House of Commons
Tuesday 21 January 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in the present Parliament for the Borough constituency of Wythenshawe and Sale East, in the room of the Right Honourable Paul Gerard Goggins, deceased.—(Ms Winterton.)
Hertfordshire County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [Lords]
Bill read the Third time and passed, without amendment.
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Christians (Middle East)
1. What steps his Department is taking to protect minority Christian communities in the middle east. (902063)
Government Ministers regularly speak out against abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief. I met minority Christian communities in Egypt in December and in Algeria during my visit there last week precisely to highlight this issue.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the plight of Christians in Iraq, which often goes unreported in the western media. The scale of the exodus of Christians owing to sectarian violence is unprecedented and those who remain often flee to Kurdish-controlled areas to escape violence in Baghdad. However, although they are physically safer in places such as Irbil, they are struggling to survive. What steps is the Department taking to encourage the Iraqi Government to protect Christians in that country and to improve their security?
My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct. The security situation of Iraq’s Christians, and indeed other minorities, remains precarious. We continually urge the Iraqi Government, through ministerial contacts and by all other means, to protect all communities and to deal appropriately with those who are found responsible for acts of violence and intimidation because of political, ethnic or religious affiliation.
The Geneva II peace conference for Syria is taking place tomorrow. What actions are the UK Government going to take to ensure that the voices of Christians and other religious minorities are heard during those negotiations, to ensure that freedom of religion and belief are enshrined in any new constitution?
The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue, and it has been a key concern for the Foreign Secretary and all involved on behalf of the Government. We have absolutely urged the coalition to make sure it is broad based and includes Christians who it will bring to Geneva II. Our hope is that that will be achieved.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that persecution of Christians is also continuing unabated in Iran, with reports of Christians being lashed for drinking communion wine, having their homes raided and having Bibles confiscated? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the particular case of Maryam Naghash Zargaran, who last year received a sentence of four years of imprisonment on account of her Christian beliefs and whose health is now reported as deteriorating? Will my right hon. Friend take up her case with the Iranians?
I certainly will, and my hon. Friend correctly highlights the serious position of Christians, and indeed of other minorities, in Iran. It is important to remember that despite the very welcome unfreezing that is going on in some areas, in other areas little or nothing has changed, and that will very much be part of the negotiations as we move forward.
The Minister will be aware that the last three years have proved among the most difficult for Christians right across the region. What specific steps is the Minister taking to point out consistently that tackling the persecution of Christians in the region is fundamental to the UK Government’s approach to dealing with issues of toleration?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise an issue that is often raised in correspondence that Members from across the House send into the Foreign Office. As a result of that, I have made a particular point of going to visit Christian communities in order to highlight their concerns and to ensure that the Governments in many of those countries know we care about those concerns. I had a very good visit with the Coptic community in Egypt the week before Christmas and, as I said in my answer, I have just been to see the Christian community in Algeria during my visit there. I will continue to do that and also to examine with the Churches, and in particular with people such as the Archbishop, with whom I had a conversation about this over Christmas, what more we can do to work better with them.
Our relations with Pakistan remain strong, and we pay tribute to the people of Pakistan in their struggle against recent terrorist violence. Last June, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was the first foreign Head of Government to visit Pakistan after its new Government took office.
Does the Minister agree that Pakistan’s long-term economic future depends not on more aid, but on more trade and, especially, on improved European Union market access? Does he also agree that Pakistan’s recent joining of the generalised system of preferences plus—GSP plus—is excellent news, as it will open up duty-free access to much of the EU market? However, is he confident that Pakistan will sign up to the international conventions on labour and on good governance?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Pakistan’s joining the GSP will drive better governance, as it grants vulnerable countries duty-free access to the EU on two thirds of tariff lines if they implement 27 international conventions on human rights, labour standards, sustainable development and good governance. That is good news for Pakistan and for the EU. Pakistan stands to gain an estimated $500 million and 1 million new jobs from this agreement. It is a sign of a deeper and more effective relationship that benefits both our two countries, given that the UK was at the lead on it.
23. Many of us are deeply fearful about the chasm between the official Government position in Pakistan on religious freedom for Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities, and the reality on the ground. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Pakistani Government on the vexed and vexatious blasphemy laws? (902085)
As the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson) just said, we raise issues of religious tolerance, particularly in respect of Christian minorities, wherever we go. Baroness Warsi repeatedly raised the issue of religious freedom and minority protections at the highest level during her visit to Pakistan in October 2013, and she referred to the issue in an open letter on 25 December. It is worth saying that she had a frank and open discussion with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.
The principal area of concern for many of my constituents of Pakistani origin is the problem of the disputed area of Kashmir. Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House what the latest position is on encouraging both Pakistan and India to work together to give the people of that disputed region the right to decide their future for themselves?
I could with your indulgence, Mr Speaker, as I am coming to that question later on this morning. We are heartened by greater communication between India and Pakistan. The lines of communication are now better, but the problems in that region can be solved only by the two Governments of Pakistan and India and the people of Kashmir themselves.
May I draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to the work in Stoke-on-Trent of the Andrhal Welfare Trust, which is licensed in Pakistan and in the UK? It does vital work to ship out educational material and equipment, and information and communications technology equipment. Shipments are being detained for a lengthy time in Karachi, so, in the interests of education, will he examine how the process can be speeded up?
Iran’s Nuclear Programme
I welcome the entry into force yesterday of the Geneva joint plan of action. This agreement halts progress in Iran’s nuclear programme in return for proportionate sanctions relief, and will be implemented in parallel with the negotiations on a comprehensive agreement.
There has been an encouraging start to these negotiations, so will the Foreign Secretary give his assessment of the wider possible implications of success for other challenges in the region, including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and for the prospect of a normalisation of diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran?
Some encouragement should be taken, as my hon. Friend says, from the start of the negotiations and from yesterday’s agreement to begin implementing the interim deal. I must stress that a huge amount of work remains to be done to arrive at a comprehensive settlement of the nuclear issue. It will be formidably difficult to do so, but it must remain the main priority. It is too early to say whether that will be accompanied by wider changes in the foreign policy of Iran. In the meantime, we are working, step by step, on building up our bilateral relations, including two visits in recent weeks by our new chargé d’affaires.
I welcome any progress in improving relations with the Iranian Government notwithstanding the overnight debacle surrounding the invitation to them to attend Geneva II. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that constructive Iranian involvement is required to secure a viable regional security settlement? With that in mind, does he think that Britain should adopt a Gorbachev-like approach to our engagement with reform-minded Iranian politicians, including those in power and those of the future?
As I mentioned a moment ago, it would be extremely welcome if there were other wider and constructive changes in the foreign policy of Iran. I intend to have a telephone discussion later today with the Foreign Minister of Iran, building on our recent contact. The United Kingdom is very much in favour of engagement with Iran, but we also need to see commitment from it. It was open to Iran yesterday to say that in the Geneva II process it would support the implementation of Geneva I, which every other country is in favour of and is seeking in the talks this week, but it was not able publicly to make that commitment.
May I draw it to the House’s attention that I am co-chairman of the all-party group on Iran and was recently a guest of the Iranian Parliament on a parliamentary delegation?
I commend the work of the Foreign Secretary and welcome the progress that has been made, but will he take account of the fact that many of those in the current Administration in Iran felt, I think quite rightly, badly burned by their experiences of acting in good faith 10 years ago and finding that their best efforts were thwarted, in this case, by forces inside the United States. We must ensure that that does not happen again.
Absolutely, we must take account of events 10 or 11 years ago and make sure that we give encouragement to those in Iran who are in favour of better relations with the west and with the region. That has been one of the arguments for proceeding quickly with an agreement on an interim deal. Indeed that was one of the reasons for urgency, apart from the advances of the Iranian nuclear programme, in coming to that deal, so I hope that we can now build on that, and we will make every effort to do so.
Will the Foreign Secretary focus his attention on the issue of nuclear proliferation? In welcoming the interim agreement with Iran, does he not accept that it is now important to press ahead with the possibility of a non-proliferation treaty-led conference for a nuclear weapons-free region as a whole, and to use the current good atmosphere to achieve that outcome?
Yes, I do accept that. That was an important outcome, promoted by the United Kingdom, of the NPT review conference in 2010. The progress that we are making with Iran is an additional argument in favour of bringing together that conference. There has been some renewed diplomatic momentum behind this over the past couple of months, which we are encouraging. Therefore, I very much hope that, over the course of this year, we will be able to make some serious progress on this.
Has my right hon. Friend made any assessment of the impact, in relation to foreign policy opportunities with Iran, of the fact that an invitation was extended by the United Nations and then withdrawn? Can he conceive of any circumstances in which there would be a long-term and effective settlement in Syria that did not have the commitment of Iran behind it?
It is very important to the future peace of Syria, when ever we are able to bring that about, to have Iranian commitment to it. That is extremely important, which is why we have never opposed on principle Iranian involvement in the Geneva II process. I stressed last week in the House that it would be important for Iran to give some constructive signal that it would approach Geneva II on the same basis as all other nations, which is to implement the Geneva communiqué of June 2012. It is a great shame that it felt unable to do that publicly yesterday, which is why, to save the Geneva II process, the UN Secretary-General rescinded the invitation that he had issued on Sunday.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that whatever the difficulties with Geneva II and Iran’s participation in it, we should not let them in any way get in the way of the progress that we need to make on the agreement on the nuclear programme? In that respect, will he assure the House, in relation to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), that the resistance that previously existed is not still so potent as to prevent, for example, UK designated banks that are authorised to deal with transactions with Iran from doing so?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are certain measures of sanctions relief that we will now implement, which we agreed yesterday among EU Foreign Ministers. That is part of implementing this deal and we will ensure that that relief can be delivered effectively. Of course, it is also important at the same time to ensure that remaining sanctions are rigorously enforced. I will consider the point that he has raised in the light of that.
Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that since he signed the joint agreement with Iran, Iran has installed and started IR-1m centrifuges, which have an enhanced enrichment capacity? Although that might be within the letter of the agreement, does he agree that it flies in the face of its spirit and undermines faith in the Iranians’ willingness to restrain their enrichment capacity?
Discussions about more advanced centrifuges and Iran’s intentions to install them have been one of the issues that had to be resolved in agreeing from yesterday to implement this deal. However, the E3 plus 3 countries are satisfied with the arrangements that have been made, which do not involve Iran bringing such centrifuges into operation.
What conversations is the Foreign Secretary having with his P5 plus 1 partners to secure International Atomic Energy Agency access to sites such as Parchin, a site that the EU body suspects the Iranians are using to test nuclear weapon technology?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, as such issues will need to be addressed beyond the interim deal if we are to arrive at a comprehensive deal. There are many aspects to what the IAEA terms the possible military dimensions to Iran’s programme. To reach any comprehensive deal, the international community would have to be satisfied about what is happening in places such as Parchin.
The most recent assessment of the human rights situation in Bahrain is in the FCO’s update to its annual human rights report, published last September. The report noted the positive steps taken by the Bahraini Government to improve the human rights situation and highlighted areas where more needed to be done.
The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs recommended that if Bahrain’s human rights record did not substantially improve by this January, the Foreign Office should designate it as a country of concern. Today, Human Rights Watch launched its world report and stated:
“Bahrain’s human rights record regressed further in key areas in 2013”,
from, I have to say, a fairly low base. Will the Minister accept the recommendation of the Select Committee and designate Bahrain as a country of concern?
Clearly, we follow events in Bahrain very carefully and the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Crown Prince about the situation recently. With the full backing of the King, the Crown Prince has begun a set of meetings to start a political dialogue process. We very much hope that that will see concrete steps taken to improve the situation.
What is the Foreign Office doing to object strongly to the stripping of nationality from 31 Bahraini citizens? That is a disgrace. Bahrain always cites the UK as an example of another country that has in the past stripped people of their nationality, so I would be glad if the Foreign Office would refute that.
We have a regular programme of contacts with the Bahrain Government that cover a considerable number of areas across our bilateral relationship. That is an issue that we discuss with them regularly and it will most certainly be part of the Crown Prince’s new political dialogue. I very much hope that some progress will be made.
LGBT Rights (Russia)
5. What recent discussions he has had with his Russian counterpart on LGBT rights in that country. (902067)
I discussed the issue with Foreign Minister Lavrov at the UN General Assembly in September. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport raised concerns about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights with Deputy Prime Minister Golodets in December and the Prime Minister made clear the strength of feeling about the new law to President Putin in September.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s words and the confirmation that the Government will continue to raise this at the highest level, but what will such conversations achieve? It is clear that despite the expressions of international concern, not just Russia but several Commonwealth countries too, are moving in the wrong direction on LGBT rights. Now that Russia and the UK are both back on the Human Rights Council, does he perhaps see that as a way of making sure that it is not just about words, but about action too?
We must all hope so. We cannot control the decisions in other countries but we can make the arguments and make our point very clear, as I did in a speech at the Perth Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2011. We have raised these issues with the Nigerian Government and we fund actual projects as well. It is not just words from the United Kingdom. We have provided funding in Russia for the Side by Side film festival, we have funded a project to increase the capacity of LGBT civil society organisations in Russia, and FCO officials in Russia meet LGBT activists regularly. We do give meaningful support, as well as the words of all of us in this House.
European Union (Free Movement)
I discussed free movement with my Hungarian and Bulgarian counterparts last week. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe raised free movement at the December General Affairs Council and the Prime Minister was clear at the December European Council that free movement cannot remain completely unqualified.
When my right hon. Friend discusses these issues with his counterparts in Europe, will he remind them that because British immigration was previously out of control, if there is to be confidence here in the single market, and if we are to welcome talented and skilled migrants to work in our country, a broken system that allows mass population movements from the south to the north of Europe—because migrants think that if they cannot get jobs, they can certainly get generous benefits—must be fixed?
Certainly I make the point to colleagues across the European Union that the long-term sustainability of the free movement of workers requires the sort of reforms that my colleagues in the Government have announced in recent weeks, particularly on rules that govern our social welfare system. Other member states share our concerns on abuse of free movement, particularly Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, so we will continue to make these points.
No, we have not set out a particular figure, because that is for discussion with member states in the future. There needs to be a discussion about how we handle these things. In the long-term future, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, across the House we are strongly in favour of the enlargement of the European Union, but the next member state to join the EU is quite some years away in all probability. These are things that need to be discussed in the context of the whole future of the EU.
Common Fisheries Policy
The UK has recently secured important reforms to the common fisheries policy. We have banned the wasteful practice of discarding edible fish, decentralised key decisions on managing fisheries from Brussels to groups of national Governments, and introduced legally binding measures to end overfishing. This is tangible progress towards a more competitive and flexible EU.
It is right that we move to end the scandal of discarding healthy fish. It shows how renegotiation within the EU is possible. Will the Foreign Secretary join me in paying tribute to the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) in his success in those renegotiations, and perhaps even set out for the House what further negotiations a Conservative Government plan?
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to our hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). This is an important negotiating success. It shows that decision making can be decentralised away from Brussels, producing at the same time a more sustainable and successful policy overall. That decentralisation and the greater accountability to national Parliaments are important aspects of the changes we want to see in the European Union, as the Prime Minister set out in his speech a year ago.
The right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that fish swim around and are no respecters of national boundaries, which means that any effective policy to conserve stocks has to be agreed with our neighbours, so why do some in his party still seem to hanker after a return to a chaotic series of multilateral and bilateral agreements, which would be devastating for our marine environment, rather than the sensible reforms that he and our Government before him achieved?
The observation that fish swim around is not among the most devastating revelations to be heard in the House of Commons recently, but we know the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. The point I would make in return is that the common fisheries policy has been one of the European Union’s greatest catastrophes, and we are much more likely to encourage good conservation and a prosperous future for fisheries across the European Union if this is done on a more decentralised basis. It is not about not co-operating with our neighbours; it is about co-operating with them on a meaningful scale and at a regional level so that sensible decisions can be taken, unlike the absolutely disastrous policy that preceded it.
Is the Foreign Secretary, like me, a fan of “The Bridge”, the Danish/Swedish drama currently on BBC Four on Saturday evening? The Danish/Swedish model lies at the heart of the common fisheries policy reforms. If that is the new way forward for decentralisation, which other models might he alight on in that regard?
Well, so many Danish/Swedish models on a Saturday evening must be very enjoyable, but I cannot say that I have been watching that programme. Of course, the decentralised model of decision making is the one that will work, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach for 28 countries. Such an approach is not right for fisheries, or for so many other areas. Again, that is the point of seeking real reform in the European Union.
The Foreign Secretary is right to describe the common fisheries policy as a disaster, but in fairness he should probably acknowledge that it was a Conservative Government who signed us up to it in the first place. He is also aware that Cabinet documents have shown that the Scottish fishing fleet in a European context has been described as “expendable”. Is it the UK Government’s current position that they prefer land-locked European Union member states such as Slovakia having a more direct say over the Scottish fishing industry than the Scottish Government?
No, the Government have stood up for fisheries in Scotland, and we have done so very energetically in recent decisions. Indeed, it is intended that a great deal of the benefit of the changes in the common fisheries policy will be felt by Scotland. The United Kingdom can always be counted on to do that, and I think that we will do so more successfully than would a separate Scotland, which would in any case be outside the European Union.
Company Beneficial Ownership
The Government are in ongoing dialogue with the Crown dependencies and overseas territories on the establishment of central registries of company beneficial ownership. I discussed the issue with territory leaders at the joint ministerial council last November, as did the Treasury Minister. We agreed to continue to work in partnership to tackle the global challenges of corporate secrecy.
Supporters of Christian Aid from St Andrew’s church in Chippenham who met me before Christmas will welcome the Government’s decision to publish a register of company beneficial ownership and the leadership they have shown on the matter, but given that so much money is leaving developing countries for our overseas territories, it is very important that similar transparency is shown there. If the consultations that are currently being launched by the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands provide a further opportunity for the Government to present evidence to encourage them to publish a register, will he please take that opportunity in the hope that that might happen?
The first thing that needs to be said is that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies have responded extremely positively and have taken steps in response to the Prime Minister’s G8 agenda of tax, trade and transparency by signing up to multilateral conventions on tax matters and signing agreements automatically to exchange tax information—a significant step change in tax transparency—as well as setting out action plans and consultations as regards setting up registers of beneficial ownership and making them accessible to the public.
Jammu and Kashmir
We are aware of allegations of human rights abuses on both sides of the line of control. We are clear that allegations of human rights abuses require proper investigation, and we regularly raise concerns through our missions in Islamabad and Delhi, as appropriate.
The number of civilian deaths attributed to the Indian forces is now greater than the number attributed to terrorist attacks in the region. Will the Minister assure me that these issues are being raised not only in our official discussions but at ministerial level, given the number of delegations and trips to India in recent years?
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman will know that in the past few years India and Pakistan have made progress on trade, with both countries agreeing to double bilateral trade by 2014. India has lifted a ban on direct investment from Pakistan, and both sides have implemented a new visa regime. Ultimately, we want to encourage progress between India and Pakistan. Our position, as is well known, is to allow both sides to decide the pace of dialogue, as any direct involvement or international intervention would not be welcomed—by India, certainly.
Is the Minister aware of the petition signed by thousands of my constituents —and, I believe, people in other constituencies —asking for a debate about human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, and can he assist by giving us such a debate in Government time?
