Wednesday 14 January 2015
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
House of Lords Reform
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Harriett Baldwin.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, for this all too short debate about what we affectionately refer to as “the other place”, although it would be hard to imagine or conceive of another place like it in the world.
The House of Lords must now be about the most bizarre, absurd and ridiculous political institution anywhere in the world. Bloated, ermine coated and never been voted, it is now an affront to every sense and notion of democracy. There are now some 847 souls inhabiting the place, which makes it the largest political legislature anywhere in the world, save the National People’s Congress of China. Like the Chinese politburo, it is a stranger to democracy, but, unlike that, it cannot even claim to have a constituency or represent anyone whatever.
Who are these curious, strange people who inhabit this gold-plated, red-upholstered Narnia? The vast majority are appointed: some by an independent appointments authority, but the vast majority by the Prime Minister from lists drawn up by the three establishment Westminster parties. No other legislature in the world is composed quite like that, other than Lesotho in southern Africa.
Peers are not all appointed: 86 hereditary peers have a role in our democracy because of birth right. They can scrutinise, initiate and consider our legislation because they are the first son of a family that won a decisive battle in the middle ages. This is not an episode of “Game of Thrones”, but the fifth-largest economy in the western world.
I agree with much that the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he feel that it is any less desirable for there to be the first-born son of a family who have had an hereditary peerage for six or seven generations than it is for there to be to be a large-scale donor to a political party or a superannuated council leader? That seems to be how most of the people in that House have earned their places over the past 15 years.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I have a few choice words to say about the appointees to the House of Lords. If he bears with me, I will come to those very points.
We have the hereditaries, but to make the place even more bizarre and surreal, 26 places are reserved for bishops—but not just any ordinary bishops: they have to be Church of England bishops. The House of Lords is the only legislature in the world that reserves places for clerics other than the Islamic republic of Iran.
We cannot get rid of these people; they are not allowed to retire and they are not accountable to any constituency or electorate. The only way to get rid of them is through not the public of Great Britain, but the grim reaper. One of the few House of Lords reforms there have been in this Parliament is to allow these people to retire, but only one has come forward—so we made inducements to try to get them to retire. They can now use House of Lords facilities if they choose to retire, but they still will not do it.
This is a ridiculous and absurd institution. The average age of Members of the House of Lords is now 70. How much does this political circus cost? Last year, it was almost £100 million. Our friends in the House of Lords do not come cheap—of course, they should not. They can claim £300 a day just for turning up to work. If that is too much trouble for them, they can claim £150 a day for working from home. The average peer—if there is such a thing—now costs a cool £28,000.
Some of them do work hard. We have lots of examples of hard-working peers who turn up diligently, day after day, to put in the work, but all too many of them do practically nothing for the money they are given by the taxpayer. I do not want to pick on my Scottish peer colleagues, but I had a cursory glance at the activity list of some of them who notionally, I believe, look after Scottish interests in the House of Lords. Again, although some are diligent, hard-working individuals, all too many do practically nothing for this taxpayer largesse.
In this debate, it is important that we look beyond House of Lords composition. The hon. Gentleman refers to Scottish interests being looked after by Scottish peers, but that is not their purpose. They do not have a constituency interest; they are there to scrutinise legislation. Will he go into a little detail about some of the worthy work done by a significant number of peers—perhaps not all 800 or so, but certainly several hundred of them—who play that important role even though they have no representative interests?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I beg for patience once again, because I am trying to paint some background on the activities of the House of Lords and the nature of its Chamber. I do want to come on to that point, but it is important that the taxpayers of the country understand the type of service that they get for the £100 million paid annually to sustain these people. Some of them work hard, as he said, but some do next to nothing.
It is right and proper that we should look at these people, because we cannot get rid of them or do anything about them. They are not accountable to any constituency. Just as the hon. Gentleman and I, as parliamentarians, are scrutinised, it is right that we should look at the activities of our colleagues and friends in the House of Lords to assess whether we get value for money.
That brings me back to the Scottish peers. They do not represent any constituency, but when Scottish colleagues and I turn up to events—I see that the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) is here—we always see Scottish Lords in attendance, and again and again they tell us that our interests are looked after in the House of Lords on that basis. However, what we find is that Baroness Adams of Craigielea has claimed an eye-watering £50,000 but spoken in only two debates and never asked a written question since entering the Lords in 2005. Lord Kirkham has cost us £49,239, but spoken in no debates and asked no written questions. Further down the list, there is our noble friend Lord Elder who has cost us £50,000, spoken in two debates and asked no questions. He did, though, as a good public servant, serve on the refreshments committee between 2008 and 2013.
That brings me to the impeccable, cultured tastes of their lordships. In the past four years, they have got through some 17,000 bottles of fine champagne, which cost more than £260,000.
Order. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the advice in “Erskine May” on reference to Members of the House of Lords. It says:
“It is considered undesirable that any member of the House of Lords should be mentioned by name, or otherwise identified, for the purpose of criticism of a personal…nature.”
It is, of course, in order for the hon. Gentleman to talk about what those Members do, how they are appointed and so on, but he is probably straying into inadvisable territory.
I am grateful, Mr Howarth, and I promise not to do it again.
On champagne, it seems that the House of Lords rejected the vulgar variety served in the House of Commons; according to a former Clerk,
“the Lords feared that the quality of champagne would not be as good if they chose a joint service”
with the House of Commons. That was reported to the House of Commons Governance Committee. The astonished Chair, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), said:
“Did you make that up?”
The former Clerk assured him that he did not.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that the champagne in the House of Lords is not free? It is paid for.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman clarified that: the champagne is not free—but by God it seems that our friends in the House of Lords certainly like to quaff a good number of bottles of it over the course of a year.
It would be wrong and remiss of me, however, to claim that the House of Lords was totally undemocratic. That is not the case and I would not like to mislead this House in that respect. The Lords do have elections, when the earls, the dukes, the ladies, the lords and the barons—the hereditary peers of the realm—get together and have one of their now regular by-elections to decide which among their number should continue to rule over us. It must be the weirdest constituency in the world—the most privileged and aristocratic electorate to be found anywhere.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is waxing lyrical in his diatribe against the House of Lords and many of his sentiments will be shared across the nation. Perhaps he is coming on to this in his speech, but does he agree about the need for a more democratised revising Chamber or would he dismiss it entirely?
I am not a unicameralist, believe it or not; a nation as complex and large as the United Kingdom needs a functioning supervisory Chamber. I will come on to suggest—I hope the hon. Gentleman bears with me—how we might make progress. This debate is about House of Lords reform, which I promise him I will come to.
What is unacceptable, however, and what the British people should put up with no longer, is that circus down in the other place, with the ridiculous spectacle of lords, ladies, deference, forelock-tugging and the rest of it. We need a properly equipped legislature designed for the 21st century—not one designed for the middle ages, something out of the 14th century. I will come to that and to the clear principles that I wish to establish.
The hon. Gentleman has been extremely generous. He referred to the anachronistic election procedure for hereditary peers, but does he not recognise that that whole mechanism was put in place to ensure that the piecemeal reforms of 1999 were not the end of the matter? The sort of reforms that he and I would both support are perhaps more wholesale, but they require having the anachronistic hereditary element. Let us get rid of the entirety of what we have at the moment—sweep the whole thing away—but without the anachronism, there would probably be a reluctance to do the sort of radical reform that he and I would support.
As a result of the House of Lords Act 1999, the vast majority of the hereditaries were removed, but we are still left with 86 or so, which has always been considered unfinished business. Action has been a long time coming; they are still there—we still have people who have a role in our democracy due to birthright. That is unacceptable. We are all democrats in this House. We cannot allow people to have a role in our democracy because they are the first son of their family.
We might laugh, and it is easy to poke fun at an institution that is so singularly absurd and bizarre, but there is a sinister role in the activities of the House of Lords. It is sinister and open to abuse because it is an appointed Chamber. We do not bother with the whole exercise of letting the public decide and construct the Chamber down the road; instead, we leave it up to politicians—and the temptation for politicians is to stuff it full of their friends, cronies and placemen.
If we need an elderly Member of Parliament to move on for a dynamic, thrusting, new young Member, give the old one a place in the House of Lords. That dynamic, thrusting young Member might lose his seat—I am looking at the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), although he did not take a place in the Lords—so let us cushion the blow and let him continue with his political career by giving him a place in the House of Lords. All too commonly we find that that is how the House of Lords is being used and abused. It is a place for cronies, placemen and time-servers. That is not good enough.
Even that is not what bothers me in particular. The thing that concerns me most, and which should concern everyone in this House, are the donors—people who have a place in our democracy, in the second Chamber of Parliament, whose only qualification seems to be that they are able to give substantial and significant sums to one of the three main establishment Westminster parties. Those are the people who trouble me and who should trouble the rest of the United Kingdom, because lots of people appointed by the political parties seem to have no ability other than to manufacture large sums of cash to sustain those political parties. That is not good enough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who I was hoping could be with us this morning, tested that issue to its legal limit in the previous Parliament. He looked at the situation in the House of Lords, saw connections with the highest levels of the then Labour Government and said, “There is something wrong here.” He then asked the Metropolitan police to investigate, and we had one of the most dramatic political police operations of recent years—the “cash for honours” investigation.
We saw a sitting Prime Minister, Tony Blair, being questioned by police and the arrest of his chief fundraiser and other members of his staff. Charges were dropped—none were brought—not because there was no case to answer or because a clean bill of health was presented, but because no evidence was found. The Crown Prosecution Service felt that it could not proceed with the case. We can all make up our minds about the type of influence that can be exerted on the CPS and the Metropolitan police to drop such a dynamic case. However, the situation was never given a clean bill of health and outstanding issues remain on donations to parties.
All we have to do is to look at the list of appointments to the House of Lords, such as that from last year. Those recently ennobled made a total contribution of £7 million to the three establishment Westminster parties. After cash for honours and something as dramatic as that police investigation, we might have thought that that place would be beyond reproach, that the Lords would have cleaned up their act and that there would be no suggestion, or even a whiff, of any type of abuse or wrongdoing. Not a bit of it! It would seem that they cannot change those ermine spots. Since then, we have had peers banged up in jail for abuse of expenses, cash for influence, cash for amendments and even some cash for honours.
The three biggest donors to the Liberal party—there are no Liberals here, so I am sorry if I am picking on them, Mr Howarth—[Interruption.] Sorry, the Deputy Leader of the House is here. This is something he might to pick up on. The three biggest donors to the Liberals, who just so happen to provide two fifths of the party’s donations, were given peerages by the Deputy Prime Minister. That forced a peer who has now departed, Lord Oakeshott, to concede that cash for honours was still very much alive and that, in his own words,
“my efforts to expose and end cash for peerages in all parties, including our own, and help get the Lords elected have failed.”
The House of Lords, because of its nature, because it is an appointed body and because it does not bother to go through the whole process of elections to be accountable to constituencies is rife with such abuse and activity. The British public deserve better. They deserve a scrutinising Chamber that is beyond reproach, that is democratically decided and that they can get rid of if they are unhappy with its activities.
Our political institutions have never been held in such contempt by the British public. We see that day in, day out. Trust and confidence in the Westminster establishment, the Westminster elite who run this place, has never been lower and that establishment has never been held in such low esteem by the British public. I suggest that when the public observe an undemocratic, ermine-ridden House like the one down the road, it compounds their strong sense of alienation from the whole process of Government.
I should tell the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that I am going to a Committee sitting shortly, so I will not be able to hear the end of the debate. I agree with practically everything the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree that any revising Chamber that remains should be 100% elected by proportional representation, so that it will also be a powerful check and balance on an over-mighty Government elected, as at present, by the undemocratic first-past-the-post system?
I know the hon. Gentleman’s record on these issues. He has been a big advocate of House of Lords reform, and I congratulate him on his efforts. I agree with him. I disagree, however, with the Labour party’s position on the issue. I debated it on television last night, in advance of this debate, and the Labour position—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman buys into it; we might hear about it from the shadow Minister—is like a secondary mandate, whereby the institutions of the United Kingdom somehow decide among themselves who should inhabit the second Chamber. I am interested to hear more—the shadow Minister is shaking his head, and we will hear from him exactly what the Labour party’s plan is—but that was suggested in the House of Lords when I watched a debate on it. I am sure that the shadow Minister has his plan, but the second Chamber should be elected, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith suggested. There is no substitute for democracy. We live in a democratic country, culture and society, so of course our Houses have to be elected.
Things have to change; they cannot go on as they are. We have tried to reform and democratise the place, but every effort over the past 20 years has failed. This might be hard for its 850-odd Members—likely to be 1,000 in the next Parliament—but it is now time to concede that the whole place is unreformable. It is time to rip the whole thing up and start again. That is the only way we can get reform.
As I have said, I believe that we need a second Chamber. We are a large and complex democracy, with asymmetrical devolution to all parts of the United Kingdom. I am open to any suggestion or plan for progress, but I do not think that it is for me, an oiky Nat Back Bencher, to suggest to the great and the good of the Westminster establishment parties the sort of model for reform that should be adopted. That is not my job—I will leave it to the great minds we see assembled on the Front Benches today to try to determine a way through. I am going to suggest several principles that I believe have to underpin a brand-new institution as we go forward.
The first principle, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith said, is that the revising Chamber must be exclusively democratic. We can no longer go forward with an appointed institution, and we certainly cannot have an institution with Members who are there only because of their family. That cannot go on—it has to be based on democratic principles.
Let me tell hon. Members something embarrassing about this situation. I am a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a task that I take very seriously because the foundation does fantastic work. I go around the world to speak in emerging democracies, to encourage good governance and support multi-party democracy as much as I possibly can. How can we give that message when we have the embarrassment of that undemocratic institution down the road? How dare we try to suggest to developing nations—countries that are struggling with democratic principles—that they emulate the United Kingdom? Are we asking them to get Lords or jump around like Santa Claus in their red cloaks? That embarrasses this nation. It is an embarrassment to me and to anybody else who does that work on behalf of this country around the world. The first principle, then, is that the revising Chamber must be absolutely democratic. That should go without saying.
The second principle is that its membership must be in proportion to the main Chamber. It is preposterous that we have a second Chamber of such a size, with 847 Members, soon probably to be 1,000. Its size must be in proportion to the main Chamber. I suggest that it should be a quarter to a third of its current size—anything between 200 and 250 Members should be sufficient for the task required of it.
That brings me to my third principle, which is also important: the role of the new Chamber should be clearly defined. My view is that that role should be exclusively scrutiny and supervision. I am unhappy when I see Bills initiated in an undemocratic House. During this Parliament, we have considered quite a few Bills that were initiated in the House of Lords and I am not happy about that. I do not think it right—elected Members should initiate legislation and design and shape it. Please, yes, let the other Chamber scrutinise and have a look at it, tell us when we have it wrong and improve it if necessary, but the second Chamber should be supervisory.
One reason why House of Lords reform failed a couple of years ago was the spurious fear of Conservative Members who suggested that any elected Chamber would be a challenge to the supremacy of the main elected House—as if that would be a bad thing and that a little bit of a challenge would not actually help the elected Members of the House of Commons. Myself and the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith are Members for Scottish constituencies and share constituents with MSPs—we even share constituencies with list MSPs. That spurs me on to make sure I do better, and I am sure that it is the same for the hard-working hon. Gentleman. The nonsense about having competition for the main House is spurious, but if we clearly define the roles and functions of distinctive and separate Houses, it would lay that issue to bed.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. When it comes to Lords reform, as he says, many Members of the House of Commons profess themselves to be very precious about the democratic integrity and authority of the House. However, they do not seem to be as precious about that when it comes not just to allowing Bills to be initiated in the Lords, but to allowing that the key amendments to Bills be passed there; even when there is a will for those amendments in the Commons, it consistently defers to the House of Lords to produce them.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is increasing use of the House of Lords as a Chamber that puts through Government amendments. He and I—and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field)—sat through five days of proceedings on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. I have always thought that I was elected by the people of Perth and North Perthshire to scrutinise and try to improve legislation, but we were told that that was going to be done in the House of Lords, and the Bill would come back to us amended. The use of the House of Lords for the Government amendment of Bills is inappropriate and has to end. If we properly align our two different Chambers and make sure they are properly distinct, those sorts of issues would end.
My last principle is one I mentioned in response to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell): get shot of the deference and the 13th century institutions, which are something like “Game of Thrones”. This is the 21st century, for goodness’ sake. We need our democracy and its institutions to reflect the age that we live in. Forelock-tugging, curtseying and having lords, ladies, barons, dukes and earls is all nonsense—get rid of it. It is absolutely absurd and ridiculous. Let us have a modern functioning democratic Chamber that looks and feels like the community and society that we serve. If we can get that, we will be making real progress.
Those are my principles for how we should establish a new and democratic Chamber to look after legislation. As I said, it is not up to an oiky Back-Bench MP to try to suggest the model, although I am attracted to the idea of using the European electoral regions as a basis for an election by proportional representation, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith suggested, for the 200 or 250 Members we require.
I have been on my feet for half an hour, so I will finish. We are coming up to an election, and every time we do, manifestos are stuffed full of promises to reform the Lords. We have had it all before. The Labour party is the great reformer this time around. I listened carefully to the Leader of the Opposition setting out his stall in that respect a few short weeks ago. Do it this time. Just do it! Labour had 13 years in power. Although it made some progress when it got rid of the hereditaries, more is required.
I must say to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby that Labour has not been particularly good in its relationship with the House of Lords: it was the Labour party that oversaw cash for honours. If he has concerns about the House of Lords, particularly its bloated nature, the first thing that the hon. Gentleman might want to do is stop putting people in it. Just stop it! There is no need to make a bloated House even bigger. The Conservatives have different issues with and attitudes towards the House of Lords, so they will probably continue to put people in it, but the Labour party needs to stop stuffing that place full with more cronies and donors. That is the first thing that the Labour party should do demonstrate that this time it is serious about House of Lords reform.
I hope that, in the next Parliament, we can at last to make some real progress in ending this farce. It is a circus. It is not fit for purpose. It is anachronistic. It is ridiculous, absurd and bizarre. We need to ensure that it can do a proper job of scrutinising the activities of this House. Let us get rid of the whole shooting match and start again; let us put in place something that is fit for purpose and that the whole nation can be proud of.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)—if he does not mind my calling him that, and if it is not too deferential for his standards—will realise all too well that, as a Conservative, my views on House of Lords matters are not particularly orthodox. In fact, even before his time in the House, I was the only Conservative to support the notion of a unicameral system—certainly unicameral compared with the appalling state of our current House of Lords. To be honest, as a Conservative, I have no problem with a little forelock- tugging. I do not mind having dukes, earls, marquises, barons and the like. I just do not want them having any place in the legislature. They can call themselves whatever they like, but the notion that they are able to vote through laws seems as anachronistic as he pointed out.
In discussing House of Lords reform, there is a great opportunity for us to make the link with something I had thought the hon. Gentleman would raise: English votes for English laws, and the disjointed devolution we currently have in the United Kingdom. I shall touch on that in my speech. I broadly share his view that the time has come for comprehensive constitutional change in the United Kingdom. If it were to be carried out precisely and without partisan party political consideration, I believe we would be capable of producing a solution that will benefit Britain for decades to come.
