Tuesday 9 September 2014
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(John Penrose.)
It is a pleasure, Sir Roger, to serve under your chairmanship—something that I seem to have done quite a bit recently; we are entertaining one another on the same Bill Committee. I welcome the Minister to his place. We genuinely look forward to working with his team, and I hope his appointment will usher in a new era of listening, which we have not had a lot of from the Department for Education team in the past four years. He will be relieved to know that I do not intend this debate to be made up of political ping-pong; the neglect of nursery schools in this country spans this Government and the previous Government. I hope, however, that we will at least get a Department that listens to what is happening and ceases the neglect.
The maintained education nursery sector does not have a long history in this country. Prior to the 1970s, local authorities were prevented from opening education nursery schools and offering early-years education. I do not know why that is, so do not ask me, but that was what happened. In the early 1970s, the rules were changed and local authorities were encouraged to provide nursery education for pupils aged three and above. Prior to that, most centres known as nursery schools were social services-run provisions or health-run provisions, largely admitting children with significant special educational needs or children on the at-risk register. From the early 1970s onwards, local authorities started to open education nursery schools, often concentrating on areas of deprivation first. The first nursery schools that opened in the 1970s were often large, 52-place provisions, offering early education to 26 children in the morning and 26 children in the afternoon.
Once the benefits of early universal provision became clearer from the 1980s onwards, local authorities started to follow a policy of opening nursery classes attached to infant or primary schools, with the long-term intention of creating universal coverage, but that meant that local authorities often had an uneven pattern of provision by the 1990s. Nursery classes were attached to most, but not all primary schools, and large nursery schools often sited in the wrong geographic areas. From the early 1990s onwards, there was a programme of gradually reducing standard numbers in nursery schools, amalgamating nursery schools and nursery classes and closing some nursery schools. There were moves to more appropriate buildings or more appropriate geographic settings for others.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I know she has tremendous experience in child services. She talked about closures, and we have learned on Teesside that the North Tees and Hartlepool Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is closing two nurseries, at North Tees hospital and Hartlepool hospital. Will she join me in expressing shock at such a decision, which will lead to excellent provision going away and lots of jobs being lost?
I am disappointed to hear that, because I remember visiting those nurseries when I was an assistant director of education in Sunderland in the mid-1990s. They were seen as a beacon of good integrated practice, bringing together education, health and social services. They were offering what we were hoping would be the future.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on an important subject. On a slightly more positive note, will she congratulate the six Cambridgeshire nursery schools—three of which, Brunswick, The Fields and Colleges, are in my constituency, and one of which, Homerton, is a few metres outside it—on being part of the first nursery teaching school in the country? That shows that there can be excellence, which we can, I hope, spread to everywhere else.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Chair, I apologise for being slightly late. On a point of clarification, given her experience can the hon. Lady say whether we have the necessary qualified staffing for nursery provision? Is that an issue? Some 130,000 places were issued this year, but there are still tens of thousands of spaces that cannot be filled. Is there a staffing problem?
I will come to staffing in nursery schools in a moment. The qualified teaching staff in nursery schools are what makes them so good.
There were 475 nursery schools in 2003, and there are now 414. While the number of nursery schools has steadily reduced, the number of children attending them has remained pretty static. There was a dip in the mid-2000s, but admissions are rising again as a result of increasing numbers of live births, and because educationalists and parents recognise the additionality that nursery schools deliver.
However, as local authorities have been hit by unprecedented cuts in funding since 2010, nursery schools are finding themselves at greater risk. There is no doubt that each nursery school place is relatively expensive when compared with a nursery class place, but the evidence is clear that that is because of the high proportion of graduate and teacher-trained staff. It is equally clear that that is what gives them their additionality and makes them so successful. They provide great outcomes for all children, including the most disadvantaged, and they outperform any other form of early-years education provision, even that in the most affluent areas. That is an important distinction.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I absolutely concur with her on the high standards achieved in maintained nursery schools, but is she concerned that one of the hits on the maintained sector was moving to the single funding formula prior to 2010? We need to look at funding for good quality nursery education.
I absolutely agree, and I will come to that. I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention.
What is happening to nursery schools now and why should that matter? As I said at the beginning, all Governments—this Government, the previous Government and no doubt the next Government—periodically state that they want good schools for every child, the best possible start in education, particularly for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and good outcomes. Yet successive Governments have failed to recognise that that is exactly what they have in nursery schools.
Every Government say that they are not in the business of closing good schools, and yet that is precisely what is being allowed to happen through the neglect of this sector. Historically and currently, nursery schools have provided the best educational outcomes of any model in the early-years sector for all children, particularly those who would be described as vulnerable or disadvantaged. That is why what happens to nursery schools now matters and why it is important that we intervene.
Everyone is talking about school readiness as the silver bullet to improved early-years outcomes, but Ofsted’s evidence to the Education Committee’s recent inquiry into early years and child care showed us very clearly that when it comes to school readiness, nursery schools are the most successful delivery model. They are also the most successful model when it comes to integrating pupils with SEN, including the most severe SEN, into mainstream schools, and I will talk a little more about that later. Furthermore, they are the most successful model for narrowing the gap in the early years, for helping to get vulnerable children and families into a more secure place and for long-term outcomes for their small pupils.
I do not just rely on Education Committee evidence. Ofsted evidence clearly demonstrates that 90% of nursery schools are judged to be good or outstanding. That goes way, way beyond any other form of early-years provision in the system—here or in any other developed country, so far as I am aware.
My hon. Friend is explaining that stand-alone nurseries are the best form, and all the evidence points to that. Is the key factor in that the quality of the staff? By improving quality and standards and providing qualified teacher status for all lead staff in all nursery settings, can we have the same standards in other nursery settings or does she think we should be moving towards having a greater number of stand-alone nurseries?
I will discuss leadership in nursery schools shortly, but the Education Committee model suggests that nursery schools should stand at the centre of the hub-and-spokes model, providing good practice out to nursery classes across their region.
I expect the Minister to tell me in his response that primary schools are judged as a whole, that there is no separate Ofsted inspection of nursery classes in a primary school and that nursery classes cannot therefore be judged against nursery schools, but I remind him of what I just said: 90% of nursery schools are judged to be good or outstanding, with the same results in disadvantaged and affluent areas. That goes beyond what we can say about the primary sector across the country.
Of nurseries inspected between 1 January and 31 March 2014, 55% were judged outstanding in comparison with 8% of primaries and 14% of secondaries. The disparity is huge. I also remind the Minister that I do not have to rely solely on statistics to support my case; I can draw on 25 years of direct experience in education, and I know what I have seen over and over again in nursery schools.
Of nursery schools judged by Ofsted up to 30 June 2013, 58% were rated outstanding in leadership and management, which compares with 20% in primary, 29% in secondary and 39% in SEN. Nursery school provision is extremely well managed and is recognised as such by Ofsted. I ask the Minister to consider that 62% of nursery schools are in 30% of the most disadvantaged areas in England, so we are getting outstanding results and leadership despite the fact that the schools largely operate in such areas. There are a higher proportion of nursery schools in the north-east—it appears that there may be slightly fewer in future—than we would see nationally, and those nursery schools are concentrated in the most disadvantaged areas of the most disadvantaged region. Yet we are seeing incredibly good results.
Nursery schools admit children from many different backgrounds and give priority to children in social and medical needs categories. That is confirmed by the Department for Education’s survey statistics: at least 11% of children at 47% of nursery schools have special educational needs. No other category of school, except special schools, comes anywhere close to that level of admission and yet no other category of early-years provision comes close to the outcomes that nursery schools achieve with SEN pupils. Ofsted has highlighted that nursery schools have particular expertise in the teaching of young bilingual children. Children from BME backgrounds make up 33% of nursery school pupils and yet have outcomes that outperform BME children of a similar age attending nursery classes, even in the most affluent areas. The statistics really highlight the quality of the provision that nursery schools provide.
A significantly higher proportion of maintained nursery schools offer wrap-around day care provision than any other form of maintained early-years provision—just the kind of provision that the Government say that they want to support working parents and parents training for or looking for work. Nursery schools often provide it much cheaper than can be achieved in the non-maintained sector, which is one of the reasons why parents like them so much. Why on earth have successive Governments not recognised the value of nursery schools and stopped the threats to their future? It is beyond me. The Government say that they want good schools and these are the best in their sector by far.
In her last appearance before the Education Committee on 18 June, the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), appeared to give just two reasons why she was not wholly supportive of nursery schools. She told me that
“49 local authorities do not have any maintained nursery schools at all”
but I reminded her that that meant that 153 or 154 local authorities have at least one and that many have more. It seemed sensible to the Select Committee that local authorities and the Government should use these highly-specialised beacons of excellence to build good practice across authorities. The Minister also told me that nursery schools are expensive, and they are—this is where things do become slightly political, because it is about priorities—because they employ a head teacher, a higher proportion of graduate staff and qualified teachers. That, too, is why they are so successful.
Yes, these tried and tested, highly successful schools may be slightly more expensive than nursery classes, but they are nowhere near as expensive as the experimental, untried and untested free schools programme that the Government are pushing so hard and that has a budget overspend, at the last count, of well over a billion pounds. It is not only me who recognises the value of nursery schools and is concerned about Government policy. The British Association for Early Childhood Education described them as “beacons of high quality” and as playing
“a leading role in developing the early years work force”.
The Ofsted chief inspector’s first annual report in 2014 on early years noted:
“The only early education provision that is at least as strong, or even stronger in deprived areas compared with wealthier areas is nursery schools”.
If we are concerned about narrowing the gap and, like the Education Committee, about outcomes for white working-class children, nursery schools in deprived areas seem to be the most successful model.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the best early visits that a new Education Minister could conduct would be to the Pen Green centre, which the Committee has visited, to see the masters and PhD courses? It not only provides an excellent local service to children, many of whom are from deprived backgrounds, but also acts as a beacon of best practice and education for a much wider area—nationally and internationally. The Minister would be spending his time well.
I agree. The Minister smiled at that, so I am assuming that he has heard of Pen Green, which is known internationally for its outstanding provision. Margy Whalley will make him feel very welcome.
Nursery schools right across the country are providing outstanding outcomes for young children and I could give the Minister a long list that would start with Pen Green, but I want to mention just two. The Rachel Keeling nursery school is situated in one of the most deprived parts of London and yet has been identified in the “The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education” report as providing high-quality early education that has a continuing influence on its young pupils’ intellectual and social development and their subsequent progress in school.
Oxclose nursery school in Washington is another one that I know well. When I was working with parents in Sunderland in the early 1990s to include children with special needs in the mainstream, we thought, rather foolishly, that we would start with the easy end of SEN—children with less significant SEN and perhaps younger children—but it never works out that way. As soon as it became known that we were looking at inclusion, I received two phone calls. One was from a 14-year-old child who had spent her life in a special school because she was in a wheelchair and had brittle bones. We would think that amazing nowadays, but it was the norm in the 1990s—it appears that if someone stepped off a path and twisted their ankle, they would end up in a special school. The girl told me that she wanted to go to university and recognised that that was much less likely to happen if she continued to attend a special school.
The second phone call was from the parent of a two-year-old with quadriplegia—he had a little bit of head movement. He was a delightful little boy and he is a delightful young man now. His mother wanted, as was absolutely her right, mainstream school provision for her child. We definitely started with the more difficult end of SEN.
I worked closely with the head teachers of the Oxclose cluster, comprising the nursery, primary and secondary schools. The only thing that they had going for them at the time was that they were on the flat and close together. By far the most important factor, however, was that the head teachers of the three schools shared my vision of what inclusive provision should be.
If the Minister goes to Pen Green, which is halfway up the country, will he please go a little further and visit the Oxclose cluster in Sunderland? If he wants to see truly amazing, inspirational and outstanding provision that will move him, he could go nowhere better. Oxclose nursery school was truly inspirational then for all its pupils and is truly inspirational today. I strongly advise the Minister to visit any of the schools mentioned or any of the 400-odd nursery schools across the country if he wants to see outstanding early-years provision. Do it quickly, because that provision is under threat.
The very future of nursery schools is under threat in an era of local authority cuts, Government pressure on schools to expand reception classes, rising infant class sizes, the expansion of foundation provision and relentless Government pressure to push more and more children into schools earlier.
Nursery schools are facing constant pressure to merge with local primaries. A recent survey of nursery schools highlighted how maintained nurseries are on a knife edge, threatened by cuts in local authority funding, based on the flawed premise that they are simply one more form of child care and pressure from Government that funding levels for all providers should be the same, with no recognition of the special provision offered or of the way in which nursery schools can and do outperform every other form of early-years provision.
More than three quarters of nursery schools in the survey said that they were concerned about their immediate future viability or that they faced imminent loss of their independence. None faced immediate closure, but many said that they were at risk of closure in future, while only 12% said that they were optimistic about their future. Yet the Department for Education’s own child care and early-years parents’ survey for 2012 to 2013 highlighted that the value of nursery schools was beyond the number of children enrolled, acknowledging the vital role that they play in training early-years professionals throughout the sector.
The number of nursery schools has gradually eroded over the past 10 to 15 years. The Government need to look at that carefully. Ministers go all over the place to look for good practice, but seem to fail to recognise that we have outstanding practice in this country and we are letting it wither on the vine. I am calling on the Government to wake up before it is too late. They must recognise how good nursery schools are and the vital contribution that they make—not only to the children whom they admit, but to the training of early-years specialists throughout the sector. I call on the Government to stop the financial and educational neglect that is leading to an unstable future.
The right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned the financial pressure on nursery schools. In 2010 the Government rolled 14 different grants into the single funding formula and they have subsequently rolled more grants into the early-years funding formula. That is what is putting nursery schools under pressure: the refusal to acknowledge that not all nursery provision can survive on the same amount of money. It is not about being equitable across the system but about recognising where good practice is and accepting that it does need to be paid for. Let us recognise that nursery schools offer the best and most successful provision in the early-years landscape and build on that.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), who is a distinguished member of the Education Committee. As she showed in her powerful and passionately argued speech, she is deeply informed about education and the welfare of young people.
The future of nursery education is an important issue, and one at which the Education Committee looked closely during our inquiry into Sure Start children’s centres last year. As I touched on, we visited the Pen Green centre for children and families in Corby, run, as the hon. Lady said, by the brilliant Margy Whalley. We also visited the Netherlands and Denmark in February 2013 to compare provision for early years in those countries with that in England.
The clear message we heard is that education is too important to wait until children reach school age. In particular, we concluded that if we are serious about closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children, it is imperative that Ministers should set out coherent, long-term thinking on early years and children’s centres. It is worth asking the Minister—a central message from many of us today—not to let coherence or a desire for uniformity and equity to allow or excuse the destruction of rare, peculiar centres of excellence that do a brilliant job and that are found to be doing so by everyone who looks at them.
The Government have a vision of doing more through schools, utilising the resource, and we heard during our hearings on the children’s centres that perhaps the previous Government made an error in building entirely new things, rather than better utilising the infrastructure that they had. None the less, it is possible to allow infant schools to do more for younger children and to provide good or, I hope, excellent provision in an area, without destroying those often long-standing nursery schools that are brilliant today. That is the appeal to the Minister: not to get so caught up in coherence and uniformity that we end up, inadvertently, destroying jewels that might not be everywhere, but certainly are present and deserve to be preserved. At that point, I could sit down—
I am giving a chance for a pause for thought. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Denmark and Holland—I went on those visits—and much higher spending is clearly committed to early years in those countries, as part of the contribution of having such well-trained and excellent staff. Does he agree that that is the route we need to go down in this country? To do so, to make the case and to be accepted by Governments of whichever colour, do we need to demonstrate that that would be not only a cost, but a long-term saving?
I will come on to funding and raising the status of early years. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come back to that, but he is right.
Nursery schools do a particularly good job of supporting children from poorer homes—that is worth saying. The Government’s educational reforms have two main aims: to raise standards for all and to close the gap in attainment. If we have things that do a peculiarly good job in looking after the interests of disadvantaged children, we should be extremely wary before risking, inadvertently or otherwise, their destruction.
Ofsted’s early-years report, published in March, stated that only just over a third of children from low-income backgrounds reach a good level of development in the early years. In some local areas, that figure is less than a fifth. Crucially, some types of provision, such as childminders, are considerably less likely to be good or outstanding in deprived areas. By contrast, Ofsted found that children from low-income families make the strongest progress when supported, as has been said, by highly qualified staff, in particular with graduate-level qualifications. Where are such staff most frequently found? In nursery schools.
To quote Ofsted’s report:
“Nursery schools have high levels of graduate level staff and perform as strongly in deprived areas as in more affluent ones.”
Of how many types of educational provision can we say that they perform as strongly in deprived areas as in more affluent ones? I cannot think of one, actually, but we have nursery schools managing to achieve that, to achieve what the previous Government and this Government want to do for social justice, delivered through education. I again make the case: let us ensure that we do not inadvertently lose them.
Despite that, the Government’s policy seems a little confused. The Education Committee expressed regret that the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Childcare and Education, now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, showed little enthusiasm for maintained nurseries, many of which have closed over the past decade. Likewise, my Committee expressed concerns about how the Government’s ambition to create an integrated nought-to-18 teaching work force will be delivered successfully. It is important to focus on that, although it sounds like a soundbite. An integrated nought-to-18 teaching work force is the Government’s stated policy. The then Minister told us that she wanted
“to see a much greater consistency across the teaching workforce and much less of a silo between the early years and primary school”.
Who can say, in any party, that she was not right to do so?
With that in mind, Ministers have set out their plans to reduce the number of different early-years qualifications, to improve the quality of training and to raise the status and quality of the work force by replacing the current early-years professional status qualification with new grades of early-years teacher and early-years educator. Early-years teachers will be graduates and will need to meet the same entry requirements and pass the same skills tests as trainee school teachers. So far, so good: there is an inspiring vision of integrated nought-to-18 teaching work force, with an upgrading and re-engineering of the training, requirements and qualifications of those working in that sector. They will not, however, be accorded qualified teacher status in the same way as primary and secondary teachers. That is not to visit the obsession of the shadow Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), with the tiny number of people who are not qualified teachers, which seems to be a sideline in the overall education debate; it is to go to the heart of the status of those people in relation to those who work in primary schools.