Afghanistan (Security Arrangements)
10. What recent discussions he has had with his Afghan counterpart on security arrangements after 2014; and if he will make a statement. (902072)
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed this issue with Foreign Minister Osmani at the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in December. The UK’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan is made clear in the enduring strategic partnership document signed by the Prime Minister and President Karzai in January 2012 and reviewed annually by a ministerial joint commission.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the campaign being run by Amnesty International aimed at strengthening and protecting the rights of women in the security arrangements and more broadly in civic society. What can he say to the House that will reassure those campaigners?
The UK has made it absolutely clear to the Afghan Government that the historic gains since 2001, including on women’s rights, must not be lost. These commitments are enshrined in the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, and we will be doing everything possible to ensure that the Afghan Government meet them.
Does the Minister agree that the security situation in Afghanistan post-2014 is linked to working with Pakistan to stop the terrorism that is going from one country to the other across the large border between the two countries?
Absolutely. Anybody who has come back from Afghanistan recently, particularly from the military side, will point to the real improvements made by the Afghan security forces. It would be a great shame if that were lost in the political discussions that take place above that.
May I join my right hon. Friend for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and old boss in paying tribute to the work of Amnesty International in Afghanistan and thank the Minister for his reply? On 23 April last year, I asked the Foreign Secretary what steps he was taking to ensure the protection of British forces and civilians in Afghanistan. In the light of the shocking events in Kabul in the past few days, can he provide reassurance to them and their families as to what is being done to provide protection now and after the military draw-down?
After the military draw-down, of course, the hope is that a NATO-led mission will replace the international security assistance force. Britain’s part in that will be to provide mentors and trainers. We keep the security situation in Kabul and elsewhere under close review on a daily, if not hourly, basis, and we amend the advice accordingly.
Geneva II Summit
The objective of Geneva II is to establish by mutual consent a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers. The regime, opposition and invited states should attend on that basis, and all sides need to improve the dire humanitarian situation, including through prisoner releases and improving access.
There have been many consultations at the UN Security Council, such as between the Secretary-General and the permanent representatives, including the UK’s permanent representative. Our advice has always been what I said in the House last week—that we were not opposed in principle to Iran attending, but that we wanted a clearer and more constructive public commitment by Iran to the objectives of the Geneva II conference, which I have just set out. In the light of Iranian unwillingness to make such a commitment yesterday, the Secretary-General was right to rescind the invitation.
Of course, we want Iran to desist from supporting the brutality of the Assad regime, which has been highlighted again overnight by shocking evidence of the torture, abuse and murder of people in detention at the regime’s hands. We will always try persuasion, but in the end it is in Iran’s interests for there to be peace in Syria. We therefore ask Iran to embrace that opportunity.
Will the Foreign Secretary correct me if I am wrong about the tortuous diplomacy over Geneva II? Iran’s participation is clearly essential to getting an agreement to end the catastrophic war. Iran knows that a transitional Government is the only way of doing that. On the other hand, it does not want to be seen to be abandoning its long-term ally, the barbarous regime in Syria. As we know from Northern Ireland, preconditions often kill the prospect of any negotiated solution. How will we resolve that impasse?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about it being a tortuous process, including over the past few days, but it should be possible for Iran to say what others, including Russia, are able to come to Geneva II and say—that our aim is to implement the objective of the Geneva I communiqué: a transitional governing body by mutual consent. It was not a precondition, but it was fair to expect Iran to come to the conference on the same basis as all other foreign states. The practical reality is that if it was not prepared to say that, it would have led to the collapse of the conference. It was clear that if it did not do that, we would not be going to Geneva II tomorrow.
With the spotlight falling on Russia ahead of the winter Olympic games, will the Foreign Secretary press the Russians to increase their contribution to humanitarian aid, the need for which is in large part caused by their support for the Assad regime?
Yes, we do raise that with Russia, and we particularly raise the issue of humanitarian access. We and other countries are providing generously for humanitarian relief in and around Syria, but the regime continues to deny access to more than 200,000 people in besieged areas. We continue to look to Russia to help to lift the regime’s sieges of those areas.
This morning’s reports in The Guardian of the systematic killing and torture by Syrian Government forces of 11,000 detainees are deeply disturbing. The important work done to collect and publish that material was essentially a privately funded initiative run by a London-based law firm. In the light of that, will the Foreign Secretary set out what steps the international community, and the UK Government in particular, are taking to help catalogue and document evidence about alleged gross violations of human rights?
We have a done a great deal, and the right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the evidence that was published last night. That was done with the assistance of the Qatari Government, so it was not entirely a private initiative. I have seen a lot of the evidence. It is compelling and horrific, and it is important that those who have perpetrated those crimes are one day held to account. The United Kingdom has done a great deal in the documentation of human rights abuses, and part of the support we have given to moderate political forces in Syria is to train human rights activists in the recording and documentation of crimes, many of which have therefore come to the world’s attention. We will do more of that.
We all welcome the fact that the Geneva II conference is due to commence in Switzerland tomorrow. Will the Foreign Secretary today set out what he would regard to be realistic ambitions for the discussions this week? Does he agree that confidence-building measures could be an important step towards securing further progress, and if so, does he believe in the relative likelihood of local ceasefires, humanitarian access, or prisoner exchanges being agreed in the coming days?
Confidence-building measures would assist enormously, including prisoner releases and local ceasefires. Although there have been discussions about those issues over the past 10 days, they have not yet borne fruit, and it is important that real effort is made on that in the opening stages of the Geneva II talks. I will attend the opening of those talks tomorrow and speak on behalf of our country, and I will encourage progress from all sides on the creation of a transitional governing body. Realistically, we are starting a process; it is important that a political process is started and then pursued.
EU Codified Constitution
European Union member states have widely differing constitutional structures. In Germany, for instance, the constitutional court has highlighted instances of where the Bundestag’s rights are close to being infringed. In the UK, European Union law takes effect only by virtue of the will of Parliament.
We are fortunate in that our constitution is unwritten, or rather written on a number of documents. Why does the existence under EU law of a written constitution protect the rights of Germans, while our unwritten constitution does not give the UK equivalent protection?
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of the German constitutional court and its written constitution, and it has sometimes warned of the limits of the EU’s role. It has insisted that questions should be referred to the German Parliament, but it has never directly overridden EU law, and we must bear that in mind about its constitutional structure. As my hon. Friend knows, and as he supported in the European Union Act 2011, we have made clear the ultimate sovereignty of Parliament in this country. That is the constitutional position, but we made it clearer in our 2011 Act.
A Scotland that left the United Kingdom would have to negotiate afresh its membership of the European Union. It would have to do so without some of the favourable settlements that we have achieved in the past with the European Union, such as the rebate. Not only would Scotland no longer be entitled to the rebate, but it would have to contribute to the rebate of the rest of the United Kingdom.
Yesterday I attended the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union in Brussels, and later today I will travel to Switzerland to take part in the Geneva II talks.
On 4 January, Francisco Toloza, another leading member of the Patriotic March political movement in Colombia, was arrested and charged with the usual accusation of rebellion. Given that 25 of that group’s leading members were murdered last year alone, do the Government still insist that Colombia is a democratic country that allows opposition political participation?
The answer is yes, we do. Human rights continue to be an important part of our relationship with Colombia. They were discussed with President Santos during his visit to the UK from 6 June last year. We have never hidden our concerns about human rights in that country. Equally, we are supportive of the mass improvement in the general well-being of Colombians under the president and his negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will have an opportunity to raise those matters when he visits Colombia shortly.
T4. Holocaust memorial day takes place next Monday. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending the role that British veterans played in defeating the Nazis in the second world war, and in liberating the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp almost 70 years ago? (902057)
Yes, absolutely—my hon. Friend is right to highlight the vital role of British forces. Later this year, we will have the 70th anniversary of D-day, when it will be important to remember that it made possible the liberation of Europe and the role of British forces in doing exactly what he has described.
Given the publication by the Foreign Office of its Scotland analysis paper last week, what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the impact on Scotland’s exports and influence of reducing a diplomatic network of 14,000 people spread across 267 locations and 152 countries to just 70 to 90 diplomatic offices?
It is clear that Scottish independence would involve a huge reduction in its diplomatic presence and influence around the world. We make a great impact as the United Kingdom on so many issues all over the globe. It would not be possible to do that with between 70 and 90 offices in place of our current 267 embassies and consulates. It would also not be possible to replicate the huge effort that the UK Government and UK Trade & Investment put in to promoting Scottish exports and trade around the world. For instance, I am very proud of everything I have done to promote the interests of scotch whisky all over the world.
T6. The Foreign Secretary has often highlighted the fact that a warrant is needed for GCHQ to search content. We now know that the dishfire scheme acknowledged by the National Security Agency allows people in GCHQ to search the content of people’s text messages. To avoid reading the content, analysts are warned to flick a toggle on the form. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that it would be unlawful to read content without a warrant? How can he be sure that all analysts always tick the right box on the form? (902059)
My hon. Friend knows that I cannot go into intelligence matters in Parliament beyond the statement I gave on 10 June last year. Therefore, I do not confirm or deny reports that appear in newspapers that may or may not be true. However, I can always confirm that the legal structure in this country is very strong and robust. As I have said before, the interception of the content of communications in the UK requires a warrant from me or the Home Secretary. The interception of communications commissioner then reports to the Prime Minister on how we and our officials do our jobs.
T2. Back in 2006, I was delighted to be able to smooth out some red tape to allow Father Jean-Pierre Ndulani from the Congo to come to my constituency to work as a priest in the Wellburn care home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. He returned to the Congo in 2012. Not long after his return, he was kidnapped along with two colleagues. I have written to the Foreign Secretary’s office and am grateful for the response, but may I urge him to use all the powers within his good offices to find out the whereabouts, and more importantly the well-being, of Father Jean-Pierre? Many of my constituents still ask me about him. (902055)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that case. He mentioned his correspondence with the Foreign Office. I will visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo shortly, when I will ensure that I raise that specific case with the Congolese authorities.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that there is a very small religious minority in Somalia. For some considerable time, we have worked with the new federal Government of Somalia to improve human rights for everybody in Somalia, irrespective of their religious persuasion. We have worked to encourage a human rights commission, to finalise a human rights road map and to support the United Nations assistance mission in Somalia—UNSOM—in taking a strong lead on building and monitoring human rights there.