My instinctive and immediate proposal would be for the creation of a new federal Parliament. It would be an elegant solution designed to resolve effectively the four main domestic constitutional uncertainties of the United Kingdom, which have plagued the political arena during the past three decades and perhaps will continue to do so in the years to come. With a federal UK Parliament and four elected national Parliaments, we could maintain the monarchy, strengthen the Union, and resolve the questions raised by the disgracefully unreformed House of Lords, which we rightly debate today. I would also wish to give independent and equal Parliaments to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Like the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, I am a democrat. Since my maiden speech in the House some 14 years ago, I have supported a fully elected House of Lords. The case for the preservation of the so-called “ancient traditions” of the upper House—we heard much on that, even from younger colleagues of mine in the Conservative party, when the House debated the issue two years ago—was conclusively lost in 1999. Once the vast bulk of the hereditaries—all bar 92—were removed, so too should all appointed Members have followed. Instead, as has been pointed out, we have a ludicrously bloated House of Lords. I am afraid that the Lord Winstons of the House, who are often prayed in aid of the House of Lords, are, with their great broad-based experience, assuredly the exception rather than the rule.
Over the past 15 years, the ranks of the House of Lords have been swelled by hundreds of party hacks and large-scale political donors, along with legislators of very dubious quality who are often given the nod on politically correct grounds. Indeed, I remain staggered at the sheer gutlessness of this place, the House of Commons, as we waved through the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. That legislation was promoted by the Deputy Prime Minister, who heralded the fatuous-to-the-point-of-being-disingenuous saving to the public purse of £10 million a year, which was ironic, given how the Liberal Democrats have not only stuffed the House of Lords full of their own placemen but swelled the ranks of special advisers to untold numbers, both of which actions are entirely counter to the idea of making the cost of politics cheaper.
It appears that we all agree—or at least those of us present in the Chamber—on the need for democratic reform of the House of Lords. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we did not all support the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011—it was opposed by the Opposition.
On change in the House of Lords, although I understand the attraction of a radical transformation and move towards a federal Parliament, is there not a danger that we end up spending so many decades trying to get the correct solution that nothing ever happens? Is there a case for moving to an elected House of Lords now, and then moving on to further changes? Otherwise, nothing will happen, not only in our lifetimes but in the lifetimes of people yet unborn.
There is a danger of that. In many ways, much as I disapprove of what happened in 1999, from the point of view of the Blair Administration, they did the right thing in taking the view that they should partly sort out the hereditary issue. Of course, the risk of any reform is that a little flurry of it is followed by decades of nothing else being done—historically, that is what has happened with the upper House—with those who wanted some reform saying, “Well, listen, we’ve been able to achieve something.”
It is depressing that the House of Lords has become ever more a creature of the Executive, while House of Lords reform has ground to a halt. The truth behind what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said is that it is down to the numbers game. The Whips can get business through the House of Commons, so we have the utter discourtesy of Government amendments being tabled in the House of Lords simply because it is known that the legislation will not get through without amendments, which are rubber-stamped when it comes back to the Commons. Instinctively, that feels wrong. Ultimately, it is in our hands in the House of Commons. We are now only 16 or 17 weeks away from a general election, and if the result is indeterminate, we parliamentarians will have the opportunity to stand up, have our say and make a difference, particularly if we are in the realms of a minority Government.
I must confess that, although I was happy to support the underlying principle of electing the House of Lords on Second Reading and in the programme motion of the House of Lords Reform Bill, I believed ultimately that, in many of its particulars, it was a shoddy, poorly drafted piece of legislation. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said, if we try to work towards perfection, we will achieve very little. That is a great shame, because in many ways the British constitution has hitherto been one of the great success stories of modern politics. It has kept the country together—up to and beyond 18 September last year—united under a common Crown and common Parliament for more than 300 years. Not for us the coups, revolutions and counter-revolutions that have plagued much of the European continent over that period. So successful has the British constitution been that we Britons have often stopped thinking about it.
Until 15 or so years ago, no one lost much time worrying about constitutional niceties. We knew instinctively that, messy as it was, the British constitution worked well and worked for the whole of the British isles. The Blair Administration changed everything. They part-reformed the House of Lords by removing the independent hereditary element, but successive Governments since have created literally hundreds of new life peers. In response to the demand of the people of Scotland and Wales—a demand that I acknowledge the Conservatives were perhaps too slow to understand, and certainly to accept—devolved Parliaments and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were created. It requires little cynicism to see that many of those changes were designed for Labour’s political advantage, and that they have not necessarily been properly carried through elsewhere. That has created many problems, especially in England, the neglected land in all those constitutional changes. England is a nation proud and undivided, but many of its people increasingly demand equal treatment with the other nations of the UK. Since last September’s Scottish referendum—lost, in case there is a doubt about it, by 10.6%—some Tory strategists feel that the time is ripe to play the English card.
There is a deep and increasing disquiet among many in England at the effects of devolution, and the most serious problems are the imbalances left by the somewhat partisan settlement of the late 1990s. Those are easily stated. MPs from Edinburgh and Cardiff can vote on health and education policies that affect my constituents and Manchester constituents, and those of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), but not on health and education policies affecting their own constituents—but why? It does not seem just. Under the Barnett formula, residents of Edinburgh had £1,300 more spent on their public services last year than my constituents did. Again, that seems less than equitable. There was a disgraceful situation before Christmas in the Northern Ireland Assembly when the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein worked together to put a gun to the head of the British Government, to try to ensure there would be more money on the basis that they wanted a Barnett formula for Northern Ireland. If there is an indeterminate general election result, we may go down that route, with a bidding war on similar grounds in May and June.
I am sorry—the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I did not mean that literally. I recognise that, within the context of Northern Ireland and Ulster politics, it might be seen as a loaded phrase. He is aware of what I was getting at. There was a sense that a lot of political pressure was being brought to bear by the political Assembly of one of the parts of the United Kingdom that has had a full constitutional change, which would have affected my constituents to a large extent.
There are great dangers for the Conservatives in promoting the prospect of English votes for English laws. The UK constitution is full of anomalies. Attacking Scottish MPs in that way comes across as partisan and negative. Our mission should be to maintain and strengthen the Union. It is all too easy for a negative-sounding solution to the West Lothian question to be portrayed by our opponents—
Order. I am listening carefully and with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. The title of the debate is House of Lords reform, and he is talking about wider constitutional questions and issues. Perhaps he could relate them back to the reform of the House of Lords. I am sure he would be happy to stay in order.
That is very kind, Mr Howarth. I very much accept that. The point I was trying to make was that we need to look at House of Lords reform in the context of many of the other constitutional reforms that would be at the top of the in-tray for a Government, because of the unbalanced constitutional situation. It seems to me that the English, and indeed the British as a whole, like and respect the concept of fair play, and there is a groundswell of unease about the somewhat one-sided constitutional deal, which is linked to reform of the House of Lords. As an MP for a seat in London, the capital of both England and the United Kingdom, I think that the Conservative party should offer all the British people together, whether English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish, a new settlement that is demonstrably equitable for everyone. As I have said, that links to the question of the House of Lords.
Since the expulsion of the great bulk of the hereditary peers some 16 years ago, I have in principle favoured the option of a wholly or largely elected House of Lords. I recognise that such an outcome is unlikely to be within the realms of practical politics soon, because the strongest opposition to an elected House of Lords comes from existing life peers from across the political spectrum. Their support for any reform will be essential if we are to avoid the constitutional deadlock that we have been beset by in the past. In addition, even if the principle of election were established, there would remain the question of the timing and process. Would it be first past the post, or proportional representation, a system that other hon. Members have supported? Would there be fixed or variable terms? The list of practical difficulties would be almost endless.
The solution I propose is the creation of an entirely new federal Parliament, with four full national Parliaments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with all the existing powers of the House of Commons, and over them a federal United Kingdom Parliament, which would debate defence and foreign affairs, make treaties and administer a broader cohesion fund for the poorer parts of the UK and broader strategic economic issues. There would be no need for extra politicians, because the national Parliaments would send representatives to the UK Parliament, which would meet in the old House of Lords Chamber, perhaps once or twice a week. That would mean abolishing the House of Lords, and moving to a unicameral system. That would work pretty well. It has not proved a problem in Edinburgh or Cardiff in the past eight years.
The proposal would cut the Gordian knot of House of Lords reform and provide an equitable structure that respected national differences, while strengthening our ties as a nation of equals. It would remove the growing sense of disgruntlement in England at the perception that the Scots can play the system to benefit financially from the devolution settlement that came into play 15 years ago. It would also save the cost of the House of Lords and the Scotland and Wales Offices and reduce the total number of politicians. It is perhaps a radical and bold solution for a Conservative MP to suggest, but I believe it will be the only way to balance the British constitution, which has served us so well for so long. It would say no to partisan changes and offer the British people a fairer alternative if my party were to hold power after the next election.
The debate is important and will continue. It is easy to be overly negative about the House of Lords. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire comes from a somewhat different political tradition, which means that, for him, the issue has a class war aspect. Even as a Conservative, when I watch the Queen’s Speech, the ermine and the pomp and ceremony of the House of Lords do not fill me with great joy.
Although I believe we should adopt a unicameral system and abolish the House of Lords, I should point out that a significant number of Lords make a big contribution. The composition of the House, particularly recently, has not been terribly satisfactory, but many peers have great expertise and are diligent in their work. They probably earn considerably less in the hours they spend on House of Lords business than they do in their other activities. We should recognise that, but like the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, I feel the time is ripe for constitutional change, to put things on a fair footing, equitable for all our people. I very much want to link House of Lords reform to general devolution reform, which is at the forefront of the Government’s mind.
I recognise, as does the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), that in the context of the crying need for House of Lords reform, it is easy to caricature the contribution made by all the Members of that Chamber. I recognise from my time in Parliament the worth of the work of some Members of the House of Lords. Nevertheless, that does not detract from the pressing need for significant reform.
Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not necessarily believe in a unicameral legislature at the level of a full sovereign state. There was recently a proposal to abolish the Senate of the Irish Republic, and I am among those who believed in retaining the second Chamber. However, the House of Lords needs significant reform, because it works on a strange electoral college system and is far from democratic and responsive. It is not the most satisfactory way to carry out the proper role of a revising Chamber.
In introducing this useful debate, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) rightly made a number of observations about the fact that everybody says they are committed to House of Lords reform. For more than a century now, the law of the land has been committed to House of Lords reform. Every time there are significant proposals in that direction, everybody ends up putting their own versions of reform, to show that they are on the side of reform; the situation is almost engineered to be a penalty shootout in which nobody actually scores. We just stay with what we already have, the only difference being that even more people are packed on to the Benches.
That is true even in this Parliament, which saw the House of Lords Reform Bill. We should remember that that Bill was passed on Second Reading with a significant majority; it ended up being pulled not because there was no support for it but because of a difficulty over a programme or timetable motion.
If people had been serious about reform, they could simply have come back with a different programme motion. If the Government really believed that the Opposition were being cynical and were conspiring with Tory rebel Back-Benchers on the programme motion, the Deputy Prime Minister could have brought back another programme motion and built into it measures and ample time to allow for specific consideration of the issues that Labour said were its main points of concern.
The Government could have met the obstacle full on. That would have done not only justice to the clear demand that exists for House of Lords reform but a lot of good for the credibility of the Commons Chamber.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he reminds us of the period when we last looked at this issue. In fact, the problem was more than that—there was actually a spat between both partners in the coalition, which ensured that the Bill fell. Why should an issue as important as House of Lords reform depend on the two partners in government not falling out with each other over a timetable motion?
I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says; of course, that “spat”, as he calls it, related to the parallel or concurrent legislation that had been produced about the voting system and constituencies. That legislation turned out to be a case of premature miscalculation on the part of the Liberal Democrats. They wanted a Second Reading debate by the time of their first party conference in government and they wanted the Bill passed by the time of their second such conference—but, of course, the linked issues in and around Lords reform ended up meeting difficulty. Then, because of some other issues to do with the constituency changes, it was deemed easier to pull the House of Lords Reform Bill in a sort of fit of pique or a broad political huff than it was properly to pursue Lords reform, which we all say we support.
As you know, Mr Howarth, I come to this debate as a constitutional Irish nationalist. I have already said that I believe in having a second Chamber in the context of the Irish constitution. One factor that I have always believed the Seanad Eireann was able to accommodate, although it was not allowed to accommodate it as well as it should have done, is the position and the outlook of those members of the Irish nation who do not live within the 26 counties of the Irish Republic, not least those in Northern Ireland. Similarly, in the context of considering proposals about how to take forward a debate on a united Ireland after the Good Friday agreement—with its principles and promises, as ratified in a solemn act of articulated self-determination by the Irish people, north and south—my party has made it clear that in the event of a referendum in Northern Ireland ever bringing about a united Ireland, we would equally see the case for a reformed second Chamber here in the British Parliament accommodating and representing people from Northern Ireland who believed that they were part of the body politic of the British nation and who wanted to continue to be identified here as well. So, if the test in politics is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” we meet that test. That is one of the reasons why, as Irish nationalists, we are interested in this issue.
I am not particularly obsessed with the feng shui of arranging the various bits of furniture of the British constitution, even though I find myself shanghaied as a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee into considering it. However, as an Irish nationalist with my own outlook and hopes, I have a legitimate and valid interest in House of Lords reform in terms of a future role for a reformed second Chamber here in Parliament.
As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire one of the things that frustrates me as a Member of the House of Commons is the fact that whenever voting reform of the House of Commons is proposed, time and again, many hon. Members—from all parties—step up to say that they are opposed to particular types of voting reform and that they are also opposed to electing a House of Lords, because they feel that such an elected second Chamber would somehow undermine the elected authority of the House of Commons.
Yet, at the same time, those Members are consistently prepared to engage in a dereliction of the legislative duty of the House of Commons by constantly deferring to the House of Lords when it comes to reforms. In this Parliament, that might be related to possible whipping challenges and the difficulties of getting some amendments through or allowing them through at the hands of the rebels and to saying, “Well, it’s easier if we come up with a recooked version of those amendments in the House of Lords.”
The situation was the same in the last Parliament. Then, although the Labour Government did not face those difficulties, again and again, it seemed to be the automatic convention that if they accepted that the case for an amendment had been made in the Commons, the due place for it to be made was not the Commons itself but the Lords.
Significantly, among the few amendments that were actually made to Government Bills in the Commons in the last Parliament were amendments to the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) managed to get an amendment made by a majority of just three votes. It was also in the context of the 2009 Act that I got an amendment directly accepted by the Government for the only time. The amendment inserted a reference to Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue into the Bill. Any reference to HMRC had been completely omitted before that, even though we could all consider the tax dimensions of the expenses scandal. The Government accepted the principle of one amendment but said that they would work up a better version of it in the Lords. However, they fully accepted another amendment.
That situation is a rarity, and it is a scandal that in an elected legislative Chamber, where our main job is meant to be to act as legislators and to provide due elective consideration, we are so derelict in our duty in relation to making amendments. That is why the House of Lords is credited with making an exaggerated number of amendments and why its status as a revising Chamber is inflated by comparison with the dereliction of duty in the Commons.
Changing that situation would lead to a challenge to the Whips system and, indeed, to Members of the Commons themselves. Let us remember that although it is easy to caricature Members of the House of Lords in the way that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire did in introducing this debate, reform of the House of Lords would lead to a significant change in the role and work load of the Commons Chamber, too, and of individual MPs. Whether or not we end up with any significant mechanism for recall or any other such reform, the fact is that we—as individual Members of that primary elected Chamber—will need to take responsibility. It would not take a conspiracy theorist to suggest that some of the reluctance about House of Lords reform that exists could be because people are not prepared to adjust to the changes and the new requirements that would then extend to them in the elected Chamber.
The hon. Gentleman has demolished the argument that is made—sadly, by some of my colleagues on the Conservative Benches—about this idea of the primacy of the House of Commons somehow being threatened by Lords reform. May I also say that, like me, the Minister who is here today is a London MP? We proudly represent our own constituencies, but of course London also has eight or nine Members of the European Parliament, an elected Mayor, members of the Greater London Assembly and 11 top-up members of the GLA, and indeed there are also about 30 councillors in our patch. However, because the responsibilities of all those offices are well-defined, there is no sense of our being undermined by them, and the same would apply to the Commons and the Lords if the House of Lords was to continue.
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, in circumstances where there is a moving agenda in relation to devolution, including demands for different forms of downloadable devolution for England, whether in the metropolitan cities or in other local government conglomerations, I recognise that there needs to be some sort of parliamentary or representative charter that makes it easier for the voter to understand which of the different elected offices is responsible for which issue. At times, there is quite a blur, and in the context of Northern Ireland, there ends up being confusion about the swinging doors between devolution and the Westminster Parliament.
My final point relates to appointments to the House of Lords. My party has never made such an appointment; we have always refused to do so, and that has included people who have served honourably in this House, such as John Hume and Seamus Mallon. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he and his advisers and coterie made strong suggestions to me that we should appoint people to the House of Lords. They were willing to appoint people and embarrassed by the fact that they were appointing more and more Unionists to the House of Lords and nobody was there to represent the dimensions and outlook of the Social Democratic and Labour party.
I pointed out why we do not appoint people to the House of Lords: we do not believe, as nationalists, that we are going to put the ermine into self-determination by taking seats in the House of Lords. I was told, “These would be working peers. Don’t see it as part of the honours system; they would be working peers,” and I suggested, “Well, if you want someone who would reflect an SDLP perspective, would be in strong sympathy with them and would be a working peer, you could always appoint somebody like Kevin McNamara, but he would probably be too much of a working peer for your taste,” to which I got a firm nod and a fair smile.
When I was leader of my party, I was approached with offers of money to nominate people to the House of Lords. That happened on more than one occasion. At one point, I was approached—not by the person who wanted to be appointed, but by somebody else who seemed to speaking on their behalf and certainly in that person’s interest—with an offer of £50,000 to change my position and the party’s position on the House of Lords. Of course, I refused, but I noted with interest that that person subsequently found a way on to the Benches of the House of Lords. I do not know whether any money changed hands or anything else. I have no evidence of that; I can simply give witness. That, again, is what adds to my sense of scandal over the fact that we have failed to deliver proper House of Lords reform, but I recognise that we do not have the luxury of simply pointing the finger at the inadequacies of the House of Lords. The House of Commons must bear some responsibility and would be significantly challenged by reform.
Thank you for giving me the chance to speak, Mr Howarth. I am very conscious of the time, so I will try to be succinct in my comments. I thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) for setting the scene, and I apologise for not being here at the beginning of his comments. I had to make a contribution at a Committee meeting before I came down to this debate.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute in the short time available. House of Lords reform has divided many of us—not just MPs, but members of the general public. Outside Parliament, it is a topic for debate. The reform of the House of Lords is not a recent matter, nor is it a 21st century matter. It dates back to the Parliament Act 1911, which was the last serious reform of the Lords. The importance of the debate cannot be ignored. The matter will have to be dealt with at some time—perhaps not here in Westminster Hall today, but certainly in the next Parliament. We look forward to that.
All Members who have spoken, and who will speak, are aware of the main issue, which is the immensity of the numbers in the House of Lords and their workability. The draft Bill of 2011 referred to 300 Members of the House of Lords, which puts things into perspective, as currently there are 900 Members. Although parties are divided, even among themselves, it would seem that if and when Lords reform comes up again—I believe it will—a reduction in numbers will be agreed fairly quickly. That is the key message. The figures could match the number of Commons Members, although others will suggest different figures.