My Committee concluded that the Government are right to want to increase the qualifications of the early-years work force. As Susan Gregory of Ofsted reminded us, the historic situation is that
“you need a higher qualification at entry level to work with animals than you do to work with young children.”
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for raising standards in early-years education, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I am interested in his comments about the new qualification. May I infer that he agrees that the Government should take action now to equalise the status of the new qualification, so that it does have qualified teacher status? It is bizarre that we have circumstances in which graduates can earn half as much for teaching those between the ages of nought and five as if they chose to teach early-years three to seven. Some early-years teachers can command twice the salary. Is that not a poor state of affairs?
I agree with the hon. Lady that that is an anomaly in the Government’s vision for the future. There is an inconsistency. However, I would gently chide her by saying that the money has to be found from somewhere, because there are real cost implications. If we are going to will the ends, we have to will the means, and that will mean taking tough decisions—unless people think that there is an infinite money tree somewhere. We will have to take the existing budget and orient it more to the early years. It could be said that this Government have done that in a number of ways, from abolition of the education maintenance allowance—that act was enormously unpopular—at one end to the introduction of the offer for two-year-olds and its extension from 20% to 40% at the other.
The truth is that considerably more money is being spent on early-years provision, despite overall constraints on spending. I would imagine there will a combination of some re-engineering—a lot of which will be unpopular, as anyone we take the money away from will hate us for it—and potentially finding additional funds. However, given that this supposedly austere Government are still spending over £100 billion a year more than they have coming in, I am not clear that additional funding outside the budget could easily be found.
I probably did not make myself clear enough in my earlier intervention. The point I was driving at is how we make the case for using money further upstream. It is about the costs of social failure that are avoided by getting early-years provision right. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the case can be made for saving money later in life by getting early-years provision to the highest standard possible, that will deal with the point he is making?
Well, it will, but not for a Treasury Minister. As the hon. Gentleman will know, every Department comes along and says, “If only you gave me more money, you’d save so much later. No one would go to prison and you’d be saving money all round.” Understandably, the Treasury is a little sceptical. On that basis, we would for ever simply throw more money at the education system, because if we only provided the right start in life, we would have greater economic success and more highly skilled industries, and would live in nirvana.
The greatest thing I can say about the previous Government’s education policy is about how much they spent on education. The fruits are slow to emerge, but that is not to say that there are not benefits to be had if those resources are used well. Given the constraints we are under and the overspending by Government today, let alone five years ago, we are going to have to find the money for early-years provision from re-engineering our education budget. That could be said to be the more mature debate. It is always easy to say, “Oh no, we should just find the additional money.” The truth is that that will be very difficult.
On status, the Committee said in our report that the message that early-years teachers will not be equal to teachers in schools is “strong and unjust”. On pay, we said that it is not enough simply to set out a vision of equality with other teachers: if we accept the premise that the early years are a peculiarly critical time in a child’s development, Ministers need to set out—and this is the key point, whether it is done through finding more money or re-engineering the budget—
“a course of action…to a position where equal pay attracts equal quality”
of applicants. That is the key. We cannot have Government setting out an aim of an integrated work force, with that equality as a premise, and then failing to put in place any of the building blocks to take us there. At the moment, it seems to be all aspiration, with very little evidence of a closing of the gap. Even if it were to take 10 or 15 years, we would at least have a vision of how we were going to create a genuinely integrated work force, in which early-years teachers were given pay and status equal to that of teachers elsewhere in the education system.
At present, figures from the Pre-school Learning Alliance reveal that pre-school staff earn, on average, £17,000 a year, which is only around half as much as primary school staff, who earn an average of £33,000. The former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk, confirmed that England has the biggest gap in salaries between those who work in nurseries and those who work in schools of any country in western Europe. As all members of the Select Committee here today, and others, know, the key issue in raising educational quality for anyone, at any time, is the quality of the teacher. That is what counts. If we pay people half the rate of what is paid to those working with children who are just a little bit older, is it any wonder that we struggle to bring in the innovators, pioneers and greatest communicators? We need to set out a plan—it would be good to hear the Opposition’s funded plan from their Front-Bench spokesperson—to bring about that outcome.
It can be no surprise that there is a continuing disparity of status between early-years and school-based teaching. The impact of that lower status is felt beyond the issue of attracting high-quality recruits into the nursery sector. Naomi Eisenstadt told us that the perceived low status of children’s centre staff can create a barrier to successful multi-agency working, adding that
“if you do not have status within the community and you ring the health agency, they are not going to ring you back.”
Delivering equal pay for early-years teachers would of course require the extra resources I have talked about.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard me refer earlier to the nurseries at the North Tees and Hartlepool hospitals, which are scheduled to close. He has talked about staff. The Ofsted report on the nurseries says:
“All staff attend a wide range of training to develop their knowledge and skills”,
so there is ongoing professional development in that hospital nursery setting. Does he agree that that model should be rolled out elsewhere? Does he also share my opinion that those making the decisions on those nurseries might have benefited from the scrutiny and clinical examination that he would have given them had their decision come before our Committee?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I do not know all the details surrounding that case, so I will not rush to judgment on those who made that decision, but he makes powerful points, which I hope will be heard clearly by those responsible for those centres, as they consider what they will do about them in the future.
The issue is that we either find additional money or rebalance the existing budget. Speaking for myself, that gives us yet another demonstration of why it was a poor use of over £1 billion of taxpayers’ money to offer free school meals to the children of middle-class parents who can already afford them, rather than deploying that funding in the classroom, where it could have been used to attract and retain the quality teachers who we know make such a difference to children’s attainment.
In conclusion, the Government have more to do, to ensure the survival of maintained nursery schools, to encourage the development of the network of nursery schools with children’s centres around the country and to set out a strategy to realise their proper aspiration for an integrated nought-to-18 work force.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on calling this important debate on an issue that I know she has long campaigned about. I will adopt her spirit and approach the debate in a non-partisan fashion. The two speeches we have heard have shown that that spirit is being maintained.
I also welcome the Minister to the Front Bench. We have had an exchange of sorts in the main Chamber, but this is our first opportunity to debate some of the issues here in Westminster Hall. I see from the profile of him in The Independent today that he and I have two things in common: first, like me, he has a passion for early-years education and the impact it can have on the life chances of children; secondly, like me, he attended Somerville college. I was in the last all-women year there, so I know that he is younger than me: he must have come in the vanguard of men who subsequently followed. On that point, I was slightly horrified to see the all-male Somerville team on this year’s “University Challenge”, but I digress.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and yes, the Minister obviously is very youthful—more so than me, clearly.
This debate on nursery schools is important because they have become the poor cousin in the sector. They fall between two stools: they are not considered to be schools in many legislative frameworks, nor are they like other nursery providers in the sector, as others have said. The Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), had a mission and a drive to expand provision of nurseries in the school setting, something which I shared with her. However, she did not have the same zeal for nursery schools. That was a missed opportunity. I hope the Minister, as her successor, will rectify that position. I will come on to some of the things that could be done in that regard.
On the wider debate about early-years provision, the Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), is absolutely right to say that high-quality, skilled, graduate-led settings are the very best that we can offer, especially for the children, in my community and many of the communities represented here today, who do not have the best start in life because they do not have the advantages—the home learning, the communication and the security at home—that many of the most advantaged children do. As policy makers, we have a responsibility to get that right.
More specifically, nursery schools are consistently the highest-graded part of the early years system, as has been said. Some 96% are graded “good” or “outstanding”, many of them in some of our most deprived communities, including my constituency. That compares with 64% of childminders and 76% of other child care providers in our community. They are the crème de la crème of the system in early years in many of our most deprived communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham said, where they exist they act as a hub of leadership across the whole provision in their area. They have a unique role in doing so. The evidence is incredibly strong that nursery schools are the beacon for the highest quality provision in the early years.
I will comment on some of the challenges that maintained nursery schools face and how we might begin to address some of them. The challenges and threats are specific, for a number of reasons. As has been said, the single funding formula was intended to create a level playing field. However, for a number of reasons nursery schools have fallen foul of the funding system. First, nursery schools have higher overheads compared with the private, voluntary and independent sector because they are required to employ qualified teachers. They also have higher costs because they are required to have specialist head teachers—something that their equivalents in the PVI sector do not have. We have already heard about the additional value that that brings to the education provided in them. For that reason, many local authorities provide nursery schools with a much higher hourly rate than some of their competitors, but that is significantly under threat, given the cuts that are coming to local authority budgets.
Yet this is an issue not just of funding, but of status in the system. Because nursery schools are seen neither as schools nor as nurseries, they cannot enjoy some of the freedoms and powers that schools enjoy. Nursery schools are not eligible for things such as the pupil premium. The Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, asked how we could rebalance the system. I would strongly welcome the extension of the pupil premium to the early years. There is significant scope to add more value by drawing down the pupil premium earlier. However, as nursery schools cannot qualify for that money, which does not come on stream until next year in any case, they are unable to take hold of this opportunity and lead the debate on how the pupil premium can be best used in the early years. The pupil premium has huge scope for providing the kind of early intervention that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham described.
Another anomaly is that nursery schools are unable to become academies. Nursery schools are unable to take that opportunity while we are in this dog-eat-dog world in the education sector, where all schools are trying to come together or achieve the freedoms of academy status, therefore leaving behind a smaller and smaller cohort of maintained schools and a smaller and smaller role for local authorities.
I am glad the hon. Lady has raised the issue of allowing nursery schools to become academies. I took a delegation of heads of nursery schools to see the Department some months ago and pressed that exact case. I hope we may hear the Minister’s thoughts on that subject. There is an opportunity to unleash places such as Pen Green and others through academy status and allow them to innovate and further expand what they do in future.
I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman took such a delegation to see Ministers. I hope some of that is taken forward. I passionately believe that we cannot do early years on the cheap. This will require some tough decisions on how slim resources will be spent, but will allow some of the best examples of early years education in this country to have not only the extra resources that are coming into the system, but the freedoms to give them the security and allow them to have the sort of innovative, creative and leadership role that the Oxclose cluster or Martenscroft nursery school in my constituency provide in some of our most deprived areas.
In conclusion, I reiterate the points that have already been made. My party has to accept its responsibility for ignoring the potential of nursery schools during our time in office. Nursery schools provide some of the best education and provide for some of our most vulnerable children, not just those who are deprived, but those with disabilities, special educational needs and those who would elsewhere be turned down by private providers, which do not have to accept them. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham recently published a fantastic report on child care for disabled children, which is a long-forgotten issue in this area. Parents with disabled children face barriers up to 10 times greater than those without disabled children.
I am grateful that my hon. Friend raised the issue of children with special needs. Claire Guffick and Russ Andrews’s 16-month-old son Dylan attends the North Tees nursery that I spoke about earlier. He has a severe form of atopic dermatitis—a form of eczema. He is registered disabled because of the high level of care he needs. His mother said:
“We visited a number of nurseries but North Tees was the only nursery able to cater to his health condition and also cater towards his restricted diet.”
That is all the more reason why that nursery should be saved: it caters for the very special needs of very special children.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. He and I both attended the launch of the report by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, which examines how we can better look at meeting the child care costs of parents with disabled children. We heard some profound examples of just the sort of situations that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) describes. Nursery schools are often the only option that many parents have. I would gladly join the Minister in making progress on the issue.
If the Minister has not done so already, I urge him to read the final report of the Education Committee on some of the issues we have been debating. There are good recommendations in it, and perhaps he will use today’s opportunity to update us on how he is advancing those. Does he agree with me about enabling nursery schools to hold the pupil premium for the early years? Will he consider the question of allowing nursery schools some of the freedom that other schools have to take on academy status?
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on securing today’s debate. She has a long and commendable track record in education and the welfare of young children, within and outside the House, and I thank her for obtaining the debate. I thank the Select Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who made his case with characteristic forcefulness, and the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), for her arguments. I did not realise that we shared an alma mater. I notice that she is wearing the colours of Somerville college, red and black, today. However, I guess we share something even more important, in that we are both parents. When it comes to early years, we have the same objective as most parents—wanting the best start in life for our children. There is no greater responsibility or privilege.
The hon. Member for North West Durham made a point about listening, and in the spirit of willingness to listen, I will mention that the Department is planning a series of visits. We will make sure that Pen Green nursery school in Corby is on that list, and I shall go sooner rather than later. I thank her for that recommendation.
We can all agree on the importance of early education. The research about effective pre-school, primary and secondary education published by the Department for Education today shows that the effects of pre-school last to the age of 16, so it is vital to ensure that children get a good pre-school start. In that context, maintained nurseries are delivering. As we have heard several times in the debate, they are often doing that in disadvantaged areas, where such high-quality provision can make the greatest difference. I fully support those schools where they are delivering high-quality, sustainable provision responsive to parents’ needs. One example of that is Beechdale nursery school in the constituency of the hon. Member for North West Durham, with outstanding provision and additional child care beyond the free entitlement. Another is the maintained nursery schools that are part of the Bristol early-years teaching consortium, where designated teaching schools link with local primary schools and private-sector providers to share their best practice. I look forward to the continued success of those fantastic maintained nursery schools, and more like them, in the years to come.
We should always bear three things in mind in considering child care and early education. We need it to be accessible, affordable for parents and of high quality. There has been some discussion of priorities, and with that triangle the equation is not always as straightforward as it can seem. With child care, one size does not fit all. Parents are obviously concerned about their children’s learning and development, but often they also want somewhere for them to be looked after while they are at work, or when they need a break. Parents look for various solutions when they look at the child care marketplace.
Maintained nursery schools make up a very small part of early education in this country. As we have heard, there are now 414, compared with nearly 7,000 primary schools with nursery classes—6,843, to be precise—and almost 18,000 private or voluntary day nurseries and pre-schools delivering early education. We have a mixed economy for child care and early education. To respond to what the Select Committee Chair said, that should be evidence enough that the Department is not pursuing coherence at the expense of equity. We do not actually have a coherent sector at all; we have a mixed economy, with different types of provision.
I congratulate the Minister on his new role. I do not want to be boring about the North Tees and Hartlepool hospitals nursery closures, but they are part of the mixed economy the Minister has talked about. Can he suggest any intervention he could make? Could his officials speak to the hospitals about advice or other help that the Government could provide that would save the specialist provision of those nurseries for disabled and other special needs children? That would enable parents to set their anxieties aside.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman write to me, and I will then respond accordingly and get my officials to look into the matter.
I am conscious of the time, so I shall race quickly through my remaining points. Closures have been mentioned several times. The small number of closures that have happened are not necessarily a sign of a long-term trend or a decline in the number of maintained nursery schools. Some have merged or federated with neighbouring schools, so some of the reduction in the overall numbers from 468 10 years ago to 414 now is down to sensible restructuring based on assessment of local need. Despite that reduction, I can reassure all hon. Members that the number of pupils attending maintained nursery schools has increased over the same period, from 39,000 in 2004 to 40,000 in 2014. The hon. Member for North West Durham would describe that as static, but it is a modest increase, and it does not seem at all like a decline to me.
There is as much protection for maintained nursery schools as there is for any other school, if not more. Local authorities cannot close maintained nursery schools without following due process. In fact the current school organisation guidance, published in January 2014, states clearly that
“there is a presumption against the closure of nursery schools”.
That does not mean that a nursery school will never close. Indeed, it cannot be right to guarantee that maintained nursery schools will stay open at all costs, without ensuring that they provide sustainable, high-quality provision that meets the needs of local parents and children. Nevertheless, the case for closure should be strong. The guidance requires that
“any proposal to close should demonstrate that: plans to develop alternative provision clearly demonstrate that it will be at least as equal in terms of the quantity as the provision provided by the nursery school with no loss of expertise and specialism; and replacement provision is more accessible and more convenient for local parents”.
As I said early in my speech, parents and their needs are the starting point. No one size fits all for early education and child care. We should accept that we have diverse provision and we should support those different forms of provision and ensure that, whether parents choose a childminder, a maintained nursery school or a private, voluntary or independent setting, they get the quality they expect. That has some relevance to priorities, which the hon. Member for North West Durham mentioned. There was a suggestion that somehow the Government’s priorities were biased against maintained nursery schools. In a time of austerity, we need a targeted and effective approach to the early years.
The Minister is saying that we need a targeted approach, so will he commit to looking again at the report from the Education Committee and its recommendations for placing nursery schools at the centre of a network? Given the quality of the provisions, it seems sensible that they should sit at the centre of a network providing support and good practice for other provisions. He should commit to the Committee’s recommendations.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. I am very aware of the Education Committee’s recommendations and I will come to some of the points in a moment. As the hon. Lady rightly said, we should not just look at what other countries do, but remember to praise the good practice in this country. There is great practice and some excellent and visionary practitioners in this country. There is a lot to be proud of.
We have universal provision for three and four-year-olds in this country so every three and four-year-old is entitled to 15 hours of child care. That is a tremendous achievement. The latest “Education at a Glance” report from PISA—the programme for international student assessment—puts us in the top 10 of OECD countries, which we can be proud of. More than 90% of three and four-year-olds in this country receive 15 hours of free child care at the moment.
On targeting, the Government have introduced the free early-years entitlement for two-year-olds, which will benefit 260,000 two-year-olds from the least advantaged families in the country who will receive 15 hours of care a week. We should be proud of that, but we must be targeted in how we use finite resources.
We have also introduced the early-years pupil premium, which is £300 a year for three and four-year-olds. I assure hon. Members that maintained nursery schools will receive the early-years pupil premium from 2015 and I hope that private voluntary independent organisations and maintained nurseries will use that to help to boost their ability to attract higher-quality staff for children in nurseries.
