House of Commons
Tuesday 8 April 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Transport for London Bill [Lords]
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 29 April (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
We are gravely concerned about the situation in Crimea and in the east of Ukraine, where armed groups have seized Government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk. There can be no justification for this action, which bears all the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilise Ukraine. Russia should be clear that the deliberate escalation of this crisis will bring serious political and economic consequences.
In February, the Chancellor of the Exchequer offered financial assistance to Ukraine. At the start of this month, Gazprom put up the price of gas to Ukraine. What safeguards has the Foreign Secretary put in place to stop any aid we give to Ukraine going straight to Russia via increased gas prices?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the aid that he is speaking of is the International Monetary Fund programme, and work continues on that programme. The Ukrainian Government have been discussing the first stage of that with the IMF. To obtain that aid, Ukraine must meet the conditions set by the IMF, including on how that money is used. Of course Ukraine would enjoy a more successful and prosperous future if Russia were to join the rest of the international community in supporting the economic future of Ukraine.
Following the praise of the UK Independence party on Russian-controlled television yesterday, will my right hon. Friend remind the House of the guiding principles of British foreign policy towards Ukraine, namely that Ukraine has a democratic right to self-determination and that sending in the tanks and holding a sham referendum in the Crimea under the shadow of the Kalashnikov is not only aggression but illegal in international law and a threat to the security of the world?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The guiding principles for us are that the development of democratic institutions in Ukraine and a rules-based international system are in the national interest of the United Kingdom. For any parties or leaders in Britain to feed a Russian propaganda machine after the invasion of a neighbouring country is not a responsible position to take, particularly for anyone who professes to believe in the independence and sovereignty of nations.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and that was of course one of the most alarming aspects of the authority that President Putin asked for in February—that it covered the use of armed force in Ukraine in general. As he knows, the European Union and the United States have imposed certain sanctions, but the European Commission has been asked by the European Council to draw up further far-reaching measures and economic and other sanctions to be implemented in the event of a further escalation and intensification of the crisis by Russia. Any invasion of eastern Ukraine of course falls into that category.
I appreciate that this is not in my right hon. Friend’s gift, but in the event of the situation deteriorating materially, will he at least support the notion that Parliament may have to be recalled? When talking to other Foreign Ministers in the European Union, has he emphasised the importance of a concerted and determined approach to these issues and that any sign of disunity or lack of commitment would undoubtedly be exploited by Moscow?
Yes, absolutely. On the first point, Parliament must always be able to deliberate urgently, although I have always taken the view that before Parliament has gone into recess is too early to call for it to be recalled. However, I take my right hon. and learned Friend’s point about that. I absolutely agree with his second point. At the meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Athens over the weekend, I emphasised that the strength and unity of the European Union on this issue will be a vital determinant of the ultimate outcome.
Although I fully support the Foreign Secretary’s strategy, does he accept that the more the Ukrainian Government can reach out to the Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, the less of an excuse President Putin will have for taking provocative action there?
Yes. I think that is an extremely important point and it is one that I have emphasised over the past couple of weeks to both Prime Minister Yatsenyuk of Ukraine and Foreign Minister Deshchytsia. We say constantly to the Ukrainian authorities that it is important that the Government in Kiev show that they represent all the regions of the country. It is of course important to discuss decentralisation in Ukraine without necessarily accepting an agenda of paralysis by federalism, as proposed by Russia.
Although all historical analogies tend to be misleading, can it be borne in mind that if we are looking back to the 1930s, as we are fully entitled to do, the occupation of the Crimea and Sevastopol bears more resemblance to the Anschluss than to the invasion of Sudetenland? If the Russians were actually to invade Ukraine, that of course would be an act of naked aggression.
I think there was a good deal of naked aggression in what happened in Crimea. Of course, my right hon. Friend is right about the great seriousness of any further encroachment into Ukraine. That is something we should bear in mind, as well as his point that historical analogies can always be misleading.
As the Foreign Secretary’s earlier answers show, the protests across the east of Ukraine, in cities including Donetsk, highlight the continued risk of violent escalation and further bloodshed in Ukraine. In his first answer, the Foreign Secretary spoke of recent events bearing all the hallmarks of Russian involvement. Would he be willing to set out for the House in a little more detail his judgment of the form that the involvement of Russia has taken in recent days?
Well, I said that it had the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilise Ukraine and that is something we must expect in the run-up to the Ukrainian presidential elections on 25 May. It would be consistent with Russia’s strategy and behaviour over recent weeks to try to damage the credibility of those elections, to take actions that would make it appear less credible to hold the elections in eastern parts of Ukraine and to make it more difficult for Ukraine to operate as a democratic state. Those hallmarks are all present in what has happened in recent days.
I note and welcome the Foreign Secretary’s answer. The Prime Minister said in his statement to this House on Ukraine:
“The international community remains ready to intensify sanctions if Russia continues to escalate this situation”.—[Official Report, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 350.]
In the light of the Foreign Secretary’s answer, and if reports of Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine prove correct, does he believe that that would constitute grounds for widening the economic and diplomatic pressure on President Putin?
That will depend on the course of events over the coming days and on the evidence of Russia’s involvement. The latest this morning is that the authorities in Kiev say that the situation is dangerous, as we have said in this House, but under control. Indeed, the administrative buildings in Kharkiv appear to be back under the control of the Ukrainian authorities. I think we will have to assess the situation over the coming days, but I say again that a deliberate escalation of the situation by Russia will bring serious political and economic consequences.
To what extent has the ability of our European allies to wage effective economic sanctions against Russia been undermined by their dependence on Russian gas sources and do we have a strategy for trying to persuade our allies to diversify their energy sources so that that dependence will be lessened in the future?
I think the answer is that that has not affected what we have done so far, but we have to be very conscious of that point and the effect it could have. We are very active—I at meetings of Foreign Ministers and the Prime Minister at the European Council—in saying that it will be necessary to accelerate measures that reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. The G7 leaders discussed that at some length at the meeting in The Hague two weeks ago and my hon. Friend will be aware that we are convening a meeting of Energy Ministers in the G7 precisely to discuss that ahead of the G7 Heads of Government meeting.
Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
TTIP is our top trade policy priority, worth up to £10 billion a year for the UK. The EU-US summit two weeks ago re-emphasised political support for that agreement, and our ambition remains to conclude the deal next year, with the fifth negotiating round due to take place next month.
The Prime Minister has already made it clear that part of our negotiating objective will be to make sure that, when it comes to health services, any provisions included in TTIP are broadly in line with our existing obligations under GATT. We do not envisage any significant change from the current position.
Does the Minister agree that there is a read-across between Ukraine and TTIP, with some seeing TTIP as an economic NATO? Binding the EU and the US together is bound to have political and geostrategic implications, and TTIP can become a symbol of Atlantic solidarity that may well check Russian imperialism.
I agree with my right hon. Friend about the symbolic as well as practical economic importance of the proposed deal. In practice, a successful transatlantic trade negotiation would establish global regulatory standards for business and trade on a transatlantic basis instead of the transatlantic powers having to copy others.
We publish details of ministerial meetings with external organisations on a quarterly basis, but in line with the practice of previous Governments, we do not intend to publish a list of meetings between Ministers and their departmental officials.
I am obviously not going to go into details of what may or may not have been discussed at a meeting, particularly one at which I was not present, but it remains the case that Foreign Office officials and Ministers speak to people of all types from many different parts of the world with a single objective in mind, which is how best to enhance the United Kingdom’s understanding of global events and strengthen its interest in world affairs.
Not to my knowledge. We take the view that this is a matter for the Government of Ireland. Clearly, there are strong bonds of friendship and history between the two countries, but it has to be a matter for the Irish people and the Irish Government to decide about any relationship with the Commonwealth.
European Union Powers (Repatriation)
Given that Lord Heseltine has now admitted that the Prime Minister’s approach to Europe is based on narrow party interest rather than the British national interest, will the Minister at last—this is the third time I have asked him at the Dispatch Box—tell us what his top policy priority is for repatriation from Europe and whether that would mean that the Government would then campaign to stay in the EU?
Our top policy priorities in European reform are to make the European Union more democratically accountable, more globally competitive and more flexible than it is today, that arrangements should be fair to eurozone members and non-members and to ensure that power can flow in both directions between Brussels and member states. I would have hoped that those were objectives that the Labour party would share, but it seems that I am to be disappointed.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should seek to repatriate control over social and employment legislation, which was handed over to Brussels by the previous Labour Government when they gave up our opt-out from the social chapter?
There are aspects of social and economic policy, such as the working time directive, the application of which have harmed the interests of the United Kingdom, and we do indeed need to seek changes to those policies where we think they make not just the United Kingdom, but the whole of Europe less competitive than we need to be.
No Foreign Office Ministers were present during yesterday’s debate on European matters, so will the Minister for Europe comment on the presidency text, which suggested that we would have to make a decision by June of this year as to what parts of the justice and home affairs opt-out we will opt into?
I read the comments in yesterday’s debate by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. As she told the House then, she is engaged, with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, in negotiations with other member states and with the European Commission. Those talks are moving forward constructively. We hope for agreement at the earliest possible date, but there is no artificial deadline, save the one in the treaties, which is 1 December this year.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the repatriation of powers under the common fisheries policy has enabled important localisation of benefits for British fishermen, and will he condemn UKIP, which voted against the iniquitous practice of fish discards?