Another issue that has been raised is whether to completely abolish hereditary peers, whether to reduce them or whether to leave them as they are. I confess that, although reducing them is a possibility, I am one for tradition. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) referred to the tradition of the House. Whenever visitors come here, they acknowledge the tradition of the House and how it works. I adhere to and love that tradition, as do my constituents, and it is important that there is some reflection of that tradition in the balance of the House of Lords, possibly including hereditaries. Tradition is extremely important. We want to maintain our great institutions, and although it is important to modernise, it is important not to forget where we come from. It is important to give institutions and their traditions their place.
Once a month we have a holy communion in St Margaret’s church, as we did this morning. It is an opportunity for MPs and peers to come together for a time of reflection before we start the day’s business. Today, our speaker was what is referred to as one of the Lords Spiritual—one of the Members from the Church of England. His contribution, qualities, experiences and knowledge enable debates in the House of Lords to be fuller, more detailed and more informational. When it comes to making policy and legislating, it is so important to have that. With that in mind, I am conscious of the role and the position of those who are placed in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual.
Although we might want to consider some elected representatives for the upper Chamber, either by appointment or election, we do not want to end up with the Lords having more power or control than the Commons. That has been debated over the years and concerns many. It simply would not work out and would stop the Government working efficiently. Of course, while the Lords considers legislation, it might be a good idea to elect a number of peers, although what that number would be is something for another debate.
Let me give an example of legislation from my short time here as the hon. Member for Strangford. I tabled an amendment to the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014 in the House of Commons. The Opposition and the Democratic Unionist party supported it. We pressed it to a Division but lost by about 52 votes. However, Opposition Members, including those in the Labour party and others, spoke eloquently on the amendment’s behalf. That put a marker down. My colleagues in the House of Lords took up the cudgels, so to speak, and pursued amendments there. The reform package came back to the House of Commons and the Minister accepted it. We should not take away the role that the House of Lords can play in shaping legislation. If the Bill had gone through the Commons as it originally was, that is what we would have had. The Minister at that time indicated that she was not prepared to accept the amendment, but the House of Lords changed it.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who I have the utmost respect for, mentioned the changes that would happen from a nationalist point of view and that he would have to prepare for. For the record, I can say to him that he does not have to worry about that, because a national opinion poll last year indicated that only 21% of nationalists wanted a united Ireland. The issue of a united Ireland is a dream rather than a realisation. We can cast our minds back to the referendum as well. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire will know that not every Scottish nationalist voted in favour in the referendum. We should consider that.
We want to ensure that the general public feel that they can put their trust in Government, and that includes being accountable. Although measures have been put in place in recent years to ensure that MPs are held accountable for their actions, we must let the public know that their peers are also accountable. That is why having a mixture of hereditary, elected and appointed peers is important. As I have said, it would have to be balanced in a way that does not undermine the work of the Commons, because the Commons has to have pre-eminence over the House of Lords. We have seen legislative change that was started in the House of Commons, perfected by the House of Lords, and then endorsed by the House of Commons. That is what we are about—we are about balance. This debate has been useful, and I thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire for giving hon. Members the chance to contribute.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I welcome the opportunity to have this debate in Westminster Hall and I thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) for giving us this chance. We have had a good debate on House of Lords reform. Although there is a need for fundamental change—I will reaffirm Labour’s support for fundamental change—I think all hon. Members acknowledge the very hard work of many Members of the other place in scrutinising and seeking to improve legislation.
I will start by addressing what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire set out as his principles for reform, because he set them out very well. They were, first, that the second Chamber should be democratic; secondly, that it should be smaller than it is now, but also smaller than the House of Commons; and, thirdly, that there should be a clear definition of the second Chamber’s role as scrutinising and improving legislation. That is very important. I have never accepted the argument that the primacy of the House of Commons is somehow automatically challenged by having a more legitimate and democratic second Chamber. Definition is a way of addressing that problem. As an aside, alongside seeking to make changes in the House of Lords, we need to recognise that the House of Commons needs to get its act together when it comes to the scrutiny and improvement of legislation. The Government need to get their act together by presenting to the House of Commons legislation that does not require, when it goes to the other place, the level of amendment that we have seen both in this Parliament and under the Labour Government.
Fourthly, as the hon. Gentleman said, we need to get shot of the deference. That, crucially, reminds us of the importance of completing the work to remove the remaining hereditary peers. I would add a fifth principle, which the hon. Gentleman accepted in his speech and which most hon. Members, apart from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), have acknowledged, which is that there should be a second Chamber. Some hon. Members, including in my party, favour a unicameral solution. It is very important that we have checks and balances in our system; having a second Chamber that can provide scrutiny and improvement of legislation is very important.
This is not a new issue. It has been around for more than 100 years, as has been acknowledged, and it has been debated, certainly during the two stints that I have had in this place, at great length. When I was elected in 1997, the Labour party ran on a programme of very dramatic constitutional change, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, and I am very proud of what we did on devolution, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act 1998. We started the job of House of Lords reform with the 1999 legislation, and it is interesting to look at the experience of 1999 through to now, because it demonstrates some of the pitfalls of trying to reform the House of Lords.
The original legislation in 1999 was to remove all the hereditary peers, and then in effect a deal was done between the then Government and the Conservatives in the House of Lords—not the Conservatives in the House of Commons—to retain 92 hereditary peers. In one way, it was a dramatic reform, because the number of hereditary peers was reduced very significantly, but even so a compromise was accepted that the 92 would remain. As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said, we have the absurdity of the only elected Members of the other place being the hereditary peers who are elected in the event of an hereditary peer leaving the other place through either death or retirement.
The aim was always to have a second stage. I served for a year, between 2001 and 2002, as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. Robin Cook was the Leader of the House and was determined to see fundamental reform, both in modernising the House of Commons and in reforming the House of Lords. Colleagues may recall that we had a series of votes on reform of the other place. I cannot remember the exact order, but we voted on its being 100% elected, 0% elected, 80% elected, 20% elected—right the way through—and every single proposal was defeated. That reminds us that these things are not easy, that there is a range of views, and that we sometimes allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Personally, I voted for a 100% elected Chamber, but I also voted for one that was 80% elected. Some were purists and were not prepared to vote for anything less than 100% elected.
We have had further votes since in which there has been a clear majority in the House of Commons for an elected second Chamber. Under the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the House of Commons voted for both 100% and 80% elected. As we have been reminded, the Bill in this Parliament received a very clear majority on Second Reading. We can therefore say that the will of the House of Commons is for a democratic second Chamber. The principles set out today are absolutely the right ones.
How do we take things from here? It is right to remind ourselves that a general election is coming up and there is an opportunity in manifestos for commitments to be made. It is very important to make those commitments, but we need to learn the lessons from past failings. There are two lessons. First, as is the case with any constitutional reform, the greater cross-party consensus we can forge, the better. People in all political parties will have different views, so the more cross-party consensus, the better. Secondly—I say this as a long-standing reformer—we have not tended to engage citizens. The more we can engage citizens in all parts of the country in proposals for reform, the better.
The Labour party’s position is that we want a democratic second Chamber. We have talked about forging a senate of the nations and regions that can be truly representative. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire rightly reminded us of the patronage in the appointments system and of the injustice of hereditary peerages. The third element that is worth emphasising is that there is no geographic representation in the other place. Its Members are heavily drawn from people who are from London and the south-east of England—just over half of peers are from London or the south-east of England. The region that I now represent in Parliament, the north-west, has just 6% of those who are in the other place.
I speak as a London Member and someone who has spent all his adult life in London. It is probably fair to say that many but not all of those—I accept that there is an imbalance—who are notionally from London and the south-east originated in other parts of the United Kingdom, but have spent much of their professional career in London and the south-east. That slightly skews the figures, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. The opportunity of a democratic second Chamber is clearly to have one that has fair and proportional representation from all parts of the country. Obviously, that would include London, but also Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England.
Let me finish by saying something about how best we can take this forward. Clearly, there are long-standing plans for reform, which were reflected in the legislation presented earlier in this Parliament, but there is a broader set of challenges. After the Scottish referendum, there are questions about England, and questions about devolution to city regions, counties and local communities. There is sense in looking at these issues in the round, which is why a number of the democracy and citizens organisations have argued for some time that we should have a UK constitutional convention to address them. Labour and other parties support that. The broader the support we can build for it, the better. It needs to happen quickly. We need to start the work now. I welcome the discussions that are already happening, but the right way to reform Parliament, including reforms relating to legislation that affects only England or England and Wales, and to reform the second Chamber, is through a constitutional convention that is led by citizens, that has a majority of members of the public on it, that reports back quickly after deliberation and whose proposals are then considered in this place. If we can get such a constitutional convention set up this year, there is an opportunity to get this right and get a blueprint that creates a truly democratic second Chamber—a senate of the nations and regions—and we can finally deal with an issue that has been in contention for well over a century.
To finish where I started, I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has given us the opportunity this morning to address this very important issue. We must not allow it to fall off the political agenda.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this debate on a familiar but none the less very important subject.
The Government believe that the second Chamber should be more representative of the British people. In a modern democracy, it is important that those who pass legislation should be chosen by those to whom it applies. As hon. Members know, in 2012 the Government introduced the House of Lords Reform Bill, in line with commitments in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat 2010 election manifestos and the coalition’s programme for government. That Bill would have made provision for a reformed House of 450 Members, 80% of whom would have been elected and 20% appointed by an independent statutory appointments commission, plus ministerial Members and 12 Church of England bishops.
The proposal was a compromise. Personally, I would have preferred a 100% elected Chamber, but that is not the point that we reached. The House voted by a majority of 338 for that Bill to receive a Second Reading—a clear endorsement of the principle of reforming the House of Lords. However, as Members will recall, the Bill had to be withdrawn following the lack of agreement over a programme motion that might have led to an unacceptable amount of time being devoted to debate on the changes.
More recently, some minor changes have been made to the House of Lords as a result of the Bill promoted by Lord Steel, which became the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and made three changes to the terms of membership of the House of Lords. First, Members of the House of Lords can now formally and permanently retire; previously, a peer could effectively retire only by applying for leave of absence. Secondly, a peer who receives a custodial sentence of more than 12 months will now automatically cease to be a Member of the House of Lords, in line with the provision for Members of the House of Commons. Finally, a peer who does not attend during a Session will now cease to be a Member of the House of Lords.
Those were sensible housekeeping provisions on which there was a cross-party consensus, which is why it was possible to introduce them. Clearly, however, they are not a substitute for real and genuine reform of the Lords. The Government remain committed to the principle of comprehensive and democratic reform of the House of Lords even though it has not been possible to bring forward legislation on the matter during this Parliament.
I, too, deeply regret the lack of progress. I was among the majority of 338 on Second Reading of the 2012 reform Bill. Given that such reform is an ongoing commitment of the coalition Government, can the Minister explain why the Government have continued to appoint more Members of the House of Lords on the old basis since that defeat? Surely a strong signal of the Government’s intention would have been to put an absolute embargo on any further appointments to the House of Lords. Why has that not happened?
That is not a decision that the Government took. It has not been possible to undertake the substantial reform that we wanted, so the Government have continued to appoint peers to ensure that the balance of peers and the parties that they represent is, broadly speaking, representative of that in the House of Commons.
I would like to pick up on some points that hon. Members have made. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire will be reassured to hear that he can call the other place the House of Lords. That is a minor change towards less deference, or at least greater clarity.
I get frustrated when hon. Members refer, as the hon. Gentleman did, to other major parties as “establishment” parties. The Scottish National party, which he represents, is very much an establishment party in Scotland; I am sure that some of his criticisms of the major parties here could be turned around and directed at him and his party in Scotland. I thank him for highlighting in his tweets what he was going to say in today’s debate. That gave us advance notice. Readers of Hansard will be able to judge for themselves whether the debate has been a good one, as he predicted it would be.
The hon. Gentleman said that only one peer had chosen to retire, but my understanding is that under the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, five have chosen to retire. Before that, three peers retired under a voluntary retirement system. Earlier still—I am sure we agree that we would not particularly want to trumpet this—five peers retired because of the rules that required those who were not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes to retire. There have been some genuine retirements in addition to the one that he mentioned.
The hon. Gentleman referred, understandably, to the question of donors who have subsequently become peers. To return to my comment about his party being an establishment party, I am sure that the same degree of scrutiny is applied, for instance, to the relationship between the leader of the SNP and Brian Souter, and to the donations that the party receives through that route. Indeed, I hope that the relationship, and the two dozen meetings that took place, between Alex Salmond and Rupert Murdoch received the same degree of scrutiny as do donors here.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on his work for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy—something that I have done in the past—which is an essential organisation that provides support to parties outside the UK. I agree that it is difficult for him as a trustee, as it was for me, to explain to other countries around the world why we have the House of Lords. I understand the difficult position in which that puts him.
I agree with all the key principles that the hon. Gentleman set out. However, I understood him to say that he did not want the House of Lords to initiate any legislation. If that is his position, I hope that he has considered the fact that such a system would present some significant logistical issues for the House of Commons legislative programme. If all legislation was required to start in the House of Commons, either there would have to be much less legislation or Members of Parliament would have to work much longer on the legislative programme and spend a lot less time in their constituencies.
We all agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want a modern, democratic Chamber. Slightly lacking in his speech was the bit in between—the route map that will take us from our concerns about the present system to the creation of a modern, democratic Chamber. That is the difficulty that we all face. The solution proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) was a federal UK Parliament with four national Parliaments. That has the advantage of being a straightforward solution, but there are significant risks associated with it. For instance, the Scottish Government has led to more centralisation in Scotland, and I am concerned that the simple solution of an English Parliament might suck powers upwards into such a Parliament, which is the exact opposite of what I want to achieve.
I believe that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) agrees. I would like to see genuine devolution to communities. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster that English votes for English laws, or proportional English votes for English laws, must move hand in hand with devolution. The knock-on effect on House of Lords reform must also be taken into account.
My hon. Friend had a pop at the Liberal Democrats for swelling the number of special advisers. On the cost of politics, I am sure he is aware that the number of ministerial limos is down. Ministers’ pay has been cut by 5%. Some Ministers—I do not know whether this was the case when the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby was Deputy Leader of the House—have unpaid ministerial roles. Successful attempts have been made to cut the cost of politics.
On the West Lothian question, we all agree that something has to be done, but the question is what is deliverable. There was agreement in party manifestos on the need for House of Lords reform, but when it came to doing it, it was not possible to get people to agree because although some, like me, were willing to make compromises, others were not.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said that he believed the solution to the House of Lords question would have been for the Deputy Prime Minister to press a different programme motion. I assure him that that sort of thing was considered at the time; if it had been the solution, it would have been done. I hope that his karma does not suffer too much from being shanghaied by the feng shui of rearranging our constitutional settlement. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is not in his place, highlighted the need to reduce the number of people in the second Chamber, which is something that we all support.
This has been an interesting and instructive debate, which has engaged questions that go to the heart of our constitution. I am sure that the next Government will return to the matter alongside other key constitutional questions. I hope—as does, I believe, the majority of the House—that a degree of consensus sufficient to support real reform will, at last, be forthcoming.
We move from a debate on the House of Lords to a matter of critical importance in the coming general election to elect Members to the elected House of our Parliament. We have already started the longest general election campaign in the UK’s history, which is the consequence, perhaps unintended, of a decision earlier in this Parliament to agree to fixed-term Parliaments. When voters cast their votes, they will make judgments on our respective parties, our leaders, the constituency candidates and the issues during the campaign. They will make those decisions based on the information available to them at the time. In the interests of transparency, accountability and democracy, it is important for the information upon which people make decisions to be accurate. Rex Stout, a US crime writer, wrote:
“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.”
During the general election campaign, it is important that we have more of the former and less of the latter.
The guardian of the integrity and trustworthiness of official statistics is the UK Statistics Authority, which was set up in 2008 as a result of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, introduced by the Labour Government to remove political—that is, ministerial—control of national statistics, the Office for National Statistics and its officials. I had a meeting with Sir Andrew Dilnot, the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, in October 2014, and he told me that Labour should claim credit for the creation of an independent statistics authority, and we do.
The UK was slow off the mark compared with other countries. Statistics Norway was established as an independent entity as far back as 1876, and it uses its independence to publish a dossier of key figures for circulation to the public before each Norwegian general election. The UK Statistics Authority did a similar independent and impartial job of publishing key statistics before the Scottish referendum. I hope that it will use its independence to do so again before the general election.
The public have a right to know how much the national debt, for example, has risen under the coalition Government; how much the deficit, the rate at which the national debt increases, has fallen; and by how much the Government have failed to meet their promise to eliminate the deficit by the end of the Parliament. The public have a right to know the waiting times for hospital treatment compared with under previous Governments. They have a right to know the crime rate and our trade and investment figures. Immigration will be a big issue in the election, and we want reliable figures upon which the public can make a judgment about the relative merits of the different parties’ policies on immigration. It might be sensible to have figures about the cost to the UK of membership of the European Union or statistics on the number of people who have lost access to legal aid.
Those will all be issues in the election, and I hope people will be able to make judgments based on good facts. I would like to see the UK Statistics Authority publish figures on such matters, but that is for the authority to determine, not for us as politicians. During the campaign, I would like the UK Statistics Authority to be able to respond quickly with a public statement offering clarification if there appears to be controversy between the parties on the facts.
The independence of the UK Statistics Authority, the result of a Labour Act, was a great step forward, but it did not go far enough. The authority’s independence and well-regarded code of practice for official statistics apply only to official statistics, not to all statistics published by the Government. On the Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill in 2007, which I attended, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who was the Conservative spokesperson, pointed out that only 12% of statistics published by the Home Office were designated as official statistics and would therefore become controllable by an independent statistics authority. She said:
“The Bill leaves intact the two-tier system between National Statistics and other official figures… the whole two-tier division should be abolished.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 44-45.]
The problem, which she rightly identified, is that the decision on which figures to designate and therefore quality-control as official statistics is taken by Ministers, not by the independent statistics authority. She cited Lord Moser, the towering figure of British statistics and a former national statistician, who described the decision to allow Ministers, rather than the statistics authority, to determine which statistics are official statistics as
“‘a very basic flaw’ to have a category of statistics that are ‘left totally’ in Ministers’ hands. He said that it was a formula for lack of trust”.
Nevertheless, the flaw identified by the Conservative spokesperson remained in the 2007 Act.
I came up against that flaw on 6 January 2014, when the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), claimed in the House that more money was being spent “than ever before” on flood defences. I took that claim to the statisticians in the Library because it was directly contradicted by figures that I had recently received from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in answer to a parliamentary question. The statisticians concluded:
“Departmental spending on flood defences in 2011-15 will be lower than it was in 2007-11 in both nominal and real terms.”
Indeed, the figures showed that spending would be £247 million lower.
As a consequence of the advice that I received from the Library, I wrote to ask the views of the UK Statistics Authority, and it agreed with the Library’s conclusion that flood defence spending had indeed fallen, not increased. The chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Andrew Dilnot, confirmed that to me in a letter and made—this is a longish quote, but I will read it because it goes to the heart of the issue—a further comment:
“Defra does not publish figures on flood defence spending as official statistics. There is therefore no obligation for Defra to comply with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics in relation to these figures. However, given the salience of these figures and the public interest in them, it is my view that it would…serve the public good if Defra were to consider publishing official statistics on expenditure by the relevant organisations on aspects of flooding and coastal erosion management in future. I have asked the Authority’s Head of Assessment to explore this matter further with the Department.”