There is a lot to be proud of, and the Government have a plan and clear priorities for the early years. However, funding for maintained nursery schools is obviously an issue, and we fund that provision through local authorities to enable them best to make decisions for parents and children. Some 49 local authorities do not have any maintained nursery schools and 43 have only one or two. Therefore, a funded approach that treats maintained nursery schools differently would not be fair to those areas. Many areas of high deprivation have good inspection results in early-years foundation stage profile outcomes. Some make use of maintained nursery schools as part of local provision, but others are doing that with high-quality nursery classes in primary schools and private providers, not large numbers of maintained nursery schools.
Maintained nursery schools play an important role in many areas, but our approach, including that to funding, must ensure that parents retain a choice of early education provision that meets their needs and, whatever their choice, that they can be assured of high-quality provision. Maintained nursery schools are more costly than other providers, but it is for local authorities to determine funding levels. There are often good reasons for higher funding levels and many local authorities have chosen to retain them with their single funding formula, indicating that most deliver excellent value for money, but they are not the only solution.
Many primary school nurseries and private and voluntary providers offer high-quality, affordable early-years provision that is good value for money, and that provision must also be funded fairly. We must ensure the highest-quality provision across the board and our policy approach and funding decisions should reflect that.
In their response to the Select Committee’s report, the Government noted the engagement in teaching school alliances of nursery schools and said that it was collecting and sharing best practice. Can the Minister add anything now or write to me about that and whether he thinks that involvement through teaching school alliances could help by sharing that expertise with others and whether funding could be provided to allow continuation of the high-quality services we get from nursery schools?
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee makes an excellent point, and I will write to him on that specifically. He alludes to quality and we know that a large proportion of maintained nurseries deliver outstanding provision, and in areas where maintained nursery schools rightly remain part of the answer, we want local authorities to work with them to ensure they spread their expertise. We are seeing that already. Nineteen maintained nursery schools are designated teaching schools and a further 109 are members of a teaching school alliance. I will write to the Chairman of the Select Committee with the details of how that is working. In Bristol, for example, where maintained nursery schools are linked to local primary schools and private sector providers in a teaching school alliance, they can share and disseminate best practice. That is an important way to guarantee the continued success of our best, high-quality maintained nursery schools.
Qualified teaching status and early-years teachers were mentioned by the hon. Member for North West Durham. I believe, as do all hon. Members here, that there is a need to raise the status and quality of the professionals in the early-years sector. We cannot say that early years are critical to a child’s development and not do everything we can to attract the best people into the sector. There are several ways of doing that. For example, one of my first decisions as Minister was to look at the early-years educator level 3 qualification. On literacy and numeracy, staff who qualify for level 3 must have GCSE level A to C in maths and English. We phased that in for the first year and it will be on exit, but after 2015, they will have to have that on entry to start a level 3 early educator course and to qualify.
A broader issue is attracting graduates to early-years education. QTS is one way to do so, but not the only one. We cannot set pay expectations for all early-years providers. The private voluntary independent sector is significant in the early-years sector, so we must think of ways of attracting the best graduates into the sector.
I do not know whether the Minister has met some of this year’s cohort on the course, but many have come to me to complain that they were misled about the course because they thought that they would have the same pay and status as if they had done the other available course for full qualified teaching status. I appreciate the impact on the sector of looking at these issues, but we must be mindful of attracting people to the courses. People have the choice of becoming fully qualified teachers, early-years qualified teachers or to qualify as a new early-years graduate. They will vote with their feet and choose where they think they can get the best paid job because they all come from the same place. The Minister must think about that.
The shadow Minister makes an excellent point. If people believe they were misled about a course, the first solution is to ensure that the details are communicated clearly to people when they sign up. On the broader issue of discrepancy in pay, we must look at that as it applies to the whole early-years sector, not just between primary school teachers and early-years teachers. The problem can be addressed in several ways. However, there is a more fundamental point. I was speaking to Andreas Schleicher, who presented to the Department on the PISA rankings yesterday, and raising quality is not just a question of increasing the salary; we need to ensure that we have the right sort of career progression. If we look at other countries where teachers are very motivated and excited, they have career progression built into the system as well. It is a knotty issue to get around, but it is in my in-tray and I am looking at it.
The central ask is that having set out the aspirations so clearly, the Government need to come forward with a strategy. The Minister said that what we are discussing can be done in a number of ways and that there are knotty issues, but they need to set out a strategy for how the proposals can be implemented. At least, we can then discuss it. Will he commit to producing a strategy to bring about the true integrated nought-to-18, or nought-to-19, work force the Government say they want?
I thank my hon. Friend for another forceful point. As I said, it is in my in-tray. It is something that I am looking at, and at the appropriate moment, I will let him know what my thoughts are.
Ofsted assessments were also raised, I think, by the hon. Member for North West Durham. I assure her that from September 2014, Ofsted will give primary schools a separate assessment for their early-years provision.
Ofsted will give a separate assessment for early years, but the Minister will no doubt be aware that that early-years assessment will include nursery classes, reception and year 1 and the foundation stage, and therefore will still not be a direct comparison against the nursery school, which is purely nursery years, prior to reception.
There are different Ofsted inspections, depending on the type of organisation, but one thing that is not in doubt is the quality of the provision of maintained nursery schools. That is not in doubt at all.
In summary, I think that we all agree that maintained nursery schools provide excellent provision. They do a tremendous job in meeting local needs, especially in deprived areas. In a mixed economy, with maintained nursery schools, private and voluntary providers, and nursery schools in primary schools, they have a role to play. They have greater protection than other sorts of providers, and because there is a presumption against closure, the local authority has to think long and hard before embarking on closure. I shall bring my comments to an end by saying that, yes, we value them, but the starting point for this—whether we are looking at provision, quality or funding—should be parents, and when it comes to parents, there is no one size fits all. We should therefore support diversity of provision in the sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to have secured such an important debate about the role of the Health and Safety Executive in asbestos removal. Since the debate was tabled, I have been contacted by numerous people who have informed me of unsafe asbestos-removal practices that are happening in various locations and businesses across the country. I thank each and every whistleblower for getting in touch. I regret that I cannot elaborate in great detail on many of their stories this morning because of time constraints. Instead, I intend to focus my remarks on a very specific area—the HSE’s role in the removal of asbestos from high street stores.
I shall focus on three key areas. The first is the deficiencies in the HSE when it comes to adequately assessing the scale of the asbestos problem on our high streets. Next, I shall consider the HSE’s ability to enforce regulation and how the HSE is involved in the process of asbestos removal, and suggest improvements to procedures that would provide better protection for the public. Finally, I shall examine the moral and ethical position of our high street retailers and question whether they are doing all they can to protect people or whether the financial imperative—the need to drive profits—obscures their duty of care.
I shall begin by looking at the existing legislation and regulations in this area. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 place a duty to manage asbestos on duty holders in respect of non-domestic premises. The duty holder will usually be the person or organisation with responsibility for the maintenance or repair of the premises. The duty holder is required, among other things, to take reasonable steps to find out whether there are materials containing asbestos in non-domestic premises and, if so, the amount, where it is and what condition it is in; to make and keep up to date a record of the location and condition of the asbestos-containing materials or materials that are presumed to contain asbestos; to assess the risk of anyone being exposed to fibres from the materials identified; to prepare a plan that sets out in detail how the risks from those materials will be managed; to take the necessary steps to put the plan into action; periodically to review and monitor the plan and the arrangements to act on it, so that the plan remains relevant and up to date; and to provide information on the location and condition of the materials to anyone who is liable to work on or disturb them.
Further, the duty to manage asbestos is a legal requirement under regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006. That applies to the owners and occupiers of commercial premises such as shops, offices and industrial units, who have responsibility for maintenance and repair activities. In addition to those responsibilities, retailers, as duty holders, have a duty to assess the presence and condition of any asbestos-containing materials. If asbestos is present or is presumed to be present, it must be managed appropriately.
In the context of today’s debate, it is clear that the duty holder is the high street retailer that occupies a unit or building. The Health and Safety Executive has produced a step-by-step guide for duty holders in buildings built before 2000, who have more than 25 employees. In many instances, the advice is to employ a qualified asbestos removal contractor who is licensed and monitored by the HSE to remove the asbestos in a controlled and appropriate manner. However, I will detail how that process is not always as safe as some at the HSE might envisage.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important matter to the Chamber for consideration. He has outlined the role of the HSE, but 4,000 deaths a year are still caused by asbestos poisoning. The last asbestos training pledge initiative took place from September 2011 to November 2011. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is time for the Government to initiate another such campaign to educate people across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain—not only on the mainland, but in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well?
That is a timely intervention. I absolutely agree that it would be appropriate to revisit that strategy at this juncture, and that is part of what I will ask the Minister to provide us today. I will also ask the Minister about updating education to ensure that people are fully aware of the dangers of exposure to asbestos.
Throughout my speech, I will refer to numerical risk ratings. For the benefit of those who are not from the construction sector, I want to clarify that the risk rating ranges from 1 to 20, with 20 representing the highest risk. Disturbed asbestos that is rated 18-plus usually refers to asbestos likely to come into direct contact with the public—for example, on the shop floor of a store through the ventilation system or in an area of a store that is easily accessible to staff and maintenance workers.
Millions of our constituents, and shoppers from across all five continents, flock to Britain’s high streets on a daily and weekly basis. Our retail industry is truly one of the great British success stories. With that success has come the need for high street retailers constantly to rebrand themselves as companies and to update and upgrade their facilities to improve the retail experience. The refurbishment of their properties usually has to be done as efficiently and as effectively as possible to ensure that it does not have a detrimental impact on profit margins.
Although asbestos was for many decades believed to be a perfectly reliable and safe material to use in construction, people are no longer in any doubt about its dangers and health risks. When the 2006 regulations were introduced, the HSE was given clear instructions on how to deal with asbestos removal in commercial units. However, retailers consistently try to minimise disruption to their stores and trading hours, with the result that asbestos—often in ceiling voids, where dust could be moved by air conditioning and ventilation units—has the potential to come into contact with staff in shops. In some cases, dangerous fibres may find their way on to the shop floor and the space used by the public.
That is not speculation or an unlikely hypothesis. In 2011 it was widely reported that high street giant Marks & Spencer was prosecuted and fined £1 million for failing to protect customers, staff and workers from potential exposure to asbestos. The court case detailed works carried out during the refurbishment of the Reading and Bournemouth stores in 2006 and 2007 in which asbestos regulations were not followed. Billy Wallace, a health and safety practitioner from Greenwich in south London, was a key witness in the case, and I have a copy of his statement to the HSE from 21 December 2006 regarding his experiences at the Reading store. I will read a passage from it, which makes scary reading:
“I was asked to work at the refurbishment of Reading Marks and Spencer...when I arrived at the job, I became concerned by my observations of many contractors working on and within ceiling voids because I suspected the ceiling tiles were asbestos insulation boards...In order for these operators to carry out their works they were rubbing and pushing against asbestos tiles, both damaged and broken asbestos fillets...I could not find any history of tool box talks, especially related to asbestos which could have been particularly pertinent to these works in areas known to contain asbestos...The impression I got was that there were severe pressure and constraints on all contractors to get the job done at any risk...In my opinion the shop floor would have been contaminated with asbestos on many occasions, thereby placing the public at risk...I strongly suspect that members of the public on many occasions would have left the M&S store having purchased contaminated goods (foods, clothing, furniture etc)...This is because the merchandise was still in the shop and vicinity of the works being carried out which on many occasions would have generated asbestos fibres”.
When I read that statement, I immediately began to wonder how widespread the practice was on our high streets. How many shops visited by our constituents contain asbestos that may have been disturbed during refurbishment or maintenance work? Could the food chains in such shops really have been contaminated, as alleged in Billy Wallace’s statement? Could clothes that people purchase contain highly dangerous asbestos fibres? In his summing up on the Reading case, Judge Clark alluded to the tension that he believed existed in Marks & Spencer between health and safety and profit:
“The response from Marks and Spencer was in effect to turn a blind eye to what was happening…it was already costing the company too much money”.
After investigation, I obtained copies of more than 30 fully intrusive asbestos surveys at Marks & Spencer stores across the UK. I will give hon. Members a flavour of the type of comments recorded. One states:
“third floor fallow area, main staircase, debris, risk rated 19 (out of 20), action: restrict access to fallow areas and bring in licensed asbestos removal contractor”.
That survey was dated 21 May 2003, and as far as I am aware, the asbestos is still there; there is no record of its ever having been removed. The argument is that as long as it is left alone and undisturbed, it poses no risk. Although the HSE currently endorses that position, it is a theoretical consideration rather than an example of best practice. That prompts a fundamental question: how can the HSE be presented with such surveys and never follow up on whether companies have removed the asbestos?
The examples I have highlighted are from high street retailers, but the same may be true of hospitals, schools—I know that the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) is very concerned about that—public buildings and other commercial and domestic units, in which duty holders have undertaken fully intrusive services, identified asbestos and notified the HSE, only for the process to stall. I believe that where fully intrusive surveys have disturbed asbestos products in buildings with a rating of 18 and above, those products should not be contained indefinitely in restricted areas.
I am led to believe that there are fewer than 150 HSE inspectors engaged in monitoring the removal of asbestos throughout the whole country. In reality, an inspector spends only one day a fortnight on site inspecting the licensed removal of asbestos. When the surveys were first brought to my attention by Billy Wallace, it was made clear to me that the HSE believes that any asbestos that has been disturbed and rated 18-plus must be removed, no questions asked. When pushed, however, the HSE seems content with disturbed asbestos rated 18-plus simply to be placed in restricted areas.
Marks & Spencer now has an industry-leading health and safety team that specifically looks at disturbed asbestos and its removal. The team, however, does not as a matter of course remove disturbed asbestos when it is initially identified due to the prohibitive costs. We must equip the HSE with the flexibility to undertake unannounced field visits outside normal working hours, when most asbestos removal is undertaken. As the HSE budget continues to be cut, there is increased likelihood that inspections will not take place at all in high street stores.
We could also consider introducing an annual inspection of every commercial store in Britain to analyse in detail the property’s safety and to ensure the removal of any disturbed asbestos that has been identified. That would eliminate incidents in which asbestos is left in restricted areas for decades. For some employees, customers and contractors who may have been exposed to asbestos, however, it would come as too little, too late. It is already a matter of public record that Marks & Spencer has been forced to pay out large sums of money to former employees who have contracted asbestos-related diseases following lengthy stints of service in its stores. Marks & Spencer is by no means alone in the practices that it employed, and it has agreed out-of-court settlements with a number of former employees.
Just a few months ago, the investigative journalist David Conn reported that Janice Allen, an M&S employee in the Marble Arch store in the 1970s, settled out of court with M&S for a six-figure sum after contracting mesothelioma. The dangers that M&S staff encountered were exposed due to the diligence of health and safety professionals such as William Wallace, but the truth is that nobody knows how widespread the dangers could be. We simply do not know how much disturbed asbestos identified through surveys carried out by licensed asbestos contractors is still lying in commercial units on high streets across the country; perhaps worst of all, neither does the HSE.
I am confident of five things. First, to the best of my knowledge, and barring the conviction in Reading, M&S has not broken the law as it stands. Secondly, and far more alarmingly, from the surveys that I have seen both Marks & Spencer and the HSE know that dangerous 18-plus risk rated asbestos is still on sites across the country. Thirdly, putting a restriction on disturbed asbestos and leaving it for decades is simply not good enough. Fourthly, profit should not take precedence over people in the application of enforceable safety practices. And finally, the HSE is weak.
The treatment meted out to William Wallace has been of great concern. Instead of Mr Wallace’s expertise being utilised to help improve asbestos removal practices, he has been ostracised. This is a man who, through his dogged determination to uphold the law, defend the rights of workers and see that justice is done in the courts, has undoubtedly saved lives that would otherwise have been put at risk through asbestos exposure. That has come at a tremendous personal cost. Mr Wallace believes he has been blacklisted, and he has been unable to find permanent employment for the best part of a decade. Let us be clear: he is not just a whistleblower but a trained health and safety professional who deserves the thanks and praise of Parliament.
I know my debate is specific to the high street and that the Minister may not have all the specific answers to some of the issues I have raised. I am, however, looking at pragmatic steps that he may be able to take to ensure that the risk of asbestos exposure is reduced. Will he seek assurances that all recommendations laid out in the judgment of Judge Christopher Harvey Clark, QC, particularly on toolbox talks for staff, have been implemented by the retailer in question? Does the Minister agree that such practices should be carried out by other retailers where asbestos has been identified in their stores? Is he satisfied that retailers are adequately informing and educating staff currently working in some older high street branches of the potential dangers to their health of asbestos exposure?
Does the Minister agree that the public will find it difficult to accept that Marks & Spencer can still have high-risk, previously disturbed asbestos in its stores that it has not removed despite a recorded risk rating of 18-plus? Does he believe that the inspection and enforcement of asbestos removal regulations by the HSE is being implemented as he would expect? Is he willing to accept that the HSE knows about disturbed asbestos and does not seem to be fundamentally willing to enforce removal action? Does he share my concerns about the potential exposure to asbestos, over many decades, in some of our high street stores? If he is unable to answer any of those questions fully because of time constraints or because he has only just heard some of the claims, I would appreciate it if he committed to writing to me further about the issues.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) for having secured this debate, which enables us to discuss an important subject. I can answer a number of his questions, but if he thinks that there is anything that I have not answered, I will of course be happy to write to him.
The responsibility for the management and control of health and safety risks, including from exposure to asbestos, ultimately lies with those who create the risk. As the hon. Gentleman correctly said, the duty holder will be those who either own or control buildings that contain asbestos or materials that contain asbestos, and they have a duty to manage safety. Duty holders include retail stores and other businesses used by members of the public. People need to identify where asbestos-containing materials are present, and they need to ensure that such materials are either properly maintained, enclosed and repaired, as appropriate, or removed, where necessary.
The HSE’s advice on asbestos is clear. If the material containing asbestos is in good condition and is not vulnerable to damage, it should be left in place because the risk to those who work in or use the facilities will be lower than if an attempt is made to remove the material. If the material is in good condition, removal is better done at the end of a building’s life, when the building will not be reoccupied. If the material is not in good condition, however, or if it is likely to be damaged or disturbed, leading to the release of asbestos fibres, it should be removed.