The ban on the obscene practice of discarding and the shift of fisheries management back to local and regional level is a real achievement for United Kingdom MEPs working with colleagues from other countries and with the European Commissioner concerned. It is disappointing if some UK MEPs felt that there were more important calls on their time than to defend British fishing interests in the way that our MEPs did.
The Prime Minister promised us all that EU treaty change would happen by 2017 and that a major repatriation of powers would follow. Given that the French, the Germans and the Italians now, have all confirmed that this is not their priority, could that be why the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) thinks that the Prime Minister has made such a mess of winning back powers from the European Union?
Oh dear, dear, dear. I am heartened by the strong support in Denmark and the Netherlands for our ideas on strengthening the role of national Parliaments in the European Union, by the words in the German coalition agreement about the need for treaty changes in the future, and by the practical achievements in repatriation of powers, whether through fisheries or the arrangements for double voting on the single supervisory mechanism. What the British people are waiting to hear is whether the Opposition are prepared to trust the British people with the final decision on our membership of the European Union.
Freedom of Religion
The Foreign Office addresses freedom of religion or belief across the world through our bilateral relationships, through multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations, and through the Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group.
Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state face discrimination and a protracted humanitarian crisis, compounded by the failure of the Burmese Government to recognise their right to citizenship. What action is the Minister taking to prevent the Burmese Government from using their census, which receives some £10 million of UK assistance, to discriminate against Rohingya Muslims by refusing to recognise their religious and ethnic identity?
The hon. Lady’s point is well made. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), expressed our strong concerns about conditions there during his visit to Burma in January. He called the Minister, Khin Yi, on 26 March, and summoned the Burmese ambassador only yesterday to make these representations.
In the middle east, with the exception of Israel where there is a lot of freedom of religion and the Christian community has increased by 1,000% since the state of Israel came into being, there is a lack of freedom of religion. What are the Government attempting to do to resolve that?
Not least in response to concerns expressed across the House through the Foreign Office’s mail bag and at Question Time, we have made a priority of visiting religious leaders throughout the middle east during visits. Recently, I have seen the Copts in Egypt and the Catholic community in Jordan, and called in at the Holy See when I was in Rome for the Libya conference, to speak to them about their concerns.
18. I am sure the Minister is aware that the erosion of freedom of religious practice is an issue in a number of Commonwealth countries, including Malaysia, where the Malay word for God has effectively been banned, making the Bible illegal, and Brunei, where the introduction of sharia law has caused huge anxiety among the sizeable Filipino Catholic community there. Will the Minister ensure that these issues are raised not only in the forums to which he referred but through the Commonwealth forums, to ensure that there is real freedom of religion in Commonwealth countries? (903593)
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The Minister of State responsible for the Commonwealth, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), has got that message clearly. When I mentioned the multilateral institutions, I could not list them all, but clearly the Commonwealth is key among them.
Over the past 50 years the Jewish population in Arab countries has shrunk by 836,000 people, who are all refugees. At the same time there are some 836,000 Palestinian refugees. What is my right hon. Friend’s reaction to the fact that more than $2 billion has been spent supporting the Palestinian refugees, but zero on Israeli refugees?
Our allocations in this area are driven by need. I thank my hon. Friend for the various pieces of literature that he has provided to me, which I will follow up separately. There is a straightforward assessment of need. The situation of refugees, not only Jewish, not only Palestinian, across the middle east, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon—it is worth reminding the House that we have these questions at a time when the millionth Syrian refugee has arrived in Beirut—is a matter that we are addressing as a priority.
As we approach Easter, we know that millions of Christians across the world will be prevented from celebrating or will risk persecution for doing so. New research by the Pew research centre suggests that persecution of people who practise their religion increased in almost every major region of the world in recent years. In the light of such concerning reports, what specific steps are the UK Government taking as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council to ensure that tackling the persecution of Christians and promoting freedom of religion is a key priority?
That is a good question. As I said in my original answer, the Foreign Office picks up the issue through bilateral relationships with the countries concerned, through the multilateral institutions and through the Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group. This is an issue that we will concentrate on over the period. The reaction that we have had across the House and from those with whom we have had contact indicates that this is a serious issue and it is one that we will take seriously.
Human Rights (North Korea)
The UN commission of inquiry report on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea documented appalling human rights violations. The UK played a leading role in ensuring a strong UN Human Rights Council resolution on the issue, which made it clear that there can be no impunity for those responsible.
The report documented a totalitarian state on a par with Nazi Germany, systematically starving, torturing and murdering its own people, and in reply North Korea, backed by China, told the international community to mind its own business. How do we tilt the balance of China’s perception of its national interest so that it stops protecting the war criminals in Pyongyang?
My hon. Friend is right. The Human Rights Council resolution talked about state-sanctioned horrific violations, which it described as
“without parallel in the contemporary world”.
At the UK-China strategic dialogue my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the commission of inquiry report with State Councillor Yang, and we continue to discuss human rights abuses in the DPRK with the Chinese and other parties.
North Korea’s periodic review at the United Nations is due on 1 May. Will the Government take that chance to highlight the fact that 25% of Christians are incarcerated in North Korea, and to highlight the repatriation of people from China to North Korea, where they are treated very badly?
It is right that in the run-up to Easter this House should be concerned about the freedom to practise Christianity. The stories included in the report of the persecution of Christians in the DPRK are truly shocking. Refoulement, which the hon. Gentleman referred to in the second part of his question, is something we have been discussing with the Chinese.
The killing of parents in North Korea, many of whom are Christians, is leaving their children abandoned, confused, frightened, and left to starve to death. Has the Minister been able to have any discussions with the North Korean ambassador, or indeed with the Chinese authorities, who could add their influence, to see whether these people’s circumstances can be improved?
The threat in North Korea is unfortunately not just to the Christian community but to the other people of that country; the threat comes from their own Government. As I said, we are extremely concerned about the persecution of Christians and other minorities. The world is watching DPRK. We need to assemble all the evidence, because I believe that one day this appalling regime will be held to account.
7. What his priorities are for tackling discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity internationally; and what steps the Government are taking to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people worldwide. (903581)
The UK is committed to combating violence and discrimination wherever it occurs. FCO Ministers have recently raised LGBT issues with the Governments of Nigeria, Russia, India and Uganda. We used our 2013 chairmanship of the Council of Europe to reform legislation in Europe, and at the UN we have raised concerns about several other countries.
There is great concern across the House that the Government’s response to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act has been too weak. This dreadful violation of human rights needs a strong international response to send a clear message not only to Uganda but to other countries contemplating similar legislation. Does the Secretary of State accept that quiet diplomacy is not enough and that it is now time for targeted travel bans and meaningful sanctions as a real statement that the UK will not tolerate such abuse?
I have spent a good deal of time studying this issue, which I regard as very important. First, it is important for us to encourage a long-term change in attitudes. In Uganda, we support training, advocacy and legal cases related to the protection of LGBT rights. We fund a project by the Kaleidoscope Trust. I myself met the leading Ugandan LGBT human rights activist, Dr Frank Mugisha, to illustrate the importance we attach to this. However, I judge that were we to implement sanctions or other measures, it would penalise poor people who benefit from our development aid or could produce a counter-productive response in other African countries. It is a difficult judgment, but the approach I have outlined is what I consider to be the right one.
There is anecdotal evidence that since the passing of the law there has been an increase in persecution of and attacks on Ugandans who are homosexual. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with the Home Office on what approach it will take to those who seek refuge from persecution?
Of course, the Home Office applies strictly and properly the criteria for accepting people who are vulnerable to persecution as asylum seekers into this country. That can include people persecuted or at risk of discrimination or violence on grounds of LGBT activism, so that is an important criterion.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who is rapidly becoming one of the greatest Chancellors in modern times, is in Brazil this very week, as the fourteenth Government Minister to visit in the past 12 months. Yesterday he announced a further £4 million-worth of funding for UK Trade & Investment to support 3,000 exporters and to expand its operations to Latin America, as well as a special Bank of England facility to support lending.
But we still lag behind Germany, France and Italy in terms of the strength of our trading partnership with Brazil. Although the Brazilian economy is going through a tough time, is there any update on the bilateral tax treaty that we were pursuing? Is that part of the discussions during the Chancellor’s visit? When will we redouble our efforts to export to this important destination?
I am sure the Chancellor will be discussing all matters of interest to the UK economy and the City of London, double taxation being one of those. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, who was part of a Government who, for 13 years, had responsibility for Britain’s exports and relations with Brazil, that in the past 13 months alone there have been 14 ministerial visits to Brazil. That level of commitment was not matched in virtually the entire period of Labour’s maladministration.
Brazil is the leading economic and political power in south America. How successful are we being in persuading the Brazilians of the merits of the Falkland Islanders’ case that their sovereignty should be decided by the islanders themselves and not by their Argentine neighbours? [Interruption.]