Subsequently, there was a long correspondence between me, the UK Statistics Authority, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Chair of the Public Administration Committee, and there were meetings with officials and Ministers. On 17 July, I received a letter from the former Secretary of State confirming that figures on flooding would
“become an official statistic, subject to the Standards in the Code of Practice”.
But it was his decision, not the decision of the UK Statistics Authority, to make the change, although it was proposed by the Statistics Authority.
The example about spending on flood defences is not isolated. On 7 October last year, the Statistics Authority criticised figures that the Minister for Security and Immigration cited when he claimed that passport applications were at a 12-year high.
On 21 February last year, Sir Andrew Dilnot wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) to criticise the use by the Department for Work and Pensions of unpublished management information on the performance of the Work programme. “Management information” is jargon used by Departments to describe the statistics that they produce themselves, rather than those produced as official statistics by the UK Statistics Authority.
On 26 April 2013, Sir Andrew Dilnot wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), making a similar criticism of Cabinet Office claims about the percentage of Government procurement going to small and medium-sized enterprises.
On 25 January 2012, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to criticise the figures that he had published on the nationality of benefits claimants and proposed that in the future such figures should be properly quality-controlled by the authority as official statistics before publication, although the Secretary of State refused that request.
The Statistics Authority has taken the Mayor of London to task many times for his use of figures relating to transport, juvenile offending, reoffending, crime and so on.
Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) received a reply to a freedom of information request asking how many times since May 2010 the UK Statistics Authority has investigated complaints about the misuse of statistics by Ministers or officials in their Departments. He was told that it has happened on 312 occasions since the general election, or more than once a week. In 103 cases—almost once a fortnight—it resulted in a public statement by the authority, usually in the form of a publication of correspondence, as happened in the case that I cited about flood protection expenditure.
Clearly, the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 must be amended to give the UK Statistics Authority, rather than Ministers, the right to determine which Government figures should be designated as official statistics and therefore subject to the Statistics Authority’s rigorous code of practice.
The Conservative party supported that proposal on the Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, which set up the Statistics Authority, as did the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), who also called for the end of pre-release to Ministers of statistics before they are published to the general public. He has been taken to task by the Statistics Authority since he became Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills for failing to do what he proposed in opposition. We all understand that it is easier to say the right thing in opposition than to do the right thing in government.
The proposal that the authority, rather than Ministers, should determine which statistics are official had tri-party support. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) was the first to demand on Second Reading that that should happen. He said:
“Would not the move to re-establish public confidence in statistics be advanced if the commission itself…could decide which series of data it published?”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 24-25.]
I call on the Minister to say at the very least that he will discuss with his party leader and party whether that commitment should be included in the Conservative manifesto for the next election. I will raise the same thing with my party leader and write to the Liberal Democrat party leader. We should establish a cross-party consensus before the election to ensure that whoever is elected will make the necessary reform to confirm the independence and trustworthiness of the figures that the Government and the UK Statistics Authority produce.
I will speak briefly about two further proposals, the first of which I raised on Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill. The House of Commons should establish a statistics Select Committee. I pay tribute to the excellent work that the Public Administration Committee has done on the oversight of statistics during this Parliament and to the Treasury Committee’s work in the previous Parliament, when it was responsible for scrutinising Government statistics. However, both Committees have many other things to examine, and they do not devote enough time to ensuring the integrity of Government statistics.
Secondly, the budget for the UK Statistics Authority should be determined by the House of Commons, not the Government. Between 2008-09, when the UK Statistics Authority was established by the Labour Government, and 2014-15, the funding for the Office for National Statistics has been cut by more than 25% in real terms. Consequently, the number of statistics produced, quality-audited and published by the UK Statistics Authority has also been cut, which is not good for public trust or public administration. The budget should be restored. It is a relatively small sum of money—perhaps an increase in expenditure of some £40 million. After all, the Government and the UK Statistics Authority tell us that the UK is now experiencing strong growth. It would be a serious mistake not to find that additional resource to give to the public the trust they need in Government figures.
I should like to see the establishment of either a parliamentary statistics commission, modelled on the Public Accounts Commission, which determines how much money the National Audit Office should have, to determine how much money the UK Statistics Authority needs to do its work, or a full-blown counterpart to the Public Accounts Committee—a special Select Committee, chaired by a Member of the Opposition, as is the Public Accounts Committee.
I am coming to the end of my time in this House; I will not be standing for re-election. I have had an interest in statistics all my life. I studied them as part of my degree and I worked for a number of years as a research fellow in health economics at York university and created statistics professionally. It is important for public trust in the Government and parties that the figures the Government produce are honest, reliable and trustworthy. We took a big step forward when we created the UK Statistics Authority as an independent Department that is not under ministerial control, but we have not gone the whole way. I hope that we can establish a cross-party consensus before the general election to make the necessary change to create a truly independent guardian of the figures that the Government publish.
I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) on securing this important debate. I was sorry to hear the bombshell that he dropped at the end of his speech. I was not aware that he will be standing down at the May election. I pay tribute to him for his work highlighting the need for independent, accurate statistics, and for bringing the matter before the House.
Mark Twain wrote:
“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”
I am not sure that my colleagues in the UK Statistics Authority would agree. Statistics make a crucial contribution to good government in a modern democracy, assisting in the formulation and evaluation of policies, and in the management of the services for which the Government are responsible, encouraging and informing debate, and allowing people to judge whether the Government are delivering on their promises. High-quality statistics are also a key resource for business, academia and the wider community.
With increasing emphasis on evidence-based policy making and effective performance management, statistics have greater importance than ever before, and ever increasing scrutiny is placed on them, not least by the hon. Gentleman. Statistics must therefore be, and be seen to be, of the highest professional quality and integrity. I take his point on having accurate figures across a range of different areas with a general election nearing. Many of those statistics are available, but he is right that they must be independent. The UK Statistics Authority’s role as independent guardian of the use of statistics is essential in ensuring public trust in what politicians say. The designation of a statistic as a national statistic is an exemplar of best practice. It allows officials and the public to be confident that the statistics released represent the facts and have been appropriately caveated, considered and presented.
The UK Statistics Authority has rightly written to point out where politicians’ use of public statistics has fallen below the standards that the public expect. The hon. Gentleman highlighted examples of that on the Government side—his point on the number of complaints to the UKSA shows that it is doing a good job in dealing with complaints—but some of the more egregious examples come from the Labour party. I am delighted that he has given me this good opportunity to point out once again that the shadow Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), claimed last year that the number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance had risen by 263% in the north-east since the election when, in fact, as the UKSA noted, the published official statistics show that the number of young people claiming JSA in the north-east fell by 27% between May 2010 and May 2014. He also claimed that there had been a huge increase in the number of people on zero-hours contracts, but the UKSA pointed out that it was not in fact possible to back up that claim with any official figures.
I will give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to respond to those points in a little while. The Leader of the Opposition has been rapped on the knuckles for his claim that four out of five new jobs were being created in London. The official statistics showed that the reverse was true. He also said that only crisis-hit Spain had higher numbers of young unemployed people than the UK, completely ignoring the relative size of European countries and the share of young unemployed people in the work force. The Labour party also tried to claim that violent crime was rising by using the police recorded crime statistics, completely ignoring the much more reliable crime survey, which showed that violent crime was falling. In fact, the police recorded crime statistics have had their national statistics designation removed due to accumulating evidence that the underlying data on crimes recorded by the police might not be reliable.
It is kind of the Minister to give way and appropriate that he went through his examples of criticisms by the UK Statistics Authority of Opposition spokespeople. I acknowledge that Government and Opposition Members have quoted statistics erroneously, either wilfully or through misunderstanding them. However, that is not my point. My point is that the figures are produced by the Government and in Departments. It is important that there is independent scrutiny of the Government, whichever party is in government.
If I may, I will turn to some of the questions the hon. Gentleman asked. His first question was whether the UK Statistics Authority should have the statutory responsibility to designate numerical information produced by Departments as official—that was really what he was asking. The Government are aware that the UK Statistics Authority is in favour of that course of action, and we are considering it. His second question was on having a code of practice for numerical information that is not presently designated as official statistics. The UK Statistics Authority is against that, as it believes it will dilute the code of practice on official statistics by creating a lesser class of statistics. It would prefer a much broader definition of official statistics, which the Government are also considering.
The hon. Gentleman asked about manifesto commitments, which is obviously a matter under discussion in manifesto planning more widely. That will be done in the normal way in private conversations, but there are many pressures, and many lobby groups wish to inject such things into party manifestos. He raised the point of the creation of another Select Committee to look at and be responsible for statistics. I am not sure we need another Select Committee for that. There may be a case for giving extra powers and responsibilities to Select Committees, but I do not think we need a new one. That deals with most if not all his questions.
In addition to our regular release of statistics, the Government are committed to being the most open Government ever. Through gov.uk dashboards, we are reporting Government performance on areas as diverse as blood donation, driving licence bookings and patent renewals. The public can see how we are doing as near as possible to real time, without spin or manipulation.
Statistics are part of the story of a Government, but they are not the whole story. We can challenge each other’s ideas and check each other’s numbers, but it is right that the UK Statistics Authority is there to call us to account. It cannot, however, become the referee in a game of political football, particularly in a general election period. Its job is far too important for that. We have obligations as politicians to be sure of our facts and to ensure that we are confident of the sources of our information. That is important, not only in presenting our achievements to the electorate, but in developing the right policy solutions for our country.
Businesses (North of England)
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. I am grateful to have secured this debate and I am delighted with the support of colleagues, for which I thank them, on a vital subject for us and our constituents.
This is a timely debate that goes along with other big conversation debates about the northern powerhouse. Just last week, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor went to Manchester and set out their commitments to the north-west. Obviously, other hon. Members will want to talk about what the commitments need to be in the north-east as well.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities is present. We are fortunate to have him here. He has been consistent in his approach, putting forward the agenda for the cities and for the north. He is also a Member from the north, from Middlesbrough. We regard him as a real friend for our cause and are delighted by the time and effort that he is putting into looking at proposals to take forward the economy in the north. We are delighted that he is here.
Last week, the Prime Minister talked a lot about the north-west. Obviously, that interests me as the Member of Parliament for Macclesfield, which, as a few colleagues have pointed out, is in Cheshire in the north-west. I will focus a lot of my remarks on the north-west, but no doubt other Members from the north-east and Yorkshire will want to put forward their views on what needs to be done to help move the agenda forward on the east of the Pennines as well.
There is a lot to celebrate in the north. British Chambers of Commerce has been in touch with me, having found out that this debate was taking place, and it highlights that a quarter of UK manufacturers are in the north; that Sheffield has world-leading expertise in advanced materials; that the second largest digital and creative sector cluster in Europe is in Greater Manchester; that the automotive cluster around Nissan in Sunderland accounts for one in three of the UK’s cars, although I think that more will be going on over in Merseyside to compete with that; and that there is a £6 billion petrochemicals cluster around the Humber. Macclesfield was famous for silk and is now leading the way in life sciences, with 2,200 working at AstraZeneca’s Macclesfield site.
This is something that we can be proud of. I spent a lot of my career—about 11 years—working in Leeds, which is now the second biggest financial and legal services cluster outside London. I worked with Asda and Halifax General Insurance. There are real case studies of best practice here that we need to celebrate, and we need to maximise the opportunities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the difference between the south and north from a business point of view can be characterised by the fact that only about half a dozen FTSE 100 companies are headquartered north of Watford? That has big implications for many of the things that I think my hon. Friend wants to raise in this debate and means that northern businesses need to be represented strongly.
Absolutely; without question. Having spent many of my working years in the north, it is clear to me that we need more focus, not just from the Government but from business. We know, from the businesses we work with, that there is huge enthusiasm to make the northern economy flourish and become even stronger. There is no question but that there is more work to do, including in the private sector as well as in the public sector.
I should like to set out what the Prime Minister said are his six commitments for the north-west, to remind colleagues. He said clearly in Manchester that he wanted to see an increase in the long-term rate of growth in the north-west at least at the forecast growth rate of the United Kingdom. He wants to see the north-west at the same average employment rate as in the UK as a whole. We have seen progress already. Output per head in the north- west grew faster than, or at least as fast as, elsewhere in the UK during 2013. The ambition is to generate an £18 billion real-terms increase in the size of the north-west economy by 2030, with more than 100,000 more people in employment during the next Parliament. These are big ambitions, and they are so important because in the north-west and in the north generally, historically, we have not seen the employment levels that the area and the region deserve. We need to do more to help achieve those ambitions.
The Prime Minister talked about how those commitments would be achieved. He talked about getting the largest ever and most sustained investment in the long-term transport infrastructure of the north-west and about making sure that we get scientific innovation standing out more.
On infrastructure, does my hon. Friend welcome the announcement about the Mersey gateway bridge, which is being built over the river Mersey, opening up the port of Liverpool with greater Cheshire and beyond? Also, the northern hub and electrification of the trans-Pennine routes will open up Manchester and Liverpool over to Leeds and Hull.
My hon. Friend anticipates things that I was going to say, but yes, absolutely. The Atlantic gateway is one of those vital, iconic and important infrastructure schemes in the north-west that we want to support. I know all too well the hard work that he is putting into Daresbury and into life sciences. A clear strategy is emerging and we need to make sure that we fulfil its potential.
The Prime Minister also highlighted the cultural and sporting strengths in the region.
I should like to spend a little bit of time on how we transfer power to our great cities and how to ensure we link that with the counties around them. Of course, the north of England led from the front during the industrial revolution. The ambition of the northern powerhouse is to ensure that the north leads the post-industrial—what we might even call the re-industrial—21st century, too. We have the support in the north. People from different political parties and others such as the chief executive of Manchester city council, Sir Howard Bernstein, talk about how the north should become the
“destination of choice for investors”.
There is no question about that, but I believe it should be a destination of choice for career seekers, hard-working families, tourists, for audiences, students, and many more. In this region we need to get support behind what I call the four e’s of economic success—entrepreneurs, employers, exporters and, of course, employees—and help more people trying to take that first step in any of those areas.
My hon. Friend will know, of course, that the north-east is leading the way, with the fastest rate of growth of private sector business in the autumn quarter. On supporting the four e’s, does he agree that it is key that the Government, local authorities and the local enterprise partnerships ensure that broadband access, which we all need so much for our businesses, is made available to all parts of the country as quickly as possible?
Absolutely. Superfast broadband is vital, particularly in places such as Hexham, with its rural communities, but it is just as vital in some more remote communities in Macclesfield and the Peak district. I am thinking of Rainow, Wincle and Wildboarclough; if they are going to survive and thrive, they need to have access to superfast broadband.
The other thing that we need to do to support businesses is ensure that they have information about the support that is available. Too often, speaking to the Federation of Small Businesses and small businesses in Macclesfield and in the north-west, I hear that they find it difficult to work out how to get access, whether to employment allowance or export finance or training and apprenticeships. We have to do everything we can to ensure that we communicate well and get the word out: that is partly our job as Members of Parliament, too. Having served on the FSB’s recent productivity inquiry, it is clear to me that it wants better communication.
On strategic priorities, I believe, like many of my colleagues here, that life sciences and transport infrastructure are vital and that the transfer of power away from Whitehall is critical. A growing consensus is emerging on that. Whether I speak to the North West Business Leadership Team or the local enterprise partnerships—the Cheshire and Warrington enterprise partnership is doing a good job—there is support for that approach on strategic priorities.
On life sciences, in early 2013, the prospects for Cheshire East’s Alderley Park site were not good. AstraZeneca had made a decision to relocate—some colleagues will remember this only too well—its research and development staff to Cambridge. Those were concerning times, but now, a year and a half later, we have seen more than 300 jobs brought to the site. There is a new business owner, Manchester Science Partnerships, and a healthy pipeline of businesses wanting to locate there. That success could not have been achieved without close collaboration between Cheshire East council, Manchester city council—they are councils not of similar political views, but of common economic interests, coming together for the local good—and the university of Manchester. It is a powerful case study of how collaborative partnerships can work for the economic interests of local citizens, about which the Minister is absolutely passionate.
On the back of that partnership, we secured a £20 million investment from the growth deal to help further strengthen life sciences in the area, which is a real boost. Success breeds success. We are seeing that sense of partnership and wider collaboration growing. There are imaginative and innovative plans.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting some of the successes on the eastern or, as we call it, the better side of the Pennines—that is a fact, Mrs Main—early in his speech. On collaboration, I completely agree with what he is saying, but we have a problem in the Humber that goes back to the days of Humberside. Our local authorities are split between east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire and simply find it hard to get on. Our fear relates to the absence of the local authorities being able to agree to share services or work more collaboratively. We must not miss out in the Humber because our local authorities cannot get on.
I am not familiar with the issues on the ground that my hon. Friend is experiencing, but local enterprise partnerships and the funding that goes through to them are critical to bringing local authorities together. If local authorities are committed to delivering economic growth for local citizens, they will have to work together. I am sure that the Minister will have more to say on that.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point and an excellent speech. When we are talking about devolving powers and funding, which is exceptionally important for the north, we must remember that the rural areas play a key part across Yorkshire and Humber and on the other side of the Pennines in the north-west. They must not be left behind in this devolution.
Once again, an hon. Friend makes a vital point. It is critical to bring city and county together. There is a lot of talk about cities, and that is understandable, as a lot of journalists work in cities and they get that side of things, but the truth is that the broad and important rural agenda needs to be linked into cities. I passionately believe that city and county need to work together, and it will be through strategic partnerships that we make that work. The initiative in Cheshire, Liverpool and Manchester that we want to move forward is the science corridor, so that we have a thriving life sciences sector stretching from Liverpool to Manchester, down to Alderley Park and east to Macclesfield.
My hon. Friend is talking about life sciences, but it is worth saying that there has been a total renaissance of all science in the north-west. We have the Sir Henry Royce Institute in Manchester, the Cognitive Computing Research Centre at Daresbury, the Square Kilometre Array in Cheshire, the National Graphene Institute at the university of Manchester—
It is difficult to contain the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) for this subject, and it is great to see, because it makes a difference. I understand and accept the points that he raised. He makes an important contribution through his passion and interest in these matters and through the Science and Technology Committee. At Prime Minister’s questions last week, in response to my question about what we can do at Alderley Park for life sciences, the Prime Minister talked about how it had a crucial part to play in the improvement of life sciences in the country. He said that we need to get more growth deal funding and other initiatives to help bolster life sciences in the north-west.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester anticipated my next point: this is not just about life sciences; it is also about astrophysics. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) will appreciate the importance of the Square Kilometre Array initiative. It is the world’s biggest radio spectrum telescope, and it is based in Cheshire. It is a globally significant project. We have seen the initial project phase based in Jodrell Bank, and we are pushing to ensure that further phases are headquartered there. I very much hope that the Minister will have a few things to say in support of that, because it will put astrophysics and science firmly on the map in the UK once again. That will not only ensure that the north is known as a leading edge in science, but encourage more leading-edge thinking across industry.
