that London Underground staff make to ensuring that we have a quality service. We should be proud of and cherish the personal attention that they give members of the public. The Minister should use his good offices to ensure that the Mayor recognises the important role that those staff play and that the Mayor meets their trade union representatives, so that he can hear directly from them and, we hope, they can change his mind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this important debate. He is a tenacious advocate for better public transport and was right to say that London Underground’s quality of service is now under threat.
There are two closely related issues in the debate, and I would like to begin with the question of station staffing levels, because the staffing reductions on the underground weigh heavily on the minds of many Londoners who rely on current levels of customer service to undertake their daily journeys. Of course, that is to say nothing of those Londoners whose jobs are at risk.
Every passenger may experience inconvenience if staffing levels are reduced. How many of us have come across faulty barriers or ticket machines, but have known exactly where to find help? How many of us knew where to go for advice when a service was cancelled, especially late at night? Clearly, it was the ticket office. Just yesterday, I arrived on the platform down at Westminster to find services disrupted, so I could not travel by tube and needed a refund on my Oyster card. I knew that that service would be provided quickly and courteously by staff in the ticket office, and of course it was.
Such experiences are common to us all, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington set out very clearly, we know that Boris Johnson’s plans to close all ticket offices and cut 17% of station staff will hit disabled passengers particularly hard. These are passengers who Transport for All has warned could face new barriers in trying to travel to work, to see friends and family and to get out and about in the capital. According to Transport for London’s own equality impact assessment, customers with dyslexia will be particularly affected, as that is
“a disability that remains hidden when”
“using a ticket office, but would potentially become known when”
“requesting assistance at the ticket machine.”
If stations are left unstaffed, perceptions of safety will be damaged, discouraging some groups of passengers in particular from travelling. TfL’s own equality impact assessment states:
“Concerns about crime and antisocial behaviour tend to affect the travel patterns of women, BAME”—
black, Asian and minority ethnic—
“Londoners, younger people and…those on lower incomes more…than other groups”.
A number of my hon. Friends have described some of the circumstances that demonstrate exactly how important tube workers are in keeping stations safe and feeling safe.
Let us be clear. This is not a carefully managed, gradual transition to new working practices. All the ticket offices are due to close next year. That suggests that it is driven by a political timetable. These proposals are about McNulty-style cuts to the underground instead of putting passengers first. I well understand why my hon. Friends the Members for Derby North (Chris Williamson), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) are worried about the implications for their local rail services. When almost 1,000 station staff are losing their jobs, it is simply not credible for the Mayor to say that that will not lead to any reduction in passenger service and safety standards.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is also a matter of trust? I say that because the Mayor is on record as saying in March 2010:
“This Mayor takes his promises to Londoners extremely seriously. Every station that has a ticket office will continue to have one.”
He made that solemn pledge; he could not have been clearer. This is a matter of trust, is it not?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. I would say that the Mayor has now lost any credibility that he might once have had on this issue. Not only did he make those comments in 2010 but in his 2008 manifesto he was unequivocal:
“We will halt all such ticket office closures immediately.”
I know that the Mayor has had a high-profile falling-out with the Deputy Prime Minister, but perhaps he should have some sympathy with him, because he was photographed signing a petition that called for an end to
“the closure of station ticket offices”
and the reopening of
“those which have already been closed.”
In a particularly florid turn of phrase, the Mayor said at the time:
“Consider the threat has been lifted, annihilated, vaporised, liquidated, exterminated, removed and obliterated as of now”.
He later said to Assembly Members:
“The first and most important point to make is no ticket offices will be closed...They are not going to be closed...The answer to the number of ticket office closures is nil”.
On the very same day, a leaked TfL report revealed that closures were indeed being planned, and in November we had confirmation that all ticket offices were to be shut, so Boris Johnson began as the Mayor who said that he would save every ticket office and he will finish as the Mayor who closes every one of them.
There are other long-term considerations that have to be addressed, including the future of London Overground which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) rightly said, is an excellent service. Services and stations on the West Anglia lines are due to be transferred from Greater Anglia to London Overground next year, and commuters on those lines will be hoping that the promises made on investment and improvements in service quality will be upheld. As the Campaign for Better Transport has powerfully argued, the highly visible improvements that London Overground made in 2007, which included putting more staff on stations, have improved passenger satisfaction, driven up revenue and transformed the image of many local services.
As Ministers help to oversee the transition of the lines, will they satisfy themselves that this round of job losses is not the first step towards returning to the poorly staffed, poorly maintained and threatening stations that characterised the old Silverlink franchise? If this Minister can give that commitment today, this question must surely apply: why take that approach to the overground but not the underground?
Unfortunately, recent relations between the Government and the Mayor’s office do not give us cause to hold out much hope for the future. Several of my hon. Friends have raised concerns about TfL’s funding. The current dispute between the Treasury and the Mayor reflects poorly on both parties, but as Labour Members understand, ordinary Londoners are the ones set to pay the price.
I will give some background. David Goldstone, TfL’s chief finance officer, told London assembly members that
“the Mayor made the decision about the average”
“across all TfL services being at RPI…at that time we understood the travel cards would have the national RPI-plus-1 formula applied. The Chancellor then announced that national rail would be at RPI.”
This has left TfL with a budget shortfall of £13 million to £14 million a year, and the late application of fare rises this year—a result of the confusion between Whitehall and the Mayor’s office—means that the bill could rise to £20 million in 2014. There is an apparent refusal by Treasury Ministers to fund that hole in the Mayor’s budget, and that has naturally led to suspicions that personality politics may be at work.
Can the Minister provide clarification and say whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer informed the Mayor of London that he intended to restrict fare rises to RPI before the announcement was made? Will the Treasury fund the shortfall, and if not, what estimate has he made of the impact on TfL’s services that cuts of this value could have? Is he in contact with the Mayor and the Treasury on this matter, and what representations has he made to them? I hope that the Minister will address those questions and the questions raised by other hon. Members, but the truth is that there are enough questions on this issue and these plans to fill a much longer debate.