T3. Pakistan’s federal sharia court has ordered the Government in Islamabad to implement only the death penalty in cases of blasphemy, and the 60-day time limit for the Government to appeal against that is almost up. Given that blasphemy laws are already being abused to settle personal scores, does the Foreign Secretary agree that this could lead to more abuse and a climate of intolerance against religious minorities in Pakistan? (902056)
Yes, I have raised these issues, and the whole issue of the death penalty in Pakistan, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his national security adviser. I have made very clear the United Kingdom’s longstanding view on the death penalty and I hope that there will continue to be, one way or another, a moratorium on the death penalty in such cases.
Following the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech on EU reform last year, last week the Chancellor welcomed more than 300 parliamentarians and leaders across Europe to the Fresh Start conference to debate a series of reforms on trade, free movement and deregulation. Is it not the case that Conservative Ministers and Members are leading the EU reform and renegotiation debate, on which our opponents and coalition partners are strangely silent?
I could not possibly disagree with that observation. I congratulate Fresh Start and Open Europe on holding the conference last week, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor addressed. It was interesting that people were there from many other EU countries who want to have the discussion on how the EU becomes more flexible and more competitive, with greater accountability to national Parliaments. That is the debate we are leading.
T5. Further to the case raised by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on Colombia, will the Minister address the case of Huber Ballesteros, who will face trial in a number of weeks, also on a contrived charge of rebellion? Will he address these human rights issues in a way that does not just send a signal to the Santos regime that they somehow fall within a margin of tolerable excess in the context of a peace process? (902058)
That is not the case. We are, of course, aware of the detention of Mr Ballesteros on 25 August. Our ambassador to Colombia wrote to the Colombian prosecutor general on 28 August to highlight our interest in the case and to request information on the charges. Staff at our embassy in Bogota are seeking permission to visit Mr Ballesteros in prison. It is simply not the case that we turn to one side and avert our gaze to what we regard as human rights violations in Colombia.
My right hon. Friend will be alarmed, as I was, at the release of documents last week on the attack at the Golden Temple in 1984. The Prime Minister made a swift response in terms of the Cabinet Secretary. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the timeline for the inquiry and for a possible statement to this House?
I know that my hon. Friend is very assiduous in pursuing this matter. As the Prime Minister said last week, these events led to a tragic loss of life. We understand the legitimate concerns that the papers that have been published will raise. As he said, the Prime Minister asked the Cabinet Secretary to look into this case urgently and to establish the facts. That review by the Cabinet Secretary will soon reach its conclusion, and its conclusions and findings will be published in the near future.
T7. Despite its vast mineral wealth, for too many years the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been held back by corruption, poor infrastructure and conflict. In the east of the country, more than 800,000 people have been forced to flee their homes by the M23 rebel militia group. I note that the Minister said that he does have a visit due, but given the huge economic potential of central Africa what concrete actions are the Government considering to support peace and economic development in the DRC? (902060)
The hon. Lady raises a very important issue. Significant discussions have been taking place and will continue to take place. We support the Democratic Republic of the Congo through our significant bilateral aid programme, as well as by supporting multilateral institutions. The progress made by the UN mission and the Secretary-General’s special representative to negate the influence of the M23, which has now completely surrendered, and to tackle other armed militia groups in the eastern part of the DRC, is a key cornerstone to creating stability and security, which will then lead to developmental assistance.
Further to the shadow Foreign Secretary’s question, may I ask my right hon. Friend, on the wider issue of foreign policy, what assessment he has carried out on the impact on Scotland of our foreign policy and all the work done by our embassies and high commissions day in, day out, including UKTI, on behalf of this country and its citizens?
My right hon. Friend is right to refer to this point, because in addition to what I mentioned in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary, this country has a huge consular network—one of the biggest of any country in the world. We look after British nationals wherever they are overseas, and there is no way that a Scotland separate from the UK could compete with that network. An ambassador of a new country arriving in, say, Washington DC would be the 179th ambassador arriving in town, which could not compete with the influence of the UK in Washington.
T8. A number of individuals and charities in my constituency have contacted me about the difficulties they have encountered in funding legitimate humanitarian action in the disputed region of Kashmir. Will the Secretary of State allow a Minister to meet me briefly to discuss these concerns? (902061)
Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what is happening to his constituent, my constituent and others arrested from a vessel off Tamil Nadu? Can anything more be done to expedite their release? Given that they were only obeying orders, should it not be the captain who faces the charges, and should these men not be freed?
My right hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. As he knows, I am familiar with this case, because one of my constituents is involved. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), will be meeting him and other Members about the matter this afternoon. I have raised it with the Indian Foreign Minister, and the Prime Minister has raised it with the Prime Minister of India. It has also been raised with the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi this month, and will be raised now with the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
T9. If we are to end the bloodbath in Syria, will it not have to involve Iran, and should we not get on and start the peace process now? If the Foreign Secretary does not agree, will he set out how he will achieve this without the help of Iran? (902062)
As we discussed earlier, we will start the Geneva II process tomorrow. We were not opposed in principle to Iran’s involvement, but we all have to face up to the fact that if the invitation to Iran yesterday had been proceeded with, without the necessary statement from Iran, the whole conference would have collapsed, and there would be no Geneva II process at all. Diplomacy involves some difficult compromises and tortuous moments, as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) said, and this has been one of them, but it is vital that we get this process going.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the latest laws passed in Ukraine severely restricting democratic protest represent a further step backwards and are fuel for the shocking violence seen overnight? Will he send a clear message to the Ukrainian Government that we will take measures against those responsible and a message to the Russian Government that this is for the Ukrainian people to resolve?
Yes, I agree with all of that. I issued a statement on this yesterday. We believe it was a serious mistake for the Ukrainian Administration to enact legislation placing greater restrictions on fundamental freedoms, and we will continue to make that argument.
May I draw the Foreign Secretary’s attention to my point of order yesterday about the Government’s failure to brief me about the destruction of chemical weapons in my constituency? Will he undertake, first, to answer, as a matter of urgency, my five named day questions, and secondly to ensure the high-level ministerial briefing for me that was promised to the company—not to me—and thirdly will he put on the record his apology to my constituents for his failure?
Broadly, yes. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not had a briefing on this. I shall ensure he gets one from the relevant Ministers. Of course, this was the destruction not of chemical weapons—let me reassure him about that—but of precursor chemicals that are no different in form when they come to the UK from other industrial chemicals that are regularly destroyed here. He is entitled to a detailed briefing, however, and I shall ensure that he gets one.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has a particular passion and knowledge in this important area. The purpose of the summit is to draw together the work being done in a range of states, supported by the UK, the USA and interested African states such as Gabon. The purpose is not just to talk about what can be achieved; we want real results on security, the environment and the economy, reducing demand as well as cutting off the supply.
I am travelling to Burma very shortly. I raised some individual cases with some success when I was last there, last year. I should be delighted to take the list to which the hon. Lady refers and raise it with the authorities when I meet them in the coming days.
I genuinely apologise to colleagues whom I was not able to call, but we did proceed relatively slowly today, which did not greatly assist matters. However, this is a box-office occasion and I shall try to bear in mind those who were not able to contribute today for subsequent occasions.
Adventure and Gap Year Activity Companies (Accreditation and Inspection)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a register of accredited providers of adventure and gap year activities in the UK and overseas, where such activities are offered by a UK-owned or managed business; for the provision of consumer information about the registration process; for inspections of providers of such activities and for a register of approved inspectors; and for connected purposes.
In August 2006, Luke Molnar, the 17-year-old son of my constituents Gill and Steve Molnar, died on the island of Tokoriki. Luke was a paying volunteer on a diving expedition arranged by a UK-based company, Coral Cay Conservation Ltd. On the day of his death, he went to assist a friend who had received an electric shock when he touched a washing line. When Luke touched the line, he received a massive electric shock, which killed him. It transpired that a local electrician had wired the washing line to the electricity supply in order to run power to a number of huts that were being used as accommodation for the volunteers.
A coroner’s inquest held in Manchester in 2011 returned a verdict of unlawful killing and the electrician was convicted of manslaughter by a court in Fiji, but no proceedings have been taken against Coral Cay or its then directors. The company has since been taken over and is under new ownership. Luke was a fine diver and he was well aware of the risks involved in such an activity. He and his parents undertook very careful research into the expedition and the facilities that would be available before he embarked on the trip, but the coroner’s inquest exposed a total lack of care for health and safety by the then management of Coral Cay. Claims on the company’s website of high standards and qualified personnel on site—claims that were relied on by the Molnars—turned out to be entirely false.
Luke’s death is not the only instance in recent years of young people, often minors, being placed at lethal risk on overseas adventure activities. The inquest into the death of 17-year-old Samuel Boon, who died on a trekking holiday in Morocco, concluded just last week. In a number of cases, including Luke’s, coroners have highlighted a series of concerns, including a lack of regulation and suitably qualified expedition leaders with good local knowledge. Parents and families place great trust in the UK-owned companies that provide and manage such expeditions, yet they are being denied genuine assurance that proper quality standards are being met.
Of course, in the case of UK activities, a much more stringent regulatory environment has existed for a number of years, following the establishment of the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority as a result of the Lyme bay tragedy, in which four teenagers died. However, the future of the AALA is now worryingly uncertain, and although other excellent quality standards exist, including the Learning Outside the Classroom badge and British standard 8848, today parents face a bewildering landscape of standards, accreditation processes and inspection regimes, on which they are desperately reliant to ensure that their children are safe.