I will move on to infrastructure, because many other colleagues want to speak. One of the things we need to do in the north is ensure that we can get to it and get around it a lot more effectively. There is another powerhouse, I understand, in the south. Some refer to it as London, but people recognise that it is a conurbation of towns and villages from Uxbridge to Upminster and beyond. Crossrail will improve connectivity in that conurbation, but the truth is that we need to do a lot more in the north. As many people will know, it takes longer to get from Liverpool to Hull than from London to Paris, and that has to change. There are exciting positive initiatives such as the big new trans-Pennine high-speed rail project, which some people call High Speed 3, or overdue rail electrification, to which others have referred.
All those things are vital. HS2 will bring greater connectivity, but I want to ensure that we continue to have good, vibrant services with the same regularity and speed on the west coast main line. People will fully understand that HS2 is about driving capacity, which is what we need to ensure that we have the right connectivity. That will ensure that skills are easily transferred among the different clusters in the north that we need to see thrive and succeed in the years and decades ahead.
My last point on strategic priority is on transferring power to the north. It is compelling to see the Government propose an agenda that resonates with local authorities that might not have the same political sympathies and views. Anyone looking at the economic development of the north will realise that it is wrong to think that London should do everything. That is an over-centralised, metropolitan and outdated view of how a modern economy should run.
In the United States and in Germany, economic prosperity is much better balanced across major cities. We need to ensure that the situation is the same in the UK. I am delighted that the Government secured an agreement with Greater Manchester council and the Greater Manchester area to create a new mayor with powers brought in from the existing police and crime commissioner. That has gained real support from local leaders. It might not sit well with Labour Front Benchers, but locally it is sitting extraordinarily well with leaders who want more power. I welcome giving it to them, because with success and progress in Greater Manchester, the counties around will succeed, too, if we create those partnerships.
I fully support decentralisation. I am very supportive of elected mayors—the metro mayor concept is definitely a positive for the north—but I am always concerned that places such as Cumbria do not get left behind. Can my hon. Friend envisage an elected mayor for Cumbria as a counterweight to the powerhouse of Manchester?
It is probably way above my pay grade to try to think through what should happen in Cumbria. Like my hon. Friend, I love Cumbria and do not want to see it get left behind. The infrastructure points raised about rural broadband and transferring power must link into rural communities. Otherwise, the northern powerhouse initiative will not achieve the potential that the north deserves. His idea is worth exploring, but I am sure that he has more expertise in that than me.
In drawing to a conclusion, I want to focus on the lessons from Alderley Park, which was an important experience in my career, to see how partnerships between city and county can bring about successful results. In further reference to the point about Cumbria, let us learn the lessons from such experiences to ensure we take the maximum from them.
Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the work that Manchester has done, but does he agree that Leeds, which also wants to do a deal with Whitehall, needs to show that it will act above politics and provide scrutiny and governance mechanisms that are beyond reproach to demonstrate to people of all parties that it is working for the region and not for any one political party?
As always, my hon. Friend makes an important point. I absolutely agree. Leeds is a city that I know well and love. We must trust local politicians and civic leaders to do the things that are in the best economic interests of those whom they serve. They need to work closely with local MPs and surrounding authorities to fulfil that potential. Whether in the centre of Leeds, Pudsey or wherever, they must work in the economic interests of local residents.
I feel as if I have spoken for a little too long [Hon. Members: “No!”]. Okay, I will take the next 10 minutes. I know that many people other want to speak, so let me draw to a quick conclusion. The report put forward by Jim O’Neill of the Royal Society of Arts, who is a well respected economist and the city growth commissioner, said that, if we get this right, we will get a 5% improvement in productivity throughout the UK. We absolutely need that and the people whom we seek to serve deserve it.
When the Chancellor first set out his compelling vision for the northern powerhouse, he rightly did that at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester: a museum that sets out how the north led scientific innovation and industrial progress. Sadly, too many people find out about our industrial heritage from the Science Museum in south Kensington, which is not exactly the economic or industrial powerhouse. That needs to change. We must not let London lead the whole debate. We are not kowtowing to London and we do not want to copy it or do what it says. We need to compete strongly, show what our commitments are and play to our unique selling points. We have huge potential in the north to set out a compelling and attractive vision for a northern powerhouse by engaging with our local businesses and residents. With the Government’s support, we can go on to achieve even greater things.
Order. Before I call Simon Danczuk, I remind Members that, if we have interventions as long as that from the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley), we will be lagging somewhat. There are approximately seven minutes per Member, provided that every Member speaks for a similar amount of time. If not, I will enforce a time limit.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I commend the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing this important debate. Let me also thank hon. Members for the welcome I received on entering the Chamber.
Unlike other hon. Members, I have not been provided with a list of Government initiatives to read out during the debate. I like to consider myself to be something of a champion of small businesses in the north of England. I am a firm believer in the power of business to transform people’s life chances and spread prosperity and opportunity throughout the whole country. In that, the relationship between Government and business is vital.
The fashionable view held by some hon. Members—perhaps not those in the Chamber—is that the Government’s role should be simply to step out of the way of business. I certainly do not share that view, though I accept that we can have too much regulation and red tape. There are areas where business and Government can work more productively together. For that to happen, there needs to be proper engagement and an awareness of what Government policy means to people on the ground. I want to highlight a couple of areas where I believe more Government engagement with business is needed to tackle persistent problems.
The first example is business rates. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on small shops, I hear that raised frequently by retailers, especially in northern towns, because they have been adversely affected. I was pleased to hear the Chancellor promise in the autumn statement a review of the business rates system along with other support for small businesses, but the reality is that the cancelled revaluation had a devastating effect on northern towns that were already hit hard by the recession. With property prices falling, shop owners in Rochdale were left facing artificially high business rates and effectively subsidising big retailers in fancy parts of London.
The clear unfairness in the business rates system has also led to a growing micro-economy of firms trying to exploit rates confusion. I recently raised the case of a surveyor based in Heywood, next door to Rochdale, which I believe is acting unethically and potentially illegally. For a start, that firm calls itself the Rating and Valuation Agency, which I am sure hon. Members will agree sounds like it is trying to masquerade as a Government agency. The firm’s tactic is to offer to get businesses a discount on their rates in exchange for a small fee and a share of any discount that it manages to secure as commission.
It will be no surprise to hon. Members to hear that the majority of businesses that used the firm got no reduction at all. What is surprising is that businesses then received letters from RVA aggressively demanding money and threatening court action. RVA claimed that it was owed money as a result of business rate reductions passed on by the Chancellor in the autumn statement. Outrageously, in some cases it was demanding more than 50% of the discount offered by the Government. Something needs to be done about that.
Similar things are going on all over the country, especially in the north where the rates are most damaging. I have seen research showing the activities of firms that charge fees of about £800 to submit business rates appeals on behalf of small businesses. In such cases, up to three quarters of appeals are withdrawn because they are considered to be of too poor a quality by the Valuation Office Agency. Businesses are clearly being ripped off, but I want to make a broader point. The only reason why such sharp business practices exist is that we have an unfair and antiquated rates system. If we had a fair system, based on regular revaluations, we could avoid all of the chaos and misery being caused to businesses.
Great work is being done by local authorities such as Rochdale and Blackburn—both Labour authorities—on business rates. In Rochdale, a scheme has been introduced recently that allows a reduction on business rates—80% in the first year and 50% in the second year—for people who take up vacant shops, in an attempt to fill empty shops and commercial properties on the high street. That revolutionary approach should give our town a real boost. Blackburn is doing something similar. However, all of that good work will be undermined unless central Government step up and sort out the mess in the business rates system. That is why I have talked about how the Government have failed to support businesses in the north of England with business rates.
Support for business comes not only from Government, but from the banks. Recently, I was shocked at my treatment when I was trying to open a business bank account in Rochdale. The local branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland told me there was a waiting list of two weeks to open a business bank account—I kid you not. Lloyds took my details, but failed to get back to me and several months have now passed. Those are two banks that have received significant sums of taxpayers’ money, and yet are failing to perform the primary function of supporting the local economy. The contrast between those two banks and Santander, a Spanish bank, where I received an excellent service, was telling. We need to see more action from the Government on bank support for businesses. Government need to play a more active role to ensure that banks lend properly to businesses and give them the level of service that they deserve.
We all know that the past few years have been tough, especially in many of our northern towns and cities. To turn the situation around, we need to help businesses to grow and develop. Businesses need all the support that they can get from Government. In the areas that I have highlighted, there is clearly room for improvement. In years gone by, the north led the way in innovation and economic growth. If we get the right support, I am convinced that we can do so again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing the debate and on setting out a really good argument in favour of investment in the north of England and of supporting our businesses. I will keep my remarks focused on Pendle and the support that businesses there have received, as well as some of the challenges that we still face.
Pendle’s local economy relies heavily on manufacturing, and Government support for manufacturing is critical to Pendle and much of the north of England. Only last Friday the Chancellor of the Exchequer, wearing a hair net, visited Farmhouse Biscuits in Nelson to hear about its success and some of the challenges it still faces.
Some 1.8 million manufacturing jobs were lost under the previous Government and by August 2009, in Pendle, 2,239 people were claiming jobseeker’s allowance. That number had fallen to a little more than 1,000 by November last year—a drop of 55%. As a result, some of the larger employers are starting to increase pay and improve conditions. For example, boohoo.com recently significantly increased wages, and the Daisy Group, based on the Lomeshaye industrial estate, has just given all its staff an extra week’s holiday entitlement.
That situation did not come about by accident, but because of the hard work of local businesses and the actions of the Government and our local authorities to support job creation in the area. For example, the then Conservative-led Lancashire county council acted to support one of Pendle’s largest employers, Silentnight, when it went into administration in 2011. I have talked about that before in a Westminster Hall debate, so I will not go into any detail. All I will add is that I was proud to take the Prime Minister to visit Silentnight in May 2014 and to see a company going from strength to strength—it is staying in Barnoldswick and now has about 800 employees, 150 more than four years ago.
Other Government support for businesses throughout the UK has been welcomed, in particular by businesses in Pendle. Barnoldswick bicycle part manufacturer Hope Technology—also visited by the Prime Minister, in April 2013—took advantage of the Government’s significant research and development incentives, allowing it to expand and innovate more rapidly. The company’s latest plans are for a new £4.5 million centre for research and development and a 250-metre, Olympic-length velodrome, the first velodrome built outside a major city in the UK.
Hope Technology employs 110 people and exports about 65% of its products to Indonesia, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The company reckons that the self-funded flagship expansion will create more than 50 new jobs and put Barnoldswick firmly on the map. Any more support that the Government can give to such companies would be much appreciated.
Manufacturers in Pendle and throughout the north also welcomed the increase in capital allowances announced in the 2012 autumn statement. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said:
“I would like to help small and medium-sized firms more, and I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) and for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) for their thoughts on that matter. Starting on 1 January, and for the next two years, I will increase tenfold the annual investment allowance in plant and machinery. Instead of £25,000-worth of investment being eligible for 100% relief, £250,000-worth of investment will now qualify.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2012; Vol. 551, c. 881.]
The businesses located in Pendle and I are pleased that the Government not only continued the scheme after the initial two years, but increased the allowance further, incentivising manufacturing businesses in the north to invest in new plant and equipment.
Local businesses in Lancashire received another significant boost in July 2013, when the Government agreed with the arguments that many of my Lancashire colleagues and I were making and approved £5 million of additional business support through the regional growth fund to help local mid-sized manufacturers to expand. In the past 12 months, 14 businesses in Pendle have benefited from almost £1 million in grants, regenerating Pennine Lancashire, creating well in excess of 100 jobs and safeguarding many more. Such support is in addition to numerous other Government programmes, such as the textile growth programme and various supply chain initiatives, which have also been welcomed and used by many Pendle businesses.
The announcement of assisted area status for Pendle last year is another important step forward for my constituency. The previous assisted area status map, drawn up under the previous Government in 2007, included parts of Blackburn, Hyndburn and Burnley, but not a single part of Pendle. During the consultation on the new map, Pendle council and the Lancashire local enterprise partnership argued for four Pendle wards to be included. I met Ministers and made the case not only for those four wards, but for going much further. I am delighted that in the end it was agreed that 13 Pendle wards should be included—more than half the borough—with assisted area status now covering businesses stretching from Reedley and Brierfield through to Earby.
On support for the skills agenda, in addition to four new primary schools in Pendle, a major investment at West Craven high school and a new university technical college in Burnley, the outstanding Nelson and Colne college continues to go from strength to strength. Nelson and Colne college recently benefited from a £3.6 million investment in its facilities and has been pivotal in delivering the Government’s ambition of a record number of apprenticeships—the number of apprenticeship starts locally has more than doubled.
In my part of the country, we have some of the lowest property prices. Even with many more people in work, regeneration and private sector housing schemes can be tricky to stack up financially. In September 2013, I led a debate here in Westminster Hall on regeneration in Brierfield and Nelson. I talked about the Brierfield Mill development in my constituency. It was the largest redundant mill complex in Lancashire, and in March 2012 the Government gave Pendle council a £1.5 million grant via the Homes and Communities Agency to buy it.
Under the previous Government, the mill complex had been bought by a Birmingham-based Islamic charity, which planned to convert the site into a 5,000-place boarding school for girls. Now in public ownership, the 380,000-square-foot complex of buildings on a seven-acre site is located next to the M65 motorway and Brierfield railway station. The site has the potential to be a key driver of jobs and growth.
Bringing such a large grade II listed building back into use in such a deprived part of the north of England, however, will require some public funding in addition to private sector investment. Architects have come up with an impressive vision for the site, which will be renamed Northlight and include 71 retirement flats, a 78-bed hotel and spa, leisure facilities, business units, a new marina on the canal and a family pub. Using the Government’s business premises renovation allowance or BPRA scheme, now available thanks to the new assisted area status that I mentioned earlier, private sector investors are lined up for almost every part of the project, but they still need some more support to make the whole thing viable. The Lancashire LEP has bid for some of the funding in the second phase of the growth deals.
In advance of the decision being announced, I am delighted that the Minister responsible for the deals, who also happens to be responding to today’s debate, has kindly accepted my invitation to visit the site this Friday. I am hoping that, after visits to Brierfield Mill by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and two successive Ministers of State for Housing and Local Government, my hon. Friend can finally move forward the £34 million landmark regeneration scheme, which I have been working to resolve since my election.
Brierfield Mill is by far the largest regeneration project the local business community and the council are trying to undertake, but it also links in to the need for more Government support for developers in the north who want to redevelop brownfield sites. It is great that figures show that house building has increased by 20% over the last year, but in some parts on the north, such as Pendle, property prices are so low that developers struggle to make any money redeveloping ex-industrial brownfield sites. They therefore focus on easier-to-develop greenfield sites. That is especially the case in Pendle, where we still have about 1,200 empty homes, down from about 2,000 in 2010.
We have a real challenge with brownfield sites, and we need funding for them. I am delighted that the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, who is responsible for housing and planning, announced last week that east Lancashire has been shortlisted as a brownfield housing zone. I am keen to see that go forward, but we still need more support.
I could go on longer, but many Members want to speak, so I will conclude by saying that significant progress has been made, but I look forward to more being made over the coming weeks and months.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mrs Main, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), a fellow Lancastrian. It is great to see so much support for the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing it.
The issue before us is the diversity of the north and why the north is different. I was going to say that it is different from other regions because all of us there have to cope with Yorkshire, but I will not say that. What I will say is that a feature of our region going back over different Governments over the years has been its distance, in a sense, from this country’s powerhouse—Greater London. One of the oddest things for many of us who were new Members of Parliament in 2010 was that, for the 13 years of the previous Government, and indeed before, to be fair, the divide between the London powerhouse and the rest of the country, particularly the north-west region, had simply got wider and wider.
When I looked around my constituency as a new Member of Parliament in 2010, I saw its huge strengths. The Lancaster part had its university in the top 10, and it was spewing out businesses. Fleetwood perhaps felt that it was somewhat in decline because of the state of its fishing, but there were still incredible businesses there, such as Fisherman’s Friend, a family business that exports to more than 100 countries and reinvests in the town. The rural parts—other Members have mentioned rural areas—also had huge strengths in terms of their businesses and farming businesses, which had been through bad times and good times.
As the Member of Parliament, I was told that there was lots of potential, but there was a feeling that, “We can’t do anything unless London tells us what to do.” In 2010, businesses told me that banks wanted loans paid off quickly. There was a lack of confidence, and banks wondered whether they should invest their money. People were trying to get together, including with the county, to look at some kind of north-west or Lancashire investment bank or, indeed, at having a stock exchange in the north again—in 1914, there were 64 stock exchanges across the country.
There is potential in the region, but how do we open it up? To give the Government great credit, the single biggest thing they did to finally convince businesses in my area that it was worth investing again was committing to building the M6 link road to Heysham, with funding of £111 million. That was a difficult decision in 2010-11, in the midst of our worries about recession and of cutting back on the deficit. A plan for a motorway had been on the drawing board since 1938, so the Government’s commitment to implement it—it is nearly finished—was a massive statement of confidence in the area.
There is also the investment in the coastal communities fund, with £67 million going into Fleetwood’s flood defences. That was a Government commitment. The biggest commitment, however, as Members have mentioned, has been in infrastructure—in our connections with the rest of the country and, yes, with Yorkshire, which will allow people from Yorkshire to visit Lancashire to see how great it is. In particular, there are the connections with London, and High Speed 2 is vital, but we should not forget the investment in electrification from Preston all the way through to Blackpool, something the previous Government did nothing about. There is also the electrification from Manchester to Liverpool, something the previous Government, again, did nothing about.
The incredible thing for a new Conservative Member of Parliament in a north-west seat was the view that nothing seemed to have happened before and that we could not do anything without asking the Government. The Government tended to ignore the north-west, except, perhaps, what we in north Lancashire used to refer to as Greater Manchester and Merseyside. We need to get that balance right.
I have been enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but I just want to correct him on one or two points. The truth is that the previous Labour Government put a lot of investment into the north-west, not least through the regional development agency, which did an excellent job of sharing out the money. That money went not least to Lancaster university, which had an absolute fortune spent on it under the Labour Government, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others benefit from that.
I hate to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I agreed with a great deal of what he said in his speech, but the absurdity of the previous economic strategy—the regional development agencies—was that London, which is the richest part of the country, had its own agency. I know something about that, having been a member of it. What the hon. Gentleman says was not the message I got from Lancaster university, Lancaster council or Lancashire county council when I was elected in 2010. As I said, the regional development agency for the north-west concentrated wholly and utterly on Merseyside and Greater Manchester, and we got precious little.
The point raised earlier about regional development agencies is one of the big myths still perpetuated by some. The reality is that, during the period they existed, and for all the work they may have done, the north became relatively less well off and relatively poorer compared with the south.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. We only have to look at the figures: the north-west’s contribution to GDP in the 13 years before 2010 was falling and falling as Greater London expanded. I am not particularly blaming the previous Labour Government, because this was a continuation from previous Governments. Governments made huge attempts to address these issues, and I am old enough to remember the ’60s, when Governments would suddenly announce they were going to provide money to put a car factory here or an agency there, but there was no follow-through.
The Government’s priority should be to get the fiscal thing right, and what we have seen on corporation tax is all very welcome. However, the infrastructure thing is massive in enabling the north-west to contribute to rebalancing the economy. That is important, and the Government have followed through on it, for which I am grateful.