With fewer staff available to manage congestion during peak periods, it seems likely that overcrowding will start to have a greater impact on operational performance. Violent crime is unfortunately on the rise on the underground network, and visibility will be reduced, as up to 17% of station staff are set to lose their jobs. Staff will be carrying more expensive equipment as they replace ticket-office functions, which could make them targets for abuse and theft. Of course, the staffing reductions will be much higher at some stations, raising the prospect that individual members of staff could be left in unsafe situations, with little flexibility for back-up, particularly when there are problems on the lines.
However, it does not seem that the Mayor or TfL have planned for these problems, nor does there seem to be an awareness of the practical challenges that unattended ticket machines and barriers pose. We all know that that is not infallible technology and that without constant supervision, disruption can soon mount up for passengers. I am concerned that passengers will not necessarily be able immediately to find staff to help them if they are not in the location where they should be able to find them.
Although most of the matters we have discussed today are the responsibility of the Greater London authority, there is an important role for Ministers in assessing the impact of the planned cuts, clarifying the position on the £20 million black hole in TfL’s budget and ensuring that this chaotic situation never arises again, because Londoners deserve better than this.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this debate on Government funding for TfL and station staffing levels. Let me begin on a consensual note, because that may not carry on through my speech. As the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said, I often use the underground, and I did so this morning. I recognised, as I always do, the valuable role that the workers on the London underground play.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) asked whether I would tackle some of the myths and misinformation that are circulating. I hope that I will be able to reassure her—I am not sure that I will ever be able to reassure all Opposition Members—that the changes will make London underground staff more visible. They will be there to help with ticket barriers, ticket machines and platform safety in a way that has not been seen before.
I understand the fixation on the Mayor, because he is the leader of London. However, Mr Brown, who runs London Underground, meets the unions, and I understand that Sir Peter Hendy has done the same.
I was asked several questions, and I will try to answer some of them in the short time that I have. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington asked me about the response to a parliamentary question about the planned changes. The response stated that according to the equality impact assessment, the changes would be
“positive or neutral for all equality target groups”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 121W.]
That information was provided to us by TfL, which has also guaranteed that it will run an engagement exercise throughout this year with disabled and older people to ensure that they understand exactly how services will continue to be accessible.
The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) spoke about the great achievements of the previous Mayor, but it is important to recognise that under the current Mayor, platform staffing levels have risen by 12% and demand by 23%. The Government recognise that transport is the key to unlocking growth and jobs, and they provide the financial settlement that allows the Mayor to fulfil his responsibilities for transport and operational matters. The Government are providing more than £10 billion to TfL over the current Parliament, which includes more than £4.5 billion to support the tube upgrade. The Jubilee line upgrade has been completed. The Victoria line upgrade features new trains, tracks and signalling and a 21% increase in capacity. The Metropolitan line has a new fleet of air-conditioned trains. The Government have provided the Mayor with a guarantee that enables him to move ahead with the proposed Northern line extension to Battersea. The upgrade of the sub-surface lines, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster and I take a particular interest, will increase overall capacity by 33%. The spending round announcement last summer included a huge commitment of £5.8 billion in capital grant and a further £3.8 billion of borrowing power for TfL to 2021, which will be absolutely crucial to the delivery of Crossrail and the Thameslink project.
The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) challenged the Mayor on trust. Memories are short on so many things; I remember the previous Mayor telling us in 2004 that there would be no increase in fare levels if he were re-elected, but the following January fares went up by a minimum of 4%. One must be careful when talking about trust, because that contention applies as much to Mayor Livingstone as to Mayor Johnson. The hon. Lady questioned me about fares, and the Mayor has said clearly that the extra accommodation that is needed can be found from TfL’s budget by a combination of efficiencies and increased commercial revenue. In the huge budget provided by the Government, there is scope for TfL to find the relatively small amount that the hon. Lady mentioned. The Mayor has decided, quite rightly in my opinion, to hold London fares down to RPI plus zero. I think it will be possible to find the amount required to do that, and it will be sustainable if he continues to deliver efficiencies and value for money and ensures that the money that the Government give to TfL is best spent.
Everybody has pointed out that London continues to grow. We are set to see a further 1.8 million people by the 2030s, which is enough to fill an extra tube train per week. It is quite right therefore that TfL set out its vision for the future of the tube on 21 November. The core commitment at the front of that vision is that all stations will be staffed and controlled when trains are running and there will be more staff visible on platforms and in ticket halls to help customers.
However we look at it, the way in which passengers choose to pay for their travel is changing. That is an incontrovertible fact, even though we may not like the 3% figure. Over the past five years, demand for travel has risen by 23%, but ticket office sales have fallen by 43%. At the same time, to meet customers’ expectations, station staffing needs to increase. The ticket office is not the heart of the station; it is simply a room. The staff are at the heart of a station’s operation. TfL’s vision for London will allow them to be better equipped with technology and information in the ticket halls and at the barriers, so that they can step out of the ticket office and improve customers’ journey experience.
That is an operational matter for TfL. The hon. Gentleman should recognise the key points in TfL’s vision. A 24-hour tube service will run at weekends; the reliability and capacity of the tube will be further improved with new, more frequent trains; there will be enhanced signalling at stations; all tube stations will be controlled and staffed while services are operating; and staff will be more visible. TfL aims to deliver improvements and secure the best value for money.
In addition, the vision contains a commitment to the staff. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster was absolutely right; although some 950 staff work in lightly used ticket offices, the overall decrease in station staff will be less than that, because TfL proposes to create 200 new jobs in ticket halls and on stations. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, TfL has made a commitment to provide a job at London Underground for anyone who wants to continue working there, and the changes will be made with no compulsory redundancies.
Despite the comments about the Mayor, London Underground continues to speak to staff and involve them at various stages of the change. The transformation will create 200 new jobs on top of the significant increase in numbers of staff available in ticket halls, at barriers and on platforms to provide reassurance about safety and to give advice. Those are not the figures portrayed by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. The numbers are available, and I am sure that he will want to look at them.