To its credit, the industry has been anxious to address these concerns, and I want to place on record my thanks to the many groups and individuals who have spent time talking to me about the different regimes that exist and explaining their different features and benefits. I would particularly like to thank members of the British Standards Institution committee SVS/2/5 on adventurous activities, expeditions, visits and fieldwork, which has been conducting a review of British standard 8848; Beth Gardner of the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom; and Alistair Cole of the Expedition Providers Association, who is also chief executive of the Lifesigns group, the new owners of Coral Cay. All those bodies are acutely aware of the vital need for public reassurance and confidence that the activities they are offer are safe.
I welcome the work done to establish high-quality standards, but the fact is that it remains entirely possible for a completely unqualified, inexperienced provider to offer overseas adventure activities without having to comply with any safety standards at all. No parent could possibly be willing to allow their child to participate in activities that have not met the most rigorous safety standards. Every parent would want to assure themselves that adequate safety procedures existed and that proper checks and controls were routinely carried out. Parents would be especially reassured where a provider had been accredited to an independent standard. They would want to know what the standard encompassed and whether an organisation that claimed to meet it had been independently assessed.
How would parents know that today? Given the range of accreditation processes and standards, it would be difficult and chancy, even for the most clued-up and careful parents, as the experience of the Molnars shows. That is why I have been discussing with industry leaders the idea of providing a register of accredited providers, which would clearly set out what standard a provider had complied with, whether it had been independently accredited as meeting that standard or whether it had self-assessed. My motion proposes a Bill to introduce the establishment of such a register.
There are those who will say that conformity assessment schemes can restrict innovation and competition, and that the very essence of the activities I am talking about is that they contain a degree of risk, which is, of course, indeed the case. But no parent would consider a single avoidable risk a price worth paying, and I am pleased that many of those I have spoken to in the industry now recognise the value of a register of accredited providers to reassure parents that avoidable risks have been properly addressed. To be clear, this modest proposal is not for mandatory accreditation, but for a publicly available record of who is or is not accredited. The transparency of such a register would create an impetus and expectation that good providers would be accredited and bad providers driven out of business.
Such a register would not, of course, eliminate every risk, but it would be an important step that could help to prevent another family from experiencing the horror faced by the Molnars in 2006. Gill and Steve have been brave, passionate and committed campaigners, and they are here closely watching this debate. They strongly support the creation of such a register, so that some small good might come from Luke’s tragic death. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Kate Green, Sir Peter Tapsell, Alison Seabeck, Dan Jarvis, Bob Stewart, Mr Michael McCann and Chris Bryant present the Bill.
Kate Green accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February, and to be printed (Bill 157).
[18th Allotted Day]
[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Trade and Industry Committee, Session 2004-05, on Pub Companies, HC 128 and the Government’s response, HC 434. The Seventh Report from the Business and Enterprise Committee, Session 2008-09, on Pub Companies, HC 26. The Third Special Report from the Business and Enterprise Committee, Session 2008-09, on Pub Companies, HC 798. The Fifth Report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Session 2009-10, on Pub Companies: follow-up, HC 138, and the Government’s response, HC 503. The Tenth Report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Session 2010-12, on Pub Companies, HC 1369, and the Government’s response, Cm 8222. Oral evidence taken before the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on 6 December 2011, HC 1690-i of Session 2010-12. The Fourth Report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, on Consultation on a Statutory Code for Pub Companies, HC 314.]
I beg to move,
That this House notes that two years have passed since its resolution on pub companies of 12 January 2012; remains of the view that the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee was right to state in its Fourth Report, on Consultation on a Statutory Code for Pub Companies, HC 314, that only a statutory code of practice which included a mandatory rent-only option for pub companies which own over 500 pubs, an open market rent review and an independent adjudicator would resolve the contractual problems between the big pub companies and their lessees; further notes that pub closures are increasing, and believes that the Government should by July 2014 bring forward legislative proposals to introduce a statutory code of practice of the kind recommended by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.
For many Members, January in Parliament means two things. First—for some— it means the worthy, if somewhat joyless, challenge of a dry month, and secondly, it means a parliamentary debate about pubs.
This is the third January in a row during which the House has debated the regulation of pub companies. We know that pubs in our local communities are among our constituencies’ most precious assets, and a quick trawl through the press releases expressing MPs’ dismay at the fact that much-loved pubs in their area face closure will reveal immediately what an emotive issue this is, and how passionate our constituents feel about it.
I know that Members on both sides of the House will agree that, economically, socially and culturally, pubs are part of the fabric of our great nation. As well as being community hubs, they make a huge contribution to our fragile economy. Each pub employs an average of 10 people—often young people; often women, including working mums—who are finding it particularly hard to obtain other work. When a pub closes, its local economy loses about £80,000. More widely, the production and sale of beer contributes about £19 billion to the United Kingdom’s GDP, and generates total taxation revenues of £10 billion each year.
Given that a wide body of experts and more than 27,000 other people signed the 38 Degrees petition on pubco reform in just four days, today is one of those—some would argue—all too rare occasions in an MP’s life when he can vote for something that is both popular and right. In the last decade, our expectations of our locals have changed, and consumers now rank food higher than beer or sociability among their reasons for choosing a pub. As I know there is so much common ground between many Members across the House, I shall argue the case for reform in as unpartisan a way as I am capable of. [Laughter.]
I hope the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to take that step. He is right to say that there have been huge problems with pub closures, but as a result of new policies introduced by Liberal Democrat-led Cambridge city council, not only are pubs not closing, but previously closed pubs are able to reopen. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the council on its excellent work, which has been supported by the Campaign for Real Ale and many other organisations?
I am possibly the only Member in the House who owns a pub. I am the chair of the John Clare Trust, which has bought the Exeter Arms, where Clare and his father used to sing and play. Unfortunately, it is closed at the moment, but we are determined to reopen it as a community pub.
I almost got carried away there, then my hon. Friend announced that his pub was in fact closed. However, the fact that his determination and vigour will ensure that it soon reopens gives us all a sense of enthusiasm and excitement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), a former Enterprise Inns landlord himself, will have the honour of winding up the debate. I also want to salute the many other hon. Members who are here today and who have previously raised this issue in debates here or in the press, or joined campaigns in their communities to highlight the problems caused by aggressive pub company behaviour.
In September 2011, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s fourth review of pub companies finally settled on the view that only a statutory code with a mandatory rent-only option would put the pubco relationship on a fairer footing. I was therefore disappointed by the suggestion in today’s Government amendment that Labour should have regulated this issue before. The Government will know that it was precisely because the Select Committee wanted to give the pubcos time to get their house in order that they were given a final chance in 2010, with a timetable that the Secretary of State supported when he first came into office.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather strange that the Government are using the previous Government’s decision to abide by a Select Committee recommendation as an excuse to ignore the current Select Committee recommendation?
My hon. Friend’s intervention gives me an excellent opportunity to put on record my gratitude—and that of the whole House and the wider coalition supporting the reform—for his work as Chairman of the Select Committee, which has led the way on this issue. I entirely agree that it is odd that, with such a large body of opinion in favour of the reform, it has been so difficult for the Government to support the recommendation that the previous Government were behind and that this Government said in 2011 that they would support.
Many people outside the House are clearly taking a great deal of interest in this debate. We have a lot of independent brewers in the south-west, and some fantastic beers are sold in the local pubs. Many publicans there have raised the issue of the way rents are passed on with little independent assessment. Is my hon. Friend going to say something about that?
My hon. Friend has successfully predicted what I am going to say. I will definitely touch on that issue, because it is one of the key elements of the debate.
I also want to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the other contributions that have been made in the run-up to the debate by Members trying to support pubs in their area. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) has been a determined campaigner on this issue. Among his many valuable contributions to the campaign, his article in the Yorkshire Post on 10 May was on message enough for the Liberal Democrat press office to promote it with the message that
“pubco terms are the biggest reason for pub closures”.
That was his view in May 2013, as I know it remains. Now, eight months later, I am disappointed to see that he has signed the amendment proposing that the Government need more time to come to the conclusion he has so consistently and persuasively argued for.
The hon. Gentleman might be disappointed, but I was disappointed that he has tabled this Opposition day motion. We have had a conversation about this. My belief is that support for this issue commands a majority in the House of Commons, and that we need to do this properly, rather than through an Opposition day debate. I look forward to getting the recommendation from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and, at that point, getting everyone on both sides of the House together to push this through.
I have tremendous respect for the hon. Gentleman, but those whose lives have been wrecked by the behaviour of the pub companies will look askance at the idea that, because of the nature of this debate, people will choose whether or not to vote for the motion. We had a Back-Bench debate on the issue two years ago, at which the motion was carried unopposed. However, the Government ignored it. In fact, it is only when the Opposition have brought pressure to bear that we seem to have achieved any movement on the issue. Today, in an entirely open and reasonable way, we are calling for all Members who feel strongly about this, as I know the hon. Gentleman does, to support the motion and give the Government the necessary impetus and the courage of their convictions to take the action that is so desperately needed.
One reason behind pub closures is the high taxation on spirits in general and on Scotch whisky in particular. Given that spirits and Scotch whisky account for 40% of the sales in pubs, and that the level of taxation continues to escalate, should not the Government look more closely at the inevitable loss of revenue involved?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are many aspects to the debate on the future of our pubs, but this debate is about the pub companies. I will therefore resist his offer to get drawn into what the shadow Chancellor should propose to do about the taxation of the Scottish whisky industry. However, my hon. Friend rightly identifies whisky as an important product for our pubs, for our economy and particularly for the Scottish economy. Whether the statistic that he has just given us lends any credence to Scottish people’s reputation for an enthusiasm for alcohol I will leave to Members to consider.