I hope that Opposition Members are laughing about something else—perhaps they are not—because this is a very serious matter. Whenever we go around Latin America and, indeed, central America, we are always absolutely certain to make the case that the Falkland Islanders had a referendum in which they expressed an overwhelming desire to maintain their current status. That should be recognised by countries right across the world, not just in Latin America, if they believe in self-determination and human rights. Unfortunately, one particular country in Latin America continues to bully and intimidate the Falkland Islands.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnians are deeply frustrated by the failure of political leaders to deliver on any of the issues that matter. During my visit to Bosnia 10 days ago, I urged Bosnia’s leaders to respond to protesters’ legitimate demands and to avoid ethnic and secessionist rhetoric. The redrawing of borders in the Balkans is finished.
The challenge of Bosnia continues to be exacerbated by secessionist voices within the entity of Republika Srpska. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Europe and the United States must address this threat to the stability of Bosnia and that the international community must be prepared to sanction those responsible for it?
Certainly, the international community must address those issues. We will discuss them at the European Union Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg next Monday. It will be vital, after the elections take place in Bosnia and Herzegovina in October, for there to be a major international effort to ensure that a functioning state is created in Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is not happening at the moment.
This is the first opportunity I have had to put on the record my sadness at the passing of Margo MacDonald, the former SNP Member for Glasgow, Govan. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would wish to pass on their condolences to Jim Sillars—himself a former Member for Glasgow, Govan—and the extended family.
On Bosnia, the Foreign Secretary is aware that Croatian Bosnians are able to access and have passports from the Republic of Croatia; that, soon, Bosnian Serbs will be able to have Serbian EU passports; and that the one group of citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina who will not be able to have EU passports are the Bosniaks themselves. What can the Foreign Secretary do to ensure a European perspective for all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina?
I join in the tribute to Margo MacDonald on her passing and to her strong record in this House in the past.
On the very important question of what happens to the whole population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I spoke about it on Saturday with other EU Foreign Ministers, including those from EU candidate countries, and stressed the very point the hon. Gentleman has just made. An unstable Bosnia threatens the stability of the whole of the western Balkans. That is why we have to make sure there is a functioning state in that country in the coming years.
In the past few days, I have discussed progress with Secretary Kerry and President Abbas, and I will speak to my Israeli counterparts in the coming days. Secretary Kerry’s tireless efforts provide an unparalleled opportunity to achieve a two-state solution. I urge both parties to show the bold leadership needed to resolve this conflict once and for all.
I certainly welcome the information provided by the Foreign Secretary, but he will be aware of press stories that the latest report by the European heads of mission in East Jerusalem states that Israeli policies in Jerusalem are aimed at
“cementing its unilateral and illegal annexation of East Jerusalem”,
with an unprecedented surge in settlement activity. Does the Foreign Secretary concur with that view and, if so, what is he doing to ensure the future of Jerusalem as a shared capital as part of the negotiations?
Jerusalem, as a shared capital, is part of what we believe is a characteristic of achieving a two-state solution, along with a solution based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps and with a just, fair and agreed settlement for refugees. It is vital that that possibility is kept open. That is why so many of us on all sides of the House have voiced such strong disapproval of settlements on occupied land, which are illegal. We make that point regularly to the Israelis—indeed, I will do so to an Israeli Minister this afternoon—and we urge them to take the opportunity of peace.
Last December, the Foreign Secretary said that the British Government have been
“clear to the Palestinians that there is no alternative to negotiations”
and that “we oppose unilateral measures”. What representation has he made to the Palestinian Authority following its return to unilateral actions last week, in violation of its commitment to abstain for the duration of direct peace talks?
I called President Abbas last Thursday to repeat our view that the only chance of achieving a viable and sovereign Palestinian state is through negotiations. President Abbas assured me that he remains committed to negotiations, so we will continue to encourage him and Israeli leaders to make a success—even at this stage—of this opportunity.
It is essential that both sides return to negotiations and that they recognise that they will both have to make great compromises to secure a negotiated peace. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that the Palestinian leadership has been preparing the Palestinians for peace when terrorists freed by Israel have been welcomed in the Palestinian Authority as heroes? A broadcast by Palestinian Authority TV has honoured Dalal Mughrabi, who was responsible for a hijacking in which 37 Israeli citizens, including 12 children, were killed.
Prisoner releases are always controversial in a peace process, as we know well in our own country, but I absolutely regard President Abbas, the leader of the Palestinians, as a man of peace, and I pay tribute to the bold leadership that he has shown on these issues in recent months. As the hon. Lady has just heard, I have urged him to continue with that, and we must focus on that point.
Last week, President Abbas signed and submitted letters of accession to 15 conventions, including the fourth Geneva convention. No decision is imminent or necessary at the moment on these things, and given that our focus is on urging both Palestinians and Israelis to make a success of the negotiations, I do not believe that it would be wise for us or other countries to pass judgment on those applications now.
UN Human Rights Council
The 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council took strong action to combat impunity by voting through resolutions on Syria, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Sri Lanka in response to UN reporting on allegations of serious human rights violations.
I will focus on the international inquiry into the conflict in Sri Lanka. Given the Rajapaksa Government’s hostility, what mechanisms are available to the inquiry to enable it to carry out its investigation on the island and what protections can it give to the witnesses that come before it, both of which are absolutely critical if we are to get to the bottom of the events in 2009?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We got through the resolution that we wanted. The Prime Minister showed tremendous leadership on this. We were completely vindicated in our decision to go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary included—because had we not gone there, we would not be in the position that we are today. Now that the international community has spoken through the United Nations Human Rights Council, it is important that the Government in Colombo listen to what has been said and what is asked of them, and that we can conduct an investigation through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to make that country a better place for all.
Will the Minister also maintain the robust approach to human rights abuses in Tibet with the UK-China human rights dialogue coming up, and will he press the Chinese for a date for the visit to Tibet and China by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, to which China has agreed?
We are of course looking forward to the human rights dialogue with the Chinese, for which a date will be forthcoming shortly. It is worth saying that the new configuration of the Human Rights Council means that it is less prepared to support country mandates, because re-elected along with the United Kingdom were Russia, China and Cuba.
Successive UK Governments have not routinely negotiated with foreign Governments over private compensation claims. However, the UK has raised with the Libyan authorities on a number of occasions the importance of engaging with UK victims seeking redress, including those seeking compensation through private campaigns, and with their legal representatives.
The Minister will be aware that the American victims of Semtex bombings have received more than £1 billion of compensation, while the 200 UK victims have so far received nothing. Can he assure the House that no deal was done in 2008 as part of the normalisation of relations with Gaddafi, to the detriment of my constituents?
Yes, I can. I should probably say to my hon. Friend that the situation here is very different from that in the United States, because we have victims who have suffered by a wide range of means, not merely Semtex. However, I can absolutely assure him that the claim that Government officials took any action in the 2008 bilateral agreement between the US and Libya that denied UK victims compensation is wrong.
The UK is leading international efforts to help the estimated 4.1 million Syrian refugees in the region and 6.5 million internally displaced people. So far we have provided £241 million in life-saving support to civilians caught up in the conflict and allocated £292 million to help refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries.
Is my right hon. Friend concerned by reports from Open Doors that 3,000 Christians have fled their homes in Kessab, in northern Syria, in the past few days owing to fighters of the al-Nusra Front and ISIS entering north-west Syria from Turkey? Ethnic conflict is increasing there and aid cannot get through. Has he made representations to the relevant authorities about Turkey’s porous borders?
We are very concerned about reports of violence and of people being displaced in Kessab. It is difficult to establish accurate numbers, but we are working closely with the Turkish Government to restrict the ability of foreign fighters to cross into Syria. I have discussed that recently with the Foreign Minister of Turkey.
Very little progress has been made, despite the successful passing of UN Security Council resolution 2139, which included the authorisation of cross-border access. The Security Council is due to review the position every 30 days, and at the coming review we will press strongly for full use to be made of what is authorised in that resolution.
Yesterday I attended the commemoration in Rwanda on the 20th anniversary of the genocide, and today I will join in welcoming the President of the Irish Republic on his historic state visit.
Does my right hon. Friend welcome robust political engagement with European politicians such as Martin Schulz, the socialist President of the European Parliament, or will he be on his knees begging him not to come to the UK during the European parliamentary campaign, like the Labour party?
I welcome the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, but given that President Rajapaksa has failed to comply with previous resolutions and with the very generous last-chance offer that the Prime Minister gave him at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, and has now rejected the current resolution outright, does the Foreign Secretary still think it is appropriate for President Rajapaksa to continue as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth? If this is referred to the Commonwealth ministerial action group, what position will the UK take?
The UK is not on the Commonwealth ministerial action group, as the hon. Lady knows, nor is it in our gift to determine the chair of the Commonwealth ourselves, but it was within our gift to decide to go to Sri Lanka and to raise these issues. As the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) has just made clear, there would have been no chance of succeeding in the Human Rights Council, as we recently did, had it not been for the Prime Minister’s leadership, our presence in Sri Lanka and our willingness to show how passionate we are about what happened in the north of Sri Lanka. The Opposition’s attitude of not going to Sri Lanka would have been a terrible misjudgement.