I am aware that RMT has announced two 48-hour strikes, and I urge the RMT and TSSA leadership to work with TfL to shape the plans. Customers want hassle-free journeys, and they expect customer service that is fit for the 21st century and beyond. With Government investment, the vision for London ensures that the tube will continue to be fit for purpose, safe, affordable and reliable, and that it will meet the expectations of passengers throughout the 21st century.
Manorial Rights (England and Wales)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I welcome the opportunity to debate manorial rights, which are an important issue across the country. In recent years, concerns have been expressed about chancel repairs and manorial rights in Wales and England. As the Minister will know, such rights are ancient. In the case of chancel rights, they include the repair of parish churches, particularly Anglican ones. In the past, manorial rights have covered a number of activities on ancient manorial lands, including shooting, hunting, fishing and mineral extraction.
The matter has been brought to my attention recently when residents of my constituency became aware of overriding rights, often by accident or when ownership of titles changed and, once aware, the new owners attempted to exercise their rights. The problem goes back over decades. Chancel repairs and manorial rights are very much relics of the past. Many such rights go back to the Domesday Book, and others have evolved over many centuries. Often, they have lain dormant while properties have been built, boundaries extended and land use changed. People have bought their properties in good faith. They have paid for legal fees for searches and conveyancing and have not been aware that any overriding rights exist. Many constituents of mine, and people from across the country who have been in touch with me on this issue—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before the Division, I was outlining, by way of introduction, the origins of chancel repairs and manorial rights in Wales and England, and how many people who have become aware of them have done so by accident.
Over many years, Parliament has tried to resolve the issue of land registration. The Land Transfer Act 1875 and the Land Registration Act 1925 sought to update the law on registration. The Land Registration Act 2002 was introduced following a Law Commission and Land Registry report entitled, “Land Registration for the 21st Century”, and many of us thought that that was a great step forward. The 2002 Act sought to simplify and modernise the law on registration. The aim was to provide an accurate picture of title of land, showing more full rights and subsidiary interests affecting the land; it was also designed to provide protection against predatory rights and fake claims.
I understand—the Minister may be able to confirm this—that some 20% of land remains unregistered. The need in the early 2000s was to try to verify ownership.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing a debate on an issue that is causing massive concern in my constituency. I look forward to the Minister’s response, hopefully clarifying some of those issues.
Landowners such as the Williams-Wynn estate in north Wales send letters to people and cause them massive concern and great expense as they consult solicitors because of their worry and because they have no idea what the letters mean. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is irresponsible behaviour and that there should be a proper explanation of what it all means?
Before I do, I just want to outline the foundations of the 2002 Act. It has many positive aspects, such as greater transparency and a clear, up-to-date register, but in recent months it has caused great concern, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) described just now, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who cannot be with us today, has indicated is happening in his area, not least when residents receive letters from the Land Registry. In many cases, that was the first time people knew of any such title or overriding rights.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and my near neighbour on securing this important debate. I agree with him that this situation is an unjust and clear anachronism that needs to be tackled. He will be glad, of course, that our colleague, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM, is meeting the Land Registry to discuss this matter next week. Does he agree that the so-called “Lord Treffos” should be thoroughly ashamed of himself for causing such worry to local people in his constituency and, I am sure, elsewhere, with these entirely unjustified claims, as well as causing them expense and possibly threatening their mortgages and remortgages too? It is a disgrace.
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts what I was going to say about Anglesey and Lord Treffos. I acknowledge that many people have raised this issue with the county council, local councillors and their local Assembly Member, and they have taken it forward. I have raised it a number of times in this House and the most appropriate place to raise it is in this House of Parliament, which confers rights on individuals, including manorial rights, and which should be protecting the rights of individuals.
I will talk about Lord Treffos in a second but, as has been indicated, this issue has caused concern in my own constituency because of Lord Treffos’s claims. However, I have also been contacted over the weekend by people across Wales and England, including the county of Wiltshire, where a community council is concerned about the rights being established—or, rather, it has become aware for the first time of rights being established —over a playing field for young children. There are implications across Wales and England.
That is why I am pleased that the Minister is here in Westminster Hall today to respond to the debate, because this is not just a parochial matter. I will make no apologies for the fact that the purpose of this debate is to gain assurances from the Government that they will alleviate people’s concerns. It is one of the unintended consequences of the Land Registration Act 2002 that people are being distressed because they were unaware of this situation.
An important question is why these manorial rights were not included in original deeds, because many people paid for conveyancing and searches, believed that they had full freehold and were unaware of these overriding rights. In the 21st century, those people need the right protection. I want to examine the role of the Land Registry and how it deals with issuing notices, as well as the legal tone of those notices. Indeed, in my part of the world it is important to note that Welsh language provision was not available when these notices were first sent out, when by statute it should have been available.
I also want to look at the role of the legal authorities, which could perhaps lead in providing collective responses in the future, so that the burden does not fall on individuals. They could also perhaps look to rebalance these rights in favour of the freeholder today, to ensure that—as the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) said—mortgage lenders are aware of the benign nature of these manorial rights, so that they do not consider them to be a restriction on the remortgaging or indeed the sale of properties. I ask the Minister to look very carefully at that issue.
As I say, I make no apologies for briefly highlighting the situation in Anglesey, where there is the ancient title of the Lord Trefoss, which originates from the Bishop of Bangor’s diocese. The title is today held by Stephen Paul Hayes, who I understand purchased it, perfectly legitimately, at an auction in the early 1990s. I now understand that the title, including the manorial rights of hunting, fishing and mineral rights, is up for sale on a website for $45,000. I have also been made aware that a document exists from the district valuer, dating back to 1950, showing that in 1940 the Bishop of Bangor gave the then title to University College of North Wales, now Bangor university, and that the claims of interest in the manor are limited to commons and waste lands within the provision of the law, including the Property Act 1922. I am not a property lawyer, but I make the point clearly that it should be possible for individuals to find out the exact titles, and that information should be included in their deeds. Surely the role of the Land Registry should be to assist individual freeholders and not to put out a generic letter that causes so much concern. In layperson’s terms, any such letter should have explained the reasons for what the Land Registry is doing, as well as the manorial rights and titles.