Those decisions should be taken on a case-by-base basis because they depend on the specific situation of the building, the location of the asbestos-containing materials, the likelihood of their being disturbed and, of course, the future plans for the building, such as whether it will be refurbished or whether it is coming to the end of its life. Those duties fall on the duty holder. That is the HSE’s approach, and the current regulations, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the legislative framework on the risk, and on dealing with the risk proportionately, was reviewed relatively recently by the Government’s chief scientific adviser, who thought that the legislative framework is proportionate to the risks from asbestos. The framework is good.
In the case of Marks & Spencer, which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, there were two stores being refurbished in Reading and Bournemouth in 2006. As he said, the work required the removal of asbestos-containing ceiling tiles. Marks & Spencer took the decision to remove the asbestos and engaged licensed contractors, who were asked to work overnight in enclosed areas so that small areas could be completed, thereby enabling the shops to open the following day.
However, the way the work was planned did not allow the contractors to remove the asbestos in accordance with minimum standards. As the hon. Gentleman said, there was a prosecution for failings under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which led to significant fines for Marks & Spencer and for some of the other companies involved. The prosecution was brought by the HSE, and it is right that there were significant penalties because asbestos, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said in his brief intervention, causes the deaths of a significant number of people in the United Kingdom—many from exposure over a considerable period. The best estimate, which I think he suggested, is about 5,000 a year, so the issue is serious. Duty holders must take appropriate steps.
On Marks & Spencer’s continuing work on the issue, I should say that licensed contractors undertaking asbestos removal must notify the enforcing authority. Since 2011, the HSE has received 112 notifications of such work that were identifiably related to Marks & Spencer stores and has inspected on 14 occasions. In those cases, it has found that no enforcement action needed to be taken, meaning that the work was being conducted in accordance with the appropriate risk controls.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned retail premises generally. It is worth saying that the retail sector takes this issue seriously. The Retail Asbestos Working Group deals with managing asbestos-containing materials in the retail sector, recognising that retail environments involve circumstances and conditions that present challenges in terms of public access and dealing with removing and managing the risk from asbestos. A range of organisations are involved in putting together guidance, and the guidance includes a foreword by the head of construction at the Health and Safety Executive, demonstrating that it sets out what steps retail premises of all sizes should take. I mention that because the hon. Gentleman specifically referred to training and the sorts of work done by retail premises.
The guidance makes it clear that there is a range of training. Some of it involves those undertaking licensed asbestos work for high-risk situations, but it also goes right down to information and training for shop assistants who put up notices and decorations, maintenance contractors who carry out daily repairs and other contractors who enter such premises to undertake work that might expose them to asbestos. The guidance is clear that training must take place across a range of staff in the retail environment. I hope that that at least gives the hon. Gentleman some confidence that retail businesses are aware of the requirements.
It is also worth saying generally, so that the hon. Gentleman and others are aware of what the regime looks like, that where it is decided that the proper management of the risk from asbestos-containing materials involves removing the asbestos, licensed contractors must be engaged and the enforcing authority must be notified 14 days before work starts. That will either be the HSE or local authorities, which can then plan visits to monitor the work done.
In the year 2013-14, the HSE received 37,553 notifications and did 1,318 inspections, meaning that 91% of all those holding a licence were visited in that year. Those reviews are taken seriously, so evidence of unsafe or poorly managed work can result in formal enforcement action, which may lead to stopping the work or, in the most serious cases, to prosecutions. Licences can also be reviewed.
It might be helpful for the House to know that there are 415 contractors licensed to remove asbestos as of April this year. Licences are for a fixed period of up to three years. To give an example of the quality assurance involved in the process, 188 licences, including renewals, were granted in 2013-14, while 25 were refused, and 91% of those licensed contractors would have been visited by the Health and Safety Executive at one or more sites where they were removing asbestos. Over the past five years, the HSE has issued 1,715 improvement notices, 552 of them under the duty to manage asbestos, and taken out 129 prosecutions, 24 of them under the duty to manage the risk from asbestos. The HSE is absolutely focused on the importance of monitoring asbestos removal, and it takes robust enforcement action.
The Minister is being helpful in identifying the legislative framework in which the industry must work. Is he therefore concerned that asbestos materials with a risk rating of 18-plus have been left in what have been described as fallow areas within stores for years, even up to a decade? Surely that flouts what he said at the beginning about the HSE guidance that damaged asbestos should be removed as soon as reasonably practicable.
Let me address that point directly, as the hon. Gentleman spent some time on it. The general principle that I set out was that the guidance is clear about when asbestos is best left in situ and when it should be removed. My sense, not being an expert, is that judgments about the condition that the asbestos is in and when it is best left there are a technical question.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned some specific surveys that had come into his possession. If it is helpful, I will ask officials to advise me on the issue of where retailers or others have identified damaged asbestos, to use his phrase, in situ and the decision is taken to leave it while containing it. I will ask for advice on that and write to him. It might be helpful if he shared some of the specific reports that he mentioned. I would be happy to ask some of the HSE’s technical experts to look at them and see whether that asbestos properly falls into the category of situations in which it is best and safest to leave it where it is, or the category in which action should be taken. It sounds more like a technical, case-specific question, but I am happy to ask the experts to look at those reports and come back to me. Then I will report back to the hon. Gentleman what their professional judgment is.
That would be a partial solution. What I am trying to understand is whether the Minister thinks the situation is acceptable, given the framework that he has outlined and the fact that HSE’s guidance says to remove asbestos. I am talking about broken pieces of asbestos, not a hole in the wall. I am talking about dust being left. It is obviously dangerous; it is 18-plus risk-rated asbestos. Surely best practice would be to get rid of the asbestos as soon as reasonably practicable. Does the Minister think that a decade is a suitable time scale?
I was clear in what I said; the HSE advice, which I think is sensible, is also clear. If the material is not in good condition—from the hon. Gentleman’s description, it sounds as though that is the case—and it is likely to be damaged or disturbed, leading to the release of asbestos fibres, it should be removed. Duty holders have a responsibility to do so, and to ensure that their workers, shoppers and others are not exposed to that risk.
On judgments in specific cases, as I said, I take the hon. Gentleman’s word for it; he has read the reports and I have not. Clearly judgment must be made on a case-by-case basis, which is why I said that it would be helpful, just to get a flavour of the issue, to have experts look at the reports that he mentioned to see whether the HSE’s guidance is being complied with and, if not, whether action can be taken.
It is a shame that the hon. Member for Strangford has left the Chamber, as I was just about to address his intervention on the campaigning idea. He and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned training and education. The HSE has well advanced plans to run another campaign this autumn particularly targeting at-risk tradespeople, such as plumbers, joiners, builders and electricians, who are aware that asbestos is dangerous but are often ill-informed about how to deal with the risk.
The campaign will include the distribution of 200,000 free asbestos safety kits, information and a web app to help people work more safely with asbestos, as well as a national and regional media campaign that will cover Scotland and Wales as well as England. Northern Ireland— this is particularly relevant to the hon. Member for Strangford—will make its own arrangements, but the HSE will provide advice about the campaign and share relevant information so that it can be run across the whole United Kingdom.
To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton about a toolbox, I should say that everyone involved in the sorts of trade affected, whether they are licensed contractors or tradespeople who may be exposed to risk, should be properly educated about the risk and the steps that they need to take to ensure that they do not expose themselves to the known risks from asbestos. We want to reduce the annual death toll resulting from historical exposure to asbestos. I hope that that is helpful, and I think that I have set out clearly what work we can do after this debate to take forward the hon. Gentleman’s points.
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
I welcome this opportunity to raise the issue of Cyprus. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), to his post; he will respond to the debate.
It should be noted that a number of my hon. Friends are not present. In fact, there are not a huge number of hon. Members in this debate, but that should not suggest that there is a lack of interest in Cyprus in the House. There are particular reasons why a number of Members cannot attend. A number of members of the all-party group on Cyprus, who would normally take part, are out campaigning for the Union. Furthermore, my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) are in Committees. I also wish to make a particular reference to the chair of the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who is unwell due to a detached retina. He is now undergoing surgery and we send him our best wishes.
This is my first opportunity to pay tribute to the late hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton. He was a good friend of Cyprus and fought for many causes. As we know, he stood up primarily for human dignity, from the very beginning of life to the end. He has been described by many others as a man of great principle and I am sure we all agree that he is a great loss to the House. We send our condolences to Pat and the rest of his family at this difficult time for them all.
My hon. Friend the Minister has much to occupy him, given his brief, particularly in relation to the middle east—let alone having to cover Cyprus while my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, is travelling overseas. However, therein lies one of the main reasons for raising Cyprus as a subject for debate; there are so many countries of concern to the Foreign Office that it would not be a surprise if Cyprus was not up there as a priority.
One of the primary purposes of this debate is to emphasise that a solution to the Cyprus problem must be a priority, and it would be good to receive an assurance from the Minister in that regard. Cyprus is not just an issue for Cyprus itself; given the troubles across the eastern Mediterranean, particularly in relation to the middle east, a reunited and stable Cyprus must be good—not only for the island itself, but for the wider region.
The other reason for the timing of this debate is that this has been the first opportunity for one since the 40th anniversary of the division of Cyprus and the Turkish invasion of the island. Others may wish to remark that it is more than 50 years since a power-sharing agreement between the two communities in Cyprus collapsed, in the wake of the island’s independence from Britain; we can go back in history and pick particular moments to focus on. However, the point of this debate is that it provides us with a formal opportunity to reflect on the passage of those 40 years, such that Cyprus—sadly—is now the longest-standing western dispute. Other areas of conflict have seen peace and unity break out, with divided capital cities being reunited and different communities reconciled. The Berlin wall has come down and Germany has been reunified, but Nicosia stands alone in Europe as a divided capital.
How sad it is that after these 40 momentous years Cyprus remains divided, with more than 40,000 troops still situated in northern Cyprus, which I understand makes it one of the most heavily militarised parts of the whole world, let alone Europe. It is extraordinary that there is such a continuing heavy military presence, given that since 2003 there have been 18 million incident-free crossings of the green line.
Since I have been in Parliament—no doubt my neighbour, the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), will be able to take us even further back in history—a rally has taken place outside this House every July. Those rallies have mainly been attended by women, who hold pictures of their brothers, nephews, cousins, uncles or other relatives. The people in the pictures are the missing. For 40 years, those women have not known what has happened to their relatives; the men are missing, presumed dead, but the women do not have any information about them. The missing people are their loved ones and the women have a basic human right to receive information about them, but that information has been lacking for all these years.
That right transcends communities, and we should note that the reality of missing persons is one shared by both the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities; later, I will mention the progress made in relation to the missing persons committee. The point is that every year, every month, every week and every day that goes by without a solution to the Cyprus problem is a human tragedy for all Cypriots. That reminds hon. Members, the Government and even those of us who have been involved with this issue for many years that we must not rest until we have a solution to the Cyprus problem that delivers justice and respect for the human rights of all Cypriots.
Wherever one stands and whatever one’s viewpoint, the current situation throughout the island is as unacceptable and intolerable in 2014 as it was in 1974—and given the history of conflict in Cyprus, the island’s problems go back even further than that.
The timing of this debate is important given the recent events in Cyprus and Turkey. This last week, President Erdogan has visited northern Cyprus and the UN Secretary-General’s new special adviser has arrived on the island. In addition, there has been the NATO summit, which I understand provided an opportunity for Cyprus to be discussed, at least by Greece’s Prime Minister and Turkey’s new President. I hope that the Minister, who attended the summit, can confirm that. Perhaps he can also say whether the importance of establishing peace and unity in at least one part of the troubled region—namely Cyprus—was discussed by the NATO allies.
Plainly, Cyprus has an important strategic role in the region, which appears to be increasingly, and helpfully, recognised by the United States. It would be good to hear from the Minister about the impact of increased US diplomatic involvement and its significance in trying to reach a solution, or at least in gaining momentum towards a solution.
Obviously, an immediate significance of Cyprus is the use of the sovereign base areas. Can the Minister confirm whether they are being used to provide humanitarian aid from Akrotiri or being considered to provide future support for allies in the region? Also, although the Minister may be may less able to comment on this issue than on others, the use of Ayios Nikolaos GCHQ—in terms of intelligence for the whole middle east—should be noted. It amplifies the strategic value of Cyprus in the wider region.
A few months ago, I had hoped to participate in a debate on Cyprus in the House with a positive view about the optimism arising from the joint declaration on 11 February, but sadly the recent news from Cyprus is negative. President Erdogan referred to “two founding states”, which I understand soured talks between Greece and Turkey at the NATO summit last Friday.
Having been elected, the President initially spoke of Cyprus as one of his four key priorities, which in many ways was encouraging—not least because of the number of other priorities, problems and challenges that Turkey has. One would look at Cyprus in that context and think the problem eminently solvable, with good will on all sides. It is also encouraging that Cyprus is such a high priority for Turkey, given the key influence that Turkey will have on the island’s future. However, after the President’s comments last Friday about “two founding states” and citizenship, that influence does not appear to be a positive one.
Such comments take Turkey backwards from showing that it truly wants a settlement; indeed, in making them it goes back on its support for the Annan plan in 2004. The comments constitute not a solution but, sadly, a perpetuation of the division of Cyprus, and they fly in the face of the United Nations basis of the talks and the commitment to a reunited Cyprus based around a single legal personality. They cast a dark shadow over the talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders and, sadly, they do not bode well for the future success of negotiations, particularly when opening sensitive chapters on territory and citizenship.
It is vital that Turkey backs a realisable settlement. Erdogan is understandably receiving criticism about his increasingly authoritarian policies in Turkey. Many of my Turkish constituents—I join them—want Turkey to talk and act like a liberal democracy with great potential, which we all want, because that is important for itself and the wider region, including Europe. It is important for Turkey to talk and act like a liberal democracy, rather than slide into being an illiberal, authoritarian state.
It is also plainly in the interests of Britain, which supports Turkey’s accession into Europe, that Erdogan should talk and act in relation to Cyprus in a manner that respects the democracy and human rights of what is a European nation state. Given the significant relationship between Britain and Turkey, and Britain’s role as a guarantor power, how do the Government respond to the comments that have been made? What are they going to do about what would appear to be continuing Turkish intransigence on the Cyprus question?
Will the Minister confirm the Government’s ongoing support for the United Nations and high-level Cypriot agreements? On 11 February, the then Foreign Secretary said in a statement:
“The Joint Declaration they adopted is an important step forward, and provides a real opportunity to secure a lasting and comprehensive settlement…Many of the broad principles for a united Cyprus have now been agreed, and I trust that the parties will now negotiate in good faith on that basis until a final settlement has been reached…With continued co-operation and pragmatism, and a sustained commitment to the vision of a reunified Cyprus, the two communities will be able to agree a solution which they will approve by referendum.”
Those were positive words, and rightly so. However, is that declaration really valid? One also has to accept that Turkey’s then Foreign Minister and now Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, had detailed discussions with Dr Eroglu before that key, important declaration was made, but do we now have to reflect on whether President Erdogan’s call for two founding states affects these fundamental foundations of the negotiations?
Since February, there has been a series of leaders’ meetings between Nicos Anastasiades and Dervis Eroglu and the negotiators. In addition, the two negotiators have made one cross-visit to Turkey and Greece respectively, to speak with the Foreign Ministries in each country. Unfortunately, I understand that the cross-visits planned to Ankara and Athens did not take place in August.
As a guarantor power, do the Government envisage themselves, as a nation, having any role in meetings before a settlement is reached? Given that the Republic of Cyprus is a full member of the European Union and will continue to be after what we hope will be the solution of the Cyprus problem, one has to regret that Ankara does not accept the reality and does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus. Furthermore, I understand that Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot leadership reject any notion of further EU involvement in the negotiation process. What are the Government, as a member of the EU and a guarantor power, doing to convince Ankara to change what seems to be an unproductive stance?
Veterans of these debates and talks over so many years will know that confidence-building measures are often pursued. Unfortunately, no confidence-building measures have yet been agreed. The key confidence-building measure is the return of Famagusta. President Nicos Anastasiades’s proposal for the return of Famagusta is a positive and practical step. It is a tangible sign of determination to move the Cyprus issue out of the current deadlock and create the conditions that will give necessary impetus and momentum to efforts for a comprehensive settlement. It is in the interests of Greek and Turkish Cypriots to return Famagusta to its lawful inhabitants and open up the economic benefits of the port. I welcome the Bicommunal Famagusta Initiative, founded last year.
The issue is also a matter of justice that should concern us all, because for more than 40 years 65,000 people have not been allowed to go home. I will say that again: 65,000 people, including my constituents, are essentially by force not allowed to go home to a place in Europe. That should outrage us as a Parliament and a Government.
Famagusta has been the subject of EU resolutions, proposals and motions, as well as a petition, which I, with other hon. Members present today, helped submit to the Prime Minister last year. The petition, and similar motions placed before the House, promotes the immediate return of the city of Famagusta to its lawful citizens in advance of any comprehensive solution. It notes that such a confidence-building measure, which is supported by the United Nations, would act as a bridge for a settlement. It has also gained the interest of the United States. Vice-President Joe Biden visited in May and wanted to find support for a technical team to be allowed into the fenced-off part of Varosha to start to assess the state of the buildings. Sadly, that did not happen, although many think it vital to provide genuine confidence for a positive outcome—not just in getting to the point of a solution on paper, but for voting in favour in a referendum.
Additionally, more immediate economic and social benefits will accrue to both communities. There is a United Nations development programme project for developing co-operation between Famagustians living in Famagusta and those in Deryneia, which would be assisted by another checkpoint at Deryneia. I look forward to the Minister’s confirming the previous helpful responses from the Prime Minister and the Minister for Europe about the Government’s absolute commitment to justice for Famagusta and what they are doing about it.