T3. I was pleased to read in a recent report by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that the Government have been developing a strategy towards the Gulf. In view of the obvious complexities of the middle east, does the Foreign Secretary agree that there is now a very good case for opening up that approach to a broader regional strategy? (903565)
Absolutely. The Gulf strategy has been developed over a number of years and is already paying benefits not only diplomatically but economically and commercially across a wide range of areas. Indeed, the strategy has been such a success that many other people are looking to establish such a relationship with us.
T4. Has the Secretary of State received any recent reports on the condition of the seven Baha’i leaders who are now approaching the sixth anniversary of their incarceration in Iran? Will he take this opportunity to call again for their release? (903566)
Yes, we will. As the hon. Lady is aware, there is a gradual and staged process of unfreezing relationships with the Iranian Government. We have not directly addressed that issue personally at ministerial level, but it is one of the issues that we will take up as we move the relationship forward.
As the Foreign Secretary has made clear, at the moment the entire and sole focus of our policy on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories has to be to get behind the peace process led by John Kerry. Once that process has been concluded—I hope successfully—there will be an opportunity to look at all these issues afresh.
T5. In a recent report on Colombia, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights again emphasised her concerns about human rights. Will the Minister confirm what recent discussions he has had with the Colombian Government on protecting the safety of human rights defenders and trade unionists? (903567)
Human rights continue to be a very important part of our relationship with Colombia. We discussed human rights with President Santos and Defence Minister Pinzon during the visit of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to Colombia in February. He also met a range of non-governmental organisations that work in the human rights field and hosted a high-profile event on sexual violence in conflict. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) will want to be aware that we are also publishing our annual human rights report on Thursday.
Since independence in 1991, Ukraine has held a number of elections in which the results have been called into question by the various participants, and it is crucial that that does not reoccur. What help and support are the UK giving to the Government of Ukraine to ensure that the forthcoming elections are truly free and fair?
I have made that very point strongly to Ukrainian leaders that it is important that the elections on 25 May are well observed internationally and are accepted as fully free and fair, which includes accepting the recommendations made by observers of previous elections. I believe the Ukrainians have the resources to do that, so our efforts will be focused on ensuring good observation and trying to ensure good procedures.
T6. The Foreign Secretary has talked proudly of his preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative and the summit in June. Given the concerns that many hon. Members have about what is happening in Sri Lanka, does he believe that the Sri Lankan Government will attend, and what action will he take if they do not? (903568)
Of course, I am not able to compel any Government to attend. I have invited the 143 nations that so far have endorsed the declaration that I launched on ending sexual violence to attend the summit in June, but I cannot force any of them to do so. However, given events in Sri Lanka in recent decades, it would be highly appropriate for the Sri Lankan Government to be there and to present their plans. I have encouraged them to do so.
As a unique financial hub, we have the power to inflict more painful sanctions not only on Russians who are involved in assisting intervention in the Ukraine, but on the wealthy friends and backers of Vladimir Putin. We also have a unique responsibility as the European guarantor of the Budapest memorandum, which should have protected Ukraine from Russian aggression. If Russia further violates Ukrainian sovereignty, should we not use that power to uphold that responsibility?
The Budapest memorandum of 1994 does not give us a specific power other than to call for consultations with the other signatories. Although we, Ukraine and the United States have done that, Russia has refused to join those consultations. However, the European Commission has been asked to prepare more far-reaching measures which, as the Prime Minister has said, cover economic, financial and trade areas. It is doing that work. We will be in favour of such far-reaching measures if Russia deliberately continues and deliberately escalates the situation in Ukraine.
T8. Greenpeace campaigns against Procter & Gamble’s use of palm oil, which reports say is being sourced from companies contributing to the deforestation in Indonesia, endangering the habitats of Sumatran tigers, elephants and orangutans. Given that the Minister is the Government’s strategic relations manager for Procter & Gamble, what discussions has he had with the company on the matter, and can he say whether this would be endorsed under the Government’s action plan on business and human rights? (903571)
Following the successful renegotiation of fisheries policy back to regional control, will the Government use their good offices to ensure that they decide which greening measures to use rather than them being dictated by the EU?
My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs always have in mind in the application of European rules how they can secure the best possible opportunities for this country’s agriculture. They will continue to do so.
T9. Will the Minister give us an update on the political situation in Venezuela, and tell us what prospects he sees for dialogue and an end to violence? What action are the UK Government taking in relation to that? (903572)
We are extremely concerned about the situation in Venezuela. In my statement of 26 March, I urged all sides to take steps to avoid confrontation, reduce tensions and create the right conditions for genuine dialogue. A commission of Foreign Ministers from the Union of South American Nations group of countries is on its second visit to Venezuela as we speak. They will support and advise on dialogue between the parties. We hope that that will play a positive role in helping to avoid violence and in promoting reconciliation in Venezuela.
What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had about the situation in Ukraine with his counterparts in other countries in the former Soviet Union but outside the European Union, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, to understand their perspectives and concerns as he develops his thinking on that area?
We have had many discussions at many different levels with those countries. I think it was significant that, when it came to the vote at the UN General Assembly on what has happened in Crimea, only 11 countries in the world supported the Russian position. Even many of the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States were not willing to support the Russian position. That is an illustration of Russia’s diplomatic isolation on the issue.
The long-suffering Christian communities of Kessab were mentioned earlier. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that this community is predominantly of Armenian origin, facing the 100th anniversary of the last Armenian genocide. Many of my Armenian constituents are convinced that Turkey is facilitating, or at least not preventing, the cross-border attacks and atrocities. Will he undertake to raise this matter with his opposite numbers?
As I said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), we are very concerned about what has happened, particularly in recent days, in that part of Syria. We do, in any case, raise with Turkey the importance of doing everything possible to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Given the concern in this House, it is a point we will raise again with the Turkish Government.
Following the Minister for Europe’s visit to Georgia last week, does he now discern a pattern of prosecutorial intimidation of Opposition politicians, and does he share my extreme concern that the highly respected Giga Bokeria was hauled in by prosecutors on Friday?
In my conversations with the Prime Minister and other Ministers when I was in Georgia last week, I repeated very clearly that it is in Georgia’s interests, as well as the expectation of the United Kingdom and Georgia’s other friends, that while no one should be exempt from due process, we should avoid any appearance or risk of selective justice of the kind we saw under the previous regime in Ukraine.
Once again there has been very little discussion today of the situation in Syria, yet the conflict continues. Thousands are being killed and millions are being displaced. What are the Government and the international community doing to stop this dreadful conflict?
The hon. Lady is quite right. This remains the most serious crisis in international affairs, even by comparison with all the others we have discussed. The international community has so far failed to resolve this conflict. We remain in favour of a third round of the Geneva talks, but that requires greater flexibility on the part of the regime with regard to what it will negotiate. In the absence of such progress, our focus is on humanitarian assistance to the millions of people displaced. On that, the United Kingdom plays a leading role in the world.
The Foreign Secretary will have heard the findings of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the impact of climate change. What diplomatic initiatives are his Department taking to broker international agreement to cut global carbon emissions?
The United Kingdom is one of the most active countries in the world diplomatically in promoting global, binding agreement to address climate change. The IPCC report underlines the extreme urgency of this issue. I discuss regularly with Secretary Kerry what we can do with the US Administration to push forward international agreement. We will remain very active on this issue.
Fifteen thousand UK jobs rely on employment in the Ford plants at both Dagenham and Bridgend, which is close to my constituency. What does the Minister make of the comments by Steve Odell, the chief executive of Ford’s European operations, who said:
“I don’t want to threaten the British government”—
but, and it is a big but—
“I would strongly advise against leaving the EU for business purposes, and for employment purposes in the UK”?
Mr Odell, like many other business leaders in this country, has been very clear about the economic risks that would be taken were the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. That, no doubt, will be one of the chief arguments in the referendum debate that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has promised. At the end of the day, it should be for the people to decide, having taken into account all arguments, both for and against membership.
The House will be aware that complaints concerning the conduct of hon. Members, including that they have breached the Members code of conduct, are subject to investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and then considered by the Standards Committee. Additionally, since May 2010 issues relating to Members’ pay and expenses from that date onwards, including consideration of complaints, are undertaken by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
So two bodies are engaged with the issue of regulating the conduct of Members. As of now and for the future, in relation to expenses, IPSA is a wholly independent authority. Any issue would be considered by its compliance officer. The officer has powers to order repayment and to impose fines. Appeals may be made to a lower tier tribunal. Of course, IPSA is not responsible for considering issues relating to the expenses system prior to the last general election, nor other matters of conduct.
In January 2013, the Standards Committee was reconstituted following the decision of this House of 12 March 2012, reflected in Standing Order No. 149. This brought in three lay members. They participate in all the deliberations of the Committee. The Chair of the Standards Committee, by convention, seeks consensus amongst all the members of the Committee. The lay members, additionally, have a specific right to submit an opinion on any report to the House, and to have it published, under Standing Order No. 149. It is the job of this House, where necessary, to enforce the decisions of the Standards Committee.
The regulation of the conduct of Members is the responsibility of this House. For a wholly external body to consider complaints relating to the conduct of Members in this House, for example, on participation in debates and the registration of financial interests, risks undermining parliamentary privilege. That is why the reports of the Parliamentary Commissioner and the role of lay members are incorporated within the work of a Select Committee of this House.