I will now move on. I realise that we will now finish at about 4.45 pm, so I will try to be brief for the rest of my remarks, so that the Minister can give a full reply to the debate. I want to look at the role of the local authority in Anglesey, because it too has been issued with some of these notices as its land falls within the manorial rights. The first point in the notice that was being distributed by the Land Registry was that the manorial rights being claimed by Lord Trefoss are actually contained within the local authority itself. As Members will know, over the years a lot of responsibilities have been passed from landowners to local authorities, as County Council Acts in the 1800s and various other measures have meant that authorities have taken over services. Today, highways, street lighting and all those main services are provided by the local authority. The local authority could be—in fact, it needs to be—a single body that could object to manorial rights on behalf of a number of households within its jurisdiction. That would be a way forward.
For the benefit of the Minister, I will also examine briefly the role of the Land Registry in the distribution of these notices. The explanatory notes to the notices attempt to clarify the reasons for the notices being issued. However, many people have been so concerned that, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, they have gone—at great cost to themselves—to a solicitor for clarification, because they found the notice to be a little threatening and they were certainly unable to understand it. Also, as I have already said, there has been an issue with the lack of Welsh language provision, which is not acceptable under current statute.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this debate this afternoon. Moving away from his constituency to Derbyshire and my constituency of Erewash, an issue has been raised about land owned by the Duke of Rutland. Regarding the issue of language, however, our local newspaper has come into its own, airing the grievances and concerns of local residents but also allowing the landowner the right of reply, so that he can explain his position. I am sure that my hon. Friend has raised the issue in his area on behalf of his constituents, as he represents them; I continue to do the same for my constituents in Erewash.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Indeed, I am in a similar position, but it should have been the duty of the Land Registry to provide clear and concise notices in the first instance. It is an unintended consequence of previous Acts that this method of informing people has come into being, and in the future I want to see a clearer way by which manorial rights can either be extinguished or at least explained to individuals. We are singing from the same hymn sheet in that regard.
I do not expect the Minister to give full answers today to the questions that I put to him directly, but we have already exchanged letters and he has very courteously given me a lot of the details about this situation. I have also raised this matter with the Leader of the House. The purpose of this debate is to ask the Minister to consider the points that I have raised, and will continue to raise, on behalf of constituents in 4,000 premises in my constituency and, as I have said, many other people throughout Wales and England.
As I have already indicated, the Land Registration Acts of Parliament, including the Land Registration Act 2002, are supposed to provide transparency and clarity on these ancient and in many cases outdated manorial rights. Instead they have caused people confusion, anxiety and distress. That burden could be lifted en bloc if there were the political will to do so. Also, as I have said, the local authority can help.
In future, I want the owners of properties to be comfortable that when they do searches on their properties, these types of rights are identified, and I do not want anybody to be penalised for having a right added to their property deeds. That is because for ordinary people a home is probably the biggest purchase that they will make in their entire life, and they want security for themselves and their family. I feel for them in that regard. I am sure that the Minister will understand the fears and concerns about manorial rights that I have highlighted. He will also understand that those fears have been heightened at a time when we are talking about shale gas exploration in this country. Many people link the two things.
As I have said, I raised the issue of manorial rights with the Leader of the House on 5 December. I welcomed his saying quite clearly that there is no link between the notice of manorial rights and shale gas or oil. He added that
“The Petroleum Act 1988 vests all rights to the nation’s petroleum resources in the Crown.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 1100.]
However, there needs to be further clarification of this issue by the Minister, because many people are uncertain what minerals can be extracted if a mineral right is part of manorial rights. I am sure that the Minister will mention that.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable concern of many constituents throughout the country about chancel repair liability. He will also know that the General Synod of the Church of England recommended phasing that out in 1982, a call that was repeated by the Law Commission in 1985. Would he suggest that, as the October 2013 deadline has passed, the Government should at least set up a parliamentary committee of inquiry to try to sort out all these issues?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been campaigning on behalf of her constituents on this matter as well. I am sure that the Minister heard what she said. That is one way forward that the Government could take, working with the Church Commissioners. Perhaps there will also be an opportunity for a question to the Church Commissioners in the House.
In relation to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, I should like the Minister to reassure people in my area and others that the current status of manorial rights is not regarded as a blight that warrants restriction on lending in future. Does he agree to senior officers of the Land Registry meeting myself and other concerned Members of Parliament to discuss the issues and how they can best be handled and improvements made? Serious errors in my area, with people receiving not just one notice but two, have heightened the anxiety and distress.
Will the Minister consider seriously whether local authorities could make a collective response to the Land Registry on behalf of residents? I know the law is complex, but in the 21st century we should be looking to give greater benefits, to simplify the process, to rebalance property rights away from the unique protection of ancient rights that are often absurd, and to protect today’s property owners for the future. I make that statement today—other hon. Members have spoken in the same vein—to get a positive outcome, not to just raise the issue and let it be.
Many people who have contacted me are receiving notices saying that owners of titles are contesting this matter. It will go on and cause greater anxiety unless the Minister responds in a more positive way and considers changing the laws. The Minister is a reasonable, progressive man and he will understand the genuine concerns raised today about my constituency and on behalf of the people of Wales and England who want to look forward with comfort, having bought their properties and done the right thing, encouraged by this Government and others before them, rather than find themselves with an additional burden regarding rights on their properties. I hope that we can all work together to alleviate those concerns and anxieties and have property laws fit for the 21st century.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this important debate. He raises concerns about manorial rights and the implications for affected property owners of recent changes to the law.
The Land Registry is a non-ministerial Department on behalf of which I am responding today. I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman on any points that I am not able to cover. Perhaps some points are not directly relevant—for example, chancel repair liabilities, which are important and worrying—but I may be able to get a better reply in writing on that to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), and to the hon. Gentleman on his point about local authorities.