May I offer an example from my constituency to support the motion and illustrate the urgency of the matter? A constituent of mine moved into her pub a few years ago with the promise of significant investment being made in the property. Those repairs have never been carried out. She also has to buy her beer from the pub company; if she buys from elsewhere, the pub company fines her and charges her significantly more. Does not that illustrate why the motion is so important—particularly the part about rent-only tenancies—and why we need action now? Tenants such as my constituent cannot afford to wait any longer for action.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend.
I shall outline how we have arrived at this position. We have now seen the full scale of the revelations from the Select Committee in its four different reviews over eight years. Examples have also been given by many Members from across the House on behalf of their constituents. The hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley), my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) are all well-known champions of the cause. Just a little research has revealed many more.
The hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) has told the House about the landlords of the White Horse in Quidhampton, alleging that
“Enterprise Inns signed them up to a lease on a false prospectus and…made their business completely uneconomic and unsustainable”.—[Official Report, 13 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 476.]
The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) has confirmed that
“unsustainable rent demands…from Enterprise Inns”—[Official Report, 13 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 476.]
led to the closure of the White Hart in South Harting. The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) has written to Enterprise Inns to inform it that the Abbots Mitre in Chilbolton was
“under threat largely due to unrealistic rents and changes in terms and conditions.”
The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) has written to Enterprise Inns asking it not to close the Lamplighters in Shirehampton.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) has bemoaned Enterprise’s decision not to save the Little Owl, saying that
“a big company has failed to recognise a pub’s value to the community.”
The hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) was also concerned with saving the Owl, this time the one in Rodley, whose threatened closure he blamed on
“the mounting costs imposed by the building owners, Enterprise Inns”.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who has recently written an excellent article in support of a mandatory free-of-tie option, has said of the sale of the Porcupine in Mottingham that the public were
“incensed that their right to bid for the pub has been bypassed deliberately by Enterprise Inns and LiDL”.
The right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) told a packed crowd that he would be joining the campaign to save the Red Lion in Sidbury, which Punch Taverns was planning to sell. There are many more examples. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) joined the campaign that successfully saved the Wheatsheaf. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) was particularly busy: she was trying to save both the Clifton and the Star. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) campaigned to save the Bittern. The list goes on and on and on.
Today we are faced with a choice. We can race to the aid of pubs in distress in our communities—pubs that are the symptoms of the great pubco disaster that plays out in every one of our constituencies and leads to job losses and the loss of a treasured community asset. We can sign the petitions; we can beg the pub companies to be fair this time; we can complain that the rents were too high or that the companies sold a false dream; we can rage against how they did not understand or seem to care about the impact on our communities; we can bemoan that they changed the rules; or, finally, we can act.
Televised sport, especially football, is very important to many pubs. I have had news today that a pub in my constituency is in difficulty because Sky Sports wanted to charge £1,250 a month to show Sky Sports in the pub. Has the hon. Gentleman had any thoughts as to how we can try to get sport into pubs more cheaply or increase competition so pubs can show sport, especially football?
The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. I know that many pubs have an agonising decision to make about whether they continue to show sport, which is incredibly expensive but attracts a lot of people through the door. I am sure he raises this question looking forward this weekend to Sheffield United playing Fulham on BT Sport, which can be watched in most good public houses at about 1 o’clock on Sunday afternoon.
The point the hon. Gentleman raises highlights the fact that the proposal we are discussing today is not a panacea for all the problems of the pub trade. If our motion is supported and the Government, with our support, swiftly bring forward regulation we can all back, it will not mean that all the problems will be solved and no more will be asked of Parliament. The sports issue is important and I will speak to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) about it, as he is putting forward Labour’s ideas on sport for the next manifesto.
I recently met a landlord who has managed to turn around a failing pub and increase the turnover. His reward is for all the extra money to be taken away in increased rent. That destroys the incentive for people to work hard and bring these pubs back.
That is an important point, and we hear it time and again. Given the economic difficulties and the difference between on-trade and off-trade alcohol, people understand that there are going to be difficult times for pubs. They will also recognise that some people are not suited to running a pub and, for whatever reason, are unable to make a decent fist of it. What sticks in the craw of most fair-minded people, however, is that the majority of those who take on major pubco tenancies end up earning under £10,000 a year. It is not a case of a few people doing very well, a reasonable number making a decent living and a small number failing; we are seeing the majority failing. Under the existing perverse disincentives, regardless of whether the pub does well or badly, the pub company does all right, and many people say that even when their trade grew they got hit with higher rents or higher prices that took away all the increased revenue they had generated. It is clear that there is a desperate imperative to act.
My hon. Friend recently rattled off a great long list of Members on both sides of the House who have rightly campaigned on this issue. Does he share my disappointment that as long ago as last January he brought a debate to this House during which the Government performed a U-turn saying they would seek to introduce a statutory code, which is absolutely necessary, and we had a lengthy consultation, but very little in terms of the legal framework has changed 12 months on?
I certainly do share my hon. Friend’s disappointment. My sense is that there is a lot of sympathy on this issue across the House and I want to bring people together rather than tear us apart. It is fair to say that a year ago the Government did a U-turn. I was not disappointed with that at all; I was delighted. They told the House that they were going to get on with the consultation. Many people were celebrating, and they went out drinking in the pubco pubs around the country that night. A few months later the consultation started and it finished about six months ago, yet despite the overwhelming response in favour of what we are proposing today and what the Government seemed minded to consider, we still have not actually had any action. We have not changed the situation on the ground for hard-pressed publicans and all those people who have seen their life-savings disappear and who want to know that the regime is going to improve for the people who follow them.
As I was saying, we can bemoan the situation, we can join the campaigns, or we can act. We can take court action on the cause of the closures. We have within our grasp today the opportunity to prove that actions speak louder than words and stand united across the House on behalf of our communities, but also on behalf of the hundreds who are looking to us to act. In just four days since Friday, 26,762 people have signed the 38 Degrees petition on the great British pub scandal.
CAMRA is an immensely important and well-respected body. It has the best interests of the pub in its heart and in its DNA; that is its raison d’être. It boasts a membership of almost 160,000, a staggering demonstration of the importance of real ale and pubs to people across our country. If I was seeking to make a political point, I might have mischievously pointed out that, with almost 160,000 members, CAMRA is bigger than the recently reported membership of the Conservative and Liberal Democrats parties combined, but as I said I wanted to be consensual, I am not going to mention that.
We all know that a fairer relationship between pub companies and their landlords is not a panacea that will end all the challenges faced by the trade. There are others and there will continue to be asks of us in Parliament even if we take action on this scandal today, but the fact that we cannot solve every problem does not mean we should not solve this major one. From the Federation of Small Businesses to the GMB, from CAMRA to the Forum of Private Business, from Fair Pint and the all-party save the pub group to Unite the Union, a diverse coalition of interests has consistently called for a new statutory code of regulation.
Let no one say that this House or the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee have rushed to judgment. Over four reports and eight exhaustive years, the Committee gave the major pub-owning companies every opportunity to make the changes that were needed to put their house in order, yet at every turn it found that the industry moved at a glacial pace, and always reluctantly, and only because of the scrutiny of the Committee.
Although I want to pay tribute to everyone involved in the work of the Select Committee and to say that I think the work done on pubco is a shining example of the Select Committee system at its best, it should not have to be the role of a Committee not only to investigate an issue but to be the body that constantly has to chase to see whether the assurances made to it have been kept. Following the final 2011 Select Committee report, there was widespread disappointment when the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) came to the House to defend opting for a self-regulatory regime. In January 2012 this House felt it had seen enough. We believed that voluntary regulation had failed and we voted unanimously for a statutory code, a vote that was ignored by the Government. Frankly, at every stage it has felt as though the Opposition and the Select Committee, ably supported by Members across the House, have had to make the running.
During oral questions to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in November 2012, there were three Labour pubco questions and it was suddenly announced that there would be an investigation into the success of self-regulation. A day before the Opposition day debate in 2013, the Government finally announced that they would consult on introducing a code to deliver a fairer balance between pub companies and their tenants. The response to the consultation was overwhelming: over 7,000 people responded, 96% were in favour of regulation, 67% were in favour of a mandatory free-of-tie option, 92% were in favour of open market rent assessment, and there was widespread support for a stronger independent adjudicator.
The strength of feeling was overwhelming, with 91% of respondents who ran a pub saying that the beer tie was one of the three biggest challenges facing their business, and more than nine in 10 saying they would take a free-of-tie option even if it meant paying a higher rent. It is therefore a little odd for the Government to say, as they do in their amendment, that they want to take more time to learn from the consultation. They chose the questions to ask and they got a big response. On almost all the big questions, the level of support was so overwhelming that even Robert Mugabe would have thought it was a bit one-sided, yet the Government then commissioned a report from London Economics, which critics felt was deeply flawed, apparently to try to persuade themselves against the view they appeared to have taken before their consultation. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate the failure of the big pub companies than the desire to leave them on the part of the very people they consider to be their business partners. But for all the warm words expended on the Floor of this House and elsewhere, still nothing has changed in legal terms, and every week 26 pubs close.
If the Government do not introduce a Bill on this issue in the Queen’s Speech, it is impossible to imagine that there will be sufficient parliamentary time to pass one in this Parliament. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) said on Sunday’s “The Andrew Marr Show”, if this Government fail the challenge set them today, everyone who feels strongly about this issue will know that, for all the rhetoric, only voting for a Labour Government will bring about the fairness that so many people so desperately want. Hon. Members will today have an opportunity to choose whether to be part of the solution or, I am sad to say, part of the problem.
There is no doubt that the existence of large pub companies, which own the vast majority of British pubs and often force their licensees to buy beer only from them, are distorting the market. As we consider their devastating impact, let us remember that 57% of Britain’s pubco publicans, people who often work among the longest hours of anyone in our communities, earn less than £10,000. The Federation of Small Businesses, brilliant advocates but hardly Marxist radicals, found in 2013 that a mandatory rent-only option would generate £78 million for the UK economy, that 98% of respondents would have more confidence in the success of their pubs and that almost 10,000 would take on extra staff or give their staff extra hours of work. Hon. Members will know that the FSB does not propose additional regulation lightly.