I would add, because the Minister is here, that we are still looking to bids to remodel junction 33 on the M6, and there is still a bid under the regional growth fund for a Fleetwood fish park, which is for a minor £3 million, although it would generate £20 million-odd of further investment.
There is a challenge for all of us as Members from the north to galvanise the region to start doing things off its own bat, without asking central Government what should happen. I give due credit to the metropolitan leaders who have come together. Bringing Yorkshire metropolitan leaders together with Lancashire metropolitan leaders—Manchester and Liverpool are still part of the old County Palatine of Lancashire—is fantastic, and we should do that more. We should be thinking about these things, and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) talked about Cumbria.
The north could generate investment potential, and I want to lay down markers now. As northern MPs, we should perhaps look together, across parties, at a northern investment bank or a northern stock exchange—all these things are possible. The Government have laid down a marker and given us the best chance of realising them, but we have to put our bit in as well.
Some of the most exciting and innovative developments in this country today are along the science corridor, which a number of Members have mentioned. It crosses several constituencies, including mine and that of my immediate neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), to whom I pay tribute for calling the debate. The Government have rightly committed many millions of pounds of national funding to supporting the corridor and adjacent infrastructure—not least in my constituency, where £45 million of growth deal funding has gone towards the Congleton link road, about which I have spoken in the House on a number of occasions; I am grateful to Ministers for listening and responding to my points. It is of great importance to businesses in my constituency, such as Reliance Medical, Senior Aerospace Bird Bellows and Airbags International. However, that is not what I want chiefly to speak about today. I want to focus on Jodrell Bank.
The world famous dish of Jodrell Bank lies within my constituency, although I must confess that the controls are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, so we share an interest. Jodrell Bank is important locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. I want to highlight that importance and express concern about a threat to its work and to recent Government investment in it.
To provide some context, I should say that Jodrell Bank has been at the forefront of radar technology since it became world famous in 1957, as the Lovell telescope emerged as the only instrument capable of using radar to detect the Russian satellite Sputnik. It now hosts the e-MERLIN national facility as well as the Lovell telescope. It continues to produce world-class science. It also hosts the outstanding Discovery centre, which has done much to increase public awareness of science in the UK. That has more than 140,000 visitors a year, including about 16,000 schoolchildren taking part in its education programme, and it has received numerous awards. The BBC transmitted its “Stargazing Live” programme from Jodrell Bank from 2011 to 2014.
As we heard, the Square Kilometre Array is at the leading edge of astrophysics research, and continues to receive the full support of universities, businesses and public sector agencies across the north and beyond, which work together to underpin its activities. It is a very important area—a national and global network of telescopes, with Jodrell Bank at the centre, carrying out unique, world-leading science, across a wide range of astrophysics and cosmology. The facilities at Jodrell Bank are used by almost every university astrophysics group in the country and hundreds of scientists in the UK and Europe, and across the globe. The developments being undertaken by Jodrell Bank, and its potential developments, are of huge importance to jobs and the economy.
In 2013, the Minister’s predecessor as Science Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), opened the SKA and Jodrell Bank as its centre. The SKA is a project that joins thousands of receivers across the globe to create the largest, most sensitive radio telescope ever built. Members of the SKA include Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Germany and Sweden; and the UK leads it. At the opening Dame Nancy Rothwell, of the university of Manchester, called it a “cutting edge science project” and said that it would
“become a real science and engineering hub”.
The Minister’s predecessor said:
“This project is pushing the frontiers and that is why the Chancellor has awarded some of the extra £600 m towards science development”
to it. He said it was
“a global strategic project but one that Great Britain is a major player in.”
The economic benefits of that work for the national economy cannot be over-estimated. However—and it is a big “however”—it is threatened. Professor Simon Garrington of the university of Manchester has spoken of the detrimental effect of radio interference from surrounding developments on the work at Jodrell Bank:
“Radio interference has an impact on almost all the experiments that are carried out at Jodrell Bank.”
He explains that in many observations radio interference is the main factor limiting the quality of the data and that
“every increase in interference...reduces the amount of useful data that are left”.
He adds that
“when there are lots of these…as might be the case for emission from housing developments then it has a significant impact on the data.”
Even a domestic microwave in someone’s home can have an impact on the work at Jodrell Bank. It is important to remember that decades ago Professor Lovell moved his work at the university from the centre of Manchester to Cheshire, to avoid such interference.
Professor Garrington says that the work of Jodrell Bank has already been hampered by local development, explaining that the
“discovery of pulsars was led by Jodrell Bank for many years”
“now…we can no longer find new pulsars and our experiments are limited to timing the pulsars which are already known. We do make the most precise measurements...but really interference limits the extent to which we can search for new pulsars.”
He explains how researchers at Jodrell Bank have done the most extensive analysis anywhere, to understand how towns, developments and roads affect the work. He has given evidence to a planning committee in Cheshire in the past month, and says:
“We have in the last few months constructed a detailed map which quantifies this loss due to distance and terrain...What this model shows is that the largest potential contribution is often from local villages such as Goostrey”.
Goostrey is a village in my constituency, between 1 mile and 2 miles from Jodrell Bank. Professor Garrington adds that modelling of the proposed development in Goostrey
“shows that it will add significantly to what is a present and growing problem...We believe this continued development at this rate so close to Jodrell Bank poses a significant impact on the science that can be carried out at this international institution.”
I will, Mrs Main. I am raising this concern because the village of Goostrey has 900 houses and there are now plans to build up to 250 additional houses. Applications have been put in and some have been agreed. The latest one is for a development of 119. A public meeting was held in the village only last Friday, attended by 250 people, asking for consideration of an exclusion zone for further housing development around Jodrell Bank of up to, say, 2 miles; no doubt the parameters could be established by discussion with Jodrell Bank, which I understand supports the proposals. I am keen that the Science Minister should be aware of the request, and I hope that he will consider it.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) for securing the debate.
In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan was “It’s the economy, stupid.” That is still apt today, after 23 years. This last year, the UK economy had the highest growth rate of any western nation, and I happily report that businesses in Calder Valley, where 20% of my constituents work in manufacturing and 40% in the banking and financial sector, are all punching well above their weight in contributing to economic growth. The majority just get on and do—and make no mistake, they always do it with sheer Yorkshire grit, bucketloads of innovation, fabulous Yorkshire canniness that creates an eye for fabulous future leaders, and reinvestment into businesses, which sustains them through bad times as well as good.
I am not going to mention the Government’s advertised 636 schemes of finance and support for business, because like most northerners I am a little sceptical about what real help some of those schemes offer. However, I will talk about the schemes that Calder Valley businesses tell me about, which they feel are incredibly helpful to them. Those schemes give hard-working Calder Valley businesses relief and help them on their way, allowing them to get on and build the local and national economy further.
The huge success story is, without question, apprenticeships, of which there have been more than 1.5 million in the past four years. They have massively reduced youth unemployment and trained future engineers, manufacturers, bankers, retailers and administrators, to name a few. In Calder Valley more than 2,100 apprenticeships have started in the past two years: 490 in engineering and manufacturing; 350 in retail trades; 610 in banking and financial services; and 110 in construction.
Small business rate relief has been a huge relief to small start-ups. It has been helpful in particular to hard-pressed high street retailers, helping small retailers to compete with blue chip retailers, but it has also given a helping hand to dozens of start-up businesses. Small business loans have been a huge hit locally; 43 individuals have applied for and received a small business loan and mentoring in the past year, of whom 40% were female and 40% were under 30. They are a great way to promote self-worth and entrepreneurial spirit.
Many Calder Valley businesses have benefited from the regional growth fund, helping to boost job growth. Unemployment is down to just 1.8%, and we have the highest number of women in employment and the highest average earnings in west Yorkshire. Companies such as AD Plastic Solutions in Hebden Bridge, Archway Engineering in Elland, Kavia Tooling in Todmorden, Microsearch Laboratories in Mytholmroyd, F. Crowther and Son in Brighouse and Calder Valley Skip Hire in Ripponden are great Calder Valley businesses punching above their weight with a helping hand from Government.
On the national infrastructure level, Calder Valley businesses are really excited about High Speed 2 coming to Leeds, bringing much needed capacity on our overcrowded east coast main line. Hon. Members can imagine how excited those businesses are about the announcement of High Speed 3, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield mentioned. That vital infrastructure investment will enable our national economy to grow, flourish and compete on a global level.
It is not all about rail, either. Money spent on widening the trans-Pennine M62 route has enabled easier commutes and passageway to markets for our businesses. That has been vital for keeping the cogs and gears of our great northern powerhouse well oiled, so as to contribute towards the great economic recovery of our nation. So it is not just the economy, stupid—we should add, “With a welcome hand from Government where that is needed and wanted.”
I will also try to be brief, Mrs Main, as I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) wishes to speak. It is always a delight to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on securing this debate.
I am incredibly fortunate in the Ribble Valley to have businesses both small and large. Between Salmesbury in my patch and Warton in a neighbouring patch, BAE Systems employs 11,000 people, and it is well known that for every job created at BAE Systems, about three are created in smaller businesses down the pipeline. The Consortium of Lancashire Aerospace has firms in a number of my hon. Friends’ constituencies, which do rather well from having BAE Systems nearby—and more power to their elbow.
There are also much smaller businesses in my constituency, such as the paper cup company in Clitheroe that has seen investment of £250,000 and brought jobs back from China to Clitheroe. Lancashire does rather well: in the area of high-end, high-spec jobs, the ability to get access to fast broadband has brought high-tech jobs into Clitheroe. A company called YUDU has created a tremendous number of jobs there. The skills available in Lancashire can lead to jobs for so many young and enterprising people working hard in firms large and small throughout the area.
Although it does not come under the portfolio of the Minister, I want to touch on an issue that, as I represent a rural constituency, worries me greatly. A lot of our small businesses are farms. Recently, a number of farmers have not been able to get paid for the milk they have produced. Indeed, in the month of December alone, 60 farmers went out of business throughout the country. We know how important dairy farming is to the United Kingdom and to the north of England in particular. I hope that the Government will get involved directly to ensure that farmers get their money and that something is done about the insane pricing of milk throughout the country, as it is now cheaper to buy milk than water. Something has to be wrong there. When milk is being sold at 89p for four pints, the contracts between farmers and those buying the milk must be insane, and it is no wonder that those businesses cannot make a go of it.
Tourism is also important to me, and the fact that we have our wonderful countryside is down to our farmers. If we want to attract people from large cities into rural areas, we must ensure that we have viable businesses there. We desperately need to do something about small farming businesses.
When the Minister goes to Pendle, I hope he will also spend some time in the Ribble Valley, where a number of businesses are built on tourism and on hospitality in particular. I went with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) to the Baum, which has won the Campaign for Real Ale’s award for pub of the year. I now have a CAMRA pub of the year next door to me, the Swan with Two Necks. Businesses such as those, and James’s Places, which runs the Emporium, the Waddington Arms, the Shireburn Arms and Mitton Hall, are providing lots of extra jobs to the hospitality trade in the area—James’s Places provides over 300—that help young people in particular.
Our farming, hospitality and hostelry industries mean that the Ribble Valley has some of the finest places for people to go. They are backed up by Ribble Valley council, which runs the Ribble Valley Food Trail. People can go to see where a lot of their food is produced and sold. There is a wonderful weekend when people can come into Clitheroe to celebrate what is wonderful about food production, hostelry and beer production. The Bowland Beer Company has been taken over by James’s Places and will be coming into Clitheroe shortly, bringing huge investment. Thwaites Brewery is also coming into Ribble Valley from Blackburn, which will help secure hundreds of jobs for east Lancashire.
The Ribble Valley is a rural area that has seen wonderful investment from small and large businesses over the year thanks to this Government. We now have an unemployment rate of about 1%. I want to see that continue—and with this Government’s policies and support, it will.
No pressure, then.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, not least because it enables us all to showcase some of the exciting things that are happening in the north. For too long, some have painted a picture of the north that fails to focus on the real positives that are happening there. I have also seen some great partnership across the Pennines today, despite the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy).
During my time in this House, I have been impressed by the real determination of businesses in my constituency to do everything they can to help get the economy out of recession. They have continued to invest and have actively sought new markets to help their businesses to continue. Some are now really reaping the rewards, with many investing in premises expansion, such as Vickers Laboratories in Pudsey, or seeing a growing export market to major economies such as China—that is the experience of Hainsworth Mill in Stanningley, which for generations has been producing quality products, including the cloth for the Woolsack in the House of Lords.
That determination is still there even in businesses that have suffered a major catastrophe. For example, the premises of Airedale International were completely destroyed, but it has shown real commitment to the north by relocating temporarily and rebuilding those premises. I pay tribute to all the businesses, large, medium and small, that have kept going. Their commitment, along with the Government’s long-term economic plan, has seen unemployment in my constituency fall by nearly 50%—it now stands at 1.7%.
My constituency and those businesses make up part of the Leeds City Region LEP. One of the largest outside London, it generates nearly 4% of the UK’s economic output. It has a work force of 1.4 million people in over 100,000 businesses, building an economy worth over £55 billion in 2012. It is also now recognised as a national centre for financial and business services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) mentioned, Leeds is the second largest financial centre in the UK.
To date, the LEP has worked to unlock the city region’s potential and develop the economic powerhouse that will create the jobs and prosperity we need. Its ambition is to make the city region a net contributor to the UK economy. To do so, it has provided grant investment to over 336 businesses already, with the potential to create over 3,000 jobs. It has also given loan investments, so that major projects that had stalled in recent years can get under way.
Another sector with real potential for the Leeds area is the creative and digital industry, which is one of the LEP’s priority sectors. CDi Print Yorkshire is an initiative match-funded by the British Printing Industries Federation. Unique to the region, it works across the creative, digital and printing industry, supporting and connecting businesses so that they can really grow. The wider region already has 120,000 employees in this sector, and there are more of the top 100 digital agencies in Leeds city region than anywhere outside London. That is allowing them now to bid to become recognised as a tech city.
I recognise that time is running out fast, but because all those things are going on, and because of the real examples we have heard about today, I believe that the north is vibrant and growing and the potential is there for the taking. With the northern economic powerhouse and the investment that we are seeing, which I hope will include a rail link to Leeds Bradford airport, it is true that it is not grim up north—it’s great!
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Main, and I agree with what the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) was saying: it is not grim up north—it’s great. It is a fantastic place and I think it has been really interesting in this debate to see how hon. Members can come together and really want to champion the north as an area.
I particularly thank the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley). We have discussed economic development matters before, and he has always provided consistent support for businesses in wanting to champion them in the House. I commend him for that, and he has done it again this afternoon. He said that Macclesfield is famous for silk, but for my generation, Macclesfield is famous for Joy Division and Ian Curtis. I would be more than happy to talk about them for the next 10 minutes, but I think economic development in the north is equally important.
Our past and our industrial legacy have been mentioned time and again. It is certainly true that industrialisation—the industrial revolution—started in the north. Just to keep hon. Members onside, let us be frank: it started in the north-east. The north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber were drivers of innovation, entrepreneurialism and prosperity, and they offered a real counterpoint to the capital of London. Do not forget that London was the capital of the empire—the biggest city in the world—but it was not dominating or eclipsing the fantastic powerhouses of the north. We need to have the model that we had in the 19th century back in a modern, innovative 21st century economy, and this is about working together to make sure that happens. We want to see the north thrive and see the creation and expansion of highly skilled, well-paid jobs in businesses and industries that are innovative, highly productive and selling their goods and services to the rest of the world. I hope that the whole House can share that vision.
The hon. Gentleman and others have talked about devolution and governance of the north. All credit to the Minister; he is very knowledgeable and passionate about this matter. A key offer, which has been mentioned several times in the debate, is to ensure that the north can shape its own destiny. Why should we, as hon. Members, be going cap in hand to Whitehall officials—it is usually officials—who have no knowledge, frankly, of the north and no awareness of the nuances of how the dynamics of local economies work? Why can we not have the tools and powers to realise our potential and shape our own destiny?
Successive Governments have moved in that direction. This Government are continuing to do so, and the next Labour Government, in about 113 days, will be continuing it as well. The Leader of the Opposition has said that he wishes to devolve £4 billion of Whitehall spend directly to city and, crucially for the hon. Member for Macclesfield, to county regions, too. That is about double the sum proposed by the present Government. I am interested in what the Minister has to say about further devolution and further governance arrangements.
In many respects, governance can be a very theoretical issue. Something I admire about the hon. Member for Macclesfield and other hon. Members in this Chamber is their practicality. When we consider Government support for businesses, we have to think about practicalities. If I run a company in Macclesfield or Hartlepool, what does Government support actually do? How does it help me to grow my business? Where do I go? We have heard today about 636 different initiatives from the Government. The situation is far too complex. It is difficult to navigate and it changes far too often. All Governments are guilty of rebranding, of initiative-itis, of wanting to announce something. I can understand that, but we have to recognise that we need continuity, stability and long-termism in business policy to ensure that businesses know where to go, how they access support of different types and how they make sure that support grows and thrives.
Let me put my party political hat on now. The Government are particularly bad at tinkering. We have heard about the abolition of the regional development agencies early on in this Parliament, and a number of reasons were given for that abolition. Chiefly, one of them seemed to be, “The last lot brought them in. We have to get rid of them to effect change.” I do not think that is right, and it has been detrimental to the northern economy. There could be some great debate here, but I think it is recognised that the three RDAs of the north—One North East, Yorkshire Forward and the Northwest Regional Development Agency—worked pretty effectively in trying to regenerate their areas and provide economic development and support to businesses in the regions. The setting-up of their replacements—the LEPs—took a couple of years, and businesses were uncertain about what to do. A gap was left in support, so we have lost two or three years in which we could have really chased ahead in respect of economic growth in the regions.
It is really unfair to say that the reason why the RDAs were abolished was that they were not invented by this Government. They were abolished because they were not focused enough on the north. We have heard that there was one in the south-east and one in London—that is not very regional. The fact remains that the Centre for Cities report states that between 1997 and 2008, for every 10 jobs generated in London, one was generated in the north. That is why the RDAs had to go.
But why outright abolition rather than reform? I certainly could not justify the idea of a south-east regional development agency, but making sure that there could be reform while trying to have as much continuity as possible would have been best for business and providing Government support.
I have to correct the hon. Gentleman on the idea of a consensus that the RDAs were performing well. In the Humber, we felt strongly that the Yorkshire regional development agency was very much Leeds-focused, and it is fair to say that since the introduction of the Humber LEP, we have a real vision of what we want for our economy in terms of new renewable energies and a real drive to get to that. We did not have that under Yorkshire Forward.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If we are going to have true devolution to the north and a recognition that city regions can really power local economies, how do we ensure that areas that are peripheral to the centre of cities—[Interruption.] Let me finish, because this is an important point that affects my constituency, too. How do we ensure that those areas can really have change as well? For example, Newcastle will help to drive forward the north-east economy, and Middlesbrough, to some extent, will drive forward the north-east economy when it comes to Teesside. In Hartlepool, we have fantastic areas of specialism in respect of high-value manufacturing. The idea that we could be left behind is absolutely ridiculous, and other areas—other towns and rural villages—will have the same approach. Will the Minister respond to that? Given the city region model, how do we ensure that places such as Rochdale, Hartlepool and areas in the Peak district are not left behind? That is very important.