Manorial rights are certain rights over land that were specifically preserved when most remnants of the manorial system were abolished in 1926. These rights may take several forms, but include sporting rights and rights to timber, mines and minerals. Until recently, those rights bound the owners and buyers of land, whether they knew about them or not. However, since 13 October 2013, the rights will have bound buyers of registered land only if those rights are noted on the register before the purchase is registered.
One of the aims of the Land Registration Act 2002, which I understand passed through this House without a Division, was to bring more information on to the register of title, so that it formed a more complete record of legal ownership. Manorial rights are a good example of a hidden burden that the policy was designed to expose. The 2002 Act gave the owners of these rights 10 years to bring them on to the register to ensure their continued existence. Naturally, the approach of the 10-year deadline brought forward a number of registrations and, unsurprisingly, issues around these manorial rights have arisen as the owners of the rights have had to consider what to do, and some property owners have been reminded—or perhaps have learned for the first time—that someone is claiming that their property is subject to these rights.
In some cases, landowners have always known that their properties are subject to these rights, either because the rights are referred to in the old title deeds or because they were discovered by their conveyancer when they bought. However, in other cases, these rights were not apparent at the time of purchase, and owners are finding out about them for the first time when they are contacted by the Land Registry. The Land Registry has received more than 73,000 applications to enter a notice claiming manorial rights on properties across England and Wales.
Although I appreciate that letters from the Land Registry have arrived without warning, there is little that it could do about this. It can only notify property owners that an application has been received, resulting in a notice of a claimed right being entered on to the register in respect of their land. The statute requires the notice to be entered. The Land Registry appreciates that it can cause concern and upset when people receive a letter from it saying that a third party has protected a claimed interest. However, that letter gives the property owner an opportunity to consider the issue. The letters give full details of the third party making the application, as well as Land Registry details, so residents can ask for further information if they require it. The Land Registry has worked with applicants to try to ensure that those affected by notices are able to access more information via the applicant.
The letter deals with the main questions that recipients have tended to ask. Recently, it has been updated to take account of feedback from recipients, including those from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, to try and simplify the information as much as possible without making it misleading.
The Land Registry has also produced a guide for property owners that sets out in simple terms what these rights may consist of, and what steps an owner can take if they dispute that the claimed rights affect their land. That guide is available in English and Welsh, both on the Land Registry’s website and from any Land Registry office. However, following discussions with the Land Registry, I confirm that it will now send this guidance out with its initial letter, as a matter of course.
Where an owner disputes that their property is subject to the rights claimed, the Land Registry does what it can to help the parties in the dispute. For example, it encourages the party claiming the rights to produce its evidence at the earliest possible stage, and in many cases that brings the matter to a conclusion. The Land Registry always gives the parties the opportunity to try to resolve their dispute, and the time to do so. In addition, where it can, the Land Registry will try to assist, if asked, by expressing its view, based on the available evidence. However, hon. Members will understand that the registry must, throughout this process, remain strictly impartial.
Where, after negotiation, the notice holder decides to withdraw their notice, the Land Registry arranges for them to lodge a withdrawal. So far, approximately 6,000 properties have been voluntarily released from notices. If it is clear that the parties cannot settle their dispute, the Land Registry is required to send the case to the land registration division of the property chamber first-tier tribunal for a judicial decision. In such cases, the registry has to await, and then act on, the tribunal’s decision.
The registry appreciates that a property dispute can be difficult for both property owners and those claiming legal rights over properties. It has therefore produced a guide about the dispute process and the various stages. That is routinely sent to the parties to disputes who are not legally represented. It is also available on the website and from Land Registry offices.
On the Welsh language, Land Registry policy is to send communications in the recipient’s language of preference, if that is clear from the register. If the language preference appears to be English because there is no contrary indication on the register, communications will be sent in English. If it is apparent from the register or from any subsequent contact that the recipient prefers Welsh, however, the Land Registry will communicate in Welsh. The Land Registry’s website has extensive information in Welsh. It would prefer to continue to try to meet the personal preferences of recipients, rather than send large amounts of material that might not assist its customers.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that there has been quite a lot of publicity suggesting that the existence of manorial rights has caused difficulty in getting property loans. The Land Registry has been monitoring the situation and, where it has been able to contact individuals who may have been affected, those individuals usually, but not always, turn out not to have been affected. We know that in some cases there has been a short delay in granting a loan because of an earlier application by the property owner to remove the notice. The lender would have wished to ensure that any dispute had been resolved before proceeding. In one case, the property owner changed lawyers because of concerns about the advice given, and the change in lawyers enabled the loan to be granted. The Land Registry stands ready to assist anyone else facing similar problems.
The fact that a notice has been entered in the register does not necessarily mean that the right claimed actually exists. Whether the right exists will depend on the facts of the case. Home owners and other landowners remain as free as they were before the legislation to contest a claim. The requirement to enter a notice to protect manorial rights removes uncertainty and unpredictability by making it apparent that such rights are claimed. It is a positive development for property owners in general that such rights have to be recorded on the register and may be lost if they are not recorded. Registration of manorial rights is, of course, distinct from exercising those rights. In the case of mineral rights, to which the hon. Gentleman referred at the end of his remarks, planning consent is required in the normal way.
I am happy to write to hon. Members who have spoken and interjected on the points raised. The registration requirement will ultimately achieve a better balance between the interests of the owners of manorial rights, the interests of those who are subject to the rights, and the interests of those who may at some time in the future purchase a property affected by such rights. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and others who have helped to bring the matter before the House today.
Police and Crime Commissioners and ACPO
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am grateful to have secured this debate, which is timely, as the police and crime commissioners’ decision on the funding of the Association of Chief Police Officers is pending.
ACPO still receives £4 million of public funding. Some £1.2 million of that is provided directly by PCCs to ACPO centrally, with the remainder almost all going to national policing units still overseen by ACPO—something that I and other members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs have repeatedly said is wrong. The Home Office has already ended funding to ACPO, so I hope the Minister will find General Sir Nick Parker’s independent review of ACPO helpful.