We have a relatively new system in place for the regulation both of parliamentary expenses and for independent input to the Standards Committee. Both should give the public greater confidence in the system. We must, however, seek to make these regulatory processes more widely understood and more transparent. If we can strengthen the independent input whilst respecting the exclusive cognisance of Parliament, we should do so. As the Prime Minister said, whilst these are matters for the House and not for the Government alone, we are open and willing to consider approaches which would further strengthen our regulatory system.
I suspect that the Leader of the House has not had the opportunity to spend time on the doorstep in recent days. If he had, he would have found that there is virtual unanimity out there among the British people that Members of Parliament should not sit in judgment on Members of Parliament and that there should be no self-regulation by MPs of MPs. There are other issues about which the public are angry, but on this issue the Leader of the House has the power to initiate and to do something. Why will he not come forward with proposals immediately to end self-regulation in this House and in doing so, in the interests of transparency, ensure that the recordings of the Committee are made public so that people can see on what basis the Committee overturns the views of the independent Commissioner for Standards?
The hon. Gentleman underestimates me. From my conversations with members of the public, it is very clear that many members of the public are not aware—even now—that, from May 2010 onwards and for the future, the expenses of Members of this House, including any complaints relating to expenses, are considered wholly independently by IPSA, which would, in the event of there being any overpayment or incorrect claim, have the power both to require repayment and to levy fines. That is wholly independent.
We must be aware—it is also clear—that were we to seek, for example, to make the Standards Committee or the Commissioner wholly independent, we would end up with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards no longer having access to parliamentary privilege in relation to her investigations, which presently she does by virtue of her investigation being part of the proceedings of the Standards Committee of the House. It would be much more difficult for her to fulfil her role in the way in which she currently fulfils it.
As for the relationship between the Commissioner and the Committee, in my experience the Committee is wholly transparent about its decision-making process—about the arguments that it has examined and the decisions that it has reached—but that is a matter for the Committee, not for me.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that there should be some parliamentary input, for the reasons that he has set out so clearly. Surely this is not so much a failure of the system as a complete and abject failure of the media to report these matters objectively. As a result of that, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) observed, many of our constituents have failed to understand exactly what was stated in a recent report. Is it not time that the media paid proper attention to parliamentary reports rather than seeking to engage in witch hunts?
I do not think that I am seeking particularly to ascribe blame anywhere. If—as may be the case—there is a misunderstanding about the nature and effectiveness of the regulatory system relating to complaints against Members, and if that is not well understood by our constituents, I think that we should take it on our own shoulders to do all that we can to make it clear that a robust system is in place.
Over the last few days, we have seen a recalcitrant Cabinet Minister unwilling to show remorse for obstructing an inquiry by the Standards Commissioner, and a growing public perception that a Committee of MPs has let her get away with it. That has thrown doubt on her conduct, and also on the judgment of the Prime Minister, who seems unwilling to act.
Does the Leader of the House agree that the present system does not command public support, and that we urgently need reform to restore public trust? I accept that we need time to develop a more radical reform, but will he consider, as a matter of urgency, removing the Government majority on the Standards Committee, and creating a more prominent role for its lay members? Will he also tell us what sanctions he considers appropriate for a Member who has breached the parliamentary code of conduct through his or her attitude to an inquiry?
In the foreword to the Ministerial Code, the Prime Minister wrote:
“Though the British people have been disappointed in their politicians, they still expect the highest standards of conduct. We must not let them down.”
Is the Leader of the House satisfied that the Prime Minister has kept his promise?
I am surprised that the shadow Leader of the House should consider this an opportunity to express criticism of an individual Member. I did not understand that it was proper to do that, Mr Speaker, but I am in your hands.
The decisions made by the Standards Committee are a matter for the Standards Committee. Let me at this point speak entirely personally, and not on behalf of the Government. I read the report that was published last Thursday very carefully, and, having done so, I felt that I understood and, as it happens—again, I am speaking entirely personally—agreed with the way in which the Standards Committee had gone about its task.
I am very surprised that the shadow Leader of the House should seek to obtrude a partisan element. The Standards Committee has never operated on a partisan basis, and I have no reason to believe that the party affiliation of its members has had any direct bearing on their views of the cases that they consider. On the contrary, they consider cases on their merits, and seek to reach a consensus.
The fact that the Committee has lay members—[Interruption.] Perhaps the shadow Leader of the House will listen to my answer, rather than simply interrupting from a sedentary position. She asked about the position of lay members. Regardless of the position taken by MPs who are members of the Standards Committee, if the lay members had expressed a dissenting view, that would have been more powerful than their having votes. Indeed, given that the Committee did not take any votes, the question of votes was really neither here nor there. The point is that the lay members have what is effectively a casting vote at the end—do they agree or do they not? If the lay members did not agree with MPs on the Standards Committee about what was published in the report and published a dissenting opinion, it would be a very serious matter. I think that that suggests that the power of the lay members is stronger than it would be if they simply had a vote, and I think that we should understand that and reflect it in our discussions.
Order. Before we proceed further, I simply remind the House of what I stated yesterday, namely that page 396 of “Erskine May” makes it clear that there cannot be debate on the conduct of an individual hon. or right hon. Member other than on a substantive motion. There is not a substantive motion on the Order Paper today and therefore I invite hon. and right hon. Members to conduct themselves accordingly.
I serve on the Standards Committee and had not realised until the controversy of the last few days that the lay members did not have a vote. The reason for that is simply, as the Leader of the House has just said, that it is not the practice of the Committee to take votes. We talk about things at length—sometimes at inordinate length—to achieve a consensus and the lay members participate very fully and vocally. They bring to bear a great deal of experience gained in other walks of life in regulating other professions and they are listened to with great interest by the Members of this House who serve on the Committee. They have been a very useful addition and, as the Leader of the House just said, they are given the opportunity, if they wish to, to issue a dissenting note at any point in time. They have not chosen to do that either in the matter that has just been published or in any other matter. I think the system is working well. They have brought a great deal of extra expertise and we should continue with this and see how it goes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who expresses that point very straightforwardly and well. I think the House will know that if at any point the lay members of the Standards Committee were to present an opinion to the House which had the effect of dissenting from the decisions of the Committee as a whole, the House would take that very seriously indeed.
The Select Committee on Standards adjudicates on individual cases but also has a duty under Standing Order No. 149 to consider any matters relating to the conduct of Members. On 22 March, before any of the current controversy arose, the Committee received a thoughtful paper from lay members on their impressions of their first year on the Committee from January 2013 to January 2014, which was also sent to you, Mr Speaker, and was placed in the Committee’s programme for future discussion. The Committee has already decided to examine the current system for consideration of complaints about Members of Parliament, to consider improvements as required. We will be drawing up detailed terms of reference over the next few weeks, drawing on the lay members’ reflections. The lay members will continue to play a leading role in this work.
The Committee has reported the lay members’ paper to the House and it is available on our website. As the lay members say, it is a matter of regret that the Committee on Standards and Privileges’ recommendations on standards issues have not yet come before the House but the Committee is determined to lead on these issues in the interests of maintaining the integrity of this House.
The Committee does not think it is appropriate to keep a running commentary on its decisions in individual cases, but at our meeting today the Committee authorised me to say that it continues to believe that its individual adjudications are impartial, fair and non-partisan. It is extremely important that those who express opinions on these cases both within the House and outside it should have read closely the careful reasons and evidence-based conclusions set out in each report. The Committee will continue to work closely and co-operatively with the commissioner to reach objective, fair and non-partisan adjudications.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Standards Committee. What he illustrates is, as I said at the conclusion of my response to the urgent question, that this is a matter for this House, and the House does look to the Standards Committee, not least to advise the House on how our system of regulation of Members’ conduct can be as robust as possible. I hope that, in consultation with the Standards Committee and in discussion among the parties, we can ensure that any views that come forward, not least from the lay members, are reflected in changes if necessary.
May I first pay tribute to Andrew McDonald, who is retiring as the chief executive of IPSA? I send him my best wishes. I resigned from the Standards Committee when the House authorities and at least one party trashed Elizabeth Filkin, when she was the Commissioner for Standards. According to paragraph 156 of the recent report, the present Commissioner said that the Committee might not agree with one of her conclusions. That should not be a big surprise to anyone. Also, I hope that those who comment on the way in which we run our affairs will recognise that an hon. Member has, in two days, raised questions about what fellow MPs have done while saying that we should not have a running commentary on what we are doing, which is an odd thing for that hon. Member to do. Finally, it would be worth while for the media to read paragraph 14 of the recent report, which contains the accusation, along with paragraphs 28, 29, 32, 39, 49, 56 and 61, so that their reports can reflect what the Committee did, what Members of Parliament did and what the Commissioner actually said. That would help all our discussions.
My hon. Friend is quite right to draw the House’s attention to paragraph 156, in which, contrary to the impression that might have been received, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said that the Committee might not reach the same view as her on what she described as a “finely balanced” issue. I encourage Members, the press and others more widely to read the whole report. Only by reading the Commissioner’s report, the appendices and the Committee’s report does one gain a balanced view.