My own Chesterfield pubs survey mirrored many of those encouraging statistics, but also sounded a deadly warning about the cost of inaction, with many pubs saying that they were on the brink of closure and that increased rents and beer prices were key issues. This morning, the British Beer & Pub Association claimed that tied tenants’ pubs were cheaper, but that is far removed from the reality that people see in their community. At The Nags Head in Dunston in Chesterfield, I dealt with a Marston’s tenant who was competing with Marston’s managed houses just across the road that were selling the same product at up to £1 a pint less. The big pub companies and the BBPA will tell us, “Yes, there is the odd problem, but it is not typical.” They say, “You can’t offer general criticisms. We need to know about specific cases.” However, when we bring them specific cases they say, “Well, that’s just a one-off.” It seems that no evidence is good enough for them to recognise the reality of what people are seeing in their pubs. The BBPA and the pub companies are saying, “Mainly it’s just people who have failed in their businesses wanting to blame someone else.” I do not think that stands up to any sensible scrutiny.
Many businesses and industries have undergone tough times, particularly in the past five years or so, but they have not all universally claimed that they have been misled by their suppliers. Corner shops have closed, but MPs are not besieged by former Londis or Spar shopkeepers claiming they have been ripped off by Londis or Spar. People in business generally know the difference between tough market conditions and plainly misleading practices.
On that note, the BIS consultation last year was sobering reading for anyone who thought that the threat of regulation would cause the industry leopards to change their spots. It told of a married couple who produced a careful budget plan before signing a lease, only to find on the day they received the keys that their pub company increased the prices, meaning the couple can only afford to pay themselves one salary. We also heard about the couple who ploughed—
That has been preoccupying me for several minutes, Mr Speaker. None the less, I would not like the couple who ploughed their life savings into acquiring a pub only to find the agreed credit order with their pubco was unilaterally withdrawn, leaving the business in ruins, to be left out of my contribution. I am glad that they found their way in.
Our motion calls for three key steps to be taken that will ultimately lead to a better future for Britain’s boozers. First, we need a mandatorv free-of-tie option. The beer tie, whereby landlords can buy products only from their pubco, works for some licensees, but for many others it means that they can buy only limited products at inflated prices. We want every landlord to have the choice of whether to go free of tie. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), whom we all miss terribly, although she will be back with us soon, has previously said that she is
“committed to stamping out abuse of the beer tie”.
Clearly, there is only one way to do that.
The Government have previously committed to the principle that no landlord should be worse off than they would be in an otherwise free-of-tie pub, but the behaviour of the pub companies suggests to me that that will not happen without allowing the market to decide. Members who are worrying that such a measure would go against their free market principles should have no fear. What the pubcos are defending is an old- fashioned closed shop, whereas what we are proposing is a genuinely competitive market solution that stands up for the rights of the small entrepreneur.
Secondly, we need independent rent reviews. When a new licensee takes over a pub, or when an existing rent contract expires and is renegotiated, there should be a fully transparent and independent rent review, completed by a qualified surveyor. That would deal with so many of the horror stories that we have heard in this debate and previously.
Finally, there must be a truly independent body to monitor the regulations and adjudicate in disputes between licensees and pubcos. There is little confidence in how PICAS, the Pubs Independent Conciliation and Arbitration Service, or PIRRS, the Pubs Independent Rent Review Scheme, are operating, with many of the people going through the PICAS process unhappy with the outcome.
Those are our tests, which are grounded in the principles of building a market that works, with rules to prevent restrictive practices and big companies unfairly using their size in an uncompetitive way. I know that Members across the House share this vision, so let us unite today behind this vital British industry and this vital British institution, and deliver the change that publicans, licensees, business groups, trade unionists, beer enthusiasts and the great British public are crying out for. I commend the motion to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“welcomes the opportunity to debate the issue of fairness in the relationship between publicans and pub owning companies; notes the concerns, acknowledged by the Government in January 2013, about the failure of pub company self-regulation to rebalance risk and reward between the companies and their tenants and lessees; recognises the excellent work and the four Reports that the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee and predecessor Committees have produced over the years on this issue; further notes that the previous Government failed to take any position on this important issue until February 2010, just two months before the dissolution of Parliament and the end of its term in office; further notes that this Government held the first ever consultation to explore how best to protect tenants and lessees through a statutory code of practice backed by an independent adjudicator; further notes that this consultation received a very large response and that it is right that the Government carefully considers the huge volume of the evidence received as part of this consultation before publishing its response as soon as it can in 2014.”.
I welcome the opportunity to debate, again, fairness in the relationship between publicans and pub-owning companies, on which, at least on the broad principle, there is a wide measure of agreement. Perhaps I might thank the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) for what, by his standards, must rank as a calm and consensual introduction. I wrote down the word “statesmanlike” at one point, but that was probably a bit excessive, so we will save it for another occasion.
My own approach to the matter is slightly coloured by the fact that I have only just stepped off an aeroplane from a part of the world where tasting alcohol is likely to lead someone into prison, if they are lucky. Indeed, I spent yesterday evening in a bar where the most potent drinks on offer were “mocktails”. At least in this country we do value our pubs, not simply for the drinks but for the fact that this is a major industry, with a large number of small and medium-sized companies. The people who run them are hard-working and not well paid. Hundreds of thousands of people work in the industry, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, makes a contribution to the communities in which we live.
The central issue in the debate is not about the principles, which we have debated before and on which there is a lot of common ground, but, “Why the delay? Why have the Government not given a formal response?” Let me explain the point. We received a big response to the consultation, which, let us remember, was the first Government consultation on a specific set of proposals in the long period, under both Governments, during which the issue has been considered by the Select Committee and others. We had a formal consultation, to which there was a massive response. We received about 9,000 responses, more than 1,000 of which were very specific—they were often written communications with nuanced arguments, which we must try to address. We are trying to look at the evidence in an objective way. The evidence may well point in one direction, but there are competing studies; the London Economics survey has been mentioned, but another good study has been done by the Federation of Small Businesses. Such studies do give different arguments, which we must evaluate.
Let us also remember that the industry is a complex one, and it was not a simple “yes or no” issue. The consultation also covered a set of other issues, including flow monitoring, guest beer and the gaming tie, each of which must be examined properly, not to mention its open question, which was about the mandatory free-of-tie option and open market rent review. Everybody concerned with the matter knows that that is the core issue, on which, although there was a strong opinion, there was less unanimity. We must respond to those issues and try to come forward with a proposal that carries the House and as many of the stakeholders as possible. I am very conscious of the legislative timetable, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no attempt to delay on those grounds. We want to see action, but first we must provide a thorough and proper response to the consultation. Of course we have already released the evidence.
There is a lot of cross-party support for this matter, but I get the impression that the Government are taking for granted my good nature and that of other hon. Members. Will the Liberals go into the next general election having done absolutely nothing on this important issue?
I have a lot of sympathy for what has been said in the debate so far, but I am a little troubled by suggestions that this problem arose only in May 2010. I had an Adjournment debate on the issue during the previous Parliament, and a number of other debates were also held, but nothing was ever done. My right hon. Friend was right to suggest that this is not a simple issue.
I thank my hon. Friend, who remembers such things from his time in the House, for his reminder. We have, I think, had four Select Committee reports under different Governments. The matter has been actively debated for something in the order of eight years, and we have moved quickly on it in comparison with what went before.
The failure of the pub companies to self-regulate underlines the need for an adjudicator, as does the fact that a number of pubs are closing. Does the Minister not feel that there is a sense of urgency in relation to bringing in legislation?
As I will say later—we have covered the matter in earlier debates—we did try to encourage self-regulation. We drew the conclusion that the action had not been adequate, which is why we moved on to proposals for statutory regulation on which we are now consulting. We have been down that road; we have tried that.
I agree with the Secretary of State that it is important that we get this right. I must impress on him that there is a degree of urgency now with the forthcoming Queen’s Speech. Does he agree that we should recognise the fantastic job that local organisations, such as the Campaign for Real Ale group, are doing? In my area, CAMRA has pioneered a number of pub salvations, working with the community to ensure that the King’s Arms at Shouldham and the Dabbling Duck at Great Massingham were able to survive.
That was the purpose of the Government consultation. Statutory regulation was necessary, and we consulted on how to do it. We are now evaluating the results of that process. The House will soon hear our conclusions on how to take the matter forward.
Let me repeat my appreciation for the work that has been done by Members from all parts of the House. I also thank the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, whose Chairman is here, and the various campaigning groups for their work on the matter. It would not be amiss to single out Fair Deal For Your Local, which is the campaign that has been mobilised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland). As part of his campaign, he has brought together CAMRA, the Federation of Small Businesses and the GMB union as well as various other groups. We are talking about local and national groups across industry and across the country.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way and for what he said about me being a statesman. If I may, I will press him on the timetable issue that has been raised. If he accepts that statutory regulation of some sort is necessary and the consultation overwhelmingly supports the majority of such aspects, will he at least commit to some sort of legislative action in the next Queen’s Speech, and will he say that we will not get to the end of this Parliament with nothing having changed?
I cannot really add to what I have already said. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are following a process. I am conscious of the legislative timetable, and he will remember—indeed it is the whole purpose of this debate—that the Government did not consult in an open-ended way over this question; we consulted on a specific proposal to introduce statutory regulation, and that is what we are responding to. Although I am conscious of the legislative timetable, I will not give a specific date on which this report will be concluded.