The PCCs to whom I have spoken do not in any way interpret recommendation 4, on having a change management programme, as a criticism of the Home Office; rather, they see it as an offer to work with the Home Office to ensure that the transition from ACPO happens, and to provide a final year of funding to do so. The Parker report’s other three recommendations also strongly support the changes to the policing landscape driven by the Home Office, and they will be welcomed by members of the Select Committee, and by many chief constables who are perhaps not part of the ACPO in-group, if I may describe it in that way.
The Parker report’s first three recommendations are central to today’s debate, and I will address them in reverse order. Recommendation 3 states:
“PCCs should seek greater visibility of National Business Area governance and output. Even though the overall responsibility for management is transferring from ACPO to the College of Policing the level of resources that Business Areas consume at local level mean that PCCs remain a major stakeholder.”
The Select Committee would probably also add that Alex Marshall and the College of Policing are in charge. The College of Policing is a new body that will take time to get into its stride, which I believe it is now doing. It is important that chief constables look to Alex Marshall, who is operationally in charge of the college, to provide that leadership, because it now happens through the College of Policing, rather than through ACPO.
Recommendation 3 runs counter to the rearguard action being fought by a number of chief constables; that point is addressed on page 10 of the report, where General Parker refers to the “concerns” from some that
“the wide representation of stakeholders within the College, and the processes necessary to ensure appropriate consideration, may delay the implementation of tactical procedures. Chief Constables should retain an important stake in the speed of decision-making and the priorities set to address issues. This will allow Business Area Heads to ensure timely, credible implementation and, if the situation demands it, provide an effective counter to obfuscation by other stakeholders within the College who may not have responsibility for operational effect.”
That betrays some chief constables’ lack of understanding of how the new policing landscape should operate, and particularly of the role of the College of Policing in running those business areas, and the key role of the police and crime commissioners on the college’s board. As the general says,
“it would be wrong to assume that there is a clear dividing line between policy and practice”.
That is why it is necessary for PCCs to have oversight. The business areas should not just be pushed off on to a professional committee within the College of Policing; the PCCs should be central either in directly managing the business areas or delegating them to ensure appropriate supervision. That is essential, as General Parker emphasises in his report.
The second recommendation is on national units, of which there is a great range. Some are small in what they do, although they are often important, and some are smaller or larger in terms of funding. The general says that we need
“alternative models to governance, funding and support currently provided by ACPO, such as the lead force…to streamline governance and financial accountability by reinvigorating the bilateral contact between forces and each national unit. This will ensure that individual force requirements are met in the most cost effective manner.”
The report continues:
“ACPO does provide important administrative services, particularly in support of national units. It governs some commercial interests and acts as the home for CPOSA. There are alternative solutions, including more widespread use of the lead force model in the case of national units.”
There is a clear model for the direction that that should go in, so the question is how we arrange the transfer over the next year, if the PCCs are kind enough to provide funding and support for the Home Office to oversee it.
Finally—this is key—nobody has any objection to chief constables getting together to discuss matters of mutual interest. That is something that they have done, as the so-called chief constables’ council, within ACPO, using ACPO as the agency to the extent that that was required, but the consensus, certainly in the report, is that the status quo is no longer feasible. General Parker says that we need change that
“shifts responsibilities…to the College of Policing and other appropriate bodies, one of which must represent senior…operational leadership at the national level”.
ACPO will therefore have no further role in that. I emphasise that responsibility is shifting to other appropriate bodies, one of which will provide a central focus at the national level and can act as a forum for the senior leadership of the police service.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He rightly quotes at length the Parker review, which praises the historic work of ACPO, recommends a collective national policing function to conduct operational and managerial co-ordination, and argues for reform. It has been embraced by ACPO and supported by the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, which are now collaborating in a transitional board. Does he accept the importance of a focus akin to that which ACPO has provided historically? Whatever the future reforms, there should be that focus on the effective co-ordination of operational and managerial delivery. Is that not key to the safety and security of the communities that we represent?
What is key for our communities is democratic oversight. As I said in my maiden speech, if Labour is now not the party of democratic oversight, which the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has an honourable record in pushing, but of ACPO, then it can stand on that basis, but that is a sad change. I am not sure whether, in the shadow Minister’s remarks, there was a degree of confusion between ACPO and the National Police Coordination Centre, in terms of that national co-ordinating role during times of crisis—the most obvious recent example is the riots. Everyone agrees that that role is required, but we need appropriate oversight of that, and there is appropriate oversight in that centre. The president of ACPO does not have direction and control; he is one of a number of people serving on the new body, which includes representation from the Cabinet Office and the Home Office. That is the right model.
It is perfectly fine to discuss and develop the idea of whether chief constables need a collective view, and whether or not the body should be called the chief constables’ council. The traditional tripartite model involves the chief constable and the police authority locally, and the Home Office setting the national framework. Unfortunately, over several decades, ACPO began undemocratically to set that national framework centrally, when it is much more appropriate for such things to be delivered locally and with democratic oversight. If there is to be a chief constables’ council, which is perfectly sensible, it should be run by a part-time chair elected by the members—even ACPO was run in that way before 2003. There is no need for some great legal entity and superstructure that has human resources, finance and legal functions; it can operate like the other business areas. The elected chair could use his staff officer and a number of officers within the local force as appropriate, with the costs falling as they lie with the business area. That is the appropriate model, which would allow chief constables to work together, with the chair speaking on their behalf when appropriate. That is all that is required, and we must be sure that the transition does not allow a revamped ACPO to return from the dead.
I will be brief, as the Minister has to speak, and I know that other colleagues also want to contribute. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and to congratulate the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) on initiating the debate. He is a true original thinker on the Select Committee on Home Affairs as far as policing is concerned. Throughout the incredible change that has been organised by the Government and the new landscape of policing, he has pushed the Select Committee in the right direction when we have probed the changes. I am happy to remind the House that the Select Committee is investigating how police and crime commissioners and chief constables work together. As part of that, we will have our say on what is left of ACPO in the new landscape.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that chief constables have a different role from the one that has developed over the past few years. They are not supposed to be involved in making policy, although the Home Affairs Committee has on many occasions called on ACPO to give us views on policy. That changes in this new landscape, which I am on the record as saying I am excited about, but it has not yet settled. The hon. Gentleman is saying that when it has settled, chief constables will have a role to play, but it will not be the traditional role that developed under ACPO. It should be a new role. I am sure that the Select Committee will consider those points when we come to make recommendations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), who gave an excellent summary. He and I have often taken up this issue on the Select Committee, because it does matter.