I want to mention a number of other things briefly in the time I have available. The hon. Member for Macclesfield and other hon. Members have mentioned connectivity, which is a really pressing point for the north. A couple of years ago, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research showed that the gap in spending on transport in particular is very acute. On a per-capita basis, the spend in London is 500 times as much as for the north-east, 20 times as much as for the north-west and over 16 times as much as in Yorkshire and the Humber. If we are talking about the link between city regions and other outlying areas, connectivity—being able to get to the jobs and businesses of the future—is absolutely crucial. How will the Minister deal with that?
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) mentioned business rates, which is a really important matter that disproportionately affects businesses in the north. The situation needs to change. We welcome the Chancellor’s review of business rates and hope that recommendations will be brought forward. I hope that the Minister, in turn, will support what the Labour party has been doing in calling for a cut to business rates in 2015 and a freeze on them in 2016 to ensure that there is an absolute requirement and a recognition that business rates are a major cost for businesses and detracting from further growth and prosperity.
Access to finance was also mentioned and the attitude of the banks when it came to my hon. Friend. There is still a problem with access to finance, in having that transactional, often confrontational relationship between a bank and a business. Is the British Business Bank doing as much as it should? Do we have proper local knowledge to ensure that regional banks have the understanding and recognition of what a local economy requires? That is very important, and I hope that the Minister will have time to say something about how we ensure that we have responsive banking systems and financial arrangements in local areas.
I want to mention some hon. Members’ favourite subject—Europe. Is the Minister concerned about—
No, but it is hon. Members’ interest in certain areas. There is a concern that because the Commission does not recognise the governance arrangements of LEPs, millions of pounds are being lost or certainly delayed on their way to the regions. My own area of the north-east has the potential to be delayed to the tune of £724 million, and for the north-west the figure is £895 million.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, in what has been an excellent debate. Some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) were excellent, but some were not. Let me pick up the point about RDAs. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) was right. The RDAs were not abolished because they were not invented by us; they were abolished because they did not work. During their existence, the north’s share—I am talking about the north-east, the north-west and the administrative region of Yorkshire and the Humber—shrank as a percentage of the national economy. The hon. Member for Hartlepool will know, having grown up on Teesside, as I did, that there was an accurate perception during all the years of the 1970s and into the ’80s that the strength of the Tees valley was often under the shadow of Newcastle, to the north. One of the great successes in the north-east has been the revival of the identity of the Tees valley through its very successful LEP, which is making great progress.
I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on giving us the opportunity to have the debate, on his excellent speech and on his very kind words to me at the beginning.
The Government are committed to the creation of a northern powerhouse, and we have had an expression of the northern powerhouse in the number of Members at this debate: 17 Conservative Members with constituencies or affiliations with the north. I speak as a proud northerner, born and bred in Middlesbrough. I sometimes carry around with me a medallion that was struck in 1881 to commemorate the unveiling of a statue in Middlesbrough, erected by public subscription, to the first mayor of Middlesbrough and first Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough. He was an industrialist, an ironmaster; Bolckow was his name.
The reason why I often refer, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool did, to those times is that, as he will agree, there was no distinction then between industrial leadership and local leadership. There was an expectation that the people who would drive forward the local economy through their businesses would give of themselves, their time and their investments in helping to make those places successful. I hope that we will get back to the time when mayors of Middlesbrough and other great towns and cities around the country had statues erected to them by public subscription to thank them for their achievements. Certainly, that is the direction in which we are going; we need to give more power to the north.
What are the elements of what we need to do? One element is raising the long-term growth rate of the constituencies and communities in the north. As the hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members said, the north drove the British economy at various times in our history. There is no reason why its growth rate should be below the national average. Our ambition must be to have it pulling the national average up, rather than being below it.
We need to continue the progress on raising the employment rate. We need to continue to address the need for investment in long-term transport infrastructure. One thing that has excited colleagues and constituents and representatives of all parties across the north is the vision for transport improvements, whether through the HS2 or HS3 connections that are being made.
The north-west is already, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield said, a global centre for outstanding scientific innovation. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) made that point as well. It is also, as many hon. Members mentioned, a good place to live in, to work in and to visit. We need to celebrate and build on the quality of life in the north.
We need to ensure that the voices of people in the north acquire greater power and influence. It seems to me that the influence and the ability that Teesside has, and Middlesbrough in particular, to shape its own destiny was rather greater when decisions were made on the banks of the River Tees than when they came to be made on the banks of the Thames. I think that we need to revive that tradition.
Let me deal with some of the points that hon. Members made. Both Cheshire Members referred to the Square Kilometre Array. We are very proud of this asset. The heritage of Jodrell Bank in being at the leading edge of science is very important to us. I am due to meet the review panel for the SKA next month, and I will signal our wholehearted commitment to the project and to promoting Jodrell Bank as the rightful location for the SKA’s headquarters. I will take up with my ministerial colleagues the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton.
In the few minutes that I have in which to speak, I want to pay tribute to the leadership that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield has given on the Alderley Park taskforce, which has been a phenomenal success. He will, I know, share the credit with the many local leaders, both in industry and in the local authority, who have worked together in just the way that he has described to create a prospering park with a great future. I am informed that, to date, the BioHub has attracted more than 70 biopharmaceutical companies, employing 281 staff. It is home to businesses that have been supported by some of the initiatives that many hon. Members have mentioned today. I place on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend and to all the other members of the Alderley Park taskforce for their efforts in building on this opportunity.
The common denominator of the remarks that have been made by hon. Members from right across the area —the 17 Conservative colleagues and our two Labour colleagues, who made important contributions, is that—
Well, at least two parties were represented here. We need to recognise that the prosperity of the country requires every part of the country to be firing on all cylinders. That is the common denominator of all the points that were made.
Local rivalries were on display in some of the remarks. Some rivalries are more friendly than others. I dare say that Middlesbrough and Hartlepool have also had their moments over the years.
Indeed. That just underlines the point that no two places are alike. They may be close geographically, but they have different histories, different traditions, often different industries and different politics. If we try to subsume them all into an approach that gets them to fit in with a central Government view of how the world should be, we will suppress the very individuality and difference that gives them their energy and creative spark, so one thing that we have tried to do—with success, I think—is to work through, first, the city deals and then the growth deals, and we have replaced the regional development agencies, in which great cities such as Manchester and Liverpool lost their identity, as did counties such as Cumbria and Lancashire. By taking the RDAs away and giving voice to representatives of real places rather than administratively concocted places, we have begun to empower those places and, in addition, the various deals that we have done have all been proposed and made in the areas that they represent, and they gather strength from that.
This is the beginning of a process that will continue. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) has displayed his tenacity in the number of Ministers he has lured to his constituency. I need to declare in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that a pint of Pride of Pendle might be waiting for me when I make—
Indeed. I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend. His tenacity and commitment to his constituency are shared by Members right across the Chamber. I have set out what we are trying to do. I think that it does enjoy some cross-party consensus, and that is all to the good. The relationships between authorities have crossed party lines, and we have enjoyed in this debate a fair degree of political consensus. I hope that we will continue to do so.
I end by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield on bringing us together to affirm, in ringing tones, our commitment to continuing the revival of the north that is proceeding apace under this Government.
Shrewsbury Railway Station
We had the great honour and pleasure of hosting my hon. Friend the Minister in Shrewsbury not so long ago. As she knows, the beautiful, historic nature of our town has ensured that tourism is an extremely important contributor to our local economy. Shrewsbury has more listed buildings than any other town in England, so tourism is very important for us.
Many people come to our town by rail. Shrewsbury station was built in 1848 and was designated a grade II listed building in 1969. When I was elected to office in 2005, the station had slightly more than 1.3 million users a year. Last year, that figure had exceeded 1.8 million, which represents a 39% increase over the past nine years. Shrewsbury station is an important one. It caters to and accommodates ever larger numbers of users, which we should celebrate and be proud of.
Recently, we secured a direct train service from Shrewsbury to London, and I want to take this opportunity to thank the Minister and her Department. After a huge number of meetings with the Office of the Rail Regulator, Network Rail, Virgin Trains and the Department for Transport, we finally secured that link connecting Shrewsbury to London. We have a service twice a day, and just one service on Sunday. I use it, and I am happy to report to the Minister that it is very popular and really taking off. If I am re-elected in May, however, I will be pressing her and Virgin Trains to try to increase the frequency of that important service, which links us up with our capital city. If we can attract more national and international tourists from our capital city to Shropshire, it can only be good for our local economy.
Last week, I accompanied a senior officer from Shropshire council—Tim Sneddon, who does an excellent job—around the station, so that I could become better acquainted with the exact demarcation of the responsibility for its maintenance. Some parts of the station are the responsibility of the unitary authority, others of Network Rail and others of Arriva Trains Wales. I also had the opportunity to meet the manager of the station from Arriva Trains Wales.
I want to highlight a couple of issues that I saw at first hand, because my constituents have repeatedly raised them with me. One of the most important things I saw was the Dana steps, about which I will write formally to Network Rail, because it is responsible for the area. Next to the station is a large expanse of land that is, essentially, scrubland, which is overgrown and contains many bushes, and there are some steps leading down to the River Severn. Constituents have repeatedly raised concerns about the fact that the Dana steps are not safe late at night, because the lighting is insufficient and there are no CCTV cameras. Constituents tell me that they feel vulnerable and unsafe walking in that part of the station towards the river using the Dana steps.
The land is festooned with rubbish, litter and broken glass, and it has all sorts of other problems. It needs to be properly maintained by Network Rail. It should be cleared out and perhaps put to good use. As things stand, I am not satisfied with Network Rail’s management of that plot of land. Interestingly, the Victorian Dana prison on that site has been sold to the Osborne group for redevelopment as office and residential accommodation, and I am sure that those investors will be very interested to know how Network Rail will manage that site next to the station. We want an ever safer and cleaner environment in this important site in Shrewsbury town centre.
I also want to raise with the Minister the Dana bridge, which is a large bridge that straddles Shrewsbury station. I highlighted it to the Secretary of State when he came to Shrewsbury station a few weeks ago for the launch of the train service from Shrewsbury to London. The bridge is an historic structure, primarily made of wood, but all the wood is crumbling and falling apart, and it gives a very bad impression. I have tweeted the Minister about it and sent her photographs of the bridge, which looks dirty and dilapidated. I hope her officials have managed to look at the state of it. We walked along the bridge, which was very dirty and not properly lit. I have been told that it is the responsibility of Network Rail to maintain the bridge and ensure that it is properly looked after and modernised.
In parts of the station—bear in mind that it is a grade II listed building—including the sidings, there are huge amounts of what I would term industrial waste. Redundant metal structures just sit there, rusting away, in addition to copious quantities of weeds and litter. I particularly object to the metal and the industrial waste, which just stands in the yards, clearly visible to members of the public who are visiting Shrewsbury for the first time.
Network Rail and Arriva Trains Wales are meant to work collaboratively to ensure that the station is well looked after. The manager told me that the toilets are in need of major redevelopment, and he assured me that Arriva Trains Wales has a programme in place to modernise and update them. Another issue, which must affect railway stations all over the country, is the netting to stop birds getting into the eaves of the buildings. I do not know whether anyone has yet come up with a credible solution to the problem, but we need to do something. The nets always get broken, the birds get trapped and the result is a huge amount of dirt and waste. I hope Arriva and Network Rail will look at that.
Arriva Trains Wales has done some good work at the station. A new modern, clean and efficient ticket office has been built, and a new waiting room has been created. I have called for those things for many years, and I am pleased to announce to the Minister that those brand-new facilities have gone down extremely well with my constituents.
How are companies such as Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail incentivised to go the extra mile to maintain, upgrade and modernise train stations across the country? Are we incentivising them in innovative ways to go the extra mile, to compete and to learn from other European Union countries? How are they incentivised to go the extra mile to show the Minister that they are serious about upgrading and modernising our stations? What steps is she taking to bring together Network Rail and Arriva Trains Wales, and their equivalents in other parts of the country? How is the Department bringing together different operators to ensure an ongoing collaborative approach to managing and looking after stations? I am sure the Minister will accept that, following the privatisation of the rail network, quite a few partners are now involved in maintaining a railway station. It is important that she and her Department do everything possible to incentivise them and ensure that they are doing everything possible to invest—that is the critical word—in those important buildings that, ultimately, should be paying for themselves.
What penalties is the Minister putting in place where companies such as Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail do not invest sufficiently in train stations and do not meet the expectations of constituents and Members of Parliament? I have been assured that a modernisation plan for the station has been put in place, and some people say to me, “Why are you raising this issue now when they are telling you that they have plans?” I am raising the issue because I have been told that the station is about to be upgraded and modernised for the past six or seven years. It has got to the point where I am no longer prepared to accept that there will be jam tomorrow or that improvements will start at the end of the year. Will the Minister assure me on the record that her Department and her officials are in discussions with both companies and have had concrete assurances about this important station? I am meeting Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail at the station in February, and I will spend a morning showing them around every aspect of the station, from the toilets to the side yard where all the rubbish is currently held. I will write to the Minister and keep her informed of how those discussions go.
Lastly—this is a small issue, but it is an issue of pride —we are all proud of our national flag. Some years ago I had to write to Arriva Trains Wales to complain about the size of the Union Jack above the station. The flag was very small, tatty and ripped. It was falling apart. Arriva Trains Wales replaced the flag, but it is happening again. The flag is once again ripped, tatty and dirty. What sort of impression does it give to visitors to our railway station if we cannot even get the simple things right? Some people may accuse me of being a bit petty in mentioning the appearance of the national flag above the railway station, but it should not have to be for the Member of Parliament to keep chivvying the companies about such things; the companies should take pride in their stations, and they should be doing everything possible to ensure that their customers—that is what it ultimately boils down to—are happy, feel safe and have a good experience of using Shrewsbury railway station.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate on the maintenance and upgrading of Shrewsbury railway station. He has been an assiduous campaigner for better services from the station. We are delighted to have finally been able to provide a vital direct link to Shrewsbury station via Virgin train services after many years of lobbying from him and his colleagues. The link is far more convenient than changing trains halfway down to London, and I hope his constituents will recognise the vital role he played in bringing those services to his local station. I am delighted to hear that he is using the services and that they are well used. If it is not tempting fate, I hope he will be able to lobby me on further improvements to the service post-May.
Everyone is aware of the huge benefits that good railway services and, importantly, stations bring to the passengers, businesses and communities that we represent. Stations can and should be the heart of local communities, and my hon. Friend made a valid case, focusing on all the small details that are perhaps overlooked when one is designing an engineering plan for the network, but that are so vital to people who use the station. He is right about the importance of maintaining and upgrading Shrewsbury railway station in his constituency.
I will step through some of my hon. Friend’s concerns and try to address them directly. First, he asked who has responsibility for and takes pride in the station. I assure him that Network Rail and Arriva Trains Wales have joint responsibility, and they both feel a responsibility to passengers. I clarify that Arriva Trains Wales is the leaseholder for the station and, under the terms of the lease arrangement, is responsible for all works that do not require an operational shutdown at the station to be delivered. Arriva Trains Wales is responsible for cleanliness, decorating and the improvements to which he referred, whereas Network Rail is responsible for things such as changes to the canopies and broader upgrades. It is important that both companies are held to account for delivering those improvements and upgrades. I will go on to outline the planned improvements and who is taking responsibility for them.
My hon. Friend asked about cleanliness and organisation. Arriva Trains Wales has confirmed that a cleaning team is based at the station and operates every day. Station duty managers encourage their staff to report anything that is broken or faulty. I do not know whether this is in order, but I commend the team within the Department for Transport that has responsibility for this. One of my team, Mr Ochei, took it upon himself to go up to the station to investigate clearly and carefully some of the concerns. He illustrated the situation to me with clear photographs of the problems that my hon. Friend raises, such as the semi-industrial units, litter and vegetation. Following this debate, I will write to Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail, citing the photographic evidence, to say, “Between you, you are responsible. I hope this can be raised at my hon. Friend’s meeting in February, but who is going to do this and by when?”
I thank the Minister for the sterling work of her officials. It is testimony to the way she runs the Department and to the enthusiasm of her officials that they have taken the time and effort to go to Shrewsbury station. That is a great credit to her officials, whom I would like to thank.
I thank my hon. Friend for thanking me and my officials. He will agree that a photograph tells a thousand words. The photographs were extremely helpful.
It is clear from my team’s visit that the station officials take pride in their station and are aware of the concerns. We were told again, and it has been reaffirmed, that Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail have a positive and proactive working relationship in improving, identifying and fixing repairs, and they are delighted to have secured a meeting with my hon. Friend. I hope the meeting will cover the concerns and issues such as the Dana steps and the Dana passage.
My hon. Friend raised an important question about investment and the incentives for train operating companies to improve stations. Under the terms of their franchise, train operating companies have specific obligations against their leasehold requirements to maintain, upgrade and incentivise their stations. It is important always to be prepared to revisit such arrangements. If improvements are required, or if specific changes are needed, we are very happy to deal with them. Some £2 million of investment has been spent on the station over the past nine years, but I am sure that, like me, he is delighted that as much again is being spent over the current five-year capital period, including on the refurbishment of the existing toilets and the introduction of a disability toilet—I am told that work is ongoing and should be finished soon. Money is also being spent on refurbishing the station canopies, which he said are in rather poor order, decorating the external platform areas and resurfacing the station car park. Outside the terms of the lease, although it is appropriate that we discuss it, the Dana footbridge refurbishment has been costed at £800,000, and it should be delivered in 2015-16. I hope that between the two of us, we can secure delivery dates for those improvements so my hon. Friend can reassure his constituents about when they will happen.
It is important to acknowledge that money has been spent on a brand spanking new waiting room, as my hon. Friend said—I have pictures of it—and a new ticket hall. Those are important improvements. The Access for All programme is delivering a lift on platform 3, which is important for passengers who suffer from disabilities. We are delighted that Shrewsbury is now a step-free station. It also has additional help points and CCTV cameras to assist with safety issues.
A lot of improvement is going on, and there is more to come. There is clear accountability, but we are always willing to do more and listen to hon. Members who have concerns about their stations. I hate to use this phrase, but we are getting there with some parts of the railways. We are benefiting from an unprecedented level of investment in the trains, the stations and the track.
We are prepared to continue to look at the contractual relationship between Network Rail, the regulator and the operators, and will continue to improve it. We will also look at the penalties, which my hon. Friend mentioned. The ultimate penalty is to be penalised under the franchise. I am not aware that a situation has ever been so serious that that has happened, but we will look at the penalties to ensure we have the right regime. In my experience, if there is an assiduous MP, a committed Network Rail local management team and a strong station team, improvements can be ironed out and delivered, but it is important that we continue to focus on those issues.
My hon. Friend asked whether the work is being delivered on time. I can confirm that two areas have been delayed: the toilets and the canopy works. All other works have gone as planned and have been completed on time. There is, unfortunately, a large hole on platform 3, which is not a danger to passengers, although it is unsightly. It is a Network Rail responsibility. It is due to larger engineering issues coming to light once the initial works were started. It would be helpful to focus on getting it fixed as soon as possible. Scaffolding is still in place on the river bridge due to engineering issues that Network Rail uncovered.
Part of the problem, as I have discovered in my few months in the job, is that many parts of the network have not been touched in decades—sometimes in hundreds of years. Although an unprecedented amount of money is being spent, problems are sometimes uncovered in the process. It is absolutely right that those symptoms of decades of underinvestment are now being addressed, but we must ensure that they are dealt with quickly and appropriately for passengers. I will write to Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail after the debate to ask for clarity about the completion dates for those works, and I will mention the Dana steps and the Dana bridge.