Other confidence-building measures can happen, not least in relation to cultural and religious heritage. Cyprus has heritage of great value that needs to be valued by all communities, and by us all. I welcome the leadership of the Swedish embassy in Cyprus, which has helped tackle some issues of access and supported real work on churches and mosques around the island, from the Tekke in Larnaca to Apostolos Andreas in the Karpas peninsula. Some Maronites have been allowed back to worship in one village—I have raised this issue previously in the House, as have other hon. Members—but they are still, intolerably, excluded from their basic right to worship, because their churches are in an army camp and a military area.
It is good to hear about work taking place to restore the Othello tower in Famagusta and I understand that the Armenian monastery in Nicosia has been largely restored with US support. What is the United Kingdom doing to support former British cultural heritage as well? I appreciate that the Minister will probably not be able to reply in detail to all these specific points and that the Europe Minister with the brief will be able to, so I should welcome a note on any detailed points.
Much more needs to be done to restore religious and cultural heritage and respect for freedom of worship. In a region, and a wider region—we will no doubt debate this issue in the world affairs debate—where freedom of religion is often denigrated and abused, Cyprus really should set an example of proper respect for the freedom to hold and practise any faith or none. The problem is that without more progress in Cyprus, indifference, perhaps, or lack of respect for religious and cultural heritage can provide succour for the extreme discrimination that we see elsewhere in the middle east.
I am trying to be positive and there are some positive initiatives. The Home for Cooperation building, created from a shop left behind by an Armenian owner in 1974 on the road now connecting the north and south checkpoints at the Ledra Palace, has become a hub for meetings, conferences and offices, and for teaching Greek and Turkish languages. It is also a coffee bar. It grew out of the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research and the building and work received the Europa Nostra award in May. That is going to be celebrated on 16 September.
The Cyprus Community Media Centre, next to Ledra Palace, now has a studio that broadcasts in different languages—not just English, Turkish and Greek. CCMC is asking an interesting and important question: where are all the women in the Cyprus peace process and in politics as a whole? Chambers of commerce and industry, trade unions, women’s groups, youth groups and environmental groups are all doing what they can to work together. They are asking where we can fit civil society into the peace process, so that people, as well as politicians, feel an ownership of the process. That would encourage confidence in voting yes at the end, when we have referendums. It is that confidence, which needs to transcend generations, that is of real concern as time moves on.
As is often said in these debates, by far the most successful of the joint projects is the bi-communal Committee on Missing Persons, which is responsible for finding sites and the exhumation, identification and return of remains to relatives. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, in his recent report on the UN’s operation in Cyprus, underlines that it is critical that the work of the committee suffers no further delays. He highlighted the need to expedite the process, including through the accelerated granting of access to military areas. As the UK is a permanent member of the Security Council, will the Minister indicate how the Government intend to exercise their leverage on Turkey to facilitate access to military areas expeditiously? Will he confirm that the UK continues to contribute the necessary costs to the operation, which benefits all Cypriot families and allows for some degree of closure?
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, there is the discovery in the east Mediterranean of vast amounts of oil and natural gas reserves. That has, probably rightly, been described by all sides as a game-changer. In the immediate future, that could be game-changing economically, given the real challenges facing Turkish Cypriots. They express concern about isolation and impoverishment.
Obviously, we know very well the huge economic challenges for Cyprus from the recent crash. The reserves provide an opportunity for a sustainable economic future that could transform the economic prospects of all Cypriots, to the benefit of the whole island. One has to recognise, however, that the exploitation of hydrocarbons requires regional stability involving Cyprus, Turkey and Israel, so the fruits of labouring for a solution are immense. That is why it is important that everything is done to reach a settlement for Cyprus and the wider region.
The Secretary-General has stated that the appointment of the new special adviser on Cyprus illustrates the United Nations’ determination to continue supporting the parties in arriving at concrete results in the coming phase of negotiations. Despite the momentum generated by the joint declaration by the two leaders on 11 February, we must hope that the 17 September joint meeting with the UN special adviser breathes new confidence into the process, which appears, to some extent, to be at a standstill.
In the 40th year, will the Minister assure me that the Government are doing all they can to support a settlement? I fear that unless we see a settlement at the end of this round of talks, we will have lost an opportunity for at least a generation. The younger generation are increasingly disillusioned or disinterested about the prospect of a reunited Cyprus. At the very least, can we as a Parliament and a Government never give up on speaking for Cyprus and a just settlement?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes)—my immediate neighbour—on securing this debate. I join him in paying tribute to the former hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, who was a doughty campaigner on behalf of Cyprus, which was among the many issues he took up in the House.
As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said, this is a timely debate at a time of great change in the eastern Mediterranean. Although, interestingly, Cyprus did not, as I understand it, play much of a role in the recent Turkish presidential election, the successful candidate, Mr Erdogan, chose the country for his first official visit on being elected President. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, he made some controversial speeches while there, and they have considerable ramifications for the process.
We have recently seen the interesting appointment of a new UN special adviser, Espen Barth Eide from Norway; I wish him every success in bringing the parties together for a successful negotiation. The NATO summit, if nothing else, ranged far and wide. I will return to giving Cyprus greater priority on the international agenda, but the NATO summit was an opportunity that does not seem to have been seized. I regret that Cyprus did not appear much on the agendas of the meetings held there.
We now have in place the infrastructure for a successful negotiation. The two leaders of the communities have met reasonably regularly and the negotiators appointed to do the nuts and bolts of the agreement are in place and working hard. As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned, we have the joint declaration. Although it took some time to put together, it is a very good basis for such a negotiation, which could and should take place. A number of innovative procedures have been entered into as part of that infrastructure. I think particularly about the cross meetings, where the negotiator for the Turkish Cypriot side visits Athens and the negotiator for the Greek Cypriot side visits Ankara to update two of the guarantor powers about progress on the negotiations. I understand that the August meeting was cancelled, but a meeting has taken place and I hope that that will be successfully deployed as a mechanism to draw the guarantor powers into the negotiating process, which will be critical if we are to make progress over the coming months. The negotiation is on the basis, as is usual with such negotiations, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That is not exceptional or surprising, but we wait to see how things will develop.
Like the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, I have to say that a shadow hangs over the negotiations. It is a time to reflect that for the past 40 years the island has remained divided and the two communities separated. It is a time for negotiations on that failure and disappointment. Whenever I visit Cyprus, I always go to the immediacy of the green line and Nicosia, the only divided city in Europe. In the immediate vicinity of the green line, Nicosia can be seen, frozen in aspic, as it was in 1963. That is a constant reminder that we have failed Nicosia, Cyprus and the Cypriot people. It reaffirms the need for us to be hard-headed, and while we are not optimistic, we must maintain a positive attitude towards the negotiations.
Of course, it was not always that way. In 1977, the then President Makarios was able to enter into a high-level agreement that set a framework, which was built upon in 1979. In the 1980s, Boutros Boutros-Ghali put more detail on that framework, including political equality, and we then had the Annan proposals, I to V, and the referendums. There has been plenty of negotiation, but we have failed to reach agreement. To echo the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, we need greater engagement from the international community.
The United Kingdom has a unique role to play in that, because we have a long, historical connection with Cyprus stretching back to the 1870s when it became part of the British empire. We were the main international party to the negotiations of the London and Zurich agreements in 1960 that set the framework for the independence of Cyprus, and we were a guarantor power in the settlement. The UK has a large Cypriot community, many of whom live in the constituencies of Members present today, and Cyprus has a large, but often forgotten, community of UK citizens. The connections between our two countries are strong, so Britain has a unique responsibility.
My constituents constantly remind me that we must do more to seize the opportunities of the negotiation process and to involve the international community. Now may not be the most opportune moment to grab the international community’s attention, however. Problems in Iraq and Syria, which are continuing to inflame the situation in the middle east, and in Afghanistan were foremost in concerns at the NATO summit, and if we add to that the developing situation in Ukraine, there is a great deal for the international community to deal with.
I apologise for being late; I was detained on a Delegated Legislation Committee. On Ukraine, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is rather unusual that the European Union seems exercised about Ukraine being occupied and divided by a military power while being oddly silent and acquiescent to the continuing occupation and division of Cyprus?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and would add that Cyprus is a full member of the European Union and should therefore get priority over non-member states. It is a constant battle to remind the European Union of its responsibilities. It took Cyprus into the European Union, hoping that it would be reunified. That has not happened, and engaging in the process and finding a solution must be a priority for the EU.
Returning to the role that Britain could play, although I recognise the difficult international situation in the middle east, Ukraine and other parts of the world, I ask the Minister to re-energise international involvement in Cyprus and to do whatever the United Kingdom can do. The international community looks up to the UK in its role in Cyprus, so we must do more to engage the international community.
Of course, the international involvement situation is not all negative. Some months ago, Vice-President Joe Biden, who is the first senior US official to visit the island since Vice-President Lyndon Johnson in 1963, travelled to Cyprus. The United States is re-engaging with the negotiation process and sees a successful conclusion as a priority. Joe Biden seems to have a direct interest not only in Cyprus but in the eastern Mediterranean and seems acutely aware, as the entire international community should be, of the importance of stability in the region not only because of the discovery of oil, but because of the current frictions that have resulted from the division of Cyprus.
On the negotiating process, the meetings have been frequent but, sadly, progress has been disappointing and is going at a glacial pace. It is particularly disappointing, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, that the confidence-building measures that it was hoped would accelerate the process have not met with the approval of both communities. It is important that we stress the need for such measures in order to boost the prospects of finding an overall settlement. There are some positives, but it is mainly negative, so I would like briefly to discuss some of the measures.
Missing persons have been a critical issue since the start of the dissolution of the two communities in Cyprus in 1963 and going on to 1967 and 1974. As has been mentioned, the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus comes to Parliament every year to remind us that they still do not know what happened to their relatives. Closure is a luxury that has not been afforded to them. Work on this is vital and must involve both communities to bring them together. Successes have been achieved and a number of remains have been returned to families, but there appear to be two main difficulties on which I ask the Minister to focus. The first is adequate funding for activities to push the process forward and the second is access to parts of Cyprus that are currently off limits, but where it may be possible to exhume the remains of those missing following previous conflicts. It is the most successful of the joint projects and must be given some priority. I hope that the Minister can confirm that.
The Famagusta initiative has been mentioned, so I will just say that it has the backing not only of the President of the Republic of Cyprus, but also the Turkish-Cypriot city of Famagusta itself. Bringing those two together, it should be possible to push the initiative forward, to return Famagusta to international control and to take forward what has been the major confidence-building measure that has not succeeded so far. If we can put that in place, it should be possible for the negotiating process to get under way.
Finally, religious and cultural heritage has been mentioned. There have been two successes. In particular, we have succeeded in bringing about the refurbishment of the Apostolos Andreas monastery, which is on the tip of the Karpas—well into Turkish Cypriot territory. As I understand it, that process has now started.
Confidence-building measures could make such a difference to the negotiating process, but there are some negatives as well. President Erdogan’s speech in Cyprus was, to say the least, disappointing. It set back the negotiating process. It starts from a position that, even under Annan, was not taken by either of the two communities. I hope that President Erdogan and the Turkish Cypriot community will reflect on the need to reach a compromise on all the issues that are outstanding. If they do so, then, after 40 years of division and separation, we can reunite Cyprus as an island and reduce tensions in that part of the world. I hope that, with oil, gas and the other benefits coming on stream, we can look forward to a bright economic and political future not only for the island, but for the eastern Mediterranean.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on introducing this debate. It is always important to debate Cypriot affairs. Those of us who represent London seats, particularly those in north London, will have large Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations; as one who contested such a seat in the last millennium, I recognise that. There are significant numbers of people of Cypriot heritage living even in my part of central London to this day. On the 40th anniversary of the division of Cyprus, one might argue that the debate comes at a time when both Turkey and Greece are at the forefront of some important international events, which I shall touch on.
The truth, to be brutally honest, is that Britain’s place in the world is not as strong as it was 40 years ago. It is probably not as strong as it was even a decade or so ago, not least given the decisions that have been made by Governments of all colours—by the current coalition Government and by the previous Labour Government—to make the cuts in defence that make us less of a world power. However, we are still a guarantor for Cyprus, as we were a guarantor for Ukraine, which is one reason why our voice cannot be entirely ignored, nor indeed our responsibilities relating to those affairs.
However, I do think one thing very profoundly. It is all very well to talk about our responsibilities, but there is an ongoing responsibility that, in my view, has been sadly lacking in political leaders on both sides of the Cypriot divide. They, too, have a responsibility to look to the future, rather than simply hark back in a negative way to the past. The Turkish and Greek Cypriot people have not been well served by their political class over the past four decades. They need leadership with a firm focus on where the future should lie. I say that as someone with heritage from eastern Europe: my late mother was an ethnic German from what is now Poland. It is thankful that many of the millions of people from that background do not constantly hark back to lands in what is now Poland. The biggest message I have, which I hope is a robust message, which should be put across by the UN, the US and British politicians to politicians in Cyprus is, “For heaven’s sake, you owe it as a responsibility to the people who live in your islands not to constantly hark back to slights and difficulties of the past, but to try to ensure the world is a better place and one in which Cypriots, of Turkish or Greek background, can benefit in the future.” The children and grandchildren of those living there today will hopefully have a better time, not simply because of the mineral resources that we have mentioned.
As I have said, the eurozone crisis clearly is not behind us. It is entering a new phase, and the Greek economy still requires a boost from the European Central Bank to buy its own bonds. I hope Cyprus can be an element of that thinking. It is timely that political leaders in this country now recognise that what is happening in Iraq and Syria will not be over in a matter of weeks or months; it will be there for years to come. We have to ensure that Turkey is a part of that discussion and a part of that coalition: Turkey is, of course, a member of NATO, as is Greece. Turkey also has a significant Kurdish minority. If we are to make common ground with Kurds in Iraq, we have to recognise the sensitivities in Turkey. One hopes that, in bringing them together, Cyprus can be part of the solution for the long term, rather than an ongoing problem.
It is fair to say—perhaps understandably, given the relative populations in Enfield Southgate and in Edmonton—that criticisms have been made of President Erdogan, but there has been intransigence on both sides. It is important that we progress. I have had the opportunity to visit both sides of the island. Most recently, I spent a few days last September as a guest of the representative office in London of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, to see that part of the island, having seen parts of what we would call Greek Cyprus in previous years. There are tremendous opportunities there. The economy is clearly having its difficulties, but potentially could thrive, not just on the back of mineral resources. Tourism or the educational offering that can be provided on both sides of Cyprus are important ways forward. I would like Turkish Cyprus not to be seen as a pariah state. An important way to encourage some cross-fertilisation across the island would be to ensure that more flights go directly from the UK to the northern part of Cyprus, rather than going via Istanbul, as they are currently obliged to do. That would be an important economic first step.
These debates in Parliament are important. As I say, we are a guarantor power. A significant number of Cypriots feel strongly about this issue. From my experience as a London Member of Parliament, it strikes me that many of the Turkish Cypriots I encounter—this applies to many Greek Cypriots as well—do not harp on the past. They are looking to make their lives here in the UK. They are proud of their Cypriot heritage. They have family in Cyprus and often have business interests there. I hope the UK can play a small part, but that has to be by having a firm eye towards a better future, which is clearly in the grasp of the people of Cyprus. Above all, it has to be by ending a sense of grievance and blame. I hope we can play a small part in pushing it further forward, but that future ultimately must be in the hands of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot political class. If there is one small message that can come from the debate—whether from the Front or Back Benches—it is that we hope they will take their responsibilities seriously to ensure that better days lie ahead in the whole of Cyprus.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I look forward to making a contribution. I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on bringing this matter for consideration. By doing so he gives us all an opportunity to make a contribution, which I hope the Minister will be able to respond to. This is an important debate. Some of my constituents are Cypriots, but many of my constituents have homes in Cyprus, whether in the north or the south. They are therefore aware of the issue.
I pay tribute to two former Members of this House who are now Members of the other place: Lord Kilclooney and Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, who as MPs made a significant contribution to debates and who retain their interest in the matter. The situation in Cyprus may seem bleak, after several attempts at finding peace—most notably the Annan plan of 2004, which produced a no vote in a referendum. I hope that in the referendum here the no vote will again be strong. The most recent round of talks, aimed at forging a federation between the Turkish Cypriot north and the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot south, ground to a halt in the middle of 2012. That is a matter of concern to all the Members who are here for the debate, and those who wanted to attend but could not.
Peace talks were launched again this year, but the situation in the country is difficult to repair, partly because of the still raw emotions on both sides of the UN-patrolled green line. That has been described by hon. Members today. The difficult tensions are no doubt largely due to the fact that some 2,000 of the country’s 1 million people vanished in the fighting from 1974 onwards. If there is one issue that rankles, it is, as the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) made clear, the disappeared. As hon. Members will know, there has been a similar situation in Northern Ireland. The disappeared are still a raw issue for many in Northern Ireland, although the numbers involved are clearly much larger in Cyprus.
At the time of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus the Turkish press was inundated with reports of unspeakable atrocities committed by Greek Cypriots—families being buried alive and houses burned. There were accounts of summary executions and other atrocities, which made Turkish blood boil, resulting in Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit ordering the Turkish army to intervene. In their turn, many Greek Cypriots and their sympathisers claim that the Turkish military killed and maimed numerous Greek Cypriots. They accuse Turkish soldiers of war crimes and other unwarranted and unprovoked violence, in addition to chasing 200,000 Greek Cypriots from their homes in the north of the island. There was a clear polarisation of two communities over a number of years. I always say that if Northern Ireland had adopted the same attitude of not seeking a way forward, we would still be in the situation we were in for 30 years up to 10 to 20 years ago.
The result of what happened was that the island has effectively been split into two since 1974, with the northern part necessarily turning to Turkey for aid and support, in view of its isolation within the international community. That is a clear issue. The split has remained despite attempts to reconcile north and south over the years, but 2014 might actually be the year for change. That is, I think, what the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said. He is, like me, a man whose glass is half full rather than half empty. We always look for the positive, and should do that today. The main difference today is that a gas field, called the Aphrodite gas field, has been discovered off the southern coast of Cyprus, some 21 miles west of Israel’s notorious Leviathan gas field.