When I talk to experts in policing structures from around the world and they look at how ACPO works, they are often shocked at the amount of power that has accumulated without oversight and without deliberate intention. Nobody would deny that there is a role for operational discussion between chief constables, but far more than that has been accumulated and gone into the new structure, as I have seen in many cases. Several years ago, the Cambridgeshire police authority was told that it had to agree a particular policy on Tasers, because it had been mandated by ACPO. The police authority should have known better than to accept the policy, but that is what it was told, in writing, from the chief constable at the time. That is simply inappropriate. It is not up to ACPO to set that sort of policy.
The Parker review is deeply critical on several points, as was summarised by my hon. Friend. Some things have been annoying many of us for a long time, such as the fact that it is a private limited company and exempt from freedom of information requests. In fairness, the president, who is on the parliamentary estate today, has highlighted those as things that he would like to change, but I have not seen them change yet. We have the opportunity to change things now as a result of the Parker review, the new College of Policing, the bringing of a good evidence-based environment to policing, and the changes around police and crime commissioners.
PCCs now have the right to choose what model they would like. It is obviously their choice to make, but I hope that they consider the sort of model outlined by my hon. Friend. I say yes to a chief constables’ council, yes to a place for chief constables to talk, engage and interact, and yes to it having a part-time chair, who should have support and be able to be involved with operational policing. ACPO should be trimmed down, with far more responsibilities lying with accountable bodies, and far less of the power that it has accumulated. Many people at ACPO have worked hard and with the best of intentions, but it has not been accountable, and it has led to a few people collecting a huge amount of power.
I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless). ACPO was let off lightly in General Parker’s review. It is a failed institution that is bordering on corrupt. It has myriad conflicts of interest and lacks transparency. General Parker’s review is excellent, but it failed to identify and to nail the heart of the problems at ACPO, which come from a group of men, largely, protecting their jobs over decades.
I will not withdraw it. An organisation that offers jobs to ex-officers without following the procurement processes that it created displays a form of corruption. It is a club working in its own interests. The report does not identify that, just as it does not identify the organisation’s moral vacuum. There have been many challenges to our police service, but has this organisation reviewed the issue of better leadership, or what should be done? Has it looked at how many women are in the senior leadership of our police forces? Has it looked at ethnic minorities? Has it challenged itself? Has it looked at new entrants into the forces? Has it looked at why white males largely dominate the senior positions within our police? It has not. For those reasons, we should draw a line under ACPO. The PCCs should not give this organisation a penny piece beyond some transitional funding. The Home Office should be much more focused on ensuring that any money that it pays for ongoing projects does not seep over into the overall running of this organisation. ACPO is finished and should be wound up; the sort of organisation outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood sounds like just the ticket for a new, more transparent period of policing.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. It was also a particular pleasure to hear some thoughtful and trenchant views in the course of this short debate. Those who spoke, most of whom are members of the Home Affairs Committee, have thought about the subject deeply and long. Furthermore, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chair of the Select Committee, said that a report is gestating; as ever, we look forward to its birth. I was especially grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that he was “excited” about the new policing landscape. There were many reasons why we conducted such a widespread and radical reform of the police. It was extremely necessary to improve policing in this country. It is an uncovenanted and added bonus that it excites the Chair of the Select Committee.
The time is right, amid all this change, to look again at the role of ACPO to ensure that it has adapted to the massive change and reform programme introduced by the Government, because the whole of the policing landscape has been reformed. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), who introduced the debate so thoughtfully, police and crime commissioners have given communities a greater say in policing and introduced new lines of accountability for chief constables. Also, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has been strengthened to ensure the highest standards of police integrity, which is clearly an ever more important reform; the National Crime Agency has been created to lead the fight against serious and organised crime; the inspectorate of constabulary has been made more independent; and the College of Policing has been established to provide professional standards for policing. It is therefore essential that ACPO’s functions are now delivered within the ethos of the new policing landscape.
In the short time—a little more than a year—that PCCs have been in office, they have innovated by developing strategies to tackle drug and alcohol misuse and the problem of people with mental health problems being held in custody cells; they have worked with young people to improve engagement; and they have driven innovation in technology to improve policing. They have done all that while holding their forces to account and scrutinising police performance. Many PCCs have wasted no time in introducing new processes to hold chief constables to account for the delivery of the PCC-prepared police and crime plans and in driving value for money. All that has fundamentally changed the accountability process in and governance of policing for the better. I am grateful for the endorsement of that change in the tone of the debate so far.
PCCs have reviewed the role and remit of ACPO within that new context—this is essential, and I very much welcome it. Various hon. Members have talked about the Parker review, which demonstrates that PCCs are providing an impetus to reform at the national as well as the local level. They are of course innovating and delivering policing more efficiently in each of their individual areas, and not only have they brought real local accountability to how chief constables and their forces perform, but they are working hard to ensure that their local communities have a stronger voice in policing.
Everything is happening against the economic and fiscal background with which we are familiar. In the current climate, it is essential to drive innovation and transformation that deliver value for money, so that savings can be made and priority given to front-line policing. PCCs are doing this at the same time as they are delivering against their national responsibilities, which I hope is putting an end to the view of some people that that is a weakness of PCCs. I think that it is a strength.
I now turn in some detail to the Parker review. As Sir Nick Parker said in a review undertaken on behalf of PCCs, not of the Home Office, there are frustrations with the lack of transparency in ACPO funding and with the inadequacy of audit and performance monitoring. Sir Nick said that
“these arise out of ACPO’s undoubtedly complex and unorthodox structure.”
There is a variety of governance mechanisms across the full range of ACPO’s functions, and its status is unusual, in that it is a company limited by guarantee rather than a public body. We have heard some of those frustrations aired in the Chamber today.