My hon. Friend made an important point about safety and antisocial behaviour, about which I am particularly concerned. I am disappointed to hear that that tract of land is proving a draw for antisocial elements in the community. I have visited the town, and it is the most wonderful place. It should be visited by tourists, not people determined to commit crime. Neither Network Rail nor Arriva Trains Wales has received complaints about antisocial behaviour, although that is not to say that it is not happening. We have been alerted to the problem, and Network Rail will continue to engage with the local council and, crucially, the British Transport police, who have a long history of working with local police forces, to deal with antisocial behaviour in and around stations. Network Rail also informed me that it is investigating improvements to toilets on the platforms and to the passenger subway.
An additional £2 million is being spent on improvements at Shrewsbury station. Issues such as the canopy and the netting will be addressed, and the Dana footbridge will certainly be dealt with. Passengers will perhaps most notice that Arriva Trains Wales has redecorated all the platforms in 2015-16.
I second my hon. Friend’s point about flying the Union flag. I am proud to be introducing Union flags on our driving licences, and it is right that all parts of our great country share pride in the flag. I urge him to raise that issue at his meeting and suggest that a brand spanking new flag be flown at the station in time for the tourist season this summer.
In conclusion, this is an exciting time for the railways. The Government’s ambition to invest in the railway network is unprecedented. Improvements are being delivered, and there are more to come. If anyone has a sense that there is any complacency about the disruption that passengers are suffering across all parts of the network as a result of the upgrade works, they should be in no doubt that the Department takes it incredibly seriously. Unless passengers see the benefits and feel that the investment is being made for them, the money is frankly not being well spent. We are moving not boxes, but people.
I hope my hon. Friend has a productive meeting in February. I look forward to receiving his feedback, and I hope he manages to persuade Arriva Trains Wales to fly the Union flag with pride.
Rohingya Community (Burma)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main, not least because I know that you take a particular interest in matters affecting the part of the world on which I am about to speak through your work with the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. I am grateful for the opportunity to put some issues on the record. In September 2012, I introduced a very good debate in this Chamber, to which the Minister responded. I wanted this opportunity to invite the Minister to update the House on the progress made by the Foreign Office, and to reiterate some of the points I made previously and make some new ones.
Back in September 2012, I said:
“This is an issue of human rights, justice and desperate humanitarian need, to which we must respond.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 1WH.]
In the two and a half years since that debate, I would have hoped to have seen significant progress. Sadly, I do not believe that we have seen such progress. As I am sure the Minister will recall, the debate in 2012 came on the back of deeply ugly sectarian violence that had broken out between the Buddhist Rakhine community—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) is in his position and the Minister has also returned from the Division, so we will go ahead with the debate, which will now finish at five minutes past 10—10 minutes past 5. Oh dear, it has been a long day.
As I was saying, when I last secured a debate on this subject in Westminster Hall in September 2012, it was on the back of ugly sectarian violence in Rakhine between the Buddhist community and the Muslim Rohingya people. At that time, tens of thousands of the Rohingya community were being displaced. In Sittwe, for example, the Rohingya people were driven out of their homes, and there were reports at the time of mobs burning down houses. Indeed, various non-governmental organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, reported that the police and other paramilitary forces had opened fire with live ammunition on members of the Rohingya community.
I am sure that Members will recall that the tensions at that time were exacerbated by the suggestion by the Burmese President at the height of the crisis about handing over the Rohingya community to the UN high commissioner for refugees until they could be resettled in some third country.
As I remember, in that earlier debate all Members who contributed spoke out against the Burmese regime and we all would have hoped for some progress. However, today in Rakhine there are still 140,000 Rohingya living in squalid temporary camps, which are routinely described by agencies as being among the worst refugee camps in the world. Basic necessities such as food, clean water and health care are scarce; job opportunities for the Rohingya are virtually non-existent; and often the Rohingya are banned from leaving the camps by security services. Those Rohingya who leave those camps illegally often travel to Thailand and Malaysia, but they often end up as the victims of human traffickers. The Arakan Project found that in November alone, nearly 12,000 Rohingyas fled Rakhine state. Since 2012, a total of around 80,000 Rohingyas have fled Burma by boat.
The picture remains depressing for that part of the world. I will cite a few more statistics that I came across while doing my research for this debate. Today, 70% of the Rohingya still have no access to safe water or sanitation services; in some Rohingya districts, there is just one doctor per 160,000 people; only 2% of Rohingya women give birth in a hospital; and 44% of the population of Rakhine state live below the poverty line, which is almost 20% higher than the average figure in most parts of Burma.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what he is saying tallies with what Tomás Ojea Quintana of the UN said in April last year? He said that
“the deprivation of health care is deliberately targeting the Rohingya population, and…the increasingly permanent segregation of that population is taking place”,
“human rights violations are connected to discriminatory and persecutory policies against the Rohingya Muslim population”
by the Burmese Government.
My hon. Friend puts it well. I know that she has spoken out on these issues in the past and I am pleased that she has had the chance to put her views on the record again.
I have spoken to aid agencies that work in this part of the world. Very few of them want to be named for fear of what that would mean for the work they do, but they conclude that there is a systematic approach to oppressing the Rohingya people. International organisations are forced to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Burmese Government, which is more restrictive in that part of the world than in many other parts. The Burmese Government often use “security concerns” to block humanitarian access to certain places. Foreign staff working for aid agencies need special visas to enter Burma and only a limited number of visas are given. Indeed, aid workers are often denied visas. Travel authorisations are needed for Burmese humanitarian staff to go to remote areas.
In addition, staff working for international organisations, particularly Rohingya staff, face additional travel restrictions, which have become much stricter since 2012. Rohingya humanitarian aid workers working for organisations, including the UN, have been subject to arbitrary arrest and detention. Overall, obtaining access for humanitarian purposes has become more difficult, and more restrictions have been put in place since 2012. Aid organisations, including Médecins Sans Frontières, have faced threats of expulsion or have effectively been expelled permanently from Rakhine state.
As one who campaigned for a long time when the Burmese elected politicians were in jail, does my hon. Friend agree with Aung San Suu Kyi when she suggests that the reforms in Burma have stalled during the last two years? It is extremely bad that the Rohingya in particular seem to be targeted. Life is being made as awful as possible for them, with 100,000 of them having gone, including 10,000 in the last two weeks. What is going on?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention; she is absolutely right, as is Aung San Suu Kyi. As an aside, I say to my right hon. Friend that I am delighted that she is standing again at the next election, because she is an eloquent and persuasive voice on matters of international human rights.
The Burmese Government will often deny responsibility and claim that much of the anti-Rohingya sentiment exists at a local level. But of course we all know, as has been discussed in great detail in previous debates, that the flames of anti-Rohingya sentiment are very much fanned by the denial of Burmese citizenship to them. A nasty, bigoted piece of legislation—the 1982 citizenship law—stripped Rohingya Muslims of their legitimacy in the country and officially declared them foreigners. In effect, they ceased to exist legally and were denied any form of citizenship.
I have been very much influenced on this issue by Benedict Rogers of the Christian Solidarity Worldwide network. He writes persuasively and passionately about these matters. I know that in his spare time he is a Conservative activist, so the Conservatives would do well to encourage him to join us all in this place; I hope I have not ruined his chances by saying that. He writes that
“the Rohingyas face restriction in almost every sphere of life. To travel from one village to another, they are required to obtain permission from at least three local authorities...such permission can be difficult to obtain and often takes up to five days.”
He goes on to say that the Rohingya even need
“permission to marry, and approval can take several years”.
He also says:
“Rohingya are not permitted to be employed as government servants, either as teachers, nurses or in other public services”.
In addition, those Rohingya who succeed in education are often refused entry to higher education. Of course, it is the citizenship law that is fuelling much of this anti-Rohingya sentiment in Burma. I accept that there is great debate about how long the Rohingya have been in this part of the world, but I think all of us can agree that they have been there for generations.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and she is absolutely right. If she will bear with me, I will touch on that issue when I refer to the Rakhine state action plan.
I just wanted to put on the record that even though there is debate about how long the Rohingya people have been part of Burma, everyone can accept that they have been there for some generations; they have certainly been there since Burma gained independence. Indeed, it was the first President of Burma who said:
“Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to the indigenous races of Burma. If they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as an indigenous race”.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point; I know that he has spoken out many times on this issue. The focus of this debate is indeed on Burma-Myanmar, but there are questions for the Bangladeshi regime as well; perhaps the Minister could touch on Bangladesh when he responds.
I am sure that many hon. Members welcomed the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of a non-binding resolution in December, which urged the Burmese Government to grant Rohingyas full citizenship and equal access to services. The UN also called for an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to be opened in Burma without delay. Although I especially welcome that move by the UN, I am deeply disappointed that the Burmese Government still refuse, despite that UN resolution, even to acknowledge the Rohingya as an ethnic group and criticise the UN for using the term “Rohingya”. They have suggested that reports of Muslim persecution are a “fabrication”.
I am sure that, because of international pressures, the Burmese Government have tried to make progress in Rakhine state, but I do not accept that it is progress. The Rakhine state action plan was introduced last September, to much fanfare in that part of the world. However, looking into it, we see that it means that the Rohingya can secure citizenship only if they register themselves as Bengali, therefore implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. As the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) intimated, Bangladesh has not exactly been helpful in this situation. Even if the Rohingya conform to that Rakhine state action plan, in reality they are only receiving partial citizenship rights. It is unacceptable that Burma should not give the Rohingya full citizenship, as the UN has called for.
The Minister said in the debate in September 2012—I know that he is committed to this cause—that
“the UK has been and will continue to be one of the most active, vocal members of the international community in raising concerns about the plight of the Rohingya community.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 20WH.]
We were reassured by those words. In this debate, I want to give the Minister the opportunity to update us on the work that he has done, and the work of the Foreign Office, in the last few years. However, I want to put some concerns on the record. The Minister will be familiar with the concerns about citizenship and sectarian violence, but I hope that he will respond to other issues as well.
Campaign groups, for example, have told me that there is a sense that British diplomats have begun to avoid using the term “Rohingya” in meetings with the Burmese Government. They feel that the Burmese Government are putting pressure on diplomats to stop using that word. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that. I did a quick trawl of Hansard; I may be wrong—I do not want to speak out of turn—but I cannot find, for example, the new Foreign Secretary using the word. The previous Foreign Secretary was very committed to the plight of the Rohingya. As I say, I might have just missed it, but I would be grateful if the Minister commented about whether we are getting pressure from the Burmese Government to avoid using that word.
Humanitarian access has been denied, or the regime has made it more difficult, deliberately, to get humanitarian aid and relief into that part of the world. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that. Does he agree that perhaps it is time for a UN-level initiative to help us get the humanitarian aid and relief that is so desperately needed into that part of the world?
Human rights abuses remain. I would be interested to hear the Minister update us on his view, or the Foreign Office’s view, on human rights abuses in Burma.
I understand why we want to increase trade with Burma; I am a great believer in increasing international trade. Leicester, the city I represent, trades with all parts of the world. However, many people are deeply concerned that we are trying to increase trade with Burma, for understandable economic reasons, yet we still seem to turn a blind eye to some of the human rights abuses. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comment on that.
I end with a piece of good news. Earlier this month, the Pope appointed the first Cardinal in Burma, Cardinal-elect Bo. We were hoping that he would visit Westminster in the next few weeks, but I think he has had to rearrange his visit, which we look forward to. One of the first things that Cardinal-elect Bo did on his appointment was to call for the citizenship of Rohingyas to be recognised. He argued that
“true peace and real freedom hinge on respect for Burma’s ethnic and religious diversity”.
I wholeheartedly agree. I am sure that the Minister does, too, and I look forward to his response to the points I have put on the record.
I am grateful to you, Mrs Main, for giving me so long to respond to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth): many hours, if what you said originally was correct and we are not finishing until after 10 o’clock this evening. I shall try to condense my remarks to ensure that we end a little bit sooner than that.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, as I congratulate other hon. Members across the political divide for continuing to keep Burma firmly in the spotlight. This is the second debate on Burma within the last two months, both sponsored by the hon. Gentleman, which shows how interested and concerned the House is, particularly in a year so significant in that country’s transition to democracy.
As I said in the House on 19 November, I, too, take a close personal interest, having visited Rakhine state in 2012, including some camps to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, and Kachin state last year. I was the first western Minister to travel to the former and the first British Minister to visit the latter since Burma’s independence. Since that time, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, visited Rakhine in August. During that visit, he announced an increase in our development funding to Burma up to £82 million in 2015-16. That underscores our commitment to Burma’s future.
As I have said, 2015 is a critical year for Burma. The elections in November will be followed closely by the international community. This will be a chance for the current Burmese Government to show their commitment to progress and transition. We remain in close touch with all those involved and continue to assist in any way we can. Of course, as we have said on many occasions, this path will be neither smooth, nor without challenges, nor indeed without setbacks. We have made our concerns extremely clear on numerous occasions. However, I cannot agree with those who are wholly negative about the progress that has been made, or indeed with those who argue that no progress has been made at all. I believe it is naive in the extreme to think that this would have been an easy transition. Praise is due where significant change for the better has taken place. I can only pray in aid what Yanghee Lee, the new UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said—that
“far-reaching reforms have dramatically transformed the political, economic, social and human rights landscape”.
That is not to say that we are in any way complacent. That is why we established, last year, the cross-Government Burma unit, to better co-ordinate our work there, and why we published, I believe for the first time ever, a public paper, “UK Activities in Burma”, which sets out all that the Government are doing.
Of course, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns for the Rohingya. I use that term now and I shall continue to use it as I always have done. Their plight remains one of the greatest challenges Burma faces. I have raised this issue during my visits to Burma and I raised it with the Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister in June, with the Minister for Electric Power in July, and when the Burmese Minister for Immigration and the new Rakhine Chief Minister came to London in October. I have also met Rakhine community and religious leaders, hearing from them directly about the many issues they are facing. Officials at the British embassy in Rangoon remain in close contact with Rohingya representatives and international organisations.
In addition to raising our concerns in private, we comment in public. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual report on human rights, and its quarterly updates, give a frank assessment of Burma’s human rights performance, including in Rakhine. We were instrumental in pushing for the resolutions at the UN—we definitely agree that the UN could take on a greater leadership role here—comprehensively setting out our concerns about the situation in Rakhine state, and calling on the Government of Burma to uphold international human rights standards.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about access and humanitarian aid. In parallel to all those moves, what we have been doing at the UN and our conversations with Ministers, we are helping to alleviate the dire situation on the ground. We are giving £12 million in aid to Rakhine state to support much-needed shelter—some of the shelters I saw when I went there were woefully inadequate and must be even worse now—food, water sanitation and hygiene programmes, and giving a further £4.5 million towards projects that support livelihoods.
The hon. Gentleman is right when he talks about the problems that some of the non-governmental organisations are facing, including access. I discussed Rakhine and humanitarian access with the Burmese Minister for Immigration and the Rakhine Chief Minister in October last year. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, specifically raised with them the difficulty of getting humanitarian assistance to displaced people in Rakhine.
The Minister said that he had been to some of the camps. The assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Kyung-wha Kang, said:
“I witnessed a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before…appalling conditions…wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation.”
What has changed?
As I said, I was the first western Minister to travel to Rakhine, but that was in 2012. From my conversations with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, who was there in August, I do not imagine that the situation has got better. If anything, it has got worse. I saw inadequate shelter, lack of access to food and much worse things, in a sense, than that, including a real feeling of fear. We insisted at the time that the Burmese Government should ensure that those people were properly secured. They looked as if they were surrounded by the military, but that was to protect themselves. There was also a feeling where new communities were being built that they were away from their traditional communities, and that that was going to entrench segregation, which is completely counter-productive in trying to bring both communities together.
Beyond tackling immediate needs, we are supporting Burma’s transition to a stable, prosperous and democratic country that can play a positive role in the international community. That is why human rights must remain at the heart of the British Government’s efforts to support Burma down the path of reform it embarked on in 2011, why we will continue to be an honest and critical friend to Burma, raising our concerns unapologetically, and why we are helping to create the conditions for credible elections in November this year. It is why we support the peace process in Burma, moving negotiations towards a nationwide ceasefire agreement and a framework for future political dialogue. We will continue to work closely with the Burmese Government, the opposition, civil society, businesses and communities, and the military, to achieve tangible progress.
Everyone acknowledges the superb work that the Foreign Office has done on the diplomatic front and to support a fledgling democracy, but I have three questions for the Minister. Has he met with the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK? What assessment has he made of the Rohingya not being counted in the census in Burma? Does he agree with some of the organisations that have said that crimes against humanity have been committed?
Let me deal with the last question first. Some have talked about crimes against humanity and genocide and such things, but that is for international courts to decide. To answer the hon. Lady’s second question, we have made our views clear on the whole census process, the fact that some of the Rohingya were excluded and the process of self-designation. We are extremely unhappy about the census. Her first question was about whether I had met a group. I have met so many that I might have met it, but I do not want to mislead the House. In the interests of accuracy, I will write to her on that subject, if I may.
Let us be clear: the many challenges faced by all communities in Rakhine are deep-rooted, complex and interrelated. We acknowledge that the Burmese Government have begun to take steps to address those issues, including the appointment of the new Rakhine Chief Minister last year.
In June, the Burmese Government began a pilot citizenship verification process for those in Rakhine whose citizenship status has not been recognised. It was conducted in a camp for internally displaced people. More than 1,200 applications were processed, with many obtaining naturalised citizenship and some obtaining full citizenship, but that falls far short of what the international community expected. We and others have consistently stressed the need for a transparent, consistent and inclusive citizenship verification exercise that adheres to international standards, and we will continue do so. That should include consultation with all communities in Rakhine.
That having been said, we welcome the Burmese Government’s efforts to produce a comprehensive action plan for Rakhine. The hon. Member for Leicester South said he did not like some of the things in that action plan, but it has not, to the best of my knowledge, been published yet. Only a draft has been seen, and we still hope the Burmese Government will amend it before the final version is printed.
I made all those concerns clear to the new Burmese Minister for Immigration and the Rakhine Chief Minister during their visit to London in October. As with the citizen verification exercise, it is vital that all communities within Rakhine are consulted over the action plan. Our ambassador in Rangoon, along with our international partners, has made those concerns clear to the Burmese authorities. While welcoming the steps taken, we will judge progress on action, not words. Many severe challenges remain and the humanitarian situation in particular must be addressed urgently.
I continue to update the House as best I can. On 8 January, two letters written by me and dated 4 January were published on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. One was on Burma’s political reforms, in which I refer, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear, to the rights of the Rohingya. The other was on sexual violence in Burma. The publication of both letters, in response to huge amounts of interest from Members and their constituents, shows that we are not complacent. We take these things extremely seriously and follow events in Burma extremely closely.
To conclude, we know that a great deal remains to be done in Rakhine, and we will not let up in our calls for the human rights of all Burma’s people, not least the Rohingya, to be respected. We believe that the best way to achieve progress is to engage with all parties in Burma to help embed reform, and to encourage its transition towards peaceful, democratic governance. I again thank the hon. Gentleman and all who have contributed to the debate for giving me this and the previous opportunity to set out the Government’s position.
Question put and agreed to.