I had an opportunity to go to Cyprus through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. As well as asking about the defensive role, we had the chance to speak to Cypriots and find out where they see their future. The gas field is a key to moving forward for Cyprus, and that is how the people of Cyprus see it. Unemployment was high at the time of our visit, and it still is. There are problems with banking and the economy, and if the gas field pulls things around and enables people to envisage a better future, we should focus on it. Turkey wants to be the transit route for Israeli gas, to provide easy access to international markets, and so it should.
A reunified Cyprus would allow the north to reap some benefit from the newfound undersea wealth, and would constitute direct accession to the EU and the eurozone. It would also bode well for reviving Turkey’s now all-but-defunct EU ambitions. If the reaching of an agreement between the two communities of Cyprus could bring Turkey and Greece closer together, we should see whether we can move it along. The time has now really come for them to bury the hatchet—not in each other, but in the ground—and to let bygones be bygones.
I come from a country that was torn apart by fighting at about the same period as what took place in Cyprus, where there was a realisation—not just personal, but on the part of everyone involved in the political process—of the difficulty and pain. The only way in which Northern Ireland could move forward and become the absolutely fantastic little country that it is today was by doing just that—moving forward. Religious beliefs and cultural heritage have been mentioned, and I have a strong interest in such things, as hon. Members know. More movement in that respect is good news.
The memories are still fresh and the pain is still real, but when I think about the situation that Northern Ireland has come from and where we are today, I realise that we had no choice but to co-operate and start afresh. We had to make those difficult but necessary decisions for the next generation and the generations after that. When we listen to the young people in today’s society and hear that their concerns and aspirations are for peace without threat, a strong economy and job opportunities—the same aspirations as those in mainland Britain, the United States and western Europe—we know we did the right thing.
Lord Wood of Anfield referred in the other place to
“a line in the February declaration that reads that,
‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 2014; Vol. 755, c. 579.]
If we had adopted that attitude in Northern Ireland we would never have made progress, so perhaps it is time to agree on what can be agreed first, and use that as a foundation. From that point there can be movement towards other things. It is not a perfect process—let us be honest—but it is a way of moving forward.
Did not we get to that point in February in the joint declaration? Despite some people’s cynicism and concern the joint declaration was made, with an agreement on the fundamental principles. There was forward momentum, but since then noises off have suggested otherwise.
Yes, it takes both sides to recognise the need for initial engagement, and a basis on which to move forward. I am disappointed that things have not gone beyond that, because polls seem to have suggested a way forward.
I feel that real change may be brought about through the work of the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus. I mentioned the 2,000 people who went missing, and we cannot bypass the hurt of the people affected by that. If people are given some form of closure perhaps their emotions can begin to recover, and the past can be left to rest in the past. Then I believe people will find it easier to talk, co-operate and, as has been said, compromise and make the necessary changes—to be totally committed to finding a way forward. When I think how far we have come in Northern Ireland despite not having closure for many family members, and despite the constant rather ludicrous debate over who the victims really are, I think that real change is every bit as likely in Cyprus as it was for us.
The article headed “Turkish poll sees shift on Cyprus” refers to
“24 per cent saying the Cyprus issue has lasted too long and a solution should be reached ‘no matter what the conditions are’.”
“Another 26 per cent argued ‘there is no need to insist for a solution’, the best option is to have two separate states on the island. Eighteen per cent support the formation of a new Cypriot state”
with another 19% in support of a similar notion. Clearly, almost 87% want progress.
There has been some progress in recent months, with the newly elected Turkish President Erdogan making some fairly positive remarks, beneficial to both sides. However, his meeting with Greek Prime Minister Samaras did not go entirely to plan, as relations between the two soured because of their differences on Cyprus. That is to be expected, however; finding a peaceful solution with which to go forward will not be easy, but it is a possibility to be pursued with all eagerness. The Pancyprian Federation of Labour, the Turkish Cypriot Revolutionary Workers Trade Union Federation, Turkish Cypriot teachers and workers unions and the United Cyprus party have called for a
“just and mutually accepted solution”.
As always when there are two opposite opinions, compromises will need to be made if change is to be made possible, and talks should begin as soon as possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing the debate. I want to focus on the missing people, but first may I reiterate to my hon. Friend the Minister that the Foreign Office needs to be as vocal about Cyprus as it has been about Ukraine? As the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) said, Cyprus is a fully fledged ally and a member of the European Union that we are hanging out to dry.
To focus on the missing, 1,500 people are still unaccounted for—a subject that I have raised many times. They may be missing, but they are not forgotten. That is a message that the House has to send out. The families have a right to know what happened, whether their relatives are dead and, if so, where their graves are to be found. If those people are dead, why can the location of their remains not be disclosed and their remains returned? What about those who were relocated to Turkey? Might they still be alive, or imprisoned? Might they be dead and, if so, where are they buried?
I have expressed concern before about the missing children, such as Christaki Georghiou, the brother of Mrs Hatjoullis, a constituent of mine. He disappeared at the age of five in 1974. Recent newspapers reports suggest that he might still be alive and working in Ankara, but the Turkish authorities refuse to answer letters or to give even a scrap of information. How many other children might have been placed with Turkish families and still be alive in mainland Turkey?
The tragedy of missing persons is a humanitarian problem with implications for human rights and international humanitarian law. The Cypriot Government comply with efforts to identify the missing on both sides, and it is time that Turkey followed suit. The organisations involved in locating and identifying the missing should have full access to the archives of all organisations, both civilian and military. The right of family members to know the fate of their missing relatives, including their whereabouts and the circumstances and causes of their disappearance, is a humanitarian matter. The obligation to carry out an effective investigation into the circumstances is required by international human rights law and international humanitarian law.
When focusing on the humanitarian dimension of missing persons in armed conflicts, it is necessary to bear in mind that the cases of missing persons can sometimes constitute criminal offences, including war. Perhaps that is why Turkey is dragging its feet. The lack of an investigation by Turkey into the fate of those who went missing has condemned relatives to live in a prolonged state of acute anxiety. Time has not lessened that anxiety, and any Member who has seen the relatives of the missing holding vigil outside this place or, for those of us who have visited the green line, in Cyprus know the pain and anxiety that the families still have—it is still vivid to them. The families simply want to know what has happened; they want to be able to grieve and to lay their relatives to rest.
Finally, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate and the hon. Member for Edmonton in asking the Foreign Office if it will continue to apply pressure on Turkey to open up all the sites that are now restricted and, on a perhaps easier note for the Minister, to help the missing persons commission to fund the latest equipment that could be used to find the remains of people. Those are two quite simple asks, and I hope that the Minister will comply. I finish by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate again on securing the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), in the usual way, on securing the Adjournment debate. It would be wrong of me not to acknowledge his gracious and deserved tribute to our hon. Friend, the late Member for Heywood and Middleton, in particular on this issue, but more generally as well.
The debate is timely, especially given Britain’s long association with Cyprus and the continuing challenge facing the country’s leaders and people and those of us who are friends of Cyprus on how to secure a lasting resolution of the division of the island. Many people of Cypriot extraction, Greek and Turkish alike, live in the UK, with many in my own constituency. They, too, want to see a lasting solution to the island’s divisions, but they certainly want to see a fair and just resolution of the many issues that have prevented a successful settlement to date.
I want to acknowledge the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) and that of the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who echoed in a different way one particularly powerful point made by my hon. Friend, which was about the important joint work on missing persons—the 1,500 people still missing—and especially the missing children, an issue that will have struck many of those reading the record of our proceedings. My hon. Friend asked two questions of the Minister, about funding and about access to areas where missing persons’ remains might be buried. I hope that the Minister will address those two key requests.
The hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made important points about the need for the political leaders with crucial roles in the talks to let the potential of Cyprus’s future inform the negotiations. Clearly, the past cannot be forgotten and the legacy has to be addressed, but the potential for Cyprus’s future, to which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate alluded, should surely provide the ongoing motivation for those closely involved in the present negotiations.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded the north. A military coup on the island backed by the Government in Athens was the supposed pretext for the invasion, which saw the island partitioned. Roughly, the northern third was inhabited by Turkish Cypriots and south by Greek Cypriots. There are many estimates about the scale of the upheaval that followed. The United Nations suggested at the time that some 165,000 Greek Cypriots had had to flee or were expelled from the north, with some 45,000 Turkish Cypriots going from the south.
Such figures are heavily contested. Whether one accepts them or thinks that they are higher, they nevertheless hide many individual tragedies arising from the events in 1974. Furthermore, communities that had lived together for hundreds of years were torn apart. A considerable number of people are still missing, which I alluded to earlier; homes invested with incomes and considerable emotion had to be deserted, almost at a moment’s notice; and many cultural and religious sites, including many churches, are unused and inevitably in poor condition as a result. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton mentioned parts of Nicosia that have been left almost untouched since then. The still deserted Varosha part of Famagusta stands as the perhaps most permanent challenge to the status quo on the island. Its future will be one of the many issues that needs to be addressed. I will come back to that point.
The green line is the UN buffer zone, which stretches from Morphou through Nicosia to Famagusta. It is patrolled by UN troops and has only a small number of designated crossing points. It now divides the two parts of Cyprus. There have been a number of serious attempts to secure a lasting resolution to the situation in Cyprus, but to date they have been unsuccessful.
I understand that for the first time, last Friday, the new UN special adviser, the Norwegian diplomat Espen Barth Eide, met separately with the leaders of the two sides, President Nicos Anastasiades and the Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu. Plans for a further joint meeting next week are encouraging. It is also encouraging that, despite some recent comments, both President Erdogan and Prime Minister Samaras were able to meet in the margins of the NATO summit on Friday to discuss Cyprus. I hope the Minister will set out what further steps the Government are taking to support the effort to build personal and political trust between the key leaders on Cyprus. In particular, what support is being given to the new UN special adviser?
Trust between political leaders is clearly a first, essential step if a deal is to be achieved, but other opinion formers on both sides of the green line need to feel their voices are being listened to. Will the Minister tell us what steps the Government have put in place or are encouraging to build dialogue between faith leaders and others in civil society, to help engender better relationships? I understand that there have been some encouraging contacts between business leaders in the two parts of Cyprus. Again, it would be good to hear what efforts our Government and others are making to build those relationships further.
It would be useful, too, to make sure that at this point of transition the European Union continues to be heavily involved in the effort to get a lasting settlement. Will the Minister discuss not just the role of the current High Representative but the efforts being made to brief the incoming High Representative, to prioritise the need for her active engagement in resolving the situation?
Other Members have already alluded to the encouraging visit of the US vice-president to Cyprus recently. Again, it will be useful to hear what further discussions the Foreign Office has had with the US to encourage it to maintain its interest and engagement in finding a solution.
Previous efforts to achieve a long-term solution to Cyprus’s political future have been conducted against a very different economic outlook. Cyprus is currently emerging from a difficult time economically—its banks have had to be bailed out—and in the north, too, the economic situation is a long way from ideal. Other Members have already alluded to the potential long-term prospects for the Cypriot economy, partly from the discovery of oil and gas. I understand that the UN has estimated that a long-term settlement could deliver a 3% boost to economic growth on the whole of the island—a far from insignificant potential peace dividend.
There are, inevitably, regional powers with a crucial role to play. Greece and Turkey are the two most obvious, but Israel, too, has a role. Will the Minister update hon. Members on the discussions he or others have had with those three regional powers?
It is to the credit of both President Anastasiades and Premier Eroglu that they have been willing to embark on renewed negotiations. We should continue to be positive about the signing of the joint declaration after such lengthy discussions in February and welcome the dialogue between both men personally and between the negotiators.
Previous negotiations have moved the process forward, but serious and significant challenges remain, not least on security, property, compensation and the distribution of powers in a new Government. The challenge the negotiators have to think through is how to build confidence among the peoples of Cyprus, while those difficult issues are being explored. I encourage the Minister to welcome the potential involvement of European parliamentarians and the High Representative and to think through what else can be done to build trust and confidence in the negotiations, among people on the island and in ex-patriot communities. Other commentators have suggested that negotiators from other, successfully resolved conflicts might offer a helpful perspective to those currently negotiating the future in Cyprus; it would be good to hear the Minister’s view on that.
Comments on both sides about the negotiations—both on specific elements and, more generally, on the way they have been conducted—have had a slightly less positive tone of late. I am sure we all recognise that all difficult negotiations have their bumpy moments, but it is important for those of us who want a long-term settlement to continue to encourage the key players and support deeper and wider engagement in the process, to help continue to achieve progress even when there are difficult moments. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how that wider engagement is being built and, in particular, about how the Foreign Office is supporting the key players in Cyprus in continuing to move the process forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I begin as others did by saying how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for initiating this timely debate on the future of negotiations to solve the Cyprus problem. I am also grateful for the valuable contributions from hon. Members.
Hon. Members will note that I am here, rather than my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe. He sends his apologies, but he is in Hungary at the moment. Although this is not my portfolio, Cyprus is a country that I am familiar with, having served there as an officer in the 1990s with the 1st Battalion the Royal Green Jackets. It is an incredible island, and it was a pleasure and honour to serve there and travel the island extensively. I would probably have taken more notes had I known that one day I might be speaking on the subject. I was based in Larnaca and am familiar with Akrotiri, Episkopi, Paphos—the birthplace of Aphrodite—Famagusta and the amazing monastery in Bellapais. Restrictions on travel were severe then, and it was difficult to move backwards and forwards. It is good to see that there have been some advances since the days when I served there and that the key industries that Britain is involved in—tourism and banking, which has been mentioned—are in a good position, as are our strategic role, through which we play an important part, as I shall mention later, and our links with the diasporas in the UK.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate has had a long and active interest in promoting the case for a solution, and I thank him for his efforts. I also pay tribute to the British Cypriots of all backgrounds who have done so much to promote ties between the UK and Cyprus. This debate comes as we reflect on the difficult events of 40 years ago. Although it is important to understand the past, as hon. Members have said, it is vital that we look ahead to the new hope for the reunification of Cyprus. A settlement would help Cypriots take full advantage of the economic, political and security opportunities of their region, not least the mineral opportunities mentioned by the Opposition spokesman.
I can assure hon. Members that this Government will continue actively to support the efforts under way to reach a lasting solution. Indeed, our diplomatic activity continues apace. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe invited both chief negotiators to London in June. Last Friday, at the NATO summit, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue of Cyprus with the Turkish Foreign Minister.
The UK’s efforts are in full support of the UN’s leading role in facilitating the talks. Like others, I warmly welcome the appointment as UN special adviser of Espen Barth Eide, who will bring a wealth of skill and experience to that important position. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe said when they spoke on 28 August, we hope that Mr Eide will soon help the parties to accelerate progress on the substantive negotiations.
The prospects for a lasting solution are promising, even if progress is less apparent or rapid than either community would like. The two communities and, just as importantly, Turkey are showing the right ambition to reach a settlement. The UK and Greece—the two other guarantor powers—are also fully supportive of the UN’s efforts to encourage the parties to work further forward.
I should now like to turn to some of the specific points that have been raised, and I hope that hon. Members will allow me to focus on those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate. If I am unable to do so in the limited time available, I or my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will do our best to reply in writing.
I recognise that at a different time more of our colleagues might be here. This is an interesting week in politics and some hon. Members are in different parts of the country. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) is not here and that he is undergoing surgery. We wish him well.
I pay tribute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate has done, to the late hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, Jim Dobbin. This is the first opportunity I have had to do so. He was certainly a man of great principle and integrity, and he will be missed on both sides of the House.
Reference was made to the Committee on Missing Persons. The UK fully supports its work whereby communal teams undertake painstaking and sensitive work. So far, more than 571 individuals have been identified and returned to their families. We recognise the anguish suffered by families of the missing people from both communities, and we encourage parties to help the CMP to accelerate its work, which becomes more challenging as the years pass. Since 2006, we have donated more than $220,000, and bilateral EU funding, which comes partly from UK contributions, totalled $15.3 million from 2006 to 2013. We stand ready to consider further requests for funding from the committee if they are forthcoming.
In Northern Ireland and in the Republic, we have had specific attempts to try to find people who have disappeared. Has the Minister considered giving help with equipment because advanced equipment is available to find bodies that have been buried for many years and perhaps that could provide an advantage?
I am grateful for that intervention, and I am aware of initiatives in Northern Ireland, having also served there. I am not aware of any such equipment, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe to write to the hon. Gentleman. It is an interesting thought.
The UK will continue to urge all those in control of such areas, including the Turkish military, to co-operate fully with the committee and allow it to accelerate its vital work.
Sovereign base areas are pivotal to Britain’s strategic interest in the region, as has been said many times on the Floor of the House, and that applies not just recently in relation to the humanitarian aid drops that are taking place in Iraq at the moment. Cyprus is an important staging post and location for our military: the Army, Air Force and Royal Navy. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) mentioned Operation Tosca, which, sadly, is one of the longest running UN operations and polices the green zone. It is hoped that it can be wrapped up in the near future if the final agreement can be made. I am pleased that Britain has been a long-term contributor to that operation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate also mentioned Turkey’s role in the current negotiations. It remains an important part of reaching a solution and I welcome Ankara’s strong support for a settlement. We regularly discuss Cyprus with our Turkish counterparts, including at ministerial level, and we encourage Turkey to maintain its constructive engagement to make this round of talks successful. One example is the visits of the two negotiators to Athens and Ankara, and it would be useful to repeat them in the near future.
Turkey remains committed to supporting international efforts to solve the Cyprus problem. We do not believe that its support has been affected by the recent elections. We are aware of the remarks by President Erdogan on 1 September. The UK continues to support the UN-chaired negotiations to reach a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement on the basis of the relevant Security Council resolutions.