To be fair to the president of ACPO, Sir Hugh Orde—I am a great fan of his and the way in which he conducts his policing—he said that he was very uncomfortable with being in a company limited by guarantee. He had torn what little hair he had left off his head in order to find alternatives.
Absolutely. The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right to make that point. I am conscious that Sir Hugh Orde has thought as much about these matters as anyone else and has, as one would expect, come to thoughtful conclusions.
I support the broad direction of travel of the Parker review, and I was pleased that PCCs had taken collective action to review the role and functions of ACPO. I was also pleased the review recognised the need for efficiencies and for deriving maximum value for money from services that are currently provided under ACPO.
The PCCs have a vital role in ensuring that there is a national forum in which chief constables may come together to co-ordinate what they see as their needs at the national level. We all agree that that is an essential function. As the review recognises, crucially, the majority of ACPO functions have now transferred to the College of Policing. We are using the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill to give the college the power to set standards. It will be for the college to provide leadership for the whole of policing in future.
The Minister is absolutely right to highlight the role of the College of Policing in providing standards and leadership. It is also important to evidence-informed policing and to developing new approaches that were not seen in the previous policing landscape. Will he talk about that role as well?
Indeed. My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am about to come on to the college and its vital, central role in future, but first I will point out the one part of the Parker review with which I disagree: the need for a centralised change management programme for police reform, potentially run from the Home Office. That is exactly what we do not need and is very much against the ethos of the more accountable, locally driven and bottom-up police service that we are introducing. That is one of the reasons why I am so glad that the PCCs have grasped the nettle of reform themselves, because it shows that we do not need a small group in the Home Office driving all change.
The PCCs I have spoken to do not interpret the report in that way. I can see how the Minister might, reading it broadly, but that has not been their interpretation, to the extent that change management is needed and the Home Office’s co-operation with that is desired. I believe that is an issue for the transitional final year funding that PCCs are prepared to offer to help the Home Office to ensure that ACPO’s functions are wound down and that the appropriate transition is made.
Absolutely. I thought that that was what I had said. I am conscious that PCCs want to do that. I am not saying that there is no role for the Home Office—there is of course a role for it, and we have a very senior official sitting on the transition committee precisely so that the legitimate interest that the Home Office has in the process can be represented at this vital time of change.
I have been invited to talk about the College of Policing, however, so I will. We saw before Christmas with the code of ethics that the media and the public are increasingly—and rightly—looking to the college to speak boldly on how it believes the police should response to press and public concerns, in the way that, in the past, they would have looked to ACPO. The college has taken on much that we used to look to ACPO to provide—setting out the case for change, providing leadership and enabling police forces to provide a more effective service to their communities.
In future, we will be looking to the college as the body responsible for developing a better police force, for identifying the challenges that policing faces and for setting out how those challenges should be met. In future the college will come up with the big ideas for reforms to improve the way policing is delivered. I expect to see the college providing dynamic leadership in the face of a wide range of challenges, including reducing bureaucracy, increasing officer discretion and driving the modernisation of the police.
To achieve all that, the college will need to be visible not just to the few at the top of the police or to the many thousands working in policing but—perhaps most important of all—to the general public, without whom the police could not be effective. We have always had a model of policing by consent. The famous dictum of Robert Peel, that the
“police are the public and the public are the police”
needs constant reinvention in every age. It will be to the college that Governments, the police and the public will look to interpret how we achieve that hugely desirable end, which has always been at the heart of British policing, in the 21st century.
We have talked about accountability today, and I agree that it is important. The college is accountable through its board, with a far greater range of people from right across policing responsible for taking decisions about the way the college works. It will also be accountable to Parliament for the standards it sets.
It is one difference, but the most important difference, and the next thing I was going to say, is how inclusive the college is. It is for the whole of policing: officers, staff, special constables and volunteers. There is a wide range of people on the college board as well as on its professional committee. As my hon. Friend says, that rightly includes PCCs, who are themselves directly elected.
The college is new and new organisations need time to get their strategy and structures in place, and to make sure that they have the right people in post to deliver their aims, but there has already been huge progress. In September, the college published its strategic intent, inviting views on its strategy, including on whether police officers and staff should pay a fee to join. In October, it consulted on the code of ethics for police officers and members of police staff. While we are debating the changes to ACPO here today, the college is working through its longer term structures and developing its commercial strategy. All that is being progressed alongside the work the college is doing on direct entry, on the threshold tests linking pay to skills, on police digitisation and on freeing up police time. It is essential that everyone not only gives the college time to develop but supports it in that development. It will be a vital institution for the future success of policing in this country.
We should all recognise that it will not be some diktat from the Home Office or lever pulled by the Policing Minister that will bring about reform. We need to work in partnership with police and crime commissioners and chief constables to ensure that the model for the future is the right one. We continue to take a strong interest and financially to support those critical national functions that chief constables undertake and must continue to deliver, namely those where operational co-ordination is needed on national issues. Critical national functions including the national police co-ordination centre and the ACPO criminal records office must continue so that we safeguard work on, for example, the sharing of international criminal information across the EU and the rest of the world—clearly an area of increasing importance to the police.
Sir Nick Parker’s review was comprehensive and looked at the future of ACPO in the round. It concluded that reform was needed to ensure that chief constables have a forum with functions and structures that fit the new police reform landscape. I support that objective. The changes to the policing landscape that followed the publication of the review of ACPO will take time to unfold. Once those changes take place, it will be essential that they work. We have already seen the changes the Government have made to this part of the policing landscape through the creation of the college. Those changes have worked because they have been supported by all parts of policing—by chief constables, PCCs, the Police Superintendents Association, the Police Federation and those trade unions that have members who are police staff. The changes to ACPO need to be worked through in exactly the same way.
I am grateful to ACPO and its members. Chief constables have shown the ability to adapt and evolve to meet new challenges. That pragmatic, reforming approach will need to continue as police reform and, in particular, a sharper focus on public accountability and transparency continue to drive change across the policing landscape.
Question put and agreed to.