As a member of the Select Committee, I urge the Secretary of State to take action as soon as possible, but I do understand the need to listen to the consultation. A moment ago, he mentioned some of the broad campaigning that has gone into this matter, and the organisation Fair Deal For Your Local, which I support. Does he agree that it is unfair of Opposition Members to suggest that this Government have done nothing for pubs when we have paid attention to the important campaign to end the unfair and job-destroying beer duty escalator?
Indeed. I will go on to talk about some of the things that the Government have done to help the pub industry, the most important of which is the tax measure. The combination of the 1p cut and the abolition of the escalator is the equivalent of 4p on a pint. There have also been various other measures to support community pubs, of which my hon. Friend will be well aware.
I have two points to make. One relates to the many pubs in my constituency and the curry industry, which is worth about £4 billion, and the other to the inter-relationship between beer and curry. What assessment has the Secretary of State’s Department made of the impact on pubs and the alcohol and restaurant industries of the increase in VAT to 20%?
Just about every aspect of the fiscal and economic implications for this industry has been exhaustively reviewed, and I will try to find out the answer to that specific question from the various studies that have been done. I do not think that we have specifically analysed the interaction between beers and curries, but I am sure that there is a positive correlation.
Will the Secretary of State urge his colleague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to give full consideration in advance of the Budget to a reduction in VAT on the hospitality industry, as it is urgently required not only in Northern Ireland but by the British Hospitality Association?
I have met the hospitality industry and it has set out its case for a VAT reduction. As the hon. Lady will know, I do not make the decisions on what goes into the Budget on tax measures. I am sure that there are many other claims on the Budget in terms of tax reduction and spending. Certainly, the hospitality industry has been very effective in making its case.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the measured way in which he is considering all the responses to the consultation. Does he understand the concerns raised by the Office of Fair Trading about the free-of-tie proposal as outlined in the consultation? It claims that it will increase rents and the price of beer and lead to the closure of more pubs.
I have not seen those comments by the Office of Fair Trading, but I will certainly look for them. I am rather surprised by them because the whole purpose of that option is to increase competition and market forces. If my hon. Friend could send me the details, I would be interested to see the response of the competition authorities.
As I own a pub, I have a great interest in this debate; I am chair of the John Clare Trust and we will be bringing this pub back to life through crowdfunding. The Secretary of State might not have control of the Budget, but he knows that there is a consultation on crowdfunding regulation. If we get that regulation wrong, it will stop a lot of community enterprises funding themselves, so will he ensure that it is appropriate?
I am well aware of the importance of crowdfunding, and the hon. Gentleman might have followed the progress of the business bank, which is now actively engaged in, and supporting, crowdfunding, certainly through the peer-to-peer lending streams. I am aware of the issues with the regulation. Some incumbents, understandably, want their industry regulated, but we need to balance that against the fact that new companies coming into the industry might be less enthusiastic about regulation. Incumbents such as Funding Circle have made a very good case for sensible, moderate regulation.
Let me move on. As I said, we have had four Select Committee investigations into whether the tied model is at the root of the unfairness in the relationship. We have received an enormous amount of correspondence, quite apart from that received from the various action groups, from tenants about problems in their relationships with pub companies and from MPs. The response I have had in the past 10 to 15 minutes shows how widespread such concerns are.
Although pub-owning companies can and sometimes do treat their tenants well, the overall sense from those representations is that the tie arrangements with the pub-owning companies are unfair and that a lack of transparency causes a severe imbalance of negotiating power. That is the essence of the problem. There is an issue about what exactly we should do about it, which is what we are consulting on, but there is no doubt about the problems.
It has also been very clear from the discussions led by the Select Committee over the years that the problem is not so much the tied business model but the unfairness with which it operates. There is quite a lot of debate about the evidence on the speed of closures and how they operate in the tied sector and the non-tied sector. My understanding is that there has been a fairly steady rate of decline, from some 70,000 pubs in 1980 to 50,000 today. Depressingly, that is something in the order of 18 a week net. That decline has continued even after some of the big changes that have taken place in the industry—from the beer orders to pub company consolidation. I know that there is a debate among campaigners about whether tied pubs are more likely to close than pubs that are free of tie, but the evidence I have seen goes both ways. This is not fundamentally an argument about pub closures; it is essentially about the unfairness of and inequalities in the relationship.
My right hon. Friend is right to broaden his critique beyond the tie itself, important though that is. In my constituency, the landlord of a pub in Melksham complains that Punch is in breach of its own code of practice and of the framework of the British pub industry. He asks where else he can go under the current arrangements, without statutory regulation, when he finds that he gets no joy from the self-regulatory system on a range of issues from dilapidation surveys to meetings that are not minuted.
May I move on, as the hon. Gentleman has intervened once already?
Just as this is not primarily an issue about the rate of closures, I think we would all agree that it is not fundamentally an issue of consumer choice. Otherwise, the competition authorities would have been engaged a long time ago. It has already been shown that the share of microbreweries has increased over the period for which many pubs have been under a great deal of stress. The number of breweries now tops 1,000, the highest figure since the 1930s.
The conclusion that I think we have all reached is that there are issues with the beer tie, but that is not the fundamental problem in itself. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee argued that it does not want to see the tie model disappear. Under proper conditions, it is a business model that can be used and it has been around in various forms since the 18th century. The abuses are a different matter and are due in part to the lack of transparency in the relationship between the pub-owning companies and their tenants, which is what I want to turn to.
I was recently contacted by my constituent, Claire, who has been told by her landlords, Enterprise Inns, that the rent on her pub, the Pattenmakers Arms in Duffield, will increase by 42% in April. Claire loves her pub and has brought it from being a grubby and run-down pub to an award winner; she even worked while she was battling breast cancer. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the pub companies whose business practices force out committed publicans such as Claire will be dealt with effectively by some sort of adjudicator?
That is a truly awful case. I hope to see the details of that example, because although we have a lot of cases, it seems to be a particularly bad one. I guess that would be one of the factors that led the Government to conclude that the voluntary code approach was not satisfactory, as presumably it has already been used.
The voluntary approach did have some positive outcomes, such as the Pubs Independent Conciliation and Arbitration Service and the framework code, but the conclusion we came to at the beginning of last year was that the changes had not gone far enough and that problems persisted. To us, the essential point is best captured in the work done by CAMRA that suggests that 57% of tied tenants earn less than £10,000 a year. If we apply that to 35-hour week, 48 weeks a year, we are talking about less than £6 an hour, which means that people are working for considerably less than the minimum wage. Since many work much longer hours, that means that this is a very low-paid industry. Many publicans are struggling. In contrast, only 25% of those who are free of tie are on at the same income level. There is a striking disparity, which is at the heart of the question.
The Secretary of State is being very generous in giving way. Does he agree that many of these disputes need to go to adjudication? Does he share my view and that of many colleagues that getting an adjudication system in place as soon as possible is essential?
Indeed. That was the objective of the consultation. Let me briefly reveal the history, as we have been talking about it implicitly throughout these exchanges. We announced last January that it was time for the Government to step in and the consultation was launched along the lines envisaged by the Select Committee on a statutory code of practice and an independent adjudicator. That was the framework of the Government recommendation. We included an open question on the mandatory free-of-tie option with open rent review and we tried to underpin a specific intervention with a framework, a philosophy, a set of principles, the overarching fair-dealing provision and the core principle that a tied tenant should be no worse off than a free-of-tie tenant.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, he is being very generous. Does he recognise that because of the relationship between the licensee and the pub companies, whatever the licensee does means in some circumstances that the pub company asks them for more money? If they put on food, for example, the pub company increases their rent. The relationship is fundamentally unequal and difficult.
The hon. Lady is stating in her own way what I have already said several times and what I think is the consensus. There is an imbalance in the relationship, which is not equal. The market does not deliver a fair outcome, which is why we are considering how we can change it.
We did not want to reopen the fundamental issue about the pub tie, but to decide how to address the unfairness of it, and the consultation revealed the depth of feeling on the subject, which all the interventions that we have had so far have reinforced. The responses came not just from the pubcos and the tenants, but from supply chain companies, consumer groups and trade bodies, all of which fed into the consultation, and they were so many and diverse that we published them just before Christmas so that hon. Members were aware of what was being said before we came to a conclusion on how to respond.
As I have said already, we want to respond as quickly as possible. We fully understand the problems, not just because distressing cases are continuing but because people in the industry want clarity, and it is perfectly reasonable for people to want regulatory certainty. We do not want to rush into a decision. We want to get this right, but we realise that there is some urgency because people need to make investment decisions. We are trying to get this absolutely right and we want the intervention that we make to be proportionate and properly targeted.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for taking a further intervention and for all the others that he has taken. He makes the case for urgency, which is reflected across the House. Does he not accept that his failure to answer the question from the shadow Minister and the Chair of the Select Committee, together with the wording of the Government’s amendment, will be seen widely throughout the country as an attempt simply to kick this issue into the long grass? Will he reassure the House that that is not the case by giving a commitment that legislation will come forward in this Parliament?
There is no attempt to kick this into the long grass. We are trying to do this properly. I can assure him that it will be dealt with in a timely way. We are not cutting corners. As I said at the beginning, we have a large number of responses and different strands of evidence that we are trying to reconcile and respond to properly. We must do this right.
The whole issue of the beer tie, the relationship with the pubcos, is crucial, and we must take action in the way that we have discussed, but it is not the only set of measures for the pub industry. We are sometimes in danger of losing sight of the bigger picture. Thanks to interventions from Government Members there was reference to the budgetary measures that have been taken, and I would add to that the action taken on business rates, including the capping of the business rate increase, the continuation of business rate relief, the £1,000 discount for retail outlets, which include pubs, and some of the action taken by my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, for example the pub is the hub scheme and the community right to bid to keep pubs open. A lot needs to happen and a lot is happening on a broad front, and I reassure the House of my commitment, which remains as strong as ever, to addressing the unfairness in the relationship between pub companies and their tenants.