On EU involvement, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) referred, the EU has an important technical role to play—he is familiar with it—in providing advice on the EU acquis and technical assistance to help to implement the settlement. We welcome the work being done under the EU financial aid regulation aimed at bringing Turkish Cypriots closer to EU standards. However, the UN rightly remains the lead in chairing talks and facilitating the process. The EU has said that all parties will have to agree to an upgraded role. We recognise that Cyprus is a member of the EU, but the talks take place between two communities with equal status. The UN has led international efforts since 1964 and both sides will have to agree to any change in modalities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate and others referred to Famagusta, which I visited not too long ago. Sadly, it is not the place it used to be, but we fully support UN resolutions 550 and 789, and have also raised the issue with Turkey. We understand that this is important for many Cypriots, which is why so many efforts have been made over decades for a package deal, unfortunately without success. Varosha, as part of Famagusta is known, is best addressed as part of a comprehensive settlement, given the myriad complexities, and we welcome the work of civil society, such as the bi-communal Famagusta initiative, in preparing the way.
Hon. Members also referred to religious freedom. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate noted that some of the challenges faced by religious groups in Cyprus were caused in no small part by the political situation. We recognise the constraints, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe discussed with the Cypriot archbishop in May, and we also discussed such matters with the Turkish Cypriot community. More can be done, but we are pleased that progress has been made in recent years on religious services in both churches and mosques, on mutual understanding and on cultural heritage.
Flights were mentioned. The UK Court of Appeal has confirmed that direct flights from the UK to the northern part of Cyprus would breach obligations under international law. The court found that it is for the Republic of Cyprus to determine which airports are open for international traffic and as a result no airlines are licensed to operate flights from the UK direct to north Cyprus.
In conclusion, this debate has underlined the warmth of the ties between the UK and Cyprus and shown how it is in the UK’s national interest to help the Cypriots to reach a lasting settlement. No one should underestimate the scale of the challenges ahead, but the Government firmly believe that a solution that meets the fundamental concerns of both communities is possible and that there has been no better time to achieve it. The parties have stated their willingness to reach a deal and we urge both sides to seize this opportunity. Cypriots of both communities want to live and prosper together in peace. As they strive for a lasting solution, we will continue our active support in Cyprus, Ankara, Athens, New York, Brussels and beyond. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate for securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss these important issues.
Superfast Broadband (Urban Areas)
I am grateful for the opportunity formally to put on the record the frustrations of my constituents and many businesses about the roll-out of superfast broadband in my central London constituency. I know that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), whose constituency neighbours mine, has similar concerns.
It may come as a surprise to many that here in central London there is a problem with superfast broadband. The perception is that this is an issue only for the rural parts of the United Kingdom, but there are some fundamental issues that I want to address, and I know that the hon. Lady will want to make a brief, broadly supportive contribution, although she does not know exactly what I will be saying.
The speeds in the centre of London are, in fact, among the slowest in the capital as a whole—some 11.9 megabits per second on average for the City of London as compared with some 20.9 Mbps for the capital as a whole. Ofcom defines superfast broadband as 30 Mbps and has recognised that the gaps in the superfast broadband coverage in Westminster and the City are particularly pronounced.
For clarity, there are three common types of connection. The slowest, and the sort that many colleagues may well have at home, is copper broadband, which uses a phone line. The fastest is the sort used by larger companies, which have a private or a leased line connection, but those are expensive and affordable only to relatively few larger businesses. To put that into figures, copper broadband costs at least £10 a month, whereas a leased line will cost many hundreds of pounds a month to install and run. The other connection option is, of course, superfast broadband, which operates between the copper and leased lines in terms of both price and performance, but is largely affordable for domestic users and small and medium-sized enterprises.
I recognise that the Government have already directly supported the supply of superfast broadband to over 1 million homes and businesses where it would otherwise not have been commercially viable. Many of those residents and businesses are, unsurprisingly, located in rural areas and the current roll-out is expected to provide a £1.5 billion boost to local economies. It is also estimated that the superfast broadband programme will deliver returns of up to £20 for each £1 invested, which would, if that came to pass, represent tremendous value for money.
My constituency—the one we are sitting in today—includes the political, business, cultural and ceremonial heart of the UK, yet a large number of residents and SMEs from right across this patch still do not have the option to connect to superfast broadband. That is somewhat surprising, given the level of investment that the Government have ploughed into improving the UK’s digital infrastructure. Needless to say, that is an integral part of the Government’s long-term economic plan.
Just last month, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport proudly announced that central and local government are investing some £1.7 billion to extend superfast broadband. Access to that has now been extended to some 78% of the UK—88% in London—and it is hoped that that will be extended to some 95% in total by 2017. The Mayor of London has also made it a clear aspiration for every resident and business in London to be able to have access to an affordable high-speed internet connection.
According to the Government’s own body, Broadband Delivery UK, if faster broadband is rolled out, it would be expected to boost the economy by £17 billion annually by 2024. As a consequence, there would be a huge economic opportunity cost to not comprehensively rolling out high-speed broadband in central London. The square mile alone hosts some 13,500 small and medium-sized enterprises. It is often thought that it is only the very big international corporate businesses that are based in the City, but that is not the case, and has never really been. There are many small businesses employing literally a handful of people that are still based in the City of London and which require this most up-to-date global broadband access.
My concern is that there is a failure in how the market currently operates. In urban environments, the approach of network providers seems to be based on a belief that there is insufficient demand to invest further. That means that large swathes of urban areas with important SME users are poorly served and restricted to outmoded copper broadband, which I referred to earlier.
UK telecommunications regulation has successfully created healthy supply-side competition in connectivity for London’s larger corporations, which are prepared to pay many thousands of pounds a month for high bandwidth connections—indeed, many of those are businesses that absolutely need the most state-of-the-art global bandwidth connection. That competition has created a rich network of wholesale fibre-optic cables across the capital, but there is a gap between that wholesale fibre-optic network and the retail network that serves small businesses and residential properties. The policy must now begin to focus on how that rich wholesale fibre core can be extended to London’s small business community and to the residential community here in the centre of London.
I concur with nearly everything that the hon. Gentleman has said; he has summarised the challenges that are also present in my constituency. Does he not agree that some of the key challenges are the length of time it takes to get connected, unreliability of speeds and the misleading maximum speeds that are often advertised, which is just not delivering for SMEs and many residents?
That concern has certainly been put to me by many of my constituents as well. In today’s debate, I am trying to focus on what the Government might do, given their ambitious programme, which, as I said, has made some real headway in relatively depopulated, rural parts of the UK, but which has left behind, ironically, the sorts of areas that the hon. Lady and I represent.
In my constituency, we have an area called a “notspot”, in that it is a group of houses at the end of the copper line, and the speed degrades the further away people get from the exchange. In terms of asking what the Government can do, does my hon. Friend agree that we need a proper investigation into what the cause is? He is being told that there is a lack of demand, but when I met BT, I was told that BT cannot find the location to put the boxes on the pavement, so we are being misled. Does he agree that the Government need to get a grip on why suppliers cannot supply in London?
I very much agree with that. I confess that when I was doing the research, I assumed that the word “notspot” was a typographical error. I then recognised exactly what was being suggested, which my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out.
Yes, there is a particular problem for London. London is a wonderful capital to live in, but it is an absurdity that, within a few hundred yards or even less of first-rate digital broadband, individuals should find they have difficulties. Of course, we all take for granted that we will have instant access to the internet—I recall going on a holiday only 10 years ago to a distant part of Africa and the frustration one felt about the situation. Of course, we recognise that back in the 1980s and 1990s, these things did take a hell of a long time to get up and running, and all of us as consumers now have expectations that are very different from those of the past. Those expectations will only become greater as time goes by.
It strikes me that only the sort of thinking to which hon. Members have referred will enable London to continue to compete effectively on the global stage and meet the future bandwidth demands of all its citizens. My seat suffers particularly from the technology divide and it is frustrating to receive regular reports from constituents that they are caught between the cheaper, slower, copper broadband and the unaffordable leased lines. Many SMEs, in keeping with current business practice and as a way of making economies in what remains a difficult economic environment, use cloud-based services. Those services need, as an absolute essential, faster and reliable connections and the failure to provide sufficient connectivity is a fundamental issue undermining our global competitiveness.
Even the much politically celebrated success that is Tech City—based, sadly, just outside my constituency, around the Old street roundabout—is having difficulties getting the broadband speeds it needs to continue to thrive and grow. I know that those concerns are shared by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, who has the good fortune to have Tech City in her patch. I know that in the past, she has called for a comprehensive review of superfast broadband provision.
Closer to home here in Westminster, the West End partnership, which brings together public and private sector stakeholders in central London, has identified the poor broadband service as the single biggest threat to London’s international competitiveness. It puts at risk the continued attraction of investors and the continued growth of the digital, media, tech and creative sector, which has provided some quarter of a million jobs in central London alone.
London has the biggest concentration of digital businesses in Europe, with some 23,000 firms and over 390,000 employees, according to a Greater London authority study of two years ago; I suspect that those figures may underestimate the reality today. However, economic growth in the sector has not increased relative to other sectors in the past decade. That is likely to relate to the fact that broadband speeds are lower in London than in some of our European rivals and connection is generally of a lower standard than that available to a number of our Asian competitors.
I am trying not to approach this debate with the green eyes of a Wiltshire MP. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that our international competitiveness is a critical consideration. Does he have any insight, through his research, into other approaches that have been taken with more success to achieve really substantive, robust internet connectivity for other urban centres and which it would be worth the Government looking at afresh?
I should like to come on to that, if I may, in what I say in a moment or two.
Clearly, there is much that we can learn. Let us be honest: one of the difficulties that we face is this. It has always been the way in the United Kingdom that when a huge amount of money has been paid to put an infrastructure in place, it is difficult to dismantle it entirely. Pudong district in Shanghai, which was paddy fields only 20 years ago, is now a city of 7 million or 8 million people who live and work there. Clearly, it can have state-of-the-art infrastructure in place, because it had a more recent starting point.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way and is making very powerful points. Does he agree with me on these two things? First, although it is great to see BT’s progress in rolling out broadband, that has been mostly focused on rural areas. Secondly, the blind spots in the urban network that he is referring to can be very frustrating for business growth, and not just in London. The Waterwells business park in Gloucester is a very good example of where growth is frustrated by not having decent broadband.
My hon. Friend’s area does not only have green fields; I expect that there are also green boots in that bit of Gloucestershire. However, as he will rightly point out, many of his voters and constituents live in a relatively urban part of Gloucester, which I do appreciate. There are some fundamental problems, and I am glad that we have had an opportunity to ensure that this is not seen just as a central London issue. It might have come as news to my hon. Friend and to the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) that we have a specific problem here in central London.
Many firms in London require superfast broadband as much as they require electricity or water. More than 98% of the UK’s visual effects firms are in the Soho area of London, bordering Covent Garden, which is cited as being in a broadband notspot—the term mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer). Not all firms, especially start-ups, are able to link into the private Sohonet, which notionally serves that part of W1. Instead, they rely on BT and the other telecommunications companies, which do not yet offer such a comprehensive service.
However, there is good news, and I want to give credit where it is due. Recent developments suggest that a number of the private sector providers are now taking a more positive approach. BT, for example, committed only last week to working with the City of London to investigate how new forms of technology can benefit local SMEs. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch. We have worked together to try to ensure that BT works on this, and that is an example of where some cross-party co-operation can work well. Clearly, these issues affect parts beyond a single constituency. That is in addition to BT’s promise of an extra £50 million of investment specifically aimed at expanding coverage further in urban areas. I hope that some of that investment will make its way into my patch.
Progress, of course, can be made through innovative schemes at local level. I should like to highlight the creation by Westminster city council and its arm’s-length management organisation, CityWest Homes, of a new partnership with the private sector called Community Fibre. The aim of the project is to install a fibre-optic telecommunications network in the council’s social housing and associated commercial property stock. That service started as a pilot of only 1,000 or so properties, but has now been extended to cover 22,000 properties in and around the Pimlico district of my constituency.
Until the spring of 2015, businesses have the option of applying for vouchers worth up to £3,000 towards the installation of superfast broadband from a range of providers, through the Government’s SuperConnected Cities programme. However, I understand that, to date, the take-up has been pretty low. I am informed that the Greater London authority has issued only 812 vouchers across London as a whole. The total funding pot for vouchers in London was set at £23.8 million.
If we assumed that all the vouchers were allocated for the maximum amount of £3,000—some, of course, would have been for a smaller sum—the total funding would account for barely 10% of London’s total allocation. There is therefore a compelling case for the Government’s extending the scheme well beyond the spring of 2015, as well as for making the application process more straightforward.
There is clearly a place for Government investment in broadband infrastructure where there is a market failure in supply, but, as responsible policy makers, we should limit the exposure of the taxpayer by first establishing the extent to which the market can address unmet demand. Physically rolling out high-speed broadband networks in urban areas provides a number of challenges for broadband providers. Some 85% of the cost associated with building broadband infrastructure is accounted for by civil engineering. On average, it costs £43 per metre to dig a traditional trench in a footpath.
Of course, digging a trench is particularly expensive in London, for a number of reasons. The large number of heritage and protected status sites leads, of course, to significant bureaucracy and up-front delays. Other reasons are the cost of permits, parking charges and the nature of surface materials, such as York stone, which makes that sort of excavation extremely expensive. The dig rate in London is approximately 25% of the rate of digging seen outside London, as a result of congestion measures such as early finishes and close-down requirements.
To aid the private sector in rolling out superfast broadband in London at minimal cost, I should like to encourage Ministers to work with the Mayor of London and local authorities to minimise the cost of providing this vital infrastructure. For example, we might reduce the cost of permit schemes for broadband upgrade works by limiting charges to A and B category roads, and consider allowing for installation via narrow and micro-trenching for broadband deployment only.
I understand that there are ongoing discussions with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Transport on updating the “Reinstatement of Openings in Highways” code of practice to allow such a move. Narrow trenching would cut the costs of trench deployment by about one third, and micro-trenching would reduce it by a further third, so that would be two thirds in total.
It is important that we take a dynamic and innovative approach to dealing with the coverage problem, as laying cable underground may, in the not-too-distant future, become an entirely outdated process. That will be especially true as mobile superfast broadband coverage becomes increasingly available, now that speeds of up to 50 megabits per second are physically possible. That has the advantage that there is no need for a landline and there is the ability to supply a connection flexibly and quickly. Local authorities must be encouraged to co-ordinate with superfast mobile broadband providers, as providing that service is likely to have implications on public works, street furniture and new developments. Ofcom can also keep a close watch on this market as it develops, to ensure that any technological progress provides as much benefit as possible to the end consumer.
It is widely assumed that the demand for bandwidth will continue to grow tenfold every five or six years. The legacy fibre and copper network will still be able to deliver superfast broadband to some customers, but competitive global city economies will in truth require a full fibre-optic network after 2015 in order properly to compete. I should be keen to see the Government encourage greater activity by broadband providers, in co-operation with local authorities, to press quickly ahead with the creation of affordable broadband.
Lovely! I shall just finish my own points by saying this. I say to the coalition Government that we need fully to harness the digital capabilities in the heart of the UK’s cities—I accept that this applies to other urban areas as well—because that is truly where that is most needed.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in this unusual and temporary setting for Westminster Hall debates. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) for his excellent speech, which encapsulated all the concerns. I am also grateful for the contributions from the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer). It is nice to have contributions from so far afield outside London.
The main focus of the debate is broadband in London, but I know that the issue of broadband is of huge concern to hon. Members all over the country. I am pleased that a similar level of consensus has been established in this debate as has been established in relation to all our efforts to keep Scotland in the Union. May both elements of consensus achieve similar levels of success.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, who secured the debate, talked about how his expectations had changed over the past 10 years since he went to Africa, and I think he hit the nail on the head. Even during the past two or three years since we started the programme, the legitimate expectations of businesses and residents for superfast broadband speeds have grown exponentially, not least because of the entertainment applications that residents are now used to using, such as BBC iPlayer, and because of businesses’ use of technologies such as the cloud.
It is important that we recognise some of the successes of the broadband programme that we have undertaken, as well as the commercial roll-out of broadband. Since I last discussed the subject in the House, we have, under the rural broadband programme, passed more than 1 million homes, and we are now passing 40,000 homes a week across the country. By spring 2015, we will have passed at least 2 million premises.
Of course, broadband is equally important in urban areas, and it is right to raise that issue; people sometimes think that urban broadband will simply take care of itself. In some respects, it has done so with commercial roll-out. We should recognise that BT’s commercial broadband roll-out scheme, which had no Government subsidy, reached some two thirds of premises in the country and was completed two years ahead of schedule. I was pleased that, as a result of discussions with the Government when we were putting together the extension of our rural broadband programme, BT committed another £50 million, as my hon. Friend mentioned, to reach another 400,000 urban premises.
I was pleased at the beginning of last month that Virgin Media announced plans to extend its network in east London to a further 100,000 premises, which will make a significant difference. I am pleased to see Virgin Media investing not only in faster speeds for its existing customers but in extending its footprint. UK Broadband has launched its own superfast wireless service across much of central London, including the Cities of London and Westminster. In my press cuttings today, I came across a company called Optimity from Tech City, which also plans to offer a wi-fi superfast service. We have seen the announcement that CityFibre Holdings will be working with TalkTalk and Sky to bring fibre broadband to many of our key cities across the country, as will companies such as Hyperoptic.
In the debate about broadband, we must not forget the importance of 4G. Thanks to the successful auction that we carried out, we now have the fastest roll-out and take-up of 4G mobile speeds anywhere in the world. In superfast broadband terms, in London the average download speed, as I understand it, is 60 megabits a second and the average upload speed is 59 megabits a second. I understand how important it is for my hon. Friends to make their case, but we must recognise that the UK is now a world leader in international rankings. We are the best connected of the top five European economies. In answer to the hon. Member for Chippenham, I do not believe that he will find a better scheme than our rural broadband scheme when it comes to Government support for broadband roll-out.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, it is important to distinguish between business and residential broadband. Businesses that want certain speeds must recognise that they have to get a service that is more expensive than residential broadband. That does not mean, however, that we should not focus on ensuring that commercial providers provide good broadband speeds for residential use as well as for commercial use.