As a former Leader of the House of Commons, I yield to no one in wanting to protect parliamentary privilege and the independence of the House from external interference, but the truth is that the public think there is one rule for them and another for us. That is an intolerable position for us to find ourselves in, and we have to do something about it. There must be a solution that protects parliamentary privilege and the continuing integrity of the work of the Standards Committee while allowing external regulation of this sort of complaint. Otherwise, frankly, we are not going to be in a credible position.
The right hon. Gentleman will understand that, while it is clear from past court cases that the expenses system does not constitute parliamentary proceedings, and that parliamentary privilege does not extend to them, other aspects of the regulation of Members’ conduct clearly do. An important practical consideration is that, if the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards did not report to the Standards Committee as a Select Committee of the House and was instead established as an entirely separate and independent entity, parliamentary privilege would not extend to her investigations. That would make it much more difficult to proceed with those investigations and to get them completed, because they would be subject to legal and procedural challenge. The Commissioner has the power to undertake all the investigations required.
It is enormously important that the House should maintain its right to regulate itself, because we do so on behalf of the British people, to whom we are democratically accountable in a way in which no bureaucrat can be. It is therefore for the British people that we maintain our rights. May we therefore do one of two things? Either we should have a proper, direct system of recall to allow the electorate to determine these matters, or we should use our powers, as set out on Page 855 of “Erskine May”, that would allow the whole House to come to a decision by returning a decision of the Standards Committee to that Committee and making our own recommendations, which might be more robust.
My hon. Friend is right to make that point. In a debate on 12 March 2012, the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), agreed with the proposal for the appointment of lay members to the Standards Committee, which was happily approved by consensus. She recognised that the Committee would
“be a Committee of the House, and the Members of Parliament who serve on it will be able to do so first and foremost because they successfully stood for election. Therefore, they are ultimately accountable to their constituents for their actions”.—[Official Report, 12 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 79.]
Indeed, it is an important aspect of this House that we are accountable in that way. It is from that that our fundamental authority here is derived. My hon. Friend has also raised the point about recall. I cannot anticipate the contents of the Queen’s Speech and the future legislative programme, but the House will know that, as indicated in the coalition programme, the Government remain committed to the implementation of a system of recall, and we continue to look forward to introducing proposals in that respect.
No one is going to buy the idea that this was all got up by the media. We must recognise the mistakes that have occurred and we must be less complacent. I have noticed that the House of Commons has been far too complacent on previous occasions before putting reforms in place. Does the Leader of the House accept that we need a system of examining our conduct that will satisfy not only ourselves but the public? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) has pointed out, the public are not satisfied at the moment. They believe that there are double standards, and we should take that fact on board as soon as possible.
I do not think that I am in any way complacent about this. It is important for us to be clear—and, as a consequence, for the public to be clear—that any expenses cases that have arisen since May 2010 are dealt with under a wholly independent system. That should be understood, because I fear that the current public debate is relating to the expenses system that existed before that date, rather than taking into account the creation of the independent system that has been in place since then. On the conduct of Members, the Standards Committee has to deal with complaints on a case-by-case basis, and we have to continue to make a judgment as to whether the investigations are robust and the recommended sanctions are proportionate to the nature of the offence. We in this House have a collective responsibility for that. When it comes to the exercise of those sanctions, I find it difficult to contemplate how suspension from the service of the House, for example, could be the responsibility of an external body. It should be the responsibility of the House to impose such sanctions.
The current episode is a product of the old expenses system and would not arise now. Nevertheless, it has increased public concern and there is no doubt that the House needs to respond to that. Does the Leader of the House agree that getting the recall Bill into the Queen’s Speech and pushed forward rapidly will form an important component of the solution?
I thought that we had got rid of self-regulation after the expenses scandal, and not before time. Given the doubts about the strength of the recall proposals and in the light of the current saga, what can the Leader of the House say to reassure the public that the reform process, which must be a process without a full stop, has not stalled under this Government?
I would reassure the public by saying that, yes, there is a small number of legacy cases, but we now have a fully independent system that has all the powers it needs to take the necessary steps when anything goes wrong, now and in the future. Echoing the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) about the retiring chief executive of IPSA, Andrew McDonald, objectively speaking, IPSA has come a long way in creating a situation that should command greater confidence about expenses.
So far as the regulation of Members’ other conduct is concerned, the public have to look at individual cases—for example, those relating to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and conflicts of interest, or to a Member behaving in a way that brings the House into disrepute—and decide whether the independent Commissioner for Standards has pursued the matter robustly. It is certainly her job to do so, and I hope that Members and the public will agree that she does. When we read the reports following her investigations, they are often very detailed and thorough. The public also have to decide whether the decisions are proportionate. That is a matter of judgment, but I believe that the Standards Committee has put in place robust sanctions in recent cases involving that kind of poor behaviour.
Two years ago, the Government introduced a Green Paper on parliamentary privilege, which was considered at length. It led to the introduction of lay members, and a lengthy discussion on whether or not voting rights should be granted to them. The Leader of the House has already explained the situation in that regard, but will he also recognise that it was the Standards Committee that reopened the investigation into a former Member, which led to that Member eventually being charged and sent to jail, therefore showing that the Standards Committee will, without fear or favour, continue to try to uphold the integrity of this House?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right on that latter point. The issue relating to the question of whether lay members should have voting rights on a Select Committee was recently considered and reported on by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. We agreed with it when it said that to do that
“could have unintended consequences: principally that, by explicitly confirming that privilege extends to the Committee on Standards, it could be interpreted to mean that the same extension did not necessarily apply to other committees that include lay members.”
There is a risk that including lay members with voting rights on Select Committees could be held in the courts to have removed from that Committee its access to the exclusive cognisance and parliamentary privilege. That is a risk we do not need to run. The lay members on the Standards Committee have the power they need, but if they have any doubt about that, they should tell us and we should consider and perhaps strengthen their power. If, by offering a dissenting opinion, they have the power to act effectively as a veto on decisions made by the Standards Committee, then they have the power they require.
The great screaming nightmare of the expenses scandal has been churned up again. The public will not read the appendices. They have a powerful impression of sleaze in this House, which is damaging, and it will continue until we get rid of this very wasteful, cumbersome and bureaucratic system of expenses and replace it with a simplified system of allowances. That would save £10 million a year, be popular with Members, save a great deal of time and virtually eliminate the chances of fraud. Is it not the case that the time for IPSA has already gone?
I think the hon. Gentleman illustrates the nature of the misunderstanding. There is nothing in recent reported cases that implies directly a criticism of IPSA, as they do not relate to expenses since May 2010. If there are issues relating to IPSA, we should look at them in that context, and not judge IPSA by reference to cases that occurred before May 2010.
In considering an alternative system, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is necessary to take proper account of what parliamentary privilege amounts to? Essentially, it is to the effect that nothing said or done in this House can be relied on in any court outside this House. A report by a commissioner to a Committee is part of the proceedings of the House and is therefore covered by privilege. If, on the other hand, it is decided to establish an alternative form, which involves a statute and the creation of a statutory body, that body would be susceptible to any legal action and probably—we can imagine that many cases would be—subject to judicial review, thereby bringing an issue of this kind not only into the public domain but into the responsibility of the civil courts of this country.
I am not a lawyer and I bow to the knowledge of my right hon. and learned Friend. I think he is absolutely right about that. From my point of view, it is a very practical question. Let me repeat: if we were in a position in which the commissioner, constituted not as part of the role of the Select Committee and under the Standing Orders of this House but separately, were trying to effect investigations in a similar way while being open to legal and procedural challenges, as described by my right hon. and learned Friend, his job would be made much harder.
I have complained many times about the media and the way in which it has operated over the years in relation to Parliament, but I say to Members that there is no point in railing against it on this particular issue. The truth is that the parliamentary system of self-regulation and semi-self-regulation has been on trial in the court of public opinion for a considerable period, and for most of our constituents it has been found wanting. I do not want us suddenly to change all the rules and chase popularity—that would be as foolish as staying put—but surely we must keep under review the operation of the system not only in this House but in the other House, because this is about the whole political system, and, frankly, there is as much dodginess down the other end of the corridor as there might be down this one.
I am not sure whether I should pursue questions relating to the other House. That is a matter for the Lords rather than for us. The hon. Gentleman makes a point. I do not think I was seeking to blame the media. I think I was saying quite openly that we take it on our own shoulders. If we cannot communicate the facts to our constituents through the media and otherwise, we should take it on our own shoulders that we have failed in that respect. What I do say is that we should be frank and honest with ourselves. We are in transition between scrutiny of expenses as occurred before May 2010, where there are continuing legacy cases, and the new system from May 2010 onwards. The sooner we can resolve any remaining legacy cases, of which I hope there are very few, and move to a system that is based on the legislation brought into effect in May 2010, the better it will be.
I went doorstep canvassing on Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon, and I was telephone canvassing last night. There was one issue of huge concern, which was immigration from the European Union. What we are talking about now did not come up once. May I ask the Leader of the House to give his personal opinion on whether recall would in fact end the matter that we are talking about today? Ultimately, if recall were in place, the British people would decide, and could it be pure recall?
As I have said, these are issues that are debated by the public, and understandably so. In my experience, the public often want to have a conversation, not least when their Member of Parliament is available, to understand what is going on and why something is happening. We need to explain more effectively the transition through which we are going and the nature of the systems that should give the public greater confidence. As far as a recall Bill is concerned, I fear the House will have to await the publication of the Government’s proposals on that.
When I was a member of a local council, we were always told, when dealing with issues of standards, that it was not what we thought or how we perceived our actions, but how our actions would be perceived by others. In this situation, is there not a danger that all the good work that has been done, particularly on the expenses issue since May 2010, is at risk of being undermined? Is the Leader of the House really not prepared to investigate and look at a different way of doing things?
On the contrary, as I said in my first response and indeed in response to the shadow Leader of the House and the Chair of the Standards Committee, I am perfectly willing to look at proposals. We must be clear about what the facts are and the situation we are in. When the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) says that these things risk undermining the system, she should reflect that the decisions that the Standards Committee has been required to make relate to a legacy case from before May 2010. It should not be interpreted as something that can be used to undermine the system of expenses, scrutiny and regulation that has applied since May 2010. To throw that into the argument and say that things must change would be misplaced. That should be judged in its own terms. If there are other ways in which we can further improve the regulation of Members’ conduct more generally, then of course I am willing to discuss it with Members.
I entered this House on a platform for change. No doubt I was assisted by my predecessor’s outrageous expenses. I know that that was under a different system, but knocking on doors in my constituency this weekend, people did raise the expenses issue with me, and they believe that nothing has changed. May I ask the Leader of the House to take the mood not only in this place but in the wider country to make the change that we need?
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying but we all—not least my hon. Friend and the other Members who came to this House in May 2010—have a responsibility to explain to the public that things have changed. The system is independently regulated, and under the expenses system that we have had for the past four years and will have in the future there is no sense in which Members of this House are directly engaged in the process of judging other Members. The process is independent. We do not have any say in it; IPSA does.
Do the Leader of the House and the Government not realise that we are living in an austerity-riddled Britain where there have been more than 40% cuts in local government and where more than 1 million people have lost their benefits in the last few years? That is the climate for the people outside and Governments of all kinds should realise that set against that backcloth they cannot keep saying from that Dispatch Box, “We’re going to carry on regardless.” Listen to the tune and the noise outside.
I and other members of the Government are clear about the nature of the austerity required in public expenditure and across the country because the income of this country reduced by more than 7%, equivalent to £3,000 per household, under the previous Government, so yes, everything has changed. In this Parliament, in relation to the expenses system for Members of Parliament, things have changed. It is more rigorous; it is controlled; it is controlled independently; any complaints or failures are investigated independently; and any enforcement is done independently. This is not about Members of this House or me being complacent because for now and for the future the system has changed.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on how many legacy cases from before 2010 remain? The system has changed—I was one of those elected to see fundamental change—but we want the House to be cleaned up and cleared up and to know that those cases are at an end.
I wish that I could say that they are, but I cannot. The answer may well not be “None” and that such legacy cases remain. I do not know; new issues may be raised, but I hope that they are relatively few. Following the Legg inquiry and others, they ought to have been thoroughly considered and the public should have confidence that the issues that were brought out have been dealt with. I hope that that is the case, but I cannot say that there are no such cases. I think that might be over-optimistic.
The Prime Minister believes in effective regulation. I hope that I have explained to the House that the issues relating to self-regulation are very straightforward. In the debate on 12 March 2012, my predecessor as Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House argued by analogy that we were creating something like the General Medical Council or the Bar Council by involving lay members to try to ensure that we did not have self-regulation in the way we had it in the past. We must bear in mind specific issues about the relationship between the regulatory system and the exercise of parliamentary privilege and, in particular, the question of how sanctions that were to be applied in this House can be applied by anybody other than the House itself.
Kellingley and Thoresby Collieries
Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I rise to propose that the House should debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely UK Coal’s proposed closure of Kellingley and Thoresby collieries.
The House will be aware that following statements from UK Coal last week and a written statement made earlier today by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), who is Minister of State at the Departments for Business, Innovation and Skills and of Energy and Climate Change, UK Coal is seeking investment from various parties to fund a managed run-down of its two remaining deep mines, Kellingley colliery in my constituency and Thoresby colliery in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer).
UK Coal is seeking taxpayers’ money effectively to shut down two deep mines that have provided fuel to keep our lights on and jobs for thousands of people over several decades. In fact, I understand that today about 40% of our country’s electricity generation is still powered by coal. Given the perilous financial situation in which UK Coal finds itself, the House should be granted an urgent debate so that the whole House can consider the avenues that might be open for the industry. On the line are 1,300 jobs, 700 of them at Kellingley colliery. The pain would be felt not only in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood. It would potentially also be felt in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), as a business in that area in the material handling industry is dependent on Kellingley.
My constituency has previously seen the closure of the Selby coalfield in 2004. The Selby super-pit, as it was, captivated all who had the slightest connection with the coal industry. It began mining in 1983 but was closed in 2004.
I should declare an interest as several members of my family have been involved in coal mining. In fact, some of them worked at Kellingley colliery itself between the ’70s and ’90s. Coal mining has being going on at Kellingley since 1965 and Thoresby since 1925.
I have met UK Coal, the National Union of Mineworkers and, most importantly, workers and family members who would be devastated if the mines were to close. I received an e-mail yesterday from my constituent Samantha Higgins from Selby, who wants me to ensure that their voices are heard and everything is done to protect their livelihoods. Mrs Higgins’s husband is a coal miner at Kellingley, as are her father-in-law and brother-in-law. In fact, her brother-in-law was only taken on at the pit earlier this year. Between them, they have three children under the age of six and three mortgages. The devastation that could befall that family should the pits close is not an isolated example.
I can also quote, Mr Speaker, from a letter I received from the Bishop of Wakefield, who is concerned not only about the severe problems that would be faced by the workers and their families but about the long-term security of our energy needs as a nation—
I note the observation of the hon. Gentleman.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) has said and I must give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised as appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24 and I therefore cannot submit the application to the House.
National Health Service (Right to Treatment)
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 ensure that medical treatment prescribed as necessary by a doctor or other medical professional must be provided unless the type of treatment is not approved by the Secretary of State or the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; to establish a national register of cases where such prescribed treatment is refused; to introduce a mechanism for appeal against decisions about provision of medical treatments; and for connected purposes.
It is widely recognised that the national health service has become a lottery in which access to treatment no longer depends solely on a patient’s clinical needs but on where they live and on the state of the local NHS budget. That problem is made worse because Ministers, who decide how much money NHS England and the 211 clinical commissioning groups receive, deny all responsibility for how that money is spent, and because of the lack of transparency and accountability of the decision makers who control the postcode lottery and decide which patients will get treatment and which will not.
My Bill addresses the postcode lottery in three ways. First, it will require the Government to set up a public register of all individual funding requests—or IFRs— made to NHS England and CCGs, together with the decision on whether the NHS will pay for treatment. That will improve transparency by allowing patients and clinicians to see whether a treatment banned by the NHS in their locality is available on the NHS elsewhere. It will lead clinicians and the Government to make more consistent decisions in future. After all, we are all liable for the same taxes, wherever we live, so we should all get equal access to treatment from a tax-funded public health service. Indeed, on 26 March the Minister of State for care and support, in a letter to me about a constituent’s lack of access to treatment, said:
“We are aware of variation across the country in prosthetic services, and we will be working with NHS England to determine what needs to be done to address this, in line with the key objective in the NHS Mandate 2013-15 to expose variation and unacceptable practice to help people learn from best practice.”
I cannot see how the Government can possibly turn down my proposal.
Secondly, my Bill seeks to introduce a presumption in favour of treatment where a treatment is recommended by a qualified NHS clinician, unless the procedure or medicine is not approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence or is designated in a statutory instrument proposed by the Government and approved by Parliament as a treatment no longer available on the NHS. We as politicians at national level determine how much money to make available to the NHS, so we ought to take responsibility for decisions on access to treatment within the budget that is available.
The NHS has always rationed treatment, through waiting times and other opaque devices, but now equity of access to treatment—one of the founding principles of the NHS—is so compromised by postcode rationing, we need an open and transparent system for reviewing decisions. Transparency is not enough. The people who control the NHS purse strings need to be accountable for their decisions.
Thirdly, I propose that patients whose treatment is supported by their doctor but turned down by the NHS should have a right of appeal to an independent tribunal. This would be consistent with the Human Rights Act 1998; it already applies to people whose benefits or immigration application is turned down. So surely there should be a similar right to challenge a public sector decision maker when someone’s health and well-being is at stake.
Let me mention briefly a few examples of my constituents who have had to fight for treatment. Zoe Bounds is a woman in her 30s with two children. She had ovarian cancer in her teens and recently developed breast cancer. Her consultant recommended a double mastectomy to reduce the risk of the cancer spreading. The care commissioning group agreed to pay for one breast to be removed, but NHS England, which is responsible for funding preventive surgery, refused to pay for the other half of the operation. On appeal, however, the CCG agreed to the double mastectomy.