To pick up on what my hon. Friend said in his speech, it is important to look at deregulation. He outlined the huge cost of laying fibre in a city environment. That is why we have introduced legislation to permit the installation of broadband street cabinets and new overhead lines without the need for prior approval from planning authorities. That measure will last for five years. We have also introduced changes to streamline the planning process to support the deployment of mobile infrastructure and encourage the 4G take-up that I mentioned earlier.
In some urban areas, commercial investment in residential broadband has not happened for reasons to do with the original network, the anomalies in coverage and the potential expense of resolving those problems. Nevertheless, we have 88% superfast coverage in London, and London stands against any of the major cities in the world in terms of broadband availability. There are clearly vast amounts of fibre in the City of London, but that has been designed for commercial use. As my hon. Friend said, the challenge is to extend more coverage to the residential sites.
We are initiating dialogue. The chief executive of BDUK, Chris Townsend, will talk to the Mayor’s connectivity summit later this month, and all suppliers have been invited to discuss this important matter. We must support commercial deployment wherever possible. We can subsidise the supply side only where the case for public intervention is absolutely clear, to avoid chilling the appetite for commercial investment. We must satisfy state aid provisions. We have engaged with the European Commission on those matters, and we have agreed with the Commission that our focus must now be on stimulating the market to invest in and supply services to close gaps in urban broadband supply.
My hon. Friend mentioned the SuperConnected Cities programme, which is at the heart of our approach, particularly the broadband connection vouchers of up to £3,000 each. The sheer richness of the market is demonstrated by the fact that 530 suppliers are registered for the scheme and another 100 have applied to take part. We have also issued almost 2,500 vouchers. There has been a learning curve, and we have streamlined the system, making the application process much simpler. We have also removed the requirement to look for competing quotes.
Under the same scheme, we are rolling out wi-fi in public buildings across the country. For example, 12 major museums and galleries in London, covering 30 million visitors, will have wi-fi. For your interest, Mr Streeter, should you wish to visit, there is now wi-fi in the National Gallery—where they will now allow you to take photographs, and even selfies—the Natural History museum and the Imperial War museum. Wi-fi will soon come to the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum.
I turn to the concerns in Tech City, which the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch mentioned in her intervention. The voucher scheme has benefited firms in the Shoreditch cluster and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned, the scheme already supports more than 600 businesses across London. I have asked BT to sit down with the chief executive of Tech City UK, Gerard Grech, to look at the problems. I have to say frankly that at the moment some of the evidence is simply anecdotal. We need a much clearer picture from Tech City and the hon. Lady’s constituents about where the gaps lie. The important thing is to bring people to the table, to analyse where the problem is and to encourage commercial providers to meet demand. Clearly, they will invest where they believe there is demand and where they know there is a genuine need for the service.
To pull back to the bigger picture, the overall broadband scheme is very much on track. We remain committed to achieving superfast broadband coverage for 95% of UK premises by 2017. We remain committed to universal access to standard broadband of 2 megabits per second.
I will pick up on a few other points. In terms of advertised speeds, which the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch mentioned, Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority have worked to ensure that when broadband providers sell a service, they make it clear what the average speed, rather than the highest speed, is likely to be. I absolutely understand the hon. Lady’s frustration about the length of time that it takes to get a connection. Commercial providers must improve their customer service to ensure that people can get a connection as quickly as possible.
My door is always open, and I frequently have meetings with colleagues. Wherever a notspot causes frustration in the constituency of a colleague, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, I remain ready and willing to meet them. I urge colleagues to engage with BT, because the company will come to the table, although it will not always provide the solution that a colleague wants. It is important to keep raising such issues and not to think that we will simply push the matter under the carpet.
Money Transfer Organisations
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
I am extremely grateful and delighted that we have a chance to debate the important issue of international finance and money transfer organisations. The new Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), was extremely supportive in responding to and working with officials and many Opposition Members to try to get a lasting solution to the challenge faced by money transfer businesses, which need banking facilities to ensure that remittances can be sent to developing countries, particularly to support family members and economic and humanitarian development. I hope that the Minister will update us on the progress that her Department and other Departments have made on trying to come up with a workable and effective solution that will ensure that the sector gets the support it needs and that there is greater transparency on the actions of banks and on how they enable remittance to flow safely.
In June 2013, Barclays bank announced its decision to close accounts held by community-based money transfer businesses. A number of the affected businesses were in my constituency, which is how I got involved with the campaign to build support in Parliament and across the country. I am grateful to some 50 hon. Members on both sides of the House who joined the campaign, who spoke in community meetings with Ministers and who supported me and others in setting up the “Save Remittance Giving” campaign, which has commanded the support of some 122,000 people who signed the petition to highlight the concern about the ending of banking facilities for the many UK money transfer businesses that were trying to get help and support to people in developing countries. We were fortunate in having the support of not only parliamentarians but people from community groups—particularly in the British Somali community but also in the British Asian community and many other diaspora groups and ethnic minority communities—and, more broadly, from the media and non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam and, of course, the Overseas Development Institute, both of which lent their expertise and are examples of how important remittance is in complementing development aid efforts.
The flow of remittance from the UK to people in developing countries accounts for more than £15 billion each year, and the vast majority of those transactions are made by people to poorer family members and to remote places across the world in the form of food, medical aid and assistance. The transactions can help to build schools, hospitals and roads. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have visited countries, working with their constituents, to see some of those projects happen because the British ethnic minority and diaspora communities have contributed directly to develop their countries. That is particularly the case in countries that have come out of conflict and are trying to rebuild. Somaliland, which is the beacon of a region that is trying to rebuild after a conflict that affected the region’s fate for so long, is one such example. Many of my constituents who are originally from Somaliland have worked tirelessly to raise money and find appropriate ways to get remittance into Somaliland and beyond, particularly during the east African famine crisis, to support people and help rebuild their country.
The stakes are incredibly high, not only for development and developing countries but for us. If we do not have legitimate ways to ensure that ordinary people can get support to their family members and the societies that they have come from, so making their contribution to rebuilding those countries, we will miss out on an important opportunity to ensure that remittance can play a significant role not only in the past but in the future.
Governments across the world have faced pressure to reduce their aid budgets, and our Government have faced that pressure from certain sections of the media. I am glad that the aid budget has not been reduced, and I hope that on Friday the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill, which would legislate for a development aid target of 0.7%, takes a step closer to being enshrined in law. Successive Governments across the world have faced pressure on their development assistance budgets, and we all know that, combined across the world, remittance eclipses the world’s combined budget for overseas development assistance. This is not about small amounts of money going to individuals, although that is important; it is about the collective effort that citizens make to support family members and fellow citizens across the world, particularly in the poorest countries.
Last year, following the campaign, following the efforts of communities across the country and following the media attention, we encouraged Ministers in the Treasury and in the Department for International Development, working closely with officials, to find a long-term solution to the problem, so that money transfer businesses can be given the bank facilities that they need. Without access to clearing banks, it is virtually impossible to give assistance, particularly to countries without a proper banking system.
I am grateful to the Minister for continuing the effort to try to establish a process through the action group on cross-border remittances. As the framework set out, the process needs to be robust, effective and safe. Will she provide an update on that process? I thank her for keeping us updated. My understanding is that the safer corridor pilot will be implemented in September and that, subject to the effectiveness of that pilot, further action may be taken to roll out the facility to other countries in which the problem has arisen.
We need to act quickly because if citizens are left to their own devices to get help to their families in places such as Somaliland, Somalia and elsewhere—countries that have no banking system and no proper provision, and about which there are terrorism and security concerns—without the support of safe routes through money transfer companies, they are more at risk of having their money hijacked, which is not only dangerous and damaging for those affected but can have major ramifications for our security. There is a clear economic and humanitarian dimension, but there is also a security dimension.
In the wider context, many parts of the world are undergoing humanitarian emergencies. Families want to get help to loved ones in post-conflict and conflict-affected states, whether they are in Afghanistan, Somalia or beyond, so we must ensure that there is a way for them to do so. We must also ensure that non-governmental organisations can get assistance in countries where remittance facilities are not available. For example, Mo Farah, double Olympic winner, joined our campaign because his country is affected but also because the Mo Farah Foundation is in exactly that position. Aid agencies have a vested interest in ensuring that facilities that work are set up.
I hope that the Minister will use this opportunity to answer our questions. First, although the pilot is welcome, there is an urgency to the situation of money transfer businesses that have been operating successfully but that now face the prospect of banking facilities being made unavailable to them. That has already happened to some of them. There is a gap before a new facility is introduced, and they are unable to access banking facilities in the meantime, so their businesses could go bust. Therefore, no such businesses could be left operating in some countries. Essentially, we face the possibility that a facility that can have a powerful and positive effect will be made available too late. Will the Minister update us on whether she has had any success in her Department working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that the banks that have withdrawn or threatened to withdraw provide a further period of reprieve until the pilot is tested and can be rolled out and until the final programme is in good shape and lessons have been learned?
I am grateful that the World Bank has been drawn into the discussion and is a member of the group. It has an important role to play in co-ordinating efforts and getting the US Treasury involved. What role has the World Bank and the Minister’s Department played in discussions with the US regulators and US Treasury? Decisions made in the US on banking regulation have had a knock-on effect on our banks and their choice to withdraw banking facilities. It is critical to ensure that the UK and US Governments work together. Both countries, as well as other western countries, can benefit from a lasting solution, from the humanitarian, economic and security perspectives.
Our final questions are about the advice and guidance published by the Minister as soon as she took up her new ministerial position. It may be too soon to say, but how confident does she feel that the banking sector will see the guidance as addressing its concerns and that its confidence will be improved and increased, so that it can start to provide banking facilities to remittance businesses? Is an impact assessment process built in to see whether the guidance is having the desired effect of building confidence in the banking sector? I know from the feedback I have had that some money service businesses do not see any change. Can the Minister give any examples of banks that have come back and said, “Given this guidance”—I understand that it is legally binding—“we are in a position to provide banking facilities to MSBs that pass those tests.”? Are there any such examples, and are her officials working to establish that?
On the effort to build a commercial environment in which small and community-led businesses can operate, given that they have extensive and trusted community networks in the UK and the countries where they operate, how can we work with the grain of those networks, so that money flows transparently and in an appropriate and safe way that reinforces the kinds of safeguard needed by both the remitter and our Government and so that the money is not at risk of ending up in the wrong hands?
The debate has gone on for about 15 months now, since the day when Barclays decided to withdraw banking facilities from a number of money transfer businesses in my constituency and throughout the country. The sector creates 3,500 jobs, which are at risk, and it has been quietly doing important work to get help and support to millions of people in some of the poorest places in the world.
I believe that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work together rather than saying, “The banks have decided that they will get big fines from the US regulators.” The MSBs predominantly have had nothing to do with that. The US regulators fined HSBC and other banks for their activities, and the banks have responded by trying to crack a nut with a sledgehammer, punishing the vast majority of MSBs, which are law-abiding. Many MSBs provide assistance to security services where necessary, by supporting them to tackle money laundering and terrorism, and work responsibly with our Government and agencies. It is vital to ensure that the sector is strong and can support people in developing countries.
This is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that the pilot involving World Bank officials, Treasury officials and others, if it is effective, provides a tool to get money safely into post-conflict countries without banking systems. If the pilot is successful in Somalia, it might be applicable to Afghanistan and many other countries where money flows are happening, but we are not clear how, and where they could be fuelling terrorism and other activities that are extremely dangerous not only for those countries but for us. In that context, I hope that the Minister will seize this big opportunity for her, through her role and her brief, to develop a tool that could save millions of lives and improve security in our country.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I say first of all to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) that I completely understand how vital money service businesses are to the humanitarian effort. I assure her that the Government and I have been extremely focused on creating safe remittances for UK residents to post money to relatives and friends in developing countries. We are very much aware of that. We are particularly aware that annually, such remittances from the UK amount to more than £15 billion. It is a vital lifeline for many, and I assure her that we understand that. In the specific case of Somalia, remittances support 3.4 million people and account for approximately half of Somalia’s gross national income.
That is why, since I came into my new ministerial role earlier this year, I have made sure that the UK Government do everything that we can to ensure that remittances continue to flow through accessible and secure channels from the UK to all regions of the world. I am grateful to the hon. Lady and other hon. Members—I mention particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray)—who have explained their personal concerns and those of their constituents.
As many people will know, the context for this debate is growing concern among banks globally about money laundering and terrorist financing, and of course the real possibility of banks facing potentially crippling enforcement action for failing to protect properly against those risks. The money service business sector has been particularly affected by this trend, but it is not the only one.
Tackling organised crime and terrorism is quite rightly a priority for the UK and our international partners around the world, including the US. The Prime Minister took the lead in driving forward this agenda during our presidency of the G8 last year, and we are doing the same through the G20 this year. Our banks and regulators have a real responsibility to ensure that they are not supporting activities that could pose a threat to British citizens and undermine the progress that developing countries are making. I know that hon. Members will entirely agree that it is vital that, in ensuring remittances are safe, we do not encourage money laundering, financial crime and support for terrorism.
The right approach to tackling those threats should effectively deter, detect and deal with those who seek to use the financial system, including money remitters and banks, to launder money or fund terrorism; at the same time, it must support and protect legitimate businesses and the critical lifelines for countries such as Somalia. I wish to assure hon. Members today that the UK Government are fully committed to achieving that aim.
I also want to take the opportunity to provide an update on the state of the remittance market in the UK, and to set out the steps that the Government have taken, and are taking, to support it. First, the UK Government have been closely monitoring the UK remittance market, and we have been working with banks and businesses such as Dahabshiil and other MSBs to help them to understand and manage these risks, and to mitigate the impact on remittances to Somalia and elsewhere.
At this time it remains possible for Somali families in the UK, charities and others to continue to send money to Somalia. However, we recognise that the situation remains fragile. Since my predecessor—my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary—last addressed hon. Members, action to deal with this issue has remained an urgent priority for the Government, and for me personally.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The action group on cross border remittances, led by Sir Brian Pomeroy, has made real progress on all fronts and regular updates on the work of the group have been published on gov.uk. As a result of the work of the group, which includes representatives from Government, regulators, law enforcement, banks and remittance firms, the following actions have been taken.
First, new guidance has been developed for MSBs and those banking MSBs, providing a legal safe harbour for regulated firms; that is to say that in the event of a prosecution, the firm or individual concerned could provide a defence by saying that they had followed the Treasury-approved guidance. Secondly, the National Crime Agency has worked collaboratively with banks and MSBs to share information about the risks and enable a better understanding of those and how they can be mitigated. Thirdly, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has continued to strengthen its supervision of the remittances sector, including by taking an increasingly risk-based and intelligence-led approach to supervision, providing better support for firms to help them comply with their legal and regulatory requirements, and particularly by doubling the number of inspections of firms to 1,200 per year.
The progress of the Somalia-focused working group, led by the Department for International Development and the World Bank, is of particular interest to many. Through the safer corridor pilot, a series of co-ordinated interventions have been identified and are being developed to improve the transparency of remittance payments at each stage of the transaction chain from the UK to Somalia. The pilot is in the design and consultation phase and is expected to be tested in early 2015. We will continue to consult community representatives to make sure that proposals for the safer corridor are designed in a way that works for the Somali diaspora in the UK. I thank community representatives very much for their engagement with this whole process; they have certainly been willing and keen to help ensure that we find a resolution.
Over the past few months, the UK Government have worked particularly closely with the Somali community on the issue of remittances. Community representatives, the Government and money remitters have prepared a fact sheet, to ensure that those remitting funds to Somalia have clear information about how they can do so. Over the summer, a number of community events took place across the country. I particularly thank the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton for kindly hosting some of those community events. I was pleased that Treasury officials, as well as officials from DFID, HMRC and the National Crime Agency, were able to attend, listen to community concerns and share information on the action the Government have taken. I understand the events were well received, with the Somali diaspora appreciating the opportunity to convey their concerns.
I am sure that hon. Members present will want to know that we have been engaging closely with the banking industry, both through the British Bankers Association and directly with those banks involved in this issue. I have personally rung and written to a number of UK banks, asking them to provide support for the safer corridor pilot.
Of course, I recognise that the real threat of United States enforcement action is contributing to the de-risking activity that we are seeing. Treasury officials are working closely with their US Treasury counterparts and have established a US-UK bilateral banking group for the largest US and UK banks, to discuss the challenges they are facing in this area. In fact, the second meeting of this group is taking place today, with the issue of de-risking the highest priority on the agenda, and yesterday the Treasury hosted a meeting with US and UK banks and MSBs with the US Treasury to discuss that in particular.
The hon. Lady asked a couple of specific questions about the urgency of working with the Financial Conduct Authority to retain banking facilities. I reassure her that the Government have considered a wide range of options that could support the continued flow of remittances at current levels, prior to the safer corridor pilot’s being fully operational. We continue to encourage and facilitate engagement between relevant industry participants, to help banks engage with MSBs that are raising standards now, as well as through the longer-term solutions provided by the safer corridor pilot.
The hon. Lady also asked what engagement we have with the US on this point, and I think that I have just answered her. It is understandable that US regulators are very concerned about this issue, and that banks in the UK that provide banking services to MSBs are also concerned, but it is true to say—I have made the point to the UK banks—that fines levied by the US on UK banks have been for systematic failures in respect of anti-money laundering, counter-terrorism and financing programmes, rather than being cases where banks have made reasonable efforts to manage their risks.
Quite apart from the efforts by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the banks here in the UK to talk to US regulators, I have also found it encouraging to see public messages from US authorities, including in recent speeches, expressing confidence that banks do have the ability to manage higher-risk customer relationships, such as those with MSBs. Good steps are being taken and there is some reassurance there.
In conclusion, I reassure hon. Members and the Somali community that the UK Government are committed to working with the firms affected, and with regulators here and in the US, to promote and facilitate short and longer-term solutions that will enable remittances to continue to flow while protecting the financial system and our countries from organised criminal and terrorist activity.
Question put and agreed to.