Rebecca Beattie was badly beaten by a former partner and suffered multiple fractures to her face and nose. She needed surgery to enable her to breathe properly, but initially funding was refused. It was only after appeal and exposure in local and national newspapers including The Sun that funding was made available.
Emma Willets needs a permanent catheter to empty her bladder. A temporary operation at Pinderfields hospital to stimulate her sacral nerve greatly improved her condition. Her individual funding request for a permanent operation to stimulate the nerve has been turned down by the CCG. Her consultant points out rightly that the cost of permanent catheterisation—including the cost of hospital admissions each time she gets a urinary tract infection—will be much greater than the cost of the operation to improve her condition. These cases illustrate the need for accountable decision making and for a patient’s right of appeal.
Two and a half years ago, I introduced a similar Bill. I predicted that the Government’s NHS reforms and the squeeze on NHS funding would make the postcode lottery worse. NHS expenditure per person is down in real terms from £2,043 in 2009-10, to £1,999 this year and is due to fall again next year to £1,986, according to figures prepared for me by the statisticians in the House of Commons Library.
I asked parliamentary questions in 2012 and again this month about the number of individual funding requests. I was told:
“The data requested is not collected centrally.—[Official Report, 3 April 2014; Vol. 578, c. 793W.]
I have, however, conducted my own survey of primary care trusts, 109 of which replied—a 72% response rate. The number of IFR approvals in 2009-10 was 51,661. The number of approvals in 2011-12 had fallen almost by half to 26,076. There is enormous variation in approval rates. In 2011-12, 10 out of 109 PCTs approved 75% or more of IFRs; seven approved 25% or fewer. This is simply unacceptable. The postcode lottery is unfair. It contradicts the founding principles of the NHS. Each time the NHS says no to a patient a little more public confidence in the NHS drains away. This needs to change, and quickly. I commend my Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Hugh Bayley, Frank Dobson, Kevin Barron, Ms Gisela Stuart, Sir Bob Russell, Barbara Keeley and Grahame M. Morris present the Bill.
Mr Hugh Bayley accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 June, and to be printed (Bill 199).
Finance (No.2) Bill
(Clauses 1, 5 to 7, 11, 72 to 74 and 112; Schedule 1; any new Clauses and any new Schedules relating to tax relief in connection with the costs of childcare, or income tax allowances for parties to a marriage or civil partnership, or air passenger duty, or the rate of the bank levy, or the subject matter of Clause 1, or the subject matter of Clauses 5 to 7 and Schedule 1.)
[1st Allocated Day]
Considered in Committee
[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Charge for financial year 2015
I beg to move amendment 2, page 3, line 28, at end insert—
‘( ) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall undertake a review, within six months of the passing of this Act, on the impact of an additional cut of one per cent to the main rate of Corporation Tax for financial year 2015-16, with particular reference to—
(a) the impact on businesses with fewer than 50 employees;
(b) the impact on investment by businesses with fewer than 50 employees; and
(c) alternative tax measures, including non-domestic rates, which would have a greater benefit for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
( ) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must publish the report of the review and lay the report before the House.’.
This amendment would require the Chancellor of the Exchequer to publish a report on the impact of a cut of one per cent to main rate Corporation Tax on businesses, including small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).
Our amendment would require the Chancellor to publish a review of the impact of an additional cut of 1% to the main rate of corporation tax for 2015-16 with reference to the impact on businesses with fewer than 50 employees, their levels of investment and the impact of alternative tax measures such as a reduction in non-domestic rates—business rates—which we believe would have a greater impact on small and medium-sized enterprises, which tend to be businesses that have fewer employees and in the main occupy premises with a rateable value of less than £50,000.
Our amendment and our approach highlight the difference between us and the Government when it comes to business taxation. The Government have made a number of significant cuts to corporation tax. The main rate has been cut a number of times, and is due to be cut again from 21% to 20% next year. The main rate is paid by companies with profits of more than £1.5 million—about 40,000 or so businesses. The small profits rate is paid by companies with profits of under £300,000, and there is a marginal rate, which applies to companies with profits between £300,000 and £1.5 million.
The Government have announced cuts to the corporation tax rate in almost every fiscal event that we have had since 2010, with the rate falling from 28% in 2010 to 20% in 2015-16. This has brought the UK rate lower than most developed economies. As I said, the Government are planning another cut for April 2015 from 21% to 20%, at a cost of £400 million in 2015-16, rising to £785 million the following year, and £865 million the year after that. The cumulative corporation tax cut over this Parliament has been in the region of £10 billion. The Government’s central argument for cutting corporation tax is that a lower rate makes the UK more attractive as a destination for businesses to locate. They claim that a reduction in the main rate of corporation tax will reduce capital costs for businesses and promote higher levels of business investment.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that Labour Members are passionate about business and our policy of a business rates cut for small and medium-sized businesses, which I will come to later.
The Government’s impact assessment says that the 1% cut in 2015 will lower the bills of 40,000 businesses that have profits of more than £1.5 million and pay the main rate of corporation tax. It will also benefit a further 41,000 businesses that have profits between £300,000 and £1.5 million and pay the main rate of corporation tax but receive marginal relief.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates that the UK has 4.8 million private sector businesses, the majority of which, around 3.6 million, are sole proprietorships, and a further 1.02 million have fewer than 10 employees. That means that if 81,000 businesses benefit from cuts to the main rate of corporation tax, fewer than 2% of the total businesses in the UK are benefiting.
I would be grateful if the hon. Lady explained how the Treasury should go about making the calculations that she wants it to make. How would the Treasury know the consequence of that one particular tax change, and how would it know what it would be like without it?
I will come to the point about the different tax choices that we make and measuring their impact. Unlike the Minister, I do not have access to Treasury officials, so I am not versed in their methodology, but I do not deny that the Government’s corporation tax rate cuts in this Parliament, which we have supported, have benefited 2% of businesses. I will come later to the 98% of businesses that have not benefited from the cuts to the main rate of corporation tax, but which are struggling with the costs of running their business. The Opposition believe that the Government can and should go further in helping those businesses cope, in particular, with the business rates that they have seen increase.
I will come to the Government’s record in helping small and medium-sized enterprises.
As I said, we have supported the reduction in the rate of corporation tax in this Parliament, except to raise concerns, which I am sure the Exchequer Secretary will remember, well before I was in my current post, about the financing of that change at the start of the Parliament by getting rid of investment allowances on which the Government have recently U-turned. But as the figures show, the change to the main rate of corporation tax, the central policy for business taxation, does not help 98% of business in this country. How are they faring under this Government?
Everyone agrees that SMEs are the engine of growth, a phrase that we hear regularly in the Chamber and the House, and it is also fair to say that they are part of our national life. High streets and corner shops are part of the very British way of life that we enjoy in this country. I have a personal affinity with these enterprises, as when I was younger, my parents had a corner shop. My first job was helping my parents by serving customers in our shop after school and at weekends, doing the stock-take and going with my dad to the cash-and-carry. Even if one did not grow up in such a business, they are easy to call to mind because there are so many of them. As I said, there are almost 5 million, and they are the heart and soul of our villages, towns and cities. They also provide about 47% of private sector jobs.
As for everyone—SMEs are no different—times have been tough, and SMEs have been struggling with a number of issues during this Parliament and I will come to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. The first of those issues has been access to finance. Every time we discuss SMEs, access to finance is one of the key issues raised. It is fair to say that the Government have failed to get lending going to businesses. They are in their fourth year of office and their many schemes keep failing to have a significant and game-changing impact on the access to finance landscape. For example, business lending fell towards the end of last year as banks continued to squeeze funding for SMEs, despite attempts by the Bank of England to boost finance to the sector. Bank lending figures also show that businesses paid back £4.3 billion more than they had borrowed in the three months to the end of November. SMEs were the worst affected by that particular brake on lending, and that is despite the tweaks to the funding for lending scheme announced by the Bank that were designed to try to ensure that loans to smaller businesses would be favoured.
Although larger businesses can access the growing market for debt financing in the bond market, there is a problem for small businesses that are reliant on high street banks and specialist finance and lending businesses, which have become much more conservative in their lending practices since the global financial crash of 2008. SMEs have consistently reported that credit is either refused or offered at very high prices by the major lenders, as Members on both sides of the House must regularly hear from businesses in their constituencies. There has been much talk in this Parliament about the problems of access to finance for SMEs, but despite several different schemes being announced, the change in practices that is required if SMEs are to have the finance they need has not been seen.
That issue has also been considered by the Public Accounts Committee, which made a number of worrying findings in relation to the landscape for SMEs. It said:
“The departments’ schemes are managed as a series of ad hoc initiatives that are launched to address particular weaknesses in the market, rather than to act as a coherent programme.”
That is a real problem. The lack of a coherent programme from the Government, despite what I am sure are the best efforts of the Business Secretary and the Chancellor, has led to piecemeal action—a little bit here and a little bit there, but no overall drive to action, only some good rhetoric for set-piece debates in the Chamber, leading to not very much at all.
The hon. Lady seems to be arguing that banks should be less conservative, which implies a greater degree of risk, and says that she wants a more coherent, less piecemeal programme. I infer from that that she wants the banks to take a greater degree of risk, and the taxpayer to pick that up. Is that what she is saying?